Reform & Kindness: Can We Make A Little Room For Miracles?

Guest Post By Joanne Clark

During my short eighteen months with Rigpa, months that traumatically changed my life, I could have used some kindness from fellow students. However, the effect of Sogyal’s style of “working” with students was that most of them were very self-absorbed and cliquish and not very kind. I was friendly with one young woman who started about the same time I did—but then Sogyal started “working” with her, started shaming her during a Lerab Ling retreat, and then she became part of an inner group. She was totally unapproachable.

Of course, I was pretty unapproachable too. Since connecting with Sogyal, I became not well psychologically, very dark and inwardly focused. But still, some simple kindness, a kind word or smile could have gone a long way for me. I still remember one woman’s huge, warm smile during a Kagyu Dharma event a year later, when I was really struggling. It touched my heart, lifted my spirits and I have never forgotten it. I think sometimes it’s really simple what we can do to help others.

When I left Rigpa, I was smoking, drinking heavily, suicidal and psychotic, but I decided to give the Dharma another try and I began attending a big monastery. A friend, who is a long-time Tibetan translator, warned me that I might find people a little difficult there, but that I might meet some nice people in the parking lot as they ran away. He was not wrong. Some of the most angry and unkind attitudes I have ever witnessed were rampant in long-time students at that monastery. It was very isolating and did my mental health no good at all.

Almost four years later, when I finally pushed my boss at that monastery a little too far and he went into a great rage and fired me from my two volunteer jobs, I left. A year after that, after trying a few more Dharma communities, I decided to study and practice the Dharma on my own under the guidance of HH Dalai Lama. The first thing I realized about life “outside” was how very kind, generous, patient, wise and tolerant my non-Buddhist friends and family are. Even my ex-husband is kind to me, a wise, good friend. And I decided—they can be my Dharma community, they are a fine Dharma community. It was an incredible relief and joy to just relax and be among people where simple trust was assured.

Now, twelve years later, I am discovering that there really are kind, tolerant and wise Rigpa students after all. Were they there all along or have they grown spiritually as I have? Reading the What Now blog has been another step of healing for me, almost as if I am returning to my original Sangha. Of course, my orientation is Gelug now and theirs is Nyingma, but I am open now to the possibility that Dzogchen is my next chapter. I’m open to anything, anything is possible.

If we allow angry, intolerant and rigid attitudes to become the driving force of this movement, then we lose a precious opportunity for unexpected solutions to emerge.
And this is the point I am wanting to make. We really can’t know what is possible in terms of solutions to the troubles at Rigpa and other Western Dharma centers such as OKC. It is a miracle to me that without medication or psychotherapy I have healed from the dark place I was in almost twenty years ago. It is a miracle to hear from Rigpa students in these new, kind ways. I believe that students need to act strongly and courageously towards what are clearly abusive and criminal behaviors. But I also believe that if we drop the Dharma as we act, if we allow angry, intolerant and rigid attitudes to become the driving force of this movement, then we lose a precious opportunity for unexpected solutions to emerge.

However, let me be clear. I am not saying that anyone should be tolerant of abuse of any kind. Zero tolerance. I am not saying that strong anger will not be a necessary part of the path of healing for some survivors. Anger is sometimes necessary to empower survivors to come forward and speak up. I am talking about the way forward towards reform, about finding strategies towards making all Dharma centers safe places. That is where we need some openness, some tolerance to solutions that might not fit our ideas. For example, for real reform to occur, we have to work with the Tibetan Buddhist establishment and this would be a cross-cultural exchange. Such exchanges take patience, great openness and some kindness towards those who disagree. We can’t assume that because a lama agrees to teach at Rigpa, he or she is just after the money and supporting abuse. It’s possible, but assuming it is too rigid. That is what I mean above by a “precious opportunity for unexpected solutions to emerge.”

I also know that the journey of survival is going to be unique to every individual. Some are going to want to abandon the Dharma and find more secular approaches to healing. Some are going to want to use the Dharma in new ways to help them heal. Some are going to want to start again in the Dharma, start from scratch. All are going to have very natural strong feelings of anger and grief and doubt. But what I’ve learned from my own journey is that these basic principles of kindness, tolerance, compassion and love, this softness, is hugely healing for every human being without exception, Buddhist or not Buddhist. And I firmly believe that strong actions for change can still happen within this orientation.

Most of all, this orientation needs to be nourished if we want real reform. We cannot fool ourselves that these troubles are all the fault of a corrupt system of greedy lamas that can be somehow over-thrown and locked up. That’s an unrealistic view. The help of outside Tibetan Buddhist lamas is needed—but there is no way that lamas who want to help Rigpa students—or OKC students—lamas who are sincere and kind and want the harm to stop, can help anyone who has a rigid, intolerant and angry mindset.

It’s only logical. If we want a short-termed, secular solutions to these problems, then shutting down Dharma centres and arresting those involved is all we have to worry about. And we can be as angry as we want. But if we want a long-termed, Dharma solution, a solution that entails real reform, then we have to look to the bigger picture and employ some Dharma approaches as well as secular approaches. We have to pay attention to our minds and hearts.

I have found myself a little afraid in some of the discussions around these troubles to talk about my belief in these human values of kindness and patience, as if they aren’t cool or something—as if these values are the Dharma of newbies and not for long-time students, not for the Vajrayana. This was the attitude I experienced at the monastery so perhaps I am a little over-cautious. In the same way, it is hard to talk about faith. But I don’t think in our hearts that we want a harsh, cynical reform to come out of this horrid affair. So I hope that we can all, believers and non-believers, leave a little room for kindness and miracles.

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