Some Reflections on Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s Talk at Rigpa Berlin

By Joanne Clark

Some days ago, on Sunday 25h of February 2018, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche spoke for three hours at the Dharma Mati Rigpa centre in Berlin. A student asked him:

What the Dalai Lama and Mingyur Rinpoche are saying and what you and Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche and Khenpo Namdrol Rinpoche are saying are two different things. Can you please clarify?”

Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche at Dharma Mati Rigpa centre, Berlin

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s response:

Very good. Orgyen Rinpoche is there also? Yeah, OK. [laughter] How do I begin? First, I want to say this. I think there’s a lot lost in translation, misinterpretation, editing, remember I said? Editing, sound effect, I feel there’s a lot.

From my side, I have never said that the moment you walk into a Tibetan Vajrayana temple, you bump into a guru and then you end up receiving whatever teaching and then you do not analyze, don’t criticize. I never said this. Never. You have to analyze. Remember, this is the subject that I’ve been repeating so much today. You have to analyze, you have to really prepare. Jingme Lingpa said this also. You know, the classic tantra talks about analyzing the guru and student twelve years. You don’t have twelve years because you don’t even have time for nineteen pages. But at the least you should analyze. Really. From both sides, not only from one side. But once you consciously decide to take somebody as your tantric master—and please, again I repeat tantric master, from whom you receive a complete initiation, then this is the path you have chosen. It’s like this: you want to be an ordinary soldier, then be ordinary soldier. You want to be—what?—navy seal?—well then, that’s your choice. You want to be, you know, special, then you choose this path. But you have to decide this first.

I mean there are, there is, one mention, I have to clarify—if you choose this tantric master, thoroughly examin[e], everything, but you ended up bumping, you realize that this man is not a good man, he’s a lunatic, he’s crazy, he’s harming everyone, then what do you do? Try your best to have the pure perception but if it is not working, quietly distant yourself. There is a mention like that in the Karma Chagme teachings and stuff like that—quietly—you don’t want to make a big mess. And then do the Tsok offerings and so on and so forth.

But other than that, you cannot. This is the path you have chosen. Now I think the question is about what His Holiness the Dalai Lama said.

[Questioner adds: “And Mingyur Rinpoche”]

OK . Mingyur Rinpoche is one—I don’t know—I’m a little bit puzzled with this one because HH Dalai Lama not once, not twice, [but] many times he has said—and it’s even written—and it’s made into books—I don’t know whether you have read it—when he gave teaching, he said general teachings you know, talk, philosophical talks is OK, everybody can listen. But anyone who is about to receive a vow, he said this—‘vow’—and especially Vajrayana initiation from him and if they are practicing this protector—do you remember—any one of you remember? This [unintelligible] there was a little bit of issue a few years ago? Anyone who practices this protector he requested them to leave.

Why does he have to do that? If you keep on receiving the initiation, keep on scrutinizing the guru, keep on criticizing the guru, keep on having the pure/impure perception whenever you want or whenever you can or whenever you need it—then no need to go through this analysis. Not only that, if you can still have that kind of analysis—and what, impure perception—then why does the tantra have to emphasize on analyzing the guru in the beginning? Do you understand what I mean? Why do you have to analyze first? I mean they are talking about twelve years of analysis. Skip that—because you can still analyze later. You know what I mean?

And then I will tell you something which is sort of puzzling for me. As I said, guru devotion, pure perception is a practice that you have to choose, you choose, consciously, because you are supposed to choose this. I know many people may have not. But that’s how the tantric, this is why I wanted to explain—the tantric—according to the tantric rule, this is the path. You choose and then you practice that pure perception—no matter what happens you try to see this is your projection, this and everything is pure, so on and so forth. There’s a lot of instructions.

OK, let’s say you are not a Vajrayana practitioner. Let’s say you are a Mahayana practitioner. Let’s say Vajrayana is too strange—cultish, you know, feudalist. Let’s forget Vajrayana. Let’s practice Mahayana, OK, so you have become a Mahayana practitioner, what is the essence of the Mahayana practice? Compassion, isn’t it? And you are supposed to have compassion to all sentient beings unconditionally. You can’t say, Oh I will have compassion towards some Africans in Rowanda, but not Donald Trump. You can’t. That is the path you have chosen. And you can’t also choose I will have compassion towards this man when as long as he behaves. You are supposed to have compassion no matter what he does. Is he a good boy? Have compassion. Bad boy? Compassion. Tail growing suddenly? Compassion. Horn growing suddenly? Compassion. This is the path you have chosen. It is the—it is—that’s how it is!

And you know, I’m sorry, you know I can’t, you know, you can’t change that. People seem to think that some lamas can change this– because now the time is modern, you know. You can’t because you know what? If you ask a lama to change that rule, you are making him into a cult leader. Can you see the logic? Because a cult leader does this—they don’t go by the book. They do whatever they want. OK, what do people want to hear? Ahhh. That’s what people want to hear. Then they make it up. You can’t do that. You know, as I said right at the beginning, I’m not an enlightened being, I’m a sentient being. I have desire, I have anger, I have ambition. I have—what do you call it? agendas. I’m very, you know, like, ambitious. And in this day and age, if I follow my ambition, I should be saying, oh yeah yeah yeah, whatever people want to hear. I make it up. Mindfulness—breathe out—breathe in. You know and then, after a week later you read maybe a magazine and see what is the current trend, current fashion, and then change the meditation method a little bit. I can make millions .But if you want to really follow by the book, it’s not possible.

So what I’m saying is—there must be a missed information or mis-translation.

The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso

First, it should be made clear that HH Dalai Lama has been a significant influence on the Rigpa landscape for decades. When I was a Rigpa student in the late nineties, I remember Sogyal Lakar mentioning His Holiness every teaching. In 2007, he wrote this in his introduction to a text on HH’s teachings given at Lerab Ling:

For me, it is the greatest possible privilege to introduce this book and also an immense blessing as His Holiness is one of my principal teachers; and for all Tibetans, he is our leader, our guiding light, and our inspiration. (Sogyal Lakar, 2007)

And he wrote this in 2000, in his introduction to another publication of Dzogchen teachings given by His Holiness:

The years during which His Holiness gave the teachings in this book were also a time when truly great exponents of Dzogpachenpo were still among us, masters born in the early part of the last century, whose soaring realization embodied the full force of the wisdom and mystery of the Dzogchen teachings. I think of Dudjom Rinpoche, Tulku Orgyen Rinpoche and Nyoshul Khenpo Jamyang Dorje. They are gone now, though of course their presence is always with us, and their wisdom lives on, in the disciple they cared for with such compassion. These extraordinary masters had been instrumental in establishing these teachings in the west, so enacting all those prophecies that the practice of Dzogchen would take root here. And as they left this world, I am sure that as they prayed for the teachings of Buddha to benefit countless beings, they will have invested those prayers, and all their aspirations, in His Holiness the Dalai Lama. For now that this generation of masters is no more, a teacher like His Holiness becomes even more precious, his role in securing the future of the teachings and their authenticity of even more vital and urgent significance. (Sogyal Lakar, 2000)

Rigpa also used Sogyal Lakar’s close connection to His Holiness to navigate through past scandals about abuses. I heard that they told inquirers, reporters and others, that His Holiness is fully supportive of Sogyal Lakar, using His Holiness’s good name to justify Sogyal Lakar’s actions.

In that spirit, when the eight, former senior Rigpa students came together to write a letter that would expose the serious abuses of Sogyal Lakar, then it was fitting they should follow the advice of Sogyal Lakar’s most senior, living teacher. They did this. They looked into their hearts and their motivation and they did the right thing, by all standards, in my opinion.

And His Holiness has supported their actions on several occasions. He spoke in English for all to hear his support. Now, however, he seems to have vanished from the Rigpa landscape. As far as anyone can see, neither Rigpa nor Sogyal Lakar have consulted His Holiness for guidance on the path forward during their darkest hour. Instead, they are consulting Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, who has just shrugged off His Holiness’s heart advice as mere “missed information”, mere “mis-translation.”

And, wasn’t it the glorious past plan to appoint Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche – a fully qualified and respected Dzogchen and Mahamudra master – as the successor of Sogyal Lakar? Now his name seems to be similarly removed from the official Rigpa narratives after he expressed a clear stance which includes that the safety of victims comes first.

Am I missing something? Isn’t this hypocritical?

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche is right. When a lama strays too far from the religion he is meant to represent, creating his own rules, then he has created a “New Religious Movement”—and is at risk of becoming a cult leader. However, black-and-white, rigid thinking is also a characteristic of most cults. Nowhere does His Holiness promote a new Vajrayana where samaya doesn’t matter—where it isn’t central and critical. Nowhere does he say that Vajrayana students can feel free to criticize their masters at will.

When Western Buddhist teachers met with His Holiness two decades ago and reported the rampant abuses that were occurring in Western Dharma Centers, he acknowledged the harm.¹ Then he worked with those teachers to lay down a path forward. He provided students with an approach that was not perfect—how can there be perfection in these times?—but that would cause least harm. This is something that leaders do. If any other Tibetan Buddhist lama laid down such an approach, then perhaps we could be wary. But this is a leader who has proven himself capable of advising students in ways that will mitigate harm, a teacher who has done more to protect and preserve the Tibetan Buddhist tradition than any other. And I would remind Rigpa that His Holiness is a holder of the Dzogchen tradition.

Is it good that a student who has samaya with Sogyal Lakar must speak out and criticize him? No. Would it be good for the student to stay silent while fellow students are harmed? No. Is it good that students consult a senior-most, Tibetan Buddhist teacher when the situation becomes critical and challenging? Yes. Only a true leader can give advice during such a time, a leader who can acknowledge harm and address complexity.

I am sad that Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche will not even begin his own advice to students by acknowledging harm. In fact, he has said on several occasions that abuse might even be a necessary part of the Vajrayana. In my opinion, when you disregard harm, for the cause of some greater religious practice, this is also a dangerous cultic practice.

And when you tell students to believe what you say (e.g. that His Holiness’s advice to students was misinformation or a mis-translation) instead of what they can see and hear with their own eyes and ears, (e.g. he spoke in English) then this is also a dangerous, cultic characteristic in my opinion.

Cults shut down the voice of students’ critical discernment and moral conscience. This is the essential means they use to control. Rigpa right now is caught in a dilemma. If they are going to lead students forward in a way that honors the great Vajrayana and embraces reform, then it seems they need to start with honesty. Stop fooling students. And then they need to honor what they teach. If they want to uphold the principals of samaya and guru devotion, then perhaps they could start by seeking guidance from Sogyal Lakar’s most senior, living teacher, His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

¹ This sentence was edited March 5, 2018 because it contained a wrong claim.

Additional information & thoughts for further analysis

The Dalai Lama about breaking Samaya:

Western Buddhist Teacher: Many students are afraid of breaking samaya—the commitment and bond with their guru—if they speak openly about what they perceive to be abuse. Does a teacher’s abusive behavior destroy the samaya and release the student?

H.H. the Dalai Lama: I don’t know. Although the guru has in a sense broken the samaya, that does not allow the student to break it as well. If the guru kills, that does not mean I can too! We shouldn’t emulate bad examples! We should respect the common perspective of the world in terms of what is right and wrong. Earlier I spoke of the situation with my two regents. Even though I have deep faith and respect for my teachers and consider them high spiritual beings, I did not hesitate to criticize their behavior because those actions were wrong no matter who did them. I didn’t speak out of hatred or disrespect, but because I love the Buddhadharma and their actions went against it.

It is essential to distinguish between two things: the person and their action. We criticize the action, not the person. The person is neutral: he or she wants to be happy and overcome suffering, and once their negative action stops, they will become a friend. The troublemaker is the afflictions and actions. Speaking out against the action does not mean that we hate the person. For example, we Tibetans fight Chinese injustice, but it doesn’t mean we are against the Chinese as human beings, even those who are ruthless. In meditation, I try to develop genuine compassion for these people while still opposing their actions. Thus, we may criticize a teacher’s abusive actions or negative qualities while we respect them as a person at the same time. There are still some beneficial aspects of the guru. A mistaken action doesn’t destroy their good qualities. If you criticize in this way, there is no danger of hellish rebirth as a result. Motivation is the key: speaking out of hatred or desire for revenge is wrong. However, if we know that by not speaking out, their bad behavior will continue and will harm the Buddhadharma, and we still remain silent, that is wrong.

Shortly after the letter from the eight, former senior Rigpa students was distributed, His Holiness made this statement at a Buddhist conference in Ladakh:

I feel some of these lama institutions have some sort of influence of the feudal system. That is outdated and must end – that feudal influence. Then eventually a lama institution creates lama politics [DL laughs heartily]. That’s very bad.

An individual lama’s disgrace doesn’t matter, but it gives a very bad impression about a monastery or a monk. Very bad. So we must pay more attention.

You should not say, ‘This is my guru. What guru says I must follow.’ That’s totally wrong! Buddha himself mentioned, ‘You must examine my teaching’. Similarly if one particular lama says something, you examine whether this goes well according to Buddhaʻs teaching or according to the circumstances in society. Then you must follow. If the lama says something; if you investigate and it’s not proper, then you should not follow the lama’s teaching. Even Dalai Lama’s teaching; if you find some contradiction you should not follow my teaching.

As far as Gelugpa is concerned, Lama Tsonghkapa clearly mentioned: if a lama teaches something that is against the dharma it should be avoided and opposed. If the lama’s teaching is in accord with the dharma it should be followed, if it is in discord with the Dharma it should not be followed.

Many years ago in Dharmasala at a Western [Buddhist] Teachers Conference, some Western Buddhist teachers mentioned some Zen masters and Tibetan Buddhist masters had created a very bad impression among people. Then I told them then; these people do not follow Buddhaʻs advice, Buddhaʻs teaching. We cannot do. So, the only thing is to make it public, through newspapers, through the radio. Make it public!

These lamas, although they don’t care about Buddha’s teaching, they may care about their face [points at his face, indicating shame]. I told them at that conference, almost 15 years ago I think. Now, recently Sogyal Rinpoche, my very good friend, but he’s disgraced. So some of his own students have now made public their criticism. (See here)

The conference he refers to was actually twenty-five years ago, but he clearly still abides by the  advice he gave at that event. And certainly, the issues discussed at this conference are as relevant today as they were twenty-five years ago. There is a full video copy of this conference available, so that DJKR and others can check for themselves whether His Holiness has been mis-represented. His Holiness spoke in his (often broken) English and sometimes he spoke in Tibetan. His translator was the venerable Thubten Jingpa-la and His Holiness would listen closely to the translations and correct Jingpa-la if he felt the translation wasn’t exactly what he meant. I believe that we can rely on the translations, particularly in light of the fact that His Holiness today still abides by his advice. We can rely on what we see with our eyes and hear with our ears.

The afternoon of the first day was devoted to lamas and ethics. The first presenter was from the Zen tradition but he spoke about abuses across all Buddhist traditions and His Holiness responded at length on the need to speak out and criticize, publicize the lama’s misbehavior in newspapers if necessary etc. In his own words, he concludes,

Anyway, worthwhile to publicize these things. And make other people know. That’s the only way. Meanwhile, make very clear, clear distinction what is true Buddhist teaching. Then these individual behavior totally against Buddha’s teaching. So—no longer considered as a teacher. That’s the only way.

However, during this same session, the subject moved on to what a student should do if the misbehavior occurred by a teacher to whom they have committed and His Holiness responded in a very traditional manner on minute 48:15:

Now this is the problem now. Now, as a Buddhist, as a Buddhist who practice Tantrayana, now I can only say is before receiving teacher [before you] consider as your teacher—before that, no problem. Receive teaching, then see something wrong, then no more respect. Perfectly all right. Should be. Once you receive teaching, with realization, recognition as your guru, and particularly tantric teaching, after that you saw some problem there, then it is very very difficult to develop disrespect to that person. And best thing in the meantime, no need to keep receiving teaching or something, become distance. Just ignore. Not showing disrespect. Simply close on that side. That’s the only way.

So here, the advice he gave is the traditional advice that is in some scriptures, advice that DJKR gave recently. It is also the advice he gave in a teaching on Mahamudra that has been published (HH Dalai Lama, 1997, The Gelug/Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra, Snow Lion Publications, pp. 209-210).

However, two days later at the conference, he was questioned about this particular advice and his position changed. This happened towards the end of a discussion on Women and Buddhism. The discussion returned to the subject of how students should respond to mis-behaviors on the part of their lamas. This is session 6 of 8, starting at minute 113:00:

First, a Western teacher questioned His Holiness on crazy wisdom behaviors and speaking out.

His Holiness: “As I mentioned earlier about my own example, two tutors you see, due to hunger for power, they fought, even utilize army, Tibetan army, disgraceful. On public, I took firm stand, these are wrong!  But my individual practice—to me—both very high lama, doesn’t matter.”

Western Buddhist Teacher: “This was not the point. Students will think that he IS the exception, so it must be OK that he does that.”

His Holiness: “But even, I think, the individual student, the belief, this is something really marvelous, the Buddha—sort of siddhi, mahasiddhis you see behavior. This should not—public—“

Thubten Jingpa translating: “But one should not take it on the public sort of level. One may individually view such actions of one’s guru as skillful means of a mahasiddha, but one should not take it as a public stand and try to sort of explain it—justify it.”

His Holiness: “In public, we must follow the general you see Buddhist—unless you see that lama [perform] some really genuine, authentic, miracle things… Then all right. With some scientist, carry test, of genuine miracle, we can I mean we have to accept. Otherwise, we cannot allow these things.”

Skip a few minutes of tape, then:

Western Buddhist Teacher speaks of a crazy wisdom-type tradition in the Korean Buddhist tradition and concludes: “So it seems every tradition [has] created a loophole.”

His Holiness: “As I mentioned earlier—Professor Joshi, the Indian history, so I think we must take every care, every care. Every precaution.” [Professor Joshi claimed that the demise of Buddhism in India was partly due to the mis-practice of Tantra, particularly due to non-ethical behaviors.]

Western Buddhist Teacher: “Your Holiness, two days ago, I believe you said that it would be a good idea to publish in a newspaper if a teacher would not respond and change his behavior. Then it would be best to make it a public issue. I thought you said with a higher initiation of tantra that if one accepts a lama as guru, then he should not publicly publish it in a newspaper—“

Martine Bathchelor interjects: “He’s your guru—if you have taken him as your guru—then can you still publicize? What you said before—before you take as a guru, you can criticize, but after you take as a guru [hand gesture indicating ‘no ccriticism’]”

His Holiness: “Now, I think, now one example, my own case—I received many initiations from one of my regents, yes—yet when I talk—“

Thubten Jingpa translating: “Let me give my own example. I’ve taken many initiations from one of my regents. And yet, at the same time, on a number of occasions, I have made public statements where I am criticizing, pointing out the wrongdoings of this teacher, especially my autobiography.”

His Holiness: “I also mention—I think I mention. But one thing is quite sure, I never praise these wrong things as good. Now, what our aim is—purify Buddhadharma. The interests of the Buddhadharma and interests of one individual lama—other is much bigger. Isn’t it? So, with sincere motivation, in order to save Buddhadharma, in order to save at least a few hundred disciples of that particular lama, with sincere motivation, with salutation, then criticize. I think that’s the proper way.”

“And if you can, that individual disciple, go… go straight to the lama, ‘I’ve done this’ with sincere motivation and I apologize.’ Then that lama, very sincere lama, then he or she will—Thubten Jingpa translating: “Will acknowledge.”

His Holiness: “If that lama—furious, then that also another indication. Then just say [His Holiness waves his hand] ‘Hello, bye-bye.’” [And] go.

[Laughter, session ends]

Students can make what they want of the two positions held by His Holiness. For myself, as a follower of His Holiness, the two statements are fine, no contradiction. One speaks of the optimum situation, one in which speaking out is not necessary for the future of the Buddhadharma or to reduce harm and protect the welfare of other students. The other statement addresses the less-desirable situation, one in which students and the Buddhadharma are being harmed. Motivation and critical discernment then become key factors on determining right behavior, which are totally congruent with the Buddha’s teaching overall.


How to support a survivor of abuse

Statements by HH the Dalai Lama

Statements by other lamas

What are we actual talking about?

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s Take on abuse, Vajrayana, Sogyal Rinpoche and Rigpa & Responses to it