“Our Dark Heart” – The Dark Habits In Triratna

Guest Post by Aparimana

In families with an alcoholic father, a pattern often develops where the rest of the family protects the father from the consequences of his actions. Everyone is in denial, and the truth is fiercely protected, particularly from outsiders. Everyone knows, but nobody can say.

The situation with Bhante’s sexual misconduct within the “family” of the Movement was, I believe, rather similar, for a very long period of time.

Some very dark habits were developed and exercised by his senior disciples at the time to suppress the truth of the situation. There has now been some public acknowledgement of Bhante’s misconduct, and many people would no doubt like to consider the matter now to be closed. However, the question that continues to dog me is – what has become of the dark habits that were employed to protect Bhante’s reputation from the truth for so long?

Where an organisation has been shown to have a systemic ethical problem, when the issue is eventually addressed, it is common for most or all of the leadership to be required to resign. This is what happened, for example, to Rigpa, when abuses were brought to light by the Charities Commission investigation. Collective habits, baked into culture, are incredibly persistent. Experts on institutional culture believe that it is usually impossible for a group with deeply ingrained habits to change by the leaders who embody the cultural habits, and so they simply have to be replaced. To be clear, I am not calling for this to happen in Triratna, just pointing out the rationale for the normal procedure.

What this indicates to me is that, if the leadership is not replaced wholesale, then at the very least, the ethical issues would need to be forensically and publicly analysed, acknowledged, apologised for, and new safeguards put in place.

As far as I am aware, nothing substantial of this nature has happened in Triratna. There has been the opportunity to publish personal stories in TBCO, and individuals with outstanding grievances have been given attention, but I am not aware that the dark habits that evolved to protect Bhante from the truth have ever been properly acknowledged. Only a few mea culpas appeared on TBCO, none by current office holders. While on the other hand, from what I can see, these dark habits are still alive and well. Indeed, I believe they are part of Triratna “standard operating procedure” – a dark heart that Triratna routinely reveals when facing challenges or threats.

I should say: as far as I am concerned, when someone acts out culturally accepted unethical habits, this does not make them a villain. Nobody is wilfully and gleefully performing evil. Most people take their ethics from the group they are in, and where that group condones particular unethical behaviour, the individual will typically not experience the behaviour as unethical. This is particularly the case when the unethical behaviour is directed to protecting the group – any behaviour that protects the group tends to be seen as ethical within the group. The survival of the group is paramount, and so the end seems to justify the means, and anything dubious may even be rationalised away as “skilful means”.

It should go without saying that suppressing the truth, even when the truth seems challenging or destructive, is a false refuge. Anything that needs to be protected from the truth in order to survive should probably not be preserved. Faith in the Dharma should make it perfectly obvious that opening the thatch can only strengthen the sangha, while exercising these Dark Heart habits, even though the intention may be to protect the group, is incredibly destructive.

It should also be obviously irrelevant that not everyone has been on the receiving end of these dark habits. Many people will probably say that they have never witnessed them, and imply or assert that they therefore don’t exist, or are not a problem – they may even suspect that these dark habits have only been used against those who deserve it. I believe these people are one or some combination of very lucky, very conformist, or unwitting agents of the Dark Heart.

© Photo by charlesdeluvio on Unsplash

I would like to lay out some of my observations around these “Dark Heart” habits, and I would be interested to hear whether anyone else recognises what I mean. Many of these habits are not uniquely “Triratna”, of course – they are commonly found in any self-protecting group. What makes them play out a little differently for us is that Triratna, as a spiritual group, can rely on certain techniques of presentation and persuasion that would be openly mocked in a worldly context. This provides plausible cover for what would likely be spotted instantly in a less idealistically oriented context.

Going back to the beginning, it all started, of course, with Bhante’s sexual misconduct. The truth was unacceptable. Bhante could not simultaneously project an image of a Great Spiritual Being, and at the same time, allow people to know that his sexual appetite for heterosexual young men was out of control. Spiritual authority could not be separated from moral authority, and moral authority was incompatible with his behaviour.

And of course, it was not just Bhante’s reputation that would be harmed by the truth, but the reputation of everyone in whom he placed his trust. For what value is there in bestowed authority, when the one bestowing the authority has, himself, no moral authority?

The truth was unacceptable, and yet it was an open secret… What to do?

Of course, quietly ignoring it is the first response. What is not acknowledged might as well not exist – at least, that is what ignorance would have us believe.

So what about people who raise the topic, making it impossible to ignore? Tell them it is not what it appears – it is Kalyana Mitrata, it is kindness, not lust. Would I lie to you? Of course not! I am a wise and kind Spiritual Person, my motives are pure. In fact, I can hardly believe that you are so negative and cynical even to suspect anything else – shame on you!

What about people who continued to raise the topic, because they were not convinced that this was all a manifestation of Bhante’s Bodhisattva Vow? If they are Order Members, it would be good to remind them that, if they want any kind of career in the Order, then they need to shut up. After all, to be eligible for any position of responsibility it has been a written requirement not to “have any problems” with Bhante, and calling into question his sexual ethics is clearly a problem. Even were this not written policy, they can be quite sure that they will not be let into the inner sanctum of institutional responsibility unless they agree that Bhante’s behaviour was quite acceptable.

What if an OM was unconcerned about their “progress in the Order” and still raised concerns? Well, at least if nobody else listens to them, then the problem goes away … so let it be known on the grapevine that they are unreliable, untrusted, lacking in faith, in fact, they have fallen away from the path, so if you are serious about your spiritual life, best avoid them, or at least, avoid any serious communication with them. This at least ensures that their poisonous obsession with the truth is kept safely apart from the faithful.

And if this was not enough, it might help to remind other people of their human failings and frailties – in a close knit spiritual group, we end up knowing a lot about each other, and this can be very useful if you want to undermine someone’s credibility.

If they keep on regardless, then the kid gloves might have to come off. They should be encouraged to resign, if they are an Order Member – after all, they clearly have no faith in their teacher, and they are splitting apart the sangha, so they really should be shown the door. If something really damning is known about them, that they would not want public, they can be reminded about it – after all, if they are willing to discuss Bhante’s ethics publicly, it is perfectly fair for their ethics to be discussed publicly in return. “Threats” and “blackmail” are such ugly words, we don’t use those words – no, we are just offering a gentle reminder of one of the many possibilities that an uncertain world offers.

Although I suspect that “threats and blackmail” may not be widely known as a part of our Dark Heart toolbox, so I will elaborate on that a little…

So the situation for many years was this: all those with institutional responsibility told themselves, each other, the wider movement and to the public, that Bhante’s behaviour was ethically unproblematic. And anyone with the intelligence and integrity to acknowledge the truth was ignored, marginalised, smeared, and encouraged to leave.

Now, of course, we have a public acknowledgement that Bhante’s sexual behaviour was, indeed, problematic, and we are in the peculiar position where the very people who ruthlessly upheld the lie are still in positions of responsibility, while the people who tried to uphold what is now the official truth are marginalised, many having already resigned.

We all sort of know this on one level or another, unless we are very new, or have had our heads carefully inserted into the sand for a long time.

Threats and blackmail

Although I suspect that “threats and blackmail” may not be widely known as a part of our Dark Heart toolbox, so I will elaborate on that a little from cases that I know about directly…

I remember discussing a letter a new OM had received from their preceptor, after the new OM had been questioning what he had just discovered about Bhante’s abusive sexual history. The new OM was advised – in an ever-so-friendly way, of course – that he should drop such lines of questioning, otherwise he would find that his “progress in the Order” would be “blocked”.

As always with such threats, there is enough plausible deniability to cover it up as friendly advice, not a threat…. After all, the preceptor was not saying that he would personally block the new OM’s progress in the Order, just that he would find it blocked, presumably by unknown forces outside of the preceptor’s control. But scratch the surface, and think about it the way any normal person outside of our spiritual group would think about it…. The preceptor is part of the very group that would be responsible for blocking progress, they condoned the policy, they enforced it. They are making a simple statement of fact, the same way that Don Corleone might state, quite factually, that someone will find a misfortune befalling them if they do not pay for protection…. It is factually true, and Don Corleone is not suggesting that he personally will bring about the misfortune, but we all know that it is a threat.

A different OM was summoned for an interview with his preceptor due to the OM’s persistent raising of the topic of Bhante’s unethical sexual behaviour. The main thrust of the interview was to encourage the OM to resign from the Order, for example pointing out that, as a result of what he had been writing, many other OMs couldn’t even bear to be in same room as him (strangely, this was not considered to be an ethical problem for the OMs harbouring such ill will, but rather, a problem that the troublesome OM had caused and should solve by resigning). During this interview, the OM was asked by his preceptor how he would like it if the things the OM had confessed at Guhyaloka during his ordination course were discussed in Shabda? Was this a threat? Of course, as always, there is enough plausible deniability to claim that it was not a threat – just a friendly exercise to encourage empathy with Bhante. But it was awfully specific … Why mention, specifically, things that the preceptor had heard confessed at Guhyaloka? And there is an exact precedent – I know that another OM, when he raised the topic of Bhante’s sexual misconduct in Shabda many years ago, found that in the next edition of Shabda, a leading OM did indeed go on to list various ethical breaches, smearing the OM concerned and diverting the conversation away from Bhante.

Yet again, more recently, another OM was criticising the way, in his view, Bhante’s sexual history had been whitewashed in a public talk by a member of the Safeguarding team. A message was passed to him from a third party indicating that he should be aware that the Safeguarding team had a file on him, and that it would be in his interests to drop his public criticism, which he duly did. Was this a threat? It sounds an awful lot like blackmail, but of course, there is a fig leaf of plausible deniability to it. I have followed this one up, and the person delivering the warning says that they were purely acting out of concern for the OM’s welfare, they were in no way making a threat. But isn’t it funny that the person delivering the warning, a very senior OM, takes it for granted that others would vengefully use private information to protect their political position? Even if he was acting from the purest of motives, it is astonishing, and just as damning, that he assumes that other senior OMs would do this.

So what I see is a repeating pattern of senior OMs giving friendly advice to protect other OMs from some mysterious “other” who, when you stop and think about it, is just more of the same group of senior OMs. That is not friendly advice – those are threats and blackmail, dressed up to seem oh-so-friendly, and relying (generally quite safely) on the rest of us in the sangha being far too nice and – frankly – naive to see it and call it out for what it is.

Here are some of the other Dark Heart strategies I have noticed, I wonder how many are familiar to you?

Blame reversing

Blame reversing. This is a classic strategy employed by narcissists (Google “DARVO”), and unfortunately, it is a very easy pattern to slip into in the context of a spiritual group. Anyone who points out a problem, is themselves a problem. “We spiritual people only think bright, positive thoughts, because we are in positive states of mind. You, who bring up problems, must be in a dark, distressed, cynical state of mind to even think this. Your state of mind is the real issue here – so we can talk about that and ignore the content of what you are saying altogether.” Sometimes the complaint is attributed to some psychological issue – projection, for example. Many OMs are incredibly adept at this; like a skilled martial artist, they instantly and instinctively deflect the “attacker’s” energy back at them. They become untouchable within their narcissistic bubble of delusion, delusion that is often mistaken for faith and confidence. This can be so discombobulating that it shades into the next technique:

Gaslighting

Gaslighting. Again, this is something that can flourish even more easily in a spiritual group than in the outside world, because on the one hand, the person doing the gaslighting may well be speaking from “the ideal”, a well cultivated positive view of who we are and how we operate, rather than simple honest observation; and on the other hand, the person being gaslit may feel an obligation to see people at their best, not to be cynical, and to trust and believe someone who is meant to be their spiritual superior over their own experience. So, for example, someone in authority could deny outright that they have any “power”, because of a view that there is no power in the spiritual community, while the person being told this could feel that they have to accept this at face value, because the alternative, that they are being lied to by someone with spiritual authority, is too ugly to contemplate.

Ignore, prevaricate, stonewall, procrastinate

Ignore, prevaricate, stonewall, procrastinate. When someone wants to point out something inconvenient to those in authority, it is possible to waste an enormous amount of the complainant’s time and energy by simply doing nothing, or as little as possible, without actually resisting or turning them away. Keep kicking the can down the road, offer some vague possibility of engagement in the future, but never address the issues head on. Some seem to genuinely believe that, as long as they listen to a complaint, without any other follow through, they have done enough – as if the complainant is just a small child smarting from lack of attention, so once they have been heard, they should settle down and play nicely again. Eventually, most people will just give up and go away. Particularly when, after so much fruitless time and energy has already been expended, when they bring it up again they are asked: “you are not STILL going on about that are you?”, implying some kind of neurotic obsession being at play.

Discrediting and marginalisation

Discrediting and marginalisation. The only time I was present at a seminar with Bhante, not long after Ordination, I was bemused when Bhante asked for the recording to be paused, so that he could deliver some damning criticism of various Order Members. I was not sure I wanted to hear this, but at the same time, I could sense the thrill of being included amongst the “in” gang, as we listened to the “out” gang being eviscerated. It is probably like this to some extent in all groups – gossip is a human constant. But, again, the way it plays out can be rather worse in a spiritual group, because there is a special halo of being a “proper” OM on the right path that can be granted or taken away by those in authority. When I was preparing for Ordination, I was warned that many OMs out there were not the real deal, and we should avoid being influenced by them. In fact, our cohort was to be the best prepared and most real OMs ever – such good fortune! (Incidentally, I have asked a few people in different generations on the men’s wing, and this message was far from unique to my cohort, it seems to be a very common message). It is very easy for those in authority to discredit someone in the eyes of the faithful – just say or imply, in confidence of course, that XYZ should not be fully trusted. This distinction between the trusted and the untrusted is one of the most important yet least openly discussed divisions in our Order.

Paltering

Paltering. Using true statements to mislead. We are usually rather careful to avoid telling outright lies, however, we have a major blind spot when it comes to using technically true statements to mislead, having learned at the feet of our teacher. Paltering is a perfect way to manipulate people in bad faith, while maintaining the happy delusion that, since no direct lies were told, you have acted honourably, properly and ethically. I have written about this before here: https://bit.ly/3AjUn8m

UNDERSTAND THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN INTENT AND IMPACT: Try to understand and acknowledge impact. Denying the impact of something said by focusing on intent is often more destructive than the initial interaction. – EBMCHide behind a kindergarten version of the “ethics of intent”. If you believe someone is acting unethically in our community, unless you can prove deliberate moustache twirling delight in their evil doing, then they can misuse the “ethics of intent” to hide behind their deluded belief in their own good intentions. Unfortunately, this is something we have learned from our teacher; Bhante himself wrote towards the end of his life that he never set out to deliberately harm the people who were harmed by his sexual contact with him – as if this absolved him from moral responsibility for his actions. Well of course he didn’t, nobody has suggested as much. If he had set out with the deliberate intention to cause harm like that, it would truly make him a monster. Hardly anyone represents their own motives to themselves as deliberately evil – perhaps only pantomime villains. The rest of us lie to ourselves about our motives, and the more we have a “spiritual” self view to protect, the more we lie to ourselves about our intentions. This does not mean that we need to introduce non-Buddhist consequentialist ethics, but we need to look much more deeply into intention, including murky subconscious drivers. The ethics of intention does not mean “as long as you tell yourself that your motives are pure, you are blameless”. Of course Bhante did not set out with the intention to harm others – he set out to gratify himself, and was not very interested in the effects on others, even persuading himself that he was bestowing some kind of gift upon them. That is unethical – greed is unethical, self delusion is unethical, turning a blind eye to the consequences of our actions is unethical. The ethics of intent is profound and far reaching, if you allow it to be – or else, you can conveniently use it as a cover for any murky motives by only acknowledging motives that reflect your shiny spiritual self view. Then, when challenged, you can then place your critic in a false dilemma: either accept the pure motives that you present to them, or else escalate the situation and accuse you of lying about being a full-on pantomime villain, deliberately causing harm. The interesting truth is always in the excluded middle – the muddled fear, self deceit and fudging that allows us to behave dishonourably while still maintaining our deluded self-view … this is the working ground of real ethical practice.

The perfect storm

The perfect storm. There is something special that happens when all these strategies, particularly Reversing Blame and Gaslighting, are combined … The person with the complaint, faced with the denial of reality, being marginalised and ostracised, having their state of mind brought into question, and so on, may well begin to become less than perfectly politely spoken, less than perfectly poised, they may display less than perfect equanimity, in fact, they might well begin to crack apart and exhibit signs of extreme distress and psychological imbalance. Which is just perfect, because now this PROVES that they have no credibility, and were the problem all along… case closed.

It would be nice to think that, with the problematic nature of Bhante’s sexual past being at least somewhat acknowledged now, all these problems would go away, that the Dark Heart no longer needs to show itself, and we can safely forget about it all and move on with our lives.

Unfortunately it is not so simple. The habits have been cultivated, and are there, ready to be exercised whenever they are needed. And they are not just needed to cover up Bhante’s sexual history …. They are needed whenever there is any challenge or criticism, and whenever anything “needs” to be concealed – anything inconvenient, anything that marrs the group’s reputation, anything that could become the subject of a legitimate criticism or complaint.

One of the psychological dangers of spiritual groups where “egolessness” is perceived to be a positive value, is that one’s natural narcissism, rather than going away, just gets shifted onto the group. The tiniest slight to the pristine reputation of the group is keenly felt as a violation – just as a narcissist can only tolerate unconditional admiration towards themselves, members of a spiritual group are prone to overprotecting the reputation of their group. Narcissism by proxy.

Working alongside this is the instinct towards “group morality” – in the face of threat, you must always side with “your own”, regardless of the facts of the matter. It is impossible to function in a principled way when under the influence of tribalist morality. If you act from your own observation and sense of principles, you risk standing out from the tribe and becoming one of the “untrusted”. This is a terrifying risk to take. Better to find out what everyone else feels, particularly those more influential than you, and “harmonise” with this – harmony is so spiritual!

So I don’t think the Dark Heart has gone away. Unless something changes, I think it will continue to be shown whenever the group is under stress. And the sources of stress will continue to come, not just from unforeseeable new developments, but also, for example, in the form of difficult questions that naturally follow from the public acknowledgement of Bhante’s sexual misconduct, for example, how much of his teaching, other than “Greek Love”, is unreliable? Or: given that he was clearly utterly overtaken at times by craving and delusion, what does this say about the depth of his Dharma realisation, and (again) the reliability of all of his teaching?

What can, or should be done, if anything? What do I hope to accomplish by writing all this? I don’t have a very concrete answer. If I can allow myself to put realism to one side, and fantasise…. Perhaps, when patterns are pointed out, and enough people see them clearly, there can be a collective shift, so that everyone can see them? Perhaps, in some self referentially satisfying way, Mara might be seen employing all the tactics and strategies I discuss, in an attempt to shut down this very discussion, which would be so comical that perhaps he would slink off in shame?

It is of course much easier to see these patterns from the point of view of having been damaged by them, but the people who most need to see them are those who have used, or perhaps more accurately, been used by them. If they can recognise their own participation in the Dark Heart, I am sure they will want to confess and purify themselves… After all, everyone has noble aspirations, nobody wills the Dark Heart into being. It is a false refuge in times of stress, not something willingly exercised in full awareness.

If these patterns can be widely recognised, and rejected, then there are some symbolic acts that we could perform as an Order that would have profound repercussions. For example, Vajrakumara (Mark Dunlop) was expelled, in my view, primarily due to the activities of the Dark Heart of the Order I have been describing… he was used and abused by Bhante, and when he complained, all of these dark strategies and patterns were turned against him. Of course, he couldn’t maintain an urbane, equanimous and creative relationship with the Order under these circumstances. He is not to blame, and his expulsion was a grave injustice that blights our collective past. He should be told that his expulsion was invalid, that he has therefore always remained an OM in good standing, and that he is free to rejoin Order activities – highly unlikely – or, more realistically, to resign honourably if he prefers. This might or might not be of any benefit to Mark, but I am quite sure it would be a huge benefit to the Order.

What do you think?


© Aparimana, August 2022, Status: Open to all