Reform and His Holiness the Dalai Lama


There is much discussion on this website and others about the troubles in western dharma centers and the need for western students to take charge of reform and new directions in the dharma.  Due to recent the allegations of sexual abuse, there is a general sense of urgency about this reform.  In Rob Preece’s excellent overview of the situation, he observes the very real suffering which results when western students are abused or otherwise maltreated by their teachers.  He also observes the existence of teachers, such as his own, whose work for the dharma is sincere and to be highly valued.

Also, Gavin Kilty discusses whether sex between students and teachers is ever appropriate or safe.  He reiterates the need for dharma to be practiced in ways that respect the legal and moral culture of the west.  Along those lines, in Germany, there have been efforts to form an ethical charter which will serve to create safer boundaries of conduct within dharma centers.

Some of the discussions in reaction to the posts, particularly on Dialogue Ireland, have focused on whether or not dharma teachers can ever be prohibited from engaging in sexual relations with their students.  In Germany, in fact, there has been reluctance to place that restraint on teachers in their fledging ethical charter.  Some individuals in the comments also express fear that placing too many restrictions on dharma teachers could undermine their ability to teach.  While some individuals are proposing a complete charter of rules and regulations, others protest that this would go against the very spirit of dharma.

Indeed, when western students begin to brainstorm together on what specifics might be needed for reform to occur, the task looks insurmountable.  There seem to be as many different perspectives on what safe dharma centers should look like in the west as there are individual practitioners!  I personally find this situation somewhat alarming.  I fear that dharma could so easily become no more than a new age phenomena in the west.  There is also the risk, as Gavin Kilty observed, that media hype over the current allegations of sexual abuse could fuel a reactionary and unreasoned approach to reform.  As he further stated, “the transmission of Buddhism in the West is still in its infancy. Like a fragile shoot in the ground, it needs care and protection.”

I strongly believe that neither western students nor western teachers are equipped to be fully in charge of reform.  At the same time, I recognize that simply handing over the job of reform to the best of Tibetan teachers—or simply claiming that reform is not worth the risk or not necessary—is not the answer either.

The answer must be a combination of approaches.  Reform can only occur within the confines of legitimate dharma and for this, we truly need to defer to our Tibetan Buddhist leaders for guidance.  Tibet instituted careful systems to insure the authenticity of both Kangyur and Tengyur.  The fact that these systems were sometimes abused and corrupted does not imply that they were unnecessary.  I suggest that if we want the outcome of reform to be true dharma in the west, then whatever steps we choose to make should conform to the valid systems laid out by our Tibetan forefathers.  I myself have a great respect for the work that has been done over the past millennium by the Tibetan masters to preserve the authenticity of the dharma.  It is my own fervent wish that any reform we make of dharma centers in the west should hold true to that central attitude of respect.  I am also convinced that abuses will best be eliminated within a culture of mutual respect.

At the same time, there can be no reform without the energy and enthusiasm of ownership, without consideration of western cultural boundaries and unique needs.  I agree with Rob Preece that dharma centers in the west should be able to acknowledge on some level the role that western psychotherapy plays in the spiritual development of western students.   Topics such as these are not easy ones, however, because the temptation to simply piggyback psychotherapy onto dharma practice has dangers.  There needs to be a vehicle for authentic, careful, sincere dialogue so that topics new to the dharma do not simply turn into new age dharma.  For that we surely need the participation of Tibetan Buddhist leaders!  I encourage readers to investigate the extensive work which HH Dalai Lama has already done in this regard in conference with leading psychologists and neuroscientists.

HH Dalai Lama has certainly been our greatest champion of reform.  He is the only Tibetan Buddhist leader who consistently speaks out about the trouble of lama misconduct.  He is the only Tibetan Buddhist leader to truly and openly acknowledge that there are problems within western dharma centers.  On the other hand, he is also a strong proponent of authentic, traditional approaches to Buddhism, as inherited from the great Tibetan Buddhist masters and primarily, the Nalanda masters of India (7th to 11th centuries).  He speaks out frequently about the need for us to be “21st century Buddhists.”  By this, he means principally two things: 1.We must be serious and sincere about our practice of dharma; and 2. We must be fully informed about the dharma and about relevant secular topic such as western science.

Within these two perspectives, HH Dalai Lama also frequently speaks of the need for students to learn the qualities necessary in an authentic teacher and then to fully investigate their teachers before committing to them on a deep level.  These are not one-off statements by HH Dalai Lama.  He reiterates these main points every time he speaks of troubles between western students and their teachers and every time he speaks of corruption within our dharma centers.  Sometimes it appears that we in the west are looking for some other response from him—while he is perhaps wondering if we are deaf!  When we talk about the “roaring silence” of the Dalai Lama, perhaps we should also talk about the profound deafness of the west.  He has said over and over and over what we are to do and over and over, we fail to do it and ask why he is not speaking out and what we should be doing.

I suggest that HHDL has provided us with two central pillars of reform.  If we stay within the framework he provides, then we can discuss reform without fear of losing our way in the dharma or harming the fragile shoot that Gavin speaks of.  His approach is neither one where he leads us by the hand and tells us step by step what to do, nor is it one where he lets us proceed as we think best.  Nor is his approach restricted to the Gelug lineage.  He does not say, “The Gelug tradition is the Nalanda tradition.” – He says, “The Tibetan tradition is the Nalanda tradition.”  In fact, he has written and taught widely within all the Tibetan Buddhist lineages and is recognized as a holder of all of them.  He has published teachings on Dzogchen, Mahamudra, Lamrim and tantra.  He holds regular conferences with western scientists and western religious leaders.  He holds a Geshe degree.  I suggest that his perspective is broad and informed and is a good place for us to lay the ground for safe reform.

I could write extensively about my own personal experience with the value of study.  I could also write convincingly about how most of my own troubles with Tibetan lamas would never have occurred if I had begun my practice of dharma with several years of intensive study—instead of several years of intensive Ngondro!  Indeed, I practiced Ngondro before I even fully understood the meaning of the Four Noble Truths.  I gave complete and unquestioning devotion to my lamas before I had ever read a word on proper reliance on a spiritual teacher.  I was instructed to begin practicing a highest tantra before I understood the place that tantra held within the overall framework of the buddhadharma.  It was not until I turned away from that approach and committed myself to years of study of the basic Buddhist texts that I discovered both where I had gone wrong and where I could go right.  Without it, I would certainly have stumbled away from Buddhism altogether.

I am convinced that my experience is not unique.  The greatest tragedy which occurs when trouble arises between a western dharma student and his/her teacher is the loss of confidence in the dharma specifically and in religion generally.  I suggest that the simple act of insuring proper education as the foundation to all Buddhist practice within our dharma centers would solve most of our troubles.  Certainly, there will always be mischievous dharma teachers, those who teach in order to gain fame, money or sex—and there will be mischievous dharma students as well!  Certainly, as Gavin observes, we will need strong boundaries and legal systems to deal with these problems.  However, I am also convinced that most of the abuses which are occurring today are completely avoidable and I believe that we can and should be addressing this fact in our discussions of reform.

For example, most countries in the west have Judeo-Christian cultures.  HHDL frequently advises westerners that it is safer for us to keep our own spiritual traditions because these traditions are more suitable to western dispositions.  I saw in myself and I have seen in others a strong tendency to become “born-again” Buddhists.  Overnight, after a few strong spiritual experiences, we have “found” Buddhism and we are converted.  I personally encouraged and cajoled my daughters to attend teachings—because when you’re born again, you also proselytize and immediately start the work of bringing others to the faith.  However, as many of us know, this is not Buddhism.

An example of how this happened for me occurred in one of the first teachings which I attended given by the lama who was to be my central lama.  He was in the middle of teaching from a rather advanced text and the subject was about how to set up one’s place for retreat.  There were descriptions of the horrible rebirths which could occur if one faced the door of the retreat in the wrong direction.   Each direction but the correct one had a horrible karmic outcome.  I clearly remember sitting through this teaching and being surprised by it because it differed from what I understood about karma, about the result being commensurate with its cause.  I don’t know why I didn’t question my lama during the question and answer session.  Instead, I simply swallowed the teaching whole.  I decided it was a test of my faith.  Certainly I cannot blame my lama for this.  However, the point is that I was coming from a faith-based tradition and it would take many years of study before I could fully and deeply comprehend the difference between such a tradition and the Buddhist approach.  Indeed, some of those differences are very subtle!  In addition, the culture of “faith in the lama” which has been imported by Tibetans themselves didn’t help me with my understanding either!

Two solutions to the troubles inherent in introducing Buddhism to faith-based cultures could be accomplished if a sound preliminary grounding in Buddhist study is introduced into our dharma centers.  One is that students could avoid the pitfall of converting to Buddhism too quickly or out of confusion.  Years of study would give students the chance to decide whether or not they would prefer to stay within their own traditional religion, perhaps just keeping some Buddhist practices of altruism, for example.  The other solution is that students could avoid the pitfall of practicing in blind faith and transferring to the lama all the devotion they might land onto Jesus Christ or God or Allah.  A strong study program, engaged in before students have committed to either the dharma or the teacher in any way, could give students practice in critical inquiry.

In such a program, students could learn to question the teachers.  I suggest that westerners are uncomfortable with critical questioning, particularly in the context of religion.  In a faith-based culture, there is typically either blind faith and acceptance or sinful rebellion.  In Judaism, there is a tradition of debate, but this does not exist in either Christian or Islamic religious cultures.  This skill is vital to a healthy student-teacher relationship in Buddhism, however, and simply learning that skill could take many years.  I question whether any western student can form the deep, committed relationship with his/her teacher necessary for practice of tantra until he/she has spent the requisite time learning this skill, what HH Dalai Lama calls “open skepticism”.

On the other hand, I fear that in the current discussions we run the risk of cultivating a culture of harshness and disrespect in our reforms.  From the very beginning, Buddhism has relied on a strong foundation of respect shown to every teacher of Buddhism.  There is the famous story of the Buddha venerating a “teacher” who only gave him one partial sentence of dharma instruction.  There are numerous stories of the lengths that past great masters took to show respect and veneration for their teachers.  Indeed, it is difficult to promote these attitudes in the present circumstances, with some cases of lama abuse nearing criminal levels.  However, it would also be a great tragedy if we turned away from the culture of respecting those who have worked so hard to bring the dharma to the west, simply because of the mischief of a few.  I fear that we could lose some of our best teachers if we cultivate such a culture of disrespect.

I suggest that this is the challenge we are facing today.  We need to build a robust, healthy culture of respect, inquisitiveness and debate within our dharma centers.  As HH Dalai Lama has suggested more times than I can count, study is the ground on which we need to base our practice of dharma in modern times—and this is where such a culture of inquisitiveness can be found.  Along those lines, I strongly question the wisdom in current practices of giving western students a diet of tantra shortly after they first walk in the door of a dharma center.  I quote from His Holiness:

“In India a fully qualified guru taught the doctrines of Secret Mantra to only a few students, whose karma and aspirations were suitable and whom he knew well.  The gurus passed the doctrines directly to their students, and when the students were able to practice with great effort the teachings that they received, the corresponding spiritual experiences and realizations were generated.  In just that measure the Conqueror’s teaching was furthered and the welfare of sentient beings was achieved.  However, in the snowy country of Tibet these factors were largely absent.  Secret Mantra was disseminated too widely and people sought it because of its fame, without considering whether they had the capacity to practice it or not.

“One is wise if, though wanting the best, one examines whether the best is fitting.  The Tibetans wanted the best and assumed that they could practice the best… As it is said in the Tibetan oral tradition, ‘An Indian practices one deity and achieves a hundred; a Tibetan practices a hundred deities and does not achieve even one…’

“Especially nowadays, Secret Mantra has become a topic of interest, but merely as an object of inquiry.  From the viewpoint of a practitioner, it seems to have become an object of entertainment and to have arrived at the point where one cannot know whether it will help or harm.” (HH Dalai Lama, Tantra in Tibet; pp 16-17)

It is only within tantric culture that students are instructed to see their teachers as perfect or as buddhas.  It is only within tantra that such terms as samaya and unquestioning devotion are relevant.  Committing to a teacher on this level within weeks or even months of meeting him/her is akin to marrying someone after only a few dates.  Surely, this is a major cause of our current troubles with abuses by lamas.  Surely, if we create a culture where students and teachers become better acquainted through studying together over years (not months or weeks!) before ever committing themselves to tantric relationships, then most of our current troubles with abuse have a better chance of being eliminated.  I suggest that it could be that simple.

An example of such an approach can be seen in Tushita Center in Dharamsala India.  In this center, they run what they call an “Introduction to Buddhism” retreat.  This is a 10-day meditation and study retreat.  It is silent except for the question and answer period.  The purpose of this retreat is strongly focused on giving students a sound orientation towards Buddhism, based on understanding the need for caution and study before committing to a teacher or Buddhist tradition.  They encourage students to explore all Buddhist traditions, including Zen and Theravada and to investigate teachers thoroughly before committing. They also provide them with the basics of meditation, a skill that can deepen study enormously.

I suggest that we could incorporate such programs in the west, not only for introductory purposes but also for support, while students progress along the path.  These could also address the Dalai Lama’s advice that we need to practice dharma sincerely and seriously.  An example might be to set up study groups structured something along the lines of western “support groups.”  Students could discuss personal issues in the context of their dharma practice and rules of respect and confidentiality could be upheld.  I personally have found that it is very difficult to follow a religion which is outside of my own culture.  It can be isolating and confusing.  Sometimes I just wish I had a church to go to.  Support is often difficult to find when one needs it most.  Something like study/support groups could have the dual effect of providing both personal and academic assistance.

I also observed during my years at a monastery that often question-and-answer sessions became times when students would ask deeply personal questions instead of questions about the text being studied.  I myself would use my private interviews with my lamas to ask questions about my own personal life instead of my practice.  I believe that these are generally inappropriate uses of the teacher’s time.  I suggest that when a student involves a lama too closely into his/her personal life, then there is a greater risk for a boundary violation in that relationship, a greater subsequent risk for abuse.  Providing avenues for students to process their personal issues outside of the teacher-student relationship could avoid that risk. Certainly western students do need help with integrating the dharma into busy personal lives and a strong dharma center could acknowledge that need in its structure.  This is perhaps an area where models of western psychology could be helpful.

Indeed, these are simply some ideas that I have had about reform and about building safe dharma centers.  They are just an example of the sorts of ways that we might be thinking about changes.  The ideas themselves are not important.  They are peripheral to the foundation of reform which is the main topic of discussion here.  They can be taken as good ideas or simply scrapped and no harm will result.  However, the foundation of reform as set forth by HH Dalai Lama cannot be scrapped if we want to move forward in meaningful ways that will not threaten the “fragile shoot in the ground” which is dharma in the west.

I suggest that at this critical, dangerous period for dharma in the world, we have been blessed with a leader whose breadth of vision and work is truly awe-inspiring.  Anyone who doubts this should spend just a month reading his books and listening to his teachings, conferences, media interviews and public talks!  I also suggest that it is in the person and the work of HH Dalai Lama that we stand our best chance of finding common ground with mainstream Tibetan Buddhist teachers and moving forward with their full support.  We would be foolish indeed not to use the advice that he has given us as we proceed forward in discussions of reform.

Joanne Clark,
Vermont / USA

Devotion with Discernment — A question of personal responsibility by Rob Preece

There is an excellent essay by Rob Preece which was recommended by a poster of this blog, Tiger Lily. I think this essay deserves our attention. Here is an extract. For the full essay please read: Devotion with Discernment — A question of personal responsibility.

Recognising boundaries

Possibly the most critical issue that arises in relationship to the guru is the potential for a loss of appropriate boundaries. As a psychotherapist there is consistent emphasis on the understanding of how teachers and therapists need to be clear of their ethical boundaries, especially because of the power imbalance in the relationship. When we consider the power we often give away to our gurus the assumption we make is that they will be skilful with us and not be abusive or exploitative. Unfortunately this is often misunderstood by both teachers and students. Boundaries imply a teacher or guru will respect the needs and vulnerabilities of a student and not take advantage of them for his own needs. This can be materially, economically, emotionally or sexually. Materially it is very easy for teachers to exploit the devoted student who wishes to practice generosity towards them and so provide money, material goods, a home, work, and so on out of devotion. Gurus can get very rich on the offerings of their disciples and in Tibet the estates of the highly revered Tulkus where often extremely wealthy and powerful.

Emotionally there can be a tendency for some gurus to actually feed on the devotion of their students. It can nourish a narcissistic need for love and to be seen as special that has been there since childhood. Possibly the worst form of exploitation is the sexual abuse of female students to satisfy a need of the teacher. It is this, which is the most blatant form of abuse of boundary and power and can often be dismissed or denied within the context of a dysfunctional community of disciples. […]

Update July 09, 2012

See also: Spiritual pathology by Rob Preece.
The article has been made available also on

Ethics and Safety


It was heartbreaking to read of the recent tragic events at Diamond Mountain University (DMU), the center run by Michael Roach in Arizona …

It is difficult to unravel the events which unfolded over the past year to result in bizarre spousal abuses and stabbings, followed by the death of Ian Thornson by dehydration in an Arizona dessert.   Matthew Remski gives a detailed account of what he is able to discern about the events and Michael Roach himself, in his open letter, gives a detailed account of efforts the DMU presumably made to handle the situation responsibly.  We probably will never know exactly what happened.  It is fairly evident, however, that the tragedy was the result of two individuals failing to receive the psychiatric care that they needed.

Like Matthew Remski, I want to ask how such tragedies can be prevented.  Many of us are feeling a lack of confidence in the safety standards even in mainstream dharma centers these days.  Tragedies such as this one give us a sense of urgency about the need to improve these standards.  The case here with DMU is most disturbing because Michael Roach has already been severely chastised by mainstream Tibetan Buddhists.  In fact, HH Dalai Lama censured Michael Roach in 2006.  Matthew Remski is asking that they do so again.  Indeed, this censure by His Holiness served as an important warning to students that Michael Roach could no longer be considered as acting within the boundaries of authentic Buddhism.  In that regard, it was a critical move and protected many potential students.  However, the censure also served to place Michael Roach in a position where he was no longer answerable to anyone in authority, if indeed he ever felt accountable to others in the first place.  I question whether further censure would serve any purpose.

Before reading of the events at DMU, I had personally been doing much writing and thinking about what would be critical ingredients of a safe dharma center.  I had concluded that a strong, supportive community and a strong program of study could be pillars of a dharma center that insured safety.  The irony is that it appears Michael Roach and the DMU board appear to have worked hard to cultivate a very strong community structure, with extensive support systems, as well as a rigorous study program.

However, most will agree that the community Roach has built and the program of study he has created are deeply flawed.  Can we probe deeper into these flaws and learn important lessons from the tragic events at DMU?  In my mind, it’s too easy and comfortable to say the word, “cult”, as if there’s a clear demarcation between cult and noncult—between DMU and our own, mainstream dharma centers.  I think we need to shake up that comfort a little and be very honest.

I would suggest that there are two key features of DMU which make it an unsafe and unhealthy community.  The central feature is that it lacks a sound ethical base.  Michael Roach, as an ordained monk who engages freely in sexual relations, has broken the vinaya in clear ways.  From this shaky foundation he has created teachings that justify, explain and make a high practice of his misconduct, such as calling his relations with women “spiritual unions”.  I suggest that the combination of his ethical infractions and the creation of a new age dharma to support it could be at the core of the couple’s dangerous psychiatric difficulties, at the core of what is clearly a psychologically unsafe community at DMU.

Of central concern is the relationship between ethics and safety in our own dharma centers.  HH Dalai Lama observes that a strong ethical outlook is an essential ingredient of a strong, healthy mental outlook because it is grounded on a valid cognition.  Surely then the same could be said of a healthy community.  A strong ethical outlook could be a critical component of a strong dharma community as well.

HH Dalai Lama also observes that unethical conduct and non-virtue are founded in an invalid cognition and so ultimately they are weak states of mind.  They have a shaky foundation.  Extrapolating from that viewpoint, I suggest that once members of a group are asked to accommodate non-virtue and unethical behavior as part of a higher purpose, then those members are living with a deep moral conflict within themselves.  Their mental states then become compromised.  This places their mental health at risk.

If you add high tantric practices to that mix, then you are placing them further at risk.  Matthew Remski suggests that one possible cause for Lama Christie stabbing her husband was the fact that they were practicing Vajrayogini, who was visualized as wielding a knife herself.  While this can never be verified, I would like to assume that it is nonetheless within the realms of a likely explanation.  Michael Roach’s sexual misconduct, breaking his root vow of celibacy and then heralding it as a spiritual practice, forced all of his followers to stuff their minds around an impossible mindset, calling his conduct virtue.  It is possible that this, combined with a lethal dose of high tantric practices, are primary causes of the psychological breakdowns in both Christie and Ian and the subsequent tragedy which unfolded in Arizona.

I am concerned that even in western, mainstream dharma centers, there is a dangerous lack of concern over ethics.  Even in mainstream dharma centers, ethics come second to the higher purpose, which is usually the lama.  Nine years ago, I sat in a Woodstock Town Board meeting and listened while officials of HH Karmapa’s upstate New York monastery lied to the town board about the numbers of guests we were housing for teachings.  They were applying for a building permit to place a large extension to the monastery.  The town was concerned that the extension would increase traffic, so monastery officials were doctoring the numbers of guests in order to fit in with the town’s demands.

Officials had been haggling with the town for months over the details of this permit, but this was the only board meeting I had attended.  I was registrar at the time and I knew the numbers the administrators were lying about.  I knew how we crammed people into the library, turning it into a dorm during big teachings.  I knew how frequently we went over the numbers officials were quoting.  I sat silently through that Town Board meeting, however, silently reciting mantra, om mani padme hum, om mani padme hum, om mani padme hum, listening to the lies and wondering if my lamas had approved them– but they were sitting quietly at the meeting as well.  So I chanted mantra and did something I had never done before in my life; I contorted my own mind in order to approve of an unethical deed.  It is no wonder to me today that my relationships with those lamas should eventually break down.  At 50, I was simply too old to change my moral code, although I did try and the effort to do so nearly killed me.

In the scriptures, we are advised to respectfully speak up when asked by the lama to do something that does not seem ethically correct.  While I am confident that I could not have been persuaded to lie myself, I nonetheless lacked the courage to speak up about the lie that I had witnessed.  This sits heavy in my heart.

At a teaching with a kagyu high lama during that time, I vividly recall the brave, local woman who did stand up and ask how it could be that our lamas could lie.  I wasn’t clear on the details she was referring to, but I know that they had something to do with the town, probably similar to my own experience.  There was a stunned, horrified silence in the room after the woman asked her question.  Then the high lama replied to her by relating the story of the bodhisattva who lied to the hunter in order to save the deer’s life.  The woman was clearly distressed both by the courage that it took to ask the question and by the lama’s response.  Later that day, I helped to organize an interview for her with her lama.  I was confident that he would resolve things for her and reassure her, comfort her.  However, she left that interview looking positively tormented.  I was to leave the monastery a few months later looking just as tormented, stumbling off like that woman, hoping only to find some way out of my confusion.

I have less fear and confusion today, but it’s taken me many years in exile to regain my dignity and my perspective.  I am deeply concerned about this readiness to compromise ethical standards for the higher cause of bringing a great lama to the west.  I suggest that perhaps this higher cause needs to be a beacon of truth, not a series of compromises.  I strongly suspect that the few ethical infractions which I saw during my time at the monastery were most likely just a glimpse of everyday occurrences there.  Certainly, I was not privy to any of the inner workings of the monastery.  In fact, I was told to transfer all calls from the town board to monastery officials and answer no questions myself.  Sometimes the atmosphere of fear and secrecy surrounding the higher corporate structure of the monastery was palpable.

Once while I was working in the front office, there was an amusing electronic error.  The statement of my boss’s salary was sent to my email account by mistake.  I was a volunteer and had no interest whatsoever in looking at this statement, no interest in nosing into his personal finances.  However, my boss was very worried about the statement being seen.  I told him to relax, I would delete it, I wouldn’t look at it.  However, when I entered the office the next morning, he was at my computer, making sure it was deleted.  He looked furtive, like a criminal, fumbling with my computer.  It was sad because his need for me not to see his salary far surpassed my need to ever see it. This nontransparent fear culture permeated the monastery and made lots of unnecessary trouble.  Surely in a transparent, open, honest dharma community, the salaries of every official would be made available.  Why not?  Why the secrecy?

At the time I was there, everything was about building the big new extension for HH Karmapa.  There was already a beautiful large, traditional Tibetan temple, with a large, attractive upstairs area for housing HH Karmapa and visiting lamas.  However, within the lovely temple, there was a fractured community, with members constantly bickering and gossiping.  Once I received a call from a long time member of the community.  She had hurt her back badly and needed help; she couldn’t walk.  I passed the word around, but I was the only one from the dharma community finally to come to her assistance and help get her to the doctor and shop and cook food.  Rinpoche’s wife came the next day and another day as well– but the attitude of the rest was largely indifferent.

I frequently wondered about all that hurry over the extensions.  Surely the building that already existed, with some renovations to the guest house, would suffice until the community grew stronger and His Holiness came and began creating his own vision for the West.  Two attitudes seemed to predominate.  One was clearly stated by the lamas, in fact: His Holiness would not come until the extensions were completed.  This was what we needed to do in order to bring His Holiness to the west.  The other attitude was that any infractions committed in this endeavor, any harm to the local community was far outweighed by bringing the blessing of HH Karmapa into their presence.

I question some of the unspoken assumptions underlying these attitudes.  The first is that material offerings to the high lama are more important than offerings of basic practices within the dharma community, such as generosity, kindness, honesty, patience and meditation.  Material offerings can occupy a community’s focus at the expense of focusing on supporting its members during times of need.  Another assumption is that the end justifies the means.  HH Karmapa’s presence in the community justifies any non-dharmic actions that are needed to bring him.  Still another assumption is that dharma is primarily about the high lama.  If an individual has the fortune of seeing or knowing HH Karmapa, then his/her fortunes are insured.  No further actions are needed.

I also question another assumption.  From my understanding of the Buddha’s teachings, if the obstacles which prevent a person or organization from undertaking an activity are so great that the only way to overcome them is to behave unethically, then surely this is a call to look more closely at the obstacles themselves.  The obstacles could be seen as valid indicators that now is not the time for the particular activity.  At one point while I was at the monastery, the trouble with the town over obtaining the permit was so great that corporate officials held a meeting with the lamas in order to seek advice.  The advice from the lamas came back loud and clear: continue with the plan to build the extensions.  Don’t give up.  I was not privy to those meetings, but I cannot help but wonder if that was the moment where officials decided to begin crossing ethical boundaries.

I suggest that if we want to draw a definitive line in the sand between mainstream dharma centers in the west and dangerous, fringe centers such as DMU, if we want to insure psychological safety for dharma students in the west, then we need to look more closely at all these assumptions.

We had an outbreak of bedbugs at the monastery during my last months there.  I was sharing the front office work with another staff member at the time.  He quit the job, however, because they asked him to lie to the guests about the bedbugs.  Then it was just me in the office and either they forgot to tell me to lie or they knew it was no use.  So I made sure that every guest knew about the problem and asked them to tell me if they were bitten so we could address the situation better.  I found that guests had no problem with this at all. In fact, it helped a little in community building because I was bringing guests on board to help with the problem; they felt a part of a common effort.

The plan to lie to the guests was not only unethical, but unskillful and unnecessary as well.  It seems that secrecy and deceit can become something of a way of life, without anyone stopping to look closely at what is really best for the situation.  Nothing disenfranchises members of a community more than non-transparency.  Within a transparent, ethical outlook, however, not only are community bounds strengthened, but problems are solved more skillfully as well.

I was fired from my jobs at the monastery shortly before the building permit was acquired so I have never seen the huge new monastery extension.  However, I do know that it was seen as an offense to the monastery’s closest neighbor, a small Christian group who worshipped at a tiny, historical monument which sat directly below the monastery.  During the time that the extensions to the monastery were being made, the leader of this group waged a campaign to stop the work.  He wrote:

“When this monstrous building project was proposed to the Town of Woodstock Zoning Board, the Church of the Transfiguration of Christ on the Mount had just received Federal and NY State historical Status. Why then, you might ask (as I do) did the Woodstock Zoning Board approve such a gigantic fortress-like monstrocity of a hotel, which if ever allowed to be completed, will completely overshadow one of Woodstock’s most cherished Historical Monuments to the Artistic Counter-Culture – Father Francis’ “Church of the Transfiguration of Christ on the Mount”?”

I remember once taking a call from this man. He complained to me that monastery officials had broken their promise to him about where new electricity lines would be placed as they crossed his church’s property.  I apologized to the man and then passed his complaints on to a monastery official, who was quite unconcerned.  In fact, he replied with sarcasm, “Was he drunk?”

Even at the time, I found his attitude alarming. Indeed, it is possible that this man’s personality posed difficulties.  Certainly, to a casual observer, the little building on the hill might seem insignificant.  Wikipedia describes this Christian shrine as “a modest, single-room, hand-built wooden church near the summit of Meads Mountain in Woodstock, New York, originally constructed c. 1891.”

However, I question the merit of any Buddhist project which deeply offends its neighbors, be they Christian or any other religion.  Surely, there should be a strong spirit of respect for mainstream, western religions and western culture in the means by which any dharma center is built in the west.  Building a huge, imposing, traditional Tibetan Buddhist monastery, on a hill above a Christian monument, dwarfing this small Christian community of worship, could be bordering on deep disrespect.

HH Dalai Lama says that he has two commitments in his life now: promotion of human values and promotion of religious harmony.  HH Karmapa stands poised to inherit HH Dalai Lama’s position of spiritual authority in the world.  I suggest that any project with the goal of establishing HH Karmapa’s work in the world might consider adhering to strong principals of ethics and respect for other religions.  Perhaps those two principles could be at least two of the pillars supporting HH Karmapa’s new monastery in the west.

There are many who will say that I should not speak out like this, that I cannot understand the actions of higher beings, that I am breaking samaya.  I say that my shame is in not speaking sooner.  At the time that I sat in the town board meeting, I believed that my lamas knew best, that the lies were indeed justified for the higher cause of HH Karmapa.  That may well be still true from the perspective of the lamas.  Indeed, I do not question the great blessings of His Holiness.  Nor do I question the motives of any of the lamas involved in bringing his lineage to the west.  It is possible that the greater community of Woodstock could feel honored and gladdened to have the monastery there, with HH Karmapa visiting regularly.  It is possible that monastery community members have made friends with their Christian neighbors.  It is possible that Woodstock, being of good hippie history, could be proud to have North America’s most authentic Tibetan temple.  All of this could be true.

However, I am still deeply concerned about western students in our dharma centers who are learning to compromise their ethics as they take their first steps on the Buddhist path.  Surely this is a dangerous practice.   Just as I raised my children to stay true to strong values and right, moral conduct, so surely our dharma centers need to be leading students in the same ways.  By sitting silent through the town board meeting, was I not complicit in the lying?  Was I not shaming my better self that I could never speak out and question?   Was devotion that asked me to remain silent a true practice of dharma?

So my karma now is my own responsibility. If young Kalu Rinpoche can find the courage to speak out about these distressing matters that lie heavy in his heart, then I will follow his example.  Certainly, after reading of the tragic events in Arizona, failure to speak out and question now would be a deep transgression of my vow to protect all beings.  Until we decide to shine a beacon of impeccable honesty and ethical discipline within our dharma centers, particularly those centers which are to house our highest examples of the Buddha’s teachings, I question whether there is safety for any being inside them.

Where are we to draw the line between mainstream dharma centers in which ethical boundaries are uncertain and fringe dharma centers with the same, uncertain boundaries?  Where?  This isn’t a rhetorical question; I would really like to know how we westerners can be confident that the line has been drawn somewhere.  How are we to judge the actions of those in power in our dharma centers, whether they be lamas practicing crazy wisdom or corporate enterprises manipulating local community concerns?  Where and how can we draw the line and know that dharma centers are truly safe for all?

The author of this essay, Drolma, wishes to be anonymous but is known to the blog owner.

One Year With Rigpa – A Testimony


Thirteen years ago, I left a bookshop with two books under my arm. One was The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche (SR). The other was a commentary on lamrim by HH Dalai Lama. In a daze, I got in the car and drove several times around the block.  The next few nights I had very lucid sleep, as if I were aware of myself sleeping.  There was no doubt in my mind that I was heading in some spiritual direction that would be significant for me.

However, I read The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying instead of the lamrim text and I am still suffering today with the psychological fallout. I still wish from the depths of my heart that I had never read it, that I had begun my Buddhist path with the lamrim text, with the sane teachings of the gradual path instead of SR’s Dzogchen. Sometimes we can say that difficulties are important because of what they teach us. Certainly I have learned much from my experiences of what I call “lama madness”—but I believe that the damage has far out-surpassed this. Definitely, the damage to others, particularly my family, has far outweighed any benefit.

I was living a pretty wholesome life when all of this started, busy homeschooling two of our five daughters, milking goats, making bread and cheese, driving my kids to music lessons and sporting events. My husband and I had made a good job of combining our two families and I believe that our marriage had a good chance at survival. Certainly, if I had started with lamrim, I would have had a wealth of tools to deal with any problems we might have encountered as our children grew up and moved away. Our two oldest had already left home to start university and the third was applying that year for schools. For myself, I believe that as my mothering roles decreased, my own spiritual needs increased. I had already begun writing some soul-searching poetry and had just started publishing those. Experiences with Rigpa were soon to put a stop to all of that, however– the marriage, the homeschooling, the goats, the poetry were all on short leave. SR was to enter my life like an atomic bomb.

I only attended teachings at Rigpa for a year. By the end of that year, I was smoking cigarettes, drinking heavily and planning suicides. But in the beginning, I was enthusiastic. There was a great air of mystique and secrecy surrounding SR that drew me in very quickly. Very quickly, my enthusiasm for Buddhism became an enthusiasm for SR. He was funny, he was aloof, you felt his presence, you felt that he noticed you. You never knew when he was going to appear or disappear– he could be an hour late for a teaching or an hour early. This kept your emotions very acute, very vigilant. There were no interviews and no question and answer sessions in the teachings. We were told to “hold our questions in our hearts,” told that we might be surprised to find them (magically) answered during the teaching. For me, this was an ominous and dangerous encouragement to look to the paranormal, to believe in SR’s psychic powers. A central theme to SR’s teaching was the theme of “master.” He frequently spoke of his past teachers not as teachers, but as “masters.” With this theme was the theme of instant enlightenment. This was how he taught Dzogchen, as a very quick and easy path to enlightenment, a path of devotion. Frequently, he taught about students suddenly seeing the nature of their own minds in a swoon of devotion.

For me, a beginner, this approach was disastrous. My initial, huge enthusiasm for Buddhism became channeled into one perspective—the lama. Though I travelled weekly the 90 miles to New York City to attend study groups, the study was all about SR, all about his book and his teachings. This approach was very harmful for me; what I needed badly at that vulnerable time in my spiritual development, was a strong grounding in the dharma itself—certainly not a grounding in SR! Such was the shallowness of these study groups that I remember once asking a senior student about a verse which referred to emptiness.  Instead of giving me an introduction to emptiness, she missed that the verse was even about emptiness and gave me an obscure, convoluted explanation, indicating that she had no basic knowledge of Buddhism at all.

I attended Rigpa events regularly—and they were given frequently in the New York area during that year because it was the year SR’s son was born in Pennsylvania. Very early, I was experiencing strong paranormal experiences to do with SR. I believed that I could communicate with him psychically. Because I never had a single opportunity to speak with SR, because I could never check in with him about any of my experiences, they became my entire relationship with him. I expected, because of the strength of these experiences, and because of SR’s teachings, to become enlightened at any moment. This made for a dangerous cocktail of confusion, nothing like the great sanity of Buddha’s own teachings.

Absolutely, I would have hopped into bed with SR in an instant—regardless of my marriage, my children, my life. I would have done almost anything he asked. As it was, I started to believe that SR wanted me to become his spiritual wife and live with him in France. This delusion was so strong and convincing that I acted on it. I told my husband I was leaving him to go to France. I sent my two youngest daughters back overseas to live with their father. My family not only had to deal with my actions, but they had to deal with losing the woman I had been, with having a crazy woman in place of me. In my mind, however, I was not harming anyone. I was involved with the greater picture. I was going to become enlightened really fast and then I would send for my children, I would repair my relationship with my husband. I really believed that I was in the midst of a greater purpose.

My mental state was not aided by life in Rigpa teachings. As any Rigpa student knows, SR makes a common practice of publicly humiliating students. He will rant and rave at them during teachings and have them running like wild chickens trying to fulfill his many impossible demands. He will severely criticize and berate them in front of all attendees. Rigpa devotees say that this is a practice to diminish ego. On one blog, a Rigpa student wrote that it shows students their “better selves.”

The effect that these displays had on me as an observer is that I lost my better self—at a time when I needed it most. On one occasion, I brought my 16 year old daughter to a teaching. Afterwards, she objected quite strongly to SR’s public harsh treatment of a student. To my shame, I defended him. I said that he had a higher purpose that we could not fully understand. I had raised my daughters to be respectful, caring individuals and suddenly I was defending the public humiliation of a human being—I was calling it the behavior of a higher being! How could I expect to practice the Buddha’s Dharma with such an outlook?  How could devotion make me so debased? It was no wonder that I could entertain delusions—such blind devotion was fertile ground for confusion and madness.

It is possible that in a private setting, such rough techniques could function to benefit a close student, could function something like a Zen koen at diminishing ego clinging. However, to display them publicly is shameful at best, psychologically damaging at worst. I remember passing a senior student in the restroom shortly after she had been subjected to public humiliation at a teaching. She had a cold, dark, closed expression as she passed me. There was no warmth or greeting, nothing that would resemble the Buddha’s teachings on warm heartedness. From my current perspective, these public humiliations look more like hazing—an initiation rite into the inner circle of Rigpa.

I attended a retreat at Lerab Ling towards the end of my time with Rigpa. By then, I was a mess. I was very internally focused and very much in need of help. As the time for my children’s departure neared and the reality of SR’s intentions started to become clearer, I had much mental torment. In fact, the voice of the lama inside my head had become very brutal and cruel, placing impossible demands on me. One morning, during our break from the teaching at Lerab Ling, the alarm was raised that we all needed to quickly gather in the tent. When I arrived there, SR had arrived in his singlet/undershirt and he was in a temper. He started yelling at us all for some offense that we had committed, though he was never specific about what it was. He had all his aids running around fetching his sun glasses, fetching something for him to eat, doing this and that, as if there was some great emergency, as if the place had caught fire.  He sat in his undershirt, eating yogurt and blaming us for the fact that he had had no opportunity to have lunch and I sat in an abject slump, just taking it all in, all the negativity and blame, both inside and out. Indeed, it did me no good at all.

At that same retreat, I met SR once walking along a path. I was filled with a sense that this was to be our moment, he would talk to me finally and resolve all the mess, tell me what I was to do. I looked up at him with a face full of expectation ready to speak with him. However, he merely shook his head and walked past. That was about the closest I came to the great master.

When we talk of safe dharma centers, I think we are not only talking about dharma centers where the teachers don’t sexually molest students; we are talking about dharma centers that are psychologically wholesome and nurturing. In such environments, sexual abuse is less apt to occur. If we are serious about the Buddha’s teachings on patience, tolerance and loving kindness, surely the teacher’s behavior needs to reflect that. I believe that SR’s close students feel much love and compassion from him—and certainly I had experiences of warm compassion coming from him as well. However, when he shouts and insults students, where are we to hold the contradiction of his behaviors except in confusion and ignorance?

Buddha says that the root cause of all our suffering is ignorance. Modern Western psychology as well is discovering that techniques such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which use human intelligence to heal from mental afflictions, are very effective. I believe that when the lama becomes more important than the cultivation of wisdom in the students’ own minds, then there is great risk of trouble of all sorts. There’s a dumbing down that happens which causes the student to be vulnerable to all sorts of experiences. The student then becomes less capable of making sound decisions and abuse and mental illness can result.

From the perspective of SR’s behavior during teachings, it was no leap of my imagination to picture him sexually abusing women. I am not one to jump on bandwagons and witch hunts—nor would I ever simply believe these stories without verification.  However, the stories are not far-fetched in the context of SR’s everyday behavior. He behaves as a master who might consider himself above simple ethical norms. There is a Tibetan saying that if you give enough room for a small needle, it will gradually make more and more room for itself. The saying is given in reference to ethical norms. If a teacher gives himself permission to shout and humiliate people in public, I imagine it would become easier for him to give way to his anger whenever he pleases. I imagine it would become easy to give way to his lust when he pleases as well.

From my viewpoint, I am curious still about how I could have discovered the sanest religion in the world only to become nearly insane. I had discovered the religion with the strongest, greatest teachings on altruism only to bring harm to those whom I loved the most. Rigpa students are very quick to say that SR cannot be held responsible for mental illness in those who attend his teachings. Indeed, it is not my intention here to prove that SR caused my paranormal experiences, nor is it my intention to prove my sanity. I could explain to a professional how my delusions were markedly different from those in traditional Schizophrenia, but those discussions are beyond the scope of this writing. I am certainly interested in that fine line between psychotic and spiritual, however, because it appears that I have gained control over my delusions without the use of meds or therapy. I have done this by leaving behind the confused religion of Lamaism and turning instead to the great wisdom of Buddhism.

Rigpa will say—and I have had Rigpa insiders say this to me on blogs—that SR cannot be held accountable for my suffering. These same students say that women can simply say no about having sex with him. These are the words of an organization, a system with lawyers and strategies. I am more concerned with the future of Buddhism in the west and the unnecessary suffering of Western students. What I say, as a psychotherapist, as a Buddhist student who has built her own sanity from the gutter up through the Buddha’s precious teachings, is that I see in SR’s approach serious risks to the safety of students.

There are two basic approaches to teaching Buddhism. There is a general approach, applicable to all students, and there is a specific approach, applicable to specific students at a specific point in their spiritual development. HH Dalai Lama, who, like SR, teaches to large numbers of students, uses the first approach. SR appears to use the second. I believe—from painful experience—that if he is going to use this specific approach, if he is going to teach a “master”- centered approach, if he is going to “work” with students publicly, then perhaps he should be more available to speak with every student in a close, meaningful, stable way—perhaps he should be more transparent and accessible as well. Perhaps there should be less of a power base to Rigpa, that impenetrable and scary face of the organization. Certainly, for myself, if SR had just taken notice that I was in trouble, if he had been available for interviews, if he had taken a little time to work with me, to speak with me and steer me clear of my confusions, much suffering for myself and my family could have been avoided. Of this, I am quite certain.

This is a testimony of a former Rigpa student together with her current perspectives on safe dharma centers.

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