Sogyal Rinpoche & Rigpa – An interview with the former director of Rigpa France Olivier Raurich

Translation of an interview with the former director of Rigpa France Olivier Raurich which appeared in the French magazine “Marianne”¹

Q: When did you become interested in Buddhism and how did you encounter Sogyal Rinpoche?

I studied mathematics at l’ecole normale superieure (teacher training college) in the Rue d’Ulm, aiming to become a scientific researcher. At 24, I had an existential crisis leading to a spiritual quest. When I first discovered Buddhism, I really liked the idea of “verifying with your own experience.” At first, it wasn’t about belief, but getting benefit from meditation. I went to conferences and encountered Sogyal Rinpoche. He spoke English and something resonated.

Sogyal Rinpoche, 2008 Wikipedia Commons

Sogyal Rinpoche, 2008
Wikipedia Commons

After several years, he said that I am very hard-working and spoke very good English. I became his translator in France, without having any personal relationship with him, because Sogyal Rinpoche immediately imposes absolute dominance in relationships. He was the master, inaccessible and irritable — it’s all about carrying out his instructions, full stop.

Q: So you have been a privileged witness to his rise and the growing success of his organisation, Rigpa?

Over the years, I actually became increasingly active in Rigpa, as a meditation teacher and president of Rigpa France. I appeared several times on the television show “Buddhist Wisdom” on France 2.
At the same time I had my job teaching maths, because almost everyone is a volunteer in Rigpa, and the few salaried jobs there are very poorly paid. To make offerings in money and labour is part of Buddhism and it seemed great to me to offer service for free. Later I realised that under this pretext Westerners became veritable milk cows.

The big retreat centre, Lerab Ling, situated in L’Hérault, opened in 1992. The same year, “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” appeared. It was drafted by Patrick Gaffney, a brilliant and modest English scholar, and a man I greatly admire, from teachings given by Sogyal Rinpoche and other masters.

It became an international best-seller, and people flocked to Sogyal Rinpoche, who became a global Buddhist star. I was excited — I had the impression we were going to spread Buddhist wisdom throughout society.

Q: Considering his behaviour, especially with his closest disciples, did it ever shock you?

He’s a charismatic communicator, but what shocked me immediately was the disconnect between his rhetoric and his character. He loves luxury, fashion and violent American films. Ecology and social issues do not interest him at all. He is not at all shy about singing his own praises — to excess and in front of everyone. He stays in luxury hotels, surrounded by the most expensive electronic gadgets. I struggled to accept this behaviour, because at the same time some people in Rigpa were very poor. He preached that he had the same contentment, simplicity and renunciation in this life, without needing to practice. For a long time, I thought his behaviour it was related to cultural conditioning from his origins as a Tibetan aristocrat.

He blew hot and cold with me — sometimes he praised my translation to extremes – and sometimes he humiliated me in public. He was always very authoritarian. There were consistent rumours that he abused young women — not by physical violence, but by a huge psychological hold over them. This was officially justified by the concept of “crazy wisdom,” which maintains that great masters can commit acts which are incomprehensible to ordinary mortals.

This applies to everyone — “If the master humiliates you, it is to liberate the ego, to purify the disciples” and “There is no greater action than the will of the master” and so on … the traditional Tibetan texts are very clear on this point.

I was primarily interested in Buddhist teachings. I hosted internships and that side of things, with the team of instructors. We did a good job of spreading Buddhism. That’s what made me stay so long.

Q: How is it that Sogyal Rinpoche was not worried? Why has the Dalai Lama never reacted?

Several crises have occurred. There was the lawsuit for sexual harassment in 1993 in the United States. Subsequently, some former students have told their stories and a lot of people left Rigpa on those occasions, particularly in 2000 and 2007.

Then in 2011, an article appeared in “Marianne” — after this Sogyal Rinpoche decided not to appear at the meditation retreats for newcomers at Lerab Ling.

Many people left. Rigpa paid a very expensive professional agency in Paris, specialising in crisis communication, to train a few spokesmen, including myself, to respond to the allegations of sexual harassment and financial abuse. We were advised not to answer questions, but rather to endlessly repeat certain key phrases – and to quote the Dalai Lama as much as possible for moral support.

Q: The Dalai Lama clearly says (in “Ethics in the Teacher-Student Relationship” , 1993; Healing Anger, Snow Lion, 1997 pp. 83-85) that the abusive behaviour of masters must be exposed publicly and explicitly. Why has he not reacted himself?

My hypothesis is that he cannot discredit Sogyal publicly, because it would undermine Tibetan Buddhism. Sogyal Rinpoche has managed to make himself indispensable in the Tibetan community.

Q: When did you start to have doubts?

I stayed all these years despite my reservations, because I hoped  Rigpa would be able to share profound wisdom with the greatest number of people, which would benefit society as a whole. But it became more and more difficult to invite people to his teachings, because his behaviour became impossible at times — pretentious, even in public. I had begun to write my first book, to illustrate how authentic Buddhist wisdom can be open to the world, adapted to the west, and conforming to humanist ideals.

Beginning with the article in “Marianne,” I felt the tension ratchet up a notch within the Rigpa leadership. All the secrecy and manipulation of information weighed heavily on me. I had come for teachings on humility, love, truth, and trust, and I found myself in a quasi-Stalinist environment and permanent double-talk. His dictatorial side and anger worsened and I was increasingly disturbed by it. He did not hesitate to brutally silence and ridicule people in meetings. Critical thinking is prohibited around him — the door is locked. Negative feedback never reaches him — only praise is reported because people in the close circle are afraid of him. It can make him angry or he would humiliate those close to him. He can also be friendly and full of humour if everything conforms to his wishes.

In the summer of 2014, during a retreat for the older students I made my decision to leave because I saw through him clearly — I saw his falsity. He demanded abundant offerings, specifically in cash, in front of 800 students. Each had to write their name on the envelope, so that he could check the amount.

There is also increasing control over regular students. They are made to feel guilty if they do not come to retreats. There is a lot of pressure — the Rigpa computer database identifies participants in retreats, practices, past meetings, etc. If a student does not attend, it must be justified – if a student leaves in the middle of a teaching, someone has to find them and ask why. This has driven a lot of people away.

Q: What is your assessment of that experience which lasted twenty-eight years?

The fact is that my spiritual education happened through him. Even though he didn’t write The Tibetan book of Living and Dying, he was it’s driving force. It is a very good book, it has helped thousands of people, even if it does contain some elements of Tibetan superstition.

I do not dismiss these years because I have studied, practised and shared meditation, the teaching of the spirit of compassion, the basis for Buddhist philosophy —  impermanence and interdependence. That’s why I asked Sogyal Rinpoche to write the preface for my first book. But for the last few years, he has insisted on more and more religiosity and absolute devotion to the master. Authentic Buddhism is wisdom, founded on experience and reflection, as explained frequently by the Dalai Lama, who embodies exemplary Buddhism.

Today, I have left behind the abusive or traditional aspects which are not adapted to our times. I participate in spreading a secular wisdom for the west in a collaborative and egalitarian manner, without gurus or magic charms, where everyone strives to embody what he preaches. I am finally at peace with myself.

Interview by Élodie Emery
English translation and edited in March 2016

¹ Bouddhisme : l’imposture Sogyal Rinpoché

A comment to Tsem Tulku’s post, “The 14th Dalai Lama’s prayer to Dorje Shugden”

Retain your reverence and admiration for the person, but subject the writing to thorough critical analysis. – A Tibetan saying

Someone sent me a link to a post by Tsem Tulku, The 14th Dalai Lama’s prayer to Dorje Shugden. I wrote a comment to the post because it is based on so many misunderstandings. I was thinking a comment could help Tsem Tulku and his students, NKT or ex-NKT followers, as well as Shugden pas who seem too cling too much to a literal interpretation of the teachings to reconsider, broaden or differentiate their understanding. I copy and paste the comment below. I made also some small corrections. The whole comment to Tsem Tulku’s post is based on a reply I wrote in December 2006 to NKT editors on Wikipedia.

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Dear Tsem Tulku,
someone sent me the link to this post and I feel compelled to respond to it. Please forgive me if it hurts your feelings. This is not my intention. My intention is to correct the underlying misunderstandings of the post and to give the discussion a broader and saner perspective.

I think you make it too hard for yourself and others (you mislead yourself and others) by assuming that all the masters – including HH the Dalai Lama – are totally enlightened (omniscient) and therefore can’t make errors. This is typical Tibetan Dharma propaganda and there is no proof whatsoever for such claims. By claiming totally enlightened status for the Dalai Lama or your lineage lamas you ascribe to them an infallibility they highly likely didn’t possess. These recognised Tulkus or high lamas are most often mainly highly gifted people with immense good karma and dedication to Dharma practice, their lineages and sentient beings. Of course they have also certain high realisations but this doesn’t make them free of errors. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is very clear about this and he openly admits his own errors as the great Indian Pandit Atisha has admitted openly his own errors. Similar to as Atisha rejected the false view on emptiness by his most precious guru, Serlingpa, His Holiness the Dalai Lama rejects the false view on Shugden by one of his his most precious gurus, Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche. It would be good to become more realistic and to see masters as sentient beings who can make also errors otherwise you make one knot after the other in your and your students’ minds and nobody is really helped by claims that don’t match reality or that distort reality and confuse the mind.

TsemTulkuRinpoche

It would be a first step to reality to accept that masters can err. That’s why also Je Tsongkhapa wrote in his commentary on the tantric vows that if your master gives an “improper and irreligious command” don’t follow it. Tsongkhapa quotes the Vinaya Sutra: “If someone suggests something which is not consistent with the Dharma, avoid it.” Also the writings on Sutra and Tantra by Tsongkhapa make clear that tantric masters can err and can even go astray. A student must be able to see such faults and to respond wisely to it. By claiming in the literal sense total enlightened status to the gurus you construe them to be unfailing and you go against the scriptures and what past masters like Atisha or Tsongkhapa did. Tsongkhapa distanced himself from Ven. Rendawa’s Madhyamaka view and he rejected Rendawa’s view that the Kalachakra is not authentic. When Atisha was criticised by his most important master, Serlingpa, about his Madhyamaka view, Atisha answered to Serlingpa (who followed Chittamatra school): Whatever you say: I will not give up my view and the more you talk about your Chittamatra view the more clearly I see that my Madhyamaka view is correct. – To see your master as totally enlightened is a tantric training and is not meant to be understood in the literal sense. As you can see the most important Lamas of the Gelug school, Atisha and Tsongkhapa, found faults in their teachers’ views.

If you have really respect for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, why don’t you read his comments and think about their meanings? For instance in his commentary about the Heart Sutra, The Essence of the Heart Sutra: The Dalai Lama’s Heart of Wisdom, His Holiness gives the following interesting perspective which is worthwhile to reflect:

DEFINITIVE VERSUS PROVISIONAL INTERPRETATIONS

HeartSutraEarlier we observed that one of the principal features of the Buddha’s teachings is that they were spoken to accord with the varying spiritual and mental needs and dispositions of the listeners. The tenets of the various schools can similarly be viewed as fulfilling these diverse needs. We have just seen how the Mind-only School distinguishes definitive from provisional teachings, and in fact each school has its own criteria for determining whether a teaching of the Buddha is definitive or provisional. In each case, the process is similar: first, one uses analysis to determine the Buddha’s ultimate intention in making a particular statement; second, one determines the Buddha’s contextual rationale for making a particular statement; and third, one demonstrates the logical inconsistency, if any, that arises when the particular statement is taken literally. The need for such an approach is found in the Buddha’s own sutras. There is a verse in which Buddha urges his followers to take his words as they might accept from a jeweler a metal that appears to be gold: only after seeing that the metal does not tarnish when burned, can be easily cut, and can be polished to a bright shine should the metal be accepted as gold. Thus, the Buddha gives us his permission to critically examine even his own teachings. Buddha suggests we make a thorough inquiry into the truth of his words and verify them for ourselves, and only then “accept them, but not out of reverenced”. Taking direction from statements such as these, ancient Indian monastic universities, such as Nalanda, developed a tradition whereby students would critically subject their own teachers’ scholastic work to analysis. Such critical analysis was seen in no way to go against the great admiration and reverence the students had for their teachers. The famous Indian master Vasubandhu, for example, had a disciple known as Vimuktisena, who was said to excel Vasubandhu in his understanding of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras. He questioned Vasubandhu’s Mind-only interpretation and instead developed his own understanding of the sutras in accord with the Middle Way School. An example of this in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition is Alak Damchoe Tsang, who was one of the disciples of the great nineteenth-century Nyingma master Ju Mipham. Although Alak Damchoe Tsang had tremendous admiration and reverence for his teacher, he voiced his objections to some of Miphams writings. Once a student of Alak Damchoe Tsang is said to have asked if it was appropriate to critically object to the writings of his own teacher. Alak Damchoe Tsang’s immediate response was, “If one’s great teacher says things that are not correct, one must take even ones lama to task!” There is a Tibetan saying, “Retain your reverence and admiration for the person, but subject the writing to thorough critical analysis.” This demonstrates a healthy attitude and illustrates the Buddhist tradition known as the approach of the four reliances:

Do not rely merely on the person, but on the words;
Do not rely merely on the words, but on their meaning;
Do not rely merely on the provisional meaning, but on the definitive meaning; and
Do not rely merely on intellectual understanding, but on direct experience.

As I said already, this is in line with what Atisha and Tsongkhapa did: they corrected the views of their own beloved teachers and corrected errors and misunderstandings.

However Atisha was nevertheless grateful to Serlingpa and honoured him as his most important master. Similarly His Holiness has still deepest respect for Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche. He said this and also demonstrated his deep respect different times. He has also explicit auspicious dreams of Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche which indicate his deeply felt devotion.

There are other examples were masters corrected or refuted or rejected the views of their masters, His Holiness the Dalai Lama states:

Therefore, Arya Vimuktisena, whose teacher was Vasubhandu, saw that Vasubhandu’s manner of explanation of the Abhisamayalankara had been more affected by his own personal bias towards a particular position than being a true reflection of the author’s ultimate intent. He therefore composed a commentary refuting that view, displacing it with a Madhyamaka interpretation. Now was this a case of a corruption of the spiritual guide – disciple relationship on Arya Vimuktisena’s part or of him showing disrespect for Vasubhandu? It was neither of these things.

Then we could look at accounts of the relationship between Jowo Je Atisha and his teacher Serlingpa. Serlingpa was the teacher who Atisha himself accredited as the one who helped him most in his quest to generate bodhicitta. In this area, he was like his root Lama. Despite this, on the philosophical level they were at variance. Serlingpa held the Cittamatra view. Accounts have it that Serlingpa congratulated Atisha for his practise of bodhicitta, whilst informing him that as far as his philosophical view was concerned he was incorrect. Atisha said though that Serlingpa’s instructions only served to boost his confidence in the correctness of the middle way view.

Likewise, we have the case of Dharmakirti. Vasubhandu had many students, one of whom was Dignaga. He was said to have been the one who surpassed even his own master in terms of his understanding of Pramana. Dignaga then had a disciple called Ishvarasena. He in turn had Dharmakirti as a student. Dharmakirti heard explanation of Dignaga’s Pramanasamuccaya text from Ishvarasena, but rejected Ishvarasena’s interpretation. He then incorporated Ishvarasena’s views as the objects of attack in sections of his Pramanavarttika. Thus, when it comes to helping to clarify the doctrine, creating, and rectifying mistakes, even one’s own teacher may come under criticism. One can see it in terms of one’s teacher having given certain instructions directed at a few specific individuals (when there is a need to give a different message). Whilst this might generally work though, it would be difficult to square in the above-mentioned case of Vasubhandu. At least in the way that Haribhadra has put it, it sounds as though it was Vasubhandu’s own bias (as opposed to consideration of any particular disciple) that led him to interpret things in the way that he did. Anyway, whether the original reasons for certain interpretations were due to individual students, other considerations or plain misunderstanding, it may prove necessary for later individuals to clarify things. Rectifying, clarifying and the like are generally accepted approaches for the learned and completely in step with the correct general approach to the teachings. This is way to proceed and help to guard against decline. (see Gelug Conference)

Another example you’ll find here:

Based on his realization, Tsongkhapa revised completely the understanding of the Prasangika-Madhyamaka teachings on voidness and related topics that the teachers and learned masters of his day had held. In this regard, he was a radical reformer with the courage to go beyond current beliefs when he found them inadequate.

Tsongkhapa always based his reforms strictly on logic and scriptural references. When he established his own view as the deepest meaning of the great Indian texts, he was not committing a breach of his close bond and relationship with his teachers. Seeing our spiritual teachers as Buddhas does not mean that we can not go beyond them in our realizations. Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche II explained this with the following example.

To make a cake, we need to put together many ingredients – flour, butter, milk, eggs, and so on. Our teachers show us how to make a cake and bake a few for us. They may be very delicious and we may enjoy them greatly. Due to our teachers’ kindness, we now know how to make a cake. This does not mean that we cannot make some changes, add some different ingredients, and bake cakes that are even more delicious than those our teachers made. In doing so, we are not being disrespectful toward our teachers. If the teachers are really qualified, they will rejoice in our improvement on the recipe and enjoy the new cakes with us. (see A Short Biography of Tsongkhapa by Dr. Alex Berzin)

(Just as a note: the incarnation of your master Kyabje Zong Rinpoche does NOT practice Shugden and he has abandoned that practice.)

I wish you and your students all the best,
TP

Who needs facts when we have the Internet?

Guest Post by Sandy Clarke

Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal. There are those who do not realise that one day we all must die. But those who do realise this settle their quarrels. – The Dhammapada

So bizarre do I find the notion that I’m behind the ‘Indy Hack’ persona that I struggle to know where to begin in presenting this guest blog. I’m grateful to Tenzin Peljor for providing me the opportunity to offer some of my thoughts on the issue, and to give insights into my brief experiences with Tsem Rinpoche and his Kechara organisation.

From the outset, I wish to say that I’m reluctant to write about either issue: as some on both sides of the argument will know all too well, there are always enough people to fuel the fire. Progress towards an amiable conclusion is a rare gem to be found as controversial discussions evolve and heels are dug deeper into the ground. I’m also keen to avoid dishing out unnecessary criticism. My thoughts here reflect my experiences, and in no way attempt to define any organisation or person in their entirety. I don’t say this out of any fear of retribution or criticism; rather, I say it simply because I don’t know enough to make such judgements or assessments.

Recently, I was mentioned in a (now deleted) tweet by someone who asserted that I was Indy Hack. Prior to this tweet, I had never heard of the Indy Hack persona. According to the Indy Hack Twitter account, the person(s) is apparently from the UK and a journalist, but that’s where the similarities end with regard to the tenuous linking of us both by people who seem eager to jump to wayward conclusions.

Needless to say I don’t know of any affiliations Indy Hack may or may not have to Buddhist organisations or individuals, but some have offered up the idea that I work for Tsem Rinpoche and am attempting to smear the Dalai Lama and his supporters in relation to the Shugden controversy. As someone who tries his best to practice Buddhist principles, it seems to me rather un-Buddhist to smear or be aggressive towards anyone – I can’t imagine any circumstance which would lead me to be a part of – let alone run – such a campaign.

Further, I have very little idea of what the Shugden controversy is, and have even less interest in finding out more beyond what I do know. From my experience as a political journalist, I’m all too aware that debates, in which views and feelings are deep-rooted, rarely come to a conclusion in a short while: an extra voice is often a hindrance more than a help. Suffice it to say, my knowledge of the Shugden issue is negligible. I can no more explain the basics of the matter than I can Quantum Theory.

It’s true that I was, for between two-to-three years, assisting Kechara with some writing and editing work on a freelance basis. I randomly discovered Tsem Rinpoche around seven years ago while watching some videos on Tibetan Buddhism on YouTube and I was, as many others have been, intrigued by his character and charisma, and so I got in touch to see if I could offer my services in any way.

It’s also true that I became captivated by Tsem Rinpoche and his organisation, despite thinking at the time that I was too clever to be caught up in such nonsense. I even wrote embarrassingly gushing and saccharine tributes to Tsem Rinpoche (to save you the hassle of looking, one letter can be found here and a verse can be viewed here). These are examples of how easy it is to get caught up in a romanticised ideal, rather than producing anything of worth based on rational thought and reason. I don’t make any comment on Tsem Rinpoche’s character here – I merely admit a foolishness that can arise from being enthralled by a rose-tinted interpretation of personality.

I disassociated myself from Kechara after a few concerns became one too many. To a degree, I remained sceptical throughout, finding the ritualistic, superstitious aspects of the organisation a bit too fantastical for my tastes. I also disagreed with the “one lama one centre” policy that discouraged associates to seek teachings elsewhere.

There were two occasions that bolstered my decision to disassociate myself from Kechara. On the first occasion, I was told a story by an e-Division member that a disciple of Tsem Rinpoche’s was told to sell 108 Tsongkhapa statues in order to get rid of some heavy karma. She apparently failed to meet this target and died of cancer some months later.

On the second occasion, a personal assistant to Tsem Rinpoche at the time advised me that I could have my karma cleansed by monks during a special ceremony at Ganden monastery … for the small sum of £1500. Even as someone who was captivated by the teachings of Tsem Rinpoche, this leapt out along with the story about the student as being, quite frankly, bonkers. It was at this point that I realised Kechara was definitely not the place for me.

There are other incidents that gave rise to concern, but I trust these examples give a flavour of why I came to have my reservations. The organisation certainly seemed to be keen on welcoming new people into the fold. I was sent a box of gifts to my home in Scotland (including a statue of Tsongkhapa, with whom I apparently (paraphrase) “shared a strong affinity”), and a number of the Kechara members were extremely friendly and welcoming. There was lots of talk of “bringing people into the Dharma” which, although I found strange considering the Buddha seems to have discouraged evangelism, I dismissed at the time as being par for the course at Kechara. I was quite happy to help with the transcription, editing, and writing of publication material (for which I was paid), but I wouldn’t say I ever felt part of the Kechara organisation to the extent others clearly were.

The last correspondence I had with Tsem Rinpoche was via Facebook. We had what I thought to be an engaging debate on vegetarianism in relation to animal suffering. As in the famous Kalama sutra, Buddha strongly encouraged free inquiry and the questioning of scriptures, assumptions and even teachers. As Kechara members leapt to the defence of Tsem Rinpoche (as though he needed it), I was asked who I was to question his views, or comment on the Buddha’s teachings when I am nowhere near the same level of attainment. It’s perhaps at this point the last of my naivety in relation to Kechara fell away.

This last communication was around five years ago. I haven’t been in touch with Tsem Rinpoche since then, nor have I had any dealings with Kechara except for one email I received out the blue recently, offering me freelance work. I politely declined. It would appear that some people have been keeping tabs on what I’ve been up to (which feels weird), and so perhaps my work with a management consultancy firm in KL, Malaysia inspired the idea that I’d be keen to make a reconnection. Needless to say, I have no desire to do so.

I’ve been told – though I’ve been unable to verify as yet – that there may have been posts published recently relating to Tsem Rinpoche, written in my name. If such posts exist, critical or otherwise, for the record, I haven’t written anything for or about Tsem Rinpoche or Kechara since my last communication with him five years ago, nor do I intend to write anything along those lines in future.

I also noticed that a commentator on Tenzin Peljor’s blog appears to have suggested that a member of Kechara’s e-Division has offered rumours implying that I am behind the Indy Hack persona (though I appreciate I may have misinterpreted the comment). However, if it is the case, I have no idea why anyone would spread such a rumour, and would be disappointed to think it started from a Buddhist organisation. Again, it could easily be that I’ve completely misinterpreted the comment.

That I found myself to be involved in a weak conspiracy theory left me bemused; that the person(s) behind Indy Hack has caused some people some grief is upsetting, though I suppose he or she would argue that the people they’re “exposing” are the ones causing the grief. I have contacted one other person besides Tenzin Peljor with regard to this issue, namely Carol McQuire – both of whom I found after reading through a couple of blog posts, and tweets from the Indy Hack account. The reason I point this out is to, hopefully, avoid any assertions that I am, in fact, in the Dalai Lama’s employ, or that of MI5 or Mossad or whoever – my life is much too mundane to be part of some spiritual vigilantism, misguided or otherwise. I’ve perhaps inadvertently written a controversial line on politics, HR or business, but that’s as far as it goes.

For the past five years, I have been inspired by and attempting to follow Theravada Buddhism, discovering that the teachings of Ajahn Mun and Ajahn Chah resonate most with my understanding and appreciation of Buddhism. After my dealings with Kechara, I decided to take the revolutionary step of actually reading the teachings of the Buddha, to take my lead from the source. It can be, in my experience, easy to forget that even the most charismatic modern-day spiritual teachers are flawed beings. To accept any idea without question is silly – to accept everything without question is to actively engage in serfdom.

On a person note, I find it sad that there is so much politics within what is supposed to be a religion of peaceful spiritual practice. It seems easy enough to read verses of, say, The Dhammapada, but much more difficult to heed its advice and warnings. Online aggression and bullying – regardless of where it comes from – is entirely disheartening, and doubly so when much of it is carried out anonymously. It’s sad to see that we’ve reached the point where we forget there are people on the other side, with stories, thoughts, feelings and emotions just like ourselves. Were it not for his equanimity and wisdom, I suspect the Buddha would feel like banging his head against the wall, given that we so often we miss the point of his teachings.

I’d like to thank Tenzin Peljor once again for providing me with a platform to express these thoughts. I don’t intend to write any further on the subject, and I apologise to anyone who may have been offended by anything I have written. As I mentioned earlier, my thoughts are based on the limited experience I have had with Kechara, and I stress again that I don’t know nearly enough about the organisation, Tsem Rinpoche, or the Indy Hack persona to make a bona fide judgement. I’m able only to share some of the experiences I’ve had, and why I disassociated myself from the organisation.

On a final note, perhaps an idea for us all to consider is to check the facts before reaching what we feel to be substantial conclusions. There have been, again on both sides, some ugly, needless criticisms levied at individuals – this isn’t the ideal way to behave, though I should thank the person who said all I brought to the table was an NUJ membership, bad poetry and banalities – a good lesson on ego was provided! A slight correction is in order though: I no longer bring an NUJ membership to the table.

Tibet’s top religious leaders condemn Shugden worshippers’ anti-Dalai Lama tirade

On June 20, 2015, Tibet’s top religious figures – the heads of the five schools of Tibetan Buddhism¹ and Tibet’s Bon tradition – have condemned those among the controversial Shugden (Dolgyal) worshippers who make “false allegations” and continue a “hate campaign” against the Dalai Lama. They made their position clear at the conclusion of the 12th Religious Conference of the Four Schools of Tibetan Buddhism and Bon Tradition held at Dharamshala, India, over Jun 18-20.

2015-06-21-longlife-G14

The press release from the CTA web site (20th June 2015) states:

The 12th Religious Conference of the Four Schools of Tibetan Buddhism and Bon Tradition strongly condemn the false allegations and the continued hate campaign carried out by the Dolgyal cult group against His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama is a global icon, known for his immense contribution towards world peace and particularly for his service in the promotion of Tibetan Buddhism and culture.

We are deeply grateful and appreciate His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s concern for the Tibetan people and Buddhists worldwide, and for truthfully explaining the harmful effects of propitiating Dolgyal.

Therefore, we, the participants of the 12th Religious Conference of the Four Schools of Tibetan Buddhism and Bon Tradition, under the leadership of our respective spiritual heads, wholeheartedly pledge to follow His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s advice and urge others to do the same.

The Tibetan Review reports that

The conference reviewed the resolutions passed in the previous conferences and discussed ways to develop Buddhist learning, co-ordination with other Buddhist nations, organising introductory Buddhist teachings, and developing the capability of the monks and scholars of the different schools of Tibetan Buddhism and Bon tradition.

In his address to the conference on its concluding day, the Dalai Lama spoke about the importance of secular ethics and the need to do analytical study of the Buddhist texts so as to be able to get at the essence of the Buddha’s teachings and thereby gain real benefits from them.

More than 66 representatives from 58 monasteries and Buddhist institutes, including the Gaden Tripa Rizong Rinpoche, the Sakya Trizin, the Karmapa Rinpoche, the Menri Trizin, the Shabdrung Rinpoche, the Drukchen Rinpoche’s Representative Khenpo Tenzin and the Taklung Tsetrul Rinpoche’s representative Kathok Gezey Rinpoche attended the conference, as did representatives from the Jonang tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, said the exile Tibetan administration at Dharamshala on its Tibet.net website Jun 20.

See also

More Statements

¹ Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, Jonang & Gelug.

² The translation is made by Shugden followers. The usage of English terms which should represent the meaning of the Tibetan is often not very precise and suggestes an ideological bias. For a detailed account about Shugden based on academic research see: Dorje Shugden / Dolgyal – Untangling a Complex Issue by Tenzin Peljor / Wikipedia

Bringing the Nalanda Tradition to the West: Reflections and Challenges

Dharma Studies in the West: The FPMT Master’s Program

Since the time of the Buddha, approximately 2,500 years ago, the Buddhist teachings have been transmitted in an uninterrupted lineage, eventually reaching Tibet and flourishing there for more than 1,200 years. In recent years, as Buddhism has come to the West, there has been a steady rise in interest among Western students of Buddhism in deepening their understanding of the philosophical teachings that form the foundation of Tibetan Buddhism, as well as a wish from the side of Tibetan teachers and scholars to develop study programs to meet these needs. A number of highly respected academic institutions have programs focusing on Tibetan Buddhist religion, culture, and philosophy, but it is a fairly recent phenomenon that Western Dharma centers have attempted to develop serious, in-depth programs for the study of the great philosophical treatises of the Indian and Tibetan masters. One of the most ambitious of these programs has been the FPMT’s Master’s Program in Buddhist Studies,[1] which was initially conceived by Lama Thubten Yeshe, and further developed and taught by Geshe Jampa Gyatso. The Master’s Program (or MP) is aimed at training both lay and ordained Western students in the classical philosophical treatises (known as the “great texts”) and the practice of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. The program involves six to seven years of study, and is supplemented by one year of meditation in order for the students to integrate their learning and practice. I graduated from the first full-length program in 2004 and, since 2008, I have served as an online tutor for the most recent program, which just recently concluded.[2] This experience has led me to reflect at length on the challenges involved in developing advanced Buddhist study programs in the West, and I would like to share some of my thoughts on how we might begin to address these challenges.

The MP curriculum is similar to that of the Geshe programs in major Gelug Tibetan monasteries, although it is completed in a much shorter period—obtaining a Geshe degree would normally take from fifteen to twenty years in a Tibetan monastery. This difference in itself presents a huge challenge: how to condense such a vast amount of material into a program that is less than half the length of the traditional course of study. However, we should not make the mistake of assuming that those entering the program are lacking in knowledge or study skills when compared with their Tibetan counterparts: most MP students have already done many years of study before entering the program, many having earned various levels of university degrees, and thus have a wide range of knowledge of different fields, including science, humanities, business, and philosophy. Clearly, such students may begin with little formal Buddhist knowledge, but it would be unwise to underestimate the value of the intellectual and scholarly skills they have acquired in other fields. At this juncture, when the ancient teachings of Buddhism have really begun to penetrate into the fabric of societies that are not traditionally Buddhist and interact with Western fields of thought—philosophy, cognitive science, psychology, just to begin with—we need to think seriously about how an advanced program of Buddhist studies may look in the future.

A central concern in designing and implementing such a study program is how to continue the transmission of traditional Buddhist teachings while bringing them into a modern, Western context and making them relevant to our own times and cultures, without sacrificing their essence and integrity. We need to reflect on how study of these texts can enrich understanding and practice of the Dharma, without their becoming seen as a canon that is beyond question and automatically accepted as infallible. In other words, we should not abandon the spirit of rational and scientific inquiry that forms the basis of modern Western thought, and we should seek ways to harmonize this with our study of Buddhism. This development can only occur when we approach the teachings with a balance of critical analysis and respect, having faith in the teachings without being afraid to challenge and understand them in new ways.

The Nalanda Tradition: Balancing Faith and Reasoning

His Holiness the Dalai Lama often refers to the basis of Tibetan Buddhism as the “Nalanda Tradition,” emphasizing the direct connection between the Tibetan Buddhist tradition with the work of the great scholars of Nalanda University, the ancient Indian Buddhist institution that produced some of Buddhism’s greatest scholar-practitioners, including Nagarjuna, Chandrakirti, Vasubandhu, and Dharmakirti. A central aspect of the Nalanda Tradition is an emphasis on approaching the Buddhist teachings not just through faith and devotion, but also through rigorous critical inquiry. This emphasis on intelligent investigation in Buddhism is illustrated by the analogy, often cited in Buddhist teachings, of a merchant who only buys gold after determining its quality and purity through various tests. All of the Buddha’s teachings emphasize the importance of investigating the Dharma deeply before accepting it. This critical inquiry is precisely what is being pursued in programs such as the Master’s Program.

Developing such programs is a crucial and difficult step in the transmission of the Buddha’s teachings to the West, and one of the most significant difficulties we face is how to successfully present such complex and dense material to people whose cultures, beliefs, and history are fundamentally different from those of a traditional Asian culture, such as Tibet. I have often struggled to find a balance between respect for tradition and honest critical inquiry, how to cultivate stable faith in Dharma while not giving up a healthy level of skepticism. This process of investigation is an indispensable part of our progression towards a more awakened, more compassionate, and wiser state, the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice. However, it is not easy to skillfully balance these various facets of the spiritual path in our lives. Many Western Buddhists, especially those pursuing advanced philosophical studies, come from a perspective that is highly suspicious of orthodoxy or dogma, religious or otherwise. The past few centuries of European and American thought have, after all, elevated the status of rational inquiry far above that of religious piety. On the one hand, Buddhism appeals to this rationality by deeply challenging engrained ideas about success, happiness, material wealth, and even mainstream religion. On the other hand, when we study Buddhism with traditionally trained Tibetan teachers, we often find that the teachings are intertwined with a wide range of cultural assumptions, which do not always fit neatly or comfortably with a strictly rational perspective.

It is useful to look briefly at how Buddhist philosophy has traditionally been studied by Tibetans, and to consider how this contrasts with Western educational methodologies.[3] (I am mainly referring here to the Gelug tradition, which places strong emphasis on scholastic understanding as a basis for spiritual realization.) Historically, in Tibetan culture the study of high-level Buddhist philosophy has been almost exclusively the domain of monks. The Tibetan monastic approach involves many years of memorization, study, and debate of texts that are complex and multi-layered, sometimes incomprehensible without explanations of highly trained masters. The students learn the art of debate from a young age, methodically analyzing a wide range of subjects, beginning with simple phenomena such as colors and shapes and moving on to more complex topics, such as divisions of the mind, advanced logic, and so forth. The debate format is tightly structured and follows strict rules, requiring students to thoroughly memorize the texts and to internalize the rules of debate to the point of their becoming virtually automatic. Without memorizing the texts, it is impossible to get far in a debate. There is no room for guessing or speculation; the respondent must be able to reply with absolute precision, based on what is stated in the text. As their studies progress, they apply their analysis to increasingly subtle topics, such as the four noble truths, emptiness, dependent arising, and the paths to liberation and enlightenment. After gaining a solid foundation in logic, debate, and the overall Buddhist worldview, those seeking to attain the degree of Geshe (a Buddhist monastic academic degree) spend many years studying subjects such as the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajnaparamita), Middle Way (Madhyamaka), valid cognition (Pramana), ethical discipline (Vinaya), and manifest knowledge (Abhidharma). Monks (and now nuns) can obtain one of several types of Geshe degree, the highest level being Geshe Lharampa. Although this approach is most emphasized in the Gelug tradition, the different Tibetan traditions offer variants of the Geshe degree. The deep understanding that one gains from these many years of study and debate becomes the basis for the transformational wisdom that one may later gain from deeper meditation on these subjects.

The curriculum of the Master’s Program as it is presently structured includes three of these five “great texts” and their Tibetan commentaries—Maitreya’s Ornament for Clear Realization (Abhisamayalamkara), Chandrakirti’s Supplement to the “Middle Way” (Madhyamakavatara), and Vasubandhu’s Treasury of Manifest Knowledge (Abhidharmakosha)—as well as the “grounds and paths” of tantra and the Guhyasamaja Tantra (which are normally studied only in specialized tantric universities). Supplementary subjects such as mind and awareness, philosophical tenets, or reviews of the main topics are sometimes taught if time allows. Students take regular exams, and at the end of the program, they review and are examined on all five subjects. In order to receive a completion certificate, they are also required to do one year of retreat, which allows them to integrate the material more deeply. Parallel to the residential course is an online course, with students around the world studying via an e-learning environment, with recorded review lectures, quizzes and exams, and online discussion.

Given the much shorter length of the Master’s Program compared to traditional geshe studies, the MP clearly does not aim to produce “Western geshes,” but to give Western students a complete education in Buddhist studies. However, this format is not without its shortcomings. While students in such a program receive an enormous amount of teachings, and thus a good basis for deepening their studies and practice, relatively little time is dedicated to a deep analysis of the teachings, and formal debate is virtually absent. There are numerous reasons for this, one of the principal ones being the difficulty of translating the highly formalized Tibetan debate method, so deeply based on rote memorization, into a Western context where students have little familiarity with memorization as a learning tool. With this lack of debate, the teachers and tutors of such a program are forced to come up with effective tools for helping students not only to learn, but to master such dense, difficult material. So far, this has been one of the greatest challenges of this program.

I have had the great fortune to study these texts with highly qualified teachers, including my principal teacher Geshe Jampa Gyatso, who helped me to understand that Dharma is not just about knowledge obtained from study, but the skillful integration of this knowledge into our experience, and the transformation of our very way of being. As a tutor for such a program, I have found myself trying to explain Buddhist texts that are often centuries old, with multiple layers of meaning and complex terminology, to students whose culture and worldview differs radically from that which informs these texts. These texts are often obscure and difficult to understand, even for the most erudite lamas and scholars. A Western tutor working with this material may feel obligated to be faithful and respectful to the tradition, on one hand, and wish to make the teachings relevant to students’ lives and spiritual development, on the other—not an easy task. With more general subjects such as the Stages of the Path (lam rim), this is already challenging, but many lam rim subjects are self-explanatory and one has some flexibility in how to present the topics, choosing to emphasize some more than others, offering different interpretations, and so forth. However, with texts as complex as the Abhisamayalamkara or Abhidharmakosha, just to understand the basic meanings of the texts requires extensive study and reflection, and understanding their relevance to practice means taking a huge leap beyond that.

Difficulties for Western Students: Challenging Orthodoxy

Western students of Tibetan Buddhism must wrestle with apparent contradictions between the worldview and didactic methods in our own culture and those that we encounter in traditional Asian Buddhist teachings. The cornerstone of a modern Western education is critical examination of facts from varying points of view, without automatically privileging any one of these points of view as absolutely true. We are taught to value originality and to explore ideas that innovate and challenge orthodoxy. In traditional Buddhist teachings, on the other hand, innovation is often regarded with deep suspicion, and even discouraged. Although we are encouraged to rigorously analyze the teachings before accepting them, this analysis takes place almost entirely within the accepted parameters of the Buddhist worldview, and those propounding new interpretations of the Dharma may be viewed as pariahs, whose straying from accepted explanations might somehow contaminate the teachings—even Tsongkhapa was heavily challenged and criticized for his sometimes radical interpretations of Buddhist teachings.

Despite the strong emphasis on reasoning, it is difficult to escape the weight that the authority of tradition and scripture carries for traditional Buddhists. There are unspoken, but evident, taboos in not accepting certain teachings as infallible truths. Thus we see that when His Holiness the Dalai Lama questions the validity of Abhidharma cosmology or downplays certain aspects of traditional teachings, there is no hesitation in following his lead. However, if a less authoritative teacher or (heaven forbid) a Westerner challenges orthodoxy in the same way, it may even be seen as a degeneration of the purity of the lineage, when in fact such a person is simply following the Buddha’s advice to closely examine the teachings. This can create a sense that one cannot ask honest, critical questions without being judged or criticized; one may begin to feel that one is not a “good Buddhist” if one asks too many questions. We find ourselves in a quandary: our initial sense of skepticism and curiosity, which led us to the apparent tolerance and openness of the Buddhist tradition, now comes to be seen as risky, or even dangerous. However, if we are to develop into mature practitioners of the Buddha’s teachings, we must ask some difficult questions. We may even need to ask what it really means to be “Buddhist.”[4] It would be unusual for Tibetans to question whether or not they are Buddhist—Buddhism is a culture and tradition they are born into and which they, for the most part, readily accept. For Westerners, more investigation is required when one decides to actively engage with Buddhism as a practice and view.

Dharma in the Modern World: Developing New Tools

Let us consider the idea of “transmission” of the Dharma—the Buddha’s teachings—and what that entails. Traditionally, the Buddha’s teachings are divided into the Dharma of scriptures—the texts containing the teachings and commentaries of the Buddha and the lineage masters—and the Dharma of realizations—the internalization of the meanings in these texts, resulting in the final goal: liberation or enlightenment. In reality, these two are intimately related, and both are necessary in order for the Dharma to be effectively and completely transmitted from one culture to another. The transmission of Dharma depends on maintaining an “uninterrupted lineage” of the canonical texts, teachings, and commentaries from qualified masters to their disciples, but just continuing the scriptural transmission is not sufficient, even if done with great faith and diligence, if we do not also transmit the transformative aspect of the teachings, the realizations. A complete transmission of the Dharma is contingent on the development of skillful methods that enable the transmission of these teachings to different cultures, and thus a certain amount of adaptation is unavoidable. This has been the case everywhere that the Dharma has traveled from one culture to another: from India to Tibet, China, Korea, Burma, and other countries that became Buddhist. Now Buddhism has come to the West, in a period in which technological advances have rapidly sped up the availability and exchange of information. Those involved in this exchange must adapt to this reality and utilize a variety of methods in this transmission, not just traditional ones. If we simply mimic the traditional methods of Buddhist study and education without adapting them to their new context, we may well see these sublime teachings, which show us how to develop the greatest human potential, becoming little more than quaint, but largely irrelevant, cultural relics. One of the greatest challenges we face in this process is how to relate Buddhist scholastic practice to the practical, realized aspects of Dharma: cultivation of positive inner qualities such as mindfulness, mental stability, compassion, and wisdom. In Buddhist terms, we need to approach this process with a balance of skillful methods and penetrating wisdom, integrating the insights of the Buddhist tradition with the best of Western pedagogical methods and technology.

When studying the great philosophical texts of Buddhism in a traditional way, students would first memorize the “root text,” and then receive a transmission and detailed commentary on the entire text from start to finish, slowly bringing out the deeper meaning through extensive debate, as mentioned earlier. Without the process of internalization and mastery that occurs through debate, it is difficult for students to identify the essential points in a text that may consist of literally hundreds of lists, definitions, and conflicting assertions from various philosophical points of view. When studying such texts without training in debate, Western students encounter many difficulties in knowing how to “take the essence” of these teachings, and how to put them into practice.

It would be easy to suggest that Western students should simply learn how to debate like Tibetans, but the traditional reliance on memorization brings up many difficulties. We have a strong tendency to suspect or even reject anything resembling dogma or absolutist religious authority. Rote memorization has long been rejected in Western education in favor of developing skills of critical thinking and analysis; originality of thought, rather than repetition of doctrine, is one of the prime objectives of modern education. While a traditionally educated Tibetan student would not have much difficulty accepting that something is true simply because it was stated by the Buddha, Nagarjuna, or Tsongkhapa, a Western-educated student might strongly question the notion of the author’s infallibility. This is not to say that memorization should be rejected outright—it can indeed a very valuable tool for sharpening one’s mental faculties, among other things—but it needs to be supplemented with learning methodologies more familiar to Western students, where one would consider a broader range of viewpoints, even from other traditions or disciplines. We should make use of the many tools we have, not just dismiss them as irrelevant to the study of Buddhism.

We must also remember that while Tibetan monastics often begin their religious studies as children, Western students in programs such as the Master’s Program have already acquired a great deal of knowledge and experience, both through higher education and professional careers. Despite this, it seems that when we approach traditional Dharma studies, we often feel compelled to reject large parts of our “secular” learning, rather than building on it and integrating it with our understanding of Dharma. This only serves to strengthen a false dichotomy between “worldly” knowledge—literature, art, science, philosophy, mathematics, etc.—and “Dharma knowledge,” which concerns questions that somehow transcend this world. I often get the impression that Western Buddhists feel they must ignore the great intellectual, artistic, and spiritual innovations of their own culture—whether they come from Einstein, Jesus, Shakespeare, Picasso, or John Coltrane—in order to be serious Buddhists, rather than appreciating how the insights of great minds, regardless of their culture or religious beliefs, may help to cultivate a broader, deeper understanding of Dharma. Rigidly adhering to such an artificial split contradicts the exemplary openness shown by the Dalai Lama, who has consistently pioneered and encouraged cross-cultural and interdisciplinary dialogues, such as the Mind and Life conferences, and the introduction of scientific education into Tibetan monasteries. He has even appointed an American monk as the abbot of a Tibetan monastery.[5] We would do well to learn from the example of His Holiness, who consistently shows himself to be an innovator in the best sense of the word, as well as being an undisputed master of the subtlest points of Buddhist philosophy and practice and a living example of compassion, kindness, and deep insight. Lama Thubten Yeshe was also a proponent of integrating modern knowledge with Buddhist wisdom: “Today, scientific technology has discovered many things that human beings cannot touch—energy, for example. This development of scientific higher consciousness is beautiful; we can carry it into our meditation. When people who study and practice Dharma examine developments in scientific technology, they can find extraordinary examples that they can use. This understanding of reality is very important.”[6]

Conclusions: The Road Ahead

What can we conclude from all of this? Are we looking at the inevitable degeneration of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, in favor of a dumbed-down Buddhism ready for easy consumption by a public wanting everything to be downloadable as a smartphone app? Not at all. We are looking at an evolution of Buddhism in the West, just as it has evolved in its transmission from India to many other cultures, including Tibet. In order for the Dharma to continue to thrive, and for Dharma education to develop in the West, a few fundamental ingredients are necessary: first, willingness to experiment with the format, and not being obstinately attached to an exclusively traditional approach; second, a clear understanding of the goal of such education: a combination of scholastic depth and experiential application; and third, an approach that builds bridges between the wisdom of Buddhism and of our own cultures, such as science, the humanities, and philosophy, rather than seeing them as contradictory. All of this, of course, needs to be carried out in a way that is balanced and respectful, by teachers who understand the teachings well and have made serious effort to internalize and realize their meanings. My hope is that we will see in the future a proliferation of aspiring bodhisattvas who are able to integrate their intellectual and experiential understanding of the great spiritual insights of the Buddha and the great Indian and Tibetan masters with the thought of Plato and Wittgenstein, quantum theory, neuroscientific research, and expressions of Dharma in literature, art, and poetry, all for the greatest benefit of infinite sentient beings. Why not?

 

Patrick Lambelet
Tutor for the online FPMT Master’s Program
Pomaia, Italy

© Patrick Lambelet
March 23, 2014

Footnotes

[1] Despite being called “Master’s Program,” this program is presently not formally accredited by any university and does not lead to an MA, or Master’s degree.

[2] There was an earlier version of the program, before 1998, but it was not as comprehensive, with regular examinations and certification.

[3] Georges Dreyfus’ book, The Sound of Two Hands Clapping, is an excellent resource for this subject, combining academic research on Tibetan monastic education with reflections drawn from his own experience as a Western Buddhist monk (Dreyfus was the first Westerner to obtain the Geshe Lharampa degree).

[4] Interestingly, the Tibetan word translated as “Buddhist” (nang pa) literally means “insider,” or “practitioner of the inner tradition.” It thus has a broader sense than simply being a follower of the Buddha, unlike, for example, the term “Christian.”

[5]In 2012, His Holiness appointed American monk Nicholas Vreeland as the abbot of Rato Monastery, in India, telling him, “Your special duty is to bridge Tibetan tradition and the Western world.” See Tricycle article (www.tricycle.com), Fall 2012.

[6] Lama Thubten Yeshe, Becoming the Compassion Buddha (2003, Wisdom Publications), p. 44.

See also

 

 

On Shamar Rinpoche’s death and the future of Karmapa

14th Künzig Shamarpa

14th Künzig Shamarpa

Occurring in Germany at a time the Karmapa was touring there, the untimely death of Kunzig Shamarpa inevitably gave rise to some speculations. More important than this coincidence and associated elaborations about karma or even magics is, however, what implications his death has on Tibetan politics at large. Central is that it remixes the cards in a dispute which lasted on the Tibetan exile society for more than two decades and considerably constrained the radius of action of the Karmapa after his arrival in Indian exile, a fourteen years ago. That it happens at a point of time India is entering a new political era makes it potentially even more significant.

Arguably, India’s foreign policy establishment has been since Nehru’s time more inclined to search common ground with China than be supportive of Tibet. To say the least, it certainly did nothing to facilitate the young Karmapa’s life. China itself, though irrevocably recognized Urgyen Thinley Dorje as the rightful Karmapa, did its best to entertain ambiguities around his embarrassing flight, in a move designed to save face in the first place, but that also left the backdoor open for a possible later return. Still, it was Shamar Rinpoche that understood best how to instrumentalise residual China angst and instill deep suspicion among the Indian security community, a community so prone to paranoia that up to the 1990s it rejected infrastructure developments in border areas out of fears they could facilitate a possible Chinese invasion. With that, he could lame the young Karmapa’s movements in India while effectively barring him to travel abroad for many years.

H.H. the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje

H.H. the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje

Shamar Rinpoche certainly was more efficient than China in terms of ‘containing’ the Karmapa. However, despite his opposition to Dharamsala and contrary to others – think Shugden – he never ‘played the China card’ by moving politically closer to Beijing. For one he was practical, not opportunist, but any move in this direction would have ruined the good relationship he entertained with the security establishment in Darjeeling/Kalimpong region anyway.

Despite all his efforts and very supportive followers, Shamar Rinpoche had been losing ground lately, as the visit of the Karmapa to the US and now to Europe demonstrate, and, even more so, the trip of his arch-rival Situ Rinpoche to Malaysia in late 2012. Even the Chinese propaganda apparatus started some months ago to take a more distant and increasingly critical course towards Karmapa. His sudden death, however, likely, sounds the knell of a fully new era for Karmapa.

Shamar Rinpoche’s Karmapa, Trinley Thaye Dorje

Shamar Rinpoche’s Karmapa, Trinley Thaye Dorje

By all his skills and dexterity, there is little indication that Shamar Rinpoche, though well-acquainted with Buddhist notions of impermanence, has taken much of dispositions towards his succession. His strengths were the verve and determination typical of the Khampa chief he was – like some other Tibetan politicians. His power relied on personal charisma and a good knowledge of the terrain. His weakness was his little ability to translate this into durable structures and the lack of trust and confidence necessary to groom an adequate successor. With that, his disappearance leaves a vacuum his entourage will find hard to fill. Even Trinley Thaye Dorje, his protégé he worked two decades to establish as the rightful Karmapa, did not strike so far as a strong personality and in fact never really came out of the shade of his mentor.

Much will now depend on the new Modi administration as well as onModi himself. India’s recently elected PM has already shown a special interest in the Himalayan border regions as well as a keen intent to stand up to China. This could translate into a new, more positive approach to Karmapa, although on the other hand the flag-waving circles who surround are typically more inclined to skepticism towards Karmapa. In any case, Modi already stands under pressure from Indian Buddhists to come out in support of Karmapa, in the first place from Pawan Chamling, the Chief Minister of Sikkim, who was fast in clarifying one more time that he wishes Karmapa to visit Sikkim and reintegrate Rumtek monastery, the seat of the Karmapa school which has been stuck in legal disputes. Even Modi could not single-handidly forestall or override pending court decisions, but he could set a symbol by allowing Karmapa into Sikkim.

China was never keen on a strong Karmapa since he escaped their control. In so far, if Shamar Rinpoche was no ally, he was certainly convenient. Remains the question how China may react now. One thing it could do is encourage the finding of a new Shamarpa incarnation in Tibet and so try to progressively lure the followership of the late Shamar to its side and against Karmapa, although without endorsing Shamar’s choice. But it could also chose more wisely to do nothing and simply wait and see how the two camps sort out their differences, hoping to be able to benefit one more time from in-fightings among Tibetans and perhaps attract one or the other defector.

The article is a slightly revised version of “On Shamar Rinpoche’s death and the future of Karmapa” posted in Tibetsun.
Copyright © 2014 Thierry Dodin

About the author

Thierry Dodin is a Tibetologist linked to the university of Bonn in Germany. From the 1990s on, he was a contributor and later a trustee and the executive director of the Tibet Information Network, London. Since 2005, he has been the founding director of TibetInfoNet.

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Karmapa Controversy

The Dalai Lama Responds to the Protests: Sectarianism and Shugden Worship

With respect to virtue, act in accord with the gurus’ words, but do not act in accord with the gurus’ words with respect to nonvirtue. – Buddha¹

Through taking sides the mind is distressed, Whereby you will never know peace. – Bhavaviveka²

If you are partisan, you will be obstructed by your bias and will not recognize good qualities. Because of this, you will not discover the meaning of good teachings. – Tsongkhapa³

The following extract has been taken from the Dalai Lama’s commentary on Tsonkhapa’s Lamrim Chenmo:

Avoiding the Error of Rejecting Buddha’s Teachings

“Tsong-kha-pa (I: 53-54) identifies the final greatness of the stages of the path approach as its preventing the grave error of rejecting the Buddha’s teachings, rejecting the Dharma. Here, Tsong-kha-pa cites many texts, including the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, where the Buddha states that a practitioner must study, understand and actually practice all aspects of the path. If you really aspire to help many billions of living beings with diverse mental dispositions, then you have to understand and practice many diverse teachings and approaches. This is what prepares you.

“Historically it has been the tradition among Tibetan masters to study and also to practice all the lineages—Sakya, Gagyu, Geluk, Nyingma—and Jonang as well. This is an excellent model. We should adopt a nonsectarian approach, not just studying all of these lineages but also putting their teachings into practice.

“Question: Your Holiness, I feel agitated to see and hear the Shugden protestors outside the building here. How do I help myself? Please address this issue as many are uninformed about this.

“Answer: We have had this problem for 370 years. It started during the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama. And from 1951 until the 1970’s, I myself worshipped this spirit. I used to be one of the practitioners!

“One of my reasons for abandoning Shugden worship is that much of my efforts are directed toward promoting nonsectarianism—especially within Tibetan Buddhism. I always encourage people to receive teachings from the teachers of diverse traditions. This is like the Fifth Dalai Lama and many other great lamas, who received teachings within many traditions.  Since the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, down to today, I have been practicing this way myself.

“A Nyingma teacher, Khunu Lama Rinpoche, initially gave me teachings on Shantideva’s texts. This lama was very nonsectarian, having received innumerable teachings from many different traditions. After this, I wanted to receive from this great lama a certain teaching distinct to the Nyingma tradition. I asked my tutor, Ling Rinpoche, pointing out that I had already received some teachings from this lama, but I now wanted to receive teachings on an important Nyingma tantric text.

“Ling Rinpoche was a little bit cautious about this because of Shugden. He never worshipped the spirit but he was cautious about it. (My other tutor, Trijang Rinpoche, was very close to this spirit practice.) The rumor that was circulating was that if a Geluk lama takes teachings in the Nyingma tradition, Shugden would destroy him. Ling Rinpoche was a bit frightened for me and he really warned me to be careful. The Shugden worshippers have a tradition that one must be extremely strict about one’s own distinctive Geluk tradition.

“Actually, I think this standpoint deprives people of religious freedom, preventing them from taking other teachings. In practice, discouraging a standpoint that deprives people of the freedom to choose is actually an affirmation of religious freedom. A double negation is an affirmation.

“Around 1970, I was reading the life stories of many great lamas, mainly of the Geluk tradition. I had the idea that if Shugden is truly reliable, then most of the great lamas who tutored the Dalai Lamas must have practiced Shugden worship. It turns out that this is not the case. So I developed some doubt and the more I investigated, the clearer it became.

“For example, the Fifth Dalai Lama very explicitly explains his position vis-à-vis the worship of this spirit [Two sources are cited here, from autobiographical works of the Fifth Dalai Lama—see below]. He explains what it is and he explains the causes and conditions that gave rise to it. He describes the destructive functions of this particular spirit. He says that it arose from misguided motivation and that as a spirit it manifests as a violator of a pledge. According to the Fifth Dalai Lama, its function is to harm both the Buddhist doctrine and living beings.

“Once I realized these things, it was my moral responsibility to make the facts clear. Whether you listen to me is entirely up to you as an individual. From the outset, I told both Tibetans and some of our other friends what I had come to understand. They are free to listen to my advice or not. It is an individual right to accept religion or not to accept it. Accepting this religion or that religion is entirely up to the individual.

“My opinion is that Shugden worship is actually not a genuine practice of Dharma; it is simply worship of a worldly spirit. This is another aspect of the problem: from what I have taught, I think you can see that Tibetan Buddhism is a continuation of the pure lineage of the Nalanda tradition, which relies on reasoning, not blind belief. So it is very sad that certain Tibetan practices could cause this profound and rich tradition to become a sort of spirit worship.

“Both the Fifth Dalai Lama and the Thirteenth Dalai Lama were gravely critical toward this spirit. Since I am considered the reincarnation of these Dalai Lamas, it is only logical that my life should follow theirs. One could say that it proves that I am a true reincarnation!

“It seems that these people outside are really fond of worshipping this spirit. OK, it is their life; I have no problem if that is what they want to do. When I taught in Germany a group of Shugden followers shouted for at least three or four hours.  Eventually I felt great concern about how their throats would be affected by so much shouting.” (pp. 24-26)

Footnotes

¹ Buddha in Cloud of Jewels Sutra/ Ratna-megha-sutra, as quoted by Lama Tsongkhapa in Lamrim Chenmo, English translation, p. 82

² Madhyamaka-hrdaya, quoted in Lam Rim Chen Mo by Tsongkhapa

³ Tsongkhapa in Lam Rim Chen Mo

Sources

Dalai Lama, (Translated and edited by Guy Newland); 2012; From Here to Enlightenment: An Introduction to Tsong-kha-pa’s Classic Text, The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment; Snowlion Publications; Boston, MA.

Fifth Dalai Lama, Collected Works, vol. Ha, pp. 423-424, as well as the Fifth’s autobiography.

Tsong-kha-pa, (Translated by The Lamrim Chenmo Translation Committee) 2000; The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment: Lamrim Chenmo; Snowlion Publications, Ithaca, NY.

GUEST POST by Joanne Clark
two quotes from Lam Rim Chen Mo added by tenpel

The NKT/WSS/ISC Campaign Against the Dalai Lama’s ‘Ban’ of Shugden Worship

GUEST POST

… they use the word “ban.” I never use that. – The 14th Dalai Lama¹

Over the past two decades and, more recently during his tour of the US, the International Shugden Community (the latest New Kadampa Traditionfront organization‘ and its political wing) have protested against the Dalai Lama’s decision to ‘ban’ the worship of the gyalpo Shugden.

When asked to provide explicit evidence of such a ban, supporters of the deity frequently point to the following statement, purportedly from the Dalai Lama, which appears at YouTube (see 2:53 onwards):

I began this ban to continue the Fifth Dalai Lama’s legacy, I started this by myself and I have to continue, and carry it to the end.

The word “ban” has Western, ecclesiastic connotations and refers to a practice whereby a Church authority can prohibit any member of the congregation or denomination from doing something on pain of excommunication from the Church.

The YouTube video the NKT/ISC claim as ‘evidence’ that the Dalai Lama used that word—and thus invoked their demand for redress—uses clips from a  speech in Tibetan by the Dalai Lama to Tibetan monks. The  text of the English translation and voice-over are supplied by supporters of the deity and it is they who use the word ‘ban’.

In fact, as any Tibetan speaker will confirm, the Dalai Lama uses a Tibetan word translatable as ‘disapprove’, or even stronger, ‘condemnation’, in the sense of to ‘consider it unworthy of doing’ in the video. The Shugden devotees however translate this as “ban,” in their subtitles, clearly with the deceptive intent that English speaking persons, opponents, neutrals and even their own followers, will assume that the Dalai Lama actually said it [which he did not], and  thus invoke horrifying images of the Catholicism of the Inquisition, with its connotations of burning at the stake, direct descent into hell, and so forth.

This is not the first instance of such cynical  manipulation of the truth. In 2010, Shugden devotees (this time in the guise of ‘The Dorjee Shugden Devotees’ Charitable and Religious Society-the Indian office of the ISC, with close links to Chinese Government officials) went to the High Court in Delhi with allegations of ‘violence and harassment’. When the issue was not resolved in their favour, it was claimed that the Court had been ‘unable to reach a conclusive decision’.

Examining Court documents however, we learn that the case was actually thrown out of Court, even before the proceedings commenced, with the presiding judge stating that ‘the allegations of violence and harassment were ‘vague averments’ and that the raised issues ‘do not partake of any public law character and therefore are not justiciable in proceedings under Article 226 of the Constitution.’

Citing the ‘absence of any specific instances of any such attacks’ on Shugden practitioners, the Court noted the counter affidavit submitted by the respondents,referring to ‘an understanding reached whereby it was left to the monks to decide whether they would want to be associated with the practices of Dorjee Shugden.’ (ie the practice had not been ‘banned’)

Closing the doors on the possibility of similar complaints in the future, Justice Muralidhar concluded that the ‘matters of religion and the differences among groups concerning propitiation of religion, cannot be adjudicated upon by a High Court in exercise of its writ jurisdiction.’ (See http://info-buddhism.com/tibet.net-Delhi_High_Court_Dismisses_Dorjee_Shugden_Devotees_Charges.pdf)

It is difficult to understand how this can be construed as the Court being ‘unable to reach a conclusive decision’. Indeed the decision to close the doors on similar complaints in the future, because the allegations were ‘vague’ and there was an ‘absence of any specific instances of any such attacks’ seems quite final. One can only assume that, as with the translation of the term ‘ban’ in the YouTube video, the decision to publicly misconstrue the truth was a cynical propagandist manipulation of fact in order to provide ‘evidence’ to support the ongoing divisive activities of Shugden devotees in the East and West.

Yeshe Dorje

¹ see The Dalai Lama on Sectarianism, Religious Freedom and the Shugden Issue, spoken during a teaching in Madison, Wisconsin, 2008

line-gothic

Update July 10, 2014

See also

Academic Research about Shugden

Overview about Shugden

  • Dorje Shugden – An overview article mainly based on academic papers

Dorje Shugden and Wikipedia

UPDATE Oct 04, 2014

The Dalai Lama on Sectarianism, Religious Freedom and the Shugden Issue

So in fact, restricting a form of practice that restricts others’ religious freedom is actually a protection of religious freedom. So in other words, negation of a negation is an affirmation.

Spoken During a Teaching in Madison, Wisconsin, 2008

This particular spirit, called Shugden … start[ed] during Fifth Dalai Lama, so now over 370 years. Since fifth Dalai Lama, almost I think, 300 years, this spirit, this deity, [has] always remain[ed] very very controversial. Only last 70 years, after 13th Dalai Lama’s death, then this spirit became more prominent in some area, in Lhasa area. That also, I think, almost like reaction to 13th Dalai Lama’s restriction.

… Since ’51 to early ’70, I myself [was] also a sincere worshipper of this spirit. I made [a] great mistake with [the] Dalai Lama’s name to worship this, due to my junior tutor. So eventually, I notice[d] this [was] something wrong, as a result of reading the autobiography of the fifth Dalai Lama and then many reliable, well known Gelugpa masters’ biographies. Then it became clear, this is wrong. This is evil spirit. So, Fifth Dalai Lama {translator}“clearly wrote and identified this spirit to be a spirit that has arisen on the basis of a distorted aspiration and its nature is that of destructive[ness] and its consequence is also harmful to the Buddha dharma and sentient beings in general.

So therefore, eventually I noticed that and then I dropped my practice. And then eventually [I] made [this] known to those monasteries , to those scholars or monks. Then they also [were] fully convinced because [there were] sufficient reasons or facts there. And 13th Dalai Lama also put restrictions.

Then [there are several reasons that] I feel [this]. Number one: Tibetan Buddhism [is] Nalanda tradition, such a profound tradition … Some Tibetans now not only [worship] this deity, but also some [other] spirits—Tibetans sometimes [put] too much emphasis on the importance of these spirits, rather than Buddha—or Nagarjuna—that’s a disgrace. So there’s real danger, such profound Nalanda tradition eventually degenerate [and] become something [like] spirit worship. It is [a] pity. Number one.

Of course, we can offer [to] those local spirit[s], or something like [asking] someone, please do some help, like that, then ok. But worship, or something very important, it is totally a mistake. {Translator} “In fact, the 13th Dalai Lama has actually made this statement to Gyabje Phabonkha Rinpoche, very clearly that if someone worships Shugden with such devotion, there is a danger that it could conflict with one’s precepts of taking refuge in the Three Jewels.”

So that is one factor, one reason. Second reason [is] I think part of [the] first reason … The second reason is: As you know, I [am] fully committed [to] non-sectarian principle. As fifth Dalai Lama and Second Dalai Lama, First Dalai Lama, Third Dalai Lama, all these previous masters, previous Dalai Lamas, as well as many great masters from all sects, Gelug, Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, Chonang, and many sects, many great masters, well known masters, [follow] according to non-sectarian principle. So worshipper of this spirit, they are very sectarian …

So therefore, I [am] fully committed to [the] promotion of nonsectarian principle. So therefore, this Shugden spirit—There are reliable stories [which] mention, according to my Junior tutor’s verbal accounts, [that] some of the Gelugpa lamas, as well as high officials, who practice Nyingma tradition, because of that, this deity destroyed [them], killed [them]. It’s recorded. About 13 cases mentioned in that story. So very sectarian.

So therefore, these two reasons. Then third, because the fifth Dalai Lama consider this [to be an] evil spirit, I have the name of 14th Dalai Lama, so therefore, I have to follow the principle of previous Dalai Lamas, fifth Dalai Lama and 13th Dalai Lama. So, I am trying to follow their example.

Then … religious freedom. Now here, firstly, spirit worship is not, I think, genuine religious practice. Certainly, this is not genuine Buddhist religion. But aside [from that], … now, my own story. In late 60’s, as I mentioned … this morning, 1967, I received teaching [from] Shantideva’s book from late Khunu Lama Rinpoche. Then, [I] received many other teachings from him, very rare teachings, which [were] not available from my two tutors.

Then later, I developed one desire to receive some text according to Nyingma tradition. I asked Ling Rinpoche, my senior tutor, [that] I have that kind of desire to receive one important Nyingma text, that I very much want to receive oral transmission from late Khunu Lama Rinpoche. {Translator} “Guhyagarbha Tantra”. Then, although Ling Rinpoche himself was very cautious about this spirit [Shugden], … he also you see, heard that if Gelugpa lama touch Nyingma tradition, then this spirit will harm them. So Ling Rinpoche [was] a little cautious. Then, [he] advised me, “Be cautious, not good [to] receive Nyingma tradition from him.”

Although I already [had] received many texts, many teachings from [Khunu Lama Rinpoche] already, but [about receiving] this particular Nyingma text, Ling Rinpoche [was] very very cautious. So then I stopped. {Translator} “So at that time, it seems I did not get my own religious freedom.”

Because [of] fear, exaggerated fear, I lost genuine religious freedom. Because I dropped this practice, then I got religious freedom. I received teachings from Nyingma tradition, from Sakya tradition, from Kagyu tradition, from various reliable lamas, I received teachings. Now, I think I can say, with a little pride, I think I have some knowledge of all these traditions. So it is very useful.

Another sort of sad story. In the late 60s, one old Kuno (?) monk, I think age around—I still remember his face—age around 60, like that. Physically also quite small. He came to see me and ask me for some Nyingma teachings. Then I [had] no knowledge of that teaching. So I asked him, “That subject I do not know. Please go to Varanasi or Bodhgaya”– and Khunu Lama Rinpoche still alive, so—“approach Khunu Lama Rinpoche and ask him. I have no [knowledge about] that teaching.”

So later, I found, “Oh I’m Buddhist.” {Translator} “For example, the Buddha states in the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra that the bodhisattva should cultivate the knowledge of all the paths, the paths of the disciples, the paths of the self-enlightened ones and the paths of the bodhisattvas. So the bodhisattvas may be able to fulfill the needs of all people who aspire for teachings that are appropriate to their own mental faculties.”

So at that time, I really felt very sad … I failed to fulfill the wishes of that poor monk. Still I feel like that.

Now today, suppose that person come, then I proudly explain …

So also, past Tibetan history. Unnecessary conflict in the name of religion also happen, frankly speaking. Sometimes we call Sarma—“So sometimes when two monasteries clash with each other, it’s called the yellow war.” Very sad. Really sad.

Actually, after 13th Dalai Lama passed away, due to this deity, this spirit, some small Nyingma monastery or temple in some cases actually destroyed—because of the sectarian conflict. These things I later came to know. So therefore, religious freedom: {Translator} “So in fact, restricting a form of practice that restricts others’ religious freedom is actually a protection of religious freedom. So in other words, negation of a negation is an affirmation.”

So, now some of their accusations, including Chinese officials also accuse me—the Dalai Lama … sort of violated religious freedom because of Shugden worshipper. Now Chinese officially accuse me. So therefore, they use the word “ban.” I never use that. I am fully committed about freedom of speech, freedom of expression. So, right from the beginning, I made it very clear. It is my moral responsibility to make clear what is wrong, what is right. But whether listen or not, it’s up to them, [up to each] individual. I have no power to impose.

So I am happy these people enjoy their freedom of speech, freedom of expression, very good. So the other day, in Germany, [during] my recent visit, again a group [of protestors] shouting. I hear their voice, particularly one lady’s, I think one nun maybe, so quite strong. So I think at least three or four hours shouting. Then I got real sort of worry, “oh her throat may suffer.”

Madison, Wisconsin, July, 2008

See also

Academic Research about Shugden

Overview about Shugden

  • Dorje Shugden – An overview article mainly based on academic papers

Dorje Shugden and Wikipedia

Women monastics are indispensible

We need to understand that the situation now with Bhikshunis is an important issue. Some people think that there have been some foreign nuns who’ve come over and started making an issue out of it and it’s only then that the Bhikshuni issue has become an important question, and that before it wasn’t important. But that is absolutely not the case. The fact that it was not an important issue for us before is our fault. It’s our problem, and it’s us not living up to our own responsibility. And this is for monks and nuns both—we have both let this slide, so it is all of our responsibility. – HH the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje

There is a teaching by HH the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, during the 1st Arya Kshema Nuns’ Gathering – Why Bhikshuni Ordination is Important:

You find it a written summery here:

H.H. the 17th Karmapa will come to Germany and Berlin from the 28 May to the 9th June 2014. Details here.

More about Bhikshuni Ordination

Interview with the Dalai Lama about ethics in the teacher-student relationship & Two papers about mindfulness

Since 2002 I collect information about the teacher student relationship in the context of Tibetan Buddhism and try to get information about approaches if one has taken on a misleading guru, or a guru who abuses his or her students.

Recently we had a brief discussion about this topic in the Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa in Italy in the context of our tantra studies. After this discussion a Bhikshuni sent two files to the students, one contained an interview with HH the Dalai Lama about this topic in 1993 and the other file contained an interview with Geshe Sönam Rinchen about “Guru devotion”. Both texts have not been available online by now.

I asked the Bhikshuni if I could post the interview with HH the Dalai Lama on my website, and she clarified the copyrights/editor permission and just some minutes ago I posted it. I think in this interview with HH the Dalai Lama, he gives clear, very good and straight forward advice what to do if Gurus misbehave or abuse their students:

… if someone is supposed to propagate the Dharma and their behavior is harmful, it is our responsibility to criticize this with a good motivation. This is constructive criticism, and you do not need to feel uncomfortable doing it. In “The Twenty Verses on the Bodhisattvas’ Vows,” it says that there is no fault in whatever action you engage in with pure motivation. Buddhist teachers who abuse sex, power, money, alcohol, or drugs, and who, when faced with legitimate complaints from their own students, do not correct their behavior, should be criticized openly and by name. This may embarrass them and cause them to regret and stop their abusive behavior. Exposing the negative allows space for the positive side to increase. When publicizing such misconduct, it should be made clear that such teachers have disregarded the Buddha’s advice. However, when making public the ethical misconduct of a Buddhist teacher, it is only fair to mention their good qualities as well.

For more read:

We had also some discussion on the blog and in Italy during our study review of the Abhidharmakosha about mindfulness and its modern use e.g. within the context of MBSR (Jon Kabat-Zinn), Psychology etc. There are two excellent papers by Georges Dreyfus and Jay Garfield that discuss this topic in detail, showing that modern interpretations of mindfulness do not really touch its deeper meaning as meant in Buddhist practice – which doesn’t mean that modern interpretations of mindfulness and practice don’t have an impact on the practitioners or don’t have a value. However, there is a danger to water down the more profound and deeper meanings of mindfulness as it is meant within Buddhism and as it is crucial to really transform the mind and not just to find some relaxation in stressful times. If you are interested, enjoy to read these two papers:

The Buddha’s Forgotten Nuns – A New Documentary

To see the full video ($3,99) click here. For a brief background click here.

Present-day Missionary Activity in Tibet

Recently I introduced briefly the topic of Christian missionaries in Tibet on this blog. The papers by Bray and Engelhardt I recommended in that post deal mainly with the history of missionaries in Tibet before the PRC’s violent take over of Tibet. Based on the recommendation by a scientist I got aware of an article by Prof. Robert Barnett from Columbia University about present-day missionary activity in Tibet. Robbie Barnett kindly gave permission to post now for a broader public his article:

This article gives a good feeling how evangelical missionaries perceive Tibet, how they think about Tibetan Buddhism and themselves, and it shows how a very narrowed angle of thinking colours everything such a mind perceives. It also shows that many of the negative images of Tibet are based on such a type of thinking. Here some examples:

“a nation long steeped in demonism and Tibetan Buddhism, called Lamaism, a nation in desperate need of sharing the Truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ …”. In its literature it describes sky burials and the use of “rancid smelling yak butter” as examples of how “Satan has enslaved the people”.

Illustration-from-Tibetan-Catechism3

Illustration from Tibetan Catechism by Edward Amundsen, Christian Tract and Book Society, Calcutta 1906. p.2.

While the Tibetans welcomed Jesus Christ as a Bodhisattva, missionaries were also faced with the fact, that although Tibetans embraced Jesus as a Bodhisattva, they weren’t really willing to give up all the other Bodhisattvas in order to exclusively embrace Jesus as the only Bodhisattva. Barnett writes:

As a result, evangelists in the past often reported that it was easy to persuade Tibetans to accept Jesus as a spiritual master, but difficult to get them to renounce all the other Bodhisattvas. Even The Sowers Ministry appears to have anticipated this problem, and their leaflet notes with concern that to Tibetan Buddhists, “Jesus is seen as an incarnate principle of enlightenment rather than [as] the unique Son of God.”

There is also an extended background note by Barnett available as a PDF, Evangelicals in Central Tibet: Background Notes, in which you can find more interesting details:

The group expresses sympathy for the deaths of thousands of Tibetans at the hands of the Chinese, and the resulting exodus of many Tibetans in 1959. It comments on this, “In the midst of all this terror one wonders if the Tibetans question the ability of the Dalai Lama to save them.” It also criticises the Dalai Lama for his ecumenical approach to religion and for saying “belief in God does not matter so much”.

I hope you find this information useful.

The following two newspaper articles from 2013 about present-day missionaries in Tibet are also based on the expertise of Barnett. Robbie Barnett is a frequently quoted Tibet expert at the Columbia University in New York who worked in the past as a researcher and journalist based in the United Kingdom, specializing in Tibetan issues for the BBC, the South China Morning Post, VOA, and other media outlets. In the 1980s he founded and ran an independent London-based research organization covering events in Tibet.

Christian Missionaries in Tibet: Between Tolerance and Dogmatism

Recently I stumbled upon a discussion about Christian missionaries in Tibet. The person was very insistent that Tibetans were extremely intolerant to Christian missionaries, that Tibetans had killed and expelled Christian missionaries, and that the missionaries only found with China a good ally for their work.

I wondered how this can be, because what I read so far showed rather benevolence and also a remarkable tolerance of Tibetans for Christians and Muslims or people of other faiths. So I asked the person what sources he has. He recommended Tom Grunfeld, quoting “the clergy began to assert itself, demonstrating a growing overt resentment to the few Christian missionaries in Lhasa (their movement were restricted) and to the handful of converts, who were subject to arrest and flogging.” Source: The Making of Modern Tibet, p. 45, and he recommended Charles Bell. But whatever I read from Charles Bell so far showed rather generosity and tolerance at the side of Tibetans for others’ religion. Bell remarked in his Portrait of the XIIIth Dalai Lama, that the Tibetans were happy about any person having a religion because they were convinced this makes human beings better persons. According to Bell, Tibetans were rather suspicious to non-religious people.

The person who insisted on the intolerance of Tibetans towards other religions quoted Bell from Tibet Past and Present, p. 264: “Tibetans are opposed to Christian missionaries preaching religion in Tibet. This opposition, which is determined and of long standing, has been further intensified by recent events in eastern Tibet.” and added “It was the Chinese who protected the missionaries, read the next paragraph, without this protection the missionaries would have been harassed and even killed.”

Ok, maybe I was wrong but I doubted the man because he was so utter hostile against Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama. To use Tom Grunfeld as a reliable source, I learned already, one should be careful. I observed myself that Grunfeld is often quoted by people like Colin Goldner who have an anti-religious, anti-Dalai Lama, and a pro-China agenda. (see also  A Lie Repeated – The Far Left’s Flawed History of Tibet by Joshua Michael Schrei). The Wikipedia “Serfdom in Tibet controversy” states about Grunfeld:

A. Tom Grunfeld, who based his writings on the work of British explorers of the region, in particular Sir Charles Bell. It has been argued that his book is not supported by traditional Tibetan, Chinese, or Indian histories, that it contains inaccuracies and distortions,[20][27] and that Grunfeld’s extracts from Bell were taken out of context to mislead readers.[29] Grunfeld is a polarizing figure for the Chinese, who praise his work, his scholarship, and his integrity; and the Tibetans, who match this praise with condemnation,[30] calling him a “sinologist” who lacks authority on Tibetan history due to his inability to read Tibetan and his not having been to Tibet before writing his book.[17]

To improve – and if needed to correct – my understanding about Tibetans’ tolerance for other religions – which I also observed by so many great lamas, some who even inspired to put Jesus, God, and Maria etc. in the Buddhist visualized ‘merit field’, I tried to find accepted academic research. So I asked some researchers by email what sources I could read or use. I got some papers and read them.

As so often, the issue is by far more complex than narrow-minded critics with an agenda suggest. Indeed, the Tibetans were incredible tolerant – compared with the Christian missionaries but also compared to the standards of their time; indeed, some missionaries had been killed – but rather in the unrest border regions where they were sometimes involved in border quarrels and other political issues or where they became the victims of robbers; indeed, at the end Tibet closed more or less their doors for Christian missionaries; but all of the events are also quite different from what the person who made me initially aware of this topic suggested.

If you are interested, I can recommend two academic papers that are online since today. One of them gives a good external background of the Christian missionary work in Tibet, published in 2011:

The other paper I can recommend seems to be the only academic paper that uses also extensively Tibetan sources instead of relying mainly on the missionaries’ sources – which are much coloured by the Christian missionaries’ own bias and believes. The paper by Isrun Engelhardt shows how Tibetans were thinking about and treating the missionaries. It quotes the Tibetans’ own records and thoughts about the Christian missionaries. Engelhardt gives a very vivid picture of the social-cultural and the political dynamics that changed the mind of the Tibetans with respect to the Christian missionaries, whom them initially allowed to even to celebrate mass within Sera monastery. This paper focuses on the Italian Capuchin Missionaries in Lhasa, 1707-1745:

Last and least, the account of the French missionary Evariste Régis Huc puts a bit the claim that only “Chinese … protected the missionaries” into perspective. Evariste Régis Huc’s Travel report is a first hand account, coloured by his own beliefs and prejudices, yet, it is pleasant to read and very interesting:

Update: 21st Century Christian Missionaries in Tibet

  Last edited by tenpel on May 29, 2013 at 11:15 am

Use Common Sense: Khandro Rinpoche about Sexual Abuse by Buddhist Teachers in the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition

The book “Dakini Power – Twelve Extraordinary Women Shaping the Transmission of Tibetan Buddhism in the West” by Michaela Haas (PhD) offers advice by Her Eminence Jetsünma Khandro Rinpoche with respect to sexual abuse as reported by Westerners and Easterners alike within the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition. I think her thoughts are very helpful for the debate of this topic. While Westerners tend to point the finger to the perpetrator and his deeds, Easterners tend to point the finger to the victim, reminding him or her to use common sense and not to allow others to exert power over oneself. In this way the victim is empowered to act instead of being passive and allowing others to take advantage of oneself.

It can be argued about the benefits and faults of both approaches. Although it could be argued that the teacher has more responsibility and more power than the student since it is hard to control teachers with respect to their ethical behaviour it might be wiser to empower the student to reject sexual harassment and to reject by all means to allow others to take sexual advantage of oneself. Of course in the case of a rape the police would be the right address to go.

Here an extract of the book, pages 34–37, as Food for Thoughts:

Refuge and Rape

Venturing into the West also triggered a different stance to Khandro Rinpoche’s early feminist approach. “It wasn’t the discrimination from the men but the naivete of the women that struck me. How much we are responsible—are we going to be so awestruck, so insecure, so indecisive, so emotional that we throw out all logic?”

Traveling in the West, she was shocked to hear repeated accounts of sexual abuse. She reached a turning point when giving teachings in Germany, where a woman in the audience was in tears. When Khandro Rinpoche investigated, the woman blurted out she had been raped. “By a Buddhist teacher.” At a refuge ceremony the teacher had told her to come later to the swimming pool, alone, naked. “Did you go?” Khandro Rinpoche asked. “Yes. I went,” the woman responded. In recalling the story, Khandro Rinpoche shakes her head and asks. “What happens to common sense?”

An initial impulse might be to blame the teacher who had the audac­ity to misuse the sacred refuge vow for taking advantage of a trusting. naive student. Yet Khandro Rinpoche does not take the route of blame. I have never heard her speak out in public against male teachers who abuse their position with sexual advances on admiring students. “She probably knows that ranting and raving doesn’t change this,” her stu­dent Rita Gross says.

“I speak about it very openly with my nuns and my Western students,” Khandro Rinpoche emphasises. “There are issues we have to address honestly, directly, while keeping in mind both sides of the story. Sometimes there is abuse, sometimes there is an abuse of the abuse. Making a big stance on it is always very tricky, because people can misunderstand the context. Hearing about it may create unnecessary confusion that may lead a person away from the dharma. it is a very discouraging topic.”

No Shortcut to Enlightenment

Now we are in blustery terrain. Sexuality is a precarious, easily misunderstood topic in the Vajrayana. Unlike other Buddhist traditions that tread on the safer path of renunciation, Vajrayana embraces sexuality as a powerful means of transforming neuroses. Of course, this risky business comes with the heightened danger that charlatans might employ it as a pretense for indulging in their passions. A number of abuse allegations have rattled the Buddhist communities both in the East and West. Conventional standards of appropriate behavior are routinely waived for high-ranking teachers who are regarded as the embodiment of Buddha’s brilliance, thus sanctioning even unconventional actions as enlightened deeds.

In the context of Vajrayana then, how would Khandro Rinpoche define sexual misconduct?

Her answer is clear-cut: “Study the Vinaya!” Though the Vinaya is traditionally the codex for the ordained, Khandro Rinpoche insists that it is crucial study material for lay people as well. “It provides a very strict and clear code of conduct, what is allowed and not allowed. If you study it, you can identify when someone manipulates and misuses the teachings, and then students can ask questions. There is a lot of goodness in questioning. If it does not make sense, question it! When we find careless ethical conduct, we need to ask, why is this happening?”

Breaking monastic vows obviously constitutes a serious offense for ordained teachers, but how can we define sexual misconduct for teachers who have not taken vows?

“Every teacher has at least taken the lay vows and the bodhisattva vows.” Khandro Rinpoche retorts. “Apart from the obvious misconduct of using force, taking advantage of your own position and the naivete of a student is abuse and very painful to see. Abuse is when there is pretense, conceit, or lying. Pretending someone has more realization than they actually have and thus misleading the student is very, very harmful. There is no shortcut to enlightenment,” she states, “and anyone who offers one should be treated with suspicion.”

Yet, I probe once again, how can a student, especially a beginner, judge whether a teacher is truly realized or just bluffing with charisma?

Khandro Rinpoche acknowledges that “the Buddhist teachings give a lot of freedom for each individual, so we cannot really enforce one statement for everybody, we have to look at the situation.” Again, sherefers to her father’s advice. Whenever she spoke with him [H.H. Mindrolling Trichen Rinpoche, the former head of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism] about the topic, “he always said, the solution is education. When you educate people well, you are giving them the tools to make their own decisions.” Khandro Rinpoche has adopted that credo for herself: “There is nothing that education cannot change.” Rinpoche’s father also suggested keeping dharma centers small in number in order to build relationships deeply rooted in mutual trust. “He said anytime you go into places where you don’t know everybody by name, then you are not able to train them properly.”

More about the Teacher-Student-Relationship

Spiritual Teacher and Sexual Abuse / Sexual Exploitation

See also

Related Discussion on this Blog

A brief Review of the New Kadampa Tradition Chapter in: “Spiritual and Visionary Communities: Out to Save the World”

Former members of the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), as well as spiritual seekers might be in a better position after reading Carol McQuire’s chapter about her experiences within NKT in:

because they can now base their discrimination and judgement on a more informed perspective.

It is the first academically reliable writing published from a former NKT follower’s point of view addressing issues such as the controversial NKT ordination and the commitment required from members. You might be able to read most of the text on Google-Books but to be fair to the publisher, editor and authors, I would like to encourage and recommend buying the book. It’s not very expensive (£17.99).

Academic research about the New Kadampa Tradition (especially that of the Open University by Prof. Robert Bluck and Dr. Helen Waterhouse) has been – for my taste – quite superficial so far. Robert Bluck (PDF) for instance tried to balance the criticism which was described by Dr. David Kay (PDF) by means of interviewing current members of the New Kadampa Tradition, and they – of course – rejected all criticism and toed the party line of the organisation. From McQuire’s insider-report on NKT one gets to know that “We should never talk to the press or to academic researchers. Only senior teachers could do this, by appointment …” (McQuire: 75). Using this insider-information provided by McQuire and putting it into another context, the interviews of NKT followers which Bluck made for his research on NKT, it becomes clear that Bluck only relied on well chosen people from the NKT establishment. Because no new voice of any former member of NKT is quoted by Bluck, Bluck seems to have missed interviewing former NKT members (or NKT critics) to at least balance the official NKT point of view of his interviewees. Subsequently – for instance – with respect to one of the many criticisms (or allegations) summarized in Kay’s research Bluck states (p. 147) :

More controversially, Bunting (1996b: 26; 1996c: 9) claimed that monastics changed out of their robes to sign for state benefits, residents financed NKT centre mortgages with their housing benefit, some members were pressurized into donating money through covenants or loans and the movement had acquired large properties including ‘several stately homes’. Waterhouse (1997: 144) reported properties being bought and renovated as local centres, with set board and lodging fees for residents who were often on state benefits, and she questioned whether those on the Teacher Training Programme were genuinely available for work.

All such accusations of wrongdoing were vigorously denied by interviewees, who explained that using housing benefit to support mortgages is wholly legitimate and that monastics often have part-time work and may wear ordinary clothes if this is more convenient (Namgyal, 2004). While smaller centres may struggle financially, donations were always voluntary. Manjushri’s large community and popular courses make it financially secure, a few people are sponsored because of their NKT work but others are on ‘extended working visits’ or work locally, and some are legitimately on employment benefit (Belither, 2004). However, while individual rule-bending has never been sanctioned, it may sometimes have been knowingly ignored, at least in the past.

However, for those who were deeply involved and committed to NKT it is obvious that Belither presented a skilful distortion of the facts to Bluck. And Bluck himself was obviously content with this statement, not going deeper into the issue. It is a major strategy within NKT to stretch the commitment of members to work full time for the organisation. Based on the pressure and dynamics of the organisation, many monastics had often no choice except to give up their paid work and receive state benefits which is then used to pay their rent to NKT – if they live in a NKT centre – and to pay the NKT study programmes, NKT festivals etc., and this money pays back the mortgages of castles and big, representative buildings. By this means NKT has acquired a considerable amount of expensive assets. Since this strategy is an integral part of NKT expansion one finds also in McQuire’s insider-report –  a “story similar to that of many others” (McQuire: 82) – in-between the lines (and there are many such points which are in-between the lines):

I wanted to live in an NKT residential community in Britain to deepen my practice and find support like that I had received from the Sangha, the NKT Buddhist community, in Mexico, I stopped training as a counselor and from 1998 to 2006 I lived within or very near an NKT centre with my children, depending entirely on British government social security benefits. I joined the Teacher Training Programme (TTP) and then, to  fulfill my intention to promote these teachings for the rest of my life, requested ordination …

As a result of this lack of questioning the official NKT characterisations, Bluck’s and Waterhouse’s research does not penetrate the issues in many ways and remains superficial – at least for my taste. The example given here is just one of many that can be given that can demonstrate that research published before McQuire’s account has often been superficial. The same non-challenging or non-questioning of NKT’s official point of view can be found also in Danial Cozort’s paper on NKT*. To give briefly another example, I would like to use one point I found in Waterhouse’s “Buddhism in Bath”*. There Waterhouse claims that the NKT ordination is a Getsul (skt. sramanerika) ordination. This is first of all not correct but more important, the implications of the change of how the Vinaya (monastic code for monks and nuns) is understood within NKT has grave, far reaching consequences for the spiritual life of NKT ordainees which have not been analysed at all so far by academic research. Again, McQuire goes into details with this too. There one learns for instance (p. 72/73):

Unlike in the Tibetan tradition, there was no ceremony for disrobing, no “clean break”. Those who disrobed had to stay away for a year and could never teach in the NKT again. Leaving was seen as shameful and a person who left would rarely be mentioned. It was said that disrobing would make our “bad karma” ripen as “hellish” experiences. We were told we were following a “special, new” ordination that “nobody has done before” but even though our ordination was different, we looked like Tibetan monks and nuns.

It was told the robes “tend to lend authority to ordained teachers” and soon after my ordination I began teaching. The first time I taught, enthusiastic, I heard voices in my head during the teaching saying ‘Who do you think you are?’ and criticizing me for teaching when I knew nothing! Upset, I stopped teaching even though Geshe-Ia said that teachers who get “discouraged” are “foolish”. A year later, my ‘Heart Jewel’ practice was stronger so I began again. Teaching was considered our main practice for “promoting the tradition”, a “heart commitment” of Shugden practice, along with regarding Shugden as inseparable from our Tantric practice deity and our Guru. We needed to become “qualified spiritual guides” as soon as possible; one NKT teacher would be “more important” to Geshe-Ia than “the hundred [students] who become Buddhas”. Being qualified didn’t mean passing our exams, that wasn’t necessary; it meant “relying on the Guru” through ‘Heart Jewel’ and then teaching others the NKT texts.

The latter passage of this is already picking up another controversial issue, the qualification of NKT teachers … and in this way almost every passage or even sentence or phrase by McQuire sheds some new light from an insider-perspective on the complex internal functioning of a totally closed, self-referential group, where only one voice is accepted as the highest authority, and the impact it has on an individual.

The chapter by McQuire opens up and invites a deeper investigation into the mechanics and life within NKT and it offers insights as to why there is such an increasing number of former members who have started to speak up, reporting the experience of considerable damage from the organisation. (see e.g. New Kadampa Survivor Forum).

INFORM, based at the London School of Economics, and an independent charity that was founded in 1988 by Professor Eileen Barker with the support of the British Home Office and the mainstream Churches, has published this collection of essays under Ashgate publishing. In recent years this research institution – upon whose expertise the UK government and UK journalists, as well as international and national researchers rely – had more inquiries about the New Kadampa Tradition than about The Church of Scientology (see for instance Annual Reports 2010 (PDF), 2011 (PDF) or this summary). I can only assume that INFORM  saw a need to offer this insider report. As the New Kadampa Tradition had successfully stopped different critical academic publications by threatening to sue the author or publisher, this is the first academic publication that passed unnoticed into the public realm offering a critical insider account. I would like to thank Carol McQuire, Prof. Timothy Miller, INFORM, and Ashgate publishing for their effort and courage.

At the moment I lack time to write a detailed review of the chapter by McQuire in “Spiritual and Visionary Communities: Out to Save the World”. Also, I would prefer an established researcher to write a peer-review but as yet this has not happened. That’s why, meanwhile, I would like to offer a review by Andrew Durling – who is also a former NKT follower who just recently left NKT – which he posted on Amazon. He kindly agreed that it can be posted here on the blog too:

I must admit to being biased about this book: I have personal experience of INFORM, the independent charity that collects and disseminates accurate, balanced and up-to-date information about minority religious and spiritual movements, and which has organised the bringing together of the collection of essays that constitutes this book. I have had reason to be very grateful for the balanced, sensitive help and advice INFORM gave me when I experienced the trauma of becoming involved in a bitter dispute within the New Kadampa Tradition, one of the movements written about in this book. The subtitle of this book – Out to Save the World – indicates what is common to all the intentional communities that feature in this book, these communities being just a small sample of the many thousands of such communities around the world. These communities originally start off with the best of intentions, in this case the intention to help save the world in some way. But so often these communities, because they involve some radical experimentation or innovation in communal living, or represent a radical break with a spiritual tradition, or cultural norm, have crises and disputes to deal with which threaten their very existence. How these communities deal with these crises determines, amongst other things, whether the original intention of these communities survives or changes significantly, sometimes so much so that it becomes unrecognisable to the community’s original founders or members. These communities, when they function harmoniously, often help their members to experience the height of spiritual inspiration, even ecstasy, in ways not available in the ‘normal’ world, sometimes creating the feeling of having been ‘saved’ and thereby empowered to help save others. But when they go wrong, the fall-out can be toxic to all involved, especially given the deep emotional, financial and social investment members of these communities often have to make in order to gain entry to them, or at least feel like they belong within them. Exit from these communities, voluntary or enforced, is often deeply traumatic and destabilising for both the people leaving and for some of those left behind.

I will only mention one essay in this book, the chapter written by Carol McQuire about her time as a Buddhist nun within the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), which is deeply controversial within the world of Buddhism generally. I, like Carol, was once a devout member of the NKT and I was deeply moved by Carol’s searing honesty about her experiences, and about her complex and evolving feelings towards the teachers, teachings and organisational practices of the NKT both during her time as a nun and after her traumatic exit from the NKT. I could relate to many of her experiences and feelings and recognised how difficult it is to retain one’s idealism and devotion in the midst of turbulent, confusing and often disturbing change within an organisation like the NKT, which tries so hard to preserve what it perceives to be a ‘pure’ Buddhism whilst at the same time trying to put clear blue water between itself and the rest of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition that it originally evolved from and which often itself criticises the NKT as being less than a ‘pure’ Buddhist sangha. Carol’s essay was somewhat cathartic for me and helped me with my present journey towards understanding and integrating my past within the NKT. I suspect many of the other essays in the book will serve a similar function for others who have had contact with either the NKT or the other intentional communities explored in this book.

All the essays in this book are meticulously backed up with copious footnotes and references to academic research and documentary material, and the introductory overview by Timothy Miller of the broad history of intentional communities is extremely useful in putting the essays that follow into context. The stories in this book are about powerful, often bizarre, always deeply felt experiences by real life people within the intentional communities they belonged to, and show a side of spiritual life that very rarely makes the headlines, especially as many communities have fraught relationships with the media and society in general, sometimes preferring not to engage openly with them at all, in order to maintain their ‘purity’ or so as to maintain their freedom to operate in the way they wish to, or simply because they despair of ever getting the wider world to understand or accept them. This book is an invaluable contribution to the study of intentional communities and their often fraught histories, complex social relationships and organisational psychologies. It is also very readable and compelling into the bargain. Truth is often stranger than fiction and this book certainly illustrates that.

* For a detailed list of academic research about the New Kadampa Tradition see

  Last edited by tenpel on June 10, 2015

The Guru-Disciple Relationship – Advice by HH the Dalai Lama

In “Healing Anger – The power of patience from a Buddhist perspective” pub. Snow Lion, USA 1997, pp 83-85, H.H. the Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, states:

Q: What do you think about Dharma teachers who speak and write about Dharma beautifully, but do not live it?

A: Because Buddha knew of this potential consequence, he was very strict in prescribing the qualities that are necessary for a person to be qualified as a teacher. Nowadays, it seems, this is a serious issue. First on the teacher’s side: the person who gives some teaching, or gives talks on Dharma must have really trained, learned, and studied. Then, since the subject is not history or literature, but rather a spiritual one, the teacher must gain some experience. Then when that person talks about a religious subject with some experience, it carries some weight. Otherwise, it is not so effective. Therefore, the person who begins to talk to others about the Dharma must realize the responsibility, must be prepared. That is very important. Because of this importance, Lama Tsongkhapa, when he describes the qualifications that are necessary for an individual to become a teacher, quotes from Maitreya’s Ornament of Scriptures, in which Maitreya lists most of the key qualifications that are necessary on the part of the teacher, such as that the teacher must be disciplined, at peace with himself, compassionate, and so on. At the conclusion, Lama Tsongkhapa sums up by stating that those who wish to seek a spiritual teacher must first of all be aware of what the qualifications are that one should look for in a teacher. Then, with that knowledge, seek a teacher. Similarly, those who wish to seek students and become teachers must not only be aware of these conditions, but also judge themselves to see whether they possess these qualities, and if not, work towards possessing them. Therefore, from the teachers’ side, they also must realize the great responsibility involved. If some individual, deep down, is really seeking money, then I think it is much better to seek money through other means. So if the deep intention is a different purpose, I think this is very unfortunate. Such an act is actually giving proof to the Communist accusation that religion is an instrument for exploitation. This is very sad.

Buddha himself was aware of this potential for abuse. He therefore categorically stated that one should not live a way of life which is acquired through five wrong means of livelihood. One of them is being deceptive and flattering toward one’s benefactor in order to get maximal benefit.

Now, on the students’ side, they also have responsibility. First, you should not accept the teacher blindly. This is very important. You see, you can learn Dharma from someone you accept not necessarily as a guru, but rather as a spiritual friend. Consider that person until you know him or her very well, until you gain full confidence and can say, “Now, he or she can be my guru.” Until that confidence develops, treat that person as a spiritual friend. Then study and learn from him or her. You also can learn through books, and as time goes by, there are more books available. So I think this is better.

Here I would like to mention a point which I raised as early as thirty years ago about a particular aspect of the guru-disciple relationship. As we have seen with Shantideva’s text Guide to the Bodhisatva’s Way of Life, we find that in a particular context certain lines of thought are very much emphasized, and unless you see the argument in its proper context there is a great potential for misunderstanding. Similarly, in the guru-disciple relationship, because your guru plays such an important role in serving as the source of inspiration, blessing, transmission, and so on, tremendous emphasis is placed on maintaining proper reliance upon and a proper relationship with one’s guru. In the texts describing these practices we find a particular expression, which is, “May I be able to develop respect for the guru, devotion to the guru, which would allow me to see his or her every action as pure.”

I stated as early as thirty years ago that this is a dangerous concept. There is a tremendous potential for abuse in this idea of trying to see all the behaviours of the guru as pure, of seeing everything the guru does as enlightened. I have stated that this is like a poison. To some Tibetans, that sentence may seem a little bit extreme. However, it seems now, as time goes by, that my warning has become something quite relevant. Anyway, that is my own conviction and attitude, but I base the observation that this is a potentially poisonous idea on Buddha’s own words. For instance, in the Vinaya teachings, which are the scriptures that outline Buddha’s ethics and monastic discipline, where a relationship toward one’s guru is very important, Buddha states that although you will have to accord respect to your guru, if the guru happens to give you instructions which contradict the Dharma, then you must reject them.

There are also very explicit statements in the sutras, in which Buddha states that any instructions given by the guru that accord with the general Dharma path should be followed, and any instructions given by the guru that do not accord with the general approach of the Dharma should be discarded.

It is in the practice of Highest Yoga Tantra of Vajrayana Buddhism where the guru-disciple relationship assumes great importance. For instance, in Highest Yoga Tantra we have practices like guru yoga, a whole yoga dedicated toward one’s relation to the guru. However, even in Highest Yoga Tantra we find statements which tell us that any instructions given by the guru which do not accord with Dharma cannot be followed. You should explain to the guru the reasons why you can’t comply with them, but you should not follow the instructions just because the guru said so. What we find here is that we are not instructed to say, “Okay, whatever you say, I will do it,” but rather we are instructed to use our intelligence and judgment and reject instructions which are not in accord with Dharma.

However we do find, if we read the history of Buddhism, that there were examples of single-pointed guru devotion by masters such as Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa, and Milarepa which may seem a little extreme. But we find that while these masters, on the surface, may look like outcasts or beggars, or they may have strange behaviours which sometimes lead other people to lose faith, nevertheless when the necessity came for them to reinforce other people’s faith in the Dharma and in themselves as spiritual teachers, these masters had a counterbalancing factor – a very high level of spiritual realization. This was so much so that they could display supernatural powers to outweigh whatever excesses people may have found in them, conventionally speaking. However, in the case of some of the modern-day teachers, they have all the excesses in their unethical behaviours but are lacking in this counterbalancing factor, which is the capacity to display supernatural powers. Because of this, it can lead to a lot of problems.

Therefore, as students, you should first watch and investigate thoroughly. Do not consider someone as a teacher or guru until you have certain confidence in the person’s integrity. This is very important. Then, second, even after that, if some unhealthy things happen, you have the liberty to reject them. Students should make sure that they don’t spoil the guru. This is very important.


In The Gelug/Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra, pp. 209–211, His Holiness the Dalai Lama states:

Premature Commitment To An Unsuitable Guru

In some cases it happens that disciples do not examine a spiritual teacher very carefully before accepting him or her as their guru and committing themselves to a guru/disciple relationship. They may even have received tantric empowerments from this teacher. But then they find they were wrong. They see many flaws in this teacher and discover many serious mistakes he or she has made. They find that this teacher does not really suit them. Their minds are uneasy regarding this person and they are filled with doubts and possibly regret. What to do in such a circumstance?

The mistake, of course, is that originally the disciples did not examine this teacher very carefully before committing themselves to him or her. But this is something of the past that has already happened. No one can change that. In the future, of course, they must examine any potential guru much more thoroughly. But, as for what to do now in this particular situation with this particular guru, it is not productive or helpful to continue investigating and scrutinizing him or her in terms of suspicions or doubts. Rather, as The Kalachakra Tantra recommends, it is best to keep a respectful distance. They should just forget about him or her and not have anything further to do with this person.

It is not healthy, of course, for disciples to deny serious ethical flaws in their guru, if they are in fact true, or his or her involvement in Buddhist power-politics, if this is the case. To do so would be a total loss of discriminating awareness. But for disciples to dwell on these points with disrespect, self-recrimination, regret or other negative attitudes is not only unnecessary, unhelpful and unproductive, it is also improper. They distance themselves even further from achieving a peaceful state of mind and may seriously jeopardize their future spiritual progress. I think it best in this circumstance just to forget about this teacher.

Premature Commitment To Tantra And Daily Recitation Practices

It may also occur that disciples have taken tantric empowerments prematurely, thinking that since tantra is famous as being so high, it must be beneficial to take this initiation. They feel they are ready for this step and take the empowerment, thereby committing themselves to the master conferring it as now being their tantric guru. Moreover, they commit themselves as well to various sets of vows and a daily recitation meditation practice. Then later these disciples realize that this style of practice does not suit them at all, and again they are filled with doubts, regrets, and possibly fear. Again, what to do?

We can understand this with an analogy. Suppose, for instance, we go to a store, see some useful but exotic item that strikes our fancy and just buy it on impulse, even though it is costly. When we bring it home, we find, after examining the item more soberly now that we are out of the exciting, seductive atmosphere of the marketplace, that we have no particular use for it at the moment. In such situation, it is best not to throw the thing out in the garbage, but rather to put it aside. Later we might find it, in fact, very useful.

The same conclusion applies to the commitments disciples have taken prematurely at a tantric empowerment without sufficient examination to determine if they were ready for them. In such situations, rather than deciding that they are never going to use it at all and throwing the whole thing away, such disciples would do better to establish a neutral attitude toward it, putting tantra and their commitments aside and leaving it like that. This is because they may come back to them later and find them very precious and useful.

Suppose, however, disciples have taken an empowerment and have accepted the commitment to practice the meditations of a particular Buddha-form by reciting a sadhana, a method of actualization, to guide them through a complex sequence of visualization and mantra repetition. Although they still have faith in tantra, they find that their recitation commitment is too long and it has become a great burden and strain to maintain it as a daily practice. What to do then? Such disciples should abbreviate their practice. This is very different from the previous case in which certain disciples find that tantric practice in general does not suit them at the present stage of their spiritual life. Everyone has time each day to eat and to sleep. Likewise, no matter how busy they are, no matter how many family and business responsibilities they may have, such disciples can at least find a few minutes to maintain the daily continuity of generating themselves in their imagination in the aspect of a Buddha-form and reciting the appropriate mantra. They must make some effort. Disciples can never progress anywhere on the spiritual path if they do not make at least a minimal amount of effort.


In The Gelug/Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra, pp. 185–186, His Holiness the Dalai Lama states about

The Root Guru

Sometimes we differentiate a root guru from our other gurus and focus particularly on him or her for our practice of guru-yoga. Our root guru is usually described in the context of tantra as the one who is kind to us in three ways. There are several manners of explaining these three types of kindness. One, for example, is the kindness to confer upon us empowerments, explanatory discourses on the tantric practices and special guideline instructions for them. If we have received empowerments and discourses from many gurus, we consider as our root guru the one who has had the most beneficial effect upon us. For deciding this, we do not examine in terms of the actual qualifications of the guru from his or her own side, but rather in terms of our own side and the benefit we have gained in our personal development and the state of mind this guru elicits in us. We consider the rest of our gurus as emanations or manifestations of that root guru …

More about the Teacher-Student-Relationship

Spiritual Teacher and Sexual Abuse / Sexual Exploitation

See also

  • Open Letter – Conference of Western Buddhist Teachers

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  Last edited by tenpel on February 26, 2014 at 12:29 pm

Thoughts on Leaving Rigpa

GUEST POST

After almost 20 years in Rigpa, I have left with a heavy heart and a wounded soul.

I still have huge faith and trust in the Dharma and have connected with my own wisdom in a real way. The allegations of abuse by Sogyal Rinpoche have been around for a long time and every now and again, they re-surface in the media and a whole new generation of Rigpa students become aware that all is not as it seems.

For my first few years in Rigpa, I was not aware of these issues at all and when I did become aware in some way, my mind compartamentalised these issues. I was so confused, I tried to rationalise it – so many people benefit from the teachings, this surely can’t be true and so on but there was always a niggling doubt.  Then people that I trusted in the Dharma assured me that this was all fine, it was allegations, it was crazy wisdom, this was my ego reacting and so on. However, this doubt got bigger and bigger and when I discussed the issues with senior students, some of whom were in blank denial and issued a party line, some of whom admitted the truth of the allegations but justified it by “crazy wisdom” approach. Both reactions only made my doubts bigger, I read as much as could, watched interviews and soon found myself connecting with other students who had left or were leaving. We were all fearful  as this was a taboo subject and had been taught that to speak or think badly about the master would be a terrible corruption of samaya and would send you to the vajra hells. These teachings in recent years in Rigpa on devotion and samaya have become more numerous and explicit – I believe this is deliberate.

Only after leaving Rigpa, did I realise how free I felt – no longer did I have to justify thoughts in my mind as bad or a corruption of samaya, I was recognising something wrong had happened. I had attended weekends where these issues were discussed in Rigpa but mostly how the issues could be managed in the face of questions from students or the public. It was effectively a re-education or PR training and it left me feeling deeply uncomfortable. Why  should I put out a party line? I remember how my skin crawled a little when one instructor referred to those making allegations as “these women”, it was how it was said, it was loaded with meaning – these woman who dare speak out, who make these allegations, these women who don’t know what they want. We were told Sogyal is not a monk, he is not celibate and is entitled to a private life and that many woman because he is a Rinpoche want to connect with him and have a relationship. This does not make it ok as many people project hugely onto Tibetan masters, in much the same way as those in psychotherapy in the West might do so with a therapist. A good therapist sees this immediately and uses it in the therapy in a healthy way to sort out real issues and the idea of a therapist sleeping with a client is seen as a huge betrayal of trust and breach of fiduciary duty.

Since leaving Rigpa, I am clearer and happier – I feel sick that I stayed there so long and didn’t see the reality, that I listened to the lies and justification. I sometimes now meet people from Rigpa and I know that a lot of people have left in the past year or two and there is a concerted campaign to re-connect with those who have left, wanting to know their reasons why, wanting to talk to them. I want to have nothing to do with this as I believe the allegations against Sogyal Rinpoche should be dealt with openly and honesty.

The complicity of many people in Rigpa in covering up these allegations, managing what can and can’t be said and so on is wrong and so sad. It is no different that the terrible behaviour of the Catholic Church in how they covered up abuses for years.

This whole experience has left me deeply wounded in ways I cannot describe – Buddhism has brought huge benefit and meaning to my life but this experience with Rigpa about Rinpoche’s abuse and the cover-up of same means there is a dark shadow over my experience. I feel by participating in such an organisation for some time, I was also complicit as first I didn’t know and then I did and didn’t say anything about my questions or concerns. This isn’t surprisingly as a very strong and distinct culture of silence, group think and constant activity has built up in Rigpa. It means people are afraid to speak out, afraid to be different and the constant activity means people are so busy and tired they don’t question the norms.

I am hopeful that in the coming year the issues in Rigpa will be exposed more and more and there will be a honest dialogue that benefit all those who have suffered at the hands of this organisation.  The really sad thing is there are many kind and good people in Rigpa, who lead lives according to the Dharma but there is this huge blindspot about the issues of the allegations about Rinpoche. Rigpa has also provided students in the west with access to extraordinary lamas such as Ringu Tulku Rinpoche, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, Garchen Rinpoche and so on but I also have questions why does no-one speak up. Surely these lamas also know about these allegations? It is all so sad and confusing and disheartening and I commend those who have the bravery to speak out from the bottom of my heart.

A former Rigpa student’s thoughts and cultivating discernment …

GUEST POST

I was a Rigpa student for ten years and trainee instructor for the last four. For most of this time I was very much moved and inspired by the teachings, the retreats I attended and by the work done by students of Rigpa, as there are a lot of good-hearted, genuine, dedicated, well intentioned people who are working for this organisation. Then in the last few years some of the allegations about Sogyal started appearing once again in the press, up till this point I had been in complete ignorance that there was anything like this in his past.

As trainee instructors we were informed about the Janice Doe case and sent on a training retreat on how to manage this if asked about it by the general public or by students. If not voiced officially I got the sense that the general understanding was that this woman had misunderstood the nature of Sogyal’s teachings and of his intentions. We were given material to read on the student – teacher relationship, the nature of devotion, and the unconventional way of teaching that a ‘Crazy Wisdom’ teacher might use with his students. None of the details of the nature of the allegations could be shared because this had been one of the clauses in the settlement of the lawsuit, so at the time I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.  I told myself that maybe he had been a bit wild in his youth along with other Lama’s such as Chogyam Trungpa, but that now he had settled down and was only interested in bringing the teachings to the West. However when it came to his relationship with the young girls who served him and all the other allegations about him, I found that it was all very much kept hidden and unspoken even to long term students like myself.

I did question to myself over the years why most of the students in ‘Lama care’ who served Rinpoche were beautiful girls in their twenties, but there is such a focus on teachings on devotion, (i.e, seeing his every action as a teaching, never questioning that he can do any wrong and seeing him as an incarnate Buddha,)  that I just told myself there must be some good reason for it which was beyond my understanding as an ordinary being.   It may sound naive to anyone outside of Rigpa who is reading material on it being a cult, but I would like to add that there is also lot of genuine Dharma being taught which has a positive transformative effect, and as I immersed myself in these teachings it was easy to lose the discernment, especially seeing as these types of teachings are also genuine when given within a certain context. On top of this I had a lot of respect for some of the senior students that I encountered who were rational, highly intelligent  people and full of wisdom and kindness, I looked at them as an example of what could be accomplished by really practising the teachings.

For the sake of balance I would also like to say of my time in Rigpa that  for the most part it was a positive experience. I disagree with the label of ‘cult’ that parties such as Dialogue Ireland have placed upon it who actually have no personal experience of the organisation  and who seem to have their own personal agenda in the matter.  Rinpoche is still a gifted teacher of Tibetan Buddhism who has inspired many in a positive way and Rigpa is a well organised structure for the transmission of the Dharma in the West. In my experience the courses and retreats I attended have enabled many to be able to connect with their own wisdom and kindness with the aim to then practise this more consistently in their lives. This is why it is such a shame that these other behaviours have not been addressed and have been allowed to continue, threatening all the good work that is being done. It is a spiritual organisation and for my part I am grieved that I had to leave because without fail everyone I met was genuinely motivated and many of them are still my friends. In hindsight I can see that my time in Rigpa has given me a thorough grounding in the practise of meditation and in the Buddhist teachings so there is a lot I have to be grateful for also. This is why initially before reading Mimi’s account I was willing to give Rinpoche the benefit of the doubt and tried to ignore my own misgivings. However once I had read her account I couldn’t ignore them any more and I am saddened that, for me, all the good in Rigpa is now tarnished by these actions.

When I eventually ended up reading Mimi’s report and questioned a senior instructor on the truth it he confirmed that her words were true and I appreciated his openness and honesty on the matter.  Still I felt the understanding was that she had misunderstood the nature of the blessing of the Lama. That all the other girls were doing well and didn’t seem to mind so therefore this was her ignorance, that she was an isolated case that had become deluded and lost her way. There is very much a sense that those who are in the inner circle and are in close proximity to Rinpoche are especially privileged.

For the last few years I have been a student of another teacher of Tibetan Buddhism and it was only by being on retreat with him that I realised it wasn’t the normal thing  for there to be such a focus on teachings on devotion,  the guru – student relationship and the unconventional nature of a crazy wisdom master. I feel that these teachings were used to justify Rinpoche’s behaviour and to discourage the questioning of such. There are also teachings that to criticise a Bodhisattva and to cause discord among the Sangha (the spiritual community) will cause you to be reborn in the Vajra hells, so that was quite a strong factor in repressing this questioning of him even in my own thoughts, let alone voicing my misgivings publicly. I noticed in the last few years that as more of these allegations came to light there was more and more focus put on these kind of teachings.

I am no longer a student of Rigpa and feel  that the teachings should not be used to justify this sort of behaviour. As has been stated there is too much of a power differential where his students are expected to obey absolutely his every command. After reading Mimi’s account of his behaviour I believe that it is a huge betrayal of the trust that we put in the teacher and the teachings. The basic tenet of Buddhism is non harming and this applies to all beings, not just the initiated.  Luckily I have seen other  teachers who always behave with absolute integrity towards all of their students which has allowed me to have some sort of perspective that this is just the behaviour of one man and that the group consensus to ignore it and justify his behaviour among his students to preserve the status quo doesn’t represent Buddhism or the Dharma.

I now have a teacher who is the embodiment of the teachings in wisdom, compassion, integrity and patience and I trust him completely, it has restored my faith to see what can be achieved when someone does genuinely try to live the teachings with humility. However we really need to take our time and use our discernment when it comes to who we pick to be our teacher.

I have just watched the video on youtube of Kalu Rinpoche where he confesses about his life as a tulku and warns us that teachers may be extraordinary human beings but they are still human beings. He talks about issues of greed, power, sexual misconduct and control that he experienced within the structure of Tibetan Buddhism. These are corruptions that we can all fall prey to, even teachers and Lamas. I think it is very dangerous to be encouraged to perceive a man as an enlightened Buddha who can do no wrong and to be discouraged to question or to trust in our own perceptive abilities. I admired Kalu Rinpoche’s honesty, humility and transparency and think that this is what is needed at this time which is why I appreciate that these issues are now being addressed by Buddhists in a rational and intelligent way.

Amendment

I feel the comments and discussions that have been triggered by this post have now far exceeded the original post in their depth, detail and understanding of the issues in question, therefore I would suggest taking the time to read them and to not just read my blog in isolation.

  Last edited on May 17, 2013 at 8:57 am

Stephen Schettini about Tibetan Buddhism – When Buddhism is a Cult

A while ago an excerpt from the book “The Novice: Why I became a Buddhist Monk …” by Stephen Schettini was posted on this blog. In it Schettini writes about his experience of Kelsang Gyatso and about the New Kadampa Tradition. Schettin’s book has now been translated into German and is published by the rather reputable Arbor Verlag: “Mein Leben als tibetischer Mönch” (“My live as a Tibetan monk”).

A friend of mine sent me a link to a blog entry, “When Buddhism is a Cult” where Stephen Schettini writes about his understanding of Tibetan Buddhism. I found it quite superficial and also in general rather misleading not really helpful to clarify things. I just added a comment to his blog post and in case someone is interested here are the key points of my thoughts to it.

Reply to When Buddhism is a Cult by Stephen Schettini

If there are cults in a religion – and I would not hesitate to say within “Tibetan Buddhism” as well as in other “Buddhisms” there are some cults – this does not necessarily mean that the whole religion is a cult. Because there are some cultish or cult-like groups within Tibetan Buddhism to infer from this Tibetan Buddhism in general is a cult is a generalisation that goes a bit too far for me, and it’s no valid proof either because one cannot infer validly “because one child of the family is crazy the whole family is crazy.”

Schettini: “You should regard your guru as a fully enlightened buddha […]” but Schettini misses to contextualise this teaching, which is mainly a training, and shouldn’t be understood on a literally level.

When one trains even in the lower classes of Tantra one starts from the perception / meditation of oneself, the guru, and the deity as being of the same nature: lacking inherent existence (lacking a self) = “ultimate deity”. Then gradually one proceeds through the Six Deities of self-generation to the “deity with signs” where one perceives oneself as a Buddha and trains in “correct pride” based on the visualised basis to be the deity. In such a context it would be ridiculous to regard oneself as a Buddha (as a part of the tantric training) and the Vajra-Master as ordinary. And since one trains in the same way in the mediation break, it makes sense to see the “Guru as a Buddha” (while the mind that realizes emptiness takes on the aspect of oneself having the form and mind of a Buddha too.) In short the Tantra training does not include to see the teacher as a Buddha and oneself as an ordinary, deluded, poor-self being who is nothing and the guru is everything. In Tantra one trains to avoid ordinary appearance and ordinary grasping to both, oneself and others, including the teacher (+environment etc).

These teachings don’t suggest therefore to look up to a teacher and down on oneself or to bend reality as it fits. It’s a training for certain trainees (mainly Bodhisattvas with sharp faculties). If one has taken up such a training and if one is properly qualified (as well if the teacher is properly qualified) one can quickly progress on the path – as long as one is not lead astray by oneself or the teacher. There are certain risks, which is illustrated by the saying that one either goes up or down by practising Tantra. To attain in “three years” full enlightenment in Highest Yoga Tantra is only a theoretical measure related to the breath and the winds entering into the central (or side) channel(s) at certain occasions, and it should not be taken literally. It’s a hypothetical time duration! HH the Dalai Lama stresses that for most in a three year retreat what they attain is pride, when they do a next 3-year-retreat, they attain that this pride reduces, after a third 3-year-retreat one might have some genuine experiences.

Also the hells need not to be taken literally: if there are the qualifications of both (teacher & student) and if one gives this rare occasion up, the hell is waiting in the sense of one continues to wander in Samsara. Moreover, to go to the hell “by a breach of guru devotion” is not that easy, as Alexander Berzin explains in his excellent book on this subject. Some teachers go so far to say, that Westerners are so less qualified for Tantra that they cannot break their Samayas. So there is a variety of understanding here too.

I don’t know where Stephen Schettini got this from:
“To benefit from your relationship with him [the tantric teacher], you must see him as always having your interests at heart, no matter what. If you doubt, question or reject that, you’re cut off from your source of spiritual advancement now and in future lifetimes, where you’ll suffer countless rebirths in tantric hell.”

First of all once one has checked the tantric teacher (ideally 12 years of examination) and if one sees him/her as qualified and has decided to accept him/her as one’s Tantric teacher such thoughts about his or her shortcomings aren’t useful for the training, nevertheless different texts also clearly state, that if the master gives wrong teachings, wrong advice or wrong commands contrary to the Dharma, one should no follow it. E.g. Je Tsongkhapa states for instance: “If someone suggests something which is not consistent with the Dharma, avoid it.” “Distance yourself from Vajra Masters who are not keeping the three vows, who keep on with a root downfall, who are miserly with the Dharma, and who engage in actions that should be forsaken. Those who worship them go to hell and so on as a result.” How can one do this if one doesn’t even question his or her actions? Also the Dalai Lama says clearly that to see all actions of the guru as enlightened is an “extremely dangerous teaching”.

Maybe the teachers Stephen Schettini met didn’t go to the depths of the meaning of the teachings, however, it’s a bit more profound than the blog entry suggests.

Schettini: “The Dalai Lama’s public Kalachakra rituals are organized and attended like rock concerts. Few devotees pass up the opportunity, and then they’re supposed to view the officiating lama as a tantric guru.”

Again, I find this as being a superficial statement. There are different ways to attend an empowerment (see “Motivations for attending empowerment” by Alexander Berzin). For instance a Christian (who sometimes as well as Theravadins are also present during such empowerments) can just attend as an observer to receive inspirations for the own faith, a next level is just to receive a blessing etc. In all those cases the Dalai Lama doesn’t become their Tantric Guru, nor do they have to practice Tantra or the Sadhana. (The Dalai Lama usually also doesn’t give a commitment, when he grants a Kalachakra empowerment. He even leads through the taking of the Bodhisattva vows in a way, that everybody has the choice to take or not to take them.) People like these rituals and the Dalai Lama says himself only 3-6 at such a gathering receive a real empowerment but he gives it mainly to use their faith in the ritual by passing some relevant teachings for their lives to them.

Schettini: “Newcomers to Tibetan Buddhism are often hungry for enlightenment, and teachers need students for their ongoing credibility and sustenance.”

This is a mere allegation that “teachers need students for their ongoing credibility and sustenance.” Why shouldn’t there be teachers who give it really with the motivation to benefit others? Again Schettini generalises: “teachers need students for their ongoing credibility and sustenance” but what proof does he have for this claim? It might be true in some cases or even in many but not for every teacher. As Jackson from Hamburg University has put it so nicely:

»In Tibet as in many a country, in addition to genuine religious teachers there were also a host of dubious mendicants, madmen, and charlatans who plied their trade among the faithful, and life within the big monasteries witnessed the full range of human personalities, from saintly to coldly calculating.«

Schettini: “There’s no historical record of the Buddha teaching tantra. To lend these practices authenticity the Tibetan establishment calls them the Buddha’s ‘secret’ teachings …”

Schettini misses to mention that the Tantra is not an invention by the Tibetans but was brought to Tibet by Indian masters such as Padmasambhava or Atisha. And they say exactly the same. One can likewise say “there is no historical record of the Buddha teaching Theravada or Mahayana” because all written and transmitted teachings appeared long after Buddha’s passing away. Even scientists (who are more open and who don’t adhere to the view that Theravada is the “most authentic Buddhism”) say that there is no proof for any teaching that it is from the Buddha. The Buddha did also not teach in Pali. This is quite of a vast topic …

Schettini says: “The practice is further legitimized by the claim that tantra is built upon ‘ordinary’ Buddhist practice.”

This is not a claim, it’s a fact. Why? Tantra is based on renunciation, great compassion and emptiness.

Schettini says: “In theory, you can choose at what level you wish to practice. However, tantra is said to make enlightenment achievable in as little as three years, as opposed to the ‘countless lifetimes’ of ordinary Buddhism. Once ensnared in the Tibetan orbit, few devotees opt out.”

I commented on this theoretical claim of in-3-years-enlightenment already above. I don’t know if few devotees opt out. Does he base this claim on any reliable statistics?

Schettini says: “By contrast, tantric practitioners need to view every facet of the guru’s behavior as enlightened. Whether or not it’s actually possible to reconcile these two approaches, for all but the most penetrating thinkers they end up being mutually exclusive.”

For a differentiation of this see the Dalai Lama’s clarifying statement: Questioning the Advice of the Guru.

After reading the blog entry, my impression is that what was passed to Stephen Schettini or what he has understood seems to be rather a superficial type of understanding of Tibetan Buddhism but not what Tibetan Buddhism is all about in its depths. Kelsang Gyatso (New Kadampa Tradition) and his NKT teachers spread such superficial understanding too, and of course this is a cause of misunderstandings and subsequent problems but it’s not what “Tibetan Buddhism” in a deeper sense is all about. Therefore I wouldn’t go so far to attribute these misunderstandings to Tibetan Buddhism but to the persons, groups, teachers who have taught / spread it.

I agree however, that the teachings within Indo-Tibetan Buddhism can be used to establish and to abuse power. But this is a human failing and not necessarily the failing of Tibetan Buddhism, and you find this also among practitioners of other Buddhisms and religions, Atheists, Scientists, Agnostics etc.

Schettini claims further:

  • “Lamas are routinely referred to as a living buddhas, especially if they’re wealthier, smarter or better-connected.” — Such a generalisation again doesn’t meet the reality. The Dalai Lama mocks about the Chinese officials who call Tulkus or Rinpoches “living Buddhas”. Lamas are not referred to in general within Tibetan Buddhism as “living Buddhas” mainly the Chinese officials apply this term a lot.
  • “The Tibetan language itself has different vocabularies for speaking up to a superior, across to a peer or down to an inferior. The everyday name for woman is, ‘low-born.’” — In general this is true that there are special terms for “superiors”. This linguistic approach is also present in the religious language, e.g. someone who has realized emptiness is referred to as having “exalted wisdom” instead of just having “wisdom”. This terminology needn’t be meant to look down on others but rather for the sake of respect or for the sake of discrimination. E.g. Je Tsongkhapa talks a lot about inferior/superior in his “Great Exposition of Secret Mantra”, and when one examines the use of this inferior/superior distinction in his text closely it becomes clear that it is not meant as a deprecation but as a distinction for the sake to highlight something. However, indeed the Tibetan term for woman is skye’dman which means ‘low born’. The reason is that a birth as a woman is seen as difficult for pursuing a spiritual path, because usually in ancient societies women had (and they still have) lesser freedom than man. However, the tantric vows say clearly one shouldn’t despise or look down on women. For women in Tibetan society see: “The role of women in Tibetan society before China’s invasion …” However, all of this does not exclude that these terms might not be used also in a deprecating way.
  • “Some of those who reported Sogyal Lakar’s sexual abuses received death threats.” — I asked Mary Finnigan, she replied that she didn’t receive any death threat. However, Victoria Barlow says in a comment to the post by Schettini “This included death threats and voodoo-like curses.”

The arrogance of Westerners when judging other societies

If one looks back from today’s points of view it is easy to criticise other societies of the past, especially if they are somewhat alien to oneself like Tibet. But I would like to remind Westerners that the liberties we enjoy in the West today are rather very new, and one has to look on societies according to the standards of their time. For instance the right to elect for women was formally established in Swiss at 7. February 1971. And it was only on 27. November 1990 that the last Swiss Kanton, Appenzell Innerrhoden, was forced by law to allow women to participate elections. In 1959 Mildred and Richard Loving were sentenced one year to prison because it was forbidden in the USA that people of different ethnic “races” marry. It was only in 1967 that the Supreme Court of the USA abolished the “Anti-Miscegenation Laws” that forbade the mixing of two different “races”.

The General Ex-Monk Going-Public Phenomenon

Schettini’s approach has also raised questions by other Buddhists. The following thoughts by a British Buddhist* I found very useful to be considered:

I have several questions about the general ex-monk going-public phenomenon.

  1. The Dhamma is free, not available for packaging as if it was a commodity on capitalist markets. I would not expect to be charged for Christian preaching, so why is this acceptable in Buddhist circles? I am keen about taking the religion out of Buddhism – but the danger is that, freed from the religious understanding that teachings are free, some see this as an opportunity to make money.
  2. The ex-monk-going-public phenomenon is curious. Cudos is gained by leaving the religious community – and yet simultaneously, credibility is claimed because “He was a Tibetan Buddhist monk for 8 years …” You cannot have it both ways.
  3. Why join a religious community – and then write publications that criticise them? Criticising others to build your own reputation – is this acceptable or credible?
  4. Here, we are a nebsangha – so why would we exchange religious hierarchy for a new hierarchy – the expert ex-monk?
  5. Are we expected to praise people who leave religious communities – and accept their personal reasons for leaving? If you have a failed vocation, then why is that a lesson for the rest of us and a reflection on the religious community – but never a reflection on the leaver? We have already chosen not to join a religious order – so what lessons are we meant to gain?

* posted with kind permission from the author

Last edited by tenpel on March 16, 2013 at 1:14 pm

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