In the last post on this topic, I looked at the general markers of a cult and how they relate to vajrayana and examined devotion to the teacher in vajrayana in terms of whether we were devoted to a person or to an abstract principle—the first being the marker of a cult and the second of a religion.
Today I look at the role of unquestioning obedience, removal of the right to criticise and worldly law in vajrayana, then I provide a conclusion to the two posts.
The following points of contention in Tibetan Buddhism are all aspects of a feudal culture and in the modern world are markers of cults where power can easily be abused. Though those who resist change will cite teachings that give reasons why obedience, not criticising and being a law unto themselves have spiritual relevance, one should question whether those teachings are definitive or provisional, whether they are in accord with the Buddha’s teachings, whether they were given with the welfare of the student or of maintaining the lamas’ power in mind, and given the ease with which lamas abuse their power these days, whether the results of reinterpreting them in line with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Minguyr Rinpoche’s points of view would not be more beneficial than harmful.
Though some teachers insist on it, others don’t, so clearly complete obedience to the teacher is not necessary for Vajrayana practice. It’s a matter of interpretation.
“According to Vajrayana (or Tantrayana), if a guru gives an instruction that is not in accord with the Dharma, the student should not follow it and should go to the teacher to clarify and explain why they cannot. This advice comes directly from the Buddha and is found in the scriptures. The same applies if you think the advice of your teacher is unskillful or unwise, even though it may be ethical. The purity of the teacher’s motivation is not enough: the instruction must be appropriate for the situation and the culture of the place.” HH Dalai Lama, Dharamsala 1993.
“Ancient texts take the authenticity of the guru for granted. Yet in our degenerate times, we cannot find perfect teachers. If the teacher has obscurations, then we risk taking bad advice, so how can we apply devotion and pure perception? My father (Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche) told me never to go against my own intuitive wisdom in order to follow the guru’s advice. Of course, if the advice concerns dharma, we think about it very carefully. If the advice concerns worldly things then, my father told me, we definitely have no obligation to follow it.” Mingyur Rinpoche, Turning Confusion into Clarity, pp 300-301.
To avoid a vajrayana cult, avoid teachers who insist on complete obedience, no matter what the reasoning. There is nothing detrimental to the transformative power of vajrayana if a student retains the right to say, “No.” If they feel they have to obey when they don’t want to for any reason, they are likely to end up feeling abused rather than transformed. S&M devotees have a safe word, why not vajrayana students? Some students will obey without question, some will not, but the power to choose should remain in their hands.
The Words of My Perfect Teacher was presumably written about a perfect teacher, so we should be careful not to apply its teachings on obedience rigidly to our modern world. There is a big difference between a teacher demanding obedience and a student giving it willingly and always retaining the right to say “No.” If a vajrayana teacher wants to avoid being labelled a cult leader, he or she needs to understand this point.
A Cultwatch article on how cults work states, “Cult members are usually very fearful of disobeying or disagreeing with leadership. Healthy organisations, however, are not threatened by debating issues.”
The traditional view on not criticising one’s teacher for fear of going to hell is definitely a mark of a cult, and this is another area that Tibetan Buddhism needs to look at closely. It’s also an area where different teachers have different views, which means that vajrayana itself does not demand one doesn’t ever criticise one’s teacher, only some teachers do—apparently those who haven’t adjusted to the fact that some lamas abuse their position and so need to be criticised for the safety of their students. For the more flexible lamas, whether or not one breaks one sacred relationship with one’s teacher has to do with the circumstances and the student’s motivation.
Dzongsar Khyentse puts the hard line view succinctly, “Frankly, for a student of Sogyal Rinpoche who has consciously received abhisheka and therefore entered or stepped onto the Vajrayana path, to think of labelling Sogyal Rinpoche’s actions as ‘abusive’, or to criticize a Vajrayana master even privately, let alone publicly and in print, or simply to reveal that such methods exist, is a breakage of samaya.”
In the vajrayana belief system a breakage of samaya results in rebirth in hells, hence the fear factor.
In terms of what constitutes a cult, the reasoning behind such demands is irrelevant, it’s the result of the belief that is looked at, and the result of such a belief is that people fear to raise issues that should be raised, and if they do raise them, they are shut down as they were in Rigpa. In an era when lamas cannot be trusted not to abuse their power, insisting on no criticism under any circumstance is unhealthy at best and at worst can lead to students being harmed and the issue covered up for decades.
But it doesn’t have to be that way in Vajrayana. HHDL says,” Even though I have deep faith and respect for my teachers and consider them high spiritual beings, I did not hesitate to criticize their behavior because those actions were wrong no matter who did them. I didn’t speak out of hatred or disrespect, but because I love the Buddhadharma and their actions went against it.
“It is essential to distinguish between two things: the person and their action. We criticize the action, not the person. The person is neutral: he or she has the wish to be happy and overcome suffering, and once their negative action stops, they will become a friend. The troublemaker is the disturbing attitudes and actions. Speaking out against the action does not mean that we hate the person. In meditation, I try to develop genuine compassion for these people while still opposing their actions. Thus, we may criticize a teacher’s abusive actions or negative qualities while we respect them as a person at the same time. There are still some beneficial aspects of the guru. A mistaken action doesn’t destroy their good qualities. If you criticize in this way, there is no danger of hellish rebirth as a result. Motivation is the key: speaking out of hatred or desire for revenge is wrong. However, if we know that by not speaking out, their negative behavior will continue and will harm the Buddhadharma, and we still remain silent, that is wrong.”
Were it not for His Holiness and Mingyur Rinpoche, I might have come to a different conclusion to the question of whether or not vajrayana is a cult religion. They and other teachers like them prove that these cultish aspects are not intrinsic to vajrayana itself. They show the way for modern lamas to teach, a way that will ensure their community does not become a cult in the negative sense of the word.
As regards criticising a teacher, Mingyur Rinpoche in his Lion’s Roar article says, “The appropriate response depends on the situation. In some cases, if a teacher has acted inappropriately or harmfully but acknowledges the wrongdoing and commits to avoiding it in the future, then dealing with the matter internally may be adequate. But if there is a long-standing pattern of ethical violations, or if the abuse is extreme, or if the teacher is unwilling to take responsibility, it is appropriate to bring the behavior out into the open.
“In these circumstances, it is not a breach of samaya to bring painful information to light. Naming destructive behaviors is a necessary step to protect those who are being harmed or who are in danger of being harmed in the future, and to safeguard the health of the community.”
This is the view that teachers of Tibetan Buddhism and students of vajrayana need to adopt for the health of their community, to avoid the harmful cult label and for Tibetan Buddhism to find a respected place in Western society.
The ultimate red flag cult indicator for vajrayana
In his book Cults in America, a scholar named James R. Lewis explains a number of properties he would expect a dangerous sect to have. He says that probably the most important characteristic is that “The organization is willing to place itself above the law.” (See http://abuse.wikia.com/wiki/Cult_checklist)
Unfortunately some lamas do place vajrayana above the law, and this belief that vajrayana has its own rules separate to the rule of law is the single most dangerous aspect of vajrayana for both students and society.
Vajrayana as a whole does not do this, however, because lamas like HH Dalai Lama, Mingyur Rinpoche and others make it clear that society’s norms must be obeyed.
Again from his Lion’s Roar article, MR says, “It should go without saying that when schools, businesses, and other public institutions are expected to adhere to a code of conduct and the laws of the land, then spiritual organizations should be role models of ethical behavior. And teachers even more so.”
Those who declare, for any reason, that there is nothing wrong with Sogyal’s behaviour as outlined in the July letter by the 8 close students or that there is nothing wrong with a great lama killing someone (Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche, Rigpa Paris 2017) have put vajrayana above the law and as such have stepped into cult territory. Such extreme views are similar in their danger to society as those of fundamentalist Muslims who believe that blowing up a bus full of innocent people is spiritually beneficial. Such ideas are simply not acceptable in a society where cults are considered harmful to members and dangerous to society as a whole.
Based on the above thinking, I believe that vajrayana is not a cult religion in itself. Some vajrayana communities are cults, however, or have the potential to become one very easily. Where a particular community falls in terms of the label ‘cult’ depends on how the lama teaches devotion (do they demand that you give up your discernment) and pure perception (do they demand that you see their questionable actions as beneficial), and whether or not they demand complete obedience and consider that Vajrayana beliefs place lamas above the law of the land in which they teach. All this brings us back to the importance of checking out what a lama actually believes, how he or she behaves, and what they will demand of us if we become his or her student.
In this lama-centred, feudal-structured religion if Tibetan Buddhism as a whole wants the respect of Western society, then the lamas need to come together and examine their interpretations of the above teachings and adapt them to modern circumstances under the guidance of His Holiness the Dalai Lama who is respected and trusted by most people in the West.
The bottom line is that healthy religious organisations (healthy meaning not a cult) allow open criticism and the free flow of information. They do not demand obedience or devotion, or reward them with desirable teachings or attention, or punish their lack with fear tactics. They do not isolate and condemn anyone who does criticise, do not manipulate their members to gain money or servitude, do not think themselves above the law, and make it quite clear what is expected of the member at each stage of their path. Vajrayana teachers and those running their communities need to be aware of just where they may be stepping over the line from a healthy organisation to an unhealthy one.
I hope that those running Rigpa can see where they have stepped over this line so they know what they have to discard for the sake of the people they profess to serve—the student.
On the matter of the blog, I apologise for not being able to comment on people’s comments. My inability to find the time to both write the articles and read and reply to comments, and people’s criticism of that and the moderation that I do manage to do, is one of the reasons why there will be only one more post after this. Yes, apart from updates on any major developments, this blog is coming to an end. The Facebook group for Rigpa students and ex-Rigpa students will still operate and you can request to join it via the contact page here.