I received this guest post from someone who was at Dzongsar Khyentse’s second London talk. It’s well written and engaging, so I hope you enjoy it. At the end I’ve also posted a vlog that sums up my feelings at the end of DJKR’s 2018 European tour – Tahlia.
“Read my lips” as Ronald Reagan would have said, if he was a Vajrayana guru. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche says what he means and may even mean what he says, so don’t let his style of presentation distract you from his message.
Let me begin by saying that I find Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche a very engaging speaker. He explains ideas well, thinks carefully about his words, uses humour very effectively, enjoys being provocative and has a disarming combination of being both arrogantly opinionated and surprisingly frank about his own shortcomings. It’s easy to see why he is such a popular teacher.
I have now watched every minute of every one of the public teachings he gave on his recent tour of Rigpa in Europe – except for the carefully excised part where a man burst into the first London session screaming that Sogyal Rinpoche was a rapist and DJKR was covering up for him. The man was jumped and the story was disseminated that he was mentally ill (I can’t verify that).
I was able to attend the final session in person and it was good to look DJKR in the face when he spoke, not just at a screen. I’m not here to get into deep discussions of the Vajrayana – that’s for others, far better informed. I’m here to talk about what I saw of the man and some significant things I heard and did not hear.
First of all, there needs to be some kind of special oratory prize for a person who can go on a speaking tour of Rigpa, prompted by the scandal around the abuse that was committed by its leader, several of these talks taking place in the actual locations where physical, sexual and psychological abuse occurred, and talk for over TWELVE HOURS without ever using the “A” word. It really is not an easy thing. It’s got to be in your mind, tickling your tongue. You really have to check yourself to make sure it doesn’t slip out in an unguarded moment. So I’m going to stand up right now and give DJKR a round of applause for this remarkable achievement. Please join me.
In fairness to him, he did, just once, in his first talk, utter the word “victim”, as part of the phrase “alleged victims”. Somebody must have got on his case afterwards because in London he mentioned that he had been told that “alleged” was the wrong word to use. He blamed his poor English, although I was impressed by what a good mastery of the language he has. It was a very odd moment indeed. He apologised for his use of the word “alleged” but clearly could not bring himself to utter the word that had previously been linked to it, so many in the audience were left a bit bemused as to where this had come from or what the purpose of the comment was. It was as if putting the word “victim” out there without the protective cocoon of “alleged” was simply too intimidating for him to deal with.
Every place he talked you could see the same thing; when he was in full flow about Vajrayana he appeared confident and spoke eloquently. Every time he approached the nitty-gritty reality of what the consequences of Vajrayana being misused were, he would stumble, trail off into long pauses or simply change the subject. The maker of the pointed but amusing spoof video, which re-edits his Berlin talk, did put his finger on something, triggering a tirade of insults.
During his travels, DJKR did, apparently, reach out to some of the victims of abuse. Certainly, several of the eight letter writers were known to him personally and were people he trusted. One might have hoped he would have done this research in advance, but it is welcome that he did it at all. By the time he got to Paris, then London, there was a distinct change of tone. He repeated again and again and again “Do no harm”, which is rather astonishing. Although he is talking to an audience of people who have spent many, many years in Vajrayana Buddhist study and practice, he is having to remind them of the most basic principle of all. I mean, even someone with the most superficial knowledge of Buddhism, who never once meditated, would know about the principle of not doing harm. This was like an eminent English Literature Professor doing the keynote address at an international conference, finding it necessary to repeatedly remind his academic audience that to fully appreciate the work of Dickens, you first need to learn your ABC.
The fact DJKR felt the need to do this speaks volumes. He had been reading many people’s comments about their confusions and opinions, and hearing accounts of wrongdoing and abuse, and it had become clear to him that the most basic tenet of Buddhism was being completely ignored. What a terrible indictment of where group thinking in Rigpa has led them.
In his final talks he spoke far more plainly than at the start, perhaps more plainly than he has ever spoken on such matters. It is NEVER acceptable for a guru to harm somebody. YES, you MUST respect the laws of the land. You CAN’T deny that people have suffered. There HAS been pain – it is NOT a story or an illusion. [Sogyal] Rinpoche HAS TO address this.
All these things were good to hear. But it feels like they had to be shocked and shaken out of him. As he made plain in his first talk, he has his “agendas” and over the course of the tour he had realised that trying to wave some of these issues away with mystical ambiguity was simply reinforcing the narrative of Vajrayana as a cult. His mission was to save Vajrayana and if that meant being more explicit than he liked to be, then he would do it. As long as it didn’t involve mentioning rape, beatings, theft or using the word “abuse”, that is.
In many ways he was extremely honest, even if it didn’t necessarily show him in the best light. He admitted that when the letter came out, his first instinct as a tulku was to protect the teachings (rather than people). I think he very much sees himself in the role of Defender of the True Faith. In all the hours he spoke I never discerned a hint of compassion for the victims of Sogyal Rinpoche. With well-practiced phraseology, DJKR made plain that he cared for them only in the sense of their spiritual futures. But it didn’t occur to him that if someone like Sogyal Rinpoche has, as he put it, “burned the seed of the Bodhichitta” in these victims of abuse, they are not likely to be won back to Buddhism by a person who appears terrified of the words “victim” and “abuse”.
In fact it seemed profoundly ironic that whilst DJKR spent hours selling the audiences on how radical and fearless Vajrayana is and stressing that relative and absolute truth are of equal value, this fearlessness did not stretch to acknowledging the truth of the elephant in the room, let alone confronting it. The best that can be said is that, by the end of his speaking tour, he was occasionally gesturing in the general direction of the elephant, without actually looking at it directly – or calling it an elephant.
When asked “What do you think about the Rigpa inner circle covering up Sogyal Rinpoche’s misdeeds?” he dismissed it with “I already answered this question”. He hadn’t. When asked “What is meant by crazy wisdom?” he abruptly called for a break. On his return, when the question was eventually put again, he reluctantly gave a brief reply, saying that all Vajrayana was Crazy Wisdom, which he knew perfectly well was not what was being asked.
His discomfort in dealing with any of the nitty-gritty of the consequences of Sogyal Rinpoche’s misdeeds, and those of the people who covered up for him, was sometimes displaced with humour to take the sting out. When acknowledging that “there has been pain” he made the point that if it’s lunchtime and you’re hungry, you can try repeating “fulness is emptiness and emptiness is fulness” but you’ll still have a pain in your stomach. People laughed.
But there were also warnings hidden inside his jokes. More than once he said “I’m a Gemini: we can sell ice cubes to Eskimos.” Everybody laughed heartily, but he’s serious. He knows a lot of his followers will swallow whatever he says, if he presents it the right way. He’s probably Vajrayana’s top-ranking salesman right now (assuming there’s a leader board somewhere in Bhutan). He even refers freely to some of his followers – quite correctly – as sycophants, but they still follow him, like good Eskimos.
Likewise, he doesn’t hide where he’s coming from, ethically. When asked about bad behaviour by gurus he twice made his approach clear: he personally wouldn’t mistreat anyone – not because he’s a great guy but because he would be worried about what people would think of him and what they would say on social media, plus he wouldn’t want to lose students. Again, everyone laughed, but he didn’t repeat this without reason. We should listen. This is absolutely not about ethics for him – he never even used the word – it is about trying to protect reputation; his personal one and that of the Vajrayana.
He used stories and metaphors about magic and magicians many times, where the teacher is the magician who knows it’s a trick, but presents it convincingly. “I think you want magic, don’t you?” he asked his attentive London audience, who noisily expressed their enthusiasm. David Blaine may have a new rival.
After the final teaching, I was talking to a member of the new “Vision Board”. He raved about how great the teachings were, so I asked him – as he had been present at all of DJKR’s recent teachings, both public and to the sangha, and had doubtless had the benefit of private discussions too – what did he feel about everything he had heard? With the careful tones of a politician who has weighed up whether being wishy or being washy would be the best approach, he replied “I’d have to re-listen to it. I had a lot on my mind.” He had come to realise that the problems stemmed from the transition from Asia, he said. The one thing that felt meaningful was when he added, “I wish someone had told me this 30 years ago.”
But of course, there was not a flicker of acknowledgement of the meat of what had been said. DJKR himself talked about how, as a younger student, he had been forbidden from taking notes and had to simply remember what had been taught. Here was a senior leader who was claiming that, having heard the same messages repeated and repeated for a fortnight, they had not sunk in. If I was Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche I would be deeply disheartened by this. If nobody in leadership is really listening and nobody is ever going to start talking about the elephant in the room, the outcome for Rigpa, and possibly Vajrayana in general, is pretty obvious.
DJKR several times used the classic image of Ganesh as an illustration of Vajrayana concepts: the elephant is depicted standing upon a mouse, as his vehicle, and the mouse is magically unharmed. In the less magical world in which most of us live, we know that any mouse that chooses to disregard the fact that an elephant is about to stand on him, doesn’t have much of a future.
DJKR’s talks may have repercussions for my vlogs for a while, I expect, but my main feeling at present is one of relief and gratitude. I also remembered an analogy for the spiritual path that Chogyan Trungpa gave that seems pertinent to remember in these circumstances.
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