His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s recent meeting with some survivors of abuse by Tibetan Buddhist lamas led to some articles emphasising that he had known about abuse in Tibetan Buddhism for decades. This led to a rise in anti-Dalai Lama sentiment, particularly the accusation that he should have done more to stop it. On fact value, that’s a reasonable reaction, but when we understand the reality of HH’s position within the Tibetan cultural and religious system, we see that in actual fact, in terms of Tibetan culture, that he has been very outspoken.
Tseten Samdup Chhoekyapa, a representative of HHDL in Europe, said during his European tour that the Dalai Lama “has consistently denounced such irresponsible and unethical behaviour”.
At the conference with Western Buddhist Teachers in Dharamsala in 1993, HHDL spoke quite clearly about the need to publically expose lamas who acted unethically. It was due to his responses on the matter then that the 8 close students of Sogyal Lakar wrote the letter exposing his abuses. The importance of HH’s words then cannot be overemphasised. Without them, that letter would never have been written.
If you accuse the Dalai Lama of not doing more to counter the abuse, you need to understand that he bears the weight of cultural and religious expectations, such as supporting the building of temples, and that he actually has no power over the lamas; even in his own school of Tibetan Buddhism, he can only make suggestions. It is up to the lamas whether or not they pay attention to what he says. And that aside, as this post by Joanne Clark explains, there is more compassion and wisdom in the way he has handled the abuse issue than appears on the surface.
Thanks Joanne for sharing your perspective.
The importance of empowering abuse survivors
The cause of abuse of all kinds, and particularly sexual abuse, is misuse of power. This fact is widely accepted amongst therapists. When I worked as a counselor for survivors of sexual abuse on a university campus in Massachusetts, we used the “Empowerment Method.” In this method of counseling, power that has been violently taken away from a survivor is given back. We don’t advise any survivor on their course of action. We give them options and information and support them in whatever choices of action they want to take. This—and providing safety—are the two essential tools we used as we sat beside survivors in the hospital or police station or received their calls in the middle of the night.
In this context, if one views the actions the Dalai Lama has taken over decades, they are all focused on empowering survivors and empowering students to prevent abuses. Yes, one could criticize him for not stepping in sooner and speaking out over what he had heard about Sogyal Lakhar’s abuses. However, this might simply have resulted in another big power figure taking charge of an already top-heavy situation—and further disempowered students. Instead, he waited for survivors themselves to make the move—and then spoke out in support of their actions.
Challenging power stuctures in Tibetan Buddhism
In fact, it has been now almost four decades since His Holiness first began challenging certain power structures within the institution of Tibetan Buddhist culture—specifically, the very power structures that have allowed abuses to occur. In a publication on Lamrim dated 1982, he stated clearly and categorically that the practice of seeing the guru as a perfect Buddha is a dangerous practice, particularly for beginners, and that it should not be emphasized. The reaction against these statements from within his own lineage was strong, with people claiming that His Holiness “did not understand Lamrim”.
Then in 1993, the Dalai Lama met with Western teachers to discuss problems within Western Tibetan Buddhism and dramatically added a caveat to an instruction that insured lamas of absolute power—the instruction to never criticize one’s Vajrayana lama. At this conference, he stated clearly and unequivocally that in order to stop harm, students may speak out, even if they are tantrically bound to a teacher. Further, he advised students to make abuses by lamas public, saying that this is the only way to stop them.
Support for speaking out
In the context of Tibetan culture, speaking publicly about someone’s harmful actions is an extreme measure. In the West, it is more commonplace—and the media is set up for it. By suggesting this as an approach towards stemming lama abuses, the Dalai Lama is skillfully navigating cultures and acting dramatically to empower Western students. He is handing Western students a powerful tool.
When the eight ex-Rigpa students wrote their letter of disclosure, they used the Dalai Lama’s instructions from 1993 as support for their actions. The response from most in the Tibetan Buddhist establishment has been either silence or to condemn the eight for this letter. Some have claimed that they are doomed to hell. One has claimed that they are possessed by demons. However, the Dalai Lama has spoken out in support of their actions. He is the only Tibetan Buddhist leader to speak out in support of the eight. (Mingyur Rinpoche’s Lions Roar article did not mention Sogyal by name.)
He is the only Tibetan Buddhist leader to even acknowledge that there is a serious problem of abuse within Western Tibetan Buddhist organizations—and he has spoken about this frequently and consistently in teachings and conferences over decades. All of his comments target the institutional power structures that have allowed abuse to occur and all have empowered survivors. He even spoke once in dramatic ways about toppling old Tibetan feudal systems and compared this situation to the French revolution.
Steps in reformation
In fact, much of his life has been devoted towards democratizing Tibetan culture and reforming institutional structures. He voluntarily relinquished his position as “god-king” of the Tibetan people in 2011, after years of initiating democratic reforms within the government. He has helped establish the Mind and Life Institute, which is devoted to seeking better understanding between contemplative practices and science. The result of this has been to challenge aspects of blind faith within Tibetan Buddhism, such as a belief in Mt. Meru as the center of a flat world and many other erroneous facts of cosmology in the Abhidharma. He has brought science into the monastic curriculum and consistently encouraged students to be ‘21st Century Buddhists” by being better educated and more discerning. Practices that promote blind faith over critical discernment are another means of dis-empowering students in ways that can lead to abuses. This is what he has worked to undermine.
In a text published this year, co-authored by Thubten Chodron, His Holiness writes candidly and realistically about the problems with abusive lamas in the West and in Taiwan. Throughout fifty pages devoted to the topic of reliance on a spiritual master, he suggests possible reforms, identifies specific problems and reiterates his call for Western and Taiwanese students themselves to take action and take their power. At one point, he suggests that the West could initiate a certification program for all who teach in the West.
Here is a quote from that text:
“Because students are new to Buddhism, they may have blind devotion and obedience to spiritual mentors. Hearing about the great merit gained from making offerings to spiritual mentors, they may give them many donations and gifts– things that someone living in India would not have. The teacher becomes spoiled by the gifts and esteem of the students and if he is not careful, this could lead to his taking advantage of well-meaning students.
“I have received many letters from people in other countries asking me to do something about this, but it is not in my control. Tibetan Buddhism is not organized like the Catholic Church with a pope and Vatican administration. I cannot make someone return to India or force him to stop wearing robes. When I teach, I give clear instructions about suitable behavior for teachers, both monastic and lay. If people do not listen to me then, it is doubtful that they will heed instructions from my office or the Department of Religious and Cultural Affairs…” (2018, The Dalai Lama and Thubten Chodron, The foundation of Buddhist Practice, p. 119)
“Tibetan Buddhism is not organized like the Catholic Church with a pope and Vatican administration …” This is certainly now being demonstrated in the context of Rigpa’s current position. Rigpa leaders are not interested in hearing anything he has to say! After declaring years ago that His Holiness was one of his “principal teachers,” Sogyal Lakhar, with the full support of Rigpa management, is now acting as if His Holiness has no advice to give and is no part of his or the Rigpa landscape. Rigpa has now changed its mission from “Rime” to “ancient Nyingma.” It’s hard to imagine that if His Holiness had refused to attend the Lerab Ling inauguration ten years ago, that this would have changed anything either. It would have been a good political move perhaps—but not an effective one.
A precarious balance
At the same time in the text quoted above, His Holiness upholds traditional teachings on the preciousness of the student-guru relationship. For those who want to move forward out of abusive relations with a lama and remain within the Dharma itself, his perspective is hugely beneficial and empowering. Abuse within a spiritual domain has a twofold impact, one from the abuse itself and the other from the harm to one’s spiritual path. For many, being able to retain that spiritual path is important and empowering and very healing.
It is probably this precarious balance he is maintaining that causes people to criticize him for not doing more. He is deeply invested in the survival of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. That is clear. He sees the extraordinary, precious features of this tradition, established over centuries by brilliant scholars and realized yogis and is working tirelessly to preserve them. However, right now, the silence from leaders of all four lineages is palpable. It is clear that the Dalai Lama does not have the support of many Tibetan lamas in his advice on ending abuse. It appears that only Mingyur Rinpoche and Tsoknyi Rinpoche openly agree with him on whether students can speak out to stop harm. This also must be factored in, when we judge how His Holiness has chosen to act over the years. He is acutely aware that words from him are not going to move the dial very far in terms of changing lama behavior—while knowing that actions from students themselves have greater power in moving the dial in dramatic ways.
So I think we want to be careful and not forget that His Holiness is our ally. He wants the abuses to end certainly as much as we do and probably more. And he wants to help us heal. And I think that he has a lot to offer as advisor but not as power figure as we move forward towards safety in Western Dharma Centers. Truly, the ball is in our court now, we can take our power.
And now a post script from Tahlia.
A clarification of recent comments
A transcript I received of the exchange between reporter Nicole le Fever (NOS) and the Dalai Lama during the Meet & Greet in the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam today (15 September 2018) says that HH said, “So, these people, they don’t care about Buddha’s teaching. So, now the only thing is: make public, these things. Then people may be concerned about their shame, their embarassment. So, I told, so yesterday also I mentioned, since many years ago I already mentioned that: ‘Now you make things clear, so very good, I don’t care.'”
The “I don’t care” means that if a lama abuses students and it is publicized, he doesn’t care that the information gets out and makes them look bad. He didn’t mean that he didn’t care about the situation.
A good article on His Holiness’s position from a Tibetan Perspective is this one from the Tibetan Feminist Collective. http://www.tibetanfeministcollective.org/2018/09/18/dalai-lama-statements-refugee-abuse/
The next step
I have since heard that he is definitely placing abuse on the agenda for his meeting in Dharamsala in November with all the important religious leaders of Tibetan traditions. And in that interview with Nicole le Fever he told us what our next steps should be: “So at that time, you see, they should appeal, I suggested. So, I think the religious leaders, I think, should pay more attention, like that.”
So he feels that that is the time, during this meeting in November, for students to petition the lamas, that there they (the lamas) should pay more attention. I sure hope that someone is arranging to go there and speak to the lamas directly. Anyone? Anyone sending a letter to them all?
Current and previous students of Rigpa can participate in private discussion on this and other abuse-related topics on our What Now? Facebook Group. If you’re interested in joining, please contact us via the contact page and ask for an invite.
People from any Vajrayana sangha can join the Survivors of Vajrayana Abuse and Allies Facebook group for support. Click the link to request to join.
Anyone who has left a Buddhist sangha that had an abusive teacher can join the Beyond the Temple Facebook Group. The focus in this group is not on the abuse, but on ourselves and our spiritual life as we recover from our experience and look to the future. Click here and request to join.
The What Now? Reference Material page has links to a wealth of articles in the topics related to abuse in Buddhist communities. For links to places to assist in healing from abuse see the sangha care resources page.
Those of you who are interested in ‘keeping Buddhism clean’ could ‘Like’ the Dharma Protectors Facebook page, which posts links to related articles as they come to hand.