Helpful Words on Devotion, Samaya and Pure Perception from Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo

In June 2019, Damcho Dyson, Tahlia Newland and Jacki Wicks are delivering a paper together on Sogyal Rinpoche’s abuse and the fallout it caused as part of the  Sakyadhita International  Association of Buddhist Women’s 16th International Conference. Jacki emailed Tenzin Palmo asking about an aspect of the conference and also asked what her  thinking was on things like samaya and guru devotion in the context of abusive teachers. I found Tenzin Palmo’s reply refreshingly sensible and direct and asked if I could post it here. She gave her permission, so here it is:

Samaya goes both ways:  the student has samaya to the teacher but the teacher also has samaya to the student.  The student’s samaya is to cultivate devotion, trust and openness in order to receive the mind blessings of the guru.  The teacher’s samaya is, through their knowledge and compassion, to develop the spiritual potential of the student. Therefore we must ask, do the actions and words of the guru lead to the students’ well-being, advancement on the path and general feeling of enrichment – or not?

Spiritual teachers cannot use the Dharma as an excuse for licentious or abusive behaviour.   Tantra isn’t about coercing vulnerable women into having sex.  Where is the compassion in exerting your position of power and authority to betray the very people who trust and obey you?  Where are basic ethics and kindness?

If the students (usually -but not always – female) as a result of a sexual relationship with the guru, do feel enhanced, empowered and confident, then that was skilful means on the part of the teacher.  But if the result is humiliation, confusion and disillusionment, then where is the wisdom and compassion in that?  Where have they been helped?

Clearly the manipulative nature of these encounters causes so much distress.  It all seems so egocentric and devoid of empathy. How can these teachers justify such behaviour to themselves?  Although it is a mixture of power, loneliness, emotional immaturity and so on, still this does not excuse the kind of behaviour that would be condemned by anyone anywhere.  That these teachers do have problems is one thing, but that they cannot use their own training to deal with these issues (or even acknowledge them) is really a problem!  Actually, it is pathetic.  Gurus need to observe the same ethical standards as doctors, psychologists, teachers and so on in order to be trusted and respected and not to drag down the reputation of Buddhism.

As Mingyur Rinpoche pointed out, we cultivate pure perception towards everyone, not just the guru. Nonetheless, present day lamas are not Guru Rinpoche or Tilopa, any more than the student is Yeshe Tsogyal or Naropa.  Is the student benefitted? Good. Is the student psychologically harmed?  Not good.  It is so simple.

Tibetan Buddhism is based on a feudal system of total authority (however corrupt) and abject obedience.  We do not need to go backwards to outdated social attitudes in order to be good practitioners. One troubling aspect is the effort to ‘cover up and defend’ by lamas who really should know better.  Part of the ‘Old Boys Club’ syndrome. To try to defend indefensible behaviour by quoting tantric texts and accuse the victims, is to equate Tantra with violence, over-indulgence and sexual predatory activity, which hardly speaks well of that method as a valid path to Enlightenment.

When students are instructed to never question the teacher and to do everything to please them, then of course it leaves the doors wide open to exploitation.  This feudal thinking has to be tempered with common sense and common caution.  If it feels wrong – don’t do it, no matter who asks you.  It is not breaking Samaya to say No.

As someone said: ‘…the happiness of the privileged is based on never starting the process towards becoming accountable…… the revelation of truth is tremendously dangerous to supremacy.’

So be grateful for what teachings the Lama has given and appreciate everything that has been helpful.  But do not feel guilty about seeing and acknowledging where the boundaries have been overstepped by the teacher.  The fault is with limitations and wrong conduct of the guru.  Better luck next time.

All good wishes in the Dharma,

Tenzin Palmo


NB: Tenzin Palmo was NOT a student of Chogyam Trungpa. Read her biography here: http://tenzinpalmo.com/jetsunma-tenzin-palmo/

If any of you would like to donate a little something to help Damcho and Tahlia get to the conference to deliver the paper in person click here.

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43 thoughts on “Helpful Words on Devotion, Samaya and Pure Perception from Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo

  1. Wow! This is a clear, no nonsense, completely reasonable letter, with no excuses, or subtle “politeness” out of fear of “offending” anyone, or adhering to so-called “cultural sensibilities” or non-apologies like “I’m sorry you feel that way, but you weren’t realized enough” and other such crap. It’s refreshing to hear a Vajrayana Dharma practitioner NOT mince words, for a change. She is Westerner though (and she is also a woman), so it’s not quite like hearing a lama say this, but it’s a step forward. When will most of the Tibetan lamas speak as clearly and lucidly as she has done? If they all spoke out like her, I would be encouraged and inspired and I wouldn’t feel so mistrustful and disgusted with most of them. Also, if they all spoke out right away and didn’t stay silent until all the scandals blow up publicly in eveyone’s face, I would also feel encouraged and I would trust them more. It’s the silence and the wimpy speaking out (if at all) that I have a problem with. I am glad to hear that someone within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition has the courage to simply speak out and tell the truth. I hope she walks her talk though. Anyone can *say* anything, so who knows how she acts in secret? But since that’s something I can’t know (since I don’t know or study with her), I can only go by how she represents herself in public and when she speaks. This is a very good statement. I hope we will be hearing more like this, especially from Tibetan lamas.

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  2. I should say it’s the *male* Tibetan lamas we need to hear from the most, since it’s usually the men with the power and the women (and young boys) who are the victims. It’s disturbing how FEW of the male Tibetan lamas have said anything at all that sounds like a clear statement, such as this one.

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  3. Also, I’d like to add that this statement also proves that it is possible to make it VERY clear what is and what isn’t acceptable WITHOUT pointing fingers and naming names, so if Tibetan lamas are so scared of saying anything bad about anyone, why can’t they just talk like THIS? Then (hopefully) students could then take this clear information and apply it.

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  4. Fine words that echo everything that Rob Hogendoorn, myself and others have been saying for decades. The difference now is that people are listening and reflecting and maybe just maybe ACTING.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. For some reason, comments were closed in Importance of Outrage, so I’ll post here to Pete and Joanne.

    Hi @Pete & @Joanne

    Thanks for your thoughtful posts.

    We are each writing from our own contexts, which seems like how it should be, and each of those contexts creates a different lens, a different way of viewing this situation. This series of posts between us somehow seems a little softer, a little more open to each others views. For me, this is the primary context and seems crucial for any kind of healing process to continue. This is one of the reasons I’ve tried to encourage possible Skype meetings, they generally quickly soften hard edges that often come forth in only online textual settings.

    Another context that I’m coming from is my own long history of abuse that began at a very early age (say 4 or 5). This situation isn’t uncommon, in fact it may be much more widespread than we all realize. Of course, the word “abuse” can carry another wide range of contexts and ways of seeing it. Where do we draw the lines of definition? (Here’s a conversation with J. Hari that looks at a wider definition of abuse and how it relates to our global society. https://samharris.org/podcasts/142-addiction-depression-meaningful-life/)

    I’m also trying to activate seeing this situation in as wide a way as possible. This shift isn’t meant to trivialize details, rather the opposite, to see those details more clearly and with more granularity.

    Abuse is rampant in our global society. “There are now twice as many people enslaved in the world as there were in the 350 years of the transatlantic slave trade.” (The Atlantic) Since 1945 the international community has stood by, again and again, as genocide unfolds. (Spiegel Online) This context seems important, too.

    Also, there is my history in the Rigpa Organization, my relationship with Sogyal Rinpoche and my relationship with the Sangha. I met Sogyal Rinpoche in 1983, he stayed at our small apartment in Seattle on 3 different times, and I last saw him in Seattle in Dec. of 2015. Of course, most of those encounters were in the context of participation with the Sangha.

    When I speak of responsibility, this has no relation to blame at all. Most often I think of responsibility as “response-ability” that is increasing our capacity to respond. In order to respond, it seems we must take on how we are and what we do as part of increasing that capacity.

    Maybe this is enough for now and my posts might be seen along with these contexts. I’d be curious to hear the contexts that you both are coming from, too.

    Regards,

    Rick

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    1. @Rick,

      The comments on the threads are always closed after a certain amount of time has passed. Sometimes the threads stay open if no new threads are posted for a while, but when new topics are posted, the older threads are closed.

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          1. OK, fair enough in some sense. There’s a whole can of worms there, though. Perhaps, especially in this setting of attentiveness to communication.

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            1. @Richard yes, they close automatically after 10 days or so (not sure of the exact number) It’s because I can barely manage to keep an eye on one post, more is just impossible.

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    2. @Rick,

      “Abuse is rampant in our global society. “There are now twice as many people enslaved in the world as there were in the 350 years of the transatlantic slave trade.” (The Atlantic) Since 1945 the international community has stood by, again and again, as genocide unfolds. (Spiegel Online) This context seems important, too.”

      I’m certainly not trivializing slavery or genocide, but I would like to point out that the global population has exploded in the past few decades, so of course we are going to see more murders, crime, slavery, and genocide around the world. But is the *percentage* of these things greater than it was the past? I don’t know if I am being clear, but I would say that these things have gone down in more recent times, (if you put it all the context of the overall huge global population).

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      1. @ Catlover

        Probably, but I don’t think that mitigates anything or matters to those who are murdered, raped, trapped in slavery or abused by those in power. The number of people in these situations are real, percentages are a mathematical calculation.

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        1. @Rick,

          I didn’t say that makes it any less bad for victims, but I’m not sure the world is getting worse than before just because the numbers have gone up. The population has gone up, so one could also say that the number of people being kind to each other has gone up.

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    3. @Rick, thank you for your reply and for sharing your experiences. Yes, I totally agree that looking at things from as many angles as possible is a really good practice and really important in moving forward. There is no narrow black-and-white, either/or solution or perspective to any problem. I know for myself, sometimes I disagree before I take the time to see the situation from that person’s perspective and that isn’t so good. So thank you for clarifying your approach!

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    4. @ Rick New

      Sorry I didn’t get round to answering one of your previous posts, sometimes circumstances intervene, but I’ll try to reply to this one when I get the opportunity.

      Pete

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  6. all the trungpa, sogyal lineages are poisoned by abuse and should be abandoned by anyone seeking ethics and kindness, not to mention enlightenment. the conduct of people from those lineages speaks for itself.

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    1. I cannot imagine I will ever get out from under all the cruelty I experienced in Shambhala, and all the ways it has undermined me. Something truly poisonous there. The terrible irony is that the first major teaching its founder delivered in the West concerned spiritual materialism, which is exactly what the organisation fell prey to.

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      1. @Jacob B,

        It is ironic, isn’t it? Often, the people who preach the best messages turn out to be the worst hypocrites, as was the case with Trungpa. What he said about spiritual materialism was absolutely true, but him himself was a spiritual materialist, as well as many other lamas.

        Sorry you went through such a hard time. I do understand.

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        1. @Catlover

          [Let’s try this — I typed a response, then WordPress made me enter my password again, but when I did so and went back to cut-and-paste my original comment, it said “duplicate comment” and disallowed it. Even though the original comment didn’t appear! So let’s see if adding some additional words gets around the problem.]

          Thank you for the kind thought.

          It continues… Unfortunately, being able to see a situation clearly, to know that the behaviour of those claiming authority over you has been in direct violation of the bodhisattva vow they took, isn’t enough to transcend a profound and prolonged experience of condemnation. It just doesn’t go away, it took root too deeply.

          I *trusted* those who bound themselves to those words of Shantideva. And I believed them for years when their messages unambiguously undermined my path, because they acted so supremely confidently that they had all the answers, and wielded the mantle of their, well, god basically: VCTR.

          I have come to the conclusion that Tibetan Buddhism, at least as it has manifested in the West (I simply don’t know enough about how it has worked in its original lands) has a strong tendency to produce sadists. Misunderstood, it acts to sanction complete, self-deluded egomania, collectively and individually. Basically: Supreme Truth is on your side, you own it; do whatever you want; justify cruelty by claiming you are practicing higher, profound teachings; ostracize and consign to the trash heap anyone you don’t want to face by calling them an “enemy” of the dharma. I don’t think there is another religion on earth like Tibetan Buddhism which *attracts* the sort of person inclined towards egomania.

          I am still flabbergasted whenever I realize that this supposedly non-theistic path I chose, which seemed to me the very negation of anything fundamentalist, has become exactly that: a cocoon for religious fanatics, spreading harm and destroying lives right and left.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. agree

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o6U4lxV87Oc (about too much reliance on Guru insted of empowering ourselves. Shifting out of victim mindset & becoming a Creator)

            This inner dialogue reduced her anxiety, allowing her to trauma bond (Stockholm Syndrome) with her abuser, to the point that she will even protect him from the outside world if people attempt to rescue her or encourage her to leave

            https://narcissisticbehavior.net/understand-cognitive-dissonance-trauma-bonding-infantile-regression/

            “very often there will be sexual abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse and psychological abuse. He or she doesn’t see them as individuals but as objects. They are there to (ab)use” says Christine in:

            let us heal, forgive and better protect ourselves… self empower

            Love, Stefan

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  7. Had a bit of an epithamy moment when realized SL’s performance was a front for his Sex/Power games being them thankas, other masters doing same butn’t all, some are genuinie but still deluded themselves; we are just apes with no rebirth and Buddhism just another method to control they lower pecking order man-apes. Maybesome truths in it, but not all as used on the Hindu religious thoughts of that time. Anywayz just saying …

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  8. Tenzin Palmo on the money as usual.

    It’s absolutely ridiculous that people are afraid to speak out because they fear being tortured for eternity by big metal men. But, if you do develop negative ‘samaya’ due to being abused by the teacher and you do end up in hell, your teacher is the cause of that, not you.
    Would a Buddha do something that lands you in hell?

    Many people who are taking the high ground on samaya live 5000 miles from their teacher and see them maybe twice a year. Easy to keep samaya then isn’t it? Try living for a few years with a genuine teacher and see how difficult it is to not develop negative views of them.

    Samaya not about reluctantly becoming somebody’s slave out of fear of going to hell. It is about developing true, genuine love for your teacher. It is the power of the heart, not the power of guilt.

    Like a close family member, It doesn’t mean you don’t argue with them or tell them to piss off from time to time. That is the only way to keep it healthy.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Hell is only a mental or Fisical state on Earth (mental planet or concentration camp) and to believe it exists elsewhere ina cloud 9 is akin to fairy beliaf – how we got taken in by these Llama chaps is a mental dissonance that cannot be squared. SL deserves nothing but what he’s going throughs as he has ruined the lives of many like me.

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  10. Just so we’re all clear. Jetsun Palmo was never a student of Chogyam Trungpa. You can read her biography here: http://tenzinpalmo.com/jetsunma-tenzin-palmo/

    How about we try to honor what is great about what she said, instead of trying to find some fault. She has nothing to do with those lineages of abuse, and has worked tirelessly to improve the situation of Buddhist nuns and advance the place of women in Buddhism in general.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. @Moonfire,

      Some people get all the famous Western Tibetan Buddhist nuns mixed up. I think people are getting Tenzin Palmo mixed up with Pema Chodron, who is a Trungpa devotee.

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  11. @johnlavers I deleted one of your posts because it contravened our posting guidelines in that it was a personal attack on one of our commenters. Please refrain from doing so in future, or you may find yourself no longer able to commemt at all.

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  12. @Catlover

    Thank you for the kind thought.

    It continues… Unfortunately, being able to see a situation clearly, to know that the behaviour of those claiming authority over you has been in direct violation of the bodhisattva vow they took, isn’t enough to transcend a profound and prolonged experience of condemnation. It just doesn’t go away, it took root too deeply.

    I *trusted* those who bound themselves to those words of Shantideva. And I believed them for years when their messages unambiguously undermined my path, because they acted so supremely confidently that they had all the answers, and wielded the mantle of their, well, god basically: VCTR.

    I have come to the conclusion that Tibetan Buddhism, at least as it has manifested in the West (I simply don’t know enough about how it has worked in its original lands) has a strong tendency to produce sadists. Misunderstood, it acts to sanction complete, self-deluded egomania, collectively and individually. Basically: Supreme Truth is on your side, you own it; do whatever you want; justify cruelty by claiming you are practicing higher, profound teachings; ostracize and consign to the trash heap anyone you don’t want to face by calling them an “enemy” of the dharma. I don’t think there is another religion on earth like Tibetan Buddhism which *attracts* the sort of person inclined towards egomania.

    I am still flabbergasted whenever I realize that this supposedly non-theistic path I chose, which seemed to me the very negation of anything fundamentalist, has become exactly that: a cocoon for religious fanatics, spreading harm and destroying lives right and left.

    Like

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