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Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, SUNY 2003Frank Visser, graduated as a psychologist of culture and religion, founded IntegralWorld.net in 1997. He worked as production manager for various publishing houses and as service manager for various internet companies and lives in Amsterdam. Author of Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion” (SUNY Press, 2003), which has been translated into 7 languages, and of 150+ essays on this website.
SEE MORE ESSAYS WRITTEN BY FRANK VISSER

Sogyal Rinpoche and
the Collapse of
Tibetan Buddhism

Frank Visser

This whole Sogyal story is not an incident of a eccentric and dysfunctional lama, but goes to the core of the Tibetan patriarchal, sexist view of life.

On 28 August 2019 the famous Tibetan lama Sogyal Rinpoche, author of the bestseller The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (1992), died, or as the saying goes in these circles "entered into parinirvana".[1] This event has not gone unnoticed. As the New York Times wrote a few days later: "Sogyal Rinpoche, a charismatic Tibetan Buddhist teacher and best-selling author who abruptly retired after several of his students accused him of multiple acts of sexual, physical and emotional abuse, died on Aug. 28 in a hospital in Thailand. He was in his early 70s" (New York Times, Sept. 1st, 2019).[2]

Does that ring a temple bell with you?

Andrew Cohen "retired" from public function as a guru after his senior students had confronted him with his abusive behavior. "On June 26, 2013, Cohen announced on his blog that he would be taking "a sabbatical for an extended period of time", after confrontational exchanges with some of his closest students."[3] Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, son of Chögyam Trungpa, and the current head of Shambhala, a worldwide network of urban Buddhist meditation centers, retreat centers, monasteries, a university, and other enterprises, recently "[stepped] back from his duties due to an investigation into his alleged sexual misconduct."[4] Different gurus, different movements, same sad story.

Sogyal Rinpoche
Sogyal Rinpoche (1947-2019)

The #Me Too era has definitely dawned on the world of Eastern-inspired spirituality in the West. We see a clear pattern here within guru movements of widespread and long term abuse—sexual (or sexist), emotional, physical and financial—and at the same time a revolt within these movements, often of senior disciples, against this dysfunctional behavior. It has often been said—most notably by Ken Wilber—that Western culture doesn't really understand guru spirituality. But it can equally be said that Western culture has exposed, at least the most obnoxious aspects of its shadow side. Under the idealized language of enlightenment, self-realization and pure mind, something definitely stinks here. And without exception, those who point this out are accused of betraying the guru or his whole tradition, risking to lose their chances of enlightenment, or to use a favorite Tibetan example, be sure to go to a special place called Vajra hell.

Vajra Hell: Once you have practiced the Vajra Tantra, if you commit a crime in this lifetime, you will only degenerate into the Vajra Hell and not the lowest level that will hold you forever. Whoever falls into the Vajra Hell will eventually get out and after getting out , his previous level of cultivation will be reinstated immediately, without practicing what he had learned earlier. However, the suffering in the Vajra Hell is extremely severe. Buddhism.org

“He is now disgraced”

Back to Sogyal. The senior students formulated their grievances in a long and detailed personal letter to their guru, dated July 14th, 2017, in which they listed the following complaints:

Our primary concerns are:

1. Your physical, emotional and psychological abuse of students.
2. Your sexual abuse of students.
3. Your lavish, gluttonous, and sybaritic lifestyle.
4. Your actions have tainted our appreciation for the practice of the Dharma.[5]

Some of the accusations are hilarious, if they weren't so painful at the same time. Sogyal used to hit his (female) students with his back-scratcher—in some particularly sorry case more than 200 times over a long period! The response to this letter was predictable. No reaction. A second letter followed, on January 11, 2018, explicitly calling on Sogyal:

Our original letter six months ago was to you, our Buddhist teacher, asking for clarification on a number of matters. First, are your sexual relations with many of your female students in accordance with the Dharma? Second, are your physical beatings and emotional abuse of us and other students in accordance with the Dharma? And third, is financing your sybaritic lifestyle by using donations from students in accordance with the Dharma? If those actions are not in accordance with the Dharma, we asked you to refrain from them now and in the future. We expected answers to our questions.[6]

Rigpa, the Sogyal organization, tried damage control and legal threats, but on September 5th, 2018, an independent 50-page report was released by a highly regarded European legal firm Lewis Silkin. It vindicated most of the complaints aired by the students, and provided a long list of 12 recommendations, the first of which was: "Sogyal Lakar should not take part in any future event organized by Rigpa or otherwise have contact with it student."[7]

Basically, the legal advise was to have a guru movement without its guru...

The whole drama got escalated to the level of the Dalai Lama, the de facto the highest authority in Tibetan Buddhism, by a group of Dutch students. On September 14, 2018, they had a meeting with the Dalai Lama during his visit to Rotterdam. His Holiness' response to the conversation: "This is nothing new". So he knew about Sogyals abuse all along? Kind of like the Roman Catholic Pope and priest abuse?

H.H. the Dalai Lama: “So, when people really suffer due to exploitation, then people should develop courage in order to topple that institution. They also need courage to (go) against religious institution. Isn't it? What do you think?”

While the Dalai Lama seems to have given moral support to these victims of Sogyal Rinpoche, it is also clear that he has never intervened in this project, given that he was aware of the problems. This casts some doubt on the ethical integrity of the Dalai Lama. Or perhaps, Tibetan Buddhism is too much a many-headed beast to be tamed by one authority?

H.H. the Dalai Lama: “These lamas, although they don't care about Buddha's teaching, they may care about their face. I told them at that conference, almost 15 years ago I think. Now, recently Sogyal Rinpoche; my very good friend, but he's disgraced. So some of his own students have now made public their criticism.”

These words of the Dalai Lama—though eminently sensible and even modern—come across as "too little, too late". What if we are to discard the "feudal" aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, as he advises on many occasions? What if the whole lama/tulku system of Tibetan Buddhism has to go? What if even the Dalai Lama and the system he represents turns out to have a huge shadow, if we are to believe the researches of former Buddhist students Victor and Victoria Trimondi?[8] This makes for chilling reading. What if the Shambala-myth turns out to be racist and violent battle between Buddha and Allah? What if older lamas are no longer allowed to take very young girls as dakinis ("consorts") to prolong their lives? What if the so-called gender-equality of tantra turns out to be a male scheme of withdrawing energy from women? Where even to begin with modernizing this whole archaic system of magical and mystical belief?

As the Trimondi's conclude:

Not unlike other religions Buddhism also has "skeletons in its' closet" which it carefully conceals in the Western world. There are dark aspects in this "philosophy of compassion, non-violence and tolerance".[9]

This whole Sogyal story is not an incident of a eccentric and dysfunctional lama, but goes to the core of the Tibetan patriarchal, sexist view of life. The list of controversial Buddhist teachers and groups seems endless, indeed.[10] Much more is at stake here than one case of a "disgraced" guru.

In integral parlance, we would need to separate the sophisticated knowledge about state-training, present in the Tibetan Buddhist culture and literature, from its "amber-blue" or feudal-dogmatic background. Or, we should make a distinction between various lines of development, in which one can be advanced in the spiritual line, but retarded in the emotional line. But I question this strategy. How can one be advanced in the line of compassion and loving-kindness, and at the same time be an asshole and abuser of women students? This only works within a conception of a non-relational spirituality that looks more like top sport or spiritual alpinism ("look how long I can be without thoughts!"), which is devoid of emotion and empathy.[11]

"When teachers break the precepts, behaving in ways that are clearly damaging to themselves and others, students must face the situation, even though this can be challenging, criticize openly, that's the only way." His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Some Personal History

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

I have been somewhat involved in Sogyal Rinpoche's movement because I once worked for his Dutch publisher, and dtp-typesetted the Dutch translation of his major book The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (Harper Collins, 1992). I was present when a first copy of this translation was presented to the Dalai Lama. I also produced a Dutch translation of his second book, Glimpse after Glimpse (Rider, 1995), which contains extracts of the first book for daily use. To discuss the Dutch translation of the title of the second book, I attended a public lecture Sogyal Rinpoche gave in the Netherlands in 1995. He made an agitated impression on me, when he finally entered the building, and commented rather critically on the way Tibetan ornaments were on display on the various walls. I had to literally wade through a bunch of young and beautiful women from his inner circle to be able to speak a few words with him about the book project. Little did I know Sogyal had the reputation of a womanizer, but I assume these women also were very eager to be among the guru's favorite disciples. In Sogyal's case, many of them have now exposed him for what he really was. As a recent biography by a former student of Sogyal Rinpoche calls him without any reservation: a "narcissistic charlatan"[12].

My interest in those days was slightly different. Having published a book called Seven Spheres (1995) in Dutch on the esoteric worldview, I was interested in the truth, or value, of the Tibetan teaching about death and the hereafter. In particular I doubted why lofty teachings directed at long term meditators in Tibet would be of any use to ordinary human beings in the West. The Western esoteric tradition also had much to teach about these subjects, and the picture I could distill from there was markedly different.

Especially the rigid adherence to a period of seven weeks, or even 49 days, after someone's death, during which intricate rituals had to be performed to guide the soul through the various demonic spheres or bardos[13], seemed dogmatic and unrealistic to me. Listen to this fragment:

The Second Bardo is a two week period divided in half, in which the soul is met by numerous spiritual beings. In the first week, the Peaceful Deities appear to the soul. Seven deities appear, one for each day of the week, bringing their magnificent glory before the soul. If the soul is able to stand before the first deity, it will reach Nirvana, the aforementioned ultimate existence. If not, the soul descends from one day to the next, passing or failing the tests of each deity. In each case, the soul will be reborn into gradually decreasing states of existence, with the final state being reborn as an animal.[14]

In contrast, Western descriptions of the afterlife were much more, shall we say, homely in comparison. If these include some notion of reincarnation, the pattern is almost its mirror image. Tibetan sources teach us a sharp and steep ascent to the Clear Light, after having confronted the various demonic realms (which are said to be one's own imagination), upon which the soul descends into incarnation again. Western sources picture a slow and dreamy rise through the spheres, followed by a swift return to earthly life. As I wrote in Seven Spheres:

What to make of the complex view of reincarnation that is presented in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which is becoming more and more popular in the Western world thanks to the efforts of Tibetan lamas such as Chögyam Trunpga and Sogyal Rinpoche? In the absence of any comprehensive view of life after death, the Tibetan view seems to hold the day. The Tibetan Book of the Dead offers a view of the reincarnation process -- nothing less, and nothing more. How probable is the Tibetan view? What alternatives exist to understand reincarnation?
Now what happens to people who are a yet nowhere near the moment of Liberation? In my opinion, the Tibetan Book of the Dead has not much to offer to them. Sogyal Rinpoche, a modern day exponent of the tradition to which the Tibetan Book of the Dead belongs, writes that they will pass through the whole process practically unconsciously.[15]

From the same book, some diagrams might illustrate this difference in conception:

Fig. 5.4 - The Tibetan View of Reincarnation

Fig. 5.5 - The Theosophical View of Reincarnation

I leave it to those who are interested in these metaphysical details to pursue the chapters from Seven Spheres which I have posted on Integral World. What has always striked me as odd is that the truth of these ideas never seemed to bother many people. Even Ken Wilber has just repeated the Tibetan view of death and after in various publications.[16] Such is the impact of the Tibetan mystique. As for myself, I don't believe any of these views anymore—but that's a different story.

The mystery of Tantric Buddhism consists in ... the manipulation of erotic love so as to attain universal androcentric power. Victor & Victoria Trimondi
Sherab Ling
Sogyal Rinpoche's Tibetan style temple at Lerab Ling, in France.

NOTES

[1] www.rigpa.org/, www.lerabling.org/ and "Sogyal Rinpoche", Wikipedia.

[2] Richard Sandomir, "Sogyal Rinpoche Dies; Tibetan Buddhist Lama Felled by Abuse Accusations", www.nytimes.com, September 1st.

[3] "Andrew Cohen", Wikipedia. See also: Hal Blacker, The "A" List of Andrew Cohen: A Catalog of Trauma and Abuse, www.integralworld.net, July 2013

[4] "Sakyong_Mipham", Wikipedia. See also: Elliot Benjamin, "Is Shambhala a Cult?", Part I, Part II, Part III, www.integralworld.net, December 2017-June 2018.

[5] Mary Finnigan & Rob Hogendoorn, Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism: The Rise and Fall of Sogyal Rinpoche, Jorvik Press, July 1, 2019, p. 109.

[6] Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism, p. 149-150.

[7] Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism, p. 167.

[8] Victor & Victoria Trimondi, The Shadow of the Dalai Lama, www.trimondi.de, 2003. See also their comments on the case of Sogyal Rinpoche (in German): "Nothing New": Der Fall "Sogyal Rinpoche" und die buddhistische #MeToo Bewegung", www.trimondi.de

[9] Victor & Victoria Trimondi, "Critical Links to Lamaism", www.trimondi.de, 2003.

[10] "Controversial 'Buddhist' Teachers & Groups", viewonbuddhism.org

[11] The kind of religion promoted by Ken Wilber, see his recent The Religion of Tomorrow, Shambhala, 2017. See my 7-part review "Climbing the Stairway to Heaven", www.integralworld.net, May-June, 2017.

[12] Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism, p. 89.

[13] "Bardo", Wikipedia.

[14] Joshua Sipper, "The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Summary, Translation & Quotes", https://study.com

[15] Frank Visser, "Reincarnation and the Spheres", www.integralword.net, 1995, 2006.

[16] Ken Wilber, "Death, rebirth and meditation", in: Gary Doore (ed.), What Survives? Contemporary explorations of life after death (New Consciousness Reader), Tarcher, 1990.

FURTHER READING/VIEWING

Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism: The Rise and Fall of Sogyal Rinpoche

"In the Name of Enlightenment - Sex Scandal in Religion" - About Sogyal Rinpoche
In Tantric Buddhism we are dealing with a misogynist, destructive, masculine philosophy and religion which is hostile to life—i.e., the precise opposite of that for which it is trustingly and magnanimously welcomed in the West, above all in the figure of the Dalai Lama. The Shadow of the Dalai Lama – Part I – 1. Buddhism and misogyny, Victor & Victoria Trimondi






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