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When Buddhism is a Cult

Thirty-five years ago I was in the temple with a younger monk polishing brass statues when the following conversation transpired. Our abbot was off on a teaching tour and had invited another Tibetan teacher to takeover his philosophy classes. It wasn’t going well.

Older monk (me): This new teacher doesn’t seem to know his stuff.”

Younger monk (shocked): “But our teacher chose him.”

Older monk (me): “Yes I asked him about that. He said they were old friends.”

Younger monk (frowning): “There must be another reason. There’s a lesson in here for us.”

Older monk (me): “The lesson is that some teachers are better than others … and perhaps ours made a mistake in choosing this one.”

Younger monk (stops polishing, opens mouth in disbelief): “I can’t think that. I won’t think that.” (Younger monk hastily leaves my presence.)

That was the day I realized that my incessant questioning had finally isolated me from the community.

*          *          *

This seemingly trivial exchange illustrates the defining paradox of Tibetan Buddhism: guru-devotion.

Here’s how it goes: You should regard your guru as a fully enlightened buddha. To benefit from your relationship with him, you must see him as always having your interests at heart, no matter what. If you doubt, question or reject that, you’re cut off from your source of spiritual advancement now and in future lifetimes, where you’ll suffer countless rebirths in tantric hell.

Is your guru devotion a true
relationship, or just a dependency?

As a desperately hungry spiritual seeker thirty-five years ago I suspended my doubts without a second thought. I’d burned my bridges back home, almost lost myself in drugs, found a home among the Tibetans and done what was necessary to fit in.

As you’d expect, this prescription has its dangers. A recent Canadian documentary reports that the influential Tibetan lama Sogyal Rinpoche abused his female disciples for sex. As in earlier but less explosive exposés, those wishing to tell the story were confronted by a Vatican-like code of secrecy that has silenced even the Dalai Lama. In 1993 he chose to not endorse a letter calling on students to report abusive teachers.

A less public, more insidious, danger is the disciple’s private decision to avoid seeing the guru’s human failings. When the facts of life are incompatible with your spiritual practice, you’re headed for bitter disillusion.

On first contact, Tibetan Buddhism is a welcoming paragon of reason and compassion. However, the teachings are layered with esoteric, mystical, exclusive and secret accretions. On the bottom lie the austere ethics and philosophy of the historical Buddha, referred to as ‘the lesser vehicle.’ Above this is the ‘greater vehicle,’ and then the ‘secret vehicle,’ also called tantra. It’s at this level that a guru is indispensible.

There’s no historical record of the Buddha teaching tantra

Tantra is a rich body of symbolic practice with strict ethical codes. However, it employs sexual and demonic imagery that’s easily manipulated, not only by opportunistic teachers but also by the wishful thinking of devotees. Tantric lore and even contemporary Tibetan history are rife with invisible demons and magical happenings.

Wishful thinking permeates Tibetan religious life. Lamas are routinely referred to as a living buddhas, especially if they’re wealthier, smarter or better-connected. Tibetan culture is deeply stratified. The Tibetan language itself has different vocabularies for speaking up to a superior, across to a peer or down to an inferior. The everyday name for woman is, ‘low-born.’

Although many devotees bury their doubts and questions, the tantric scriptures do not demand it. They wisely spell out the precariousness of the guru-disciple relationship and call on teachers and students to inspect one other for years before making this esoteric pact. In practice however, ‘secret’ empowerments are freely available. The Dalai Lama’s public Kalachakra rituals are organized and attended like rock concerts. Few devotees pass up the opportunity, and then they’re supposed to view the officiating lama as a tantric guru.

Newcomers to Tibetan Buddhism are often hungry for enlightenment, and teachers need students for their ongoing credibility and sustenance. You might wonder, “What’s a fully enlightened buddha like?” More to the point, is this a true relationship or just a dependency?

*          *          *

There’s no historical record of the Buddha teaching tantra. To lend these practices authenticity the Tibetan establishment calls them the Buddha’s ‘secret’ teachings, carried out in a duplicate body in another realm of existence at the same time he was teaching here on Earth. The practice is further legitimized by the claim that tantra is built upon ‘ordinary’ Buddhist practice. In theory, you can choose at what level you wish to practice. However, tantra is said to make enlightenment achievable in as little as three years, as opposed to the ‘countless lifetimes’ of ordinary Buddhism. Once ensnared in the Tibetan orbit, few devotees opt out.

Is your view of the guru an example of heightened
perception, or the projection of an ideal?

For them, Tantra is supercharged Buddhism. They engage in the most elaborate mental gymnastics to maintain its compatibility with ordinary Buddhism. The inner culture is infused with hierarchical relationships that mirror Tibetan society. ‘Ordinary’ Buddhism and tantric ritual are inseparably entwined.

Ordinary Buddhism depends on the basic practice of mindful attention. This form of mental training, used today worldwide by progressive physicians, requires practitioners to unsentimentally see things as they are. It takes a long-term approach to stress by delivering insight into the ways we think things ‘should’ be. This can be disquieting. By contrast, tantric practitioners need to view every facet of the guru’s behavior as enlightened. Whether or not it’s actually possible to reconcile these two approaches, for all but the most penetrating thinkers they end up being mutually exclusive.

The question that most guru devotees avoid at all costs is the one that mindfulness poses most insistently: Is your view of the guru an example of heightened perception, or the projection of an ideal? When I could no longer isolate these two perspectives from each other, I lost my tantric faith and migrated to the lesser vehicle. It was a step up to reality at the cost of great hand-wringing, guilt and self-doubt.

Since my memoir The Novice was published, I’ve received dozens of emails from people confronting the same dilemma. This is the trajectory of many who came to Buddhism through the Tibetan archway. It’s a welcoming, enticing and beautiful archway. For the spiritually exhausted, beat-up and destitute, it’s hard to resist the promises of supercharged Buddhism. However, sooner or later we all have to consider how it’s working for us.

Decision-making is an emotion

Tantra is not stuff and nonsense, but it’s widely disseminated and practiced in the most superstitious way, quite out of step with its dignity. Its symbolic and narrative value is as powerful as any Greek mythology, but for most devotees that comparison is pure heresy. Even among those who quit, few dare to speak up. I’ve been accused of apostasy and of being a ‘false prophet.’ Some of those who reported Sogyal Lakar’s sexual abuses received death threats.

A prerequisite of ordinary Buddhist practice is to inspect your own motivations, and one of the Buddha’s great insights is that feelings precede reason or, as neuropsychologists put it, decision-making is an emotion. To examine your motivations in that way, to question why you accept and why you reject, is to expose yourself most nakedly to the daring path he took.

I put little stock in the great answers to life, but I value the questions. A half-century of wrestling with belief systems has convinced me that the big one is, “Why do I believe?” There’s a lifetime’s insight in there. Nothing in the tantric scriptures contradicts this critical approach, but as long as you’re in Buddhism for comfort, consolation and security, you won’t be going there.

Contact Stephen if you are dealing with crisis, loss of faith and the sense of disconnect. He’s been there, knows how hard it is to see the way clear and can help.     More about One-on-One here.

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82 responses to “When Buddhism is a Cult”

  1. Gemma W.

    This reminds me a lot of Catholicism.

  2. Peter Calanni

    I felt like the Tibetan Buddhism in India/Nepal was what the Catholicism I experienced as a kid, was supposed to be like. Does that make any sense?

  3. caroline
  4. The Personal Development Round-up: September 2012 | Prismatic Cognizance

    […] When Buddhism is a Cult – Stephen shares a story and his thoughts about some of the issues within Buddhism. […]

  5. Mary Finnigan

    Hi Stephen —Now I know why you wanted to talk to me about how I square my critical faculties with Dzogchen view and practice. One inaccuracy — the documentary on Sogyal is not BBC. It was produced by the Canadian independent production company Cogent Benger. It was shown late at night on an obscure religious TV channel in Canada earlier this year. Within the past 10 days thye full version has appeared on YouTube and is receiving a consistenly high hit rate. Please note that although I have been campaigning to take the businessman and sexual predator Sogyal Lakar our of circulation as a Tibetan Buddhist teacher for more than 20 years, I did not put the documentary onto YouTube. I do, however acknowledge authorship of http://behindthethangkas.wordpress.com

  6. nayeli

    To sieve Vajrayana

    I would like to make a middle ground perspective. As a doubtful believer. On one hand we have a millenary spiritual practice, that roots itself in the most profound of human psyche. And this is the most important point I’d like to make. Working with archetypes, working with deconstructing our ordinary perspective, of what we are, of who we are, I think is a wonderful tool for loosing the grip, or have a better understanding of reality, or enlightenment, or however you want to call it. (as you state it: “Tantra is a rich body of symbolic practice with strict ethical codes.”)
    On the other hand, we have lack of clarity, superstition, abuse, the human play of power gaining intertwined.
    Use the tool in the right way, it may give you great benefit, use it in the wrong way, and you end up hurt. (as with any tool)
    I agree with your statement that Tantra is NOT stuff and nonsense, If you approach it with blind faith you are not using it right. I would suggest to study, to understand and to be critical. and that is adding Buddhism to Tantra.
    and I think this is a way for Buddhism not to be a cult. Even Vajrayana!

  7. Thomas Mayfield

    There is no freedom in samsara. you are making the mistake of taking a mundane view at a supra-mundane set of ideas. It’s like someone in the Sahara trying to read about how to survive in a blizzard, of course it doesn’t make sense to you. There are numerous other common errors in this article as well. (If anyone is interested I could list a few.) This is what happens when cultures collide.

  8. Bruce Raper


    Just read this comment by Abbess Grace Shireson and I believe it applies to the conversation….

    “Like everything else “teacher” has no fixed self. Some suck, some are helpful, some are helpful sometimes and suck at other times. I am glad we are not getting too stuck on that problem. As long as teacher is seen as candle or guide, I hope you can agree to make use of the resource when it doesn’t pretend to have a mythic and fixed self. When the teacher’s claims are too far-fetched, I hope you will notice and run like hell.”

    BTW, I read your book over the summer and thoroughly enjoyed it.

    All the best,

  9. Mahfoudqsd

    Sounds like making a steematnt of fact the Tibetans doing those things, therefore a true steematnt of the facts. this religion or ethnic origin got to do with anything? As for it all being “a Jewish wish” what? You think one person who makes a steematnt speaks for their whole religous or ethnic grouping?I think the only strange thing here is YOUR question. Why are you asking such questions? Are you an anti-semitic (ie, anti-Jewish/Israeli as opposed to the other semitic peoples such as Arabs) or an anti-Canadian? Or just plain […]

  10. Nancy

    I began studying Buddhism with a Tibetan Lama over 25 years ago. My teacher suggestions of a specific meditation helped me weather a deep family tragedy while simultaneously revealing to me the incredible power of vajrayana meditation practices. After some years I chose to take monastic vows. I have never regretted this decision although I acknowledge that I am not now and probably could not live a monastic life as such a life unfolds in Asia. I had always known about my teacher’s activities that appeared to be mean spirited, explotive and at times dishonest. I even had discussions with more senior students regarding these behaviors. I felt uncomfortable in these discussions because I was constantly trying to balance keeping samaya with the teacher against my own view of events that were actually occuring. During the years I was with him, I saw many sincere and dedicated students leave the organization due to dissonance between the teachings and the teacher’s behavior. However the power and the efficacy of the practices coupled with my teacher’s willingness to continue teaching me lead to my continued membership in that sangha. Several years ago I entered a traditional three year retreat. I completed the retreat. I continued to be within my teacher’s circle. He became more and more critical of me both privately and publically. At last I chose to leave that circle of students and teacher. I felt immediate mental freedom. I no longer had to perform the mental gymnastics to reconcile my teacher’s behavior with the Buddha’s teachings. It has been a time of confusion, doubt, and anxiety. It has also been a time of clarity, and joy and freedom. For awhile I was angry . ” How could he throw me away so easily? ” Now with a couple of years perspective, I find new levels of compassion for myself, for the many students who have left, for the students who remain, and for him even as I acknowledge that how he treated me and others was unethical, mean and immoral. We are all circling in stew of attraction, aversion and ignorance. Of course my teacher is Buddha incarnate and of couse he is also a sentient being…. as am I and you and all the rest of us. The Buddha taught a way of transcening the pervasive suffering of this life. It works whatever vehicle we follow if we actually do the work. Buddhism doesn’t stop unpleasant events from occuring in one’s life, but it allows one to mitigate, avoid, transform and even transcend the suffering associated with the inevitable unpleasant events that occur. As I have worked to integrate my separation from my teacher into my current life I have developed deep respect and gratitude for the teachings of the vajrayana that I have been given. I also have developed deep respect and gratitude for my own mind – the ultimate guru. I seldom engage in Diety yoga anymore but I do not disavowed it’s worth. Mind-training and mindfulness practices have so much to offer all of us. Coming home to these practices after exploring the peaks of Diety yoga reveals new depths that I never even suspected. I maintain my vows even as I live a life that appears to most to be very householder-like. Lately I have been willing to explore issues like trust, devotion, faith, and guru yoga. (Yikes I tell myself, BE CAREFUL). If the teaching is true that devotion is a prerequisite for the ultimate realization, does that mean that realization is closed off to me this lifetime? (Digression: Is this akin to the early Mormons believing one must have many lives to enter the highest heaven?) I think not, but even if it is true, I cannot, I will not ,once again betray my own mind. Meanwhile I notice that my back is stiff from sitting too long at the computer.

  11. Tenpel

    Dear Stephen,
    I would like to address some points you made because I see them as being superficial, not grasping the meaning of what Indo-Tibetan Buddhism is all about. IMO, the content of this post adds rather to the confusion than clarifying it – though some might find it helpful because it reflects their own thinking.

    If there are cults in a religion – and I would not hesitate to say within „Tibetan Buddhism“ as well as in other „Buddhisms“ there are some cults – this does not necessarily mean that the whole religion is a cult. Because there are some cultish or cult-like groups within Tibetan Buddhism to infer from this Tibetan Buddhism in general is a cult is a generalisation that goes a bit too far for me, and it’s no valid proof either because you cannot infer validly „because one child of the family is crazy the whole family is crazy.“

    You say: „You should regard your guru as a fully enlightened buddha […]“ but you miss to contextualise this teaching, which is mainly a training, and shouldn’t be understood on a literally level.

    When one trains even in the lower classes of Tantra on starts from the perception / meditation of oneself, the guru, and the deity as being of the same nature: lacking inherent existence (lacking a self) = „ultimate deity“. Then gradually one proceeds through the Six Deities of self-generation to the „deity with signs“ where one perceives oneself as a Buddha and trains in „correct pride“ based on the visualised basis to be the deity. In such a context it would be ridiculous to regard oneself as a Buddha (as a part of the tantric training) and the Vajra-Master as ordinary. And since one trains in the same way in the mediation break, it makes sense to see the “Guru as a Buddha” (while the mind that realizes emptiness takes on the aspect of oneself being also a Buddha.) In short the Tantra training does not include to see the teacher as a Buddha and oneself as an ordinary, deluded, poor-self being who is nothing and the guru is everything. In Tantra one trains to avoid ordinary appearance and ordinary grasping to both, oneself and others, including the teacher (+environment etc).

    These teachings don’t suggest therefore to look up to a teacher and down on oneself or to bend reality as it fits. It’s a training for certain trainees (mainly Bodhisattvas with sharp faculties). If one has taken up such a training and if one is properly qualified (as well if the teacher is properly qualified) one can quickly progress on the path – as long as one is not lead astray by oneself or the teacher. There are certain risks, which is illustrated by the saying that one either goes up or down by practising Tantra. Three years is a theoretical measure related to the breath and the winds entering into the central (or side) channel(s), and it should not be taken literally. It’s a hypothetical time duration! HH the Dalai Lama stresses that for most in a three year retreat what they attain is pride, when they do a next 3-year-retreat, they attain that this pride reduces, after a third 3-year-retreat one might have some genuine experiences.

    Also the hells need not to be taken literally: if there is the qualifications of both (teacher & student) and if one gives this rare occasion up, the hell is waiting in the sense of one continues to wander in Samsara. Moreover, to go to the hell „by a breach of guru devotion“ is not that easy, as Alexander Berzin explains in his excellent book on this subject. Some teachers go so far to say, that Westerners are so less qualified for Tantra that they cannot break their Samayas. So there is a variety of understanding here too.

    I don’t know where you got this from:
    „To benefit from your relationship with him, you must see him as always having your interests at heart, no matter what. If you doubt, question or reject that, you’re cut off from your source of spiritual advancement now and in future lifetimes, where you’ll suffer countless rebirths in tantric hell.“

    First of all once one has checked the master (ideally 12 years of examination) and if one sees him/her as qualified and has decided to accept him/her as one’s Tantric teacher such thoughts about his or her shortcomings aren’t useful for the training, nevertheless different texts also clearly state, that if the master gives wrong teachings, wrong advice or wrong commands contrary to the Dharma, one should no follow it. E.g. Je Tsongkhapa states for instance: „If someone suggests something which is not consistent with the Dharma, avoid it.“ „Distance yourself from Vajra Masters who are not keeping the three vows, who keep on with a root downfall, who are miserly with the Dharma, and who engage in actions that should be forsaken. Those who worship them go to hell and so on as a result.“ How can you do this if you even don’t question his or her actions? Also the Dalai Lama says clearly that to see all actions of the guru as enlightened is an „extremely dangerous teaching“.

    Maybe the teachers you met didn’t go to the depths of the meaning of the teachings, however, it’s a bit more profound than the blog entry suggests.

    You say: „The Dalai Lama’s public Kalachakra rituals are organized and attended like rock concerts. Few devotees pass up the opportunity, and then they’re supposed to view the officiating lama as a tantric guru.“

    Again, I find this as being a superficial statement. There are different ways to be present at an empowerment (see again Alexander Berzin). For instance a Christian (who sometimes as well as Theravadins are also present during such empowerments) can just attend as an observer to receive inspirations for the own faith, a next level is just to receive a blessing etc. In all those cases the Dalai Lama doesn’t become their Tantric Guru, nor do they have to practice Tantra or the Sadhana. (The Dalai Lama usually also doesn’t give a commitment, when he grants a Kalachakra empowerment. He even leads through the taking of the Bodhisattva vows in a way, that everybody has the choice to take or not to take them.) People like these rituals and the Dalai Lama says himself only 3-6 at such a gathering receive a real empowerment but he gives it mainly to use their faith in the ritual by passing some relevant teachings for their lives to them.

    You say: „Newcomers to Tibetan Buddhism are often hungry for enlightenment, and teachers need students for their ongoing credibility and sustenance.“

    This is a mere allegation that “teachers need students for their ongoing credibility and sustenance.” Why shouldn’t there be teachers who give it really with the motivation to benefit others? Again you generalise here: „teachers need students for their ongoing credibility and sustenance“ but what prove do you have for this claim? It might be true in some cases or even in many but not for every teacher. As Jackson from Hamburg University has put it so nicely:

    »In Tibet as in many a country, in addition to genuine religious teachers there were also a host of dubious mendicants, madmen, and charlatans who plied their trade among the faithful, and life within the big monasteries witnessed the full range of human personalities, from saintly to coldly calculating.«

    You say: „There’s no historical record of the Buddha teaching tantra. To lend these practices authenticity the Tibetan establishment calls them the Buddha’s ‘secret’ teachings …“

    You miss to mention that the Tantra is not an invention by the Tibetans but was brought to Tibet by Indian masters such as Padmasambhava or Atisha. And they say exactly the same. You can likewise say „there is no historical record of the Buddha teaching Theravada or Mahayana“ because all written and transmitted teachings appeared long after Buddha’s passing away. Even scientists (who are more open and who don’t adhere to the view that Theravada is the „most authentic Buddhism“) say that there is no proof for any teaching that it is from the Buddha. The Buddha did also not teach in Pali. This is quite of a vast topic …

    You say: „The practice is further legitimized by the claim that tantra is built upon ‘ordinary’ Buddhist practice.“

    This is not a claim, it’s a fact. Why? Tantra is based on renunciation, great compassion and emptiness.

    You say: „In theory, you can choose at what level you wish to practice. However, tantra is said to make enlightenment achievable in as little as three years, as opposed to the ‘countless lifetimes’ of ordinary Buddhism. Once ensnared in the Tibetan orbit, few devotees opt out.“

    I commented on this theoretical claim of in-3-years-enlightenment already above. I don’t know of few devotees opt out. Do you have any reliable statistics?

    You say: „By contrast, tantric practitioners need to view every facet of the guru’s behavior as enlightened. Whether or not it’s actually possible to reconcile these two approaches, for all but the most penetrating thinkers they end up being mutually exclusive.“

    See the Dalai Lama’s comment: http://info-buddhism.com/Questioning_Advice_of_Guru_Dalai_Lama.html

    After reading the blog entry, my impression is that what was passed to you or what you’ve understood seems to be rather a superficial type of understanding of Tibetan Buddhism but not what Tibetan Buddhism is all about in its depths. Kelsang Gyatso (New Kadampa Tradition) and his NKT teachers spread such superficial understanding too, and of course this is a cause of misunderstandings and subsequent problems but it’s not what „Tibetan Buddhism“ in a deeper sense is all about. Therefore I wouldn’t go so far to attribute these misunderstandings to Tibetan Buddhism but to the persons, groups, teachers who have taught / spread them.

    I agree however, that the teachings within Indo-Tibetan Buddhism can be used to establish and to abuse power. But this is a human failing and not necessarily the failing of Tibetan Buddhism, and you find this also among practitioners of other Buddhisms and religions, Atheists, Scientists, Agnostics etc.

  12. Stephen Schettini about Tibetan Buddhism – When Buddhism is a Cult « Tibetan Buddhism :: Struggling With Difficult Issues

    […] friend of mine sent me a link to a blog entry, “When Buddhism is a Cult”, where Stephen Schettini writes about his understanding of Tibetan Buddhism. I found it quite […]

  13. Mary Finnigan

    I have just read through this thread. It is one of the best articulated, most informative ones on the subject on the internet. All I would like to add to it is that I had the good fortune to encounter the Dzogchen master Choegyal Namkhai Norbu, who has been my guide and inspiration since 1979. Dzogchen view reconciles the apparent paradox highlighted in this debate. It is known as Self Realisation because strips away spiritual fantasy with an austere single focus. But it also coexists with Vajrayana as a means of understanding the complexities of the human condition. Vajrayana deploys symbols in order to transform intellectual speculation — and in this respect the Tibetan yogis who figured it out in their Himalayan caves gave the world a powerful psycho-emotional road map. But because it is so colourful, exotic, mysterious and fascinating it can also be a vortex that sucks spiritually naive neophytes into double forgetting fundamental common sense.

  14. comoane

    As a fresh dropout of Rigpa, the group around Sogyal Rinpoche, you really helped me with thorough and clear essay on this subject. Words fail me a bit since I am fully in the process of as you say “nakedly” invest my own motives for ending up in it so deeply in a very short time and seeing way to much. I have to admit I was one of those of many “who came to Buddhism through the enticing and beautiful Tibetan archway.” And yes, I was and felt like one that was “spiritually exhausted, beat-up and destitute”. I am happy and sad at the same time to have come to a much saner part of my mind. Sad to see not only myself in hindsight so needy that I went not so much blind but definitely mute. In- as well as outside as response to what I experienced and understood, but also sad to see others helping and facilitating at there own cost what has beyond doubt became a cult around a highly disturbed personality. At their own cost without knowing it. This might be where I go wrong since people I know there say to really benefit. And who am I……. But at the same time it is clear that there is a huge silencing of the fact that there are people who are not only not benefiting but simply hurt by the power play taking place under a juicy sauce of the promise of enlightenment. Let me go to the happy part. I am real, in a way, and there is a relative level on which we all live together where it does matter how we treat each other. That I have to learn a lot about my own motives, emotions and decision making in this reality is so to say “lucky lifetime”. More a chance then a burden. And a much more beautiful archway if you ask me. For those who still wonder, from my own experience I can say that the allegations against Sogyal Rinpoche are true, and statements I can not known by my own experience are at least very likely so. And for the benefit of a lot of people, inside or about to be, I deeply hope a way is found in which this is addressed properly. We get what we ask for. After all it is because of the naive devotion of his inner circle and the masses around that he can be the guru he is displaying to be. Again many, many thanks. I am afraid that right now I am not very eloquent on the subject since I am still coming to terms with what I experienced. I stumbled upon your side in an almost daily search for intelligent discerning voices on Tibetan Buddhism and this Lama in particular. It speaks to what I had buried under hope and a willingness to stretch my boundaries beyond snapping. Great I couldn’t 🙂

  15. comoane

    Useful and indispensable indeed! One of the very clear insights I had during the three months I spend in Lerab Ling one and a halve year ago is that the outer Guru is the same as the inner one. At hearing that it made the whole thing possible since I was looking for inner guidance and had not really given in to the outer (nor was I really inclined to since I had reserves from the very start). So I translated it as that it meant for me I had to accept both. It turned out that with doing exactly that, or at least trying to, I learned an immensely valuable lesson. Strangely enough the sentence they use in Rigpa; that the teacher will always give you the right lesson at the right time in the end seemed to be true. That which must be done emerged in all its unavoidable naturalness ……..Thank you for your wonderful reply!

  16. Stephen Schettini

    When else would you get the right answer but at the right time? Beware of self-fulfilling prophecies. They build community consensus at the cost of individual discernment. If you got it right don’t you think it’s because you worked it out?

  17. comoane

    Of course Stephen. I must admit it is rather unclear, but I meant it mainly ironically… Even more unclear since in the first sentence I by accident made the Guru indispensable instead of NOT indispensable as I meant. But no I am not interested in magic thinking. Had more than enough and it was intolerably confusing. You said in your reply before how we go through great lengths to not do what must be done. I did just that, tried hard to go around the obvious instead of through, and although clarity prevailed, working it out through default is not a method I would recommend, and it is definitely not a rule. What I actually wanted to illustrate is how tricky the way of talking inside a group like this is. Very strange things are said and repeated to each other. To indeed build that consensus. The sentence about the right teaching at the right time will – like explaining outrageous behavior of the master with “crazy wisdom” and always a blessing even when you can not see how – bring absolutely everything to a standstill. I realize that part of the anger I have to deal with right now has to do with the position of powerlessness this is putting one into. A talk about what is going on and why I left, with somebody still very much in Rigpa en close to the “master” is hence simply impossible. Much alike the conversation you start this essay with. Extra painful since I really care for this person, and have to let go. I can’t be “right” here.

  18. Petra

    “Dear Tenpel: I am not trying to raise points. I am trying to provide a reference point for people like me who have been disappointed by their own illusions. You can pick apart my essay as if it were a philosophical thesis, but it isn’t. You arguments may be valid, but they are tangential to what I am doing here and the audience I address. What I see as significant, you consider superficial. Where you place your faith, I have none. Read some other comments on this post you’ll see that the discussions are largely about people’s pain and confusion, not about defending one or another brand of Buddhism.”

    You are aware that you are just venting off your personal frustration about ONE teacher and group that disappointed you (for whatever valuable reason) on a whole, diverse religios movement. That’s like saying, because catholic priest x has molested children the whole Christian faith is inherently dangerous crap and all clerics are dubious. Or there are muslim suicide bombers, therefor muslims are all potentially dangerous fanatics and the whole faith is nonsense.

    Every religious faith has it’s share of this stuff. Christian offenders have also told their victims that “it’s the will of god” and “god is punishing them if they talk”. Hinduism has it’s share of paedo-rishis, too.

    If that’s your approach, then say it: Religion in gereral is dangerous nonsense and never trust any clerics because they are all f..ing egoistic, dangerous bastards that are good for nothing. And then join the militant atheist camp.

    Just the real world is not as black and white. There is some white, some black, and there are a lot of grays of various shades, too.

    It doesn’t matter “what audience” you address. If you are catering for “an audience” instead of being true to the hard facts, then you are twisting the truth just as much as those people do who twist Buddhism itself.

    As someone not unfamiliar to that type of spiritual crisis I can tell you, this is emotional-psychological stuff that belongs in a psychotherapy if you can’t cope with the events at all. Taking it out on a whole spiritual movement instead will neither help you to mend your own damage nor anyone else.

  19. Ann

    The idea that your teacher/guru/superior always knows best is embedded especially in Catholic religious orders – nuns, monks and those priests who are in orders. It’s one of the three vows that they typically take: poverty, chastity and obedience.

    It’s obedience that I’m addressing here and the one that I have always objected to. To be obedient meant that you did whatever your superior told you to do – without question. You superiors always were right, always knew what was best for you. In some situations I imagine it led to a lot of bullying.

    But the real problem as I see it is that the individual nun abdicates responsibility for her own actions. If you’re always only doing what someone else told you to do, then you aren’t accountable for anything yourself. And you stop thinking.

  20. Geraldine p

    Thanks for this site. As someone who left Rigpa I was interested in your essay and also in Mary Finnegans word press doc. I have also lost my faith. This is the best and most free time in my life. I feel so sad for the women who have suffered and who were not heard or being heard. It didn’t happen to me but I’m certainly glad I’m out of it. thanks gp

  21. Maria Loi

    I am a survivor of a Malaysian cult called Kechara House. When I left I got all sorts of property damage and threats and had to buy a gun to protect myself and later move to another country.

    I thought Tsem Tulku Rinpoche was just a charismatic lama, but once I moved into his commune everything was about dorje shugden and online ghostwriting to make him look good. It turned out he was a charismatic cult guru. When I got to know his students and him they were all very nasty immature people and when I left they stalked me online and IRL.

    I now have a new life and am a counselor for a cult survivor org and have recovered with the support of my family and friends in SG.

    1. James

      You probably know that he has left Malaysia since more than a year ago. This site talks about him and the group: http://insidethecompany.wordpress.com/ No name is included for fear of retaliation—legal or physical. I learned of the site from Dharma Wheel: http://www.dharmawheel.net/viewtopic.php?f=52&t=3572#p181726

  22. Gerrie

    Yes, as usual, a religion has its additions and unnecessary rules. That’s no doubt about every religion. Just as we’ve learned to do in our everyday lives… All filled with conditionings that restrict our ways of thinking and our freedom. Hence, holding us back from a better way of life. However, the great thing is, there are teachings you can take along with you. Buddhism has a lot of great teachings on the philosophy of life. (Just as any other religion) That’s the reason why it helped you find a better way and direction for yourself. They all have something that speaks to us, thats why we follow them. But as anything else in life, you must take what is true and throw away what seems tainted (false) and [“… what Insults your soul”]. The truth is simple. All religions have the truth at core but seem to be complicated by outdated and merely culturally accepted rules. You can’t follow anything blindly and fully really, unless it’s your heart with opened consciousness. Religion, as well as cultures are not to be followed blindly or you’ll be lost into whatever others have believed and have added to it. It’s bad enough what we add on our own at times, let alone a pile of built up believes beginning from centuries and centuries ago. You must try to see the truth in its purity. And that is simple and never too complicated. Follow your heart. But don’t hold grudges, be bitter or dismiss the whole thing just because you have seen something bad. When you see the cup half full, it’s because you’re concentrating on the water that had filled it up. And not just the cup or the empty space of the cup. So don’t just drink the water and be upset it hasn’t refilled itself or has no more to give you. what i’m trying to say is… lol… Focus on your spirituality and what feels good and frees your soul. Giving respect to elders is one thing, but them making you feel too inferior to have questions… That’s another. There are good ways of culture and religion, and then there are parts that stop you from taking in (accepting) and seeing the truth. A culture that teaches us about good mannerisms help us to get along with one another and care for each other while being true to ourselves. When it no longer helps us to do that or even drives us towards that opposite effect then it cant be accepted as ‘good’ any longer. Culture and religion should open up our minds to accept and learn truth, even if it is from other cultures. Truth combines and connects all. it doesnt have to be labeled or restricted. It should allow freedom and can be found in all things as well… just as it is free. Free your soul and see the connection. Good luck in life my friend. Wish you all the best. Take care.
    Ps: It’s still good to hear thoughts and experiences from an insider’s pov. Thank you. And congrats for your realizations.

  23. Franco

    I follow Tibetan Buddhism – I love it’s philosophy, art, practice, etc. Yes, people in it can be very culty and sectarian, but I generally simply ignore that part. Humans are primates obsessed with dominance hierarchy. That’s a very deep trait. Becoming Buddhist isn’t going to root it out – it may even encourage it. Being an egalitarian anarchist at heart, I’m not interested in guruism, and have no attraction to the silk-shirted-princeling sort of lamas. But I do my practice and love every second of it. I generally keep my mouth shut though.

  24. Patr

    Hi Stephen,
    Glad to know and hear yr views on TB. All valid points in my opinion.
    TB can be described as; Buddhism in philosophy, Hinduism in practice.

    OM was in use in Hindu/Brahminism long before the Buddha
    The Buddha viewed Tantra and Mantra practices with disdain then.
    The use of honorifics, his holiness, etc is cultural, pertaining more to dynastic practices in imperial China. So too praying for long life and venerating the Guru (happens in Hinduism as well).
    Prostrations, again is very feudal.

    Maha tantrayoga has its roots in Hindu and Taoism, and this was before the advent of Buddhism in China. The Taoist description is 100% identical, so go figure!
    Mandala is again Hindu. I could go on and on and also list out rituals, superstitions that were forbidden by the Buddha.

    On another note, for a year I was active in an online Buddhist forum, populated mainly by Westerners. There was a marked difference between TB practitioners, whom I found to be lacking in essential Buddhist knowledge (The Vinayas or Kangyur of sorts), focusing mainly on TB texts and more importantly, found them usually with closed minds.
    This is compared with Theravada practitioners, who were mainly the opposite, open minded and well informed.

    Posts such as, Nyingmas can get married, Karma can be extinguished, deviant behaviour written off as crazy wisdom or because the guru was enlightened… frightening. And they cannot differentiate between Bhikkus and Yogis.

    Well, too bad, but its refreshing to see your views on the issue.

    1. Stone Forest

      HI Patr, I just read your reply. You make some very valid observations.

      Actually, Tantra wasn’t fully formulated until about 5th century C.E., but nevertheless, such ‘magic’ and power-based types of practice were rejected by the Buddha. There are stories of monks being disrobed from the original Sangha for displaying magical prowess.

      As you suggest, all those honorifics and prostrations are cultural and very feudal, and not part of the original approach. In Theravada, referring to a monk as ‘Phra’ is a term of respect to an enlightened monk, not devotion. In Thai Buddhism, ‘Phra Put, Phra Tam, Phra Song’, are terms of respect for the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.

      In my experience, people who practiced TB are ALL middle class, financially well-off, extremely egotistical, and obsessed with becoming enlightened, at the expense of being devoted to their ‘infallible’ gurus. Challenge their viewpoint, and see the anger and self-righteousness manifest itself! People who practiced Zazen are looking for peace of mind, often as a healthy counterbalance to the intense physical practice of martial arts. People who practiced Vippasana just believe in being ‘good people’. I have always found that people who choose the Theravada approach to be more level-headed, and much better informed of the Dhamma. I’d much rather listen to or read words from someone such as Ajahn Chah or Ajahn Mun or Ajahn Buwa: Kammatthana practitioners who speak from real experience, than some ‘reincarnated’, jet-setting tulku who’s been programmed from an early age to be what they are. How many working class tulkus have you ever met?!

      I read a book, a few years ago, by the leader of a formerly very ritualized, mantra-focused Japanese Mahayana sect, who explained his realization and ultimate rejection of Mahayana and Mantrayana, and change to the Theravada ‘Hinayana’ approach. Alas, I cannot remember his name, or the title of his book.

      There seems to be a great misconception that Buddhadhamma is about enlightenment. But it’s not. Buddhadhamma is about ‘awakening’ to a balanced approach to life – ‘Buddha’ means ‘awakened (to the Dhamma)’. Enlightenment is ordinary and everyday. Every day, I hear enlightened speech from people who have never knowingly meditated in their lives. Even dogs and cats act in enlightened ways, and, oh yeah, they meditate, in their own ways. And the Dhamma is not the exclusive property of one historical/legendary figure.

      Theravada is not perfect, but at least they don’t seem to claim infallibility.

  25. Kari

    It’s important to get the message out to students of Buddhism and prospective students that guru yoga is NOT required, nor a standard element, in Mahayana Buddhism EXCEPT at the highest level. Therefore, any teacher who requires blind devotion from beginning and intermediate students is on the make. I’ve attended teachings in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition for years, and no teacher has said anything about guru devotion, about being a representative of the Buddha, or any such thing. This doesn’t mean their behavior was impeccable–far from it. Women, and sometimes men if the teacher if female, always should be on their guard. Even in the Buddha’s time, male monks were not trusted in the presence of female practitioners and students, so we shouldn’t expect anything to have changed now.

    And for those who would label such warnings and critiques as “samsaric”, “pointless” or “negative” : this is compassion in action. It is essential to forewarn students of the potential pitfalls inherent in situations involving faith and religious authorities who, being often all too human, may fall for the temptation to abuse their authority and the vulnerability of some followers. Educating people about this is how suffering can be prevented. Ending suffering for sentient beings is our mission as Buddhists.

  26. Brec

    My fiancée is under the influence of an extremist Buddhist group whose leaders demand that its followers adhere to a code of conduct that simply isn’t supported by the Buddha’s teachings. The six vegetarian days per month are added to by a further three vegetarian months (!!!), during which many normal, day-to-day activities are forbidden. When they found out my fiancée was engaged, they started to indoctrinate her with a list of things which, whilst part of normal married life, she was prohibited from doing and must avoid if she is to achieve Buddhahood. Of course, there is no substance to or justification for any of their diktats in the Sutra, but the way they seek to justify their outlandish demands is to say they are an ‘interpretation’ of the Buddha’s broad teachings. I dread my fiancée returning home from another gathering, because one never knows what the extremist cranks who lead the sect will have added to the list of what the followers must do. I am trying to break her away from these evil people, but it is difficult because her faith is so strong it blinds her to the fact they are preying on her and other decent, genuine Buddhists like her.

  27. Mamculuna

    I haven’t read through all the comments, but I found this very enlightening. My own Tibetan teacher is interesting in that he doesn’t seem to lead us toward Tantra, though I know he practices it himself. AFter ten years, he still keeps us focused in sutra practice, and the books he writes are on that level. I’m glad of this, because when I first realized that the only teacher available to me was Tibetan, I was concerned about the very things you discuss. I’ve benefitted hugely from his teachings about some of the deities, but he’s never really led us into deity practice on the tantric level.

    I am much more interested in pursuing mindfulness and dealing with the human issues in that way. I also read a good bit by Thubten Chodron, and find her approach (in most books) to be the way I want to practice.

    So I wonder if this reluctance to move on to tantra is my own shallowness and laziness, or a wise way to practice? Your article makes me feel more comfortable with the path I’m trying to follow.

  28. Maria

    I have been to two tibeten buddhist centers now Drikung Kayge in Dehradun and Gomde. And I am shocked. It seems like things is turned upsite down. All the human problems that are the reasons for buddhist practice, in those tibeten buddhist centers just seem to flourish and grow even more than other places on earth. It seems like for most monks and practioners in theese tibeten buddhist centers the Ego had just grown into dimentions. The shadow ( jungian term) ia just totally overpowering.
    I have experienced that instead of getting the guidence and help that I looked for, I got a huge dose of insanity/psychopathy at is worst. By that I mean emotional abuse.

  29. Roger

    On that note, there is a political cartoonist who has published a short series about the dorje shugden organization lead by Tsem “Tulku” “Rinpoche”. It’s good for a laugh, but also very serious.

  30. Merit

    Tsem and Kechara House are shamefully attempting to silence critics in California. Most likely these are ex-students that have informed us through the internet about Tsem’s cult. Tsem’s ex-students have my complete support! I’d like to ask everyone online to do what they can to protect Tsem’s targets, to warn everyone about Tsem’s cult, and to do protective pujas.

    Let’s warn everyone and remove Tsem’s funding in response!
    If we have to, we can pool our funds to counter sue Tsem on behalf of his ex-students!
    Tsem will think twice!

  31. Viv Aldistaw

    Great article, well written. I’m a recent convert to Buddhism and its been a life changing revelation for me. I’ve read The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, it was a good read. However, my critical nature was suspicious of the photographs (egolessness), insistence that this person was the reincarnation of that and so forth. The book that really resonated with me was Buddhism its not what you think. As has been said on other blogs, pure Buddhism is not a religion at all. Buddha wanted us to drop all such baggage and be only in this moment, clear of mind and one with the universe.

  32. lee

    Clerical privilege is a well known problem around the world. Doctrine & faith are used to defend it. Google up ‘The Broken Buddha’ concerning the same problems in Theravada.

    Get on the pages of Trike & there’s plenty of Buddhist exceptionalism. Mindfulness? DBT? Empirical dharma? Those are ‘no fly zones’ if you follow the screeds penned by bigwig B’ists.

    Strange that the nondual view doesn’t apply to the teacher-student dialectic.

  33. Stone Forest

    The historical Buddha, according to tradition, did the following:

    1: He surpassed the teachings and practices of all the gurus he studied under, and in doing so nullified the practice of guru worship.

    2: He offered his teachings freely, and anyone who disagreed could leave of their own free will, without threats of dire consequences.

    3: He rejected idolatry, and considered deities and gods to be deluded in their egotism, and actually in a worse position than humans.

    4: He rejected cultish behaviour such as elaborate rituals and initiations and secret teachings as obstacles to liberation.

    5: He taught a middle way between extremes as the means to liberation and cessation of suffering.

    The Tibetan religion that claims to be Buddhism, does the following:

    1: Demands unswerving obedience and devotion to gurus, and indeed elevates gurus to a status of absolute supremacy, wherein they can get away with anything, because even the most debased, perverse behaviour is seen as a manifestation of the guru’s transcendental ability of using ‘skillful means’ to manifest their ‘benevolence’.

    2: Demands ‘gold for the guru’, and anyone who dissents or leaves is threatened with kalpas of torment in tantric hell, and so forth.

    3: Demands idolatry and deity worship, and actually denigrates the historical Buddha, calling his teachings inferior and claiming that he was never actually enlightened or liberated during his earthly life: apparently.

    4: Demands initiation upon initiation into ever more secret teachings and techniques, and indeed claims that liberation is not possible without practice of ‘disciplines’ such as Highest Yoga Tantra.

    5: Demands extremes in all of its manifestations.

    Clearly, Buddhadhamma and Chos are utterly different.

  34. Stone Forest

    This is an interesting, controversial, and, perhaps reactionary article:


    Just to clarify my position, and give some terms of reference, I studied for and attained an M.A. (Research) that focused upon Buddhist environmental ethics. I wrote a research essay on ‘American Buddhism’ (80% – my best mark, ever), and another on the Buddhist rejection of ontology that focused upon Arya Nagarjuna’s ‘Mulamadhyamakakarika’ treatise on the Middle Way, that may be considered to have become the foundation of what became the Mahayana position, although Nagarjuna never actually used the term ‘Mahayana’. Why would or should he have done so, when, after all, all that is necessary is a ‘middle way between extremes’?

    If anything, (in my honest opinion) Nagarjuna reiterated and clarified the historical Buddha’s Dhamma/Dharma, the interpretation of which had become confused by the speculations of the Abidhamma/Abidharma schools. Why is Nagarjuna’s treatise not included in the Pali Canon? Probably, because (1) he expounded it in Sanskrit, and (2) he quite probably had no contact with the developing (Theravada) schools of thought of other countries.

    Apart from Padmasambhava’s input, ‘Buddhism’ was transmitted to Tibet by a few dozen Mahasiddhas (‘Greatly Accomplished Ones/’Magicians”), which, apart from implying some sort of elitism/guruism, obviously affected the nature of Tibetan religion (Lha Chos/Mi Chos), especially when mixed with the indigenous Bon Chos. What proof is there that any of these mahasiddhas were even ‘Buddhist’, even if they did accept the sunnyatavada position (Saraha is exemplary on this)? ‘Tibetan Buddhism’ is a different religion, and, in many ways, completely alien to either Theravada or Mahayana, or, for that matter, Ch’an/Zen/Seon. A Chinese Buddhist monk who traveled via ‘Tibet’ to collect sutras from ‘India’ did not even recognize their religion as Buddhism: hmmm!

    Look up, and read the Mulamadhyamakakarika, and then ask yourself this question: if there is no inherently self-existent ‘self’, and if, by definition, based upon examination of the facts at hand, everything is inherently anatta/anatman, and devoid of self-existence (svabhava) then how is ‘reincarnation’ possible? Furthermore, how can the ‘tulku’ (reincarnated lama) concept possibly be considered to be acceptable within the framework of Buddhadhamma/Buddhadharma?

    To paraphrase the Buddha, ‘Don’t take my word for it: examine the facts at hand, and draw your own conclusions’.



    May ALL beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.
    May ALL beings be liberated.

  35. vijay

    hiiii friends….. will anybody please tell me the meaning of the statue of buddha published here in this article….. what type of message this sculpture is giving

  36. Sianmua

    I visited a tibetan buddhist monastery and frankly i began not to believe this is the Buddhism for me. I think for any religion there will be some deviations. I would strongly those who are keen in Buddhism to follow the mahayana and/or Theravanda Buddhism.

  37. Mieke

    What about incompatibility in relationships? is it wrong to leave them or expected to stick around, even if abuse continues? are we supposed to stay as part of the Practice of Compassion? is it considered selfish to want to protect oneself from verbal abuse? Thanks!

  38. Mary

    I wish I had never met a Tibetan teacher. They’ve nearly destroyed my appreciation of the Buddha and his teachings. And those teachers that I met are honest in their beliefs and practices. It’s just the endless vajrayana and dzogchen mumbo jumbo and the way everyone just stops critically thinking. It looks like western students want an excuse to return to the Middle Ages. I can’t believe we all went through a western education, where did the healthy skepticism of a scientific education go?

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