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Context is all

The bad news:

The fallout from the abuse dished out by Sogyal Lakar, and the struggle by his organisation, “Rigpa”, to reinvent itself with some acceptable new face continues; the fallout from the abuse dished out by Mipham Mukpo, Trungpa’s son, and the struggle by his organisation “Shambhala International” to reinvent itself continues; the days when it was necessary to pretend that Trungpa’s own legacy was anything but disastrous are long gone; the landscape is littered with other “Buddhist” and quasi-Buddhist scandals: Robert Spatz and Dennis Lingwood are two names that come to mind, with the latter’s organisation “Friends of the Western Buddhist Order” also struggling to reinvent itself, its name change some years ago to “Triratna Buddhist Community” being part of that effort.

It is now clear that, just as in so many other cases of widespread abuse, the “few bad apples” theory will not wash. For a snarled mass of reasons, abuse is endemic in Tibetan Buddhism.

And what are those reasons? Some are clear, but I’m not sure that we have yet untangled it all. Some of it lies in Tibetan culture: acute patriarchy, especially in the monastic institutions; a horror of losing face – something they share with the Chinese, it must be said – which, in combination with a strictly hierarchical, perhaps even feudal, society, leads to a horror that one’s social superiors might lose face, or that one might be seen to be causing one’s superiors to lose face; gullibility in many new Western followers, a different kind of gullibility from that of Tibetans, but gullibility nevertheless; a failure on both sides to appreciate the sexual mores of the other: maroon robes do not mean that he (it usually is he) is a pure monastic who does not get horny, any more than Western styles of clothing and a willingness to look a man straight in the eye means that she (it usually is she) is an easy lay or, if she is, that there are no consequences. It is a rich field for social and anthropological studies.

But then again:

Perhaps I have had astonishingly good luck, but my experience is that kind, knowledgeable, humble, unassuming, gentle, devoted lamas, willing to teach and with not much more than a necessary interest in money have turned up in my life on a regular basis.

Mind you, I have not been drawn to, let alone been involved in, any of the big organizations: I never met Trungpa, never met his son Mipham, only passing contact with Sogyal in his early days. Perhaps the fact that most of my lamas have been little-known has been a piece of good fortune.

And so:

Because the abuse is real, and in some cases has been severe, it is unsurprising that some people have turned against Tibetan Buddhism totally. Their criticisms are not only understandable, but necessary. But the problem is complex, and cheap broadside attacks or misrepresentations are not helpful. In a recent exchange on Facebook, somebody calling himself “George Howard” (probably a sock puppet, as he only has two friends and no posts on his profile) posted this photograph of a page from the Torch of Certainty, saying that he thinks that “this text basically gives permission for all types of abuse and many lamas take up the offer…”

The Torch of Certainty is a highly valued instructional text, often used in the Kagyu school for those who are undertaking their “foundation” practices. It looks bad, doesn’t it?

The problem is that just as the value of property proverbially depends on location, location and location, the meaning of a text depends on context, context and context. What a word means depends on its place in the sentence; what the sentence means depends on its place in the piece; what the piece means depends on its place in the authors body of work and in the cultural environment for which was written. On slightly closer examination it turns out that George Howard’s piece has been selected as a kind of inverse cherry-picking. It means something quite different from what might appear at first sight.

It is found in the conclusion to the section of the Torch that deals with the “Guru yoga”. A few pages earlier, in the main part of that section, the book explains what the requirements of a guru or lama are:

A master or disciple who has such serious defects as to lack compassion, to be easily angered, to be malicious, spiteful, or proud; to be very attached to his money, property, relatives, etc.; to be undisciplined in words or deeds or full of self-praise, should be rejected.

In particular, you should absolutely avoid [a master who commits the following misdeeds], for such a master can only confer the “blessing” of Mara:

1 Explaining or demonstrating to a crowd of common folk [such practices as] tsa-lung or mahamudra meditation, those which employ mantras, or the essentials of the profound Fulfilment Stage; (this is somewhat technical, but I included for completeness -AW)
2. [Boastfully claiming to possess] instructions others lack and spreading instructions in the profound philosophy and practice of the Mantrayana in the marketplace.
3. Behaving in an undisciplined manner.
4. Verbalizing the ultimate philosophical perspective.
5. Greatly coveting money or property belonging to the Precious Ones.
6. Being highly deceitful and hypocritical.
7. Giving empowerments and instructions which do not belong to any tradition.
8. Indulging in the pleasures of liquor and sex.
9. Teaching a doctrine which conflicts with the Dharma, in words of his own invention, because he does not know how to teach the true path.

(Translation by Judith Hanson, as the Torch of Certainty, Shambhala Publications, 1977, ISBN 0-87773-101-2)

THAT is what is explicitly and clearly expected of a proper lama. So what is the other piece about, the one quoted by Howard? It comes in the conclusion to this chapter. It is discussing how the student should react if, once having concluded that the teacher in question is up to scratch, and having then made an extremely serious commitment to that teacher, it turns out that there are things about the teacher’s personality or actions that do indeed not appear perfect. The student is being exhorted here to maintain a pure view and not run off complaining and whining.

Picture, if you will, in a rosy past that probably never existed, a world in which most marriages worked and the older generation was wise. Shortly before his marriage, a son speaks to his father:

Dad:       I wish you all the best, Son. May your problems be small!

Son:       We’ll be fine, Dad. She is perfect – she is beautiful, kind, clever, helpful, funny and sweet. What could go wrong?

Dad:       Well let’s just imagine for a moment that one morning you wake up and you see that she is not utterly perfect. What will you do?

Son:       We’ll be fine, dad. That’s not gonna happen.

Dad:       Okay, but just on the off-chance that it somehow mysteriously does, just remember that she is still the woman you fell in love with. Don’t give up. Whatever happens.

The parallel must be obvious.

It should probably be acknowledged that the language in the photographed text is hyperbolic, i.e. grossly exaggerated for literary effect, and that hyperbole is much more widely used in Asian literature than it is in modern Western literature. We do use it, of course – “perfect, amazing, absolutely the best, it’s to die for”, and so on. But in Asian literature it’s used much more. Read, if you will, some of the relatively simple descriptions in what is believed to be early Buddhist literature describing the Buddha’s wonderful appearance and magical powers. Do we take them literally? Probably some people do, but I’m not one of them.

In short, if we’re going to talk about these things, we have to be responsible enough to see the context. Taking things out of context is ALWAYS a sloppy way of going about things. It can also be maliciously misleading.

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