When the Iron Bird Crashes: Tibetan Buddhism in the West and “Idiot Devotion” Pt. 2

Shaun, Are those sanghas in Halifax of Ponlop (which it seems you are most familiar with, along with “Shambhala”), Dzigar Kongtrul, maybe Dzongsar Khyentse (and what about Khandro–does she have group there? She’s a real spitfire!)–all of them very respectful and appreciative of what Trungpa Rinpoche had done in the West–as far gone as the Sogyal group? The trouble is, to conflate Tibetan Buddhism in the West–or wherever–with what Sogyal is doing might be a problem in its own right, a big mistake even. Again, I find the most deadly resources for critiquing capitalism in those Vajrayana Buddhist and Shambhala teachings of Trungpa Rinpoche.

And, personally, I saw the smoking, drinking, sexing tabloidy stuff as sideshows to the problem of the “sangha” (i.e. elites, up above) identification with capitalism. Maybe you could say that is a personal quirk of mine, but there it is. Moreover, I think the psychotherapeutrification of everything in contemporary American New Agey culture, including Buddhism, is a major source of rot of the “raw and rugged” quality of reality that Trungpa Rinpoche constantly spoke of.

Once, I showed up at Tail of the Tiger with this lady friend from Cincinnati who I’d known since high school, a beautiful sort of svelte “L’il Abner girl.” An excellent artist, and the best Holloween pumpkin carver of all time! A very unusual woman. She had an interview with Trungpa Rinpoche, and he, of course, asked her to spend the night–as he did with virtual all women he came in contact with, from the not-so-beautiful–to Super Models! I remember several of those in New York. There was nothing “sneaky” about it–it was in your face! Well, the response of my friend to the invitation from Trungpa Rinpoche to spend the night was: “Buzz off, porky!” And that was it. No reprisal, no nothing–just NO!

Shortly after that, maybe 30-45 minutes later, we’re back in the big green circus tent ready for the next talk in the seminar. I was sitting about 5 rows back, in the middle. About a minute or two before he was to begin the next talk he managed to get eye contact with me, leaned forward, and very exaggeratedly stuck his tongue out at me! He knew I had slept with her! But it was No Big Deal. And my friend, Holly, barely having graduated from high school–: did she need 50 years of psychotherapy to learn how to say “NO!” Fuck No! No is No.)

Moreover, at a Merton Conference sponsored by The Mount Community in Atchison, KS, Benedictine nuns, I once gave a talk on the sexing going in Trungpa’s community–everybody had heard about it, had an “outsider” opinion. Well, I was in the middle of it. No one ever talks about what was going on with the men in that situation! It’s all about the females being “taken advantage of,” like they were little cupcakes. So, I talked about that other side of the situation, what was going on with those “others,” the men, in that situation! The audience was about 45 nuns, 35 Lay Catholics. One of the Lay Catholics, who had become a good friend over several years (I was presenter 6 years in a row), said, “Jim, you really got out on a limb with that one. Then, you hit a home run!” The “home run” in that context was: in the midst of all that sexing, Trungpa Rinpoche pointed out that “spiritual pleasure” is the supreme pleasure, and it was also in that context that he began talking about “working with emotions,” and the mandala principle.

What pushes people’s buttons and gets them more worked up than sexual jealousy? But the main message was: passion is OK, possessiveness isn’t. He never hung on to anybody! So, as I learned–and this was the heyday of the sexual revolution, you recall, the women no longer having one leg tied to the stove; they were out there with the boys feeling their sexual Wheaties, too. So invariably, as a boy, you’d get a crush on someone, but sooner or later, in those rooms at Tail of the Tiger with the paper thin walls, your number would come up in that sexual deli: the woman you had a crush on would be banging somebody else in the next room! The result: the need for 50 years of psychotherapy to overcome the “trauma”? No! Having had the bacon–the possessiveness–fried right off your back, on-the-spot, it was time to grow up: you don’t own these people, eat your spinach, and shut up! That’s what I got out of it, the gist of my talk to those nuns. They seemed to get it better than these academic/psychotherapy-oriented postmodern gazers! Best, Jim

Date: Thu, 26 Feb 2015 18:45:12 +0000 To: dshedong@outlook.com

Dorje: thanks for your comments and your stories. I think what’s interesting about Marion Dapsance’ article is that, for the most part, she doesn’t focus on the sexual abuse of women. What she describes in careful detail is the process by which a cult of personality is built around the Rinpoche, and how practitioners are trained and socially conditioned to rethink what they experience as something other than what they are actually experiencing. They are taught, especially, that if you have a problem with anything that’s going on, it’s your problem because you’re deluded and Rinpoche is a fully enlightened being. This is how everyone is brought into the cult and kept there for years. You’re not ‘awakened’ until Rinpoche says you are, and that will probably never happen in your lifetime, which keeps you in the cult, paying Rinpoche’s salary forever. The sexual abuse of women is just a special case of that kind of cult conditioning. They have an extra job to do, but everyone gets the same treatment. Moreover, these are the same kinds of manipulative tactics and social pressure that many Buddhist sanghas use; some employ them to the point of creating cult-like situations.

I don’t think that people are victims unless they want to be. I think people willingly give up their own powers of critical thinking and surrender control of their lives to religious organizations (not just Buddhism and not just Tibetan) and especially to gurus, who become the all-powerful father figure and the source of wisdom/salvation. What kept me out of these cults is that I KEPT QUESTIONING EVERYTHING. I told a teacher one day during class in the shrine room: “I didn’t check my brain at the door!” I maintained my own critical viewpoint, my own opinions and my own wisdom. It got me out of Tibetan Buddhism; I was done with it in 15 months. My last stint in organized religion lasted 6 years from age 18 to 24, so I’m getting better.

Having been through 2 Tibetan communities, I’m not looking for any others. I’m practicing what was taught by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, which is an Indian Theravdin-Mahayanist form. I’m practicing on my own and I’m not looking to join any religious community.

As for whether other Tibetan Buddhist sanghas are not so cult-like: well that’s what I thought about Ponlop’s organization, and I think that’s what he intended. But what I found is that his practitioners do their level best to turn it into a cult. In fact, one of their members is talking about leaving the community because of what he calls “idiot devotion.”

It’s not always the guru that creates the cult, or cult-like sangha. As I keep saying, it’s the members themselves, who actually WANT to belong to a cult. They want a cult that will answer all their questions and allay all their fears and tell them what to do with their lives. They don’t want a situation in which they have to question and challenge things and figure things out for themselves. So they create these cults for themselves.

The situation with “the other” Tibetan communities in North America is that they are on the whole, not just upper middle class, but actually quite rich. They aren’t inclined to challenge capitalism: they are the capitalists.

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6 thoughts on “When the Iron Bird Crashes: Tibetan Buddhism in the West and “Idiot Devotion” Pt. 2

  1. Shaun, Are those sanghas in Halifax of Ponlop (which it seems you are most familiar with, along with “Shambhala”), Dzigar Kongtrul, maybe Dzongsar Khyentse (and what about Khandro–does she have group there? She’s a real spitfire!)–all of them very respectful and appreciative of what Trungpa Rinpoche had done in the West–as far gone as the Sogyal group? The trouble is, to conflate Tibetan Buddhism in the West–or wherever–with what Sogyal is doing might be a problem in its own right, a big mistake even. Again, I find the most deadly resources for critiquing capitalism in those Vajrayana Buddhist and Shambhala teachings of Trungpa Rinpoche. And, personally, I saw the smoking, drinking, sexing tabloidy stuff as sideshows to the problem of the “sangha” (i.e. elites, up above) identification with capitalism. Maybe you could say that is a personal quirk of mine, but there it is. Moreover, I think the psychotherapeutrification of everything in contemporary American New Agey culture, including Buddhism, is a major source of rot of the “raw and rugged” quality of reality that Trungpa Rinpoche constantly spoke of. (Once, I showed up at Tail of the Tiger with this lady friend from Cincinnati who I’d known since high school, a beautiful sort of svelte “L’il Abner girl.” An excellent artist, and the best Holloween pumpkin carver of all time! A very unusual woman. She had an interview with Trungpa Rinpoche, and he, of course, asked her to spend the night–as he did with virtual all women he came in contact with, from the not-so-beautiful–to Super Models! I remember several of those in New York. There was nothing “sneaky” about it–it was in your face! Well, the response of my friend to the invitation from Trungpa Rinpoche to spend the night was: “Buzz off, porky!” And that was it. No reprisal, no nothing–just NO! Shortly after that, maybe 30-45 minutes later, we’re back in the big green circus tent ready for the next talk in the seminar. I was sitting about 5 rows back, in the middle. About a minute or two before he was to begin the next talk he managed to get eye contact with me, leaned forward, and very exaggeratedly stuck his tongue out at me! He knew I had slept with her! But it was No Big Deal. And my friend, Holly, barely having graduated from high school–: did she need 50 years of psychotherapy to learn how to say “NO!” Fuck No! No is No.) Moreover, at a Merton Conference sponsored by The Mount Community in Atchison, KS, Benedictine nuns, I once gave a talk on the sexing going in Trungpa’s community–everybody had heard about it, had an “outsider” opinion. Well, I was in the middle of it. No one ever talks about what was going on with the men in that situation! It’s all about the females being “taken advantage of,” like they were little cupcakes. So, I talked about that other side of the situation, what was going on with those “others,” the men, in that situation! The audience was about 45 nuns, 35 Lay Catholics. One of the Lay Catholics, who had become a good friend over several years (I was presenter 6 years in a row), said, “Jim, you really got out on a limb with that one. Then, you hit a home run!” The “home run” in that context was: in the midst of all that sexing, Trungpa Rinpoche pointed out that “spiritual pleasure” is the supreme pleasure, and it was also in that context that he began talking about “working with emotions,” and the mandala principle. What pushes people’s buttons and gets them more worked up than sexual jealousy? But the main message was: passion is OK, possessiveness isn’t. He never hung on to anybody! So, as I learned–and this was the heyday of the sexual revolution, you recall, the women no longer having one leg tied to the stove; they were out there with the boys feeling their sexual Wheaties, too. So invariably, as a boy, you’d get a crush on someone, but sooner or later, in those rooms at Tail of the Tiger with the paper thin walls, your number would come up in that sexual deli: the woman you had a crush on would be banging somebody else in the next room! The result: the need for 50 years of psychotherapy to overcome the “trauma”? No! Having had the bacon–the possessiveness–fried right off your back, on-the-spot, it was time to grow up: you don’t own these people, eat your spinach, and shut up! That’s what I got out of it, the gist of my talk to those nuns. They seemed to get it better than these academic/psychotherapy-oriented postmodern gazers! Best, Jim

    Date: Thu, 26 Feb 2015 18:45:12 +0000 To: dshedong@outlook.com

  2. Dorje: thanks for your comments and your stories. I think what’s interesting about Marion Dapsance’ article is that, for the most part, she doesn’t focus on the sexual abuse of women. What she describes in careful detail is the process by which a cult of personality is built around the Rinpoche, and how practitioners are trained and socially conditioned to rethink what they experience as something other than what they are actually experiencing. They are taught, especially, that if you have a problem with anything that’s going on, it’s your problem because you’re deluded and Rinpoche is a fully enlightened being. This is how everyone is brought into the cult and kept there for years. You’re not ‘awakened’ until Rinpoche says you are, and that will probably never happen in your lifetime, which keeps you in the cult, paying Rinpoche’s salary forever. The sexual abuse of women is just a special case of that kind of cult conditioning. They have an extra job to do, but everyone gets the same treatment. Moreover, these are the same kinds of manipulative tactics and social pressure that many Buddhist sanghas use; some employ them to the point of creating cult-like situations.

    I don’t think that people are victims unless they want to be. I think people willingly give up their own powers of critical thinking and surrender control of their lives to religious organizations (not just Buddhism and not just Tibetan) and especially to gurus, who become the all-powerful father figure and the source of wisdom/salvation. What kept me out of these cults is that I KEPT QUESTIONING EVERYTHING. I told a teacher one day during class in the shrine room: “I didn’t check my brain at the door!” I maintained my own critical viewpoint, my own opinions and my own wisdom. It got me out of Tibetan Buddhism; I was done with it in 15 months. My last stint in religion lasted 6 years from age 18 to 24, so I’m getting better.

    Having been through 2 Tibetan communities, I’m not looking for any others. I’m practicing what was taught by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, which is an Indian Theravdin-Mahayanist form. I’m practicing on my own and I’m not looking to join any religious community.

  3. As for whether other Tibetan Buddhist sanghas are not so cult-like: well that’s what I thought about Ponlop’s organization, and I think that’s what he intended. But what I found is that his practitioners do their level best to turn it into a cult. In fact, one of their members and teachers is talking about leaving the community because of what he calls “idiot devotion.”

    It’s not always the guru that creates the cult, or cult-like sangha. As I keep saying, it’s the members themselves, who actually WANT to belong to a cult. They want a cult that will answer all their questions and allay all their fears and tell them what to do with their lives. They don’t want a situation in which they have to question and challenge things and figure things out for themselves. So they create these cults for themselves.

    The situation with “the other” Tibetan communities in North America is that they are on the whole, not just upper middle class, but actually quite rich. They aren’t inclined to challenge capitalism: they are the capitalists.

  4. I am sorry, i dont understand. All the things and excusses about TB buddhism: The problems and the cultic phenomenom is only in the West. And the problem is making everything into psychotheraphy.
    No it is not!
    Firstly all religion and spirituality is psychotheraphy in One way ore another. You go to God with a hope for solution to your problems. Secondly, all TB buddhism is cultic, and it has nothing to do with the West. That is just a repeated stupid excuse. We are all humans build by the same model, and the culture difference between Tibetans and westerners does not make up for anything.

    1. I appreciate your comment, Simani, but I’m a little unclear about what you are saying. “Secondly, all TB buddhism is cultic, and it has nothing to do with the West.” That’s a very interesting statement, and I’m not disagreeing with you. But I would like to know more about why you think that is so.

      1. To be clear, I wrote about Western Tibetan Buddhism because that is the only kind that I have personally experienced. I have no knowledge or experience of how Tibetan Buddhism is practiced in Tibet, or in refugee settlement areas in India. Even if I went there personally and somehow participated in it, I wouldn’t experience it the same way that a Tibetan does. Therefore I can only speak as a Westerner who has experienced western forms of Tibetan Buddhism.

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