Monday, October 23, 2017
Of Deities and Denial
Back in the early 1970's when I began practicing in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, Herbert Guenther's turgid translations and commentary were a hugely challenging - and welcome - alternative to the Theosophy-muddled murk of Evans-Wentz and Lama Govinda's flights of fancy, which were just about the only other English language books available. Some of Guenther's work has actually aged quite well, and if nothing else, he and his friend Agehananda Bharati set the bar so high for linguistic mastery and scholarly depth that it has probably not been equaled since.
For those like myself who came to this tradition through the gateway of scholarship and of looking for the "ultimate" in philosophical and psychological sophistication this was truly heady stuff. In my case it not only got me to meditate much more seriously, it also inspired me to study Tibetan while scrambling to catch up with Heidegger and Wittgenstein and the basics of depth psychology so I could make sense of Guenther's translations.
As I look back though, an equally compelling inspiration was the resonance of innumerable figures like the ones on the cover of this book (which was published in 1976, by the way), along with equally striking images of Tara, Machig Labdrön and others. In contrast to the renunciate austerity of Theravada and the military masculinity of Rinzai Zen (my first Buddhist experience having been sitting rohatsu sesshin with Joshu Sasaki Roshi at age 15) Tibetan iconography and the description of advanced practices involving the subtle body's energy system suggested a Buddhist path where sexuality would be honored and transmuted. I was 17 years old and not about to dive into a Buddhist path that said all that was raging within me needed to be suppressed or excluded.
In retrospect wanting this to be so quite thoroughly clouded my ability to see the tradition in historical and anthropological context, let alone looking into its underlying power structures, politics and economics. Having grown up deeply wounded by a father who announced to his wife and family that he was gay when I was 15, while also being utterly lost socially due to having skipped 8th through 11th grades (thus missing all of the normal socialization about dating) it was all-too-easy to substitute fantasies of spiritualized sexuality for any fumbling forays into reality. Throw in the chaotic cultural environment of the late 60's and early 70's with all of the established role models male and female in flux and I supposed I ought to forgive myself a bit for being more than a little lost.
From 1974-1980 I was a dedicated student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in Boulder, where I worked menial jobs but managed to do two month-long retreats and a three week one, sit a couple of hours a day, study diligently and acquire a very basic knowledge of Tibetan (long since forgotten). I was much more drawn to visiting teachers Dilgo Khyentse and Dudjom Rinpoches than I was to Trungpa himself but never had the money to run off and practice in Asia. The wildness of the scene around Trungpa - was always deeply unsettling to me, but the final straw was his appointment of Ösel Tendzin (aka Thomas Rich) as his regent - a guy I knew all-too-well as the sleazy guy who was always trying to pick me up in the checkout line at the supermarket where I worked.
I stopped practicing entirely for the better part of a decade, putting that energy instead into athleticism (high-intensity cycling) and a career in coffee, but I'd done enough practice - and met amazing enough teachers - that I was always looking for a way back to the Dharma. When I began again it was, auspiciously, with a retreat at Tara Mandala taught by Tsultrim Allione, one of the great pioneers and role models for women in the Tibetan tradition, and the topic was the 4 Immeasurables (Brahmaviharas) - just the healing balm I needed. In the course of sitting several retreats with her and teachers she brought to her center I met many women who shared their stories of abuse by the likes of Swami Muktananda and assorted Tibetan and Zen teachers for whom Tsultrim represented a desperately needed lifeline. And because of Lama Tsultrim the entire environment for practice was infused a nurturing quality I had not experienced before. Little things that weren't so little: practicing in a circle rather than facing the shrine; as much time devoted to sharing of experience as to absorbing didactic teaching.
I never consciously sought out female teachers, but over the years I read books by and received teachings from many: Judith Simmer-Brown, who blew me away during the early days of Naropa Institute (now University); Lamas Tsultrim Everest and Chagdud Khadro under the auspices of the wonderful lama Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche; the superb translator Lama Sarah Harding. A bit later on, having long since been dazzled by her writing, I had the good fortune to meet the great scholar-practitioner Anne Klein in the context of her translating for the phenomenal lama Adzom Rinpoche, and later still I was lucky to receive a few teachings from Jetsün Khandro Rinpoche, as fiery and eloquent a teacher as I have ever met. In retrospect my particular experience, inspiring as it was, lulled me into thinking that misogyny and teacher-student power dynamics had been addressed much more thoroughly in the broader Tibetan tradition than was actually the case.
Needless to say, as a male student I was the beneficiary of the accomplishment of all of these teachers without having the capability to understand more than a fraction of the obstacles they had transcended to get there. Reading Rita Gross and Anne Klein helped a little, but my conditioning and gender blindness meant I really saw very little of what was going on behind the scenes.
Fast-forward to 2017 and there has been what feels like a painful and hopefully cathartic release of long-simmering issues regarding the treatment of women in this tradition. This blog is the most comprehensive resource I know of for getting caught up on not just the deeply disturbing revelations regarding Sogyal Rinpoche but the equally disturbing reactions to it from the likes of Dzongsar Khyentse and Orgyan Topgyal Rinpoches and deafening silence of most lamas in the tradition in the face of what is clearly deeply-ingrained structural abuse.
One would think that a broad cross-section of senior Western Tibetan Buddhist practitioners would have long since been holding emergency meetings to come up with a universal code of conduct and serious proposals for structural reform, but instead what has surfaced this week is yet another screed by Dzongsar Khyentse - this one a "humorous" teacher-student sex contract offered with a humble-brag intro.
About the only bright light in all of this dismal dreck has been this clear statement by Mingyur Rinpoche, who seems to be alone in the wilderness in suggesting that ahimsa and foundational "Hinayana" precept practice might be good things for anyone who represents themselves as a Dharma teacher to take to heart.
One thing's for sure, this is not a tradition that is going to reform itself from within. The Dalai Lama's response to the crisis has been lukewarm at best, other lineage heads are largely silent, and perhaps the most prominent of the globe-trotting teachers, Dzongsar Khyentse, is so thoroughly part of the problem that he can't possibly be part of any solution.
The problem is of course that sexual abuse is just one very visible aspect of a tradition that is so deeply invested in patronage, patriarchy and feudal models of transmission.
Scholar-practitioner Ian Baker neatly summarizes the depth of the challenges and the history that's caused them in this recent Facebook post:
"Since its inception in pre-medieval India, Vajrayāna Buddhism has always been an alluring, multivalent, and highly commodified phenomenon. Its innermost practices among close-knit, often elite, communities represented radical and highly contested recastings of Buddhist thought that often sought transcendence of caste-determined societal norms. While deeply liberating – for those who were ready – the emancipatory social transgressions that once served proud and uptight Brahmans – such as Naropa – may have less relevance in a pluralistic 21st century world. Contemporary social values, egalitarian ethics, and human rights – at least in theory – surpass their 8th to 12th century equivalents in India and Tibet. Tantra will continue to offer a powerful loom on which the tapestry of non-dual awareness can be woven, or artfully spun. But by all accounts, Tantra is subtle. Vajrayāna was therefore, in its innermost circles, a secretive, initiatic tradition that was never designed for pod-casts, social media, or mass empowerments. Confusion and misappropriation of the teachings are all too easy. If enlightenment is arriving at a stranger's door in a G-string and with a live fish protruding from your mouth, as Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche amusingly implies, maybe we are better off with the 18th century Western 'Enlightenment' that overthrew the tyranny of religious institutions and opened a new era of intellectual inquiry and scientific discovery. The dazzling ritual, pageantry, and vested power of Vajrayāna reflects in many respects an unacknowledged nostalgia for everything that preceded the Enlightenment in Europe – a subjugation of the self to a 'higher', and often abusive, authority and subscription to self-serving institutional power. Letting go of outmoded tyrannies and traditions ushered in the modern age, both for better and worse. Although Vajrayāna, at its best, promotes a democratic mode of awakening that embraces, rather than rejects, the world as it is, many of its forms are transplanted anachronisms that, in absence of historical perspective, can instil existential confusion more readily than enlightenment. Vajrayāna in the 21st century is an ongoing experiment that challenges reified beliefs, but also inherently aligns its adherents with socio-cultural ideologies of pre-medieval India and feudal politics of China, Mongolia, and Tibet. The irony, however, is that Vajrayāna’s rituals developed as a means for transcending ancient caste-bound identity and consequent self-limiting modes of thought and behaviour. In its origins, Vajrayāna was a bold and creative vision of human nature and possibility that challenged early Buddhism’s more renunciatory disposition. The discomfiting question that all those who have been ‘brought up’ within the Vajrayāna world must now ask themselves is how Vajrayāna’s ritualized, and often reified, narratives of transmission, power, and practice can best be adapted to the contemporary world. These were the same questions that Vajrayāna’s famed progenitors – such as the Mahasiddha fisherman Tilopa – asked in their own time, leading to vital distillations of the Tantric Buddhist teachings that transcend time, place, tradition, and teacher. Beyond all such socio-cultural and historical formulations, however, there is always the breathing of the wind, the flowing seas and rivers, and the inescapable illuminations of our most intimate human and transhuman communions. It's in these ever-present, adamantine realms that we dwell in our truest nature as interconnected beings of infinite light – whether we have received an Amitabha empowerment or not. As the oral teachings of Vajrayāna make clear, empowerment doesn’t come through being bonked on the head with a gilded vase by a spiritual preceptor who may not even know our name, but by waking up to our essential nature and manifesting it in all our actions. Rather than perpetuating guru-disciple relationships based on outmoded models of students as empty and receptive vessels, Vajrayāna in the modern world might be better served by the Socratic method, in which the teacher is merely an enabling catalyst for bringing forth the disciple's indwelling wisdom."
A handful of leading Western scholars (Donald Lopez, especially) have offered this kind of informed iconoclastic perspective on the tradition, but what's more common these days are practitioner-translators so thoroughly invested in the Tibetan tradition that they are nearly as blind to its excesses as the lamas they serve.
The most insightful voices about these issues, in my experience anyway, are coming from practitioners who know the tradition well without being wedded to it. Matthew Remski, who blew the lid off of the notorious Geshe Michael Roach scandal, gets to the root of cult abuse better than anyone else I've read, while his equally brilliant friend Sean Feit Oakes, who practices in the Theravada tradition but is deeply knowledgeable about Tantric forms, articulates the way forward in such a beautiful and inspiring way:
"Part of what's heartbreaking about #MeToo is that anyone who's been even a little awake to patriarchy and power in this culture already knows that sexual harassment, abuse, and assault of women are so pervasive as to be the assumed norm. Does anyone actually think that every single woman couldn't post a "Me, too" if she chose to??
And yeah, the fact that is so endemic means that every single man could post an "I'm complicit" story as well. Sexism and misogyny are core ideologies, and no amount of good intentions saves a man from being steeped in harmful ideas about women, sex, and power for his whole life here. As I learn more about allyship and how to enact the egalitarianism I believe in, I become ever more aware of these forces in myself and in every facet of this culture, including the places where well-intentioned folks try to do otherwise.
Sexism, racism, and all the cultural shadows I was raised to reproduce operate in my psyche every day. I'm grateful to the activists and wise humans who have helped me to start seeing through the white-cis-het-passing-class-privileged blindness these forces gifted me and be able to say even this much. But this isn't a post about me personally: no matter how mature any one of us manages to be, it's important to keep the spotlight on the system. Systems create individuals, not the other way around.
Ultimately, if we want to talk systemic oppression, we need to call out not just sexist creeps and abusers (though it helps), but the system that poisons all of our lives and relationships. So here's the hashtag I want to see men posting: #Patriarchy.
I hope these high-profile outings advance our national conversation about sexism in the way that media and activist attention on the norm of police brutality against black people led to #BlackLivesMatter and opened up a new chapter in the national dialogue on racism. Changing this will continue to be a long, slow process, but Goddess willing, folks are starting to wake up."
The current scandals and deathly silence from the Tibetan establishment are deeply discouraging, but then I read Sean's post and think that Machig Labdrön is dancing and burning brighter than ever if we can find the eyes to see her.