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Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism, book review

Saturday, October 5th, 2019

[ By Charles Cameron — rise and fall, hubris and nemesis, a frequent pattern in human existence ]
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Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism: The Rise and Fall of Sogyal Rinpoche
by Mary Finnigan & Rob Hogendoorn
Jorvik Press, 199 pp. (2019)

The book benefits enormously from having twin authors — Rob Hogendoorn provides invaluable biographical and analytical material, credited to him as it occurs, while Mary Finnegan‘s contributions relate, in her own voice, her experiences. Both authors are Buddhist practitioners, both have researched the sexual abuse claims around Sogyal for years — claims which have since been admitted by Rigpa, Sogyal‘s teaching organization.

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Mary Finnigan & Rob Hogendoorn‘s book title hits two human keynotes. You’ll find them intertwined for crowd-pleasing reasonsd in Game of Thrones:

It’s a question that’s been asked of Game of Thrones as long as the HBO series has been on the air: Why so much sex and violence?

But Tibet? Perfect Tibet of our wishes? Tibet of the revered Dalai Lama? Tibet of the lamas who create intricate mandalas of colored sands — then brush them away in a gesture of impermanence and carry the dust to rivers which wash them out to sea? Shangri-La — in fact not fiction?

There’s a lot that’s wonderful to Tibetan Buddhism, and the better it looks and actually can be, the easier it is for non-Tibetans — us Westerners — to fall for the trap of projection — to believe, in this case, in the impeccability of Sogyal Lakar, sometimes titled Rinpoche, or Precious-One.

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It’s unwise in general to speak ill of the recent dead, and Sogyal died in August 2019. Yet his story must be told, because unhappy though it is, the telling can help us avoid the illusion of a supposedly great lama — second only to the Dalai Lama in popularity in the west — who was in fact assaulting his female students sexually on numerous occasions across decades.

That’s the tale Mary Finnigan, herself a practitioner of DzogchenSogyal‘s own form of Tibetan Buddhism — details in collaboration with her co-author Ron Hogendoorn in this book.

The accusations against Sogyal, of “sexual, physical and emotional abuse”, led to the Dalai Lama declaring Sogyal “disgraced”. The Charity Commission for England and Wales disqualified two of the Trustees of Sogyal’s  organisation, the Rigpa Fellowship, in the UK because they covered up “knowledge of instances and allegations of improper acts and sexual and physical abuse against students”..

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But although sex, violence, and sexual violence are at the heart of the anguish Sogyal inflicted on unwary students, there’s another side to Sogyal‘s story that Finnigan and Hogendoorn illuminate — the story of the son of a wealthy family, in contact with a senior Dzogchen lama and taken under his wing, who learned little that might have qualified him to be a teacher of that tradition, yet who managed to wangle his Tibetan nationality into the appearance of a gifted and highly educated lama on his arrival in England.

It’s a fascinating and heart-rending story — heart-rending is the word used by the New York Times in its obit for Sogyal — throwing light on Tibetan Buddhism itself, an astonishing mesh-work of visualizations and compassionate insight; the vicious politics that have long existed within the cloak of lamaism, and which the Dalai Lama has partially uncloaked; an archaic gender differential as power differential; and in general, eastern wisdom meets western credulity.

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Sogyal‘s wealthy family connection gives him access to a high lama, Chokyi Lodro, and his presence at Lodro‘s side gives him in turn the title of Tulku, which often but not always signifies the reincarnation of some previous high lama, and is always a term of respect.

An authentically scholarly Tibetan meditation master, Dudjom Rinpoche, knows Sogyal has little to no education in the finer points of Tibetan philosophy or meditation, but considers him someone a western student might pick up some hints from — crossing the cultural divide as it were.

Sogyal , moving to the west, is on his way.

**

The years pass, just being a Tibetan guru in the west is sexy in the broad sense in which Lamborghinis and orchids are sexy: scholars of religion call it charisma. And when young and impressionable women become devotees of supposed high lamas — and when there are rumors, not without foundation, of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism including tantra, or spiritual-sexual practices, feelings and expectations can get very confused.

The main thrust of Mary and Rob’s book is to tell the rise and fall of Sogyal Lakar, his rise by that wider “sexy” quality we term charisma, his fall by discovery of the abuses of both spirituality and sex he’s inflicted on so many of his students across the years. I won’t go into the details, it’s their story to tell, and they tell it with the probing integrity of journalists as well as the sincerity of practitioners.

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It has to be said that young Western women stood in line to sleep with Trungpa [“a formidably intelligent iconoclast” meditation master] and were usually eager to oblige with Sogyal. They became known as dharma groupies and sex with a Rinpoche became almost as much of a status symbol as plaster casting Mick Jagger.

Oh, Mary can write!

The problem was the abuse at Sogyal‘s “feudal” court.

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The Heart Sutra of Mahayana Buddhism teaches something often translated:

form is emptiness, emptiness is form

where emptiness is better understood as <em>void, and void as devoid of self-establishing nature — so that these lines might be rendered:

Form is devoid of self-establishing nature,
absence of self-establishing nature is form,

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Sogyal — no great meditation master, it would seem — has another form of emptiness. Whatever he may have thought, he lacked that compassion which is the fruit of deep meditative practice. And so he was able to enact violence on his students.

But we may witness that emptiness in another arena, that of scholarship.

Early on in Sogyal‘s time in the west, Dudjom Rinpoche is giving a talk to a hundred eager students, packed into a room intended for an average London family, and Sogyal is translating for him. Mary was there, sitting next to her then boyfriend John Driver, a linguist gifted in Tibetan, and noted that John was frowning. She writes:

During the first lunch break, John steered me into a cafe down the road. He was quite angry.

“Sogyal is not translating correctly,” he said. “Either he’s interpreting Rinpoche’s words into what he thinks is suitable for Westerners or he doesn’t understand what Dudjom is saying.”

**

It was a foreshadowing. Ever since Walter Evans-Wentz published an early English translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead in 1927, the gold-embossed green cloth volume has been a choice text to set beside the Chinese I Ching in pride of place on one’s desk or shelf. Come 1992, and The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying was published, updating the timeless Buddhist classic, personalizing it with some of Sogyal‘s own tales, made “accurate” to some degree by the inclusion of questions and answers from distinguished Tibetan masters such as Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and the Dalai Lama together with western masters of hospice living and dying such as Elizabeth Kubler-Ross — but, but–

As one student who was around at the time put it:

Could anyone who knew Sogyal imagine him being able to quote the German mystical poet Rainer Maria Rilke? Or the Sufi sage, Jalaluddin Rumi?

No, the “editor” who’d have provided those quotes, and much more of the content and form, indeed the very flowing language of the book, would have been Andrew Harvey, Oxford scholar extraordinaire and author of The Way of Passion: A Celebration of Rumi and other works.

So much for a great book — and it was and is great, and Sogyal deserves some, though by no means all, credit for it.

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To sum up:

Sex and violence are paired in the book’s title. The problem with the sex is not that it was sex — Sogyal was no more a monk than Trungpa was, and it was often consensual. The problem was in the tirades, the humiliations, the violence, the abuse — delivered under cover of spiritual authority in violation of trust across a power and gender differential.

The scholarship is, well, Andrew Harvey‘s, and Padmasambhava‘s, and Kubler Ross‘.

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I met Sogyal once. I asked him about the meaning of “skillful means”, and he responded “not entering or leaving a room through the wall, when there’s a door available.” He seemed pleasant enough. Trungpa Rinpoche I befriended at Oxford, and took to visit friends of mine at Prinknash Abbey near Gloucester: later he wrote that the visit had shown him the possibility of living the contemplative life in the west. He opened the first Tibetan monastery in the west shortly thereafter, Samye Ling in Scotland. And Mary is an old friend from hippie days.

As I indicated above, Mary and Rob have a story to tell, and they can tell a story.

Sogyal himself is no longer with us. He has entered, perhaps, the bardo, that liminal space between lives about which The Tibetan Book of the Dead — and to some extent its Sogyal reincarnation, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying — are written.

Go, read.

Who is President of the United States?

Friday, January 12th, 2018

[ by Charles Cameron — going all diagnostic on you! ]
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Roberta R. Greene in her Social Work with the Aged and Their Families (p. 100) lists questions nurses routinely asked by physician using Kahn’s Mental Status Questionnaire. I’m only too aware of these, having been subjected to these questions regularly over the past year..

5. What year is it?
6. How old are you?
7. What is your birthday?
8. What year were you born?
9. Who is President of the United States?

They are going to ask President Trump these questions, I immagine, as part of his overall medical evaluation. But that last one:

Who is President of the United States?

That’s an ouroboric question right there — what will he say?

If he says, President Trump, then he’s third-personalizing himself, and that’s diagnostically called illeism: Julius Caesar uses the third person in describing his French campaigns in De Bello Gallico.

But if he avoids that third person usage —

Me! It’s me!

That would suggest he may be uncertain of his victory over Secretary Clinton back when — after all, she won the popular vote!

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Oh the ouroboros! Oh the dilemma!

I had one of those medical questionnaires this morning. My conclusion: the questionnaire or routinized test has not yet been devised that doesn’t seem faintly ridiculous..

Please note that Roberta Greene’s work currently costs $100 as a book book. Urgh. Kindle $45.95 us a little better.

And all the chairs are musical

Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — two cases of unreal real estate, Moscow & Washington ]
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Putin:

Clinton:

Not China’s Choice but Ours

Sunday, June 5th, 2016

[by Mark Safranski / “zen”]

China’s Blue Water “Coast Guard”

T. Greer of Scholar’s Stage has an outstanding post on the strategic reality of China and American foreign policy. It is a must read:

“China Does Not Want Your Rules Based Order”

…..McCain’s words echo those spoken by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter last week to the graduating midshipman at Annapolis. Read them both. Compare what they say. Behold the quickly crystallizing American narrative on China. This is a bipartisan message. It will be the starting point of a President Clinton’s policy. Whether a President Trump will endorse it is hard to say. In either case, it is a narrative whose momentum is building.

There is much that is good in this narrative. McCain proclaims that “no nation has done as much to contribute to what China calls its “peaceful rise” as the United States of America.” He is right to do so. No nation has done more to enable China’s rise than America has. No country’s citizens have done more for the general prosperity of the Chinese people than the Americans have. This is true in ways that are not widely known or immediately obvious. For example, the role American financiers and investment banks played in creating the architecture of modern Chinese financial markets and corporate structures is little realized, despite the size and importance of their interventions. Behind every great titan of Chinese industryChina Mobile, the world’s largest mobile phone operator, China State Construction Engineering, whose IPO was valued at $7.3 billion, PetroChina, the most profitable company in Asia (well, before last year), to name a few of hundreds–lies an American investment banker. I do not exaggerate when I say Goldman Sachs created modern China. [2] China has much to thank America for.

However, I cannot endorse all that is included in this emerging narrative, for part of it is deeply flawed. The flaw may be by design; if the purpose is to stir cold hearts and gain moral admiration of others, such flaws can be excused–that is how politics works. But this sort of things can only be excused if those delivering the speeches do not take the implications of their own words seriously when it is time to make policy. 

I speak of  China’s “choice.” The thread that runs through all of these talks is that the Chinese have yet to choose whether they aim for order or disruption, the existing regime or the chaos beyond it. The truth is that the Chinese have already chosen their path and no number of speeches on our part will convince them to abandon it. They do not want our rules based order. They have rejected it. They will continue to reject it unless compelled by overwhelming crisis to sleep on sticks and swallow gall and accept the rules we force upon them. 

China has made its choice. The real decision that will determine the contours of the 21st century will not be made in Beijing, but in Washington.

T. Greer, in my opinion is correct but this is not a message Beltway insiders are wont to harken – making strategic choices is for lesser nations. America is so rich, powerful, unipolar, indispensable, exceptional that we can pursue all objectives, in every corner of the globe, without choosing between the vital and the trivial. We can do this even if our goals are contradictory and ill-considered or serve manly as a prop for domestic political disputes, the business interests of political donors or career advancement of apparatchiks and politicians. We can safely delay and indulge in fantasy.

If this was true once, it is less so today and will be still less twenty years hence.

Greer sharpens his argument:

….Last spring it finally sunk in. Chinese illiberalism not only can endure, it is enduring. The old consensus cracked apart. No new consensus on how to deal with China has yet formed to take its place.

But old habits die hard. We see this at the highest levels of policy, as in the McCain speech, where American policy is justified in terms of giving China a chance to choose the right. The same spirit is invoked further down the line. Ash Carter, for example, recently described American tactics in the South China Sea as a “long campaign of firmness, and gentle but strong pushback… [until] The internal logic of China and its society will eventually dictate a change.” [3] In other words, American policy is a holding action until China sees the light.

What if they never do?

The Chinese believe that our international order is a rigged system set up by the imperial victors of the last round of bloodshed to perpetuate the power of its winners. They use the system, quite cynically, but at its base they find it and its symbols hypocritical, embarrassing, outrageous, and (according to the most strident among them), evil. In their minds it is a system of lies and half-truths. In some cases they have a point. Most of their actions in the East or South China Seas are designed to show just how large a gap exists between the grim realities of great power politics and soaring rhetoric Americans use to describe our role in the region

….In simpler terms, the Chinese equate “rising within a rules based order” with “halting China’s rise to power.” To live by Washington’s rules is to live under its power, and the Chinese have been telling themselves for three decades now that—after two centuries of hardship—they will not live by the dictates of outsiders ever again.

The Chinese will never choose our rules based order. That does not necessarily mean they want to dethrone America and throw down all that she has built. The Chinese do not have global ambitions. What they want is a seat at the table—and they want this seat to be recognized, not earned. That’s the gist of it. Beijing is not willing to accept an order it did not have a hand in creating. Thus all that G-2 talk we heard a few years back. The Chinese would love to found a new order balancing their honor and their interests with the Americans. It is a flattering idea. What they do not want is for the Americans to give them a list of hoops to jump through to gain entry into some pre-determined good-boys club. They feel like their power, wealth, and heritage should be more than enough to qualify for  automatic entrance to any club.

Read the rest here.

Richard Nixon, who was the external strategic architect of China’s rise in order to use China as a counterweight against an increasingly aggressive Soviet Union, faced a similar situation that Greer described above with the Soviets. Nixon’s détente summits with the Russians were diplomatic triumphs where LBJ’s summit at Glassboro with Kosygin had been a failure because Nixon shrewdly understood Soviet psychological insecurity, a deep sense of paranoid inferiority and the hunger for respect as a superpower equal of the United States. Leonid Brezhnev, Kosygin’s ascendant rival was desperate for this American political recognition and Nixon and Kissinger played this card (along with the geostrategic shock of the China opening) to wrest concessions in arms control and restraint (for a time) in Soviet behavior from Brezhnev.

Playing this card is not possible with China.

While there seems some emergent rivalry between China’s prime minister Li Keqiang and China’s President Xi Jinping that loosely mirrors the Kosygin-Brezhnev dynamic, the analogy is otherwise a poor one. Despite sharing Marxist-Leninist DNA in their institutional structure, China is not at all like the Soviet Union in terms of culture, history or ambitions. The Chinese not only lack the national inferiority complex that drives the Russian psyche, they suffer from the opposite condition of a superiority complex that outstrips their actual capacity to project military or even economic power. This has given rise to popular frustration and manic nationalism in China, with bitter recriminations about “small countries” and “hegemonic powers”. It also has created a strategic lacunae where China has in a short span of time gone from enjoying good relations with most of the world to a state of habitually irritating almost all of its neighbors and periodically threatening two great powers – rising India and Japan – and one superpower, the United States.

In short, China already is as T. Greer argued, a committed revisionist power.

We cannot buy off or bribe China. Unlike Brezhnev who needed American credits for his domestic economic program to cement his place as supreme leader, Xi Jinping has carried out a ruthless purge of the party and government under the pretext of an anti-corruption drive. Xi does not need or want our help in his domestic squabbles. Nor would he or another Chinese leader be content with symbolic gestures of Beijing’s “parity” with Washington. “Parity” will not satisfy Chinese leaders unless it comes with attendant symbolic humiliations for America and an American retreat from Asia. Forever.

If American leaders do not wake up to this reality and do so quickly then it is time for a new leadership class with less sentimentality and clearer vision.

Turchin on Human Sacrifice and Society

Tuesday, April 12th, 2016

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Last week I posted on Human Sacrifice and State-Building, which focused on research findings published in Nature regarding the role of human sacrifice in establishing hierarchical societies. My interest was primarily in the way the gory practices of ISIS today seem to mirror this dynamic from prehistoric, ancient and chiefdom societies. Bogfriend T. Greer helpfully alerted me to the fact that noted scholar and cultural evolutionist, Peter Turchin also blogged regarding this research and took a critical posture.  Turchin, also addressed human sacrifice to some degree in his latest book, Ultrasociety, which has been on my list to read for his take on the role of warfare but which I have yet to do.

Turchin’s reasons for blogging this article are different from mine, so I suggest that you read him in full as I intend to comment only on selected excerpts:

Is Human Sacrifice Functional at the Society Level?

An article published this week by Nature is generating a lot of press. Using a sample of 93 Austronesian cultures Watts et al. explore the possible relationship between human sacrifice (HS) and the evolution of hierarchical societies. Specifically, they test the “social control” hypothesis, according to which human sacrifice legitimizes, and thus stabilizes political authority in stratified class societies.

Their statistical analyses suggest that human sacrifice stabilizes mild (non-hereditary) forms of social stratification, and promotes a shift to strict (hereditary) forms of stratification. They conclude that “ritual killing helped humans transition from the small egalitarian groups of our ancestors to the large stratified societies we live in today.” In other words, while HS obviously creates winners (rulers and elites) and losers (sacrifice victims and, more generally, commoners), Watts et all argue that it is a functional feature—in the evolutionary sense of the word—at the level of whole societies, because it makes them more durable.

There are two problems with this conclusion. First, Watts et al. do not test their hypothesis against an explicit theoretical alternative (which I will provide in a moment). Second, and more important, their data span a very narrow range of societies, omitting the great majority of complex societies—indeed all truly large-scale societies. Let’s take these two points in order.

Turchin is correct that study focuses on Austronesian islanders in clan and tribal settings and that’s a pretty narrow of a base from which to extrapolate. OTOH, the pre-Cortez estimated population of the Aztec empire begins at five million on the low end. Estimates of the population of Carthage proper, range from 150,000 to 700,000. That’s sufficiently complex that the Mexica and Carthaginians each established sophisticated imperial polities and yet both societies remained extremely robust practitioners of human sacrifice at the time they were conquered and destroyed.

Maybe a more useful approach than simply expanding the data set would be to ask why human sacrifice disappears earlier in some societies than in others or continues to be retained at high levels of complexity?

An alternative theory on the rise of human sacrifice and other extreme forms of structural inequality is explained in my recent book Ultrasociety ….

….Briefly, my argument in Ultrasociety is that large and complex human societies evolved under the selection pressures of war. To win in military competition societies had to become large (so that they could bring a lot of warriors to battle) and to be organized hierarchically (because chains of command help to win battles). Unfortunately, hierarchical organization gave too much power to military leaders and their warrior retinues, who abused it (“power corrupts”). The result was that early centralized societies (chiefdoms and archaic states) were  hugely unequal. As I say in Ultrasociety, alpha males set themselves up as god-kings.

Again, I have not read Ultrasociety, but the idea that war would be a major driver of human cultural evolution is one to which I’m inclined to be strongly sympathetic. I’m not familiar enough with Turchin to know if he means war is”the driver” or “a major driver among several” in the evolution of human society.

Human sacrifice was perhaps instrumental for the god-kings and the nobles in keeping the lower orders down, as Watts et al. (and social control hypothesis) argue. But I disagree with them that it was functional in making early centralized societies more stable and durable. In fact, any inequality is corrosive of cooperation, and its extreme forms doubly so. Lack of cooperation between the rulers and ruled made early archaic states highly unstable, and liable to collapse as a result of internal rebellion or conquest by external enemies. Thus, according to this “God-Kings hypothesis,” HS was a dysfunctional side-effect of the early phases of the evolution of hierarchical societies. As warfare continued to push societies to ever larger sizes, extreme forms of structural inequality became an ever greater liability and were selected out. Simply put, societies that evolved less inegalitarian social norms and institutions won over and replaced archaic despotisms.

The question here is if human sacrifice was primarily functional – as a cynically wielded political weapon of terror by elites – or if that solidification of hierarchical stratification was a long term byproduct of religious drivers. It also depends on what evidence you count as “human sacrifice”. In the upper Paleolithic period, burial practices involving grave goods shifted to include additional human remains along with the primary corpse. Whether these additional remains, likely slaves, concubines or prisoners slain in the burial ritual count as human sacrifices in the same sense as on Aztec or Sumerian altars tens of thousands of years later may be reasonably disputed. What is not disputed is that humans being killed by other humans not by random violence or war but purposefully for the larger needs of a community goes back to the earliest and most primitive reckoning of what we call “society” and endured in (ever diminishing) places even into the modern period.

This also begs the question if burial sacrifices, public executions of prisoners and other ritualistic killings on other pretexts conducted by societies of all levels of complexity are fundamentally different in nature from human sacrifices or if they are all subsets of the same atavistic phenomena binding a group through shared participation in violence.

….The most complex society in their sample is Hawaii, which is not complex at all when looked in the global context. I am, right now, analyzing the Seshat Databank for social complexity (finally, we have the data! I will be reporting on our progress soon, and manuscripts are being prepared for publication). And Hawaii is way down on the scale of social complexity. Just to give one measure (out of >50 that I am analyzing), polity population. The social scale of Hawaiian chiefdoms measures in the 10,000s of population, at most 100,000 (and that achieved after the arrival of the Europeans). In Afroeurasia (the Old World), you don’t count as a megaempire unless you have tens of millions of subjects—that’s three orders of magnitude larger than Hawaii!

Why is this important? Because it is only by tracing the trajectories of societies that go beyond the social scale seen in Austronesia that we can test the social control hypothesis against the God-Kings theory. If HS helps to stabilize hierarchical societies, it should do so for societies of thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions, tens of millions, and so on. So we should see it persist as societies grow in size.

Well, human sacrifice persisted into the classical period of Greece and Rome, though becoming infrequent and eventually outlawed, though only during the last century of the Roman republic. That’s a significant level of complexity, Rome having become the dominant power in the Mediterranean world a century earlier. Certainly human sacrifice did not destabilize the Greeks and Romans, though the argument could be made that it did harm Sparta, if we count Spartan practices of infanticide for eugenic reasons as human sacrifice.

What muddies the waters here is the prevalence of available substitutes for human sacrifice – usually animal sacrifice initially – that competed and co-existed with human sacrifice in many early societies for extremely long periods of time. Sometimes this readily available alternative was sufficient to eventually extinguish human sacrifice, as happened with the Romans but other times it was not, as with the Aztecs. The latter kept their maniacal pace of human sacrifice up to the end, sacrificing captured Spanish conquistadors and their horses to the bloody Sun god. Human sacrifice did not destabilize the Aztecs and it weakened their tributary vassals but the religious primacy they placed on human sacrifice and the need to capture prisoners in large numbers rather than kill them in battle hobbled the Aztec response to Spanish military assaults.

Comments? Questions?


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