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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”..

**

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.

**

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.

**

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‘.

**

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.

Climate change & its impacts, rippling out across all our futures, 1

Thursday, August 29th, 2019

[ by Charles Cameron — part 1 of this two-part post deals with the impact of climate change on pilgrimages, and on the Hajj in particular ]
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The Hajj, Mecca

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Since I posted my poem Mourning the lost Kaaba here in late November 2017 — though not, I imagine, because of my poem — a report on the likely impact of climate change on the annual Hajj pilgrimage has come out from scientists at MIT and Loyola Marymount:

  • Kang, Pal, & Eltahir, Future Heat Stress During Muslim Pilgrimage (Hajj) Projected to Exceed “Extreme Danger” Levels
  • Here’s the abstract:

    The Muslim pilgrimage or Hajj, which is one of the five pillars of Muslim faith, takes place outdoors in and surrounding Mecca in the Saudi Arabian desert. The U.S. National Weather Service defines an extreme danger heat stress threshold which is approximately equivalent to a wet?bulb temperature of about 29.1 °C—a combined measure of temperature and humidity. Here, based on results of simulations using an ensemble of coupled atmosphere/ocean global climate models, we project that future climate change with and without mitigation will elevate heat stress to levels that exceed this extreme danger threshold through 2020 and during the periods of 2047 to 2052 and 2079 to 2086, with increasing frequency and intensity as the century progresses. If climate change proceeds on the current trajectory or even on a trajectory with considerable mitigation, aggressive adaptation measures will be required during years of high heat stress risk.

    That’s the science — and while Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman..

    told the G20 in June that the Saudis are committed to “reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to the negative effects of climate change,” beliefs concerning the Prophet’s institution of the Hajj in 632 CE following on earlier Abrahamic practice may well clash with scientific claims that the Hajj may become impossible for future devout Muslims to observe.

    What happens, then, when this divine command intersects with increasing temperatures that eventually render Mecca uninhabitable? How do the climate change scientists fare when they sit across the table from the ulema, the scholar-clergy of Islam?

    From a Muslim point of view, we’d better climate-correct, and do so fast:

  • Shahin Ashraf, We must stop climate change before it makes Hajj impossible
  • **

    Other readings:

  • New Scientist, Global warming could make Hajj impossible later this century
  • IslamiCity, Mecca: Climate Change to Bring ‘Extreme’ Heat
  • MIT News, Study: Climate change could pose danger for Muslim pilgrimage
  • **

    The issue I’ve raised above is tightly focused on one sanctuary, one religion, one pilgrimage. Below are some other major pilgrimage sites to consider in light of climate change:

    I would be interested in the cross-disciplinary exploration of the impact of climate change as understood by the scientific consensus, global migration patterns now and as expected in the coming years, and the devotional rituals and ceremonials of the various religions involved.

    Large pilgrimages and religious ceremonials

    This list draws text from Wikipedia and other online information sites.

    Kumbh Mela:

    Allahabad, India, 120 million devotees, every 12 years. The Prayag Kumbh Mela is a mela held every 12 years at Allahabad, India. The fair involves ritual bathing at Triveni Sangam, the meeting points of three rivers: the Ganga, the Yamuna and the mythical Sarasvati. The Kumbh Mela in 2013 became the largest religious gathering in the world with almost 120 million visitors.

    Arba’een:

    Karbala, Iraq, 30 million pilgrims annually. The Arba’een Pilgrimage is the world’s largest annual public gathering, held every year in Karbala, Iraq at the end of the 40-day mourning period following Ashura, the religious ritual for the commemoration of martyrdom of the grandson of Prophet Mohammad and the third Shia Imam, Husayn ibn Ali’s in 680. Anticipating Arba’een, or the fortieth day of the martyrdom, the pilgrims make their journey to Karbala on foot,where Husayn and his companions were martyred and beheaded by the army of Yazid I in the Battle of Karbala. The number of participants in the annual pilgrimage reached 30 million or more by 2016.

    Papal Mass

    Philippines, 7 million adherents, occasional. Pope Francis’ apostolic and state visit to the Philippines garnered a record breaking crowd of 7 million people. The mass conducted by the pope was the largest gathering in papal history.

    Makara Jyothi

    India, 5 million pilgrims annually. This pilgrim center and temple is located amidst a dense forest in the southern region of India. It was visited by over 5 million pilgrims in 2007 for a festival known as ‘Makara Jyothi,’ occurring annually on the 14 of January. Although the Sabarimala Temple, site of the Makara Jyothi celebration) draws a crowd of 50 million visitors annually, the specific day of the miraculous celestial lighting observation gathered 5 million pilgrims in 2007.

    Bishwa Ijtema:

    Near Dhaka, Bangladesh, 5 million pilgrims annually. The Bishwa Ijtema, meaning Global Congregation, is an annual gathering of Muslims in Tongi, by the banks of the River Turag, in the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh. It is one of the largest peaceful gatherings in the world. The Ijtema is a prayer meeting spread over three days, during which attending devotees perform daily prayers while listening to scholars reciting and explaining verses from the Quran. It culminates in the Akheri Munajat, or the Final Prayer, in which millions of devotees raise their hands in front of Allah (God) and pray for world peace.The Ijtema is non-political and therefore it draws people of all persuasion. It is attended by devotees from 150 countries. Bishwa Ijtema is now the second largest Islamic gatherings with 5 million adherents

    [ this is where the Hajj, with 2.3 million pilgrims annually, fits in ]

    Umrah:

    Mecca, size unknown, year round. The ?Umrah is an Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, Hijaz, Saudi Arabia, performed by Muslims that can be undertaken at any time of the year, in contrast to the ?ajj which has specific dates according to the Islamic lunar calendar. It is sometimes called the ‘minor pilgrimage’ or ‘lesser pilgrimage’, the Hajj being the ‘major’ pilgrimage which is compulsory for every Muslim who can afford it. The Umrah is not compulsory but highly recommended.

    Kalachakra,:

    Various locations, 500,000 participants, variously. The Kalachakra is a term used in Vajrayana Buddhism that means “wheel(s) of time”. “K?lacakra” is one of many tantric teachings and esoteric practices in Tibetan Buddhism. It is an active Vajrayana tradition, and has been offered to large public audiences. The tradition combines myth and history, whereby actual historical events become an allegory for the spiritual drama within a person, drawing symbolic or allegorical lessons for inner transformation towards realizing buddha-nature. The Dalai Lama’s 33rd Kalachakra ceremony was held in Leh, Jammu and Kashmir, India from July 3 to July 12, 2014. About 150,000 devotees and 350,000 tourists were expected to participate in the festival. The Kalachakra has also been performed, eg, by Grand Master Lu Sheng-yen of the True Buddhs School, a Chinese Vajrayana group>

    **

    The impacts of climate change will need to be studied as they apply not only to these sites of pilgrimage, but also to holy sites in general, notably including Jerusalem, Varanasi, and Kyoto.

    In the second part of this post, I will consider the “wider ripples” by which climate change intersects and overlaps with other concerns, chief among them the issue of sovereignty and the nation state.

    A DoubleTweet in which two religious icons confront urban decay

    Monday, August 19th, 2019

    [ by Charles Cameron — I spend a fair amount of time showing the ways in which religious extremism across many religions results in violence — it’s my pleasure here to show how simple religious devotion can have a positive impact ]
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    This is a very simple example of one positive aspect of religions, plural:

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    BTW, anyone who wonders whether Twitter can be worthwhile might take a look at this exchange between scholars of religion, as an example of the simple notion that two minds are better than one.

    In this case, I’m grateful both to Judy Silber, who posted How a Buddhist shrine transformed a neighborhood in Oakland, and to Andrew Chesnut, aka Dr. Death & Divinity, for his quick and profound reponse to my original tweet.

    And the Word was made Script and dwelt among us

    Friday, June 7th, 2019

    { by Charles Cameron — the embodiment of the word in script affords calligraphers of all religious beliefs the opportunity to illuminate the written script with beauty }
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    And the Word was made Script and dwelt among us…

    This would describe the indwelling of the numinous presence within scriptures, a doctrine found in the Christian usage that terms the Bible the Word of God, and even more explicitly in the Islamic doctrine that the Qu’ran is the Word of God in a manner equivalent to the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation — that is to say, Christians teach that Jesus is the Word of God, Muslims that the Qu’ran is.

    **

    Incunabula had tweeted:

    The historian Tom Holland picked up on this, and commented:

    How incredibly beautiful. It looks like something out of Rivendell.

    H’e not the only one thinking along similar lines — there’s a Reddit that’s relevant here: The Tibetan Script looks much like Tengwar to me…could it have been Tolkien’s inspiration for written Elvish?. So let’s take a quick look:

    **

    Let’s take a look: DoubleQuote:

    Above, Tolkien’s Quenya script from the inside front leaf, lower border, of the first edition Lord of the Rings, in comparison with the silver Tibetan calligraphy of the interior of Incunabula’s Perfection of Wisdom in 100,000 Verses.

    To be fair, Incunabula’s 13th-15th century work in gold and silver ink is a remarkable work of art, and it may be fair to compare it also —

    —with the 9th century illuminated gospels of the Irish Book of Kells.

    **

    Beauty, anyway — the word becoming scripture in script offers us a manner in which some glimpses of beauty — transcendent sister of goodness and truth — beauty become word..

    DoubleVision: two troubles with religions

    Sunday, May 19th, 2019

    [ by Charles Cameron — religious violence and sexual abuse scandals from a perspective grounded in comparative religion ]
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    Two images from my feed a couple of days ago, similar enough that they make a (visual) DoubleQuote:


    The Atlantic, Abolish the Priesthood


    WaPo, Sri Lankan government blocks social media and imposes curfew following deadly blasts

    **

    The first image above comes from an article in the Atlantic about child sexual abuse by members of the Catholic priesthood and accompanying cover-ups by the church hierarchy.

  • The Atlantic, Abolish the Priesthood
  • The abuses are horrific.They are horrific, horrific.

    My grouse here is that articles such as this focus on the Catholic Church, although Billy Graham’s grandson claims the situation is similar if not worse among Protestants; sexual abuse of spiritual authority and cover-ups are also found in so-called “sects” such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and in other religions altogether:

  • Vice, Billy Graham’s Grandson Says Protestants Abuse Kids Just Like Catholics
  • The Atlantic, A Secret Database of Child Abuse
  • Tricycle, a Buddhist magazine, Sex in the Sangha … Again
  • And if that’s not enough — consider this list of non-religiously specific sources of sexual abuse the Feeney Law Firm, LLC encounters in its practice:

  • Feeny Law Firm, Sexual Abuse and Assault Lawsuits
  • **

    The second image above is from a Washington Post piece of April 22nd, about “the aftermath of suicide attacks that killed hundreds of people” in churches and hotels across the island. The coordinated attacks were claimed by ISIS, but appear to have been locally planned and executed.

    Executed: what a word!

    My plea here is simple: that extremists should cease targeting followers of other religions in the names of their own various religions.

    As I’ve noted before, attacks here in the US and abroad have included:

  • The Gurdwara (Sikh temple), Oak Creek, WI, 2012
  • Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, NC, 2015
  • The Tree of Life and New Light synagogues in Pittsburgh, PA, 2018
  • The Al Noor and Linwood Mosques in Christchurch, NZ, 2019
  • and violent extremists can be found claiming affiliation to these religions:

  • Judaism
  • Christianity
  • Islam
  • Hinduism
  • Buddhism
  • **

    Violence in the name of religion — whether personal violence as in sexual abuse or political violence as in the case of terrorism — is both human and deeply abhorrent. Understanding how widespread the human urge to violence in fact is will tend to put our recriminations against any particular religion into a clearer perspective. Religions, too, can benefit greatly from acknowledging, and not hiding, the shameful skeletons in their various closets.

    As David Ronfeldt would say: Onwards!


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