More Buddhist Scandals

Sogyal Rinpoche

So, apparently, a guy named Sogyal Rinpoche who runs (ran?) a Buddhist organization called Rigpa is in trouble for doing some kinda something that made people upset.

According to Lion’s Roar, a “twelve-page letter (from Sogyal’s students) … addresses, in detail, four areas of alleged behavior by Sogyal Rinpoche: physical and psychological abuse of students, sexual abuse of students, a ‘lavish’ lifestyle, and that his actions have ‘tainted our appreciation for the practice of the Dharma.’”

I guess the letter says that Sogyal lured young women into sexual liaisons and “gut punched a nun.” There’s lots of lurid drama and action. People love lurid drama and action, so, apparently, the Internet is all abuzz about it. I haven’t paid any attention so I don’t know more than just that.

I’m glad no one is asking my opinion about Sogyal Rinpoche and Rigpa because I have none. I think I may have heard the names Sogyal Rinpoche and Rigpa before this scandal broke, but that’s it. I haven’t read the twelve-page letter and I have no interest in it. So, what I have to say here has nothing whatsoever to do with the specific allegations against Sogyal Rinpoche, since I do not know what he’s being accused of (other that what I just said).

Instead, I want to use the opportunity given to me by this recent scandal to talk about Buddhist institutions in general as I see them.

Institutions are weird things. And Buddhist institutions are even weirder things.

My take on what Buddhism is goes like this. People had been meditating for a long-ass time before Buddha showed up. It seems likely that some of these people had realizations similar to his. But before Buddha’s time, meditation was largely an individual activity that one did by oneself. I’m sure there were other groups of meditators before Buddha’s time. But the normal thing was to go off and do it on your own.

Also, when people did meditate with a group, the usual thing was for some authority figure to lay out in advance what this meditation stuff was supposed to accomplish, and for the students of that authority figure to try to work toward that goal. Thus, in his early days, the Buddha himself was taught by one meditation teacher how to reach the “sphere of nothingness,” and by another how to reach the “realm of neither perception nor non-perception.” Which he did, but which he found to be useless in his quest to understand the origin of suffering and how to put an end to it.

Buddha’s great innovation was to try to find a way that people could meditate together with no goal at all. Then he died, and the whole thing went into the crapper. It became just another religion with authority figures and dogmas and all the rest.

Fast forward a few hundred years to Bodhidharma, and here’s a guy who just wanted to sit on his own but who allowed a few people to join him as long as they behaved. This became the basis for the Zen way of pursuing Buddhist practice. No dogmas, no authority figures, just people sitting together and not messing it up for each other.

Of course, even in Zen this isn’t always what happens.

And this isn’t always what every person claiming to be a Zen Buddhists thinks should happen.

Still, that’s my understanding of the tradition. It’s not anyone’s business to tell you what your individual meditation practice is supposed to reveal to you, or to confirm that you’ve “gotten it” when something does happen.

Now… when you try to form an institution around such a loose set of non-beliefs, and around that kind of idea of what spiritual authority means, you’re going to have some difficulties. How do you get all sorts of people on the same page about something when one of your core ideas is that no two people are ever on the same page about anything?

To me, the whole point of a Buddhist institution is to provide a reasonable space for people to engage in individual meditation practice within a community of others who also want to meditate. That’s it.

Now, the bigger the institution becomes, the more trouble you’re going to have doing that. When everyone knows everyone else, and everyone is more-or-less equally committed to meditating, you don’t need to make a lot of rules in order for this to work.

When you start opening up your group to the wider world, though, all sorts of people are going to show up with all sorts of ideas. You’ve got to accommodate a lot of different beliefs and expectations.

When a person who has made meditation his or her life’s work is asked to lead an institution full of people with conflicting ideas and expectations… Well, how can you expect such a person to be prepared to do such a thing when the bulk of their lives has been spent in silent contemplation?

I have no idea what went on with Sogyal Rinpoche. I have no idea if, for example, the whole reason he got into Buddhism was the chicks and the money. It’s possible, I guess. If he was an idiot. But I can say for a fact that I did not get into it for the chicks and the money, because there was no reason for me to expect chicks and money was part of the deal.

But I’ve seen what happens when you become famous for something, including when you become famous for teaching people how to meditate. Some people are attracted to that fame. Other people are jealous. Others are both jealous and attracted. Lots of people have stupidly unrealistic expectations of you. They want you to be a role model for the whole world. Or they want you to be their new daddy. Or they want to get underneath those robes, maybe to see what’s under there, maybe to prove to themselves that they can get under them.

And that stuff can make a person a little crazy — regardless of how much they’ve meditated. Maybe you, as the now famous meditation teacher, will have a crisis of faith. Maybe you’ll start thinking, “Aw hell, why not get a little of the good stuff?” After all, it keeps getting offered to you. Or maybe you’ll see a chance to get a little something that was never available to you before, having spent all your time staring at the wall and not learning how to be one of the cool guys who gets the good stuff.

My advice to anyone who tries to practice in a large Buddhist institution is to be aware that not only does the leader of that institution have a responsibility to you, but that you also have a responsibility to him or her. Your responsibility is to help everyone keep that space available for meditation practice to happen, including for the person who runs the place. The leader is not the only one whose job it is to do that. That sorry person probably didn’t even want that job to begin with. But now they’re stuck with it, which means they’re stuck with you as yet another stranger to deal with who might try to disturb the space.

I think far too many people enter these institutions looking to be taken care of, looking to be dominated, looking for someone to guide them to some nebulous goal.

But that’s not what’s on offer. Or, if that is what’s on offer, then the institution you’ve entered is not about Buddhism, no matter whose statue is on the altar. In fact, if you’re in an institution that is offering to take care of you, guide you, and dominate you, then you should expect to be abused.

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