21st February, 2018
I am sorry for not responding much sooner to your letter of 23rd August. The main reason is that I’m just so lazy but also pretend to be busy – a pretence that ends up actually making me busy. In fact, I had started to respond to your letter months ago but somehow never got around to finishing this return letter till now.
However, I want to assure you that, because the Buddhadharma and especially the Vajrayana are dear to my heart, I do pay attention as much as time allows to what you and others write. So, from my heart, I want to offer my sincere appreciation for the great effort and thoughtfulness you and many others have been putting into the dialogue of the past seven months.
As you know, I am about to visit a few Rigpa sanghas in Europe. I don’t know how much I can achieve there, but I will try my best to address some of the issues that have been raised in the past seven months. I know people have said and will continue to say that I am trying to “have it both ways”. But more likely I think I will be upsetting both camps!
Anyway, I was determined to finish my response to your 23rd August letter, Bernie, before starting these Rigpa centre talks, in part because I want to quote you in public there. I wanted you to be aware that I intend to do that and hope you don’t mind. But I think this could be useful, as several of the issues you have raised are on many people’s minds.
I would also have liked to respond in writing to other articles, like for example Tahlia Newland’s recent one on whether Vajrayana Buddhism is a cult religion, but just haven’t had the time in recent days to do so. I’ll just say briefly here that I fully agree with her overall conclusion that Vajrayana Buddhism per se and in its essence is not a cult religion but that certain Vajrayana communities have the potential to become cults, as do communities in other religions.
As for the arguments she presented, I’ve been asked by Rigpa in my upcoming talk at Lerab Ling to address exactly the question she asked in her title – namely, is Vajrayana Buddhism a cult religion? So, I do hope to address there some of the issues she raised in her two articles.
Of course, there are many other important issues that other writers have raised in the past seven months. I know I can’t cover even a portion of these, but will certainly try to address some of the key questions in the coming sessions in Europe – without any expectation that my responses will satisfy anyone.
But for now, this letter belatedly focuses on some of the key issues that you, Bernie, raised in your 23rd August letter to me.
- What you and others express reinforces my main observation that some Rigpa students were not properly prepared and warned about the Vajrayana path and commitments. And that is not your fault, but absolutely Sogyal Rinpoche’s fault. Indeed, of all the things I wrote in my original article last August, this is really the only point based strictly on my own observation from what I personally witnessed.
- Dzogchen is tantra. In fact, in the Nyingma tradition, dzogchen is the highest yoga tantra. Without the mahasandhi view, all other practices of the tantra in the Nyingma tradition basically collapse. Pointing out your Buddha nature is a big deal – the highest of all teachings, instructions and initiations. And to the person who does that for you, you owe everything.
You wrote: “Vajrayana was not our main path…. I don’t think I entered it formally.” But it is simply not correct to imply some separation between Dzogchen teachings, the Vajrayana, and samaya commitments – as if one can somehow get the former without the latter. AND an integral part of that package deal is proper preparation and warning.
- Samaya: You asked:
“Given we were introduced so informally, where does that leave us in terms of the traditional samaya?…. Since we did not consciously agree to the strict rules in the tantras, are we now bound by them? Or should our commitment to maintain samaya be based on the essential meaning that Sogyal Rinpoche explained to us?… Considering that the way most of us in Rigpa entered into the Vajrayana was quite informal and unconventional, and thus unclear, would a positive step forward be for both students and teacher to clarify and review their Vajrayana commitments?”
It makes no difference whether Dzogchen teachings are given formally or informally. They could even be given while the teacher and student are peeing – and this happens by the way! Ritual doesn’t matter. But regardless of how those teachings were given, Sogyal Rinpoche had the responsibility to tell his students that these are the highest and most important Vajrayana teachings, to explain the serious preparation and commitments required, and to say these instructions must not be passed on to others. These things absolutely had to be said as part of the required preparation and warnings.
What you write and the way you frame your questions above implies this did not happen properly between Sogyal Rinpoche and you. Even if you and others like you heard Dzogchen talked about – and who in this age of curiosity does not want to know there is a technique for pointing out the nature of mind – still, it seems there was never really a Vajrayana teaching between Sogyal Rinpoche and you. That, in turn, leads me to question if there was ever a samaya between you. And if there was no samaya, then I wonder how you could have broken samaya. It’s clear from what you write that you don’t know this yourself. But that does not exempt Sogyal Rinpoche – because he should know better.
This is not hard to understand. It’s as if you happened to walk into a ceremony in which monks are being ordained, after which, to your total surprise, the abbot tells you that from now on, you can’t have sex. Of course that’s absurd, because you just happened to be there and heard words spoken, but never really knew what was happening. So why should you follow monks’ vows? Unlike you, the monks are supposed to have had proper preparation, to have made a conscious decision about their lives, and to know exactly what they were getting into. You didn’t. As I tried to explain in my earlier posting last August, it was Sogyal Rinpoche’s mistake not to give the proper preparation for Vajrayana teachings, of which the highest is the introduction to the nature of mind.
- Another question you asked is:
“Sogyal Rinpoche did not have the full formal training that Vajrayana teachers usually go through. This possibility might make a lot of his students very uncomfortable. Are there any qualified masters that could do a peer review with Sogyal Rinpoche and look at how he is working personally with students?”
This is a very big question and is addressed in detail in The Guru Drinks Bourbon?, in which I try to address this issue of proper training.
- Role of western psychotherapy: Western psychotherapy and other spiritual and psychological paths are all fine so long as their methods crush ego. If they do that, they are valid paths. Any path that does not crush ego is spiritual materialism even if it is coated with all kinds of Buddhist jargon.
- Compatibility with personal responsibility:
“One question I have is whether the practice of samaya and pure perception are compatible with the idea of self-responsibility? And if not, how Vajrayana can exist in this world in any way besides a secret path that selected students are invited to enter consciously with full understanding by a qualified teacher?”
Yes – samaya is not only compatible with personal responsibility but inseparable from it, and this is exactly why proper preparation is so important. Let’s say you examine a path and a teacher closely for some years, and then decide to exercise your responsibility and ask that teacher to lead you: – that is your choice. Even if you think that person is immoral, unethical or criminal, as a spiritual person such a choice would still be the highest sacrifice you can make. And if you really take that responsibility fully, it can be the biggest adventure and the most liberating decision you can make. There are people who have done that!
- Pure perception of present scandal:
“From a perspective of pure perception, maybe everything is happening as it should? Could it be that Sogyal Rinpoche intended for these people to go through this experience, to feel harmed the way they have, to feel unsupported by the community, to lose trust in him as a teacher, and create a public scandal? That would imply he also intended to sacrifice his reputation and for this public discussion to take place, perhaps so it could reveal the problems and bring positive change.”
That is fantastic, and really gratifying to read! If you could remain in that perception and maintain that kind of motivation, that is a great thing for a Vajrayana student to do. If you have taken Sogyal Rinpoche as your Vajrayana master, then I would highly recommend you keep on doing that and I would give you decorations, honours and awards as a true sentry for the Vajrayana.
But also bear in mind that Sogyal Rinpoche’s manifestation has affected a lot of people’s inspiration and aspiration. It may have permanently damaged the image of the Buddhadharma in general and the Vajrayana in particular in the eyes of some people, and it has certainly caused considerable negative uproar.
So it’s at this time – whatever role you take – whether defensive, offensive, or as interpreter, please do so without ever forgetting the bigger picture. I’m saying this to you personally, but we both know we’re having this exchange because we’re in the midst of a situation where so many good people are responding very emotionally, negatively or defensively. So my plea to remember the “bigger picture”, which includes the survival and health of the Buddhadharma and Vajrayana in the west, is addressed to everyone, on whatever side you are on.
In this regard, I want to repeat what I wrote in my earlier posting: that I am so impressed with most of Sogyal Rinpoche’s students, no matter what their current stance or point of view. Their dedication to the dharma and their assiduous practice gives me hope that the Vajrayana really is taking root in the west!
- Value of present discussion: And this is one reason I feel confident that the personal contemplation, examination, and interactive discussion now going on among dharma practitioners on these issues has great potential not only to clarify people’s individual practice, path and commitment, but also to strengthen the teaching and practice of Vajrayana Buddhism in the west.
I wish you the very best in your dharma study and practice,
Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse
- The above letter was published at the request of Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche.
- Read Bernie’s full letter here: A Letter to Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche Concerning “Guru and Student in the Vajrayana
- Read Talhia’s articles here: Is Vajrayana Buddhism a Cult Religion? Part 1 and Is Vajrayana Buddhism a Cult Religion? Part 2