Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism, a book review:

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 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 Dzogchen — Sogyal’s own form of Tibetan Buddhism — details in collaboration with her co-author Rob 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.

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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.”

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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.

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Metaphors for full, empty, void, overflowing — Indian trains

You already know the way things are —

so this DoubleQuote will show you the familiar, hopefully with a new slant —

— the abstract intuition that sees these two images taken together as a binary, a pairing of extremes — something the brain finds very reassuring —

— and a metaphor for duality and as such, non-dual.

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The lower of the two photographs, with the ladies walking along the railway tracks with no train in sight, is taken from an article on the oncoming monsoon that might interest you:

Waiting for the Monsoon, Discovering a Brain Tumor Instead

A brain tumor — what kind of strong weather in mind and heart is that? We live in an alien, often beautiful, sometimes unbearably human world.

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Why I am wrong on Art 370

I am a Kashmiri Pandit and a card-carrying Internally Displaced Person. I believe the recent annulment of Article 370 (and 35A) of the Indian Constitution, which gave special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir in the Union of India, is a good thing for all Indian citizens including the Kashmiri people.

However, I am also an epistemological fallibilist. I believe humans err not because we are humans but because to err is a physical law governing all knowledge generating systems. In the spirit of error-correction, therefore, I am going to sum up the argument – as fairly as I can – on why my belief in the “goodness” of Article 370 invalidation* is false.

Continue reading “Why I am wrong on Art 370”

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Chuang-tzu or Zhuangzi, it’s a laughing matter [review]

[ cross-posted at Zenpundit — Zhuangzi, a light-hearted philosopher dancing to his own laughter, illuminated by CC Tsai ]
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Zhuangzi: The Way of Nature
translated by Brian Bruya, illustrated by CC Tsai
Princeton University Press, 2019
US $ 22.95

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You may be acquainted with the yin-yang symbol — or as it’s more properly called, the Tai-chih or Taiji — but here’s CC Tsai‘s version, with dragon:

That’s the style of CC Tsai‘s illustrations, which — rather than Brian Bruya‘s translations — are the featured aspect of this version of the Zhuangzi: it also encapsulates the essence of Zhuangzi‘s thought.

Here’s the comic book version of a very comic work of profound, non-invasive philosophy.

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Zhuangzi is a Taoist, one who would allow the arising and fading away of things in their natural order, with as little thought-commentyary, let alone intervention, as piossible — given the human tendency to go round and round in circles even while sitting still — Laozi‘s Tao Te Ching is the simple and direct exposition of this way of approaching and appreciating life, while Zhuangzi presents the same appreciation in the formm of quizzical tales and (naturally, absent) morals..

Ah. Thus the seagull, Laozi tells Confucius, who came to discuss benevolence and righteousness, doesn’t get white by soaping yup and washing itself, nor does the crow get black by dipping itself in ink: benevolence, similarly, is not a matter of soap and water — it simply arises where it arises.

You get the feeling Laozi wouldn’t mind having left it at the seagulls doing what they do, and likewise with the crows — but Confucius dropped by and asked about benevolence and righteousness, and Laozi responded as was only benevolent and polite..

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My favorite story in all of Chuang Tzu / Zhuangzi is the story of Lord Wen-hui’s cook Ting, who taught him the natural way of things while cutting up an ox. In Burton Watson‘s translation:

Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui. At every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee – zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Ching-shou music.

“Ah, this is marvelous!” said Lord Wen-hui. “Imagine skill reaching such heights!”

Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now – now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.

“A good cook changes his knife once a year-because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month-because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room – more than enough for the blade to play about it. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.

“However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until – flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.”

“Excellent!” said Lord Wen-hui. “I have heard the words of Cook Ting and learned how to care for life!”

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That’s a long-ish quote, but its rollicking good humor will have carried you through it, and I wanted to give you a sense of the Zhuangzi as I have known and loved it — to taste it in comparison with CC Tsai‘s vision / version of the same tale, as represented in a couple of frames from his telling:

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So now we have Burton Watson‘s “the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room” and Brian Bruya‘s “my knife glides in and out between the bone joints, moving as it pleases: the cow suffers no pain and, in the end, doesn’t even know it’s dead.”

Pretty remarkable, either way — but that’s in English, and who knows what contortions a translator must make to move from Chinese into English? Watson‘s Chuang-tsu is closer to Lao-tsu, if you compare the statement of principle to its embodiment in an anecdote:

Ursula Le Guin‘s translation of the Tao Te Ching is even more succinct:

The immaterial enters the impenetrable..

No wonder cook Ting’s vorpal blade went snicker-snack, to borrow a phrase from Lewis Carroll‘s poem, Jabberwocky. And come to think of it, Lewis Carroll, aka Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the Christ Church, Oxford logician, may indeed be the English language’s native equivalent of the Chinese Zhuangzi.

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As I hope I have indicated, Chuang Tzu / Zhuangzi, even in translation, is a writer of enormous charm and insight, and CC Tsai‘s presentation marries the conventions of the comic book with classical Chinese artistry to provide an exemplary introduction to one of the world’s great philosopher-humorists.

Delightful. Warmly recommended.

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The Ideal and the Practical — the Practice

I’d written a response to @AnAn and included a quote from the Chuang Tzu’s chapter on Lord Wen-hui and what he learned from his Cook Ting, and wanted to throw in the following DoubleQuote — but graphics seem to be discouraged in the Comment sections here, so I’ve opened this post for the purpose:

The thing is, Lao Tzu offers us the ideal statement, formulated in terms of an impenetrable absence of space, and an absence of substance to the point of non-existence — while Chuang Tzu, peering over Lord Wen-hui’s shoulder right there in Cook Ting’s kitchen, offers us the same insight, couched in terms of there being “spaces between the joints” and his knife having “really no thickness” — Chuang Tzu’s measureless insight penetrates Lao Tzu’s impenetrable absolutes to show us there’s room for play there — “room — more than enough for the blade to play about in”.

If we bear these two versions of the same idea — formulated ideally and in practical terms by the two principle philosopher-poets of the Taoist school — in mind when our thoughts run up against the impracticality of an ideal, we may find, like Cook Ting, that we too have room enough room to play in.

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I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me.

There was a comment below which I am now reflecting on…that this “This blog pertains to South Asians.” The comment was sincerely made, and I take no deep issue with it.

Rather, I wonder what the purview of pertaining to South Asians is for each of us. Do we all see the same sky above us? Or does where we stand alter the constellations above? Both?

There are so many faces to this question. Some might echo Naipul and suggest that those of us from Muslim backgrounds are shorn from our Indian roots, that we are a people without a spirit. Others might assert a racial component, which in the Western context becomes cloying and exceedingly restrictive. Liminal populations are matters of dispute.

And yet I reflect on my own life, my own orientation, my own upbringing. I spent long enough in Bangladesh as a small child to remember the taste of jackfruit in my mouth…but below are the climatic conditions I grew up with as an elementary and secondary school child and teenager.

I wasn’t born in the cold and ice. But I was raised in it. I was moulded by it. I do not miss the seasons. I do not miss the ice. But the ice is part of who I am.

The cold of winter is deep in my experience, and that is almost one reason that I shudder to think of the cold, and I positively avoid it now that I have a choice as an adult.

And yet this is not typical of the South Asian, Indian, subcontinental, background. It is not part of our deep cultural memory, it is particular to many of us who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, young children of hopeful immigrants fleeing countries of grinding poverty and deep sclerosis, embedding themselves in frozen landscapes where they traded warmth for hope.

Readers of my other weblog (which as of this current writing is undergoing some maintenance by yours truly) sometimes ask me when I choose to post here, and when I choose to the post there. To be honest that distinction is harder to make for the non-science content.

If there is an election in India. If there are tensions on the border between Pakistan and India. If someone wants to engage in a troll-fest on the Kashmir question. This blog will be a space where those issues are mooted.

But there are more things in heaven and earth, Harjeet, than are dreamt of in your Darśana. 

I think a reasonable position may be “this is a South Asian weblog, this is why we are talking about this.” But, I am very wary of the proposition, “this is a South Asian weblog, this is why we should not be talking about this.”

Seek illumination even if you have to go as far as China, for seeking knowledge is a duty on every human.

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