January 5, 2012

Monastic Abuse: the Tragic case of Kalu Rinpoche. ~ Adele Wilde-Blavatsky

Other articles on this subject on Elephant Journal:

The Sex Lives of Monks: Confessions of Kalu Rinpoche and Sex, Death, Sacrifice & Waking Up. Comments worth the read. ~ ed.


Believe nothing merely because you have been told it. Do not believe what your teacher tells you merely out of respect for the teacher. But whatever, after due examination and analysis, you find to be kind, conducive to the good, the benefit, the welfare of all beings — that doctrine believe and cling to, and take it as your guide.

~ the Buddha

Rely on the teachings to evaluate a guru: Do not have blind faith, but also no blind criticism.

~ the 14th Dalai Lama

Sexual abuse is traumatic and any victim of it deserves to be heard in a compassionate and sympathetic environment.

Therefore, I was shocked and saddened to see the current Kalu Rinpoche’s YouTube video testimony a couple of weeks ago. This was not an easy video to watch for a variety of reasons. First, there were the allegations themselves of sexual abuse and violence by Tibetan monks against a well-known Tibetan Rinpoche in a Tibetan monastery. Second, there was the method and manner in which these allegations were announced. Third, there was reporting of this story by elephant journal , social media and the public reaction to it.

Here’s the video:


As a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner, I am fully aware that I am wading into potentially dangerous and hostile territory to publicly question the motives and behaviour of ‘male Tibetan Buddhist royalty’ (a path nonetheless daringly trodden by many women before me).

To be clear, I make no claims to be a great enlightened yogini, teacher, guru or spiritual practitioner. I am just an ordinary unenlightened woman trying to make sense of Tibetan Buddhism and its teachings in a respectful and rational manner.

For me, Kalu Rinpoche’s online conduct goes much further than his allegation of sexual abuse, but strikes at the very heart of the student-teacher relationship, particularly as that is understood in the Vajrayana tradition.

Ordinary view – allegations of sexual abuse

My first reaction on watching the video was it was very focused on Kalu’s pain and grievance. This was in stark contrast to the vast view and understanding of karma, impermanence, selflessness, and emptiness that we are used to seeing embodied in great Buddhist practitioners.

It was remarkably brave for Kalu Rinpoche, a well-known Tibetan Buddhist male tulku to reveal severe sexual abuse in such a way, and yet the deafening public silence of well-known Tibetan Buddhist lamas in response to it was noticeable and must have made Kalu Rinpoche feel isolated due to that. Having recently spoken out privately about my own sexual and emotional abuse by a well-known Tibetan Buddhist lama, I know how such ignoring, gaslighting, silence and so on, lead to even more feelings of lack of understanding, support, and isolation.

The Karmapa and the Dalai Lama are also products of the Tibetan tulku system and were taken from their families as young boys to be tutored at a monastery. They, like Kalu, did not see their family or mothers for long periods of time either but they do not appear to have been greatly damaged by it, or even if they were, they have chosen not to speak about it publicly.

Although I do not have any strong personal connection with Kalu Rinpoche (until recently), I was aware of his online activity for the last year or so via Buddhist friends who had been following his website and Facebook updates . It was hard not to be confused, amused, shocked and appalled by his online presence which veered from vain, poseur fashion-inspired photos and hip-hop videos to advertising his hedonistic activities such as travelling, partying and getting intoxicated.

Even more bewildering was how some of my most ‘die-hard’ (or what I refer to jokingly as ‘fundamentalist’) Buddhist friends, the type who would openly scold and condemn people for smoking or eating meat, were avidly following Kalu and even ‘liking’ his activities that normally they would consider grossly unethical in any other person. It was hard to take any of it too seriously; and seemed like a massive case of ‘The Emperor’s Got No Clothes.’

Time and time again, when I raised this with my Dharma friends, online or in person, I was met with a similar response: it was my ordinary, unenlightened mind that was at fault. This response was dissatisfactory for various reasons including the fact that it was implying that they clearly could see his great qualities (or at least were pretending to do so).

Don’t misunderstand me. I have a lot of time and compassion for anyone who claims they have been sexually abused. I am a passionate political activist and feminist, particularly when it comes to campaigning about the sexual abuse and exploitation of women or children. Yet, even I was confused as to why such a ‘big name’ and widely respected Tibetan lama would choose such a method of communication to reveal a deeply personal and traumatic experience.

Nor did Rinpoche appear to offer anything constructive from it (such as stating he was going to root out sexual abuse in his monastery) instead stating that he wanted to establish a school. Additionally, surely Rinpoche cannot be that naïve to realise the damage and confusion his conduct would cause not only his followers but also the reputation of Tibetans and Tibetan Buddhism.

At the very least, even if Kalu’s allegations are true (and yes, I will say ‘if’) then surely we still have to abide by the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’? In a just, rational and sane world we should never get to the stage where we accept someone’s word for it merely out of our faith alone. And yet, it appeared many supposedly liberal, rational and sane people were doing just that online. Many of Rinpoche’s students, and the even the editor of elephant journal, posted comments on social media with wildly generalising comments stating that it proved that there were horrendous levels of sex abuse in the Tibetan monastic system, that it was similar to the abuse in the Catholic Church, that monasticism caused this kind of behaviour and so on. All without a shred of objective, independent evidence other than second-hand gossip and Kalu Rinpoche’s video testimony.

Sadly, reports of cases of sexual and physical abuse of children and adults in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries are increasing—particularly in Bhutan (the home country of Kalu Rinpoche yangsi.)

Is criticising the teacher compatible with devotion to them?

Putting the allegations to one side though, what Kalu Rinpoche’s conduct really strikes at is the important issue of how far we should go, and what is acceptable, in demonstrating our faith and devotion to a teacher.

A teacher, by definition, is anyone who has students. And it is the student who ultimately invests the teacher with authority by placing him or her in that role. By acknowledging that a teacher does not exist as such in his own right, one empowers the student.

So what to do when the teacher appears to be exploiting or abusing the student? According to the Buddhist teachings, there is a vast difference between blind faith and faith that arises out of confidence. The latter is based on study, reflection and carefully watching and monitoring a teacher for many years.

In terms of karma, Kalu’s confession eerily reflects another well-known public ‘confession’ of sexual abuse, that of June Campbell, who was a former student and translator of the previous incarnation of Kalu Rinpoche. The difference between the two testimonies is Ms Campbell accused Kalu Rinpoche himself of sexually exploiting and abusing her. At the time, many Tibetan Buddhist followers accused Ms Campbell of being crazy, delusional and lying. Sadly, a rather typical, cult-like (and sexist) response to women who reveal their abuse at the hands of powerful and wealthy men.

So, perhaps the current incarnation’s experience is the the direct karmic result of his previous actions? It’s hard to say but the parallels are more than obvious. Sadly, such allegations of teachers exploiting their students for money or sex are not solely confined to Tibetan Buddhism either.

Admittedly, it is easier to reject, ignore or criticise a teacher whom we do not have a particularly strong personal connection with, but what of those students who do? How should they deal with the confusion and doubts that Kalu Rinpoche’s activities might raise for them? The Dalai Lama told Stephen Batchelor, in a recent interview, that he faced this particular dilemma himself :

“He spoke of his own relationship with one of his teachers. We presumed this was his first tutor and regent Reting Rinpoche, a sexually promiscuous Gelugpa monk who, in 1947, plotted to launch a Chinese-backed coup to regain the regency. In the privacy of his meditation, the Dalai Lama continued to regard his tutor as a Buddha, while in public he condemned his actions. Likewise, he admitted, “Mao Tse-tung may have been a Bodhisattva, but I had to criticise him because he destroyed our religion and independence.”

So why would the Dalai Lama encourage us to condemn our root teacher’s actions publicly?

‘What is at stake here is the standing and repute of Buddhism itself, which, for the Dalai Lama, serves not least as a crucial component for our times in creating peace in the world. Even if one has received great personal benefit from a teacher – even if one has taken tantric vows of discipleship with him, the integrity of the Buddhist tradition must take precedence over guarding that teacher’s reputation when he is justly accused of ethical misconduct. When there is incontrovertible evidence of wrong-doing, then it is one’s responsibility to take action. “Make voice!” he insisted. “Give warning! We no longer tolerate!” The Dalai Lama encouraged us repeatedly to criticise such behaviour openly, even, when all else fails to “name names in newspapers.”‘

So on the one hand, it may be brave and honest of Kalu Rinpoche to ‘make voice’ about his own alleged abuse. On the other hand, people should not then be offended or surprised if Rinpoche’s activities are also put under the microscope for scrutiny and criticism.

Furthermore, if there is any truth to June Campbell’s statements about her sexual exploitation at the hands of his prior incarnation, wouldn’t it be fair and just for Rinpoche to make a public statement about that and her alleged suffering? Or is Kalu’s suffering and situation the only thing we are to be concerned about here? For example, I have publicly asked Kalu Rinpoche twice on his Facebook and Youtube pages for his ‘memories and thoughts about June Campbell. His silence to my comments has been deafening.

Eat shit or bullshit?

So if that still leaves some people wondering if their Vajrayana teacher is a genuine tantric crazy wisdom practitioner or a fallen Bodhisattva, is there a test by which we could judge the difference?

There are some excellent quotes and advice about finding a teacher and the nature of the student-teacher relationship here and from Alexander Berzin here.

In his interview with Stephen Batchelor, the Dalai Lama pointed out that an authentic, realised tantric practitioner should be as eager to ingest urine and excrement as they would alcohol and food. Which, sadly, by western standards might not be that hard to find (although obviously the Bodhicitta motivation for this eagerness is what would count, more than any perverted pleasure!).

A more delicate proof of tantric yogi/ni status, would be the absence of seminal emission during sexual orgasm. When asked how many Tibetan lamas today fulfilled such criteria, the Dalai Lama confessed that while he personally knew none, there were monks in the caves above Dharamsala whose practice was such that his own, in comparison, dwindled to insignificance.

Essentially, a person has to understand that ordinary and worldly sexual relations, even with a Tibetan Rinpoche, is not the same, or an adequate substitute for, genuine tantric practice with a consort. Consort tantra requires advanced meditative practice and realisations from both practitioners and has very little to do with ordinary sex, desire and orgasm.

In fact, tantric sex is not really sex at all. It involves intensive activity associated with advanced yoga and meditation than sexual athletics done out of pleasure and self-gratification. It never fails to amaze me in an information-saturated world that people still confuse the two and allow themselves to engage in worldly sexual relations under the delusion that it is somehow spiritual because the man (and it is generally a man) is considered to be a great Buddhist practitioner or teacher. This demonstrates a deep misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of not only tantric practice but also of the teacher-student relationship. I can say that confidently, even as a mere ordinary unenlightened being.

In conclusion, it is important for us to recall that the real teacher is our inner wisdom and the outer teacher is only a means to recognise that.

For me, if the current Kalu Rinpoche is teaching us anything (intentionally or not) it is that we all have to ultimately rely on and trust that inner guru wisdom even if that means publicly rejecting or condemning the outer ‘teacher’. It’s a clear message that there is no place for blind, unquestioning, ignorant faith in Tibetan Buddhism. After all, this is what distinguishes Buddhism from all the other major religions and is what makes the Buddha’s teachings so unique and awe-inspiring. As the Buddha said:

Therefore, be lamps unto yourselves, be a refuge to yourselves. Hold fast to Truth as a lamp; hold fast to the Truth as a refuge. Look not for a refuge in anyone beside yourselves. And those, who shall be a lamp unto themselves, shall take themselves to no external refuge, but holding fast to the Truth as their lamp, and holding fast to the Truth as their refuge, they shall reach the topmost height.

May you all reach the ‘topmost height’ in 2012!

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