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A Timely and Important Book “Fallout: Recovering from Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism”

Guest Post By Joanne Clark

Fallout: Recovering from Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism, by Tahlia Newland, is the story of Rigpa students coming to terms with disclosures of Sogyal Lakar’s abuses over decades, as revealed in the letter from eight senior ex-students in July 2017. This is the story of renegade students, students who refuse to participate in a religious institution that condones abuse—and the courage, wisdom, self-reflection, compassion and robust spirit of inquiry that shines through this book reminds me again and again that Buddha himself was a renegade, founding a religion outside of institutions, royal pomp, ceremony, and political power. This is a book that Rigpa management, Sogyal Lakar and the Tibetan Buddhist community need to read and ponder, as the insights it contains are pertinent to all who care about the authentic transmission of Buddhism to the West.

This is also the story of Rigpa’s tragic failure as a religious institution to protect students from harm and Sogyal’s failure to abide by even the most basic ethical boundaries of the Dharma. We learn how both Rigpa and Sogyal have failed to adequately address the present concerns of this group of long-time, now ex-students, many of whom are survivors of Sogyal’s abuse, suffering from severe trauma and seeking validation. We learn also how they have demeaned, attacked and dismissed this group, many of whom devoted long years of their lives working for Rigpa.

The story begins shortly before the publication of the letter, at the moment when Newland first discovers that Sogyal has been hitting students for decades. We follow her personal, painful process of coming to terms with this and then, with the letter published, the story becomes much bigger, becoming the story of many—of the “What Now?” group– ex-Rigpa students forming communities of blogs and Facebook groups under the leadership of Newland and others in order to find support and move forward in meaningful ways.

This is not a story of gripe sessions, not about angry ex-students, though certainly some have had their periods of anger and there is plenty to be angry about. This is an account of students making meaning out of trauma and abuse, students working to hold a perpetrator to full account and understand the beliefs, manipulations and deceptions that held them hostage, that allowed such abuses to occur. And it is a true story. As one commenter, quoted in the book, stated:

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A Transgender Buddhist Trailblazer 20+ Years Later

Buddhist teacher and practitioner Caitriona Reed came out as a “woman of transgender experience” in her article “Coming Out Whole,” published in Inquiring Mind in 1998. Back then, public knowledge of transgender people wasn’t particularly informed or accurate. In her article, Caitriona articulated complex theories of gender and indicated a need to dissolve the gender binary, ideas that wouldn’t enter the public discourse until decades later. Since then, conversations about gender identity have become more mainstream, though trans communities continue to struggle for acceptance. 

Caitriona Reed, a Zen Buddhist, received authority to teach from Thich Nhat Hanh in 1992. She co-founded the Manzanita Village Retreat Center in southern California to focus on Vipassana meditation and Zen practice as ways of promoting sustainable ecologies, nonviolence, and social justice. 

In the following interview, Tricycle follows up with Caitriona to discuss how things have changed, or stayed the same, since her coming out over two decades ago.

What responses did you get when Inquiring Mind published your article?
For the most part, the response I got from my peers was extraordinarily generous and open—even congratulatory. I remember at a teacher meeting shortly after, [Theravadan teacher] Jack Kornfield quipped that I was probably the only person there not in drag, the only one not putting on a contrived front. Among Buddhists—Asian Buddhists, Theravadan monks, Tibetan teachers—the response was just extraordinary.

Of course, I was aware of some people with reservations, but they were polite. Among my own students, a few were confounded, but this was 22-plus years ago, so times were different. I remember one student said, “I’m disappointed that you’ve transitioned because in terms of male-female balance, you were one of the most integrated men I’d ever met. I’m disappointed because I enjoyed that.”

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Schedule as Teacher

“If everyone wears the same robe and follows the same rules, how can they find out who they truly are?” one student asked during our orientation of Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Muir Beach, California. 

“When everyone wears and does the same thing,” our practice leader replied, “you can see everyone’s individuality more clearly, like how they walk, bow, talk and carry themselves, rather than judging someone’s shirt choice on a random day.” 

It was the beginning of a five-month apprenticeship at the Soto Zen practice center, and I had arrived in white Feiyue shoes with a multicolored icon, bright red-striped socks, graphic T-shirt, neon green zip-up, and lightning yellow backpack. At the time, the black robe represented an opportunity to let go of my constant desire to choose and to give myself over to the center’s rigid work and practice schedule. My friends and family have deemed me the most indecisive person they know. I struggled with what psychologist Barry Schwartz called the paradox of choice, which he used to describe the way that the variety of options available to consumers increases their anxiety rather than meets their needs.

At Green Gulch, we’re told to think of the “schedule as teacher.” (The phrase predates the center, but I do not know its exact origins.) Since every activity and its start and end time were predetermined, we only had to be concerned with the moment-to-moment experience, or in Zen terms, shikantaza. If I chopped an onion in the kitchen, for example, I did not need to think or do anything except chop the onion with my whole heart and mind and remain aware of my fellow cooks. 

Ending precisely on time was just as important as starting; if I only swept half the floor when the bow-out bell rang, I had to put down the broom and leave the task unfinished. This rule shifted my attention back to the present moment by taking away the feeling that what I was doing was a means to an end. It didn’t matter if I accomplished something, only that I spent the designated time doing the work.

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Acts That Purify Our Existence: Dana, Sila, and Bhavana

Once a month, Tricycle features an article from Inquiring Mind, a Buddhist journal that was in print from 1984–2015 and now has a growing number of back issues archived at inquiringmind.com. This month’s selection is a teaching from the late Theravada monk Sayadaw U Pandita about the Buddhist notions of dana (generosity), sila (morality) and bhavana (meditation). U Pandita, the successor of the influential Burmese teacher Mahāsi Sayādaw, helped the Theravada tradition take root in America and brought a renewed emphasis to the role of ethics in Buddhist practice. The article originally appeared under the title “Dana, Sila & Bhavana—Acts That Purify Our Existence” in Inquiring Mind’s final issue in Spring 2015, one year before U Pandita’s death in April 2016. Be sure to check out the related articles in the archive, like “The Zen of Vipassana,” an interview with Gil Fronsdal and Max Erdstein, and “Faith,” an interview with Sharon Salzberg. If you feel so inclined, consider making a donation to help Inquiring Mind continue adding articles to its archive!

One of the most beautiful stories of Sayadaw U Pandita happened about 20 years ago, when Sayadawgyi, as he is affectionately and reverently known, was in his early seventies. Shortly after a three-month rains retreat in Myanmar, he strolled past where a Western nun named Ma Visadañanî was donating medicines. “You’re throwing away the dhamma [dharma],” Sayadawgyi said.

Astonished, Ma Visadañanî said, “What?”

“Aren’t you forgetting the ‘no-death’ medicine?” Sayadawgyi quipped, adding a verse in Pali. “Appamado amatam padam,” he said, quoting the Buddha. “Heedfulness is the way to the deathless.”

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Buddha Buzz Weekly: Ancient Buddhist City Becomes World Heritage Site

UNESCO approves Myanmar’s Buddhist temple city of Bagan, Uighur and Tibetan advocates among survivors of religious persecution at Trump meeting, and China sends a warning to India over Dalai Lama’s reincarnation. Tricycle looks back at the events of this week in the Buddhist world.

By Karen JensenJul 21, 2019

Bagan, Myanmar. Photo by KX Studio | https://flic.kr/p/gJtbHF

Nothing is permanent, so everything is precious. Here’s a selection of some happenings—fleeting or otherwise—in the Buddhist world this week. 

Myanmar’s Ancient Buddhist Temple City Bagan Now a World Heritage Site

An ancient city with the largest and densest concentration of Buddhist temples, stupas, and monasteries in the world has just become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, according to Reuters. Myanmar’s ancient capital of Bagan was first nominated nearly a quarter of a century ago, and the United Nation’s cultural body approved the proposal at a meeting in Baku, Azerbaijan on July 6. The 1995 nomination was originally rejected after the military government in power at the time was accused of ignoring the advice of restoration experts. The International Council on Monuments and Sites has since noted that Myanmar had adopted new laws that protect the site by reducing the impact of development and tourism in the area. According to BuddhistDoor, more than 2,200 temples and pagodas survive in Bagan today, although many still remain in disrepair. Many of the ancient structures date to the 10th through 14th centuries, when Bagan was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan (849–1297), the first to unify the regions that would later form modern-day Myanmar. 

China Warns India Not to Interrupt Dalai Lama’s Reincarnation

The office of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama rejected a recent statement by the Chinese government instructing India, the current homebase of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, not to interrupt the reincarnation process. According to the Times of India, China stated that the next Dalai Lama would be chosen within China, in accordance with historical precedent. Tseten Samdup, the secretary at the Office of the Dalai Lama, responded that a person who reincarnates has sole authority over his or her rebirth. “It is a reality that no one can force the person concerned, or manipulate him or her,”  Samdrup said, quoting His Holiness. In the past, the Dalai Lama has indicated that he may decide not to have a successor

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