When the Iron Bird Crashes: Tibetan Buddhism in the West and “Idiot Devotion”

Funny, it always starts this way: Buddhism promoted as a non-religious “science of mind”:

“The organization consists of numerous urban ‘study and practice centres’ and a few rural ‘retreat centres’. It is present in 41 countries worldwide, mainly in Western Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia. Its mission is to make ‘the Buddha’s teachings’ available to the largest number of people. Its training is thus presented as a ‘Tibetan Buddhism adapted to the modern world’, a tradition that is both ‘authentic and modern’. Buddhism is described as a ‘spirituality’, a ‘wisdom’ or a ‘science of the mind’, whereas the term ‘religion’ is briskly rejected. In fact, within Rigpa, Buddhism is mostly defined by what it supposedly is not: ‘this is not a religion’. To discover what it is, one has to ‘experience it’. This view is based on a Western construction of the diverse traditions inspired by the Buddha, which sees them as a unique, transnational, intellectual and individualistic ‘Buddhism’ that transcends cultural boundaries and doctrinal variety. Western construction of Buddhism emerged in the 1870s-1890s, as a result of cooperation between the native religious and political elite of Ceylon and the Theosophical Society (Masuzawa 2005, Lopez 2002, Sharf 1995), more specifically through the work of Henry Steel Olcott (Protero 1996). According to this representation, meditation is described as a non-conceptual practice, aiming at rediscovering the Buddha’s primary experience of enlightenment. Thus understood, meditation has nothing to do with rituals – despite them being essential in most Asian Buddhist traditions. Departed from its ritual context, meditation is then also disconnected from its cultural and doctrinal basis: reduced to an individual, universal and transformative spiritual experience, whether psychotherapeutic, cognitive or mystical, it can be practiced anywhere, by anyone. Sogyal Rinpoche and all Rigpa members generally speak about Buddhism and meditation in the same way.”

And ends this way: as an abuse of power that the practitioner is then supposed to accept uncritically with ‘non-conceptual’, ‘unelaborated’ mind:

Securing the legitimate meaning of this paradoxical, ambiguous and polysemic representation of the master-disciple relationship is the object of ‘beginners’ sessions’, organized by the instructors. Tea breaks are organized when Sogyal Rinpoche unexpectedly leaves the stage and, during this free time, the instructors take the novices apart in a room upstairs and expose them again to the representation’s exegesis: what the audience has just witnessed on stage is nothing else than a ‘crazy wisdom master’, that is to say a teacher who uses unconventional and shocking pedagogical methods. ‘Crazy wisdom’ is a term coined by Sogyal Rinpoche’s main inspiration model, Chögyam Trungpa, an iconoclast Tibetan lama who came to teach Buddhism to young Americans in the 1970s (Trungpa 1991). These explanations are supported by new videos of Sogyal Rinpoche, which the instructors analyse. The master thus reappears in his usual form: the televised icon. But, unlike what they do during the introductory classes, the instructors are now focusing their comments exclusively on ‘Rinpoche’s unconventional behaviour’. Indeed, the video clips are specifically selected to allow such an exegetical development: they show a severe and humiliating Sogyal Rinpoche, whose words and actions are identified by the instructors as ‘crazy wisdom’ or ‘spontaneity’. ‘Crazy wisdom’ is described as a ‘skillful means’ intended to awaken the students. A ‘skillful means’ (upaya in Sanskrit) is term referring to any Mahayana method a master might use in aid to communicate the Dharma to individuals. ‘Crazy wisdom’ and ‘spontaneity’ displayed on stage by Sogyal Rinpoche are depicted, not as his real petulance or aggressiveness, but as an artificial trick, a gimmick he is wisely using to awaken his audience. At all times during the show, wisdom and compassion must be assumed and, as often as possible, publicly asserted.

After commenting repetitively on the video clips, the instructors initiate group discussions with a question they ask to everyone (all participants first introduce themselves and then answer the question): “and you, what did you feel while seeing Rinpoche?” The answers are formulated in the language used within Rigpa, elaborating on the binary worldview students received during the introductory sessions (‘us the unenlightened/they the great compassionate masters’). One is expected to speak of the necessity to ‘let go of the conceptual mind’, to leave the thoughts or emotions provoked by Sogyal Rinpoche’s manifestation ‘untouched’ and ‘unelaborated’ (as one does with thoughts and emotions emerging in the initial practice of ‘sitting meditation’), recognize and regret one’s ‘resistances’ to the master’s paradoxical behaviour. One should also conclude on a positive note, such as “Rinpoche is so impressive”, “I felt so much peace inside when I saw him”, “he’s so free”, “Rinpoche has an incredible love for us”… In case of a failure or refusal to adopt these linguistic patterns, the participant is stigmatized by the group: the other participants demonstrate animosity against them, the instructors put an end to emerging arguments with a ‘no karmic connection with Rinpoche’ decree. If they think the teachings are not ‘authentic’, such participants silently leave the group. Rarely do they publicly denounce them as a ‘fraud’: they might have wasted a few hundred euros for the retreat, but they generally do not feel they have been personally deceived; they do not portray themselves as ‘victims’ and so have no interest in launching a public crusade against Sogyal Rinpoche. Anyway, most participants accept the ‘crazy wisdom’ theatrical plays as pedagogical devices.7

Read the whole article by Marion Dapsance at her Academia.edu site, which also includes material on Sogyal Rinpoche’s sexual abuse of women in the sangha:


This is why I have all but given up on Tibetan Buddhism as it is practiced in the West. I’ll read their books, but I’ll never join any of their organizations.


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