I walked outside a few days ago to do some watering. Gran’s place doesn’t have sprinklers. It’s all hand watering. I don’t mind. It gives me time to look and listen. I may see a Wilson’s warbler, foraging a few feet away in a cherry tree. Or a brilliant argiope spinning her web in the lavender. The happy squirrels bouncing across the branches. And then of course there are the great majestic trees and their clapping leaves in the evening breeze.
The trees provide wonderful, needful shade. But there’s a dark side too. The widowmakers. I’ve tried to get Gran to trim these enormous trees, at all, let alone properly, but she refuses. She doesn’t see what I see. Dead branches that have broken free, fallen and remain caught (for the time being) high up in the tree. Or branches that have suffered damage in storms, leaving a large but half-torn limb that’s now supporting heavy crowns of smaller branches and leaves.
She can’t see it. She doesn’t go out in the backyard and look for one thing. So understandable blind spot. But I tell her, and still she refuses to act. Not understandable. I can see the trees have pushed through the telephone pole wires. It looks dangerous. I worry about fires starting. I’ve trimmed things myself, in the past, but that’s beyond what I can do alone. And that’s a whole thing because of where the property line fall.
There’s a small, fully dead, plum tree in the yard too. Such trees are called snags. It could burn easily, and it’s full of termites which might opt for the house. But, compared to everything else, I’m okay with a beautiful snag. It is beautiful. And it’s bugs make good food for woodpeckers who after so many fires are running very short of naturally dead bug infested trees to pick over for a meal.
I listen for branch cracking when I work out there. Last fall I was almost hit by a widowmaker in the local park during a late evening walk. Luckily I heard the snapping sound and knew to run for my life away from all trees. So, yeah, I never stand under the known weak spots in Gran’s yard. I put up markers on the ground to remind me where the threats reside above. And I never go under the trees in high winds.
As I was watering this particular evening, I looked up into the trees and saw a crow. Dead, awkwardly splayed, caught on two small branches. I have no idea how it got there. It might have been attacked by the Cooper’s hawk, died, and fallen into the tree. It’s grim, but it’s so high up I can’t get it down. I expect it will desiccate and fall if the winds get high enough. Or perhaps, after a few soaking winter rains, a pile of bone and feather will spill down.
You might think this would creep me out. Not really. Every time I go out and glance up at the weirdly contorted black mass, it speaks to me of impermanence, and death hanging over your head. But more than anything, it speaks to me about humankind’s unwillingness to deal with the removal of what is dead or so damaged as to be dangerous in our lives (our politics, our religions, etc).
Jesus spoke about this (John chp. 15). “He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” I think it’s an important lesson from our vintner friends. Even among those within the body of Christ, claiming Christianity is no proof of being one. Producing fruit consistent with the vine you are attached to is proof. And even so, what is diseased or dead must constantly be pruned away and burned to preserve the health of the living branch.
I think there is another lesson there as well, one arborists and vine dressers already know. That pruning doesn’t kill, it saves. It shapes and balances, it guides, increases fruitfulness. And done right, a plant will always heal well. You will see the scars left from the pruning, they’ll grow over and disappear most of the time. Traumas can be transformed. The poison cannot kill the peacock (Buddhist metaphor). For the immortal peacock it’s just more food. (Christian metaphor).
So why am I talking about this? I said one day I’d tell you why I was doing the White Tara re-creation as an offering, and why I couldn’t get an “official” photo of this WT, and about a big bust up that was involved. This is that day. It’s rather a long post, and a bit scary. Perfect reading for Halloween. Maybe climb up into your favorite tree, deep among the blazing beauty of the fall leaves, perhaps with a bottle of cider, and settle into your safe spot.
This guy above is/was my lama. He both is and was. It’s confusing, just go with it. No, not the older man. Though you might recognize him from a previous post. That older man is Sakay lama, Rime proponent, the 2nd Jamyang Khyentse, Chokyi Lodro, and in his time Dzongsar Monastery’s head. I am, however, talking about the little boy next to him. That was my teacher, Rinpoche (it means teacher) when he was 6 or 8.
You might recall I told you JK Chokyi Lodro (link to is a great bio book) became very ill late in life, and was told that in order to extend his life he should renounce his monastic vows and marry, ie, do a 180? He did so with a beautiful soul, inside and out, named Khandro Tsering Chodron. I use the word marry loosely. She called herself JK’s student. Never JK’s wife. Always JK’s student.
Khandro is a title all it’s own in Tibetan Buddhism. She was a supremely realised practitioner. She wasn’t his wife as Western people would understand the word. She’s was JK’s spiritual consort – and that’s a can of worms I’ll not open now. But nevertheless, it means they might (or might not) have engaged in intimate relations, for a number of spiritual reasons. They had no children of their own.
Khandro had a young nephew however, Rinpoche. When Rinpoche met JK, JK apparently recognized him as the reincarnation of Tertön Sogyal Lerab Lingpa. And from that time, Rinpoche became as son to the great lama, his uncle by marriage, learning from him and other great lamas. Hence the smiling picture above of the two of them. They all fled Tibet together in 1956. JK died in 1959. Khandro, who never remarried, died in 2011, age around 85.
But back to Rinpoche.
After growing up in this sort of unusual, for Westerners, domestic-religious atmosphere, he was sent to a boarding school in India, a Christian school in fact. He used to talk about that a lot. This was his first real look into the Western Christian mind, so to speak. He respected what they taught, they tried to convert him, but stayed a true Buddhist. This formative experience made him young man with a unique understanding of (and a foot in) very different worlds.
In 1971, Rinpoche went to England, where he studied Comparative Religion at Cambridge University. He bravely stepped into another very different, rich and rarified world, once again. For those of you that don’t know much about the 70s, sex drugs and rock and roll. A far cry from a monastery on a Tibetan hilltop or a Christian boarding school in India. After university he became an English translator and aide to various revered masters (HH Dilgo Khyentse, Dudjom Rinpoche, etc) who’d begun teaching in the west.
Finally, after many years of study and translating, he began teaching in the west his own right. He saw the reality of western people’s lives, and sought to make Tibetan Buddhism relevant to modern people of all faiths by drawing out the traditional teachings’ universal messages while respecting their authenticity, purity and power. For me at least, he did a great job on that front. I think a lot of people would say that.
Rinpoche traveled all over the world for the next 40 years. He wrote a book on death and dying that sold 3 million copies in 34 languages, in 80 countries. Total honestly, I never read the book. Apparently 86% of Amazon readers gave it 5 stars. People sometimes comment on why such a young guy would write a book about death and dying. The truth was, he saw the need for it and responded with compassion.
It was the late 80s when he wrote it, the height of the AIDS epidemic. Many students in the sangha were gay folk who arrived at his door looking for community and acceptance and a religion that wouldn’t blame them for catching AIDS, or say they deserved their horrible fates. Christianity and the Republican administration of the time had simply turned their backs these Americans and didn’t care if they died. Sound familiar?
Rinpoche later founded a network of retreat centers, spiritual centers, and groups around the globe to offer the Buddha’s teachings through courses and seminars in meditation and compassion. They also offered a complete path of study and practice. Considering he started from having nothing as an immigrant refugee without a country, what he accomplished was truly spectacular.
I’m going to stop here and tell you Rinpoche chose the Nyingma path, even though JK had been Sakya. JK was long dead, but in life he’d said the Nyingma were lazy. He bagged on them quite a bit. So, a little rebellion there? Maybe. I’m sure JK would forgive him. Also Rinpoche was quite close to Dudjom Rinpoche (d. 1987), a renowned Nyingma scholar who was later appointed head of the Nyingma lineage by the current Dalai Lama. Rinpoche often said he regarded him “as a second father.”
People attracted to Nyingma are generally actually not lazy (ok, maybe a little). But the sort of people who live more “real” lives. They aren’t big on renunciation or going into monasteries or becoming monks and nuns. They’re having relationships, getting married and having kids, like Dudjom Rinpoche did. They want to be enlightened in the thick of things. They want to get to the heart of the matter, stripped of all the excess.
When I knew him, Rinpoche was kind, funny, humble, warm, and a really great teacher. I never saw him cross with anyone except once, with the people who had volunteered to clean his retreat guest rooms. They left behind a lot of dust. He had a severe dust allergy. My Gran has allergy induced asthma. I’m constantly dusting and vacuuming, because asthma can kill you. So I understood him being mildly peeved.
The people doing the cleaning didn’t seem to get that dust could be a big deal to someone. They laughed about his complaint in front of me, away from his hearing. They were considered his inner circle, his heart students. And they laughed at him, because he privileged them to see his humanity and this somehow diminished him in their eyes instead of provoked their compassion and greater respect.
I’m going to pause here to tell you about Rinpoche’s JK Chokyi Lodro. When he took over Dzongsar, the local people described his take over with a word that meant violent invasion. They used the same word for the arrival of the Chinese communists years later. Think about that. He was also know to have monks that committed offences whipped 300-400 times, instead of the standard monastic 100 lashes. He could be a total hard ass. And a total sweetie. And Rinpoche grew up with that as a child.
I used to listen to Rinpoche teach and then take recordings of his teachings home and transcribe them, because I wanted to learn. He used to say, “the more you listen the more you hear.” And it was true. I wasn’t a lazy Nyingma by any stretch of the imagination. I had a strong practice. I devoted myself to doing the ngondro. I didn’t cut corners. I respected my teacher, but I never forgot he was only human.
For me, Buddhism was never about Rinpoche, and honestly he never made Buddhism about him. Not that I ever heard, in 3 years of listening to him. Rinpoche was always quoting other masters. In fact, he would say, “don’t think of me as your guru, think of Padmasambhava (founder of Tibetan Buddhism) and all the great masters of the lineage” down to JK Chokyi Lodro his uncle, Dilgo Khyentse, Dudjom Rinpoche, and other living masters he’d known.
I think because he asked us to do that, focus more on the dead guys, I did. It seemed a rational request to me because as a Christian I was used to thinking about a “dead” guy as my rabbi, teacher, Lord. When I recited the guru mantra, I thought of Padmasabhava and JK Choki Lodro. I felt close to his uncle — who was decades dead, and just a face on a picture card.
I always felt like JK was there teaching through his nephew. I felt like I knew JK because of all the funny, endearing stories Rinpoche told about him. But of course I didn’t. Still, as “gurus” go, I felt this dead guy probably understood me and what I was trying to do. This snow leopard among the true snow lions. Like a Catholic’s attachment to certain saints, I knew JK Choki Lodro understood the power of a 180. I just knew. They way I knew WT was the yidam for me.
Anyway, that was my experience. All positive. Honestly, I wasn’t with the group a long time, just a few years. I never never went into Buddhism to become a Buddhist. I was always still a Christian, and that was always ok with Rinpoche. Even HH the Dalai Lama will tell you, today, you can think of Jesus as your guru, or Mohammed, or Moses, or anyone you want. Being actually Christian doesn’t offend anyone in Tibetan Buddhist circles.
I think because of I wasn’t looking for something from Buddhism other people were, because I had a religious faith, my approach to vajrayana Buddhism, what I wanted out of it, what it meant to me, was different than other people’s. My view of Rinpoche was different as well. I had a “guru” and it was Jesus. He remained my guide for living, my moral compass. I just had other hopes for and expectations about engaging with Buddhism from the jump.
I knew there were bad experiences in other Buddhist groups, sexual abuse, physical and psychological abuse — because people treated the teacher as an all powerful, always to be obeyed as if your life or soul or civilization depended on it, leader. An authoritarian not to be questioned. But I never had that experience. I never fell into that way of thinking. I think being super committed to doing the ngondro helped with that. I wasn’t looking to Rinpoche for answers, I knew the only answers were in me. I just needed a means, a teacher to teach me some means, to discover those answers.
Anyway….in Western Buddhist groups, it was always talked about and well-known that abuses could happen. People were on their guard. Chogyam Trungpa and Shambhala were bywords. Trungpa died in 1987. Public outing of his misdeeds is still ongoing today, 40 years later. My feeling about this is: people often become unmoored from their own rational reality in an attempt to get deep needs met, and criminal craziness has window of opportunity.
I don’t blame the victims. When you have one culture with set views and expectations of religion and gender, and a second culture with totally different views and expectations of religion and gender….. I’ll never be Dutch. My SO will never be American. Neither of us will be Canadian. Some things Dutch people think is normal, I think is really out there. Even though we’re both from white, western, Christian cultures.
In my particular sangha with my particular teacher, I never experienced any of the craziness. I never saw abuse happen, never heard about happening, was never told by anyone it happening. In fact, I knew people who’d suffered abuse in life who had come to the sangha to try and deal with that. If that I’d witnessed or experienced abuse happening, I’d like to think I’d have got the hell out, told the authorities, and got Rinpoche arrested.
But I am only human too. Factually speaking, I was already committed to another group, Catholic Christianity, which had its own abuse problems. Which I also never witnessed or experienced or heard about till the dams broke. The victims of which, I also believe 100%.
About 5 years ago, I started hearing rumors about Rinpoche. Nothing I could put a finger on. Nothing anyone would confirm. Then someone told me he’d punched a woman, a Buddhist nun!, on stage, while teaching at a retreat in Europe, in front of a whole host of students. All of whom apparently did nothing and just accepted this leader’s bizarre behavior.
In the summer of 2017 it all blew up, publically. A flare went up on the internet. An open letter to the world. Rinpoche stepped down as spiritual director of the international organization he’d built over teh decades. There was an investigation by independent, by UK lawyers, that definitively concluded: yes, it was all true. At which point, even HH the Dalai Lama slagged Rinpoche off.
By this time it was widely known Rinpoche had colon cancer. I’m not sure how long he’d been ill or what kind of treatments he’d had. I know he’d been handing out the WT image for many years previous, making it available for free. It’s often a practice lamas give to students to have them pray for life extension for their lama, so probably some connection there.
He suddenly packed up went to Thailand, he said for cancer treatment. Thailand is country that doesn’t have very easy extradition laws. He continued to deny everything. He said he was clear in his own conscience about everything. The worldwide organization imploded. The sanghas blew up because, even after the independent report was published, there were those who accepted reality and others who refused to accept reality. And though the report included recommendations on how to fix things, nothing happened. None of the recommendations were implemented.
It was all a dog’s breakfast.
In all this mess of course, there were and are real victims, members of the organization, of the sangha, not being believed by their coreligionists, not being shown compassion. People in charge who are not stepping down, not acting with wisdom. There is real pain, real suffering, real rending apart. There probably would have been real charges brought, but in August of 2019, Rinpoche died of his cancer.
The organization was put under HH the Dalai Lama, but it’s all still a train wreck. Three years down the road. No one is clearing out and burning the widowmakers left up in the tree. No one is binding up the half-broken branches. The dead snags are still there, waiting to catch fire or spread infestations. One person went so far as to say the lineage should died out. And I understand why she might say that.
But to me it’s cutting down the living tree, to remove a dead crow. The Buddha isn’t dead. The Dharma isn’t dead. The Sangha isn’t dead. There was a criminally flawed teacher. But the root lineage, that goes back over 1,000 years, isn’t dead. Ok, sure it too might have widowmakers, dead teachings or forms or beliefs, that need to go. But what it needs is to be trimmed and shaped and guided into a healthy form that can grow to perfection for the West. It needs tree surgery.
Isn’t it more in line with the teachings of Buddhism to do the hard work of pruning back the branches, cleaning the branches, and saving the tree? Where’s the bodhisattva spirit? What about all those vows you made as a group to help the suffering? Shouldn’t the focus be on recognition of harm done, repentance and change so it can’t happen again, and reconciliation among the members and with the tradition?
I think new leadership, probably by a Western Nyingma woman is what they need to get up off the floor. Take a pruning knife to all the teachings that created the situation — ie a focus on unquestioning devotion to living flawed guru/lama/teachers. Build a new culture of transparency, so members feel free to reject bad leaders and have methods to call out and address bad behavior. And, news flash, friends: broken people look for help in religion. You have to continually screen for brokenness in teachers AND students, before a broken teacher ends up putting a broken person on a broken path that will destroy them both completely.
Also, I think people have to accept that there are cross-cultural widowmakers inherent in trying to keep Tibetan Buddhism, 100% Tibetan in culture, in the West. If you’re Tibetan, for sure, keep it Tibetan. But maybe it’s time to tease out what vajrayana Buddhism is apart from Tibetan. Just as Christianity had to strip back adapt itself as it moved West. To endure in the West, a religion needs to adapt to the West’s culture. Be stripped back to heart essences, teachings, practices. (Have a look at this video to understand why, from 25:25 to 29:30 https://www.pbs.org/video/us-vs-them-2t0c0s/)
Tibetan Buddhism becoming Western Vajrayana Buddhism shouldn’t be thought of as scary change. It’s normal change. I value the Rime movement, His Holiness and the scholarly Gelug, the Jamyang Khyentses and the wise, compassionate Sakya, the brilliant Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Taye and the Kaguy’s powerful skillful sadhanas, and yes, my lovely, lazy Nyingmapas, and the wonderful “tire-hits-the-road” teachings and practices I received through Rinpoche.
The teachings are good, the people teaching them aren’t always. One of the things the Rime lamas did was embrace old practices but go on to “discover” or write new ones, better fit for their times. They weren’t afraid of a diversity of views or making changes to traditional practices. Buddhists today can’t be either. This spirit, this tradition, is partly why I’m not afraid trying to re-create the White Tara now.
One of the most interesting aspects of this slowly unfolding disaster happened 15 years back. Rinpoche fell into a coma for five days in 2005. His physicians concluded with a virus was most likely the culprit. But they didn’t really know. He eventually left the hospital — with cognitive, visual, and speech difficulties. People found his temper worse than ever.
Supposedly it took him months to recover. But did he actually ever fully recover? What if he had long-term mental and physical problems, including personality and behavioral changes, from a brain infection or stroke, or whatever? Some people noticed an increasing spiral of violent, erratic, and aberrant behavior after the hospitalization that never diminished over time.
But no one said anything. If your friend, father, brother was going off the rails, and you noticed, you’d try to pull him back. Wouldn’t you? Shouldn’t you? As person of compassion? And that’s the difference between cult and family. If you loved someone, you’d get them help. If you fear someone, you’d say nothing. Sound familiar?
Another 12 years of this went on, because no one could get past an ancient idea that the authority of the guru was supreme, and devotion to the guru meant looking past obvious facts. He was unfit to lead. Any of this ringing a bell? If only someone had stopped him, for his own benefit, maybe no abuse would have happened. Maybe he’d have got help and recovered.
All this heavy backstory is why, when I began looking for a WT thangka and I stumbled across the WT that JK Chokyi Lodro treasured, and my old teacher was known to pass around, I paused and decided, “This one. And maybe I can re-create it.”
It’s why I tried and failed to get a free hi-res copy from my old sangha, even the organization’s store is dead at this point. It’s why I had to find a photo someone took back in 2012, when Rinpoche was still alive, the organization was still functioning, and everyone was – or pretending — everything was ok.
I keep the old WT as is, a reminder of all the past. Gritty, dirty, lovely, filled with hope and horror. Re-creating this WT isn’t about white-washing the past. It’s being done as an offering. In Buddhism (and Catholicism) there’s this idea you can collect merit for doing practices, sadhanas (chaplets, novenas, etc), or acts of benevolence, compassion, fasting, etc. And you can donate that “good” to others.
As I re-create the WT of my lamas, of the tradition that means much to me, and helped me so much, I mentally give the merit to all those in the sangha I left behind in hopes that they can heal, they can purge the dead attitudes and practices that got them so far from true dharma, and that they can all be “reborn” together.