Reggie Ray Flips His Own Abuse Crisis Into His Own Ultimate Dharma Teaching
In October of last year, twelve long-time students at Dharma Village / Dharma Ocean (I’ll call them the “DO12”) published an open letter disclosing “longstanding patterns of emotional and spiritual abuse within Dharma Ocean, the Buddhist community led by Reggie Ray.”
The DO12 said they’d been inspired by two previous efforts: the 2017 letter published by eight former students of the late Sogyal Lakar, founder of Rigpa International, and the 2019 letter published by six former attendants to Mipham Mukpo, the now-exiled (but slated for reinstatement) leader of Shambhala International.
In contrast to the Rigpa and Shambhala dissidents, the DO12 do not accuse their former leader of criminal acts — with the possible exception of lying to the Crestone CO, non-profit that granted Dharma Ocean land for a retreat centre. Instead, Ray’s critics focus on a long list of fully legal but blatantly abusive tactics that form the classic modus operandi of cults. They cite psychological grooming, love bombing, the punishment of questions, public shaming, verbal abuse, triangulation, unrestrained charismatic leadership, gaslighting, and “a pervasive culture of fear and paranoia.”
Whereas the Rigpa and Shambhala letters flag assaults on group members, the DO12 articulated and impugned the general ways in which Buddhist cults assault the values they pretend to promote.
Here’s the full letter:An Open Letter on Abuse in Dharma Ocean
The day after the letter was released, the Dharma Ocean board responded by announcing Ray had recused himself from administrative and teaching responsibilities. The response acknowledged and thanked the DO12, but also rejected a number of their assertions — particularly the DO12 description of Ray and DO being impervious to feedback.
At the end of November, newly appointed board members announced that Dharma Ocean would be folding, and that Ray remained sequestered in contemplative retreat. Two letters from Ray himself in February (here and here) have confirmed the dissolution, in terms similar to those he deployed in the half-apology, half-justification video I’ll analyze below. Spoiler: Ray narrativizes the destruction of the group as poetic, intimate proof of the Buddhist theory of impermanence, a sign of successful spiritual transmission, and an appropriate ending for a worthwhile community.
It’s been a swift collapse, compared with other embattled Buddhist groups. By contrast, Shambhala hobbles onward from one quarter to the next, selling off assets and dialling up fundraising, and Rigpa moves forward in the same basic form, seemingly relieved to be decapitated. The collapse-speed makes sense, given Dharma Ocean’s small size and fatal reliance on a single charismatic leader with no clear inheritors.
From another point of view, it may be that DO12’s focus upon Ray as a controller of group dynamics — as opposed to the perpetrator of specific crimes — has dealt the decisive blow. They’ve indicted the core feature of the global convert Buddhist constellation: the grandiose, narcissistic teacher who cloaks his power in sermons on humility and empathy.
But the lack of detail also means that Ray has also been able to defend himself in very general, philosophical — even contemplative — terms. In a video response to DO12 filmed from retreat in Hawaii, Ray makes no mention of the open letter. The title is: “Reggie on His Responsibilities and Failures as a Spiritual Teacher”. It follows the basic structure of a dharma teaching: Ray slowly, methodically — hypnotically — lays out his grand themes over 54 minutes. Ray points in the direction of apology, but the gesture is swallowed up in a kabuki of teaching mudras. There are scattered notes of accountability (no plans) but they are buried in chords of metaphysical droning.
What grand themes? Well, the title could have been: “I Practiced Buddhism So Hard I Just Couldn’t Help Hurting People. But It’s All Okay.”
The video was deleted soon after it was posted. I’m reposting it here, with the transcript below, because I believe it should be preserved as an remarkable encounter with several features of charismatic leadership and how it can not only survive the demand for transparency but fold the discourse of transparency back into teacherly branding.
Side note: my impression is that turning abuse into Buddhist teaching content is a fundamental Trungpa legacy. Consider this love-letter from credibly-accused-of-multiple-assaults Shambhala leader Mipham Mukpo — Trungpa’s son — announcing his return to teaching.
Also: Ray’s video also serves as a sophisticated example of what an apology is not.
Ray opens with the declaration that he’s speaking from within a “deep, powerful, spiritual tradition.” In other words, he’s not speaking in the midst of an abuse crisis of his own making.
He goes on to frame the crisis as resulting from his own spiritual power. He claims that the power and force he derived from good understanding and practice attracted people to him. He was understandably burdened by the accumulating force of his own practice, he laments, and then victimized because he became too powerful. This all supports an effort to position himself as a newly-minted expert on “spiritual codependency.”
Throughout, Ray uses language that is on one hand abstract and distancing, yet also claims personal expertise: “So I’m not trying to make any cases here against myself particularly, but I am trying to put on the table what I’m seeing and then we’ll see where the chips fall.”
The distancing keywords also connect him with his master, Chogyam Trungpa. One keyword is “situation”, which Ray uses to both point to and deflect from the accusations made against him. The word implies a shared and equal status with his students and customers and recalls the disastrous post-“Vajra Regent” period in Shambhala history, which group members came to call “The Current Situation.”
At one point, he even cites the Vajra Regent’s (the late Thomas Rich) description of him in the 1970s as a “transparent snowflake”, using this to gesture at a natural innocence that was then corrupted by the aforementioned spiritual codependency. It’s an extremely odd moment: at best tone-deaf, at worst gaslighting. Is he really relying on a quip by Rich, a serial sexual abuser, to frame his own youthful innocence? Are we to believe this? Is this yet another example of the Trungpa legacy needing to assert that insanity and lucidity are proximal, and that insight and abuse are a matter of perspective?
Besides abstracting language, Ray also consistently employs boundary-blurring affects, most notable in an effortless slide between singular and plural first-person pronouns, and between speaking to a third-person audience, and using the power of second person address. “When you were in trouble,” he says at one point, gazing into his webcam like a father over a child’s bed, “I was able to show you a different way.” Granted: the video is made for his initiated devotees. But the ease with which he engages pronoun-merging is clearly well-practiced. How are devotees meant to distinguish their internal selves from his? Oh wait — isn’t that precisely the target of the Tantric paradigm?
Ray seems to take responsibility for his treatment of students at some points, describing himself as emotionally immature or “in denial and defensive”. He also shows a familiarity with counter-transference that might suggest he’s working on it. But then he also frames his actions through the lens of traumatic response. His cruelty or anger at his students, he explains, comes from being “triggered” or “activated”. By whom? Folks like DO12?
Ray indirectly refers to the DO12’s descriptions of emotional abuse as a lack of “consistency”: “You know, one day, I completely embodied the teachings [what a claim!] and the next day, you know, I’m irritated, I’m activated, whatever it may be. And you know, so on day one the students feel loved, received, accepted, and on day two they feel like I don’t like them.”
Ray might be describing what I’ve argued is a known feature of Trungpa’s heritage, and a common pattern in high-demand groups: the fostering of disorganized attachment, whereby trauma bonds are formed by group members who are continually confused about whether they are being cared for or abused.
But strangely, in the latter of his two recent letters, we see backtracking on this position relating to the ethics of “inconsistency”:
Complaining because your teacher is sometimes encouraging and other times quite cutting misses the point. Falling into an ill-temper because you cannot pin your teacher down, that your teacher can’t be pinned down—well, you can do that, but it is somewhat pointless. You came to me not to be your friend, in the ordinary sense, but to be your spiritual teacher. And it was on that basis and on that basis alone that I accepted you and agreed we could work together.
Also key in the video are flips between active and passive responsibility, to the point where all actors are equally victimized:
But when that kind of ambition replaces the relationship with the students who are helping you, that is really, really damaging and really it’s terrible, shameful. And that happened to me, has happened to me really throughout, you know, our time together.
The video culminates with a dream followed by an anecdote. Both are invested with divinatory meaning.
The night before recording the video, Rays says, he had a dream that Dharma Ocean members were flying on a beautiful plane together, but that it was going down. He’s careful to note that he is a passenger — not the pilot. He’s not in control, you see. He is puzzled that no safety announcements are made, except that they would be landing on the St. Lawrence River. When they skimmed onto the surface, no one was scared or injured. They came to a stop and found themselves, separate but together, in the bracing but somehow baptismal water.
Later in the video, the dream is summarized. The dream has digested and depersonalized the abuse accusations, and becomes Ray’s next or perhaps ultimate dharma teaching:
“So we’re all in this rushing stream,” he says,
which was life. We’ve been thrown out of the plane, the plane crashes, plane’s gone. Forget it. Let’s just walk away. We can’t walk away we’ve been thrown out and we’re all our own, but we all know how to swim and we’re actually doing fine. And we can move ahead with an a tremendous amount of trust, in ourselves and in what we know.
The anecdote that follows seems to be an attempt at clarity and tenderness, but it’s also terrifying. Ray describes having had to set kill traps for mice in his house — in contravention of Buddhist ethics. He watches a mouse take the bait. The trap springs, breaking its back.
The mouse, dying, gazes at him as if for help. He’s reminded of the students he has harmed.
You read that correctly: Ray literally casts the student as vermin he had no choice but to kill. He regrets it, so much.
Nonetheless, it’s all good, Ray asserts, in a conclusion that closes the door on DO12 with a mixture of self-erasure and self-divinization:
“I personally don’t think anything that’s happened is amiss,” Ray says.
This is how the teachings happen. And my mistakes, my blindness, it’s part of the world’s process. And me taking responsibility for it is also part of the world’s process. And you being freed from me, it’s part of the world’s process. It’s part of the lineage.
The video fades to light, as though Ray’s eccentricities have been forgiven, and his wisdom restored. But in his second letter to the Dharma Ocean list, Ray doubled back on his journey to responsibility in a pearl-clutching maneuvre worthy of the DARVO Olympics. He bemoaned “internet negativity” and western mindsets that cannot seem to understand meditation. He also seems to poke a veiled jab at the DO12, who he frames as attacking Buddhism, and not his behaviour:
“If even Vajrayana students of many years can turn so easily against the teachings and the training I am offering, and against me as their teacher, what then?” Ray asked.
To tell you the truth, my question is whether this lineage can even be taught in this cultural environment, given the widespread hostility to the teachings of non-ego? In our situation, my question is, must the authentic dharma now go silent, given the willingness of some unscrupulous people, not just to ignore these teachings, but to openly attack them and people like me who present them? And for many of us to be so vulnerable to those attacks?
What’s fascinating is that between Ray’s video contrition and his newsletter walk-back, Ray seems to demonstrate the same “emotional inconsistency” to which he is presumably confessing.
Alexandra Stein’s work shows how manufactured disorganized attachment in the high-demand group eventually will have every member both coming and going at the same time. It’s the unpredictability — “inconsistency”, to use Ray’s word — that puts the member in the position of the child who “experiences the unresolvable paradox of seeking to simultaneously flee from and approach the caregiver. This happens at a biological level, not thought out or conscious, but as evolved behavior to fear.”1)Stein, A. 2017. Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems. Routledge. 2017. 33
Maybe, now that Dharma Ocean is no more, there will be less to fear, and nothing run to — besides pixels circulating through an obsolete email list.
Hello everybody. I am making this recording from where I’m in retreat in Hawaii and I’m looking out over the ocean and the sun is about to come up. So during, during this recording, I may have to adjust the light a little bit or pull down some shades.
When someone is harmed as we know, it’s really, it’s really a good thing if the person who has caused the harm, which in this case is me, can I acknowledge what’s happened? Okay. And that’s what I want to do in this recording. I want to talk about, at least from my point of view, what I see other ways in which I’ve harmed people in our sangha. And you might wonder, you know, what took me so long because the, the initial sort of public criticisms or sangha wide criticisms or Vajra-sangha criticisms began a year and a half ago in really great intensity. And you know, why did I take a year and a half to say anything? And of course I have said things and I’ve written letters and I think included things in talks, but truthfully, in terms of the big picture, as we always say in the teachings, you know, I had to, I had to think about things, I had to reflect on them and I had to make the criticisms my own.
I had to see really how things landed for me and how I felt. But anyway, here we are and I want to talk about a lot of things. And I think the best place to start is with this whole issue of what we might call spiritual codependency, which I think has been a big it’s kind of the underlying thing. And, and it’s, you know, everything that I’m saying, this is, you know, this is my perspective. This is my story. This is our situation. But of course it applies to other similar situations and when your teachers, or if you are teacher as it applies to you. But right now I’m just speaking for myself and how it’s been in my sangha.
So when you you know, when you’re part of a practicing tradition, you know, you know, deep, powerful spiritual tradition as we are, what happens is, and what happened with me is you develop a lot of power and you develop a lot of understanding. You’ve developed a lot of insight. Okay. And what happens is you you change as a person? Oh, when I was, at Naropa, I dunno if it was the first summer or second summer I participated in a talk and afterwards, you know, in a panel and afterwards the Regent was characterizing everybody’s energy and he said, I was a snowflake. Transparent, light, clear.
And over time through the practice you know, I became something other than a snowflake as you know — energetically — we’re not talking about anything more than that. So you practice and you know, you develop there’s a lot of power, a lot of force in the way you do things and people are attracted to that. You know, if your understanding is good and your practice is good, people are attracted. As I was to Rinpoche. And those people are, you know, to teachers and you want, you want to be part of it and you want to receive it. You want to bask in the energy, you want to receive the teachings. And it’s very beautiful. It’s wonderful.
And what happens is that in my case, you know, I brought you into a world. I showed you the world that I had been shown and that was you know, part of my experience and I made it part of your experience. And you know, when you were in trouble, I was able to show you a different way of looking at things so you maybe didn’t feel so bad about yourself and you you could see things in a larger way and have more faith and more trust. And then of course, the body work totally underscored that and totally helped you experience what I was talking about. So it began to become your own experience. So, so far so good. But what happened? What happens and what happened with me? If you as the teacher, don’t realize the amount of power that you have, you know, the amount of the potential force of your energy, which I have not realized, you can do a lot of damage. And if you as a teacher, and this is true of me, get hooked on interpreting other people’s experience, you can do a lot of damage. And that’s what happened with me.
So you know, the, the student is in a very vulnerable, very vulnerable position because they have come to you with open hearts with deep inspiration and people have come to me that way and okay, they want to be trained the way I was trained and they want to become like Trungpa Rinpoche, let’s put it that way. They want to become that person who embodies teachings fully and it’s very, it was very important for me, and in some ways I did it. In some ways I didn’t, and this is, you know, one of the big, I would say, failings on my side is my inconsistency. I think that’s been very, very hard for people, very inconsistent in the way I did things. You know, one day I completely embodied the teachings and the next day, you know, I’m irritated, I’m activated, whatever it may be.
And you know, so on day one the students feel loved, received, accepted, and on day two they feel like I don’t like them. Inconsistency, you know, in a, in a university teacher inconsistency, it’s like it’s a human thing and you, you have a strong container, you know, in the university system and classes and grades and everything. But in the spiritual world, you don’t have that and you as a spiritual teacher, you really, this is what I’ve learned. It was very harmful for me, how inconsistent I was emotionally um my state of mind in terms of I related to people and I think people were, I know people were harmed by this.
With Trungpa Rinpoche, he didn’t let me become too dependent. Yeah, I’ve told you this over and over. He, every time I came in and I tried to like just bask in his thing, he wouldn’t let me do it. I mean in the teaching’s fine, you know, when he was giving a talk, fine. But in the personal level, he, he never let me suck off him. He never let me depend on him. He never let me get him to interpret experience. He would affirm my experience, but he didn’t interpret it for me. And this has been a huge failing on my part that I consistently I was vulnerable to interpreting people’s experience when they came to me and said, well, what about this and what about that? And I was happy to, happy to do the thinking for them.
And I think that has helped people back. I think it’s very been very harmful for them. Now you can say why, why did you do that? I asked myself, you know, why did I do it? I think that I was very flattered that people were so turned on by my teaching. And that was a term Rinpoche used when I started teaching and say, well, you know, you can turn people on. He didn’t judge it. And I thought that was very interesting. He wasn’t saying it was good and it wasn’t saying it was bad. And I think it’s actually very neutral kind of quality. The question is what you as a teacher do with that. And in my case, I became flattered by it and I became dependent on people giving me positive feedback. And as we all know, it’s very, it feels good, you know, when someone comes to you and says, you know, thank you so much. That was so helpful. That’s very important, you know, that we have those kinds of exchanges. But I think for me, and I think, you know, for teachers, but for me, it’s almost like I became I became dependent on people coming and telling me that I’d saved their life. It kind of gave my life meaning, but not in the right way. It’s almost like it became kind of almost I don’t know what to say.
So in my case, solving myself esteem problems, by the relationship that I had with many of my students and you know, you as a teacher really can’t do that because once it becomes about you, then it’s not about them and the students realize it. And I think people, not everybody, and again, I’m not talking about the fact that I did this all the time, but even doing it inconsistently was very confusing for people and very harmful for many people. Another part of this dynamic for me is the I did not work on my core issues in the way that I should have. When you’re a teacher you know, let’s, let’s start at the beginning. So you’re a meditator. That’s fine. I was a meditator and it’s been really, honestly, that’s been the most that’s been my work my whole life.
Nothing else really. I did the academic thing just to kind of as a placeholder until I could do what I really wanted to. And of course, as you know, practice has been the basic reality of my work. That’s my work. And then I became a meditation instructor and that was okay. You know, I think, you know, qualified to do that. Yes, I could be a meditation instructor. But when you become a spiritual teacher, then that’s a whole different ballgame. And I did not realize it. I didn’t see it. And in my case, one of the things that happened is that I used being a spiritual teacher and the spiritual codependency I’m talking about as a substitute for working on core issues. And I somehow, you know, I, I’ve always known they were there and of course they can’t, they’ve come up in every relationship I’ve had, but I didn’t really address them at all. Until I met Caroline in my personal relationships. And even after I met Caroline, I didn’t address them with you.
So, you know, you need, there are three things you need in my, you know, three things that I have needed, in being a spiritual teacher, number one is the practice. Okay. Check number two is the understanding I’m going to have to put a cough drop, so I apologize. Okay. Check. But number three, and perhaps the most important thing is you need a certain level of emotional maturity, which I have not had. You need a certain level of relationship skills, which I have not had. And you need to be able to, when you’re with students, you need to be able to handle the situation in a way that is consistently beneficial to them. And I have not done that. And I think many people rightfully so, feel harmed.
So do you know, there are, I have an abrasive nature as you know, I have you know, my, my root klesha is anger and the enlightened aspect is a kind of wrathful cutting quality, but it has to be without ego. And in my case, it often has not been without ego. And that’s very, very harmful. No, we can debate about you know, which klesha is worse for a spiritual teacher and spiritual teachers or let’s say more damaging to the students. And you know, we’ve seen all kinds of damage done and we can go through the Buddha families. It’s interesting, you know, they’re teachers that represent all of them. Okay. But what Trungpa Rinpoche said, and I agree with this, I actually think anger is the most potentially damaging because it, it really, it causes a different kind of hurt than the other ones.
So it’s just my opinion. But I feel in my case you know, I’m not saying that the people have where anger is the real klesha. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be spiritual teachers. However, if that is the case, you have to work on it. You have to see it, you have to address it. You have to get feedback. You have to be very, very clear that this is one of your weak points. And I did not do many of those things. And I have been throughout my teaching career, I’ve I feel personally that I’ve had a lot of spiritual inflation. Spiritual inflation means that you confuse your self with the power of the teachings. You begin to think that because the teachings are so powerful that somehow that’s a comment on you, and if the teachings are pure and the teachings are affecting people in a good way, and the teachings are changing people’s lives, that’s about you.
And that you’re a good person and everything’s basically fine. That’s spiritual inflation. And what happens at that point is you actually lose your own journey. You know, my meditative journey has continued as you know, and my meditative teachings have continued to evolve. And if you’re a meditator or a meditation instructor, maybe you can get away with it. But when you become a spiritual teacher, you cannot, that’s not okay. And it’s damaging to the people around you. And in my case, I think because of that spiritual inflation, I didn’t take seriously my own failings. And because of my abrasive nature and my emotional, I’m just going to use the word year with my emotional immaturity and lack of development. I really didn’t see or understand the tender open, devoted souls [cries].
That come to me and I didn’t see the impact. Oh my unconstrained force in relating to them. It’s been too much about me and not enough about these people that I love. And this I think is another important thing for me to acknowledge. No, if I were just, you know, a terrible person, you know, if I were consistently abusive or consistently, you know, angry and hateful, I mean, it would be easy because nobody would have studied with me no matter what the teachings were. And I think what has been very painful for people and also very hurtful is it, I actually have two sides. And you know, as we know from internal family systems, which many of us have been studying lately, we actually have many different sides. But I have two, two main sides that had been I think especially hurtful to people when, when they’re both happening. One is I have a side that is incredibly tender and loving and wants the world for the people I love. And in even in my, Naropa days and certainly, you know, with all of us, when I met you, and I would say it’s true of everyone.
There has been you know, everyone that came, everyone that studied here, I have felt a tremendous almost almost a sense of the sacredness of your being. And I’ve felt huge amount of appreciation and love and wonder at you, and it’s very real and has been very much part of the whole situation. And often I told you so. And that, that’s tricky. It’s tricky because it sets up expectations and you know, I know Rinpoche felt that way about his students, but he didn’t really talk about it very much. You know, he kind of held, he held that, he expressed it, you know, in the way he related to us, but he didn’t talk about it. And I did. I think, I don’t think that was helpful. And the other thing that I’ve done now, we’re on this sort of loving side is I’ve made a lot of promises to people that I couldn’t keep, you know, if I had one student,
I could say to them, here’s my private email address. Call me any time I’m here. You know, I love you. You know, I appreciate you. You’re so amazing and it’s all genuine. And maybe you could even do that with 10 students, but you can’t do it the way I did it with the size of the sangha that we had. In other words, there was here. Really. You know, we come back to the emotional immaturity issue here. We have,just being clueless in terms of the impact of the things that I do and the things that I’ve said with you, just clueless, clueless, checked out.
And so, you know, maybe you walk away from that interview and think, you know, this is it, you know, I found my teacher, I found my teachings, this is what I want to do with my life. And but then there’s this other side of me,
That it’s triggered, gets activated, it can be harsh, can be critical, overly critical. And that’s very confusing and you don’t know what the hell you’re dealing with.
And I just think it’s, it just causes a tremendous amount of doubt, tremendous amount of confusion in some cases. You know, it really undermines you. I think people felt very undermined by that lack of consistency. And then, you know, all of a sudden you’re really in a crisis and you send me an email, I don’t respond ever. What does that feel like? It’s terrible. So I think, you know, my lack of we could call it emotional restraint on both sides being too positive and too negative. I mean, it’s fine to feel those things, you know, all of us feel those things. Maybe I sit down with a student and I think the student is the most wonderful person I ever met and I do feel that way actually. You’d be amazed how often I feel that way. For God sake. Don’t say it. Don’t say it. Don’t do it. Don’t put out that kind of, you know, magnetizing because you can’t follow through and when you don’t follow through, it’s going to be really harmful and cause confusion. But that’s what I’ve done many, many, many too many times.
In terms of you know, some of you have come and you have worked, you have come in and you said, how can I help? And open-hearted, tender hearted, trusting and willing to jump in. And some of you have ended up being very close. You’ve been on the staff, you been my assistants, you’ve been, you’ve help programs and that’s wonderful. The problem has come in the way that I have responded to that. Of course initially, you know, it’s a, it’s been a deeper connection and a deeper sense of us working together and helping others. But here’s the thing about me, you know, being in my role as a spiritual teacher, the most important thing, and I say this in my teachings, the most important thing is that every situation with a student, it’s about them. It’s not about you. It’s not about the work. It’s not about the end product. It’s not about the goal, it’s about them. And far, far, far too often in my case, I have failed to remember that. And in fact, I feel, I have in many cases, particularly with people who have been staff in Dharma Ocean and particularly people who’ve been close staff. And I’m thinking of one person who was an executive director in the past or present, I don’t know what the term was, where I, I failed miserably. Miserable, horrifying, terrible. And this is probably in terms of my individual students, I think that’s, this is probably the one that haunts me the most because I turned into, I didn’t turn into, I already was ambitious, you know. Okay, fine. You’re ambitious for the teachings, you know, you want the center to be beautiful, you want the teachings to be spread, that’s good. But when that kind of ambition replaces the relationship with the students who are helping you, that is really, really damaging and really it’s terrible, shameful. And that happened to me, has happened to me really throughout, you know, our time together and staff people know, you know, you talk to staff and they’ll tell you, you know, they get a call from me in the middle of the night about something that I don’t like, a mistake that I think has been made.
And if you have come to you know, Dharma Ocean, out of love, and that’s what you get back, how is that going to make you feel? And what does that do to your, even your trust in the teachings. You know, forget about the teacher, but what about the teachings? Here’s the thing. This has to be admitted and acknowledged by me. Because I want you to feel that the person who was done this harm does have some understanding of what he did and how he harmed you, how he hurt your feelings and how he harmed you and how he undermined you and caused a lot of problems for you. You know, there’s not, there’s no way I can not do the past, but at least I can do this. This is the very least I can do. So
Another sort of area, you know, here’s the thing, I’m not gonna, I’m not gonna cover every way in which I’ve hurt people, obviously, because we’re talking about if we go back to Dharma Village, we’re talking about 25 years. That’s a long time. And there are a lot of things I’m not talking about. They’re probably a lot of things I don’t know. In spite of all the feedback, you know, there are probably things I don’t know that you know, so that’s, that’s a given. But I’m just trying to touch base on the main things. Another very important area is sloppy, sloppy, ignorant speech patterns on my part. Terrible. Really unbelievable. Now, you know, I’m talking emotionally here, these are not judgements, but I’m telling you how I feel. I feel the way I’d use speech is, you know, has been very, not always, you know, obviously, you know, there are two sides to it. There are two sides to me but often there’s the sane side. And then the insane side or the neurotic side. But often the way I’ve used speech has been, it’s been sloppy and it’s been hurtful. And I’ll just give you some examples. For example sometimes when people have challenged me in the interviews
And maybe, you know, maybe the challenge wasn’t clean, doesn’t matter, maybe they were attacking me personally. It doesn’t matter what’s happened — or maybe it was clean. But what’s happened and is, you know, in my opinion really under forgivable is that I’ve gotten triggered, I’ve gotten activated and I have responded with harshness. I responded with defensiveness and if you’re going to be a spiritual teacher, you can’t do that. Okay. And then we have the,uthe public sphere where it’s even worse, where people have gotten up and sometimes people get up and say something really, you know, very, very critical, very demeaning of me or Dharma Ocean or the teachings. It doesn’t matter. You know, you as a spiritual teacher, you can’t get triggered. You cannot get triggered. And if you do, which is typically my response, I mean, this is an area where I’m pretty consistent. You know, when that kind of thing happens in public, I respond in public and then the person ends up feeling undermined and shamed. Of course they do. How could they not?
And then of course, our relationship is, you know, I mean, I can I can seek repair, which you know, that that is what I do. But that’s not good enough. Truthfully, you can’t do in the first place if you’re going to be a spiritual teacher. If you are going to be a spiritual teacher, you have to have some emotional maturity. Emotional steadiness is, you have to, it’s, it’s, you know, it’s one of those qualifications that is not, it’s not optional. And I, I have not had it. And as I said, you know, if you don’t have it and you work on it and it’s clear everybody knows you’re working on it and you get everybody to help you and working on it, then I think the whole situation can be okay. I think it can, it can move forward. But that was not, the case has not been the case with me. I’ve been, you know, largely in denial and defensive. And then we have in public, people get up and they say something completely innocent, you know, completely innocent and open and just, you know, questioning. But something in me, you know, it triggers something in me and same thing, defensive, undermining, reactive.
So I’m not trying to make any cases here against myself particularly, but I am trying to put on the table when I’m seeing and then we’ll see the chips fall and then, you know, on and on and on. I mean, we can talk about other, you know, speech patterns talking about students to other students. And I’m not talking about you know, talking within about their students and, you know, maybe something that student is going through that’s, that’s part of the job. I’m talking about gossiping me gossiping and you know, me promoting negativity. Now mind you, a lot of the things I’m talking about it’s not like that’s the main thing. Other things are the main thing, you know, more positive things. But the thing that the person in my position can’t, I mean, it doesn’t, I’m not going to say they can’t do it.
They can’t, you know, sort of fall off the wagon, so to speak, but they can’t if, if they behave in ways that go against right speech in the different ways that I’m talking about, it undermines everybody’s confidence in, in me. And in what I’m doing, what we’re doing together. And it harms the people who, who are on the receiving end of it. It really does. And you know, we do talk about how important repair and reconciliation is yes, it is important, but it doesn’t change what happened and it doesn’t change, you know, your realization that I’m like that, and then I do those things and that, you know, even if you’re just a witness, it undermines our relationship, your trust in me. And that’s it’s harmful. It’s harmful to the lineage and it’s harmful to the teachings.
So let me check. I have some notes here. This obviously wasn’t too carefully planned, but yeah, I guess I want to come back for I want to come back a little bit to the the spiritual codependency. And this, you know, interesting saying that in this kind of situation, the student, you know, the student becomes initially becomes dependent on the teacher. You know, which is happened. That’s how it works. You’re coming, you’re attracted. You want to be there and be part of it. And bathe in, you know, the student bears 50% of the responsibility and the teacher bears 100% of the responsibility. And I haven’t. What happens know when the teacher encourages spiritual codependency and the teacher doesn’t in the way that Trungpa Rinpoche did deliberately be, you know, be super aware of the tendency on both sides, you know, of the student’s tendency and that the teacher, you know, wanting to feed on it and solve their own self esteem problems.
When that awareness is not there, then you really hold the students back. And I do feel that that’s been a very particularly if you, as you have matured and practiced and come along. I have impeded the process of you making your own discoveries and of making, you know, admittedly for the student certainly true of me and everybody I knew working with Rinpoche, you know, we’re stumbling along, you know, trying to see, you know, what this means for us. We’re kind of fumbling along, crawling along in the darkness and that is the process. And you know, Rinpoche, amazing person. He, he saw it and he understood it and he knew that’s, that’s the best.
And I haven’t done that. I haven’t appreciated that. I haven’t, I just didn’t, hadn’t had the understanding, you know, I’ve been trying to get too much out of this in a personal way all the way along. And I think it’s held you back. I think it has it’s impeded your sense of discovering for yourself what these teachings are. Um you know, and even when you come in to see me, you sit down with me and you ask me a question, I’m too ready to give the answer. I’m too ready to be the person who knows what’s going on. You know, I’m too ready to take up all the space. And this is a , you know, it’s, it’s pretty horrifying for me to realize it. This is how it’s been. But this from my point of view, this is how it’s been. Those of you who have, kept away physically, you know, as I was saying in Tibet, you want to make sure that, there’s a mountain between you and your teacher, you’re in this Valley and your teachers in the other Valley and you need to keep it that way. I think that’s a plus. And, and also I think when you’re on the other side of the mountain, you do tend to be more self reliant and you do tend to, you know, to focus more on your practice because you have to, you don’t really have anything else. So that’s an interesting point.
Okay. So let’s see. Is there anything else I can come up with here that needs to be… I, I think, you know, I think this is probably enough. I mean, I could go on on, I were talking about 25 years of mistakes and 25 years of causing harm to students. I’m not saying all students, but many, many students, you know. So, you know, obviously I could keep going, but I did want to close by telling you the dream I had this morning before I woke up. I woke up at around five which I do in retreat. And I had I had the following dream: I was all of us were in a plane and it was a jet plane. It was a beautiful plane. And it wasn’t you know, it wasn’t a 747 . It was I dunno, maybe about the size of a 707, you know, there are a lot of people in the plane that was us in the plane this new shiny, beautiful, and then the plane was gonna crash. We’re notified the planes can crash right now and that, that is kind of what’s happened, I would say in the last you know three or four weeks, it’s, you know, the plane is going down. And so the plane, it goes down and it goes down. And then we see there’s a big river.
And for some reason it’s the Saint Lawrence river. I don’t know what that is. I never heard of it, but that was the name that was mentioned. And I looked out the window. And there were ripples in the water, but the water was pretty calm and I thought, Hmm, this might work. But they weren’t telling us anything and nobody was saying take the brace position, you know, I said, why aren’t these people telling us anything? And I was a passenger too by the way. I was not the pilot. So the plane is going down, I’m about two-thirds of the way back, you know, in the passenger section. Plane goes down and we, we hit the water and it’s actually pretty smooth landing and we’re going really fast. And so the plane is skimming along the water. And you know, frankly I thought it would slow down quicker than it did, but you know, it took a while to slow down and meantime, you know, you can see the banks, I need this side of the river. In a certain point the banks are like really close and I thought, Oh my God, you know, it’s going to rip off the wings. But somehow we got through it, but then at a certain point the plane is pretty slow, but then it flips over upside down and we’re all thrown out of the plane into the water. And the water is speeding along and we’re all in the water. And by the way, we’re all on our own, each one it was, I’m in the water, each one of you was in the water, the water is speeding along and it’s actually, it’s kind of wonderful, really. I mean, it was, it was beautiful and beautiful day speeding along and you know, the banks are rushing by and there was something, you know, slightly Mmm. It was kind of okay. It was fine. In fact, I looked around and I saw everybody’s fine and they were kind of just bobbing up and down the water. I waved and they waved. And then we were on dry land. Some of us were, I don’t know, you know, there was just as a small group of us that kind of got washed up in a certain place. And, h thought that was, it was a very, auspicious dream. I felt very much so. And, h
I think it was it was reflecting my feeling about giving this talk or my feeling and giving the talk. First of all, the Dharma Ocean that we knew is, is gone. I mean, I think we can all see that. And also I felt contemplating this talk that I felt like a sky diver, this jumping out of a plane and this a 10% chance the chute is going to open 10%, 90% chance the chute is not going to open. But here’s the thing it doesn’t matter because this had to be done and whether the chute opens to me up, doesn’t matter. The important point is that, you know what I see and you know what I understand and you know the tremendous sense of responsibility I feel for having heard so many people and not taking responsibility myself sooner. So that’s the most important thing. And then there was one other thing that came up.
And it’s the mouse. And some of you have heard me talk about the mouse. Caroline And I were sitting in the kitchen of the Crestone house and we were having mouse problems and end of the day we had to put out actually traps and kill mice because we couldn’t get rid of them any other way. And there was a trap under the sink. And we’re talking and all of a sudden a mouse scoots across and the trap and tries to take the cheese and the trap lands on his back, and the reason I’m mentioning this, and it actually came up for me when I thought about you and, mice usually don’t look at people. They just try to get away. But in this case, he looked at us, he turned around and looked at it the same. It was like, help me, help me. I’m so hurt. I’m so hurt, helped me. And his eyes were big and they look right at us. It looks like a small thing that wasn’t for either one of us. It’s not a small thing. And at the time we didn’t attribute any meaning to it.
But this is how I’m feeling about you. That’s something that I have done has really hurt you and I didn’t help you. I didn’t see it.
So talking about my mistakes wasn’t good enough. We have to look at the whole picture and have I been and what I haven’t done. What I have done and how it’s impacted you.
I personally don’t think anything that’s happened is amiss. This is how the teachings happen. And my mistakes, my blindness, it’s part of the world’s process. And me taking responsibility for it is also part of the world’s process. And you being freed from me, it’s part of the world’s process. It’s part of the lineage.
So we’re all in this rushing stream, which was life. We’ve been thrown out of the plane, the planes crash, planes gone. Forget it. Let’s just walk away. We can’t walk away we’ve been thrown out and we’re all our own, but we all know how to swim and we’re actually doing fine. And we can move ahead with a tremendous amount of trust, in ourselves and in what we know. And you know, the teacher that some of you may have thought you had is gone. The person is gone. The person who inspired you and loved you, and the person who hurt you, harmed you, made you feel bad about yourselves. Everything is washed away and it’s a new day. I don’t know what the future will bring.
So this is a bit of a postscript. I got a little bit rattled at the end of the recording you just listened to it because the leaf blowers started up outside. Oh. So I’m in a different room now. You can see and there were a couple of things actually I do want to say just as a sort of summary and just to be clear. Mmm. Well, obviously you know, many, many people are still devoted practitioners in this lineage. And there are many people who have not felt harmed. I just need to say that because I’ve gotten all kinds of emails obviously from everywhere. And even people I haven’t heard from in a long time. And they’re saying, you know, we’re here, we’re practicing and we love you. And, you know, we understand there’ve been a lot of problems, you know, and a lot of, things, you hadn’t seen you’re human, but it hasn’t gotten in our way.
So I want to acknowledge that obviously. And you know, for me, I do feel that I have not been qualified to be doing this job that I’ve been doing. And I was told at one point you’re actually not qualified, but there isn’t anybody else is gonna do what is needed now in Trungpa’s Rinpoche’s lineage. Actually Traleg Rinpoche told me that shortly after I moved across to Crestone said, you know, well, you didn’t get the training that we did, you know, in the Tibetan tradition. But you have to do it because you know, you were, you understand Trungpa Rinpoche’s vision and how important it is. You have to go ahead anyway. So I think there’s been sort of understanding all the way along and by some people that, you know, I’m, I’m very human and probably more human in the sense of having unresolved issues and you know, blind spots and everything. Then many people even in our sangha, but at the same time, of course, you know, it’s been a learning process for me really, I would say my whole life, you know, going back to my days with June Singer and when I was in my early twenties, the Jungian analysis I did for several years and, you know, dismantling the Western bias toward consciousness and activity and accomplishment, materialism is not a small thing. Dismantling the patriarchy in myself, which is, where people of the male gender are given advantages and opportunities that are denied to people of other genders. It’s not a small thing. Dismantling the misuse of power. It’s not a small thing. And this has been really the course of my whole life. And,I’m still working on it and I would say that the most of the hurt that has been felt, not all of it and most of it has been before I really sort of began to realize the lay of the land and, began to dig in deeper and deeper. So the work continues. Am I going to teach anymore? I don’t know. Am I going to lead programs? I don’t know. Am I going to be, continue my own practice? Definitely. Will I continue to be a meditation instructor. Definitely. Excuse me. And, we’ll go from there. I don’t know. We’ll have to see. We’ll have to see what people want. Trungpa Rinpoche once said to me through someone else, if the students need the teachings, you can’t really slam your door and lock it, but I don’t know what it’s gonna look like. And as far as Dharma Ocean, I also want to say that,
As I said, I feel, and you know this is just my view, but I feel the Dharma Ocean that we have known, I do feel it’s crashed. And as you normally put a lot of stock in dreams, and I think the dream was pretty straightforward. It’s gone, at the same time. What will arise out of the of the collapse? We don’t know. And I think we have to be open to it. And also it’s my dream said we’re okay. Everybody’s okay, there may have been some people trapped in the plane or not. Okay. I don’t know. But, a lot of people are okay and we’re going to be okay. So I just wanted to provide that you know I, I don’t want the whole thing to be negative and kind of, we’re all going down. We’re all falling off a cliff into the abyss. It’s not like that. But I do think that what has needed to be destroyed has been destroyed. And now what needs, and now we need to care for whatever it needs our care. And that’s, you know, that’s the sadhana from the Mahamudra. Okay. So wishing everybody well from sometimes peaceful, sometimes a noisy and chaotic Hawaii, like our lives. And, I look forward to the unfolding situation and I’m very curious to see what’s going to happen.
|↑1||Stein, A. 2017. Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems. Routledge. 2017. 33|
Yogaland is Anxious Because It Is An Industry With A Product That May Not Exist
THERE IS NEVER ANYTHING TO PRODUCE. In spite of all its materialist efforts, production remains a utopia. We can wear ourselves out in materializing things, in rendering them visible, but we will never cancel the secret.
— Baudrillard, The Ecstasy of Communication (1987)
Note: This bit of exploratory theory is inspired by the modern globalized yoga industry, as described in sources like Andrea Jain’s Selling Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture. If you’re a yoga teacher or student who identifies as existing outside of that industry, or feel you belong to a community that plays no part in it, this post may not concern you.
Actually, the 80 billion USD per year global yoga industry does have a product.
But it’s not a thing.
It’s not a car, or a book, or an app, or a head of romaine lettuce.
It’s not therapy or medical service.
You have to pay for it, while suspecting you’ll ever possess it.
The product is a wish, projection, or longing.
You must embody it for it to be real. The effort involved in this can be endless.
Continue reading “Yogaland is Anxious Because It Is An Industry With A Product That May Not Exist”
“Those Wounds Are A Kind Of Ink.” Conversation with Rachel Bernstein on IndoctriNation Podcast (Pt. 1)
I’ve been an avid follower of Rachel Bernstein’s IndoctriNation podcast for a year now. She’s doing something very unique and healing in the cult-studies sphere: using her therapy and counselling chops to create really intimate and relaxed interviews with survivors and researchers. I’ve learned a ton from it. Please consider supporting her work by subscribing to the podcast via Patreon.
So I was honoured to be invited on as guest, and wasn’t surprised to be as at-ease as her other guests sound. This is the first part of our conversation. Continue reading ““Those Wounds Are A Kind Of Ink.” Conversation with Rachel Bernstein on IndoctriNation Podcast (Pt. 1)”
That Time When I Was in a Cult and Got an Incredible Letter from a Friend
One of the hardest questions I get asked by friends or family of people in cults is about how to talk with them about their experience. How do you have a conversation with someone who you think is being deceived, who has become dependent on a power structure you suspect is harming them? What if they say they’ve never been happier, and you can’t shake the gut feeling that there’s something off? There’s never an easy answer.
So much seems to depend upon the trust you share with the person, how well you make them feel heard, the state of their basic life-resources. In all of the stories I’ve heard about people extricating themselves from cults, there never seems to be any single decisive factor that pried them loose. But often, people will say that a key exchange with someone helped them change course.
I once had an exchange like that.
In 1999, a good friend of mine wrote to me about my immersion in the cult of Michael Roach. I recently found his typewritten letter during a closet clean-out, and read it again. And again. I’m retyping it out here with minor edits to protect anonymity.
Though I didn’t fully absorb them then, these words haunted me for the entire year between receiving it and leaving Roach. Today I can’t believe how lucky I was to have such a friend who could write them to me.
I hope you enjoy my friend’s kindness and subtlety, how he unfolds his argument slowly, with wit and pathos. How he takes me seriously, and tries to imagine and validate my inner life, even as he feels alienated from it. How he avoids the question of cultism and possible abuse for just long enough to have space in the end to back away from it with cheerful melancholy.
I hope you enjoy his self-awareness, humility, uncertainty, and bravery. Beyond his many salient points, perhaps it was his modelling of these virtues that made the deepest impression upon me.
(The opening reference is to an audio tape of Robert Thurman, probably teaching elementary Tibetan Buddhism. I’d sent it to this friend as a way of explaining what I was into. Or justifying it: Thurman was a lot more mainstream-able than Roach.)
Thanks for the tape, I’ve listened to it and found it both fascinating and puzzling. Thurman seems to fluctuate between academic instruction and personal inspiration. It’s all new to me.
I have to admit I find your increasingly devoted, if not feverish, attachment to Buddhism somewhat frightening to me. It makes me feel simultaneously apart from your experience and intrigued.
What does it feel like to actually believe in something? Really believe? I admit I have never truly believed in anything — all religions make me feel like an outsider, someone looking in on a transcendent experience, never one of the blessed (?) the inducted (?) the knowing (?).
So, when I hear of you growing more and more a part of something that appears to loom so large in your minds and hearts, I figure, well, there he goes — in a couple of years, or shorter, he’ll be off to some austere place (mental or geographical) where only the fellow enlightened can reach him. Essentially, it feels like you’ve already begun to pack for a figurative (or real) Tibet. I will miss you greatly.
By now you’re probably reading the above as et another instance of my relentless negativity, my self absorption — but, as true as that may be, I do still feel what I fell, which is that you are disappearing, or, to be more precise, changing shape.
That in itself is, of course, good and should be accepted by anyone who loves you, except that the catalyst for this change appears to me to be an all-encompassing, and excluding religious practice. I celebrate your new found happiness and clarity, but will the vehicle for this change ultimately make me and others that love you but who do not follow the same practices irrelevant?
Will you begin to see non-Buddhists as unenlightened, backward, and no longer necessary for your happiness?
Finally, and this is perhaps the most contentious of my concerns, I just fundamentally distrust and worry about people, especially people I love, who see their redemption (? wrong term, I’m sure) as coming through a single person, a “teacher”. I have always been suspicious of anyone who would set him/herself up as a teacher of intangibles, of ultimately unknowable things.
I fear the possibility of cultish servility — although I hardly think of such an ancient and resonant religion as a cult. But that does not mean that there are not charismatic people within Buddhism who are seeking followers to dominate.
I guess it all boils down to personal psychology — as a recent victim of a massive abuse of authority and trust, I’m afraid to see my friends potentially falling under the sway of another persuasive personality.
Call it projection (accurately), call it melodrama (possibly) — but I ask you to please keep a small part of yourself open to questions and the tiny voices of disquiet all intelligent people carry inside them as protection against fraud.
Know that I love you, and that this little diatribe has been brewing in me for awhile, and is not easy to write.
I admit I’m always confused, but sometimes I’m also very perceptive.
Am I losing you? Is the world? Please accept my love,
Suggested Additions to Adyashanti’s Anemic “Post-Election Letter”
Spiritual teacher Adyashanti published the following Post-Election Letter to his Facebook page on November 19th. It was formatted as a caption to the photograph below. Since posting, it has been shared 1.7K times amongst his almost 57K followers. Continue reading “Suggested Additions to Adyashanti’s Anemic “Post-Election Letter””
Meditation and a Basket of Phones
My kind host for a meditation weekend in Coeur d’Alene emailed ahead to ask about protocol for the weekend. One question was about mobile devices. The logistics part is simple, but the question also brings up a lot about what meditation might mean and engage with moving forward in our evolutionary storm.
Etiquette first: ringers and vibrate functions are best turned off for a weekend like this. Going further to block cell data would seem to be reasonable if you want to really internalize.
On the other hand, access to texting can put the mind of an anxious caregiver – for children or the elderly – at ease. And nobody would ask the on-call surgeon to turn their pager off.
For those willing to experiment, it’s interesting to see what limiting device usage on off hours contributes as well. Many people sense a serene envelope open up in time when they fast from data. Perhaps they remember the feeling of knowing something instead of being told something. Continue reading “Meditation and a Basket of Phones”
Guru or Guide: What’s the Scope of Practice? A Second Response to Christopher Wallis
Christopher Wallis responded to my response to his article on guru-abuse prevention – check his comment here. We’re having a cordial exchange about an important topic — how strange for Yogaland! — and a lot of folks have seemed to appreciate the themes explored so far, so I’ll respond again. Wallis was kind enough to direct message with me to clarify certain points, so I’ll refer to those as well.
In my previous post, I offered a positional statement:
I’m writing here as a non-Indian yoga practitioner who has interacted with echoes of the Indian guru-shishya system that have been borrowed, adapted, appropriated, or manipulated during the globalization phase of yoga.
I’ll expand that to say:
I’m not qualified to comment on the content of Wallis’ religio-philosophy, so I’ll confine my focus to what he says about its pedagogy. My content ignorance may blinder me to some subtle mechanism of integrity that’s second nature to him. Or it may be a strength, insofar as spiritual content so often obscures the structure of material relations. I don’t know. Also: I’m writing as a two-time college-dropout who cycled through two cultic environments and spent the better part of the last decade healing from it in part by informally researching what cults are and how they work, and the last few years formally researching the shadows of yoga pedagogy for a book that started out as being about injuries but every day is becoming more about the embodied effects of patriarchy in modern yoga and how people reach out of them. I’ll let Wallis share as much about his own background relationships beyond his formal bio as he wants, but for now it suffices to say that we come at the guru problem from very different angles, which makes friendly dialogue all the more useful. Continue reading “Guru or Guide: What’s the Scope of Practice? A Second Response to Christopher Wallis”
Laying Down the Guru’s Tools, for a While – A Response to Christopher Wallis
For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.– Audre Lorde
Christopher Wallis asked me to respond to his eloquent piece on gurus-gone-bad, and how to stay away from them. I’m happy to do just that with this short post.
(Positional statement: I’m writing here as a non-Indian yoga practitioner who has interacted with echoes of the Indian guru-shishya system that have been borrowed, adapted, appropriated, or manipulated during the globalization phase of yoga.) Continue reading “Laying Down the Guru’s Tools, for a While – A Response to Christopher Wallis”
The Meditation-as-Conversation Sutras
It was impossible to get a conversation going. Everybody was talking too much.
– Yogi Berra
A while back I posted this article about meditation. It suggested that if we think of meditation as an internal conversation, we can stop wondering about the best techniques or the true self or ultimate states, and start asking about what kinds of conversations are useful, and what good conversations feel like. I argued that the tension between our private practice and our social reality might be softened if we model our internal dialogues upon what we desire from our relationships.
But the article was terribly long, and terribly long articles can feel like one-sided conversations. So I thought this shorter and (I hope) more conversational version might help. It’s still in beta mode.