Pema Chödrön on Trungpa in 2011: “I Can’t Answer the Relative Questions”

This is a followup on notes I published about the structure, language, and impact of disorganized attachment evident in the Shambhala organization. It also provides an update on the question of Chödrön’s approach to Shambhala history, and whether it provides clarity or obfuscation in relation to the present revelations of institutional abuse.

On July 13th, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse (Khyentse Norbu) cited Chödrön’s 1993 interview with Tricycle as a laudable example of how a Vajrayana student is to view and contemplate their teacher. However, Norbu incorrectly dated Chödrön’s statement to 2015. I argued that this unfortunately could create the unfair impression that Chödrön’s 25 year-old views are current, and perhaps issued to pre-empt current criticism of Shambhala.

But in the 2011 hagiographical film “Crazy Wisdom: The Life and Times of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche” (New York: Kino Lorber), director and Trungpa student Johanna Demetrakas records Chödrön delivering an aphoristic encapsulation of her 1993 statement.

At time cue 51:00, Chödrön says:

People say to me, how could you follow a teacher like that? Or how could an enlightened person do that? I do not know. I can’t buy a party line where they say it was sacred activity or something like this. Come up with ground to make it okay. I also can’t come up with ground or a fixed idea to make it not okay. You know, I’m left, really left in that I don’t know. I don’t know. But I can’t answer the relative questions because he defied being able to answer them.

First, read that last sentence carefully:

But I can’t answer the relative questions because he defied being able to answer them.

So who is not able to answer? The grammatical muddiness here seems to elide subject (Chödrön) into object (Trungpa). Her inability to answer, therefore, echoes his inability or refusal to self-define. This is not surprising in the discourse of guru devotion, in which students are regularly asked to merge themselves with the visualization and even disembodied mind-streams of their teachers.

Chödrön might have said more during filming, so the analysis that follows is as much about what the culture, via a feminist documentarian, frames as valuable about her views as it is about what her actual views are.

The context for the quote is an ambivalent discussion of Trungpa’s alcoholism. This context presents an implicit (and therefore weak) inquiry into whether it harmed students. This is important to keep in mind. Trungpa may have broken his Buddhist vows by consuming alcohol, but being alcoholic is no crime. What is at stake rather, is whether the effects of his disability, combined with his power, cast the consensuality of his widely acknowledged sexual relationships with students in doubt. As in the present crisis involving his son, we can’t talk about Trungpa’s drinking without also bringing up issues of power, and therefore consent.

Immediately prior to Chödrön’s reflection, the scholar of Tibetan Buddhism Robert Thurman offers qualified criticism of Trungpa’s drinking, lamenting that he would have been more helpful to more people for longer if he hadn’t become addicted. Beverly Webster, Trungpa’s secretary, describes his students begging him to stop. And Walter Fordham, “Head of Trungpa’s Household”, claims “It was safe to say that his level of awareness in the environment was unaffected by, by the alcohol.”

Chödrön’s position, framed by the documentary, presents both a personal admission of uncertainty and a sophisticated allusion to the Mādhyamika logic that provides the philosophical framework for the major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Not being able to “come up with a ground for” judging Trungpa’s behaviour or impacts on others is a direct echo of arguments that date back at least to the 2nd-Century CE deconstructions of the Buddhist saint Nagarjuna. Nagarjuna set out to show that naming and identifying impermanent objects with signs and values could only ever be provisional.

The ultimate target of Mādhyamika deconstruction or “the object to be denied”, is the essential, abiding, unchanging Self or soul. The idea is that human suffering can be greatly relieved, if not ended altogether, through the revelations that the human person to whom suffering seems to be occurring is an unstable construction of socialization, language, and thought.

Ultimately, Mādhyamika argues, the self is as ephemeral as the natural world. It is, as is written in the Diamond Sutra, which dates back to Nagarjuna’s era:

“Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream;
Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.”

Its flashing appearances — brief, radiant, melancholic — seem to invoke memories of childhood that maturity teaches cannot be retrieved. And that we will suffer if we try to.

When Chödrön speaks of answering the “relative questions”, she’s talking about these shifting bits of sensory engagement. What she doesn’t mention in this clip is that in this system, “absolute” answers become available to practitioners who “see through” the folly of “relative” questions, and our attachments to answers that can only be speculative.

In other words: the route to Mādhyamika enlightenment depends upon the ability to assert the dream-like quality of ephemeral phenomenon. In this world, laws, lawyers, judges and even decisions about things are the enemies of limitless possibility. Chödrön can’t say that Trungpa’s alcoholism is okay, but she also can’t say it’s not okay. The first refusal allows her to leave open the possibility of criticizing him, but the second refusal makes the question irrelevant. As such, Chödrön’s position here, built on a Mādhyamika framework, cannot speak to the material impacts of structured power and harm. It actually makes a virtue of not doing so. In response to the hidden question “Was there harm?” Chödrön’s system seeks to transcend the question.

In the Vajrayana practices into which Chödrön has been initiated, the Mādhyamika view is applied to all experiences and phenomena, but most importantly to the nature of the teacher. After initiation, the teacher’s actions cannot be pinned down, named, identified, assessed, or even understood. “Relative questions” about them must remain a mystery. As Norbu commented in his very Mādhyamika-dependent defence of Sogyal Lakar’s abuses: “It’s a big mistake to speculate about the possibility of continuing to analyze and criticize the guru after having received a major initiation—actually it’s totally wrong. ”

In other words, not only is “I don’t know” is the only viable response to a teacher’s actions that appear abusive, it is mandated.

Chödrön’s “I don’t know” carries a further charge. Arguably, a large part of her popularity comes from her ability to poetically mobilize the language that values personal vulnerability (recently made more popular by Brené Brown and others) to reinforce a doctrinal belief not just in the unknowability of “relative” answers, but in their irrelevance.

For those who try to engage it — I speak from some personal experience — the impact of Mādhyamika contemplation can be startling to the point of ecstasy. The feeling of “groundlessness” to which the Shambhala literature continually refers reflects the sudden epiphanies of deconstructive logic. I was used to this austere pleasure from my university studies, where it was applied to pull apart the mechanisms of social and linguistic power. To think that this could also be used internally, soulfully even, to pull apart internalized power structures was thrilling. It’s a hook, for sure.

But groundlessness and “spaciousness” as responses to not just life in general, but particular instances of harm in organizations like Shambhala, should now be looked at in a different light. Trauma studies have made the reasons for dissociative responses in relation to abuse part of popular discourse. We know that abuse victims can enact disembodiment reflexes in order to avoid further abuse or pain, or to recover from past abuse. Those to whom dissociation occurs describe sensations of floating above, or vacating the body, or shrinking down to imperceptible size, or inflating to an ungraspable immensity. (These are all, in fact key features of Vajrayana visualizations.)

The free-falling qualities of groundlessness and spaciousness are coded as states of freedom and courage by Chödrön, who honours her training well. We have to now ask, clearly, whether, how, and when that training spiritualizes a trauma response. We have to ask whether when students are told that they “can’t come up with a ground”, but are to occupy no position at all, they are being given tools to:

  1. Sublimate their own experiences of abuse, and/or
  2. Ignore the victims of power abuse, and/or
  3. Protect themselves from the pain and moral injury of having their critical thinking and agency stripped away by an Iron-Age thought experiment, weaponized by a high-demand group.

I’m no Buddhist scholar, but my guess is that Nagarjuna proposed groundlessness as a conscious antidote to existential pain, not an automatic response to institutional abuse. I’m also pretty sure that the melancholic poetry his system inspires was not meant to be commodified as a way to help people, women especially, metabolize preventable harm by advising they lean in to the sadness of things.




  • Thanks so much for always essentializing the mechanisms of abuse in such clear and concise ways. Spiritualizing Trauma captures the experience perfectly!

  • Thank you for your thoughtful analysis and critique of the misapplication of Madyamika concepts to obscure and justify abuse. Pema Chodron is complicit in the culture of abuse in Tibetan Buddhism because she not only failed to endorse ethical guidelines for Dharma teachers decades ago, but her words are currently used to justify abuse both during the Rigpa scandal last year when Rigpa officials circulated “No Right, No Wrong” in response and by Dzongsar on the July 13th. I wanted to share the letter I wrote to Pema Chodron’s handler Tim in August of 2017 (when I was still a monk) asking her to clarify her positions on clergy abuse since people at Rigpa invoked Pema Chodron’s words to justify Sogyal’s atrocities and a letter examining Chodron’s claims in “No Right, No Wrong”:
    Hi Tim,
    I have no idea how to contact Pema Chodron directly, but I’m wondering if you or Pema Chodron can answer the following 2 questions out of compassion for people confused and disheartened by the abuse of students by Dharma teachers and the profound failure of other spiritual leaders in the community to effectively address it.

    1) Is Pema Chodron aware of how her words in the Tricycle interview “No Right, No Wrong” are being employed to justify the violent abuse of students by teachers? (When many of Sogyal Rinpoche’s students recently came forward with horrifying accounts of beatings and maltreatment severe enough to leave physical and psychological scars, people from Rigpa and others started circulating this Tricycle Pema Chodron interview to placate and justify the abuse). If so, does she care or understand the pain the students are in?

    2) Have Pema Chodron’s views on taking appropriate steps to protect students and define appropriate boundaries for teachers evolved since the article was written in the 1990s? Has she made any public statements or written anything that would clarify the issue of appropriate teacher student contact?

    Thank you for your attention in this matter.
    Yours in the Dharma,
    -Tenzin Chodron P.S. Feel free to ignore everything below this point, but if she’s interested, the letter below is a response to her article I wrote to a dear friend while we were processing the difficult feelings around the revelations of Sogyal Rinpoche’s abuse and the fact that Pema Chodron’s words were used to justify his behavior. I’ve been ordained as a monk for over 17 years and I’m losing my faith after all I’ve seen and learned about (rape of child monks in monasteries, abuse of students and no one willing to do anything about it, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc). Warning: you may likely find the letter below offensive, but if you feel the need to threaten me with vajra hell or shame me as a bad Buddhist in response, save it. I don’t care. I’m speaking out due to the desire to protect people from harm because I because I have seen firsthand the harm abusive teachers have caused their students. This practice of ignoring abuse, sweeping things under the rug, and vilifying students who come forward will ultimately harm the Dharma and cause more people to lose faith. We will not be silenced. The thing that horrified me the most about Pema Chodron’s tricyle interview was that at no point did she show any understand or compassion towards students who were harmed by teachers.

    Response to Pema Chodron Tricycle interview 7/17
    Hi XXXX,
    Thanks for forwarding the Pema Chodron article because I’m curious what makes people do the things they do. That said, I think it’s dangerous, disingenuous, and obtuse to pretend there is no right and wrong. Although this notion is somewhat justifiable in terms of the ultimate Dharmic view of emptiness, the relative pragmatic reality we ordinary beings inhabit requires that we sometimes make distinctions of good and bad in terms of behavior. To assert otherwise borders on nihilism and wrong view if this idea leads people to behave indiscriminately in ways that harm others, themselves, and the Dharma. A complete lack of ethical precepts can justify some terrifying things in the name of the Dharma.

    Chodron’s evasive every time she’s asked a direct question about Trungpa’s behavior. Her slippery deflection may be an attempt to avoid breaking the samaya regarding criticizing one’s teacher and those who have entered the bodhisattva’s path in general, but she really seems to have drank the kool-aid that having chaos and lack of boundaries catalyzes spiritual development and a sense of groundlessness; I believe that is absolutely true for her and respect that, but others benefit from environments with more clarity and order (particularly when dealing with the abuse issue). It’s partially her class status talking because I assume her life was relatively ordinary and safe before meeting Trungpa (which may be inaccurate on my part). I’d argue that the Buddhists I know who came from poverty and volatile environments would probably not benefit from practicing Dharma in an environment reminiscent of the chaos, abuse, and lack of boundaries of their childhoods. Skillful means and wisdom means adapting teaching techniques to suit the disposition of particular sentient beings, not a cookie cutter approach. I think there’s also something to be said about adhering to the laws and mores of the host culture within reason. Chodron seems to maintain her devotion by ignoring any cognitive dissonance resulting from Trungpa’s behavior; it’s understandable, but not necessarily helpful for students struggling to understand what’s appropriate in a student-teacher relationship and even what behavior is acceptable for themselves. I’ve found great benefit from Trungpa’s books, but I won’t try to justify the harm he caused. Beneficial acts don’t cancel out abusive acts. Furthermore, the example of Trungpa is almost always trotted out whenever another teacher is accused of abuse, as if his “crazy wisdom” justifies any atrocities committed by another teacher.

    Among my main problems with Trungpa are:
    He was not only an alcoholic, but he drove drunk and endangered his own and others lives by crashing his car.
    He had sex with students and married a 16 year old girl when he was 30
    He told his regent that even though he had AIDS, he could keep fucking his students. Trungpa maintained that as long as the regent did purification practices, no one would get sick. That was a lie and students were infected and I know at least one died. That’s murder as far as I’m concerned.
    He disrespected people’s bodily sovereignty by demanding his students strip in front of him publicly and was enraged when some students refused. He ordered them to be held down and publicly stripped against their will.

    If the concepts of right and wrong are irrelevant, how is an ordinary being to know how to behave? I think Pema Chodron has some amazing insights and has benefitted many people, but I’ve never liked how slippery she is about this abuse stuff. Is she really okay that her teacher caused people to be infected with AIDS and die? As a former AIDS hospice worker who also watched many of my friends die, I’m not. Her assertion that when people get riled up about things, it’s usually because of something about themselves is accurate, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. I’m horrified by Trungpa’s behavior because I watched over 243 people die from AIDS. Does this fact invalidate my position because I’m coming from a place of sadness and the full knowledge of what kind of torture Trungpa’s callous irresponsibility inflicted on his students? I don’t want to feign detachment about this so I seem more spiritual. Trungpa’s behavior in that case was not wise, compassionate, or skillful. Also, many of the people trying to hold teachers accountable for abusing students may already have a history of abuse and assault. That doesn’t make their opinions less valid just because it’s personal. Chodron acts like they can work through abuse by confronting their own feelings about it while doing nothing in the external world to hold the teacher responsible, which makes her an enabler and an apologist in my book. I think you can own your reactivity AND hold people in spiritual authority accountable; these aren’t mutually exclusive, from a mundane or Dharmic standpoint. Jan Chozen Bays is a teacher of profound wisdom and compassion who also supports victims of abuse; I wish more people would take notice of her example.

    The except below was particularly disturbing and it shows the danger of asking people who have developed so much detachment and equanimity to weigh on issues that impact practitioners who might be more spiritually and psychologically devastated by clergy abuse:
    “Tricycle: You don’t think it would be helpful to name names, to publicize those instances where Buddhist teachers have been repeatedly taken to task by students?
    Pema Chodron: That really does feel like McCarthyism to me. I wouldn’t want to see a list of the bad teachers and I wouldn’t want to see a list of the good ones-here are the saints and here are the sinners. For so many of us that’s our heritage, to make things one hundred percent right or one hundred percent wrong. It has been a big relief to me to slowly relax into the courage of living in the ambiguity. I know that these guidelines are being created out of good motivation, but they’re simultaneously coming from bad motivation, righteous indignation that “they” are doing something wrong. I like the saying “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” You can’t make it right, can’t make it wrong.”

    Comparing naming teachers with multiple ethical infractions to McCarthyism is a false equivalency because during the McCarthy era, innocent people were blacklisted and tormented, while the teachers in question are clearly not innocent of misconduct if they have “been repeatedly taken to task by students.” Many Buddhists lack the ethical courage and certainty to take clear sides on certain issues because it’s deemed “unspiritual” and we’re all supposed to speak like Yoda, but Yoda actually had the balls to takes sides when necessary. Chodron’s attitude is part of the reason nothing changes and abuse goes unchecked. Those poor, persecuted teachers preying on their students really need a break. The slippery refusal of Chodron and other teachers to explicitly condemn teachers whose misconduct harms students and endorse guidelines to prevent it from occurring is cowardly and irresponsible.

  • Thank you very much Matthew for your insightful articles.

    A lot of shadow material coming to the surface.

    Also courageous from you, because the mirror you are holding up,
    isn’t easy to look into for spiritual orientated people.
    A Wake Up Call

    Also to me, I haven’t made any vows, but an inner critic can be
    very powerful too.

  • As a trauma sufferer this helps me consider the mechanisms that lead to dissociative experiences. Thank you

  • The route to Mādhyamika enlightenment also depends upon the ability to assert the functional nature of conventions and to develop discrimination in order to establish the most helpful of conventions. It would be sad to blame the whole Madhyamaka (a rigorous dialectical method of enquiry) based on someone’s poor understanding of it.
    It appears to me that some vague Vajrayana principles (understood in the prism of Shambhala) are here mixed with equally vague notions of Madhyamaka.

    It is fitting that I just presented a paper at the 17th WSC on a Mādhyamikan refutation of ‘Brahmanical’ Yoga, wihch begins by pointing out abuses committed in the name of tantra-yoga.
    Here is my translation of Bhaviveka’s MHK verse 9.62:
    “The yoga of power [adept] is not stained by a criminal act!”
    By such claims, [made] by those who lost [sight of] the right path, others are ruined as well.”
    I think that the verse speaks for itself about how this Madhyamaka teacher perceived the alleged immorality of tantra and its effects on the devotees.

    Another 2 verses, in the context of accusing Brahmanical gods of being immoral, are also telling:
    “Because of the deficiency of the claim about that (suffering), [found] in the teachings and so forth of the Veda-s and of yoga,
    these are certainly not able to protect dharma by teaching the true dharma. (9.92) And, because of having a deficient knowledge, [they] are not competent to lead others to peace.
    It is as if a guide, having fell down a precipice, [were to lead] others along the selfsame path” (MHK 9. 93).

    Finally, I would like to recall what Bhaviveka considered to be the knowledge acquired through the Mādhyamikan path:
    “The intelligence of the learned is the knowledge of that which is capable of burning away afflictions.
    Hence, the learned is not inclined to misconduct, because of the cessation of such an impulse.” (9.61)

    In other words, a knowledgeable person acts in way which reflects his knowledge, especially about the cause of suffering. He does not go about inflicting suffering on others or on himself.

    Moreover, I shall insist again, Madhyamaka does not simply negate conventions, as this would make it a nihilist path. It is through conventions, and their analysis, that the student is to establish his understanding (the ultimate, if ever). The crux of the matter, in fact, is to carefully assess and select conventions which are better than others in order to inform one’s behavior and worldview in the realm of becoming (saṃsāra).

  • Matthew,

    Many years ago when I was a newcomer to Buddhism, Pema told me that even if she were to be shown actual photographs of Chogyam Trungpa molesting children, her devotion would not be diminished. I took this to be her way of illustrating the concept of tantric devotion to me, a neophyte, and I was suitably impressed. Within a few years I had been schooled in the conceptual framework that makes this kind of ambiguous thinking possible, and while it seemed outrageous and challenging I considered it ultimately harmless, because I saw no crimes or harms being committed in its name.

    Over time I slowly began developing a moral compass of my own, and saw some other people doing the same, as reports of actual harms, perhaps even crimes, seeped into my sphere of discourse. I had stopped following Pema’s brand by that time, but I could only assume she was making a similar evolution.

    I’m fairly sad to see from your analysis here that she didn’t. That clip from 2011 is heartbreaking, as is her silence now. How unfortunate that she appears content to end her illustrious career as an apologist for rape.

      • It was in the context of a private interview. This was in the days before she became a celebrity, when residents of Gampo Abbey could enjoy considerable face-time with her. I initially hesitated sharing this, because it was private, and because I am somewhat horrified to remember a time when I thought views like that were OK… but since her publicly-stated positions are quite in line with what she said then, I don’t think she would mind.

          • In all fairness, what Mr. Coulson is alleging is a long way from Chodron saying “I don’t know how I could follow a teacher like that.” I did not watch the clip, but am assuming Mr. Remski apparently quoted the worst part.

        • I frankly doubt she would say that now or maybe even publicly then (but she might have–she was not a ‘teacher’ then ). I also knew Pema then and she has matured a great deal in the teacher role, which initially she rejected. (When I asked her to be my teacher, in 1989, she replied, “I am not a teacher.” ) Let’s not assume we know what she will do now in this situation which is different, and she is different. At the time she said that she would never have dreamed she would have a say in governance or setting standards in a similar (but not the same) situation. You were not asking her about that then, but were asking about how to work with difficult behaviors in a teacher–a different question.

          • Regardless of her present position, do you find it valuable to consider how past responses to ethics questions have helped set the stage for how the current abuse revelations are understood and faced?

  • “Pema told me that even if she were to be shown actual photographs of Chogyam Trungpa molesting children, her devotion would not be diminished.” That’s classic cult conditioning and manifestly at odds with Bodhisattvic aspirations or behaviour.

  • Great post. Thanks. If Chodron doesn’t come out and make a clear statement against lama abuse, then she is part of the problem.

    • She has never been in the situation she is in now. She (believe it or not) has never been in the hierarchy or wanted to be a part of the administration–it is not her interest, at least until several years ago when I last talked with her about such. She is now in a new situation for her. Let’s give her a chance. I have never found her to be evasive or take refuge in the subtleties of doctrine. If she made any ‘errors’ it would be to twist the doctrine in the direction of practical compassion. (She does this often in the talks on Shanti Deva). She will be taking a position–not to worry! Also saying she has a ‘handler’ is nuts; she is her own person.

  • i left the dzongsar khyenste group because of his giving aid and succor to abusers like sogyal and trungpa, but mainly because we were not allowed to even ask questions. (his instructors got openly abusive and sometimes racist at open ended questions about why is no one worried about trungpa or other ses abusers)i had no samaya with trungpa, although i met him once in the mid eighties and he was obviously deep in alcoholic dementia(so much for the silly claim that his drinking didn’t affect his teaching), but now that dkr loves trungpa anyone has to shut up about sexual abuse. this included much under age sex, which is sexual assault in canada(and probably the united states.–i was a canadian lawyer but not american).in fact at the time trungpa and many of is senior were enjoying sex with students the age of consent was 21 years of age, for any one who stood in a position of authority–such as a religious teacher. so quite frankly lets stop the bullshit. this group was full of statutory rapists and still is. that’s why the present scandals are shaking the group to the ground. so were are forced into samaya with people we examined and rejected as degenerate teachers. moreover dkr never talked about samaya this way eight or nine years ago. back then it was more of an obligation for the guru than the student, and if we did our practices that was the obligation.(and we could chose which practice we liked) we were not required to follow a dharma teachers opinions on politics or organizational issues. well that was a bait and switch for strict obedience.

    moreover pema chodron is perverting dharma with her use of these ideas about relative and absolute truth to obscure the real issues of abuse that has never been allowed in any buddhist group in history.that’s disgusting improper and enabling of abuse.

    finally we are told by all buddhist sources to examine a teacher carefull before taking them on a guru. well when they hide their behavior that is impossible, and a fundamental breach of samaya.

    nothing happens??? well noting can happen when you act ethically just as well as it can when you act in an evil way.

    later i’ll tel you what i really think.

  • Nagarjuna’s views on Madhyamaka are always complemented with conduct emphasizing ethics. For example “Letter to A Friend”. There are parts to a whole and context is everything.
    Context is true of orgs too. It is accident that several key people in Shambhala came there from Scientology. From the frying pan into the fire I should say. The paramilitary uniforms of both orgs, emphasis on ranks and levels.
    These same people think Shambhala was an actual Tibetan org and representative of TB. Not true. It is just like picking a church etc, there is a whole gamut of benign to malignant choices.

  • Added to all of this is the fact that HHDL himself has said repeatedly that you absolutely must not think that you must see all of your lama’s actions as pure on the relative level. He has said that we’re actually obligated to speak up when we see that they are causing harm, and if they don’t listen we should go public, which some of us have done. The first time I know of his saying this was the 1993 conference,

    In the 1993 conference HHDL said this in the 4th film – sorry it’s pigeon English as I didn’t want to westernize it.

    ***42:15 HHDL {we talked about this yesterday] in the vinaya the Buddha instructs that if lama instructs you to do non dharmic action you should refuse/reject that’s vinaya, then Sutrayana – instructions that do not conform to general Buddhist procedures then do not pursue/follow it and instructions that conform to the general Buddhist approach, the path, then follow it.

    The tantric position on this, the maha yoga anutara tantra .. from 50 versus on guru – that stated that if there are any instructions with which you wish to not conform to the Buddha Dharma that you should clarify, explain to your teacher why you can’t follow

    Based on Buddha quotations, I don’t care what lama says, this is my position, so therefore, now I think at least 20 years I’ve been talking about one point in many of my teachings to Tibetans commenting on a particular passage in which it states that ‘may I through receiving all the actions of the guru in a positive and pure light, be able to receive within my mental stream the blessings of the guru’ although it’s very important from the perspective of one’s individual path to have great respect for the guru, when thinking from the point of view of general Buddhism general teaching and doctrine as such, this particular THIS PARTICULAR OUTLOOK IS LIKE A POISON WHICH CAN BE MISUSED TO PERCEIVE EVERY ACTION OF THE LAMA AS POSITIVE AND IN PURE MIND –

    This Attitude Spoils Our Whole Teaching, gives lama a free hand/license, not good. If that’s the case, there’s no need, you see Buddha himself made such a precise description what qualities should be for lama for vinaya, for sutryana, for tantrayana, each one Buddha [gave] such precise qualifications he mentioned. If just the faith enough no need such qualifications. In fact, I used to boast a little bit telling others that from my side I can never give anyone this perception of purity for every actions that the lamas perform, similarly so far as I myself am concerned I will attempt to practice in such a way that I don’t have to rely on others to do the same towards me.

    [HHDL corrects translator] from my side, having had many teachers, I cannot accept this outlook perceiving every action of my lama in pure mind similarly, since I give teachings to other students and disciples, I will work hard so that I don’t have to rely or demand one such a license”.

  • A Jewish answer to: “There is no right and no wrong.” Long ago I was a Sunday School teacher and my 8th grade students studied the story of King David from the Old Testament. It is told that King David was in love with Bathsheba, another man’s wife. So David had the other man killed in the front lines of battle so he could marry Bathsheba. My students were astonished and incensed – “This is David, King of Israel – a man who could do such a thing?” I didn’t know how to answer them so later I called a Rabbi whom I respected and asked him. The Rabbi told me something extremely important: Jews do not worship other human beings. It is very evident in the OT that nobody is perfect, not even Moses. My students were satisfied with this answer and so was I. It’s an important lesson, in my opinion, that no human is perfect and exempt from the basic rules of ethics and morality. I think it is a huge mistake to make any human being an exception (in his case there is no right and no wrong); eventually the truth will emerge and a big price will have to be paid.

  • Greetings Mr. Remski,

    I have been enjoying reading your analysis of the origins of sexual abuse in Shambhala and the nature of the responses to it. I especially like how you explicitly call out the use of jargon, such as “groundlessness”, to fortify and simultaneously obscure unhelpful power dynamics and implicit beliefs.

    In the flavor of, “where do we go from here?”, I wonder if you have read this article on rape culture in the recent issue of Harper’s Magazine, ? I think the author does a nice job of describing the the problems with developing objective systems defining “consent”, which, reading at a deeper level, I think points to the irreducible difficulty of solving problems created by power-relations. I would like to put it more eloquently, but I hope this is comprehensible for a web-page comment.

    In any case, I would be interested in your response to that article.

    All the best

  • You have deconstructed my 2007-2018 experience with Shambhala precisely.

    Even today, hundreds gather at what they call Scorpion Seal Assemblies where the now disgraced Sakyong is maintained as the gate to enlightenment and all suggestions of cult are derided. For example the Director of the Shambhala Office of Social Engagement ironically told me last night on their Facebook Page, ‘Buddy you need help, you’re being abusive, I’m blocking you.’ Others knowingly shake their heads gently in silence and say, ‘Sorry for your pain’, or ‘The handbook on that oath doesn’t instruct intervention in that’, referring to the Sakyong’s clergy sexual misconduct (Shambhala Network comment posted yesterday – open source).

    The view is that Shambhalians are above the law because they adhere to some higher set of ethics, namely none at all by reason of vajrayana pure perception/groundlessness/sacred world. Murder, attempted murder, sexual misconduct, child sexual abuse, rape (the legal definition of which has been met by the actions of Lodro Rinzler and the Sakyong of late), physical assault, suicide and harrassment – I have seen them all tolerated, ‘dharmasplained’ as I say, inside this Sangha, over decades.

    Your observation of all of this is most appreciated, but most importantly, your ability to describe it so accessibly and contemporaneously. Personally, I find it an exhausting exercise!

    • Thank you. Can you point or link me/readers more directly to this: ‘The handbook on that oath doesn’t instruct intervention in that’, referring to the Sakyong’s clergy sexual misconduct (Shambhala Network comment posted yesterday – open source).’

      • Create a free profile at, then look for the thread in Sangha Talk called, ‘never threatened legal action?’
        My reference above relates to how people who’ve drunk too much koolaid excuse inaction against the abuse of the teacher with an explanation of how the teacher is beyond criticism and to engage in such is to break an oath, sending the student to hell, and of course into a very different social reality.

  • Thank you so much for your conscience, patience, and articulation exhibited here. I appreciate your speech and courage here so deeply. Thank you again.

  • Thank you for the clarity. The Bengali Saint Anandamayi Ma had this to say about a Guru who sought to sleep with his female disciple – “In this case there was no Guru. If there had been, things would not have taken such a turn. From one point of view, the girl was the Guru; she served him food and drink and performed selfless personal service in a number of ways. But the realationship of the Guru and the girl…. was completely broken… Can such a thing be helpful towards the realization of God?… The injunction of the scriptures is that one has to surrender one’s whole being-body, mind and heart- to the Guru. To surrender one’s body means to surrender one’s desires so that they may be obliterated, but not to surrender one’s body in a material sense. If it is misunderstood in this way, as occurs sometimes, then this body says that although you may have received diksha from him, that person is not your Guru.”

    Having been caught by various exploiters and charlatans, I am seeking to learn to protect myself. After reading your mention of Alexandra Stein’s book about attachment in cults, I got the book and have read it twice. It has been very helpful to me- attachment needs are very powerful and when they get going in the wrong direction the road to hell goes fast. Having fallen under the sway of false Teachers and Gurus, as well as dangerous – or just misguided – groups, I am determined to be more careful, more awake and more discerning. Your blog helps with this- there has to be a continuous examination and sifting, which hopefully will never become just another rigid, conditioned response, or cynicism, or criticism for it’s own sake, but rather retain its sharp, keen aliveness. Thank you.

  • Pema’s words in Tricycle about a teacher who, after all, was then dead, may not apply at all to the current situation, as no further questionable behavior was possible at that time. I have never found Ani Pema to be evasive or doctrinaire. I have found her to be direct, honest, transparent, and practical. I have never found her to avoid taking a position based on hiding in the doctrine. Let’s give her a chance to sort all that out in her current position and not make assumptions based on a past situation which was quite different.

    • Okay, but the doc interview cited in this post is from 2011. “Further questionable behavior” is not restricted to the bubbles of CTR and SMR, but extends to the network of relationships that hid, enabled, pardoned, rationalized, or spiritualized it.

    • Pema herself could easily answer the question of how much she has “matured” by coming out in support of the abuse survivors. Period.

      Instead, as of this morning we have yet another statement of her grotesque moral ambivalence, this time from Phase 3 of the Buddhist Project Sunshine Report. The anecdote is undated, but if she has made progress on this issue, she needs to speak up, pronto.

      But I’m afraid it may be too late. My confidence in her is completely shattered, and I am not alone in this. She is not one of the helpers.
      (page 13)
      “I was raped at the age of 21 by a Shambhala Center director. This led to a
      pregnancy and then a miscarriage. About a year later I approached Pema
      Chödrön to disclose what had happened. As a respected practitioner and also
      as a woman, it was my expectation that I would find an ally.

      Instead, Ani Pema told me bluntly, “I don’t believe you.” I was shattered. After
      further discussion with her, Ani Pema then said, “Well, I wasn’t there, but if it’s
      true I suspect that you were into it.”

      To be not believed, and then to have it suggested to me that I was being
      untruthful about something so difficult, was retraumatizing to say the least. To
      this date, and despite having had opportunities, Pema Chödrön has never
      apologized to me for these comments.

      What I would like to know is: what are Pema Chödrön’s intentions in joining
      the Transition Team? If other survivors come forth with their stories, will she
      believe them? Will she discourage others from speaking out? Will she suggest
      to others that they secretly enjoyed it?

      Through speaking out, it is my intention and wish that this may incite
      meaningful change and be of benefit to all beings.”

  • Thanks! This is the shit! And you said that you’re not a scholar of Buddhism, well, what you have written is great! Kudos! Sharing this on Facebook now

  • those who have a chance should read what the Dalai Lama wrote about” True Religion ”
    Dalai Lama
    September 7, 2010 ·
    My true religion, my simple faith is in love and compassion. There is no need for complicated philosophy, doctrine, or dogma. Our own heart, our own mind, is the temple. The doctrine is compassion. Love for others and respect for their rights and dignity, no matter who or what they are – these are ultimately all we need.

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