"One Western person must attain full enlightenment in the same way as Marpa, Milarepa, or Guru Rinpoche. If one Westerner—man or woman, doesn’t matter—attains that level of realization, then pure dharma will be established in Western culture, Western language, and environment, and so forth. Until that time, dharma can be taught in the West, which is already happening; it can be practiced in the West, which is already happening; and it can be recited in Western languages. But it’s not yet one hundred percent complete."
--Tai Situpa Rinpoche
We begin with a grab quote from an opinion piece running in a magazine that shall here go nameless. You can read the whole piece by clicking this link, and we earnestly suggest you do so, because it seems useful. However, as useful as this may seem, I want to present the above quote in juxtaposition to the following, taken from Trungpa Rinpoche's foreword to Thomas Frederick Rich, Jr's rather grandly titled book Buddha In the Palm of Your Hand. Those of you who are old enough will remember that Thomas Rich, also known as Osel Tendzin, was Trungpa Rinpoche's Vajra Regent:
“Many Oriental advisors have said to me, ‘Do not make an Occidental your successor; they are not trustworthy.’ With the blessings of His Holiness the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa, and through working with Ösel Tendzin as my Regent, I have come to the conclusion that anybody who possesses tathagatagarbha is worthy of experiencing enlightenment. Moreover, Ösel Tendzin is my prime student. He has been able to commit himself and learn thoroughly the teachings of vajrayana. I have worked arduously in training him as my best student and foremost leader, and His Holiness Karmapa has confirmed his Regency. With His Holiness’ blessing, Ösel Tendzin should hold his title and the sanity of the enlightened lineage. He is absolutely capable of imparting the message of buddhadharma to the rest of the world”
Except it did not turn out that way. According to his widow, at the time of his death,, in the spring of 1987, Trungpa Rinpoche was speaking of "dismantling" his "best student and foremost leader."
I am not writing this to reopen old wounds. I am not writing this to inflict any new wounds. I am writing this because, in the heady glow of the commodity flogged in the West as "Tibetan Buddhism," there is a tendency to engage in fairy tale thinking.
The quick, hard summary is found in a letter dated 29 December 1988, from the Board of Directors of Trungpa Rinpoche's umbrella organization to Thomas Rich. You can find the letter on-line, by clicking here. The letter itself is best evidence, as they say, but I do want to excerpt a few paragraphs:
"Sir, at this time the future of our sangha and the continuation of the Vidyadhara's teaching are in great danger because of your actions.
"You have engaged in unprotected sexual activity after knowing you had HIV disease and AIDS illness, with individuals whom you did not inform of your condition.
"You have used your position as Vajra Regent in order to induce others to fulfill your sexual desires.
"Also, you have in our view engaged in the three main symptoms of corruption described in The Court Vision:
'The first is pleasure-seeking, love of luxury and sexual indulgence; the second is love of power and indulgence in the abuse of one's subordinates; the third is infatuation with one's charisma and intelligence.'
"These violations have become the source of great pain, confusion, and loss of heart in our sangha... . Even now, your attempt to continue in power is causing further pain and divisiveness in our world."
So, there it was. That a crisis arose is not instructive. Given what we, as Westerners, understand about each other, a crisis of some sort was inevitable: a foregone conclusion. What is instructive is the response to that crisis.
You will recall that the Sixteenth Karmapa had passed away in early November, 1981. Kalu Rinpoche had passed away in May of 1989. Because Kagyu leadership was in disarray, the role of elder statesman therefore fell upon a Nyingmapa -- Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche -- who the evidence suggests was hammered on all sides. In October 1989, he wrote in response:
"As I have communicated to you earlier, it is my deep conviction that the Vajra Regent Osel Tendzin was carefully appointed by Trungpa Rinpoche and was confirmed by His Holiness Karmapa. It is my feeling that all students having had a connection with Trungpa Rinpoche should respect his appointment and in this way follow Trungpa Rinpoche's instructions.
"If they follow the Regent's instructions that is good, since in doing so that is serving Trungpa Rinpoche. Trungpa Rinpoche appointed the Regent knowing his capacities and seeing completely his capabilities to continue his lineage. Those who are experiencing difficulties following the Regent now should realize that it is necessary to do so in order to follow Trungpa Rinpoche's instructions."
The above is a remarkable letter, also available on-line, and I recommend that you read it in full. What is not clear, at this stage in history, is whether or not Dilgo Khyentse knew the whole story of the Regent's excesses. What becomes clear, is that four months later, he gave very different advice, in a letter dated 15 February 1990:
"I feel strongly that it is very important that the Vajra Regent do a strict retreat, starting with this New Year of the Horse, and at least for the duration of this year."
He also recommended that everyone come together, as "a constructive solution must be found to resolve the current conflicts."
By August 1990, Osel Tendzin was dead, in San Francisco, of AIDS. He had infected others, who also died. There are even open allegations that the predicate sexual encounters were not consensual; in one case, it was charged the Regent had ordered his "Vajra Guard" to immobilize a man, who he then raped. This is America, and anybody can say anything about anybody -- particularly after they are dead.
Tibetan logicians -- arguably the finest in the world -- often fail to grasp Western logic. They think they do, but they do not. To Westerners, this had nothing to do with Vajrayana Buddhism. This was a clear-cut question of right or wrong. Was Trungpa Rinpoche, a fully enlightened Mahasiddha, wrong? Was the Sixteenth Karmapa wrong? Were they capable of making mistakes?
Westerners get stuck there, unwilling to consider the alternative possibility: it was our people screwed up. High hopes are not guarantees. There are six cylinders in the average revolver. If you are lucky, you can put one bullet in one cylinder and squeeze the trigger five times with no problem. That sixth squeeze is going to be instructive.
There are, of course, a number of other possibilities -- Vajrayana is Vajrayana -- but there is also common sense. Names, endorsements, public displays of confidence, and all the other stuff of politics are not a claim of entitlement on enlightenment. There are no further shortcuts available on the already short path.
In the Regent's Wikipedia entry (linked above), there is a lengthy passage worth reproducing here, because it illustrates the issue most Tibetan teachers miss:
Stephen Butterfield, a former student, recounted in a memoir:
Tenzin offered to explain his behavior at a meeting which I attended. Like all of his talks, this was considered a teaching of dharma, and donations were solicited and expected. So I paid him $35.00 to hear his explanation. In response to close questioning by students, he first swore us to secrecy (family secrets again), and then said that Trungpa had requested him to be tested for HIV in the early 1980s and told him to keep quiet about the positive result. Tendzin had asked Trungpa what he should do if students wanted to have sex with him, and Trungpa's reply was that as long as he did his Vajrayana purification practices, it did not matter, because they would not get the disease. Tendzin's answer, in short, was that he had obeyed the guru."Butterfield noted, "Tendzin's account of his conversations with Trungpa was challenged by other senior disciples, who claimed Trungpa would never have led anyone to believe that the laws of nature could be suspended by practice." Butterfield also wrote, "it was a difficult dilemma: if you chose to believe Tendzin, the Trungpa had simply been wrong in telling him he could not transmit the disease . . but what then became of the axiom that the guru cannot make a mistake? But if you chose to disbelieve Tendzin, then Trungpa may have been wrong in allowing him to remain Regent, or perhaps in choosing him at all. . . I heard Tendzin's illness explained by his servants in this way: it was not a consequence of any folly or self-indulgence on his part, but the karma of his infected partners, that he had deliberately imbibed for them. In what way they benefited was never made clear to me, although one could safely assume the benefits did not include physical cure."
In the annals of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, the year 1987 should be studied with great care. For, in addition to the death of Trungpa Rinpoche, and the rise of the Regent, it also marks the year that Penor Rinpoche recognized Brooklyn hairdresser and "psychic channel" Alyce Louise Zeoli as the incarnation of an otherwise obscure lineage personality, Genyenma Ahkon Lhamo.
Almost immediately, the same misconduct attributed to the Regent -- "pleasure-seeking, love of luxury and sexual indulgence" -- came to be attributed to Zeoli, who liked to call herself "Jetsunma." Inevitably, this led to a revealing book, The Buddha From Brooklyn: A Tale of Spiritual Seduction, by Martha Sherrill, a respected reporter for the Washington Post.
The parallels between Thomas Rich and Alyce Zeoli are striking. Both are bisexual, both are of a sometimes violent temperament. Zeoli was arrested and charges filed for assault in Montgomery County, Maryland, in 1996. Both became the subject of justifiable controversy, and the decisions to acclaim them were reportedly bitterly regretted by the involved teachers, on their deathbeds. Both are excused, defended, and rationalized by followers on the "lama said so" model. Both maintain armed guards. In both cases, one offers criticism at one's peril.
True to precedent, since the death of her teacher, Penor Rinpoche, in 2009, Zeoli's conduct has become more and more bizarre. According to police, her organization has hired aircraft to fly over the homes of critics, and take photographs. Lately, she has taken to posting hateful diatribes against her legion of imaginary "enemies on Twitter," enjoining her followers to do violence.
There are those who have suggested that like the Regent before her, Zeoli is long overdue for a lengthy, strict retreat. There are and have been attempts to discipline her, and, as in the case of the Regent, her critics can claim her "attempt to continue in power is causing further pain and divisiveness in our world." One imagines that numerous, plaintive letters and contacts with Tibetan Buddhist leaders have also been written. These would be reminiscent of the letters that bombarded His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, in the wake of Trungpa Rinpoche's death.
No doubt, this will follow the same, predictable pattern.
Those who fail to learn from history....
.... well, you know the rest.
[Field Comment: No matter what Rich or Zeoli did to themselves, there is no denying that each made their own unique contribution to the development of Buddhism in America.
Further, there is no denying that each in their way, maintained noteworthy devotion to their teachers.
It sometimes seems easy to criticize, yet difficult to praise. Therefore, to the extent that their positive achievements may be said to be praiseworthy, we can take joy in this.
I did not know Tom Rich well -- I only encountered him once, at Tail of the Tiger, when he gave me a box of oranges as a wedding gift. This would have been in 1971, and I believe this was shortly after he first met Trungpa Rinpoche.
Neither do I know Alyce all that well. I spent about a year in her company one month, and we used to maintain a lively correspondence. Thereafter, it became my opinion that her illness makes any contact a rather useless exercise -- if you know that old story about the frog and the scorpion you already understand -- so I began to feel very badly for her.
In any event, I want to emphasize that neither Tom nor Alyce were or are monsters. To the contrary, both are simply human, or perhaps, in a very special way, more human than most. What we need to try to understand is that a great many people thought Tom no less than divine. A great many people think Alyce no less than divine. However, in neither case has that belief alone -- in the absence of other factors -- resulted in the particular benefit one experiences from following a fully qualified Vajrayana master. Rather, in both cases, that belief resulted in rivalry, divisiveness, and schism in the sangha, as a cult of personality formed and fought to justify its existence.
People tend to forget that when teachers like Tarthang Rinpoche, or later, Trungpa Rinpoche arrived in America, nobody had the slightest idea about lineages, tulkus, or rinpoches, or even lamas. These men came to prominence through the sheer force of their realization; of their genuine accomplishment. Here, I believe, is where the distinction needs to be made. One does not follow teachers to the exclusion of their actual accomplishment. Great teachers are like great trees. You can rest in them, nest in them, and take sustenance from them, but they do not try to hold you when it is your time to fly. Their goal is your liberation. Cult figures, on the other hand, cannot exist apart from their followers, and that presumes goals not altogether compatible with letting go.]