Male Power in the Monastery

Sogyal Rinpoche: The Precious One.

Last week Don Burke joined a staggering list of celebrities to be publicly ousted for sexual misconduct. As one group of women steps forward and names a perpetrator, it emboldens another to do so in a virtuous circle.

The sequence of events goes like this: In the entertainment industry, a powerful male-dominated cabal enforces a culture of silence. Victims, out of fear and shame, rarely come forward. When they do come forward, they are applauded for their bravery and social media mimetically spreads both the news and concordant anger simultaneously. The accused are trialled publicly through this online vigilantism, which forces former friends and colleagues to respond to and denounce them. They’re soon ejected from their communities and left to roam their reverberant Hollywood homes until a bored public moves on.

Surprisingly, the public isn’t bored and the media hasn’t moved on. The media parries our boredom through skillful escalation. The game is to juxtapose the most publicly beloved celebrity with the most perverse sexual predilections. This engenders a sense of superiority in Joe Viewer. The opportunity to feel righteous indignation whilst reclined at 30° is a key value proposition in today’s attention economy. The viewer can feel more accomplished than A-list celebrities merely for having been faithful to their partner.

If you’ve got a basic understanding of Feminism (or you’re a woman who has been in a public place for several hours at a time), each revelation may elicit an exhausted eye-roll and shrug, a dispirited “duh.” The gasps, outrage and surprise of the general public require ignorance as a precondition: You can’t be surprised by what you already knew. Sexual violence has been a feature of Hollywood as far back as Charlie Chaplain.

A key insight of a Feminist analysis is the idea that sexual violence can’t be understood as the product of singular, deficient individuals. Rather, sexual violence and misconduct occur as a result of a collection of societal norms around gender and sexuality, maintained through a power structure that favours men. That power structure is especially prevalent in the entertainment industry, though it spans many industries.

Indeed, it spans many cultures. Several months before Weinstein, a group of senior Buddhist teachers penned a letter which made public the violence and sexual abuse of a Tibetan Lama. His name is Sogyal Rinpoche, meaning “Precious One.” His story is worth sharing, as it extends our analysis from the occidental to the oriental. (Note: Some of the quotes below might make some readers uncomfortable).

Sogyal is a Tibetan Buddhist, the putative reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama’s teacher. He’s opened over 100 Buddhist centres around the world and is popular with a handful of people in the Australian corporate class. He wrote The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, which has sold several million copies and spent some time at the top of bestseller lists. His largest temple, Lerab Ling in France, was opened by the Dalai Lama.

He looks as we expect a Buddhist figure to — portly, warm, bespectacled and wearing ochre. He is considered charismatic and eccentric. In the tradition of Alan Watts, he has been a powerful exporter of Eastern philosophy in to the spiritual vacuum of the West. In our lost times, he is beloved by many.

It’s hard to imagine the heartbreak felt by many of his followers when several of his senior staff penned a longform letter detailing his long history as a sexual, physical and psychological abuser. An excerpt reads:

“You use your role as a teacher to gain access to young women, and to coerce, intimidate and manipulate them into giving you sexual favours … Some of us have been subjected to sexual harassment in the form of being told to strip, to show you our genitals (both men and women), to give you oral sex, being groped, asked to give you photos of our genitals, to have sex in your bed with our partners, and to describe to you our sexual relations with our partners.”

It’s enough to make Weinstein blush. Sogyal’s behaviour came to light earlier this year after he punched a nun in front of 1,000 followers. This wasn’t his first act of violence, though it was the one that caused discontent to spill in to the public sphere. A series of public disclosures of Sogyal’s behaviour followed, including a member of his inner circle who described experiencing Stockholm Syndrome under Sogyal’s mentorship. She said:

“You’re locked up in this tiny environment where someone is beating you up every day… but they are your only emotional attention, and the food, and the roof.”

So here we have the familiar Hollywood script in an unfamiliar setting.

It’s easy to dismiss Sogyal as not a “true” Buddhist. There is a glut of analyses that dismiss him as a cultist, and attribute his malfeasance to either childhood trauma or the trappings of Western materialism. These analyses aren’t incorrect, but they are incomplete. There are several important ways in which Tibetan culture and Buddhist scripture can engender rape culture, and create the kind of septic environment in which a man like Sogyal can thrive. There are striking parallels between Sogyal’s version of Buddhism, which aligns itself with the Vajrayana path, and the culture of shame, silence and fear in the entertainment industry.

For example, in Vajrayana Buddhism, ‘samaya’ is a set of vows undertaken in which the student forms a sacred vow with their guru. To criticise the guru is to break the sacred vow of samaya, and risk condemnation to hell. Just as a young actress might risk her delicate, early-stage career by speaking against a teacher, so too a follower of the Vajrayana path may risk their future enlightenment. Speaking of ‘samaya, Sogyal said that:

“To see the master not as a human being, but as the Buddha himself, is the source of the highest blessing.”

These slippery words could be the path towards a realisation of the nature of mind, but in light of Sogyal’s behaviour it is easy to see their function as creating docile and dependent students.

Tibetan culture also makes it hard to criticise lamas. The Dalai Lama denounced Sogyal only when it was politically expedient to do so, with some ambivalence, describing him as both “disgraced,” and a “very good friend.” It read like Bill Burr’s reaction to the Louis CK allegations — full of hand-wringing, brow-sweating and “oh geez.”

To take it further, the broader Buddhist project — of which the Vajrayana path is but one route — is about the destruction of the ego. Again, Sogyal’s wisdom:

“Two people have been living in you all your life. One is the ego, garrulous, demanding, hysterical, calculating; the other is the hidden spiritual being, whose still voice of wisdom you have only rarely heard or attended to. ”

In Buddhist thought, we must disidentify with the self and destroy the ego in order to attain wisdom. There are only two types of people who lose identification with themselves — the severely traumatised and the enlightened. Sogyal and the Vajrayana path attempt to reach enlightenment through trauma, a tradition called ‘crazy wisdom.’ One Buddhist enthusiast put it this way, in a longform response to the Rinpoche scandal:

In correct understanding of samsara, there are no blame and no victims … If people feel victimized, we have to work that out.

For women who have suffered at the hand of Sogyal, their trauma simply means they have failed to become enlightened by the generous malfeasance of their teacher. This mirrors the entertainment industry, where unwanted advances are rationalised as a trial by fire for aspiring actresses.

In the entertainment industry, the vile comments of Don Burke or Donald Trump inhibit women’s ability to safely inhabit spaces as thinking, feeling individuals. In Buddhism, this undermining is elevated to an ideal and can become part of the guru’s teaching toolkit. The guru is all-knowing and enlightened, and the violence they inflict is a gift. Ani Chökyi, the nun Sogyal punched, described the punch as “soft” and that Rinpoche was “loving beyond any ordinary description.”

Lastly, Buddhism has its own celebrity culture. If a cabal of beautiful women and a network of international religious figures make it their mission to tell you how awakened and enlightened you are, the very ego you seek to challenge may become your own worst enemy.

As with the entertainment industry, it is tempting to dismiss Sogyal as an outlier in an otherwise peaceful, calm religion. More accurately, Buddhism possesses a potentiality for rape culture in its ambiguous scripture, just as the current crisis in Buddhist Myanmar evinces a potential for mass murder. The traumatised, lost and angry are particularly vulnerable to the siren calls of anyone who claims to speak in the name of Dharma.

What Sogyal demonstrates is that misogyny is as at home in the monastery as it is on the casting couch. Any analysis of rape culture must be sufficiently pluralistic to ensure we’re dealing with its various expressions, yet sufficiently narrow as to provide opportunities for action and change.

Sexual violence requires an imbalance of power. So, we must be sceptical of any industry, culture or faith where power is concentrated — through capital, bureaucracy or fame.

Therefore, our project of reducing sexual violence should be about the redistribution of power from perpetrators (typically men) to victims (typically women). This might seem terribly obvious, but I think this objective is worth keeping front of mind. In introducing Sogyal, I don’t claim to be adding anything new to our analysis of rape culture, but perhaps to remind us of its breadth.

Ashley Judd called to “formalise the whisper network,” that women use to warn each other about powerful men. This is a call for not just for greater advocacy and cultural change, but for a technological or bureaucratic solution. Dating apps create a safe context in which one person can show their attraction to another without the risk of embarrassment that occurs in a public setting. Such a social technology could conceivably have application for reporting improper sexual conduct — women could anonymously report behaviour that is declared publicly only once certain conditions are met. This network of “trust contracts,” managed digitally and perhaps connected to legal and advocacy services, could make it easier for groups of women to come forward and share stories.

Within the Buddhist community, the challenge is to forge new paths to enlightenment that don’t rely on teachers and gurus. If one of the goals of Buddhism is to have thought without a thinker, is it possible to have teaching without a teacher?

Religion innovates slowly. If we believe Buddhism has something to offer this world, and I suspect it does, we must begin by understanding that this ancient wisdom operates within modern networks of power. Buddhism may not be an antidote to modern trauma, but an accelerant, if its followers and powerholders do not innovate.

I hope these are meaningful suggestions or projects to begin to address rape culture in its many forms.

I suggest we not just look at who holds power currently — but the empty vessel, the thrumming network behind the individuals. How might we change our institutional arrangements such that power is not so concentrated, and people like Weinstein and Sogyal never have the opportunity to have so much power over women in the first instance?

I work at the intersection of arts, media & social impact || W: