Perspectives on Dissolution: Letter 1
Dear Fellow Practitioners,
Over the past several months, a number of you have asked that I share my own perspective about the various causes and conditions that have contributed to the great changes that are now occurring with Dharma Ocean. With us dissolving quite quickly, I want to respond to your request and enter my perspective into the record. I plan to do so with a series of letters, each addressing a different aspect of these larger dimensions of our situation. What follows is letter 1. Keep in mind that this is just my point of view, but that is what you have been requesting.
Over the past year and a half, our leadership and I have actively sought feedback from the larger Dharma Ocean community. During this time, I have been primarily focused on seeing and acknowledging my own share of responsibility for our current situation. There have been many personal conversations with you, letters reaching out and, where appropriate, apologizing to folks who left the sangha with unresolved feelings, letters to the sangha, large and small zoom calls, and other communications. As I have indicated in all these, I acknowledge that I played a role, all be it unknowingly, in causing some individuals to feel that they have been hurt. In addition, I would like to underline two factors.
First, I would mention my very strong enthusiasm and inspiration to share with you the teachings I received from my teacher, the depth of my commitment to him to transmit these, and my deep desire for you to fully experience what they offer. While not a problem in and of itself, this led me to miss some critical things. Most important were the unique power and mission of these teachings which grew as my own practice matured. I now see that one cannot just welcome everybody into the Vajrayana without taking extreme care. We live in extraordinary times of turbulence and dramatic change where all structures are being called into question. I feel I overestimated the ability of the teachings to address virtually any situation. And I sense that I underestimated the tremendous challenges we are all facing when, living in these times, we engage the somatic Vajrayana path of this lineage.
As our reference points are being stripped away, we find ourselves in a world that is volatile, uncertain, and ambiguous. We are losing our familiar ground. Probably no one is immune from the distraction, anxiety, fear and the other troubling mental states that are being unleashed by what is occurring. I feel that it is a great blessing for Vajrayana practitioners to be living in this day and age because the Vajrayana is supremely suited to times of personal and social chaos, confusion, and unrest. However—and this is the key point—if we are going to practice Vajrayana in our present world, we have to do so with great focus, steadiness, and skill. This tradition is a very powerful expedient, but it is so important we fully respect that power and use it in the right way.
Second to underline, is my default klesha, wrathfulness. In its awakened aspect, this Vajra family wisdom leads to great clarity and accuracy in articulating the teachings. In interpersonal encounters, it is clear and clean, often cutting through confusion and neurosis with surgical precision, in order to benefit beings. Many people have reflected that this quality is actually one of the main reasons they were attracted to me and my teaching in the first place. However, as with all the wisdoms, there is a neurotic side that can come off as impatience, irritation, and irascibility. Students are understandably somewhat wary of the awakened aspect, as I was with Trungpa Rinpoche, but most are able to step over themselves to receive the benefit of such clear and direct communication. But on the occasions where its neurotic aspect broke through, some of you have reflected that it could be quite painful and you could feel hurt. If you experienced this, and especially if we did not come through in repair, I offer my sincere regrets.
As mentioned above, in this and the following letters, I would like to address some of the larger issues in our situation. Quite a few of you have said to me, ‘while acknowledging your own role is important, it doesn’t answer all the questions. What is it about our situation that led to such extreme reactions on the part of some people?’ Some of you have observed that the anger unleashed in my direction seems out of proportion to our situation, far surpassing that expressed in other sanghas where, in contrast to Dharma Ocean, actual criminal activities have not only occurred but been prevalent and extensive. This curious fact invites us to look further into how things unfolded for us.
One place to begin is to note that, a year and a half ago, long before the “open letter,” there were only two angry folks driving all of this. Over the next year, a few more joined them and this small group has been behind virtually all of the hostile online activity including the Vajrasangha Facebook page, a first Reddit site and then a second, the Open Letter, and then a second letter. They made it sound as if there was a huge groundswell of accusers, but in fact, this was not the case; it was actually just this quite tiny group. Using the anonymous and depersonalizing capacities of the internet, they were able, over time, to magnify their message and recruit more people, including most of the signers of the Open Letter, eventually leading to criticisms by an increasing number of those who had never met me and were completely unfamiliar with my teachings. Then, over time, some ex- and even current tantrikas joined in.
Many of you have asked the question, what led this very small group to set out on a mission to offer inaccurate characterizations of me and Dharma Ocean? As I reflect on these individuals, in each case there appears to have been some very specific and concrete way they wanted to coopt Dharma Ocean and use the lineage for their own purposes, in order to fulfill personal, emotional, social, or political agendas. In each case, I said “no,” that I was unable to agree to what they were demanding. These kinds of demands are not at all unusual in a spiritual community as large as ours and most people, when they find themselves pushed back, acknowledge what they were doing, shrug their shoulders, and move on. However, that did not happen with the members of this small group. Although each situation was quite unique, and none of them involved any kind of “abuse,” nevertheless they all began saying that they had been “spiritually and emotionally abused.”
But this still leaves a critical question unanswered: why have so many otherwise well-intentioned students been swept along? I have had this question myself. As I have thought about this question over the past year and a half, I would mention three principal factors. I want to briefly summarize each of them here and then explore each in more depth with you in future letters. There is much to understand here for all of us, both in terms of our own lineage and also the situation it faces in being taught in our present world.
The first and most critical factor is the very challenging and ego-threatening nature of our lineage, particularly at the Vajrayana level, and its emphasis—requirement, actually—on regular, deep and committed meditation practice. And the necessity of letting go of all references points of personal and group identity and a willingness to own one’s own experience and take full responsibility for one’s own states of mind, no matter what comes up. I have been told by some tantrikas that this turned out to be more difficult and demanding than they expected and that, in the end, it was something they no longer wanted and felt they could no longer commit to.
In terms of the second factor, in recent years, there has developed a growing divide between those for whom the practice of meditation and the transmission of the lineage was the most important thing; and others, who were more interested in creating an ideal community. This latter group expressed much longing to belong to a warm, accepting, nurturing, and safe “family,” and over time this became a primary motivation for many entering into the Vajrayana. While we did already have many of those qualities in our community, the transmission of the lineage was the reason for those qualities existing in the first place. The attempt on the part of some to replace the priority from transmission of the linage to creating an ideal community completely missed the most important thing. Eventually, these two very different visions for Dharma Ocean came into direct conflict.
The third is a dynamic in the spiritual life noticed by Trungpa Rinpoche some fifty years ago and discussed in an article in the Collected Works, Volume II, now entitled “Cynicism and Warmth.” This describes a moment in the journey when we begin to see holes in our previously idealized version of the teacher, the teachings, and the lineage. This can lead to shock, disappointment, and embarrassment. However, Rinpoche says, instead of simply owning that we ourselves created that ideal version and that we were hijacked by our own expectations, we begin to blame the teacher, the teachings, and the lineage for not living up to those expectations.
I believe that each of these three factors has played a major role in causing quite a few tantrikas to respond to the attacks of the original small group of accusers by joining them. Some decided that their own difficulties, their own pain, and their own misunderstandings were actually my fault and they began blaming me.
Another topic I want to address in this letter is the accusations that have appeared in various online locations. Many have noted that in all of this, there is an absence of actual, concrete examples of spiritual or emotional abuse. There seems to be a pretty wide consensus, one shared by several outside experts we have consulted, that in the Open Letter, the second letter, and the other online accusations, while there were a few complaints about Dharma Ocean, there weren’t any examples that would qualify as spiritual or emotional abuse.
In spite of this, a number of tantrikas have uncritically and naively accepted the contention of the main accusers that abuse has occurred and that large numbers of people have been “harmed.” And they have recently begun referring to these accusations of abuse—themselves baseless—as “allegations,” which has layered confusion upon confusion. If you look in the dictionaries and the legal literature, you will see that an “allegation” is the imputation of a crime or wrongful action that is real, concrete, observable, and provable. Or disprovable. But if nothing in all the accusations qualifies as “abuse,” you can’t really have allegations, because nothing concrete is being alleged.
The use of these two terms, “abuse” and “allegation” are examples of what in law and sociology is called, “framing,” where terms loaded with strong, negative connotations are applied to neutral actions, thereby implying guilt. Framing is a common technique in the “guilty until proved innocent” internet culture. However, framing has absolutely no logical, ethical, or legal standing.
The accusations of “abuse” have had a highly negative impact on Dharma Ocean. In the current climate, as we know, when anyone mentions the word “abuse,” everyone immediately runs for the exits. And the person being “framed” with this accusation may quickly find his or her reputation blackened and a career destroyed. In my view, the accusers have used this destructive cultural tactic as a weapon to further themselves and their own emotional and political agendas.
As mentioned, in future letters, I plan to explore these three larger causes involved in our dissolution in more detail. I feel it is important for us all to understand what has happened for two reasons. First, there is no reason to lose heart in our lineage or its teachings, no cause for us to lose confidence in what we have received over the years. In short, no reason to abandon the path. Second, as each of us moves forward in fulfillment of our bodhisattva vow, we need to see the forces and circumstances—those of EGO writ large—which, in our current world, really are against the true dharma and want to destroy it. Those existed in Trungpa Rinpoche’s day and he talked about them quite a bit, but they are much more virulent today than they were then. We all need to know what we are up against.
At the same time, to say again, let us not forget that in some ways our current cultural context is the ideal situation in which to be practicing Vajrayana. The very instability, uncertainty, and unreliability of the outside world constantly throw us back upon ourselves. As practitioners, when our expectations are shattered, we let that bring us back to our practice as home base; when we see that looking outside for happiness brings nothing but sorrow, we know how to fall back into our own inner worth; and when we feel overcome with anxiety and insecurity, we are able to turn within and rest within our deepest self and find there true freedom, peace, and a quiet, self-contained joy. Thus the very turbulence of the world can become for us, as Vajrayana practitioners, a catalyst of our own fulfillment and liberation. How could anything be more wonderful than this?
In the practicing lineage,
February 6, 2020