An insider’s look at religion, Tibetan Buddhism, ethics and a way forward.
I wonder how the mothers of the myriads of children in the Catholic religion feel, once they realize their children are sexually assaulted by priests under the guise of religious trust, piety and safety. I wonder if it causes them to lose faith in their entire religion- in God, in Jesus and turns their world upside down in terms of value and priority, and religious absolution? I haven’t researched the subject in terms of the magnitude of how many children were harmed and how many families and communities and dioceses are impacted, globally. I don’t know the amount of reparations that the church is paying to survivors and how incredibly all-pervasive and ubiquitous this abuse of children is, as abuse has spanned over centuries. No one but no one wants to talk about this- it’s the most grotesque and unseemly subject we can fathom. Just mentioning it, brings up for many, any type of trace of abuse or betrayal, anything we’ve ever kept secret and unresolved wounds from our personal childhoods. I believe it’s considered human society’s deepest, darkest shadow.
I am suspecting that the families of the children that were assaulted even possibly multi-generationally, still within them hold deep faith in the essence of their religion, and so long simply for the wrongs to be righted. Part of why it goes on for as long it does, is that the priests, cardinals and bishops in the dioceses cover for each other and are silent, even when they knew children were being harmed. I think when you are invested in the religion very deeply you care for it so much, you don’t want to say or do anything that would ever endanger it or cause people to lose faith. We would never want to disrupt the architecture or milieu of what we’ve created, let alone our identity, position and risk legal and ethical considerations. Oftentimes, in religions, people think that they are in keeping with God, Mohammad, a prophet like Joseph Smith, the Buddha or some special divinity that gives them permission to abide by God or some other spiritual law outside man’s paltry, temporal laws.
This is the very root of why people have been exploited and abused, and harmed in religion and can continue to be so today. Anyone found guilty of seeing the corruption behind the cloth or the curtain, is generally shunned, excommunicated, slandered, defamed or silenced. Generally there’s some religious notion that the person would be a demon, a vow breaker, satanic, or going to hell if they did anything to harm the integrity or piety of the religious structure. In religions, high demand groups or cults, people have oftentimes built their lives and all social relationships and families around religious socialization, community and values. It’s extremely difficult to have ethics, transparency and the prevention of abuse and power because lay people or indoctrinates, are not permitted to question or speak out against religious authority. We can see now why these groups are able to continue to propagate abuse and exceedingly unhealthy practices that span over hundreds of years.
I wonder however, if the mothers of these child sexual assault survivors in the Catholic or other traditions, still hold great faith in the essence of their tradition and their personal relationship with their beliefs. I for one do. I’ve seen so many instances where people see things in terms of black-and-white, you are either in or out, ascribe to our doctrine without question, or not. For example, you either have unquestioning faith in Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard and would never dare speak out against it, or if you begin to see some of the problems, you are deemed a “suppressive person” and are told to leave with no contact with anyone again, even your primary family members. These are what cult expert Margaret Singer called a “closed system” of religious/ community authority, that does not permit questioning or evolution.
I had a close Dharma friend come over last night, I have been speaking out with some moral concerns in general and with one particular Buddhist teacher for years, who I think is in part, ethically compromised in many complex ways. This teacher is possibly, like many who have gone astray, a covert narcissist. He happens to find this teacher to be charming and unconventional and worthy of great reverence, and with a veiled threat, suggested that I “be careful” and remain silent, as expected. This Buddhist teacher maintains the perspective at the root of a lot of our recent scandals, the #metoo and conflict, is the fact that westerners are too spiritually immature, “not proper vessels” to understand the profundity and depth of their [sic] Asian Buddhist ways. He insults us, and calls us names like neo-liberals and suggests that we are spiritually arrogant and have absolutely no right to question him, his cronies, his religious tenets or anything in the doctrine that they considered to be absolute truth. These teachers consider themselves divine, flawless enlightened Buddhas, they mandate an unquestioning authority of command and control, and our job is to follow their commands with devotion and non-discriminating obeisance. Anyone that does not or god-forbid speaks out is considered evil, a demon or a vow breaker (samaya) and shunned.
We talked for many hours into the night. My friend was born into an American Tibetan Buddhist family, and grew up with the doctrine. It took me a long time to show him my heart, tears, sincerity, my longing to heal what I feel is wrong in our tradition, and help him to deconstruct some of the heavy-handed doctrine that we all have invested in and take for granted. He used accusatory words like- you must think that you are spiritually superior, that I should be careful because there could be some karmic implication (hells) for me speaking out against harm and teachers exploitation, this is a tradition that dates back thousand years, who did I think I was, I was no one, it’s the many women’s fault with being overly emotional, vindictive and then- I simply wasn’t seeing the tradition as purely as I should. Why focus on other’s faults, we have plenty ourselves? He, like others suggest: “Why don’t you just silently leave if you don’t like it/ find flaw in a teacher?,” that’s what the scriptures insist. I get this often, orthodox men in a religion who try to silence or demonize whistleblowers, rather than possibly self reflect and respect that our concerns just might be… sound. (They are.)
“It’s important for people to know what was going on, not only as a warning for people but also for the Lamas themselves to know, that they cannot just get away with everything like the way they did before. You know it’s the old boys club syndrome. You know they have to support each other, because you know if they don’t maybe the whole edifice falls down.” Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo
Okay, so I started to bring up that within our tradition, powerful people like his Holiness Dalai Lama, Mingyur Rinpoche and Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo talk very frankly about the sexual abuse of women and children and the abuse of power and exploitation of this “feudal” tradition, that can only be an inception of causing it’s demise. Their hurtful conduct is causing many, worldwide, to rapidly lose faith, as the hypocrisy in the tradition, which actually teaches ethics and non-harming can not uphold any type of religious integrity while corruption is still permitted and covered. I told him that I had a very authentic raw and candid conversations with my close, ethical Buddhist teacher. He knows exceedingly well about what I am saying my public expression of concerns, and my longing to preserve the tradition by shedding light on what within it is harmful so that it could continue to flourish. He agrees with me and shares all of my concerns, but is socially hesitant to be a public voice of change.
Like the Catholic mothers and families of child sexual assault survivors, can’t we still have great faith in our tradition, the methods which connect us to a deep sense of spirituality and openness and love within us? Yet, at the same time, be able to be sober and practical around the harm that human beings have used within religion to exploit people since time immemorial? I believe that if we stay silent, knowing that women and children and religious members are harmed and controlled, it would be akin to hearing a family next-door yelling and screaming and knowing that domestic violence was happening there, and believing that the way to peace would be to stay silent ignore it, and not call the authorities. Silence is complicity, it enables harm. If we see teachers taking liberties by sleeping with most of their students, if we see small children assaulted within these monasteries on a daily basis, can’t our basic human ethics and conscience pull us to want to help to heal things that are harming others? *No religious doctrine should give itself permission to abuse, assault, punish, threaten or spiritually harm any human being ever in any way.* This truth, to me is in keeping with my treasured Buddhist vows of non-harming, compassion, love, integrity- values that the Buddha intended.
Anyone that wants to still stay silent, ignore, make ‘dharmasplaining‘ spiritual excuses to cover what they know has happened that’s abuse, and does not take any steps to clean it up and to stop the patterns is still complicit, and either an abuser themselves or enabling abuse. I guess I’m naïve and I believe that human beings, still somewhere, however dormant, have a conscience. We, in our hearts, don’t want to exploit each other in terms of power and sex, or hurt children and somehow, if we brought transparency to these things people couldn’t live with themselves anymore with what they do and what they’ve done. Though a process of the deep soul-searching and contrition, we would actually want to create healthier communities, treat each other better and foster truly helpful methods of connecting to our inherent deep wisdom within us.
I guess I have faith, deep, unwavering faith in the integrity of our humanness, and our innate longing to purify our mistakes, learn and evolve. That is my vow, that is my commitment to the part of us that is enlightened and clear and doesn’t want to harm people within the guise of religion, even one more day. I am an adult abuse survivor and I can’t ignore teachers who use their trusted role as bullies to sexually assault, exploit, suppress or harm any person and try to believe that it is somehow divine, and if we were to express concern, that we are demons, or vow breakers. This just can’t go on this way and I pray that the sound, wholesome and powerful methods within these traditions flourish, once what is not, is firmly pruned away. That pruning process mandates transparency and culpability, not silence and secrecy, for us to grow, learn, evolve and really have any chance of making spiritual progress in this precious life. If you have harmed others, admit it and purify and moreso, don’t do it anymore. I believe we all care, can and want to heal; I believe in us, my vows, unbreakable. དམ་ཚིག་
We purify and purify, so that the ‘good one’ can remain. Tsoknyi Rinpoche