Beyond Buddhism and Back

An Open Letter Sept.25, 2022

I wanted to write an open letter to everyone, because how I feel now is actually different than how I felt in the past few years. So, I wanted to give an update and write a letter to my Dharma friends and people who’ve also left the Dharma or particularly Vajrayana Buddhism. I wanted to say that over the years, I published a lot of documents and blogs and letters, with the attempt to try to process what was happening to us all with the revelations of the #metoo movement, and the exposure of a lot of teachers who, behind the scenes, or sometimes, as in Sogyal Rinpoche’s case, in front of people, were actually acting in an unkind way or an abusive way to women and to students. And, consequently, the exposures that there’s a lot of child abuse in monasteries and in all of Buddhism, worldwide. These same sex monasteries are not healthy. I was just reading Alexandra David-Néel’s book, Magic & Mystery in Tibet and, she actually talks about how the kids were violently hit in the monasteries and they were forced into submission. So, the fact that these are violent places, you know, is no new news. We’ve known that ever since the inception of Buddhism in this country, way back from the original Theosophical Society. So this is not new news, that these communities were not always healthy, and that abuse was behind the cloth.

Then came [2017, 2018] with the #metoo movement, and a lot of people bravely came forth and said, you know, my teacher asked me to sleep with him, or there was someone being hit in our sangha to the point where there was even bloodshed. I have one close Tibetan Lama friend, and he left his role, he’s a pretty high Lama, and he said to me, you know, “you don’t know this, but Tibetan Buddhism is really, really corrupt, and what you’re seeing with these exposures right now is just the tip of a giant iceberg.” He left his role and his title and his Lama duties and got married. He just said, “I’m happy and I’m free.” So yeah, so there’s a lot to hold.

Ever since I was 19, I devoted my life to this tradition. It was the only thing that really meant anything to me. It was the only thing that made sense in my life. It was the only thing of real value because I kind of saw from my old acid-hippie days, that everything in this life is impermanent and you can’t hold on to anything. Things are not a source of happiness. You can’t really become happy by having a lot of physical wealth, or health or a relationship or a child and everything that we build and everything that’s constructed, can eventually fall. So I thought that I found something that created meaning because I could connect to some continuity of reality that was behind, or the foundation, of the phenomenon which was in flux. So I trained in that and I really believed in it and when you receive an empowerment in the Vajrayana, Tibetan Buddhist tradition, that moment you receive this empowerment is the direct transmission of the ground of mind, our natural state, and we we train in that. So that was really valuable to me, and it still is.

Religious Trauma Syndrome

But I understand, and I’ve been in full on religious trauma syndrome, I’ve actually had to seek cult counselors and process and journal it has just been a complete cognitive dissonance to me to have, on one hand, our tradition which has abuse and authoritarian control, and people in blind obeisance and unquestioning, whatever a teacher does is pure, and then the recognition of the fact that we are pure. So it’s kind of created this sort of short circuit over the years, and it’s a lot of pain for a lot of us and I totally understand the people that have left completely- all of Buddhism or all of Vajrayana Buddhism. People that have been disheartened, feeling that they were sold a bill of goods, feeling that they devoted their lives to something. Even if there wasn’t the scandals, [we ask] “are we really even accomplished?” All these tantalizing qualities of going beyond phenomenon and opening and clairvoyance and rainbow body, it’s not happening to anyone I know. I still see teachers that have these qualities.

But I’m looking at my friends and very few of us I think, with the exception of one- Erik Pema Kunsang, really still have a lot of karma and klesia, and have used the Dharma to build themselves up and think they’re spiritually superior, and sometimes can be quite mean, condescending and believe that they’re Venerable or holy. It’s so unseemly and sad that we would use religion in a way that actually builds up ego rather than creates humility. So I’m guilty of that, too. So during this time, I’ve had to rethink everything. What meant anything to me, to any of us, was anything real?

Extreme Views

It’s funny because I was on Reddit, and this was right before Roe v. Wade got overturned, and we were having a discussion on the Buddhist forum. I think it was Vajrayana Buddhist about abortion. So many people came on and they were quoting sutras about how a woman who had an abortion was going to hell, and they were so vicious and so heavy handed, way worse than even our current Supreme Court. I mean, the level of vitriol and hatred and punitiveness [misogyny] about if a woman got pregnant and couldn’t keep the pregnancy and how she would go to hell. I actually wrote, I said, you know what, you people, you guys are using religion in such a deranged way, with these threats of the afterlife and punishment and hatred, and that just can’t be the Dharma.

So I wrote, I remember the night I wrote on the forum, they were talking so much vitriol, and using the sutras to justify hatred, to scare people, worse than our Supreme Court, you know, and all the evangelists, the Christian evangelists. I actually wrote that night… “I’m no longer a Buddhist.” I just have to give this up because it’s obviously just a religion, and they made up all this fire and brimstone stuff about the afterlife, and about scaring people and about social control, submission. A lot of this is just created by men, just because it’s “the Dharma” doesn’t mean that it’s absolute. You know, a lot of these things are culturally referenced.

Just like in Christianity, it changes over the years as we evolve and grow. We can’t belong to a closed system of thinking that’s unable to question itself and learn and grow. Because a lot of what we understand is “the Dharma” is culturally influenced, and it’s based on a certain time period. So we have to be able to let go of some of the old orthodox fire and brimstone stuff like we’ve done in the Old Testament and some of this old heavy handed stuff, it might not be really real, it is still written by men.

Just because we believe in Buddhism and the Dharma is “good in the beginning, good and middle and good in the end,” does it mean that every word of everything is 100% true and 100%, the word of Buddha. In fact, from what I remember, if this is true, the Buddha did not want us to make images of him or to write down anything he said. So all of these amazing translation projects to encode the words- the Buddha didn’t really want that to happen, because he didn’t want us to get immersed or enmeshed in doctrine and concept and encoded. He wanted the Dharma to stay a living, open question of experience, through practice, not a religion, not Guru worship. He didn’t want us to worship him and kind of objectify everything and then use it in this really weird way.

I think that what we’ve devolved to since his original coming into this world realm, is something that he would not be happy with. I don’t think that the Dharma should be preserved and encoded, and I don’t think we should have these gigunda statues and gold gilded things. I’ve said this before. I don’t think that’s what he wanted, in any of the turnings. What human beings do unfortunately, is we tend to solidify things, freeze it, and that basically strangulates the living quality of that experience within us. So I’m all about the open question of evolving and seeing what was beautiful, what is positive in our practice, in our relationship with wholesome teachers and with each other. What is there that has any meaning?

My Near Death Illness

That night that I had written on Reddit, I’m no longer a Buddhist. It was weird because it was almost sort of magical. That night, I laid down to go to sleep, and I started to have the most terrible neuropathy. I started to get electric shocks all over my body intermittently, and was a pretty acute level of pain. This went on it was going on for like, a couple of weeks, so I was like, “Oh, you better remove the post from Reddit, maybe I shouldn’t have said that.” I don’t know. I kind of spiritualized the whole thing like “Oh, I’m being punished” or something. It got really bad. I mean, I was being electric shocked. I had this. It was neuropathy, it was jolts of pain throughout the body and I never know when would come and it was every 30 seconds and I couldn’t even sleep through the pain. I got so depressed and so frustrated because the body had always been an anchor to me. It had always been something that I could ground and trust in this life, and now, the thing that I used to ground and stabilize now was the thing that was torturing me. So I’m like, you know what, I’m ready to go.

So I went to my doctor after about a week of this pain, and I said to her, do we have assisted suicide in Colorado? And she said, yeah, and if she had said that, I could die and take sodium penathol whatever it’s called, I would have done it that day. I was ready to die. So my whole entire system like right after I left that comment, went, totally awry. I became riddled with pain, anxiety and fear and I couldn’t sleep and nothing could get me back and my practice wasn’t working. I had just completely fallen into this abyss. Finally, it did resolve and it took about three months.

I talked to Tsoknyi Rinpoche about what happened. I told him, I said, God, I got really sick, and I said, in 30 years of Dharma practice, I remembered laying there at night and shaking and being frightened and having physical pain. I couldn’t sleep. I said, the only thing that I could think of was that I was being punished and that I was living in Vajra hell, that no one could help me and I was ready to die.

He laughed and said, well, you know, you can’t look at it like that. Because as we get older, you know the four reminders. All of us even at the Lamas have physical pain, and will experience the dissolution process. So you can’t think of it like you’re being punished. That’s not what was happening. So he was so reassuring and so compassionate, because I, it’s a little bit crazy, to sort of spiritualize everything like, “Oh, I’m sick now, and so I’m being punished by the Buddhas from an unseen realm and I’ve broken my vows and I’m gonna go to hell” and what a horrible thing!

When he and I talked, he said, all that scary stuff is not of benefit to you. That’s not accurate and that’s not the essence of the Dharma. He said, you want to be able to connect to the ground which is your open heart which is a refuge which is the clear light, which is your natural face. That’s what all of your commitments, all of the teachers, all the teachings, all your empowerments, it all comes down to the one ground that we’ve been introduced to. So he said, please, please don’t hold in your mind that you’re a bad person or that you’re being punished, you know, especially as you get older. So that was a great relief to talk to him. It was just a few weeks ago, I spoke to him.

Tulku Urgyen and Tenga Rinpoche

Tenga Rinpoche

We talked about Tenga Rinpoche. My close friends who know me, know that I refer to Tenga Rinpoche often. You know, as he was dying, I believe he had diabetes. When you’re at the latter stages of diabetes, you can have peripheral neuropathy, and the blood doesn’t quite flow to your extremities. So sometimes the body starts to die, so that happened to Tenga Rinpoche, so he had a number of amputations. I thought he had one leg amputated, but Tsoknyi Rinpoche told me the story, when we were meeting and he said, I went to see Tenga Rinpoche at the end of his life, and I knew that his legs had gotten cut off and I think a finger and he said, I went into the room to see him. I thought he would be laying in bed like, Oh, I’m suffering, you know, like, have all these amputations, but he’s sitting up on the bed like super cheerful, doing the mani. He welcomes Tsoknyi Rinpoche as he comes in. They start to talk and he asks how he’s doing, and he’s not burdened at all, being at the end of life, and he lifts up the covers so said Tsoknyi Rinpoche and he shows him and he says, “Look, they’ve like cut off both of my legs!” It was almost kind of humorous, and matter of fact, and he wasn’t burdened by that at all. In fact, I remember him saying at the end of his life, you know, “I’ve never experienced any obstacles in this life.”

Now, the man is sitting there, he has no legs. His body is just a stump and he’s saying that I have not experienced any obstacles? To me, that is a huge difference between who I am when I had my very first physical pain, and him. He was fearless in the face of his own death and humor. You know, filled with humor and an overview and not attached to his body and feeling nothing but just gratitude and kindness. Whereas me, I have a little bit of neuropathy, which is not something that is that uncommon as you age and I all of a sudden think I’m going to Vajra Hell and I’m being punished and riddled with obstacles. So there’s a big difference between me and Tenga Rinpoche. So when Tsoknyi Rinpoche and I were talking about him and how how that was such a deep teaching for me that he could experience terrible physical, malady, I think the word is and you know, not be burdened by that.

Wow, because irrespective of anything that’s happened in religions, with priests being sexual predators, or men, using religion to maintain power and control that that’s a given, because we’re in the human realm, and we need to put a stop to that. But still, with that being said, me with myself in my own room, or my own retreat room, to do these practices, you know, Rinpoche said, that’s the only way to really make progress. So if I let the scandals of everything that we’ve been talking about and that I’ve had to process, dissuade me from ever practicing anymore, and just giving it up, you know, having a yard sale, burning all my Dharma books, burning all my Thangka paintings and just walking away and just telling everything, you know, to “go fuck it- I am walking away,” then I’m never going to be able to have the accomplishment and strength to be able to live the latter part of my life now as things are starting to dissolve and have that quality of humor and kindness that Tenga Rinpoche had. And let me tell you, it doesn’t get easier, because really, in the past three months when I was ill, I really came close to dying a few times. It was a hellacious and horrible thing, and if that’s a preview of what’s going to come as things start to fall apart, boy, I really do need something within me that feels that I have a place of solace and refuge and you know, connectedness to everything.

That makes me feel that all of the pain of this life where we have to see our friends and lovers die, our parents. Everything that we’ve built will start to fall apart, and then ultimately, this body. So it’s just the basic four noble truths and four reminders really feels real to me at 52. So it’s brought me to do a 180 degrees to my practice. I mean, things aren’t quite the same. I feel like I have my “THEY LIVE” sunglasses on, I can see clearly about what’s bullshit. You know, who’s using the Dharma as an ego trip, you know, people running around in Ngagpa robes, but they are not kind.

You know, teachers up on this big throne who behind the scenes are alcoholics and are violent and they’re sleeping with everyone and swearing people to secrecy. This is not healthy, and that can’t continue. That is not, you know, there’s no excuse. We’re not all just Drukpa Kunleys and we have this tantric free pass to behave with a lot of misconduct and harm and call that Vajrayana or our call that the Dharma it can’t continue that way. I think that we have to just come down and look at what is helpful. Coming down to the simplicity of our practice. Without a lot of pomp and circumstance and pageantry, and credential and concept and complexity of practice.

The Main Point

Tsoknyi Rinpoche says, once again, that everything that you’ve experienced all of your tantric commitments and teachers and the vow breaking in the vow keeping and the disillusionment and the inspiration all of that comes right back down to the ground of the clarity of mind, your natural state. He said, that’s all you need to train in. That will help you that helps me whenever life gets unbearable, and it was unbearable. I did have to I had no other choice but to come back to the view. So I don’t want to cut that within me. It would be sad if that was lost to our world.

I hope that all of us wake up, both student and teacher. Maybe there’s more of a gray area as to who’s who but we’re all humans and I still think practice is invaluable. I started to integrate some type of movements, not necessarily anything really forceful, Tsoknyi Rinpoche told me that the Anuttara yoga tantra practices, some of them for Westerners like me they can be too energizing, so all the practices that I should do should be ones that are kind of calming, and opening. The heart of that practice to me is still valuable and alive. The connection to that is not broken and not stained, not tarnished. I don’t have any doubt in it.

An Apology

But I think for my Vajrayana brothers and sisters who express devotion I’m sorry, if anything I’ve said over the years offended you or hurt you, because I understand how precious it is our faith. I didn’t mean to say anything, to to dissuade you. Because gosh, if someone’s at the end of their life, and they have a week left to live and they’ve devoted their life to Vajrayana Buddhism, they’re not going to all of a sudden, lose their faith in the last week of life. It wasn’t my job to take away someone’s faith or express doubt.

Anyone who is a survivor, I remember, there’s one story of a woman that you know was beaten on the head until she passed out by one of the Lamas, add another woman who had to carry luggage for her teacher you know, women feeling that they have to, they’re obligated under command to be the teacher’s lover. Those children worldwide who you know are being abused on a daily basis in these monasteries, both physically and sexually. We can’t do that anymore, you guys. We can’t own students. We can’t force them into devotion and financial manipulation. You can’t, all the women are not your particular cookie jar to sleep with whomever you want. We don’t sleep with young girls who are under-age because their bodies and their minds and their hearts are not ready for that. You don’t use them to siphon energy and bliss and that’s just disgusting. So that needs to stop.

These same sex monasteries need to be cleaned up and I don’t know what that’s all going to look like. But I hope something changes. I know that Tibet, we’re trying to kind of uphold that culture in the West after the invasion, and they’ve had a hard time and I don’t want to have that whole entire culture die out to mankind. But it has a lot of unhealthy secrecy and secret conduct and sexual ethics: using people, using children, using women, using students. You know that power dynamic- It’s not good.

I feel that I’ve been grateful to have teachers that show both manifestations like this kingdom I was involved with, and then also really simple, austere, extremely humble yogis, are my teachers. Anytime you, I remember from my Mādhyamika class, anytime you say one view like if I say one sentence about anything it will be subject to ridicule, criticism, and it will be offensive toward people who are polarized. But all I can say is that I came close to dying recently. If I ever said anything to hurt anybody, or offend anyone, I ask your forgiveness. I’m reconnecting to my practice in a really deep and real way, because I have to, it feels like that’s the only rope of clarity and sanity and groundedness that I have in a world that is on fire, and that it is subject to, in the process, of dissolution. So my practice, I really treasure that, I treasure my teachers who are kind to me and I ask for this tradition to be able to evolve and change. So that what is beautiful, what helps people can still continue and what hurts people, we relinquish.

So thank you for listening, and all my love, and well wishes and warmth to everyone.
Dawn Boiani-Sandberg

 

Photo by olaf on Unsplash

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