‘Abuse of Power’ (1999)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

9 minutes

The Spring 1999 of Ursache & Wirkung: Zeitschrift für Buddhismus [‘Cause & Effect: Journal for Buddhism’] contained an interview by Katja Sindemann with June Campbell. This is my translation from the German:

“June Campbell became known through her book Traveller in Space: In Search of Female Identity in Tibetan Buddhism. Her statements triggered heated discussions throughout the Buddhist scene, both in America and in Europe. Her book is based on her personal experience with Tibetan Buddhism. As a young woman, she worked as a translator for the famous Lama Kalu Rinpoche, with whom she had a secret sexual relationship for years. In her book, she elaborates on the ways in which she believes women are oppressed and exploited in Tibetan Buddhism. Several articles on this topic have already appeared in Ursache & Wirkung. This interview was conducted by Katja Sindemann.

Katja Sindemann: In your book you describe Tibetan society as a patriarchal one. How are women treated in Tibetan Buddhism?

June Campbell: In my book, I tried to analyse how the different parts of Tibetan society are connected to understand my own experience as a woman in Tibetan Buddhism back then, 30 years ago. I wrote the book to understand the connections between the social structure, religion and the representations of women in the religious texts and drawings, as well as the philosophy that conditions the way the sexes interact in Tibetan Buddhism.

Sindemann: How do you argue that Tibetan society is a patriarchal system, that is, that women are treated like second-class beings?

Campbell: Like all medieval cultures, Tibetan society excluded women from positions of power. It was a theocracy. The lamas held both spiritual and political power. They were important figures locally, but also in Tibetan society as a whole. Women were not eligible to be lineage holders who passed on the teachings. And they were only involved under certain conditions. For example, the mothers of tulkus, the reincarnated lamas, were very important in maintaining the system. They willingly gave their little boys to the monasteries and “sacrificed” them for the good of the whole society. This guaranteed the cohesion of the people because Tibetans believe in this divine power that comes to them through the reborn lamas. This mechanism is maintained from generation to generation and keeps the society together. Therefore, women play a certain role in society, but it is a very hidden role. It is part of the role of women to represent the hidden aspect in Tibetan Buddhism. Women support the lamas in their practice and maintain it, but they themselves—with a few exceptions—are not lineage holders.

Sindemann: In your book you also wrote about your secret relationship with Kalu Rinpoche. What were your reasons or motives at that time for accepting his proposal of a sexual relationship?

Campbell: Well, it was a long time ago. I was young then. The sexual revolution had just begun in the West. Many of us young Westerners went to India on the hippie trip. We were in search of meaning, disenchanted with a lot of the political events in the sixties. Don’t forget that we were brought up by a generation of parents who had lived through the Second World War. Many of us were looking for meaning and a new worldly significance of our own. And I was one of those who went to India to find myself, to find a new meaning, new ways of looking at the world. And I went with a lot of idealism. When I converted to Tibetan Buddhism, I was naïve and accepted the authority that the lamas had. There was no possibility for me to intellectually engage with what I was experiencing. Many people say that women should not get involved in this form of relationship. They should check out the man carefully beforehand and then draw their conclusions. I think these people misunderstand something. Because the whole thing doesn’t play out on an intellectual level, but on a very emotional level. I was driven by emotions, hopes and desires as a woman. I was young, idealistic, wishing for a special kind of relationship and I imagined at the time that it would be good for me. That’s why I got involved.

Sindemann: You mentioned that you also hoped for good karma, that is, that you thought you would progress spiritually.

Campbell: Well, at that time I believed that people could get ahead spiritually, as if it were a hierarchy. I don’t believe that now. But at the time I thought I was progressing spiritually. That was another reason to agree.

Sindemann: Could you be more specific about your religious motivation was for getting involved in a sexual relationship with Kalu Rinpoche?

Campbell: He was one of the highest lamas in all of Tibetan society. He was a teacher of the Dalai Lama. I thought that somehow it would be good for me to enter into a relationship with such a man. Even though the relationship was kept completely secret—there were only one or two others privy to it—I believed that it would benefit me spiritually. I can say no more than that at the time I believed any kind of blessing or close association with someone I considered to be of high spiritual standing would be good for me.

Sindemann: What conclusions did you draw years later? How do you see this sexual relationship in retrospect, also in relation to the role relationship of men and women in Tibetan Buddhism?

Campbell: My perspective has evolved over the years. First, I found it unacceptable to lead a double life. In addition, I was completely cut off from other Westerners. I lived in India, travelled with Kalu Rinpoche all over Europe, North America, Canada. I was no longer myself. I couldn’t talk to other Westerners about what I was experiencing because I had been forbidden to talk about it. I am Scottish, I grew up in a very democratic society where honesty is one of the most important qualities. So after a while I was no longer able to live that relationship. I had to get out of it, I had to turn away completely—and I never looked back. Some years later I began to do scientific research and decided to investigate this whole matter in order to understand what had happened to me and to make sense of it all—through scientific work. That is what I have tried to do in my book. It looks at all the structures to explain why secrecy is such an important part of this society. Why women have to be quiet and are not allowed to talk about the things they experience. Why the structures condition a certain way of looking at men and women. In doing this, I also had to ask: What is this thing called enlightenment? Or: What is Buddhahood? Why is there this hierarchy of priests who control what can and cannot be said? Why is it such a closed society that you can’t enter a dialogue with outsiders?

Sindemann: If you take your personal experience as an example for the whole religious system, what do you think about the relationship between men and women? Are they equal? Are they on the same level?

Campbell: From my point of view, of course they are not. All the examples that I have seen myself and everything that you can find in the scriptures show that there is no equality. But I don’t think that’s the main point, because this happens not only in Tibetan society, but everywhere. I think the essential point is the reverence for the Lama, the unquestioning devotion that takes place in a secret and closed system of thought. And the figures who hold spiritual power also hold political offices in that society. When I started writing this book and my research got up to speed, I felt very strongly that introducing these religious groups in our Western society could pose a grave dangers. Because it could put western men in a position to have numerous secret relationships with women. They can hold a position of power with absolute authority, because no questions are allowed. Obviously, this involves a lot of risks.

Sindemann: Are women abused by men or by Tantra masters?

Campbell: I wouldn’t call it abuse. Women often put themselves in this situation voluntarily because they want or desire something or perhaps want to improve themselves. This is also true of Tibetan women who voluntarily put themselves in this situation. But it is part of their whole society. When something happens that is secret and separate from the whole environment it is not a problem. But I think it creates a very dangerous situation when you bring this structure to the West. That is, groups are formed that keep things secret and allow men to hold very powerful positions and have sexual relations with several women—under the pretext that it is a spiritual matter. This while the environment in which these groups find themselves is unable to question things.

Sindemann: In their book The Shadow of the Dalai Lama, the authors Herbert and Mariana Röttgen propose the thesis that in the tantric ritual the male tantra master exploits the woman by sucking out the woman’s sexual energy and absorbing it into himself in order to gain political and spiritual power. How do you respond to this thesis?

Campbell: I don’t believe in that energy any more. I don’t believe that there is a so-called tantra through which people become enlightened. I believe that in Hindu tantra, which developed as a form of pleasure and happiness and was also about health, the partners were equal. When the Tibetan Buddhist system integrated tantra into Buddhism, it made enlightenment the goal of tantric practice. Tantra became associated with the hierarchy of enlightened lamas and lineage holders. The idea that the lamas hold the power already postulates that this is not tantra, because tantra means that two equal partners come together. So why do the lamas have all the power? But I don’t believe in this anyway. I don’t believe in this idea of progressive spiritual development and reaching enlightenment through sexual practices. I think that tantra has been adapted and used by the monastic system to justify sexual activity.

Sindemann: The authors claim that the woman is exploited and her energy stolen so that the tantra master can develop into an androgyne in meditation. However, the actual result is not an androgynous but an omnipotent being, who is still male. The woman is deserted afterwards and everything feminine is eliminated. What do you say to that?

Campbell: I would agree with that in a way, but not in these esoteric terms. I would just explain it in terms of the social or political structures of society, but not in those esoteric terms. I don’t believe in those. But I think it’s very difficult to prove anything, because the whole system is subject to secrecy. If someone is asked to prove why this person is spiritually on a higher level, the answer is: ‘That’s secret, no one can tell.’ Personally, I think that the tantric practice is a fantasy or a pretext: people say that something wonderful is happening, but it is just the meeting of two ordinary people. Because of the secrecy and the power structure, the women remain hidden by necessity. They are not allowed to talk about their experiences, because if they did, it would threaten the whole system. Don’t forget that in Tibet, religion is linked to the political and social structure. The whole system would collapse if women were to say that nothing spiritual happened. But if something spiritual did happen, one would expect evidence, namely more wonderful, spiritually developed women all over Tibet. There would be an equal number of female masters to that of male masters who claim to be spiritually superior. This is why the system is starting to crack in the democratic West, because it lacks the social environment that enables and supports secrecy. It is inevitable that Western society will demand evidence or question how this belief system might be maintained in the West. If the Tibetan system remains closed, it cannot function in the West.

I would like to add something else. I have received a lot of mail from women who have suffered terrible abuse by so-called Tantra masters. There is a danger that this will continue in the West. Another very important point is the breach of trust between a religious teacher and his student, when the student is forced to keep the sexual relationship secret. Most people in the West will see this as an abuse of power.

After the interview, publisher and director Peter Riedl, ‘responsible for the content’ of Ursache & Wirkung, responded to June Campbell in person:

Correspondence by e-mail between U&W and June Campbell
from 27. 2. to 2. 3. 1999
27. 2.1999

Dear June!
I have got your interview with Katja Sindemann, thank you very much.
May I share my own opinion? I have read your book and as a man I slowly start to understand your point of view. I gather that the issue seems to be very important for women. But I don’t quite agree with your view that puts the blame entirely on the lamas and the system of Tibetan Buddhism.
Isn’t it a very old problem of women that they (sometimes) offer sex and expect something else (from men) as an equivalent? Isn’t the only thing they ought to expect to get pregnant and/or enjoy pleasure? Sometimes I get the impression that women talk about abuse when they expect something else that they don’t get. Abuse will not disappear from women’s (men’s) lives by abolishing abuse all over the world, but by overcoming our old patterns that enable others to abuse us.
Peter Riedl

Dear Peter!
I wasn’t sure … I wasn’t sure if you wanted an answer to your questions or if you were just expressing your opinion.
Best wishes, June

Dear June,
No I didn’t expect any answers, it was just …
Best regards, Peter

Dear Peter!
Thanks. By the way, by abuse I meant rape, beating and intimidation. I am sure you too see that as abuse.
Regards, June

Sindemann - Mißbrauch von Macht (Ursache & Wirkung 8 (28) Spring 1999 pp. 22-25) REDUX-BW

About the author

Rob Hogendoorn

Investigative reporter and academic researcher Rob Hogendoorn (b. 1964) began researching the reception of Buddhism in Western society and culture in the early 1990s. His modus operandi remained the same ever since: independent, inquisitive and provocative.