‘Helping The Iron Bird Fly’ (1998)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

4 minutes

In 1998, for the first time, Rita Gross looked back on the abuse by Buddhist teachers exposed during the preceding decades and the two meetings between Western Buddhist teachers and the Dalai Lama in March 1993 and March 1994.

Curiously, in her article ‘Helping the Iron Bird Fly: Western Buddhists and Issues of Authority’ Gross writes about some participants’ view that the Dalai Lama distanced himself from the issue of abuse during that last meeting:

“I take up the issue of alleged ‘sexual misconduct’ on the part of male Buddhist teachers—a topic that I had thus far successfully avoided discussing publicly—with extreme reluctance. (Though the misconduct issue involves a whole host of behaviors, including use of drugs and alcohol, misappropriation of funds, and general abuse of power, I will focus on the sexual misconduct charge because it is the most volatile and the most central to women, and also because no other alleged abuse has touched exposed nerves of American Buddhists so sharply or caused so much anguish for so long in the American Buddhist community.) Yet I would also argue that excessive attention to the topic of teachers’ alleged misconduct is diverting much-needed energy from more basic issues that must be adequately attended to if Buddhism is to be transmitted to the West and if genuine Western Buddhism, rather than Asian Buddhism hothoused in the West, is ever to emerge.

While those more attuned to academic Buddhist studies might be relatively unaware of, or at least emotionally distant from, the turmoil swirling around many major Buddhist teachers in the West, no Buddhist practitioner involved in any major Western Buddhist community can be unaware of this phenomenon. Nor are most Western Buddhists without opinion on this topic; indeed, some show more dogmatism on this topic than any other issue facing Western Buddhists. Since the early eighties it has torn apart many prospering North American Buddhist organizations, including, among others, the Zen Center of San Francisco, by then headed by Richard Baker, Roshi; Vajradhatu, the international association of meditation centers founded by Vajracharya the Venerable Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, and headed by the Vajra Regent Osel Tendzin during its most difficult phase; the Los Angeles Zen Center headed by Maisumi [sic] Roshi; and the New York Zen Center headed by Eido Roshi. Though most of these communities are now picking up the pieces and regrouping, controversy and bad feelings have not abated, and many students abandoned long-term association with a dharma center, apparently for good.

In March 1993, a meeting between selected Western dharma teachers and the Dalai Lama resulted in a statement that gives the impression that there is only one correct opinion regarding the issue. The behaviors alleged to be misconduct, including sexual misconduct, are indeed misconduct and should be exposed and criticized as such. Western Buddhist teachers then met at Spirit Rock near San Francisco in September 1993 to continue the discussion. At this meeting, which was facilitated largely by non-Buddhist therapists, some Western dharma teachers engaged in highly emotional expressions of disapproval of their own Asian dharma teachers. Some found the whole event cathartic and others found it appalling. A few months later, in March 1994, another conference with the DalaiLama was held. According to some reports, he distanced himself from the whole issue at that time. Then, in later 1994, a large suit for damages for alleged sexual misconduct was brought against Tsogyel [sic] Rinpoche, the author of the popular Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Undoubtedly, this is not the last event in the story, but only the most recent at the time of this writing. As an indication of how much emotional force the issue still packs, one can note that almost half of the issues of the new Buddhist journal of opinion Tricycle have carried some content devoted to the sexual behaviors of teachers, if only in the form of letters to the editor.

If it is not already clear, it will quickly become obvious that I do not share the horror felt by some people about these Buddhist teachers’ alleged sexual misconduct. However, my central concern is not to condone, justify, or explain the sexual behaviors of some male teachers either. My central point is that, while I do not have a strong opinion regarding the sexual behaviors of male Buddhist teachers, most especially my own teacher, Chogyam Trungpa, I do feel very strongly that other issues need our attention far more. This view runs counter to that of many articulate female and feminist Buddhists; therefore, I will try to explain why I take the stand that I do.

First, it is important to answer the charge that blind loyalty to my own teacher keeps me from being appalled by the sexual activities of male teachers. On the contrary, I am known within Vajradhatu as something of a rebel and a troublemaker, someone who has a mind of her own, because of my consistent advocacy of a feminist agenda within Buddhism. If I were convinced that the sexual behavior of teachers was an overriding concern for the transmission of post-patriarchal Buddhism to the West, I doubt that loyalty to my teacher would keep me from speaking out, since my loyalties, which are very deep, have not deterred me on other issues.

However, probably my stance is in part dependent on my being the student of Chogyam Trungpa rather than of some other teacher. I say this because in my view, the crisis-precipitating conduct has not been the sexual behaviors themselves, but secrecy surrounding sexual behaviors. Certainly when Vajradhatu fell apart, in 1988-1990, it was not over Trungpa’s womanizing and drinking, which had been totally common knowledge for years, but over secrecy surrounding sexual activities of his dharma heir, the Vajra Regent Osel Tendzin. Perhaps I would have been more stung and hurt by the sexual conduct of my teacher if I had been the student of a teacher who gave one appearance in public but acted differently in private. When I was deciding whether or not to become Trungpa’s student, I knew about his behaviors, though I was never in the inner circle of students who witnessed or participated in them. Quite frankly, initially I was more distressed by his ostentatious and pretentious lifestyle and its cost to his students, who, as a group, are not wealthy. I literally had to make a decision as to whether my discomfort with his expensive lifestyle should keep me from his brilliance asa dharma teacher and his ability to illumine mind to me. I think everyone who accepts a spiritual teacher has to make such a decision, though the specifics are different for each teacher-student relationship.

My reasons for not pouncing on teachers’ alleged misconduct as the central problem for Buddhist women circle around two issues. The first is the question of what a guru or spiritual teacher is or is not, which is closely connected with the question of what a guru could be expected to provide for students. Second, I will question whether one can suggest that women should not or cannot consent to certain kinds of sexual activities if they also want to function as self-determining adults.”

Gross - Helping the Iron Bird Fly-Western Buddhists and Issues of Authority (1998)

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.