A sizeable part of my work is exceedingly boring but, ultimately, very rewarding. For instance, I began investigating the formative years of the abusive Tibetan teacher Sogyal Lakar (formerly known as Sogyal Rinpoché) without any conception of what I might find. As it turns out, his family did not just escape the impending political purge by Chinese Communists, but reactionary Tibetan Lamas’ vengeance for a failed murder attempt and coup d’état in which Sogyal’s colluding grandfather was involved as well. I certainly wasn’t expecting a real-life Tibetan Game of Thrones! To discover this, I had to study musty books and journals from the first half the twentieth century for years on end. Over time, I painstakingly pieced together the House Lakar’s history in Chinese territory. I tracked the trials and tribulations of Sogyal’s family in the first half of the twentieth century with the help of self-made maps, timelines, and genealogical charts. What a tedious chore it was. But how exhilarating to discover a revealing fact that every other observer missed! Another part of my work is very unrewarding but, ultimately, exceedingly revealing. This is a story about one such experience. 1
Sleuth Your Guru
In due course, I developed some rules of thumb. When writing about Tibetan lamas’ history, contemporaneous sources reign supreme. I never stop looking for sources that predate the vainglorious, commodified boasts about countless ‘Eminences,’ ‘Holinesses,’ ‘Rinpochés,’ ‘Tulkus,’ ‘Yogis,’ and ‘Mahasiddhas’ since the mid-1990s. The résumés and pedigrees from those years and beyond really can’t be taken at face value—the perks and benefits of making a name for yourself in the West are just too tempting.
I would never blame them for being refugees, looking for a passport, social security and a true home. Even so, I always remain mindful of the rampant abuse by Tibetan fortune seekers and western charlatans posing as ‘true’ lamas. And so I look for unstated psychological motives, not professed subjective intentions. Don’t we all want a better world? Peace on earth? Telling everyone how vital wisdom and compassion are, is the easy part. Instead, I look for lamas’ dealings with status, money, power, sex & drugs & rock ‘n’ roll. Follow the money. Who knew what and when? Cherchez la femme!
Likewise, I think that it’s important to start at the beginning, not the end. Unless and until I know when and where someone was born, what his or her given name was, and where he or she went to school, I really know nothing. I can’t reason my way back into gurus’ pasts, I need to have an actual look at it. As Christopher Hitchens said: ‘The greatest triumph that modern PR can offer is the transcendent success of having your words and actions judged by your reputation, rather than the other way about.’ 2 Time and again, lamas appear on the scene who found ‘enlightenment’ in the Himalayas, as ‘heart son’ of a renowned ‘master’ who shared unique ‘teachings’ and hallowed ‘practices’ with them—and ‘secret doctrines’ too. However, in my experience, many of them built a reputation for themselves out of thin air.
Surely, the most professed, least practiced Tibetan Buddhist maxim is: Sleuth your guru, until he forgets that you’re still watching. Then see what he does next. The infantile gullibility, narcissistic hankering, and mindless group-think of so many western Tibetophiles—lovers of all things Tibetan—being what they are, there’s really no way of knowing what any given lama’s track record is until you’ve ascertained it yourself. So, I quietly oppose gurus’ every attempt to obfuscate rather than enlighten me about the the true nature of their past—and I investigate.
Bursting Bubbles, Connecting Dots
As the unintended consequence of my own sleuthing, I occasionally burst some Western converts’ bubble: They turn out to have misapprehended their lama’s standing or some Tibetan Buddhist community’s stature. They misjudge the meaning of some teaching, event, endorsement, excuse, justification, or motive. They enable sexual abuse and other crimes. I run into them, sometimes, and they take their cognitive dissonance and disillusionment out on me. Some tread water, while stuck in denial. Others mischaracterize my work or sully my reputation. Rarely if ever do they respond to the actual content of my findings.
As it happens, I just completed a long paper on the Dalai Lama’s five year-long involvement with a murderous Japanese cult that paid him 1.5 million US dollars. It was yet another serendipitous find. Some time ago, I was engaged in one of my daily chores. This time, I was perusing bound volumes of the journal Tibetan Review—as in reading through, page by page, every issue since 1968. Suddenly, a half-familiar name caught my attention: Shōkō Asahara, the infamous leader of the Aum Shinrikyō cult. Because I was focussed on a different subject I thought nothing of it at the time, but I did scan and archive the article. 3
As I completed my recent article about the Dalai Lama’s relations with the recently convicted Keith Raniere and Nxivm, I recalled the news item in Tibetan Review and began to investigate. 4 I found that members of the Tibetan community in Japan were alarmed about the Dalai Lama’s involvement with Shōkō Asahara. They tried to warn him early on, and despaired when he ignored their concern. An ex-member of Aum Shinrikyō even traveled to India on his own dime, to warn a close aide of the Dalai Lama—at great personal risk.
Meanwhile, a small group of Tibetan intellectuals in his home town Dharamsala, India attempted to persuade his entourage that the Dalai Lama needed to vet his numerous ‘friends’ much more stringently. The note of caution they sounded wasn’t heeded. After Aum Shinrikyō attacked the Tokyo underground with nerve gas, the same intellectuals reminded the Tibetan public of the concerns they had expressed previously. They were shunned and their newspaper was discontinued. 5
Also, I found that few contemporaneous reports and academic researchers connected the dots: The Dalai Lama is wont to ignore explicit warnings about the abusive and even criminal ‘spiritual teachers’ he associates with, even from his own people—especially while these ‘old friends’ provide him with financial resources, speaking engagements, and media exposure. That’s rich, because he harps on about others’ obligation to expose abusive teachers in public, while stubbornly ignoring such reports until it is too late. Obviously, this is an uncomfortable truth that few people enjoy hearing.
So, when one of my readers posted a link to my article ‘Knave or Fool? The Dalai Lama and Shōkō Asahara Affair Revisited’ on Tenzin Peljor’s blog Diffi-Cult, I was curious to learn what the response might be—and somewhat alarmed by the prospect.
After all, Peljor (Michael Jäckel, commonly known by the contraction Tenpel) professes to be a Tibetan Buddhist monk and he is one the Dalai Lama’s staunchest German apologists. His response to critiques of his guru tends to be very defensive, dismissive, and unreflecting. 6 True to type, the weblink to my article prompted Tenpel to immediately lead the tone. He published a series of comments that quoted sources and repeated views he had already published, to downplay the Dalai Lama’s involvement with Shōkō Asahara and Aum Shinrikyō. 7
I knew Tenpel’s reasonings well, because I found that his previous defence of the Dalai Lama’s association with Shōkō Asahara disregarded much of the damaging evidence that was available at the time. Evidently, he did not read my present article before he began opining. Indeed, Tenpel completely ignored the crux of the matter I brought up—the early warnings by concerned Tibetans and Japanese that the Dalai Lama disregarded. I appreciated, though, that he posted a link to an imminent web-seminar by religious scholar Erica Baffelli, who published much about Aum Shinrikyō. 8 Fortunately, I could register for the seminar at the last-minute to enjoy Baffelli’s fascinating lecture ‘”I would do it all again:” Former members’ experience in Aum Shinrikyō.’
During the question and answer session, Tenpel asked when the public at large became aware of concerns about Aum Shinrikyō. It was a silly question, really, because the least amount of investigation—reading my paper might have been a good start—would have made clear to him that Japanese, Tibetan, and other foreign media published disconcerting reports about Shōkō Asahara and Aum Shinrikyō at least by 1989. So, Baffelli’s answer came as no surprise. She explained that much has been written about this. Obviously, getting access to this highly aggressive doomsday cult was hard. So, the inside story of Aum’s long history of violence was only exposed after the sarin attack in 1995. Since time was limited, Baffelli suggested that she could provide references about the early publicity to Tenpel by email.
Beyond The Pale
Within 30 minutes after the seminar ended, Tenpel published a very misleading comment saying: ‘BTW, I just asked the Erica Baffelli (University of Manchester) about the timeline what was known when with respect to Asahara. This is a complex matter, she suggested I should write her an email for details but added that before 1995 it was extremely difficult to have insights into a religious organization. This changed in 1995 – after the Sarin attack. This poses the question why the Dalai Lama should have had more knowledge about Asahara than others?’ 9
I wrote Tenpel an email immediately. I warned that his version of their exchange was ‘less than truthful,’ because this was clearly not what Erica Baffelli said, nor what she implied. He responded by posting a new comment, in which he quoted my email and produced a transcript from the garbled recording he said he made, which supposedly vindicated his version of the event. It didn’t, but with this post Tenpel was getting out of bounds altogether. Not only did he quote my private correspondence without my consent, he admitted to surreptitiously recording the question and answer session of Baffelli’s seminar, sharing this recording with a third person, while divulging a transcript of it in the public domain. 10
With this recording, Tenpel went beyond the pale. His conduct went directly against the express intent of the seminar’s hosts. It was announced that Erica Baffelli’s presentation on Aum Shinrikyō would be recorded, ahead of time. Indeed, an on-screen button showed in real time that the presentation was being recorded. Also, it was explicitly said that the question and answer session would not be recorded. It’s self-evident why: The question and answer sessions needs to be a safe environment for all of the involved—not just the presenter, staff members and guests, students too. Needless to say, Tenpel did not ask the participants for permission to record this session, ahead of time. So, when I found out what he had done, I demanded that Tenpel would summarily remove this content, as well as any responses to it—and he did.
Tenpel later rewrote his version of his exchange with Erica Baffelli, ‘in order to avoid that it can be misread or felt it is a misrepresentation.’ However, in changing his own text retroactively, Tenpel made sure that he covered the tracks of using Baffelli to act as his mouthpiece ‘saying’ something about the Dalai Lama that she neither said nor implied. 11
After this first intervention and retraction, Tenpel went on to falsely suggest that I have a financial motive to write about the Dalai Lama. This comment necessitated a second intervention, which led to a second rectification, in which Tenpel admitted: ‘my speculation was entirely unfounded.’ Unchastened, he went on to post a comment by Joanne Clark, in which she falsely alleged that the book I co-authored with Mary Finnigan was based on a ‘non-existent article.’ I objected once again, and this falsehood was rectified as well.12
Denying Tibetans’ Agency
Never mind Tenpel’s dirty tricks, to me it seems bizarre—inane, honestly—to ‘opine’ on an article or book that you haven’t read. And yet, when pious outrage and blind defensiveness kick in, Tenpel and some regular contributors on his blog do just that. Truth be told, I don’t suffer fools gladly. After all, they’re trespassing: They’re supposed not to rush in where angels fear to tread. Such wisdom is wasted on them, of course. So, they do it anyway, making a nuisance of themselves.
It was a surreal experience to see Tenpel and some like-minded people move me and my work about as a prop in an imaginary play of their own making. Their Buddhist persona and its perceived ‘existential’ angst played the leading role—not the facts of the matter at hand, nor the arguments or their foundations. In a word: Everything is personal, nothing is not—ad hominem is the weapon of choice. It’s very unrewarding to provoke the ire of such hotheads, but quite revealing. For when the Dalai Lama’s ‘holiness’ is on the line, it’s no-holds-barred. On a bad day, you’ll be accused of being pro-Chinese. I’m not intimidated by that, but I know many others who are.
Far worse, in this particular case, is that those who speak the loudest have nothing to say on the perspectives of many Tibetans on this matter—on their frustrations about the Dalai Lama. At any rate, they’re not interested enough to become acquainted with those views before they speak. And so, Tibetans too serve as props in their own version of La La Land: An imaginary Tibetan theme-park to dwell in—and amuse themselves to death. They don’t consider the opposition of many Tibetans against the caricature-like image they uphold. 13 For Tibetans are supposed to behave as is expected of them. And if they refuse to be held hostage by their western well-wishers’ romantic notions about Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama—well, that’s the end of them, their view is censored. To say that such a stance denies Tibetans’ agency altogether—and even that of their ‘beloved’ Dalai Lama—is an understatement: It is a hostile takeover.
- Sogyal Lakar’s story is told in Finnigan, Mary & Rob Hogendoorn. (2019). Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism: The Rise and Fall of Sogyal Rinpoche. Portland: Jorvik Press.
- Hitchens, Christopher. (1998 July 13th). His Material Highness. Retrieved December 1, 2020.
- Author unknown. (1991). Buddhism Being Misrepresented? Tibetan Review, 26 (3), pp. 4-5.
- See The Dalai Lama and Nxivm Revisited.
- See Knave or Fool? The Dalai Lama and Shōkō Asahara Affair Revisited.
- Peljor, Tenzin (Michael Jäckel). (2020). A Call for Impartial Compassion. Retrieved December 14, 2020. Tenzin Peljor moderates a number of websites focussed on Buddhism. Peljor, Tenzin. (Michael Jäckel). (2012). Tenzin Peljor. Retrieved December 14, 2020. As the owner and moderator of the Diffi-Cult blog, Tenpel has a duty of care towards his readers and contributors. However, in recent years, he posted false allegations, refuted arguments, and baseless innuendo at will. I’ve found that he routinely suggests that it is the responsibility of those he censures—not his—to make sure that the information he posts about them is correct. When readers do correct him, Tenpel often modifies his own posts and comments retroactively, to better reflect the ‘updated’ narrative. In effect, Tenpel’s conception of his task as his blog’s owner and moderator upends his duty of care, which is a dereliction of duty in and of itself. I believe that Tenpel’s editorial policy of ‘trial and error’ is intellectually dishonest and deeply unethical. Since his activities are not subject to any oversight, and do not conform to basic journalistic and academic professional norms, I consider his blog Diffi-Cult to be a biased, untrustworthy source of information.
- See Knave or Fool? The Dalai Lama and Shōkō Asahara Affair Revisited. (endnote 86).
- Author unknown. (2020). “I would do it all again”: former members’ experience in Aum Shinrikyō: 9 December 2020. Retrieved December 14, 2020.
- Peljor, Tenzin (Michael Jäckel. (2020) A Call For Impartial Compassion (Diffi-Cult 09-12-2020 18.19 h.). pp. 20-21.
- I’ve archived Tenpel’s comments and transcript, but for obvious reasons I’m not sharing this document in the public domain.
- The revised version runs as: ‘BTW, I just asked the Erica Baffelli (University of Manchester) about the timeline what was known when with respect to Asahara. She answered that this is difficult because quite a lot has been written about that. While Asahara got recognition the violence already started. But she added too that it was also because at the time it was quite difficult to enter and do check in a religious organisation and that this changed after 1995. Because it is hard to answer this in a minute she suggested I should write her an email. (I will share her sources later on here.) For me this still poses the question why the Dalai Lama should have had more knowledge about Asahara than others, if it was difficult before 1995 to enter and check a religious organisation in Japan?’ Peljor, Tenzin (Michael Jäckel. (2020). A Call for Impartial Compassion. Retrieved December 14, 2020.
- See Tibet, Land on the Brink of Oblivion.