‘The Voice in the Closet’ (1994)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

11 minutes

In 1994, Stephen Butterfield examined his response to the events that were caused by his Tibetan Buddhist teacher Ösel Tendzin’s refusal to warn the devotees he had sexual relations with while he was aware that he was infected with HIV

In the introductory chapter ‘The Voice in the Closet’ and chapter 15, ‘The Guru is the Buddha,’ of The Double Mirror: A Skeptical Journey into Buddhist Tantra, Butterfield examines his own responses to Tendzin’s attempts to justify and excuse behaviour that was widely considered to be criminally negligent. The full text of The Double Mirror is available here.

“‘Ordinary mind,’ said Osel Tendzin, the guru’s American dharma heir, as we sat together in an airport bar watching a television talk show about AIDS. ‘Ordinary mind, that’s what it feels like.’ Ordinary mind is the English translation of a Tibetan Buddhist term, thamal gye shepa, ‘mind without ego.’ The end of practice is to bring about this state, which can also be induced by the presence or death of a great teacher.

Osel Tendzin was the preceptor who had given me my Buddhist vows. Before he met Trungpa in the early 1970s, he was the yoga student Narayana, formerly Thomas Rich, an Italian from New Jersey. In 1976, Trungpa empowered him as his successor to the “crazy wisdom” tradition of Buddhist tantra. His title was “The Regent,” and within Vajradhatu, Trungpa’s church, he had his own staff, limousine, headquarters, itinerary, power base, personal attendants, and personal mystique. During the cremation, Tendzin had sat on the V.I.P. platform with the high lamas of Tibet, doing their complex chants and gestures, accepted by them as a fellow dharma king. Our meeting in this airport bar was pure auspicious coincidence: he was flying somewhere, and I was flying to Europe; we were waiting for different planes. In a few moments the entire setting would vanish.

A guest on the talk show was arguing that dolls should be manufactured with genital organs, so children can learn about sex and how to take precautions against AIDS. Then a commercial came on the screen: a haggard young woman said she got AIDS from her bisexual husband, who was having affairs with men. ‘I never knew about any of them,’ she said.

‘This program is trivial,’ Osel Tendzin said. ‘It’s cheap.’ I would have thought that warning people about AIDS fulfilled the Buddhist idea of compassionate activity. I had the urge to ask ‘Why do you think so?’ but pretended instead to agree with him. He was the Regent and I was the disciple. If somebody had missed something it was probably me—and I didn’t want him to know that I had missed it. I wanted to be important, like him, and to understand the world ashe understood it.

In the guru/disciple relationship, this self-conscious longing for acceptance, regarded as a form of devotion, operates to intimidate the student into deference, when it would be far more valuable to look like a fool and speak up. Here was a priceless, fragile, shortlived opportunity, filled with uncontrived symbolism. If I had asked the right questions at that moment, I would have learned a great deal about the causes of the tragedy that was about to unfold around him, and around the presentation of Buddhist tantra in America. But I was paralyzed. Although I knew that I had as much power as Tendzin, I could not act from it. The meeting communicated anyway, on a level much deeper than my questions, and still does.

Perhaps he meant that AIDS is another form of cremation, in which the self gets reduced to ash and ordinary mind is liberated. ‘The sad skeleton turns,’ wrote Rosemary Klein; ‘Black rags dance the universe … / To what song / Do we owe this dance. Where does the light go / when the light goes out.’ Alongside vision like that, the talk show was indeed cheap; it was drowning the subject in the jargon of ‘concern,’ and treating it as a Controversial Topic, always a boost for ratings.

Another commercial came on: a young woman held up a hypodermic needle and said ‘I got AIDS from using this.’

I said ‘In the next commercial we’ll see a guy holding up a dildo: “And I got AIDS from using this.”‘

Tendzin laughed. My question did not surface. I had glossed it over with a frivolous joke. He smiled and left, waving goodbye. There was abond of sorts between us, formed during our dialogues at his dharma talks. He was gay, I was not, but I had fallen for his charm, his sense of humor, his quick wit, and his incisive and helpful answers.

I later had one more opportunity to question his whole act, putting myself at risk of being a fool in front of a hundred people, but of course I didn’t take it. He was giving a program for advanced students of tantra, in which he said that if you keep your commitment to the guru, ‘you cannot make a mistake.’ I thought, ‘You are going to get into trouble believing that, my friend; that’s hubris. All the people in the written history of the world who believed they could not make a mistake sooner or later got into trouble.’ Yet I kept silent, intent only on uttering sentiments that would please him.

Then I dreamed that I met Tendzin in a spaceport. I had always liked his face—it was kind, but ravaged, the nose a little too thick probably from drinking. Both he and Trungpa were alcoholics. In the dream I was waiting for a rocket to another galaxy, and so was he. I knew neither of us would ever come back. I wanted to get out. When I woke up, I feared the dream was a warning that I would die in a plane crash, and I said protective mantras and made a will.

A year later, I learned with the rest of the world that Tendzin had AIDS, kept it secret, and infected one of his many unknowing student lovers. He knew he had AIDS while we were sitting in the bar. The subject had surrounded us like the jaws of a crocodile, and we had sat on its teeth and laughed. Unlike him, I had not known we were sitting on real teeth.

A lot was said after this about Osel Tendzin as a Buddhist example of the cult guru who seduces his students into self-destruction. Trungpa’s entire organization was splitting apart over the issue. Almost overnight, devotion to gurus became politically incorrect, away of enabling the drunken elephant in the shrine room, as author Katy Butler implied in an article for Common Boundary. Asked by The Sun magazine to write about Tendzin, I refused in my essay to judge him; others were already doing that. I did not need to warn anyone against him; publicity had taken away his power to cause further harm. The one thing missing in all the controversy, the one thing I thought I could contribute, was how this, or any disaster, could be used as a vehicle for teaching dharma. This was the theme I had failed to explore with Tendzin in the bar. Whatever his sins, if the dharma is valid, then it should be applicable when the excrement hits the fan, even, and especially, when the fan happens to be the teacher. I wanted to honor what Tendzin had given me by applying it to him. I also wanted to detach from his bad example, and avoid being drawn into a vortex of meaningless recrimination and blame. The essay worked, as far as it went, but it was not yet all that needed to be done.

The system of practices I had entered led me inexorably toward Vajrayana, the most intense and controversial vehicle in the Buddhist menu. From a Vajrayana point of view, passion, aggression, and ignorance, the sources of human suffering, are also the wellsprings of enlightenment. Afflictions like AIDS are not merely disasters, but accelerations toward wisdom, and opportunities to wake up. They can be transformed into buddha-mind. Trungpa was a Vajra master who had empowered Tendzin to guide students on this path. Since Tendzin had been my preceptor in two previous initiations, I had always assumed he would be the one to give me abhiseka, the gateway into Vajrayana, which includes a ritual of blessings, empowerments, and further teachings. But he was too sick to perform the ceremony, and Trungpa’s Tibetan teacher, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, instructed Tendzin in any case to go into retreat. So I was initiated by Jamgon Kongtrul, a Tibetan.

The abhiseka took place in a huge outdoor tent. The initiates lined up like passengers entering a spaceship. On the night of the ceremony, Tendzin lay dying in a hospital thousands of miles away. When the ceremony was finished, so was he. In a sense, he and Trungpa had been the booster fuel for the rocket. During the night there wasa terrific electrical storm and I felt as if the top of my head had come off again.

Kalu Rinpoche and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, senior masters of Tibetan Buddhism, died around the same time. Two of the last living representatives of Tibet’s ancient culture, as it was before Communist China turned its broken remnants into a tourist attraction, had passed away. My sense of loss was compounded. I was bereft of my guides. Both had given initiations, Vajrayana transmissions, and empowerments that I had attended, and both were also my teachers, though I had no direct personal contact with them.

Jamgon Kongtrul died soon afterward, in a bizarre automobile accident. The official story said that his chauffeur slipped on a wet road while swerving to avoid a flock of birds. The unofficial gossip, which I picked up from sources outside the Vajradhatu network, said that Kongtrul’s death was not an accident, but was connected to a power struggle going on around the installation of the Seventeenth Karmapa. (pp. 3-7, links added)

Butterfield continues his discussion of Ösel Tendzin’s misconduct in chapter fifteen, ‘The Guru is the Buddha.’

“I was halfway through Guru Yoga when the news broke about Osel Tendzin infecting an unknowing student with AIDS. Tendzin offered to explain his behavior at a meeting which I attended. Like all of his talks, this was considered a teaching of dharma, and donations were solicited and expected. So I paid him $35.00 to hear his explanation. In response to close questioning by students, he first swore us to secrecy (family secrets again), and then said that Trungpa had requested him to be tested for HIV in the early 1980s and told him to keep quiet about the positive result. Tendzin had asked Trungpa what he should do if students wanted to have sex with him, and Trungpa’s reply was that aslong as he did his Vajrayana purification practices, it did not matter, because they would not get the disease. Tendzin’s answer, in short, was that he had obeyed the instructions of his guru. He said we must not get trapped in the dualism of good and evil, there has never been any stain, our anger is the compassion of the guru, and we must purify all obstacles that prevent us from seeing the world as a sacred mandala of buddhas and bodhisattvas.

I felt no antipathy toward him, perhaps because ngondro had hollowed out and collapsed my resistance from the inside. This is the logical continuance of the suspension of judgment in shamatha and the inability to set limits on the teacher. For years we had been conditioned to obey the whims of both Trungpa and Tendzin, taking them all as instruction. We would willingly dress up in semiformal attire and wait until two in the morning for a talk by the master which never came; and when it was announced that he had cancelled the talk, we would laugh at his deliberate toying with our expectations, assuming that he meant to loosen us up and connect us more thoroughly with the present moment. Only the previous month, I had seen new students who were waiting for Tendzin to give them refuge vows put off hour by hour, shepherded from place to place by staff members, and kept up half the night only to be told that the vows had been postponed until the next day. A student doing ngondro may accept whatever the teacher does with equanimity, detachment, and humor for virtually the same reasons that someone who is drunk or stoned all the time stops caring about pain. When everything is a show anyway, no more real than a rainbow, there is no cause for alarm.

Tendzin’s account of his conversations with Trungpa was challenged by other senior disciples, who claimed that Trungpa would never have said such things, and would never have led anyone to believe that the laws of nature could be suspended by practice. It was a difficult dilemma: if you chose to believe Tendzin, then Trungpa had been simply wrong in telling him he could not transmit the disease, and the consequence of his error would be the loss of human life. But what then became of the axiom that the guru cannot make a mistake? Understandably, Trungpa’s closest students found it easier to conclude that Tendzin was lying. But if you chose to disbelieve Tendzin, then Trungpa may have been wrong in allowing him to remain as Regent, or perhaps in choosing him at all. If you wanted to retain your belief in Trungpa’s infallibility, then the whole event had to be interpreted as the guru’s attempt to wake us up. But to what? The reality of betrayal?

To me, the whole episode had the mark of a trickster. I was not so sure that Trungpa would have been incapable of giving the advice Tendzin attributed to him, even while knowing full well that it was wrong. I had heard Trungpa say, and read in the transcripts of his secret talks, that in Vajrayana, you just do what you are good at without any implications of ego or enlightenment, whether laying around or being a hitman. Trickery, disruption, masquerade, and outrage were things that Trungpa was good at, and he immensely enjoyed them. None of his earlier tricks that I knew about had caused permanent harm or taken life, but unless ngondro and Guru Yoga had destroyed your power to question, you would surely wonder whether his last few years of drinking might not have pickled his brain.

I also found it credible that he would have said in sincerity what Tendzin claimed he said, actually believing that practice would interrupt the karma of the disease. Hagiographies of the Karmapas and Milarepa say that they could control the weather, levitate, fly, vanish, make multiple copies of themselves, cure plagues, and leave footprints in solid rock. In one story I heard about, a Tibetan lama had ordered his Vajrayana disciple to step down into a cesspool ditch, pick up a handful of raw sewage, and eat it. When the disciple obeyed, so the story went, the sewage turned into heavenly ambrosia, and he entered the enlightened realm where shit is gold.

Belief that ritual purification can prevent the transmission of HIV is definitely not out of line with the Vajrayana reality system. After experiencing that reality system, I was ready to believe it myself. It really is possible to reach a point where you think you could munch up a handful of raw sewage and be immune to the microbes it contains because you are acting on command of the guru, who is the Buddha and would never cause harm to you. The diseases are probably emanations of thought anyway, products of an impure outlook, solidifications of egoistic attitudes or crystalizations of karma, and you believe that if you smash those attitudes with devotion you will be safe.

On the other hand, personal safety is not the point. Vajrayana is supposed to pull the rug out from under you. ‘If we have buttons to push, those buttons will definitely be pushed.’ Same old mixed message.

When Vajra masters get sick, their students say that their sickness is the karma of others which the masters have taken on voluntarily out of their great compassion. So when the masters die of their sickness, they must be dying for us. The guru is not a person like us—to think so is a perverted view, according to Kalu—therefore it cannot be thought that he would have no power over death.

In response to our supplications, the guru is reborn in another body in order to remain with until we are liberated. I heard Tendzin’s illness explained by his servants in this way: it was not a consequence of any folly or self-indulgence on his part, but the karma of his infected partners, that he had deliberately imbibed for them. In what way they benefited was never made clear to me, although one could safely assume the benefits did not include physical cure.” (pp. 183-186)

Butterfield - The Double Mirror (1994) 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.