It is sad to see: Buddhist cults, both in Asia and the West. The Controversial Buddhist Teachers and Groups website lists almost 40 such groups, and the list is not exhaustive. Nor is Tibetan Buddhism immune, despite the liberal views of its leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The New Kadampa Tradition, subject of an exposé by the BBC, and Rigpa, subject of an exposé by Canada’s Vision TV, are well known. Less well known even than these is a group located in our own backyard here in Toronto, Ontario, Canada: the Tengye Ling Tibetan Buddhist Temple, located in downtown Toronto, is the subject of an exposé by University of Toronto scholar and Ph.D. student, Sean Hillman, whose blog, Exposing a Cult in Toronto, has the support of the Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, with which Tengye Ling claims to be in communion. Although Tengye Ling contests Hillman’s claims, which allege criminal wrong-doing and have not yet been proved in Court, there appears to be no motive for Hillman, who was a Buddhist monk in India for 13 years, to lie. According to reports, Tengye Ling has also been the subject of a boycott by authentic Buddhist teachers since the 1990s, which raises the question of why this situation has been allowed to linger for over ten years.
In 1993 HH the Dalai Lama met with two dozen Western dharma teachers to discuss the Dharma Transmission to the West. The following statement issued from that meeting:
Each student must be encouraged to take responsible measures to confront teachers with unethical aspects of their conduct. If the teacher shows no sign of reform, students should not hesitate to publicize any unethical behavior of which there is irrefutable evidence. This should be done irrespective of other beneficial aspects of his or her work and of one’s spiritual commitment to that teacher. It should also be made clear in any publicity that such conduct is not in conformity with Buddhist teachings. No matter what level of spiritual attainment a teacher has, or claims to have, reached, no person can stand above the norms of ethical conduct.
It was in accordance with this precept that I myself regarded the Nalanda College of Buddhist Studies, now defunct. I was disappointed to discover from Hillman’s blog that it appears that a Buddhist cult is operating in my own city. Tengye Ling compounds its disgrace, however, by purporting to be a traditional Buddhist temple, despite what appears to be a complete lack of credentials that are claimed but bogus. Any claim of spiritual authority based on false claims is a grievous violation of Buddhist standards and norms, certainly enough to put one outside the Buddhist sangha (in the Vinaya it is one of the top few offences that results in automatic excommunication).
Hillman’s accusations against Tengye Ling include physical abuse, emotional abuse, financial abuse, fraud, misrepresentation, misuse of donated funds, and mail theft, as well as religious wrongdoing. Tengye Ling is also a registered religious charity in Canada. These are serious criminal accusations that demand legal resolution.
It was therefore with significant interest that I discovered a transcript of the Parliament of Canada of a presentation made to the House of Commons, in connection with a public inquiry into public attitudes to biotechnology, by Tenzin Kalsang, described as a Tibetan Buddhist nun and the “spiritual director” of the Tengye Ling Tibetan Buddhist Temple. The TLTBT website is a curious production, but even more curious and interesting is Tenzin Kalsang’s description of her view of Tibetan Buddhism in her statement, which amounts to 1,000 words.
It appears that Ms. Kalsang was invited to testify by the Standing Committee on Health of the Parliament of Canada. Since this is a matter of public proceeding and it is clear from Ms. Kalsang’s speech that she is claiming implicitly if not explicitly to speak for all Canadian Buddhists and perhaps also all Buddhists, therefore a public, critical intellectual examination of this testimony is entirely appropriate, and especially interesting in light of the allegations cited above, to provide whatever insight into this type of mind we can discern, perhaps acquiring a deeper understanding of why Buddhism, like Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and other religions, seems prone to this type of dysfunction. Doubtless all spiritualities generate religions, and all religions generate cults, but that is no reason why we must tolerate that fact anywhere. If Buddhists too are generating this karma, then according to the doctrine of karma itself this is something that can be recognized, identified, analyzed, and changed. Ironically, as I write these words I am listening to a radio program about an American Zen Buddhist master, a centenarian, Kyozan Joshu Sasaki, guru of singer-poet Leonard Cohen, accused of sexual abuse, very similar to the accusations made against Sogyal Rinpoche, the founder of Rigpa. The Confessions of Kalu Rinpoche are yet another grave example of a problem that does not seem to afflict only the Catholic Church.
I will not comment on the tone of the speaker of this speech to Parliament, or their self-assumption of the right to speak about matters of social ethics on behalf of all Buddhists everywhere, but we are entirely within our rights to discuss the ideology there presented as claiming to represent our point of view.
The first half dozen paragraphs impressed me as a rather standard presentation of the exoteric Buddhist worldview with nothing particularly remarkable about it, but the following paragraph caught my attention:
I mean, in terms of operations and in terms of stem cells, we feel that if somebody has a disease or a diseased organ or what have you, this is something they have to bear to pay their debt. So of course we would not embrace that. We would bear it, see it through, perhaps die from a disease, and move on to the next life, because we believe in reincarnation.
The context that runs up to this statement concerns the ubiquity of the law of karma. They are referring of course to the negative karma that we inherit from our past. According to the Pali Canon, karma continues even after emancipation, the karma accrued up to that point continues to operate through a series of no more than seven lives. Thus, the Buddha appears to have encouraged the sangha to bear any tribulations that they might experience as an opportunity to get rid of still “unfruited” karmas and thus achieve emancipation. This is the content and context of the Buddha’s statements that the speaker appears to be using as a partial basis for a doctrine, not merely of stoicism, but of total resignation in the face of suffering, even unto death. The subsequent testimony leaves no doubt that this is precisely the speaker’s intention. Although they briefly and correctly recognize that intention is the primum mobile of karmic consequence, they very quickly revert to the apparent axiom that medical intervention in any and all disease is adharmic!
We would of course put the kibosh on these activities, because we feel that whatever the suffering, and whatever people would like to change, they need to change instead their own attitude, not material things out there. Rather, they need to change the spiritual area of life, which is their own heart, because attitude comes from the heart.
Although the speaker also alludes to the distinction between Hinayana and Mahayana as the distinction between non-harming and “benefitting,” i.e., compassion, they immediately collapse their view into a more extreme Hinayana fundamentalism than any Theravadin (I hope!) would ever advocate. I would suggest that this worldview, which emphasizes renunciation and self-denial (of something that is essentially illusory, note) to the total exclusion of compassion in such a way violates the principle of the Buddhist middle way in its very essence.
By this logic every sort of technological intervention in health with the intention of improving human life would be prohibited. Much better for a Siamese twin or a deformed child or a child with an organ defect to suffer and die and so expurgate their negative karma than be “interfered with” by medical science! Perhaps we should leave accident victims to die by the side of the road. This would certainly expiate lots of karma! If this is the representation of Buddhism that is being made to my Government on my behalf, then I encourage all Canadian Buddhists to say “nay” to this type of fanaticism, wherever and in whoever they find it. This statement does not only misrepresent, it is wrong and adharmic and the worldview of any Buddhists who hold such a point of view deserves to be condemned no less forcefully than Islamist terrorism. The axiom is devolutionary in its essence.
I understand that there was a subsequent conversation in which at one point where the speaker wished to speak, Hansard picked up the words “Oh, oh” from another witness.
So what we can learn from the foregoing as Buddhists? I think, first of all, to pursue a good Buddhist fundamentalism, referring to the actual revered sources themselves but not to rely on any one source exclusively. The middle way is the reconciliation of all extremes. Second, to question, probe, examine, compare, research, interpret, speculate, and imagine for and by oneself in conjunction with all other points of view, and to respect all points of view as expressions of the same ultimate sentience that we all are. One’s own dreams need not negate others. Innovation and difference are not evil. The historical Buddha encouraged questioning and was far more liberal than his society. Views mired in feudal and aristocratic social stages, views defended as historical religious traditions that have sole and exclusive merit, views dependent on verticality, hierarchialism, and authority, sectarianism, nihilism, all these views are corrupt and Buddhism is not the only religion that must be cleansed of their influence. The Dharma Transmission to the West is the future of Buddhism. Buddhist cults and the extreme doctrines that they endeavour to perpetuate are the stuff of the past. Ms. Kalsang’s representations do no good for Buddhism in general or Tibetan Buddhism in particular. They make us an object of criticism, not respect.
Sean Hillman interview on the Drew Marshall Show dated March 8, 2014. According to Sean, the cult has moved from the address given above and moved to an undisclosed location. Since the original publication of this article, Sean Hillman’s blog has been deleted.