A closer look into the history and traditions surrounding the Dalai Lama reveals a cautionary tale
More research material may be seen at: http://www.trimondi.de/EN/front.html
by Michael Nenonen <firstname.lastname@example.org>A few years ago I had the chance to hear members of a Shambhala Centre talk about Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the Tibetan lama who started their movement. Like other Tibetan Buddhist figures, Trungpa was described in ways befitting a spiritual superman. His legacy is indeed formidable. Besides establishing the first Buddhist University in the United States, he founded over 100 meditation centres around the world, wrote two dozen books on Buddhist themes, and attracted thousands of students. He’s spoken highly of by the 14 th Dalai Lama, and revered by countless people in both the East and West. Many social activists, seeking spiritual guidance in a world full of discredited religious organizations, continue to find direction through his “Shambhala path.”
Imagine my surprise, then, when I read in Katy Butler’s essay Encountering the Shadow in Buddhist America (Common Boundary, May/June 1990) that “When Trungpa Rinphoche lay dying in 1986 at the age of 47, only an inner circle knew the symptoms of his final illness. Few could bear to acknowledge that their beloved and brilliant teacher was dying of terminal alcoholism, even when he lay incontinent in his bedroom, belly distended and skin discolored, hallucinating and suffering from varicose veins, gastritis and esophageal varices, a swelling of veins in the esophagus caused almost exclusively by cirrhosis of the liver.” In addition to being an alcoholic, ChogyamTrungpa had sexual relationships with his followers, encouraged the use of mind-altering drugs, and was rather abusive. In one of his seminars, for instance, he ordered two students to be stripped of all their clothing against their will.
His successor, Osel Tendzin, was even less savoury. Before he died in 1990, this saint admitted to having sex with over a hundred men and women even though he knew that he had AIDs. A number of these partners contracted the disease themselves.
Many still believe that Chogyam Trungpa and Osel Tendzin were spiritual masters, and use all sorts of mystical rationalizations to defend their adoration. Their blind faith demonstrates one of the dangers of religion: the dissolution of the ego can, if accompanied by the dissolution of the critical intellect, result in abject subjugation to another person’s ego, an ego that may have a hidden and unpalatable agenda.
When confronted by such scandals, some argue that, without the checks and balances of the monastic system, Tibetan masters can easily succumb to what Chogyam Trungpa himself called “Spiritual Materialism.” The problem, according to these accounts, lies with the individual masters and the Western milieu, rather than with anything more fundamental to Tibetan Buddhism. I’ve made this argument myself, but lately I’ve had my doubts.
Why, I’ve wondered, hasn’t the 14 th Dalai Lama, the God-King of Tibetan Buddhism, explicitly condemned the US military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq? Mahatma Gandhi, with whom the Dalai Lama has often been compared, was an outspoken anti-imperialist. Other spiritual leaders like Martin Luther King Jr and Desmond Tutu have been equally vocal about the evils of American imperialism. If the Dalai Lama is to be counted among these ethical paragons, then why does he seem to modify his message depending on the audience he’s addressing? Would Ghandi, King, or Tutu ever hug Senator Jesse Helms like the Dalai Lama did in September 1995? After reading Victor and Victoria Trimondi’s The Shadow of the Dalai Lama, my doubts have deepened.
Victor and Victoria Trimondi are pen names used by Mariana and Herbert Röttgen. Their book was published to wide acclaim in Germany in 1999 by the respected Patmos Group. The Shadow of the Dalai Lama hasn’t been published in English, but a translation can be found at the author’s website, trimondi.de. This scholarly work is highly critical of the Dalai Lama and the religious system he presides over.
The authors were themselves once followers of the Dalai Lama. Herbert Röttgen was a personal friend of the Dalai Lama, he published a number of the Dalai Lama’s books, and he organized several symposia and major events for him. When the authors sat down to research Tibetan Buddhism, they expected to find a world consistent with the Dalai Lama’s expressed philosophies of pacifism and compassion. What they found was the exact opposite.
As the authors write, “Lamaism was caught up in bloody struggles between the various monastic factions from the outset. There was a terrible ‘civil war’ in which the country’s two main orders faced one another as opponents. Political murder has always been par for the course and even the Dalai Lamas have not been spared. Even in the brief history of the exiled Tibetans it is a constant occurrence. The concept of the enemy was deeply anchored in ancient Tibetan culture, and persists to this day. Thus the destruction of ‘enemies of the teaching’ is one of the standard requirements of all tantric ritual texts. The sexual magic practices which lie at the center of this religion . . . are based upon a fundamental misogyny. The social misery of the masses in old Tibet was shocking and repulsive, the authority of the priestly state was absolute and extended over life and death.”
The legal system was especially cruel: “Bizarre mutilations like blindings, the cutting off of limbs or tearing out of tongues, deliberately allowing people to freeze to death, the pillory, shackling, yoking, lifelong imprisonment in damp pits all count as common punishments up until the 20th century, even after the 13 th Dalai Lama had introduced a number of moderations.” The authors mention that every major monastery had a dungeon where tortures comparable to those used in Europe’s Middle Ages persisted until very recently, and that these monasteries were often decorated by human body parts.
It goes without saying that this picture is at odds with our popular understanding of Tibetan Buddhism. The authors contend that the lama community, under the Dalai Lama’s leadership, has misrepresented Tibet’s history, its religious doctrines, and their own ethical beliefs in order to cater to Western sensitivities.
The Dalai Lama rarely speaks to Western audiences about the higher levels of the Kalachakra Tantra, for example, the most important religious text in Tibetan Buddhism. The authors write that “In the eight secret higher initiations of the Kalachakra Tantra, extreme mental and physical exercises are used to push the initiand into a state beyond good and evil. The original text thus requires the following misdeeds and crimes of him: killing, lying, stealing, infidelity, the consumption of alcohol, sexual intercourse with lower-class girls. As in all the other tantras, here too these requirements can be understood both symbolically and literally.” This last point is important. While Tibetan Buddhists in the West argue that the violent passages in their religious texts are meant to be read as metaphors for psychological processes, there’s a great deal of evidence that in Tibet they were taken quite literally, and that the Lama community continues to take them literally today.
In his Western appearances the Dalai Lama also downplays the Shambhala myth, which is a cornerstone of Tibetan Buddhism. This myth foretells the rise of a despotic Buddhist world-ruler and an apocalyptic war in 2327 between Buddhists and the followers of Islam, a war in which all those of other faiths will be exterminated.
The Shambhala myth may illuminate what the authors argue is the current Dalai Lama’s long-standing association with prominent fascists. The Lama community welcomed Nazi research expeditions into Tibet during the 1930s. The Dalai Lama’s European tutor, Heinrich Harrer, was a member of the SS and, despite his portrayal in the film version of Seven Years in Tibet, Harrer remained true to his Nazi beliefs throughout his life. The authors write that the Dalai Lama met at least three times over the years with his “friend” Miguel Serrano, a leader of the National Socialist Party of Chile and the chief proponent of “esoteric Hitlerism,” and five times with Shoko Asahara, the leader of the AUM cult responsible for the sarin gas attack on a Japanese subway in 1995. SS occultism, Serrano’s writings, and Shoko Asahara’s doctrines are all clearly influenced by the legend of Shambhala.
The authors’ most provocative contention is that the global spread of Tibetan Buddhism may be laying the seeds for a new, highly aggressive, and virulently anti- Islamic form of fundamentalism. They suggest that Tibetan Buddhism’s user-friendly facade is simultaneously a lure and an anesthetic: it draws people to the religion while numbing their religious skepticism. As they get deeper into the movement, as their egos dissipate and their consciousness is populated by the images of Tibetan deities and demons, students may mistake indoctrination for enlightenment. This is a danger in the West, but is perhaps even more threatening in the East, where the Tibetan faith is rapidly growing at the expense of other forms of Buddhism.
The Shadow of the Dalai Lama is an extremely controversial book, but one thing is clear: Tibet was never the Shangri-La we so often yearn for. It was instead a pre-modern, totalitarian theocracy—or, to be more precise, Buddhocracy. State structures like this can only be maintained through the most vicious means; the official religions in such states necessarily reflect and legitimize the violence and exploitation required by the social order. Tibet isn’t unique; this kind of society used to be quite common. Tibet’s unusual only insofar as it retained this system well into the Twentieth Century.
Spiritual enlightenment is a worthy quest, but the journey is inevitably beset by cul-de-sacs and perils. The greatest danger lies in our own hopes and the blindness they can produce. Fairy tales about magical father-figures and enchanted kingdoms are delightfully soothing, but we mustn’t let them cloud our vision. If The Shadow of the Dalai Lama is correct, then instead of delivering psychological liberation, the inner mysteries of Tibetan Buddhism may offer only the shackles of Buddhocratic folly.