Issue 164 | Correspondence | The Sun Magazine


As in the case of Stephen Butterfield’s essay on Osel Tendzin [“When the Teacher Fails,” Issue 162], the refusal to judge sometimes seems like the ultimate manifestation of ego, a way of being More Enlightened than Thou. If Tendzin’s spreading AIDS is to be accepted “to deepen spiritual realization,” why aren’t his students’ anger, shock, and pain equally acceptable? Why can’t those responses be dealt with instead of resolutely transcended (repressed?) or oh-so-gently condescended to?

When a teacher fails, the most “advanced” students always say that it’s the ultimate teaching, because it throws us back on ourselves. (Or, as I wrote after the Rajneesh debacle, “Being enlightened means never having to say you’re sorry.”) But the “ultimate teaching” of such an event seems to be that the corruptions of ego are inescapable — they are to be found right at the heart of the very tradition in which one sought liberation from them. That seems a very defeating realization (if also horribly funny).

Maybe Tendzin’s “ultimate teaching ” at this point would be to tell his students, as best he can, what went on in him while he did these extraordinary things. There’s something other seekers could learn from. But Tibetan Buddhism seems far too hierarchical for that.

Annie Gottlieb New York, New York

I must respond to Stephen Butterfield’s heartfelt piece on Vajra Regent Osel Tendzin’s transmission of AIDS to unwitting students. Butterfield’s thoughts echo those of many people I know in the Vajradhatu community, and exhibit great compassion for Tendzin as well as a fierce determination to apply the insights of the dharma to a most challenging situation. I feel they also exemplify some of the dangers of Buddhist practice as it is evolving in the West.

To begin, it is only fair that Sun readers be acquainted with certain facts about the situation that were not revealed in Butterfield’s essay. These may seem inflammatory, but they are important, just as the details of Baker Roshi’s and Maezumi Roshi’s private conduct had to be brought to light before their communities could heal.

Immediately following the first public revelations of Tendzin’s condition in December of 1988, shock waves spread throughout the continental Vajradhatu community; because this particular Buddhist group has always looked benignly upon very free sexual mores (and because the extent of Tendzin’s circle of partners was well known) the specter of an AIDS epidemic loomed very large. Vajradhatu officials refused to supply clear information to concerned persons making inquiries, even to confirm that Tendzin was infected. Rick Fields, editor of The Vajradhatu Sun, was barred from printing any reference to the matter. (He was later fired for attempting to defy the blackout.) In Los Angeles, Lama Ken McLeod, a senior student of the late Kalu Rinpoche, consulted with the Center for Disease Control and the Los Angeles Buddhist AIDS Project, then prepared to announce publicly the details of Tendzin’s illness so that those at risk could take appropriate and responsible steps. Before he could do so, senior Vajradhatu officials approached Kalu Rinpoche, then visiting in Los Angeles, and within the hour Ken McLeod was told that Rinpoche required that he not speak publicly about Tendzin. McLeod obeyed the wishes of his teacher.

Vajradhatu quietly spread the word throughout its membership. Informal reports suggest that virtually all members were tested and, but for a handful, tested negative. If this is true, we are justified in sharing a great groan of relief, especially for those who had brief sexual contacts while participating in Vajradhatu or Shambhala Training programs and who then disappeared beyond the scope of a telephone-alarm network. Still, it remains that Tendzin did knowingly expose many partners, some of whom subsequently carried the virus into other liaisons, and that the institutional response to the crisis had the markings of a coverup.

It should also be noted that Tendzin was a controversial teacher far before this most commanding stroke of fate focused wider attention on him. He was an unreformed alcoholic and was known for harsh outbursts. His tastes for finery were generously indulged by his students. His meals were occasions for frenzies of linen-pressing, silver-polishing, hair-breadth calibrations in table settings, and exact choreographies of servers. If a stumbling novice carried a tray incorrectly or served from the wrong side, Tendzin was known to reprimand caustically. When he traveled, a handbook went with him to guide his hosts through the particulars of caring for him, including instructions on how and in what order to offer his towel, underpants, and robe after he stepped from the shower. Almost without exception, his students addressed him as “Sir.”

While it seems the majority of Chögyam Trungpa’s students found value in Tendzin’s teachings, there were many, this writer included, who found them thin. Troubled by the insults of his personal conduct, we became the uncomfortable citizens who saw that the emperor had no clothes. In Los Angeles, after two weekend intensives with Tendzin, several of us resigned from the group and left the Vajra Regent behind. Now that this awful tragedy has surfaced, Tendzin is a presence I must contend with. Yes, he now instructs me, as I work with revulsion, outrage, and horror. He instructs me not as a teacher, but in the way that the doer of any immoral or violent deed in my sphere compels me to work within.

Butterfield acknowledges that we, the students, “created” Osel Tendzin, which is an important insight. That he does not question whether we did a very good job of it reflects Western Buddhism’s discomfort with moral judgements. His stimulating and emotionally charged picture of the benefits of Buddhist practice is valid, but like many others, he uses the concepts of dharma teaching to reject any critical examination of the stranger fruits of the lineage. Trungpa warned us of “idiot compassion”; perhaps we should consider that we also might be practicing idiot devotion, or idiot equanimity.

If our understanding of the dharma leads us to believe that we shouldn’t be making any judgements, or in Butterfield’s words, that “verdicts contribute little to human wisdom,” we may have missed the point. I fear we reinforce ignorance when we dare not trust our own perceptions because we equate them with ego-activity. Trungpa transplanted the dharma to North American culture; he also transplanted a throwback subjugation of women. (In the years I was a member, all Vajradhatu officers were male, and a corps of beautiful young women who attended to and slept with Trungpa was formalized as the sam-yung.) He modeled disregard for the dangers of alcohol abuse. He was a brilliant teacher, but his later detachment from reality was excused as “crazy wisdom.” No one knows the grounds of Trungpa’s decision to make Osel Tendzin his successor. Is it heretical to think that he may have made a poor choice, or that he might have voided it had he lived longer?

The experience of Western Buddhists will give “devotion to the guru” a good shakedown, along with many other teachings that ultimately will be transformed just as they were again and again over the centuries, as the dharma spread to new territories. Credulity is an easier route to take, but it is the wrong one. Those who resist critical examination of our path might eventually have more in common with fundamentalist Christians, Scientologists, and Moonies than with the other Buddhists of the world.

The Buddha warned us specifically to test the teachings for ourselves, but sadly did not explain what to do when confronted with a teacher whose moral choices defy our sense of what is right. We’re on our own there; we can consult with other teachers about it, but the bubble is, and should be, forever burst.

Deborah Mendelsohn West Hollywood, California

The following was sent to Stephen Butterfield and is printed here with Bob Saltzman’s permission:

I have great respect for the Buddhist tradition and for Chögyam Trungpa, from whom I learned a great deal of invaluable lessons. But your defense of Osel Tendzin was an exercise that seemed to me both foolish and totally deluded.

In your obvious contortions in Tendzin’s defense, you distorted the meaning of what happened. You made it seem as though Tendzin’s students had perhaps trusted him too much and now needed to come to terms with the repercussions of their credulity. To me, this is absurd. To me, the case is clear: having sex with another person while knowingly carrying the HIV, without first informing that person, is tantamount to committing murder, pure and simple.

Those pages of philosophical speculation on the meaning of a teacher turned murderer would have done credit to a Jesuit. I mean this seriously: perhaps all that pot smoking damaged more than your lungs. Wake up please.

Bob Saltzman Taos, New Mexico
Stephen T. Butterfield responds:

Many of my readers seem disappointed and angry that I didn’t criticize Osel Tendzin. I’m sorry, but it doesn’t interest me, and it doesn’t help. My purpose was not to justify him, but to apply the insights of the dharma to a painful and chaotic situation. The struggle between good and evil belongs in gothic movies. Anger is always acceptable; refusing to accept anger results in aggression. The task of a Buddhist is to treat this event exactly the same as all other forms of suffering: with intelligent and active compassion, nothing less. By doing that, our own suffering is healed and transformed.

I would call Osel Tendzin “Sir” even if he were a wino in the gutter, hand him his underpants, and kiss his big toe, as long as he didn’t ask me to go any higher. Anybody can be made to look bad by selective reporting.

Most of the Vajradhatu officers I interact with are women, and none of them are subjugated. At my seminary, students who came to the teachings drunk were expelled — gently but firmly. There is just as much confusion among us as there is anywhere else, but Trungpa’s “model” was to recognize the basic goodness of everyone, and to work with neurosis and disease as potential resources instead of moral weaknesses. How does it help me if my teacher is too chicken to burst my bubbles? Of course, if he’s going to kill me, that’s different; then I’d better start relying on my own mother wit — clarified and matured by the dharma.

We are all the emperor who has no clothes. Therefore, we can be naked without fear. Adult sensibility is cultivated by unconditional kindness and respect — first for ourselves, then for our world.

Thank you all for instructing me to examine my ground.

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