Idealizing and medicalizing of methods ascribed to Buddhism has led to individualizing their structural and societal challenges. Although the long-undervalued need for introspection may get addressed, people are now caught under the cloak of spirituality hoping for quick enlightenment or a panacea solving mental diseases. Thus, at this point, the impact of decontextualizing concepts, unreflectively copying feudal structures into Tibetan Buddhist seminar- and meditation-centers, as well as of lacking knowledge required for the gradual application-oriented learning processes taught in traditional Buddhist philosophy have become clear. This shows in recent testimony of economical, psychological, and physical abuse in international Tibetan Buddhist organizations. The violence against individuals and man-made trauma in such contexts need to get analyzed before the background of neologisms, that is concepts allowing for arbitrariness and violence in the name of spirituality, as well as of the sophisticated systems of rationalizing damage and silencing trauma and victims. Furthermore, though those in the ‘inner circles’ run the risk of traumatization and of being held accountable, it is women who are at higher risk, particularly those who engage in secret relationships. Thus, in terms of treatment, the collectively projecting the shadow on the feminine, leading to an attitude of exploitation and control against women, requires consideration.
- silencing of trauma
- inner circle
- secret consort
- guru yoga
- double bind
- indoctrination in Buddhist groups
- decontextualization of concepts
- crazy wisdom
- karma purification
- pure view
- Buddhist meditation
- Buddhist seminar centers
- Buddhist philosophy
- mental diseases
- rlung disease
In international Tibetan Buddhist seminar-, meditation-, and retreat-centers, patterns of violence and exploitation have developed over the past decades. Recently, economical, psychological, and physical abuse [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12] was reported. It has evolved against the background of structures that systematically devalue and control the feminine. Such structures effect on the individuals of the respective groups and engrave into their bodies and minds. Thus, in a cultural-insensitive, unreflected transfer of knowledge of Buddhist philosophy and respective training techniques, the culturally ingrained ways in dealing with the feminine and its unconscious attitudes were absorbed. A visualization concept of females merely forming the passive counterparts to male characters, their devaluation in comments and acquired behavior patterns as well as misunderstood visualization techniques leading to narcissistic self-aggrandizing patterns contribute to confusion. This disorientation in turn not only forms the basis for developing self-devaluation and uncertainty regarding the individuals social positions in the groups, but also causes a
Moreover, the narrative of Buddhism being a panacea for mental health not only misinterprets its spiritual methods to be psychological or medical ones. Damage is also caused by seducing and misleading sick individuals and by misinterpreting any trauma of those severely injured by the leadership or group members. Thus, the shadows behind the devaluation of females and seducing some of them into neglected social positions reveal a blind spot in Tibetan Buddhism and its seminar-, meditation-, and retreat-centers in the West, where it has continued to grow over decades. In rationalizing misconduct of the leadership and their helpers to be ‘
Due to the ongoing efforts to whitewash, denigrate those concerned, and silence the required discourse on leadership responsibility and accountability in the respective international contexts and head organizations, it is now crucial to broaden the perspective and consider the societal impact of such offences which, even as Buddhism and spirituality, have already been injuring and traumatizing many people. In the following subchapter, the descriptions of eleven probands are presented.
2. Narratives of members of Buddhist groups
Qualitative data of the research project
Probands were recruited through information at university, the
2.2 Recent testimony
All probands presented wrote about their experiences in international Tibetan Buddhist organizations. Some of them were in several groups. All together, these statements refer to eleven different international Buddhist organizations. In order to protect the individuals, the names of the respective organizations are not provided here.
The following results are structured as follows: All answers of one person are presented in one subchapter. The first nine questions were replied to by #1, #2, #3, #4, and #8 and the last two questions were replied to by #3, #5, #6, #7, #9, #10, and #11. The first six persons (#1–#6) are female and #7–#11 are male.
Questions are written in italics and the replies in straight letters. All answers of probands in German were translated by the author.
#4 did not answer the question:
The current issues in so-called Buddhist centers unfold against the background of oversimplifications of terms and concepts of Buddhist philosophy as well as of damaging neologisms. In particular, however, traditional application-oriented learning processes crucial for understanding and teaching are missing. The individual effects of these substantial and structural deficiencies are evident as health damage, specifically mental health, and traumatization of group members. Unreflected decontextualized use of Buddhist terminology and concepts and the neologisms in these contexts thus negatively impact on group dynamics and the health of a group and its members. Since the indoctrination described by the testimonies and the traumatization is still attempted to be denied by the mainstream within these organizations as well as the victims silenced , the latter are not compensated in any ways by precisely these organizations which have often previously enriched themselves on them. Furthermore, by propagating Buddhism a panacea for mental diseases, even persons with mental disorders are misled in highly irresponsible ways. Although oaths of secrecy associated with seemingly Buddhist concepts render it difficult for those affected to talk, testimonies regarding indoctrination and systematic abuse causing trauma and mental illness are available now. However, a high number of unrecorded cases of those, who for various reasons are unable to communicate, ought to be assumed.
The kind of abuse described by the probands covers psychological abuse (#2, #3), especially those aspects of the students’ submission, which serve as a basis for sexual assault (#2), the indoctrinative interpretations that are suggesting the abuse itself would take place in the mind of the student (#1) only, as well as psychological violence (#8). This questioning of one’s own autonomous understanding of situations and even one’s perception leads to a continuous state of disorientation, which initially may contribute to psychological damage and is particularly important to consider in later processes of treatment. By means of neologisms such as ‘
Emotional abuse (#3) was presented as humiliation (#8), exposure (#8), and repression (#8), which explains the very reduction in self-esteem (#8) of students in such groups. However, by using misunderstood visualizations of the Vajrayāna, also narcissistic tendencies get encouraged, resulting in severe arrogance, particularly among those seeking to establish themselves in positions of authority in such contexts, and in such ways forming a kind of spiritual narcissism. This, in turn, may explain their lack of empathy and compassion towards the victims, even whilst still proclaiming Buddhist compassion.
The abuse of authority for slandering any current or former students was reported as interfering with lies even at the workplace, outside the so-called Buddhist organization (#1). The lies (#8), intrigues (#8), and defamation campaigns (#8) mentioned have a huge impact on the individuals, particularly when used to irritate or destroy their reputation, social networks, and income. Since one has grown accustomed to such situations in these contexts, it seems necessary to emphasize that such is far from the basic ethical values taught within traditional Tibetan Buddhism.
The indoctrination saying the abuser would be allowed for the abuse, because of being a spiritual teacher (#1) already indicates an utterly inappropriate way of defining spiritual authority. Groups propagating such dangerous concepts concerning their spiritual teacher, devoid of ethics and adherence to national legislation, together with any authorities imposing their authoritative rules at will, endanger group members as well as visitors.
Any manipulation of students, interpreting the work for a lama, who is regarded a spiritual authority in the group, being an honor (#2), which in turn meant sexual abuse of servile (female) students (#2) and the instrumentalization of men for all kinds of little or unpaid services (#2), as well as systematic manipulation (#8), were also described as abuse (#2). Interpreting work for a spiritual authority as honor already indicates narcissistic group dynamics, where autonomous authentic training of Buddhist ethics and meditation has been replaced by rivalry over physical proximity to the leadership, which in turn has been redefined and also implies power over the group through identification processes. Thus, such concepts shape not only the group’s structures and behavior patterns but also its economic handling, that is expecting donations for certain group members. Furthermore, manipulation is not only for complying with financial and other service expectations, but often people are played off against each other and exchanged after their exploitation at will. Over the years of affiliation, however, these kinds of interactions, which are accompanied by psychological and financial dependencies as well as mental identification processes, can cause serious damage. Theft in the sense of misuse of tied donations (#8) was also mentioned to be abuse. And the manipulation with the conceptual distortion of the Buddhist concept of emptiness used to explain away abuse and abuser (#1) severely devaluates Buddhist philosophy and undermines sound and informed terminological and conceptual discourse.
The testimony of indoctrination, abuse, or violence against others was described as follows: subtle constant manipulations (#8), highly indoctrinated long-term members lacking vocabulary from outside the group (#1), and repeating verbatim all the time (#1). For so-called Buddhist seminar- and retreat-participants the following methods were described: psychologizing every single student (#3), emotional manipulation (#3), violation of confidentiality (#3), gaslighting (#3), shaming (#3), slander (#3), and outright lies (#3). Someone also testified disrespectful speech about people with mental health problems (#1). Furthermore, blackmailing of the management was described, such as telling the executive director to fire someone because of being diagnosed neurotic (#3) by nonprofessionals. Furthermore, there is testimony on punishment in the form of sending people away from group into solitary retreats or banning people from retreats (#3) and brutal violence behind the scenes (#8). Someone interpreted dismissing people’s needs by invalidating their feelings (#1) through forcing what was called ‘teachings’ on them. There is also testimony on threats to ruin people’s reputations and livelihoods (#1) and on sexual abuse of different women by a senior teacher (#4). Whereas sexual abuse of minors is a clearly defined a criminal offense, currently also severely manipulated and indoctrinated adults, who have mostly initially made their way up to the ‘
Three successive states of individual reaction to indoctrination, abuse or violence in the respective Buddhist group showed: continuous close affiliation, critical reflection, and departure. For the period of close affiliation to a group helplessness (#3), denial (#8), feeling of inadequacy (#1), not acknowledging that the perpetrator should be able to take some responsibility for their behaviors (#1), feeling abandoned and inadequate because of the reactions of the leadership and group to the abuse (who did not view it as abuse) (#1), oneself not perceiving abuse and violence as such, but only understanding it when seeing it on someone else first (#2) and anger (#3) were reported. One person severely turned against herself and reported getting seriously angry at herself (#4) with putting herself down (#4). Another person in high position in her group and dependent on financial terms told she has taken over the opinion of the teacher to preserve her own standing and maintain her position in the group (#3). Thus, these replies also may show some implications and limitations of holding positions in such groups. In phase two, the period of reflection and doubts, there were communication attempts before departure (#8). In phase three, after departure from the group, there were feelings to be abandoned by those who did not understand and could not help (#1), anxiety and shame for several months causing digestion problems (#1), frequent dissociation (#1), which might have been accompanied by stiffness and rigidity in the face (#1), little energy (#1), and slow speech and slow processing speed (#1). Furthermore, doubts regarding the dangers (#1) with nightmares about being murdered by the leadership (#1), lack of concentration (#1), poor boundaries (#1), turning to alcohol to cope (#1), and suicidality (#1) were reported. Reading testimonies of former members (#1) was reported having caused anger. And the workplace receiving an email from the so-called Buddhist organization’s management, who was even using a fake identity (#1), caused rage (#1).
The above three successive states of individual reaction were reported to be accompanied by two inner processes when observing indoctrination, abuse, or violence of others: the identifying and indoctrinating phase and the reflection phase. These observations show concepts and behavior far from the attitude of traditional Buddhist practice of having the individual’s autonomy, awareness and self-reflection as its basis. At the period of being indoctrinated, identifying and merging with the leadership, management or group expectations reactions such as lack of one’s own awareness of it (#3), standing quietly (#3) and watching (#3), which could be interpreted as a kind of freezing in shock about what was seen, as well as rationalizing (#8) and even believing what was said about former members (#1) were reported. Someone did not respond to the question directly, but stated sexual assaults against very young women (#2). Yet another person told she was even blaming herself (#4) for the above behavior of other group members while regarding everyone else right. At the period of reflection, when interpreting the issues leading to decisions, someone described realizing all of it a dead end (#8) and his frustration about his fellows narrowing their understanding like in a ‘tunnel’ (#8) before he left. Others responded to the manipulation and indoctrination tactics in the group with shock and later righteous anger (#1), because of the threats and character assassination of former members (#1) as well as with high distress about the center avoiding to take responsibility by blaming people’s ‘mind’ for anything (#1).
The question on how the person was changed him- or herself by their experiences in these groups was replied to with some positive aspects such as sustained attention (#3), strength to do multi-day ritual (#3), being not afraid to be alone in the woods (#3), and the feeling of union with the divine (#3). However, the positively connotated aspect of accepting pain and negative experiences as just a part of life (#3) may already endanger this individual in highly manipulative contexts. Aspects with negative connotations, such as doubting oneself (#4), not being able to imagine to be capable of anything (#4), having a lot of tension and fear (#4), as well as having lost trust in oneself and others (#4) and in life (#4), were reported as well. People also described having become more suspicious (#2), particularly of all spiritual teachers (#1), being sensitive to coercion (#1) and understanding spiritual abuse (#1), the latter of which may not only protect the individual but also enable them to protect others from unreasonable nonsense and misuse. The phrase spiritual abuse might be interpreted as people being seduced into giving up their own strength as if dependent on a master providing them access to their own spirituality. Furthermore, with reporting greater autonomy (#2) and trusting one’s own intuition more (#1), an individual process of change was addressed, which is also found in phrases such as becoming more adult (#2), having developed critical thinking skills (#1), and probably even in enjoying being disobedient (#1) after experiencing abuse in highly authoritative structures to some extent. Also, the result of a process, such as looking at the world more openly (#8), was referred to, and decisions were shared such as never becoming a student of a male spiritual teacher again (#3) and never ever giving one’s power away to any human teacher (#3).
The scope of the personal impact of these experiences in Buddhist groups was described with adverse effects such as severe self-devaluation (#4), posttraumatic stress (#1), and feelings of helpless (#4), shame (#1), and anxiety (#1). Furthermore, lack of trust (#4) was described at the interpersonal level, which might impact considerably on future relationships and work decisions. Although the fear of making decisions (#4) and loss of direction in life (#4) may come up in an early period of leaving an abusive group, they sometimes continue for even years. The refusal to conform to any group consensus considered inappropriate (#8) is often part of the separating process and might stay as a lesson learned. Furthermore, there are positive connotations for a time period after having left the group and making new personal and working relationships, which were called new connections to kind people (#1) and posttraumatic growth (#1). Also, the values of the person were described to be discussing openly without individual participants manipulating others first (#8) and advocating transparency and truthfulness (#8), even if this is not popular, including financial issues (#8), as well as trying to convey democratic values (#8) and ethics (#8). The reflection of absorbed values and integration of one’s own value system are aspects of the process of separation, which often occur long after the physical separation. Sometimes this also encompasses referring to traditional basic Buddhist ethics. In therapeutic processes, it takes place in the phase of dealing with introjects and in the phase of integration. The impact on relationships and ways of relating to others was described as getting arrogant sometimes (#2) for the period in the group, which is regarding oneself higher or more spiritually advanced than others. Negative impact of fear and doubt with feeling lonely and difficulties to trust people (#4) was described as well. Furthermore, it was said recognizing one’s own needs (#1), which seems to be a key issue to reconnect to oneself, not practicing accepting everything (#1) and not automatically putting other people first (#1), trusting few people (#1), as well as trying to communicate emotions more (#1), which may show as becoming more compassionate (#2) or feeling in touch with righteous anger (#1). The making of encounters on equal level at a therapeutic context with dangers for too much confluence (#2) was an impact for a professional therapist. Someone also shared keeping a considerable distance from Buddhists (#8) and living quite isolated beyond professional and family life (#8).
The impact on one’s work was described as taking care to the best of one’s abilities of oneself and surrounding (8), understanding abusive systems of power and abusive group dynamics (#1) and also as suspiciousness of meditation and mindfulness (#1). A young person shared a highly negative impact for her life saying she could not imagine herself at a job with responsibility (#4), she would not work much (#4) and sometimes sleep for the whole day (#4).
The following two questions refer to open letters and ongoing investigations widely discussed in the context. They were asked to understand not only the persons’ opinion but also their position in the group and their behavior. Not everyone replied to the questions:
Thus, the opening of any closed elitist circles to the wider societal discourse, the democratization processes required within the strictly hierarchical structures of Tibetan Buddhist centers and a supervised training of group members in traditional interpretations of Buddhist terms, concepts and ethics as well as the urgently needed cultural discourses are a vital condition for differentiated, linguistically and scientifically sound processes of knowledge transfer and exchange. However, whereas these concerns contribute to overcoming structural and conceptual inadequacies, the view of and behavior towards women remains a key issue. Particularly, the tacit transfer of projecting the shadow onto the female and the implicit mechanisms of their control ought to be reflected and addressed. In this context, the role and function of a teacher’s secret lover and unreflective copying culturally shaped structures and behavior with regards to her are crucial. Given the lack of reference within their own cultural context, this raises questions about the psychological effects of such kind of social isolation of these women as well as about their secret position of power, which is even defined highly desirable in some circles. This issue raises further questions about leadership responsibility with regard to the group dynamics induced by it and the effects on the women concerned and their self-responsibility. The societal challenge of correcting individual damages that have been recurring throughout generations, which negatively impact on the knowledge of Buddhism itself, however, is directly opposed to the current mainstream of secrecy and individualizing these issues as so-called ‘
Lacking intercultural exchange of scientific knowledge and its integration into the education in Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan medicine resulted in oversimplification and misguided practice.
Furthermore, the collective projection of the shadow onto the feminine reveals through the current individual and structural challenges in these contexts. This pattern being passed down through generations and unreflectively transferred to Western centers has contributed to forming a subculture spreading internationally under Buddhist cover, with its own secrecy rules, use of language in rationalizing neologisms for the silencing of trauma and the traumatized  and trauma dynamics. Ignoring the unconscious in teacher-student relationships and group dynamics has led to the superelevation of persons, even loosing ethics, which form the basis of every Buddhist tradition. Thus, based on the demands for identification with the spiritual master and his entourage, mental diseases were induced.
For individuals coming from Buddhist contexts, it is therefore important to replace the convenient ways of handing over responsibility, which are leading to patterns of dependency and serving exploitation, with freedom to autonomy along with self-responsibility regarding their own training and ethics. The autonomy in one’s own spirituality can never be substituted by an intermediary who is regarded as the sole access to one’s own resource. And the role of the lineage holder in Vajrayāna is not meant for such.
Society, which provides care for the shamelessly exploited, diseased, and traumatized people, now faces several challenges. Apart from prevention through dismantling common idealizations and providing information about the circumstances, terminology involved in indoctrination and the dangers in hypnotising techniques or dissociation sold for so-called Buddhist meditation, it is crucial to develop treatment concepts for those with complex diseases to provide therapeutic care. Furthermore, broadening of the perspective is needed to enable improvement of these closed systems with their seminar-, meditation-, and retreat-centers, particularly concerning education as well as conveying human rights and national legislation to those group members who assume their spiritual masters and entourage are above legislation. For preserving the knowledge of Buddhist philosophy and practice, curing the transgenerational patterns of traumatization of individuals, compensating victims and deciding on how to deal with perpetrators, accomplices and collaborators are crucial.
This research was funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, grant reference number 01UL1823X.