This video represents an allegation—not proven fact—by the speaker, not elephant, and is passed along as important news for mindful, heartfelt consideration. That said, among the Buddhist community, it is well known that young monks are too-frequently subject to inappropriate physical “relationships” with their superiors. ~ ed.
Revelations of Sexual Abuse and Dehumanization in Tibetan Buddhism.
Kalu Rinpoche, a 21-year-old young man, is considered to be the reincarnation of Kyabje Kalu Rinpoche. The official website for the lineage declares Kalu to be the “The Supreme reincarnation of our spiritual master,” and someone whose mere gaze can inspire equanimity, even ecstasy. These are confusing pronouncements, when viewed in the light of Kalu’s personal and confessional video posted on November 28 of this year.
Below, Kalu Rinpoche frankly and bravely tells the true story behind his spiritual myth. It is a story of molestation by Tibetan monks, murder attempts, and drug abuse. It is not a comforting tale. And it clarifies the endemic problems of any system that relies upon the denial of the senses in favor of supernatural “realities.”
I speak from experience. I am a former monk and former guru from the Hindu tradition. And while my personal story is not one of sexual abuse, I can attest to the damages done by orthodoxy and mind-body dualism, which have the overwhelming tendency (and track record) to perpetuate dissociation, denial, and rationalizations that enable unethical and often dehumanizing—even criminal—behavior within the religious hierarchy. What to speak of how debilitating such body-negative philosophies can be to one’s personal spiritual journey. That being said, it is pretty clear by now that anytime you get a bunch of monks bonded together by an intense body-negative religious code some little kid is bound to get molested.
This video has a power to it. It is, of course, disenchanting to those of us enamored and prone to romanticizing the Tibetan Buddhist tradition—and by that logic any traditional spirituality other than Western iterations. (Cue revelations of how condescending it is to perpetuate contemporary renditions of the “noble savage” with regards to Eastern guru-types.)
But it has an even deeper lesson to teach us: the problems inherent to a spiritual philosophy that dehumanizes us. When we believe in supernatural realities to the extent that some young kid is somehow considered to be the reincarnation of a “Supremely Wise Being” we have essentially erased the person, the human being, behind all of our idealizations. Critiquing the corruptive power of such spiritual idealization is an oft cited and very relevant observation to make—which definitely applies to the monks who abused Kalu—but Kalu’s story is more than that. It is the story of a young man who is and was being crushed beneath the cultural and religio-political burdens of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. He is definitely a remarkable young man. Very few human beings are subjected to such a powerful machine of personal erasure as the Tulku tradition and yet he has come out of it with his humanity, while bruised, intact.
Again, I can relate to this. As a young boy my yogic community held me in high regard and, by the time I was twenty-five, had officially declared me to be a fully enlightened being. This conferment of spiritual authority produced a revelation in me, but not the one expected.
What I saw so clearly were four things, two of which Kalu touches upon in his video:
1. We are all human beings, no one person is superhuman or has some privileged connection to a hidden domain of consciousness kept just out of the reach of other normal human beings—no matter their title or religious esteem (or cultural pedigree for that matter).
2. There are very dark politics seething beneath all forms of religious hierarchy. Kalu describes a key motivator behind this cutthroat political underbelly and the attempts on his life when he states, “and then my own manager tried to kill me… I mean my teacher. And it’s all about money, power, controlling. Because, if you can control the president you can get what you want” (min 5:03—5:14). Disheartening words for a spiritual tradition that promotes selflessness and compassion.
The third awakening is one that Kalu barely and only briefly gestures to in his video. This elision has to do with a number of things but most importantly: he is still operating as Kalu Rinpoche, which only perpetuates the hypocrisy he has been the victim of. If this revelation has dawned upon him he has yet to put it into practice. I will describe this third awakening in the paragraph below. But here I want to say that I have profound sympathy for Kalu. He has so much personal trauma to work through, so many cultural and religio-political burdens placed on his shoulders, and—not to sound condescending—a very significant educational gap to overcome due to his monastic training (I speak from experience). He needs a lot of help and my heart goes out to him. Nonetheless, he has yet to leave the Tulku machine. I know I will get a lot of flak for saying this, but, I truly hope he does. Of course, I understand that he is living under intense social pressure, as a Tibetan. Still, that doesn’t change his very human need for help, which requires the time and appropriate space to heal. I don’t see this type of healing as forthcoming in his maintaining the role of spiritual educator, and divine incarnation, in an orthodox tradition.
3. The third observation has to do with the pernicious effects of mind-body dualism. Whether it be Tibetan Buddhism, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, or Christian mysticism, there is a deep and abiding disgust for the human body. This negative view of our human biology stems from a belief in the existence and superiority of the spirit. Most traditional forms of spirituality (whether Eastern or Western) are predicated upon a metaphysical identification with an invisible spirit that survives the death of the body and contains our essence. In Tibetan Buddhism this spiritual “imprint” may be devoid of “true self” but it nonetheless survives the death of the body and contains the continuity of self necessary for the demands of reincarnation. The second commonality within religious traditions is that the body is viewed as an obstacle to the evolution of the spirit.
In Patanjali’s system, this problem is resolved through the abnegation of the body’s essential needs and wants, including food, sex, intimacy, and love. Both the Buddhist and yogic traditions teach us to not grieve the dead, for all things are impermanent. This speaks to not only a profound fear of death but it is also a fear of life—for it is life denying. In order to guard against death, life itself is rejected in the form of militating against the physical body via spiritual detachment.
I spent years engaging in this form of metaphysical asceticism. I rejected my body, denied it sex, fasted continuously and abstained from all “impure” foods. I was starving for intimacy, for love, for the permission to grieve those cherished ones who had died (including my father). I was desperate to be human. And yet, my whole spiritual life was predicated on denying my essential humanity. This note of desperation I do hear in Kalu’s video. He implores us to take care of our families, to be human. And I applaud him for that. But I, personally, think this effort to be human demands a reinvestment in the body itself.
It is, in many ways, an ethical decision. In order to treat others well I must value them, not an imaginary supernatural idea of “who they truly are as invisible spiritual beings,” but as living breathing persons that I can touch and know and speak to right now with my own body and my own eyes made of flesh. This also means that I can hurt those people if I don’t invest in the value of the human body.
Spiritual idealizations, such as mind-body dualism, have the tendency to not only obscure but also erase the value of the physical—for it is the physical body that invalidates and casts doubts/threatens the world of spiritual idealizations. These are the dangers engendered by losing contact with the real, the tangible, the physical, for it is the erasure of persons replacing them with concepts—which is anti-body and therefore has profound implications for our very human lives.
4. The fourth observation I made soon after being officially declared a superhuman divinity is intimately connected to this third awakening. It has to do with the implications of reinvesting in the body. It is a revisioning of spirituality and ethics.
When we understand the importance of this living breathing human body, the questions are no longer about metaphysics, but ethics. The question is no longer “what is the meaning of life?” but is much more vitally “what should I do with this life?” This kind of spirituality, which is rooted in the reality of the body, elicits an interpersonal experience we can all share in. And it therefore generates an ethic of intimacy. This re-embodiment of our common humanity, based upon the value of the body itself, is in fact an ethical practice.
By reinvesting in the body, we reinvest in our ecology, economy, and society. Understanding that all things lean into one another we can develop an ethical philosophy that has immense force. The force of this ethic is grounded in the experience of inhabiting your own skin. From there we inhabit our environment, our community, and this earth. If I invest in my body then I naturally care about the rivers and the lakes, from which I get water to live. By investing in my own body I come into greater intimacy with the bodies of others, which makes me care for the wellbeing of others as well as myself. Therefore, the ethics of this embodied life are about intimacy and the world of relationship. By this simple act, this reinvestment in my humanity, the ethical and environmental ramifications are enormous. I have in one simple philosophical shift become an environmentalist and an embodied humanist.
This fourth observation I’ve come to call embodied spirituality (see Julian Walker’s wonderful sutra on this very topic), which is a type of embodied ethics and embodied ecology. Of course, I have not originated any of these ideas but they have been the touchstones by which I have learned to heal myself from years of metaphysical asceticism. It is also why I am no longer a monk or a guru, for both “occupations” perpetuate and engender beliefs I consider to be harmful to myself and others. Hence, my weariness regarding the Tulku theocracy via belief in reincarnation and its tendency to breed the kinds of exploitation and scandal Kalu is simultaneously mired in and exposing.
It is inhuman to deny yourself the pleasures of the body and it is inhuman to deny the overwhelming precedence and value of our embodied lives. If such an embodied spirituality were to gain traction in the world, as I am advocating for, we would see less moral travesties, exploitation, and sexual abuse in the guise of religious holiness, such as the sad story of Kalu Rinpoche. I also believe that if such an embodied spirituality were to take hold it might stir a revolution in ethics, that would extend into all spheres of our religious, political, and social lives. For it is about becoming more human, not less.