A series of reports of sexual and physical abuse against high-ranking Tibetan lamas and teachers are shaking Tibetan Buddhist communities around the world. What began as a trickle of complaints is slowly growing into a constant stream of very public accusations. The fury risks destroying the long-standing image of Tibetan Buddhism as a religion rooted in morality and benevolence, with the alleged actions by some of its most famous exponents seeming to be driven more by lust, greed, and corruption.
An increasing number of alleged victims have begun to come forward, raising questions about how such abuses, apparently widespread in Tibetan Buddhist communities around the world, can remain under the radar of public consciousness for so long. The developments have a striking resemblance to the case of the powerful Hollywood movie magnate Harvey Weinstein, accused after decades of being a serial sexual predator. The claims against Weinstein eventually triggered the “Me Too” movement and a flurry of similar charges against other prominent figures in the industry.
Earlier this month, the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, met a delegation of alleged victims who claimed to have been abused by previous or current Buddhist teachers. The delegation presented to the Dalai Lama the testimonies of twelve victims of these abuses. According to the Spanish news agency Efe, reported the BBC, one of the delegations claimed that at first, the Dalai Lama seemed reluctant to listen to their stories, but that after 10 minutes of conversation became “more receptive”.
The controversy threatens to plunge Tibetan Buddhism into the same kind of controversy that has involved the Catholic Church for decades. During this time, Catholic leaders have vigorously sought to minimize any suggestion that sexual abuse in its ranks was prevalent, characterizing a series of scandals that have shattered over the years as isolated incidents and stating that these were internal issues that should be addressed outside the public spotlight.
It was only since the election of Pope Francis as its head that the Catholic Church has sought to deal more transparently with the murky side of its past. In August the Pope met with several victims who had been abused by the clergy during a visit to Ireland and roundly condemned decades-long efforts from within the Church’s ranks to cover up such abuse.
A fallen star
A number of accusations have been leveled against Sogyal Lakar Rinpoche, founder of Rigpa, an international network with some 100 different centers across 40 countries. Sogyal was forced into retirement in 2017 in the wake of mounting sexual and physical abuse claims. He no longer heads Rigpa.
Sogyal, whose book “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” sold millions of copies and made him an international celebrity, long enjoyed the support and endorsement of the Dalai Lama, in return helping to fill the coffers of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), the Dalai Lama’s government in exile. That was despite the allegations of abuse against him, which go back more than two decades. They included a widely reported case in 1994 when an American student brought a multi-million dollar lawsuit against him alleging sexual and physical abuse, which he had perpetrated under the guise of curing her “bad karma”. Few details reached the public, however, as the case was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.
In spite of this, the Dalai Lama continued to give his tacit endorsement to Sogyal, visiting communities under his care and appearing with him publicly on a number of occasions. For example, the two were pictured together alongside the then French first lady Carla Bruni Sarkozy at the inauguration of the Lerab Ling teaching center in southern France in 2008, reputedly the largest Tibetan Buddhist temple in the west.
Powerless to intervene?
The Dalai Lama’s objection that given his predominantly spiritual role, he is unable to interfere in the day-to-day running of Tibetan Buddhist communities, rings hollow. When it comes to more arcane doctrine, he has had no qualms about condemning worship of the Dorje Shugden deity, a practice he has condemned as a “danger to the cause of Tibet” and he considers heretic and antagonist to his power. The Dalai Lama asked Shugden acolytes to refrain from attending his teachings, effectively ostracising them from Buddhist society, with the backing of the CTA which went as far as issuing directives against them. In 2014, the CTA legislated to criminalize the worship of this deity and produced a list of people who have voiced their disagreement with the Dalai Lama’s religious prohibitions. Both the Dalai Lama and the CTA’s official websites carry the same Dalai Lama pronouncements on Shugden. On the Dalai Lama’s site, they are regarded as religious decrees and on the CTA’s site, law.
What has stopped the Dalai Lama raising similar objections against leaders accused of sexual depravity and misconduct? For the CTA, it cannot argue, like the Dalai Lama does, that its role is purely spiritual. It would certainly have had the political authority within the Buddhist community worldwide to denounce sexual abuse wherever it was proven, to aid and encourage investigations of abuse and to withdraw moral and practical support from errant spiritual and political leaders. Instead, the CTA has abjectly failed to take responsibility for those who wield power within its ranks or their actions.
More widespread than thought
Sogyal’s abuse is not an isolated case. In fact, similar incidents have also been reported in other Tibetan Buddhist communities worldwide. Project Sunshine, an initiative that has worked to expose sexual violence in Buddhist communities, raised further allegations of sexual assault by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, the leader of Shambala International, as well as some other leaders of the community in August this year. Headquartered in Halifax, Canada, Shambala has some 165 centers worldwide. Former Shambala disciple Christine Chandler has denounced certain spiritual leaders as “Buddhist enablers of sexual abuse”. Shambala International and a lawyer for Sakyong Mipham have denied the Project Sunshine allegations.
Another widely cited case of abuse emerged in 2011 when Lama Choedak Rinpoche, the leader of the Tibetan Buddhist Society of Canberra, was forced by members of his community to make a public apology after admitting to multiple sexual relationships he had with his female students.
Elsewhere, the Dalai Lama’s personal emissary Lama Tenzin Dhonden, who was dismissed last November amid corruption allegations, also allegedly breached his monastic vow when embarking on a widely publicized affair with Seagram heiress Sara Bronfman. Yet he was not disrobed at the time but was only dismissed last November when a series of corruption allegations – including complaints that he demanded cash for securing access to the Dalai Lama – made him too hot for the spiritual leader to keep on. Like Sogyal, Dhonden’s transgressions were over a period of time.
One reason why such behavior went unchecked for so long is that abusive spiritual leaders were often able to put the onus on their victims, making them believe they deserved the punishment or even needed to be subjected to abuse in order to gain further enlightenment.
As former Rigpa students wrote to Sogyal Lakar in an open letter: “If your striking and punching us and others, and having sex with your students and married women, and funding your sybaritic lifestyle with students’ donations is actually the ethical and compassionate behavior of a Buddhist teacher, please explain to us how it is” (quoted in Behind The Thanks, a book by Tibetan Buddhism scholar Mary Finnegan).
Such behavior is a far cry from what Rigpa founder’s own advice to teachers in his famous book, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. In it, Sogyal wrote that “…true teachers are kind, compassionate, and tireless in their desire to share whatever wisdom they have acquired from their masters, never abuse or manipulate their students under any circumstances, never under any circumstances abandon them, serve not their own ends but the greatness of the teachings, and always remain humble.”
Easier said than done, as the saying goes, especially if there is no censure or sanction for acting otherwise. Today’s students of Tibetan Buddhism may hope their future leaders are able to live by such precepts, as well as just articulating them… but they could be forgiven for being just a tiny bit skeptical, especially when it is clear that the Dalai Lama has thus far shirked the role of a martinet of these precepts.
Fostering Inclusivity: Spiritual Discovery in International Ethics and Diplomacy
The concept of inclusion and understanding is not a new-age phenomenon but an essential aspect of any discussion and dialogue that aims to unite diversified perspectives. In the international sphere, especially diplomacy, this inclusivity and understanding take a prime role in fostering meaningful conversations, leading to significant breakthroughs in relations.
Spirituality significantly influences diplomatic interactions. Intrinsically human, spirituality shapes our values, beliefs, and visions. In diplomacy, this force becomes influential as countries shape their national ethos influenced by dominant spiritual or religious sentiments. And the teachings of TheosU about inclusivity and multi-religious dialogues may lead to increased harmony.
Spirituality varies across cultures and nations, shaping unique patterns of thoughts and behaviors. Understanding these dynamics aids in comprehending international ethics and its application in diplomatic scenarios.
Here’s where we delve into the realm of spiritual diplomacy. This involves integrating an understanding of various religious sentiments into diplomatic practices.
Essential aspects of spiritual diplomacy involve fostering cross-cultural dialogue and creating relationships through mutual respect for religious beliefs.
As a proponent of spiritual diplomacy, one key goal is to maintain harmony amidst what is known as heterogeneity – keeping peace in the face of conflicting religious or spiritual views requires careful negotiation within ethical boundaries.
A good negotiator understands meeting ethical implications involves grasping unspoken norms that are part and parcel of societal standards formed by dominant religions.
Technology will play a big part in ethical considerations also. There are now online Bible lessons and lectures on religious scriptres. However, care must be taken to foster inclusivity and non-religious spirituality.
Mindfulness techniques can be your aids to provide balanced judgments while facilitating negotiations between contrasting faiths. Developing compassionate awareness helps you form an enlightened understanding essential for meaningful interfaith encounters.
Walking the tightrope between various faiths requires careful, respectful navigation to avoid discord or antagonism. Migration is a hot topic. And making a plan for inclusion for all regardless of nationality or religion is a worthy goal.
Understand the need to unpack biases posing as significant hurdles to foster unbiased dialogues while at the same time planting seeds of empathy over intolerance.
Understanding how different religious practices can affect daily political affairs is integral to handle international relations effectively. Promoting balance within global interactions infuses inclusivity into standard diplomatic routines ensuring valuable room for diverse perspectives.
Spirituality may not strike as a critical aspect when one thinks about diplomacy; however, it plays a crucial role in bridging gaps that ideological differences may bring. The aim of diplomacy is to further one’s goals.
With nations often defined by their unique spiritual and cultural ethos, failing to incorporate these valuable insights can run the risk of misinterpretation and conflicts.
Therefore, spiritual diplomacy emerges as a bridge that connects these different ideologies through a common route of mutual respect.
Inclusion starts with acknowledging diversity. Recognising that religious beliefs are deeply personal yet universally present in various forms provides individuals the strength to appreciate diversity. Religious diplomacy has come to the forefront in recent times.
While discussions can reinforce stereotypes or misunderstandings about other faiths, they also have the potential to be valuable tools in debunking these biases and promoting an inclusive environment where diverse religious outlooks can coexist.
Emphasising inclusivity goes hand-in-hand with ensuring equality across all faiths amidst diplomatic relations. It helps condition the diplomatic realm into more than merely a negotiation table but transforms it into an arena where sacred values are exchanged and appreciated.
This advocacy sets a precedent in international relations valuing human dignity over regional divisions.
Understanding one’s biases is the first step towards cultivating inclusive dialogues based on empathy rather than contention in today’s interconnected world.
Familiarising oneself with mindfulness techniques can aid diplomats in maintaining equanimity while navigating sensitive interfaith discussions. Inculcating compassion even beyond personal beliefs fosters an atmosphere of dialogue rooted in tolerance, leading towards prosperous international ties.
The initiative towards promoting inclusive spirituality is not free from obstacles. Culture resistance, societal prejudices, and stereotypes serve as formidable challenges to implementing inclusive spirituality in diplomacy.
These factors require persistent efforts to dismantle. It involves replacing age-old misconceptions with facts and maintaining open-mindedness for welcoming wisdom from all religious circles.
In conclusion, nurturing the harmony between spirituality, ethics, and diplomacy emerges as a potent tool in international relations. It attests to the power of collaboration and mutual respect in an increasingly diverse world.
By embracing this inclusive spiritual diplomacy, countries can create spaces for genuine dialogue and understanding among different faiths, encouraging peaceful collaborations and productive resolutions.
Congeniality Between Islam and Democracy
In the contemporary era, compatibility between Islam and democracy is one of the most recent and controversial debate. Diverse opinions are found but to effectively compare the congeniality between the two, one should first understand democracy and its features then compare this political system with Islamic governance. Democracy as a model of self-government can co-exist with Islam because they have principles like separation of powers, checks and balance, legitimacy, constitution, accountability and protection of human rights in common.
About half of the states today have democratic form of government. Starting as Athenian form of direct democracy in 15th century to today’s representative and liberal forms of democracy (indirect democracies), a number of states have gone through democratization. It has spread beyond Western Europe to Southern Europe, Eastern Europe, Latin America, (most) Asia and Africa. When Soviet Union collapsed, democracy trampled communism. The soviet allies, that practiced communism, adopted democracy as solution for modernity and freedom. Democracy also advanced to Middle East in the hopes of end of dictatorship, but there, it got rejected. It led to the idea that Islam can never be compatible with democracy. However, recent happenings in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt have raised this question once again. This leads to the assumption that democracy is static and cannot adopt other cultures, which is not true because we see evolution in west which embraced of democratic principles.
In theoretical application of Islam, Middle Eastern Countries do understand and appreciate democratic process and its meaning in their own unique way. Then why Muslims Countries have not been democratized? This leads to question of the compatibility between Islam and democracy. West believes that attachment of religious values to democratic government is contagious but there are a number of values common in Islam and democracy which make them compatible. For this reason first we should understand what is democracy and its features and then what similarities exist between Islam and Democracy.
According to President Abraham Lincoln, in his famed 1863 Gettysburg Address may have best-defined democracy as a “…government of the people, by the people, for the people…”.The core principle of democracy is self-rule. The basic features of democracy are separation of powers, checks and balances, existence of constitution, periodic elections and protection of fundamental rights.
There are a number of Muslim like Ahmad Moussalli and Muhammad Asad and Non-Muslim scholars who talk about compatibility of the two. They give importance to the principles of consultation, people’s will, transparency, and Accountability. For example, Robin Wright, a well-known American expert on the Middle East and the Muslim world writes: “neither Islam nor its culture is the major obstacle to political modernity”. John O. Voll and John L. Esposito, two bridge-builders between Islam and the West articulate: “The Islamic heritage, in fact, contains concepts that provide a foundation for contemporary Muslims to develop authentically Islamic programs of democracy.”
Below are the similarities between Islam and Democracy.
Constitutional Government: Like democracy, Islamic governance is fundamentally a “constitutional” government, in which the constitution reflects the agreement of the governed to govern according to a specified and agreed-upon framework of rights and duties. For Muslims, the constitution is based on the Qur’an and Sunnah. No authority, other than the governed, has the authority to repeal or amend such a constitution. As a result, Islamic administration cannot be despotic, hereditary, or militaristic in nature. Such a government structure is egalitarian in nature, and egalitarianism is one of Islam’s defining characteristics. It is also commonly agreed that the Islamic republic in Medina was founded on a constitutional foundation and a pluralistic framework that included non-Muslims.
Participatory: An Islamic political system is participative. The system is participatory from the establishment of the institutional structure of governance to its operation. It means that leadership and policies will be implemented with complete, gender-neutral participation of the governed through a popular electoral process. Muslims can use their ingenuity to institute and continuously enhance their systems, based on Islamic precepts and human experience to date. This participation feature is actually Islamic Shura (consultation).
Accountability: This is a necessary corollary to a democratic system. Within an Islamic system, leaders and those in positions of responsibility are held accountable to the people. According to the Islamic framework, all Muslims are answerable to Allah and his divine guidance. However, this is more in a theological sense. People are the focus of practical accountability. Thus, the Khulafa ar-Rashidoon were both Khalifat-ur-Rasool (representative of the Messenger) and Khalifat-ul- Muslimeen (representative of the Muslims)
Legitimacy: Just like in democracy, the people are allowed to select who to govern them i.e. give legitimacy to administer their affairs, in Islam, Jurists have the authority to approve any political decision made by the monarch and the power to protest to the ruler’s decision if it is contradictory to Shariah. As a result, the political elite required the legitimacy of legal professors. Thus, in the ancient past, we can observe how jurists and kings work together constantly. That close historical relationship between religious interpretations and the political arena explains why Islam attempts to establish norms and laws that govern not only the personal life of the believer but also the public domain.
Separation of powers: Islamic constitutions, like the one Iran uses, establish the executive and the legislature branches of government. Legislature functions under the sole supervision of the Imam and Muslim jurists of the Ummah in accordance with new legal provisions. This demonstrates that all three institutions of government are free to carry out their respective duties without outside intervention and practice effective decision making among them without victimization of any individual or organization.
Protection of fundamental rights: Islam and democracy are also compatible because both promote and protect fundamental rights of individuals. Islam, as a welfare state, stresses on provision of basic human rights (food, shelter, security) with equality, justice, freedom, self-determination for all. It also provides rights of private ownership. It creates laws and principles for assurance of these rights. Civil rights movements are permitted in both Islam and democracy hence ensuring that these rights are promoted in an effective and clear manner.
In conclusion, by comparing the basic values of democracy and Islam, it is evident that there is congeniality between the two. Understanding this compatibility can help Muslim states better grasp the purpose of democracy and work towards the welfare of their citizens. The common principles of separation of powers, checks and balances, legitimacy, constitution, accountability and protection of separation of human rights provide a foundation of a harmonious coexistence between Islam and democracy.
Shiites, not Jews, emerge as a touchstone of Saudi moderation
Saudi Arabia has removed anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli references from Islamic studies schoolbooks, according to an Israeli textbook watchdog.
The watchdog, the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se), said the deletions were part of a broader textbook revision that also eliminated anti-Christian references and toned-down negative portrayals of infidels and polytheists.
Instead of explicitly referring to infidels and hypocrites, the revised textbooks asserted that on the Day of Judgement. Hell, “the home of painful punishment,” would be reserved for “deniers,” rejecting Mohammed’s prophecy. Deniers replaced the term infidel or hypocrite.
In its 203-page report, Impact-se further noted that problematic concepts of jihad and martyrdom were also deleted, while two newly released ‘Critical Thinking’ textbooks stressed notions of peace and tolerance.
The report acknowledged an improved approach to gender issues, including removing “a significant amount of homophobic content.“ Nevertheless, the textbooks maintained a traditional approach to gender, the report said.
However, the review suggested that progress was limited in altering attitudes towards Shiite and Sufi Muslims, considered heretics by Wahhabism, the austere ultra-conservative strand of Islam that was dominant in the kingdom until the rise in 2015 of King Salman, and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
“Some problematic examples remain…in the approach to perceived heretical practices associated with the Shi‘a and Sufism,” the report said.
The report will likely be read against the backdrop of US efforts to persuade Saudi Arabia to follow the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco in formalising relations with Israel and the recent Chinese-mediated Saudi-Iranian agreement to restore ties broken off in 2016.
In contrast with the three Arab states that unconditionally established diplomatic relations with Israel in 2020, Saudi Arabia has made formal relations dependent on Israeli moves to solve its conflict with the Palestinians.
Israeli media reported that Bahrain had mediated a recent telephone conversation between Mr. Bin Salman, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and Foreign Minister Eli Cohen.
Mr. Netanyahu has made diplomatic relations with the kingdom a priority. He has pressed Mr. Bin Salman to allow direct flights between Israel and Jeddah, the Saudi Red Sea gateway to the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina, during next month’s annual pilgrimage. Without direct flights, Palestinian pilgrims have to transit through a third country to reach the kingdom.
Prospects for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are dim, with Mr. Netanyahu heading the most religiously ultra-conservative and nationalist government in Israeli history.
Israeli-Palestinian tensions have significantly increased since the government took office in December. Earlier this month, they led to five days of Israeli airstrikes against targets in Gaza and Palestinians firing rockets into Israel in response.
Complicating matters, Saudi Arabia wants the United States to offer the kingdom more binding security guarantees, grant it unrestricted access to US weaponry, and assist in developing a peaceful nuclear program as part of any agreement to establish diplomatic relations with Israel.
Long in the making, the revision of Saudi textbooks constitutes a gesture towards the United States and Israel.
However it is, first and foremost, designed to counter the ultra-conservative, supremacist, and intolerant religious concepts that have shaped the education system since the kingdom was founded.
The revisions are also crucial to Saudi Arabia’s efforts to diversify its oil export-dependent economy, prepare its youth for competition in the labour market, and project the one-time secretive kingdom that banned women from driving as an open, forward-looking 21st-century middle power.
Furthermore, the revisions bolster Saudi Arabia’s quest for religious soft power as the custodian of Islam’s holiest cities and a beacon of a socially liberal moderate Islam.
Getting Saudi Arabia revamping its textbooks has been a long, drawn-out process. The United States and others have pushed for changes since the September 11, 2001, Al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington. Most of the perpetrators were Saudi nationals.
The more limited progress in redressing prejudiced attitudes towards Shiite and Sufi Muslims compared to Jews and Christians suggests the continued influence of ultra-conservative religious thought in Saudi Arabia despite Mr. Bin Salman’s social reforms.
It also puts into perspective the kingdom’s reluctance to anchor the reforms in religious as well as civil law, an approach propagated by Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s Indonesia-based largest and most moderate civil society movement.
On the plus side, Saudi Arabia’s revised textbooks no longer describe visitors to sacred figures’ tombs, a widespread Shiite practice, as “evil” and “cursed” by the Prophet Mohammed.
Nevertheless, textbooks still condemn such visits as innovations banned by Wahhabism. For example, one revised textbook implicitly described tomb visits to supplicate the deceased rather than God as a polytheistic practice to be punished in Hell.
“Students learn that polytheism is dangerous, as it is the ‘most heinous’ of sins. However, while the 2021 edition also taught that those who practice it will be punished with eternity in Hell, this was removed in 2022,” the report said.
At times, the Impact-se report conflated thinking among some Arab and Sunni Muslims with Islam in general, particularly regarding Shiite-majority Iran.
In one instance, the report noted that in the textbooks, “Islamic historical animus toward Persia is maintained through claims that the assassination of the second caliph was a Persian conspiracy.”
The animus is maintained by some Sunni Muslims rather than Muslims as such. It relates to the killing by an enslaved Persian of Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second of the first four 7th-century caliphs to succeed Prophet Mohamed.
On an optimistic note, the report concluded, “Saudi efforts to reform the curriculum reveal a reasonably consistent step-by-step approach…and one…hopes that the approach will be applied to the handful of problematic content remaining in some textbooks.”
The report did not say that tackling problematic attitudes towards Shiites and Sufis would constitute one indication of how far Saudi rulers are willing to venture in challenging ultra-conservative Muslim precepts.
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