For the past year and a few months, I have been reading the book Facing East From Indian Country by Daniel Richter. I took it from my brother’s bookshelf on a Thanksgiving visit in 2018, and will someday do the right thing and buy him a new copy since I haven’t given it back. It’s one of those books that never feels done, as you mull things over and go back to read them again.
Richter’s book is a historian’s labor, underpinned by the longing for a more nuanced understanding of North American colonization. He looks deeply and in new ways through the written documents we have, to bring forward more of the story from the indigenous side. He endeavors to undo some of the oversimplification, misunderstanding and wielding of bias that has been passed down through generations to the present day.
I initially read the book during the collapse of my teacher/student relationship with Buddhist teacher Reginald Ray (Reggie). I found resonance in some of the material to the pain I was experiencing in Reggie’s community, Dharma Ocean. In broad strokes, Christianity’s sordid past on the North American continent is a variation on the common theme of corruptibility — bad behavior by those with the privilege to get away with it. The details, as we know, are horrific.
Reggie’s community, Dharma Ocean, traces its roots back to both Kagyu and Nyingma schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Reggie was a student of the late Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. After separating from Trungpa’s Shambhala lineage, where he was a senior teacher but not empowered to offer Vajrayana transmission, he empowered himself as holder of his own newly created lineage of Vajrayana Buddhism. This lineage is Dharma Ocean.
I met Reggie as a graduate student at Naropa University in 2002, and became his Vajrayana student in 2006. Without parsing the weeds of Vajrayana Buddhism, this involved taking what’s called a Samaya vow and embarking on a series of traditional meditation practices collectively called Ngöndro. The question of whether or not it was appropriate for Reggie to start his own lineage did not particularly concern me at that time, as I was learning a great deal from him, with no end in sight. And misgivings about Shambhala International were gradually confirmed, through the increasing exposure of a long-standing culture of sexual predation and abuse of power for sexual gain.
While Dharma Ocean took steps that (largely) curtailed the recreation of this same culture of predatory sexual behavior, the underlying structures that allowed such behavior to thrive in Shambhala were most definitely brought along. Over time it became impossible for me not to see intense patterns of psychological manipulation and abuse of power, which were troubling in and of themselves, but were worsened substantially by Reggie’s doubling down on measures to invalidate those coming forward with troubled hearts to the rest of the community.
In Richter’s book there is a particular chapter, “Native Voices in a Colonial World”, that helped me trust the sense that painful messages from the past were being ignored in our community — that what we criticized in other settings, we were allowing in ours. In this chapter, Richter parses the translated and transcribed conversion narratives, or spiritual autobiographies, of native people in Natick, Massachusetts. Natick was a “praying town”, established for Native Christians to form what was called a “gathered church” if their conversion narratives were found to be convincing. The narratives were recorded and sent up the church hierarchy, to justify support of the missionaries who maintained these praying towns.
His discussion of these conversion narratives is fascinating. Richter is diligent in first explaining the obvious and not-as-obvious limitations of such narratives, as representative of a native person’s actual experience; nonetheless there are aspects of them that can be revealing. In the course of this discussion Richter brings us to the undeniable recognition that English Puritan theology profoundly confused cultural values with spiritual predestination. Or maybe they didn’t confuse them — this wasn’t a hidden or secret correlation. It was an assumption that mowed down any challenge. Protestant missionaries
relentlessly hammered home the sinfulness of basic patterns of behavior rooted in Native culture….Native kinship patterns, work habits, housing styles, sartorial preferences all seemed profoundly ungodly to missionaries unable to separate Christianity from European culture; thus what they called “civility” became a prerequisite to “sanctity”….[Missionary John] Eliot explained that until Indians “were come up unto civil cohabitation, government, and Labor, which a fixed condition of life will put upon them, they were not so capable to be betrusted with that treasure of Christ, lest they should scandalize the same”.
This conflation of a certain lifestyle and common values with a predisposition for salvation — the very notion that Christ could be “scandalized” — had devastating consequences. It was devastating for the roll out of Manifest Destiny, allowing settlers to feel a sense of inevitability and justification that they should occupy their new land. It was also devastating for the person to person leveling of spiritual abuse.
How often have I heard Reggie talk about those who would “trash” the lineage, and from whom the lineage, and our community, needed protection?
The Dharma Ocean Vajrasangha had a high rate of attrition and the organization generally experienced a high volume of staff turnover. This was framed, on one hand, as a reflection of the intensity of being close to Reggie — he was demanding, predictably destabilizing and kept the organization in relative degrees of chaos. We were taught that the instability and the provocative outbursts or decisions were what created the opportunities for spiritual growth, if we did not reject or react to them. We were to “hold our experience” and “do our own work”, to be calm and carry on. If you struggled, it was never too late to come back to Reggie with your tail between your legs, indicating that you saw the light, somehow or another. But you had to give over your ground. Reggie, on the other hand, did not.
The other explanation for the high turnover, and the complaints of mistreatment that mounted against Reggie and his wife Caroline over time, was that people are only selectively predisposed to “do the work” of Vajrayana Buddhism. Reggie, by way of 40 years of teaching and meditation experience, and his self-reported empowerment by the deceased Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche himself, was to be considered a trustworthy source of information on what qualities and characteristics made someone unfit for Vajrayana practice.
Reggie is fond of making lists, and he made dozens of lists delineating the types of people — not unlike the characteristics of natives seized upon by colonizing missionaries — who caused problems in the sangha. These people could not be trusted to understand Vajrayana Buddhism, at best, and would make a total mess of things for everyone else, at worst, if not identified and controlled. There were those who were not psychologically stable, had unresolved father issues, just wanted a comfortable and easy life (ie. were lazy), etc. He needed to make these lists to address the discomfort of those remaining students who were stunned or confused by some incident or the silent disappearance of a peer, or senior teacher. And to explain why, over the years, he created new inner circles to continually tighten the ranks of those close to him, ensuring that those who would speak out and hold their ground were not part of that circle.
This was all hard to see from the inside, and admittedly there is personal growth that can happen from such of controlled situation. A lot of personal growth can also happen while someone is in prison, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t acknowledge the multiplicity of hurts that surround someone’s incarceration. There was a point for me that it became impossible not to see the multiplicity of harm in Reggie’s orbit, worst of which (to me) was his retelling of others’ stories so that they fit into a category of unfit practitioners, so that the rest of us would lose confidence in them, and their struggles would seem justified.
So that their struggles would seem justified. If there is any poison to root out of our psyches through intense spiritual exertion, is this not it? That abuse of any person might be justified…whether by the color of their skin, the culture of their birth, their psychological makeup — anything that makes them not like the one with power?
These deepening insights happened in part as I grew in my own maturity, as I went through life circumstances such as getting married and becoming a mother, and losing both of my parents to terminal illness. The rhetoric about our specialness as practitioners — those of us who were left — and the uniqueness of the work we were doing, felt like something I had to tuck away to the side because increasingly, I didn’t believe it.
In August 2018, a friend who I had last seen at a Dharma Ocean retreat, and whom I had escorted out of the retreat after Reggie told him he could not stay, committed suicide. While I did not sense a direct link between what happened at the retreat and his death several years later, I did feel the weight of having had this awkward interaction be our very last. He had clearly been suffering at the time, and I carried out my duty then never saw him again. What was most important in that moment? To protect the momentary sanctity of the retreat, or to convey to someone that there is room in this world for them to be who they are? These don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but in this instance, it seemed like they were. I felt like we were pushing him out and closing the door, after which I returned to my own cushion to finish, and reap benefits from, the retreat. I can’t reconcile, now, the way this feels in my heart, and to be honest I couldn’t reconcile it then either. I just buried it somewhere.
A few years ago, I began my own journey of bringing this level of honesty to Reggie. It was time. The end result, in the spring of 2019, is that I was removed from my teaching position in a series of Dharma Ocean online courses. Shortly afterwards, the entire organization folded at Reggie’s command. He continues to write to us, however, with new lists and delineations of what has happened, where we went wrong and why so many of us became confused.
My therapist reminds me often how much this situation mirrors what is happening in the broader world. Across all types of organizations, throughout many religions, there is a grappling with power, the misuse of power, and the fierce clinging to power. The belief of many in Vajrayana Buddhism is that Vajrayana practice brings one into an ontologically different realm, one in which power cannot actually be abused, because the practitioner has the ability to use it for awakening. If your teacher publicly shames you, a preferred tactic of Reggie’s, it is trusted to have a basis in compassion, and to be transmutable into wisdom. If you can’t manage the transmutation, that’s on you. It’s simply not appropriate to question whether or not Reggie should have publicly shamed you in the first place.
There is much more to parse from my more pointed interactions with both Reggie and Caroline, and I hope to offer some of that in writing over time, as well as how we as sangha have become emotional landmines to one another. My first post on Medium, which I didn’t consider to be particularly provocative, was really hard for some people to read, for reasons I didn’t expect. A friend from the community recently told me that she relates to other ex-pats with caution. There are aspects of Reggie’s narrative that we still repeat, sometimes inadvertently, and weaponize against each other, again perhaps inadvertently. Suffice to say, it’s a hard walk forward.
Oddly, or perhaps not, my confidence in the practice of meditation, and the teachings of Buddhism, is not shaken. Here we are, walking forward, awkwardly, with broken hearts. Refusing to pretend that things are otherwise. What is more Buddhist than that?