Guruland

During a winter break from my kids’ schools, pre-COVID-19 restrictions, our family took a trip to Boston to visit Legoland. Coincidentally, another family from my older son’s class did the same thing, on the same day. We met at the park and palled around with them for the morning…now a strange and distant possibility.

My boys had a rough start, balking at the long entrance line followed by a bypass of the gift shop. Then we got right into queue for a ride. Boston’s Legoland isn’t huge, and the crowd was manageable, so I joked to the other mom that this was getting us off the hook for something like Disneyland, where the overstimulation would short-circuit my kids’ ability to function. She replied that they had made plans (now cancelled) to go to California during the April break for a business trip, but they would also be visiting the new “land” — Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.

I admit, I did not know such a land existed. While talking about the various lands that Disney has created around the globe, I got to thinking about a time when I was working as the Executive Assistant to meditation teacher Reggie Ray, a Vajrayana Buddhist guru in the lineage of the late Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche (CTR). We were at our community’s annual summer program at the Blazing Mountain Retreat Center in Crestone, CO, and one of Reggie’s ex-wives (#2) was coming to visit. I was given charge of the situation, which meant that I coordinated when to meet up with her, when she would be with Reggie and his wife Caroline (#4), and I provided her with a tour of the retreat center and surrounding land.

Wife #2 was an amiable woman, and amidst the intensity of my retreat roles I appreciated that she was relaxed and easy to talk to. She told me stories of how things were at Naropa University, my own alma mater, when she and Reggie had their romance and short marriage. I didn’t pry, but she was processing the experience of coming to see Reggie, and we had the afternoon together.

At one point wife #2 reflected that she and Reggie had not been able to stay married because he needed a partner who was willing to support his passion— teaching meditation — one hundred percent. She had her own passions, namely dance, and couldn’t direct all her energy towards what he was doing. I am aware that there were other details related to their separation, but if my own experience with Reggie is any indication, her point hits the mark. After wife #2 there came Lee, who shaped her life to support Reggie’s teaching for many years, and then Caroline, who has done the same.

In that moment with wife #2, there was a crack in the veneer of our super intense, amazing and exclusive retreat experience. The rhetoric was that we were embarking on a completely wild journey of self-actualization through meditation, where anything was possible. But I witnessed this woman, with the humor that comes from years of life experience and a resignation to old wounds, viewing the whole scene as a kind of construct, with Reggie at the center. The word “charade” isn’t quite right. Standing at Legoland on a chilly Boston morning, a decade later, I had it — she was looking at Reggieland.

One of my first memories of listening to Reggie teach, and feeling a ping of concern, was the introduction of Caroline. Caroline (wife #4), until then a prospective student, was replacing Lee (wife #3). She was not just Reggie’s new romantic partner but, as he set out to explain, the paragon of feminine wisdom in our Tibetan Buddhist lineage. This is what Lee had been before her, but their physical union had run its course.

Lee had been present in the community long before I got there, and though I only had a direct student/teacher relationship with Reggie, I was told that my refuge and bodhisattva vows were taken with both of them. Lee represented something important — the feminine. But I saw her struggle to find space to be who she actually was in the tightly controlled environment around Reggie.

I did get to know Lee in very small doses over the years, namely through short scheduled interviews. She occasionally, but rarely, gave talks at retreats. And then came Caroline. Lee didn’t want to go, but it was not her choice. There was drama in the transition.

We were told that we had to make a choice in terms of our spiritual allegiance — Reggie, or Lee — similar to when Reggie left Shambhala International to start Dharma Ocean, and ties were broken with Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. Some people chose to become students of Lee alone, and to her credit, she did persist as a teacher in her own right. For those of us who stayed with Reggie, our vows with Lee were a necessary collateral as Caroline took Lee’s seat. While this was the first time that I can recall, it would not be the last time that Reggie adjusted our vows to fit the changing situation.

On this day, Reggie explained that the problems with Lee stood alone and regardless of Caroline, they would have separated. This may be true, but according to Reggie he was not just making a personal choice with regard to his spousal relationship. This choice was essentially the choice of the lineage, as it continued with Reggie beyond CTR’s death. Reggie had realized that it was Caroline who was needed to continue this lineage on. He did not say as much, of course, but Caroline’s pocketbook is deep, and that benefited him, and it benefited Dharma Ocean.

Reggie spoke of his gross limitations as a man, and the power of his female counterpart to destroy his ego, thwart his ambitions, and thereby remove obstacles in his ability to teach the dharma. This over-the-top accolade session of Caroline, who I didn’t know at all, was hauntingly similar to how Reggie had always spoken of Lee. As Caroline sat silently by, I thought, “He’s already taking away her power, by turning her into a caricature”.

The thought startled me, as this idea of a disempowered consort did not fit with what I understood of the wild, fierce feminine classically described as the dakini in Tibetan Buddhism. It didn’t fit with the words coming out of Reggie’s mouth right in front of me. I let my thought go, as we were trained to do.

The thought turned out to be another small crack in the veneer that held Reggie’s cult-like community together. For me it took years, but the truth common to the entire situation gradually became clear. There is a process by which Reggie creates his “land”: he imbues those around him with extraordinary specialness. Over time, the wisdom of the glorified “other” is appropriated, distorted and they are gradually redrawn for the community — by Reggie — as deficient. Finally, they are executed, if they do not first leave on their own. The cycle is repeated over, and over, and over again.

This is not a gratuitously dramatic summation. As Reggie could sacrifice deadlines, contracts, individual students, marriages, commitments of all kinds, purportedly at the behest of CTR’s lineage, so could he sacrifice his entire body of American students, and the organization we dedicated years of our lives to build, nourish and expand. This past year, as I discussed in my post A Buddhist Reckoning, Reggie made the decision to dissolve Dharma Ocean as it has existed from its Colorado headquarters. He and Caroline walked away from hundreds of students and set their sights on Europe, where they are grooming teachers, hosting video conferences with interested students, and planning retreats. It is a fresh, open field.

As was Caroline. And Lee before her, until she wasn’t anymore.

I don’t know what Caroline thinks of Dharma Ocean’s dissolution, or any of Reggie’s behavior towards his students, because she hasn’t said anything of substance about it in any public forum. What I do see publicly is that through her silence, Caroline has served beautifully to enable Reggie’s rampant personal thoughts and agendas over any wisdom the rest of the us might hold, and over whatever qualities her own voice might convey. Over the past year particularly, Reggie ran roughshod over the entire community, with Caroline mute at the moments when she could have spoken. At crucial moments, for so many people.

Is this the wild, uncompromising feminine, or dakini as she is known in Tibetan tradition? Subservient to the guru? With no voice?

I would say, as Reggie has also said, that the wild mercy of the dakini is subservient to no one. If Caroline challenges Reggie, ever, as he loves to claim, it is not public. It is never public. So I wouldn’t know, aside from what Reggie might choose to say.

One of the most vulnerable moments I hold from my time in Dharma Ocean was on a winter retreat, also during the timeframe in which I served as Reggie’s Executive Assistant. It was a difficult retreat for a lot of reasons, and I was exhausted and emotionally spent. Attending retreat in direct service to the teacher was different than attending as a participant, where your own experience had more external support. As a staff member, you were your own support, drawing on your inner resources to stay grounded as you got dragged one way, then the other, “protecting” Reggie and thereby the teachings, and the other students.

The memory is painful not for its drama or compelling details, but actually for its simplicity and the embodiment of what feels like a deeply human wound. This wound is the fear that there is something wrong with how I am, and that how I feel might not be trustworthy. I still believe that meditation has the potential to heal this human misunderstanding about ourselves, but the guru has the power to exploit it as well.

Reggie’s chief observation of me at that time was that I was a people-pleaser, and wanted others to like me. He saw this as a developmental edge, something I was using as a shield and as an excuse to hold myself back. Of course there was truth to this. He found ways for me to experience being, basically, the bad guy. He asked me to say things to other students in ways that I would not have said them, and it was important to him that I used his words.

I don’t remember who I was emailing or what was said, but Reggie had asked me to write to someone to tell them something from him. In the end, I didn’t use his words. I used mine, and I’m sure it is true that this changed the recipient’s experience of the message. Reggie was furious. He called me into his office and I sat down at a table with him and Caroline. He proceeded to tell me, “When I tell you to do something, you do it exactly as I tell you”, with such intensity that you would have thought the world was ending because this person did not receive a necessary transmission through the message, the way I had worded it. The consequences of my action could be dire. We couldn’t know.

Caroline did not make eye contact with me, and did not say one word, through the entire meeting. She was present, but inaccessible. I was utterly unable to defend myself, and at some point I started crying. Reggie stopped, and we all sat in silence for awhile. He eventually asked, “What’s going on with you? Why are you crying?”. His voice was gentle.

If I had been honest, I would have said, “I’m crying because I don’t know how to be myself, and be what you want me to be, at the same time. For fuck’s sake I’m crying because you’re yelling at me, Caroline is sitting here watching and it feels weird”. But that was not the right answer. What I said was something about my childhood, and how that shaped who I am, and made me unable to do things like write this email the way he wanted it written. He said it would be alright, we’d keep going. What else could we do? My answer had satisfied him. I was a people-pleaser, after-all — something he knew well.

What little I know about the feminine principle in Tibetan Buddhism is that it involves speaking the truth. The models of behavior that we had in Dharma Ocean, in Reggie’s wives, were models of utter deference and submission. I would never say that I considered them “empowered” in any more than the most limited sense, as none of us were. Reflecting upon the situation makes me wonder if the whole practice of making the feminine into a non-human caricature — the dakini — inherently appropriates this subtler wisdom.

What if, instead of being removed from their families of origin as toddlers and young boys, the biological mothers of novice Tibetan monks were considered their ultimate teacher? Their love, an expression of our ultimate vulnerability? What if separating them from this love was an act of betrayal so deep, it could not be forgiven? But there’s no power in this kind of deeply earth-bound spirituality, and no specialness either. And those are things that can hook almost anyone. The are the fuel of Guruland.

In a real way, Reggie has never taken responsibility for anything in his orbit, in his “land”. He claims to be a kind of medium between the Dharma Ocean lineage of enlightened teachers and living students. If you disagree with him, you disagree with the lineage, with is basically disagreeing with God. God does not operate by conventional notions of right and wrong, and this too is a hallmark of the “crazy wisdom” lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, where the “crazy” is the crossing of conventional norms, theoretically with no harm done since dismantling one’s ego is a compassionate act. It’s an assist into Buddhist heaven.

I grew up heavily involved in Protestant Christian denominations. My experiences with the church were formative, and positive. They did a lot to help me cope with the banality of suburban life, both in terms of providing deeper contemplation points and opportunities to go to parts of the world that I would not have visited otherwise. What ultimately tripped me up with Christianity, before I even started opening my eyes to the horrendous abuses justified in one way or another as interpretations of the will of God, was that I didn’t believe in God at all. The realization hit me in college, when I was involved in a campus ministry program called the Wesley Foundation. I was attending a gathering, possibly a bible study, and realized that I didn’t believe there was a God out there who created all of this, and who was keeping watch. It literally struck me in one moment…that it simply wasn’t true. We are much more alone than that. And also, somehow, much more together in that aloneness.

Spiritual-seeking had already carved a deep grove in my psyche and that seeking eventually led me to Naropa University to study Engaged Buddhism, to meet Reggie Ray, to dive into meditation and begin a 17-year relationship with the Dharma Ocean community. I felt like what we were doing was totally wild, and something I couldn’t find anywhere else. But as I’ve described here, I eventually came to see the whole thing as, not a charade, but as something orchestrated. Something carefully constructed and controlled. It was Guruland, theistic at its core. Theistic because there was someone else who I was supposed to believe, rather than myself, and who’s tending was more important than anyone else’s.

God can wipe out the entire planet with a flood, saving only the handful of people he likes, and what is there to say about it? He’s God. He can turn a man’s life upside down, plaguing him with poverty, illness, death of all his loved ones and the deepest emotional pain — but what can Job say? The lesson is about faith, and it is about submission, and servitude. It’s about the spirituality of losing it all, ironically often taught by those who have a lot.

Life provides these lessons, as it is providing them now in our crisis with COVID-19. We’re not in control. But as I can’t grock God having the power to orchestrate this out-of-control nature of the universe, neither can I bestow such power to a human guru, any longer.

I’ve left the park, still drawn to where things are truly wild.

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