I began this writing as an open treatise…which quickly turned into something much more personal. I offer this to my Meditating with the Body Community and to my extended Sangha of all those harmed by Reggie Ray/Dharma Ocean.
When the teacher falls: A love letter
It was only this last year that I fell in love with the teachings of Reggie Ray. The embodied meditation practices integrated with Tibetan Buddhism and a deep reverence for the Great Mother Earth felt like such a sweet homecoming. In my late teens when I was struggling with the cognitive dissonance between my own values and some tenets of the Christian faith I was holding, I sought council from my pastor who said to me, “chew the meat and spit out the bones.” Take what is useful and nourishing, and leave behind the rest. It’s been a teaching that I have held closely in my life as I’ve found my way into different faith practices. How nice it was to have a place that I didn’t feel I had to spit out the bones.
And how disappointing that the restfulness of that homecoming was so quickly turned to dis ease in my gut. Though the reddit post I’d discovered after my first retreat and the open letter that was published a few weeks ago detailing the psychological and spiritual abuses of Reggie were not entirely shocking to me. Sakyong Mipham, Bikram, Manouso Manos, Amrit Desai, John Friend, Osho, a thousand Catholic Priests…how long would this letter be if I listed the name of all the spiritual teachers who violated their students’ trust and left trauma in their wake?
I earned my Masters in Somatic Counseling Psychology from Naropa University, but I could never reconcile the glossing over of Chögyam Trungpa’s deep shadow and the justification of unethical behavior by creating a spiritual framework of “Crazy Wisdom,” which set up a value system of “the ends justify the mean.” While there can be a link between madness and prophets, Crazy Wisdom as it’s been operationalized in this Tibetan Buddhist tradition has been used to minimize the pain and suffering of the victims and justifies what is never justifiable. I reject this concept wholeheartedly. What there is are complex human beings who have great wisdom (which often gives them great power). And, these people can also carry out horrific behaviors that cause great harm. The former never justifies the later.
As a holistic psychotherapist, I also know that hurt people hurt people. Narcissism is a wound that is hard to have compassion for because the Self-absorbed character trait of the individual with the narcissistic wound is a distinct lack of empathy and an all-consuming ego feed that leaves shattered people in its wake. I don’t know Reggie personally. I don’t know his story, his trauma, the influences that cultivated the narcissism that apparently dictates his behavior. But, I do know humans, and I do know trauma. And in spite of his atrocious treatment of his students, I will hold, as I do for all living beings, that his Deeper Self is still there, somewhere under the muck. I hope he does the work. I hope that this calling out devastates him, drops him to his knees, makes him “hit bottom” as Alcoholics Anonymous has famously coined. I don’t believe that a person, once having abused their power, should every hold that kind of position again. But, I do believe in restorative justice. I do believe that shaming and shunning do not heal communities and that, ultimately, vengeance harms the vengeful as equally as the abuser.
But this, right now, for me, isn’t about Reggie. It’s about the community left in shambles. I wasn’t there. I only know what happened third hand. And you, my brothers and sisters, I grieve for. My heart is laid bare and raw in the collective suffering. I am new to this lineage, but it was here I found home. Not because of the man I never met, but because of the beautiful hearts I have come to know and love so very quickly. It is you, known and unknown, those who are still involved in Dharma Ocean, those who were ostracized, and those who left, it is you who are my Sangha.
One of my teachers (for lack of a better word) is Dick Schwartz, founder of Internal Family Systems Therapy. He speaks to his role in the development of this model as an understanding that the model was given to him. He did not create it. He listened. And this psychospiritual therapeutic model has evolved over time due, in large part, to the therapists who worked with clients and also listened. It is not his. It came from Spirit and belongs to the people – he was simply one of the conduits.
I know that I speak from such a limited perspective. I wasn’t there. I also hold to the value that all voices matter and all perspectives are needed when communities are wounded, even from someone new to this tradition. I can imagine how impossible it must seem to separate Reggie from Dharma Ocean. I think of how long it took me to reconceptualize God from a controlling white dude into the much broader understanding of Godness as an experience. But, what if? What if we could alleviate the weight of this lineage from the shadow of its previous leaders? Chögyam Trungpa, Sakyong Mipham, Reggie Ray are not the heart of Tibetan Buddhism or this practice. You are. We are. Reggie is not the practices. They exist separate from him. He was only ever the conduit. What he grabbed onto, what was given to him, was a power that was not his to have.
I don’t need Reggie. I do need you.
When my ex and I first broke up ten years ago, it was easy to put all the blame on her. She was the one with the most obvious issues and the one that caused the demise of our relationship. It wasn’t until a year or two after our split, after I’d worked through some of the trauma of that relationship, that I was able to reflect on how I contributed to the dynamic. In that self-reflective process I realized that I was too Buddhist. I was too much of the mindful therapist. I did not hold her accountable. I did not advocate for my tender parts. Even Jesus turned over the tables in the temple. There were a dozen times that a well-placed “fuck you,” would have been a better response, a hundred times some version of “no” was called for, and a thousand times I should have been courageous enough to call her out on her behavior. I didn’t. I loved her to a fault. I made her my Source and in so doing, lost connection to The Great Source.
Flowers grow from cracks in sidewalks, and, as we say in Spanish, “no hay mal que por bien no venga,” There is no bad thing out of which good may not arise. In service to this community and to all humanity, perhaps the questions that we as practitioners need to hold is, when do we relinquish our power? When do we stifle a needed fuck you, or a hell no? When do we collude in the abuse of our tender parts and in the abuse of our brothers and sisters? When does our deep love for another blind us? When do we give power to our abusers? When do we make them our Source? When do we not band together in the face of violation? What is our own wounding that removes us from right action? Are we still seeking Daddy or validation or a subtle God outside ourselves? When do we put a mere human on a pedestal? When does our own loneliness and isolation make secrecy a good trade-off for belonging?
This invitation for self-reflection in no way means that the leader has not been the perpetrator. It seems clear to me that abuse occurred repeatedly and systematically. Nor does it mean that the victim is not innocent nor that there is culpability on the part of those who have been gravely victimized and bear the burden of the trauma. It does mean, though, that in addition, we must deeply explore the recesses of our own psyche to explore, “How did I get here? How did we get here? How do we learn to be vigilant in the protection of our tender hearts and those of our fellow travelers? How do we never let this happen again?”
For many, maybe, it is way too early to ask these questions. But, I hope, each in our own time, that we do. Because, maybe it’s time for this whole student-guru tradition to evolve – it clearly isn’t working. These hierarchical systems politically, globally and in spiritual practice cultivate a type of power that so easily leads to abuse of power. This Dharma Ocean debacle is our jobs, our organizations, our country, our world governments. It’s an inherently flawed system. Again, this flawed system doesn’t eradicate Reggie, or any leader, from the responsibility of their actions, rather, this system provides the perfect environment, a perfect breeding ground for the dark aspects to flourish.
So, to my sangha family, known and unknow, I offer my love, my devotion, and a deep grief for the suffering you are holding – I willingly hold it with you. I also offer the hope of repair, here, among us, in this community of raw and flawed human beings. It’s going to take a bit of time to unravel this. For my part, I am here to walk the dark caves with any who seek solace, companionship, and the reminder in the lived experience that there is an “us” that is solid and true.
May we grieve well. May we be the tree trunk, remaining steady and grounded for those whose trauma leaves them collapsed. May we claim whatever practice calls to our Deepest Truth. May we sequence through this, hands held together, breaking free of the illusion of separation. May our practice be multiplied and transmitted for the happiness and welfare of all.
Sabrina (Abina) Santa Clara