One of the reasons I believe in jazz is that the oneness of man can come through the rhythm of your heart. It’s the same any place in the world, that heartbeat. It’s the first thing you hear when you’re born — or before you’re born — and it’s the last thing you hear. — Dave Brubeck



Showing posts with label Osel Tendzin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Osel Tendzin. Show all posts

Saturday, July 24, 2021

The funeral of Ösel Tendzin. Deliver us from cults.

My friend Barbara O’Brian alerted me to an article by Steven Butterfield, When the Teacher Fails. It was published in 1989 while Ösel Tendzin was still alive, and just at the time when the extent of Tendzin’s reckless sexual conduct as a person with HIV/AIDS was coming to light. Butterfield’s article does not address this controversy that was ripping the fledgling Western Buddhist world apart.

In 1990 Ösel died in San Francisco where he’d come for treatment of advanced HIV disease. At the time I was living at Hartford Street Zen Center and working as the Director of Maitri AIDS Hospice; for some reason I felt it was important that Maitri, a Buddhist program set up for helping ease the pain of the AIDS epidemic, should be present for the funeral of an important Buddhist teacher who’d died from the disease. I didn’t realize how deeply I would wade into the murky waters of denial.

Shambala was going to conduct the elaborate funeral ritual at their center on 16th and Mission. We phoned, asked if we could attend, and were given a time; we put on our rakusus and climbed to the second floor above a Jack in the Box in a pretty marginal neighborhood.

I can’t adequately describe my shock.

It may have been the first Tibetan ritual that I’d attended, but after we’d entered the hall and made our prostrations, there was Ösel’s corpse trussed up in an awkward meditation posture, full regalia barely masking the ropes and poles required to hold it upright. I’d sat with many men who died of AIDS so it was not that the body itself showed the ravages of the disease. There was no attempt to hide them. It was not that the ritual seemed foreign or exotic. It was, but it was a Tibetan ritual, and I wasn’t expecting a low church Episcopalian service.

What totally overwhelmed me was the veneration of a man who had knowingly infected others with AIDS. Shambala tried to mitigate the damage with a mystical smokescreen. It was rumored that some had spread the lie that the guru’s Vajra powers bestowed by the lineage would prevent reinfection, or that it was even an opening for the great enlightenment. There was at least one teenage boy involved, a young man whose life would now be cut short. Everyone present, and there were several hundred, knew that their Regent had knowingly infected people with HIV and that their deaths would be soon upon them. It was all supposed to be OK in the great scheme of things. The drums beat, the chanting began. Steve Allen got up and motioned for us to leave. On the way down the stairs he said, “All that was missing was the bones in their noses.”

We returned to Hartford Street. I was shaken, but managed to get up the next morning and take care of Bernie, J.D, and the five other men in our care.

I have never picked up “Cutting through Spiritual Materialism” again, brilliant as it is. Nor have I recommended it to anyone, and I never will. I feel that it would be condoning the damage to the precious dharma caused by the actions of these men.




Some people have tried to defend Ösel. One wrote to me and said, “hindsight is easy.” I lived through that period, I took care of more than 100 men who died of AIDS. My own teacher died. It was a terrible time. Of course there were mistakes. Of course it was difficult. Of course it takes time to sort things out. It took me years.

Steven Butterfield writes about his personal interactions with Ösel, wondering why in an airport lounge he can’t muster the courage to ask him a question about his HIV disease. He chose to remain silent, and they go on pretending that their world of limousines, crazy wisdom practice and unprotected sex could just go on and on. In retrospect can Butterfield even question his belief in guru transmission? He says he can, but I get the distinct feeling that there are still far too many threads that tie him to the myth.

But there can be no passing the buck here. It was arrogance and grave harm. We have to name it. Hindsight may be easy, but murder is still murder. Sexual abuse is still abuse. People say, oh it was the 80's, things were different. I strongly disagree. We knew that HIV was sexually transmitted for certain by 1983 when the virus was isolated by the Pasteur Institute in France. Ösel knew that he was positive for the virus, and still had unprotected sex with at least one minor. Sorry. Call it what it was.

Searching Google for a picture of Mr. Thomas Rich, I found vajraregent.org. When I entered “AIDS” into the site’s search engine, nothing. But I did find these verses. I think that some people are still in deep denial.

This is offered with love, appreciation and gratitude to Vidyadhara, the Venerable Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and his Vajra Regent and dharma heir Ösel Tendzin, for the benefit of their present and future disciples, and all beings.

Through hearing, seeing and contemplating these teachings of the Vidyadhara through his Vajra Regent,

May we realize the essence of transmission from teacher to student.

May we hold precious this seed planting of Vajrayana dharma and Shambhala vision in the West.

Through their gestures and words, may we wake up on the spot.

May we not become confused by spiritual materialism in any form.

Now, practicing moment by moment until the end of this life and beyond, may we free all beings.


And I will add my own petition to this list:


May we work diligently to repair any damage to the transmission of the precious Dharma caused by our heedless actions.

And deliver us from cults.

Is life over when it’s over?

Ala n Wilson Watts (6 January 1915 – 16 November 1973) "Each one of us, not only human beings, but every leaf, every weed, exists in t...