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May 6, 2019

Against Hell: A Refutation of the Buddhist Hell Realms, Based on Their Historic Origins, Political Purpose, Psychological Destructiveness, Irrationality, and Demonstrable Inconsistency With the Original Buddhist Teachings, Framed as A Searching Review of Sam Bercholz’s After-Death Memoir, "A Guided Tour of Hell"



by Charles Carreon[1]
May 6, 2019





We're all familiar with fire and brimstone preachers, and most of us associate that brand of religion with fundamentalist Christianity that still percolates with aggressive heat down in the Bible Belt. But fire and brimstone Buddhism? Who's into that? Well, there comes a time in the development of every religion when some dark and difficult secrets have to be revealed, and for Tibetan Buddhism, that time came in 2016, when Sam Bercholz decided to publish an account of his near-death experience ("NDE") of ten years before.

While it may come as a shock to American Buddhists weaned on the sweetened pap of the Dalai Lama’s message, that carefully avoids revealing the medieval roots of his religion, Buddhists have been notably aggressive about systematizing, concretizing, and inculcating the belief in hell in their followers. The most shocking example accessible online is the Thai Buddhist Wang Saen Suk Hell Garden, built in 1986. Two twenty-foot statues, a man and a woman, tower over the garden, their tongues protruding to below their waists, surrounded by twenty-one animal-headed demons. These are surrounded by a great number of life-sized torture scenes depicting naked men and women being disemboweled, having their tongues pulled out with pincers, being force-fed boiling liquids, having heads and limbs hacked off, being penetrated genitally with huge, bloody implements, being boiled, sawed in half, and in all too many other ways, having their bodies used as vehicles for the infliction of inconceivably severe pain.[2] Chinese Buddhists have created equally ghastly sculptures to terrorize the faithful.[3]  By comparison with the Thai and Chinese depictions, Japanese hells are tasteful; however, the motivation behind their creation, and their ultimate effects, are equally disturbing.[4] 

Hell Detail from Wheel of Life Thangka, Nechung Oracle Temple

Old Tibet was stuffed with grisly depictions of beings suffering in hell, like this one taken from a wheel-of-life thangka at the monastery of the state oracle at Nechung, that depicts the crushing, disembowelment, impalement, and boiling of the damned, finely adorned with gleaming gold leaf.[5] But until Bercholz recruited an artist to supercharge the traditional Buddhist descriptions of hell with a series of terrifying, surrealistic acrylic paintings, and fired up his printing press to disseminate those lurid visions around the globe, Tibetan Buddhists here in America had gotten by almost entirely without any visual depictions of hell. Now that we have received this questionable gift, however, we have to deal with it.

Who is Bercholz? He's the founder and owner of the world's largest publisher of Buddhist literature -- Boulder-based Shambhala Publishing.[6] It's no coincidence that Shambhala Publishing shares a name, personnel, and agenda with Shambhala International, the Tibetan Buddhist group founded by Bercholz's lama, Chogyam Trungpa. Shambhala International was originally named "Vajradhatu," but changed its corporate name to Shambhala after Trungpa's Vajra Regent, Thomas Rich, brought the name into disrepute by infecting two people with the AIDS virus before dying of the disease himself. Shambhala International is now a spiritual monarchy, led by its "spiritual king," the Sakyong Mipham, who recently fled to Nepal after becoming the focus of a wide-ranging sex scandal. The Sakyong's sexual misdeeds range from drunken groping of party guests, to serial one-night stands with hundreds of willing and unwilling devotees, to rape and child abuse. These facts have been documented in three investigations conducted by his own disciples and attorneys, that strive to avoid revealing unsavory facts, but nonetheless ooze sleaze.

While the revelations of the Sakyong's gross clerical malpractice are only now reaching the ears of the public, his transgressions have been an open secret within the Shambhala community for many years, dating back to the 90s in Colorado, when he admits that he began drinking heavily, in an attempt to deal with his ascent to Masterhood at a young age. It is likely only because of the emergence of the #MeToo movement that the softball investigations[7] conducted by the Buddhist Project Sunshine,[8] the Wickwire Holm law firm[9] and Olive Branch [10] were initiated. Thus, Shambhala’s inner circle, of which Bercholz is a founding member, has for many years known of the need to reinforce discipline to discourage insiders from leaking news of the Sakyong's misdeeds to investigators, reporters, and the public.

Bercholz certainly didn’t publish A Guided Tour of Hell because he thought it would be a big seller. After all, who needs a glossy coffee-table book about semi-eternal damnation, illustrated with gruesome acrylic paintings? To receive it as a gift would be the equivalent of receiving a bullet in the mail. Not a big Christmas seller. This book was published to remind Shambhala insiders, who are, as we shall learn in this essay, subject to strict loyalty oaths and vows of secrecy, of the consequences of careless tongue-wagging.

Bercholz says it's not his intention to scare anyone with his story, but I have a saying -- "If they say they're not doing it, they're doing it!" This is a rule of near-universal application, because nobody tells you what they're "not doing" unless they want to deflect your attention from what they are, in fact, doing. For example, no one tells you where they're not going this weekend, what they won't eat for lunch, or who they're not seeing after work.

To figure out the purpose of something, it helps to see it at work – like a roller coaster, for example. Once you’ve heard the passengers screaming, you know why it was built. Similarly, fear is a common reaction among those who read A Guided Tour. Check the reviews on Amazon, where the faithful are giving it four stars for scaring the dickens out of them. That's what Bercholz intended, and as this review explores, he follows in the time-honored tradition of Buddhist-hell propagandists going back to the time of King Ashoka, who had been fond of terrorizing victims in torture dens until he converted to Buddhism. As we will discuss, when Ashoka adopted Buddhism as his state religion, he closed the torture chambers, but maintained his authoritarian grip on the population by sponsoring a Buddhist cosmology with hells as a central feature.

In A Guided Tour, Bercholz warns his fellow-Buddhists that, if they disobey their lamas, their own minds will become inescapable torture chambers where they will suffer insane torments for near-endless epochs. This demonic vision, honed to razor-sharpness for over a thousand years, was used in Tibet to control generations of believers, who were taught that malevolent forces dominate the universe, and that only reliance upon the lamas could protect them from suffering unspeakable agony in the afterlife. In modern times, scientific studies into the biology of fear have helped military trainers to exercise a wide range of behavioral control over their soldiers and enemy captives. Similarly, Tibetan lamas have used fear to acquire and assert authority over believers and doubters alike.


To understand how Tibetan Buddhism uses the fear of Buddhist hells to exert control over its followers, we begin by establishing that the hells Bercholz claims to have visited in A Guided Tour parallel stock Tibetan Buddhist depictions of hell. A brief review of Indian history establishes that the writings of Vedic scribes designed what became the Buddhist hells approximately a thousand years before they were assimilated into Buddhist doctrine during the reign of Ashoka, the royal sponsor of the Third Buddhist Council, in the Third Century BCE.

Tibet had a substantial oral and written tradition of afterlife stories told by “deloks,” i.e., people who died and returned to tell what they saw, so we study examples of the genre, compare them with Bercholz’s story, and make critical observations. We review some of the Gautama Buddha’s early sermons to establish that he refused to answer questions about the afterlife, and exhorted students to seek “direct knowledge” that leads to “self-awakening and Unbinding.” We then review scientific studies of the brain networks that give rise to fear as an evolutionary-designed system for protection of the organism, and learn how "fear conditioning" is used to assert social control.

To understand the cosmological theories that support the Tibetan belief in hells, we learn how Tibetan Buddhism claims to resolve the conflict between the Buddhist belief in “no-self” and the necessity for some “karmic DNA” to drive the reincarnation process. Having understood the Tibetan concept of the mechanism for reincarnation, we learn that Tibetan Buddhists believe that very high lamas, the “tulkus,” have gained control over the “rebirth process,” and are reincarnating not from karmic compulsion, but rather from the pure altruistic motivation to aid living beings reach enlightenment. We then discuss how the Tibetan adoption of the Hindu tradition of guru worship was applied to turn tulkus into theocratic rulers whose decrees were enforced by the threat of “vajra hell.”

We turn from Tibet’s feudal politics to the machinations of Tibetan Buddhists in the present day, considering two major Tibetan Buddhist scandals to consider whether Bercholz would have an interest in strengthening discipline among believers by trumpeting the doctrine of hell from his bully pulpit at Shambhala Publishing. We find that Bercholz would have ample personal motivation to enforce silence in the Shambhala spiritual organization that is imploding as the reign of the Sakyong Mipham is consumed in a conflagration of shame and betrayal, because Bercholz is a founding member of Shambhala, a senior teacher, and through various organizational ties, a major donor to the Sakyong’s collapsing “Kalapa Kingdom.” For an example of how threats of vajra hell can be used to curtail inquiry into the criminal misconduct of Tibetan lamas, we examine the shocking details of the Rigpa / Sogyal Lakar scandal as revealed in an investigation conducted by Rigpa’s attorneys, quoting from legal findings that Sogyal habitually engaged in brutal sexual, physical, and emotional abuse of students, and threatened them with vajra hell if they dared to refuse his commands, question his authority, or speak about his criminal misconduct.

Because many Tibetan Buddhists mistakenly pride themselves on the purportedly “modern” character of their religion, we reveal the religion’s truly medieval character by examining parallels between medieval Christianity and Tibetan Buddhism, including: belief in the eternal existence of living beings; belief that the destiny of living beings is determined by judgment in the afterlife, and may result in eternal damnation; belief that afterlife judgment is determined by merits accumulated in earthly life; belief that spiritual merit can be accumulated by making monetary payments to people who perform virtuous acts under contract; and, belief that priests and lamas serve as bankers in a spiritual economy of merit that determines the destiny of human souls.

Returning to the present day, we visit a popular Buddhist bulletin board and read posts from people who think they are 21st Century Tibetan Buddhists, struggling to fit vajra hell into their belief systems. We then examine the results of several psychological studies indicating that belief in hell, the Devil, and “pure evil” predisposes believers to express confidence in violent solutions and reject peaceful solutions to relationship problems, to apply corporal punishment to their children, and to engage in child abuse. We conclude that section with a review of evidence that Tibetan Buddhist monasteries are dangerous places for children, including a transcript of a video taped by the reincarnation of Kalu Rinpoche in 2011,[11] disclosing that he had been repeatedly raped by monks.

We then consider the reality that the mind can produce experiences of transcendent terror, examining the psychological impact of terrifying psychedelic experiences that may induce traumatic fears of the inner world, and discuss how psychological fears can be overcome through rational reflection, rather than generalizing from them to draw frightening inferences about the afterlife.

We then consider ancient Tibetan traditions of blood sacrifice that underlie the pervasive practice of propitiating supernatural spirits with simulated blood offerings, and explain how the extremely punitive calculus of Buddhist hells disposes believers to rely on magical rituals to expiate bad karma. Because this irrational, ritualistic behavior has taken root in American soil, we report on magical practices currently popular with American students: using diviners to prescribe a panoply of magical activities that they claim will eliminate obstacles to health, long-life and liberation; propitiating “local” spirits with simulated blood sacrifice; and, hiring lamas to perform lengthy rituals, prayers, and mantra recitations. We also return to the Buddha’s original advice to eschew reliance on magical rituals, to see how far the Tibetan Buddhist doctrine has strayed from the original.

Having established that lamas threaten students with vajra hell to conceal institutional iniquity, we consider the likelihood that the non-virtuous conduct of some of the lamas who preach the doctrine of the hells indicates that they do not, themselves, believe the doctrine. The final sections are devoted to eliminating the causes for belief in hell, first by affirming the correctness of Gautama Buddha’s advice to eschew reliance on faith-based knowledge of the unseen, and seek the confidence of direct knowledge through the use of our sensory faculties, aided by reason and good sense; second, by considering the proper limits of rational inference based on scientific and technical knowledge, and third, by recollecting that hell is a conceptual creation, a cosmological postulate, that was formulated for authoritarian purposes in the minds of human beings who sought to control the behavior of others through fear, and should therefore be rejected by rational people who wish to be free of unwholesome influence.


The action starts at the Palm Springs Airport, where Bercholz is about to board a plane with his Tibetan Buddhist lama Thinley Norbu and a group of students, bound for an exclusive spiritual retreat for well-funded Buddhists. Walking through the broiling heat of the airport parking lot, Bercholz suffers a massive heart attack brought on by sixty years of good living. He's picked the right place to suffer a near-lethal cardiac dysfunction, because Palm Springs is filled with people who've eaten steak and potatoes every night for their whole life, and keel over routinely, just like Bercholz. The surgeons slice him open, scrape out the arterial plaque, give him a sextuple bypass, and stitch his thoracic cavity shut. After receiving this top-level care, Bercholz is alive, but feeling more like a steer hanging in a meat locker than a human being. Numbed by massive doses of pain medications, seeing halos, hearing the groans of rich people in their last agonies, trudging through the ward with the help of two orderlies, Bercholz's vitals plummet, he goes into a coma, and the weirdness begins. His NDE kicks off in classic Tibetan style – he feels a lasso whipped around his feet, and is hauled straight down to the nether regions.

Bercholz doesn't say he experienced actual brain death. He may have simply descended into coma, while continuing to have measurable brain activity.[12] Regardless, if you credit that it happened, Bercholz had a nasty run-in with the universe's dark side, which is statistically unusual, since most people who experience NDEs recount positive experiences. From an objective viewpoint, it's easy to understand that Bercholz had an experience that was conditioned by his life, his study of Tibetan Buddhism, and the physical circumstances of the hospital, where people were suffering grievously, and physicians were working frantically to resuscitate him. He did not record the experience immediately after its occurrence, which he explains by saying he was embarrassed he'd gone to hell.

A Guided Tour presents Bercholz as the ultimate authority on life after death, one who "went there and saw it." And while Bercholz acknowledges that some people might say that his awful visions were merely subjective experiences, he rejects that explanation. He presents his experience as a cosmological fact, and many Buddhists will take it as a grisly truth that they cannot reject. After all, his biography on a Shambhala website[13] says that "both Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Thinley Norbu Rinpoche ... empowered him to teach dharma." And as we'll see further on, it's very dangerous to doubt your teacher.

Although he is selling his story as fact, Bercholz carelessly muddles the border between experience and imagination. He cuts himself a large measure of artistic license by admitting that, while writing and illustrating A Guided Tour, he and the graphic artist re-read Patrul Rinpoche's 19th-century Dharma classic, Words of My Perfect Teacher, with its blood-curdling account of the hells. Bercholz enlivens the traditional description by assuming the role of a reporter who travels the labyrinth of damnation interviewing tormented beings who, lo and behold, are suffering exactly the consequences Patrul Rinpoche predicted for sinners of their type. For Tibetan Buddhists, the similarity between Bercholz's tale and Patrul Rinpoche's teachings might well chill the blood with the horror of recognition, but those less given to habitual reverence may find the correspondence suspicious.

Ironically, given how sick Bercholz was from self-inflicted heart-disease, he never stops to consider that the real heroes in his drama are the surgical teams that know how to do open heart surgery, excising chunks of cholesterol-choked veins and arteries that Sam filled up with fatty gunk, pulling veins out of other parts of the body to replace them, and stitching those veins and arteries back together with instruments so small they need to wear magnifying lenses to see what they're doing. Although his doctors refurbished his damaged heart with consummate skill, Bercholz doesn't give them so much as a tip of the hat. Focused as he is on the realm of the spirit, Bercholz doesn't realize that the only reason he had a near-death experience instead of an actual death experience, was because he received superb medical care. All the veneration goes to his spiritual teachers, whose knowledge of cardiology would fit on a postage stamp, with room to spare.

A further irony may be inferred from Bercholz’s neglect of his “Precious Human Body, difficult to obtain with the eight freedoms and ten endowments.”[14] All Tibetan Buddhists are taught that it takes more than luck to be born as human beings in a Universe where there are countless other life forms.[15] Only good karma from past lives can secure a human incarnation in a healthy body free from disabilities, in a civilized land, where the Dharma is taught, and one has the opportunity to make progress on the spiritual path. Because achieving the goal of Dharma practice takes a long time, the best way to use this precious opportunity is to care for your body, live as long as possible, and practice Dharma earnestly. As Lama Zopa said in a teaching on the ultimate meaning of life, “You should live each day, each hour, each minute, in order to accomplish this ultimate purpose. This is why you try to be healthy and to have a long life.”[16] Bercholz’s massive heart attack at age sixty was almost certainly the result of bad eating habits, a sedentary lifestyle, stress, high blood pressure, and abdominal obesity.[17] However, he does not spend one inch of typespace in A Guided Tour considering how his self-indulgent lifestyle almost terminated his opportunities for practicing the Dharma. This is consistent with the behavior of his guru Chogyam Trungpa, who destroyed his own health aggressively, paralyzing himself in a drunken car accident, descending into alcoholism, cocaine addiction, and habitual bulimic purging, coughing up blood, and dying in a coma.

Bercholz tells us that upon hearing his story, one lama burst out laughing, and said, "So you are the first American delok!" “Deloks” are what are called “revenants” in the European tradition – people who have died and returned to tell the tale of their sojourn in the afterlife. We will consider the significance of this comment later in this review, when we discuss the history of deloks in their native Tibet, and how they fit into the uniquely Tibetan view of a world where consensual reality routinely gave place to the supernatural in many aspects of daily life.


Bercholz doesn't suffer much in hell, because he's quickly reassured that he's a guest of "the Buddha of Hell," a vaguely anthropomorphic divine presence who shields Bercholz from the intense heat and cold pervading the hells. He's also accompanied by an angelic being that he calls "Janna Sophia," an interesting name, since "jhana" is Sanskrit for "meditation," and "Sophia" is Greek for "wisdom." These two beings don't take a major role in the story, though. We hear that the Buddha of Hell is always present, ready to help any of the suffering beings in his domain to escape their agonies, and every now and then, Janna Sophia does some minor thing or another, but essentially, they only provide a comforting backdrop to explain how Bercholz can be in a blazing hell and not melt like the proverbial snowball, or remain unfrozen in the uniquely-Tibetan cold hells. The Buddha of Hell is thus a depressingly impotent jailer, unlike Buddha Vajrasattva, who “harrows the hells,” Yamantaka, who “destroys death,” and Arya Tara, who “shatters the seven underworlds,” and “destroys the hosts of evil spirits, yakshas, and the walking dead.”

I received my personal introduction to the Tibetan hells in the winter of 1979, at a retreat in the snowy mountains of Southern Oregon where the Tashi Choling Nyingmapa temple now stands. Gyatrul Rinpoche taught us the Long Chen Nyingthik ngondro for three days, including a three-hour teaching on the hot and cold hells. Gyatrul Rinpoche prefaced the teaching by conceding that western students never liked hearing about the hells, and that therefore he wasn't going to go on too long about them, but that this was a very important teaching, and we should try not to reject them. When I read through Bercholz's account of the hot and cold hells, I was struck by how closely they followed Gyatrul Rinpoche's descriptions.

Bercholz presents the story as a series of biographical sketches in which each person tells him their life story, and Bercholz explains how their earthly conduct led to their damnation. Because these hell realms are very physical, and merely magnify the agonies to which physical bodies are subject, several of these damned souls haven’t even realized that they are dead. They transitioned from life to death without noticing the change, and are still involved in replaying endless cycles of anger, hatred, retaliation, abuse, killing, death, and frustration. One of the strange things about Bercholz’s hell is that all of the damned he interviews have Asian or otherwise foreign-sounding names, and none are American or Western European. Apparently there are no New York investment bankers, Boulder-based publishers, or Beverly Hills cosmetic surgeons in hell – a notion that strains credulity.

Bercholz's hell is a claustrophobic group experience that echoes Sartre’s declaration that "hell is other people." Beings are packed together in misery, radiating anger, heat, resentment and hatred. This emotional overload generates a mounting crescendo of pain that intensifies the agony of each and all, which is relieved by occasional, brief moments of unconsciousness. This depiction channels the classic Tibetan image of innumerable beings boiling in a cauldron of molten metal, for whom relief occurs only when demons smack them on the head with red-hot hammers, and they pass out from the impact, only to awaken again in the boiling pot.

Bercholz begins by exploring the fate of those who commit suicide, and discover that they've failed to end their consciousness, and now must wallow in a muck-filled sewer of human excrement, blood and pus. He interviews a tycoon who engineered sophisticated artificial intelligence robots, creating a world filled with pollution and grinding inhumanity. He elicits the life story of an eastern-bloc scientist who developed a doomsday device and pushed the button that would destroy all life on earth. From there he moves on to a bloodthirsty killer from an African nation who was killed in the same type of coup he executed to unseat his own enemies. Each of these beings is a victim of their own speed and aggression. Bewildered by their inability to control the forces that engulf them in the afterlife, they are blown to pieces by sudden impacts that they cannot anticipate, they explode in rage, they are killed in the act of killing.

In the cold hell, we meet a wealthy man who has lived mechanically, without human feeling, and now trudges the icy streets of an empty, frozen, wind-whipped city on feet that gradually become covered with agonizing blisters until he can no longer move. Another cold-hell denizen is a Japanese woman who lived an affluent lifestyle in an art-filled home, but could not show the smallest kindness when it was asked of her. She suffers the classic Tibetan cold-hell pain of developing a cold blister that increases in complexity, splitting into two blisters, then four, then eight, all the way up into the hundreds, at each point increasing in painfulness. She is so focused on her pain that even when the Buddha of Hell heals her blister, she brings it immediately back into existence and starts counting the splits as the pain mounts, reassuring herself that her monotonous agony will continue without interruption.

In the Tibetan cosmology, the damned suffer in these extreme hot and cold hells for unbelievably long periods of time, emerging only by way of a long, slow journey through "trivial hells" that the damned trudge through for hundreds or thousands of years on their way to the final exit. To choose just one trivial hell for an example, those who were magnetized by lust during their earthly lives now hear their lovers calling from the top of a tree, begging for rescue. When the victim of this illusion tries to climb the tree, it turns out to be covered with razors. Fighting their way to the top, they arrive, self-lacerated and covered in their own blood, only to discover that a nasty, iron-beaked parrot has been simulating their lover's voice, and rewards them for climbing the tree by pecking out their eyes. Bercholz’s recounting of these trivial hell stories, in which mirages promising relief dissolve and reveal new torments, closely follow the classic doctrinal formula, and lack originality, leading the informed reader to suspect that they were included for the sake of completeness.

One thing that seems strange, then, is Bercholz's omission of any description of the worst hell, the Avici hell, reserved for heretics who have broken their Buddhist vows, killed their parents, shed the blood of a Buddha, or committed other doctrinally-proscribed actions. The Avici hell has two characteristics -- the agony is uninterrupted by the briefest respite, and continues until the Universe itself expires. Given the close parallel with the classic accounts of hell in Tibetan scriptures, it's clear that Bercholz is affirming the whole ball of blazing wax, so we are left to wonder why he backed off before administering the final, terrifying blow. Perhaps because those to whom this dread volume is directed don't need to have it all spelled out in letters of flame. As a cruel Catholic priest once told me with a soft smile as he delivered an understated threat -- "A word to the wise is sufficient."


Where did Patrul Rinpoche get the concept of hells that he put into Words of My Perfect Teacher?  Gautama Buddha did not assert the existence of hell in any of the sermons reliably attributed to him. Hell is not an element of Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path, nor does it feature in his explication of the Twelvefold Wheel of Dependent Origination, the wheel we must stop turning to experience freedom.

The Sanskrit term for hell is "naraka," the same term Tibetan Buddhists use. Naraka originated in Vedic mythology, as recorded in the Vedas and Puranas in 1500 BCE,[18] a thousand years before the birth of the historical Buddha, who is thought to have lived in India from 563 BCE to 483 BCE.[19]

The Tibetan Buddhist naraka has features identical to those of the Vedic/Puranic hells: (1) the hells are segmented into various different types,[20] (2) many of the Buddhist hells have the same names as Hindu hells: Raurava (lamentation), Maharaurava (great lamentation), Kalasutra (hell of black wire), Avici (uninterrupted pain),[21] (3) both the Hindu and Buddhist hells are surrounded by the river Vaitarani,[22] that is filled with blood, dung and all sorts of filth,[23] (4) the Vedic and Buddhist hells are ovens with metal grates for floors, radiating the full spectrum of heat from red to blue, and (5) Yama is the Lord of both the Buddhist and Hindu hells.

As we shall discuss further below, Buddhists also borrowed the doctrines of reincarnation, guru worship, and mantra practices from Hindu religion. Shiva-worshipping tantrics (Śaivists) and Tantric Buddhists emulated each other extensively, so the two schools mirror each other in numerous ways. “Tantric Śaivism and Tantric Buddhism borrowed freely from one another, creating marked parallelisms primarily in practice, and sometimes in thought as well. They even have synonymous names: the emic name for Tantric Śaivism is Mantramārga, a parallel with Tantric Buddhism’s Mantrayāna as well as the earlier Mantranaya.”[24]

The Vedic/Puranic hells were invented to enforce Brahmanical social norms. As Eileen Gardner observes in her "Hell-on-Line" website, that provides excellent histories of various hells from a wide sampling of cultures: "It would be difficult to call many of these deeds sins in a Western sense, since they often include actions that would simply be considered impolite, rude or unhygienic. For urinating in front of a cow, a brahman, the sun or fire, for example, crows would rip the intestines out through the anus of the offender."[25] Similarly, women who drink alcohol are forced to drink molten iron in hell, while male drinkers are force-fed hot molten lava.[26] Another clever Hindu hell is the "river of semen," in which men who force others to swallow their semen are drowned, "feeding upon semen alone until his period of punishment" is exhausted.[27]

Hells are born of sadistic control fantasies, but to be effective they must take into account the fears of the audience. For example, Chinese hells are controlled by nitpicking bureaucratic functionaries whose records are mixed up, resulting in souls being placed in the wrong realms due to cases of mistaken identity, so even the best of efforts to save the damned collapse under the weight of excessive paperwork.[28] When the lore of the Buddhist hells went to the Land of Snows, the Tibetans added cold hells to terrify the natives, who were well acquainted with the pain of freezing to death, and easily terrorized with the notion that the afterlife could be a frozen wasteland without a hot stove or a cup of butter chai. In these perpetually frozen domains, the damned suffer from agonizing blisters that split and split yet again and yet again, ad infinitum. Only people who have suffered the agony of the freezing cold would be responsive to such threats, so that is exactly what their compassionate clergy gave them.[29]


Bercholz’s suggestion that he is an American delok invites investigation of the delok tradition. Delok stories have a historical beginning as a literary genre, and follow certain conventions. The delok stories began to appear in Tibetan written literature in the fifteenth century.[30] The stories began as oral recounting, were transcribed by religious writers, infused with some common doctrinal elements, and retold by traveling bards who entertained crowds in villages and towns, illustrating their tales with large thangka-paintings. This tradition resembles the manner in which folktales were disseminated in medieval Europe and gradually evolved into the mystery and morality plays that were used to teach religious doctrine to the illiterate European serfs of the middle ages, whose rough lives and scant intellectual development parallels that of the Tibetan populace well into the twentieth century.

Delok stories became subplots in larger narratives, providing a redemptive ending to an otherwise tragic story, as in the popular tale of Nangsa Obum, a romance of star-crossed lovers. After being beaten to death by her father-in-law, Nangsa Obum descends to hell, passes through judgment by Shinje Yamaraja, the Lord of Hell, who returns her to the world of the living, where she passes the remainder of her days as a nun, teaching others the path to redemption.

Delok stories begin by recounting the painful emotional experience of dying of an incurable illness. The dying process is recounted according to the Bardo Thodol teachings, wherein “the elements” of the body -- earth, water, fire, air and ether – dissolve one into the next, prompting a series of extrasensory experiences that culminate in death. Although evicted from the physical body, the dead person inhabits a gandharva body, a life-form that “eats odors” and can travel with the speed of thought. The dead person looks back on their corpse, but instead of their own cadaver, they see an animal’s corpse, dressed in their own clothes. “In every case, the dead person’s body is seen not as a human corpse but as the cadaver of some specific animal—a pig, a frog, a snake, or a dog. The delok never recognizes it as his or her own body, even though in many instances the animal corpse lies in the delok’s bed dressed in his or her own clothes.”[31]

Because the dead person is alienated from their own corpse, they don’t realize they’re dead, and try to participate in human society. They try to talk with people who cannot see them, asking to be served food, water, beer, and tea, and they get angry with their relatives for ignoring them. Whenever the dead encounter weeping mourners, they are pelted with egg-sized hailstones composed of blood and pus that materialize from the sky and cause them grievous pain.

Eventually they notice that their body isn’t casting a shadow, and realize they’re dead. Then they get agitated, lose connection with their physical surroundings, and begin wandering in an eerie landscape: “[T]hey travel over earth of molten iron, long and empty stretches of road, over rocky mountains and mountains composed of fire, mountains of copper, mountains of molten bronze, valleys and open plains, through magic forests with trees of iron and trees with razor-sharp leaves, along the edges of ravines and pits of burning embers, inside houses of molten iron, across the shores of immense rivers and oceans, inside palaces of lotus flowers, temples … a nightmarish distortion of the everyday world the delok left behind.”[32]

This is the journey through the “bardo,” the intermediate space between life and death. On this journey, the delok is accompanied by a companion, sometimes a celestial being, who explains some of what they’re seeing. Jangchup Senge, a lama-delok whose experiences we discuss further below, was accompanied by a handsome young man who was an emanation of Avalokiteshvara. They eventually come to a large bridge and see a big town on the other side, where the recently-deceased abide in their ghandharva bodies. In the famous story of Lingza Chokyi, the dead woman’s companion tells her that the bridge is the border between the living and the dead, where people wait up to 49 days, a time period prescribed by the Bardo Thodol, waiting to be brought up before Shinje Yamaraja, the Lord of the Dead, who will judge their karma and determine their destiny. Awaiting judgment, the dead remain in a familiar social milieu. Those whose relatives sponsor generous funeral ceremonies with abundant offerings for the lamas enjoy comfortable accommodations, while those whose relatives make stingy funeral offerings, or omit them altogether, must suffer in poverty. The Tibetan mechanism for transmitting food to the dead is simple – food and drink are simply burned up in a fire, and the smoke nourishes them in their ghandharva form.[33] Physical and social landmarks keep the dead psychologically close to home. They may run into people they’ve known during their lifetime, or hear news of how people who died before they did have been faring in the afterlife.

The delok has a chance to observe a number of trials, where Shinje Yamaraja passes judgment on the dead. Shinje is assisted by two spirits who were born simultaneously with every human being, and accompany them throughout their life, and keep account of their bad and good actions with bags of black and white stones. Shinje weighs the stones in his scale, and takes testimony from the dead person, checking their story against the “mirror of karma,” that replays videos of all past events at his command. Occasionally, Shinje will discover that there’s been an error in demonic bookkeeping, for example, the demons have snatched a person with the same last name. These erroneously damned people get sent back to the land of the living with a stern reminder to tell everyone about what they learned in the bardo, i.e., that they should make a lot more offerings to the lamas so they’ll have a happy landing when they die. Karma Wangzin, a noble young woman, was sent back with specific directions from the Lord of Death: “Encourage the people of Dzambuling to follow virtue and give them a message about what happens in the bardo between death and the next life. The reason you’re doing this is that in your former life you met with Dorje Pakmo (a female deity) and you received initiations, reading-transmissions, and oral instructions from her.” Shinje provided her with details of her past incarnations to further put her in touch with her elevated destiny, that made her a fit candidate to “return to your body in the human world and work extensively for the welfare of beings….”[34]

After a negative judgment is passed, demons step forward like bailiffs to take the damned to hell, but the delok tradition does not place a heavy emphasis on the grisly depictions of hell that chill the blood of those who read Patrul Rinpoche’s Words of My Perfect Teacher and other traditional lamaist renderings of the precisely-detailed hells. There is a greater emphasis on the sense of the individual spirit being lost, deprived, driven about by “the winds of karma,” beguiled by illusory appearance, and terrified of the possibility of being sent to hell by Shinje Yamaraja’s final judgment.

There can even be saving graces in the after-death state. Janchup Senge, the lama whose companion was Avalokiteshvara, found the temple that Maugdalayana built when he rescued his mother from hell, and gives us this description: “That temple has the capacity to remove suffering just by being seen … a four-sided celestial palace with four ornamental gates, a series of archways, and dharma wheels [where] the harmonious music of gods and goddesses” was playing. After this auspicious experience, Jangchup Senge answered Shinje’s questions satisfactorily, reciting his birth to noble parents, education in the Dharma, and recognition of the nature of the mind “as it exists in the bardo realm.” Shinje then conversed with him congenially about the virtues of Avalokiteshvara’s six-syllable mantra, and how people should prepare for the moment of death. Shinje also suggested a new design for prayer-flags that Jangchup Senge popularized throughout Tibet, after his return to the land of the living.[35]

When the delok is returned to the place where their corpse lies, they still see it as an animal form, but must re-enter it to come back to life. When Lingza Chokyi looked at the pig carcass dressed in her clothes, she reached out and grabbed them to pull them off, and then found herself back in her body, reviving. Jangchup Senge simply realized, “That dog’s corpse is my own corpse!” and received a bit of advice from Avalokiteshvara to exercise “a little will power” to recover his “precious human body.” Thereupon, he found himself back in his body.

Once back in their body, the delok may have more problems. When Karma Wangzin returned to her body, the person who was keeping watch over her wanted to be sure she wasn’t a zombie. “Removing the veil he smacked my head many times and then placed his hands on my bosom.”[36] The fear that corpses might become reanimated by demonic spirits was common in Tibet. “To guard against [this] the corpse must be watched continuously throughout the day and night. *** [There are] dramatic tales of monks engaged in hand-to-hand combat with possessed corpses, of entire villages contaminated by ‘zombie madness,’ and even comical stories of young, inexperienced lamas beating corpses over the head with the thick wooden book covers of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.”[37] “Once the corpse is animated, it walks about with tongue wagging and arms outstretched, intending to spread its ‘zombie sickness’ … by touching victims with the palm of its hand [but] they move slowly, are unable to speak, and cannot bend at the waist [which is why] the main doorways of Tibetan homes are often cut low to keep [zombies] from entering.”[38]

The delok stories are part and parcel of “a world overpopulated by evil forces threatening defenseless human beings *** a world haunted by fear of death and disease, terrified of dark demonic powers, and suspicious of destructive forces that are able to appear deceptively normal and harmless to the untrained eye. This view of such an uneasy world had a popular basis in Tibetan society and was widely shared among all categories of people, whether they were scholar-monks or illiterate lamas, pious [laypersons], wandering evangelists or accomplished yogis. In reading through the Tibetan literature on demons, rising corpses, and people who return from the world of the dead, one cannot help but come away with the sense that fear and paranoia must have struck a constant chord in the lives of Tibetans everywhere, or at the very least in the imaginations of those Tibetans such works were most likely to impress.”[39]

Comparing the classic delok tale with Bercholz’s, we find some differences. He doesn’t see his corpse as that of a pig, although given the way he treated his body, that would hardly have been an unjust fate. He doesn’t experience the confusion of being ignored by his relatives, nor does he see people mourning his death while failing to perceive him. Nor does he suffer the slight of not being offered food and drink while others quaff and dine before him. He doesn’t see any mourners, and is not pelted with pus and blood. He has a spiritual companion, but he doesn’t cross a bridge, wander lost through desolate landscapes, or spend time in the town where people await the determination of their fates while the lamas chant over their bodies for forty-nine days. Because Americans don’t have the tradition of paying lamas to sit with the body of the decedent while chanting the Bardo Thodol and burning food and drink offerings for the purpose of nourishing the departed in their ghandharva form, this was of course omitted.

Bercholz completely leaves out the climactic judgment scene, where Shinje Yamaraja determines the fates of the dead by summoning the surveillance spirits, weighing their black and white stones, questioning the dead, and testing their statements against the images appearing in the mirror of karma. One might ask why Bercholz couldn’t have updated the legend by giving the Lord of Hell a computer, a database of surveillance videos, and access to everyone’s social media passwords, emails accounts, Netflix, Steam, and porn-site memberships. The answer might well be that such an evocation would certainly provoke some wag to remark on the death-lord’s resemblance to Mark Zuckerberg, a man Bercholz would be loathe to place in an unfavorable light, given Facebook’s vital role in disseminating spiritual fictions worldwide. Finally, avoiding a pop-culture reference that might invite a humorous sendup, Bercholz was not mistaken for a zombie when he returned from his trip to hell.

In the traditional delok story, the focus is on the individual’s struggle with karmic destiny, that culminates with redemption and realization that it is an error to live for worldly purposes, while neglecting spiritual opportunities. Departing from the delok narrative style, Bercholz skips the bardo and goes straight to hell, where he updates and personalizes the suffering promised by the traditional Tibetan Buddhist hells. His claustrophobic visions, crammed with suffering beings who enhance each other’s pain in a collective orgy of all-encompassing, ever-increasing suffering, imbues the story with a depressing sense that this mass disaster is inescapable. Where the delok stories placed Tibetans in a familiar cultural context, making the bardo a magical extension of the physical realm, Bercholz’s hell, populated by beings with strange names, absorbed in a gang-bang of endless violence or numbing isolation in mechanized, urban environments, reflects the sterility and anomie of modern life, effusing a mood of existential dread like a toxic cloud.


Interesting as it is to scholars and persons posing as Tibetan Buddhists in the 21st Century, the entire Tibetan vision of the afterlife would have been regarded as superstitious rubbish by the original founder of Buddhism. Gautama Buddha lived sometime between the 6th and 4th Centuries BCE. The original teachings of Gautama Buddha on eternal life are found in Sutta 63 of the Majjhima Nikaya, composed between the 3rd and 2nd Century BCE. In this Sutta, Gautama Buddha reminded Malunkyaputta, a monk who was threatening to quit the Order if he didn't get some answers to various questions about the afterlife, that he, the Buddha, had never promised to answer such questions as an inducement to enter the holy life:

"Pray, Mâlunkyâputta, did I ever say to you, 'Come, Mâlunkyâputta, lead the religious life under me, and I will elucidate to you either that the world is eternal, or that the world is not eternal, . . . or that the saint neither exists nor does not exist after death'?"

"Nay, verily, Reverend Sir."

"Or did you ever say to me, 'Reverend Sir, I will lead the religious life under The Blessed One, on condition that The Blessed One elucidate to me either that the world is eternal, or that the world is not eternal, . . . or that the saint neither exists nor does not exist after death'?"

"Nay, verily, Reverend Sir."

"So you acknowledge, Mâlunkyâputta, that I have not said to you, 'Come, Mâlunkyâputta, lead the religious life under me and I will elucidate to you either that the world is eternal, or that the world is not eternal, . . . or that the saint neither exists nor does not exist after death...."

The Buddha's position on the afterlife was thus a non-position. He simply refused to talk about it. In the Simsapa Sutta, he explained that he would not answer questions about the afterlife because they do not lead to “direct knowledge, self-awakening, and Unbinding,” the true goals of practice:

"Once the Blessed One was staying at Kosambi in the simsapa forest. Then, picking up a few simsapa leaves with his hand, he asked the monks:"

"What do you think, monks: Which are more numerous, the few simsapa leaves in my hand or those overhead in the simsapa forest?"

"The leaves in the hand of the Blessed One are few in number, lord. Those overhead in the simsapa forest are more numerous."

"In the same way, monks, those things that I have known with direct knowledge but have not taught are far more numerous [than what I have taught]. And why haven't I taught them? Because they are not connected with the goal, do not relate to the rudiments of the holy life, and do not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding. That is why I have not taught them."[40]


Since the Buddha didn’t even endorse the idea of the afterlife, someone else must have adapted the Vedic hells to the Buddhist idiom. The Buddha’s sermons were not written down during his lifetime, and were maintained in an oral tradition for hundreds of years, so we can’t establish precisely when the hells were injected into Buddhist doctrine. However, we can identify the time period when they appeared in Buddhist literature.

Buddhist writings began to proliferate during the rule of the Indian King Ashoka, a major Buddhist historical figure. Although reverenced by the Buddhist hierarchy because of his conversion to Buddhism and adoption of the faith as his state religion, Ashoka killed all three of his brothers, slaughtered hundreds of thousands to establish the Mauryan Empire, and ruled the Indian subcontinent with an iron hand from 273 to 232 BCE. Although Buddha had ordered that his teachings not be written down, Ashoka put up many stone pillars with admonitions reflecting his Buddhist beliefs, and these pillars are some of the first "Buddhist writings." According to Buddhist tradition, the Third Buddhist Council was conducted under Ashoka’s auspices, in the seventeenth year of his reign. There were many conflicting doctrines contending for legitimacy at the Council, and various factions appealed to Ashoka to give royal approval to their doctrines. The factions that received Ashoka’s endorsement would also have accommodated his doctrinal predilections.

Hell first appears in Buddhist literature in the Ashokan era, in a compilation of Buddhist tales entitled the Mahavastu, in which one of Buddha's disciples, Maugdalayana, makes a trip to hell to fetch his mother, and returns to tell the tale. The Mahavastu includes the "Jataka Tales," that ostensibly tell the story of the Buddha's past lives, and present him as a transcendent being with supernatural powers who merely pretended to suffer from human vulnerabilities for the edification of ordinary humans. Thus the Mahavastu upends the revolutionary story that Buddha was a man who rejected wealth and power as the son of a king, and wandered in the jungle, meditating in solitude until he mastered his fate through the diligent study of his own mind. The Buddha of the Mahavastu is presented as an inherently divine being, a spiritual king, who descended to the earthly plane like a standard Hindu deity. The Mahavastu is thus the first of an innumerable sequence of Buddhist books that fit the Buddha into a standard Hindu cosmo-conception, and inject his life story with mystagoguery. The Mahavastu is written in Buddhist Sanskrit, not Pali, the language of the original Buddhist Scriptures, and thus likely includes interpolations made to reach a rapprochement with Hinduism.[41] Such writings can be seen as a corruption and concealment of the true doctrine that remake Gautama Buddha in the image of a universal monarch, depriving him of his inspiring character as a humble, egalitarian renunciate.

Before he converted to Buddhism, Ashoka was obsessed with the tortures of hell, and even built a torture den designed to look like a beautiful palace that would lure unsuspecting visitors to enter in search of pleasure. His chief torturer, Girika, swore an oath to kill every person who entered the torture palace, that history has named “Ashoka’s Hell.” Legend says that Girkia convinced Ashoka to “to design the torture chamber based on the suffering endured by people reborn in Buddhist hell,” and “was so terrifying, that Emperor Ashoka was thought to have visited hell so that he could perfect its evil design.”[42] When Girika failed in his efforts to boil a Buddhist saint alive, Ashoka put Girika to death, demolished the torture palace, and converted to Buddhism. This legend is often paired with the story that Ashoka repented of warfare after killing 350,000 people while conquering the kingdom of Kalinga; thus, there is some ambiguity about which event prompted Ashoka to convert. In any event, historians concur that after he conquered Kalinga, although he did not abandon warfare altogether, Ashoka reduced the frequency and brutality of his wars, and encouraged the growth of the Buddhist Sangha. As a Buddhist king, Ashoka realized that threatening people with hellfire could be more effective than actually killing them. As the Tao Teh Ching observes, "If the people no longer fear death, it is useless to threaten them with death."[43] People who do not fear death are the ultimate danger to authority, as Ashoka had learned in the conquest of Kalinga, where the people sacrificed their lives in great numbers to resist his domination.

Ashoka's doctrinal servants were enthusiastic purveyors of hell, and placed strong emphasis on the idea that the disembodied soul, after death, cannot actually die. Thus, in a clever innovation that makes this point, the first Buddhist hell is called "Alive Again!", where victims are executed by horrendous devices, and revived again to suffer the same fate, ad infinitum.


When Ashoka tasked his scribes with creating Buddhist hells with words and images, he knew his business. Modern science has delved deep into the brain mechanisms that make it possible to deliberately generate fears in living subjects, and to use those fears to condition human behavior. In a 2002 article on the state of the art in brain science, Swiss scientist Thierry Siemes, PhD, explains that "the main function of fear and anxiety is to act as a signal of danger, threat, or motivational conflict, and to trigger appropriate adaptive responses." Fifteen major brain networks work together to transform external stimuli such as frightening faces, loud noises and foul odors into physical responses -- elevated heartbeats, respiratory distress, freezing in place, escape attempts, vomiting, urination, and defecation. Direct electrical stimulation of specific regions in the amygdala, the hypothalamus, or the periaqueductal gray produces "a full fear response". Over a hundred years of animal experimentation have established "the primary role of the amygdala in controlling emotional behaviors," and generated a large body of research into "fear conditioning."

The first human deliberately fear-conditioned for science was an unfortunate 10-month old English toddler remembered as "Baby Albert." After experimenters showed Albert a white rat and simultaneously banged on a metal bar right behind his head a few times, he developed a terror of white rats that grew to include all white, furry things, like a mere ball of cotton. Fear conditioning can be adapted to make anyone fear anything. Rats have been conditioned to fear both general environments (the cage where they get shocked) and specific cues (a light that goes on every time they get shocked).

While it would be impossible to condition a rat by telling it a scary story, the same is not true of people. Children are taught to hate people with different skin color and different speech accents by telling them scary or disgusting stories about “those people.” Fear conditioning is also accomplished by referring to other racial or ethnic groups with disparaging names and pictures, and picturing them as barbaric, semi-human caricatures, as is common in war propaganda. Much of the TV-watching populace of the United States was fear-conditioned into acquiescing in the commission of war crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo by being shown videos of the WTC Towers collapsing over and over again while hearing false statements about who was responsible for the attack. Fear conditioning is extremely powerful and not subject to rational control, because it "provides a critical survival-related function in the face of threat."

An NYU study showed that people who are shown the image of another person being shocked developed an aversive response just as if they'd been shocked directly, and concluded that "Pavlovian and observational learning, which humans share with other primates, might be supported by an evolutionarily old system that predates the emergence of language...."[44] This is likely because the amygdala is set to overreact to threats that it believes may be dangerous to the body, and is central to the induction of fear conditioning.[45]

So let's imagine that you are sitting in a Tibetan Buddhist temple where a robed monk delivers a terrifying sermon about hell. If this stimulus association is repeated a number of times, the subject will experience the fear of hell whenever he sees the images that were invoked in the sermon, which are incorporated into religious art and sculpture. Indeed, after a few exposures to the same monk telling the same terrifying story, the subject may experience the fear of hell merely upon seeing the monk in the temple. And why would the monk want to scare you? To gain power and exercise authority over you. To hold the chain and play the master. As Thinley Norbu, Bercholz's main teacher said wistfully, "In another Tibetan custom, people showed their respect for others in higher positions by scratching their heads, symbolizing that they had goose bumps as a sign of fear in response to those they were respecting, as a way to acknowledge their higher and more powerful position."[46]

Some people are more sensitive to fire and brimstone preaching than others. After hearing a bloodcurdling sermon on "the Eight Scorching Hells" from a Nichiren priest as a child, the famous Japanese Zen teacher Hakuin was fear conditioned to suffer great aversion to the sight of water being heated over an open fire to prepare the bath. When his mother said, "I can't see what's so frightening about gurgling water," he answered "Mother, you don't understand. I can't even go into the bath without having my knees knock and my blood run cold. Just think what it will be like when I have to face the burning fires of hell all by myself. What am I going to do? Isn't there any way to escape? Do I have to sit back and wait calmly until death comes? If you know something, please tell me about it. I want to know everything! Have pity on me. Save me. This intolerable agony continues day and night -- I can't bear it any longer." Ultimately, driven by his fear of the hells, Hakuin became a Zen monk at the age of fourteen, and continued to preach a doctrine of extreme consequences throughout his life.


As we have noted, Gautama Buddha taught that belief in an afterlife was unhelpful to reaching the goal of “direct knowledge, self-awakening, and Unbinding.” These goals, he implied, are to be attained in this life, in this body, with this mind. But purveyors of religion chafe against such restrictions. Their theories require an expanse of time where spiritual imaginations can take wing, and cosmic dramas can unfold.

By expanding the playing field of existence into an asserted afterlife, beyond birth and death, religious theorists can accommodate a doctrine of "soul development" spanning lifetimes. Like Hindus, Tibetan Buddhists believe in the endless cycle of reincarnation, which is futile and pervaded with suffering. Like Hindus, Tibetan Buddhists aspire to end compelled reincarnation by living ethically, performing ritual offerings, visualizing oneself as a luminous being in a divine environment, and receiving spiritual blessings from divine beings that generate transcendent insights into the nature of Reality. Additionally, Tibetan Buddhists and all Mahayanists aspire to be Bodhisattvas, and establish all sentient beings in the permanent happiness of liberation, because they have at some time or another, been our kind and compassionate mothers.

The Tibetan Buddhist story of life after death presumes we each possess a mind of original clarity that is locked in unawareness by the ignorant assumption of self-existence. Believing in self-benefit as the means to obtain happiness, we are pulled by attraction and pushed by aversion, compulsively reborn in physical, supra-physical, and non-physical realms, without any endpoint. Through philosophical sleight-of-hand, Tibetan Buddhism avoids the fact that reincarnation requires the existence of some vehicle to carry the dead person's "soul-impression," "personality record" or "karmic DNA" from life to life. Reginald Ray performs this conceptual trick in an essay on karma published on PBS.org:

"The Buddhist insistence that there is ultimately no 'I' or 'self' raises an interesting question: how can there be karmic continuity from life to life? [E]very intentional action leaves a karmic imprint on our minds [that] remains within us at an inaccessible level of our mind known as the alaya [and] exits the body at death and carries along with it our entire karmic history *** because, although ultimately there is no self, [every] moment of consciousness, acting as a principal cause, transfers its karmic burden to the next, during our life and at our death. It is our very belief in a 'self' that holds this karmic stream intact and enables us to have the illusion of being a separate, discrete person. It is this illusory idea, structured according to our karma, that continues from one lifetime to the next."[47] In other words, Tibetan Buddhists assert that although people have no self-identity, the “illusory self,” or "samsaric consciousness" reincarnates.

However, if the only thing that reincarnates is samsaric consciousness, what is it that becomes Buddha? The Buddha-nature of every living being is variously called “the Essence of Mind”[48] or “Tathaghatagharba,” a change of nomenclature that preserves the essential Hindu doctrine of Atman.[49] According to the Vedic/Upanishadic tradition, when Atman, the God-essence of all living beings, becomes contaminated with “kleshas,” delusive thought impressions, it gives rise to individual living beings, who suffer compelled reincarnation until at last, through ascetic and meditative practices (tapas and jhana), they cleanse the delusion of individual self-existence, merge back into Atman, and remain one with God in Sat-Chit-Ananda, Existence-Consciousness-Bliss. Tibetan Buddhists adopted the Mahayana philosophy of the Self returning to its pure origins, as described in The Mahaparinirvana Sutra:

“If a person is able truly to discern
That his/ her intrinsic being possesses the Buddha-Nature,
Then you should know that such a person
Will enter into the Secret Matrix [the Tathagatagarbha].
That person who knows the Self [atman] and what belongs to the Self [atmiya]
Has already transcended the mundane world.”[50]

The Mahayana doctrine of Tathagatagharbha mirrors the Upanishadic doctrine of Atman because “when Buddhism developed itself into Mahāyāna Buddhism, it could not but take the appearance of Monism as a result of Absolutization of the Buddha, and approach the Upanisadic thinking in its philosophy.”[51] Thus, like Hindu yogis, Tibetan Buddhists pursue yogic practices and seek the guru’s blessings to remove kleshas that obscure awareness of Tathagatagharba, the Essence of Mind. “What we call ‘essence of mind’ is the actual face of unconditioned pure awareness, which is recognized through receiving the guru's blessings and instructions. If you wonder what this is like, it is empty in essence, beyond conceptual reference; it is cognizant by nature, spontaneously present; and it is all-pervasive and unobstructed in its compassionate energy.”[52]

Once re-established in the pure awareness of the Essence of Mind or Tathagatagharba, one becomes the equal of the Buddha. “’The Self’ signifies the Buddha; ’the Eternal’ signifies the Dharmakaya; ’Bliss’ signifies Nirvana, and ’the Pure’ signifies Dharma.”[53] From that liberated sphere, the Bodhisattvas emanate benefit into all realms, as generosity becomes their vehicle to achieve the ultimate liberation of all beings. The Mahaparinirvana sutra states: “When the Bodhisattva gives, he so contrives things that beings do not ask and yet are given [what they need]. As a result of this, on the morning of Buddhahood, he attains the Sovereign Self [aisvarya-atman; i.e. the autonomous, free and unrestricted Self].”[54]

Thus, Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism espouse similar views of the cause of compelled reincarnation and the means of ending it. Compelled reincarnation is due to infatuation with appearances, arising from delusive belief in self-existence separate from Atman or Tathagatagharba. Compelled reincarnation is ended by cleansing the mind of kleshas that cause attraction to external objects. “All created things are sorrow; Nirvana is Bliss. It is most wonderful and destroys created things.”[55] The two flows of doctrine were symbolically merged when Avalokiteshvara, the Buddhist god of compassion, was merged with Shiva, the King of the Vedic Yogis. "Wangchuk Chenpo (Mahashevara, Shiva), the great god of Hinduism, is also described as a manifestation of Avalokiteshvara."[56]

While they support each other well on a theoretical basis, neither Hindu nor Tibetan Buddhist systems of reincarnation can point to any reliable evidence to support their theories of the afterlife. The technology of karmic DNA data storage hasn’t advanced beyond Shinje’s use of black and white stones, and no one has identified a network capable of moving karmic DNA from a dying body to a body that has yet to be born. Since the religious aren’t delivering scientific evidence that karmic DNA storage and transmission is viable, I went looking for some hopeful speculation on the subject in the scientific community. Perhaps someone would propose that consciousness is actually “dark matter,” writing on photons with bioenergy, as a possible karmic DNA storage medium! But no one did, and I repeatedly came back to this disappointing dispatch from the scientific cutting edge by Sean M. Carroll in Scientific American:

“Claims that some form of consciousness persists after our bodies die and decay into their constituent atoms face one huge, insuperable obstacle: the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood, and there’s no way within those laws to allow for the information stored in our brains to persist after we die. If you claim that some form of soul persists beyond death, what particles is that soul made of? What forces are holding it together? How does it interact with ordinary matter? Everything we know about quantum field theory (QFT) says that there aren’t any sensible answers to these questions. Of course, everything we know about quantum field theory could be wrong. Also, the Moon could be made of green cheese.”[57]


Because the lamas have mastered control of karmic DNA, they offer practitioners a means of seizing control of the rebirth process through visualizations performed at the time of death through the practice of "phowa," the "transference of consciousness." We should first clarify that highly advanced yogis don’t need to do any phowa practice at all, because their minds are already “merged in the Dharmakaya.” Those who haven’t yet reached such a natural state of wisdom, however, can use yogic methods to transfer their karmic DNA from their dying physical body into the spiritual realm of Amitabha Buddha by imagining the "life force" to be a springy Tibetan letter "HRI" bouncing up and down in the heart as if it were on a trampoline. After getting breath and awareness in harmony with this visualization, the dying yogi pops the Tibetan letter out the top of his head, shooting it up into the heart of a red Amitabha Buddha who is seated (or standing) on top of their head, often flanked by other deities, such as Chenrezig and Vajrapani.

By means of phowa, Tibetan Buddhists believe one can end the process of compelled rebirth, and be reborn in Amitabha's realm of Limitless Light. Amitabha's realm is one of innumerable "pure lands" existing in the universe, and is co-equal with Guru Rinpoche's "Copper-Colored Mountain," Chenrezig’s “Potala,” and Tara's "Garden of Turquoise-Colored Leaves." These are all landing-fields for beings who have purified their karma somewhat, and are ready to be freed from the mistaken belief in individual existence. Thanks to the compassionate beings who have established these pure afterlife destinations, even lesser beings with modest meditative skills and strong faith in their personal deity (the Hindu ishtadevata, or the Tibetan yidam) can escape compelled reincarnation. These lesser beings arrive in the pure lands and complete their spiritual maturation by gestating inside unopened lotus-blossoms, from which they emerge when their karmic propensities to rebirth have been totally exhausted. The phowa story dovetails with the Tibetan Buddhist belief that enlightened beings can then "emanate" from pure lands and "voluntarily incarnate" as human beings in order to help those who remain behind to find the path to liberation. These beings are called "tulkus," and supposedly, every lama who is addressed as "Rinpoche," meaning "Precious One," has taken a human body solely from their pure intention to help sentient beings. They are not here to satisfy selfish desires, because they have none. Their sole reason for incarnating is pure altruism.

The Buddha never said that he reached his spiritual goal because he was born with greater abilities than others. He was humble to the point of begging for his food each day. Tibetan Buddhism presents its tulkus far more assertively. The tulkus are presented as agents controlling spiritual destiny through mastery of karmic DNA. They are presented as far superior to other human beings. Since it takes a tulku to identify a tulku, when a high lama dies, his disciples begin the search for his next incarnation. We're all familiar with how this process is supposed to be evidence-based. In the traditional tales, the lama search-party rides up to the house where the humble Tibetan couple are waiting with their children, and one of them, a boy of course, comes up and starts identifying his former servants. "Kunzang! Why are you riding my horse?" Then he is tested by being asked to select his former ritual objects from among a random selection of items, some of which were used by the past incarnation, and some of which were manufactured to be attractive to a child's love of pretty things. When the child chooses the right items, his selections are taken as proof that he is the next incarnation, and off they go to the monastery. In the fairy tale version of Tibetan life, this pure and lovely scenario results in the reinstallation of a holy man to his position of spiritual authority.

As a practical matter, however, the tulku system was constantly manipulated to unite wealth with sanctity, and wealthy feudal lords bribed lamas to recognize their sons as tulkus. A political science analysis would point out that feudal systems have traditionally been very unstable, leading to endless warfare among contending heirs. The Warring States period in China, lasting hundreds of years, and the aptly titled Hundred-Years War in Europe, are but two examples, and more can be drawn from the Indian subcontinent and Asia generally. The biggest problem in feudal systems is that under the system of primogeniture, the oldest son inherits his father's lands and titles, leaving the younger sons landless and untitled. These younger scions are motivated to create trouble in the realm. A classic strategy for overthrowing a feudal dominion is for a neighboring lord to encourage a younger son to flee to his domain, from whence he can accuse his older brother of being a bastard who has "stolen the throne," and mount a campaign to put “the rightful king” on the throne.

These battles to establish the "rightful ruler" were eliminated by the tulku system, that siphoned off excess nobles into the monastery, where they were given ecclesiastical titles. Ennobled by religious decree, they could command service from armies of monks who were often given to the monasteries at an early age because, like the wealthy lords, peasants passed all of their land to the eldest son, making a monastic occupation the only available alternative to starvation. So the monasteries filled up with low-class servants for the high-class geldings, and homosexuality, prostitution, and high living in the sacred precincts were integrated into the holy life.

The tulku system thus counterbalanced the tendency toward destructive competition among the wealthy and powerful, and secured a greater level of social stability by interposing a layer of god-kings whose identities could be chosen for political reasons. Thus, the elder lamas had the opportunity to extract offerings of land, livestock and gold from the feudal lords, and to increase or decrease their power by selecting a son from one family this time, and another family another time. The number of tulkus of course proliferated as the lucrative nature of recognizing god-men became a part of the monastic financial structure, a pattern that continues to this day. Additionally, the time periods when the young tulkus were enthroned but too young to rule provided a perfect opportunity for old lamas to run the monastic domains as "regents." Indeed, the regents of the Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh and Twelfth Dalai Lamas became so attached to their jobs that they murdered all four of these young god-kings before they reached the age of majority.[58]  “[D]uring the first half of the 19th century, the palace was the scene of a grim battle for political supremacy fought among monks, Tibetan nobles and Chinese governors. Most historians of the country, and many Tibetans, believe that the most prominent victims of this struggle were four successive Dalai Lamas, the ninth through the twelfth, all of whom died in unusual circumstances, and not one of whom lived past the age of 21.”[59] Thus, from 1806 – 1875, Lhasa was ruled by the Dalai Lama’s Regents, while the four little boys who were placed on the throne served as silk-wrapped sacrificial offerings to the political ambitions of their asserted “holy protectors.” The Thirteenth Dalai Lama escaped this fate only by refusing to live in Lhasa, spending long periods in Russia and India, far from the people who'd poisoned his last four incarnations. [60]

The tulku tradition had to deal with the difficult fact that ordinary people, loaded with human frailties, were held up as deities. Contradictions between their sacred roles and their profane, cruel, or even criminal misconduct had to be reconciled in the minds of the faithful. The answer was found in the ancient Hindu tradition of guru worship. Tibetan Buddhism naturally adopted the tradition of guru worship, because it had already adopted the belief that reciting mantras and dharanis, sets of magical words imbued with spiritual power, are the key to spiritual realization. In the Hindu tradition, "God, guru and mantra" are a unity. A dharani sacred to Shiva embodies the doctrine: "Guru is verily all the worlds we see around us. He is the one who removes the disease of material existence. He is the treasure house of all forms of education. I bow down to Dakshinamurti, the form of Lord Shiva and the south-facing Lord.[61]

The tradition of guru worship became a key part of Tibetan Buddhist doctrine, in large part because it gives great leeway to the guru to misbehave wildly: "One may be like a child, a madman, a king, or like one in a swoon, independent minded, like a lord hero, like a Gandharva, or like a naked person, a tridandin, or like one who sells Veda for cash. Effulgent One, the way to be is to act howsoever one wills, knowing both Akula and Devi's Kula."[62]

This tradition of allowing gurus, i.e., tulkus, to behave in an unorthodox manner, was embedded in tantric Buddhism in India, and Tibetan Buddhists faced with the problem of rogue behavior by lamas often cite the conduct of Tilopa, the Indian guru who led Naropa to enlightenment by putting him through a series of extremely painful ordeals.  To speak of only two, once Naropa followed Tilopa’s orders to leap into a blazing fire, and another time, he jumped into a ditch full of ravenous leeches. Both experiences were nearly-fatal, but Naropa did not complain, and after resuscitating him with his magical powers, Tilopa initiated him into ever higher levels of Mahamudra, the path of the Transcendent Gesture. Because Naropa subsequently taught Marpa, a Tibetan, whose disciple Milarepa became the quintessential Tibetan ascetic yogi, the story of Naropa is given special significance, and is often cited by Tibetan Buddhists to prove that true guru devotion knows no rational limits.

When Rigpa students complained that Sogyal Rinpoche had been raping and hitting students, Orgyen Thopgyal Rinpoche was unconcerned: "Such great beings, whether it corresponds to western ideas or not, if they kill someone, no problem. [So, Sogyal hit people with his] back scratcher? I don't find anything extraordinary. There are countless stories of students who gained realization for being beaten ... being cut with knives. Some masters fired, used their rifles to teach. Jamgyon Kongtrul has beaten a lot of people. He did that to remove obstacles, to bring blessings."[63]

Because Tantric Buddhism is a secret path that can be transmitted only by “initiation and transmission” from a “qualified guru,” who thereafter assumes a position in the disciple’s life that is even more important than the Buddha, every sincere Tibetan Buddhist practitioner seeks a guru, and vows fealty to that guru in a ceremony of “taking samaya.” Since samaya breakage is punished by falling into "vajra hell," it is typically said that students should never take initiations from a lama without “checking his qualities.” However, in the atmosphere of forced veneration and abject servitude that surrounds Tibetan lamas, even a polite inquiry into the guru’s qualifications by a prospective initiate would be met with widespread disapproval from the fawning faithful. Indeed, rather than being told about the obligations that one assumes by “receiving empowerments” from a Tibetan lama, most prospective initiates are told not to worry about samaya, that the important thing is to “receive the blessings,” and that good intentions will see them through the process. Many are thereafter shocked to discover that, while they sat in the lotus posture in the shrine room, feeling good vibes from the benign-looking guru on the throne, among the streams of foreign words they were prompted to recite were phrases in Tibetan like, “If I break these vows, may the protector deities strike me down, devour my heart, and lap up my blood.”

The concept of "vajra hell" is not for Buddhist beginners who are just getting seduced into "mindfulness practice" through the barrage of glossy magazine covers flanking the register line at Whole Foods. Shambhala Publishing's Buddhist magazines -- Lion's Roar, Buddhadharma, and Shambhala Sun – push little more than stress-relief and comfy yoga-wear to the masses, who aren't ready for graphic depictions of quasi-eternal torment. A Guided Tour is for a different group of readers -- mature Tibetan Buddhists, submerged in traditional Asian Buddhist cosmology, seeking to "deepen their practice" by delving into esoteric beliefs.


Bercholz's Boulder-based Shambhala Publishing empire is now the world's largest publisher of Buddhist writings.[64] As previously noted, Bercholz's book company shares a name, personnel, and agenda with Shambhala International, a spiritual group that has dominated the Boulder scene since Chogyam Trungpa made it the base for his Rocky Mountain Dharma Center (RMDC) in the 1970s, founding it under the corporate name of "Vajradhatu." Bercholz is one of the earliest of Trungpa's disciples, and his bio on the Shambhala International website says Trungpa authorized him to teach Buddhism. Bercholz moved Shambhala Publishing from Berkeley to Boulder in 1976 to be close to Trungpa, and the Naropa Institute he founded, that has been renamed Naropa University.[65]

Naropa and its "Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics" attracted a gaggle of hip poets like Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Diane DiPrima, Anne Waldman, Gary Snyder, and Ed Sanders, who gathered together in what seemed to be a wild, bohemian romp where sex, drugs, and alcohol were ubiquitous, and debauchery was the lingua franca of social relations. The pot boiled over at a high-level spiritual retreat at a ski-resort hotel in Snowmass, Colorado that Vajradhatu rented for the winter of 1975. Toward the end of the retreat, Trungpa took umbrage at the refusal of one of the students in attendance, the poet W.S. Merwin, to join a Halloween party in the main hall. Unwilling to take no for an answer, Trungpa ordered his bodyguards (the "Kasung") to break into Merwin's room and bring him and his girlfriend Dana, down to the party. The recalcitrant pair were hauled before the guru on charges of insolence, and stripped naked by the obedient Kasung. Then, the party resumed. The incident was hushed up, but the truth leaked out. An expose appeared in Harper's Magazine, and an account of the event in a small press publication, "The Great Naropa Poetry Wars," made the rounds. Criticism of Trungpa's behavior escalated over the years, and eventually, Trungpa moved the group to Halifax, Nova Scotia, that much like Boulder, had an economy small enough for a cult to take over. Not long after the move, on April 4, 1987, Trungpa died of liver failure from alcoholism and cocaine abuse at the age of 46.

Trungpa was succeeded as head of Vajradhatu by "Vajra Regent Osel Tendzin," born Thomas Rich of Passaic, New Jersey. Rich, a wildly promiscuous man with homosexual leanings and a fondness for tailor-made suits and limousines, had been living the high life for many years when Trungpa died and entrusted him with the mantle of guruhood during the interregnum between Trungpa's death and the birth of his next incarnation.

Rich was supposed to hand the mantle back to Trungpa when Trungpa reincarnated, but Rich dropped the ball in a major way, dying of AIDS in 1990, after infecting one of his lovers, who infected a third person, resulting in three new gravestones in the Vajradhatu cemetery. A December 29, 1988 letter from the Vajradhatu Board of Directors unambiguously rebuked Rich: “You have engaged in unprotected sexual activity after knowing you had HIV disease and AIDS illness, with individuals whom you did not inform of your condition.”[66] Nevertheless, Rich refused to step down from his position, stating that “If I were to do such a thing it would violate the oath I took with my guru, and it would also violate my heart.”[67] Meanwhile, Vajradhatu’s newspaper, The Shambhala Sun, under Bercholz's leadership, published nothing of substance about the Thomas Rich AIDS debacle, and the sordid story was swept under the brocade rug.[68] Shambhala Publishing has never published anything but laudatory writings about Trungpa's legacy, checkered though it is.

When Trungpa's reincarnation was discovered in Tibet in 1989, the news was kept secret from Trungpa's American followers. Thus, when Rich died in 1990, Trungpa's family, the Mukpo clan, saw an opportunity to circumvent the will of the dead Trungpa. With the skillful aid of Trungpa's longtime attorney, Alexander Halpern, Trungpa's putative son Osel Mukpo (who may have been sired by another lama), was promoted to head the leaderless spiritual community. At the insistence of Jamgon Kongtrul and Dilgo Khentse, who refused to consider any other candidate for interim leadership, various elder Tibetan lamas were recruited to elevate Osel Mukpo to an appearance of spiritual authority.[69] Osel was "enthroned" in 1995, given the name of "Sakyong," and purchased a title of reincarnation from Penor Rinpoche, who had previously awarded titles to the feckless Catherine Burroughs (aka "Jetsunma" of Sedona) and the celebrity rapist Steven Seagal. In order to avoid misleading the cognoscenti, however, Penor tagged Osel Mukpo as a charlatan by recognizing him as a reincarnation of Jamyong Mipham, a 19th-Century venerable who pointedly gave notice before his death that there was no point in reincarnating among the corrupt Dharma practitioners who had taken over the religion; wherefore, he would not be taking rebirth in a human form.[70] Thus, the fraudulent "Sakyong Mipham" became King of Shambhala, an invented monarchy concocted from Trungpa's drunken imaginations, and dubbed the "Kalapa Kingdom." The legal name of Vajradhatu was changed to Shambhala International. Rocky Mountain Dharma Center was renamed Shambhala Mountain Center.

There is massive irony here. Trungpa’s Eleventh incarnation is venerated as the greatest of gurus, while his Twelfth incarnation is relegated to the status of a yak-herder in Communist-ruled Tibet.[71] Among the cult of Trungpa fans clustering at the r/ChogyamTrungpa subreddit, none seem to feel deprived of spiritual guidance by the exile of the Twelfth Trungpa.[72] All of Trungpa’s efforts to pass his worldly authority to his next incarnation failed entirely, and thus, the last laugh comes at his expense, because he built Vajradhatu to be controlled by a single autocratic ruler. As Thomas Rich said in one of his last letters to the Vajradhatu Sangha, he was “warned over and over again by the Vidyadhara about the dangers of democracy….”[73] There was certainly nothing democratic about the Sakyong’s takeover of the Trungpa lineage, that was accomplished from the top down, in a manner reminiscent of Chuang Tzu’s parable:[74]

“For security against robbers who snatch purses, rifle luggage, and crack safes,
One must fasten all property with ropes, lock it up with locks, bolt it with bolts.
This (for property owners) is elementary good sense.
But when a strong thief comes along he picks up the whole lot,
Puts it on his back, and goes on his way with only one fear:
That ropes, locks, and bolts may give way.
Thus what the world calls good business is only a way
To gather up the loot, pack it, make it secure
In one convenient load for the more enterprising thieves.”

Bercholz was one of the “more enterprising thieves” who has profited from the theft of Trungpa’s lineage and the elevation of a drunken incompetent to the head of the organization. He is heavily invested in the Shambhala International operation. Most fundamentally, he has his own status as a senior teacher at Shambhala International to protect. His daughter, an Executive VP at Shambhala Publishing, also sits on the board of the Chogyam Trungpa Legacy Project, an arm of Shambhala International established to burnish the tarnished memory of the dead guru.[75] The Chogyam Trungpa Legacy Project, in turn, lists Shambhala Publications, Shambhala Sun, and Naropa University as its "partners" in the process of rehabilitating the memory of the dead Chogyam.[76] The unity of interest extends even to the Internet – shambhala.org is the home page for Shambhala International, and shambhala.com is the home of Shambhala Publishing. Thus, when Bercholz speaks in support of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, that support is specifically focused on upholding the interests of Shambhala International.


After the early deaths of Trungpa and Rich from excess of alcohol and careless sex, one might have thought that the Sakyong Mipham would take a different approach to the sacred life. But the toxic apple did not fall far from the poisoned tree. The Sakyong Mipham is now the focus of a wide-ranging sex scandal that, by his own admission, arises from alcohol abuse dating back to 1995.[77] However, given the gravity of the accusations that have been made against the Sakyong, including articles in the New York Times and numerous other periodicals with global platforms, the stories that have leaked out have not been very specific. The stories of the Sakyong's drunken sexual misconduct, ranging from dissolute liasons with random devotees to a steady stream of visits from a train of underage females to his bedchamber, are always described in generalities – the names of the victims are never revealed, the dates of the events are rarely stated, and the locations are vague.

The main reason for this silence is that the Sakyong lives in the Kalapa Kingdom like Michael Jackson did in Neverland – surrounded by loyal servants sworn to secrecy. The Sakyong's royal guard of "Kusungs" act as procurers of sexual services whose silence can be counted on, who are ready to provide the Sakyong with alibis and excuses for his own misconduct, and whose willingness to fabricate false accounts provides the Sakyong's legal team with the means to slander accusers. Until July 6, 2018, the governing body of Shambhala International appeared to be something called the "Kalapa Council," composed of nine "councilors" who all resigned en masse one week prior to exposure of the Sakyong's sexual misdeeds in the pages of the New York Times.

The Shambhala Board’s mass resignation was almost certainly planned by their attorneys, who wanted to get them out of the hot seat, where they might be asked to answer pointed questions. Virtually all were old-line Trungpa students with substantial personal knowledge of the Sakyong's misdeeds, and quite possibly, sins of their own that they would not want to have to confess and account for, if lawsuits were filed, and subpoenas started flying. While the Shambhala rank and file took the Board’s swift departure as a mild acknowledgement that the Board members had screwed something up, none of them realized that the outgoing Board members were intentionally evading their corporate duty, because when a corporation is in crisis due to misgovernment by a chief executive, a director considering resignation "should obtain independent advice as to whether he or she has any obligation to make public disclosure of the circumstances involving his or her departure from the board.”[78] Hurried resignations by directors may be unlawful, because a good director should not “abandon a troubled company to the sole control of those who have harmed the company,” and may be obliged to sue the corporation to wrest control from managers who are engaged in unethical conduct.[79] Thoughts like these, however, were far from the minds of the faithful, who celebrated a victory for virtue when they read the resignation, written in flawless Shambhalese, a pseudo-spiritual language that excels in saying nothing while sounding sincere and heartfelt: "In this time of groundlessness, there is a wish for more clarity and answers, but the truth is that much is unknown. We recognize that parts of our system are broken, and need to dissolve in order to make room for real change."

In October 2018, a "Transition Task Force" composed of Shambhala veterans selected an eight-member Shambhala Interim Board, but they were not empowered to undertake any search for "clarity and answers," to repair the "parts of our system that are broken," or to enact "real change." Quite the contrary. Instead, all eight of them swore a loyalty oath to the Sakyong, phrased in the following language, "I vow to propagate the vision, and culture of Shambhala as proclaimed by ... Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche," and concluding with a bizarre, self-terminating invocation: "Should I turn my mind from this oath, may I be liberated from my position."[80]

Despite their fulsome declamations of loyalty to the Enlightened Kingdom, the Interim Board has not been able to stem the exodus of students from Shambhala, and the financial condition of Shambhala Global Services (SGS), the primary corporation responsible for propagating teachings and operating Shambhala centers worldwide, has continued to decline. A review of a financial report provided by SGS to the Shambhala membership shows that SGS pays for the maintenance of all of the real estate that the Sakyong owns, and is the guarantor of at least $1.4 Million in debt, including an $858,000 mortgage debt on real estate owned by the Sakyong Potrang. Ambiguous descriptions abound in this financial report. In 2017, SGS paid "lineage expenses" of $194,000 and $211,000 in "parsonage support of the two Kalapa Court properties." "Lineage expenses" are obviously just spending money for the Sakyong, and "parsonage support" means "maintenance of real estate owned by the Sakyong." "Staff expenses" of $240,000/year for the royal couple are just housekeeping, as they include "a Kalapa Court Manager, four continuity staff, one Machen (cook) and associated living and travel expenses for these staff members." A $500,000 transfer to the Sakyong Potrang covered "leadership functions, teaching support, and business expenses related to leadership." This was all on top of "almost $5 million USD spent on salaries" in 2016. The entire financial structure exists for the sole benefit of the Sakyong, as all of the corporate entities "have been managed as a single unit, with funds flowing between them as needed [and no one can] define the different functions and activities of Shambhala Global Services and the Sakyong Potrang."[81] The unraveling of this enterprise has already begun, as SGS has discussed putting Marpa House, the home of the Sakyong’s own mother and 40 other Dharma practitioners, on the market for sale. The Sakyong has done his bit for the organization by sending a couple of vague letters of apology to the Shambhala sangha, “stepping back” from his teaching duties, moving to Nepal, and putting the “Boulder Court” of the Kalapa Kingdom on the market for $2.85 Million.[82] His last book, “The Lost Art of Good Conversation,” is available at Amazon, where the marketing squib describes him as “one of Tibet’s highest and most respected spiritual leaders,” and the book as a source of “inspiring ideas and practical tips on how to be more present in your day-to-day life, helping us to communicate in ways that elevates [sic] the dignity of everyone involved.” Not exactly “Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism,” but what can you do? Trungpa’s been dead a long time.


Shambhala isn’t the only nouveau Tibetan theocracy under siege.[83] Sogyal Lakar, lord of the Rigpa global new age meditation empire, has been outed by his students for his "abusive and sybaritic lifestyle," that includes widespread womanizing, bedding the wives and girlfriends of male followers, beating followers with objects, books, and fists, and requiring followers to watch him shit and wipe his ass.[84] A report from an English law firm, Lewis Silkin LLP found evidence that Sogyal routinely beat dozens of students in his inner circle, with one student stating, “Between 2006 and 2010 I was beaten over two hundred times; if he was in a bad mood he would beat me every day, or more than once a day. On one occasion [in response to a question], he responded by grabbing me by my ear – it ripped all down the back and was bleeding.”[85] Karen Baxter, the attorney who conducted the investigation, was most taken aback by the slavish responses of Sogyal’s students to his violent attacks on their persons: “On hearing these accounts, I wanted to understand why people had ‘allowed’ themselves to be hit; why hadn’t they complained, why hadn’t they hit him back? This was explained to me as follows: Witness G told me that it was ‘a source of eternal shame’ that Witness G had not spoken up when Student 19 was punched. Witness G told me ‘I sat in abject denial of what my eyes were seeing; the whole room did … we were conditioned to belonging for so long that there was not a peep of protest. Even more disturbing is that over the course of the next two days we were excoriated [by Sogyal and Witness P] for even thinking something had happened … we were a brainwashed group, myself included’”[86]

Sogyal’s rampant sexual abuse of students was documented in numerous witness statements recounting coercive sexual encounters like this one: “I was helping him one evening to get ready for bed with [another student]. I had to bring his hot water. He suddenly asked me to lick and touch his genitals. He said it in a jovial way and I wasn’t sure if he was serious. [The other student] smiled and said ‘yes, do it.’ I tried but I freaked out and he said ‘oh, that’s OK’ and he dismissed me. The next day I felt very uncomfortable and said I was not well and stayed in bed. A couple of hours later I was called and told he wanted to see me in the garden straight away. I went to the garden reluctantly and he started screaming abuse at me, saying ‘you think I’m attracted to you, why would I be?’ He was aggressive and it was terrifying, I was not used to being yelled at. I started to cry and felt panicked. I said I didn’t think that, but felt bad because I had failed him and his test. He immediately turned nice and said ‘oh no, you did well’ I felt shaken and was not OK with it. I had no one to talk to.”[87]

Sogyal was willing to terrorize vulnerable young women who came to Rigpa looking for peace and healing: “Witness K, referred to above, who became upset when asked to strip gave evidence to me that she had first been sworn to secrecy with a threat to her karma and that of her family in the event that she broke this promise. This promise was extracted from her within a week of first coming to work as a helper in the lama kitchen as a teenager, having come to a retreat by way of respite from a period of depression and self-harm.”[88]

One of Sogyal's closest students, a young Australian woman who took the vows of a nun, remembers that when she finally woke up to the reality of Sogyal's abusiveness and refused to return to Lerab Ling, his main center in France, he hounded her with telephone calls that ranged from cajolery to threats of hell:

"Dear Drolma, I love you, we can talk about this", to “where the f-k are you, and you're making me really angry, and you'd better come back otherwise you're going to hell..."[89]

Sogyal’s use of samaya and threats of vajra hell to silence criticism and keep his evil deeds from coming to light was confirmed by the Lewis Silkin report: “Several of the witnesses I met told me that they were taught the consequences of breaking Samaya (which they understood included criticising or speaking out against your teacher). Witnesses told me that Sogyal Lakar’s teachings describe a Samaya breaker as being condemned to Vajra Hell; I was told that this is described at length in historic teachings as the worst of the eighteen hells and a place of eternal torture. I heard evidence that breaking Samaya is taught by Sogyal to be the worst thing a student can do; it is said that it will damage their own health, the health of their family and cause harm to the teacher / damage his long life. Many witnesses considered that there was pressure on them to keep their Samaya. *** The fact that many of the witnesses I spoke to considered that they are, or were, bound by Samaya, and felt that they would be said to be breaking that vow by speaking to me, has been a particularly challenging aspect of this investigation. It is also a factor which I have had to take into account when assessing the credibility of the evidence available to me.”[90]

The Lewis Silkin report reads as a thorough indictment not only of one man’s corruption, but of his canny abuse of Tibetan Buddhist guru samaya to run Rigpa like a private whorehouse, staffed by submissive acolytes and spineless clergy, all afraid to refuse his salacious appetites or disclose the ruinous behavior that had metastasized throughout the organization. The concluding section of the report, entitled “An organizational culture that maintains absolute secrecy,” found that “the organization had several opportunities to realise and address the extent of the harm that was being caused, but failed to take these. The efforts made to investigate these issues and protect students in future were, in my assessment, entirely inadequate and, in some cases, there is evidence that proactive steps have been taken to discredit those raising concerns.”[91] So not only did Rigpa drag its heels, it dragged its own people through the mud when they tried to speak out. Because Rigpa members wanted to keep their friends and status in the organization, and to stay on the “spiritual path” they thought they were on, they became accomplices to Sogyal’s mission to feast on the bodies and minds of his disciples. “[A] number of the witnesses I spoke to and who have now left Rigpa had also seen things that they knew were wrong but had felt unable to speak up for a long time. It is clear that, by speaking out, these individuals feel that they have to leave behind the ‘Rigpa family’ and their support networks. In addition, they have had to lose their relationship with their teacher and, to a degree, their beliefs. Speaking out appears to require a willingness to ‘step off the path to enlightenment’, and many are not ready to do that.”[92]

The litany of abuses discovered by Ms. Baxter’s investigation has not fazed other Tibetan lamas. The Dalai Lama has said virtually nothing throughout the several years that have passed since Sogyal was outed by his inner circle, at one point praising him with faint damnation by remarking, “Sogyal Rinpoche, my very good friend. Now he is disgraced.”[93] This is like someone remarking, about a person recently discovered to be a serial rapist, “He was my old drinking buddy – it’s a damn shame.”

Dzongsar Khentse, the son of Bercholz's lama Thinley Norbu, has gone much farther in his effort to uphold the absolute droit du seigneur of the tantric guru, energetically praising those Rigpa students remaining faithful to Sogyal:

"[M]any of you also continue to feel an unwavering devotion for your master, Sogyal Rinpoche ... I rejoice at your decision and am full of admiration for you. Other people may criticize your devotion for Sogyal Rinpoche, but their approval of your path is far less important than your decision to follow it."[94]

Another lama, Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche, eager to minister to the abuser, expressed deep concern for Sogyal’s health, and advised his critics to button their lips:

"What I want to say to all Rigpa students is this -- please do not break any more of your samayas. If a student breaks his/her samaya, it has a very harmful effect on the master's life. I urge all of you therefore to practice the Narak Kong Shak and Heart of Vajrasattva confession prayers as much as possible. I am very concerned for Sogyal Rinpoche's health and future. I hope you will all listen to what I say."[95]

What is this "Narak Kong Shak" of which the reverend lama speaks? It is a ritual practice for avoiding the clutches of hell that befall samaya-breakers. So Orgyen Tobgyal was simply telling Sogyal's rebellious students that they were going to hell, and they ought to turn around before the consequences became irreversible. And according to the defenders of orthodoxy, that fear remains justified, regardless of how far the lama’s conduct declines. The fact that Sogyal is a pervert doesn’t absolve his students of the duty to venerate him as a living Buddha, because according to a well-known delok story, a lama's sexual misconduct is no excuse for vow-breaking by his disciples, and even turning down his unwanted advances leads to damnation to vajra hell:

"The young lady from a well-to-do family, named Chödrön, had sought out Buddhist teachings from numerous esteemed lamas. One of them, the itinerant Zhönu Gyaltsen, asked her to be his 'secret consort,' but she refused. The request caused her to lose faith in the lama and leave the gathering before receiving the complete instructions. Later, she told girlfriends about the incident. In Yama's assessment, since Zhönu Gyaltsen was a master of esoteric teachings, Chödrön had breached her tantric commitments on several counts: not complying with the lama's request, not completing the training in his teachings and (worst of all, it seems) speaking about the incident with other women. When Chödrön protests that if the lama was realized, it was inappropriate for him to take a sexual interest in her, Yama counters that when Zhönu Gyaltsen died, numerous relics and miraculous signs occurred, attesting to his high degree of realization. Positioning her as a gossip, he avers that she caused numerous others to lose faith, thereby harming the lama and his disciples. He concludes, 'it is a greater sin to denigrate and slander lamas and teachers than it is to murder a thousand living beings,' and condemns her to suffer the torments of the hell realms."[96]

Apparently, there are some senior Rigpa students who agree with this calculus of virtue, because they remain committed to Sogyal even after all of the wretched excess that has been revealed. In December 2018, a petition letter was circulated among the inner circle of Rigpa students, asking the organization to reinstate Sogyal as Rigpa’s spiritual leader, and to reject the Lewis Silkin law firm’s recommendation for Rigpa to “disassociate itself from Sogyal Lakar as fully as possible.”[97]


While the spineless submissiveness of the Rigpa crowd may seem shocking, the truth is, the lamas had their work made easy for them by our Christian upbringing. Most of us grew up with Christian images of hell – throngs of naked humans suffering endless torment in a fiery pit, abused by leering demons armed with flaming pitchforks. Fundamentalist families were subjected to fire and brimstone sermons at mealtimes, bedtime, and on interminable Sundays that began with a trip to church and ended with an instant replay of canned piety on television. Catholics were subjected to gory crucifixion statuary depicting a tortured man hanging over the altar where his body and blood were offered up for consumption by the faithful in a cannibalistic rite that is deemed the central mystery of the faith. So normalized was the institution of torture that no one asked why every church was crowned with a cross – an ancient symbol that the Romans used to terrify conquered nations and quell slave rebellions.

In Sunday school, many Christian children were given a detailed tour of Dante’s Inferno, a multileveled horror that competes with any of the Eastern hells, and has petrified the souls of numberless believers throughout the centuries. And like the Buddhist Hells, that weren’t spoken of by Gautama Buddha, and were injected into the Buddhist canon during Ashoka’s reign, “[i]t was only after church melded with state in the Roman Empire that hell became a generally accepted doctrine of fear used as a means of controlling the masses.”[98]

In addition to being born in the cradle of a militarist monarchy, Christian doctrines of hell parallel Eastern doctrines in myriads of other ways, because Eastern and Western faiths and philosophies moved along the Silk Road, through the Near East, across the Mediterranean and into Continental Europe. Although the Christians claimed to be monotheistic, they were charmed by the Eastern love of divine triangles. Consider how the Holy Trinity of Catholicism mirrors the Mahayana Buddhist doctrine of the Three Bodies of the Buddha, the Nirmanakaya, Sambhogakaya and Dharmakaya, corresponding to the physical, aesthetic, and mental realms of experience. On the other hand, the Mahayana Buddhists may have borrowed the humane warmth and heavenly splendor of the Christian savior and his celestial court by establishing the doctrine of liberating compassion emanating from innumerable Pure Lands.

Eastern and Western traditions mingled in an area that might well have been called “Greek India,” historically known as “Gandhara,” located in what is now the Swat region of Northern Pakistan and the Kandahar region of Afghanistan. “As one would expect, cross-cultural influences in Gandhara went in both directions. In some cases there is evidence that local cults adopted Greek forms of worship…. Likewise, certain Indian notions may have made their way westward into the budding Christianity of the Mediterranean world through the channels of the Greek diaspora.”[99]  “[I]n the 1st century CE, rulers of the Kushan empire, which included Gandhara, maintained contacts with Rome. In its interpretation of Buddhist legends, the Gandhara school incorporated many motifs and techniques from Classical Roman art, including vine scrolls, cherubs bearing garlands, tritons, and centaurs.”[100]

Christians believe that every human being has an “immortal soul” whose ultimate destiny after death is to spend an eternity of bliss in the bosom of our Maker, or an eternity of pain in the jaws of Satan. Buddhists are ever so proud to believe in the nonexistence of the self, but in the case of Tibetan Buddhists, they are mistaken, because the philosophy of reincarnation compels belief in the existence of a durable soul. You’ll recall that in the delok stories, we learned that Tibetan Buddhists believe that after death, the consciousness of the dead person moves into a ghandarva body that eats odors and travels with the speed of thought. If it can’t merge with the “Pure Light of Reality,” and become a Bodhisattva, that body wanders into another rebirth – either through a human or animal womb, or by being reborn “miraculously” into the body of a god, a demon, or a hungry ghost. Call it what you like, this story implies the existence of something that is, to all intents and purposes, a soul. Tibetan Buddhists would do well to stop feeling superior to Christians, who believe in eternal souls, and Hindus, who believe that the deathless Atman resides in the heart center of every human being.

The Tibetan Buddhist philosophy of reincarnation would be nowhere without a soul to reincarnate, and their theory of karmically-determined rebirth is meaningless without an afterlife justice system. Christians also believe that people are judged after death – by Jesus Christ. As all good Catholics recite at Mass in the Apostles Creed: “I believe in Jesus Christ … who was crucified, died and was buried, who descended into hell, and on the third day arose again, and will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” A medieval bas relief of The Last Judgment at Notre Dame shows close parallels to the scenes described by the deloks who have watched Shinje Yamaraja at work. Christ sits in judgment, while Michael the Archangel holds the center of the scale. In one pan of the scale, a good spirit stands, hands folded in prayer, and in the other pan, held by Satan, there’s a bestial figure. A smaller demon bursting up from the nether realms, is also pulling on the bad side of the scale. To the right of Satan, two horned demons lead away a dozen damned souls in a chaingang bound for hell. Thus, the after-death drama depicted by Tibetan deloks and Christian doctrine is essentially identical.

Divine mercy is an important component of all dualistic religions, and Christianity has tucked an important doctrine into the Apostle’s Creed, where it says that Jesus “descended into hell, and on the third day arose again….” This refers to “the triumphant descent of Christ into Hell when he brought salvation to all the righteous who had died since the beginning of the world.” This doctrine was very popular, from the early ages of Christendom through the Middle Ages, and formed an important scene in the English mystery plays used to educate the common people in England.[101] Tibetan Buddhists have a parallel tradition. Vajrasattva, who dispenses forgiveness to those who confess, repent and recite his mantra, is said to “empty the hells.”[102] Recitation of the six-syllable mantra of Chenresig, closes the door to the hells, and he “may appear in any of the different realms, such as the hell realm or the hungry ghost realm.”[103]

So, many of the after-death beliefs of medieval Catholics paralleled those of Tibetan Buddhists.  But what of hell itself? Buddhists emphasize that condemnation to Buddhist hells is not permanent, so let’s consider the significance of that statement. In the Buddhist cosmology, living beings rotate through the Six Realms of Samsara for a potentially infinite time. Within the Six Realms, hell is the most common place to incarnate, because sentient beings are said to generate far more evil karma than good karma. The damned don’t stay in Naraka forever, but their term of damnation “is usually incomprehensibly long, from hundreds of millions to sextillions (ten to the twenty-first power) of years.”[104]  Finally, there is no guarantee that any one living being will ever exit Samsara, and there is no permanent place in Samsara to remain; therefore, living beings unable to stop the turning wheel of rebirth return to hell again and again, forever. The collapse of universes doesn’t stop the wheel of samsara from turning, and life is a ticket to repeated incarnations, within which damnation is the most common fate. There will never be any rest in any Buddhist cosmological venue. Heavenly, earthly, animal, ghostly, and hell realms are all waystations to further misery. So when we consider the matter in detail, it is mere doctrinal caviling to claim that Buddhist hells are transitory, and if the point be granted, they may in fact be all the worse for that, because they are recurrent and inescapable.

To summarize: Tibetan Buddhism endorses the existence of a soul whose eternal destiny is adjudicated in the afterlife, when their good and evil deeds are weighed. Thus, the Tibetan Buddhist doctrine of the afterlife differs little from Christianity in its essential outlines. The only difference is that, for Tibetan Buddhists, the process of judgment is repeated infinitely after every reincarnated lifetime, while Christians do it once, and either get it right or get it wrong, forever. But the implications for the believer in this life are the same – good deeds take you upstairs, bad deeds take you down. Tibetan Buddhists contend that their philosophy is non-dualistic, but the claim is mere wordplay, because “this and that” are always present in the form of virtue and non-virtue, that are constantly accumulating based on dualistic choice. Non-dualism is based on acceptance of life as it is, appreciation of oneself without ambitious self-improvement projects, acceptance of others as they are. Tibetan Buddhism views this present life as a vale of tears through which sentient beings migrate endlessly, doomed by their very existence to shift from good to bad circumstances, and back again, unless and until they can accumulate a stack of merit big enough to buy their way out of the slavery of compelled self-existence.

The similarity between Christianity and Buddhism grows stronger when we consider how Tibetan Buddhists actually practice their religion. Tibetan Buddhists like to say their practices are all about purifying the mind through meditation, but this is not quite true. Tibetan Buddhists fill their temples with sacred images because they are obsessed with earning merit by making an endless stream of offerings. Further, while they believe that making offerings to a statue is good, the best way to improve their chances of a positive rebirth is by making offerings to the lamas, imagined to be incarnated Buddhas.

Because Tibetan Buddhists place primary emphasis on “accumulating merit,” the religion has developed what we might call a “merit economy,” in which merit is gained by giving gifts to the lamas, reciting mantras, prostrating before images, and walking in circles around a sacred building or statue, called “circumambulation.” Like medieval Christians, they also believe that you can pay other people to perform pious acts on your behalf, and get the same benefit! Thus, American students are currently paying Tibetans to perform recitations on their behalf, after hiring a diviner to determine how many recitations of what deity need to be performed to remove obstacles. This procedure would have been familiar to a medieval Catholic, who could reduce their stay in purgatory, or that of their relatives, by donating to the clergy, that imagined “a vast community of mutual help … uniting the living and the dead” in sacred exertions. People with more money than piety could earn indulgences through “commutation, through which any services, obligations, or goods could be converted into a corresponding monetary payment.” In 1343 Pope Clement VI decreed himself the manager of the “Treasury of Merit,” and officially took charge of the business, becoming God’s counting house.[105]

Like medieval Christians, Tibetan Buddhists believe that the fates of their eternal souls, and those of their loved ones, are determined by their “stock of merit,” whether accumulated by their own efforts, or by the efforts of persons employed to accumulate merit on their behalf. Although it seems blatantly venal, the entire religion is based on the belief that the greatest merit is accumulated by making donations to the priests who run the religion.

Before we conclude our comparison between Christianity and Tibetan Buddhism, we have to examine some popular labels that are applied to these religions. Christianity is clearly monotheistic, but Tibetan Buddhists like to claim that their religion is “non-theistic,” a term originated by Chogyam Trungpa. The Shambhala cult, that Bercholz helps to administer, even pretends that it is not a religion at all, and is a new thing called “secular spirituality.” We can thank Bercholz for clearing this up by giving us A Guided Tour of Hell, because whatever someone might imagine secular spirituality to be, it’s safe to assume that hell would not be part of it.

Bercholz’s book also makes it clear that the Tibetan Buddhist vision is dualistic – he presents hell as an afterlife experience that anyone would want to avoid. Theoretically, Buddhists claim to be striving to reach un-heaven, un-hell, un-everything. But in practice, they hope to enter a Pure Land, a beautiful, perfect Buddha realm, where beings have luminous forms, like a god realm, but much better, because once reborn in a Pure Land, one inevitably goes on to enlightenment, and is never again subject to compelled rebirth. So in practice, Tibetan Buddhists embrace a dualistic cosmology. On the one hand, we have the realm of compelled reincarnation, where you are judged lifetime after lifetime, and spend most of your time in hell, and on the other hand, we have the Pure Lands that provide the exit from reincarnation into the near-perfection of Bodhisattvahood. After working for myriads of lifetimes to liberate living beings, Bodhisattvas achieve Buddhahood, establish Pure Lands, and reign in compassionate splendor beyond the reach of time, space, existence, non-existence, in a state of pure, unitive awareness. All Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, indeed all beings, emanate from a single source of goodness and inspiration that has two pure qualities – emptiness and compassion. Accordingly, this supreme force is often depicted as the male and female deities embracing in sexual union, the female representing emptiness, the male representing compassion. It is essentially a monotheistic vision of goodness with a twist of androgyny.

What of the other side of the dualistic setup? What about evil? Again, the doctrinaire Tibetan Buddhist will insist that there is no evil in Buddhism, and the pure vision that liberates is precisely the vision of “no good, no bad,” as the insipid Shambhala slogan goes. There is little to support this contention, however, when we read through the sadhanas and scriptures. While there are occasional resting places where the devotee is allowed to “rest in meditative equipoise enjoying the realm free from activity,” the bulk of the practices and doctrines are dedicated to keeping practitioners on the road to the palace of wisdom through energetic efforts in the right direction, that must be distinguished from the wrong direction. And where do those impulses to go in the wrong direction come from? You guessed it – from yourself. Temptation in the Tibetan Buddhist picture, as it has come down to us today, comes from within. It’s your own impulses that draw you into “selfish concerns,” so you end up spending money on your own needs, instead of donating to the lamas, or paying to attend teachings, ceremonies, and retreats. It’s your own impulses that cause you to spend time with friends, family, and running about doing your own thing, instead of donating time to the temple, serving the lamas and their relatives, and doing practices. So the devil in Tibetan Buddhism is you, other people like you, and the entire world that distracts you from pious, merit-generating activities. Self-sacrifice is, therefore, the core remedy for all that ails you.

Among Tibetan Buddhists, there is a growing enthusiasm for Chöd, the practice of self-exorcism, in which “adepts” visualize their body being dismembered by Tröma, a black dakini who leaps from an aperture at the crown of their head and violently attacks her former abode with the ferocity of a demented butcher. Using a hooked knife, Tröma cuts off the practitioner’s cranial cap, inverts it on a tripod of skulls, fills it with the Chödpa’s dismembered bones, meat and organs, and cooks the grisly stew over the flame of a glowing mantric seed syllable, generating an ocean of bliss and radiant offerings that are shared with a crowd of ghosts, demons, and enlightened beings. Although this self-extirpating practice is known to imperil the sanity of its practitioners, it is glorified as a form of “dakini power,” because the most famous Chödpa was Machik Labdron, a woman who rambled about Tibet naked, performing self-exorcism.[106]

Once Tibetan Buddhists adopt self-elimination as a positive value, they are ready to load up on more paradoxes, that will become the core of their “spiritual understanding.” They will speak glibly of possessing an essential awareness beyond happiness and sadness, while affirming vajra vows that commit them to believe that they are in permanent danger of falling into vajra hell. They will tell themselves that the lamas are faultless, and deny the evidence that many lamas are hypocrites. They will ignore their own best impulses, and surrender control of their lives to Dharma authorities, believing that they have no choice in the matter, because when vajra samaya is taken, the door closes behind them. This “locked in” situation is evident from some Internet chats we will review in an upcoming section. As a popular website puts it, using a traditional metaphor: “Tantric Buddhists are in the position of a snake inside a bamboo tube; one hole faces up to the Dharmakaya, the other down toward Vajra Hell. There are only two options -- up or down; no in-between. Keeping samaya (commitment) determines which way the snake slides.”[107]

In conclusion, the doctrines of Tibetan Buddhism closely parallel the dualistic cosmology of medieval Christianity: Samsara is a vale of tears; living beings are animated by an eternal essence, “consciousnness” or “soul”; our eternal souls face an eternity of consequences; we accumulate consequences in this life, and are subject to judgment after death; all goodness comes from a single beneficent celestial source, and is channeled exclusively through the clergy; we accumulate virtue by making offerings to the clergy, who can be hired to cleanse sin; and, our ultimate goal is to return to a divine, non-physical, spiritual home where we can be free of suffering and obligation. There are really only two differences: In Tibetan Buddhism, disobedience to the lamas can result in damnation, and the Devil does not exist as an external entity, so all the blame for evil is directed inward, towards the individual. In all candor, medieval Christians were better off. They didn’t have to prostrate before their priests, and could blame the Devil for their suffering.


Gautama Buddha advised against reliance on "observances and rituals" as the basis for a spiritual life, on the grounds that they do not in fact produce the promised results, and called them “the basis for fruitless efforts."[108] He rejected the notion that "purification comes through a ritual,” and described this as a “perverse assumption”  that he called “rules-and-vows clinging."[109]

One of the impulses to believe in the afterlife is to satisfy our sense of justice, since the allocation of consequences during a single lifetime is inconsistent with the human sense of fairness; however, giving space to the notion of the afterlife allows ecclesiastical theorists to posit the existence of hells that, in their immense cruelty, are an even greater affront to our sense of justice.

Tibetan Buddhists fail to provide any explanation for how the incredible pain being suffered by the beings in hell is proportional to the sins they have committed. For example, there is no adequate explanation in the Buddhist hell teachings for why the breakage of samaya leads to the longest imprisonment in the most painful hell of all. We can, however, make a reasonable inference, based on Shantideva's explanation in the Bodhicaryavatara for how positive karma is generated by compassionate intention.

Shantideva's calculus of virtue is simple -- good deeds lead to good consequences, better deeds lead to better consequences, and the best deeds lead to the best consequences. The best possible deed is to liberate all sentient beings from suffering. Therefore the best possible intention is the intention to liberate all sentient beings from suffering. As Shantideva says: "Immeasurable merit took hold of the well-intentioned person who thought 'Let me dispel the headaches of beings.' What then of the person who longs to remove the unequalled agony of every single being and make their virtue infinite?"[110]

Since the karmic effect of virtue is measured by the scope of its effects, the same must be true of non-virtue. Thus, since the worst hell is reserved for samaya breakers, the consequences of samaya breakage must be greater than the consequences of preventing every sentient being in the universe from achieving liberation. In other words, criticizing Sogyal or the Sakyong for womanizing and carousing is a greater crime than blocking the door to liberation for all beings. From this we deduce that the lamas must be the most important beings in the universe, because anyone who obstructs their activity is blocking the door to liberation for countless living beings.

The immense hubris of the lamas who elevate their own importance to such absurd levels would be evident if students took a moment to consider the logic of the hells in which they have allowed the lamas to imprison their minds. But students do not think logically. The risk of going to vajra hell hangs like a sword of Damocles above the head of every tantric practitioner; thus, rituals of purification and propitiation abound in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

Tibetan Buddhism incorporated many elements of the ancient Bon religion in order to convert the Tibetan people. The Bon religion was saturated with the practices of propitiating demonic and celestial forces. To quote a Tibetan on the subject: "In order to live in harmony with nature and tame the destructive natural forces, our ancestors ... were intelligent and ingenious enough to come up with the idea of communicating with these forces to pacify or to control them. This communication took the form of rituals involving propitiation, offerings, expelling, incantation, fumigation etc."[111]

Historically, these rituals included the burial of kings with living beings, including human beings: "The rituals of the bon often involved sacrificing animals (mainly horses, yaks, and sheep), making offerings of food and drink, and burying the dead with precious jewels, the benefits of which were apparently transferred to them in the afterlife through shamanistic rituals. The most elaborate of these were the ceremonies for the kings, each of whom was buried in a specially-constructed tomb, and apparently joined in death by servants, ministers, and retainers."[112]

Anyone who has practiced Tibetan Buddhism intensively is familiar with the offerings of barley-butter cakes (tormas) simulating heaps of blood and fat that are given to the oath-bound protectors and wrathful deities to satisfy their bloodlust and incite them to protect the lineage from the damage that comes from samaya breakage. These rituals, that originated in the practice of propitiating local deities believed to inhabit mountains and other natural features of the land in Tibet, are practiced by credulous Americans in temples all over the United States, while chanting maledictions like "Kill those who break samaya! Burst their hearts! Spill their blood! Crush their heads!" Thus, practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism who "break samaya" are aware that they have already invited disaster upon themselves through their ritual practices. And there is only one remedy for samaya breakage: recitation of large numbers of mantras in special ceremonies.

As the Buddha pointed out, however, there is a big problem with trying to administer this type of karmic accounting system, in which we try to burn up past evil through actions in the present. For example, if we are trying to purify the evil engendered through samaya-breakage, a problem arises because no one knows how much non-virtue one has accumulated from doubting the lama, or how much non-virtue is purified by reciting a mantra, so no one can say when the purification will be accomplished. A friend of mine named Mack, whom I met on a houseboat on the Ganges in Varanasi in 1975, and who introduced me to the Dharma, told me this story:

"Once the Buddha asked a Jain ascetic standing in a field, "What are you doing?"
The ascetic answered, "I am doing standing meditation."
The Buddha asked him, "How does that work?"
The ascetic replied, "I am not generating any karma, because I am not doing anything, but because I am living, I am burning off karma. Eventually, I will burn off all my karma, and I will be liberated."
The Buddha then asked, "Do you know how much karma you have burned off?"
"No," answered the ascetic.
"Do you know how much karma you have left to burn?"
"No," answered the ascetic.
"So, do you have any way of knowing when you will reach liberation?"
"No," answered the ascetic.

This story seems to be drawn from the Devadaha Sutra, but in truth requires no authoritative reference, because it is so obviously true. The Buddha put his finger on the problem with his usual unerring ability to identify the assumptions implicit in many widely-accepted spiritual strategies. But, attached as they are to their karma-powered spiritual technologies, Tibetan Buddhists spend no time on such contemplations. They will simply ask for a lama skilled in divination to use their divinatory skills, to answer the question: "What ritual practices, and how many of them, are necessary to purify the Sangha's samaya breakage?" Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche consulted a “clairvoyant lama” in the wake of the Sogyal scandal, and received a prescription of ritual practices that, if performed by his faithful students, could keep the renowned abuser active for years to come: "The clairvoyant lama clarified that Rinpoche will face certain obstacles in the next three Tibetan years, but if the practices he recommends are done, then there is every chance that Rinpoche will live until at least the age of eighty five."[113]

Divinatory practices are deeply rooted in Tibetan Buddhism,[114] but relying on such irrational methods for decision-making undermines the self-confidence that lies at the root of genuine Buddhist practice.  By relying on the mystical powers of rituals, mantras and "making offerings," i.e., propitiating unseen powers, Tibetan Buddhists ally themselves evermore strongly with the forces of superstition. Thus, the belief in hell leads to reliance on what Gautama Buddha called "the basis for fruitless efforts."


When we don’t know something these days, we take the question to the Internet, and curious Tibetan Buddhists have all kinds of online venues where they can ask each other questions. A site-specific search for the term “vajra hell” at dharmawheel.net, a popular discussion forum for Tibetan Buddhists, produced 96 results on April 25, 2019. The term “vajra hell” is a very specific reference, and the postings are diverse and non-repetitive. In reviewing these posts, one will be struck by the fact that worrying about falling into vajra hell seems to be a common problem for people who think they are practicing “vajrayana Buddhism.” Spelling errors are preserved from the originals. We’ll look at a few threads beginning with one that voices a common complaint – fear of vajra hell resulting from “premature initiation” into esoteric practices:

“A few years ago I prematurely attended some teachings and empowerments that were given with lifetime daily practice commitments. Afterwards I struggeled immensely with these practices for maybe a half year of so, but they made no sense to me, and I ended up doing them out of guilt, and fear of vajra hell. Then I gave them up altogether. Now I only try to follow the teachings of ChNN [Chogyal Namkhai Norbu], do Guru Yoga when I remember, and other DC practices when I have time and energy, but I still fear negative consequenses for abandoning past practice commitments. This is due to the snake in the bamboo image. I find in unreasonable to go to Vajra hell just for attending some teachings. I might understand if it was do to some kind of practices that manipulated the pranas, etc., that if done wrongly might lead to madness, etc., but just for attending empowerments and teachings? It does not make sense. I was thinking at the time that going could only be a good thing, that nothing bad could come from attending. So this was my motivation. I did not know anything about the teacher, lineage, teachings, practices, etc. So in this case, what am I to do?”[115]

This poster appears genuinely distressed, and he notes in later postings that he sought advice from the lama who gave him “some teachings and empowerments with lifetime practice commitments,” and received none. So the blind are left to seek assistance from those who claim to see. What happens on DharmaWheel.net in response to these cries for help? At first some kindly persons assure the original poster that he’s not doing anything wrong, and has nothing to worry about. Then the more scholarly start picking things apart, taking issue with the warm, fuzzy comments, bearing down on the reality that people who take commitments must keep them. A dispute begins, and when it turns out that the original poster has studied with more than one teacher, the scholars consider the implications of taking multiple empowerments from different teachers. One poster takes a traditionalist tack, and asks a question he thinks hews to the core of the issue: “Which one is your root teacher?”

As the question continues to be debated from an increasing variety of viewpoints, philosophical debates heat up, and pointed questions are asked: “Are you implying that a Vajrayana Root Guru and commitments to them are disposable once a person enters Dzogchen?” Loaded questions fetch defensive responses that try to sound confidently dogmatic: “You can keep all your samayas through Guru Yoga.” Patience wears thin, and one poster asks another, “Are you being deliberately obtuse?” Coarse language makes its appearance, as one poster implies that there’s no samaya to be broken if your “vajra teachers … prove to be total dipshits and false guides.”

The lack of any clear authority on the subject becomes clear, and the advice takes on an improvisational tone. One poster, who claims that “there are specific rituals in order to give back tantric samaya,” is rebuffed with the retort, “Nonsense – such a rite does not exist,” and further offended by the claim that students needn’t keep commitments for practices they’ve abandoned.  Frustrated, the conformist snidely suggests that his adversary is going to vajra hell: “Your point is very original in both vajrayana and dzogchen. Try to explain it to dakinis and Dharmapala and Damchens when you will be in the bardo….”[116] The debate degenerates into pages of digital acrimony, concludes with mutual exchanges of ill-will,[117]  and is ultimately locked by moderators on the grounds that “the OP’s question … has been answered.”[118]

Another thread entitled “Re: Symptoms Before Vajra Hell,” begins with a naïve  inquiry by “Motova” -- “If it is certain one is going to Vajra Hell, does one display any mental or physical symptoms?” To which “Crazywisdom,” with 1940 crazy posts to his credit, responds: “Your head will be split into seven pieces.” Motova meekly inquires further, “Can you expand on this please?” Crazywisdom obliges with “Then your body will decompose and you will proceed to hell,” to which Motova responds, “ok.”

The thread takes a gossipy turn after Motova fails to answer the question, “Bro, what did you do?” Fortyeightvows volunteers that “If he doesn’t confess … it must have been something big,” to which the Moderator responds by shifting the blame for Motova’s neurosis to his Jewish or Christian upbringing: “I severely doubt it. It is probably just unfounded anxiety or heavily habituated Abrahamic based guilt.” After someone posts Patrul Rinpoche’s terrifying description of Avici Hell for the edification of all, the moderator moves to lighten the mood with a snarky dose of libertinism: “Fixing samaya is … easy and a hell of a lot of fun too: You invite around all your yogi and yogini friends and give them loads of alcohol and meat, sing songs, dance and during the party some of them may even get laid. If you want guilt fueled self-mortification and penance then I would recommend Opus Dei.”[119]  The levity evaporates, however, and posters return to their discussion of the nature of Avici Hell, prompting one to share a visualization reminiscent of witches copulating with incubi and succubi:[120] “I remember Vajra Hell as being described as total tantric union with the essence of suffering.”

Misery loves company, so eventually a person with mental problems joins the thread: “I dont know what kind of symptoms indicate your going to hell, but ive had visionary experiences of hell beings progressing with detoration of my mental and psychical health, so i definitely feel like im on a downward trajectory.”[121] A Pure Lander piously responds, “Please practice Amitabha Buddha strongly.”

Motova is apparently preoccupied with vajra hell, because he starts another thread entitled “Five Heinous Crimes = Samaya Breaker ?” that provokes MiphamFan to ask him, “why are you so worried about this?” To which Motova answers, “I have a lot of anxiety due to Vajrayana … There are so many unknowns, surprises, disagreements, and abuses and it all focuses into an anxiety over Vajra Hell. And then that anxiety makes me not practice, and it turns into a very uncomfortable cycle of fear and resentment.”[122] No one touches this radioactive material, so discussion turns to a popular question: Is it true that a vow breaker has only three years to purge their sin?  Sadhaka rebuts the notion:  “The three year thing is provisional. Rinpoche wrote that there’s a text where Vajrasattva says you have as many years to purify, as the age you were when you committed the downfall.”[123]

The serious mood of the thread is challenged by amanitamusc, who declares he’ll “stick with Dzogchen … a path beyond cause and effect,” provoking the earnest Vasana to advise that “Dzogchen doesn’t deny karma, cause and effect.” But amanitamusc throws down the gauntlet, rejecting Vasana’s counsel on the grounds that he’s a student of Namkhai Norbu, “not Vasana.” When Vasana responds that he too is a Namkhai Norbu student, amanitamusc gruffly responds, “practice what you like but remember Ati Guru Yoga of the white A is the main practice.”[124]

This final thread we’ll discuss has a little of the flavor of The Ring, the Japanese horror movie where evil comes out of the screen. The thread is launched by “qwerty13,” who had “been practicing Tibetan buddhism under one year by learning only from books and internet … doing simple avalokiteshvara sadhana” until he received empowerments from Garchen Rinpoche through Youtube.[125]   When he didn’t take to the practices, he began to fear he hadn’t “done the visualizations right” while watching the empowerment video, and became dispirited, asking himself “what does this mantra accomplish, really?” Around the same time, he began practicing the “Guru Yoga of Lama Tsongkhapa from Tsem Tulku rinpoches website [and] felt very drawn to the Gelug school.” Now he fears that he will fall into vajra hell for failing to honor the commitments he took during his YouTube empowerment:

“For the last few weeks I have not been able to do any spiritual practice. I am just anxiously wondering, wheter I have already slided in to that famous Vajrayna tube where one point is up towards enlightenment and the other is down towards Vajrahell. Right now, i honestly would be happy to practice sutra-level mahamudra, Tsongkhapa`s guru yoga and lam rim for the rest of my life. And forget about deities. This whole tantra thing has started to freak me out. At the same time I fear that I have some bond to Garchen and I break it if I do what I want to do. And breaking connection to guru again sends you to Vajrahell.”

A plethora of voices emerge to provide qwerty13 with conflicting advice. The moderator tells him, perversely -- “[I]t was your karma brought you into contact with the teachings so you have nobody to ‘blame’ but yourself!”[126] Generally, posters try to provide comfort, but qwerty13 is credulous, hopeful, and anxious for comfort. Two weeks after his original post, he’s getting into Green Tara practice, after discovering “it worked incredibly well!”[127] Since qwerty13 has found a new toy, and heresy is always a ripe topic, a row erupts over whether his declared interest in Tulku Tsem is healthy, since Tulku Tsem is a worshipper of Dorje Shugden, a protector deity banned by the Dalai Lama. At last a fellow who uses his own face instead of an avatar, “conebeckham,” with 4977 posts to his name shows up like Smoky the Bear to douse the embers of directionless speculation fueled by Youtube empowerment fantasies: “Frankly, it's impossible to start serious practice merely by reliance on internet and books.”[128] When qwerty13 resumes his merry babble, conebeckham strafes the area once again with a dose of reality, killing the buzz and the thread: “IF you're practicing Vajrayana Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, you need a teacher. At some point, that interaction will have to be a two-way relationship with a living human being. You cannot get that over the internet, or in a book.”

There are many more comment threads on the Internet where would-be Tibetan Buddhists bandy words about vajra hell. Review enough of them, and you’ll see nothing but groupthink and conformity. No one on DharmaWheel.net ever appears to question the legitimacy of the vajra hell concept, and their discussions have a Faustian flavor about them – everyone has signed their soul over to the Lamas, the contract is enforceable, and the consequences of breach are horrendous. The remaining questions are technical: “What constitutes a breach of the tantric contract with the Guru?” “What can be done to remedy the breach?” “Is there a statute of limitations applicable to an action to cure the breach?” The last thing anyone wants to do is question the legitimacy of the belief altogether.

You can find Christians and Muslims engaging in similar debates by changing a few search terms.[129] Since the Vedantins initiated the concept of the hells that Buddhism adopted, it’s only appropriate that we link to a website where Hindus are found attempting to reason their way out of the eternity-of-suffering trap constructed by their ancestors.[130]

It is ironic that although these four world religions each maintain the unique salvific qualities of their several doctrines, they all whip their followers with the fear of nearly-identical hells. This similarity is never discussed by those who tell us that “there are many paths to the top of the mountain, but they all join at the peak.” Why is it that the fans of religious unity never exult in their unanimous endorsement of hell? Think about it! Perhaps there’s a true gem of wisdom hidden in that old saw, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.


According to Harris polling, in 2013, 58% of American adults believe in Hell and the Devil, a substantially smaller grouping than adults who believe in God, at 74%, and Miracles, at 72%. Heaven and Angels, both clocking in at 68%, are a solid 10% more popular than the bad place.[131] Statistically, African-Americans, women, and regular churchgoers are most likely to believe in hell.[132] Although belief in hell generally declines with age and increasing income, regular churchgoers are more likely to believe in hell than others of their same age and income.[133]

Hell also has a partisan flavor, with 74% of Republicans subscribing to the belief, compared with 53% of Democrats. Belief in hell and the Devil rose sharply, from 56% in 1997 to 70% in 2004, a phenomenon some have attributed to the daylight demolition of the Three Towers without prior notice to the occupants on September 11, an act of undeniably human evil, replayed countless times on television and the Internet.[134] Thus, the prestige of the invisible Prince of Darkness was enhanced by the acts of human killers acting at the direction of political actors. Popular belief in religious evil is subject to manipulation through public relations events, of which the 9/11 attack was a signal example, and likely not the last.

Exposure to terrifying news is what social scientists call “priming” with negative inputs. The effect of priming with the concept of pure evil was tested on experimental subjects, who were given the task of punishing someone who had committed a crime. Priming experimental subjects with the concept of “pure evil” infected them with prejudice, so they imposed harsh terms of incarceration, even the death penalty, more often than those who had not been so primed. Further, experimental subjects who believe in pure evil, i.e., the Devil and demonic forces, are pre-primed to deliver punitive responses, and project evil characteristics even on generally law-abiding perpetrators whose criminal conduct seemed out-of-character and unlikely to be repeated. Thus, those who believe in pure evil view the world through a darker lens. They see the character of others as less worthy of redemption and more suitable for elimination through ostracism, incarceration, and capital punishment.[135] Those who believe in pure evil are also more likely to believe in “the myth of redemptive violence,” the belief “that violence is righteous and necessary for good to overcome evil in the world.”[136] Thus, “belief in evil in people and groups consistently predicted greater support for violent policies and lesser support for nonviolent policies.”[137]

A 2003 poll indicated that 85% of fundamentalist Christians believe that “hell is a real place.”[138] For their children, that may mean giving them a little taste of hell right here on earth, because “[m]any fundamentalists believe that hitting children is sanctioned or mandated by the Bible.[139] The African-American Christian community, more likely to believe in hell than other Christians, has high rates of corporal punishment.[140] Fundamentalist parents who believe that “the Bible is inerrant and has the answers to all human concerns” may conflate parental authority with God’s will. Parents primed with belief in Satan may come to see a disobedient child as a confederate in “Satan’s original rebellion against God,” compelling the parent to “break the child’s will in order for the child and parents to be saved from hell.”[141] Parents who believe in demonic possession are especially dangerous. Belief in demonic possession can result in a parent’s total demonization of defenseless toddlers incapable of malice, whose bodies are “seen as a temporary vessel for the bad spirit [and] physical and emotion abuse … as an unfortunate but necessary price to pay for the child’s spiritual salvation.”[142] Like the Inquisitors of old, such exorcisms have often led to brutal murders committed upon the most innocent of human beings. “Children have been tortured and killed because of belief in demon possession.”[143]

Tibetan Buddhism has a nasty tradition of inflicting corporal punishment on young monks. In a 2016 Tricycle magazine article, Dzongsar Khyentse complained that the most recent generation of incarnate lamas has been spoiled by comfortable living, in contrast with his own early life, in which “regular verbal and physical abuse” was his lot:

“In my time we went through a lot of hardship, eating nothing but rice and potatoes for up to a year, traveling on India’s cheapest public transportation, sleeping on railway platforms, having no more than 10 rupees in our pockets for six or seven months, getting by with one pencil for a year, and even having to share our study books with 18 other students. As a child I had just two handmade toys that I made myself. Worse, my tutor confined me to one room not just for a few weeks or months but for a whole year, so that even going to the toilet became a long awaited excursion. We also suffered regular verbal and physical abuse that went as far as making us bleed from the head and whipping us with nettles.”[144]

In 2011, the current incarnation of Kalu Rinpoche published a shocking YouTube video in which he detailed his own sufferings:

“When I was nine my father passed away, and … I was transported to a different monastery, and when I was like twelve and thirteen, I’ve been sexually abused by other monks, so for me, I don’t believe in monks so much, you know. When I was fifteen, I did three years retreat … and nobody cares about me so much, you know, nobody knows where I am, how I am, you know? And after three years retreat, all the people are interested, because they think I have, kind of, great qualifications and something that which I can remember about my past life. And it’s nothing like that, and after I came out of three years retreat *** and many people are making rumors, saying that I kicked out my mother, my family, that I kicked out my own teacher. Actually, it’s nothing like that. My own tutor, he tried to kill me. That’s the truth. At that time I was really traditional, very good traditional Buddhist practitioner. They tried to kill me because I’m not doing what they want me to do. *** He tried to kill me with the knife, and everything, and it was a shocking moment for me. And after that, he left because when he realized about his own mistake, how can he live with me? And I never kicked out anybody. *** It’s all about money, power, controlling, because if you can control the President, you can get what you want – that’s the way it is. And then I became a drug addict, because all this misunderstanding. And I went crazy. I became a alcoholic, I became a drug addict. I did lots of crazy things, but not the bad things. And then I asked my root guru, ‘What is going on with my life? I don’t know, because I see all these people who are not Buddhist, and they look like Buddhist and they sound like Buddhist and they act like Buddhist, and I’m so confused.’ And he said, ‘You know, Rinpoche, you have the capacity to change the structure in your own lineage, in your own organization.’ You know, so that’s why I’m trying to build a school, and build my own structure. And to build a school for the poor people. Because for me, the Buddhism, and all the religious organization, the spiritual organization, is all about how to protect the the society, how to protect the environment, how to protect ourselves, how to be afar from the weakness, how to understand the true meaning of points. So I will do whatever is best for the society, so that’s why I am planning to build a school. And my life is not easy. *** I love you very much, and I’m happy. Don’t worry.”[145]

In a 2013 article in Elephant Journal, a veteran of the Tibetan refugee scene wrote an article that led off with the startling fact that Bhutanese health authorities were distributing condoms at all Buddhist monastic schools to “stem the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV among young monks who are supposed to be celibate.” The author then recounts the Kalu Rinpoche story quoted above, adding that when she interviewed Kalu, he clearly stated that he had been raped by multiple monks so often that it became routine. She also reports that his “claims of sexual abuse mirror those of Lodoe Senge, an ex-monk and 23-year-old tulku who now lives in Queens, New York [and] was abused, he says, as a 5-year-old by his own tutor, a man in his late twenties, at a monastery in India.”[146] The article relates two other first-person stories of children suffering abuse at the hands of Tibetan Buddhist monks. The first is drawn from “The Struggle for Modern Tibet: The Autobiography of Tashi Tsering,” that recounts how the author “was taken from his family near Drepung at 13 and forced into the Dalai Lama’s personal dance troupe. Severely beaten by his teachers there for minor infractions, Tsering (a heterosexual) was then raped by a well-connected monk (and other ‘official monks’) in exchange for protection, becoming a passive sex-toy or dronpo (Tib: guest).” The second story is that of “Ruben Derksen, a 26-year-old Dutch reincarnate lama” who spent three years as a child “in a monastery in India [and] recently drew attention to the physical beatings that are a regular practice there.” Derksen says, “I met Richard Gere and Steven Seagal, and they didn’t see any of [the beatings, because when] celebrities or outsiders are around, you don’t beat the kids.”[147]

Here in the United States, allegations of repeated acts of statutory rape have been made against the Sakyong:

“During the summers of 2004-2005, Ann worked in the Sakyong’s household at SMC. Where she was working, Ann had a clear view of the people who came to wait for their appointments with the Sakyong. Ann saw lots of people come, but she began to notice that there were parents bringing young teenage girls. The girls seemed nervous. The parents occasionally said something like, ‘This is such an honor for you to have this experience.’ Then a kusung would come for the girl and the parents would leave. Ann worked directly below the Sakyong’s bedroom and since there was no air conditioning, in the summer the windows were open. Ann could hear what sounded distinctly like sexual encounters. Ann worried about this. She asked several kusung, ‘What’s going on with these young girls?’ They always said the same thing. ‘There is nothing for you to worry about.’ But she did worry because she knew what it was like to be a child used for sex. She knew what she saw and what she heard through those windows.”[148]

Those who are waiting for a response from the Dalai Lama will be disappointed, because Tenzin Gyatso seems as disinterested in monastic abuse problems and clergy malpractice in Tibetan Buddhism as the Vatican was about Catholic sex abuse for the past fifty years. In September 2017, the Dalai Lama was presented with a petition signed by twelve Dharma student / sex abuse victims that states, “We found refuge in Buddhism with an open mind and heart, until we were raped in its name.” The Dalai Lama responded, “I already did know these things, nothing new.” Kicking the can down the road, he noted that when he and the other top lamas met at their planned ecclesiastical summit in Dharamsala in November 2017, “At that time they should talk about it. I think the religious leaders should pay more attention.”[149] When November 2017 came around, His Holiness expressed sadness that while he was peacefully “sleeping for nine hours … people have died of starvation, especially children, who see no compassion … this is why we must spread compassion as much as we can.” He made no mention of child abuse in Tibetan monasteries, or sexual misconduct by lamas.[150]


I have had my own experience of hell. I thought I had fallen into a hell of eternal punishment around the age of twelve, when I took far too large a dose of LSD for a child my size and experience, and was propelled into a horrible state of self-contained agony. My mind fell into an endless loop from which there was no escape. I was entombed in terror such as I'd never imagined, and at the nadir of inescapable torment, saw and felt a huge obelisk the size of the Washington Monument crushing down on my breastbone while neon colored hieroglyphics scrolled up the sides of the obelisk. I almost died of dehydration, and surely would have but for medical intervention. Fortunately, I have an inherently resilient constitution, and after being sedated into unconsciousness, and being rehydrated with intravenous fluids, I popped back into consensual reality good as new, wondering why I was manacled hand and foot, naked, catheterized and suffering an agonizing thirst. While I could have died from embarrassment, my sanity returned, and I didn't experience any personality fragmentation or other psychotic aftereffects. But I was frightened by the experience, and for a long time, I wondered if I had experienced some sort of reality that was waiting to seize me when I died, and that was a very scary thought.

Eventually, when I learned enough about my own mind, and about how stress and the body and mind work together to create psychological states, I realized that there was nothing absolute about what I'd experienced. It was just a really bad day for a little boy who had been poisoned by a substance that he had no business getting his hands on. It wasn't a bottle of Drano under the sink, but to me, it was poison, and the people who gave it to me were foolish to do so. But that's life, full of dangers, and that's why children need to be protected.

My experience of psychedelic terror was certainly not unique. Although I suspect my bad acid trip was especially awful, I think I can usefully generalize from what I learned from reflecting on the experience. It was a traumatic experience, that left me with fears about the nature of reality and the dangers lying hidden in my own mind. These are precisely the same fears that hell-mongers play upon to gain control of our minds. If you come to believe that someone knows more about the nature of reality and your mind than you do, then you become vulnerable to their manipulative strategies.

Trauma itself can make you seek out the aid of religious authorities. As one of Sogyal's disillusioned followers stated:

"There are three kinds of people who show up for spiritual practice or information ...you get the intellectuals who are curious and want to learn something about it; you get the people who are actively seeking truth, and looking to figure out what life and the world is about; and then you get the people who are totally psychologically f-d up; they've been abused; terrible things have happened to them.”[151]

Of course, this sets traumatized people up for more abuse, if they run into an exploitative teacher. What I further question is the wisdom of Tibetan Buddhist teachers, and those of other religious traditions, who preach about what happens in the afterlife without having any personal, direct understanding of what they are talking about. I do not think it is sufficient for them to declare that they are just humble monks and nuns, repeating what they have learned from books and oral teachings, passing along what they think has been good for them. They haven't died. They don't know what's going to happen. They can't know if these teachings about the afterlife are correct or useful. Since they don't know, in my opinion, they should remain silent.


Kindness is the first virtue of the Mahayana doctrine, the foundation of Tibetan Buddhism’s vajrayana path. The practitioner develops kindness through the Fourfold Contemplation on Peace, Love, Compassion and Equanimity, “the four boundless minds” that dissolve boundaries between self and other, leading to merger with the Essence of Mind. The Bodhisattva practices Generosity as the first of the Transcendental Virtues that lead to realization of full Buddhahood. Loving-kindness was endorsed by Gautama Buddha:

As a mother would risk her life
to protect her child, her only child,
even so should one cultivate a limitless heart
with regard to all beings.
With good will for the entire cosmos,
cultivate a limitless heart:
Above, below, & all around,
unobstructed, without enmity or hate.

The traditional Tibetan Buddhist method of training the mind in kindness and generosity is to consider all living beings to have been one’s parents in a past life, and to generate for them the same kind regard we bear toward our parents. This teaching is implicit in the repeated invocation of benefiting “all motherly sentient beings” as the constant object of our practice efforts.

Nevertheless, the institution of Tibetan Buddhism shows little kindness to its devotees. Trungpa flew the flag of “crazy wisdom” as an excuse for thuggish assaults like the one he unleashed on W.S. Merwin on Halloween, 1975, stripping him naked with his date in front of his gang of gutless, complicit enablers. The tales of Trungpa’s desecrations of people, places, and norms are now so numerous as to make recounting superfluous.

Thomas Rich took his teacher’s libertine teaching methods to heart, and killed two people, doing what the Vajradhatu board accused him of in its letter requesting his resignation as head of Vajradhatu: “You engaged in unprotected sexual activity after knowing you had HIV disease and AIDS illness, with individuals whom you did not inform of your condition.” In those days, AIDS was certain death, Rich himself was dying of it, and he knowingly bestowed a death sentence on an unknown number of unsuspecting victims. In reality, although some people still venerate him as a crazy wisdom guru, Rich was a grisly serial killer whose victims were sacrificed to his vanity. These are serious crimes for which he escaped judgment. A British man was recently sentenced to life in prison for intentionally infecting five men with the HIV virus, even though none of his victims have died, and he faced the lesser charge of assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm.[152] In 2014, a Dallas man who infected a fifteen year old girl with AIDS was sentenced to 75 years in prison.[153] Many other people have been prosecuted for the same type of crime Rich committed. Since there is no universal justice system in the afterlife that will avenge the deaths that Rich caused, we should make sure that, in the future, gurus don’t get away with it just because they’re gurus.

Perhaps because the Sakyong is an heir to the crazy wisdom throne, he’s sinned dutifully, as if it were his job, and he had to do it right. Like a lot of people who lack enthusiasm for their work, he did as much as he could in an alcoholic haze. When his brain got low on oxygen and high in testosterone, he careened out of control, dropped his persona, grabbed the nearest attractive woman, and found the “short path” to oblivion. Next morning, his conquest wasn’t welcome if she was still around. That was the drill for many years. Then there were the afternoon offerings of underage girls, that Ann talks about. The Sakyong hasn’t killed anyone, to our knowledge.

Although the Sakyong’s victim count is high, the coverup machinery has worked well for him. Indeed, it’s the Sakyong’s coverup machinery that makes his operation stand out. Shambhala has a tradition of text-generation that is second to none. Shambhala people speak about the sins of the Sakyong and other abusers in the organization using thick organizational jargon, leavened with tenderness and sensitivity. Much talk of forgiveness is heard – all of it directed to the poor, unfortunate Sakyong, who has not been judged harshly for breaching samaya to his students, but rather has been given sick leave. Helpful advisers like Tsultrim Allione proclaim that if he dries out, goes into recovery, and cleans up his act, in time he can go back to playing God.[154] Certainly that would be the happiest outcome for the Shambhala institution, that exists in a state of self-absorbed denial, trying to awaken from the worst dream ever – that the Sakyong is a fraud and his religion is a joke.

Sogyal’s taken a hard-line approach to suppressing complaints, denying them at every level, adopting no policies for hearing, and attacking individuals who press their complaints. An extension of Sogyal’s will, Rigpa tries to crush opposition with all of the resources at its disposal -- silencing, shunning, punishing, and discrediting. This is supposed to be consistent with begging for alms and sympathy on Sogyal's behalf.

The magic of Tibetan Buddhism, as advertised by the Dalai Lama, is about drawing from the inexhaustible well of human kindness. In practice, the way that seems to work, however, is that kindness must be shown to the lamas, but they are not obliged to return the courtesy. All of the interpersonal virtues extolled by the lamas -- generosity, patience, love, and compassion – appear to be window dressing intended to draw people seeking a “safe space” to follow a path of peaceful development. Once inside the shop, a more mercantile ethic seems to prevail – Let the Buyer Beware!


Certainly, from their conduct, we know that the gurus themselves don't believe in hell. At least not these we've been talking about here, who, either directly or through the mouths of other lamas, are threatening their students with hellfire. It reminds me of a story told among trial lawyers about Racehorse Haynes, a famous Texas lawyer whose client was on trial for murder, though the victim's body had never been found. Haynes told the jury, "Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for your time, but you're not going to have to deliberate, because the man my client supposedly killed is actually not dead. He's at the airport. I just talked to him on the phone, and any minute now, he's going to come walking through those doors." Haynes pointed at the double doors, that remained closed, and then returned to his argument. "Well, actually folks, he's not coming, and I didn't talk to him. But you still can't convict my client, because I was watching, and every one of you looked when I pointed at the doors. That means that you must each harbor a reasonable doubt that the alleged murder victim is in fact still alive. And if you have that reasonable doubt, you cannot convict."

It sounded like Haynes had made a foolproof argument, so when the jury came back a half-hour later with a guilty verdict, the press were quick to ask the jurors how they had overcome the reasonable doubt that Haynes had demonstrated was lurking in their minds. One of the jurors explained, "Well, it's true we all looked at the doors. But one of us looked around the courtroom, too. And they saw that one person wasn't looking at the doors. And that was Mr. Haynes' client."

Well, when you see the Sakyong and Sogyal seducing and raping their students, getting plastered on fine booze, and using offerings meant to spread the Dharma to live like billionaires, that's them, not looking at the doors that everyone else is staring at. And the reason is the same as it was for Mr. Haynes' client – they know damn well it's all a lie invented to get them off, and they know they're guilty as sin.


We have repeatedly turned to the words of Gautama Buddha for guidance in this discussion, not so much as a source of doctrinal correctness, as to draw inspiration from the Buddha’s approach to clear thinking and ethical action. In the Sutta to the Kalamas, he connected with an audience that expressed skepticism about conflicting spiritual doctrines, not by asserting his own authority and passing judgment on the doctrines of others, but by inviting his listeners to judge for themselves.

“Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, 'The monk is our teacher.' Kalamas, when you yourselves know: 'These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,' abandon them.”[155]

In this statement, the Buddha seems to tell us that we are already familiar with the Right Path, and need only to trust our ability to judge what is harmful and what is helpful to the achievement of positive goals. If we are to deconstruct hell and the fear of damnation in our minds, we must take the Buddha’s advice to the Kalamas to heart.

Knowledge, for Buddha, is useful as a guide to ethical action that leads to attaining the worthy goals of “direct knowledge, self-awakening, and Unbinding.”[156] We can infer, from the Buddha’s refusal to answer Malunkyaputta’s questions about what happens to us after we die, that knowledge of the afterlife would not be helpful to attaining these goals. The Buddha’s emphasis on “direct knowledge” reveals something about his approach to learning. Buddha taught his students to learn for themselves, not to memorize the statements of authorities. Buddha declined even to tease his students’ appetites with revelations of things that they couldn’t verify through their own investigations. If he’d told them things they couldn’t verify, they’d have had to take his statements on faith. If he’d asked them to trust his superior knowledge, he would have led them into a realm of uncertainty, a realm where they would have no light but belief in the Buddha’s claimed understanding, and would be left in the dark if that light went out.

The Buddha had experienced that darkness himself, after he left the castle with his hair newly-shorn, and started taking teachings from the great rishis with whom he studied.[157] Each one had a doctrine. Many professed secret knowledge of the Universe, and guided their students by drawing a cosmological map of the realms where conscious beings are said to dwell, and marked a path to higher states that could be achieved through devotion, ritual, ascetic discipline, and meditative samadhi. But to the Buddha, all that secret knowledge was useless. He denied that seeing by the light of another’s vision was true seeing. If he could not see it himself, by the plain light of the sun that illumines every eye, it had no value to him.

As a trial lawyer working in Southern Oregon, where there are many believers of many religions, from evangelical Christians to UFO mystics and Tibetan Buddhists, I was tasked with trying to get jurors to make decisions based solely on empirical evidence. Thus, I found it necessary to address the issue of faith with people who might believe in discovering the truth through revelations, prayers, dreams or clairvoyance. I came up with a formula that went something like this: “Ladies and gentlemen, if you are chosen to sit on this jury, you will be required to swear that you will base your verdict solely on the evidence you hear from the mouths of witnesses and see in the exhibits that the Court admits into evidence. So I would like to ask you if you can each commit that, even if you receive the answer to what your verdict should be in a dream, a prayer, or a vision, that you will not tell any other juror about it?” After eliciting visual confirmation of their willingness to accept this restriction, I’d explain myself further: “I am not saying that you might not get an insight into how you should vote in a dream, prayer, or moment of private reflection, but I am saying that, as the Court will explain, your verdict must be the product of a group process. In this group process, you cannot ask the other jurors to rely on your belief as to what the verdict should be, because they cannot see your vision or your dream. They would have to take what you said on faith. So to keep this process fair, to keep it a process that you would accept as fair if judgment were being passed on you, this process must be based entirely on facts that the witnesses have related to us, and that anyone could have seen if they had been in the same position as the witnesses. That way, no one has to take anything on faith, and the judgment will be based on publicly-verifiable facts, considered in the light of reason and good sense.”

This is the kind of intellectual discipline we apply to lawsuits and criminal trials. We show far less discretion when making decisions about our spiritual beliefs. Instead of confining our thinking to matters we can verify for ourselves, we specifically ask spiritual authorities, as Malunkyaputta asked the Buddha, to reveal the secret plan of the Universe, to discourse upon the unknowable. But since we are well aware that, when it comes to the unknowable, people pick and choose among authorities, selecting those whose doctrines accord with their preferences, we only use authorities to prop up our own projections. So, in a sense, one of the Buddha’s most fundamental teachings is hidden in his refusal to answer questions about unverifiable matters. The Buddha did not answer because he did not want to offer his disciples “painted cakes, that do not satisfy hunger.” He wanted them to eat only real food – “direct knowledge,” the only knowledge that can fuel self-awakening, the only knowledge we can trust so deeply that it will lead to the goal of “Unbinding.” We can only unbind ourselves from the mental habits that cause suffering when we see the cause of suffering for ourselves. When we see bad habits for what they are, we find we can leave them aside.


Christians and Buddhists share the belief that God and/or the Laws of the Universe are hiding something from us – namely that there is a universal justice system that incorporates a delay-mechanism. Thus, actions during our lifetime bear consequences in the afterlife, and in the system of reincarnation, in future lives. In Esoteric Buddhism, the theosophist and attorney A.P. Sinnett presented a clever theory to explain why the evil apparently get away with everything while they’re alive, and must pay up when they’re dead. He explains that what he calls Avitchi (hell) and Devachan (heaven) happen to people who are living “a life of effects, not of causes; a life of being paid for your earnings not of laboring for them.” Causes and effects happen in different lifetimes! Suffice it to say that this explanation only serves to emphasize the disparity between the way the Universal justice system seems inoperative during our corporeal lifetime, but will be fierce and inexorable in the hereafter. Some might say that a system of Universal law that so conceals its operation from those who are subject to it should be called perverse. Fairness, in human-engineered justice systems, demands that people be given notice of the laws that will govern them. We call it “entrapment,” when people are enticed into a course of conduct, then punished for it later.

Religions work overtime trying to reconcile the concept of a just God or Universe with the punitive nature of hell. Christians have said that God wants to test our faith. Tibetan Buddhists say it’s just tough luck – Samsara is a nasty system, and we’re stuck with it, and by the way, it’s all your fault. The explanations don’t make sense, and they don’t have to. It is sufficient for the priests that we remain dependent on the testimony of deloks, revenants, prophets, and theologians to understand how to secure the happy end of our eternal souls. They call it heresy to assert that the cosmological postulates of the soul, of God and retributive karma are mental creations, inculcated by means of indoctrination techniques, and threaten heretics with damnation. But every one of these cosmological postulates originated in the human mind, and can come to an end in our own minds, when we see that they do not arise from direct knowledge.

In all candor, however, we invest great trust in our understanding of matters as to which we lack direct knowledge, so a fair deconstruction of hell must take into account what kinds of indirect knowledge we can properly rely upon. We rely upon reason, scientific knowledge and applied technology for our daily survival. This faith in reason is everywhere manifest. We board airplanes on the assumption that the laws of aerodynamics will hold true until we arrive at our destination. We trust that the plane won’t fall out of the sky so long as the jet engines continue blasting hot air to the rear of the vessel, knowing vaguely that jet propulsion works because “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” We trust that the plane won’t overshoot the runway because the atmosphere is composed of non-visible atoms that, however impossible to see, have a certain density, and when the flaps on the wings go up, they exert drag on the plane, and it slows down, and the brakes on the wheels exploit the force of friction to do the rest.

Unlike faith, that serves as a substitute for evidence, reasonable reliance on technological application of universal laws is grounded in repeat experience, publicly confirmed by hundreds of millions of human beings. It’s not true because we’ve been taught it in school and read it in books. It’s true because we have lived the reality of it. We have boarded a plane in Phoenix and gotten off in Mexico City. We get in our cars and use the same unvarying principles of physical reality day in day out to get to every place we want to go. We reach in our refrigerator, and thanks to the genius who realized that compressed gases could be compressed and decompressed as a means of carrying away heat, our milk is cold and sweet, not hot and sour.

Fundamental to our ability to comprehend the universe and manipulate it with technology is the principle that the same laws of nature apply everywhere, and at all times, throughout the Universe. Darwin applied this principle when he traveled to South America and catalogued strange-looking creatures that did not exist in Europe. Many people believed that weird-looking plants and animals filled the Western Hemisphere because different natural laws applied there. But Darwin had read Alexander von Humboldt, who established by direct observation, using altimeters, thermometers, and barometers, that climate varied with latitude, altitude, and moisture availability. By this means, Humboldt showed that the foothills and the intermediate and ultramontane reaches of the Andes resembled the corresponding regions of the Alps. Darwin understood that every place on the planet was subject to the same laws, and thus he was able to extrapolate from what he saw in South America and the Galapagos to deduce how all species on earth had arisen from a single common ancestor. Previous to Darwin’s declaration, most learned men asserted a belief in special creation, the idea that God had created each species with special care from unique patterns. The idea that all this diversity could arise from a single form of life, through the passage of vast geological ages, is fundamentally grounded in this idea that the laws of the universe are uniform and invariable. Likewise, the deductions that have been made about the size of the universe, the age of the galaxies, and the structure of atoms and subatomic particles, are based on the understanding that the universe is subject to definite rules that are consistent everywhere in the universe. This overarching assumption that the universe is controlled by consistent laws is why physicists are trying to reconcile all of the evidence about how matter, energy, space, time and consciousness behave at every scale of size, from the infinitesimally small, to the inconceivably vast. In a rational mind, there is no room for another set of rules that apply when you are dead.

But to the Tibetan Buddhists who become practiced in Dharma doublethink, reason presents no obstacle. Maintaining inconsistent ideas and reconciling the opposites are essential techniques for these advanced practitioners of self-deception. Indeed, the swirl of darkness that taints the purity of the doctrine imbues it with magical qualities. Tantrics triumph because they transgress! This is their cry of victory, their “lion’s roar,” their “stroke of Ashe.”[158] And along the way, when they shiver in bewilderment, when their faith in the toxic brew they willingly swill is shaken by the abuse they suffer at the hands of the lama, they console themselves by “holding space,” which is to say, abiding in doubt. Andrea Winn, the producer of a tepid expose of the Sakyong’s misdeeds, modeled the concept of “holding space” as a technique for holding cognitive dissonance at bay: “Trungpa Rinpoche is my guru. When I first learned last December of his cocaine addiction and his abuse of women and animals, my world was rocked! ... For me the key has been holding space for my love, admiration and gratitude for Trungpa Rinpoche while deeply holding space for taking in the atrocities and betrayal. I say "deeply holding space" because trauma is a deep experience, and a special quality of holding needs to happen for the traumatized parts of ourselves to heal with integrity....”[159]

But for those who realize there’s nothing smart about “deeply holding space” for a cocaine addict who abused women and animals, the march out of the fear of hell is not so difficult. Simply give up the search for the meaning of a cosmological postulate like “the hell realms,” and find the origin of the concept in human history. Discover where it arose -- in the mind of another human being. When you can see that all of these cosmological postulates – hell, samsara, karmic DNA, the insubstantial self – are simply ideas that arose in the mind of a human being, who passed it along to another human being, and after innumerable transfers through all types of human minds over thousands of years, they finally arrived in your mind, then you can see that it is completely relative, a mere thought, and very far from being an ultimate reality that you need to fear, worry about, or come to terms with.



1. After meeting Kalu Rinpoche and Tarthang Tulku in Tempe, Arizona, in 1974, Charles Carreon and his wife Tara began studying Buddhism in Varanasi and Bodhgaya, India in 1975, when he was nineteen, and she was twenty. When they returned to the U.S., they moved to Oregon with their son Joshua in 1977. In 1978, they became students of Gyatrul Rinpoche’s in Ashland, Oregon. In 1983 they both graduated with BA’s from Southern Oregon State College, and moved to Los Angeles with their three kids, Joshua, Maria, and Ana. Charles earned his Juris Doctor degree at UCLA Law School and was admitted to the California Bar in 1987. They lived in LA and hosted the Los Angeles Yeshe Nyingpo Vajrayana center under Gyatrul Rinpoche’s auspices, until 1994, when they moved back to live near Gyatrul Rinpoche’s country center, Tashi Choling, in Colestine Valley. They left in 1999 after changes in Tashi Choling management, and Gyatrul Rinpoche’s divorce from Nancy Gustafson, followed by his move to the Bay Area, made living in Colestine Valley less desirable. In year 2000, Tara published Another View on Whether Tibetan Buddhism is Working in the West, one of the first critical essays from a Vajrayana practitioner to question the Tibetan Buddhist doctrinal approach. In year 2000, Tara established American-Buddha.com. From year 2003 – 2006, Charles edited The Ashland Free Press. In 2007, they moved to Tucson, Arizona. After a hiatus in running American-Buddha.com that began in 2014, they restarted the website in 2019. Currently they keep busy studying, working, and watching the cacti grow.

2. (http://theunexplainedmysteries.com/2017/08/06/thai-hell-garden/)

3. (https://www.flickr.com/photos/21882946@N07/2145140747)

4. (The Many Spheres of Hell As Seen In Japanese Art,

5. https://c8.alamy.com/comp/AX7JD6/visions-of-buddhist-hell-at-the-state-oracle-nechuns-monastery-near-AX7JD6.jpg

6. http://www.dailycamera.com/news/ci_30497444/shambhala-publications-boulder-

7. All three of these investigations were designed to eliminate as many reports of sex abuse and physical assault as possible, by imposing burdensome requirements on those making the reports, and all accounts were cleansed of evidentiary value by using vague dates, eliminating the places where events occurred, inviting rebuttals by biased witnesses, and allowing the Sakyong to respond to all accusations with a canned affidavit of denial, relieving him of the obligation to be interviewed by the purportedly “unbiased” investigators.

8. Buddhist Project Sunshine Phase 3 Final Report: The Nail
< http://survivorbb.rapeutation.com/viewtopic.php?f=174&t=3918>

9. Report to the Community on the Wickwire Holm Claims Investigation
< https://survivorbb.rapeutation.com/viewtopic.php?t=3919&p=27961>

10. An Olive Branch Report on the Shambhala Listening Post
< http://survivorbb.rapeutation.com/viewtopic.php?t=3944&p=28210#p28209>

11. Kalu Rinpoche was a high lama in the Kagyu tradition, well-known worldwide; thus, the story that he was repeatedly raped as a child suggests that no child is safe in a Tibetan monastery.

12. "In 1982, a Gallup survey indicated that approximately 8 million adults in the United States had had a near-death experience (a significantly large population from which to take accurate samples)."

13. https://www.shambhalamountain.org/teacher/sam-bercholz/

14. Lopon Tsechu Rinpoche, The Four Thoughts Which Turn the Mind from Samsara

15. Reflecting on Numerical Comparisons
<http://khenposodargye.org/meditations/5-reflecting-numerical-comparisons/ >

16. Lama Zopa, Tara the Liberator

17. Cause of Most Heart Attacks Found

18. "The earliest evidence for notions of hell related to Hinduism are found in the Vedic texts, which date from c. 1500–1000 BCE. In the long tradition of Hindu literature there was a significant development in the concept of hell from the period of the Vedas through the period of the Puranas (c. 300–1500 CE)." http://www.hell-on-line.org/AboutHIN.html

19. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/buddhists-celebrate-birth-of-gautama-buddha

20. "Buddhist hell was conceived of as a series of eight hells, one above the other, each with sixteen secondary hells, four at each of the four gates of the great hells -- or 136 hells in total. Tibetan traditions add another eight major hells, layering eight cold hells above the eight standard hot hells, all having sixteen secondary hells -- or 272 hells." http://www.hell-on-line.org/AboutAB.html

21. Compare Buddhist hells listed at
http://www.hell-on-line.org/AboutAB.html  with Hindu hells listed at

22. http://www.hell-on-line.org/TextsAB.html#Sutra18

23. http://www.hell-on-line.org/GlossGEN.html#Vaitarani

24. C. Wallis, A Comparison of Shaiva and Buddhist Tantra

25. http://www.hell-on-line.org/AboutHIN.html

26. tem 21 at

27. Item 18 at Id.

28. http://www.hell-on-line.org/TextsAB.html

29. The cold hells are: Arbuda (hell of swelling), Nirarbuda (hell of shrinking), Atata (hell of chattering teeth), Hahava (hell of shivering tongue), Huhuva (hell of shuddering mouth), Utpala (hell of blue-lotus colored patches on the skin), Padma (hell of crimson-lotus colored patches on the skin), and Mahapadma (hell of great-crimson-lotus colored patches on the skin).

30. (Bryan J. Cuevas, Travels in the Netherworld: Buddhist Popular Narratives of Death and the Afterlife in Tibet, p. 4.) 

31. (Cuevas, page 27-28.)

32. (Cuevas, page 40.)

33. See entry for “Burnt Offerings,” translated as “gsur” at Glossary for Rangjung Yeshe Books
< http://www.rangjung.com/glossary/>

34. (Cuevas, page 91-92.)

35. (Cuevas, pages 119 – 121.)

36. (Cuevas, page 94.)

37. (Cuevas, page 95.) 

38. (Cuevas, page 98.)

39. (Cuevas, page 100.)

40. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.031.than.html

41. "Unlike other parts of the Pali canon, the Mahavastu survives in manuscripts written, not in Pali, but in a language known as Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit."

42. Ashoka’s Hell Explained <https://everything.explained.today/Ashoka%27s_Hell/>

43. Tao The Ching, Chapter 74, http://www.egreenway.com/taoism/ttclz74.htm

44. Learning fears by observing others: the neural systems of social fear transmission Andreas Olsson,1 Katherine I. Nearing,2 and Elizabeth A. Phelps3,4 http://www.psych.nyu.edu/phelpslab

45. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK5223/

46. T. Norbu, Gypsy Gossip and Other Advice, page 77 (Shambhala, 2016)

47. (Understanding Karma by Reginald Ray http://www.pbs.org/thebuddha/blog

48. Mipham Rinpoche, The Essence of Mind <https://www.lotsawahouse.org/

49. Swami Shivananda, Essence of Principal Upanishands, Chapter One, Isavasya Upanishad, Nature of the Atman <http://www.dlshq.org/books/es272.htm#atman>

50. Mahaparinirvana Sutra, Chapter Twelve: On the Nature of the Tathagata, p. 104, translation by Kosho Yamamoto 1973, Dr. Tony Page, 2007 <http://nirvanasutra.net/convenient/Mahaparinirvana_Sutra_Yamamoto_Page_2007.pdf>

51. Jikido Takasaki, A Study on the Ratnagotravibhagha (Uttaratantra), Being a Treatise on the Tathagatagarbha Theory of Mahayana Buddhism <http://lirs.ru/lib/uttara/A_Study_of_

52. Mipham Rinpoche, The Essence of Mind <https://www.lotsawahouse.org/tibetan-masters/mipham/essence-of-mind>

53. Mahaparinirvana Sutra, Chapter Twenty-Three: On Grief, p. 29, translation by Kosho Yamamoto 1973, Dr. Tony Page, 2007 <http://nirvanasutra.net/convenient/Mahaparinirvana_Sutra_

54. Mahaparinirvana Sutra, Chapter Twenty-Three: On Pure Actions, p. 244, translation by Kosho Yamamoto 1973, Dr. Tony Page, 2007 <http://nirvanasutra.net/convenient/Mahaparinirvana_Sutra_Yamamoto_Page_2007.pdf>

55. Mahaparinirvana Sutra, Chapter Fourteen: On the Parable of the Birds, p. 119, translation by Kosho Yamamoto 1973, Dr. Tony Page, 2007 <http://nirvanasutra.net/convenient/Mahaparinirvana_Sutra_Yamamoto_Page_2007.pdf>

56. (Tai Situ Rinpoche, Avalokiteshvara Practice.
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57. (Sean M. Carroll, Physics and the Immortality of the Soul, Scientific American 5/23/2011
<https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/physics-and-the-immortality-of-the-soul/> )

58. A. Hughes, The Thirteen Previous Dalai Lamas, <http://news.minnesota.publicradio.org/features/200105/07_newsroom_dalai/bios.shtml>; C. Carreon, The Dalai Lamas, Prisoners of the Potala Junta <http://survivorbb.rapeutation.com/viewtopic.php?f=13&t=172&start=249>

59. M. Dash, Murder in Tibet’s High Places
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60. C. Carreon, The Dalai Lamas, Prisoners of the Potala Junta, at id.

61. Guru mantra meaning and benefits <https://www.astrospeak.com/slides/guru-

62. Kaula Jnana Nirnaya, XII. 3-6. <http://www.shivashakti.com/guru.htm>

63. https://thedorjeshugdengroup.files.wordpress.com/2017/07/otr-newerresponse.pdf

64. http://www.dailycamera.com/news/ci_30497444/shambhala-publications-

65. Shambhala Publishing history, https://www.shambhala.com/about-shambhala/

66. December 29, 1988 Statement to the Vajra Regent Osel Tendzin from the Vajradhatu Board of Directors <https://www.chronicleproject.com/letters-of-the-current-situation/>

67. January 17, 1989 Letter to the Sangha from the Vajra Regent Osel Tendzin

68. One of Trungpa’s seven wives, Leslie Hays, wrote about the poor treatment given to the family of the young man that Rich killed with unprotected sex. “During this painful time, the family received no apologies; in fact they were often asked if they were sure this young man contracted AIDS from the Regent. There was much discussion about his past sexual history, as if he were a case study rather than an innocent. False and irrelevant allegations such as one of his old girlfriends used needles, this one was promiscuous, an uncle had recently died of AIDS, etc, abounded. Rather than embracing this family with loving kindness when they needed it most, they were often treated badly and gossiped about.” <https://www.chronicleproject.com/letters-of-the-current-situation/>

69. October 17, 1989 Letter to the Sangha from H.H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche; February 15, 1990 Letter to the Sangha from H.H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche; August 26, 1990 Statement to the Sangha from H.E. Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche; August 26, 1990 Statement to the Sangha from H.H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche; August 10, 1991, Letter to Karl Springer from H.H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche; August 10, 1991, Letter to Patrick Sweeney from H.H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche

70. https://drolmablog.wordpress.com/2019/02/22/mipham-did-not-reincarnate/

71. C. Carreon, Born in Tibet, Again: The Exile of the 12th Trungpa Tulku

72. https://www.reddit.com/r/ChogyamTrungpa/

73. November 28, 1989 Letter to the Sangha from the Vajra Regent Osel Tendzin

74. Thomas Merton, The Way of Chuang Tzu <https://terebess.hu/zen/mesterek/MertonChuangTzu.pdf>

75. http://chogyamtrungpa.com/about-us/team/

76. http://chogyamtrungpa.com/about-us/partners/

77. https://www.lionsroar.com/shambhala-leader-sakyong-mipham-responds-

78. Can You Resign from the Board of a Troubled Company?, by David A. Katz and Laura A. McIntosh http://survivorbb.rapeutation.com/viewtopic.php?f=174&t=3917&start=34

79. Id.

80. http://matthewremski.com/wordpress/interim-shambhala-international-board-

81. Finance Report to the Shambhala Community, August 15, 2018
< https://shambhala.org/index.php?file=2018/08/Finance-Report-to-Shambhala-Community-

82. https://www.berkshirehathawayhs.com/homes-for-sale/6897-Marshall-Drive-Boulder-

83. https://www.tibetsun.com/elsewhere/2018/09/11/why-tibetan-buddhism-is-facing-

84. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/sexual-assaults-violent-rages-inside-

85. Report to the Boards of Trustees of Rigpa Fellowship UK and Rigpa Fellowship US, page 18. <https://static1.squarespace.com/static/580dbe87e6f2e16700cb79fe/t/

86. Report to the Boards of Trustees, page 20, at id.

87. Report to the Boards of Trustees, page 24, at id.

88. Report to the Boards of Trustees, page 24, at id.

89. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/sexual-assaults-violent-rages-

90. Report to the Boards of Trustees, page 15, at id.

91. Report to the Boards of Trustees, page 46, at id.

92. Report to the Boards of Trustees, page 46, at id.

93. Dalai Lama denounces ethical misconduct by Buddhist teachers

94. http://beyondthetemple.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/dzk-letter-to-rigpa-sangha-1.pdf

95. https://www.facebook.com/sogyal.rinpoche/photos/a.485061908344.252790.30766398344

96. H. Gayley, Revisiting the "Secret Consort" (gsang yum) in Tibetan Buddhism,

97. http://matthewremski.com/wordpress/senior-rigpa-students-ask-for-sogyal-

98. Mark Darling, Is Believing in Hell Bad for Your Health?
< https://www.periecho.com/single-post/2017/03/26/Is-Believing-in-Hell-Bad-for-Your-Mental-Health>

99. R. Foltz, Religions of the Silk Road, page 44. <https://epdf.tips/religions-of-the-silk-road.html>

100. (Ghandara Art, Encyclopedia Brittanica, https://www.britannica.com/art/Gandhara-art)

101. (Warren, Kate Mary. "Harrowing of Hell." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7;
<http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07143d.htm> )

102. (https://www.rigpawiki.org/index.php?title=Narak_Kong_Shak)

103. (http://www.buddhaofcompassion.org/Chenrezig.htm)

104. (Naraka (Buddhism), Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naraka_(Buddhism)#cite_note-2 )

105. (Indulgence, Roman Catholicism, by Lawrence G. Duggan, Encyclopedia Britannica
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106. https://theyoginiproject.org/buddhist-women-in-books/machig-labdron-

107. http://www.khandro.net/TibBud%20_vajrayana.htm

108. Abhidharmasamuccaya, p 13.

109. Visuddhimagga, p 591 / online ATI p 649.

110. Bodhicaryavatara, translated by K.Crosby and A.Skilton, Chapter 1, stanzas 21 - 22.

111. http://denpaikyareng.blogspot.com/2015/08/bon-religion-of-tibet.html

112. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/tibet/understand/bon.html

113. https://whatnow727.wordpress.com/2017/08/07/a-letter-to-rigpa-international-

114. https://www.shambhala.com/snowlion_articles/mo-tibetan-divination-system/

115. (https://dharmawheel.net/viewtopic.php?t=8495#p102915)

116. (https://dharmawheel.net/viewtopic.php?f=48&t=8495&start=40#p103501

117. (https://dharmawheel.net/viewtopic.php?f=48&t=8495&start=160#p103762)

118. (https://dharmawheel.net/viewtopic.php?f=48&t=8495&start=160#p103777)

119. (https://dharmawheel.net/viewtopic.php?f=40&t=28661&start=20#p450009

120. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incubus

121. (https://dharmawheel.net/viewtopic.php?f=40&t=28661&start=40#p450675)

122. (https://dharmawheel.net/viewtopic.php?f=40&t=28647&start=20#p449386

123. (https://dharmawheel.net/viewtopic.php?f=40&t=28647&start=20#p449394)

124. (https://dharmawheel.net/viewtopic.php?f=40&t=28647&start=40)

125. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=73yi0_DG3hk).

126. (https://dharmawheel.net/viewtopic.php?t=16064#p225299)

127. (https://dharmawheel.net/viewtopic.php?f=40&t=16064#p227076)

128. (https://dharmawheel.net/viewtopic.php?f=40&t=16064&start=20#p228741)

129. (https://www.christianforums.com/threads/fear-of-hell.7608861/; https://www.reddit.com/r/Christianity/comments/4vhayq/anxiety_about_hell_to_
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130. V. Shastri, Destiny, Heaven & Hell in Hinduism,

131. (The Harris Poll, Americans’ Belief in God, Miracles and Heaven Declines

132. (J. Baker, Who Believes in Religious Evil? An Investigation of Sociological Patterns of Belief in Satan, Hell and Demons, Review of Religious Research 2008, Vol. 50(2): Page 206, at pages 212 and 216. <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/272416826_Who_Believes_in_Religious_Evil_An_

133. (J. Baker, Who Believes in Religious Evil?, at page 218.)

134. (J.Baker, Who Believes in Religious Evil? at page 206.)

135. (R.J. Webster and D.A. Saucier, Demons are everywhere: The effects of belief in pure evil, demonization, and retribution on punishing criminal perpetrators, Personality and Individual Differences 74 (2015) 72 – 77 < https://www.researchgate.net/publication/267454932_Demons_are_everywhere_The_

136. M. Campbell and J.R. Vollhardt, Fighting the Good Fight: The Relationship Between Belief in Evil and Support for Violent Policies
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137. (M. Campbell and J.R. Vollhardt, Fighting the Good Fight, at page 30.)

138. (http://www.religioustolerance.org/polls-about-life-after-death.htm)

139. (R. Swan, Religious Attitudes on Corporal punishment

140. (R. Swan, at id.)

141. (R. Swan, at id.)

142. (Toddler’s Exorcism Death Part of Dark History
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143. (R. Swan, at id.; Parents Beat Child to Death in “Christian Discipline”
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144. (Time for Radical Change in How We Raise Our Tulkus, Aug. 22, 2016
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145. Some redundancies have been edited out of the transcription of the original video. <https://youtu.be/z5Ka3bEN1rs>

146. (A. Wilde-Blavatsky, What Lies Beneath the Robes: Are Buddhist Monasteries Suitable Places for Children? < https://www.elephantjournal.com/2013/06/what-lies-beneath-the-robes-are-
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147. (A. Wilde-Blavatsky, What Lies Beneath the Robes, at id.)

148. Buddhist Project Sunshine Phase 3 Final Report: The Nail (http://survivorbb.rapeutation.com/viewtopic.php?f=174&t=3918&start=20#p27958)

149. (Dalai Lama Says He Knew of Sex Abuse By Buddhist Teachers Since 1990s

150. (http://www.thetibetpost.com/en/news/exile/5797-we-hope-for-tibetans-to-be-reunited-in-

151. M.Brown, Sexual assaults and violent rages... Inside the dark world of Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rinpoche <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/sexual-assaults-violent-

152. British man who deliberately infected five parners with HIV is sentenced to life in prison <https://nationalpost.com/news/world/british-man-who-deliberately-infected-

153. Dallas man who infected teen with HIV gets 75 years in prison

154. Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo & Lama Tsultrim Allione discuss the allegations of sexual abuse by Shambhala head Sakyong Mipham. Recorded at Tara Mandala, July 1, 2018. <https://youtu.be/elzlih71RH0>

155. Sutta to the Kalamas <https://accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/soma/wheel008.html>

156. Simsapa Sutta <https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.031.than.html>

157. B.R. Amedkar, The Buddha and His Dhamma, Book One, Part V, The Buddha and His Predecessors http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00ambedkar/ambedkar_buddha/01_5.html

158. “This practice of the stroke of Ashe is … a message from awake mind of how to rend the veil that normally prevents direct experience of the sacredness of our world.” J. Hayward, Warrior-King of Shambhala, Remembering Chogyam Trungpa (Wisdom Publications, 2008)

159. Buddhist Project Sunshine Phase 3 Final Report: The Nail <http://survivorbb.rapeutation.com/viewtopic.php?t=3918#p27936>