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Buddhist Sect Alarmed by Reports That Leader Kept His AIDS a Secret

Times Religion Writer

The biggest branch of Tibetan Buddhism in America has been stunned with reports that its spiritual leader, whose homosexual activity was known to the movement’s insiders, has been infected with the AIDS virus since 1985 but did not acknowledge the problem until last December when a companion was also found to be infected.

Called by one official a “tragic catastrophe” in ethics, the scandal surrounding Ozel Tendzin, 45, American-born regent of the international Vajradhatu Buddhist organization, has been compounded by his recent decision to resume teaching and ceremonial duties in defiance of a request by the movement’s board.

On Retreat in La Jolla

Tendzin went on retreat early this month at a private residence in La Jolla. Though he described his situation in special mid-December meetings at Berkeley and Los Angeles, several members said he was vague about his condition and why he did not alert others.

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Sources close to senior officials of the sect confirmed in interviews that a male companion of Tendzin and a woman friend of the young man have tested positive for the AIDS virus.

“All we know is who slept with whom and that all three have tested positive for HIV,” said one source, referring to the human immunodeficiency virus that leads to AIDS.

Some knowledgeable sect members are outraged by the situation. Lisa Goldblatt, coordinator of the Portland, Ore., study group and a board member of an Oregon AIDS coalition, wrote to other Vajradhatu leaders Dec. 31 that a “grave mistake” was made in not informing the organization about the regent’s condition.

“The results of this situation--a tragic catastrophe--are that individuals have been infected and will die. Our community is seriously injured and even the dharma (Buddhist teaching) in the West has been marred,” Goldblatt said in a letter.

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Membership of 3,500

“All this would not have happened if the regent or his colleagues had informed our sangha (community) in 1985, which was the only responsible action to take. That the regent has AIDS is tragic,” she wrote.

The Vajradhatu network of about 35 meditation centers in North America and Europe has about 3,500 members. It was founded in 1970 in Boulder, Colo., by the Venerable Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who named Tendzin as his successor before he died in 1987.

Though rather traditional in doctrinal teaching, the two leaders were not celibate monks as is common in Tibetan and other Buddhist branches. Both Trungpa and Tendzin married but engaged in other sexual liaisons--a practice that is not considered immoral in the organization.

The Vajradhatu movement has been influential in the spread of Buddhism among Caucasians. It was a principal founder of the fledgling American Buddhist Congress and also publishes a newspaper read widely by Buddhists and edited in Boulder by Rick Fields, a popular historian of U.S. Buddhism.

In its latest, long-delayed issue, the Vajradhatu Sun newspaper depicts a transparent broken heart drawn over the sect’s logo--symbolizing the disorder and impasse evident in the organization. Accompanying the drawing was a statement, which one reader called “pathetic,” that the regent and the board have prohibited the newspaper from reporting on its dilemma.

Tendzin went into retreat without responding to the request by the Vajradhatu board to withdraw from duties for an indefinite period.

Vajradhatu is part of the India-based Kagyu tradition--one of four wings--of Tibetan Buddhism. The regents of Kagyu had also advised Tendzin to withdraw for the sake of harmony and avoiding “negativity” toward Buddhism, according to a Vajradhatu board document dated Jan. 10.

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Not Attended by Physician

Tendzin, at times said to be “very sick,” apparently has hoped he could improve his health while on retreat. The San Francisco Chronicle and the Boulder Camera quoted from a Jan. 17 letter the newspapers said Tendzin wrote to his followers, saying, “In working with disease, dharma (Buddhist teaching) is the best medicine.”

A one-time disciple of Trungpa Rinpoche who is close to senior Vajradhatu officials said he was told Tendzin is being attended by specialists in “the healing arts” but no medical doctor. A board member confirmed that no physician is with Tendzin but declined to elaborate or say where in La Jolla the regent is staying.

In his Jan. 17 letter, Tendzin was oblique about his culpability, referring to the “faults of myself and others. . . .” The Chronicle said a person who was at the Berkeley meeting with Tendzin said the regent apologized for his ignorance, saying that “he somehow believed that he and the people in contact with him were protected from AIDS.”

In telephone calls last week to various leaders, Tendzin said that after he ends his three-month retreat, he will resume teaching and perform the abhisheka ceremony. That “empowerment” rite, in which advanced students are said to get a glimpse of the “enlightened” mind, is scheduled May 16 at the organization’s contemplative center near Barnet, Vt.

‘A Painful Point’

If Tendzin does insist on doing the ceremony, “that would force things to a painful point,” said an influential figure in the organization who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Some people on the board hoped it would be a long leave,” he said.

The Vajradhatu board, based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, has declined to say what its next step will be. It has repeatedly refused to confirm or deny that Tendzin has a health problem, citing in a statement Friday that “overriding principles of medical confidentiality” were at stake.

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Speaking in general terms the statement also said, “Although there have been a few cases of HIV infection among our worldwide membership, the number of cases is in fact lower than would be expected” in a group of its size. Members who fear they are at risk were advised to be tested for the virus, the statement said.

Board member Martin Janowitz, in a telephone interview, denied speculation within the movement that the board fears it may be held liable for Tendzin’s actions. He said there was no concern, despite the $21.75-million award this month by a Los Angeles jury to Marc Christian, a lover of Rock Hudson who said the late actor did not tell him he was dying of AIDS.

Tendzin, who was born Thomas F. Rich in Passaic, N.J., has a wife and children living in Halifax, officials said.

“I know that he made love to men and women outside of wedlock,” said an East Coast source. A Los Angeles center member who did want to be identified said, "(Tendzin’s) bisexuality has been considered an open secret for as long as I’ve known him, since 1974.” Another Los Angeles member, interviewed separately, concurred: “It is fairly common knowledge that he has had homosexual relations.”

Yet, homosexual relations are not the issue, said board member Janowitz. “We don’t have a view within our religion of moral or immoral sexual practices. We don’t view, as do some other religions, homosexual relations as any kind of sin,” he said. “If anyone has AIDS, our concern would be for their health.”

Show Compassion

Many officials in the organization, reluctant to comment at all, mostly say they want to show Buddhist compassion to Tendzin and preserve the unity of the community.

“His actions have caused a lot of pain, chaos and confusion. (But) people are working with the situation and practicing more than ever now,” said Marcy Fink, a Vajradhatu representative in Los Angeles. “There is a lot of chaos, and it would be silly to deny it.” She added that none of the 100 members of the Los Angeles center have quit.

Some Vajradhatu members, however, have sought the counsel of the Buddhist AIDS Project in Los Angeles. Recent events “have caused a great deal of pain and questioning for many people,” Steve Peskind and Ken McLeod, the project’s coordinator and spiritual adviser, respectively, said in a joint statement.


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