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

March 03, 1989|JOHN DART | Times Religion Writer

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.

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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