How Rigpa isn’t Reforming

Rigpa’s gaslighting skills are making a strong showing in the wake of Sogyal’s death. Gaslighting is a nice term for what some might call outright lies. It’s a way of obscuring the truth and manipulating people to perceive things in a way that suits the gaslighter’s agenda. Rigpa needs students to deify Sogyal, to keep the fantasy alive so they can keep the money rolling in, so they’re doing everything they can to assure their devotees that Sogyal was truly an enlightened master – and therefore, according to their beliefs, he didn’t harm anyone.

Report recommendations being followed?

The Rigpa website has a page titled Rigpa Moving Forward on which they list all the ways they are instituting the recommendations of the Lewis Silkim Report on Sogyal Lakar/Rinpoche’s abuses. If you raise the issue of Sogyal’s abuse with a Rigpa devotee, they will point to this page to show that they have changed. But if you look closely at the recommendations and at what is written on that page, you’ll see a vast discrepancy between the actual recommendations and what they’re doing, and between what they say they are doing and what they have actually done.

If they were actually working systematically on each recommendation, why have they organised their page in a way that doesn’t relate to the recommendations? To check if the recommendations are actually being followed, you have to go to the report and try to check whats on the Moving Forward page with the recommendations, and who is going to do that? Not your casual reader, and not the devotees who only want to be reassured that the right thing is being done. The page organisation acts as a smokescreen.

For instance, for the recommendation, “Rigpa leadership in each country (being the trustees or equivalent) and the Vision Board should, as necessary, be refreshed in order to ensure that; its members are unconnected with the harmful events referred to in this report and so can credibly lead the programme of changes required; …” But Rigpa have removed from management only 3 of those who enabled the abuse for decades. The Vision Board and management in various countries still contain people well connected to the harmful events. This is typical of Rigpa’s approach to the recommendations – do enough that it looks like you’re making changes, but not enough to actually make a change.

And then there’s the look-how-wonderful-we-are language they use to distract readers from remembering that the man they are devoted to was the perpetrator of serious physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Apart from the usual important-lama name dropping and insistence that Rigpa offers “a complete and authentic path of Buddhist study and practice”, their words make it sound as if they’ve done more than they actually have. For instance, if you click on the link on the word ‘apology’ you’ll find only a pseudo apology. They look like apologies to anyone who doesn’t look closely, but despite using the word ‘sorry’, Rigpa and Sogyal have never actually apologised for hurting anyone; they’ve never said, ‘we’re sorry we hurt you’ only sorry that people ‘feel hurt.’

Their apologies aren’t for those they harmed, they’re to gaslight their devotees into thinking that they actually have apologised. And they’re still doing it.

The gaslighting continues with another psudeo apology for the faithful

Rigpa put out a statement on Sept 5th, a few days AFTER the petition asking for the lamas to retract their homages , presumably to make it look as if they actually cared about those who objected to their hideous display of hypocrisy. In Rigpa’s statement they use the word ‘deepest apologies’ to make it look as if they’re apologising and ‘again’ as if they have apologised before, but now instead of talking about people who have ‘felt hurt’, they’re talking about members of the Rigpa community who have ‘experienced hurt’. Still the passive voice that makes it sound as if the hurt happened without anyone actually causing it. Still they’re not admitting that Sogyal and Rigpa management and culture actually did hurt people, still not saying, ‘we’re sorry we hurt you’. The expressing our ‘deepest apologies’ doesn’t even say what the apologies are for!

Rigpa acknowledges that this may also be a difficult period for past and present members of the Rigpa community who have experienced hurt, and wishes to express again our deepest apologies. We continue our process of healing and reaching out, and the reforms that Rigpa has taken over the past two years.

Rigpa Statement, 5 September, 2019

And they have the gall to say that they’re continuing the process of ‘healing and reaching out’. Their efforts at ‘reaching out’ were extremely limited and misguided, and last I heard, the communication set up with two of the victims has stalled. To even talk about ‘our process of healing and reaching out’ as if it’s some ongoing initiative is highly misleading.

Parinirvana? Really?

The Rigpa website has a page called SOGYAL RINPOCHE’S PARINIRVANA in which they say, “Sogyal Rinpoche entered into parinirvana on 28th August, 2019.” Parinirvana means “The final passing beyond suffering manifested by buddhas and highly realized masters at the end of their lives. ”

Just using that word gaslights the gullible. What actually happened was that a serial abuser died. Yes, he did some good stuff, but people who hurt others – and he hurt hundreds of people – are surely not real candidates for parinirvana. If your belief system allows a serial abuser to be enlightened, then that belief system must be seriously flawed.

Thugdam? Really?

“On behalf of Sogyal Rinpoche’s private office: From the time when he passed away on August 28th, Sogyal Rinpoche has remained in a state of meditation (thugdam) at his residence in Thailand. Yesterday, Tulku Rigdzin Pema, a close disciple of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and a highly accomplished and knowledgeable master, arrived and confirmed Rinpoche’s profound meditation. Today, three days after his passing away, Rinpoche left his meditative state, and Tulku Rigdzin Pema performed all the necessary rituals and prayers. He also noticed a gentle fall of rain at that time, which he considered a very auspicious sign.

We are being guided by a number of eminent lamas. The two most important considerations now are creating an opportunity for as many students as possible to pay their respects to the kudung sometime in the coming weeks, and making arrangements for the cremation, to be performed according to the authentic Tibetan tradition. We will soon have clarity where and when these events will take place and will share more news.

Sogyal Rinpoche’s private office team

The Facebook notice that Sogyal was going into hospital was dated Aug. 28, 4:47 am, It told us that there was a team of doctors working with him and he was in and out of intensive care and no visitors. The message telling us that he had died was the same day, August 28, 8:27 pm, 16 hours later. In that message, again the team of doctors working to save his life was mentioned, and it’s clear that he died in hospital. That message was from Jackie Lee, but now, the message about his remaining in thugdam – written by Sogyal Rinpoche’s private office team – states, “On behalf of Sogyal Rinpoche’s private office: From the time when he passed away on August 28th, Sogyal Rinpoche has remained in a state of meditation (thugdam) at his residence in Thailand.”

According to Tibetan Buddhist belief, if you touch the body in the first 3 days, the consciousness will leave the body at the point where it was touched and so make ‘resting in meditation’ after death (thugdam) impossible. Sogyal’s corpse was moved from the hospital. Rigpa’s story doesn’t hold together at all. But the devotees won’t notice or care, and so Sogyal’s last day was spent, as so many others have been, in deception.

And they’re even going to let people view the kudung – the sacred body of a great master who has passed away. Have they trussed him up to sit in the right position? For sure he didn’t die sitting in meditation.

Do any of the devotees question this story? No, they’re fed what they want to hear to keep them happily in their Rigpa fantasy.

Ugh. There’s something really disgusting in all this. Why not just be honest? I guess that just isn’t Rigpa’s style.

The Homages

Rigpa asked as many lamas as they could think of to write a homage to Sogyal Rinpoche. In accordance with Tibetan culture, most of them wrote glowing accolades, as if Sogyal had never done anything wrong. This brought an outcry of disgust from Western students more familiar with the kind of obituary we saw in The Telegraph that acknowledges both the good and the bad. In response to the outcry, and some letters written to the offending speakers, some of the ‘homages’ were taken down. Read the Tricycle article for details.

Some of the lama’s responses, however, merely gave condolences and advice for students, but Rigpa still posted these as if they were homages on a page titled Paying Homage to Sogyal Rinpoche. Isn’t it dishonest to post messages of condolence as if they are homages? The unquestioning follower will look at the page, see all the photos and names and, without reading and evaluating, think that all these masters have actually paid homage. Look at Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s one for instance. It isn’t a homage; it’s advice for students.

And yet, many of the lamas who’ve taught in Rigpa have said nothing publicly. In a culture where one is expected to say nice things about someone who has just died, to say nothing says a great deal. It’s the old ‘if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.’

Notably, wrote nothing, and neither did HH Dalai Lama. Others who have remained silent are Dzogchen Rinpoche, (previously joint Spiritual Director of Rigpa and is SR’s brother); Dodrupchen Rinpoche; HH Sakya Trizin; HH Karmapa XVII and Gyalwang Drukpa Rinpoche. Even Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, one of Rigpa’s main advisers, has no statement on that homage page. And those are just some of those who have remained silent.

Just as it’s a basic courtesy in the Tibetan tradition not to mention a deceased person’s bad deeds when expressing condolences, it’s also traditional to express disapproval by not saying anything, even if asked. Of course, Rigpa would not draw attention to the silences.

Edited addition 15th September.

Mingyur Rinpoche has now written a message of condolence, but like his brother says nothing good about Sogyal and acknowledges those students who have left Rigpa.

I am aware this has been a very painful time for Sogyal Rinpoche’s students, his present students and those who have decided to leave the community. I am thinking of each of you and dedicating my practice to your well-being.

Mingyur Rinpoche, from his condolence on Sogyal’s death.

A conflict of interest

So this is how Rigpa keeps on behaving like a cult, how they continue to gaslight their students, manipulating their perspective in ways that will confirm their idea of Sogyal as enlightened. Any student who wasn’t sure about Sogyal, given this manipulation will now likely be thinking, “Oh, he must really be enlightened. He’s resting in meditation; Tulku Rigdzin Pema even confirmed it and said the gentle fall of rain was a very auspicious sign. And lamas are calling him a great master. “

I’ve heard that Tulku Rigdzin Pema is Rigpa’s stupa builder. The greater the master, the bigger the stupa, the more money for him, so it’s in his financial interest to make Sogyal out to be a great master. But most Rigpa students wouldn’t know this, and if they did, they certainly wouldn’t allow the knowledge to put a crack in their blind devotion. Nevertheless, there’s a conflict of interest here, a reason for him not to check too carefully.

Personally, I don’t believe a word Rigpa says anymore.

Can Rigpa reform?

As many of you know already, the BBC focused on the Rigpa debacle on a couple of their recent Sunday shows. The first interview was on the 1st of September with Mary Finnigan and she spoke of Sogyal’s history as presented in her and Rob Hogendoorn’s book, Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism. She mentioned, among other things, how important success and supporting success was for the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy, another reason why lamas are so keen to support what he’s done.

Mary Finnegan on Sogyal and Rigpa, BBC interview Sept 1st. (edited to just the relevant part)

The next week on the 8th of September, the Sunday show interviewed several exRigpa students, including me, and the focus was on whether Rigpa could be called a cult and whether they could reform. I think I made my perspective on that quite clear. As I said n my book, Fallout: Recovering from Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism, Rigpa can never be considered a safe organisation unless they denounce Sogyal’s behaviour as wrong and inappropriate for any teacher. Unless they do that, they don’t know the meaning of the word harm, and that makes their code of conduct worthless.

BBC interview on Sogyal and Rigpa, Sept 8th (edited to just the relevant part)

The question also arose in the talk I gave at the Cult Information and Family Support network’s meeting in Sydney on the 28th August. They hosted my book launch, and I talked about how Rigpa operates the same way as all cults operate. People in the audience with experience in a wide variety of different cults were nodding their heads; they knew the cult markers and recognised them when I spoke of how we were brainwashed and how I woke up from my naive trust in Rigpa as an organisation.

We don’t want to Hear About Abuse, but What is the Price of Denial?

A guest post by Ayya Yeshe

What is the cost to Buddhism if we turn away from survivors and try to keep Buddhist hierarchies and our faith intact in the #metoo age?

None of us want to wake up each day and hear about more teachers that have been accused of abusing their students (mostly women). None of us want to engage in the in-fights as we see groups of those who support survivors of abuse, those who think we should be silent and those who choose to defend their teachers attack each other. None of us want to have to question the system of faith that brought us so much benefit. None of us want to hear a very powerful lama say that his students should visualize a teacher accused of molesting multiple women and abuse as a Buddha. Very few of us want to hear that the manager of a large centre decided to throw out a monk who instigated a report against an abusive lama out of a puja. We don’t want to hear that male managers of large European dharma centres are trolling respected female journalists who simply did their jobs in exposing abuse. Most of us don’t want to see 12 powerful lamas praising a deceased lama and known abuser and bypassing his abuse and the pain and trauma of his many victims.

Abusers don’t work alone

Seeing people in power behave this way, it’s clear that abusers don’t work alone. They are supported by systems of enablers that shore up their power. Another name for this system is patriarchy – a system that ensures male privilege and power. In the case of Tibetan Buddhism, it ensures that most of the power remains in the hands of a small racial group of males from noble or well-educated and wealthy Tibetan families or those propped up by that system of privilege. That does not mean that the lineage does not have good to offer. But it does show that all too often absolute power corrupts.

Its horrifying when you realise that men you’d seen as compassionate and awakened deny the testimonies of rape survivors and disparage open and scientific means of investigation in favour of protecting those in power. It’s a field of landmines. It’s easier just to turn away. No one wants to have to see the shadow side of their own faith. No one wants to watch the inevitable clash of cultures.

The price of turning away

But think of the price of turning away; of not holding abusers accountable; of not questioning people who kill the messenger rather than acknowledge the ugliness of the violence unleashed by the abusers. For those who appeal to survivors to be silent, what if your daughter was next? What if your lama continued to teach in centres where known child abusers are still in charge? How many more people need to be abused and lose faith because we think that keeping face is more important than protecting followers of Buddhism?

Facing the shadow side

If we don’t question the shadow side of our faith, our tradition’s good aspects will never be able to shine. Women – 50% of the population – will never have equality or safety, and there will be no justice, ethics or trustworthiness in our tradition. If you have to live in denial about women and children being raped, how enlightened is your Lama anyway? How many more people need to suffer until all that is good in our tradition just becomes an empty shell with a nice veneer, but inside is empty and hollow and full of trauma survivors and traumatised enablers? The Buddha predicted his tradition would not be destroyed by outside forces, but from inside elements, like a mighty oak eaten inside by wood worms.

The age of kings is over. Women need an equal share in resources and systems that their labour and faith have so long maintained. Rape survivors need justice, and we need to stop using the idea of faith to hide abuse. This is the only way the beauty of our tradition will survive. Not by regression and suppression.

Ayya Yeshe

Tsoknyi Rinpoche shows a way for other lamas

Rigpa would have asked all those lamas who left accolades to Sogyal to say something, and tradition dictates to them that it be nice. They are culturally bound not to criticise another lama, to only talk about the good. That’s why in Mingyur Rinpoche’s Lion’s Roar article on the abuse, he never actually mentioned Sogyal’s name.

Tsoknyi Rinpoche has shown the lamas a way to say something to satisfy any request from Rigpa (which it would be difficult for them to refuse, especially given that Tsoknyi still teaches there) without glorifying Sogyal.

He made a comment on Sogyal’s death that is not an accolade; it has no bullshit about what a wonderful guy he was. Just excellent instructions for his students, and these instructions also work for his ex students as well because it bypasses the nirmanakaya or embodied level of one’s relationship with a guru. His instructions suggest a way in which we can honour our deepest relationship with our root guru (as Sogyal actually is for many of us) without having to relate to the person we have come to see is a seriously flawed human being.

‘The essential link between student and teacher is the teaching. Now, the connection is no longer with the embodied Lama, but rather with the pure dharmakaya Lama.’

Tsoknyi Rinpoche

This is only part of what he says here

With these words he suggests a way even for ex-students to approach their relationship with Sogyal, to see him not as a man, but as a way to ‘the pure dharmakaya Lama’ and to see their essential link to him as through the teachings (suggesting that it isn’t via his personality). This is really helpful for those who no longer can take Sogyal as their teacher, but still acknowledge some deeper relationship with him – a link that can never be broken and is difficult to understand or explain for those who have rejected him as a person but still feel this link.

As I say in my book Fallout, my connection was always with the pure dharmakaya lama, never with the man. And that connection has never been broken, hence no samaya break with the ultimate lama – how could there be once you have that connection. The ‘pure dharmakaya Lama’ is just a metaphor for the nature of mind and reality.

He also acknowledges those who have left by saying ‘everyone has a right to choose their faith’ and that this advice is on a traditional practice of Tibetan Buddhism.

Everyone has the right to choose their faith, and based on that faith, there are many traditional practices we can do at this time—practices for ourselves and practices for the teacher.

Those of us who have left after years, sometimes decades, of training on what to do at the time of death of one’s root guru still have that knowledge with us. We know that merging our mind with the lama’s wisdom mind is the whole basis of dzogchen, so what do we do now? How do we do the dzogchen practice of merging our mind with a lama we no longer respect? I don’t know of anyone who can do guru yoga now, certainly not with Sogyal as the focus, and for most, the practice itself reminds them of Sogyal and so they cannot do it. Tsoknyi Rinpoche, though he is primarily speaking to those who are still Sogyal’s students, shows a way for even his ex-students to do this dzogchen practice. His advice speaks of the absolute meaning not the relative and so it bypasses personality.

It is a potent time to allow your own unborn nature and the Lama’s dharmakaya essence to mingle together and merge.

Merging our minds with Sogyal’s mind might be impossible for us – probably for many of us the very thought of it raises a host of feelings about his betrayal – but allowing our own unborn nature and the ‘lama’s dharmakaya essence to mingle together and merge’ might be something we could actually do. He’s chosen his words well because this sentence makes our unborn nature and the lama’s dhamakaya essence equal. We can do this, not to gain something for our self, but to help him.

For some of us, even those who have left Rigpa or even left the religion, this kind of merging of ‘minds’ would have been an automatic response to his death. It’s a merging of minds that has nothing to do with religion or with personalities. It’s merely using the idea of merging wisdom minds to help us enter a state of awakening where we actually see the true nature of reality. For some of us, this kind of ‘merging’ wisdom minds has never ceased, regardless of what we feel and what we say about the man. But since this state is beyond personalities, beyond any idea of a self to merge with, it transcends the whole debacle. Tsoknyi’s words remind me of this.

I appreciate the way he has handled this with sensitivity and given guidance that hits the essential points without the devotional garbage that is now such a turn off for those who have left Rigpa. Thank you Tsoknyi. You lighten my heart, shown me that some lamas can step outside their cultural conditioning and actually genuinely care about everyone, not just the party faithful.

Tsoknyi Rinpoche also was one of the few lamas who responded to our requests for a statement on the abuse. His response is here http://beyondthetemple.com/tsoknyi-rinpoche-responds/

We should also note the lamas who have said nothing about Sogyal at this time – Mingyur Rinpoche, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Dzongsar Khyentse. They haven’t joined in with the accolades. I expect Dzongsar will say something – he is one of Rigpa’s spiritual advisors after all. It looks like he’s taking time to think before he speaks.

Sadness, yes, but …

Guest post by Sel Verhoeven . Thanks Sel for your honesty.

I felt sadness when I heard the news that Sogyal Rinpoche has passed away. Sadness, because I knew and loved him for almost thirty years. At times he helped me tremendously, with just a few personal words, in difficult periods of my life. Even after the abuse came out, I still cared for him, in the way that you would still care for a brother or child who has really done wrong. You can’t just stop caring if you have a deep connection with someone. I also felt sadness because the hope evaporated that he would ever confess his wrongdoings. As long as he was alive there was a chance that he would come to understand what he had done and make amends. The chances of that happening might have been microscopically small, but nevertheless, they were there and now they are gone.

I also felt anger that he had gone without making amends. What a mess he has left behind. A split sangha, a large group of students who have turned away from Buddhism altogether. He could, and should have prevented this by taking responsibility for his actions and thus saving the face of Buddhism. Instead, he allowed his students to carry on with the fairy-tale of crazy wisdom and a teacher whose every action is beneficial to his students, even if it’s abusive and they are left in shambles. At the same time I felt gratitude for the fact that he brought the dharma into my life. I will never cease to be grateful for that. He has brought many people in contact with the dharma and has helped many, that is his merit. All in all, a sense of soft sadness prevailed, and I was ready to do practise for him and everyone else who suffered in this samsara we’re all stuck in.

Then I saw the ‘homage’ page that is now up on https://sogyalrinpoche.org/paying-homage-to-sogyal-rinpoche, and got infuriated. Out the window went the soft sad inspired-to-practise mood. What bad taste of Rigpa to display these homages of a man who has seriously harmed students who trusted him and relied upon him. And what delusion or willingness to lie these teachers have when I’m sure they know there has been an independent investigation, instigated by Rigpa themselves, that has confirmed the abuse!

At the same time I received the messages that Rigpa sent out to their students, saying, amongst other practice advice: ‘Rinpoche is resting in tukdam meditation and all signs of a great practitioner are present. Now is the time to deeply and profoundly unite your mind, to merge your mind with Rinpoche’s wisdom mind. This is the most powerful time to do so. This is the crowning moment.’  And I got really worried, thinking it definitely would not be a good idea to be infuriated at such an important moment! It took me a while to see through it. Even with death they manage to manipulate us. To install fear in us of somehow missing out on something, or not doing the right thing. The same tactics they had used all along.

And making use of the proverb ‘do not speak ill of the dead’, they saw their chance to blatantly praise Sogyal Rinpoche, as in the old days. The last 2 years Rigpa kept it down a bit. But now, by ways of these other teachers paying homage, they could have a go at it again. And so they show their true face at last. Withstanding all the talk of a new Rigpa, with protocols, a code of conduct, and a place for students with their own opinions, in the end they worship their teacher and willingly close their eyes to the truth.

It almost feels like they don’t allow space to really mourn. For that, you need to see and remember a person warts and all, not some deified version of them. You need to embrace the uncomfortable truth that a person can be both good and bad at the same time.

In the end, I did the only thing I could do. I found the one picture of him I didn’t throw out, lit two candles, and just sat with it all wishing him, his victims, his disappointed students, his devotees and everyone else who is suffering, well.

Sel Verhoeven

Oh Yeah; I Forgot to Mention the Publication of Fallout! And the Sydney book launch next Wednesday.

It just occurred to me that I never announced here the release of my book on the last couple of years, Fallout: Recovering from Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism. Most of you have likely already heard this, but just in case you haven’t, the book is available now.

I’m really hopeless when it comes to selling books, but I hope to cover my costs so I can then donate anything else that comes in to The Alliance for Buddhist Ethics and the Cult Information and Family Support group in Australia, so your money won’t be lining my pockets. I wrote this to help people, and I’m pleased to say that the responses I’ve gotten from the target audience are overwhelmingly positive. It was well worth writing it.

You can get the book from all online shops or by order through your local book store (quote the ISBN of 978-0-6485130-4-9 )

Rather than me talking about it, I’ll let you read the words of some of those who have read it:

A summary of the therapeutic journey for people healing from involvement in a religious group

‘Fallout is a very personal, emotionally literate, and thoroughly researched and documented account of Tahlia Newland’s journey in regards to leaving a religious group. It’s an excellent account of the immensely heart-rending difficultly of honouring and following your spiritual longing while at the same time sensing that there is something ‘not quite right’ with the reality of the spiritual teacher. Newland includes the heart-breaking, mind-tangling and spirit-breaking dilemmas involved in her journey as she explores the issue of trying to reconcile and discern the reality of Rigpa with the wisdom she gained from being part of Rigpa.

‘Down to earth yet passionately heartfelt at the same time, what stands out in Newland’s book is her profound common sense. It’s a very real account that includes following the most powerful human longing to join with a religious teacher who speaks to your longing, the intense sense of betrayal when the teacher emerges as abusive, and subsequently the healing journey required to move on with one’s life.

‘Fallout is about being with a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, but the journey she underwent is applicable far beyond Buddhist groups. It’s a sensible guide to any person who is thinking to become involved, is currently involved in, or who is leaving or has left a religious group or spiritual teacher.

‘The material on healing trauma is an up-to-date, well considered and highly readable summary of the therapeutic journey for people healing from involvement in a religious group. Newland’s book is ultimately full of hope.’

Geoffrey Beatson, psychotherapist.

Wise

The next one is just excerpts from a review posted on Goodreads. You can read the whole thing here, and it’s well worth taking a look at it because it’s such a comprehensive and insightful review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2944398232

‘Wise. Wise by virtue of not trying to be. Wise by its swiftness and vulnerability. By its ability to integrate a huge amount of information from different sources – journalistic, scholarly, historical, spiritual. By its unpretentious narrative documentation of the author’s waking up to a grounded view of her own spiritual practice. …

‘There’s no ponderous, abstract bullshit on the nature of the dharma or the human heart, though of course these are the central subjects. Rather, she’s reporting her own “waking up” process, and binding together a huge compendium of resources for victims of spiritual abuse – both within her community and in comparable situations. She’s also documenting a history that happened in part through blogs and Facebook groups and would be lost to future historians: this is excellent sociological data of the participant-observer sort. And it’s also a thorough, well-documented, highly readable telling of the story of the undoing of Rigpa and Sogyal Rinpoche. …

‘It feels like an act of love. This labor means that this resource will be available in a timely manner to people recovering from the situation she describes. It’s also a great resource to many of us recovering from revelations of abuse in a variety of spiritual communities in the wake of #metoo. 

‘The writing is so damn good. With the exception of a few narrative flourishes, it is so straightforward that it’s more or less invisible. This clarity, and ability to modulate her voice in the narrative (it’s her story, but it’s NOT about her), is commendable for someone going through a traumatic process of having her entire worldview torn apart. You get a great sense of Newland’s mind and heart here. But what you never get, reader, is bogged down in rumination or speculation. This is story and good strong critique. She narrates with detail and multiple perspectives while still being direct and a super-fast read. It’s fast because it absorbs you.’

Angela Jamison, academic and yoga instructor.

Tenzin Palmo’s endorsement

Tenzin Palmo actually responded to my request that she read and – if she felt to – write an endorsement for the back cover. I was delighted when she sent me the following:

‘In recent years the long-standing problem of physical, sexual and psychological abuse of students by their spiritual teachers has been revealed and highlighted. Tahlia Newland takes the classic case of Sogyal Lakar and the Rigpa organisation to explore and try to understand the dynamics behind this painful issue.  Her report lays bare the harm and anguish left behind in the wake of such appalling behaviour and the subsequent efforts, by those who seek to maintain their power and control, to condone such conduct and meanwhile denigrate the victims. In this feudal outlook, both physical violence and sexual predatory behaviour towards dependents are viewed as acceptable. In certain cases this power-based attitude has sought to be imported into Western Dharma circles. This is a complete distortion of the impeccable Vajrayana path and creates much confusion, disenchantment and pain. So we are grateful to Ms Newland for bravely looking into this controversial issue with such compassion and insight.’

Jetsumna Tenzin Palmo

Dispels the myth of crazy wisdom

This is from the woman who organised the paper she, Damcho and I delivered at the Sakyadhita Conference . I like her term ‘the myth of crazy wisdom and enlightenment by abuse’.

‘This fine work reveals the excruciating pain, resistance and fear of those within the Rigpa organisation as they grapple with a huge shift in perspective of the teacher they loved and admired—the insightful, brilliant and yet deeply flawed author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying—and shows how people can come together in the age of the internet to find truth and express love and caring for one another. The author captures this painful moment in Buddhism’s history where cruelty—that most harmful of human flaws and the polar opposite of loving-kindness—has crept into and corrupted the Buddhadharma. She brings both compassion for survivors and deeply penetrating wisdom, dispelling the myth of crazy wisdom and enlightenment-by-abuse with a clear-headed vision.’  

Dr Jack Wicks

An enormous amount of research

The next review is by an author who read it as research into her latest book – it has a cult in it.

‘This book provides a courageous and disturbing account of disillusionment and eventual break from a Tibetan Buddhist cult. Newland writes with authority and bravery, pulling no punches in her confrontation of the issues. She has put an enormous amount of research into this book, and it shows on every page. Testimonials from other ex-members of the cult abound. This book isn’t just one woman’s story, it’s the tale of an entire community coming to grips with what they’ve endured, and in many cases, enabled. The book is clearly written for the Buddhist community, with terminology and references unique to the religion, but its lessons and insights can be relevant for people from all walks of life. Highly recommended for those trapped in abusive situations, as well as those who want to safeguard their minds against falling into similar traps.’

Amy Spahn, author

Not just relevant to Rigpa

Though I didn’t quote it in the excerpt above, Ms Jamison mentions in her full review that “As a 20 year practitioner of Ashtanga Yoga, an Indian guru tradition whose own authoritarian abuses were revealed in the wake of #metoo, I was comforted by Newland’s perspective. I recommend this book to every Ashtanga teacher in the world. It’s a difficult, heart-breaking story. It’s potentially triggering. And, it helps clarify the hierarchical nature of silence about abuse in spiritual organizations.’ This shows that the book has relevance beyond that of the Rigpa story. Jaki Perez echoes this point in her review. Her experience was closer to home, and should be familiar to you all here. I’m pleased she found the book helpful.

‘Fallout has been to me an unexpected gift of clarity and compassion. As a survivor of spiritual abuse in Tibetan Buddhism myself, I want to deeply thank Tahlia Newland for making this work available to everyone. It’s based on the Rigpa experience but it applies to all Tibetan Buddhism. To me it’s more than a book, it’s a manual for recovering from this kind of trauma, which is greatly worsened by the response of some Buddhist institutions (FPMT in my case) which, when faced with complaints about their lama’s misconduct, choose to step over an already badly hurt individual in order to harm his or her credibility and in this way protect the institution and the lama’s reputation, which is the source of income for their global business.

If you’ve been in a cult, or have been a victim of spiritual abuse and institutional betrayal, reading Fallout could literally be even better than going to a psychologist, because it will go straight to the point, it will take you step by step through a process of recognizing what you’ve been through, in order to deal with it. I’ve read a section thoroughly every evening, reviewing myself and my own experiences, finally putting into context what happened to me after more than 10 years of painful and forced “letting go”.

It was hard work reviving all this again, and realising how this molestation (by a lama called Dagri “Rinpoche”) and the subsequent slander and isolation when I spoke up destroyed my life at that time. I lost everything. Even though I’ve built a new life for myself, this book allowed me to look back without the feeling of being alone, blamed or misunderstood. Finally all this makes sense and I can put a name on all the past experiences and situations! I can now freely say without any regret “this indeed happened, and it was not my fault; I was right to speak up, and it’s ok not to forgive”.’ 

Dr J Perez

She points out that ‘It was hard work reviving all this again‘, and some readers have told me that they can’t read much at a time for the same reason, but writing the book brought me a sense of closure and has done the same for many others.

On reviews and expectations

You can see more reviews on Amazon both in the customer reviews and the editorial reviews under the description. If you read the book and have spent more than $50 in an Amazon store, I hope you’ll leave a review because it will help the book get to those who might benefit from it. Amazon’s algorithms support books once they have 50 reviews, so every review helps, especially if they’re over 3 stars.

If you do take a look at Amazon, you’ll notice a one star review. There’s actually one in the US shop from someone who seems to think the 8 letter writers committed a crime by not taking Sogyal to court and the other in the UK from a denialist. I’m not surprised or bothered, I always knew that my ‘middle-way’ approach wouldn’t please either of those extremes. I’m use to being bullied by some of those who speak most vehemently against the lamas who bully. I didn’t write the book to denigrate people, I wrote it to help us understand what happened and how to avoid it again. I particularly wanted it to be of use for those who still want Tibetan Buddhist teachings, so if you have a completely negative view of Tibetan Buddhism, this isn’t the book for you.

Not my story, our story

As Ms Jamison says in her review, Fallout is my story, but it’s not about me. It’s about the What Now? group, and I wrote the book as a tribute to the long term members of that group. This quote from the book’s acknowledgements expresses my gratitude to you all. Thank you so much for being there for me and for each other.

Thanks to the eight students who wrote the July 2017 letter to Sogyal Lakar. I am extremely grateful for your courage in exposing the truth, your support of my writing, and your ongoing integrity. Your courage in speaking out freed me from a fog of lies, projections, and ignorance, and gave me the kind of stimulus I needed to reclaim responsibility for my own spiritual path.

Thanks also to all those who participated in the What Now? Facebook group for their ongoing encouragement, kindness, openness, and willingness to deeply examine themselves and the issues raised by abuse in Buddhism. The deep love and respect we have developed for each other through our shared journey are quite remarkable for an online group and is a tribute to the integrity, compassion and wisdom of all of you who remain active in the group to this day. Without you, this book would never have been written. Together we did the research and together we learned all that I report here. Though we haven’t all come to the same conclusions in response to this debacle, the support the group showed for each member’s personal journey never wavered. For that support, I thank you all from the bottom of my heart.

A particular thank you to those who permitted me to include their comments and those who provided links to references when I couldn’t locate them.

In Sydney on the 28th August?

If you are, I hope you can pop along to the Sydney book launch and say hello. I’ll be talking about how cults can look benign unless you’re aware of just how subtle mental manipulation can be. It’s happening at 6.30 pm at 5 Forbes st, Newtown, and it’s being hosted by the Cult Information and Family Support group.

Who is it that’s Damaging Tibetan Buddhism?

The video below of Khenpo Namdrol speaking about the eight letter writers in the months after the revelations of Sogyal’s abuse of students is being shared on social media again. I listened to the first part of it to see if it was the same teaching, and though back when it was first released, I was horrified at what he said, now I can see even more how these are the words of a cult leader.

Cult tactics

In true cult fashion, Khenpo Namdrol is:

  • Turning the cult members against the ‘whistle blowers’;
  • Demonising whistle-blowers;
  • Making those who revealed the abuse into the enemy;
  • Reinforcing the importance of blind faith and devotion no matter what the guru has done or does;
  • Laying the blame for the bad press and disillusionment of many students on the letter writers – all victims of abuse – not on the abuser;
  • Uses superstition – the belief in demonic forces – to explain something he can’t otherwise explain, i.e. someone of ‘excellent character’ and as ‘having a very good and kind heart’ telling a truth he doesn’t want revealed;
  • Is not concerned about the victims of abuse, only about preserving the reputation of the cult and retaining the leader’s status among the followers;
  • Threatens negative repercussions for those who speak up about the abuse or support those who do;
  • Affirms that cult members are on the right path.

Trigger warning: this video and transcript excerpts may trigger symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder for those abused in Tibetan Buddhist communities. Or it just might make you angry or nauseous!

Lies that twist the perception of the faithful

In this talk – given to Rigpa’s most devoted – he is saying that those who told the truth about Sogyal Rinpoche’s ‘serious physical, sexual and emotional abuse’ (as laid out in the Lewis Silkin Independent Investigation Report ) are destroying Tibetan Buddhism.

That was really an attempt to not only just disparage the master, but to try to destroy him, and everything that he’s done.

Rigpa Advisor Khenpo Namdrol

Wrong. It was an attempt to save others from the abuse they suffered and help an organisation to face and hopefully deal sensibly with the skeleton in its closet.

This kind of activity is so completely unnecessary. Why? Because it’s so detrimental to the doctrine. From a spiritual point of view it goes against every aspect of Dharma. And from a worldly point of view it is so disrespectful and unnecessary and also instilling doubt and wrong view in the minds of so many disciples unnecessarily, to the point where they may even turn their minds away from the Dharma for good.

Rigpa Advisor Khenpo Namdrol

Note that the ‘kind of activity’ he’s talking about here is writing and distributing the letter that exposed Sogyal’s abuse, not Sogyal’s behaviour!

But isn’t it Sogyal’s activity, not the truth tellers that is ‘so completely unnecessary’, ‘goes against every aspect of Dharma’, ‘instils doubt’ and ‘turns people’s minds away from the dharma for good’?

He thinks that speaking out about abuse is going against ‘every aspect of dharma’. But what sort of ‘dharma’ is he referring to here that speaking the truth is going against? It may be Tibetan, but how is it Buddhism when it goes against the Buddha’s words.

Conquer dishonesty with truth.

The Buddha. Dhammapada, verse 223

The real issue here, that this man and others like him conveniently sidestep in their rush to keep the faithful paying their bills and shore up the reputation of their religion, is the depravity of a guru. Sogyal Rinpoche/Lakar has caused many people such trauma that they suffer complex post traumatic stress disorder that is still affecting their health many years after their abuse. So if we’re talking about dharma, then what about the very foundation of the Buddha’s teachings – to do no harm? How is Sogyal’s abuse following that Buddhist ethic? And how does Khenpo Namdrol’s words not harm victims of abuse even further? And how is trying to keep people silent and obedient by threatening them with negative repercussions helping them?

“One is not called noble who harms living beings. By not harming living beings one is called noble.”

The Buddha . The Dhammapada, Verse 270

So who exactly is damaging Tibetan Buddhism?

Anyone who isn’t under the sway of a Tibetan Buddhist cult can see that the people who are damaging Tibetan Buddhism and turning people away from the dharma, not to mention splitting sanghas, are the abusive gurus. Not those who speak the truth about their experience in these cults.

Those who speak up about the abuse are clearing the puss from an infection that has been left to spread and rot the heart of the TB religion. The sickness cannot be healed until it is first revealed and acknowledged. Only then can the sickness be treated and eradicated. And if the lamas cannot see that sickness for what it is – sick – and help to eradicate it, then they are part of the problem. They are contributing to the downfall of TB much more than the truth tellers.

What Khenpo Namdrol doesn’t understand is how this very speech is turning hundreds of people away from his and Rigpa’s version of the dharma. The only good thing about it is that we can see it – thanks to those who keep posting it on You Tube when Rigpa takes it down – so we’re under no illusions as to what the Rigpa faithful believe.

And why would Rigpa keep taking that video down unless they realised how damaging it is? And if they realise that it’s damaging (if only to their image), then why is Khenpo Namdrol one of their ‘spiritual advisers’? He’s one of three – Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche (DZK), Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche and Khenchen Namdrol. Haven’t they just replaced one guru with the kinds of beliefs that enabled abuse with three of them?

What’s happening here is that people are waking up to the truth that Tibetan Buddhism in its most fundamentalist form (Rigpa for example) does not not match its public reputation (and it’s own teachings) of a religion of love, compassion and wisdom. The challenge is for the lamas to clean up their act. They can resurrect their reputation, but only if they have the courage (as HHDL does) to step outside of their cultural restrictions and make it clear that there is no place for abuse in vajrayana. They need to say that even though ‘crazy wisdom’ was accepted in the past, it is no longer appropriate and should be abandoned as a ‘teaching method’.

The lamas silence, their general reticence to say anything on the matter of abuse, is also damaging the religion.

Different rules for gurus and students

Khenpo Namdrol says that writing the letter was ‘nothing but negative. And so it is just the poorest choice they could have made, forever. ‘ Later he reminds the students of the repercussions of doing something negative, that they will have to face the negative consequences, but what about Sogyal and the other abusive lamas. Isn’t this true of them also, that negative actions will have negative results? So why do lamas like Khenpo Namdrol think it’s okay for lamas to behave badly? Oh, that’s right, if they’re realised masters (and the assumption from lamas appears to be that all other lamas are realised), they’re supposed to be ‘beyond karma’ and unable to cause harm. But even if that is true of someone like Sogyal, hitting someone will still cause harm if the person hit is not also ‘beyond karma’. A truly realised person would recognise this and out of compassion would not hurt that person. I look into this in more detail in my book Fallout: Recovering from Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism.


So always try to be in harmony with whatever Dharma says and never go off track just following your own whims or the customs of modern society.

Khenpo Namdrol

What about ‘just following the whims or customs’ of an ancient feudal society? Buddhism didn’t originate in Tibet. This is just another way of trying to keep the status quo. It’s also a put down of modern society and suggests that any attempt to make changes, like getting rid of abuse from the religion, is a ‘whim’ that has no value.

What to believe

This is not a doctrine that’s new. This is thousands of years old. It is time-tested material. It delivers liberation to countless practitioners and has actually cultivated countless realized accomplished masters and scholars. We can have confidence in every single word of this doctrine.

Khenpo Namdrol

Look at the list of cult tactics at the start of this article. How can we can have confidence in anyone who blatantly uses such tactics and shows no compassion for victims? Perhaps countless practitioners did attain realisation with the TB ‘doctrine’ while being abused in a cult environment, but that doesn’t mean that the cult parts of the religion are necessary for that attainment. Perhaps Tibetans did respond to slavery and violent methods of ego ‘crushing’ but those ‘methods’ won’t work on the majority of Westerners. The results I’ve seen are complex PTSD, crushed self-esteem and an enormous amount of confusion – not due to someone exposing the truth, but due to a teacher who abused them and a religion that, at least in this fundamentalist version, enables such abuse – and still does, despite their codes of conduct.

‘Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, “This contemplative is our teacher.”
When you know for yourselves that, “These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering” — then you should abandon them .’

The Buddha. Kalamatta Sutta.

So who is really destroying the religion? Those who follow the Buddha’s advice and that of His Holiness the Dalai Lama by speaking the truth and evaluating everything carefully, or those who follow this fundamentalist version of Tibetan Buddhism in which true dharma has been overshadowed by cult behaviour?

And what about the audience?

This talk was given to Rigpa dzogchen students, and at the end, they clap, enthusiastically. Why? Because the cult tactics I mentioned at the start of this article work to keep the faithful faithful. They must have felt very reassured to hear this talk, to know that they don’t have to examine their beliefs because the letter writers were wrong to do what they did and they are right to just carry on as usual. But there is nothing dharmic about manipulating people like this. Leaders in all destructive cults use the same tactics.

I don’t doubt that Khenpo Namdro thinks he’s doing the right thing, and if he has any idea that he’s manipulating people, then he’ll be thinking it’s all for a good cause – the protection of his religion. What a pity it’s doing the exact opposite.

Can you get a Dzogchen Transmission from an Unrealised Teacher?

People hold different viewpoints on the question of whether or not Sogyal was qualified to teach as he did, and since people don’t all accept the same ‘evidence’ as relevant, no agreement will ever come to pass. So we will have to agree to disagree or accept that we will likely never know for sure. But a question relevant for all those students who stuck with Sogyal and Rigpa for years is how his lack of qualifications affected our learning. Was it all just a waste of time?

Clearly we did learn Buddhism. Reading any book on Buddhism confirms that, and the Rigpa Shedra scholars would know if we weren’t getting the real ‘information’. To suggest that Rigpa students learned nothing of worth, is basically saying that Buddhism, vajrayana and dzogchen have no worth. It also does a huge disservice to thousands of students.

The big issue, however, is the dzogchen teachings because doesn’t a dzogchen teacher have to have some realisation before he can introduce a student to the nature of their mind?

Let’s, for the sake of this investigation, take the position that Sogyal didn’t actually have any realisation. If that’s true, where does that leave us? Deluded?

Erik Pema Kunsang seems to think so. In an article called CLUB NONDUALITÈ, he says:

‘Patrul Rinpoche wrote 150 years ago, that there are many Dharma teachers who point out the thoughtfree state of the all-ground as being the nondual nature of mind, and that is why people who believe it may train ten, twenty, thirty years without becoming stable in nonduality. Why? They have instead trained in the very basis for dualistic mind…. When someone is being told, without being checked, “you have now received the pointing-out introduction,” it’s at best wishful thinking and, at worst, a direct lie. … Often a meditator is told by the teacher that nonduality is a quiet thoughtfree state of mind that holds no focus. This may or may not be true, because there is another state of mind that looks like it, just like a rhinestone may look like a diamond’

Erik Pema Kunsang

Or is it possible that he could still have given a genuine dzogchen transmission?

Was it really the nature of mind?

How do we check whether or not we got the ‘real thing’? Taking teachings and introductions from another teacher is a good way. Examination in light of the detailed instructions in books such as Clarifying the Natural State by Dakpo Tashi Namgyal is another, and then there is the certainty in oneself that can’t be denied – a knowledge beyond knowledge. If we don’t give a damn whether or not we’ve recognised the nature of our mind, then we’re less likely to fool ourselves. If the answer is important to us, especially if the answer reflects on how we feel about our self, then we are in danger of deluding our self. And if we’re not sure if we have or haven’t glimpsed the nature of our mind, then we probably haven’t.

So let’s assume that some of us did have a genuine glimpse of the nature of our mind under Sogyal’s tutelage. (And if you say that’s not possible because Sogyal doesn’t have any realisation, then out of respect for those who know beyond a shadow of doubt that it is possible, please suspend that idea just long enough to follow this examination.)

Would accepting that some of his students experienced a genuine introduction to the nature of their mind mean that Sogyal did, despite appearances, have some realisation? Or did Sogyal transmit dzogchen despite his lack of realisation?

Isn’t there some transformative power in the words of the teachings themselves?

Rely on the message rather than the messenger.
In the message, rely on the meaning rather than just the words.

In the meaning, rely on that which is really true rather than seemingly true.
Rely on the really true, not with dualistic mind, but realize within nondual wakefulness.

Every long-term Rigpa student knew this teaching, and given that a lot of us didn’t particularly ‘like’ our lama, a lot of us followed this. We looked to the words, to the meaning, to the truth we recognised in our bones.

Take any of the dzogchen teachings on mind. Is there not some degree of transmission in those very words? Not if you just read them in an ordinary mind, of course, no. But if you are in a meditative state, having done all the prerequisites and having truly worked with them, relying on the ‘really true’ meaning, surely, there is some power to transform in them alone. Or am I just the sole weirdo who senses the immense transformative power in such words?

Yes, the religion says we’re supposed to get a ‘lung’ or oral transmission in order to unlock the power of such texts, but is that really so important? Or is it just another way to keep the gurus employed? Isn’t reading it slowly aloud in your own language better than hearing it raced through at a frantic speed in a language you don’t understand?

The three authentics

According to The Words of Tenpai Nyima: Notes on the Ground of Trekchö: The Concentrated Essence Distilled from the River of the Whispered Transmission by Khenpo Ngakchung, in order for the introduction to the nature of mind to take place, the three authentics must come together. These three are: the authentic blessing of the master, the authentic devotion of the student, and the authentic instructions of the lineage.

Note, however, that this teaching doesn’t say ‘authentic realisation’ but rather ‘authentic blessing.’ The word ‘blessing’ means transformative power, not realisation as such. Could Sogyal, through his devotion for his masters, have had the blessing even without the realisation? Isn’t devotion a prime key to transmission in dzogchen?

Devotion and blessings

Before he gave dzogchen teachings, Sogyal stared at the images of his masters, his eyes moist with devotion, hands in prayer position. He aroused his devotion and taught from that state. Aren’t blessings passed through devotion? It’s said that it’s through the student’s devotion that they receive the blessing to enable them to recognise the nature of their mind, if that’s the case, then Sogyal received the blessing of his masters through his devotion to them, and we received the blessing of his masters through our devotion to him.

Wouldn’t this fulfil the requirement of the ‘authentic blessing of the master’? Sogyal may not have had any realisation, but he did have the blessing of his masters—many saw evidence of that—and he did have devotion to them, and according to this teaching on the three authentics, that is enough.

In the Tibetan story of the dog’s tooth, a woman is given what she thinks is a relic of the buddha, but it’s only a dog’s tooth; nevertheless due to her devotion to the dog’s tooth, she receives blessings from it in the form of ringsels (spontaneously produced pearl-like phenomena found in the ashes of great masters.) The teaching in this story is that if a student has true devotion, they will get blessings, even from a dog’s tooth!

Last year, I emailed Tenzin Palmo and asked the following:
‘Can one gain some measure of genuine realisation through relying on an unqualified teacher? This is referring to a situation where the student has given complete, unquestioning devotion and fulfilled their obligations as a student and then only later they discover that the lama was not worthy of that devotion.’

Her reply was:

‘Yes, it is possible to gain genuine realisation even when the teacher later proves to be unqualified. If the student has a direct realisation of the nature of the mind, then that is so, whatever the status of the lama who gave the pointing out instruction or facilitated this insight. Some teachers have the ability to open the minds of the students even when in other ways the conduct and wisdom of the teacher may be questionable. This is one reason for the confusion nowadays with lamas who have helped so many students yet have been shown to be unworthy of their role. Still these students were helped….’

Jetsumna Tenzin Palmo

Empowerment and disempowerment

And let’s not forget that the teacher, no matter how realised, is not giving us something we don’t already have. He or she is merely a catalyst that helps us recognise the nature of our mind, something that is not owned, given or even truly shown by anyone—it can only be pointed towards. If we have studied and practiced the dharma, then once our mind and heart are truly open, anything can be a catalyst for recognition—even a barking dog.

And let’s not fall completely under the spell of a guru-centric religion. The key factor in recognising the nature of our mind is actually our awareness, our openness, our qualities as a student, not those of our teacher or the religion’s sanctioned method. To believe otherwise goes against the very foundations of Buddhism, the essential point that seeing through the veil of ignorance is entirely up to us. No one else can do it for us, a point made clear in the Buddha’s life story where he had to leave his teachers in order to discover the truth for himself.

So even if we believe the teacher a fake, let’s not presume that his or her students’ realisation is also fake. That idea diminishes the importance of the quality of the student, and further disempowers students of a cult that has already disempowered them enough by teaching them to mistrust their own instincts. Instead, let’s empower students to trust themselves to know their own mind.

The only true empowerment is self-empowerment.

‘If you discover what you thought was the state of nonduality is actually just a dualistic state of open, calm and clear panoramic awareness, there is no need to blame anyone, neither the teacher, the friends or yourself. Understand that the person who taught you that was not a primary master, but a meditation instructor, and you’re allowed to pursue authentic wisdom wherever you can find it. Within the Buddhist Vajrayana context, how can there be a samaya bond to a root guru, if you haven’t yet found the true nature of mind? To keep the dharma pure and make sure it will last for a long while, the most important is honesty. Be honest to yourself. Don’t believe in myths. Test everything.’ 

Erik Pema Kunsang

So what do you think? If you think Sogyal couldn’t have transmitted dzogchen due to his lack of realisation, then are you saying that those who feel they received genuine dzogchen transmission are fooling themselves? Or is it possible that, as the teaching on the three authentics suggests, blessings are more important than realisation? Or, as I feel right now, is it all a load of hogwash, anyway, and it’s time to make a cocktail.

Cheers!

Image by bridgesward from Pixabay

Can a cult stop being a cult?

The question the Rigpa cult must face now that Lerab Ling has failed in its bid to sue Midi Libre and Jean-Baptiste Cesbron for suggesting that Rigpa is a cult is whether or not Rigpa can stop being a cult. This question relates just as well to Shambala, the NKT and any other Buddhist group showing cultish behaviour. 

Clearly in order for a cult to stop being a cult, the cult has to change those beliefs and behaviours that make them a cult. Harmful behaviours can be banned, but what about beliefs that enable harmful behaviours? Doesn’t the potential for harm still exist for so long as a group retains beliefs that enable harm.

What is a cult?

The Urban Dictionary defines the modern understanding of the word cult as:

‘A religious/non-religious group that follows a series of strict beliefs, may include worshiping a specific God/Deity or multiple Gods/Deities, or following strict specific ideals. May involve some form of brainwashing that their knowledge is correct and that everyone else is wrong, WILL have a hierarchy, and may be led by one of a small group of charismatic leaders, and typically will shun those who are ex-members.

Not all of the above will apply to a cult, but at least one of the descriptions will. A Cult isn’t necessarily good or evil, it depends on how the cult leaders use the power they have.’

Rigpa clearly fits this definition of a cult, just by the first sentence, and most ex-members, especially those who have been outspoken about the group’s deficiencies know about being shunned by those who remain in the group—sometimes in particularly nasty ways. The belief that Tibetan Buddhism, and the Rigpa version of it in particular, is the only path that can take you to enlightenment in one lifetime fits the definition, as does the belief that anyone who thinks they were abused got it wrong—‘misunderstood’ is Rigpa’s word for it.

But the question is not so much whether they are a cult or not, but whether or not they are a destructive cult.

Psychologist Michael Langone, executive director of the anti-cult group International Cultic Studies Association, defines a destructive cult as ‘a highly manipulative group which exploits and sometimes physically and/or psychologically damages members and recruits’. (1)

In the opinion of Benjamin Zablocki, a Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University, destructive cults are at high risk of becoming abusive to members. He states that this is in part due to members’ adulation of charismatic leaders contributing to the leaders becoming corrupted by power. (2)

I think it’s fairly obvious how Rigpa fit the definition of destructive cult while Sogyal was physically present—Sogyal abused students, senior students covered it up, and their beliefs enabled the abuse—but the question is are they still a destructive cult.

With Sogyal—the teacher who abused many of his close students—retired from his role as Rigpa’s spiritual director and Rigpa making efforts—albeit limited—to implement the recommendations of the Lewis Silkim Report, it’s easy to assume that the danger is over, and certainly that’s what Rigpa wants people to believe. They have even convinced the Charity Commission in Australia of this, but just how deep does this change go? Is it just for show?

The issue of beliefs that enable harm

I’d love to see Rigpa genuinely reform, but to do that they would have to remove from their belief system the beliefs that enabled the abuse. For so long as Rigpa management and instructors believe that the abused students only ‘thought’ they’d been abused, and that this was because they had misunderstood the relationship between the student and teacher in vajrayana, the potential for abuse remains—despite their code of conduct and any other changes they make.

Dzongsar Khyentse, one of Rigpa’s main advisors admits, in his book The Guru Drinks Bourbon?, that in the student-teacher relationship in Tibetan Buddhism, ‘The potential for abuse of power exists.’ Then, in the very next sentence, he speaks of a fully submissive relationship in which if the student wants to be enlightened, they can’t even call abuse abuse:

‘However, once you have completely and soberly surrendered, you may not interpret certain manifestations and activities of the guru as the abuse of power. If you want to be fully enlightened, you can’t worry about abuse.’

Dzongsar Khyentse The Guru Drinks Bourbon? ‘Liberation through Imprisonment’

DZK is speaking here specifically about a vajrayana level relationship, not about the relationship with a teacher at the early stages of the Tibetan Buddhist path, but what does this belief say about how Rigpa members define abuse at the vajrayana level?

And this same teacher, who is not only a Rigpa adviser but also revered by Rigpa students, emphasised this view again in a Facebook essay on the Guru and Student in the Vajrayana, which he wrote in August 2017 in response to the effects of the Eight’s July 2017 letter. 

“Frankly, for a student of Sogyal Rinpoche who has consciously received abhisheka and therefore entered or stepped onto the Vajrayana path, to think of labelling Sogyal Rinpoche’s actions as ‘abusive’, or to criticize a Vajrayana master even privately, let alone publicly and in print, or simply to reveal that such methods exist, is a breakage of samaya.”

Dzongsar Khyentse, Guru and Student in the Vajrayana

And further, from the same essay:

“The bottom line here is: if both student and guru are consciously aware of Vajrayana theory and practice, I can’t see anything wrong in what Sogyal Rinpoche then does to his so-called Vajrayana students – especially those who have been with him for many years. Those students stepped onto the Vajrayana path voluntarily; it’s a journey that they chose to make. At least, I assume they did.” 

Dzongsar Khyentse, Guru and Student in the Vajrayana

DZK as a revered Rigpa adviser is strengthening in Rigpa student’s minds the very ideas that enabled the abuse. But if there is nothing wrong with what Sogyal did so long as the student voluntarily chose the vajrayana path, then what does this say about the value of the Rigpa code of conduct to those who will make this choice in future?

Ethics and commitments specific to vajrayana and Dzogchen

In their document Shared Values and Guidelines of the Rigpa Community  which provides additional information relating to the Rigpa code of conduct, in the section on ‘Entering the Vajrayana Path’, it says of students that ‘They will receive teachings on the ethics and commitments specific to vajrayana and Dzogchen’. In other words, there are ethics and commitments that are different to the other levels of the path. What are these ethics and commitments?

In their daily Longchen Nyingtik Ngondro practice, Rigpa students chant:

‘Towards the lifestyle and activity of the lama,
May wrong view not arise for even an instant, and
May I see whatever he does as a teaching for me.
Through such devotion, may his blessing inspire and fill my mind!’

Longchen Nyingtik Ngondro

This idea that you have to see anything your guru does as okay is not helped by one commentary on this text used by Rigpa which adds another phrase to the last verse: ‘and may I see whatever he does, whether it seems to be in accordance with the dharma or not, as a teaching for me.’ Another commentary on this Ngondro, expands this idea on by saying:

‘His [the teacher’s] charisma may attract men and women alike, but even if he were to seduce a hundred girls daily, see it as the activity of bringing under control. And when he causes trouble, stirring up disputes and so on, even if he slaughters hundreds of animals every day, regard this as the activity of fierce subduing.’

A Guide to The Words of My Perfect Teacher page 261

Here is the ‘scriptural authority’ that guides Rigpa students in the matter of their guru’s behaviour.

Rigpa’s version the vajrayana student-teacher relationship

Also in the section on ‘Entering the Vajrayana Path’, the Rigpa Shared Values and Guidelines document says, ‘Such formal requests [for instruction at the vajrayana level] are completely optional and voluntary, and when made by a student, constitute consent to this level of spiritual guidance.’ The vajrayana level of spiritual guidance under Sogyal included what we now recognise as abuse. Dzongsar Khyentse, whose opinions reflect those of all Rigpa’s advisors, says that at this level of the path, you must ‘completely and soberly’ surrender and ‘you may not interpret certain manifestations and activities of the guru as the abuse of power’.

What this means is not that a student won’t be harmed by a vajrayana teacher, but that in future, they won’t complain because they have ‘consented’ to ‘this level of spiritual guidance’. They likely, like those who still remain faithful to the teacher who abused them, won’t even think of it as abuse. They will see any thought that they’re being abused as a failure of perception on their part—exactly the beliefs that were used and are still being used to diminish or disregard the abuse perpetrated by Sogyal Rinpoche as outlined in the Lewis Silkim report.

During the court case against Jean-Baptiste Cesbron one of the senior Rigpa students present explained to the tribunal to that the master /disciple relationship was out of the ordinary and unique and that the victims had misunderstood the master’s intention. He accepted and saw no problem with his statement that the disciple could be ‘burned’ by coming into contact with a powerful master. Apparently the students speaking for Lerab Ling attacked the victims’ testimonies and showed total disregard for their suffering.

Does this indicate that Rigpa is no longer a destructive cult?

The Lewis Silkin recommendation on risk assessment

Number 5 of the Lewis Silkin report’s recommendations says: An appropriate risk assessment addressing the whole range of the organisation’s activities should be conducted and regularly refreshed. The risk assessment should specifically address teaching practices which are, or have been, associated with the Dzogchen Mandala – careful, well guided judgements will need to be made on the future use of such practices in the organisation’s work. For the avoidance of doubt any practice amounting to abuse of a student should never be tolerated.

Given that the beliefs that enabled the abuse in Rigpa have not changed, it can’t be said that they have adequately assessed the risk and made a careful judgement on the future use of such practices. Certainly there is still doubt around this point in their code of conduct in the special section on Vajrayana and Dzogchen.

Has the Rigpa Vision Board examined these beliefs? Are they willing to take a sober look? As is suggested in this recommendation? Have they, or can they, in order to make a ‘careful judgement on the future use of such practices’ make a decision on how they should interpret them that goes against the teachings of their spiritual advisers? Are they willing to even study alternative interpretations? If not, we must question their commitment to the safety of their students.

If they are willing to examine, then Part Two my book Fallout: Recovering from Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism is a good starting point, and Alexander Berzin presents a clear and healthy understanding of the real meaning of these beliefs in his book Wise Teacher, Wise Student: Tibetan Approaches to a Healthy Relationship (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2010)

Does Rigpa have a charismatic leader or group to which they offer adulation?

Sogyal Rinpoche has resigned as Spiritual Director of Rigpa, but is he still the teacher of Rigpa? Does he still have influence over the students? Rigpa states the answer to this in a press release from Jan 3 2018

‘Although Sogyal Rinpoche is no longer the Spiritual Director of Rigpa, he has an ongoing responsibility as a teacher to his students. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the sacred bond between student and teacher continues until enlightenment.’

He still teaches through video. And I hear that he’s pulling the Vision Board’s strings, which makes sense considering that those students have decades of practice at not being able to make a decision without Sogyal’s instructions.

Rigpa also has a group of spiritual advisors, who, as I’ve shown, propagate the same view as Sogyal did, and expect the same kind of unquestioning devotion from their students. The adulation Dzongsar Khyentse receives from his students is clear on his Facebook page, and students received Khenpo Namdrol’s victim blaming of abuse victims with enthusiastic applause.

I have even heard Patrick Gaffney spoken of with the same kind of devotion as is accorded to Sogyal. Even though he has resigned from the management team, he is still very influential in Rigpa.

Does Rigpa still exploit and psychologically damage students?

Given that Sogyal no longer physically attends retreats, the level of exploitation should have decreased considerably. However, as we have examined previously, Rigpa communications twists members perception with highly manipulative language, designed to make students and the public think that everything is fine, that Rigpa is safe now, but they have not examined or changed the core beliefs that enabled the abuse, so the potential for harm caused by those beliefs still exists.

We called it the Rigpa party line; has it changed?

Aren’t people who hold the following beliefs psychologically damaged or, at the very least, in danger of abuse?

  • It’s acceptable for a teacher to abuse their students so long as that teacher is a vajrayana teacher and that student is a ‘properly prepared and initiated’
  • A vajrayana student must not criticise their teacher no matter what he or she does.
  • Everything a vajrayana teacher does is for the student’s benefit, even if they hits them, asks them to perform sex acts they don’t want to do or publically humiliates them. Such things are teachings and a great kindness and blessing for me.

Are these not the beliefs key Rigpa figures hold?

Are they not still what Rigpa teaches their vajrayana students?

Is Rigpa management prepared to publicly state that these are not their beliefs?

Did the Australian Charity Commission ask these questions? Certainly, they seem in their ‘investigation’ not to have asked anyone other than Rigpa about it.

The court in Montpellier wasn’t fooled.

Is there still a risk of abuse to Rigpa students?

Because of the code of conduct and grievance procedure, there is less risk, and likely none for beginning students, but for so long as Rigpa maintains their fundamentalist views of the teacher-student relationship at the vajrayana level, the potential for abuse remains for vajrayana students. Why? Because given the prevalence of abuse—including allegations against some of Rigpa’s advisors—we cannot trust Tibetan Buddhist teachers (even Westerners) not to abuse their students once ‘consent’ to the vajrayana level of spiritual instruction is given.

Rigpa, as is shown by their Shared Values document, makes a distinction between vajrayana students and students at the ‘lower’ levels of the path. They can say that their code of conduct applies to all, but how can it when they believe, and teach, and students consent to the idea that ‘once you [the vajrayana student] have completely and soberly surrendered, you may not interpret certain manifestations and activities of the guru as the abuse of power. If you want to be fully enlightened, you can’t worry about abuse.’

If this is not the case, let Rigpa make a statement that makes it clear that they believe what Sogyal did was wrong and caused harm, and that they have examined the beliefs that enabled his behaviour and have now changed the way they interpret those beliefs such that they will not enable abuse in future. Unless this is done, the potential for abuse remains.  

References

  1.  Robinson, B.A. (25 July 2007). “Doomsday, destructive religious cults”Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. Retrieved 18 November 2007.
  2. ^ Turner, Francis J.; Arnold Shanon Bloch, Ron Shor (1 September 1995). “105: From Consultation to Therapy in Group Work With Parents of Cultists”. Differential Diagnosis & Treatment in Social Work (4th ed.). Free Press. p. 1146. ISBN 0-02-874007-6.

Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism: The Rise and Fall of Sogyal Rinpoche

As most of you probably know, the book about Sogyal written by Mary Finnigan and Rob Hogendoorn is available now .
The book description follows:

This book is the story of how a penniless Tibetan refugee with fierce ambition managed to establish himself in the West as a renowned Buddhist lama and hoodwink thousands of people, including show business luminaries, tycoons and politicians, for more than 30 years. 

Sogyal Lakar left his birthplace in eastern Tibet aged eight when his family fled the Chinese invasion to seek refuge in India. Arriving in England in the early 1970s, he brought with him traditional ideas and attitudes rooted in a culture whose spiritual sophisticated was coupled with near-feudal social norms. 

His transition was spectacularly successful. Sogyal Rinpoche, as he became known, was a charismatic multi-millionaire, credited as the author of a best-selling book. He starred in a Hollywood movie and his Rigpa Fellowship attracted followers across the globe. At the peak of his fame he was the most powerful and best-known Tibetan holy man after the Dalai Lama. 

But, as revealed here, it turns out that Sogyal was a charlatan who was never trained as a lama. He stands accused of financial and sexual misconduct, physical violence and fabricated credentials. Now seriously ill, he is a fugitive rumoured to be in Thailand beyond the reach of police and civil investigations. 

This book does not sensationalise the perverse behaviour that caused profound suffering to scores of devotees. Based on interviews with victims and eyewitnesses, together with detailed research and first-hand experience, it echoes the feminist perspective highlighted by the Me Too and Time’s Up movements. It is also a story about the culture clash that occurs when the misogyny of old Tibet is greeted with naïve acceptance and adulation by spiritual seekers in the West.

If you’ve read it already, please let us know what you think.

The Sakyadhita Conference 2019: Inspiring, Challenging & Fruitful.

I’d never heard of the Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women until Brisbane Buddhist Chaplain Jack Wicks contacted me last year and asked me to present a paper on the fallout from Sogyal’s abuse at the Sakyadhita conference 2019 in the Blue Mountains, Australia in June. I asked Damcho if she’d help out with the project and she said, ‘Yes.’ Getting the funds to pay the costs could have been a stumbling block, but 48 wonderful people contributed to our Go Fund Me Campaign to cover our conference fees and some of our costs. On Monday the 24th of June, Damcho, Jack and I delivered our paper to around 800 people.

The talk was very well received, the quality of the listening was interested and supportive. We had many people coming up and speaking to us afterwards to express how grateful they were that we were talking about the issue of abuse in Buddhism. They particularly appreciated Damcho speaking publicly of her experience.

For me it came at a great time because I’ve finished my book Fallout: Recovering from Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism, which speaks of my journey over the last couple of years, and this was like a very brief summary of the book’s subject matter. I felt lighter after the paper, as if I’d shed a load I’d been carrying.

Click here to listen to the audio.

Inspiring

The venue
The view
Our comfortable room.
The main room.
Women practitioners from all Buddhist countries.

As you can see, I met many wonderful people. It was truly wonderful to be in such a kind, supportive atmosphere. It made me realise that Buddhism is so much more than the few twisted teachers and communities.

What linked us all, these groups of nuns and lay women from all over Asia, Australia and even some from Europe and Israel, is our gender, and that relationship cut across sectarian boundaries. All were treated with respect. All equal. You could feel it in the atmosphere.

The talks were all printed into a booklet so I can read the ones I missed, but what struck me about the papers is the wealth of good works being done by Buddhist women, particularly in Asia, and the strong, inspiring woman behind them. The conference was very well organised, and a very special experience. How else would I ever make such friends? Some I intend to see again. Others will become Facebook friends.

Workshops were many and varied. I did two others on the abuse issue in order to network and so that our workshop could follow up on anything that came out of the others. The two nuns seated in the next photo delivered a paper before us on sexual abuse in nunneries in Bhutan and India, and the two talks together had quite an impact. It made it quite clear that abuse is a major issue in the religion, particularly for women, and particularly in Tibetan Buddhism, not just in the West, but also in the East where both nuns and monks are lax with their vows. Many apparently don’t even know what their vows are, whereas in other forms of Buddhism the monks and nuns recite their long list of vows at least once a month.

Strong inspiring women teachers

Thubten Chodreon, Tenzin Pamo, Joan Halifax, and Pema Khandro were the teachers I knew that were there. None of them had entourages, and all were all accessible. They ate with the rest of us, sat in the same seats, and it wasn’t hard to find a moment to speak with them. Many said to me that they felt that women teachers were the way forward for Buddhism. If you’re looking for a Buddhist teacher, I don’t think you’d go wrong with these women.

I spoke with Tenzin Palmo, and in our brief exchange, she embodied the genuine principle of the teacher in vajrayana, skilfully and spontaneously cutting through a habitual pattern of mine at the same time as setting me free. It heartened me that there are such teachers around. I also heard of a lineage of married monogamous Tibetan Lamas who didn’t screw around with their students. I found that hopeful. Not that I want another teacher – I don’t – but others do.

Tenzin Palmo

Challenging

It was a full-on six days, and the topic of Sogyal’s abuse was the main topic of conversation for us because people naturally wanted to talk about it. That meant re-living it again to some extent, but Damcho took it in her stride. I found her strength and grace also an inspiration.

I passed a couple of old Rigpa friends who looked at me as if they’d smelled dog poo – despite me smiling and saying, ‘Oh how lovely to see you,’ to one I’d known quite well. I found that hurtful until, with the help of a friend, I realised that it wasn’t personal. My friend helped me to see that I was a symbol of a point of view they didn’t want to accept and accepting me would mean accepting my viewpoint to some degree, something they didn’t want to do. Oh well. That’s how it is.

I managed to thank Tenzin Palmo for her support, and I gave her a paperback copy of my book Fallout. We had a brief exchange where she basically told me I didn’t need a teacher anymore. Her words: ‘You’re an adult, you don’t need a mummy or a daddy to tell you what to do anymore.’ I might tell you the whole story sometime, but I was amused to realise that Sogyal would never have told that to any of his students! She, Thubten Chodron, Joan Halifax and Pema Khandro were all so accessible, none of this setting themselves apart business. I thought them models of how teachers should be with their students.

I didn’t manage to get to a dharma talk, though. This ex-Buddhist has had enough of that! I did plan to listen to Tenzin Palmo, but I had a migraine. Luckily, a wonderful woman took care of me by booking me a massage and providing stick-on heat packs for my shoulders. Her care, attending to my needs without being asked, was compassion in action, and I felt very nurtured.

Fruitful

Damcho, Jack, Tenzin, Karma and me.

To top off the experience, we had a fruitful outcome. The nun on the right in this photo, Ven. Dr. Karma Tashi Choedron pulled together a group of talented women who wanted to do something about the abuse in Buddhism issue, and from her networking came the Alliance for Buddhist Ethics. It’s purpose is to eliminate abuse from Buddhism. A big task, yes, but it’s a start. You’ll hear more about this as time passes, but for now you can show your support by signing up to the mailing list.

Click here to sign up to the Alliance for Buddhist Ethics mailing list.

Here’s some video snippets from the conference including the announcement of the Alliance for Buddhist Ethics and some comments from Jack, Damcho and me.

Yes, I’m not a ‘Buddhist’ anymore in that I’m not aligned with any part of the religion (or any other) but I still care about the issue of abuse in Buddhism. I have great respect for the vajrayana, and I’d like to see it free from corruption, feudalism and the parts that aren’t actually Buddhism – like the idea that abuse is crazy wisdom and therefore okay. No, no, no, it is never okay, and it certainly isn’t what the Buddha taught – as Jack says at the end of our talk.

The next conference is in Malaysia in 2021, and I’m hoping to go. I’d like to submit a paper on self reflection for communities to help them locate cult behaviours and see that they’re damaging and un-Buddhist. This idea came from speaking to a FPMT nun who told me about the cultish behaviour in her group. How, I wondered, could someone raise the issue in such a community? A short guide to self-reflection could provide a starting point for such a conversation. But that’s for next time!

Here’s links to more elegant videos of the conference – with music.