This video is an interview with Karma Yeshe Rabgye (a Western monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition) in which he gives good advice for students of Tibetan Buddhism looking for a teacher and particularly for those being abused by their lama. He is, of course, talking from a Western perspective, and we’ve hit the wall of cultural differences here when trying to get lamas to make public stances against misconduct, so I don’t think he’ll get far with his call for lamas to speak out. But his advice for Western students is basically: you’re a Westerner, you know it’s wrong, so don’t be bound by the fear tactics (samaya) of a feudal culture that has no relevance to you as a modern Western person, and report all incidences of criminal behaviour to the police. Lamas in the West must abide by Western law and should be given no special treatment just because they and you think they’re someone special.
I agree with his point that Tibetan Buddhism in its feudal form will continue on the fringes, but it likely will eventually die out in the West because the feudal aspects (in which he includes the tulku system) are simply not relevant to the modern world. The Tibetan Buddhism that will survive is where the lamas adapt to the modern world and needs of their Western students. Adapt or die is the way of the world, after all.
Finding a teacher
Many of the readers here are so disgusted by the behaviour of Tibetan lamas that they don’t want anything to do with the religion anymore, but others understand that despite the religious limitations, Tibetan Buddhism does have a lot to offer those seeking to understand their mind and learn effective ways of operating in the world. The question then is how do you find a teacher that won’t abuse you.
As well as checking them out thoroughly, particularly noticing whether or not they practice what they preach and whether they have a secret inner circle (particularly if it’s all young women), Karma Yeshe talks about looking at how we are as students, and asking ourselves, what do we want from the relationship and how do we see the teacher. If we see him or her as a saviour who will tell us what to do, as a daddy figure or a god, then we’re opening ourselves up to abuse.
This echoes the approach I take in my book Fallout: Recovering from Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism where I suggest that we can’t change the teachers but we can change the way we relate to them. ‘We must forge a new way of relating to our spiritual teachers’, a healthier relationship than the teachings proscribe, one where we do not fall into blind devotion.
Such a relationship, however, can only be achieved by someone who does not have codependent tendencies, someone who has clear boundaries and good self-esteem, but those who seek gurus may be weak in these areas. If you don’t think you can manage not to fall into a submissive, codependent relationship with a guru, I suggest you do some solid work with a psychotherapist before seeking a guru.
The other important point Karma Yeshe makes is that we should have many teachers. We can learn different things from different teachers. The idea that we should have one teacher for life should be discarded as it’s limiting at best and dangerous at worst. We must retain control of our spiritual path.
The only way out of this mess, I think, is for students to vow to never compromise their personal integrity, to take responsibility for their own spiritual path rather than handing control over to another, and to keep their critical thinking faculties engaged at all levels of the path rather than blindly accepting every pronouncement by a lama as wisdom. To give any of that up in the name of devotion is neither wise nor in line with what the Buddha taught.
Speaking up is Karma Yeshe’s advice, but we all know that’s not easy. Certainly it’s important to step outside of the TB conditioning so that you’re not afraid to make a police report, but stepping outside of a belief system into which you’ve been indoctrinated is really hard. It takes time. I think I’ll write a whole post on this after some more thought, but the first step is to follow any grievance procedure that is in place in your sangha, and to record all communications.
If no such procedure exists then email whoever is in charge with a formal complaint. You can google how to make a formal complaint. Also keep a record of when the email was sent, and send a copy to a another person for them to also keep a record of. Again, keep a record of all communications on the matter. Copy and paste them into a Word document.
And lodge a complaint with the police as soon as you realise you’ve been abused in some way. That doesn’t mean that you’ll be taking legal action, it just means the police will have a record of it. We have to get over this idea that good Buddhist don’t involve the police. If a crime has been committed, we need to report it. We don’t need to sue, but we do need to make a report. This is vital for any investigation, particularly if someone else comes forward with a similar experience.
If you get no satisfaction from a grievance procedure or from lodging a formal complaint, then you may wish to warn others by going public. That will have repercussions that will be hard to handle – such as vilification from sangha members (and I’ll go into them in more detail another post) – and if you decide that’s the way you want to go, the question is how best to do it. Clearly getting others together so there is more than one voice speaking out is the best option, but it’s not always possible to do that even if you know the same thing is happening to others.
If you’re a lone voice, it’s hard. Journalists can’t publish someone’s story unless it’s verified by at least one other person, and they have good reason to believe that the allegations have some basis in fact. Someone not publishing your story doesn’t mean they don’t believe you, it just means they need more information. It’s about responsible journalism. My policy here is not to be the original source for someone’s public statement of their experience of abuse.
Facebook rants don’t work. Share in a closed group, by all means, but if you want to make a clear statement, I don’t advise Facebook because it’s too easy for people to abuse you and even get your account shut down. Utube videos do work, but I suggest that you don’t allow comments unless you’re either going to ignore them all, or are prepared for abuse from the true believers.
Tell your story to the camera and make sure you begin by saying that this is your lived experience, your story, that this is what happened to you. To be even safer, do not directly accuse the perpetrator of a crime. You can say, he sexually abused me in these ways, but don’t say, ‘He’s a sexual abuser or a sexual pervert.’ That’s slander.
If there’s only you and you don’t want to do a video, I suggest making your own statement on your own webpage (they’re free through WordPress.com). Then you can share the link to it wherever you want, and blogs like this can link to it as an allegation.
Most important is to look after yourself. I suggest reading my book and seeing a counsellor.
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.
What do you think of what Karma Yeshe Rabgye says in the podcast? And do you have any advice for those who have been abused and are wondering what to do that I can include in a comprehensive post on the topic?
When members of a Tibetan Buddhist group discover that their
leader abused people, their reactions tend to fall roughly into the following
Those who deny or ignore the abuse or explain it
away according to their belief system (thinking it’s genuine crazy wisdom) and remain
committed to their religion and their group;
Those who accept that the abuse happened and know
it was wrong, but stay in the religion and the group, believing that the group
will genuinely change such that abuse can never happen again;
Those who leave the group but not the religion;
Those who leave Tibetan Buddhism but remain a
Those who leave Buddhism.
Retaining the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual path
In four out of five of those broad categories, the student
retains their TB spiritual path. Those in group 2 or 3 will make some
adjustments to how they view the religion or the group in order to accommodate
what happened; they will convince themselves that the abuse was an aberration, and
that they can find other lamas who don’t abuse his or her students. They
continue with Tibetan Buddhism either with another group or with getting
teachings from a variety of teachers.
They may will find it very hard, if not impossible, to trust
a guru fully again, and they may be very suspicious of all gurus. They will
feel adrift for a while, until they work out how to move forward with their
religious path. Moving forward for them may entail reading books and/or seeking
a new guru and will likely entail some strengthening of their trust in their
own discernment. They may be reticent to join another group and will be more
aware of cult warning signs, but they can continue with (or eventually return to)
their religious practice. They can go back to their Ngondro (many lamas use the
Longchen Nyingtik Ngondro) visualising Guru Rinpoche or the Buddha or even the
letter Ah as the guru. This continuity of practice will give them some stability,
a sense that they have not lost their spiritual path, that this difficulty is
just a challenge they will overcome and continue on. For them, it’s not a
matter of finding a new path, it’s a matter of developing a new relationship
with the religion.
‘I think so many people tend to think of faith as blind adherence to a dogma or unquestioned surrender to an authority figure, and the result is losing self-respect and losing our own sense of what is true. And I don’t think of faith in those terms at all.’
Retaining a general Buddhist path
Those who give up Tibetan Buddhism but continue with Buddhism can still feel that they’re on some kind of spiritual path – it’s not Tibetan Buddhism anymore; but it’s still Buddhism, and there is a prescribed path. Even so, they struggle with the loss of community, loss of innocence, loss of a set shape to their daily practice and loss of continuity of practice. But if they are willing to retain some Buddhist practice in their life, then they’re not set entirely adrift. After a period of feeling lost, they will eventually find their way back to incorporating some form of Buddhist spiritual practice in their lives.
They may return to basics, study the Theravaden teachings and practice uncontrived meditation only, or study from a variety of sources and focus on compassion practices. There are many options for those who can still engage in some kind of Buddhist practice.
No matter which group you presently fall into, you’ll experience some sense of loss as you adjust to changed circumstances. But those who leave Buddhism entirely, face the most uncertain future. They face the greatest challenge, but also the greatest opportunity for genuine freedom of mind.
If you’ve lost your spiritual path, you tend to feel adrift,
lost, directionless, floating, groundless. You have no idea where you’re going
in terms of your spiritual path. This is particularly difficult for those who
followed the structure of the Tibetan Buddhist practices in their daily life. Such
students were used to being told what to do each day—for example; one hundred
and eight one-hundred-syllable mantras; 3 of a certain prayer, and/or a certain
number of accumulations of a vajrayana practice. If now they can’t face doing any
of those practices, they feel completely adrift.
How do you progress on your spiritual path when you don’t
have one anymore? Are you faced with a life time of not fulfilling your
spiritual yearning? That’s a scary prospect for those who have been committed
to living a ‘spiritual’ life.
Spiritual path or religious path?
The first thing to realise in handling this situation is to
differentiate between a religious path and a spiritual path. One’s spiritual
path may include following a religion as part of it, but the spiritual path
continues before and after, as well as during, one’s involvement with a
religion or cult. We may not always be or have been part of a religion, but we’ve
always had a spiritual path, even if we didn’t know we had one – don’t we keep
growing simply as part of life? And now, even if it doesn’t feel like it, even
if we feel at a loss, we are still on a spiritual path. We are on our own
spiritual path, and if it doesn’t look like anyone else’s spiritual path, that’s
not because it’s wrong or misguided; it’s because we are unique and so is our spiritual
path. Even if on the outside our path looks similar to others, it will never be
the same path.
‘The spiritual path – is simply the journey of living our lives. Everyone is on a spiritual path; most people just don’t know it.’
What is a spiritual path?
I couldn’t find a definition of spiritual path that didn’t use
a religion’s frame of reference, but Wikipedia did provide a modern version of
the word ‘spirituality’:
Modern usages [of the term spirituality] tend to refer to a subjective experience of a sacred dimension and the “deepest values and meanings by which people live”, often in a context separate from organized religious institutions, such as a belief in a supernatural (beyond the known and observable) realm, personal growth, a quest for an ultimate or sacred meaning, religious experience, or an encounter with one’s own “inner dimension”.
Characteristics of spiritual paths are such things as
prayer, meditation – the development of mindfulness and awareness –
contemplation, ethical values, a belief or awareness that there is more to the
world than what we perceive with our physical senses, deep self-investigation
and conscious personal growth, a commitment to service to others and to ‘truth’
– whatever we perceive that to be. Engaging in such things gives a spiritual
dimension to our lives even if they aren’t ordered into some kind of path with
a beginning, middle and end. (Our life provides its own beginning, middle and
Is there an end?
The word ‘path’ gives us a sense that there is an end point, something we will achieve at the end of the path – enlightenment, Christ consciousness, satori, nirvana and so on – but I find that idea problematic because it suggests a static state, free of mental suffering perhaps, but is there any point at which we cease changing and growing? The nature of the universe is that the only constant is that everything changes all the time; was the Buddha exempt from that? How can there be an end point past which there is no more growth?
The wisdom of not seeking
As I see it, the spiritual path is not about getting to an end point; it’s about how you live your life in every moment. It’s not about seeking some attainment in the future, but about fully being now and trusting that your very desire to live attuned to what is real and true will naturally move you forward.
Something I’ve found transformative is dropping the idea of seeking enlightenment. It’s held up as such a high state that one is only ever likely to fail to achieve it unless you’re some very special rare individual – so most of us, in seeking this rarely defined state, are setting ourselves up for failure. I’m better able to be focused in present awareness without that constant striving for the unachievable.
We turned to Buddhism probably due to some yearning to connect with a ‘spiritual dimension’ in ourselves and our world, but we can do that by simply tuning into our present awareness. And there are many secular tools we can use to assist us to do that – meditation, yoga, gardening, walking in nature, engaging in art and craft, listening to or creating inspiring music, singing, reading something inspiring, or just sitting quietly and watching the world go by.
‘The practice of being on a spiritual path isn’t about being the best meditator or the kindest possible person or the most enlightened. The practice is about surrendering to love as often as possible.’
The role of teachers
Of course we do need spiritual teachers at some point in our lives to give us pointers for how to work with ourselves, but those of us who’ve had decades of Buddhist study and practice should be able to trust our inner guide by now – that is the point of the path, after all.
Teachers that illuminate our inner beings in some way don’t even have to be a ‘spiritual’ teacher. They could be our yoga teacher or our swimming coach or our counsellor or therapist. There are many different layers to our ‘self’ and many different ways we can learn about them.
Different teachers can teach us different things at different stages of our life, and options will appear to us even if we aren’t looking. If we’re toying with the idea of taking teachings from someone, we just have to examine that someone and their community carefully, trust our gut feelings, and not buy into hopes and projections born out of our of our insecurities.
The trick, I think, of relating to teachers and religions is not to fall into the idea of thinking that they’re ‘the one’ and that they’re all you’ll ever need, all the way to the end of your life. That idea just closes one down to opportunities. The idea that we only need one perfect teacher is untrue and could be dangerous.
Sogyal taught us to abhor the spiritual supermarket – picking a bit of teachings from here and there – but perhaps that is exactly what we need right now. Perhaps that is our path for now. Yes, we could get confused, but once we realise we’re confused, we’ll find some way to move on from that confusion. Certainly, there is a lot to pick from from within the Buddhist path itself, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t avail ourselves of all those different options.
The greater the loss the greater the opportunity for awakening
Steve Taylor in his book The Leap: The Psychology of Spiritual Awakeningtalks about the research he did into people who exhibit characteristics of awakening. What is clear from his research is that awakened people, or people who show some degree of awakening, are much more numerous than Buddhism would have us believe. Taylor considers awakening as the inevitable future of the human race, the result of the inexorable march of evolution. And he discovered that the thing that causes awakening most often is some major crisis in one’s life where you experience great loss, some time when the rug is ripped out from under you – such as the death of a loved one, a serious accident or illness, anything that sets you adrift, where your old ways of being simply don’t work for you anymore.
He discovered that though long term religious practice helps one wake up from the ‘sleep’ state experienced by the majority of people, it’s a slow process and it is most transformative when an extended period of religious practice is followed by some traumatic event that changes everything for you – perhaps like the loss of one’s religion.
So don’t despair. Trust in the natural process of life as spiritual practice. All we have to do is turn up for it and pay attention to ourselves, others and whatever life presents us with. If we stay open, curious, and aware, we can trust that we’re still progressing on our spiritual path. The very yearning that brought us to Buddhism in the first place, is still there, still directing us towards whatever will help us wake up even more. We just have to be open to it and realise that opportunities for growth might not look a bit like how we expect them to.
Don’t worry if you feel lost, directionless, bereft, rudderless, and so on; those states are full of potential for transformation. Being adrift is also being without reference, and that’s something we aimed for as dzogchen practitioners, so let’s embrace our new state, whatever it is. We don’t need to know where we’re going in order to appreciate the journey. We’re on a pathless path, a journey without an end.
You also might be more awakened than you think you are. When you read the qualities of awakening laid out in the above book, you might be surprised just how many of those qualities you already have. And honestly, does it really matter where you are on the ‘enlightenment scale’? Isn’t the important thing not where we’re heading but how we live each moment?
I went to a yoga class yesterday. The first one since I joined Rigpa. And oh, how I enjoyed it. I’ve also been doing some art and craft, and gardening.
What activities do you find are an outlet for that part of yourself that yearns to connect with the ‘spiritual dimension’? And please share any thoughts you have on walking a pathless path?
Can an unrealised teacher induce a genuine spiritual experience in his or her students? This is something we’ve talked about before here, but for me, up until now, my examination has been very much informed by beliefs instilled in me by Tibetan Buddhism. In fact the whole quandary is due to the dzogchen teachings insistence that one needs a realised teacher for any genuine transmission of the nature of mind to occur.
‘So in Dzogchen, the direct introduction to rigpa requires that we rely upon an authentic guru, who already has this experience. It is when the blessings of the guru infuse our mindstream that this direct introduction is effected. ‘
Dzogchen, Heart Essence of the Great Perfection, HH Dalai Lama
Now I’d like to step out of the Tibetan Buddhist framework of beliefs and look at this question from a different perspective.
Given this kind of teaching,
When you discover that your dzogchen teacher is abusing people and so isn’t a reliable/authentic/realised guru, does that mean that what you experienced that you thought was the nature of mind, couldn’t have actually been the nature of mind after all?
If you did experience the nature of mind, does that mean that the teacher must be authentic/realised/reliable despite evidence to the contrary?
These two questions – posed due to the dzogchen teachings emphasis on the importance of the teacher having some realisation – leave students in a bind. It means that any student who had a taste of the nature of their mind in the presence of their guru, when faced with revelations of that guru’s abusive behaviour, either has to believe that their teacher did have some realisation, or they have to deny their own experience, thinking that a fake guru means a fake experience.
The first option is the one taken by those who deny or minimise their teacher’s abuse. The second option is the one taken by those who declare that all Rigpa students wasted their time and couldn’t possibly have had any genuine taste of the nature of their mind.
But there is a third option. It’s just not the option the religion wants to emphasise because it diminishes the importance of the teacher’s qualifications.
The other ‘uncomfortable’ option
The other option is that one can have a genuine spiritual experience with a fake teacher.
Those invested in holding to either of the first two options might find this option uncomfortable because if you accept this possibility, you’re questioning the truth of the religion’s insistence on the necessity of having a realised teacher. And examining how such a thing might be possible leads one to see the whole religion in the stark and unromantic light of open enquiry.
To really be open to this option, to see what the video below is showing us, you need to step completely outside of the belief structure of Tibetan Buddhism. You’ll need to ignore, or put aside with a question mark, the opening quote in this article .
Watch this video with an open mind and suddenly you can see all those rituals, the words the lama says, how he says it, the gestures he uses, and the environment in which is occurs for what they are: the manipulations of a skilled mentalist. Realisation is not a requirement so long as you follow the procedures set down by the previous skilled mentalists in your lineage.
In this video, Derren Brown demonstrates how he can induce a ‘religious experience’ in an atheist. He reproduces a number of well known psychology experiments which show how even non-believers are ‘hard-wired’ to be susceptible to suggestions of super-natural (and religious) presences.
Note that when he tells the woman how he induced her experience, he states that her experience was genuine. It was ‘her’ experience, something real, not something he gave her. All he did was set up the conditions where it was likely that she would experience some kind of spiritual opening. Just like a lama induces experiences in us and calls it ‘introducing us to the nature of mind’.
But is it the ‘real’ thing?
When I first watched this, the Tibetan Buddhist indoctrinated part of me wanted to say that such an experience wouldn’t be the nature of mind, that it would be some other ‘lesser’ state. Then I realised that I’d fallen prey to the elitist cult tactic, the ‘we have the answer that no one else has’ belief. The point here is not what kind of spiritual experience can be induced in this way, the point is that a spiritual experience can be induced by someone who willingly admits that he is not a guru and has no special powers, just the knowledge of a mentalist.
What this video is showing is that what kind of spiritual experience we might have when the right environment is created through chanting, meditation, tone of voice, gestures, belief in the power of the guru, suggestion, and so on depends entirely on us, not on the guru. That’s the point. All the guru does is set up a situation where we are most likely to have some kind of spiritual experience. What we actually experience is individual, and could be any of a variety of mental states.
Given that as part of a pointing-out-mind instruction we would’ve had teachings on the nature of mind, the likelihood that those who are ready would experience the nature of mind would be quite high. And if we were following the instructions on what to do – or not do – with our mind, there is no reason to believe that such a thing would be a ‘manufactured version of the real thing’. If you believe that the teachings and instructions are a true guide, then why would we not experience it if following those instructions?
The point is that during pointing out instructions, the guru is nothing more than a catalyst to help us experience our own nature, and he doesn’t need any qualities other than knowing the procedure to follow to induce a spiritual experience in his followers. The religion has a reliable system in place that has worked for centuries. They’re not faking it; their religion simply works based on lineages of skilled mentalists. The delusion is the idea that these lamas are anything other than skilled mentalists.
Views on this issue from within Tibetan Buddhism
“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….”
Tenzin Palmo. 30th December 2018 (Email response to a question)
Sogyal often told us the story about the woman who achieved realisation through praying to a dog’s tooth because she thought it was a relic of the Buddha. He told the story to us to show us that what was important wasn’t the quality of the teacher, but the quality of our devotion. I even heard him say on a couple of occasions that he might be ‘just a dog’s tooth.’
But don’t forget the most important part of the dzogchen teachings. The part that tells us that the lama doesn’t actually give us anything, and that realisation of the nature of mind is up to us:
‘What we have been looking for—the true nature of our mind—has been with us all the time. It is with us now, in this very moment. The teachings say that if we can penetrate the essence of our present thought—whatever it may be—if we can look at it directly and rest within its nature, we can realize the wisdom of buddha: ordinary mind, naked awareness, luminous emptiness, the ultimate truth.’
In Tibetan Buddhism we practice ‘seeing the lama as a buddha’; what’s that if not using the power of suggestion? In the following video, the people gathered – all declared atheists – have been told that Derren has the power to convert people instantly. See what happens …
What you see in this video shows what is actually going on in Tibetan Buddhism when the lama introduces us to the nature of mind. There’s nothing magical or mystical about it. Our expectations simply make us highly suggestible. We want to experience something, so we do. But that doesn’t mean that what we experience is somehow ‘fake’. It’s a real experience of a real mind state.
Do we create something or do we drop our defences and allow something to arise? I expect that would depend entirely on our training. If you’re trained to drop everything and see what’s left, that’s what you’ll do. Hence, a genuine experience of the nature of mind can come from a guru who does not have the qualities of a realised being.
If this is hard for you to accept, why? What beliefs are holding you back? How do these videos make you feel about your experience with Tibetan Buddhism?
This excerpt from the letter sums up the general contents, and those of us familiar with this kind of thing from Rigpa, Shambala, NKT and other Tibetan Buddhist groups will recognise the methods and language used to create this kind of cult-ure. It’s the same-old story. Clearly, we, as Westerners, are importing the worst of this tradition on a grand scale.
“The forms of emotional and spiritual abuse perpetuated by Reggie Ray and, by extension, those in positions of leadership within Dharma Ocean, are commonly acknowledged as characteristic of high demand groups : ● grooming; ● love bombing new group members; ● questioning and doubt being discouraged or punished; ● public shaming of community members; ● a cycle of verbal abuse and triangulation in interpersonal communication; ● selective enforcement of rules/community norms; dissent framed in terms of spiritual immaturity/shortcomings; ● a pervasive culture of fear and paranoia; ● a charismatic leader insulated from any external accountability; ● reframing dissent or the loss of prominent members as proof of the worthiness and exceptionalism of the “in-group”; ● frequent public appraisals of other spiritual paths and communities, which were always found inferior by comparison with Dharma Ocean. ● the organization’s all-important ends justify its unethical means.”
A worrying transmission of abuse by Westerners
This abusive Tibetan Buddhist teacher is a Westerner, a man whose books I loved for their clarity and the depth of the author’s dharma understanding. But as we’ve come to realise, knowledge, and even practice of, the dharma according to Tibetan Buddhism is no guarantee of developing any kind of decency as a human being, especially if your master practised abuse in the name of dharma.
Chokyo Lodro, Sogyal Rinpoche’s master, was abusive in his behaviour, and so was Chogyam Trungpa, Reginald Ray’s master. Sogyal can be cut some slack for his perception that abuse was acceptable behaviour due to being a child while under the influence of at least one man who thought beating increased wisdom, but RR came to the dharma as an adult with a Western upbringing and presumably some awareness of the concept of human rights, so why is he behaving in a similar fashion? Answer -Chogyam Trungpa. He’s following a flawed role model, and presumably, like many of us did, has given up his personal integrity (presuming that he did at one point have some) on the altar of devotion.
Chogyam Trungpa: the father of the Western lineage of Tibetan Buddhist abuse
Trungpa’s alcoholism, womanising and hedonistic lifestyle have long been well-known but were generally brushed off as a result of the free-love ethos of hippy days in the sixties and seventies.
“Vajradhatu students had a reputation for the wildest parties in Buddhist America. Although most Tibetan Tantric schools clearly discourage “acting out” passions and impulses, Trungpa Rinpoche did not. In fact, drunk and speeding, he once crashed a sports car into the side of a joke shop and was left partly paralyzed. He openly slept with students. In Boulder, he lectured brilliantly, yet sometimes so drunk that he had to be carried off stage or held upright in his chair. …
When Trungpa Rinpoche lay dying in 1986 at the age of 47, only an inner circle knew the symptoms of his final illness. Few could bear to acknowledge that their beloved and brilliant teacher was dying of terminal alcoholism, even when he lay incontinent in his bedroom, belly distended and skin discolored, hallucinating and suffering from varicose veins, gastritis, and esophageal varices, a swelling of veins in the esophagus caused almost exclusively by cirrhosis of the liver.
“Rinpoche was certainly not an ordinary Joe, but he sure died like every alcoholic I’ve ever seen who drank uninterruptedly,” said Victoria Fitch, a member of his household staff with years of experience as a nursing attendant. “The denial was bone-deep,” she continued. “I watched his alcoholic dementia explained as his being in the realm of the daikinis.'”
However, some have revealed an even darker and clearly abusive side to Trungpa, and though (as it was with such students in Rigpa) vehemently denied by those who cannot bear to have their faith shaken, others have corroborated most of the stories that have come to light.
On its website, Ray’s organisation, Dharma Ocean, says that it’s core mission is “transmitting Trungpa Rinpoche’s living lineage in the modern context.” That page goes on to tell us that “Dr. Ray has practiced and studied in the lineage of Chögyam Trungpa since 1970, when he met Rinpoche just after his arrival in the U.S. ” And “Dr. Ray passes on the “moving and remarkable trust” he received from his teacher. Under this guidance, many of Dharma Ocean’s senior students are beginning to instruct others along the Dharma Ocean path of Chögyam Trungpa.”
Now that “senior students beginning to instruct others along the path of Chögyam Trungpa” is a worry. And one wonders what “moving and remarkable trust” refers to. Is that the never-question-your-teacher-because-they’re-perfect-and-what-might-appear-as-abuse-isn’t-really-because-it’s-all-for-your-benefit bullshit?
The third point on that page where it summarises the essence of the lineage is “The everyday practice to “never turn away” — to develop an attitude of complete acceptance and openness toward all experience …” But if you take a look at the letter you’ll see a lot of non-acceptance and close-mindedness in practice. Another instance of the guru and his organisation not walking their talk.
The lineage of abuse Trungpa left in his organisation, Shambala, carried by his son, the Sakyong, is also now widely known thanks to Buddhist Project Sunshine. In between Chögyam Trungpa and the Sakyong, Shambhala was led by an American-born Buddhist who is mainly remembered for having sex with students even after he knew he had AIDS.
In the book Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism, Mary Finnigan tells how in 1975 Sogyal’s behaviour changed abruptly from jovial to a tyrant’s attitude, which included public berating and humiliations of his students, after he returned from his visit to the U.S. where he met Trungpa in Boulder/Colorado.
Unfortunately, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche has also made his respect for Trungpa clear, and who knows how many other Tibetan Buddhist teachers, of both Eastern and Western roots, idolise a man now known to be a serial abuser.
How do we stop this transmission of abuse?
SPEAK UP! Tell it as it is, just like these eight students of RR and the eight Rigpa students and others who have broken the silence. And report crimes to the police. Treat abusive dharma teachers as we would any corporate boss who abuses his workers.
If you have knowledge of others abusing in the name of dharma, find others who can corroborate your story and write an open letter signed by as many students as you can who witness the same kinds of behaviour in their teachers, and post it wherever you can on the internet. If you can’t find anyone to back up your story, maybe you could be the first and hope that others will come out of the woodwork if you speak up. Best is make a You Tube video where you simply tell your story as ‘this is what happened to me’, no accusations, just facts as you know them. It’s hard, I know. But videos work best if you’re the only one speaking out. On a video you’re a real person, much harder to disregard, but don’t allow comments on your video. Best not to open yourself to further abuse. Be prepared for a backlash, though. Unfortunately those who feel threatened by such revelations will retaliate. For support, join the Survivors of Vajrayana Abuse Facebook group.
Cut the lineage here, now. No matter how wise they might sound, do not quote abusers or teachers who were once their students unless that person has made a public statement denouncing their teacher’s abuse and vowing not to continue it. To stop lineages of abuse from taking deeper root in the West, we have to stop seeing having Trungpa as a teacher as some kind of respected qualification.
Don’t support dodgy organisations and teachers. Only take teachings from teachers who make a public stance against abuse and cult behaviour. In today’s climate, I don’t think it’s too much to ask.
PS: A Website for those Leaving Dharma Ocean
Leavingdharmaocean.com is a resource site for recovering students of Reggie Ray and Caroline Pfohl, as well as for those who are curious about what happened at Dharma Ocean, or who are considering deepening their commitments to these teachers. It includes letters, emails between Reggie Ray and a student, essays from past students, articles, a list of behavior to watch for among enablers in Dharma Ocean — or any meditation community, and resources for healing from spiritual abuse.
A reflection on Sogyal Rinpoche’s death and feudalism in Tibetan Buddhism.
The first thought I had on hearing of Sogyal’s death was ‘The king is dead: long live the king.’ I ignored it, thinking it was one of those useless bits of mind vomit that invade our minds, but the phrase kept popping up during my quiet times, during my morning walk or meditation, along with a sense of what unpacking that phrase might mean in the present circumstances of Sogyal’s death. Wanting to retire into anonymity, I resisted writing about it, but eventually the insistence with which the phrase kept reoccurring made me accept that, like it or not, I had to write about Sogyal’s death in light of this phrase. So here it is:
Sogyal is the king to which we’re referring here. He (along with his willing slaves, of which I was one) created his kingdom, Rigpa, and he sat on the Rigpa throne – usually an office chair – encouraged by his students, who showed the kind of deference and devotion peasants are expected to show their king.
He gathered a court around him, an inner circle of lords and
ladies, who protected him from the demands of the peasants and pandered to his
every whim. And he had a harem of beautiful women to attend to his sexual
gratification. Women who he and his court convinced were ‘special’ and lucky to
gain his attention.
This is not Buddhist in any way, it’s just feudalism. Even
Western kings prior to the time of the French Revolution had access to pretty
much any woman they chose. No one would turn away the attentions of the king.
The benefits to one’s family were considerable – see the movie The Other Boleyn
Girl – not to mention the lavish lifestyle to into which the woman
would be thrust as a concubine or mistress. Coercion into the bed of the
master, lord or king was a fact of life for woman in medieval times, as was the
brutal disregard with which they were discarded when the person with power over
them and their family grew tired of her charms.
And he had knights who went out and did his work for him:
National Directors, Study and Practice Co-ordinators, Practice co-ordinators, Finance
and fundraising co-ordinators, event managers, and so on.
Those who spoke badly of the king were publically drawn and
quartered, and so dissent was effectively squashed. The only option for those
who saw that the Kingly garb was an illusion was exile.
We even called him a ‘master’. The historical meaning of that word is ‘a man who has people working for him, especially servants or slaves’. Synonyms: lord, overlord, ruler, sovereign, monarch, liege
The true nature of the king
Few knew the true nature of any king in a feudal society. Only
his closest courtiers. And if the king was an idiot or abusive (as I suspect
many of them were, given that absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely and
the brutality of the human race in general up until the development of the concept
of human rights around 250 years ago in France), his knights and advisors
worked with that as best they could. The monarchies were good at making fine
shows to satisfy the populace that they were being taken care of – so long as
they were faithful to the crown. Pomp and ceremony and fancy speeches promoted
the idea of a truly wise and benevolent king or queen regardless of the true personality
of the regent. Sound familiar? Anything Buddhist here? Nope, just feudalism.
In the same way, us ordinary peasants had no idea of Sogyal’s
true personality. We saw aspects of it, but just as a peasant in a feudal society
would ignore any indications that the king wasn’t the noble being he was made
out to be, so did we. To see him differently was dangerous. If the illusion
came tumbling down, so did our place in the society/cult. And King Sogyal’s
knights and couriers always did the required damage control to soothe the
When I realised that Sogyal wasn’t the man I thought he was,
when I realised that although he could be kind and apparently (as I saw him)
loving, he could also be incredibly cruel, and that although he seemed very
insightful at times, he could also do incredibly stupid things, I realised that
the ‘kingliness’ I’d perceived in him had been nothing more than a projection
on my part.
I wanted a spiritual teacher who was perfect, so that’s what
I created for myself. But there never was a king. Even though we had one.
I’m reminded of the words: Mind (it exists) is devoid of
mind (it doesn’t exist). The nature of mind is clear light. (Nevertheless it manifests
as clear light.) Sogyal was not a king, nor was he enlightened, nevertheless he
manifested as a king for those who wanted a king. Despite his personality disorder,
he faithfully dispensed his kingly duties as he’d been taught to do by his upbringing
and teachers, and just as a king who is rotten to the core can still follow legal
protocol and preside over a court to dispense justice for those seeking it, so,
too, could Sogyal provide what we came looking for. If our introductions to the
nature of our mind was just a projection from our side, it still did the trick,
because the protocol for introduction, well established over centuries, was
strong enough in itself that it still worked regardless of the lacks of the
person presiding – at least for those whose minds were ready for a little nudge
in the right direction.
King Sogyal died for me as soon as I realised he wasn’t a king
(not a role model for achieving enlightenment). I grieved back in June 2017.
Now the man Sogyal Lakar is dead as well. People have their
own reactions to that, depending on their relationship to him. But regardless
of how one feels about this personally, his death likely raises questions about
death and our relationship to it.
Our personal relationship to death
I grew up on a farm. I saw a lot of dead animals. Death was simply
part of life for us. Even now I live in the country and on my walks will come
across the remains of some animal. I’ve also travelled a lot in outback
Australia where road kill is common. I’ve driven along sections of roads lined
with the desiccated corpses of kangaroos, and plucked feathers from dead birds with
which to decorate masks and hats.
I look at my family often with the awareness that death will
one day take me from them or them from me. My daughter, when she was growing
up, often told me how unusual our family was because her friends’ parents never
talked about death. My husband often says, ‘I’ll be dead by then.’ We don’t
pussy foot around the topic. My mother (93 yrs old) told me how relieved she
was that I would actually talk to her about her impending death. ‘No one else
will talk about it,’ she told me.
My father died from cancer when I was in my twenties, and that
hit me hard. I remember him saying to me, ‘I’m not afraid to die. I’ve led a
good life. I know where I’m going.’ As a Christian who lived by the words of
Jesus, he had no reason to fear. He was a genuinely good person.
I’m not afraid of death, either. I never believed the
Tibetan Buddhist stuff about bardos and ending up in lotus flowers for
centuries if you didn’t realise you were in one! And being released into a pure
realm if you did realise. Sheesh who needs that kind of pressure to remember
all that shit when you’re dying – don’t look at the dim lights or you’ll end up
as a pig! Apparently Tibetans fear death more than any other race. And it’s no
wonder. I’d be scared, too, if I really thought I’d be facing terrifying beings
in the bardos.
I prefer the near death
experience idea of ‘rapid
movement toward and/or sudden immersion in a powerful light or being of light’ accompanied
by ‘an intense feeling of unconditional
love and acceptance.’ Not only does it seem ‘right’ to me, but also
the characteristics of near death experiences have been formed from research,
not just because a ‘master’ says so.
Since any idea of death that
isn’t supported by research into people who have actually been dead is really only
a belief about death not a fact about it, you can believe the Tibetan version
or not. It’s a choice. If you’re Tibetan, it would be difficult to step outside
that Tibetan cultural perspective, of course, and near death experience research
indicates that people interpret what happens according to their beliefs. So if
you believe in the terror of the bardos, that’s what you’ll experience –
assuming there is some continuation of consciousness after death. I’m happy to
leave that question until I’m dead. I figure I’ll find out then, and until
then, the question is kind of irrelevant to me.
I figure that if we live a
good life and do our best to die in a good frame of mind, then if we do have
some continuation of consciousness, we’ll be in a good space for going forward,
and it there isn’t any continuation, then at least we will have died in peace.
What do us ex-Tibetan Buddhists we do when
This is a scary question for someone who had it all worked
out according to a tradition that they no longer believe in. If you figured
that you’d just do Guru Yoga at the time of death, and now you couldn’t
possibly do GY, what do you do?
You could follow the same idea but cut out the middle man. My
practice for a long time has essentially been merging my mind with the true
nature of reality every time I remember to do it. Another way to think of it is
turning my mind onto my own awareness or looking for the true nature of my awareness.
And that’s what I plan to do when I die.
Maybe you could think of merging your mind with that ‘being of light’ they talk
about in the near-death research. Same idea but without the bad associations.
Imagining yourself flying up into a being of light that is unconditionally
loving sounds like the kind of thing that will help you die in peace. It’s also
the kind of thing that will help you live your life in peace. No need for even
a buddha. I sometimes visualise a ball of light with all the enlightened beings
in it, all together. A kind of generic version of vajrayana. It’s great when
you’re feeling like shit. Just pop them in the sky and have them send a whole
lot of light down to fill you up. Anyway, it’s just a suggestion for
ex-vajrayana practitioners. For me it takes the essence and leaves the garbage
out of it.
Cultural perspectives on death
And then there’s the Rigpa flying circus and the homages. We’ve
talked about those issues before, but it seems that a notable number of the
Tibetan lamas, despite their cultural programming, removed their homages or made
condolences rather than homages in deference to the outcry as to the inappropriateness
of whitewashing the crimes of someone just because they’re dead. The homages
were in stark contrast to the articles that appeared in the Western media that
spoke about both his ‘good’ works and his abuse of students.
Our ideas of what is and what isn’t appropriate at the time
of death depend on our cultural upbringing.
For instance, there were arguments as to whether the original image (similar to the one below) used for the last post was appropriate. I removed it because the author of the blog and others didn’t like it and I figured since it was her blog, she should decide what image should go with it. Others complained that it had been removed, because they thought it was the perfect image. There’s no right or wrong here. We just have different ideas, and they tend to reflect your background (for me this corpse is no different to all those dead animals I’ve seen.)
To put this into perspective, I did a bit of research on death customs, and I found that there are some really weird ones. The weirdest I found was those of the Malagasy people of Madagascar, who, in an effort to hasten decomposition — what’s seen as an crucial step in the ongoing process of getting the spirits of the dead into the afterlife —dig up the remains of their relatives, rewrap them in fresh cloth, then dance with the corpses around the tomb to live music. ‘The living family members then reflect with the bodies in their laps, pose for photos, and again dance with the bodies of those they’ve lost within the tomb -before putting them back to rest.’
Until recently, female members of the Dani tribe of Western Papa, New Guinea had a finger amputated each time an immediate family member died. The Yanomami, an Amazonian tribe who live in the jungles between Brazil and Venezuela eats their dead. They see the consumption of dead tribe members as a unity-strengthening act. The Rigpa flying circus is nothing on this lot!
Parades of the deceased so people can pay their respects are something seen in both the East and the West.
Though such funeral processions in the West are grand for kings, queens, prime ministers and presidents, they don’t exhibit the kind of bling seen in the East, just a simple flag-covered coffin on a carriage or in a Hurst.
In modern embalming, practised by many funeral homes, the blood is removed from the body through the veins and replaced by injection into the arteries with a mixture of formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, methanol, and other solvents. According to this article on different methods of corpse preservation, ‘Bodies embalmed in this manner have a shelf life of approximately 10 years’. Lenin was embalmed 145 years ago and ‘the Soviet founder’s corpse still maintains the look, feel, and flexibility of Lenin toward the end of his life. If anything, the body’s appearance has improved with age.’ No spiritual accomplishment involved there – unless Lenin was enlightened!
Long Live the King
As Wikipedia says ‘”The king is dead, long live the king!”, or
simply “long live the king!” is a
traditional proclamation made following the accession of a new monarch in various countries. The seemingly contradictory
phrase is used to simultaneously announce the death of the previous monarch and
assure the public of continuity by saluting the new monarch.’
Tibetan Buddhist practice
can continue seamlessly after the death of a master by adding the dead one to
one’s perception of the master that represents them all – i.e. Guru Rinpoche
for the Nyingmas – and by taking on a new master. Just replace the old with the
new and carry on. That kind of continuity is reassuring at a time when it might
feel, to the devoted, that their world is falling apart.
Those who still want a ‘master’
will be looking (if they haven’t already) for a new one. The questions for
those students are: Will you just swap one king for another? Will you continue
to play the master/servant game? And, is that a healthy relationship to be in?
And what of Rigpa? Who will take over Rigpa? Will the vision
board find a new king? Or will some narcissist rush in and save them from
making a decision by offering to take it on?
An opportunity for change.
Rigpa actually has a great opportunity here to make healthy changes.
They could be quite clear and say that they will no longer have any spiritual
advisors, that they will run Rigpa as a Western organisation without a king or
a council of kings. They could institute democracy where the members vote for
the vision board and have a real say in policies, and they could simply employ
teachers on a simple fee basis.
Even with a democratic structure, unless they voted out the ‘old
guard’, reject their fundamentalist views, and any new board denounces Sogyal’s
behaviour, it will make little difference.
For sure the time of kings and feudal structures is long gone in the West. We gave them up around 250 years ago around the time of the French revolution. Surely we can take the Buddha’s teachings to heart without having to step back a few centuries and take on the feudal baggage we outgrew here with the birth of the idea of human rights for all.
Rigpa has sent an email to their devotees sharing their plans ‘for the ceremonies that will be performed for Sogyal Rinpoche over the next few months’. These plans show a stark difference in cultural attitudes between Tibet and the West as to the respectful way to treat a corpse, and we can respect that. But Rigpa could have been culturally appropriate without the elaborate charade they have planned, and in their communications, they could have been respectful to those Sogyal abused rather than painting them as enemies.
Parading his corpse around as if he were an enlightened master just continues the lie that damaged so many and disillusioned many more. It’s nothing more than their usual manipulation of the faithful. The actions of a cult. They’re essentially repeating the ‘Rigpa party line’ in a big display, saying, ‘Sogyal is a great master; it was crazy wisdom, not abuse; the 8 and their supporters got it wrong. We can be safe in the knowledge that we are right; we can go on with our worship as if nothing happened. ‘
The anger arising now is not that of people clinging to anger about the abuse; it’s fresh anger arising from what Rigpa is saying by this display. Sel Verhoeven talks about this in this guest post.
First of all, I would like to say my heart is with anyone who is truly mourning the passing of Sogyal Rinpoche. It is a shattering experience to lose someone you love. If you are feeling very raw about this, you might not want to read this blog – even though it is not about Rinpoche’s passing away, but about what Rigpa is making out of it.
A man has died who has done a lot of bad and a lot of good. He still has thousands of devotees, but he has seriously harmed dozens of people and around a thousand students have left Rigpa, feeling completely disillusioned because their trust has been so badly broken.
What kind of a goodbye should be chosen? That is a difficult decision. Of course family and close ones should have the opportunity to say their goodbyes. And an opportunity for the devotees to pay their respects should be created. But, one would think that, given the circumstances, it would be wise (and compassionate to his victims) to try to keep it as small and discrete as possible.
Not Rigpa. No; let’s fly his body from Thailand to France, then to Bodhgaya in India, then to Sikkim and then to West-Sikkim on a 3 month tour:
Sogyal Rinpoche’s kudung will be taken firstly to the Buddhist temple of Wat Thong Nopakhun in Bangkok, Thailand. From 17th-22nd September [the temple] will be open to visitors daily between 5am-10pm. The kudung will then be taken to Lerab Ling in France where a private ceremony will be held for Sogyal Rinpoche’s family and community of close students. The kudung will remain at Lerab Ling from 24th-29th September, before being taken to India.
In India, Sogyal Rinpoche’s kudung will be taken to Bodhgaya, the seat of Buddha Shakyamuni’s enlightenment. The kudung will remain there for approximately one month, from 1st-31st October, at the Shechen Gompa. Lamas and monks from the Shechen Monastery and other Dharma communities will be invited to perform various practices and rituals in its presence.
From Bodhgaya, the kudung will be taken to Chorten Gompa, Kyabjé Dodrupchen Rinpoche’s monastery in Gangtok, Sikkim, where further practices will be performed by the Lamas and monks there throughout the month of November. Finally, the dungshyu (cremation ceremony) will take place on 2nd December at Tashiding in west Sikkim, a most sacred site and one of the Eight Great Charnel Grounds, blessed by Guru Rinpoche.’
In other words: let’s do as many ceremonies as we can over a 3 month period of time and let’s involve as many lama’s and monks as possible. Let’s just bombard everyone into believing he is a saint by making a flying circus out of it.
Turning the victim into the offender
Let’s look at this in terms of the DARVO technique commonly used by individuals and organisations when their unethical behaviour is exposed. (Deny it, Attack the whistle blower, and Reverse the Victim and Offender – make the abuser/offender appear to be the victim, and the victim appear to be the abuser/offender ). Again in the email they sent out:
‘But now that Rinpoche is deceased, we pray that, for the sake of his family, loved ones and close Dharma brothers and sisters, our plans to offer the traditional ceremonies and rituals will unfold peacefully and harmoniously. We simply ask, in all humility, for your respect and understanding at such a time.’
This would make you think that we (the community of victims of spiritual abuse, their supporters, and advocates for ethical behaviour) are a bunch of barbarians that would try to bomb the temples where the ceremonies are being held. When all we have ever asked for is to stop the denial, to acknowledge the abuse, for Rigpa to take responsibility for its part in it, and if possible, for them to really apologize. (On a side note, humility is a trait I have never seen in Rigpa …)
Dismissing the abuse
They also write:
‘Sadly, unresolved controversies in Sogyal Rinpoche’s life have elicited strong feelings in many people.’
So abuse that has been confirmed by an independent investigation is now just an ‘unresolved controversy’. It sounds a whole lot better than abuse, doesn’t it?
I don’t think there will be any protest at any of the ceremonies that are to be held in the next three months. There is no need to protest against this charade, because any sensible person will see it as a cult-warning sign when someone accused of abuse is sent off in such a grandiose way. So let them have their flying circus.
As someone in the What Now group worded it:
‘Strange maybe, but I feel compassion for Sogyal’s dead body being dragged around for so many days, through so many countries. To me, that doesn’t sound respectful at all. And this ‘traveling circus’ is even worse than all the eulogies we’ve read on the Rigpa home page … it’s about officially, and with lots of pomp, promoting a lie to a ‘truth’ that will be spread for decades to come…’
What Now group member
The repercussions for Tibetan Buddhism
What saddens me most of all is that what started out as the harmful behaviour of one person and the denial and whitewashing of one cult-like group has now, through the endorsement of so many lamas (by way of writing homages and participating in ceremonies) and the remaining silence of so many other lamas, become a reason to seriously doubt all of Tibetan Buddhism.
It has a treasure to offer. But so much seems to be rotten that I’m not sure whether the treasure can be saved. A lot of Sogyal Rinpoche’s ex-students have left Tibetan Buddhism, and I can’t blame them. I’m ever so grateful for HHDL, Mingyur Rinpoche, Tsultrim Allione, Ato Rinpoche, Dagpo Rinpoche, Thubten Chodron, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, Matthieu Ricard, Namgay Dawa Rinpoche and Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo who have spoken up against the abuse*. That’s ten teachers that can be trusted. Unfortunately around twenty teachers have endorsed Sogyal Rinpoche’s behaviour and contributed to his aggrandisement by writing a homage for him. One of them, Ringu Tulku, even turns out to be the champ of reversing abuser/victim roles by writing that ‘some of his trusted students attacked him with most serious accusations’.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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 Telegraphthat 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. At first Rigpa placed it on its Homage page, but some of the Tergar students protested and Rigpa took it down. This is what he said:
In the past weeks I have been approached by many of Sogyal Rinpoche’s current and past students who have asked me to offer guidance for how to practice at this time.
I was saddened to hear of the passing away of Sogyal Rinpoche. I have known him for many years and have a close connection to many of his students. Of course all of life is subject to impermanence, but it is always a surprise when we lose someone we have known for a long time.
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.
Death reminds us that there is no certainty in life and calls to us to open our hearts wide enough to hold whatever arises. It is my personal wish that all of you, wherever you find yourselves, keep each other in your hearts at this time. You are in my heart and in my prayers. Please remember that regardless of whatever happens, the teachings of the Buddha are always completely reliable. This is the time for us to dedicate ourselves to the path. By practising the teachings that we have received, we can free ourselves from the bonds of duality and merge with the luminous nature that never dies.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.