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,Longchen Nyingtik Ngondro
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!’
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.
- Robinson, B.A. (25 July 2007). “Doomsday, destructive religious cults”. Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. Retrieved 18 November 2007.
- ^ 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.