The FPMT are managing this much better than Rigpa in that they admit what he has done and apologise. In the update of Nov 20th, they say, ‘We accept that, according to the standard applied by FaithTrust Institute, Dagri Rinpoche committed sexual misconduct, which also qualifies as spiritual abuse given his position as a spiritual teacher’, and at the end they say they ‘apologise again to the victims for the suffering experienced’. Rigpa couldn’t even manage that much.
In October, 2019 the FPMT Board hired FaithTrust Institute (FTI) to conduct an independent fact-finding assessment of allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of Dagri Rinpoche. A confidential mailbox was set up so anyone who experienced or witnessed harm by Dagri Rinpoche could make a report.
· On Sept. 19, 2020, FaithTrust delivered to the FPMT Board the final report of their almost year-long assessment, and the FPMT Board promised to publish the FaithTrust summary report within 30 days (i.e. by Oct. 19).
· That date came and went without any report being published. We learned that the FPMT Board planned to publish their report on Nov. 6, but that plan was reversed at the last minute, with no explanation given.
· Between Nov. 6-12, the majority of the members of the FPMT Board resigned.
· On Nov. 13, the FPMT Board posted an update on their website about the findings of the assessment, and stating “we accept that, according to the standard applied by FaithTrust Institute, Dagri Rinpoche committed sexual misconduct, which also qualifies as spiritual abuse given his position as a spiritual teacher. We have unanimously determined that the temporary suspension of Dagri Rinpoche from the list of registered FPMT teachers (from which FPMT centers can choose to invite to provide Dharma teachings) is now permanent.”
We wish to reiterate that our motivation for this petition and campaign was not to damage the reputation of Dagri Rinpoche or any other Lama, nor to interfere with the virtuous activities of the FPMT. On the contrary, we wish to create the causes and conditions for the Buddha-Dharma to flourish throughout the world and benefit as many people as possible. But in this degenerate age when people are losing faith in leaders and in social and religious institutions, it is of great importance to reaffirm personal and institutional integrity. Without this, trust disintegrates and ethical conduct drastically declines. In addition, the loss of trust in spiritual leaders will damage Buddhist followers for many lifetimes.
And just to be clear: the report of the women’s allegations mentioned above was not written by us, but by the women themselves, together with the Advocacy Group, whose names appear at the end of the letter.
We are pleased that the FPMT Board conducted an impartial independent investigation as we requested. We are also pleased that after this investigation, it has accepted the truth of the allegations, acknowledged that Dagri Rinpoche’s behavior towards these women constituted both sexual misconduct and spiritual abuse, and clearly stated that such behavior is unacceptable. We request the FPMT to now fulfill its commitment and publish the complete and unedited summary report prepared by Faith Trust.
In our last announcement on November 13, we stated we would publish “a summary report on the fact-finding assessment” into the claims of misconduct by Dagri Rinpoche “after we complete our remaining work with FaithTrust Institute.”
We received a DRAFT of the Summary Report last month (October 2020), and we had hoped and expected to have the opportunity to contribute to the draft with FaithTrust Institute (FTI). However, FTI has recently informed us that they consider their work for FPMT Inc. to be completed.
Therefore, as we had committed and in a spirit of complete and utter transparency, FPMT Inc. is releasing the complete, unedited draft of FTI’s Summary Report to you now.
It is essential to note that FPMT does not agree with some of the points included by FTI in their Draft Summary Report.
We will be providing a further update explaining and clarifying our main concerns about this Summary Report. These comments will in no way call into question all that we acknowledged in our previous statement. We will also update about the work we are already doing, and still need to do, to fulfil the recommendations.
We want to take this opportunity to apologise again to the victims for the suffering experienced.
This is a topic we all know a lot about, yes? But it’s great to see Inform have a seminar on the issue.
The video below is a recording of the Inform seminar on: ‘Sexual Abuse framed by Faith or Belief – Exploring boundaries and contexts’ held on Wednesday 22 July 2020 7-8:30pm BST. The seminar considered the issue of sexual abuse occurring within religious contexts in hopes of identifying new ways of considering the problem and potential ways of mitigating harm.
See below the video for information about the content and speakers, but our Beyond the Temple friends Damcho and Mary participated in the seminar, so you may like to listen to their part if not the whole thing.
Michelle Tonkin/Damcho begins speaking towards the end of the 33rd minute, and Mary Finnigan starts speaking towards the end of the 42nd minute. Eileen Barker responds at 59:25.
If you are looking for other kinds of support or help in a different geographical area, Inform may be able to point you in the direction of other support organisations. Send them an email at Inform@kcl.ac.uk and see www.inform.ac for more information.
Many of the cults and new religious movements of the 1970s were assumed to be awash with abusive behaviour. However, high profile cases of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church have highlighted the pervasive potential of religious groups to be affected by behaviour understood as sexual abuse. This is a problem not confined to any particular religious context. The dynamics of sexual exploitation of minors have now been well explored and safeguarding frameworks are becoming more standard. Are there lessons that can be learned from working with children which can be applied to situations involving adults?
In many cases abuse appears to be incidental to the theological and ethical frameworks; in other cases, the sexual activity has explicit justification within a belief framework that is later framed as abuse by outsiders or ‘survivors.’ Does the framing of the behaviour make a difference for understanding the harm caused? To what extent are concepts like ‘spiritual abuse’, ‘fraud’ or ‘moral injury’ helpful in understanding the dynamics of adult sexual abuse in religious contexts?
Speakers and respondents
*Eileen Barker, professor emeritus of sociology with special reference to the study of religion, London School of Economics *Leethen Bartholomew, head of the National FGM Centre at Barnardo’s *Mary Finnigan, journalist and broadcaster – co-author with Rob Hogendoorn of Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism – the Rise and Fall of Sogyal Rinpoche. *Amanda Lucia, associate professor, University of California-Riverside, USA *Gordon Lynch, Michael Ramsey professor of modern theology at the University of Kent *Lisa Oakley, associate professor of applied psychology at University of Chester and chair of National Working Group for child abuse linked to faith or belief *Michelle Tonkin, Rigpa whistle-blower and former Buddhist nun *Theo Wildcroft, visiting fellow, The Open University and alt-ac.uk *Belinda Winder, professor of Forensic Psychology at the specialist sexual crime unit at Nottingham Trent University *Linda Woodhead, distinguished professor, department of politics, philosophy and religion, University of Lancaster
The event is, perhaps aptly, called ‘Minding our own business’.
It’s a relevant question for us: why do we, who stepped away from Rigpa, still mind Rigpa’s business? Why not let them do their thing and get on with our lives?
The answer is simple: because Rigpa is still passing on the harmful beliefs that enabled the abuse that took place during decades in Rigpa. That’s the bottom line. If your belief is harmless and only concerns yourself, there’s no problem. However, if it could harm or endanger others, then there is a big problem.
How is it that Patrick Gaffney is teaching again? He – or Rigpa for that matter – never expressed any apologies for covering up the abuse. Nor did he or Rigpa International show any sign of understanding that covering it up was wrong. As far as I’m aware, Patrick never said something like: ‘I realise now that I have harmed people by letting Rinpoche carry on with his abusive behaviour, even though I was aware of it – multiple times people came up to me and shared their experiences and concerns and sometimes I was present while the abuse took place. I was blinded by the belief in a ‘perfect’ teacher. I now realise that real harm has happened and that I have dodged my responsibility – not only as a Buddhist, but as a human being – to care for and protect my fellow human beings.’
No. He has not done that.
And yet he teaches Buddhism, a religion that has the doctrine of non-harming at its core.
The finding of the Charity Commission for England and Wales
The Charity Commission for England and Wales found that, “Mr Gaffney had knowledge of instances and allegations of improper acts and sexual and physical abuse against students at the charity. Mr Gaffney failed to take appropriate action in response to this information and is therefore responsible for misconduct and/or mismanagement in the administration of the charity.”
As a consequence, Patrick Gaffney has been disqualified from being a trustee or senior manager of any charity in England and Wales.
The Lewis-Silkin report’s findings and recommendations
The Lewis-Silkin report on the abuse mentions Patrick’s name (‘witness P.’) over a hundred times. Pages 25, 36, 43, and 45 give a good impression of his role in relation to Sogyal Rinpoche’s abuse. Here Karen Baxter, who conducted the research, speaks of manipulation of students, telling others that complainants should not be believed and pro-active covering up by Patrick.
The Lewis-Silkin report recommends, among other things:
“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”
Rigpa’s highest leadership role
In Rigpa the most senior role is that of teacher. By continuing to have Patrick Gaffney in such a high profile position – as one of the organisation’s main teachers – Rigpa is ignoring the Lewis Silkin report’s recommendations. This is despite a statement at the very top of the ‘Moving Forward’ page on the Rigpa website that says, ‘We acknowledge the gravity of the independent report and have committed to act on its recommendations.’ This, and the rest of the words on the page, suggest that they are following the recommendations, but Rigpa is clearly saying one thing and doing another.
Patrick Gaffney taking a teaching role in Rigpa seems like a complete denial of the seriousness and extremity of the abuse that took place. It is hard to take seriously their stated desire for ‘learning’, ‘healing’ and ‘reconciliation’ when there is such a blatant disregard for the report’s very-well-considered recommendations.
Another nail in the coffin of restorative justice
A few months ago, someone from Rigpa contacted Karen Baxter of Lewis Silkin, who did the independent investigation into Sogyal Rinpoche’s abuse and wrote the report, and asked her to invite all those who participated in the investigation to participate in a Restorative Justice program.
‘Restorative Justice is a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behaviour.’ Sogyal Rinpoche is dead and so cannot repair the harm he did to his victims, but Patrick and the other senior Rigpa people mentioned in the Lewis Silkin Report as actively covering up the abuse are still alive. But they and Rigpa international have never admitted their and Sogyal Rinpoche’s criminal behaviour.
Requesting our participation in a program based on repairing the damage done by a crime without admitting that any crime occurred heaped further hurt on Sogyal Rinpoche’s victims. It appeared that – like with most of Rigpa’s actions since Sogyal Rinpoche’s abuse was revealed – the initiative was designed merely to make them look good. Patrick Gaffney’s teaching with blatant disregard for the LS report’s recommendations that Rigpa professes to be ‘implementing’ is a further insult. Especially with the chosen title suggesting that people (who might be inclined to comment) ‘mind their own business’.
A restorative justice program aims to get offenders to take responsibility for their actions, to understand the harm they have caused, to give them an opportunity to redeem themselves and to discourage them from causing further harm. For victims, its goal is to give them an active role in the process and to reduce feelings of anxiety and powerlessness.
There can be no restorative justice without admission that a crime has been committed or while Patrick Gaffney or any of the others implicated in the cover up of Sogyal Rinpoche’s abuse has a teaching role in Rigpa.
Minding our own business
Some of the What Now? group wrote a letter to the Vision Board explaining all this. Fifteen (mostly ex-) Rigpa members signed it. The problem in getting more signatures wasn’t finding people who agreed with the content of the letter, it was finding co-signers who wanted to engage with Rigpa. Most people now have come to the conclusion that Rigpa isn’t really listening and isn’t really changing, and so it’s futile to engage with them anymore. People are stepping back.
The only thing left for us to do is warn others to stay away from Rigpa.
So now we’ll mind our own business again…until Rigpa’s unfinished business needs calling out again.
What brought this community together back in July of 2017 [under the name of What Now?] was our search for the truth about Sogyal Rinpoche/Lakar and his organisation, Rigpa. So it seems fitting that my first post after a period of silence is on the topic of truth, albeit in a more general application. Anyone who uses the internet has likely been touched by the avalanche of misinformation, outright lies and conspiracy theories, so much of this post won’t be news to you, but I have included copious links to some excellent articles that are well worth a read if you want the full grubby picture.
You may have noticed that the manipulation of people through the distortion of truth that we’re seeing in the world, particularly in the USA, is eerily similar to how we were manipulated in our cults. Scary shit, indeed. I’d love to hear in the comments how you handle this pandemic of misinformationand any experiences you have to share on the topic.
Given the amount of misinformation around, how do we know what’s true?
The proliferation of misinformation and people’s willingness to believe outright lies and unfounded theories is a major problem of our time. People no longer know what’s true. They don’t know what or who to believe, and when voters don’t know what’s true and politicians are manipulating them to further their own agendas, our democracies are severely compromised. So how do we know what’s true?
Social media is the tool for spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories. Misinformation can be propagated in all innocence by ordinary people, less innocently by people with a personal agenda, knowingly by those seeking power and influence over others, and even by a new breed of PR and marketing firms ‘ready to deploy fake accounts, false narratives, and pseudo news websites for the right price’. The result is the widespread, targeted manipulation of public opinion.
That’s us. You and me. Do you want to be manipulated? Do you like being manipulated?
Just like you were in your Tibetan Buddhist cult.
‘If disinformation in 2016 was characterized by Macedonian spammers pushing pro-Trump fake news and Russian trolls running rampant on platforms, 2020 is shaping up to be the year communications pros for hire provide sophisticated online propaganda operations to anyone willing to pay. Around the globe, politicians, parties, governments, and other clients hire what is known in the industry as “black PR” firms to spread lies and manipulate online discourse.’
The Buzzfeed article quoted above is vital but scary reading, not only because of the software that aims to manipulate people, but also because of the complete lack of morals of the people who create, sell and run the programs.
Even if we’re not being outright lied to as blatantly as Trump does it, our politicians are all involved in marketing and hire PR firms to run their social media campaigns . And what are marketing campaigns if not a way to manipulate people’s emotions such that they buy something we want them to buy—or vote for someone we want them to vote for? All marketing is selective in what they show the viewer and in how they present it.
Just like Rigpa, NKT and Shambala. They presented us with only the side of their gurus that they wanted us to see. Sogyal never missed a photo opportunity with HH Dalia Lama to help give him legitimacy. Perception can be skewed without outright lies. It can be done merely by cutting what doesn’t fit the narrative. It all depends on how you edit that clip!
Are the lies that bad?
Yes, they are. Trump, for instance, is gaslighting on such a scale that whole sections of the population subscribe to an alternate view of reality, even to the extent that they lose touch with reality.
‘There were days when I would watch, live on TV, an impeachment hearing filled with damning testimony about the president’s conduct, only to look at my phone later and find a slickly edited video—served up by the Trump campaign—that used out-of-context clips to recast the same testimony as an exoneration. Wait, I caught myself wondering more than once, is that what happened today?
‘As I swiped at my phone, a stream of pro-Trump propaganda filled the screen … I was surprised by the effect it had on me. I’d assumed that my skepticism and media literacy would inoculate me against such distortions. But I soon found myself reflexively questioning every headline. It wasn’t that I believed Trump and his boosters were telling the truth. It was that, in this state of heightened suspicion, truth itself—about Ukraine, impeachment, or anything else—felt more and more difficult to locate. With each swipe, the notion of observable reality drifted further out of reach.’
Reality drifting out of reach is the result of gaslighting. And we, as ex-Rigpa cult members, have experienced gaslighting ourselves. We saw Rigpa’s guru abusing someone, then that person stood up before us and declared that it wasn’t abuse at all, but love. That was then reinforced by instructors and by the guru himself in subsequent teaching sessions. No, we were told, that wasn’t abuse, that was teaching through ‘crazy wisdom,’ an expression of great wisdom love. And we believed it. We trained ourselves to see it as love, not abuse, until such time as the full extent of the harm Sogyal was causing came crashing down on us and we woke up.
What will wake up those in Trump’s cult?
Coppins continues: ‘What I was seeing was a strategy that has been deployed by illiberal political leaders around the world. Rather than shutting down dissenting voices, these leaders have learned to harness the democratizing power of social media for their own purposes—jamming the signals, sowing confusion. They no longer need to silence the dissident shouting in the streets; they can use a megaphone to drown him out. Scholars have a name for this: censorship through noise.’
We saw this in Rigpa, too, in the way they communicated, stating the party line at every opportunity and in every email and video so that those who pointed out an alternative view of events were simply drowned out. How can those who only listen to Rigpa’s version of events know what is actually true?
“Obviously the formula that they used in 2016 is something they’re going to try to duplicate in 2020, which is really the tactic of using social media to try to distort the truth and mislead the American people and con themselves back into the White House. “That’s part of the reason why he [Brad Parscale] was made the campaign manager. It shows how much of a priority their misinformation digital strategy is to the re-election campaign.”
Donald Trump refers to the journalistic sources that I trust—ones that have long had integrity and a name for quality journalism and writing the truth—as spreaders of ‘fake news’. The New Yorker, the Atlantic and the Washington Post are his targets because they publish the truth, and the truth threatens Trumps lies – just as the truth about Sogyal threatens Rigpa’s angle on events.
Trumpism is a cult. His followers act like people in cults do. They believe whatever he says.
This double twist is like the bully at school declaring that his victim actually bullied him. ‘It wasn’t me, Miss,’ they used to tell me. Referring to the victim they’d say, ‘He bullied me.’ They tried to make me believe that they were the victim not the perpetrator. It’s the DARVO response: Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender. Trump declares that it’s not him that’s lying, but those who tell the truth.
No wonder people are confused.
Doctored images and the algorithms that spread them.
And you can’t even trust the images you see, not only in photographs but also in videos. You Tube is responsible for the spread of a lot of misinformation and conspiracy theories.
‘Fabricated videos will create new and understandable suspicions about everything we watch. Politicians and publicists will exploit those doubts. When captured in a moment of wrongdoing, a culprit will simply declare the visual evidence a malicious concoction.’
We are presently experiencing not only a pandemic of covid-19, but also a pandemic of conspiracy theories about it.
‘As the coronavirus pandemic has unfolded, conspiracy theories about the origins, threat and basic nature of the virus have become an increasingly visible and consequential element of the timeline. Conspiracy theories have tangible consequences for individuals and society, especially when they are sanctioned by trusted members of society, such as political, business and religious leaders. They can decrease people’s willingness to get vaccinated or comply with social distancing directives; they can also negatively impact people’s view of scientific findings and political out-groups. That means a pandemic is an especially dangerous time for conspiracy theories.’
When some of my Facebook friends started sharing conspiracy theories as if they were truth, I re-evaluated who I considered a friend and pruned by friend list accordingly. Like cult members, you can’t convince someone who subscribes to a conspiracy theory that your sources of ‘truth’ are the truth, as they don’t trust your sources and you don’t trust theirs.
I admire those who can patiently engage with those who have fallen prey to misinformation, gaslighting or brainwashing and gently try to direct them towards the truth. Truth as in what actually happened or is happening before one right now—when viewed without the overlay of beliefs. Despite the viewer of any phenomena playing a role in how something manifests, events still do either happen or not happen. Facts are either verified by qualified people or not. Repeating a lie enough times does not make it true.
We can dismiss conspiracy theorists, but when they grow in numbers until they are a sizable portion of the voting public, then we’re in trouble. And we’re in double trouble when those in power feed the tendency, as we’re seeing in the USA today.
James P. Pfiffner (a university professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University) wrote a paper titled The Lies of Donald Trump: A Taxonomy published on SSRN (an online database of early scholarly research) concluded that Trump’s lies are ‘detrimental to the democratic process, and that his continued adherence to demonstrably false statements undermined enlightenment epistemology and corroded the premises of liberal democracy.’
Knowing what’s true isn’t only vital for our own mental health, it’s also vitally important for the health of our societies and our democracies. Trump’s [illogical] logic is one followed by those most vulnerable to believing lies, fake news and misinformation. According to James P. Pfiffner, it goes like this:
Trump makes a false statement.
His followers believe it, and others hear it from a source credible to them.
When asked how he could make a claim with no evidence, Trump says “a lot of people agree” or “many people are saying.”
Trump’s logic: He makes a false claim; people believe him; Trump concludes it is true.
Trump isn’t the only one who thinks like this.
What can we do? Media literacy – methods for uncovering the lies
So what do we do when almost everything we read online (particularly social media) could be misinformation? We have to become aware of how we’re being manipulated, find out the truth and champion it. Just what we did with our TB groups.
We have to uncover the lies and make sure we don’t spread them. And for that we need to become media literate.
The following guide to uncovering fake news and misinformation is from the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions. It’s from a pdf you can download and print and pin on the wall for you and your family to refer to.
CONSIDER THE SOURCE: Click away from the story to investigate the site, its mission and its contact info.
READ BEYOND: Headlines can be outrageous in an effort to get clicks. What’s the whole story?
CHECK THE AUTHOR: Do a quick search on the author. Are they credible? Are they real? Do they have an agenda?
SUPPORTING SOURCES? Click on those links. Determine if the info given actually supports the story.
CHECK THE DATE: Reposting old news stories doesn’t mean they’re relevant to current events.
IS IT A JOKE? If it is too outlandish, it might be satire. Research the site and author to be sure.
CHECK YOUR BIASES: Consider if your own beliefs could affect your judgement.
ASK THE EXPERTS: Consult a fact-checking site – and check the site is legit.
I also recommend reading this detailed article on how to fight lies, tricks and chaos online by Adi Robertson on The Verge. His initial warning is something to take particular note of: ‘If a story grabs your attention for any reason, slow down and look closer.’ The very things that make you want to respond in horror and share immediately are the posts of which you need to be most cautious. The warning signs according to Robertson are:
You have a strong emotional reaction
A story seems totally ridiculous — or perfectly confirms your beliefs
You’re going to spend money because of it
You immediately want to amplify the story
Social media algorithms for what a media platform presents to you are all based on engagement. The more engagement a post gets, the more it gets shared, not just by people, but by the media platform itself. Those suggested videos in You Tube are the ones that cause the most ruckus. They are the ones that get lots of comments, get viewed a lot and get shared a lot, but the algorithms in all social media platforms do not ascertain whether or not the engagement is positive or negative. A video with thousands of comments saying that the video has no basis in fact will still be favoured in an algorithm that pushes what gets the most engagement. So if you have a strong reaction to a post, likely many others have had as well, and you may be seeing it simply because it is controversial, not because it’s true.
And don’t forget to check if what you’re reading on Facebook is a ‘sponsored post’. A sponsored post is an advert. It’s a legitimate business tool, but it can also be used by anyone seeking to manipulate you for their own agenda – be particularly wary of political advertising. Remember that they only show you what they want you to see.
When your mind reels from all the nonsense
When I used an Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) article to back up something I said on Facebook, and a Facebook ‘friend’ told me that she didn’t see the ABC as a reputable news source, I was flabbergasted. What had she been reading? The ABC is the gold standard for news reporting in Australia. They don’t go in for sensationalism and they’re not privately owned nor under the control of the government. And their fact-checking service is excellent. I wondered who she’d list as a reputable source? Perhaps The Australian, Rupert Murdoch’s flagship newspaper? A paper known to have spread misinformation during the Australian Bushfires. (No, the majority of the fires were not started by arsonists!)
How can you know what’s true when the sources you use to tell you the truth are actually telling you lies? What if the one that you think is telling lies is actually telling the truth? My head hurts just thinking about it.
At times like these, I look out the window, clear my mind of its conceptual and emotional filters and tune into reality as it actually is. Here. Now.
That little trick keeps me sane. It clears away the bullshit and grounds me in reality. [And I have to thank my many years of Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice for that skill.]
Rigpa is not a reliable organisation from which to learn Buddhadharma, not if it’s your sole source of tuition and not if you believe everything your teachers say without examination or question. Yes, I learned meditation from Rigpa, and yes, I learned a great deal of authentic Buddhadharma, but I also studied many of the original texts and gained most of my subtle understanding from them. Rigpa only provided the basics and an understanding of the nine yanas, a framework into which I could ‘slot’ the other teachings I studied.
The big curriculum issue
The big lack in the Rigpa curriculum was that it was completely devoid of Madyamika, the teachings on the ’empty’ nature of reality that you really need to not only understand but also have some experience of before you begin vajrayana. And yet, vajrayana was practised (with very few and very light weight teachings on what you were supposed to be doing) by anyone after they’d been studying the preliminaries for a couple of years.
I assumed that at least the senior instructors would have this understanding, but after Ian Maxwell died, I rarely found anyone who could satisfactorily answer my questions on either study or practice at the vajrayana level. I had to find my answers elsewhere.
When some of the madyamika teachings appeared for the Dzogchen Mandala, they were highly inadequate, and yet kept ‘secret’ for the Dzogchen Mandala only, yet the study was nothing more than a summary; one could learn more from reading any one of the many books available on the subject.
Why did I study with Rigpa and Sogyal, then? Convenience. They had a solid presence in Australia where we lack the choices of teachers available in other parts of the world. They made the teachings available to me. And I found Sogyal’s teachings inspiring back when it was all new to me. That faded well before the letter written by eight students exposed his abuse.
I am extremely grateful for my wall of dharma books!
I requested an update on the curriculum from Rigpa Australia, hoping that they had rectified this issue, but they ignored my request.
Even at a beginner level you can’t be sure
At a beginner level where you’re just learning basic meditation, Rigpa tuition should be fine – after all, it’s just meditation, right? But you might be being taught to spiritually bypass the very issues you should be looking at in order to be a mentally healthy person. This depends on the instructor, of course. But when I was an instructor, I didn’t know about spiritual bypassing, and yes, I did it in my own practice and I taught it, following what I had learned in Rigpa.
Might this have changed? Might the instructors that remain in Rigpa have become aware of it such that they know how to safeguard against students misunderstanding meditation in this way? Unfortunately, because those still in Rigpa appear to be uninterested in re-evaluating anything in terms of their beliefs and teachings, it’s highly unlikely. I suspect that, like me before I started investigating cult tactics, many have still never heard the term. Unless they have followed this blog or read Fallout: Recovering from Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism. Indications are, however, that rather than use this blog as a way of understanding the perspective of those who have left Rigpa in disgust, most of those who remain in Rigpa choose to ignore the blog’s existence.
And when it comes to compassion? Well, those of us who have been treated with disdain or barely veiled hatred, even by Rigpa instructors , who have had our attempts to communicate consistently ignored, been misrepresented and even vilified as demons know that even though some may speak all the right words when it comes to the compassion teachings, they cannot actually practice compassion in life. Those making the decisions in the organisation have consistently shown an inability to behave in a compassionate way towards victims of abuse and institutional betrayal.
Management’s latest indication of this lack of ability to connect with those they and Sogyal harmed is them setting up a restorative justice process ( a theory of justice that emphasises repairing the harm caused by criminal behaviour) without consultation with those Sogyal abused (to see if they would welcome this or see any point in it) and with the perpetrator dead, and without having admitted that any crime was committed.
You might say that at least they are trying to do something towards genuine healing, but considering that the lawyers they’ve engaged to undertake this restorative justice will require payment – and lawyers don’t come cheap – I feel that money would be better spent following recommendation 10 in the Lewis Silken Report on the independent investigation, which says, ‘So far as is consistent with the wider financial responsibilities of Rigpa, a fund should be created to provide professional counselling to those affected by abuse.’ Given the way the whistleblowers and their supporters have been treated by Rigpa people, I feel that this latest move is more about making them look good than any genuine attempt to hear what we’ve been trying to tell them for a couple of years.
The abuse issue hasn’t died with Sogyal
As long as Rigpa management, lineage holders, teachers and instructors don’t recognise and admit that Sogyal committed crimes, and for so long as they think that ‘crazy wisdom’ as modelled by Sogyal is acceptable behaviour, there is a danger that those most abused will become abusers.
Those who take charge after the death or removal of the abuser may not be as bad as their abuser – we would hope – but a friend of mine who did sewing at the annual Myall Lakes retreat had a boss who used to scream at her for no apparent reason, every year. Every year my friend told me about it and about how she never wanted to work with this woman again, but every year she came back and did it again. Why? She considered that it was up to her to learn to handle it, that being able to put up with it would be a mark of spiritual achievement.
That’s the dysfunction in Rigpa that had everyone putting up with Sogyal’s abuse, and until they recognise how that idea has been used as a reason for people in power not to moderate their worst impulses, that dysfunction will remain.
Emulating one’s teacher
We were taught that a good student comes to know their teacher’s wisdom mind and that, in order to facilitate that development, we should try to think/be like him. I have read in a Tibetan Buddhist text somewhere (The Words of my Perfect Teacher I think) that realised students emulate their teacher, so those who believe every word they read without examination and who still believe that Sogyal was genuinely a Mahasiddha will supposedly be aiming to emulate him – even if they don’t admit it, since beliefs direct people’s behaviour even if they aren’t aware of it. This idea that one should emulate one’s teacher is alone a good reason for ending the lineage.
Do they really understand the teachings?
In section 2 of my book Fallout: Recovering from Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism – a fully referenced section drawing on the work of respected scholars and masters – I explore the misunderstanding and misuse of Buddhist beliefs that enabled the abuse in Rigpa. Widespread misunderstanding of the most subtle aspects of certain teachings at the highest level is at the core of Rigpa’s inability to admit that Sogyal committed crimes or even actually did wrong (apart from Rigpa Australia whose representative did publicly admit that Sogyal did wrong), and this impedes any possibility of genuine change. Unless management and instructors examine these beliefs using their critical thinking faculties, they will remain stuck right where they were when Sogyal was alive, and all they have done in their Rigpa Moving Forward will remain as nothing more than window dressing.
Those who misunderstood the teachings such that they saw nothing wrong with Sogyal’s behaviour will pass on their misunderstandings. So Rigpa is a lineage with misunderstanding of the teachings and dysfunctional behaviour at its core. What better reason is there for ending this lineage?
Unfortunately, however, it continues, with those who were most abused and most responsible for the enabling and cover up still running the show. The three most responsible have stepped aside from management roles, yes, but PG is teaching, and PP appears in many Rigpa photo opportunities right at the heart of things. The majority of those in the Vision Board were also complicit in the cover up, as well as at least some of those teaching at national levels
Who is checking their understanding? Their spiritual advisers all seem to think that beating increases wisdom. Now the abused who think they were blessed not abused become the teachers, since those who recognised the abuse as abuse have surely left.
The core of healing is confession
Another indication that they don’t actually understand the teachings, or at least don’t practice them is that the healing practice of Vajrasattva that we accumulate 100,000 recitations of as part of the vajrayana preliminaries (ngondro) is quite clear on what is needed for healing. They call them the four powers. This is from the Rigpa Wiki (an excellent resource btw) on these four powers.
O Maitreya, bodhisattva mahāsattva, if you possess four factors, you will overcome harmful actions that have been committed and accumulated. What are these four? The action of total rejection, the action as remedy, the power of restoration, and the power of support.
The Noble Sutra of the Teaching on the Four Factors
The action of total rejection, also known as the power of regret, is recognising that you have done wrong, understanding that it was harmful and owning up to it. In other words, confession.
Confession (Tib. བཤགས་པ་, shakpa, Wyl.bshags pa) — the process of admitting or ‘exposing’ one’s misdeeds before a witness or support, feeling regret for them and vowing not to repeat them in future.
And yet, Rigpa communications to their sangha speak of healing without having either admitting their misdeeds, shown any indication that they feel regret for anything other than the damage done to their reputation by those misdeeds being publicly exposed, or that they vow not to repeat them in future. They have made half-hearted attempts to sound sorry and say they will do better, but you can hardly vow not to repeat harmful actions if you don’t recognise exactly what you did wrong.
Rigpa teachers and instructors taught this practice of Vajrasattva, but did they ever actually truly practise it? If so, how did they miss this vital point? And if they did get this point, then why do they not apply it as their guide in life? Isn’t the point of studying Buddhadharma and practising meditation that we live it? Isn’t it reasonable to expect that a ‘spiritual’ organisation would behave in accordance with what they teach?
I know that some Rigpa people feel that I have done a lot of damage by saying these kinds of things and they feel hurt by my behaviour. They feel that I have turned against them – and I understand that it looks that way – but actually I only bother to spend time to write this kind of thing because I care. I care that they actually practice in life the dharma they are supposed to be teaching. To not do that, to not live what you preach, is a tragedy.
I am aware of the upset this kind of thing will cause, but I do it in order to wake Rigpa people up. They have ignored or sidelined my attempts to speak to them on these matters – as you’d expect from cult members – and that leaves me only this way to try to help clean out the rot that infests the organisation. My criticisms are a direct result of Rigpa management’s failure to genuinely communicate. They speak of reaching out, but no one from Rigpa has contacted me or followed up on my efforts to communicate with them. They speak of listening, but they do not hear.
Rigpa can rise from its ashes, but healing can only happen if they recognise and confess their negative actions, and I don’t think they can recognise those actions on their own. Rigpa needs members of the What Now group to help heal Rigpa. We don’t need them to help heal us. We healed each other, and how we did it, and what we, as a group, came to understand is all laid out in Fallout. If they can’t manage to read that book with an open mind and a willingness to reflect on what it contains, then we can’t help them.
I find it helpful to remember that likely all Rigpa and many ex-Rigpa students share a concern for the future of Tibetan Buddhism in the West. The letter exposing Sogyal’s crimes would never have been written without that concern. What connects us is stronger than what divides us.
Without a concerted effort to act in accordance with the Buddha’s teachings and examine the beliefs that enabled the abuse, all of the factors I’ve spoken of above will remain and will be passed on, either consciously or unconsciously. All they will be doing is propagating their misunderstanding. This is why Sogyal’s lineage should not continue.
When you’ve become aware of the corruption in the religion you’ve followed for decades and moved on from it, what replaces the dictates of that religion for your spiritual study and practice? What comes after religion?
Tibetan Buddhism gave us a form to follow, one we thought we could trust until we discovered we’d been taken for a ride and all the pretty words we resonated with were ultimately being used as a way to capture slaves for a corrupt king. We had daily meditation practices to do that set our minds on a good track for the day, and those meditations had forms, even if only the simple one of starting with a motivation to benefit beings, practice without concepts, and at the end dedicate the practice to the benefit of all. We didn’t have to work anything out for ourselves, and if a practice didn’t suit us for some reason, we did it anyway, or tried our best.
Tibetan Buddhism appeals to people with a deep sense of spirituality, those who want to immerse themselves in the spiritual and mystical aspects of life as much as their lives allow, so how do such people move on in such a way that they continue to nurture that aspect of themselves? Some assume that we’re left with nothing, that we’ll simply flail about forever without a path and without anything to nurture our connection to our deepest self, but that’s not what’s happening.
The refugees from Tibetan Buddhism that I talk to in the Facebook groups What Now? and Beyond the Temple are much stronger than that. What I see are people forging their own paths and showing incredible joy in doing so. They are revelling in the freedom they’ve gained from leaving the religion. And their guiding light and constant spiritual practice is trusting and honouring their deepest nature.
‘Dwell with yourself as your own island, with yourself as your own refuge, take no other refuge. ‘
The Buddha, Mahāparinibbāna Sutta.
The point of all of Buddhism is to recognise your enlightened nature and remain in that awareness. We were told again and again that we can’t do that by following anything outside ourselves and that the ultimate teacher was within us, in the nature of our own mind. And yet everything in the religion kept us dependent on something outside ourselves. Now we are free of that, we can do exactly what we should have been doing all along – looking in to our own true nature. Taking our wisdom self as our refuge. That’s what we’re doing and it’s a very powerful practice.
What does trusting in your enlightened nature mean in your daily life?
It means different things to different people, of course, but for me it means turning my mind into my own awareness every time I remember and acting from that place. It means pausing before making decisions and checking in with my inner wisdom. I ask myself, is this the right thing to do? Or what do I need to know right now? Or why do I want this? Do I need it? And so on. Then I wait, looking for the next thought. I find that there’s a space and our of that space whatever comes is spot on what I need at that moment.
Times when I find it’s good to do this are:
At the beginning of the day to find out what’s most important to focus on for the day;
When someone pisses me off or I get strong emotions for any reason;
When I turn to social media;
When I want to buy something;
And pretty much anytime.
It also means following your interests and doing what makes your heart sing.
Following your interests
Being a Tibetan Buddhist took up a lot of our time, and now we have time to spare. People have found it really good to reconnect with the things we liked to do before we got caught in our respective cult. I’ve rediscovered yoga and finally taken a course in counselling – something I wanted to do when I was much younger. Others have gone back to making music or spending more time in their garden or in nature, but we do it now with more awareness – after all, many of us did spend decades practising meditation. Mindfulness kind of naturally came with the territory.
Something about those activities spoke to us then, and they speak to us again now. They nurture us on a deep level. We feel as if we’re reconnecting with a part of ourselves that we neglected while trying to conform to the Tibetan ideals of what a ‘good practitioner’ would look like. They may seem like superficial things to a TB ‘true believer’ but our interests can lead us towards our hearts in service of our best interests if we let them; if we do them consciously, with awareness.
A spontaneous desire to try Chakra Dance, for instance, could lead you to find out about the chakras according to the Indian system, and that could lead to you finding an alternative way into meditation, a way that does not catapult you back into the quagmire of pain you associate with Tibetan Buddhism. And we’re not likely to suddenly become so enamoured with the ‘system’ that we become a Hindu! Rather it becomes a tool in a new spiritual toolbox.
Sometimes when on social media, something someone shares may catch your eye; things that you would have ignored before, you now may be more willing to explore, just for the sake of curiosity. We’re more open to what’s on offer, more able to be spontaneous, even though we’re also more suspicious, more able to easily spot a potential charlatan. We have our eyes open now. Hopefully we have examined why we joined our cult and so can avoid falling into another one. We can dip in and out of anything that draws our interest, just to see where it takes us, and if we trust that following our interest in this way will lead us where we need to go, then it will.
Doing what makes your heart sing
It’s easy to make choices with our ordinary mind, our limited self, rather than our awakened Self, and if we didn’t manage to get familiar enough with meditation practice to be able to easily recognise that awakened Self, we could be lost as to how to connect with that part of ourselves. This is where the term ‘makes your heart sing’ can be helpful. Choosing activities and directions in life that make our heart sing is a way to bypass our thinking mind and connect with our deeper self. There’s something about the word ‘heart’ that speaks of deep nurturing and profound layers of being, so if we tune into that feeling of our heart singing, we’ll be going in the right direction for creating a life that nurtures our spirit.
I have lived my life according to what makes my heart sing, and it’s lead me to have a very interesting, creative and fulfilling life. For a time TB made my heart sing, but it had stopped doing that long before I decided to leave Sogyal and Rigpa. And I gave up too much of what did make my heart sing in order to fit myself into someone else’s idea of who I should be, so I stagnated within the religion. Now I’m back to following what makes my heart sing and it’s lead me via a round about route back to meditation, a meditation without the TB baggage. Meditation inspired by music, combined with dance and yoga and out of which is emerging a unique form suited just to myself. It was getting back to yoga, which makes my heart and my body sing a very happy song which set this in motion, and it’s not a static place that I’ve come to, not something to define and stick to, just another step along the path of my life.
Creativity has always been a kind of refuge for me, and I know others are the same. The hat and the mask are mine from my Tahlia’s Masks Etsy shop. The others just a couple of examples of the creativity in our community.
What makes your heart sing?
So let’s celebrate what makes our hearts sing. Here’s what some of the other members of the Beyond the Temple Community have been doing that makes their heart sing.
One joined a choir, another enjoys ‘doing nothing, watching my cat and learning from her. Learning from anything around me.’ Another told me they love ‘dancing, video editing, focusing on my work that I love so much. Writing, quilting, loving.’
Janet Trew is busy putting love out there with a book that encourages children to accept all kinds of differences in the world.
Another of our group has taken up dancing with ‘a beautiful bunch of women who make me laugh, keep me sane, and make my heart sing in a different way than I’m used to.’
Sandra Pawla spends time colouring in, and creates beautiful pictures that she shares with her social media contacts.
Another said: ‘Painting the Medicine Buddha Mandala gave me so much joy and peace.’
Another takes joy in cooking, even making a tiramisu yuletide log from scratch.
Mary sent me photos of her garden and said: ‘Why does gardening make my heart sing? Partly aesthetic, partly mother earth, partly trans dimensional. I guess a Taoist metaphor would work best – there’s everything you need to nourish your spirit in nature. I try of work with nature, rather than taming it. My gardens are largely intuitive – they happen as I go along rather than to plan.’
Michael is getting into photography again, along with the occasional bit of poetry, as well as eating good food and deepening his vlogging.
One response to this question that I really love is ‘I’m enjoying thinking! After having thought demonized and non-thought glorified for so long, I am enjoying the way some thoughts make my body tickle, other thoughts make me sense, some make me laugh. It is overall, really fun to just lay in bed and think!’
So in a nutshell, just trust that doing what makes your heart truly sing, such that you feel it in your heart, rather than doing what you think you should do will take you in the right direction for you as you are here and now. And if you do these things with your whole heart and awareness attuned, then they go far beyond a simple pastime.
Have a great new year everyone. I hope this post sets a good tone for 2020. I’m on holiday until the end of January, so don’t worry if you don’t hear from me for a while.
After being prompted by Joanne
McCarthy, a journalist for The Newcastle Herald,
Kathryn James, the chair of Rigpa Australia, recently publically gave the kinds
of statement that we’ve been wanting to hear from every Rigpa organisation.
McCarthy isn’t someone that can be put off with platitudes and deflections. She
won a Gold Walkley award, the most prestigious of the Walkley Awards for Australian journalism,
so her writing holds weight. She’s experienced in dealing with religious groups
and their methods of deflecting, minimising and covering up, due to her
reporting on child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, as well as other cult
and corruption issues, such as the pelvic
McCarthy did her
homework, interviewing several Australians and getting confirmation of what
they told her from a second source, so she knew exactly what to ask to push for
some kind of admission of the truth. She wrote three articles on Sogyal and
Rigpa for The Newcastle Herald
(Newcastle is the biggest city in the Hunter region where the Rigpa Australia national
retreats were held each year.) At least one of the articles (the first one) was
also published in The Canberra Times.
first article gave the general story of Sogyal’s abuses – nothing there we
don’t all know already – but she called Sogyal a ‘mindfulness’ guru, which is
not a designation Sogyal would ever have accepted, and it unfairly tarnishes
the mindfulness movement. I don’t know why she didn’t use the word ‘meditation’,
but perhaps it’s because mindfulness tends to be used as a secular word for
meditation as if interchangeable with it. For Buddhists, mindfulness is a
specific Shamata practice not an alternative term for meditation, which
encompasses a wider range of methods. And we know that Sogyal rarely taught on
the mindfulness practices. That aside however, she was careful to get her facts
second article is the one of most interest to those of us in the What Now? group, and contains the
content to which this article refers.
In this article Kathryn James showed a rare honesty by admitting that they had a way to go to fully implement the recommendations of the Lewis Silkin report. Mind you, the journalist already knew they hadn’t implemented them properly, so denying it would have been seen as lying – not a good look. Nevertheless, it was good to see someone speaking honestly about it. My own effort to get such an admission from Rigpa Australia via email received no reply!
third article, written after the Herald apparently received a cease and
desist order from Rigpa’s lawyer, spoke about the workers compensation claim made for one of Rigpa
Australia’s National Directors who had an emotional breakdown. The article
restricted itself to quotes on the matter from Rigpa Australia’s communications
with members. The suggestion was that Rigpa Australia, having lodged the claim,
accepted some level of responsibility for the man’s breakdown.
Report findings accepted
McCarthy asked James
some tricky questions that pushed James to admit (after discussing with the
Rigpa Australia management team how she should answer) that Sogyal had hit her
– McCarthy already knew this to be true – and that Rigpa Australia accepted the findings of the Lewis Silkin independent
report into Sogyal’s abuse.
Rigpa Australia accepts the allegations of abuse and the findings and recommendations of the Lewis Silkin Report.
Kathryn James, Rigpa Australia
In contrast, the Rigpa
Vision Board only said, ‘We acknowledge
the gravity of the independent report.’ By using that wording, the Rigpa Vision Board
never admitted that the report was a true account of Sogyal’s behaviour and
their cover up. So good on Rigpa Australia for actually accepting the findings.
That means that they agree that the contents of the Lewis Silkin report are
Finally, we have some honesty! Go Australia!
Mind you the wording of
her admission is problematic in that she said Rigpa Australia accepted the ‘allegations’ of abuse, not that they
accepted the truth of the allegations. Maybe their lawyer wanted to make sure
her admission didn’t open Rigpa up for a legal action, because her next
statement made it clear that they do accept that Sogyal abused people.
We believe this abuse was wrong.
Kathryn James, Rigpa Australia
Hallelujah! It’s a relief to have someone in a major role in Rigpa who
not only realises that what Sogyal did was wrong but also is prepared to say it
A real apology
Later in the second article, James shares a genuine apology
made in an email to the Rigpa Australia members after the release of the Lewis
Silkin report. Unlike the communications from the Vision Board that refuse to
admit any responsibility for their role in enabling Sogyal’s abuse – saying only
that they apologise for the ‘hurt
experienced’ or that they failed to educate
students properly – this apology is the real thing.
The investigation report has laid bare the pain experienced by those students and the failures within Rigpa to adequately protect, respond to and support them. We, in Australia, acknowledge that pain and apologise for our own failures to listen, understand, accept and protect our students.
Rigpa Australiain a message to the Rigpa Australia Sangha
How wonderful to see something real, something not in the
language of minimisation or denial favoured by the Vision Board.
The apology was apparently sent to the Rigpa Australia
members, but it is not available to the public on their website, nor was it sent
to those who Sogyal did abuse in Australia or Australians he abused elsewhere. They
didn’t send it to me to distribute to those harmed, either, and they have my
email address and the addresses of the Australian members of the 8. What a pity
they didn’t take that next step and deliver the apology to those who most need
to hear it. Sending it only to those remaining in Rigpa makes it seem as if the
purpose of the apology was only to appease their members. What use is an
apology if you don’t make it to the ones you’ve harmed?
The statement on Rigpa
Australia’s website about the Lewis Slikin Report is the one put out by the
Vision Board, the one that does not accept the findings of the report, only the
gravity of it. To make this apology, admission of the truth of the allegations
and that Sogyal’s abusive behaviour was wrong a real gesture of healing, Rigpa
Australia needs to take a couple of further steps.
Can Rigpa Australia make this a step for genuine healing?
Rigpa Australia could take a real step towards healing by:
Making what James said into a public statement –
one that includes the apology, admission of
the truth of the allegations and their belief that Sogyal’s abusive behaviour
was wrong – and putting it on their website in a prominent place.
Sending that statement to the 8 letter writers
and all those who have left Rigpa since July 2017.
Doing these two things would be a game-changing positive
step, and it would pave the way for other National Rigpa teams to do the same. Does
Rigpa Australia have the courage to make their own decisions on this, though? Only
time will tell. If they do do it, I hope they will send me an email to let me
How great would that
(That’s an in joke for Aussies)
Further steps that would go a long way towards healing:
Rigpa members have maligned, abused and attacked
the integrity of the 8 letter writers and others who have exposed the truth
about Sogyal’s behaviour. I suspect that apologies for such attacks on behalf
of those who perpetrated them would constitute a genuine offer of
reconciliation that would far exceed the bumbling attempts at ‘reaching out’ made
to the 8 by a member of the Vision Board.
Making sure that the person who is supposed to
be dealing with grievances for Rigpa Australia actually replies to all emails detailing
grievances and deals with them with due respect and consideration. (I put one
in and never received a reply!)
On a personal note, I would appreciate an apology to me for not allowing me to attend the 2018 retreat without discussion or explanation, and for the Rigpa Australia members who treated me unkindly at the Sakyadhita Conference in June 2019 or abused me on social media. One of the saddest things about all this that remains for me is that Rigpa and I didn’t part on good terms, that the cruelty of some members has so overshadowed the good times, and I expect this feeling is shared by many. I remember the day I put the phone down, my hand shaking, after being told not to contact anyone in the organisation again. Such things may seem petty, but the hurt is real. I can drop it from my mind, but it remains in my heart.
That aside, I would love for Rigpa Australia to show some courage and leadership by making a statement as suggested above, and publishing it on their website.
I’m going to start writing some positive posts for those who are leaving Tibetan Buddhism behind, but before I do, I think it’s important to make the root cause of abuse in Tibetan Buddhism very clear. The purpose of this post is not to put people off Tibetan Buddhism, but to educate them so they can choose not to subscribe to the beliefs that are the root cause of the abuse and can avoid groups and teachers who teach such beliefs. For example, Rigpa, Shambala & NKT.
The root cause of the abuse in Tibetan Buddhism is usually hidden from view, particularly from beginners. By the time the beliefs that allow such teachers as Sogyal Rinpoche to physically, emotionally, psychologically, financially and sexually abuse students with impunity become stated overtly (if they ever are), the student is likely already indoctrinated to this view. By laying it out up front as I’m doing here – should any Tibetan Buddhist student bother to read this – students can be aware of when this kind of belief is being laid on them, and they can reject it.
Why some Tibetan Buddhists think basic Buddhist ethics don’t apply to the guru
This quote from p131 of the The Torch of Certainty, a revered text by Jamgon Kongtrul says it all. It’s the most extreme statement I’ve seen of the belief at the root of the abuse issue, but though I never saw this particular verse while in Rigpa, the belief it elucidates is at the core of the Rigpa, Shambala and TKT culture, a culture that permitted the abuse and still stops the Rigpa Vision Board from admitting that Sogyal’s behaviour was harmful and inappropriate.
“From the sayings of the great Kagyudpas: Everything this precious perfect guru does, No matter what it is, is good. All his deeds are excellent. In his hands a butcher’s evil work Is good, and benefits the beasts, Inspired by compassion for them all. When he unites in sex improperly, His qualities increase, and fresh arise, A sign that means and insight have been joined. His lies by which we are deceived Are just the skilful signs with which He guides us on the freedom path. When he steals, the stolen goods Are changed into necessities To ease the poverty of all. When such a guru scolds, His words are forceful mantras To remove distress and obstacles. His beatings are blessings, Which yield both siddhis, And gladden all devout and reverent men.”
Jamgon Kongtrul, The Torch of Certainty
Is this Buddhism?
The Buddha seemed to see ethics as the basis of the spiritual path. The Vinaya Pitaka is all about ethics and is one third of the Tripitaka, the Buddhist canon – along with the Sutta Pitaka (on meditation) and the Abhidhamma Pitaka (on wisdom). He encouraged people to use their own wisdom in ascertaining what kind of ideas to follow and his criteria was whether something caused harm or benefit.
“Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,’ abandon them.’
The Buddha, Kalama Sutta
If the Buddha wouldn’t condone this idea that unethical behaviour by a guru is good, then how is it Buddhism?
Rigpa’s view on the belief that everything the guru does is good
I recently sent this quote to the national director of Rigpa Australia and asked, ‘How does Rigpa see the following teaching from the section on Guru yoga in The Torch of Certainty.’ I received no reply. My guess is that they don’t want to admit that they believe this nonsense. If they don’t believe it, then surely they would have had no reticence in telling me so. The fact that Rigpa management and senior students accepted Sogyal’s abusive behaviour is proof that they do follow this kind of teaching – and it’s the same for Shambala and other similar groups.
And the fact that the Rigpa Vision Board have never admitted that Sogyal did abuse his students – despite the results of the Lewis Silkin report – and the fact that they have not denounced his behaviour as harmful and inappropriate proves that they still believe that ‘Everything this precious perfect guru does,no matter what it is, is good.‘
Sogyal may be dead, but this damaging belief remains in place to define Rigpa students’ relationship with whatever guru they take vajrayana empowerments from – including dzogchen and mahamudra introductions to the nature of mind.
One of the core texts for the Rigpa sangha A Guide to The Words of My Perfect Teacher – a commentary on Patrul Rinpoche’s commentary on the Longchen Nyingtik Ngondro, the main Ngondro practice for Rigpa students and many other Tibetan Buddhist groups – tells students that:
‘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.’
Khenpo Ngawang Pelzang, page 261 A Guide to The Words of My Perfect Teacher
Here is the ‘scriptural authority’ that guides Rigpa students in the matter of their guru’s behaviour. When I read this during my studies, I never thought a lama would actually do such things. I assumed it was overstated for effect and that the aim of the words was simply to encourage students to open themselves up to their teachers, not to suggest it was okay for the lamas to behave in such a manner.
Those two quotes came from books written in the 19th Century, but Dzongsar Khyentse wrote his book The Guru Drinks Bourbon? this century, and on page 19 in a section headed ‘Liberation Through Imprisonment’, he admits that in the student teacher relationship as traditionally laid out 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. He says:
‘However, once you have completely and soberly sur-rendered, 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?
Dzongsar Khyentse (DZK) is one of Rigpa’s spiritual advisers. At least he is being honest and open about his commitment to teaching this kind of thing. That honesty helps students make an informed decision about whether or not they want to enter into a student teacher relationship with him.
Just as those who take the bible literally are called Christian fundamentalists, so, too, DZK and the other Rigpa advisers who take these kinds of teachings literally fit the label of Tibetan Buddhist fundamentalists.
Recently, it was alleged by some of Sogyal Rinpoche’s students, who also consider themselves to be practitioners in the Vajrayana tradition, that Sogyal Rinpoche regarded abusive behaviour as the ‘skilful means’ of ‘wrathful compassion’ in the tradition of ‘crazy wisdom.’
However you describe Sogyal Rinpoche’s style of teaching, the key point here is that if his students had received a Vajrayana initiation, if at the time they received it they were fully aware that it was a Vajrayana initiation, and if Sogyal Rinpoche had made sure that all the necessary prerequisites has been adhered to and fulfilled, then from the Vajrayana point of view, there is nothing wrong with Sogyal Rinpoche’s subsequent actions. (By the way, ‘initiation’ includes the pointing out instruction which is the highest Vajrayana initiation, known as the fourth abhisheka.)
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.
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 Rinpoche, Facebook Post, Aug 15 2017.
In an age when teachers can’t be trusted to behave ethically or in accordance with the Buddha’s teachings, we need to re-evaluate the relevancy of these teachings/beliefs/ideas. And since we can’t make or trust the lamas to do it – especially not the fundamentalist lamas – the students must do this re-evaluation for themselves.
You don’t have to believe or follow such teachings
Just as plenty of Catholics don’t follow the Catholic Church’s teachings on not using birth control, and don’t believe everything in the bible, so people can follow Tibetan Buddhist teachings without believing the above. You don’t have to, or need to, take on board the superstition that pervades the Tibetan culture either, or buy into fear tactics such as ‘break samaya and you’ll go to hell’.
Sogyal had us believe that at a certain point, if we really wanted enlightenment, then we had to get rid of our doubts and follow the tradition to the letter. He said that picking and choosing was fine for beginners, but not for older students. This, however, is in direct contradiction the Buddha’s advice:
Do not accept any of my words on faith, Believing them just because I said them. Be like an analyst buying gold, who cuts, burns, And critically examines his product for authenticity. Only accept what passes the test By proving useful and beneficial in your life.
The Buddha, from the Jnanasara-samuccaya
Should a Buddhist follow a Tibetan Lama or the Buddha as their primary source for authentic Buddhist teachings?
One thing is for sure, the idea that ‘everything this precious perfect guru does,no matter what it is, is good‘ has been proven to be not ‘useful or beneficial’. If you don’t believe me, read the Lewis Silkin Report into Rigpa.
Gurus don’t have to teach such ideas, either
‘The problem with the practice of seeing everything the guru does as perfect is that it very easily turns to poison for both the guru and the disciple. Therefore, whenever I teach this practice, I always advocate that the tradition of “every action be seen as perfect” not be stressed. Should the guru manifest un-dharmic qualities or give teachings contradicting dharma, the instruction on seeing the spiritual master as perfect must give way to reason and dharma wisdom. I could think to myself, “They all see me as a Buddha, and therefore will accept anything I tell them.” Too much faith and imputed purity of perception can quite easily turn things rotten.’
HH Dalai Lama, The Path to Enlightenment
I showed the above quote from Jamgong Kongtrul to someone who has been a student of Tsoknyi Rinpoche for 15 years. She said that she’d never heard him teach on anything like that in all that time. He and his brother Mingyur Rinpoche don’t talk about devotion much either, and never in relationship to students being required to have devotion for them. Contrast that with Sogyal’s insistence that without devotion to him no realisation was possible. And don’t forget Mingyur Rinpoche’s take on unethical behaviour published by Lion’s Roar that he wrote in response to the abuse allegations against Sogyal.
Tibetan Buddhist teachers won’t reject outright any teaching with scriptural authority behind it. It’s just not their way. The most we can hope for in terms of change is that they cease to teach such ideas.
The massive contradiction
The traditional advice for avoiding an abusive guru is to not choose them in the first place. The same book from which our first quote came from today also says this:
In particular, you should absolutely avoid [a master who commits the following misdeeds], for such a master can only confer the “blessing” of Mara: 1. Explaining or demonstrating to a crowd of common fold [such practices as] Tsa-Lung or Mahamudra meditation, those which employ mantras, or the essentials of the Fulfillment Stage; 2. [Boastfully claiming to possess] instructions others lack and spreading instructions in the profound philosophy and practice of the Mantrayana in the marketplace; 3. Behaving in an undisciplined manner; 4. Verbalizing the ultimate philosophical perspective (footnote: Since it is not subject to verbalization, any attempt to do so is pure distortion). 5. Greatly coveting money or property belonging to the Precious Ones; 6. Being highly deceitful and hypocritical; 7. Giving empowerments and instructions which do not belong in any tradition; 8. Indulging in the pleasures of liquor and sex; 9. Teaching a doctrine which conflicts with the Dharma, in words of his own invention, because he does not know how to teach the true path.
Jamgon Kongtrul, The Torch of Certainty p 134
If you follow those guidelines, you cut out all those self-styled dzogchen gurus that are popping up all over the place as well as all those lamas who indulge in sex. But note the conflicting teachings here. On the one hand we’re not to choose a teacher who ‘indulges in the pleasures of liquor or sex’ or ‘who behaves in an undisciplined manner’, but on the other hand if you do happen to choose someone who ‘unites in sex improperly,‘ lies, steals, scolds and beats you, you’re supposed to see ‘all his deeds’ as ‘excellent’.
In addition, given that gurus hide their ethical failings, it’s impossible for anyone to choose teachers with any confidence, especially when all you know about them is the nice stuff written on a glossy website. Clearly, you can’t trust any guru not to abuse their power; you can, however, not give away your power.
What does a student wanting Tibetan Buddhist teachings do?
‘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.’
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?