‘Rigpa’ Reborn? What a Viable 'Rigpa' Might Look Like.

With the results of the independent investigation into Sogyal Lakar/ Rinpoche’s abuse tabled clearly in the Lewis Silkin report, no one can deny now that “based on the evidence available to me [Karen Baxter of Lewis Silkin], I am satisfied that, on the balance of probabilities:
a. some students of Sogyal Lakar (who were part of the ‘inner circle’, as described later in this report) have been subjected to serious physical, sexual and emotional abuse by him; and
b. there were senior individuals within Rigpa who were aware of at least some of these issues and failed to address them, leaving others at risk.”
Karen Baxter recommendations include the following clear directions for Rigpa: 

  1. Sogyal Lakar should not take part in any future event organised by Rigpa or otherwise have contact with its students; 
  2. Rigpa should take steps to disassociate itself from Sogyal Lakar as fully as is possible (having regard to any legal arrangements which may for the time being connect the organisation with him);
  3. Rigpa leadership in each country (being the trustees or equivalent) and the Vision Board should, as necessary, be refreshed in order to ensure that;
    1. its members are unconnected with the harmful events referred to in this report and so can credibly lead the programme of changes required;
    2. its members are all publically committed to the concept that abuse will not be tolerated by anyone, or against anyone, within Rigpa (including teachers); and
    3. wherever possible, the leadership should include some members who are unconnected with the student body, for example lay trustees as such would be recognised in the United Kingdom.

And in their statement on the report Rigpa states that “Rigpa commits to act upon the report’s recommendations.” 

What acting on these recommendations means.

  1. Sogyal must be removed from course materials, and no more audio or video teachings by him should be shown at Rigpa events. Rigpa needs to publicly denounce Sogyal’s abusive behaviour and make it clear that they are no longer a sangha of his students.
  2. And ALL those who were in management roles up until this year need to remove themselves from their roles – not just the three stooges at the top, and they must not still in the background directing behind the scenes in an advisory or any other capacity.
    ALL those senior instructors who still believe and therefore will still teach the ‘crazy wisdom’ excuse for abuse, and ALL who participated in the cover up by delivering the ‘Representing Rigpa’ cover-up sessions need to go – unless they publicly denounce Sogyal Lakar’s behaviour, apologise for their role in the cover up,say that they realise that they were wrong to do so, and that they are now ‘committed to the concept that abuse will not be tolerated by anyone, or against anyone, within Rigpa (including teachers)’
  3. Is self-explanatory.

But what would a Rigpa without Sogyal  look like? 

Some people remain in Rigpa simply because they can’t imagine life without the support of the community and/or because they don’t want to see the infrastructure dismantled, but if you take away Sogyal and all those in management and teaching roles who are not willing to stand up in public and say that they now realise that Sogyal’s behaviour was abusive and that they are committed to not allowing anything like that to happen again, what is left?

Barbara van Schaik has a vision that she agreed to shared with us. I hope Rigpa management read it and take this vision on board, because it’s a vision that could inspire people who are presently terribly disillusioned. 

‘Rigpa’ Reborn

By Barbara van Schaik
There’s a lot of writing and thinking out loud about Rigpa at the moment. Most address the abuse suffered by so many, abuse of a power we all believed in and held in our hearts.
What the outcome will be no-one can say at present – bits and pieces appear, newspaper articles are ‘out there’ now and various people have various pieces of information that don’t amount to a real conclusion. Solution seems as far away as ever.

The big questions

But how CAN Rigpa continue? Really? Sexual abuse, charities seeing fraud, loss of funds as Rigpa is publicly denounced? Yet it seems those in charge are hanging in, hanging on, hoping against hope perhaps that it will all ‘blow over’ and amount to not much, as long as Sogyal stays out of the picture (at least as far as those outside the inner circle of devotees would be aware).
Can they re-form? It’s so hard to know where we stand at present.
But if they can’t, if they don’t – then what of all those physical remains – the centres around the world and the great Mother Ship – Lerab Ling.
Since someone has pointed out that all the centres operate separately it seems there may not be one outcome affecting them all in the same way.
But – RIGPA?? Surely the name is tainted beyond repair now. Another name? Possibly – but wouldn’t people, the ones who would be interested, know? It has to be more than that.
I personally feel the inner circle/devotees, including those who ‘stepped down’ will not give him up.  That is, if he is around and does regain his health. They will find some kind of different way of being with him – I once (jokingly) mentioned holograms.
But that leaves those buildings – if RIGPA as we know it were to disappear, ‘leave the premises’ to do something secretive elsewhere – what of them?  And in the case of Lerab Ling – so big, so grandiose, so decorated, so TIBETAN – hung and filled with all kinds of precious things – not to speak of the energy generated there – what of that? What could it become?
I was thinking about this and some thoughts did come up. Here they are, for what they might be worth.

Lerab Ling as a true rime centre

Perhaps LL, with all its ‘Tibetaness’ could become a Centre for the preservation of Tibetan thought (Buddhist) and culture.  There would be a Library, bringing together ancient texts, their translations, published books, blogs and videos, articles written, articles about to be written – research materials.
A place where scholars from both East and West would come to sit and read, research, compare, be inspired and confer. There could be screens which would show films relating to TB (not of the ‘7 Years in Tibet’ variety) – although ‘Kundun’ might be an exception! Peoples’ journeys recorded, recent trips into Tibet as well as historical material. There could be lectures from Tibetan ‘experts’ and scholars, open to the public.
Beside the Library, LL could be seen as a meeting place of lamas, khenpos, wandering ngakpas (if they could interrupt their wanderings) lecturers and all involved in the serious study of TB. They would be from all sects, a true ‘Rime’ organization where perhaps new understanding between scholars could take place – debates too, along classical lines, although perhaps without the performance aspect!
Of course students would continue come –  to study (lots of accommodation), to listen to a lama expounding on a topic of choice, and more ‘open’ events where new people could come to hear and see.
There could be ‘residencies’ for various teachers, along the lines of artists’ residences, or writers’ residences. Anything from a few weeks to a few months.

A store house of Tibetan culture

Then I had the thought that LL (in particular since it is so Tibetan in every way) could be a storehouse of the culture of Tibet. Tibetan Medicine (my own particular interest) could be represented with visiting doctors from Asia – India, Nepal and Bhutan for example. They could hold surgeries, so helpful for people unable to reach them in their home countries. They too could hold talks about the basics of TM. And bring supplies of the marvellous little brown pills! I am particularly interested in those European plants which correlate to some of the Tibetan ones.  Plant-finding expeditions could take place and there could be a medical department.
There is Tibetan thangkha painting, artists could come and stay, too – holding classes and giving lectures on the subject. There is one Bhutanese-trained thangkha painter already living in France.
There is Tibetan food, dance, costume, jewellery… I remembered the magnificent ‘tormas’ made for pujas, sand mandalas, all that space to create these things, and involve groups wanting to learn more about their history as well as ‘how to make’. All these are of course subsidiary to the Library, but could provide a ‘way in’ for the public: held outside in the grounds in the summer months, a way to open the windows and let in the air, after all that secrecy and shutting away.
There are holy relics and all the paraphernalia of TB – I could see a Museum too  – there are already precious things at LL and this could be built up with people who have spent time in those countries where Tibetans have their culture donating their items as they might wish.
Open to the public of course – no secret ‘lama’s room’ any more.
So this is how I could see LL rise again, in a different form, but building on the best of all that energy over the years, devotion properly channeled, away from a charismatic leader who brought so much to so many, particularly in his youth, but in later years became a travesty of what he set out to be.

Other centres

The other centres could be more diverse in terms of their lecturers and focus – maybe a look at Buddhism from other sources, Theravada, Zen, the Pali canon from Sri Lanka. Each one could choose its own particular style. Certainly, they could invite teachers from all traditions and become, rather than a centre for the students of any particular lama, a centre for dharma teachings in general. True Rime.
… and a Board: Karen Baxter’s (Lewis Silkin) suggestions for a board, including some lay people, representation from charity – sounds excellent.

And – of course – a new name!

This has gone on longer than I thought it would.  Thoughts, sketches – let’s see what happens.
Thanks Barbara for sharing your vision.
Perhaps such an organisation could be called whatever the Tibetan word for Phoenix is. Certainly it’s time to put the word rigpa back where it belongs as a word meaning the true nature of mind/pristine awareness, not the name of a cult. To give up that name, and choose a new one and a new vision would be the only way I can see that Rigpa can survive this with any integrity. Their integrity as an organisation is as shot as that of their lama. If they are to survive, they need this kind of radical change, not bandaids and half-hearted attempts at appeasing the Charity Commissions.
Over to you my vajra brothers and sisters who still have some faith that there is something worth saving.


Current and previous students of Rigpa can participate in private discussion on this and other abuse-related topics on our What Now? Facebook Group. If you’re interested in joining, please contact us via the contact page and ask for an invite.
People from any Vajrayana sangha can join the Survivors of Vajrayana Abuse and Allies Facebook group for support. Click the link to request to join.
Anyone who has left a Buddhist sangha that had an abusive teacher can join the  Beyond the Temple Facebook Group. The focus in this group is not on the abuse, but on ourselves and our spiritual life as we recover from our experience and look to the future. Click here and request to join.
The What Now? Reference Material page has links to a wealth of articles in the topics related to abuse in Buddhist communities. For links to places to assist in healing from abuse see the sangha care resources page.
Those of you who are interested in ‘keeping Buddhism clean’ could ‘Like’ the Dharma Protectors Facebook page, which posts links to related articles as they come to hand.

Hollow words? An Analysis of Rigpa's Statement on the Results of the Independent Investigation

Rigpa’s response to the Lewis Silkin report on the results of the independent investigation shows a continuation of their methods of operation to date. Once again we see the kind of response given by expensive PR firms and sneaky lawyers, words that appear to say the right things and appear to tell us what we want to hear – and many will read it at face value and go away content (which is what they want) – but what does it actually say? Or not say?
The words of the report are in the quote boxes. The analysis follows each section.

5 September 2018
We acknowledge the gravity of the independent report that Rigpa commissioned last year following allegations of misconduct by Rigpa’s Founder and former Spiritual Director Sogyal Rinpoche, and thank the investigator and the witnesses.

This does not say that Rigpa accepts the findings of the report.  This does not say that Rigpa thinks Sogyal Rinpoche or anyone in Rigpa has done anything wrong, even though the Report clearly concludes that there has been “serious physical, sexual and emotional abuse” by Sogyal Rinpoche and misconduct by Senior Rigpa Individuals “who were aware of at least some of these issues and failed to address them, leaving others at risk.”

We feel deeply sorry and apologise for the hurt experienced by past and present members of the Rigpa community. We are contemplating on our role as an organisation, and how we may have contributed to this situation. We will do everything we can to reach out to, and support everyone who has been affected, and take full responsibility for ensuring that Rigpa provides a safe environment for all. These are our heartfelt commitments.

This does not say that Rigpa accepts that Sogyal Rinpoche or anyone in Rigpa has actually harmed anyone, despite the conclusions of the Report and the evidence presented there.  They still only apologise for hurt “experienced” not for the hurt they and Sogyal caused.  The inclusion of the word “experience”  also reminds cult members of the subjective nature of the victims’ perception, something that reinforces the Rigpa ‘party line’ that the problem is with the victim, not with the perpetrator.
And they do not commit Rigpa to anything specific, instead they use the same vague soothing language they are so well known for – “reach out to”, “support”, “safe environment,” “heartfelt” – and they are only “contemplating on” their role, not admiting that they actually did have a role in the harm, and neither are they taking any actual responsiblity for it.
The only thing they are taking responsibility for is “ensuring that Rigpa provides a safe environment for all.” I seem to remember hearing something similar to this kind of committment from them in the past, all while the abuse continued. They will point to their code of conduct as one way they’re doing that, but there are serious loopholes in that code.
Their use of the words “taking responsibility” might lead people to think that they’re taking some responsiblity for the harm, but if you read carefully, you’ll see that they’re not.

The findings in the report will affect many people. It will take time for all of us to reflect on the report’s contents.

They have had the report since August 22nd and we have been told, via Rigpa streaming, that 30 individuals have been involved in developing this response. How much time do they need to come up with something more specific than this?

Rigpa commits to act upon the report’s recommendations. We will move forward in consultation with our community.

This is a key paragraph.  It does not commit Rigpa to implementing any of the recommendations in the report, although it gives that appearance. They commit only to “acting upon” the recommedations; they do not committ to implementing them. Acting upon can be as vague as considering whether or not they will actually implement them.

In the face of the allegations, last year Sogyal Rinpoche retired definitively as Spiritual Director of Rigpa, and now has no organisational role in Rigpa.

Sogyal Rinpoche’s main role in Rigpa is not and never has been “organisational”.  He resigned only as spiritual director. He has not resigned from his position as the community’s guru and has stated himself that he is still their teacher. He gave a teaching on devotion to the Dzogchen Mandala retreat recently, and has been giving “messages” to the sangha at all the retreats held since his stepping down as spiritual director.
Why use the word “definitively”? It’s completely unecessary. He has either retired or he hasn’t. The only reason why this word, which unecessarily emphasises the fact of his retirement, would be included is to make the reader think that this is the separation suggested in point 2 of the report recommendations – “Rigpa should take steps to disassociate itself from Sogyal Lakar as fully as is possible.”
Full dissociation is not him retiring, it’s Rigpa no longer taking him as their teacher. It’s them denouncing his behaviour and ceasing using his teachings as the core of their programs. It certainly isn’t having him give a streamed teaching to a retreat.

Rigpa has already undertaken a number of significant steps in the last twelve months:

  • A new Vision Board was appointed, guided by spiritual advisors, and Rigpa boards have agreed a new decision-making and governance structure;

The Vision Board was appointed in consultation with teachers, Khenpo Namdrol and Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche, who have made it clear that they think Rigpa students who have spoken out are samaya breakers and possessed by demonic forces. The Vision Board was then approved by Sogyal Rinpoche himself.  It is contains students who knew about and enabled the abuse. It should be disbanded.

  • Our community has taken part in an international process to put in place a strong Code of Conduct published in June 2018. We have also just completed our grievance procedure, that includes an independent Grievance Council of senior western Buddhist teachers that will receive complaints brought by Rigpa members and the public;

The Code of Conduct is weak. Amongst other things, it allows sexual relationships between teachers and students and makes vague reference to a different unspecified code for Vajrayana and Dzogchen students which students will have to agree to if they want teachings at this level.  No grievance procedure has been published.

  • And we set up this independent investigation for complainants to come forward, and be listened to in an open, impartial and sensitive way.

Rigpa was forced to set up the investigation due to the seriousness of the complaints.  It was also forced to agree to make it public because witnesses refused to participate otherwise.  This was not a voluntary Rigpa initiative, and yet they list it as if it were an achievement on their part.

We are committed to continuing the process of healing, reconciliation and change. To acknowledge the importance of this process of healing and change, senior members of management are stepping down from their positions of governance.

This is another key paragraph.  It only refers to positions of governance.  Senior Rigpa Individuals identified in the report as having been, “aware of at least some of these issues and failed to address them, leaving others at risk”, have many roles in Rigpa, not just governance.  Rigpa received this report on August 22nd.  Witnesses P, N and O should have been removed from all their positions, or at the very least suspended, on August 23rd, at the latest. That is what would have happened in any properly run organisation.
Again it is vague. Who are these senior members of management? What positions are they stepping down from? And what ones will they retain?
Update from Sangha connection newsletter sent out 30 mins ago:
“Patrick, Philip and Dominique will no longer hold any position of governance in any Rigpa entity by the end of November. Patrick and Philip will also step down from the Vision Board. The next elections of the Chapter of the Lerab Ling Congregation are scheduled for November this year. Dominique Side has decided to retire as Superior of the Congregation so she will not be a candidate in these elections.
These steps will come into full effect by the end of November, 2018. All three remain committed to supporting the sangha and Rigpa’s vision in whatever way may be appropriate and helpful.
Patrick sent the following message to share with the sangha:
“I have read the report of the independent investigation and I am deeply troubled by its findings. I feel a real and genuine concern for anyone who feels hurt or damaged by their experience in Rigpa. For the last forty years, I have tried my hardest to serve the Rigpa community responsibly and with integrity, and the best interests of the Sangha and Rigpa’s work have always been foremost in my heart. I have done my best to help support anyone experiencing difficulties or problems of any kind. If there have been any failings on my part to understand the nature of complaints that were made, or to listen or to act, I am truly sorry… ” and there is more.
These three are not the only people that should be stepping down, however.
Now back to the statement:

Rigpa’s goal has always been, and continues to be, to offer a complete spiritual path, to invite many teachers, especially from the “Ancient” Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, and to offer the Buddhist teachings of meditation, compassion and wisdom to the modern world.

If Rigpa had addressed the problems, laid out clearly and forensically in this excellent Report, when issues were first brought to Senior Rigpa Individuals’ attention, as described in some detail in the Report, then Rigpa would still be in a position to achieve this goal.  Due to not addressing these problems in the past, Rigpa now has to consider, as stated in the Report’s recommendations, if it will be “possible for the organisation to move past these events and operate sustainably and successfully in the future.”
It may not be possible. Particulary when we have a conflict of values between this “Ancient” fuedal tradition and the modern world. Do they really think that reverting to a fuedal system of masters and slaves that we gave up in the West centuries ago is what’s best for the modern world?
Finally, the statement is from the “Vision Board, Rigpa Boards, and the boards of Lerab Ling and Dzogchen Beara.”  If any of you still trust the members of these boards to tell you the truth, to act with integrity, or to have your best interests at heart, remember this: these boards still include individuals who were identified in the Report as “senior individuals within Rigpa who were aware of at least some of these issues and failed to address them, leaving others at risk.”


Current and previous students of Rigpa can participate in private discussion on this and other related topics on our What Now? Facebook Group. If you’re interested in joining, please contact us via the contact page and ask for an invite.
Anyone who has left a Buddhist sangha that had an abusive teacher can join the  Beyond the Temple Facebook Group. The focus in this group is not on the abuse, but on ourselves and our spiritual life as we recover from our experience and look to the future. Click here and request to join.
The What Now? Reference Material page has links to a wealth of articles in the topics related to abuse in Buddhist communities. For links to places to assist in healing from abuse see the sangha care resources page.
Those of you who are interested in ‘keeping Buddhism clean’ could ‘Like’ the Dharma Protectors Facebook page, which posts links to related articles as they come to hand.

Lewis Silkin Report Released.

The results of the Lewis Silkin investigation into the abusive behaviour outlined in the letter to Sogyal Rinpoche written by 8 students in July 2017 was released a short time ago.
You can download the 50 page Lewis Silkin report here  and you can find the French translation on the Rigpa website along with the introductory part, including the Executive Summary and Recommendations,  in German,  Spanish, and Italian.
Please note that the full report might be distressing to some people as it addresses serious issues including violence and sexual misconduct. Those traumatised by such abusive behaviour may find some of the content retraumatising.
I would like to express, on behalf of all interested parties, our deep gratitude to everyone who has spoken out about the abuses and in particular to those who spoke to Karen Baxter and helped her to make a report that reflects the truth.
May this report be a catalyst for genuine progress in removing abuse and the acceptance of abuse not only from Rigpa but also from Tibetan Buddhism as a whole.
Here are just the Executive Summary and Recommendation part of the report for your quick perusal.

Executive Summary

Whilst I have seen evidence that many people feel that they have benefitted greatly from having Sogyal Lakar as their teacher, individual experiences are very different. There are varying degrees of closeness to Sogyal Lakar, with the closest relationships regularly referred to as the “inner circle”. The experiences of some of the members of the inner circle are very different from the experiences of many of those who are less close.
Not all of the allegations against Sogyal Lakar are upheld, as explained in the body of the report below, but based on the evidence available to me, I am satisfied that, on the balance of probabilities:
a. some students of Sogyal Lakar (who were part of the ‘inner circle’, as described later in this report) have been subjected to serious physical, sexual and emotional abuse by him; and
b. there were senior individuals within Rigpa who were aware of at least some of these issues and failed to address them, leaving others at risk.”

A number of serious concerns arise out of my findings which, in my opinion, must be addressed. Recommendations and proposed action points are set out at the conclusion of this report.

Recommendations

I have been asked to set out any recommendations that I have for change within Rigpa as a result of my findings. My practical recommendations are set out below. Should they be accepted, there will be detailed work to be done in implementing the recommendations across the Rigpa organisation, which operates in a number of different territories. It will be necessary in a number of respects to take into account local laws, regulations and guidance in each such territory as well as having regard to the legal personality and governance structure through which Rigpa operates in each territory.
There are also a number of matters which may require further investigation before the Rigpa leadership is able to reach final decisions in relation to this overall matter. The possibility of such further investigations is referred to at various points above.
Before moving to implement the recommendations below, my view is that the leadership of Rigpa should consider first the overall effect of these findings on its mission and work as an organisation. In the United Kingdom, for example, the trustees would need to consider whether the findings of the report, the resources required to act on the recommendations and the degree to which the work and profile of Rigpa has in the past been closely associated with the persona of Sogyal Lakar, make it possible for the organisation to move past these events and operate sustainably and successfully in the future. Appropriate advice should be taken on this and it should be noted that in raising this issue for the trustees I do not seek to guide their decision either way, such guidance being outside the scope of my investigation and remit.
Assuming that the Rigpa leadership concludes that the appropriate overall course is to put in place structures and procedures to ensure that its work as an organisation can continue in the future without the risk of harm, I recommend the following:
1. Sogyal Lakar should not take part in any future event organised by Rigpa or otherwise have contact with its students;
2. Rigpa should take steps to disassociate itself from Sogyal Lakar as fully as is possible (having regard to any legal arrangements which may for the time being connect the organisation with him);
3. Rigpa leadership in each country (being the trustees or equivalent) and the Vision Board should, as necessary, be refreshed in order to ensure that;
a. its members are unconnected with the harmful events referred to in this report and so can credibly lead the programme of changes required;
b. its members are all publically committed to the concept that abuse will not be tolerated by anyone, or against anyone, within Rigpa (including teachers); and
c. wherever possible, the leadership should include some members who are unconnected with the student body, for example lay trustees as such would be recognised in the United Kingdom.
4. Professional management should be appointed at each major Rigpa centre. Wherever possible, the management team should include some members who are not part of the student body. Care should be taken to ensure that all members of management are able to perform their responsibilities and are not inhibited in doing so, for example, as a consequence of considering themselves bound to demonstrate ‘unwavering respect’ towards the guru.
5. 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 judgments 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.
6. A comprehensive and written safeguarding policy should be put in place to ensure that:
a. sexual relationships between teachers and students are either prohibited entirely, or subject to specific safeguarding measures to ensure there can be no abuse of power;
b. any ‘lama care’ that is deemed to be necessary is carried out in a way which ensures the health and safety of those providing these services is adequately protected;
c. mechanisms for the confidential reporting of concerns are clear and can be easily found by those with concerns;
d. reports of any incidents and allegations are recorded and stored in a secure and proper way;
e. incidents and allegations are promptly investigated in accordance with the policy with appropriate follow up action taken;
f. consideration is given to reporting serious incidents to relevant law enforcement authorities and/or regulators; and
g. the management and leadership of each Rigpa entity is aware of and properly trained in its responsibilities.
7. An abuse helpline outside of Rigpa should be set up, in addition to the internal reporting mechanisms made available.
8. To the extent that it has not done so already, Rigpa should review its fundraising activities to ensure that these are compliant with local laws and regulations. This review should specifically include contexts in which Rigpa events such as retreats may be used as an opportunity for third parties such as external speakers to raise funds for other causes and/or invite gratuity payments on their own behalf. There should be absolute clarity on the proper uses of all such funds.
9. A clear approach to the engagement of speakers and teachers should be established which ensures that they are aware of relevant policies, including the safeguarding and fundraising policies, before having contact with students.
10. 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.
11. An appropriate programme of communications related to the above steps should be undertaken with the letter writers, students and the wider Rigpa community. In addition to a first communication setting out Rigpa’s commitment to a safe and secure environment for all students and the steps to be taken in achieving that, regular updates should be given until the programme of changes has been completed.
12. Rigpa’s leadership should consider (taking further advice as necessary) the extent to which it is obliged to report any of the matters set out in this report to law enforcement authorities or relevant regulators in each applicable jurisdiction.


 

Karen Baxter, Partner, Lewis Silkin LLP
22 August 2018

Rigpa’s Response?

Click here to read the statement_from_Rigpa on the results of the independent investigation
Unfortunately there is no indication in this statement that Rigpa is taking a different approach to the one they have taken over the last year. The language is the same as what we’ve heard before and of as little substance. They do say that ‘Rigpa commits to act upon the report’s recommendations,’ but what they mean by that remains to be seen. Excuse my cynicism, but I have good reason for it since saying one thing and doing another and outright lying  is something we’re all familiar with from Rigpa management.  So far their words of healing and reconciliation have only extended to those still in the organisation. The only new thing is  this ‘To acknowledge the importance of this process of healing and change, senior members of management are stepping down from their positions of governance.’  We are not given names, however. Why so vague when they have had 14 days with the report already? Plenty of time to work out who has to leave in order to follow the report’s recommendations.

Looking to the future – a message for Rigpa management

Here is an opportunity for Rigpa to truly make a fresh start. Come on my vajra family, you can do it! Find the courage of a true bodhisattva and work for the dharma, the true wisdom and compassion in Tibetan Buddhism, not the religious power structures that faciliate this kind of abuse; clean it up, remove the fuedalism and acceptance of abuse that stains the tradition so it can benefit countless future generations.
Stop acting merely to protect your status, your financial and time investment, your organisation, your religion, and your disgraced teacher. Be bigger than that; see further. And to do that you will have to stop listening to fundamentalist lamas cast in the same mould as Sogyal. Accept that the lineage is not as pure as you think it is and that the beliefs that faciliated this acceptance of abuse have no place in the modern world. Be willing to leave them behind for they cause more harm than good.
Instead show that you understand the real point of the dharma by using your own intelligence and connecting with your own deep wisdom and compassion, and give us more than vague, sweet-sounding words that you seem unable to live up to.
This is your challenge. It was always your challenge. You have failed to grasp it so far. But you can do it now if you can muster up the vision.


 
Current and previous students of Rigpa can participate in private discussion on this and other related topics on our What Now? Facebook Group. If you’re interested in joining, please contact us via the contact page and ask for an invite.
Anyone who has left a Buddhist sangha that had an abusive teacher can join the  Beyond the Temple Facebook Group. The focus in this group is not on the abuse, but on ourselves and our spiritual life as we recover from our experience and look to the future. Click here and request to join.
The What Now? Reference Material page has links to a wealth of articles in the topics related to abuse in Buddhist communities. For links to places to assist in healing from abuse see the sangha care resources page.
Those of you who are interested in ‘keeping Buddhism clean’ could ‘Like’ the Dharma Protectors Facebook page, which posts links to related articles as they come to hand.

LIES, DAMNED LIES & LERAB LING – part 2

By JO GREEN
In the first part of this post we saw how, in a new video from Lerab Ling to the sangha, Rigpa are continuing to construct a false narrative about the cause of their current difficulties. In this part we see how they are trying to erase the word “abuse” from all discussion.
LOJONG LEADS TO LAWYERS
Apparently, the events of 2016 were not the end of the problems caused by Lerab Ling’s local newspaper. A year later, in August 2017, Dominique Side says Midi Libre published a full-page article “which advocated Lerab Ling should be shut down”. This is an interesting interpretation of that article. It’s an interview with Dominique Cowell, one of Sogyal’s closest and most trusted assistants until 1995, who left when she saw for herself that sexual abuse was happening. She recounts an absolutely horrific incident where Sogyal led a naked woman about by a rope around her neck, making her bray like a donkey. At the end of the interview Cowell does say “We must send the gendarmes to Lerab Ling, close the centers,” and that Sogyal Rinpoche should be brought to justice. But this is a quotation of her words: it is not the main thrust of the article and it is not what the newspaper itself advocates.
Dominique Side cites this article as an example of “people acting against you”. She then goes on to restate the principles of lojong, that Sam Truscott had also explained in his letter the previous year, as being the reason why they had never reacted to negative media coverage. She says this as if this is some great noble thing: to not refute accusations of abuse against a person who has, in fact, abused people.
She explains, “You don’t judge. You don’t immediately set out to attack the other person. This is part of a compassionate Buddhist stance.” Now I find this a surprising attitude from Dominique Side. Not long after The Letter had come out, one of its authors included her in an entirely innocent mailshot about something which had nothing to do with Rigpa. Dominique fired back an angry, insulting response within minutes. Let’s just call that “the gap between theory and practice”.
She goes on to explain that “the turning point” was a December 2017 article in the same newspaper when they interviewed Jean-Baptiste Cesbron – a lawyer who had been gathering accounts of abuse committed by Sogyal Rinpoche, with the aim of bringing criminal proceedings. But what principally concerns Dominique, Sam and the rest is that they feel he characterised Lerab Ling as a cult.
Once again, the Lerab Ling leadership are framing things in a very misleading way. In fact, the lawyer Cesbron never called Lerab Ling “a cult” in that article. If you read it and watch the video interview that accompanies it, he never once spontaneously mentions Lerab Ling. He is asked a question about whether the centre should be shut down and answers “No.” That’s all. He makes clear he is not against Buddhism as a whole. His criticisms relate specifically to Sogyal Rinpoche and the effect his behaviour had.
Nonetheless, Dominique Side has framed his words as a specific attack on the Lerab Ling community: an attack so serious that lojong goes out of the window and you bring in the lawyers.
WHY SUE NOW?
I can’t say I follow her logic. Why could they not issue a statement rebutting the article, yet not launch legal actions? Why could they not focus on acting in such a clearly non-cult-like way that the accusation becomes ridiculous? Apparently, their lawyers said they HAD TO prosecute the newspaper, the journalist and the interviewee. Oh, and 133 people at Lerab Ling have coincidentally decided to take their own joint action against the newspaper (it’s not clear if Dominique is one of them). So that’s four writs out there. But they still really believe in lojong. Honestly.
It seems to me that Dominique, Sam, Lerab Ling and their lawyers have not had it fully explained to them how newspapers work, and I would like to save them some trouble, so here’s a quick guide:

  • Newspapers report news stories;
  • Journalists research and write those stories;
  • To do that, they interview people;
  • The journalist reports what interviewees say;
  • The newspaper edits and publishes what the journalist writes.

So, if a journalist reports the racist statements of a politician, that obviously doesn’t make the journalist or the newspaper racist and one would therefore not normally prosecute either for racism. The only exception would be if there was editorialising by the paper, supporting these views. In the case of Midi Libre, there was no editorial comment, just reporting of events and statements – by Rigpa and others.
I mean, if they really want to sue this lawyer for what he said, they can try it – although, given how completely unperturbed Cesbron appeared after they started their action, I’d say they’re on a hiding to nothing – but it seems barking mad to go after the newspaper and journalist. Or is it? Dominique commented that “It has already had an impact, although the suit has not been tried. The press coverage is much more balanced than it has been previously.”
In other words, they may have successfully intimidated the newspaper into not publishing anything more about the abuse. It’s not a huge newspaper, perhaps they can’t take the risk of the financial consequences. Maybe that was the main intention of the suit, to gag the press, in which case it worked. Or perhaps the newspaper is biding its time – I note that they have now taken all their articles about Sogyal and Lerab Ling out from behind the paywall, so everyone can see them.
SO, WHAT’S REALLY GOING ON?
I’m still a bit confused about something, though. Lerab Ling say they now believe they need to take the legal route to protect their reputation, but that’s not what they’re really doing. On 24th January France 3 Television, in their region, did a report on the legal action being taken at Lerab Ling and the events that caused it. They interviewed the father of “Mimi”, also the lawyer at Lerab Ling who is bringing the group action, and the lawyer Cesbron – who correctly points out that no one in Lerab Ling has denounced the abuse – plus Dominique Cowell, who unequivocally states that Sogyal rapes women. The video and accompanying article are still online, and there is an English subtitled version.
As we have seen, Rigpa defended Sogyal Rinpoche from the allegations of ‘Janice Doe’ against him, with Patrick Gaffney taking a central role, whilst Sogyal stayed away. We’ve also seen that Rigpa rebutted allegations on behalf of Sogyal when criticised by Marion Dapsance, but they have not given any such defence of him with regard to the behaviour outlined in the letter of July 2017 written by 8 concerned students. Instead they are manipulating their members’ perception by sidestepping the main issue – the abuse committed by Sogyal, which is what is really harming Rigpa and Lerab Ling – and focusing on the ‘we are not a cult’ smokescreen they have created.
A LIE UPON A LIE UPON A LIE
The leadership at Lerab Ling has weaved a multiple fiction. Firstly, that Cesbron went out of his way to characterise Lerab Ling as a cult. He did not – he criticised Rigpa as a whole and Sogyal specifically.
The second is that there is some distinction between the notion of Rigpa being cult-like and the allegations against Sogyal. This is like arguing that your cough has nothing to do with your emphysema. Cesbron’s points are clear:

  • He has compelling evidence of abuse committed by Sogyal.
  • Sogyal’s idea of “crazy wisdom” was used to justify everything from public humiliations to sexual abuse, and one could not really be part of Rigpa without accepting it.
  • This group mindset led to the creation of a cult-like environment in which it was very hard for anyone to speak up.

Without the actions and ideas of Sogyal, there is nothing that could be described as cult-like. Rigpa cannot meaningfully fight the notion that they are a cult whilst refusing to discuss Sogyal’s actions.
Thirdly, in the new video Sam Truscott speaks of how relations with the local council, tourist board and neighbours have suffered as a result of what was published. I have no reason to doubt this. However, in their version of events, apparently local people were more or less OK with years of rumours, then serious allegations and national scandal around Sogyal hitting and humiliating students, sexually abusing women and embezzling money, and that this was happening on their doorstep with some of their neighbours and fellow parents at the school gate implicated in it all. But, when they heard the word “cult”, that was too much for them and relations went bad. Is there anyone outside Rigpa that buys that idea?
It is a lie upon a lie upon a lie. And these are the lies that are being fed to the remaining students through internal communications.
According to publicly-available testimonies, Sogyal beat people unconscious, made them bleed, compelled women to do sexual acts they found degrading or raped them, and punched nuns. So, Dominique, if you’re still struggling to pinpoint the cause of Lerab Ling’s current problems, I can provide clarification: Sogyal did this. If you don’t accept that, then please call up those journalists you’re so upset with and demand to be allowed an interview where you categorically deny that Sogyal ever harmed anybody. Tell them you are 100% sure that he never abused anyone sexually or physically, that he never committed a rape or misused funds. Actually, why don’t you get Patrick Gaffney and Philip Philippou to join you and make a definitive statement on his innocence that all Rigpa students can get behind?
In fact, why don’t you mount a media campaign about it?


Thanks for your articles, Jo.
I think it’s really important that people become aware of how Rigpa international leadership is manipulating (or attempting to manipulate) their perception, particularly with the results of the independent investigation coming out soon. We can be sure that whatever that report finds, Rigpa will find a way to spin it to their advantage. It is not a time for students to be niave and trusting of those who have known about the abuse for decades and have already had much practice at covering up the truth. Will they ever come clean? The deeper they dig themselves into lies, the harder it will be for them to do so.


Private discussion on this and other related topics can be had on our  What Now Facebook Group. It is only for current and previous students of Rigpa, however, and we do moderate it closely. If you’re interested in joining, please contact us via the contact page and ask for an invite.
People from other sanghas can join the  Beyond the Temple Facebook Group . It’s a support group for anyone who has left their Buddhist sangha after hearing revelations of abuse by their teacher or after experiencing such abuse. It’s for people who see ethical behaviour, love, compassion and introspection as the core of their spiritual path. The focus is not on the abuses, but on ourselves and our spiritual life as we recover from our experience of spiritual abuse and look to the future. Click here and request to join.
The What Now? Reference Material page has links to a wealth of articles in the topics related to abuse in Buddhist communities. For links to places to assist in healing from abuse see the sangha care resources page.
Those of you who are interested in ‘keeping Buddhism clean’ could ‘Like’ the Dharma Protectors Facebook page, which posts links to related articles as they come to hand.
 
 

LIES, DAMNED LIES & LERAB LING – part 1

Today we have a guest post by Jo Green in which he takes a look at the latest video update from Lerab ling and unpacks the language used by Lerab Ling’s ‘Superior’ . (Ugh. I can’t write that word without rolling my eyes!) If you think Rigpa students aren’t being manipulated by the leaders of their organisation, you really should read this.
VIDEO NASTIES
Today I watched the latest video update from Rigpa’s epicentre, Lerab Ling. It was a mixture of the depressingly predictable with the truly reprehensible. By the end, my jaw had dropped so far that I may need reconstructive surgery to be able to eat again. But that’s not a worry: with this much nausea I have no appetite. I haven’t seen such a total failure of compassion, combined with complete rejection of the facts, since the last Trump rally.
What has caused this much distress is not just what was said but what was not said. Back in last August, when Patrick Gaffney and Dominique Side took to the stage at Lerab Ling to address the whole Rigpa sangha online, there were at least some miserably vague, morally equivocal acknowledgements that something had gone wrong, such as when Patrick said, “We have to take charge of this situation and do our best to resolve it in the best way possible for everybody concerned, including anybody who feels aggrieved or upset.” Obviously, words like “abuse” or “harm” or “victim” were strictly avoided, but at least there was a sense that something had happened.
That’s all gone now. In the edited 40 minutes that went out, the problems – as far as Dominique Side (the “Superior” of the Lerab Ling congregation) and Sam Truscott (the Director of Lerab Ling) were concerned – had nothing to do with people being physically injured, sexually abused, financially exploited or psychologically traumatised. No, the real problems are:

  • Because people said nasty things about Sogyal Rinpoche in a letter, students have left and the public are not coming as much. Attendance is down 50%.
  • Because people aren’t coming as much, Lerab Ling has financial problems. They have had to “let go of” 67 out of 170 workers (not all workers are paid).
  • Because people said nasty things about Sogyal and Lerab Ling in a newspaper, they had to start multiple legal actions.

I think that covers it. Apparently, none of these problems were caused in any way by Sogyal’s behaviour. It was all the result of other people causing trouble. But with the wonderful equanimity and good grace that years of study under “Rinpoche” have bestowed on them – and the advice of lawyers and financiers – they are seeing all this as “a blessing in disguise”.
Oh yes, and they told a pack of lies.
THE FICTION FACTORY
There is a really insidious fiction that Dominique Side has been elaborating for some time now, with others at Lerab Ling, and every time she comes back to it, we move further from the truth. In the video she traces their financial woes back to the latter part of 2016. She claims that because of “one media campaign” it was necessary to cancel a conference at the last moment, with a huge loss as a result. But is that what really happened?
In September 2016, Marion Dapsance’s book about Tibetan Buddhism – and more specifically, Sogyal Rinpoche and Rigpa – had been published: Les Dévots du Bouddhisme.  I read it. The book is, unquestionably, highly critical of the person and the organisation. It is also sober, academically thorough and definitely not sensationalist. It is the product of 7 years’ study for her PhD, put into a more readable form. It is also a story which begins with Dapsance sincerely wanting to explore Buddhism on a personal level.
The response of Rigpa was to issue a very angry Press Release. This was put up on the Lerab Ling website (not Rigpa.org) so one assumes that’s where it originated. Since the publication of The Letter, it has been removed.
The things it said included: “Both Rigpa and Sogyal Rinpoche categorically reject the assertions of abuse and cult-like behaviour that have been made in this book.” So, just to be clear, Sogyal HAS officially denied abusing anyone. It goes on, “this book merely recycles old, unfounded rumours and accusations that have been posted on the internet since the past fifteen years which, in fact, always originate from the same sources.” So, they are equating “heard it before” with “untrue”. Why? In fact, the vast majority of the book consists of completely original research carried out by Dapsance, plus a diary kept by a very faithful student whose view completely changed, leading him to abandon the 3-year retreat just days before the end. Dapsance wasn’t especially sneaky about researching – she even talked to Olivier Raurich, the then French National Director, about what she was doing.
Perhaps the reason they decided to take their response down is this ridiculous accusation they make against the author: “Marion Dapsance’s studies have been financed by Chinese benefactors”. They offer no evidence for this. In a public response, Dapsance made clear that her only benefactors during those seven years had been her parents. She added that she was now receiving support from Hong Kong for her research into the explorer Alexandra David-Neel: from the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation, which aims to promote Buddhist philosophy and “the application of Buddhist insights in today’s world”. Rigpa also characterise her as “with those who seem primarily motivated by their desire for fame and sensationalism”.  They did not issue a retraction or an apology.
They then point out that the same publishers put out a book that was critical of the Dalai Lama, claiming “This book presents a scathing and aggressive attack on the Dalai Lama, accusing him of being an agent of the CIA”. Even if this is the case (I haven’t read that book) what does that have to do with anything? Dapsance does not attack the Dalai Lama in the 39 references to him in her book, nor does she mention the CIA. Harper Collins publish “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying”. They also publish books written by, and sympathetic to, Donald Trump. Is Sogyal therefore a Trump supporter?
FAKE NEWS ABOUT NEWS
 A few weeks later, a regional/local newspaper, Midi Libre – which had published many news stories about Lerab Ling, of various kinds – put out a feature on Lerab Ling and the accusations against Sogyal Rinpoche.
A few days after, the Press Release was re-issued, now with an explanatory letter from Sam Truscott and Judith Soussans, the Rigpa/Lerab Ling PR manager, which complained, “For several weeks, Rigpa and Sogyal Rinpoche have been the victims of a malicious media campaign based on the publication of a highly critical and extremely prejudiced book… We are deeply shocked and dismayed at the way Lerab Ling and our spiritual director, Sogyal Rinpoche, have been depicted. In no way does this picture correspond to reality.”
Let’s unpick that. First of all, most people would absolutely recognise the reality the book describes: how when you first go to Rigpa, knowing nothing, wanting an introduction to meditation, you find you are taught to fixate upon the image of Sogyal Rinpoche. You’d recognise him turning up late for teachings at retreats and then spending ages berating people. You may well have experienced being taken aside by instructors who then check your reactions to his strange behaviour and tell you to accept this as “crazy wisdom”, no matter how it may seem. As for the stories of abuse: they’re everywhere.
And what “malicious media campaign”? The book attracted some press coverage. It’s normal for publishers to send books out to newspapers – it’s how books get noticed, so people buy them. If the subject is newsworthy, that helps to get coverage. It’s not “malicious” and it’s not a campaign: it’s just some journalists and editors independently thinking, “This sound interesting”. Midi Libre were the only ones to do more extensive coverage and their articles were not taken up by the national press. Also, these articles were behind a paywall, so only people who bought the paper that day, or were subscribers, could see them.
Nonetheless, in this new video Dominique Side claims that these specific articles were the direct cause of the last-minute cancellation of “The 5th International Forum on Buddhism and Medicine” at Lerab Ling, due to take place two weeks after publication. The significant income loss that the centre took as a result was the beginning of all their current financial woes, she claims. It was all the fault of the “fake, fake, disgusting news,” in the words of Sogyal’s publishing companion, Donald Trump.
Really? I mean REALLY? Some articles behind a paywall, in a regional paper, in French, could bring this whole international event crashing down? So, what happened? All of the speakers heard about it and abandoned ship? Everybody asked for a refund? Dominique Side doesn’t say, nor has anybody given a coherent explanation. So, what might have happened?
Well, when the going gets tough, Sogyal has a habit of getting going. Around 1994, when the “Janice Doe” abuse case in the USA was in the news, Sogyal suddenly felt the need to go on retreat and thus, sadly, “could not be reached for comment”. Then, curiously enough, the next North American Retreat was moved to Canada, so Sogyal had no need to set foot in the USA and have his teaching interrupted by the serving of a writ. When The Letter came out last year, Sogyal was once again gripped by the sudden need to go into retreat (perhaps more in the military than religious sense), but this was stepped up to “retirement” after the Dalai Lama criticised him. His location has remained a Rigpa secret ever since (although it’s called “Thailand”).
So, it’s entirely possible, if he and Rigpa were feeling so much heat after the fallout from the publication of the book, that he had again speedily left the country and decided to cancel the event. Or they didn’t sell enough tickets. Or many of the international speakers felt uneasy about sharing a stage with him. Dominique skips over an incident that did attract a lot of attention: just a few weeks before the conference, Sogyal thought it would be OK to punch a nun painfully hard in the stomach, in front of 1000 people. Now, it doesn’t take a “media campaign” for that kind of thing to get around. 1000 shocked people will talk.
THE PERVERSION OF LANGUAGE
 The most hypocritical aspect of the repeated use of the phrase “media campaign”, by her and the rest of the Rigpa leadership, is that they know perfectly well which party in all this has mounted a media campaign: it’s them. Rigpa has, for years, hired PR companies to help “spin” stories about Sogyal’s bad behaviour. This was particularly so during the fallout from the “Mimi” story in a 2011 Canadian documentary, for which they used PR people in various countries. Amongst other things, senior Rigpa staff were given training in dealing with the media. Olivier Raurich, the former National Director in France said they were told to say, “‘The Dalai Lama is supporting Sogyal Rinpoche one hundred percent’, and repeat that, only that, without answering ‘yes’ or ‘no’.” Perhaps this is why the Dalai Lama recently felt it necessary to make so very clear that he was not.
Given their past record, it’s almost certain that Rigpa are currently using PR people to help manage the ongoing crisis. Indeed, it’s perfectly possible that they have been taught by them to use the phrase “media campaign” to refer to any negative press coverage, in order to make them sound like victims. If Dominique and Sam want to bring the sangha up to date with what they’ve been doing, why don’t they let them all know that it’s Rigpa policy to employ PR companies? After all, it is the students’ subscriptions, retreat fees and donations that pay their bill.
There is a word that their PR/legal advisors have advised them to deploy, which they must consider has served them well. In 1994, when Patrick Gaffney had to pen the first press release defending Sogyal Rinpoche in the wake of the accusations from ‘Janice Doe’, he wrote, “These allegations are unfounded.” Remember what they said about Marion Dapsance? “This book merely recycles old, unfounded rumours and accusations.” And what do we find Sam Truscott saying on French TV at Lerab Ling’s Open Day in May? “These accusations are completely unfounded.”
“Unfounded” is the pernicious little word behind which they pompously stand, but let’s be clear about what they are saying. The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “not based on fact; untrue”. The Oxford English Dictionary says: “Having no foundation or basis in fact.” So what Sam Truscott did was call all the letter writers LIARS. He also called every woman brave enough to talk about being sexually abused by Sogyal Rinpoche a LIAR. Likewise, he branded every trustee or director who ever spoke up about abuse a LIAR.
Now, it’s one thing to say, as Sam did, that he never saw or heard anything bad occur (although perhaps he’s overdue for eye and ear tests) and he could even hide behind the lame old “nothing has been proved in court,” but to say all victims and witnesses are liars is simply disgraceful and profoundly morally perverted. This is a new low and he should be ashamed.

Addition 18th August 2018

Since this post was published, I have received new information around what happened at Lerab Ling during the Dzogchen retreat of 2016, after the publication of the Marion Dapsance book and before the conference. A French student told me that, during the retreat, French students were summoned, two or three times, to gather in the Guru Lakang room on the first floor, whilst the rest were invited to meditate in the temple below. Feeling like the bad guys, these French students were told to put up their hands if they had any doubts and these were then worked on.

Although this was about the effect the book might have had, the title of the book and the name of the author were never shared, presumably for fear of encouraging people to take a look. The Rigpa/Lerab Ling PR manager, Judith Soussans, led the sessions. She later advised people to Google The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying rather than the one by Marion Dapsance, in order to keep hers lower down searches.

Another instructor brought in was an academic from the Sorbonne who said that the (unnamed) book was badly written, of poor academic quality and was just gutter press sort of stuff, reporting gossip.

These are all classic Rigpa disinformation tactics to make sure nobody thinks for themselves:

Withhold details

Persuade people not to inform themselves

Denigrate the individual concerned

As far as the cancelled conference goes, some details of what was planned can still be found here. Its theme was “Living With Cancer”. Interestingly, on that web page they have a competition to win free places. A sign of difficulty in selling tickets? It should be pointed out that this was put out before Midi Libre published their reports.

Although some have confirmed that they were told the conference was cancelled as a result of what was said in the press, others have informed me that the reason they’d been given for cancellation was that it wasn’t possible to properly care for cancer sufferers on-site. This sounds very strange, given that the conference is clearly targeted at health care professionals, not patients. Not to mention that having cancer does not prevent you from going to Lerab Ling. It’s ironic to consider that, at that very moment, Sogyal Rinpoche himself was probably already experiencing symptoms of cancer.

If anybody can corroborate what happened at the 2016 Dzogchen Retreat – especially French students – or around the cancellation of the conference, please share your experiences.

Thanks Jo for your article. The second part will be posted next week.
What do our readers think about all this. Is this your perception of that video or do you see it differently?


Private discussion on this and other related topics can be had on our  What Now Facebook Group. It is only for current and previous students of Rigpa, however, and we do moderate it closely. If you’re interested in joining, please contact us via the contact page and ask for an invite.
People from other sanghas can join the  Beyond the Temple Facebook Group . It’s a support group for anyone who has left their Buddhist sangha after hearing revelations of abuse by their teacher or after experiencing such abuse. It’s for people who see ethical behaviour, love, compassion and introspection as the core of their spiritual path. The focus is not on the abuses, but on ourselves and our spiritual life as we recover from our experience of spiritual abuse and look to the future. Click here and request to join.
The What Now? Reference Material page has links to a wealth of articles in the topics related to abuse in Buddhist communities. For links to places to assist in healing from abuse see the sangha care resources page.
Those of you who are interested in ‘keeping Buddhism clean’ could ‘Like’ the Dharma Protectors Facebook page, which posts links to related articles as they come to hand.

Issues with the Rigpa Code of Conduct

Rigpa has released their code of conduct. It comes in two documents, one is the rigpas_code_of_conduct_15_june_2018_eng and the second is shared_values_and_guidelines_of_the_rigpa_community_15_june_2018_ The second document informs and expands upon the first.
The actual code is short enough to post here:

Code of Conduct

Rigpa is an international community of individuals following the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. It is our shared wish to create a safe environment for the study and practice of the Buddhist teachings, one where we all feel a sense of responsibility for each others’ well-being and spiritual path.

Whatever their participation or role in the activities associated with Rigpa, everyone has a responsibility to conduct themselves in accordance with the laws of the land and the ethical behaviour outlined in this document.
To care for others, ourselves and our community we are committed to:

  • Acting in ways that are kind, loving and non-judgmental.
  • Being aware of our actions and the way we may affect others.
  • Acting in ways that are not aggressive or intimidating. Harassment and bullying of any kind are not tolerated under any circumstances.
  • Never treating anyone in a way that might cause physical harm or psychological trauma.

Teachers, instructors and anyone representing Rigpa at any level also commit themselves to:

  • Holding as their highest priority and motivation the welfare of the individual student, the Rigpa community and the Buddha Dharma as a whole.
  • Not entering into an intimate relationship with a participant during an event, retreat, course, or any situation during which they are in a position of authority. In other circumstances, any intimate relationships are expected to be based on mutual respect and openly acknowledged, meaning non-secretive.
  • Taking part in regular training in ethical behaviour, which will include recognising misconduct, receiving complaints and dealing with grievances.

Not as it appears

On the surface this looks like the kind of code that would make sure that the emotional, physical and sexual abuses in Rigpa attested to by various people over the last forty years could never happen again, but if you look closely, you will see that it doesn’t actually do that. If you take just the code document it looks like it applies to everyone, students and teachers – and a Rigpa representative assured me that it does – but when you read the ‘Shared values and Guidelines for the Rigpa Community,’ you discover a ‘specific’ category for Vajrayana and Dzogchen which appears to be a loophole for any lama wanting to practice ‘crazy wisdom.’

Why is it in two documents? If you asked, you’d probably be told that it’s so the document isn’t too long, but it could also be so just the good looking part can be displayed and shared without the part that makes it clear that the code document isn’t worth the webspace it takes up.

Rather than a document designed to stop abuse by lamas; this looks to me like a document designed to make students and the public feel that the right thing has been done, that Rigpa has dealt with the abuse issue, and has abandoned their policy of ignoring the abuse at the core of their organisation, but does it provide any real protection or is it just another step in their plan to minimise and move on from the fall out of the revelations of the 8 close students in July 2017 so they can get back to business as usual?

Does Rigpa know the meaning of the words they use in the code?

The problem is that without Rigpa management actually labelling their lama’s behaviour as abuse and publicly denouncing it, this code of conduct is nothing more than a smokescreen. Why? Because management and devoted students of Sogyal Rinpoche do not recognise abuse as abuse. Rigpa and Sogyal have a history of saying what people want to hear, but their words have no meaning because they are confused about the real meaning of words such as ‘kindness’, ‘abuse’, ‘inappropriate behaviour’, ‘benefit’ and ‘harm’ when used in relation to a master/guru/lama.

For example, the Rigpa press statement that came out in 2011 in response to the Canadian video In the Name of Enlightenment, which also raised the abuse issue, said “We have only ever seen him [Sogyal] act for the benefit of other people, and with their best interests at heart,” and this was distributed by people that, according to what was revealed in the 2017 letter by the 8 close students and confirmed to me by others in a similar position in the organisation, both witnessed and experienced physical and emotional abuse at the hands of the person they are defending.

That press release also said, “Nevertheless, any allegations of inappropriate behaviour are taken very seriously by the organization.” Not seriously enough to put a stop to it, however. And not seriously enough to reach out to those harmed with some offer of support or assistance. One can only assume that they were either lying or that they have no idea what inappropriate behaviour looks like.

They say the right things but don’t follow them, just like their master.

The problem with a belief system that distorts one’s perception of abuse

You can’t stop abuse if you don’t recognise abuse as abuse, and for so long as vajrayana ‘masters’ are held to a different set of rules to everyone else the problems around ethical behaviour by lamas in Rigpa and Tibetan Buddhism as a whole will continue.

What is kindness? In Rigpa we were taught to see Sogyal Rinpoche emotionally abusing his close students as ‘the greatest kindness’ and as a ‘training’ that will bring the student to enlightenment more quickly than one could achieve without it. This belief may no longer be taught to new students, but it will still be the prescribed view for those entering the vajrayana path because it’s a core belief of the organisation.

What is harassment and bullying? I have witnessed people being bullied by Sogyal Rinpoche, but they don’t see it as bullying. They see it as ‘training’, as a blessing. Many witnessed him punching a nun during a retreat at Lerab Ling. She ran off stage in tears and obviously in pain, but in a letter written months later, she declared that she saw the interaction as beneficial. In her mind, it wasn’t an assault, even though many hundreds of people saw her being punched.

What causes physical harm or psychological trauma? At the vajrayana level of Rigpa any perception of abuse by the lama is seen as a fault in the student’s own perception, not in the behaviour of the lama, and the value of an action is not the action itself but the motivation behind it. According this this belief system, if your motivation is good, the results of your actions are good, even if it appears negative. Also an enlightened being can do no harm, even if it appears as harm to us ‘lesser’ beings, and we can’t judge if someone is enlightened or not because we are a ‘lesser’ being. Since we are instructed to see our lama as a buddha, regardless of his actual status in reality, this means that whatever our lama does is seen as enlightened activity, and therefore not something that could cause harm or trauma. Circuitous logic indeed, but that’s the interpretation fostered in Rigpa.

What is the highest priority for the welfare of the individual student? In terms of Buddhism, the highest priority is the student’s enlightenment. And in Rigpa the quickest way to enlightenment is seen as having a master who attacks your hidden faults—or is it abuse?

The specific category for vajrayana and dzogchen

The “Shared Values and Guidelines for the Rigpa Community” document is a longer document which you can download by clicking here.  The problematic aspect of this is the ‘specific’ and separate category for vajrayana and dzogchen levels of the path in which  students give ‘consent’ to unspecified behaviour.

Here’s the relevant parts:
Entering the Vajrayana Path

  • Individuals who choose to follow the vajrayana path, and be guided by a master as set out in the vajrayana and Dzogchen teachings can only do so by making a formal request for this level of spiritual guidance. They will receive teachings on the ethics and commitments specifc to vajrayana and Dzogchen.
  • Making such a formal request is a serious step, which should come only after discussion with experienced instructors about the nature of the teachings and what it means to receive this guidance. It should be based on a strong foundation of study, practice, investigation and contemplation by the student, developed over a period of time. It is the responsibility of the vajrayana master to prepare the student for the master-disciple relationship.
  • Such formal requests are completely optional and voluntary, and when made by a student, constitute consent to this level of spiritual guidance.

For Teachers
This section is specifc to qualifed Vajrayana and Dzogchen masters.
In the case of qualifed vajrayana and Dzogchen masters, there are requirements and commitments specifc to the tantras, and based entirely on bodhichitta, with which they will be very familiar. Each connection between a student and a teacher is unique and based on mutual consent. We highlight the following:

  • It is the responsibility of the teacher to prepare the student for the disciple master relationship. This must be entered into consciously and through the student making a formal request. But the student needs first to create a strong foundation of study, practice, investigation and contemplation and also discuss with experienced instructors about the nature of the teachings and what it means to receive this level of spiritual guidance.
  • In the context of the disciple-master relationship, it is perfectly acceptable for both the student and the teacher to make their boundaries known, and for the student to seek clarifications from the teacher, with the support of senior students, or instructors or teachers.

The issue is the specific category

Rigpa is vajrayana and dzogchen. It has always been vajrayana and Dzogchen. Rigpa prides itself on bringing vajrayana and dzogchen to the West, and that’s what draws Western students to Tibetan Buddhism. So this special category is at the core of the organisation and represents the dzogchen level students most desire to attain, and yet, despite the assurance given to me by someone in Rigpa that the code of conduct does cover this specific category, it still reads like ‘an escape clause’ for tantric gurus in the form of the student giving consent.

Dzongsar Khyentse’s (DZK)stamp is all over this—the secrecy, the receiving teachings before making the ‘serious step’ into a tantric relationship with a guru (his evaluation of what went wrong in Rigpa was inadequate education) and the formal request. You might be asked to sign something like Dzongsar Khyentse’s ‘Deed of Agreement’ that he posted on Facebook and then hastily removed when people complained that it was in extremely poor taste. That deed of agreement certainly sheds light on what might be meant by this formal request and ‘consent’.

The core of DZK’s teachings on vajrayana as explained in his talks at Rigpa is that once you take a lama as your tantric guru, you are sworn to secrecy, you see everything the guru does as beneficial—even if it is unethical—and you do not criticise. He made it clear that that part of his view of vajrayana was nonnegotiable.

In line with this approach, in Rigpa, according to this document, once you have accepted a lama as your tantric guru, you’ve given your consent. Consent to what?  “… consent to this level of spiritual guidance.” 
What this level of spiritual guidance entails is not explained. You’ll be told that later. But we know, because we’ve been there and done that.

What does it mean to receive the guidance of a vajrayana master?

The instructions you’ll get on what it means to receive the guidance of a vajrayana master will be the same instructions we received before, the ones that led students willingly into an abusive situation. Rigpa hasn’t changed their beliefs on this. If they had, they would have admitted and denounced the abuse. And DZK, their main advisor, has the same views. They are not stated in this ‘code of conduct’, but you can be sure that they are the same views that led to an environment that facilitated abuse in the first place, views that basically stop students recognising abuse as abuse and bind them to secrecy, even if they find themselves abused.

Why is there a separate category for vajrayana and dzogchen teachers if they are covered by the code? And since what is meant by ‘this level of spiritual guidance’ is not explained, what kind of behaviour is ‘consent’ needed for? Why can’t they be transparent about this?

The whole idea of consent, formal application, and instructions on what it means to receive guidance from a vajrayana master suggests that this special secret category has it’s own rules. And those of us who were indoctrinated by Rigpa for years know it does. That’s the whole problem here: this idea that whatever the vajra guru does we have to see it as beneficial even if it appears  contrary to basic human ethics.

That kind of  idea has no place in the modern world. And unless Rigpa releases a statement denouncing the behaviour of Sogyal Rinpoche, we have to assume that they still hold to this fundamentalist view. Especially when they are not being transparent about what the consent is for. And especially when, according to what we were told in Rigpa, those we saw being emotionally abused consented to their treatment by Sogyal Rinpoche by agreeing to be ‘trained’. Why wouldn’t that ‘consent to this level of spiritual guidance’ be seen as waving the code of conduct?

The repercussions of consent – never sign away your rights

By making a formal request for this ‘level of spiritual guidance’ and giving your consent to whatever that guidance includes, you will have signed your rights away. You could be said to have ‘asked for’ whatever the guru dishes out, and, presumably, due to the requirement for instruction, with full knowledge of what you’ve gotten yourself into. This would make it even less likely that anyone who eventually realises they have been abused rather than enlightened might say anything about it – let alone make a formal grievance.

Any formal agreement of consent has the potential to void the code of conduct for that student and so this code does not stop abusive behaviour by tantric gurus; instead it hides it behind a benign exterior, forces it even further underground and ties the gag even tighter to make sure that no word of it gets out.

You could say that it’s their business if they know what they’re doing, but even if students are actually warned that the guru can do whatever he likes to them and they can’t complain, students desire for the teachings and for enlightenment is so strong that they will likely ignore the warning, just as some of those who were abused did, and just as we who watched emotional abused at retreats ignored it because we wanted the teachings and figured the ‘training’ was part of the package.

True consent is not possible where there is a power imbalance

When the person requesting consent holds something of value (like special teachings and a fast track to enlightenment) back from the person they want consent from, refusing to deliver it unless they have that consent, any consent given is not truly consent because of the power imbalance. This is a point many people will miss, and it’s a real problem, because when someone complains, they will be reminded that they ‘consented’. That ‘consent’ will be held over them, a weapon to keep them quiet.

Some of those abused by Sogyal Rinpoche did give their consent to being ‘trained’ but they didn’t know that that training would mean that they would be assaulted or expected to provide sexual favours or that they should accept every bit of emotional abuse dished out to them. Will that be in the explanation given to potential tantric disciples? I doubt it.

Remember that these instructions will be given by people whose beliefs mean that they do not recognise abuse as abuse when it’s dished out by one’s tantric guru. And if those who were abused did know that they might be assaulted, they didn’t know that the result for them would be trauma, not enlightenment.

We were so keen to get the Dzogchen teachings (highest tantra) that we were willing to do whatever it took and that including putting our hands up for training. We were perfectly willing to ignore the possible repercussions of giving our power so totally to another, and perfectly willing not to examine too closely. That will still be the case.

Lured by the promise of enlightenment, students will still willingly embrace the demands placed on them by tantric gurus, only now they will be signing on the dotted line, so that unscrupulous lamas, who might think they are above any code imposed on them by students, can rest assured that they will face no backlash should they step over the line into abusive behaviour. And that appeared to be the whole point of DZK’s ‘contract’—a way to cover his arse.

What about the behaviour of the tantric guru?

Mention is made of requirements and commitments specific to the tantras, and based entirely on bodhichitta, with which they will be very familiar. They will be familiar with them, will they? Like Sogyal was? How about making potential students familiar with them?

“Towards the lifestyle and activity of the lama, may wrong view not arise for even an instant, and may I see whatever he does, whether it seems to be in accordance with the Dharma or not, as a teaching for me.”
A GUIDE TO THE PRACTICE OF NGÖNDRO. 2nd edition – January 2007, published by Rigpa. Page 210. 

So when you look closely, this ‘code of conduct’ would not stop the same kind of abuse from happening again. It’s a white wash, something Rigpa can use to show charity commissions and the public that they have dealt with the issue, while not dealing with the core issue. Unfortunately it will also manipulate naïve students into thinking they are in good hands.

Cult recruitment tactic

The Rigpa ‘code of conduct’ makes it clear that you are not told when you enter Rigpa what will be required of you at later stages of your involvement with the organisation. You are told only that the the ethics and commitments specifc to vajrayana and Dzogchen will be revealed to you at a later stage. Clearly, despite any assurances that the code still applies, the requirements change at this point.  The truth of the matter, unstated here but made clear in Rigpa literature, is that suddenly you are expected to take whatever the person you accept as your tantric guru dishes out.

This deception is a cult tactic of not revealing the true nature of the cult at the recruitment stage. The manipulation is that you are lured into thinking that the organisation is benign because it has a code of conduct that looks just fine. New recruits will not be aware that that once they enter the vajrayana and accept a tantric guru—presumably any tantric guru— they will be expected to “see whatever he does, whether it seems to be in accordance with the Dharma or not, as a teaching” not as assault, sexual coercion or emotional abuse. If you don’t recognise that you’re being abused, as many still in Rigpa don’t, you won’t turn to a code of conduct or a grievance procedure even if there is one.

“The main methods of cult recruitment revolve around deception and manipulation. Potential recruits are not told the true nature or intentions of the group. Instead, recruiters portray it as something mainstream, low-pressure and benign.” https://people.howstuffworks.com/cult3.htm

Has anything really changed? Are you surprised?

I haven’t even touched here on the fact that sexual relations between students and teachers are only banned during courses and retreats, not banned entirely outside of a marriage! Read the comments for other problems people see with this code.


Private discussion on this and other related topics can be had on our Secret Facebook Group. It is only for current and previous students of Rigpa, however, and we do moderate it closely. If you’re interested in joining, please contact us via the contact page and ask for an invite.
Ex-Rigpa students and their Rigpa dharma friends who want to move on from the discussion of abuse in Rigpa can stay in touch through the Dharma Companions Facebook Group.
The What Now? Reference Material page has links to a wealth of articles in the topics related to abuse in Buddhist communities. For links to places to assist in healing from abuse see the sangha care resources page.
Those of you who are interested in ‘keeping Buddhism clean’ could ‘Like’ the Dharma Protectors Facebook page.

Is Rigpa a Cult?

Today I’m asking the hard question, and I’d love to hear what you think. My reflection is at the end in vlog form, but I include some salient points from a Huffington Post article for those who aren’t into listening to vlogs.
The quotes are all from Jayanti Tamm, author of Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult (Three Rivers Press). She is a Visiting Professor in the MFA Program at Queens College, CUNY. Reference 


Nobody sets out to join a cult! And here we’re talking about harmful cults, not the benign meaning of cult as it refers to non-mainstream religious organisations.
The word ‘cult’ is loaded with negative connotations. It makes us think of brainwashing, lunatics, and mass suicide, so cults are careful to maintain a positive image in all their marketing. Their websites look good; they offer solutions to our problems, happiness and ultimately enlightenment.

“What isn’t included is the reality beneath the surface, the leader’s demands for obedience from its members, the psychological pressure, the ability to subordinate all activities to the leader’s will.”

Excessive devotion to a charismatic leader and the leader’s vision brings about a willingness to surrender control to the person who is seen as having the answer to all our problems, both personal and global. This willingness to give up control and to believe everything the leader says because he or she appears to have the answers we seek, makes members easy to manipulate.
Devotees who please the leader and work to fulfill his or her vision, ascend the ranks and gain special status and privileges. Pleasing the leader means doing whatever he or she asks of them, and so he or she comes to dictate followers’ actions and thoughts. Conformity is enforced through public shaming or rewarding by the leader and by other members judgements.
Once you’ve given up your critical thinking faculty and given obedience to your leader, you’ve opened yourself up to the kinds of abuses we associate with cults—emotional, physical and sexual.

 “When hyper devotion is the expected behaviour, for acceptance new recruits tend to rapidly thrust themselves into the prescribed lifestyle. … [Devotees can] “plunge into belief, into faith so deeply, so forcefully that critical and analytical red flags, even if they once appeared, are snapped off. Belief and faith are such intoxicants that logical reason and facts become blurry and nonsensical.”

“A narcissist with insatiable needs for power, control, and, very often fame, the leader seeks affirmation of supreme authority through alignment with public figures and celebrities, achieving large numbers of recruits, and amassing private fiefdoms.”

“Those who violate the rules are punished and eventually, to maintain the coherent group unity, expelled.”

The boundary between cults and religion is not always easy to ascertain. There is a continuum between positive and negative, but one point is very clear, if there is abuse in a ‘religious’ organisation and a code of secrecy and enabling, that organisation is harmful to its members and therefore can be considered a harmful cult.

“With the right ambitious and charismatic leader, any group easily could morph into a cult. What prevents that from occurring is that most established religions and groups have accountability mechanisms that restrain that from happening.”

10 marks of a cult:

  1. The leader and group are always correct and anything the leader does can be justified.
  2. Questions, suggestions, or critical inquiry are forbidden.
  3. Members incessantly scramble with cramped schedules and activities full of largely meaningless work based on the leader’s agenda
  4. Followers are meant to believe that they are never good enough.
  5. Required dependency upon the leader and group for even the most basic problem-solving.
  6. Reporting on members for disobedient actions or thoughts is mandated and rewarded.
  7. Monetary, sexual, or servile labor is expected to gain promotion.
  8. The ‘outside’ world — often including family and friends — is presented as rife with impending catastrophe, evil, and temptations.
  9. Recruitment of new members is designed to be purposefully upbeat and vague about the actual operations of the leader and group.
  10. Former members are shunned and perceived as hostile.

In less points (from the Christian Courier https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/250-how-to-identify-a-cult) :

  • Unquestioning commitment to a domineering leader;
  • Dissent and discussion discouraged;
  • Cult members lavish the leader in luxury;
  • Polarization of members – us against them mentality and secretive inner circles;
  • Rebellion against other sources of authority – our rules are above the rules of society, law and so on;
  • Alteration of personality – one becomes compliant and obedient.

Here’s my take on these points:

In the video I also talk about the continuim between the destructive cult on one hand and the healthy organisation on the other hand. This graphic will help you get an idea of what I’m talking about.
BEST-QUALITY-Influence-Continuum-9-12-16.pptx-pdf
So what do you think? Where does Rigpa fit on this continuim. Is it a cult? Oh, and a warning: Given the legal proceedings in France, Rigpa is not above suing people who call them a cult, so think about your words before posting, and make it clear that anything you say is just your subjective opinion.
Private discussion on this and other related topics can be had on our Secret Facebook Group. Is is only for current and previous students of Rigpa, however, and we do moderate it closely.  If you’re interested in joining, please contact us via the contact page and ask for an invite.
Ex-Rigpa students and their Rigpa dharma friends who want to move on from the discussion of abuse in Rigpa can stay in touch through the Dharma Companions Facebook Group.  
The What Now? Reference Material page has links to a wealth of articles in the topics related to abuse in Buddhist communities. For links to places to assist in healing from abuse see the sangha care resources page.
Those of you who are interested in ‘keeping Buddhism clean’ could ‘Like’ the Dharma Protectors Facebook page. 
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Response to Bernie from Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche

Yesterday Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche sent a letter to Bernie S in reply to a letter Bernie sent to him last August. The August letter was published on the How Did it Happen Blog and a link to it was posted here. Rinpoche requested that we also post a link to his reply. It begins with ….
Dear Bernie,
I am sorry for not responding much sooner to your letter of 23rd August. The main reason is that I’m just so lazy but also pretend to be busy – a pretence that ends up actually making me busy. In fact, I had started to respond to your letter months ago but somehow never got around to finishing this return letter till now.
However, I want to assure you that, because the Buddhadharma and especially the Vajrayana are dear to my heart, I do pay attention as much as time allows to what you and others write. So, from my heart, I want to offer my sincere appreciation for the great effort and thoughtfulness you and many others have been putting into the dialogue of the past seven months. …
Read the rest of the letter here.


 
Current and previous students of Rigpa wanting private support are welcome to join the What Now? Facebook group. Please contact us via the contact page and ask for an invite.
Ex-Rigpa students and their dharma friends who want to move on from the discussion of abuse in Rigpa can stay in touch through the Dharma Companions Facebook Group.  
The What Now? Reference Material page has links to a wealth of articles in the topics related to abuse in Buddhist communities. For links to places to assist in healing from abuse see the sangha care resources page.

Is Vajrayana Buddhism a Cult Religion? Part 2

 
In the last post on this topic, I looked at the general markers of a cult and how they relate to vajrayana and examined devotion to the teacher in vajrayana in terms of whether we were devoted to a person or to an abstract principle—the first being the marker of a cult and the second of a religion.
Today I look at the role of unquestioning obedience, removal of the right to criticise and worldly law in vajrayana, then I provide a conclusion to the two posts.

Feudalism

The following points of contention in Tibetan Buddhism are all aspects of a feudal culture and in the modern world are markers of cults where power can easily be abused. Though those who resist change will cite teachings that give reasons why obedience, not criticising and being a law unto themselves have spiritual relevance, one should question whether those teachings are definitive or provisional, whether they are in accord with the Buddha’s teachings, whether they were given with the welfare of the student or of maintaining the lamas’ power in mind, and given the ease with which lamas abuse their power these days, whether the results of reinterpreting them in line with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Minguyr Rinpoche’s points of view would not be more beneficial than harmful.

Complete obedience

Though some teachers insist on it, others don’t, so clearly complete obedience to the teacher is not necessary for Vajrayana practice. It’s a matter of interpretation.
“According to Vajrayana (or Tantrayana), if a guru gives an instruction that is not in accord with the Dharma, the student should not follow it and should go to the teacher to clarify and explain why they cannot. This advice comes directly from the Buddha and is found in the scriptures. The same applies if you think the advice of your teacher is unskillful or unwise, even though it may be ethical. The purity of the teacher’s motivation is not enough: the instruction must be appropriate for the situation and the culture of the place.” HH Dalai Lama, Dharamsala 1993.
“Ancient texts take the authenticity of the guru for granted. Yet in our degenerate times, we cannot find perfect teachers. If the teacher has obscurations, then we risk taking bad advice, so how can we apply devotion and pure perception? My father (Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche) told me never to go against my own intuitive wisdom in order to follow the guru’s advice. Of course, if the advice concerns dharma, we think about it very carefully. If the advice concerns worldly things then, my father told me, we definitely have no obligation to follow it.” Mingyur Rinpoche, Turning Confusion into Clarity, pp 300-301.
To avoid a vajrayana cult, avoid teachers who insist on complete obedience, no matter what the reasoning. There is nothing detrimental to the transformative power of vajrayana if a student retains the right to say, “No.” If they feel they have to obey when they don’t want to for any reason, they are likely to end up feeling abused rather than transformed. S&M devotees have a safe word, why not vajrayana students? Some students will obey without question, some will not, but the power to choose should remain in their hands.
The Words of My Perfect Teacher was presumably written about a perfect teacher, so we should be careful not to apply its teachings on obedience rigidly to our modern world. There is a big difference between a teacher demanding obedience and a student giving it willingly and always retaining the right to say “No.” If a vajrayana teacher wants to avoid being labelled a cult leader, he or she needs to understand this point.
 

Silencing dissent

A Cultwatch article on how cults work states, “Cult members are usually very fearful of disobeying or disagreeing with leadership. Healthy organisations, however, are not threatened by debating issues.”
The traditional view on not criticising one’s teacher for fear of going to hell is definitely a mark of a cult, and this is another area that Tibetan Buddhism needs to look at closely. It’s also an area where different teachers have different views, which means that vajrayana itself does not demand one doesn’t ever criticise one’s teacher, only some teachers do—apparently those who haven’t adjusted to the fact that some lamas abuse their position and so need to be criticised for the safety of their students. For the more flexible lamas, whether or not one breaks one sacred relationship with one’s teacher has to do with the circumstances and the student’s motivation.
Dzongsar Khyentse puts the hard line view succinctly, “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.”
In the vajrayana belief system a breakage of samaya results in rebirth in hells, hence the fear factor.
In terms of what constitutes a cult, the reasoning behind such demands is irrelevant, it’s the result of the belief that is looked at, and the result of such a belief is that people fear to raise issues that should be raised, and if they do raise them, they are shut down as they were in Rigpa. In an era when lamas cannot be trusted not to abuse their power, insisting on no criticism under any circumstance is unhealthy at best and at worst can lead to students being harmed and the issue covered up for decades.
But it doesn’t have to be that way in Vajrayana. HHDL says,” Even though I have deep faith and respect for my teachers and consider them high spiritual beings, I did not hesitate to criticize their behavior because those actions were wrong no matter who did them. I didn’t speak out of hatred or disrespect, but because I love the Buddhadharma and their actions went against it.
“It is essential to distinguish between two things: the person and their action. We criticize the action, not the person. The person is neutral: he or she has the wish to be happy and overcome suffering, and once their negative action stops, they will become a friend. The troublemaker is the disturbing attitudes and actions. Speaking out against the action does not mean that we hate the person. In meditation, I try to develop genuine compassion for these people while still opposing their actions. Thus, we may criticize a teacher’s abusive actions or negative qualities while we respect them as a person at the same time. There are still some beneficial aspects of the guru. A mistaken action doesn’t destroy their good qualities. If you criticize in this way, there is no danger of hellish rebirth as a result. Motivation is the key: speaking out of hatred or desire for revenge is wrong. However, if we know that by not speaking out, their negative behavior will continue and will harm the Buddhadharma, and we still remain silent, that is wrong.”
Were it not for His Holiness and Mingyur Rinpoche, I might have come to a different conclusion to the question of whether or not vajrayana is a cult religion. They and other teachers like them prove that these cultish aspects are not intrinsic to vajrayana itself. They show the way for modern lamas to teach, a way that will ensure their community does not become a cult in the negative sense of the word.
As regards criticising a teacher, Mingyur Rinpoche in his Lion’s Roar article says, “The appropriate response depends on the situation. In some cases, if a teacher has acted inappropriately or harmfully but acknowledges the wrongdoing and commits to avoiding it in the future, then dealing with the matter internally may be adequate. But if there is a long-standing pattern of ethical violations, or if the abuse is extreme, or if the teacher is unwilling to take responsibility, it is appropriate to bring the behavior out into the open.
“In these circumstances, it is not a breach of samaya to bring painful information to light. Naming destructive behaviors is a necessary step to protect those who are being harmed or who are in danger of being harmed in the future, and to safeguard the health of the community.”
This is the view that teachers of Tibetan Buddhism and students of vajrayana need to adopt for the health of their community, to avoid the harmful cult label and for Tibetan Buddhism to find a respected place in Western society.

The ultimate red flag cult indicator for vajrayana

In his book Cults in America, a scholar named James R. Lewis explains a number of properties he would expect a dangerous sect to have. He says that probably the most important characteristic is that “The organization is willing to place itself above the law.” (See http://abuse.wikia.com/wiki/Cult_checklist)
Unfortunately some lamas do place vajrayana above the law, and this belief that vajrayana has its own rules separate to the rule of law is the single most dangerous aspect of vajrayana for both students and society.
Vajrayana as a whole does not do this, however, because lamas like HH Dalai Lama, Mingyur Rinpoche and others make it clear that society’s norms must be obeyed.
Again from his Lion’s Roar article, MR says, “It should go without saying that when schools, businesses, and other public institutions are expected to adhere to a code of conduct and the laws of the land, then spiritual organizations should be role models of ethical behavior. And teachers even more so.”
Those who declare, for any reason, that there is nothing wrong with Sogyal’s behaviour as outlined in the July letter by the 8 close students or that there is nothing wrong with a great lama killing someone (Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche, Rigpa Paris 2017) have put vajrayana above the law and as such have stepped into cult territory. Such extreme views are similar in their danger to society as those of fundamentalist Muslims who believe that blowing up a bus full of innocent people is spiritually beneficial. Such ideas are simply not acceptable in a society where cults are considered harmful to members and dangerous to society as a whole.

Conclusion

Based on the above thinking, I believe that vajrayana is not a cult religion in itself. Some vajrayana communities are cults, however, or have the potential to become one very easily. Where a particular community falls in terms of the label ‘cult’ depends on how the lama teaches devotion (do they demand that you give up your discernment) and pure perception (do they demand that you see their questionable actions as beneficial), and whether or not they demand complete obedience and consider that Vajrayana beliefs place lamas above the law of the land in which they teach.  All this brings us back to the importance of checking out what a lama actually believes, how he or she behaves, and what they will demand of us if we become his or her student.
In this lama-centred, feudal-structured religion if Tibetan Buddhism as a whole wants the respect of Western society, then the lamas need to come together and examine their interpretations of the above teachings and adapt them to modern circumstances under the guidance of His Holiness the Dalai Lama who is respected and trusted by most people in the West.
The bottom line is that healthy religious organisations (healthy meaning not a cult) allow open criticism and the free flow of information. They do not demand obedience or devotion, or reward them with desirable teachings or attention, or punish their lack with fear tactics. They do not isolate and condemn anyone who does criticise, do not manipulate their members to gain money or servitude, do not think themselves above the law, and make it quite clear what is expected of the member at each stage of their path. Vajrayana teachers and those running their communities need to be aware of just where they may be stepping over the line from a healthy organisation to an unhealthy one.
I hope that those running Rigpa can see where they have stepped over this line so they know what they have to discard for the sake of the people they profess to serve—the student.


 
On the matter of the blog, I apologise for not being able to comment on people’s comments. My inability to find the time to both write the articles and read and reply to comments, and people’s criticism of that and the moderation that I do manage to do, is one of the reasons why there will be only one more post after this.  Yes, apart from updates on any major developments, this blog is coming to an end. The Facebook group for Rigpa students and ex-Rigpa students will still operate and you can request to join it via the contact page here.
Tahlia.
 

Trust, Communication and an invitation from An Olive Branch

Ordinary people

It must be frustrating for those in Rigpa who organise the initiatives and write the communications to have everything they do viewed critically, and publically. Of course, if I and those I speak for had a voice inside Rigpa, I wouldn’t have to do it publically, but for the moment, this is the only voice many of us have.
It’s easy to forget that those doing all the work are ordinary people with jobs and families who are doing their Rigpa work for free in their spare time, so things move more slowly than people like me would like. I don’t doubt that they are doing their best, as we all are. I also suspect that most of the people engaged in this debate over unacceptable lama behaviour are working to protect the dharma. We just have different ideas of what that protection entails; for some it means sticking rigidly to every instruction ever passed down, even if it’s potentially damaging to student’s health, and for others it’s stepping outside of the provisional meaning of instructions on things like samaya and pure perception, examining the definitive meaning and, with that understanding, interpreting it for the modern world. Luckily His Holiness the Dalai Lama and other lamas have done that already, so no one has to make it up.

Working together?

Wouldn’t it be great if those working for the protection of the dharma and the future of the vajrayana in the West could work together rather than in opposition? Couldn’t we find a solution that is true to vajrayana and also healthy for students? Certainly it’s what I want. No one has to impose their views on others, we just have to be willing to find a solution that has a place for all views and is a healthy environment for everyone. Together we could re-brand Rigpa into an organisation with many options for how students interpret certain teachings rather than a one view, one lama organisation it is at present.

Change

Sogyal Rinpoche has often said that the cultural aspects of Tibetan Buddhism must be stripped away if it is to flourish in the West, but that it isn’t something that can be done quickly, so to assume that those running Rigpa are not aware of the necessity of real change is likely a misperception, but until we see action that indicates a willingness to change on a deep level – like having discussions with Mingyur Rinpoche and His Holiness the Dalai Lama or making a statement that individual lamas’ points of views, even those advising the Vision Board, do not reflect any ‘Rigpa policy’– we have no indication that any deep discussion on interpretations of samaya, pure perception, and so on are taking place or will take place in the future. From outside and from the point of view of an ordinary student all we see is what Rigpa does, not what they think or what they are discussing. If there was more communication misperceptions as to their motives and thinking would be avoided.
Negative perceptions may also be solidified, of course—that’s the risk of communication—but if one is speaking face to face or via video call, then people can clarify and discuss points of conflict in a way that, simply because they are being discussed, will garner greater understanding from all sides. Those who have managed to speak to people in management in Australia and the USA have discovered a greater openness than expected, but frustration continues when the openness is not reflected in action or initiatives fall short of expectations. Such falling short could be avoided if people like those in the What Now? Facebook group were consulted as part of the process. The criticism could then happen privately, and those involved, even if they don’t like the results, would at least understand the reasons for the outcome.

Why is such communication not happening?

Some time ago I suggested instituting a liaison person between the What Now? Group and Rigpa international management, but the suggestion was ignored, and yet, a greater understanding of the issues and discussions behind decisions would most likely result in less of a negative view. I would find it hard to be negative about someone who is actually bothering to talk to me, and, after all, we are all vajra brothers and sisters with a shared past and experience of the teachings.
I suspect that one of the reasons why that suggestion was not taken up, and why I was not allowed to go to the Australian Retreat, was fear that such communication or attendance would result in terrible things being said on the blog, a fear that comes from a lack of trust, which (if the lack of trust is unwarranted) comes from a lack of personal knowledge of the individual involved. If you don’t know a person, if you haven’t spoken to them personally, you don’t know if you can trust them to view your actions in an unbiased way or not. If you speak to them, the trust issue can be discussed and resolved. At the very least you can decide after such discussion whether they are trustworthy or not.
Lack of trust is at the core of the lack of communication and consultation, and reconciliation cannot happen without trust being established first.
The lack of trust, of course, goes both ways.
People who, for good reason, do not trust those running Rigpa view them very critically, and the only way for Rigpa management to change that is to talk to them, to hear what they say and take it into account.  And they must behave in a trustworthy way and understand just why they have lost people’s trust.
Acknowledgment of the harm done, an apology and a promise not to continue in the same way would do the trick!

Can we trust again?

Establishing trust is the challenge, because without trust communication either won’t begin or it will fail, and reconciliation cannot happen without communication based on trust.
Trust
Lack of trust of Rigpa management, of the people who, by their indifference, added to the trauma of abuse victims, is the core reason why every communication is dissected so critically here, and would explain to a large degree why some of the 8 may not participate in the investigation. I’ve personally seen some of Rigpa’s initiatives a lot more positively than it would appear from my blog posts, but I am the voice of those who have experienced abuse first hand, who have born the trauma of betrayal by their lama and of not being cared for by those running Rigpa. They have shared the reasons for their traumatisation, and they tell me how they feel about what they see and read. I hear their voice and speak for them because they have no voice inside Rigpa. Since I only write about what I know about and reflect the opinions of those who talk to me, if Rigpa wants more balanced articles here, they need to share their process with me.
As for trusting me, the primary writer and editor of this blog, I would never share anything divulged in a private conversation without permission.
Openness can only come after trust is established, and in this instance Rigpa is dealing with people whose trust in the lama and the organisation has been completely blown. How can they re-establish trust and institute real communication? An Olive Branch should help with that. And I see no reason why what happens in the USA would not become the model for a similar process in other countries.
Rigpa US employing An Olive Branch for healing and reconciliation is the best chance we have for restoring trust. They have a big job ahead of them, and I wish them well. But what is required to even get it started? Trust. Those harmed will need to find it within themselves to trust An Olive Branch enough to participate.
For some it will be quite a leap of faith to trust anything arranged by Rigpa, but I hope they will set aside any reservations they may have and be part of what, by the very fact that it is being run by An Olive Branch, I see as a genuine attempt at reconciliation.
Of course if you want Rigpa to disappear from the face of the earth, then you will have no interest in healing and reconciliation, in which case, the following is not for you.
Post by Tahlia Newland, editor & author

An Olive Branch Invitation to participate in reconciliation and healing

Here is the letter sent to the US sangha inviting past and present students to be involved. It’s restricted to the US because AOB is not an international organisation, but what happens in the US will have an effect elsewhere and will likely be used as a model for other national management teams to follow.
Please share this invitation with anyone in the US who has left Rigpa and is interested in participating in the healing and reconciliation lead by An Olive Branch.
January 15, 2018
Dear Current and Former Members of the Rigpa US Sangha:
We are writing this letter to introduce ourselves and announce that the Rigpa US Board of Directors has engaged the services of An Olive Branch to support the sangha’s reconciliation and healing in the wake of complaints that have been raised about ethical misconduct on the part of Sogyal Rinpoche. We also want you to know about the ways you can be involved in our work, if you so choose.
On December 19, 2017 a letter from us — similar to this one — was sent to the eight former and current Rigpa members who wrote to Sogyal Rinpoche in July 2017 to share their concerns about his harmful behavior. Portions of our December letter have been shared via social media so you may have already read about our work with your sangha. Our intent in this letter is to provide more detail and also to inform everyone equally.

About An Olive Branch

An Olive Branch was formed in 2011 as a project of the Zen Center of Pittsburgh. Growing out of the need for greater understanding and reduction of ethical misconduct on the part of religious leaders, we provide services to organizations in conflict after a beloved teacher has been accused of misconduct. We promote understanding and healing and work to strengthen organizations’ boards and policies to reduce the likelihood of future misconduct. We have expertise, knowledge of best practices, and standards of excellence for our services. Our consultants have complementary skills related to training, facilitation, governance, and intervention.
Questions about this project or about An Olive Branch may be directed to me, Katheryn Wiedman, Co- Director of An Olive Branch and Project Director for the Rigpa US effort: katheryn@an-olive-branch.org

Timeline

On October 18, 2017 Richard Snow, Treasurer of the Rigpa US Board of Directors, contacted An Olive Branch on behalf of the board. He inquired about our services and asked how we could help with the situation precipitated by the July 14, 2017 letter to Sogyal Rinpoche from eight former and current Rigpa members. The letter detailed four abusive behaviors: 1) “physical, emotional, and psychological abuse of students,” 2) “sexual abuse of students,” 3) “lavish, gluttonous, and sybaritic lifestyle,” and 4) undermining the letter writers’ “appreciation for the practice of the Dharma.”
In Ventura, CA on November 29, 2017 the Rigpa US Board of Directors met with Co-directors of An Olive Branch: Rev. Kyoki Roberts, Dr. Katheryn Wiedman, and Leslie Hospodar. The purpose of the meeting was two-fold: 1) for the Rigpa US board to describe the needs of the US sangha and to ask questions about our services and 2) for An Olive Branch to learn more about the situation within Rigpa and to determine the appropriate services to include in a proposal.
During December, we developed a proposal that includes six elements:
Collaborating with the Rigpa US board to communicate with the sangha regarding our work together
Making recommendations regarding the forthcoming Code of Conduct and Grievance Procedure
Providing a “Listening Post” for individuals who have been harmed
Leading a Community Reconciliation and Healing meeting
Strengthening the organizational structure and board governance

Managing the project.

The proposal was accepted by the Rigpa US board and our two organizations have been working together since December 17, 2017. The scope of this project is limited to current and former members of the Rigpa US sangha as well as the eight individuals who wrote of their concerns in July 2017; the project is designed to respond to the needs of this specific group. Other Rigpa sanghas are continuing to hold their own sangha processes, and look forward to learning from the work of An Olive Branch in the US through the investigation and reconciliation committee.
Three of the elements listed above are of importance to individual current and former members of the US sangha because they involve your participation and thus are the subject of the remainder of this letter:

  • Code of Conduct and Grievance Procedure
  • Listening Post
  • Community Reconciliation and Healing Meeting
  • Code of Conduct and Grievance Procedure

Since August, an international task group has been working to develop a code of conduct and grievance procedure. Rigpa members world-wide have been informed about the process and input has been solicited. The group working on these documents hopes to share a draft with the world-wide sangha in February, 2018.
An Olive Branch is reviewing and providing recommendations on Rigpa US’s draft ethics policy and grievance procedure. Our advice is based on best practices for organizational ethics policies that define acceptable/unacceptable behavior for teachers and students and specifies fair grievance procedures. In the US, boards have a fiduciary responsibility to develop and enforce policies that define clear boundaries that protect both teachers and students in the sangha.

Listening Post

An Olive Branch offers a Listening Post for individuals who have been harmed, providing a way for them to tell their story to a neutral third party and to be heard in a safe, compassionate, and confidential manner. The Listening Post is available to receive the experiences of any current or former Rigpa US sangha member, as well as the individuals who wrote the July 14, 2017 letter, who experienced harm as a result of the actions of Sogyal Rinpoche or other Rigpa teacher(s). The harm may have been direct – such as physical, emotional, sexual, psychological abuse – or indirect – such as guilt from witnessing abuse but not stopping or reporting it, or severe stress related to the situation. Any current or former Rigpa US sangha member who has been harmed may participate in the Listening Post along with letter writers who are not / were not members of Rigpa US.
It is important to us that people who have left the Rigpa US sangha receive the information in this letter so they may participate in the project if they want to. If you know of such individuals, will you please forward this letter to them?
The Listening Post has three objectives: first, and most important, is to provide some measure of relief to people who are hurting; second, is to help respondents formulate any requests they would like to make to Rigpa; and third is to expose the full extent of damage to the fabric of the sangha.
To accomplish the third objective, above, a summary of the information collected via the Listening Post will be reported to the Rigpa US board and later to the sangha during the Community Reconciliation and Healing meeting, described below.
Reporters of harm have the right to remain anonymous; both An Olive Branch and the Rigpa US board respect this right. Names and identifying details of the participants in the Listening Post will be carefully omitted from all reporting, unless requested by an individual reporter.
Current and former Rigpa US sangha members and letter writers who want to participate in the Listening Post should contact Dr. Barbara Gray via email: Barbara@an-olive-branch.org. You may request a private, confidential telephone interview or submit your personal experience via email message and make any requests you may have of the Rigpa US board.

Community Reconciliation and Healing

The Rigpa US board and An Olive Branch will collaborate on the design of a two-day, face-to-face Community Reconciliation and Healing meeting at a date and time to be determined. Members of the Rigpa US sangha and leaders of Rigpa sanghas in other nations will be invited. We currently envision the following components:
 
Led by An Olive Branch, there will be opportunities at the meeting for attendees to:
Hear the summarized information gathered in the Listening Post
Process the events (raise additional concerns, share residual feelings, etc.)
Learn about the new US sangha’s Ethics Policy and Grievance Procedure
Receive training on the misuse of power in spiritual relationships.
 
Led by Rigpa, there will be components such as:
Spiritually-based opening and closing ceremonies
Traditional ceremonies of reconciliation, forgiveness, and peace-making.
Underlying our proposal is the intent to help return the Rigpa US sangha to health and balance. We believe that through working together with open hearts and minds everyone can learn from this situation, strengthen the sangha, and restore peace and stability to the Rigpa community.
Katheryn D. Wiedman, Ph.D. Project Director
Co-director of An Olive Branch



Current and previous students of Rigpa wanting private support are welcome to join the What Now? Facebook group. Please contact us via the contact page and ask for an invite.
Ex-Rigpa students and their dharma friends who want to move on from the discussion of abuse in Rigpa can stay in touch through the Dharma Companions Facebook Group.  
The What Now? Reference Material page has links to a wealth of articles in the topics related to abuse in Buddhist communities. For links to places to assist in healing from abuse see the sangha care resources page.
Those of you who are interested in ‘keeping Buddhism clean’ could ‘Like’ the Dharma Protectors Facebook page. 
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