The Dalai Lama and the Empowerment of Students

His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s recent meeting with some survivors of abuse by Tibetan Buddhist lamas led to some articles emphasising that he had known about abuse in Tibetan Buddhism for decades. This led to a rise in anti-Dalai Lama sentiment, particularly the accusation that he should have done more to stop it. On fact value, that’s a reasonable reaction, but when we understand the reality of HH’s position within the Tibetan cultural and religious system, we see that in actual fact, in terms of Tibetan culture, that he has been very outspoken.
Tseten Samdup Chhoekyapa, a representative of HHDL in Europe, said during his European tour that the Dalai Lama “has consistently denounced such irresponsible and unethical behaviour”.
At the conference with Western Buddhist Teachers in Dharamsala in 1993, HHDL spoke quite clearly about the need to publically expose lamas who acted unethically. It was due to his responses on the matter then that the 8 close students of Sogyal Lakar wrote the letter exposing his abuses. The importance of HH’s words then cannot be overemphasised. Without them, that letter would never have been written. 
If you accuse the Dalai Lama of not doing more to counter the abuse, you need to understand that he bears the weight of cultural and religious expectations, such as supporting the building of temples, and that he actually has no power over the lamas; even in his own school of Tibetan Buddhism, he can only make suggestions. It is up to the lamas whether or not they pay attention to what he says. And that aside, as this post by Joanne Clark explains, there is more compassion and wisdom in the way he has handled the abuse issue than appears on the surface. 
Thanks Joanne for sharing your perspective.

The importance of empowering abuse survivors

The cause of abuse of all kinds, and particularly sexual abuse, is misuse of power. This fact is widely accepted amongst therapists. When I worked as a counselor for survivors of sexual abuse on a university campus in Massachusetts, we used the “Empowerment Method.” In this method of counseling, power that has been violently taken away from a survivor is given back. We don’t advise any survivor on their course of action. We give them options and information and support them in whatever choices of action they want to take. This—and providing safety—are the two essential tools we used as we sat beside survivors in the hospital or police station or received their calls in the middle of the night.
In this context, if one views the actions the Dalai Lama has taken over decades, they are all focused on empowering survivors and empowering students to prevent abuses. Yes, one could criticize him for not stepping in sooner and speaking out over what he had heard about Sogyal Lakhar’s abuses. However, this might simply have resulted in another big power figure taking charge of an already top-heavy situation—and further disempowered students. Instead, he waited for survivors themselves to make the move—and then spoke out in support of their actions.

Challenging power stuctures in Tibetan Buddhism

In fact, it has been now almost four decades since His Holiness first began challenging certain power structures within the institution of Tibetan Buddhist culture—specifically, the very power structures that have allowed abuses to occur. In a publication on Lamrim dated 1982, he stated clearly and categorically that the practice of seeing the guru as a perfect Buddha is a dangerous practice, particularly for beginners, and that it should not be emphasized. The reaction against these statements from within his own lineage was strong, with people claiming that His Holiness “did not understand Lamrim”.
Then in 1993, the Dalai Lama met with Western teachers to discuss problems within Western Tibetan Buddhism and dramatically added a caveat to an instruction that insured lamas of absolute power—the instruction to never criticize one’s Vajrayana lama. At this conference, he stated clearly and unequivocally that in order to stop harm, students may speak out, even if they are tantrically bound to a teacher. Further, he advised students to make abuses by lamas public, saying that this is the only way to stop them.

Support for speaking out

In the context of Tibetan culture, speaking publicly about someone’s harmful actions is an extreme measure. In the West, it is more commonplace—and the media is set up for it. By suggesting this as an approach towards stemming lama abuses, the Dalai Lama is skillfully navigating cultures and acting dramatically to empower Western students. He is handing Western students a powerful tool.
When the eight ex-Rigpa students wrote their letter of disclosure, they used the Dalai Lama’s instructions from 1993 as support for their actions. The response from most in the Tibetan Buddhist establishment has been either silence or to condemn the eight for this letter. Some have claimed that they are doomed to hell. One has claimed that they are possessed by demons. However, the Dalai Lama has spoken out in support of their actions. He is the only Tibetan Buddhist leader to speak out in support of the eight. (Mingyur Rinpoche’s Lions Roar article did not mention Sogyal by name.)
He is the only Tibetan Buddhist leader to even acknowledge that there is a serious problem of abuse within Western Tibetan Buddhist organizations—and he has spoken about this frequently and consistently in teachings and conferences over decades. All of his comments target the institutional power structures that have allowed abuse to occur and all have empowered survivors. He even spoke once in dramatic ways about toppling old Tibetan feudal systems and compared this situation to the French revolution.

Steps in reformation

In fact, much of his life has been devoted towards democratizing Tibetan culture and reforming institutional structures. He voluntarily relinquished his position as “god-king” of the Tibetan people in 2011, after years of initiating democratic reforms within the government. He has helped establish the Mind and Life Institute, which is devoted to seeking better understanding between contemplative practices and science. The result of this has been to challenge aspects of blind faith within Tibetan Buddhism, such as a belief in Mt. Meru as the center of a flat world and many other erroneous facts of cosmology in the Abhidharma. He has brought science into the monastic curriculum and consistently encouraged students to be ‘21st Century Buddhists” by being better educated and more discerning. Practices that promote blind faith over critical discernment are another means of dis-empowering students in ways that can lead to abuses. This is what he has worked to undermine.
In a text published this year, co-authored by Thubten Chodron, His Holiness writes candidly and realistically about the problems with abusive lamas in the West and in Taiwan. Throughout fifty pages devoted to the topic of reliance on a spiritual master, he suggests possible reforms, identifies specific problems and reiterates his call for Western and Taiwanese students themselves to take action and take their power. At one point, he suggests that the West could initiate a certification program for all who teach in the West.
Here is a quote from that text:

“Because students are new to Buddhism, they may have blind devotion and obedience to spiritual mentors. Hearing about the great merit gained from making offerings to spiritual mentors, they may give them many donations and gifts– things that someone living in India would not have. The teacher becomes spoiled by the gifts and esteem of the students and if he is not careful, this could lead to his taking advantage of well-meaning students.
“I have received many letters from people in other countries asking me to do something about this, but it is not in my control. Tibetan Buddhism is not organized like the Catholic Church with a pope and Vatican administration. I cannot make someone return to India or force him to stop wearing robes. When I teach, I give clear instructions about suitable behavior for teachers, both monastic and lay. If people do not listen to me then, it is doubtful that they will heed instructions from my office or the Department of Religious and Cultural Affairs…” (2018, The Dalai Lama and Thubten Chodron, The foundation of Buddhist Practice, p. 119)

“Tibetan Buddhism is not organized like the Catholic Church with a pope and Vatican administration …” This is certainly now being demonstrated in the context of Rigpa’s current position. Rigpa leaders are not interested in hearing anything he has to say! After declaring years ago that His Holiness was one of his “principal teachers,” Sogyal Lakhar, with the full support of Rigpa management, is now acting as if His Holiness has no advice to give and is no part of his or the Rigpa landscape. Rigpa has now changed its mission from “Rime” to “ancient Nyingma.” It’s hard to imagine that if His Holiness had refused to attend the Lerab Ling inauguration ten years ago, that this would have changed anything either. It would have been a good political move perhaps—but not an effective one.

A precarious balance

At the same time in the text quoted above, His Holiness upholds traditional teachings on the preciousness of the student-guru relationship. For those who want to move forward out of abusive relations with a lama and remain within the Dharma itself, his perspective is hugely beneficial and empowering. Abuse within a spiritual domain has a twofold impact, one from the abuse itself and the other from the harm to one’s spiritual path. For many, being able to retain that spiritual path is important and empowering and very healing.
It is probably this precarious balance he is maintaining that causes people to criticize him for not doing more. He is deeply invested in the survival of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. That is clear. He sees the extraordinary, precious features of this tradition, established over centuries by brilliant scholars and realized yogis and is working tirelessly to preserve them. However, right now, the silence from leaders of all four lineages is palpable. It is clear that the Dalai Lama does not have the support of many Tibetan lamas in his advice on ending abuse. It appears that only Mingyur Rinpoche and Tsoknyi Rinpoche openly agree with him on whether students can speak out to stop harm. This also must be factored in, when we judge how His Holiness has chosen to act over the years. He is acutely aware that words from him are not going to move the dial very far in terms of changing lama behavior—while knowing that actions from students themselves have greater power in moving the dial in dramatic ways.

An ally

So I think we want to be careful and not forget that His Holiness is our ally. He wants the abuses to end certainly as much as we do and probably more. And he wants to help us heal. And I think that he has a lot to offer as advisor but not as power figure as we move forward towards safety in Western Dharma Centers. Truly, the ball is in our court now, we can take our power.
Thanks Joane. 
And now a post script from Tahlia.

A clarification of recent comments

A transcript I received of the exchange between reporter Nicole le Fever (NOS) and the Dalai Lama during the Meet & Greet in the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam today (15 September 2018) says that HH said, “So, these people, they don’t care about Buddha’s teaching. So, now the only thing is: make public, these things. Then people may be concerned about their shame, their embarassment. So, I told, so yesterday also I mentioned, since many years ago I already mentioned that: ‘Now you make things clear, so very good, I don’t care.'”
The “I don’t care” means that if a lama abuses students and it is publicized, he doesn’t care that the information gets out and makes them look bad. He didn’t mean that he didn’t care about the situation. 
A good article on His Holiness’s position from a Tibetan Perspective is this one from the Tibetan Feminist Collective.

The next step

I have since heard that he is definitely placing abuse on the agenda for his meeting in Dharamsala in November with all the important religious leaders of Tibetan traditions. And in that interview with Nicole le Fever he told us what our next steps should be: “So at that time, you see, they should appeal, I suggested. So, I think the religious leaders, I think, should pay more attention, like that.”
So he feels that that is the time, during this meeting in November, for students to petition the lamas, that there they (the lamas) should pay more attention. I sure hope that someone is arranging to go there and speak to the lamas directly. Anyone? Anyone sending a letter to them all?

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.



This week we have another guest post by Jo Green. The two key questions are ones that I’ve heard asked many times by people unwilling to accept that Sogyal did actually abuse his students. This post shows just how possible it is for evil to lurk below an apparently benefical exterior.
“He brought so much benefit to so many people – how could he be a bad person?”
“If the allegations are true, how come nothing been proved in court?”
I have seen these two questions and variations upon them asked almost daily since last year’s revelations exposed the extent of abuse by Sogyal Rinpoche. They are asked by those who seek to protect his reputation at all costs, but they are also asked by a large number of people who are sincerely trying to make sense of the dissonance between their personal experiences and the accounts they’ve heard.
That’s why I thought it would be useful to tell the story of another person who certainly brought benefit to many people and whose reputation was never challenged in court, yet – if justice had been done – should probably have spent most of his life in jail. I think it may shed a lot of light on those two questions.
Although he’s not much known outside the UK, there probably isn’t an adult in Britain who doesn’t know who Jimmy Savile was. Whether you thought he was great or he drove you crazy, everybody was familiar with his tracksuits, bling, cigars, Tarzan impressions and catchphrases. He said that he played the clown in public so that he felt accessible to everybody, but he was highly intelligent.
At the time of his death in October 2011 at the age of 84, he had long been SIR Jimmy Savile and the newspaper obituaries spoke with one voice: “Disc jockey, television presenter and tireless fundraiser for charity”, “Flamboyant disc jockey with a flair for good works”, “Exuberant disc jockey and TV personality who harnessed his cigar-chomping public persona to raise millions of pounds for charity” and so on. It was estimated he had raised up to £40m for good causes, as well as giving away a considerable slice of his personal income.
From a humble background, he went on to present the very first edition of the legendary Top of the Pops on the BBC in 1964 and would be there to present the last in 2006, with endless appearances in between, plus regular slots on Radio 1. At Saturday tea times, his show Jim’ll Fix It was the nation’s family viewing. In this programme, viewers wrote in – usually children – and asked him to help their dreams come true: be it meeting their sporting hero or eating lunch on a rollercoaster. This he did, across hundreds of editions over 18 years.
But Savile chose to do something truly remarkable with his fame and fortune: he used it as leverage to generate money and attention for a variety of charitable causes, working ceaselessly to fundraise for them. During the war he was sent down the mines, where he sustained a spinal injury, requiring a long period of recuperation. In recognition of this, he dedicated special effort to supporting the spinal injuries unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, bringing many millions to them over the years, helping to turn it into a world-class institution. But he also did epic charity bike rides and ran marathons in aid of many charities.
He volunteered at Leeds General Hospital and at Broadmoor high-security psychiatric hospital. Such was the frequency of his visits to both institutions that he had his own room to stay in. He was eventually made a junior health minister under Margaret Thatcher, appointed to head a task force to oversee the management of Broadmoor hospital after its board was suspended.
He was a friend of Prince Charles. Margaret Thatcher got him knighted by the Queen in 1990 and that same year, as a lifelong Catholic, he was given a Papal Knighthood by Pope John Paul II. These last two events were widely regarded as closing the book on the rumours there had been about him, since people are thoroughly vetted before receiving such honours. But rumours there were.
When a well-respected journalist, Lynn Barber, dared to tell Savile that “What people say is that you like little girls,” even after his knighthood, she was widely criticised. Savile answered the claim expertly and it rested there. A decade later, Louis Theroux – an interviewer specialising in difficult subjects, who made My Scientology Movie – spent a long time filming with Savile and brought up the same questions, but found no evidence of wrongdoing. He continued to meet with Savile over the years and later acknowledged to Savile’s victims how completely he had been hoodwinked. Because victims there were. Many.
A year after Savile’s death, ITV broadcast “The Other Side of Jimmy Savile” which, for the first time, aired accounts from women who said they had been abused by him. A police investigation started the very next day. Ten weeks later they revealed the extent of the allegations they had received:
450 victims had contacted them. They had identified 199 crimes in 17 police force areas, including 31 allegations of rape. 82% of those to come forward were female, 80% had been children or young people at the time of the incidents. Staff at Broadmoor claimed he had engaged in necrophiliac acts with corpses in the mortuary.
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary later concluded that 214 of these complaints would have been criminal offences, had they been reported at the time. Sixteen victims reported being raped by Savile when under the age of consent, another ten when over 16. Four of these victims had been under the age of ten at the time. It’s thought his oldest abuse victim was 75.
There had already been reports to the police over the years and there had been many issues raised by people who worked alongside him in hospitals or in the media. All the signs had been there, with alarm bells having been rung at various significant moments, right back to the 1960s. An independent report for the BBC listed five significant times they had missed opportunities to identify and stop the abuse. But none of these individually had seemed a strong enough basis on which to take any action. Then there was the high esteem Savile was held in publicly – what is referred to as the “halo” effect. And then there was the potential loss of income to charities if accusations came out – the “benefit” Savile brought.
People talk a lot about “the benefit Sogyal Rinpoche has brought to sentient beings”. Some might point to the fact that he introduced people to meditation and the nature of mind, whereas Savile was just an entertainer. But imagine for a moment you had lost the use of your legs in an accident and were in Stoke Mandeville Hospital. Would you be happier to hear the doctor tell you:
“We’re able to give you a treatment to help you walk again.”
Or “Sogyal Rinpoche is coming to visit you to introduce you to the nature of mind.”?
The benefit Sogyal Rinpoche has brought to the Dharma is highly debatable. Whatever he may have done to get people interested in Buddhism is now being radically undone because of his behaviour. I have recently spoken to many people who have been completely put off Buddhism by hearing these things and concluding that in the end it seems as abusive as any other religion.
Neither Sogyal nor Rigpa have shown much interest in helping any cause outside of the world of Tibetan Buddhism. True, they make some donations for the lives of animals to be spared. Then Sogyal orders another steak. So, in the practical or financial sense, there’s not much benefit to the world at large.
By contrast, the benefit Jimmy Savile brought is quantifiable: thousands of people helped in many practical ways, down the years – people healed, lives saved. By contrast, Sogyal founded his fame on talking about dealing with illness and death but was far more reluctant to set foot in a hospital. Of course, had Jimmy Savile been arrested and imprisoned for his abusive behaviour back in the 1960s, those institutions might not have received that benefit. So, are we to conclude that it was a good thing he went to his grave without ever being caught?
I don’t believe there is a charity or hospital out there that would consider child abuse or rape an acceptable price to pay for some extra funds. Most of the recipients of Savile’s help could surely have found financial support through other means, just as most Rigpa students could have been introduced to Buddhist ideas by a teacher that did not abuse a significant minority of his students. One could argue that without Savile, Stoke Mandeville would not be what it is today, just as without Sogyal Rinpoche there would be no beautiful Buddhist temple at Lerab Ling. So, are these structures worth a lifetime of suffering for the victims of abuse? Does that somehow make it OK? I hope nobody reading this thinks so.
Jimmy Savile was a popular public figure and had dealings with thousands of people. To most, he was a comical, eccentric celebrity. Those he abused were just a very small percentage. Far more people got some kind of benefit by being associated with him. Most people attending teachings from Sogyal in that temple or at Rigpa centres would come to no harm whatsoever and might well come away feeling they had learnt something important. But many of those who found themselves alone with the teacher or the celebrity were having an entirely different experience – experiences that would leave them traumatised.
If the Queen or the Pope or the Dalai Lama or Richard Gere appears to endorse you, then it can be very, very hard for victims to be believed when they speak up and recount experiences that don’t fit with the public image at all. And if nobody joins all the dots between a multitude of acts occurring at different times in different places, then a skilful perpetrator can appear completely untouchable.
Most people who have been abused have little or no motivation to be retraumatised by the process of police interrogation and being publicly exposed in a courtroom. It takes a very brave person to do that, and the minimum they need is a sense they will be believed and that others will rally around them. When each victim feels isolated and disbelieved they also feel powerless to go up against figures who stand as tall as a Sogyal Rinpoche or a Jimmy Savile. So, it is entirely possible for there to exist hundreds of victims and crimes, and yet there not be a single court challenge.
Of course, I am not for one moment suggesting that Sogyal Rinpoche did the same things as Jimmy Savile, but it must be stressed that we currently do not know the full extent of what Sogyal did. In the Savile case we see that rumours swirling for decades and occasional instances of people raising concerns or reporting incidents proved indicative of an almost unimaginably large catalogue of crimes. We do not know if this may prove to be the case with Sogyal Rinpoche as well.
Those people who worked closely with Savile for long periods of time seemed to simply refuse to believe what they heard or, sometimes, the evidence of their own eyes. There seem to be a number in the Rigpa leadership who are still doing the same. In a few days’ time, if the report of the investigation by Lewis Silkin paints an honest picture, then one of the things it is likely to conclude is that what we know so far is only scratching the surface and there is much more yet to be revealed.

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.

Speak Up for the Sake of the Dharma

When the truth came out about Sogyal Rinpoche’s behind-the-scenes behaviour (I’m  so polite!) the general Rigpa student was pretty shocked. What shocked us even more was the way Rigpa handled the revelations. They lost of a lot of students who would have stayed had management come clean and admitted the truth instead of just finding more subtle ways to continue the cover-up tactics they have honed over decades. The lama may have removed himself (publically), but the beliefs that caused abuse to be enshrined at the very core of the Rigpa organisation still remain, supported by comments by OT, NR and Dzongsar Khyentse, who, though he may have stimulated some deeper thinking about the abuse, still affirmed the necessity of obedience and non-criticism for anyone who has accepted a teacher as their vajramaster. At Rigpa it’s business as usual.

Upcoming talk topic

Khandro Rinpoche will be teaching at Rigpa soon and her topic is ‘Is Vajrayana Right for You.” I expect it will be aimed at getting rid of anyone who might complain in the future, and make sure that those who remain are the ones who are okay with anything their guru dishes out for them. It’s likely to be full of words that say how Vajrayana is ‘not for everyone’, is only for those of the ‘highest faculties’ and how the ‘lower yanas’ or ‘basic yanas’ have other paths for those who ‘don’t like’ the vajrayana. Core message: If you don’t like it, piss off and leave us tough Kham warriors to get on with it.
What about those who are committed to the vajrayana path but want to see it cleaned up so abuse can’t happen again? The message there will be that we don’t understand the vajryana. Hmm, I wonder what I was studying and practicing for the last twenty years then?
Allowing my sarcasm free reign I’d expect the sublte message beneath the talks will be something like: If you have a strong moral compass, are committed to the idea of human rights, feel you should speak up about abuse, and want to retain your critical thinking faculties, then the Rigpa version (perhaps it’s the Nyingma version) of Vajrayana is not for you.
Apologies to Khandro Rinpoche if this is not her underlying message. I’m extrapolating from the title in light of Dzongsar Khyentse’s talks.

Sidestepping the issue

If, like me, you think this approach of getting rid of anyone who might complain is sidestepping the issue, that it leaves a major problem with the religion unresolved, then the question is; what can we do about it? We cannot let the issue fade from sight. We must make sure that students and lamas remain aware of just how easily vajrayana sanghas can become a destructive cult and that the issue must at some point be dealt with both in the individual sanghas and in the religion as a whole.
For the sake of the future of the Vajrayana and to avoid other sanghas falling into destructive cult mode where they are at the mercy of lamas who abuse their power, the beliefs that do not permit criticism of even the most dire behaviour and that insist that the student must obey without question and see a teacher as a buddha even when he behaves worse than a normal human being, must be eradicated. If Mingyur Rinpoche, the Dalai Lama and others can teach Vajrayana without such injunctions, then, clearly,  there is no need for them.

The importance of speaking out

Hiding the dirty truth of some Buddhist teacher’s behaviour does not protect the dharma or Tibetan Buddhism. It only worsens the problem. Students looking for enlightenment fall for glossy facades and impressive-sounding lineages, not knowing whether or not the lama is even a decent human being let alone if they are someone who embodies compassion and wisdom. The ony way to help students to choose authentic ethical lamas is by speaking the truth about them. We need to know who we can rely on and who we need to avoid.
So if you experienced abuse at the hands of a Tibetan Lama, or have seen something that indicates there is a misuse of power going on, please speak out. How else will we know who to avoid? How else will we be able to evaluate the teachers available to us? Only with many voices will we be able to get the full picture. Only with many voices will students come to realise that sharing the truth is not some plot, not a bunch of people out to get anyone, but a real problem that needs to be eradicated once and for all.
If it’s time for you to tell your story, contact me and we can talk about the best way to do it.

Why the truth is important

Susana Maria Montero Gaudino posted the following much longer video on Facebook recently. She adds her voice to the request for people to speak up.

Let us know of any Lama of whom you have personal experience who is beyond reproach, and, of course, let us know your experience of the lamas we should avoid. Share only what you know yourself from your own experience or what you’ve been told directly by the person who experienced what you’re sharing. Please do not share hearsay, conjecture, gossip or rumours.

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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Some thoughts on DZK's talks

I’m not writing posts for this blog anymore, but I am still updating it, and so I’m interested in publishing suitable posts from you, our readers. Just send it via the contact page. I can’t guarantee to publish it, but I can guarantee to read it. Just make sure that you read the About page before you write anything, as it will tell you the editorial perspective, and so the kind of thing we’re interested in.
At the risk of further abuse, I offer this!


The Benefit of Criticism

In Tibetan Buddhism there is a reason for the instruction not to criticise one’s teacher. The idea is that students avoid the kind of constant petty criticism that prevents them seeing beyond their judgemental mind. It is supposed to be a way to help them see with their wisdom mind (see purely), but when it’s taught and understood as a blanket injunction without a real understanding of the point of the instruction, it becomes restrictive rather than enlightening. Compare “You must never criticise” to a more complete instruction:  “Do not view your teacher with your confused judgemental mind, but with your wisdom mind, remembering the five wisdoms of the nature of our mind of which the wisdom of discernment is one.”
The fact that our wisdom mind can discern/distinguish/determine/recognise the difference between what is appropriate and what is not in any situation was completely ignored in instructions on this point in Rigpa, so no criticism was allowed at all, and when someone did make a complaint it was ignored. The result was not just the proliferation of abuse but also that the organisation stagnated, and Tibetan Buddhism is facing the same problem. If an institution doesn’t listen to criticism, it can’t grow, adapt and improve, and it certainly can’t stop bad practices from developing and continuing unabated.

Constructive criticism

All criticism may seem negative, but actually it is only negative when it is destructive, when it comes from a desire to destroy or denigrate. When it comes from the desire to improve something rather than destroy it, it is constructive criticism, and constructive criticism can be of great benefit. That’s the whole idea of it.
My aim in writing critical posts on this blog is to show Rigpa and Tibetan Buddhism where their faults lie so they know what needs to be dealt with if they are to be a truly healthy organisation and religion. Because the motivation behind my writing is to be of benefit, I see it as constructive criticism. It would be helpful for everyone if it could be taken in that spirit.
The changes I have suggested in recent posts are not of the religion itself but of how it’s taught, understood and applied in the modern world, and surely that’s the central issue facing the religion today. I make my criticisms from a place of deep respect, and my main point on the adaptation of Tibetan Buddhism to modern times is that effective change demands deep reflection on the absolute meaning of the teachings, for only from that vantage point can change be made that does not destroy the transformative power. It is not time for clinging to beliefs, but for examining the true nature of reality and how the vajrayana actually works with that nature to bring about spiritual development.

Feudalism and the fall of monarchies

All that needs to be pared away is the Tibetan cultural baggage that will do more to destroy the religion than it will to protect it, and His Holiness has identified the one concept that covers everything that needs to be examined and discarded—feudalism. The question becomes, what in the religion establishes and maintains the lama’s power (the king) rather than benefiting the student (subjects, attendants and slaves). The Western world saw how easily, given absolute rule with no right to criticise or disobey, a king or queen could abuse his or her power, and now we see the same in Tibetan Buddhism.
Too often people suffered because of unscrupulous monarchs, and out of compassion for the people we made changes. Countries that didn’t moderate the power of their monarchies, lost them completely in bloody revolutions. It’s quite simple really—change or die. Not death by revolution but by relegation in society’s view to the category of superstitious fundamentalism, at best, or, at worst, a cult in the word’s negative sense as a group harmful to its members and even to society. It’s not my place to make the changes, but I can point out that they must be made and why. That’s all I’m doing here. It’s up to the lamas and scholars to work out the details, assuming that they want the religion to be relevant in the modern world.

The man who dared to publically criticise the Queen

John Grigg, also known as Lord Altrincham, was a British writer and politician who will go down in history as the man who called Queen Elizabeth II a “priggish schoolgirl”. In an August 1957 article in his newspaper, he attacked the Queen’s style of speaking as a “pain in the neck” and blamed those around her for the content of her speeches. According to the article, the Queen’s court was too upper-class and British – it no longer reflected 20th century society and it damaged the monarchy.
The article caused a furore and was attacked by the majority of the press. The Duke of Argyll said that he should be hanged, drawn and quartered. Despite being a liberal Tory, he was denounced as a crypto-republican and a subversive revolutionary.
But ordinary people, who had found her speeches dismissive of them and their lives, supported Altrincham’s remarks, especially after he told a TV interviewer that he hadn’t meant to hurt the feelings of the royal family. In fact, he was a strong believer in constitutional monarchy and never saw his criticisms as disloyal; they were designed to help by indicating that changes needed to be made. Many years later in a Channel 4 documentary, he looked back on the incident, and said how by the 1950s the idea had crept in “that you couldn’t say a word against the royal family, let alone the Queen.”
Sound familiar?
The hopeful thing about this story in terms of the criticisms posted on this blog is that changes did take place following Lord Altrincham’s article.  In the biography Monarch: The Life and Reign of Elizabeth II, author Robert Lacey said, “Inside the palace, some people realized there was truth in what Altrincham said. Within two days of the furore, the outspoken peer had been contacted through a mutual friend to arrange a private meeting with Martin Charteris, the queen’s assistant private secretary. Thirty years later, in the course of a political meeting at Eton, Charteris told Altrincham, “You did great service to the monarchy and I’m glad to say so publicly.”

From a basis of respect

Just as Altrincham was a monarchist who aimed for his criticism to help the monarchy be more relevant, so, too, my criticism is only aimed at ‘cleaning up’ Rigpa and helping Tibetan Buddhism become more relevant in the modern age. My articles here have only ever been in response to events that demanded some comment. I have written them not from some personal agenda but simply as a service to those without a voice and in the hope that our views will be heard and examined with an open mind by those able to make the necessary changes for a positive outcome for both Rigpa and Tibetan Buddhism.

When criticism is too much

Of course, even criticism meant to be constructive can become too much for the recipient if it comes all at once, especially if they can do nothing to fix the issues for which they are being criticised. The result of too great an onslaught of criticism can be that the recipient refuses to listen or if they are listening but cannot do anything to solve the problems, they cease doing that for which they are being criticised.
Rigpa management appears to not be listening, and I am ceasing this blog.

Signing off

I have been criticised for being too critical, for not being critical enough, for moderating too strictly and for not moderating enough. It is impossible for me to satisfy everyone, and I simply do not have time to read all the comments, let alone reply to them. Writing the posts is a huge time commitment, and I actually need to put that time into earning a living. I have had a great deal of support, but I have also been personally attacked and misrepresented. Frankly the viciousness of some people (on both ‘sides’) has become tedious, and since Rigpa is not listening, I am wasting my time.
So I will no longer be writing articles for or running this blog, and though someone may post information on any major developments as they come to hand, I’ve pretty much said what needs to be said, and I’m not interested in sounding like a broken record—so if you’re new to this blog please look back over the archives. The last two articles made it quite clear where the changes in Tibetan Buddhism need to be made. Now it’s up to others to get on and do it—for the benefit of beings and the future of Vajrayana Buddhism in the West.
Thank you to those who have supported and encouraged me these last seven months. May all who have been harmed be healed.
Post by Tahlia Newland, editor and author
PS. I plan to continue to write reflections on the spiritual path on my Patreon blog and also on Medium. But these will not be on the topic of abuse in Rigpa.

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.


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
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.


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.

Is Vajrayana Buddhism a Cult Religion? Part 1

Does Vajrayana fit the definition of a cult?

‘Cult’ is a word that has different definitions, but the definition that concerns us here is the negative one. According to the Google Dictionary a cult is “a system of religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or object, in particular a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or as imposing excessive control over members.” Also a “misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular thing.”
‘A system of religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or object’ does apply to vajrayana as a whole but also equally to Christianity, so that aspect of the definition is not the key point here, neither is the fact that TB is strange to many in West. The aspect that makes the difference between religion and cult is ‘imposing excessive control over members,’ and ‘misplaced or excessive admiration.’
So what is ‘excessive’ and what is ‘misplaced’? To answer this we have to look further.
The Family Survival Trust has a succinct checklist for cults that is useful for separating a religion from a cult:

  1. Cults are dissociative, separating members from families, friends and colleagues—this is not a requirement for vajrayana practice since it can be done alone (caves are the traditional place) or within one’s own society and family, but when a lama keeps a group of attendants or people he relies on around him and doesn’t permit them to engage in normal social and family relationships or leave at will, or tells them what they can and can’t do particularly in terms of their personal relationships, then they have slipped into cult territory.
  2. Cults tend to be psychologically manipulative or abusive in order to exploit and control members commercially or sexually—this is pretty clear. There are plenty of vajrayana communities around where the lamas do not abuse their students, therefore abuse and psychological manipulation are not part of the religion. If anyone is being abused by a lama and members don’t see it as abuse (when it is quite clear to anyone outside the group that the behaviour constitutes abuse), then the members are being psychologically manipulated and the group has become a cult. (Abuse is NOT crazy wisdom—as Mingyur Rinpoche said in his article on the Lion’s Roar, “The results of genuine “crazy wisdom” are always positive and visible.”) If members’ money is not being used for the purpose for which is was given, those members are being commercially exploited and the group has slipped across the line into cult territory.
  3. Some cults can also be physically abusive—also clear. If the lama is regularly hitting or punching people, it’s a cult. Vajrayana does not require students to be hit or punched. It can be practiced without the lama abusing his students in any way. Even if you believe the abuse is ‘crazy wisdom’, even if you believe it is transformative, that is irrelevant when determining cult status. A cult is determined by how it acts, not what it believes. If your lama regularly hits and punches people and the beliefs to which you subscribe make his or her hitting and punching (or any other abusive behaviour) acceptable, your vajrayana community can be called a cult.
  4. The guru and/or upper ranks of the cult are supported in a relatively comfortable lifestyle by the exploitation of lower ranking members—a comfortable lifestyle is not necessary for vajrayana practice, in fact a humble lifestyle and generosity to others are more in line with the marks of a great practitioner. A lama who has his feet massaged by two women while another massages his back and two others work on his hands has slipped into cult territory since one masseur is quite sufficient. Other signs are such things as demanding better food than others in the household, expensive accommodations and so on.
  5. Cults are totalitarian in structure and thrive on master-slave dependency—certainly Tibetan Buddhism is totalitarian and the master-slave roles are embedded in the feudal system in its history. The feudal system is cultural, however, not religious. Vajrayana can be practiced without either of these. Not all lamas treat their students as slaves. Institute a democratic model where the lama is ‘employed’ by the board and remove the ‘obey or else’ emphasis that some lamas subscribe to, and the issue is solved. The lama will still have spiritual authority, but not temporal authority. There is a good reason why the church is separated from the state in Western democracies. This point pinpoints the area in which Tibetan Buddhism as a whole must make changes.
  6. Cults are “socially addictive” and the harm they cause is similar in some ways to other forms of addiction such as gambling, and even drug or alcohol abuse—I guess people could become addicted to Vajrayana—all those beautiful images and sounds are very alluring—but few practice diligently enough to get ‘hooked’ on the actual practice, and, if they did, such an addiction is not harmful in the worldly sense, though it wouldn’t help one spiritually to be stuck in practice that is contrived. Dependency on a lama to the extent that members cannot make decisions for themselves, however, is harmful. Though the magic of it is alluring to some, vajrayana itself is not inherently addictive, and it is only harmful if people feel that their lama can do anything they want irrespective of the laws of the land.

My conclusion in terms of this checklist is that vajrayana as a religion is not a cult, but that a vajrayana community can become a cult in the same way that a Christian community can. But this list doesn’t give much weight to the ‘religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure’ aspect of our original cult definition, and this aspect is particularly relevant in terms of vajrayana, particularly in ascertaining what turns a vajrayana community into a cult.

Devotion to an abstract principle or an individual?

As I quoted in the article titles Is Rigpa Cult? Margaret Thaler Singer, Ph.D, a cult expert, says “the difference between cults and religions is that in religions the devotion goes to an abstract principle whereas in a cult the devotion is to an individual. … The follower turns over their decision-making and give complete obedience in return for having secrets revealed to them.”
Though vajrayana may look as if the student’s devotion must be to an individual rather than an abstract principle, my understanding is that this is not the most transformative way of understanding the object of one’s devotion in vajrayana, at least not in these times. The idea that our devotion is to the personality of the teacher, the person, rather than to the teacher principle that he embodies can, especially if he or she is not a qualified teacher and demands that the students have only one lama, bring the vajrayana community into cult territory.
When teachers were more reliable, and in a society where the word ‘cult’ in its meaning as an abusive community employing manipulation tactics and excessive control over its members did not (and still doesn’t) exist, there would be no need to make a distinction between the teacher as he represents the teacher principle and the teacher as a person, but now, in the West, I believe there is. The Words of My Perfect Teacher is about how to relate to a perfect teacher, but should we take those teachings literally when our teacher is more likely to be imperfect?

Even Patrul Rinpoche said on page 138, “As times have degenerated, nowadays, it is difficult to find a teacher who has every one of the qualities described in the precious tantras.”

I had an imperfect teacher. I always knew he was not perfect, so for myself, for my own practice I had to work this point out. Maybe I got it wrong, but I completed my Ngondro and two of my three roots with my devotion to my teacher in his role as teacher, not to the person, and for me it was the only way I could feel the transformative power of the practices. Specifically my devotion was to my teacher when, in the state of devotion to his masters and resting in the true nature of his mind, he was a Buddha, and in that state he introduced me to the nature of my mind. I distinguished this Sogyal from the one that came late to teachings, made us wait hours for lunch, yelled at people, and, as I discovered last year, much worse.
Some may question this separation of man from teacher, but the Dalai Lama appears to have taken the same approach in his practice.

“On the level of our personal spiritual practice, it is important to have faith in and reverence for our guru and to see that person in a positive light in order to make spiritual progress. But on the level of general Buddhism in society, seeing all actions of our teacher as perfect is like poison and can be misused. This attitude spoils our entire teachings by giving teachers a free hand to take undue advantage. If faith were sufficient to gain realizations, there would be no need for qualified teachers. … have had many teachers, and I cannot accept seeing all their actions as pure. My two regents, who were among my sixteen teachers, fought one another in a power struggle that even involved the Tibetan army. When I sit on my meditation seat, I feel both were kind to me, and I have profound respect for both of them. Their fights do not matter. But when I had to deal with what was going on in the society, I said to them, “What you’re doing is wrong!” We should not feel a conflict in loyalties by acting in this way. In our practice, we can view the guru’s behavior as that of a mahasiddha, and in dealings with society, follow the general Buddhist approach and say that that behavior is wrong.” HHDL Dharamasalla 1993

Rigpa Wiki explains the four kinds of teachers as taught to us in Rigpa:

  1. the individual teacher who is the holder of the lineage
  2. the teacher which is the word of the buddhas
  3. the symbolic teacher of all appearances
  4. the absolute teacher, which is rigpa, the true nature of mind

On page 148 of the TBLD Sogyal says: “Remember that the master—the guru—embodies the crystallisation of the blessings of all buddhas, masters, and enlightened beings.”
So who should our devotion really be to? The individual teacher or the teacher principle which is a much broader concept? It would be nice if it could be both, but isn’t it ultimately not to the person who gives the teachings but to something more profound?

“The guru is the nature of our mind.” Dilgo Khyentse. Primordial Purity

Guru Rinpoche (not our physical teacher) is who we invoke in Guru Yoga, and he ‘is the universal master’ who ‘embodies a cosmic timeless principle.’ (TBLD p 149). When understood this way, our devotion in practice is to an ‘abstract principle’ not an individual and therefore does not fit the cult label, but in Rigpa, devotion to the person of Sogyal was emphasised. This is the point at which vajrayana can become a cult. Beware if your teacher suggests you visualise them in your practice rather than the embodiment of the wisdom and compassion of all the enlightened beings in the form of the representative of the teachers of your lineage, such as Guru Rinpoche or Vajradhara.

“Once we have realized the nature of our mind, it is no longer necessary to search for the guru outside. If the view of the mind is maintained beyond meditation and post meditation, the guru is present beyond meeting and parting.” Dilgo Khyentse. Primordial Purity

It seems important to me that to avoid slipping into cult territory we need to separate the teacher as a representative of an abstract principle from the human being with their human deficiencies.

In an article about Buddhism Dagyab Rinpoche said, “We Tibetans are aware of some Western followers who believe that Tibetan lamas are enlightened buddhas and infallible gurus, despite their all-too-human deficiencies. It is disillusioned Westerners, who in the course of their lives have experienced the total collapse of their ideals, and who cling to the wishful image of a holy and healing Tibetan tradition. Wherever angst, insecurity, and despair are strong, there is a corresponding desire for something superior, and Westerners project fatherly power upon the lamas. A false understanding of Buddhist teachings, especially that of the Vajrayana, has impelled these projections.”

Hopefully our lamas can give us the true understanding of the vajrayana teachings, not teach a ‘false understanding’ that does nothing for the student, only makes the lamas kings of their own kingdom with slaves that do their bidding without question. If we misunderstand, it is because we were not taught correctly or our lama did not clear up our confusion. Perhaps some of our lamas are confused themselves. In giving talks to the modern world that adhere slavishly to possibly provisional teachings given for people in ancient feudal cultures, rather than teaching from a definitive understanding of the teachings, they may be harming the dharma they think they are protecting.

Chatral Rinpoche said “Support and take refuge in those spiritual masters who focus their practice in solitary retreat. Before one attains enlightenment, one should also enter into solitary retreat to focus on one’s practice under his or her close guidance and mentorship. If not, it will be just like now, where everywhere is flooded with Khenpos who give empty talks. Those ignorant ones, who run after fame and fortune, and establish their own factions, will cause people to have aversion for Buddhism and lead to the extinction of Buddhism sooner or later. Hence, it is said that the authentic Dharma is not in the monasteries, it is not in the books and not in the material world, but within the mind. There is a need to awaken it through practice and to realise (actualise) it, in order to be called the continuation or preservation of the Dharma.”

Misplaced or excessive devotion

An article in the Buddhist Controversy blog gives traditional teachings on teachers to avoid, but  Lifehacker in their article on what constitutes a cult gives a helpful modern perspective on teachers to avoid if you want to avoid a cult.
“Cults are formed around strong leaders, so take a serious look at the motives and personality of the person in charge. According to Morantz and other cult experts, control-freak cult leaders are nearly interchangeable.

  • Narcissistic personality: Dangerous cult leaders usually hold grandiose notions of their place in the world.
  • Ability to read others: “A guy like Charles Manson had the ability to spot who, at a party, that he thought he could control. It just seems to be in his personality,” Morantz said. Cult leaders “have the ability to size you up, and realise your weaknesses and get to your buttons”.
  • Claims of special powers: If a leader claims he’s smarter, holier and more pure than everyone else, think twice about signing up.
  • Charisma meets anger: Dangerous cult leaders can be extremely loving, charming and affectionate, but often turn angry and abusive with no warning. This mercurial presentation keeps members off balance.”

In the hands of someone with this kind of personality, vajrayana is dangerous indeed. Certainly such people are not a healthy focus for one’s devotion. Especially if one forgets that devotion should not be mindless adoration. On p 140 in the TBLD Sogyal says, “It [devotion] is not an abdication of your responsibility to yourself, nor undiscriminating following of another’s personality or whim. Real devotion is rooted in an awed and reverent gratitude, one that is lucid, grounded, and intelligent.”
Wise words, but in practice this is not the kind of devotion I saw in Rigpa.
The take away here is that the temptation for someone with this personality profile to use vajrayana for his or her own personal gratification would likely be too hard for them to resist. If they also allow their students to think and act as if pure perception means that the teacher is pure and the student is not, and if they also have a nihilistic view of emptiness, we have even more likelihood that such a teacher will abuse their power.

Minguyr Rinpoche in his Lions Roar article on Sept 24th 2017 reminds us of the essential points of samaya and pure perception. “Many people misunderstand samaya and think it refers only to seeing the teacher as a buddha, a fully awakened being. That is part of samaya, but it misses the key point. Samaya is about seeing everyone and everything through the lens of pure perception. …The sole purpose of viewing the teacher as a buddha is so we can see these same awakened qualities in ourselves, in others, and in the world around us. It is a tool that helps us to gain confidence in the purity of our true nature.”
And on the nihilistic view, Traleg Kyabgon in Moonbeams of Mahamudra. (Pages 272,273) says. “Meditators who take emptiness as an object of conceptual understanding abstract the concept of emptiness from their immediate experience of the phenomenal word. They deny the validity of karma because of this misunderstanding. They think ultimate reality must go beyond our normal concepts of good and bad, since it is empty and therefore, anything goes. This delegitimises the whole notion of morality. This fixation on the concept of emptiness leads to a denial of relative reality in the empirical world.”
And from HHDL from 1993 in Dharamsala, “Emptiness is not nothingness. On one side, a thing is empty; on the other it arises dependently. Emptiness is not empty of existence; it is empty of independent existence. So it must depend on other things. It is important to make sure one has the correct understanding of emptiness. Those who understand emptiness correctly as meaning dependent arising see that if they misbehave, they will have to face the consequences. Thus they will refrain from acting in an unethical manner.”

In part 2 of this topic, I look at unquestioning obedience, removal of the right to criticise and respect for worldly law in relation to vajrayana and cults, then I provide a conclusion to the two posts.
Post by Tahlia Newland, editor and author

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Crazy Wisdom or Mental Imbalance? A psychological perspective: Part 2

Part 2 of a post by a ex-student and Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist.
Note that this is not an attempt at a diagnosis and should not be read as such. We merely aim to present an alternative framework through which to view the situation.

Unresolved grief

After the death of his Master HH Dilgo Khyentse, and also before that, I had perceived SR to be struggling with unresolved grief and to have very real psychological problems. I had tried on a number of occasions to help him with this, but those close to SR thought I had no right to perceive SR in any way as an ordinary human being who might be need of psychological and emotional help. However, in my view we are all human and it is possible for any of us to be seriously fragmented and act from split aspects of ourselves, despite having  otherwise real and valuable spiritual gifts.
To elaborate further, unresolved grief can often bring out earlier splits in the psyche, (replaying traumatic losses experiences by the child self). It appeared to me that SR went through quite a ‘manic’ phase after HHDK’s death, which is often a feature of unresolved grief, known as a ‘manic defence’. Unresolved grief can also result in psychotic episodes. I also perceived SR to be suffering from grandiose delusions after this period of loss, which were to my mind psychotic, such as when he declared at the three month retreat in 1992 that he could fly.
I tried to talk with SR (as have many others on many occasions) and said that I felt he needed help. At one point he momentarily agreed and a divination was done affirming that the person I suggested he go and see would be helpful to him;  however I understand that he did not follow through on this.

Paranoid schizoid position

When people suffer from uneven psychological development, it is perfectly possible for them to be well developed in the ‘higher charkas’ while at the same time having rather wobbly foundations –  a lack of Bowlby’s ‘secure base’. The earlier that trauma occurs – especially if it happens in infancy – the more likely we are to be caught in what in psycho-analytic terms is named the ‘paranoid schizoid position’. This is the place where everything polarises, swinging between extremes of good and bad and feelings of persecutory anxiety. Integration is possible when we can bring these splits into a state of equilibrium resulting in a more grounded balanced position.
We could say at the moment that Rigpa as a whole is going through a kind of group psychosis and  is fundamentally split in this in the paranoid schizoid position,  leaving people feeling raw, anxious  and uncertain, because the ‘secure base’ has been taken away.
Splitting can occur in multiple ways. Naturally each of us is capable of acting from our various ‘child’ and other states of mind if we are ‘triggered’ by some traumatic memory. This can happen even when we are relatively mature grownups. Unfortunately the splits and fractures which to my mind seem apparent within SR, and may even involve fragments from past incarnations are explained away by Rigpa and SR as being ‘The eight manifestations of Guru Rinpoche’.  Indeed there may be aspects of this which contain a grain of truth, which makes it all the more confusing.

Dissociative identity disorder

Looked at another way, when the different aspects or our being are not properly integrated into a unified whole, we could also perceive this to be a form of DID (dissociative identity disorder), or some other dissociative diagnosis, where a person can ‘switch’ from one state to another and behave completely differently, depending, on which aspect of the personality they are inhabiting. Unfortunately, if the different self-states are disconnected from one another, and the compassionate part is not connected up when the wrathful side manifests, a student at Rigpa who has an abusive childhood will experience the inconsistency of SR as matching the inner dynamics of their own abusive upbringing. This significantly adds to the student’s trauma, rather than as SR claims, healing it.
To my mind SR exhibits the features of someone with multiple splits in his psyche which are not at all integrated or under control. An added difficulty is the danger of him having considerable power – including spiritual power. Also when close students have either directly or indirectly been in or been affected by sexual relationships with their spiritual teacher, an extremely incestuous environment is created which is compounded by any underlying psychological disturbances.
There is a bitter irony here in that the practice of Vajrakilaya is supposed to cut through such delusions and confusions of ego, and yet we can see SR as a man with considerable spiritual and communicative gifts who is caught up in his own Rudra – the delusions of his own fragmented ego.
I offer these thoughts with the intention and wish for benefit to come from the ‘clearing out’ that is happening at Rigpa – may we find a way of integrating all of this experience into a deeper understanding  – and ‘May confusion dawn as Wisdom’.
The writer of this piece wishes to remain anonymous.
A further perspective.

A note from the editor. An examination of the dynamics of abuse in relationship to the beliefs of the students around S will be undertaken at a later point.

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Crazy Wisdom or Mental Imbalance? A psychological perspective: Part 1

Today in this post by an ex-student and Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist, we examine what might, in psychological terms, be the basis of the extreme behaviour of SR as attested to in the letter written by the 8 students.
 Note that this is not an attempt at a diagnosis and should not be read as such. We merely aim to present an alternative framework through which to view the situation.

Understanding attachment theory (a strand from within psychoanalytic theory) is I feel helpful in understanding some of the dynamics between Sogyal Rinpoche and his students.

Attachment theory

Attachment theory shows us that people re-enact their childhood attachment patterns, whether these patterns are ‘insecure, anxious, avoidant or disorganised and chaotic’ ( the four basic attachment patterns).  Attachment trauma presents in a variety of ways: fear of intimacy and attachment; fear of separation and inability to hold onto healthy power and autonomy;  difficulties having and maintaining stable relationships, and co-dependent relationships. Generally speaking, the chronic insecurities faced by those with unhappy attachment histories results in lack of confidence, an impoverished capacity to love, a lack of a healthy self-esteem, and, most particularly, emotional  dysregulation.  Freud’s notion of ‘repetition compulsion’ is painfully evident as we see  re-enactments of traumatic relational patterns repeat and repeat. Underpinning all of this is a lack of what John Bowlby termed a ‘secure base’, which  has major implications for our capacity  to evolve  and hinders our capacity to grow up and Individuate  (Jung).
Learning how to regulate our emotions relies on the existence of a consistent loving care-giver, so inability to regulate one’s emotions generally comes directly from early childhood trauma. All this points back to the fact that, assuming that he does lack this ability, Sogyal Rinpoche may not have had healthy attachments to his parents or caregivers. If he had, he would not have created such apparently unhealthy dynamics with his students.
It is my view that we can understand the constellation of SR’s ‘psychology’, i.e., the apparently disturbed nature of his ego, a number of different ways.

Childhood abandonment

‘Dependent Personality Disorder’ – this originates from various forms of attachment traumas and / or abandonment in childhood. Being taken away from his mother as he was at 6 months old would not have helped Sogyal Rinpoche. It is the mother who helps the child learn to regulate their emotions in infancy, and an early abandonment such as this may be one of the reasons why SR’s emotions appear to be completely ‘all over the place’, compounded by the abandonment when  Jamyang Khyentse Chokid Lodro died when SR was around 10.  In many ways SR suffered from the extremes of being both neglected and, at the same time, perhaps being made to feel overly ‘special’ – something which he also appears to enact with his students. Apparently, his unchecked temper tantrums are legion, like a child who regularly ‘loses’ it. Such incapacity to regulate emotions is a significant factor in abusive behaviours – sex addiction, addiction to violence, food and so on are all ways of ‘acting out’ that which cannot be contained and processed internally. Perhaps if SR had been required to undergo more retreats and been more of a practitioner, he might have been able to learn how to regulate his emotions through the practice, but his early childhood experiences would mean that he started out with some significant vulnerabilities.

Tulku upbringing

The upbringing of tulkus is part of the picture and a matter for concern since most Tulkus do not grow up in normal ways. In “Dragon Thunder” a book by Dianna Mukpo, Trungpa’s son Taggie was described as being  agitated, out-of-control, hyperactive and couldn’t talk. However he was given no help or psychological treatment. Changling Rinpoche at Sechen monastery, spoke of the difficulties in educating Tulkus. He said they often had quite ‘wild’ natures, and when they ran wild, they were difficult to control, like ‘herding cats’. Jamyang Khyentse Choki Lodro was said to be highly sensitive and superstitious, and Sogyal Rinpoche, who was close to him, would have grown up in an environment where he may well have witnessed JKCL’s own disturbances. (He was known to hit people, and in various biographies, Dilgo Khyenste and others describes his psychological vulnerabilities and pre-occupations.)
Given the complexity of Rinpoche’s own traumatic history and culture, he may find it hard to see and acknowledge any damage and harm he may have done in the name of Vajrayana.  His psychological structure may be so wounded, and he may be so defended, that he believes his own ‘story’. If that is the case, to let that go would have overwhelming implication on a range of levels, and in particular, his psychological structures and defences.

Addiction and attachment

Attachment theory also shows how abuse creates habits of addiction. People prefer to remain stuck in negative attachments to known, familiar, and therefore seemingly ‘safe’ relationships (‘attachment to the bad object’ – Fairbairn) while struggling with internalised self-attacking voices of shame and lack of self-esteem. In such circumstances, self-hatred is often prevalent, and to soothe the anxiety-ridden emotions, self-soothing and comfort is sought through  addictive behaviours – such as sex, alcohol, eating disorders and binge TV watching   – or whatever other addictive behaviours.
A difficulty with entrenched attachment patterns is the strong resistance to change and difficulties in letting go. This is especially true in treating addiction.
People with traumatic backgrounds, such as that experienced by SR, often find it difficult to control their addictive tendencies and dependency behaviours. Their adaptive child within need constant stimulation to keep at bay their overwhelming experiences of pain and anxiety (some of which may not be fully conscious). In this case, he may unconsciously justify and believe that his shocking behaviour is in the service of helping people develop pure perception. This in no way excuses the pain that he has possibly inflicted on others, but it might help in our understanding of why this might come about. Simply speaking, it is possible that SR is acting out his own pain, pain which he has never learned to process in a healthy way.

Complex trauma

In addition to the genuine aspects of SR’s gifts (he has shared with many students his ability to transmit the experience of the nature of mind), I feel that his psychological aspects are very much disintegrated. We could say, in light of the recent allegations, that he displays an alarming number of conditions diagnosed within psychiatry, which in contemporary psychotherapy would be subsumed under the more compassionate ‘label’ of ‘complex trauma’.
Many have mentioned that SR appears to have what in the mental health world might be termed a ‘narcissistic personality disorder’ (determined by an excessive concern with power and a desire to be in complete control, to defend against helplessness). He could also be perceived to have ‘psychopathic’ tendencies since he appears to have no real capacity to reflect on the traumas he inflicts on others, nor to genuinely feel compunction for what he is done. He could also be seen to fit the ‘old’ label which used to be termed ‘borderline personality disorder’ which ranges from emotional dysregulation and constant triggering, to being on the borders/ edges of psychosis. Chogyam Trungpa spoke of realisation as being like licking honey off the edge of a razor blade – i.e.,  this is the ‘border’ where we can go ‘either way’ into wisdom or madness.
Part two of this exploration will be posted tomorrow.
Again, please note that this is not a diagnosis, just a sharing of a modern psychological perspective.

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Hollywood & Rigpa: a Comparison. Final part – Outcome

So what will be the outcome of the public revelations of abuse by Harvey Weinstein and Sogyal Rinpoche? In the non-Buddhist community, legal action is the obvious next step. It’s the way people get the perpetrator to take responsibility for their crimes, and it can be avoided, or sentences lessened, by making a heart-felt apology. Buddhists in general tend to not be focused on legal action; for them an apology would have much more power. Weinstein has, at least, apologised, but Sogyal hasn’t apologised, and, in that, his lawyers may have made a fatal mistake in misjudging just how important an apology is to some of the injured parties.
Certainly the 8 letter writers were not seeking legal action. They merely wanted to inform students of the truth. They said:” If we are wrong in what we write, please correct our mistaken view. If your striking and punching us and others, and having sex with your students and married women, and funding your sybaritic lifestyle with students’ donations, is actually the ethical and compassionate behavior of a Buddhist teacher, please explain to us how it is. If, however, we are correct in our assessment, please stop your behaviors that we believe to be harmful to others. … Our heartfelt wish is that you seek guidance from the Dalai Lama, other reputable lamas of good heart, or anyone who can help to bring you back onto the true path of the Dharma.”
Their request has not been met.

Legal action

Scotland Yard has said it is investigating allegations made last month by seven women against Weinstein, some dating back to the 1980s.
Greenfield, a partner at the law firm Fieldfisher who specialises in personal injury cases, told the Guardian: ‘We have a sent a letter of claim to Harvey Weinstein’s London and New York offices. I am waiting to hear from them but I have indicated that [if it is not settled] we will be pursuing a civil claim in relation to sexual assaults by Harvey Weinstein.’
The LAPD requested victims of the Oscar-winning producer to go public.
‘“Please come forward so your cases — and justice — can be pursued,” said Mike Feueron. “We take allegations like these very seriously, and where the facts support conviction, we will prosecute,” he added.
‘As more and more claims of harassment or assault by Weinstein emerge, the New York Police Department and the London Metropolitan Police are already investigating potential complaints. The LAPD has not officially started its own probe, but, as Deadline reported last week, it is seriously considering doing so.’
New York criminal defense attorney Stuart Slotnick says. “The final area is whether the company has any liability, and I think it’s clear based on recent information that there will be lawsuits not only against Weinstein but against his company as well.”
In terms of Sogyal Rinpoche and Rigpa, the lack of apology, slow pace of Rigpa management to begin the independent investigation they promised, and the rigid adherence to dogma by some lamas and, apparently, the majority of those who remain in the organisation have pushed some ex-Rigpa students to make complaints to the UK Charities Commission and the French Police. (Note that the 8 letter writers did not initiate these investigations, just as they did not release the original letter to newspapers or on social media. Other people are responsible for these events.)
The extreme statements made by Orgyen Tobyal in Paris, such as it being acceptable for a great master to kill someone, have made it clear to some that nothing less than legal action will make such lamas realise that, no matter what they believe,  they simply cannot disregard the law.
The Charities Commission (who will take statements from all over the world) and the French police are therefore encouraging people to come forward to help them with their investigations. A specialist lawyer is working on the case with ADFI of Montpellier. (This is primarily for French nationals but will also include anyone who has experienced abuse on French territory)

Wake up call

In the interview with the Daily Beast, ‘Clooney expressed hope that publicising the allegations against Weinstein would serve as a wake-up call to the industry. “Hopefully, this kind of behaviour will end – or become harder and harder for it to continue,” he said. “We’ve seen this type of behaviour in politics, in Silicon Valley, and in corporate America. This is a big problem in our society, that people in power are taking advantage of people not in power – particularly powerful men with young women.”’
Exactly the same statement applies to Tibetan Buddhism, (Rigpa is only one example of a wider issue). And the issue in Tibetan Buddhism, though it is a necessary first step, will not be solved by the Band Aid solution of the installation of a code of conduct. The deeper issues of feudalism, misogyny and cultural arrogance need to be examined and addressed.
As Laura Bates said in The Telegraph, ‘Harvey Weinstein is not a “beast” or a “monster”. He is a man who has behaved like many other powerful men. The only difference is that Weinstein’s alleged offences have finally, after decades of shameful silence, emerged into the public eye. But thousands of men like him continue to operate with impunity.’
Again this applies to Sogyal Rinpoche. He is not a monster. He is a product of his upbringing and at the mercy of his delusions as we all are, but how many other Tibetan lamas ‘like him continue to operate with impunity’?  If students of Tibetan Buddhism don’t stand up and say, ‘This has got to stop. Now,’ how will it ever change? Clearly the lamas will not deal with the issue unless we insist.

Push for social equity

What we need right now is for Rigpa sangha members, past and present, to join together and decry the use of derogatory terms like ‘samaya breaker’ and to push for fair treatment of victims and a deep examination of the reasons why the abuse flourished. Because what’s been created in Rigpa is an environment where it isn’t safe to come forward with a history of abuse, and this is no different from how it is in any other large organization with money and power that has status to lose. But the Weinstein company has responded by firing Weinstein, and board members have resigned, and the company is taking steps to begin to reach out to employees to address their concerns.

Rigpa has an opportunity to be a positive force for change here but they have not stepped up to accept that challenge, instead they have hunkered down behind the same beliefs that enabled the abuse.

Rigpa students, please go to your local sangha meetings and ask questions. Don’t be afraid to speak up. Rigpa and all its representatives need to be held accountable.  After all, we were supposed to be a spiritual group and better than samsaric organizations, but the response from Rigpa to claims of abuse has been halting and half-hearted at best, and purposely victim-blaming at worst.
We, who devoted years and all our work and much of our disposable income, deserve better than this.

It’s not too late to turn it around, to drop the denial and face facts, but it gets harder with each passing day.

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