Are We Really Helpless or Do We Just Think We Are?

If you’re anything like me, you’d like to see a world where everyone genuinely respects and cares for everyone else (including the earth and all its inhabitants), a world where ethical integrity is valued more highly than fame, fortune, pleasure or power, and where objective truth is valued as the basis of our shared reality – even though we know we see it through our own subjective lenses. And if you’re like me, then you’re willing to do your bit to help bring about such a world.

But when the world doesn’t move in this direction as much or as fast as we’d like it to, when our leaders are heartless, selfish people who pray at the temples of fame, fortune, pleasure and power, and whose policies speed us ever faster towards the extinction of the world as we know it, we can easily feel helpless, depressed and anxious. And we can give up.

But are are as helpless as we think?

In the last post I shared a video on how I handle feelings of helplessness, and the surprising thing is that how I process such feelings leaves me not feeling so helpless after all. Not only because I ‘feel’ more powerful after connecting to the vast clarity of my mind, but also because once I’ve got out of my helpless state, I find that even on a practical level, I have achieved more than I thought, or I can do more than I thought I could. A refreshed mind allows me to find fresh inspiration. And when I realise/remember just how intimately everything is connected, I see truths and possibilities where I couldn’t see them before.

Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism

Despite all our outrage, all out efforts, Tibetan Buddhism hasn’t changed – at least not that I can see. Rigpa, in setting up a code of conduct and grievance procedure, has appeared to make a few concessions to the idea that non-vajrayana students, at least, should be safe from abuse. But that code makes it clear that within Rigpa, once you’ve agreed to a vajrayana relationship with a teacher, you’ve consented to whatever is involved in that teaching. Sogyal thought his abuse was ‘teaching’ vajrayana students, and those running Rigpa thought the same thing – myself included, until I realised I’d been brainwashed. Rigpa international management have not admitted that Sogyal abused people, have not apologised for their enabling of the abuse, nor stopped gaslighting their students into thinking they’ve changed when, in reality, they’ve held tight to their fundamental belief that Sogyal was a crazy wisdom master of the highest calibre.

Shambala, despite some abusers facing legal action, is back to business as usual, and NKT has been carrying on for some time. Other instances of abuse in other sanghas have come to light and the pattern is the same: the lamas support each other no matter what they do. When an abuser is called out, they speak of how realised and precious he is, and they assume that the victim was not adequately prepared for or is not suited to vajrayana. If there is any fault, it’s because we Westerners don’t get it! That’s the usual refrain. The religion is stuck in superstition and feudalism.

So we could be forgiven for thinking that we had no effect. And a sense of powerlessness or hopelessness over our inability to make change would be an understandable reaction.

But those of you who spoke out about abuse in your sangha, (such as the eight Rigpa students who wrote the letter in July 2017 that exposed Sogyal’s abuse) have had an enormous positive effect on a lot of people. Though many of us were resistant at first, you opened our eyes with your persistence in sharing the truth. You educated us. And though the religion may not have changed in any obvious way, the ripples you set in motion are still moving underneath the surface. By educating students on the dangers of the teacher-student relationship as it appears in Tibetan Buddhism, you’ve changed the teacher-student dynamics for many students, and in a religion where that relationship is such a central pillar of the teachings and practice, that’s huge. We can’t see the changes yet, but they’re happening all the time. It’s as impossible for your words and activities not to contribute to change as is for change to not occur in every moment in the world.

The pattern is that we speak, then when we’ve expended our voice, we fall silent, and perhaps our interest leads us elsewhere, but others who’ve heard our voices take over the speaking. And so the ripples of awareness lead ever outwards from the first word spoken out in disgust. Every word we say has power far beyond the moment in which we speak. And our actions even more so.

I only feel helpless about this when I forget how intimately we’re all connected. The truth is that, though it sometimes doesn’t appear that way, we have made a difference. Every one of you who even knows in your own heart that the abuse in TB is wrong has made a difference, simply by knowing that and by trusting your own knowing.

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Image by Capri23auto from Pixabay

Climate Change

When my property was threatened by wildfire in January 2020, I felt truly helpless. I lived with that feeling of helplessness for a while, and so I became very familiar with it. But I was determined not to repress that feeling, and eventually it pushed me to find some way to ‘do something’. I researched what I could do as an individual to help in the effort to save our planet from human-made destruction, and I found plenty. The most comprehensive list had 101 things you can do to help stop climate change.

Click to access 101-things-you-can-do-climate-change_1.pdf

Though the effect of one family or business lowering their carbon footprint is very little on its own, the effects of many families and businesses doing what they can cannot be discounted. It’s easy to give up because you feel helpless, even easier to give up if you think you’re helpless to make a difference, but it’s only when you do nothing, that you’re truly helpless.

The greatest threat to our planet’s health is apathy.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

I live a low carbon lifestyle anyway – I live off the grid, completely on solar power, with just a little bit of gas as back up – so all that advice on what ordinary people can do to help stop climate change I’m pretty much already doing. It’s been how I’ve lived for a long time. But I really wanted to do more. For my mental health I needed to do more – I was suffering from eco-anxiety – and so I found a way. My feeling of helplessness demanded it of me .

So my family and I undertook to make our property more resilient against drought and bushfire, and to increase its contribution to offsetting carbon emissions. We put in larger water systems – including roof sprinklers – and planted around 20 trees and many understory plants to make a permaculture food forest, which besides making us less dependent on supply chains for our food also sequesters carbon in the soil. It becomes a carbon sink.

Yes, a fire could burn down all those fruit trees I planted – though fruit trees are less inclined to burn than eucalypts – but there’s no point in worrying about that because that’s something I really can’t do anything about. Nor is there any point in not planting an orchard just because there’s a chance it might burn down – just as we don’t not cross a road because we might be hit by a car!

We might not be able to personally stop the coal-fired power stations spewing out their Co2 – so no use being unhappy about that – but we can lower our carbon footprint and we can even help reverse climate change by turning our lawns and gardens into carbon sinks. But we can only do that if we stop thinking it’s all hopeless.

Kiss the Ground: a truly nurturing solution

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I recommend watching the Netflix documentary titled Kiss the Ground. It stops you feeling helpless about climate change because regenerating our soil so that it naturally sequesters carbon in the soil will not only stop climate change worsening, it will also wind it back! And we can all help simply by:
– Stopping using synthetic fertilisers and pesticides on our lawns and gardens;
– Leaving our lawns to grow longer & leave the ‘weeds’ in it. Better still plant some clover to it to make it a multispecies area;
– Turning as much of our property as we can (even if it’s just a balcony) into a biodiverse garden. Imagine all those suburban lawns and gardens managed to maximise their ability to sequester carbon. That’s a lot of land area;
– Composting your food scraps and garden waste (why wouldn’t you?) and put it on your garden. According to modelling by Project Drawdown, worldwide adoption of composting could reduce emissions by 2.3 billion tons over the next 30 years – as well as help us feed the world on less land by boosting soil productivity;
– Planting lots of different species together so you have a polyculture of foodcrops and flowers in the same bed. Following the permaculture food forest system will sequester lots of carbon. Google it.
– Covering any bare ground with mulch.
– Spreading the word. Get your neighbours doing the same.

“There is so much we can do ourselves [to sequester carbon], in whatever space we have. If we all did it, imagine the impact that would have!” Botanist Ginny Stibolt, co-author with landscape architect Sue Reed of the practical guide Climate-Wise Landscaping.

Anyway, if you’re feeling helpless about climate change, if you think we can’t reverse it, watch Kiss the Ground.

Click here for some written back up on the matter.

Governmental ignorance

It’s easy to feel that we’re helpless to change a government that doesn’t share our vision for the world because we’re only one vote, but lots of votes together can kick out a government. Even if it’s not this time. Then next time. Or the time after that. Sometimes things have to get really bad before people will wake up.

We can’t all be activists, but we can all speak with others, and it’s not just what we say or do that has an effect, it’s how we are, what we believe in. And anything we say or do that inspires others to a wholesome vision for the world contributes to creating that vision. Small or large, obvious or hidden, makes no difference; the point is that you have an effect simply by being you. A positive outlook has a positive effect on the world.

In democracies, we have a vote. Be grateful for that and use it. It may be only a small way to help, but it is a way. Our vote will only be pointless if we don’t use it.

Both helpless and not helpless

We have little effect as a single person to change things for the better on the macro level, and that makes us feel helpless. But dwelling on that feeling of helplessness (as distinct from acknowledging it and allowing it to pass naturally) closes us off to the power we have to effect change on the micro level. And since the macro level is made up of lots of units at the micro level, we do actually have more power to bring about change than it appears if we’re only looking at the macro level.

Think of it in Buddhist terms:

On the conventional level of reality, we appear helpless to make significant change, but that’s just how things appear, not how they truly are. In truth, everything exists interdependently, which means that we are so intimately connected to everything else, we have far more power to bring about change than we perceive on the conventional level.

How to we access this power? By meditating until we learn to recognise and remain in the absolute level/ true nature of our mind – that wide-open, clear and inherently loving space of mind, the level of mind where your connection to everything is no longer theory, but something you know with every fibre of your being. In that state, your intention alone has power, even without ‘doing’ anything. That power may manifest as providing you with new inspiration to actually do something in the conventional world, or it may be sensed as light and/or sound frequencies that naturally manifest from your deepest being.

And in true vajrayana fashion, you can use that inner light as a vehicle for sending out specific visualisations to manifest in the world. After all, everything has that clear light. Everything is that clear light. Once plugged into that level of reality, we’re connected to it all, and so we’re no longer helpless to bring about change.

I love to hear your comments, so please share your thoughts.

Have you watched Kiss the Ground? What did you take away from it?

Reginal Ray: Transmitting Trungpa’s lineage of abuse.

Another Tibetan Buddhist heavy weight bites the dust!

Eight students of Reginald Ray, inspired by the revelations of abuse in Rigpa in the letter written by eight Rigpa students and in Shamabala by Buddhist Project Sunshine, have written an open letter revealing Reginald Ray’s abuse of students and the cult dynamics in his organisation, Dharma Ocean.

An all-too-familiar story

This excerpt from the letter sums up the general contents, and those of us familiar with this kind of thing from Rigpa, Shambala, NKT and other Tibetan Buddhist groups will recognise the methods and language used to create this kind of cult-ure. It’s the same-old story. Clearly, we, as Westerners, are importing the worst of this tradition on a grand scale.

“The forms of emotional and spiritual abuse perpetuated by Reggie Ray and, by extension, those in positions of leadership within Dharma Ocean, are commonly acknowledged as characteristic of high demand groups :
● grooming;
● love bombing new group members;
● questioning and doubt being discouraged or punished;
● public shaming of community members;
● a cycle of verbal abuse and triangulation in interpersonal communication;
● selective enforcement of rules/community norms; dissent framed in terms of spiritual immaturity/shortcomings;
● a pervasive culture of fear and paranoia;
● a charismatic leader insulated from any external accountability;
● reframing dissent or the loss of prominent members as proof of the worthiness and
exceptionalism of the “in-group”;
● frequent public appraisals of other spiritual paths and communities, which were
always found inferior by comparison with Dharma Ocean.
● the organization’s all-important ends justify its unethical means.”

A worrying transmission of abuse by Westerners

This abusive Tibetan Buddhist teacher is a Westerner, a man whose books I loved for their clarity and the depth of the author’s dharma understanding. But as we’ve come to realise, knowledge, and even practice of, the dharma according to Tibetan Buddhism is no guarantee of developing any kind of decency as a human being, especially if your master practised abuse in the name of dharma.

Chokyo Lodro, Sogyal Rinpoche’s master, was abusive in his behaviour, and so was Chogyam Trungpa, Reginald Ray’s master. Sogyal can be cut some slack for his perception that abuse was acceptable behaviour due to being a child while under the influence of at least one man who thought beating increased wisdom, but RR came to the dharma as an adult with a Western upbringing and presumably some awareness of the concept of human rights, so why is he behaving in a similar fashion? Answer -Chogyam Trungpa. He’s following a flawed role model, and presumably, like many of us did, has given up his personal integrity (presuming that he did at one point have some) on the altar of devotion.

Chogyam Trungpa: the father of the Western lineage of Tibetan Buddhist abuse

Trungpa’s alcoholism, womanising and hedonistic lifestyle have long been well-known but were generally brushed off as a result of the free-love ethos of hippy days in the sixties and seventies.

“Vajradhatu students had a reputation for the wildest parties in Buddhist America. Although most Tibetan Tantric schools clearly discourage “acting out” passions and impulses, Trungpa Rinpoche did not. In fact, drunk and speeding, he once crashed a sports car into the side of a joke shop and was left partly paralyzed. He openly slept with students. In Boulder, he lectured brilliantly, yet sometimes so drunk that he had to be carried off stage or held upright in his chair. …

When Trungpa Rinpoche lay dying in 1986 at the age of 47, only an inner circle knew the symptoms of his final illness. Few could bear to acknowledge that their beloved and brilliant teacher was dying of terminal alcoholism, even when he lay incontinent in his bedroom, belly distended and skin discolored, hallucinating and suffering from varicose veins, gastritis, and esophageal varices, a swelling of veins in the esophagus caused almost exclusively by cirrhosis of the liver.

“Rinpoche was certainly not an ordinary Joe, but he sure died like every alcoholic I’ve ever seen who drank uninterruptedly,” said Victoria Fitch, a member of his household staff with years of experience as a nursing attendant. “The denial was bone-deep,” she continued. “I watched his alcoholic dementia explained as his being in the realm of the daikinis.'”

Tricycle: Encountering the Shadow in Buddhist America

However, some have revealed an even darker and clearly abusive side to Trungpa, and though (as it was with such students in Rigpa) vehemently denied by those who cannot bear to have their faith shaken, others have corroborated most of the stories that have come to light.

Chogyam Trungpa’s abusive behaviour has been documented in various places, such as the frank revelations of Leslie Hays, one of his ‘wives’, Katherine Rose talking about how Trungpa and his followers stripped a couple naked against their will, and John Riley Perks who shares the story of Trungpa’s abuse of a dog in his book The Mahasiddha and His Idiot Servant.

A worrying transmission

On its website, Ray’s organisation, Dharma Ocean, says that it’s core mission is “transmitting Trungpa Rinpoche’s living lineage in the modern context.” That page goes on to tell us that “Dr. Ray has practiced and studied in the lineage of Chögyam Trungpa since 1970, when he met Rinpoche just after his arrival in the U.S. ” And “Dr. Ray passes on the “moving and remarkable trust” he received from his teacher. Under this guidance, many of Dharma Ocean’s senior students are beginning to instruct others along the Dharma Ocean path of Chögyam Trungpa.”

Now that “senior students beginning to instruct others along the path of Chögyam Trungpa” is a worry. And one wonders what “moving and remarkable trust” refers to. Is that the never-question-your-teacher-because-they’re-perfect-and-what-might-appear-as-abuse-isn’t-really-because-it’s-all-for-your-benefit bullshit?

The third point on that page where it summarises the essence of the lineage is “The everyday practice to “never turn away” — to develop an attitude of complete acceptance and openness toward all experience …” But if you take a look at the letter   you’ll see a lot of non-acceptance and close-mindedness in practice. Another instance of the guru and his organisation not walking their talk.

The lineage of abuse Trungpa left in his organisation, Shambala, carried by his son, the Sakyong, is also now widely known thanks to Buddhist Project Sunshine. In between Chögyam Trungpa and the Sakyong, Shambhala was led by an American-born Buddhist who is mainly remembered for having sex with students even after he knew he had AIDS.

In the book Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism, Mary Finnigan tells how in 1975 Sogyal’s behaviour changed abruptly from jovial to a tyrant’s attitude, which included public berating and humiliations of his students, after he returned from his visit to the U.S. where he met Trungpa in Boulder/Colorado.

Unfortunately, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche has also made his respect for Trungpa clear, and who knows how many other Tibetan Buddhist teachers, of both Eastern and Western roots, idolise a man now known to be a serial abuser.

How do we stop this transmission of abuse?

SPEAK UP! Tell it as it is, just like these eight students of RR and the eight Rigpa students and others who have broken the silence. And report crimes to the police. Treat abusive dharma teachers as we would any corporate boss who abuses his workers.

If you have knowledge of others abusing in the name of dharma, find others who can corroborate your story and write an open letter signed by as many students as you can who witness the same kinds of behaviour in their teachers, and post it wherever you can on the internet. If you can’t find anyone to back up your story, maybe you could be the first and hope that others will come out of the woodwork if you speak up. Best is make a You Tube video where you simply tell your story as ‘this is what happened to me’, no accusations, just facts as you know them. It’s hard, I know. But videos work best if you’re the only one speaking out. On a video you’re a real person, much harder to disregard, but don’t allow comments on your video. Best not to open yourself to further abuse. Be prepared for a backlash, though. Unfortunately those who feel threatened by such revelations will retaliate. For support, join the Survivors of Vajrayana Abuse Facebook group.

Cut the lineage here, now. No matter how wise they might sound, do not quote abusers or teachers who were once their students unless that person has made a public statement denouncing their teacher’s abuse and vowing not to continue it. To stop lineages of abuse from taking deeper root in the West, we have to stop seeing having Trungpa as a teacher as some kind of respected qualification.

Don’t support dodgy organisations and teachers. Only take teachings from teachers who make a public stance against abuse and cult behaviour. In today’s climate, I don’t think it’s too much to ask.

PS: A Website for those Leaving Dharma Ocean is a resource site for recovering students of Reggie Ray and Caroline Pfohl, as well as for those who are curious about what happened at Dharma Ocean, or who are considering deepening their commitments to these teachers. It includes letters, emails between Reggie Ray and a student, essays from past students, articles, a list of behavior to watch for among enablers in Dharma Ocean — or any meditation community, and resources for healing from spiritual abuse.

Oh Yeah; I Forgot to Mention the Publication of Fallout! And the Sydney book launch next Wednesday.

It just occurred to me that I never announced here the release of my book on the last couple of years, Fallout: Recovering from Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism. Most of you have likely already heard this, but just in case you haven’t, the book is available now.

I’m really hopeless when it comes to selling books, but I hope to cover my costs so I can then donate anything else that comes in to The Alliance for Buddhist Ethics and the Cult Information and Family Support group in Australia, so your money won’t be lining my pockets. I wrote this to help people, and I’m pleased to say that the responses I’ve gotten from the target audience are overwhelmingly positive. It was well worth writing it.

You can get the book from all online shops or by order through your local book store (quote the ISBN of 978-0-6485130-4-9 )

Rather than me talking about it, I’ll let you read the words of some of those who have read it:

A summary of the therapeutic journey for people healing from involvement in a religious group

‘Fallout is a very personal, emotionally literate, and thoroughly researched and documented account of Tahlia Newland’s journey in regards to leaving a religious group. It’s an excellent account of the immensely heart-rending difficultly of honouring and following your spiritual longing while at the same time sensing that there is something ‘not quite right’ with the reality of the spiritual teacher. Newland includes the heart-breaking, mind-tangling and spirit-breaking dilemmas involved in her journey as she explores the issue of trying to reconcile and discern the reality of Rigpa with the wisdom she gained from being part of Rigpa.

‘Down to earth yet passionately heartfelt at the same time, what stands out in Newland’s book is her profound common sense. It’s a very real account that includes following the most powerful human longing to join with a religious teacher who speaks to your longing, the intense sense of betrayal when the teacher emerges as abusive, and subsequently the healing journey required to move on with one’s life.

‘Fallout is about being with a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, but the journey she underwent is applicable far beyond Buddhist groups. It’s a sensible guide to any person who is thinking to become involved, is currently involved in, or who is leaving or has left a religious group or spiritual teacher.

‘The material on healing trauma is an up-to-date, well considered and highly readable summary of the therapeutic journey for people healing from involvement in a religious group. Newland’s book is ultimately full of hope.’

Geoffrey Beatson, psychotherapist.


The next one is just excerpts from a review posted on Goodreads. You can read the whole thing here, and it’s well worth taking a look at it because it’s such a comprehensive and insightful review:

‘Wise. Wise by virtue of not trying to be. Wise by its swiftness and vulnerability. By its ability to integrate a huge amount of information from different sources – journalistic, scholarly, historical, spiritual. By its unpretentious narrative documentation of the author’s waking up to a grounded view of her own spiritual practice. …

‘There’s no ponderous, abstract bullshit on the nature of the dharma or the human heart, though of course these are the central subjects. Rather, she’s reporting her own “waking up” process, and binding together a huge compendium of resources for victims of spiritual abuse – both within her community and in comparable situations. She’s also documenting a history that happened in part through blogs and Facebook groups and would be lost to future historians: this is excellent sociological data of the participant-observer sort. And it’s also a thorough, well-documented, highly readable telling of the story of the undoing of Rigpa and Sogyal Rinpoche. …

‘It feels like an act of love. This labor means that this resource will be available in a timely manner to people recovering from the situation she describes. It’s also a great resource to many of us recovering from revelations of abuse in a variety of spiritual communities in the wake of #metoo. 

‘The writing is so damn good. With the exception of a few narrative flourishes, it is so straightforward that it’s more or less invisible. This clarity, and ability to modulate her voice in the narrative (it’s her story, but it’s NOT about her), is commendable for someone going through a traumatic process of having her entire worldview torn apart. You get a great sense of Newland’s mind and heart here. But what you never get, reader, is bogged down in rumination or speculation. This is story and good strong critique. She narrates with detail and multiple perspectives while still being direct and a super-fast read. It’s fast because it absorbs you.’

Angela Jamison, academic and yoga instructor.

Tenzin Palmo’s endorsement

Tenzin Palmo actually responded to my request that she read and – if she felt to – write an endorsement for the back cover. I was delighted when she sent me the following:

‘In recent years the long-standing problem of physical, sexual and psychological abuse of students by their spiritual teachers has been revealed and highlighted. Tahlia Newland takes the classic case of Sogyal Lakar and the Rigpa organisation to explore and try to understand the dynamics behind this painful issue.  Her report lays bare the harm and anguish left behind in the wake of such appalling behaviour and the subsequent efforts, by those who seek to maintain their power and control, to condone such conduct and meanwhile denigrate the victims. In this feudal outlook, both physical violence and sexual predatory behaviour towards dependents are viewed as acceptable. In certain cases this power-based attitude has sought to be imported into Western Dharma circles. This is a complete distortion of the impeccable Vajrayana path and creates much confusion, disenchantment and pain. So we are grateful to Ms Newland for bravely looking into this controversial issue with such compassion and insight.’

Jetsumna Tenzin Palmo

Dispels the myth of crazy wisdom

This is from the woman who organised the paper she, Damcho and I delivered at the Sakyadhita Conference . I like her term ‘the myth of crazy wisdom and enlightenment by abuse’.

‘This fine work reveals the excruciating pain, resistance and fear of those within the Rigpa organisation as they grapple with a huge shift in perspective of the teacher they loved and admired—the insightful, brilliant and yet deeply flawed author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying—and shows how people can come together in the age of the internet to find truth and express love and caring for one another. The author captures this painful moment in Buddhism’s history where cruelty—that most harmful of human flaws and the polar opposite of loving-kindness—has crept into and corrupted the Buddhadharma. She brings both compassion for survivors and deeply penetrating wisdom, dispelling the myth of crazy wisdom and enlightenment-by-abuse with a clear-headed vision.’  

Dr Jack Wicks

An enormous amount of research

The next review is by an author who read it as research into her latest book – it has a cult in it.

‘This book provides a courageous and disturbing account of disillusionment and eventual break from a Tibetan Buddhist cult. Newland writes with authority and bravery, pulling no punches in her confrontation of the issues. She has put an enormous amount of research into this book, and it shows on every page. Testimonials from other ex-members of the cult abound. This book isn’t just one woman’s story, it’s the tale of an entire community coming to grips with what they’ve endured, and in many cases, enabled. The book is clearly written for the Buddhist community, with terminology and references unique to the religion, but its lessons and insights can be relevant for people from all walks of life. Highly recommended for those trapped in abusive situations, as well as those who want to safeguard their minds against falling into similar traps.’

Amy Spahn, author

Not just relevant to Rigpa

Though I didn’t quote it in the excerpt above, Ms Jamison mentions in her full review that “As a 20 year practitioner of Ashtanga Yoga, an Indian guru tradition whose own authoritarian abuses were revealed in the wake of #metoo, I was comforted by Newland’s perspective. I recommend this book to every Ashtanga teacher in the world. It’s a difficult, heart-breaking story. It’s potentially triggering. And, it helps clarify the hierarchical nature of silence about abuse in spiritual organizations.’ This shows that the book has relevance beyond that of the Rigpa story. Jaki Perez echoes this point in her review. Her experience was closer to home, and should be familiar to you all here. I’m pleased she found the book helpful.

‘Fallout has been to me an unexpected gift of clarity and compassion. As a survivor of spiritual abuse in Tibetan Buddhism myself, I want to deeply thank Tahlia Newland for making this work available to everyone. It’s based on the Rigpa experience but it applies to all Tibetan Buddhism. To me it’s more than a book, it’s a manual for recovering from this kind of trauma, which is greatly worsened by the response of some Buddhist institutions (FPMT in my case) which, when faced with complaints about their lama’s misconduct, choose to step over an already badly hurt individual in order to harm his or her credibility and in this way protect the institution and the lama’s reputation, which is the source of income for their global business.

If you’ve been in a cult, or have been a victim of spiritual abuse and institutional betrayal, reading Fallout could literally be even better than going to a psychologist, because it will go straight to the point, it will take you step by step through a process of recognizing what you’ve been through, in order to deal with it. I’ve read a section thoroughly every evening, reviewing myself and my own experiences, finally putting into context what happened to me after more than 10 years of painful and forced “letting go”.

It was hard work reviving all this again, and realising how this molestation (by a lama called Dagri “Rinpoche”) and the subsequent slander and isolation when I spoke up destroyed my life at that time. I lost everything. Even though I’ve built a new life for myself, this book allowed me to look back without the feeling of being alone, blamed or misunderstood. Finally all this makes sense and I can put a name on all the past experiences and situations! I can now freely say without any regret “this indeed happened, and it was not my fault; I was right to speak up, and it’s ok not to forgive”.’ 

Dr J Perez

She points out that ‘It was hard work reviving all this again‘, and some readers have told me that they can’t read much at a time for the same reason, but writing the book brought me a sense of closure and has done the same for many others.

On reviews and expectations

You can see more reviews on Amazon both in the customer reviews and the editorial reviews under the description. If you read the book and have spent more than $50 in an Amazon store, I hope you’ll leave a review because it will help the book get to those who might benefit from it. Amazon’s algorithms support books once they have 50 reviews, so every review helps, especially if they’re over 3 stars.

If you do take a look at Amazon, you’ll notice a one star review. There’s actually one in the US shop from someone who seems to think the 8 letter writers committed a crime by not taking Sogyal to court and the other in the UK from a denialist. I’m not surprised or bothered, I always knew that my ‘middle-way’ approach wouldn’t please either of those extremes. I’m use to being bullied by some of those who speak most vehemently against the lamas who bully. I didn’t write the book to denigrate people, I wrote it to help us understand what happened and how to avoid it again. I particularly wanted it to be of use for those who still want Tibetan Buddhist teachings, so if you have a completely negative view of Tibetan Buddhism, this isn’t the book for you.

Not my story, our story

As Ms Jamison says in her review, Fallout is my story, but it’s not about me. It’s about the What Now? group, and I wrote the book as a tribute to the long term members of that group. This quote from the book’s acknowledgements expresses my gratitude to you all. Thank you so much for being there for me and for each other.

Thanks to the eight students who wrote the July 2017 letter to Sogyal Lakar. I am extremely grateful for your courage in exposing the truth, your support of my writing, and your ongoing integrity. Your courage in speaking out freed me from a fog of lies, projections, and ignorance, and gave me the kind of stimulus I needed to reclaim responsibility for my own spiritual path.

Thanks also to all those who participated in the What Now? Facebook group for their ongoing encouragement, kindness, openness, and willingness to deeply examine themselves and the issues raised by abuse in Buddhism. The deep love and respect we have developed for each other through our shared journey are quite remarkable for an online group and is a tribute to the integrity, compassion and wisdom of all of you who remain active in the group to this day. Without you, this book would never have been written. Together we did the research and together we learned all that I report here. Though we haven’t all come to the same conclusions in response to this debacle, the support the group showed for each member’s personal journey never wavered. For that support, I thank you all from the bottom of my heart.

A particular thank you to those who permitted me to include their comments and those who provided links to references when I couldn’t locate them.

In Sydney on the 28th August?

If you are, I hope you can pop along to the Sydney book launch and say hello. I’ll be talking about how cults can look benign unless you’re aware of just how subtle mental manipulation can be. It’s happening at 6.30 pm at 5 Forbes st, Newtown, and it’s being hosted by the Cult Information and Family Support group.

What Now Rigpa?

What now Rigpa? Building on the past

The What Now? blog, no longer wishing to be defined by our relationship to Rigpa and Sogyal Rinpoche / Lakar and his abuse, has changed its name to Beyond the Temple . We want to write more about where we go from here with our spiritual lives, instead of only writing about Sogyal’s abuse and Rigpa’s gaslighting tactics. But just as when we grow from a child into an adult, our childhood shapes us, so too does our experience of spiritual abuse shape our outlook moving forward, and our interests.

And so as an important reference area for all students of Buddhism, we have in our Abuse in Buddhism Reference area all the links to articles of interest and support that we’ve found helpful and collected over the last 18 months – though better organised now. It’s all great reading for anyone wondering if they’ve been abused rather than blessed or if they’re in a cult instead of a sangha. We have links to excellent articles on all facets of the guru abuse issue, from cult education to links to what lamas have said about lama abuse.

In keeping with this acknowledgement of where we’ve come from, this first post with our new name and URL is a kind of ‘where I am with this spiritual abuse stuff now’ kind of post.

When I think of Rigpa or Sogyal these days, I just have a gentle sadness, one of those bittersweet sadnesses that recognises the good, which makes the bad so much sadder.

Abuse-enabling beliefs

I don’t think Rigpa will ever have healthy beliefs around following a Lama for so long as they listen the Orgyen Tobyal, Khenpo Namdrol and Dzongsar Khyentse. They are just too rigid on the ‘once you’re properly prepared and have taken me as your lama, shut up, don’t complain, and do as you’re told’ angle. That’s what it comes down to. (Even their code of conduct has a special section for your relationship with a tantric guru.) The way they enterpret their religion the power is still squarely with the lama, and the student is still expected to be totally submissive to and uncomplaining of his or her every action no matter how harmful. If people are clear that that’s the deal in Rigpa, (at least at the tantric level) then they can be sensible and stay away. And that’s what I’m doing – staying away.

Sogyal Rinpoche, Rigpa & abuse

I feel that Sogyal is just a sick man (mentally as well as physically) with illusions of grandeur and other symptoms of a narcisitic personality disorder along with a special ability to channel the transformative power of his teachers to give genuine introductions to the nature of mind. And Rigpa is a devious organisation, who never mentions the word abuse, despite the abusive behaviour of their lama, Sogyal Rinpoche, being the cause of their problems. The organisation is run by people who seem to have lost their way and become stuck in bad habits and skewed beliefs – though I suspect many are simply trapped by codependent tendancies and some come from abusive backgrounds that made the abuse seem ‘normal’ to them.

That Rigpa still talk to their members like a PR firm doing damage control – directing their members perception away from the truth of ‘the situation’ to a distorted version that makes them think their problem is an attack by ‘disgruntled students’, not the abuse and it’s enabling – is highly manipulative, and it isn’t care. It’s ‘we must keep our membership at all costs, so let’s direct their attention away from the nasty truth that our lama beat people, sexually harassed and used them, and kept them trapped in an abusive relationship through trauma bonding. Let’s pretend everything is right now and get back to earning money, even though we still hold the same abuse-enabling beliefs as we did before.’

Dzongsar Khyentse & the bottom line.

That’s the root of the problem with Rigpa, that they still don’t think that Sogyal did anything wrong in terms of vajrayana even though they know that he did all those things in the report. They won’t say it publically, but Dzongsar Khyentse – their main advisor – does. In his latest comments on the topic in Chile still made it clear that he hasn’t changed his bottom line that once you’re ‘properly prepared’ and you take a lama as your tantric guru, then you have to ‘continue with this practice of pure perception’, something that for many in Rigpa simply means you have to see everything the guru does as beneficial even when it’s clearly harmful.

‘And what I have basically, among other things that I’ve said, if Sogyal R had applied the correct procedure and if the students also knew what was happening, then if they had taken him as a vajrayana master, that’s it, then you have to continue with this practice of pure perception.

But if SR haden’t taken the correct procedure, and I have said that that time and I say now, that I doubt that SR had taken the correct procedure. This is my personal thought. You know the correct procedure … someone says you do my chores for 3 years, these are the correct procedures. If SR didn’t apply the correct procedures, students didn’t know what was happening and students also don’t know was happening, it is totally wrong for Sogyal to demand whole-hearted pure perception so that he can do what he likes; it’s totally wrong.’

Dzongsar Khyentse, Being Savvy at Following the Guru, Santiago, Chile, January 20, 2019.

I gather being ‘properly prepared’ means being warned about how you’ll be treated – like anyone is actually going to tell you the truth when they’ve been sworn to silence as part of their ‘preparation’ and they see whatever their guru does to them as a blessing anyway. It seems to me that he’s saying that it’s still okay for a teacher to abuse a student, just so long as the student knows they’re going to be abused before they take him as their tantric guru.

At least he has admitted that what Sogyal did was ‘totally wrong,’ but only for those not ‘properly prepared’, and I suspect that some of those who were abused were actually ‘properly prepared’ when they asked to be trained. He doesn’t tackle the actual question of the appropriatness of Sogyal’s behaviour even for the ‘properly prepared’, he doesn’t state as Mingyur Rinpoche does, that abuse isn’t a teaching method.

Pure perception & abuse

How, I wonder, does he interpret pure perception here? Because the suggestion is that it means we see the abuse as okay, which isn’t pure perception, it’s the ignorance of not recognising the interdependence between the absolute and the relative. My studies tell me that, pure perception does not mean seeing abusive behaviour in your lama as somehow ‘good’ or ‘beneficial’; it’s simply seeing that the abusive behaviour is empty of inherent existence. It’s still abusive; it still causes harm, even when you see its true nature, which is, of course, beyond any concepts of anything – including benefit and harm. But despite an actions ultimate emptiness, on a conventional level, through interdependence, there is benefit and harm. There is only emptiness because there is form and visa versa. Yeah, it’s hard to get your head around. No wonder there’s so much confusion.

Root of the problem

So for me, as long as at the top levels of Rigpa there’s this idea that for the ‘properley prepared’ student whatever their lama does to them is okay and they care more about keeping their business running than their members or those they harmed, Rigpa is not a healthy place to be.

The what now? question will always remain because we never know what will happen next – because of emptiness anything can arise – but without awareness of our actions, people do tend to keep behaving the same way – organisations have karma just as individuals do – and so when a pattern is established over time, it’s likely it will continue. Unless a great deal of awareness and honesty enters the picture. Anything is possible.

If management ever actually admits that Sogyal did wrong, gives a genuine apology, and stops their gaslighting then I’ll reconsider my opinion, but pointing out their failures has become a bit like flogging a dead horse, so I’m happy to walk away and leave that horse to rot. I don’t want their stink on me.

The future

Now I’ve got that clear. What Now? What Next? Watch this space …

About the new site

And now, some information you might want to know about the new site:

  • This blog contains all posts and pages from the original What Now blog. It is the same blog, just with a different name and URL and with better organised pages optimised for search engines to make the information easier to find.
  • Apart from URL changes to the reference pages, all internal links should send you from one page to another here on this site, but links you’ve posted elsewhere to the What Now? blog will still go to the old site. Those links will still work, but won’t get any updates, so it’s best if you point your links here.
  • The old blogsite will not be updated. There’s a post stuck to the front page of the old site that will send people here.

I’d love to hear what you think, so please leave a comment.

If you’d like a more private place to chat, you can join the Beyond the Temple Facebook group for discussions related to our ongoing spiritual path, or the secret What Now? group, for Rigpa students only, which focuses on Rigpa and related abuse issues, (apply via the contact form here), or if you’re not a Rigpa or ex-Rigpa person and need support specifically related to abuse in Vajrayana try the Survivors of Vajrayana Abuse and their Allies group.  Note that you will not be added to these groups if you don’t answer the questions.

The Facebook page and You Tube Channel associated with this blog are called Living in Peace and Clarity, please click the relevant link to ‘Like’ and ‘Subscribe’.

From What Now to Beyond the Temple

If you noticed a change of name on the blog, don’t worry; it’s still the What Now? blog just with a different name. Everything is still here, but we’re moving to a self-hosted site so that I can set up Search Engine Optimisation on it, which means that the content here will be easy to find via search engines even into the future. We’re presently on a free blog and they don’t have much visability in search engines.

Why the name change?

The practical reason is the domain name. On a self-hosted website you need a domain name and WhatNow in any of its versions (.com or .org or .net) is taken. However Beyond the Temple domain name wasn’t, so it now belongs to me, and the URL for this site will change in a few days from to
The other reason is because, as we all know, things change. This blog started out as a group effort, but it ended up being basically my blog (Moonfire aka Tahlia) with occaisonal guest posts by the wonderful Jo Green (who I hope will continue to write for us occaisonally).
People’s interests change, and when that happens blogs naturally develop, and in this case, it’s not just me, it’s the community we’ve developed here. I and lots of other people are wanting to leave Rigpa well and truly behind us. So to reflect that, I feel we need a slight change of focus. I don’t want this blog to be defined by its relationship to Rigpa. I want to get beyond that and relate to you all outside of that context. We aren’t just Rigpa, ex-Rigpa, Tibetan Buddhist or ex-Tibetan Buddhist people, we are people walking the spiritual path in some form or other. What brought us together was spiritual abuse in Tibetan Buddhism, but that is only the ground of our community, it doesn’t define us.


And we are a community. Regular commenters here and on Facebook know each other well. I think we even accept our differences these days. If someone you love dies or is sick or injured, where do ex-Rigpa folk turn? To the Beyond the Temple or What Now Facebook groups. That’s where you find the support of a community and a bunch of people who will pray for or send some love and healing to your loved ones. We are your sangha now. And it helps if a sangha has a name.
What Now on Facebook is unfindable and only for Rigpa and ex-Rigpa folk, and it’s focus is on spiritual abuse, primarly in Rigpa and Rigpa’s efforts to deal with it, so that’s too limited a focus and not open to many who would like to be part of a sangha for Tibetan Buddhist refugees. So that leaves us with Beyond the Temple  and we already have a Facebook group by that name which I set up when people started leaving the What Now group because they didn’t want to talk about abuse anymore or they found the tone too ‘negative’ – which is isn’t, by the way. We’re an incredibly supportive group who engage in very deep discussions.
But back to the Beyond the Temple group. This group is focused on us as a community with a shared ground of spiritual abuse but not defined by it. In other words, we try to talk about other things related to our ongoing spiritual path. And we try to keep the conversations from falling into too much bitching about stuff. That doesn’t mean we never refer to abuse, it just means that we try not to talk about it all the time. There are other groups now for that.
The Survivors of Vajrayana Abuse and Allies group is really good for talking about the spiritual abuse issue in any vajrayana context, and no abuser-defenders or justifiers are allowed. A lot of the people in that group are also in Beyond the Temple, and most of the What Now people are also in Beyond the Temple. So Beyond the Temple is kind of a central meeting point where kindness to each other is valued above all else and the focus is on our spiritual path and being a sangha to each other no matter where our path takes us.

Walking the spiritual path

My spiritual path is no longer related to Rigpa – and I suspect that’s the same for most of our community – and I like to talk about anything that inspires or concerns me as I travel the spiritual path. And that urge I sometimes have to share such things is why I have the Living in Peace and Clarity You Tube Channel and Facebook page. (I had them long before all this shit hit the fan.) So changing the name, and adding ‘Living in Peace and Clarity’ to the subtitle also gives me a place where I can talk about spiritual stuff that inspires me that is not related to abuse. And it allows that Facebook page to link in with this blog – another place for comunity memebers to hang out.

How will the blog change

It will move away from primarily criticising Rigpa and Lamas to including posts that are unrelated to Rigpa or even Tibetan Buddhism. I and guest authors will still criticise them when they do stupid stuff that needs to be criticised, of course, but there will be other kinds of posts as well. I don’t know what the balance will be, or even what the new kinds of posts will be about. At this stage it’s just opening us up to a wider range of topics related to the spiritual path. Hopefully, we’ll change people’s perception of us as ‘negative’ to something more realistic – after all, we’re only ‘negative’ when something needs to be criticised.
So I hope you’re all okay with that. I ran this by a reliable friend before getting it all moving, and she agreed that it was a good move.
The site will be down for a couple of days as the transfer to self hosting takes place, but then we’ll be operating on the new doman name,

Victim Blaming Disguised as Dharma

Bob Thurman recently did a podcast on abuse in Buddhism, and though he said some  things that some may find helpful in the examination of the issues raised by abuse in Buddhism, I think we need to talk about the part where he fosters one of the ideas that enabled abuse and victim blaming in Rigpa. By talking this way, Bob has shown that he has no idea of the toxic culture that arises around abusive lamas or how some teachings/beliefs/ideas can be misued to enable abuse and so need a very careful balancing of polarities if they are to be taught responsibly.

The problematic idea

Below is a rough transcript of the section in question. It is not word for word, but close enough for you to get the gist of what he was saying.

Someone who was more or less ready for the teaching and it was given by someone who was somewhat abusive but not perfectly enlightened and gave it to a disciple enough that the disciple was able to go beyond that teacher, then that disciple will still be using that lama who had faults as if he were a Buddha in order to transform their own faults. So we can say that it is still okay for that disciple that they don’t have to join in on rejecting that lama. In their mind they could stick with that guru, and they actually might go beyond.
What was harm to one might not be harm to another because they had an advanced level of something from something they obtained from previous lives such that it is possible that they could use something dished out to them from an impure vessel to go beyond. It is possible. It isn’t so black and white.” Robert Thurman

What teaching?

“Ready for the teaching’? What teaching? We’re talking about abuse here. Is Bob suggesting that abuse is a legitimate teaching method? Unfortunately it appears that way.
“Given by someone who was somewhat abusive but not perfectly enlightened.” Not perfectly enlightened? Is Bob suggesting that someone abusive could be even a little enlightened?

Actual harm and feelings of harm

“What was harm to one might not be harm to another …” This is subscribing to the idea that harm cannot be objectively determined, that if you don’t ‘feel’ harmed then you actually haven’t been harmed. But when someone has been knocked unconscious, pulled by the ear until it bleeds, beaten so that you can see the bruising, or punched in the stomach such that they have a hematoma, it’s clear to anyone that the vicitm has been harmed, and certainly a medic could attest to that in court because the evidence of harm is clear to see.  Anyone who experienced such things and then said that they didn’t ‘feel’ hurt, indicates that they have not only been physically harmed but are also so under the sway of trauma bonding and gaslighting by their abusive lama that they protect him and fully subscribe to his version of reality. Not feeling harmed in these circumstances most likely does not indicate some advanced spiritual level, but rather that the poor person is trapped in a web of lies and delusion created by their abuser for the purpose of control and exploitation.
Bob either doesn’t understand or simply neglects to point out that not feeling harmed doesn’t mean that you weren’t actually harmed – not where blood, bruises, scars, and ptsd are concerned. Not recognising or admiting to the symptoms of ptsd in yourself, for example, doesn’t mean that you don’t exhibit those symptoms for the objective observer to see.

Advanced level?

“… because they had an advanced level of something from something they obtained from previous lives …” Advanced level, really. You’re going with that? This idea did so much harm in Rigpa. One of the reasons students stayed and kept taking the abuse was because they wanted to be at that ‘advanced’ level, and they wanted to prove to themselves, other students and their lama that they were such an ‘advanced’ student. How did they prove it? By not complaining about the abuse, by trying really hard to “use something dished out to them from an impure vessel to go beyond.”
When they finally saw the abuse as abuse, this idea that if you’re at an advanced level you can use abuse by your lama to benefit you spiritually was used by others to blame the victim. That the victim ‘felt’ hurt was seen as their fault, not the fault of the lama who actually hurt them. Sogyal said he felt sorry that people ‘felt hurt’. He never said he was sorry that he hurt them. This idea that a good/advanced student would be able to ‘transform’ the suffering they experienced at the hands of the lama allows abusive lamas to not take responsibility for the harm they have caused – something that is karmically inadvisable – and it also results in some students continuing to see abuse by lamas as an acceptable teaching method.
It’s true that people can use all sorts of difficult situations in a way that contributes to their spiritual growth, but what Bob neglects to make clear, and what needs to be made clear in relationship to abusive lamas is that this does not give anyone the right to abuse people with the expectation that that abuse be used for spiritual growth.

Physical, sexual, and psychological abuse are not teaching tools.” Mingyur Rinpoche 

Correctly identifying responsibility

The major issue with this kind of thinking is that it takes the responsibility for harm away from the lama and places it on the student, making the issue a perception of harm, rather than actual harm that can be seen by an objective person. And so it bypasses the issue of the lama’s wrong doing, but actually the lama’s wrong doing is the issue here, not whether the student can ‘handle’ it or not.
They shouldn’t have had to ‘use something dished out to them from an impure vessel’. The kinds of behaviour Sogyal regularly exhibited should never have occured – especially in a spiritual setting – and the fact that he hurt people was his fault, not theirs. Abusing students is not teaching them dharma. It’s teaching them how to be a bully and get away with it by twisting the teachings such that they lay the responsibility for the harm on the student for their perception of harm rather than on the lama for causing actual harm.
We shouldn’t be judging the student here. It’s the lama we should be judging – preferably in a court of law. He’s the one in a position of power with a responsibility to his students to do them no harm.
This is what Bob Thurman neglected to make clear and what other proponents of this idea also forget, so the idea that students can use abusive behaviour to ‘go beyond’ becomes a justification of the lama’s behaviour, but even if there is some truth to the basic concept, justification of the lama’s behaviour is not a logical inference.

Different responses

Certainly in any shared situation people will respond differently, some will be more bothered than others by being yelled at by their boss for instance, but that doesn’t mean that their boss should yell at them, thinking that he is giving them a great opportunity to not let it upset them. The boss is still a bastard and abuse is never an acceptable or effective management method.
Also the person who yells back might actually be handling it on a more healthy way for that person than the person who walks away thinking to themselves ‘I will not let him get under my skin’ or ‘he’s just a really unhappy person.’ To assume that one person is somehow more spiritually advanced than another because they ‘handled’ it better is simply not true, because the guy who yells back may have seen that the boss needs to be yelled at for his own sake, or for him yelling back might be exactly what he needed for himself for his own psychological health at that moment. And the person acting all meek may be simply enabling behaviour that is very bad for everyone and increasing their own sense of worthlessness. Of course, if the guy who yelled back yells at everyone, then it’s a different matter, but either way, it’s a toxic situation those people should never have been put in in the first place.
Could someone being in a bomb blast and seeing all that carnage use that as a means of liberation? I doubt that very much. There is a point at which a situation is just too toxic for people to be able to avoid some kind of trauma, no matter how well they ‘handle it’ and trying to ‘handle it’ well, thinking that means not showing any signs of trauma can be highly counterproductive for their healing, a repression rather than a facing of the reality of their feelings.

Similarity to abusive families

And when the abuse is coming from someone who professes to love you, the situation becomes even more traumatic. This is where the situation of those who were abused in a Buddhist community cannot be compared to those of the yogis incarcerated and tortured by the Chinese. Their tormentors never professed to love them or be torturing them for their benefit. And they didn’t betray any deep spiritual trust, because the yogis hadn’t  placed any trust in them. The yogis still had their devotion to their own guru to sustain them, but the abused students were abused by the very person in which they had placed their trust.
The sense of betrayal and confusion that comes from being abused by a spiritual teacher adds a whole other layer of trauma. The inner circle culture in Rigpa had all the dynamics of a family with an abusive father, so the closest situation that can be used for comparison is that of domestic abuse, not incarceration in prison. The more the spiritual seeker in this instance relates to their lama in a way similiar to how a child relates to their father, the more traumatic the situation would be for them, and a child-like adoration of and complete faith and trust in Sogyal was definitely encouraged in Rigpa. The betrayal of trust and neglect of duty of care is similar to that experienced by the child of an abusive father.
An abusive husband makes his wife feel like it’s her fault, but we all know it isn’t. She loses her self esteem in such an environment, which makes it hard for her to leave and keeps her always trying to do ‘better’ (even to the degree of apologising for causing him to hit her), and it was the same in Rigpa, just replace ‘husband’ with ‘lama’. But the situation in Rigpa is worse because the general culture is supportive of the abuser by giving a philosophical, so-called spiritual, reason to blame the student for their trauma. This attitude only increases the trauma, and anyone who professes any kind of idea that contributes to this culture of victim blaming is enabling abuse, just like the neighbour of a family where she knows there is excessive violence, but instead of reporting the abusive father to social services, she tells herself that it’s just a parent disciplining their child.
Even if adults have been given tools to make the most of an abusive situation, having those tools does not take responsibility for the abuse away from the perpetrator. And it certainly isn’t an excuse or a reason for a lama to abuse people with impunity thinking he is giving them an opportunity to grow. And that applies regardless of the lama’s level of realisation. Permiting someone to hurt someone else on the grounds that it is good for their spiritual development is just twisted thinking that allows violence to be perpetrated in the name of teaching dharma.

Not a failure

My understanding of how it was for people is that they tried for years to transform the abuse into something beneficial for them, but eventually they saw the situation for what it was – a culture of abuse – and then they left. That was the point where their wisdom kicked in. Any suggestion that leaving, or ‘feeling abused’ was some kind of failure on the student’s part is simply a cult control mechanism, thought manipulation, nothing more. It is most certainly not true.
It’s like in family abuse where speaking up or leaving is seen as a betrayal of the family. The idea just keeps family members stuck in the cycle of abuse. In Rigpa fear of being seen and treated as a failure was one of the things that kept people stuck in that toxic situation.
That people struggled for years under the expectation that they transform the abuse into something beneficial, just made the whole situation more toxic and more traumatising.

Misplaced attribution

One can separate oneself and ostracise a lama who abuses the sacred trust of being a spiritual teacher to abuse students using spiritual things as an excuse and method. It is ethical to do that. It protects yourself and protects others, but if there was some genuine learning, then one cannot hate that miscreant. One works with compassion towards people we hate, so why not apply that to the lama as well. So we still love even the bad gurus if we learned anything from them. We love the teachings, we love them, we consider them no longer qualified and we ask them to try to rehabilitate themselves, and if necessary we use law and media and reason to do that.” Bob Thurman. Abuse in Buddhism podcast.

Bob suggests that we remember the benefit we gained from a lama and honor him for that even while we reject them. This is the usual dharma teacher’s response to leaving a teacher,  and being good little Buddhists, we immediatly assume that any benefit we gained from our time as an abusive lama’s student is due to the qualities of the lama.
But what if it was all a performance? All of it. Even what we felt as love. The idea that Sogyal was nothing more than a consumate performer is something that has been suggested to me by many of the people I’ve spoken to who were directly abused – and they should know better than anyone. What if the good qualities we see in our disgraced lama are just a projection of what we want to see? What if by holding onto the idea that he did have some good qualities we’re just making ourselves feel better about the situation? I guess that’s an okay reason, but we should be willing to accept that it may only be wishful thinking on our part, and if we are to see truth directly we need to drop all our attachment and aversion related to our seeking out the benefit.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to see some good in our experience, or that some of us didn’t gain some beneift – clearly we did or we woudn’t have stuck around – just that we need to be careful that we don’t attribute that benefit all to the lama or hold onto our idea of benefit as an excuse not to examine our ‘realisation’.
Those who remain, still thinking they weren’t abused, and those who did feel some shift from something Sogyal did are likely not more advanced spirituality, but rather more able to manufacture or convince themselves of ‘results’, blind to the truth of the dynamics that keep them trapped, ignorant of the teachings on what a crazy wisdom master actually is, and are erroneously laying the benefit they gained on the lama, not on themselves, which is where they should be placing it. It is their devotion, their openess and trust that allowed understanding to arise, not any quality of the lama. Anything they experienced in a positive way was because of them, not him. The point we should not forget here is that the lama was not fit to be in his position.
Anyone who honours Sogyal for any transformation they may have felt from being abused by him (or taking teachings from him) is actually misplacing their attribution of benefit. Given his almost complete lack of qualificiation for the role he took on, any benefit we received was more likely to be despite Sogyal than because of him. It is more realistic to attribute any benefit we gained from our time in Rigpa to the variety of causes and conditions present rather than to one man.

Tough love?

The idea that a student should be able to transform abuse into some kind of realisation also contributes to the idea that tough love is part of vajrayana, and if you can’t ‘handle’ the tough love then you shouldn’t be a vajrayana student.
Is this really the kind of idea we want to propagate for Tibetan Buddhism? A religion where abuse is seen as part of the deal?
No matter from where this idea came, it was used in Rigpa, and can be used in future for so long as its propagated by lamas such as Dzongsar Khyentse, as a cult control mechanism to keep students taking the abuse and in slavery to the whims of the lama. Though some people may need to be treated firmly sometimes, we’re not talking about a sharply given reprimand here, we’re talking about what Karen Baxtor called ‘serious abuse’. There’s a huge difference between the loving parent who shouts at a child to stop them running onto the road in front of a car and then explains why they had to yell and the parent who grabs the child by the hair, drags them off the road and then beats them while they scream, leaving them bruised and traumatise. The second is abuse. The parent is merely releasing his frustration on the child. In the first instance the child learns not to run onto the road without looking. In the second instance the trauma of the beating obliterates the intended learning. They learn only to fear their father, not to take responsibility for checking for cars before stepping into the road.
Physical, emotional and sexual abuse is not love, is never skilful, and is not a teaching method. It’s been proven through educational studies that people learn better in an environment where they are rewarded for learning, not punished for their failures. That Sogyal did not see and apply this is another indication that he is certainly not enlightened, and that he went so far as to inflict this extreme behaviour on his students indicates that, despite whatever benefit anyone gained from their time in Rigpa, Sogyal and other lamas who hit, humilate, or ask sexual favours of students are not fit to teach. That’s the main point, and it should never get lost in talks on abuse in Buddhism.

Personal realities and community responsibilies

Trauma arising from abuse by a lama is NOT the student’s fault – even given their role in their perception of harm – and anyone who suggests that it is by using this idea that an advanced practitioner could benefit from an abusive lama shows a lack of understanding of the dynamics of the situation – particularly that the lama has broken his part in the teacher student relationship and therefore the required dynamics for transformation in a teaching sense are not present. They are also particularly ignorant on how such ideas have been distorted and used as a cult control mechanism.
The idea that students of any capacity can benefit from violent behaviour on the part of the lama must be discarded from Vajrayana, or at the very least, not emphasised and where it is mentioned, taught with a warning for how the idea is not an excuse or justification for harmful actions on the part of the lama. It does not bypass the lama’s responsibility to behave ethically and should not be used to make a student feel that they are a failure if their lama abuses them and they feel hurt by it.
Spiritual abuse is the worst kind of betrayal. To not feel hurt by it, rather than indicating some kind of realisation is more likely to indicate spiritual bypassing and supression of normal healthy human emotion. So don’t assume that feeling blessed rather than harmed, or experiencing what you interpret as a transendent state, indicates some kind of advanced spiritual capacity, it may just brainwashing and the kind of dissasociative state people commonly enter as a response to trauma. Or it may not.
Only one thing is certain in this play of personal realities: whatever you believe will be what you experience as truth, and only by dropping all beliefs will you have any chance of seeing reality directly. If you are brave enough to drop all beliefs and look directly at what actually is, rather than assuming that the truth is what you want it to be, then you are a true dharma practictioner.
Stopping abuse requires community participation. If we are to root it out, it is up to all of us to become educated, and Robert Thurman is not behaving responsibly by propagating this victim blaming disguised as vajrayana.
However, to his credit, he did also make some good points about teaching tantra and made it clear how unscrupulous lamas use the teachings on pure perception to faciliate abuse:

So lamas dish out initiations and then use the aspect [of the teachings] that ‘I’m now a Buddha in your eyes, and anything you see about me that doesn’t look like a Buddha, you have to imagine it is’, and then they abuse you. And worst of all they cripple your learning ability, they make you helpless.” Bob Thurman. Abuse in Buddhism podcast.

So watch out for any lama who suggests that anything you see about them that doesn’t look like a Buddha, you have to imagine it is. That’s a misuse of the pure perception teachings.

Ato Rinpoche Replies

On November 22, we received a reply from Ato Rinpoche. It was short and to the point, clearly responding to our request. Here is the response:

Greetings to the signatories of the letter below!
I am reticent by nature and by training reluctant to criticise the behaviour of others.  In the present circumstances, however, I do now plainly state that the abusive behaviour outlined in the letter by eight Rigpa students last year – if it is true, and I have no reason to doubt it –  is not acceptable to me.
For sound advice on the Teacher/Pupil relationship I would recommend reading Patrul Rinpoche and heeding the advice repeatedly given by the Dalai Lama.
Ato Rinpoche.

Helpful Words on Devotion, Samaya and Pure Perception from Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo

In June 2019, Damcho Dyson, Tahlia Newland and Jacki Wicks are delivering a paper together on Sogyal Rinpoche’s abuse and the fallout it caused as part of the  Sakyadhita International  Association of Buddhist Women’s 16th International Conference. Jacki emailed Tenzin Palmo asking about an aspect of the conference and also asked what her  thinking was on things like samaya and guru devotion in the context of abusive teachers. I found Tenzin Palmo’s reply refreshingly sensible and direct and asked if I could post it here. She gave her permission, so here it is:

Samaya goes both ways:  the student has samaya to the teacher but the teacher also has samaya to the student.  The student’s samaya is to cultivate devotion, trust and openness in order to receive the mind blessings of the guru.  The teacher’s samaya is, through their knowledge and compassion, to develop the spiritual potential of the student. Therefore we must ask, do the actions and words of the guru lead to the students’ well-being, advancement on the path and general feeling of enrichment – or not?

Spiritual teachers cannot use the Dharma as an excuse for licentious or abusive behaviour.   Tantra isn’t about coercing vulnerable women into having sex.  Where is the compassion in exerting your position of power and authority to betray the very people who trust and obey you?  Where are basic ethics and kindness?

If the students (usually -but not always – female) as a result of a sexual relationship with the guru, do feel enhanced, empowered and confident, then that was skilful means on the part of the teacher.  But if the result is humiliation, confusion and disillusionment, then where is the wisdom and compassion in that?  Where have they been helped?

Clearly the manipulative nature of these encounters causes so much distress.  It all seems so egocentric and devoid of empathy. How can these teachers justify such behaviour to themselves?  Although it is a mixture of power, loneliness, emotional immaturity and so on, still this does not excuse the kind of behaviour that would be condemned by anyone anywhere.  That these teachers do have problems is one thing, but that they cannot use their own training to deal with these issues (or even acknowledge them) is really a problem!  Actually, it is pathetic.  Gurus need to observe the same ethical standards as doctors, psychologists, teachers and so on in order to be trusted and respected and not to drag down the reputation of Buddhism.

As Mingyur Rinpoche pointed out, we cultivate pure perception towards everyone, not just the guru. Nonetheless, present day lamas are not Guru Rinpoche or Tilopa, any more than the student is Yeshe Tsogyal or Naropa.  Is the student benefitted? Good. Is the student psychologically harmed?  Not good.  It is so simple.

Tibetan Buddhism is based on a feudal system of total authority (however corrupt) and abject obedience.  We do not need to go backwards to outdated social attitudes in order to be good practitioners. One troubling aspect is the effort to ‘cover up and defend’ by lamas who really should know better.  Part of the ‘Old Boys Club’ syndrome. To try to defend indefensible behaviour by quoting tantric texts and accuse the victims, is to equate Tantra with violence, over-indulgence and sexual predatory activity, which hardly speaks well of that method as a valid path to Enlightenment.

When students are instructed to never question the teacher and to do everything to please them, then of course it leaves the doors wide open to exploitation.  This feudal thinking has to be tempered with common sense and common caution.  If it feels wrong – don’t do it, no matter who asks you.  It is not breaking Samaya to say No.
As someone said: ‘…the happiness of the privileged is based on never starting the process towards becoming accountable…… the revelation of truth is tremendously dangerous to supremacy.’

So be grateful for what teachings the Lama has given and appreciate everything that has been helpful.  But do not feel guilty about seeing and acknowledging where the boundaries have been overstepped by the teacher.  The fault is with limitations and wrong conduct of the guru.  Better luck next time.
All good wishes in the Dharma,
Tenzin Palmo

NB: Tenzin Palmo was NOT a student of Chogyam Trungpa. Read her biography here:
If any of you would like to donate a little something to help Damcho and Tahlia get to the conference to deliver the paper in person click here.

Dagpo Rinpoche Replies to Our Letter

It was a nice surprise to find this letter from Dagpo Rinpoche in my inbox this morning. His reply is traditional, but also kind in my opinion. His concern is clearly for the suffering of students as they struggle with this situation. When viewing his advice about anger and using the Dharma to help heal from this, it might be good to remember that this is also the approach that Tibetans have taken (and continue to take) to years of torture and imprisonment from Chinese communists. Some attribute their lack of PTSD to these practices. And Aaron Beck, founder of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy also advises that anger can be counter-productive to mental health.
At any rate, hearing something other than silence is very good!
Joanne Clark
Here’s the letter:

Dear Friends of Rigpa centers,
Regarding Sogyal Rinpoche, last year I heard some news of the situation but your recent letter in Tibetan clarified the matter. I fmd the entire state of affairs is very regrettable and I am very sorry about the predicament in which you now fmd yourselves.
It seems to me that what matters now is the way you cope with it. You have all studied the Buddha’s teachings and know the importance of overcoming anger and resentment , whatever the circumstances. As you have benefitted from Sogyal Rinpoche’ s kindness in receiving the Dharma from him, I believe it would be good to try and deal with the bad feelings that you have toward him. I don’t know whether you will be able to maintain your past teacher-student relationship with him. If you think that is not possible, the next best would be to try and keep your feelings for him neutral, free of anger and resentment.
To prevent this kind of situation from recurring, perhaps it would be advisable to let it be known as much as possible what the Buddha taught regarding the process of establishing a spiritual teacher-student relationship, the importance beforehand of maintaining a period of mutual observation. etc.
Regarding Sogyal Rinpoche’s conduct, I have nothing to add over and above what His Holiness the Dalai Lama has clearly stated on several occasions , and I am in full agreement with what he has said.
It is my sincere hope that your present troubles may soon end, that you may find peace and harmony within and among yourselves, and that you may at least have a cordial relationship with Sogyal Rinpoche from whom you have received many teachings. I pray that it may be so.
Venerable Dagpo Rinpoche

Can You Still Take Sogyal as Your teacher?

It’s okay to leave

Many lamas have said that if you discover, even after making a commitment to them, that a lama is not who you thought they were, or if they are not good for you, or if the relationship has broken down for whatever reason, then one can walk away from one’s vajra master without an issue with samaya, so long as one retains respect for the good one gained from the relationship.

And HH Dalai Lama said in Dharamsala 1993, “If you have already taken tantric initiations from them [a guru], you should not develop disrespect or antipathy. In such cases, the Kalachakra Tantra advises us to maintain a neutral attitude and not pursue the relationship any further.”
Chokyi Ngyima Rinpoche told a friend of mine, “If you can no longer see your tantric guru as a Buddha, then you should leave quietly.”

The usual advice is to leave quietly, but both His Holiness Dalai lama and Mingyur Rinpoche have said that when serious abuse has occured if a teacher does not respond to private requests for the behaviour to stop – as is the case with Sogyal – then it is necessary to make the abuses public in order to protect others and the purity of the dharma.

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.” HH Dalai Lama. Dharamsala 1993.

That’s why people have spoken out publically or have spoken to Karen Baxter as part of the independent investigation into the allegations raised in the Letter to Sogyal Lakar 14-07-2017

A master of serious physical, sexual and emotional abuse

The results of the independant investigation confirmed that the behaviours outlined in that letter are true:

Based on the evidence available to me, I am satisfied that, on the balance of probabilities: a. some students of Sogyal Lakar (who were part of the ‘inner circle’, as described later in this report) have been subjected to serious physical, sexual and emotional abuse by him;

Karen Baxter in the Lewis Silkin report  details  widespread evidence that members of Sogyal’s inner circle – who catered to his every need, including providing massages as he fell asleep – were subjected to repeated acts of brutal violence. The lama’s wooden backscratcher was a favoured method for beating people, as was punching them in the stomach. Baxter says she has been provided with evidence of one individual being knocked unconscious, others being left bleeding and concussed.

She also outlines “significant” first-hand evidence of young women being coerced, manipulated and intimidated into providing sexual favours. One witness, a teenager who arrived at a Rigpa retreat seeking respite from depression and self-harm, was asked to strip a week after coming to work in the lama kitchen. When she refused, she alleges, she was beaten and then later forced into sex.
If you are a student of Sogyal Rinpoche and haven’t read the full report, you need to. Until you do, you have not fully investigated your teacher.
And you need to try to understand the depth of the harm that Sogyal caused, that the harm was not only in the event that caused the trauma, but also in the resulting Post Traumatic Stress that plagues survivors for decades (if not their whole life) afterwards.
Rigpa communications pay lip service to compassion, but their actions show no real compassion towards survivors of Sogyal Rinpoche’s abuse and no understanding of the long-term results of the trauma they experienced. Research Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and the dynamics and results of domestic abuse, and you might start to understand the depth of the harm, and begin to see just how sick the Rigpa culture is in the inner circle. The trauma is similar to that experienced by children with an abusive family. And what you read in the report is only the tip of the iceburg.

Now that you know the truth, can you still take him as your teacher?

So, with that in mind, how can anyone possibly still take Sogyal as their teacher now? I think we can try to rationalize staying faithful with all sorts of philosophy, but it’s likely to be be the same philosophy that allowed it all to happen in the first place – the Rigpa-speak party line of crazy wisdom, pure perception and devotion all slightly skewed to enable the abuse. That’s what we were fed, after all, and it’s what we’ll still believe unless we’ve examined those beliefs in light of what happened and seen how they were used to manipulate, control and silence us.

If you’re trying to hold onto your belief in Sogyal’s worth as a teacher, then ask yourself why, against all evidence to the contrary?
You may have had only good interactions with him yourself, but does that make up for the serious harm he caused others? No it does not, just as in the Jimmy Saville case. No one would say that the good that he did makes up for the harm he caused.
Over the last year I have heard many more stories such as those in the report. This didn’t happen to only a few people, and a lot of people are too scared to speak out. Some are too scared to even consider that they were abused in the name of training. The long-term results of that denial is not good for their mental health. If you’re having flashbacks to your ‘training’, particularly ones associated with a feeling of fear or anxiety in your body, then you have been traumatised, and your mental gymnastics to tell yourself that it was love, not abuse, is the result of the brainwashing you were subjected to that made you ‘take’ it and see people ‘taking it’ without complaint. Listen to your body, not your mind on this, and if you are unsure if what you experienced was abuse or love, then don’t talk to someone in Rigpa (because they’ll pretend to be open but their agenda is likely to be  to try to convince you it was love), find a councilor from outside and have a chat.
Fear is not a good motivation for remaining with a teacher – fear of hell, of being shuned or shamed, of losing one’s practice and so on – but you can leave without breaking samaya. You just say thank you for the good you brought me, but my trust in you is now broken, so I must move on. And there are other lamas who you can go to so your practice need not suffer if you’re afraid of it falling apart. Just substitute one lama for the other. After all, the focus of our practice was supposed to be Guru Rinpoche, the embodiment of the love and compassion of all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
I handle this situation by thinking – he was my teacher and I gained much from my relationship with him. I’ll always be grateful for that, but now he is no longer my teacher. I could not possibly take him as my teacher now that I know what I know. He is, as HHDL says, “Disgraced.”

Were the teachings as pure as we thought?

Now I believe that his teachings on devotion and pure perception, though not incorrect, were subtly distorted in order to set himself up at the centre of our spiritual life, to make us dependent on him, and to make his inner circle his virtual slaves, just as in any personality cult. I doubt this was intentional; it is, however, what happened.
It’s hard to accept that you were, or are, in a cult, but after studying what characterises a cult, and seeing how Rigpa management persists in using cult tactics for manipulation of student’s perceptions, I can come to no other conclusion. Once I accepted that, I found the literature on recovering from a cult very helpful. Here on the blog, we looked at some of the key beliefs we were taught and saw how they had been used to manipulate and control us, and to give Sogyal permission to behave as he liked. Once you see that, there is no going back.

The yes-or-no question

But whether or not you want to use the cult word, and whether or not you want to stay and try to help Rigpa reform, you still have to ask yourself: Is this a man I can follow as my spiritual teacher now? And the answer to that for this moment in time has to be yes or no.
For so long as you avoid asking yourself that question, and for so long as you avoid making a decision, you will be in a state of confusion, and your spiritual life will suffer. So I encourage you to decide. Can you still take Sogyal as your teacher now that you know what he is really like?

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.