Hollywood & Rigpa Comparison, pt 4 – Time to Stand Together

The alleged abuses by Sogyal Rinpoche and Harvey Weinstein have been going on for decades, sometimes in situations where others were aware of the behaviour, so why did it take so long for people with complaints to be taken seriously? Where they not aware, or were they complicit by their silence?

Just rumours

Again some of the statements made by celebrities about Weinstein echo the feelings of many Rigpa students about Sogyal:
Kate Winslet acknowledged that there had been whisperings over the years: ‘I had hoped that these kind of stories were just made-up rumours, maybe we have all been naive.’
George Clooney said, “The rumours in general started back in the 90s, and they were that certain actresses had slept with Harvey to get a role. “It seemed like a way to smear the actresses and demean them by saying that they didn’t get the jobs based on their talent, so I took those rumours with a grain of salt.”
In the past when other accusations came to light, Rigpa management held special sessions for instructors to tell them what to say to anyone asking about the accusations. In these sessions we were told that the women making the claims were unstable or simply a girlfriend who felt jilted, and senior instructors running the session assured us that they believed that Sogyal had never harmed anyone.

Normalising the abuse

Many students (if not most) who have experienced being hit or publically humiliated do not consider it an abuse but an act of love.  Earlier this year Sogyal Rinpoche gut punched a nun in front of around 1000 people, but despite her obvious distress at the time, a year later in a private letter she explained how she didn’t see it as abuse at all.
Rigpa students are taught from their very first retreat with Sogyal to see his public humiliation of students as a form of kindness and the actions of an enlightened being or ‘crazy wisdom’ master. They are told to suspend their critical mind and drop their concepts of good and bad. The result is a normalising of abuse as happens in the case of abusive families. It’s also one mark of a cult. Even with Sogyal resigned from his position, if students are still being taught in that way there is still a problem.
The equivalent in the Weinstein case would be his employees accepting that abuse by Weinstein was perfectly normal and acceptable, and those effected not being aware that they had, in fact, been abused.
The normalising of the boss’s behaviour appears to apply in both cases. In an article titled ‘The Cult of Harvey’, The Guardian reports that ‘Webster admitted that Weinstein’s predatory behaviour towards young women was common knowledge but that the culture of Miramax led them to “compartmentalise it”.’
Statements in the article make it clear that, according to these employees, Weinstein’s behaviour was not only damaging to women. Paul Webster, who was head of production at Miramax between 1995 and 1997, said, “Everything Harvey did was all about manipulation and fear. He was a massive bully. He would flatter people, get the best out of them and then dump on them really, really hard to destroy them. It was this whole thing of breaking people down so you could build them up in your own image.”
And from the letter from the 8 students:
“Your emotional and psychological abuse has been perhaps more damaging than the physical scars you have left on us. When we have worked for you while organizing and setting up the infrastructure for you to teach at different places around the world (Europe, North America, Australia, and India and Nepal), your shaming and threatening have led some of your closest students and attendants to emotional breakdowns. You have always told us to be appreciative of the personal attention that you give, that you were “pointing out our hidden faults” in our character, and freeing us from “our self-cherishing ego.” We no longer believe this to be so. It was done in such a way that was harmful to us rather than helpful, a method of control, a blatant means of subjugation and undue influence that removed our liberty.”
These similarities remind us that the case of Sogyal Rinpoche is not an isolated one, and not exclusive to any organisation.  However, when it occurs in a ‘spiritual’ organisation, it is even more shocking and reprehensible.

Silence suggests support.

In one article, The Guardian says that they ‘contacted more than 20 male actors and directors who have worked with the movie mogul over the years. … All declined to comment or did not respond to inquiries about the accusations.’
Very few Tibetan lamas have said anything on the matter.
‘Migdia Chinea, a film-maker and screenwriter, said it was “outrageous” that so few men had been willing to speak up.
Many feel the same about the lack of comment by Tibetan Lamas.
‘Rose McGowan, one of the most prominent Weinstein accusers, has called for the entire board of men in Weinstein’s company to resign and tweeted that men have remained silent because “they are weak and scared”.’
An article on the What Now? blog also called for the resignation of Rigpa’s upper management and the accusation of them being weak and scared could equally be applied to them. Though five members of the Weinstein Company’s board have resigned, no one has resigned from Rigpa’s upper management.
Laura Finley, a Barry University professor and author of Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault in Popular Culture, said it can make a huge difference when men publicly support women who have come forward.
It also makes a huge difference when other women come forward, and when members of a community as a whole support those who speak out. This has happened a lot more in the Hollywood community than in the Tibetan Buddhist community where the silence of so many Tibetan lamas is seen by many to make them supporters of the abuse.
Many Rigpa students are also remaining silent, but isn’t it time, given the overwhelming indication about how the majority of the Western world feels about abuse that they, and those men contacted by The Guardian stand by those who have spoken out, and support them for their courageous stand. It appears that those who stand up in support have more courage and moral fibre than those who remain silent.

Further cases make the mood clear

Allegations of sexual abuse has destroyed the reputation of actor Kevin Spacey, and The Minister of Defence in the UK and comedian Louis CK confessed that allegations made against him were true. Complaints are stacking up in the Illinois Capital, and the Gate Theatre in Ireland made a statement in the wake of claims of abuse and misuse of power. The reactions to these are the same as they were for Harvey Weinstein, making it quite clear where the Western world stands on this issue.
The success of the #Me Too campaign also highlighted the extent of the problem,  the desire for change and the power of people standing together.
In a discussion on News Hour Lynne Bernabei said, ‘I think that’s why this talk of banding together, the #MeToo campaign, all the campaigns to bring women together to sort of create that change or break through this sort of veil of silence on this issue, is going to be the most important thing we can gain from this series of scandals.’
Not only does the success of this campaign make it clear that sexual abuse is rife in our society but also that it’s clear that the time has come to act decisively to stop it and other forms of abuse.  Buddhist organisations are not exempt from this movement in our society, and if they do not reframe the beliefs that allow these abuses to flourish, they will be discredited. The very institutions they think they are saving by holding onto antiquated ideas will die because they are holding on. Change has always occurred when Buddhism enters a new country, and the West is demanding that the abuse cease. Considering that ethics is the very basis of the Buddha’s teachings, it is hard for people to understand why this should be an issue. It’s time to stand together and stand up against abuse in all its forms.


Current and previous students of Rigpa wanting personal and private support in regards to the abuse issue can be found in the What Now? Facebook group. Please contact us via the contact page and ask for an invite using the email address you use on Facebook
If you would like to stay in contact with and support ex-Rigpa students, we have created the Dharma Companions Facebook Group.  The group files include lists of online courses with reputable teachers, and members can join monthly Skype meetings and retreats. If you’re interested, click the link and ask to join. You will need to answer some questions before being admitted to the group.
Be sure to check out the What Now? Reference Material page for 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’ in general could ‘Like’ the Dharma Protectors Facebook page. Links to posts on this blog will be posted there as well as links to other relevant information related to the wider issues.
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Why didn’t they leave?

One of the questions we often hear about those in Rigpa who attested to the abuse they experienced is: “If they felt abused why did they stay so long?”
To cast some light on this we have a post by an ex-student and UKCP Registered Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist and Energy Psychotherapist.

Why didn’t they leave?

For those with histories of abandonment, the thought of further abandonments is terrifying and anxiety provoking. People with a background of insecure attachment in childhood, often struggle to fully respect themselves and often feel they do not deserve better treatment.  Abuse also creates attachment to the abuser, so that people will endure unacceptable treatment and cling on. Intransigent dysfunctional attachment patterns may stretch back over many a generations resulting in feelings of hopelessness, emptiness and despair of ever being loved, so attachment to the Lama becomes even more important.
The traumatic humiliations at Rigpa would activate these family patterns. I know for myself when I was at Rigpa that when I was regularly publicly shamed, I would completely dissociate, including disconnecting from my Vajra nature, and instead I would get stuck in ‘fight flight freeze’ – a trauma mode for ‘survival’. For me it was generally the freeze variety of trauma mode which renders us helpless and immobile – it played right into my own patterns where I was regularly humiliated by both parents. This public shaming did not help me at all to become liberated from these traumatic patterns. Instead, when I left Rigpa, I had no sense of a healthy self, and it took me many years to build some self-esteem – although I will nonetheless always grateful for the introduction to the nature of my mind which kept me sane.

Attachment to the ‘bad object’

Bullying, which creates ‘victims’ and ‘abusers’, is a particular feature of some attachment disorders. Research in attachment theory shows very plainly that if people are bullied and treated badly it creates attachment and dependence on the bullies. (e.g. Stockholm syndrome where people who are being  tortured become attached to and dependent upon their torturers). People often wonder why people remain in situations of domestic violence, where the combination of abuse followed by love is very toxic and creates further dependency, especially if it mirrors attachment patterns from the person’s own traumatic childhood.
In the psycho-analytic language of ‘object relations’ theory, this is a well know problem which is termed “attachment to the ‘bad object’“ ( theorists Fairbairn, Sanders  and others write extensively about this.) Research shows unequivocally that the primary need of human beings is for connection (i.e. Love). This need for connection is a survival issue which takes priority over anything else, and is more important even than the need for food.

Better the devil you know

Since the bully destroys any sense of self of the person they are bullying, when the bullied person gets used to the situation, it ironically feels  ‘safer’ to  stay with what  is familiar – what we know and retain attachment to/connection with the abuser – than to leave. So bullying relationships twist us up. If the person who bullies (parent /vajra master/sadistic torturer) is also at the same time your object of safety (dependence/taking refuge) it becomes very confusing. Better the devil you know, than abandonment and no connection/attachment at all.
This is further compounded when we add the spiritual dimension. Since the word tantra means thread – our sacred link or connection – it becomes even more traumatic when a teacher abuses that link of trust, particularly if students feel they may go to Vajra hell if they speak out. When we impose on this the view that “everything the teacher does is a teaching”, and that we must maintain our “pure perception”, students end up losing their discriminating wisdom and accept abusive behaviour as normal. This is a very twisted dynamic.

The Rigpa ‘dysfunctional family’

The dynamics of the Rigpa ‘dysfunctional family’, with its incestuous undertones of ‘keeping everything in the family’ plays its part in keeping everyone in place.
When students are required to witness group humiliations meted out to ‘errant’ students as part of their ‘training’, many  similarly freeze, and end up resorting to the defences of their  ‘adapted’  compliant  self –  what Winnicott  ( a psychoanalyst) termed  the ‘false’ self’ as a defence against facing the truth of how terrible such public shamings actually are. It also means that those who feel abused rather than more enlightened from a public shaming do not feel they can talk to anyone about it; after all, hundreds of people watch the proceedings without batting an eyelid. If everyone else thinks it’s okay, then to step outside of that dynamic and say, ‘No this is not okay,’ is very difficult.
It may be useful to reflect on how individually and collectively we have all contributed to this situation. A spiritual teacher’s narcissism becomes inflated by blind devotion from close students who model how students are supposed to behave. Both teacher and student then are caught in a dysfunctional double bind which makes it difficult for people to leave.  In the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ phenomena, we may have felt too frightened to own our perceptions, and instead, deferred to the group norm or someone else’s supposed ‘authority’.

Blessing or abuse?

The other factor in this spiritual environment that keeps students in place is the idea that the behaviour that looks to any normal Westerner like abuse is not abuse but ‘crazy wisdom’ – the unconventional behaviour of an enlightened being exhibited for the purpose of bringing a student closer to enlightenment. Students believe that they are special for being singled out for this kind of treatment, and they do not see it as abuse, they see it as a blessing, indeed as a form of great love. They believe it is a teaching for them, and so they genuinely try for years to use it as such. This is why people remaining in the organisation even if they have been subjected to the same behaviour as that attested to by the Eight may still deny they have been abused. For some, since they use it for that purpose, such treatment may well unblock something. For those it does not have a beneficial effect on, however, it takes some time for the realisation to dawn that it is not bringing them closer to enlightenment, but rather closer to physical and emotional breakdown. After that realisation, they still face the difficulties of leaving, which for those financially reliant on the organisation or valuable to its functioning can be considerable.
Though it is relatively easy for the general student to leave. It is not a simple matter for someone trying to escape a situation with the dynamics of domestic abuse. Fear is a real factor in remaining in an abusive situation.

The domestic violence answer

Note Leslie Steiner’s rationalisation of her situation. “I never once thought of myself as a battered wife. Instead, I was a very strong woman in love with a deeply troubled man.”
She didn’t see the abuse as abuse. In Rigpa the rationalisation is that it is ‘training’ or ‘crazy wisdom’.  The general pattern is that students ‘close to the fire’ have emotional or physical breakdowns before they leave, and even then, they will not see what they experienced as abuse. For so long as their trauma goes unacknowledged they are not in a healthy state of mind.
This link is to the specifically relevant part of Leslie’s TED talk posted on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/TED/videos/10159481226450652/?fref=gs&dti=118333772112331&hc_location=group
This is her full talk.