Don’t forget about those who were harmed – Retraumatising

Rigpa’s glaringly obvious failure

Many people are appalled at Rigpa management and many Rigpa student’s apparent complete lack of concern for those who have been harmed by Sogyal Rinpoche’s behaviour as outlined in the letter by the 8 students. Rigpa management has not even given those harmed a simple acknowledgement of their pain.
They speak of ‘challenging times’ and ‘allegations against Rinpoche’, words that say how hard this is for the organisation, but nothing that acknowledges the suffering of those many people who have been abused, as represented by the 8 students brave enough to speak out. This is exactly the same behaviour that added to their trauma in the first place.
And yet, those at the top of the organisation must know that these ‘allegations’ are true. It was so much a part of the culture in the ‘upper circles’ that they must have all seen and, most likely, experienced some of it them themselves. We can only surmise that, like their teacher and some other lamas, and unlike the majority of people in the Western world, they do not think the behaviour outlined by the 8 students is wrong. Clearly, they do not wish to take any responsibility for alleviating suffering even when they have the power to do so. Where, one wonders, is the application here of the Buddhism they profess to teach? Where is the compassion they are supposed to have been practicing for years?

Gaslighting and compounding the harm.

Not only do they ignore the Buddha’s teachings on non-violence and ethical behaviour, and the Vajrayana teachings on healing, but also their maintaining the same behaviour that had a role in the original trauma continues in the present to add to the trauma of those harmed. Such things as not admitting that harm has been done to those harmed, blaming them for their supposed ‘lack’ of pure perception and devotion, targeting them with anger and verbal abuse because their speaking up has reflected badly on their lama and their organisation, and, more insidiously, the gaslighting (a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt about the target’s own perception) in every sangha communication.  An example is the last communication from Rigpa international stating that retiring was Sogyal’s plan all along and that he did it now for health reasons. No; he did it because 8 students revealed his behaviour to the sangha.
Over time this gaslighting brainwashes students into believing that there never was a problem because Sogyal’s retirement was all part of the plan, but those who have been harmed, unlike ordinary students, are aware of this technique and it hurts them that it continues. And who taught it to those at the top of the power tree in Rigpa? A master of the technique.
All those who think Sogyal Rinpoche did nothing wrong use beliefs like weapons in the same way they used them to cover up the abuse for decades and to not take any complaints seriously enough to actually resolve the issue with those who have been harmed. Their initiatives since the letter have all been a subtle cover up, making it look like they’re solving the problem, while their actions actually only add further to the suffering of those already harmed by their teacher.
This is called re-traumatising. Perhaps the very worst thing one can do to an abused person is to pretend it didn’t happen and to look the other way. For all their fine words, Rigpa is very good at that.


“Trauma is defined by the American Psychological Association (APA) as the emotional response someone has to an extremely negative event. While trauma is a normal reaction to a horrible event, the effects can be so severe that they interfere with an individual’s ability to live a normal life. In a case such as this, help may be needed to treat the stress and dysfunction caused by the traumatic event and to restore the individual to a state of emotional well-being.”
… “It is also possible to sustain trauma after witnessing something from a distance.”
So even those not actually abused themselves, can be traumatised by watching someone else be abused.
Domestic abuse is commonly listed as a cause for trauma and is the closest form of abuse in terms of the psychological dynamics and kinds of behaviours involved to the situation in Rigpa and other similar organisations. Where an abused person is not cared for, or listened to, by others in the family or spiritual organisation, their trauma is worsened, their suffering increased needlessly.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse in Australia were scathing in their report on the inadequacy of the Catholic Church’s response to allegations of abuse. They found a culture of secrecy and failures in the church’s structure and the reason for their inadequacy is the same as it is for Rigpa—”It is apparent that the avoidance of scandal, the maintenance of the reputation of the church and loyalty to priests alone determined the response.”
The report stated: “That failure led to the suffering and often irreparable harm to children, their families and the wider community. …
“That harm could have been avoided if the Church had acted in the interests of children.”
Replace the word ‘children’, with ‘students’ and ‘the Church’ with ‘Rigpa’ and the sentiments fit embarrassingly well. The difference is that the Catholic Church has seen the error of its ways, unlike Rigpa who has not taken any responsibility for their role in harming these students.


“Retraumatization is a conscious or unconscious reminder of past trauma that results in a re-experiencing of the initial trauma event. It can be triggered by a situation, an attitude or expression, or by certain environments that replicate the dynamics (loss of power/control/safety) of the original trauma.”
So Rigpa’s continuing use of the same modes of behaviour that contributed to the trauma in the first place have the potential to retraumatise those harmed: for example, management’s continual refusal to take any responsibility, their disregard for the well-being of those harmed, and their apparent pretence that nothing is wrong. The employment of lawyers to undertake the investigation can feel like an intimidation tactic, and all of this makes someone who has been harmed by these kinds of tactics, to feel retraumatised.

The impact of trauma on a community

“Trauma is something that has an impact on communities, not just individuals. A community – be it a geographic one, an organizational one, or an identity-based one – can respond in various ways, from ignoring the trauma to offering support, respect, and collaborative action. A community can be retraumatized too.
All Rigpa students who find the behaviour outlined in the letter abhorrent may be traumatised to some degree, and re-traumatisation can be “triggered by a situation, an attitude or expression, or by certain environments that replicate the dynamics.” Yes, Rigpa is doing an excellent job of re-traumatising everyone, including those who are responding to the trauma by denying the abuse ever happened.
Article by Tahlia Newland.
The second part of this examination, what those harmed actually experienced and how we can help them now, will be posted soon.

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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.
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36 Replies to “Don’t forget about those who were harmed – Retraumatising”

  1. Thanks for your article Tahlia.
    It is true what you write, but it is also true at an earlier moment, prior to the events raised by the 8. The situation at Rigpa functioned in this way for many years before the events occurred. No one wanted to talk about that then and no one wants to talk about it now.
    Why? Perhaps, because we are all implicated and taking that responsibility upon ourselves is the same challenge we are asking of those in charge of the Rigpa organization.
    We can “offer support, respect, and collaborative action.” to one another. We need not continue the old behavior of keeping the focus on the teacher and the organization, but it seems we do.
    This focus is what created the environment that allowed harm and allowed us to empower those close to the teacher and disempower those further away. We can take that power away at anytime, because it belongs to us. Keeping the focus on the teacher or organization also keeps us dependent, we need the teacher or organization to change rather than ourselves.
    Might this shift for ourselves (that some say is asking too much of us) be as difficult as the shift we are asking of the Rigpa organization?

    1. Of course. The organisation is made up of individuals and the reason it hasn’t changed is because the individuals haven’t changed, which is not really surprising since most people, despite their study of impermanence, find change scary. Ego has a lot to lose when it has a lot invested in maintaining comforting beliefs – like that the lama is perfect. It’s takes courage to examine deeply, but isn’t that the very definition of a spiritual warrior – one with the courage to examine oneself and one’s beliefs with uncompromising honesty, to pare away the delusions to reach the truth? If people can at least aspire to that ideal, something would shift, but for so long as attachment reigns supreme, we are stuck in delusion.

  2. Rigpa is mistaking the emptiness of appearance, that is a meditative deviation.
    Which is clearly explaned by Traleg Kyabgon in Moonbeams of Mahamudra. (Pages 272,273)……meditators who take emptiness as an object of conceptual understanding abstract the concept of emptiness from their immiddiate experience of the phenominal word. They deny the validity of KARMA because of this misunderstanding. They think ultimate reality must go beyond our normal concepts of good and bad, since it is empty and therefore, anything goes. This delegitimises the whole notion of morality. This fixation on the concept of emptiness leads to a denial of relative reality in the empirical world…..
    Therefore there is no harm everything is mind, this is a very wrong view, but you can see it everywhere in rigpa.
    There is a lot of work to be done in rigpa, but rigpa is trapped in this wrong view.

      1. If it is nihilism, it seems rather selectively applied. If one truly believes in ‘nothing’ it begs the question, why bother to expend the energy to beat or humiliate someone in the first place?
        Who is it that is supposed to benefit from this performance, this perverse enactment of the ‘law’?
        It is not emptiness that is the object here, but rather emptiness as a subject. Descriptions of Sogyal’s behaviour seems not to match the idea of an ‘anything goes’ lack of morality, but rather it seems hyper-moral, not even the tiniest mistake can go unpunished. Of course, with all good disciplinarians, there is an element of their own enjoyment, but the real purpose of this display is the moral order itself, with Sogyal at its centre, dutifully carrying out the ‘rule of law’.
        This is why he will not seek any treatment, nor admit to any wrongdoing, nor willingly submit himself to another authority, because he places himself at the the centre of the mandala around which everything else rotates.

        1. I think the indication of nihlism is in the idea that there is no ‘bad’ being done and no karmic repercussions. Such an idea allows anything to be acceptable. Like OT said in Paris, “If a great lama kills someone it is not a problem.” That’s how they think, and it shows exactly this: “This fixation on the concept of emptiness leads to a denial of relative reality in the empirical world.” They’re missing an understanding of interdependence.

          1. @ Tahlia
            A very useful, practical article and an important reminder of the gulf between what Rigpa is saying and doing, which is now effectively just an extension of Sogyal’s own abuse and hypocrisy.
            Your comment “This fixation on the concept of emptiness leads to a denial of relative reality in the empirical world.” is a very accurate assessment, but I think in their case it may not be so much even a fixation as a convenient excuse to fall back on of when confronted by unpalatable facts.
            Even if religions have a vague sort of partial, internal consistency, since they’re always partly based on irrational belief and unattainable aspiration rather than empiricism and pragmatism, then even people who try and practice them sincerely, inevitably end up having to cope with so many contradictions that the only options are abandoning the religion altogether or living with some degree cognitive dissonance…..or in the case of teachers like Sogyal, being completely incapable or uninterested in practising what they preach.
            I think this is responsible for all the hypocritical posturing. Religion by its nature can only be, as Adrian said above ” selectively applied “.

    1. Yes, this nihlistic view is a mistaken view that is used by students to ‘protect’ and ‘defend’ their lama and their belief that he has done no wrong. It is a dangerous view, and indicates that one very important area of Buddhism was not studied by Sogyal and never taught in Rigpa – Madyamika.

  3. As I have already explained in Open Buddhism the people who enabled condoned participated in and concealed Sogyal’s depravity are still in charge at Rigpa. The only way that Rigpa can survive as a global organisation is for these people to resign and for Sogyal to retire completely. No teaching. No financial involvement. Nada. Rigpa has zero credibility because of the situation Tahlia describes in this item .if it is to meet the needs of aspirant Buddhists going forwards it needs to acknowledge the harm publicly and engage in root and branch reform .

    1. Or, Rigpa should simply disband and shut down completely. How could anyone really trust the organization ever again, even if they did really reform? I think most people, who have been following these stories would ever believe they have changed. The Dharma students can always go elsewhere to find teachings. There are plenty of other places to go, (although I think many of those other places are also corrupt).

  4. yes, your article here seems to be a necessary reminder and wake-up call. but unfortunately in the course of what happened in the last months – silence and/or denial from the “management” – clearly shows that confronting those involved in or even initiating abuse only leads to more of the same – misuse of power and misery for the targets of abuse.
    looks like some more neutral supervisory authority needs to be addressed in order to be understood or even supported.
    seeking approval, understanding or support from those who misused their power (in the past) seems to be useless.
    they will oprobably not turn from “saulus to paulus”, but will insist on their “power” and superior position, even if it’s against all ethics and against buddhist values.
    so what kind of superordinate authority could feel responsible – if not god or buddha themselves 😀 – just kidding about god and buddha, by the way.
    what kind of official authority might be in charge? at this moment I have no idea, to be honest.

    1. There is no one who could be in charge, other than the law. Rigpa crossed the line between “cult” and “organization” by allowing these abuses to continue, and the management shows that they are incapable of making common sense decisions for reform. Sogyal and Rigpa broke Western laws, and like any cult, when the law is broken, they have lost their right to continue. They allowed physical assault to continue, and this goes way beyond some sexual relationships between consenting adults that went wrong.

      1. @catlover
        yes, in case that applicable laws have been broken, anyone would agree that legal proceedings are one of the steps that might be considered (or are already planned (?), I don’t have information about that).
        But at the same time some other relevant pillars are necessary, that (you all) have already been building up:
        a) the media: – because the public has a right to be informed what is going on among their people, in their country and even in “foreign” religions and communities;
        b) ethics commitees: which have already been informed and are specialist in this field or might have to do some research on it;
        b) support of buddhist lamas: which has already been expressed; …
        and probably some other favourable factors that I might not know of.
        what a friend of mine has been thinking of is: creating an organisation yourselves which is dedicated to the targets of abuse in buddhist communities. he says that this would be the logical consequence in the case that there exists no such organisation. or does it already exist ? – then of course you could turn to them and ask them for help.
        establishing or founding your own organisation in order to inform about spiritual abuse in (buddhist) organisations in general (!) and support victims (of diverse spiritual background ) might build up a kind of counterweight to existing structures that seem to be overwhelming and onesided and very unfair.
        we would assume that some of you might have the skills, the knowledge and – above all – the motivation to create and entertain such a charitable or non-profit platform, organisation or fund and together as a group you might be able to establish a solid foundation that really (!) supports victims of spiritual abuse and does not stop at the stage of exposing it. we would love to donate some money into such a fund 🙂
        exposing the abuse and the faults, grievances and disadvantages of spiritual (buddhist) organisations is the first and most important step, of course.
        and – not to forget – we want to give you credit for that and apologise that we did not fully understand and believe (!) what has been going on.

        1. I don’t belong to any organization, and although it might be useful to start one, it is not something I would be able to do. I don’t have the necessary skills, and there is already too much on my plate. Also, I have a feeling that such an organization would become corrupted over time, due to the influence of people who are guru worshiping types. They would get involved. I don’t mean to make it all sound hopeless, but nothing short of the law will change anything at this point.

  5. And the media getting involved would also be good too. (But I have a feeling that the media is very biased in favor of Tibetan Buddhism in general. They hardly ever report any scandals from TB.)

  6. yes, that’s probably right and given the complexity and very “special” topic of spiritual abuse there will only be a quite limited target audience that might be interested at all. therefore “media” might be more limited to buddhist “insider” media or platforms.
    anyways if only 80 people contribute a small amount (5-10€) in order to support some legal or mediator counseling this could also have some symbolic value. as long as there is no “channel” for the many observers they have no opportunity to contribute something useful. at least that’s my approach here.
    if nobody contributes anything into the fund, then it was at least an effort or attempt to offer the opportunity to contribute something in order to make it possible that justice will be served.

    1. It’s not that people wouldn’t be interested. Quite the contrary, I think a lot of people would be very interested, and shocked. But the problem is that the media isn’t going to report anything because, for whatever reason, the lamas seem to have the media in their pockets. The media wouldn’t be much more helpful than Rigpa insiders, at least at this point.
      Also, I personally don’t think that throwing money at the problem is going to help very much right now. I think the answer is to just keep going public with these stories and eventually the media will wake up out of their “Shangrila” coma. Once that happens, I think we will start to see some changes within these lama organizations. They will be under so much pressure, they will have to respond, or else lose all their followers. the same as what is happening in the Catholic church. Enough pressure and exposure will make change happen, but it won’t happen overnight. But if they change, it would only be to save face, rather than out of any real concern for people. The lamas have shown their true colors, so even if they reform, it’s too late to convince me they are any more enlightened than the rest of us.

    2. @gendunlog I think it is a worthwhile idea to keep in the back of our minds, but as Catlover says, there are problems associated with it. For me it would be taking on a headache, and I hate administration, so I’m out.

  7. “Throwing money at the problem” – nice phrase (but we won’t feel offended) – has not been our motivation here. It’s about having thought of any support concerning potential, legal or mediator processes.
    Because there seems to be such an imbalance of means, structurally as well as financially.
    Creating such a fund – and avoiding “name calling” in it, but keeping it more generalised – could also rise some further attention and ehtical support among people. is a good platform, but they only accept projects initiated by organisations that issue donation receipts. For private initatives would be an alternative, as it supports private initiatives. Again, this is only a suggestion,
    This kind of support would – we are of course aware – be only short term and rather financial support for any expensive legal or mediator counseling. This could support the targets of abuse in a more timeley manner.
    But of course: A change in the mindset of the whole “system” would be the better solution- We are looking forward to it. This rising awareness and concsience from the responsible people would still remain the most necessary improvement and goal to be envisaged.

    1. Sorry if saying “throwing money at the problem” is offensive to some people. I use the phrase when there is a problem that I believe can’t really be solved with money. In fact, I think bringing money into it might actually create new problems. If people want raise money to try and help people, I say go for it. It’s a fine sentiment, and of course I understand that the motivation behind the suggestion is coming from the right place, so I am not criticizing any honest attempt to be of benefit to others. But money doesn’t solve these kinds of problems, imo. Raising money for this is not something I am personally invested in doing, for the reasons stated above.

  8. I am reading Mick Brown’s 1995 Telegraph article, and let me say a couple of things: First, Sogyal Rinpoche was NOT “widely regarded as one of the most gifted and enlightened teachers of Tibetan Buddhism in the West.” He was nothing; a nobody. He had no qualities. He was just there, hanging around all the big lamas. And since when is he a “Tibetan lama”? He’s more of a Jesuit than a Tibetan, Opus Dei, not Buddhist. Since when are Tibetan Buddhists required to do “degrading acts” to bring us closer to enlightenment? That’s gnostic, not Buddhist — hello!
    This guy is an agent for the Jesuits, trying to shame way better people than himself.
    My Tibetan lama, identified by Dudjom Rinpoche as his true spiritual successor, wanted nothing to do with this guy.

    1. Well, if you can say Sogyal used methods not standard to Buddhism, then one could also say the same thing about Trungpa, who also did things to humiliate this students as well. In fact, Sogyal was greatly inspired by Trungpa and wanted to be just like him, (including having a harem of “dakinis” around him). So, While I agree that harsh methods used by teachers are not very nice for the victims, I wouldn’t say that these things are “gnostic” and “not Buddhist.” These methods may not be considered “standard Buddhist” but a lot of Vajrayana (and Zen?) practitioners do use these kinds of methods, so you can’t say it’s not “traditional.” It is a very real part of what Vajrayana teachers do, whether in public, or in secret. I’m not saying ALL Vajrayana teachers use these methods, but many do.
      By the way, are you the one who wrote (along with Charles), the article about “TIDS” (Tantric-Induced Delusional Syndrome?” I got a big kick out of that.:D Also, what happened to the “American Buddha” website? It seems to be gone. Whenever I click on the old “American Buddha” links, I am directed to another website, which doesn’t seem to be realted.

      1. I think it’s fair to say Chogyam Trungpa was very fucked up too, and not a good example to hold up for Buddhism.
        Maybe he was somewhat learned, but did not practice or deepen the realization – his mind was not tamed. And he was highly manipulative.
        Look at the W. S. Merwin incident. Look at the behavior of his students in Nova Scotia, that he encouraged.
        Further, the Reagent he chose to lead his organization knowingly had unprotected sex with his students while having full-blown AIDS, even killing one of them. This is a matter of record, and would be considered murder today.
        Those very senior teachers who knew about this behavior, just called for prayer and respect.

        1. My point wasn’t to endorse Trungpa or his methods. My point was that practically all the Tibetan lamas love Trungpa and think he is a genuine “crazy wisdom” master. They wax on and on about how wonderful and legendary Trungpa was, so, unless they all denounced him, and teachers like him, then one can’t say harsh methods aren’t part of Tibetan Buddhism. Trungpa brought the “crazy wisdom” methods with him, and the lamas accepted him as a legitimate teacher, so obviously, those methods are accepted and not some new invention in the West. That doesn’t mean all teachers use or approve of those methods, but most of them at least admire teachers like Trungpa, even if only from a distance, so it seems to be quite the norm, unfortunately.

            1. Nowhere does he mention Trungpa specifically in this video. He can say anything about crazy wisdom, but that sill doesn’t prove he doesn’t think Trungpa is great.

              1. Don’t get me wrong. I think Mingyur R’s statements (both the video and the article) are wonderful and I personally agree with what he says. He pretty much sums up exactly how I feel about ethics in Vajrayana, but I am not able to express it as eloquently. However, no matter what he says, it still doesn’t tell us whether or not he thinks Trungpa qualifies as a “crazy wisdom” teacher, nor does it prove that he walks his own talk. Who really knows? One can affirm that what he *says* sounds really good, but we don’t know if that means he would agree with us on whether a specific teacher, (such as Trungpa), would qualify as a “crazy wisdom” teacher or not. So, unless he names someone by NAME and criticizes them, (which Tibetans don’t often do anyway), using these general statements by Mingyur to try and prove that he would agree with us about Trungpa is not going prove anything, imo. But please don’t think that I am disagreeing with what he SAYS about Vajrayana. I just don’t know anything beyond that.

  9. Second of all, this B.S. about how the guru-disciple relationship is “intimate, like marriage, sexual, like falling in love, where the teacher totally OWNS you, as if he had swallowed you, and you are nothing now but him,” is TOTAL GARBAGE.

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