Hollywood & Rigpa: a comparison. Part 3 – Reactions

The news of Weinstein’s abusive behaviour set off a landslide of comments by celebrities against sexual abuse and in support of those who spoke out .
“It’s with a feeling of nausea,” Colin Firth said, “that I read what was going on while I was benefiting from Harvey Weinstein’s support. He was a powerful and frightening man to stand up to. It must have been terrifying for these women to step up and call him out. And horrifying to be subjected to that kind of harassment. I applaud their courage.”
The Guardian Reported that:
‘Pulcini, a writer and director, emailed a statement to the Guardian after publication of this story, saying: “I have such admiration for the women who have spoken up. What bravery. There should be zero tolerance EVERYWHERE for this kind of horrifying behavior.”
‘DiCaprio published a short statement late Tuesday night that did not name Weinstein but said: “There is no excuse for sexual harassment or sexual assault – no matter who you are and no matter what profession.
‘Affleck also released a statement Tuesday, saying: “I am saddened and angry that a man who I worked with used his position of power to intimidate, sexually harass and manipulate many women over decades.”’
These reactions reflect the responses of the broader community to the Wenstein scandal, and they also reflect the reactions of a large number of Buddhist students both in and outside of Rigpa to news of Sogyal Rinpoche’s allegedly abusive behaviour.
In an article in The Lion’s Roar Mingyur Rinpoche, a respected Tibetan Buddhist teacher, said:
“We must distinguish teachers who are eccentric or provocative—but ultimately compassionate and skillful—from those who are actually harming students and causing trauma. These are two very different things, and it is important that we do not lump them together. There are plenty of teachers who push and provoke students to help them learn about their minds, but that is not abuse. Physical, sexual, and psychological abuse are not teaching tools.
… It should go without saying that when schools, businesses, and other public institutions are expected to adhere to a code of conduct and the laws of the land, then spiritual organizations should be role models of ethical behavior. And teachers even more so.”
On the 1st of August in Leh, Ladakh, India, His Holiness the Dalai Lama said, ‘Now, recently Sogyal Rinpoche; my very good friend, but he’s disgraced.’  
And in Frankfurt on 14th September 2017, he said that lamas that do wrong should be arrested. He also said that such behaviour is not in accord with Buddhism:
‘The ethical principles of how to behave as teachers are clearly stated in the Buddhist texts. And these cases of abuse, which are reported, are clearly diametrically opposed to these principles.’
The Buddhist Union in France revoked Rigpa’s membership, and many Western teachers spoke out, most notably Mattheiu Rickard who said, ‘The behavior described in this letter and in the other past testimonies is obviously unacceptable—from the point of view of ordinary morality and especially from that of Buddhist ethics. This is all the more so given the considerable suffering that has resulted from such actions.’

Differences in Reactions

You’ll notice how very polite these statements from Buddhist teachers are and how they do not actually criticise Sogyal Rinpoche or his behaviour. Instead they speak in general terms. This is because in Tibetan Buddhist Culture it is not considered right to criticise other teachers. In light of that, these statements by His Holiness and Mingyur Rinpoche are very brave. Most Tibetan teachers have remained silent on the issue.
Many Buddhist students, however, in private or on social media were less polite in their responses, and were the letter to get into the NYT it’s likely that the reaction would be the same from the general population. It’s only within the Buddhist community that reactions are muted and even supportive.
Despite Weinstein sending an email to ask for support, no one spoke up publically in support of him, and yet many still support Sogyal Rinpoche and even feel he has done no wrong. Those voices are loud in certain Facebook groups. The most notable support for Sogyal Rinpoche and his behaviour are the statements made by fundamentalist lamas who cling to unnecessarily rigid ideas in stark contrast to His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s position on the beliefs involved.

Supportive comments

Dzongsar Khyentse addressed the situation specifically, and though he raised questions about Sogyal’s qualifications as a teacher and lacks in adequately training his students, he basically said that the students should not have criticised their teacher or spoken up about the alleged abuses.
This is in direct opposition to what His Holiness the Dalai Lama said:
‘Buddhist teachers who abuse sex, power, money, alcohol, or drugs, and who, when faced with legitimate complaints from their own students, do not correct their behavior, should be criticized openly and by name. This may embarrass them and cause them to regret and stop their abusive behavior. Exposing the negative allows space for the positive side to increase. When publicizing such misconduct, it should be made clear that such teachers have disregarded the Buddha’s advice. However, when making public the ethical misconduct of a Buddhist teacher, it is only fair to mention their good qualities as well.’
Dzongsar Khyentse also said: ‘However you describe Sogyal Rinpoche’s style of teaching, the key point here is that if his students had received a Vajrayana initiation, if at the time they received it they were fully aware that it was a Vajrayana initiation, and if Sogyal Rinpoche had made sure that all the necessary prerequisites has been adhered to and fulfilled, then from the Vajrayana point of view, there is nothing wrong with Sogyal Rinpoche’s subsequent actions.’
All the students who spoke out had received the ultimate empowerment of the nature of mind, so according to this view, they should have seen nothing wrong with being hit, humiliated and sexually harassed. And if they did see it as wrong then they shouldn’t have spoken out about it. Furthermore, he is saying that according to his religion there is nothing wrong with a teacher abusing students so long as he has given them an empowerment.
Imagine the furor if someone said the following about Weinstein:
However you describe Weinstein’s style of management, the key point here is that if his employees had received a contract, if at the time they received it they were fully aware that it was a contract, and if Weinstein had made sure that all the necessary prerequisites has been adhered to and fulfilled, then from the contract’s point of view, there is nothing wrong with Weinstein’s subsequent actions.

No place for victim blaming

When teaching in Lerab Ling, Namdrol Rinpoche, another Tibetan Buddhist teacher, said about the student’s speaking up, not about the teacher’s behaviour: ‘From a spiritual point of view it [speaking up] goes against every aspect of Dharma. And from a worldly point of view it is so disrespectful and unnecessary and also instilling doubt and wrong view in the minds of so many disciples unnecessarily, to the point where they may even turn their minds away from the Dharma for good.’
Here he says that the ‘problem’ lies with the students who spoke up, not with the unethical behaviour itself. It’s akin to blaming the child abused by a Catholic priest of breaking the sanctity of the confession box, while ignoring the crime committed by the priest.
Try substituting the word ‘it’ for the word ‘abuse’ and the above statement makes a lot more sense.
Unsurprisingly, the words of Namdrol Rinpoche infuriated some, confused others and reassured those who want to hold onto the idea that their teacher is enlightened and the apparently abusive behaviour is only the complainant’s perception, not reality. For many it was the final thing that turned them away from the religion. And yet, Namdrol Rinpoche blames the students who spoke up for turning their minds away from the dharma, not the teacher who abused his students and the lama who defended him.
This is in stark contrast to the enormous support those who spoke up about Weinstein received in the general community. Imagine the backlash that would occur if someone publically stated that it was wrong for those women to have spoken up? No one would suggest that those who came forward in the recent investigation into abuse in the Catholic Church should not have done so. They were applauded for their courage, and many Buddhists also applauded the 8 letter writers for their courage. The idea that people should not tell others that they have been abused is untenable in today’s Western society.
Orgyen Tobgyal is another teacher who takes the same stance. He told one of the 8 letter writers that he had broken samaya (his spiritual ‘contract’ with his teacher) and would go to hell for speaking out. In a subsequent statement, he essentially blamed the students who spoke up for Sogyal’s ill health, and in a teaching at the Rigpa Paris centre, he said that he saw ‘no problem’ with Sogyal’s behaviour, that ‘beating increases wisdom’ and that if a great master kills someone it is not problem.
Is anyone saying that Weinstein’s alleged behaviour is not a problem? No. They are not. Clearly it is a problem, and so is the allegedly abusive behaviour of Sogyal.
An article in the Seattle Times made it quite clear that in the modern world there is no place for victim blaming, and this is true no matter which way you phrase it. Blaming the girl who is raped for her rape is something we relegate to third world countries with medieval beliefs and to our own past in less enlightened times. These ‘fundamentalist’ teachers are showing that their ideas on the matter of abuse by a spiritual teacher do not belong in the West. Luckily there are other lamas with more enlightened views, thus the problem is not with the religion itself, but with how it is interpreted.
The mainstream Western world would not tolerate support for such behaviour in Weinstein’s case, and they would not tolerate support for it in Sogyal Rinpoche’s case either – if they knew. Though they published an article on allegations of abuse by Sogyal Rinpoche back in 2011, The Guardian, whose articles I have sourced here, has so far not published anything on the recent scandal. An article has appeared in The Telegraph, however, but the story is yet to make it to the New York Times. If it does will the Western world make allowances for Sogyal Rinpoche because he is a religious figure? No. They are more likely to be more horrified than they were over Weinstein, not less.
There are two more parts to this examination, so stay tuned …

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.
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10 Replies to “Hollywood & Rigpa: a comparison. Part 3 – Reactions”

  1. Tahlia I have done my best to generate media interest in the 8 signatories letter and subsequent events. The story was about to appear in the mass circulation tabloid The Sun when the Weinstein scandal broke, followed by a wave of allegations about the behaviour of Westminster MPS which resulted in the resignation of a cabinet minister. I have emailed The Guardian several times and have spoken to one of my contacts there. So far no response. I am puzzled by this lack of interest and can offer no explanation for it. I doubt very much if it will run in The Sun. I collaborated closely with Mick Brown for the Telegraph magazine and with Oliver Harvey at The Sun. Have you tried to generate interest in Australia? The story was extensively covered in France. .even their agency AFP ran an item as did all the mainstream print media. It was also covered in The Netherlands.

    1. @Mary Finnigan,
      Maybe media censorship is the problem? Censorship isn’t just a problem in China, and it can also happen in the West too, even though many people may not be aware of this and think only Communist countries engage in this sort of thing.

      1. I think media priorities are at the root of the problem. Hollywood and Westminster trump Tibetan lamas. But that does not explain the absence of interest at The Guardian…especially as I offered to write a juicy update for them. Probably largely depends on who is reading the emails at any given time. Personal inclinations of editorial staff figure in decision making.

        1. Somebody either bought them off or made threats. Or maybe somebody powerful is just too biased to want to print it. Keep trying anyway.

  2. If Tahlia is interested in media coverage in Australia i would suggest Rachel Kohn’s ‘the Spirit of Things’ on Radio National. While i’m not enraptured about the program these days as it seems to cover a lot of mainstream Christianity, and Rachel doesn’t always go deep, she has expertise in cults and is generally a good interviewer. She’s been covering spiritual matters for a very long time, including organisational controversies.

    1. I’m not personally interested in contacting the media, but there is an article coming out this weekend (2nd December) in Australia. Apparently, a freelance journalist got wind of the situation himself and wrote an article which has been picked up by the Fairfax papers.

  3. Thalia I have read all your articles on Sr with great interest and admiration for the considered way you have tackled the subject. I was a student in 1980s – 1997. I did receive great benefit from his teachings, never became closely involved and was aware of undercurrents in RIGPA. On the rare occasions I felt I needed an audience I never succeeded in gaining one. I am shocked and saddened by his apparent delusions and abuse to others, I was alerted by the article in the Daily Telegraph. My concern in drawing high profile attention to this is for the ordinary Tibetans trying to lead some kind of life without yet more repression. The Chinese authorities will pounce on any opportunity to denounce buddist traits and simply say -” there you are we told you so, superstition and ignorance”. So please, any journalists reading this think of them in how they will be treated and ensure that articles are worded really carefully. They are increasing difficulties for Tibetans and Lerung Gar will be totally erased. Their simple practices can be a lesson and inspiration to us all and to me that is what it is all about. Thank you for your commitment t open communication.

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