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 :
● 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. …Tricycle: Encountering the Shadow in Buddhist America
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.'”
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
Leavingdharmaocean.com 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.