Rigpa Australia Apologises & Admits Sogyal Rinpoche’s Abuse was Wrong

After being prompted by Joanne McCarthy, a journalist for The Newcastle Herald, Kathryn James, the chair of Rigpa Australia, recently publically gave the kinds of statement that we’ve been wanting to hear from every Rigpa organisation.

Journalist Joanne McCarthy isn’t someone that can be put off with platitudes and deflections. She won a Gold Walkley award, the most prestigious of the Walkley Awards for Australian journalism, so her writing holds weight. She’s experienced in dealing with religious groups and their methods of deflecting, minimising and covering up, due to her reporting on child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, as well as other cult and corruption issues, such as the pelvic mesh scandal.

McCarthy did her homework, interviewing several Australians and getting confirmation of what they told her from a second source, so she knew exactly what to ask to push for some kind of admission of the truth. She wrote three articles on Sogyal and Rigpa for The Newcastle Herald (Newcastle is the biggest city in the Hunter region where the Rigpa Australia national retreats were held each year.) At least one of the articles (the first one) was also published in The Canberra Times.

The articles

The first article gave the general story of Sogyal’s abuses – nothing there we don’t all know already – but she called Sogyal a ‘mindfulness’ guru, which is not a designation Sogyal would ever have accepted, and it unfairly tarnishes the mindfulness movement. I don’t know why she didn’t use the word ‘meditation’, but perhaps it’s because mindfulness tends to be used as a secular word for meditation as if interchangeable with it. For Buddhists, mindfulness is a specific Shamata practice not an alternative term for meditation, which encompasses a wider range of methods. And we know that Sogyal rarely taught on the mindfulness practices. That aside however, she was careful to get her facts straight.

The second article is the one of most interest to those of us in the What Now? group, and contains the content to which this article refers.

In this article Kathryn James showed a rare honesty by admitting that they had a way to go to fully implement the recommendations of the Lewis Silkin report. Mind you, the journalist already knew they hadn’t implemented them properly, so denying it would have been seen as lying – not a good look. Nevertheless, it was good to see someone speaking honestly about it. My own effort to get such an admission from Rigpa Australia via email received no reply!

The third article, written after the Herald apparently received a cease and desist order from Rigpa’s lawyer, spoke about the workers compensation claim made for one of Rigpa Australia’s National Directors who had an emotional breakdown. The article restricted itself to quotes on the matter from Rigpa Australia’s communications with members. The suggestion was that Rigpa Australia, having lodged the claim, accepted some level of responsibility for the man’s breakdown.

Report findings accepted

McCarthy asked James some tricky questions that pushed James to admit (after discussing with the Rigpa Australia management team how she should answer) that Sogyal had hit her – McCarthy already knew this to be true – and that Rigpa Australia accepted the findings of the Lewis Silkin independent report into Sogyal’s abuse.  

Rigpa Australia accepts the allegations of abuse and the findings and recommendations of the Lewis Silkin Report.

Kathryn James, Rigpa Australia

In contrast, the Rigpa Vision Board only said, ‘We acknowledge the gravity of the independent report.’ By using that wording, the Rigpa Vision Board never admitted that the report was a true account of Sogyal’s behaviour and their cover up. So good on Rigpa Australia for actually accepting the findings. That means that they agree that the contents of the Lewis Silkin report are true.

Finally, we have some honesty! Go Australia!

Mind you the wording of her admission is problematic in that she said Rigpa Australia accepted the ‘allegations’ of abuse, not that they accepted the truth of the allegations. Maybe their lawyer wanted to make sure her admission didn’t open Rigpa up for a legal action, because her next statement made it clear that they do accept that Sogyal abused people.

We believe this abuse was wrong.

Kathryn James, Rigpa Australia

Hallelujah! It’s a relief to have someone in a major role in Rigpa who not only realises that what Sogyal did was wrong but also is prepared to say it publically.

A real apology

Later in the second article, James shares a genuine apology made in an email to the Rigpa Australia members after the release of the Lewis Silkin report. Unlike the communications from the Vision Board that refuse to admit any responsibility for their role in enabling Sogyal’s abuse – saying only that they apologise for the ‘hurt experienced’ or that they failed to educate students properly – this apology is the real thing.

The investigation report has laid bare the pain experienced by those students and the failures within Rigpa to adequately protect, respond to and support them. We, in Australia, acknowledge that pain and apologise for our own failures to listen, understand, accept and protect our students.

Rigpa Australia in a message to the Rigpa Australia Sangha

How wonderful to see something real, something not in the language of minimisation or denial favoured by the Vision Board.

The apology was apparently sent to the Rigpa Australia members, but it is not available to the public on their website, nor was it sent to those who Sogyal did abuse in Australia or Australians he abused elsewhere. They didn’t send it to me to distribute to those harmed, either, and they have my email address and the addresses of the Australian members of the 8. What a pity they didn’t take that next step and deliver the apology to those who most need to hear it. Sending it only to those remaining in Rigpa makes it seem as if the purpose of the apology was only to appease their members. What use is an apology if you don’t make it to the ones you’ve harmed?

The statement on Rigpa Australia’s website about the Lewis Slikin Report is the one put out by the Vision Board, the one that does not accept the findings of the report, only the gravity of it. To make this apology, admission of the truth of the allegations and that Sogyal’s abusive behaviour was wrong a real gesture of healing, Rigpa Australia needs to take a couple of further steps.

Can Rigpa Australia make this a step for genuine healing?

Rigpa Australia could take a real step towards healing by:

  • Making what James said into a public statement – one that includes the apology, admission of the truth of the allegations and their belief that Sogyal’s abusive behaviour was wrong – and putting it on their website in a prominent place.
  • Sending that statement to the 8 letter writers and all those who have left Rigpa since July 2017.

Doing these two things would be a game-changing positive step, and it would pave the way for other National Rigpa teams to do the same. Does Rigpa Australia have the courage to make their own decisions on this, though? Only time will tell. If they do do it, I hope they will send me an email to let me know.

How great would that be!

(That’s an in joke for Aussies)

Further steps that would go a long way towards healing:

  • Rigpa members have maligned, abused and attacked the integrity of the 8 letter writers and others who have exposed the truth about Sogyal’s behaviour. I suspect that apologies for such attacks on behalf of those who perpetrated them would constitute a genuine offer of reconciliation that would far exceed the bumbling attempts at ‘reaching out’ made to the 8 by a member of the Vision Board.
  • Making sure that the person who is supposed to be dealing with grievances for Rigpa Australia actually replies to all emails detailing grievances and deals with them with due respect and consideration. (I put one in and never received a reply!)

On a personal note, I would appreciate an apology to me for not allowing me to attend the 2018 retreat without discussion or explanation, and for the Rigpa Australia members who treated me unkindly at the Sakyadhita Conference in June 2019 or abused me on social media. One of the saddest things about all this that remains for me is that Rigpa and I didn’t part on good terms, that the cruelty of some members has so overshadowed the good times, and I expect this feeling is shared by many. I remember the day I put the phone down, my hand shaking, after being told not to contact anyone in the organisation again. Such things may seem petty, but the hurt is real. I can drop it from my mind, but it remains in my heart.

That aside, I would love for Rigpa Australia to show some courage and leadership by making a statement as suggested above, and publishing it on their website.

What do you think of this development?

Photo of the new Rigpa Australia National Centre as shown on the Rigpa Australia Website.

20 Replies to “Rigpa Australia Apologises & Admits Sogyal Rinpoche’s Abuse was Wrong”

  1. Agree this is a positive step. In the line “We, in Australia, acknowledge that pain and apologise for our own failures to listen, understand, accept and protect our students”, I liked the use of the word accept. Is this the first time it has been used by anyone in R? I think the line of total denial has been broken. Once they make a statement to anyone, even if it’s just within a R email, then that is in a way public because it goes to many. It seems pressure by outsiders who won’t go away or be bamboozled works. Well done to the journalist and everyone who keeps pushing for the truth.

  2. It took a long time for James to open her eyes, she must sleep better now 🙂
    But what consequences in R will she have to face…?
    I hope things will go in the good way of honesty and compassion for the victims of this ugly monster.
    One thing is sure, he was burned in Tashiding during an expensive ceremony conducted by very few of his “very good friends” : Dodrupchen,Mindoling Khandro, Orgyen Topgyal R… and followed by unconditional accepting fans:
    Denial is very hard to fight… 😉 specially in a cult who’s guru was legitimate and allowed by the highest rank lamas of Tibet…and others.

  3. A christmas gift of James in the name of rigpa australia.

    The first time that a rigpa official admits a little bit of the truth more or less officialy.

  4. Let’s hope this is the first sign that the hitherto monolithic defences erected by the Rigpa eilte following the 8s letter are starting to crack. I have watched these developments from afar, waiting to see how the revelations would shake down. Big thanks to Tahlia for her informed analysis. No outsider could have delivered an accurate assessment, which includes personal experience– it had to be an Aussie and one who is familiar with Rigpa’s internal machinations. Meanwhile I have been focusing my laser beam on the Flying Circus — the grotesque trans-continental deification of a violent rapist. I’d love to know how much it cost to transport a rotting corpse in a lead lined coffin from Thaliand to France to India to Sikkim. And the cost of the air fares for the posse of greedy opportunists who travelled with it.

  5. Sorry to introduce a note of pessimism here but I’m afraid I wouldn’t read much into this at all.

    The awful reality of what Sogyal was, the depth of his deception, depravity and mental illness, the delusion of his followers and the wider corruption of the Tibetan Buddhist teachers who cheerfully endorsed him and enabled the abuse……well, the possibility of all that being fully understood by anyone who remains in Rigpa or retains respect for all the other teachers who backed him up for decades, seems still very remote.

    Some moral ambiguity, mental and emotional confusion driven by self-interest, hypocrisy and indifference to his victims has to persist in their minds for the simple reason that in terms of the Dharma they supposedly subscribe to themselves: admitting he abused is to admit that he had no wisdom or compassion, and no realization, and to admit this is to accept that his teachings could not be authentic and to question the morality of the wider establishment itself.

    Obviously if this is done with any honesty and clarity then the whole thing falls apart.

    Surely, when any decent, rational person comes to their senses and actually realises that they are participating in what Mary so accurately describes as “the grotesque trans-continental deification of a violent rapist.” then their only option is to walk away in disgust.

    So until they liquidate the assets, pay them out as compensation to his victims, and everyone who has wasted their irreplaceable time and energy, then shut up shop and go home, I’m going to assume that nothing has changed and this is just a bit of forward planning for the next, err…..’reincarnation’.

    To put it simply : what people say is much less significant than what they actually do.

    1. I must admit Pete I agree with a lot, if not all, you say. I was trying to be ‘positive’ because sometimes small cracks in a facade does lead to bigger ones until change occurs. It can be very slow though. It is accepting we all walked into a dangerous con and swindle perpetrated not just by SL and R but, I think, by TB in general. The same could be said of the likes of the Catholic Church as an organisation and possibly other religions and organizations. Perhaps we have to realise the freedom that comes from admitting to ourselves we made a mistake and move on. Perhaps it is easier to do that if we don’t buy into the fear of damnation in one form or another. So thanks for your clarity.

      1. @ BB

        Nice of you to say so. I’m not sure how much clarity I have, but think you’re absolutely spot-on in saying:

        ” We have to realise the freedom that comes from admitting to ourselves we made a mistake and move on.” That’s very important.

        I don’t have any experience of or qualification in psychotherapy, but it seems to me that this may be one of the fastest and most efficient methods of recovery….. providing it’s combined with a clear understanding that the mistake was just a mistake…..a well intentioned attempt at self-help made in good faith, optimism and perhaps a degree of inexperience.

        This is emphatically not in any way taking any responsibility for getting conned by a sociopathic guru who had the de facto backing of an entire religious tradition and its hierarchy. The fault is theirs and it’s a serious, sytemic moral failure that none of us could have been expected to anticipate when we started out. It was too heavily stacked against us.

        It helps to have a sense of humour even a dark one; I remember my response when it finally dawned on me what had happened: it was along the lines of: ” Well, that was a fucking stupid waste of 15 years of my life wasn’t it?”

        I admitted to myself that I’d made a massive mistake but balanced it with a kind of vicious reverse-lojong…..basically blaming everyone involved and hoping they would eventually get exposed and things would go wrong for them.

        This is probably means that I was crap at Buddhism anyway and suffer from some kind of terrible personality defect, but I found it very therapeutic.

    2. I figured you’d see all that. It was why I tossed up whether or not to write about it and how positive to be. In the end, I decided to honour the fact that they have gone further than other Rigpa Nationals at least in their words.

  6. I must confess i hadn’t even heard of the Newcastle Herald until the new developments in the Rigpa saga were covered in that paper. A pity that the SMH & The Age didn’t pick up the story.

    What grounds on earth would there be for Rigpa to flex its defamation muscles? The Herald should have held their ground IMO – then again, Rigpa went after that French prosecutor so i guess their opportunism knows no bounds.

    For the record, I would like to report that in August 2018 i attended a teaching at Rigpa Melbourne from a Lama who has no formal ties to Rigpa and it was pleasing to see that there were no pics of Sogyal on the shrine.

  7. In response to Matilda
    I’ve been publishing highly critical material about Sogyal and Rigpa since 2010. It has appeared in print on broadcast in podcast and on numerous online platforms. My 11,000 word essay Behind the Thangkas was online between 2010 and 2018. The book Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism..the Rise and fall of Sogyal Rinpoche by myself and Rob Hogendoorn was published in 2018. Neither Rob nor I have heard a litiginous squeak from Rigpa or Sogyal. Had this happened there would have been loud and prolonged cries of hypocrisy, in view of Soggy’s public statements that he practises lojong rather than lawsuits. But…I suspect that Lerab Ling’s tax exempt status was threatened by allegations of cultish behaviour, hence the action against JP Cesbron and Midi Libre.

  8. Is there something like a tibetan neo-buddhist “Cosa nostra” with godfathers and “soldiers”, trying to maintain a cash machine and the myth of a saint with SL “parinirvana” and wishes for his swift “reincarnation”?

  9. As long as they use the word ‘allegations’ then they aren’t admitting anything real happened. They are only saying that they accept what people are saying about them as a valid point pf view, but not necessarily the TRUE point of view. As for the ‘genuine’ apology, it’s not very genuine if it’s not sent to the victims directly. However, it’s good that they are finally learning how to write an apology that doesn’t sound like a politician trying to get votes during election season.

    At this point, nothing they say would be enough to ever bring back my lost faith in Tibetan Buddhism, lamas, or the students of the lamas, etc. It’s too late, as far as I’m concerned. I have moved on and I am now seeking a new spiritual path, and hopefully this time I will be wiser if I ever choose another teacher, or follow another path. I will not choose teachers based on infatuation, or on super claims of ‘enlightenment’ or any other such fantasies.

    1. I agree, which is why I say they have to take another step. Like you, I’m not going back no matter what they do. They should have apologised and sent that apology to the 8 and make it public immediately, but they didn’t have the guts for that.

  10. Sometime i think Tibetan buddhism is for tibetans and not naive and idealist wealthy westeners…and is not compatible with the reality of the evolution of life on this planet.

    1. @Friend,

      I am not sure that Tibetan Buddhism was ever meant for Tibetans either. Tibetans used to be a shamanic, indigenous culture, much like other indigenous cultures around the planet, (and in some ways they still are). Then the religious people came in and converted them, but not always so peacefully, as the Tibetan Buddhists would like people to believe. It took many years of conversion by force, civil wars, and lots of brainwashing to finally turn Tibet into a so-called ‘Buddhist’ society (dictatorship), and it happened relatively recently in human history. Because of the whole conflict with China, Tibetan Buddhism has become a symbol of their national identity and culture because China suppresses TB. If it wasn’t for Chinese interference, TB would still be the dominant religion of Tibet, but mostly because it was forced on them for a period of hundreds of years. TB is an imported religion from India and China, (the Vajrayana coming from India specifically).

    2. I shouldn’t say that TB is an imported religion entirely. We can say that Buddhism in general, and Vajrayana, (which is really based largely on Tantric Hinduism), were imported. Other elements in TB were adapted from Tibetan culture.

  11. Tahlia’s blog has received a frank endorsement of sorts from DKR: “Moreover, my character and habitual patterns are of the kind that many may wish to avoid. For a more diverse selection of opinions and a different take on me, please go to websites like “Beyond the Temple” that are full of such opinions.”

    For sure he reads the posts here!

    1. I regret that last exclamation mark. I’m not excited. But i would be relieved if DKR showed genuine concern for the victim survivors abused by Sogyal along with those abused by Mipham and other Shambhala teachers, including the late Trungpa.

      I would also be relieved if he cut out the anti-progressive FB rants which bag serious reporting on climate change and human rights issues. Obviously, not holding my breath on either of these.

  12. I agree with you Mathilda 😉
    Showing no compassion for SL and Trungpa + Mipham victims is not a buddhist behaviour… and his grotesque advice about Varjrayana without giving details about samayas connected to the empowerments he is supposed to give is of the same vein.
    I wonder if he really believes in what he teatches or experienced genuine results in his practice.
    He was recognized by HH Sakya Trizin…so he’s in a good position to do whatever he wants. 😉 as a guru…

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