Later on in this post I share a video interview I did with ex-monk Sangye Nawang in which he tells us just what it was like to be in the firing line of Sogyal Rinpoche’s temper, but first some introduction to help explain why students entered into a close relationship with their guru.
The fire analogy
One of the teachings that I remember on a student’s relationship to a lama is the fire analogy. It goes something like this: If you’re too far from the lama you won’t feel the heat; it you’re too close, you’ll get burned. I presumed that the aim of this teaching was to make the the student aware that they needed to find a distance that was neither too close nor too far away from the lama, but it was also a warning that if you did dedicate yourself to working closely with a lama, you might get burned, or maybe even will get burned.
Being burned, however, meant that your ego got burned, and that was seen as a good thing. Once again we see a word being used that means harm. If we’re burned, we’re harmed. The bit being harmed is supposed to be your ego (grasping at a false sense of self), but these ideas of burning, attacking, crushing, and destroying ego are problematic in a world where students may be lacking in a basic healthy self-esteem, and that problem is compounded one-hundred fold if the lama has narcissistic personality disorder. In these cases, as I’ve seen with Rigpa inner circle survivors, an aggressive approach is more likely to cause harm than benefit. Instead of having their ego dissolved, they tend to end up having physical and/or mental breakdowns, and their basic sense of self is crushed, so that they see themselves as worthless and useless, and so on. This is in fact strengthening ego, because now the student associates him or herself with negative attributes.
Why put yourself in the line of fire?
In Rigpa, the idea of being close to the fire meant that you had the guts to commit yourself fully to a relationship with a person that, though most of us didn’t know was abusive, we all knew was highly demanding, but the pay off for being close was a better shot at enlightenment, the opportunity to be fast tracked along the path. The route was dangerous, and it took guts to take it, but the potential benefit was huge – at least that’s what we were told. This romanticised ideal of a spiritual warrior willing to take the blows coupled with a genuine desire to help spread the dharma teachings in the West drew people close to the raging inferno of Sogyal Rinpoche/Lakar.
But being close to the fire meant that you put yourself directly in Sogyal’s firing line.
I doubt that those who entered the inner circle knew the degree of his ‘burn’ before they took up their roles – did they know they would be hit, asked for sexual favours and be always found lacking? – but we all knew that working closely with him would be highly challenging. That was the point. We believed it was a kind of ‘trial by fire’ that if survived would be a great purification, a furnace in which to burn away your obscurations, in reality, however, a large number of people simply got third degree burns.
I sometimes used to wonder how I would handle the intensity of that level of ‘Rigpa work’, and all I knew in that regard was that I never wanted to find out. When I was offered the role of National Director for Rigpa Australia a decade or so ago, I said, “No way, I don’t want to get that close to the fire.” I feel for those who did.
A personal testimony
In August 2017, I interviewed Sangye Nawang, and ex-Rigpa monk and a good friend of mine. We didn’t release the video at the time, feeling that the time wasn’t right. Now, however, we feel it is time for the world to see Sangye tell it as it was, and I challenge those who think this is somehow made up, or some plot or campaign to deny the truth that comes through this interview. This is just someone who has been burned telling us about the fire he fell into through no fault of his own.
May sharing his story, told openly and honestly, be of service to others.
What being in a narcistic relationship does to you
This next video is long, but it’s well worth watching if you want to get an idea of the true cost to those in Rigpa’s inner circle who were or still are close to Sogyal Rinpoche/Lakar. If you were one of those people then you’ll find it immensely helpful to realise that other people experience this kind of thing in domestic and work relationships; it’s not something restricted to the guru/student relationship, and, in fact, it has no place in that environment at all. In this video you’ll hear just how crushing being in a narcissistic relationship is.
Please note that I am not making a diagnosis on Sogyal’s personality, just sharing the experience of people who were in a similar relationship because fits with the results I’ve heard from and seen in Rigpa inner-circle survivors. You’ll see the correlations with Sangye’s experience. As Dana mentions in the video, survivors of cults and abusive relationships will also find it very helpful to find language they can use to describe their experience.
NB: CPTSD is Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
In this video Dana of Narcissist Support says, “In a narcistic relationship it’s all smoke and mirrors. It’s all a lie.”
Which leaves me wondering: was the love I thought I experienced from Sogyal real or just my projection? Dana talks about how her narcissistic boyfriends fed off her need for love that came from a sense of lack of love in her life; how many of us saw in Sogyal what we wanted to see? Did our projections blind us to the red flags that screamed, “Fire. Fire. Danger. Do not enter!”?
Private discussion on this and other related topics can be had on our Secret Facebook Group. It is only for current and previous students of Rigpa, however, and we do moderate it closely. If you’re interested in joining, please contact us via the contact page and ask for an invite. Ex-Rigpa students and their Rigpa dharma friends who want to move on from the discussion of abuse in Rigpa can stay in touch through the Dharma Companions Facebook Group. The What Now?Reference Material pagehas 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’ could ‘Like’ the Dharma Protectors Facebook page.
It must be frustrating for those in Rigpa who organise the initiatives and write the communications to have everything they do viewed critically, and publically. Of course, if I and those I speak for had a voice inside Rigpa, I wouldn’t have to do it publically, but for the moment, this is the only voice many of us have.
It’s easy to forget that those doing all the work are ordinary people with jobs and families who are doing their Rigpa work for free in their spare time, so things move more slowly than people like me would like. I don’t doubt that they are doing their best, as we all are. I also suspect that most of the people engaged in this debate over unacceptable lama behaviour are working to protect the dharma. We just have different ideas of what that protection entails; for some it means sticking rigidly to every instruction ever passed down, even if it’s potentially damaging to student’s health, and for others it’s stepping outside of the provisional meaning of instructions on things like samaya and pure perception, examining the definitive meaning and, with that understanding, interpreting it for the modern world. Luckily His Holiness the Dalai Lama and other lamas have done that already, so no one has to make it up.
Wouldn’t it be great if those working for the protection of the dharma and the future of the vajrayana in the West could work together rather than in opposition? Couldn’t we find a solution that is true to vajrayana and also healthy for students? Certainly it’s what I want. No one has to impose their views on others, we just have to be willing to find a solution that has a place for all views and is a healthy environment for everyone. Together we could re-brand Rigpa into an organisation with many options for how students interpret certain teachings rather than a one view, one lama organisation it is at present.
Sogyal Rinpoche has often said that the cultural aspects of Tibetan Buddhism must be stripped away if it is to flourish in the West, but that it isn’t something that can be done quickly, so to assume that those running Rigpa are not aware of the necessity of real change is likely a misperception, but until we see action that indicates a willingness to change on a deep level – like having discussions with Mingyur Rinpoche and His Holiness the Dalai Lama or making a statement that individual lamas’ points of views, even those advising the Vision Board, do not reflect any ‘Rigpa policy’– we have no indication that any deep discussion on interpretations of samaya, pure perception, and so on are taking place or will take place in the future. From outside and from the point of view of an ordinary student all we see is what Rigpa does, not what they think or what they are discussing. If there was more communication misperceptions as to their motives and thinking would be avoided.
Negative perceptions may also be solidified, of course—that’s the risk of communication—but if one is speaking face to face or via video call, then people can clarify and discuss points of conflict in a way that, simply because they are being discussed, will garner greater understanding from all sides. Those who have managed to speak to people in management in Australia and the USA have discovered a greater openness than expected, but frustration continues when the openness is not reflected in action or initiatives fall short of expectations. Such falling short could be avoided if people like those in the What Now? Facebook group were consulted as part of the process. The criticism could then happen privately, and those involved, even if they don’t like the results, would at least understand the reasons for the outcome.
Why is such communication not happening?
Some time ago I suggested instituting a liaison person between the What Now? Group and Rigpa international management, but the suggestion was ignored, and yet, a greater understanding of the issues and discussions behind decisions would most likely result in less of a negative view. I would find it hard to be negative about someone who is actually bothering to talk to me, and, after all, we are all vajra brothers and sisters with a shared past and experience of the teachings.
I suspect that one of the reasons why that suggestion was not taken up, and why I was not allowed to go to the Australian Retreat, was fear that such communication or attendance would result in terrible things being said on the blog, a fear that comes from a lack of trust, which (if the lack of trust is unwarranted) comes from a lack of personal knowledge of the individual involved. If you don’t know a person, if you haven’t spoken to them personally, you don’t know if you can trust them to view your actions in an unbiased way or not. If you speak to them, the trust issue can be discussed and resolved. At the very least you can decide after such discussion whether they are trustworthy or not.
Lack of trust is at the core of the lack of communication and consultation, and reconciliation cannot happen without trust being established first.
The lack of trust, of course, goes both ways.
People who, for good reason, do not trust those running Rigpa view them very critically, and the only way for Rigpa management to change that is to talk to them, to hear what they say and take it into account. And they must behave in a trustworthy way and understand just why they have lost people’s trust.
Acknowledgment of the harm done, an apology and a promise not to continue in the same way would do the trick!
Can we trust again?
Establishing trust is the challenge, because without trust communication either won’t begin or it will fail, and reconciliation cannot happen without communication based on trust.
Lack of trust of Rigpa management, of the people who, by their indifference, added to the trauma of abuse victims, is the core reason why every communication is dissected so critically here, and would explain to a large degree why some of the 8 may not participate in the investigation. I’ve personally seen some of Rigpa’s initiatives a lot more positively than it would appear from my blog posts, but I am the voice of those who have experienced abuse first hand, who have born the trauma of betrayal by their lama and of not being cared for by those running Rigpa. They have shared the reasons for their traumatisation, and they tell me how they feel about what they see and read. I hear their voice and speak for them because they have no voice inside Rigpa. Since I only write about what I know about and reflect the opinions of those who talk to me, if Rigpa wants more balanced articles here, they need to share their process with me.
As for trusting me, the primary writer and editor of this blog, I would never share anything divulged in a private conversation without permission.
Openness can only come after trust is established, and in this instance Rigpa is dealing with people whose trust in the lama and the organisation has been completely blown. How can they re-establish trust and institute real communication? An Olive Branch should help with that. And I see no reason why what happens in the USA would not become the model for a similar process in other countries.
Rigpa US employing An Olive Branch for healing and reconciliation is the best chance we have for restoring trust. They have a big job ahead of them, and I wish them well. But what is required to even get it started? Trust. Those harmed will need to find it within themselves to trust An Olive Branch enough to participate.
For some it will be quite a leap of faith to trust anything arranged by Rigpa, but I hope they will set aside any reservations they may have and be part of what, by the very fact that it is being run by An Olive Branch, I see as a genuine attempt at reconciliation.
Of course if you want Rigpa to disappear from the face of the earth, then you will have no interest in healing and reconciliation, in which case, the following is not for you. Post by Tahlia Newland, editor & author
An Olive Branch Invitation to participate in reconciliation and healing
Here is the letter sent to the US sangha inviting past and present students to be involved. It’s restricted to the US because AOB is not an international organisation, but what happens in the US will have an effect elsewhere and will likely be used as a model for other national management teams to follow.
Please share this invitation with anyone in the US who has left Rigpa and is interested in participating in the healing and reconciliation lead by An Olive Branch.
January 15, 2018
Dear Current and Former Members of the Rigpa US Sangha:
We are writing this letter to introduce ourselves and announce that the Rigpa US Board of Directors has engaged the services of An Olive Branch to support the sangha’s reconciliation and healing in the wake of complaints that have been raised about ethical misconduct on the part of Sogyal Rinpoche. We also want you to know about the ways you can be involved in our work, if you so choose.
On December 19, 2017 a letter from us — similar to this one — was sent to the eight former and current Rigpa members who wrote to Sogyal Rinpoche in July 2017 to share their concerns about his harmful behavior. Portions of our December letter have been shared via social media so you may have already read about our work with your sangha. Our intent in this letter is to provide more detail and also to inform everyone equally.
About An Olive Branch
An Olive Branch was formed in 2011 as a project of the Zen Center of Pittsburgh. Growing out of the need for greater understanding and reduction of ethical misconduct on the part of religious leaders, we provide services to organizations in conflict after a beloved teacher has been accused of misconduct. We promote understanding and healing and work to strengthen organizations’ boards and policies to reduce the likelihood of future misconduct. We have expertise, knowledge of best practices, and standards of excellence for our services. Our consultants have complementary skills related to training, facilitation, governance, and intervention.
Questions about this project or about An Olive Branch may be directed to me, Katheryn Wiedman, Co- Director of An Olive Branch and Project Director for the Rigpa US effort: firstname.lastname@example.org
On October 18, 2017 Richard Snow, Treasurer of the Rigpa US Board of Directors, contacted An Olive Branch on behalf of the board. He inquired about our services and asked how we could help with the situation precipitated by the July 14, 2017 letter to Sogyal Rinpoche from eight former and current Rigpa members. The letter detailed four abusive behaviors: 1) “physical, emotional, and psychological abuse of students,” 2) “sexual abuse of students,” 3) “lavish, gluttonous, and sybaritic lifestyle,” and 4) undermining the letter writers’ “appreciation for the practice of the Dharma.”
In Ventura, CA on November 29, 2017 the Rigpa US Board of Directors met with Co-directors of An Olive Branch: Rev. Kyoki Roberts, Dr. Katheryn Wiedman, and Leslie Hospodar. The purpose of the meeting was two-fold: 1) for the Rigpa US board to describe the needs of the US sangha and to ask questions about our services and 2) for An Olive Branch to learn more about the situation within Rigpa and to determine the appropriate services to include in a proposal.
During December, we developed a proposal that includes six elements:
Collaborating with the Rigpa US board to communicate with the sangha regarding our work together
Making recommendations regarding the forthcoming Code of Conduct and Grievance Procedure
Providing a “Listening Post” for individuals who have been harmed
Leading a Community Reconciliation and Healing meeting
Strengthening the organizational structure and board governance
Managing the project.
The proposal was accepted by the Rigpa US board and our two organizations have been working together since December 17, 2017. The scope of this project is limited to current and former members of the Rigpa US sangha as well as the eight individuals who wrote of their concerns in July 2017; the project is designed to respond to the needs of this specific group. Other Rigpa sanghas are continuing to hold their own sangha processes, and look forward to learning from the work of An Olive Branch in the US through the investigation and reconciliation committee.
Three of the elements listed above are of importance to individual current and former members of the US sangha because they involve your participation and thus are the subject of the remainder of this letter:
Code of Conduct and Grievance Procedure
Community Reconciliation and Healing Meeting
Code of Conduct and Grievance Procedure
Since August, an international task group has been working to develop a code of conduct and grievance procedure. Rigpa members world-wide have been informed about the process and input has been solicited. The group working on these documents hopes to share a draft with the world-wide sangha in February, 2018.
An Olive Branch is reviewing and providing recommendations on Rigpa US’s draft ethics policy and grievance procedure. Our advice is based on best practices for organizational ethics policies that define acceptable/unacceptable behavior for teachers and students and specifies fair grievance procedures. In the US, boards have a fiduciary responsibility to develop and enforce policies that define clear boundaries that protect both teachers and students in the sangha.
An Olive Branch offers a Listening Post for individuals who have been harmed, providing a way for them to tell their story to a neutral third party and to be heard in a safe, compassionate, and confidential manner. The Listening Post is available to receive the experiences of any current or former Rigpa US sangha member, as well as the individuals who wrote the July 14, 2017 letter, who experienced harm as a result of the actions of Sogyal Rinpoche or other Rigpa teacher(s). The harm may have been direct – such as physical, emotional, sexual, psychological abuse – or indirect – such as guilt from witnessing abuse but not stopping or reporting it, or severe stress related to the situation. Any current or former Rigpa US sangha member who has been harmed may participate in the Listening Post along with letter writers who are not / were not members of Rigpa US.
It is important to us that people who have left the Rigpa US sangha receive the information in this letter so they may participate in the project if they want to. If you know of such individuals, will you please forward this letter to them?
The Listening Post has three objectives: first, and most important, is to provide some measure of relief to people who are hurting; second, is to help respondents formulate any requests they would like to make to Rigpa; and third is to expose the full extent of damage to the fabric of the sangha.
To accomplish the third objective, above, a summary of the information collected via the Listening Post will be reported to the Rigpa US board and later to the sangha during the Community Reconciliation and Healing meeting, described below.
Reporters of harm have the right to remain anonymous; both An Olive Branch and the Rigpa US board respect this right. Names and identifying details of the participants in the Listening Post will be carefully omitted from all reporting, unless requested by an individual reporter.
Current and former Rigpa US sangha members and letter writers who want to participate in the Listening Post should contact Dr. Barbara Gray via email: Barbara@an-olive-branch.org. You may request a private, confidential telephone interview or submit your personal experience via email message and make any requests you may have of the Rigpa US board.
Community Reconciliation and Healing
The Rigpa US board and An Olive Branch will collaborate on the design of a two-day, face-to-face Community Reconciliation and Healing meeting at a date and time to be determined. Members of the Rigpa US sangha and leaders of Rigpa sanghas in other nations will be invited. We currently envision the following components:
Led by An Olive Branch, there will be opportunities at the meeting for attendees to:
Hear the summarized information gathered in the Listening Post
Process the events (raise additional concerns, share residual feelings, etc.)
Learn about the new US sangha’s Ethics Policy and Grievance Procedure
Receive training on the misuse of power in spiritual relationships.
Led by Rigpa, there will be components such as:
Spiritually-based opening and closing ceremonies
Traditional ceremonies of reconciliation, forgiveness, and peace-making.
Underlying our proposal is the intent to help return the Rigpa US sangha to health and balance. We believe that through working together with open hearts and minds everyone can learn from this situation, strengthen the sangha, and restore peace and stability to the Rigpa community.
Katheryn D. Wiedman, Ph.D. Project Director
Co-director of An Olive Branch
Current and previous students of Rigpa wanting private support are welcome to join the What Now? Facebook group. Please contact us via the contact page and ask for an invite. Ex-Rigpa students and their dharma friends who want to move on from the discussion of abuse in Rigpa can stay in touch through the Dharma Companions Facebook Group. The What Now?Reference Material pagehas 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’ could ‘Like’ the Dharma Protectors Facebook page. Please consider sponsoring our editor for the many hours of work involved in keeping this blog running and the information up to date.
My first impression was that the letter included points that could indicate a shift in attitude.
In mention of where their concern lies, the authors of the letter are specifically included in the community as a whole, and saying “we are all still very much connected to each other” indicates a breaking down of the ‘us and them mentality’. An Olive Branch’s involvement is certainly a shift, and proof of their commitment to true healing and reconciliation would be inviting all those who have left to the An Olive Branch sessions.
I found this part encouraging, “It has become clear that we need to work together to understand how, over the years, we got to where we are.” This kind of examination is what I’ve been asking for. Only action will show how deeply this will go, but least the intention is now there to actually examine.
The Rigpa US board appeared to have a shift after meeting with one of the US authors of the letter at the Ventura retreat. They also sent a letter to the 8 authors in which they presented the details of the investigation and asked them to participate. In this letter they mentioned regretting not reaching out sooner and admitted that their confusion about what to do had obscured their ability to genuinely help. They also made further admissions that I don’t feel at liberty to mention here that were a major step forward and indicated a new honesty in communication.
However, they have not made these admissions public, and the communication to the worldwide sangha from the Rigpa International Investigation & Reconciliation Committee had no such admissions and lacked the honesty and compassion evident in the US letter. It came out one day after the 8 received details of the investigation, giving them no time to respond before it was made public, and it gave no indication that their participation was voluntary, thus colouring the sangha’s perception of the situation and subtly coercing the 8 into complying. This along with the fact that they were never consulted about the planned investigation, were given only 10 days to make a decision, and it all happened at the busiest time of year gives this initiative the feeling of “compelled disclosure”.
University of Oregon trauma psychologist Jennifer Freyd, a pioneer in the fields of “institutional betrayal” presents, with good evidence, that victims are further harmed when the institutions that betrayed them play a leading role in any “fact-finding” or reconciliation process. Such a process, she suggests, continues the power imbalance, recast as healing. http://dynamic.uoregon.edu/jjf/disclosure/requiredreporting.html
Though Rigpa international is not the client in the investigation (Rigpa UK and US are), they were responsible for booking it without consultation with the 8 authors and presumably had a say in setting up the terms and scope of the investigation.
The language in the newsletter goes from invitation:
“We are offering the eight letter writers the opportunity for a compassionate forum to share their observations and experiences in an unbiased and confidential interview.”
“The scope of the investigation is international and will include all eight complainants.”
The assertion that the 8 will participate the day after they were introduced to the idea is an extension of the consent violations upon which the culture of abuse was built.
The continued use of the word ‘allegations’ is significant also for those harmed. It is used when an accused is denying wrongdoing because it has not been proven to be true, and yet those who have set up this investigation are implicated in covering up the actions and KNOW THEM TO BE TRUE. They have never denied them and have even been so audacious as to hide behind statements characterizing them as beneficial, blessings and training rather than various forms of abuse of power. Stating that they need to gain a full understanding of what has happened and who was involved or aware of it is an insult to those harmed.
Thus, once again, the way this has been handled by Rigpa international could be a cause of re-traumatisation.
The language in the letter of introduction from the lawyer to the 8 was not like this, nor was the letter from the US Board that they received. The lawyer clearly understands that the process might be traumatic for the 8 and gives personal assurances of her integrity, and the US Board letter acknowledges that the investigation might raise doubts and be uncomfortable, and both asked rather than assumed participation. However, the Rigpa International newsletter to the sangha exhibits the same behaviour that we have continuously called out and continues to cause divisiveness, lack of trust, fear, and unwillingness to participate in any forum of “healing”. Without honesty and admission from those who know the attestations are true, their words will continue to be met with suspicion.
This difference between Rigpa US’s communication to the 8 authors and the International letter to the sangha reminds us that ‘Rigpa’ is not one thing, but many people with many different views, and the national boards and individuals do not necessarily feel the same way as Rigpa International. If International and other national boards took the same honesty and compassion as showed by the US board in their recent communication to the 8 authors and made those admissions public, real change might still be possible.
The communications give many assurances about the investigation, and students are given an email address, a new one, so we can ask questions about the investigation. The letter to the 8 from the lawyer makes it clear that she will only act in an objective and impartial manner with due respect and sensitivity, mentioning how important this is for her own personal and professional integrity, and there appear to be adequate safeguards to assuage concerns regarding legal and confidential matters.
The letter to the sangha from Rigpa International says: “The outcome and recommendations of the report will be shared, in a manner to be determined, with the Boards of all Rigpa organizations worldwide.” The letter to the 8 from the US Board, however, says that the report will also be shared with the 8. So which are we to believe, the private letter or the public one? Neither letter says they will share it with sangha or the public.
Here’s the kind of report we can expect. This is a link to the Lewis Silken report on the Kevin Spacey case for the Old Vic Theatre https://cdn.oldvictheatre.com/uploads/2017/11/THE-OLD-VIC-PRESS-STATEMENT-FINAL-16.11.17.pdf
As you can see it is pretty light weight and non-conclusive and Rigpa could ignore the recommendations if they wish. Is this going to actually help in achieving the overall goal of “restoring peace and harmony”? These lawyers cost a great deal of sangha members’ money, money that could be better spent elsewhere.
On the surface the letter to the sangha and the terms of the investigation seem all very reasonable, and granted to not investigate may be damaging to Rigpa in regard to maintaining their charity status in some countries, but we need to be clear that this is only an investigation “to ascertain in more detail the specific allegations.” It is not an investigation of Sogyal Rinpoche’s behaviour or of the organisation that supports him, only a mission to get more detail on the allegations. But the letter from the 8 is quite clear. What more is there for them to add?
The Lewis Silken agreement sent to the sangha says that people other than the 8 such as senior management will only be interviewed if the lawyers “deem it appropriate” and if it is “achievable within the fee budget”. There is no mention of Sogyal being interviewed at all. This seems to be a gross oversight.
Lewis Silken found in their investigation of the Kevin Spacy case for the Old Vic: “It has also not been possible to verify any of these allegations, and it is important to note that Kevin Spacey has not commented on them. The review cannot therefore make any findings of fact about the alleged misconduct.”
Without interviewing others apart from the 8, because only one point of view is being heard, it is not possible to verify anything and so impossible to make any findings of fact. An outcome such as this is not guaranteed, because they may interview management, but the actual terms of the investigation as stated in the agreement appear somewhat skewed towards finding no ‘proof’.
The letter of introduction to the 8 from the lawyer, however, says that is likely that the investigation will move on to interview other members of Rigpa and even Sogyal Lakar, so which is correct? Rather than reassure, this discrepancy only creates more confusion and distrust.
The huge assumption is that the 8 will participate in this compelled disclosure, but why should they?
I expect that some of you will not want to consider the possiblity that Rigpa students’ perceptions may be being subtley manipulated, either consciously or unconsciously, by selective use of language. However, whether it’s true or not, I think it would be wise for you to read this guest post, anyway, since it doesn’t hurt for you to be aware of how it can happen. Only when you are aware of the possibility can you be sure that you are free to make up your own mind up rather than think the way someone else wants you to think.
In comments to the last blog post, someone said that they felt that Sogyal had apologised, however if you look carefully at the letter he sent to the 8 students (see the it here) the language does not actually give an apology, it only appears to. He says,” I acknowledge that there are feelings of hurt,” and, “hurt has arisen.” He does not acknowledge that he hurt the students or even that the students were hurt, just that they “feel” hurt and that “hurt has arisen.”
He defends himself by saying, “it was never, ever, my intention to hurt you or any other person, and if this is how it appears, then I am deeply shocked.” Though this is no doubt how he felt, the words “how it appears” suggests that events are not necessarily as they see them, and this subtly undermines the reader’s perception, making them think that it is all in the letter writer’s minds. No wonder this, “it’s just your perception,” idea is bandied about by his ‘true-believer’ students in their defence of him.
He virtually says that he has nothing to apologise for. “My conscience is clear on this.” Though he refers to his belief that “I have never, not for one moment, had any intention other than a genuine wish to benefit others,” the statement that his conscience is clear was completely unecessary and it’s inclusion leaves the suggestion in the minds of the unwary reader that he is innocent.
He does, however, “humbly ask your forgiveness,” which might sound to some like a kind of apology, but it doesn’t say, ‘I’m sorry I hurt you.” when put in context it actually refers to the actions that “have been perceived in another way” and “the distress this causes me.”
This is the kind of gaslighting that Rigpa is very good at and continues with every communication, subtling altering student’s perception to minimise the damage.
Another way of reading that letter
This parody of Sogyal’s reply to the 8 letter writers was written by one of the recipients as “part of a process of coming to a more compassionate space.” It shows how once the bubble of believing everything you’re told and taking everything at face value has burst through honoring the truth of your own feelings and experience things can look very different indeed. The sentiments expressed in this parody may asome to stomach, but others will have no difficulty seeing this kind of motivation behind not only Sogyal’s letter of reply but all of Rigpa’s handling of the situation.
Dear Mark, Sangye, Damcho, Joanne, Matteo, Graham, Michael and Gary I have received your letter and have read it through very thoroughly and I am deeply saddened and shocked that my carefully crafted culture of silence and suppression of the truth has been exposed. Why I am responding to this letter at all is that it is apparent that you have the means to “bring everything down” which causes me great distress. Even though it is almost impossible for me to take responsibility for my actions and I even question whether I am actually responsible at all, my most ablest students have informed me that it is in my best interests to appear to. The critical mass of evidence against me and the karmic effects of my actions have finally caught up with me and exposed me and I find that I am reluctantly forced to respond. Victor Hugo stated it best: “There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” I will try to kick the ball down the road for a few more years until we can emerge chastened and reformed but where I can still keep my castle and court. Please accommodate any apparent outreach to this effect as it would benefit me greatly. Sincerely, Sogyal
(Parody included with permission. Author’s name withheld for privacy)
How word choice can manipulate your perception
The following words in italics are from the Lerab Ling website as their official statement on the letter from the 8. “There is no place for abuse in our community.” Makes you think there is no abuse, but the truth is that they don’t recognise abuse as abuse. I wonder what they think constitues abuse?
“Press campaign.” This is complete misinformation. The letter was never intended as a press campaign. And even now there is no press campaign that we know of. The story has got into the press, but that is not a ‘campaign’. A campaign suggests some organised assault on someone, and giving the attestations of abuse an offhand term like ‘press campaign’ diminishes it and makes it easy to disregard as ‘just a press campaign’ by some disgruntled students. It is not a press campaign; it is genuine testimonies detailing abuse and a request for real reform. “… in a way that is entirely consistent with Buddhist values.” Makes you think they are behaving in a way consistent with Buddhist values even though the facts suggest otherwise. False speech, for example, is one of the ten negative actions to avoid. Nevertheless, use of the adverb ‘entirely’ give great emphasis to this point of being consistent with Buddhist values. In an organisation accused of behaving in a way that is not consistent with Buddhist values, this statement is clearly a way to gaslight people into believing it simply can’t be true. “… in a true spirit of collaboration.” The word ‘true’ is not necessary for the meaning to be clear, so why is it there? Only to suggest that there is truth here and that they are actually concerned about truth.
Adverbs and Adjectives
Adverbs (words that describe verbs such as ‘entirely’ as used above) and adjectives (words that describe nouns such as ‘true’ as used above) are never needed in communications designed to give information. They are only used to add an angle on the information and consistent use of adverbs and adjectives with a particular angle encourage that interpretation in the reader. For instance in Rigpa international’s first letter to the sangha they say in regards to S’s letter, “his poignant response.”
Advertising uses such words, of course, but Rigpa doesn’t just use them when advertising courses and retreats. We hear them from the instructors once we’re there, and we keep hearing them over and over. We also hear them a great deal in the “feedbacks” read out at retreat, and we see them in the comments on Sogyal Rinpoche’s Facebook pages as well, almost as though the students are brainwashed with these words.
Words to lure you in & make you think its the real deal
These are the kinds of words that hook our grasping for the ‘best’ and stimulate our spiritual materialism. They keep us coming to retreat after retreat, along with other things like having to write a personal letter to Sogyal to explain why we can’t come: High, very special, profound, transformative, dzogchen, restricted, eminent, only chance, genuine, authentic, precious, powerful tools of Tibetan Buddhism, what promises to be a very special retreat.
Feel-good buzz words
These are the soothing words that make us feel as if we belong to something special and as if people truly care for us: Personally reassure, open process, careful attention, positive intention, benefit, precious time, spiritual, care, support, vast, vision, blessed, skilful, sensitively, beautiful, heart warming, inspiring, deep, outstanding, perfect, special, especially for us.
Such words are commonly used in sentences such as this: The sangha is in a deep process of transformation. It has been wonderfully inspiring to see how our communication has deepened. People have shared in an amazing atmosphere of openness. It is great to see we are all in this process together so we can keep receiving these precious teachings.
Here’s an example from a Lerab Ling newsletter from this year: “Lerab Ling is so warm and cosy around this time of the year. We will be offering amazing events led by the next generation of Buddhist teachers, as well as by specialists sharing deep insights on topics like compassion.”
Words & concepts that can be used to control & silence
These words and concepts are not designed to be used for control, subjugation and silencing, they are valid ideas, but they can be, and most certainly have been, used in this way. The important thing to consider here is whether or not they are being used in a way that will benefit the student or the teacher, the student or the organisation. Committment, devotion, faith, dedicated, unity, determination, strengthening Rigpa, perception, samaya, karma, death, hell, sangha, pure perception, special dakini, fast path, accelerated spiritual development, training, exposing hidden faults.
Is it really manipulation?
The use of the phrase “press campaign” is clearly manipulative as are the other words I highlighted in the Lerab Ling statement on the letter, but, in general, the use of these words doesn’t necessarily mean that what they say isn’t true in any individual situation. The issue is that their continual emphasis gives us a feeling of belonging to something special, something that simply cannot be ‘bad’ or even have a ‘bad’ side. For so long as the organisation and its teacher appear to be ‘good’, these words are quite innocuous, but once it becomes clear that things are not so wonderful, the continued use of words that make it seem wonderful take on the feeling of brainwashing. Tell people often enough that everything is all right and they’ll believe it, especially if they are people conditioned not to question or doubt.
Those writing advertising copy will know that they are trying to make the retreat sound good so that people will come, and we cannot expect them to do otherwise, but I expect that the ordinary person simply believes it all. When I, as an instructor, spouted the same words, I didn’t think I was being manipulative; I thought it was all true – until I found out that the teacher was not who I thought he was. In the light of the big lie finally being exposed it would be wise of us to not take anything from this organisation at face value. We all know they have to keep the money rolling in. There is a great deal of reason for Rigpa management in all countries to continue to supress or downplay the truth. The post raises the question of why would you feel the need to pretend that there is nothing wrong, that everything has been done perfectly, when clearly to any normal Westerner looking at this situation, it hasn’t? Why pretend? Why ignore? Why not examine, define, analyse, visualise, doubt, debate use all of those wonderful critical thinking skills Westerners have? That’s what this post is about – questioning the truth of everything we believed to be true. It’s a very healthy thing to do. And just when the Rigpa communications are looking most reasonable, ask yourself if there is anything they are ignoring completely. Like the elephant in the closet, or the fact that they haven’t simply answered the questions raised by the 8 letter writers.
Folk wisdom is wisdom passed down through families sometimes from unknown sources; one such piece of wisdom I was brought up with was ‘Credit where credit is due’. This reminds us not to forget the good people have done or are trying to do, even if they have also behaved badly. So, with this bit of wisdom in mind, just in case those folk who are trying to forge ahead with Rigpa think that all we do on this blog is criticise, I thought it prudent to do a post that supports those people and initiatives that deserve it. While we wait for news on who is doing the investigation, what its scope, aims and jurisdiction are, let’s not forget that Rigpa has at least promised an investigation. It could have been worse. Only time will tell how meaningful the gesture will be. We also have a code of conduct being worked on and a new advisory body being chosen. Positive changes are happening inside the organisation. They aren’t moving fast enough or going deeply enough for some, but they are happening.
Expectation and disappointment
When our expectations are high, our disappointment and criticism can be correspondingly great, and in a situation with great potential for moving Tibetan Buddhism forward in a healthy way in the West, it’s no wonder that there is disappointment when those who really want to see that development feel that the change is not going deep enough. Criticism is helpful when it is constructive, and I hope the criticism of Rigpa management that we post here can be seen as constructive – sometimes it is hard to keep the tone moderate – but I can see that it may be quite disheartening if those doing their best to institute change, care for present students, and communicate with the wider community feel that their initiatives are being too rigorously criticised or disregarded. So in this blog I’d like to encourage them and honour them.
Keeping Communication Alive
I would like to personally acknowledge the few people within Rigpa who are actually communicating with me. Some I have emailed and they never responded, which I think is very sad, but I have a few people at national or international level who do still talk to me. We don’t talk much, but they do respond politely to my emails or messages, and if they ask questions, I answer. We respect each other’s views (and avoid going there) and I think we all understand that this situation is difficult for everyone. Their communication helps me to remember that there is no ‘they’, just ordinary people doing their best to help an organisation they believe in to survive a crisis. And I hope they understand that I am an ordinary person doing my best to care for those uncared for by Rigpa in the past and to provide a space where they and those outside the organisation can express their views and perhaps have an impact on the way events unfold. If you are reading this, thank you.
A previous post talked about the unskilful behaviour of some members of Rigpa, so I think it only prudent to remind everyone that those were generalisations and certainly did not apply to all members of Rigpa or Rigpa management. There really is no single thing that is Rigpa. It is made up of individuals. However, there is a team at the top that makes final decisions, so in the end, the buck does stop with them, and that’s why our critical pieces refer to Rigpa management, not Rigpa. Even within that group, however, we must remember that they may not be in agreement on certain things. Nouns are merely labels we must use in order to communicate.
Though still no one from Rigpa International management has approached any of the 8—not even just to see how they are—someone in the US management, entirely on his own behalf (not as part of any push from management), has communicated with four of the Eight letter signators in recent weeks. Never discount the actions of one person. Positive actions and kindness, no matter how small, can have enormously beneficial results. They spread like ripples in a pond.
Code of Conduct Workshops
Despite the workshops’ limited format, undoubtably there are some well-meaning and good hearted people doing their best to actually listen to people and collate their feedback into the code of conduct which is also supposed to bring in cultural change. These people are unpaid and giving huge amounts of their time to visit centres and give the sessions on what to keep and what to abandon in Rigpa. All credit to them and their commitment to the organisation.
One person working on the cultural change aspect of the code of conduct even agreed to take feedback from members of the What Now? Facebook group who had left Rigpa via Skype calls for small groups in Australia, USA and UK/Europe. This person was open and caring enough to give her time to allow those who are most disenchanted with the whole situation to add their opinions to the process. Though not everyone was happy with the results, one member commented to me that if this person were running Rigpa, things really could change for the better. Unfortunately she is only one person, and she is not running Rigpa.
The point here, however, is that every Rigpa member who can show genuine openness and concern for others to the extent that they reach out with respect for others views (without trying to change them) changes the perception of those who might otherwise label ‘Rigpa’ in a poor light. Just as the poor behaviour of some reflects badly on ‘Rigpa’, so the positive behaviour of some reflects well and gives people hope that not all is lost.
Kudos to the German and Dutch sanghas
One initiative undertaken by both the German and Dutch sangha that merits a mention is the establishment of a drop box in which they placed articles and video’s and then sent a link to it to their whole sangha. Included in it are Mingyur Rinpoche’s article, two of HHDL video’s where he speaks of the Sogyal Rinpoche or Rigpa, as well as links to this blog and the How Did it Happen blog. DzKR’s Facebook post in response to the matter and the video in which Khenchen Namdrol speaks about samaya are also in it. Reports are that the included material is very balanced and not biased. Germany goes a step further in that they include letters and texts by individual Rigpa students who wanted their views and feelings shared with the whole sangha. These are indications that those running these sanghas are happy to allow students access to all relevant information and allow them to make up their own minds on the issues this scandal raises.
Unsurprisingly given these initiatives, feedback from students in these sanghas indicates that there is a more welcoming attitude to those with different views than in other countries, even to the extent of once providing a separate session for those who didn’t want to watch a teaching by SR. In other countries students wanting to return to Rigpa or even visit for a particular meeting have been turned away either abruptly or more subtly.
Ordinary students who keep asking the difficult questions
Though many students have left in disgust, leaving a greater percentage of people in Rigpa who apparently don’t care about ethical behaviour than those who do care, some students deeply concerned about all the issues shared in this blog do remain students so they can observe progress, continue to hold groups and care for others and to contribute to positive change. Each time one of them asks a question that those running groups would rather no one asked, or remind them that there has still been no acceptance of responsibility for the care of those harmed and so on, they break through the stupor of other students in the group who have been soothed (brainwashed?) into thinking everything is now fine. Everything is not fine, and I applaud those who remain in order to remind them of that. Don’t stop asking your questions. And please refer people to this blog, the categories on The Root of the Problem is particularly full of the sort of thing Rigpa students need to be aware of.
The man himself
I almost forgot the man at the core of this debacle. For me it’s important to give Sogyal Rinpoche or Lakar or whatever you want to call him credit for the great benefit he has brought to me personally and to many other people. That does not, of course, excuse his behaviour in any way, but I think it is something that we should not forget, for our sake. Despite his apparent limitations, he did introduce a lot of us to the noble dharma, and if we consider it was all a waste of time, we’re cutting ourself off from the benefit. Look for the benefit and you will find what’s worth holding onto.
You could compare denying the benefit gained to someone discarding everything they learned from a brilliant physics professor because they discovered he wasn’t a nice person. People can be brilliant in one area and really bad in another area, particularly in personal relationships. Credit where credit is due does not mean white-washing the bad, just recognising how things actually are.
Not in opposition
I regularly check my motivation and I find that the bottom line for me, as it is for any Mahayana Buddhist, is the desire to help bring beings to enlightenment. Those in Rigpa management are, I expect, aiming to do the same thing. They are just approaching it from a different perspective. In the end we are all just playing different roles in the same drama, a drama from which a great deal of good has already come, and I pray it may result in a renaissance for Tibetan Buddhism in the West, a renaissance that leaves the feudal structures and lama-centric dictates behind. That renaissance is unlikely to come from within Rigpa as I had initially hoped, but the ripples from this revelation will have an effect that goes beyond whatever Rigpa may do.
Keep up the good work everyone.
Post by Tahlia Newland.
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 pagefor 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. And if you would like to make sure that this blog keeps running, please consider sponsoring our editor for the many hours of work involved.
We have discovered that some rumours have been presented as fact in some Rigpa centres. We don’t know where the misinformation came from or if it is just a case of misunderstanding, but we feel that it is in everyone’s interest to stick with facts rather than hearsay and rumour, so here are some clarifications to hopefully circumvent some of the misinformation that has been circulating.
A few facts you should be aware of:
No single person wrote the email that exposed the abusive behaviour. It was a group effort made by all 8 students and worked on together over a period of time.One of the Eight said, “The eight of us spent many, many, days and hours carefully writing, suggesting edits, rewriting, discussing, rewriting, editing again, over and over and over until we felt it was done. It was a painful, exhausting process. The “response” we received from Sogyal Lakar was anticlimactic… we received an email that to my eyes appeared to have been carefully crafted by a lawyer, admitting to no wrong doing while vaguely “apologizing” for any “misunderstanding” that might have occurred. (Gary)Another said: “the letter was the result of many hours of collaborative effort and consensus. We worked diligently to make sure all our voices were heard, respected and included. We constantly checked our motivation and intent to be certain that we were on firm ground from an ethical point of view. This included not reporting anything that was not experienced personally and first hand.” (Michael)
The Eight students did not scheme to discredit or overthrow SL and Rigpa. Their letter was sent only to SL himself, the Rigpa Dzogchen Mandala Students, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and some other lamas such as Mingyur Rinpoche and Dzongzar Kyentse Rinpoche. Had they wished to discredit or overthrow SL and Rigpa they would have sent the email to a mainstream newspaper, instead they purposefully kept it within the sangha, and carefully wrote only about things they had seen or experienced themselves. Later, someone unknown to them leaked the letter to a Buddhist magazine without their permission.
Any action or words of an individual who may be part of the group, does not represent the group as a whole.
Sogyal Rinpoche/Lakar (SL) has not written individually to the Eight signers of the letter that exposed the abusive behaviour. On the 18th July, he sent an email addressed to all of them that, though it was emailed to each of them, was not an individual response. They all received the same email. He has not contacted any of them since.
No apology has been made by either SR or Rigpa, only an acknowledgement “that there are feelings of hurt”.
Rigpa management have not contacted any of the Eight either individually or as a group. The only conversation occurred when one member of the Eight contacted one senior student in Lerab Ling to clarify his status after being refused entry to a Dzogchen Mandala study group.
The seven of the Eight are not moderators of the What Now? group and blog. One of them is a moderator of the Facebook group only.
The What Now? moderators have a policy of only permitting first-hand accounts of behaviour in Rigpa or accounts given to them directly by the person who experienced the behaviour. We wish to avoid hearsay, gossip and rampant negativity.
The What Now? moderators also do not wish to ‘bring down’, ‘overthrow’ or ‘destroy’ Sogyal Rinpoche or Rigpa. We aim to educate students and help them process the situation, and we seek full transparency and positive change.
It is not a Chinese plot. The attestations are true accounts of what people have actually experienced; they are backed up by many other similar complaints over the years, and many others who have since shared their testimonies in the What Now? Facebook Group or privately to one or other of the moderators.
One moderator counted 25 first hand accounts that she alone had received, and another student mentioned hearing many complaints in her time in Rigpa.
If in doubt as to the motivation of the Eight, re-read the original letter
Anyone who questions the intentions of the Eight should first ask themselves what could they possibly stand to gain from this and then re-read the original letter in which they state: “We write to you following the advice of the Dalai Lama, in which he has said that students of Tibetan Buddhist lamas are obliged to communicate their concerns about their teacher:
‘If one presents the teachings clearly, others benefit. But if someone is supposed to propagate the Dharma and their behavior is harmful, it is our responsibility to criticize this with a good motivation. This is constructive criticism, and you do not need to feel uncomfortable doing it. In “The Twenty Verses on the Bodhisattvas’ Vows,” it says that there is no fault in whatever action you engage in with pure motivation. 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.’ The Dalai Lama, Dharamsala, India March 1993”
Then they go on to say that “A number of us have raised with you privately, our concerns about your behavior in recent years, but you have not changed.”
In line with His Holiness’s advice, the What Now? blog aims to walk the middle way of honouring the good SL has done, while being clear that ethical misconduct has occurred.
How do the authors of the letter feel about the situation now?
“Personally, I am both astounded and saddened at the frantic efforts by so many to discredit our efforts to bring light to the dark underbelly of Rigpa’s inner circle. Our original intent was to effect positive change in order to save Rigpa, but to date, the official response seems to be obfuscation and the maintaining of the status quo. The “unofficial” response has been an outpouring of personal stories from many, many members and former members of instances of wrong-doing and abusive behavior by the Rigpa hierarchy and Sogyal Lakar.” (Gary)
Another (Michael) said: I find it sad that not one person from an official position has ever contacted me to ask me about the letter or any support I may need as I am still a Rigpa member. I feel that there is a conscious effort not to clarify or investigate so as to keep things cloudy and gray. Most of this innuendo can be cleared up in seconds.”
Another angle on motivation and intention
In a recent post on her Facebook timeline about an article by Martha Beck on freeing your heart, one of the moderators of the What Now? Facebook group said, “This article really resonated with me. This is why I do what I do; I follow my heart. And I know the sense of clarity of which Martha speaks. The desire to make people aware of the full picture in the Rigpa debacle comes directly from my heart.”
In the article Martha Beck says, “Our hearts are imprisoned for just one reason: The only language they can speak is truth. Unlike the mind, which can be persuaded to accept the most bizarre ideas (“Look, it’s the Hale-Bopp comet! Time to kill yourself!), your heart tells it like it is, without bothering to be tactful or socially appropriate. Free hearts rock boats, break rules, do things that disrupt the system—whether that system is a dysfunctional family, a bloated bureaucracy, or the whole wide world.”
“A heart is imprisoned not by being broken but by being silenced.”
Read the article here: http://marthabeck.com/2011/09/set-it-free/
BE SURE TO CHECK OUT THE WHAT NOW? REFERENCES PAGEfor 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. More personal and private support for current and previous students of Rigpa can be found in THE WHAT NOW? FACEBOOK GROUP. Please contact us via the contact page and ask for an invite. Please use the email address you use on Facebook.