Is Rigpa a Cult?

I have been reticent to use the cult word for Rigpa publically because I wanted to allow them a chance to prove that they didn’t deserve this label. However, their actions since July have raised the cult question in the minds of many who previously would have scoffed at the idea that Rigpa might be a cult and confirmed the perception of those who have suspected or considered it as such for many years. A deeper examination of some aspects of this question will come later, but present circumstances have dictated that we must address the broad issues now.
To be clear, I am not calling them a cult in this article—I could hardly do that in light of a lawsuit which, regardless of what they say, is a warning to those who criticise publically—instead I am simply presenting what is, from my own experience and the experience of friends, common student experience. The reader can make up their own mind.

Why ask this now?

Lerab Ling have brought the discussion on themselves by filing a lawsuit for defamation of the French Lawyer who was assembling testimonies from people harmed by their time in Rigpa. The Lerab Ling community said in a recent letter to the sangha that he made defamatory statements against Lerab Ling in the local newspaper, the Midi Libre, in December. France doesn’t look kindly on cults, and the Lerab Ling community is no doubt suffering financially from the word being bandied about. Since they have decided to bring up the cult question, so must we, and such an examination by necessity focuses on the areas where there is a match between Rigpa tactics and cult tactics, not on the benefits the organisation might bring people. This public examination of the negative aspects of Rigpa is the result of Lerab Ling’s legal action.
The email says: ‘In the 9th December article, Lerab Ling is accused by the lawyer of abuse of power, breach of trust and fraud. …
‘This article can be seen as the culmination of the allegations against us in the sense that these words come from the mouth of a lawyer and therefore carry weight. As a result, Lerab Ling is now widely considered to be a cult by people throughout the region because they have no reason not to believe what they read in the paper. We feel that the time has come to stand up to defamatory statements against us, to defend who we are and what we do, and to set the record straight.’
Later the communication says, ‘We simply wish to make clear that Lerab Ling is not a cult, and that the people who attend courses and events here—and that might be you!—are not brainless social misfits, as the lawyer claims.’

Manipulation of the faithful

The lawyer, however, in the interview that is the cause of the defamation suit did not call anyone a brainless social misfit. So to say that he did in an email asking for testimonies to help prove that Rigpa is not a cult is a blatant attempt at manipulating the students into action. Making the general sangha member feel that they have been personally called a ‘brainless social misfit’ is appealing to their emotions, to their sense of injustice, and their desire to protect themselves and their temple. The words ‘and that might be you!’ really hammer that point home. The lawyer did not say that even by inference, since as stated in a Cultwatch article “many cult members are very intelligent, attractive and skilled. The reality is that all sorts of people are involved in cults.”
Rigpa students and management who haven’t researched the matter would have no idea whether Rigpa is a cult or not, and so they would not be aware of the point where management’s tactics might cross the line between those of a genuine Buddhist organisation and a cult.

What makes a cult?

Margaret Thaler Singer, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and emeritus adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has counselled and interviewed more than 3,000 current and former cult members, relatives and friends says in a talk published on You Tube that “the difference between cults and religions is that in religions the devotion goes to an abstract principle whereas in a cult the devotion is to an individual. … The follower turns over their decision-making and give complete obedience in return for having secrets revealed to them.”
Like secret Dzogchen teachings.
Ronald Enroth in ‘Churches That Abuse’ identifies five categories commonly used to identify cults. I examine each one below:

1.      Authority and Power

‘Abuse arises when leaders of a group arrogate to themselves power and authority that lacks the dynamics of open accountability and the capacity to question or challenge decisions made by leaders. The shift entails moving from general respect for an office bearer to one where members loyally submit without any right to dissent.’
In Rigpa with Sogyal Lakar as the focus of student devotion there is no accountability for his actions either to his students or to any outside authority, and students have no ability to challenge his decisions. We were taught that it was vital for our spiritual development to please the lama in all ways, to see his every action as that of a Buddha, and to follow the exact letter of all his instructions without question.

2.      Manipulation and Control

“Abusive groups are characterized by social dynamics where fear, guilt or threats are routinely used to produce unquestioning obedience, group conformity or stringent tests of loyalty. The leader-disciple relationship may become one in which the leader’s decisions control and usurp the disciple’s right or capacity to make choices.”
The letter by the 8 outlines the kinds of behaviour that contributed to a culture where fear, guilt or threats are routinely used to produce unquestioning obedience and group conformity. Although ordinary students did not experience the extreme behaviour outlined in the letter, most students who attended a retreat with Sogyal would have seen him publically humiliate at least one of the management team for failing to live up to his expectations in one way or another.
If people expressed their horror or concern over such behaviour, senior instructors would tell the assembly that what we saw were the actions of a crazy wisdom master—spontaneous enlightened action—which were, should we have sufficient devotion, an opportunity for ridding ourselves of our ego. The longer one was a student, the more ‘handling’ such outbursts, either as the recipient or observer, was seen as a test of our devotion. Many of my friends didn’t ask questions for fear that they might be singled out for such treatment.
Of course, there is also the emotional manipulation I flagged in the email mentioned above and other manipulative use of language as discussed in a previous post.
We have all seen the silencing of dissent actively engaged in Rigpa managed social media, and only positive, emotional outpourings of devotion were shared as feedback at retreats—never was a bad word heard about Sogyal.

3.      Elitism and Persecution

“Abusive groups depict themselves as unique and have a strong organizational tendency to be separate from other bodies and institutions. The social dynamism of the group involves being independent or separate, with diminishing possibilities for internal correction or reflection, whilst outside [of] criticism.”
Sogyal and his devoted students depict him as unique, as a mahasiddha, a crazy wisdom master who is above all normal moral boundaries. The idea that was instilled in us is that there is no other group that does quite what Rigpa does and we were also not permitted to have any other teachers unless we saw Sogyal personally and asked for permission. The only way, we were told, that we could realise Dzogchen was through devotion to him.
Of course, as with all Tibetan Buddhist communities, there is no higher authority to check if the lama is behaving appropriately and even advice from other lamas can be ignored with impunity. Rigpa no longer has the support of His Holiness the Dalia Lama.

4.      Life-style and Experience

‘Abusive groups foster rigidity in behaviour and belief that requires conformity to the group’s ideals.’
One student told me that ‘In Rigpa you have to do what the group does and it is particularly that way in Lerab Ling. You have to show up for practices and are pressured if you are failing to. Your view is molded to fit the ideals. You might live off site but there are all these devotees and they report on dissent. When I left I was threatened, guilt tripped and they tried to bribe me to stay.’
Certainly those who have spoken out have faced aggression, character smears, and isolation from the group. The denial that there is a problem in many students and lack of willingness to examine their beliefs in others is an indication of the rigidity in belief.

5.      Dissent and Discipline

‘Abusive groups tend to suppress any kind of internal challenge to decisions made by leaders.’
Students raising concerns find it hard to get a meeting with anyone in authority. They are re-directed countless times—passed from one person to another—and it is virtually impossible for the ordinary student to meet with Sogyal privately. When they do get to talk to someone the usual response is that their concerns are only their perception and that seeing anything wrong with the lama indicates a lack of devotion and pure perception in the student raising the concern.
This is so expected that many, if not most, students feel they cannot raise concerns or that there is no point in doing so. The fear was always there that should the student’s concern be taken to Sogyal that he will publically humiliate them as they have often seen happen to others. He is not teaching for now, but that is not the long term intention as indicated in the ‘About the Vision Board’ document of January 2018 sent to the sangha: “We all pray, however, that once Rinpoche has recovered and regained his strength, he may continue to teach his students as much as possible.”
Recent shut downs of criticism take the form of removing social media comments, preventing students from attending retreats or meetings and limiting face to face discussions with a rigid adherence to session forms or a declaration that time has run out.
The Vision Board is almost exactly the same people as have been in control for over 30 years, and early calls for their resignation from students within the organisation were simply ignored—not even discussed or taken seriously. Polite emails I sent to one of the Vision Board have never been replied to. And though we can send emails to Sogyal, has anyone received a reply?
And then there are the beliefs that shut down criticism, like those that say that if we criticise our teacher we will go to the worst kind of hell, that we will then be samaya breakers and the rest of the sangha will shun us as such. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has publically refuted this belief, and yet Rigpa and their advisors still subscribe to it. Fear of hell is a powerful form of discipline for those who believe it, and it certainly keeps people from speaking up about their experiences.

The specific allegations

The email asks students to send testimonies ‘that addresses your personal experience of Lerab Ling in relation to the specific accusations that characterise us as a cult, namely:
– abuse of power, breach of trust and fraud
– cutting people off from their families
– rendering people incapable of integrating into society
– taking away people’s bearings.’
This article is already long enough, so I’ll not be examining these points individually. Someone who lived at lerab Ling told me, ‘If you have given it all, your money and your time, your life like I have – it is indeed a challenge to find your way outside of the “cultist” group. They are very disturbed by you leaving and you may find that there is a whole cultist personality overlay that has been installed that you need to undo. I’m not brainless but I found that I had to do a lot to get back my independence and say “no, enough now, I am not your property, your slave.”’
If you feel you have information on these specific points that might help the lawyer Jean-Baptiste Cesbron to fight this case. Please contact him via email
Click HERE to download a form to use.
If you want to support Lerab Ling’s case, they will have already sent you contact information where you can give your attestation.

The real problem

The problem Rigpa has is not the criticism in the media or whether they win or lose a defamation case, it’s that those running the show have unquestioning obedience to a man facing multiple attestations of abuse, that they believe, against all indications to the contrary, that he has done no wrong, and that their beliefs allow their leader to behave as he wishes without moral restraint. Whether the word ‘cult’ fits or not, the real issue remains.
Article by Tahlia Newland, editor and author.

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