“The world is afflicted by death and decay. But the wise do not grieve, having realized the nature of the world.” The Buddha (From the Sutta Nipata)
The story of what has been built up
For roughly forty years Sogyal Rinpoche built his community and worldwide network of Rigpa centres with the help of a band of devoted students which grew considerably after the success of his book The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Over the years many students worked up to 7 days a week with no or little pay to build this network. Believing that he could do no wrong and that serving him without question was important for their spiritual development, those closest to him rushed to attend to his every whim, and accepted behaviour that an ordinary Westerner would see as abusive as a method of transformation that would speed up their spiritual development and even bring them to enlightenment in this lifetime. It was a successful formula for gaining students and keeping those who experienced hitting, public humiliation, and sexual coercion from seeing it as harmful. Instead of abuse, they called it a blessing. Add the Vajrayana instructions on not criticising your teacher – especially not in public – for fear of going to hell and Sogyal was set up to be able to do whatever he liked with impunity. And he did exactly what he liked, with, he assures us, the very best of intentions.
Sogyal Lakar/Rinpoche did a great deal to help establish the Tibetan Buddhist tradition in the West, and from the outside, apart from his lack of concern with being on time, his growling at students in public, questions about his fondness for young attractive women, and his fussiness over the placement of objects around him, he seemed to be a genuine teacher who brought benefit to a great number of people. Certainly, he introduced thousands to Buddhism through his book, and his teachings were conversational and so easily accessible by people who might not have sat through a formal teaching by a traditional Tibetan teacher. The majority of his students, including those now disenchanted with him, acknowledge the benefit they gained from their years as a student of Sogyal. He taught genuine Tibetan Buddhism, had the patronage of the Tibetan Buddhist community, and brought in other teachers to teach what he did not have the qualifications to teach himself. The list of achievements includes things like the Rigpa Shedra and the Rigpa Wiki. It’s no wonder Tibetan Buddhist teachers respected him.
But all this had a shadow side. Negative karma was also accumulating and karma cannot be escaped.
Why it is collapsing
Over the years many students who had worked at high levels in Rigpa for decades left and were never mentioned within the organisation again. Often they spent months or even years regaining their health after suffering either emotional or physical breakdowns or both. With the advent of the internet, some people did speak up publically about their experience of abuse at the hands of Sogyal, one even brought a court case, but the organisation always managed to weather the storm and carry on as usual. Students were told that those who spoke up publically were people with ‘an agenda’ an ‘ax to grind’, ‘unbalanced’ and so on. Anything that would dismiss their claims as having any truth. And yet there was truth there. Regardless of whether or not people thought anyone was being harmed, clearly some were being harmed. Their physical and emotional break downs attested to it.
Some of these students before they’d left had brought the abuses to the notice of those in management, but management did nothing to support those who felt abused or to stop it from happening again. Teaching the dharma builds good karma, but harming people builds negative karma, and you can’t outfox karma.
“Even an evildoer may see benefit
As long as the evil has yet to mature.
But when evil has matured,
The evildoer will meet with misfortune.”
“Don’t disregard evil, thinking,
“It won’t come back to me!”
With dripping drops of water
Even a water jug is filled.
Little by little,
A fool is filled with evil.”
The Buddha, v 119 & 121 Dhammapada. Gil Frondsal translation
6 months ago, 8 students who had worked closely with Sogyal realised that they and others had been the victims of abuse and decided it was time to let the community know exactly what was going on behind the scenes. They wrote a letter that detailed the kind of behaviour they experienced out of sight of the main student body and sent it to the community and associated lamas. This act began the decline of Sogyal Rinpoche and Rigpa as a respected teacher and organisation, and threw a spotlight on unhealthy interpretations of feudal-orientated teachings. Sogyal’s cancer had already been eating away at him for years, of course – a direct result of him not looking after his health properly.
The cause of suffering
The events that then unfolded are now being referred to by some as the Rigpa soap opera, due to the anger, hatred, infighting, denial, lies, fundamentalism, defensiveness, personal attacks, and, from some, an almost fanatical commitment to either singing Sogyal’s praises or bringing about the destruction of Sogyal and Rigpa.
And yet all of these human reactions come from attachment, aversion or denial of what is (ignorance), the three things that according to the Buddha’s teachings cause our suffering. The clinging is to fame, to livelihood, to being ‘right’, to known structures and so on, and to emotions and beliefs, even though events indicate that those beliefs may not be correct interpretations of reality. Much of this clinging is also denying the truth of impermanence, an aversion to those who are agents of change and to change itself. For some the aversion is simply to the person and institution that committed and supported the abuse, and a denial that they brought any benefit. For others ignorance/ignoring takes the form of denying, despite evidence to the contrary, that any harm has been done.
We are all in this soap opera together. And we all have our roles to play. I think it would help if more of us could step outside the play and so gain some freedom from it.
“What is born will die,
What has been gathered will be dispersed,
What has been accumulated will be exhausted,
What has been built up will collapse,
And what has been high will be brought low.”
Sogyal Rinpoche. Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.
Because impermanence is a fact of existence, trying to keep something the same, clinging to how things were or are now, or even to how you would like them to be, is a recipe for suffering – Sogyal himself made it quite clear in his book – and pretending to change is not the same as accepting real change and flowing with it. It’s not just a matter of instituting a code of conduct and setting up an investigation, it’s a matter of accepting that the truth has been exposed, that the West does not accept the behaviour as allowable, and that the beliefs that contributed to this gross misconduct by a teacher must give way to a deeper and healthier understanding of the teachings.
“The world is afflicted by death and decay. But the wise do not grieve, having realized the nature of the world.” The Buddha.
Post by Tahlia Newland
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