Rigpa has released their code of conduct. It comes in two documents, one is the rigpas_code_of_conduct_15_june_2018_eng and the second is shared_values_and_guidelines_of_the_rigpa_community_15_june_2018_ The second document informs and expands upon the first.
The actual code is short enough to post here:
Code of Conduct
Rigpa is an international community of individuals following the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. It is our shared wish to create a safe environment for the study and practice of the Buddhist teachings, one where we all feel a sense of responsibility for each others’ well-being and spiritual path.
Whatever their participation or role in the activities associated with Rigpa, everyone has a responsibility to conduct themselves in accordance with the laws of the land and the ethical behaviour outlined in this document.
To care for others, ourselves and our community we are committed to:
- Acting in ways that are kind, loving and non-judgmental.
- Being aware of our actions and the way we may affect others.
- Acting in ways that are not aggressive or intimidating. Harassment and bullying of any kind are not tolerated under any circumstances.
- Never treating anyone in a way that might cause physical harm or psychological trauma.
Teachers, instructors and anyone representing Rigpa at any level also commit themselves to:
- Holding as their highest priority and motivation the welfare of the individual student, the Rigpa community and the Buddha Dharma as a whole.
- Not entering into an intimate relationship with a participant during an event, retreat, course, or any situation during which they are in a position of authority. In other circumstances, any intimate relationships are expected to be based on mutual respect and openly acknowledged, meaning non-secretive.
- Taking part in regular training in ethical behaviour, which will include recognising misconduct, receiving complaints and dealing with grievances.
Not as it appears
On the surface this looks like the kind of code that would make sure that the emotional, physical and sexual abuses in Rigpa attested to by various people over the last forty years could never happen again, but if you look closely, you will see that it doesn’t actually do that. If you take just the code document it looks like it applies to everyone, students and teachers – and a Rigpa representative assured me that it does – but when you read the ‘Shared values and Guidelines for the Rigpa Community,’ you discover a ‘specific’ category for Vajrayana and Dzogchen which appears to be a loophole for any lama wanting to practice ‘crazy wisdom.’
Why is it in two documents? If you asked, you’d probably be told that it’s so the document isn’t too long, but it could also be so just the good looking part can be displayed and shared without the part that makes it clear that the code document isn’t worth the webspace it takes up.
Rather than a document designed to stop abuse by lamas; this looks to me like a document designed to make students and the public feel that the right thing has been done, that Rigpa has dealt with the abuse issue, and has abandoned their policy of ignoring the abuse at the core of their organisation, but does it provide any real protection or is it just another step in their plan to minimise and move on from the fall out of the revelations of the 8 close students in July 2017 so they can get back to business as usual?
Does Rigpa know the meaning of the words they use in the code?
The problem is that without Rigpa management actually labelling their lama’s behaviour as abuse and publicly denouncing it, this code of conduct is nothing more than a smokescreen. Why? Because management and devoted students of Sogyal Rinpoche do not recognise abuse as abuse. Rigpa and Sogyal have a history of saying what people want to hear, but their words have no meaning because they are confused about the real meaning of words such as ‘kindness’, ‘abuse’, ‘inappropriate behaviour’, ‘benefit’ and ‘harm’ when used in relation to a master/guru/lama.
For example, the Rigpa press statement that came out in 2011 in response to the Canadian video In the Name of Enlightenment, which also raised the abuse issue, said “We have only ever seen him [Sogyal] act for the benefit of other people, and with their best interests at heart,” and this was distributed by people that, according to what was revealed in the 2017 letter by the 8 close students and confirmed to me by others in a similar position in the organisation, both witnessed and experienced physical and emotional abuse at the hands of the person they are defending.
That press release also said, “Nevertheless, any allegations of inappropriate behaviour are taken very seriously by the organization.” Not seriously enough to put a stop to it, however. And not seriously enough to reach out to those harmed with some offer of support or assistance. One can only assume that they were either lying or that they have no idea what inappropriate behaviour looks like.
They say the right things but don’t follow them, just like their master.
The problem with a belief system that distorts one’s perception of abuse
You can’t stop abuse if you don’t recognise abuse as abuse, and for so long as vajrayana ‘masters’ are held to a different set of rules to everyone else the problems around ethical behaviour by lamas in Rigpa and Tibetan Buddhism as a whole will continue.
What is kindness? In Rigpa we were taught to see Sogyal Rinpoche emotionally abusing his close students as ‘the greatest kindness’ and as a ‘training’ that will bring the student to enlightenment more quickly than one could achieve without it. This belief may no longer be taught to new students, but it will still be the prescribed view for those entering the vajrayana path because it’s a core belief of the organisation.
What is harassment and bullying? I have witnessed people being bullied by Sogyal Rinpoche, but they don’t see it as bullying. They see it as ‘training’, as a blessing. Many witnessed him punching a nun during a retreat at Lerab Ling. She ran off stage in tears and obviously in pain, but in a letter written months later, she declared that she saw the interaction as beneficial. In her mind, it wasn’t an assault, even though many hundreds of people saw her being punched.
What causes physical harm or psychological trauma? At the vajrayana level of Rigpa any perception of abuse by the lama is seen as a fault in the student’s own perception, not in the behaviour of the lama, and the value of an action is not the action itself but the motivation behind it. According this this belief system, if your motivation is good, the results of your actions are good, even if it appears negative. Also an enlightened being can do no harm, even if it appears as harm to us ‘lesser’ beings, and we can’t judge if someone is enlightened or not because we are a ‘lesser’ being. Since we are instructed to see our lama as a buddha, regardless of his actual status in reality, this means that whatever our lama does is seen as enlightened activity, and therefore not something that could cause harm or trauma. Circuitous logic indeed, but that’s the interpretation fostered in Rigpa.
What is the highest priority for the welfare of the individual student? In terms of Buddhism, the highest priority is the student’s enlightenment. And in Rigpa the quickest way to enlightenment is seen as having a master who attacks your hidden faults—or is it abuse?
The specific category for vajrayana and dzogchen
The “Shared Values and Guidelines for the Rigpa Community” document is a longer document which you can download by clicking here. The problematic aspect of this is the ‘specific’ and separate category for vajrayana and dzogchen levels of the path in which students give ‘consent’ to unspecified behaviour.
Here’s the relevant parts:
Entering the Vajrayana Path
- Individuals who choose to follow the vajrayana path, and be guided by a master as set out in the vajrayana and Dzogchen teachings can only do so by making a formal request for this level of spiritual guidance. They will receive teachings on the ethics and commitments specifc to vajrayana and Dzogchen.
- Making such a formal request is a serious step, which should come only after discussion with experienced instructors about the nature of the teachings and what it means to receive this guidance. It should be based on a strong foundation of study, practice, investigation and contemplation by the student, developed over a period of time. It is the responsibility of the vajrayana master to prepare the student for the master-disciple relationship.
- Such formal requests are completely optional and voluntary, and when made by a student, constitute consent to this level of spiritual guidance.
This section is specifc to qualifed Vajrayana and Dzogchen masters.
In the case of qualifed vajrayana and Dzogchen masters, there are requirements and commitments specifc to the tantras, and based entirely on bodhichitta, with which they will be very familiar. Each connection between a student and a teacher is unique and based on mutual consent. We highlight the following:
- It is the responsibility of the teacher to prepare the student for the disciple master relationship. This must be entered into consciously and through the student making a formal request. But the student needs first to create a strong foundation of study, practice, investigation and contemplation and also discuss with experienced instructors about the nature of the teachings and what it means to receive this level of spiritual guidance.
- In the context of the disciple-master relationship, it is perfectly acceptable for both the student and the teacher to make their boundaries known, and for the student to seek clarifications from the teacher, with the support of senior students, or instructors or teachers.
The issue is the specific category
Rigpa is vajrayana and dzogchen. It has always been vajrayana and Dzogchen. Rigpa prides itself on bringing vajrayana and dzogchen to the West, and that’s what draws Western students to Tibetan Buddhism. So this special category is at the core of the organisation and represents the dzogchen level students most desire to attain, and yet, despite the assurance given to me by someone in Rigpa that the code of conduct does cover this specific category, it still reads like ‘an escape clause’ for tantric gurus in the form of the student giving consent.
Dzongsar Khyentse’s (DZK)stamp is all over this—the secrecy, the receiving teachings before making the ‘serious step’ into a tantric relationship with a guru (his evaluation of what went wrong in Rigpa was inadequate education) and the formal request. You might be asked to sign something like Dzongsar Khyentse’s ‘Deed of Agreement’ that he posted on Facebook and then hastily removed when people complained that it was in extremely poor taste. That deed of agreement certainly sheds light on what might be meant by this formal request and ‘consent’.
The core of DZK’s teachings on vajrayana as explained in his talks at Rigpa is that once you take a lama as your tantric guru, you are sworn to secrecy, you see everything the guru does as beneficial—even if it is unethical—and you do not criticise. He made it clear that that part of his view of vajrayana was nonnegotiable.
In line with this approach, in Rigpa, according to this document, once you have accepted a lama as your tantric guru, you’ve given your consent. Consent to what? “… consent to this level of spiritual guidance.”
What this level of spiritual guidance entails is not explained. You’ll be told that later. But we know, because we’ve been there and done that.
What does it mean to receive the guidance of a vajrayana master?
The instructions you’ll get on what it means to receive the guidance of a vajrayana master will be the same instructions we received before, the ones that led students willingly into an abusive situation. Rigpa hasn’t changed their beliefs on this. If they had, they would have admitted and denounced the abuse. And DZK, their main advisor, has the same views. They are not stated in this ‘code of conduct’, but you can be sure that they are the same views that led to an environment that facilitated abuse in the first place, views that basically stop students recognising abuse as abuse and bind them to secrecy, even if they find themselves abused.
Why is there a separate category for vajrayana and dzogchen teachers if they are covered by the code? And since what is meant by ‘this level of spiritual guidance’ is not explained, what kind of behaviour is ‘consent’ needed for? Why can’t they be transparent about this?
The whole idea of consent, formal application, and instructions on what it means to receive guidance from a vajrayana master suggests that this special secret category has it’s own rules. And those of us who were indoctrinated by Rigpa for years know it does. That’s the whole problem here: this idea that whatever the vajra guru does we have to see it as beneficial even if it appears contrary to basic human ethics.
That kind of idea has no place in the modern world. And unless Rigpa releases a statement denouncing the behaviour of Sogyal Rinpoche, we have to assume that they still hold to this fundamentalist view. Especially when they are not being transparent about what the consent is for. And especially when, according to what we were told in Rigpa, those we saw being emotionally abused consented to their treatment by Sogyal Rinpoche by agreeing to be ‘trained’. Why wouldn’t that ‘consent to this level of spiritual guidance’ be seen as waving the code of conduct?
The repercussions of consent – never sign away your rights
By making a formal request for this ‘level of spiritual guidance’ and giving your consent to whatever that guidance includes, you will have signed your rights away. You could be said to have ‘asked for’ whatever the guru dishes out, and, presumably, due to the requirement for instruction, with full knowledge of what you’ve gotten yourself into. This would make it even less likely that anyone who eventually realises they have been abused rather than enlightened might say anything about it – let alone make a formal grievance.
Any formal agreement of consent has the potential to void the code of conduct for that student and so this code does not stop abusive behaviour by tantric gurus; instead it hides it behind a benign exterior, forces it even further underground and ties the gag even tighter to make sure that no word of it gets out.
You could say that it’s their business if they know what they’re doing, but even if students are actually warned that the guru can do whatever he likes to them and they can’t complain, students desire for the teachings and for enlightenment is so strong that they will likely ignore the warning, just as some of those who were abused did, and just as we who watched emotional abused at retreats ignored it because we wanted the teachings and figured the ‘training’ was part of the package.
True consent is not possible where there is a power imbalance
When the person requesting consent holds something of value (like special teachings and a fast track to enlightenment) back from the person they want consent from, refusing to deliver it unless they have that consent, any consent given is not truly consent because of the power imbalance. This is a point many people will miss, and it’s a real problem, because when someone complains, they will be reminded that they ‘consented’. That ‘consent’ will be held over them, a weapon to keep them quiet.
Some of those abused by Sogyal Rinpoche did give their consent to being ‘trained’ but they didn’t know that that training would mean that they would be assaulted or expected to provide sexual favours or that they should accept every bit of emotional abuse dished out to them. Will that be in the explanation given to potential tantric disciples? I doubt it.
Remember that these instructions will be given by people whose beliefs mean that they do not recognise abuse as abuse when it’s dished out by one’s tantric guru. And if those who were abused did know that they might be assaulted, they didn’t know that the result for them would be trauma, not enlightenment.
We were so keen to get the Dzogchen teachings (highest tantra) that we were willing to do whatever it took and that including putting our hands up for training. We were perfectly willing to ignore the possible repercussions of giving our power so totally to another, and perfectly willing not to examine too closely. That will still be the case.
Lured by the promise of enlightenment, students will still willingly embrace the demands placed on them by tantric gurus, only now they will be signing on the dotted line, so that unscrupulous lamas, who might think they are above any code imposed on them by students, can rest assured that they will face no backlash should they step over the line into abusive behaviour. And that appeared to be the whole point of DZK’s ‘contract’—a way to cover his arse.
What about the behaviour of the tantric guru?
Mention is made of requirements and commitments specific to the tantras, and based entirely on bodhichitta, with which they will be very familiar. They will be familiar with them, will they? Like Sogyal was? How about making potential students familiar with them?
“Towards the lifestyle and activity of the lama, may wrong view not arise for even an instant, and may I see whatever he does, whether it seems to be in accordance with the Dharma or not, as a teaching for me.”
A GUIDE TO THE PRACTICE OF NGÖNDRO. 2nd edition – January 2007, published by Rigpa. Page 210.
So when you look closely, this ‘code of conduct’ would not stop the same kind of abuse from happening again. It’s a white wash, something Rigpa can use to show charity commissions and the public that they have dealt with the issue, while not dealing with the core issue. Unfortunately it will also manipulate naïve students into thinking they are in good hands.
Cult recruitment tactic
The Rigpa ‘code of conduct’ makes it clear that you are not told when you enter Rigpa what will be required of you at later stages of your involvement with the organisation. You are told only that the the ethics and commitments specifc to vajrayana and Dzogchen will be revealed to you at a later stage. Clearly, despite any assurances that the code still applies, the requirements change at this point. The truth of the matter, unstated here but made clear in Rigpa literature, is that suddenly you are expected to take whatever the person you accept as your tantric guru dishes out.
This deception is a cult tactic of not revealing the true nature of the cult at the recruitment stage. The manipulation is that you are lured into thinking that the organisation is benign because it has a code of conduct that looks just fine. New recruits will not be aware that that once they enter the vajrayana and accept a tantric guru—presumably any tantric guru— they will be expected to “see whatever he does, whether it seems to be in accordance with the Dharma or not, as a teaching” not as assault, sexual coercion or emotional abuse. If you don’t recognise that you’re being abused, as many still in Rigpa don’t, you won’t turn to a code of conduct or a grievance procedure even if there is one.
“The main methods of cult recruitment revolve around deception and manipulation. Potential recruits are not told the true nature or intentions of the group. Instead, recruiters portray it as something mainstream, low-pressure and benign.” https://people.howstuffworks.com/cult3.htm
Has anything really changed? Are you surprised?
I haven’t even touched here on the fact that sexual relations between students and teachers are only banned during courses and retreats, not banned entirely outside of a marriage! Read the comments for other problems people see with this code.
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 page has 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.
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