Rigpa is not a reliable organisation from which to learn Buddhadharma, not if it’s your sole source of tuition and not if you believe everything your teachers say without examination or question. Yes, I learned meditation from Rigpa, and yes, I learned a great deal of authentic Buddhadharma, but I also studied many of the original texts and gained most of my subtle understanding from them. Rigpa only provided the basics and an understanding of the nine yanas, a framework into which I could ‘slot’ the other teachings I studied.
The big curriculum issue
The big lack in the Rigpa curriculum was that it was completely devoid of Madyamika, the teachings on the ’empty’ nature of reality that you really need to not only understand but also have some experience of before you begin vajrayana. And yet, vajrayana was practised (with very few and very light weight teachings on what you were supposed to be doing) by anyone after they’d been studying the preliminaries for a couple of years.
I assumed that at least the senior instructors would have this understanding, but after Ian Maxwell died, I rarely found anyone who could satisfactorily answer my questions on either study or practice at the vajrayana level. I had to find my answers elsewhere.
When some of the madyamika teachings appeared for the Dzogchen Mandala, they were highly inadequate, and yet kept ‘secret’ for the Dzogchen Mandala only, yet the study was nothing more than a summary; one could learn more from reading any one of the many books available on the subject.
Why did I study with Rigpa and Sogyal, then? Convenience. They had a solid presence in Australia where we lack the choices of teachers available in other parts of the world. They made the teachings available to me. And I found Sogyal’s teachings inspiring back when it was all new to me. That faded well before the letter written by eight students exposed his abuse.
I am extremely grateful for my wall of dharma books!
I requested an update on the curriculum from Rigpa Australia, hoping that they had rectified this issue, but they ignored my request.
Even at a beginner level you can’t be sure
At a beginner level where you’re just learning basic meditation, Rigpa tuition should be fine – after all, it’s just meditation, right? But you might be being taught to spiritually bypass the very issues you should be looking at in order to be a mentally healthy person. This depends on the instructor, of course. But when I was an instructor, I didn’t know about spiritual bypassing, and yes, I did it in my own practice and I taught it, following what I had learned in Rigpa.
Might this have changed? Might the instructors that remain in Rigpa have become aware of it such that they know how to safeguard against students misunderstanding meditation in this way? Unfortunately, because those still in Rigpa appear to be uninterested in re-evaluating anything in terms of their beliefs and teachings, it’s highly unlikely. I suspect that, like me before I started investigating cult tactics, many have still never heard the term. Unless they have followed this blog or read Fallout: Recovering from Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism. Indications are, however, that rather than use this blog as a way of understanding the perspective of those who have left Rigpa in disgust, most of those who remain in Rigpa choose to ignore the blog’s existence.
And when it comes to compassion? Well, those of us who have been treated with disdain or barely veiled hatred, even by Rigpa instructors , who have had our attempts to communicate consistently ignored, been misrepresented and even vilified as demons know that even though some may speak all the right words when it comes to the compassion teachings, they cannot actually practice compassion in life. Those making the decisions in the organisation have consistently shown an inability to behave in a compassionate way towards victims of abuse and institutional betrayal.
Management’s latest indication of this lack of ability to connect with those they and Sogyal harmed is them setting up a restorative justice process ( a theory of justice that emphasises repairing the harm caused by criminal behaviour) without consultation with those Sogyal abused (to see if they would welcome this or see any point in it) and with the perpetrator dead, and without having admitted that any crime was committed.
You might say that at least they are trying to do something towards genuine healing, but considering that the lawyers they’ve engaged to undertake this restorative justice will require payment – and lawyers don’t come cheap – I feel that money would be better spent following recommendation 10 in the Lewis Silken Report on the independent investigation, which says, ‘So far as is consistent with the wider financial responsibilities of Rigpa, a fund should be created to provide professional counselling to those affected by abuse.’ Given the way the whistleblowers and their supporters have been treated by Rigpa people, I feel that this latest move is more about making them look good than any genuine attempt to hear what we’ve been trying to tell them for a couple of years.
The abuse issue hasn’t died with Sogyal
As long as Rigpa management, lineage holders, teachers and instructors don’t recognise and admit that Sogyal committed crimes, and for so long as they think that ‘crazy wisdom’ as modelled by Sogyal is acceptable behaviour, there is a danger that those most abused will become abusers.
Research has shown that ‘children who are abused are much more likely to become adults who abuse (between 30% and 40% of people who are abused as children go on to become abusers themselves)’ We are talking about adults here, of course, but certainly some of those in Rigpa’s inner circle were abused as children, and even if not, if victims of abuse never face the fact they have been abused, they may unconsciously repeat the pattern, particularly in a situation where such behaviour has been modelled by something they look up to as a spiritual guide.
Look at Shambala! The abuse in that organisation is widespread and inter-generational and it started with their founder Chogyam Trungpa. Why would Rigpa be any different when they, too, don’t recognise abuse as abuse?
Those who take charge after the death or removal of the abuser may not be as bad as their abuser – we would hope – but a friend of mine who did sewing at the annual Myall Lakes retreat had a boss who used to scream at her for no apparent reason, every year. Every year my friend told me about it and about how she never wanted to work with this woman again, but every year she came back and did it again. Why? She considered that it was up to her to learn to handle it, that being able to put up with it would be a mark of spiritual achievement.
That’s the dysfunction in Rigpa that had everyone putting up with Sogyal’s abuse, and until they recognise how that idea has been used as a reason for people in power not to moderate their worst impulses, that dysfunction will remain.
Emulating one’s teacher
We were taught that a good student comes to know their teacher’s wisdom mind and that, in order to facilitate that development, we should try to think/be like him. I have read in a Tibetan Buddhist text somewhere (The Words of my Perfect Teacher I think) that realised students emulate their teacher, so those who believe every word they read without examination and who still believe that Sogyal was genuinely a Mahasiddha will supposedly be aiming to emulate him – even if they don’t admit it, since beliefs direct people’s behaviour even if they aren’t aware of it. This idea that one should emulate one’s teacher is alone a good reason for ending the lineage.
Do they really understand the teachings?
In section 2 of my book Fallout: Recovering from Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism – a fully referenced section drawing on the work of respected scholars and masters – I explore the misunderstanding and misuse of Buddhist beliefs that enabled the abuse in Rigpa. Widespread misunderstanding of the most subtle aspects of certain teachings at the highest level is at the core of Rigpa’s inability to admit that Sogyal committed crimes or even actually did wrong (apart from Rigpa Australia whose representative did publicly admit that Sogyal did wrong), and this impedes any possibility of genuine change. Unless management and instructors examine these beliefs using their critical thinking faculties, they will remain stuck right where they were when Sogyal was alive, and all they have done in their Rigpa Moving Forward will remain as nothing more than window dressing.
Those who misunderstood the teachings such that they saw nothing wrong with Sogyal’s behaviour will pass on their misunderstandings. So Rigpa is a lineage with misunderstanding of the teachings and dysfunctional behaviour at its core. What better reason is there for ending this lineage?
Unfortunately, however, it continues, with those who were most abused and most responsible for the enabling and cover up still running the show. The three most responsible have stepped aside from management roles, yes, but PG is teaching, and PP appears in many Rigpa photo opportunities right at the heart of things. The majority of those in the Vision Board were also complicit in the cover up, as well as at least some of those teaching at national levels
Who is checking their understanding? Their spiritual advisers all seem to think that beating increases wisdom. Now the abused who think they were blessed not abused become the teachers, since those who recognised the abuse as abuse have surely left.
The core of healing is confession
Another indication that they don’t actually understand the teachings, or at least don’t practice them is that the healing practice of Vajrasattva that we accumulate 100,000 recitations of as part of the vajrayana preliminaries (ngondro) is quite clear on what is needed for healing. They call them the four powers. This is from the Rigpa Wiki (an excellent resource btw) on these four powers.
O Maitreya, bodhisattva mahāsattva, if you possess four factors, you will overcome harmful actions that have been committed and accumulated. What are these four? The action of total rejection, the action as remedy, the power of restoration, and the power of support.The Noble Sutra of the Teaching on the Four Factors
The action of total rejection, also known as the power of regret, is recognising that you have done wrong, understanding that it was harmful and owning up to it. In other words, confession.
Confession (Tib. བཤགས་པ་, shakpa, Wyl.bshags pa) — the process of admitting or ‘exposing’ one’s misdeeds before a witness or support, feeling regret for them and vowing not to repeat them in future.Rigpa Wiki
And yet, Rigpa communications to their sangha speak of healing without having either admitting their misdeeds, shown any indication that they feel regret for anything other than the damage done to their reputation by those misdeeds being publicly exposed, or that they vow not to repeat them in future. They have made half-hearted attempts to sound sorry and say they will do better, but you can hardly vow not to repeat harmful actions if you don’t recognise exactly what you did wrong.
Rigpa teachers and instructors taught this practice of Vajrasattva, but did they ever actually truly practise it? If so, how did they miss this vital point? And if they did get this point, then why do they not apply it as their guide in life? Isn’t the point of studying Buddhadharma and practising meditation that we live it? Isn’t it reasonable to expect that a ‘spiritual’ organisation would behave in accordance with what they teach?
I know that some Rigpa people feel that I have done a lot of damage by saying these kinds of things and they feel hurt by my behaviour. They feel that I have turned against them – and I understand that it looks that way – but actually I only bother to spend time to write this kind of thing because I care. I care that they actually practice in life the dharma they are supposed to be teaching. To not do that, to not live what you preach, is a tragedy.
I am aware of the upset this kind of thing will cause, but I do it in order to wake Rigpa people up. They have ignored or sidelined my attempts to speak to them on these matters – as you’d expect from cult members – and that leaves me only this way to try to help clean out the rot that infests the organisation. My criticisms are a direct result of Rigpa management’s failure to genuinely communicate. They speak of reaching out, but no one from Rigpa has contacted me or followed up on my efforts to communicate with them. They speak of listening, but they do not hear.
Rigpa can rise from its ashes, but healing can only happen if they recognise and confess their negative actions, and I don’t think they can recognise those actions on their own. Rigpa needs members of the What Now group to help heal Rigpa. We don’t need them to help heal us. We healed each other, and how we did it, and what we, as a group, came to understand is all laid out in Fallout. If they can’t manage to read that book with an open mind and a willingness to reflect on what it contains, then we can’t help them.
I find it helpful to remember that likely all Rigpa and many ex-Rigpa students share a concern for the future of Tibetan Buddhism in the West. The letter exposing Sogyal’s crimes would never have been written without that concern. What connects us is stronger than what divides us.
Without a concerted effort to act in accordance with the Buddha’s teachings and examine the beliefs that enabled the abuse, all of the factors I’ve spoken of above will remain and will be passed on, either consciously or unconsciously. All they will be doing is propagating their misunderstanding. This is why Sogyal’s lineage should not continue.