Why Some Tibetan Buddhist Practictioners Can’t See Abuse as Abuse

When eight of his students wrote a combined letter that exposed Sogyal Rinoche’s abuse, I was initially amazed at how some people simply couldn’t see what he did as abuse. I figured that once it was out in the open, everyone would see how his behaviour constituted abuse. I was wrong, and some today still cannot recognise his behaviour as abuse, despite the independent report undertaken by the renowned law firm Lewis Silkin saying:

Based on the evidence available to me, I am satisfied that, on the balance of probabilities:
a. some students of Sogyal Lakar (who were part of the ‘inner circle’, as described later in this report) have been subjected to serious physical, sexual and emotional abuse by him; and
b. there were senior individuals within Rigpa who were aware of at least some of these issues and failed to address them, leaving others at risk.

KAREN BAXTER, PARTNER, LEWIS SILKIN LLP, 22 August 2018

Why are some people so blind that they cannot see that the beatings, sexual coercion, and emotional and psychological abuse mentioned in the report are abuse, and that Sogyal’s actions did harm the people who were the focus of his lust and tantrums?

Though many have revised their opinon, the lack of the word ‘abuse’ in Rigpa’s renewed apology indicates that some still in power in Rigpa still cannot admit that Sogyal did abuse people. Why is this? And why does it mean that the last apology they gave (see my post on it here) is likely the best they can do?

These are the questions I attempt to answer in this video.

For more detail on the beliefs I mention, see section 2 of my book, Fallout: Recovering from Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism.

And for a historical perspective on Sogyal Rinpoche’s abuse, see Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism: The Rise and Fall of Sogyal Rinpoche

Image by MichaelRaab from Pixabay

17 Replies to “Why Some Tibetan Buddhist Practictioners Can’t See Abuse as Abuse”

  1. Hi Tahlia
    Humble request..please can you see your way to a mention of Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism by me and Rob Hogendoorn? The sub title is the rise and fall of Sogyal Rinpoche. We have given Fallout positive mentions in our book and on social media. Reciprocal would be very much appreciated .

  2. If one is to argue that one’s teacher is a Buddha and therefore everything they do is good, then as you say, “Can you imagine The Buddha beating someone up?” Therein lies the rub. And, as you say, “If you are really in the nature of mind, then all your beliefs have dropped away. So you see things for what they are; you don’t see them filtered through these beliefs.”

    In this way, the sense of “goodness” is distorted, and The Buddha forgotten.

    1. Exactly. It goes against the non-violence that the Buddha taught. It always amazed me how the Tibetan Buddhist teachers don’t see that, but that’s the strength of their beliefs. And to back that up, they say that your master is even better for your progress towards enlightenment than the Buddha because your master is here now. And once those kinds of teachings are inserted into some lama’s teachings, they treat it as gospel.

  3. Thanks for another great video Tahlia – cutting through to the vital point! It seems to me that until Rigpa admits that it functions as a cult it will not be able to admit that it has truly harmed people. I’m not sure if there are any examples of cults that have reformed to become non-cults? I don’t know a lot about Trungpa’s organisation- it seems likely it was a cult, similar to Rigpa. Osel Tenzin was not a great successor, knowingly having unprotected sex with sanga members while HIV positive, infecting them, some of whom later died of AIDS.

    Definitely Tibetan Buddhism was corrupted by becoming one with state power in Tibet. And this contributed to corrupting the practice of “guru yoga”. Guru yoga may be a safer practice in its traditional (non institutionalised) Indian context. But a more interesting line of analysis is whether guru yoga or tantra was ever a part of early Buddhism. There is next to no evidence that it was.

    I consider myself a mahayanist, but am willing to admit that the academic evidence indicates that although the first Mahayana sutras were first written down as early as the Pali Cannon or Agamas (1st century BC) they do not show evidence of a preceding oral tradition that can be traced back to the time of the Buddha and in some cases show evidence of a pretence of orality! I am fine with that as it’s quite apparent that the prajnaparamita sutras are an expansion of the ideas in the Pali Cannon and that the Boddhisattva ideal is an imitation of the Buddha’s life of selfless service.

    But it’s hard to see how guru yoga traces back to the Buddha in any way. All the evidence suggests that the Buddha did not conduct himself as a guru and encourage anything like guru devotion. In the mahaparinibbana Sutta (Pali) the Buddha states that he had given the teachings freely to all and had withheld nothing (no secret guru yoga teachings). Guru yoga, to me, seems to go against the grain of the whole approach of Buddhism. Therefore it seems most likely that tantra/guru yoga was assimilated into Buddhism from the surrounding religious environment in India (Hinduism) several centuries after Mahayana first developed.

    Given the many dangers of guru devotion (particularly it’s central role in forming cults) and its dubious relationship to the Buddha I’m not sure as a Buddhist that I want anything to do with it!

  4. Vajrayana/Dzogchen is an esoteric tradition. Trying to compare guru yoga (an esoteric practice) with sutra records of Sakyamuni’s teachings is apples and oranges territory. I agree that errant TB lamas like Sogyal and the Sakyong should not be accorded the level of indiscriminate devotion that naive westerners have adopted. I agree that TB was in part corrupt before the diaspora. But genuine Vajrayana/Dzogchen is magnificent in its theory, practice and effectiveness. Guru yoga is integral to this.

  5. Okay I might have gotten a bit angry with gurus. However, the Pali suttas (or the Chinese Agamas) were a complete path and included exoteric teachings and practices and esoteric teachings and practices. I do not buy the Mahayana/Vajrayana/Tibetan dogma that it was a “Hinayana” intended for “the masses” or people of “lower capacity”. This is just sectarianism. Various methods of meditation (an esoteric practice) are described in the Suttas and Agamas. So I don’t believe it is apples and oranges to try to establish whether or not guru yoga/tantra was taught by the Buddha. If tantra was taught by the Buddha there would at least be some mention of the basic yogas, chakras, energy channels. But there is nothing. I very much doubt the Buddha would have kept it secret as this was not at all the style and spirit of his teaching. The Mahayana has similar issues but it is more obviously an extension and a later development of the original oral tradition.

    Vajrayana is an example of religious syncretism. Tantra was most likely first developed by wandering Hindu sadhus roughly 500 CE and then picked up by buddhists and the parallel traditions fed off each other.

    As a buddhist this does not need to be a problem. A reading of the Pali Cannon will quickly reveal the unique style of Buddhism as a religion – the Buddha was deliberately establishing an almost bare-bones religion with only the necessary parts to reach liberation. “I teach suffering and it’s end”. Many of his followers complained about this and in particular how he refused to elaborate on metaphysics. There are whole suttas devoted to these complaints. The parable of the arrow and the Aggi-Vachagotta Sutra (MN 72 – one of my favourites).

    I see early Buddhism as like the skeleton or core of the Dharma. Vajrayana if properly syncretised onto the skeleton can be seen as additional skilful means, but of the same nature as the skeleton. The skeleton can be referred back to if something seems to be going off track (dodgy/cultish guru teachings). If it cannot be reconciled with the skeleton, it should be discarded. “If you find that they don’t stand against the suttas or tally with the Vinaya…you should reject it” (Maha Parinibbana Sutta).

    1. I agree. My examination of the subject suggests that Vajrayana was really a Buddhist adaptation of Hindu tantra. If you compare the religions, Tibetan Buddhism bears more similarlities to Hinduism than it does to the rest of Buddhism. Some of the Tibetan practices (like Riwo Sancho) are Bon practices that were made Buddhist by the addition of refuge, bodhicitta and dedication prayers. In the same way, I expect that Hindu Tantra was adapted in a similar fashion. The Buddha clearly didn’t teach them because he was dead by then – and I don’t buy the ‘he taught from his sambogakaya form story’. That idea does fit with the three kaya teachings on the form of a Buddha, but considering that Hindu tantra existed first, and the Buddha was against any form of deity worship, it does not seem logical that he would then teach a form of Buddhism where deity worship was key. Even if the teachings say that the deities don’t exist as separate entities, in practice it’s just too easy to act as if they were some external entity. I mean praying to a deity for long life? For riches? Nah, That’s a theistic approach.

      Tibetan Buddhism does teach the Hinyana and Mahayana as well – their teaching all of it is what’s special about a TB education – but the focus is on Vajrayana, and even though Sogyal taught that the other vehicles were not ‘lesser’, and individual pracitioners may not have that bias, there is definitely a bias in the Tibetan masters teachings. The language of the other vehicles being for beings of ‘lesser capacity’ is quite clear on that point. And when this shit hit the fan, one of the arrogant, condescending responses those of us who said the abuse was wrong were met with was basically that there was nothing wrong with vajrayana, the issue was with the lack of capacity of those students complaining. We were told we were the wrong kind of student for vajrayana. (Despite the fact that I’d had 20 yrs of study and practice of TB by then.)

      I now realise that though some teachers and sanghas are free of abuse, the religion itself – at least the Nyingma version of it – enables abuse or at least provides no protection against it because the teachings ask for complete submission to the guru. I read that complete submission as being my submission to my own true nature, not to a person, ( and I’m pretty sure that’s the definitive meaning of those teachings – not just from my study but also because otherwise they don’t make any sense, since submission to a person disempowers rather than empowers the student. And the whole point of dzogchen is to empower the student with the recognition of the nature of their own mind.) But lamas like Sogyal in practice make it clear that they require that submission to them as a person. He turned his close students into slaves.

      I remember wondering what I’d do if he told me to go to the 3 yr retreat in Lerab Ling. Would I do as I was told, trusting it was the right thing for my spiritual progress or would I stay with my family, which I knew was the right thing for them and for me as a mother? I decided I would refuse to go. That was when I knew that kind of submission wasn’t necessary. I’d almost completed the three roots practice anyway at that point, and I knew that not doing what he said wasn’t going to affect my practice in any way.

      The practices themselves, no matter if they really can be called Buddhism or not, I found very powerful and transformative, but I never submitted to a person, only to the nature of mind, same as the nature of reality itself. I’m not ‘enlightened’ whatever that really means in practice, but I do know that you can practice vajrayana very effectively without the bullshit of having devotion to another human being. All it needs is a correct understanding of what the term ‘lama’ really means in TB, and the strength to not fall into any lama’s insistence that he or she be treated like a god. People with a tendancy to codependancy should not go near Tibetan Buddhism.

  6. I certainly do not suggest that Pali Buddhism is a lesser vehicle. My husband is a Samatha practitioner in the Thai anapanasati school. Not the present Vipassana regime. My definition and experience of esoteric practice is different from what you describe here. I’ve posted about all this at some length over the years so please forgive me for not unpacking it here. There’s no dispute about the syncretic nature of Vajrayana
    Do you have any thoughts about Shang Shung Dzogchen?

  7. @Tahlia, yes I believe there is a true tantra that was developed by some highly advanced Hindu practitioners in India and later by Buddhists. As a believer in the perennial philosophy I can’t see any reason why tantra can’t be adapted to buddhism if it leads to the same place (liberation).
    @Mary, sorry I should have caveated that I didn’t mean to imply you were coming from a sectarian perspective.
    Dzogchen is very close to my heart. I actually had a glimpse of the dharmakaya awareness after reading Chapter 4 (Nature of Mind) in Sogyal’s Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. The blessing/grace of Dzogchen must have come through that chapter. So there is credit to Sogyal there, although I heard Andrew Harvey wrote most of the book. This powerful (but natural) experience was without a guru and before I got involved with the much more impure Rigpa Organisation! It all went downhill from there, although I did learn some things along the way in the Organisation. Because of the way I experienced the nature of mind I wasn’t anxious to find a guru.

    It’s interesting, there are two schools of thought about Dzogchen’s early development: it developed on its own and later merged with tantra, or it developed concurrently with tantra. I favour the former but have no strong evidence! I remember Sogyal saying once, that in some ways Dzogchen is easier because you don’t even have to bother with tantra and all the sex stuff – I wish he had followed his own advice! The former theory of development also means that early Dzogchen may have had less guru yoga influence.

    But getting back to your question about Shang Shung Dzogchen. I haven’t really engaged with Dzogchen since I left Rigpa in 2005. My experience taught me that you have to be extremely purified in heart and mind to be able to let go of the mind enough to be able to shatter it by looking in (what I did) or yelling Phat. So I’ve been focusing on purifying. Of course the teachings say this too. I’m sure devotion to a guru helps with letting go as well as pointing out, but I’m not keen for gurus when I realise how much purifying is ahead of me and how impure some gurus can be!

    I did know a lady in Rigpa who was involved with Namkhai Norbu until Sogyal cracked down and said you couldn’t have two teachers. I wish she had chosen Norbu instead! She spoke very positively of him and the group – although she did the same for Rigpa!

    1. I also had that experience from that chapter of the book. There is enormous power in the language of dzogchen, even when just reading it. What has gotten lost over the years is that it isn’t just lamas who can rest in the nature of mind.

      There was an old guy in our sangha, just an ordinary man and he never did guru yoga. After his experience as a German in WWII, he refused to give his devotion to any person . He focused on the Heart Sutra as his main practice, and he studied madyamika deeply – really reflecting on it. When I sat next to him when he was in meditation, I most definietly received a transmission from him. The power and vastness of his mind was palpable. Stronger than Sogyal’s in fact. I thought at the time it was because I could sit right next to him, but perhaps it was because he didn’t have the emotional obscurations that S had.

      As for vajrayana not being needed for dzogchen. That’s how Namkai Norbu first taught, I believe, but later he went back and taught Ngondro. I guess because people do need it in order to purify their obscurations. Some don’t, but some do, and it is a wonderful tool for getting rid of emotional and conceptual baggage – if you know what you’re doing. Clearly a lot of people in Rigpa didn’t because Ngondro obviously didn’t work on those who enabled the abuse and still can’t admit Sogyal abused people. If it worked, they wouldn’t be holding on so tightly to a bunch of beliefs. Rather they’d be seeing right through them, seeing them for what they are – just a bunch of beliefs, not reality itself. Ah well.

      I also read somewhere that early Vajrayana preliminaries didn’t have Guru Yoga as part of it. That guru yoga was added in Tibet. And honestly when I look at those practices, the guru yoga is not needed. By the time you’ve done all your recitations of Vajrasattva you’re pretty well purified (assuming you’ve done it with full understanding) and then mandala offering, if done properly, destroys any sense of the relatity of subject object and action. I used to finish a session of mandala offering with my ordinary mind just blown. I mean, what is mandala offering actually doing? Offering everything into its true nature. You’re dissolving conventional reality in the absolute. What need is there of Guru Yoga after that?

      Of course, TB says that Guru Yoga is the essence of vajryana, and that’s true in the sense that you are merging your mind with the nature of reality (lama), but I don’t think it’s true if you think Guru Yoga is about enslaving yourself to a guru. In vajrasattva practice (and all the vajrayana practices), you merge your mind with the nature of mind/reality, so there’s no need for a separate guru-worshipping practice that focuses on the physical teachers and runs the risk of becoming disempowering for the student, rather than empowering.

  8. Ha! That’s quite incredible, it does prove the prove the power of Dzogchen even when written down! It’s great there was someone in the sangha like that old German guy who was willing to think for himself and advanced in practice. That’s ultimately what got me out of the cult – thinking for myself.

    I personally very much doubt Sogyal was able to rest in the nature of mind. I’m willing to believe he had a few glimpses (as described in TBLD) when he was young, had less obscurations and was in the presence of advanced practitioners. He was playing so many evil mind games with his inner circle in Rigpa that I can’t see how his mind would be pure enough and loose enough to access the nature of mind. I don’t think he did much practice in his lifetime either? Mary could probably confirm that. If he was able to rest in the nature of mind it clearly didn’t help his obscurations, which is another reason I don’t believe he was resting there. I know when a large group of people meditate it can create a fairly strong presence and environment. But when Sogyal was yelling Phat in the Lerab Ling tent I didn’t feel anything good from him! Could just be my own perception. As for anyone who had a genuine glimpse in his presence, it could just be the “dog’s tooth” and their own purity. I can now hear the Rigpa diehards screaming “heretic!” and other things about stakes and fire from France!

    Yes that’s very interesting that guru yoga may not have been a part of earlier vajrayana preliminaries. Agree that Ngondro (for me, minus guru yoga) is a great purification practice and that’s coming from someone who is not particularly drawn to vajrayana.

  9. This is one of the most articulate, informative and interesting exchanges I’ve come across in a long time. Tend to steer clear these days.
    A couple of points:
    Correct — Sogyal never meditated. He was a charlatan who plaigiarised and parroted authentic teachers. His skill lay in fairground tricks like involuntary hypnosis and love bombing.
    Incorrect — ChNN never taught Ngrondro. He taught shine with an object and shine without an object as preliminary practices. Later he incorporated Tantric sadhanas like Vajrasattva, Tara etc: Mostly I think because his followers requested them. His purification is a five elements practice which forms one part of a 3 part preliminary to any other practice. Part one is nine purification breaths, part two five elements. Part three is…yes…guru yoga! ChNN emphasised the importance of guru yoga continuously. I play around with it — sometimes with ChNN in view, but mostly guru as PS or Garab Dorje. Deva is a wrathful yidam, dakini nearly always Simhamukha. (Machig for Chod)
    Guru yoga Dzogchen style is abstract in many respects, its mostly to do with integrating the qualities represented by the visualised guru. It is most definitely not a personality cult.
    Correct — Andrew Harvery wrote the TBLOD., from material cobbled together for him by Patrick Gaffney, both original research material and some of Sogyal’s teachings, which were themsleves based on research by his acolytes. Sogyal could barely string a sentence together. My friend Ngakchang Rinpoche (Ngakpa Chogyam) edted sectons of the TBLOD. Her says there were a lot of doctrinal mistakes in it — largely he suspects because Andrew Harvey is Hindu.
    I suggest trying not to be too guru yoga phobic.
    Re nature of mind..I’m not sure that there’s one definitive experience of this. I suspect like most contemplative practice, it manfests in a nuanced manner, influenced by multiple factors present in the experience, genetic inheritance etc of individuals. My experience is that it pops up spontaneously, usually during intensive practice/retreat.
    Onwards!

    1. Thanks Mary yes it has been a great discussion. It was interesting to hear about ChNN’s approach to Dzogchen. I will try not to be too guru yoga phobic!
      Yes it’s difficult to talk about experiences of the nature of mind. It’s one reason the Buddha famously refused to talk about what nirvana was. He offered similes and analogies like a fire going out. One of my favourites is “freedom from the yoke”. It also reminds me of one of Huston Smith’s quotes: “altered traits are more important than altered states”.
      Back to the Path!

      1. I don’t think we can say definitively whether or not someone else has had a glimpse of the NOM, but we all can, no matter how obscured. The cutting through of dzogchen does cut through those obscurations, though for most of us it’s only for a brief moment. And it is a technique that works, even if you’re obscured. He may not have practiced when he ‘practiced’, but when he taught dzogchen formally, the power of that technique in that situation would have done something.

        Ordinary people can have glimpses in moment of inspiration, but they wouldn’t recognise it or name it as a TB would – peak experiences psycologists call it. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-are-peak-experiences-2795268
        The obscurations just stop us remaining in it for any length of time.

        And sitting with a group of people all focused on you, with all the support that the TB ritual gives, and raising devotion for his masters as he did before a teaching gave a strong support for him. Making him our focus, as we did, hundreds of people at a time, along with him remembering the introductions he got from his masters could envoke the NOM in him. I instructed at retreat and I know the power of that focus. Somehow you rise to the occasion.

        For sure S was a dog’s tooth lama. He even said once in retreat in Australia that he was a dog’s tooth and that it was up to us to have the devotion to allow us to receive a transmission. He also said we raised the best in him. We held him there. He was very personal in our Aussie retreats. I heard he didn’t speak quite so intimately like this elsewhere. But it was alsways obvious to me that outside the formal situation, he was a very ordinary man.

        Anyway, my point is that it’s the quality of the student in this situation, their readiness along with the ritual that supported transcendant experiences, that would have evoked the NOM, even if S wasn’t actually in the NOM. Many of us, however, could pretty much tell when he was and when he wasn’t. It’s the tone of voice, the eyes, the posture, and the power. He could have been acting, but regardless it worked for many of us, and perhaps thats the real power of those practices – they work even when the lama is not worthy. And don’t forget that the real lama to which we had devotion (or at least I did) was not S, but the NOM.

  10. Thanks Tahlia. Seems to me that some but not all of Sogyal’s followers were gifted with both intellectual
    gravitas and a capacity to appreciate non verbal experience.
    I say this as an outsider. But I have interviewed and exchanged views with many former Rigpies.

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