You Might Be Okay with Violence, but I'm Not

During August of 2016, Sogyal Lakar gut-punched a nun in front of an assembly of more than 1,000 students at the Lerab Ling Retreat Center in France. Recently, the nun responded to allegations that this constitutes abuse, saying this is an acceptable part of her Buddhist training.
These are thoughts on the matter from Constance O’Mara, now a former Rigpa student:
She might be okay with violence being perpetrated against her, but I’m not. Nor is our society. There was a Muslim woman in the news recently saying being hit by her husband was okay and a blessing. Our law says otherwise. So perhaps there’s another way he can bless her?
Me leaving the Rigpa organisation (and taking my dollars with me) is a statement of a clear position on the unacceptability of violence. There’s enough suffering in the world (and in our own heads) already without purposefully inflicting it upon ourselves and others.
We need to consider the impact on the witnesses too. Human beings are naturally altruistic. Seeing someone assaulted creates a flight or fright response. It does not settle the mind. It stirs it up. And if it doesn’t, that is not called enlightenment, it’s called ‘desensitisation to violence’.

Repeated exposure to violent stimuli makes us ‘comfortably numb’ to pain and suffering. It causes a reduction in empathy. The infliction of hurt becomes normalised in the family home (or in this case shrine room) and begins to be seen as ‘not so serious’ to the point where people can have broken bones, go unconscious or have bleeding wounds and no one takes them to the doctor. (Those of you who have worked in shelters, etc. know what I’m talking about.)
I wasn’t in the room that day, but desensitisation to violence could be why, in a room full of 1,000 people, a man punched a woman in the stomach and no one got up to help her or call the police (as far as I understand please correct me if I’m wrong). Because gradually over time we’ve become used to our buttons being gradually pushed harder and harder until we don’t respond as any human normally would if they witnessed this event somewhere else. (In saying that, I’m not meaning to be critical of anyone there. I likely would not have done anything either. I would have been too frightened.)
I really do hope that there were no impressionable young men in the audience who think this is a fine example of how to treat an assistant you supposedly love. I love my kids. But I don’t hit them. It’s an antiquated form of discipline that has no place in a compassionate world.
So when someone says “She’s ok with it.”
My response is: “Well, I’m not!”
If that makes me an unenlightened Samaya breaker who’s going to vajra hell, so be it.  Likely there will be a lot of suffering beings there who need a hand.
Please share your thoughts in the comments. 

More personal and private support for current and previous students of Rigpa can be found in the What Now? Facebook group. Please contact us via the contact page and ask for an invite. Include a link to your Facebook profile or the email address you use on Facebook.

39 Replies to “You Might Be Okay with Violence, but I'm Not”

  1. Words of the Buddha (Dhammapada):
    “Look how he abused me,
    How he threw me down and robbed me.”
    Live with such thoughts and you live in hate.
    “Look how he abused me,
    How he threw me down and robbed me.”
    Abandon such thoughts, and live in love.

    1. Dear Jan,
      Do you think it is the intention of the Buddha to justify abuse in the words? I don’t think so as it’s contrary to everything he taught.
      I believe with these words the Buddha is encouraging us to find love in our heart even after abuse occurs, but I don’t think he’s justifying abuse in the least or suggesting that abuse should not be reported. While I so agree with the aim of forgiveness and living in love, I know that abuse victims often need to go through several different stages before they can come to that place.

      1. Why do you think I ment to justify abuse by using words of the Buddha? With that you confirm what I was trying to tell you: that I did not feel any love or compassion in your contribution, only condemnation. But condemnation and glorification come from the same ego-mind. Your outcry agains the abuse by this teacher is to late and therefore gratuitous. Now it is time for each of us to transform our emotions into spiritual growth.

        1. Jan, Thanks for clarifying. I was asking if you thought the words justified abuse? That was the impression I had after reading your comment. By the way, this article was not my contribution. I appreciate that you did not feel any love or compassion in the the contribution, but how can we know what’s in another person’s heart? It seems to me it’s very possible to feel love and tell the truth at the same time.

        2. Compassion (according to Rigpa) is wanting others to be free from suffering, and the causes of suffering.
          So I see compassion in that post.
          You say the outcry is too late – but Sogyal and Rigpa have yet to even acknowledge his negative behavior, or the impact it has had.
          The abuse, as far as we know, continues unabated.
          The poster here was making the (very relevant) point that such behavior *is* negative. By pointing it out, the aim is to have that acknowledged, to have the wrong view that such violence is positive, and to have the violence stop.
          This should be super simple, on the relative level, but due to wrong views, it seems that it isn’t.
          Of course, in one’s heart, one should never have hate in it. I don’t see hate here. Correcting bad behavior, or, in this case, wrong views about violence, is not fundamentally a negative ego-based act (although there may be imperfections in how it done).
          Even if the author was upset or emotional, their underlying message does not seem to be one of seeking vengeance, or even justice actually (which is required).
          I only see a desire to correct a particularly malevalent wrong view about the acceptable application of violence.
          Even Matthieu Richard reinforced this point.
          Abandoning thoughts of having being abused (properly, not by suppressing, but by resolving with the correct methods) is essential for a bodhisattva.
          But helping others be free from suffering is walking the path.

      2. My post was written with compassion for those who have been (and continue to be) hurt. However, that may not have come through very clearly.

    2. If only it was that simple…
      In-between the ‘live in hate’ and ‘live in love’ there is a process, emotion, experience – all to be considered, unpacked and let go.
      Allow this process to happen for people – it’s never as simple as just ‘abandoning’ or cutting. However much we wish it was.

    3. Jan, I’d like to understand what you mean. It’s a vital quote, but in this situation it can be used to condone violence. Can you please write a bit more? Thank you.

      1. Buddhism is often called “the middle way”. In this case we should try to find the way between condoning and condemning what has happened. Only love and understanding without judgement can help those who suffer to use that suffering for spiritual growth in stead of victimising oneself.

        1. Thanks for answering. I just completely disagree. I don’t think that this kind of suffering is useful for spiritual growth unless one is at a very very high level of attainment AND the guru is watching very carefully and being skillful. I also think that people didn’t agree to this kind of treatment. Many, many people were harmed, as shown in the number of reports being given behind the scenes.
          Students wanted to believe it was all for the highest good, but it was done without control, in anger. It doesn’t fit the classic role of Milarepa and Marpa–one extraordinary student with an observant master. Even if it did, even if the large number of reports were actually of a skilled teacher using crazy wisdom to transform students, many of us are saying it’s not a supportable method in today’s world.
          I know you won’t agree with me, but I did listen to you.

          1. That was a reply to Jan. I want to add that it’s true about how victims see things being important, but their feelings often change back and forth. I think the middle way is protecting people and asking the tradition to be more responsible.

    4. He has not abused me.
      He has abused others.
      I’m currently caring for them and at peace in my heart with that.

  2. This feels like a spiritual microaggression and victim blaming all rolled into one.
    Perhaps a good rule of thumb would be to apply the teachings about not hanging onto harm to ourselves and apply the compassion teachings to others?

    1. Yes. My reply to this is that I have not been abused myself. However, I’m becoming increasingly aware that harm has been done to people who must be cared for compassionately.

  3. I am thinking of unsubscribing to this blog, and to the “other side” as well. For a while, anyway. I trust my body: my gross and subtle bodies! who are shouting: tell me about truth, because I can make up a whole trip in my own mind, no problem. No need to look elsewhere to fuel the fire. So, how are these conversations “landing” on my body? like petulance, like arrogance, like the woman dragged behind the horse, her foot caught in the stirrup, overcome by fear and emotion. “I wasn’t in the room”…..yet you refute the the “victim” , who was ? Have you spoken directly with her? I don’t get it. Hearsay is dangerous too. I vowed to stay open, so please explain.

    1. It isn’t hearsay when you have received a letter from 8 who are sharing their stories directly with you. These are first hand accounts. Also many others have shared their stories in the What Now? Facebook group, and those of us that have read them as well as the email from the 8 no longer have the luxury of pretending this is hearsay. I know this is incredibly painful to come to terms with and that we each have to process it as best we can, but pretending that the issue doesn’t exist is not going to make it go away, no matter how much we wish it would.
      By sides I expect that you mean those that have a zero tolerance for abuse (as does the laws of the lands in which we live) and those that are happy to ignore the abuse in an attempt to defend their teacher and their way of thinking. Unfortunately, the fact that one does not see abuse as abuse doesn’t change the fact that in the eyes of the world, it is indeed abuse.
      The difficulty for students is that Sogyal Rinpoche has two sides to his personality, so it’s easy to see it as ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’, but we can hold both at the same time. We do not need to take ‘sides’. We can love and honor the person, and the teacher in particular, at the same time as using our wisdom of discernment to ascertain that he has behaved badly and will continue doing so until his students make it clear that this is not acceptable. We are all good, but our behaviour is not always good.
      Seeing this does not mean that you have no devotion or love or compassion for your master, you can hold all that and still use your own discernement to see that this kind of behaviour needs to stop before irreparable damage is done to Buddhism in the West.
      Even if we feel we must continue to believe that he is an enlightened being, we could at least admit that perhaps his methods are not suitable for this time and place.
      You may find this article helpful:

      1. Yes, Tahlia, we can see both ‘sides’ and honour the teacher and all the good he has done for us, while at the same time using our wisdom of discernment to examine this and say ‘Well yes, abuse has taken place in our organisation. What responsibility are we going to take for it now that we know?’

    2. Hi Sally,
      I agree that it’s hard to hear both ‘sides’. A wise friend of mind once said that ‘anything with two perspectives is dualistic and not the ultimate truth’. So we don’t want to get too caught up in taking ‘sides’. I have not spoken directly with the nun who was punched, but I have read her statement and she is fine with it. What I’m saying is that I am not fine with what happened to her nor are witnesses who were there and traumatised by the incident (and, fortunately or unfortunately, many similar incidents which have come to light since where the victims are definitely not fine at all.). Violence and harmful actions go against the teachings of the Buddha. I’m simply pointing this out. From what I understand of the teachings we are supposed to protect people from harm … or if we can’t help at least don’t harm. Behaviour of this kind is illegal in my country for good reason. No one, no matter how powerful they are, is allowed to punch or sexually abuse people. It breaks my heart to hear this is happening to students in our sangha and that they are not listened to or cared for. Some say this treatment is caring because it is done with loving kindness and Bodhichitta by the embodiment of Buddha. I can’t question this as no one can know another’s motivation. But, as a parent, if I do these things to my child and tell the police that I’m doing it because I love them, they will still take my child away because I’ve broken the law. Maybe it is a clash between Asian and Western culture? I’m trying to be open. I understand how people want to see the teacher purely. We can see him purely while at the same time pointing out unskillful behaviour as defined by the Buddha. HHDL has stated that it is necessary for students to do this. An enlightened teacher won’t mind. It won’t hurt him at all! It can only benefit him to change his ways in this regard. It would be very healthy for everyone for the harm to stop. So that’s my explanation. For what it’s worth. I was a devoted student for 10 years. Mostly through video teachings a yearly retreat. But Now that I know what goes on in his more personal teachings, I can’t continue to be a member of such an organisation.

  4. For me the point of this post is that witnessing violence is also damaging and if you see violence and hear of violence over and over it becomes normalised in a family or organisation. Violence comes in many forms and my personal experience in this organisation was of being belittled and screamed at. I personally want to see a change in the culture of the Rigpa sangha and this starts at the top. If the teacher behaves this way his students begin to mirror that behaviour without the added bonus of enlightened activity. It just becomes a hell hole.

  5. Thank you Starshine! Yes, these methods historically worked for more highly realised students. They’re not appropriate to use in a modern Western world, especially with novices.

  6. Saying it’s “to(sic) late” to do anything about S’s behaviour – as Jan did – is like saying a woman who’s been suffering domestic violence from a partner for years doesn’t deserve justice or relief cos she’s already endured the mistreatment for a long time! It’s an absurd, risible, disingenuous non sequitur.

  7. Do you know why these abuses went on for over 30 years? because victims and witnesses were silent. Those people should take some responsibility, too. People who are still find excuses for SL, they are deniers. They won’t get very much progress unless confront truth from their basic ground.
    I finally removed myself from Rigpa fellowship as of Aug. 1st. . I feel so relief from so many instants that I did not feel comfortable over the years. I blamed myself that I did not have strong devotion. I am awake fully and I am in charge of my spiritual path.
    I thank to those Sangha Care people who came out bravely to tell the truth.
    Thank you so very much

    1. JJ, I’m so glad you’ve found a good way forward for yourself. I wish you the very best in the future. There are many reasons why people remain silent from trauma bonding to only seeing a small part of the picture to the situation having changed over the years to believing the teachings received about seeing all the actions of the lama as pure. I have heard several people express their regrets and apologies for not coming forward sooner. So I believe they are also taking their part of the responsibility. Here’s to moving forward in a positive way for all of us.

  8. I left Rigpa after i read the letter of the 8 students. Because I do not go to retreats, I did not know. In our sangha people are students for more than 20 years. Especially dzogchen mandala students, who are a lot of times instructors too, must have known about the abuse. For me not only SL abuse is painful, because i loved the teachings, but also the silent behaviour of long term students. I cannot trust them anymore either. Each year they tell how wonderful the Lerab Ling retreat was and deny harmful behaviour. I was at one sangha meeting to discuss the letter of the 8 students. One Dzogchen student told me there was nothing wrong, it was all about pure perception. More care was the solution. Like other people he had been humiliated but he said he had benefited from that. Several others told me the same stories. It was as if we lived in two different worlds. Some people were confused, but a very few said that SL behaviour was wrong. There must be a kind of brainwashing.
    I am sad that i have to leave because i had some friends in the sangha and i have to leave a community and SL inspiring teachings. But my moral says, it is not good to stay when there is a conspiracy of silence and bad behaviour of SL. The only way is to quit, because i do not expect a quick change. I was disappointed by the reaction of the Rigpa board.

    1. I am so sorry that you had to experience the almost pathological denial that some people are going through. There are a number of amazing teachers out there, you might want to check out Tergar? They have a full online program, and give full support to small regional groups forming, who knows there might already be one in your area?

      1. thank for your advice. I checked the website of Mingyur rinpoche and there is a lot of interesting videos on it. To my surprise is an online teaching of six weeks only 99 dollars. I paid much more for online teachings at R.

      2. Hi Hopeful,
        Who is the lama that frequents LL that the 8 in the letter referred to who was ‘offered’ a woman by SL? Please can you share so I am sure not to sit before that lama for ethical reasons.

  9. Good post. No not OK with violence, sadism, masochism, humiliation, bullying, lamaism, greed, power, either though I could go on. Perhaps those attracted to this kind of individual are masochistic themselves? I hope people can disentangle themselves, find self respect, use common sense, and reassess what qualities an authentic dharma teacher possesses. It’s worthwhile to read Matthieu Ricard’s full blog- he offers sound and sane advice.
    1. Is SL still hanging out in hiding in Thailand?
    2. What is Rigpa actually DOING about it?
    3. Who is the lama that frequents LL that the 8 in the letter referred to who was ‘offered’ a woman by SL?

    1. Thanks for sharing your position, Laura. I found Ricard’s statement helpful too. Sorry, I can’t answer your questions. I don’t know. Rigpa has been offering listening groups in the US and I’ve heard something similar is happening in LL. I don’t know what other steps they plan to take.

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