How Did It Happen?

Understanding and Healing Abuse in Buddhist Communities

Author: Bernie S.

Response to Bernie from Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche

Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche on Vajrayana Buddhism

21st February, 2018

Dear Bernie,

I am sorry for not responding much sooner to your letter of 23rd August. The main reason is that I’m just so lazy but also pretend to be busy – a pretence that ends up actually making me busy. In fact, I had started to respond to your letter months ago but somehow never got around to finishing this return letter till now.

However, I want to assure you that, because the Buddhadharma and especially the Vajrayana are dear to my heart, I do pay attention as much as time allows to what you and others write. So, from my heart, I want to offer my sincere appreciation for the great effort and thoughtfulness you and many others have been putting into the dialogue of the past seven months.

As you know, I am about to visit a few Rigpa sanghas in Europe. I don’t know how much I can achieve there, but I will try my best to address some of the issues that have been raised in the past seven months. I know people have said and will continue to say that I am trying to “have it both ways”. But more likely I think I will be upsetting both camps!

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Latest News: Investigation and New Rigpa Vision Board

Rigpa Investigation and Vision Board

On December 21, 2017, the Rigpa International Holding Group announced the beginning of an independent investigation by a neutral third party into the allegations of abuse made against Sogyal Rinpoche. The independent investigation will be conducted by the law firm Lewis Silkin, which was hired recently by the Old Vic Theater in London to investigate the allegations of inappropriate behavior by Kevin Spacey during his 11-year run as artistic director.

Although it has taken a very long time to get this investigation started, more than five months, I would like acknowledge the positive, reasonable and encouraging tone of the announcement which stated:

Our heartfelt concern is for the wellbeing of our Rigpa community as a whole, including the authors of the letter of allegations sent to Sogyal Rinpoche last July, and to ensure that the love, friendship and other positive qualities we share do not diminish. In this sense, we are all still very much connected to each other. Over the last few months, it has become clear that we need to work together to understand how, over the years, we got to where we are, and then what we need to do to rebuild and heal our relationships with everyone who has been affected.

In addition, the Rigpa US Board has concurrently engaged An Olive Branch, a Zen-based reconciliation organization, to help support the US sangha, both current and past members, with healing and reconciliation.  Read the full letter to current and former members of the Rigpa sangha from An Oliver Branch.  You may want to participate in the Listening Post or the healing and reconciliation process.

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Where Are We At? The Complaints, The Cost, and the Future of Vajrayana

Prayer FlagsWhere are things at with the complaints against Sogyal Rinpoche?

It has been more than three months since eight long-time students sent a letter to Sogyal Rinpoche alleging abuse. I thought it would be good to take a step back and look at what the letter has achieved so far and how the issues are becoming clearer.

Let’s remember what the grievances are about: inappropriate and harmful behaviors that have caused injuries and have tainted the appreciation of Dharma for the concerned students.

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How Can the Rigpa Community Process the Controversy?

How can the rigpa community address the controversyAs a result of the allegations of abuse made against Sogyal Rinpoche by eight long-time students on July 14, 2017, many individuals within the Rigpa community have engaged in deep reflection and heart-felt discussion.

As you can imagine, students have expressed a wide range of emotional responses to the crisis, ranging from feeling their teacher has been unfairly taken away from them, to anger about the alleged harm, to a loss of trust in the teacher and the teachings.

To begin, let’s look at some of the responses.

My Faith Has Been Strengthened

For some, facing this controversy has strengthened their faith.

Sogyal Rinpoche has undeniably changed their life for the better. They believe Dharma is taught and practiced authentically in Rigpa.  They feel complete confidence in Rinpoche as an authentic medium of the blessings of the lineage. The description of Rigpa as a ‘rotten exploitative organization’ does not fit their personal experience at all. They feel a strong inner conviction that Sogyal Rinpoche is their guru and they’re on the right path.

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How the Student-Teacher Relationship Can Become Abusive

Walking Toward the Light

With his amazing gift for communicating the Buddhist teachings in a clear and accessible way, Sogyal Rinpoche has become one of the most well known and sought after spiritual teachers in the world today. His book, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, published in 1992, has touched hundreds of thousands of people, and remains popular even now, more than 25 years later.

Rinpoche’s unique, experiential way of teaching, which often gives people a profound personal experience of the awakened state, has attracted thousands of devoted students, who regularly attend retreats and support his work at centers around the globe.

As a student for more than 25 years myself, I’m deeply grateful for all I’ve received from Sogyal Rinpoche – amazing teachings that clearly explain the Buddhist path, the chance to meet many holy beings, and personal glimpses of awakening that showed me the possibility of enlightenment.

Given Sogyal Rinpoche’s remarkable contributions and the benefits that so many people feel, I can understand why many Rigpa students cannot comprehend how others have felt harmed by personal interactions with him.

Please know, I’m not trying to detract from Sogyal Rinpoche’s greatness, but without taking an honest look at how the experience of abuse has happened in our community, it will be difficult to prevent such incidents in the future.

In this spirit, I’d like to share from my own personal experience to show how student-teacher interactions, even those that may have been meant as helpful, can be experienced as harmful.

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What Did the Dalai Lama Really Say?

Dalai Lama Remarks on Sogyal Rinpoche

The cycle of news on the Sogyal Rinpoche controversy sometimes feels relentless — a new article or statement every few days and a seemingly never-ending stream of social media posts.

It can feel tempting to quickly read each piece and move on to the next without taking time to study the main advices and let them fully sink in. When I go too quickly, I’m left with a confusing canvas of different points of view that seem incompatible at first glance.

I feel the Dalai Lama gave important advice for the Rigpa sangha on August 1st in Ladakh. In the spirit of open discussion, initiated by Rigpa, I’d like to take a deeper look at his remarks. I’m especially interested in the implications of the Dalai Lama’s message and how his guidance might be reconciled with later statements from Mingyur Rinpoche and Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche on ethics and the student-guru relationship.

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A Letter to Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche Concerning “Guru and Student in the Vajrayana”

Letter to Dzongsqr Khyentse
August 22, 2017

Dear Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche,

I would like to thank you very much for taking the time to post your reflections about the “Guru and Student in the Vajrayana” on your Facebook Page on August 14. (Click here for Facebook post, or formatted version on Buddhistdoor.)

I did read your post several times, as you suggested, and reflected on it for a few days. I used to be someone trying to be a genuine Vajrayana practitioner, but after reading what you said, I am not sure if I ever was. In any case, I still do aim to be a genuine spiritual practitioner.

We met a few times. You might remember me most from when I was Sogyal Rinpocheʻs attendant when he visited your Sea to Sky Center in 1993. It might be a surprise to you that the same person you met then is writing this letter to you. But I suspect it will not come as a surprise to you that questions might come your way after writing your article. I would love to get answers, but please feel no pressure. It would be deeply appreciated, but is not expected. If anything in this letter sparks your interest, and you happen to get bored in a question and answer session with your students, I would love to get a recording.

You say you are not familiar with the Rigpa set-up, which makes it hard for you to say anything more definitive. So I thought it might be helpful to share with you my experience in Rigpa.

How I Was Introduced to Samaya

I met Sogyal Rinpoche in 1987 at a public talk held at the Rigpa London Center, which happened to take place one evening during the time I attended my first ten-week meditation course there. Towards the end of the course, I saw an announcement for an Easter Retreat at the center. I asked one of the senior students if that retreat was open to and would be suitable for beginners like me. The answer was: “Yes absolutely! Youʻll love it.”

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