How Did It Happen?

Understanding and Healing Abuse in Buddhist Communities

Author: Sandra Pawula

Wild Wild Country: How Spiritual Communities Can Go Wrong

Rajneesh (Osho) Wild Wild Country

Wild Wild Country, the just released limited series on Netflix, documents the rise and fall of the thousands-strong 80’s Rajneesh (Osho) community near Antelope, Oregon.

Rajneeshees purchased 64,000 acres of land near the town of Antelope, and subsequently built and legally incorporated a massive city and agricultural endeavor in the wilderness. Their Utopian ideal, in which people could  live, laugh, love, and be free, aligned perfectly with the free-love movement already happening in the West.  As such, Rajneesh and his philosophy magnetized thousands of smart, hardworking people.

Rajneeshpuram, as the city was called, wasn’t an experiment in spiritual austerity.  The city housed any number of Western indulgences including a gambling venue, a disco, clothing stores, and eateries.  Nudity and open sexually were the norm. Almost ten thousand more Rajneeshees streamed through the town of Antelope to reach Rajneeshpuram during its annual global festival.

The conservative, god-fearing residents of nearby Antelope, previously a sleepy town of around 100 people, were initially startled, confused, and bemused by the red-clad devotees. But as their quiet lives were increasingly disrupted, and the commune’s intentions for further growth became clear, they felt something had to be done.

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Shambhala Leaders Acknowledge Sexual Harm


In the recently released Project Sunshine Final Report, second-generation Shambhala student Andrea M. Winn, MEd, MCS shares the results of her one year exploration into sexualized violence within her Buddhist community. She also offers recommendations for organizational change, and suggests ways individual and collective healing can occur.

She describes the vision of Project Sunshine in this way:

This one-year vision was to gather a powerful group of concerned citizens to protect the integrity of the Shambhala lineage. We will do this through influencing the Shambhala community to acknowledge and repair past abuse of women and children in the community, and integrate new values that honour tenderness, vulnerability and other strengths typically associated with the feminine.

On the prevalence of sexual harm in the Shambhala community, Winn says:

I have been part of many conversations over the past year with women who have been abused in the Shambhala community. The stories of abuse are nothing short of horrific. Quite simply, the violence that has happened and the lack of response from the Shambhala organization has resulted in a profound corruption in the heart of our community over the lifespan of this community – since the early 1970’s.

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A Chance to Be Heard: An Invitation to Current & Former Rigpa US Students

An Olive Branch

Have you received the following letter from An Olive Branch?  Can you help pass it along to any current or former members of Rigpa US who may not have received it? I’ll share the full letter in this post.

An Olive Branch is a Zen-based organization that has been hired to offer processes of healing and reconciliation for current AND former members of the Rigpa U. S. sangha.

Some people object, saying that reconciliation cannot occur unless there’s acknowledgement of harm and an apology on the part of Sogyal Rinpoche and the leadership of Rigpa.  In many ways I agree.

But even without an apology, healing can occur.  An Olive Branch offers current and former members of the Rigpa US a chance to be personally heard in private without judgement via their Listening Post.  Feeling heard is one of the most powerful ways healing can take place or at least begin.

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3 Must Read Articles on the Student-Teacher Relationship

Woman Sitting in Field

Given recent allegations of abuse in Rigpa and other Buddhist communities, are you feeling confused about the teacher-student relationship?

Each of the following articles, written by long-term practitioners, approach the student-teacher relationship from a different angle.  The authors explore how the teacher-student relationship can go wrong, how it can go right, and how we as students need to stay awake and trust our true intelligence.

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Why Buddhist Communities Need to Understand Trauma (And 7 Top Books on Trauma)

Understanding trauma in Buddhist communitiesWhen a spiritual teacher uses extreme teaching methods like hitting, slapping, and beating or seduces a student using coercion, trauma can occur.

Trauma is not voluntary.  It’s an automatic response to a sense of threat orchestrated by the body and brain.  Some people are more susceptible to trauma than others, as explained below.

Buddhist communities need to understand trauma so judgment does not come into play when someone makes allegations of abuse, and compassion arises instead.  Because judgment, denial, and aggression towards those who feel harmed, may worsen their trauma.

That’s not to say that every person who complains has been traumatized, but many have.  And trauma imprints and dysregulates the nervous system so trauma survivors can suffer symptoms for years to come.

In addition, trauma is far more common than you might imagine, both development trauma, which originates in childhood, and shock trauma, which occurs in response to an overwhelming event that happens at any time during your life. An individual may not even realize how the imprints of trauma silently direct their life because trauma sometimes remains hidden within their unconscious mind.

Many people who come to Buddhist centers carry a history of trauma, which can make them more susceptible to future trauma.

These statistics on abuse begin to illuminate the scope of the problem, and they do not include the emotional damage that occurs from development trauma, which can occur from not having your emotional needs meant during your early years.

Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shown that one in five Americans was sexually molested as a child; one in four was beaten by a parent to the point of a mark being left on their body; and one in three couples engages in physical violence.  A quarter of us grew up with alcoholic relatives, and one out of eight witnessed their mother being beaten or hit.

Let’s look at the difference between developmental trauma and shock trauma, so we can better understand our own emotional wounds, extend a hand to others who have been impacted by trauma, and create healthy Buddhist Centers that protect people from trauma.

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Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö’s Dream of Sogyal Lakar

Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro's DreamRecently published, The Life and Times of Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö recounts many dreams and visions of this exceptional 19th-20th century Tibetan Buddhist master, including this one concerning Sogyal Lakar (Sogyal Rinpoche), who he watched over as a child.

One night, I dreamt that at dusk I went to meet someone thought to be the divine prince of Derge, Ngawang Jampal Rinchen.  He was said to live in a grass hut with a very small door that stood inside an ordinary house in a hamlet at the foot of the mountain.  He looked youthful, had a small topknot of dark matted hair, was clothed in green leaves, and sat gazing at the floor as I expressed my joy and devotion.  The prince, who wore a red woolen robe, put a similar one around my shoulders, stood up, and went outside.  I went with him, removed the robe, and offered it to him, having cut off a piece, saying I wanted it as an object of devotion.  Then I stood naked before him.  It was completely dark, and I couldn’t seen the whole vision properly, but I sense there was a row of people and that he was beating them—Lakar Sogyal, for example.  The prince was quite mad!  He then lay on his back, naked, and said the boy might go crazy and cause internal strife.  After many such dreams, I woke up.

I fell asleep once more and at first dreamt the same dream again.

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A Brief History of Abuse Allegations in Rigpa

Abuse in RigpaPublic allegations of physical and sexual abuse by Sogyal Rinpoche have been made regularly over the course of his 40-year teaching career.

The following timeline cites the year an allegation was made public, although the incident may have taken place years prior to the time.  For example, one of the first incidents took place in 1976, but I found the public testimony in a 1994 newspaper article.

The information provided in the timeline may not be all inclusive. Other public statements may have been made of which I have no knowledge.  Also, it only includes publicly documented allegations.

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How to Respond Like a Buddha When Your Teacher Is Accused of Abuse

Advice from Thubten Chodron on AbuseA crisis, like the allegations of abuse in Rigpa, can unleash a torrent of afflictive emotions:  blame, judgment, anger, despair, fear — to name just a few.  People take sides and attack the other side.  People get stuck in their positions and lose the ability to hear one another.

If you’re lucky to be in the middle rather than at the extremes, you may still be plagued by inner conflict, even if your practice keeps you from disparaging others.

How can we respond like a Buddha instead?

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