How Did It Happen?

Understanding and Healing Abuse in Buddhist Communities

Category: Understanding Abuse

The Rigpa International Newsletter: Connection or Disconnection?

When I read the recent Rigpa International Newsletter, titled “Sangha Connection,”  I sense a profound disconnect between the leadership of Rigpa and those who feel concern about the abuse that has occurred in Rigpa—both victim/survivors and everyone else who felt deeply impacted.

The very first paragraph of the March-April 2018 newsletter describes the Rigpa Bodhgaya Prayer Gathering as “wonderful” and “joy-filled,” with even more “delight” due to the presence of the Bhutanese sangha.  Later, a sangha member is quoted as saying,

“I can feel the presence and blessings pervading the place. It is evident that almost everyone feels the same. There is so much joy and devotion expressed in our interactions with each other.”

While I would never begrudge anyone their joy, I’m struck by the complete lack of awareness these words evidence in relation to the Rigpa victims of abuse. But I also know, this is trademark Rigpa: insular, self-centered, and self-celebratory.  

Remembering the Victims

All the while Rigpa celebrates itself, there are victim/survivors and other disenchanted former members who struggle in recovery.  Clearly, the writers and all the Rigpa newsletter approvers (the Vision Board and the like) cannot imagine what it might feel like for an abuse survivor to read their words via Sangha “Connection.”  It feels more like disconnection than connection.

If you’ve spent years in a high-demand organization, like Rigpa, where you suffered abuse – emotional, physical, and/or sexual – it can take years for you to recover.  You may struggle with flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, anxiety, hyper-vigilance, dissociation or any of the numerous symptoms of PTSD or C-PTSD, even if you don’t have the full blown disorder.  You may grapple with guilt, shame, self-blame, feelings of worthlessness, anger, disbelief, an inability to trust, and/or a loss of faith, identity and/or community.  When you least expect it, an external trigger may re-invoke memories and an assortment of trauma symptoms that bring your life, momentarily, to a full stop.

So many other former sangha members, who never experienced direct abuse themselves, wrestle with similar feelings.  They wonder why they didn’t put two and two together sooner.  They feel unable to practice at all.  They feel they’ve lost their spiritual path. And so much more.

Sure some have healed, some have moved on. But many are still in recovery.

No One Chooses Trauma

“Trauma creates change you don’t choose.”  Michelle Rosenthal

Trauma changes your brain and your biochemistry.  No one chooses trauma.  It happens to them, and it’s largely a biological event that can happen to anyone. 

Trauma can be healed, but it takes time – especially the kind of trauma that occurs as a resulted of repeated abuse over a number of years—the kind of abuse that occurred to a number of students in Rigpa.

If You Really Cared

If you really cared about the students who were abused by Sogyal Rinpoche, you would know this.  You would make an effort to become trauma informed.  And once you were, if you really took the information in, out of respect for what they endured and knowing its long-term effects, you could never write a newsletter that begins as this one did.

While I might seem like a killjoy, I would prefer to open a Rigpa International Sangha Connection newsletter and read, as the first entry, an announcement of how Rigpa teams worldwide had attended an in-depth training to learn about trauma, its impacts, and how to provide trauma-informed care.  That would give me hope that real change is taking place in Rigpa.

Riding It Out

Instead, the newsletter fails to mention the abuse at all. I had to read through 28 more paragraphs (or so) to get to any veiled mention of the abuse, a word that Rigpa never seems to actually use. In the final paragraph of the newsletter, I read:

“Updates related to acting on the recommendations of the Lewis Silkin report and Rigpa moving forward will be mainly shared on the Moving Forward section of rigpa.org rather than this newsletter.”

Sounds innocuous, doesn’t it? How would you know the “Lewis Silkin” report relates to abuse, if you didn’t already know?  There’s no mention it’s an “investigative” report.  You could imagine it relates to anything.  You might even skip the links after already reading 29 paragraphs, and never be the wiser.

Now I know why Rigpa calls this section of its website “Moving Forward.”  They are truly moving on, leaving the victim/survivors behind, removing any substantial mention of the abuse from the sangha newsletter, relegating updates of this less palatable material to the website, where most sangha members rarely visit.  Making it easy to forget that abuse has ever occurred.

This is the Rigpa modus operandi:  Riding It Out.


Comments are now turned off on the blog because we are no longer able to respond to them or deal with the high volume of spam on the blog. However, we encourage discussion of this or other posts with your friends or in your Facebook Groups. Thanks for understanding, Sandra


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Shambhala: Abuse, Intergenerational Trauma, and Undoing the “No Right, No Wrong” Argument

Shambhala Sun

If you think abuse didn’t happen in Rigpa, consider the recent allegations of sexual misconduct made against the head of Shambhala, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. 

Although the modus operandi may vary to some degree, you can see the same mix of male privilege, adoration, feudalism, mysticism, and manipulation seems to have occurred in both Shambhala and Rigpa, protecting the alleged perpetuators for decades.

I’d like to share with you a small collection of recent articles and one video, ones I found extremely helpful, which illuminate what has occurred, analyze what went wrong, or explore the way we respond, for better or for worse.

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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 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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Introducing “How Did It Happen?”

How Did It Happen?

We find ourselves in the midst of a heart-wrenching situation: serious allegations of abuse against Sogyal Rinpoche, made by eight current and former students. Most people will agree it’s necessary to seriously look into what gave rise to these accusations and to address any problems identified in the process.

We would like to dedicate this space to understanding what went wrong in Rigpa and to learning from it so similar situations might be prevented in the future—not just in our community but in other Buddhist groups as well.

We believe that this scandal can become the cause of tremendous positive change, if we can join together and learn from it. But this requires that we begin by having an honest and critical look at all the dynamics that created the current situation.

We see “How Did It Happen?” as an open space where an exchange of experiences and ideas can take place. Deep listening, respect, and constructive dialogue are encouraged in the exchanges that take place here.

For this to happen, we must be willing to listen to different perspectives rather than only bang our own drum. One Buddhist practice of compassion that can guide our interactions is to step back for a moment, and put your self in another person’s shoes.

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