How Did It Happen?

Understanding and Healing Abuse in Buddhist Communities

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.

We can certainly see a number of different perspectives in the current situation, including: the people harmed, the teacher, the Rigpa sangha, Buddhist practitioners from all traditions, and the wider community of spiritual practitioners beyond Buddhism.

Putting Yourself In Another Person’s Shoes

Let’s look at each group and what they might be thinking or feeling. If you find it difficult to put yourself in any of these shoes right now, which is understandable, you can acknowledge the feeling, be with the discomfort, and aspire to be able to do so in the future.

Let’s begin.

There are those who have had painful experiences with Sogyal Rinpoche, which they found damaging to their personal and psychological well-being. They feel strongly that certain behaviors are abusive and go against the ethical standards set forth in Buddhism as well as basic human values.

There’s Sogyal Rinpoche, who has dedicated his whole life to bringing the wisdom and compassion of the Tibetan Buddhist teachings to the West and has benefited thousands and thousands of people. In response to the allegations, he has stated he feels shocked, misunderstood, and unjustly criticized.

Then there are current and former members of the Rigpa community, who represent a spectrum of views, for example:

Many students find it highly distressing to hear others criticize their Guru because, in the Vajrayana tradition, the Guru is seen as a sacred link to enlightenment, which makes for a unique teacher-student relationship. It’s said to see everything the teacher does with pure perception and as a teaching. In this spirit, many consider the alleged behaviors an authentic way of teaching. They find the accusations as unfair and view requests for these behaviors to stop as a threat that might deprive them of opportunities to progress on their path to enlightenment.

On the other hand, there are equally devoted students, who find abusive behaviors unacceptable. They wish to continue to study with Sogyal Rinpoche, but they would like any harmful behaviors to stop. Many feel in deep conflict and find it difficult to reconcile the public and private face of their teacher. Yet they feel an undeniable sense of profound connection and gratitude for all they have received.

Then there are those who passionately speak out against abuse from a place of personal integrity, concerned that further harm could happen — someone might even get gravely injured or die, end up in a mental institution, or commit suicide. They’ve tried to bring their concerns to Sogyal Rinpoche, the Rigpa Management, and other Tibetan Buddhist teachers, with no effect. They felt they had no choice but to make their concerns public. They face anger from a large part of the community. Some disbelieve or discredit them.

This polarization in the community is painful for almost everyone, and could itself tear the organization apart.

As we move on, we can also see there are people in the wider Buddhist community as well as practitioners from other traditions who are saddened to hear about the suffering of those harmed, the alleged ethical transgressions and, especially in light of many previous scandals, how this crisis may damage Buddhism and tarnish the positives values it stands for.

Lastly, we can add anyone concerned about human values that will likely be disturbed by these affairs as well.

As we can see, there are many different perspectives that need to be understood in order to find the best way forward.

Many people feel confused, some even flip-flop between the different standpoints, puzzlement, and indifference over the course of a single day. We hope that hearing the different views here will help them reflect, process, and arrive at a clear personal conclusion.

Understanding the various outlooks can also help us process and integrate this experience as a community, which is essential to heal the divide that has occurred and find possible solutions.

What Makes This Situation So Complex?

Abuse allegations can be complicated to prove in any context, but from a worldly point of view, the same laws apply to all organizations, spiritual or not.

The current situation is even more complex, however, since we need to consider the spiritual dimension because some people argue that the alleged behaviors are authentic ways of teaching. Adding further to the complexity, different Tibetan Buddhist teachers have presented what appear to be incompatible views on ethics and the student-teacher relationship.

Our Perspective

We have been students of Sogyal Rinpoche for over 30 years. Both of us have received personal training from Sogyal Rinpoche on many occasions, and have experienced behaviors similar to those alleged in the letter of complaint.

At times, we benefited from these direct personal teachings. But overall, we feel it damaged us physically and psychologically. However, we want to say clearly that we don’t blame Sogyal Rinpoche for all our pain because we know we brought deeply embedded wounds and emotional patterns to our spiritual path. Rinpoche’s personal training triggered these patterns in ways that we did not, at the time, have the understanding, skillful means, and support to process them.

Having gone through the personal training ourselves, we understand how repressed feelings and experiences can be like undiffused bombs. These emotional bombs can suddenly detonate and result in abuse accusations, even many years later like has happened periodically in Rigpa over the course of 25 years.

We have found ways to begin to heal our traumatic experiences, turn them into an experience of learning and growth, and come to a place where we continue to appreciate and respect the Buddhist teachings and continue be part of the Rigpa community.

Because of our experience, we can understand and empathize with all the perspectives outlined above, and thus have created this open space for dialogue, healing, and positive change to occur.

Overview of Topics

Some of the topics that will be explored on “How Did It Happen?” include:

Ethics in the Student-Teacher Relationship

  • What behaviors are appropriate or not appropriate for a Buddhist teacher, including Asian spiritual masters?
  • How are ethics seen differently in the different vehicles of Buddhism, and how do we integrate this understanding?
  • How do we understand the explanations of ethics given in relation to the current situation by teachers like Dalai Lama, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, and Mingyur Rinpoche?
  • How do we reconcile worldly and spiritual ethics?

Abuse in the Student-Teacher Relationship

  • What is abuse in the student-teacher relationship?
  • How does abuse happen, what harm does it cause, and how can it be prevented?
  • Why do questionable behaviors affect some students negatively but not others?
  • Can conditions be created so painful experiences can be seen as opportunities of learning and growth instead of trauma?

Contributing Factors

  • Why do people stay in harmful situations?
  • Are there unhealthy community dynamics that create the conditions for harm to take place?
  • Do we understand Vajrayana teachings on topics like samaya and pure perception correctly?
  • Is there enough understanding of Western culture and the Western psyche in Buddhist communities?

Looking Forward

  • How can we heal the trauma that occurs in spiritual communities?
  • How can abusive experiences be avoided in the future?
  • How can understanding the causes of this scandal contribute to preventing similar problems in the future?

The Bigger Picture

  • How can authentic spiritual paths survive in the modern world?
  • What other challenges need to addressed so the Vajrayana tradition can continue in the West?
  • How do we avoid making Buddhism into a watered down, self-help path that does not create the conditions for enlightenment?

Our discussions are not limited to these themes, but will cover anything pertinent to the issue of abuse in spiritual communities and the future of Buddhism in this regard. We welcome your suggestions for other topics to explore.  Reach out to us via the Contact Form with your ideas.

Can Something Good Come From This?

The way the community responds to this abuse scandal could become the cause of positive change. If Rigpa successfully creates the conditions for a healthier spiritual community, in which abuse ceases to take place without losing the authenticity of the tradition, it could become a model that benefits other Buddhist Centers and may even inspire spiritual groups from other traditions as well. When we look back in 10 or 20 years maybe we’ll even feel grateful for the learning and growth that came out of this shattering experience.

Connect and Stay in Touch

We would love for you to stay in touch.  Sign up to receive blog post updates by email below, share your thoughts by commenting on any posts or get in touch with us personal via the Contact Form.

We’re open to a limited number of guest post submissions. If you feel you can provide a well written post that fits within the purview of this site and enriches the discussion, please contact us via the Contact Form with your idea and we’ll be happy to consider it.


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

18 Comments

  1. Tara

    Thank you Bernie and Sandra for this noble blog undertaking. A great start!

    You wrote:

    “In response to the allegations, he[SL] has stated he feels shocked, misunderstood, and unjustly criticized.”

    I wonder if you could clarify where SL has said he feels unjustly criticised?

    With thanks

    • Bernie Schreck

      Hi Tara, I am glad you found the blog a great start. The words we used were not a direct quote, but were meant to capture what Sogyal Rinpoche said in his two letters to the sangha. For example, in his letter from August 11 he said he felt “shock and consternation” and his letter from July 19 he said it “saddens and distresses him” and that “he never ever acted towards anyone with a motive of selfish gain or harmful intent”. If you feel what we wrote is not accurate let us know and we can edit it. Thanks

  2. Nicole HOREAU

    However, we want to say clearly that we don’t blame Sogyal Rinpoche for all our pain because we know we brought deeply embedded wounds and emotional patterns to our spiritual path. Rinpoche’s personal training triggered these patterns in ways that we did not, at the time, have the understanding, skillful means, and support to process them.

    Having gone through the personal training ourselves, we understand how repressed feelings and experiences can be like undiffused bombs. These emotional bombs can suddenly detonate and result in abuse accusations, even many years later like has happened periodically in Rigpa over the course of 25 years.

    We have found ways to begin to heal our traumatic experiences, turn them into an experience of learning and growth, and come to a place where we continue to appreciate and respect the Buddhist teachings and continue be part of the Rigpa community.
    Dear friend.This is a quote from your text.Please explain this to me and give examples.Sorry I don’t understand your point. Do you mean you are thankful for having been abused?Thank you.Nicole

    • Bernie Schreck

      Hi Nicole,

      thanks for your thoughtful question and asking for clarification.

      First of all I want to be clear that we are not condoning abuse.

      What we are saying is that the teacher is not responsible for the pain we brought to the path but he is responsible for working with students in a way that they can handle.

      There will be a blog post in the next week or two that will look more deeply into how the student teacher relationship can become abusive. I also wrote about my experience with this more in my letter to Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche in case you havenʻt read this. But let me say a few words essentially.

      My new teacher emphasizes forgiveness and he says that you know you have forgiven when you can look the other person into the eye and say “Thank You for Everything!” But donʻt forget even for a moment that this is a high goal and it would be foolish to think you are there when deep in your heart you are not.

      Here is one way to look at this. First I feel grateful for a lot of good things I have received from Sogyal Rinpoche. Secondly as I am getting to a good place where I have more self-understanding and capacity to deal with my stuff, and a handle on processing my painful experiences, I feel I need to honor every step on my path even the painful experiences! Because I feel good about where I am and without them I might be somewhere else. Makes sense? So yes at some point I will be grateful for my experience.

      A slogan from the Buddhist Lojong teachings comes to mind: “Be grateful to everyone!” But again there is a danger to fool yourself by thinking this in your head while deep down in your heart you harbor resentments. In my experience that requires some deep and inner work that will probably at times be very painful.

      So to answer your question” Do you mean you are thankful for having been abused?” Not quite there yet but I hope to at some point. Was the experience of abuse necessary? (I prefer to use the term “experience of abuse”) I donʻt think so. Facing my pain was necessary and learning how to deal with it. I would recommend working with traumas in ways that are not experienced abusive.

      Like I said I will talk about this more soon in another blog post. Not the next one but the one after that. You can sign up to be notified in the box at the end of the post if you havenʻt done so.

  3. Stefan Mulder

    dear Bernie,

    thank you (and your wife Sandra) for this initiative, feels much more gentle and balanced than many webpages concerning this topis & comments there upon I’v read…

    “and continue be part of the Rigpa community”

    to go short, am I right you both left the Rigpa sangha ? And recently became member again ???

    myself after 13 years have some months ago (after memorable (Tukdrup Barche Kunsel incl. mendrup ! 🙂 Dordogne drupchen with Tulku Pema Wangyal/Jigme Khyentse/Rangdrol Rinpoche sangha with Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche and Neten Chokling as quest lamas + many monks & tough Lerab Ling drupchen (lama kitchen work-study, pffff 😉 and 4 day A’dam retreat) decided to stop, withdraw. And not to go back after all I’ve seen, experienced and a bunch of friends leaving before me… desillusioned. Myself partly baffled, partly very grateful. Slowly working through my note-books to gather the jewels & as a form of therapy

    loving regards, Stefan Mulder (Netherlands)

    • Bernie Schreck

      Hi Stefan,
      nice to hear from you. Sandra and I actually never left the sangha. We havenʻt been coming to retreat to France or the US a lot except for the last California retreat. But we have been instructing some online course and participated in retreats and Dzogchen mandala via streaming.

      I gave back my commitments to Rinpoche last November and asked his blessing to continue with another (non-buddhist) teacher. But we both still feel part of the community and have been processing the scandal in online groups.

      I can relate to your sense of disillusionment and feeling baffled, grateful etc. Yes going through the notebooks and gathering the jewels sounds like good medicine. I also feel I received a lot of precious teachings.

      Wishing you well.

      Lots of Love also from Sandra <3

      Bernie

  4. Thanks for doing this, Berne and Sandra. You are well placed to undertake this initiative, and now is the perfect time when other spaces seem to have broken down into ‘beating ones own drum’. The first step to real communication is indeed understanding and honoring the different perspectives. Remembering to avoid harsh speech is also very helpful.

    I pray that the conversation here will be such that it will indeed be a force for positive, intelligent change. I see as you do. If Rigpa can take up this challenge then much good can come of this.

    • Bernie Schreck

      Thank you for your encouragements. Sandra and I wholehearted are joining you in your prayer. <3

  5. Stefan

    dear Bernie,

    thanks for your respons on my post. Would very much like to know how your view is on the specfic points mentioned in the letter by the courageous 8 regarding:
    a) improper motivation, following improper examples like Chogyam Trungpa & a mother who advises him ‘to go to the west to make money’ ? Somewhere I read that in Tibet the Dudjom Rinpoche, Khandro and Chatral Rinpoche ‘saw’ he was a pervert and tried to persuade him NOT to go to the west ?
    b) misuse of funds and donations
    c) misuse of the sacred feminine
    d) mixing things up, complicating things by improper use of the teachings like ‘crazy wisdom’, ‘dakinis’, ‘Vajra-hell threat’ etc.
    e) making false pretentions like taking Chatral Rinpoche as example but continuing allowing intoxicants (coffee, alcohol… sex(orgies) ?!) and much meat&fish-eating to take place at his own main retreat compound Lerab Ling. Have written a whole letter to Rinpoche beginning this year & gave this to Seth at the end of public A’dam evening gathering in RAI A’dam. I think his ‘answer’ (because he HAS strong psychic abilities to my experience) was to work in the lama kitchen which wasn’t planned as such but

    thankyou very much to you & Sandra

    will make a separate post I sent to befriended owner of biological shop closeby. He has written a book about going without any Guru. Somehow it seems that the age of being guided by the Inner Higher Being has finally broken through. Read this in the book of revelations by Johannes as well…

    Love & joy, Stefan

    when I was having some kind of retreat in Germany

    • Bernie Schreck

      Hi Stefan, thanks for your comment. Yes everything you say I am also concerned about. In terms of Sogyal Rinpocheʻs motivation no one can really judge except himself. With regards to the other points what Sandra and I are trying to do here is bring up questions and contributing to reflection. I hope Sogyal Rinpoche will respond to these concerns at some point. There will be an independent investigation too. And we have already received a lot of spiritual advice from teachers close to our sangha. So I want to honor and respect the processes that are taking place and hope that clarity will emerge in time.

  6. Sel

    ‘some even flip-flop between the different standpoints, puzzlement, and indifference over the course of a single day.’
    Yep, that’s where I am… I you include ‘in an agonising spit’.

  7. Schuyler Oliver

    You guys are real Dharma warriors! Thank you for sharing and helping. I also read DJKR’s letter which was very informative and inspiring. I’m headed to my cushion.

    May all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.

    • Bernie Schreck

      Hey Schuyler, good to hear from you. Heading to the cushion? I am going to do that too 🙂

  8. Lucia

    Good to have a place to review, reflect and work through things here, I think this work is what is needed. Hopefully from the destruction, many new flowers of deeper understanding will grow. Even when we are taking different paths, we can still honor our relations and support each other.

  9. Adamo

    “We have been students of Sogyal Rinpoche for over 30 years. Both of us have received personal training from Sogyal Rinpoche on many occasions, and have experienced behaviors similar to those alleged in the letter of complaint.”

    “At times, we benefited from these direct personal teachings. But overall, we feel it damaged us physically and psychologically. However, we want to say clearly that we don’t blame Sogyal Rinpoche for all our pain because we know we brought deeply embedded wounds and emotional patterns to our spiritual path. Rinpoche’s personal training triggered these patterns in ways that we did not, at the time, have the understanding, skillful means, and support to process them.”

    I hope I can ask you two questions: 1. Behave similar to those ALLEGED..

    Do you think it did not happen, they are just inventing stories ?

    2. It seems to me you make your pattern responsible. Do you think that Sogyal Lakar is a skillfull teacher as DKR says a Vajrayana teacher is supposed to be ?

    I believe I understand your approach to discover how much each of us is responsible for what happen. I think its not fair to only keep SL responsible.

    Especially since that supportive to abuse structures in Rigpa are maintained for decades.

    When I realized how easily I trapped myself in a cage of sectarian behave, I still wonder a little bit how it could happen.
    I work hard to explore what are the basics, the causes for so many of us fall prey to those happenings.

    • Bernie Schreck

      Hi Adamo,

      thanks for your comment and the questions:

      Re 1) Yes we believe the alleged behavior did happen but because we were not there and it has not been proven in court “alleged” is the correct word to use. However I also have not heard anyone say the alleged behaviors have not taken place.

      Re 2) I believe a teacher needs to give students teachings according to their capacity and make sure they have the tools to process what they receive.

      And yes you understand correctly that I think self-responsibility is very helpful if you want to solve a problem. It is not a question who is at fault. Even if if there is a pile of faults on the other side, you need to look at the faults you brought to the situation.

      It is good to hear you are taking responsibility for yourself and wish you good progress on this path.

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