How Did It Happen?

Understanding and Healing Abuse in Buddhist Communities

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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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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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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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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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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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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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The Heart of Samaya Is Harmony

BellsWe’re so saddened to hear about Sogyal Rinpoche’s colon cancer and wish him a swift and complete recovery.

The unexpected news about Rinpoche’s health and recent remarks made by two traditional teachers concerning samaya have understandably sparked intense emotions among many in the Rigpa sangha.

At the end of his recent teachings in Lerab Ling, the Rigpa International Retreat Center in France, Khenpo Namdrol strongly admonished the eight students who wrote a letter alleging abuse by Sogyal Rinpoche.  Among other things, he said they’d been taken over by non-human entities.

Then Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche expressed his concern for Sogyal Rinpoche’s health and warned the Rigpa sangha about the harmful effects of breaking samaya in this September 28th message shared on Facebook:

Presently I am in Asia with Sogyal Rinpoche, to support him. The situation with his health is very serious. He has been diagnosed with cancer and had to have an operation to remove the tumours. Now his doctors are advising a course of chemotherapy as a follow up.

What I want to say to all Rigpa students is this—please do not break any more of your samayas. If a student breaks his/her samaya, it has a very harmful effect on the master’s life. I urge all of you therefore to practice the Narak Kong Shak and Heart of Vajrasattva confession prayers as much as possible. I am very concerned for Sogyal Rinpoche’s health and future. I hope you will all listen to what I say.

In light of these messages, we would like to share some reflections on how we might better keep samaya. We hope to contribute to a more positive atmosphere within the sangha by doing so.

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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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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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