How Did It Happen?

Understanding and Healing Abuse in Buddhist Communities

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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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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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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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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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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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