Where 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.
The letter alleged:
- Physical beating and verbal and psychological abuse, often in response to trivial mistakes.
- Sexual misconduct.
- A lavish lifestyle.
- Unreasonable demands to be served.
- A culture of secrecy that covers up inappropriate behavior and complaints about it.
The intent of the letter was to break the veil of secrecy, ask for accountability, stop unethical and immoral behavior, prevent further harm, and bring about sincere and long lasting changes. The letter writers expressed a heartfelt wish for Sogyal Rinpoche to seek guidance from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, other reputable lamas of good heart, or anyone who can help bring him back onto the true path of the Dharma.
What Has the Letter Achieved?
In one sense, the letter has accomplished a great deal:
- Sogyal Rinpoche has taken the complaints seriously enough to retire as Spiritual Director of Rigpa.
- Rigpa has clearly said there is no place for abuse in our community and the organization is aware of its responsibility to provide a safe, welcoming and supportive environment for its members and the public.
- An independent investigation into the complaints will likely begin in November.
- Rigpa is developing a code of conduct and grievance procedures, and expects them to be in place by the end of 2017.
- Rigpa organizations across the globe have held open discussions in which people could share their questions and concerns in response to the letter. Although the discussions are sometimes limited in scope and some of the letter writers have not been allowed to participate, at least some level of discussion has occurred.
On the other hand, there has been no acknowledgement of harm and no apologies.
Although Rigpa has not made official statements on the topic, it distributes or allows the distribution of advice from other teachers that condone the kinds of behaviors described in the letter of complaint. These teachings validate the use of extreme teaching methods in the Vajrayana. As such, there is ‘no big problem’ with Sogyal Rinpoche’s behavior.
Although some positive steps have been taken, it remains unclear whether significant long lasting changes will take place.
Beating Hard Increases Wisdom
Most people in the modern would find it hard to believe that we’re even debating whether beating is an appropriate teaching method and that some hold the view there’s nothing wrong when a woman feels pressured into sexual relations by her spiritual teacher.
But some Buddhist teachers find these behaviors acceptable and even see them as an expression of wisdom. Understandably, many of those in the Rigpa sangha with concerns about abuse feel sad, disappointed, frustrated, and sometimes angry when they hear these teachers excuse such behaviors.
For example, two traditional Vajrayana teachers, Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche and Khenpo Namdrol, have recently and vigorously expressed their perspectives, absolving Sogyal Rinpoche of harm and placing the blame squarely on the students who have complained. Both of their teachings were given at Rigpa centers.
In his lengthy teaching on samaya, Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche said things like:
- Beating removes obstacles and brings blessings.
- Beating hard increases wisdom.
- When a lama has mastered great primordial wisdom, everything he does is for the benefit of sentient beings; whether it corresponds to Western ideas or not, if he kills someone, no problem.
- When you feel hurt, there is no point to turn against the teacher because the real reason is that you don’t have enough merit.
- The people who wrote the letter had wrong views and have broken their samaya with their teacher, who loved and cared for them.
Khenpo Namdrol also spoke at length in response to what he knew of the letter. He concluded:
‘To have written such a letter maras and samaya breaking demons must possess the authors.’
Does Rigpa Support These Views?
Although Rigpa has not made an official statement on these topics, it has not distanced itself from these views either.
On the contrary, the October 2017 Rigpa International Sangha Connection Newsletter reported main Rigpa students and organizational leaders, including Patrick Gaffney and Philip Philipou, had recently met with Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche to seek advice, during their travels to the East.
They discussed some of the issues relating to Sogyal Rinpoche’s retirement and putting in place the new spiritual body that will help guide Rigpa forward into the future.
The views stated by these two Vajrayana teachers could explain why Sogyal Rinpoche has stated he has never acted with impure intention without disputing that the behaviors have happened.
Many people were upset when they heard these statements. I personally think it’s good that Orgyen Topgyal and Khenpo Namdrol gave honest answers and explained their perspectives. It helps to see the issues more clearly. To know these views are unmistakably part of the Vajrayana tradition in their eyes can help us understand the root of the controversy.
The Root of the Controversy: Feudalism
When you look closely, most of the issues raised by the 8 letter writers are about customs and behaviors that were accepted or at least tolerated in Tibetan society. For example, supporting a teacher’s lavish lifestyle through offerings was a way of expressing respect and reverence for the tradition. Beating monks and verbal abuse was seen as an appropriate way of training and maintaining order. Having sexual relations with a teacher was considered spiritually beneficial.
Teachers had unquestioned authority in their centers and were entitled to respect and obedience. Enjoying sense pleasures and acting out negative emotions was considered part of the Vajryayana path because wrath was seen as a skillful way to teach. Traditionally, it is said that dakinis (female tantric consorts) inspire teachers to reveal teachings.
[To learn more about the impact of feudalism on modern Buddhist organizations and the Dalai Lama’s advice about it read: What Did the Dalai Lama Really Say?]
The teachings are understood to mean there’s no fault on the part of the teacher as long as his or her motivation is pure. While the impacts of the teacher’s actions may seem harmful from a worldly relative perspective, from a spiritual point of view they are beneficial.
It sounds good, however there is a problem.
A significant number of people in Rigpa have not had positive experiences of growth and learning after receiving ‘personal training’ that involved harsh methods like hitting, slapping, and verbal denigration. On the contrary, they felt abused and harmed.
Sogyal Rinpoche seems confident he has the necessary realization to use extreme teaching methods. But it seems that some, perhaps many, of his students don’t have the capacity to process their resulting experiences. They lose their faith, withdraw from the community, and after reflecting on what occurred, feel they experienced abuse.
What it boils down to is this: Sogyal Rinpoche and other traditional teachers consider customs and behaviors that were accepted or at least tolerated in Tibetan society an authentic part of their lineage of Vajrayana.
Extreme Teaching Methods Necessary in Vajrayana?
We’re not going to change their minds about these beliefs. They believe their spiritual view is superior. They seem to see concerns about the harmful impact of their behaviors as worldly concerns, which they are not required to consider. The complaints are seen as an attack against what they consider the most sacred in their lives and their tradition.
Let’s remember that while these Vajrayana teachers present their perspective as the ultimate spiritual view, other well-respected teachers do not agree with them.
The Dalai Lama has spoken several times now about the complaints against Sogyal Rinpoche. He considers these customs and behaviors negative influences of the feudal system that need to be abandoned. He said it’s the responsibility of the students to speak up when they see inappropriate and harmful behavior and encourages them to go public. He said very clearly this is not breaking your samaya. The idea that you must do everything your guru says is wrong, according to the Dalai Lama.
Mingyur Rinpoche was told by his father and guru to never do anything that does not feel right to him.
Ancient texts take the authenticity of the guru for granted. Yet in our degenerate times, we cannot find perfect teachers. If the teacher has obscurations, then we risk taking bad advice, so how can we apply devotion and pure perception? My father (Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche) told me never to go against my own intuitive wisdom in order to follow the guru’s advice. Of course, if the advice concerns dharma, we think about it very carefully. If the advice concerns worldly things then, my father told me, we definitely have no obligation to follow it. – – From Turning Confusion Into Clarity, pp 300-301
Does Vajrayana Need Checks and Balances?
Sometimes, it seems Vajrayana lacks checks and balances entirely. It can seem like the teacher holds no responsibility for the impact of his or her actions on students.
However, there were some checks and balances in Tibet, as Katy Butler described in Encountering the Shadow in Buddhist America:
The results are particularly troublesome when communities import Asian devotional traditions without importing corresponding Asian social controls. Chogyam Trungpa, for instance, came from a society where the sense of “self” and the social controls on that self were very different from those in the West. Raised from infancy in Eastern Tibet as an incarnate lama, he headed a huge institutional monastery at 19. He was granted tremendous devotion and power, but his freedom was rigidly circumscribed by monastic vows of chastity and abstinence, and by obligations to his monastery and the surrounding Community.
Community standards were based on an intricate system of reciprocal obligation. They were clear and often unspoken. Almost everyone’s behavior–serf, lama or landowner– was closely but subtly controlled by a strong and often unspoken need to save face.
But these social controls did not exist in the society to which Trungpa Rinpoche came in the freewheeling 1970s. His American students’ behavior was loosely governed by contractual relationships; by frank, open discussions, and by individual choices rather than by shared social ethics and mutual obligation. His ancestors had lived in the same valley for generations; when he first arrived in America, he flew from city to city like a rock star. While America removed all social limits from Trungpa Rinpoche’s behavior, his students became his household servants, chauffeured his car and showed him a deference appropriate to a Tibetan lama or feudal lord.
Now, the practice of Vajrayana, as described by the traditional lamas earlier in this article, faces the checks and balances of the modern world:
- Laws provide protection from physical and psychological harm,
- Everyone is accountable for their actions in terms of the law.
- Freedom of speech allows people who feel harmed to speak up.
- Free press counteracts the culture of secrecy.
Most people feel that spiritual traditions need to respect the human and societal values set forth in the modern world. As Mingyur Rinpoche wrote in his article Treat Everyone as the Buddha:
Vajrayana practice is rooted in the ideals of nonviolence and great compassion …. Buddhist teachers are role models and guides for the communities they lead, and they represent the Buddhist tradition to the non-Buddhist world.
Everyone has the freedom to choose their spiritual views, but in our actions, we are accountable to the human values and the laws of the land in which we live. It is our responsibility to speak up when we see harm and the human suffering it causes.
What Is the Cost?
Sadly, many attempts to privately raise concerns in Rigpa, made over the last three decades, have gone unheeded. It took going public vís-a-vís the letter to finally get Sogyal Rinpoche and Rigpa to take a serious look at how the spiritual methods they consider authentic may effect some people in detrimental ways.
Their intractability has resulted in a huge cost to Sogyal Rinpoche and Rigpa. Concern from both students and the public over the growing number of complaints has become an obstacle to enacting the organization’s vision for bringing benefit to the world. The actual toll goes much further because the disputed behaviors also create a negative image of Buddhism in general.
Granted it has taken a long time, but after having given the benefit of the doubt for decades, a critical mass of students now seem clear that the suspect behavior needs to be addressed. Even if the letter writers do not get an acknowledgement of harm or an apology, some checks and balances are now in place.
For example, given the number of complaints that have been made over the past thirty years, any future complaints will likely result in severe interventions by the authorities. And, anyone who experiences physical, psychological, or sexual abuse in the future will have a much better chance to make their case. Although still not easy, perhaps it is now a bit easier to speak up about abuse. People who felt harmed realize they are not alone, there are communities who support them.
More information is available so future students will hear about this controversy and as a result, be able to make more conscious decisions on their spiritual path. They will more likely ask about the commitment involved in following a particular teacher.
Overall, there is more awareness of abuse in Buddhist communities.
Vajrayana and the Modern World
Seeing the unwanted effects of aggressive behaviors on the part of a spiritual teacher brings up many questions for me:
- Why do some Vajrayana teachers so adamantly defend these behaviors?
- Is this violent approach to teaching really working?
- Are students showing progress towards enlightenment?
- Is the cost—sincere, devoted students losing faith and a soiled reputation for the teacher, organization and Buddhism in general —really worth it?
- Are these behaviors and customs indispensable in the Vajrayana? Are they in integrity with spiritual values? Would it be detrimental and endanger the authenticity of the path to consider methods of training and purification of obscurations that are accepted in the modern world?
- Do we find ourselves in the midst of controversy once again due to a failure to understand Western culture and the psyche of Western students? Does the belief in the superiority of their view prevent some teachers from seeing their own shortcomings? Is there an inability to change harmful behavior? Or an unwillingness to give up “perks” like rights to pleasures and power? Can using sense pleasures as a path lead to becoming addicted to them?
- Does a conviction that the dubious behaviors are not negative influences of the feudal system but intrinsic parts of the tradition lie at the root of this controversy? Does a belief that the authenticity of the tradition needs to be preserved at all costs and a sense of responsibility to do so make them unable to see better ways to adapt Tibetan Buddhism in the West?
It seems obvious that unless some learning and change happens, the Vajrayana guru-disciple model based on feudal customs will continue to clash with modern society. As a result, the remaining practitioners may be forced to withdraw to small isolated communities. We might see small bastions that uphold a way of spiritual practice they believe to represent the highest truth though aspects of it are seen as harmful by the rest of the world.
Many people have questioned the motivation and character of Sogyal Rinpoche. The reported behaviors seem to point this way, but we cannot really know his motivation. Only Sogyal Rinpoche can know his motivation.
Perhaps, a better way of looking at this situation is that of a doctor who uses a treatment that is not socially accepted or aligned with basic human values. If the treatment works well, there would be no complaints. But if it has severe, harmful side effects in a significant number of patients, it becomes a problem. Since he keeps administering this treatment, even after being told over and over about the harm to some of his patients, society must now intervene to prevent further suffering.
Speaking Up Against Abuse Is Not Easy
Speaking up against abuse is not easy. People blame you for causing harm by speaking out, instead of putting responsibility for this controversy on those who caused it by their actions. They will tell you to just go away, get on with it and stop playing the victim. They will minimize your experiences and even try to discredit your character and motivation. They will pressure you with their version of samaya. They will discredit any teacher who has a critical view through rumours and innuendo.
It is painful to experience this. I find it important to take care of my own psychological and spiritual health during this controversy. What I find helpful is to name these actions when I notice them. And stay confident in my integrity and alignment with basic human and spiritual values. To remember and make it clear that I am criticizing behaviors not people.
When tempers flare, I find it helpful to keep in mind that the community is full of good hearted and devoted students. This is a very painful situation for everyone because there is a deep sacred bond between teacher and student. The issues raised bring up deep questions on how to follow the spiritual path. It takes time to process these questions.
The letter of complaint represents a huge intervention. The establishment always opposes reformation. Some people say going public with these complaints was damaging. Although it’s not clear how much lasting change will come from the letter of complaint, in my view, this intervention was necessary. I believe it will help Buddhism address some of its outdated aspects. I believe it will help us become more mature and authentic spiritual practitioners.
Where are we at? What do you think has been achieved by the letter? Can Vajrayana flourish without extreme teaching methods? Please share your thoughts in the comments.
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