How Did It Happen?

Understanding and Healing Abuse in Buddhist Communities

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.

I respect their clarity and the confidence they feel in their chosen spiritual path. Who can judge for certain? Predictions by Padmasambhava say some of his future manifestations will be misunderstood, even though they are authentic.

We started this website to promote reflection, not to encourage anyone to leave their spiritual teacher.  We only want to understand why people feel harmed and how this can be prevented in the future.

I’ve notice that most people who feel this sense of stronger faith as a result of the controversy do not seem to have a good answer on how to address abuse. When I ask them about those who feel harmed and what needs to change, they usually answer in a vague way. Often, they suggest leaving it to the teachers or community leaders to figure out.

The allegations do not seem credible to many of them. They don’t recognize the Sogyal Rinpoche they know in the reports of harm. They consider the complaints a political campaign and an ill-motivated attempt to harm Sogyal Rinpoche and Rigpa.

Nothing Will Change!

Others feel a genuine concern for the harm students have experienced and question the appropriateness of Sogyal Rinpoche’s behavior.

Many of these students wonder if Rigpa will try to ‘sit this out,’ as they feel has happened again and again over the last 25 years in response to previous complaints. They feel frustrated the promised independent investigation has yet to begun, more than two full months after the July 14th letter of complaint. From their perspective, explanations for the wait, like “Everyone is on vacation in August,” don’t hold water. They fear a ‘pro forma’ investigation that will result in little change.

The August 11th letter from the Rigpa International Holding Board acknowledged a sense of pressure coming from the community.

There is, of course, much pressure—both from outside and inside our community— for swift action. Whilst we recognize fully the seriousness and urgency of the situation, it is essential that adequate time is given for consultation with our professional and spiritual advisors, as well as for thorough dialogue with our worldwide directors, staff and sangha. We firmly believe that if these processes are handled in a measured and careful fashion, the end result will be far more satisfactory and complete for all concerned.

Of course, Rigpa must be given a chance to properly arrange the independent investigation. But it’s also fair to point out actions on their part that give the impression nothing will change.

The Rigpa Response

Here are some examples of responses from Rigpa International Holding Group that could give the sense there will be no significant change:

  • Their July 19th press release promised to address the complaints, investigate and get advice, but it continued the policy of minimizing accusations by pointing out the complaint was made by a “small” number of students and emphasized that Rigpa does so much good.
  • The word “abuse” appears to be taboo; it’s never mentioned when information is shared.
  • There has never been an apology forthcoming from either Sogyal Rinpoche or Rigpa. Those who were hoping for an apology got nothing but a side remark as part of a presentation made by Patrick Gaffney and Dominique Side to announce Sogyal Rinpoche’s retirement. At the end of a guided meditation, Dominique Side said rather cryptically, “Everybody has the best intentions, of course, we make mistakes.”
  • Although the various Rigpa Boards have expressed deep concern and promised a thorough investigation, so far there has been no acknowledgement of the validity of the complaints.

The Rigpa International Holding Group letter from August 11th states:

Please know that we are fully resolved to meet this difficult situation responsibly, sensitively, head-on, and in a way that is completely consistent with the teachings and the spiritual values that we uphold.

Rigpa management may feel it’s not appropriate or not their place to criticize Sogyal Rinpoche. They may want to leave it to him to reflect and communicate on this matter. But withholding criticism can come across as condoning abusive behavior , especially since Sogyal Rinpoche has not responded specifically to the allegations.

Sogyal Rinpoche’s Response

Sogyal Rinpoche said he would ask and heed the spiritual advice of lamas like Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and Mingyur Rinpoche. They have both shared articles and statements. Equally important, the Dalai Lama has spoken publicly about the controversy four times now.

Sogyal Rinpoche has voluntarily retired as the Spiritual Director and from involvement in the day-to-day operations of the Rigpa organization. But so far, there has been no response from Sogyal Rinpoche regarding his questionable behavior as a teacher.

Three of Rinpoche’s closest and oldest students — Patrick Gaffney, Dominique Side, and Philip Phillipou — continue to guide and manage Rigpa. Many people find this objectionable, as these individuals may have turned a blind eye to abusive behavior for a number of years.  They wonder if Sogyal Rinpoche is directing the operation from behind the scenes.

At the recent retreat for Dzogchen students at Lerab Ling, Sogyal Rinpoche streamed three brief messages to the 900 students who attended. He did not address or share any reflections on the accusations made about his behavior.

Sogyal Rinpoche told his committed students that even though he has retired as the Spiritual Director of Rigpa,

I will never retire as your lama. In the teachings it is said, your commitment to the teacher is until enlightenment. And the teachers commitment to you is until enlightenment.

This may have been very important to hear for those who feel this controversy has strengthened their faith.

But for those who are struggling with doubts and questions, there was no acknowledgement that students may feel confused about their commitment or the behavior that is appropriate for a teacher, especially after reading statements from Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and Mingyur Rinpoche’s that provide a different perspective.

The Bigger Picture Includes the Good

In his statement from August 14th, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche reminded us not to forget the bigger picture, which includes the good Sogyal Rinpoche and the Rigpa community have contributed to the lives of so many people. With all the provocative questions in his statement, this might have been easy to miss, so let me paraphrase some of what he said.

He sees Rigpa students as sincere, dedicated, diligent, kind, and eager to learn seekers who went to great lengths to search out teachings and have complied with everything our teacher has asked of us, many of us with little financial means.

Even though we were born and grew up in countries that lacked any form of Dharma influence, he commended us on how much we care about the continuation of the Buddhadharma and our own lineage. In this extreme, fanatical age, when so many are lost and desperately looking for some meaning in their lives, he described our pursuit of Buddhadharma as remarkable and worthy of lavish praise, and our attempt to practice pure perception and maintain devotion for the teacher and the teachings as truly admirable.

But Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche also noted that he is pointing out the positive not to deflect from the issues we face, but to see the bigger picture.  In light of his words, open discussion in the community seems crucial. If we truly want to learn from the controversy, we need to ask honest and difficult questions. For example,

  • How are we, as a community, with this issue?
  • How can we resolve a controversy that throws a shadow on our vision of wisdom and compassion and all the good we have achieved as an organization so far?

What’s Different from Past Complaints?

In some ways, our community has grown accustomed to Sogyal Rinpoche being accused of sexual misconduct. When a lawsuit was filed in 1994, some people left Rigpa. But many of us gave the benefit of the doubt, hoping it was an unfortunate misunderstanding that should be learned from.

What’s different now?  Sogyal Rinpoche has been told repeatedly over the last thirty years how some of his behavior can be harmful. Many people find it difficult, if not impossible, to understand why, in spite of all the warnings and explanations given to him, students still feel harmed.

Complexity of the 1994 Lawsuit

The present complaint from eight long-time students is different from past ones in other ways too. During the 1994 lawsuit, which stretched over almost a year, other elements of the situation created doubt about the validity of the complaints. But these no longer seem to apply.

To give you an idea of the complexity of the issues at that time, here are a few excerpts from a long article by Mick Brown in The Telegraph Magazine, February 1995 that describes different perspectives from that time.

There was the growing prevalence of sexual harassment cases:

In America, this case has prompted a fierce debate, not only about the role of Tibetan teachers in the West, and the conflicts between an ancient spiritual tradition and contemporary standards of secular behavior, but also about the growing prevalence of sexual harassment cases in a society where people are increasingly encouraged to perceive themselves as victims of abuse — whether by their parents, their teachers, their employers, or their religious leaders — and to seek redress in the newspapers or the courts.

There were questions about political correctness:

Some Western Buddhists believe that Tibetan teachers, coming from a society which is ‘patriarchal, feudal and misogynistic’, are inevitably so burdened by the baggage of their own cultural traditions that they cannot be trusted to be sensitive to the nuances of politically correct America.

Others suggest that the lawsuit is evidence that nothing is sacred: that in America today everything — even religious practice — must measure up to the requirements of political correctness, in a climate where there is always ambiguity over whether sexual harassment suits are instruments of justice or simply of revenge.

The allegations were said to be a distortion:

Sogyal Rinpoche has made no comment on the allegations, although the Rigpa Fellowship says that ‘as far as we’re aware, they have no foundation’. ‘The charge portrays Sogyal’s conduct in a light that is truly distorted,’ says Jack Friedman, the California attorney for Rigpa.

Was it a love affair that went wrong?

So what actually occurred between Sogyal Rinpoche and Janice Doe? Was it all a terrible misunderstanding: a religious teacher doing what he felt was necessary for the pupil, and a pupil failing to understand a relationship of ‘no boundaries?’ Was it an unscrupulous man taking advantage of a naive and trusting woman’s emotional vulnerability? Or was it simply a love affair which ended in a bitter recrimination?

A conspiracy to undermine Rigpa and Sogyal Rinpoche?

Senior students of Sogyal Rinpoche say that they fear that Janice Doe’s lawsuit in America may be part of a deliberate campaign to undermine the lama and his organisation. ‘Sogyal is a very successful, very charismatic teacher,’ says one Rigpa member. ‘He’s attracted a large following — which could, in itself, be a cause of jealousy.’

A conspiracy on the part of Western Buddhist teachers?

‘There is a group of Western Buddhist teachers who feel they should now be honoured and respected themselves as teachers, and who represent a very puritanical tendency,’ says Bob Thurman. ‘I think they’re envious of the Asian teachers, who maybe misbehave a little bit around the edges, but who are more respected than they are. I’m not saying there is a conspiracy. But there are certainly people who have been abetting this attack.’

Complaints Since 1994

A number of women have come forward with complaints over the last 30 years. As a result, some senior students have left periodically due to concerns about misconduct and sexual abuse. Some have spoken out publicly, but others have simply disappeared.

Rigpa continues to respond more or less along the lines described in the Telegraph article. See this Rigpa Press Release from September 2016  as an example of how Rigpa recently defended itself from accusations of abuse.

Now eight long-time students have come forward. This is not a singular case that can be explained away, but appears to be a systemic and widespread issue of harm on a much larger scale. We have 23 years of additional data to consider, since the lawsuit, to determine whether reported experiences of physical and sexual abuse, physical burnout, and psychological breakdowns are due to an unhealthy and abusive environment.

See:

Human Suffering Is the Main Issue Now

The issues of political correctness and the politics of power and influence in Western Buddhism, no longer have the same weight as they did around the time of the lawsuit.  I don’t believe the eight long-time students who recently came forward with allegations of abuse want to harm or destroy Sogyal Rinpoche and Rigpa. They would like to see acknowledgment that harm has happened and organizational changes that will prevent such harm from occurring in the future.

Are we willing to acknowledge and address human suffering?  That is the issue that faces us now. We must question whether approaches previously accepted in Eastern culture work in Western culture. We need to consider whether a bias towards the Eastern point of view prevents Tibetan teachers from understanding Western culture and the psyche of Western students. Are Vajrayana teachers ignoring the insights of Western Psychology? Can Western Psychology help us understand how trauma and abuse can come about so its causes can be removed?

Can Western Mind Sciences Help?

Western sciences of the mind, like psychology and neuroscience, have come a long way in the last 50 years since Tibetan Buddhism began to grow in the West. Less based on abstract theories and more rooted in science, these approaches now provide useful tools and methods to improve emotional and psychological functioning. In the last decade, psychological pioneers have developed a detailed understanding of how trauma occurs, ways to prevent it, and effective tools for healing trauma when it does occur.

Might some of these methods be more effective in understanding and purifying the mind and preparing for advanced levels of spiritual practice than the traditional preliminary practices in Tibetan Buddhism? Many psychological and therapeutic approaches do not contradict the principles and practices of Buddhism and could indeed complement them.

Does the ‘special relationship’ between teacher and student, said to be the very basis of Vajrayana, require the use of abusive methods, which most consider harmful nowadays? Might a student-teacher relationship based on free will, conscious consent, and understanding be more effective than imposed, forced, and pressured surrender?

I’m not anti student-guru relationship. I firmly believe the most direct way to awakening and inner freedom comes through a connection to a realized teacher. If you connect your mind with the mind and heart of a master who is liberated, you have a chance to experience the liberated state and with proper preparation and instructions, learn how to sustain it.

However, I think we need to ask whether ways to accomplish this exist with less risk of human suffering and trauma. As Mingyur Rinpoche has said, “extreme teaching methods [are] used only with very mature students and in the context of a relationship of stable trust and devotion, [and] they are also a last resort.”

Is Rigpa More Isolated Now?

In 1994, when Janice Doe filed her lawsuit against Sogyal Rinpoche and Rigpa, many senior masters of the Nyingma lineage like Penor Rinpoche, Trulshik Rinpoche, Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche, and Chagdud Rinpoche were still alive. They appeared supportive of Sogyal Rinpoche based on the advice they gave to Rigpa and Rinpoche and the fact that some spoke out in his defense. I remember Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche said that time will tell because the dust will blow away and the gold will remain.

Although a stream of Buddhist teachers visits Lerab Ling and the various Rigpa centers each year, Rigpa and Sogyal Rinpoche may in some ways be more isolated now. The goodwill of the Tibetan Buddhist community may have been used up after years of abuse rumors.

Friends in other Tibetan Buddhist communities have told me their sanghas and teachers have quietly distanced themselves from Rigpa. They have watched the waves of abuse accusations over the years and have gotten first-hand information from sincere and concerned students who have left Rigpa and joined their communities. They have noticed how Rigpa seems closed to hearing concerns.

Maybe this is a good time to make an effort to mend our connections? It might be helpful to create a space where friends from other communities can be invited to share their concerns. Maybe we need to make a point of asking them and giving them permission to tell us honestly what they’re really thinking.

Clear Statements by the Dalai Lama 

Although the Dalai Lama encouraged students to speak up against unethical behavior on the part of Buddhist teachers during the Western Buddhist Teachers Conference in 1993, he declined his official support to the code of ethics they had proposed.

The 1995 telegraph article says:

‘I think the Dalai Lama felt any kind of code was premature,’ says Robert Thurman, professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, who was an observer at the conference. ‘And the teachers were not representative of the Buddhist community as a whole.’

The Dalai Lama has publicly spoken about the current controversy on four different occasions now.

In his talk on August 1st, he referenced the remarks he made at the 1993 Western Buddhist Teachers Conference. Although he did not sign the proposed code of ethics at the time, he clearly wants to see unethical behaviors addressed. He specifically mentioned Rigpa and Sogyal Rinpoche, suggesting a negative influence from the feudal system as the main problem.

Some people in Rigpa felt stunned when they heard this criticism. They feel it’s inappropriate. This kind of response, while understandable, seems to me a denial of facts. Sogyal Rinpoche has offered the work of Rigpa to support the vision of His Holiness many times.  He has asked him to guide our community. The Dalai Lama’s endorsement of Sogyal Rinpoche and Rigpa’s work has allowed us to accomplish a great deal.

Some argue that His Holiness’s criticism is based on partial information, but he has been apprised of Rigpa’s programs and accomplishments many times over the years. The alleged behaviors, which have been witnessed by many, are clearly not in alignment with what he considers ethical conduct appropriate for a Buddhist teacher.  I’m not surprised he’s speaking up so strongly.

If anyone wants to respectfully disagree, I would love to hear your reasoning.  I only ask you to think carefully about your explanation and what it might imply.

Be Ready to Acknowledge Serious Problems

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and Mingyur Rinpoche have raised concerns as well. While I do not want to pre-empt the conclusions of an independent investigation, it might be wise for the community to anticipate the identification of significant problems by the investigators.

Should that happen, serious questions would need to be considered.

If we conclude that there is a problem with abuse in our community now,

  • Does that not mean there has been a problem for 30 years, starting back when complaints first began?
  • Does that not mean that our community has minimized the suffering that was reported and allowed an environment where many people were harmed?
  • Does that not mean the same people now in charge of Rigpa, who knew about the number of complaints all those years and denied them, now suddenly understand what is wrong and can fix the problem?

A Community Responsibility

In a public statement from July 19th, Rigpa committed to seeking professional advice, spiritual advice, and initiating open discussion in the community. I felt encouraged, in particular, that Rigpa had initiated open discussion about the issues at hand.

According to the August 11th Rigpa International Holding Group letter:

Sogyal Rinpoche has clearly stated his wish to hand over responsibility for the future of Rigpa to the Sangha. It is we, therefore, who must take charge of this situation and seek to resolve it in the best way possible for all concerned, including those who feel aggrieved. We accept this responsibility and commit to taking whatever steps are necessary.

It would not be wise to leave this to a few people in senior management positions to figure out and resolve. The Dalai Lama said clearly that students have a responsibility to examine and ensure their community is in accord with the Buddhist teachings.

Secrecy can allow abuse to happen in spiritual communities. Understandably, many would prefer to deal with the dispute quietly. Unfortunately, the spotlight is now on Sogyal Rinpoche and Rigpa. It may be uncomfortable, but on the positive side, the public scrutiny can help to ensure the issues don’t get swept under the carpet.

It is up to us as a community to participate in the discussion and contribute to the independent investigation. We can also contribute professional advice, for example: insights about Western culture, knowledge about trauma and abuse, and expertise on leadership.  Ideally, we will express our concerns, wishes and needs, share our understanding of the advice from various lamas that we have received, and ask how their advice will be implemented.

The August 11th Rigpa International Board letter confirms this:

The responsibility to navigate the way through these challenging times now lies with us—the Rigpa Sangha. Please participate as best you can, so that collectively we can bring peace, healing and resolution to our community and to all those affected. Let us be spacious and non-judgmental so that we can truly listen to each other with our whole being, and with compassion and understanding.

So much is at stake for the future. How do we want to stand as a sangha when abuse happens in other communities in the future? Will we have to be quiet and look away slightly embarrassed because we have not addressed this issue properly in our own community? Or will we be able to be a light in these situations, sharing our experiences and what we learned from them?

Denial

We need to be wary of denial. One sign of denial is when you’re not able to acknowledge events that many people have witnessed.

The newer members of our community who do not know Sogyal Rinpoche well enough to come to their own conclusions will notice denial and it will likely make them very uncomfortable.

In one of the Rigpa US webinars for discussion of the controversy, some members expressed how uncomfortable they felt about a sense of secrecy. They felt relieved when some participants openly acknowledged the alleged behaviors and said they believed those who have reported harm. If your practice of pure perception comes across as whitewashing, something is wrong. As one participant said, tell it like it is.

On the spiritual path, we must face the truth. The truth, however, is never black and white. So we need an open mind that can hold both gratitude and appreciation for Sogyal Rinpoche and the good he has contributed to the world, and at the same time, acknowledge that harm has happened. As compassionate people, we need to hold the view that both the people who are speaking up about the good as well as those who are speaking up about the harm aim to have good intentions.

Understandably, this is challenging. We won’t manage it perfectly, but we can commit to watching our minds and recognizing and owning it when we are coming from anger, judgment or defensiveness.

Care for Those Harmed

We must care for those who have felt harmed, as one of our first responsibilities. In the heated debate, the people most likely to be forgotten are the people who have experienced suffering and distress. When I hear the accounts of people who have felt harmed, I feel embarrassed and ashamed. It feels painful to see how the suffering of those harmed has been discounted and minimized.

The more we can respond in a heartfelt way the better. In his letter to the sangha from July 19th, Sogyal Rinpoche said:

I encourage you all to reach out to one another, and look after one another, to listen to each other, and care for one another in the loving, compassionate and open spirit of the Buddha’s teachings.” The Rigpa board statement from August 11 also said “we have recognized our immediate responsibility to reach out to as many people as possible and offer our support.

Realistically people who have unprocessed experiences will benefit most from working with a skilled therapist who has a good understanding of spirituality; ideally, someone from outside of the community. But local sanghas can help by recommending the best therapists and encouraging people to get the help and support they may need.

Here is a link to the EMDRIA directory of EMDR therapists skilled in working with trauma.  You can find links to other forms of trauma therapy on our resources page.

Is the Truth Knocking, but We’re Not Answering?

When you feel a deep bond with a group, facts become less important than defending your community. This is a dynamic played out all over the world, as explained in an Atlantic article called Reading This Won’t Change Your Mind. The article says:

‘A man with a conviction is a hard man to change,’ Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schacter wrote in When Prophecy Failstheir 1957 book about this study. ‘Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point … Suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before.’

When a community feels threatened, its members will deny facts. This is how they say, “I am on your side.” Just look at US politics, the denial of climate change, or the recent unrests involving a spiritual community whose leader was convicted of rape in India.  Often, what we say in conflict is not about the truth, but motivated by a deeply ingrained need for social and emotional safety. Most people will defend their tribe regardless of the validity of information presented to them.

It’s very difficult for most people to change their mind about a false belief when it’s deeply tied to their identity. It requires openness to critical thinking. Critical thinking doesn’t mean skepticism. It means the ability to hold several seemingly opposing viewpoints at the same time.

Understandably, we fall into judgments and black or white thinking sometimes. But when our buttons are pushed and we feel defensive, we can help others and ourselves by taking a look inside ourselves and owning our reaction, as hard as it might be.

Look At This As An Opportunity 

This controversy challenges the Vajrayana tradition to look at important issues like secrecy, sexual abuse, and the guru-student relationship. If Buddhist teachers and communities rise up to the challenge, I believe it will contribute to providing a more effective authentic spiritual path for the modern world.   The use of knowledge and tools from psychology and neuroscience along with cultural sensitivity will ensure healthy emotional and cognitive functioning in students and thus a healthier spiritual path.

Western culture and social sciences also offer insight into effective organizational models and systems of governance. Many models for creative, cooperative, conscious communities improve on the drawbacks and failings of our present democratic systems. It would be interesting to look at how these insights could address what the Dalai Lama has called the negative influences of the Tibetan feudal system on Buddhist organizations.

Will we be able to move away from a situation where Tibetan Buddhism is seen as anti-Western culture and Western culture is seen as anti-Vajrayana? Will we be able to take the best of what Western culture has to offer and the best of what Tibetan Buddhism has to offer to create an authentic modern spiritual path?

I would like to conclude with the closing lines of the Rigpa board letter from August 11th, which resonated with me deeply:

We feel strongly that if we remain open and supportive as a Sangha, and true to our Dharma roots and practice, we will emerge from this stronger and wiser. Ultimately, through this process, we may find that Rigpa grows into an even greater vehicle for the profound teaching and practice of Dharma. This should be our goal. Please stay close – let’s keep our lines of communication open and keep talking.

Also recommended:  How Can Rigpa Redeem Itself In the Wake of Sogyal Rinpoche’s Resignation by Lobsang Rapgay.

What are your thoughts?  We would love to hear from you in the comments.  You can read our commenting guidelines here.

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31 Comments

  1. Eckart Dissen

    Dear Bernie Schreck,
    Though I like your article in a way, summarizing history and the questions that arise from this dispute.
    As in many articles I find these completely out of balance, when you address the Teacher, Guru, the Teachings and the Sangha. As if there the problem lies. No, the problem is, that people are harmed and they need support. Not to explain that there may have been a reason inherent in the teachings for the harm and the misbehaviour of teacher. Let alone, to cite an advice by the alledged teacher how to face the problems, he has caused.
    It is not his place to comfort, he should stay out of this discussion untill justice has been done. Let us remind what Buddha said once:
    “The evils of the body are murder, theft, and adultery; of the tongue, lying, slander, abuse and idle talk; of the mind, covetousness, hatred and error”.
    Gautama Buddha

    • Bernie Schreck

      Hi Eckart,

      Thank you very much for your comment. I appreciate you sharing your perspective.

      I agree with you that the problem is that people are harmed and need support.

      I hear you say we should keep Sogyal Rinpoche out of this until justice has been done. How do you see this happen?

      By the way I am not saying there is an inherent reason in the teachings that are harmful, but that some ways of teachings are harmful and that the teacher has a responsibility to teach according to the capacity of the student. I am sorry if this was not clear.

    • Dear Eckart,

      I appreciate why you feel Sogyal Rinoche should stay out of this discussion, however this was part of his response to the allegations. And many Rigpa students have a deep devotion to him even if they do not condone abuse behavior. It’s hard for them to suddenly be cut off from their teacher, although we all will have to face this at some point due to impermanence, either ours or his. He has promised to share messages with his students from time to time from his retreat. It seems compassionate for this to happen for the sake of his students who wish to hear his words.

  2. maisie

    Thanks for bringing it all together Bernie. Though your own view is clear i can see that you’ve made a definite effort to present the other reactions and views that you have observed in Rigpa. This is so important.

  3. Annie

    I have never been a student of Sogyal, alghough I knew him well, so I have a very dispassionate approach to the situation.

    An interesting aspect of the situation is what Tibetan lamas do in this situation, as opposed do expressing themselves in writing.

    In October, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, a highly respected lama, will give a teaching at Rigpa Paris. Of course, this must have been planned well before the scandal became public.
    But anyhow, he is giving support to the Rigpa sangha and I think it is wonderful. This is what is needed. Sogyal is in retreat, the investigation is in process. It is the sangha which needs advice and support. The new “board” has stated that they seek advice and support from Tibetan Teachers, which is the right, mature thing to do. Like individual students, the sangha as a whole has been brutally weened from their dependancy from the Teacher. This dependancy was a pathology symmetrical from Sogyal’s pathology. To be a genuineTibetan Buddhist, I think one needs to be autonomous and courageous. Individual students must face their own behavior, look for help to heal their wounds if necessary , but the sangha as a collective body must go ahead.

    • Bernie Schreck

      I agree Annie that it is a good thing teachers like Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche continue to come to Rigpa. Their teachings and advice will be a much needed support for the sangha.

  4. Annie

    Sorry for my previous post which was published twice. I will try to do better for this one.
    I think that there are several issues which should be approached separately.

    First of all, let’s look at Sogyal. Lakar? I don’t know what this mean. He is tulku, a Rimpoche –myself, I don’t care for titles, but.a misbehaving Rimpoche is still a Rimpoche. Sogyal is definitely not a fake reincarnation, a fraud : only a genuine and properly trained tulku could have given such high teachings. Let’s not deny he was, he is a great teacher. Whatever he has done, no matter how he behaved.

    One aspect of the situation reminds me of what happens at the ordinary level when a great love story ends. Often, you are in pain, you grieve, you feel confused. Some people suddenly see only negative aspects of their beloved and of their interaction, aspects they did not see before, aspects they repressed previously. They reinterpret the past, rewrite their history. By doing so, they hurt themselves, they add to the pain of separation. Why deny the beautiful moments, they were there too.
    A break up is a great opportunity to learn, to grow: to experience directly one’s attachment, to become aware of one’s capacity for delusion.

    Sogyal’s students as well as other students of Tibetan Buddhism have to face the contradiction between the undeniable qualities manifested by a teacher, the benefit they may have derived from his teachings, and in some cases, from his personal guidance and his un-ethical behavior.
    One answer can be found in the 1st of the 4 reliances:
    “The four reliances (Skt. catuḥpratisaraṇa; Tib. རྟོན་པ་བཞི་, tönpa shyi, Wyl. rton pa bzhi) —
    1. Rely on the message of the teacher, not on his personality (gang zag la mi rton/ chos la rton);
    2. Rely on the meaning, not just on the words (tshig la mi rton/ don la rton);
    3. Rely on the real meaning, not on the provisional one (drang don la mi rton/ nges don la rton);
    4. Rely on your wisdom mind, not on your ordinary, judgemental mind (rnam shes la mi rton/ ye shes la rton).
    These were taught by the Buddha in sutras such as the Sutra of the Teaching of Akshayamati and the Sutra of the Questions of the Naga King Anavatapta. They are commented upon in works such as Asanga’s Stages of Spiritual Practice.”
    Where did I found that quote? http://www.rigpawiki.org/index.php?title=Four_reliances
    No matter how Sogyal behaved, for me, RigpaWiki is a treasure, An incredible contribution to Buddhism in the West. I use it all the time and this is the unique achievement of Sogyal and his sangha. His Tibetan Calendar was widely used too. His teachings were high, authentic,he put his heart into it, this should be acknowledged, this is the truth. But..

    • Solenodon

      ” Sogyal is definitely not a fake reincarnation, a fraud : only a genuine and properly trained tulku could have given such high teachings. Let’s not deny he was, he is a great teacher. ”

      Erm, no, you don’t need to be a tulku to transmit vajrayana or dzogchen.

      And no, even partial realisation is enough to give a valid transmission. For example if you can hold the realisation of the teaching you transmit only for certain periods of time and not at others.

      And no again, the only initiation SR has ever given is Tendrel Nyesel as far as I know. Most likely because for much of the rest of the tantra transmissions he has never done the qualifying retreats.
      I also don’t see where he has fit the necessary retreats into his schedule to attain full realisation of the teachings Nyoshul Khenpo has given him.

      I believe that SR has inherited the “knack” of giving transmissions from his predecessor but never got the formal training and retreats needed to fully stabilize those to become a true mahasiddha.

      To be beyond the ability to harm other beings one has to be quite high up on the bodhisattva bhumis. This is not a technical requirement to teach vajrayana or dzogchen.

    • Solenodon

      By the way, there is something that may be a direct indicator of this partial/incomplete realisation.

      That’s SR’s fluctuating/inconsistant quality as a lecturer. This could be from “blowing you away” to “wow, that was a total waste of time”.

      It always depended if he “got into the groove” or not.

      When one addressed this fact official explanation was “he is so realized that he senses the atmosphere and it hampers his ability to teach”. Therefor also the frantic attempts of the instructors doing the introductory sessions at retreats to create an “inspiring” atmosphere for SR.

      Frankly, I no longer believe this theory. In my opinion a teacher who is stable in his realisation will not be perturbed in his ability to transmit dharma by an audience that shows signs of mental suffering and just switch to a subject appropriate for the particular mental hangups of his audience.
      For example a really touching, loving and heartfelt teaching on compassion is something that always and with every audience will be helpful. I know several lamas where no matter the topic of the talk you will ALWAYS get a quality dose of that, no matter what the mood of the audience is, these teachers are never not in the mood to see suffering and address it with compassion expressed in a suitable way.

      In hindsight, this almost frantic “we have to create an inspiring atmosphere so Rinpoche can teach” at retreats should have been a huge red flag….

    • Bernie Schreck

      Thanks for reminding us Annie! I think there can be a point where the personality may compromise the message. Because your actions and behavior can speak louder than words. Mathieu Ricard reminded us that the Dalai Lama often said that teachers need to be an example of what they teach.

  5. Matt Morse

    Sogyal Rinpoche was a legendary Lama second only to Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in bringing Tibetan Buddhism to the West. Along with Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, he helped to spread and popularize the formerly “secret” Dzogchen teachings.

    Sogyal Rinpoche had a populist and loving touch that invited all comers and a dark “Crazy Wisdom” side that challenged or even repulsed all but the most supremely devoted students.

    His legacy remains a powerful mystery despite the fact that some see his life’s work ending in schism and disgrace.

    • Solenodon

      Crazy wisdom has nothing to do with being violent or wrathful. It can also be doing completely harmless or funny “conventionally crazy” things. Genuine wrathful activity is not crazy wisdom but the last of the four types of enlightened activity of the bodhisattvas.

      For example one teacher I know on a really hot day took the garden hose and gave everyone present in that garden a good cooldown (he would not persist with people who looked obviously reluctant and retreated, not everyone had a change of clothes at hand). Same teacher after a big event fed the rest of the food to the remaining volunteers around the campfire refilling our plates again and again and had a blast of a time watching us struggle to say no to the offering when we were all definitely full. That teacher is a very peaceful, compassionate, vinaya abiding monk as well as a dzogchen master (who does not teach vajrayana or dzogchen except to committed retreatants).

      Crazy in this context means in contradiction to conventional thinking and behaviour, it’s just unconventional from our perspective. That can be any type of behaviour and is very often just humorous and playful or teaching with the sheer absurdity an action.

      • Gold Star Matt Morse

        Solenodon – Crazy Wisdom and teaching styles come in many many different forms. Some people felt a deep heart connection with Sogyal Rinpoche, but always wanted him to change to become their pet “idealized Lama.” I prefer to just love and accept him as he is…warts and all.

        Sogyal Rinpoche is Sogyal Rinpoche is Sogyal Rinpoche.

        • Solenodon

          True. I know a person who encountered him in a working position in Rigpa who appreciates that he communicates very clearly what he wants, that he can be sharp, but nothing compared to the BS you encounter in companies in work life and that he totally accepts if you say that something is not possible right now. He described working with him as fun and him as quite playful and is in no way, shape or form afraid of him.

          But that person is an emotionally robust individual with good self confidence.

          So apparently there are people who find him easy to deal with. I personally could not work with him in a 1 on 1 situation, teachers who use pressure in any form are in general not suitable for me. I know that and keep these types at a healthy distance.

          • Gold Star Matt Morse

            Solenodon- I’m similar to you. Sogyal Rinpoche is one of my Root Lamas and his teachings moved me to my core: Trekcho. Absolutely….

            But, I always had to keep a distance from him. I’m not very tolerant of prima donnas, although I appreciate their Supreme gifts. Absolutely….

            That’s why I was given a Gold Star by the What Now activists.

          • Bernie Schreck

            yes I agree it’s an individual thing. Sogyal Rinpoche’s approach seems to work well for some people. And I am glad you had a good understanding of yourself to know what does not work for you. I feel if we as students are encouraged to develop this kind of self-knowledge and self-responsibility and self-care it would contribute to preventing abuse. Of course there is also similar responsibility on the side of the teacher.

      • Cindy Choi

        Solenodon I am quite ashamed to say but I must admit that personally, I doubt that your peaceful teacher would have been able to teach me very much. That all sounds very cozy, but unfortunately, I think only the poignant, tragic spectacle that encompasses a bit of the mad diversity that is the tapestry of human suffering, expressed in the microcosm of the Rigpa sangha, has the ability to distract me from my numerous samsaric pursuits and awaken me. I had no idea what I was getting into when I started all those years ago, and if I did I would have run away. But now in hindsight, I wouldn’t have had it any other way, including where we are today. With all my love to everyone. Cindy Choi

  6. Solenodon

    So some people feel that “their faith has been strengthened”…

    Has nobody told those, that tantric buddhism isn’t Christianity, that “faith” in a teacher is quite pointless from that perspective because the teacher isn’t a saviour figure?

    Erm, yeah, if that is what people now believe, please bring in a few qualified teachers to set those strange and unbuddhist beliefs about the role of the teacher right….

    I’ve not yet had contact with the local Rigpa group here since before the summer retreat (the local Drikung Kagyu group is so much less complicated…) so I’m not updated to what the general mood in my area is.

    Frankly, I feel, if you have the option, don’t touch this mess with a ten foot pole because it’s bad for your peace of mind. (I have the luxury that SR was never my only teacher or my main refuge as teachers go) So I take a step back and watch this unfold.

    • Cindy Choi

      I’m one of those people whose faith has been strengthened. I wrote long thing about this in a Facebook post. The executive summary is that, having had the outer teacher taken away from me, I found that the inner teacher, my own Buddha nature, was still there for “me”

  7. piero cerri

    As one of the oldest western student of Tibetan Lamas i appreciate this approach: “On the spiritual path, we must face the truth. The truth, however, is never black and white. So we need an open mind that can hold both gratitude and appreciation for Sogyal Rinpoche and the good he has contributed to the world, and at the same time, acknowledge that harm has happened. As compassionate people, we need to hold the view that both the people who are speaking up about the good as well as those who are speaking up about the harm aim to have good intentions.” It is very different from those judaic oriented who want to see blood in crucifying S.R. My thoughts are that the abused students, Sogyal Rinpoche and Rigpa Sangha do need to apply their Dharma practice to this unfortunate situation.

    • Bernie Schreck

      Thank you Piero for your comment that helps us take our human suffering to our spiritual path

  8. As a practicing clinical psychologist, I’ve been reflecting on SL’s behavior from a professional point of view. I realized that had the eight students come to me for psychotherapy (I’m turning this into a hypothetical, not speaking of the actual individuals) and shared their experiences about their physical, emotional and sexual traumas, I would have encouraged them to go to the police to report crimes of rape, assault, extortion as part of their long term treatment. I keep wondering why we’re not talking about the abuse for what it has been: criminal. How do we reckon with the facts of the matter, that our teacher has repeatedly engaged in criminal activity and has greatly harmed many of his students? We keep discussing this as a Dharma matter. While I certainly understand the relevance of the Dharma perspective, I think we may be losing sight of the forest for the trees.

    • Eckart Dissen

      Dear Susan,
      What a relief that you bring forward your vision and put the matter in a more realistic perspective. First of all I a have been studying with LSR and even went to one of the first retreats in France. Next to that I was a hosting program director (of Kosmos, Amsterdam) for many Tibetan Buddhist teachings and seminars. Of course I am very disappointed and shocked that a teacher I once trusted truly abused other people that gave him their confidence.
      Now we face a situation where his Sangha must come to terms with their Teacher.
      And we face the discussion that students are more then hesitant to speak out.
      I think that in this situation there are social-psychological processes in action, as we have witnessed in many cults. The leader steps out, or back, and the students are in true confusion. Even now it becomes more and more clear that the teacher abused students and minbehaved, the students continue to defend their teacher, understandable. It wil take quite a time to get out of this stage of confusion, and it will need quite some self-reflection to let go the old truths.
      Once I asked if it is possible that an abusive and misbehaving teacher still can teach with integrety and genuinity. Even can he teach the Dharma at all.
      My question was answered by no one. I suppose because it is clear and a painful no.
      Most Buddhist teachings start with the reflection on ignorance and illusion.
      What harm is done, if a teacher creates a complete teaching on new illusions?
      And is it not that background from where the voices in defence of LSR come from?
      Finally, my solidarity is towards the victims, though the students in general at a certain level also may been victims in perspective of true the Buddhist Teachings.

    • Bernie Schreck

      Hi Susan, good point and I fully agree this is a very important question to ask. If a student experienced abuse and feels harmed going to the police is an option that is open to them. You really feel this is beneficial for the victim? I have heard many people regret this step. Or are you saying this is the only course of action to have this behavior stop? Why are we discussing this? Some people feel that some ways of training that are considered against the law are beneficial for them and experiencing the same behaviors that others experience as abuse as positive experiences of growth. So should such a way of teaching be forbidden? Or is there a way to ensure people don’t feel abused if students are more conscious of the issue and the level of teacher student relationship where this kind of interactions may happen is entered more consciously, consensually and after adequate preparation that ensures students can process intense abusive experiences without feeling harmed?

  9. Nora Staffanell

    I have only taken the teachings online, and have benefited greatly from their clarity, coherence and progression. Even now, I am taking a course (“Bodhichitta” – a teaching from one who has punched a nun in the stomach). Among us students it is as if nothing has happened. It was heartening to get an email from Rigpa that they are addressing the situation, but this seems far too little and too late. So I wrestle with the fact that I am paying mony to an organization that has turned a blind eye to harm allegedly being done to its students. I only hope that no more of the money is going to Sogyal. But with the loyalists, who knows? Still – there is the beauty of the teachings… What came to my mind, and I cannot even quite apply this properly, is that the lotus comes from mud.

    • Bernie Schreck

      Hi Nora, I am glad you are not giving up on appreciating the Dharma and keep following your path and learning about the Dharma.

  10. Catlover

    I think the bigger issue is that Sogyal isn’t the only lama behaving in a “crazy wisdom” sort of way, (although Sogyal is an extreme example). I think his behavior is more or less typical, (especially among lay lamas), and it’s only when it goes public that people in the Tibetan Buddhist community start to say anything about it. Otherwise, this kind of behavior is kept hush-hush and swept under the rug, or even ignored. Hopefully, the Sogyal issue will draw attention to what finally needs to be addressed and brought out into the open.

  11. Cindy Choi

    I’m one of those people whose faith has been strengthened. I wrote long thing about this in a Facebook post. The executive summary is that, having had the outer teacher taken away from me, I found that the inner teacher, my own Buddha nature, was still there for “me”

    • Bernie Schreck

      I am glad to hear that you have found your inner teacher. I personally found that this happened for me too and that it is actually an amazingly beautiful discovery. One thing it required for me was to learn to feel my heart more and listen to it.

  12. Cindy Choi

    Bernie I love your definition of critical thinking. I hope that more people are able to come to think this way.

    • Bernie Schreck

      Thanks! I stole that definition somewhere 🙂 Once I have thought about things thoroughly I usually find the next step is look at projections, anger and judgements, that cloud the capacity to see clearly.

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