How Did It Happen?

Understanding and Healing Abuse in Buddhist Communities

Wild Wild Country: How Spiritual Communities Can Go Wrong

Rajneesh (Osho) Wild Wild Country

Wild Wild Country, the just released limited series on Netflix, documents the rise and fall of the thousands-strong 80’s Rajneesh (Osho) community near Antelope, Oregon.

Rajneeshees purchased 64,000 acres of land near the town of Antelope, and subsequently built and legally incorporated a massive city and agricultural endeavor in the wilderness. Their Utopian ideal, in which people could  live, laugh, love, and be free, aligned perfectly with the free-love movement already happening in the West.  As such, Rajneesh and his philosophy magnetized thousands of smart, hardworking people.

Rajneeshpuram, as the city was called, wasn’t an experiment in spiritual austerity.  The city housed any number of Western indulgences including a gambling venue, a disco, clothing stores, and eateries.  Nudity and open sexually were the norm. Almost ten thousand more Rajneeshees streamed through the town of Antelope to reach Rajneeshpuram during its annual global festival.

The conservative, god-fearing residents of nearby Antelope, previously a sleepy town of around 100 people, were initially startled, confused, and bemused by the red-clad devotees. But as their quiet lives were increasingly disrupted, and the commune’s intentions for further growth became clear, they felt something had to be done.

It took time to convince officials, but eventually planning regulations were invoked to put a halt to further building at the ranch.  In retaliation, the Rajneeshees took over the city of Antelope by buying up property and moving devotees there. Rajneeshees quickly became the majority on the Antelope City Council.

The scenario descends into darkness from this point forward.

Rajneesh himself remained in silent retreat for most of his time at Rajneeshpuram.  He had placed his trust in the the commune’s charismatic director Ma Anand Sheela.

Sheela went to war with the Oregonians.  She organized the purchase of a variety of weapons, including AK46 assault rifles, and made sure devotees were trained in their use.  As the conflict heated up, she utilized all forms of media to defend the commune and what she believed was its legal right to exist, including popular late night talk shows.  She didn’t hesitate to provoke and attack.

Sheela planned a take over of Wasco county next.  Busloads of homeless people were brought in from cities all over the U. S. so they could vote and hopefully move the Wasco county election in favor of Rajneesh candidates.

Most of what had been done to this point was legal, but was it right?  Sheela claimed the utopian ideals enacted by the group, for the benefit of all society, outweighed any distress brought to a small group of local residents.

As the divide grew larger and efforts to dismantle the city escalated, Sheela and her cohorts spiraled into criminal activity, including salmonella poisoning of 750 locals, arson, attempted homicide, and the largest wiretapping operation ever investigated in the United States.

I haven’t said too much about Rajneesh (Osho) in all this, so you’ll have to watch to find out.  But in short, he was arrested for immigration fraud and deported from the U. S.

This is a remarkable film, a must-see for anyone who wonders how the beautiful and pure aspirations of a spiritual community can descend into darkness and how devotion can blind even intelligent people to the truth.

The films directors offer, I feel, a factual and objective view of what occurred, using scores of footage from the time.  They perfectly capture the fears and concerns of both “sides,” and provide compassionate insight into those who committed such senseless crimes.  The film illustrates how the perception of the same individual or situation can vary radically from person to person, making it difficult to ferret out the “truth.”  Even now, more than 25 years later, people see what occurred in wildly different ways.

Wild Wild Country also shows, in an immensely powerful way, how our own needs for love, recognition, and righteousness can obscure our ability to see clearly and lead us to justify actions that do not align with the light.

Wild Wild Country is mind-boggling.  Don’t miss it. Watch Wild Wild Country on Netflix.

And read these in-depth, critical reviews of the documentary series:


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17 Comments

  1. Adamo

    Funny thing, as while I still joined the Rigpa fellowship, from time to time some of the Rigpa officials showed a certain behaviour, an attitude towards others, a certain smart recklessness, a little bit a mixture of ” student applying crazy wisdom as observed on the master” and “launching my Rigpa career now finally”.

    While chatting with others of the Sangha who have had a Backzwang/Osho past, one guy just said spontaniously while one of this wonderwomen passed by: ” Oh, she is a new Sheela for us “, meaning Ma Anand Sheela.

    I discovered many parallels, as Backzwang-Osho and Sogyal both had good intentions maybe, but both went astray far into a mental nihilistic off, so my point of view.

    • Adamo,

      Thanks for sharing that! I find your story interesting. I probably seemed like a “Sheela” to some people when I worked for Rigpa because I had such a strong commitment (obsession?) and could only see from that perspective. I think it’s so often true that people in leadership positions become so obedient, repeating a masters words and instructions or their interpretation of them like dogma. Their devotion is admirable in one way, but it’s difficult if it becomes inflexible and dictatorial. I don’t think anyone in Rigpa comes up to the level of Sheela.

      • Adamo

        I was trapped by such patterns as well. No big deal. I think its growing to be a serious problem as soon its a role model for a whole sangha plus people copying the Lamas “crazy wisdom” neurosis.

        Its then something institutional, a official state of mind for many followers.

        And as soon any discussion about it becomes made impossible we have already a kind of cult started.

        Thats a crucial point that matters to all of us. Its not only the responsibility of a Lama but of his devotees as well.

        True, within Rigpa nobody has reached that level so far. But the strategic masterbrain of Rigpa shouldnt be underestimated what he is able to do.

        • Solenodon

          From what I have observed in Rigpa, having blind faith and following what was handed out as “the path” without questioning seemed to have been a desirable quality rather than an obstacle to spiritual development.

          Not that is had reached the level of “crazy” as with the Osho movement, where apparently the crazy was rather the result of the top management than Osho himself.
          But deliberately not using one’s critical intelligence with the argument of “I am much too dumb and ignorant to have any knowledge or ability to judge myself therefor I have to blindly follow the dear leader” has been worn there almost as a badge of honor with people in positions (like instructors etc)

          And yes, SR actively promoted this attitude, thinking that people brining in their own opinions and ideas would delute the pure dharma. Ironically, turning students into blind faith followers deluted the pure dharma just as badly.

          The recent Dzongsar Khyentse talks at the various Rigpa main centers must have given those a rather abrupt awakening. To me, in these videos someone with authority finally spoke out what had made me uneasy about SR and Rigpa for decades.

        • Rick New

          Thanks Sandra and Adamo

          “And as soon any discussion about it becomes made impossible we have already a kind of cult started. That’s a crucial point that matters to all of us. Its not only the responsibility of a Lama but of his devotees as well.”

          Yes, this is a crucial point. When we bottom out with any kind of belief, there is already a “kind of cult started”. If we are observant, we can see the seeds of it here as well. Listening is an enormous challenge, but doing so can change the way any group functions.

          ” a person can see awful things that have happened to them in their life, but until they see their own part, they can never escape a victimology mindset, and a victim mind certainly cannot generate any real creative energies for change. De Maree used this term sociotherapy. From the standpoint of the purpose or intent or the theory of change, it is probably exactly right. ”

          “It’s how we collectively learn to take responsibility for the conditions we have created.” Peter Senge

          Also “The Listening Self, Personal Growth, Social Change and the Closure of Metaphysics” by David Michael Levin

        • Joanne Clark

          I also became that way, not in Rigpa, but later in a Kagyu monastery, where I worked in the front office. I was responsible for taking inquiries and sometimes answering questions about initiations, teachings and lama behaviors. Ha ha, I knew nothing! But I learned to roll out the party line, a perspective on everything that I had never taken the time to investigate or understand in the context of myself, my culture and my family. I still have moments of horror, thinking of how far I was capable of going in that cult mindset. And moments of gratitude to the Buddhas and my little shred of good karma that things fell apart for me and I had to rebuild and move on.

          Thank you for this post Sandra! I think everyone of us who has been touched by these TB troubles should view this.

          • Adamo

            We all can easily get trapped in different ways.

            I think the trouble starts as soon as we become so attached to a certain role we play that we defend it at any cost and refuse to reflect a little bit or apply Buddhas teaching in a more sincere and grounded way.

            Or otherwise we might join the club of cultistic or cultish devotees for a longer time and call it “buddhist practice”.

            I am glad I escaped that club.

          • Thank you for sharing so honestly, Joanne. I understand. It is mind-boggling to see how much we accept before we are able to see clearly. But I think we need to forgive ourselves, and as you say be grateful for the good karma when things fall apart and we see in a new way. Being human is so complex!

            • Rick New

              “It is mind-boggling to see how much we accept before we are able to see clearly. ”

              Thanks, Sandra. Do we really see clearly now? We might be creating the same conditions as before, just in a softened or more subtle way. For instance, what do we feel here when we get challenged? Do we take on these challenges? It seems to me that are our responses strangely similar to back then.

              It doesn’t seem that we are taking this seriously and exploring the roots of how it happened (and is happening all around us.)

              From what I read, we still see this as an external problem or as something in the past, not an ongoing problem that we all carry with us. Seen in this weakened (external and historic) way, our capacity to explore this situation is greatly reduced.

              “The question is really: do you see the necessity of this process? That’s the key
              question. If you see that it is absolutely necessary, then you have to do something”
              — David Bohm

  2. This film is remarkable in how it evenhandedly represents the many different (primarily two) views of this tragic affair. The unrepentant, selfrighteous Sheela types represent a new kind of denial for me. At one point Sheela states that because she served time for attempted murder she is not a criminal. At another, the Mayor of Rajneeshpuram is shown as incredulous at how the Justice System mistreated Osho, “… this gentle man”. At another , Osho is shown giving the finger to the Justice System in front of an audience of approximately thousands at Rajneeshpuram.

    So many elements in this film remind me of my time in Shambhala recently. The one that stands out is the justification of criminal activity in the name of socalled religious activity. With Shambala right now this extends to an effort to keep crime unseen., as with Rigpa I believe.

    While it is certainly a case of ‘Buyer Beware’, the essence of Mahayan buddhism can be applied in calling out the charlatans for both the sake of past and potential victims, as well as their enablers including the charlatan leaders who abide such activity in their name.

    I have just posted a response to the Shambhala governing council in this regard, on my blog. Their policies state that crime must be reported to the Police, in keeping with the basic laws of our society which enable us the luxury of time to study the dharma in the first place. My experience and the current abuse scandal in Shambhala show clearly that the covering up of criminal activity in the Sangha is systemic. I have received support for many quarters for my efforts so far, both from within and outside the Sangha. It is a pat h I hav chosen and intend to walk with dignity, recognising the potential for occasional lapses into hyperbole. Any support would be most appreciated.

    https://shambhalacrime.wordpress.com/2018/03/23/on-the-kalapa-councils-march-19th-2018-letter/

  3. Catlover

    Attention everyone:
    Because there is a controversial post circulating around the Internet, I thought it would be wise to alert people about it here on this forum. Dzongsar Khyentse posted a video on his Facebook page, which shows HHDL saying that one should not criticize a misbehaving Vajrayana guru, but that clip was taken out of context, and HHDL was not referring to extreme situations, (comparable with Sogyal’s abuse). They were talking about regular sexual misconduct, but not the kind of physical and mental abuse that Sogyal committed, which went further than sex. Later on at the same conference, someone asked HHDL for further clarification, and HHDL did go into more detail, and he even mentioned his own teachers as an example. He said that if a teacher is truly harming others, then for the sake of the Buddha Dharma, and for the protection of others, one must make those harmful actions public, (with proper motivation). It is important to see the WHOLE statement from HHDL, so there is no confusion about what he is really saying. Here is the link to the excerpt from the conference where HHDL goes into further detail. (One can also find Dzongsar’s misleading post on his fb page, and if you look UNDER his post at the comment section, you’ll see plenty of comments, which reveal the truth of the situation.)

    • Thanks for this, Cat Lover. I agree, it’s important to consider HHDL’s statement in context and how it evolved over the course of the conference.

  4. Sandy

    I was only 22 when my dealings with the inner circle of Rigpa as an “outsider” service provider commenced.
    The upper realms truely sometimes behaved as if they truely believed they were a superior human to the people around them. Although it made me feel sad for them even at my young age i used what i saw in their behaviour as a promise to myself to always stay true and kind and equal to fellow humans.
    Ironically Sandra you still hold some of that superiority as you compare yourself to sheela… maybe people didnt view you in that way maybe they just thought you were a little bit of a jerk lol?

    Either way no doubt that Rigpa had a very passive aggresive class system within their own ranks that i witnessed for more than 15 years. Sadly it did make me lose faith in a element of spirituality that i was always fond of.
    My final i guess real loss of respect for the Rigpa was occured after innocently accidently stepping into an exclusive “greenroom” style space held for Sogyal. My initial shock of the many young women in bikinis on cushions staring at me in confusion turned to embarrsement as i scampered back out. I now realise that these young women were waiting for the big guy to finish his teachings. I have no doubt that the people in the inner circle around him were happy to turn what i realise now was a blind eye to somewhat a predatory behaviour. I wish i was the older wiser person i am today to have recognised this as i would have questioned him face to face, which was possoble as i seemed to bump into him 1 on 1 quiet a few times over the years.

    I think i would have said, Sogyal. Just another human. do you honestly feel that this is really what the universe had initially planned for your journey. Are you really on your chosen path. Or are you as blind as those around you?

    • Adamo

      “The upper realms truely sometimes behaved as if they truely believed they were a superior human to the people around them”

      I observed and experienced the arrogance in a quite similar way. And as so often, from top to down, I experienced that in the lower ranks many people then copied this arrogance, together usually with an ostentatious attitude of modesty, but as soon as they expected it to be the right moment to really show something to a low dharmalife person, they performed arrogant.

      Unfortunately do I not swallow that way of behavior easily and sometimes I am shorttempered.
      It happened that one day one of the big 5 of LL wanted to demonstrate towards me what big deal it is just to know him.

      As my italian hot blood cooked already did I start to to carpet him and folded him together and surprisingly quick had there a counterpart of quite poor appearance, so I stopped. For the remaining time we had to cooperate he put many effort into restauring his “aura”.
      Useless efforts, once looked through a person, any actors abilities might be applied but remain futile action.

      And another of the big five even admitted in a weak moment he would not know at all how to practice. All arrogance gone, for a moment or two.

      This list of little encounters could be endlessy prolonged. I want to say its a bad attitude that was cultivated within Rigpa instead of cultivating good attitudes.

      And I met enough people that really believed that emptiness means bad ethics has no real meaning, no cause and effect. As much as the “boss” seemed to believe it.

      And the ranking system. Oh my god. I remember one guy whom I stupidly asked how he is going. He was so pissed off with me and I didnt understand the reason, but my wife then explained to me its because he feels much higher in ranking, he has to ask me how I feel and then he gives me a little teaching, like : “oh, look Adamo, all things are impermanent, and so dont be unhappy “. And not poor me asking him. Wrong way, top to down. Higher being ask lower being, not the other way round !
      Or you ask a person of her wellbeing and she would not even answer, because she is so realized that such a question is stupid.

      Later on, when I tried to discuss such matter with long time Rigpa people, I really run into a wall. Nobody except me seems ever experienced things as decribed above to happen.
      It was just my delusion, poor Adamo.
      I have sicilian ancestors who could be proud of nothing, so I refused to accept such a omerta on the long run.

      I encountered those specific arrogance on other Dharmacenters as well, but Rigpa was outstanding in producing those phenomens. really outstanding, NUMBER ONE ! Worldwide.

      In my family it became a invective word, my son decribes someone awkward as: “He could be a Dharmacenter guy”. Thats buddhists education fruits.

      Thanks Sandy, you write authentically and honest, you made my day.

      ” Green room”. Green Tara practice Soggy style ?

      • Joanne Clark

        Thanks for that Adamo. I think many of us can all identify with your stories. And it brings up something I’ve been thinking about a bit lately. Yes, Tibetans have brought some feudalistic cultural habits to the West– but how Westerners interpret and manifest these habits is very Western in my opinion.

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