Understanding and Healing Abuse in Buddhist Communities

Latest News: Investigation and New Rigpa Vision Board

Rigpa Investigation and Vision Board

On December 21, 2017, the Rigpa International Holding Group announced the beginning of an independent investigation by a neutral third party into the allegations of abuse made against Sogyal Rinpoche. The independent investigation will be conducted by the law firm Lewis Silkin, which was hired recently by the Old Vic Theater in London to investigate the allegations of inappropriate behavior by Kevin Spacey during his 11-year run as artistic director.

Although it has taken a very long time to get this investigation started, more than five months, I would like acknowledge the positive, reasonable and encouraging tone of the announcement which stated:

Our heartfelt concern is for the wellbeing of our Rigpa community as a whole, including the authors of the letter of allegations sent to Sogyal Rinpoche last July, and to ensure that the love, friendship and other positive qualities we share do not diminish. In this sense, we are all still very much connected to each other. Over the last few months, it has become clear that we need to work together to understand how, over the years, we got to where we are, and then what we need to do to rebuild and heal our relationships with everyone who has been affected.

In addition, the Rigpa US Board has concurrently engaged An Olive Branch, a Zen-based reconciliation organization, to help support the US sangha, both current and past members, with healing and reconciliation.  Read the full letter to current and former members of the Rigpa sangha from An Oliver Branch.  You may want to participate in the Listening Post or the healing and reconciliation process.

A New Vision Board

On January 3, 2018, Sogyal Rinpoche wrote a letter to his students and friends announcing the creation of a new Vision Board to guide Rigpa forward.

The members  include Valerie Baker, Mauro de March, Seth Dye, Patrick Gaffney, Verena Pfeiffer, Philip Philippou and Vinciane Rycroft. These individuals were selected to serve on the Vision Board a few months ago as a result of meetings with Sogyal Rinpoche, Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche and Gyari Rinpoche and the four male members of the board.

Sogyal Rinpoche wrote:

It has always been my desire to hand over to a ‘spiritual body’—a group of students trusted by both the Sangha and myself, helped and guided by those lamas who have a close connection with us, and share a deep understanding of my vision for Rigpa. …Their task will be to oversee the culture of study and practice we have developed, care for the Sangha, nurture teachers, and strengthen links with other Buddhist teachers and organizations—all in the spirit that we have sought to cultivate in Rigpa over the last forty years.

He explained that the Vision Board will serve as a vessel to receive the wisdom, experience, and guidance of a number of eminent masters including Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and Mindrolling Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche, Khenchen Namdrol, and the holders of the lineage of the late Khenchen Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche.

Sogyal Rinpoche sees these masters as key figures for the interpretation of Tibetan Buddhism in the modern world as well as great scholars and holders of the tradition. And as time goes by, other lamas will be invited to give their advice.

Concerns About the New Board and Spiritual Advisors

Unfortunately, many believe the choices made for the Vision Board members and advisory lamas reflect a lack of concern about the issue of abuse and the complaints that have been raised. To these individuals, it seems that Rigpa intends to continue in the same old way. They feel changes will be cosmetic only and thus the culture that allowed abuse to occur will continue. In his letter, Sogyal Rinpoche said he had wanted to hand over the management of Rigpa anyway and gives the impression that everything is fine.

Seven of the eight letter writers wrote a letter to Sogyal Rinpoche on January 11. They said they’re still awaiting a substantial response from him to the questions they asked in their original letter of July 14.

They also raised concerns about the way Rigpa has subtly attacked and undermined them personally over the past few months. They pointed out how the investigation was set-up without consulting them or requesting their consent. It sounds like they’re don’t have trust in the investigation and thus do not intend to participate. I completely support whatever the letter writers decide to do concerning the investigation.

Reflections on the Investigation

There are also many in the community who shake their heads, finding it hard to understand why an investigation would be needed to accept what seem to be obvious facts to them. Some feel concerned that the investigation may be a cunning move to assess the legal vulnerabilities of Sogyal Rinpoche and Rigpa. They suspect its sole purpose is to clear Sogyal Rinpoche so he can return to the West and continue teaching in the same way, without ever directly addressing the complaints. I understand these concerns.

In retrospect, I realize I was naive and idealistic when the original letter was sent to Sogyal Rinopche and his closest students last July. I thought there would be a heartfelt response to the harm reported and a genuine wish to understand what happened and how to prevent it in future. I did not expect the polarization and tribal response, the inability of the tradition to look at itself, and the “alternate truths” that were propagated in response to what teachers like the Dalai Lama and Mingyur Rinpoche said about the issues of abuse.

I may be naive and idealistic once again, but in my personal view, I feel the investigation could help to add weight to the concerns raised, facilitate healing, and bring about change.

Firstly, I believe the investigation is needed because Rigpa leaders and other devoted students do not seem able to make any critical statements about Sogyal Rinpoche. They seem to believe to do so would impair the sacred link to enlightenment which he represents.

Secondly, to bring change, I believe, you need to work within the system, even if it’s not a perfect one. If this is truly a genuine and independent investigation that looks at the wider picture, I’m confident it will come to the conclusion that harmful behaviors have occurred and many have experienced abuse. Such a conclusion would provide validation for the concerns that have been raised about:

  • An organizational culture that condones beating, humiliation, sexual misconduct, and unreasonable demands to provide services and pleasure to the teacher
  • A lavish life style on the part of the teacher
  • An ambiance of fear, intimidation, and pressure to maintain secrecy about harm
  • Disregard for the basic ethical values of Buddhism
  • A lack of accountability.

Here is why I believe this:

Numerous students have reported harm

Over the years, in addition to the 8 letter writers, a number of students have come forward and reported abuse. I know the letter writers as devoted Dharma practitioners and have no reason to believe they did not tell the truth. Additional details and other accounts have been recorded by respected journalists and published by highly regarded newspapers like the Telegraph Post Magazine, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, and the Sydney Herald:

Also see:

Sometimes these accounts have been presented in a dramatic way but I’m convinced the reports are based on the actual experiences of those interviewed. Because of the sheer numbers, it would be difficult to dispute the veracity of the basic facts. From an objective perspective, the records of therapists who have helped the victims could also verify the occurrance of abuse.

To read about my personal experience of abuse in Rigpa, see my post: How the Student-Teacher Relationship Can Become Abusive

There is a culture of the alleged behaviors

Not all incidents described in the July 14 letter or the newspaper articles have been witnessed by others. Nevertheless, the credibility of these accounts is supported by the fact that many individuals have observed Sogyal Rinpoche humiliating and beating people. In addition, over the last 40 years a number of women have reported feeling harmed, used, and taken advantage of sexually.

Sometimes, when these kinds of behaviors have been witnessed by others, some students, like the nun who was punched in front of hundreds of people at Lerab Ling, said they have not felt harmed. Nevertheless, these witnessed events establish a culture of potentially harmful behavior and give credence to the allegations made in the July 14 letter and on previous occasions.

The behaviors are justified with spiritual beliefs

There have been statements by some traditional teachers, including Sogyal Rinpoche, that justify these behaviors in a spiritual context. These include statements like:

  • Beating is good for spiritual purification
  • It is normal to be afraid of the lama
  • Sex with a lama is a blessing

Those who have asked for the harm to stop and the issues to be addressed have been labeled as “samaya breakers.” Their complaints have been attributed to possession by demons.

For more on this, see my last post: Where Are We At? The Complaints, The Cost, and the Future of Vajrayana

The community has been pressured to tolerate and condone these behaviors.

For example, when people expressed alarm after a nun was punched during a Lerab Ling retreat, Sogyal Rinpoche did not teach the next day and sent a representative to convey his disappointment about their concerns.

Read more about how these behaviors are condoned and justified in my post: How can the Rigpa community process this controversy

Sogyal Rinpoche has been made aware of the harm he is causing many times

Over the last 40 years, many senior students and other members of the wider Buddhist community have spoken directly to Sogyal Rinpoche as well as to his emissaries about the harmful effects of his aggressive behaviors. Some have been trained in psychology and could clearly see the negative impact that has occurred. Many sangha members have left Rigpa because their expressed concerns were not taken seriously. Their experience was labeled as “deluded” and the community was made to believe the teacher knows best.

The leadership has known about this for a long time

Over the last 40 years, the leadership of Rigpa has been told many times about students who felt harmed. For example, in addition to personal conversations, trustees have formally stepped down from their position in objection, and a $10 million lawsuit was filed. Rigpa leaders did not take appropriate steps to prevent future harm.

The behaviors are in conflict with human and spiritual values

Several prominent Buddhist teachers including the Dalai Lama and Mingyur Rinpoche have clearly stated that behaviors like the ones reported in the July 14 letter are not in accord with the values and ethics of Buddhism.

See my post: What did the Dalai Lama Really Say?

Likely outcome of an independent investigation

I’m not going into detail here, but in my understanding, having read the précis for the investigation, evidence could be presented on all the above points. I don’t see how independent investigators who have an understanding of abuse and psychological health in the modern world, the applicable laws, and basic human and spiritual values, would not conclude that harmful behavior has taken place.

Some people may try to discount the accounts of those who have come forward. They will say things like, “At the time this happened, I talked to the person about it and they didn’t feel harmed then.” This may be true, but lets remember that this happened in an environment where they were asked to tolerate whatever Sogyal Rinpoce did, comply with whatever he asked for, and see everything as a teaching. The fact that it took them a long time to recognize the harm and break through the taboo of speaking up is understandable.

I believe that after the investigators make adjustments for the subjectivity of the experiences there will still be substantial evidence left that there are serious problems and a culture of abuse. The report may not turn out as damming as many feel it needs to be, but I’m confident it will be serious enough to create pressure for more change than seems to be happening in Rigpa at the moment.

I don’t meant to dismiss some of the positive steps that are being taken, like the establishment of a code of conduct, grievance procedure, and the engagement of An Olive Branch in the U.S., but on balance these steps may not be sufficient in light of the constitution of the Vision Board and Advisory Lamas, the leaderships’ attitude toward the letter writers, and the failure to accept any responsibility for the harm that has occurred.

Even if I end up being wrong, I don’t believe a weak finding of wrongdoing will prevent the changes Rigpa is presently planning to institute.

If the investigation doesn’t happen because the letter writers decide not to participate, Rigpa may use their position to question the credibility of their complaints anyway.

The letter has achieved a great deal in terms of warning present and future students of the possibility of harm. With all the complaints out in public, new students will be less likely to get deeply involved in the organization unaware of its shadow side. The next scandal will most likely end in court. And I would hope that anyone in a position of leadership in Rigpa would now be fully aware of their legal responsibility to prevent future harm.

How Can Real Change Happen?

For real change to happen, I believe Sogyal Rinpoche must take responsibility for the harm that has occurred. He must tell us what he sees needs to be learned and what needs to change so Rigpa can take action without it being seen as disrespectful to him. I hope this will happen after the investigation is completed or sooner if the investigation does not take place.

I do not question Sogyal Rinpoche’s good intentions. I also appreciate the good hearted, devoted, and well-intentioned students who work so hard to contribute to a more awakened world. But it is clear, that real harm has happened and needs to be acknowledged.

While Tibetan Buddhism is an ancient tradition with amazing wisdom, it seems to be mixed with customs and behaviors that were accepted in Tibetan society but are not necessarily appropriate in the West, and in fact, can be the cause of harm to students here. These attitudes include a lack of accountability with regard to the behavior of teachers and a belief that these cultural elements are an authentic part of the tradition and therefore universally beneficial.

The Leadership Must Take a Clear Stand On Abuse

Among Rigpa’s Advisory Lamas, I include here Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche who helped in the formation of the Vision Board, we find ones who have made statements like “beating is good for spiritual purification” and “the eight students who wrote the letter were possessed by demons.” The male members of the Vision Board are long time students who have personally experienced and witnessed harmful behaviors and have been aware of many if not all of the complaints that have been made over the last 40 years.

The list of masters who will advise the new Vision Board does not include lamas like the Dalai Lama and Mingyur Rinpoche, who have made clear statements about the inappropriateness of abuse. The only hope on the current board seems to be Khandro Rinpoche, who appears concerned about abuse and clear about the basic ethics of Buddhism.

Khandro Rinpoche says she speaks about the issue of abuse openly with her students, and encourages practitioners to apply their common sense. However, Michaela Haas wrote in the book Dakini Power: “I never heard her speak out in public against male teachers who abuse their position of power with sexual advances on admiring students.”

(Here is a link to Dakini Power on Google Books where you can read the whole chapter on Khandro Rinpoche)

In order for the sangha to trust this board and its advisors, it would help if the members and advisors could introduce themselves and present their individual views on the abuse complaints and their personal vision of how they see themselves contributing to a change of culture.

How Can the Healing Process Begin?

Rigpa needs to come through with what has been promised. In its public statement from July 19, 2017, Rigpa said:

We would like to state clearly that there is no place for abuse in our community and we are conscious of our responsibility to provide a safe, welcoming and supportive environment for our members and the public.

This sounds good, but what does it really mean given that Rigpa is simultaneously sending mixed messages with its selection of the board and advisors and its attitude towards the letter writers?

For trust to be re-kindled in the sangha, the organization needs to issue a clear statement that specifies what it actually considers to be abuse instead of a vague message like “there is no place for abuse.” In addition, clear policies need to be established to ensure abuse does not occur again in the future. A code of conduct is in the works. Time will tell if it effectively addresses these concerns.

Reviewing the Guru-Student Relationship

A segment of devoted students do not find the questionable behaviors harmful. On the contrary, they say these behaviors can be helpful on the spiritual path.

I wonder if they would continue to have this perspective if they had themselves been beaten severely on a daily basis, struck unconscious, or pressured to have sex. I agree in principle that “crazy wisdom” can have its place if used skillfully by a teacher with students who can handle it. By “handle it,” I mean the student has the capacity and self-understanding to process the experience so it becomes a part of his or her growth rather than a repressed or traumatic experience.

I can appreciate why some people are against strict rules that would prohibit extreme teaching methods across the board.

One solution might be to make a separation between Rigpa and Sogyal Rinpoche. Students who would like to give their permission for Sogyal Rinpoche to use these fierce teaching methods would need to make a personal arrangement with him that would not come under the responsibility of Rigpa. Interactions that are in conflict with general spiritual values and possibly the laws of the land would have to happen in private and not in locations organized and funded by Rigpa.

Hopefully, from now on, given the harm that has been reported, the use of extreme measures in the Guru-Student relationship will occur with more caution. Ideally, the teacher would take responsibility for his actions and the student would take responsibility for their capacity to process their experiences and to say no if need be.

How Can Rigpa Redeem Itself?

Sadly, this scandal has impaired Sogyal Rinpoche’s and Rigpa’s spiritual connection with the Dalai Lama.

I find it stunning to see how trust in the Dalai has suddenly shifted for so many Rigpa students, like a flag in the wind. They’ve gone from seeing the Dalai Lama as a living Buddha and accepting him as Rigpa’s foremost spiritual advisor and patron to viewing him as an ordinary being whose statements of grave concern, they feel, are based on false information and misunderstanding of the Nyingma tradition.

I myself firmly believe that the repeated statements he’s made on the situation in Rigpa hit right to the core of the problem, the negative influence of feudalism.

See my post for more about the influence of feudalism: What Did the Dalai Lama Really Say?

To reacquire its status as a respected, modern Dharma organization, the best thing Rigpa could do would be to regain the trust of the Dalai Lama. That would require the kind of institutional changes that would enable him to confidently endorse Rigpa as a Dharma organization once again.

Next, to further redeem itself, Rigpa needs to clearly distance itself from statements like “the letter writers are samaya breakers” and “they are possessed by demons.” Many students have realized that such threats do not provide a healthy environment for their spiritual path.

Rather than seeing the letter writers as students who deviated from the path, I see them as individuals who are embodying the spiritual values they hold dear by voicing their concern about the harm that has happened. They are doing their spiritual work, cultivating their capacity to see clearly what is in front of them, developing their personal sense of what is right and wrong, and gaining the confidence to speak up.

Abuse is not “good,” but abuse revelations are beneficial because their intention is to stop harm. They can be a sign of increased consciousness rather than blindly following instructions that seem at odds with genuine spiritual values. The best thing we can do as practitioners is to honestly look and learn from what has taken place.

Some say that making abuse complaints damages Buddhism. But I feel taking action to publically address these issues is the only way to restore trust in the tradition and in Buddhism in general.

Healing on Both a Personal and Communal Level

Deep healing needs to happen on a personal and communal level. There is so much to process. When harmful behaviors are tolerated and even condoned by a community, the health of the group is seriously damaged.

On a personal level, I believe most of our community, even those who have left, remain interested in spiritual development and following a path that works.

On a communal level, we have a responsibility to ensure the Buddhist tradition continues, for the benefit of future generations, in both an authentic way (e.g. a way that leads to true enlightenment) and in a way that works in the modern world.

If we want to heal the rift in the sangha, we need to try to understand “the other side.” Even if you disagree with the allegations and find the behaviors described appropriate and beneficial, to heal it’s necessary to accept this is not true for everyone.

Everyone needs to look at how they contributed to what has occurred. For their own healing, those who feel harmed also need to look at and take responsibility for any of their own actions that led to their experiences so they don’t caught in similar situations in the future.

What Can We Learn?

When I look at my own experience of abuse in Rigpa, I see I would have been well served to have listened to and put into action the advice of the Dalai Lama.

On many occasions, he has cautioned students not to have a naive idea of enlightenment.  He has even called claims that one could attain enlightenment in a few years or even less “Vajrayana propaganda.” He has said clearly it is wrong to unquestionably following the guidance of a teacher and to think you have to do everything your Guru says. He has emphasized basic human and spiritual values.

I can see I left my critical thinking and common sense at the door when I became deeply involved in Rigpa.

The allegations of harm shake the foundation of the teachings emphasized by Sogyal Rinpoche: complete trust in a teacher, seeing everything he does as a blessing, and the conviction that unquestioning devotion to a teacher leads to enlightenment. The model of a personalized and authoritarian teacher-student relationship has failed, at least for a significant number of people, due to lack of understanding and skillful means.

I believe each person needs to re-asses what kind of teacher student-relationship is best suited for them going forward. Everyone needs to reflect on how to take self-responsibility for their spiritual path, and to determine the kinds of methods and skillful means that work best for them. Complete surrender to the Guru is an advanced stage of the path that, I believe, needs to be entered consciously and with discernment. It requires a healthy sense of self, self-understanding and capacity to face your deepest blockages and obscurations.

Many modern Vajrayana teachers realize this. For example, this is what Mingyur Rinpoche’s father and teacher Tulku Urgyen told 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.

And the Dalai Lama has said again and again that to think you have to do or endure anything the teacher says or does is completely wrong.

I have heard from several people who were present when Jetsün Khandro taught in Lerab Ling a few years ago that she said Rigpa students are holding on to the Outer Lama way too long. It’s time, she suggested, to – on the basis of gratitude – move from the Outer Lama to the Inner Lama.

The role of the Guru is to teach you to follow the Inner Teacher, not by telling you what to do but by helping you to learn to listen to the voice of love and wisdom in your heart. You will make mistakes and of course, you need guidance to distinguish the voices of ego and wisdom. Following the Inner Lama is actually a more difficult, but a more mature phase of the spiritual path.

Support for Processing the Scandal

Sogyal Rinpoche has said that he will never abandon his students, an honorable commitment on his part. The lamas advising Rigpa say that Sogyal Rinpoche’s role as a spiritual teacher to his students remains intact and undiminished.

At the same time, many of his students are grappling with coming to terms with his ethical misconduct and trusting him as their guide to enlightenment. I have gone through an agonizing process myself, reflecting on how to honor my commitments and deal with the threats of repercussions, like Vajra Hell, that are often invoked when people have doubts. In the end, I chose another teacher.

If significant changes would be put into place, others may not feel they have to make the same serious decision.

A Box Limited by Beliefs

My experience of following the Vajrayana path in Rigpa was like being in a belief system that seemed like a box. There are a lot of wonderful and positive things in the tradition, but it is confined with beliefs like, “This tradition is superior to all other spiritual paths. It is the only path leading to highest enlightenment. Vajra Hell is the consequence of going against the commands of the Guru. Everything the lama does is a blessing.” There is no accountability, there are no checks and balances.

If you step out of the Rigpa box, like I did after some serious reflection, and look at it from the outside, you can see that some of what is happening inside goes against the most basic common sense, human values, and core spiritual principles. The explanations are complicated and esoteric. When you are told that obedience is the quick way to enlightenment and questioning will impair your progress towards enlightenment, it becomes very painful and difficult to step out of the box. In my view, there is something seriously wrong inside the box and the beliefs that define it prevent you from seeing this when you’re on the inside.

This box may have worked in Tibet but it seems clear that applying it to another time and place without a deeper understanding of the culture, political, and social history, psyche and collective unconscious isn’t working.

Sogyal Rinpoche often pointed out to his students that we make mistakes when we make assumptions, think we know everything, and don’t pay attention to what is really happening. He may have made the same mistake.

Every individual has a responsibility to assess their own progress on the spiritual path, to process their experiences, and come to their own personal conclusions. I concluded that Rigpa was not a healthy place for spiritual practice, at least not for me.

I also do not see many practitioners in our community progressing in their spiritual development. Please don’t misunderstand. I can see there are many kind, good hearted, devoted, hard working students. But I fail to see qualities of deeper realization like the spacious and warm-hearted presence that I feel when I meet realized teachers.

Some may feel their faith in this tradition strengthened. Others may feel they need to re-evaluate their relationship with Sogyal Rinpoche. I hope a non-judgmental environment will be created where this kind of reassessment is possible. Visiting teachers can offer wise and compassionate support to students in this review process, ideally without pressuring them to remain in Rigpa. I also hope that An Olive Branch, who has been hired to support healing and reconciliation in the US Rigpa Sangha, will be able to facilitate this level of personal reflection and reassessment as well.

A Renewal of Vajrayana

The revelation of the harm that has occurred, as unfortunate as it is, could contribute to a reformation and renewal of the Vajrayana tradition so that it can fully become a modern authentic spiritual path. As history shows, this will take time.  The New Translation Schools of Tibetan Buddhism came about due to a reformist movement. Initiatives for reformation have happened not only in Tibet but also in the West and have met fierce resistance by the followers of the established tradition.

In a similar way, Luther barely escaped execution after he posted his ninety-five theses that criticized the practice of clergy selling plenary indulgences. And look at how the Catholic Church tried to hide sexual abuse by its clergy for decades.

We also need to remember that while he has lived in the West for most of his life, Sogyal Rinpoche is Tibetan. He is dealing with the accusations according to the ways of Tibetan culture and politics. As I understand it, while Western culture is based on the idea of honest criticism, the idea of saving face is very important in Tibetan culture. Because of this, it can be very difficult to publicly admit mistakes.

According to the traditional interpretation of Vajrayana, teachers are endowed with infallible wisdom, like the divine kings of the feudal system, and whatever a student may say can be seen as deluded. To admit one’s humanness as a teacher and acknowledge you’ve made mistakes shakes the very foundation of this feudal belief system.

The modern world requires an egalitarian approach based on respect for basic human values. Buddha was egalitarian. His teachings were practiced by whole countries and cultures and were based on values that were acceptable and understood by the people living there at that time. They were not based on esoteric explanations that justify behaviors that harm people.

Real change in the Vajrayana tradition may not happen until there are realized teachers who were born into Western culture, experienced the emotional and mental issues of growing up in the modern world, and based on their experience and understanding adapt the teachings and practices accordingly.

Moving Forward

In a way, this post concludes my reflections on how abuse happened in Rigpa and what we can learn from it.

When I look at the many books and articles about abuse in spiritual communities in the West, most of what is presented on this blog has all been said before.  Tibetan Buddhism contains phenomenal wisdom but in terms of communicating it to the modern world, teachers would do well to listen to the serious concerns that have been brought up again and again and to have an honest look at how well their tradition is working in the West. The issues that have been raised are not questioning the wisdom of the tradition. Rather, they draw the line at abuse, while also providing perspective on the level of emotional awareness and self-understanding necessary for many Western students to successfully proceed to the higher practices.

I have shared my personal experience on this blog with the intention of helping others understand why people have felt abused in Rigpa and what has contributed to creating an environment conducive to abuse. This was also my way of contributing to righting a wrong that I have also been a part of. While not publicly advertised beyond the community, each of our blog posts have been read by 1,000 to 5000 people. I hope they have prompted useful reflection and have aided in understand and healing.

As we process this scandal, each of us will have to choose how and if we want to continue to participate in Rigpa. The Rigpa US Board and An Olive Branch announced they will collaborate on the design of a two-day, face-to-face Community Reconciliation and Healing meeting.

Even though I am following another teacher now, I deeply value the Buddhist teachings I’ve received. I am in a good place now. I realized I needed to go back to some basic practices of mindfulness and awareness and to focus on healing my heart. I am satisfied to see that I am making progress.

I also learned that once you feel good about where you’re at you need to honor and be grateful for every step of the path. I’m grateful for all I received and sad that it ended in the way that it did. However, considering I was part of this community for half of my life, I am interested in continuing to have a positive connection and participating on a basic level. But, I will only be interested in continuing this connection if Rigpa institutes changes that address the concerns and complaints brought forward. Right now I don’t have confidence that this is happening.

While I feel this post brings closure to the topics I initially wanted to address, we’re not closing this blog and may have a few more updates soon. We might also want to explore topics like how spiritual practitioners can go forward after a crisis like this, how we can heal our heart and mind, and how we can integrate our experiences into our spiritual practice.

If you have any thoughts to share, we would love to hear them in the comments.
























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  1. Adamo

    Just thanxxx for that expression how you see this Rigpa/Sogyal story. Very very good.

  2. Mary Swale

    Thank you, Bernie, for sharing your story and your process so fully and openly. It is really helpful to me in finding my own way through. Bless you. May you continue very well and happy.

  3. Tenpel

    Hi Bernie.
    Thank you for your post.

    Here are my doubts:

    1) Rigpa needs to install such investigations in order to not loose charity status in certain countries

    2) besides long term Rigpa students comprising the Vision Board – being partially part of a culture of abuse and it’s denial or whitewashing – and Ogyen Tobgyal who finds beating increases wisdom being part of the selection process, the selection of the advisory lamas to the vision board gives also raise to concerns

    DKR: he finds even thinking “abuse“ when witnessing inappropriate actions of the own vajra master is a breakage of samaya. He further condones sex with the guru with the strange reason that the tantric texts don’t say that you can’t offer sex to the guru. It follows you can offer your dog to the guru for sex because the tantric texts don’t say you can’t do that.

    Khandro Rinpoché is kind and clear. I have strong faith in her. However, she will always stress the utter importance of the guru / your own chosen guru and will do quite a lot to strengthen such a bond. Further, she didn’t call the police or did anything helpful when a women told her about being raped by the master (see Michaela Haas chapter) but asked where people have their common sense. This shows a lack of understanding about the dynamics of abuse because being sexually abused or raped are not matters of common sense! Any survivor of abuse will feel insulted and put down by such a type of victim blaming. However, she is clear in the ethics.

    Khenchen Namdrol is the third advisor. Listen here what he said at Rigpa‘s Lerab Ling. He calls the letter oft he 8 and their intentions to stop abuse and a culture of abuse the working of the demons, a heinous crime etc.


    Look at this set up clearly. What potential for healing and what vision of Rigpa‘s future can you see?

    • Solenodon

      Concerning Khenchen Namdrol, you know that in Tibetan medicine all kinds of mental illnesses and emotional affects are attributed to “demonic influence”. It’s their traditional way to express someone has an emotional problem.

  4. Tahlia Newland

    Hi Bernie. I wish I could share your faith that the Lewis Silken investigation would find that there are serious issues, but I don’t see how that is possible if they only interview the 8 letter writers. The Lewis Silken agreement indicates that they will interview the 8 and only seek an interview with Sogyal and other ‘witnesses’ if they ‘deem it necessary’ and the budget allows. Their report on the Kevin Spacy case said that since Spacey did not say anything, they could find ‘no evidence of proof.’ For sure Sogyal will not say anything, even if the lawyers do deem it necessary to interview him, and so it will be a very costly business that cannot possibly find any evidence of proof. If I were one of the 8, I would refuse to participate until I knew that SR and PG and his cronies were also going to be interviewed. Without ‘evidence of proof’, those who need external proof that it is all true, will not get the clear answer that they need, and Rigpa will use that lack of proof as their green light for bringing S back to teach again – something they have already stated that they look forward to.

    Which brings me to your suggestion that students should be allowed to make some kind of personal contract with him to allow him to do whatever he wants to them. This man has indicated by the harm he has caused students – some of who may in a moment of devotion have said they were willing to be trained – that he is entirely unsuitable to teach in any form or capacity in the Western world. If he were a doctor, he would be stripped of his permission to practice. If he were a teacher in our universities, he would lose his job and be belacklisted for life by all others. Christian ministers guilty of abuse or of covering it up are being brought before the courts. Why should we treat this man any differently? There are many other options for teaching that do not require beating, humiliation and sexual coercion. So what if it takes the one student a wack on the knuckles might have worked for longer to reach enligtenement? Isn’t that better than many being set back a whole lifetime or more through the thorough betrayal of their trust in their lama – misguided trust in this case.

  5. Sangye

    That is very touching to see someone process this to the degree you have. Much respect.

  6. Nancy Jacobs

    Bernie, I very much appreciate your excellent article, with one exception. The section entitled ‘Reviewing the Student-teacher relationship’.
    While you might believe that everyone should make their own choice about how they are treated, and I might even agree with you, this is a very specific situation, with a definition and implications which go far beyond an individual’s decisions on interaction with another individual. This is a defined student-teacher relationship within Buddhism, and that definition is at stake. This is not some s&m situation with a ‘safe word’. There are no safe words, as the lamas now advising Rigpa have made clear. And especially not ‘outside’ of the official Rigpa organization, but still existing as an obvious and self-defined Vajrayana student-teacher relationship.

    You use the words “fierce teaching methods”, but are they really teaching methods, or something else?
    The definition of Vajrayana Buddhism is at stake in this, both now and for the future.
    Perhaps that is why Mingyur Rinpoche took care to write
    “Physical, sexual, and psychological abuse are not teaching tools.”

    The idea of ‘Crazy Wisdom’ is also not being accurately represented here. There is another aspect of ‘crazy wisdom’ stories which are seldom addressed. The lamas involved were able to bring fried fish back to life and heal broken bones instantaneously… Am I the only one who sees these stories as warnings to lamas not to behave in such ways, because, you guessed it, they cannot do these things.

    Another problem in the case you make in that particular section is the idea that, as you say,
    ” “crazy wisdom” can have its place if used skillfully by a teacher with students who can handle it. By “handle it,” I mean the student has the capacity and self-understanding to process the experience so it becomes a part of his or her growth rather than a repressed or traumatic experience.”
    This whole concept places a judgement on the student — that if he or she has a high enough view, and great enough capacity, s/he can ‘handle it’. Of course, lots of students will bend over backwards to make themselves and others believe they have this capacity and high view, only to discover later, if they ever get over it enough to do so, that they have been psychologically shattered.
    Which is why I would return you again to Mingyur Rinpoche’s wise view that
    “Physical, sexual, and psychological abuse are not teaching tools.”
    As well as HH Dalai Lama’s many statements and clarifications about the importance of ethical behavior in the dharma (yes all the dharma, even Vajrayana) that you yourself refer to elsewhere in the article.
    You’ve been such an important voice on this issue, and I appreciate so much that you have engaged on it here on your blog and elsewhere, and I honor your experience and everything you yourself have been through.
    But I feel it is very important to add another perspective to this particular aspect of the issue.

    • Solenodon

      For a lot of students nothing is wrong because they were never target of any abusive behaviour and have never witnessed something they find inappropriate. They profited from what they got from him, had no disadvantageous experiences and are eager to continue that way. And where is the problem if they want that.

      The people who were exposed to this “treatment” were always a tiny minority of all students.

      • Catlover


        So, it’s okay that a “tiny minority” of students were abused by Sogyal because a lot of other students didn’t happen to be abused by him? They just didn’t get close enough to him to be abused. That doesn’t mean the abuse should just be overlooked just because some people benefited from listening to his teachings.

    • Nancy Jacobs

      “after being made aware of the potential harm ” makes some sense, Bernie and Solenodon in the perspective I added my intention was to address the concepts being presented in the specific section I mentioned. I would not presume to try to tell any individual who they should or should not interact with. It is certainly their choice, and I did mention I agree with Bernie on that point. I am concerned however about how these ideas of the student teacher relationship are framed, because at this crucial point it affects the transmission of Buddhism to the west, and that affects the experience of many people into the future. And there are different perspectives on how that relationship should go. I felt it important to point especially to Mingyur Rinpoche’s and HHDL’s clear and specific advice, and to emphasize Mingyur Rinpoche’s words. Their careful advice both for students and the dharma itself has been a touchstone throughout this experience for many. Who we all listen to and the voices we amplify will guide us now and likely have an impact for generations to come.

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