As 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.
- A Brief History of Abuse Allegations in Rigpa
- Sexual Assaults and Violent Rages… Inside the Dark World of Buddhist Teacher Sogyal Rinpoche
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?
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.
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 Fails, their 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.
What are your thoughts? We would love to hear from you in the comments. You can read our commenting guidelines here.