We’re so saddened to hear about Sogyal Rinpoche’s colon cancer and wish him a swift and complete recovery.
The unexpected news about Rinpoche’s health and recent remarks made by two traditional teachers concerning samaya have understandably sparked intense emotions among many in the Rigpa sangha.
At the end of his recent teachings in Lerab Ling, the Rigpa International Retreat Center in France, Khenpo Namdrol strongly admonished the eight students who wrote a letter alleging abuse by Sogyal Rinpoche. Among other things, he said they’d been taken over by non-human entities.
Then Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche expressed his concern for Sogyal Rinpoche’s health and warned the Rigpa sangha about the harmful effects of breaking samaya in this September 28th message shared on Facebook:
Presently I am in Asia with Sogyal Rinpoche, to support him. The situation with his health is very serious. He has been diagnosed with cancer and had to have an operation to remove the tumours. Now his doctors are advising a course of chemotherapy as a follow up.
What I want to say to all Rigpa students is this—please do not break any more of your samayas. If a student breaks his/her samaya, it has a very harmful effect on the master’s life. I urge all of you therefore to practice the Narak Kong Shak and Heart of Vajrasattva confession prayers as much as possible. I am very concerned for Sogyal Rinpoche’s health and future. I hope you will all listen to what I say.
In light of these messages, we would like to share some reflections on how we might better keep samaya. We hope to contribute to a more positive atmosphere within the sangha by doing so.
What Is Samaya?
Sogyal Rinpoche used to explain samaya as a sacred bond between student and teacher. He said the most important aspect in caring for this bond is to maintain a positive heart connection between the teacher and student and also between the students.
In the midst of these abuse allegations, this may feel challenging for many of us. But we believe it’s possible, whatever our personal position, to do our best to keep a tender and open heart, listen with the intention to hear and understand others, and be mindful not to speak and act out of anger. The letters, newsletters, and statements sent to us from Rigpa and Sogyal Rinpoche since the controversy began consistently encourage this kind of attitude.
To achieve this, maybe for now, we need to put aside our remarks about the impurity of anyone else’s samaya, especially considering the radically different views on samaya expressed by Buddhist teachers in response to this controversy.
In heated discussions over the last few days, we’ve heard breakage of samaya described by some Rigpa students as “turning against the teacher.” A significant number of people seem to interpret Khenpo Namdrol’s discourse and Orgyen Tobgyal’s message to mean that any critical statement about the teacher or request for inappropriate behavior to be addressed constitutes a breakage of samaya.
Can you see how this interpretation of samaya might prompt students to split into opposing camps and attack one another?
These statements may also be perceived as commands to be silent. But silence can be detrimental. Secrecy has contributed to creating the conditions for abuse to occur in many Buddhist communities.
When it comes to samaya in the context of abuse, you’ll find widely different advice even among Buddhist teachers.
For one, Sogyal Rinpoche himself seems to see it differently. The day after the letter was published, Sogyal Rinpoche was asked whether one of the letter writers could attend a meeting for committed students. Sogyal Rinpoche said this person has always been good-hearted and will, of course, continue to be part of the Dzogchen mandala.
Mingyur Rinpoche wrote in Lion’s Roar:
But if there is a long-standing pattern of ethical violations, or if the abuse is extreme, or if the teacher is unwilling to take responsibility, it is appropriate to bring the behavior out into the open. In these circumstances, it is not a breach of samaya to bring painful information to light. Naming destructive behaviors is a necessary step to protect those who are being harmed or who are in danger of being harmed in the future, and to safeguard the health of the community.
The Dalai Lama has spoken four times now in response to the current controversy, stating clearly that the behaviors outlined in the letter are inappropriate and need to be addressed. He said such behavior should be shared publicly.
With this range of interpretations, isn’t it the case that everyone can accuse someone else of breaking samaya?
From one perspective, anyone who has received empowerments from the Dalai Lama who says he’s wrong to speak about ethical standards and interfere with the Nyingma tradition would be breaking samaya with him. From another perspective, anyone who agrees with the Dalai Lama’s concerns about unethical behavior in Rigpa and speaks up about it would be breaking samaya with Sogyal Rinpoche. And so on.
Can Open Discussion and Samaya Co-Exist?
There are many different perspectives in this controversy. Some of us may have concluded that the allegations are unfounded. But both Rigpa and Sogyal Rinpoche say they take the allegations seriously and that they invite open discussion.
Sogyal Rinpoche wrote on July 19th:
I need to hear and acknowledge the experiences that some of my students have spoken of, and over the last few days I have been reflecting very deeply on what course I need to take, how to address these issues.
The Rigpa press release from July 21st 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. We respect Sogyal Rinpoche’s decision to step back and to enter a period of retreat and reflection, and find it wise. During this time we will seek external professional and spiritual advice and look into whatever steps might be necessary. We have already initiated open discussion within our community about the letter and the issues it raises. We intend to bring clarity to this situation as soon as possible.
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.
In our opinion, it would be prudent to leave our judgments about who is a samaya breaker, according to any particular set of standards, until the end of the independent investigation. In the meantime, I believe that the best way to support Sogyal Rinpoche’s health and long life is to strive for as much harmony in the Rigpa community as possible.
Sogyal Rinpoche wrote on July 19:
It is extremely important now that we strengthen and build upon the deep spirit of friendship, openness, and genuine care that already exists in our Sangha. 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.
Here are some additional ways we, as a community and Rigpa as an organization, could express the spirit of this message.
First and foremost, recognizing how divisive it is to the sangha as a whole, we could all refrain from labeling anyone as a samaya breaker. As Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche has said, only a fully enlightened Buddha can know for certain who is a samaya breaker.
Now that Rigpa is an independent entity, no longer under the spiritual direction of Sogyal Rinpoche, the organization could publically take a middle path, which would model and very likely increase harmony in the community.
Recently Rigpa U.S. shared Orgyen Tobgyal’s message in their weekly newsletter without sharing differing views on samaya from other teachers. A similar focus is happening in online discussion groups. Doing so gives the impression that Rigpa endorses the statement and sees it as its own official response to the eight letter writers and anyone else who raises questions about abuse or financial improprieties. This can instill fear, inflame negative emotions, and further divide the sangha.
We believe a less divisive message will be more effective in creating harmony and avoiding further damage to the heart connection students feel with Sogyal Rinpoche and each other.
Other communities who have faced abuse scandals have been able to bring the different sides together with the help of neutral facilitators. Maybe this is especially needed right now?
Hopefully, the investigation that Rigpa promised to initiate over two months ago will start soon. This would also contribute to restoring trust in the wider community.
It would also be immensely helpful for Sogyal Rinpoche to speak about his reflections on the allegations rather than keeping silence. Maintaining silence can come across as responding in the same way abuse allegations have been handled in the past.
An approach of not responding because of fear of legal ramifications may backfire. If you come across as not hearing their concerns, people may feel the need to prove the validity of what they say through the legal system.
Those who criticize Rigpa could do so with a positive vision for its continuation as a respected Dharma organization. They could also take into account that many students feel they have been guided well by Sogyal Rinpoche and want him to continue to teach and direct them.
They could commit to watching their anger and not letting it get out of control. After all, we’re all just human beings. Most of our sangha friends have not been in positions of responsibility, have not been aware of harm, and have not directly harmed anyone even though we all need to all look at how we may have contributed to the situation.
If the discussion on samaya is not handled appropriately, it will bring exactly the opposite it was meant to accomplish: instead of harmonizing, it will divide. In fact, the last two weeks have shown this to be true.
Understandably, tempers have flared. We look to the Rigpa leadership to visibly encourage greater calmness, harmony, and wisdom in the community.
Note: A post with reflections very similar to this article was not approved in “Transformations,” a private Facebook group of 600 committed students. The reason given by moderator: “It’s not the appropriate time to be raising questions and doubts. Best for everyone to focus on practicing for Rinpoche.”
What are your thoughts? How can we related to each other in the spirit of friendship, openness, and genuine care despite vastly different perspectives on the situation at hand? We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.