Rigpa, Cults, The Catholic Church and HH Dalai Lama – A Pep Talk

GUEST POST

Recently Mike Garde recommended in an email that the best approach to take regarding this trouble within Rigpa is one based on successes in dealing with Tony Quinn and Scientology. I felt very uneasy about this. In exploring my unease, I came to two important conclusions.  The first is that these Rigpa troubles are best viewed in the context of troubles within mainstream religion, such as within the Catholic Church, rather than in the context of fringe cults such as Scientology.  In this context, HH Dalai Lama has played more of a role towards reform than he is often given credit for.  Second, the word, “cult”, was not created by God. While there are harmful practices which can be discussed in the context of cults, there is no magic line that a group crosses in order to become a “cult.” Using that word is dangerous because it closes down thinking and possibilities. The discussion becomes an either-or, dichotomous debate, instead of one open to all possibilities and solutions.

What is a cult? It appears that this word has evolved over time and is still evolving. On Wikipedia, there is quite a long entry on the word.  There is a lack of agreement between sociologists and psychologists about the term. Here is one definition:

Sociologists have said that unlike sects, which are products of religious schism and therefore maintain a continuity with traditional beliefs and practices, cults arise spontaneously around novel beliefs and practices.

By this definition, Scientology certainly fits as being a cult, but I would argue that Rigpa does not fall into the category either of sect or of cult. First, Sogyal Rinpoche has not invented a new religion. And while there are gaps in the education program within Rigpa, Sogyal Rinpoche has not turned away from mainstream Buddhist thought either.

In addition, Rigpa regularly invites teachers from outside to teach at its centers. In typical “cults” the social structure is closed. It does not allow for challenges from outside.  This is how they control students. However, Rigpa does not use this ploy, thus allowing students to grow spiritually in ways that a closed “cult” would prevent.

It seems that much of our use of the word “cult” on the threads comes from an assumption that if there are certain harmful practices within a group, then the group is a cult.  Again, I refer to Wikipedia:

In the mass media, and among average citizens, “cult” gained an increasingly negative connotation, becoming associated with things like kidnapping, brainwashing, psychological abuse, sexual abuse and other criminal activity, and mass suicide… Secular cult opponents like those belonging to the anti-cult movement tend to define a “cult” as a group that tends to manipulate, exploit, and control its members. Specific factors in cult behavior are said to include manipulative and authoritarian mind control over members, communal and totalistic organization, aggressive proselytizing, systematic programs of indoctrination, and perpetuation in middle-class communities. The media was quick to follow suit, and social scientists sympathetic to the anti-cult movement, who were usually psychologists, developed more sophisticated models of brainwashing.

While some psychologists were receptive to these theories, sociologists were for the most part skeptical of their ability to explain conversion to NRMs [new religious movement]  In the late 1980s, psychologists and sociologists started to abandon theories like brainwashing and mind- control. While scholars may believe that various less dramatic coercive psychological mechanisms could influence group members, they came to see conversion to new religious movements principally as an act of a rational choice.

While I acknowledge that a quick check of Wikipedia does not constitute a definitive argument, it appears that professionals have not reached much agreement about defining this beast called “cult,” even with the presence of certain, harmful practices in a group.  Because of that fact, I suggest that it would be more fruitful for our discussions on these threads if we addressed these troubles more in terms of old, familiar terms such as “abuse of power” or “sexual abuse” or “greed” or “manipulation” rather than the emotively charged term of “cult.” (Of course, I acknowledge that this might entail taking our conversations off such websites as Dialogue Ireland, which is dedicated to exposing and dissembling cults).

Along these lines, I suggest that it would be helpful to consider the strong similarities between troubles within Rigpa and those within the Catholic Church.  One similarity is the fact that the Rigpa troubles are an example of misbehavior by a spiritual leader and subsequent, shoddy attempts at cover-up.  Students are leaving Rigpa, just as Catholics are leaving the church and though it is difficult for them to do so, though it causes them emotional pain and spiritual trauma, they would rather leave than remain part of such an operation. This becomes a mandate for reform in Rigpa, just as it is for the Catholic Church.  Momentum is building.

The second similarity between troubles within Rigpa and those within the Catholic Church is the antiquated, feudal hierarchies that they both expose. Just as the misbehaviors of priests are a symptom and exposure of even bigger troubles higher up, so many of us believe that Sogyal Rinpoche’s mischief is a symptom of a bigger trouble within Tibetan Buddhist society. This fact, added to recent troubles with young tulkus and lamas, charges the mandate for reform within Tibetan Buddhism with new urgency.

In this context, I would like to observe that HH Dalai Lama has been enormously pro-active towards resolving the troubles within Rigpa—because he has been enormously busy rebuilding the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy and vision.  While he has not engaged in the infinite regress of finger pointing or name calling, he has made enormous reforms within Tibetan Buddhism that facilitate and empower students and teachers to move forward.  Appreciating the ways in which he has done that could be useful for us. Some examples of this are:

Two decades ago, he met with Western teachers and broke with habitual Tibetan Buddhist approaches to empower westerners to speak out.  The relevant conclusions reached by that meeting are as follows:

4) An individual’s position as a teacher arises in dependence on the request of his or her students, not simply on being appointed as such by a higher authority. Great care must therefore be exercised by the student in selecting an appropriate teacher. Sufficient time must be given to making this choice, which should be based on personal investigation, reason, and experience. Students should be warned against the dangers of falling prey to charisma, charlatans, or exoticism.

5) Particular concern was expressed about unethical conduct among teachers. Both Asian and
 Western teachers have been involved in scandals concerning sexual misconduct with their students,
 abuse of alcohol and drugs, misappropriation of funds, and misuse of power. This has resulted in
 widespread damage both to the Buddhist community and the individuals involved. Each student must be encouraged to take responsible measures to confront teachers with unethical aspects of their conduct. If the teacher shows no sign of reform, students should not hesitate to publicize any unethical behavior of which there is irrefutable evidence. This should be done irrespective of other beneficial aspects of his or her work and of one’s spiritual commitment to that teacher. It should also be made clear in any publicity that such conduct is not in conformity with Buddhist teachings. No matter what level of spiritual attainment a teacher has, or claims to have, reached, no person can stand above the norms of ethical conduct. In order for the Buddha dharma not to be brought into disrepute and to avoid harm to students and teachers, it is necessary that all teachers at least live by the five lay precepts. In cases where ethical standards have been infringed, compassion and care should be shown towards both teacher and student.

2. He has written out in texts and spoken out in teachings about the dangers of the tantric instruction to “see everything the lama does as perfect” or “to see the lama as a Buddha.”  He advises caution with these instructions.

3. He has stepped down as temporal leader of Tibet in order for full Democratic reforms to be implemented.  He has spoken of the dangers inherent in combining temporal and spiritual power.

4. For several decades, he has been engaged in dialogues with the scientific community and has added science to the monastic curriculum.  As a result of these exchanges, he has stated clearly that he disagrees with certain (outdated) aspects of the Abbhidharma (Buddhist) literature on cosmology and matter.  His dialogues with scientists are grounded in deep mutual respect.  His stated goal is to move Buddhism into the 21st century, by calling on Buddhists to be fully informed and critically aware.

5. He is an avid promoter of religious tolerance and actively discourages propagation of Buddhism.  He states repeatedly that it is safest to keep one’s own traditional religion.

6. While he doesn’t point fingers at specific lamas or name names, he is the only Tibetan Buddhist leader to speak of misbehavior on the part of lamas.  He is the only leader to acknowledge that there is a problem and to advise students on how to proceed.

7. He has initiated reforms such that female monastics can now achieve the “geshe” degree (comparable to a doctorate in Buddhist science, philosophy and religion).  Recently, at his home in Macleod Ganj in Northern India, he hosted historic debates between nuns.  In the past, Tibetan nuns frequently couldn’t even read or write and were rarely given full ordination or Buddhist studies.

All of these actions are radical and they push Tibetan Buddhism into 21st century.  This vision from the top calls for democracy and empowerment from the bottom up.  It calls for practitioners to look into their own rational minds, their own wisdom, their own common sense.  Whether we are talking about nuns standing equal to monks or about the Tibetan government-in-exile being run by a democratic system instead of a god king, this vision of His Holiness is about we-the-people.  It is a huge step from the feudal society existent in Tibet only a half century ago.

I suggest that we view our actions today within the optimism of that progress instead of within the pessimism of the problems still existent.  I suggest that Tibetan Buddhist leaders will fit it in with this changed vision or they will begin to face diminishing sanghas.  As Sogyal Rinpoche is doing.

These days, I am no longer certain that there will be a moment when we can say that this trouble has been completely resolved or finished.  However, whether Sogyal Rinpoche steps forward and does that final right thing or not, his actions and our outcries are having an effect that will make it harder for such actions to be committed by lamas in the future. Whether women file criminal/civil charges or not, our sane conversations are having an effect and women are being empowered to say—NO.  Whether we siege Rigpa bedrooms or not, we are here for those women who will need support and care.   We are here for disillusioned men as well.  They know that.

I don’t believe we can draw the line definitively and say, Rigpa is fixed now. Nor do I believe that there is the will in any of us to shut Rigpa down.  However, what we can do is empower each other so that our minds are free to think and analyze and reach sound, unbiased conclusions. What we can do is reach out to each other with warmth and kindness and attempt within ourselves to better embody the Buddha’s teachings.

Joanne Clark
Minor revision on March 18, 2013 at 9:44 pm

Thoughts on Leaving Rigpa

GUEST POST

After almost 20 years in Rigpa, I have left with a heavy heart and a wounded soul.

I still have huge faith and trust in the Dharma and have connected with my own wisdom in a real way. The allegations of abuse by Sogyal Rinpoche have been around for a long time and every now and again, they re-surface in the media and a whole new generation of Rigpa students become aware that all is not as it seems.

For my first few years in Rigpa, I was not aware of these issues at all and when I did become aware in some way, my mind compartamentalised these issues. I was so confused, I tried to rationalise it – so many people benefit from the teachings, this surely can’t be true and so on but there was always a niggling doubt.  Then people that I trusted in the Dharma assured me that this was all fine, it was allegations, it was crazy wisdom, this was my ego reacting and so on. However, this doubt got bigger and bigger and when I discussed the issues with senior students, some of whom were in blank denial and issued a party line, some of whom admitted the truth of the allegations but justified it by “crazy wisdom” approach. Both reactions only made my doubts bigger, I read as much as could, watched interviews and soon found myself connecting with other students who had left or were leaving. We were all fearful  as this was a taboo subject and had been taught that to speak or think badly about the master would be a terrible corruption of samaya and would send you to the vajra hells. These teachings in recent years in Rigpa on devotion and samaya have become more numerous and explicit – I believe this is deliberate.

Only after leaving Rigpa, did I realise how free I felt – no longer did I have to justify thoughts in my mind as bad or a corruption of samaya, I was recognising something wrong had happened. I had attended weekends where these issues were discussed in Rigpa but mostly how the issues could be managed in the face of questions from students or the public. It was effectively a re-education or PR training and it left me feeling deeply uncomfortable. Why  should I put out a party line? I remember how my skin crawled a little when one instructor referred to those making allegations as “these women”, it was how it was said, it was loaded with meaning – these woman who dare speak out, who make these allegations, these women who don’t know what they want. We were told Sogyal is not a monk, he is not celibate and is entitled to a private life and that many woman because he is a Rinpoche want to connect with him and have a relationship. This does not make it ok as many people project hugely onto Tibetan masters, in much the same way as those in psychotherapy in the West might do so with a therapist. A good therapist sees this immediately and uses it in the therapy in a healthy way to sort out real issues and the idea of a therapist sleeping with a client is seen as a huge betrayal of trust and breach of fiduciary duty.

Since leaving Rigpa, I am clearer and happier – I feel sick that I stayed there so long and didn’t see the reality, that I listened to the lies and justification. I sometimes now meet people from Rigpa and I know that a lot of people have left in the past year or two and there is a concerted campaign to re-connect with those who have left, wanting to know their reasons why, wanting to talk to them. I want to have nothing to do with this as I believe the allegations against Sogyal Rinpoche should be dealt with openly and honesty.

The complicity of many people in Rigpa in covering up these allegations, managing what can and can’t be said and so on is wrong and so sad. It is no different that the terrible behaviour of the Catholic Church in how they covered up abuses for years.

This whole experience has left me deeply wounded in ways I cannot describe – Buddhism has brought huge benefit and meaning to my life but this experience with Rigpa about Rinpoche’s abuse and the cover-up of same means there is a dark shadow over my experience. I feel by participating in such an organisation for some time, I was also complicit as first I didn’t know and then I did and didn’t say anything about my questions or concerns. This isn’t surprisingly as a very strong and distinct culture of silence, group think and constant activity has built up in Rigpa. It means people are afraid to speak out, afraid to be different and the constant activity means people are so busy and tired they don’t question the norms.

I am hopeful that in the coming year the issues in Rigpa will be exposed more and more and there will be a honest dialogue that benefit all those who have suffered at the hands of this organisation.  The really sad thing is there are many kind and good people in Rigpa, who lead lives according to the Dharma but there is this huge blindspot about the issues of the allegations about Rinpoche. Rigpa has also provided students in the west with access to extraordinary lamas such as Ringu Tulku Rinpoche, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, Garchen Rinpoche and so on but I also have questions why does no-one speak up. Surely these lamas also know about these allegations? It is all so sad and confusing and disheartening and I commend those who have the bravery to speak out from the bottom of my heart.

A former Rigpa student’s thoughts and cultivating discernment …

GUEST POST

I was a Rigpa student for ten years and trainee instructor for the last four. For most of this time I was very much moved and inspired by the teachings, the retreats I attended and by the work done by students of Rigpa, as there are a lot of good-hearted, genuine, dedicated, well intentioned people who are working for this organisation. Then in the last few years some of the allegations about Sogyal started appearing once again in the press, up till this point I had been in complete ignorance that there was anything like this in his past.

As trainee instructors we were informed about the Janice Doe case and sent on a training retreat on how to manage this if asked about it by the general public or by students. If not voiced officially I got the sense that the general understanding was that this woman had misunderstood the nature of Sogyal’s teachings and of his intentions. We were given material to read on the student – teacher relationship, the nature of devotion, and the unconventional way of teaching that a ‘Crazy Wisdom’ teacher might use with his students. None of the details of the nature of the allegations could be shared because this had been one of the clauses in the settlement of the lawsuit, so at the time I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.  I told myself that maybe he had been a bit wild in his youth along with other Lama’s such as Chogyam Trungpa, but that now he had settled down and was only interested in bringing the teachings to the West. However when it came to his relationship with the young girls who served him and all the other allegations about him, I found that it was all very much kept hidden and unspoken even to long term students like myself.

I did question to myself over the years why most of the students in ‘Lama care’ who served Rinpoche were beautiful girls in their twenties, but there is such a focus on teachings on devotion, (i.e, seeing his every action as a teaching, never questioning that he can do any wrong and seeing him as an incarnate Buddha,)  that I just told myself there must be some good reason for it which was beyond my understanding as an ordinary being.   It may sound naive to anyone outside of Rigpa who is reading material on it being a cult, but I would like to add that there is also lot of genuine Dharma being taught which has a positive transformative effect, and as I immersed myself in these teachings it was easy to lose the discernment, especially seeing as these types of teachings are also genuine when given within a certain context. On top of this I had a lot of respect for some of the senior students that I encountered who were rational, highly intelligent  people and full of wisdom and kindness, I looked at them as an example of what could be accomplished by really practising the teachings.

For the sake of balance I would also like to say of my time in Rigpa that  for the most part it was a positive experience. I disagree with the label of ‘cult’ that parties such as Dialogue Ireland have placed upon it who actually have no personal experience of the organisation  and who seem to have their own personal agenda in the matter.  Rinpoche is still a gifted teacher of Tibetan Buddhism who has inspired many in a positive way and Rigpa is a well organised structure for the transmission of the Dharma in the West. In my experience the courses and retreats I attended have enabled many to be able to connect with their own wisdom and kindness with the aim to then practise this more consistently in their lives. This is why it is such a shame that these other behaviours have not been addressed and have been allowed to continue, threatening all the good work that is being done. It is a spiritual organisation and for my part I am grieved that I had to leave because without fail everyone I met was genuinely motivated and many of them are still my friends. In hindsight I can see that my time in Rigpa has given me a thorough grounding in the practise of meditation and in the Buddhist teachings so there is a lot I have to be grateful for also. This is why initially before reading Mimi’s account I was willing to give Rinpoche the benefit of the doubt and tried to ignore my own misgivings. However once I had read her account I couldn’t ignore them any more and I am saddened that, for me, all the good in Rigpa is now tarnished by these actions.

When I eventually ended up reading Mimi’s report and questioned a senior instructor on the truth it he confirmed that her words were true and I appreciated his openness and honesty on the matter.  Still I felt the understanding was that she had misunderstood the nature of the blessing of the Lama. That all the other girls were doing well and didn’t seem to mind so therefore this was her ignorance, that she was an isolated case that had become deluded and lost her way. There is very much a sense that those who are in the inner circle and are in close proximity to Rinpoche are especially privileged.

For the last few years I have been a student of another teacher of Tibetan Buddhism and it was only by being on retreat with him that I realised it wasn’t the normal thing  for there to be such a focus on teachings on devotion,  the guru – student relationship and the unconventional nature of a crazy wisdom master. I feel that these teachings were used to justify Rinpoche’s behaviour and to discourage the questioning of such. There are also teachings that to criticise a Bodhisattva and to cause discord among the Sangha (the spiritual community) will cause you to be reborn in the Vajra hells, so that was quite a strong factor in repressing this questioning of him even in my own thoughts, let alone voicing my misgivings publicly. I noticed in the last few years that as more of these allegations came to light there was more and more focus put on these kind of teachings.

I am no longer a student of Rigpa and feel  that the teachings should not be used to justify this sort of behaviour. As has been stated there is too much of a power differential where his students are expected to obey absolutely his every command. After reading Mimi’s account of his behaviour I believe that it is a huge betrayal of the trust that we put in the teacher and the teachings. The basic tenet of Buddhism is non harming and this applies to all beings, not just the initiated.  Luckily I have seen other  teachers who always behave with absolute integrity towards all of their students which has allowed me to have some sort of perspective that this is just the behaviour of one man and that the group consensus to ignore it and justify his behaviour among his students to preserve the status quo doesn’t represent Buddhism or the Dharma.

I now have a teacher who is the embodiment of the teachings in wisdom, compassion, integrity and patience and I trust him completely, it has restored my faith to see what can be achieved when someone does genuinely try to live the teachings with humility. However we really need to take our time and use our discernment when it comes to who we pick to be our teacher.

I have just watched the video on youtube of Kalu Rinpoche where he confesses about his life as a tulku and warns us that teachers may be extraordinary human beings but they are still human beings. He talks about issues of greed, power, sexual misconduct and control that he experienced within the structure of Tibetan Buddhism. These are corruptions that we can all fall prey to, even teachers and Lamas. I think it is very dangerous to be encouraged to perceive a man as an enlightened Buddha who can do no wrong and to be discouraged to question or to trust in our own perceptive abilities. I admired Kalu Rinpoche’s honesty, humility and transparency and think that this is what is needed at this time which is why I appreciate that these issues are now being addressed by Buddhists in a rational and intelligent way.

Amendment

I feel the comments and discussions that have been triggered by this post have now far exceeded the original post in their depth, detail and understanding of the issues in question, therefore I would suggest taking the time to read them and to not just read my blog in isolation.

  Last edited on May 17, 2013 at 8:57 am

Violation of the Sacred – Western Psychological Perspectives …

Guest Post

Western Psychological Perspectives on Sexual Misconduct in the Clergy and their Implications for Western Dharma Centers

“The pig and the chicken were on their way to breakfast, trying to decide what to have.  When chicken said, “Let’s have ham and eggs,” the pig then replied, “That’s fine for you.  It’s a small donation on your part, but it’s a total sacrifice for me.” Anonymous

So it’s time to ask the question again: Are sexual relations between lamas and their students harmful?  I’ve decided to keep asking this question until women begin to be heard.  Now is a good time to ask, because comments from BellaB on Dialogue Ireland (DI) continue to support the following key points:

1. Sogyal Lakar does have multiple sexual relations with his students; and
2. Bella and Sheila both see no harm in these relations.

In the absence of any official response from Sogyal or Rigpa, we must assume that Bella’s comments are the official response.  Bella is particularly clear about those two points in her responses to the bulleted summery which I included at the end of my last post on DI:  http://dialogueireland.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/is-sex-between-a-spiritual-teacher-and-students-harmful/

Certainly, in the comment line, neither she nor Sheila deny Sogyal’s right to have multiple sexual relations with his students, nor do they deny that he is likely having those.  Bella has also been forthright about an assumption underlying all of her comments on DI and those of Sheila as well.  This is the assumption of the elite, which is that the suffering of a minority—meaning those few courageous women who have come forward to speak of their suffering—is insignificant and questionable if it challenges the comfort of the majority.  This attitude is quite contrary to the essence of Mahayana Buddhism, where the bodhisattva pledges to protect the happiness of every last being in existence.  There are no exceptions in this pledge, never a deaf ear to any cry of suffering.  Within this mighty outlook, if Sogyal’s style of teaching and sexual gratification causes suffering for even one woman, then it is unsafe for all women.

So what do we mean when we talk about suffering here?  Rigpa students frequently refer to suffering in the light of the necessary discomfort that sometimes comes from spiritual growth.  This is how they justify Sogyal’s sometimes harsh, sometimes unorthodox methods.  Of course, this is true.  Once we embark on such a grand spiritual path as the Mahayana, there are bound to be obstacles and difficulties.  Certainly, we embrace those short termed sufferings for the sake of long term happiness and there is no trouble in that outlook.

However, that is not the suffering we are talking about here. The suffering I refer to here is trauma.  In fact, the women who suffer from sexual abuse within a religious setting frequently struggle to even continue on the spiritual path.  Many of them in fact turn away from religion entirely.  For many of them, even the name of God or reference to their place of worship will trigger painful and intolerable memories and so it is avoided (Rauch, 2008).

Much of what psychologists know about this sort of trauma comes from studies done on clergy sexual misconduct.   Buddhism is still relatively new in the west and I admit that literature specifically addressing the harm caused by lama sexual misconduct is lacking.  However, the features of clergy which make sexualizing clergy/parishioner relations harmful are similar to features of Buddhist spiritual teachers.  In this way, one can conclude that the harm caused by sexualizing the clergy/relationship is likely to be no different than that resulting from sexualizing the lama/student relationship.

In fact, there are more similarities than dissimilarities between clergy and Buddhist spiritual teachers.  Both are seen as leaders of a religious institution and both give regular sermons/teachings.  Both are in positions of power and authority.  Both tend to the spiritual needs of community members, frequently in very close ways.  Both have the role of fiduciary care, which means placing the needs of their parishioners/students before their own.  Both play roles in major life events, such as funerals, births, marriages and religious holidays.  Both frequently counsel and advise parishioners or students.

Of sexual misconduct by spiritual leaders, Simpkinson (1996) writes:

“Despite the lack of reliable figures and the misconceptions, most professionals agree that the problem is far-reaching not only in Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish congregations but in Buddhist sanghas and Hindu ashrams as well. Abuse by spiritual leaders is nondenominational, and the dynamics between clergy and parishioners, between gurus and devotees, between spiritual teachers and students, bear striking resemblances to one another. From profiles of the perpetrators and victims to the impact on the spiritual communities and their ways of dealing with the situation, clergy sexual malfeasance is an ecumenical reality, one that has probably been with us as long as civilization and one that is not about to go away.”

A decade later, in a 2008 study on the prevalence of clergy sexual misconduct, Garland and Chaves (2008) reported, “Overall, 3.1 percent of women who attend religious services at least monthly reported being the object of a sexual advance by a clergyperson or religious leader in their own congregation since turning 18; 2.2 percent of regularly attending women reported a sexual advance from a married leader that did not lead to an openly acknowledged relationship.”

Within this context, I suggest that we in western Buddhist communities need to begin to view ourselves as part of a larger, societal problem.  In the same way that religious intolerance and hate crimes can be addressed in powerful ways through interfaith exchanges, this discussion as well can be better addressed within an interfaith context.  I believe that it is time for the closed, secretive and separate components of these problems to be opened up and aired within mainstream western societies.  These problems are not religious; they are societal.  Church communities are currently assessing methods for insuring safety within their congregations.   Dharma centers would certainly benefit through joining these efforts.

Decades ago, Rutter (1989) advised that students will be better protected only when spiritual teachers become more aware of the harm which these sexual relations can cause and when they cultivate greater empathy for those students.  While I can do nothing more than the Buddha himself to assist Buddhist teachers at becoming more empathetic, I would like to assist lamas at understanding the strong risk for harm in student/lama sexual relations.  While I am no expert myself in these matters, most of the articles I quote from are written by professionals who have expertise both in counseling victims and in clinical research.  I assure BellaB and Sheila that the articles I quote from are not the mere opinions of a few individuals but the substantiated findings of most professionals.

So what is meant in western psychology by the term “clergy sexual misconduct?”  Psychologists identify three key reasons why sexualizing the clergy/parishioner can be called misconduct.   These are: 1. The power imbalance; 2. The presence of fiduciary care; and 3. The violation of necessary boundaries in the relationship.

The imbalance of power in these relationships is the most important consideration.  Because clergy, like lamas, are in strong positions of power and authority, it is questionable whether any clergy/parishioner sexual relationship can ever be consensual.  The parishioner is less able to refuse because of the authority invested in the clergy.  In western psychological and legal perspectives, this constitutes a potentially abusive situation.  (Faith Trust Institute, 2008; ALEPH).   Without consent, sexual relations are at great risk of being nothing more than sexual assault.  In the literature, there are many stories of victims who are confused about their right to refuse the sexual advances of their clergy.  Many of them speak of being unable to view these sexual advances as they would the advances of other men.

I suggest that the power imbalance within the lama/student relationship is even greater than that in the clergy/parishioner relationship.  In Buddhism, students are instructed to view the lama as perfect, as a Buddha.  Despite the fact that this instruction is meant only for tantric practices, it is commonly fed to students soon after they walk in the door of a dharma center.  Even outside of tantric practice, students are frequently instructed to see the faults of the lama as faults in their own perceptions.  Sogyal refers to his teachers as “masters”—and his students, even beginning students, refer to him in the same way.

Indeed, the word “master” holds a strong meaning of power!  How could a woman refuse the sexual advances of her “master”?  Certainly this fact alone places any sexual advances made by Sogyal precariously close to sexual assault.

There is a quote from the scriptures frequently quoted which reads that if you view the lama as a human being, you will receive the blessings of a human being, but if you view the lama as a Buddha, you will receive the blessings of a Buddha.  Indeed, who wouldn’t choose to view the lama as a Buddha in order to receive the higher blessing?  And who would refuse sexual advances from Buddha himself?

Another complication which increases the risk for abuse in clergy/parishioner sexual relations is the assumption of fiduciary care.  This means that within their roles, it is assumed that clergy will place the welfare of their parishioners first and not seek gratification for themselves.  Clergy sexual misconduct occurs when the clergy’s own sexual gratification interferes with his responsibility for the welfare of his parishioners.  Many victims speak about their feelings of confusion because they trusted that the clergy had their welfare uppermost in his mind.  Many victims are unable to view the situation realistically as one of simple sexual desire because of their belief in the clergy’s unselfish motives.

I suggest that fiduciary care is even more relevant in the context of a Buddhist lama. Lamas pledge to put the welfare of others before their own.  This is a central feature of Mahayana Buddhism.  Students become sexually abused because their expectation that the lama will put their needs first impairs their ability to judge his sexual advances.  This also leads to a deep betrayal of trust when students realize that their lama is putting his own sexual gratification before their needs.

The third feature of clergy sexual misconduct listed above, the feature of boundary violation, is also prevalent in lama/student relations.  In fact, lama/student relations have the potential of becoming far more intimate than those between clergy and parishioner.  This is because the very nature of Buddhist practices, particularly those of meditation, Dzogchen and tantra, is very intimate.  These practices frequently involve deep, personal change.  In addition, practices of tantra frequently involve visualizing the merging of the lama’s mind within the student’s mind.  One could argue that these practices alone constitute a boundary violation!  Certainly, they require a very high ethical standard on the part of the lama.  In Buddhism, as in all religions, boundaries are protected through ethical restraint.  Sexual boundaries in particular require this.

In our discussions here regarding Sogyal, the question of his methodology in “working” with students is frequently raised.  Not only does this methodology involve a huge power imbalance, as students give Sogyal permission to harass and insult them whenever he sees fit, these harassments and insults are said to “work” on a student’s problems on a very deep way.  Students frequently report very deep experiences of intimacy with Sogyal resulting from these experiences.

In this way, I propose that sexual relations between a lama and his/her student certainly have comparable, but likely even more, risk for harm than similar relations involving clergy.  This is further complicated by the difficulties inherent in moving from a culture grounded in a faith-based religion to Buddhism, which is not faith-based.   Redefining the sacred without the central figure of God is unknown territory for a western student of Buddhism.  Navigating this territory requires clear guidelines and boundaries.  It can be expected that sexualizing the student/lama relationship could confuse these guidelines and boundaries and place the student at risk.

I believe that it is also imperative to view lama-student sexual relations in the west in the context of the judo-Christian culture within which it occurs in order to obtain a full understanding.   For example, Christian doctrine generally prohibits sex outside of marriage.  While this prohibition might not apply to a western woman’s own personal, more liberal ethical standards, it is likely to play a role, albeit unconscious, in shaping her expectations of a spiritual leader.  Many of the victims described in BTT report that they never had a sexual expectation of their relationship with the lama.  It took them completely by surprise.

In fact, much of the harm resulting from sexual relations between a Tibetan lama and his/her students comes from deep confusion.  The relationship crosses personal boundaries in ways that cloud the student’s spiritual orientation.  In a qualitative study of 46 adult victims of sexual misconduct by clergy, Garland and Argueta (2010) observe that most of the participants in their study admit to feeling confused over accepting advances made by the clergy that they would never accept from a man outside of the church.  These participants also describe confusion making them particularly vulnerable during the beginning days when the relationships first turned sexual.  They didn’t expect clergy to use sexually explicit language, for example, and yet found ways to accept the behavior.  They reported that they had no cognitive categories in which to understand sexual advances from clergy, so they contorted the truth in ways that they would never do in relation to an ordinary relationship.

The risk of confusion is even greater for western students of Buddhism because Buddhism in the west is unchartered territory.  Westerners come with assumptions from a judo-Christian upbringing and Tibetan Buddhist lamas come with assumptions from a Buddhist, Asian (and patriarchal) upbringing.  It seems that both sides expect the Buddha’s teachings to somehow resolve all the confusion.  Both sides however need to better understand their own cultural biases in order to approach those teachings in more honest ways.

For example, women within a judo-Christian culture frequently have strong associations of guilt around issues of sexuality and frequently respond with self-loathing when their sexual boundaries are crossed.  These are not emotions with which Tibetan Buddhist lamas are at all familiar.  In fact, HH Dalai Lama responded with shock years ago when he first learned of the western phenomena of self-hatred.  This is not a situation which occurs amongst Tibetans.  As a result, lamas are in unchartered territory in terms of fully understanding the damage that can occur when sexual boundaries are crossed with western women, when the sacred becomes tainted in a woman’s perspective.

Rauch (2008), who is herself a survivor of sexual abuse in a religious setting and a longtime therapist of victims, gives a strong statement on the damage that can result when sexual relations intrude on the sacred:

“Sexual abuse in a religious context is a double breach of sacred trust and space.  It occurs when sexual activity is forced or coerced by a person in some position of power on another.  It is not necessarily direct physical contact.  Sexual abuse in a religious context can include voyeurism, exposure to sexual material, inappropriate and erotic sexual conversations, or sexual exposure in the context of a religious activity.  But it is an act of aggression nonetheless, whether one is forced or seduced, whether it is painful or pleasurable.

“Sexual abuse by a member of the clergy in any religion is tantamount to incest.  No violation other than with a blood relative combines such profound intimacy with intense betrayal.  The breach is all the more serious because the abuse is under the auspices and in the company of the sacred.  Circumstances and context can differ whether the victim is a child or an adult.  But, for anyone violated in this manner, regardless of age, the malevolent exploitation of trust, dependency and affection leads to a mind-numbing decline into alienation, secrecy, and spiritual chaos.” (Ch. 6)

In a review of the literature and a conference on clergy sexual misconduct organized by the Interfaith Sexual Trauma Institute, Wells (2003) observed: “The preponderance of evidence that the trauma of clergy sexual abuse is seriously debilitating is overwhelming.” And later, he summarizes, “clergy sexual abuse is a trauma that denudes the soul of the basic sense of trust that is so needed in the quest for spirituality. Contamination of the sacred rituals is the result of the one who pledges his faith to God, only to be betrayed by his representative through sexual abuse… [and can] lead the victim parishioner into experiences of no understanding, no connection, and no peace.  Oftentimes, the victim is rendered stuck in the stage of spiritual development that he or she was in when abused.”

Indeed, the greatest tragedy of all with these instances of sexual misconduct by both clergy and Buddhist lama is the fact that the trauma reaches into the spiritual wellbeing of the victim.  In this way, it has the potential of causing immeasurable harm.  I suggest that clergy, lamas and all spiritual leaders have an even greater responsibility for restraint than psychologists, doctors or teachers.  They certainly have a greater responsibility for restraint than ordinary men or women!  This is quite contrary to Sheila’s comment on DI that having sex with one’s lama was no different than sharing a nice meal with him!

Certainly in the comment line it seems that concern over the sacred is often ignored.  Rauch (2008) asks: “with all the books, documentaries, discussions and arguments, why had no one spoken of the impact of religious abuse on the soul?  Why did it seem that people who suffered some form of violation in God’s name struggled not simply in their psyche but beyond that—to the core of themselves?  How do people recover what is most essential to who they are, within whatever one calls the soul?” (Ch. 1, Introduction).

Indeed, Hopkins (1993) notes that when the person of the clergy is seen to embody the divine, this intensifies the relationship such that the betrayal of trust can become even more devastating for the victim of sexual abuse.  In many Buddhist tantric practices, the lama is visualized as a deity—he actually does embody the divine, at least in the minds and imaginations of practitioners.  Once the relationship moves into such a realm of the sacred, student/teacher sexual relations can never be compared to ordinary sexual relations and the risk of harm and abuse is greatly increased.

Simpkinson (1996) writes “Sexual abuse by spiritual leaders violates trust, devastates lives, and tears communities apart.  No denomination or tradition is immune.”

Rediger (1990) writes:

Victims of clergy sexual abuse suffer consequences most nearly identified as betrayal, grief and loss, shame, confusion, rage, and contamination. Betrayal, because the pastor-parishioner relationship has been violated. Grief and loss, because this pastor can never truly be a pastor to this person again . . . Shame because sexual intimacy with clergy, whether instigated or suffered, [italics added] often implies in the victim’s mind the grossest of moral turpitudes. Confusion, because intimacy and spirituality are so closely related . . . Rage, because of the power imbalance . . . Finally, contamination, because the victim’s life is now clouded and distorted by titillating rumor, loss of reputation, voyeuristic sympathy, and mistrust, along with loss of care and support he or she has a right to receive in the church. (pp. 28-29)

In a comprehensive review of the literature and study of 149 victims of sexual misconduct by physicians, therapists and clergy, Disch and Avery (1998) conclude, “the results underscore many findings of other studies: sexualized abuse of power by professionals can have highly negative effects on the victims, whatever the practitioner’s discipline. Loss, emotional turmoil, suicidal depression, isolation, low self-esteem linked to shame and self-blame, mistrust, and relationship difficulties are so common as to be almost predictable.”

As I dig deeper into the literature, I discover how church congregations play their part in allowing the abuse to continue.  I discover that the characters of Bella and Sheila, as portrayed in the DI comment line, are not unknown in the dramas within church congregations dealing with these troubles.  Indeed, their habit of denial and their insidious assumptions that it is the women (and not the lama) who are transgressing is the most common occurrence of all.  Women making allegations of clergy sexual misconduct are frequently ostracized and demonized in ways that are reminiscent of years ago when rape victims first spoke out for their own rights (Fortune, 1999; Faith Trust Institute, 2003).

So I say to Bella, Sheila and that silent Rigpa congregation—for the sake of all that’s decent, it’s time to hear these women.  Their suffering is real.  They cannot truly heal until they are heard.  It is time to put aside your fears, prejudices, rages and blindness and hear what the women have to say.  As Crisp (2010) observes: “Survivors of sexual abuse are frequently met with cultures of silence which make it difficult for their experiences to be acknowledged. Furthermore, many have been subjected to threats and intimidation in efforts to ensure that they remain silent about what has happened to them.”

So please, Bella and Sheila and you others, listen—

“In his statement to the US Conference of Bishops Conference in 2002, Craig Martin, who spoke of being abused during his childhood by a priest known and trusted by his family, said:

‘Gentlemen, I wanted so desperately to be heard. I wanted someone to listen to me. I wanted someone to help me. I wanted to break the silence and despair that was killing me. I wanted someone to hear my story.’” (Martin, 2002 http://www.usccb.org/bishops/martin.shtml as quoted in Crisp, 2010).

Listen—

“As the American legal scholar Susan Estrich discovered:

‘At first, being raped is something you simply don’t talk about. Then it occurs to you that people whose houses are broken into or who are mugged in Central Park talk about it all the time. Rape is a much more serious crime. If it wasn’t my fault, why am I supposed to be ashamed? If I’m not ashamed, if it wasn’t “personal”, why look askance when I mention it?’”(Susan Estrich, Real Rape (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), p. 2.4, as quoted in Crisp, 2010).

Bella and Sheila, instead of pointing to the pain, emotional instability and confusion of victims and labeling them as signs of guilt, listen—
“As the psychiatrist and trauma expert Judith Lewis Herman has noted:

‘People who have survived atrocities often tell their stories in a highly emotional, contradictory, and fragmented manner which undermines their credibility, and thereby serves the twin imperatives of truth-telling and secrecy. When the truth is finally recognized, survivors can begin their recovery. But far too often secrecy prevails, and the story of the traumatic event surfaces not as a verbal narrative but as a symptom.’”Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery: From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (London: Pandora, 2001), p. 1., as quoted in Crisp, 2010).

Listen—

“’In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting. Secrecy and silence are the perpetrator’s first line of defense. If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure no one listens. To this end, he marshals an impressive array of arguments, from the most blatant denial to the most sophisticated and elegant rationalization. After every atrocity one can expect to hear the same predictable apologies: it never happened; the victim lies; the victim exaggerates; the victim brought it upon herself; and in any case it is time to forget the past and move on. The more powerful the perpetrator, the greater is his prerogative to name and define reality, and the more completely his arguments prevail.” (Herman, Trauma and Recovery, p. 8, as quoted in Crisp, 2010).

So when are the women who have come forward with their suffering going to be heard?

I will conclude with observations from Marie Fortune (1999) who spent three years fighting for a group of women who had been sexually abused by a pastor in a church in the US:

The situation that arose at First Church of Newburg is in some ways an extreme instance of betrayal of the pastoral relationship.  But it is extreme only in terms of the severity of the pastor’s assaultive and abusive behavior.  It is not extreme in terms of the situations he exploited, the methods he employed, the numbers of people he harmed, or the resistance of the church to   knowing the truth.  In regard to the dynamics that allowed for such behavior, it is a typical case.  I chose it (from nearly fifty other with which I have had some association) to illustrate the problem of professional misconduct by a pastor, because it carries within it virtually every aspect of the issue and of the difficulty of the church’s response.  It may strike you as so extreme as to be unbelievable.  Some of the events were unbelievable; but this does not mean that they are not true.  You may conclude that this case is so extreme that it must be an isolated incident; these things simply do not happen in the church.  Unfortunately, instances of pastoral misconduct are far more common than any of us would like to believe.  They may not be as far-reaching or as extreme as in the Newburg situation, but the damage to individuals and to the church is often just as serious …

“The church has a choice when faced with such occurrences: It can turn a deaf ear, or it can heed the call of its own theology to attend to the powerless who are victims of its own power.  It can keep faith with itself and its people.  It can seek to do justice as a means to healing and restoration for all concerned.  It can preserve the sacred trust that rests within the pastoral relationship.” (pp. xvii-xviii)

Bella and Sheila and all you silent Rigpa students, when are you too going to start hearing?  When are you going to heed your own theology—our theology as dharma students—and  ensure that the Buddha’s core teaching— “Commit no harm”– forms the pillar of every Rigpa center?  When are we going to preserve the sacred trust that rests within the lama/student relationship?

Congregants grant clergy authority.

Bibliography

ALEPH, 2008.  Aleph.org. Breach of Professional Trust: Sexual and Financial Ethics, www.aleph.org/code.professional.htm
Crisp, Beth R., 2010, Silence and Silenced: Implications for the Spirituality of Survivors of Sexual Abuse.  Feminist Theology, April 14.

Disch, Estelle PHD and Avery, Nancy, MSW, 2001.  Sex in the Consulting Room, the Examining Room, and the Sacristy: Survivors of Sexual Abuse by Professionals. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 71 (2).

Faith Trust Institute, 2008.  www.faithtrustinstitute.org/ (follow “About the Issues” hyperlink, then follow “Clergy Ethics and Sexual Abuse by Clergy” hyperlink; then follow “Q&A” hyperlink.)

Fortune, Marie, 1999.  Is Nothing Sacred? The Story of a Pastor, the Women He Sexually Abused, and the Congregation He Nearly Destroyed. Eugene, Oregon: WIPF & STOCK.

Garland, Diana R. and Argueta, Christen, 2010, How Clergy Sexual Misconduct Happens: A Qualitative Study of First-Hand Accounts. Forthcoming with final edits in Social Work & Christianity.

Garland, Diana and Chaves, Mark, 2009, The Prevalence of  Clergy Sexual Advances Toward Adults in Their Congregations.  Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 48 (4); 817-824.

Lief, Harold I., 2001, Boundary Crossings: Sexual Misconduct of Clergy, Journal of Sex Education and Therapy, 26 (4).

Rauch, Mikele, 2008.  Healing the Soul After Religious Abuse: The Dark Heaven of Recovery.  Westport, CT: PRAEGER.

Rediger, L.G., 1990. Ministry and Sexuality, cases, counseling and care.  Minneapolis, MN: Fortress.

Rutter, P., 1989, Sex in the Forbidden Zone. New York: Fawcett Crest.

Simpkinson, 1996, Soul Betrayal, Common Boundary, November/December.

Wells, Ken, 2003, A Needs Assessment Regarding the Nature and Impact of Clergy Sexual Abuse Conducted by the Interfaith Sexual Trauma Institute, Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 10:201–217, 2003.

Written by a former Rigpa student

What Is A Rigpa Student To Think?

GUEST POST

Sorting Out the Blogs and Posts in Regard to Allegations of Sexual Abuse Against Sogyal Rinpoche I begin with a story which I believe to be from a Zen center:

Our Saturday morning meditation group usually starts with hugs, smiles, and jokes.  Bud today it begins with Sarah’s tears.

Sarah is group’s matriarch.  She speaks four languages, has lived in four countries, and survived multiple wars.  The rest of us often ask her spiritual questions, and she often gives wonderfully clear, yet deeply mystical answers.  She laughs easily, often at her own mistakes.

Yet as we take our seats on this gorgeous spring morning, Sarah suddenly begins to weep.

I touch her arm and offer her a tissue.  “What’s wrong?”

She dabs at her eyes for some time before she is able to talk.  Eventually she mentions the name of a well-known spiritual teacher.  “I was his student; he was my guru, my rebbe.  For years I felt a special connection with him.  He was always so wise, so mesmerizing, so inspiring.  When I was in the room with him, I felt something shift and deepen inside me.  Wherever he went, he packed the house.”  She takes a long, sobbing breath.  “Yesterday, I found out he sexually abused women.  Dozens of women, many of  them his students.  Some of them young girls.  For over twenty-five years.  Twenty-five years.  He just admitted all of it.”  She shakes her head and blows her nose noisily.

I start to speak, but she touches my hand and shakes her head.  She needs to say more.

“I don’t understand how he could be so wise and inspiring, yet so abusive.”

(Edelstein, Scott, Sex and the Spiritual Teacher, Introduction)

I suspect that this story might resound with Rigpa students.  There might be many Rigpa students right now who have read the blogs and allegations against Sogyal Lakar and are questioning.  Many might be confused or upset.  What might appear a clear conclusion to those outside of Rigpa is not so clear to those with strong, spiritual ties to Sogyal and his organization, those who have experiences of kindness and true guidance from him.  This point is often lacking in our debates.  We discuss the allegations as if resolution of them is as simple as moving from A to B, as saying yay or nay.  However, for a Rigpa student, resolution means a radical reorientation of their lives on many different levels.  Spiritual reorientation, in particular, is a difficult and often painful challenge.  This takes time and it is not simple.

Recently, I counted the number of comments that have been made on Dialogue Ireland in response to allegations of sexual abuse by Sogyal Lakar and I reached 4, 277.  Even though these comments span over three years of discussion, the number is still staggering.   As Mike of DI says, we Buddhists “have a lot of fuel in our tanks.”  I personally believe that this is a strength we have. It means that this situation is not going to just fade away without some definitive resolution.

There seem to be two primary debates occurring throughout these discussions.  One is the question of whether or not the allegations are true.  In line with that is the question of degree, of how true they might be, whether they are “as bad” as they are described in Behind the Thangkas (BTT).  The other debate is the question of whether sexual relations between a Buddhist lama and his student should be condemned at all.  This question also entails consideration of the degree of sexual involvements.

HH Dalai Lama says frequently that we need to “know the reality” when faced with problems.  We have to be “realistic” in our approaches.  He talks about knowing reality from many different angles and having the courage of an open skepticism as we analyze and investigate.  Such an approach is invaluable in situations such as this one, where emotions run very strong.  The temptation is either to cling to the safety of blind faith or rage with (equally blind) impulsive anger and reactivity.  I suggest that neither approach will help the practitioner move forward.

Indeed, this is a journey of conscience for every Rigpa student.  An informed conscience is a strong conscience.  Only through viewing what we know and don’t know through many different lenses and logics can we inform our conscience and have the courage and self-confidence to act accordingly and move forward with our practice.

HOW STRONG IS THE CASE AGAINST SOGYAL LAKAR?

There is an understanding within Rigpa that these allegations of sexual abuse are primarily due to Mary Finnigan and her vendetta against Sogyal Lakar.  In A Response To the Blog Behind The Thangkas, http://dialogueireland.wordpress.com/2012/01/06/a-response-to-the-blog-behind-the-thankas/  a senior Rigpa student argues that the allegations are the result of 30 individuals who have become angry with Sogyal because of his sometimes harsh techniques.   This appears to be the opinion of Rigpa officials as well.   The tone of Mary Finnigan’s own comments on blogsites can appear to justify this.  She has never disguised the fact that she wants to “put Sogyal out of business.”  She uses strong language.  In addition, BTT does reach well beyond allegations of sexual abuse and condemns Sogyal’s qualifications as a teacher as well.

However, several facts support the allegations in BTT.  The first is the fact that Mary herself is an established journalist, with a sound knowledge of litigation and the responsibilities of journalism.  It is presumed that she would have taken extra care with verifying her evidence in BTT, knowing that it would be challenged and that Sogyal had the money for good lawyers.  While the original online version of BTT is anonymously published, she gave permission for the use of her name on this website, so she is not seeking protection through anonymity.

Further facts also support Mary’s credibility.  One is the fact that Cogent/Benger are highly reputable and their primary source, “Mimi” has gone public with her allegations.  Mimi is also central to BTT.  Her allegations do not concern only herself, but what she has observed as the abuse of others as well.  In a conversation between the owner of this blogsite and the Rigpa director of another country, the Rigpa official said that Sogyal had tried to contact Mimi, but her therapist advised against this.  The Rigpa official also said that Sogyal would not object to the allegations because he would practice tonglen (mind training), accepting the “negativity” and say nothing against the allegations.  This blog owner replied that if the accusations were wrong, he must correct them as this was part of the bodhisattva vow.  It could be surmised by this that Sogyal takes Mimi’s allegations and suffering seriously—however not seriously enough to address them directly.

While Rigpa officials will blame Mary’s ill will for the trouble BTT has caused, I have not seen any statements from them that Sogyal is not having sex with multiple women.  This is the main concern.  In fact, in Response to the Blog Behind the Thangkas on Dialogue Ireland (DI), the writer does not question the existence of a group of “Dakinis” who surround Sogyal, nor does she question that they are in sexual relations with him—she questions only the allegations that they are not happy, self-confident women who have lives of their own and are free to leave whenever they wish.  She questions whether these women are treated poorly and then cast off:

Everybody in our culture knows about the teachers’ power over the students and they may be in position where they could use their power wrong. Many of us have personal experiences of such events or “invitations” by teachers in our Universities and so on. How many of those women who have been abused by their teacher have gained a permanent position in the teacher’s life? Some are abused and thrown away. If they haven’t been thrown away, they can’t say they were abused, if their relationship ended up in a marriage. The abuse happens, when the woman is told what to do and told that she will be rewarded somehow. These situations do not usually last for years, since the victims are thrown away, if they complain and do not obey. Soon enough they are being replaced by the next victim.

Many critics feel the need to show the foreign men their place and educate how women should be treated. I could join them eagerly since I have known a few men from non-Western cultures personally and through my friends. But then I must also say that I have never seen Sogyal Rinpoche treating his “dakinis” without respect. They are not thrown away, but have remained for years or decades. He usually doesn’t send anybody away.

This fact leads to one of the most convincing arguments supporting the truth of the allegations, which is the fact that multiple sexual relations between a renowned teacher, such as Sogyal, and his students is not seen as a problem amongst either mainstream Buddhist teachers or Rigpa officials themselves.  A major argument in Response to the Blog Behind the Thangkas is that these relationships do no harm to the students and are not practiced in extreme ways, such as in the orgy described in BTT, with pictures of naked women behind the thangkas.  I will address the issue of whether sexual relations between spiritual teachers and their students do cause harm more deeply later on, but I suggest that it is a central reason why the allegations are probably true.  Sogyal simply does not believe that his behavior is wrong and he is supported by a culture that doesn’t believe it is wrong either.  The question then is not whether or not he has had sexual relations with his students, but rather, why shouldn’t he have had sexual relations with his students?  He is not a monk and he is a healthy male with a healthy appetite.

Certainly, the assumption that it is an “honor” for a woman to have sexual relations with a great Buddhist teacher is prevalent within mainstream Tibetan Buddhism.  I recall very clearly Shyalpa Rinpoche saying during a teaching retreat that in the past, Tibetan men used to pray that they would be reborn as women so that they could practice as consorts.  Particularly in the Dzogchen traditions, founded by Padmasambhava, who himself practiced with consorts, this is a central assumption.  Any Rigpa student with a sincere wish to probe more deeply into the allegations against Sogyal must acknowledge that this attitude is central to all considerations.  This attitude makes the allegations extremely probable.  Later, I will discuss the validity of this attitude.
Further support for the credibility of BTT can be made from testimonies in the comment line of Dialogue Ireland.  In 2009, DI posted a briefing document in which Mary Finnigan presents a testimony from a former close personal assistant to Sogyal, who describes the situation within Rigpa while he was there:

In the mid 80′s, during my seven years with Rigpa and 4 years as founding director of a national Rigpa branch, I had slowly discovered that Sogyal Rinpoche had sex with very many disciples. Even though I was very close to SR, it took me some time to notice the obvious. Even though I am a professional counsellor, it took me quite some time to notice it at all, and then it took me even more time to take action. First, at the same time I was shocked and kind of amused, I had mixed feelings about it, because in the beginning I saw that some women tried to get him. First I thought, they are mature woman, they know what they are doing, and I simply am too inexperienced in the exotic ways of Tibetan Lamas to be able to judge. It was much later that I heard stories and saw things which were not based on consent, and saw that he was cheating all the time on the women. Also I noticed that he had sex with young students who just had come to Rigpa retreats for the first time …

I confronted Sogyal first jokingly, then half-heartedly, with my concerns about his behaviour, and I said to him that as a therapist I knew about the transference phenomenon: students see the teacher as kind of a father figure, so sex with the student is psychologically seen as incest. Also, that in the West, the relationship between teacher and student, or priest and the parishioner, must be kept pure, and does not allow for intimate relationships involving sex in any way. He was not amused, and tried to avoid the subject, but he first tried to justify his sexual behaviour spiritually …

I could no longer ignore what was happening. On one occasion Sogyal wanted me to lie on the phone to a woman, who wanted to contact him after having had sex with him but had found that he was in bed with another woman. I refused to be a party to his affairs. He became very angry and yelled at me, but I was not impressed …

One of the worst things I experienced was at a winter retreat in Germany. A long term student of his was in emotional distress and asked in obvious pain, vulnerability and confusion for his help, and he forced her to speak louder and then to come forward to the stage where he put her down completely. In my view, he was totally afraid of her, and could not deal with the situation at all. But instead of putting her into safe hands, he tried to save himself by putting her down and ridiculing her, and then played the strong teacher who can deal with everything. That same night, we had to rush her to the emergency ward of the nearest psychiatric hospital with a nervous breakdown and a psychotic seizure.

As a therapist and as a student, I was horrified by his behaviour and his complete lack of compassion and skill. Before I left Rigpa, an American woman told me confidentially and in great distress that she had just lost her husband and had come from US to France to SR to get help, and that SR, during a private audience, had tried to violently force her to have sex with him. Fortunately, she managed to escape being raped. She left the retreat in even greater despair and completely shocked. This was the worst incident which I heard at first hand.

SR did not respect any limits: he had sex with most of the wives of the leading students at Rigpa. I tried to keep myself and my private life out of his. I tried not to get mixed up with his affairs. Sogyal had a classical harem, and he knew all the tricks to make the obvious invisible, or if that did not work, to change the context of the students’ values, giving the whole thing a spiritual excuse, and abuse fears and naivety, or the good belief of his students to get what he wanted. It’s 12 years ago since I quit Rigpa, so I have no first-hand information of SR’s activities now, but I must say I have little doubt that everything is the same today, because I consider him an addict. He is hooked on sex and power.

There was the harem, and the women seemed to be able and ok with their role in the game. At least I wanted to believe this, still trying to see SR as a holy man. On the other hand, I always found obstacles to consider SR as my guru. I considered myself at that time more like a Buddhist manager and some kind of assistant to SR, rather than as a disciple of his. I could see Dilgo Khyentse or the Dalai Lama as true masters, but SR appeared to me to be just a teacher who teaches Buddhism, or more likely a salesman who sells Buddhism. When I was in charge of my national Rigpa branch, I always exaggerated his qualities in the flyers I produced. I said to SR: either you are true and good and people will find out themselves, or if not they will also find out. So don’t tell them what they should think or how good they should think about you. True quality will speak for itself. With me, he accepted such words, but I heard my successors had to write up his qualities.

First he said that because he is one of the incarnations of Padmasambhava, and that Padmasambhava had many “spiritual consorts”, he would be somehow entitled to do so. Then he played the cultural card: in Tibetan culture women are seen as Dakinis, and they would happily serve the Lamas for enhancing their spiritual power and so on. I am ashamed, but first I wanted to believe all this. I was brought up in a prudish, bourgeois Catholic environment. I was used to playing roughshod with the truth, and to idealize and respect people of position even more than supposedly “holy” men. My spiritual and emotional hunger made be blind to my own values and my professional standards – at least where the standards of the Lama were concerned, however, fortunately not in my own work.

For some years I was blinded by my position of power. I felt that I was establishing a very well-run organisation together with other dear friends which was benefiting many people. I was happy. I was in a very special position. I honestly tried to use my position to the best of my ability. I felt I was chosen, and because of karmic connections with Sogyal, I was finally realising my full potential.

The bitter irony is that because other students saw me as a rather independent, seemingly critical, and reasonable person and because of my professional status as a psychotherapist, some people viewed me as endorsing Sogyal. In fact they envied my special access to SRBasically, he always treated me very well. He seemingly respected me, but now I think he was clever enough not to treat me badly like some of the other students so I would remain loyal. He gave me the feeling that he appreciated my views at least as long I helped him to please the audience and the students. But he never was open to criticism concerning his personal behaviour. Also, he never answered any of my personal spiritual questions. I got more and more the impression that he simply could not answer them. Also, when I attended sessions where he should answer questions from his students, he often gave very stupid answers, and showed that he had not much understanding of what people were really asking. Sometimes he ridiculed people to cover this up.

When I have more time I will write more professionally on the psychology of the guru-student relationship and of abuse. What interests me most is why people “allow themselves” to be abused and what hinders them to see the truth. And how to help others to discover their own truth, and how to stop people like SR from going on.

Mary says that she has more testimonies like this one.  Of course, it is totally possible that this story is fabricated and a complete lie, but it is hard for me to conclude that anyone would fabricate such a story as this one.  It is just plain too lucid and introspective.  In addition, Mary has allowed her own name to be used in citing this source, so this adds veracity to the testimony.

Of course, we cannot know for certain that this is from a real person.  Indeed, Mary could have written it herself.  However, in that case, surely there would have been a strong refutation from Rigpa officials?  Surely, they could have stated that no such person has existed that they know of?   Again, it is clear that refuting the existence of multiple affairs and Sogyal’s harsh, sometimes harmful techniques during teachings is not something that Rigpa is capable of doing.

Another lucid description of Sogyal’s sexual affairs is given in another comment line of DI:  Behind The Thangkas ~ Sogyal Rimpoche ~ The imbalance of power and abuse of spiritual authority.  On several dates, Jan. 9, 10 and 12, ex-Dakini describes her experiences of sexual abuse from Sogyal.  This is a testimony from a woman who has clearly done the difficult work of healing from her experiences.  In respect to this woman’s healing, I will not post her personal disclosures here, but I advise anyone who wishes to gain a clear picture of the allegations to view her comments.

Of particular significance, ex-Dakini states:

My handful of years in Rigpa led me to witness first hand that Sogyal Rinpoche was a compulsive seducer of women. I knew more than several women who were seduced after their first teaching or at their first retreat. I knew women who were seduced when they were in distress. Others like myself had been involved in the organization for a while before he communicated his desire for sex. I am not including in this summary by the way anything that has been published by DI, these are things individuals told me personally some years ago.

I can count the names of 15 women who I knew that SR was sexually involved with. And I wasn’t around for all that long. I suggest that those of you still involved in Rigpa who care about this to simply ask your lama how many of his students he has had sex with. I think its a fair question to ask a spiritual leader. These women – myself included – were his students. Not women who he met in other circumstances.

Even BellaB, a senior Rigpa student who comments frequently on DI and sometimes on this website, acknowledges that ex-Dakini’s story rings true.  This is odd, because after admitting this, BellaB then continues for months to refute the truth of allegations of sexual abuse against Sogyal.  It seems she is either forgetful or can hold two contradictory truths in her mind at the same time.

I have been in personal contact with Tiger Lily, who comments on this website and commented on DI during that time both in response to ex-Dakini and with her own testimony.  I assure the reader that Tiger Lily is a real person with no vendetta towards Sogyal.  She writes in Jan. 2012 of a meeting that she had with Mimi prior to the publication of BTT (Mimi is called Mimi in the documentary film and Janine in BTT):

Suffice to say she [Mimi] echoes ex-d’s testimony in that during the time she was Sogyal’s attendant she received so little sleep that she couldn’t think straight. Sex with Sogyal “went with the job of being a female attendant”. It was not about love. When she began to have doubts, she was faced with the answer that whatever Sogyal did would be a teaching for her good. She was encouraged by him to see herself as a consort and when she went in tears to Dzigar Kongtrul to ask him what it meant to be a consort he replied that it was very good.
She also told me that she was regularly struck by Sogyal with his backscratcher as were his other female attendants.

Tiger Lily was also involved with Sogyal as a girlfriend and writes of her own experiences:

You asked me if Sogyal had ever treated me in the way Mimi has claimed he did her. First of all I was never encouraged to see myself as a consort. It never entered my head. I was a girl-friend. Neither did he ever hit me. I would have hit him back. Sogyal didn’t claim to be a great Master…that came after I’d left. He was usually called Sogyal Tulku by the Tibetans. The whole dynamic at Rigpa was more normal then. Much more low key, not the empire it’s become. He could be a pain in the arse though and we let him get away with it too much.
I did try to work with unpleasant emotions by letting my relationship with Sogyal and Rigpa be a catalyst for my practice. Perhaps not a waste of time after all as I have learned by default. I just gave up with being deceived by his philanderings and by being kept in the dark and the general deterioration of a friendship which I had once valued. I never saw him as my Guru but rather someone I wanted to be close to because Tibetan Buddhism was the most important part of my life.

I did notice a difference in his behaviour though and judging from other women’s comments it became more intense with each successive decade as Rigpa grew and grew and grew and the best of Sogyal (and there could be a sweet side to him) seemed to become swallowed up by Terton Sogyal. I am shocked and saddened by Mimi’s and Ex-d’s experiences but not surprised.

Probably the strongest case made against BTT’s credibility in Response to the Blog Behind the Thangkas is the writer’s own positive experiences as a student of Sogyal.  Certainly, this is the main theme of arguments raised by senior Rigpa students in the comment lines.  Sheila is concerned that by raising concerns over Sogyal’s behavior, we are undermining all Tibetan Buddhist teachers and her experiences have been completely positive.  She wants no stain on Tibetan Buddhist leaders.  Bella is concerned because her experiences with Sogyal have been all positive and she therefore disagrees with any allegation that his behavior is not perfect (except for those made by ex-Dakini).

Indeed, I would guess that there are many more students of Sogyal who have had only positive experiences than there are those who have had negative experiences.  However, such black and white thinking is not helpful and such rationale can never justify misconduct or harm inflicted on even one woman.  We are not talking about numbers.  For example, a murderer might be wonderful to his children, his mother, his wife and friends, but his misconduct is still misconduct.

However, I acknowledge that the greatest challenge for any sincere Rigpa student is to equate the allegations of sexual abuse with the teacher that they know.  Scott Edelstein, author of the story that I cited at the beginning of this writing, speaks eloquently of this dilemma:

It is entirely possible for a spiritual teacher to be wise, compassionate, empathetic, and inspiring, and at the same time sexually exploitive.  This may seem entirely contradictory, but spiritual teachers have proven it true time after time.  For better or worse, we humans are often contradictory creatures—especially when it comes to sex, power and vocation. (Sex and the Spiritual Teacher, Chapter 1).

It is therefore not my intention here to dispute Sogyal’s worth as a spiritual mentor for many.  Nor is it my intention to hold him high as an exemplary spiritual teacher either.   My intention is to ask readers to hold both possibilities in their hearts, to neither revert to blind faith, nor succumb to blind reactive emotions as you sort through the allegations and your own experience and analysis.

Those of you who have never experienced anything but kindness during your time as a Rigpa student are nonetheless encouraged to take the Buddha’s teachings to heart and try to experience compassion and feel how difficult coming forward with these stories must be for women who have suffered sexual abuse.  Try perhaps to avoid seeing their reluctance to give their names as evidence that their stories and suffering are not real.  See instead that this reluctance comes from fear.

Indeed, I can tell you as a therapist that coming forward with testimony of sexual abuse causes the victim great suffering.  It triggers experiences of pain that victims want to put in the past.  This is why so few rape victims bring their cases to court.  I believe that this is why there are so few women with the courage of Mimi and Victoria, the courage to expose their vulnerability and their pain.  Cruel comments, such as those made by some Rigpa students on the comment threads, do not help them find the courage either.

I have one further comment to quote from the comment line.  This comment is not about sexual abuse explicitly.  However, I suggest that it exposes the fact that Sogyal might be lacking in some boundaries around issues of sexuality.
Here is the story:

lalatee, on July 8, 2011 at 2:37 pm said:

I recently attended the recent 10 day retreat at Dzogchen Beara in County Cork, Ireland. I knew nothing about Sogyal Rinpoche when I arrived, beyond the fact that he was the author of the wonderful book: The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. SR arrived at the retreat he was supposed to be leading 4 days late. As soon as he came into the tent where 250 attendees were gathered, I knew I had made a mistake. His personality was egocentric and his manner imperious. It did not fit in with my idea of a holy or ascetic monk at all. During the course of the next few days I experienced what at best could be termed disrespect, at worst abuse of his colleagues and disciples. He was regularly late and often over-ran the sessions by several hours, on one occasion keeping us from lunch. He was insulting about the Irish people, about his assistants and to individual course participants. He refused to let one woman leave who had just heard that her house had been burgled, but made her sit down on the floor in front of him for 2 hours, saying it was too late to do anything about it now, she should have gone home before it was burgled not afterwards!

The last straw for me, and which made me leave the retreat 2 days early, was when he called one of the senior assistants from the Centre for the sick and dying to come up to the dias. This lady is a very respected professional in her 60s doing amazing caring work with the bereaved and dying. She was forced to kneel down beside SR while he embraced her closely and put his hand on her chest. I could see her face and she was clearly deeply embarrassed and uncomfortable. SR proceeded to stroke her face, looking deeply into her eyes. When she pulled back slightly he turned to the 250 people in the audience and said: ‘This is none of your business, turn away.’ So 250 people (except me) twisted around in their seats and looked the other way. If that is not crowd manipulation and audience abuse, I don’t know what is. At the very least it shows complete ignorance or disregard for Western social mores ethical behaviour.

I will not go back and I will not have anything further to do with Rigpa. I am very very sad that the wonderful people amongst the instructors and pupils that I met are being seriously duped. They do not deserve this sort of treatment. I wish them all well.

This comment is also unique because it is about something that can be verified.  I personally was not at the retreat the commenter is referring to, but hundreds of people were.  No refutation of that story has appeared.  In fact, in the Response to the Blog on Behind the Thangkas, the writer’s only comment about this story is quite cynical and misses the point completely.  She writes coldly,

It’s a new line in the story, because the old stories repeat that he is only after young women.

Most Rigpa students reading the comment from lalatee, even those who did not attend the Dzogchen Beara retreat, will identify this experience with those they have experienced themselves.  Defenders of Sogyal will say that he works with people’s egos in ways that reflect his genius and realization.  Indeed, the writer of the response piece reports experiences of realization she has experienced as a result of Sogyal’s harsh methods.  This same student suggests strongly that BTT was motivated by the ire of x-Rigpa students who became disenfranchised with Sogyal’s teaching methods:

This means that instead of the thick dossier of victims, there are 30 people who did not like Sogyal Rinpoche’s teaching and style. I bet there are many more since he is a very provocative teacher, too direct to many. That is part of being a Dzogchen Master. Can’t get away with that. Many people do not enjoy the rough ride when the Master places a mirror in front of them. It simply isn’t pleasurable to see one’s own hidden traits.

I personally find such an attitude deeply disturbing and cold.  It is one based on a very self-centered approach to the dharma.  The writer is applauding her own advanced state in being able to work with Sogyal’s harsh methods, while disregarding any harm caused to others.  Whether those others are suffering or simply mad and discouraged with the Buddhist path, I suggest that the methods which Sogyal uses are not benefitting them and are instead causing obstacles to their practice of dharma.  I also question a practice said to be diminishing ego if that same practice causes one to denigrate others.  It was my own impression from my year with Rigpa that the harsh methods were for the initiation of a few chosen students, while the rest of us, such as lalatee and myself sat in horror, dejection and confusion, watching on.

Indeed, the core purpose of all the Buddha’s teaching is for the diminishing of ego.  HH Dalai Lama outlines these teachings as ones that either diminish self-cherishing or diminish self-grasping.  Practices that diminish self-cherishing are practices of method, such as cultivating love, compassion, tolerance, charity, warmheartedness, kindness etc.  Practices that diminish self-grasping are practices of wisdom, such as studying, reflecting and meditating on impermanence and emptiness.  This is a huge canon of teaching, all aimed at diminishing ego.  Yet, instead of those approaches, Sogyal has decided that he has a better, more effective approach.  Nowhere do I see such approaches in the main scriptural sources, though I agree that they are described in biographies of the great masters, as in Tilopa’s treatment of Marpa and Marpa’s treatment of Milarepa.  My only question there is how many Milarepas do we believe have been born in the west?  Are these approaches really suitable for all or even for many or are they approaches only for highly advanced students?  Sometimes it seems that perhaps Rigpa students who have experienced these harsh techniques might think they are special, like Milarepa.  They might become more arrogant instead of less!

Perhaps I would not object to this so forcibly if I didn’t question whether Sogyal’s Dzogchen teachings and methodology was backed by a strong education program.  Without this, harsh Dzogchen methods have no context in which to become a true practice of dharma.  I once asked the Dzogchen teacher Shyalpa Rinpoche if it was important to have a good understanding of the Madyamaka teachings in order to practice Dzogchen.  He replied that practicing Dzogchen without a full understanding of Madyamaka would be like climbing a rock cliff without hands.

In the same vein, HH Dalai Lama said during Dzogchen teachings he gave in 1989,

So that the special features of Dzogchen can be pointed out and you can recognize them, you must have a thorough, overall understanding of the principles of all the different vehicles of the Buddhadharma.  This is the only basis on which you can truly appreciate the uniqueness and depth of Dzogchen.  Without such an overview, it will be difficult for your mind to feel any certainty as to why these teachings are so special.  That is why you need to understand the whole spectrum of the Buddhadharma, from the lower yanas to the higher yanas. (p.127; Dzogchen: The Heart Essence of the Great Perfection, Teachings Given in the West by His Holiness the Dalai Lama)

In the forward to this same text, Sogyal gives a brief description of his first meeting with HH Dalai Lama:

His Holiness asked me my name and my age.  He then held me in a piercing gaze and told me pointedly to make sure I studied hard.  It was a moment I have always remembered, for it was probably one of the most important of my life. (p. 9)

This indicates that within mainstream Tibetan Buddhism, education is considered to be important for both student and spiritual teacher.  While I do not have Mary’s courage to question the level of Sogyal’s dharma education, I do question whether that advice is central to the approach taken within the Rigpa program itself.  Are Sogyal’s harsh methods used on students who haven’t studied the Four Noble Truths?  On students who have never studied the madyamaka teachings?  On students who have no understanding of lojong or never meditated on compassion or emptiness?  I question the efficacy of harsh methods when a foundation of understanding core Buddhist concepts and practices is not laid.

These are questions that I suggest every Rigpa student needs to find answers for, in order to assess the current situation fully.  In Mahayana Buddhism, the primary goal of practice is to cultivate a state of mind where concern for others’ welfare is more important than concern for oneself.  Justifying Sogyal’s behaviors on the basis that one’s own practice has benefitted and others who have been harmed are in some way deficient is a very disturbing attitude in this context.  This attitude has prevailed throughout much of the comment line.

IS SEX BETWEEN A SPIRITUAL TEACHER AND STUDENTS HARMFUL?

I wish to question three underlying assumptions evident throughout the comment threads, in A Response to the Blog BTT and within mainstream Tibetan Buddhism.  The first is that sex between a spiritual teacher and his/her student is not wrong in itself and does not harm nor constitute abuse in itself.  Only if it resembles the sort of abuse that would occur in an everyday relationship should it be called abuse.  The second is that women are free to say yes or no to Sogyal; they are free agents.  The third is that it is an honor and spiritual practice to have sex with a renowned Dzogchen master such as Sogyal.

Immediately, I will point out that there is a contradiction between the last two assumptions.  If it is an honor and a spiritual practice to have sex with your “master” then immediately there is less free will.  Saying no entails refusing to practice as your lama has instructed—this is a much more difficult act than simply turning down sex, as one would with an ordinary person.  So we can’t have it both ways.  Either having sex with Sogyal is no big deal, no more than sex with the everyday Joe on the street, or it entails a power differential, with women being less free to refuse.

Certainly, the Buddha himself has given us permission to say no to our teachers if they ask us to do something which is incorrect.  The difficulty here, however, lies squarely with my earlier points about the lack of education within Rigpa programs.  If a woman is not well read on the scriptures and Sogyal tells her that having sex will help her progress on the spiritual path, then how is she to have the resources to question?  How can she know her rights of refusal, if she has no thorough knowledge of the Buddha’s instructions in this regard?  If she has no knowledge of what tantric sex is even about?

Indeed, the first several education courses offered at Rigpa are not courses in fundamental texts such as Words of My Perfect Teacher, Bodhicaharyavatara, Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment or any of Longchenpa’s teachings.  They are Sogyal’s book and Sogyal’s teachings.  New students at Rigpa study the dharma from Sogyal’s point of view.  I would suggest that most of the students who first enter into sexual relations with him have very little further grounding in the Buddhadharma than Sogyal’s viewpoint.  In this respect, they have absolutely no tools with which to question him if he tells them that sex will help their spiritual progress.  They have few tools with which to say no.

In fact, it is a contradiction in terms to say no to any “master,” is it not?  In fact, this is a key, central tenet of Dzogchen, the role of the master.  Dzogchen is about the “master” leading the student into unknown territory; it is about the student having complete trust that where the master leads is a safe territory. This is central to many Dzogchen techniques.  From the outside, we shudder to hear of such practices.  From inside Rigpa, such an outlook is common and not questioned.  I personally believe that the true Dzogchen lies somewhere inbetween.  The true Dzogchen can only be practiced after the student has spent years investigating the teacher and the primary texts of Buddhism.  These years have to be years where the Dzogchen teacher is not seen as a “master” but is seen as a lecturer who is put on trial.  I fear that many of the stories of sexual abuse that one hears in regard to Sogyal have occurred with students who have never spent anywhere near that requisite time.

Add to this trouble the outlook of tantra, where one is required to see the lama as perfect and you have further trouble.  Indeed, HH Dalai Lama speaks very strongly about the dangers inherent in seeing everything that the lama does as perfect:

The offering of practice means always to live by the teachings of one’s guru. But what happens when the guru gives us advice that we do not wish to follow or that contradicts Dharma and reason? The yardstick must always be logical reasoning and Dharma reason. Any advice that contradicts these is to be rejected. This was said by Buddha himself. If one doubts the validity of what is being said, one should gently push the point and clear all doubts. This task becomes somewhat more sensitive in Highest Tantra, where total surrender to the guru is a prerequisite; but even here this surrender must be made only in a particular sense. If the guru points to the east and tells you to go west, there is little alternative for the student but to make a complaint. This should be done with respect and humility, however, for to show any negativity towards a teacher is not a noble way of repaying his or her kindness.

Perception of faults in the guru should not cause us to feel disrespect, for by demonstrating faults to us the guru is actually showing us what we should abandon. At least, this is the most useful attitude for us to take. An important point here is that the disciple must have a spirit of sincere inquiry and must have clear, rather than blind, devotion.

It is frequently said that the essence of the training in guru yoga is to cultivate the art of seeing everything the guru does as perfect. Personally I myself do not like this to be taken too far. Often we see written in the scriptures, »Every action seen as perfect.« However, this phrase must be seen in the light of Buddha Shakyamuni’s own words: »Accept my teachings only after examining them as an analyst buys gold. Accept nothing out of mere faith in me.« The problem with the practice of seeing everything the guru does as perfect is that it very easily turns to poison for both the guru and the disciple. Therefore, whenever I teach this practice, I always advocate that the tradition of »every action seen as perfect« not be stressed. Should the guru manifest unDharmic qualities or give teachings contradicting Dharma, the instruction on seeing the spiritual master as perfect must give way to reason and Dharma wisdom.

Take myself, for example. Because many of the previous Dalai Lamas were great sages and I am said to be their reincarnation, and also because in this lifetime I give frequent religious discourses, many people place much faith in me, and in their guru yoga practice they visualize me as being a Buddha – I am also regarded by these people as their secular leader. Therefore, this teaching of »every action seen as perfect« can easily become poison for me in my relationship with my people and in my effective administration. I could think to myself, »They all see me as a buddha, and therefore will accept anything I tell them.« Too much faith and imputed purity of perception can quite easily turn things rotten. I always recommend that the teaching on seeing the guru’s actions as perfect should not be stressed in the lives of ordinary practitioners. It would be an unfortunate affair if the Buddhadharma, which is established by profound reasoning, were to have to take second place to it.

Perhaps you will think: »The Dalai Lama has not read the Lam Rim scriptures. He does not know that there is no practice of Dharma without the guru.« I am not being disrespectful of the Lam Rim teachings. A student of the spiritual path should rely upon a teacher and should meditate on that teacher’s kindness and good qualities; but the teaching on seeing his or her actions as perfect can only be applied within the context of the Dharma as a whole and the rational approach to knowledge that it advocates. As the teachings on seeing the guru’s actions as perfect is borrowed from Highest Tantra and appears in the Lam Rim mainly to prepare the trainee for tantric practice, beginners must treat it with caution. As for spiritual teachers, if they misrepresent this precept of guru yoga in order to take advantage of naive disciples, their actions are like pouring the liquid fires of hell directly into their stomachs.

The disciple must always keep reason and knowledge of Dharma as principal guidelines. Without this approach it is difficult to digest one’s Dharma experiences. Make a thorough examination before accepting someone as a guru, and even then follow that teacher within the conventions of reason as presented by Buddha. The teachings on seeing the guru’s actions as perfect should largely be left for the practice of Highest Tantra, wherein they take on a new meaning. One of the principal yogas in the tantric vehicle is to see the world as a mandala of great bliss and to see oneself and all others as Buddhas. Under these circumstances it becomes absurd to think that you and everyone else are Buddhas, but your guru is not!

Actually, the more respect one is given the more humble one should become, but sometimes this principle becomes reversed. A spiritual teacher must guard himself or herself carefully and should remember the words of Lama Drom Tonpa, »Use respect shown to you as a cause for humility.« This is the teacher’s responsibility. The student has the responsibility of using wisdom in his or her demonstration of faith and respect.

A problem is that we usually only observe those teachings that feed our delusions and ignore those that would overcome them. This leniency can easily lead to one’s downfall. This is why I say that the teaching on seeing all the guru’s actions as perfect can be a poison. Many sectarian problems in Tibet were born and nourished by it.

The First Dalai Lama wrote, »The true spiritual master looks upon all living beings with thoughts of love and shows respect to teachers of all traditions alike. Such a one only harms delusion, the enemy within.« The different traditions have arisen principally as branches of skillful methods for trainees of varying capacities. If we take an aspect of their teachings, such as the precept of »all actions seen as perfect,« and use it for sectarian purposes, how have we repaid the past masters for their kindness in giving and transmitting Dharma? Have we not disgraced them? If we misunderstand and mispractice their teachings, it will hardly please them. Similarly, it is meritorious for a lama to perform rituals or give initiations to benefit people, but if his or her motivation is only material benefit, that person would be better off going into business instead. Using the mask of Dharma to exploit people is a great harm.

We erect elaborate altars and make extensive pilgrimages, but better than these is to remember Buddha’s teachings: »Never create any negative action; always create goodness; aim all practices at cultivating the mind.« When our practice increases delusion, negativity and disturbed states of mind, we know that something is wrong.

It is sometimes said that a major cause of the decline of Buddhism in India eight hundred years ago was the practice of Vajrayana by unqualified people, and sectarianism caused by corruption within the Sangha. Anyone teaching Tibetan Buddhism should keep this in mind when they refer to the precept, »every action of the guru is to be seen as perfect.« This is an extremely dangerous teaching, particularly for beginners.

(Essence of Refined Gold; Commentary by Tenzin Gyatso The Fourteenth Dalai Lama; 1982, Translated & Edited by Glenn H Mullin; pp. 55-57)

I suggest that most of us in the West are beginners who are ignorant of the dharma and ignorant even of our own ignorance.  We are being faced with a culture of seeing the actions of the guru as perfectly wise and we have no tools with which to question that.  It is for this reason that I further suggest that there are few situations by which sex between a Tibetan Buddhist lama and his/her student is safe from harm.  Much fewer than we think.  The power differential is simply too huge.

This is not merely my opinion, but a reality supported by western psychotherapists.  It is known in the west, for example, that sexual relations between doctors and patients, therapists and clients and teachers and students are all relationships that cause harm.  This is because the power differential is too large. It is accepted among therapists that this same trouble exists in the relationship between spiritual teachers and their students.  However, I have not studied this matter thoroughly and I don’t work with sexual abuse victim, so I refer readers to two books written on this subject matter.  The first is Sex in the Forbidden Zone by Peter Rutter and the second is Sex and the Spiritual Teacher, by Scott Edelstein.  I beg Rigpa students who question this to study and investigate.

Discussions on the comment line about this matter in particular have been disturbing because individuals comment as if they have professional knowledge of this, when in fact, they are simply giving unsubstantiated opinion.  BellaB frequently speaks of women who are victims of sexual abuse with Sogyal in the same context that she might judge a woman in a relationship with any man on the street or her past boyfriends.  Sheila frequently states that if there is a crime, then women should go to the police and if there is no crime, then there is nothing to complain about.  She completely dismisses the fact accepted among western therapists that any sexual relationship between a spiritual teacher and his student, even one that is legal, is going to cause psychological damage to the student.  She also dismisses the fact that women statistically are reluctant to file charges and endure the ordeal of being grilled over their experiences.

I encourage any Rigpa student who doubts western psychological evidence indicating that sex between spiritual teachers and students is harmful to investigate further and make certain of this.  While Scott Edelstein is not a psychologist himself, he has investigated these problems extensively and is a longtime Buddhist student who has relationships with many teachers and students alike.  He writes:

Interpersonal boundaries are not the creation of modern-day psychologists or business consultants; they have existed for as long as humans have lived in groups.  The age-old taboo against incest exists in part because our ancestors realized long ago that sex between parents and children is, among other things, one of the most psychologically damaging boundary violations.  A similar dynamic exists between mental health professionals and their clients; as a result professional organizations consider sex between clinicians and their clients to be unethical, and state governments [in the US] have declared it illegal.

Likewise, extensive (and often painful) experience has shown that when sex occurs between a spiritual teacher and a student, the teacher-student relationship is often damaged, sometimes irrevocably.  In some cases, the student’s own sense of spirituality is similarly broken.

Any relationship potent enough to promote growth and healing is also powerful enough to harm.  This is especially so with the relationship between a spiritual teacher and a student hungry for spiritual knowledge and growth.

(Sex and the Spiritual Teacher, Scott Edelstein, Introduction).

This brings the discussion to the final point, which is the Tibetan Buddhist perspective of sexual relations between teacher and student.  I would like to address this from two perspectives, one being the Tibetan Mahayana Buddhist definition of sexual misconduct and the other being consideration of tantric and Dzogchen sex.

The following excerpt is from Gampopa, the 11th century kadampa and Mahamudra master and the founder of the Dakpo Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism.  It is written for male practitioners.  For female practitioners, the genders need to be reversed.  What is of significance in this code of conduct is the ethnic and historical orientation, as the reader will immediately notice.  Already there has been an outcry from gay and lesbian Buddhists about this code and HH Dalai Lama has stated that the code can only be changed through a careful collective effort, not by a decree from him or any other Buddhist leader.  Indeed, current troubles with sexual misconduct by TB lamas could well be the catalyst needed for careful reform of the code to begin.

Sexual Misconduct
Classification of Sexual Misconduct.  There are three types of sexual misconduct: protected by the family, protected by the owner, and protected by the Dharma.  The first one means sexual misconduct with one’s mother, sister and so forth.  The second one means sexual misconduct with someone owned by a husband or king, and so forth.  The third one has five subcategories: even with one’s own wife, sexual misconduct refers to improper parts of the body, improper place, improper time, improper number, and improper behavior.  Improper parts of body are the mouth and anus.  Improper places are close to the spiritual master, monastery or stupa, or in a gathering of people.  Improper times are during a special retreat [such as a Nyungne, when vows of celibacy are taken], when pregnant, while nursing a child, or when there is light.  An improper number is more than five times.  Improper behavior refers to beating or having intercourse with a male or hermaphrodite in the mouth or anus.
(Gampopa, The Jewel Ornament of Liberation; Snow Lion Publications, 1998).

Tsongkhapa, 14th century kadampa master and founder of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, describes this code in greater detail, citing from the scriptures, but the essential guidelines are the same.  Translators for his writings use the term “under the protection of” instead of “owned by.”  Tsongkhapa also speaks of sex with prostitutes not being a transgression, unless the prostitute has already been bought by another.  Tsongkhapa also quotes from Asvaghosa and adds to the list of situations whereby a woman should not be made to have intercourse:

In that case, inappropriate times are when
A woman is menstruating, pregnant,
Has an infant, is unwilling,
Is in pain or is unhappy and the like,
Or is maintaining the eight-part one-day vow.
(Lamrim Chenmo, Part One, p. 221)

Certainly when one reads these descriptions of sexual misconduct, one’s immediate reaction will be that reform is needed!  They fail to address current concerns.  Women are no longer “owned” nor even are they “under the protection” of husbands.  I also question if prostitution is an institution to be supported.  I question the efficacy of such an outdated code at assisting Buddhists in restraining their sexual behaviors in the 21st century.  Such a code appears to encourage “exceptions to the rule.” While Buddhists are not encouraged to follow any stricture blindly, once we allow for easy exceptions to any code of conduct, then flagrant abuses will occur.  I suggest that this fact is alarming.  It appears that Tibetan Buddhists have a choice: They can either follow this code blindly, which speaks of such things as a woman being owned by her husband and freely engaging in prostitution or they can update it in their own ways, which then allows for a dangerous crack to form in ethical discipline.  This is a serious concern, I believe, that could lie at the center of the current trouble.

Of central concern to this discussion is the fact that there is no mention made by Gampopa or Tsongkhapa of ethics in regard to sexual relations between lama and student.

Of course, these descriptions of sexual misconduct must be viewed within the context of the Buddha’s main tenet, which is: commit no harm.   And here we are, back at the beginning.  Certainly, proving that these relationships have caused harm and will cause harm is central to our discussions over and over again.  Western psychological communities have given voice to this.  I wonder if Tibetan Buddhist leaders too could give voice?

As for the tantric perspective on sexual relations between a spiritual teacher and his/her teacher, the practice of a consort, I will repeat from Tenpel’s quote on an earlier post on this website.  I believe that this is a matter which cannot be repeated enough because there is much misunderstanding about the role of consort in Tibetan Buddhism.

John Powers, a university professor and Buddhist practitioner, states:

Tantric texts stress that practice with consorts is not a form of sexual indulgence, but rather a form of controlled visualization that uses the special bliss of sexual union. It is restricted to very advanced practitioners, yogins who have gained control over the emanation of a subtle body and have awakened the mystical heat energy, or “dumo” (gtum mo, candali). Those who have not advanced to this level are not qualified to practice with an actual consort; people without the necessary prerequisites who mimic tantric sexual practices thinking that they are practicing tantra are simply deluded, and may do themselves great harm. Sexual union is only appropriate to advanced levels of the stage of completion, and so those who have not developed sufficient realization and control over subtle energies are unable to generate the blissful wisdom consciousness realizing emptiness that is the basis for this practice. They may succeed in fooling others—or even themselves—but they will be utterly unable to use sexual energy in accordance with the practices of highest yoga tantra.

According to the Dalai Lama, only a person who views all the phenomena of cyclic existence with complete impartiality is qualified to engage in tantric sexual practices:

Truthfully, you can only do such practice if there is no sexual desire whatsoever. The kind of realization that is required is like this: If someone gives you a goblet of wine and a glass of urine, or a plate of wonderful food and a piece of excrement, you must be in such a state that you can eat and drink from all four and it makes no difference to you what they are. Then maybe you can do this practice.

When asked to name any lamas who he thought were at this level, he admitted that he could not. He mentioned that there are well-known stories of great teachers like Tilopa who had transcended all attachment to conventional thinking and so were able to engage in sexual practices without harming themselves or their students, but he added that such exceptional individuals are very rare.

(John Powers, Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, Snow Lion Publications, 1995, p. 252.)

An essential point to this discussion is the fact that the taking of a consort in the context of highest yoga tantra, the practice of sexual union, is done within the context of strict observance of vows and commitments.  For example, such practitioners take a vow not to emit semen in the sexual act.  In fact, ejaculation is considered a root infraction.  In conclusion then, sexual relations between a lama and his student cannot be considered part of a tantric practice unless there are clear vows and commitments made—and unless both partners have clear realizations of emptiness.

What then of Dzogchen practices?  Are there differences?  In a recent translation of teachings on this topic by Padmasambhava, it is stated:

But in the Dzogchen teachings there are special channels and potencies not discussed in Tantricism, related to the experiences of ‘lamps’ and ‘vajra-chains’ mentioned here.  These are direct manifestations of buddhahood, associated with the thogal practices of the Upadesha.

Also, in the same text: “Dzogchen, the way of self-liberation is a nongradual path.  This means that its principle, the understanding of the reality of self-liberation, can be applied right from the start of the path.”

And in the same text:

At the time of intercourse when passionate attachment and the concepts associated with it arise, this is experienced as the creative energy of pristine awareness.  If one does not know this, it is just attachment.  Transforming this into pristine awareness means that by working with passionate attachment itself, passionate attachment is purified.

And in the same text:

If we deeply know that our body is an open dimension, like space, with porous boundaries, then there is no attachment to the body, because we experience a brilliant clarity (salwa) by means of our body that is also ungraspable.  If we deeply know that our body is like a field that unifies all dualities, then all sexual energies are unified in an experience of pure pleasure (dewa) that overwhelms the grasping mind.

(Secret Teachings of Padmasambhava: Essential Instructoins on Mastering the Energies of Life, Edited and Translated by Kennard Lipman, PHD)

Indeed, I have very little personal understanding of Dzogchen.  However, there are several distinctive features of this description of the Dzogchen approach to sexual union which are significant to this discussion.  One is the assertion that the Dzogchen form of sexual union can be practiced outside of tantra.  I presume this means it is therefore also outside of the boundaries of tantric vows and commitments.  Next is the reference to Dzogchen being a “nongradual” path.  The inference is that practices such as sexual union, which in tantra can only be practiced by very advanced practitioners, could conceivably be allowed for more beginning practitioners of Dzogchen.  There is also no emphasis in this text by Padmasambhava on the need to withhold semen during practices of union.

I suggest that these features make Dzogchen practices of sexual union more prone to misconduct.   In tantra, because of the vow prohibiting practitioners from ejaculating, immediately the practice is one that entails a large degree of self-discipline.  It is difficult to imagine that an individual with such control could be engaged in the activity for mere, mundane sexual pleasure.  My impression of Dzogchen, however, is that the student only has the lama’s word for it that the practice is different from any other mundane sexual intercourse—because outwardly, it might appear to be the same.  In addition, because Dzogchen teachings do stress a nongradual path, then this situation can presumably cause more risks to a beginning student, who is told that sex with the master will help her realize Dzogchen.  It is more difficult to establish that essential boundary of safety, which is cultivating the understanding that only a very advanced practitioner can use sexual union on the path.  More significant still is the fact that presumably a woman does not need to spend the requisite years of study and critical reflection before finding herself committed to her lama through sexual union.  Though many great teachers of Dzogchen would presumably require those prerequisites of their students, there appears to be room for avoidance of them as well.

Indeed, there does seem to be room for a large permissiveness within Buddhist canon for a non-monastic teacher to have sex with his/her students.  Unfortunately, I have found no scriptural sources which discuss the potential for harm in these relationships.  Nor do I know of protocols which insure safety for students in this regard.  I certainly have found no sources prohibiting sexual relations between a lama and his student.

I suggest that if this perspective is true, if this is the perspective from which mainstream Tibetan Buddhist leaders are exonerating the sexual behaviors of lamas such as Sogyal, then that fact needs to be made known.  Students who walk in the door of any Tibetan Buddhist dharma center need to be informed from the very beginning that: 1. sexual relationships between this teacher and his/her students are considered ok; 2. According to the Dalai Lama, only students on a very high level of spiritual attainment can use this sexual relationship for spiritual progress; and 3. It is ok for any woman to refuse to have sex with the “master.”  It does not break any samaya or commitment she has to her spiritual practice.

I suggest that this is the protocol and educational program that needs to be instigated within our dharma centers.  With those three clear guidelines, then at least the playing field would be more level.  Students could judge before their judgment became impaired whether they even wanted to enter that door again—whether they could tolerate practicing in such a permissive community.  Women would stand a better chance of being able to say no and understand the boundaries of the relationship.  Surely, making these issues clear is the least that Sogyal and the Rigpa establishment could do.  In the west, there are certain expectations and assumptions about conduct.  Tibetans also have certain expectations and assumptions about conduct.  At the very least, these current troubles should be a call for better communication on all sides.  At least they call for some honesty.  If it’s considered ok for Sogyal to have sex with his students, this needs to be broadcast aloud—it needs to be put on Rigpa websites.  It needs to be put on fliers.  It needs to be made known.

So after all this discussion, what is a Rigpa student to think?  The answer to this must come from the conscience of each and every student.  Even those of us who are Buddhist practitioners but not Rigpa students need to explore our own consciences and our own attitudes towards our teachers.  The answers will come one by one, from students themselves.  This can be painful and slow, but it is the ground for real change.

In summary, my main points are:

  1. There is enough evidence of probable sexual misconduct by Sogyal to warrant alarm, and at the very least interest, on the part of Rigpa students.  This evidence is not simply being provided by Mary Finnigan.
  2. There is strong evidence that Sogyal is, at the very least, engaging in sexual relations with multiple numbers of his students.  This fact has never been directly refuted by either Sogyal or Rigpa officials.
  3. On the contrary, there have been statements by Rigpa officials in the past that Sogyal is not a monastic and therefore has a right to engage in sexual relations.
  4. There is also an indication that mainstream Tibetan Buddhist thought does not consider Sogyal’s behavior to be a problem, which adds further weight to the likelihood that it is occurring.  If it isn’t wrong, why then should Sogyal refrain from multiple sexual relations with his students?
  5. Mainstream western psychological opinion is that sexual relations between a spiritual teacher and his/her student does cause harm.
  6. Women themselves have reported suffering as a result of sexual relations with Sogyal.
  7. It is not uncommon for spiritual teachers, who have crossed sexual boundaries to also be highly inspiring and kind teachers.
  8. Except for the strictures against having sex with married women and beating women, there is little in the allegations against Sogyal that is even banned in the Buddhist canon regarding sexual misconduct.  It appears that if Sogyal can disprove those two allegations and disagree with women’s reports of suffering, then he is free from the viewpoint of Buddhist ethical conduct.  I suggest that this needs to be reviewed!

Written by a former Rigpa student

The Dalai Lama and Sogyal Rinpoche: A Roaring Silence?

GUEST POST

One of the questions asked by many since the long running saga of Sogyal has once again gathered pace is why hasn’t the Dalai Lama spoken out? Why is it, if he knows about the many allegations against Sogyal, that His Holiness doesn’t voice an opinion and and publicly condemn the Tibetan playboy?

Certainly, there exists a relationship between the two men: The Dalai Lama wrote the foreword to Sogyal’s (or Patrick Gaffney’s, depending on who you believe) ‘Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’ and, in 2008, Lerab Ling, Sogyal’s huge temple at Montpelier in France was officially inaugurated by him, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy in attendance. Again, turn to the front of any of the Rgpa diaries of the past few years and you are greeted immediately by a picture of a smiling Dalai lama, along with prayers for his long life.

So why the roaring silence?

Actually, as anyone involved in Western Dharma politics over the last few decades will know, His Holiness HAS spoken out about this issue, making his own position very clear, and indeed has given clear and precise guidance on how we should act in response to Buddhist teachers in the West abusing their position of authority …

At a conference for Western Buddhist teachers held in Dharamsala n March 1993, at a time when rumours about Sogyal’s behaviour were reaching their first crescendo, the Dalai Lama repeatedly encouraged open criticism of such behaviour, even, when all else fails he said, to “name names in newspapers”. It was perhaps more than coincidence that, soon afterwards, in November 1994, an American woman known only as Janice Doe filed a $10m lawsuit against Sogyal charging him with inflicting emotional distress, breach of fiduciary duty and assault and battery; the lawsuit was ultimately settled out of court, allegedly for several millions of dollars.

The story didn’t end there however and,over the next few years more and more allegations of abuse emerged, leading to several articles in some of the most reputable UK broadsheets, numerous internet articles and websites, and even a television documentary. All of these went unchallenged: it seems that, by and large, Rigpa felt noble silence to be the best way to weather the continuing storm.Several commentators however interpreted Rigpa’s lack of a robust response as merely an admission of guilt.

As these allegations have spread and multiplied across the media, some have suggested it is not enough for the Dalai Lama to stand on the sidelines and issue instructions but that,rather, he should speak out specifically about Sogyal’s shenannigans, In other words, the Dalai Lama should take his own advice over the issue of Sogyal and abuse, and personally “Name names in newspapers’.

The ‘Innocent Until Proven Guilty’ Defence

Some have chastised Sogyal’s critics, pointing out that there is no actual proof abuse has taken place and that, until it is proven, he should be treated as innocent. Such an appeal to ethical principles is not without precedent:we are all familiar with the addage,’innocent until proven guilty’. However, issues of guilt and innocence are decided, in England and Wales at least, at two judicial levels,criminal and civil.

According to criminal law, for the defendant  to be found guilty, the veracity of allegations must be proven ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ According to civil law veracity and guilt must be established ‘on the balance of probability’. Proving abuse is always difficult; the crime rarely occurs in public and, because it is often a case of one persons word against another, proving it occurred ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ is almost impossible.

On the other hand, where there are multiple plaintiffs, a joint, or ‘class action’ can be instigated and the possibility of a guilty verdict becomes a realistic one. In Sogyal’s case, the universality of the internet has ensured that a number of alleged victims have begun to communicate and it would seem that the spectre of a class action looms ever closer.

More importantly, the fact that there are multiple allegations, means that a guilty verdict according to civil criteria seems thoroughly appropriate in Sogyal’s case. After all, if one person cries wolf then there can be reasonable doubt that such a wolf exists. But if the whole village starts screaming …

The point is that in Sogyal’s case, the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ argument is a thoroughly lame defence. The sheer number of allegations would certainly seem to indicate, ‘on the balance of probability’ that the alleged abuse did take place. It is of little surprise then that, apart from Sogyal’s supporters, the vast majority of those with a knowledge of the issue consider the allegations to be true. Why then has His Holiness not spoken out?

The Dalai Lama is Not the Pope

It has been argued in his defence that appeals to the Dalai Lama’s authority are misguided since, despite popular perceptions, he in fact holds no official role within his religious tradition: he is certainly ‘not the Pope of Buddhism’. In fact, there are numerous Buddhist traditions across the world and within these further divisions into schools and sects. The XIV Dalai Lama is a Tibetan Buddhist for instance. Within Tibetan Buddhism there are four main sects, Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu and Gelug and within these, there are numerous further sub sects His Holiness is a follower of the Gelug tradition in particular and, significantly, not its head. Far from being the seniormost Buddhist in the world then, he is in reality, a follower within one sect of only one of a number of Buddhist traditions that grace this planet. From this perspective, and since he is not even a follower of the same sect as Sogyal, it seems quite appropriate for him to remain silent on the issue.

Nevertheless, despite his lack of official status, it is certainly the case that he is considered de facto leader of Tibetan Buddhism and even, in the eyes of some, the whole of the Buddhist faith. In such a situation, and where Sogyal has very publically relied on the Dalai Lama’s patronage to promote his own projects, it seems entirely appropriate for him to speak out. So why the continued silence?

The Issue of Tibetan Unity

Throughout Tibetan history, political control of the country fell, at various times, to leaders from each of the four sects. Since the seventeenth century, at the time of the Great Fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, this responsibility lay in the hands of the Gelug.

Unsurprisingly, the issue of which religious sect held political control of the region was a divisive one and there appear to have been a number of long running conflicts between sects and their monasteries right down to the time of the Chinese invasion. Indeed, in an interview with the current Dalai Lama for his book ‘The Dalai Lama and the Demon’ Roberto Bultrini reveals that His Holiness believes that the issue of disunity between the sects was a significant contributory factor to the downfall of Tibet and one which led to the Chinese entering the far eastern reaches of Tibet (which were only nominally under the control of the Gelug) without initially encountering significant resistance.

Subsequently, unity between the sects has been a concern for the Dalai Lama, as well as being a significant tool with which the Chinese have attempted to manipulate the image of Tibet and His Holiness internationally, most notably in the present with their open and covert support for activities of the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT).

At an interview with Tibetans at Wembley in 1999, His Holiness chastised his kinsmen for referring to themselves as ‘Gelugpas’ or ‘Kagyupas’, followers of the different sects within Tibetan Buddhism. Rather, he emphasised that they should see themselves as Tibetans and as Buddhists, focusing on similarities rather than their differences. This was a matter, he declared, that lay at the very heart of the continued existence of Tibetan culture.

Perhaps the greatest animosity between followers of the different sects in pre diaspora Tibet was that between the Gelug and the Nyingma, an animosity that resulted in the destruction of Nyingma images and scriptures and even attacks on their monasteries in the 1930s and 40s, at the behest of the NKT forefather Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo.

Throughout his later life, the Dalai Lama has worked hard to reconcile these two traditions: promoting worship of Guru Rinpoche among all Tibetans, he being a patron saint of both Tibet and the Nyingma, while he himself has been seen to be studying and meditating on Nyingma doctrines, and even taking the great Nyingma master Dilgo Khyentse as one of his root gurus. All of these actions have done much to repair the damage that had been done to the relationship between the two sects down the centuries.

One Step Forwards, Two Steps Back

Sogyal is a follower of the Nyingma sect. As well as this, he is a member of one of Tibets most important families, the Lakar. The Lakar have been benefactors to all the major Tibetan sects for generations, in particular over recent generations, the Nyingma. Again, Sogyal also has close links with the family of  the Nyingma lama, Urgyen Tulku, descendants of the great Chokgyur Dechen Lingpa, one of the most important figures in the history of the Nyingma sect. Down the years, Sogyal’s work in the West has led to the sect as a whole’s revival. Without his influence, there can be little doubt that the Nyingma sect would not have achieved the status it today holds.

In such a situation, for the Dalai Lama to speak out and publicly condemn Sogyal would be disastrous at many different levels. Firstly, much of the work that he has done to repair relations between the Gelug and the Nyingma would be undone. Indeed, to disassociate himself from one of the Nyingma’s most prominent representatives in the West could potentially alienate thousands of followers of Tibetan Buddhism (many of whom are also supporters of the Tibetan cause) at a stroke.

As well as immediately causing divisions within Tibetan Buddhism, the impact of such a denunciation could have major repercussions among Western converts, repercussions which could lead to their losing faith, abandoning their new found faith or even at worst, assuming the mantle of footsoldiers in a revival of the internecine disputes which eventually brought about the downfall of Buddhism within Tibet.

Again, for the Dalai Lama to denounce such a senior Buddhist figure as Sogyal could have major repercussions for the whole of Buddhism internationally, causing both a loss of face and a loss of finance that could affect millions for many generations to come. One need only look at the situation the Roman Catholic Church now finds itself in, despite its vain attempts at openess.

While the Dalai Lama clearly condemns abuse then, to act in a way that would be to the detriment of innumerable beings and to Buddhism, for this generation and many generations to come, would be folly. To expect him to condemn Sogyals actions when the price could be so great for the future of Buddhism and mankind is a foolish expectation. Should the whole world really have to pay for the negative actions of one deviant Tibetan? Haven’t people already suffered enough?

The author of this essay wishes to be anonymous but is known to the blog owner.

One Year With Rigpa – A Testimony

GUEST POST

Thirteen years ago, I left a bookshop with two books under my arm. One was The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche (SR). The other was a commentary on lamrim by HH Dalai Lama. In a daze, I got in the car and drove several times around the block.  The next few nights I had very lucid sleep, as if I were aware of myself sleeping.  There was no doubt in my mind that I was heading in some spiritual direction that would be significant for me.

However, I read The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying instead of the lamrim text and I am still suffering today with the psychological fallout. I still wish from the depths of my heart that I had never read it, that I had begun my Buddhist path with the lamrim text, with the sane teachings of the gradual path instead of SR’s Dzogchen. Sometimes we can say that difficulties are important because of what they teach us. Certainly I have learned much from my experiences of what I call “lama madness”—but I believe that the damage has far out-surpassed this. Definitely, the damage to others, particularly my family, has far outweighed any benefit.

I was living a pretty wholesome life when all of this started, busy homeschooling two of our five daughters, milking goats, making bread and cheese, driving my kids to music lessons and sporting events. My husband and I had made a good job of combining our two families and I believe that our marriage had a good chance at survival. Certainly, if I had started with lamrim, I would have had a wealth of tools to deal with any problems we might have encountered as our children grew up and moved away. Our two oldest had already left home to start university and the third was applying that year for schools. For myself, I believe that as my mothering roles decreased, my own spiritual needs increased. I had already begun writing some soul-searching poetry and had just started publishing those. Experiences with Rigpa were soon to put a stop to all of that, however– the marriage, the homeschooling, the goats, the poetry were all on short leave. SR was to enter my life like an atomic bomb.

I only attended teachings at Rigpa for a year. By the end of that year, I was smoking cigarettes, drinking heavily and planning suicides. But in the beginning, I was enthusiastic. There was a great air of mystique and secrecy surrounding SR that drew me in very quickly. Very quickly, my enthusiasm for Buddhism became an enthusiasm for SR. He was funny, he was aloof, you felt his presence, you felt that he noticed you. You never knew when he was going to appear or disappear– he could be an hour late for a teaching or an hour early. This kept your emotions very acute, very vigilant. There were no interviews and no question and answer sessions in the teachings. We were told to “hold our questions in our hearts,” told that we might be surprised to find them (magically) answered during the teaching. For me, this was an ominous and dangerous encouragement to look to the paranormal, to believe in SR’s psychic powers. A central theme to SR’s teaching was the theme of “master.” He frequently spoke of his past teachers not as teachers, but as “masters.” With this theme was the theme of instant enlightenment. This was how he taught Dzogchen, as a very quick and easy path to enlightenment, a path of devotion. Frequently, he taught about students suddenly seeing the nature of their own minds in a swoon of devotion.

For me, a beginner, this approach was disastrous. My initial, huge enthusiasm for Buddhism became channeled into one perspective—the lama. Though I travelled weekly the 90 miles to New York City to attend study groups, the study was all about SR, all about his book and his teachings. This approach was very harmful for me; what I needed badly at that vulnerable time in my spiritual development, was a strong grounding in the dharma itself—certainly not a grounding in SR! Such was the shallowness of these study groups that I remember once asking a senior student about a verse which referred to emptiness.  Instead of giving me an introduction to emptiness, she missed that the verse was even about emptiness and gave me an obscure, convoluted explanation, indicating that she had no basic knowledge of Buddhism at all.

I attended Rigpa events regularly—and they were given frequently in the New York area during that year because it was the year SR’s son was born in Pennsylvania. Very early, I was experiencing strong paranormal experiences to do with SR. I believed that I could communicate with him psychically. Because I never had a single opportunity to speak with SR, because I could never check in with him about any of my experiences, they became my entire relationship with him. I expected, because of the strength of these experiences, and because of SR’s teachings, to become enlightened at any moment. This made for a dangerous cocktail of confusion, nothing like the great sanity of Buddha’s own teachings.

Absolutely, I would have hopped into bed with SR in an instant—regardless of my marriage, my children, my life. I would have done almost anything he asked. As it was, I started to believe that SR wanted me to become his spiritual wife and live with him in France. This delusion was so strong and convincing that I acted on it. I told my husband I was leaving him to go to France. I sent my two youngest daughters back overseas to live with their father. My family not only had to deal with my actions, but they had to deal with losing the woman I had been, with having a crazy woman in place of me. In my mind, however, I was not harming anyone. I was involved with the greater picture. I was going to become enlightened really fast and then I would send for my children, I would repair my relationship with my husband. I really believed that I was in the midst of a greater purpose.

My mental state was not aided by life in Rigpa teachings. As any Rigpa student knows, SR makes a common practice of publicly humiliating students. He will rant and rave at them during teachings and have them running like wild chickens trying to fulfill his many impossible demands. He will severely criticize and berate them in front of all attendees. Rigpa devotees say that this is a practice to diminish ego. On one blog, a Rigpa student wrote that it shows students their “better selves.”

The effect that these displays had on me as an observer is that I lost my better self—at a time when I needed it most. On one occasion, I brought my 16 year old daughter to a teaching. Afterwards, she objected quite strongly to SR’s public harsh treatment of a student. To my shame, I defended him. I said that he had a higher purpose that we could not fully understand. I had raised my daughters to be respectful, caring individuals and suddenly I was defending the public humiliation of a human being—I was calling it the behavior of a higher being! How could I expect to practice the Buddha’s Dharma with such an outlook?  How could devotion make me so debased? It was no wonder that I could entertain delusions—such blind devotion was fertile ground for confusion and madness.

It is possible that in a private setting, such rough techniques could function to benefit a close student, could function something like a Zen koen at diminishing ego clinging. However, to display them publicly is shameful at best, psychologically damaging at worst. I remember passing a senior student in the restroom shortly after she had been subjected to public humiliation at a teaching. She had a cold, dark, closed expression as she passed me. There was no warmth or greeting, nothing that would resemble the Buddha’s teachings on warm heartedness. From my current perspective, these public humiliations look more like hazing—an initiation rite into the inner circle of Rigpa.

I attended a retreat at Lerab Ling towards the end of my time with Rigpa. By then, I was a mess. I was very internally focused and very much in need of help. As the time for my children’s departure neared and the reality of SR’s intentions started to become clearer, I had much mental torment. In fact, the voice of the lama inside my head had become very brutal and cruel, placing impossible demands on me. One morning, during our break from the teaching at Lerab Ling, the alarm was raised that we all needed to quickly gather in the tent. When I arrived there, SR had arrived in his singlet/undershirt and he was in a temper. He started yelling at us all for some offense that we had committed, though he was never specific about what it was. He had all his aids running around fetching his sun glasses, fetching something for him to eat, doing this and that, as if there was some great emergency, as if the place had caught fire.  He sat in his undershirt, eating yogurt and blaming us for the fact that he had had no opportunity to have lunch and I sat in an abject slump, just taking it all in, all the negativity and blame, both inside and out. Indeed, it did me no good at all.

At that same retreat, I met SR once walking along a path. I was filled with a sense that this was to be our moment, he would talk to me finally and resolve all the mess, tell me what I was to do. I looked up at him with a face full of expectation ready to speak with him. However, he merely shook his head and walked past. That was about the closest I came to the great master.

When we talk of safe dharma centers, I think we are not only talking about dharma centers where the teachers don’t sexually molest students; we are talking about dharma centers that are psychologically wholesome and nurturing. In such environments, sexual abuse is less apt to occur. If we are serious about the Buddha’s teachings on patience, tolerance and loving kindness, surely the teacher’s behavior needs to reflect that. I believe that SR’s close students feel much love and compassion from him—and certainly I had experiences of warm compassion coming from him as well. However, when he shouts and insults students, where are we to hold the contradiction of his behaviors except in confusion and ignorance?

Buddha says that the root cause of all our suffering is ignorance. Modern Western psychology as well is discovering that techniques such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which use human intelligence to heal from mental afflictions, are very effective. I believe that when the lama becomes more important than the cultivation of wisdom in the students’ own minds, then there is great risk of trouble of all sorts. There’s a dumbing down that happens which causes the student to be vulnerable to all sorts of experiences. The student then becomes less capable of making sound decisions and abuse and mental illness can result.

From the perspective of SR’s behavior during teachings, it was no leap of my imagination to picture him sexually abusing women. I am not one to jump on bandwagons and witch hunts—nor would I ever simply believe these stories without verification.  However, the stories are not far-fetched in the context of SR’s everyday behavior. He behaves as a master who might consider himself above simple ethical norms. There is a Tibetan saying that if you give enough room for a small needle, it will gradually make more and more room for itself. The saying is given in reference to ethical norms. If a teacher gives himself permission to shout and humiliate people in public, I imagine it would become easier for him to give way to his anger whenever he pleases. I imagine it would become easy to give way to his lust when he pleases as well.

From my viewpoint, I am curious still about how I could have discovered the sanest religion in the world only to become nearly insane. I had discovered the religion with the strongest, greatest teachings on altruism only to bring harm to those whom I loved the most. Rigpa students are very quick to say that SR cannot be held responsible for mental illness in those who attend his teachings. Indeed, it is not my intention here to prove that SR caused my paranormal experiences, nor is it my intention to prove my sanity. I could explain to a professional how my delusions were markedly different from those in traditional Schizophrenia, but those discussions are beyond the scope of this writing. I am certainly interested in that fine line between psychotic and spiritual, however, because it appears that I have gained control over my delusions without the use of meds or therapy. I have done this by leaving behind the confused religion of Lamaism and turning instead to the great wisdom of Buddhism.

Rigpa will say—and I have had Rigpa insiders say this to me on blogs—that SR cannot be held accountable for my suffering. These same students say that women can simply say no about having sex with him. These are the words of an organization, a system with lawyers and strategies. I am more concerned with the future of Buddhism in the west and the unnecessary suffering of Western students. What I say, as a psychotherapist, as a Buddhist student who has built her own sanity from the gutter up through the Buddha’s precious teachings, is that I see in SR’s approach serious risks to the safety of students.

There are two basic approaches to teaching Buddhism. There is a general approach, applicable to all students, and there is a specific approach, applicable to specific students at a specific point in their spiritual development. HH Dalai Lama, who, like SR, teaches to large numbers of students, uses the first approach. SR appears to use the second. I believe—from painful experience—that if he is going to use this specific approach, if he is going to teach a “master”- centered approach, if he is going to “work” with students publicly, then perhaps he should be more available to speak with every student in a close, meaningful, stable way—perhaps he should be more transparent and accessible as well. Perhaps there should be less of a power base to Rigpa, that impenetrable and scary face of the organization. Certainly, for myself, if SR had just taken notice that I was in trouble, if he had been available for interviews, if he had taken a little time to work with me, to speak with me and steer me clear of my confusions, much suffering for myself and my family could have been avoided. Of this, I am quite certain.

This is a testimony of a former Rigpa student together with her current perspectives on safe dharma centers.

Sogyal Rinpoche and the Silence of the Tibetan Buddhist Community and the Dalai Lama

Many of the problems Buddhism is currently facing in the West have arisen because this is an early stage of the transmission of the Dharma to Western countries, and there is the opportunity for charlatans and unqualified people to teach. However, as Buddhism becomes more rooted in the culture and people understand it better, they will know how to judge teachers’ qualities and will protect themselves. This is part of a natural process as Dharma takes root. – HH the Dalai Lama in an interview in 1993

A person doesn’t come to a Buddhist community to grow through a sexual relationship with a teacher. They come to a Buddhist community to study Buddhism. So in a teacher-student sexual relationship, the primary purpose of that relationship has been subverted. – Grace Schireson in Tricyle »Sex in the Sangha … Again«

»Hear nothing, see nothing, say nothing.«

»Hear nothing, see nothing, say nothing.« (Melong XXVI, 1, June 1959, 6. See also Tharchin’s One Man War with Mao [PDF], p. 197.)

Some days ago I received an email by Mary Finnigan, a journalist, who sent two links “for your website“:

Since I had watched the video by the young tulku of Kalu Rinpoche (YouTube) and linked it already together with a forceful statement by the Dalai Lama[1] he gave during the concluding ceremony at the Global Buddhist Congregation in India in December 2011, and because I had no time to read the suggested blog “Behind the Thankas“, and also because the blog is anonymous, I hesitated to read it. However, these two videos together with In the name of enlightenment: Stephen Batchelor interview were linked. I had also sent the documentary Sex Scandals In Religion – In The Name Of Enlightenment by Cogent/Benger to some people, including some journalists, Tibetologists and the German Buddhist Union, a congregation of Buddhist organisations in Germany which understands itself as an umbrella organisation for Buddhists in Germany.

Based on scandals with respect to power and sexual abuse within Buddhism the members of the German Buddhist Union gave in April 2011 an unequivocal vote to create a Buddhist Council or authority within the German Buddhist Union which people can approach for support, advice, information or for someone who listens, and which can offer qualified support in case someone had to experience power, emotional, financial or sexual abuse. Based on this vote there formed a group within the German Buddhist Union to work out an Ethical Charter and an Ethics Council. There were already two working meetings. The meeting for working out the Ethical Charter (16.–18 March 2012) was very inspiring, and I found the contribution of the persons who participated very differentiated and clear. I felt it really as a meeting “in the spirit of the Dharma”. We had also the shared conviction that sexual relationships between teachers and students lead to harm and that it is a must to avoid that. (In Germany it is illegal and chargeable if psychologists, medical doctors or therapists have sexual relations with their patients, and Rutter has shown the devastating harm sexual relationships in unbalanced power situations can create for both sides. So why should Buddhist teachers who preach compassion, non-violence, the faults of desire and not harming others engage in such relationships? Some claim it would be for “the student’s benefit” and a “practice” but why then people are damaged, and feel really in pain and suffering after having been “benefited” [by often highly manipulative methods] to have sex with their teachers? In case there is an extreme rare case where there is really no harm or even benefit, one can expect that there also won’t be someone who will report about the sorrow, lamentation, suffering, distress, and agitation they have gone through.)[2]

This Sunday I found time to read the summery of the Sogyal saga “Behind the Thankas” by Mary Finnigan. It made me utter sad.

I find it also questionable that the Tibetan Community, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, just don’t speak up and allow by their silence that what appears to be an egomaniac, damaging behaviour[3] can continue. It could be that Rigpa and their officials have been successful to spread the pacifying image that Sogyal would have “settled, having a woman and a child now”, and this led towards a spiritless state of mind where Buddhists and Buddhist leaders alike started to relax, thinking the old stories are past and the issue sorted out by a change of Sogyal. But it appears that it has not settled and that the abuse continues. I think, it is not the time to further support this by continuing the silence. A collective silence is an action, and such an action allows the continuation of these harming actions. That’s why I would like to encourage everybody to read the report by Mary FinniganBehind the Thankas” and to watch the documentary Sex Scandals In Religion – In The Name Of Enlightenment by Cogent/Benger. If there is an awareness that such a behaviour is unacceptable and highly damaging this could create a shift so that the continuation of it is halted and finally stopped. Another possibility is that further court cases against Sogyal could be a means to stop him.

It is unacceptable for me if the spiritual friend (Kalyanamitra) who has been described by the Buddha of having the function to release the disciple “from being subject to aging, sickness, death, sorrow, lamentation, suffering, distress, and agitation” does the opposite, and burdens the disciple with “aging, sickness, death[4], sorrow, lamentation, suffering, distress, and agitation” in the name of Buddhism.

Having heard from what I believe to be reliable sources, I am struck by the fact that Sogyal has even had sexual relationships with the partners of some of his students.

It is difficult not to fall pray to the idea that Sogyal’s behaviour is accepted widely in the Tibetan Buddhist Exile community and Westerners alike also because his organisation is financially a highly successful money machine and many people have benefit from that money or are captivated by their awe of Rigpa’s success. (Of course these cannot be the only reasons, and there are other reasons and also genuine good motivated reasons too but …) Similar tendencies seem to have been present when Geshe Michael Roach received supportive letters from Sera monastery authorities (which approved his “pure ethical discipline”) when it came out that he as a fully ordained monk had a female consort and he announced to be a yogi, having realized emptiness etc, and being beyond worldly conventions. A fully ordained nun, who I appreciate highly for her wisdom and clarity, commented that this is a sign of corruption. And I think it is. Also the Geshe title of Michael Roach is questionable because he received the Geshe title mainly as an honouring for his very generous money donations. He studied altogether only for four years at Sera. Similar tendencies to ignore certain destructive aspects or developments can be observed in other cases of abuse like in the case of the Pagode Path Hue in Frankfurt, Germany (Thich Thien Son) or within the NKT leadership (Kelsang Gyatso with respect to Neil Elliot and Steven Wass). However, in the case of Michael Roach, at least some higher Buddhist authorities like Lama Zopa Rinpoche (see page 16-18 in Lama Replies) or His Holiness the Dalai Lama dealt straightforwardly and skilfully with the issue and I would be happy if there is a straightforward and skilful response also with respect to Sogyal’s behaviour from other Buddhist masters or authorities.

For neutral academic information I recommend to write to INFORM, a renown research institution at the London School of Economics.

See also

New

Footnotes

[1] It’s note worthy to see that while the video gives a full account of what His Holiness said the manuscript of his speech at the Official website of HH the Dalai Lama has been “cleared” of his frank and critical statements.

[2] Usually at this point most Tibetan Buddhists or persons who have some knowledge about Tibetan Buddhism have in mind that there is a secret tantric rite which involves the unification of the two sexual organs. However, though a qualified Vajaryana practitioner can rely on a qualified action-mudra at the path of accumulation when he/she is practising the generation stage, it is unsafe to do so.

“The purpose of a seal is to generate bliss and the realization of emptiness of the generation stage, thereby acting as the special ripener of the roots of virtue that generate the realization of the completion stage. When meditating on the methods for penetrating the vital points of the body of the completion stage, there are many purposes such as that of easily gathering the winds, however a fully qualified supporting object is very rare. Because of this, if one does not unite with a consort properly, it will become a cause of falling into the lower realms. For example, there are people who think that they are tantric practitioners and engage in this conduct inappropriately, as a result of which they are later reborn in the lower realms. Due to breaking the tantra vows and pledges, one can take rebirth even in the hell of Unrelenting Torment (Avichi). Therefore, it is better to culminate the coarse and subtle generation stages by relying on a wisdom seal rather than an action seal, whereby one can penetrate the vital points of the body. In other words, there is no danger when relying on a wisdom seal, that is, on an imaginary consort. By relying on an wisdom seal one can generate the isolation of mind, after which one can rely on an action seal without any risk of faults. This is because, having achieved the isolation of mind, even if one kills, steals, and so forth, one will do so free of faults. […] In short, relying on a real woman while on the stages of the isolation of body and the isolation of speech can bring problems, whereas when one reaches the isolation of mind there is no longer any such risk.

In short, by relying on a wisdom seal one can culminate the coarse and subtle generation stages but not the completion stage. On the completion stage one progresses through the isolation of body and isolation of speech, and when one reaches the isolation of mind one can rely on an action seal and achieve the all-empty that is clear light.” (Geshe Jampa Gyatso)

John Powers, a university professor and Buddhist practitioner, states:

Tantric texts stress that practice with consorts is not a form of sexual indulgence, but rather a form of controlled visualization that uses the special bliss of sexual union. It is restricted to very advanced practitioners, yogins who have gained control over the emanation of a subtle body and have awakened the mystical heat energy, or “dumo” (gtum mo, candali). Those who have not advanced to this level are not qualified to practice with an actual consort; people without the necessary prerequisites who mimic tantric sexual practices thinking that they are practicing tantra are simply deluded, and may do themselves great harm. Sexual union is only appropriate to advanced levels of the stage of completion, and so those who have not developed sufficient realization and control over subtle energies are unable to generate the blissful wisdom consciousness realizing emptiness that is the basis for this practice. They may succeed in fooling others—or even themselves—but they will be utterly unable to use sexual energy in accordance with the practices of highest yoga tantra.

According to the Dalai Lama, only a person who views all the phenomena of cyclic existence with complete impartiality is qualified to engage in tantric sexual practices:

»Truthfully, you can only do such practice if there is no sexual desire whatsoever. The kind of realization that is required is like this: If someone gives you a goblet of wine and a glass of urine, or a plate of wonderful food and a piece of excrement, you must be in such a state that you can eat and drink from all four and it makes no difference to you what they are. Then maybe you can do this practice.«

When asked to name any lamas who he thought were at this level, he admitted that he could not. He mentioned that there are well-known stories of great teachers like Tilopa who had transcended all attachment to conventional thinking and so were able to engage in sexual practices without harming themselves or their students, but he added that such exceptional individuals are very rare.«

(John Powers, »Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism«, Snow Lion Publications, 1995, p. 252.)

Then there is another common response by Tibetan Buddhists to accusations of alleged sexual abuse: the women reporting this are said to be jealous, telling lies, only imagined this or act out of a feeling of revenge or are somewhat disturbed. The point is, this can actual be the case. One finds similar wrong accusations in the story of Angulimala, and also nowadays such wrong accusations exist. Also personally I had contact with a woman who claimed wrongly for a long time of having been abused by a renown Tibetan Gelug Lama living in Swiss. (I didn’t believe her, the story was too inconsistent, and some years later she admitted that the story was untrue.) Therefore one should be careful and one should take time to check the case thoroughly – and of course there is always the danger of being deceived or getting and judging the things wrongly. However, such a careful approach shouldn’t lead one to close the eyes if there are multiple accounts of such stories with respect to the same person which show a similar pattern and one should be open to investigate into all directions. Actual this should be the task of an independent institution or experts or the legal laws, but the problem is, although the legal laws in most countries are clear in the case of educated psychologists and medical doctors (professionals in the health sector) and their patients or university professors and their students and school teachers and their pupils, these laws mostly do not consider the situation of spiritual teachers and their spiritual students or in Germany even the relation between non-medical practitioners and their patients. So there is a legal gap or legal loophole although the situation is quite similar. Another problem is in Tibetan Buddhism that there is no higher authority or council one can approach in case one has been abused or spiritual damaged. The victims are left alone, nobody cares of feels in charge to help them. I think it is really time that this changes.

Another argument I heard in that context is, that the Tibetan Buddhist lama would have been properly qualified for the tantric sexual rite but they only realised later that their western consort was not, and that they had too high expectations with respect to their capacities for Tantra. If this were true it follows the lama was also not qualified because of being unable to see what is right and what is wrong. And I think then it would be the practice of a Bodhisattva to honestly excuse oneself in order to limit the harm one has done unintentionally.

Some people also claim since the women are adults and the lama is an adult it would involve only free will for having sex with the lama (or the proper tantric rite) and it would be their choice. However, I find this approach ignorant because it neglects the dynamics and power difference in such a relationship. I would like to suggest first to get some knowledge about the dynamics of abuse and manipulation which undermine a person’s freedom of choice and which bring persons into a situation where they do something they didn’t want to do. There are reasons why there are laws that prohibit educated psychologists and medical doctors and their patients or university professors and their students and school teachers and their pupils to have sexual relationships with each other. Rutter’s text Sex in the forbidden Zone or Scott’s Sex and the Spiritual Teacher, as well as to listen to persons who report abuse could be useful as a start. Also The Guardian article about the FWBO founder Shantarakshita shows the dynamics and devastating effects of these manipulations. Some people had to experience the same pattern as reported in this The Guardian article under the Frankfurt abbot Thich Thien Son in Germany. (At least he was expelled from the head organisations of Buddhist monks and nuns in Germany and they published an official statement.)

[3] Of course this is my personal judgement. But all the reports summarised by Mary Finnigan in “Behind the Thankas” and documented by Cogent/Benger in the documentary Sex Scandals In Religion – In The Name Of Enlightenment suggest to see it that way. So far neither Rigpa nor Sogyal have contributed with a substantial refutation. And it might be really difficult to explain what type of Dharma (Buddhist teaching) it is to order a young and pretty female assistant to “Undress!”. Due to the strict libel laws in UK Mary Finnigan could be easily sued for what she has been reporting if she wouldn’t have evidence; and Rigpa has good lawyers who could do that. Also the patterns and signs one can observe from an outside perspective do not really disapprove any of the things which are reported there. So far three women reported personally to me that they experienced strange things with respect to Sogyal, and what they reported fits well in what Mary and the documentary report. It should be also noted that Sogyal starts these relationships with young women who are new to the Dharma therefore the women will quite likely not have the necessary spiritual experience and qualifications to be qualified spiritual consorts. Even if, from his side, he was engaging in ‘tantrically correct’ behaviour …

On the other hand, as a Buddhist “it is important to keep in mind that if one does not have clairvoyance then there is never completely certainty about what another person intends. Even if somebody has a loud voice and says something harsh, we can’t be certain that they really have a nasty motivation. The best we can do is to have a correct assumption about the other person’s motivation. So even when we have a correct assumption we can never establish the pervasion in order to have an actual inferential cognition. This is the case because we can never establish the pervasions that would allow us to generate an incontrovertible inferential cognition. For example, there is no pervasion that everybody who says harsh words with a loud voice and a red face is necessarily angry.” (quote taken from Ven. Birgit’s Abidharmakosha teachings at the ILTK; Pomaia/Italy) There are a lot of cases in Indo-Tibetan Buddhist history where Buddhist masters and practitioners alike judged the behaviour of someone wrongly. However, if the person they judged wrongly had really exceptional qualities, this person corrected their wrong assumptions by the performance of extraordinary actions of body, speech or mind, which led to the collapse of these wrong assumptions, and the critics were able to develop faith in that wrongly judged person’s (really existing) qualities. (See for example Atisha who expelled a yogi-monk from a monastery or the monks who tried to get rid off Shantideva, even trying to deprecate him, and other stories like Drugpa Künleg, the nun Gelongma Palmo etc.)

If in the past a capable Lama performed questionable actions based on so called “crazy wisdom” it led finally to a tremendous benefit for the individual towards it was directed and it was a teaching to the public showing them a mirror of their limited minds. However, if a person who claims to act out of “crazy wisdom” leaves the individual and the public in a state of hurt, suffering, confusion, distrust and anger this is clearly not a sign that this person has realized a level of spiritual attainment that allows him to act out of “crazy wisdom”. (For more see also: Questioning the Advice of the Guru by H.H. the XIV. Dalai Lama)

[4] Harsh, aggressive or hurtful speech which makes others unhappy weakens their life power and can be seen as a type of killing.

[5] Here it is note worthy to see that the article starts with an image of a faithfully prostrating nun and an image capture “An exiled Tibetan Buddhist nun prostrates around the main temple and the residence of Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.” In the light of the headline I feel this to be manipulative. First of all the Dalai Lama is not abusing anybody and also there is no report that nuns are abused. I wonder what drove The Guardian to follow such an tabloid approach …

Last edited by tenpel on October 28, 2013 at 12:10 am

Update March 28, 2012

I added documents related to the Geshe Michael Roach controversy. Though Roach was ordained as a fully ordained monk and Sogyal Rinpoche is a lay person and not a monk, in the glorious past of Tibet masters who shook the faith of people restored it my performing extraordinary powers and miracles which proved their tantric realizations. This is the advice Lama Zopa Rinpoche gave to Geshe Michael Roach. (see page 16-18 in Lama Replies) A more recent example is the story of a Gelug lama at the time of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, he felt he can do the sexual tantric rites and asked the Dalai Lama for permission. The Dalai Lama answered him to prove his powers, and it is transmitted that this lama did it by making knots into Yak horns. Of course these are examples from the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism but even if one looks on the root example of the Nyingma school: Padmasambhava is said to have performed a lot of miracles and his tantric consorts, e.g. the famous Yeshe Tsogyal, were also female tantric teachers who composed tantric texts. However, this seems to be quite dissimilar to a situation where a lama has “a host of ‘Dakinis'” who are all very new to the Dharma, who have not similar qualities to those female tantric practitioners and who quite likely have neither the necessary spiritual experience nor the necessary conditions (except of being young) to be qualified tantric consorts.

Also according to the tantric rituals usually a qualified tantric consort is either pointed out by a qualified lama or by dreams with special signs at a certain point of one’s spiritual development. Such a case is usually treated with great care. A Nyingma lama I know who meditated for 17 years in retreat with one meal a day and two hours sleep a day attained higher realizations including clairvoyance. He was just skin and bones after he had accomplished his retreat, and most people who saw him were thinking ‘he is going to die’. After he had attained high realizations his female tantric consort was pointed out to him by his master H.H. Dujom Rinpoche, and she had herself high realizations (including being able to cure very sick people). This Nyingma lama spoke of her with greatest respect and in awe. (This is very different to what Mary Finnigan reports about how violently and disrespectfully Sogyal treats his Western ‘Dakinis’.) Also, so far I didn’t hear that the lama who is qualified to rely on a tantric consort chooses tantric consorts himself and has a host of them (of course Ole Nydahl does this but I don’t think he is the right example). As far as I know in the case of the great Nyingma sage H.H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche he had to be forced to rely on a qualified tantric consort, and it were his masters who pointed out the right person. In the Vajrayogini rite it is utter complex to find the right tantric consort and one has really to do a lot of rituals and prayers to find her after having accomplished extended practices. All of this seems to be very dissimilar to what Sogyal Rinpoche is doing.

It is said that Milarepa relied on the goddess Tseringma as his consort.

Update June 29, 2012

The German Buddhist magazine “Tibet & Buddhismus” has started to address the topic of abuse in Buddhist communities in his new issue (3/2012) asking “Abuse: Not An Issue In Buddhist Communities?”. The editorial mentions explicitly the Guardian article about the video statement of Kalu Rinpoche, the Guardian article about Sogyal Rinpoche (both written by Mary Finnigan), and the expulsion of the Frankfurt Pagode abbot from the DBO. They offer the respective articles also online and free of charge (all in German language):

Update September 23, 2012

The documentary has been made available on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yWhIivvmMnk&feature=share recently. It has been included now in the post.

Update November 02, 2012

Sadly, the German Buddhist Unions is in a sleeping mode. No further meetings to work out an Ethical Charter and an Ethics Council have been announced or organized – although there was an unequivocal vote my the members that this should be done. I assume it is due to an overload of work and that this issue is not seen to be very important compared to other tasks. I updated also the post above: a qualified tantric consort must be young. For the sake of clarity I might list later this year the minimum qualifications of a qualified tantric consort.

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