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.