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:

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 as quoted in Crisp, 2010).


“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).


“’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.


ALEPH, 2008. Breach of Professional Trust: Sexual and Financial Ethics,
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. (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