A former Rigpa student’s thoughts and cultivating discernment …

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.


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