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


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