Translation of an interview with the former director of Rigpa France Olivier Raurich which appeared in the French magazine “Marianne”¹
Q: When did you become interested in Buddhism and how did you encounter Sogyal Rinpoche?
I studied mathematics at l’ecole normale superieure (teacher training college) in the Rue d’Ulm, aiming to become a scientific researcher. At 24, I had an existential crisis leading to a spiritual quest. When I first discovered Buddhism, I really liked the idea of “verifying with your own experience.” At first, it wasn’t about belief, but getting benefit from meditation. I went to conferences and encountered Sogyal Rinpoche. He spoke English and something resonated.
After several years, he said that I am very hard-working and spoke very good English. I became his translator in France, without having any personal relationship with him, because Sogyal Rinpoche immediately imposes absolute dominance in relationships. He was the master, inaccessible and irritable — it’s all about carrying out his instructions, full stop.
Q: So you have been a privileged witness to his rise and the growing success of his organisation, Rigpa?
Over the years, I actually became increasingly active in Rigpa, as a meditation teacher and president of Rigpa France. I appeared several times on the television show “Buddhist Wisdom” on France 2.
At the same time I had my job teaching maths, because almost everyone is a volunteer in Rigpa, and the few salaried jobs there are very poorly paid. To make offerings in money and labour is part of Buddhism and it seemed great to me to offer service for free. Later I realised that under this pretext Westerners became veritable milk cows.
The big retreat centre, Lerab Ling, situated in L’Hérault, opened in 1992. The same year, “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” appeared. It was drafted by Patrick Gaffney, a brilliant and modest English scholar, and a man I greatly admire, from teachings given by Sogyal Rinpoche and other masters.
It became an international best-seller, and people flocked to Sogyal Rinpoche, who became a global Buddhist star. I was excited — I had the impression we were going to spread Buddhist wisdom throughout society.
Q: Considering his behaviour, especially with his closest disciples, did it ever shock you?
He’s a charismatic communicator, but what shocked me immediately was the disconnect between his rhetoric and his character. He loves luxury, fashion and violent American films. Ecology and social issues do not interest him at all. He is not at all shy about singing his own praises — to excess and in front of everyone. He stays in luxury hotels, surrounded by the most expensive electronic gadgets. I struggled to accept this behaviour, because at the same time some people in Rigpa were very poor. He preached that he had the same contentment, simplicity and renunciation in this life, without needing to practice. For a long time, I thought his behaviour it was related to cultural conditioning from his origins as a Tibetan aristocrat.
He blew hot and cold with me — sometimes he praised my translation to extremes – and sometimes he humiliated me in public. He was always very authoritarian. There were consistent rumours that he abused young women — not by physical violence, but by a huge psychological hold over them. This was officially justified by the concept of “crazy wisdom,” which maintains that great masters can commit acts which are incomprehensible to ordinary mortals.
This applies to everyone — “If the master humiliates you, it is to liberate the ego, to purify the disciples” and “There is no greater action than the will of the master” and so on … the traditional Tibetan texts are very clear on this point.
I was primarily interested in Buddhist teachings. I hosted internships and that side of things, with the team of instructors. We did a good job of spreading Buddhism. That’s what made me stay so long.
Q: How is it that Sogyal Rinpoche was not worried? Why has the Dalai Lama never reacted?
Several crises have occurred. There was the lawsuit for sexual harassment in 1993 in the United States. Subsequently, some former students have told their stories and a lot of people left Rigpa on those occasions, particularly in 2000 and 2007.
Then in 2011, an article appeared in “Marianne” — after this Sogyal Rinpoche decided not to appear at the meditation retreats for newcomers at Lerab Ling.
Many people left. Rigpa paid a very expensive professional agency in Paris, specialising in crisis communication, to train a few spokesmen, including myself, to respond to the allegations of sexual harassment and financial abuse. We were advised not to answer questions, but rather to endlessly repeat certain key phrases – and to quote the Dalai Lama as much as possible for moral support.
Q: The Dalai Lama clearly says (in “Ethics in the Teacher-Student Relationship” , 1993; Healing Anger, Snow Lion, 1997 pp. 83-85) that the abusive behaviour of masters must be exposed publicly and explicitly. Why has he not reacted himself?
My hypothesis is that he cannot discredit Sogyal publicly, because it would undermine Tibetan Buddhism. Sogyal Rinpoche has managed to make himself indispensable in the Tibetan community.
Q: When did you start to have doubts?
I stayed all these years despite my reservations, because I hoped Rigpa would be able to share profound wisdom with the greatest number of people, which would benefit society as a whole. But it became more and more difficult to invite people to his teachings, because his behaviour became impossible at times — pretentious, even in public. I had begun to write my first book, to illustrate how authentic Buddhist wisdom can be open to the world, adapted to the west, and conforming to humanist ideals.
Beginning with the article in “Marianne,” I felt the tension ratchet up a notch within the Rigpa leadership. All the secrecy and manipulation of information weighed heavily on me. I had come for teachings on humility, love, truth, and trust, and I found myself in a quasi-Stalinist environment and permanent double-talk. His dictatorial side and anger worsened and I was increasingly disturbed by it. He did not hesitate to brutally silence and ridicule people in meetings. Critical thinking is prohibited around him — the door is locked. Negative feedback never reaches him — only praise is reported because people in the close circle are afraid of him. It can make him angry or he would humiliate those close to him. He can also be friendly and full of humour if everything conforms to his wishes.
In the summer of 2014, during a retreat for the older students I made my decision to leave because I saw through him clearly — I saw his falsity. He demanded abundant offerings, specifically in cash, in front of 800 students. Each had to write their name on the envelope, so that he could check the amount.
There is also increasing control over regular students. They are made to feel guilty if they do not come to retreats. There is a lot of pressure — the Rigpa computer database identifies participants in retreats, practices, past meetings, etc. If a student does not attend, it must be justified – if a student leaves in the middle of a teaching, someone has to find them and ask why. This has driven a lot of people away.
Q: What is your assessment of that experience which lasted twenty-eight years?
The fact is that my spiritual education happened through him. Even though he didn’t write The Tibetan book of Living and Dying, he was it’s driving force. It is a very good book, it has helped thousands of people, even if it does contain some elements of Tibetan superstition.
I do not dismiss these years because I have studied, practised and shared meditation, the teaching of the spirit of compassion, the basis for Buddhist philosophy — impermanence and interdependence. That’s why I asked Sogyal Rinpoche to write the preface for my first book. But for the last few years, he has insisted on more and more religiosity and absolute devotion to the master. Authentic Buddhism is wisdom, founded on experience and reflection, as explained frequently by the Dalai Lama, who embodies exemplary Buddhism.
Today, I have left behind the abusive or traditional aspects which are not adapted to our times. I participate in spreading a secular wisdom for the west in a collaborative and egalitarian manner, without gurus or magic charms, where everyone strives to embody what he preaches. I am finally at peace with myself.
Interview by Élodie Emery
English translation and edited in March 2016
- Faux maître spirituel et emprise sectaire – Olivier Raurich