Submission, devotion and sexual abuse: my investigation of Buddhism in France

By Marion Dapsance
Anthropologist

In the minds of Westerners, Buddhism is “secular spirituality”, a “science of the spirit”, in short: something perfectly rational.

A few years ago, I began reading books on meditation, before wanting to go further. I approached a Tibetan Buddhist centre.

I was living on the Côte d’Azur at the time, and so I went to a centre run by the Rigpa Association in Nice. This was an international network headed by Sogyal Rinpoche – Rinpoche is a title given to many lamas and means “very precious jewel” –, a Tibetan Buddhist master supported by the Dalai Lama. He is the author of the best-selling “Tibetan Book of Living and Dying”.

What I discovered at this centre was the opposite of what we Westerners think of Buddhism, as practiced for the purposes of personal development. The Asian masters propose rituals that are very complex and also in Tibetan. They summon deities and demand absolute devotion to the master.

I realised that I was being confronted with a culture shock that could give rise to misunderstandings and disillusionment. I continued to attend the Buddhist lessons, but in order to investigate.

Seven years of investigation

I decided that this topic would become the subject of my doctoral thesis in anthropology at the École pratique des hautes études. I worked on it for seven years. For the first two years, I enrolled as a “student” – that’s how they refer to disciples – at the centre in Levallois, to attend courses in meditation, spiritual retreats and public lectures.

After my field work, I began a series of interviews with people much more advanced than I was along the intended path, and who shared their experiences with me.

Plus I had to learn about Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan culture, but also about the Western religions that had made it possible to reclaim Buddhism and raise it to the rank of a “secular religion”.

Mimi. Screenshot from the documentary »In the Name of Enlightenment - Sex Scandal in Religion«

Sogyal Rinpoche. Screenshot from the documentary »In the Name of Enlightenment – Sex Scandal in Religion«

Meditating to a video of the master

My first meditation sessions were faithful to the idea that I had had of them. The students sit cross-legged, with straight backs, and concentrate their minds on a point.

Except that, quickly, we were pushed onto a different level. We were recommended to meditate in front of an image of the master, Sogyal Rinpoche, or even in front of a video of him. His presence, even via a television screen, would allegedly bring blessings.

We are then told that, in fact, the really effective way is to be devoted to the master, and to attend his teachings. The international Rigpa network’s main retreat centre is in France, near Montpellier. It was inaugurated with great pomp in 2008 by the Dalai Lama. Carla Bruni, Bernard Kouchner, Rama Yade and other celebrities were present on that day.

Fighting to find a throne

I attended some of Sogyal Rinpoche’s talks at the Levallois-Perret centre. He generally arrives 30 or 45 minutes late, sometimes up to two hours. As soon as he arrives on stage, he addresses the people in the first row and reproaches them for not having done their jobs. The students acknowledge having acted poorly, and publicly confess.

In addition to telling low-brow jokes, the lama can occasionally be violent. I have seen him grab someone by the hair and call him a “yak”. I have also seen him get furious because he had only a simple chair. Much commotion ensued in order to find him a throne. Those who had paid to attend his “teachings” were left to suffer in silence.

Finally, a whole organisation is dedicated to the master’s personal well-being. I had access to the guidelines containing the procedures to be followed to satisfy Sogyal Rinpoche. Among other recommendations, he needs to have a heated pool nearby, a double bed, a special brand of tea, beef-based meals, and a chauffered Mercedes. He also needs access to CNN wherever he goes, and have a cook and masseuse on call 24 hours a day. Rather surprising for a spirituality that rejects materialism.

Sexual abuse and violence

When I started my thesis, I met Olivier Raurich, former director of Rigpa France and translator for Sogyal Rinpoche, to inform him of my intentions. I told him that I wanted to investigate how Tibetan lamas transmitted Buddhism to Westerners. I also explained that I had heard rumours about sexual abuse at Rigpa centres. I played with an open hand. Several years later, in 2015, Olivier Raurich stepped down and denounced the Group’s cultic pratices.

In 1994, Sogyal Rinpoche was involved in a legal dispute in the United States. A young woman had filed suit for sexual abuse and violence at a Rigpa centre. But the US justice system allows out-of-court settlements, and the master put up a large sum of money for the former dakini to drop the allegations.

The Tibetan term dakini refers to female deities, who allegedly have secret teachings that they transmit to the lama in coded language. But it seems that in these centres, the dakinis were nothing more than sexual partners.

I met a number of them during the course of my investigation, in particular a Franco-Japanese woman who had succeeded in leaving the group. She had even filed court proceedings, before dropping the suit. It was the master’s word against hers, and she preferred moving on with her life.

“Crazy wisdom”

Sogyal Rinpoche’s power comes from having spread the concept of “crazy wisdom”: his craziness was allegedly evidence of his wisdom. The more violent, unexpected, aggressive and disrespectful his behaviour, the more it proved that he was awakened, omniscient, and beyond social constraints. If you saw him as nothing more than some guy behaving badly and abusing his power, that was because your spirit was “obscured.”

You then had two options: either you finally understood that your master was acting with compassion, or you were excluded from the group. It was a closed system, based on total and absolute faith in Sogyal Rinpoche, in which criticism was impossible.

The Dalai Lama closes his eyes

A little more than half the students at these Buddhist centres do not want to go further than meditation. But many continue, investing of themselves and moving to another form of Buddhism.

Some of them drop out along the way, and realise that there was something wrong. Regardless of whether they had already gone too far or were able to stop in time, in both cases their disillusionment is great.

I of course went to “Miviludes” – the governmental anti-cult authority Mission interministérielle de vigilance et de lutte contre les dérives sectaires – to inform them of my research. They admitted that they were already aware of what was going on at the Rigpa centres … but to this day they still have not reacted, despite the very questionable nature of these practices.

As for the Dalai Lama, he is also aware of Sogyal Rinpoche’s behaviour. However, after the 1994 scandal, he still refused to sign a charter of good conduct for the lamas working in the West. And since then he has kept his eyes closed. Presumably to avoid giving Tibetan Buddhism a bad name.

Interview by Julia Mourri

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Originally published on le Plus de l’Obs Soumission, dévotion et abus sexuels : j’ai enquêté sur le bouddhisme en France, 15.09.2016. English translation by Christopher Hamacher.

* English translation here.

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