Rigpa Students in a Quandary: What to Do When Seeing Your Guru Punch a Nun in the Stomach Crosses a Line?


A week ago until today I [Tenzin Peljor] received different emails from a person who wants to change Rigpa from within. In that context, I argued about the integrity and truthfulness of a certain fully ordained nun. Then the person replied:

“He [Sogyal Lakar ‘Rinpoche’] has absolutely no respect for monks and nuns, he punched a nun in the stomach last summer in a temple full of 1,200 students … the delusion is very deep and many of the students behave as if they are in a cult.”

I asked the person for permission to quote that. The person agreed and specified the circumstances in an email today:

“He [Sogyal Lakar] punched Ani Chokyi in a fit of rage because she didn’t do something quickly enough, it was in the temple in front of over 1,000 people. … I’ve had 4 people verify it independent of each other. The next day Sogyal Lakar told the assembly he could stop hitting people but that it would affect the teachings. He’s done this many times, if you don’t like how I act I just won’t give you the teachings, it’s very sick and manipulative. … It was August 2016 during the dzogchen retreat, full of the most committed ‘true believers’ from around the world. It sent a shock wave through the sangha, most had heard rumors of his violence, few witness it first hand.”

Guest Post by Joanne Clark, A Former Rigpa Student

When I came upon the following quote from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I was ready for it. I was ready to let go and (mostly) forget about my past lamas, to be neutral and (mostly) silent. But by then I had already spoken out. I had done some investigating and spent some time trying to better understand the whole mess my life had become.

In some cases it happens that disciples do not examine a spiritual teacher very carefully before accepting him or her as their guru and committing themselves to a guru/disciple relationship. They may even have received tantric empowerments from this teacher. But then they find they were wrong. They see many flaws in this teacher and discover many serious mistakes he or she has made. They find that this teacher does not really suit them. Their minds are uneasy regarding this person and they are filled with doubts and possibly regret. What to do in such a circumstance?

The mistake, of course, is that originally the disciple did not examine this person very carefully before committing themselves to him or her. But this is something of the past that has already happened. No one can change that. In the future, of course, they must examine any potential guru much more thoroughly. But as for what to do now in this particular situation with this particular guru, it is not productive or helpful to continue investigating and scrutinizing him or her in terms of suspicions or doubts. Rather, as the Kalachakra Tantra recommends, it is best to keep a respectful distance. They should just forget about him or her and not have anything further to do with this person.

It is not healthy, of course, for disciples to deny serious ethical flaws in their guru, if they are in fact true, or his or her involvement in Buddhist power-politics, if this is the case. To do so would be a total loss of discriminating awareness. But for disciples to dwell on these points with disrespect, self-recrimination, regret or other negative attitudes is not only unnecessary, unhelpful and unproductive, it is also improper. They distance themselves even further from achieving a peaceful state of mind and may seriously jeopardize their future spiritual progress. I think it best in this circumstance just to forget about this teacher.¹

His Holiness is the first to acknowledge that life and the Buddhist path are complicated. He is not one to hold tight to simplistic, one-dimensional solutions. In the advice above, I see that special nuanced wisdom of his where he tries to guide students out of a negative, spiritual relationship without losing too much, without losing their “discriminating awareness” or “seriously [jeopardizing] their future spiritual progress.” That is the balancing act of moving on from a damaging relationship with a tantric lama. It’s hard and there is no one-size-fits-all.

When a relationship between a student and her tantric master goes bad, I mean really bad, trauma to the student can run very deep. In my own case, I could no longer think straight. I was an abject, slumped-over, stumbling human being, smoking in the dark and making plans to commit suicide. Speaking out and investigating were absolutely essential steps for me. I needed to hear that I still had a voice and a functioning mind. I needed to understand what had happened.

After years of subverting my own wisdom to justify my lama’s actions, I needed to recover that wisdom so that I could regain my self-respect. I needed to investigate and better understand where my lamas had gone wrong so that I could stop blaming myself for everything, stop my “self-recriminations”. So it took me time to arrive at a point where I could “just forget about” my past teachers.

The Buddhist path demands brutal honesty and huge courage. If we are to have the courage of the bodhisattva, we need to be unafraid to face ourselves and our lamas with that honesty. For myself, I worked hard to stay clear of anger, ill will or disrespect towards my lamas. That was my main goal as I moved forward to health and strength. I know that’s threatening and hard for some, particularly those who are survivors of sexual assault. Emotions are going to be powerful and we can only do our best.

When I hear about a thousand devotees watching a nun being punched in the stomach by their tantric master, this is the advice from His Holiness that rings out in my mind:

It is not healthy, of course, for disciples to deny serious ethical flaws in their guru, if they are in fact true, or his or her involvement in Buddhist power-politics, if this is the case. To do so would be a total loss of discriminating awareness.¹

Wrong is wrong and we simply cannot compromise our moral code on the Buddhist path, particularly on the highest, tantric path. We cannot stop listening to our own voices of reason and conscience or we sacrifice too much. Everything is lost then.

¹ HH Dalai Lama & Alex Berzin; The Gelug/Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra, pp. 209-210, 1997.


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