On Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche’s Response to the Letter From Eight Former Rigpa Students: Has Samaya Been Broken?

Guest Post by Joanne Clark

I was distressed to read Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche’s (OTR) response to the recent letter by eight former, long-time Rigpa students regarding Sogyal Lakar’s abusive and unethical behaviors. This response, published on his website, seems to be initially about a comment that one of the signatories of the letter, Sangye Ngawang, made on Facebook. However, in the process of responding, OTR addresses what he “has heard” about Sangye and the other seven signatories “turning against” Sogyal Lakhar.

Perhaps OTR didn’t actually read the letter and its stories of suffering and harm. Perhaps that’s why he spoke at length about Sogyal Lakhar’s high standing in Tibetan Buddhist society and failed to mention any sorrow that students have suffered from being beaten and sexually assaulted. Perhaps that’s why he chastised Sangye and the others, saying that it was too late now for them to “turn against” their lama and that they had definitely broken samaya. Essentially he told the courageous eight signatories of the letter that they were going to hell.

This is brutal to the extreme. I believe it is also seriously misguided. For one, the writers were clearly motivated by one thought alone—to help mitigate future harm against students. They were not acting out of self-interest or ill will or even disrespect. They were also acting out of a sincere desire to protect the Buddha Dharma in the West. It was their (correct) belief that Sogyal Lakhar’s unethical and abusive behaviors were leading students astray and harming people’s understanding of the Dharma. Further, the tone of the letter was measured and calm as they called for Sogyal to please hear them and help restore faith in the sangha. They were asking for reform within the sangha. Is this ‘turning against” Sogyal? I think not.

I truly hope that other teachers who have taught at Rigpa will step forward now and help the sangha with better compassion and clarity. But just to be perfectly clear about OTR’s brutal assertion about Sangye Ngawang’s samaya and karma, here is a wonderful instruction from HH Dalai Lama about this subject and about sexual abuse as well. These instructions were given to a group of Western Buddhist Teachers (WBT) in 1993.

WBT: Many students are afraid of breaking samaya—the commitment and bond with their guru—if they speak openly about what they perceive to be abuse. Does a teacher’s abusive behavior destroy the samaya and release the student?

HHDL: I don’t know. Although the guru has in a sense broken the samaya, that does not allow the student to break it as well. If the guru kills, that does not mean I can too! We shouldn’t emulate bad examples! We should respect the common perspective of the world in terms of what is right and wrong. Earlier I spoke of the situation with my two regents. Even though I have deep faith and respect for my teachers and consider them high spiritual beings, I did not hesitate to criticize their behavior because those actions were wrong no matter who did them. I didn’t speak out of hatred or disrespect, but because I love the Buddhadharma and their actions went against it.

It is essential to distinguish between two things: the person and their action. We criticize the action, not the person. The person is neutral: he or she wants to be happy and overcome suffering, and once their negative action stops, they will become a friend. The troublemaker is the afflictions and actions. Speaking out against the action does not mean that we hate the person. For example, we Tibetans fight Chinese injustice, but it doesn’t mean we are against the Chinese as human beings, even those who are ruthless. In meditation, I try to develop genuine compassion for these people while still opposing their actions. Thus, we may criticize a teacher’s abusive actions or negative qualities while we respect them as a person at the same time. There are still some beneficial aspects of the guru. A mistaken action doesn’t destroy their good qualities. If you criticize in this way, there is no danger of hellish rebirth as a result. Motivation is the key: speaking out of hatred or desire for revenge is wrong. However, if we know that by not speaking out, their bad behavior will continue and will harm the Buddhadharma, and we still remain silent, that is wrong.

WBT: There is much discussion in the West about the appropriateness of sexual contact when the two partners do not have equal power or status in the relationship. What is your opinion: are there times when sexual relationships between a Buddhist teacher and their student could be appropriate?

HHDL: It may happen that an unmarried teacher meets an unmarried student while teaching. If the relationship develops in a normal way with mutual agreement and mutual respect and they decide to marry, it is fine. When two people in a relationship treat each other equally, there is no difference in power or status during sexual intercourse. The teacher is not on a throne then! However, if the teacher is with one student one month and another the next, that is not right. Also, imposing or forcing sexual contact is wrong. So is misusing the idea of dakinis by saying things such as “You have signs of being a qualified dakini,” or flattering the student, “You have very great Dharma potential.” Women should not be afraid to say no!

WBT: In the West many professionals are thinking deeply about methods to use in cases of abuse. Are there Asian methods for dealing with abuse and for helping the involved parties?

HHDL: In the case of monastics, if any of the four root vows—to abandon killing a human being, stealing an object of value, sexual intercourse (heterosexual or homosexual), and lying about one’s spiritual attainments—is fully transgressed, that person must leave the monastery and is no longer a monastic. Aside from that, I do not know of any institutional methods for dealing with other cases.

All forms of abuse are against the general Buddhist rule. If an individual does not listen to the Buddha’s instructions, it is doubtful that they will listen to ordinary people like us. Earlier I suggested that when a teacher is clearly acting unethically and students have tried to discuss it with them but without result, then the only recourse is to publicize it in the community. I assume the teacher would feel ashamed and embarrassed and would decide to alter their behavior. I welcome your ideas on this topic.

Some people nearly give up their faith and respect for the Buddha if they are sexually abused by a Buddhist teacher. This makes me very sad. When it is explained that such actions are against the general Buddhist rule, their doubts in the Buddha and the Dharma decrease. As explained before, if a teacher gives instructions that contradict the path, you should not follow them. If anyone wishes to see scriptural sources to substantiate this or other points, we can show them.

As Buddhists, our motivation must be clear and sincere. Because there is a moral crisis in developed countries, we must explain what is proper behavior according to the Dharma and live that way ourselves. We are not inventing ethical conduct and imposing it on others: the Buddha himself described this and established the various sets of vows. As sincere followers of the Buddha, we are simply reminding ourselves and others of what the Buddha said. If someone does not want to follow this, that is their right. But if someone considers the Buddha their teacher, it is important to respect the ethical principals set out by the Buddha.

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