HH Dalai Lama And Others Speak Out About Sogyal Rinpoche & His Behaviour

Guest Post By Joanne Clark

There is no surer sign that this is not business as usual with Rigpa than the recent statements made by HH Dalai Lama, Mingyur Rinpoche and Matthieu Ricard. In the past, when allegations that Sogyal Rinpoche (Sogyal Lakar) was abusing students surfaced—such as in the court case of 1997 and the publication of “Behind the Thangkas” in 2010, there was silence from the Tibetan community. The Rigpa establishment was able to ride out the storm, using ploys reminiscent of cults and big corporations. But now, since the publication of a letter to Sogyal Rinpoche from eight long-time students outlining their concerns about his physical and sexual abuses, the terrain has dramatically changed. And Tibetans—and others from positions of authority—are speaking out.

I recently spoke about the response of Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche to the situation, in which he claimed categorically that the writers of the letter have broken samaya, However, it appears that HH Dalai Lama, Mingyur Rinpoche and Matthieu Ricard don’t agree.

In a recent talk to Ladakhis at a Buddhist seminar, HH Dalai Lama repeated the instructions he once gave to Western teachers on critically inspecting their lamas, never following them blindly and, if necessary, making ethical violations public. In that context, he then mentioned Sogyal Rinpoche by name, saying that he was “disgraced”.

I have heard that some within Rigpa don’t feel that His Holiness is qualified to judge a situation within a Dzogchen organization. These students should read the two texts on His Holiness’s Dzogchen teachings. Both are compiled by Rigpa and in the introductions to both these texts, Sogyal Rinpoche makes it very clear that he considers His Holiness well qualified to speak on Dzogchen—and on himself!

In Dzogchen: The Heart Essence of the Great Perfection, Teachings Given in the West by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Sogyal Rinpoche writes:

These teaching weave together in fact so many elements and figures of crucial importance for the Nyingma and Dzogchen tradition…

In Mind In Comfort and Ease, Sogyal Rinpoche states categorically:

For me it is the greatest possible privilege to introduce this book and also an immense blessing as His Holiness is one of my principal teachers; and for all Tibetans, he is our leader, our guiding light, and our inspiration.

Who better then to comment on these current troubles than one of Sogyal Rinpoche’s “principal teachers”?

Here is what His Holiness said on August 1:

I feel some of these lama institutions have some sort of influence of the feudal system. That is outdated and must end – that feudal influence. Then eventually a lama institution creates lama politics [DL laughs heartily]. That’s very bad.

An individual lama’s disgrace doesn’t matter, but it gives a very bad impression about a monastery or a monk. Very bad. So we must pay more attention.

You should not say, ‘This is my guru. What guru says I must follow.’ That’s totally wrong! Buddha himself mentioned, ‘You must examine my teaching’. Similarly if one particular lama says something, you examine whether this goes well according to Buddhaʻs teaching or according to the circumstances in society. Then you must follow. If the lama says something; if you investigate and it’s not proper, then you should not follow the lama’s teaching. Even Dalai Lama’s teaching; if you find some contradiction you should not follow my teaching.

As far as Gelugpa is concerned, Lama Tsonghkapa clearly mentioned: if a lama teaches something that is against the dharma it should be avoided and opposed. If the lama’s teaching is in accord with the dharma it should be followed, if it is in discord with the Dharma it should not be followed.

Many years ago in Dharmasala at a Western [Buddhist] Teachers Conference, some Western Buddhist teachers mentioned some Zen masters and Tibetan Buddhist masters had created a very bad impression among people. Then I told them then; these people do not follow Buddhaʻs advice, Buddhaʻs teaching. We cannot do. So, the only thing is to make it public, through newspapers, through the radio. Make it public!

These lamas, although they don’t care about Buddha’s teaching, they may care about their face [points at his face, indicating shame]. I told them at that conference, almost 15 years ago I think. Now, recently Sogyal Rinpoche, my very good friend, but he’s disgraced. So some of his own students have now made public their criticism.

Here is the video clip of this section of his talk:

Then on August 9, an article by Mingyur Rinpoche was published on Lion’s Roar, giving a thorough analysis of teacher-student relations, particularly how students should view ethics in the context of their teachers’ behaviors.

As many in Rigpa know, Mingyur Rinpoche is a prominent holder of both Karma Kagyu and Nyingma lineages. Sogyal Rinpoche thinks highly of him and asked Mingyur Rinpoche to provide guidance for his students in the future. Sogyal Rinpoche also promised, in his response to the letter from the eight former students, that he would consult with Mingyur Rinpoche (and other lamas) on how best to respond to the current situation.

While he doesn’t name Sogyal Rinpoche specifically, Mingyur Rinpoche directly addresses the issues that have surfaced in the Rigpa trouble. In particular, he makes it very clear that when students are being harmed, doing nothing is not an option. He makes it clear, without saying so directly, that he approves of the actions taken by the “courageous eight” who wrote the letter to Sogyal Rinpoche:

In that case, the violation of ethical norms needs to be addressed. If physical or sexual abuse has occurred, or there is financial impropriety or other breaches of ethics, it is in the best interest of the students, the community, and ultimately the teacher, to address the issues. Above all, if someone is being harmed, the safety of the victim comes first. This is not a Buddhist principle. This is a basic human value and should never be violated.

And regarding the samaya of speaking out, he says,

In these circumstances, it is not a breach of samaya to bring painful information to light. Naming destructive behaviors is a necessary step to protect those who are being harmed or who are in danger of being harmed in the future, and to safeguard the health of the community.

He also clarifies misconceptions about “crazy wisdom,” discusses how and when to leave a teacher, outlines the essential qualities of a spiritual teacher and the practice of pure perception.

Another prominent voice speaking out on this situation is that of Matthieu Ricard. Matthieu practiced for 19 years in the Himalayas where he was a close student and attendant of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche for twelve years and a close student of Kangyur Rinpoche for seven years. He is now a public figure and author, runs a large charity, translates for HH Dalai Lama and frequently participates with the Mind and Life Institute. He is famous for the many brain scans that have been taken on his brain in which the great benefits of meditation are explored by neuroscientists.

In his statement, he names Sogyal Rinpoche and makes it clear that the situation is unacceptable.

Regarding the recent letter concerning the behaviour of Sogyal Rinpoche written by some of his close disciples, I cannot judge the intentions of Sogyal Rinpoche or say whether he actually meant to harm his students. But I have also no reason to doubt the truth of these facts and testimonies, which describe the abuse that various people have suffered at his hands. I know two of the authors of the letter and I consider them honest and trustworthy. The behavior described in this letter and in the other past testimonies is obviously unacceptable—from the point of view of ordinary morality and especially from that of Buddhist ethics. This is all the more so given the considerable suffering that has resulted from such actions.

And he adds later an important point:

The fact that a number of authentic masters have given teachings at Lerab Ling is, in itself, a very good thing for all who have encountered them. Likewise, it must be recognized that the teachings given by Sogyal Rinpoche, as well as his books, have benefitted many people. But this does not in any way excuse the harmful actions that he may have perpetrated in other contexts.

Matthieu was the first to speak out, publishing his statement on July 29, three days before His Holiness spoke in Ladakh. In that context, Matthieu addressed the question that many were asking at the time, which was why His Holiness was remaining silent. In this, he gives a very prescient outlook on how Tibetan Buddhist Centers are structured around the world:

Furthermore, it is necessary to be aware that the Buddhist community is not organized in a hierarchical manner as, for example, in the Catholic Church, where priests must account for their behavior to the bishops, cardinals and eventually, at the top of the pyramid, to the Pope himself. Buddhist schools, as these have emerged in different countries are institutionally completely independent of each other. And even within the fold of Tibetan Buddhism, the patriarchs of the four principal schools—while being respected as spiritual authorities—do not intervene in the administration of the monasteries, which function as autonomous entities.

Among Tibetan masters, H.H. the XIVth Dalai Lama is clearly the object of unanimous respect. The teachings and advice that he gives may well be the source of profound inspiration but they are never regarded as commands. No authoritative body goes to check whether a given monastery actually implements his advice. In any case, there exist nowadays thousands of Buddhist centers throughout the world and they are all independent of each other. Only the people who live in such centers, or frequent them on a regular basis, are in a position to say when behavior contrary to Buddhist principles occurs.

In this context, the fact that His Holiness does speak out, a few days later, is significant. It does mark a break from tradition. And it should be noted that His Holiness refers to “feudalism” in his comment. So while there may not be a “hierarchical” organizing principle such as in the Catholic Church within Tibetan Buddhist centers, there is a system of power present. And His Holiness might be pointing at that system as culpable in this trouble. Feudal systems wield their power in silence and deceit. The silence has been broken. Truth is coming out. It is not business as usual.


For a background on this topic & Updates see

Header image: The Dalai Lama | 17. Juli 2014, 02:46 | © Christopher Michel | (CC BY 2.0)