Testimony from an Ogyen Kunzang Choling (OKC) Survivor

The following comment was posted by a Buddhist as a comment after having shared Ben’s powerpoint presentation “40 Years of Abuse in the Name of Dharma by ex-OKC born-kids” on Facebook.

Ben who stands behind this entire thing has a financial interest and is generally against Buddhism. The whole matter is already old and has been judicially negotiated for years. Ben’s goal is to close the center. But the center has nothing more to do with Robert Spatz and has been under the direction of Sechen monastery / Rabjam Rinpoche for years. Pictures of Robert Spatz, his long-life prayers, have long since been removed. Khenpo Tsethen is independent and what is said about him is out of thin air, simply a lie! Have you ever talked with Khenpo, Rabjam Rinpoche or were you in Nyima Dzong? As a monk, would you like to spread lies about Khenpo Tsethen without ever having spoken to him? Do you want to be part of the fact that people, monks lose their homes, and since they have devoted themselves entirely to the Dharma, they do not have a pension and end up in the middle of the age, or end up in the street? You can write about Robert Spatz, but PLEASE leave people out who have nothing to do with him. This article you have posted here contains untruths. Please check it!¹

Here is a response to that comment by a woman who was a child in the OKC.

Alittle history may help in understanding why this accusation is not only wrong but offensive and hurtful. For the sake of clarity, in this explanation when I speak of the “adults” of OKC I am talking about members who joined the community as adults, of their own free will. When I mention the “children” of OKC, I am referring to those of us who were either born into OKC or brought to the community by our parents when we were small. We are now adults of various ages ranging from the twenties to the forties and doing our best to piece ourselves together while coping with the devastating after-effects of our childhoods in the community. These effects range from trauma to pragmatic issues resulting from a lack of education (most of us were taken out of school at age 14), lack of parental guidance or financial support and difficulties integrating into ordinary society.

Robert Spatz (Lama Kunzang Dorje)

OKC was created in 1972 by Robert Spatz and a few others. Over the next few years it grew into a community with religious centers in several countries. These centers included shops, restaurants and yoga facilities located in cities such as Brussels and Athens and isolated communities such as Nyima-Dzong. At Nyima-Dzong, members lived an alternate lifestyle in isolation from the “outside world” in a group of ancient buildings nestled in a secluded valley in the French Alps. Initially, this was a community of adults, but in the late 70s several families joined the community with small children and the first OKC babies were born on site. Each family was assigned to live in a single room with virtually no furniture other than the ubiquitous little altar bearing a photo of Spatz. We slept on the floor and piled our few belongings in the corners. The community did not have electricity or running water during the early years. We shared communal outhouses and lined up with bowls three times a day for food doled out by the communal kitchen, where food was cooked over a wood-burning stove. For the most part, we ate what we could grow, which meant that most meals consisted of turnips, carrots, and nettles that we picked in the wild, usually boiled without spices or salt. Children took lessons in a one-room schoolhouse tended by one teacher with very limited supplies. We had very little time with our parents, less than when we lived “outside,” because of the rigorous work and prayer schedule that we all followed seven days a week. Meanwhile, Spatz lived in luxury in a huge mansion in Brussels, driving a jaguar from one center to another, and relaxing by drinking wine and listening to Wagner on his yacht. His own children lived in the mansion with him, and were educated in exclusive private schools.

In the early eighties, a new system was announced. Rather than living with their parents, the children would live in dorms. We were triaged into three groups, the “bigs,” who were aged 10-12, the “mediums” who were 5-10, and the “smalls,” who were 2-4. A supervisor was assigned to each group, and there was no need for the parents to interact with their children at all. In fact, parents were under pressure not to interact with their children. Parents were told that they were filled with toxic thoughts and emotions and they were poisoning their children by their presence. If they wanted their children to grow up pure and strong, and to have a chance at enlightenment, it was imperative for them to pull away. Some parents went so far as to turn their heads when encountering a group of children, to avoid crossing eyes with their own child. This burden of becoming the enlightened future of the community fell heavily upon our shoulders as well. As children, we were expected to need nothing, want nothing, to give up our most prized dreams and possessions without complaint, to have no wishes, ambitions, goals, loves or fears. We were supposed to diligently work, study and pray every day without experiencing any emotion or receiving any attention, recognition or approval. However, there were plenty of adults willing to help us get rid of our egos by criticizing, and belittling us, even bullying us and/or taking our possessions. They shut down any complaint with the retort that our egos were talking, always the big egos leading us into shallow and selfish behavior; we should stop with all the self-importance, learn some humility and spend our days praying instead of complaining.

Children at Château de Soleils (Nyima Dzong)

After separating families on site, it was only a small step for Spatz to start literally sending the parents away, usually off to the cities where they could make money for the community by staffing its shops and restaurants, where many of them worked seven days a week without pay. Also, the families already living in Brussels were pressured to send their kids off to live in France. In addition to religious pressure and shaming, Spatz also used tactics such as telling people they were free to leave the community immediately if they were not willing to part from their kids. These were people who had quit their jobs, sold their homes and belongings and severed ties with their families to join the community. They had donated everything they owned and had nowhere to go. One after another, parents made the heartbreaking choice to send their children away to be raised at Nyima-Dzong. Even tiny two and three-years olds fell victim to this forced separation. Parents were only allowed to visit their children at Spatz’s whim. Some parents were allowed to visit twice a year, others once a year, others even less than that. I heard from one girl that she didn’t see her mother for almost three years, so long that she forgot what she looked like and struggled to pick her out in a crowd.

In the 90’s, the number of children living at OKC swelled and the number of adults shrank to just a small group tasked with raising the children. These adults for the most part had no experience with childcare and some of them had mental problems that made them unfit to be trusted with children. These adults were on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with no vacations or holidays, such that even the kindest ones among them were vulnerable to caving under the stress and mistreating children. Also, once Spatz had the parents safely out of the way, he advocated an increasingly harsh lifestyle for the children. The schedule became more rigid, the food sparse to the point where children would steal vegetables from the garden in the dead of night, sitting in the fresh dirt to gobble them down as soon as they pulled them from the ground. Punishments were increasingly harsh. Small children were locked overnight in a shoe closet infested with rats, deprived of food sometimes for multiple days, forced to run endless circles barefoot in the snow and hit with switches. A pedophile ran rampant among the little girls, showering naked with them and slipping his hand under their nightgowns when he put them to bed. Yet another deranged disciple preferred to bully the boys, calling them to his room at night after charging them with small crimes, or sometimes no crime at all, and holding them down after stuffing a dirty handkerchief in their mouth so they wouldn’t make too much noise while he beat them black and blue.

Scenes: Children at Château de Soleils (Nyima Dzong)

When the oldest kids in this group reached their teens and grew rebellious, Spatz separated them from the smaller children and sent them to live in a community in Portugal. In a new twist, he began to include alcohol in his religious ceremonies. Kids were not only invited, but forced to drink, so much that by the end of some prayer sessions there were children throwing up all over the temple and others passed out on the floor who were unceremoniously piled into a cart and dumped in their rooms to recover. These teenagers were taught to fight, and told that they were in training to fight for their lives in an upcoming war that would bring an end to the world as we know it. Around this time Spatz also went through a Gypsy phase, where he traveled cross country in caravans with select members of the community, including teenage girls, partying along the way.

Screenshot from the video: Anniversaire Robert Spatz 13avril2001.mp4
(The children in this image are of another generation than the author of this post.)

As for me, I am one of the older children in the group. My family joined this community in the late 70s, when I was a small child. I was taken out of school at 14 and for the next three years I was routinely sexually abused by Spatz. I want to be clear that this was not a relationship that had even the pretense of being consensual; Spatz procured my obedience with trickery, intimidation and outright threats of harm to both me and members of my family. As a child, I used to look up to Spatz and think of him as a kind, fatherly figure, but during those three years I learned to hate him, so much so that I would feel sick to my stomach at the sound of his car pulling up to the building. In the face of total parental abdication, I had no-one to turn to. Spatz had full control over my fate. For all practical purposes, I was a captive, forbidden to leave the community even for brief visits to family members outside.

In the end, my older brother is the one who offered me a means of escape, when I was 17. I am one of the fortunate few who had some financial support from my family after I got out. Although it wasn’t easy, I managed to go back to school and get a college degree. I wanted to forget what I lived through at Nyima-Dzong and I tried hard to do so, but I found out that something more than willpower is required to heal from such an experience. Also, I was always worried about the children I had left behind, especially the younger girls. I worried that by escaping I had left behind a void that Spatz would simply fill with the next youngest girl. As it turns out, I was only half right – Spatz had already moved on to a couple of the next youngest girls long before I left, after taking the precaution of having his disciples move me away from Nyima-Dzong to a different location, so that I wouldn’t notice what he was doing.

It took me years to break through the spell of secrecy and speak up about Spatz, but I finally brought criminal and civil complaints against him in 1998. I found out later that three other women had done the same. After making these complaints I received a call from a woman in the community that I had loved as a child and for a second I thought she had called to tell me that she was sad or upset to hear about what happened to me. But that wasn’t it at all. She wanted me to drop the charges against Spatz because she was afraid that he would be sent to prison and the community would be shut down. People would be put out on the street, with no money and nowhere to go. What happened to me was in the past, she said, so couldn’t I just let it go instead of moving forward with a lawsuit that might ruin the lives of many innocent people? When I asked about other girls, she glossed over the question. I hung up feeling hurt by her indifference, and also wondering for the first time if the huge secret that I thought I had guarded for years was actually not a secret at all. The thought crossed my mind that perhaps some of Spatz’s disciples didn’t mind offering up a girl to Spatz every now and then in exchange for his continued patronage and support of the community.

I stood firm, but other disciples approached my family with the same logic, asking them to stop me from wreaking havoc on the community, and they fell prey to guilt. My mother pressured me to stop. My brother, who had been my only ally for years, told me that he wished me the best but he could not support what I was doing because he was worried about the fate of friends and family members still in the community. I tried to tell them that this was just a story that the community was using to manipulate them. Personally, I thought it was a little sick for the adults to purchase their religious blessings and financial security at the cost of their children’s suffering. Plus, I never believed that Spatz would support these people in their old age, as they expected him to do. It was because of Spatz that these people were destitute – he was the one who convinced them to donate everything to him and live in poverty while he freely spent the money he gathered. But I realized over time that the two of them were ashamed of my actions and felt guilty by association. They came back from visits to the community acting surprised and grateful that people were willing to talk to them despite what I had done. Ridiculously, it became a situation where my family was persuaded that they needed to protect Spatz and OKC from me, rather than the other way around. My brother eventually succumbed to guilt and wrote a letter to the Belgian police in 1998 suggesting that they ought not believe my story. He didn’t have the courage to tell me about this betrayal – I found out about it at the trial last year when Spatz’s lawyers tried to use it as evidence to discredit me. I know that my mother and brother both love me and that, at the time, they acted out of confusion, and under the influence of religious manipulation. I love them as well, and aside from issues related to OKC they have been the best mother and brother I could wish for. The trial last year stirred up all these issues and precipitated some long discussions among us and I am grateful that they have come to understand the situation more clearly and support me in what I am doing. The point I want to make is not to criticize them, but to show how insidious religious brainwashing can be, to the extent of turning loving family members against each other.

I’m sharing this story not to talk about myself but because it echoes the experience of the other OKC children. This worn out theme has been trotted out over and over again for 20 years now: OKC is a charming community filled with good people who will be provided with financial support and loving care in their elder years – but this wondrous existence is on the brink of being ruined by the selfish headstrong children of OKC who think only about themselves. OKC used this story for years to stop the younger generation of OKC from speaking up. It’s an effective tactic to use on kids who were raised to disregard their own well-being and avoid selfishness like the plague. For the most part, the OKC children who decided to testify at trial went through a very difficult personal struggle because of these accusations, and some of them backed out (despite suffering horrific abuse) because they couldn’t handle the guilt trip or disapproval of their parents. And many of them have family members who fell victim to the same guilt trips as my own family, and made statements to the police or tribunal trying to discredit them. These are family members of abused children! Cousins, uncles, siblings, parents knowingly undermining these children in an effort to protect Spatz and OKC.

In truth, Spatz created a network of companies that manage all money, people and assets related to OKC. The Belgian tribunal found that these companies, even the ones styled as non-profits and religious organizations, actually operated for the financial benefit of Spatz, rather than the community or the disciples. Money has been laundered back and forth between these companies over the years to the detriment of the people that they are supposed to benefit. How does one man manage to control the finances of multiple organizations and the lives of multiple people? Through his closest, most loyal disciples, who I think of as his “lieutenants.” During the trial, some of the former OKC disciples tried to seize control of the Belgian OKC organization away from Spatz. They were successful in getting him to retire as officer of the company, but his lieutenants then intimidated the group into submitting to Spatz’s continued control. Spatz’s lieutenants are the officers of some of the other OKC-related organizations. They still live in his centers – I know of at least one who still lives at Nyima-Dzong.

Photo taken in Nyigma-Dzong, Buddhist Temple, in August 2017. Robert Spatz picture on the throne in the main temple alongside a statue of Dilgo Khyentsé Rinpoché & other Tibetan Buddhist statues

I don’t know anything about the Kenpo, but I assume he is financed by OKC Belgium or OKC France, both of which are still controlled by Spatz most loyal disciples. And, while OKC may have removed Spatz’ photo from their website, the photo still sits on its throne in the temple at Nyima-Dzong.

Circling back to the original accusation, I am troubled by the premise that the members of OKC should be protected because they have “nothing to do” with the wrongs perpetrated by Spatz. This is a fiction that lives on in part because, contrary to accusations, the OKC children are absurdly compassionate and forgiving. Most of the OKC disciples were complicit in one way or another in the abuse and neglect of the community’s children. Those that were not complicit are at the very least guilty of turning a blind eye in a situation where a compassionate human would ordinarily be expected to lend a hand. We (the OKC children) know that the adults were deceived and indoctrinated by Spatz and we know that he had a terrible way of twisting the truth and the religion, making acts of kindness seem like crimes, and crimes like acts of kindness. So we forgive the people who beat, neglected and mistreated us, or led us to his bedroom in the dead of night, choosing instead to focus on Spatz as the ultimate cause of the harm.

It is one thing to forgive the adults; it is quite another thing to engage in the pretense that they are innocent, and yet another thing entirely to attack the children who suffered a lifetime of abuse and accuse these children of selfishness! Make no mistake, some of these adults did terrible things. To give one example among many: one girl testified at trial that when she was 12 Spatz “gave” her as a girlfriend to a young man that he favored, and sent them off to travel with his gypsy caravan. One night, this older boy drank too much while partying with the adults and hauled the girl into his caravan, where he raped her. When he passed out she emerged from the caravan crying and went to sit by the campfire where she announced “I’ve just been raped, does anyone even care?” There was an awkward pause, and that’s the end of the story. No-one did a thing. This girl brought charges against Spatz for sexually assaulting her a year later, but insisted that she did not want to bring charges against the boy who raped her because she felt that he had been twisted and abused by Spatz as well and he had suffered enough. She also forgave the adults who allowed the boy to get drunk and haul her into a caravan, and who took no action after finding out about the rape – going so far as to refuse to disclose their names in order to protect them. Why? Because she feels pity for them, because she knows as we all do that Spatz hurt and controlled everyone. The boys chose to forgive the sick, twisted individual who came up with pretenses to beat them violently. And all the children have forgiven the parents who neglected and abandoned them.

Since there have also been accusations directly against Ben, I feel the need to point out that he is acting on behalf of a group of 25-30 former OKC kids, many of whom are still Buddhists themselves, and most of whom were plaintiffs in the trial against OKC. Any attack on Ben is, practically speaking, an attack on all of the OKC children. Speaking for the younger generation, right now what the children need is a little compassion and support from the world in light of the traumas that they have lived through and the life challenges that they currently face. To continue to attack them is simply cruel. Many of these kids have a parent who is still in OKC, or halfway in. And all of the kids are concerned about the financial well-being of the remaining members. No-one wants to see these people on the street! But most of these children believe, like I do, that Spatz has no intent to provide for his disciples in their old age. Spatz has sucked people dry over the years, to the point of half-starving children and depriving even terminally ill disciples of medical care. Anyone who believes that Spatz will generously take care of his disciples once they have nothing more to give him is sadly naïve. If Spatz was truly concerned, he could take action right now by setting up individual pensions for his disciples using the money he has hoarded for himself all of these years. Why focus the blame on the children instead of on Spatz, who has been found guilty of violating employment laws and appropriating the community’s money for his personal use?

In fact, the OKC children have had endless discussions about how to deal with the problem of elders aging in the community with no savings or accumulated social security. For this reason, we all supported the people trying to take OKC away from Spatz and hoped they would be successful. And if they had been successful and OKC was truly and irrevocably free from Spatz and his lieutenants, we would support OKC. I believe that most of us would like nothing more than to see Spatz’s disciples recreate a Buddhist community independent of Spatz and make it thrive. But we will not support an OKC that continues to dominate and mistreat people, and funnel money to Spatz.

Incidentally, the tribunal appeared to be concerned for the well-being of aging disciples as well. The court’s solution was to seize Spatz’s assets and create a fund to use as an alternative to social security for all of the adults who worked undeclared and without pay for OKC for most of their lives. That solution in my opinion is also better than letting things rock on as they are, which will result in financial hardship to everyone but Spatz and his most loyal lieutenants in the end. My only fear (which I believe is shared by some of the other children) is that there are adults so deeply entranced by Spatz that they will turn around and give the money right back to him.

The 20-year-old lawsuit against Spatz is not over. The case finally went to trial in 2016, and now it is on appeal, and we are all still holding our breath waiting for the final outcome. Nothing is over or resolved – not yet.


¹ Ben made clear that his goal is not to close the center. He is the spokes person of 23 civil parties, some of the older generations of youngsters (now adults) from OKC. There are now 170 charges against OKC by the Belgian Justice system. Eleven sexual abuse cases were presented in front of the court. In total there are 46 civil parties, some from the 1997 inquiry and all the others from the trial in 2016. A detailed clarification by Ben will be posted soon on this blog.

If you want to financially support the court case of the victims against Robert Spatz, you can donate via the Aide aux victimes de Robert Spatz GoFundMe Campaign.

Update