H.H. the Dalai Lama’s Comments on the Troubles in Rigpa

By Joanne Clark

For years, the Dalai Lama has been criticized for not speaking out against Sogyal Lakar’s (Sogyal Rinpoche’s) misbehaviors. The idea was that one word from His Holiness could somehow fix things. Now, he has spoken out. He has been speaking out for almost a year. He has been naming Sogyal Lakar by name, saying that Sogyal is now “disgraced.” He has equated Sogyal’s behaviors to feudal exploitation. He has called for the need to topple religious institutions that exploit and named Rigpa as an example of such an institution. He has stated that while Sogyal Lakar might have some learning, he is lacking in practice and realization.

In these statements, not only does His Holiness break his silence, but he also outlines clearly why he has been silent. He outlines the breadth of the problem, as it comes from intrenched feudal systems and cultural norms that he alone is not capable of breaking. And so of course, we see no magical fix from his statements. While Rigpa was happy to use the Dalai Lama’s years of silence and his visits to Rigpa centers as proof that there were no abuses and all was well, now they pretend he doesn’t have any place in the institution at all.

Also, there is another theme that runs through all of the statements made by His Holiness on problems of lama abuse. From the conference with Western teachers at Dharamsala in 1993 to recent statements about Sogyal Lakar, His Holiness consistently empowers Western Dharma students themselves to take the lead for reforms. It seems that he is under no illusions about Tibetan Buddhist teachers moving very fast in this regard.

Thousands of students have been deeply affected by this Rigpa trouble. The trouble extends not only to those who have been directly abused, but to those many many students who have been disillusioned and disheartened about their own spiritual paths. Blame lies not just with one abusive lama, but with the individuals and institution who supported and abetted his abuses. The problem is vast and complicated, requiring both legal and spiritual insights. However, Rigpa’s only solution to date is to offer an investigative committee made up of their own lawyers!

I remember the evening of the last day of the 1999 Lerab Ling retreat in which we had a sort of party, which consisted of us eating and watching Sogyal prostrating to images of his lamas and holding their pictures reverently close to his face. That was the culture of devotion he created. However, it appears that he prefers to be devoted to pictures and statues. It appears that Sogyal and Rigpa officials are now finding it inconvenient to include ideas from his only living teacher in their plans for the future. It appears that their strategy might be to completely ignore His Holiness—maybe in hopes that he eventually stops making comments about the situation and students forget that he ever did?

So to ensure that this doesn’t happen and that the full scope of His Holiness’s comments regarding the situation of harm within Rigpa is clear, this post will serve as a resource. It will be updated as new comments are made.

  1. August 1, 2017: His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s address at the Inauguration of Seminar on ‘Buddhism in Ladakh’ at the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies (CIBS) in Leh, Ladakh, J&K, India on August 1, 2017 https://youtu.be/0wP4rsM7AZQ
    His Holiness: I feel some of these lama institutions [have] some sort of influence of the feudal system. [That is] out of  dated and must end. So with some feudal sort of influence, then eventually a lama institution creates lama politics. That’s very bad. You see, lama politics, an individual lama’s disgrace doesn’t matter, but it gives a very bad impression about monastery or monk. Very bad.

    So we must pay more attention. Such things—you should not say, “Oh, this is my guru. Whatever guru say I must follow.” That’s totally wrong! Buddha himself mentioned, “My teaching, you must examine.” Similarly if one particular lama says something, you examine whether this goes well according to Buddhaʻs teaching or according to the circumstances in the 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. Like that.

    So, as far as Gelugpa is concerned, Lama Tsonghkapa clearly mentioned; [Tibetan]

    (Translator): So if a lama teaches or mentions something that is against the dharma it should be avoided and opposed. And 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.

    His Holiness: Many years ago in Dharamsala [at] a Western Teachers Conference, at that conference, some Western Buddhist teachers, you see, they mentioned some Zen masters and Tibetan Buddhist Masters, you see they created [a] very bad impression among people. Then I told them; oh, 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, but 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 [is] disgraced. So some of his own sort of students now publicly—made public their criticism.

  2. September 6, 2017: Meeting with students from the University of California, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2fWZWwSSkXs
    In the West, some of my friends, when I use the word “secular’ then they,  some of my friends say, ‘secular means a little bit sort of negative towards religion.’ You see, it’s understandable. During the French revolution and Bolshevik revolution in Russia, you see there is some sort of tendency [to have a] negative attitude towards religion. That actually not religion, but religious institution.
    Religion—real religion—means love. Even animal appreciate love. So nobody can [be] against religion or love. But you see these institutions, frankly speaking, I think many cases, religious teachers, or religious spiritual leaders or institution, frankly speaking some cases rotten.
    So, it’s worthwhile to [be] against these things. During the French revolution, before that, the elite—or kings or queens or elite people very much related with religious institution. So they got benefit from these groups, so automatically, they support them. So when people really suffer, due to exploitation, then people should develop courage. In order to topple that institution, they also need courage against religious institution. Isn’t it? What do you think?
    Now recently in Hariana, now some problems, now you know. So Dharma used, name of Dharma exploitation. They themselves not properly practice this Dharma. Including some Tibetan lama also like that. Now recently in America, Rigpa, you may [have] heard, Rigpa Dharma center, the leader, I know him, you see, now recently now one sort of open letter, against, full of criticism about that person. So therefore, the religious institution quite often you see spoiled, not carrying the real, sort of message of religion, but rather use the name of religion—religion used [as an] instrument for exploitation.
    So French revolution, Russian—Bolshevik revolution, [there was] some tendency against religion—because of that. So when I say secular, some of my friends have a little sort of reservation. But in this country, secular means respect all religion. And also, I think one unique thing is, according to Indian concept of secularism, secular [means] respect non-believer.


  1. September 14, 2017: Question to H.H. the Dalai Lama at the press conference at Tibet House, Frankfurt
    Ursula Richard: Your Holiness, I would like to ask you to say a few words about abusive behavior in Buddhist or religious institutions in general, and how we, as a society, as Buddhist communities, can deal with it and support the victims.
    His Holiness the Dalai Lama: Now in America, some religious organization, the head, as a matter of fact Tibetan, I know him, he behaved … he himself disgraced. And many of his old students now publicly, sort of went against him.¹ It’s right! You see, Buddha stated, advise us, the follower of Buddha should not accept Buddha’s teaching out of faith, but rather [through] thorough investigation and experiment. If some [of] Buddha’s teaching [is] against reason or reality, then we have liberty to reject. So, some Nalanda master rejected Buddha’s own word.
    Then also you see in our Tibetan tradition, some great lama mentioned very clearly that devotion to one’s guru or one’s lama is important. But at the same time, you should not follow sort of the wrong behavior of your guru. You should criticize your guru. Like that. So. Some people who blindly, blind faith go that way, it’s wrong.
    We follow our teacher based on Buddha’s basic teaching. If our individual teacher carry Buddha’s teaching truly, then we follow. If lama behave some sort of rubbish thing, then we should against.
    In Taiwan also now that happened, some Chinese Buddhist leader. So recently, I met, I told them.
    So there is a quote from a text of Tsongkhapa from the Lamrim in the 14th century in Tibet, which clearly tells you what this relationship between teacher and disciple is: when you, as a student, perceive wholesome behavior being done by your master which corresponds to the Buddhist doctrine, then follow him, and if you see behaviors that do not correspond to these ethical principles, do not follow him and reject it. So, be in harmony with the ethical rules or consider your teacher or follow your teacher in accordance with the ethical rules that are also central in Buddhism. This is a very clear statement that it is not a matter of blindly following the teacher.²
    Recently in India, also some religious spiritual leader, oh really disgraced themselves. So now, the concerned court arrest him, like that. That’s right, I feel right. If Dalai Lama do something wrong, I think you should arrest him. [laughter] I think if [Dagyab] Rinpoche doing wrong, you should arrest him. [laughter]
    Recently, I met some Chinese, Taiwanese Buddhists. You see, they have some problem. One way, they feel they must respect their teacher. One way, they cannot accept their teacher’s behavior. Some sort of confusion in their mind. So in such case, study, thoroughly, what Buddha say, what our great teachers, what they say. Then no problem.
    So some students of such teachers, who behaved in an inappropriate way or behaved in a damaging way, have expressed to me that they have difficulties; they see these mistakes, the misconduct, but feel somehow also hindered by their loyalty to their master, to openly criticize him. And I have answered that this should not be an obstacle, they should free themselves from it, and they can rely on the Buddhist texts and the Buddhist principles, which, for example, are clearly expressed in the monastic rules [Vinaya], to follow the master only if he is in accordance with ethical principles, and not to follow him if he does not behave accordingly. And that is their good right, and it is important to do so. And the ethical principles of how to behave as teachers are clearly stated in the Buddhist texts. And these cases of abuse, which are reported, are clearly diametrically opposed to these principles.²

  3. September 23, 2017: Teaching in Latvia, Start: 2:26:09, https://youtu.be/46kukFKFJrM?t=2h24m29s
    So Sogyal Rinpoche was disgraced recently. He [is] in America. So, he may be learned but without any practice and experience of the teaching, therefore, being, abusing disciples, deceiving them. And so, there were people in Taiwan and other places where also this happens.

  5. June 1, 2018: Meeting with university students in Dharamsala, Quote starts 1:29:07. Watch on YouTube or on https://www.dalailama.com/videos/interaction-with-university-students
    His Holiness: Then the teacher also should be learned one. Not content “oh teacher on high throne”.. and say, ‘looks very holy’. That’s not sufficient. I think our tradition—teacher should examine the student. So similarly, we student should examine teacher, whether that teacher really qualified or not. In Tibetan community, one monk, even lay man, high rank of lama, then we say [bowing with hands praying, Tibetan] . That is old thinking, out of dated.
    (Translator): So Je Tsongkhapa in his Great Treatise on the Path to Enlightenment says that if even a teacher, someone you consider as your teacher, says something which is against the—which is not religious or according to the Dharma, you must actually refute it, oppose that.
    So Je Rinpoche in this treatise of… the Great Treatise on the Path to Enlightenment actually in that text he goes through the topic of relying on a guru. And so, within that context he actually quotes from the Vinaya which is the monastic discipline, the code of discipline, and also from sutras and then also tantra. So, referring to these three sources he actually says that, according to the Vinaya tradition what you can do is if a certain teaching and practice accords with the Dharma, then you should actually take it up, whereas if it doesn’t accord with the Dharma, if it is against the Dharma, the you should actually reject that. And then he also goes through the qualifications of a lama, a guru, and says a guru should have these qualifications according to the Vinaya and then Sutrayana and also Tantrayana. So usually in the Tibetan tradition we consider lamas as very high beings and people without any question bow to the lamas and consider them as holy and so forth. We in fact say that whatever the lama does is something good. And whatever he says we must actually pay heed to it. But that actually to me it seems we are going too far. We should always check the teachings of the lama, whether the teaching accords with the Vinaya and Sutra and Tantra traditions—and whether something that the lama says is something we could actually heed or not. Therefore, Je Rinpoche himself says that if the lama says something that is against the Dharma then we should actually oppose that.
    His Holiness: So, Buddhadharma, particularly the Nalanda tradition, is very much based on reason, investigation, not just blind faith. So therefore, in the past I think among Tibetans without proper education, so simply faith—I think that kind of faith is out of dated. Should have faith based on reason, logical. For that, you should investigate. That’s very important. Otherwise, you see high lama—[points to himself] I think I can easily exploit, with faith. Isn’t it? You see some Indian, some Hindu gurus too much exploited in the name of Dharma—isn’t it? So now some Indian guru now in prison. That also wonderful, you see under law, you see politicians or gurus equal, that’s very good. That’s very good.
    So these, I think that faith, single pointed blind faith is one way to exploit other people. So, lama institution and feudal system can go together. So now that must change. Feudal system past. You see, everybody equal. Lama something very special—wrong! We already notice in Ladakh and some other places high lama, lama who have position of high, sometimes, you see, manipulate. So, like that. So therefore I think we should be, Buddhist tradition should be based on sound— [Tibetan]

    (Translator): We should follow a tradition which actually could stand the test of reason.

    HH: Like that. OK. So some of those Westerners, traditionally not Buddhist but some individual you see really showing interest about the Buddhadharma, then please pay more attention. Like that. Otherwise… Of course, Sogyal Rinpoche one of my sort of friends, but he too much exploitation among his followers. So later you see some sort of problems you see happen. So, self discipline. Lama on throne self-discipline. In order to teach other people—before that—you yourself must have these sort of knowledge and discipline. Without that, how can you teach other people?

    (Translator): So the lama must actually practice what he or she teaches and accordingly teach others.

    HH: So like that. So Buddha himself, our supreme sort of teacher, his sort of life is just ordinary monk, carrying the begging bowl, very often without shoe, go like that. In Vinaya, no mention of Buddha’s own kitchen. So very good.

    Now we Tibetans, I think combined with feudal system, then you see some lama take advantage. And not only in Tibetan case, but in Arab world…. The feudal system and religious sort of belief combined. Sometimes I feel the war—I think one aspect of feudal system– [in] feudal system, one person have full power, then regardless of individual people’s life, then war. Now today, the world, we already sort of practice democracy. The people is actually ruler, not the individual. So if you ask a soldier, do you really want to sacrifice your own life for serving for king or for religious leader, I don’t think they say yes. But order: “go there, kill other one…” [That’s the] feudal system. So since feudal system out of dated, so also the concept of war I think, I feel also out of dated.

¹ Though His Holiness says here “went against him” this is not meant literally. The Dalai Lama has stressed at different times that if students have confronted their teacher with unethical behavior and the teacher doesn’t change his unethical conduct, then the students should go public. “So, the only thing is to make it public, through newspapers, through the radio. Make it public!” – SZ / WayBack Machine
(Footnote added after discussion with The Dalai Lama’s Secretary, Tseten Samdup Chhoekyapa.)

² These passages were translated from Tibetan into German by Christof Spitz.

© Header image: The Dalai Lama by Christopher Michel | (CC BY 2.0)

All comments so far