A Timely and Important Book “Fallout: Recovering from Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism”

By Joanne Clark

Fallout: Recovering from Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism, by Tahlia Newland, is the story of Rigpa students coming to terms with disclosures of Sogyal Lakar’s abuses over decades, as revealed in the letter from eight senior ex-students in July 2017. This is the story of renegade students, students who refuse to participate in a religious institution that condones abuse—and the courage, wisdom, self-reflection, compassion and robust spirit of inquiry that shines through this book reminds me again and again that Buddha himself was a renegade, founding a religion outside of institutions, royal pomp, ceremony, and political power. This is a book that Rigpa management, Sogyal Lakar and the Tibetan Buddhist community need to read and ponder, as the insights it contains are pertinent to all who care about the authentic transmission of Buddhism to the West.

This is also the story of Rigpa’s tragic failure as a religious institution to protect students from harm and Sogyal’s failure to abide by even the most basic ethical boundaries of the Dharma. We learn how both Rigpa and Sogyal have failed to adequately address the present concerns of this group of long-time, now ex-students, many of whom are survivors of Sogyal’s abuse, suffering from severe trauma and seeking validation. We learn also how they have demeaned, attacked and dismissed this group, many of whom devoted long years of their lives working for Rigpa.

The story begins shortly before the publication of the letter, at the moment when Newland first discovers that Sogyal has been hitting students for decades. We follow her personal, painful process of coming to terms with this and then, with the letter published, the story becomes much bigger, becoming the story of many—of the “What Now?” group– ex-Rigpa students forming communities of blogs and Facebook groups under the leadership of Newland and others in order to find support and move forward in meaningful ways.

This is not a story of gripe sessions, not about angry ex-students, though certainly some have had their periods of anger and there is plenty to be angry about. This is an account of students making meaning out of trauma and abuse, students working to hold a perpetrator to full account and understand the beliefs, manipulations and deceptions that held them hostage, that allowed such abuses to occur. And it is a true story. As one commenter, quoted in the book, stated:

I just wanted to learn how to be a good person, someone who could help others who were suffering. [Sogyal] used that desire to be decent human beings for his own selfish purposes.Kindle Loc 1866

Newland refuses to ever reduce her tale to black and white, simplistic, easy perspectives, but fearlessly views every experience from many angles, always seeking to understand how and why. She and the What Now? group embraced the full complexity of cultic literature, Western psychology, Dzogchen and other Buddhist teachings as well as personal experiences and unique perspectives within the group, to understand how it was that abuse could be allowed to have occurred over decades. It is impressive how Newland brings these many perspectives into her narrative, while keeping its pace and focus intact.

Part One of the book, Processing the Revelations of Abuse, is the bulk of the book, the experiential, powerful part, while the last parts are reflections on what has been learned. In Part One, essential aspects of the events of the past two years are addressed. I was happy to see Newland give the subject of Trauma full attention as trauma is a poorly understood subject amongst Tibetan Buddhist communities—but it is a vital subject if the suffering of survivors of abuse is ever to be validated within these communities. With citations from Western psychological sources, Newland compares the trauma Rigpa students are experiencing to that experienced by survivors of domestic violence and discusses the long-term effects of complex trauma. Here is a powerful statement from Newland on the situation that traumatized Buddhist students found themselves in:

As is common in traumatized people, survivors of guru abuse that I’ve been in communication with, not just from Rigpa but also from other Buddhist communities, reported feeling utterly abandoned and alone without any form of care or protection; something which afterwards, left them with a sense of disconnection which pervaded other relationships. And the inability to satisfactorily resolve the traumatic situation in which they found themselves leaves the person prone to shame, doubt and guilt. These feelings often arose in our group discussions…. Traumatized people lose their trust in themselves, in other people, and in this case, the religion that has failed to protect them. Experiences of humiliation, guilt, and helplessness batter one’s self-esteem and intense and contradictory feelings of need and fear compromise their capacity for intimacy….Kindle Loc 2512-2518

And this from a commenter in the What Now? Group:

One of the big barriers I see [to genuine change] is that most people in Rigpa cannot put themselves in the shoes of a trauma victim/survivor and understand what it’s really like, the extent of damage that has taken place, and how that damage continues into the future.Kindle Loc 2439

And here is a moving comment from a survivor on the experience of abuse and trauma:

It’s hard to say at what point it passes from merely being unpleasant into being traumatic, but cumulatively it is very traumatic and soul-crushing, rather than ego-crushing. For some of us there have been periods of time, when we were repeatedly beaten and treated like an abused and unwanted dog.

Humiliation was also routine, and would often be done in front of entire gatherings. It might include talking about something very personal from a student, something said confidentially in trust, and then used to ridicule or criticize them in front of everybody.

Then one might be compelled to sit at his feet and be told nice things and given hugs—‘love bombed’—but this only happened on stage, in public. Behind the scenes it would be straight back to hitting and humiliation.

For me the worst psychological abuse was the ‘Rigpa Therapy.’ There was a therapy formula which was used with a few people who were working closely with SR. During the session, the Rigpa therapist (who was also a Rigpa student and wanted to please the lama) would tell you that your problems were all just projections based on issues with your parents and nothing to do with SR hitting you, sexually abusing you… One ‘Rigpa therapist’ told me, ‘The things I hear from women in these sessions, if I was to hear them in the real world, I’d have to report them.’ That was the problem in a nutshell, people believing real world principles no longer applied.Kindle Loc 2069

And here another quote from someone once in the inner circle of Rigpa:

I saw, in the reactions of even ordinary students not directly abused by Sogyal, signs of distress, grief and trauma created through the betrayal of trust by both Sogyal and Rigpa.

Institutional betrayal in a religious community is called spiritual abuse and we were all spiritually abused, betrayed by a person and an organisation we trusted.Kindle Loc 2794

Throughout Part One, we see the What Now? Community move between hopes for reform and discouragement over the harsh reality of how deeply abuse-enabling practices run within Rigpa – and within many other Tibetan Buddhist institutions in the West. We see many give up on reform and some give up on Tibetan Buddhism—while some remain determined to seek change. Here is a hopeful quote from an early comment on the What Now? Blog:

I for one am done with being silenced and told how to feel and shamed for telling the truth.

This is the only way we can let the dharma rise in the West again, like a phoenix from the ashes, with honesty, listening to survivors, accountability.

If you are tone policing survivors, imposing inauthentic standards from ancient texts, offering ancient quotes out of context without any sensitivity for the broken lives and abuse, you are part of the problem.Kindle Loc 1630

And here is a not-so-hopeful comment from Newland later on in this section that mirrors what many came to believe over time:

They say that large ships take a long time to turn, but I have no faith in the captains of the Rigpa tanker. And I don’t have the patience to keep banging my head against a brick wall, aiming to make a dent, when all I get for it is a headache.Kindle Loc 2378

This feeling is in response to Rigpa’s and Sogyal’s refusals to take any genuine responsibility for the abuses, even after an independent law firm confirmed their existence and severity . Newland explores in depth the harsh methods of silencing abuse victims used by Rigpa in its efforts at damage control. Such methods as D.A.R.V.O.(Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender), gaslighting, spiritual bypassing and personal attacks, all methods familiar in cult literatures, were used by Rigpa and succeeded in placing blame and responsibility on the survivor—rather than have either Sogyal or the Rigpa establishment take true responsibility for the abuse.

Newland also explores the essential components of how abuse happens within religious communities and how intelligent, humane, wise individuals can be manipulated to remain in abusive religious communities. She cites from psychological sources and cult literatures and addresses essential features of cultic and abusive controls. Here is her summary on how beliefs and perceptions were distorted in Rigpa in order to control:

Keen to get to enlightenment as fast as possible, we trained ourselves to obey our guru absolutely without complaint because we thought that was what would get us there. Because of this naïve attitude towards spirituality and the abuse-enabling beliefs, we accepted Sogyal’s behaviour and an abusive situation became normalized. We saw it as normal, not a problem, just how things were, and if you wanted teachings from Sogyal, who seemed to have some spiritual power, then you accepted it as part of the package. It was the price we had to pay to get what we wanted. You either accepted it or you left.Kindle Loc 1814-1820

I found the chapter on Cognitive Dissonance to be particularly insightful and powerful, showing how members of the community came to terms with their own role in allowing the abuse to occur. Newland addresses this with fearless honesty, stating:

What happened to my critical thinking? My discernment? Realizing how I’d been duped was embarrassing.

Like a good little student, I’d offered up my discernment on the altar of devotion to please the lama so he’d give me the precious nectar of the Dzogchen teachings—like a little girl pleasing her father for the reward of an ice-cream. Not only that, but I also helped others to see the way I did.

Forgive me for my complicity.Kindle Loc 1677

And later in the same chapter, she states:

it is possible to manage cognitive dissonance and see both the good and the bad in Sogyal and Rigpa, even if one side is far greater than the other. Though not as easy, it is far more realistic and healthy than feeling one must choose between ‘all good’ or ‘all bad.’Kindle Loc 1741

That ability to avoid seeing the situation as one-dimensional, black and white, all one thing or the other—but instead to see the full complexity of an inter-dependent reality shows throughout this book and makes it stand out. On one hand, she never backs down from her uncompromising clarity that abuse is abuse and never to be tolerated—on the other, she seeks to better understand the complex world that allows abuse and spiritual progress to happen in the same set of circumstances.

Nonetheless, she is clear always about where to draw the line:

Denial of harm is an unwise basis for maintaining devotion however. As the Buddha said, “Just as the clean kusha grass that wraps a rotten fish will also start to rot, so too will those devoted to an evil person.Kindle Loc 1741-1742

Throughout the book, she and others in the group look deeply and honestly at how Buddhist beliefs, combined with Western cultural orientations, have been contorted in Rigpa in order to create an environment conducive to abuse and power imbalances. In Part Two of the book, An Examination of Abuse-Enabling Beliefs, Newland continues to probe beyond the superficial aspects of abuse, reasoning that abuses can never be ended until the belief system that enabled them is uprooted. She addresses this topic specifically in an insightful chapter in Part Two, discussing topics such as “crazy wisdom” and samaya. It is my hope that books like this will open those very important discussions further.

In Part Three, Lessons for the Future, she speaks more exclusively in her own voice, using citations from Western Buddhist leaders such as Rob Preece and Alexander Berzin, as well as the Dalai Lama, to support a broader and safer perspective on Buddhist issues moving forward in Western Buddhist centres, such as how to choose a spiritual teacher and how to relate in a healthy manner to that teacher. She also returns again to the cult literature, listing the warning signs of a destructive cult. The book ends with discussion on the potential for reform within Western Tibetan Buddhist culture

It is impossible to adequately summarize this far-reaching book, but I hope this overview can give people a taste and wish to read more for themselves. While there are many moments of discouragement regarding the future of Tibetan Buddhism in the West in the light of these troubles, I believe that the book ends on a positive note, with a vision, a possibility, of an abuse-free future for Tibetan Buddhism in the West. I am grateful to Tahlia Newland for her hard work and vision in bringing us this insightful book.

This book review has been translated into Dutch and published on Boeddhistisch Dagblad: Boeken: “Fallout: Recovering from Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism”

See also