Dear Vinciane, Sophie, Alex, Eric, Gill, and Catherine,
Thank you for your recent ‘reaching out to each other email’ (to view the email, scroll down to the second entry), which asked us to share our thoughts and suggestions about the letter sent to Sogyal Rinpoche from 8 students alleging abuse, and his response.
Please let me introduce myself for those of you who don’t know me. I have been a student of Sogyal Rinpoche for thirty years, attended the 3-year retreat, and am currently a member of the Dzogchen Mandala. I was a Rigpa Director for 13 years and an instructor for 7 years.
I completely understand how difficult all this must be for you, as I was in a leadership position during the 1994-95 lawsuit against Sogyal Rinpoche and Rigpa. My heart is with you as you navigate these troubled waters, just as it is with those who have suffered.
Before I can share my thoughts and suggestions about the letter sent to Sogyal Rinpoche and his response, I feel I need to share concerns about your email communication to the sangha.
I’m deeply grateful you have reached out to open up dialogue concerning the allegations of abuse. I trust you have the best of intentions so please do not take my remarks as personal criticism. But I think you need to take these thoughts into consideration if you want to establish a forum for honest and full communication.
Here are my thoughts and suggestions, a bit of what I’ve heard from others, about your email:
1. As the small group of Australian students who wrote to Sogyal Rinpoche expressed so clearly: “Our trust in those who run the [Rigpa] organization has been shattered. It is difficult to trust anything that comes from those closest to [Sogyal] Rinpoche because they have allowed the [alleged] abuse to go on, their ethical standards to be compromised, and have not given support to those who felt abused.”
I know it’s not as simple as that as not every senior student has been privy to the whole picture, but these concerns about trust need to be taken into consideration to establish truly honest and open dialogue.
Your motivation may be very good, but due to the circumstances there’s been a serious breach of trust. A number of people have told me they don’t feel safe to respond to your e-mail or trust that anything will come from responding. They don’t know who you are or why you’re collecting the information. Most people have never heard of the Rigpa International Holding Group before, including myself, and probably don’t know most of you personally.
Some suspect there’s a hidden agenda behind Rigpa International collecting information. Others feel you’re making a gesture to open dialogue to create the appearance of openness, but that nothing will come from it. Or it might be that you want to identify the troublesome people.
I’m sorry it’s this way, but this is what happens when people feel trust had been breached.
I know that not everyone feels this way, and some are eager to respond to you. But enough people do feel this way that it needs to be addressed in your communications if you want to get the complete picture that includes responses from even the suspicious. Why should anyone trust you? It’s an important question to address.
At the same time, please seriously consider that you may not be the right people to effect an open and honest sangha-wide and beyond dialogue. Many people feel that a neutral third-party like An Olive Branch, who has helped Buddhist communities addressing issues like abuse, is needed.
2. You cannot get a complete picture without including people who have felt harmed and people who have left Rigpa. It’s important to communicate how you plan to reach this wider group, bearing in mind that most people who feel abused will not feel comfortable sending an email with their experience to an unknown group of people who head up the organization. In fact, some feel so ashamed they haven’t been able to share their story yet.
3. People are concerned there’s no admission of responsibility in your email or in Sogyal Rinpoche’s letter to the sangha. I understand the legal ramifications, but for transparency sake, it seems best to at least acknowledge if there have been sexual relationships with students and the use of unconventional teaching methods. The veil of secrecy needs to be broken, as it’s a major factor in how dysfunctional the organization has become. What does it really mean when you say there’s “no room for abuse” in Rigpa? That’s been said for years, but allegations of abuse continue to surface so it’s hard to trust a statement like that.
4. Your email is vague. People need to hear more specifics about the “change” you’re working on.
While it’s wonderful that you are looking at how we can better take care of each other, as Rigpa is in the middle of a crisis related to allegations of abuse, people need to hear specifics about how you plan to address these issues. You say you’re taking professional and spiritual advice, but with whom specifically are you in contact?
I think people would feel a lot better if they heard some specifics.
A few concrete steps would be, just as an example:
- Exploring a neutral-third party investigation of the abuse allegations.
- Establishing a code of ethics for teacher-student relationships, like other Buddhist organizations have done.
They also need to know there’s going to be a regular schedule of honest communication, like once a week, rather than that you’ll be in touch “soon.” It’s disempowering to be on the waiting and wondering side of things. A commitment to a regular schedule of communication could help alleviate this to some degree.
5. It’s confusing to people when you say that Sogyal Rinpoche “is in a period of retreat and reflection” when they know he recently traveled to Thailand, presented at a Buddhist conference there, and could be seen on a Facebook Live.
How can they trust him or you if you aren’t transparent about his movements? Knowing how fragile trust is at this time, it would have been best to explain his travel to Thailand in your e-mail.
6. There is a subtle minimization when you use phrases like “by a small group of students,” which diminishes your credibility. Likewise, by referring to Sogyal Rinpoche’s letter as “poignant” you’re subtly discounting the fact that there are others who decidedly see it otherwise — for example, as an empty statement penned by a PR firm or a refusal to take responsibility.
7. By placing a photo of Lerab Ling as the header on your letter, you give the feeling you don’t understand how estranged some people feel from Rigpa and sadly the Dharma as well.
Some no longer see Lerab Ling as a place of refuge and others may feel triggered if this was a place they feel they experienced abuse. Some people feel the allegations of abuse that they’ve seen online for years have destroyed their ability to practice and some feel a complete aversion to Buddhism now.
These are precisely the people you need to hear from.
I hope that your e-mail communication has been successful and that people are reaching out to you with honest responses. I apologize if my suggestions seem overly critical or nit-picky. I’m only offering them because I would like to see honest and caring dialogue take place and deep healing as well. Unfortunately, because of what is perceived as previous breaches of trust, the burden is upon all of you to create the safest possible environment of communication. I hope my message will somehow help you do so.
I don’t feel ready at this time to share more. I would like to see you reach out to the sangha with clarifications of some of these points, first.
Thank you for your service during this challenging time. Please take care of yourselves and get some rest too.
We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments. How do you feel about the letter from the Rigpa International Holding Company in response to allegations of abuse? Have you responded yourself or do you feel hesitant to respond?
More personal and private support for current and previous students of Rigpa can be found in the What Now? Facebook group. Please contact us via the contact page and ask for an invite. Include a link to your Facebook profile or the email address you use on Facebook.