The section on Lotsawa House’s posting of an article on Samaya was edited 9th October.
Please note that this article does not represent the feelings of all members of the What Now? group.
Sogyal Rinpoche has resigned from teaching and from Rigpa, so the discussion has moved away from him and onto Rigpa as an organisation. The question became, “What are they going to do about it?” It’s been partially answered by their stated initiatives to institute a code of conduct, employ a third party to conduct an investigation, and form a new spiritual advisory body, which all sounds very nice, but the question as to how far these changes will actually go is still open, and it’s not looking hopeful that it will go very deep.
Senior students behaving abusively
What is clear is that some senior members of the organisation have, since these attestations of abuse came to light, further abused not only those who spoke out but also those who have supported those who spoke out. The 8 and many of their supporters have received both public and private abusive messages on Facebook, abusive emails and even abusive phone calls, and these are invariably from long term students.
Students close to SR have called them samaya-breakers (with the insinuated threat that they will go to hell,) have complained that they harmed the students spiritual path and the Vajrayana, called them arrogant, uncaring, ignorant, misguided and more. Though they have also received many communications of support, the abusive communications come always from those who are remaining in the organisation. Their concern has been entirely on protecting SL and their belief in him as an enlightened being.
Some of those who felt abused while within the organisation are feeling further abused due to this hurtful behaviour. Some who never felt abused while within the organisation are now feeling abused, not by SL, but by such students. One wonders what they actually learned, certainly this behaviour is not in accord with the Buddha’s teachings.
Why upper management must resign
It is clear from the attestations of abuse gathered over the years (see links in the Reference Material page) that those in upper management not only knew about the abuse (how could they not?) but also enabled it and covered it up. Clearly they didn’t see it as abuse, so with such a distorted view, how can they possibly be objective with the results of any investigation?
Evidence that they have not changed their attitude came in a disparaging message sent to one of the Eight from one of the members of the top level of management in Rigpa. It was not an official communication, just a personal message from one individual to another. However, this knee-jerk response to an email about an unrelated topic indicates that this person is in no position to make measured decisions when it comes to Rigpa’s future.
These people cannot be trusted to lead this organisation. If Rigpa is truly to regain public trust, the present upper management must resign. For so long as they are there, nothing that comes from Rigpa can be taken at face value.
An example that might show that Rigpa’s official position on Lama devotion/worship has not changed is the recent posting from Lotsawa House, A Brief Guide to Samaya Commitment by Lala Sonam Chödrup in which it is stated: “Avoid contradicting anything the guru says, even if it is seemingly unrelated to the Dharma. … Consider any critical comments or reprimands as a Dharma teaching and take them to heart. If the guru is in residence nearby, do not embark on anything independently without seeking his or her approval. Whatever the guru says, guard it carefully as if your very life were at stake, and carry it out unfailingly….”
Edited 9th October
Some of the What Now? group wondered why this was posted now, and suspected it was to guide students as to the ‘correct’ understanding? However a spokesperson for Lotsawa House told me that he decided to post that translation without any contact with anyone from Rigpa’s management, senior or otherwise because there was a lot of discussion online about the meaning of samaya, and seemingly some confusion as to what you might call the traditional Tibetan viewpoint.
He went on to say that Lotsawa House tries, whenever possible, to provide authoritative sources on various topics as a reference for students of Tibetan Buddhism in general and that he chose that text (together with another text which deals with samaya from an absolute perspective) because it is relatively short and more interesting than other works which typically consist of long lists of one category of samaya breakage after another. How people interpret the texts Lotsawa House publishes is obviously beyond our control. But if anyone has been using them to condemn or even abuse others that is not only wrong, it is contrary to what Lotsawa House’s main advisor, Alak Zenkar Rinpoche, sees as the central purpose of the Dharma: i.e. a way to look at oneself, not a way to view the supposed faults of others.
I am extremely pleased to have this clarification and are very grateful to Lotsawa House for their willingness to contact us.
Added to this outright abuse, unsuitability of their leaders to lead, and indications that Rigpa is sticking to the very beliefs that allowed the abuse to occur is observable cultic behaviour. If Rigpa wishes to be seen as a genuine dharma organisation not a cult, management needs to address the following issues.
- What we are seeing is only the appearance of openness and communication, because members of the What Now? facebook group have reported that underpinning the apparent openness in many (not all) centres and individuals is defensiveness, passive aggression and attachment to rigid beliefs which means that even where there is listening, there is little hearing, and even where there is hearing, there is not the will to act on what is heard. And there is little actual communication in that though students say how they feel they get no or little response back, just vague soothing words.
- People in Rigpa centres are talking, yes, but discussion is in a highly controlled fashion, kept strictly to set questions and allowable responses – eg sharing only feelings and personal stories not broader concerns – and only within the context of set workshops with set parameters. Many students frustrated with this limited discussion and faced with antagonism (sometimes veiled sometimes overt) from other students have left.
- Online, official and unofficial Rigpa groups have been shut down or tightly controlled, immediately ejecting anyone who is seen to be questioning beliefs or saying anything ‘negative’ about the organisation or Sogyal. This shows dogmatism and intolerance towards different thinking.Efforts by some to bridge the gap between reformists and fundamentalists have met with silence from those who support the status quo or thinly veiled aggression.
Some people are banned from certain groups simply because they are known to be part of the What Now? group. They are not even given a chance to say something positive. It’s the ‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us’ mentality that allows no room for those with a moderate approach and removes all dissenters.This behaviour indicates that there is no real interest in healing the rift between the reformist and fundamentalist factions. Reformists are being made to feel unwanted. Once they all leave, there will be no impetus to change from within.
- Limiting information to only that that supports the existing culture. The only information being shared within the organisation and on social media from associated Lamas reinforces the culture that allowed SR’s behaviour to go unchecked for decades. We’ve seen statements on samaya from ‘respected’ Lamas associated with Rigpa that lack any compassion for the victims and, given the present circumstances, look a lot like victim blaming, scare tactics to keep people in line, and support existing power structures. Since Rigpa has not responded by saying that those statements do not necessarily reflect the approach of the organisation, or released other teachings that provide a broader perspective, then these are seen as the official position.Links to His Holiness’s replies to specific questions on this exact situation from the Western Dharma Teachers conference in 1993 have not been shared with the whole sangha. Why not? What do they have to fear from a Lama who says you can speak up without fear of going to vajra hell so long as you keep respect for the person and the good you received?
- Denigrating those who are seen as negative and making them feel guilty. The victim blaming continues and is supported by the messages to the sangha from the Lamas mentioned above. One, in speaking about demons and negative forces, virtually demonised those who had spoken up. This has gone as far as dismissing criticism from Lamas previously treated as supporters such as HHDL.
- Personal attacks on those who have spoken up or who have supported those who have spoken up have come from all levels of individuals from within the organisation.
- Evidence of brainwashing in those who use beliefs as a reason to deny that the attested behaviour constitutes abuse, despite the fact that any normal Westerner has no difficulty assigning that term to the behaviours outlined in the letter.
These points are only those that are easily observable by any student. What is happening at the core of the organisation is, as before, not something the ordinary student knows about. But certainly leaving is not so easy when you are financially dependent on the organisation and important to it.
Still a complete lack of concern for those who feel harmed.
There has been no apology and no indication of concern for those who feel harmed, just communications that have clearly been checked by a lawyer in order to protect the organisation and the people involved.
They failed in their duty of care to the people who felt abused and they are still failing now. Remember that nothing official has been said to the Eight from management, no enquiries as to their present well-being. Nothing. The organisation is involved in discussions with members on cultural change, but they are not including those most able to see the problem.
The way Rigpa has acted since they received the letter from the Eight goes a long way to confirming that everything in that letter is real.
Is this a healthy environment for walking the spiritual path?
Rigpa students must decide two things: whether they can in all conscience still receive teachings from SL (Rigpa uses video recordings in their courses) and whether they can stay in a community where senior students use abusive language to threaten and demean those who question, and where upper management are the very people who enabled and covered up the abuse for decades. Such behaviour shows a personal lack of commitment to ethics at the core of the organisation.
Is there still a chance they could turn this around?
Only if those at the centre of the organisation for the last few decades resign and are replaced with people who are willing to apologise.
Be sure to check out the What Now? Reference Material page for links to a wealth of articles in the topics related to abuse in Buddhist communities. For links to places to assist in healing from abuse see the sangha care resources page.
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. Please use the email address you use on Facebook.