Hollywood and Rigpa: a study in responses. Part 1 – Management

This is part one of a three part series on the present social context for the issue of abuse in the Western world.

Early in October Hollywood movie producer Harvey Weinstein made big news after a New York Times investigation uncovered allegations of sexual abuse of women going back decades. What followed was a series of events, revelations, confessions and statements of support for victims and for ending the silence around abuse. All this shows just how important freedom from abuse in all its forms is to the Western world, and why, for the future of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, Rigpa must look deeply at the core issues and make healthy decisions on their interpretation of the teachings that allowed this to happen. Without this deep examination and change of interpretation of the teachings that enabled the abuse, instituting a code of conduct and thinking that deals with the issue is like applying a Band-Aid solution to a cancer.

Anyone who is disgusted that news of SR’s behaviour has gone public should consider just how more public it could be. Sogyal Rinpoche’s disgrace has not made the New York Times. But if it does, what will those who commented on the Weinstein case think about how SR and Rigpa have handled the fall out of their own scandal?  The comparison between Sogyal Rinpoche and Rigpa and the Weinstein case and how his company dealt with it is telling and to some of us even embarrassing.

Apology

As soon as the news broke, in a statement to the Times on October the 5th, Harvey apologised, saying, “I appreciate the way I have behaved in the past has caused a lot of pain, and I sincerely apologise for it. Though I’m trying to do better, I know I have a long way to go.”  He went onto say that he was working with a therapist and planned to take a leave of absence.

Sogyal, however, took six days to respond and did not apologise. In fact his words were more a defence than an apology, dwelling on the good he has done and his lack of harmful intent.

“I have spent my whole life trying my best to serve the Buddhadharma, to bring these teachings to the West, and not a day goes by when I am not thinking about the welfare of my students, holding them in my heart, and feeling concern and responsibility for their spiritual path. It’s clear now, though, that a number of people do feel very disappointed and hurt, and are looking for answers and changes. Please know that I take this very seriously and I will not ignore it. I am clear in my own mind that I have never, ever, acted towards anyone with a motive of selfish gain or harmful intent. This is unthinkable for me.”

Not only does he not realise that his behaviour has caused pain (only that a number of people feel disappointed and hurt) but also he virtually denied causing harm by saying that he has “never, ever, acted towards anyone with a motive of selfish gain or harmful intent.” Having no harmful intent is not the same as taking responsibility for the fact that people have found his actions harmful and apologising for those actions.

That lack of apology has poisoned Sogyal and Rigpa’s attempts to manage the situation effectively. Denial does not form a basis for healing. Attempts at healing while denying harm is like stitching up a wound without treating the infection beneath the surface.

Sogyal also said he would take time off, in retreat, but instead of talking to a therapist he said, “I am seeking advice from masters who have a genuine care and concern for Rigpa.” Considering S’s possible mental health issues and the medieval opinions expressed by some of these lamas, a therapist would probably have been a healthier choice.

A history of cover ups

When confronted with allegations “stretching over three decades” the NYT says, “Weinstein has reached settlements with at least eight women.” Likewise, “in November 1994, a $10 million civil lawsuit was filed against Sogyal Rinpoche and Rigpa by an anonymous plaintiff, who was given the name “Janice Doe” to protect her identity.  The complaint alleged infliction of emotional distress, breach of fiduciary duty, and assault and battery. Sogyal Rinpoche avoided service of the charges by not publicly entering the U. S. and thus was never deposed.  The lawsuit was settled out of court through mediation.” [ref. http://howdidithappen.org/history-abuse-allegations-rigpa/]

In this instance, Rigpa and Sogyal has behaved in a very worldly way, paying off complainants to keep them quiet.

Code of silence

“Dozens of Mr Weinstein’s current and former employees from assistants to top executives, said they knew of inappropriate conduct while they worked for him. Only a handful said they ever confronted him. Weinstein enforced a code of silence. Employees of Weinstein Company have contracts saying that they will not criticise it or leadership in a way that would harm their ‘business reputation’ or any employees ‘personal reputation.’” [ref. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/05/us/harvey-weinstein-harassment-allegations.html]

In the same way, according to the attestations many in Rigpa management have been aware of the emotional, physical and sexual abuse for years. But in Rigpa’s case, anyone who raised concerns were disregarded and when further information came to light with Mimi’s story in 2011, management hired a PR firm, stated that they ‘believed’ that Sogyal Rinpoche had not harmed anyone, and while attempting to discredit and belittle those who spoke out, actively encouraged students not to look at online sources.

Rigpa also has a code of silence. It’s a literal interpretation of 8th Century teachings on samaya that say that one should not criticise one’s teacher for fear of going to hell. And yet HH Dalai Lama made it quite clear in Dharamsala in 1993 that in situations of abuse, students should speak out to avoid continuing harm to students and damage to the integrity of the Buddhadharma. S and R’s adherence to this fear-mongering interpretation of the teachings on samaya acts like a gag, keeping students quiet and compliant. In Rigpa’s case, being a belief system students are expected to adhere to rather than a contract, it meets one of the criteria for cult-behaviour – complete obedience is demanded and dissent and criticism are not permitted.

Resignations

The actions of the Weinstein board members compares to those of Rigpa’s upper level students and “holders” of the group.

On the 6th of October, just a day after the news broke one third of the Weinstein Company board resigned, and the four who remained announced that they had employed an outside law firm to investigate the allegations and that Weinstein would take a leave of absence. Two days later, they fired him. Weinstein’s advisor also resigned. On October the 15th a fifth board member resigned.

In comparison, those at the top of the Rigpa International management hierarchy remain the same as it has been for the decades.

On the 11th of August, nearly a month after the letter attesting to abuse came out, SR resigned.

The glaring issue is that those at the top of Rigpa Management, those who knew of the abuse and covered it up for years, have still not resigned, instead, they are steering Rigpa through this minefield of public opinion using the same tactics as previously: make some token gestures, ignore criticism, carry on as usual, build up the good, and wait out the storm.

Investigation

Just one day after the information of abuse emerged, four members of the Weinstein Board hired a law firm for an investigation and gave a public statement: “We have retained an independent and leading lawyer and firm, John Kiernan of Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, to undertake a thorough and independent investigation and report to the full Board on the results of that investigation.”

It took the Rigpa management one month to announce that they would undertake an independent investigation, and four months later, they have yet to announce who will be doing their investigation. Rigpa is taking months to do what the Weinstein Company did in days.  This gives them time to ‘cover their tracks’ should they feel they need to.

Code of Conduct

Rigpa management announced that they would institute a code of conduct. The Film Academy announced the same thing, not the Weinstein company itself. However the Film Academy’s initiative came from their recognition of the culture in the film industry that supports sexual abuse, whereas the Rigpa workshops on cultural change are not looking any further than how students feel, not what they believe, which is at the root of the enabling culture.

How does Rigpa compare?

There are similarities in the cover up of decades of abuse, the announcement of an investigation,  the resignation of the leaders, and in the culture that fostered the abuse, notably a culture enforcing silence and offering rewards for ‘close contact’, and I’ll go deeper into this in the next part of this series. The difference in situation is that S has also been accused of emotional and physical abuse as well as sexual, which makes it a more widespread issue in the community, involving men as well as women and the more subtle areas of emotional abuse. Rigpa’s business, of course, is spiritual rather than worldly, but that leads to expectations that management would behave more ethically and more definitively than a company making movies, not less as seems to be the case. The differences in responses are that S and R have given no apologies, no one in upper management has resigned, and they have been slow to begin initiatives, respond to individual’s concerns and communicate with interested parties.

The Weinstein Company seem to be much more aware of social expectations and the ethics involved, and more willing to act definitively, but then they are in the mainstream press. What kind of pressure would be on Rigpa were this scandal given the same coverage?

Don’t miss Part 2 – Culture and Part 3 -Responses. Sign up to follow the blog.

Post written by Tahlia Newland.


Current and previous students of Rigpa wanting personal and private support in regards to the abuse issue can be found in the What Now? Facebook group. Please contact us via the contact page and ask for an invite using the email address you use on Facebook

If you would like to stay in contact with and support ex-Rigpa students, we have created the Dharma Companions Facebook Group.  The group files include lists of online courses with reputable teachers, and members can join monthly Skype meetings and retreats. If you’re interested, click the link and ask to join. You will need to answer some questions before being admitted to the group.

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.

Those of you who are interested in ‘keeping Buddhism clean’ in general could ‘Like’ the Dharma Protectors Facebook page. Links to posts on this blog will be posted there as well as links to other relevant information related to the wider issues.

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11 thoughts on “Hollywood and Rigpa: a study in responses. Part 1 – Management

  1. Great article. Thank you!
    I especially found the point important about the groups’ situations being different because the types of abuse are different and therefore more widespread in R.

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  2. Thanks for the article,Tahlia, nice observations. It is worth noting though that Weinstein shut women up for many years, with his big lawyers and plea deals before he ever acknowledged wrong, apologized and agreed he needed help.

    Meantime, there is a bit of a movement going on, with the ME TOO campaign and all the women coming forward in the US. We certainly can’t call this a uniquely Tibetan problem, though the context and the physical/emotional aspect is unique, as you point out. The source of the problem is power, always.

    PBS is doing lots of good coverage on this. Here’s a great story they did: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/women-are-speaking-up-about-sexual-harassment-is-a-sea-change-coming

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  3. Sogyal’s abuse of women is particularly nasty in that it breaks the women’s spirits so that they are brainwashed into providing his sexual pleasure. To my mind he is far worse than Harvey Weinstein. He rips them off and spiritually rapes them by misleading them to believe they are dakinis and honoured to be his consorts. His past is catching up with him and he will be forced to face up to the reality of what he has done. Facing the wrath of the world beyond the Rigpa belief bubble.

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  4. A well-constructed and revealing comparison. Toria’s above comment provokes me to inquire: what about the young women? Unless i’m mistaken, there have been only a few public disclosures, Mimi’s being the most often-cited. I do wonder how those who’ve left over the years, and those that remain, are faring. No doubt some can look after themselves, but I would think that others end up emotional wrecks. Is that harsh? Not from the few accounts that have emerged.

    I’m not asking for personal revelations but i just wonder how their welfare is managed by Rigpa. Once they choose to leave or are tossed over, are they completely abandoned or are there mental health checks, counselling and other forms of support in place?

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  5. Wow. Your comparisons highlight just how ineffective and disappointing Rigpa’s response has been to date… I hope that they are reading this blog and can reflect on how poorly they are handling things. I look forward to your next two contributions too. Thanks Tahlia.

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  6. Women that stay on, depending on how long their service and how close they have friendships with the people in charge – they can have income, space and basically distance themselves to the safest possible distance from Sogyal. Then they get called back to service from time to time and either explain that they are unwell and hope that lets them off the hook or have some similar negotiation. There is a roster of many women because it is demanding on many levels – Sogyal is very selective about who he allows to be around his householder care team. They kind of police each other and have sessions with a dodgy counseller who gives them “Rigpa Therapy” when they need psychological support – reassuring them that Sogyal is a super human being based on the counsellers blind faith and magical thinking. So there is a system to care for, bribe and reframe things so their service continues. They are part of the constant study and practice pressure of living in Lerab Ling in some cases. One or two may be in other community places of Rigpa in Germany or the UK. Where Rigpa continues to expand it’s real estate and have places to give these women a home. Many are still under the impression it is some kind of actual relationship even though it is not exclusive and there are many women. They come to know each other and have friends to talk to or confide in.
    This is another way that Sogyal “cares for people” and he never lets them forget it – and if someone leaves he says he is the victim who tried so hard to take care of them. This is still what he is saying, he even said it about me as if he even could be bothered speaking to me if it wasn’t to put in his work requests. Sogyal takes credit for anything anyone working for him does and say that nobody would be cared for if it wasn’t for him. The thing is that he is very worried not to lose one of his sheep so of course he is hyper controlling, checking and making sure “everyone is ok” – particularly after he has been badly behaved and there is fall out.

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    1. Thankyou Polar Sangye, on this auspicious day of nyichu tsenga (where i live!) for replying to my query. Given that Sogyal has now retired, when other teachers come to Lerab Ling to teach, how likely is it that his people will continue to target young women amongst the audience who may be considered suitable to ‘entertain’ SR? That is another concern of mine, based on what we’ve read from accounts of former students.

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  7. Well-written, enlightening article! It gives one a larger window into how issues like this are dealt with very differently in a dharma community similar to Rigpa’s versus how they’re addressed and dealt with out in the world.One would expect more ethics from a dharma community versus what we often see out in the world of business. In fact, it’s the opposite!

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