The cultural aspects of a comparison between the alleged abuses of Harvey Weinstein and Sogyal Rinpoche are in some respects quite different, but in others very similar. The idea behind doing this comparison is to examine Sogyal Rinpoche’s behaviour and the reactions to it against the cultural sensibilities of the Western world. We must remember that Sogyal has been accused not only of sexual abuse, but also, and to a greater degree, to emotional and physical abuse. The comparison holds for all forms of abuse, however, because if the world heard that Weinstein also hit and publically humiliated his employees, the reaction would also be of condemnation – but then who would accept that kind of behaviour from their boss in a corporate world? And this is where the cultural examination becomes most telling.
High-powered, entitled men
In terms of power there is no difference between a high-powered, entitled man like Weinstein who was in charge of millions of dollars and made a series of very good movies and a high-powered, privileged man who controlled a large spiritual group and disseminated spiritual teachings. If the allegations are true in both cases, then both Weinstein and Sogyal abused the huge amount of power that they held.
However, reactions in the press make it clear that no Westerner in their right mind would consider the corporate boss’s sexual abuse acceptable, and yet many in the Tibetan Buddhist world, particularly within Rigpa, consider that similar behaviour by a Tibetan Buddhist ‘spiritual’ teacher does not constitute abuse but a blessing, a fast-track to enlightenment.
Many Tibetan Buddhist teachers remain silent on the issue, and others, rather than condemn the alleged abuses, go in for a particularly Tibetan form of victim blaming where they use the idea of samaya (the sacred bond between a student and teacher) as a way to instil fear of hell in students for daring to criticise. The assumption is that the student is at fault for not seeing their teacher as a perfect Buddha. This is like blaming the women Weinstein abused for the abuse, saying they are responsible simply because they didn’t see Weinstein as young, handsome and desirable, that the issue is not with the behaviour, but with the perception of the behaviour by the victim. We wouldn’t accept that line for Weinstein, so why accept it for Sogyal? The fact that these lamas even talk like this indicates how out of touch they are with the prevailing Western attitudes.
Note that other Tibetan teachers like His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Mingyur Rinpoche are quite clear on their condemnation of this kind of behaviour, as are many Western teachers of Vajrayana (the Tibetan form of Buddhism).
Does the fact that one man is ‘spiritual’ of a brand called ‘Tibetan’ and ‘Vajrayana’ and the other man is a ‘worldly’ man with a Hollywood brand mean that we should treat them differently in terms of permitting them to abuse those they hold power over? Isn’t it more reasonable to expect a spiritual teacher to behave more ethically in the first place and, when he slips up, more readily apologise? Does a spiritual teacher not have an even greater responsibility to treat people decently due to the trust they place in him or her to guide them on a spiritual (and supposedly ethical) path?
Erik Jampa made this point in an article where he examines Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s reaction to Sogyal Rinpoche’s alleged abuses:
“In an era when Kevin Spacey, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and countless other powerful men (not to mention the president) are being called out and publicly exposed for their blatant abuse of others, I am baffled why so many Vajrayana practitioners are seeking to defend these same trends in our precious spiritual tradition. Are we really prepared to draw a moral line protecting these “tantric masters” from identical behaviors, ignoring the fact that the perceived authority over their students transcends literally all mundane moral dynamics? Vajrayana gurus are not just teachers, bosses, or community leaders. Their power and influence over the minds of others vastly surpasses that of a Hollywood producer or head of state.”
A teacher in a Tibetan Buddhist community is the object of students’ respect and devotion, and in the same way that Weinstein was admired for his achievements in Hollywood, the Tibetan Buddhist community as a whole admired Sogyal Rinpoche for his vast activity that brought beneficial teachings to a large number of students. Being the recipient of this level of admiration means that you have a great deal of power over people, and along with such power comes a necessity to wield it responsibility.
Consensual sex and power imbalance
As a student of Sogyal Rinpoche myself, I was aware that he had girlfriends, but since he isn’t a monk, I found what I was told about this by senior instructors reasonable. The line was that the relationships were consensual.
According to the RASASC organisation in the UK, “Consent, legally, is defined as agreeing by choice and having the freedom and capacity to make that choice. … Someone is free to make a choice if there isn’t anything bad that would happen to them if they said no – for example if they were being threatened with violence or if they felt forced into making a decision because they didn’t feel they could do anything else. Freedom is also affected if there is a power imbalance between two people, because of age, status or some kind of dependency. Having the freedom to consent means doing something because you WANT to, not because something or someone is pressuring you one way or the other.”
A spokesperson for Weinstein in the US told the Guardian: “Any allegations of non-consensual sex are unequivocally denied by Mr Weinstein. Mr Weinstein has further confirmed that there were never any acts of retaliation against any women for refusing his advances.”
Nevertheless they might have been scared that they might not get that role they desperately wanted or needed. He probably wouldn’t fire them, but he might feel less inclined to send roles their way, and due to the very fact that he had that power, the women may not have felt that they had the freedom to say no. Certainly his advacnes were unwanted. They wouldn’t have complained otherwise.
There is also a similar power imbalance between Sogyal (or any Tibetan lama) and his student; though the culture of beliefs is different, the effect is the similar in that the woman might not feel that she could say no without some repercussions. The repercussions in Rigpa were that you would be seen as lacking devotion, pure perception, and the courage to give up your ego and accept Sogyal’s demands as a spiritual practice. This sense that you had failed came as much, if not more, from other students close to Sogyal as from Sogyal himself. It’s a subtle pressure, but a pressure nevertheless.
However, I have been told that he had many truly consensual relationships with women over the years. Many dated him, enjoyed their time with him, and felt no pressure to accept his advances. Of course, that is likely true of Harvey as well. We must not make assumptions about the nature of any one relationship.
We should also not forget when making these comparisons that Sogyal Rinpoche’s alleged abuse was more widely emotional and physical than sexual and experienced by men as well as women. The nature of the relationship he has with his ‘inner circle’ who are dependent on him financially, apparently goes into the area usually covered by the term ‘domestic violence’. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), domestic violence is the “willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetuated by one intimate partner against another.” This can include physical, sexual, psychological, and emotional violence and abuse. [http://www.soc.ucsb.edu/sexinfo/article/different-types-sexual-assault]
As Colin Firth said of Weinstein: “He was a powerful and frightening man to stand up to.”
Excuses and support
“George Clooney said that people had tolerated Weinstein’s notoriously abrasive personality because ‘he was making films that everybody loved … if he yells and screams but he gets Pulp Fiction made, who cares if he yells and screams? But it’s a very different conversation when you say, it’s not that he yells and screams but that he’s cornering a young, scared lady in a restaurant and telling her to stand there and be quiet while he jerks off,’ he said.” [https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/oct/10/george-clooney-says-alleged-weinstein-behaviour-was-indefensible]
Saying that SR is excused of his conduct because he is a good teacher is like saying that Bill Cosby should be excused because he is a good comedian or Weinstein because he makes great movies. And yet many teachers and students of Tibetan Buddhism use the good he has done or their positive personal experience of him to excuse his allegedly abusive behaviour with others. Westerners in general wouldn’t excuse Weinstein on these grounds, nor would they excuse Sogyal Rinpoche on similar grounds. Tibetan lamas and students who do think that the good Sogyal has done excuses any abusive behaviour he may be responsible for need to consider this point.
On Oct 6th, the NYT published an article on how the Weinstein story didn’t surface because too many people had too much to gain from supporting him. He “built his empire on a pile of positive press clippings,” just as Sogyal Rinpoche built his empire on the support of other eminent lamas when they accepted his invitation to teach at Lerab Ling. We don’t know how much they knew, if anything, but when Rigpa became a source of income for them, staying away or speaking out would have become harder, and speaking out about someone so apparently well-respected is just not a Tibetan thing to do—it’s hard enough for a Westerner who knows the behaviour is wrong, let alone for someone unwilling to bet against the possibility that Sogyal is an enlightened being. Criticising such a being is considered a very bad thing to do in Tibetan Buddhism.
The article in the NYT mentions agents who dispatched starlets to Weinstein’s Hotel Suit likely knowing what the cost would be for them. This relates to those in SR’s inner circle who ‘encouraged’ new students to get close to him, who turned a blind eye to abuses, who shamed and blamed those who complained, and then employed a PR firm to help them cover up the testimonies that did make it into the public arena. These people are still running Rigpa International at management level.
In both situations people with something to gain from remaining silent do so because they lack a strong moral compass, something that is perhaps not surprising in Hollywood, but one would expect better in a ‘spiritual’ organisation.
Karen Brady in an article for The Sun in the UK said the following about the Weinstein accusations: “One of the most shocking parts of this story is the suggestion that what apparently went on was an “open secret” in the film industry.
In fact, by the sound of it, just about everyone in the business knew there could allegedly be a sordid price to pay to work with the great Harvey Weinstein.
It’s almost as if women wanting to succeed in movies had come to accept that progress came with a sort of sex-pest tax.
… The whole concept of the “casting couch” was far more rife in the Seventies than it is today.
But even if that kind of behaviour was acceptable a few decades ago you’d think that a clever man like him would be able to grasp the pretty basic notion that — Times. Have. Changed.
… He struck me then as a rude little man luxuriating in his position of power. Unfortunately, all too often it is men like that who run the show.
… So the bravery of the women who have decided to put their careers and reputations on the line by speaking up is phenomenal.”
Just to make it clear how closely these two situations coincide, I’m going to use Karen’s words with just a few changes so you can see how they equally apply to Sogyal Rinpoche’s accusations.
One of the most shocking parts of this story is the suggestion that what apparently went on was an “open secret” at the higher levels of Rigpa.
In fact, by the sound of it, just about everyone in Rigpa International management and many in Rigpa National management teams knew there could allegedly be a sordid price to pay to ‘be trained’ by the great Sogyal Rinpoche.
It’s almost as if students wanting a fast track to enlightenment (the supposed pay-off from having your ego squashed through the alleged behaviour) had come to accept that progress came with a sort of abuse-pest tax.”
… The whole concept of “crazy wisdom” (unconventional teaching methods) was far more rife in Tibet and India in previous centuries than it is today in the West.
But even if that kind of behaviour was acceptable a few decades/centuries ago you’d think that a clever man like him would be able to grasp the pretty basic notion that — Times. Have. Changed.
… He struck me then as a rude little man luxuriating in his position of power. Unfortunately, all too often it is men like that who run the show.
… So the bravery of the people who have decided to put their reputations on the line by speaking up is phenomenal.
You said it, Karen!
Article by Tahlia Newland
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