Is Rigpa a Cult?

Today I’m asking the hard question, and I’d love to hear what you think. My reflection is at the end in vlog form, but I include some salient points from a Huffington Post article for those who aren’t into listening to vlogs.

The quotes are all from Jayanti Tamm, author of Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult (Three Rivers Press). She is a Visiting Professor in the MFA Program at Queens College, CUNY. Reference 


Nobody sets out to join a cult! And here we’re talking about harmful cults, not the benign meaning of cult as it refers to non-mainstream religious organisations.

The word ‘cult’ is loaded with negative connotations. It makes us think of brainwashing, lunatics, and mass suicide, so cults are careful to maintain a positive image in all their marketing. Their websites look good; they offer solutions to our problems, happiness and ultimately enlightenment.

“What isn’t included is the reality beneath the surface, the leader’s demands for obedience from its members, the psychological pressure, the ability to subordinate all activities to the leader’s will.”

Excessive devotion to a charismatic leader and the leader’s vision brings about a willingness to surrender control to the person who is seen as having the answer to all our problems, both personal and global. This willingness to give up control and to believe everything the leader says because he or she appears to have the answers we seek, makes members easy to manipulate.

Devotees who please the leader and work to fulfill his or her vision, ascend the ranks and gain special status and privileges. Pleasing the leader means doing whatever he or she asks of them, and so he or she comes to dictate followers’ actions and thoughts. Conformity is enforced through public shaming or rewarding by the leader and by other members judgements.

Once you’ve given up your critical thinking faculty and given obedience to your leader, you’ve opened yourself up to the kinds of abuses we associate with cults—emotional, physical and sexual.

 “When hyper devotion is the expected behaviour, for acceptance new recruits tend to rapidly thrust themselves into the prescribed lifestyle. … [Devotees can] “plunge into belief, into faith so deeply, so forcefully that critical and analytical red flags, even if they once appeared, are snapped off. Belief and faith are such intoxicants that logical reason and facts become blurry and nonsensical.”

“A narcissist with insatiable needs for power, control, and, very often fame, the leader seeks affirmation of supreme authority through alignment with public figures and celebrities, achieving large numbers of recruits, and amassing private fiefdoms.”

“Those who violate the rules are punished and eventually, to maintain the coherent group unity, expelled.”

The boundary between cults and religion is not always easy to ascertain. There is a continuum between positive and negative, but one point is very clear, if there is abuse in a ‘religious’ organisation and a code of secrecy and enabling, that organisation is harmful to its members and therefore can be considered a harmful cult.

“With the right ambitious and charismatic leader, any group easily could morph into a cult. What prevents that from occurring is that most established religions and groups have accountability mechanisms that restrain that from happening.”

10 marks of a cult:

  1. The leader and group are always correct and anything the leader does can be justified.
  2. Questions, suggestions, or critical inquiry are forbidden.
  3. Members incessantly scramble with cramped schedules and activities full of largely meaningless work based on the leader’s agenda
  4. Followers are meant to believe that they are never good enough.
  5. Required dependency upon the leader and group for even the most basic problem-solving.
  6. Reporting on members for disobedient actions or thoughts is mandated and rewarded.
  7. Monetary, sexual, or servile labor is expected to gain promotion.
  8. The ‘outside’ world — often including family and friends — is presented as rife with impending catastrophe, evil, and temptations.
  9. Recruitment of new members is designed to be purposefully upbeat and vague about the actual operations of the leader and group.
  10. Former members are shunned and perceived as hostile.

In less points (from the Christian Courier https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/250-how-to-identify-a-cult) :

  • Unquestioning commitment to a domineering leader;
  • Dissent and discussion discouraged;
  • Cult members lavish the leader in luxury;
  • Polarization of members – us against them mentality and secretive inner circles;
  • Rebellion against other sources of authority – our rules are above the rules of society, law and so on;
  • Alteration of personality – one becomes compliant and obedient.

Here’s my take on these points:

In the video I also talk about the continuim between the destructive cult on one hand and the healthy organisation on the other hand. This graphic will help you get an idea of what I’m talking about.

BEST-QUALITY-Influence-Continuum-9-12-16.pptx-pdf

So what do you think? Where does Rigpa fit on this continuim. Is it a cult? Oh, and a warning: Given the legal proceedings in France, Rigpa is not above suing people who call them a cult, so think about your words before posting, and make it clear that anything you say is just your subjective opinion.

Private discussion on this and other related topics can be had on our Secret Facebook Group. Is is only for current and previous students of Rigpa, however, and we do moderate it closely.  If you’re interested in joining, please contact us via the contact page and ask for an invite.

Ex-Rigpa students and their Rigpa dharma friends who want to move on from the discussion of abuse in Rigpa can stay in touch through the Dharma Companions Facebook Group.  

The What Now? Reference Material page has 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’ could ‘Like’ the Dharma Protectors Facebook page. 

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24 thoughts on “Is Rigpa a Cult?

  1. That Influence Continuum puts Rigpa on the bad side, destructive, unhealthy for individuals, leaders and organisation … totalistic control cult. It has been very destructive for me but I still was glad to receive Buddhist teachings but there was a lot of editing out parts that would have countered the cult tactics. The parts that are cultist were super emphasised – obedience, devotion all the way. Checking – oh thats ok, you don’t have to do that – don’t look on the internet. This guy wasn’t enthroned other than by his own demands to be so of his students. Thanks so much Tahlia for just working through the points and being honest – you’ve had to work hard to come to recognise how this is. Now we are on the outside and shunned there are many more cult tactics that are the most obvious signals become apparent to keep us away from their devotees.

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  2. According to your criteria, and the criteria I developed myself some years ago, RIGPA is a cult. Of course – thanks to your warning- this is my opinion, but supported by my own observations and experiences.
    Similar to the vision on sick buildings -there supported by a lot of scientific research- we know by the time that there exist also sick organisations.
    These do not announce ‘beware of hasard’, and so people involved do not say so. Au contraire, they persist in inviting people to join, promising true teachings and an outlook on great personal development. The incidents, as they say, are deminished to some sort of collateral damage, and are not representative for the teachers/teachings and the organisation in general.
    I am not afraid to say, that the Tibetan Buddhist Teachings are corrupted, whenever a Tibetan Buddhist Teacher is corrupt, or fake. And, when this happens, and this happens and happened, students, people and society are damaged and hurt.
    The damage is in the first place not material – though there may be a relation towards ones place and function in society – but immaterial, to the psyche, emotion and spririt of the person, and this can be for certain far-reaching, devastating and/or beyond repair. A life changing impact.
    If we do not take serious the harm that arises from cults, we can not help people affected by that to recover and heal.
    For that reason it is so important to state over and over again that we must consider RIGPA as a cult and send out, by stating this, a serious warning to all people that consider to join, or to go just to some teachings or a seminar of people teaching within the realm of RIGPA (they do still advertise with this as a mark of quality and not as a mark of danger).
    Also it is so important to keep publishing about this, as much as possible in public media, to help people to be aware of what is behind the curtains, what is the history. To help people to leave innocence and ignorance before entering this vehicle to confusion and eventually despair.

    I could not have written these thoughts if I had not been studying with LSR for some time. I was in the 70s inviting organiser and director of the Kosmos center, responsible for quite some courses and teachings in Amsterdam. But separate from that, and sadly enough, I met in those 25 years too many teachers that went astray leaving like a tail of a comet a great number of confused and misled students.

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  3. Beyond any doubt Rigpa is a cult. It did not start out that way. Sogyal launched into his big boss routine after his first meeting with Trungpa R in 1975 and it progressed from there. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. There may be howls of “victim blaming” but I don’t care. ..so here goes. There is also no doubt that the slavish adoration slathered onto him by his devotees contributed to his massive hubris and turned him from quite a nice young man into a sadistic tyrant.

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    1. Yes I agree on both counts- on both it being a cult and on the slavish adoration slathered onto him. One cannot become a cult leader without the ‘devotees’ (aka slaves). So the problem is on both sides. All supposedly under the name of dharma. Now people have been educated with what really has gone on there; if they STILL choose to go there then that is a wonder.

      So where is the cult leader now? Still hiding?

      Can someone please post the Khandro Rinpoche talk?

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  4. If we sincerely want to see deep change (which I think we do) then I don’t see how it is possible if we continue to keep the focus (and our energy) on the Rigpa Organization and Sogyal Rinpoche.

    “The difficulty here is that until individuals take responsibility for their own life experience, or at least their experience of their experience, little deep change is possible.

    The challenge, when you are dealing with larger-scale human systems, is that collectively people have to take some responsibility. I think it’s a perfect parallel to that therapeutic axiom that a person can see awful things that have happened to them in their life, but until they see their own part, they can never escape a victimology mindset, and a victim mind certainly cannot generate any real creative energies for change.

    De Maree used this term sociotherapy. From the standpoint of the purpose or intent or the theory of change, it is probably exactly right. It’s how we collectively learn to take responsibility for the conditions we have created.”

    Peter Senge

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    1. It is nice Robert Thurman is addressing these issues such as “It calls for us to question orthodoxy.” Thanks for posting the link.

      However, the presentation style feels like it creates an orthodoxy/expectation, “revolutionary, beyond Buddhism, authentic awakening, discover, understand, explore, etc.” Really? That said, I signed up!

      “It matters what thoughts think thoughts.” Donna Haraway

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  5. I am no fan of Rigpa, but the concept of “cult” would be rejected by many, perhaps most, scholars of religion as too subjective to be useful. Anyone can make a list of supposed cult characteristics (the one above is apparently from something called the “Christian Courier”), but these can never be anything more than matters of opinion. As Gordon Melton puts it, “cult” just means “a religion I don’t like.”

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  6. My perception is that in french, we use the word sect and not cult.
    Definition of the word sect:
    – a dissenting or schismatic religious body; especially : one regarded as extreme.
    – a group adhering to a distinctive doctrine or to a leader.

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  7. I think the term “cult” is only meaningful in the context of helping people better understand their own experiences. We do have a useful, common understanding of this term when we are thinking of power imbalances and spiritual extremism and people being brainwashed and traumatized. It’s easy to get stuck on the label and wanting to say definitively that something is or isn’t a cult, but that isn’t the point. The point, as Tahlia has explained, is that there is a very useful body of literature helping people understand the harmful dynamic that happens in some spiritual groups. When we better understand that then that is just one more tool in the road to recovery. I personally think that there are cultic tendencies everywhere, from political groups to everyday church congregations. Anything that helps people better understand where they lose their way, their moral and wisdom compass, is meaningful in my mind.

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    1. I may be wrong but I don’t think we have this cult notion in France. Maybe it is because of the strong historical cultural background of the catholic church but I don’t think here we imagine that there can be a cult tendency within a religion. Maybe this is why we had so many problems in the dharma centers in France. In fact, the UBF French Union Buddhist has automatically excluded Rigpa.

      But even in the merriam-webster dictionary, it says for cult: “a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious ” and the ethymology comes from the french word (and originally from latin).

      As a general rule, we identify automatically a cult as a sect and not part of the established religion. Certainly because the catholic church had a zero tolerance policy and we perceive religion through this filter. In fact, when someone asked me my opinion about Rigpa I answered that it had some serious sectarian drifts and not to go there. Now when asked why some recognised and respected lamas still go there to visit, I am left speechless…

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  8. Every “mainstream” religion started out as a “cult” at one time, and grew into a religion when it had enough followers who accepted it….or rather…when the political rulers accepted it and forced everyone else to accept it.
    As for Rigpa, well….of course it is a cult, and it goes beyond most modern, mainstream religion, because most mainstream religions don’t have as much emphasis on a “guru” as the center of the universe. Whenever there is a “guru” involved, it is more cult-like than when there in no “guru” involved. You could say the Pope is a kind of guru, (or he used to be when he really had all the power and there was no separation of church and state). When the founding fathers of America, (and in Europe too), got the bright idea to separate church and state, that’s when religion became less of a cult and more what we call “mainstream” religion. The reason guru cults are different is because these guru groups give absolute power to an individual, who rules a micro kingdom. Anyone given that much power in mainstream society would quickly become the same kind of dictator. So what makes a “cult” isn’t about the religion so much as who gets the power to control others. If you put too much power into the hands of humans, then you will eventually have a cult, and even a whole nation can become a cult, if people allow it to degenerate that far. That’s why separation of church and state is so important. Despite that separation, there can still be secret, mini states which function as cults, even in a free society.

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  9. Well, it can also be about the religion too, so I shouldn’t have said it isn’t about the religion so much. The ideas in a religion can certainly influence how much of a cult it can be. However, they can’t do as much damage if you don’t put too much power in anyone’s hands.

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  10. The point is not so much whether it’s a cult or not, but whether or not it’s a harmful cult. Certainly it was harmful for some and for so long as those in Rigpa still hold the same beliefs, it is still harmful for anyone in a close relationship with a a lama who shares the beliefs that give him or her complete power and unquestioning obedience from disciples.

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  11. After all this reading, I had still not understood the meaning you put in the word cult. Seems like it is obvious in your culture but I repeat that I haven’t seen this notion used in France and the word “culte” doesn’t have a negative connotation here.

    It would be wise to consider that Lerab Ling is in France and apparently there are many french in the executive positions. Here we don’t talk about cults but about sects.

    I found also some explanations on wikipedia and apparently in english there is also a notion of excessive devotion in this word:

    “English-speakers originally used the word “cult” not to describe a group of religionists, but to refer to the act of worship or to a religious ceremony. The English term originated in the early 17th century, borrowed via the French culte, from Latin cultus (worship). The French word, in turn, derived from the Latin adjective cultus (inhabited, cultivated, worshipped), based on the verb colere (to care, to cultivate). (The word “culture” also derives from the Latin words cultura and cultus; “culture” in general terms refers to the customary beliefs, social forms and material traits of a religious or social group.)

    While the literal original sense of the word in English remains in use, a derived sense of “excessive devotion” arose in the 19th century. The terms cult and cultist came into use in medical literature in the United States in the 1930s for what would now be termed “faith healing”, especially as practised in the US Holiness movement. This usage experienced a surge of popularity at the time, and extended to other forms of alternative medicine as well.

    In the English-speaking world the word “cult” often carries derogatory connotations.It has always been controversial because it is (in a pejorative sense) considered a subjective term, used as an ad hominem attack against groups with differing doctrines or practices.

    In the 1970s, with rise of secular anti-cult movements, scholars began abandoning the term “cult”. According to The Oxford Handbook of Religious Movements, “by the end of the decade, the term ‘new religions’ would virtually replace ‘cult’ to describe all of those leftover groups that did not fit easily under the label of church of sect.”

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    1. However, FO, isn’t the court case instigated by Lerab Ling about their objections to being called a cult? This is happening in France. It must have some pretty significant meaning in that case?

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      1. Hi Joanne, in fact Lerab Ling contests the notion of sectarian drift (derive sectaire). I haven’t seen any mention on cult. I guess the whole game is not to fall under the criteria defined by the law (as defined in the link mentioned below). I think this is why they contest vigorously the fact that some members have been cut from their environment (family and friends…) as it is one of the main criteria to qualify a group as a sect.

        Here are the criteria (according to google translate):
        – mental destabilization
        – the exorbitant nature of the financial requirements,
        – the break with the original environment,
        – the existence of damage to the physical integrity,
        – the recruitment of children,
        – antisocial discourse,
        – disturbances to public order
        – the importance of judicial disputes,
        – the possible diversion of traditional economic circuits,
        – infiltration attempts of the public authorities.

        The first criterion (mental destabilization) is however always present in cases of sectarian drifts.

        http://www.derives-sectes.gouv.fr/quest-ce-quune-derive-sectaire/que-dit-la-loi/le-dispositif-juridique-francais

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  12. I think that whether we call it a “cult” or “sect” or “sectarian drift,” we’re still all pretty much on the same page about what an unhealthy group is, right?

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