Today we have a guest post by Jo Green in which he takes a look at the latest video update from Lerab ling and unpacks the language used by Lerab Ling’s ‘Superior’ . (Ugh. I can’t write that word without rolling my eyes!) If you think Rigpa students aren’t being manipulated by the leaders of their organisation, you really should read this.
Today I watched the latest video update from Rigpa’s epicentre, Lerab Ling. It was a mixture of the depressingly predictable with the truly reprehensible. By the end, my jaw had dropped so far that I may need reconstructive surgery to be able to eat again. But that’s not a worry: with this much nausea I have no appetite. I haven’t seen such a total failure of compassion, combined with complete rejection of the facts, since the last Trump rally.
What has caused this much distress is not just what was said but what was not said. Back in last August, when Patrick Gaffney and Dominique Side took to the stage at Lerab Ling to address the whole Rigpa sangha online, there were at least some miserably vague, morally equivocal acknowledgements that something had gone wrong, such as when Patrick said, “We have to take charge of this situation and do our best to resolve it in the best way possible for everybody concerned, including anybody who feels aggrieved or upset.” Obviously, words like “abuse” or “harm” or “victim” were strictly avoided, but at least there was a sense that something had happened.
That’s all gone now. In the edited 40 minutes that went out, the problems – as far as Dominique Side (the “Superior” of the Lerab Ling congregation) and Sam Truscott (the Director of Lerab Ling) were concerned – had nothing to do with people being physically injured, sexually abused, financially exploited or psychologically traumatised. No, the real problems are:
- Because people said nasty things about Sogyal Rinpoche in a letter, students have left and the public are not coming as much. Attendance is down 50%.
- Because people aren’t coming as much, Lerab Ling has financial problems. They have had to “let go of” 67 out of 170 workers (not all workers are paid).
- Because people said nasty things about Sogyal and Lerab Ling in a newspaper, they had to start multiple legal actions.
I think that covers it. Apparently, none of these problems were caused in any way by Sogyal’s behaviour. It was all the result of other people causing trouble. But with the wonderful equanimity and good grace that years of study under “Rinpoche” have bestowed on them – and the advice of lawyers and financiers – they are seeing all this as “a blessing in disguise”.
Oh yes, and they told a pack of lies.
THE FICTION FACTORY
There is a really insidious fiction that Dominique Side has been elaborating for some time now, with others at Lerab Ling, and every time she comes back to it, we move further from the truth. In the video she traces their financial woes back to the latter part of 2016. She claims that because of “one media campaign” it was necessary to cancel a conference at the last moment, with a huge loss as a result. But is that what really happened?
In September 2016, Marion Dapsance’s book about Tibetan Buddhism – and more specifically, Sogyal Rinpoche and Rigpa – had been published: Les Dévots du Bouddhisme. I read it. The book is, unquestionably, highly critical of the person and the organisation. It is also sober, academically thorough and definitely not sensationalist. It is the product of 7 years’ study for her PhD, put into a more readable form. It is also a story which begins with Dapsance sincerely wanting to explore Buddhism on a personal level.
The response of Rigpa was to issue a very angry Press Release. This was put up on the Lerab Ling website (not Rigpa.org) so one assumes that’s where it originated. Since the publication of The Letter, it has been removed.
The things it said included: “Both Rigpa and Sogyal Rinpoche categorically reject the assertions of abuse and cult-like behaviour that have been made in this book.” So, just to be clear, Sogyal HAS officially denied abusing anyone. It goes on, “this book merely recycles old, unfounded rumours and accusations that have been posted on the internet since the past fifteen years which, in fact, always originate from the same sources.” So, they are equating “heard it before” with “untrue”. Why? In fact, the vast majority of the book consists of completely original research carried out by Dapsance, plus a diary kept by a very faithful student whose view completely changed, leading him to abandon the 3-year retreat just days before the end. Dapsance wasn’t especially sneaky about researching – she even talked to Olivier Raurich, the then French National Director, about what she was doing.
Perhaps the reason they decided to take their response down is this ridiculous accusation they make against the author: “Marion Dapsance’s studies have been financed by Chinese benefactors”. They offer no evidence for this. In a public response, Dapsance made clear that her only benefactors during those seven years had been her parents. She added that she was now receiving support from Hong Kong for her research into the explorer Alexandra David-Neel: from the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation, which aims to promote Buddhist philosophy and “the application of Buddhist insights in today’s world”. Rigpa also characterise her as “with those who seem primarily motivated by their desire for fame and sensationalism”. They did not issue a retraction or an apology.
They then point out that the same publishers put out a book that was critical of the Dalai Lama, claiming “This book presents a scathing and aggressive attack on the Dalai Lama, accusing him of being an agent of the CIA”. Even if this is the case (I haven’t read that book) what does that have to do with anything? Dapsance does not attack the Dalai Lama in the 39 references to him in her book, nor does she mention the CIA. Harper Collins publish “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying”. They also publish books written by, and sympathetic to, Donald Trump. Is Sogyal therefore a Trump supporter?
FAKE NEWS ABOUT NEWS
A few weeks later, a regional/local newspaper, Midi Libre – which had published many news stories about Lerab Ling, of various kinds – put out a feature on Lerab Ling and the accusations against Sogyal Rinpoche.
A few days after, the Press Release was re-issued, now with an explanatory letter from Sam Truscott and Judith Soussans, the Rigpa/Lerab Ling PR manager, which complained, “For several weeks, Rigpa and Sogyal Rinpoche have been the victims of a malicious media campaign based on the publication of a highly critical and extremely prejudiced book… We are deeply shocked and dismayed at the way Lerab Ling and our spiritual director, Sogyal Rinpoche, have been depicted. In no way does this picture correspond to reality.”
Let’s unpick that. First of all, most people would absolutely recognise the reality the book describes: how when you first go to Rigpa, knowing nothing, wanting an introduction to meditation, you find you are taught to fixate upon the image of Sogyal Rinpoche. You’d recognise him turning up late for teachings at retreats and then spending ages berating people. You may well have experienced being taken aside by instructors who then check your reactions to his strange behaviour and tell you to accept this as “crazy wisdom”, no matter how it may seem. As for the stories of abuse: they’re everywhere.
And what “malicious media campaign”? The book attracted some press coverage. It’s normal for publishers to send books out to newspapers – it’s how books get noticed, so people buy them. If the subject is newsworthy, that helps to get coverage. It’s not “malicious” and it’s not a campaign: it’s just some journalists and editors independently thinking, “This sound interesting”. Midi Libre were the only ones to do more extensive coverage and their articles were not taken up by the national press. Also, these articles were behind a paywall, so only people who bought the paper that day, or were subscribers, could see them.
Nonetheless, in this new video Dominique Side claims that these specific articles were the direct cause of the last-minute cancellation of “The 5th International Forum on Buddhism and Medicine” at Lerab Ling, due to take place two weeks after publication. The significant income loss that the centre took as a result was the beginning of all their current financial woes, she claims. It was all the fault of the “fake, fake, disgusting news,” in the words of Sogyal’s publishing companion, Donald Trump.
Really? I mean REALLY? Some articles behind a paywall, in a regional paper, in French, could bring this whole international event crashing down? So, what happened? All of the speakers heard about it and abandoned ship? Everybody asked for a refund? Dominique Side doesn’t say, nor has anybody given a coherent explanation. So, what might have happened?
Well, when the going gets tough, Sogyal has a habit of getting going. Around 1994, when the “Janice Doe” abuse case in the USA was in the news, Sogyal suddenly felt the need to go on retreat and thus, sadly, “could not be reached for comment”. Then, curiously enough, the next North American Retreat was moved to Canada, so Sogyal had no need to set foot in the USA and have his teaching interrupted by the serving of a writ. When The Letter came out last year, Sogyal was once again gripped by the sudden need to go into retreat (perhaps more in the military than religious sense), but this was stepped up to “retirement” after the Dalai Lama criticised him. His location has remained a Rigpa secret ever since (although it’s called “Thailand”).
So, it’s entirely possible, if he and Rigpa were feeling so much heat after the fallout from the publication of the book, that he had again speedily left the country and decided to cancel the event. Or they didn’t sell enough tickets. Or many of the international speakers felt uneasy about sharing a stage with him. Dominique skips over an incident that did attract a lot of attention: just a few weeks before the conference, Sogyal thought it would be OK to punch a nun painfully hard in the stomach, in front of 1000 people. Now, it doesn’t take a “media campaign” for that kind of thing to get around. 1000 shocked people will talk.
THE PERVERSION OF LANGUAGE
The most hypocritical aspect of the repeated use of the phrase “media campaign”, by her and the rest of the Rigpa leadership, is that they know perfectly well which party in all this has mounted a media campaign: it’s them. Rigpa has, for years, hired PR companies to help “spin” stories about Sogyal’s bad behaviour. This was particularly so during the fallout from the “Mimi” story in a 2011 Canadian documentary, for which they used PR people in various countries. Amongst other things, senior Rigpa staff were given training in dealing with the media. Olivier Raurich, the former National Director in France said they were told to say, “‘The Dalai Lama is supporting Sogyal Rinpoche one hundred percent’, and repeat that, only that, without answering ‘yes’ or ‘no’.” Perhaps this is why the Dalai Lama recently felt it necessary to make so very clear that he was not.
Given their past record, it’s almost certain that Rigpa are currently using PR people to help manage the ongoing crisis. Indeed, it’s perfectly possible that they have been taught by them to use the phrase “media campaign” to refer to any negative press coverage, in order to make them sound like victims. If Dominique and Sam want to bring the sangha up to date with what they’ve been doing, why don’t they let them all know that it’s Rigpa policy to employ PR companies? After all, it is the students’ subscriptions, retreat fees and donations that pay their bill.
There is a word that their PR/legal advisors have advised them to deploy, which they must consider has served them well. In 1994, when Patrick Gaffney had to pen the first press release defending Sogyal Rinpoche in the wake of the accusations from ‘Janice Doe’, he wrote, “These allegations are unfounded.” Remember what they said about Marion Dapsance? “This book merely recycles old, unfounded rumours and accusations.” And what do we find Sam Truscott saying on French TV at Lerab Ling’s Open Day in May? “These accusations are completely unfounded.”
“Unfounded” is the pernicious little word behind which they pompously stand, but let’s be clear about what they are saying. The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “not based on fact; untrue”. The Oxford English Dictionary says: “Having no foundation or basis in fact.” So what Sam Truscott did was call all the letter writers LIARS. He also called every woman brave enough to talk about being sexually abused by Sogyal Rinpoche a LIAR. Likewise, he branded every trustee or director who ever spoke up about abuse a LIAR.
Now, it’s one thing to say, as Sam did, that he never saw or heard anything bad occur (although perhaps he’s overdue for eye and ear tests) and he could even hide behind the lame old “nothing has been proved in court,” but to say all victims and witnesses are liars is simply disgraceful and profoundly morally perverted. This is a new low and he should be ashamed.
Addition 18th August 2018
Since this post was published, I have received new information around what happened at Lerab Ling during the Dzogchen retreat of 2016, after the publication of the Marion Dapsance book and before the conference. A French student told me that, during the retreat, French students were summoned, two or three times, to gather in the Guru Lakang room on the first floor, whilst the rest were invited to meditate in the temple below. Feeling like the bad guys, these French students were told to put up their hands if they had any doubts and these were then worked on.
Although this was about the effect the book might have had, the title of the book and the name of the author were never shared, presumably for fear of encouraging people to take a look. The Rigpa/Lerab Ling PR manager, Judith Soussans, led the sessions. She later advised people to Google The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying rather than the one by Marion Dapsance, in order to keep hers lower down searches.
Another instructor brought in was an academic from the Sorbonne who said that the (unnamed) book was badly written, of poor academic quality and was just gutter press sort of stuff, reporting gossip.
These are all classic Rigpa disinformation tactics to make sure nobody thinks for themselves:
Persuade people not to inform themselves
Denigrate the individual concerned
As far as the cancelled conference goes, some details of what was planned can still be found . Its theme was “Living With Cancer”. Interestingly, on that web page they have a competition to win free places. A sign of difficulty in selling tickets? It should be pointed out that this was put out before Midi Libre published their reports.
Although some have confirmed that they were told the conference was cancelled as a result of what was said in the press, others have informed me that the reason they’d been given for cancellation was that it wasn’t possible to properly care for cancer sufferers on-site. This sounds very strange, given that the conference is clearly targeted at health care professionals, not patients. Not to mention that having cancer does not prevent you from going to Lerab Ling. It’s ironic to consider that, at that very moment, Sogyal Rinpoche himself was probably already experiencing symptoms of cancer.
If anybody can corroborate what happened at the 2016 Dzogchen Retreat – especially French students – or around the cancellation of the conference, please share your experiences.
Thanks Jo for your article. The second part will be posted next week.
What do our readers think about all this. Is this your perception of that video or do you see it differently?
Private discussion on this and other related topics can be had on our What Now Facebook Group. It 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.
People from other sanghas can join the Beyond the Temple Facebook Group . It’s a support group for anyone who has left their Buddhist sangha after hearing revelations of abuse by their teacher or after experiencing such abuse. It’s for people who see ethical behaviour, love, compassion and introspection as the core of their spiritual path. The focus is not on the abuses, but on ourselves and our spiritual life as we recover from our experience of spiritual abuse and look to the future. Click here and request to join.
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, which posts links to related articles as they come to hand.