What Is A Rigpa Student To Think? BY Joanne Clark
Sorting Out the Blogs and Posts on the Dialogue Ireland site ……………………………..
I begin with a story which I believe to be from a Zen center:
“Our Saturday morning meditation group usually starts with hugs, smiles, and jokes. But today it begins with Sarah’s tears.
Sarah is group’s matriarch. She speaks four languages, has lived in four countries, and survived multiple wars. The rest of us often ask her spiritual questions, and she often gives wonderfully clear, yet deeply mystical answers. She laughs easily, often at her own mistakes.
“Yet as we take our seats on this gorgeous spring morning, Sarah suddenly begins to weep.
“I touch her arm and offer her a tissue. “What’s wrong?”
“She dabs at her eyes for some time before she is able to talk. Eventually she mentions the name of a well-known spiritual teacher. “I was his student; he was my guru, my rebbe. For years I felt a special connection with him. He was always so wise, so mesmerizing, so inspiring. When I was in the room with him, I felt something shift and deepen inside me. Wherever he went, he packed the house.” She takes a long, sobbing breath. “Yesterday, I found out he sexually abused women. Dozens of women, many of them his students. Some of them young girls. For over twenty-five years. Twenty-five years. He just admitted all of it.” She shakes her head and blows her nose noisily.
I start to speak, but she touches my hand and shakes her head. She needs to say more.
“I don’t understand how he could be so wise and inspiring, yet so abusive.”
(Edelstein, Scott, Sex and the Spiritual Teacher, Introduction)
I suspect that this story might resound with Rigpa students. There might be many Rigpa students right now who have read the blogs and allegations against Sogyal Lakar and are questioning.
Many might be confused or upset. What might appear a clear conclusion to those outside of Rigpa is not so clear to those with strong, spiritual ties to Sogyal and his organization, those who have experiences of kindness and true guidance from him. This point is often lacking in our debates. We discuss the allegations as if resolution of them is as simple as moving from A to B, as saying yay or nay. However, for a Rigpa student, resolution means a radical reorientation of their lives on many different levels. Spiritual reorientation, in particular, is a difficult and often painful challenge. This takes time and it is not simple.
Recently, I counted the number of comments that have been made on Dialogue Ireland in response to allegations of sexual abuse by Sogyal Lakar and I reached 4, 277. Even though these comments span over three years of discussion, the number is still staggering. As Mike of DI says, we Buddhists “have a lot of fuel in our tanks.” I personally believe that this is a strength we have. It means that this situation is not going to just fade away without some definitive resolution.
While it is a good thing that issues such as this are being taken seriously enough to spark debate, the length of the comment line can sometimes interfere with meaningful debate. It can sometimes be quite daunting for newcomers to step in and join discussions. It can also become difficult for questioning Rigpa students to find answers. Long time bloggers on these threads have long standing arguments going and a sort of insider language has been developed alongside that which make the thread sometimes just seem like an incomprehensible, great, snaking tirade.
However, for any who dare spend the hours of reading, the comment thread on Dialogue Ireland has some illuminating moments. There are jewels of comments that allow the reader to gain better insight into the troubles within Rigpa. There are poignant testimonies. There are coherent arguments and incoherent arguments. I suggest that it could be useful at this time to step back for a moment and explore what can be made of the comment line and the main posts, perhaps try to sum up the arguments and highlight some of the more illuminating testimonies. I will also go a little further and draw on aspects of Buddhist doctrine that have not been properly clarified.
There seem to be two primary debates occurring throughout these discussions. One is the question of whether or not the allegations are true. In line with that is the question of degree, of how true they might be, whether they are “as bad” as they are described in BTT. The other debate is the question of whether sexual relations between a Buddhist lama and his student should be condemned at all. This question also entails consideration of the degree of sexual involvements.
HH Dalai Lama says frequently that we need to “know the reality” when faced with problems. We have to be “realistic” in our approaches. He talks about knowing reality from many different angles and having the courage of an open skepticism as we analyze and investigate. Such an approach is invaluable in situations such as this one, where emotions run very strong. The temptation is either to cling to the safety of blind faith or rage with (equally blind) impulsive anger and reactivity. I suggest that neither approach will help the practitioner move forward.
Indeed, this is a journey of conscience for every Rigpa student. An informed conscience is a strong conscience. Only through viewing what we know and don’t know through many different lenses and logics can we inform our conscience and have the courage and self-confidence to act accordingly and move forward with our practice.
HOW STRONG IS THE CASE AGAINST SOGYAL LAKAR?
There is an understanding within Rigpa that these allegations of sexual abuse are primarily due to Mary Finnigan and her vendetta against Sogyal Lakar. In A Response To the Blog Behind The Thangkas, https://dialogueireland.wordpress.com/2012/01/06/a-response-to-the-blog-behind-the-thankas/ a senior Rigpa student argues that the allegations are the result of 30 individuals who have become angry with Sogyal because of his sometimes harsh techniques. Within the comment lines, this is a main thrust of the arguments of BellaB and Sheila as well. The tone of Mary Finnigan’s own comments on DI can appear to justify this. She has never disguised the fact that she wants to “put Sogyal out of business.” She calls him names. In addition, Behind the Thangkas (BTT) does reach well beyond allegations of sexual abuse and condemns Sogyal’s qualifications as a teacher as well.
Indeed, the debates on the comment line are very polarized and very emotional. This could easily turn off questioning Rigpa students and leave them feeling that these allegations are part of a hostile world that has nothing to do with their own Buddhist practice and relationship with Sogyal.
However, several facts support the allegations in BTT. The first is the fact that Mary herself is an established journalist, with a sound knowledge of litigation and the responsibilities of journalism. It is presumed that she would have taken extra care with verifying her evidence in BTT, knowing that it would be challenged and that Sogyal had the money for good lawyers. BellaB, when confronted with these facts in a comment, stated that Mary published BTT anonymously in order to escape litigation. In fact, this is not true. While the original online version of BTT is anonymously published, as well as the version on DI, she gave permission for the use of her name on the website
.. where a discussion of BTT and sexual allegations against Sogyal has been active for some months. She has used her own name on other websites as well. Further facts also support Mary’s credibility. One is the fact that Cogent/Benger are highly reputable and their primary source, “Mimi” has gone public with her allegations.
Mimi is also central to BTT. Her allegations do not concern only herself, but what she has observed as the abuse of others as well. In a conversation between the Dorjeshugdengroup blogsite and the Rigpa director of another country, the Rigpa official said that Sogyal had tried to contact Mimi, but her therapist advised against this. The Rigpa official also said that Sogyal would not object to the allegations because he would practice tonglen (mind training), accepting the “negativity” and say nothing against the allegations. The blog edito replied that if the accusations were wrong he must correct them as this was part of the bodhisattva vow. It could be surmised by this that Sogyal takes Mimi’s allegations and suffering seriously—however not seriously enough to address them directly.
While Rigpa officials will blame Mary’s ill will for the trouble BTT has caused, I have not seen any statements from them that Sogyal is not having sex with multiple women. This is the main concern. In fact, in Response to the Blog Behind the Thangkas, the writer does not question the existence of a group of “Dakinis” who surround Sogyal, nor does she question that they are in sexual relations with him—she questions only the allegations that they are not happy, self-confident women who have lives of their own and are free to leave whenever they wish. She questions whether these women are treated poorly and then cast off:
“Everybody in our culture knows about the teachers’ power over the students and they may be in position where they could use their power wrong. Many of us have personal experiences of such events or “invitations” by teachers in our Universities and so on. How many of those women who have been abused by their teacher have gained a permanent position in the teacher’s life? Some are abused and thrown away. If they haven’t been thrown away, they can’t say they were abused, if their relationship ended up in a marriage. The abuse happens, when the woman is told what to do and told that she will be rewarded somehow. These situations do not usually last for years, since the victims are thrown away, if they complain and do not obey. Soon enough they are being replaced by the next victim.”
“Many critics feel the need to show the foreign men their place and educate how women should be treated. I could join them eagerly since I have known a few men from non-Western cultures personally and through my friends. But then I must also say that I have never seen Sogyal Rinpoche treating his “dakinis” without respect. They are not thrown away, but have remained for years or decades. He usually doesn’t send anybody away.”
This fact leads to one of the most convincing arguments supporting the truth of the allegations, which is the fact that multiple sexual relations between a renowned teacher, such as Sogyal, and his students is not seen as a problem amongst either mainstream Buddhist teachers or Rigpa officials themselves. A major argument in Response to the Blog Behind the Thangkas is that these relationships do no harm to the students and are not practiced in extreme ways, such as in the orgy described with pictures of naked women behind the thangkas.
I will address the issue of whether sexual relations between spiritual teachers and their students do cause harm more deeply later on, but I suggest that it is a central reason why the allegations are probably true.
Sogyal simply does not believe that his behavior is wrong and he is supported by a culture that doesn’t believe it is wrong either. The question then is not whether or not he has had sexual relations with his students, but rather, why shouldn’t he have had sexual relations with his students? He is not a monk and he is a healthy male with a healthy appetite.
Certainly, the assumption that it is an “honor” for a woman to have sexual relations with a great Buddhist teacher is prevalent within mainstream Tibetan Buddhism. I recall very clearly Shyalpa Rinpoche saying during a teaching retreat that in the past, Tibetan men used to pray that they would be reborn as women so that they could practice as consorts. Particularly in the Dzogchen traditions, founded by Padmasambhava, who himself practiced with consorts, this is a central assumption. Any Rigpa student with a sincere wish to probe more deeply into the allegations against Sogyal must acknowledge that this attitude is central to all considerations. This attitude makes the allegations extremely probable. Later, I will discuss the validity of this attitude.
The veracity of the second victim who appears in the Cogent/Benger documentary, Victoria Barlow, is also questioned quite strongly and brutally in Response to the Blog Behind the Thangkas as well as in the comment threads. The response post questions Barlow’s mental health when speaking of her claims that she has suffered as a result of her sexual relationship with Sogyal:
“Talking about one’s private life in public might be an indicator of a person without boundaries, which is quite common trait among those that have been sexually abused as children. Victoria has claimed innocence in her story: she as a student came to talk about Buddhism with a lama… Depression is the aftermath of sexually abused children, and as adults some seek new partners in order to find acceptance and get rid of the depression – but in fact it leads to more depression and in some cases to sexual addiction if the person doesn’t seek treatment. On the other hand sex in general might feel abusive to them, no matter what were the circumstances, because of the past memories.”
Sheila echoes this brutal attitude in her comment of Dec. 16, 2011:
“As to the embattled Victoria Barlow, her original supporters state, “…she [was] too one dimensional, too driven, too inclined towards defining her life by incidents which she herself SURELY participated in willingly a lot of years ago…she herself realizes that it was NOT regular behavior, not a part of the teachings, not endorsed by anyone in authority.” (Evelyn Ruut, alt-philosophy-zen, 5/11/05)
“It may seem cruel to call someone out like this; however, it is only necessary because that person is herself working to destroy the lives of good and kind people. Why? That’s the question of the day.”
This argument is quite brutal in the face of the fact that Victoria Barlow has clearly suffered. It reminds me forcibly of a comment made on DI by ex-Dakini. After giving a clear, lucid description of her experiences of sexual abuse at the hands of Sogyal, she then concludes:
“Now BellaB, if people from Rigpa could identify me, which I’m sure they are frantically trying to do, they would tell you many things about how unbalanced I am. I know that they did so when I left Rigpa, and I know that many prayers were recited for me in Penor Rinpoche’s monastery. But I am quite sane, I assure you.”
As a therapist and as a Buddhist, I find it extremely disturbing to see any suffering being disparaged on the grounds that he/she is not mentally stable. I find it disturbing to see non-professionals diagnosing individuals simply in order to undermine their voice and testimony. Not only is it ignorant, but it is quite cruel and unfeeling. Whatever one’s opinion of Victoria Barlow’s character or mental health, she was a courageous woman to sit in front of a camera and speak of her suffering and her mistakes. The inference made by Sheila above, to justify her cruel remarks was that the gloves are off now, warfare has begun.
To be fair, this attitude has also been upheld in the comment line from those on the other side, those who advocate hostility and strong actions against Sogyal. As I have mentioned, the comment line is very polarized. However, when the hostility is directed towards those few women who have had the courage to come forward and reveal vulnerable parts of themselves in order to move this situation forward then I object very strongly.
It appears to me that those who wish to refute the allegations have simply sought a vulnerable target and used her for their ends. Unfortunately, their argument does not hold up. In fact, their argument is an argument for the other side. I state strongly and clearly that if a lama is a high bodhisattva, then he would not take a woman as a mistress if doing so would cause her harm. He would be capable and desirous of refusing her advances. If he is not a bodhisattva on such a high level, if he is just a man who has been tempted by an attractive woman, then he has no business having any sexual affairs in the name of dharma. He has no business using his authority and spiritual power in order to have affairs. In fact, he has no business having sex with his students.
BellaB argues frequently that Victoria Barlow was a “girlfriend” of Sogyal’s and cannot be called a victim of abuse. Victoria Barlow claims that she was a student as well. If she was never a student, then her case is not relevant here.
This discussion is about teacher-student sexual relations.
Another convincing case supporting the credibility of BTT can be made from further testimonies in the comment line. In 2009, DI presented a briefing document in which Mary Finnigan presents a testimony from a former close personal assistant to Sogya., who describes the situation within Rigpa while he was there:
“In the mid 80′s, during my seven years with Rigpa and 4 years as founding director of a national Rigpa branch, I had slowly discovered that Sogyal Rinpoche had sex with very many disciples. Even though I was very close to SR, it took me some time to notice the obvious. Even though I am a professional counsellor, it took me quite some time to notice it at all, and then it took me even more time to take action. First, at the same time I was shocked and kind of amused, I had mixed feelings about it, because in the beginning I saw that some women tried to get him. First I thought, they are mature woman, they know what they are doing, and I simply am too inexperienced in the exotic ways of Tibetan Lamas to be able to judge. It was much later that I heard stories and saw things which were not based on consent, and saw that he was cheating all the time on the women. Also I noticed that he had sex with young students who just had come to Rigpa retreats for the first time…”
“I confronted Sogyal first jokingly, then half-heartedly, with my concerns about his behaviour, and I said to him that as a therapist I knew about the transference phenomenon: students see the teacher as kind of a father figure, so sex with the student is psychologically seen as incest. Also, that in the West, the relationship between teacher and student, or priest and the parishioner, must be kept pure, and does not allow for intimate relationships involving sex in any way. He was not amused, and tried to avoid the subject, but he first tried to justify his sexual behaviour spiritually…
“I could no longer ignore what was happening. On one occasion Sogyal wanted me to lie on the phone to a woman, who wanted to contact him after having had sex with him but had found that he was in bed with another woman. I refused to be a party to his affairs. He became very angry and yelled at me, but I was not impressed…
“One of the worst things I experienced was at a winter retreat in Germany. A long term student of his was in emotional distress and asked in obvious pain, vulnerability and confusion for his help, and he forced her to speak louder and then to come forward to the stage where he put her down completely. In my view, he was totally afraid of her, and could not deal with the situation at all. But instead of putting her into safe hands, he tried to save himself by putting her down and ridiculing her, and then played the strong teacher who can deal with everything. That same night, we had to rush her to the emergency ward of the nearest psychiatric hospital with a nervous breakdown and a psychotic seizure.
As a therapist and as a student, I was horrified by his behaviour and his complete lack of compassion and skill. Before I left Rigpa, an American woman told me confidentially and in great distress that she had just lost her husband and had come from US to France to SR to get help, and that SR, during a private audience, had tried to violently force her to have sex with him. Fortunately, she managed to escape being raped. She left the retreat in even greater despair and completely shocked. This was the worst incident which I heard at first hand.
SR did not respect any limits: he had sex with most of the wives of the leading students at Rigpa. I tried to keep myself and my private life out of his. I tried not to get mixed up with his affairs. Sogyal had a classical harem, and he knew all the tricks to make the obvious invisible, or if that did not work, to change the context of the students’ values, giving the whole thing a spiritual excuse, and abuse fears and naivety, or the good belief of his students to get what he wanted. It’s 12 years ago since I quit Rigpa, so I have no first-hand information of SR’s activities now, but I must say I have little doubt that everything is the same today, because I consider him an addict. He is hooked on sex and power.
“There was the harem, and the women seemed to be able and ok with their role in the game. At least I wanted to believe this, still trying to see SR as a holy man. On the other hand, I always found obstacles to consider SR as my guru. I considered myself at that time more like a Buddhist manager and some kind of assistant to SR, rather than as a disciple of his. I could see Dilgo Khyentse or the Dalai Lama as true masters, but SR appeared to me to be just a teacher who teaches Buddhism, or more likely a salesman who sells Buddhism. When I was in charge of my national Rigpa branch, I always exaggerated his qualities in the flyers I produced. I said to SR: either you are true and good and people will find out themselves, or if not they will also find out. So don’t tell them what they should think or how good they should think about you. True quality will speak for itself. With me, he accepted such words, but I heard my successors had to write up his qualities.
First he said that because he is one of the incarnations of Padmasambhava, and that Padmasambhava had many ‘spiritual consorts’, he would be somehow entitled to do so. Then he played the cultural card: in Tibetan culture women are seen as Dakinis, and they would happily serve the Lamas for enhancing their spiritual power and so on. I am ashamed, but first I wanted to believe all this. I was brought up in a prudish, bourgeois Catholic environment. I was used to playing roughshod with the truth, and to idealize and respect people of position even more than supposedly “holy” men. My spiritual and emotional hunger made be blind to my own values and my professional standards – at least where the standards of the Lama were concerned, however, fortunately not in my own work.
For some years I was blinded by my position of power. I felt that I was establishing a very well-run organisation together with other dear friends which was benefiting many people. I was happy. I was in a very special position. I honestly tried to use my position to the best of my ability. I felt I was chosen, and because of karmic connections with Sogyal, I was finally realising my full potential.
The bitter irony is that because other students saw me as a rather independent, seemingly critical, and reasonable person and because of my professional status as a psychotherapist, some people viewed me as endorsing Sogyal. In fact they envied my special access to SR. Basically, he always treated me very well. He seemingly respected me, but now I think he was clever enough not to treat me badly like some of the other students so I would remain loyal. He gave me the feeling that he appreciated my views at least as long I helped him to please the audience and the students. But he never was open to criticism concerning his personal behaviour. Also, he never answered any of my personal spiritual questions. I got more and more the impression that he simply could not answer them. Also, when I attended sessions where he should answer questions from his students, he often gave very stupid answers, and showed that he had not much understanding of what people were really asking. Sometimes he ridiculed people to cover this up.
When I have more time I will write more professionally on the psychology of the guru-student relationship and of abuse. What interests me most is why people “allow themselves” to be abused and what hinders them to see the truth. And how to help others to discover their own truth, and how to stop people like SR from going on.”
Mary says that she has more testimonies like this one. Of course, it is totally possible that this story is fabricated and a complete lie, but it is hard for me to conclude that anyone would fabricate such a story as this one. It is just plain too lucid and introspective. In addition, Mary has allowed her own name to be used in citing this source, so this adds veracity to the testimony.
Of course, we cannot know for certain that this is from a real person. Indeed, Mary could have written it herself. However, in that case, surely there would have been a strong refutation from Rigpa officials? Surely, they could have stated that no such person has existed that they know of? Again, it is clear that refuting the existence of multiple affairs and Sogyal’s harsh, sometimes harmful techniques during teachings is not something that Rigpa is capable of doing.
Another lucid description of Sogyal’s sexual affairs is given in the comment line of Behind The Thangkas ~ Sogyal Rimpoche ~ The imbalance of power and abuse of spiritual authority. On several dates, Jan. 9, 10 and 12, ex-Dakini describes her experiences of sexual abuse from Sogyal. This is a testimony from a woman who has clearly done the difficult work of healing from her experiences. In respect to this woman’s healing, I will not post her personal disclosures here, but I advise anyone who wishes to gain a clear picture of the allegations to view her comments.
Of particular significance, ex-Dakini states:
“My handful of years in Rigpa led me to witness first hand that Sogyal Rinpoche was a compulsive seducer of women. I knew more than several women who were seduced after their first teaching or at their first retreat. I knew women who were seduced when they were in distress. Others like myself had been involved in the organization for a while before he communicated his desire for sex. I am not including in this summary by the way anything that has been published by DI, these are things individuals told me personally some years ago.
“I can count the names of 15 women who I knew that SR was sexually involved with. And I wasn’t around for all that long. I suggest that those of you still involved in Rigpa who care about this to simply ask your lama how many of his students he has had sex with. I think it’s a fair question to ask a spiritual leader. These women – myself included – were his students. Not women who he met in other circumstances.”
Even BellaB acknowledges that ex-Dakini’s story rings true. This is odd, because after admitting that, BellaB then continues for months to refute the truth of allegations of sexual abuse by Sogyal. It seems she is either forgetful or can hold two contradictory truths in her mind at the same time.
I have been in personal contact with Tiger Lily, who comments during that time both in response to ex-Dakini and with her own testimony. I assure the reader that Tiger Lily is a real person with no vendetta towards Sogyal. She writes in Jan. 2012 of a meeting that she had with Mimi prior to the publication of BTT:
Suffice to say she echoes ex-d’s testimony in that during the time she was Sogyal’s attendant she received so little sleep that she couldn’t think straight. Sex with Sogyal “went with the job of being a female attendant.” It was not about love. When she began to have doubts, she was faced with the answer that whatever Sogyal did would be a teaching for her good. She was encouraged by him to see herself as a consort and when she went in tears to Dzigar Kongtrul to ask him what it meant to be a consort he replied that it was very good.
She also told me that she was regularly struck by Sogyal with his backscratcher as were his other female attendants.
Tiger Lily was also involved with Sogyal as a girlfriend and writes of her own experiences:
“You asked me if Sogyal had ever treated me in the way Mimi has claimed he did her. First of all I was never encouraged to see myself as a consort. It never entered my head. I was a girl-friend. Neither did he ever hit me. I would have hit him back. Sogyal didn’t claim to be a great Master…that came after I’d left. He was usually called Sogyal Tulku by the Tibetans. The whole dynamic at Rigpa was more normal then. Much more low key, not the empire it’s become. He could be a pain in the arse though and we let him get away with it too much.
I did try to work with unpleasant emotions by letting my relationship with Sogyal and Rigpa be a catalyst for my practice. Perhaps not a waste of time after all as I have learned by default. I just gave up with being deceived by his philanderings and by being kept in the dark and the general deterioration of a friendship which I had once valued. I never saw him as my Guru but rather someone I wanted to be close to because Tibetan Buddhism was the most important part of my life.
I did notice a difference in his behaviour though and judging from other women’s comments it became more intense with each successive decade as Rigpa grew and grew and grew and the best of Sogyal (and there could be a sweet side to him) seemed to become swallowed up by Terton Sogyal. I am shocked and saddened by Mimi’s and Ex-d’s experiences but not surprised.”
Probably the strongest case made against BTT’s credibility in Response to the Blog Behind the Thangkas is the writer’s own positive experiences as a student of Sogyal. Certainly, this is the main theme of arguments raised by both BellaB and Sheila in the comment line. Sheila is concerned that by raising concerns over Sogyal’s behavior, we are undermining all Tibetan Buddhist teachers and her experiences have been completely positive. She wants no stain on Tibetan Buddhist leaders. Bella is concerned because her experiences with Sogyal have been all positive and she therefore disagrees with any allegation that his behavior is not perfect (except for those made by ex-Dakini).
Indeed, I would guess that there are many more students of Sogyal who have had only positive experiences than there are those who have had negative experiences. However, such black and white thinking is not helpful and such rationale can never justify misconduct or harm inflicted on even one woman. We are not talking about numbers. For example, a murderer might be wonderful to his children, his mother, his wife and friends, but his misconduct is still misconduct.
However, I acknowledge that the greatest challenge for any sincere Rigpa student is to equate the allegations of sexual abuse with the teacher that they know. Scott Edelstein, author of the story that I cited at the beginning of this writing, speaks eloquently of this dilemma:
“It is entirely possible for a spiritual teacher to be wise, compassionate, empathetic, and inspiring, and at the same time sexually exploitive. This may seem entirely contradictory, but spiritual teachers have proven it true time after time. For better or worse, we humans are often contradictory creatures—especially when it comes to sex, power and vocation.” (Sex and the Spiritual Teacher, Chapter 1.)
It is therefore not my intention here to dispute Sogyal’s worth as a spiritual mentor for many. Nor is it my intention to hold him high as an exemplary spiritual teacher either. My intention is to ask readers to hold both possibilities in their hearts, to neither revert to blind faith, nor succumb to blind reactive emotions as you sort through the allegations and your own experience and analysis.
Those of you who have never experienced anything but kindness during your time as a Rigpa student are nonetheless encouraged to take the Buddha’s teachings to heart and try to experience compassion and feel how difficult coming forward with these stories must be for women who have suffered sexual abuse. Try perhaps to avoid seeing their reluctance to give their names as evidence that their stories and suffering are not real. See instead that this reluctance comes from fear.
Indeed, I can tell you as a therapist that coming forward with testimony of sexual abuse causes the victim great suffering. It triggers experiences of pain that victims want to put in the past. This is why so few rape victims bring their cases to court. I believe that this is why there are so few women with the courage of Mimi and Victoria, the courage to expose their vulnerability and their pain. Cruel comments, such as those made by BellaB and Sheila, do not help them find the courage either.
I have one further comment to quote from the comment line. This comment is not about sexual abuse explicitly. However, I suggest that it exposes the fact that Sogyal might be lacking in some boundaries around issues of sexuality.
Here is the story:
lalatee, on July 8, 2011 at 2:37 pm said:
“I recently attended the recent 10 day retreat at Dzogchen Beara in County Cork, Ireland. I knew nothing about Sogyal Rinpoche when I arrived, beyond the fact that he was the author of the wonderful book: The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. SR arrived at the retreat he was supposed to be leading 4 days late. As soon as he came into the tent where 250 attendees were gathered, I knew I had made a mistake. His personality was egocentric and his manner imperious. It did not fit in with my idea of a holy or ascetic monk at all. During the course of the next few days I experienced what at best could be termed disrespect, at worst abuse of his colleagues and disciples. He was regularly late and often over-ran the sessions by several hours, on one occasion keeping us from lunch. He was insulting about the Irish people, about his assistants and to individual course participants. He refused to let one woman leave who had just heard that her house had been burgled, but made her sit down on the floor in front of him for 2 hours, saying it was too late to do anything about it now, she should have gone home before it was burgled not afterwards!
“The last straw for me, and which made me leave the retreat 2 days early, was when he called one of the senior assistants from the Centre for the sick and dying to come up to the podium. This lady is a very respected professional in her 60s doing amazing caring work with the bereaved and dying. She was forced to kneel down beside SR while he embraced her closely and put his hand on her chest. I could see her face and she was clearly deeply embarrassed and uncomfortable. SR proceeded to stroke her face, looking deeply into her eyes. When she pulled back slightly he turned to the 250 people in the audience and said: ‘This is none of your business, turn away.’ So 250 people (except me) twisted around in their seats and looked the other way. If that is not crowd manipulation and audience abuse, I don’t know what is. At the very least it shows complete ignorance or disregard for Western social mores ethical behaviour.
“I will not go back and I will not have anything further to do with Rigpa. I am very very sad that the wonderful people amongst the instructors and pupils that I met are being seriously duped. They do not deserve this sort of treatment. I wish them all well.”
This comment is also unique because it is about something that can be verified. I personally was not at the retreat the commenter is referring to, but hundreds of people were. No refutation of that story has appeared. In fact, in the Response to the Blog on Behind the Thangkas, the writer’s only comment about this story is quite cynical and misses the point completely. She writes coldly,
“It’s a new line in the story, because the old stories repeat that he is only after young women.”
Most Rigpa students reading the comment from lalatee, even those who did not attend the Dzogchen Beara retreat, will identify this experience with those they have experienced themselves. Defenders of Sogyal will say that he works with people’s egos in ways that reflect his genius and realization. Indeed, the writer of the response piece reports experiences of realization she has experienced as a result of Sogyal’s harsh methods. This same student suggests strongly that BTT was motivated by the ire of x-Rigpa students who became disenfranchised with Sogyal’s teaching methods:
“This means that instead of the thick dossier of victims, there are 30 people who did not like Sogyal Rinpoche’s teaching and style. I bet there are many more since he is a very provocative teacher, too direct to many. That is part of being a Dzogchen Master. Can’t get away with that. Many people do not enjoy the rough ride when the Master places a mirror in front of them. It simply isn’t pleasurable to see one’s own hidden traits.”
I personally find such an attitude deeply disturbing and cold. It is one based on a very self-centered approach to the dharma. The writer is applauding her own advanced state in being able to work with Sogyal’s harsh methods, while disregarding any harm caused to others. Whether those others are suffering or simply mad and discouraged with the Buddhist path, I suggest that the methods which Sogyal uses are not benefitting them and are instead causing obstacles to their practice of dharma. I also question a practice said to be diminishing ego if that same practice causes one to denigrate others. It was my own impression from my year with Rigpa that the harsh methods were for the initiation of a few chosen students, while the rest of us, such as lalatee and myself sat in horror, dejection and confusion, watching on.
Indeed, the core purpose of all the Buddha’s teaching is for the diminishing of ego. HH Dalai Lama outlines these teachings as ones that either diminish self-cherishing or diminish self-grasping. Practices that diminish self-cherishing are practices of method, such as cultivating love, compassion, tolerance, charity, warmheartedness, kindness etc. Practices that diminish self-grasping are practices of wisdom, such as studying, reflecting and meditating on impermanence and emptiness. This is a huge canon of teaching, all aimed at diminishing ego. Yet, instead of those approaches, Sogyal has decided that he has a better, more effective approach. Nowhere do I see such approaches in the main scriptural sources, though I agree that they are described in biographies of the great masters, as in Tilopa’s treatment of Marpa and Marpa’s treatment of Milarepa. My only question there is how many Milarepas do we believe have been born in the West? Are these approaches really suitable for all or even for many or are they approaches only for highly advanced students? Sometimes it seems that perhaps Rigpa students who have experienced these harsh techniques might think they are special, like Milarepa. They might become more arrogant instead of less!
Perhaps I would not object to this so forcibly if I didn’t question whether Sogyal’s Dzogchen teachings and methodology was backed by a strong education program. Without this, harsh Dzogchen methods have no context in which to become a true practice of dharma. I once asked the Dzogchen teacher Shyalpa Rinpoche if it was important to have a good understanding of the Madyamaka teachings in order to practice Dzogchen. He replied that practicing Dzogchen without a full understanding of Madyamaka would be like climbing a rock cliff without hands.
In the same vein, HH Dalai Lama said during Dzogchen teachings he gave in 1989,
“So that the special features of Dzogchen can be pointed out and you can recognize them, you must have a thorough, overall understanding of the principles of all the different vehicles of the Buddhadharma. This is the only basis on which you can truly appreciate the uniqueness and depth of Dzogchen. Without such an overview, it will be difficult for your mind to feel any certainty as to why these teachings are so special. That is why you need to understand the whole spectrum of the Buddhadharma, from the lower yanas to the higher yanas.” (p.127; Dzogchen: The Heart Essence of the Great Perfection, Teachings Given in the West by His Holiness the Dalai Lama)
In the forward to this same text, Sogyal gives a brief description of his first meeting with HH Dalai Lama: “His Holiness asked me my name and my age. He then held me in a piercing gaze and told me pointedly to make sure I studied hard. It was a moment I have always remembered, for it was probably one of the most important of my life.” (p. 9)
This indicates that within mainstream Tibetan Buddhism, education is considered to be important for both student and spiritual teacher. While I do not have Mary’s courage to question the level of Sogyal’s dharma education, I do question whether that advice is central to the approach taken within the Rigpa program itself. Are Sogyal’s harsh methods used on students who haven’t studied the Four Noble Truths? On students who have never studied the madyamaka teachings? On students who have no understanding of lojong or never meditated on compassion or emptiness? I question the efficacy of harsh methods when a foundation of understanding core Buddhist concepts and practices is not laid.
These are questions that I suggest every Rigpa student needs to find answers for, in order to assess the current situation fully. In Mahayana Buddhism, the primary goal of practice is to cultivate a state of mind where concern for others’ welfare is more important than concern for oneself. Justifying Sogyal’s behaviors on the basis that one’s own practice has benefitted and others who have been harmed are in some way deficient is a very disturbing attitude in this context. This attitude has prevailed throughout much of the comment line.
IS SEX BETWEEN A SPIRITUAL TEACHER AND STUDENTS HARMFUL?
I wish to question three underlying assumptions evident throughout the comment line, in A Response to the Blog BTT and within mainstream Tibetan Buddhism. The first is that sex between a spiritual teacher and his/her student is not wrong in itself and does not harm nor constitute abuse in itself. Only if it resembles the sort of abuse that would occur in an everyday relationship should it be called abuse. The second is that women are free to say yes or no to Sogyal; they are free agents. The third is that it is an honor and spiritual practice to have sex with a renowned Dzogchen master such as Sogyal.
Immediately, I will point out that there is a contradiction between the last two assumptions. If it is an honor and a spiritual practice to have sex with your “master” then immediately there is less free will. Saying no entails refusing to practice as your lama has instructed—this is a much more difficult act than simply turning down sex, as one would with an ordinary person. So we can’t have it both ways. Either having sex with Sogyal is no big deal, no more than sex with the everyday Joe on the street, or it entails a power differential, with women being less free to refuse.
Certainly, the Buddha himself has given us permission to say no to our teachers if they ask us to do something which is incorrect. The difficulty here, however, lies squarely with my earlier points about the lack of education within Rigpa programs. If a woman is not well read on the scriptures and Sogyal tells her that having sex will help her progress on the spiritual path, then how is she to have the resources to question this view? How can she know her rights of refusal, if she has no thorough knowledge of the Buddha’s instructions in this regard? If she has no knowledge of what tantric sex is even about?
Indeed, the first several education courses offered at Rigpa are not courses in fundamental texts such as Words of My Perfect Teacher, Bodhicaharyavatara, Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment or any of Longchenpa’s teachings. They are Sogyal’s book and Sogyal’s teachings. New students at Rigpa study the dharma from Sogyal’s point of view.
I would suggest that most of the students who first enter into sexual relations with him have very little further grounding in the Buddhadharma than Sogyal’s viewpoint.
In this respect, they have absolutely no tools with which to question him if he tells them that sex will help their spiritual progress. They have few tools with which to say no.
In fact, it is a contradiction in terms to say no to any “master,” is it not? In fact, this is a key, central tenet of Dzogchen, the role of the master. Dzogchen is about the “master” leading the student into unknown territory; it is about the student having complete trust that where the master leads is a safe territory. This is central to many Dzogchen techniques. From the outside, we shudder to hear of such practices. From inside Rigpa, such an outlook is common and not questioned. I personally believe that the true Dzogchen lies somewhere in between. The true Dzogchen can only be practiced after the student has spent years investigating the teacher and the primary texts of Buddhism. These years have to be years where the Dzogchen teacher is not seen as a “master” but is seen as a lecturer who is put on trial. I fear that many of the stories of sexual abuse that one hears in regard to Sogyal have occurred with students who have never spent anywhere near that requisite time.
Add to this trouble the outlook of tantra, where one is required to see the lama as perfect and you have further trouble. Indeed, HH Dalai Lama speaks very strongly about the dangers inherent in seeing everything that the lama does as perfect:
“The offering of practice means always to live by the teachings of one’s guru. But what happens when the guru gives us advice that we do not wish to follow or that contradicts Dharma and reason? The yardstick must always be logical reasoning and Dharma reason. Any advice that contradicts these is to be rejected. This was said by Buddha himself. If one doubts the validity of what is being said, one should gently push the point and clear all doubts. This task becomes somewhat more sensitive in Highest Tantra, where total surrender to the guru is a prerequisite; but even here this surrender must be made only in a particular sense. If the guru points to the east and tells you to go west, there is little alternative for the student but to make a complaint. This should be done with respect and humility, however, for to show any negativity towards a teacher is not a noble way of repaying his or her kindness.
Perception of faults in the guru should not cause us to feel disrespect, for by demonstrating faults to us the guru is actually showing us what we should abandon. At least, this is the most useful attitude for us to take. An important point here is that the disciple must have a spirit of sincere inquiry and must have clear, rather than blind, devotion.
It is frequently said that the essence of the training in guru yoga is to cultivate the art of seeing everything the guru does as perfect. Personally I myself do not like this to be taken too far. Often we see written in the scriptures, “Every action seen as perfect..” However, this phrase must be seen in the light of Buddha Shakyamuni’s own words: “Accept my teachings only after examining them as an analyst buys gold. Accept nothing out of mere faith in me.” The problem with the practice of seeing everything the guru does as perfect is that it very easily turns to poison for both the guru and the disciple. Therefore, whenever I teach this practice, I always advocate that the tradition of ‘every action seen as perfect’ not be stressed. Should the guru manifest unDharmic qualities or give teachings contradicting Dharma, the instruction on seeing the spiritual master as perfect must give way to reason and Dharma wisdom.
Take myself, for example. Because many of the previous Dalai Lamas were great sages and I am said to be their reincarnation, and also because in this lifetime I give frequent religious discourses, many people place much faith in me, and in their guru yoga practice they visualize me as being a Buddha – I am also regarded by these people as their secular leader. Therefore, this teaching of ‘every action seen as perfect,’ can easily become poison for me in my relationship with my people and in my effective administration. I could think to myself, ‘They all see me as a buddha, and therefore will accept anything I tell them.’ Too much faith and imputed purity of perception can quite easily turn things rotten. I always recommend that the teaching on seeing the guru’s actions as perfect should not be stressed in the lives of ordinary practitioners. It would be an unfortunate affair if the Buddhadharma, which is established by profound reasoning, were to have to take second place to it.
Perhaps you will think: ‘he Dalai Lama has not read the Lam Rim scriptures. He does not know that there is no practice of Dharma without the guru.’ I am not being disrespectful of the Lam Rim teachings. A student of the spiritual path should rely upon a teacher and should meditate on that teacher’s kindness and good qualities; but the teaching on seeing his or her actions as perfect can only be applied within the context of the Dharma as a whole and the rational approach to knowledge that it advocates. As the teachings on seeing the guru’s actions as perfect is borrowed from Highest Tantra and appears in the Lam Rim mainly to prepare the trainee for tantric practice, beginners must treat it with caution. As for spiritual teachers, if they misrepresent this precept of guru yoga in order to take advantage of naive disciples, their actions are like pouring the liquid fires of hell directly into their stomachs.
The disciple must always keep reason and knowledge of Dharma as principal guidelines. Without this approach it is difficult to digest one’s Dharma experiences. Make a thorough examination before accepting someone as a guru, and even then follow that teacher within the conventions of reason as presented by Buddha. The teachings on seeing the guru’s actions as perfect should largely be left for the practice of Highest Tantra, wherein they take on a new meaning. One of the principal yogas in the tantric vehicle is to see the world as a mandala of great bliss and to see oneself and all others as Buddhas. Under these circumstances it becomes absurd to think that you and everyone else are Buddhas, but your guru is not!
Actually, the more respect one is given the more humble one should become, but sometimes this principle becomes reversed. A spiritual teacher must guard himself or herself carefully and should remember the words of Lama Drom Tonpa, ‘Use respect shown to you as a cause for humility.’ This is the teacher’s responsibility. The student has the responsibility of using wisdom in his or her demonstration of faith and respect.
A problem is that we usually only observe those teachings that feed our delusions and ignore those that would overcome them. This leniency can easily lead to one’s downfall. This is why I say that the teaching on seeing all the guru’s actions as perfect can be a poison. Many sectarian problems in Tibet were born and nourished by it.
The First Dalai Lama wrote, ‘The true spiritual master looks upon all living beings with thoughts of love and shows respect to teachers of all traditions alike. Such a one only harms delusion, the enemy within.’ The different traditions have arisen principally as branches of skilful methods for trainees of varying capacities. If we take an aspect of their teachings, such as the precept of ‘all actions seen as perfect,’ and use it for sectarian purposes, how have we repaid the past masters for their kindness in giving and transmitting Dharma? Have we not disgraced them? If we misunderstand and mispractice their teachings, it will hardly please them. Similarly, it is meritorious for a lama to perform rituals or give initiations to benefit people, but if his or her motivation is only material benefit, that person would be better off going into business instead. Using the mask of Dharma to exploit people is a great harm.
We erect elaborate altars and make extensive pilgrimages, but better than these is to remember Buddha’s teachings: ‘Never create any negative action; always create goodness; aim all practices at cultivating the mind.’ When our practice increases delusion, negativity and disturbed states of mind, we know that something is wrong.
It is sometimes said that a major cause of the decline of Buddhism in India eight hundred years ago was the practice of Vajrayana by unqualified people, and sectarianism caused by corruption within the Sangha. Anyone teaching Tibetan Buddhism should keep this in mind when they refer to the precept, ‘every action of the guru is to be seen as perfect.’ This is an extremely dangerous teaching, particularly for beginners. (Essence of Refined Gold; Commentary by Tenzin Gyatso The Fourteenth Dalai Lama; 1982, Translated &b Edited by Glenn H Mullin; pp55-57)
I suggest that most of us in the West are beginners who are ignorant of the dharma and ignorant even of our own ignorance. We are being faced with a culture of seeing the actions of the guru as perfectly wise and we have no tools with which to question that. It is for this reason that I further suggest that there is no situation by which sex between a Tibetan Buddhist lama and his/her student is safe from harm. None. The power differential is simply too huge.
This is not merely my opinion, but a reality supported by western psychotherapists. It is known in the west, for example, that sexual relations between doctors and patients, therapists and clients and teachers and students are all relationships that cause harm. This is because the power differential is too large. It is accepted among therapists that this same trouble exists in the relationship between spiritual teachers and their students. However, I have not studied this matter thoroughly and I don’t work with sexual abuse victim, so I refer readers to two books written on this subject matter. The first is Sex in the Forbidden Zone by Peter Rutter and the second is Sex and the Spiritual Teacher, by Scott Edelstein. I beg Rigpa students who question this to study and investigate.
Discussions on the comment line about this matter in particular have been disturbing because individuals comment as if they have professional knowledge of this, when in fact, they are simply giving unsubstantiated opinion. BellaB frequently speaks of women who are victims of sexual abuse with Sogyal in the same context that she might judge a woman in a relationship with any man on the street or her past boyfriends. Sheila frequently states that if there is a crime, then women should go to the police and if there is no crime, then there is nothing to complain about. She completely dismisses the fact accepted among western therapists that any sexual relationship between a spiritual teacher and his student, even one that is legal, is going to cause psychological damage to the student. She also dismisses the fact that women statistically are reluctant to file charges and endure the ordeal of being grilled over their experiences.
I encourage any Rigpa student who doubts western psychological evidence indicating that sex between spiritual teachers and students is harmful to investigate further and make certain of this. While Scott Edelstein is not a psychologist himself, he has investigated these problems extensively and is a longtime Buddhist student who has relationships with many teachers and students alike. He writes:
“Interpersonal boundaries are not the creation of modern-day psychologists or business consultants; they have existed for as long as humans have lived in groups. The age-old taboo against incest exists in part because our ancestors realized long ago that sex between parents and children is, among other things, one of the most psychologically damaging boundary violations. A similar dynamic exists between mental health professionals and their clients; as a result professional organizations consider sex between clinicians and their clients to be unethical, and state governments [in the US] have declared it illegal.
“Likewise, extensive (and often painful) experience has shown that when sex occurs between a spiritual teacher and a student, the teacher-student relationship is often damaged, sometimes irrevocably. In some cases, the student’s own sense of spirituality is similarly broken.
“Any relationship potent enough to promote growth and healing is also powerful enough to harm. This is especially so with the relationship between a spiritual teacher and a student hungry for spiritual knowledge and growth.”(Sex and the Spiritual Teacher, Scott Edelstein, Introduction).
This brings the discussion to the final point, which is the Tibetan Buddhist perspective of sexual relations between teacher and student. I would like to address this from two perspectives, one being the Tibetan Mahayana Buddhist definition of sexual misconduct and the other being consideration of tantric sex.
The following excerpt is from Gampopa, who is an 11th century kadampa and Mahamudra practitioner and the founder of the Dakpo Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. It is written for male practitioners. For female practitioners, the genders need to be reversed. What is of significance in this code of conduct is the ethnic and historical orientation, as the reader will immediately notice. Already there has been an outcry from gay and lesbian Buddhists about this code and HH Dalai Lama has stated that the code can only be changed through a careful collective effort, not by a decree from him or any other Buddhist leader. Indeed, current troubles with sexual misconduct by TB lamas could well be the catalyst needed for careful reform of the code to begin.
Classification of Sexual Misconduct. There are three types of sexual misconduct: protected by the family, protected by the owner, and protected by the Dharma. The first one means sexual misconduct with one’s mother, sister and so forth. The second one means sexual misconduct with someone owned by a husband or king, and so forth. The third one has five subcategories: even with one’s own wife, sexual misconduct refers to improper parts of the body, improper place, improper time, improper number, and improper behavior. Improper parts of body are the mouth and anus. Improper places are close to the spiritual master, monastery or stupa, or in a gathering of people. Improper times are during a special retreat [such as a Nyungne, when vows of celibacy are taken], when pregnant, while nursing a child, or when there is light. An improper number is more than five times. Improper behavior refers to beating or having intercourse with a male or hermaphrodite in the mouth or anus.”
(Gampopa, The Jewel Ornament of Liberation; Snow Lion Publications, 1998).
Certainly when one reads this description of sexual misconduct, one’s immediate reaction will be that reform is needed! It is outdated and irrelevant to our troubles! Women are not “owned” any more! I myself question the efficacy of such an outdated code at restraining the behavior of Buddhists. However, while Buddhists are not encouraged to follow any stricture blindly, once we allow for easy exceptions to any code of conduct, then flagrant abuses will occur. I suggest that this fact is very alarming. It appears that Tibetan Buddhists have a choice: They can either follow this code blindly, which speaks of such things as a woman being owned by her husband or they can update it in their own ways, which then allows for a dangerous crack to form in ethical discipline. This is a serious concern, I believe, that could lie at the center of the current trouble. Of central concern to this discussion is the fact that there is no mention made of sexual relations between lama and student.
John Powers, a university professor and Buddhist practitioner, states:
“Tantric texts stress that practice with consorts is not a form of sexual indulgence, but rather a form of controlled visualization that uses the special bliss of sexual union. It is restricted to very advanced practitioners, yogins who have gained control over the emanation of a subtle body and have awakened the mystical heat energy, or “dumo” (gtum mo, candali). Those who have not advanced to this level are not qualified to practice with an actual consort; people without the necessary prerequisites who mimic tantric sexual practices thinking that they are practicing tantra are simply deluded, and may do themselves great harm. Sexual union is only appropriate to advanced levels of the stage of completion, and so those who have not developed sufficient realization and control over subtle energies are unable to generate the blissful wisdom consciousness realizing emptiness that is the basis for this practice. They may succeed in fooling others—or even themselves—but they will be utterly unable to use sexual energy in accordance with the practices of highest yoga tantra.”
According to the Dalai Lama, only a person who views all the phenomena of cyclic existence with complete impartiality is qualified to engage in tantric sexual practices:
“Truthfully, you can only do such practice if there is no sexual desire whatsoever. The kind of realization that is required is like this: If someone gives you a goblet of wine and a glass of urine, or a plate of wonderful food and a piece of excrement, you must be in such a state that you can eat and drink from all four and it makes no difference to you what they are. Then maybe you can do this practice.”
When asked to name any lamas who he thought were at this level, he admitted that he could not. He mentioned that there are well-known stories of great teachers like Tilopa who had transcended all attachment to conventional thinking and so were able to engage in sexual practices without harming themselves or their students, but he added that such exceptional individuals are very rare.”
(John Powers, Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, Snow Lion Publications, 1995, p. 252.)
I am certain that there might be other stories about the purpose of a lama taking a consort other than tantra, but I know of no scriptural sources for this. I know that in Dzogchen, the famous relationship of Yeshe Tsogyal and Padmasambhava is often referred to, with an inference that being a consort is a common highly honored practice. However, I will remind the reader that Yeshe Tsogyal herself was a highly realized woman, who had no other desire, from an early age, than to practice dharma.
I am no expert and stand to be corrected, but I know of no authentic practice of sexual union in Buddhism outside of advanced tantric practices. From this viewpoint alone, I question whether it is indeed an honor for any woman to have sexual relations with her teacher, Sogyal Lakar. Though I would never presume to state that none of these women are bodhisattvas on the 10th bhumi, my impression is rather the opposite. These women are tender newcomers to Buddhism who are vulnerable to harm.
* Added Sat June 2, 2012
The following is a clarification and correction: As I have said, I am no expert (nor am I a practitioner of Dzogchen). I have recently uncovered references to practices of sexual union in Dzogchen which are separate from tantra. In a recent translation of teachings of Padmasambhava on this topic, it is stated:
“But in the Dzogchen teachings there are special channels and potencies not discussed in Tantricism, related to the experiences of ‘lamps’ and ‘vajra-chains’ mentioned here. These are direct manifestations of buddhahood, associated with the thogal practices of the Upadesha.”
Also, in the same text:
“Dzogchen, the way of self-liberation is a non gradual path. This means that its principle, the understanding of the reality of self-liberation, can be applied right from the start of the path.”
And in the same text:
“At the time of intercourse when passionate attachment and the concepts associated with it arise, this is experienced as the creative energy of pristine awareness. If one does not know this, it is just attachment. Transforming this into pristine awareness means that by working with passionate attachment itself, passionate attachment is purified.”
“If we deeply know that our body is an open dimension, like space, with porous boundaries, then there is no attachment to the body, because we experience a brilliant clarity (salwa) by means of our body that is also ungraspable. If we deeply know that our body is like a field that unifies all dualities, then all sexual energies are unified in an experience of pure pleasure (dewa) that overwhelms the grasping mind.”
(Secret Teachings of Padmasambhava: Essential Instructoins on Mastering the Energies of Life, Edited and Translated by Kennard Lipman, PHD)
Indeed, I have very little personal understanding of Dzogchen. However, there are several distinctive features of this description of the Dzogchen approach to sexual union which are significant to this discussion. One is the assertion that the Dzogchen form of sexual union can be practised outside of tantra. I presume this means it is therefore also outside of the boundaries of tantric vows and commitments. Next is the reference to Dzogchen being a “non gradual” path. The inference is that practices such as sexual union, which in tantra can only be practised by very advanced practitioners, could conceivably be allowed for more beginning practitioners of Dzogchen. There is also no emphasis in this text by Padmasambhava on the need to withhold semen during practices of union.
Nonetheless, tantra or no tantra, there does seem to be a large permissiveness within Buddhist canon for a non-monastic teacher to have sex with his/her students. Does anyone know of a scriptural source for this being harmful to the relationship? I have found none. I suggest that if this is true, if this is the perspective from which mainstream Tibetan Buddhist leaders are exonerating the sexual behaviors of lamas such as Sogyal, then that fact needs to be made known. Students who walk in the door of any Tibetan Buddhist dharma center need to be informed from the very beginning that: 1. sexual relationships between this teacher and his/her students are considered ok; 2. Only students on a very high level of spiritual attainment can use this sexual relationship for spiritual progress; and 3. It is ok for any woman to refuse to have sex with the “master.” It does not break any samaya or commitment she has to her spiritual practice.
This is the protocol and educational program that needs to be instigated within our dharma centers. With those three clear guidelines, then at least the playing field would be more level. Students could judge before their judgment became impaired whether they even wanted to enter that door again—whether they could tolerate practicing in such a permissive community. Women would stand a better chance of being able to say no and understand the boundaries of the relationship. Surely, making these issues clear is the least that Sogyal and the Rigpa establishment could do. In the west, there are certain expectations and assumptions about conduct. Tibetans also have certain expectations and assumptions about conduct. At the very least, these current troubles should be a call for better communication on all sides. At least they call for some honesty. If it’s considered ok for Sogyal to have sex with his students, this needs to be broadcast aloud—it needs to be put on Rigpa websites. It needs to be put on fliers. It needs to be made known.
So after all this discussion, what is a Rigpa student to think? The answer to this must come from the conscience of each and every student. Even those of us who are Buddhist practitioners but not Rigpa students need to explore our own consciences and our own attitudes towards our teachers. The answers will come one by one, from students themselves. This can be painful and slow, but it is the ground for real change.
In summary, my main points are:
- There is enough evidence of probable sexual misconduct by Sogyal to warrant alarm, and at the very least interest, on the part of Rigpa students. This evidence is not simply being provided by Mary Finnigan.
- There is strong evidence that Sogyal is, at the very least, engaging in sexual relations with multiple numbers of his students. This fact has never been directly refuted by either Sogyal or Rigpa officials.
- On the contrary, there have been statements by Rigpa officials in the past that Sogyal is not a monastic and therefore has a right to engage in sexual relations.
- There is also an indication that mainstream Tibetan Buddhist thought does not consider Sogyal’s behavior to be a problem, which adds further weight to the likelihood that it is occurring. If it isn’t wrong, why then should Sogyal refrain from multiple sexual relations with his students?
- Mainstream western psychological evidence has shown that sexual relations between a spiritual teacher and his/her student does cause harm.
- Women themselves have reported suffering as a result of sexual relations with Sogyal.
- It is not uncommon for spiritual teachers, who have crossed sexual boundaries to also be highly inspiring and kind teachers.
- There is no evidence within Buddhist canon to justify sexual relations as a spiritual practice on the level that Sogyal engages in them.
- However, except for the strictures against having sex with married women and beating women, there is little in the allegations against Sogyal that is even banned in the Buddhist canon regarding sexual misconduct. It appears that if Sogyal can disprove those two allegations and disagree with women’s reports of suffering, then he is free from the viewpoint of Buddhist ethical conduct. I suggest that this needs to be reviewed!
[For every Rigpa student who feels that there is simply too much smoke to sit quietly while the fire burns, we advise you to contact Dialogue Ireland as we have been collecting testimony from victims and can give you information, albeit anonymously. Ways to contact Dialogue Ireland include email, firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone us on, +353 1 8309384 or 353 872396229 or Skype mikergarde
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