Om my goodness: Buddhism faces its own abuse scandal
Damning report details physical, emotional and sexual abuse by a Tibetan spiritual leader, and a series of cover-ups
The Rigpa centre on London’s Caledonian Road contains all the traditional hallmarks one might expect with Tibetan Buddhism, a religion that over the past 30 years has exploded in popularity in the West.
Occupying centre stage is a golden Buddha statue, flanked by ancient Tibetan scriptures. To many Western minds, these are the symbols of the most peaceful of religions, a source of spiritual awakening and an appealing counterpoint to modern life – and one that has largely escaped the scandals that have dogged other institutions.
Yet last Wednesday evening the London students of Rigpa, an international network with about 100 different centres across 40 countries, gathered to watch the announcement of a damning new report detailing “serious physical, emotional and sexual abuse” by its founder and former spiritual leader, the famous Tibetan lama Sogyal Rinpoche.
Last year the Telegraph newspaper published a series of allegations made by eight senior and longstanding current and former students against Sogyal, whose book The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying has sold more than three million copies around the world, making him the best-known Tibetan Buddhist teacher after the Dalai Lama.
The report, undertaken by the law firm Lewis Silkin to investigate the claims at the behest of Rigpa, confirms a shocking catalogue of physical, sexual and emotional abuse by Sogyal against students. It also concludes: “Senior individuals within Rigpa were aware of at least some of these issues and failed to address them, leaving others at risk.”
Yet, such allegations of widespread abuse – and the subsequent cover-up – within the Tibetan Buddhist community are not restricted to Rigpa.
In July, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, the leader of the Shambhala Buddhist community – an organisation with more than 200 meditation centres globally – announced he would “step back from his administrative and teaching responsibilities” while allegations of sexual assault and misconduct are investigated. Other similar accusations are swirling around centres elsewhere in Europe.
“There are huge cover-ups in the Catholic church, but what has happened within Tibetan Buddhism is totally along the same lines,” says Mary Finnigan, an author and journalist who has been chronicling such alleged misdemeanours since the mid-80s and is a longstanding critic of Sogyal.
The rise and fall of Sogyal Rinpoche encapsulates many of the ongoing struggles of exported Tibetan Buddhism. His teachings offered the possible attainment of spiritual enlightenment in a single lifetime, in return for utter devotion. The student gives total obedience to the lama – a bond which, if broken, is believed to result in banishment to “vajra hell”, an infinity of unfortunate rebirths.
The report’s author, Karen Baxter, details widespread evidence that members of Sogyal’s inner circle – who catered for his every need, including providing massages as he fell asleep – were subjected to repeated acts of brutal violence. The lama’s wooden backscratcher was a favoured method for beating people, as was punching them in the stomach. Baxter says she has been provided with evidence of one individual being knocked unconscious, and others being left bleeding and concussed.
While the report could not find sufficient evidence to uphold some of the sexual abuse claims, including that Sogyal conducted relationships with girls under the age of 16, she does outline “significant” first-hand evidence of young women being coerced, manipulated and intimidated into providing sexual favours.
One witness, a teenager who arrived at a Rigpa retreat seeking respite from depression and self-harm, was asked to strip a week after coming to work in the lama’s kitchen. When she refused, she alleges, she was beaten and then later forced into sex.
Speaking to the Telegraph on condition of anonymity, one of the eight original complainants described how Sogyal “taught [us] to believe we were the problem, that we weren’t seeing purely”.
Another person who assisted the investigation described how victims’ “whole lives have fallen apart. The damage is huge.”
Allegations against Sogyal Rinpoche have circulated privately for decades. In 1994, an American student using the legal pseudonym Janice Doe sued, claiming he used his spiritual status to sexually and physically abuse her. The case was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.
The report reveals that in 1992 a letter was also sent to the Dalai Lama highlighting concerns about Sogyal, but he only spoke out about them last year, describing him as “disgraced”.
Sogyal retired as Rigpa’s spiritual director a few days afterwards and is now understood to be in Thailand receiving treatment for cancer. He declined to be interviewed for the report, and instead wrote a letter suggesting he did not intend to cause harm.
In her findings, Baxter described one of the unnamed Rigpa managers who helped with the report as being “guarded, hostile and inconsistent”. Another senior member of the management team was described by the lawyer as “not prepared to hold Sogyal to account”.
A statement released on September 5 by Rigpa’s “vision board” and all of its individual national boards stated: “We feel deeply sorry and apologise for the hurt experienced by past and present members.”
The organisation has also committed to act upon all of the report’s recommendations, which include disassociating from Sogyal as fully as possible and removing those in leadership tainted by the scandal.
The investigation has only relied on the UK’s civil standard of proof and it remains to be seen whether any criminal charges will ensue.
But the casualties of Sogyal Rinpoche’s “crazy wisdom” are now plain to see.
– © The Daily Telegraph