The Inconvenience of Doubt

I was recently asked about the scandal surrounding Sogyal Rinpoche, founder and spiritual director of Rigpa, an international network with more than 130 centres in 41 countries. I reproduce below an abbreviated version of the question, along with my answer.

I was recently asked about the scandal surrounding Sogyal Rinpoche, founder and spiritual director of Rigpa, an international network with more than 130 centres in 41 countries. I reproduce below an abbreviated version of the question, along with my answer.

QUESTION: I have attended classes at Rigpa in London and have been to their retreat centre in France, but have now seen a video on youtube with a young woman who says Sogyal Rinpoche ordered her to undress and then sexually abused her. I was really shocked. The Rigpa statement (in reply) refuses to discuss the individual case and says they have full confidence in Sogyal Rinpoche, but that they take allegations of inappropriate behaviour seriously. I have asked in Rigpa if any of these allegations are true and am only told that Sogyal Rinpoche has never harmed anyone. No one will say if he has sex with students, or even if this is ever allowed, but it seems certain that he does. What should I think about this? I would really appreciate hearing from you as one of the earliest western Tibetan Buddhists.

ANSWER: I’m familiar with this video you saw, and have corresponded with several of the people who participated in it, though I have never been involved with Rigpa or met Sogyal. I’m in no position to directly verify the facts or falsify the stories.

By what universal law are insightful, inspiring, even brilliant teachers also paragons of ethical behaviour?

However, based on my experience of Tibetan monastic politics, and of community life under the guidance of a charismatic figure, I find the stories plausible and unsurprising. The nature of the guru-disciple relationship is ripe for abuse, and Westerners typically enter into those relationships with little or no training in self-reliance. Indeed, they’re often looking for an ‘enlightened master’ to take the burden of questioning off their shoulders. Some may find ways to enter into such relationships without compromising their own critical faculties, but they’re few and far between.

To suggest that abuse never happens because all spiritual teachers always behave impeccably is preposterous. It strains credulity and contradicts common sense. Also, by what universal law are insightful, inspiring, even brilliant teachers also paragons of ethical behaviour? Chögyam Trungpa comes to mind; there are others.

Rigpa’s statement is a classic manoeuvre of political sidestepping. Look at the argument: Sogyal has built a successful organization and is a good teacher, therefore … well, therefore what? Those who drafted the statement don’t actually deny the accusations. They simply refuse to entertain the possibility that he behaved badly because they, “have full confidence in the sincerity, authenticity and conduct of Sogyal Rinpoche.” I wonder whether they asked Sogyal to explain himself.

It’s written in the passive voice beloved
of evasive office-holders worldwide

Their statement is an expression of faith, and it’s loaded. What’s at stake is not just the veracity of one particular assertion but the spiritual foundation of the spokespersons themselves. They’re in a personal conflict of interest. Were the allegations true, their own spiritual foundation would be shaken.

The final statement, that ‘allegations of inappropriate behaviour are taken very seriously by the organization,’ is as close as it gets to a disclaimer. It’s written in the passive voice beloved of evasive office-holders worldwide. No one’s taking responsibility for that statement. Besides, it’s a feint.

What it’s trying to evade is the crucial fact that Sogyal himself does not personally address the issue. Even if the allegations were untrue, his unwillingness to step up to the microphone is an abdication of leadership; it suggests a lack of integrity. It’s easy to be a great teacher by relying on the accumulated wisdom of a twenty-six hundred year old tradition, but to speak nakedly from the heart is a profoundly different and far more difficult thing to do, especially for those accustomed to adulation and unquestioned devotion. It is sad to see a teacher and author of this stature ducking behind a committee.

What you learned from him may still be deeply
meaningful and transformative, not because of
who he is but because of what you understood

Your question is, “What should I think about this?” I have told you what I think, but no one can really answer for you. Anyone who tells you what to believe should be held in deep suspicion. The very essence of the Buddha’s way is to develop self-reliance, and to hone our own judgement. How can we be sure we’re right? We often can’t. But that’s no reason to fabricate certainty.

After years in the Tibetan tradition I turned to the earliest teachings of Buddhism as embodied in the Pali Canon. I don’t for a moment think they’re a verbatim account of what went on during the Buddha’s lifetime, but I do consider them a rich and integral body of teachings, worthy of study and reflection. There is no mention of gurus or of devotion. The emphasis is on your own experience and an exploration of life itself, not theories about it. It is deeply liberating.

Tibetan Buddhism is sophisticated in every sense of the word. Whoever encounters it is marked for life. No matter what you end up thinking of Sogyal, what you learned from him may still be deeply meaningful and transformative, not because of who he is but because of what you understood. Whether we’re still in the tradition or have left, it’s a rich source of reflection and deserves thorough processing, not because it’s Tibetan but because it’s experience.


Author: Stephen Schettini

Host of The Naked Monk

110 thoughts on “The Inconvenience of Doubt”

  1. We should remind ourselves that leaders are victims of the system as much those they abuse. I wouldn’t want the kind of responsibility we expect from gurus and pastors. Why would anyone disrobe because a guru ordered her too? Hasn’t she abdicated her own personal responsibility? I don’t intend any accusation.

    1. That’s fine if you don’t want it. But if you accept the role of guru, then part of the job is dealing with the expectations of others. No one said it was easy.

      And who disrobed? Did I miss something?

    2. “We should remind ourselves that leaders are victims of the system as much those they abuse.”

      I disagree. I don’t think it’s helpful to think this way in this context. The system does not set leaders up to sexually abuse their followers. It might set them up with unrealistic expectations they can’t live up to, but the response is very much in their power. Sexually abusing follows is a choice.

  2. Hi Stephen – Thank you for your insight! I’m new to secular buddhism, and am grateful for the time and teachers I’m encountering with the Pali Canon. Your insight is consistent with what I’m learning and practicing. I am benefitting from your words.

      1. Be careful. Thai Theravada monks have also been caught in many scandals. Zen also many scandals in the U.S. There has to be oversight or there will be scandals.

  3. I first met Sogyal Rinpoche in 1974 in Scotland, and have been hearing about his sexual misconduct ever since then. I really wish that the heads of the Tibetan sects (like the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa) would publicly express their disapproval of this behavior by him and other lamas.

  4. Hey Kencil, thanks for your comment! When you say “…leaders are victims of the system as much those they abuse.” I wonder if the struggle against abuse in the Christian religion would have got as far as it did if we saw the perpetrators of unethical behaviour, including serial paedophilia, as “victims” rather than support the real sufferers. In Australia we have a major inquiry underway at last about abuse in the RC church. Power corrupts and the personality cults of some TB teachers is a worry! When I visited some Tibetan communities in India in the early 90’s I saw troubling signs of similar abuse there. In Australia I saw some as well!

  5. My teacher, Charlotte Joko Beck invented a chant that we would recite a couple times a day at retreats. One of the central elements of the chant was the phrase, “This moment, life as it is, the only teacher.”

  6. if they are pathologically incapable of decent behaviour how can you possibly describe them as brilliant teachers.surely spiritual masters should practice what they preach, more so given they are allegedly awakened. else they are just charismatic charlatans parroting the dharma.

    1. That’s what’s interesting. We seem hardwired to believe that insight and ethics are inseparable. Trungpa’s writings (actually, mostly edited transcripts) are still widely read, and Spiritual Materialism remains a classic, despite his massive apparent moral weakness.

  7. like other apologists,you seem to imply that one can be a brilliant Spiritual teacher whilst incapable of basic human decency, i.e,refraining from abusing vulnerable people.

    imagine describing someone as a brilliant tennis coach when he couldn’t even hit the ball straight!!!

    you mention CT, the well known alcoholic pedophile.
    I suggest intelligence, charisma and knowledge of of ancient texts is not sufficient to be a Spiritual leader when one can’t follow the basic teachings oneself.

    1. You’re free with your accusations Steve, and righteous indeed, but read my post again slowly: I’m not defending Sogyal or Trungpa. It’s samsaric in every sense of the word to believe that the world should conform to our expectations, that a moral weakling can’t possibly have anything insightful to say and that the power to change lies in the speaker, not the listener.

      1. ahhhh Stephen that subtle condescension done so well by the long term dharma practitioner convinced he knows something the rest of us don’t.
        wasn’t aware there was doubt about CT’s alcoholism or shagging a 15 yr old child,
        and conflating ‘refraining from abusing vulnerable students’ with ‘expecting them to be paragons of virtue’ seems apologist to me, perhaps they are just expected to behave like ordinary decent human beings.
        Lets not forget these guys are not mere teachers, they masquerade as reincarnated Buddhas and the vast majority of their followers fervently believe that.
        Do you think those of us who feel that Christian priests should refrain from sticking it up altar boy’s bottoms have unreasonable expectations, or are overly judgmental.
        Understanding and forgiveness are fine ideals, much needed , but so is a realistic appraisal and understanding of manipulative charlatans, ESPECIALLY the more clever and charismatic they are.

      2. it seems to me buddhist gurus who do not believe in consistently aiming to act with compassion in their own lived reality, while basing their teachings on advocating it and who are still seen as a spiritual leader by peers, calls the spiritual worth of a guru based system into question. the integrity of everyone involved is called into scrutiny – after all people could just read the teachings without putting themselves in contact with teachers for whose moral compass and commitment to not harming students and others no one takes responsibility. the vast expanse of heartless indifference is startling when paired with the teaching of compassion

        yes the teacher does need to be compassionate and possessing integrity for the role of teacher to be meaningful in a positive sense. they embody messages or negate them, by their example in behaviour as well as words. the separation of morality and spirituality eventually empties spirituality of any content related to love and compassion, not doing harm, respect and care for others’ well being and even lives.

    2. “CT, the well known alcoholic pedophile.”

      I’m afraid he’s well-known as a brilliant meditation master, scholar and teacher. He certainly drank a lot, but pedophile is a bit of a stretch, no? It is, in fact, a baseless accusation as even a cursory study of Trungpa’s legacy will reveal.

      I’m a monastic failure like you, but I’m glad I don’t confuse my own failure as the fault of Vajrayana Buddhism. Sometimes we have to be humble enough to accept that it is we ourselves who are confused, as hard as that may be.

  8. When visiting the lama I saw as my teacher in Kathmandu back in about 2002, it became clear that the quid pro quo for being his student was that I was expected to serve as guarantor for some Nepali people I’d never met, so that they could enter the US. This was not long after 9/11, I was on a green card. Apart from the obvious ethical problem, the potential for legal or medically-caused financial disaster was huge (which I’d also be inflicting on my not-involved husband). But wasn’t one supposed to place oneself at the service of the guru? Shouldn’t his wishes be your command? I couldn’t, wouldn’t and didn’t do it. But then felt I’d ruptured the student-guru bond, and had to move on. It left me bereft for a while, but was the start of me feeling my way to my own, Western-based path, that is collegial rather than hierarchical.

    That situation was relatively straightforward, compared to the really sticky situation of a teacher making sexual approaches, or becoming emotionally involved with students. Especially in Tibetan Buddhism with its yab-yum, crazy wisdom and Yeshe Tsogyal conferring enlightenment in sexual encounters. It would really help if those prominent in Western Buddhism addressed those mixed messages with force and clarity.

  9. Abuse – sexual, physical, emotional, psychological – stems from an attitude of entitlement and a fundamental disrespect for the target. It is often ignored or dismissed as unimportant by others. This is about as far as you can get from empathy and compassion.

    It is always supported with a great deal of dishonesty on the part of the abuser and other people around the abuser. This is about as far from mindfulness / mindful reflection as you can get.

    As for the target – yes, in some cases, in some sense, she may have “abdicated her own personal responsibility”. This is what happens to a woman (or anyone) who is the target in an abusive relationship. The target is NOT to blame here though. Luring a target into giving up her (or his) right to think for themselves is the PRIMARY goal of abusers. It is control – not sex, or the release of anger, or a clean house, or anything else. – that they most want. Sexual assault, physical assault, control of money, verbal abuse, etc are simply tactics or secondary goals. Abusers are remarkably skilled at effecting this control and often supported by the community/social norms/culture in which they live.

    Of course it is unrealistic and unreasonable to expect gurus, priests, or other religious leaders not to have flaws just like the rest of us. But this is no argument for letting someone continue in a leadership role if they are sexually abusing their followers. This is a criminal activity and should be treated like any other criminal offense. It also indicates a deep-seated lack of true buy-in to the tenets of the religion that they are promoting so they are simply not qualified or capable of providing leadership in that religion.

    Some researchers are finding that abusers are most likely to change/stop the abuse, if at all, when they are pressured to do so by social equals – friends, family, co-workers, other social equals in whatever community they are in. Encouraging the target to speak up in order to stop the abuse may in some cases be empowering to the target. But it gives a pass to those who are most in a position to do something effective and can be itself abusive by making the target responsible for the abuse.

    If anyone wants to understand abusive relationships better, a place to start is Why Does He Do That? by Lundy Bancroft.

    1. Thank you Ann for an excellent post. I agree with everything you have said. And this kind of abuse of power is not confined to religious groupings. It happens in other settings/organisations like political parties.

  10. I am not terribly surprised. These are human beings who are elevated to the point of absurdity.

    I was always suspicious of the Guru worship and “Crazy Wisdom”. I guess in the end, at least it wasn’t little boys and girls.

    1. Yes, the ‘Crazy Wisdom’ thing is an open license. Not that craziness is necessarily bad, but abusing people’s trust is despicable, especially when they’re naive and idealistic.

    2. years ago we had a man coming to our temple who claimed to be a Zen Monk. He had the robes and all. He seem to have all the words down perfectly. We trusted him and he cleaned us out of money from one of our festivals. He later cleaned out the local Zen group. Zen groups in the U.S. have a history of terrible scandals involving the sensei and students. Sexual encounters and money. Thailand with monks the same. Sorry better have oversight.

  11. Excellent points. That said, I’ve been involved in a western Tibetan group long enough to notice that it attracts more than its share of disturbed young women. Some of these seem to go through a phase of having a crush on the teacher on top of their other problems, especially if the teachers are kind to them. So just because someone accuses a teacher and because abuse of authority is not uncommon, I think one has to be very careful about jumping to conclusions. Is this the only accusation? Are there persistent rumors hanky panky floating around the sangha? We love to tear down our idols in the west, and it is easy to take gossip for gospel, especially if the “wronged” party seems sincere–which she may well be in her own mind.

    In the group I’m involved in, there is not just one “personality” in charge, teachers rotate regularly, and the theme of “guru devotion” is explored thoroughly with clear emphasis that it doesn’t mean unquestioning or slavish following of a teacher in all things. We are also taught to be patient with the people I’ve described above, despite their often disruptive behavior far out of proportion to their numbers. Dharma is for everyone.

    1. I will add, too, that as the group has developed over many years, the teachers have withdrawn somewhat from casually mingling with the sangha in social situations, and they tend to make a point of not meeting people for or in overly private sessions for counseling or spiritual direction.

      1. Hi Patrik: I was in a male sangha, so I can’t speak about disturbed young women. We were, rather, disturbed young men. Many, of not all of us, had father issues, and this I believe had much to do with the attraction to a fatherly guru figure.

    2. I can attest to the fact that the teacher in question has an unwholesome obsession with many things, food, tv, movies, cigar smoking and yes sex. What I find so interesting is that he’s always on the verge of boredom and depression. He does have many amazing qualities, his ability to assess and manipulate people is quite advanced.
      Knowing that I think that it’s very important to not judge our companions on the path, we cannot know why they succumb, we can only offer support and kindness when they come to their senses because it’s an extremely painful process.

    3. Exactly. It’s the mis-apprehension of us western students that is also to blame. Also, crazy wisdom, as even a cursory reading around the topic will reveal, doesn’t mean doing seemingly worldy things and pretending they are Dharma. It’s more related to groundlessness and hopelessness – a classic Buddhist theme.

      Whether we like it or not, there is a valid tradition of Yeshe Cholwa that stretches all the way to back to India, which is where the lineage arises.

  12. I believe we are all confronted, at every point in our practice, to the incongruent realities of the world and our existence. But is this not the very core of the teachings, or the purpose of our practice, to find our purpose and balance within such dissonance. It seems unrealistic, or even more incongruent, to expect any person or institution to exclude itself from, or rise above the very substance of the teachings. Are we substituting one dependency or illusion for another or truly achieving self reliance. The very premise of a perfect teacher is absurd. as is our rearview assessment of perfection.

    The pedestal on which any guru stands is largely of our own design. Media and the cult of persona is a slippery slope, and subject to tremendous distortions of reality. Our expectations of iconic representatives surpass all reasonable bounds which ultimately subvert their purpose. Institutions often subvert their intended purpose by the very power structures which they create and which detract from the premise of their existence. The intrinsic balance seems lost on both sides.

    Blind faith in the representative rather than the substance of the teachings … the forest for the trees. Spiritual materialism. The coaching comes through the teacher’s experience, the personal affinities of the relationship which facilitate communication and learning are another matter. No relationship requires perfection. The purpose any apprenticeship serves in our lives is perfect, in that it moves us forward …
    I was once asked Why I was so subservient to the skipper on our sailboat. Why I took my job as crew so seriously. I responded that it was because the skipper was a great coach under the circumstances the sea was throwing at us. The sea was actually the great teacher on which our focus and energies were fully concentrated … as it should be. The person asking, was the skipper’s girlfriend, who placed all her confidence in the skipper’s expertise, and was of precious little assistance in the heavy weather we were struggling through. Although we were in the same boat, her security clearly resided in her relationship and her faith in the skipper. I exchanged watches with the skipper and had to deal with the weather at the helm, with relatively little experience. Same boat, different perceptions and expectations. The teachings were precious, but negotiating the rough sea was the lesson and the humbling and transformative experience. Life is what it is.

  13. My thoughts exactly, Pierre. Critical thinking/analysis need to be taught, demonstrated and exercised as part of a teaching /learning process. The podium and the pulpit go unrecognised as purveyors of power to those who stand behind them; a leader by definition is assumed to have full mastery of h/is/er arena of expertise and is revered as an ultimate authority. Societies of all colour and manner construct their hierarchies, privilege and power using this design to reinforce the notion and principles of leaders/followers, have/have nots, socially acceptable/outcast…etc. Thoughts, ideas and other intellectual content can now be patented, owned, rented for a price and even sold as a packaged response to a given set of conditions; but conditions are dependent on array of variables that should be taken into consideration at the initiation of any new forum; that could prevent such incidents from transpiring and ought to open the field of discourse to new inputs and experiences, widening the opportunity for the development of new knowledge and containing the potential for power plays.

  14. Thank you very much for your words.
    Im very pleased to receive your newsletters. Im from Colombia, where is very difficult to find buddhist communities, but it is so much difficult to find a seccular, non traditional and open to investigation and self discovering. I knew Mr and Mrs Batchelor in Mexico and it was an amazing discovering for my own practice. To read your articles is like have a virtual sangha.

    1. Thank you Diana, and welcome to The Naked Monk. I hope you continue to find these posts helpful, and that you’ll feel free to comment when you agree and when you disagree.

  15. I thought Ven. Vira Avalokita’s response to the issue with Sogyal was poignant so I will post it here:

    Sogyal Rinpoche is not a monk so we can not judge him by monk standards. Yes he makes mistakes and now reaps the harvest but not in a future hell but today. He has a Buddha Nature and can return to right judgment of situations that he finds himself in. Life is a learning experiences and we like him must learn from mistakes in judgment. A person who can correct himself is still a teacher for they show us how to correct and how to be correct. We are responsible for ourselves but the problem some to not take this responsibility.

    1. Then he should consider becoming a taxi driver instead. I do not want to hear from someone about ethical behavior who does not practice it himself. I know many Buddhist teachers who walk the walk.

  16. Heck, once in a while I even come up with a good teaching…..I have conversations with friends concerning Chogyam Trungpa and his unethical behavior being the basis to disregard his teachings. I say a teaching is a teaching no matter where it comes from. The lotus comes up from the mud, doesn’t it. The teachings are out there in the conscience of the world, a teacher may pull it in and present it in their particular way. It’s like being a songwriter, the muse brings the song, the singer is stuck with it. Are Bob Dylan’s songs not listenable because he was not a good husband? The Guru thing is a cultural thing. Tibet may have needed it at sometime. Perhaps out of Tibet and that time period, it doesn’t work so well.

    1. Totally. The unmentioned assumption here this that if our teachers aren’t impeccable, their words count for nothing. In which case, how do you account for the progress of the human race? I mean, we’re not perfect, but things are a lot better than in the Middle Ages, right?

      1. Then he should consider becoming a taxi driver instead. I do not want to hear from someone about ethical behavior who does not practice it himself. I know many Buddhist teachers who walk the walk. My wife was not a Buddhist and yet she lived in the five precepts. Someone who does not live the Buddhist life has nothing to teach you of value.

    2. Bob Dylan was NOT a good husband? Hmmmm…..his music still makes me reflect ? Sometimes I wonder about Dogen’s statement “My life has been one continuous mistake?”…because as I look at most of the scandal’s that have occurred or are occurring such as Chogyam Trungpa, SFZC, Joshu Sasaki, Sogyal Rinpoche…it seems to me that these are the reasons why we humans look for “release” when we take up a spiritual practice…but to get on podium and “condem” others for not being “perfect” misses the point of why we have “spiritual paths” in the first place?…..I am NOT condoning “improper behavior” per se but I am surprised at “our” collective response when mistakes are made…because — MISTAKES are what we do as human creatures — If we didn’t then there would NO NEED for spiritual paths’!

        1. Martin Luther King was a philanderer…

          In Vajrayana, the Guru is a crucial element. Cannot practices the Vajrayana without it. Fortunately there are many other valid paths. Phew. So, if we don’t want to follow a Guru, fine. Simply don’t choose the Vajrayana as a path. Simple.

    3. Well Tibet wasn’t Nirvana! They used to chop off hands and were very unenlightened in their social injustices. But then the Germans gassed millions of people so human beings still have a lot of evolve by to do before we achieve a peace on earth.

  17. Stephen
    You sure hit the nail with this one.
    And here I was thinking that only Catholic Priests (Jesuit Student myself) were only the deviant ones.
    Dear God, may I say, this is a SURPRISE.

    Sorry for this bit of cynicism, no disrespect intended, conversely, your perspective is quite pertinent
    and I surely appreciate your account.


    1. Hi Ralph: This is not just an exposé but also a look into the way that ordinary people allow this to happen and, when it does, to find ways to rationalize it away.

      1. So you blame the victim. When I joined the military I gave my word. I never broke my word. You take a vow live by the vow or get out. You cannot stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

  18. supposedly that which is called by zealots worldwide immoral never once went against OUR actual beliefs, period

  19. total surrender to the process itself is how we do this practice specifically but the most sacred of rites still sound less than ordinary to just anyones plainly only limitation riddled miniscule viewpoints

  20. nope wouldn’t dream of explaining anything that profound to someone implying theres not even a context in which to do so

  21. just beginning this path but it’s my understanding our outer silken robes 100% come off or the written terma mANtras upon them won’t properly be transcribable later after a noble softness blooms, nothing went amiss

  22. One who dwells in “ultimate” views
    and presents them as final
    will declare all other views “inferior” –
    (s)he has not overcome disputes.

    Buddha (Atthakavagga), trans. Stephen Batchelor

  23. synchronicity throughout is dwelling in who you really are rather free from conceptual disputes IS what appears to be plainly apparent then

  24. as in go plagiarize someone or another lifetimes disasters hardly the basis of a genuine correspondence haven just arisen anew, misled people follow ancient illogical rat tested snake charmers

    1. Sounds like a Bob Dylan song….”so don’t fear if you hear a foreign sound to your ear…because it’s alright Ma – I’m only bleeding?”

  25. I did not read the whole discussion and I am late in posting this comment as well so it might be off topic but nonetheless I will venture a remark:

    I have been finding my way into Tibetan Buddhism over the last years and I am by no means an advanced practitioner. However my understanding of the teachings comes mainly from a Western Lama in the Gelugpa tradition, whom I admire greatly and I will relate these ideas as I understand them.

    My understanding of his teachings on guru yoga is this:
    The guru is empty just as everything else. Therefore when we see the guru seemingly stray, we can take one of two viewpoints:
    a) The guru is objectively no longer a holy being because he has done something that is generally considered wrong.
    b) The fact that I am seeing the guru as having done something wrong and the resulting doubt in my mind reflects the fact that my karma for having the ability to see an enlightened being in my world is waning. I need to do something about my karma for seeing enlightened beings otherwise I will lose my guru.
    It looks like only interpretation b) is compatible with the teachings on emptiness. Furthermore in my eyes this seems to resonate very nicely with the Lojong #12 “Drive all blames into one”. It is not out there that the sometimes unwanted things we observe in the world are coming from but only from within.

    These ideas neither turn a blind eye to nor do they concern themselves with the veracity of allegations or the legal implications of any actual behavior on the part of the guru. He may well have done what is being alleged, and if it is illegal, the law needs to deal with the facts of the matter. But as far as our spiritual development is concerned I am led to believe that it only matters how we interpret our observations in the context of our view on the otherwise empty world.

    That said, I have no idea whether I will be able to live up to these ideas should it happen that once I have formally taken a guru a similar thing occurs. But this is how I understand the theory of the guru-disciple relationship. That may well be a paraphrase Stephen’s “No matter what you end up thinking of Sogyal, what you learned from him may still be deeply meaningful and transformative, not because of who he is but because of what you understood.”.

    I wish the person who asked the question that led to this post and discussion all the best in this difficult situation.

    1. I thank you for this Peter, although I’m uncomfortable with the way you’ve interpreted my statement about learning from abusive gurus. One can learn from every experience of course, but a guru’s behavior should be held to the highest standards. The Buddha himself was so preoccupied with the lay community’s judgement of his beggars that the vinaya (code of ethics) is as much about public perception as about personal discipline. Awakening is not a personal matter. Our perceptions are intrinsically connected, and so is our practice. Let us not be so blinded by our desire for ultimate freedom that we sacrifice our good judgement. Without it, no viable relationship of any sort is possible.

      “Driving all blames into one” is a method to subdue one’s own mental imbalance. Once you’ve achieved that and have a stable perspective on things, it’s necessary to denounce abuse and hold abusers responsible. The whole community must see that “crazy wisdom” is not just an excuse to ignore necessary social and ethical conventions. The vajrayana (tantra) is supposed to be founded upon the lesser paths, not a replacement for them.

  26. Dear friends,

    I am Tibetan and so sorry to hear that Tibetan lama has abuse these young innocent students. Some time i am surprise how can they let it happen. I always think westerner are smart enough to protect themselves as they do from any sex scandals of these kinds. But in reality this lama are nothing special and they have same sinful nature and lust and sexual desire as you and me.

    Before you decide to get any spiritual teaching you better check their history and their background.

    Because in Tibetan world its very common for Tibetan lama to abuse young Tibetan girls. Those woman and their family would never dare to open their mouth against these powerful lama. In My Tibetan settlement this big Rinpoche (high lama) use to teach Tibetan language to several student. There were five to six young woman. And he abused all these girls and some them become pregnant, and these days one of son and now also incarnate lama in one of monastery in Nepal. Tibetan Public in that area still thinks this blessing rather than speak against it. So its very common practice in villages in Tibet. Its been more than 50 years since china took Tibet but still Tibetan lamas have not changed. It’s sad and I am part of this medieval-period mind set and practices. But in reality all these Tibetan Religious leader use fraud and Buddhism to make money and live in Luxurious life, which completely different from what Buddha was teaching…. Be careful with smiling fake humble looking Lamas….

    1. Thank you for this Sonam. I lived in Tibetan refugee camps in South India for a year and am acquainted with the ‘medieval mindset’ you describe here. Most Westerners hold Tibetan lamas in high esteem and will be shocked, thinking that this couldn’t possibly be a systemic problem, but they’re under an illusion; they’re far more vulnerable than you imagine. I was shocked when I first encountered it, and deeply hurt.

      The Buddha teaches that we should face reality and not avoid it. I applaud you for speaking out.

    2. Hi Sonam,
      Thank you for this post. I am an American who is at the point of looking for a guru and getting more serious about my practice and this posting was very helpful to me. I have more research to do and your post provides excellent context. As an aside I would say that I have read and understand the other posts, and do understand the different perspectives but in the end, if you would take advantage of a vulnerable being then you are indeed doing harm to another and I personally am not comfortable with such a teacher. Having said that, I do find myself thinking of this story: a distraught woman came to the Buddha with a dead child in her arms and ask him to bring her child back to life. He said he could do that — but first she must bring him a single mustard seed from the house of a family that had never experienced sorrow or suffering. The woman set off earnestly to find this mustard seed and in the end she was transformed as she learned of the suffering of others. The point of that story is a little different but somehow thinking of the story I ask myself can one find a perfect guru? I think they will all have faults so which ones can I live with? Sexual predatory behavior is one I don’t think I can live with.


    3. I am not surprised by what you say. Thank you so much for sharing …it is very helpful indeed. Sadly abuse is widespread and we have only to think about what Jimmy Saville got away with in England to realise that nowhere is getting it ‘right’. Jimmy did lots of good fundraising but the harm he did to children and young women completely nullifies his good works which were just his way of distracting people from his evil intent.

  27. I know not the nature of the purported ‘sexual abuse’ if such was the approximate accusation. But, for the sake of the baby jesus and past and future boddhisattvas, can we not all recognize that ALL ARE HUMAN and imperfect. Perhaps it’s the guruzation of the leaders which makes some hesitant to question them.

    A swift kick in the cloppers would have done the trick, wouldn’t it? As Blake said “jesus christ is the only god, and so are you and so am I”. Transfer that to this spiritual community and understand that the teacher, although wise and knowledgeable and whatever other adjectives fit, is also a human, just like you an me…and should be accorded no more leeway than Billy Collins from Dublin.

    Just my thoughts…and blessings to the young lady, the old monk, and all the rest of us.

    1. Terence: The notion that ‘all are human’ does seem self-evident, doesn’t it? And yet those who long for perfection will always be with us. So viscerally do they desire it that they deny their common sense. They are the natural prey of charismatic but unscrupulous leaders.

  28. If Sogyal Rinpoche is a monk (or novice), he would have committed a “root downfall” which “entirely destroys his ordination”, according to “Buddhist Ethics” written by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Taye – one of the most famous “accomplished” master in Tibetan Buddhism history. If I were not mistaken, he should be kicked out from the monastery immediately because “no remedy can repair these violations”. Please refer to “The Rules of the Monks” on page 106.

    If he were a lay person like you and me, he has violated one of the five basic precepts – sexual misconduct. Again, this is a root precept, and it has been entirely destroyed. Sogyal should “take the precept again” if he still wants to teach, because many of us are keeping all five precepts perfectly.

    What’s going to happen to those who had destroyed their ethics, concealed the downfalls, and have no regret or shame? They “will have no affinity for a spiritual life for up to ten million lifetimes. He forsakes all happiness and experiences great misery”, they “will be reborn in one of the hells from the Hot Hell up to the Reviving Hell, respectively”. (Page 154)

    Furthermore, Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Taye writes, “We should recognize bad teachers: proud, ignorant (of the doctrine), willfully deceptive of student, a slave to wealth and enjoyment, obsessed with sexual desire: Wise students who wish full awakening should shun such a teacher as they would hell”. (Page 52)

    If you don’t have a copy of “Buddhist Ethics”, please google “The Bhikkhus’ Rules – A Guide for Laypeople”, and see how a monk/novice is supposed to behave. Codes of conduct of monks/nuns are nearly the same across all countries – never changed. Only a few “modern Tibetan masters” claimed that “one should follow his guru blindly” and “even your guru act like a demon, he is Buddha”. Just keep this in mind: Buddha has given up all worldly concerns, demon hasn’t. But they both have supernatural power and can teach perfect Dharma.

    1. Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Taye writes, “We should recognize bad teachers: proud, ignorant (of the doctrine), willfully deceptive of student, a slave to wealth and enjoyment, obsessed with sexual desire: Wise students who wish full awakening should shun such a teacher as they would hell”.

      Exactly. So the onus is also on the student to recognise and shun the above.

      Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Taye was a Guru and had many disciples. He was a Vajrayana Buddhist. If we think we should reform the Vajrayana rather than shunning bad gurus, we are sorely mistaken.

  29. Damn it! Was is an honest seeker suppose to do? Which effing view do I discern with all my beautifully pre-constructed limited intelligence and thought systems. I just want the Effing Dharma. Give it to me. Oh enlightened beings. WTF. I’m Pissed. MOTher FFFERRRS. is this pure speech? Wrathful! what the hell does that even mean? Are we all going to hell now? God Dammit this is a cluster fuck shit storm. Gurus, can you please get your act together and be a real GURU. Damn left hand path. Can we have some ethics? But hey I don’t want to go be a monk. I don’t want to deny my sexuality, let’s make it enlightening. I love that. But with consenting adults. You know what I mean. I guess we just don’t know. except for this. This too, illusion. sorry can’t know that. It’s just U. just the one in the one. un one. un done. done and done. son of the sun. Leads back to the misery of having fun. freedom with all appearances. the highest truths blinded with ignorance self induced. but who, who am I and Why would I do that? Ignorance of true empty self shining in this dream like reflection of light.

    1. Alex, I hear your pain but honest seekers must trust their own eyes. To paraphrase you: “Students, can you please get your act together and be real STUDENTS.”

  30. The reason why so many Buddhism students got cheated is that they do not understand what “Buddha” is.

    They mistakenly think that only Tibetan Tantric masters can “make” their devoted students a “Buddha” without students doing all the hard work. Therefore students are very afraid to offend their lamas (teachers), just to “stay in the guru-student relationship to attain Buddhahood.”

    Because very few students are armed with basic Buddhism knowledge, bad teachers are able to take advantage of them.

    Buddha once said: “Do not make alms to those (monks) who break any of the four basic precepts! Then you are my real disciple.”

    What are the basic 4 precepts for monks (now extended to all Dharma teachers)? No killing (human), no stealing (e.g. Taking what is not given, including stealing fund or monastery/temple property from family/relatives), no sexual misconduct (even touching a woman’s skin or just verbally suggesting sexual intercourse), no big lies (declaring enlightenment or seeing a Buddha while one hasn’t).

    If a female student just knows that, she would not let her teacher touch her.

    If a donor knows that, he would not keep donating to the wrong practitioner, and waste his money on “masters” who cannot earn him merits.

    If Buddhist students know that, they would shun the bad teachers and seek real accomplished masters, and practice happily on the right path to Buddhahood in no time.

    Don’t think that if you can just work out some of your chakras and channels, you’ll become a Buddha in one second, and can fly up in the sky or kill your enemies by chanting secret mantra. Whoever with supernatural power and attempts to harm others is NOT a Buddha! He is a demon!

  31. I wish to thank all for their comments,suggestions and conclusions.. I have recently left my Sangha and Master… disillusioned – feeling like a fool! …But then again the Guru – Devotee system in Tantrayana when corrupted can be a perfect trap…
    When ‘Crazy wisdom’ is the only purported Wisdom, where trusting without reason ( relatively) is said to be the only true devotion – one can and will often doubt one-self and overlook the Master’s actions . … How sad it is that these Lama’s & Rinpoche’s give Buddhism a bad reputation… leading many away from opportunities of the Buddha-dharma. I won’t give up – I will seek the Truth, the Truth Sayer and the Truth supporters!!! May the same be for others also mistreated and mislead ..Om Mani Padme Hum

  32. I found his lecture on Tibetan Wisdom to be very helpful. I wish I could say that learning of Sogyal’s sexual misconduct did not taint his teaching, but for me it has.

    None of us are perfect. It is through our imperfections that we can learn and progress on the spiritual path, by facing and overcoming them. Running and hiding from them is counter productive. Currently, Sogyal is displaying spiritual cowardice by not personally addressing his victims and apologizing. Until he does this his teaching is tainted and he should refrain.

    1. I agree Geoffrey. A teacher doesn’t have to be perfect to teach well, but the role he or she models is what gives the words power, for good or for ill.

  33. Does anyone forget about one of the first LAM_RIM teachings on how we NEED to checkout our Gurus for at least ten years before really calling and considering them our teachers? Common WE ALL have responsibility on ours and others karma. I was a Buddhist monk for some years (student of Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche) and even though I am physically away from the organization, I am deeply grateful to my beloved guru, since I still see the changes within me.
    Guru devotion is not about becoming stupid and follow orders, its about learning to discriminate and look for the wisdom within, not becoming judge of others.

    1. Thank you Losang Nyima. You’d think this would be obvious, specially to modern educated people, but it clearly needs to be said again and again.

  34. In Jodo-Shinshu Buddhism we rely on Amida Buddha only via the teachings of Shinran Shonin who said I have no disciples, I am neither layman or monk. Priests in Jodo-Shinshu are facilitators, not gurus. Some may be scholars but none are considered more important than the humblest follower. Namu Amida Butsu.

  35. The problem is that during the ten years needed to investigate a teacher, one must do the following:

    Learn Tibetan well enough to know what the entire community says.

    To learn the language takes time and effort and money, if one has a tutor.

    One must live with and travel with the teacher. This takes time and money if the teacher spends much time in the West, in India, Nepal, Sikkim, etc.

    One is spending time with those who share the path and this will have deep effects on one’s own perspective.

    No matter how objective one is during this proposed ten year investigation, one may have lost much of one’s critical acuity during that time and taken on the habits of adoration and mental censorship that are part of living in community.

    Other obstacles:

    *What if the teacher is skillfully concealing a hidden, vow breaking pattern of behavior, and has many inner circle members who collude in the secret keeping?

    * Senior students who know bad things are being done often consider themselves obligated to conceal their doubts and misgivings from new students for fear of
    distracting them from the Dharma.

    ** In severe situations, the stress of concealing a guru’s abusive greedy behavior and lying for a guru may be rationalized by inner circle members as evidence that they are tough enough to bear the stress and burden of lying for and enabling the guru.

    ***Some may glory in the double think needed to justify “crazy wisdom” and guru misbehavior.

    Persons who have grown up in families where they had to hide or collude in a parent’s addiction, may find an unconscious familiarity with the enabling that occurs in protecting abusive gurus.

    Persons who learned in familis of origin not to notice abuse or learned to rationalize abuse may find it quite easily to slip into the patterns of unconscious censorship
    and collusion that condenses in many monasteries and sanghas.

    All this is subtle and unconscious. Sadly, the crazy wisdom alibi has become a popular
    way to rationalize abusive, bizarre behavior on reilgious grounds

    That is why it is so very necessary to apply insight to this and not be distracted
    by the glamour, smiles and giggles of the Vajrayana elite and their followers.

  36. Was it Milarepa who said that although one’s view may be as vast as the sky, one’s respect for cause and effect should remain as fine as grains of flour?
    I also have suffered due to ethical breaches, failure of duty of care, lying etc by my former sangha and in the end what really cut was not only the inaction of the organisation to remedy the situation as best as they could, but the complete failure of the ‘guru’ to address any of it. Does not the buck stop there? As he is one of the most highly esteemed Tibetan Lamas teaching today, it is a very difficult pill to swallow and I have been adrift for 3 years now. I guess the buck stops with me and my consolation is an invigorated understanding of the value of moral conviction, determination to pursue the truth – to not give up and strangely I have come to have more self respect than I did in the years gone before…

    1. Hey there dkblue: I don’t find it at all strange that you have more self-respect. You’ve become self-reliant. The crap situation handed you an opportunity, and you took it. I dare say you’re still taking it. Stuff doesn’t have to feel good to be good.

  37. I can see (at least) two issues here: (1) the ethical precept of “sexual misconduct” that seems to have been transgressed in this case. In my mind there is no question that anybody (High Lama, Guru, myself, etc…) who has given a commitment to follow the Buddhist path is also committed to aspire to practice this particular precept. When, as we humans do, we failed sometimes to achieve any aspiration, then we have the recourse of “regret”: recognizing what we have done/not done, do the necessary to redress any harm done, and renew our precept/aspiration. Perhaps Sogyal Rinpoche did that in his personal domain, but as a very public teacher, I think it would be very appropriate to do it publicly.

    The other side of this issue is how one responds to this “sexual misconduct”. I believe the Buddhist Teachings tell me “with understanding and compassion”. Responding with compassion DOES NOT MEAN TO CONDONE THE SEXUAL MISCONDUCT; to my mind it means not to respond from a position of anger and righteousness: it means that we would find more appropriate responses when we think from a position of understanding and compassion, than from a position of emotional outrage.

    The second issue involves one of our most human desires: to have someone (be they a human being, a “Guru”, or God) to love me, to protect me, to validate my existence, to tell me what to do when I feel so helpless/hopeless, etc… and of course the so-called Guru-student relationship can run according to this model: I have found my “Savior”!
    There is also the related problem of thinking he/she is MY teacher/guru: one has to question the underlining “attachment”, which would poisoned any relationship.

    From my humble experience, my way to avoid this pitfall is to take the teachings, and not the messenger, as my Guru, as my protector, my guidance. The Buddhist Teachings are giving me an opportunity to develop a wonderful, cohesive, theoretical/philosophical framework to guide my life. Guru devotion to me is not devotion to any human (of course I admire and respect the achievements of many great Buddhist masters) but is devotion to following the Buddhist path.

    1. Thank you Andree. I think, at this point, it might be helpful for us all to remember the Triratna: Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. The guru is not included. The Three Jewels are sufficient.

  38. This discussion has been a big help. I have also found a book called Minority Religions and Fraud which has a chapter about Sogyal Rinpoche and Rigpa with the title – When fraud is part of a spiritual path A Tibetan lama’s plays on reality and illusion. The chapter can be found on It is well worth reading and I would really like to hear what Stephen and the other contributors here think about it.

  39. Lots of hogwash about Trungpa Rinpoche here. Have any commenters have even seen this Lama?
    Trungpa Rinpoche slept with hundreds of women during his lifetime. All the sexual contact was consentual.
    How many accusations around his relationships came from his wife or students? Zero.
    If one is to pile up a responsibility for sex on the teacher, how about the student having sex with them?
    if you relegate all responsibility on the teacher then the other person to me is not a human being but an amoeba.
    I am not saying that Trungpa was a perfect teacher and did not make mistakes, he made a lot of mistakes but his contribution compared to his mistakes is like a million to one in my estimation.

    1. I agree with you Rob, to an extent.

      You would have to study Trungpa in depth to even get a fraction of a glimpse of him, but he was a genuine Mahasiddha in a bonafide tradtion of Mahasiddhas.

      To understand the place of such beings in the context of Dharma transmission, we’d do well to study the life and times of Guru Rinpoche, Naropa, Marpa, Virupa and the like.

  40. Before giving full confidence to another human being, we should stay in contact with our inner voice. I was visiting regularly Lerab Ling for three years, after moving to France for this. Coming closer, I felt “something was wrong” for me towards Sogyal. I listened to this voice and never returned to Lerab Ling. It was very sudden, during my work for the Dalai Lama as a cleaning woman, but I had no doubt. Some people visited me at my house asking to come back but I never did. I feel however not any loose towards my buddhist basics of kindness. Since that “shock”, my only practice of kindness is in daily life and in a very small circle around me, kids, husband, school… I have no regrets about my experience and changes of life.

  41. Me too Guilia, I saw him in Melbourne in about 1990, and was very unimpressed, seemed like a fake to me.

  42. I do believe that many retreat practitioners are seeking personal guidance for a variety of underlying parental issues which they are struggling with in some way. These issues can be somewhat complex. Many hope to rehabilitate relational issues by recreating that paternal bond with a master guide in what they perceive as a safe environment. Mentorship often goes beyond the framework of the subject or teachings. These are immersive environments and life experiences. There are indeed many slippery slopes in these type of self rebuilding experiences … not only in Buddhist retreats. The situation of psychological dependance, trust and compliance is truly ideal for exploitation. Unscrupulous manipulators seek out such positions of power and influence over vulnerable people … It is truly a huge issue which is seldom addressed … but is prevalent in many other mentor settings as well.

  43. I have just attended a short retreat with Sogyal Rinpoche. I was not impressed by the teaching, nor by his public treatment of his students, nor by what appeared to me to be slavish devotion to him within the sangha. The teaching seemed to me to be lazy, mainly a recitation of passages from TBLD, and videos of earlier teachings, one of which was a video of a Sogyal video(!). I was disturbed by the apparent narcissism of Sogyal’s manner and presentation. Concluding the teaching, he promised something from ‘the most profound Dzogchen teachings’. This was the ‘wisdom of non-meditation’, the stage at which meditation can be left behind so that the mind can simply be. ‘Water unstirred will become clear’, ‘the mind unaltered will find peace’. This is certainly advanced, and a glimpse of what it might be like to realise the true nature of mind. But I fear that, if I were to deepen my involvement in that particular sangha the Sogyal-induced environment would be an obstacle to my progress.

    I share Giulia and Steven White’s disquiet.

  44. The so called highly realised meditation masters, fully qualified, are supposed to possess the attributes that are the qualities inherent in luminous clear light non conceptual awareness arising in dependence upon it being in the nature of shunyata…..form is shunyata….shunyata is form. I might not have got that quite right 🙂 in short they are supposed to be brim full of bodhicitta not just meditative power

    once the lama enacts harm and continues then they are no Lama. I know of one Tibetan teacher who got involved with a few students but from what I understand, came clean, apologised and everybody moved forward…..I am hoping I am not in for another sogyalesque shock there!

    So called high Lamas or lineage masters or organisational builders, think FPMT and Rigpa should be more or less faultless in the bodhisattva attitude and conduct. To say great teachers in this tradition are only human is to devalue the teachings, and the outcomes. A lama in the Vajrayana / Dzogchen traditions is “great” based on the bodhicitta in ALL their actions. There is no other yardstick for a potential student of a teacher to place reliance on. I hesitate to add renunciation and view of shunyata given that the three principles of the path is by Lama Tsongkhapa and I have teachers from each school. I think I witness the three principles in impeccable teachers from each Tibetan tradition.

    I do not underestimate the outcome of devotion to a fully qualified, brim full of bodhicitta, master however, given the recent shock in becoming aware of the nature of someone I considered my teacher (not my guru) I will not in future not underestimate the value of researching a teacher. Happily modern communication systems should shorten that often quoted ten year period of observation…a little!

  45. When I hear or read of such cases, it makes me question so many things. Why do the rest of the students/members of such organizations become mute spectators of such incidents?

    I used to visit the FPMT Centre at Bangalore for a brief duration. I learned about this sexual offence case in the Centre. It was sad to see how the victim was told not to report to police or discuss the incident with anyone. Within days of the incident, management was asking around to check who are the people talking to the victim, thus isolating the victim. What was even more painful was the treatment meted out to the victim. One of the management members shouted at the victim, in presence of all, for no fault of the victim. It is ironical that this member shouted “This is a Dharma Centre…” perhaps little realizing herself that in a Dharma Centre, one does not shout at anyone and certainly do not publicly humiliate another. The wrongdoer, on the other hand, was treated with so much respect. The management or teachers did not say a word to discourage such inappropriate behavior. The victim soon stopped visiting the Centre. Last heard, the victim fell sick with all the harassment and torture. I was completely disillusioned by how the organization operated against the victim, how they did everything to kill the truth. I took the decision to stay away from such institutionalized Buddhism.

    It made me question the behavior of the rest of us. Why do we become mute spectators of such incidents? Why don’t we have the courage to publicly stand up for, and stand by, the victim? It requires good people to drive out the evil. Why then do the good become quiet at such opportune moments? What makes us fear the management team and teachers, who are small in number? Are they teaching us Dharma or Adharma? What about my Karma debt? Have I committed collective negative karma along with all these people?

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