Lobsang Rapgay, now a practicing clinical psychologist and adjunct assistant professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, was a Tibetan Buddhist monk for 18 years and formerly served as the Dalai Lama’s deputy secretary and English-language interpreter.
He wrote to us in early September after a rash of sexual abuse allegations surfaced, including those against Lama Norlha of Kagyu Thubten Chöling and Rigpa’s Sogyal Rinpoche, who for years had been the target of multiple accusations of impropriety. We published Dr. Rapgay’s letter as an opinion piece online. In it, Dr. Rapgay wrote about how Rigpa could reform and recover in the wake of their teacher’s public resignation.
This is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that a teacher’s shadow side has surfaced. As Dr. Rapgay put it, “Abuse is always going to happen, because it’s human nature.” But there also seems to be a particular set of circumstances that gives rise to a situation the Western Buddhist community in particular has seen again and again: a lone teacher rises to power and attracts a devoted following. Following revelations of abuse, the disgraced teacher’s students are left to struggle with emotional pain and disillusionment.
As someone with extensive experience in both the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and Western psychology, Dr. Rapgay has a unique perspective from which to assess the complexities at play when it comes to abuse in the sangha. Though he felt he was only able to speak to the tradition with which he is familiar, his insights in the interview that follows can likely be applied generally.
In his private practice, Dr. Rapgay told Tricycle, he had seen firsthand “what people go through when they suffer abuse. It can lead to severe depression or anxiety, or they might never trust again.” And though he has not been very active in the Tibetan Buddhist community recently, he was compelled to speak out about these issues, he said, because they run counter to the “very essence of the Buddhist teachings.” He joins the ranks of a small number of Tibetan Buddhist notables, including Matthieu Ricard in late July and the Dalai Lama in early August, who have responded to the accusations against Sogyal Rinpoche with their own statements about the student-teacher relationship and what, as we all keep asking, went wrong.
–Emma Varvaloucas, Executive Editor
Are the kinds of sexual abuse patterns we’ve seen in the Tibetan tradition unique to the Western context, or do you see this happening in Tibet and India as well? In any kind of institution, particularly where there’s celibacy and wherever power is vested in some individuals over others, there will always be abuse in one form or another. In India and Tibet it’s within the cloisters of the monastic institution, and that makes it easy to maintain secrecy. Even if the public is aware, people may not have a voice to raise objections against the monastic institution because it protects itself both physically and in terms of its power over the community.
So it does exist, but less often in terms of a celibate teacher abusing lay practitioners, although that may exist as well. Normally, and certainly in all monastic Buddhist traditions, access to the lay communities is limited to religious celebrations or general public discourses, which are not frequent. Instead, the main access is to young monastic members of the institution, and that’s where the abuse is most likely to happen—sexual, physical, and emotional. On the surface, these young, vulnerable monks may not show the same severe symptoms of abuse as some victims do here in the West. But that doesn’t necessarily mean damage doesn’t occur. My feeling is that it does.
But it’s hard to say how pervasive this behavior is. It’s not as if a researcher can go in and look into the matter. Occasionally a brave person does actually talk about abuse, when they feel they can open up to someone they trust, and I know of individuals who have done that. But that information is revealed with the hope that their confidant won’t then go around telling others about it. Although there are exceptions: the young Kalu Rinpoche publicly detailed his sexual abuse by his teachers.
It seems clear how abuse occurs in these heavily institutionalized monastic contexts. What about in the West, where, as you suggested, the abuse occurs primarily between teachers and lay practitioners? Very often the teachers who come here are highly established, reputable teachers in their own countries. But they may have lived in monasteries their whole lives, never learning how to have an intimate relationship with someone. So when they come to the West and are exposed to a lay audience, that can kindle a deep inner need to be emotionally intimate with somebody, especially of the opposite sex. Emotional intimacy takes time; you need to develop the basic foundations in childhood onward, and as you grow, you mature into it. Not having had that, and then being restricted by celibacy plus the mantle of authority they carry, they are caught in a very difficult position.
And then you also have teachers who are not as well trained, who may not be fully embodied in the teachings, and they come here and acquire power and attention from very devoted students. Because they’ve established centers and put in a lot of hard work, they feel empowered to teach—and to interpret the teachings in a way that is somewhat unconsciously self-serving and perpetuates their independence from the system of having other teachers supervise or relate to them. They might have other teachers come in to teach, but just perfunctorily, not investing them with any power to guide.
These kinds of teachers begin to function very independently, and because they are not fully trained or have not acquired the kind of spiritual proficiency they need, they are more likely to be psychologically vulnerable to identifying with the new power role they are in. And complicating that is the fact that they haven’t developed the ability to emotionally and intimately relate to another person to whom they are attracted. So their new power mixes with that and becomes a need to control the other person. And then the abuse is not just secretly having an intimate relationship with a student, for instance; it can lead to emotional abuse and humiliation of that student, binding them to secrecy with the threat of bad things happening to them and so on.
This is also complicated by such things as guru devotion and samaya, the set of initiation vows that include a pledge not to denigrate the teacher. Actually, a well-qualified, ethical teacher will clearly spell out the guru relationship between the teacher and student. In the Theravada, Mahayana, and tantra traditions, there are clear-cut criteria and the establishment of certain boundaries in such a relationship.
In the East there’s an institution, and it has a way to provide some checks and balances when a teacher or a student violates these injunctions. One of them might be to expel the student from the community, or another might be a severe reprimand in front of the community. But the problem in the West is that there is no system in place to provide these checks and balances.
And when a teacher personalizes and interprets the teachings to suit the needs of the Western students in a particular way, he or she then establishes ownership over those teachings, and they become very exclusive and elite. That leads to a differentiation of himself and his teaching from the others’ teachings and even the tradition itself, as being very unique and special. The focus becomes one of perpetuating that teaching at the cost of neglecting the fundamental ethical guidelines between teacher and student. Even if those are referred to, no real attempt is made to create institutionalized clear boundaries between the teacher and the student. Nor is an attempt made to create ethics committees with the power and the authority to carry out its missions, including enforcing consequences when violations occur.
In the case of Sogyal Rinpoche’s organization, Rigpa, I was surprised to learn that such a huge international institution—it has nearly 130 centers—doesn’t have clear-cut ethical guidelines. And that speaks to the fact that when authority is assumed by one person who starts to interpret the teachings in a unique personal way, it may be very helpful to many students, but it is also problematic. The teacher is left to pick and choose what part of the teachings he wants to emphasize and what he wants to leave out, choices that may happen both consciously and unconsciously.
There’s a perspective in what seems like large swaths of the Tibetan Buddhist community—both in the West and the East—that once you’ve accepted a guru as your teacher, everything he or she does is supposed to be seen as enlightened activity, even if on the face of it they look as if they are causing harm or acting in ways we like to dub “crazy wisdom.” In my understanding, the tantric teachings have to be based on bodhicitta, or the altruistic mind. You have to take a set of 18 altruistic vows, or at least make a commitment to altruism. If you don’t respect the consequences of your actions in terms of how much damage it can do to someone else, then it very much contradicts not only those 18 vows but also the fundamental precepts in the early Buddhist traditions not to harm anyone. You take that vow as your first entry to Buddhism because it’s so central. So to use the concept of samaya to downplay the very basis of Buddhism is, I think, a misrepresentation of the teachings. Samaya is critically important; it is something to take very seriously and look at more deeply before we pass judgment on its value. But I also think that sometimes both teachers and students become so enamored with the Buddhist tantric tradition that they overlook these real core teachings of Buddhism. Access to the secret and fastest path to enlightenment is only possible by participating in an initiation ritual of certain qualified and selected students by the teacher, which does establish a special relationship. It is this process of secrecy and specialness at the hands of some teachers and students that can create a feeling of elitism.
In Buddhism we have this concept of buddhanature, the teaching that we have this element of pureness within us. So when teachers in the Tibetan tradition address the issue of sexual abuse perpetrated by other teachers, they’ll often say, “We shouldn’t criticize the teacher; we should criticize his behavior.” But that’s very tricky ground, because behavior is the most effective—and perhaps only—way of measuring a person’s integrity and trustworthiness. It’s beyond our ability to access the teacher’s mind and intentions.
You mentioned the creation of ethical guidelines—what other reforms do you think would help? Because of the separation of church and state here in the United States, many of the religious institutions are pretty much left unchecked by the state. That provides a sense of security and independence that implicitly allows abusive teachers to thrive.
The most important step is for teachers to learn the ethical, legal, and social issues in this country regarding sexual and physical abuse. They need to understand the huge consequences— that if you hit somebody and it’s considered an assault by the state, you can be sent to prison. And they need to understand—and take seriously—the enormous social sensitivity in the West regarding relationships between some- one in power and someone who is under the influence of that person.
The sad thing is that once teachers are in the West, their own teachers or the monastic institutions they belong to generally have little power to control or enforce the kinds of regulations that would normally exist.
It’s true that it is difficult for the Tibetan institution to enact checks and balances from afar. But it doesn’t seem like much effort has been made from within the Tibetan leadership—with the exception of a few individuals—to even try. Statements are rare, action rarer still, and often other lamas come to a teacher’s defense, as we saw in the case of Sogyal Rinpoche. You see that happen in any institution. They want to protect the lineage. They want to protect the teachings. They want to preserve Buddhism. They see it as an important vehicle, which it is. And the preservation of that supersedes anything else. In their mind, speaking out would mean that they are participating in bringing down the institution.
At a deeper level, there may be implicit pressures from the institution itself. If the higher-ups don’t speak out, this is an implicit directive to the other junior teachers and others to not do so either. And at the individual level, many Tibetans don’t speak up partly because I don’t think they understand the psychological severity of physical and sexual abuse, and partly because they’ve been acculturated to some of these behaviors, like the humiliating of someone when they’ve done something wrong. Overall the culture has absolved that kind of behavior, and used to see it as a part of the process of growing up and changing your own negative thoughts and behaviors.
There’s also the issue of confession. In the West, when we confess something, we often do it in a group, in front of others. We talk to the person we’ve harmed. In Buddhism, confession is very integral; if you do something wrong, you have to confess it. But it’s done in the form of a collective prayer, often as a generic confession that even includes things you haven’t done. Individuals don’t own up to a particular transgression by giving details of it to a group. I think that’s the difference—a personal sense of remorse isn’t always activated unless the monk or the teacher is conscientious about the transgression committed.
I think that’s an important thing to revisit. At least for the perpetrator, healing occurs when you confess to the victim, show remorse, and restore a personal feeling of guilt and shame. When you’re perpetrating sexual or emotional abuse, you split off a sense of personal responsibility, morality, and empathy. It’s not that you don’t have that capacity at some level. But when you have a need—whether it’s a sexual need or a need for power—you split it off from your awareness in order to carry out the abuse. The guilt and shame is projected onto the victim by making him or her feel bad about questioning the process or resisting being selected to be part of this highest tantric practice. For the teacher to undo the harm, he or she has to reclaim the guilt and shame. Doing so allows for reparations to be made, and eventually for empathy to be developed for the victim.
Related: Why I Quit Guru Yoga
What other insights from the psychological field might apply to these cases? One thing we might look at in the future is attachment: how we form intimate relationships. Often these teachers, either monastic or lay, are seen as reincarnate buddhas or highly realized teachers of the past, and then they are automatically elevated in their own minds as well as in the minds of their disciples and the people who attend to them. It reaches to a level where it may be hard for them to relate to someone else intimately the way we understand it in the West, where you learn to relate to a person through trust, vulnerability, and sharing. Without that experience, regard for the other individual may not fully form.
This doesn’t mean that such teachers don’t form close relationships with their students—they do. But that’s not the emotional relationship we are talking about. They are not going to confess to their students thoughts they are having and so on. What we are talking about here is a one-to-one emotional relationship, where both partners are equal, and where if you have a problem you don’t feel the need to hide it. That’s the kind of thing I think is missing. Attachment issues become a very critical component in understanding and empathizing with the people who carry out these abusive actions, without condoning them.
If students really want to find a good teacher—this is one of the criteria in the texts, and I’d also suggest it—they should find one who shows true interest in the student’s well-being, by which I mean to say they show interest in that student as a person. I think that’s such an important criterion for selecting a teacher, more important than the content of the teachings alone or the title of the teacher. But that can only happen if the teacher himself recognizes the importance of understanding people. And to do that he has to have experienced close and intimate relationships.
That’s certainly difficult, because even here, where being a reincarnate tulku is less of a status marker, students still look to the teacher as someone higher than they are, because the teacher imparts knowledge or wisdom. Right. And especially if it’s the tantric teachings, or what they call mind-to-mind transmissions of secret teachings, that demonstrate such esoteric elitism. That’s not to say inherently there’s a problem with it— there isn’t. But if what is meant is not properly explained, and if the student is not ready and doesn’t completely understand the process, then it leads to projections and fantasies in the student’s mind that in turn may unwittingly guide that student to behave in an uncritically conforming way or become passively indifferent to things that are not right.
Any last thoughts? Abuse is always going to happen, because it’s human nature. As humans, we have a dark side and a good side. Circumstances—our personal dispositions, our willingness to give in to our urges and impulses, and the system under which we live— end up playing a large role in determining which way we’ll go. But because we innately have both these good and bad capacities, we need systems to protect not just ourselves, but more importantly the people over whom we hold some form of power.
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