Artist and former nun Damcho Dyson delivered the following speech about her experience with disgraced Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rinpoche, who has been accused of sexual and physical abuse by many members of the Rigpa community that he founded, at the Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women’s 16th biennial conference. She spoke alongside editor and author Tahlia Newland, who recalls the moment she learned about her teacher’s abuse in the excerpt below from her book, Fallout: Recovering from Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism (AIA Publishing, July 20, 2019). Buddhist chaplain Jack Wicks coordinated and introduced the talk at the June event in Blue Mountains, Australia, which you can listen to here.
This Is Abuse
By Damcho Dyson
Sogyal Rinpoche was the first Buddhist teacher that I came into contact with.
I’d like to mention to everyone who does not know Sogyal Rinpoche, that Sogyal is not a monk and he has no precepts that prohibit him from consensual sexual relations.
Like many others, I met him at a time when I was yearning for a way to make sense of suffering after my life was derailed by a series of traumas. When I felt like I had nothing left to lose, Sogyal’s best-selling book, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, provided me with great support and tools.
I didn’t want to fall back into the confusion and suffering of my life and so reasoned that I should surrender my ego to the teacher and follow him and the lineage of the Buddha’s teachings that he was transmitting. I’d already noticed the benefits of meditation and contemplation, so dismissed a number of the concerns that arose in those early days.
As a community, Rigpa had a culture in which faith and devotion—rather than rigorous study—were emphasized. The few who openly questioned Sogyal’s manner of teaching were made an example of through a publicly humiliating dialogue that could completely hijack a teaching session. We were told by Sogyal and his senior students that these so-called training sessions were “activity teachings” and Sogyal’s erratic and tantrum-like behavior was “crazy wisdom,” and the way to view it correctly was to cultivate “pure perception.”
I blindly trusted in the authenticity of Sogyal and his methods. By the time I moved to Lerab Ling, Rigpa’s main center in France, I was inspired to take monastic ordination and aspired to surrender myself to the teacher and be trained in the manner of the great saints of the past. Therefore, when Sogyal first “corrected” me, by striking me across the top of my head with a wooden back scratcher, I took this as a blessing.
Over the years, I became closer to Sogyal, and he gave me greater and greater responsibilities for his household and personal affairs. Now his personal attendant, the frequency and severity of private beatings and public humiliations increased. For many of us in the “inner circle” it was not uncommon to have multiple lumps on our skulls or split scalps from beating. He once ripped my ear.
We all saw that his worst moods were caused by problems with the young attractive females—students he’d groomed for sexual relationships—that were on call to him 24/7. Only later was I to hear from some of them personally that they had been raped. They had been coerced into the relationship by being told they were engaging in consort practice, karmamudra.
Yet somehow, we kept each other afloat by reflecting on the karma we might be purifying, and the ego-clinging that we were loosening.
In 2008, six years after taking ordination, I started having waking and sleeping flashbacks of his beatings and verbal abuse, and began to feel physically ill at the sound of his voice. Sogyal sent me to Rigpa Therapy which was supposedly a fusion of Western psychology and the buddhadharma. I was grateful to have someone I could talk through my challenges with, but the therapist manipulated me too, telling me that the beatings and trials were nothing to do with Sogyal but rather with some past issues with a family member that needed to be purified.
Two years later, two visiting teachers could see that something was not right for me. They encouraged me to speak to them—something that we were always warned against as “no one will understand.” The first told me that I was too close to the fire and so was being burned. He encouraged me to slowly and skillfully take a step back. A few weeks later, the second told me, “This is abuse.”
Upon hearing those three words, I finally saw the entire history of my “training” for what it truly was. Over the coming months, I secretly planned how I could run away from Lerab Ling. When I finally did—at the end of 2010—and went into hiding in India, I was publicly discredited and shamed by Sogyal. It was at least three years before the traumatic flashbacks and nightmares eased, and more years before I could turn to a professional therapist for help.
In 2017, I joined seven other current and former Rigpa students who wanted to hold Sogyal to account for his behavior. Each of us had different stories and when we spoke together, we realized that the damage went far beyond our individual experiences. Our open letter outlined the main concerns regarding Sogyal’s misconduct in relation to sexual, physical, emotional, financial and psychological abuse of students; and the ways in which his actions had tainted people’s appreciation for the practice of the dharma.
The letter quickly received wide coverage and has led to support networks being set up and official investigations launched in France, the UK, and Australia. Since co-authoring this letter, I have heard many more extreme and profoundly disturbing accounts of Sogyal’s abusive behavior and can state that what has been published in the press and the official investigation merely scratches the surface.
By Tahlia Newland
In July 2017, eight formerly close students of Tibetan Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rinpoche sent a letter to him and his students detailing the emotional, physical and sexual abuse they’d experienced at his hands, and the decades-long cover up by management of Rigpa—the organization that manages his network of study and practice centers. For the majority of students, reading the attestations of abuse came as a great shock and had a huge impact on their lives.
Sogyal Rinpoche was my spiritual teacher for 20 years, from 1997 to 2017, during which I had an idealized and inaccurate view of the culture of Tibetan Buddhism. I set up and ran the Rigpa Australia distance education center (known as the Bush Telegraph), working long hours without pay, which I was happy to do, dedicated, as were all who worked for Rigpa, to the cause of spreading buddhadharma in the Western world. I trained as an instructor in 2000 and remained an instructor until I left.
I became Sogyal’s student after my first retreat when he gave an introduction to the nature of mind and then said, “If you got it, you’re now my student. We have samaya [a mutual commitment to awakening]. You’re stuck with me.” I didn’t know what samaya was back then, but I accepted that he was my teacher because I’d glimpsed what I’d assumed was the nature of my mind. I had no idea at the time that if I wished to get the highest teachings, I would be required to profess unquestioning devotion to Sogyal. After several years, I was so immersed in the pervading Rigpa culture that I fostered the required devotion without question.
I only saw Sogyal in the flesh once a year at retreats, and I had no idea until June 2017 how he behaved in private. As an ordinary student, I only saw what everyone saw of him at retreats, and I interacted personally with Sogyal Rinpoche on only a few occasions. At those times I found him kind and attentive, and our interactions were either beneficial or puzzling, but never harmful. I trusted that he would never hurt anyone.
I write now from the perspective of a bystander because that’s how I and many of my friends experienced these events. Abuse in a spiritual context does not just affect those directly abused; it affects every single member of a community, and if this is nothing more than the story of how one of those ordinary members found closure, then so be it. I share my story in the hope that it will help others like me to find closure for themselves.
When I learned that my ex-monk friend and other Rigpa members had been physically abused by Sogyal, in one instant I was liberated from dependency on my lama, my guru. I realized that the central focus of my spiritual path was based on a lie—my lama was not who I’d thought him to be.
The traditional stories of students of great masters attaining realization when their master slapped them with a sandal or threw stones at them flashed through my mind. I could see that if such a thing happened once, or at least rarely, it could be a powerful way to make someone pay attention, and this was the idea behind the term “crazy wisdom” which referred to a realized master using “unconventional” actions to awaken a student. Such actions were supposed to be only for the rare student who was so spiritually advanced that they would respond positively to such behavior, not regularly and for every student close to the master. And the actions resulted in awakening, not injury. Injuries caused by a genuine crazy wisdom master’s actions supposedly healed spontaneously and immediately, yet my monk friend said he was left with bruises.
Our senior Rigpa instructors had regularly told us, with great pride, that Sogyal Rinpoche was a great crazy wisdom master, one who has such love and compassion for his students that he’s willing to wake them up by any means necessary, even if it means that what he says or does appears a bit harsh. And I’d believed them. Now it seemed that the crazy wisdom story had been nothing more than a convenient explanation for behavior that otherwise would be seen as abusive.
I’d seen Sogyal publicly humiliating people many times, but they’d said afterwards that they’d experienced it as love and learned from it so they didn’t see it as harmful, rather they’d experienced it as helpful. I’d figured that if they didn’t experience it as harmful, then for them it wasn’t, so why should I be bothered? Sogyal had called it “activity training.” It was supposed it make us more efficient workers, better team players, that kind of thing, and since I’d even learned myself from some of the things he’d pointed out to people, it all seemed quite reasonable.
When “allegations” of abuse had surfaced on the internet a few years ago, senior Rigpa instructors gave a special Representing Rigpa session to teach instructors how to deal with students who asked questions about the abuse allegations. I’d not heard of it before then. They told us not to look online because every search would increase the hits on the site hosting the allegations and make it come up when people searched for Sogyal’s name. They disparaged those who revealed the abuse and led me to believe Sogyal was the victim of cyberbullying.
I hadn’t looked online, not only because they’d told me not to and I’d assumed it was a bullying campaign but also because I hadn’t wanted my devotion tested. I’d told myself my devotion was unshakable, so nothing I read would change it. What a good little student I’d been—compliant and uncomplaining. I’d been proud of my unshakable faith in my lama. I hadn’t noticed the pride before, but now I realized it had stopped me from even wanting to see the truth, and it was important that people did see the website listing the testimonies of abuse. The action required here wasn’t to stop cyberbullies who were “out to get” Sogyal; it was to stop the real bully—Sogyal.
Shattered trust on a spiritual level is devastating. And if it was hard for me, how much harder it must be for those directly abused. But the betrayal, I realized, extended to every one of my vajra brothers and sisters; even if they didn’t know the truth, they believed in a lie.
At retreats when faced with Sogyal’s grumpy and demanding behavior, we were told that for those who were the focus of his apparent aggression, this was the enlightened action of a crazy wisdom master speeding up the student’s spiritual progress. We were told not to look at it with our ordinary judgmental mind, because that mind was unreliable; it obscured the truth. The truth was supposed to be that what appeared to us as public humiliation was actually an act of great kindness. We were told to let whatever rose in our mind fall away and not get caught up in our risings, to see it as just a rising, something to let go of.
Our innate wisdom of discernment was lumped in with the term “judgmental mind” and we were taught not to trust it. Reacting to our gut feeling that something wasn’t right in Sogyal’s behavior was seen as a mark of a lack of spiritual accomplishment, so we all tried very hard not to react. They trained us to not trust our own perception, to see something we intuitively saw as harmful as kindness. They trained us to watch abuse without complaint. Oh, how I’d been manipulated!
At that Representing Rigpa session, I’d done what the senior instructors had told me to do—evaluate based on my own experience of my guru, not on what others say they’d experienced. Hearing allegations directly from two people I trusted, however, had brought the matter right into my experience. Back then, I’d asked one of the instructors, someone very close to Sogyal, if any of it was true. She’d said, “We don’t believe he has harmed anyone.”
I’d taken those words to mean that he hadn’t harmed anyone. Now I noticed the key word—believe. What we believe happened and what really happened are not always the same thing.
Images of all the good times flitted through my mind: the love I’d felt in his presence; the kindness with which he’d treated me; the hugs; the personal thank you; the blessing for my Diamond Peak fantasy series, which was an analogy of the path to enlightenment; and the practices I’d done at his direction. The times he’d rejected me followed: the gift I worked on for months that he threw away; the time he called me stupid; the questions he’d dismissed or ignored or mocked. And then all those little things I’d pushed aside rushed in: how he left us sitting for hours in the middle of the day in a tent in the searing heat of an Australian summer; how his sessions went so late that lunch was two or three hours late; how he shouted at people and threw things at them; kept changing things that needn’t have been changed; demanded perfection; did his practice for hours—or made phone calls— while we sat there watching him with no idea what he was saying as he rushed through countless prayers and practices in Tibetan. I shook my head. What now? When your spiritual path is based on your trust in a person and that person shatters your trust, what happens to your spiritual path?
[Yet leaving Rigpa and siding with the abused] wasn’t a decision I had to agonize over. It was quite clear to me then that, no matter what our relationship had been in the past, now I knew what he was really like, this was not a person I could take as my spiritual teacher.
Excerpted from Fallout: Recovering from Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism (AIA Publishing, July 20, 2019) by Tahlia Newland.