In September 2022, the French-German public access channel Arte aired Buddhism: The Unspeakable Truth (Bouddhisme: La Loi du Silence), a documentary by French journalists Élodie Emery and Wandrille Lanos. The 90-minute documentary, which was cut to 52 minutes for an English-speaking audience, discusses Buddhist communities that have been embroiled in scandal, including Rigpa, the international organization founded by Sogyal Lakar (Rinpoche), and Ogyen Kunzang Choling (OKC), established by Robert Spatz (Lama Kunzang Dorje), weaving in the modern history of Tibet and that country’s main export: Tibetan Buddhism.
When the filmmakers reached out to Tricycle and sent a link to the documentary, our New York City office watched it together. Other editors who work remotely, including me, watched from our home offices. It should come as no surprise that a Buddhist publication steeped in many of these issues for decades would find shortcomings with a documentary produced for a mainstream audience. One of us compared it to a 60 Minutes exposé that exposed but didn’t explain what attracts one to Tibetan Buddhism or the complexity of student-teacher relationships. Others noted that while the documentary makes the point that the Dalai Lama—who is a Tibetan Buddhist leader, but not the Buddhist-equivalent of the pope—is also a political leader, it falls short in exploring this dual role more deeply. A deeper investigation here would have added a lot to the film.
But for me, the documentary is an important contribution because it puts faces and stories to the revelations we’ve heard for years, sometimes anonymously through organizations and projects like Buddhist Project Sunshine. (I don’t blame anyone for not going public, and those who have are very brave.) It illuminates that there are big problems when students are willing to buy their guru’s old glasses or underwear (as happened with Sogyal Rinpoche) or send their very young children to live at a remote Buddhist center (as happened with Spatz). And there are issues when Buddhist teachers have been asking the Dalai Lama to make a public statement that sexual relationships between lamas and students are improper, and when lamas accused of abuse continue to operate and receive visits from the Dalai Lama and other dignitaries.
The documentary begins with aerial images of the mountains of southern France and photos of children at Château-de-Soleils, OKC’s center. “That’s me, in the photo. I was 5 when my parents abandoned me here,” says Ricardo Mendes. Now in his 40s, Mendes describes his childhood as an “endless cycle of prayers and prostrations,” and says he was subject to food deprivation, cold, and beatings. The girls, he said, had it worse, as they were raped. And it was all in the name of a religion that to Westerners is “above suspicion.”
Mendes is the spokesperson for Initiative de Justice OKCinfo, a nonprofit organization working to bring legal action against Robert Spatz in Belgium and France.
The film is framed around the trial of Spatz in a Brussels court. Spatz didn’t appear at the trial, and in 2016, nearly twenty years after law enforcement first searched Château-de-Soleils, he was convicted of child sexual abuse, taking children hostage, and economic crimes, and received a four-year suspended prison sentence. Both Spatz and OKC were ordered to pay more than four million Euros in restitution. That conviction was overturned in 2019, and in October 2022, Spatz was resentenced to five years in prison (also suspended), and ordered to pay a €5,500 fine.
Spatz, a former TV repairman, spent six years in the 60s studying Tibetan Buddhism in India with Kangyur Rinpoche, who gave him the name Lama Kunzang Dorje and authority to open Buddhist centers in Europe. OKC was visited by high-ranking Tibetan Buddhists, and letters displayed at the centers declared Spatz as an authentic teacher. A news report by the European Academy of Religion and Sciences concludes it was possible that visiting teachers knew nothing about the abuse until 2010, when students began blowing the whistle on Spatz.
The documentary also examines the inner circle around Sogyal Lakar’s Rigpa community. Lakar, who authored the massively popular Tibetan Book of Living and Dying and whose community has grown to 114 centers in twenty-four countries, resigned from Rigpa in 2017 after longtime students accused him of sexual, physical, and psychological abuse, entering a “period of retreat and reflection.” Lakar died two years later.
Weaved throughout is the story of Tibetans who fled by the thousands following China’s invasion and suppression following the failed 1959 Tibetan uprising. Tibetans of all social standings escaped through the highest mountains on earth to India, Nepal, and Bhutan. The Tibetan-government-in-exile was established in Dharamshala, India, with the Dalai Lama as a dual spiritual and political leader. Though the Dalai Lama relinquished his political title in 2011, he was and remains a political figure who, the documentary points out, tried to rally the world’s support behind Tibet’s cause.
Meanwhile, as refugees, the Tibetans worked to rebuild everything from nothing and take care of their people. “Any kind of help from the outside was very welcome,” reflects Tenzin Geyche Tethong, who worked for many years as the Dalai Lama’s secretary and press liaison. As Rob Hogendoorn, an investigative reporter, independent researcher, and coauthor of Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism: The Rise and Fall of Sogyal Rinpoche, puts it, the community-in-exile is a “beggars economy,” with a codependent relationship between wealthy lamas in the West and Tibetans back East.
This important political backdrop to the abuses that were occurring at the time puts in context the two smoking guns that the filmmakers present. One is, who knew what at what point, and if large donations led Buddhist leaders to overlook teachers acting unethically.
One payment in question is the €100,000 donation that Spatz made in 1995 to Shechen Monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal. Shechen is home to Matthieu Ricard, a French Tibetan Buddhist monk, best-selling author, “happiest man alive,” and one of Buddhism’s best-known figures. In the documentary, Jean-François Buysschaert, a former OKC member, recounts Ricard returning to him a briefcase that contained indictment documents against Spatz. Ricard, who participated in a two-hour interview with the filmmakers, later retracted his interview in a letter sent by his lawyers. He maintained in a blog post that he never knew about Spatz’s abuse, and also that the documentarians were misleading with the purpose of the interview. Separately, former Rigpa members recall Lakar giving empowerments in exchange for cash, and a monk, Michael Nolan, talked about smuggling €60,000 and gold into Delhi.
Another smoking gun is the Dalai Lama’s knowledge of Tibetan Buddhist teachers having sexual relationships with students. The documentary includes a 1993 conference between the Dalai Lama and a group of Western Buddhist teachers, during which the Westerners asked his holiness to denounce teachers from having sex with their students. The Dalai Lama said that every effort must be made to “stop this situation,” but that “how” to stop would need further discussion.
“We just said this is not right, teachers should not have sex with students,” said Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede, codirector of the Rochester Zen Center, at the conference. “But if your Holiness could join in on that kind of statement, it would give enormous power to it. It would help enormously.… Teachers won’t listen, maybe … but the students, they’ll listen to you.”
“Because you’re giving a standard, which people trust,” added Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, founder of Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery in India.
Conference attendees, some of whom have since revealed that they had sexual relationships with their students, signed an open letter outlining the meetings and presenting the findings, including the Dalai Lama’s guidance on sexual relationships. As Stephen Batchelor recounts, the letter was passed along to the Dalai Lama’s office for his signature, but returned with his name crossed out.
Why wouldn’t the Dalai Lama lend his name to this cause that is so important to warrant a series of meetings over two days? Bad guidance from his advisors? Or, as the filmmakers seem to imply, more nefarious and calculated reasons?
In the film, we see the Dalai Lama say more than once that the responsibility of bad lamas should not fall solely on his shoulders. His office has released clarification on tantric texts that advise students to see all of their teachers’ actions as perfect. And when the Dalai Lama says people like Sogyal Lakar are not practicing Buddhism, he seems very sincere—but this sincerity doesn’t lay out the next steps for either a fallen teacher or his community.
We may never know who knew about Lakar and Spatz’s abuse, and what happened along the way. We do know, however, that Tibetan Buddhist leaders were aware of Lakar’s behavior, and continued to support his centers, including a 2008 visit with the Dalai Lama and First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy to consecrate Lerab Ling. And that it took until 2018 for the Dalai Lama to denounce Lakar as “disgraced” and meet with a group of Tibetan Buddhist survivors. (The Dalai Lama made worldwide headlines following that meeting, when he said during a press conference that learning about sexual abuse was “nothing new.”)
One of the main motivations of Buddhism: The Unspeakable Truth is to counter the naivety of Europeans and Westerners regarding abuse in Buddhism. It also serves to inform potential practitioners about the history of abuse in certain communities. Abuse in Buddhist communities has, indeed, been going on in the West for just about as long as the tradition has. I say this not to legitimize it—the status and treatment of women is something I’ve long grappled with as a practitioner and reporter who has covered the breaking news of sexual abuse and misconduct allegations over the past few years. But we still don’t have a clear answer as to what should happen when a guru or teacher is accused of misconduct, and what happens after accusations are proven.
What the documentary does show is that, although the Buddha’s teachings promote nonharm and an end to suffering, Buddhist teachers are fallible, and Buddhist communities are subject to the same dynamics—sometimes healthy, at other times abusive and toxic—of any group of people coming together.
We’ve spent the last few years (decades, really) trying to understand why an abusive teacher does what he does, and where the community goes from there. In an attempt to understand and guide practitioners, we’ve published guidelines like “How to Heal After Your Teacher Crosses the Line,” and urge potential students to spend time thoroughly investigating anyone whose teachings they are attracted to before beginning a formal relationship. Indeed, we often hear that this skipped step is a reason why students are abused.
And the age of social media has thankfully illuminated decades-old accusations and cases of abuse (in the case of Rigpa, Lakar’s victims even had their own hashtag: #metooguru). Buddhism: The Unspeakable Truth continues the momentum.
Though Rigpa and Ogyen Kunzang Choling are still in operation—OKC’s website is scrubbed of all but the briefest mention of Spatz, while Rigpa’s website speaks glowingly of the late Lakar—now, the Arte documentary ranks on the first page of a Google search of his name.
The first tenet of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics is to seek the truth and report it. By giving a platform to abuse survivors, the filmmakers shine a light on these horrible acts that were too long left in the shadows. In other aspects, mainly the lack of contextualizing the dual role of the Dalai Lama as a political and religious leader, what brings modern-day people to Buddhism (news flash: it’s been a while since the hippies followed the Beatles to India), and not separating Spatz and Lakar from the Tibetan Buddhism community as a whole, the documentary falls short. These are big issues, and a 2,600-year history, that can’t be synthesized and tied up in an hour and a half.
Ultimately, it is good that Spatz and Lakar’s survivors are able to share their stories, which will, it is hoped, give them closure and warn others about what a dysfunctional community looks like. It can only strengthen the dharma when abusive leaders are held accountable for their actions. And perhaps this documentary is just another example in our ever-connected world that if high-ranking leaders know about abusive teachers and continue to support them or accept financial donations, that we’re watching.