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Tibetan Buddhism: Struggling With Diffi-Cult Issues

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 Controversy: New Kadampa Tradition, Dorje Shugden, Sogyal Rinpoche : : Tibet & Dalai Lama :: More

Sogyal Rinpoche and the Silence of the Tibetan Buddhist Community and the Dalai Lama

    Many of the problems Buddhism is currently facing in the West have arisen because this is an early stage of the transmission of the Dharma to Western countries, and there is the opportunity for charlatans and unqualified people to teach. However, as Buddhism becomes more rooted in the culture and people understand it better, they will know how to judge teachers’ qualities and will protect themselves. This is part of a natural process as Dharma takes root. – HH the Dalai Lama in an interview in 1993

    A person doesn’t come to a Buddhist community to grow through a sexual relationship with a teacher. They come to a Buddhist community to study Buddhism. So in a teacher-student sexual relationship, the primary purpose of that relationship has been subverted. – Grace Schireson in Tricyle »Sex in the Sangha … Again«

Some days ago I received an email by Mary Finnigan, a journalist, who sent two links “for your website“:


Since I had watched the video by the young tulku of Kalu Rinpoche (YouTube) and linked it already together with a forceful statement by the Dalai Lama[1] he gave during the concluding ceremony at the Global Buddhist Congregation in India in December 2011, and because I had no time to read the suggested blog “Behind the Thankas“, and also because the blog is anonymous, I hesitated to read it. However, these two videos together with In the name of enlightenment: Stephen Batchelor interview were linked.

I had also sent the documentary Sex Scandals In Religion – In The Name Of Enlightenment by Cogent/Benger to some people, including some journalists, Tibetologists and the German Buddhist Union, a congregation of Buddhist organisations in Germany which understands itself as an umbrella organisation for Buddhists in Germany.

Based on scandals with respect to power and sexual abuse within Buddhism the members of the German Buddhist Union gave in April 2011 an unequivocal vote to create a Buddhist Council or authority within the German Buddhist Union which people can approach for support, advice, information or for someone who listens, and which can offer qualified support in case someone had to experience power, emotional, financial or sexual abuse. Based on this vote there formed a group within the German Buddhist Union to work out an Ethical Charter and an Ethics Council. There were already two working meetings.

The meeting for working out the Ethical Charter (16.–18 March 2012) was very inspiring, and I found the contribution of the persons who participated very differentiated and clear. I felt it really as a meeting “in the spirit of the Dharma”.

We had also the shared conviction that sexual relationships between teachers and students lead to harm and that it is a must to avoid that. (In Germany it is illegal and chargeable if psychologists, medical doctors or therapists have sexual relations with their patients, and Rutter has shown the devastating harm sexual relationships in unbalanced power situations can create for both sides.

So why should Buddhist teachers who preach compassion, non-violence, the faults of desire and not harming others engage in such relationships? Some claim it would be for “the student’s benefit” and a “practice” but why then people are damaged, and feel really in pain and suffering after having been “benefited” [by often highly manipulative methods] to have sex with their teachers?

In case there is an extreme rare case where there is really no harm or even benefit, one can expect that there also won’t be someone who will report about the sorrow, lamentation, suffering, distress, and agitation they have gone through.)[2]

This Sunday I found time to read the summery of the Sogyal saga “Behind the Thankas” by Mary Finnigan. It made me utter sad.

I find it also questionable that the Tibetan Community, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, just don’t speak up and allow by their silence that what appears to be an egomaniac, damaging behaviour[3] can continue.

It could be that Rigpa and their officials have been successful to spread the pacifying image that Sogyal would have “settled, having a woman and a child now”, and this led towards a spiritless state of mind where Buddhists and Buddhist leaders alike started to relax, thinking the old stories are past and the issue sorted out by a change of Sogyal. But it appears that it has not settled and that the abuse continues.

I think, it is not the time to further support this by continuing the silence. A collective silence is an action, and such an action allows the continuation of these harming actions. That’s why I would like to encourage everybody to read the report by Mary Finnigan “Behind the Thankas” and to watch the documentary Sex Scandals In Religion – In The Name Of Enlightenment by Cogent/Benger.

If there is an awareness that such a behaviour is unacceptable and highly damaging this could create a shift so that the continuation of it is halted and finally stopped. Another possibility is that further court cases against Sogyal could be a means to stop him.

It is unacceptable for me if the spiritual friend (Kalyanamitra) who has been described by the Buddha of having the function to release the disciple “from being subject to aging, sickness, death, sorrow, lamentation, suffering, distress, and agitation” does the opposite, and burdens the disciple with “aging, sickness, death[4], sorrow, lamentation, suffering, distress, and agitation” in the name of Buddhism.

Having heard from what I believe to be reliable sources, I am struck by the fact that Sogyal has even had sexual relationships with the partners of some of his students.

It is difficult not to fall pray to the idea that Sogyal’s behaviour is accepted widely in the Tibetan Buddhist Exile community and Westerners alike also because his organisation is financially a highly successful money machine and many people have benefit from that money or are captivated by their awe of Rigpa’s success.

(Of course these cannot be the only reasons, and there are other reasons and also genuine good motivated reasons too but …) Similar tendencies seem to have been present when Geshe Michael Roach received supportive letters from Sera monastery authorities (which approved his “pure ethical discipline”) when it came out that he as a fully ordained monk had a female consort and he announced to be a yogi, having realized emptiness etc, and being beyond worldly conventions.

A fully ordained nun, who I appreciate highly for her wisdom and clarity, commented that this is a sign of corruption.

And I think it is. Also the Geshe title of Michael Roach is questionable because he received the Geshe title mainly as an honouring for his very generous money donations.

He studied altogether only for four years at Sera. Similar tendencies to ignore certain destructive aspects or developments can be observed in other cases of abuse like in the case of the Pagode Path Hue in Frankfurt, Germany (Thich Thien Son) or within the NKT leadership (Kelsang Gyatso with respect to Neil Elliot and Steven Wass). However, in the case of Michael Roach, at least some higher Buddhist authorities like Lama Zopa Rinpoche (see page 16-18 in Lama Replies) or His Holiness the Dalai Lama dealt straightforwardly and skilfully with the issue and I would be happy if there is a straightforward and skilful response also with respect to Sogyal’s behaviour from other Buddhist masters or authorities.

For neutral academic information I recommend to write to INFORM, a renown research institution at the London School of Economics.
See also

    In the name of enlightenment: Stephen Batchelor interview by Cogent/Benger
    Sex Scandals In Religion – In The Name Of Enlightenment by Cogent/Benger
    A statement from Rigpa
    Behind the Thankas by Mary Finnigan.
    Lama sex abuse claims call Buddhist taboos into question[5] by Mary Finnigan in The Guardian
    A New Vision & New Approach for My Monasteries by Kalu Rinpoche


    Ethics in the Teacher-Student Relationship: The Responsibilities of Teachers and Students by H.H. the XIV. Dalai Lama
    Leaving a Guru – Discriminating bad from good Gurus (PDF) – compiled by Tenpel
    Sex in the Sangha … Again – Tricycle Four teachers discuss the systemic issues that have led to sexual abuse in Buddhist communities
    Use Common Sense: Khandro Rinpoche about Sexual Abuse by Buddhist Teachers in the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition 2013/05/21
    Rigpa, Cults, The Catholic Church and HH Dalai Lama – A Pep Talk 2013/03/17
    The Guru-Disciple Relationship – Advice by HH the Dalai Lama 2013/02/21
    The Dalai Lama and Sogyal Rinpoche: A Roaring Silence? 2012/04/28
    What Is A Rigpa Student To Think? 2012/06/15
    One Year With Rigpa – A Testimony 2012/04/23
    Devotion with Discernment — A question of personal responsibility by Rob Preece
    »Sex and the Lama« — Is it acceptable for a lama to sleep with a student? by Gavin Kilty
    Stephen Schettini about Tibetan Buddhism – When Buddhism is a Cult 2012/11/12
    A former Rigpa student’s thoughts and cultivating discernment … 2012/12/23
    Thoughts on Leaving Rigpa 2013/01/16


[1] It’s note worthy to see that while the video gives a full account of what His Holiness said the manuscript of his speech at the Official website of HH the Dalai Lama has been “cleared” of his frank and critical statements.

[2] Usually at this point most Tibetan Buddhists or persons who have some knowledge about Tibetan Buddhism have in mind that there is a secret tantric rite which involves the unification of the two sexual organs. However, though a qualified Vajaryana practitioner can rely on a qualified action-mudra at the path of accumulation when he/she is practising the generation stage, it is unsafe to do so.

    “The purpose of a seal is to generate bliss and the realization of emptiness of the generation stage, thereby acting as the special ripener of the roots of virtue that generate the realization of the completion stage. When meditating on the methods for penetrating the vital points of the body of the completion stage, there are many purposes such as that of easily gathering the winds, however a fully qualified supporting object is very rare. Because of this, if one does not unite with a consort properly, it will become a cause of falling into the lower realms.

For example, there are people who think that they are tantric practitioners and engage in this conduct inappropriately, as a result of which they are later reborn in the lower realms. Due to breaking the tantra vows and pledges, one can take rebirth even in the hell of Unrelenting Torment (Avichi).

Therefore, it is better to culminate the coarse and subtle generation stages by relying on a wisdom seal rather than an action seal, whereby one can penetrate the vital points of the body. In other words, there is no danger when relying on a wisdom seal, that is, on an imaginary consort. By relying on an wisdom seal one can generate the isolation of mind, after which one can rely on an action seal without any risk of faults.

This is because, having achieved the isolation of mind, even if one kills, steals, and so forth, one will do so free of faults. […] In short, relying on a real woman while on the stages of the isolation of body and the isolation of speech can bring problems, whereas when one reaches the isolation of mind there is no longer any such risk.

    In short, by relying on a wisdom seal one can culminate the coarse and subtle generation stages but not the completion stage. On the completion stage one progresses through the isolation of body and isolation of speech, and when one reaches the isolation of mind one can rely on an action seal and achieve the all-empty that is clear light.” (Geshe Jampa Gyatso)

John Powers, a university professor and Buddhist practitioner, states:

Tantric texts stress that practice with consorts is not a form of sexual indulgence, but rather a form of controlled visualization that uses the special bliss of sexual union. It is restricted to very advanced practitioners, yogins who have gained control over the emanation of a subtle body and have awakened the mystical heat energy, or “dumo” (gtum mo, candali).

Those who have not advanced to this level are not qualified to practice with an actual consort; people without the necessary prerequisites who mimic tantric sexual practices thinking that they are practicing tantra are simply deluded, and may do themselves great harm. Sexual union is only appropriate to advanced levels of the stage of completion, and so those who have not developed sufficient realization and control over subtle energies are unable to generate the blissful wisdom consciousness realizing emptiness that is the basis for this practice.

They may succeed in fooling others—or even themselves—but they will be utterly unable to use sexual energy in accordance with the practices of highest yoga tantra.

According to the Dalai Lama, only a person who views all the phenomena of cyclic existence with complete impartiality is qualified to engage in tantric sexual practices:

    »Truthfully, you can only do such practice if there is no sexual desire whatsoever. The kind of realization that is required is like this: If someone gives you a goblet of wine and a glass of urine, or a plate of wonderful food and a piece of excrement, you must be in such a state that you can eat and drink from all four and it makes no difference to you what they are. Then maybe you can do this practice.«

    When asked to name any lamas who he thought were at this level, he admitted that he could not. He mentioned that there are well-known stories of great teachers like Tilopa who had transcended all attachment to conventional thinking and so were able to engage in sexual practices without harming themselves or their students, but he added that such exceptional individuals are very rare.«

(John Powers, »Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism«, Snow Lion Publications, 1995, p. 252.)

Then there is another common response by Tibetan Buddhists to accusations of alleged sexual abuse: the women reporting this are said to be jealous, telling lies, only imagined this or act out of a feeling of revenge or are somewhat disturbed. The point is, this can actual be the case. One finds similar wrong accusations in the story of Angulimala, and also nowadays such wrong accusations exist. Also personally I had contact with a woman who claimed wrongly for a long time of having been abused by a renown Tibetan Gelug Lama living in Swiss. (I didn’t believe her, the story was too inconsistent, and some years later she admitted that the story was untrue.) Therefore one should be careful and one should take time to check the case thoroughly – and of course there is always the danger of being deceived or getting and judging the things wrongly.

However, such a careful approach shouldn’t lead one to close the eyes if there are multiple accounts of such stories with respect to the same person which show a similar pattern and one should be open to investigate into all directions. Actual this should be the task of an independent institution or experts or the legal laws, but the problem is, although the legal laws in most countries are clear in the case of educated psychologists and medical doctors (professionals in the health sector) and their patients or university professors and their students and school teachers and their pupils,

these laws mostly do not consider the situation of spiritual teachers and their spiritual students or in Germany even the relation between non-medical practitioners and their patients. So there is a legal gap or legal loophole although the situation is quite similar. Another problem is in Tibetan Buddhism that there is no higher authority or council one can approach in case one has been abused or spiritual damaged. The victims are left alone, nobody cares of feels in charge to help them. I think it is really time that this changes.

Another argument I heard in that context is, that the Tibetan Buddhist lama would have been properly qualified for the tantric sexual rite but they only realised later that their western consort was not, and that they had too high expectations with respect to their capacities for Tantra. If this were true it follows the lama was also not qualified because of being unable to see what is right and what is wrong. And I think then it would be the practice of a Bodhisattva to honestly excuse oneself in order to limit the harm one has done unintentionally.

Some people also claim since the women are adults and the lama is an adult it would involve only free will for having sex with the lama (or the proper tantric rite) and it would be their choice. However, I find this approach ignorant because it neglects the dynamics and power difference in such a relationship.

I would like to suggest first to get some knowledge about the dynamics of abuse and manipulation which undermine a person’s freedom of choice and which bring persons into a situation where they do something they didn’t want to do. There are reasons why there are laws that prohibit educated psychologists and medical doctors and their patients or university professors and their students and school teachers and their pupils to have sexual relationships with each other.

Rutter’s text Sex in the forbidden Zone or Scott’s Sex and the Spiritual Teacher, as well as to listen to persons who report abuse could be useful as a start. Also The Guardian article about the FWBO founder Shantarakshita shows the dynamics and devastating effects of these manipulations. Some people had to experience the same pattern as reported in this The Guardian article under the Frankfurt abbot Thich Thien Son in Germany. (At least he was expelled from the head organisations of Buddhist monks and nuns in Germany and they published an official statement.)

[3] Of course this is my personal judgement. But all the reports summarised by Mary Finnigan in “Behind the Thankas” and documented by Cogent/Benger in the documentary Sex Scandals In Religion – In The Name Of Enlightenment suggest to see it that way. So far neither Rigpa nor Sogyal have contributed with a substantial refutation. And it might be really difficult to explain what type of Dharma (Buddhist teaching) it is to order a young and pretty female assistant to “Undress!”. Due to the strict libel laws in UK Mary Finnigan could be easily sued for what she has been reporting if she wouldn’t have evidence; and Rigpa has good lawyers who could do that.

Also the patterns and signs one can observe from an outside perspective do not really disapprove any of the things which are reported there. So far three women reported personally to me that they experienced strange things with respect to Sogyal, and what they reported fits well in what Mary and the documentary report.

It should be also noted that Sogyal starts these relationships with young women who are new to the Dharma therefore the women will quite likely not have the necessary spiritual experience and qualifications to be qualified spiritual consorts. Even if, from his side, he was engaging in ‘tantrically correct’ behaviour

On the other hand, as a Buddhist “it is important to keep in mind that if one does not have clairvoyance then there is never completely certainty about what another person intends. Even if somebody has a loud voice and says something harsh, we can’t be certain that they really have a nasty motivation.

The best we can do is to have a correct assumption about the other person’s motivation. So even when we have a correct assumption we can never establish the pervasion in order to have an actual inferential cognition.

This is the case because we can never establish the pervasions that would allow us to generate an incontrovertible inferential cognition. For example, there is no pervasion that everybody who says harsh words with a loud voice and a red face is necessarily angry.” (quote taken from Ven. Birgit’s Abidharmakosha teachings at the ILTK; Pomaia/Italy) There are a lot of cases in Indo-Tibetan Buddhist history where Buddhist masters and practitioners alike judged the behaviour of someone wrongly.

However, if the person they judged wrongly had really exceptional qualities, this person corrected their wrong assumptions by the performance of extraordinary actions of body, speech or mind, which led to the collapse of these wrong assumptions, and the critics were able to develop faith in that wrongly judged person’s (really existing) qualities.

(See for example Atisha who expelled a yogi-monk from a monastery or the monks who tried to get rid off Shantideva, even trying to deprecate him, and other stories like Drugpa Künleg, the nun Gelongma Palmo etc.)

If in the past a capable Lama performed questionable actions based on so called “crazy wisdom” it led finally to a tremendous benefit for the individual towards it was directed and it was a teaching to the public showing them a mirror of their limited minds.

However, if a person who claims to act out of “crazy wisdom” leaves the individual and the public in a state of hurt, suffering, confusion, distrust and anger this is clearly not a sign that this person has realized a level of spiritual attainment that allows him to act out of “crazy wisdom”. (For more see also: Questioning the Advice of the Guru by H.H. the XIV. Dalai Lama)

[4] Harsh, aggressive or hurtful speech which makes others unhappy weakens their life power and can be seen as a type of killing.

[5] Here it is note worthy to see that the article starts with an image of a faithfully prostrating nun and an image capture “An exiled Tibetan Buddhist nun prostrates around the main temple and the residence of Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.” In the light of the headline I feel this to be manipulative. First of all the Dalai Lama is not abusing anybody and also there is no report that nuns are abused. I wonder what drove The Guardian to follow such an tabloid approach …

Last edited by tenpel on October 28, 2013 at 12:10 am
Update March 28, 2012

I added documents related to the Geshe Michael Roach controversy. Though Roach was ordained as a fully ordained monk and Sogyal Rinpoche is a lay person and not a monk, in the glorious past of Tibet masters who shook the faith of people restored it my performing extraordinary powers and miracles which proved their tantric realizations.

This is the advice Lama Zopa Rinpoche gave to Geshe Michael Roach. (see page 16-18 in Lama Replies) A more recent example is the story of a Gelug lama at the time of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, he felt he can do the sexual tantric rites and asked the Dalai Lama for permission.

The Dalai Lama answered him to prove his powers, and it is transmitted that this lama did it by making knots into Yak horns. Of course these are examples from the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism but even if one looks on the root example of the Nyingma school: Padmasambhava is said to have performed a lot of miracles and his tantric consorts, e.g. the famous Yeshe Tsogyal, were also female tantric teachers who composed tantric texts.

However, this seems to be quite dissimilar to a situation where a lama has “a host of ‘Dakinis’” who are all very new to the Dharma, who have not similar qualities to those female tantric practitioners and who quite likely have neither the necessary spiritual experience nor the necessary conditions (except of being young) to be qualified tantric consorts.

Also according to the tantric rituals usually a qualified tantric consort is either pointed out by a qualified lama or by dreams with special signs at a certain point of one’s spiritual development. Such a case is usually treated with great care. A Nyingma lama I know who meditated for 17 years in retreat with one meal a day and two hours sleep a day attained higher realizations including clairvoyance.

He was just skin and bones after he had accomplished his retreat, and most people who saw him were thinking ‘he is going to die’. After he had attained high realizations his female tantric consort was pointed out to him by his master H.H. Dujom Rinpoche, and she had herself high realizations (including being able to cure very sick people). This Nyingma lama spoke of her with greatest respect and in awe.

(This is very different to what Mary Finnigan reports about how violently and disrespectfully Sogyal treats his WesternDakinis’.) Also, so far I didn’t hear that the lama who is qualified to rely on a tantric consort chooses tantric consorts himself and has a host of them (of course Ole Nydahl does this but I don’t think he is the right example).

As far as I know in the case of the great Nyingma sage H.H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche he had to be forced to rely on a qualified tantric consort, and it were his masters who pointed out the right person. In the Vajrayogini rite it is utter complex to find the right tantric consort and one has really to do a lot of rituals and prayers to find her after having accomplished extended practices. All of this seems to be very dissimilar to what Sogyal Rinpoche is doing.

It is said that Milarepa relied on the goddess Tseringma as his consort.
Update June 29, 2012

The German Buddhist magazine “Tibet & Buddhismus” has started to address the topic of abuse in Buddhist communities in his new issue (3/2012) asking “Abuse: Not An Issue In Buddhist Communities?”. The editorial mentions explicitly the Guardian article about the video statement of Kalu Rinpoche, the Guardian article about Sogyal Rinpoche (both written by Mary Finnigan), and the expulsion of the Frankfurt Pagode abbot from the DBO. They offer the respective articles also online and free of charge (all in German language):

    Missbrauch: Kein Thema in buddhistischen Gemeinschaften? – Einleitung der Redaktion (PDF)
    Kranker Lehrer, kranke Gemeinschaft – Tenzin Peljor (PDF)
    „Die Gefahr der Manipulation verringern!“ – Interview mit Martin Kalff von Birgit Stratmann (PDF)

Update September 23, 2012

The documentary has been made available on YouTube: recently. It has been included now in the post.
Update November 02, 2012

Sadly, the German Buddhist Unions is in a sleeping mode. No further meetings to work out an Ethical Charter and an Ethics Council have been announced or organized – although there was an unequivocal vote my the members that this should be done. I assume it is due to an overload of work and that this issue is not seen to be very important compared to other tasks. I updated also the post above: a qualified tantric consort must be young. For the sake of clarity I might list later this year the minimum qualifications of a qualified tantric consort.