Silence Is Not the Answer

Recently I came across an article about Sogyal Rinpoche, the renowned Tibetan Buddhist teacher and author of the classic The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. The article, published on the website Dialogue Ireland, dealt with Sogyal’s alleged sexual misconduct with students and devotees and some of the media responses to the stories of abuse.

One reason the article grabbed my interest was its discussion of spiritual abuse, in this case by a famous and well-respected Buddhist authority. As one writer noted:

[W]here a religious figure in a position of trust engages in a sexual act with a follower, that person’s status transforms a seemingly consensual act into an abusive one… The status of the teacher too contributes to determining the depth of the abusiveness of the act. If relations occur between a ‘mere mortal’ teacher and an equally mortal student, that is one thing. But where the teacher is perceived as a ‘tantric master,’ and the act is accompanied by the promise of spiritual benefit, this moves everything to an even deeper level of abusive depravity.

There were several similarities I found between the stories of the devotees’ spiritual/sexual abuse and my own experience with Dr. T.—how the sex was supposed to be both strengthening and healing and have great spiritual value, how it fueled a sense of being special, chosen, that it was in some way a gift, something to be grateful for.

But the part of the article that really caught my attention was a quote from the Dalai Lama regarding how such abuses should be addressed within the community.

There are, I think, a lot of people who believe it is nobler, more “spiritual” somehow, to turn the other cheek when presented with bad behavior, essentially turning their eyes away so that they don’t have to look at—or do anything about—uncomfortable truths. For these people, “tolerance” may mean deferring to authority and keeping their mouths shut. After all, if the guru or teacher is the spiritual authority, who are they, as followers, to judge differently? Who are they to say what’s right or wrong? Perhaps it’s best not to say anything or create any disturbance in the peaceful orientation of the spiritual community. No one wants to be guilty of rocking the boat. After all, what would people think? At the least, one could be deemed “unspiritual”; at the most, one could be ostracized from the community. Best to keep one’s mouth shut, right?

I was grateful to read that the Dalai Lama does not believe that silence is the answer. At a teachers’ conference in 1994, the Dalai Lama had this to say about how to respond to abuses of power:

Criticize openly. That’s the only way. If there is incontrovertible evidence of wrongdoing, teachers should be confronted with it. They should be allowed to admit their wrongs, make amends, and undergo a rehabilitation process. If a teacher won’t respond, students should publish the situation in a newspaper, not omitting the teacher’s name…. The fact that the teacher may have done many other good things should not keep us silent.

And at a 2001 event, the Dalai Lama reiterated his earlier advice, saying, “The best thing is, whenever exploitation, sexual abuse or money abuse happen, make them public.”

Honestly, I was surprised when I read this. And thrilled. Victims are so rarely encouraged to speak out, tell their stories, and hold their abusers accountable. Instead, their painful experiences are often minimized, diminished, and discounted by those around them, even close friends and community members, who desperately want to maintain the status quo. Some are told by other teachers to remain silent, perhaps even blamed for the abuse as if they were the guilty party, not the esteemed teacher or guru. All too often, the teacher’s good name and reputation must be protected at all costs—even at the expense of the victim’s sense of self.

I rejoiced that here was the Dalai Lama recommending that students and devotees not only hold abusers accountable for their actions but make public declarations about the exploitation and abuse.

In my opinion, speaking out is the path to healing. Suppression of the truth only creates further conflict, especially within oneself. Withholding the truth or lying about it binds energy in the mind, body and spirit. Think of the times when you’ve kept a secret—good or bad. Didn’t it require an enormous amount of energy? Weren’t you constantly thinking about what you could and could not say? Maybe you even felt constriction around your throat from holding in your words and keeping yourself from speaking. Imagine the impact that has on your being, this one secret that you may be literally curling yourself around, doing everything possible to contain it.

Now imagine letting all that constriction go, speaking the truth, releasing that energy. Yes, risking exposure and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable may be terrifying. There’s no way to know how others will respond or what the consequences will be. But don’t we owe it to ourselves to find out?

If we don’t speak out about our abuse, whom are we really protecting? Are we protecting ourselves or are we protecting our abusers? To me, not telling means that the abuser still has the power in the relationship. He or she is not being held accountable for their actions and we are continuing to take care of them, just as we always have. When we speak out, we are essentially saying “I’m not going to take care of you anymore. I’m going to take care of myself now.” In speaking out, we give ourselves the opportunity for healing and we give our abusers the opportunity to grow should they choose to take responsibility for their actions and make amends.

All of us must make our own choices. What’s right for me may not be right for someone else. But I know that remaining silent would have destroyed what was left of my spirit. I had to hold Dr. T accountable. And then I had to speak out. Using my voice has given me a greater sense of freedom and power than any other action I have taken.

I thank you for listening.

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  1. Hi Kristi,

    All of the issues that you bring to light in the aftermath of this kind of sadistic abuse are all so relevent. As I’m confronting the abuse I suffered by my former therapist, I’m experiencing the shock and intense pain of how multi layered it is. It is incredibly helpful and incouraging not to feel alone as I take steps to confront my abuser in order to stop him from ever doing this to another women so kuddos for writing this peice–I’m learning how important it is that we do everything we can to expose these animals for who and what they are!!

    • Thanks! I heartily agree with you that we need to do what we can to hold abusers accountable and protect others who may be vulnerable. I want to acknowledge you for your courage and strength in taking steps. You are most definitely not alone. Good luck to you on your path!

  2. Kristi, thank you for posting this. My perp and I even discussed Sogyal Rinpoche. At the time I couldn’t think for myself. Now I wonder what happened to these women. Such perps are parasites, it’s shocking to see the entitlement and worse.

  3. Phew, I could feel the rush of fear and anxiety return just reading the article… I can hardly tell myself in detail what happened, I blanket the whole thing like one great big pil, swallowed whole, in the hope I dont have to unravel the story… The spiritual manipulation of the abuse was the cover for all the enrolling sexual abuse that followed, but if my storyline was already sexual abuse how on earth do I trust further support in order to recover?? I gave my power away to this predator, this sociopath, but he ‘holds’ it like some equal, spiritual exchange?! He will never be held accountable… what’s the point?
    I think you are exceptional to have broken the silence and freed yourself, well done for choosing healing.

    • Tracy,
      Thanks for your comment! I wish I had easy answers to your questions and your dilemma. Trusting after abuse is a huge issue. And the added spiritual component really messes with your head! When a spiritual teacher holds students to high standards but doesn’t walk the walk, what are we to think? And you’re right — he will probably never be held accountable in a meaningful way. (At least, not in this embodiment/lifetime.)

      I think that ultimately, speaking out is something we do for ourselves. Whether or not someone will be held accountable isn’t up to us. Even if we do speak out, we don’t have any control over what happens as a result of it. It is like you said: By speaking out, I chose healing. I could not take my own silence anymore. Everyone’s path is unique, so we all must make the choices that are best for us at the time. I hope that you, too, can find the healing you need, whatever that looks like.

  4. I came across this discussion and find it a very important subject.

    The first three words that automatically come up when you start typing Sogyal Rinpoches name on GOOGLE are: 1. SCANDAL 2. CONTROVERSY. 3. ABUSE. Only as nr. 4. comes RIGPA followed by QUOTES as nr. 5.

    I have personal experience of Rigpa(having attended a center for app 4 years) and Sogyal Rinpoche(in the sense that I have seen him teach and been to one of his retreats).

    The 10 day retreat I went to with him was a chocking and disturbing experience that I still reflect on and struggle to comprehend.

    Most prolific was the way Sogyal was treated by his students. He is surrounded by an entourage of predominantly young, attractive people who are constantly waiting attentively by his side to provide him with whatever he demands the second he demands it. If they fail in their task, in however small or insignificant way, he will, if he is in the mood, easily tell them off for an hour or so in front of everyone who has come to see him teach(in this case it was around 400 people). This is meant to be a valuable teaching for everyone witnessing and of course especially for the person he is telling off. He is “working with their ego” and they do themselves testify how absolutely amazing it is to be “worked with” in this manner.

    Sogyal had a couple of young women who would put his shoes and socks on and off in front of the 400 participants before and after he thought.

    When Sogyal asked for something that was not in the room during a teaching someone would get up and run, and I mean run as in “as fast as you can, there’s been a serious accident, someone is dying” kind of run to get it.

    One incident I remember was, during a lunch break, seeing the three men who were working behind the lighting desk come running in this “a bomb is just about to explode” kind of speed. I was with a friend who was helping out at the retreat, hence he had a walkie talkie, and was that way informed that the reason they were running was that Sogyal was hanging out by himself in the shrine room and wanted a spotlight moved slightly.

    Sogyal would not turn off his mobile phone while he was teaching and if somebody would text or call him(his ring tone being his own long life prayer) whilst he was teaching he would stop teaching and quite happily chit chat on the phone or send text messages.

    The worst thing I experienced in relation to his mobile phone was when he was doing blessings at the end of the retreat. Everyone is in a long line and goes up one after the other. One man on the retreat was in a wheel chair. Because of this he was obviously lower down than everyone else, (and you also bow your head and look down when you receive a blessing whilst Rinpoche held a small sack containing Buddhist holy objects on your head). Whilst Rinpoche was “blessing” this man he simultaneously started writing a text message on his phone. So one hand on the mans head… and the other busy writing a text obviously looking at the phone rather than the man. This was very disturbing to witness because the man didn’t know since he was looking down, he probably thought he was getting an extra long blessing whilst the rest of the 400 people knew that that was not the case.

    At the retreat we had discussion groups every day. The groups were divided by your experience. Since I was fairly new to Rigpa I was in a group with mainly other new student which resulted in a lot of upset feelings and questions about the way things were conducted.

    I never felt that these questions, my own or those posted by others, were answered properly.

    In my experience, the answers I have got, with regards to the above and other similar scenarios are:

    Sogyal is a “crazy wisdom teacher”. This basically means that what he does is “wisdom” on such a profound level that to us mere western, unenlightened ego infested beings it may come across as crazy but we just don’t understand it. I suppose it could slightly perhaps translate into “God works in mysterious ways” in Christian terminology. My opinion is that this term, in the context discussed is being gravely misused as well as abused and it allows Sogyal to get away with absolutely anything.

    Another explanation is that some people claim that he is or may be something they call a turton. A turton is, if I understand it correctly, a lama in or through whom new teachings or teachings that have been dead for many years resurface and manifest. This speculation is based on, as I got it explained to me, the fact that Sogyal sometimes says “I’ve never said this before” whilst he is teaching.
    I am not quite sure how but this is also supposed to excuse Sogyals behavior.

    Yet another answer you can get when questioning Sogyals manners is “this is your own ego reacting”. With this kind of argumentation it is needless to say that there is no point in having the discussion or questioning at all. If anything I question or criticize will be met with the answer that I have an ego, this is my ego speaking and I can not see clearly because of my ego… then hey, where do we go from there?
    I interpret this as you should just accept that you don’t understand, do as you’re told and follow and trust blindly. (Even though the teachings time and again clearly tell us NOT to have blind faith and to question and examine your teacher thoroughly).

    You are also encouraged to ask the students who are subject to his harsh words or who for example put his socks on what they think. Since they are doing it they will obviously tell you that it’s great, they want it etc. Despite this I am not reassured. I do not know these people, their lives and history. I do not know if they are strong, balanced, happy or unhappy… If they have self esteem and a sense of self worth or not… And I do not know the nature of their relationship to Sogyal and how it is built. There are many forms of psychological dependency that can develop over time and that are not healthy. How do I know that this is not the case here?

    People within the Rigpa Sangha are keen to often point out the importance of separating the teachings from the teacher and I can most definitely see why it would be in their interest to do so.

    In my view, you lead by example and no one is exempt from this code of conduct. This is what HH Dalai Lama does and surely Sogyal should follow his example.

    I have seen HH Dalai Lama teach on several occasions, as well as other Tibetan Lamas, I have perceived them to be humble, genuine and wise. The difference from seeing Sogyal teach is like night and day to me and I do not understand why some people fail to see this.

    When I was at the retreat I remember thinking “Am I the only one who can see the absurdity of this?” I felt like I was in a sect where everyone but me was brainwashed and I wished I had had a hidden camera, thinking what a chocking documentary it would make.

    Why is then Rigpa, with Sogyal as it’s leader, such a huge organization?

    My personal view would be that Rigpa is very well organized and it does make Buddhist teachings and practices easily available. (And, the Buddhist philosophy/teachings are beautiful, wise and therapeutic whoever they come from). Many of the wonderful Tibetan lamas are not as easily accessible so sometimes people do not have a choice. I actually think this is a big reason. I personally know people who have had big doubts regarding Sogyal but since they are by the time they see or hear something concerning used to regularly going to Rigpa and having the people and community they have encountered there in their lives they rather not give that up and turn a blind eye to their own doubt.

    We must also remember that it is often troubled and vulnerable people or people at vulnerable troubled times of their lives who turn to religion.
    Richard Gere said it well in the documentary “When the Iron Bird flies” when he said that we did not seek out Buddhism because we wanted to save the world we sought it out because we just had enough of suffering.

    Life is hard and some people seam to struggle and suffer more than others. We need something to take comfort in. Religion can be great for this. But this equation comes with many other factors such as power, dependency and attachment. It is a huge responsibility to have this power and it can be detrimental when in the wrong hands.

    There seam to be religious leaders within every religion who abuse their power. This is very sad since it can give the religion as a whole a bad name. And a religion, used in a positive, loving and compassionate way can enhance life quality as well as humanity on a whole.

    The Catholic Church has in recent years, after decades, probably centuries of denial, had to finally admit, face up to and deal with the issue of abuse. It is time for the leaders of Tibetan Buddhism to do the same. I understand the reluctance since there is a risk of this reflecting badly on the religion as a whole, and Tibetan Buddhism is, in contrary to Catholicism, a young religion in the west. I understand the wish not to have it judged before it is known. In the long run however, I believe that it will be beneficial. People will trust leaders who have the courage to speak up against wrong actions and protect its students and followers. It is high time for action to be taken and the longer the wait the longer the healing process.

    • Catriona,
      Thank you so much for sharing your experience and your thoughts here. Your comment is a well-considered and valuable contribution to the discussion. I am shocked and saddened by the stories you relate and can only imagine what it must have been like to witness those things. Many people seem to find it not only easy but essential to excuse that kind of disrespectful (and I dare say narcissistic) behavior from spiritual teachers, as if being a teacher is enough, and they don’t actually have to “walk the walk.” For those in the West who are already dealing with low self-esteem or self-loathing, that sort of disrespect contributes to the problem and makes it that much harder to acknowledge the suffering. The bottom line is that every person has the right to be treated with respect. If a teacher doesn’t respect you, find another teacher.

  5. Sogyal Rinpochees perversitiy doesn t stop with sexabuses:
    My life was and is manipulated by Sogyal Rinpoche since my age of 6. I would be a Bodisattwa and should have potential for enlightenment – therefore I should have been taught by him in my private life without knowing anything about it.
    I have been attending to a meditation retreat in 2005 and following courses in Lerab Ling and Montpellier from 2005 until 2006. I have found out in 2006.

    I am watched by people in his order who are able to:

    read peoples mind
    transmit their thoughts
    create and transform emotions and will without that the target is aware of it
    see me everywhere.

    They employ electromagnetic psychotronic weapons which are used by secret services. You can find a lot of informations about these technologies on the internet. Unfortunately I am not the only victim.

    I have found out in 2006.

    More informations on

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