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.