By Dr. Andrea Galli*
A series of reports of sexual and physical abuse against high-ranking Tibetan lamas and teachers are shaking Tibetan Buddhist communities around the world. What began as a trickle of complaints is slowly growing into a constant stream of very public accusations. The fury risks destroying the long-standing image of Tibetan Buddhism as a religion rooted in morality and benevolence, with the alleged actions by some of its most famous exponents seeming to be driven more by lust, greed, and corruption.
An increasing number of alleged victims have begun to come forward, raising questions about how such abuses, apparently widespread in Tibetan Buddhist communities around the world, can remain under the radar of public consciousness for so long. The developments have a striking resemblance to the case of the powerful Hollywood movie magnate Harvey Weinstein, accused after decades of being a serial sexual predator. The claims against Weinstein eventually triggered the “Me Too” movement and a flurry of similar charges against other prominent figures in the industry.
Earlier this month, the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, met a delegation of alleged victims who claimed to have been abused by previous or current Buddhist teachers. The delegation presented to the Dalai Lama the testimonies of twelve victims of these abuses. According to the Spanish news agency Efe, reported the BBC, one of the delegations claimed that at first, the Dalai Lama seemed reluctant to listen to their stories, but that after 10 minutes of conversation became “more receptive”.
The controversy threatens to plunge Tibetan Buddhism into the same kind of controversy that has involved the Catholic Church for decades. During this time, Catholic leaders have vigorously sought to minimize any suggestion that sexual abuse in its ranks was prevalent, characterizing a series of scandals that have shattered over the years as isolated incidents and stating that these were internal issues that should be addressed outside the public spotlight.
It was only since the election of Pope Francis as its head that the Catholic Church has sought to deal more transparently with the murky side of its past. In August the Pope met with several victims who had been abused by the clergy during a visit to Ireland and roundly condemned decades-long efforts from within the Church’s ranks to cover up such abuse.
A fallen star
A number of accusations have been leveled against Sogyal Lakar Rinpoche, founder of Rigpa, an international network with some 100 different centers across 40 countries. Sogyal was forced into retirement in 2017 in the wake of mounting sexual and physical abuse claims. He no longer heads Rigpa.
Sogyal, whose book “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” sold millions of copies and made him an international celebrity, long enjoyed the support and endorsement of the Dalai Lama, in return helping to fill the coffers of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), the Dalai Lama’s government in exile. That was despite the allegations of abuse against him, which go back more than two decades. They included a widely reported case in 1994 when an American student brought a multi-million dollar lawsuit against him alleging sexual and physical abuse, which he had perpetrated under the guise of curing her “bad karma”. Few details reached the public, however, as the case was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.
In spite of this, the Dalai Lama continued to give his tacit endorsement to Sogyal, visiting communities under his care and appearing with him publicly on a number of occasions. For example, the two were pictured together alongside the then French first lady Carla Bruni Sarkozy at the inauguration of the Lerab Ling teaching center in southern France in 2008, reputedly the largest Tibetan Buddhist temple in the west.
Powerless to intervene?
The Dalai Lama’s objection that given his predominantly spiritual role, he is unable to interfere in the day-to-day running of Tibetan Buddhist communities, rings hollow. When it comes to more arcane doctrine, he has had no qualms about condemning worship of the Dorje Shugden deity, a practice he has condemned as a “danger to the cause of Tibet” and he considers heretic and antagonist to his power. The Dalai Lama asked Shugden acolytes to refrain from attending his teachings, effectively ostracising them from Buddhist society, with the backing of the CTA which went as far as issuing directives against them. In 2014, the CTA legislated to criminalize the worship of this deity and produced a list of people who have voiced their disagreement with the Dalai Lama’s religious prohibitions. Both the Dalai Lama and the CTA’s official websites carry the same Dalai Lama pronouncements on Shugden. On the Dalai Lama’s site, they are regarded as religious decrees and on the CTA’s site, law.
What has stopped the Dalai Lama raising similar objections against leaders accused of sexual depravity and misconduct? For the CTA, it cannot argue, like the Dalai Lama does, that its role is purely spiritual. It would certainly have had the political authority within the Buddhist community worldwide to denounce sexual abuse wherever it was proven, to aid and encourage investigations of abuse and to withdraw moral and practical support from errant spiritual and political leaders. Instead, the CTA has abjectly failed to take responsibility for those who wield power within its ranks or their actions.
More widespread than thought
Sogyal’s abuse is not an isolated case. In fact, similar incidents have also been reported in other Tibetan Buddhist communities worldwide. Project Sunshine, an initiative that has worked to expose sexual violence in Buddhist communities, raised further allegations of sexual assault by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, the leader of Shambala International, as well as some other leaders of the community in August this year. Headquartered in Halifax, Canada, Shambala has some 165 centers worldwide. Former Shambala disciple Christine Chandler has denounced certain spiritual leaders as “Buddhist enablers of sexual abuse”. Shambala International and a lawyer for Sakyong Mipham have denied the Project Sunshine allegations.
Another widely cited case of abuse emerged in 2011 when Lama Choedak Rinpoche, the leader of the Tibetan Buddhist Society of Canberra, was forced by members of his community to make a public apology after admitting to multiple sexual relationships he had with his female students.
Elsewhere, the Dalai Lama’s personal emissary Lama Tenzin Dhonden, who was dismissed last November amid corruption allegations, also allegedly breached his monastic vow when embarking on a widely publicized affair with Seagram heiress Sara Bronfman. Yet he was not disrobed at the time but was only dismissed last November when a series of corruption allegations – including complaints that he demanded cash for securing access to the Dalai Lama – made him too hot for the spiritual leader to keep on. Like Sogyal, Dhonden’s transgressions were over a period of time.
One reason why such behavior went unchecked for so long is that abusive spiritual leaders were often able to put the onus on their victims, making them believe they deserved the punishment or even needed to be subjected to abuse in order to gain further enlightenment.
As former Rigpa students wrote to Sogyal Lakar in an open letter: “If your striking and punching us and others, and having sex with your students and married women, and funding your sybaritic lifestyle with students’ donations is actually the ethical and compassionate behavior of a Buddhist teacher, please explain to us how it is” (quoted in Behind The Thanks, a book by Tibetan Buddhism scholar Mary Finnegan).
Such behavior is a far cry from what Rigpa founder’s own advice to teachers in his famous book, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. In it, Sogyal wrote that “…true teachers are kind, compassionate, and tireless in their desire to share whatever wisdom they have acquired from their masters, never abuse or manipulate their students under any circumstances, never under any circumstances abandon them, serve not their own ends but the greatness of the teachings, and always remain humble.”
Easier said than done, as the saying goes, especially if there is no censure or sanction for acting otherwise. Today’s students of Tibetan Buddhism may hope their future leaders are able to live by such precepts, as well as just articulating them… but they could be forgiven for being just a tiny bit skeptical, especially when it is clear that the Dalai Lama has thus far shirked the role of a martinet of these precepts.
About the author:
*Dr. Andrea Galli, principal investigator at swiss east affairs
This article was published by Modern Diplomacy