The Tibetan Book of Living and Lying

One of the most successful Buddhist teachers in the West steps down after accusations of sexual misconduct and battery.

12 Minuten Lesezeit

By Michaela Haas

When Oane Bijlsma walked into Rigpa’s Buddhist meditation center in Amsterdam for the first time, she was at a crossroads: At 34 years old, she was just recovering from a bad breakup and was looking “for love, care, and a new direction” in her life. She liked the warm atmosphere in the center with the golden Buddha statues, the friendly people and she enthusiastically enjoyed the meditation course. “At first it was all about mindfulness and loving kindness, only at the end did they say that the essence of the Buddhist path is the devotion to the guru. I wasn’t looking for a guru.

Like many before her, the publishing assistant didn’t really want to become a Buddhist, but was in desperate need of a community, a good cause, and wanted to learn to meditate. “As we say in Holland, I was walking around with my soul under my arm.” But she fell in love with an attendant of Rigpa‘s founder, Sogyal Lakar, and followed him to several Rigpa retreats in France and England.

Seventy year old Sogyal Lakar is one of the most successful and well-known Tibetan Buddhist teachers in the West. His followers call him “Rinpoche“, a Tibetan title of reverence which means “Precious”. His bestselling book The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying has been translated in 34 languages, sold millions of copies and is required reading at several universities. His organization Rigpa (Tibetan for “intelligence”) guides 130 centers in 30 countries. For millions of seekers his book and his courses were the first introduction to Tibetan Buddhism (including the author of this report).

Eventually, because Bijlsma had previously worked in a Five-Star-Hotel, Rigpa recruited her for the “Hospitality Team” that looks after the needs of Sogyal Lakar and his inner circle. Soon Bijlsma came to understand that her new job had little to do with the Buddhist principles of humbleness, honesty, and altruism. “For his visit in Amsterdam we rented a suite in a Five-Star-Hotel, plus a house for him, plus another house for his girlfriends and cooks,“ Oane Bijlsma recounts. “I was running around with huge swaths of cash to scout for the best and most expensive meats. It was bizarre.”

Slowly, she realized that servicing the master included more than just scouting steaks. Bijlsma is athletic, slender, blue-eyed and blonde. “I was his type”. She recalls a time in London, “We were alone for a moment. He grabbed me by the back of my head, quite forcefully, and pushed a drawing in my face of a Tibetan deity with a fat erection. I saw the look in his face. There was no kindness, just a man trying something perverted.” He asked her if her boyfriend “could get it up” and if they “had a good fuck” last night. “It was very offensive.”

The Rigpa organization sells compassion, meditation, and wisdom. Rigpa`s opulent main headquarters is one of the world’s largest Tibetan Buddhist temples outside of Asia. It is tucked away on a mountain plateau in French Languedoc, less than an hour from the buzzing beaches of the Mediterranean. On summer weekends, buses unload hundreds of curious tourists who check out the elaborate, hand-painted details of the gilded three-story-temple.

Thousands have participated and thrived in Rigpa programs learning profound Buddhist philosophy and meditation. But peak behind the golden veneer of this very successful enterprise, and it’s an extreme departure from Buddha’s teachings of love and compassion. Inner circle students have had a very different experience of this particular Tibetan teacher. They are now coming forward with complaints they have been beaten bloody by their stout boss, young women testify that they have been pressured to render sexual services to speed up their path to enlightenment, they work incredibly long hours of free labor and members ache under the ever increasing pressure to drive in more donations.

Rumors about sexual misconduct have plagued Sogyal Lakar for decades. In 1994 an American sued him for sexual misconduct and battery, but Rigpa settled the case out of court for an undisclosed sum. In 2011 a young French woman, Mireille Durand, who had been brought to Lerab Ling by her Buddhist father, disclosed publicly that Sogyal had pressured her to have sex with him. She was 22 at the time: “He made very explicit threats, prohibiting me from talking about it to anyone.”

Rigpa was able to downplay the charges as the unproven allegations of a few disgruntled students. But now eight senior students have published an extensive letter with accusations so severe that Sogyal announced his immediate retirement this Friday. The 12-page letter details “the physical, emotional and psychological abuse of students, sexual abuse, and a lavish, gluttonous, and sybaritic lifestyle that has partly been financed with donations.” The authors testify that they have been beaten so forcefully by Sogyal Lakar “with phones, cups, and any other objects that happened to be close at hand“ they were left “with bloody injuries and permanent scars.” Their crimes were that his “food was not hot enough“ or that he was “awakened from a nap a half hour late.”

Matteo Pistono, former board member of Rigpa America and author of a biography about Sogyal’s predecessor Terton Sogyal (“Fearless in Tibet”), testifies that Sogyal knocked him unconscious with a broken wooden hanger. Michael Condon, an American contractor who repeatedly hosted Sogyal Lakar at his home in Los Angeles, observed Sogyal punching a nun so forcefully in the stomach that she left the temple in tears. Joanne Standlee, the former director of Rigpa America, says, Sogyal repeatedly asked her to strip or give him a blow job when she was a brand new student (she refused). A professional photographer reports being told to take lewd pictures of Sogyal’s girlfriends. Damcho Drolma, an Australian artist who was so inspired by Sogyal’s teachings that she shaved her head and became an ordained nun living for ten years at his main seat in France, said she was beaten or kicked almost daily until she could no longer stand to be around Sogyal and escaped. The Australian IT-expert Michael Nolan, who lived as a monk in the same center, says that the sleep deprivation, work demands and violence left him with posttraumatic stress disorder.

The accusations have rocked the Buddhist world at large as its authors are well known and respected former senior students and leaders in the community. They have abandoned their Rigpa jobs, apologized to the community for remaining silent for so long, and attest that they tried to discuss their complaints repeatedly with Sogyal and the Rigpa management to stop further abuse, but all in vain. “When we’ve attempted to raise these concerned, you`ve shamed us,” the letter reads. They very hesitantly agreed to now speak to the media for the first time, after their initial hopes that reforms and ethical guidelines could be established within the organisation were shattered. They claim to have encountered “a vacuum of accountability”, with “no clear or identifiable ethical standards“. They allege Sogyal uses his “role as a teacher to gain access to young women, and to coerce, intimidate and manipulate them into giving him sexual favors. Some of us have been subjected to sexual harassment in the form of being told to strip, to show our genitals (both men and women), to give oral sex, being groped, asked to give photos of our genitals, to have sex in Sogyal’s bed with our partners, and to describe to him our sexual relations with our partners.”

Some of them struggle with an existential crisis after having given years, even decades of their lives to a cause they believed in. They were told that a special kind of hell was reserved for students who criticize and speak out against their teacher.

By now everybody has heard of the cover-up of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. But Buddhism still enjoys a reputation of being non-violent, open-minded, and pro-women. In some Western nations, Buddhism is the fastest growing religion. Increasing numbers of Westerners feel inspired by the Buddha’s teachings and his pragmatic methods; the benefits of meditation have been well established and proven through science. Even the Rigpa-renegades acknowledge that they benefited tremendously from the teachings and meditation. The Dalai Lama, a pious monk and the most prominent face of Tibetan Buddhism in the West goes out of his way to be transparent including never taking fees for speaking engagements, disclosing a full accounting of event funds and donating any surplus to legitimate charities. And yet, he wrote the foreword to Sogyal Lakar’s bestselling book and repeatedly graced his centers with personal visits, even though several ex-Rigpa students shared their negative experiences with him. The support of an eminent Peace Nobel Prize winner such as the Dalai Lama and numerous prominent actors such as John Cleese or Richard Gere surely contributed to the impression that Sogyal Lakar was a trustworthy teacher and Rigpa was a safe organisation.

Rigpa does not answer detailed questions about the accusations and acknowledges no wrongdoing, but rather refers to an “independent investigation“ being underway and only explains in the most general terms that it’s “dedicated to making the Buddhist teachings of meditation, compassion and wisdom available to the modern world” and that “there is no place for abuse in our community”.

“This is how we were trained”, explains Olivier Raurich, the former director of Rigpa France, who left the organization last year in protest against the “dictatorial atmosphere”. “Rigpa paid a very expensive professional agency in Paris that specializes in crisis communication, to train a few spokesmen, including myself. We were advised not to respond to the allegations of sexual harassment and financial abuse directly, but rather to endlessly repeat certain key phrases, such as; The Dalai Lama supports Sogyal Rinpoche 100 percent.’”

The Dalai Lama’s Secretary, Tseten Samdup Chhoekyapa, responds to the request for comment by the Süddeutsche Zeitung: “His Holiness said it was totally wrong to blindly follow everything ones teacher says. He said one must examine if the teacher’s teachings are in line with Buddha’s teaching.” He forwards a video link to a recent conference in Ladakh, where the Dalai Lama commented on Sogyal Lakar directly: “Sogyal Rinpoche, a very good friend of mine, but he disgraced.“ His advice: “So, the only thing is to make it public, through newspapers, through the radio. Make it public!”

“The culture of silence has to be broken”

To this day the Rigpa websites claim that their centers and programs are “under the guidance and patronage of the Dalai Lama”. Many students have requested a more decisive statement by the Dalai Lama. Though the Dalai Lama officially retired from his political posts, his words still hold tremendous weight in the Tibetan Buddhist community. Molecular biologist and monk Matthieu Ricard, who is the Dalai Lama’s French translator and an internationally recognized luminary of Tibetan Buddhism, acknowledges that he knows two of the letter writers personally and “considers them honest and trustworthy”. While deeming the alleged behavior “obviously unacceptable”, he also declares that it is not the Dalai Lama’s “role to act as an international Buddhist policeman.”

“This culture of silence has to be broken,” comments Dutch journalist Rob Hogendoorn, who has been documenting abuse in Buddhist centers for years. He even questions Sogyal Lakar’s credentials as a Buddhist teacher. Hogendoorn calls him „a complete fraud.“ He’s a charlatan, posing as a guru. Has anybody found any proof that he was truly recognized as an incarnation before he fled Tibet as a child? Where is the proof that he really did the traditional religious training or that he actually studied comparative religion in Cambridge for more than a semester? There are huge holes in his personal history. In the 70s, Tibetan Buddhism was brand new in the West, we didn’t have the internet to check things, and I think Sogyal saw the opportunity and launched himself as a master.”

Battery and misuse of funds are punishable by law in the countries where Rigpa operates, and some students have taken the first steps toward legal action. The French Buddhist Union just suspended Rigpa`s membership. But the core of the sexual abuse allegations touches a problem that can hardly be dealt with by lawyers: sexual relations between very young women who often seek out Buddhist centers to find healing from past traumas, and a master who is revered as quasi-enlightened.

Sogyal Lakar is not a monk, but often wears maroon or yellow robes that could be mistaken for a monk’s attire. In Tibetan Buddhism esteemed masters are revered as representatives of the Buddha, and thus even unconventional or radical behavior is readily excused. Sex is mentioned in traditional scriptures as a means to speed up realization. In this context, a culture crash between the feudal system in Tibet and the Western hunger for Asian wisdom may be unavoidable. The Dalai Lama mentioned in his Ladakh speech that “some of these guru institutions” have “some influence of the feudal system. That is outdated and must end.”

“We have been blinded by this romantic idea of a Shangri-La,” acknowledges Joanne Standlee, the former director. In her recent university studies to become a social worker, she was shocked to discover “parallels between the grooming process of sexual predators and what I saw in Rigpa, this mix of attention and abuse.”

Among German Buddhists, suggestions to establish a board of ethical advisors that abuse victims could turn to for support, went nowhere. But the problem is far bigger than Rigpa. Rob Hogendoorn is currently investigating abuse allegations against the male leaders of 19 out of the 39 registered Buddhist organisations in Holland. The number of allegations alone – most recently the arrest of a Zen priest near Augsburg, who was sentenced to nearly eight years in prison for abusing young boys – makes it evident that the problem is so widespread that it needs to be taken more seriously. While some argue that sexual relations between teachers and students are not always problematic, Hogendoorn thinks that the “imbalance of power points into one direction only, and that is the direction of abuse. When a school teacher or a psychotherapist seduces a pupil or a client, we have laws against that, because the power is on one side only.“

Some of the Rigpa students who have simply attended meditation courses, seem honestly surprised about the reports of abusive and cult-like behavior in the inner circle. But since the open letter circulated, more than a dozen other students have come forward to report disturbing experiences. The sheer number of testimonies makes it impossible to swipe them aside as irrelevant, so Rigpa recently announced the plan to establish a code of conduct and a new spiritual advisory group to guide the Rigpa organization.

Sogyal Lakar has promised to go into retreat “to reflect deeply about myself, about how best to support students, and about the future of Rigpa.” But most recently he was spotted as the keynote speaker in front of hundreds of attendees on the stage of the World Youth Buddhist Symposium in Thailand. Its slogan: “The path to happiness.”

Buddha’s path might lead to happiness but will Sogyal Lakar acknowledge that for some of his closest students his abuse of power lead to anything but?