Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Minimizes Clerical and Institutional Abuse in Christmas Message to Rigpa Students
On January 3rd, Rigpa International members received a letter from Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, dated December 25th. It was emailed by Rigpa’s “Vision Board”. The Vision Board is the advisory committee now directing the global neo-Buddhist organization after the resignation of Sogyal Lakar in August, 2017.
In July of 2017, Lakar was accused of decades of physical, sexual, emotional and financial abuse in a now-famous letter written by eight former devotees. Lakar has not denied any of the allegations. After Lakar stepped down, Rigpa International commissioned an independent investigation that found the allegations to be credible and advised that Lakar be barred from all contact with Rigpa students.
The Christmas letter by Khyentse Norbu (Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse) minimizes the allegations against Lakar and suggests that critics of how Rigpa has handled the crisis are personally dissatisfied, are thirsting “for Rigpa’s ultimate destruction”, and intent on discrediting Buddhism in general.
Norbu was appointed as an advisor to the Vision Board after more than a year of vigorously supporting Lakar following the publication of the allegations. A month after the letter from “The Eight”, Norbu posted an essay in support of Lakar and Rigpa management. It was shared over a thousand times on Facebook. The essay, which Norbu insists must be read in its ten-thousand-word-entirety to fully grasp its wisdom, was lauded by his students around the world as a nuanced defence of the version of Tantric Buddhism proffered by Lakar and himself. In it, he criticized the letter-writers for their lack of spiritual maturity and loyalty.
“Frankly,” he wrote,
for a student of Sogyal Rinpoche who has consciously received abhisheka and therefore entered or stepped onto the Vajrayana path, to think of labelling Sogyal Rinpoche’s actions as ‘abusive,’ or to criticize a Vajrayana master even privately, let alone publicly and in print, or simply to reveal that such methods exist, is a breakage of samaya.1)“Abhisheka” indicates a Tantric initiation that binds the student to the teacher through a strict code of allegiance called “samaya”. Consequences of breaking samaya include rebirth in torturous realms.
In October, Norbu went further, and mocked the victims of Lakar, and all other victims of clerical sexual abuse. In a post he has since tried to delete, he presented a sixteen-page spoof contract produced by “Bender and Boner Lawyers” designed to ensure Rinpoches like himself “who desire to save all sentient beings yet also wish to have fulfilling sex lives” can do so with their students.
Lama Tsultrim Allione denounced the post.
Norbu’s Christmas letter, reprinted below, characterizes the allegations of criminal wrongdoing against Lakar as administrative faux-pas:
“Sogyal Rinpoche appears,” Norbu writes, “to have mishandled, mismanaged and misread a number of events.”
The letter also conflates criticism of Rigpa’s handling of the abuse crisis with criticism of Buddhism in general, while suggesting that those who think critically about Lakar or Rigpa are somehow not discerning practitioners.
“I can’t help but feel frustrated,” Norbu writes, “when I hear that Buddhadharma is being labelled a ‘cult’. Perhaps more than any other world religion, Buddhadharma actively encourages its followers to apply critical thinking to everything it teaches.”
Norbu also offers high praise for those “Western” Rigpa students who are maintaining their loyalty.
His compassion for international students, however, remains selective.
More than a year after posting his satirical sex contract, he posted the following 4chan-flavoured troll video targeting his critics, complete with Tibetan throat-chanting in the background.
Text of Letter
Letter from Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche to the Rigpa Sangha
Dear Followers of the Rigpa Mandala, who have taken Guru Padmasambhava as their refuge in this life, the next life and the bardo states.2)Guru Padmasambhava is said to have brought Buddhism to Tibet from India in the 8th century. His archetypal legend, which involves civilizing a hostile climate and subduing local demons, is a favourite amongst Tibetan evangelists today. The “bardo” refers to the liminal realm inhabited by beings after death and before rebirth.
I write to you with a heart full of warmth and jubilation. There is no need for us to dwell on the rough and precarious road that the Rigpa Sangha has been traveling recently, but I must confess that for a while I wondered if you would manage to stick together. Now I realize that my doubts were the symptom of a kind of cultural conditioning that made me skeptical about whether westerners are even capable of grasping the Dharma, let alone that you possess the resilience and persistence to continue to follow the spiritual path in the face of such turmoil.
Make no mistake, we are in a very difficult situation. History has shown us that when faced with similar crises – both in the East and the West – whole Sanghas, lineages and institutions have became demoralized and discouraged. Some became so disheartened that they now no longer exist.
For many reasons – some known, some unknown – Sogyal Rinpoche appears to have mishandled, mismanaged and misread a number of events. This is why we find ourselves in the current situation. Yet, from what I hear, far from falling apart, the Rigpa Sangha is alive and well. Not only do you continue to function as an organization, but you still practise together and, in spite of all the uncertainty, you have maintained the continuity. How have you managed it? As I contemplate this question, I always remember one very important aspect of Rigpa: that Sogyal Rinpoche introduced an enormous number of people to a great and authentic lineage of teachings and to some of the most remarkable, learned and realized teachers of our time. You then thought about and contemplated everything you were taught and, as a result, have realized that there is much more to Buddhism in general and the Vajrayana in particular, than just one person. So the contemplation, study and all those introductions have borne fruit, and will continue to bear fruit long into the future.
Never forget that ours is a path that not only cherishes but also strongly encourages its followers to prepare themselves through ‘hearing and contemplation’ before they engage in any of the practices. The path of the Vajrayana is no exception. I can’t help but feel frustrated when I hear that Buddhadharma is being labelled a ‘cult’. Perhaps more than any other world religion, Buddhadharma actively encourages its followers to apply critical thinking to everything it teaches. By hearing, contemplating and analysing the Dharma, we develop an unshakable trust and devotion for the path. This must be what the Rigpa Sangha must have done because all over the world, despite of a roller-coaster eighteen months, you continue to gather together on the 10th day for the Guru Rinpoche tsok, the 25th day for the Dakini tsok, and for daily Riwo Sangchö, Tendrel Nyesel and Vajrakilaya practices. This suggests that somewhere along the way, you must have realized that the Buddhadharma is not just the Vajrayana and that the Vajrayana is not just a person called Sogyal Rinpoche. You must also have realized how much wisdom there is in the Buddhadharma and how many skilful means it offers to help both oneself and others. This is how you, as a Sangha, have kept the spirit of Rigpa alive. It is also why Rigpa hasn’t fallen apart. And for me, if this is not confirmation that the Dharma has taken root in the West, that firm foundations have been laid and that the Dharma in general, and especially the Vajrayana, are now sprouting shoots, I don’t know what is.
At the same time, I know that many of you are confused, disappointed, even desperate and depressed. And who wouldn’t be in such a situation? What’s impressive, though, is that however wretched you feel, you have all remained devoted to the path of Shakyamuni Buddha.
When any system is transplanted to a new place and culture – political, commercial, educational or religious – it often faces innumerable difficulties and challenges for a very long time before it can be said to be firmly established. This is doubly true for the sacred path of the Dharma. No one ever said that following a spiritual path was going to be easy! The teachings are full of information about potential obstacles that will continually test a practitioner’s character, especially in the Vajrayana.
At this point, I would like to encourage all of you to continue to listen to and contemplate the Buddhadharma. In fact, I would like to request that you never stop listening to and contemplating the Dharma, particularly the Vajrayana, because by doing so, you will come to realize that it is utterly flawless. The more you listen and contemplate with an open mind, the more confident you will become about the path. As your confidence in the path and its result increases, even surrendering to a guru and following the path of the guru will become the exact opposite of precarious! In other words, what had seemed to be a risky path will instead be safe and secure.
Most of the Rigpa Sangha are practitioners of the Vajrayana, so undoubtedly, you will have taken the bodhisattva vow. As followers of the bodhisattvayana path, you know that your path is the path of long-term planning – in this case, your plan or aspiration is to enlighten all sentient beings. You also know that bodhisattvas mean what they say, so this aspiration is not just some kind of a feel-good fantasy. And having taken the bodhisattva vow, you know that the big vision of the bodhisattva path is to propagate, preserve and introduce the Buddhadharma to all those who have a karmic connection with it.
Rigpa has been a very effective vehicle for Buddhadharma. Through Rigpa, a great many people have been introduced to the Dharma. You should continue this activity. Never imagine that the propagation and preservation of the Dharma is the job of just one person. I have always considered Rigpa to be very important in terms of upholding, preserving and introducing the Dharma to the western world. I still see it that way, now more than ever. Each and every Rigpa student should bear this in mind. Of course, I don’t mean that you should all take on teaching roles! Rather that Rigpa’s network of Dharma centres around the world should continue to provide everything students and practitioners need to study and practice the Dharma, including a good teaching programme through which those who are interested can meet authentic Dharma teachers. Basically, that Rigpa continues to provide a vessel that creates the causes and conditions through which the Dharma is upheld, preserved and introduced for the benefit of all, now and for years to come. This activity is so important and it also sends out all the right signals.
Yes, Rigpa’s image has been tarnished over the past year or so. But for decades many of Rigpa’s activities earned it a good and wholesome reputation. Rigpa’s positive, beneficial contributions to the Dharma far outweigh the bad, so it would be silly to dwell on the difficulties. Instead, we must look at what we can learn from this situation, correct the misunderstandings and errors, and make Rigpa even better. This is what the bodhisattvayana path is all about. Bodhisattvas of the past have gone to extraordinary lengths to help sentient beings – some crossed oceans of fire and others willingly leapt into the hell realms in order to preserve the Dharma and for the sake of helping others. In the light of such heroism and valour, will we allow ourselves to be daunted by a few avoidable obstacles that are entirely transformable?
Many of you have taken the Vajrayana to heart. And despite everything that has happened, many of you also continue to feel an unwavering devotion for your master, Sogyal Rinpoche. This is your choice. If you choose to follow the Vajrayana path of your own free will, sensibly, soberly and with the utmost devotion – basically, if you know exactly what you are doing – all I can say is that I rejoice at your decision and am full of admiration for you. Other people may criticize your devotion for Sogyal Rinpoche, but their approval of your path is far less important than your decision to follow it.
There have been, are, and always will be people whose sense of personal dissatisfaction leads them to oppose, slander and, I dare say, even thirst for Rigpa’s ultimate destruction. Instead of wishing such people ill, we must always remember that we are followers of the Buddha. We must therefore feel compassion for all those who stand against us and try to understand the cause of their pain – especially if they were once our Dharma brothers and sisters. Try to embrace them with compassion and pure perception. And rest assured, if their pursuit of the Dharma is genuine, sooner or later they will see the truth and find a path back.
Yours in Devotion to Guru Padmasambhava,
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche
25 December 2018
|↑1||“Abhisheka” indicates a Tantric initiation that binds the student to the teacher through a strict code of allegiance called “samaya”. Consequences of breaking samaya include rebirth in torturous realms.|
|↑2||Guru Padmasambhava is said to have brought Buddhism to Tibet from India in the 8th century. His archetypal legend, which involves civilizing a hostile climate and subduing local demons, is a favourite amongst Tibetan evangelists today. The “bardo” refers to the liminal realm inhabited by beings after death and before rebirth.|
Ironically, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse’s predecessor Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö, heeding a prophecy that foretold he would be facing obstacles caused by an “old woman”, blamed one his most devoted benefactors, the Gyalum or queen mother of Sikkim, for his perceived troubles, which were said to be so overpowering “that he was unable to take even one step out of Sikkim.”
According to oral history, attendants and students of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and Khyente Chökyi Lodrö believed that the queen mother was the “obstacle-maker” and “samaya-transgressing-demon” that prevented him from living out “his full life span.” They kept these thoughts to themselves, though, for fear of giving offence to their master’s consort and wife: “If Khandro Tsering Chödrön had heard even a whisper that Rinpoche’s attendants and students believed her kind and living royal friends were samaya-transgressing-demons, the HUNG syllable in her heart of would have turned upside down!”
These anecdotes illuminate how closely knit the interests of Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö and the Lakar family remained after their resettlement in Sikkim, and how financially dependent they were on benefactors, lest they all “die of starvation”. The dilemmas of their household were compounded by the fact that Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö gave the Sikkimese queen mother many Buddhist empowerments and teachings while the royal family hosted him and his entourage in the Tsuglakhang at the Palace Monastery in Gangtok.
Apparently, the apple did not fall far from the tree: Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse strikes me as someone who loves to be ‘hosted’. He seems to be no stranger to opportunism, ‘realpolitik’, and hypocrisy either. I think of him as the Pied Piper of Hamelin, using the instruments of innuendo, superstition, fear-mongering, and hubris on orphaned Sogyal adepts, leading them away to… to where exactly?
 ‘The Life and Times of Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö: The Great Biography by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and Other Stories’ (2017), p. 231. Previously, Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö had thought that the “old woman” was the queen of Bhutan, whose invitations he had refused for that reason. Later, he became convinced that the prophecy referred to the queen mother of Sikkim instead.
 ‘The Life and Times of Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö: The Great Biography by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and Other Stories’ (2017), p. 231.
 ‘The Life and Times of Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö: The Great Biography by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and Other Stories’ (2017), p. 231. Tibetan Buddhist practitioners visualize certain sacred syllables inside their heart chakra. The transgression of samaya vows is thought to result in fates worse than death, among which staying in the tantric hell realms for aeons. The description of the consequences of breaking samaya vows are graphic, for instance: “If the samaya deteriorate, then while you live your complexion will deteriorate, your mind will become unclear, you will be subject to many illnesses and your wishes will go unfulfilled. Innumerable spirits and demons will wound you like an animal. When you die, your senses will become clouded, your tongue will stick [to your palate], you will smell unpleasant, and you will die vomiting blood. You will be escorted [from this life] by innumerable malicious demons.” (Van Schaik, ‘The Limits of Transgression: The Samaya Vows of Mahayoga’ (2010), p. 63)
 ‘The Life and Times of Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö: The Great Biography by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and Other Stories’ (2017), p. 230.
Boy that vajra hell threat must terrify a lot of people, making them unable to speak up against cruelty and injustice. Reminds me of the hot Hell of Christianity. Way to control people who’ve virtually enslaved themselves to dogma.
I remember several senior Shambhala practitioners stating that they preferred Dzongsar’s response to the Sogyal abuse to the Dalai Lama’s response. This was before the Sakyong’s sex crimes were publically revealed. I wonder if some of them knew. I wonder how many women Dzongsar has sexually and/or physically abused? And how many of his students have brainwashed themselves into seeing this as some kind of teaching? And how resistant they would be to see Dzongsar facing prison time for the crimes he has likely committed.
I want to believe Tibetan Buddhism is worth saving, but with views like this being so widespread, and not challenged nearly enough, I am beginning to have my doubts. I don’t know what the right thing for me to do is. One part of me still wants to learn from a Lama that emphasizes ethical behavior from gurus, another part of me wants to start becoming as active an activist as possible against Gurus like Dzongsar.
Why hasn’t the Dalai Lama called for Dzongsar to completely stop teaching like he did with Michael Roach? The Tibetan Buddhist community bears responsibility for enabling this kind of behavior.
Perhaps there needs to be an organization that starts protesting these abusive Gurus with picket signs when they show up for teachings. Any ideas on how to get that started?
As for the picketing, RJ: two Dutch ladies have demonstrated how effective simple and spontaneous protests can be. On 16 November 2016, they held a silent protest outside the venue in Amsterdam where Sogyal was about to give a public talk. You can see the video here: https://openboeddhisme.nl/nl/stille-manifestatie-tegen-sogyal-bij-rai-amsterdam/
This silent protest led to the Brandpunt-report broadcast on 9 June 2017, in which Oane Bijlsma and two other Dutch women openly spoke out against Sogyal Lakar: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Rxljr7KGIE. And this documentary, in turn, helped convince the eight signatories to send their letter about Sogyal Lakar’s many abuses on 14 July 2017: https://bodhitv.nl/videos/sangye-nawang-over-sogyal-rinpoche/
So, this goes to show that small, impromptu protests can have huge consequences if they’re videotaped and shared widely through social media.
I love DKR, he is so vast Teacher…it’s like trying to throw stones to the oceans.
Samsara is truly a playgound 🙂
So Claudio, you think 30 years of Lakar’s abuse is funny?
Oh ha ha ha–because that’s really what the previous commenter actually said…..
Is Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse as ‘vast’ as Sogyal Lakar, or is he even ‘vaster’ than him? Is Dzongsar ‘vast’ enough to be above the law?
It’s striking that some of these ‘vast’ teachers prefer some samsaric ‘playgrounds’ over others.
They much rather spend their days in hiding in Asia than in custody of the French or American judiciary, for instance.
They much rather spend their days flying to podiums all over the world—all expenses paid—than remain members of a faceless crowd in Bhutan. They much rather dabble in Western philosophy than expose the privileged position they were born into to its critique.
Above all, their ‘vastness’ absolves these teachers from all personal responsibility and accountability for their actions in their ‘playground’ of choice: how very convenient!
I was about 21 when I met Dzongsar Khyentse – the man who would be my Lama for the next 16 yrs. Despite him being attractive to women, I only wanted the Dharma. I was young and yes pretty and very open and committed to pusuing the Dharma wholeheartedly. Within a short time he was paying me quite a bit of attention, making me feel special and close – enquiring after me – pursuing me actually. I had many occasions alone with him. He told me how much merit I had, promised me many amazing things for my future and really seemed to care.
He was an incisive, well spoken and entertaining teacher, humorous, seemingly self deprecating, mysterious and wise – otherworldly. Very magnetising. He drew me in until he began to speak of sex and said it was a path I was qualified for – a spiritual thing. He also said my biggest obstacle was not thinking I was sexy! When I asked about other women, he said it was something he did with just a few women and that it was hard work – whilst also keeping a public longterm girlfriend. He also, confusingly, said it would be for his pleasure. I was so young and would have done anything to ‘progress’ but when he initiated the physical activities then asked me flat out one night if I wanted sex, I said no as what I had in in mind was nothing so mundane and the everyday term put me off. I thought it was a test of sorts.
Since then I did receive many more teachings including ‘high’ ones in small groups but he didnt bring up the tantric sex with me again. So you could say there was no repurcussions for saying no although I spent less time one on one with him from there. There was also definitely an ‘inner circle’ involving attractive young women and some of the men with activities going on that others weren’t privy to.
So then a few years later something happened which resulted in physical harm to me then due to failures within the sangha to prevent or acknowledge this harm and with Rinpoche himself not wanting to know, I distanced myself from him and the sangha. It then became apparent that all his promises to be my protector, to never leave me proved hollow.
When I tried to meet with him recently, several years later, to see if things could be mended, after hooking me back in and luring me interstate, he then avoided the meeting, turned his back on me and lied to me.
Now I know that as a young neophyte I was groomed and later cruelly dismissed and betrayed …. It’s so difficult to process that amongst the amazing stuff, so much harm was also done. He seems to have really lost his way – if he ever really was sincere.
After so many years of devotion and commitment, I am now exhausted, sceptical and although have faith in the essence of the teachings, have a complete aversion toward Tibetan Buddhism and many lamas. After giving absolutely everything and undergoing much hardship and trials along the way for so many years, I have no energy left for that path.
How could someone who appeared so passionate about the dharma, who publicly advocates good communication as imperative to guru disciple relationships and for healing, just totally shut down and abandon his student whom he kept so close for so many years? It is nothing less than criminal.
I’m so sorry to hear this, Ms. Elegance. It’s very brave of you to speak out so clearly and incisively, and you’re empowering others in doing so.
Speaking about (Tibetan) Buddhist teachers, perhaps Martine Batchelor said it best: “Very easily it is assumed that they are ‘beyond ethics’, and what is strange is that the first thing they do if they think they are awakened, is that they go and have sex and drink alcohol. As the Dalai Lama said: if they were so enlightened, they should drink urine and eat excrement, and it would make no difference. But they don’t choose to do this.”
“If you look at Tibetan Buddhism, you have different schools: some are more into ethics than others. The less you are into ethics, the more they say that ethics is just the relative, that if you’re awakened you can basically do anything you want. But if you can do anything you want, then maybe you would expect the person to go and save the world and give all their money away, etc. But, instead, they seem to amass money, they seem to try have sex with women, some women may be interested. But what is worse, is that if the women are not interested, they can be forced or convinced.”
“But, what is dangerous is the fact that the student need their teacher to be amazing. They think the teacher is totally, completely awakened. And then, after that everything the teacher does they read as awakened. But it’s not. They are just human beings. They may have read a bit. They may have done some things. They may have been born. They may have been discovered. The idea of the rinpoche: This is the total luck of the draw! Some turn out good, like the Dalai Lama, some turn don’t turn out good, like Sogyal Rinpoche. But they all have the same title: they are rinpoche. As soon as you hear the name ‘rinpoche’, you think that person must be great. But it is just an accident, the fact that they think this person must be the reincarnation of that person. But you have no idea: They are two or three years old, how are they going to turn out?”
Martine spoke some other words well worth listening to about Buddhist teachers deemed to be so ‘vast’ that they are ‘beyond ethics’. Because she speaks English with a heavy accent, I made a verbatim transcript:
Thankyou Rob – excellent quotes.
Thank you for sharing, Ms Elegance.
I am sorry that you had to go though these experiences. I wish you all the best, now and in the future.
Thanks for the acknowledgement and great quotes.
The What Now blog take on makes further points.