I find it very troubling to realize the general quietism about and surrounding the issue of Sogyal Rinpoche and the responses to it, especially among Tibetan netizens and the community as a whole. This is major news in the international Buddhist community yet our media outlets (Phayul, Radio Free Asia or Voice of America Tibetan service) have considered it insignificant or taboo, and very few individuals seem to be following the controversy and the responses on social media. This absence of coverage, comment or criticism connecting to this well-known Tibetan Buddhist figure tells us something about the general mindset of Tibetans, our unquestioned faith and uncritical judgment toward our religious figures, and ignorance of social justice issues outside of our ‘political’ cause. However, that is beside the point. Here, I intend to discuss and comment on Sogyal’s case in light of the strikingly different responses from the His Holiness Dalai Lama and Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche (DKR), respectively.
Sogyal Rinpoche was recognized by Dzongsar Khyentse Chokyi Lodro as one of the incarnations of Terton Sogyal (another famous incarnation being Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok). Sogyal is best known for his bestseller The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (1998), and with over hundred Rigpa centers around the world, he has become one of the most popular Tibetan Buddhist teachers in the West. Controversies surrounding his abusive behavior have been around for decades, however, Sogyal remained untarnished by those allegations until two weeks ago when he had to “take a step back” from teaching and “retire” as the director of Rigpa sangha. He was forced to do so after this 12-page long letter of allegations of abuse by current and ex-Rigpa members. The letter details the unfathomable hypocrisy and deeply unsettling misbehaviors of Sogyal towards sangha members close to him from emotional and psychological to physical and sexual abuse. It also remonstrates with Sogyal for his gluttonous and lavish lifestyle fixated on a “continual supply of sensual pleasures.” As expected, the letter sparked much debate and discussion on the character of Sogyal, the problem of patriarchy and conformism in Western Buddhist communities, and the need for critical vigilance and critique in the event of such circumstances.
The Dalai Lama denounced the ethical misconduct of such Buddhist teachers, and specifically with regard to Sogyal’s case by saying, “Sogyal Rinpoche, my very good friend, but now he’s disgraced. Some of his own students have now made public their criticism.” The Dalai Lama urges everyone to critically examine the teachings by any teacher as encouraged by the Buddha to investigate his words. He counsels people to protest and publicize in the event of such cases by suggesting, “These people do not follow Buddhist advice, Buddhist teachings. Only thing you can do is make public —through the newspaper, through the radio. Make public.” The Dalai Lama understands how such ethical misconduct of Lamas could deface and damage the reputation of Tibetan Buddhist institutions and clergy in general, but that is not his main concern, what really disconcerts him seems to be the grave ethical transgressions of Sogyal. Protesting vehemently that such actions are “totally wrong,” he then quotes the Tibetan philosopher Tsongkhapa who stated, “If the teachings are in accord with the Dharma, then it should be followed, and if the teachings are in discord with the Dharma, then it must be opposed.” The Dalai Lama’s call for scrutiny and critical engagement in Buddhism is neither new nor surprising, but it is fair to say that it was his critique that finally struck Sogyal to the point of retiring and entering into a “period of retreat and reflection.” The Dalai Lama’s statement comes at the rescue of Buddhist ethical and moral system in a degenerate age where Buddhism has become a commodity and its market is rife with self-aggrandizing and ostentatious Lamas and Rinpoches of all kind and color.
As I shall elaborate in the following, DKR’s response to Sogyal’s issue is disturbing for a number of reasons. Ever since he shared his views on same-sex marriage or ‘feminism’, which became widespread in social media, DKR began to personify a rather liberal and progressive teacher with his distinctively free-spirited teaching style. Therefore, it is even more shocking to see this ‘uncharacteristically’ conservative stance on Sogyal’s controversy which, intentionally or unintentionally, defends Sogyal Lakar by victim-blaming and by taking a flight from conventional reality of existence and moral framework into the non-dual vajra world –into pure perception or non-conceptual and pre-morals realm. While he questions Sogyal’s qualifications as a Vajrayāna teacher, DKR blames the students for their credulity and for their lack of resoluteness to enter into Vajrayāna practice “voluntarily” with the knowledge of what the Samaya entails and then to fall back to judge and criticize one’s guru. There are a lot of unpacked presumptions in this statement, as revealed by the victims in the documentary In the Name of Enlightenment, many of the victims were young and emotionally vulnerable women who for various reasons had come to Dharma for refuge, and Sogyal preyed on such individuals without proper training or providing necessary conditions for such a commitment. So the premise of “voluntariness” is indefensible and unforgivable.
Now, in contrast to the Dalai Lama’s call for the critical examination of teachers and their teachings, DKR unequivocally states that one cannot judge or criticize the guru once the student received his or her initiation and stresses that it is a fundamental view of the Vajrayāna tradition, unalterable and immutable. DKR is patently adamant and “puritanical” here as he refuses to entertain even the possibility of a slight modification to this antiquated student-guru relationship in order to adapt to our current socio-moral world.
DKR can, of course, defend Vajrayāna Buddhism and particularly the fundamentals of Samaya and its implications for the student-guru relationship, but by defending it in the context of Sogyal’s controversies, DKR provides a ground for justifying Sogyal’s grave abuses. With all these victim-blaming and the excuses of procedural mistakes and incompetence with regard to admission to the Vajrayāna sangha, DKR tries to unload guilt, moral responsibility and accountability from Sogyal’s shoulders. It shifts the centrality of the issue from Sogyal’s abuse of his students to this age-old student-guru relationship and the strictures on Vajrayāna practitioners.
No one should be troubled by DKR defending Vajrayana Buddhism, but his avoidance to name Sogyal’s evidence-based abuses as abuse is deeply unsettling. His frequent philosophical flights into the all-transcending primordial state of pure perception is all good if he doesn’t return back to the world of conventional reality with statements like the following: “On balance, I would argue that Sogyal Rinpoche has contributed far more benefit to this world and Buddhadharma than harm.” This kind of unfounded utilitarian judgment is seriously problematic and detrimental to the future of Dharma and particularly of Vajrayāna Buddhism in the West. It not only deflects the issue at hand but also comes to Sogyal’s aid. This kind of statement only complicates and confounds the simple matter of abuse and violence. Moreover, DKR’s arguments by analogy in defense of violence and abuse with the quasi-mythical tales of Tilopa and Naropa or Marpa and Milarepa relationship have little merit with regard to today’s world. Such relationships are “outdated” practices and attitudes of the past that need to be disavowed and discarded.
DKR claims that Sogyal is/was following in the footsteps of Chogyam Trungpa, who was hugely successful in the West as a Vajrayāna master, without sufficient training in Buddhist philosophy or Vajrayāna tradition. But DKR’s own judgment of Trungpa seems a little too overplayed when he claims that Trungpa was “the only” Lama who really understood Western culture and “acted on it appropriately.” While we cannot discount Trungpa’s success in disseminating Tibetan Buddhism in the West, we should also remember that he was not free from controversy. Perhaps Trungpa was a more learned and skillful teacher than Sogyal, but such anachronistic comparisons ignore how times have changed even in the last few decades. The technological revolutions such as the Internet have brought and are bringing speedy and significant changes to our political and socio-moral world, and our Dharma teachers, especially Vajrayāna teachers, must be cognizant of such changes and carry out Dharma activities accordingly. Doesn’t the concept of skillfulness or expedient means (upāya) apply to this brand of Buddhist teachers? Or, again, are their teachings above and beyond all ethical considerations? Or, is this whole controversy a crisis of upāya on the part of Sogyal Lakar? As spiritual leaders and teachers continue to teach Buddhism and in particular the Vajrayāna teachings and practices around the world, one must reexamine and refine one’s upāya (Tib. thabs) in communicating and promoting the Dharma. Historically, the prevalence of practicing Vajrayāna Buddhism without proper training and qualification was one of the main causes of degeneration and disappearance of Buddhism in India, and if we don’t safeguard the Dharma from such grave transgressions Vajrayāna practices could be the seed of Buddhism’s destruction or self-destruction in the West or anywhere in the world.