The Dalai Lama and Sogyal Rinpoche: A Roaring Silence?

Posted on August 15, 2012

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This is a guest-post by an author who wishes to remain anonymous, who recently contacted me through a mutual friend. Having covered in this blog matters of interest concerning the transmission of Buddhism in the West and particularly the UK, this though-provoking article is pertinent, so I am happy to share it here with my readers.

H.H. Dalai Lama with Carla Bruni and Sogyal Rinpoche in 2008

H.H. Dalai Lama with Carla Bruni and Sogyal Rinpoche in 2008

One of the questions asked by many since the long running saga of Sogyal has once again gathered pace is why hasn’t the Dalai Lama spoken out? Why is it, if he knows about the many allegations against Sogyal, that His Holiness doesn’t voice an opinion and and publicly condemn the Tibetan playboy?

Certainly, there exists a relationship between the two men: The Dalai Lama wrote the foreword to Sogyal’s (or Patrick Gaffney’s, depending on who you believe) ‘Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’ and, in 2008, Lerab Ling, Sogyal’s huge temple at Montpelier in France was officially inaugurated by him, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy in attendance. Again, turn to the front of any of the Rgpa diaries of the past few years and you are greeted immediately by a picture of a smiling Dalai lama, along with prayers for his long life.

So why the roaring silence?

Actually, as anyone involved in Western Dharma politics over the last few decades will know, His Holiness HAS spoken out about this issue, making his own position very clear, and indeed has given clear and precise guidance on how we should act in response to Buddhist teachers in the West abusing their position of authority …

At a conference for Western Buddhist teachers held in Dharamsala n March 1993, at a time when rumours about Sogyal’s behaviour were reaching their first crescendo, the Dalai Lama repeatedly encouraged open criticism of such behaviour, even, when all else fails he said, to “name names in newspapers”. It was perhaps more than coincidence that, soon afterwards, in November 1994, an American woman known only as Janice Doe filed a $10m lawsuit against Sogyal charging him with inflicting emotional distress, breach of fiduciary duty and assault and battery; the lawsuit was ultimately settled out of court, allegedly for several millions of dollars.

The story didn’t end there however and,over the next few years more and more allegations of abuse emerged, leading to several articles in some of the most reputable UK broadsheets, numerous internet articles and websites, and even a television documentary. All of these went unchallenged: it seems that, by and large, Rigpa felt noble silence to be the best way to weather the continuing storm.Several commentators however interpreted Rigpa’s lack of a robust response as merely an admission of guilt.

As these allegations have spread and multiplied across the media, some have suggested it is not enough for the Dalai Lama to stand on the sidelines and issue instructions but that,rather, he should speak out specifically about Sogyal’s shenannigans, In other words, the Dalai Lama should take his own advice over the issue of Sogyal and abuse, and personally “Name names in newspapers’.

The ‘Innocent Until Proven Guilty’ Defence

Some have chastised Sogyal’s critics, pointing out that there is no actual proof abuse has taken place and that, until it is proven, he should be treated as innocent. Such an appeal to ethical principles is not without precedent:we are all familiar with the addage,’innocent until proven guilty’. However, issues of guilt and innocence are decided, in England and Wales at least, at two judicial levels,criminal and civil.

According to criminal law, for the defendant to be found guilty, the veracity of allegations must be proven ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ According to civil law veracity and guilt must be established ‘on the balance of probability’. Proving abuse is always difficult; the crime rarely occurs in public and, because it is often a case of one persons word against another, proving it occurred ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ is almost impossible.

On the other hand, where there are multiple plaintiffs, a joint, or ‘class action’ can be instigated and the possibility of a guilty verdict becomes a realistic one. In Sogyal’s case, the universality of the internet has ensured that a number of alleged victims have begun to communicate and it would seem that the spectre of a class action looms ever closer.

More importantly, the fact that there are multiple allegations, means that a guilty verdict according to civil criteria seems thoroughly appropriate in Sogyal’s case. After all, if one person cries wolf then there can be reasonable doubt that such a wolf exists. But if the whole village starts screaming …

The point is that in Sogyal’s case, the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ argument is a thoroughly lame defence. The sheer number of allegations would certainly seem to indicate, ‘on the balance of probability’ that the alleged abuse did take place. It is of little surprise then that, apart from Sogyal’s supporters, the vast majority of those with a knowledge of the issue consider the allegations to be true. Why then has His Holiness not spoken out?

The Dalai Lama is Not the Pope

H.H. Dalai Lama, Sogyal Rinpoche and Matthieu Ricard

H.H. Dalai Lama, Sogyal Rinpoche and Matthieu Ricard

It has been argued in his defence that appeals to the Dalai Lama’s authority are misguided since, despite popular perceptions, he in fact holds no official role within his religious tradition: he is certainly ‘not the Pope of Buddhism’. In fact, there are numerous Buddhist traditions across the world and within these further divisions into schools and sects. The XIV Dalai Lama is a Tibetan Buddhist for instance. Within Tibetan Buddhism there are four main sects, Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu and Gelug and within these, there are numerous further sub sects His Holiness is a follower of the Gelug tradition in particular and, significantly, not its head. Far from being the seniormost Buddhist in the world then, he is in reality, a follower within one sect of only one of a number of Buddhist traditions that grace this planet. From this perspective, and since he is not even a follower of the same sect as Sogyal, it seems quite appropriate for him to remain silent on the issue.

Nevertheless, despite his lack of official status, it is certainly the case that he is considered de facto leader of Tibetan Buddhism and even, in the eyes of some, the whole of the Buddhist faith. In such a situation, and where Sogyal has very publically relied on the Dalai Lama’s patronage to promote his own projects, it seems entirely appropriate for him to speak out. So why the continued silence?

The Issue of Tibetan Unity

Throughout Tibetan history, political control of the country fell, at various times, to leaders from each of the four sects. Since the seventeenth century, at the time of the Great Fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, this responsibility lay in the hands of the Gelug.

Unsurprisingly, the issue of which religious sect held political control of the region was a divisive one and there appear to have been a number of long running conflicts between sects and their monasteries right down to the time of the Chinese invasion. Indeed, in an interview with the current Dalai Lama for his book ‘The Dalai Lama and the Demon’ Roberto Bultrini reveals that His Holiness believes that the issue of disunity between the sects was a significant contributory factor to the downfall of Tibet and one which led to the Chinese entering the far eastern reaches of Tibet (which were only nominally under the control of the Gelug) without initially encountering significant resistance.

Subsequently, unity between the sects has been a concern for the Dalai Lama, as well as being a significant tool with which the Chinese have attempted to manipulate the image of Tibet and His Holiness internationally, most notably in the present with their open and covert support for activities of the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT).

At an interview with Tibetans at Wembley in 1999, His Holiness chastised his kinsmen for referring to themselves as ‘Gelugpas’ or ‘Kagyupas’, followers of the different sects within Tibetan Buddhism. Rather, he emphasised that they should see themselves as Tibetans and as Buddhists, focusing on similarities rather than their differences. This was a matter, he declared, that lay at the very heart of the continued existence of Tibetan culture.

Perhaps the greatest animosity between followers of the different sects in pre diaspora Tibet was that between the Gelug and the Nyingma, an animosity that resulted in the destruction of Nyingma images and scriptures and even attacks on their monasteries in the 1930s and 40s, at the behest of the NKT forefather Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo.

Throughout his later life, the Dalai Lama has worked hard to reconcile these two traditions: promoting worship of Guru Rinpoche among all Tibetans, he being a patron saint of both Tibet and the Nyingma, while he himself has been seen to be studying and meditating on Nyingma doctrines, and even taking the great Nyingma master Dilgo Khyentse as one of his root gurus. All of these actions have done much to repair the damage that had been done to the relationship between the two sects down the centuries.

One Step Forwards, Two Steps Back

Sogyal is a follower of the Nyingma sect. As well as this, he is a member of one of Tibets most important families, the Lakar. The Lakar have been benefactors to all the major Tibetan sects for generations, in particular over recent generations, the Nyingma. Again, Sogyal also has close links with the family of the Nyingma lama, Urgyen Tulku, descendants of the great Chokgyur Dechen Lingpa, one of the most important figures in the history of the Nyingma sect. Down the years, Sogyal’s work in the West has led to the sect as a whole’s revival. Without his influence, there can be little doubt that the Nyingma sect would not have achieved the status it today holds.

In such a situation, for the Dalai Lama to speak out and publicly condemn Sogyal would be disastrous at many different levels. Firstly, much of the work that he has done to repair relations between the Gelug and the Nyingma would be undone. Indeed, to disassociate himself from one of the Nyingma’s most prominent representatives in the West could potentially alienate thousands of followers of Tibetan Buddhism (many of whom are also supporters of the Tibetan cause) at a stroke.

As well as immediately causing divisions within Tibetan Buddhism, the impact of such a denunciation could have major repercussions among Western converts, repercussions which could lead to their losing faith, abandoning their new found faith or even at worst, assuming the mantle of footsoldiers in a revival of the internecine disputes which eventually brought about the downfall of Buddhism within Tibet.

Again, for the Dalai Lama to denounce such a senior Buddhist figure as Sogyal could have major repercussions for the whole of Buddhism internationally, causing both a loss of face and a loss of finance that could affect millions for many generations to come. One need only look at the situation the Roman Catholic Church now finds itself in, despite its vain attempts at openess.

While the Dalai Lama clearly condemns abuse then, to act in a way that would be to the detriment of innumerable beings and to Buddhism, for this generation and many generations to come, would be folly. To expect him to condemn Sogyals actions when the price could be so great for the future of Buddhism and mankind is a foolish expectation. Should the whole world really have to pay for the negative actions of one deviant Tibetan? Haven’t people already suffered enough?

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