After a summer of extended retreat, I came back to learn of the latest allegations of Sogyal Rinpoche’s severe misconduct. Perhaps like those of you who have spent much of your life in Buddhist communities, I’ve been deeply distressed by what I’ve learned. And as a fellow Buddhist and clinician I’d like briefly to respond.
What feels most important to confirm and validate is that the students who have come forward, and perhaps many others, have been traumatized by this abusive behavior. As a clinician, I underscore this for one primary reason. Trauma research indicates that we humans are extraordinarily resilient. We can withstand all manner of shocking loss and catastrophic pain, and still go on to live a meaningful, creative, and even joyful life. There is no suffering we can’t recover from. However, what can cause irreparable harm is any serious trauma that is either denied or minimized. When this happens, our very sense of perception is compromised. Our ability to trust our own feelings and experience can be shattered, leaving people feeling radically isolated and adrift in a meaningless world.
For this reason I’d like clearly to state that Sogyal’s Rinpoche’s predatorial and compulsive behavior has been truly unacceptable. There is no “crazy wisdom” in causing physical or psychological harm to another sentient being, or to exploit students for sexual and narcissistic gratification. And the suggestions that abusive behavior by spiritual teachers has any value, causes great harm to the victims of the abuse, and to the abusers through the denial of their psychopathology in need of care and clinical treatment.
I’d like to make a pitch for spiritual communities to grapple with the limits of spiritual practice to effectively address psychological and psychiatric issues that could be addressed through well-developed methods in other healing traditions. We Buddhist clinicians have been making efforts for decades to offer ways to work collaboratively in spiritual and clinical communities, so that psychological issues that arise in spiritual practitioners and teachers may be effectively treated. It is a terrible shame that Sogyal Rinpoche’s students most harmed by his sadistic behavior were left to feel that they weren’t adequately implementing the Buddha-Dharma, or that their suffering was self-inflicted. They deserved care and healing treatment available outside their community, treatment that might also have salvaged their trust in the spiritual methods they’d been learning.
So too, teachers such as Sogyal Rinpoche need psychological, and at times, psychiatric help. His behavior is indicative of rage reactions and compulsive power-seeking in line with severe and pathological narcissism. How many students might have been protected if he had had clinical support and intervention? This is a question I ask with respect to people for whom the Dharma is sacred. I am also a devoted Tibetan Buddhist practitioner, but equally I respect the reality and power of the psyche, with its unconscious motivations and impulses, and with the ripple effects of early trauma that is almost invariably enacted regardless of our spiritual development.
Mostly, I want to offer to anyone harmed in this community my genuine wish for your deepest well-being, for your healing process, and for the respect you deserve for coming forward, if you did, and for simply withstanding the suffering you endured as you courageously seek efforts at recovery. In this way, you are affirming for us all the Buddha’s primary teaching – that understanding the causes of suffering and its end is our noble objective in this life. I stand with you until you are freed from the complex suffering I imagine you now face, as do my friends and colleagues in the small but growing community of Buddhist clinicians. Your experience is an important teaching to all Buddhists, now affirmed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, to cut through delusions of non-truth in the spirit of reducing harm and increasing well-being for all.
Addendum: For further reading, I highly recommend Daniel Shaw’s Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation, for an excellent exploration of narcissism and its impact on spiritual communities.