Lamaism Crashes into the Rule of Law

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

3 minutes

Present-day Lamaism, the worship of deified Tibetan Buddhist teachers by gullible Western converts, crashes into the rule of law this week. It is bad enough that the Charity Commission for England and Wales makes known that wilful British trustees of the Rigpa Fellowship in London put devotees of Sogyal Lakar (previously known as Sogyal Rinpoche) at risk of harm. They were found to be untruthful and unfit to serve. Hopefully, their dismissal provides a modicum of solace to those who were hurt by their actions. Worse, though, the inquiry proves that the ‘excuses’ and ‘justifications’ that explain away abusive behaviour by Tibetan Lamas—sophisms that have been peddled for decades—are a write-off: Democracies governed by the rule of law provide no room for the slavish, feudal respect accorded to abusive Tibetan Buddhist teachers by a pretence of “guru devotion.”

The Charity regulator’s inquiry is not a matter taken to court and does not constitute lawyer’s jurisprudence.1 However, Tibetan Buddhist stalwarts who neglect its legal ramifications do so at their peril. The plain truth is that sworn fealty owed to a Tibetan Lama—commonly denoted by the grandiloquent twin concepts ‘commitment’ and ‘pure perception’—provides no legal exemption.2

The practice of ‘guru devotion’ neither absolves the Lama, nor his or her devotee, from legal obligations or liabilities, never mind criminal acts. Indeed, ‘blurring the distinction between consent and submission and placing too much responsibility for safeguarding on the beneficiary rather than the teacher,’ aggravates—not alleviates—its proponents’ blameworthyness.3

Sogyal’s right-hand man and former Rigpa Fellowship-trustee Patrick Gaffney found out the hard way. He tried to mount a ‘pure perception’-defense during the Charity Commission’s inquiry and failed:

On 15 January 2018, the Commission met with the trustees including Mr Gaffney. During the meeting, Mr Gaffney discussed physical acts by Sogyal Lakar towards others, saying that he wouldn’t characterise these as violent. He said that these were only occasional; he had only seen around half a dozen incidences which were meant as a teaching method with no intention to harm. Mr Gaffney stated that he had never received any complaints from those who had been on the receiving end of such acts. In the meeting, Mr Gaffney appeared unable or unwilling to recognise the serious nature of the allegations that had been made and the lack of appropriate action taken.4

Apparently, Gaffney’s Buddhist ‘practice’ rendered up his accountability for Sogyal’s behaviour to the point of him being subjectively ‘unable’ or ‘unwilling’ to recognize allegations of abuse.5 Rather than serve as a defense, Gaffney’s discourse—in a word: declaring violence, harmful intent, and abuse to be ‘not real’—disqualified him and underlined his culpability:

Mr Gaffney had either failed to recognise or sought to downplay the seriousness of the allegations. The inquiry found that Mr Gaffney was unfit to be a trustee of the charity or for charities generally and was subsequently disqualified from acting as a trustee a period of eight years.6

In effect, Gaffney’s obstinate ‘disappearance act’ before the Charity Commission exposed him to being sued for gross negligence and unlawful intent by those who were hurt by his behaviour. So, Gaffney’s fate ought to serve as a stark reminder to any devotee who is about to ‘excuse’ or ‘justify’ his or her Lama’s abusive behaviour by denying fiduciary responsibility and legal accountability altogether: Under the rule of law, unquestioning loyalty and blind obedience are a liability, not an asset.

Postscript: This op-ed has been updated to reflect the recently published report by the FaithTrust Institute (see footnote 5).

  1. See Charity regulator: Rigpa UK put Students at Risk of Harm.
  2. The Tibetan words are damtsik (Wyl. dam tshig, Skt. samaya, ‘pledge’) and  daknang (Wyl. dag snang, ‘pure vision’).
  3. Author unknown. (November 20, 2020). Decision: Charity Inquiry: Rigpa Fellowship. Retrieved November 20, 2020.
  4. Ibid.
  5. For a similar, unsuccessful exercise in ‘denial-by-pure-perception’ by Lama Zopa, the spiritual head of the Federation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, see FaithTrust Institute. (October, 2020). Summary Report of Sexual Misconduct Complaints against Dagri Rinpoche. Retrieved November 21, 2020. The FaithTrust Institute notes: ‘Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s statements that call into question the very nature of an investigation undermine the significant work that the FPMT Board has undertaken. The resources, time, and energy that the Board will put into next steps of adjudicating the complaints will be in the shadow of Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s statements, which assert that the FPMT cannot investigate accusations until every single person is enlightened, and any findings will be inadequate because they do not take past lives into account. This is very unfortunate.’ (p. 13). 
  6. Ibid.

About the author

Rob Hogendoorn

Investigative reporter and academic researcher Rob Hogendoorn (b. 1964) began researching the reception of Buddhism in Western society and culture in the early 1990s. His modus operandi remained the same ever since: independent, inquisitive and provocative.