Target Practice: A Buddhist Union’s Framing Tactics

Rob Hogendoorn
Written by Rob Hogendoorn

8 minutes

On February 23, 2020 the board of the Buddhist Union of the Netherlands (BUN) forwarded the minutes of a recent meeting to all of its members. With this, the board counteracted a critical review by BUN-member Buddho of the board’s involvement with the symposium ‘Power and Abuse: Sexual Abuse in Buddhist Communities in the Netherlands’ held at the Free University (FU) in Amsterdam (February 1-2, 2020). During this symposium, some participants called BUN-chairman Michael Ritman to account for blocking the participation of victims and survivors of sexually abusive Buddhist teachers—his own guru Sogyal Rinpoche († 2019) included. When he tried to explain away his own questionable behaviour, Ritman’s wilful misrepresentation was exposed by the student who helped organize the symposium as an intern. Purportedly engaging in critical “self-reflection,” the board thereafter decided to circulate the minutes of its subsequent meeting. Reframing their actions retroactively, the minutes aim to lead the conversation away from board members’ conflicted interests and enabling behaviour. In doing so, the selfsame people who were subjected to Ritman’s bullying tactics before are targeted anew.

The Student

Note from the author This article makes use of numeric footnotes that open on hover and take you to the footnote at the bottom of the page on click. Clicking the blue thumbnail at the end of the listed footnote takes you back to where it was inserted into the text. All English translations of Dutch sources are mine.

The symposium was organized, financed, facilitated, and hosted by the FU. In the minutes of its meeting on February 20, 2020 the board recognizes that the student’s remit was an internship assignment: the learning objectives and supervision of the student were subject to an internship contract with the FU.1 Even so, the board treats the student as if he were answerable to the BUN, by holding him personally responsible for foiling Ritman’s compulsion for control. Clearly, the board wants to impress upon the members with the false notion of the student being accountable to BUN-board.

According to the minutes, the student stated during a plenary session: “We were thwarted by the BUN board.” With this, he responded to Ritman’s false assertion that victims and survivors were banished from the symposium by mutual agreement with the FU. In effect, the board accused the student of “forgetting himself” and “attacking” the BUN-chairman, just because he contested Ritman’s deliberate distortion of the facts. It called the student’s behaviour—speaking truth to power—”incomprehensible”. To quote the board:

The board assumed that we were in this together and would carry the day together as well—not that either party should suddenly wish to play to the gallery, being in the right.

Disingenuously employing a false equivalence—parties cannot be equal and unequal at the same time—the board’s argument effectively posits that the student signed away his right to rectify wilful distortions of the facts, so that he really should have let Ritman mislead the participants of the symposium at will—a questionable ‘learning objective’ at best.

Inappropriately, the board sent the members, many of whom did not participate in the symposium, an “internal newsletter” with minutes that do not mask the student’s identity. Evidently, it did not occur to the board that publicly denouncing a 25-year old intern who is not being heard by its members, might be transgressive in and of itself.

The Assistant Professor

The BUN-board also targets the student’s supervisor, Assistant Professor Henk Blezer.

The minutes mention a “conflict” with Blezer: ‘In a personal capacity, without consultation and contrary to the agreement reached earlier, he decided to invite a person involved in sexual abuse, Oane Bijlsma (allowing her to speak). The board vented its displeasure at this state of affairs, and upon upon careful consideration did not approve. On such short notice, there were just too many snags. On Saturday, when the members of Buddho in the audience asked questions about this, Henk Blezer and [the student] completely forgot themselves, as honorary chairman and key-note speaker respectively. Not only did they refuse to give Michael/BUN the floor but they attacked him as well.’

In actual fact, no such mutual “agreement” was reached: Ritman summarily banished victims and survivors from the symposium, to which Blezer and the student later acceded under strenuous protest.

Moreover, Ritman’s veto simply cannot be dissociated from the fact that he banned two well-known critics of his own guru Sogyal.

Once again, the board’s view seems to be that the BUN-FU collaboration enjoined Blezer to silence too, while Ritman remained free to bend the truth. In addition, the board’s minutes accuse Blezer—erroneously—of not leaving enough time for a “preliminary interview” with Bijlsma by the board and not arranging “any sort of aftercare”.

The Victim

With this, the board sidesteps the fact that Oane Bijlsma had two extensive conversations with Blezer and the student. She herself agreed to participate in a break-away session on Sogyal led by Blezer and speak during a plenary session under the terms they had discussed. Apparently, though, the BUN board knows best.

Having seen Ritman panick and get beside himself with rage over the invite, Blezer counselled Bijlsma not to appear because he could not guarantee her safety.2 All things considered, the minutes make it transparently clear that Ritman’s board was not concerned about Bijlsma’s “safety” at all. Rather, it fretted over its own lack of control over what she was going to say. Indeed, during his conference call with Blezer and the student Ritman bellowed out his fear that BUN-representatives might feel “threatened” by Bijlsma’s presence. The minutes, tellingly, omit this fact.

Once its actions had become public, the board scrambled to get hold of Oane Bijlsma through the intercession of Rigpa chairman Jeroen Slieker. In doing so, the board ignored Bijlsma’s express wish to be spared such overtures in an article that had been previously sent to Ritman for review. After all, the BUN-board knows best. Since then, it has tried to get Bijlsma’s personal email address and mobile phone number from the organizers as well as members of Buddho.

When the hunt for Bijlsma’s contact details was finally brought to my attention, I sent board member Reinier Tilanus the following message: ‘Oane Bijlsma does not readily share her contact details, least of all with the BUN-board. Any messages or proposals from the board can be sent to me, and I will submit them to her. To be clear: sources in sexual abuse cases are routinely protected by journalists—call it a common practice. There are good reasons for it. Can you confirm by return of mail that the board is aware of the fact that Oane does not appreciate its search for her contact details, and that it will cease the search immediately?’3

Until now, I have received no such confirmation.

The Journalist

For the record: I hold an international press card of the Dutch Association of Journalists. I am also a member of the Dutch Association of Investigative Reporters and I subscribe to the guidelines of the Dutch Council for Journalists.

Since I began reporting on sexually abusive Buddhists in the Netherlands and abroad in 2012, I have been vilified, slandered, threatened, and, recently, banned. This goes with the territory in investigative reporting, and so far it has not hindered me from doing my job. In some cases, I wear certain Buddhists’ smears as a badge of honour of the quod erat demonstrandum variety—they serve to prove my point.

The BUN-board’s approach is more insidious, however. According to the minutes, Ritman alleged that my presence during the symposium—for the sole purpose of empowering victims and survivors of abuse who are sources of my own reporting—would have been “threatening” to the participants too.

This allegation is entirely without merit. I have worked with vulnerable, traumatized people on a daily basis for years. I abide by journalists’ best practices and I am subject to peer review. Fortunately, I never received complaints about breaches of confidentiality; I never needed to rectify something I wrote or said; and I was never brought before the Council of Journalists.

Disparagement by proxy

Conceivably, though, my presence during the symposium would have made Ritman uncomfortable—after all, he is a leading Sogyal-apologist while I am the co-author of an exposé on his guru’s flawed character, lack of training and decades-long misconduct. But this is not what the board is saying. Instead, it disparages my work by proxy.

It has been confirmed since that Ritman warned a new BUN-member against me. He mentioned my full name to someone who was made aware of my existence for the first time during an introductory interview with the BUN-chairman, who cautioned that I might get in touch some time.

Board member Reinier Tilanus, meanwhile, habitually refers to me during general meetings as “the obscure blogger.”4

An Olive Branch

According to the minutes of its recent meeting, the BUN-board is now taking its approach a step further:

At this point we discuss a Zoom meeting with An Olive Branch on February 29, 2020, at 5 pm, about the long-standing hassle between Hogendoorn and the BUN.

An Olive Branch is a project of the Zen Center of Pittsburgh described as: ‘Growing out of the need for greater understanding and reduction of ethical misconduct on the part of religious leaders, the work of the organization is centred on providing services to organizations in conflict.’5

Evidently, just as it did with the FU-organizers, the board frames my reporting on the BUN’s comings and goings as a “conflict”. Needless to say, the board did not bring this “long-standing hassle” up with me first. So, the question is: did the BUN-board raise this minor negligence with An Olive Branch, or will it prejudice its conversation partner first—like Ritman did with the new member?

Further questions suggest themselves while taking note of the planned Zoom meeting: Why should An Olive Branch enable the compulsive tendency of the board of a national Buddhist union to single out a journalist who exclusively focusses on sexually abusive Buddhists? What is the purview of An Olive Branch’s competence in this matter, and what rules of due process apply? Since Sogyal-devotee Michael Ritman is hardly objective, does An Olive Branch recognize that his interests are flagrantly conflicted? And, finally, are An Olive Branch’s services still retained by Rigpa USA?6

The Dutch Government

The BUN acts as the Dutch government’s formal liaison with the Buddhist community as a whole. In a nutshell: the BUN is the legal hub of the spiritual care for Buddhist prisoners and members of the military, as well as the obligatory chaplaincy training at the the Free University—to Dutch taxpayers’ considerable expense. As such it is subject to ministerial oversight.7

All the same, the BUN is a small, unprofessional organization with a tiny budget, ill-equipped to handle the responsibility and accountability that go with its ambitions. As such, the BUN is subject to journalistic oversight by all Dutch reporters as well—me included.

Given the sensitive nature of my work, I find it more than slightly intimidating to see my name being singled out and discredited—”hassle” is not exactly a neutral term—by the formal partner of our government. I imagine that other investigators who focus on sexually abusive Buddhist teachers might find such unwanted, surreptitious attention from a national Buddhist union problematic too. It does not only intimidate journalists, but their sources too—in fact, anyone who might be critical.

The BUN-board repeatedly said that it is engaged in a process of self-reflection. The minutes of their supposed “intensive self-reflection,” however, seem more like a target practice to me.

Postscript: Shortly after this article was published, I received a confirmation from Michael Ritman that future attempts at getting in touch with Oane Bijlsma will be routed through me.

  1. Jensma, Ytje. (2020). Notulen BUN-bestuursvergadering do 20 februari 2020.
  2. Author unknown. (2020). BUN Studiedag Macht en Misbruik in het Boeddhisme, Deel 2: De Dag Zelf. Retrieved February 23, 2020.
  3. On March 8, 2020 Oane Bijlsma published her self-penned account ‘My Time in Rigpa’ on Openbuddhism.org.
  4. Author unknown. (2020). BUN Studiedag Macht en Misbruik in het Boeddhisme, Deel 2: De Dag Zelf. Retrieved February 23, 2020.
  5. Author unknown. (date unknown). An Olive Branch. Retrieved February 28, 2020.
  6. Wiedman, Katheryne (2018). Letter from An Olive Branch. Retrieved February 28, 2020. Pawula, Sandra. (2018). A Chance to Be Heard: An Invitation to Current & Former Rigpa US Students. Retrieved February 28, 2020. Sandra Pawula was the executive director of Rigpa USA from 1989 until 2002. She was responsible for The Rigpa Fellowship USA’s public relations when Sogyal was sued for sexual abuse and assault in 1994. See: Phillips, Theodore W. (1994). Complaint for Damages. Author unknown. (1995). Rigpa Press Release.
  7. Van der Steur, Ard. (2015). Antwoord van Minister Van der Steur (Veiligheid en Justitie) mede namens de Staatssecretaris van Volksgezondheid, Welzijn en Sport (ontvangen 31 augustus 2015). Retrieved February 21, 2020.

About the author

Rob Hogendoorn

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.