The Dutch Buddhist Union’s Chilling Actions

Rob Hogendoorn
Written by Rob Hogendoorn

6 minutes

The board of the Buddhist Union of the Netherlands (BUN) drums up Dutch Rigpa chairman Jeroen Slieker to ‘reach out’ out to Oane Bijlsma. She was among the first apostates to speak out openly against the violent and abusive behaviour of Rigpa-leader Sogyal Rinpoché († 2019). BUN-chairman Michael Ritman is a long-time Sogyal devotee. His board recently banned Bijlsma from speaking at the symposium ‘Power and abuses: Sexual Abuse in Buddhist Communities in the Netherlands.’ The symposium was organized by the Free University (FU) in Amsterdam. Bijlsma filed a complaint about the cancellation of her invitation with the Dean of the Faculty of Religion and Theology at the FU, who currently investigates the matter. The Dutch government recognizes the BUN as the representative of the Dutch Buddhist community as a whole. Its brash attempt to dictate the terms of Bijlsma’s right to be heard and the board’s preferential treatment of the abusive community she left, are therefore highly intimidating. The BUN’s successive actions towards Oane Bijlsma send a message that likely has a chilling effect on Dutch victims and survivors who might want to report abuses by Buddhist teachers.

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.

A disconcerting 50 percent of the 46 BUN member organizations have or have had Buddhist teachers in their midst—often their communities’ founders—who were discredited by public allegations of various forms of sexual misconduct.1 The Dutch Rigpa Foundation is one of the largest BUN-members. Since it was not involved in the organization of the FU-symposium, it is questionable why the BUN should call in Rigpa now.

Enter the Rigpa Chairman

According to the minutes of a recent meeting, ‘as the BUN board, we want to reach out to Oane Bijlsma. No matter how we try to wriggle out of it, Oane has not been heard for too long. Reinier will contact Jeroen Slieker of Rigpa about this. If Oane would be willing to have a conversation, we would arrange that with a professional moderator.’2 Reinier Tilanus is a board member. In 2017, he dealt summarily with Bijlsma’s testimony about Sogyal by brushing it off.3

The board meeting was held on February 20, 2020, the day after chairman Ritman received a draft of A False Narrative. So, he ought to have known that Bijlsma found Slieker’s sudden involvement “eerie.” The minutes further mention that Dean Ruard Ganzevoort of the FU will meet with the BUN-board on March 4, 2020, to evaluate its role in the organization of the symposium.

In an obvious attempt to reshape the narrative, the BUN-board then sent the minutes of its meeting to all of its members, thereby presenting its own version of the events. Instead of submitting factual corrections to Openbuddhism.org, Ritman decided to present ‘alternative facts’ to his members in an internal email.4

He felt compelled to intervene, apparently, after BUN-member Buddho publicly critiqued his and Tilanus’ aggressive behaviour before and during the symposium.5

Clear Patterns

The BUN-board’s close involvement with Rigpa, looking after its public image, fits a clear pattern. In past years, the BUN has co-ordinated its messaging strategy about Sogyal’s violent abuse and forced resignation with Rigpa. The board previously acknowledged a conflict of interest on Ritman’s part, announcing that discussions on Rigpa during general meetings would not be led by him. He routinely deflected journalists’ questions about Sogyal’s abuses, insisting that his position required him to recuse himself.

No such restraint, however, kept Ritman from engaging the Dutch Rigpa branch “in conversation” once the scandal broke. By co-ordinating their messaging strategies, he and his board effectively helped Rigpa limit the image damage it sustained.6

Projecting Respectability

In January 2019, the BUN-board even let Rigpa-chairman Jeroen Slieker use its internal mailing list. Projecting an image of respectability, he invited all members of the BUN to an event with the female Tibetan teacher Khandro Rinpoché—free of charge.7

Khandro is one of the Tibetan Lamas who guide Rigpa’s Vision Board, the administrative body that was appointed following Sogyal’s forced retirement. She is the current spiritual director of the Lerab Ling congregration in France, which Dutch Rigpa members frequently visit.8

In a concerted action, under Khandro’s guidance, Lerab Ling and 133 of its members reported a French lawyer who represents Sogyal’s victims and survivors to the police for defamation. The Montpellier criminal court discharged the accused in 2019, thereby permitting the lawyer’s use of the word ‘cult’ to denote Lerab Ling.9

The lawyer now awaits the appeal. The French police, meanwhile, raided Lerab Ling, seizing financial documents and a substantial amount of cash.10

Vitally Important

The BUN board’s enabling behaviour provides precisely the veneer of normality, good governance, and safety that is vitally important to Rigpa. Why? Since the scandal broke in 2017, the number of people in attendance at Rigpa events and its membership numbers in the Netherlands and abroad have dropped dramatically.

The consequences are made clear by the decrease in yearly turnover of the Dutch Rigpa Foundation, one of the most profitable Rigpa corporations worldwide: € 587,906 (2014), € 503,263 (2015), € 431,170 (2016), € 356,589 (2017), € 221,500 (2018).

Within five years, unsurprisingly, Rigpa’s financial results turned from a handsome profit into a considerable loss: € 150,762 (2014), € 90,618 (2015), € 74,581 (2016), – € 111,203 (2017), – € 25,583 (2018).11

Under Investigation

Moreover, the Dutch Rigpa Foundation’s finances became the focus of a collaborative effort of a group journalists investigating the tax exempt status of, for instance, small religious groups. They asked hard questions about the appropriateness and lawfulness of Rigpa’s expenditure on Sogyal’s “five star existence” and the liquid assets it amassed in the 2010s: € 1,039,520 (2018).12

Supposedly, the million euros were saved to purchase and convert the real estate that would serve as Rigpa’s new headquarters in the Netherlands. Without a recovery of the attendance, memberships, and turnover that were lost, this may remain a pipe dream forever. If so, the Dutch Rigpa branch could be heading for trouble with the tax authorities, because its tax-exempt status forbids hoarding.13

Meanwhile, the Charity Commisson for England and Wales investigates The Rigpa Fellowship in the United Kingdom. So far, it has disqualified Sogyal’s right-hand man Patrick Gaffney and Susan Burrow as trustees, “for failing to protect people who came in contact with the charity.”14

Existential Matters

These are existential matters: it is imperative for Rigpa and its current leadership to remain in good standing with the Buddhist community and Dutch society at large. So, clearly, the charitable intercession of Rigpa’s advocates on the BUN-board, chairman Michael Ritman in front, may involve motives and interests ulterior—and even superior—to those of the victims and survivors of Sogyal’s assaults and abuses.

Indeed, to them, patching up Rigpa’s tarnished image for the sake of appearance and increasing its annual turnover could well amount to a more pressing concern than Oane Bijlsma’s right to be heard. In and of itself, that is an alarming thought.15

Postscript: This article has been updated to better reflect the current investigation of The Charity Commission for England and Wales into The Rigpa Fellowship and the incidence of sexual abuse among BUN-members. An error in Rigpa’s financial result in 2018 was corrected, while note 7 and 13 were slightly expanded.

  1. Hogendoorn, Rob. (2020). Members List Buddhist Union of the Netherlands (BUN) on February 10, 2020.
  2. Jensma, Ytje. (2020). Notulen BUN-bestuursvergadering do 20 februari 2020.
  3. Hoek, Joop. (2017). Reinier Tilanus van de BUN – ‘Geen misstanden binnen Rigpa Nederland’. Retrieved February 21, 2020.
  4. Ritman, Michael (2020). Nieuwsbrief BUN 23/02/2020.
  5. Author unknown. (2020). BUN Studiedag Macht en Misbruik in het Boeddhisme, Deel 1: De Voorbereiding. Retrieved February 23, 2020. Author unknown. (2020). BUN Studiedag Macht en Misbruik in het Boeddhisme, Deel 2: De Dag Zelf. Retrieved February 23, 2020. Author unknown. (2020). BUN Studiedag Macht en Misbruik in het Boeddhisme, Deel 3: Hoe Nu Verder. Retrieved February 23, 2020.
  6. See Hoek, Joop (2017). Reinier Tilanus van de BUN – ‘Geen misstanden binnen Rigpa Nederland’. Retrieved February 21, 2020. Author unknown. (2017). Voorzitter Michael Ritman over BUN, Sogyal en Rigpa. Retrieved February 21, 2020. Author unknown. (2017). Reactie BUN bestuur op situatie bij Rigpa. Retrieved 14 August, 2017. Author unknown. (2018). Persverklaring naar aanleiding van Rigpa-rapport. Retrieved February 21, 2020.
  7. Author unknown. (2019). Een weekend met Jetsün Khandro Rinpoche. Retrieved February 25, 2020. Author unknown. (2019). Nieuwsbrief BUN 25/01/2019.
  8. Khandro Rinpoche. (2019). Mindroling Jetsün Khandro Rinpoche. Retrieved February 25, 2020.
  9. Ardid, Claude. (2019). Bouddhisme: Le nirvana bien terrestre du lama violeur. Retrieved February 25, 2020. Author unknown (2019). The Defamation Court Case: A statement from the Rigpa Lerab Ling Religious Congregation. Retrieved February 25, 2020.
  10. Dubault, Fabrice. (2018). Hérault: le temple bouddhiste Lérab Ling de Roqueredonde et sa communauté perquisitionnés. Retrieved February 25, 2020
  11. Stichting Rigpa Amsterdam. (2015). Rapport inzake jaarstukken 2014. Stichting Rigpa Amsterdam. (2016). Rapport inzake jaarstukken 2015. Stichting Rigpa Amsterdam. (2017). Rapport inzake jaarstukken 2016. Stichting Rigpa Amsterdam. (2018). Rapport inzake jaarstukken 2017. Stichting Rigpa Amsterdam. (2019). Rapport inzake jaarstukken 2018.
  12. Mulder, Thomas. Hoe er een einde kwam aan het ‘vijfsterrenbestaan’ van een Tibetaanse guru. Retrieved February 25, 2020. Van de Beld, Jolanda. (2020). ANBI’s komen rapportageplicht niet na (geannoteerd verhaal). Retrieved February 25, 2020. Reporter Radio. (2020). Liefdadige instellingen ontlopen massaal controle door Belastingdienst. Retrieved February 25, 2020. Van de Beld, J. (2020). Liefdadig rariteitenkabinet. Retrieved February 25, 2020.
  13. The financial statement of the Rigpa Foundation in 2017 noted: ‘As a result of the events described in the management report, the housing policy will be reconsidered by the management in 2018.’ See: Amsterdam. (2018). Rapport inzake jaarstukken 2017. Stichting Rigpa. The financial statement 2018, however, repeats: ‘As a result of the events described in the management report, the housing policy will be a specific area of attention for management in the coming years.’ Amsterdam. See Author unknown. (2019). Rapport inzake jaarstukken 2018.
  14. Author unknown. (2019). Charity Commission disqualifies trustee from Rigpa Fellowship. Retrieved February 25, 2020. Author unknown. (2019). Charity regulator removes trustee from Rigpa Fellowship. Retrieved February 25, 2020.
  15. On March 8, 2020 Oane Bijlsma published her self-penned account ‘My Time in Rigpa’ on Openbuddhism.org.

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.