A handful of Buddhist journalists had every reason to investigate Gerhard Mattioli’s launch as ‘Lama Kelsang Chöpel’ but failed to do so. Early on, they became aware of serious misgivings against Mattioli’s professed competence as a Buddhist teacher. They ignored his followers’ express warnings about sexual abuse, manipulation, intimidation, and the shunning of critics, however. When Mattioli opened a Buddhist centre in the Dutch city of Middelburg, some of these journalists even promoted the self-proclaimed faux Lama. But they left concerned followers who asked them for help out in the cold. When ‘Lama Kelsang Chöpel’ disappeared overnight while his Buddhist Mahayana Centre dissolved, these reporters stood by idly. They did not report the traumatic experiences of his followers. As a result, the derailment of Mattioli’s centre did nothing to raise the awareness of the public about sexual abuse by Dutch Buddhists.
In the 1980s, recreational boating took Gerhard Mattioli (born March 16, 1949 in Innsbruck) to the Netherlands. He settled in Middelburg in the province of Zeeland in 1990. At first, Mattioli lived on board of the motor vessel Ilyas. He later moved to a single-family home. In 2001, he converted his home into the Buddhist Mahayana Centre and began calling himself Lama Kelsang Chöpel.
More than six years later, Mattioli’s followers intervened: “Witness reports show that Mattioli was engaged in serious and systematic manipulation, sexual abuse of multiple women (sometimes resulting in pregnancy), and other serious offenses” (from a communiqué dated December 20, 2007).
The centre disbanded, while Mattioli found temporary refuge in two Roman-Catholic monasteries in the Netherlands. In 2013, the Dutch investigative platform Open Buddhism exposed the events in Middelburg and reported on Mattioli’s subsequent activities.
The Dutch Eight O’clock News and reporter Ilja Tuning of the regional network Omroep Zeeland later published additional reports on Mattioli and his centre. Gerhard Mattioli claims that he is a Dutch citizen. His current whereabouts are unknown.1
Ex-followers allege that Mattioli abused at least eight female students between 2001 and 2007. Several women were severely traumatized, and Mattioli’s “tantric sexual exercises” put an end to several marriages. He fathered a child with one female follower. A vulnerable female follower with whom Mattioli had no sexual relationship committed suicide in 2009.
A reconstruction based on archival research and first-person reports from ex-followers and other witnesses shows that Mattioli’s role-playing as Lama Kelsang Chöpel was preceded by a long ‘warming-up period.’ His behaviour fit a distinct pattern: before he converted his home into a Buddhist centre, Mattioli advertised a motley collection of alternative treatments in regional newspapers:
Long before he began calling himself a Lama, the Tibetan word for guru, Mattioli targeted psychologically vulnerable women with problems through classified advertisements. He stopped advertising during the years spent as Lama Kelsang Chöpel. After his downfall, he resumed the practice.
Mattioli’s conduct as a Buddhist teacher raised questions from the outset. Bystanders voiced serious objections. The Tibetan teacher Kelsang Gyatso, head of the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) in Great Britain, who ordained Mattioli in 2001, revoked his monkhood and name within a year. The reason: when the NKT did not allow him to teach, Mattioli threatened with retribution via “black magic.”
From 2003 onwards, several followers openly accused Mattioli of violating his vow of celibacy. Between 2004 and 2006 they called on various Buddhist media to investigate the matter. Buddhist journalists, however, turned a deaf ear to their concern. Mattioli, meanwhile, cultivated a climate of superstition and fear in his centre, threatening followers with lawsuits and a rebirth in hell. ‘Lama Chöpel’ also made his devotees believe that he could harm them telepathically through—again—”black magic.”
Pleasure Cruising Expert
Gerhard Mattioli began his career in Zeeland as a pleasure cruising expert. From 1990 onwards, he advertised shipping supplies in regional newspapers. As the owner of the business Mattioli Word-Wide Yacht/Ship-Delivery, he also offered his own services as a skipper: ‘G. Mattioli yacht transports, maintenance work or winter preparation of your yacht.’
In addition to a revised edition of the Schippers Handbuch für die Niederlande und Belgien, Mattioli wrote a few boating guides in Dutch for Hollandia publishers: on France (1988), the English east and south coast (1990), and the French west and south Coast (1991). Mattioli’s editor said that Hollandia took his books off the backlist in the early 1990s. The reviews and sales were poor. His erstwhile editor had the distinct impression that Mattioli had not even visited the ports he wrote about.
In the mid 1990s, Mattioli found another livelihood. From 1994 onwards, he placed more than 30 classified advertisements in the regional newspapers, offering a wide variety of therapies: “paranormal treatment;” “oriental medicine;” “mind control;” “acupuncture”— “also without needles”— and “acupressure;” “painless laser acupuncture;” “A-method;” “body scan,” “energy, polarity, meridian, chakra and alpha treatment;” “magnet, telepathy, and GM therapy,” “and/or other medical therapies.”
The advertisements project the image of a self-proclaimed provider of alternative care. In this way, without any oversight, Mattioli contacted psychologically vulnerable, emotionally dependent people with acute problems.
He promoted himself alternately as a “healing medium,” “therapist,” “alternative practitioner,” “initiate,” and “experienced meditation master.”
Mattioli treated his clients in their homes, but also at a distance through “telepathy therapy.” He targeted groups consisting of people with “psychological, physical and organic complaints;” “fears and phobias;” “personal problems;” “weight and alcohol problems, quitting smoking, etc.,” and “thermal [sic] cancer.”
Initially, Mattioli used his own name. From 1995 onwards, however, he offered his services as the Supplementary Cure Assistance Foundation (‘Stichting Aanvullende Geneeshulp’ (AGH) in Dutch), listing just a post office box and telephone number. The foundation’s address was that of the motor ship Ilyas in Middelburg. Mattioli was the foundation’s secretary, while his female partner became treasurer. They lived on the Ilyas together, along with Mattioli’s son who was born in Innsbruck.
A skipper friend served as chairman. Without his knowledge, though: the former ‘chairman’ said that Mattioli never informed him about the appointment. The foundation dissolved within eight months.
The three board members got to know each in the port of Middelburg. At that time, the ‘chairman’ lived on a motor ship as well. Before the establishment of the foundation, he had been Mattioli’s apprentice for a while. He left because his teacher’s “eternal need for glorification” began to bother him. According to him, Mattioli’s erstwhile partner († 2001) was mentally unstable, suffering from an extreme degree of agoraphobia.
The former ‘chairman’ recalled that Mattioli often stayed in a hut below the forward deck during social visits, because he believed his meditation was bringing him close to ‘enlightenment.’
According to him, Mattioli visited mostly female clients at that time, preferably in their own homes. He never received clients on the Ilyas.
In the late 1990s, Mattioli became acquainted with Tibetan Buddhism through the lectures of Dutch nun Kelsang Dechok. She was ordained in the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), led by the Tibetan teacher Kelsang Gyatso. Eventually, Gyatso ordained Mattioli as well, during the NKT’s Spring Festival in the English Manjushri Institute (June 15-17, 2001).
Soon after his ordination, a conflict arose. A spokesperson of the NKT in Schin op Geul explained that the novice monk Mattioli wanted to teach Tibetan Buddhism right away. His supervisors disagreed. They withheld their permission, upon which Mattioli threatened to retaliate with black magic.
A year later, Kelsang Gyatso retracted Mattioli’s ordination (June 6, 2002). He wrote to Mattioli that he was no longer allowed to use his Buddhist name Kelsang Chöpel or act on behalf of the NKT.
Mattioli replied to Gyatso’s letter two weeks later, stating that nobody could revoke his monkhood. He also wrote that after “sixteen years of Buddhist teachings and meditations,” he was sufficiently qualified to guide students himself.
Buddhist Mahayana Centre
From the late 1990s onwards, Gerhard Mattioli had a relationship with another woman from Middelburg. Mattioli ended their relationship on December 30, 2000 because he planned to become a Tibetan Buddhist monk. A few months after his ordination, however, Mattioli let this woman—a mother of two children—know that he was now so spiritually developed that he needed her for the practice of Tibetan Buddhist tantra. She agreed. From that moment on she acted as the “tantric consort” in Mattioli’s sexual exercises.
They converted the living room of Mattioli’s home into a Tibetan Buddhist temple: the Buddhist Mahayana Centre. For larger meetings they rented a space elsewhere in Middelburg. The centre was never formally incorporated, so there was no oversight at all.
Mattioli cancelled his membership of the NKT—”for reasons that will remain unstated”—and wrote to Kelsang Gyatso that he would continue his activities “under my own responsibility.” This letter marks his debut as ‘Lama Kelsang Chöpel’ of the Buddhist Mahayana Centre. From then on Mattioli was his own master.
According to its spokesperson, the NKT did not give publicity to Kelsang Gyatso’s decision to send Mattioli away. Instead, they attempted to compete with him by offering its own Buddhist teachings in Middelburg: first by the aforementioned nun Dechok, later by the monk Kelsang Dragpa.
Mattioli’s continued use of the name Kelsang Chöpel and the establishment of his Buddhist Mahayana Centre cannot have escaped these two teachers. Evidently, they resigned themselves to the fact that Mattioli ignored Kelsang Gyatso’s missive.
Seeking publicity, Mattioli approached the editors of the Dutch magazine Buddhist Quarterly (‘Kwartaalblad Boeddhisme’). He was successful: the magazine listed Mattioli’s activities as ‘Lama Kelsang Chöpel’ in the last issue of 2002 and on its website. The magazine continued to include Mattioli’s announcements until 2007, when his followers closed the centre.2
One of the magazine’s editors was Joop Hoek, a crime reporter for the Dutch daily BN/De Stem. He and Mattioli were both students of NKT-nun Kelsang Dechok, whose lessons Hoek attended “a few years.” He confirmed meeting Mattioli in some NKT-temple and “in Northern-England.” Hoek was present at Mattioli’s ordination during the Spring Festival at the Manjushri Institute.
On June 5, 2003, Hoek mentioned Mattioli in a report for his newspaper BN/De Stem.3 He brackets ‘Lama Kelsang Chöpel’ together with bona fide Tibetan Lamas such as Dagpo Rinpoche and Geshe Könchog Lhundup. Likewise, Hoek lumps together Mattioli’s centre in Middelburg with well-known Buddhist centres such as The Buddharama Temple, and the Tibetan centres Gaden Chokor Ling, Jewel Heart, and the Maitreya Institute: “And in Middelburg, Lama Chöpel instructs his students in the teachings.”
Hoek’s article did not mention, however, that Mattioli was expelled from the New Kadampa Tradition in 2002—and why.
Shortly before Hoek’s article appeared in BN/De Stem, a female follower accused Gerhard Mattioli of sexual assault during an acupuncture session in his home.
On March 23, 2003, Mattioli wrote this woman a letter: ‘I kindly ask you to immediately desist from spreading malicious words, negative statements and untruths concerning my person that harm the Buddhist Sangha.’ He threatened to hire a lawyer too.
The woman repeated the allegations to the owner of the Stupa shop for Asian art and paraphernalia and employees of the Padma Zeeland Foundation, which operates in the adjacent buildings. Mattioli and his students regularly visited the Stupa store: they bought Tibetan incense, religious images, prayer beads and other Tibetan trinkets there:
The Stupa shopkeeper recalled that Mattioli once claimed that a Tibetan rosary in the shop window belonged to him in a previous life.
After the allegation of assault, he cautioned several visitors against Mattioli and the Buddhist Mahayana Centre.
On June 19, 2004, the Buddhist Broadcasting Foundation (BOS) broadcast a report on national radio about Mattioli’s new centre. Radio reporter Marlous Lazal interviewed Mattioli and his female follower Kelsang Samlo inside the temple in his living-room.
During the interview, Mattioli explained that he belonged to the Gelug school, a celibate monastic tradition. He mentioned that he ordained his followers as Buddhists, giving them Buddhist names. Mattioli also talked about his “education programme” and the terminal care he offered to the dying.4
When Lazal asked him about his personal background, Mattioli mentioned that he grew up in Austria. Having worked as a mountain guide and ski-instructor, Mattioli felt ‘attracted to water one day.’ He began a career in pleasure cruising, ending up in the Netherlands because ‘there is a lot of water here.’
Mattioli claimed to have been involved with gurus, swamis and sadhus in India who taught him yoga and breathing techniques. He also claimed to have had a Tibetan teacher in Germany: Dhondup Wangchuk.
It is striking that Mattioli called Kelsang Gyatso his most important teacher during the interview—while he had been expelled from the NKT by him. In effect, the radio broadcast serves more as a tourist advertorial than a journalistic report: Lazal clearly accepted Mattioli’s many claims at face value.
Two weeks after this broadcast, on August 8, 2004, Mattioli expelled his “tantric companion” from his centre. Until then, his followers only knew her to be the secretary of the centre and Mattioli’s number two.
The woman became so upset that she shared her story with fellow devotees Frans de Reeper and his wife the same evening.
For the first time, they realized that while Mattioli professed to be a monk, he had been practicing ‘tantric sex’ for years. Right after his ordination, on his initiative, Mattioli and his female ‘consort’ began doing ‘tantric sexual practices,’ she said.
The preceding years, these “tantric practices” occurred regularly. Invariably, Mattioli stayed to sleep over afterwards. The couple saw each other almost daily, she told the De Reepers, and they went on holiday with her children together.
The woman added that Mattioli often belittled and intimidated her. During their last vacation, the tension mounted and Mattioli got into a fit of rage. The woman called the police, after which Mattioli threatened to report her supposed crimes himself.
A day after he expelled her, Mattioli held a meeting with the members of the Buddhist Mahayana Centre. He announced that he had sent the woman away “for personal reasons.” Mattioli told his followers not to approach the woman, at least not for the time being.
‘A kind of cult’
On 8 September 2004, De Reeper and his wife sent a letter to the other members of their centre. Emphasizing their initial disbelief, they wrote:
‘Was this the Lama Choephel in whom we had so much faith?’ They added that they felt as if they had ended up in ‘a kind of cult,’ where members could be summarily banned and shunned.
They also reported the result of their own investigation. De Reeper and his wife studied various publications on the Gelug monastic rules and consulted the chief monk of the International Mahayana Institute, an organization of Western monks and nuns. Likewise, they discussed the matter with the Dutchman Jampel Pharchin (Eugene Boonman), who was ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist monk in the Gelug tradition in 1987.
Mattioli refused to answer their questions, however. On August 31, 2004, he wrote to the De Reepers that he did “not have to justify himself in the face of lies.” According to him, their questions concerned a “private matter.” His advice to them was: “there are many other Dharma centres.”
Upon receiving their follow-up questions, Mattioli let the couple know that he was a free agent— he did not depend on anyone, not even the Dalai Lama.
‘Rebirth in Hell’
In the letter to their fellow members, the De Reepers concluded that Mattioli was a faux monk who is “leading the centre without proper training and also without the guidance of a spiritual teacher.”
On September 7, 2004 they and the rest of the community received a letter from ‘Lama Chöpel.’ In it, Mattioli told his followers that harming the relationship with the “spiritual guide” can have dire consequences. In fact, he wrote:
Facing our Spiritual Guide in a critical or angry spirit, our practice of Secret Mantra will become the cause of a rebirth in hell.
According to De Reeper and his wife, the departure of the “tantric companion” closely resembled the incident in 2003, when the woman who accused Mattioli of sexual assault was shunned in the same way. They called his threats “menacing.”
They ended their letter by warning fellow members to be careful. De Reeper and his wife also announced that they would ask various Buddhist institutions to stop paying attention to the Buddhist Mahayana Centre.
They immediately suited the action to the word: on September 8 and 9, 2004, Frans de Reeper and his wife wrote to director Jean Karel Hylkema of the Buddhist Broadcasting Foundation (BOS) and the editors of the Buddhist Quarterly. They warned them in no uncertain terms about the situation in Middelburg and attached the letter to their fellow members of the centre.
They wrote that they had prepared a “detailed file” which they offered for inspection, declaring their willingness to explain the file in person. The couple didn’t mince words about Mattioli’s sexual contacts:
In a nutshell: a female student alleges that Gerhard Mattioli, who calls himself ‘Lama Kelsang Choephel’ and who never shows up in his monk’s robes, had a relationship with her for many years after he became a monk and does not keep to the vow of celibacy.
They specifically asked Hylkema and the editors of the Buddhist Quarterly “to carefully consider whether devoting further attention to this centre is warranted.”
In his reply, Hylkema said that the BOS would not pay attention to the Buddhist Mahayana Centre again. He saw no reason, however, to investigate the allegations against Mattioli. Besides, the BOs continued to offer the archived report for online listening.
Editor Dick Verstegen of the Buddhist Quarterly let De Reeper know that he would contact him by telephone. Verstegen worked as a journalist and editor with various Dutch newspapers for decades. After his retirement, he began teaching Zen. When he received the letter about Mattioli, Verstegen had been a member of the editorial board and a columnist of the Buddhist Quarterly since 1997. When his former colleague Joop Hoek’s blog Buddhist Daily (‘Boeddhistisch Dagblad’ in Dutch) went online in 2012, Verstegen joined him as a contributing editor and columnist.
During their call, Verstegen told De Reeper that the Buddhist Quarterly would not investigate the matter. According to him, the editors were not responsible for the centres that their magazine listed. Till the bitter end, the Buddhist Quarterly continued to announce the activities of Lama Kelsang Chöpel and his centre in Zeeland.
‘I Did Not Come To Zeeland For This’
A reminder of De Reeper and his wife sent on April 25, 2005 did not change that. The letter said that Mattioli “still damages people, again and again he gets them in trouble only to shun them later.”
They suggest that Verstegen could conduct an interview with “Mr. Mattioli” during a planned visit to Middelburg. Verstegen did not respond. A desperate female member of the Buddhist Mahayana Centre then decided to confront Verstegen unannounced after his lecture on Zen in Middelburg.
Thus, Verstegen’s attention was drawn to Mattioli’s derailments once more. But he curtly dismissed the woman, rejecting her request to investigate the matter. “I did not come to Zeeland for this,” Verstegen said.
More than a year later, on December 20, 2007, Mattioli’s centre was disbanded. The immediate cause of his followers’ intervention is that one of the women with whom ‘Lama Kelsang Chöpel’ had “tantric sex” became pregnant.
The affair cost Mattioli his job as a janitor too: when it became known that he made a follower pregnant, the director of the high school where he worked, suspended him right away. Before that, the director had already warned female staff members who had become Mattioli’s followers that he thought that their relations with Mattioli were “too intimate.”
When the director let Mattioli know that he could not return to his job at the school, he resigned.
Two and a half years later, on July 3, 2009, the lifeless body of a 56-year-old woman washed up on the beach next to the wind organ on the Nolle Pier in the city of Vlissingen. She was reported missing the week before. The police later determined that the woman committed suicide.
This woman had been one of Mattioli’s most troubled followers. She suffered great psychological distress for many years. According to former members of the Buddhist Mahayana Centre, she was emotionally unstable and extremely vulnerable. Even so, Mattioli sent her away, saying that her “Buddhist path would come to nothing.”
This woman had a yoga practice for pregnant women and mothers of new-born babies. When she served as a maternity assistant in the family of a young teacher of the school where Mattioli was a janitor, time and again, she impressed upon him with her Lama’s fearsome practice of ‘black magic.’
It is impossible to ascertain what influence Mattioli’s interactions with this woman had on her later suicide. But the drama does vividly illustrates how precarious the situation in the centre was between 2001 and 2007. In a climate of fear and superstition, ‘Lama Kelsang Chöpel’ guided people with serious psychological and emotional problems without any expertise, supervision, and peer coaching—or, indeed, any form of oversight at all.
As it happens, the deceased was the selfsame person who made the appeal to journalist Verstegen after his lecture in Middelburg—in vain.5
Apparently, Dick Verstegen, Joop Hoek, and Marlous Lazal, as well as their editorial boards, did not realize what risks Mattioli’s followers were running. Their professional background as journalists made no difference in this respect.
It seems likely that their own religious involvement and naive, rosy understanding of Tibetan Buddhism eclipsed these journalists’ critical distance and clouded their professional judgement.
The fact of the matter is: the warning signs were blinking red. And yet, not a single Buddhist journalist bothered to investigate the events in the Buddhist Mahayana Centre. As a result, Buddhist media did offer ‘Lama Kelsang Chöpel’ a platform—but not his victims. The public at large remained unaware of what happened until 2013.
Open Buddhism’s investigation into the Buddhist Mahayana Centre was triggered by a vague remark by Varamitra (aka Theo Alkemade), then chairman of the Buddhist Union of the Netherlands (BUN).
According to the internal minutes of its general meeting on April 19, 2008, Varamitra said:
The BUN’s help was called in because of the escalations in a Buddhist centre in Middelburg, where a self-proclaimed Lama wreaked havoc in a terrible way. The BUN responded by finding out what was going from the people involved.
The chairman continued: “We then talked to the people involved for a day, together with Kaye Miner of the Maitreya Institute, to provide a perspective on what they have been through. It is extremely important that these kinds of signals are picked up in society. If you come across something like this, report it to the BUN. We have a network to do something with it.”6
Former BOS-director Jean Karel Hylkema and the editor-in-chief of the magazine previously known as the Buddhist Quarterly attended this meeting. According to the BUN-minutes, they did not comment. By the time the BUN met with Mattioli’s ex-followers and looked into the matter, the centre had already disbanded. The Buddhist union and its “network” proceeded to keep the entire affair dark until it was exposed by Open Buddhism in 2013.
The Buddhist Broadcasting Foundation finally appended a warning to its archived radio report of June 19, 2004. A notice about the ‘Mahayana Centre Middelburg’ said:
We don’t know everything about it, but be careful if you want to contact this centre.
By that time, however, the centre had already disbanded. With this, the network let the matter rest. As did the successor to the Buddhist Quarterly.
When the scandal was exposed by Open Buddhism in 2013, Buddhist journalist Joop Hoek continued to play down the case of ‘Lama Kelsang Chöpel’.
Hoek’s Buddhist Daily stubbornly kept to calling Mattioli ‘Lama Chöpel.’ Hoek also asked himself “whether the Lama committed the alleged facts as a Buddhist teacher,” because he recalled—erroneously—that Mattioli had been deprived of his teaching authority “in 1981 or thereabouts.” He concluded: “It is unclear.”
Hoek failed to acknowledge, though, that the Tibetan word “lama” means guru or teacher. He also failed to realize that Mattioli actually gave Buddhist “lessons”—according to De Reeper, Mattioli read from books of the Dalai Lama and a binder of the NKT—and “ordained” Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns.
Above all, Hoek failed to give full disclosure: he withheld that he had followed Mattioli’s self-launch as “Lama Kelsang Chöpel” up close. First as a follower of the same NKT teacher. Then as a journalist who offered Mattioli free publicity in the daily BN/De Stem. Lastly, as a contributing editor of the Buddhist Quarterly, which refused to investigate the matter after a series of urgent requests by Mattioli’s followers.
Hoek said he believed that only ‘the public prosecutor’ could establish the facts about ‘Lama Chöpel’—’if and when the victims report a criminal offense, which they don’t do.’
The work of investigative journalists and fact-finding committees on sexual abuse cases within the Roman Catholic church, for instance, apparently had not persuaded Hoek that other evidence than judgments of the court exists.
Postscript: This article has been updated, to reflect Gerhard Mattioli’s most recent publications, the involvement of the Buddhist Union of the Netherlands and the content of Dick Verstegen’s column about his visit to Middelburg.
- In 2013, Gerhard Mattioli published Tot sein besteht nicht (United P.C., available through German print-on-demand resellers. It was followed by Die Offenbarung der Selbstverwirklichung: Eine heilige Wissenschaft (Persimplex, 2016), which was published print-on-demand under the pseudonym of Gerhard Alois. Alois is Mattioli’s second name.
- Kwartaalblad Boeddhisme (later called Vorm & Leegte, and BoeddhaMagazine, now discontinued) was the only general Buddhist magazine in the Dutch language area. It published an agenda in print and online in which Buddhist teachers and organizations announced their activities.
- Hoek, Joop. (2003, July 5). Weekend reportage: Boeddha in de polder van Heijningen. BN/De Stem.
- Gerhard Mattioli can be seen during an ordination ceremony in a report on Sogyal Lakar by the current affairs programme Brandpunt of the KRO-NRCV network. A subtitled version of this report can be watched through this link (at 16.45 mins.)
- Ironically, Dick Verstegen made a note of his visit to Zeeland in 2006 in a self-penned column about the wind organ on the Nolle Pier: Verstegen, Dick. (2006). Windorgel. Retrieved March 10, 2020.
- Author unknown. (2008). BUN najaarsoverleg 15 nov 08: Verslag ALV B.U.N. 19 april 2008.