Western Buddhists in the #MeToo Era

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

3 minutes

The online investigative platform Open Buddhism has maintained a high-profile presence in the Netherlands since 2012, reporting all manner of abuses in the the Dutch Buddhist community. It is now re-launched as an international medium for English-speaking readers interested in the reception of Buddhism in the West—in all of its guises, warts and all. Through original reports and critical analyses of  contributing writers Open Buddhism seeks to educate and challenge the reader. Thus, it aims to contribute to open-minded, public debates across the Buddhist world. To this end, Open Buddhism invites contributions by freethinking spirits who develop tough, probing questions and dare speak truth to power.

Today, the online investigative platform Open Buddhism introduces itself to an English-speaking audience with a paper by long-term Ch’an/Zen practitioner Stuart Lachs: ‘Tibetan Buddhism Enters the 21st Century: Trouble in Shangri-la.’ With this long-read, his first excursion outside Ch’an/Zen and into Tibetan Buddhism, Lachs takes stock of some day-to-day results of Western followers’ absolute submission to Tibetan teachers who were less than deserving of blind devotion. This led to abuses of power and the perpetration of sexual, physical, and financial offenses that were ‘arguably even more extreme than in Zen Buddhist communities.’ Lachs does not stop there, however: he also explores how the institutions that facilitate Buddhist teachers such as Lama Norlha, Sakyong Mipham, and Sogyal Rinpoche, function to a large extent—as do most institutions—to promote and protect themselves, empower their leaders and enable that power to function no matter the consequence.

The #MeToo movement that spread virally from 2017 onwards heralded in an unprecedented series of detailed disclosures by victims and survivors of sexually abusive Buddhist teachers in the West. These reports did not come out of nowhere: corroborated media reports on sexual and other abuses swirled about in the Buddhist world at least since the early 1970s. So did anecdotal evidence and persistent rumours about sexually abusive teachers from all traditions on the Buddhist grapevine.

In those years, the heterogeneous and fragmented landscape of the budding Western Buddhism and the paucity of readily available first-person accounts made it hard to identify distinct patterns in these first known, apparently isolated cases. To Buddhist figureheads and administrators in the pre-internet age it must have appeared as if the hushing up of sexual abuse was a viable strategy to contain the damage, for they attempted this en masse. To no purpose, as it turns out, for the Buddhist culture of silence surrounding sexual violence is now being broken retroactively.

The supercharged focus of the #MeToo era helped victims, survivors and witnesses of abuses by Buddhist teachers connect on line. They bonded and empowered each other in Facebook groups and dedicated blogs. And a score of whistleblowers tapped into the leverage of social media to expose decades-long abuses in the 1970s through 2010s to the general public in mass media.

Overnight, once all-powerful, abusive Tibetan teachers found that they could no longer control the narrative of their private fiefdom. Lama Norlha Rinpoche, Sogyal Rinpoche, and Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, in particular, bore the full brunt of their former devotees’ restored freedom and the close investigative scrutiny of investigative reporters, academic researchers, and lawyers. Since then, Norlha died in disgrace, aged 79. Sogyal (b. 1947) and Mipham (b. 1962) went into hiding in Asia, leaving their organizations Rigpa and Shambhala in disarray—and in financial straits.

Thanks to the testimonies of victims and survivors gathered by facilitators and lawyers and the investigative reporting of journalists, it is now feasible to examine and compare the genesis, the causal nexus, the risk factors, and apologetics that seemingly disparate Buddhist abuse cases have in common. This is a work of retrieval first and foremost, reconstructing the weaving faults, wrong inferences, and cultural planes of fracture in the Western reception of Buddhism from historical records, first-person accounts, and scholarly exposés.

Such explorations help answer the pressing questions that face Buddhists everywhere: when and how, exactly, were victims and survivors hurt? What acknowledgements are due, before their process of recovery and healing can even begin? How can future victims, survivors, perpetrators, and enablers be better protected? What does the rampant abuse found in Buddhist institutions in the West tell Western Buddhists about themselves, their teachers, and their practice? What, exactly, does it mean that Western Buddhist citizens are not above the law?

One such exploration is presented here. Longterm practitioner and scholar Stuart Lachs describes and contextualizes the three afore-mentioned abuse cases—centered on the Tibetan lamas Norlha, Mipham, and Sogyal. This, in turn, enables him to examine the institutions that provided these teachers succour. Lachs’ paper ‘Tibetan Buddhism Enters the 21st Century: Trouble in Shangri-la’ is our first long-read. It serves as a brief history and reference work documenting some of the most damaging—and most talked-about—abuse cases that have been exposed so far. But, importantly, Lachs’ paper also engages some patterns that these cases have in common—thereby delivering proof of concept of the approach that characterizes his larger body of work.

This one quote should persuade you, new readers, to settle down, read Stuart Lachs’ paper in full and reflect on its implications:

‘From these cases it is clear that imputing spiritual attainment to people, be they lamas, or Rinpoches or tulkus or whatever title they carry, who almost certainly have not reached the perfected levels imputed to them, leads to much confusion, pain and suffering. This is true at the least for the students, and given some time, public scandal will tarnish the name of Buddhism. The same goes for assuming that large Tibetan Buddhist institutions and monasteries are inherently pure. It appears to be true with Buddhism just as it does with other religions, that keeping secret and covering over abuse only makes matters worse and more widespread.’

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.