‘Shameful’: Sogyal Rinpoche’s Cally Buddhist charity Rigpa ‘put students at risk of harm’, Charity Commission finds

Sogyal Rinpoche teaching at the shrine of Lord Buddha, at the Sakya Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism in Seattle, in 2009.

Sogyal Rinpoche teaching at the shrine of Lord Buddha, at the Sakya Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism in Seattle, in 2009. Picture: Wonderlane on Flickr, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) - Credit: Picture: Wonderlane on Flickr, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

A Buddhist charity in the Cally “put its students at risk of harm” according to the charity regulator, because its trustees “failed to recognise or sought to downplay” the seriousness of mental, physical and sexual abuse allegations against its famous spiritual leader.

An official inquiry from the Charity Commission found there had been misconduct, mismanagement and serious safeguarding failures at Rigpa Fellowship in Caledonian Road - a branch of the international Buddhist network founded by the Tibetan monk Sogyal Rinpoche.

The guru and author of the best-selling book The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, who died aged 72 in August 2019, was born Sonam Gyaltsen Lakar, and had been teaching for 40 years before abuse allegations surfaced against him in 2017.

Eight former students asked the longtime friend of the Dalai Lama to “stop his unethical and immoral behaviour” in an online letter, adding: “Your public face is one of wisdom, kindness, humor, warmth and compassion, but your private behavior, the way you conduct yourself behind the scenes, is deeply disturbing and unsettling.

“You have punched and kicked us, pulled hair, torn ears, as well as hit us and others with various objects such as your back-scratcher, wooden hangers, phones, cups, and any other objects that happened to be close at hand.

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“If your striking and punching us and others, and having sex with your students and married women, and funding your sybaritic lifestyle with students’ donations, is actually the ethical and compassionate behavior of a Buddhist teacher, please explain to us how it is.”

In 2018 an independent investigation by lawyers Lewis Silkin LLP, commissioned by Rigpa Fellowship and Rigpa Fellowship US, found that, on the balance of probabilities, some of Lakar’s “inner circle” had been “subjected to serious physical, sexual and emotional abuse by him”.

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The Charity Commission, which had opened a regulatory case, escalated its engagement to a statutory inquiry after it found the UK branch of Rigpa was not making sufficient progress in addressing safeguarding concerns.

The inquiry found that both former trustees Patrick Gaffney and Susan Burrows “failed to recognise or sought to downplay” the seriousness of allegations against Lakar, and that they had both failed to take appropriate action despite having knowledge of instances and allegations of improper acts and sexual and physical abuse against students.

A report, just published by the Commission, details how during a meeting with the inquiry, Mr Gaffney appeared “unable or unwilling” to recognise the serious nature of the allegations that had been made, and that he had taken a lack of appropriate action.

The inquiry found Mr Gaffney was unfit to be a trustee, and he has been disqualified from acting as a trustee for eight years.

Similarly, the inquiry found that Ms Burrows had met with a former trustee in May 2007 to discuss an allegation of abuse made by an individual described as “Student 27” in the LS report.

At a meeting with the inquiry Ms Burrows denied allegations of sexual abuse had been raised at that point, and she described the relationship between Lakar and “Student 27” as being “one between consenting adults”.

Ms Burrows was removed as a trustee after the inquiry reviewed evidence that did not support her claims she had no prior knowledge of instances of abuse involving Lakar, and decided that she too was “unable or unwilling” to recognise the serious nature of the allegations.

Safeguarding policies developed by the international Rigpa body, that the charity previously linked to on its website, were criticised because they “blurred the distinction between consent and submission”, and placed too much responsibility for safeguarding on the student rather than the teacher.

Former trustees should have ensured that any international policies referred to met UK legal standards and regulations, the Commission found.

The inquiry concluded that former trustees and senior management figures at the charity were responsible for mismanagement and misconduct, especially around how they responded to safeguarding concerns, and the damning report blamed them for exposing some beneficiaries to harm through their “inability to create a safe culture within the charity”.

Helen Stephenson CBE, chief executive of the Charity Commission, said: “The fact that students were subjected to abuse by somebody in a position of power is shameful, and I am appalled that this was able to happen in a charity where people should have felt safe.

“People were let down because senior figures not only failed to listen and act on concerns, but also failed to properly address the problems with the charity’s safeguarding culture once these came to light.

“I hope that our findings bring some comfort to those so badly affected by what went wrong at Rigpa Fellowship.”

Current trustees have now implemented new safeguarding policies and have taken steps to sever the link between the UK charity and its international counterparts.

They told the Gazette they accept the Charity Commission’s findings, adding: “Following the publication of a whistleblowing letter in 2017, which contained serious allegations of abuse and misconduct, we have worked hard, both as a community and as a charity, to put in place the necessary governance and safeguarding reforms to ensure that everyone who comes into contact with Rigpa UK can have confidence that good safeguarding practice is now embedded into our culture.

“On behalf of Rigpa UK, the trustees acknowledge and sincerely apologise for the hurt and pain of the eight complainant students, and others who have since come forward to raise safeguarding concerns, and for the insufficient safeguarding measures in place in the charity at the time.”

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