By Joanne Clark
For those of us who have held hope that the Foundation For the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT) might provide some leadership in resolving troubles of abuse within Western Tibetan Buddhist Centres, this has been a hard week. We have held hope because the FPMT’s code of ethics, signed by all teachers teaching at FPMT centres, has demonstrated a clarity about students’ needs not seen in other Tibetan Buddhist institutions.
Here is an example:
FPMT is committed to promoting safe environments wherein the dignity of every individual is respected. Everyone participating in FPMT-related activities has the right and shall be free from harassment of any type, be it sexual harassment, intimidation, bullying, or other forms of harassment. Everyone coming into contact with the FPMT network shall be treated with dignity and respect.
Sexual relationships between Dharma teachers and students while a student is attending the teacher’s teachings, course or retreat are prohibited, and are strongly discouraged at all other times as long as there is a Dharma teacher-student relationship. Please see below for a policy specific to Dharma teachers. Others in positions of authority are also strongly discouraged from entering into sexual relationships in situations where there may be a real or perceived power imbalance. As well, no teacher, volunteer, staff member, or other representative of the hosting center shall make sexual advances to any participant during a teaching, course or retreat.
This is the clear language students have been seeking from other Buddhist organizations. Sadly, however, a woman has recently claimed that the FPMT failed to honestly and appropriately address her allegations that Dagri Rinpoche, a teacher at FPMT centres, sexually assaulted her while she was a nun at Thosamling some years ago. This claim followed a recent allegation made to police in India by a woman who claimed that Dagri Rinpoche molested her while on a plane. According to The Tribune Newspaper (India), “the Gaggal police detained him before he was released on bail.” There are also claims that more women have been abused by him, though these have not been made public or verified.
In the first testimony, that given by Jakaira Perez Valdivi on Utube video, there is a disturbing description of the effort made by Dagri Rinpoche and the FPMT institution to undermine her story, effectively silencing her. She claims that Dagri Rinpoche lied to others about having apologized to her and that the FPMT labelled his actions as “compassionate massage” and not sexual at all. According to Jakaira’s story, his actions included fondling her breasts and pushing his genitals against her—not something that can be called “compassionate massage.” According to her, he apologized to her, but then lied and claimed that she apologized to him.
At best, the FPMT has failed to validate her concerns and failed to resolve a situation that has badly damaged her wellbeing and spiritual path. At worst, they are covering up a crime. At best, Dagri Rinpoche’s actions, as described by Jakaira and the recent allegation from the woman on the plane, disqualify him from ever teaching in an FPMT centre. At worst, they are criminal. Will he continued to teach at FPMT centres? Why has nothing been done to resolve the situation for Jakaira and why has he continued to teach at FPMT centres?
The FPMT say that these two incidents did not occur at an FPMT facility, project or institution and so the ethics policy does not apply. However, he has continued to teach at FPMT centres and the failure of this institution to act responsibly in the context of carefully screening their teachers and hearing the needs of survivors demonstrates a lack of fiduciary care and due diligence in my opinion. These problems are not fixed by simply finding loopholes.
And this is the big problem. In the current climate, with students from Rigpa, Shambhala and other Buddhist institutions still traumatized from disclosures of sexual abuse by their leaders, every Buddhist institution is called upon to be diligent regarding the behaviours of teachers. There should be no compromising on this, no finding loopholes or making excuses or quick fixes. It is one thing for a student to come to terms with the fact that a well-respected Dharma teacher is abusive. However, when the harm becomes institutionalized, when Tibetan Buddhist institutions fail to come forward with appropriate measures of validation, compassion and resolve, and continue to validate the integrity of that teacher, then the situation turns critical. This has happened in Rigpa, Shambhala and too many other Buddhist centres who are scrambling only now to put together flimsy codes of ethics.
The following letter from within the FPMT, from the Center Services Director of the FPMT International Office in Portland Oregon, reflects this sentiment. It appears that there is little appetite within the International Office for simply finding those loopholes in the Ethics Policy:
It has come to our attention that there are newspaper stories and social media accounts circulating stating that a lady in India has made a report to the Indian police accusing Dagri Rinpoche of molesting her on a flight in India.
As Dagri Rinpoche is currently an FPMT registered teacher, we at International Office are following this story closely and awaiting any additional updates and reports about the outcome of the accusation.
We understand that Dagri Rinpoche believes he is innocent of the accusation and is preparing a personal statement in response to the accusation.
Although the alleged event did not take place at an FPMT center, if the investigation results do determine that the accusation is correct, then we would follow the guidelines described under Administering the ETHICAL POLICY, in the ETHICS AND ETHICAL POLICY section of the Affiliates Area and it could impact Dagri Rinpoche’s inclusion on the FPMT registered teachers list, as per the FPMT Ethical Policy.
While we are awaiting any conclusions on this story, we send our prayers for all parties involved in and affected by this story.
We are sure that this will remind all of the importance of our responsibility to uphold ethical behaviour, especially by those of us who manage and teach at FPMT centers, projects and services.
Center Services Director
Statements such as this from within the FPMT’s establishment are encouraging. Indeed, the FPMT statement on the need for centres to take strong measures in instances of abuse is clear and strong within their ethical policy, though perhaps it can be amended to account for this situation. If it had been followed, Jakaira might have received the validation she needed. Here is how they describe those measures:
Misconduct on the part of persons in positions of power or trust can undermine the integrity of the organization, causing demoralization and loss of faith. Hence, the behaviours described in the Ethical Policy below are prohibited, and a center, project, or service’s grievance procedures should be put into effect if a breach occurs.
Each individual in a position of authority, within their area of responsibility in the FPMT organization, is also required to act on any appearance or complaint of misconduct. It is crucial that such individuals identify and express concerns about conduct that may be harmful, so that procedures for dealing with problems can be implemented.
FPMT’s Ethical Policy applies to all activities, interactions, or communications including those on-line, on social media, by telephone, in person, or by any other means as long as the activity, interaction, or communication in question concerns or pertains to FPMT-related actions, duties, or responsibilities.Tsongkhapa (1357–1410) Apart from his emphasis on study, being a yogi and the father of the Gelug school, Tsongkhapa is perhaps best known for the importance he places on the monastic discipline of the Vinaya.
We also need to be clear that we should have very little reason to doubt Jakaira’s story. In fact, if we hear FPMT make such a statement as to the “compassionate massage” of a monk alone with a nun (as she alleges they said), that should be enough to cause us to question their viewpoint! And statistics show that false allegations of sexual assault are rare and that most victims of sexual assault choose not to report — because they fear not being believed and becoming re-traumatized by a brutal system. These statistics are important because until women are believed and validated, there will be no change to a very widespread culture of abuse in institutions both East and West. We are in a “MeToo” movement where the problem will simply not go away without institutional change, without acknowledgement from all concerned that there is a systemic, serious problem.
Last November, some 130 former and current students of Tibetan Buddhism signed a letter addressed to over forty lamas from all four lineages. We translated this letter into Tibetan. Attached to this letter was a translation into Tibetan of another letter, that written by eight former senior students of Sogyal Lakhar, in which they outlined his serious physical, psychological and sexual abuses over decades. We asked only one question in the letter. We simply wanted to know whether or not lamas found these behaviours acceptable—e.g. behaviours of beating and sexually abusing students, using student donations to live a lavish lifestyle etc. As of this writing, six months later, we have had only two responses.¹
We wrote that letter with the intention of receiving better clarity on how we, as long-time Dharma students, could move forward on our spiritual paths after abusive situations—and how we could insure better safety within Western Dharma Centres. We neither want to be abused on our spiritual paths nor do we not want to practice in an environment of abuse. Many of us sat silent while Sogyal Lakhar spent hours of his teaching time viciously maligning and insulting students. We are horrified that we turned our back on harm as we sat through these tirades. The letter was written sincerely, from our hearts, with no ulterior motive other than stopping harm and knowing where safety lay. To many of us, the lack of response from forty lamas is in fact a very brutal and non-compassionate response. A lack of caring.
Tahlia Newland and I also wrote a letter to HH Dalai Lama in which we told him that we had written these letters to lamas and why. We explained also that the Vajrayana had been used to justify abusive behaviors and to silence students with threats of hell if they objected. We explained that many were questioning the Vajrayana now and many needed better clarity. We asked him to please bring the matter up at the meeting scheduled for Tibetan Buddhist leaders last November. We received a response from his office two days later, asking us to forward the matter to the Kalon of Religion and Culture and to CC His Holiness. We did that. Shortly after, the meeting was postponed and we fear that now, there will be little hope of this topic being raised if the meeting is ever held. The kalon has not responded to us either.
I believe that abusive behaviors within the context of the Vajrayana make this situation particularly critical—and particularly in need of strong leadership that can provide clarity. Though some FPMT teachers are amongst those who haven’t replied to our letter, many of us have nonetheless held out a hope for this organization because of its strongly worded ethics code—and because of the responsible and thorough approach to Dharma in the FPMT educational programs, their responsible approach to the Vajrayana.
I would like to add to this my desire that FPMT seek now to sincerely and compassionately reach out with support to Jakaira Perez Valdivi and others who might have made similar claims of harm from FPMT teachers that are not known to us. Publicly, a statement from the FPMT on how they intend to address this situation and others like it would be very helpful towards insuring that a growing group of disillusioned Dharma students do not lose trust in the good intentions of the FPMT. Trust demands better transparency and this has been lacking. Most of all, I truly believe that the code of silence that has ruled within Tibetan Buddhist culture in the West needs to end if the Dharma in the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition is to thrive.