A point of view

By Matthieu Ricard on July 29, 2017

Mr360 G

Following the recent letter sent by some of Sogyal Rinpoche's students about his behavior, I have been contacted by several media outlets. I did not intend to intervene, considering that I have no qualification to be a judge in this matter. However, it has been insistently put to me that failure to respond meant a tacit approval of the acts described in the letter. So I did my best to present Buddhism’s point of view on the important relationship between disciples and a spiritual master. The magazine Marianne published excerpts from the letter I sent in response to their request. These excerpts contain some of the critical remarks that I have expressed, but do not include others points that place the matter in a wider context and give a more balanced view. Although I have no taste for polemics and wish to end my days quietly in spiritual practice, it seemed desirable to present the entire letter that I have made available to the press through my publisher. My full statement is as follows.

Regarding the recent letter concerning the behaviour of Sogyal Rinpoche written by some of his close disciples, I cannot judge the intentions of Sogyal Rinpoche or say whether he actually meant to harm his students. But I have also no reason to doubt the truth of these facts and testimonies, which describe the abuse that various people have suffered at his hands. I know two of the authors of the letter and I consider them honest and trustworthy. The behavior described in this letter and in the other past testimonies is obviously unacceptable—from the point of view of ordinary morality and especially from that of Buddhist ethics. This is all the more so given the considerable suffering that has resulted from such actions.

I myself have visited Lerab Ling three times, not on my own behalf, but to serve as a translator either for His Holiness the Dalai Lama or for another Tibetan teacher. These short visits did not allow me to take the measure of daily life in Lerab Ling. I am not, in other words, an “insider” and, like many other people, I have been made aware of this dreadful situation only through the testimonies that have been circulated in the public domain.

Buddhist teachings describe in completely unambiguous terms the qualities of an authentic spiritual master as well as the characteristics of those that are to be considered harmful. (By way of information I have attached, a traditional description to the end of the present letter.) Would-be disciples are advised not to commit themselves to any master without first examining him or her in fine detail, first from afar, then through consultation with third parties, and then by direct personal encounter—in order to make sure that the reputation enjoyed by a given master actually corresponds with reality. One is even recommended to wait for several years before entrusting oneself to the direction of a master and following his teachings. To frequent and commit oneself to a false and unqualified master is as dangerous, it is said, as drinking poison.

The Dalai Lama constantly advises his hearers, both Eastern and Western, to reflect deeply before studying with a master, in order to avoid bitter regrets should matters turn out badly. He has also declared on many occasions that when a so-called master behaves in a manner that is inconsonant with the teachings, and especially if he behaves in a way that is harmful to the people in his entourage, it is incumbent on the disciples themselves to expose and denounce such behavior.

The fact that a number of authentic masters have given teachings at Lerab Ling is, in itself, a very good thing for all who have encountered them. Likewise, it must be recognized that the teachings given by Sogyal Rinpoche, as well as his books, have benefitted many people. But this does not in any way excuse the harmful actions that he may have perpetrated in other contexts.

Once disciples come to the conclusion that a master is authentic and qualified, it is normal for them to entrust themselves to his or her care—in the same way that apprentice mountaineers place their trust in an experienced mountain guide. Nevertheless, such confidence must be supported by valid reasons and must never be a matter of blind faith.

On the other hand, when disciples are absolutely certain, after carefully examining the spiritual master, that he or she is perfectly authentic, they must, if they wish to progress on the path, offer an implicit trust beyond skepticism and doubt, just as climbers scaling a steep cliff face must trust their guide, without questioning each and every instruction. As it is said in The Treasury of Precious Qualities*: “Disciples should have faith, the source of all spiritual qualities, and a clear, lucid intelligence unafflicted by doubt.” But the same text also states: “If the teacher turns out to be someone who should not be followed, take your leave and go.” 

Furthermore, it is necessary to be aware that the Buddhist community is not organized in a hierarchical manner as, for example, in the Catholic Church, where priests must account for their behavior to the bishops, cardinals and eventually, at the top of the pyramid, to the Pope himself. Buddhist schools, as these have emerged in different countries are institutionally completely independent of each other. And even within the fold of Tibetan Buddhism, the patriarchs of the four principal schools—while being respected as spiritual authorities—do not intervene in the administration of the monasteries, which function as autonomous entities.

Among Tibetan masters, H.H. the XIVth Dalai Lama is clearly the object of unanimous respect. The teachings and advice that he gives may well be the source of profound inspiration but they are never regarded as commands. No authoritative body goes to check whether a given monastery actually implements his advice. In any case, there exist nowadays thousands of Buddhist centers throughout the world and they are all independent of each other. Only the people who live in such centers, or frequent them on a regular basis, are in a position to say when behavior contrary to Buddhist principles occurs.

The only guiding lights in this domain are the teachings themselves. These indicate clearly the qualities of a spiritual master who is worthy to be followed and stigmatize false teachers, who are not worthy.

Speaking for myself, I was able to live for seven years in the presence of a great master, Kangyur Rinpoche, and for twelve years in that of another master, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, and I can testify that I never witnessed the slightest word or action that could conceivably be of harm to other people. These masters perfectly embodied the teachings that they gave.

If, up to the present time, the Dalai Lama has not reacted publically to the testimonies concerning Sogyal Rinpoche, this is not, as has been sometimes suggested, for financial reasons or out of a misguided attempt to protect Buddhism. Those who make such assertions have failed to research the matter adequately and are guilty of misrepresentation. Otherwise, they would have discovered that the Dalai Lama has never accepted the slightest financial recompense for any instruction or talk that he has given. At the end of every teaching, the accounts are read out in public by the organizers of the event, and if any financial profit has been made, it is invariably offered to humanitarian organizations chosen in consultation with the Dalai Lama and his entourage.

Again the Dalai Lama has no personal agenda in the interests of protecting the image of Buddhism. He often declares that he has nothing to hide and that he is open—without the slightest restriction—to any kind of formal enquiry concerning his own life and actions.

He frequently says that any person of integrity should behave in an irreproachable manner both publically and in private. As a human being, in the first place, and then as a Buddhist monk he values above all the keeping of his vows and a way of life that is frank and open. Having served him for the last twenty-five years, I can testify that he is strongly allergic to any kind of duplicity and pretense. On the other hand—and once again—it is not his role to act as an international Buddhist policeman. He can only remain as a teacher and as a point of reference, demonstrating by his own example the qualities of any Buddhist practitioner worthy of the name.

In addition, the writer from Marianne inquired about a donation received in 2015 from the Rigpa centers by the humanitarian association that I co-founded, Karuna-Shechen. Having verified, we have indeed received a one-time donation of 5426 euros, in favor of the victims of the earthquakes that struck Nepal. We have received hundreds of donations from around the world and consequently we were able to help 200,000 people in 620 villages.

I am not a spokesman for Buddhism in France, nor am I an adviser to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I am just his humble disciple and his French interpreter.

Matthieu Ricard


Extracts from a traditional description of the qualities of an authentic master and the defects of a false teacher, taken from the Treasury of Precious Qualities* by Rigdzin Jigme Lingpa (1729-1798), with the commentary of Kangyur Rinpoche (1898-1975), Shambhala Publications.

Genuine spiritual masters embody the wisdom and compassion of all the Buddhas. They are the roots of all spiritual accomplishments. They act exclusively for the good of everyone. They are like a beneficial rain that extinguishes the fires of karma and negative emotion. Like the sun and moon, they dissipate the darkness of ignorance and like the earth itself, they are the support of all without exception. Like loving parents, they cherish all beings impartially. Their compassion is like a river, immense and swift, aiming to free all beings from suffering and its causes. Spiritual masters are like Mount Meru, they are firm and unswayed by jealousy. They delight in the perfection of beings. Like a cloud of rain, they impartially extinguish the fires of negative emotion with an equanimity untroubled by hatred or attachment.”

In this present age of decadence, it is extremely difficult to come upon such masters. Nevertheless, it is essential to rely on spiritual friends whose minds are like excellent earth, well tilled in the knowledge of the precepts, moistened with the knowledge of the sacred texts and their commentaries, and saturated with great compassion and a loving concern for all that lives. True spiritual masters have few activities. They are exclusively preoccupied with the Dharma, fully committed to it in thought, word, and deed. They have a great weariness of samsara and have a powerful determination to depart from it. Their presence has a transforming effect on the perceptions of all who meet them, so that the latter are inspired to seek for liberation. By following such a master, it is possible to gain accomplishment swiftly in this very life.”

As for inauthentic masters, there are some who practice Dharma dishonestly and out of pride, merely in order to preserve a line of incarnate lamas or a family lineage, no different from what a Brahmin priest might do. They practice merely out of concern for the reputation of their monastery, fearing that their ecclesiastical residence or tradition may otherwise decline. Their loud and empty boasting of their qualities contributes nothing to the mind’s discipline, just as a wooden millstones are noisy but incapable of grinding barley and producing flour. Such teachers bring their disciples to ruin.”

Again, there are some so-called masters who, though their minds are filled with defilements, no different from ordinary beings, have, as the karmic residue of some trivial generosity in the past, obtained the position of a teacher in this life. They put on airs and persuade themselves that they are somebody after all, preening themselves and becoming puffed up with pride just because they receive offerings, honors, and service from their devotees who go bowing and scraping in front of them—fools who know nothing about the true characteristics of a genuine spiritual master! Such teachers are like frogs in the bottom of a well, who think that their well is as vast as the ocean.”

Then there are other imposters—those who have a smattering of the teachings. They have taken the vows and embraced the tantric commitments. But they are ignorant of the precepts, and their discipline is utterly distorted. They have no idea of the three trainings, and their minds, awash with defects, are base and degenerate. They pretend to teach and give instructions, but it is sheer guesswork, and they behave as though they were soaring in the skies of realization. Moreover, they do not actually care for their disciples, and the drawstrings of love and compassion have broken. Attendance on such “insane guides” inevitably leads to the precipice of negativity, to the abyss of the lower realms, and to ever-increasing evil.”

The teacher’s knowledge should be greater than that of the disciples. If this is not the case, and if people who are supposed to be teachers are lacking in bodhichitta, it is a great mistake to follow them, attracted perhaps by their fame and personal charisma. It is evident that the blind cannot be led by those who are themselves “blind guides”. Associating with such people and in such a way deprives disciples of any chance of understanding what behavior is to be adopted and what is to be rejected. The followers of such teachers will consequently wander in the darkness of the lower realms.”

Aspirants may well be devoted and sincerely interest in practicing the Dharma, but if they fail to check whether their teacher is truly qualified and commit themselves regardless, they will be throwing away their present qualities as well as those to come. Their very human existence, endowed with eight freedoms, which they have only just obtained after waiting to long, will be rendered meaningless. Their situation is someone going toward a dark mass of poisonous snakes thinking that it is the cool shadow of a tree.”