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Lawsuit Alleges Decades of Sexual Assault at Tibetan Buddhist Monastery in New York

Palpung Thubten Choling Monastery, formerly known as Kagyu Thubten Choling. From

Palpung Thubten Choling monastery, formerly known as Kagyu Thubten Choling (KTC), is facing allegations of a four-decade pattern of sexual assault by Lama Norlha Rinpoche. Lama Norlha, who founded  KTC in Wappingers Falls, New York State, died in 2018. The lawsuit, filed in federal court by three women, highlights a series of alleged abuses dating back to the 1980s and implicates Norlha and monastery leaders in perpetuating these acts.

Among those named in connection to the alleged abuse are KTC administrative vice president Susan Skolnick, KTC secretary Denise Lordi, KTC treasurer Shoshana Rogner, retired poet and Bard College instructor Robert Kelly, as well as Tai Situ Rinpoche and Mingyur Rinpoche, two prominent teachers in the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism.

Initiated by three women identified as Jane Doe 1, Jane Doe 2, and Jane Doe 3, the lawsuit details their distressing experiences, notably during three-year retreats at the monastery, where they claim to have suffered sexual assaults, harassment, and emotional manipulation. Their accounts indicate that the alleged abuse was condoned and facilitated by KTC leadership, stating that the monastery orchestrated circumstances for the assaults to occur and ignored reports of these incidents.

Allegations against Lama Norlha are central to the lawsuit. The women accuse him of using his position to manipulate and control them, reportedly assaulting them on multiple occasions beginning in the 1980s. The lawsuit further asserts that Lama Norlha’s actions not only inflicted severe trauma on the alleged victims but also violated ethical and legal boundaries.

Religious studies scholars Ann Gleig and Amy Langenberg, who are writing a book about sexual abuse in American Buddhist communities, noted the use of Buddhist teachings in cases of abuse, namely samaya, a vow said to bind students and teachers. Students are taught to see teachers like Lama Norlha as realized beings who transcend worldly ethical systems. This allows abusive teachers to claim that sexual violations are a form of tantric teaching.

“The practices around guru devotion in Tibetan Buddhism really discourage any kind of critical thinking around the relationship students have with their teachers,” said Langenberg, a specialist in South Asian Buddhism who teaches at Eckerd College in Florida. “It’s not the kind of open relationship where students feel they can object to something.” (Times Union)

Lama Norlha Rinpoche From

Rev. Kyoki Roberts of An Olive Branch, a Buddhist nonprofit that investigates ethical misconduct, told BDG in 2017: “Almost always the student is new to the practice, far younger, and struggling with life issues. The student came seeking help and then the teacher uses the student’s vulnerability to seduce him/her.”*

The legal action, filed on 17 November in the Southern District of New York, points to violations of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and falls under New York’s Adult Survivors Act, allowing civil sexual assault lawsuits beyond the statute of limitations.

The attorney representing the women, Carol Merchasin, condemned the alleged acts and criticized the lack of accountability within Tibetan Buddhist organizations, alleging a cover-up culture that shielded leaders from repercussions.

In response to the lawsuit, KTC has denied the allegations, stating its commitment to resolving the issue truthfully and compassionately. Despite an investigation in 2016 by An Olive Branch, the monastery has not publicly acknowledged wrongdoing regarding Lama Norlha’s reported sexual misconduct. The monastery’s website lists Lama Norlha as the founder and describes him as “an accomplished meditation and retreat master,” listing a number of his accomplishments. The website does not mention the accusations or public findings that have arisen against Lama Norlha over the years. (Palpung Thubten Choling)

The lawsuit stands as a significant development in the ongoing reckoning within Buddhist communities regarding sexual misconduct. Experts have emphasized the need for accountability within these institutions to prevent recurring abuses.

As the legal process unfolds, the women behind the lawsuit, represented by their attorney, expressed their resolve to hold not only Lama Norlha but also the leadership of the institution accountable for the alleged abuses. The case spotlights a growing need for transparency and accountability within religious institutions, underscoring the broader societal concerns about systemic sexual misconduct.

“The women recognize that while Lama Norhla was the perpetrator of the abuse they experienced, there are many more people who need to be held accountable,” Merchasin said. “The leadership of this institution knew, Buddhist leaders knew, and no one has ever accepted responsibility. Until Buddhist institutions are held accountable, these abuses will just continue to repeat themselves.” (Times Union)

* An Olive Branch: Reaching Out to Those Affected by Abuse in Buddhist Sanghas (BDG)

See more

Three women accuse upstate Buddhist leader of rape (Times Union)
Lama Norlha Rinpoche (Palpung Thubten Choling)

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