Palpung Thubten Choling Monastery, formerly known as Kagyu Thubten Choling (KTC), has been facing allegations of repeated sexual abuse for four decades by Lama Norlha Rinpoche. Lama Norlha, who founded KTC in Wappingers Falls, N.Y., 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 the monastery leaders in perpetuating these acts. .
Among those named in connection with the alleged abuse are KTC Executive 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 of 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 harrowing experiences, including during three-year retreats at the monastery, where they claim to have suffered sexual assault, harassment and emotional manipulation . . Their accounts indicate that the alleged abuses were tolerated and facilitated by KTC leaders, claiming that the monastery orchestrated the circumstances for the assaults to occur and ignored reports of the incidents.
The allegations against Lama Norlha are at the heart of the trial. The women accuse him of using his position to manipulate and control them, allegedly assaulting them repeatedly beginning in the 1980s. The lawsuit further claims 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 on sexual abuse in American Buddhist communities, have noted the use of Buddhist teachings in cases of abuse, namely samaya, a wish supposed to bind students and teachers. Students learn to view teachers like Lama Norlha as realized beings who transcend the ethical systems of the world. This allows abusive teachers to claim that sexual violations constitute a form of tantric teaching.
“The practices around devotion to gurus in Tibetan Buddhism really discourage any form of critical thinking about the relationship that 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 like they can object to something. » (Union of times)
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, much younger and struggling with life problems. The student came for help and then the teacher uses the student's vulnerability to seduce him. »*
The lawsuit, filed November 17 in the Southern District of New York, alleges violations of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and falls under the New York State Adult Survivors Act , allowing civil suits for sexual assault beyond the statute of limitations.
The lawyer representing the women, Carol Merchasin, condemned the alleged acts and criticized the lack of accountability within Tibetan Buddhist organizations, alleging a culture of cover-up that shielded leaders from repercussions.
In response to the lawsuit, KTC denied the allegations, affirming its commitment to resolving the issue with truth and compassion. Despite a 2016 investigation 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 its founder and describes him as "an accomplished master of meditation and retreat," listing a number of his accomplishments. The website does not mention the accusations or public findings made against Lama Norlha over the years. (Palpung Thubten Choling)
The trial represents a significant development in the ongoing awareness within Buddhist communities regarding sexual misconduct. Experts highlighted the need for accountability within these institutions to prevent recurring abuses.
As the legal process unfolded, the women behind the lawsuit, represented by their lawyer, expressed their determination to hold not only Lama Norlha but also the institution's leaders accountable for the alleged abuse. The case highlights a growing need for transparency and accountability within religious institutions, underscoring broader societal concerns about systemic sexual misconduct.
“The women recognize that although Lama Norhla is the perpetrator of the abuse they suffered, there are many other people who need to be held accountable,” Merchasin said. “The leaders of this institution knew it, the Buddhist leaders knew it, and no one ever accepted responsibility. Until Buddhist institutions are held accountable, these abuses will continue to be repeated. (Union of times)
* An olive branch: reaching out to those affected by abuse in Buddhist sanghas (BDG)