Power and abuse in Dutch Buddhist communities

Power and abuse in Dutch Buddhist communities

While most people are familiar with the sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, many are surprised to learn about the very similar scandals in Buddhism, which have been going on for decades. This article will explore the staggering fact that 51% of BUN (Dutch Buddhist Union) member organisations are linked with abuse.

Half of Dutch Buddhist Union (BUN) organisations linked with abuse
At least 51% (24 out of 27) of all BUN (Dutch Buddhist Union) member organisations and/or teachers either had or still have a spiritual teacher who has been publicly accused of sexual abuse.[1] When members of the Dutch Buddhist Union were confronted with this fact during a conference on ‘Power and Abuse in Buddhist Communities in the Netherlands’, they realised that they were not just dealing with a few rotten apples.[2] While the conference discussed several international organisations with centres in the Netherlands, it also reviewed cases that only occurred in the Netherlands.[3] This article will highlight the three most notable Dutch abuse cases.[4]

Case #1: Mettavihari of the Buddharama temple
Perhaps the most prominent and appalling case was that of the Thai monk Mettavihari. He abused between 20 and 30 young men, including minors, from 1974 until at least 1992.[5] However, back in the 1980s, the Dutch police had already been notified that Mettavihari had sexually abused several minors, including a 12-year old.[6] The police then informed the temple board, which was composed of central figures in the Dutch vipassana (insight meditation) movement. The board did not make the incident public, but decided to remove Mettavihari from his position temporarily, and replace him with Spinoza Prize laureate Dr. Henk Barendregt. He then put his teacher Mettavihari back on the board after a few months of leave.[7] Eight years after Mettavihari died, six of his students, whom he had authorised to teach vipassana meditation, admitted to knowingly keeping the abuse silent since the 1980s and not taking any measures to prevent it from recurring.[8] This allowed Mettavihari to continue his misconduct for at least another decade.[9] According to investigative journalist Rob Hogendoorn, there are even indications that Mettavihari continued his abuse right up until his death in 2007, and that he was involved in organised crime. None of the 14 teachers who have been authorised to teach by Mettavihari have stepped down after he was exposed.[10]

Case #2: Gerhard Mattioli (aka ‘Lama Kelsang’) of the Mahayana Centre
Gerhard Mattioli (aka ‘Kelsang Chöpel’), an Austrian boating enthusiast and self-appointed ‘lama’, began teaching Buddhism from his Middelburg residence in 2001.[11] Two Buddhist journalistic organisations (‘Buddhism Quarterly’ and the ‘BOS’) were approached by followers of Mattioli to inform them that he was committing sexual misconduct (as a supposed monk). Both organisations refused to investigate the matter or stop publishing ads for Mattioli, because they claimed that they were not to responsible for what happens in the centres they promote.[12] Around 2007, several of Mattioli’s followers published a letter stating that: ‘Witness reports show that Mattioli was engaged in serious and systematic manipulation, sexual abuse of multiple women (sometimes resulting in pregnancy), and other serious offences’.[13] Many of Mattioli’s students were afraid to speak out because he had convinced them that facing their ‘Spiritual guide in a critical or angry spirit’, would lead to a ‘rebirth in hell’.[14] When the Dutch Buddhist Union was notified of the scandal in 2008, after the centre had already disbanded, they met with followers once, but decided to keep the affair silent. In 2013 it was finally exposed by Hogendoorn.[15] This exposé also informed people about Mattioli’s shady past, including his targeting of vulnerable women with ‘paranormal’ and ‘energetic’ therapies through newspaper ads. Mattioli’s teacher, Kelsang Gyatso, had also revoked Mattioli’s monkhood and had denied him permission to teach.[16] To say that the man was a fraud is therefore a safe bet.

Case #3: Pierre Krul (aka ‘Dhammawiranatha’) of ‘Buddhayana’
Pierre Krul (aka ‘Dhammawiranatha’) was what some Sri Lankans call a ‘monk with a hobby’, which is a monk who does not take his vow of celibacy very seriously.[17] Krul was exposed for having sexual relations with 20 to 30 female students, many of whom had a history of psycho-sexual trauma or were minors at the time. For some, it was entirely against their will.[18] He usually framed it as ‘sex therapy’ to heal their past traumas or overcome personal shortcomings.[19] When Krul was exposed in 2001, he denied nothing, except that any of the sex had been non-consensual. When the police were notified of the scandal, they could not find anything illegal.[20] Besides his sexual escapades, Krul was also accused of brainwashing, verbal abuse, and financial exploitation.[21] For example, people were indoctrinated that reporting to the police was ‘aggression’, and therefore unethical.[22] Doubting the master ‘was the worst thing you could do’, and followers were isolated from their peers.[23] Krul had also promised to create a home for the elderly at his monastery, in which his followers invested tens of thousands of euros.[24] However, it was postponed indefinitely. The Dutch Buddhist Union was notified of all these facts but did nothing because Krul’s Sangha was not a member at that time, although it had been a member before.[25]

A structural problem
These three cases clearly demonstrate that the Dutch Buddhist world has responded very inadequately to the abusive behaviour of its teachers. As Hogendoorn puts it, ‘The Dutch Buddhist ‘elite’ confined itself to treatment of the symptoms and rewriting the history of its own involvement with known abusers’.[26] The magnitude of the problem has to be much larger, because the majority of (Dutch) Buddhism is unorganised (not connected to Unions), and therefore not supervised.[27] Abusive behaviour is really about power and control, and can only exist because organisations lack oversight, teachers lack regular feedback, and because students fail to speak up due to fear or wilful blindness. While the Dalai Lama wisely advised people to make their teachers’ misconduct ‘public’ through the media, he unfortunately failed to follow his own advice, because he kept silent about multiple abuse cases he was informed about 25 years ago.[28] He may not be the Buddhist pope, but a critical statement from his lips would have been enough to practically end the career of any abusive Buddhist teacher, and therefore much of the suffering they caused.[29] Why he stayed silent remains a mystery.

Timo Pieters

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[1] BUN member list
[2] 200201 Symposium BUN – [jan-mrt]. BUN Studiedag Macht en Misbruik in het Boeddhisme Deel 1: De Voorbereiding. A False Narrative. The international cases were Sogyal ‘Rinpoche’ (Rigpa), Sakyong Mipham (Shambhala), Namkha Gyatso (Rigdzin), Sangharakshita (Triratna), and Genpo Roshi (Kanzeon)
[3] For the case of Sogyal Lakar, see: Power and abuse in Buddhism: Sogyal Lakar and Rigpa
[4] The other Dutch case was Niko Tydeman (Kanzeon): Zenleraar Tydeman blijft aan als leraar na jarenlange buitenechtelijke relatie met studente. Niko Tydeman vertrekt als geestelijk leider bij Zen Centrum Amsterdam. Nico Tydeman (76) treedt terug als geestelijk leider ZCA 
[5] Excuses tempel Waalwijk voor misbruik door monnik
[6] ‘Boeddhistische monnik Waalwijk misbruikte ook 12-jarige’
[7] Alarmsignalen misbruik boeddhisten werden genegeerd
[8] 19 reacties op Vipassana-leraren: ‘Mettavihari pleegde grensoverschrijdend seksueel gedrag met leerlingen’. Vipassanaleraar Aad Verboom: ‘Ik had beter op de signalen moeten letten’
[9] Excuses tempel Waalwijk voor misbruik door monnik
[10] Private correspondence with Rob Hogendoorn. The claims are from unpublished sources
[11] Seksueel misbruik bij boeddhisten in Nederland
[12] Alarmsignalen misbruik boeddhisten werden genegeerd
[13] The Launch of ‘Lama Kelsang Chöpel’
[14] Ibid
Mattioli is describing an orthodox Tibetan (tantric) Buddhist teaching here that he is not necessarily distorting. Several Buddhist tantras teach this doctrine, including the Guhyasamāja, Hevajra, Cakrasaṃvara and Vajrabhairava
[15] Ibid
[16] Ibid
[17] Trouw: Een Monnik met een Hobby
[18] The claim that Pierre Krul had sex with minors or was guilty of rape are allegations that have not been proven in court
[19] Damen, Carine. Ik was gek van geluk: Verhalen uit sektarische bewegingen. Amsterdam: Luitingh-Suithoff, 2013. p. 130, 137, 143
[20] Misbruikt door aanbeden leermeester
[21] Seksueel misbruik bij boeddhisten in Nederland
[22] Trouw: Een Monnik met een Hobby
[23] Misbruikt door aanbeden leermeester. Trouw: Een Monnik met een Hobby
[24] Damen, Carine. Ik was gek van geluk: Verhalen uit sektarische bewegingen. Amsterdam: Luitingh-Suithoff, 2013. p. 132
[25] Trouw: Een Monnik met een Hobby
[26] Private e-mail correspondence with Hogendoorn
[27] Private e-mail correspondence with Hogendoorn
[28] Dalai Lama denounces ethical misconduct by Buddhist teachers. Dalai lama over misbruik: ik weet het al sinds de jaren 90
[29] For example, when the Dalai Lama finally spoke out about Sogyal Lakar (more than 20 years after he first heard about it), public opinion began to shift. Sogyal Rinpoche Dies; Tibetan Buddhist Lama Felled by Abuse Accusations (Published 2019)