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Guru Accused of ‘Mystical’ Baby Plot in U.S. Rape Case

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Handout
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Handout

A young Buddhism student was raped and impregnated by her spiritual leader, who told her she should keep the baby because she would be giving birth to an enlightened guru like him, according to a lawsuit filed in Oregon.

Rachel Montgomery was a teenager when she began attending a Buddhist center in Eugene, Oregon. After a traumatic childhood, she initially found comfort and guidance at the Dzogchen Retreat Center led by a Tibetan Buddhist guru known as Choga, she told The Daily Beast in an interview.

A lawsuit filed in the Circuit Court of the State of Oregon in December accuses Dzogchen Khenpo Choga Rinpoche, a Tibetan who has also gone by the name Choying Rabjam, of sexual battery and sex trafficking. It alleges that he struck up an especially close relationship with Montgomery before twisting the Buddhist traditions of karma and tantra to abuse a student 27 years his junior.

The lawsuit claims that Choga, now 58, who traces his Buddhist heritage back through 33 generations, abused the teacher-student relationship through a series of uninvited sexual interactionsapproaches that culminated in Montgomery being raped inside a Buddhist temple.

It is alleged that Choga pressured Montgomery to get drunk before raping her in the same temple where he had previously made sexual contact with the 21-year-old student. The lawsuit said he had also told her to suck his tongue before groping and penetrating her, claiming that it was all part of “tantric empowerment” and his Buddhist teachings.

Choga and lawyers representing the Dzogchen Shri Singha Foundation did not respond to requests for comment by time of publication. Emails sent to the Buddhist center also went unanswered.

“I feel like Buddhism was weaponized to take advantage of me,” Montgomery told The Daily Beast. “I don’t want to say that it gets weaponized for everyone. But for me, it was weaponized.”

Inside Tibetan Buddhism’s ‘Rape’ and Abuse Scandal

The lawsuit says Montgomery was barely conscious at the time of the rape but has recollections of the heavy weight of her teacher’s body on top of her and his long hair sweeping across her face.

It is alleged that Montgomery tried to put the incident out of her mind until she discovered that she was pregnant the following month. “Troubled, she reached out to Choga, who confirmed that he had penetrated her in the temple that night. Once again, Choga convinced [Montgomery] that though the interaction was similar to what the Western world perceived as “sex,” it was actually a blessed act intended for her spiritual benefit,” the lawsuit alleges.

Montgomery said Choga told her that the child would be an “enlightened being,” which she understood to mean that the baby would be declared a tulku. That designation means the child would be considered the reincarnation of a Buddha, a powerful figure within the Buddhist community and an heir to Choga’s lineage, which can be traced back to 626 BC.

The lawsuit alleges that Choga eventually agreed to pay for an abortion.

Montgomery, now 30, lives with her husband and her cat, Mr. Hitchens, on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State where she works with a community-based program to prevent young people using drugs and alcohol. She told The Daily Beast that she has chosen to come forward publicly because she wants to warn others about how she was treated.

“I became pretty distressed that if someone was in the same position as I was in; they were looking for experiences, and they were young, curious, semi-naive people. That if they tried to Google the community that I was abused in, they wouldn’t find anything. So, it would be really hard for them to discern what potential harms could happen to them.

“My experience should be accessible to people that it would protect.”

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Rachel Montgomery said she decided to come forward to raise awareness of her experience.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Handout</div>

Rachel Montgomery said she decided to come forward to raise awareness of her experience.

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Handout

The ‘Crazy Wisdom’ of Tibetan Buddhism

Montgomery was 19 when she first saw the beautiful, peaceful campus of the Dzogchen Retreat Center in Oregon in the summer of 2011. It was home to a welcoming, vibrant international community that appeared to offer salvation for a young woman who had a difficult start in life. The lawsuit says Montgomery fell into substance misuse from the age of 13 after her father died and her mother struggled with alcohol and drug abuse. She had stopped using drugs after rehab, but was still searching for a sense of purpose by the time she found Buddhism.

“I had pigtails, no sense of fashion. I mean, I look back and I’m like, ‘Wow. I was a baby.’ I hadn’t even had a smartphone yet. I was just fresh in the world. I had very little knowledge and know-how in general,” she told The Daily Beast.

Immediately, the lawsuit says, Choga singled Montgomery out for special attention. At the end of the summer, he allegedly offered her a role as a nanny for one of the families who lived at the retreat.

Montgomery said Choga was a “super mystical” presence on the campus, treated with reverence by everyone else there.

“He asked me to go on a walk to talk about my opportunity to contribute to their community. And that was unique for someone to have that one-on-one time,” Montgomery said. She told The Daily Beast that Choga would tell her that he had known her in a previous life.

Tibetan Buddhism encourages a unique and powerful system of loyalty to the spiritual leader, who is integral to the teaching. Complete obedience to your master is believed to be an essential prerequisite to deepening your understanding of the practice and avoiding bad karma. Tibetan Buddhism even suggests there is a special hell for people who think ill of their teachers.

The lawsuit says Choga would be extremely demanding of his students, complaining if he didn’t like their hair, their clothes or even their weight—and demanding they change them.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Rachel Montgomery first came to the Dzogchen Retreat Center in Oregon when she was 19 years old.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Handout</div>

Rachel Montgomery first came to the Dzogchen Retreat Center in Oregon when she was 19 years old.

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Handout

At its most extreme, the theory of “crazy wisdom” posits that a Buddhist leader’s actions are a special form of teaching—even if they seem outrageous or scandalous.

By the Fall of 2013, Montgomery said she was deeply entwined in her Buddhist learning. The lawsuit says she had been given a permanent—though unpaid—role at the center, which meant she was living there full time as the property manager. That, in practice, allegedly made her a personal assistant to Choga.

The lawsuit alleges that Choga’s behavior towards Montgomery began to change once she had committed herself emotionally and financially to the center full-time, rather than pursuing other career opportunities. “Choga monitored [Montgomery’s] day-to-day activities and controlled her lifestyle, making remarks that vacillated dizzyingly between kindness and cruelty,” the lawsuit reads.

The lawsuit says he clamped down on a romance between Montgomery and another Dzogchen devotee named only as John Doe. “Choga took an obvious dislike to Doe since Plaintiff began her relationship with him, and often acted in a harsh and abusive manner towards him. At one point, Choga commanded Doe to sign an agreement to leave the United States in Doe’s own blood,” the lawsuit says.

The Shadow of Tantra

At the end of 2013, the lawsuit alleges that Choga set up a series of private one-to-one tutoring sessions with Montgomery that would take her learning to a new level. These deep, guided meditations allegedly that took place inside the center’s temple would include “tantric empowerments” to help her climb the spiritual ladder.

In practice, it is alleged, these “empowerments” included increasingly outrageous sexual activities. First, the lawsuit says she was told to sit in Choga’s lap, straddling him face-to-face, and then instructed to suck his tongue “like a lollipop,”—much like the Dalai Lama asked a schoolboy to do in a video that emerged this week.

Dalai Lama Apologizes for Asking Young Boy to ‘Suck My Tongue’

The lawsuit says that subsequent practices included Montgomery being penetrated, first by Choga’s fingers. The lawsuit claims he told her it was the art of “priming her lotus.” On another occasion, it is alleged, he penetrated her with his erect penis during a meditation while telling her to remain still and keep her eyes closed while he channeled his spiritual energy into her.

Montgomery told The Daily Beast she believed this was all a normal part of her learning at the time, even if there were signs that, subconsciously, she knew something was wrong.

“In Tibetan Buddhism—anyway Dzogchen Buddhism—sex is a part of the practice. It’s talked about as a common part of the practice. So that wasn’t so out of the norm. I didn’t mentally think anything negative per se. At the time, I started getting some really painful rashes all over my body. I started not being able to eat. I started compulsively running. I injured myself running. I was really anxious and jumpy. And I was feeling depressive thoughts,” she said.

The lawsuit says she was experiencing extreme anxiety, nightmares, panic attacks, stress, claustrophobia, and painful rashes.

On Dec. 12, 2013, there was a party at the Dzogchen Retreat Center. The lawsuit claims Choga pressured Montgomery to give up non-alcoholic cider for the night and drink wine from a glass that he repeatedly filled until she had drunk the whole bottle. She was severely incapacitated at this point as she rarely drank, the lawsuit says. “He told her that drinking alcohol would help her achieve spiritual connectedness,” the lawsuit alleges, despite Choga’s history of supporting Montgomery through her past substance abuse issues.

It is alleged that Choga took a barely-conscious Montgomery into the temple where their previous tantric practices had been held, and raped her.

Three weeks later, after she had taken a break from the center, the lawsuit says Montgomery discovered she was pregnant.

She decided she had no choice but to terminate the pregnancy.

“I never could have seen myself having an abortion,” she told The Daily Beast. “But the panic I felt was so uncontrollable. And so, in my body, it was inescapable. It was either hurt myself, or end the pregnancy. I didn't see a way I was going to be able to mentally survive the pregnancy.”

She said she got in the car and returned to Eugene, Oregon to speak to Choga.

“My whole body was shaking. I just couldn't stop shaking the whole drive from Washington down to Oregon,” she said. “I would say it was confrontation-lite. I had never confronted him before. It was more like an urgent pleading.”

The lawsuit alleges Choga responded by telling her that she should have been delighted by the pregnancy, and told Montgomery that the child could be an “enlightened being.” If the baby was given tulku status—which suggests it is a Buddha reincarnated—that would set it up within the Buddhist tradition as a future leader, who could inherit Choga’s global empire. The Dzogchen foundation he leads has other retreats in Europe and Asia, and is currently fundraising $1.6 million for a new center in the U.S.

“Choga thereby elevated his rape of [Montgomery] into a blessing for the entire lineage, a matter of fate,” the lawsuit claims.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Spiritual leader Dzogchen Khenpo Choga Rinpoche is accused of sexually assaulting Rachel Montgomery.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Handout</div>

Spiritual leader Dzogchen Khenpo Choga Rinpoche is accused of sexually assaulting Rachel Montgomery.

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Handout

It is alleged that Choga reluctantly agreed to pay for an abortion on the condition that Montgomery didn’t tell anyone about it, and that she consented to having a child with him in the future.

The prospect of giving birth to an enlightened guru had a profound effect on Montgomery, who still had total faith in Buddhism. “Enlightened children at the time were described to me as children that are like born under auspicious circumstances—like magical, mystical circumstances,” she told The Daily Beast. “After the abortion, I was Googling, what happens if you abort an enlightened child?… He made it clear, I would have this negative karma as a result of what I was doing. It was a very strong concern. It was an anxiety I had at the time.”

Is This a Cover Up?

At the time, Montgomery continued to trust in her Buddhist community despite her experience, but she was very confused.

In September 2014, the lawsuit says she sought reassurance from other senior figures at the Dzogchen Shri Singha Foundation that her sexual experience with Choga was a legitimate element of tantric empowerment. According to the lawsuit, the board wrote to her to explain that so much time had passed since the incident that there was nothing they could do, adding that in any case they did “not have any official powers of oversight in regard to Choga’s personal life.”

Carol Merchasin, an experienced lawyer and investigator acting for Montgomery, said the board should have taken immediate action once this kind of allegation came to their attention. “Under the laws of the United States and most countries, boards of these kinds of organizations have a fiduciary duty and they have a legal duty that they did not follow,” she said.

The Dzogchen Shri Singha Foundation and six individuals are accused of negligence and vicarious liability for sexual battery and sex trafficking in the lawsuit.

The author of Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism, Mary Finnigan, previously told The Daily Beast that the community often brushed these kinds of allegations under the carpet. “They still have their red-robe mafia code of omerta,” she said.

The lawsuit contends that the birth of another child had sparked rumors at the retreat center in Oregon which were quickly hushed up. “Despite being born to a white, blond haired, and blue-eyed couple, [one baby girl] had distinctly East Asian features,” the lawsuit claims.

Montgomery said she felt ostracized from the community after writing to the board, and decided to join the Peace Corps in Ethiopia. Years later, when she returned to the U.S., she allegedly heard stories from old friends of other former Buddhism students who had suffered similar alleged experiences in other communities. She said it was the thought that her experience was not a one-off that made her act.

“She realized not only that what had happened to her was in fact rape, but also that Defendants had sufficient knowledge to warn her about the risks of guru sexual abuse, educate her about the risks of guru sexual abuse, and even, potentially, to have prevented her sexual assault,” the lawsuit alleges.

Merchasin, who specializes in cases with allegations of sexual misconduct in religious and spiritual communities, said Montgomery’s experience is far from unique within Buddhism.

“It took Rachel years to actually understand what had happened, because it had been this indoctrination that this was a spiritual experience. In our experience in the law firm and working with clients and survivors, it’s unbelievably common,” she told The Daily Beast. “If what had happened to Rachel had happened in a dark alley, with a stranger, you would have known what it was. But because of the belief system, and because it was the teacher, and because of the reverence, and because of the negative karma, and all of this weaponization it’s hard to see it at first.”

An insider who has lived in the Tibetan communities for decades—who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak freely—said this week’s video of the Dalai Lama instructing a young boy to suck his tongue was a good example of the power imbalances and structures within Buddhism that can lead to abuse.

“To me that video was an exact display of how victims end up doing a lot of bizarre things because they are being told with a lot of authority, ‘Here, you do this.’ There’s no questions being asked,” they said. “The conditions for abuse are created by the sort of relations that people are encouraged to have with their spiritual teacher. If you’re practicing Tibetan Buddhism you are supposed to see your teacher as the Buddha, as perfect. If your teacher does something that looks wrong you scramble to re-interpret it.”

There is also an issue of accountability within the Buddhist community, which has no clear single power structure.

“The tulkus are told since they are children that they are buddhas; that they know more than anyone else; they can't do anything wrong,” the insider added. “There is a fundamental lack of understanding of human rights and what is appropriate, what is harmful.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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