Spiritual Abuse at Dharma Ocean

A dharma teacher participates in a dialogue regarding his misconduct

Following is a digest of public emails exchanged between former Dharma Ocean sangha members Diana Goetsch and Max Greiner, and Reggie Ray, spiritual leader of Dharma Ocean. The emails were all knowingly copied to a group of over 80 prominent current (at the time) and former sangha members, who, in a spirit of openness and transparency, were welcomed to share the communication as they saw fit.

In the months prior to this, there had been a robust dialogue regarding spiritual abuse on the Dharma Ocean Vajrasangha Facebook page. That ended abruptly on September 4, 2018, when dozens of sangha members — who had either disclosed experiences of abuse, or expressed concern as allies — were purged without warning from the Facebook group. Many of the same people were erased from and locked out of the sangha contact list on the Dharma Ocean website. In short, people in the sangha speaking to one another about experiences of abuse were being eliminated by Dharma Ocean leadership.

Afterwards, some received letters — highly manipulative in character — from Reggie Ray, and Dharma Ocean Executive Director David Iozzi, “explaining” their excommunication. I personally received three such letters, each quite different in their tactics. Others were subjected to inquisitions regarding their loyalty.

Privately, there were many letters being exchanged pertaining to these matters. The four included here are the public ones — and again, the authors knowingly cc’d a large group of people, who were free to share it:

“Letter from Diana Goetsch to Reggie Ray” [12/7/18]

“Response from Reggie to Diana’s Recent Email” [12/20/18]

“Reply to My Beloved Friend” [12/26/18]

“Re: Reply to My Beloved Friend” [12/26/18]

My hope was that posting this can promote awareness around, and protection from spiritual abuse. Spiritual abuse is nothing short of energetic rape. It has mostly been studied in Christian contexts, but in the nontheistic world of Vajrayana Buddhism, where samaya devotion is embedded in the practices, and becomes a self-perpetuating mechanism, the potential damage of spiritual abuse is enormous, as is the difficulty of recognizing it. Needless to say, it is exceedingly rare for a dharma teacher to participate in a public dialogue regarding his abusive conduct.

– Diana Goetsch

Email from Diana Goetsch to Reggie Ray

Date: Friday, December 7, 2018 at 4:28 PM

Reggie,

Your third letter banning me from Dharma Ocean was as uncalled-for as the first two. (I haven’t attended a program in two years, because it’s become unsafe for me.) First came David’s[1] robotic notice which gave no reason for why I was “no longer welcome at Dharma Ocean programs and events.” The next day Jessica Morey[2] sent you a note of concern (cc’ing Lama Rod[3]), having heard you were kicking people out of the Vajrasangha for no reason (though she hadn’t yet heard about me), and you promptly emailed me to explain that I was “a major distraction from what the vajrayana is.” Six days later you sent another message, saying, “I trust you and the depth with which you have understood and practice the teachings,” and offering “friendship” even as you reaffirmed my excommunication from Dharma Ocean. I didn’t reply to any of these.

This bombardment, of course, came just prior to the Zoom call with Lama Rod, a call you did not want me to be on. The call had to do with students — especially minorities — feeling mistreated at Dharma Ocean, and the thing you fear most is a minority voice willing to call you out. This was more than just a campaign to silence me, and it’s not the first time you have erased or otherwise driven trans people from the sangha. As a friend said, “It’s one thing to be an asshole. It’s another thing to be in collusion with dark forces.”

On another matter (though not really) Dharma Ocean’s inclusivity mission statement, which I wrote, remains in use on the website, and it needs to be taken down. Doing so will spare you the hypocrisy of using an excluded voice to tout inclusivity. More importantly, the statement sends a dangerously misleading signal to minorities, something I cannot be a part of. So I’m putting it in writing: Dharma Ocean does not have permission to continue using my words, on the website or at programs. I have copied this message to David, in case it gets screened to “protect” you from receiving feedback, as has been your practice.

I have also copied this email to others in the sangha, because when one member is attacked it affects the entire community, which has a right to know. (And by “sangha” I mean true sangha, which extends beyond just current Dharma Ocean members, and for which there is no gatekeeper.) Many of us have noticed that the people you tend to target for abuse are the ones best equipped to offer perspectives different from yours: experienced practitioners and senior staff willing to give feedback, which you find threatening. Also minorities, whose experiences of suffering you have no access to, threaten you by their very presence. When inclusivity issues come up, you have a bizarre habit of launching unprovoked into declarations of the supremacy of your suffering.

In my case it is all about bigotry and it always has been. When I became the first out trans person at Dharma Ocean, at a time when I needed community more than ever, you called me “a threat to the container” for presenting as a female. You said this to my face, in a private meeting you arranged prior to the start of the 2014 VTI. (“How am I a threat?” I asked incredulously. “Because you will have power,” you said.) This despicable scapegoating of me set the tone, not just for us, but for Dharma Ocean leadership, as I was subjected to one appallingly transphobic incident after another with no one lifting a finger to support me.

I can detail the many incidents of manipulation and abuse specifically and factually (whenever I do, people’s jaws drop). Facts are important; when a community is being divided and gaslit, facts are the antidote.

Self-care is also important, and disclosing abuse in autocratic sanghas comes at an enormous cost, which is why most stay silent, or depart quietly. In Shambhala and Rigpa, whistleblowers are still under attack. At Dharma Ocean you vilified people you hurt for discussing their mistreatment, labeled us “attackers,” and instructed the sangha to shun us. When that didn’t work we were purged from the Facebook page, along with dozens of allies who had shown compassion. Then Dharma Ocean shut down access to the Vajrasangha contact list. Then you singled out the allies and subjected them to inquisitions, while pressuring them into secrecy. After the Zoom call you did it again; equipped with a transcript, you confronted and criticized sangha members for things they said on the call (yet before the call you invited them to speak freely and without fear).

That’s not Buddhism.

To the people copied on this email: please feel free to forward this or comment as you see fit. Some may condemn or ignore me, and I accept that — I took refuge in this sangha and I meant it. If you want to know more about misconduct and abuse at Dharma Ocean, you already know and love many vajra siblings who have distanced themselves in pain or disgust, and you could ask us. But you may have to first earn our trust. Many of us have suffered spiritual abuse, which is as devastating as sexual or physical abuse, while many of you will weigh your samaya to Reggie against the cost of believing us, which you may feel unable to afford. We understand, and we love you, but this makes it near impossible for us to speak, lest we be retraumatized.

At this point I would just say, None of us owes Reggie our silence. And I would just ask, What would your samaya look like without fear?

Love,

Diana

Reply from Reggie to Diana’s Recent Email

Date: Thursday, December 20, 2018 at 4:27 PM

[Note: the following letter, written by Reggie Ray, was sent out by his personal assistant. Neither Diana Goetsch nor Reggie Ray were included among the 80 or so recipients.]

Dear Diana,

Thank you for sharing your latest thoughts and sentiments with me and with the others. In this letter I want to respond to your letter. As a result of your feedback and that of others, I have been able to rethink what it might mean to be a Dharma Ocean member. Here is where I have arrived: any one can be a member of Dharma Ocean if they wish to be. That includes everyone; there is no minimum definition and there are no boundaries. Thank you for helping me get to this place; it feels better and more fitting. I am sorry about the impact on you and others when I excluded you in the past from Dharma Ocean.

At the same time, this is not and has never been true of the Vajrasangha and I am afraid there has been a serious misunderstanding here. I established the Vajrasangha in 2005 as the group of practitioners who wanted to study the Vajrayana with me, beginning with pointing out, and have me train them as thoroughly as possible in this lineage. All along, I have alerted people that it would be a difficult, painful, and demanding process — as it was for me in my own training — but that if they stick with it, they would get the real thing. The Vajrasangha is simply and solely the group of my committed students who want that and have signed on.

Any one who does not see me as their Vajrayana teacher, does not trust in me as transmitting this lineage, or is unwilling to allow me to train them has, just by that fact, already taken themselves out of this group. It is not only my prerogative, it is my responsibility to ask them to leave, as I did you. To my knowledge in the past thirteen years there have only been two other people I have similarly asked to leave. Mostly, I leave it on people themselves to figure out with their MI’s that being a Vajrayana student in this lineage is not for them and to make their own decisions about leaving. I am starting to understand that some of those who have left on their own accord may have done so because they did not feel welcome in the Vajrasangha. This did not occur to me before and I am grateful to you and others for helping me to wake up to this. Over the past six months, I have been reaching out to them, one by one, apologizing and inviting reconnection.

I want especially to thank you also for the specific examples and situations that you mention in your letter. I think there is something for me to see and learn from in each of them. I am seeing how I have been hurtful, without realizing it and in spite of the best of intentions; that actions I have taken or not taken in the past in ignorance have been experienced by you as painful and injurious. Another wake up moment for me was to hear that there have been other transgender folks who were “erased or otherwise driven from the sangha.” I did not know there were other trans folks in the sangha who left or felt pushed out. I would like to hear much more from you about that so that I can be more aware in the future.

I also hear that at the VTI two and a half years ago when you had recently come out as trans, you feel that I did not protect you. I don’t know what it must have been like for you then to be taking such a courageous step in your life and now realize I could have been much more aware and sensitive to the situation, so that you felt understood, accommodated, and protected. I now realize that you needed a great deal of support and protection from the sangha at that time and that it was not there; I can only imagine the hurt, betrayal, and sense of fear you must have felt at that time. If I had realized the full magnitude of the situation, I could have asked for your help and drawn upon other resources to bring about a real and genuine moment of deep learning for all of us there. I feel much regret and apologize that I did not see enough to do this, that I missed a huge opportunity, and that you suffered because of it.

I am also hearing that you feel that I do not know or care to know the experience of marginalized people. Based on my ongoing training with my friends and coaches Rod Owens and Lane Arye, and my reading, I see how I have avoided being really curious about what it is like to be you at this time of transition in your life, in this hostile cultural situation; that I have had little idea about the experience of marginalized people; and that I have been unable to fully respond when you have asked me, “please be curious about me, see and understand me, and know the tremendous risk I take every day just to be me.” I also see that I have not consciously used the power that I hold in my role in Dharma Ocean to stand up more for you and other marginalized people and I apologize for that and feel much regret for it.

One further comment: in one of my letters to you (see below), I reported feeling distracted by all tumult on Face Book during VTI. I see that quite differently now. I see all of it, including your other communications to me, as an enormous gift to me personally and to Dharma Ocean. I am now hearing it all as an insistent plea for me personally to arrive at an ever increasing place of complete openness, lack of judgment, and respect in relation to all the people in my world — you and everybody, and for their unique experience and the beauty and power of what they have to say. It is a very inspiring spiritual challenge for me and for all of us to open further and to love in that way, and I thank you and everyone for it.

In more specific response to your email, I think the most helpful thing I can do at this point, is just share with everyone these letters you refer to. I do this in the spirit of showing everyone some of the communications that you were upset about. Now I look back and see why some of them were either inadequate or painful. I also now see that these communications were not addressing the core of your hurt or the core of your complaints. I hope this letter is doing that better. And I am wide open to learning about how to do it even better. So, in the spirit of transparency, here are the old letters.[4] They begin with the most recent letter and go back in time.

With respect,

Reggie

Reply to My Beloved Friend

Email from Diana Goetsch
Date: Wednesday, December 26, 2018 at 10:55 AM

Reggie,

I’m glad you found my letter so helpful. Maybe I can help a little more.

I got a call from a senior Dharma Ocean person who is a dear friend, and who believed what I wrote about spiritual abuse. We spoke for a long time, and they finally asked, “What should be done about Reggie?” I didn’t have an answer at that moment — but I do now, and since that person is cc’d on this, I’ll give that answer here.

REPLY TO MY BELOVED FRIEND

What if, instead of having spiritually murdered an alarming number of students over an extended period of time, Reggie had sexually assaulted them? In that case, we’d likely be more clear about what needs to happen. It’s not like sexual abuse is easy to solve — it isn’t, of course — but at the very least people wouldn’t be sitting around saying, “Where did this rapist go wrong?” or “How can the dharma be delivered with less rape?” or “Hey you guys, I’ve known this rapist a long time and worked closely with him and he didn’t rape me so I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

We’re only beginning to understand that spiritual abuse is every bit as destructive as sexual abuse or physical abuse. I have seen sangha friends shattered by it — and not in a good way. Their life force is drained, they feel like they’re going insane, their minds feel scrambled, they have a lot of trouble focusing in their jobs, a lot of trouble connecting with and trusting others. Their desire and capacity to do spiritual practice has been shredded (they’re wise not to try to meditate, lest it poison them). Many are disillusioned with all of Buddhism, and some abandon their spirituality entirely, which breaks my heart. I have been told that I am one of the only people among “the departed” who still does Vajrayogini practice, but I spent two years fighting to rescue my practice, and it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life (and that life includes a gender transition). Like many others, I am in trauma therapy for this, so there’s also a financial toll. People are ashamed and embarrassed — or just unable — to tell their families and loved ones what happened. (I recently spoke with someone in tears over this, someone who’s known Reggie far longer than me, who said, “How am I going to tell my parents I was in a cult?”) Most dharma teachers never speak of spiritual abuse, or they make light of it, but it’s no joke. One of the known symptoms of spiritual abuse, along with deep depression and social withdrawal, is wanting to kill yourself, and my biggest concern in this whole Dharma Ocean shit show is that there not be a body count — and I’m especially worried about trans people, who attempt suicide at astoundingly high rates.

Spiritual abuse is way harder to identify than sexual or physical abuse. For one thing, it’s not in the law books, so there’s no outside reference. For another, our awareness of it is easily blocked by vajrayana samaya, which has the power to rouse devotion to a potato, let alone a freakishly talented dharma teacher who doesn’t do compassion.

At the time it occurs, spiritual abuse is nearly always mistaken for, or passed off as “crazy wisdom” or some other upaya. Though in terms of intention there is a huge gap between the two, and you’d have to cross an 8-lane highway to go from liberation to murder, from insulting the ego to destroying the person. But even if that 8-lane highway gets crossed, the key is the repair. Failure to repair damage inflicted on a student in the context of samaya — especially when it’s been pointed out to the teacher — compounds the abuse and locks it in.

And Reggie hates feedback. If a student, or an ally, speaks up about mistreatment, and Reggie gets triggered, the ensuing dance is familiar to us all: attack, denial, deflection, suppression or gaslighting; the person will likely be accused of projecting their “Oedipal” issues onto Reggie; he might ban them from attending programs until they’ve done “their second veil work.” Students love Reggie so much, and they’re dying for reconnection, and all they want is an honest apology, or a conversation — which sometimes they get — but all too often they’re discarded, like evidence Reggie needs to get rid of. If they don’t depart quietly, there’s an epic freeze out, or a campaign of lies.

Then there’s the “partial repair,” which actually doesn’t exist. In the vajrayana we vow to confess and give up territory — not partially, but totally. A “partial repair” is worse than no repair at all; just as you’d be putting yourself in a ton of danger if you “partially repaired” a flat tire and got back on the highway. Reggie offers “partial repairs” all the time to cover up abuse. He’ll admit to “ignorance” but not to aggression or lying or manipulation.

That’s what’s going on in the digest of emails to me he made public (an act which creeped me out). Maybe he thought the sacred/humble tone of them would be exculpatory, but those emails were incredibly manipulative, and painful to receive. In one he confesses shame for misgendering me at a meeting, but he never mentions the truly horrific things that went down at that meeting — including an outrageously bigoted statement he made about me, which he falsely attributed to Jeremy Lowery.[5] In another, he politely suggests the two of us not engage in “disinformation,” but never mentions the lie about me he’d fabricated and spread months earlier — a lie so heinous that, the moment I learned about it, I knew I’d never be safe at another program. Then there’s the excommunication emails, where he assures me that I’m not “a bad person” who “committed some crime,” and that being banned from Dharma Ocean is an expression of “the lineage” and “sacred destiny.” Wow.

Reggie’s latest letter is all cover-up, damage control, and what political reporters call rolling disclosure. He will only go so far as to admit inadvertent harm due to “ignorance” (the terms “ignorance” and “I was not aware” revolve throughout like a broken record). Meanwhile, he makes sure to avoid the subject of calculated aggression I called out — such as setting up students, then pouncing on them, transcript in hand, after the Zoom call; or the bombardment of emails to ban me, which were carefully timed. (And much of Reggie’s abuse I haven’t disclosed publicly — a lot of us haven’t — for the same reason Christine Blasey Ford was reluctant to come forward at the Kavanaugh hearings, and we all saw what happened to her.)

But here’s what’s bat shit insane in Reggie’s letter: the part where he says anyone who does not “trust” him can’t be in the Vajrasangha. That belongs in the Gaslighting Hall of Fame. The statement seems perfectly logical at first, but look at the solipsism: 1) Reggie abuses student; 2) student loses “trust” in Reggie; 3) whoops: you’re out of the group. Totally insane. And you know what? — it’s always been that way.

The issue of course isn’t who among us trusts Reggie — that’s just another attempt to divide us. The issue is Reggie’s pattern of abuse (and a system that has enabled it) and people in the sangha having the self-trust, and the facts, to address the matter as warriors and bodhisattvas, not ducklings.

One of those facts is the sheer number of people who have departed Dharma Ocean having reported being abused by Reggie (or Caroline, or senior staff), or having seen others abused. Personally, I saw my first Dathün roommate disappear because of how he was treated, then my first MI, whom Reggie subjected to a brutal series of emails; my first VTI roommate, my second MI, one of my beautiful Sutrayana teachers, my MI training teacher, the first Dharma Ocean teacher I came out to (who received me joyfully), the second Dharma Ocean teacher I came out to (who also held me lovingly) — all left due to Reggie — as well as the head of the Inclusivity Mandala I served on, and four of six of its members, and the entire original Inclusivity Mandala, and half the team (we called ourselves the “Soma Trust”) with whom I anchored two recent Dathüns. These are some of the most advanced and dedicated among us, including Dharma Ocean teachers, presidents, program managers, leaders of mandala councils. Not to mention a couple dozen other beloved friends, which we all could mention. It’s been going on so long we’ve become accustomed to people we love just vanishing — we learn suddenly that we will never see them again, yet it’s hardly talked about.

I ask again: what if they’d been sexually assaulted? What then?

***

So that’s my reply to my friend. I don’t have much to say to you Reggie — and let’s be honest, your letter wasn’t really meant for me. You didn’t even send it to me. I had to read it secondhand.

Diana

P.S. For anyone wondering if it’s possible for a teacher to dedicate his entire life to Dharma, without cultivating compassion, Chogyam Trungpa spoke a lot about this at the first Naropa seminar. “Charlatan teachers,” he said, are inspired by “dharmic atmospheres taking place,” but not by what the Dharma is for (i.e., connecting with people in their suffering). Elsewhere he said,

“A charlatan is, spiritually speaking, a person who abuses other people’s energy, not knowing where he is at himself, but hoping that he could find some guidance by abusing other people’s energy, and in finding that, he hopes to find his way. Consequently he hurts a lot of people, destroys a lot of people’s lives and intelligence at the same time. So spiritually speaking, being a charlatan is almost murderous. You murder people on all sides, because you have no consideration of their need, while you try to build yourself up.”

Re: Reply to My Beloved Friend

email reply from Max Greiner
Date: Wednesday, December 26, 2018 at 2:17 PM

Diana — thank you for this incredible and heartfelt letter. I couldn’t say it better, but hope to share my agreement and also openly say that I am one of the ones who has been spiritually abused by Reggie as well as many other senior “teachers.” I don’t wish to share any detail about this (so please don’t pry, as I think all of you would have the decency not to do, were it sexual assault). I will say that largely as a result of this, I have suffered from severe, debilitating anxiety and depression related to my identity, path, and spirituality for the last ten years, and have not engaged in any significant amount of spiritual practice or joined a sangha since my time in Dharma Ocean, because doing so still evokes horrible memories, panic attacks. I too receive ongoing therapy regarding these traumas.

Reggie, as well as many senior teachers around ~2009–2011, you gaslighted, bullied, and abandoned me multiple times, all in the wake of my father’s death, to the extent that suicide and leaving the sangha felt like equally viable options. My father considered you one of his closest friends, and trusted you completely. If my opinion matters as little to you as your behavior has indicated, then at least consider what Gill Greiner would have thought of the thing you’ve become.

For me, it’s too late for any of this to be repaired at the source. Reggie, you are my abuser, I do not want to hear from you. The further your memory sinks into the past, the more I am able to actualize who I feel I am meant to be, and to live a fulfilling life. You have a great number of real, actually lives in your hands — I can only hope that this emails cracks through a thin layer of your dangerously narcissistic delusion and that you treat those lives with far more compassion that you treated me.

To anyone else feeling similar to myself, I will do my best to be available to you and supportive, though this is still very raw and difficult to discuss, so please be patient with me.

Max

[1] David Iozzi, Executive Director of Dharma Ocean

[2] Jessica Morey, founder of Inward Bound Mindfulness Education (iBme), was, at this time, a Dharma Ocean sangha member — and is no longer.

[3] Lama Rod Owens, author of Radical Dharma, was hired by Dharma Ocean at various times to help address inclusivity issues.

[4] These letters, made public without my consent, have not been included here. — DG

[5] Jeremy Lowery, at the time, was a Dharma Ocean teacher, and leader of the Inclusivity Mandala. He is no longer a Dharma Ocean member.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store