Editor’s note: This story contains detailed descriptions of rape allegations and other sexual abuse.
A Buddhist center in Eugene is at the heart of a lawsuit filed earlier this year, accusing the facility’s master guru of raping and impregnating one of its members in 2013.
Rachel Montgomery filed the lawsuit in Multnomah County Circuit Court. It says she was 19 when she joined the Dzogchen Buddhist Dharma Center along with a friend in the summer of 2011. Master guru Choying Rabjam — known as Dzogchen Khenpo Choga Rinpoche, or Choga — immediately took an interest in her, she says in the lawsuit, giving her special treatment and providing acts of enlightenment for which most other followers had to pay.
In her suit, Montgomery seeks $8 million in compensatory damages from the Dzogchen Shri Singha organizations in Portland and Eugene, and several leaders from the Eugene center. Choga is the founder and guru of the Dzogchen lineage headquartered in Portland.
The legal complaint focuses on a ritual held at the center’s premises — sprawling, isolated acreage near the town of Veneta — in December 2013. In the suit, Montgomery’s lawyer says Choga insisted Montgomery drink an entire bottle of wine as a means of achieving spiritual connectedness. She became unconscious — with vague recollections of Choga’s body on top of hers and “his hair sweeping over her face” — and awoke on the floor of the center, naked from the waist down, according to the lawsuit.
Weeks later, the complaint says, she realized she was pregnant and approached Choga. He confirmed he had penetrated her and convinced her that it was a blessed act intended for her spiritual benefit, according to the lawsuit, and that their child would be a guru.
“Eventually, despite Choga’s strong reprimands and threats of negative karma, [Montgomery] chose to terminate the pregnancy,” the complaint says, adding that Choga reluctantly agreed to fund the abortion, so long as Montgomery promised she would never tell anyone and she would father his child in the future. She terminated the pregnancy that month.
Montgomery’s attorney, Carol Merchasin of the London-based law firm McAllister Olivarius, specializes in cases involving sexual misconduct in religious and spiritual communities. She said Montgomery’s suit reflects a broader trend in Buddhist communities that deserves higher scrutiny.
“These things are never isolated instances,” Merchasin said. “This is a pattern, this is a practice, this is something that’s being sold as some kind of spiritual opportunity, but it’s fraud and sexual exploitation.”
Merchasin said the power dynamics within these communities — in which followers treat a leader as an all-powerful, all-knowing, invincible master — makes them susceptible to sexual assault, particularly when followers become socially and economically dependent on the congregation.
The lawsuit comes on the heels of the Dalai Lama coming under fire over a video in which he tells a boy to suck his tongue. Some Tibetans and followers of Tibetan Buddhism have called the remark a misinterpretation — that the Dalai Lama meant to say “eat my tongue,” the rough English translation of a Tibetan phrase that grandparents playfully say to children.
The phrase also appears in Montgomery’s lawsuit. It says Choga convinced Montgomery that she needed to have certain “spiritual empowerments” to make up for her Christian background and poverty, and the suit accuses him of offering those empowerments through rituals involving him sexually touching and penetrating her.
“Choga began by instructing [Montgomery] to sit on his lap, straddling him and face to face [sic] with him, and then asking her to suck his tongue ‘like a lollipop,’” the lawsuit reads. On at least two occasions, the suit says, he sexually assaulted her.
Leaders of the Dzogchen Shri Singha organization didn’t respond to email requests for comment.
When Montgomery first joined the center, she spent the summers of 2011 and 2012 working as a nanny for two other followers, the lawsuit says, then was promoted to “property manager” by 2013. The position came with no monetary compensation, only free room and board, and other followers encouraged her to apply for government benefits and food stamps to cover her expenses, it says.
Merchasin said Montgomery became socially and financially reliant on the Buddhist center. She was convinced that the tasks she performed at the center contributed to her spiritual growth, Merchasin said, and that she needed to remain at the center beyond that summer in 2013. She then lived and worked there full time until December, when she says Choga raped her.
Montgomery asked other followers what happened that day, but none gave her a clear answer, Merchasin said. They eventually pushed her out of the community.
“Rachel [Montgomery] never ever, ever thought that she was raped,” Merchasin said. “She found out that she was raped from another woman who’d been in a Dzogchen Buddhist community, who was also subjected, along with four or five or six other women, to a kind of ‘sit on my lap naked’ empowerment.’”
In January 2021, shortly after realizing she had been raped, Montgomery filed a report with the Lane County Sheriff’s Office, which forwarded a report to the district attorney’s office. That office declined to move forward with criminal prosecution, citing a lack of evidence.
Choga now lives in Taiwan, where he was served a notice of the lawsuit.
Montgomery now lives in Washington. Merchasin said Montgomery hopes the lawsuit will help prevent similar abuse in other Buddhist centers.
“I hope that her voice is heard,” Merchasin said. “I hope that she feels satisfaction that a court of law heard her voice and I hope that these organizations are held to some kind of accountability.”
Merchasin said in her experience, defendants in cases like this tend to settle, and many of those settlements involve nondisclosure agreements, so there may be many other similar stories that people aren’t legally allowed to discuss with the public.