HBO just released the first episode of a nine-part, in-depth documentary on the self-help cult NXIVM. Self-described as “a community guided by humanitarian principles that seek to empower people and answer important questions about what it means to be human,” NXIVM offered expensive self-improvement courses encouraging its followers to buy into rising the ranks in order to reach its most exclusive echelons. What many followers didn’t know is that there were secret groups operating under the NXIVM umbrella that manipulated and abused women as sex slaves for the organization’s co-founder Keith Raniere.
Since the first major NXIVM exposé in 2017 uncovering some of the darkest parts of the organization in which former members detail the conditions they were subjected to in order to become part of NXIVM’s most exclusive inner circles, the fascination has continued leaving many questions unanswered. One of the most headline-worthy questions remains: Did the Dalai Lama really endorse NXIVM? One former member claims that he did, but the explanation is a bit more complicated than that.
On May 6, 2009, the Dalai Lama arrived in Albany, New York to speak on the topic of compassionate ethics during difficult times at the inaugural World Ethical Foundations Consortium conference that would be attended by 3,000 NXIVM members at Palace Theatre. High ranking members of NXIVM joined him on stage. At one point, the Dalai Lama placed a traditional ceremonial Tibetan scarf, known as a khata, around the Raniere’s neck. The WEFC was a non-profit organization established by Raniere alongside sisters and NXIVM members, Sara and Clare Bronfman. Sara in particular is credited with helping book the Dalai Lama to speak at the event, thanks to her relationship with his “personal emissary of peace” to the United States, Lama Tenzin Dhonden. Some allege that she was romantically involved with Dhonden.
This is where it gets tricky. It is unlikely that the Dalai Lama knew the depths of corruption and abuse beneath the surface of NXIVM, especially given that, in 2009, most people only knew it as a zealous self-help organization. When the Dalai Lama’s appearance was first announced, the Albany press was quick to question why he would associate himself with the “cult-like” organization. This was still years before the break of any major news story on NXIVM. The first whistleblowers who spoke out against the sex cult were all still a part of the organization at this time. In each of their testimonies, the illusion was very much still intact at this point, at least for them.
Two local colleges, Skidmore College and Rensselaer Polytechnic declined to host the event. The Dalai Lama even received emails complaining of the association, reports Vanity Fair. During the month before the conference, the blowback was so bad that the Dalai Lama actually canceled his visit. Little is known about how he was convinced to reinstate the engagement, but it is believed that Sara and Clare Bronfman flew to Dharamsala, India to beg him to change his mind. Apparently, their persuasion worked.
In January 2018, it was reported that the Dalai Lama was reportedly paid a $1 million speaking fee to travel to the U.S. for this conference. According to The Guardian, some blame Dhonden for organizing the event and going through with it after it was originally canceled, which in turn gave the impression that the Dalai Lama condoned NXIVM’s practices. Dhonden was later ousted as the Dalai Lama’s “personal emissary of peace” in 2017 amid accusations of corruption.
The Dalai Lama responded to reports in a statement in which he denies that he accepted any payment for the appearance. “We wish to categorically state that His Holiness the Dalai Lama never takes an honorarium or fee of any sort,” the statement reads. “Neither His Holiness the Dalai Lama nor the Dalai Lama Foundation ever received the alleged $1 million in connection with His Holiness’s appearance in Albany.”
HBO’s nine-part documentary The Vow airs on Sundays at 10:00 p.m. ET and is also available to stream on HBO Max.