BITE Model of Dharma Ocean and Reggie Ray

Meditation itself is not inherently problematic. However, when it is used in combination with behavioral, informational, thought, and emotional control, it can become a vehicle for enabling and perpetuating systems of abuse and harm. We hope that this BITE model analysis of Reggie Ray and Dharma Ocean will help past, current, and future meditation students distinguish healthful meditation practice from control and manipulation.  

Steven Hassan developed the BITE Model to describe the specific methods that cults use to recruit and maintain control over people.  “BITE” stands for Behavior, Information, Thought, and Emotional control. 

Behavior Control

Promote dependence and obedience – YES Open Letter p. 4 

-Reggie Ray/Dharma Ocean regularly punish, shame, and blacklist students– including asking students to leave retreats (often one student per retreat) for lack of obedience, even when no harm was caused.

Modify behavior with rewards and punishments – YES Open letter p. 3-5, Spiritual Abuse at Dharma Ocean 

-Reggie Ray stonewalls students he is displeased with, sometimes using an assistant as intermediary and relaying disturbing messages to the student about their mental health or “inappropriate” behavior. 

-When students challenge Reggie Ray and Caroline Pfohl, Ray retaliates by threatening their paid employment, stripping them of volunteer status, i.e) “You are no longer fit to be a meditation instructor/protection mandala/board member”, and blacklisting them from volunteering or from retreats altogether (on a secret no-fly list).

-Ray and Pfohl reward students with praise in public talks and private exchanges, and offer them important roles in their latest grandiose vision, i.e) “We want you to create change! We want you to lead the way forward and help us improve through the next new council.” 

Dictate where and with whom you live – X

Restrict or control sexuality – ?

Control clothing and hairstyle – X

Regulate what and how much you eat and drink – X

Deprive you of seven to nine hours of sleep – X

Exploit you financially – ? 

Restrict leisure time and activities – ?

Require you to seek permission for major decisions – X

Kidnapping – X

Beating – X

Torture – X

Rape – X

Separation of Families – X

Imprisonment – X

Murder – X

Information Control

Deliberately withhold and distort informationYES Open letter p. 4-6

Ray lied in a recent letter, stating only two people initially spoke out against him and later mobilized others. Many students had initially communicated concerns about Ray’s behavior and relationship to power– and ultimately left Dharma Ocean because of it. In fact, concerns were raised by early boards members (about Ray’s need for veto power over the board of directors rendering any check on his authority useless), the Dharma Ocean inclusivity mandala (which Ray fired and replaced with his own inclusivity mandala), the Dharma Ocean Vajrasangha Facebook group, The Practitioner’s Circle, Dharma Ocean’s organizational 360 review which reported a culture of fear and silence, and several private exchanges with students and staff over the years.

-Reggie Ray claims that no abuse has ever occurred at Dharma Ocean. However, events reported by students clearly meet the criteria for spiritual, emotional, and psychological abuse on several measures. Ray halted An Olive Branch’s listening post process to prevent students from reporting their experiences. 

-Ray and Pfohl regularly triangulate between students, volunteers, and staff, withholding and distorting information to assess loyalty, increase conflict among the sangha, and make judgments about students’ trustworthiness and level of spiritual development.

-When an initial conversation about abuse in the Vajrayana and at Dharma Ocean began on the Dharma Ocean Vajrasangha Facebook group, Ray announced in a public talk,“we don’t even know who a lot of people in that group are” in an attempt to discredit the group. In fact, every member of the Vajrasangha Facebook page was a known community member who had at one point taken samaya and was or had been a Vajrayana student with Dharma Ocean. 

Forbid you from speaking with ex-members and criticsYES Spiritual Abuse at Dharma Ocean 

Though current members are not explicitly forbidden from speaking with ex-members, Ray subjects members to scrutiny via private phone calls in an effort to ascertain who has been communicating with public advocates against his spiritual abuse. 

-In November 2019 a discussion occurred in a private Dharma Ocean forum called The Practitioner’s Circle that included testimony from former board members about why they resigned/were fired by Ray, accounts of students suffering from CPTSD (Complex PTSD) as a result of spiritual abuse in Dharma Ocean, and The Open Letter. Ray swiftly ordered Dharma Ocean staff to delete the forum, despite promises from his newly appointed board of directors that it would stay open.

Discourage access to non-cult sources of informationYES – Open letter p.5

-Dharma Ocean strongly discourages Vajrayana students from studying with other teachers and denies them empowerments, progression along the path, and vow ceremonies until they affirm their loyalty to Dharma Ocean.

Divide information into Insider vs. Outsider doctrineYES 

-While Dharma Ocean does not forbid speaking with critics, they portray critics as neurotic, toxic, and bad people who are trying to harm the true lineage, of which only Reggie Ray and Caroline Pfohl are holders. This degree of us vs. them and character assassination makes it difficult for students to speak to critics.

Generate and use propaganda extensivelyYES 

-Reggie Ray’s letters, online courses, and public programs routinely reiterate the superiority, special quality, and cutting-edge nature of self-appointed lineage holders Ray and Pfohl and what they offer through Dharma Ocean. 

Use information gained in confession sessions against you – YES Open letter p. 6

Gaslight to make you doubt your own memory – YES – Open letter p. 3, When You Can’t Trust Your Spiritual Teacher, Abuse at Dharma Ocean

-Ray denies events that have occurred in the recent past and makes a concerted effort to erase the voices of students while re-writing the history of Dharma Ocean through his voice. Not only does he state that no abuse has occurred, despite the many testimonies from former students and staff (gaslighting), he also hystericizes members who have drawn attention to his or Pfohl’s unethical behavior (using language such as “freaked out,” etc.).

Require you to report thoughts, feelings, & activities to superiorsSOMEWHAT

-To be accepted to more advanced retreats, students must prove their level of practice and worthiness to Dharma Ocean, through a relationship with a meditation instructor who speaks to Ray, Pfohl, and other senior teachers about the student’s inner psychological and spiritual experience or their interpretation of that student’s experience, and writes letters assessing the student– without the student present or included in the communication.

Encourage you to spy and report on others’ “misconduct”YES – Open letter p. 6 

-Multiple assistants and staff members have been asked by Dharma Ocean to report on each other, to be the teacher’s “eyes and ears.”

Thought Control

Instill Black vs. White, Us vs. Them, & Good vs. Evil thinking – YES – Open letter p. 5

Dharma Ocean and lineage holders consistently label past students, particularly those who have spoken out about abuse, as spiritually inferior (i.e. not ready for the Vajrayana), toxic, dangerous, and neurotic.

Change your identity, possibly even your name – X

Use loaded language and cliches to stop complex thoughtYES 

The three samayas vow, in all its iterations, asks students to vow to stop thinking any time they observe thought. Not just on the meditation cushion, but in daily life also. 

Induce hypnotic or trance states to indoctrinateYES

-Dharma Ocean uses a disproportionately high amount of guided meditation compared to other Buddhist groups.

-Who is allowed to teach guided meditation is strictly guarded by Reggie Ray and Caroline Pfohl and is a privilege that can be instantly revoked. They are preoccupied with who is able to “transmit the lineage” through guided practice. Despite promises to do so, Dharma Ocean never offered certification for meditation instructors that would protect them from Ray and Pfohl’s rapidly changing moods and agendas.

Teach thought-stopping techniques to prevent critical thoughts YES

Dharma Ocean instructs Vajrayana students to flash TGS and stop thinking, especially when doubt or critical thoughts arise. Students are pressured to commit to this with the three samayas vow i.e.)“If I find myself departing into hesitation, confusion, or doubt, I will, again and again, flash thamal gyi shepa, create a gap in my narrative, and return to rigpa, bringing all the activities of my life into alignment with my own deepest being and my samaya commitments.”

Allow only positive thoughts SOMEWHAT

-Although this is not promoted in the early phases of Dharma Ocean training, it appears both in Reggie Ray’s Vajrayana teachings and the Three Samayas Vow i.e.)”If I find myself departing into cynicism, resentment, or criticism, I will acknowledge I am flirting with the path of darkness, flash thamal gyi shepa and return to the sacred world, bringing all the activities of my life into alignment with my own deepest being and my samaya commitments”

Use excessive meditation, singing, prayer, & chanting to block thoughtsYES

Reject rational analysis, critical thinking, & doubtYES

Although the initial teachings at Dharma Ocean purport to welcome everything that arises in one’s experience, as students train more extensively in the Vajrayana they are instructed to reject doubt in favor of loyalty and devotion.

-This appears in several Vajrayana Training Intensive transcripts and in the Three Samayas Vow ie.) “If I find myself departing into hesitation, confusion, or doubt, I will, again and again, flash thamal gyi shepa, create a gap in my narrative, and return to rigpa, bringing all the activities of my life into alignment with my own deepest being and my samaya commitments.”

-Students who question Ray and Pfohl’s behavior are often told that they are territorial, neurotic, freaking out, too political, or are inferior students and not ready for the Vajrayana.

-The Volunteer-run Dharma Ocean Vajrasangha Facebook group had a rich discussion of abuse at Shambhala, in the Vajrayana, and the gaslighting, shaming, ex-communication, and other abuse tactics regularly used at Dharma Ocean. Past and current students engaged in critical thinking, rational analysis, and doubt. Reggie Ray ordered a senior student to close down the group on September 5, 2018.

-In November 2019 a discussion occurred in a private Dharma Ocean forum called The Practitioner’s Circle that included testimony from former board members about why they resigned/were fired by Ray, accounts of students suffering from CPTSD (Complex PTSD) as a result of spiritual abuse in Dharma Ocean, and The Open Letter. Ray swiftly ordered Dharma Ocean staff to delete the forum, despite promises from his newly appointed board of directors that it would stay open.

Emotional Control

Instill irrational fears (phobias) of questioning or leaving the groupYES Letter to Sangha About Abuse p.9, p.11

-Vajra hell, the snake in the bamboo chute, meat house, etc. 

Label some emotions as evil, worldly, sinful, or wrong – SOMEWHAT

-Appears in Vajrayana transcripts, teachings on doubt. 

-Three Samayas Vow i.e.)”If I find myself departing into cynicism, resentment, or criticism, I will acknowledge I am flirting with the path of darkness, flash thamal gyi shepa and return to the sacred world, bringing all the activities of my life into alignment with my own deepest being and my samaya commitments”

Teach emotion-stopping techniques to prevent anger, homesickness – YES

-i.e.) Three Samayas Vow 

Promote feelings of guilt, shame, & unworthiness – YES Open Letter p. 4

Dharma Ocean regularly demotes students from volunteer roles, put them on blacklists or no-fly lists for behavior that the lineage holders deemed unacceptable

-Students were told that they would receive empowerments only to be rejected at the last minute, or were allowed to sign up for trainings then suddenly demoted, due to what Ray and Pfohl characterized as the student’s spiritual or emotional insufficiency.

-Examples of public shaming are countless and include 

  1. Ray told a transgender student they were not welcome at Dharma Ocean in a public Q and A. Months later when the same student requested that Ray use their correct gender pronouns, Ray immediately terminated the student-teacher relationship.
  2. Ray lectured an emotionally distressed student for ‘poisoning the purity of the space with her neurosis’ in front of 40-50 people during a training.
  3. Ray invited a program volunteer responsible for shrines/ikebana to take more risks, yet when she created a large flower arrangement in an animal skull to represent the relationship between life and death, he shamed her in front of 80+ Dathun participants. He gave a talk about everything that was wrong with the arrangement, how it was “dead”, and had it removed from the room. She never attended another program. 

Shower you with praise and attention (“love bombing”) – YES Open letter p. 5, Letter to sangha about abuse p.2, p. 7

-Examples are available on the Dharma Ocean Europe website, i.e.“Obviously there’s something going on with this lineage and this group of people in Europe that is new, it really is new in my experience!”  Reggie Ray, 2019

Threaten your friends and family – X

Shun you if you disobey or disbelieveYES

At almost every retreat, students have been cast out of group retreat, sent to Dharma Ocean’s “Cabin of The Crazy One” for solitary retreat, or asked to leave altogether. Often this occurred because of a student’s conflict with Reggie Ray, which was sometimes instigated and fueled by Ray himself, or because the student challenged norms or drew attention to unethical behavior. 

-As early as 2005, Dharma Ocean demoted students from volunteer and staff positions for not being perceived as devoted or loyal enough by Reggie Ray and his previous wife and co-lineage holder, Lee Ray. 

Teach that there is no happiness or peace outside the group – YES

There is constant reiteration that Dharma Ocean is cutting edge and that no one is offering anything comparable– in letters from Ray to the Vajrasangha, various online courses, Vajrayana Transcripts. This is also reflected in the meditation instructor vow, written by Ray and Pfohl, in which students who leave Dharma Ocean are depicted as failures of the meditation instructor who will live a false version of their lives. i.e.)”If I fail, they will wander away, back into samsara, and miss the chance of their own true life.”

Our Dharma Ocean BITE analysis is still in progress. If you would like to contribute your own experiences at Dharma Ocean, please email contact@leavingdharmaocean.com. If we circulate, publish, or use the information you provide, we can protect your identity.