The 8th International Conference Buddhism & Australia
Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia Illustrations
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Behind The Thangkas ~ Sogyal Rimpoche ~ The imbalance of power and abuse of spiritual authority
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Dialogue Ireland has hosted a dossier which points to issues of sexual and inappropriate cultist behaviour involving women. We have also become aware of extreme teaching methods which are applied in seminars. We publish this in the knowledge that some may hold different views. We always allow contrary views as our comment section shows. However, we go beyond and will allow an official response from Rigpa to be published without censorship. Also if any individual in the body of this text feels a need to respond we will publish this in full following editorial scrutiny. Sexual assault, abuse, an imbalance of power and abuse of spiritual authority concerning Sogyal Rimpoche are all features of this article. Mike Garde Director Dialogue Ireland.
It is a cloudy day in August 2008 in the Languedoc-Rousillon region of southern France. Hundreds of people dressed in their best party clothes line both sides of a narrow country road. Most of them hold a khata — a long white scarf, presented as a ceremonial offering to Tibetan dignitaries. A rainbow array of prayer flags flutter, and the breeze catches plumes of fragrant juniper smoke rising from pot-bellied stoves placed at intervals along the route.
A ripple of excitement runs through the crowd as a procession comes into view. As it approaches some people wave, others bow with hands clasped in the prayer gesture, others offer their khatas, holding them at arm’s length towards a small, elderly man wearing maroon monastic robes and a huge smile. Even at a distance he radiates charisma. He has acquired unique status on the world stage as the man who loves everyone — and many people nowadays accept that the joy on his face originates from a genuinely open heart. As he passes, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, reaches out to touch members of his adoring fan club. The Dalai Lama strides alongside Carla Bruni Sarkozy at the head of a cluster of monks, security men and journalists, towards a multi-coloured, ornate portico. A monastic band strikes up. Monks in their red and yellow robes and ceremonial hats play shawms – oboe-like instruments that wail like the wind in a Himalayan storm. They lead the proceedings that set in motion the inauguration of the largest, most grandiose Tibetan temple in the developed world. Sheltered by the portico, Carla Sarkozy stands apart from the crowd – tall and elegant in a dark couture dress. She too holds a khata. Another figure sidles up beside her. He is short, balding, obese and clothed in a floor-length mustard yellow robe – a chuba — lay rather than monastic Tibetan attire. His manner is obsequious, he is bowed in deference but his face tells the phalanx of TV cameras, forest of microphones and those present in person that this is his finest hour. Here he is, Sogyal Lakar from a remote region of Tibet, introducing the Dalai Lama to the First Lady of France.
Sogyal is recognised as a tulku (re-incarnate lama) and is known as Rinpoche, which means precious one in Tibetan. He is the second best known lama on the Tibetan landscape and he too is idolised by thousands of followers who belong to Rigpa, his organisation active in France with six centres and six study groups and in 24 countries around the world. Carla Sarkozy appears somewhat awe-struck. With a shy smile she offers her khata to the Dalai Lama. His big smile broadens even further as, according to Tibetan custom, he accepts the scarf and then returns it to the donor – draping it tastefully around Carla’s neck. A day of elaborate ritual follows, with the Dalai Lama tasting salt, tossing flower petals and cutting multi coloured ribbons draped across the temple doors, before entering to perform the consecration ceremony. Once inside, more celebrities step out to meet the world’s A list holy man – French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, Rama Yade, Secretary of State for Human Rights and former Prime Minister Alain Juppe. As the Dalai Lama moves inside the enormous building decorated with extreme oriental flamboyance, other public figures are on tenterhooks for their brief moment of eye contact with His Holiness. A famous actress here, an author there, more politicians – and a cluster of clerics, including Claude Azema, the auxilliary Bishop of Montpelier. The name of the place is Lerab Ling, which means Sanctuary of Enlightened Action. Sogyal Rinpoche chose this name in honour of Lerab Lingpa, a 19th century Tibetan Buddhist master Sogyal claims as his predecessor. So how did a 63 year old man in poor health, who left his native Tibet when he was a young child, and had only a basic education in India, come to be the head of a multi-national organisation with tentacles in five continents? How did he manage to raise 10 million Euros to build a huge temple in southern France? And then persuade the wife of the President to provide the media focus for the opening day?
Charisma, luck, chutzpah and a lawsuit
If you ask a selection of Sogyal’s many admirers about the qualities as a Buddhist teacher that have contributed to his success, two answers stand out: his charisma and his humour. Sogyal is an accomplished public performer– that is one factor. Another is that he is credited as the author of the all-time best selling Buddhist book The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, which has sold a million copies and been translated into 24 languages. More astringent observers of Sogyal’s trajectory into guru super stardom point in other directions: to his lucky streak, his timing, his chutzpah and his astute exploitation of zeitgeist. For example, thousands of people in the developed world were ready to embrace the exotic path to enlightenment offered by exiled Tibetan lamas and ready to address the taboos surrounding death and dying. But beneath the surface of Sogyal’s success story there are darker strands. His status as a Buddhist lama requires him to be an exemplar of two fundamental articles of faith: wisdom and compassion. Yet in 1994 an American woman known as Janice Doe sued Sogyal for sexual assault and battery. Ever since then, allegations around his private life, financial affairs and credentials as a lama have surfaced from disillusioned former disciples – to the extent that they cast serious doubt on his status as a pre-eminent Buddhist teacher. Those in the know about the history of Rigpa make one firm assertion: that Sogyal could not have scaled the giddy heights without the help of his long-term right-hand man Patrick Gaffney. Some former insiders, like the journalist Mary Finnigan, go further: “Patrick is the real brains behind Rigpa,” she says, “Sogyal is merely the public persona.” Patrick played an equal role with Sogyal during the Lerab Ling temple ceremony – highlighting his dominant position in the Rigpa hierarchy.
Career launch in London
Sogyal left India in the early 1970s.The official biography claims he studied comparative religion at Cambridge University, but when Mary Finnigan met him shortly after he first arrived in England, she recalls that he was resident at a sanatorium in Cambridge: “He was accompanying a member of the Sikkimese royal family while both of them were recovering from tuberculosis.” Sogyal’s Lakar family were well-connected, but impoverished since their flight into exile. According to several former members of Rigpa, Sogyal’s mother sent her elder son to the west with specific instructions to make money. In the winter of 1973 Sogyal turned up in London, announcing that he wanted to set up a centre where teachings could be given by some of the great Tibetan meditating yogis. Around this time he met Patrick Gaffney and another faithful acolyte, Dominique Side. The latter was introduced to him by Mary Finnigan and a group of squatters occupying a house in the Kentish Town district of north London. In the early 1970s hippies were settling down back home after their oriental adventures and experiments with psychedelic drugs. Most of them acknowledged their interest in altered states of consciousness, but realised it was time to stop using powerful chemicals. They had encountered exiled Tibetan lamas in India and Nepal and were eager to pursue their fascination with Tibet’s Tantric Buddhism known as the Vajrayana – a contemplative schema that offers the promise of authentic spiritual experience, leading to profound insights and even enlightenment in one lifetime. At the time there was only one Tibetan lama, Chime Youngdon Rinpoche, giving teachings in London. Apart from the dauntingly orthodox Buddhist Society, there was no place anywhere in London where an ambitious young lama could set up his stall, in order to meet the demand for Tibetan Buddhism. That is until the squatters heard about a large empty house in Chatsworth Road, Kilburn, owned by The London Borough of Brent. Mary Finnigan was a member of a group of about 10 squatters who broke into the house and claimed it in the name of the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. According to Mary Finnigan, Sogyal already had a reputation as a playboy with a penchant for pretty girls when he arrived in London. It soon became clear to his core group of squatters, hippies and young professional people that their new-found guru had a voracious sexual appetite. Mary recalls that he lived for a while with Dominique Side – “she was devastated when she found out he was not monogamous” – but soon moved into his own room in Chatsworth Road. “At this point” says Mary, “he switched into top gear and persuaded several senior lamas to perform ceremonies and give teachings in what they probably did not know was an illegally occupied building.” The response exceeded all expectations, with crowds turning up to events that were publicised at short notice by word of mouth. During the early days in London, Sogyal acted mostly as a translator for the older generation of yogi-lamas who fled from Tibet following the Chinese takeover in 1959. These included the head of the Nyingma order, the late Dudjom Rinpoche – a lama of legendary repute held in the highest regard by Tibetans and westerners alike. Sogyal dedicated his new centre to Dudjom, who named it Orgyen Choling.
Trungpa Rinpoche and the rock star lifestyle
The squat lasted only a few months. At first Sogyal was “one of the boys”, but took off for a while to visit Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who pioneered Tibetan Buddhism in the USA. Trungpa was a formidably intelligent iconoclast who acquired a nationwide following, with a formula that shook Buddhist America to the core and generated enthusiasm wherever he alighted. In contrast to the more familiar austerities of Zen Buddhism, Trungpa offered authentic Tibetan theory and practice in tandem with a sybaritic lifestyle. An early American seeker, Victoria Barlow, recalls meeting Sogyal in Boulder, Colorado in 1976: “Sogyal was enthralled by Trungpa’s sexual conquests,” she says, “he told me outright that he wanted what Trungpa had and aimed to achieve a rock star lifestyle.” Sogyal returned to London in a radically altered state of mind – berating his students for their lack of worldly ambition and demanding to be treated like a “precious one”. Around this time Sogyal met up with Ngakpa Chogyam, a Englishman who later became a Buddhist teacher. “At first he was quite friendly”, says Chogyam, “but later he let me know that he was a distinctly superior being and that I was no longer to address him as Sogyal.” Around this time Sogyal launched into his habit of publicly humiliating his close followers – berating for them for even minor errors in front of a roomful of people. Patrick Gaffney is the only one to be spared these ordeals. He was still doing it in 2011. A woman (Lalatee) who attended a retreat at Dzogchen Beara, the Rigpa centre in Ireland, was profoundly shocked by Sogyal’s behaviour: “I experienced what at best could be termed disrespect, at worst abuse of his colleagues and disciples. He was regularly late and often over-ran the sessions by several hours. He was insulting to the Irish people, about his assistants and to individual course participants. The last straw for me was when he called a senior assistant to come to the dais. She’s a respected professional in her 60s doing amazing work with the bereaved and the dying. She was forced to kneel beside Sogyal, while he embraced her closely and put his hand on her chest. I could see that she was embarrassed and uncomfortable. Sogyal proceeded to stroke her face, looking deeply into her eyes. When she pulled back slightly, he turned to the 250 people present and said ‘this is none of your business, turn away’. So 250 people twisted round in their seats and looked away. If that is not crowd manipulation and abuse, I don’t know what is. At the very least it shows complete disregard for western social mores and ethical behaviour.”
Also in 2011 another woman (Myra) attended a Rigpa retreat at Myall Lakes in Australia. “Sogyal seemed arrogant and uncaring. He was habitually an hour or more late and after he turned up would spend another hour and half criticising his older students. Meanwhile, several hundred people who had already waited a long time had to witness this, not understanding what was going on. Many of them were new to Rigpa. Sogyal then gave his senior students orders about how he wanted the presentation to be prepared for the next day. I know they sometimes stayed up all night working on a new version, but next day when Sogyal arrived everything would be all wrong again and there would be another diatribe.” Myra asked older students about Sogyal’s behaviour: “One explanation given to justify it was that he aims to shock people out of their habitual thinking – that he’s a Vajra Master and doesn’t conform to the same samsaric standards as we do. I couldn’t help thinking that if he’s really a Vajra Master why does he need to follow a precise order of events? Why are the prepared readings and video excerpts so important? I really think there’s something else going on.” Back in the 1970s, the man who now insisted on being called Rinpoche exhorted his flock to focus their attention on attracting money and on improving the style, content and comfort levels of the Chatsworth Road house. “He was a slave driver”, says one squatter, Jack, “he had us working flat out, restoring the house, building a shrine, putting up shelves and so on – while he sat around directing operations.” People like businessman Jean Lanoe involved in the construction of the Lerab Ling temple would affirm that in this respect also, Sogyal has not changed.
Sex conquests and doubts
Neither it seems, has his insatiable appetite for sexual conquests. From Chatsworth Road, Orgyen Choling moved into short life premises in Princess Road, Kilburn. Sogyal occupied the top floor, members of his band of wannabe Buddhist yogis lived in other rooms, while the ground floor was transformed into a shrine room. One resident recalled the steady stream of young women summoned to the guru’s abode for “private teachings.” “Some of them would stay for a while and leave quietly, but others would flounce out shouting loud protests and slamming doors.”
People who have now left Sogyal’s entourage speak about a “sense of pollution” — how the succession of females in and out of the guru’s bedroom made them feel ill at ease. No-one at this time identified Sogyal’s behaviour as a personality disorder, but more recently health professionals have stated that he is a sex addict – an obsession as powerful as drugs, alcohol and gambling. There was also a dawning awareness within Sogyal’s community that he was not up to scratch as a Buddhist teacher. A very reticent Englishman was an early Buddhist scholar who visited the Himalayan regions in the 1950s, searching for texts on an arcane aspect of Tibetan teachings known as Dzogchen. Sogyal proclaims himself as a Dzogchen master – but his followers noticed he played “carrot and donkey” with them – holding out the promise of genuine instructions, but never actually delivering. The reticent Englishman confirmed their suspicions:
“Apart from some stuff he picked up from his uncle Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro, he knows very little and what he does know is not Dzogchen.” Ngakpa Chogyam also became aware of gaps in Sogyal’s knowledge: “He asked me a lot of questions about Dzogchen”, he says, “and I was surprised by the way he’d enquire – almost, I thought at the time, as if he didn’t know the answers. I ended up talking a lot when we were alone together – but it occurred to me later that he never asked questions like this when anyone else was around.” Later in his career, when Sogyal was an established lama, he was sitting with several Rinpoches listening to teachings by the Dalai Lama. One of the Rinpoches wrote a note in Tibetan and passed it round the group. According to a Tibetan Buddhist scholar who heard about this from one of the lamas involved “It was obvious to all of them that Sogyal could not read it.” In 1979 the Dzogchen master Choegyal Namkhai Norbu taught for the first time in London and members of Sogyal’s group who attended realised they were experiencing the genuine article. There was a mass exodus from Orgyen Choling, but within weeks the defectors were replaced by a new intake. The devotees who remained faithful include Patrick Gaffney and Dominique Side.
Around this time Sogyal made his first sortie into France – a move which set in motion a chain of events that led to the establishment of Rigpa as a multi-national organisation. Disciples of the late Dudjom Rinpoche had coalesced into a small group in Paris. Sogyal pitched up there and was invited to teach. However, it transpired that the Dudjom people were considerably less tolerant of his playboy lifestyle than his followers in London. Before long they asked Sogyal to leave, but by the time they did this he had acquired a taste for the pleasures of life in France. It must have been tedious for him to return to hippiedom in a dilapidated house in an unfashionable area of London, after spending time with the Parisian bourgeoisie. It seems likely that reports on Sogyal’s womanising and expensive eating habits reached Dudjom Rinpoche’s ears from France – because shortly after he was kicked out of the Paris centre, Dudjom wrote to Sogyal requesting him to stop teaching for a while and return to India “to ripen his practice”. Residents at Orgyen Choling recall little hesitation on the part of their teacher: “He refused point blank to obey the head of his order”, says one of them (Mark) “ quite the opposite in fact. He removed his group from the Dudjom mandala and changed its name to Rigpa, with him in charge and accountable to no-one.” The surge of enthusiasm for Tibetan Buddhism continued to accelerate, but in the late 1970s and early 80s there were still very few lamas actively at work in the big cities of the western world. News of Sogyal’s activities — and that he attracted some of the legendary elders like Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche — spread like wildfire. It soon became apparent that the room at Princess Road was too small to accommodate the ever increasing numbers turning up for teachings. A cash donation from a famous actor enabled Rigpa to obtain a lease on premises in Camden Town. They stayed there for several years until they outgrew this space too. Their final move in London was to their present home on Caledonian Road, in Islington. This is an extensive property with a very large, if somewhat claustrophobic basement shrine room.
The 1980s was a period of phenomenal expansion in the number of people seeking instruction in Tibetan Buddhism – especially in America. As news of the lush lifestyles enjoyed by lamas in the developed world spread to the austere monastic institutions in India and Nepal, more and more of them packed their bags and flew off to fulfil the demand. It soon became clear that not only would they live in luxury, but also that teaching Vajrayana Buddhism represented a major source of income for the Tibetan diaspora. Sogyal set his sights on California.
Victoria Barlow encountered Sogyal on his first visit to the West Coast. According to Victoria, he aired views which are diametrically opposed to his present role as a champion of the Dalai Lamao belongs to the monastic Gelug school. Sogyal is a Nyingmapa– an older, largely non-celibate tradition. “Sogyal loathed the Gelugpas and the DL,“ she says, “ I heard him in Berkeley being a staggering sectarian hater — he expressed real rage to all who would listen, trashing the Dalai Lama.” Despite his politically incorrect outbursts, Sogyal’s style went down well with Californian audiences. This probably had something to do with the fact that Tibetan Buddhism was virgin territory for most Americans, so the lack of substance in his teachings was not immediately apparent.
His appeal lay in the Shangri-la myths and legends surrounding all things Tibetan. Sogyal’s American audiences had few points of reference to give focus to their enthusiasm, and like many people in many countries, they were hungry for what seemed to them to be authentic access to an ancient esoteric tradition. One of the Californians impressed by Sogyal was Christine Longaker, who at that time was director of the Hospice of Santa Cruz County in the San Francisco Bay area. This smart woman made a connection between Tibetan texts dealing with death and the after-death state – and her work in palliative care for the dying. She shared her insights with Sogyal – who swiftly realised that this could turn out to be his passport to fame and fortune. He was right. From the mid 1980s onwards Sogyal set his acolytes the task of researching information on western attitudes to death and dying – and linking these with The Tibetan Book of the Dead. This text is attributed to Padmasambhava, an 8th century yogi credited as the founding father of Buddhism in Tibet. Originally translated into English in 1927, it was essential reading for hippies and well-thumbed copies were passed around the traveller communities in India. Some found their way into San Francisco bookshops.
Once he had his research data, Sogyal started lecturing on Spiritual Care for the Dying — challenging deeply entrenched taboos and attracting large audiences, including many people experiencing various stages of terminal illness and grieving. It is beyond doubt that within a western cultural context, Sogyal was delivering a seismic shift. It was pioneered by the psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler Ross, but the addition of Sogyal’s Tibetan Buddhist perspective was a radical new formula – which suggested that rather than a source of fear, death can be treated as source of inspiration.
The book that made a million
The theories and practices expounded in Sogyal’s lectures were collated into his version of the Padmasambhava treatise, but with a contemporary twist – living in tandem with dying – highlighting the two states as mirror images of each other. When The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying was published in 1992, it ticked every box on Sogyal’s wish list. Almost overnight he became an international celebrity and to top it all, accepted an invitation from Bernardo Bertolucci to star in his movie Little Buddha. Some time later, worldwide sales turned him into a personal millionaire. But there are questions around the authorship of the TBOLD. Rumours that Sogyal did not write the book have been circulating on the internet for years. When approached for comment, the author, academic and mystic Andrew Harvey gave an inconclusive response: “Sogyal participated totally in every level of the creation of the book and as the representative of his tradition was the indispensable transmitter of its wisdom. The process was a totally mutual collaboration in which Sogyal gave everything and had the final word on every word. It is a very hard process to describe. Any suggestion that Sogyal did not write this book is -I think, absurd and dishonouring of his genius and passion. Both Patrick and I worked tirelessly and I hope, selflessly to honour Sogyal’s brilliance and the wisdom of the tradition. And the book could not exist without the transcripts of Sogyal’s talks that were it’s foundation.” The ubiquitous Patrick Gaffney and Andrew Harvey are credited as editors – but Harvey’s words do not confirm Sogyal as the author. Grant, a former Rigpa member, recalls spending time with Harvey “when he was writing the book”. Grant adds: “Could anyone who knows Sogyal imagine him being able to quote the German mystical poet Rainer Maria Rilke? Or the Sufi sage Jalaluddin Rumi? He simply doesn’t have that level of education.” Andrew Harvey does – and comparisons between The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying and Harvey’s own books reveal striking similarities in tone, structure and language. According to a well known American Buddhist teacher: “Andrew Harvey was very upset at not being credited as co-author.” The journalist Mary Finnigan is also sceptical: “When Sogyal was living in London it became obvious that he is barely literate,” she says, “he never read anything except comic books, never wrote letters and spent most of his free time watching television.”
“The book was cobbled together from more than a decade of Sogyal’s teachings,” he says, “I worked for a while on transcribing the tapes. There were a fair few mistakes which I corrected as I went along – particularly about Dzogchen and precise definitions of Buddhist doctrine.”
Enter Dierdre Smith
In June 1993, less than a year after the publication of the TBOLD, a young and beautiful woman in a state of acute distress over the death of her father went to a Rigpa retreat in Connecticut, USA. After one of Sogyal’s lectures she sent him a written question: “How can I help my father now that he’s dead?”
Sogyal’s response was to invite her to his room. The woman, Dierdre Smith, says she was ‘completely vulnerable’.” I might as well have had a notice round my neck saying Abuse Me!” She wept as she recounted the circumstances of her father’s death from a drug overdose. “He asked me to massage him — I was in awe of him as the important guru, so I did as he wished. Then he told me he was my personal teacher and was going to help me. I was very excited about this and called my husband to tell him that everything was going to be OK. “Sogyal asked me to come back the following day, with a picture of myself and of my father. It was all very paternal and he kept saying I should trust him.” “It was about 10.30 at night when I arrived. He took his clothes off and got into bed. I was embarrassed and didn’t know where to look – but he said I should feel safe because we were in a shrine. The room was lit with candles and there were pictures of Buddhas all around.”
A long seduction followed, that lasted into the small hours. The reluctant, grief-stricken Dierdre protested that she did not want to cheat on her husband — but Sogyal persisted, insisting that having sex with him would benefit her father’s karmae ground me down”, she says, “it was the same thing over and over – Do you love me? Do you trust me? It must have gone on for about six hours. Eventually I was exhausted and gave up resisting. The whole thing revolved around surrender to him and I was scared of losing the opportunity to heal my family.” P11. Dierdre was told by Rigpa devotees that if you have negative feelings, you destroy your relationship with the guru. With hindsight, she sees this as a cultist manoeuvre designed to smother dissent, but at the time she did not question this and other injunctions – including one from Sogyal swearing her to secrecy about the seduction. Sogyal insisted that he loved her, wanted to take care of her and that she should see him as her family. He phoned her every day until they met again six months later. Dierdre flew to France at her own expense, expecting to be a normal student. Instead, she was isolated in a separate house and told not to talk to anyone: “I only left the house to go to the teachings, where I saw 500 people prostrating themselves to the lama. The rest of the time I listened to him on tape, saying things like ‘pray to me, see me as the Buddha, love me, trust me, be obedient to me’ “ For several months Dierdre put her everyday life on hold and travelled with Sogyal as his servant, sex partner and arm candy. She recounts how the smile on Sogyal’s face and the unctuous charm of his of his public presentation vanished the moment they were hidden from view: “There must have been about 10 women in his inner circle,” she says, and it was our job to attend to his every need. We bathed him, dressed him, cooked for him, carried his suitcases, ironed his clothes and were available for sex. He was a tyrant. Nothing we did was ever good enough. He went into screaming rages and beat us. If I tried to question the way he treated us, he became angry. The only way to avoid this was to stay silent and submissive.” According to former Rigpa insiders, Sogyal’s team of regular sex partner-attendants were the core group of a sub-sect of Rigpa known as Lama Care. This was set up specifically to make sure that women were available for sex with Sogyal wherever he travelled. In common with other women who have spoken about their experiences with Sogyal, Dierdre recounts how she hardly ever slept, had no time to eat properly and lost 15 pounds during the first two weeks of her time with him. “I looked pretty sickly”, she recalls. Yet despite the brainwashing and the abuse, the women in Sogyal’s harem regarded themselves as highly privileged: “They kept on saying how lucky we were to be close to the guru, how we had special teachings and how much he loved us.” Indoctrination into the inner circle is designed as a life sentence. A young, vulnerable woman is programmed to accept Sogyal’s god-like status and to be compliant with his wishes and whims, slave-like in her willingness to accept a punishing workload and available for sex on demand. She is separated from her family and friends, discouraged from contact with the outside world and persuaded to see Rigpa as her family, with Sogyal (confusingly as father-lover) in absolute power and control. In the majority of cases, it works. By the time these women realise they are being abused and exploited and are deeply embedded in a coercive cult, it is too late for them to extricate themselves. Their investment is total and their chances of making lives for themselves beyond Rigpa have dwindled into non-existence. But in some instances, Sogyal’s choices backfired on him. Back in 1994, it slowly dawned on Dierdre that she was being exploited. “At first”, she says, “I was willing to give up everything for the promise of healing my family, saving the world and being useful, but as these illusions started to melt away I realised I had caused a lot of harm – I’d made myself sick and I’d hurt my husband.” During her last retreat with Sogyal, Dierdre found out about the scandals surrounding Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and his regent Osel Tendzin (Thomas Rich), who infected several people with HIV. “I was terrified I’d given my husband HIV” she says, “so I told Sogyal I wanted to leave.” He was very angry, probably because I knew too much about his promiscuity and his lies. I remember sitting on his bed with him and he shouted at me ‘get these crazy ideas out of your head’ and at the same time he was hitting me hard on the head, one side and then the other.” So what finally drove Dierdre away? “Mostly it was the beatings and because Sogyal kept on telling me I was a burden to him. It was bewildering, because at the same time he tried to persuade me to stay – saying that by serving him I was serving the world. But there he was with all these people attending to everything he demanded and there was my husband who was alone and ill at the time, begging me not to leave him.”
Regardless of Sogyal’s threats (including aeons in the hell realms), protestations and persuasions Dierdre left. But after returning to her long-suffering husband, she discovered that leaving was not as easy as physically walking out. Like many others who detach themselves from abusive relationships and coercive cults, she found herself dealing with a psycho-emotional hangover. By this time a lot less naïve than she was when she first encountered Sogyal, Dierdre sought help from several counsellors, including a strong-minded Californian Zen teacher who had herself been a victim of a sexually abusive guru. “It is harmful to both student and teacher”, the teacher says, “because they end up slipping into a fantasy realm, rather than cultivating awareness of the Buddhist path. Americans are more sophisticated now — we know about the long term damage inherent in relationships where there is a power imbalance.”
Around the same time, one of Sogyal’s victims who became known as Janice Doe, consulted a San Francisco lawyer and on 2 November 1994 a suit was filed in The Superior Court of California seeking reparations from Sogyal Rinpoche aka Sogyal Lakar and The Spiritual Care for Living and Dying Network for assault and battery, infliction of emotional distress and breach of fiduciary duty. The suit also charged that Sogyal had seduced many other female students for his own sexual gratification by preying on their vulnerability. Three days later the story broke in several west coast newspapers, following a report by an agency journalist, Don Lattin, which included comment by Victoria Barlow: “I went to an apartment to see a highly esteemed lama to discuss religion”, she said, “he opened the door without a shirt on and with a can of beer in his hand.” Once they were on the sofa, Barlow continued, “Sogyal lunged at me with sloppy kisses and groping. I thought I should take it as a compliment so I surrendered to him – but it had a horrible effect on me and caused a lot of depression.” News of the lawsuit spread like wildfire across the Tibetan Buddhist grapevine. At first the Rigpa hierarchy appeared to be caught like rabbits in headlights – frozen and incapable of anything other than whimpers of denial. Later, when the shock waves had subsided, a letter was despatched to some students, acknowledging the existence of the lawsuit and containing a feeble attempt at damage limitation: “….allegations are only allegations. As far as we know they have no foundation”. Journalists who requested interviews with Sogyal were told he was “in retreat”. In January 1995 a feature about the lawsuit by Mary Finnigan appeared in the British national daily newspaper The Guardian. A few weeks later a broadcast version of the story, also by Mary Finnigan, ran on BBC Radio 4′s Sunday programme. Sogyal was scheduled to lead Rigpa’s annual UK Easter retreat, booked to happen at Harrow School, but someone at Harrow heard the BBC item and promptly cancelled the booking. “Rigpa was stuck with more than a hundred people and nowhere to go” says one of Sogyal’s organisers at the time. “All we could do was cram them into the shrine room in London.” In February 1995 the UK’s Telegraph Magazine featured a cover story on the Sogyal lawsuit by the journalist and author Mick Brown. In it, two English women spoke about their sexual encounters with Sogyal: P14 “Its a relationship that you haven’t chosen, agreed to or discussed”, said one woman, “Because he was my spiritual teacher I trusted that whatever he asked was in my best interests….by sleeping with the teacher you get a closeness to him which everyone is hankering after….but in fact it caused me a lot of pain that I wasn’t able to dissolve.” Another spoke about her distress at discovering that Sogyal was having sex with three other students, shortly after he initiated a relationship with her: “I came to the conclusion that Sogyal Rinpoche has used the teachings to attempt to keep me in a sexual relationship with him –one that I did not want to be in.” In common with other former Sogyal consorts, this woman “recognised that I was emotionally wounded and that my self-esteem was low, and that I no longer trusted myself or the spiritual path I had chosen.” According to one former Rigpa insider, “An unsavoury witch hunt was launched to find out the identity of the women who spoke to Mick Brown.” In a unique manifestation of his disapproval, The Dalai Lama withdrew from participation in a Living and Dying Conference scheduled by Rigpa to take place in California. The conference was cancelled. Sogyal also had to cancel an appearance at a prestigious event in New York, the Art of Dying conference. This time his excuse was “severe flu”. The glorification of Sogyal suffered a serious setback and in order to silence Janice Doe, Rigpa was forced to part with a large sum of money. Just how much money was involved in the out-of-court settlement is a closely guarded secret, but it is alleged to run into millions of dollars.
After the lawsuit
It took about two years – and a huge workload for Patrick Gaffney and other members of the Rigpa inner circle — to re-establish Sogyal as a globe trotting guru. “People left in droves” says one former Rigpa devotee. “I remember noticing there was no-one around who had been there when I first got involved, except for Patrick and Dominique Side.” Around this time Mary Finnigan interviewed the Dalai Lama about the Sogyal lawsuit. “He was very clear about the issue of sexual relations between teachers and disciples”, she says “he condemned it as unacceptable and told me he had advised Sogyal to settle down and ‘take a lawful wife’. “ P15 Sogyal’s response to this was to have an affair with an American woman called Mary-Anne, who became pregnant and gave birth to Sogyal’s son Yeshe. Asked if he would marry Mary-Anne he is said to have replied “that would be a step too far.” Even though by this time Sogyal had been placing the Dalai Lama at the top of his totem for many years, clearly he was not impressed by advice from the boss on his private life. “It was window dressing” says one former Sogyal dakini, “the Dalai Lama blessed the relationship, but Sogyal was never monogamous. One of his other women – Alison — saw herself as the ‘wife’ and she would not have allowed him to stop having sex with her.”
There is no doubt that the lawsuit made the Tibetan Buddhist community in the developed world take stock of its situation. Even in 1993, before the lawsuit, a group of western Buddhist teachers held a conference with the Dalai Lama. The statement the emerged from it included these words “… each student must be encouraged to take responsible measures to confront teachers with unethical aspects of their conduct. If the teacher shows no sign of reform, students should not hesitate to publicise any unethical behaviour of which there is irrefutable evidence. This should be done irrespective of other beneficial aspects of his or her work and of one’s spiritual commitment to that teacher. It should also be made clear in any publicity that such conduct is not in conformity with Buddhist teachings. No matter what level of spiritual attainment a teacher has, or claims to have reached, no person can stand above the norms of ethical conduct.” Although the Dalai Lama told the meeting that sexual misbehaviour should be publicised and errant teachers made to feel “regretful and embarrassed”, significantly in the light of subsequent developments, he declined to endorse the statement. As the reinvention of Sogyal’s credibility gathered momentum, leaks from within Rigpa indicated that he had no intention of changing his ways. Quite the contrary in fact, because in 1996 western Buddhist teachers met for the third time with the Dalai Lama and to the dismay of most of them, Sogyal was a high profile presence at the conference, holding forth vehemently about the perils of teaching Vajrayana without ‘authenticity, credentials and training’. “His chutzpah was breathtaking” says the American teacher Yvonne Rand. “We could hardly believe what we were experiencing. It was only our respect for the Dalai Lama that stopped several of us from walking out.” When asked why Sogyal was allowed to take part, the Dalai Lama’s private office came up with the lame excuse that they had to let all lamas know about the conference so they could attend if they wished. ble standards perpetrated by the Tibetan diaspora headquarters in Dharamsala are becoming increasingly obvious to observers of Tibet, its religion and culture. At the turn of the 21st century the Dalai Lama had probably received hundreds of letters complaining about sexual and financial misbehaviour by Sogyal and other exiled lamas. While some letters are acknowledged with anodyne expressions of regret, to date there has been no action on the part of the exiled Tibetan authorities to deal effectively with the alleged offenders. Apart from withdrawing from the Living and Dying Conference, the Dalai Lama has never publicly criticised individual lamas. When asked by Mary Finnigan why Sogyal is usually a guest speaker at events with the Dalai Lama like the Kalachakra Initiation,Chhimed Rigdzin, an official in the Dalai Lama’s private office, responded “we don’t invite him”. Mary Finnigan pointed out that they don’t refuse him either.
Fast forward to 2006
Air France pilot Gerard Dubois was coming to the end of his career as a 747 captain. Since the year 2000 Gerard ran his professional and spiritual lives in tandem – off duty he spent his time as a serious, bordering-on-fanatical student with Sogyal Rinpoche. The extent of his commitment is illustrated by the fact that it spilled over into air time — he accomplished the gruelling Tibetan Buddhist preliminary practice known as the ngondro by using his rest periods during long distance flights to complete 108 thousand full body prostrations in the crew space behind the flight deck. Gerard worked his way through the Rigpa hierarchy to the point where he became a dharma teacher himself, alongside other members of the French elite, including Olivier Raurich, Phillipe Cornu and the late Francois Calmes. “I was looking for answers”, he says, “trying to find a way to make my mind free and open. I have to admit that I was hypnotised by Sogyal for six years. As I became more involved, I distanced myself from my family and friends and devoted myself totally to Rigpa – with my time, energy and money. As a result, I became completely anti-social, turned in on myself and one-track minded” Gerard points out that following the Rigpa path is extremely expensive: “You have to buy ritual objects and constantly update study material. You pay for courses, study days, statues, food offerings for the temple – the list is endless. You have to sponsor people who can’t afford retreats and for those who can, the price is exorbitant. They never stop asking for money – and its done with subtle persuasion – pretty speeches scripted specifically to make you put your hand in your pocket.” Other former Rigpa insiders confirm that there is relentless pressure to donate money. According to one of them: “I even heard Sogyal say to one man ‘just shut up and give me your money’ “.
The person who was probably most affected by Gerard’s obsession with Rigpa is his daughter Janine. Aged 22 in 2000 and outstandingly beautiful, she was already feeling parentally deprived because of Gerard’s professional absences. Determined to take every opportunity to be close to him, Janine started attending Sogyal’s teachings with her father – usually falling asleep against his back. Inevitably Sogyal’s lasciviously roving eye alighted on Janine and in due course she was lured into the brainwashing process that leads to his bedroom. In 2009 Janine spoke at length about her experiences with Sogyal in a series of recorded interviews. The way she was treated is identical in most respects to what happened to Dierdre Smith. “We were at a retreat in Germany. He sent for me during his rest period and asked me to massage his hands and feet,” she says.” Afterwards he gave me his schedule and his phone numbers – and almost immediately I was invited to join him for a holiday in Australia. This seemed like a nice thing to do so I said yes. “I was met in Sydney by a wealthy family who were obviously under orders to look after me – and I was treated like a princess. They have a fabulous house where I was given a room and they arranged everything I wanted – yoga classes, shopping etc”.
Did Janine query this – and wonder why it was happening? “Not really”, she says, “I assumed Sogyal was being paternal in an Asian way. But I still hadn’t seen him. Then suddenly, in the middle of the night, he decided it was time to go to the beach.” A convoy of cars set off. Janine found herself crammed into one of them with five other people, including Sogyal: “I didn’t get a good impression” she says, “he virtually ignored me, which was not at all the Asian papa way – I think this was the moment when he started to manipulate my feelings.” The time at the beach coincided with St Valentine’s day. Janine was ordered to wear a best dress and turn up at Sogyal’s house for dinner. At this moment she realised the whole set up was somewhat bizarre:
“There was Sogyal surrounded by five or six young pretty girls and there were no other men,” she says. “it was quite fun actually, we had nice drinks and we danced for him. Then at a certain point he asked me to go upstairs with him and massage his head. I made some sort of smart reply and he became angry. He said I was too proud and he would have to break my pride.” A few months later Janine got a phone call asking her if she would like to take part in a special training. “I accepted because it seemed to clarify my relationship with him. It turned out that the people involved were all women. We were put to work in the “lama kitchen.” We called it hell, because it was an underground bunker – a horrible place. A Swiss woman (Renata) was in charge of us and the first three weeks were pure slavery – we worked non-stop doing the cleaning. “We never saw Sogyal, but they gave us documents listing all the instructions he has given about caring for him around the world. There was nothing about Buddhism, but we were told the whole process was a teaching.
“They made us work so hard we didn’t have time for proper meals. We had to grab food and eat standing up. We were constantly being told to run here or fetch this in a haphazard way – because basically Sogyal is not very organised. He says he wants something and you have 50 people panicking to get it in five minutes.” As Janine’s induction into the inner circle unfolded, she was assigned work inside Sogyal’s compound at Lerab Ling – two chalets and a garden surrounded by a high fence. The next stage involved being Sogyal’s personal servant – bringing his food and looking after him in minute detail – in the same manner described by Dierdre Smith.
“He made me the only person to interact with the other people. By this time I was sleeping on the floor in his room…every time he had a thought, I would write it down and communicate it. I had control of the phones and the walkie talkies.” Sogyal is pampered like a medieval monarch – with a clique of women trained to respond to his slightest whim – day and night, 24/7. He is never alone and never lifts a finger to do anything for himself. After grooming her at record speed (other girls complained she had been fast tracked out of ‘hell’s kitchen’), Sogyal pounced on Janine for the first time at a high stress moment: “We had arranged to go to dinner at a restaurant to celebrate one of the other girls’ (Minou) birthday. Whenever Sogyal does something like this it is a major operation, involving anything up to 20 people. We have to send an advance party to the restaurant to make sure everything is exactly how he wants it, we have to polish up the big cars, pack his bags, wash him, dress him, collect his pillows, tissues and so on.
I was at the centre of the storm, co-ordinating the various strands and at that time I had had only about three hours sleep a night for the past month.” When everything was ready and the people were waiting to leave, Sogyal and Janine were alone in his chalet: “He ordered me to take my clothes off. I thought it was another test, so I did as I was told. He told me to get onto the bed and we had sex. As this was happening he said ‘look into my eyes, this is the moment you connect with your master.’ There were no preliminaries, he did not use a condom, my pleasure was not in the picture and it was all over in about three minutes. Afterwards he made me swear to keep it a secret, even from the other girls, and said if I did not keep the samaya it would be very bad for my karma and for the karma of my family.
“It happened again of course, especially at times of stress – before a teaching for example he has to have his fix. Sometimes it was every day, sometimes less often depending on how many girls he was into, or what was happening. He is very selfish – he never asks what you would like, it’s always him giving orders. Sometimes there is some petting afterwards and he reminds you how lucky you are. Its not comfortable being in the same bed with Sogyal because he’s an anxious character and he doesn’t sleep well. He keeps waking up and wanting things, medicines or food and so on. “I blanked out my feelings for a while, but then I became very troubled, which was extremely difficult because I’d been sworn to secrecy and couldn’t talk about it with anyone. Things started to go wrong with my body. My periods stopped. I was in shock. I had to sneak out of Lerab Ling to do the test because I was scared I was pregnant.
“A young lama married to an American woman came to teach at Lerab Ling. He was by himself in the courtyard and I really needed to talk to someone because I knew something was really wrong. So I decided to talk to this lama, hoping he would explain it for me. I asked him ‘what’s a consort?’ He looked at me and he knew exactly what I was talking about. I burst into tears and that bastard said ‘if you are the consort of a master you are very lucky’ and that was it. That’s all he said.”
Dakinis who were in the harem (Alison, Anna, Minou, Nee, Lillie, Jackie, Renata, Lorraine) before Janine’s arrival gradually came to accept her as a team member. Eventually they announced that she should join them in an orgy. Janine was not keen. The other women pressurised her, insisting that they had to do whatever ‘Rinpoche’ wanted: “They were terrified of being beaten” says Janine. “During the time I was with him continuously, one of us would be beaten every day – because you forgot something or did something wrong. For one girl it was because the way she walked was too proud. I got a little less than the others – some would get a serious, really bad beating. He got irritated with me because when I did something wrong I would hand him something to hit me with and that would spoil the fun.”
Behind the thangkas
Janine recalls that setting up the space for an orgy involved taking down the thangkas from the chalet walls to reveal girlie pictures concealed behind them. A meeting took place during the summer of 2009, between Janine and a former Sogyal girlfriend Flora Sinclair — who was with him for a while during the 1980s. During this encounter, both of them recalled their problems with Sexually Transmitted Infections:
“He gave me a yellow bottle of disinfectant and told me to wash with it after we had sex”, says Flora. “I knew of four other women who were sleeping with him at the time – then one day I saw a different woman coming out of his room carrying a yellow bottle” Janine said that all the girls during her sojourn in the harem were constantly having to deal with STIs: “He never uses condoms”, she says, “my gynaecological record during that time was a disaster zone.” Ask Janine how she dealt with her situation and she says the only way she could cope was to close down into denial: “I didn’t think about it – I have a capacity to leave my body – I’m just not there”, she says, “but I felt so ashamed because I allowed it to happen. We were constantly humiliated. I was the only one who did not have to ask him for money and was not obliged to wear Barbie Doll clothes that he paid for. “One of the most humiliating things happened to Anna. Sogyal always has diarrhoea – his diabetes and his diarrhoea make him extremely irritable. We had to wipe his arse each time he took a crap. He also has haemorrhoids. Someone wiped his arse, then he asked her to stick a finger in and it hurt — so he went into a total fit and called in all the girls. He asked each of us to wipe him to see who was the best. That was the only time I heard him say something nice about Anna – he announced that it was one thing she could do well.”
…..occurred when she was travelling alone on Eurostar:
“I’d been distancing myself from Sogyal for some time. I could do this because I was not dependent on him like the other girls. I’d always kept up my singing lessons and had friends outside Rigpa. There I was in the tunnel and the defences I’d built up started to collapse. I remembered things. I realised I’d been raped and from that point onwards the more I remembered, the sicker I got.”
Janine went into counselling and after initially keeping her experiences with Sogyal to herself, she eventually opened up with her therapist, who advised her to devise a closure ritual so that she could clear the psycho-emotional decks and move on:
“I was really ill – I kept getting infections and I had a fever for about three weeks. I had nightmares every night – I was an empty carcass and I thought I was going crazy. Realising I’d reached my limit, I took my counsellor’s advice and created a monstrous drawing and collage. I put myself in it and the other girls and I did a caricature of Sogyal like a Tibetan deity with lots of arms – but they were holding things like cash and the beating stick. Instead of clouds I put speech bubbles with the phrases in them that he used to intimidate and manipulate us.”
Janine took her artwork to Sogyal when he was leading the Rigpa UK Easter retreat. She also took two friends to ride shotgun – one of them a very big man. “We went into his formal reception room and I handed him the drawing and burst into floods of tears. There was a long silence – then he asked me what I wanted. I tried to say that I wanted him to stop what he’s doing, but he started to talk about money. I thought well, why not – I would like my expenses for the trip. I told him the ticket cost 450 Euros, so he got up and came back with an envelope. I left with my friends and when I opened the envelope I had a moment of pleasure – he’d given me 350, rather than the full amount so I knew I’d made him angry. “After this a lot of important Rigpa people called me. There were all sorts of threats and I heard that men were claiming I’d slept with them and were calling me a whore. But they should know that Sogyal is very possessive about the women he likes – he only lets the ones he wants to get rid off sleep with other men. I know now that many of the things he does are punishable by law. I am not afraid of him”.
The three year retreat
While the Sogyal-Janine saga played out, Gerard was participating in Rigpa’s first three years, three months and three days retreat.
This is a traditional Tibetan Buddhist training programme, designed to bring about deep contemplative realisation and yogic insight. The retreat, involving intensive practice and seclusion from the outside world, began on August 9 2006 and ended on 21 November 2009.
“…the purpose of such a break is to re-emerge into the world refreshed and re-inspired, having further developed the mind’s innate qualities of peacefulness and clarity, and deepened the heart’s innate capacity for empathy and compassion.”
It does not mention any of the profound aspects of Buddhist meditation– ‘primordial emptiness’ for example, or ‘integration beyond duality’. In comparison with the way other lamas present Tibetan Buddhism, Sogyal’s programme could be equated with studying for primary school exams. Gerard Dubois – retired from flight duty and free from family obligations – sorted his external affairs and settled into Lerab Ling with every intention of staying the retreat distance, in the expectation that it would move his spiritual practice into a fresh dimension. Instead he found himself in a situation where the emphasis on group rather than solitary practice was wholly unproductive:
“I had no experiences” he says, “at the start I went along with what was happening, but eventually I gave up and instead of doing Tibetan meditation, I concealed a Zen text in my prayer books and read that when I was supposed to be meditating.”
The coup de grace on Gerard’s involvement with Rigpa came when he read a letter from Janine – three weeks after it had arrived. In it she confessed to her father that she had been in a sexual relationship with Sogyal. “I was very angry” he says.
Gerard demanded an interview with Sogyal, who was initially wary but then admitted he had had sex with Janine. He tried to shift the blame onto her – claiming that she had seduced him and that he was at first resistant, but later gave in to her demands.
Gerard was inclined to believe his daughter’s version of what happened and this, coupled with his disillusionment with Tibetan spiritual practice, made him decide to leave the retreat – but not before he had shared his feelings with other retreatants: “We were not allowed to talk” he says, “but we found ways to communicate.” As a result some of the 200 people present also left the retreat – some shocked at the revelation, others realising that their pre-existing doubts were well founded.
During the time that Sogyal has been active as a lama in the developed world, the deep split between his public persona and his private life has been observed by several people who were not involved with him sexually. These include former assistants, a former member of Rigpa UK, an anonymous witness who was the manager of a Rigpa centre and Louella – who cooked for Sogyal while he was teaching in Montreal.
“I was in his apartment all day. Most of the time Sogyal was with his two dakinis Janine and Anna. I saw him furious and yelling insults at Janine, saying things like ‘she’s such a stupid woman’. He ran after her trying to hit her as she ran away, crying. When he noticed me there, he became very uneasy and tried to explain that he had to act like this because she had made a mistake
“When he was taking a bath he used to shout for Janine. I asked Anna what was wrong with him. She replied that he needed Janine to wash him. I was astonished at this – coming from a lama who claims to be as powerful as Padmasambhava. I left Rigpa because in my view the way Sogyal acts is autocratic and abusive and Rigpa was becoming increasingly like a cult. Sogyal orders people around without any respect for their personal needs. Although I am still interested in Buddhism, I do not have confidence in Sogyal.”
The abuse witnessed by Louella and experienced by Dierdre and Janine begs the question – why do Sogyal’s Dakinis tolerate his behaviour? There is a core group who have been in this role for a long time, as well as a steady input of new recruits. Considering that beatings and other forms of abuse have been happening for many years, why have so few women felt motivated to speak out?
In answer to the first question – members of Sogyal’s harem have very high status within Rigpa. They are the closest to the guru and the propaganda line is that they are chosen for their spiritual qualities. On the second question, most of them are indoctrinated into keeping silent in order to ‘protect the dharma’. Some are embarrassed by the fact that they allowed themselves to be duped by a con man – and after extricating themselves from his clutches want to move on from the experience, rather than re-live it (painfully) in interviews. Also there is an element of sado-masochism in the relationship between Sogyal and his harem. Janine maintains that one woman in particular welcomes the beatings. In 2011 a woman who wishes to remain anonymous wrote about her experiences with Sogyal:
“It’s all so subtle and manipulative you just don’t realise what’s happening and you get ensnared in the dogma web. Fear and suspicion play a big part in controlling you. I remember I seriously started to have doubts about 5 years ago. I was ordered to give Alison a massage and she confided in me that she was SR’s main consort and that he had a harem. She said after he made love to her he just rolled over with no tenderness and she confessed how hard she found it and how jealous all the girls were of each other – that they are very competitive. She said she had been told to make a vow with 2 other main girls in the harem so that they couldn’t have sexual relations with anyone else but were kind of married exclusively to him.
“The following Easter retreat I had lost a lot of weight (he likes them skinny) and had just come out of a long relationship. As soon as SR knew this he started on me. He started to grab me and kiss me, but I would push him away. The worst time was when he’d eaten some Tibetan cheese and kissed me and poured the contents in my mouth — horrific. He also started to court another young girl who is married. She’s his consort now.
“The following summer I was called into his chalet with Alison and Lorraine when he took Alison’s breasts out and kissed them and took mine out but thankfully didn’t do anything to me, I think it was to see how I would react. He kissed Lorraine (who is Patrick’s partner) and then ordered me to give Alison a massage. That same summer he called me on my own into his chalet and said he wanted to open me up a little. I felt very trapped and frozen. I just stood there. He kissed me than told me to lift my skirt because he wanted to look at my bottom. Then he asked me if I thought he was a good kisser – how pathetic is that? I eventually said I didn’t want anything and I left. After that I was ignored by Sogyal and his entourage were horrible to me.”
“I noticed that people are brainwashed and that Rigpa is run more like a business mafia than a spiritual organisation. They are obsessed with appearances – Sogyal urges his people to buy expensive clothes and products and to look smart. Money given by devout students is used to buy luxuries for Sogyal – and people who have outlived their usefulness are discarded in a very cruel manner.”
After 36 years of high profile activity as a spiritual mentor, it was inevitable that the dichotomy between the man and his message would become known. In 2009 internet blogs in French and English (Les Trois Mondes and Dialogue Ireland) attracted testimonies from a wide spectrum of people disillusioned with Rigpa and distressed by sexual encounters with Sogyal. A Google search tag lined ‘Sogyal Rinpoche abuse’ reveals a range of internet chatter along the same lines. It has to be said that some postings defend the man with obvious sincerity, whilst others are emotional outpourings from people who have invested their hopes and aspirations in a charismatic leader whose shortcomings are being revealed through the lens of public scrutiny.
In 2011 Sogyal’s sex life came under mainstream media scrutiny again. The Canadian production company Cogent Benger made a half hour investigative television documentary called In the Name of Enlightenment. It was broadcast on Vision TV in Canada on 27 May as an item in a four part series on sexual abuse in religions. It featured among others, Victoria Barlow, Mary Finnigan, a Canadian former Rigpa student Denise and the Buddhist teachers Stephen and Martine Batchelor. Reports based on this documentary appeared in The Irish Sunday Times and The Guardian newspapers.
In October 2011 the French news magazine Marianne carried a six page feature on one of Sogyal’s teaching retreats at Lerab Ling. It was compiled from material gathered by an undercover journalist, Elodie Emery. The tone of the reportage alternates from coy to sarcastic to ‘shock horror’ and contains allegations which would not get past legal scrutiny at mainstream British media. It does, however, vividly illustrate the dysfunctional ambiance of a Rigpa event and it highlights Sogyal’s bully boy tactics, the pleasure he derives from making people squirm and his ruthlessly cruel treatment of one participant, who was stumbling towards an agonised confession in front of 500 retreatants. Emery also reported that Sogyal’s display of self-importance included claims that people has been cured of cancer and blindness as a result of their devotion to him.
Most of the thousands of spiritual seekers worldwide who still revere Sogyal choose to remain in denial. They have probably been advised against doing internet searches, on the basis that awareness of his hidden agenda would adversely affect their Buddhist practice. There are two taboos in Buddhist organisations – both of which have merit and both of which can be used as manipulative tools. One of them is an injunction against gossip – useful when trying to establish a calm mental state, but also useful to prevent the circulation of critical comment. The second is samaya – the indestructible bond of loyalty that is one of the key tenets of Tibetan Buddhism. It supports the relationship between teacher and neophyte – but it can be deployed unscrupulously as a threat – break your samaya and attract dire consequences to yourself and your loved ones. Tibetan lamas who have taken empowerments from the same guru regard themselves as vajra brothers, bound by samaya. This is probably one explanation for the fact that the majority of lamas teaching in the developed world have closed ranks around Sogyal – regardless of their misgivings about his modus operandi. A more cynical view hinges on the fact that Sogyal pulls in a great deal of money – some of which is channelled into Tibetan worthy causes. There is a Tibetan prophecy attributed to Padmasambhava which goes like this:
When the Iron Bird flies and horses run on wheels, the Tibetan people will be scattered like ants across the world and the dharma will come to the land of the red man. If it really was uttered in the 8th century, it is a potent illustration of the qualities of Tibetan Buddhism that have attracted a huge worldwide following and made the predication come true. Sogyal and his cohorts have built an empire on the basis of that tradition, but they have turned their version of it into a cult around a celebrity guru – losing sight of core principles in their quest for ever-expanding power, influence and cash flow.
Pseudonyms are used to protect some individuals. Their words are on record and their identities are known.