BRIEFING DOCUMENT ON SOGYAL RINPOCHE FOUNDER OF THE RIGPA ORGANISATION
The renowned Tibetan Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rinpoche, whose organisation Rigpa runs various groups throughout Ireland (See http://www.rigpa.ie/) and indeed elsewhere around the world. Sogyal’s book, ‘The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying,’ has opened innumerable doorways for Rigpa in the field of palliative care and he and his organisation are now prominent players in the burgeoning industry offering help for professionals who shop in the spiritual supermarket in the area surrounding care for the dying: take a look at http://www.spiritualcareconference.com/ for instance. Seemingly, Sogyal can do no wrong.
However, there is a darker side to Sogyal, a side that Dialogue Ireland first became aware of some years ago at the London School of Economics’ Inform ‘Seminar on New Religious Movements (NRMs) and Violence,’ held on May 3, 1997. Inform is a New Religious Movements Centre based at the LSE and which was founded by the prominent NRM authority, Professor Eileen Barker. At the conference, a Frenchwoman, who had been Sogyal’s assistant for some years offered a most distressing account of the indignities she claimed to have endured at the ‘Golden Child’s’ hands.
Despite his public portrayal as a traditionally trained Buddhist meditation master from the East, Sogyal has spent the majority of his life in a Western cultural context. He was educated primarily in English schools in India then at Delhi University and then, having moved to the UK in the sixties, studied comparative religion at Cambridge for two years (undergraduate courses usually last a minimum of three). His Western education then far exceeds his formal Buddhist training. He is deeply steeped in Western ‘cultural’ norms, and fully comprehends Western notions of propriety and what constitutes an abusive relationship, for example.
‘Rigpa’ was born quite early on in Sogyal’s Buddhist career in London, after news of his sexual predations and misbehaviour filtered back to the late Dudjom Rinpoche — then head of the Nyingma and one of the world’s greatest meditation masters. At that time, Sogyal had dedicated his London centre, Orgyen Choling, to Dudjom, but when the latter heard of Sogyal’s misdemeanours, he suggested he give up teaching for a while and return to India to ‘ripen his practice’. Sogyal’s response was to remove his centre from Dudjom Rinpoche’s tutelage and change its name to Rigpa with himself as head, accountable to no-one except himself.
In 1994 the Tibetan Buddhist leader the Dalai Lama hosted a conference for Western Buddhist teachers. One of the items on the agenda was how to deal with the increasing number of charlatans posing as qualified gurus who were using their positions of power to inflict physical and mental abuse on unwitting disciples: a question prompted in part by Sogyal Rinpoche’s ‘enlightened activities’. The Dalai’s advice? ‘Criticize openly,’ His Holiness declared. ‘That’s the only way. If there is incontrovertible evidence of wrongdoing, teachers should be confronted with it. They should be allowed to admit their wrongs, make amends, and undergo a rehabilitation process. If a teacher won’t respond, students should publish the situation in a newspaper, not omitting the teacher’s name,” His Holiness said. “The fact that the teacher may have done many other good things should not keep us silent.” Again, in 2001, when answering a similar question, he advised potential converts to check a guru’s qualifications carefully; ‘The best thing is,‘ the Dalai Lama said, ‘whenever exploitation, sexual abuse or money abuse happen, make them public.’
There can be little doubt that Rigpa’s workshops have brought great benefit to many in the field of palliative care and, moreover, that none of this could have happened without Sogyal Rinpoche’s input. However, there are other areas where, metaphorically speaking, his input has proven significantly less satisfactory and so, in accord with the Dalai Lama’s instructions and DI’s policy of ensuring that the public are fully aware of all aspects of the different religious groups operating in Ireland, below are excerpts from critical pieces that have appeared in the media over the last decade. It is hoped that these will ensure that those with an interest in Rigpa’s Buddhism have a fuller knowledge of the group and, more particularly, its leader’s background, before they take the decision to become involved. Somehow and thus far, much of the rather disturbing information about Sogyal’s exploits has remained hidden, beyond the scrutiny of the public eye. In the interests of balance and the public good, DI is working to rectify this situation by gathering together as much of this information together in one place and then disseminating it.
Probably the most favourable and equally uninformed pieces concerning ‘Lama’ Sogyal appeared in the Press nearly 10 years ago was written by one of Ireland’s most astute political commentators, Eoghan Harris, in the Irish Sunday Times in 2000 (‘Time for lreland to See the Light’ p.20, July 23). (See full article at end of post.)
The piece waxed lyrical about the Tibetan prophet and could almost have been written by his own professional PR team. Most notably, it mentioned nothing of the multiple allegations of abuse against Sogyal, indeed it appeared that the journalist was unaware of them; it was somewhat reminiscent of those reports by supporters of the Soviet Union following visits, where seemingly, everything in the garden was rosy.
DI contacted the editor of the Sunday Times to point out the discrepancies and contradictions between the public and private faces of Sogyal Rinpoche, an act to which Eoghan Harris took grave and immediate exception. He responded directly, implicitly confirming Sogyal’s wrongdoings , but arguing that he had no time for furthering what he called, ‘…American victim culture, of which weird sexual suits are an integral part…. I do not believe gurus are perfect, nor the women who follow them, do not believe that adults who make messy choices are victims of anybody except themselves, do not believe that adult women (or men) who have consensual sex with a gurus, superiors, bosses, film producers etc are really in the same boat as Cuban refugees who are sexually exploited because they have no real choice, and certainly not in the same boat as rape victims. I have no doubt but that Rinpoche, like many priests, ministers, gurus, comes onto women. But he comes onto adults. It is not nice, but it is not unusual and it has no bearing on the general message of Buddhism, no more than Paisley behaviour can discredit the message of Christianity.’
Adult Ritualised Sexual Abuse: A Contemporary, Western Phenomena?
A consultant to Dialogue Ireland wrote concerning Eoghan Harris’s view:
‘While all sexual abuse is immoral, it is obvious that the depth of the immorality varies in dependence on the context of the abuse: the abuse of an adult is immoral, but that of a minor is significantly more so. Here, sexual activity at first seems to have occurred between two, consenting adults and, generally speaking, such a consensual act would not be considered immoral; this is certainly how your correspondent Mr Harris appears to perceive it.
However, where a religious figure in a position of trust engages in a sexual act with a follower, that person’s status transforms a seemingly consensual act into an abusive one. It is blatant abuse where a person in a position of trust engages in sexual relations with another, both from the perspective of the abuse of power and the abuse of the individual victim.
The status of the teacher too contributes to determining the depth of the abusiveness of the act. If relations occur between a ‘mere mortal’ teacher and an equally mortal student, that is one thing. But where the teacher is perceived as a ‘tantric master’, and the act is accompanied by the promise of spiritual benefit, this moves everything to an even deeper level of abusive depravity. Mr Harris appears to have not understood this.
If the multiple allegations are true and were accompanied by promises of a ‘tantric experience’, or as the Janice Doe suit suggests, victims were told they ‘would be strengthened and healed by having sex’ with Sogyal, the relations were abusive and ritualized.
It is clear that in groups of all religious traditions, this type of abuse has existed for generations. To be a victim of such then, does not render one part of what Mr Harris mistakenly portrays as contemporary ‘American victim culture’, though no doubt such a culture exists. Rather it renders one yet another unfortunate victim of that serious and calculated deception that, while as old as the hills, remains as improper and immoral as it has done for the millennia it has existed throughout mankind’s different cultures and creeds.
That it has existed for so long however renders it no less immoral. In fact, with religion in the advanced state of decline that it is, this renders the act even more so, for it destroys what little is left of what is good in the world. If the faiths are to survive and assist the spiritually needy, we have a responsibility to rid all of the traditions of those who engage in such selfish and irreligious acts in the name of their faith. Mr Harris may be correct in his assertion that such abuse, ‘…has no bearing on the general message of Buddhism’. However, it certainly does have a bearing on the purity and future existence of the faith: while it may not destroy ‘the message’, it damages ‘the medium’ irreparably.’
This therefore, is no crusade against Buddhism; rather it is a crusade against Sogyal’s abuse of his position within that noble religion to procure pleasures for his personal gratification. DI has found the same adult ritualised sexual abuse in Yogic, New Age, Christian and Hindu groups.
‘This (abuse) is in large part a result of the naiveté of westerners when it comes to visiting Asian gurus. People who are deeply suspicious of western organized religion suspend all scepticism when it comes to smiling brown-skinned men telling them to let go of their attachments as they slide their hand onto their knee. People in the West are so desperate for spiritual salvation they are prepared to blind themselves to the rogues and charlatans making millions of dollars through the New Age industry in the last 30 years.’
The Politics of Well Being
In 1994, a $10 million civil lawsuit was filed against Sogyal Rinpoche in the US. It was alleged that over a period of many years, Rinpoche had used his position as a spiritual leader to induce large numbers of female students to have sexual intercourse with him. As well as alleging sexual impropriety, the particular complaint included counts of intentionally inflicting emotional distress (as had been the case with the French assistant DI encountered at the LSE Inform conference) plus one count of assault and battery. In December 1995, the issue was settled out of court through mediation. It is believed that, while initially and as a result of the mediation, it was agreed that Sogyal would retire from public life and not teach again, eventually sufficient funds, amounting to several millions of US dollars, were procured to ensure Sogyal’s continued liberty to teach.
In his defence, his supporters have repeatedly argued that lamas of Sogyal’s Nyingma School are not required to take vows of celibacy and indeed, Sogyal is not a monk. Nor in fact, was the central role model of the school, its founder, Padmasambhava, who had five tantric consorts who were also his students. Moreover, his supporters claim, while there is a precept against sexual misconduct in Buddhism, with respect to a non-monastic lama this precept is rather limited in scope and would apply ‘only if the female is not free but rather under the protection of her father, mother, husband, king or herself bound by a vow of celibacy.’
This calculated response however, does not take into account the fact that, a) Sogyal Rinpoche may not possess the same level of tantric realisation of as the ‘Second Buddha’, Padmasambhava (despite, as we shall see, his claims to the opposite), and b) as well as the above precept, there are further precepts for Buddhist tantric practitioners which prohibit engaging in sexual acts with unqualified partners, precepts which Sogyal’s supporters would probably have been well aware of but, for some strange reason, neglected to refer to. While the eighth century milieu of Padmasambhava was primarily a tantric Buddhist one and would therefore have led on occasion to his encountering qualified consorts, it would be highly unusual for so many young and inexperienced Western victims of Sogyal to possess all of the relevant qualifications, particularly as many were new converts to the faith and therefore could not have possessed any of the numerous necessary prerequisite teachings and initiations.
If Sogyal is not a great tantric yogi and had plain old run-of-the-mill sex with these unqualified victims, while at the same time the latter were expecting to be healed by the ‘tantric experience’ his supposed status promised, then, despite his disciple’s protestations, these acts would amount to nothing more than adult ritualised sexual abuse at the hands of a very ordinary, fat and balding, middle aged man with a penchant for beer, food, praise, TV, and sleep. The 10th century Buddhist master Dharmarakshita’s ‘Peacock in the Poison Grove’ demonstrated the traditional Buddhist position on such devious acts:
‘For the sake of material gain you assume the guise of a noble one: Like dogs and pigs you indulge in lustful acts, Deceiving all with the claim that this is tantra— You should be burned in a hearth by vajra holders….Those who lead the foolish with no graduated stages of the path should be brought to the level of dogs by the learned ones.’
It is hoped that, in acting in the way he has, Sogyal is actually skilfully leading his female tantric students along the path to enlightenment. If he is, thus far, some have clearly yet to feel the benefit. If he is not then, according to his faith’s forefathers, it may be that, sooner rather than later, he finds himself in canine rather than feminine company.
Below are two Press articles about the original Janice Doe case, plus the testimony of an ex-close follower of Sogyal. One would have hoped that the Janice Doe experience would have caused Sogyal to rethink his ways. However, allegations continue to surface concerning his behaviour right down to the present day, as a quick glance at: http://troismondes.canalblog.com/archives/2007/10/07/6443357.html demonstrates. This site is in French, but has English post as well. We had access to other sites which also allude to Sogyal’s activities, but because of their lack of corroboration we must leave out. Far too much hearsay and not enough evidence are adduced.
It should be borne in mind that the fact that millions of dollars were paid to one accuser to silence them is no indication of moral purity or a lack of culpability on the part of Sogyal nor does it absolve him of the crime he allegedly committed; rather, it demonstrates that everyone has their price and that price is certainly one that some are willing to pay to preserve their empires. Moreover, for those whose silence can be bought, it demonstrates that for some, money is clearly more important than truth and preventing the suffering of others.
Finally, those who claim that, just because there is smoke it doesn’t mean there is fire, should bear in mind that, when smoke does rise from behind a mountain, there usually is a fire behind it; as they say, ‘if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.’
BEST-SELLING BUDDHIST AUTHOR ACCUSED OF SEXUAL ABUSE
By Don Lattin
San Francisco Free Press November 10, 1994
$10 million civil suit filed in Santa Cruz by a woman who says Sogyal Rinpoche, author of the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, “coerced” her into an intimate relationship.
With the blessings of the Dalai Lama, a group of American Buddhist women have launched a campaign to expose the alleged sexual misconduct of a prominent Tibetan lama and best-selling author.
Sogyal Rinpoche, author of the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, is accused of “physical, mental and sexual abuse” in a $10 million civil suit filed last week in Santa Cruz County Superior Court.
According to the lawsuit, an anonymous woman identified only as “Janice Doe” came to Rinpoche for spiritual guidance last year at a retreat sponsored by the Rigpa Fellowship meditation center in Santa Cruz, but was “coerced into an intimate relationship” with the Tibetan guru.
“Sogyal claimed (she) would be strengthened and healed by having sex with him and that to be hit by a lama was a blessing,” the lawsuit states.
The suit — which accuses Rinpoche of fraud, assault and battery, infliction of emotional distress and breach of fiduciary duty — also charges that the Tibetan lama has “seduced many other female students for his own sexual gratification.”
Sandra Pawula, spokeswoman for the Rigpa Fellowship of Santa Cruz, one of many meditation centers in the United States, Europe and Australia, declined to comment about the allegations, but said that Rinpoche is not married and does not claim to be a celibate monk. Rinpoche, who lives abroad, could not be reached for comment. The lawsuit follows a letter-writing campaign to the Dalai Lama by American women concerned about alleged sexual exploitation by Rinpoche…
“What some of these students have experienced is terrible and most unfortunate,” said Tenzin Geyche Tethong, the Dharamsala-based secretary to the Dalai Lama.
Jack Kornfield, founder of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County, was among a group of two dozen Western teachers who discussed the sexual misconduct of Buddhist teachers with the Dalai Lama last year in India.
According to Kornfield, the Tibetan Buddhist leader told the Americans to “always let people know when things are wrong. Put it in the newspapers if you must do so.”
Another woman allegedly abused by Rinpoche, Victoria Barlow of New York City, said she is “disgusted by the way the Tibetans have manipulated the reverence Westerners have for the Buddhist path.”
Barlow, 40, said she first met Rinpoche in the mid-1970s, when she was 21, and that she was sexually exploited by him during meditation retreats in New York and Berkeley.
“I went to an apartment to see a highly esteemed lama and discuss religion,” she said in an interview with the Free Press. “He opened the door without a shirt on and with a beer in his hand.”
Once they were on the sofa, Barlow said, the Tibetan “lunged at me with sloppy kisses and groping. I thought I should take it as the deepest compliment that he was interested and basically surrender to him,” she said.
Sources say the Tibetan Buddhists were trying to handle this issue within their community but decided, especially after the Dalai Lama made the comment about going to the press, to go public now.
by Mary Finnigan
From the London paper, The Guardian, 10/01/95
The Tibetan lama Sogyal Rimpoche is being sued for $10 million in the United States by a woman who alleges sexual harassment, coercion and abuse. Sogyal (Rimpoche is
an honorary title meaning Precious Jewel) has been teaching Buddhist meditation for more than 20 years, with a world-wide following and meditation centres known as The Rigpa Fellowship in London, France, Ireland, America and Australia. He is the author of a best-seller, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, and appeared in Bertolucci’s film Little Buddha. The Rigpa Fellowship in London has issued a letter informing its members that a suit has been brought against Sogyal Rimpoche. Although he is not a monk, and has not taken vows of celibacy, he is accused of using his position to obtain sexual favours. Allegations like these threaten to blow a hole in the aura of asceticism and austerity surrounding Buddhism in the West.
In the late 1960s, western hippies seeking spiritual enlightenment were drawn to the Tibetans’ exuberant, colourful style. Tibet was seen as a Buddhist Shangri-La — a far cry from the reality of a country under repressive Chinese occupation. In the seventies, rumours started to circulate about other globe-trotting Buddhist gurus, who were said to be seducing their students and behaving more like spiritual barons than spiritual mentors, exercising droit du seigneur among their followers….
Although not all Tibetan teachers are monks – many have renounced their vows and some are from non-celibate traditions – if a sexual relationship arises, the imbalance of power in the teacher-pupil relationship can lay the student open to abuse. Many Buddhists see this as a contravention of the moral code which frowns on all actions that cause harm. At a conference of western Buddhist teachers in India last year, the Dalai Lama urged delegates not to be afraid of criticising corrupt gurus. “If you cannot find any other way of dealing with the problem,” he said, “tell the newspapers.”
Last year, an American woman and former pupil of Sogyal decided to bring a civil case anonymously, and were allowed by the court in Santa Cruz, California, to use the pseudonym Janice Doe. She says in her suit that she approached Sogyal at a time of a time of confusion, shortly after her father’s death. According to the suit, Sogyal told her that “through devotion and his spiritual instruction, she could purify her family’s karma”. The woman alleges he seduced her the next day, claiming that she would be “strengthened and healed by having sex with him”.
However unconvincing such an argument may sound, the Zen priest Yvonne Rand, who is counselling Janice Doe, points out that the relationship between guru and disciple is one of power and submission. People who seek guidance from a spiritual master want to believe what he or she tells them.
“Many women who seek out spiritual teachers come from dysfunctional families. They may have experienced physical and/or sexual abuse, had no father or bad father relationships, and so is looking for a good father. This creates blind spots in their perception of a teacher.”
Rand is emphatic that such high risk relationships rarely benefit both parties. This opinion is shared by other women who have had sexual liaisons with their gurus. “I was touched by his need for me,” says one, who had a long relationship with a lama, “but it was difficult and strange, in no way a normal relationship. It fuelled my fantasies about having special qualities, but he debunked them. I felt empowered by him but though he treated me with respect, I was always aware he had other lovers.”
Another woman speaks of the confusion that arose from being first a humble devotee, then an exalted sexual partner, then back in the ranks again. “I felt used,” she says “He put his needs above mine.”
More recently, a young English woman attended a residential retreat. She thought she had been singled out for special attention only to discover that she was being invited to join a harem. “At first I was flattered, and very open and trusting. He encouraged me to fall in love with him – but I realised that he was toying with me. I noticed several other young, pretty women going in and out of his apartment, when I confronted him with this; he dropped me for the rest of the time I was there.”
Did she learn anything from her intimacy with the guru? “He gave me good advice, but I am left with a hangover of pain and confusion. I also have doubts about Buddhism. If anything, I have learnt to be more cautious.”
Rand and the British Buddhist teacher Ngakpa Chogyam Rimpoche share the view that the majority of westerners sign up too quickly with their gurus and find themselves in a much more intense relationship than they had bargained for. This is especially true of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism which, at an advanced level, incorporates sexual union into spiritual practice.
Rand believes that westerners often fail to make the distinction between a teacher who helps along the way and a guru who is an enlightened being. “Some Tibetan lamas do not see themselves as accountable in the western sense of the word,” says Ngakpa Chogyam. “They get blown off-centre by too much adulation.”
This potential for adulation makes it vital that teachers accept responsibility for the well being of their students. Responsibility must include, if not celibacy, then extreme care with sex. According to psychologist Deborah Clarke, everyone who enters into a spiritual or therapeutic relationship is vulnerable to exploitation.
“I’d be furious if a guru made a pass at me,” she says. “They should all know by now that people with that sort of power have a moral and ethical duty not to abuse it.
Below is the personal testimony of one of Sogyal’s close personal assistants who ran one of Riga’s European centres for several years, before leaving after becoming increasingly disenchanted by Sogyal’s actions.
In the mid 80′s, during my seven years with Rigpa and 4 years as founding director of a national Rigpa branch, I had slowly discovered that Sogyal Rinpoche had sex with very many disciples. Even though I was very close to SR, it took me some time to notice the obvious. Even though I am a professional counsellor, it took me quite some time to notice it at all, and then it took me even more time to take action. First, at the same time I was shocked and kind of amused, I had mixed feelings about it, because in the beginning I saw that some women tried to get him. First I thought, they are mature woman, they know what they are doing, and I simply am too inexperienced in the exotic ways of Tibetan Lamas to be able to judge. It was much later that I heard stories and saw things which were not based on consent, and saw that he was cheating all the time on the women. Also I noticed that he had sex with young students who just had come to Rigpa retreats for the first time.
There was the harem, and the women seemed to be able and ok with their role in the game. At least I wanted to believe this, still trying to see SR as a holy man. On the other hand, I always found obstacles to consider SR as my guru. I considered myself at that time more like a Buddhist manager and some kind of assistant to SR, rather than as a disciple of his. I could see Dilgo Khyentse or the Dalai Lama as true masters, but SR appeared to me to be just a teacher who teaches Buddhism, or more likely a salesman who sells Buddhism. When I was in charge of my national Rigpa branch, I always exaggerated his qualities in the flyers I produced. I said to SR: either you are true and good and people will find out themselves, or if not they will also find out. So don’t tell them what they should think or how good they should think about you. True quality will speak for itself. With me, he accepted such words, but I heard my successors had to write up his qualities.
I confronted Sogyal first jokingly, then half-heartedly, with my concerns about his behaviour, and I said to him that as a therapist I knew about the transference phenomenon: students see the teacher as kind of a father figure, so sex with the student is psychologically seen as incest. Also, that in the West, the relationship between teacher and student, or priest and the parishioner, must be kept pure, and does not allow for intimate relationships involving sex in any way. He was not amused, and tried to avoid the subject, but he first tried to justify his sexual behaviour spiritually.
First he said that because he is one of the incarnations of Padmasambhava, and that Padmasambhava had many “spiritual consorts”, he would be somehow entitled to do so. Then he played the cultural card: in Tibetan culture women are seen as Dakinis, and they would happily serve the Lamas for enhancing their spiritual power and so on. I am ashamed, but first I wanted to believe all this. I was brought up in a prudish, bourgeois Catholic environment. I was used to playing roughshod with the truth, and to idealize and respect people of position even more than supposedly “holy” men. My spiritual and emotional hunger made be blind to my own values and my professional standards – at least where the standards of the Lama were concerned, however, fortunately not in my own work.
For some years I was blinded by my position of power. I felt that I was establishing a very well-run organisation together with other dear friends which was benefiting many people. I was happy. I was in a very special position. I honestly tried to use my position to the best of my ability. I felt I was chosen, and because of karmic connections with Sogyal, I was finally realising my full potential.
The bitter irony is that because other students saw me as a rather independent, seemingly critical, and reasonable person and because of my professional status as a psychotherapist, some people viewed me as endorsing Sogyal. In fact they envied my special access to SR. I could no longer ignore what was happening. On one occasion Sogyal wanted me to lie on the phone to a woman, who wanted to contact him after having had sex with him but had found that he was in bed with another woman. I refused to be a party to his affairs. He became very angry and yelled at me, but I was not impressed. Basically, he always treated me very well. He seemingly respected me, but now I think he was clever enough not to treat me badly like some of the other students so I would remain loyal. He gave me the feeling that he appreciated my views at least as long I helped him to please the audience and the students. But he never was open to criticism concerning his personal behaviour. Also, he never answered any of my personal spiritual questions. I got more and more the impression that he simply could not answer them. Also, when I attended sessions where he should answer questions from his students, he often gave very stupid answers, and showed that he had not much understanding of what people were really asking. Sometimes he ridiculed people to cover this up.
One of the worst things I experienced was at a winter retreat in Germany. A long term student of his was in emotional distress and asked in obvious pain, vulnerability and confusion for his help, and he forced her to speak louder and then to come forward to the stage where he put her down completely. In my view, he was totally afraid of her, and could not deal with the situation at all. But instead of putting her into safe hands, he tried to save himself by putting her down and ridiculing her, and then played the strong teacher who can deal with everything. That same night, we had to rush her to the emergency ward of the nearest psychiatric hospital with a nervous breakdown and a psychotic seizure.
As a therapist and as a student, I was horrified by his behaviour and his complete lack of compassion and skill. Before I left Rigpa, an American woman told me confidentially and in great distress that she had just lost her husband and had come from US to France to SR to get help, and that SR, during a private audience, had tried to violently force her to have sex with him. Fortunately, she managed to escape being raped. She left the retreat in even greater despair and completely shocked. This was the worst incident which I heard at first hand.
SR did not respect any limits: he had sex with most of the wives of the leading students at Rigpa. I tried to keep myself and my private life out of his. I tried not to get mixed up with his affairs. Sogyal had a classical harem, and he knew all the tricks to make the obvious invisible, or if that did not work, to change the context of the students’ values, giving the whole thing a spiritual excuse, and abuse fears and naivety, or the good belief of his students to get what he wanted. It’s 12 years ago since I quit Rigpa, so I have no first-hand information of SR’s activities now, but I must say I have little doubt that everything is the same today, because I consider him an addict. He is hooked on sex and power.
When I have more time I will write more professionally on the psychology of the guru-student relationship and of abuse. What interests me most is why people “allow themselves” to be abused and what hinders them to see the truth. And how to help others to discover their own truth, and how to stop people like SR from going on.
July 23, 2000
The British philosopher Bertrand Russell takes a taxi. Recognising the face of his famous fare the cabbie sits back comfortably in his seat,
emits theexpansive sigh of one who is willing to be enlightened as long as the meter is running, and intones the immortal line: “Orright guv,
wot’s it all abaht then?” Last week, I was longing for somebody to ask me the same question. For the first time since 1970 when it
took me five minutes to explain the foundations of historical materialism to Con Houlihan of the Evening Press I wanted to make an
attempt at an answer. My confidence came from completing an intensive nine-day retreat conducted by the great Tibetan teacher,
Sogyal Rimpoche, at Dzogchen Beara, the Buddhist centre on the Beara Peninsula.
A late interest in religion can mean either last-minute nerves or an indication of incipient insanity.- But in this case let me try to take the miss out of your conceptions. No, I have not converted to Buddhism because you can’t. Buddhism is not really a religion, more a set of spiritual teachings. And the main reason I went to Dzogchen Beara was because it was where my late friend Jonathan Philbin Bowman had found spiritual solace.
Dzogchen Beara is not some Shangri-la staffed by shavenheaded nubiles in saffron robes. Its other name is Garranes hostel, and it’s a rucksack-friendly renovated farmhouse, five miles outside Casltetownbere. The only difference is that after breakfast you can take part in a guided meditation in a shrine room. This is what I did for a few days in May in memory of Jonathan.
While doing so I began to read Rinpoche’s book, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. I already knew dying was some- thing Buddhists did really well. Back in May, Bob Collins, a former colleague of mine from RTE and a Buddhist, was suffering from cancer with courage beyond my comprehension. He has since died, but having read Rinpoche’s book I now know why he was able to die like a warrior.
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, already an accepted spiritual classic, is one of the few books we need to read before we shuffle off the mortal coil. It belongs on the short shelf of timeless spiritual testimony, beside the Confessions of St Augustine, Thomas a Kempis’s Imitation of Christ, Pascal’s Pensees, John Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress and James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner.
By the time I had finished the book I knew Tibetan Buddhism deserved closer study. So I signed up for a nine-day July retreat by Rinpoche, a teacher from the same great classical tradition as the Dalai Lama. Thanks to the Chinese invasion, Tibetan teachers, like Soviet dissidents 30 years ago, now tour the western world, teaching us how to think about the way we think, and showing us what it has to do with dying with dignity.
Rinpoche’s retreat was as stimulating as lunch with Conor Cruise O’Brien. In the flesh Rinpoche bears a dis-concerting resemblance to Pat Rabbitte. Beaming at you with a benign gaze he breaks down your belief in western dualism and explains why Buddhists believe that mind is the matter. An experimental rather than expository teacher (like Brendan Kennelly or the late Gus Martin) Rinpoche does not bake the same boring bread every time he talks.His teaching tapes reveal, Rinpoche has taken Aristotle’s advice and -uses comedy as a teaching tool. Fluent in English and French he pokes pointed and politically’ incorrect fun at national characteristics which are no longer supposed to exist. In Paris he ponders the French passion for talking about the theory of meditation, adding: “But maybe you are not so good on the practice.” Rinpoche rejects esoteric meditation practices, and recommends that Westerners sit on a chair, minus mantras, eyes wide open to the world, and let their minds settle “spaciously”. In Amsterdam he tells Buddhist groupies to get a grip, doing a deadly take-off of dropouts drooling as they “meditate”. In Stockholm he warns his audience against “sauna” meditation, telling the Swedes to stop looking so glum, and warning them to stop looking for instant insights. “Monday I come to Stockholm and its raining. Tuesday I commit suicide. Friday the sun shines. But it’s no good, because I am not around any more.”
Rinpoche’s real business is bringing the four noble truths of Buddhism to the Western world. (Brace yourself for a bit of necessary reductionism.) Life is suffering. Suffering is caused by craving. Stop craving and you stop suffering. To do that you must, master your mind and adopt an ethical existence. Don’t bother writing to tell me Christianity says the same thing. It does not, or at least not as) baldly as Buddha does. (Buddha means merely one who is aware.), Buddhism says that suffering, starts in the mind. Ego is always egging us on, distorting reality and making us slaves of the delusions which dog our daily lives.
Buddhism in short is not so much about loving your neighbour as not labelling him so that you don’t have to love him. The historical Buddha sat under a tree 600 years before Christ was born, and said: “We are what we think. With our thoughts we make the world.” The integrity of that insight needs no Christian prop. There are two reasons why we in Ireland should reflect on the teachings of Sogyal Rinpoche. First, even Celtic tigers have to die. Rinpoche’s book is about getting ready for the day we have to do it. Second, we all suffer. Buddha says we suffer because we want things to be, not what they are, but what we want them to be. I think nationalists and unionists might meditate on that with profit. At the risk of becoming a Buddha bore I shall look at Irish politics from now on with slightly slanted eyes.
Sunday Times Irish Edition
Time for Ireland to see the light;
July 23, 2000. p 20
Filed under: RIGPA