Tibetan Buddhism’s festering abscess
For many years, those with their ears to the ground have heard rumours – and some proven cases – of abuse, particularly sexual abuse, perpetrated by teachers operating under the mantle of Tibetan Buddhism.1
But, thanks in no small part to the endless kindness of the Dalai Lama, this form of Buddhism has long enjoyed a particularly good press. It was therefore easy to take the view that the problem only concerned “just a few bad apples” – a view similar to what used to rule in the Catholic church and the entertainment industry.
In entertainment, the allegations about Harvey Weinstein published by the New York Times on 5 October 2017 seem to have been the sharp stick that burst the bubble. In the Tibetan Buddhist world, a letter written on 14 July by eight long-term students of Sogyal Lakar, widely known as Sogyal Rinpoche, that split the blister. Initially semi-private, addressed to Sogyal but copied to the Dalai Lama, to other important teachers and to some of Sogyal’s closer students, it was soon leaked. Within days the issue was wide open on social media.
But rather than relate the whole story, which would take the kind of investigative journalism for which I have neither the time nor the resources, let me list here the salient points that are either beyond reasonable doubt or which appear very likely. I’ll finish with a few scattered observations.
1) Sogyal received very little Buddhist training
At the age of six months he was sent off to be brought up by his uncle and aunt. The uncle, by marriage, was Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lödro.2 Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lödro had by then become a noted figure in a certain part of the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy.
Although Sogyal has made great play of having absorbed a great understanding and knowledge of Nyingma3 teachings from his uncle as a result of living with him, it should be noted that he was born in 1947; by 1956, i.e. at the age of around nine, he was sent to St. Augustine’s School in Sikkim to start his Western education, and later to St. Stephen’s College in New Delhi. Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lödro, the uncle, died in 1959.
This means that Sogyal was given the kind of education – a good education, let it be said – that the wealthy could afford in India at the time. But there was simply never any time for the many years of study and the years of meditation retreat that are appropriate for a high-level teacher of Tibetan Buddhism.
2) Serious doubts about Sogyal’s recognition
Sogyal was probably not ever recognised as being the tulku4 (reincarnation, in simple terms) of Sogyal Lerab Lingpa5 that he claims. That revered personage died in 1926. Two tulkus, one born in 1926 and one in 1933, were recognised, and did the usual kind of religious leadership thing that would be expected.
It is not impossible in the Tibetan tradition for a third person (or even fourth and fifth) to be recognised as some kind of emanation of a previous teacher, but these things are normally attended with fanfare, ceremony, the presentation of bolts of cloth, letters of recognition and so forth. In Sogyal’s case there is no evidence of any such things.
All that we have is that his mother (yes, the one with whom he did not grow up) says that Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lödro gave her a handwritten note to that effect. The note, however is not available, having been left behind in Tibet. At this point it is worth remembering that the family did not exactly “flee” in the sense of escaping for their lives with Chinese soldiers in pursuit. They left, perhaps sensibly enough, while it was still possible just to pack up and go. And they had the money to do it.
There is an official biography of Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lödro. The introduction to that book refers to the “cast of thousands of unknown lamas” who appear in it. Sogyal, however, scarcely a gets a look in.
He is credited for some of the photographs in the book, and otherwise is mentioned one single time, as one of a number of people in one of his uncle’s dreams. In the dream, the uncle “sensed there was a row of people and that he (the divine prince of Derge, as it happens – AW) was beating them – Lakar Sogyal, for example.”
Not much for an narrative laden down with teachings given and received, recognitions, enthronement and so forth.
3) Lawsuit for sexual abuse settled out of court
In 1994 a civil lawsuit was filed in America against Sogyal. It alleged that he used his position to convince one of his female students to have sexual relations with him. The complaint included breach of fiduciary duty, assault and battery. The sum in question was $10 million, but unfortunately the case was settled out of court, in all probability for a much lower sum. This is therefore technically not an admission of guilt, and all details were brushed under the carpet, tied up with non-disclosure clauses.
4) The letter was written
Rumours are only rumours, of course, but rumours of extreme sexual indulgence including abuse and violence have circulated for years. And in 2017, as mentioned above, eight senior students got together and wrote a letter detailing their complaints.
The eight students had on average followed Sogyal for more than 20 years each, and in the ten or so pages of the letter they refer to their deep concern about his “violent and abusive behaviour”, calling it “unethical and immoral”. They discuss, in some detail, what they say is his “physical, emotional and psychological abuse of students,”, his “sexual abuse of students”, his open lavish, gluttonous and sybaritic lifestyle”, saying that his “actions have tainted our appreciation for the practice” of Buddhism.
These points are covered in some detail, and include an acknowledgement that “most of the public critique … that is found on the Internet is factual.”
The letter is now publicly and easily available.
5) Damage containment
Sogyal’s organisation, known as Rigpa, rapidly took up a defensive posture. On 11 August, Patrick Gaffney6, one of Sogyal’s closest lieutenants, and Dominique Side, advertised as “one of Sogyal Rinpoche’s most senior students”, gave a talk at Lerab Ling, Sogyal’s major centre in France.
They proposed to talk about what was happening. Much was said about how the students might cope with the scandal, how they might maintain their connection with Sogyal. Notable, by its absence, was any reference to the victims.
6) HH Dalai Lama pronounces Sogyal “disgraced”
An important tipping point came on 1 August (2017) when none other than the Dalai Lama clearly stated that “Sogyal is disgraced”. The Dalai Lama has no formal authority in cases like this, but his standing in the world and in the Tibetan community is so high that a clear recognition – late as it is in arriving – carries huge weight, and makes it much more difficult for other Tibetans to ignore the situation.
A few other important figures have since come out with an explicit denunciation of Sogyal’s behaviour – Matthieu Ricard, for example, and Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche7, on the other hand gave a rambling and equivocal response, while others have shown a distressing tendency to close ranks.
7) Retirement – of sorts
Since that time Sogyal himself has all but disappeared from view. It would appear that he has been treated for cancer of the colon8. There are reports of police investigations, in particular regarding violence, but no charges have yet been laid.
What have his associates said?
- Orgyen Tobgyal has been prominent in the Rigpa activities.
It is reported that he talked at some length on 18 October 2017, in the Rigpa centre in Paris. The gist was what I judge to be a very narrow, literalistic interpretation of seeing the lama as Buddha, including:
“Such great beings, whether it corresponds to western ideas or not, if they kill someone, no problem. Beating hard increases wisdom. It seems you don’t have that tradition in Europe.”
Beatings, even extending to fatalities, are pronounced proper, here!
- There is a group of Sogyal’s supporters on Facebook.
One prominent poster there, going under the name, Osel Ling, has had some interesting things to say. For example:
“OTR said during the Drupchen, in May this year: “Don’t hang around with Samaya breakers. Samaya can be purified with heart-felt regrets. But many people in L.Ling and outside have broken their Samaya, and have NO regrets! Don’t hang around with them! Very dangerous!
Then He added: “If a single person has broken Samaya in the gathering, then no result in practice! But Samaya can be purified with heartfelt and tearful regrets.”
In other words, if a Rigpa student feels that someone in the audience is a “samaya breaker”, the breaker needs to be kicked out of the event, and removed from one’s social circle. A textbook example of cult-thinking, I suggest.
An important milestone on the path to cultishness is the jump over the ditch from “we are special, therefore we try to bring our specialness to others, help them see the light and help them with their spiritual and physical problems” to “we are special, therefore we must exclude others, must not listen to them or socialise with them, to preserve our purity.”
Not that I’m fond of Christian quotes, but I think Jesus had something to say about that.
- Another sample of the wisdom of Osel Ling.
“Also when great Lamas directly or thru scriptures, warn against unrepentant Samaya breakers, THEY KNOW the implications and subtle influences they may have on us, without us being even aware of it. Even the strongest of us may be in an unnoticeable way swayed… the group of 8 started with one! “In Vajrayana you don’t question the Lama. You do what the Lama says!” Dixit O.T.R.”
- We also have Khenchen Namdrol Rinpoche’s concluding words and advice given to Sogyal’s disciples at Lerab Ling on 23 Sept 2017. He had no sympathy for the eight letter-writers:
“But whether they really know it or not, that was really an attempt to not only just disparage the Master but to try to destroy Him and everything that he’s done!”
I think these words speak for themselves.
- Another eye-opener.
Just when I was thinking that I would leave the Facebook group concerned because it is both stupid and boring, along came the gem below. How far have these people strayed into a mere cult of personality? Judge for yourselves. The following was posted by “Osel Ling” (as above) at 09:57 on 5 January 2018. This is an unedited paste of the whole posting.
These are a few words from Sogyal Rinpoche, on how Masters in the Tibetan Tradition may remove obstacles.
A teaching the fools, who not only as Khenchen Namdrol Rinpoche puts it “disparaged the Master but tried to destroy Him and everything that He’s done!”, probably never heard!
Sogyal Rinpoche’s Teaching:
“When a Lama hits you with his hand or robe, it’s to remove obstacles, spirits or hindrances that have been disturbing you for many years.
Some do it in a very gentle manner, they rub you on your back, say nice words, some do it in a very direct manner. Why?
It depends on the level of your mind.
Then he added chuckling: “The ones you slap, may slap you back!”
“The people who are sick, in doubt, who have lots of problems, the Lama will care for them more, touch them more, give them affection, why?
They are more disturbed! Obstacles need to be removed all the time.
So, the ones who get the most affection or attention from the Lama, who run around saying: “Oh! I’m very close to the Lama, I’m special!”
Yes, you are!
So, don’t think it’s anything great.
Wrath, is for people who are creating suffering for themselves and others. Against Maras.
So, whatsoever the Lama does, calling you names, hitting you, teasing you, change your jobs, is to purify your Karma, is to help you.
When you make difficulty, when you resist, you loose!”
Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö, Rinpoche’s uncle with whom he lived until he was about 10, has already been mentioned. There clearly was not time to give Sogyal more than an elementary education during that phase of his life, but it is not unlikely that the uncle’s example and character had an influence on him, possibly a deep one. Uncle appears, however to have been a flawed, not to say seriously unpleasant character, as can be read in his official biography. According to Orgyen Tobgyal:
“Monks were punished ten at a time. When a flogging was called for, Rinpoche insisted on four or five hundred lashes, never a mere hundred, and he always watched from the window of his residence as the punishment was meted out.”
Now that’s how to get the blessing in! Sogyal is meek and mild in comparison. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that the ground was fertile for a sadistic streak to develop.
So just what is the score?
Progress is far too slow. Apologies are missing. The “Vision Board” announced by Rigpa at the beginning of this year looks like a charade – it is reported that Rigpa stated that “Orgyen Topgyal guided the decision making, and that Khenpo Namdrol was named as a principal advisor”. You met those two above. I don’t know what has happened to Rigpa’s pledge to “set up an independent investigation by a neutral third party into the allegations made against Sogyal Rinpoche in July 2017” – but this sure ain’t it!
On 11 January 2017 a second letter9 was released, more publicly this time, by seven of the original “plaintiffs”. In very measured tones it clarifies Rigpa’s utter failure to respond properly to the victims, and its attempts to dissimulate and to deflect the consequences both of Sogyal Lakar’s shameless behaviour and of their own connivance.
- And important example is Behind the Thangkas, an “an expose of the activities of Sogyal Rinpoche” published by journalist Mary Finnigan in 2011. Read and be appalled!
- If you dig into this story you will find a lot of of Jamyangs and a lot of Khyentses, so try to hang on to that name if you can.
- The “Old Translation” school of Tibetan Buddhism. There are three or four other major schools.
- This discussion of tulkus may seem beside the point to those readers who don’t give the tulku system any credence, but believe me, in this context it really matters!
- The name “Sogyal”, as is common in Tibetan, is an abbreviation – the two names are not really the same.
- Along with Andrew Harvey, who moved on to other pastures longer ago, and who barely mentions Sogyal in his own web biography, Patrick Gaffney was one of the co-authors of the “Tibetan Book of Living and Dying”, credited to Sogyal. Not an unpleasant read, the book has been a major pillar in Sogyal’s success. The title is a riff on the well-known “Tibetan Book of the Dead”. This is a highly misleading title for a translation of what in reality is a fairly obscure Tibetan text. In its time – it was first published in 1927 – that title itself riffed on the then-popular Egyptian Book of the Dead.
- A prominent quasi-hereditary tulku, recognised as the tulku of the “whipping lama” mentioned above, Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lödro
- Orgyen Tobgyal, along with Khenchen Namdrol Rinpoche, (see below) have blamed the “broken samaya (faith)” of Sogyal’s students for this illness.
- The text is currently available at the What Now blog