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Sogyal Lakar’s rise and fall

I just read Mary Finnigan’s and Rob Hogendoorn’s book on rise and fall of Sogyal Lakar:
I wrote this review at Amazon, which I hope will soon be visible:

This book is well worth a read by anyone involved in or interested in any spiritual movement.

It includes an almost forensic – yet very readable – dissection of how a sexually voracious and ultimately abusive, untrained and unqualified opportunist, Sogyal Lakar, seized the opportunity offered by a constellation of factors: Westerners’ spiritual hunger and the gullibility that thrives in the needy; an unwillingness to probe; a simple inability to ask the right questions, because of our ignorance; a willingness to indulge the sexual and culinary gluttony of someone believed to be extraordinary; the patriarchal, even misogynistic culture of old Tibet, along with its class-ridden unwillingness to be seen to criticise; the only-too-understandable urge of the Tibetan community – a community that has been slaughtered and tortured out of its own land – to pull together and look after its own, trying to sweep the appalling behaviour of one of its best-known representatives under the sofa. These are some of the ingredients of this ghastly cocktail.

I have been personally involved in Tibetan Buddhism for a long time; I have done my best to study and practice it, and I have been lucky enough to meet some awe-inspiring teachers (and students) of both high and low “status”. It means a great deal to me, and I have no doubt at all about the richness and value of this tradition. I therefore find it particularly important that we open our eyes to this kind of abuse and call it for what it is. Otherwise it will fester like gangrene.

I do feel that the last part of the book, which details the unravelling of Sogyal’s empire over the last year or two, will be less interesting to the general reader, although it is valuable to have the process documented. The earlier, and major, part of the work will be of much wider interest. It describes how a minor figure – with not a lot of education and very few contacts – parlayed not much more than the fact that he was Tibetan whose uncle was a well-known teacher into his dizzying later position. He became the second-best known representative of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, heading up an organisation devoted to absorbing his ill-will and satisfying his ill-adjusted needs. An illuminating read, with lessons for many of us.

45 years

45 years ago today since I officially took refuge. I got this mala at the same time, though it was totally plain then.

“Aye, lad, ‘appen as ‘ow there’s bin a bit o’ muttering gone down on them beads since ’74.”

Miracles and Signs

Warning: some woo-woo content.

I can’t get away from a sneaky feeling that miracles sometimes do actually happen. And it has been said before that real miracles are often things that could or would have happened anyway. The question always is: of all the things that could have happened, why this particular one? At this particular time and place?

If we can go with that idea for a minute, it follows that things that were kind of going to happen anyway can still be mysterious signs, messages from the forces that make the universe configure itself just as it does.

Vapour trails, for example, don’t demand any special explanation. No special explanation is needed as to why the above display dominated the sky just before dawn today as I was  getting ready for my morning practice. Or what?

Chöd with a straight bat

(For clarity – the picture above is just one I found on the net. I don’t know who it is, or whose the picture is.)

Soglio. Almost impossible to find on the map, and, as you can see, even the signpost has fallen on very hard times. But it’s this track-junction that is relevant to my story, rather than Soglio itself.

Saturday was one of those winter’s days one likes. Quite cool, but bright, warm sunshine and no wind. I decided to take the car up to this junction and park it – you’ll see that there is enough room to pull off the road to the left of the sign. It’s only five minutes in the car from home.

I then set out with my gear, scrabbling for another three or four minutes through the bushes to the top of the hill. Not one of those things that looks like a hilltop but just turns out to be a point on a ridge that leads further up; no, a real top-of-the-hill, carpeted with dry chestnut leaves. I came across one or two paths, but evidently of animal origin, not human. Wild boar and a small species of deer are quite common here.

I laid out my mat, and got out the gear – the text, the chöd drum, bell, kangling, red and white shawl – and chanted my way through the concise feast. Great.

(Ironical, isn’t it, how much kit you want in order to enjoy the simplicity of Buddhist meditation?)

As I was finishing, however, I heard voices approaching. Two Italian guys, probably in their 60s, were drawing near, together with a dog. Hunters? I guessed that they had heard the tok-tok of the drum, the ting-ting of the bell, and perhaps even the nyeeehhhaaahh of the kangling.

I did wonder what I was going to say. Would they interrogate me? Would they tell me I shouldn’t be there? Would they tell me that I needed a permit to meditate, filled out in quintuplicate including my tax code, decorated with a €14 tax stamp and faxed to the office for anomalous cultural activities at the end of the last corridor on the top floor of the town hall, whose fax number is available on application, with presentation of one’s ID papers, from the responsible authorities? Though I never liked cricket, I think the metaphor applies: I decided to play it with a totally straight bat.

“Buongiorno, Salve!” I called, cheerfully.

“Buongiorno,” they replied, commenting to each other about “il signor con i capelli lunghi”, which is something like “the Mister with long hair”, except that it doesn’t sound that stupid in Italian. I should mention that I keep what little hair I have left in a topknot these days. They asked me what I was doing, and whether I was sleeping there. “No, no,” I said, explaining that I lived in the village in the valley below.

At this point I leaned forward, conspiratorially, and told them that, “The thing is – I’m a Buddhist!”

The expression that flooded across their faces simultaneously was a sight to see. Can you guess? It was total relief! No, this was not some weirdo trying to live out in the woods, nor a refugee from justice, nor a house burglar trying to hide ill-gotten gains under a boulder, nor an illegal mushroom-hunter, nor yet an illegal immigrant. It was just a harmless eccentric English guy!

“Oh,” said the one, “you were praying?”

This was not the time to launch into an explanation of how meditation, ritual and prayer relate to one another in the context of Tibetan Buddhism, and how they compare with or differ from the equivalents in Christianity, so I said “Yes, more or less.”

They proceeded to tell me what a beautiful spot it was, and how the was an artist they knew who also goes there from time to time for the beauty and peace.

They told me that they were ex-hunters, which seemed a slightly unusual thing to say. Perhaps they felt uneasy in the presence of this potentially saintly (if only they knew) unknown quantity. In any event, the dog might have been a hunting dog, but they didn’t have guns with them. Perhaps I should explain that hunting dogs here are not aggressive animals bred to take down their prey – they are inquisitive, friendly, high-energy beasts, whose job is to charge around making a fuss so that the boar or deer breaks cover and becomes a target of the hunters’ guns. (That’s how it is.)

And so, finally, they wished me a good day, and went off, saying that they would not disturb me any further.