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.”
Marie Lefevre had a salaried job with Rigpa Paris, working for 8 to 12 hours a day. She witnessed a number of circumstances and events which aroused grave doubts and caused her to leave.
“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 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 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 prophesy 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.