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.