The squat lasted only a few months. At first Sogyal was “one of the boys”, but
took off for a while to visit Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who pioneered Tibetan Buddhism in the USA. Trungpa was a formidably intelligent iconoclast who acquired a nationwide following, with a formula that shook Buddhist America to the core and generated enthusiasm wherever he alighted. In contrast to the more familiar austerities of Zen Buddhism, Trungpa offered authentic Tibetan theory and practice in tandem with a sybaritic lifestyle.
An early American seeker, Victoria Barlow, recalls meeting Sogyal in Boulder, Colorado in 1976:
“Sogyal was enthralled by Trungpa’s sexual conquests,” she says, “he told me outright that he wanted what Trungpa had and aimed to achieve a rock star lifestyle.”
Sogyal returned to London in a radically altered state of mind – berating his students for their lack of worldly ambition and demanding to be treated like a “precious one”. Around this time Sogyal met up with Ngakpa Chogyam, a Englishman who later became a Buddhist teacher.
“At first he was quite friendly”, says Chogyam, “but later he let me know that he was a distinctly superior being and that I was no longer to address him as Sogyal.”
Around this time Sogyal launched into his habit of publicly humiliating his close followers – berating for them for even minor errors in front of a roomful of people. Patrick Gaffney is the only one to be spared these ordeals.
He was still doing it in 2011. A woman (Lalatee) who attended a retreat at Dzogchen Beara, the Rigpa centre in Ireland, was profoundly shocked by Sogyal’s behaviour:
“I experienced what at best could be termed disrespect, at worst abuse of his colleagues and disciples. He was regularly late and often over-ran the sessions by several hours. He was insulting to the Irish people, about his assistants and to individual course participants. The last straw for me was when he called a senior assistant to come to the dais. She’s a respected professional in her 60s doing amazing work with the bereaved and the dying. She was forced to kneel beside Sogyal, while he embraced her closely and put his hand on her chest. I could see that she was embarrassed and uncomfortable. Sogyal proceeded to stroke her face, looking deeply into her eyes. When she pulled back slightly, he turned to the 250 people present and said ‘this is none of your business, turn away’. So 250 people twisted round in their seats and looked away. If that is not crowd manipulation and abuse, I don’t know what is. At the very least it shows complete disregard for western social mores and ethical behaviour.”
Also in 2011 another woman (Myra) attended a Rigpa retreat at Myall Lakes in Australia.
“Sogyal seemed arrogant and uncaring. He was habitually an hour or more late and after he turned up would spend another hour and half criticising his older students. Meanwhile, several hundred people who had already waited a long time had to witness this, not understanding what was going on. Many of them were new to Rigpa. Sogyal then gave his senior students orders about how he wanted the presentation to be prepared for the next day. I know they sometimes stayed up all night working on a new version, but next day when Sogyal arrived everything would be all wrong again and there would be another diatribe.”
Myra asked older students about Sogyal’s behaviour:
“One explanation given to justify it was that he aims to shock people out of their habitual thinking – that he’s a Vajra Master and doesn’t conform to the same samsaric standards as we do. I couldn’t help thinking that if he’s really a Vajra Master why does he need to follow a precise order of events? Why are the prepared readings and video excerpts so important? I really think there’s something else going on.”
Back in the 1970s, the man who now insisted on being called Rinpoche exhorted his flock to focus their attention on attracting money and on improving the style, content and comfort levels of the Chatsworth Road house.
“He was a slave driver”, says one squatter, Jack, “he had us working flat out, restoring the house, building a shrine, putting up shelves and so on – while he sat around directing operations.” People like businessman Jean Lanoe involved in the construction of the Lerab Ling temple would affirm that in this respect also, Sogyal has not changed.