The 1980s was a period of phenomenal expansion in the number of people seeking instruction in Tibetan Buddhism – especially in America. As news of the lush lifestyles enjoyed by lamas in the developed world spread to the austere monastic institutions in India and Nepal, more and more of them packed their bags and flew off to fulfil the demand.
It soon became clear that not only would they live in luxury, but also that teaching Vajrayana Buddhism represented a major source of income for the Tibetan diaspora. Sogyal set his sights on California.
Victoria Barlow encountered Sogyal on his first visit to the West Coast. According to Victoria, he aired views which are diametrically opposed to his present role as a champion of the Dalai Lama, who belongs to the monastic Gelug school. Sogyal is a Nyingmapa– an older, largely non-celibate tradition.
“Sogyal loathed the Gelugpas and the DL,“ she says, “ I heard him in Berkeley being a staggering sectarian hater — he expressed real rage to all who would listen, trashing the Dalai Lama.”
Despite his politically incorrect outbursts, Sogyal’s style went down well with Californian audiences. This probably had something to do with the fact that Tibetan Buddhism was virgin territory for most Americans, so the lack of substance in his teachings was not immediately apparent.
His appeal lay in the Shangri-la myths and legends surrounding all things Tibetan. Sogyal’s American audiences had few points of reference to give focus to their enthusiasm, and like many people in many countries, they were hungry for what seemed to them to be authentic access to an ancient esoteric tradition.
One of the Californians impressed by Sogyal was Christine Longaker, who at that time was director of the Hospice of Santa Cruz County in the San Francisco Bay area. This smart woman made a connection between Tibetan texts dealing with death and the after-death state – and her work in palliative care for the dying. She shared her insights with Sogyal – who swiftly realised that this could turn out to be his passport to fame and fortune.
He was right. From the mid 1980s onwards Sogyal set his acolytes the task of researching information on western attitudes to death and dying – and linking these with The Tibetan Book of the Dead. This text is attributed to Padmasambhava, an 8th century yogi credited as the founding father of Buddhism in Tibet. Originally translated into English in 1927, it was essential reading for hippies and well-thumbed copies were passed around the traveller communities in India. Some found their way into San Francisco bookshops.
Once he had his research data, Sogyal started lecturing on Spiritual Care for the Dying — challenging deeply entrenched taboos and attracting large audiences, including many people experiencing various stages of terminal illness and grieving. It is beyond doubt that within a western cultural context, Sogyal was delivering a seismic shift. It was pioneered by the psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler Ross, but the addition of Sogyal’s Tibetan Buddhist perspective was a radical new formula – which suggested that rather than a source of fear, death can be treated as source of inspiration.