In June 1993, less than a year after the publication of the TBOLD, a young and beautiful woman in a state of acute distress over the death of her father went to a Rigpa retreat in Connecticut, USA. After one of Sogyal’s lectures she sent him a written question:
“How can I help my father now that he’s dead?”
Sogyal’s response was to invite her to his room. The woman, Dierdre Smith, says she was ‘completely vulnerable’.” I might as well have had a notice round my neck saying Abuse Me!” She wept as she recounted the circumstances of her father’s death from a drug overdose.
“He asked me to massage him — I was in awe of him as the important guru, so I did as he wished. Then he told me he was my personal teacher and was going to help me. I was very excited about this and called my husband to tell him that everything was going to be OK.
“Sogyal asked me to come back the following day, with a picture of myself and of my father. It was all very paternal and he kept saying I should trust him”
“It was about 10.30 at night when I arrived. He took his clothes off and got into bed. I was embarrassed and didn’t know where to look – but he said I should feel safe because we were in a shrine. The room was lit with candles and there were pictures of Buddhas all around.”
A long seduction followed, that lasted into the small hours.
The reluctant, grief-stricken Dierdre protested that she did not want to cheat on her husband — but Sogyal persisted, insisting that having sex with him would benefit her father’s karma:
“He ground me down”, she says, “ it was the same thing over and over – Do you love me? Do you trust me? It must have gone on for about six hours. Eventually I was exhausted and gave up resisting. The whole thing revolved around surrender to him and I was scared of losing the opportunity to heal my family.”
Dierdre was told by Rigpa devotees that if you have negative feelings, you destroy your relationship with the guru. With hindsight, she sees this as a cultish manoeuvre designed to smother dissent, but at the time she did not question this and other injunctions – including one from Sogyal swearing her to secrecy about the seduction.
Sogyal insisted that he loved her, wanted to take care of her and that she should see him as her family. He phoned her every day until they met again six months later. Dierdre flew to France at her own expense, expecting to be a normal student. Instead, she was isolated in a separate house and told not to talk to anyone:
“I only left the house to go to the teachings, where I saw 500 people prostrating themselves to the lama. The rest of the time I listened to him on tape, saying things like ‘pray to me, see me as the Buddha, love me, trust me, be obedient to me’ “
For several months Dierdre put her everyday life on hold and travelled with Sogyal as his servant, sex partner and arm candy. She recounts how the smile on Sogyal’s face and the unctuous charm of his of his public presentation vanished the moment they were hidden from view:
“There must have been about 10 women in his inner circle,” she says, and it was our job to attend to his every need. We bathed him, dressed him, cooked for him, carried his suitcases, ironed his clothes and were available for sex. He was a tyrant. Nothing we did was ever good enough. He went into screaming rages and beat us. If I tried to question the way he treated us, he became angry. The only way to avoid this was to stay silent and submissive.”
According to former Rigpa insiders, Sogyal’s team of regular sex partner-attendants were the core group of a sub-sect of Rigpa known as Lama Care. This was set up specifically to make sure that women were available for sex with Sogyal wherever he travelled.
In common with other women who have spoken about their experiences with Sogyal, Dierdre recounts how she hardly ever slept, had no time to eat properly and lost 15 pounds during the first two weeks of her time with him.
“I looked pretty sickly”, she recalls. Yet despite the brainwashing and the abuse, the women in Sogyal’s harem regarded themselves as highly privileged:
“They kept on saying how lucky we were to be close to the guru, how we had special teachings and how much he loved us.”
Indoctrination into the inner circle is designed as a life sentence. A young, vulnerable woman is programmed to accept Sogyal’s god-like status and to be compliant with his wishes and whims, slave-like in her willingness to accept a punishing workload and available for sex on demand. She is separated from her family and friends, discouraged from contact with the outside world and persuaded to see Rigpa as her family, with Sogyal (confusingly as father-lover) in absolute power and control.
In the majority of cases, it works. By the time these women realise they are being abused and exploited and are deeply embedded in a coercive cult, it is too late for them to extricate themselves. Their investment is total and their chances of making lives for themselves beyond Rigpa have dwindled into non-existence.
But in some instances, Sogyal’s choices backfired on him. Back in 1994, it slowly dawned on Dierdre that she was being exploited.
“At first”, she says, “I was willing to give up everything for the promise of healing my family, saving the world and being useful, but as these illusions started to melt away I realised I had caused a lot of harm – I’d made myself sick and I’d hurt my husband.”
During her last retreat with Sogyal, Dierdre found out about the scandals surrounding Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and his regent Osel Tendzin (Thomas Rich), who infected several people with HIV.
“I was terrified I’d given my husband HIV” she says, “so I told Sogyal I wanted to leave.” He was very angry, probably because I knew too much about his promiscuity and his lies. I remember sitting on his bed with him and he shouted at me ‘get these crazy ideas out of your head’ and at the same time he was hitting me hard on the head, one side and then the other.”
So what finally drove Dierdre away?
“Mostly it was the beatings and because Sogyal kept on telling me I was a burden to him. It was bewildering, because at the same time he tried to persuade me to stay – saying that by serving him I was serving the world. But there he was with all these people attending to everything he demanded and there was my husband who was alone and ill at the time, begging me not to leave him.”
Regardless of Sogyal’s threats (including aeons in the hell realms), protestations and persuasions , Dierdre left. But after returning to her long-suffering husband, she discovered that leaving was not as easy as physically walking out. Like many others who detach themselves from abusive relationships and coercive cults, she found herself dealing with a psycho-emotional hangover. By this time a lot less naïve than she was when she first encountered Sogyal, Dierdre sought help from several counsellors, including a strong-minded Californian Zen teacher who had herself been a victim of a sexually abusive guru.
“It is harmful to both student and teacher”, the teacher says, “because they end up slipping into a fantasy realm, rather than cultivating awareness of the Buddhist path. Americans are more sophisticated now — we know about the long term damage inherent in relationships where there is a power imbalance.”