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Here we present a review of a recent book about the life of the disgraced Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Sogyal Rimpoche.
Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism: The Rise and Fall of Sogyal Rimpoche
by Mary Finnigan and Rob Hogendoorn. Portland, Oregon: Jorvik Press, 2019, pback, 191pp., £15.95
review by Dhivan
The headline comes from an address by the Dalai Lama, given in Ladakh in August 2017, after eight former students of Sogyal Rimpoche wrote an open letter to their teacher, regarding his physical and sexual abuse of students as well as his indulgent lifestyle. Although accusations of abuse against him went back to 1990, this letter was the beginning of the end for a Tibetan teacher who had headed Rigpa, a large and successful international Buddhist movement. For the Dalai Lama to publicly acknowledge that Sogyal Rimpoche was disgraced was significant, in that Tibetan teachers generally do not comment on such matters. Sogyal stepped back from involvement in the movement he had founded, and died of cancer in Thailand in 2019. The future of Rigpa is now in doubt, with members of Sogyal’s inner circle, who have been found to be complicit in his abuse, apparently still involved.
This is a brief summary of the conclusion to Sogyal Rimpoche’s career. It is well known in the Buddhist world, but described in step by step detail in the second half of this new book by Mary Finnigan and Rob Hogendoorn. The first half gives an account of Sogyal Rimpoche’s origins and early life in Tibet and India, researched by Rob Hogendoorn, and the first days of Sogyal’s teaching career in the west, written by Mary Finnigan, who was at first an eager young disciple. What Finnigan and Hogendoorn wish to convey is that Sogyal Rimpoche was not a reincarnate lama (a tulku) and had never been a monk. Instead, he was merely a nephew of the Tibetan reincarnate lama, Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro (who himself comes across in the book as an unpleasantly irascible figure), with whom he travelled from Tibet to India in the early 1950s. Sogyal went to a Roman Catholic school in Kalimpong, and had little Buddhist education. How Sogyal went on to become such a successful guru appeared to be down to his charisma.
Finnigan met Sogyal Rimpoche in 1973. He was living in Cambridge, UK, aged 26, having arrived from India and she was one of a group of hippies intent on enlightenment, enchanted by the exoticism of eastern wisdom and Asian teachers. Three years later she had become disillusioned with Sogyal, and returned to the journalism she had left for Buddhism. ‘By the late 80s,’ she writes, ‘I knew beyond a scintilla of doubt that he was a charlatan’ (p.184), and she devoted her energies to revealing him as a fraud. Rob Hogendoorn is a Dutch Buddhist who teamed up with Finnigan to highlight sexual abuse by Buddhist teachers. His factual research complements Finnigan’s more subjective and personal style of investigative journalism.
The resulting book not only provides the background story for understanding Sogyal Rimpoche’s final disgrace, but also sets out the long and sordid history of his misbehaviour for the reader to reflect upon. Sogyal’s abuses involved apparently consenting adult followers, but occurred in the midst of a system of power relations and collusion, and within a specifically Buddhist belief system. All this somehow made it possible for Sogyal Rimpoche to behave in ways that otherwise seem disgusting, manipulative and ridiculous. Finnigan writes of Sogyal passing mouthfuls of half-chewed food to his disciples as “blessings”, and how some of them purchased his used underwear for their devotions (p.135). He was recorded as explaining his physical abuse to a disciple: “The harder I hit you, the closer the connection.” He maintained a harem of young women with whom he could have sex when he wished. Finnigan and Hogendoorn usefully document how, after July 2017, certain Tibetan teachers attempted to defend Sogyal, apparently arguing that the samaya or ‘commitment’ linking disciples in Vajrayana Buddhism with their guru made abuse somehow not abuse. A reader can place this kind of denial alongside parallels in the world of sexual abuse and cover-up among Christian clergy. There is a pattern, connected with men in positions of trust.
But Finnigan’s journalistic approach sometimes makes for problems. As part of her attempt to reveal Sogyal as a charlatan, she recounts how her boyfriend at that time, John Driver, a Buddhist scholar-practitioner and expert in Tibetan, had in the 1970s witnessed Sogyal’s poor attempts to translate the teachings of Dudjom Rimpoche into English. Driver realised that Sogyal had little understanding of the Dzogchen teachings he was trying to pass on. However, in introducing the character of Driver, Finnigan includes a brief aside on how he had met Sangharakshita, founder of the FWBO (now Triratna Buddhist Order and movement) in India in the 1950s. She writes, ‘Lingwood [i.e. Sangharakshita]… had ulterior motives for [his] time in the Tibetan borderlands [i.e. in Kalimpong]. [Being] gay, [he] had heard that young monks trained as passive sex partners in Tibetan monasteries were turning up in Darjeeling and Kalimpong’ (p.57). Finnigan does not offer any evidence for her assertion that Sangharakshita was in Kalimpong to have sex with Tibetan boys. Presumably, her source of information was John Driver. Sangharakshita’s problematic sex life has been minutely scrutinised in recent years, but I am not aware of any evidence that would support Finnigan’s allegation. Sangharakshita describes his motive for being in Kalimpong as being to work for the good of Buddhism, having been asked to do so by his teacher, Ven Jagdish Kashyap.
If Mary Finnigan can attribute base motives to Sangharakshita, without evidence, it is possible that not all the details of her exposé of Sogyal Rimpoche are entirely truthful. This diminishes the value of this book, compared, for instance, to Michael Downing’s Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center, an investigation of Roshi Richard Baker which consciously strives for a presentation that tries to make sense of what happened. Finnigan and Hogendoorn’s work on exposing Sogyal Rimpoche is essential reading for those concerned about spiritual abuse. But beyond the journalistic exposé, which is part of the drive for truth and justice, there remains a need to try to understand more deeply what is going on when people put their trust in Buddhist teachers, and that trust is returned with physical violence and sexual abuse. This understanding could help inform the development of spiritual communities in which the evident risks involved with placing trust in men in positions of power can be mitigated, and everyone’s well-being valued.
Dhivan is a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, and editor of the Western Buddhist Review