A renowned Bud­dhist teacher and the best­selling au­thor of The Ti­betan Book of Liv­ing and Dy­ing, So­gyal Rin­poche at­tracted huge crowds – and when he set up a tem­ple in France, the Dalai Lama him­self at­tended its in­au­gu­ra­tion.

But then the sto­ries started to emerge of his vi­o­lent tem­per and sex­ual as­saults. Mick Brown in­ves­ti­gates

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - CHARMED LIFE -

In Au­gust last year, So­gyal Rin­poche, the Ti­betan lama – whose book, The

Ti­betan Book of Liv­ing and Dy­ing, has sold more than three mil­lion copies around the world, and made him prob­a­bly the best-known Ti­betan Bud­dhist teacher af­ter the Dalai Lama – gave his an­nual teach­ing at his French cen­tre, Lerab Ling.

So­gyal’s or­gan­i­sa­tion, Rigpa (a Ti­betan word mean­ing ‘the es­sen­tial na­ture of mind’), has 130 cen­tres in 30 coun­tries around the world, but Lerab Ling, sit­u­ated in rolling coun­try­side in Hérault, is the jewel in the crown. Boast­ing what is said to be the largest Ti­betan Bud­dhist tem­ple in the West, it was for­mally in­au­gu­rated in 2008 by the Dalai Lama, with Carla BruniSarkozy, then France’s first lady, and a host of other dig­ni­taries in at­ten­dance.

So­gyal is re­garded by his stu­dents as a liv­ing em­bod­i­ment of the Bud­dhist teach­ings of wis­dom and com­pas­sion, but a man who teaches in a highly un­ortho­dox way, known as ‘crazy wis­dom’.

At Lerab Ling, more than 1,000 stu­dents were gath­ered in the tem­ple as he walked on stage, ac­com­pa­nied by his at­ten­dant, a Dan­ish nun named Ani Chökyi. So­gyal, now 70, is a portly, be­spec­ta­cled man who re­quires a foot­stool to mount the throne from which he cus­tom­ar­ily teaches. Ap­proach­ing the throne, he paused, then punched the nun hard in the stom­ach.

‘I guess the foot­stool wasn’t in ex­actly the right po­si­tion,’ says Gary Gold­man, an Amer­i­can stu­dent of So­gyal’s of more than 20 years’ stand­ing, who was seated in a front row. ‘He had this flash of anger, and he just punched her – a short gut punch. It just stunned me. I thought, “What the hell’s that about?” Ev­ery­body around me kind of gasped. She started cry­ing, and he told her to leave, and then he started his talk.’

‘To see the mas­ter not as a hu­man be­ing but as the Bud­dha him­self,’ So­gyal has of­ten told his stu­dents, ‘is the source of the high­est bless­ing.’ Those at­tend­ing his teach­ings are cau­tioned not to be sur­prised or to draw ‘the wrong con­clu­sions’ about the way he might be­have. Ap­par­ently ir­ra­tional, even vi­o­lent con­duct should be viewed as ‘mere ap­pear­ance’. But punch­ing a nun in the stom­ach... It was cus­tom­ary for stu­dents at the re­treat to email any ques­tions they might have on the day’s teach­ings to So­gyal’s se­nior in­struc­tors. ‘ We all wrote some­thing up,’ says Gold­man, a for­mer US Army Ranger who served in Viet­nam. ‘I said that I un­der­stood his meth­ods were un­con­ven­tional, but punch­ing Ani Chökyi was knock­ing the ball out of the park. I’ve seen this kind of thing in the mil­i­tary and we don’t do that any more – at least not legally. But on the other hand, if this was an­other part of his “crazy wis­dom” teach­ing, we se­ri­ously needed to talk about it.’

The next day, one of the Rigpa hi­er­ar­chy stepped up to ad­dress the doubters. So­gyal, he said, was up­set that peo­ple should ques­tion his meth­ods. If peo­ple didn’t un­der­stand what had ac­tu­ally hap­pened, then they prob­a­bly weren’t ready for the promised higher-level teach­ings, in which case So­gyal would not teach again dur­ing the re­treat.

‘This is what he does,’ Gold­man says. ‘When some­thing comes up, he’ll very skil­fully ma­nip­u­late his stu­dents to get them back in line.

‘I just thought, I’m done with this...’

Largely thanks to the benign, smil­ing ex­am­ple of the Dalai Lama, Ti­betan Bud­dhism has grown enor­mously in pop­u­lar­ity in the West over the past 30 years, es­cap­ing the scan­dals that have dogged other re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions – at least pub­licly.

Within the Bud­dhist com­mu­nity, how­ever, So­gyal Rin­poche has long been a con­tro­ver­sial fig­ure. For years, ru­mours have cir­cu­lated on the in­ter­net about his be­hav­iour, and in the 1990s a law­suit al­leg­ing sex­ual and phys­i­cal abuse was set­tled out of court. Yet his po­si­tion as one of the fore­most Bud­dhist teach­ers in the West has re­mained re­mark­ably in­tact – un­til now. In July, eight se­nior and long-stand­ing stu­dents sent a let­ter to So­gyal. ‘Longsim­mer­ing is­sues with your be­hav­iour,’ it be­gan, ‘can no longer be ig­nored or de­nied’ – it then listed a cat­a­logue of damn­ing al­le­ga­tions against him.

So­gyal’s ha­bit­ual phys­i­cal abuse, it al­leged, had ‘left monks, nuns, lay peo­ple and stu­dents of yours with bloody in­juries and per­ma­nent scars’. He had used his role as a teacher ‘to gain ac­cess to young women, and to co­erce, in­tim­i­date and ma­nip­u­late them into giv­ing you sex­ual favours’. Stu­dents, they claimed, had been or­dered to strip, ‘to show you our gen­i­tals’, ‘to give you oral sex’, and ‘to have sex in your bed with our part­ners’.

‘If your strik­ing and punch­ing us and others, and hav­ing sex with your stu­dents and mar­ried women, and fund­ing your sybaritic life­style with stu­dents’ do­na­tions is ac­tu­ally the eth­i­cal and com­pas­sion­ate be­hav­iour of a Bud­dhist teacher,’ it went on, ‘please ex­plain to us how it is.’

Copied to the Dalai Lama, and So­gyal’s most se­nior stu­dents, the let­ter quickly went vi­ral, shak­ing the foun­da­tion of Rigpa to the core. For So­gyal Rin­poche him­self, it was the pre­lude to the most spec­tac­u­lar fall from grace.

So­gyal Lakar was born in Kham, in the east of Ti­bet, into a fam­ily of traders. When he was six months old, his mother put him in the care of her sis­ter, Khan­dro Tser­ing Chö­drön, who was the young con­sort – or spir­i­tual wife – of an emi­nent Ti­betan lama, Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lo­drö, who be­came So­gyal’s guardian. In 1954, the fam­ily fled to Kalimpong in Sikkim. Jamyang Khyentse died when So­gyal was around 11, and So­gyal had lit­tle for­mal Bud­dhist train­ing – few in the Ti­betan com­mu­nity have ever at­tended his teach­ings. He was ed­u­cated at a Catholic pri­mary school in Kalimpong, then at an An­gli­can school, St Stephen’s Col­lege in Delhi.

In 1971, he ar­rived at Trin­ity Col­lege Cam­bridge, tak­ing a course in the­o­log­i­cal and re­li­gious stud­ies, al­though he never grad­u­ated. It was in Cam­bridge that he met Mary Fin­ni­gan, then a young Bud­dhist stu­dent, now an au­thor and So­gyal’s fiercest critic, who has been as­sid­u­ous in her chron­i­cling of his al­leged mis­de­meanours. At that time, there were only four Ti­betan lamas liv­ing in Bri­tain. ‘There was no­body teach­ing in Lon­don and there were no cen­tres,’ Fin­ni­gan says. She ar­ranged So­gyal’s first teach­ings, in the squat where she was liv­ing in Lon­don, and would re­main his stu­dent un­til 1979.

So­gyal was an ex­otic pres­ence; a Ti­betan who could speak flu­ent English and seemed to know what he was talk­ing about. His fol­low­ing rapidly grew, and with a £100,000 do­na­tion from a well-known English com­edy ac­tor he was able to es­tab­lish his first cen­tre in Lon­don.

As­sum­ing the hon­orific Rin­poche (it means ‘pre­cious one’), So­gyal set him­self up as a teacher in the Va­jrayana, or tantric, tra­di­tion – a deeply es­o­teric as­pect of Ti­betan Bud­dhism, through which, it is be­lieved, a stu­dent can un­shackle the chains of ego and at­tain en­light­en­ment in a sin­gle life­time: ‘the he­li­copter to the top of the moun­tain’, as So­gyal has put it.

It in­volves the stu­dent giv­ing to­tal obe­di­ence to the lama in the be­lief that what­ever the lama does, no mat­ter how ir­ra­tional or in­com­pre­hen­si­ble it may seem, is for the stu­dent’s ben­e­fit. Ti­betan Bud­dhist lore is filled with sto­ries of great masters – or ma­hasid

dhas – bring­ing their pupils to en­light­en­ment by meth­ods that ap­pear to verge on mad­ness. One of the most fa­mous in­volves the 11th-cen­tury ma­hasid

dha Naropa, whose teacher Tilopa sub­jected him to a se­ries of or­deals in­clud­ing leap­ing from the top of a tem­ple and break­ing his bones, jump­ing into fire and freez­ing wa­ter, and giv­ing his wife to Tilopa as an of­fer­ing. Fun­da­men­tal to this mas­ter-and-dis­ci­ple re­la­tion­ship is the bond of samaya, or trust. Break­ing samaya is held to have the most grave con­se­quences, in­clud­ing ban­ish­ment to ‘va­jra hell’ and an in­fin­ity of un­for­tu­nate re­births.

In 1976, So­gyal vis­ited Amer­ica to meet with an­other Ti­betan lama, Chö­gyam Trungpa, who was re­garded as the most ex­treme ex­em­plar of ‘crazy wis­dom’ teach­ings. Trungpa drank like a fish (he would die in 1987 from com­pli­ca­tions aris­ing from al­co­holism), openly slept with his stu­dents and ran his or­gan­i­sa­tion like a feu­dal court. ‘The real func­tion of the guru,’ he once said, ‘is to in­sult you.’

‘So­gyal looked at what Trungpa had,’ says Mary Fin­ni­gan, ‘and said, “That’s what I want.”’ Like Trungpa, So­gyal adopted an un­ortho­dox, of­ten jokey, teach­ing style, but he was a com­pelling or­a­tor, with an abil­ity to hold an au­di­ence in the palm of his hand. In 1992 he pub­lished The Ti­betan Book

of Liv­ing and Dy­ing, a book that pre­sented tra­di­tional Ti­betan teach­ings on a happy life and good death for a Western au­di­ence. John Cleese, an early sup­porter, de­scribed it as ‘one of the most help­ful books I have ever read’.

It was a run­away suc­cess. But quite how much So­gyal him­self had to do with it is de­bat­able: ac­cord­ing to those close to the pro­ject, most of the work was done by ghost­writ­ers – So­gyal’s clos­est stu­dent, and now his right-hand man, Pa­trick Gaffney, and the au­thor An­drew Har­vey.

The book made So­gyal a celebrity. He ap­peared in Bernardo Ber­tolucci’s film Lit­tle Bud­dha, and he trav­elled the world, es­tab­lish­ing new cen­tres. The com­bi­na­tion of So­gyal’s charisma – a pur­veyor of an­cient wis­dom in touch with the mod­ern world – and the ro­man­tic mys­tique of Ti­betan Bud­dhism proved a po­tent lure for new fol­low­ers. Those at­tend­ing his cour­ses had lit­tle idea that, as one for­mer fol­lower puts it, So­gyal was ‘us­ing med­i­ta­tion as a gate­way drug into a cult of per­son­al­ity’.

But the first storm clouds were al­ready gath­er­ing.

So­gyal is not a monk, and there is the­o­ret­i­cally no pro­hi­bi­tion on him hav­ing sex­ual re­la­tions. But his sex­ual con­duct was be­com­ing a cause of in­creas­ing con­tro­versy in Bud­dhist cir­cles – not least his sur­round­ing him­self with what was ef­fec­tively a harem of young women, whom he de­scribed as his daki­nis – a Ti­betan term mean­ing ‘spir­i­tual muses’.

In 1994, an Amer­i­can stu­dent, us­ing the le­gal pseu­do­nym Jan­ice Doe, brought a suit against So­gyal al­leg­ing that, us­ing the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of his spir­i­tual sta­tus, he had sex­u­ally and phys­i­cally abused her, turn­ing her against her hus­band and fam­ily. This, the charge al­leged, was merely one ex­am­ple of a pat­tern of abuse against a num­ber of women. The case was set­tled out of court. And most read­ers of The Ti­betan Book of Liv­ing and

Dy­ing re­mained hap­pily obliv­i­ous to any hint of scan­dal. Rather, the book was a pow­er­ful medium in bring­ing him new fol­low­ers.

Among them was a yo ung Aust ra li a n woman, who would later be­come a Bud­dhist nun, tak­ing the name Drolma. She first read So­gyal’s book as a 21-year-old. ‘I thought, “That’s all very nice, but I don’t need this.”’ Two years later, with her life ‘fall­ing apart’ fol­low­ing an abor­tion and the break-up of a dif­fi­cult re­la­tion­ship, she at­tended a re­treat in New South Wales where So­gyal was teach­ing. ‘My life was at a point where I had no un­der­stand­ing of the suf­fer­ing I was go­ing through, and this pro­vided some an­swers, and some prac­ti­cal steps, like med­i­ta­tion.’

Drolma be­came more in­volved in Rigpa, trav­el­ling to Lerab Ling for re­treats and fa­cil­i­tat­ing study groups. In 2002, she turned her back on a flour­ish­ing ca­reer as an artist to be­come a nun. ‘There was this as­pect of de­vo­tion for the teacher that I felt very strongly. I felt it as the fire of the love of God.’ Even be­fore tak­ing monas­tic vows, Drolma had wit­nessed an ex­am­ple of So­gyal’s ‘crazy wis­dom’ when he pub­licly hu­mil­i­ated a male at­ten­dant dur­ing a teach­ing ses­sion.

‘He’d for­got­ten to put a full stop on the travel plans or some­thing; So­gyal made him kneel at the foot of the podium and then run back­wards and for­wards across the tent. I felt ter­ri­bly un­com­fort­able but I also thought he was very for­tu­nate to have such close at­ten­tion from the teacher.’

So­gyal made Drolma his per­sonal as­sis­tant, han­dling his sched­ule. She would later be­come re­spon­si­ble for car­ing for his mother and aunt, Khan­dro, when they came to live at Lerab Ling. Her du­ties en­tailed main­tain­ing a care­ful rap­proche­ment with the in­ner cir­cle of So­gyal’s daki­nis. ‘Their lives were in­cred­i­bly pres­surised,’ she says. ‘There was lots of jeal­ousy, lots of se­crets. If one of them was un­happy or in a mood then all of us would feel the reper­cus­sions, so we also had to do our best to keep them sup­ported.’

The first time So­gyal struck her, hard on the head with the backscratcher that he car­ries ev­ery­where, Drolma says she ac­cepted it as part of his ‘wrath­ful’ train­ing. ‘I thought, “Wow, he re­ally trusts me…”’

It was the be­gin­ning of years of phys­i­cal abuse and ver­bal hu­mil­i­a­tion. ‘If he be­came anx­ious about his mother, or over a re­la­tion­ship with a girl­friend or some fi­nan­cial thing, he would slap me across the face, or hit me over the head.’ On one oc­ca­sion, he pulled her by the ear so vi­o­lently that it drew blood.

The first time he punched her in the stom­ach was in the an­te­room of the tem­ple at Lerab Ling, where Drolma was pre­par­ing his rit­ual ob­jects prior to an im­por­tant cer­e­mony for a vis­it­ing lama and his ret­inue of monks. ‘He got out of the car, fu­ri­ous for some rea­son, slammed the door and just punched me. Then he got dressed in his robes and we went in. I was walk­ing be­hind him in tears, feel­ing com­pletely hu­mil­i­ated.’

The Tele­graph has been given nu­mer­ous ac­counts, by sig­na­to­ries to the let­ter and others, of sim­i­lar abuse meted out to So­gyal’s clos­est stu­dents, ex­plained away by se­nior in­struc­tors within Rigpa as the lama em­ploy­ing ‘skil­ful meth­ods’ in the tra­di­tion of the great ma­hasid­dhas of the past. A woman be­ing beaten vi­o­lently around the head with a backscratcher. A man be­ing kicked, punched in the face, pinned against the wall by So­gyal with his hands around his throat, and hit so hard on the head with a hard­back book that he fell to the floor.

‘I would go back to my room at the end of a day of it think­ing, “What the hell was that about?” But still hang­ing on to the trust that this is part and par­cel of the pu­rifi­ca­tion of neg­a­tive karma,’ one man, who was a stu­dent for 20 years, told me. The thought of re­port­ing So­gyal to the po­lice, he said, never crossed his mind. ‘These are crim­i­nal acts. But the prob­lem is we’ve been com­plicit; we’ve al­lowed it, and he keeps do­ing it.’

In this en­vi­ron­ment, ev­ery­thing would be ra­tio­nalised and ac­cepted as ‘a teach­ing’. Sev­eral peo­ple told the Tele­graph how So­gyal would some­times ad­dress his clos­est stu­dents while defe­cat­ing – like a Tu­dor monarch, or­der­ing his dak

inis to per­form the ap­pro­pri­ate ablu­tions as a demon­stra­tion of ‘ser­vice’. The anal­ogy with a monarch is not mis­placed. It is fur­ther al­leged that among his in­ner cir­cle, So­gyal fre­quently prac­tised a sort of droit du seigneur, tak­ing the wives or girl­friends of his most loyal male fol­low­ers as his sex­ual part­ners, ei­ther openly or covertly. The eight-sig­na­tory let­ter fur­ther al­leges that on at least one oc­ca­sion, So­gyal had of­fered one of his fe­male at­ten­dants to an­other lama for sex.

For a woman to be cho­sen by So­gyal as a sex­ual part­ner was re­garded as ‘an hon­our’, Drolma says. ‘It meant they had dakini qual­i­ties, and you’re said to be pro­long­ing the life of the mas­ter.’

For Drolma her­self, the con­tra­dic­tions be­tween So­gyal’s teach­ings and his be­hav­iour fi­nally be­came too much to bear. She con­fided her feel­ings to a vis­it­ing Span­ish nun. ‘I’d al­ways been trained to keep ev­ery­thing se­cret from any­one out­side; but I ended up telling her ev­ery­thing. She said, “That’s straight-out abuse. You’ve got to leave.”’

In 2010, Drolma trav­elled to Tai­wan with three other nuns from Lerab Ling for monas­tic train­ing. She re­turned to France, but not to Lerab Ling, hid­ing out in Paris, be­fore even­tu­ally mak­ing her way home to Aus­tralia. The fol­low­ing year, she sum­moned the nerve to go back to Lerab Ling for the cre­ma­tion of So­gyal’s aunt, Khan­dro. ‘It was the hard­est thing I’ve ever done,’ she says. ‘I was in nun’s robes and still keep­ing my pre­cepts. Wear­ing robes you have one arm bare, and he touched me there, as if I were a sex­ual ob­ject. It made my skin crawl.’ The cre­ma­tion over, she re­turned to Aus­tralia, and gave up her robes. ‘Look­ing back,’ she says, ‘I think I’d lost all fac­ulty of be­ing able to dis­cern clearly what was go­ing on. He ab­so­lutely ground me down. And I

‘Among his in­ner cir­cle, So­gyal prac­tised a sort of droit du seigneur’

felt ashamed to leave my friends; ashamed to go back to my fam­ily and say I’d made a mis­take.’ She pauses. ‘There’s so much shame in all of this.’

Within Rigpa, a cul­ture of se­crecy and de­nial pre­vailed among So­gyal’s in­ner cir­cle, the worst ex­cesses of his be­hav­iour kept hid­den from the thou­sands who would at­tend re­treats and teach­ings.

‘It’s like an in­ces­tu­ous fam­ily, where you keep the se­cret in the fam­ily,’ one woman, who claims she was sex­u­ally abused by So­gyal, told me.

But, in­evitably, al­le­ga­tions of im­pro­pri­ety be­gan to leak out on the in­ter­net. In 2011, Mary Fin­ni­gan, the English au­thor and for­mer stu­dent, pub­lished a doc­u­ment on­line – Be­hind The Thangkas – chart­ing So­gyal’s his­tory of al­leged sex­ual abuse, and claim­ing that there was a sub-sect within Rigpa known as Lama Care, set up specif­i­cally to make sure that women were avail­able for sex with So­gyal wher­ever he trav­elled, and that daki­nis had been pres­sured to take part in or­gies.

In 2015, the pres­i­dent of Rigpa France, Olivier Rau­rich, re­signed, ex­plain­ing in an in­ter­view with the French mag­a­zine Mar­i­anne that, ‘I had come for teach­ings on hu­mil­ity, love, truth, and trust, and I found my­self in a quasi-stal­in­ist en­vi­ron­ment and per­ma­nent dou­ble-talk.’ Within Rigpa, he was de­nounced as an op­por­tunist who was sim­ply seek­ing pub­lic­ity for his own ca­reer as a med­i­ta­tion teacher.

The fol­low­ing year, a French aca­demic, Mar­ion Dap­sance, pub­lished a book, Les Dévots du Boud­dhisme, con­tain­ing fur­ther al­le­ga­tions of abuse, and the ‘cult-like’ be­hav­iour of So­gyal’s in­ner cir­cle. A re­sponse posted on the Lerab Ling web­site de­scribed her por­trayal as ‘ex­tremely prej­u­diced’ and ‘un­recog­nis­able’, in­vok­ing the Ti­betan teach­ing of train­ing the mind in com­pas­sion, called lo­jong, with its core prin­ci­ple of ‘give all profit and gain to others. Take all loss and de­feat upon your­self ’.

In this con­text, the let­ter went on, So­gyal, fol­low­ing the ex­am­ple of ‘great saints of the past’, would never re­spond to such al­le­ga­tions.

In July, as the eight-sig­na­tory let­ter spread like wild­fire, So­gyal wrote an open re­sponse to mem­bers of Rigpa. He had spent his whole life, he wrote, ‘try­ing my best’ to serve the Bud­dha’s teach­ings, ‘and not a day goes by when I am not think­ing about the wel­fare of my stu­dents’. But fol­low­ing ad­vice from his own masters about ‘ob­sta­cles’ aris­ing for his health and life in gen­eral, he now in­tended to en­ter into re­treat ‘as soon as pos­si­ble’.

Through all the years of ru­mours and rev­e­la­tions about So­gyal’s be­hav­iour, one group main­tained a con­spic­u­ous si­lence: his fel­low Ti­betan lamas. So­gyal’s large fol­low­ing and con­sid­er­able wealth made him a pow­er­ful fig­ure within the Ti­betan Bud­dhist com­mu­nity. He has do­nated gen­er­ously to monas­ter­ies in Nepal and In­dia, and other lamas have fre­quently given teach­ings at Lerab Ling, their vis­its lend­ing au­thor­ity to So­gyal’s cre­den­tials.

While con­sis­tently con­demn­ing un­eth­i­cal be­hav­iour among lamas, the Dalai Lama has never specif­i­cally com­mented on So­gyal by name. But last month speak­ing in Ladakh, he re­turned to the theme, re­peat­ing that stu­dents ‘must not say, “This is my guru, what­ever my guru says I must fol­low.” That’s to­tally wrong.’ If a teacher is be­hav­ing un­eth­i­cally there is a duty to make their be­hav­iour pub­lic. ‘Now re­cently,’ he went on, ‘So­gyal Rin­poche, my very good friend, but he is dis­graced…’

To the out­sider, it might have seemed a fleet­ingly in­ci­den­tal ref­er­ence; to the Bud­dhist com­mu­nity it was tan­ta­mount to ex­com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

Just a few days af­ter the Dalai Lama’s speech, So­gyal an­nounced that he was ‘re­tir­ing’ as spir­i­tual direc­tor of Rigpa, cit­ing the ‘tur­bu­lence’ the al­le­ga­tions against him had caused. There was no ac­knowl­edge­ment of abuse, and no ex­pres­sion of apol­ogy or re­gret. He’d con­tinue as their teacher, though. ‘Please un­der­stand that I am not and never will aban­don you! I have a solemn com­mit­ment to help bring you to en­light­en­ment and I will never re­nege on that!’

The Tele­graph con­tacted Rigpa with a de­tailed list of the al­le­ga­tions con­tained in this ar­ti­cle, ask­ing for a re­sponse. The or­gan­i­sa­tion replied say­ing it had no com­ment to make. In­stead, it re­ferred the Tele­graph to a press re­lease, an­nounc­ing So­gyal’s re­tire­ment as spir­i­tual direc­tor.

Hav­ing sought ‘pro­fes­sional and spir­i­tual ad­vice’, that state­ment says, Rigpa would be set­ting up an in­ves­ti­ga­tion by ‘a neu­tral third party’ into the var­i­ous al­le­ga­tions; launch­ing a con­sul­ta­tion process to es­tab­lish ‘a code of con­duct’ and ‘griev­ance process’ for Rigpa mem­bers; and es­tab­lish­ing a new ‘spir­i­tual ad­vi­sory group’ to guide the or­gan­i­sa­tion.

Rigpa de­clined to spec­ify what form this in­de­pen­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion will take, or whom the ‘spir­i­tual ad­vi­sory group’ will con­sist of, say­ing only that ‘in­de­pen­dent pro­fes­sion­als’ will lead the in­ter­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion and ‘this will prob­a­bly com­mence mid-au­tumn’.

So­gyal’s last pub­lic ap­pear­ance was on 30 July, in Thai­land, speak­ing at the Sev­enth World Youth Bud­dhist Sym­po­sium. His talk, on the sub­ject of med­i­ta­tion and peace of mind, made no men­tion of the scan­dal that had en­gulfed him. ‘If your mind is re­laxed and at ease,’ he told his young au­di­ence, ‘no mat­ter what crises you are fac­ing, you will not be dis­turbed. Even when dif­fi­cul­ties come you will be able to turn them to your own ad­van­tage.’

Quite what ad­van­tage he can take from his present predica­ment is open to ques­tion. Fol­low­ing sub­mis­sions from for­mer Rigpa mem­bers, The Char­ity Com­mis­sion is now con­duct­ing an en­quiry into the af­fairs and gov­er­nance of So­gyal’s or­gan­i­sa­tion, the Rigpa Fel­low­ship in the UK, and for­mer stu­dents are ex­plor­ing press­ing crim­i­nal charges.

One leaves a spir­i­tual or­gan­i­sa­tion, Drolma says, with a mix­ture of feel­ings – re­lief, shame, guilt for those left be­hind. ‘I haven’t turned my back on the Bud­dhist teach­ings, but it was im­por­tant to let peo­ple know what was go­ing on. So­gyal is an abuser, he’s delu­sional, and he has cre­ated real, deep harm for peo­ple, and that’s not right in any place at all.’

‘It’s like the Bud­dha said,’ Gold­man told me. ‘Ev­ery­body wants to be happy in life. So you join an or­gan­i­sa­tion; you feel good, peo­ple are nice, you start to par­tic­i­pate more; you in­vest a lot of time, per­haps a lot of money. At some point it be­comes a part of who you are. And to give that up is in­cred­i­bly painful.

‘Right now, I’m very un­happy. But a lot of peo­ple just can’t give it up; they’re tied to So­gyal; they’d be giv­ing up an au­thor­ity fig­ure, prob­a­bly a fa­ther fig­ure; psy­cho­log­i­cally, it would be a huge loss.’ In July, as the furore over the damn­ing let­ter gath­ered pace, sto­ries cir­cu­lated on Bud­dhist sites of the in­ci­dent in 2016 when the nun, Ani Chökyi, was punched in the stom­ach. In re­sponse, Chökyi posted a re­ply on a closed Face­book page, say­ing that So­gyal’s teach­ings at the re­treat had been ‘lov­ing be­yond any or­di­nary de­scrip­tion’, and the punch to the stom­ach ‘taken out of a greater con­text’.

‘I have agreed to the skil­ful means of my mas­ter to pu­rify and trans­form my delu­sions into clar­ity and up­root my at­tach­ments,’ she wrote. ‘Some­times these means can be wrath­ful and not al­ways a pleas­ant ex­pe­ri­ence, but that is what I need, to be able to see through all the lay­ers of ig­no­rance that keep me blinded and stuck.’ So­gyal, she went on, ‘was def­i­nitely not in a fit of rage, there was just a sin­gle mo­ment of wrath, which man­i­fested in a soft punch, but it was nei­ther vi­o­lent or abu­sive, at least not to my feel­ings.’

Drolma posted a re­ply. She could un­der­stand Ani Chökyi’s per­spec­tive com­pletely, she wrote, be­cause that was how she had once jus­ti­fied So­gyal’s be­hav­iour. ‘If the stu­dent get­ting this kind of “spe­cial train­ing” has a his­tory of abuse in other re­la­tion­ships in their life (as seems to be the case of many of us, in­clud­ing my­self ), then it is so much more nat­u­ral, even com­fort­ing to re­ceive wrath­ful at­ten­tion from some­one who is also telling us they love us deeply.’ But then, she wrote, ‘just like the flick of a switch, I recog­nised that “this is abuse”. And with that, I started to re­flect on all the ways in which I had al­lowed it to hap­pen.

‘It was like in The Wiz­ard of Oz, when the cur­tain is fi­nally pulled back and you re­alise there is no “all-mighty Oz”, there is just a lit­tle man shout­ing into a mi­cro­phone…’

Above So­gyal Rin­poche pho­tographed at Lerab Ling, and as a guest speaker at a heal­ing sem­i­nar in Mel­bourne in 2004

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