How did a Tibetan refugee with no formal religious training become the most powerful Tibetan Buddhist leader in the West and a best-selling author, while he beat, abused and humiliated his followers?
This book finally sheds light on a decades-long story of deception and moral corruption that is the background to the life of the infamous Tibetan lama, Sogyal Rinpoche, who died on August 28, 2019, in Bangkok, aged 72.
Co-authors Mary Finnigan and Rob Hogendoorn have traced the entire history of Sogyal, from his origins in a family of traders in rural Tibet, through their flight to India after the Chinese invasion, to his arrival in Cambridge, England, accompanied by the Prince of Sikkim. It was here that Mary, a professional journalist, first met him in 1973.
This renowned guru, who came to be revered by thousands around the world, was accused of violating dozens of his aides and devotees over the past thirty years. The authors – an investigative reporter and a specialist in Tibetan Buddhism – have gathered all available evidence from victims and eyewitnesses to tell a tale of sexual exploitation, physical violence, emotional manipulation and relentless denigration. It was all perpetrated by a holy man with fabricated credentials and covered up by his foundation.
Living secretly in self-imposed exile in Thailand in his final years while being treated for colon cancer, he remained beyond the reach of police investigations and civil suits underway in five countries. His organization, the Rigpa Fellowship, is still in business, with over a dozen active centers in the West.
Early complaints from his followers were met with denials and doctrinaire obfuscations. Then in the mid-1990s, soon after publication of Sogyal’s best-selling The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, more women came forward with accusations. In the UK, the mainstream media started to take an interest. Mary Finnigan’s piece in the Guardian and her broadcast on BBC Radio 4 were followed by Mick Brown’s cover feature in the Telegraph Magazine.
Galvanized by the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, the trickle of accusations has slowly turned into a flood in recent years. His organization’s cover-up attempts wore thin after the Dalai Lama himself stepped in.
The book does not sensationalize the perverse behavior that caused untold suffering to scores of devotees. It’s a fact-based account, backed by exhaustive research grounded in decades of first-hand knowledge by two Buddhist practitioners. It’s also a story about the culture clash that occurs when an exotic émigré from a feudal, patriarchal Tibet is greeted with unwitting acceptance and adulation by spiritual seekers in 21st-century liberal democracies.
Mary Finnigan was born in Manchester, England just before the start of World War II. Marrying an older man at eighteen, she produced two children before moving to London and landing a job as a fashion writer on the Daily Mirror. Her print journalism career included feature writing at the Daily Sketch, Daily Express and freelance at the Sunday Times and The Guardian.
During a five-year holiday from the five-day week, in 1969 she met the legendary rock star David Bowie, who introduced her to Tibetan Buddhism. Her devotion to this comprehensive spiritual path has remained steadfast ever since.
Returning to her journalism career, Mary worked as a reporter, editor and producer at Visnews, Independent Radio News and the London Broadcasting Company.
Mary met Sogyal Lakar, aka Rinpoche, in 1973, helping him to set himself up as a lama before becoming skeptical about his credentials. With her journalistic training running in tandem with her appreciation for Tibetan Buddhism, she embarked on a campaign to match contemporary ethical values with the fundamentals of Buddhist view and practice.
Mary and her co-author Rob Hogendoorn pooled their skills and resources after meeting on social media. Mary lives in Devon, England with her partner Chris Gilchrist.
Rob Hogendoorn (1964) studied law at the Erasmus University at Rotterdam, Netherlands. After graduating as a Master of Law, he worked as a coordinator for the Centre for Applied Ethics at its Faculty of Philosophy, co-editing two books on environmental philosophy.
In 1993-1994, he spent a year among Tibetan communities in India, researching law from a Tibetan Buddhist perspective. After that, he focussed his research on the Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s conversations with (mostly) Western scientists. To this end, he attended several Mind & Life conferences and summer schools and taught about Mind & Life during a Science for Monks workshop in Sera Monastery in India.
For the past six years he has researched and published on sexual abuse by Buddhist teachers, both as an investigative reporter and an unaffiliated scholar.
The last two years he has focussed on researching the formative years of Sogyal Lakar, formerly known as Sogyal Rinpoche. He presented a paper on his findings during the 2018 meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Denver, Colorado.
Rob is married with three adult children. He lives in Maasland, near Rotterdam, in the Netherlands.
Diaspora Tibetan Buddhism
Mary Finnigan looks back on the 46 years
since she first met Sogyal in London
Rewind to 1974 and the tail end of the 60s cultural revolution. The days when idealism, radical politics, psychedelic drugs and spiritual values were the drivers of a youth movement that very nearly changed the world.
A young Tibetan lama had just arrived in London. He asked me to help him set himself up as a Buddhist guru. I agreed, with genuine enthusiasm at the prospect of being involved with activity that would benefit many people.
Sogyal Lakar aka Tulku aka Rinpoche was articulate, persuasive and very successful as a messenger on behalf of the lineage holders of Tibetan Buddhism who had fled into exile following the Chinese takeover of Tibet.
For a while that was his role—a facilitator, organiser and occasionally translator for the late, great lamas who were eager to spread their influence into the western world.
Rob Hogendoorn on the UK Charity Commission’s
findings from investigating Sogyal’s Rigpa Fellowship
Present-day Lamaism, the worship of deified Tibetan Buddhist teachers by Western converts, crashes into the rule of law this week. It is bad enough that the Charity Commission for England and Wales makes known that wilful British trustees of the Rigpa Fellowship in London put devotees of Sogyal Lakar (previously known as Sogyal Rinpoche) at risk of harm. They were found to be untruthful and unfit to serve. Hopefully, their dismissal provides a modicum of solace to those who were hurt by their actions. Worse, though, the inquiry proves that the ‘excuses’ and ‘justifications’ that explain away abusive behaviour by Tibetan Lamas—which have been peddled for decades—are a write-off: Democracies governed by the rule of law provide no room for the slavish, feudal respect accorded to abusive Tibetan Buddhist teachers by a pretense of “guru devotion.”
‘Sogyal was a charlatan who was never trained as a lama. But we did not know this in the 1970s. We were naïve, ill-informed, and enthusiastic. We felt lucky to be involved with a charismatic Tibetan guru.’
Mary Finnigan’s presentation for a July 2020 online seminar hosted by Inform
Learn more about Inform, “an independent educational charity providing information about minority religions and sects which is as accurate, up-to-date and as evidence-based as possible.”
Review in Nova Religio
A review by Scott Lowe in the August 2020 issue of Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions
Sogyal Rinpoche, the author of the bestseller The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (2012), has been much in the news over the last year, first as the villain in a cascading torrent of abuse charges and then for dying. The present book, published just before his death, puts the final nails in his coffin.
The lurid title of this book is misleading, for the primary focus of the text is on sex and violence in the unsavory career of the late Sogyal Lakar (1947–2019) not Tibetan Buddhism as a whole. While a few pages are devoted to generalized allegations about the sex lives of Tibetan Buddhist lamas (gurus) and their institutional conspiracy of silence, most of the sex and violence alluded to in the title is attributable to Sogyal alone.
‘Sogyal Rimpoche; my very good friend,
but he’s disgraced’
A review by Dhivan Thomas Jones in
the Western Buddhist Review, July 2020
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.
Kate Cotton, Mid-Devon Advertiser
February 7, 2020
Author and journalist Mary Finnigan, of Newton Abbot, has penned a damning book on a former international Buddhist figure, now exposed as an abuser.
Since publication she’s received a backlash of denial from Sogyal Rinpoche’s devotees in the Buddhist community, but also unleashed more revelations from his victims.
Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism, The Rise and Fall of Sogyal Rinpoche is based on Mary’s own experiences of the late Sogyal Rinpoche, as well as academic sources and eyewitness accounts. Sogyal died last year, not long after Mary’s book was first published.
Jane Clinton on the downfall of a holy man who began his rise to prominence in the squats of north London
He made the squats of Kentish Town and Camden Town his home as he began his quest for global fame. It was the 1970s and there was great interest in Tibetan Buddhism in the UK when the Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rinpoche made his way to London. Sogyal would make a huge impression on people hungry for his teachings. However, beneath the seemingly benign exterior was a man who was alleged to have sexually and physically abused his followers who had helped him make his name.
Now a new book lifts the lid on the claims of abuse and misconduct by Sogyal, who died in August last year.
Author comments on the legacy of a fugitive Tibetan lama
Sogyal Lakar, aka Sogyal Rinpoche, died in Bangkok on August 28, 2019, after a long battle with colon cancer. For the past two years he had been on the run from criminal and civil suits in several countries. Authors Mary Finnigan and Rob Hogendoorn, whose book came out two months before Sogyal died, reflect on his legacy:
Mary: “I sympathise with those who are bereaved by his passing but Sogyal’s death does not alter the facts of his life. Karma is inexorable so as a Buddhist I think his passage through the after-death state will be a rough ride. In the 45 years since I first met him and helped him get established in London, I have watched a life of depravity and excess unfold in the name of enlightenment. The physical and psychological injuries inflicted on his many victims drove me to write this book.”
Rob: “I don’t rejoice in anyone’s death, and I empathise with Sogyal’s son, Yeshe. I feel much more sympathy for Sogyal Lakar’s countless victims, many of whom remain anonymous and neglected even now. I also believe that it is illustrative that it is only after his passing, and now he is out of reach of the judiciary, that his entourage publicly confirms that Sogyal hid in Thailand. Sadly, it goes to show how manipulative Sogyal and his entourage remained until the very end.”
A British charity founded by a disgraced Buddhist guru, who died last week after he was accused of sexual misconduct towards some of his followers, faces further controversy after it emerged that one of its trustees was found responsible for covering up abuse.
Patrick Gaffney was a trustee of the Rigpa Fellowship, which was founded by the Tibetan guru Sogyal Lakar, known as Sogyal Rinpoche, who died aged 72 in Thailand on Wednesday after going into hiding following the claims.
Weeks before Lakar’s death, Gaffney – the guru’s right-hand man who co-edited his bestselling The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying– was banned by a watchdog from working with charities for eight years.
The British devotee, 70, who Lakar described as “one of my oldest and closest students” after the pair met at Cambridge University in 1970, faced the sanction after an inquiry by the Charity Commission.
Richard Sandomir, The New York Times
August 29, 2019
A friend of the Dalai Lama’s, he wrote a popular book about life, death, and the afterlife that updated “The Tibetan Book of the Dead.”
Sogyal Rinpoche, a charismatic Tibetan Buddhist teacher and best-selling author who abruptly retired after several of his students accused him of multiple acts of sexual, physical and emotional abuse, died on Aug. 28 in a hospital in Thailand. He was in his early 70s.
The cause was a pulmonary embolism, his care team announced. He had received a diagnosis of colon cancer in September 2017.
Two months earlier, his reputation as a popular teacher of Buddhism and longtime friend of the Dalai Lama’s unraveled when eight students wrote a damning, heart-rending letter that outlined allegations of years of abuse by Sogyal Rinpoche against them.
“Why did you inflict violence upon us and our fellow Dharma brothers and sisters?” they wrote, describing incidents that had set him off, like his food not being hot enough, his assistant being inattentive or his girlfriends upsetting him. (Sogyal Rinpoche was not a monk.)
Sogyal Lakar, known as Sogyal Rinpoche, who has died aged 72, was a Tibetan Buddhist lama whose book, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, made him, after the Dalai Lama, perhaps the most globally recognised Buddhist teacher.
Published in 1994, and notionally based on an ancient mortuary text known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Sogyal’s book provided a readily accessible introduction to the Buddhist teachings on a happy life and good death.
The growing interest in Tibetan Buddhism, largely through the activities of the Dalai Lama, and the rise of the hospice movement and a more open discussion about “how we die”, made the book extremely timely.
Clinicians and psychologists applauded it for the comfort it offered to the terminally ill, and the actor and comedian John Cleese described it as “one of the most helpful books I have ever read”. It went on to sell more than three million copies around the world, making Sogyal something of a spiritual celebrity and enabling him to establish teaching centres in America, Europe and Australia.
But he was later engulfed in allegations of sexual and physical abuse against his followers that would lead to his downfall. A man once celebrated as one of the most eminent and skilful exponents of the Tibetan Buddhist teachings became instead a symbol of the perils that may arise when Westerners fall in thrall to esoteric spiritual teachings which they may not fully understand, and when Eastern teachers are exposed to the glamour and temptations of celebrity worship.
A customer review on Amazon.co.uk by Alex Wilding (4.0 out of 5 stars)
This book is well worth a read by anyone involved in or interested in any spiritual movement.
It includes an almost forensic – yet very readable – dissection of how a sexually voracious and ultimately abusive, untrained and unqualified opportunist, Sogyal Lakar, seized the opportunity offered by a constellation of factors: Westerners’ spiritual hunger and the gullibility that thrives in the needy; an unwillingness to probe; a simple inability to ask the right questions, because of our ignorance; a willingness to indulge the sexual and culinary gluttony of someone believed to be extraordinary; the patriarchal, even misogynistic culture of old Tibet, along with its class-ridden unwillingness to be seen to criticise; the only-too-understandable urge of the Tibetan community – a community that has been slaughtered and tortured out of its own land – to pull together and look after its own, trying to sweep the appalling behaviour of one of its best-known representatives under the sofa. These are some of the ingredients of this ghastly cocktail.
A customer review on Amazon.co.uk by Eli (4.0 out of 5 stars)
Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism: The Rise and Fall of Sogyal Rinpoche certainly has an attention-grabbing title – in fact, my first thought was that this was possibly too sensationalistic in tone, a little reminiscent of ‘click-bait’ – but it certainly lives up to its title.
I should preface this review by briefly stating my background and credentials – I’m a Psychologist who has been studying Buddhism for over twenty-five years; mostly in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. I had seen Sogyal Lakar on a couple of occasions in London and Glasgow, at public talks, and briefly spent some time with the Manchester Rigpa group (who were all exceptionally lovely and level-headed people).
My very brief encounter with Sogyal Lakar was at a London talk (in the late Nineties) where he swiftly (and I sensed reluctantly) signed my copy of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying with a mere, dismissive squiggle – I noticed his customary smile and jolly demeanour was notably absent at that point of the evening, as someone near me had called out “How’s your son, Rinpoche?” which seemed (to me at the time) a rather personal question to shout out at your teacher, and appeared (at least to my ears) to have the tone of a taunt.
In short, I never felt that all-important ‘karmic connection’ (which Tibetans refer to as Tendrel) towards him, and I felt uncomfortable with the level of fawning bordering on fanaticism that I observed at these large gatherings.
Tibetan Buddhism Enters the 21st Century: Trouble in Shangri-la
A long read from independent scholar Stuart Lachs in Open Buddhism, Rob Hogendoorn’s new website
“What convinces masses are not facts, not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the illusion.”
Buddhism in the 21st century is fairly well established, both in the United States of America and in Europe. This is true for the surviving branches of Buddhism: Theravada, Zen or Chan, and Vajrayana or Tibetan Buddhism. Recently both Zen and Tibetan Buddhist groups in the West have been rocked by scandals involving prominent, well-established teachers with titles such as Zen master, Roshi, Rinpoche, Lama, Sakyong, and so on – who are understood by their followers and even by non-followers, to be enlightened beings. Importantly, it is the institutions – that is, the leading authorities representing these traditions – who present these leaders as enlightened beings, and this is also how they have presented themselves to a believing public.
Buddhism and Traditions
The rather earthly nirvana of the rapist lama
Translation of Claude Ardid’s report in the satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo, on a defamation suit brought by the French Rigpa center, Lerab Ling, against Midi Libre and a lawyer accused of suggesting they were a cult
“Yes, my daughter has been raped several times by Sogyal Lakar.” Guy finishes his testimony. The president of the Criminal Court of Montpellier asks him to complete his story. Then he tells of his trip into the heart of Rigpa Lerab Ling, “the sanctuary of awakened activity,” a Buddhist center located north of Lodève in Herault. He elaborates on his spiritual retreats, his closeness to Sogyal Lakar, known as “the precious one,” the founding lama of the center. He describes how the drama unfolded: “It was in a letter that my daughter told me that she was under his spell. He had made her a puppet. I asked her to file a complaint in court. But a follower of Buddhism, even assaulted, does not rebel against her master.”
Sitting behind Guy is the lawyer Jean Baptiste Cesbron, who nods assent. He represents the National Union of Associations for the Defense of Families and Individuals who are Victims of Cults (UNADFI). He is the one who exposed the scandal by granting an interview to the regional newspaper, Midi Libre. He quotes testimony from “students” – all victims of Sogyal Lakar – who report “physical, sexual, emotional and psychological abuse” from the one they worshipped. Cesbron has only done his job. But he is in the dock with Midi Libre, both being sued for defamation. The lawyer is alleged to have suggested that the Buddhist community was a cult. “This is untrue,” he retorts. “My only purpose was to expose the criminally reprehensible practices of a lama who acted with impunity for years.”
Cesbron also presents a letter from Sogyal Lakar’s former assistant, who wrote: “In 2014, during the retreat of the senior students at Lerab Ling, he asked us to be generous in offerings: no checks, no credit cards, only cash! What has become of this money? Nobody knows… ”
The case is so serious that the assistant ends up filing a complaint with the gendarmerie. Panic among the Buddhists. But nothing happens. The Dalai Lama, who inaugurated the center a few years earlier, is satisfied with a pithy statement: “Sogyal was my friend, but not any more.” As for Matthieu Ricard, close to the Dalai Lama, he kicks the ball into touch: “It is up to the disciples to unmask the fraud. It is not our role to work as vigilantes. Buddhism is not organized, hierarchical, as is the case, for example, with the Catholic Church.” Yet he ends up calling Sogyal Lakar’s actions “unacceptable.”
Unacceptable, but the “master” continues to pass on his knowledge in Lerab Ling, a kind of Disneyland of Buddhism, nestled on the Larzac plateau. Twenty-five thousand visitors and 4 million euros in annual revenues, an authentic cash cow. It was only in 2016, fearing the wrath of justice, that “the precious one” ended up fleeing to the end of the world.
“Do not expect anything from Buddhism,” says Jean-Pierre Jougla, a former lawyer and eternal defender of sects, quoted by the defense attorney, who continues: “Buddhism is a religion like any other, but it is also a feudal society where nobody questions the actions of the leader. A society where the levying of taxes and the droit du seigneur are still in place. But to confess this would create confusion in the heads of the 600,000 French Buddhists. Too bad this lawyer today finds himself in the dock with the accused!”
The court’s decision is due July 17th.
“I write this review of “Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism” with a heavy heart. There are no winners in this sad story except perhaps those unwitting future students who having been fully apprised and forewarned will avoid getting embroiled in such organisations as Rigpa and will be spared the anguish of many who did. They will have Mary Finnigan and Rob Hogendoorn to thank for that. Hopefully they will now look elsewhere and find capable teachers of Tibetan Buddhism who will not betray their trust and will guide them along an authentic and beneficial spiritual path. The ones who have suffered are not only those who wisely resorted to their basic intelligence and left, but also those who have remained and not least perhaps Sogyal himself who came to believe in the distorted reflection of a flawed Guru Yoga that he came to create and tragically apparently became lost in a downward spiral.
What I find so sad is that I doubt anyone intended this to be the case or believed it could possibly happen. Other commentators here have clearly stated the various causes they deem to be responsible. I would add the ingredients of human fallibility and the limited understanding that many lamas appear to have of western psychology.
Rigpa senior management was notorious for its blatant policy of covering up the goings on behind closed doors within Rigpa establishments, perhaps emulating the Tibetan cultural habit of sweeping inconvenient matters under the carpet and indulging in double speak of saying one thing in public and quite another in private. Well known lamas are also at fault for knowing about the problems with Sogyal and doing nothing, thus setting a vestige of acceptability around his behaviour so that suddenly to the incredulity of many standing on the sidelines watching the disaster unfold, Sogyal was promoted as being a master of crazy wisdom.
Mary Finnigan and Rob Hogendoorn are to be commended for sending a fusillade of revelations into the rotten core of an expanding culture of violence and abuse masquerading as teaching methods of Vajrayana. As committed Buddhists themselves, I think they have managed this with a sense of responsibility and care towards fairness.
For anyone who loves the essential pure wisdom that the Tibetan tradition has to offer and can see the danger or it being twisted by a band of unqualified Rinpoches and their devoted but mislead students caught up in a hall of distorted mirrors, I hope this book will clear the mists as it clearly lays out in detail many of the facts that Rigpa management tried to keep hidden. Facts that I imagine were not known by a large number of the students who will be reeling from the shock of all the recent exposure. For their sake I very much hope that the higher echelons of Tibetan lamas and western teachers will now wake up and realize that enough is enough and give their full support to HH Dalai Lama who has been almost single-handedly warning westerners about the feudal influences corrupting the integrity of authentic transmission of Buddhist wisdom and compassion. No-one can now pretend that they didn’t know.”
– Toria Selwyn’s review on Amazon.co.uk
“Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism gives a detailed insight into Sogyal Rinpoche’s place in the institution of Tibetan Buddhism. The authors show how Sogyal, supposedly an enlightened and therefore entirely selfless, sacred Vajrayana master was in fact the opposite, intent on living a high life while maintaining a “harem” of young attractive women to serve his every desire. The authors show how Sogyal was only able to maintain his exalted position because for decades, he received endorsements from Tibetan Buddhism’s highest lamas. The reader will learn of the pitfalls, in spite of their claims to owning wisdom, of unquestioningly following strictly hierarchical religious institutions, especially when they operate on a transcultural level.”
– Stuart Lachs, Independent scholar and long-time Chan/Zen practitioner
“A fascinating book that sums up decades of in-depth research and personal involvement in a very important and overlooked topic. Mary Finnigan and Rob Hogendoorn’s work on sex and violence in Western Buddhist circles offers readers both recent information and incisive insight into the problematic situation of many European Dharma centres. Coming from Buddhist practitioners who wish to preserve their adopted tradition from ethical corruption and help prevent more suffering, this book is very welcome.”
– Marion Dapsance PhD, author Les dévots du bouddhisme and Qu’ont-ils fait du bouddhisme
“In ‘Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism: The Rise and Fall of Sogyal Rinpoche’ onthullen co-auteurs Mary Finnigan en Rob Hogendoorn hoe de bekende Tibetaans boeddhistische leraar Sogyal zijn volgelingen seksueel misbruikte, fysiek mishandelde en stelselmatig bedreigde—en hoe dit decennialang werd toegedekt door diens devote entourage.”