Knowns and Unknowns Regarding Sogyal Rinpoche’s Biography

By Bernd Zander

A review of “Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism: The Rise and Fall of Sogyal Rinpoche” by Mary Finnigan and Rob Hogendoorn

One main concern for Sogyal Rinpoche’s (SR) former students is – or at least should be – that we had to realise that our spiritual teacher isn’t the man we thought he was. That leads almost unavoidably to the question of who he really is.

Of course, we have quite a lot of publicly available material: On the one hand there are SR’s own accounts, as well as those of other lamas and Rigpa, mainly portraying him as a great master. This in many ways tends to remind us of the Tibetan literary genre of an idealized devotional biography, called namtar[1]. Otherwise, there is plenty of evidence of his abusive, shadow side, culminating in a letter by 8 of his closest students[2] in 2017 and an official report subsequently commissioned by Rigpa (Lewis Silken Report, 2018)[3]. However, the great challenge remains to make sense of these two very oppositional and conflicting sides without remaining stuck in cognitive dissonance.

“Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism: The Rise and Fall of Sogyal Rinpoche” by von Mary Finnigan and Rob Hogendoorn (Jorvik Press, 2019 – 204 pages)

Here the need for scientifically-proven, historical and biographical research comes into play. In this regard particularly it’s worth noticing the recent publication of Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism.(SVTB) Its approach is a combination of:

a) Historical, biographical research stretching back to the 1940’s, beginning with a fascinating account of the complicated power struggles within and between ancient Tibet/China and how they directly affected SR’s ancestors, the Lakar family. As stated on page 187, reference 3, this part of the book (chapters 2 and 3) is the result of Dutch journalist Rob Hogendoorn’s (RH) research, based on his paper entitled “The Making of a Lama: Interrogating Sogyal Rinpoche’s Pose as a (Re)incarnate Master (2018)”. This paper is currently unavailable, however. The author claimed six weeks ago that he was revising it and it would be published soon on his website, Open Buddhism. However, that has yet not happened and at present, there is no access to resources from that paper.

b) Autobiographical accounts by Mary Finnigan (MF), a British journalist who herself took an active role in the told story, especially concerning SR’s early years within London’s wild 70’s. In this part (chapters 4 – 6) MF tells us vividly how the songwriter-singer David Bowie inspired her to Tibetan Buddhism in 1969, how she actively helped SR establish London’s first Dharma centre within illegally occupied houses, and about visits of senior Lamas like the 16th Karmapa and Dudjom Rinpoche up until the visit of Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche in 1979. Especially the latter convinced many students (including MF herself) that SR lacked qualities required by an authentic Dzogchen master, so they left him. Patrick Gaffney and Dominique Side are mentioned more than once as amongst SR’s first and most loyal students;

Beyond the scope of this book review it is worth mentioning that during the past two decades MF, in her role as a journalist and blogger, tried to shed light on SR’s shadow sides at a time when it was difficult for her to be heard (i.e. in her 1995 Guardian article[4] and most notably in her 2011 blog post “Behind the Thangkas”[5]).

c) A chronology stretching from the 80’s onwards, dealing with Sogyal’s trajectory into super stardom, including a critical assessment of enabling factors such as the Dalai Lama’s role. The main focus in this latter part of the book is on SR’s and Rigpa’s scandals, including disturbing eye witness accounts by women testifying to being sexually exploited, abused and in some cases even raped by Sogyal[6]. Chapters 11 – 18 then provide a balanced account of the events following the letter of the 8.

The authors’ main assumptions and their significance

Not surprisingly, many of the facts and accounts presented in the book were already within the public domain, but now have been further enriched with vividness including a lot of additional details. However, focussing more on the greater picture, there are some interesting new findings and assumptions which deserve a closer look. For example:

As already mentioned, the authors’ findings concerning the Lakar family history directly affected by the turbulent historical events in ancient Tibet/China are really ground breaking (but too comprehensive to summarize here). Regrettably, numerous passages, especially in this part of the book, suffer from missing references as to their source. One main assumption is that Sogyal as a child wasn’t recognized as a tulku at all. Instead, the authors argue, he was only given care as a fatherless boy by his uncle, the great Rimé master Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö (JKCL; 1893 – 1959).This thesis sharply contradicts the accepted view – until recently almost unanimous view – that Sogyal, at six months old, was recognized by JKCL as a tulku, mainly an incarnation of Tertön Sogyal (1846 – 1926)[7]. In addition, SR was later recognized as an authentic tulku by many significant lamas, including Tertön Sogyal’s other main incarnation, Khenpo Jigphun Phuntsok (1933 – 2004), who visited SR 1993 at Lerab Ling (here is a short video clip of that translated by Ringu Tulku): Sherab Özer Rinpoche, the abbot of Kalzang monastery (Tertön Sogyal’s former seat) went even further during his several-month-long 1998 stay in Lerab Ling: “On August 12th 1998, Sherab Özer Rinpoche performed a simple, symbolic ceremony in which he offered the throne of Kalzang Monastery to Sogyal Rinpoche as the heir to Tertön Sogyal.” [8]. All of this important evidence is not included in the book. Instead, the authors base their divergent claim that SR was not recognized on the assessment that the decisions concerning his early education by JKCL and Sogyal’s mother Tselu were designed for a worldly career (e.g. Catholic school in India), but lacked the Buddhist training normally typical for incarnate lamas (which, for instance, Dzogchen Rinpoche, SR’s half brother, received).Just for completeness it needs to be added – since it’s not in the book – that according to The Life and Times of JKCL[9], Lama Gyurdrak (? – 1975; a nephew of Lama Tseten), a great dzogchen practitioner and tutor of KhandroTsering Chödrön, was chosen by JKCL to be SR’s first tutor.Neither mentioned nor discussed is that there were, in general, great differences as to what degree certain masters/tulkus were spiritually educated (i.e. scholars vs yogis).However, more practically speaking, since it becomes more and more obvious that the tulku system in general tends to be vulnerable to manipulation, corruption and even fraud[10], the question about SR’s tulku status says less about his actual qualities as an authentic teacher than it perhaps seems at first glance. JKCL, whose high degree of violent tendencies became well documented since 2017 through Orgyen Tobgyal’s frank biographical account[11], is identified as Sogyal’s first role model from earliest childhood on. Besides JKCL, Chögyam Trungpa (CT; 1939 – 1987) is identified as SR’s other most influential role model from 1975 onwards. MF, in her autobiographical account discloses that she experienced SR from the very beginning as a womanizer, but after returning from his visit to the U.S. in 1975 where he met CT in Boulder/Colorado[12], his behaviour changed abruptly from jovial to a tyrant’s attitude, which included public berating and humiliations of his students, (except of Patrick Gaffney). Only since then he demanded to be called “Rinpoche”. (p. 66 f.) The authors characterise SR overall as – at least from a Buddhist perspective – an uneducated “charlatan”, who shows very little understanding of Dzogchen. They reach that conclusion based on their observations and research concerning the time frame prior to 1979. Without further scrutiny they extend that assessment unchecked for the following decades.Especially for (former) students of SR this is very relevant insofar as it clarifies that the book hasn’t much to say about the quality and authenticity of the teachings we received from SR after 1979.Apart from the sad fact that SR apparently didn’t live what he taught, it’s worth remembering that his qualification as a recognized Dzogchen master mainly consists of extensive teachings he received from the 80’s onwards, most notably by Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche (1932 – 1999)[13]. Likewise, at this time period, he received comprehensive Dzogchen teachings especially from Dudjom Rinpoche (1904 – 1987), Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (1910 – 1991) and Trulshik Rinpoche (1924 – 2011).[14] However, it needs to be said that while it is very obvious which group teachings SR actually attended, it is much more difficult to know which amount of additional training he received by these and other masters in private.

 
Being aware of JKCL and CT as SR’s most influential role models is very helpful  when it comes to understanding how he could have developed such a twisted and abusive character. However, regarding SR as an authentic Tibetan Buddhist master is a greater challenge, since there is much to suggest that the vulnerability for abuse is far beyond single individuals amongst these lineage holders.

Some general observations

Besides the historical part at the beginning, the main strengths of the book are its first-hand eyewitness accounts, especially the fascinating and vivid-to-read autobiographical parts by MF. These are important primary sources, which by their very nature tend to have strength and weaknesses[15].

As already mentioned there is a tendency for assumptions without being provable throughout the book due to missing references. It needs to be considered that the presented findings are highly controversial in more than one case. In general, it could be seen as a sign of strength and courage by authors if their properly investigated work doesn’t hesitate to contradict the prevailing view. However, there is a need for careful consideration, which at least has to include for discussion all available relevant sources diverging from the authors’ findings. That is exactly what is missing here far too often, which I regard as a regretful neglect.

Overall I suggest everyone interested to learn more about the complicated history of SR and Rigpa study Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism with a sense of openness as well as a critical mind. At least the book should be perceived as an opportunity and invitation to further study and scientific, historical research on this subject.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Namtar_(biography)

[2] https://www.lionsroar.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Letter-to-Sogyal-Lakar-14-06-2017-.pdf

[3] https://whatnow727.wordpress.com/2018/09/05/lewis-silken-report-released/

[4] https://www.newspapers.com/clip/15625354/19950110_the_guardian_sexual/

[5] https://dialogueireland.wordpress.com/2011/12/15/behind-the-thangkas-sogyal-rimpoche-the-imbalance-of-power-and-abuse-of-spiritual-authority/

[6] Many of the quoted testimonies are included in the following “Daily Beast” article from 17.7.2019:
https://www.thedailybeast.com/inside-tibetan-buddhisms-rape-and-abuse-scandal

[7] compare to:
1.) https://www.rigpawiki.org/index.php?title=Sogyal_Rinpoche
2.) https://www.rigpawiki.org/index.php?title=Tert%C3%B6n_Sogyal#Incarnations

[8] https://www.rigpa.org/rigpa-history-in-pictures

[9] reference 30 on page 542; https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/31812184-the-life-and-times-of-jamyang-khyentse-ch-kyi-lodr

[10] 1.) https://info-buddhismus.de/Tulku-System_Dagyab-Rinpoche.html
2.) https://www.dalailama.com/messages/retirement-and-reincarnation/reincarnation

[11]  https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/31812184-the-life-and-times-of-jamyang-khyentse-ch-kyi-lodr

[12] To get a vivid impression of Chögyam Trungpa’s life and activities in Boulder, see Katy Butler’s article “Encountering the Shadow in buddhist America” (1990):
https://info-buddhism.com/Encountering_the_Shadow_in_Buddhist_America_Katy-Butler.html

[13] One evidence for the close relationship between these 2 masters is SR’s comprehensive Introduction (p. xv – xlii) within Nyoshul Khenkpo‘s book “A Marvelous Garland Of Rare Gems”. The book, which is an extensive collection of “masters of awareness in the Dzogchen lineage”, includes amongst many others SR’s biography (p. 462 f.): https://archive.org/details/NyoshulKhenpoAMarvelousGarlandOfRareGems_20180716_0934/page/n1
In additon it’s worth mentioning that SR played audio recordings of dzogchen teachings he received from Nyoshul Khenpo more than once during teaching retreats, as many (former) Rigpa students vividly recollect.

[14] 1.) https://www.rigpa.org/rigpa-history-in-pictures
2.) https://www.rigpa.org/history-of-rigpa-long/

[15] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primary_source#Strengths_and_weaknesses

Original author: tenpel
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