My Time in Rigpa

Oane Bijlsma
Written by Oane Bijlsma

36 minutes

The day before the Rigpa Easter Retreat 2012 began, I opened the front door of the home of Haileybury School’s music teacher and his family for two of Sogyal Rinpoche’s ‘dakinis.‘ The women arrived from London after a two-hour drive in a black Mercedes with darkened windows, along with their Tibetan Guru. The driver let the women off at the gravel lane in front of the house and left. The first dakini briskly took off her long woollen coat. With her chin up in the air, she threw it in my arms as if I was her servant. This wasn’t the reason, though, why the friendly word ‘welcome’ got stuck in my throat. It was the sight of what she was wearing.

Not much

Note from the author: This article makes use of numeric footnotes that open on hover and take you to the footnote at the bottom of the page on click. Clicking the blue thumbnail at the end of the listed footnote takes you back to where it was inserted into the text.

It wasn’t much: knee-high shiny black leather boots, a mini skirt and a very flimsy blouse. Its fabric was so transparent that she might as well have worn nothing but the sexy, petite, black-lace push-up bra I saw underneath. This was the outfit that this dakini—a married woman in her early thirties—wore while sitting next to the portly, elderly ‘Lama’ on the back seat of the Mercedes.1

I had arrived by car myself a few days earlier. I took in my first view of the impressive Haileybury boarding school, with Harry Potter-like buildings, cramped into a sedan with five people.2 We were followed by a white truck. I had volunteered to help prepare the venue for Sogyal and his entourage, not quite knowing what to expect.3 Let’s just say that the woman’s dress and behaviour were the umpteenth shocking thing I observed—and there were plenty to follow. But this particular instance always stayed with me as the very moment I finally understood—and dared admit to myself—that such perverted scenes had been normalized. They were integral to the day-to-day business of the inner circle that surrounded Sogyal Lakar.

Enthused

Volunteering during the Easter Retreat was the logical outcome of my relationship with Paul Brusa, the current national director of Sogyal’s organization The Rigpa Fellowship in the United Kingdom.4 Back then Paul was just another faithful, long-time attendant of Sogyal. I had met him nine months prior, in the summer of 2011, while staying at Sogyal’s French temple Lerab Ling.

I was enthused by the meditation courses I attended earlier that year at the Rigpa centre in Amsterdam. So, I decided to travel to Lerab Ling, Rigpa’s so-called headquarters in the south of France for a retreat. Like many others who meet such groups, I hardly knew a thing about Buddhism before I joined Rigpa—let alone something about Tibetan Buddhism as a whole, its history, or the particulars of Vajrayana.5

I wasn’t particularly taken in by Sogyal’s public persona, though. The streak of devotion that shone through the curriculum seemed alien to me and even slightly off-putting. I also hesitated to call myself a Buddhist. But the idea that I would learn to practice teachings that ‘weren’t a religion but a way of life,’ and the fact that the Dalai Lama was friendly with Sogyal, persuaded me that I was on a promising path.

My ignorance and lack of critical distance were subservient to a purpose too: I longed for a new way of life—deeply. I had been lonely and hurt. I had some bad experiences. I made some bad decisions. At 34, I still hadn’t been able to find my place in this world. I was desperately looking for wisdom and insight, yearning for a way to wake up. And, who knew, I might make some friends in the process, find a place where I belonged, maybe even a goal in life? As it turns out, I was just one among many vulnerable, open-minded seekers.

Summer Camp

Lerab Ling is beautifully situated on the high planes of the Haut-Languedoc, close to the borders of the Parc Naturel Régional. My initial plan was to work as a volunteer for a week or two. After that, I would join that year’s Ngöndro retreat.6

The work would pay for my meals and provide me with a spot on the camping site where I would put my lightweight two-person tent. It felt like an adventure. The weather was great, the people were friendly, the work was agreeable. It felt good to be in such a beautiful setting full-time. The summer camp atmosphere turned even Buddhism itself into a bit of a side show. True, the people seemed to be a bit too bright and sparkly sometimes. Maybe I played along with their ‘magic’ too readily myself, smiling more than usual. But I pushed such doubts away immediately.

Shortly before my planned stay would end, some other volunteers and I were asked to come to the ‘old house’ for a meeting. A few permanent residents at Lerab Ling and some of Sogyal’s so-called ‘attendants’ told us that they were busy planning the cremation ceremonies for Khandro-la Tsering Chödron, who was Sogyal’s aunt. She had been Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lödro’s consort and was said to be a very important, very enlightened dakini.7 She died earlier that year.

‘Holy’ Moment

In a rather unusual move, French authorities had granted Lerab Ling the right to cremate her body on-site. Sogyal wanted to turn the cremation into a big event that would last many days. All kinds of Very Important Persons would attend and students from all over the globe would flock to Lerab Ling. It was going to be quite something—a once in a lifetime ‘holy’ moment.

They asked us what our specific skill sets were, and if we were willing to stay on and help. The eyes of one of Sogyal’s attendants, a French woman of my age, lit up when I mentioned I had extensive work experience in five-star hotels. The next day I called my housemates and family in the Netherlands to say I wouldn’t be back for at least another two months. And so, I ended up being the assistant to Catherine Gehin, Lerab Ling’s ‘head of VIP hospitality’ for that summer.

It would be weeks before Khandro’s remains—solemnly called kudung—arrived, but we began planning immediately.8 There was a deadline! The permanent residents needed to leave and empty their cabins and apartments. These had to be cleaned meticulously and redecorated. For this my new ‘boss’ Catherine chose special carpets and furniture she designated as “holy”, which we had to get out of the storage, some 20 kilometres away.

‘We’re One Woman Short’

Within days, I was singled out in the the laundry where I had been working: “We’re are one woman short; you need to come!” I was ordered to quickly put on a dress and stand in a line of women near the backdoor in the fence which shields Sogyal’s private garden. Someone placed a teapot in my hands and off we went, seven women or so with teapots, cups, little luxury cakes, and sandwiches. It was our job to serve the yangsi and widow of Nyoshul Khenpo Rinpoche. I had no idea what a yangsi was, nor did I know Nyoshul Khenpo, but his care definitely involved much frantic activity and bowing by a whole group of attractive women.9

Catherine looked exhausted all the time. At first, I thought she was tired because she had recently travelled with Sogyal and held a very demanding job. While we were fetching yet another load of ‘holy’ objects with her car, however, she blurted out that Sogyal could be a terribly difficult person and that he had been downright impossible in the weeks since his aunt had passed away. Sogyal woke her up nearly every night because he could not sleep—demanding food and attention and making scenes.

‘Lama Kitchen’

As her assistant, I gained access to spaces that ‘normal’ students would not enter. I met new members of the inner circle who were close to Sogyal. Suddenly, I was allowed to enter the ‘Lama Kitchen.’ Two chefs and a number of helpers were busy working for Sogyal day and night. I noticed how tense and stressful the atmosphere was. Everyone was pushed around to serve but one goal: to make Sogyal happy. Everybody worked around the clock to achieve that.

Clearly, those who worked for him and were responsible for Sogyal’s daily care, lived under enormous pressure. They suffered from a visible lack of sleep and seemed very tense—all of them. I saw absurd displays of devotion as well. In the Lama Kitchen female volunteers who did the dishes ate cold leftovers from Sogyal’s plates. Supposedly, the food had been ‘blessed’—they even slurped his soup!

Particular words and expressions were used to frame students’ understanding of everything that happened. “Blessings,” “purifying karma,” “working with your mind,” “everything is a teaching,” are but a few. Coincidences did not exist; everything was was predestined. Together we created a magical bubble that set Lerab Ling apart from the ordinary world—which was made to seem dull in comparison.

Being ‘Special’

When the first guests and the rest of the inner circle began trickling in, I first met Paul Brusa. He had been with Sogyal for 17 years. His personal presence was such that he could hardly be overlooked. I was introduced to him and we clicked immediately. Paul was very open. He told me about his past, early traumas, and the substance abuse of drugs and alcohol.

With him, I felt safe enough to open myself up as well. I told Paul about the abusive relationship I had been in when I was in my late twenties. I mentioned the difficulties I experienced while trying to find my path in life. Now I can see how our vulnerabilities were a perfect match for Sogyal’s toxic narcissism. Back then, however, Paul made me feel as if I had finally met someone who understood.

He became my ‘ticket’ to the inner circle. And it wasn’t long before Sogyal himself noticed me. Paul and I had been out for a walk and ran into Sogyal and his entourage on our return. Sogyal stopped us in the middle of the courtyard where the retreatants were having lunch and demanded to be introduced. He then pulled me towards himself and whispered in my ear: “Yes, I can see you’re very special.”

‘Baboon’

Later that day, a woman told me that she had immediately recognized that I was a dakini. I still wasn’t sure what this meant, but I was treated differently from then on. Paul and I got a cabin to ourselves. I was allowed to accompany him to the dining hall reserved for VIP’s. That was a real treat because it was indoors, and the food was non-vegetarian—noticeably better too.

The next day Sogyal’s assistant Kimberly Poppe dropped by to tell me that Sogyal wanted to see me. She took me to his private meditation cabin, which was situated at the highest point of the hills surrounding Lerab Ling. I followed her to the back entrance, a set of glass sliding doors that offered a beautiful view over the tableland.

We arrived at an awkward moment: a group of people from the inner circle stood and sat around a mightily aggravated Sogyal. Wildly gesticulating, he paced around in nothing but a pair of large white briefs. When Kimberly tapped the glass to make our presence known, Sogyal disappeared behind a folding screen, shouting for his clothes.

It turned out he wanted to speak with me about my—still budding—relationship with Paul. He told me to be kind to Paul because he loved him very much. Sogyal likened him to a “baboon” and said that he’d been working on Paul for quite some time now. When he was done with him, Paul would certainly make for a wonderful partner, he said.

Being Noticed

I have to admit that all this “specialness” turned my head a bit. It was just so nice to be noticed by so many—I felt flattered. But, at the same time, it became painfully obvious how the dynamic around Sogyal was. Some people had followed him for decades and their Guru had not deigned to look at them even once. So clearly, not everybody liked my preferential treatment. I got more than a few disapproving looks or jealous remarks.

Once I made the mistake of sitting in an empty place in the front row of the temple. A young woman became quite angry and vocal about it, asking me who I thought I was. Evidently, I didn’t know my proper place and had stretched my new found privileges too far.

I’m not proud of this. I’m still ashamed that I let myself be played that easily. Some love bombing did the trick. I didn’t have “special karma,” as some have suggested, I just wanted to be noticed. And Sogyal’s narcissistic agenda was simply to control his inner circle’s every move. He was more than happy to engage with any new, slim, long-haired woman to find out if she had ‘dakini-potential.’ But: these were conclusions I had not yet drawn.

‘Ode to Joy’

The cremation ceremony neared, and the pace became punishing. I had to work twelve to fourteen hours straight sometimes, 24/7. Others worked even longer hours. Sogyal stirred the energy and chaos to the max. He made all kinds of last-minute, erratic demands, constantly changing the schedule. He called everyone to the temple through the PA system at odd hours. He once made us pray for his own long life with ‘accumulations’ of 100,000 prayers. Nobody was allowed to leave before they were completed, even if took until midnight.

The craziest thing I experienced, perhaps, happened when Sogyal suddenly decided that he would circumambulate the temple while Beethoven’s ninth symphony, Ode to Joy, was played through the loudspeakers at deafening volume. Everybody needed to follow him around, faster and faster. By the time the symphony ended we were practically running! It was utterly ludicrous.

The day before the cremation ceremony began, I met a Dutch woman in the camp site’s sanitary blocks. Someone told me that she was one of Sogyal’s “special friends,” although she didn’t seem as close as the rest and had only just arrived. Her eyes were puffy, she clearly had been crying. “It’s all so stressful,” she said to me: “Sogyal wants me and the other girls to wear elegant dresses and high heels during the funeral procession. We just had a dressing rehearsal, but he didn’t like anything I brought with me. And now I have this rash because of the stress. I will look awful tomorrow!” One side of her face was in fact red. In hindsight, though, I’m not sure it was red because of a rash. It looked more like she’d been hit and that she was just very, very nervous.

Inside Stories

Paul must have felt really comfortable with me because, casually, he began to tell me inside stories. One of them was about another beautiful woman who had just arrived. I mentioned how beautiful she was. Paul laughed and told me how Sogyal had once assigned her to attend Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche during his stay at Lerab Ling.10 Dzongsar wanted to watch a football match and Paul and Philip Philippou—one of Sogyal’s right hand men—joined him. She served them snacks and drinks during the match, and Dzongsar made the girl rearrange the plates and glasses on the low table in front of them so that he could take a proper look at her. Paul found it hilarious.

I was introduced to another beautiful woman who was not merely a good friend of Paul, but had been his girlfriend—and, as Paul added later, a former girlfriend of Sogyal too. I began connecting the dots by then, but I didn’t want to jump to conclusions. So, I asked: “Is she still in a relationship with Sogyal? How did she become her Guru’s girlfriend?” Paul’s answers were vague. He mentioned that Sogyal wasn’t a monk, that he had had a series of consensual sexual relationships with women, and that this just happened to be one of them. Whatever the truth was, I could tell by looking at her that Sogyal hadn’t made her happy.

Yet another unhappy woman I remember well, is the ex-nun Damchö, one of the eight signatories of the inner circle’s exposé on Sogyal in 2017.11 When she visited us one afternoon, it was apparent that many people, Paul included, were surprised to see Damchö. Clearly, her presence triggered mixed emotions. She looked uncomfortable and became flustered while she had a hushed conversation with Paul who was trying to persuade her of something. I know now that Damchö left Sogyal and Rigpa a year before, giving back her monastic robes. And I understand how much she must have suffered.

‘Crazy English Woman’

As became clear to me later, this was the summer that Mary Finnigan’s essay ‘Behind the Thangkas’ appeared online.12 Around this time also, the French woman Mimi told her story about Sogyal’s abuses in the Canadian documentary ‘In the Name of Enlightenment’.13 Mimi may have threatened Sogyal with a lawsuit at that time. One day Catherine, Paul and I picked up a French woman at the airport who turned out to be Sogyal’s legal adviser.

During the ride back to Lerab Ling they had a conversation ‘in code.’ People in the inner circle, Paul included, were very good at talking about secrets in others’ presence without revealing them in so many words. But I could follow their conversation well enough to understand that Sogyal was livid and a real crisis loomed.

I asked Paul about it later. He told me about this “crazy English woman” who called herself a journalist and held a grudge against Sogyal. He told me not to look for it online and not to believe anything she said.

Amidst the commotion, the cremation ceremony went ahead as planned. It was pompous, colourful and impressive. Everybody looked devout and touched. After this, it was as if everything deflated. I stayed on for another week or so—there was some work left to do while the last retreats continued—but summer came to an end and people began to leave.

And so did I. Paul and I flew to London, where I transferred to a train to Amsterdam. I had found a community and friends, and even a relationship. I had lots of things to think about as well—however, it was a thought process I tried to stall for nine more months, however.

Oath-Bound

With this, a confusing time began. My relationship with Paul became rather serious. I visited him in London regularly and he came over to Amsterdam a couple of times. In between we Skyped, almost daily. Bit by bit, it became clear to me what it meant that Paul was one of Sogyal’s attendants. It didn’t just mean working at the London centre a few days a week. That was the only—unpaid—job Paul had for all those years. It meant that he—like all others in the inner circle—had to be at Sogyal’s service day and night, even when the Guru himself stayed at the other end of the world.

When he received a call from ‘Rinpoche’ or one of the other attendants, my boyfriend literally dropped everything and followed whatever command he received. I began to realize that he was keeping a lot of secrets about life in Sogyal’s inner circle. It all felt rather strange. Paul seemed oath-bound not to reveal too much and would use stock phrases sentences to answer my occasional questions.

When I called him, Paul was either very agitated or very tired. I remember one Skype session in the evening. Paul’s back hurt. The strong painkiller he took, eased the pain, but every movement hurt, nonetheless. He was actually lying on the ground while we were talking. Suddenly he got another call and was ordered to pick up a package at the airport. It had to be delivered straight away to Sogyal’s “most important dakini” in London, known as “his very special friend.”

I tried to talk Paul out of going. But he said he just had to—it was too important. He called me again afterwards, his face pale with pain. I asked him what it was that he had to hand-deliver so urgently. Paul told me that it was a box of vitamin pills someone brought in from the United States—the particular brand this important dakini liked, which was not available in England.

The Godfather

Despite Paul’s continuous efforts to maintain secrecy he could not help but make certain remarks and share some stories. That’s how I learned that Sogyal would instruct his staff during long meetings while sitting on the toilet with the door open. Paul matter-of-factly commented that he found the stink intolerable.

He also told me how glad he was that Sogyal had stopped hitting him two years before. A quick calculation—Paul had been his follower for 17 years at the time—made clear that Sogyal had beaten him regularly for 15 years. Others weren’t so lucky. Paul mentioned once that he and two female attendants had worked in Sogyal’s apartment in London recently.

Sogyal got into a fit of rage over something and dragged the two women through the apartment by their long hair for a good fifteen minutes. The girls were crying and screaming, but he wouldn’t let go.

I also learned that Sogyal was addicted to watching films and television series. Paul often illegally downloaded the latest movies—Hollywood blockbusters and B-movies—to burn on DVDs that were sent to Sogyal. He loved series like Little House on the Prairie and The Brady Bunch and often made his attendants watch them together with him. Paul told me that this was why he had seen The Godfather—Sogyal’s all-time favourite film—47 times. Sogyal would sometimes mute the volume and make people “do the dialogues” with him.

I witnessed other things myself. When Paul found out that Cuban cigars are much less expensive in Amsterdam, he just had to seek out Hajenius, a renowned and exclusive haunt of cigar connoisseurs in the city centre of Amsterdam. Until that moment I had been unaware of Sogyal’s smoking habit. My ignorance went up in smoke when Paul, after careful deliberation, decided to buy a few fine boxes. He paid Hajenius the total sum of nearly 1,500 euros in cash without flinching.

‘On’

Sogyal began to pay more attention to me as well. He left short messages for me to Paul or demanded to speak to me on the phone when I happened to be around. He called me a few times on my mobile phone while I was at home in Amsterdam. He once called me at two or three o’clock at night, all giggles, live from a beach in Australia.

His main interest during these calls was my relationship with Paul, about which he seemed to be well-informed. Most every time he rang, Paul and I had just had some argument or other. Sogyal would tell me to stick with ‘the Baboon’ and be patient. After that, he would tell me what he was doing: hanging out on the beach, having diner.

He once told me that he had asked Orgyen Tobgyal to do a divination for me.14 Sogyal didn’t explain why, nor did he tell me what the outcome had been. Other than that, he would make a few jokes, often about sex, and then end the conversation with the advice to stay “on.” It was a play upon my first name which he thought was hilarious. Sogyal always called me “On.”

Help

I remember that Sogyal visited London twice during that period. Both times I was there with Paul to help out. The first time happened before he would spend the winter in Australia, as was his wont. Although it was a short visit, the frantic preparations created the same stressful atmosphere I had experienced in Lerab Ling, albeit on a smaller scale.

This time, Catherine Gehin served as Sogyal’s attendant. A woman from Germany came over to “do the cooking.” Some female devotee came over each morning to give Sogyal his daily massage. And then there were the usual London staff members running around like crazy.

During this visit Sogyal saw me hanging around one morning, and it was as if he suddenly realized I had nothing to do. He called me to him and ordered me to iron all the items in his large suitcase. I set up an iron and board in the laundry room and opened the suitcase. The clothing in it was folded and packed neatly, freshly washed, free of creases. Confused, I went to see Paul and ask him what to do. “If Rinpoche tells you to iron it, then you have to iron it,” he said.

The second time Sogyal visited London was about a week before the Easter Retreat 2012 was due to begin. This time a lot of people travelled with him and there was a lot of work to be done. Paul urged me to come over too, assuring me that I would love it. He said that this was the most important time of the year for English Rigpa members.

Second Thoughts

We had already discussed the possibility of me tentatively moving in with Paul for half a year or so. I even talked to someone who would have subleased my apartment in Amsterdam. So, this time, I packed with the idea of staying with Paul for at least a month. This would give us enough time to go over the practical sides of our plan. At his request, I put yet another, carefully sealed batch of Cuban cigars in my suitcase as well.

As soon as I arrived, I began to have doubts. Paul was more agitated than ever before. He said it was normal for him to be very stressed before the Easter Retreat. But he also seemed to be very angry. That evening he explained to me why. Sogyal had threatened that Paul might have to leave his home sometime soon because one of the dakinis needed a place to stay in London, possibly for several weeks.

I was baffled, Paul’s apartment was small but cosy and thoughtfully decorated. He was very proud of it. “He can’t do that,” I said, “it’s your home!” “But he can,” Paul replied. “If that’s what he wants, I’ll have to go.” Obviously, he didn’t want this to happen—”especially not for her,” he said.

This was a girl I had yet to meet. She was the only dakini who was married. Paul disliked her a lot and he told me that she caused a lot of trouble. “That is probably why Rinpoche does this. He is so skilful. He is showing me that I am overly attached to my home by making me offer it to maybe the last person I want to offer it to.”

‘Look, look!’

The next morning, we went to the Rigpa’s London Centre on Caledonian Road. Sogyal’s apartment, situated on the second floor, needed to be prepared. It took us days. We cleaned every corner and every window, on both sides, scrubbed the toilet and the bath, made the bed and then went shopping. Eventually, the kitchen was stuffed with food, there were fresh flowers in every room—the place was ready for the “Great Master.”

Sogyal received a ceremonious welcome and I took his hand-luggage upstairs. Two male attendants were already busy, unpacking his suitcase. The designated chöpon or ‘shrine master’ was setting up Sogyal’s altar with the “holy objects” that Sogyal took with him wherever he went. The other was Seth Dye, whom I had already met in Lerab Ling.15

Just when I put his bag down on a chair, Sogyal entered the room. He greeted me, opened the bag and after some searching, took out a laminated sheet. It was a small drawing of a grinning man, possibly some Vajrayana deity, holding up a huge—very detailed—erect penis. Sogyal grabbed me by the back of my head, pressed the image almost in my face and said: “Look, look!”—cackling loudly.

I was completely taken aback. Not because I am prudish, I am not. But because it was so juvenile, so stupid, so tasteless. I felt deeply offended.

Stripping Others’ Homes

Sogyal stayed for just one night or so, after which he likely went to see his “very special friend.” When he had left, Catherine Gehin began packing furniture and a lot of other things from the apartment. Cupboards, for instance, and a rather heavy armchair, two standing lamps and the unmanageable large mattress from Sogyal’s double bed.

Other people busied themselves loading Tibetan paintings, statues and furniture from the temple downstairs into a large truck parked in front of the building. The first group of volunteers would decorate the central hall of Haileybury School with this truck’s cargo. As I have mentioned before, my group followed the next day with a smaller truck. Even then, I had no idea what I signed up for.

After we arrived, we unloaded pile upon pile of moving boxes. It turned out that Rigpa did not just rent the central hall and dormitories for its yearly retreat: they hired the whole campus. This included the homes of teachers and staff members of Haileybury School. And these needed to be made ready for the guests: Sogyal and his entourage. My job was to help strip these homes of every visible—and sometimes invisible—item that could remind one of their original occupants.

Ashamed

After the interior of a place had been meticulously photographed, we emptied the kitchen cupboards, wardrobes, drawers filled with papers or underwear, and all the bookshelves. We would remove children’s drawings from refrigerators, photographs from the walls, wrap up a whole collection of shells in newspapers, empty coat racks, and store pot plants in the garage. The unwanted furniture and boxes filled with personal belongings were then crammed in the unused rooms.

We worked very hard and for a few days I saw Paul only during lunch, dinner or late at night before finally going to bed. I couldn’t believe what we were doing. It felt so intrusive and disrespectful. I wasn’t enjoying it all—as Paul suggested I would.

I didn’t like the eerie, determined atmosphere either. I began to notice the joylessness of the people in the inner circle. Their coded talk, their secrets, and their gossiping began to annoy me. I thought it was bizarre that an entire house was turned into a ‘Lama kitchen.’ I found it embarrassing that I was emptying out peoples’ underwear from their drawers. I felt ashamed.

Too afraid to ask

The music teacher’s home was our biggest project. This was where Sogyal would be staying with two of his dakinis. It was decided last-minute that the family’s wide screen television was not wide enough. Someone was sent to fetch the television from Sogyal’s apartment in London in a hurry. Apparently, though, the family did not have the right cable service: Sogyal couldn’t watch the channels that he preferred. So, Paul paid some provider to send an off-hours technician to connect the television set to a whole new device—at a minimal subscription of a year, of course.

Then we were finally done—minutes before I opened up the door for the dakini who looked like she had dressed for a swinger party. I had just put a vase with yellow roses in her room as the finishing touch.

By then, it was obvious to me that Sogyal had sexual relationships with most of the women in his inner circle. It wasn’t something Paul and I talked about: he always skirted the subject and I was too afraid to ask. I feared that this one truth might lead to the unravelling of other truths, so that in the end I would have to give it all up: the community, the idea that I was learning something, that I had a goal in life, whatever it was. What troubled me more than anything, albeit unconsciously, was this: to insist on answers would unavoidably mean the end of my relationship with Paul.

Really Kinky

The retreat began the next day. Paul and I had spent hardly any time together for nearly a week. By now I really wanted to talk to him. So, that night, I finally confronted him. It was an emotional confrontation. I felt like I had suddenly awakened. I finally got that the inner circle was entirely focused on Sogyal’s obsessions with sex, food, luxury, and power. And I saw that everyone, including Paul, was enabling this.

I bluntly asked Paul if Sogyal had sex with the women that always surrounded him, to which he replied: “I don’t know, I’m never around myself.”

His evasion drove me mad, so I named the women one by one. Most of them were courting men from the inner circle. ‘Yes, yes,’ said Paul, ‘all of them, I think. But he is not a monk and as far as I know none of them ever complained about it.’

I asked Paul about the dakini I had just met for the first time. “She is the one I may have to leave my home for,” said Paul. “Sogyal always becomes unmanageable”—Paul always used the term “very wrathful”—”when he’s with her, because she likes to be really kinky with him.”

Make Amends

Paul told me about a particularly nasty disagreement he once had with this dakini. Sogyal singled them out while the whole inner circle was gathered in one place. He was angry with them for not being able to work together and demanded an explanation.

After he heard their stories, Sogyal decided that the woman had been the one who misbehaved. So, she had to make amends by giving Paul a blow job then and there. To Paul’s dismay, the dakini got on her knees in front of him and began to unzip his pants. This was when Sogyal began to laugh, saying that her willingness was enough proof for him. They were dismissed.

I wanted to leave immediately, go back to London, retrieve my stuff from Paul’s home and take a train to Amsterdam. But Paul convinced me to stay. It would be too complicated, he said, and I should not give up on us. Not this way. He now had to give the retreat and Sogyal his full attention, but he promised that we would talk about it afterwards and that he would answer all my questions. I wish I had left him there and then—but I stayed.

‘Building Up The Mandala’

I became Sogyal’s grocery girl. I was paired with another volunteer who would drive me to the shops in her own car. Catherine came along the first time, to show us where to shop and what to pick. Every vegetable, for instance, needed to be thoroughly checked for brown spots and other irregularities.

We couldn’t find a good enough butcher, so I had to do some research. I needed to find organic, grass-fed beef of the highest quality. And bones for making broth—bags of bones. That one week I spent hundreds of pounds on food and wine alone, and on roses and chocolates for the dakinis.

The day after I fell out with Paul, I was summoned to the garden to see Sogyal. He was alone with a pretty blond woman who is some minor British actress. She had positioned herself on the armrest of Sogyal’s chair—looking at me impassively all the time. Sogyal began by saying that he knew that I had some questions.

He then began to explain the situation: building up the specific mandala that was required for him to teach, involved much skilfulness.16 That was what I had been doing. I also needed to demand less attention from Paul. When he was with his Guru, Paul’s focus needed to be on him. These were the moments that Sogyal was “working with him,” and I should respect that.

The next day I went to the music teacher’s home with Paul who had to attend the morning briefing. Sogyal sat at the breakfast table surrounded by his inner circle. ‘Was all well again between us? Did we have a good fuck to make up?’ he asked. ‘I always call Paul a baboon,’ said Sogyal, ‘but maybe he is more of a bonobo, right?’

‘A Very Sober Life’

My disenchantment was complete, however, when at the end of the retreat we all came together in the central hall for the closing ceremonies and thank-yous. I hadn’t been in the central hall at all during the retreat. I didn’t have enough time to attend even a single teaching. After Sogyal finished his closing speech, his assistant Kimberly Poppe climbed on the stage and casually sat on the edge with a microphone in her hand.

She was very effusive in her praise of Sogyal. Kimberly emphasized the uniqueness of the teachings, the auspiciousness of the occasion and the blessings we had received. She noted that all of it had only been possible because so many people were generous with their time and money.

“Sogyal,” she said, “lives a very sober life. All his time and energy and all of the donations are used for spreading the Dharma, for making retreats and teachings such as this one possible.” With this she set down the box to put our additional donations in.

Amsterdam

Paul and I returned to London where we finally had the promised talk. I was well aware, of course, that Paul was not going to question his beloved ‘Rinpoche.’ He told me more than once that he believed Sogyal had saved his life. To question him, might have Paul lose everything. Not just his Guru, but the community that was like a family to him as well. Without them, he would have no job and a terrifying amount of time to kill.

A few days later I took a train to Amsterdam. It seemed as if Paul and I were no longer a couple. Once at home, I tried to calm myself down, but I had a hard time dealing with the whole situation. The friend who got me into Rigpa suggested I should have a talk with Jan Geurtz, a long-time devotee from the Netherlands who had a reputation for being somewhat rebellious.

My friend thought that Geurtz might be able to help me put my experience in perspective. After all, Geurtz is a self-declared Buddhist teacher and self-help Guru who writes books and leads meditation courses. He wrote a best-seller about quitting smoking. According to his biography, Geurtz studied remedial education. Not only does he call himself a Buddhist Guru, he also presents himself as a therapist.

The same friend also told me that Geurtz spent long stretches in Lerab Ling during the summer, and prided himself for being “an independent student.” He demonstrated his independence by refusing to do his Guru’s every bidding. He would join teachings or meetings—which were often last-minute events—only when he felt like it.

‘A Lesson’

Once, however, after Geurtz had been conspicuous by his absence several times, Sogyal had enough. He sent someone to bring Geurtz in from the camper he was living in. Sogyal climbed down his throne, silenced the temple and waited for Geurtz at the entrance. According to my friend Sogyal kicked Geurtz so hard in the butt when he arrived, that he was catapulted inside.

Surely, Geurtz reasoned the humiliation away as being “a lesson.” I know he does, because I visited him on his houseboat to have a talk. It became utterly clear to me then that Geurtz is in actual fact a true believer who toes the Rigpa party line like any other devotee would. About the dakinis he said: “Sogyal apparently needs the energy of young women to be able to teach.” He also stated that “people like you and me cannot judge Sogyal’s behaviour because we cannot see the workings of cause and effect the way he can.”

In 2015—four years after Mimi told the story about Sogyal’s abuse in the documentary In the Name of Enlightenment—Geurtz had this to say in his book Vrij van gedachten (‘Free of Thought’):

“Only when my honeymoon years gradually turned into intense annoyance over the behaviour of this teacher, did his interaction with young women begin to bother me. I soon realized, though, that I was mainly bothered by my own jealousy. Just like Rinpoche, I was well over fifty. My relationship with a nice young girlfriend had only just ended—in friendship, but not without feelings of loss and loneliness. Each time I saw one of those beautiful assistants, it evoked a loneliness and longing in me that I tended to reject. Even so, the same teacher showed me time and again how we ourselves are responsible for our suffering, and how one can learn to look at such differently, so that they dissolve in the space of the essence of the mind.

The past few years, I had gradually learned to embrace my jealousy and midlife entanglements with loving kindness, until finally judgment and entrapment could dissolve in the humorous space I created around them. Among a very limited circle of male fellow students it was even possible to joke about it: ‘Why do you want to achieve enlightenment? Because it will get you the prettiest girls.’

Only after I had learned to let go of my jealous response did my judgment about the teacher’s behaviour disappear.”17

Déjà Vu

Geurtz’s response made no sense to me. But I still was unable to let go. So, when the Dutch National Director Marlies Musch called to ask if I could help out during Sogyal’s visit to Amsterdam in June 2012, I agreed. It was a déjà vu experience. Once again, I scoured the city by bike to find a particular brand of wasabi-flavoured chick peas, the best grass-fed beef, orchids in the perfect shade of yellow, and the film calendars that listed the times of film showings in cinemas across Amsterdam.

This time we had to prepare three different houses—willingly made available to Sogyal by devotees: one to have his meals in, one as a place to study in, and, of course, one to serve as ‘Lama Kitchen.’ One of the two dakinis he was traveling with would stay here and prepare whatever meal he demanded. A chauffeured car was standby 24/7 to make deliveries, day and night.

Sogyal himself stayed in one of Amsterdam’s most expensive five-star hotels, together with the second dakini. I still hadn’t searched the internet at the time, so I wasn’t aware of the Janice Doe’s complaint for damages in the United States, or of Mary Finnigan’s online essay.18 I had not seen the Canadian documentary that included Sogyal’s victims Mimi and Victoria Barlow either.19 Even so, I became angry. None of this was right. I performed my duties mechanically, but I was seething.

Last Supper

The cognitive dissonance became unbearable. Within days, I called Marlies and told her I had other obligations. Sogyal must have heard about this, because at the end of the retreat I was invited to join him and the Dutch board for dinner in a very exclusive Chinese restaurant. Despite my anger, I still hoped that I could evade the inevitable conclusion. It still felt as too big of an honour to refuse. So, I joined them once more.

Sogyal kept us waiting, but his dakini called to say we should order and Sogyal would join us later. I grabbed the menu in front of me and suggested duck pancakes for starters. This led to commotion. My table-companions believed that such promptness was a very bad idea. They were visibly scared to do something wrong.

Fortunately, Sogyal arrived while I was talking to the waitress. He thought that duck pancakes were a very good idea. During the meal he asked me about Paul—no surprise there. I said I hadn’t talked to him in a while and that our relationship had become strained. He then ordered his dakini to call Paul. He laid the phone in the middle of the table and put it on speaker. A few minutes into this very uncomfortable public call Sogyal had us promise that we would visit one another soon to talk things over. He wished us lots of good sex after that. I believe this supper was the last time I saw Sogyal.

Conflicted

After this, things became messy. I felt so conflicted, the whole experience put me in a near-constant state of anxiety. I couldn’t sleep and wasn’t able to think or talk about anything that related to Sogyal, Rigpa, or Paul without getting emotional—sometimes to the point of all-out physical revulsion.

The confusion is probably the reason why my memory of everything that happened right after this last Dutch retreat is sketchy, hard to retrieve. Paul and I even met twice. We talked and Skyped a lot. I found it hard to express my thoughts and feelings, but I was certain that he really wasn’t capable and willing to question things in a meaningful way. His mantra remained: “This is a difficult path. It’s not for everyone.”

I didn’t go to Lerab Ling that summer and visited the Rigpa centre in Amsterdam only a couple of times. I knew I had to quit. I just had to leave. But I didn’t want to go without having voiced my concerns to the Rigpa leadership.

‘Tough Love’

I visited Eric Soyeux first. He was one of Sogyal’s first followers in the Netherlands and the co-founder of the Dutch Rigpa Foundation. I also had coffee with Inez Bodewitz, Assistant Director, one of the three employees who had a paid position. Finally, I called Marlies Musch, the National Director.

They all parroted what Jan Geurtz and Paul Brusa had said. It all came down to the utterly idiotic and harmful idea of “crazy wisdom.” They actually believed that Sogyal was infallible, so that every single act was a lesson taught from his infinitely wise love for each of us. Supposedly, Sogyal transcended any notion of good and bad that we—the simple people—thought we understood.

They said that they ‘felt sorry that it was so difficult for me.’ They suggested that I might have been ‘burned’ because I had come ‘close to the fire too fast, burning like paper.’

Soyeux told me that, at first, the going had been very hard for him too, but that it was important to keep the cultural differences in mind. According to him, Tibetans tend to practice “tough love.”

The Director’s Daughter

In tears, I told Marlies Musch what I knew about the Sogyal’s inner circle. By then I knew that at least three of the dakinis had been introduced to Sogyal and Rigpa by their own parents as young children. So, I asked Marlies about her own daughter, who was sixteen at the time and was very active in Rigpa’s children and teenager programme, Rigpé Yeshé.20

Would she be flattered if her daughter was asked to work in ‘Lama Care’ anytime soon? Would she consider it a distinction for her daughter to become Sogyal’s personal attendant? A sign of her ‘special karma,’ perhaps, or an ‘incredible achievement?’

Marlies did not answer. She treated me as if my emotions were a sign of instability. She suggested that, maybe, she could arrange a private talk with Sogyal for me. She was willing to accompany me, if I wanted her to. The fact that Marlies stayed on for four more years is telling.

I formally ended my membership of Rigpa in September 2012. Nobody from Rigpa ever got in touch with me again. It took me a few more months—–and much more sorrow—to break up with Paul.

Looking Back

It’s International Women’s Day today. A good day, I believe, to finally share a more detailed account of my time in Rigpa. After all, much of the abuse in Sogyal Lakar’s organization Rigpa derives from a deeply ingrained sexism. Recent scandals in international politics, the corporate world, the media, sports, and on schools and universities, have shown just how pervasive this problem is—even in modern, supposedly egalitarian societies like the Netherlands. To me, the Western Buddhist world seems especially vulnerable to it.

Recently, I was banned from speaking during a symposium on sexual abuse in Dutch Buddhists’ communities. Michael Ritman, the chairman of the Buddhist Union of the Netherlands and a long-time Sogyal-devotee, blocked my participation while saying—behind closed doors—that I was “not even a real victim.”

However: it’s not up to Sogyal’s enablers to determine if I was victimized or not. It’s not up to them to decide whether my testimony is worth sharing or not.

Like everyone else who took part in a Rigpa meditation course, I was mislead and lied to from the start. We were given no fair warning. There was no sign fixed next to the entrance of the Rigpa centre in Amsterdam that said:

‘The man we venerate as a fully enlightened Guru here, physically assaults his closest students; has sex with them and their daughters; and plays perverted power games. Besides, he’s an insatiable glutton, he’s addicted to smoking expensive cigars, he loves drinking cognac and whisky, and he thoroughly enjoys excessive luxury paid for with donations. And you are going to help us enable all of it.’

I call the people who held positions in Sogyal’s international organization—paid or not—by their own true name because I hold them accountable. They are all part of the scam that is called Rigpa. At the very least, they are guilty of the institutional betrayal of sincere, open-minded people such as myself. That is: they failed to protect their own against the very real danger of being harmed.

By exposing their behaviour, I hope to encourage other women and men whose lives have been marred by toxic narcissism, violence, and abuse, to speak truth to power. I’ve come to believe that it’s important to never ever be complicit in the normalizing of aberrant behaviour—standing by, turning a blind eye, doing nothing. And I will always regret the times that I was tempted to do so myself.

  1. Sogyal Rinpoche († 2019) is the co-author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (1992). Since the word rinpoche–’precious one’—is a Tibetan honorific, I prefer to use his actual name Sogyal Lakar or, simply, Sogyal. ‘Lama’ is the Tibetan word for Guru. Within Sogyal’s organization Rigpa, the Sanskrit word dakini is the euphemism of choice for the young females who provided Sogyal’s ‘Lama Care’—sexual services included. Traditionally, the word is used for realized beings who in female form provide help to Tantric meditators.
  2. See Haileybury.com.
  3. Author unknown. (2012). Easter Retreat with Sogyal Rinpoche: Friday 6 April to Sunday 15 April. Retrieved March 5, 2020.
  4. At present, The Rigpa Fellowship is being investigated by the Charity Commission for England and Wales. The Charity Commission removed two of its board members for failing ‘to protect people who came into contact with the charity.’ See: Author unknown. (2018). Press release: New Charity Inquiry: Rigpa Fellowship. Retrieved March 5, 2019. Author unknown. (2019). Charity Commission disqualifies trustee from Rigpa Fellowship. Retrieved March 5, 2020. Author unknown. (2019). Charity regulator removes trustee from Rigpa Fellowship. Retrieved February 25, 2020.
  5. Vajrayana is the tantric branch of Tibetan Buddhism.
  6. Author unknown. (2011). Ngöndro Retreat with Sogyal Rinpoche and Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, 4-14 July 2011. Retrieved March 5, 2020. Ngöndro is a Tibetan word for preliminary foundational practices.
  7. Khandro is the Tibetan word for dakini. The suffix -la is an honorific. Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lödro was a Tibetan Lama from the Kham province of Tibet. He fled Tibet with the Lakar family and passed away in Sikkim in 1959.
  8. The Tibetan word kudung refers to the mortal remains or relics of a Tibetan master.
  9. A yangsi is the young reincarnation of a high Lama. Nyoshul Khenpo Rinpoche († 1999) was a teacher of Sogyal Lakar.
  10. Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche (1961) is said to be the reincarnation of Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lödro. He is one of the Lamas who currently guide Rigpa’s Vision Board. Its members were appointed when Sogyal was forced to step down as spiritual leader in 2017.
  11. Baxter, Karen. (2018). Report to the Boards of Trustees of: Rigpa Fellowship UK, and Rigpa Fellowship US: Outcome of an Investigation into Allegations made against Sogyal Lakar (also known as Sogyal Rinpoche) in a Letter dated 14 July 2017. Retrieved October 8, 2018.
  12. The essay ‘Behind the thangkas’ by the British journalist Mary Finnigan (The Guardian) was first published online anonymously in 2011. Sometime later, Finnigan revealed that she was its author. In 2019, Finnigan and her co-author Rob Hogendoorn published Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism: The Rise and Fall of Sogyal Rinpoche (Jorvik Press).
  13. Goodwin, Debi. (2011). In The Name of Enlightenment: Sex Scandals in Religion. Toronto: Cogent/Benger Productions. The documentary can be watched on YouTube.
  14. The Tibetan Lama Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche (1951) was Sogyal’s handyman for all manner of metaphysical ‘interventions’.
  15. Seth Dye is currently a member of Rigpa’s Vision Board.
  16. The Sanskrit word mandala is traditionally used to denote the dwelling place of buddhas, bodhisattvas, and deities as visualized in tantric practice.
  17. Geurtz, Jan. (2015). Vrij van gedachten: Praktische handleiding voor een helder en liefdevol leven. Amsterdam: Ambo | Anthos. p. 174 (iBook edition). The English translation is mine.
  18. See Phillips, Theodore W. (1994). Complaint for Damages. Author unknown. (1995). Rigpa Press Release. See footnote 13.
  19. See footnote 13.
  20. Author unknown. (Date unknown). The Rigpé Yeshé Programme. Retrieved March 8, 2020.

About the author

Oane Bijlsma

Oane Bijlsma

Oane Bijlsma (1975) held odd jobs in restaurants and five-star hotels in her twenties. Eventually, while working in a bookstore, she decide to take up Literary Studies at the University of Amsterdam.