Unintended Consequences: Reflections on Diaspora Tibetan Buddhism

Written by Mary Finnigan

2 minutes

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.

Then Sogyal got too big for his boots—demanding to be treated with the deference accorded to very important lamas.  Simultaneously, some of us around him in London wised up to the fact that he was busking it. When pressed to deliver initiation into yogic practices, he prevaricated. Carrot and donkey. Not the real deal. Some of us were alarmed by his insatiable appetite for sexual conquests, while others chose to ignore the warning signals. The front runners in the denial zone were a couple at the time—Patrick Gaffney and Susan “Bunny” Burrows.

Fast forward to November 2020. Sogyal is dead and his worldwide organisation Rigpa is struggling for survival. One devastating revelation after another has culminated in a statutory inquiry into Rigpa UK by the Charity Commission for England and Wales. Their report was published in November 2020, but several months earlier the Charity Commission made an unusual decision to disqualify Gaffney and Burrows as Charity trustees. Gaffney for eight years and Burrows for life.

As the saga of Sogyal’s deceit, sexual depravity and violence unfolded, it became obvious that instead of helping to establish a beneficial scenario, I had unleashed a monster, whose actions had caused widespread suffering for more than 40 years—an extreme example of the law of unintended consequences. From being an enthusiastic enabler, I pulled my journalistic hat firmly around my ears and morphed into Sogyal’s fiercest critic.

I tried so hard to raise awareness. I wrote about Sogyal in national newspapers, broadcast about him on the BBC, talked about him in seminars, debated about him on social media. Instead of being feted as a heroine, I was vilified, demonised and insulted. Eventually I wrote a book about him in collaboration with Rob Hogendoorn. None of these initiatives brought about Sogyal’s downfall. His nemesis came when eight of his former long term devotees published a devastating expose. The view from the inside was effective because it was ruthless in its assessment of Sogyal’s defects—and it was eight people in agreement rather than a single voice.

Over the years it has become clear that Sogyal was not a lone renegade lama. One after another, evidence emerged about others who defy the norms of western civilised behaviour. They treat their students like cash machines, they exploit the devotion and trust of their followers, they are blatantly misogynistic. Many of them are ordained monks who break their vows in abusive sexual liaisons with western women. And they deny everything. The mafia law of omerta is applied in all circumstances. The Rigpa eight crashed that barrier, with the inevitable consequence—they were excoriated by members of the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy.

This is a tragedy of epic proportions because, over centuries, the yogis and scholars of Tibet established and refined a unique contemplative tradition that encompasses all levels of participation—from daily life observance to a lifetime of dedication in solitary retreat. It is comprehensive, detailed and fabulously wild, colourful and interesting. Its central tenets are wisdom and compassion—in equal measure. Wisdom which is beyond cerebral and compassion that does not discriminate—it is for all and everything. To those of us who appreciate the value of this heritage, the corruption that has spiralled out of control in diaspora Tibetan Buddhism is a source of acute sadness.

About the author

Mary Finnigan

Mary Finnigan is an author, journalist and broadcaster. Her books are 'Psychedelic Suburbia: David Bowie and the Beckenham Arts Lab' and 'Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism,' co-authored with Rob Hogendoorn. Both are published by Jorvik Press.