Inside Tibetan Buddhism’s ‘Rape’ and Abuse Scandal
Two women are accusing Sogyal Rinpoche—the founder of a leading Buddhist organization—of “rape” and “non-consensual” sex in a book that will be published on Thursday.
DEVON, England—One of the best-known figures in Tibetan Buddhism has been accused of rape, sexual assault, beatings, and psychological abuse in an extraordinary new insider account.
Sogyal Rinpoche—the founder of a leading Buddhist organization—is accused by two women of “rape” and “non-consensual” sex in a book that will be published Thursday.
Mimi Durand said she had tried to block out the emotional torment before accepting what had happened to her. “I realized I’d been raped,” she told the book’s authors.
A second woman alleged that Sogyal had forced her into non-consensual sex at a building belonging to Rigpa—Sogyal’s Buddhist organization—in northwest London. A third woman gives a shocking account in the book of the way she says the lama took advantage of her when she went to him looking for help in overcoming the grief of losing her father.
A fourth, Oane Bijlsma, a Dutch woman who was once part of Sogyal’s inner circle, claimed: “It’s a BDSM cult minus a safe word.”
Sogyal was forced to retire amid claims of sexual assault and violence in 2017. The new book, Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism, contains an even wider array of allegations.
Co-author Mary Finnigan, who helped launch Sogyal’s career in London in the 1970s, told The Daily Beast that no one within Rigpa challenged his behavior in time. She even appealed to the Dalai Lama, who didn’t immediately move to stop Sogyal. “They still have their red-robe mafia code of omerta.”
Rigpa has not responded to a request for comment. A message sent to Sogyal’s office via an email listed on the Rigpa website was also not returned.
Sogyal proved adept at perpetuating a mythical reputation over a career that spanned decades at the highest echelons of Tibetan Buddhist traditions—even though the book claims he had no formal training and was never a monk. It is also claimed in the book that he became a millionaire after publishing the top-selling Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, which sold millions of copies all over the world. But there have long been disputed accounts of who actually wrote the tome. Either way, he became one of the best-known proponents of the religion and appeared in Little Buddha alongside Keanu Reeves in 1993.
Finnigan was unaware of Sogyal’s allegedly limited background when she helped him to set up his fledgling operation out of a squat in London. It was only when she started dating another Buddhism expert that she came to believe that Sogyal was out of his depth. “It was very uncomfortable for me to hear that I had apparently facilitated a charlatan to set himself up as an authentic teacher—and in the process deceive a lot of people,” she wrote in the book.
Sitting in a beautifully tended garden filled with pale pink roses and green metal lanterns in rural Devon, southwest England, she admitted that she was “regretful” about her part in his rise. She met Sogyal after she had been introduced to the religion by her roommate David Bowie in the early 1970s.
“I wish it had been different. I wish he’d had a bit more of what it takes,” she said. “He was winging it. All the time.”
It wasn’t long before Finnigan noticed what she saw as Sogyal’s less ascetic characteristics. She was instrumental in securing several of the early buildings where he carried out his teachings. “From day one, the residents [at Princess Road in Kilburn, northwest London] were confronted with Sogyal’s insatiable appetite for sexual conquests. One of them recalled the steady stream of young pretty women summoned for ‘private teachings’ to the guru’s abode: ‘Some of them would stay for a while and leave quietly, but others would flounce out shouting loud protests and slamming doors,’” she wrote.
After a tour of the U.S. in 1975, his temper was unleashed, she said. “The informal, matey period was well and truly over,” she wrote. “Around this time Sogyal launched into his habit of publicly humiliating his close followers—berating for them for even minor errors in front of a roomful of people.”
The book, written by Finnigan and Rob Hogendoorn, alleges that he also set up a harem of women who catered to his every desire. “Sogyal was pampered like a medieval monarch, with a clique of women trained to respond to his slightest whim—day and night, 24/7,” she wrote.
The book explains that these women were taught to believe they were the lucky ones, selected for the closest of relationships with the leader while being subjected to physical and mental abuse, including beatings and sexual assault.
One of those women, who speaks under the pseudonym of Flora Sinclair, alleges in the book that Sogyal had non-consensual sex with her in 1985 while she was at Rigba’s base at Kilburn, where Sogyal and his family were staying.
“I got into bed with him as a consenting adult. However instead of normal sex, he forced non-consensual sex on me. I struggled, but kept my voice down so as not to alarm his aunt. I was so confused that he could have done such a horrible thing when his revered aunt was literally on the other side of the wall. That was the last straw and, shortly after, I left Rigpa,” she said.
Mimi Durand was 22 when she was accepted into Sogyal’s inner circle. She said she was at the organization’s HQ in the south of France when she was attacked.
“He ordered me to take my clothes off. I thought it was another test, so I did as I was told. He told me to get onto the bed and we had sex. As this was happening, he said, ‘Look into my eyes, this is the moment you connect with your master.’ There were no preliminaries, he did not use a condom,” she said. “Afterwards he made me swear to keep it a secret, even from the other girls, and said if I did not keep the samaya [a Buddhist doctrine of conduct] it would be very bad for my karma and for the karma of my family.”
Durand says she continued to be subjected to the sexual demands of Sogyal. “I didn’t think about it—I have a capacity to leave my body, I’m just not there,” she said. “But I felt so ashamed because I allowed it to happen. We were constantly humiliated. I was the only one who did not have to ask him for money and was not obliged to wear Barbie doll clothes that he paid for.”
She told Finnigan that she had a moment of clarity on the Eurostar train, which runs between London and France. “There I was in the tunnel and the defenses I’d built up started to collapse. I remembered things. I realized I’d been raped and from that point onwards the more I remembered, the sicker I got,” the book quotes her as saying. “I had nightmares every night—I was an empty carcass and I thought I was going crazy.”
After her epiphany, Durand also quit Rigpa. Not all of the women who said they were targeted by Sogyal had been groomed over months or years to be part of his inner circle.
Deirdre Smith (not her real name) approached the lama in Connecticut in 1993 asking for help because she had been rocked by the death of her father, who had died from a drug overdose. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying had been published the year before and had already attracted a cult following.
“He asked me to massage him—I was in awe of him as the important guru, so I did as he wished. Then he told me he was my personal teacher and was going to help me,” she said.
Smith said the lama told her to come back the following evening with a photo of her dad. She says she returned at around 10.30 p.m.
“He took his clothes off and got into bed. I was embarrassed and didn’t know where to look—but he said I should feel safe because we were in a shrine. The room was lit with candles and there were pictures of Buddhas all around,” she said. “It must have gone on for about six hours. Eventually I was exhausted and gave up resisting. The whole thing revolved around surrender to him and I was scared of losing the opportunity to heal my family.”
“I might as well have had a notice round my neck saying ‘Abuse Me!’” she told Finnigan, in tears.
Sogyal was first publicly accused of sexual assault in 1994 in a $10 million civil case in Santa Monica, California. The case was reportedly settled out of court, something that was confirmed by Rigpa’s own investigation published last year. Despite the allegation, Sogyal continued in post.
He was finally forced to resign after a group of senior Rigpa insiders wrote a letter accusing him of sexual assault and violence in 2017, more than two decades later.
Finnigan told The Daily Beast that she confronted the Dalai Lama with the scale of the issue personally in 1997. “I told him,” she said. “I was absolutely straight.”
“Sogyal’s a promiscuous, thoroughly unpleasant, manipulative, dangerous man and he should not be where he is at the moment,” she added.
She is extremely disappointed that the Dalai Lama did not act sooner, although she declines to condemn him outright.
In the book, she explains: “I admire His Holiness and am convinced that his overall influence on our turbulent times has been beneficial. He’s a celebrity guru who pays meticulous attention to his moral and ethical compass. But the fact remains that he knew about Sogyal’s depravity for decades, before he was finally forced to condemn it.”
Hogendoorn helped arrange for four Rigpa survivors to speak to the Dalai Lama in Rotterdam last year. The book says he made it clear that he intends to deal with the problem, telling the alleged victims: “You have given me ammunition.”
The Dalai Lama did not criticize Sogyal until August 2017, more than 20 years after the original lawsuit against him. In 2011, Finnigan had first published a document criticizing Sogyal; in 2015, the president of Rigpa France resigned, hitting out at “double-talk” within the organization; and in 2016 French academic Marion Dapsance published a book alleging abuse within the organization. Nothing was done.
Sogyal has finally exited Rigpa, but the organization continues without him. Finnigan and Hogendoorn are hopeful that legal action in France and a statutory inquiry in Britain will help to bring allegations against the organization to light but they conclude that so far Rigpa has tried to carry on regardless of the enormity of the accusations against its founder and longtime leader.