Shock at lama Sogyal Rinpoche's past

President McAleese distances herself from spiritual leader accused of abuse

Times Online, UK/July 4, 2009

When President Mary McAleese visited Dzogchen Beara, a spectacular Buddhist retreat perched high above the Atlantic Ocean on the rugged west Cork peninsula in September 2007, she was full of praise for Sogyal Rinpoche, its Tibetan-born spiritual director.

It was, the president said, "a particular joy" to be in the company of a lama and bestselling author whose "wonderful work" is "known to many people right around the world".

The president’s remarks about the spiritual leader, whose name means Precious One, along with photographs of her visit now feature prominently on the centre’s website, which advertises courses on bereavement and meditation.

Last April the president’s office also sent "warmest good wishes" to a conference on spiritual care hosted in Killarney by Rigpa, an international Buddhist organisation that Rinpoche leads.

It has now emerged that Rinpoche has a controversial past and was once accused in a $10m (€7.16m) American lawsuit of "physical, mental and sexual abuse".

Last week The Sunday Times supplied Aras an Uachtarain with details of the case taken against Rinpoche in California in 1994, and a description of Rigpa and its leader provided by Inform, a religious information body funded by the British government and based in the London School of Economics.

Asked to comment on the president’s connections to both, her office declined to mention the spiritual guru by name. "President McAleese visited Dzogchen Beara Tibetan Buddhist Retreat & Spiritual Care Centre on September 12, 2007 at the invitation of centre director, Matt Padwick," a spokeswoman said.

The subsequent message of support was "provided to Rigpa Spiritual Care Education Programme at Dzogchen Beara for the purposes of its international spiritual care conference".

The spokeswoman added: "President McAleese often sends welcome messages to international conferences taking place in Ireland on a wide range of themes."

Rinpoche, who was born in the 1940s and educated at Cambridge University, is author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, which has sold more than 2m copies. It was described by the actor John Cleese as "one of the most helpful I have ever read". Rinpoche appeared in the 1993 film, Little Buddha.

Rigpa has 182 centres worldwide and groups in 23 countries. Its premises in Beara, a gift from Harriet Cornish, an Englishwoman who came to west Cork in the 1970s, is regularly visited by Rinpoche, who is there this weekend leading a retreat.

Controversy has surrounded the leader ever since the 1990s lawsuit was setted with no details of the terms. In the case, an anonymous woman claimed that she was "coerced into an intimate relationship" having visited Rinpoche on a Connecticut retreat following the death of her father.

The suit accused him of fraud, assault and battery, infliction of emotional distress and breach of fiduciary duty. It also charged that he "seduced many other female students for his own sexual gratification".

The case was settled privately and no details were made public. A spokesman for the Rigpa organisation said it was precluded from speaking about the matter although he confirmed it was settled.

Since that case, further concerns have been expressed about Rinpoche. In 1995, The Daily Telegraph detailed incidents in which students claimed that they had felt obliged to have a sexual relationship with their teacher. There have been other similar allegations, including anonymous postings online, which have been described by Rigpa as "uncorroborated and without evidence".

Critics of the Buddhist leader argue that although he is not a celibate religious leader and is entitled to a private life, there are legitimate fears that he may use his guru/pupil relationship for sexual gain. Rigpa denies this, saying that Rinpoche has "helped many thousands of people to transform their lives in a positive way" and is an "authentic master".

"All these allegations floating around the internet are untrue and the organisation is considering what action to take," the Rigpa spokesman said.

Mike Garde, director of Dialogue Ireland, has now posted publicly available information about Rinpoche, including the details of the lawsuit, on the organisation’s website. "We’ve put it up so people can access details of the case and decide for themselves," Garde said.

Anyone seeking information from Inform is told it has had 38 inquiries about Rigpa. "The majority have been simply for more information, however, they include inquiries from two former members who both alleged that there was sexual abuse within the organisation," it said. "A further two were from people concerned about female relatives who were members."

A number of prominent Irish people, including Sister Stanislaus Kennedy, have spoken at conferences on death organised by Rinpoche. The centre is hosting a mini-festival this weekend featuring Luka Bloom and John Spillane, both singer-songwriters.

Calls to the management of the Dzogchen Beara centre were not returned.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.