By Mary Finnigan
The Tibetan lama Sogyal Rimpoche is being sued for $10 million in the United States by a woman who alleges sexual harassment, coercion and abuse. Sogyal (Rimpoche is an honorary title meaning Precious Jewel) has been teaching Buddhist meditation for more than 20 years, with a world-wide following and meditation centres known as The Rigpa Fellowship in London, France, Ireland, America and Australia. He is the author of a best-seller, The Tibetan Book of Living And Dying, and appeared in Bertolucci's film Little Buddha. The Rigpa Fellowship in London has issued a letter informing its members that a suit has been brought against Sogyal Rimpoche. Although he is not a monk, and has not taken vows of celibacy, he is accused of using his position to obtain sexual favours. Allegations like these threaten to blow a hole in the aura of asceticism and austerity surrounding Buddhism in the West.
In the late 1960s, western hippies seeking spiritual enlightenment were drawn to the Tibetans' exuberant, colourful style. Tibet was seen as a Buddhist Shangri-La -- a far cry from the reality of a country under repressive Chinese occupation.
In the seventies, rumours started to circulate about other globe-trotting Buddhist gurus, who were said to be seducing their students and behaving more like spiritual barons than spiritual mentors, exercising _droit du seigneur_ among their followers. The late Trungpa Rimpoche was one of the first high-ranking Tibetan lamas to learn English, which he studied at Oxford in the mid-sixties. He fathered a child while still a monk, discarded his robes and settled in America, where he gained a reputation as an inspired meditation teacher. He became a role model for others, including Sogyal Rimpoche. He was also an alcoholic and a notorious womaniser. He died of drink in 1987. Before his death, he chose Osel Tenzin, an American student as his Successor. Osel died of Aids, after passing the HIV virus to several of his students.
Although not all Tibetan teachers are monks - many have renounced their vows and some are from non-celibate traditions - if a sexual relationship arises, the imbalance of power in the teacher-pupil relationship can lay the student open to abuse. Many Buddhists see this as a contravention of the moral code which frowns on all actions that cause harm.
At a conference of western Buddhist teachers in India last year, the Dalai Lama urged delegates not to be afraid of criticising corrupt gurus. "If you cannot find any other way of dealing with the problem," he said, "tell the newspapers."
Last year, an American woman and former pupil of Sogyal decided to bring a civil case anonymously, and was allowed by the court in Santa Cruz, California, to use the pseudonym Janice Doe. She says in her suit that she approached Sogyal at a time of a time of confusion, shortly after her fathers death. According to the suit, Sogyal told her that "through devotion and his spiritual instruction, she could purify her family's karma". The woman alleges he seduced her the next day, claiming that she would be "strengthened and healed by having sex with him".
However unconvincing such an argument may sound, the Zen priest Yvonne Rand, who is counselling Janice Doe, points out that the relationship between guru and disciple is one of power and submission. People who seek guidance from a spiritual master want to believe what he or she tells them.
"Many women who seek out spiritual teachers come from dysfunctional families. They may have experienced physical and/or sexual abuse, had no father or bad father relationships, so are looking for a good father. This creates blind spots in their perception of a teacher."
Rand is emphatic that such high risk relationships rarely benefit both parties. This opinion is shared by other women who have had sexual liaisons with their gurus.
"I was touched by his need for me," says one, who had a long relationship with a lama, "but it was difficult and strange, in no way a normal relationship. It fuelled my fantasies about having special qualities, but he debunked them. I felt empowered by him but though he treated me with respect, I was always aware he had other lovers."
Another woman speaks of the confusion that arose from being first a humble devotee, then an exalted sexual partner, then back in the ranks again. "I felt used," she says "He put his needs above mine."
More recently, a young English woman attended a residential retreat. She thought she had been singled out for special attention only to discover that she was being invited to join a harem. "At first I was flattered, and very open and trusting. He encouraged me to fall in love with him - but I realised that he was toying with me. I noticed several other young, pretty women going in and out of his apartment, when I confronted him with this, he dropped me for the rest of the time I was there."
Did she learn anything from her intimacy with the guru? "He gave me good advice, but I am left with a hangover of pain and confusion. I also have doubts about Buddhism. If anything, I have learnt to be more cautious."
Rand and the British Buddhist teacher Ngakpa Chogyam Rimpoche share the view that the majority of westerners sign up too quickly with their gurus and find themselves in a much more intense relationship than they had bargained for. This is especially true of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism which, at an advanced level, incorporates sexual union into spiritual practice.
Rand believes that westerners often fail to make the distinction between a teacher who helps along the way and a guru who is an enlightened being.
"Some Tibetan lamas do not see themselves as accountable in the western sense of the word," says Ngakpa Chogyam. "They get blown off-centre by too much adulation."
This potential for adulation makes it vital that teachers accept responsibility for the well being of their students. Responsibility must include, if not celibacy, then extreme care with sex. According to psychologist Deborah Clarke, everyone who enters into a spiritual or therapeutic relationship is vulnerable to exploitation.
"I'd be furious if a guru made a pass at me," she says. "They should all know by now that people with that sort of power have a moral and ethical duty not to abuse it."
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