Mary Finnigan on the Tibetan Buddhist Diaspora.

My interest in Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism started when David Bowie introduced me to Chime Youngdon Rinpoche in 1969. The initial driver was curiosity about an exotic oriental way of life, cloaked in mystery, myth and stoned hippie legend.

After a year of the Beckenham Arts Lab, which peaked with a Free Festival in a local park, which has itself now become a legend, I took myself off to Samye Ling in Scotland. My fantasy about what to expect from the first Tibetan meditation centre in the developed world revolved around monks and nuns in maroon robes,chanting at dawn and meditating all day.

David Bowie 1969.What I found was a clique of upper class dropouts, including one or two recognisable celebs, basically enjoying a holiday in the romantic surroundings of a shrine n’dine in a former Victorian hunting lodge. There was only one Tibetan in residence — he sported a Jimi Hendrix hairstyle and slouched around the place in velvet bell bottoms and an Afghan jacket, bored out of his skull and waiting for the day when his brother the abbot returned from a trip to India and he could be off back to sex n’ drugs n’ rock’n roll in London.

Actually there was lots of sex and some drugs at Samye Ling in those days. It was more like a rest home for burned out hippies than a religious institution. But there was frisson of excitement for me in the Samye Ling shrine room. Gazing at the thangka paintings of deities, some serene and full of light and others ferociously dark, triggered a yearning — as if I was re-encountering something familiar. This was how my love affair with all things Tibetan began.

Chenrezig Mahakala.It took me to India several times and to Nepal. It took me back to Samye Ling many times. I helped Sogyal Rinpoche set himself up as a meditation teacher in London. The more I mined for information and experience, the more the fascination grew and developed. Then I met my root guru, Choegyal Namkhai Norbu and the pieces of the jigsaw that were still missing fell into place.

I’d had a few interesting moments on the cushion, but nothing  to compare with Norbu Rinpoche’s capacity to make contemplative practice accessible. It was roughly three years later when the first shadows started to appear on my Tibetan horizon. A young man from Sogyal’s group phoned me with a saga of concerns about Sogyal’s sex life. This was worrying, but it didn’t jolt me out of the Shangri-La bubble. For some time I didn’t want to believe there was a dark side to pre-Chinese Tibet.

Then, knowing that I am a journalist, a succession of very sad and disturbed women told me horror stories about  their sexual encounters with Sogyal and other Tibetan lamas. As the internet came into our lives, I researched the reality of Tibet — the dark side — the very dark side, that had arrived in equal measure to the light with the exiles who realised that Vajrayana Buddhism was their greatest asset and could be marketed to naive westerners.

It was very difficult to hang onto my Buddhist mojo while all this was going on. More than once I was on the point of walking away and never coming back. But thanks to the genius of Namkhai Norbu that never quite happened. Instead I launched into a one-woman campaign to shed light on the darkness, to talk about the corruption and the greed — the sexual exploitation and the political skullduggery. And I write about it.

Choegyal Namkhai Norbu.In so doing, I hope to extend awareness of how and where the magnificent tradition of Tibetan Buddhism has been bent out of shape. I have lost friends as a result, because I broke the law of omerta that forms the bedrock of religious cultism.  I saw many Tibetan Buddhist groups adopting cultish attitudes and behaviour — in most instances encouraged by their Tibetan gurus.

This seemed to me to be the polar opposite of the freedom of mind, body and spirit inherent in the Buddha’s realisation. Nico Morrison assembled this anthology for The Flower Raj of my writings for The Guardian Comment is Free. They emerged from my desire to make a small contribution to correcting the swing of the pendulum towards spiritual materialism in diaspora Tibetan Buddhism. I do it because I cannot think of a better way to help it survive.

From “The Guardian – Comment is free” (in order of publication):

Tibet's 17th Karmapa, Urgyen Trinley Dorje,.No role for the Karmapa“The Dalai Lama has acted shrewdly in giving up his political position and removing the need for a regency”.


Tibetan Buddhist nun prostrates. Lama sex abuse claims call Buddhist taboos into question“Allegations against Sogyal Rinpoche highlight the dangers of Buddhist injunctions against gossip and insistence on loyalty”.


Buddhist monks attend an alms offering ceremony. Mingyur Rinpoche, the millionaire monk who renounced it all“The Buddhist teacher’s decision to leave his monastery suggests a revival of the principles laid down by the Buddha”.


Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje attracted 2,000 people, paying $200 each, to hear him speak at an event.The Buddhist organisations that are thriving during the debt crisis“In times of financial hardship, meditators are still willing to pay large fees to hear the teachings of high-profile Buddhists”.


Young Tibetan Buddhist monks in Bodh Gaya, India.The YouTube confessional sending shockwaves through the Buddhist world“Young Kalu Rinpoche’s traumatic revelations highlight the dissonance between Tibetan tradition and 21st-century life”.


The Dalai Lama has warned against being seduced into Tibetan Buddhism by its exotic tantric aura.'The lamas who give Tibetan Buddhism a bad name“Don’t be taken in by the Shangri La factor. If seeking guidance in Buddhism, choose your teacher carefully”.



Mary Finniganby Mary Finnigan
Mary Finnigan Journalism and PR.
© 2013 Mary Finnigan & Guardian Newspapers.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

8 Responses to “Mary Finnigan on the Tibetan Buddhist Diaspora.”

  • Thank you Mark Kate. It feels good to be appreciated.

  • All very true, Mary. But you know as well as I do that there is a lot that is positive in the spread of Buddhism to the West. Many teachers and students operate under the radar of publicity, who have nothing to do with the scandalous behaviour you mention.

  • @Gavin Kilty, what you wrote needed saying & I am glad you said it; I also am sure there are many devout & modest Buddhists in the Tibetan Diaspora & their students all over the world.

    I do think this is also implicit in Mary’s writings; she comes across to me as someone who loves & cherishes the ideals & practices of the Tibetan Buddhists; it is because I feel her honesty of intent that I asked her to write for The Flower Raj.

    It is the saying of one thing & the practise of the opposite, the secrecy & the hypocrisy that is hurting the image & the teaching of the Dharma.

  • This was a post to Mary Finnigan , under an article she wrote on the Tibetan Diaspora, I sent it under my Tibetan name, I can’t change that, for some reason on Facebook or Google, but she knows who I am, since I identified that name with me on a previous post to her on her blog: Mary Finnigan on the Tibetan Buddhist Diaspora.

    I am very grateful to Namkhai Norbu, for his teachings. Nevertheless, because he cannot extricate himself from the Cult of Lamaism, sadly he was one of the supporters, and enablers of Sogyal Rinpoche at Lerab Ling, including visiting right after the Documentary exposing his sexual abuse and predatory behaviour. He was part of the Lamaist circling of the wagons. These lamas are entrenched in this misogynistic Tulku-ism, and will not call it out.

    Tulku-ism has to go. That is what western Buddhists, particularly our generation just can’t imagine, that this is what supports the misogyny and “cult behaviors” in these sanghas. No matter how brilliant the teacher they are still embedded in a medieval cultural paradigm.

    Until western Tibetan buddhist/lamaists see this, acknowledge that this is the problem nothing will change about Sogyal’s sexual abuse, nothing. They all to a one, are supporting and enabling him, even Namkhai Norbu, which was a great disappointment to me, they really don’t ‘see ‘ anything wrong with what he is doing, no matter how brilliantly they can transmit the dharma.

    In memory of Khandro Tsering Chödrön

    This ‘honouring” of this female ‘consort” Khandro, is honouring the misogyny of Tibetan lamaisms’ repressive hold on women practitioners, within the dharma, under the priestly hierarchy. Khandro was the role model for the “submissive ‘consort” that kept the whole thing going. That is the underlying message these Lamas and Lamaism want to convey to their western students and however good and noble a person she was, she was still “a female birth” and gave them “no trouble” but went along with the “programming” and the exploitation. This is not a testimony to their “feminism” Mary, it is a testimony to their continued reinforcement of their view of ‘women’s place’ in the dharma.

    You cannot be of ‘two minds” regarding this Cult of Lamaism , distorting the Buddha’s teachings, to end the predatory behaviour and sexual exploitation of these lamas including Sogyal Rinpoche, which you have made your life’s work. You have to extricate yourself completely, and then you will find your unequivocal, and un-ambivalent voice…

  • Chris Chandler… I too was disappointed when Choegyal Namkhai Norbu invited Sogyal to teach at Merigar and then paid a return visit to Lerab Ling. I wrote to Rinpoche asking him why he was doing this. I sent links to various corroborative items on the internet. Rinpoche wrote back saying that Sogyal is a Vajra brother and that they had received empowerments from the same lama, so he had no option.

    I do not agree with this point of view, but accept that it is integral to Tibetan culture. There’s not a lot westerners can do about this except carry on protesting that this medieval hangover has no place in 21st century life. I have taken empowerment from a lama (not Sogyal) whose modus operandi does not resonate well with me nowadays. I do not criticise him, but neither do I endorse him. And yes — the condolence letter from ChNN to Soggy made me want to throw up.

    ChNN is a phenomenal Dzogchen Master but this does not mean that he never makes relative world mistakes.

  • Chris Chandler….there is no ambivalence in my appreciation of Vajrayana/Dzogchen. An objective view of Tibetan cultural baggage is one thing — dharma study and practice is another. As Gavin points out, there are many honourable Tibetan lamas who do not misapply their power and who do not exploit the devotion accorded to them by their students.

Leave a Reply