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.
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.
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.
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):
No role for the Karmapa – “The Dalai Lama has acted shrewdly in giving up his political position and removing the need for a regency”.
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”.
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”.
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”.
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 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”.