telegraph.co.uk_In August last year, Sogyal Rinpoche, the Tibetan lama whose book The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying has sold more than three million copies around the world, and made him probably the best known Tibetan Buddhist teacher after the Dalai Lama, gave his annual teaching at his French centre Lerab Ling.
Sogyal’s organisation Rigpa – a Tibetan word meaning the essential nature of mind – has more than 100 centres in 40 countries around the world, but Lerab Ling, situated in rolling countryside in L’Hérault is the jewel in the crown. Boasting what is said to be the largest Tibetan Buddhist temple in the West, it was formally opened in 2008 by the Dalai Lama, with Carla Bruni Sarkozy, then France’s first lady, and a host of other dignitaries in attendance.
Sogyal is regarded by his students as a living embodiment of the Buddhist teachings of wisdom and compassion, but a man who teaches in a highly unorthodox way, known as ‘crazy wisdom’.
At Lerab Ling, more than 1000 students were gathered in the temple as he walked on stage, accompanied by his attendant, a Danish nun named Ani Chokyi. Sogyal, who is 70, is a portly, bespectacled man who requires a footstool to mount the throne from which he customarily teaches. Approaching the throne, he paused, then turned suddenly and punched the nun hard in the stomach.
‘I guess the footstool wasn’t in exactly the right position,’ says Gary Goldman, an American student of more than 20 years standing, who was seated in one of the front rows. ‘He had this flash of anger, and he just punched her – a short gut punch. It just stunned me. I thought, what the hell’s that about? Everybody around me kind of sucked their breath in. She started crying, and he told her to leave, get out, and then he started to talk.’
‘To see the master not as a human being but as the Buddha himself,’ Sogyal has often told his students, ‘is the source of the highest blessing.’ Those attending his teachings are cautioned not to be surprised or to draw ‘the wrong conclusions’ about the way he might behave. Apparently irrational, even violent conduct, it is said, should be viewed as ‘mere appearance’.
But punching a nun in the stomach… ‘Afterwards, everybody was trying to make sense of what had happened,’ Goldman says. ‘People were very upset.’ It was customary for students at the retreat to email any thoughts or questions they might have on the day’s teachings to Sogyal’s senior instructors.