Early life and education
Rinpoche was born in 1947 into the Lakar family of the Trehor region of Kham, east Tibet. Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö recognized him as the incarnation of Tertön Sogyal and supervised his education at Dzongsar Monastery. He studied traditional subjects with several tutors, including Khenpo Appey, who was appointed as his tutor by Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö.
Rinpoche attended a Catholic school in Kalimpong, India, and then university in Delhi before coming to the West. In 1971, he was granted a place to study comparative religion at Trinity College, Cambridge as a visiting scholar.
He continued to study with many masters, of all schools of Tibetan Buddhism, especially Dudjom Rinpoche, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, and Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche. He first began to translate for Dudjom Rinpoche in Kalimpong and later continued in the role of his translator in Europe and during a tour of the United States.
In 1973, he assisted in organizing His Holiness the Dalai Lama's first visit to the West in Rome, which included an audience with Pope Paul VI.
Teaching and establishing Rigpa
Sogyal Rinpoche began to teach in London in 1974. His centre, a house in Kilburn, was originally called Orgyen Chöling. The name later changed to Dzogchen Orgyen Chöling. Dudjom Rinpoche also asked Sogyal Rinpoche to take care of his centre in Rue Burq, Paris, which opened in 1978. In 1979, Sogyal Rinpoche chose the name Rigpa—the innermost, essential nature of mind—for his work.
Rigpa soon established an annual schedule of longer seminars, referred to as retreats, with Sogyal Rinpoche and other teachers leading events in France in the summer, California at Thanksgiving, Germany in Winter, followed by Myall Lakes in Australia, and then England at Easter. The first winter event at Kirchheim in Germany took place in December 1986, annual retreats in Tiona Park in Australia began in 1989, and the first Thanksgiving retreat in the US was in Oakland in 1988.
In 1987, Rinpoche was invited to become spiritual director of the centre in County Cork in the west of Ireland which was to become Dzogchen Beara, Rigpa’s first long-term retreat facility. In 1991, Rinpoche founded the retreat centre of Lerab Ling, near Montpellier in southern France. The first three-month retreat was held there in 1992. A centre in Berlin named Dharma Mati was formally opened in October 2007.
In the East
Rinpoche has taught in India, including, on a number of occasions, at the Foundation for Universal Responsibility of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Delhi. He also teaches in the Himalayan regions of Sikkim, where he lived for part of his childhood, and Bhutan.
He has been teaching annually in Bhutan since 2007 and his teachings are regularly shown on television there. The first Prime Minister of Bhutan and champion of its philosophy of Gross National Happiness, Lyonchen Jigme Yoser Thinley, regularly attends Rinpoche’s teachings.
Sogyal Rinpoche has said that teaching in Bhutan is a priority since it is the only remaining independent Vajrayana Buddhist country in the world. He also said that “today’s younger generation in the Himalayan region need to understand the Dharma in a practical way”, and that “understanding the Dharma in a real way is an important and integral part of the development of Bhutan.”
In 1998, Rinpoche was formally offered the throne of Tertön Sogyal's home monastery in Tibet, Kalzang Monastery, by the abbot, Sherab Özer Rinpoche, in a ceremony in France.
According to Stephen Batchelor, Sogyal Rinpoche "is known for his sense of humour, indefatigable energy, forthrightness and periodic eccentricity." In his teachings, he often focuses on the Buddhist understanding of the mind, and what is known in the Tibetan tradition as the nature of mind, pristine awareness or rigpa, along with meditation as a means for ultimately realizing the nature of mind. Another common topic is death and dying, which is one of the main themes of his book, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.
In what he sees as a continuation of the non-sectarian Rimé (Tib. ris med) movement, which rose to prominence in eastern Tibet in the nineteenth century, he frequently refers to teachings of all Tibetan traditions, and also quotes from non-Tibetan sources, such as the Dhammapada, and teachers belonging to other traditions such as the Zen master, Shunryu Suzuki. He wrote:
Rinpoche likes to recount stories of his own teachers and to stress the importance of devotion, often quoting Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, who said, "Devotion is the essence of the path." Still, according to Charles Tart, he "encourages his students to direct their devotion toward his teachers rather than toward him personally, even though most of Tibetan Buddhism puts tremendous emphasis on devotion towards one's teacher."
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying
In 1983, Rinpoche met Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, Kenneth Ring and other figures in the caring professions and near-death research, and they encouraged him to develop his work in opening up the Tibetan teachings on death and helping the dying.
Rinpoche continued to teach throughout the world. Then, in 1989 in Nepal, Rinpoche met Andrew Harvey and invited him to help on the project. About the writing process, co-editor Patrick Gaffney said, "Probably, a book has never been written in such an unusual way."
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying was first launched in the United States in September 1992, where it received high acclaim and spent several weeks at the top of the bestseller lists. It was subsequently released in the United Kingdom, Australia and India, and first translated into German and French. To date, more than three million copies have been printed in 34 languages and 80 countries.
Conferences and events
Rinpoche is a regular speaker at conferences around the world, addressing topics such as Buddhism in the modern world, death and dying, meditation and happiness.
In 2004, he served as a keynote speaker at the Parliament of the World's Religions, where over 8,000 religious leaders and lay people gathered in Barcelona in Spain to discuss the issues of religious violence, access to safe water, the fate of refugees worldwide, and the elimination of developing countries' debts.
In August 2008, he joined Robert Thurman at the Aspen Institute in Aspen, Colorado, to speak about "Tibet’s Unique Buddhist Heritage" as part of a symposium called "His Holiness the Dalai Lama at Aspen: A Celebration of Tibetan Culture", organized jointly with the Conservancy for Tibetan Art and Culture.
In October 2010 he gave a keynote speech on "Tibetan Buddhism in Modern Western Culture" at the International Conference on Tibetan Buddhism held at Emory University.
In 2011, he was a keynote speaker and participant in the Global Buddhist Congregation in Delhi which brought together “religious, spiritual and world leaders, as well as 800 scholars, delegates and observers from 32 countries.” The goal was to examine both the capacity and the resilience of Buddhism to engage with the most pressing concerns of the modern world, namely violence, social and economic disparity, environmental degradation and discord between and within communities and nations” and “to contribute to cultivating and fostering peace, harmony, co-existence and a shared responsibility amidst the diversity of cultures, communities and nations.”
In 2012, he was a keynote speaker at the Happiness and Its Causes conference in Sydney.