There was an outbreak of bedbugs at the monastery during my last months there. I was sharing the front office work with another staff member at the time. He quit the job, however, because they asked him to lie to the guests about the bedbugs. Then it was just me in the office and either they forgot to tell me to lie or they knew it was no use. So I made sure that every guest knew about the problem and asked them to tell me if they were bitten so we could address the situation better. I found that guests had no problem with this at all. In fact, it helped a little in community building, because I was bringing guests on board to help with the problem; they felt a part of a common effort.
The plan to lie to the guests was not only unethical, but unskilful and unnecessary as well. It seems that secrecy and deceit can become something of a way of life, without anyone stopping to look closely at what is really best for the situation. Nothing disenfranchises members of a community more than non-transparency. Within a transparent, ethical outlook, however, not only are community bounds strengthened, but problems are solved more skilfully as well.
I was fired from my jobs at the monastery shortly before the building permit was acquired so I have never seen the huge new monastery extension. However, I do know that it was seen as an offense to the monastery’s closest neighbor, a small Christian group who worshipped at a tiny, historical monument which sat directly below the monastery. During the time that the extensions to the monastery were being made, the leader of this group waged a campaign to stop the work. He wrote:
“When this monstrous building project was proposed to the Town of Woodstock Zoning Board, the Church of the Transfiguration of Christ on the Mount had just received Federal and NY State historical Status. Why then, you might ask (as I do) did the Woodstock Zoning Board approve such a gigantic fortress-like monstrocity of a hotel, which if ever allowed to be completed, will completely overshadow one of Woodstock’s most cherished Historical Monuments to the Artistic Counter-Culture – Father Francis’ “Church of the Transfiguration of Christ on the Mount”?” [wavelinks.net]
I remember once taking a call from this man. He complained to me that monastery officials had broken their promise to him about where electricity lines would be placed as they crossed his church’s property. I apologized to the man and then passed his complaints on to a monastery official, who was quite unconcerned. In fact, he replied with sarcasm, “Was he drunk?”
The man hadn’t sounded drunk to me. He had been calm and reasonable. Even at the time, I found the monastery official’s attitude towards him alarming. Indeed, it is possible that this man’s personality posed difficulties, possible that he drank. Certainly, to a casual observer, the little building on the hill might seem insignificant. Wikepedia describes this Christian shrine only as “a modest, single-room, hand-built wooden church near the summit of Meads Mountain in Woodstock, New York, originally constructed c. 1891.”
However, I question the merit of any Buddhist project which deeply offends the religious sensibilities of its neighbors, be they Christian or any other religion, large or small. Surely, there should be a strong spirit of respect for mainstream, western religions and western culture in the means by which any dharma center is built in the west. Building a huge, imposing, traditional Tibetan Buddhist monastery, on a hill above a Christian monument, dwarfing this small Christian community of worship, could be bordering on deep disrespect.
As a committed Buddhist myself, I find the allegations against Sogyal Lakar distressing in themselves. As I probe deeper into the issues surrounding Sogyal’s probable misconduct, I see a trend within the rapid growth of Tibetan Buddhism in the west which is even more distressing. Can Buddhists truly be comfortable that there are clear distinctions between fringe dharma groups and mainstream dharma groups? Is the rush within mainstream Buddhism to protect Rigpa and Sogyal Lakar an indication that mainstream Buddhists have not drawn ethical boundaries clearly enough, that they are willing to sacrifice ethical boundaries to the causes of loyalty and lama worship?
A strong ethical outlook could be a critical component of a strong dharma community as well. This view is totally in accord with the Buddha’s own teachings, where ethical discipline is seen as a pillar of spiritual practice, an essential first step on the path, one of the “three higher trainings.”
As any beginning student of Buddhism knows, ethical discipline is based on refraining from the ten nonvirtuous actions of body, speech and mind. Of body, there are three nonvirtuous actions, killing, stealing and sexual misconduct. Of speech, there are four nonvirtuous actions, lying, divisive speech, harsh speech and gossip. Of mind, there are three non virtuous actions, wrong view, covetousness and ill will
Sonam Tharchin says:
August 16, 2013 at 10:59 am
I am Tibetan and so sorry to hear that Tibetan lama has abuse these young innocent students. Some time i am surprise how can they let it happen. I always think westerner are smart enough to protect themselves as they do from any sex scandals of these kinds. But in reality this lama are nothing special and they have same sinful nature and lust and sexual desire as you and me.
Before you decide to get any spiritual teaching you better check their history and their background.
Because in Tibetan world its very common for Tibetan lama to abuse young Tibetan girls. Those woman and their family would never dare to open their mouth against these powerful lama. In My Tibetan settlement this big Rinpoche (high lama) use to teach Tibetan language to several student. There were five to six young woman. And he abused all these girls and some them become pregnant, and these days one of son and now also incarnate lama in one of monastery in Nepal. Tibetan Public in that area still thinks this blessing rather than speak against it. So its very common practice in villages in Tibet. Its been more than 50 years since china took Tibet but still Tibetan lamas have not changed. It’s sad and I am part of this medieval-period mind set and practices. But in reality all these Tibetan Religious leader use fraud and Buddhism to make money and live in Luxurious life, which completely different from what Buddha was teaching…. Be careful with smiling fake humble looking Lamas….
August 16, 2013 at 3:07 pm
Thank you for this Sonam. I lived in Tibetan refugee camps in South India for a year and am acquainted with the ‘medieval mindset’ you describe here. Most Westerners hold Tibetan lamas in high esteem and will be shocked, thinking that this couldn’t possibly be a systemic problem, but they’re under an illusion; they’re far more vulnerable than you imagine. I was shocked when I first encountered it, and deeply hurt.
The Buddha teaches that we should face reality and not avoid it. I applaud you for speaking out.
[–]corniefish 13 points 4 days ago
Thanks for posting this as a counterpoint to how other org's have handled this. I attended three or four events/weekends with my local Shambala group, including a weekend with Pema. I was SO sad and angry at each of these events, every single one, the teacher made mention of their leaders transgressions as an interesting fact of his humanity. Men, this is NOT your humanity. You can do better. You can choose differently.
]Arupajhana7 5 points 4 days ago*
I really commend the ATS community and leadership for handling it this way. Sadly my own Shambhala Sangha has handled Osel Mukpo's abuse in precisely the opposite manner.
It is painful but I am glad that the ATS community is putting the teachings first, and not protecting or enabling abuse.
I am still drawn to Tibetan practices in particular, but I think I will check out the ATS community in person some time. Generally impressed with how you all have handled this difficult situation.
Posted by: JW (name converted to initials by Corboy) July 7, 2018 at 10:59 am
Thanks Leonora – like you I drifted off. In my case when it was clear that Shambhala was to be “ruled” by a prince.
I have tried to join other buddhist organisations since but none were as welcoming or as genuine and I ended up as a home practitioner. Like you I feel forever changed and improved by what I learned and experienced in Shambhala and I feel really sad about this situation – something that was a major part of my life has been spoiled and people have been hurt in a place that should have been safe BUT Shambhala has been in this unfortunate situation before and survived.
Shambhala and its core ideas will survive because it is made up not of committees or leaders but of the open-hearted members of the sangha who are the people who turn up to sit, to teach, to cook and clean and to work for the benefit of others. “Gurus” come and go but the practice remains so I hope to see a new incarnation of Shambhala which is caring, inclusive, represents the best interests of the sangha and which is rooted in the centres. Love you all.
Posted by: KK - (Name converted to initials by Corboy) July 1, 2018 at 2:47 pm
A friend shared your post. I practiced and studied under Trungpa Rinpoche from 1974-1982 so our Dharma trajectories are very different, though in some ways parallel.
The utter disinterest in following even the 5 precepts for laypeople (no killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct or use of intoxicants – note that none of what has occurred would have been possible had they been followed) has been a basic part of Vajradhatu/Shambhala since the beginning. I doubt the organization can be reformed from within, especially as long as leading figures such as Pema and the acharyas remain complicit in supporting the kinds of cover-ups and denial that have become so ingrained over the past 40+ years.
One can indeed rely on the teachings though, and a very good place to start would be (and would HAVE been) with Patrul Rinpoche’s requirements for a spiritual teacher, from his famous book “Words of My Perfect Teacher.” I leave it to readers to decide where the Sakyong and anyone else representing themselves as teachers fit.
A lengthy quotation from 'Words of My Perfect Teacher' follows. Go to this comment in the online source if you want to read the full quotation.
Posted by: Anonymous Dharma Brat July 2, 2018 at 12:11 pm
Unfortunately, this behavior has been going on for years, as one of his victims from 1994.
But kaleidoscope out and what do you see? SMR was brought to this world with incredible trauma and uncertainty. His childhood is utterly unique and terrifying in so many ways. His early sexual experiences were engineered by his father and they were not easy to understand or interpret. He became a leader but is perhaps not a leader? He took on the lineage but perhaps was never fit for it? There are so many subtleties and nuances to his story that to sum it up as coming or going, perp or victim, accused or accuser, is utterly absurd.
SMR is a person who has experienced incredible trauma. We must not forget that. It does not forgive him but it affords him the space to truly, deeply explore his trauma center and become stronger for it.
For myself, I left Shambhala over a decade ago. I am no longer affiliated with the day-to-day. I still very much love SMR. I’ve known SMR since I was 5. He is a good person, despite the airs he must wear to do what he feels he must do. But, he is my brother and not my guru. As my brother, I say, I love you, be strong, learn, grow from this, make peace with yourself, and do what you must to calm the storm.
Posted by: Susan Piver July 2, 2018 at 12:26 pm
Yes to all of this. I appreciate your compassion for yourself and for him.
Posted by: penelope July 14, 2018 at 6:45 am
I love that you have spoken out here. This kind of honesty cuts through so much of the mud slinging and aggression from people who are apparently on the sidelines. I have the same assessment of SMR’s childhood. Perhaps we can consider that although he seems privileged he also has many ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences). he grew up with both Tibetan and American versions of patriarchy. I’m glad this has come out into the open. I hope he will learn and grow from this as you say. I hope the people he harmed will and I hope that the community will too. Thank you for sharing your brilliant sanity, generosity and cmpassion.
Posted by: ashoka July 2, 2018 at 1:09 pm
Thanks Susan. This felt very sane. I too remember the “live three valleys away” exhortation and – yes. That one resonated with me as well.
Posted by: Susan Piver July 2, 2018 at 2:24 pm
So glad this resonated, Ashoka (and that you remember the exhortation as I do). I’ll be your 3-valleys-away neighbor. With love, Susan
Posted by: Caroline July 2, 2018 at 1:22 pm
Compassion without accountability is enabling. i see a stunning emphasis on compassion for Sakyong and a familiar but still disappointing lack of it for the victims of his actions. Maybe shamatha practice is not the most skillful tool to apply to our thoughts about how to hold someone accountable for harm. Maybe “letting go” in this case is weaponized in favor of helping reinforce an existing hierarchy. I too am struggling with how to deal with this, being that I am not a Vajrayana student, but for someone whose work is so much about relational practice and keeping an open heart, your dismissive tone here is what is the most heartbreaking for me.
Posted by: Caroline July 2, 2018 at 3:46 pm
Thank you for pointing that out. I’ve been thinking about how utterly traumatic it must be for people who have taken vows with the SMR and have struggled myself with my impulse to rush to comfort them when, again, I feel the emphasis should be on the victims who I can’t help but shudder for when I hear things like, well, this is why they say to live three valleys away from your guru…
I’m also struggling right now with the memories of inappropriate treatment & sexual remarks by male Shambhala teachers that caused me to walk away from participation in the organization myself. I felt such guilt and shame over not being able to “make it work” so that I could go one to climb the Shambhala ladder. I am feeling both anger and relief about that now.
I have love and respect for everyone who chooses to continue their involvement in the community and am grateful that you continue to be open on this topic but I also think that asking the community to remain in groundlessness at this moment has the potential to further the trauma. The victims of harm continue to be in my heart and thoughts and I will continue to hope that the community is able to hold perpetrators accountable for this harm.
Posted by: Another Susan July 3, 2018 at 12:42 pm
I was a member of Shambhala from 1982 to 2017. I left because of serious financial malfeasance in my local center, which was the culmination of many misgivings over many years. I am now studying with another Tibetan teacher. I hope that my long participation in Shambhala will make my observations of some value.
Shambhala has always had two significant issues: money and power. Both of these problems have worsened under the Sakyong. The cost of programs has increased exponentially, and requirements are frequently increased. In addition, programs that were usually offered at local centers (such as Refuge Vows) have been moved to land centers, apparently as a way to increase revenue, making them even more expensive. The Sakyong has established a huge and financially unsustainable bureaucracy of salaried staff to manage Shambhala, Inc. The demands for money never stop. Even though the “generosity policy” is touted, the attitude is often “If you can’t pay, stay away.” And asking to use the generosity policy frequently becomes a humiliating experience.
Shambhala’s system of government is an invitation to the abuse of power. Officers and Meditation Instructors are in positions where they have too much control over individual members, which easily creates egotism as well as an exaggerated sense of their own spiritual development and ability to advise others. I say this as a longtime MI and Shambhala Training AD. After noticing the seeds of those attitudes in myself I stopped participating in both activities.
The Sakyong has handled this issue badly. His statement was the classic non-apology used by perpetrators everywhere. “I’m sorry if they felt harmed” means that the victims’ feelings are the problem, not his actions.
I am not sure how Shambhala can survive this scandal; I’m not sure it deserves to. It survived many in the past only due to the victims’ fear of speaking out. I’m very grateful to Andrea Winn for bringing this important issue into the light of day.
We have to learn the difference between structural change and rebranding. Especially as people are getting better at co-opting and monetizing discourses around trauma-awareness and justice. There’s a lot of leaders in the Shambhala org right now who will be ramping up the trauma awareness language and dusting off their Naropa psychology chops. But if they don’t simultaneously call for the Sakyong to be removed and the org to be investigated independently, they are abusing that language and those tools. This may not at all be their fault. They may be under the illusion that those values actually came from the Trungpa legacy, instead of having been co-opted by it. -- Matthew Remski
A source forwarded the following email, sent by a Shambhala leader to volunteers and residents at Vermont’s Karmê Chöling, the Buddhist retreat centre founded by the organization’s “root teacher”, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, in 1970.
The email follows up on a group meeting of volunteers and residents to discuss whether the portrait of Ösel Mukpo, now accused of forced confinement and sexual assault, should be covered or taken down from the altar in the staff shrine room. The letter indicates the same questions are being asked about the photographs of Trungpa.
B G says:
July 25, 2018 at 3:13 am
“It joins many other examples in popular Shambhala literature and language to paint a picture of a spirituality strongly invested in the tensions of authoritarianism and sado-masochism.”
Really? I’d be interested in seeing more of the “many other examples” to support this statement. I’ve been involved in Shambhala for six years. I appreciate some of the acute observations you have made while this one sems off the mark to me.
July 25, 2018 at 3:57 am
I’m reviewing the literature presently and would say that the two themes that stand out here are
1) the valuation of sorrow, sadness, anxiety, chaos, “outrageous”, as key to spiritual transparency;
2) the elevation of interpersonal volatility as a teaching method. Scholars can assess the appropriateness of either in the context of Vajrayana content better than me.
I’m describing the mobilization of both to rationalize and spiritualize clear abuses of power. The scenario is: CTR (and his lieutenants, including Thomas Rich (aka Ozel Tendzin, who infected partners with AIDS- Corboy) “pulls the rug out” from underneath students’ “conceptual minds” over and over again, through acts of public or private humiliation. They love-bomb sex partners, then cast them off, etc. The students become sad/anxious/outraged and then are told to “work with it” or “stay in it” to see things “as they truly are”.
“This is for your own good,” says the father wielding the strap. What happens when the child believes that, and even becomes grateful for the punishment?
In other words: the route to M?dhyamika enlightenment depends upon the ability to assert the dream-like quality of ephemeral phenomenon. In this world, laws, lawyers, judges and even decisions about things are the enemies of limitless possibility. Chödrön can’t say that Trungpa’s alcoholism is okay, but she also can’t say it’s not okay. The first refusal allows her to leave open the possibility of criticizing him, but the second refusal makes the question irrelevant. As such, Chödrön’s position here, built on a M?dhyamika framework, cannot speak to the material impacts of structured power and harm. It actually makes a virtue of not doing so. In response to the hidden question “Was there harm?” Chödrön’s system seeks to transcend the question.
In the Vajrayana practices into which Chödrön has been initiated, the M?dhyamika view is applied to all experiences and phenomena, but most importantly to the nature of the teacher. After initiation, the teacher’s actions cannot be pinned down, named, identified, assessed, or even understood. “Relative questions” about them must remain a mystery. As Norbu commented in his very M?dhyamika-dependent defence of Sogyal Lakar’s abuses: “It’s a big mistake to speculate about the possibility of continuing to analyze and criticize the guru after having received a major initiation—actually it’s totally wrong. ”
In other words, not only is “I don’t know” is the only viable response to a teacher’s actions that appear abusive, it is mandated.
Chödrön’s “I don’t know” carries a further charge. Arguably, a large part of her popularity comes from her ability to poetically mobilize the language that values personal vulnerability (recently made more popular by Brené Brown and others) to reinforce a doctrinal belief not just in the unknowability of “relative” answers, but in their irrelevance.
For those who try to engage it — I speak from some personal experience — the impact of M?dhyamika contemplation can be startling to the point of ecstasy. The feeling of “groundlessness” to which the Shambhala literature continually refers reflects the sudden epiphanies of deconstructive logic. I was used to this austere pleasure from my university studies, where it was applied to pull apart the mechanisms of social and linguistic power. To think that this could also be used internally, soulfully even, to pull apart internalized power structures was thrilling. It’s a hook, for sure.
But groundlessness and “spaciousness” as responses to not just life in general, but particular instances of harm in organizations like Shambhala, should now be looked at in a different light. Trauma studies have made the reasons for dissociative responses in relation to abuse part of popular discourse. We know that abuse victims can enact disembodiment reflexes in order to avoid further abuse or pain, or to recover from past abuse. Those to whom dissociation occurs describe sensations of floating above, or vacating the body, or shrinking down to imperceptible size, or inflating to an ungraspable immensity. (These are all, in fact key features of Vajrayana visualizations.)