A Disorganized Attachment Legacy at Shambhala: Brief Notes on Two Letters and a 1993 Interview with Pema Chödrön
On Sunday, a unknown number of unnamed “Women acharyas” released this unsigned letter. The acharyas are a group of Shambhala International leaders, empowered by their current head, Ösel Mukpo, to represent the legacy and teaching content of the organization. Their letter responds to a call for action from members outraged by revelations of continued institutional sex and power abuse in their community.
Mukpo stands accused of sexual misconduct by three anonymous women whose voices have been recorded by Andrea Winn in her Project Sunshine report. He has posted a vague admission of guilt. Winn’s work has pried opened an unhealed wound carved out by the abuses of Mukpo’s father, Chogyam Trungpa, and his lieutenants. Those stories are still coming to light, and they are unbelievably savage.
Insiders will be able to better parse out the likelihood of whether this particular political constellation of “acharyas” is equipped to understand the dynamics within which it is embedded and strong enough break out of them. I don’t pretend to have any insights on that. I hope I can, however, point out a key characteristic of crisis communication that does not bode well in the present, and which has deep and influential roots in the past.
From the outset, the framework of the authors is flawed by the loaded language of the organization’s spiritual ideology. They write:
“The women acharyas of Shambhala are writing today to send our love and support to our community at a time of enormous groundlessness.” (emphasis added)
The term “groundlessness” here both indicates and hides the more appropriate word, which would be “betrayal”. The (non)signatories who didn’t know that Ösel Mukpo behaved like his father have been betrayed. Those who did know betrayed those who didn’t, which would mean most of the membership.
Why do the authors use the word “groundlessness”? Because the purpose of the letter, first and foremost, is to maintain the content and ideology of the group. If the writers can do that, they can then maintain interpretational authority over that content. They can still be “acharyas”. The word “groundlessness” positions what follows in the letter as a learning opportunity, but one in which the content of the abusive group will simply be recycled. “Groundlessness” is, after all, a virtuous state or realization described in Middle Way philosophy as a pathway to the wisdom of non-attachment to changing identities or phenomena.
By using it here, the letter writers conflate the trauma of having been stripped of care with the feeling of having seen into the nature of reality. This is tantamount to saying that abuse and abandonment are our natural state, or lead to it. It then follows that finding out that your leader is an abuser is actually (subtly, and with our help you will eventually understand it) a good thing, an opportunity to really put that same leader’s wisdom about “groundlessness” into practice. If that’s their interpretation of the First Noble Truth, then no thank you.
I imagine the “groundlessness” that some of the writers profess to feel here is actually a dawning realization of hypocrisy: that the organization has been talking about one thing for 40 years, and doing another.
Victims may feel stripped of care and support, but they are not “groundless”. They are the ground itself, wounded, right in front of you, under your feet. They were there all along. They don’t need to “be steady within this open space of not-knowing.” They know exactly what happened to them.
Asking the community to be “steady within this open space of not-knowing” sets victims up against members who are entrained to remain not advocate on behalf of justice.
After this opening, the authors cite a plaintive poem from a distressed member, petitioning for restorative action. It begins with:
To the mother lineage.
Please, break the silence.
Please, approach and speak up.
Please, step up to the plate.
Please, protect the girls and women.
Please, protect the children.
Put a pin in that. Remember that members are using maternal metaphors or transferences to petition their elders.
If Judith Simmer-Brown (Distinguished Professor of Contemplative and Religious Studies at Naropa University) and Susan Chapman are part of “the mother lineage”, and also among the (non-)signatories of this letter, their capacity to offer protection is compromised by deep conflicts.
Why? Because their names are signed to this June 30th letter to registrants for the upcoming “Scorpion Seal” empowerment (July 15-26) at the Shambhala Mountain Centre, Colorado:
June 30, 2018
Dear Scorpion Seal practitioner,
Good morning! We Werma Acharyas are writing in the wake of the cascade of
disclosures from the Sakyong and the Kalapa Council and the Sunshine Report
regarding allegations of sexual abuse of power in our mandala. We are heartbroken about these, even while we recognize the health of openness, honest exchange, and strategies for change in our sangha culture.
This is all the more concerning because of the preciousness of the Scorpion Seal teachings we have received from our Sakyong, that have provided such a vision for enhancing human goodness in a setting sun world. These teachings have been so personally important for us, equipping us to work with the most difficult, intractable situations in our world. It is essential that these teachings continue and that they help us work with personal and societal obstacles that plague our lives.
You may be wondering about the Scorpion Seal Garchen at Shambhala Mountain
Center, what to expect, how you feel, maybe even whether to come. We can assure you that we will address the current crisis in Shambhala, sharing our personal responses and deeply listening to each other’s. Rather than retreating to a bubble that pretends nothing has happened, we plan to relate with this painful news in the context of our many practices including Shambhala Meditation and the Inner White Lotus practice of working with the dons, as well as the new practices for your particular Assembly. And we look forward to being with our Scorpion Seal sisters and brothers. We see this as an opportunity to create a fresh karmic stream for our community, going into the future.
We have supplicated the Sakyong to be at Shambhala Mountain Center with us, but we honestly don’t know what he will do. Rest assured, we Werma Acharyas will be giving all the transmissions in the event he is not there.
Please join us with your heartbreak, your doubts, your confidence, and your love of the Shambhala community and teaching, and your connection with our Sakyong. It promises to be a deep and authentic experience.
In the Great Eastern Sun,
Ashe Acharya John Rockwell
Acharya Judith Simmer-Brown
Acharya Michael Greenleaf
Acharya Susan Chapman*
“The Scorpion Seal” is a “terma” or a teaching that was mystically “found” by Chogyam Trungpa in 1980 or 1981, according to Shambhala’s narrative. But according to retreat leader John Rockwell the content “was rather secret, a bit ahead of our times.” It fell to Trungpa’s son, Osel Mukpo, to “open” it, and reveal the “Werma” or ritual practices it reputedly contained.
Whether you find this plausible or not (beliefs are like intentions here: far less important than impacts), two things are important to know.
- This upcoming empowerment/training, with lodging, costs approximately 2000USD to attend. A source forwarded me an email from Shambhala Mountain that stated that there were “well over 200” registrants. This means that this single event could gross up to 400,000 USD.
- If the empowerment follows the typical pattern of Shambhala-appropriated Tantric ritual, it will ask participants to make vows of allegiance to the community, the teachings, and perhaps even to the acharyas and Mukpo himself. The vows will have both emotional and financial impacts. There are several “levels” of entrainment into the “Scorpion Seal”, which, let’s remember, was “discovered” by an abusive spiritual leader well on his way to dying of terminal alcoholism.
So what shall it be, acharyas?
- Listening in “groundlessness” and “not-knowing”? Or
- Selling empowerments to mystical teachings you assert come from the etheric realms?
The answer, if we’re willing to look at this landscape through the lens that Alexandra Stein provides on the attachment patterning that drives cult organizations, is that the acharyas must offer both things at once.
Uncertainty and certainty. Listening and telling. Care and demand. Support and dependency. These are domesticated versions of the most dangerous dyad: the confusion of love with terror at the heart of every high-demand group.
In her riveting addition to cult analysis literature, Stein argues that the primary task that a high-demand group must accomplish in relation to recruits is to take their existing attachment patterning — instilled through familial and intimate conditioning — and, through a “groundless” alternation of love and fear, convert it into a “disorganized” state. There’s a huge literature on this; I’ll let Stein summarize the basics here:
[Disorganized attachment] responses occur when a child has been in a situation of fright without solution. Their caregiver is at once the safe haven and also the source of threat or alarm. So, when the child feels threatened by the caregiver, he or she is caught in an impossible situation: both comfort and threat are represented by the same person –the caregiver. The child experiences the unresolvable paradox of seeking to simultaneously flee from and approach the caregiver. This happens at a biological level, not thought out or conscious, but as evolved behavior to fear. The child attempts to run TO and flee FROM the caregiver at one and the same time… However, in most cases the need for proximity – for physical closeness – tends to override attempts to avoid the fear-arousing caregiver. So usually the child stays close to the frightening parent while internally both their withdrawal and approach systems are simultaneously activated, and in conflict. – Stein, loc 894-903
Now compare the two statements from the acaryas. The “mother lineage” is functioning to both comfort and make further demands. Simultaneously. Stein suggests that such a gambit is not a contradiction, but a feature of the continuously-charged feedback loop of caregiver betrayal that lies at the root of disorganized attachment. This charge will be heightened in environments of physical, sexual, financial or moral abuse.
With Shambhala International, this feedback loop is not new. There will be many examples to point to, but the one that’s fairly well-known and shows the intergenerational continuity of disorganized attachment is this 1993 interview of Pema Chödrön in Tricycle Magazine.
To be fair, this interview is now twenty-five years old, and comes from another era. However, I’m not aware of any widely-available update to these sentiments. Between 1993 and the present, of course, Chödrön has become an international spiritual celebrity. She remains listed amongst the current cohort of acharyas.
Tricycle: Would you say that the intention behind this unconventional behavior, including his sexual exploits and his drinking, was to help others?
Pema Chödrön: As the years went on, I felt everything he did was to help others. But I would also say now that maybe my understanding has gone even deeper, and it feels more to the point to say I don’t know. I don’t know what he was doing. I know he changed my life. I know I love him. But I don’t know who he was. And maybe he wasn’t doing things to help everyone, but he sure helped me. I learned something from him. But who was that masked man?
Tricycle: In recent years women have become more articulate about sexism. And we know more today about the prevalence of child abuse and about how many people come into dharma really hurting. If you knew ten years ago what you know today, would you have been so optimistic about Trungpa Rinpoche and his sexuality? Would you have wanted some of the women you’ve been working with to study with him, given their histories of sexual abuse?
Pema Chödrön: I would have said, You know he loves women, he’s very passionate, and has a lot of relationships with women, and that might be part of it if you get involved with him, and you should read all his books, go to all his talks, and actually see if you can get close to him. And you should do that knowing you might get an invitation to sleep with him, so don’t be naive about that, and don’t think you have to do it, or don’t have to do it. But you have to decide for yourself who you think this guy is.
Tricycle: Were there women who turned down his sexual invitations and maintained close relationships as students? Was that an option?
Pema Chödrön: Yes. Definitely. The other students were often the ones who made people feel like they were square and uptight if they didn’t want to sleep with Rinpoche, but Rinpoche’s teaching was to throw out the party line. However, we’re always up against human nature. The teacher says something, then everybody does it. There was a time when he smoked cigarettes and everybody started smoking. Then he stopped and they stopped and it was ridiculous. But we’re just people with human habitual patterns, and you can count on the fact that the students are going to make everything into a party line, and we did. The one predictable thing about him was that he would continually pull the rug out no matter what. That’s how he was.
There’s too much here to unpack outside of a book-length study. You can probably see the pattern, though. Chödrön employs many of the self-oriented defences I’ve listed here while showing just how powerfully Buddhist rhetoric can be mobilized to evade personal responsibility. It is also a textbook example of I-got-mine-ism.
Chödrön privileges the genius of the abuser over the time, agency, and self-direction of his prospective female student in an equally sophisticated way. The prospective student is supposed to “decide for yourself who you think this guy is”. This is after Chödrön has admitted to his sexual misconduct, as if the “groundlessness” of his teaching puts the actions of the “masked man” in doubt. Women are supposed to invest time and emotional labour in him before understanding his nature, even after Chödrön admits that he abuses power. Intentionally or not, this stunning paragraph manages to both hide and spiritualize an induction into disorganized attachment. Trungpa was brilliant, she suggests — as if this were a sign of care — because “he would continually pull the rug out no matter what.”
Chödrön’s life-long message, inspired by and inspiring Shambhala’s content generally, is about finding rest and space and security “When Things Fall Apart”. We now have to wonder whether this message has as much to do with Buddhism as it does with creating a poetic strategy for metabolizing an abusive relationship that presented itself as loving, and doing so in order for it to continue, and eventually be commodified.
The cultural impact of Chödrön’s views can only be imagined. Never mind that Tricycle thought that this was a reasonable thing to publish. How many people have been influenced by this doublespeak through contact with Chödrön’s writings via Oprah?
In the yoga world, Chödrön’s reasoning vibrates loudly. In late December of last year, Ashtanga Yoga adept Kino MacGregor recommended this very interview to her million-plus followers as a resource that would help them integrate the competing stories of love and terror that constitute the legacy of Pattabhi Jois. Whether it works remains to be seen.
* The June 30th letter was copied from a PDF doc and passed along via a trusted source, but I have not located the original. If you have a copy, please send it to email@example.com and I will upload and link it here.