The moderators at r/ShambhalaBuddhism kindly invited me to do an AMA on March 20, 2019. Here’s my opening comment, followed by the questions and answers that I worked on for about a week prior to the event. I’ve edited slightly and left out secondary exchanges. The whole thread can be found here.
Two things off the top:
Firstly: I’ve worked on these answers throughout the week, as they’ve come in. The reports from An Olive Branch were released yesterday. I’ve scanned them but not in enough detail to better inform my answers where appropriate. If it’s useful, I may return to these answers later to add citations from the reports. On first glance, it’s clear that the reports offer compelling evidence for what many Shambhala survivors have been saying for about a year now: that the organization’s dubious claims to spiritual lineage are eclipsed by the shadow of intergenerational trauma and abuse. Shambhala members are going to have to start asking whether the former was a fiction that functioned to cover over the latter.
Secondly: a comment on positionality. Predictably, my credibility has already been targeted by a meme, published Saturday by #oceanoftruememing on Instagram. It’s so strange and goofy that I’ve made it into my Facebook profile picture.
The meme is incoherent, as I’ve come to expect from cult apologists, who are not to be blamed for not being able to think clearly.
It makes me out as a critic of hierarchy, but suggests I can’t be trusted because I don’t have the proper credentials. Therefore: if I was higher on the credential hierarchy, I’d be more trustworthy as I criticized hierarchy. Erm. No amount of sadhana will make this make sense.
If you pull hard enough on this thread of fixation that high-demand group members have with credentials, you’ll wind up at an intractable knot of anxiety about whether anything they themselves have been taught is valid or useful. The yoga and Buddhism worlds are wracked by authority crises: this is not an “unfathomable” mystery, given the prevalence of cults. It’s a lot easier to attack whistleblowers than to look seriously at the foundation of your beliefs and commitments, than to begin to imagine how deep a deception might go.
oceanoftruememing is correct: I. Have. No. Credentials. Why? Because I lost six formative years of my life in cults, and about a decade after that recovering from them. I’m sure I could have been an academic. But while others were doing grad school in Religious Studies departments that taught them to study cults as “New Religious Movements” instead of social dominance hierarchies, I was living in them. That’s where I work from. So for the record: I am not a dharma teacher, a meditation guide, a psychologist, psychotherapist, or an academic. I am a cult survivor who has spent about a decade trying to recover and research and understand what happened to me and so many others. And I’m privileged. My cult-related stress disorders did not inhibit my work and personal life as much as those suffered by many people I know.
Question 1: Is there any future for Shambhala?
Do you think there is any future for Shambhala after such institutional betrayal has taken place at the highest levels of the organization?
Is the future of Shambhala to simply dismantle it and go elsewhere for spirituality, or as some have begun, to engage a reform movement divorced from Shambhala International and engaged in a thorough critique of its founder while continuing its methods?
What role does Naropa University play in all this, given that they have divorced themselves from Shambhala several years ago but still have many overlapping people involved in both Shambhala and Naropa, and that Naropa was founded by Chogyam Trungpa?
Thank you for referencing the work of Jennifer Freyd, which is invaluable in this context. You can read about her research into institutional betrayal here.
Freyd’s preliminary findings on institutional courage are here.
The first thing to say in response to this big question, as well as every other on this page so far, is that survivors of institutional betrayal should be at the front of the line to answer. If they aren’t, the question may encourage a bias towards preservation instead of reform or dissolution. It may draw out answers that prematurely focus on repair instead of reparations. I’m not a survivor of Shambhala institutional abuse or betrayal, so the very structure of this AMA has me speaking out of turn. But I have been personally victimized by similar groups and so I’ll speak with a qualified solidarity that can say:
If spiritual organizations with abuse histories truly listened to their survivors, they would actually learn a thing or two about the actual spirituality the organization has failed to convey.
I believe that no-one in the world knows more about the possibility and danger of spiritual language, concepts, and yearnings than the person who understands that that most precious part of themselves has been manipulated. Yoga scholar Theodora Wildcroft says that trauma survivors are the canaries in the coalmine of the culture. Narrowing her metaphor, I would say that survivors of spiritual abuse are the canaries in the coalmine of the spiritual endeavour. More than anyone, they know where the lies are, and isn’t the whole point of spirituality to stop lying to ourselves?
Okay. So what can be preserved? Throughout the crisis communications, Shambhala representatives have consistently relied on the assumption of shared values, practice goals and emotional affect amongst community members as a fallback source of reassurance. They do this by continuing to silence survivor’s voices with their own concerns for institutional continuity. Simmer-Brown provides consistent examples here. This single line from her recent post should win a gold medal for genteel selfishness:
“And now, the conduct of the Sakyong that has surfaced is definitely threatening the future of the terma.”
Note the passive construction “that has surfaced”, which avoids naming or crediting survivors who spoke out. Note the implication that the real victim of Mipham Mukpo is not the women he assaulted or the Kusung he bit and battered, but the content she is paid to teach.
Beyond Simmer-Brown’s convolutions, apologist blogs, newsletters and comments have been steeped in the rhetoric of faith and connection, even as they address a growing realization of deception and criminal neglect. Many hold up Trungpa’s era and intended legacy as a source for potential renewal. They haven’t been listening to Leslie Hays.
Apologist language functions for some people as a familiar and reliable buffer against the unthinkable: that the organization is and was fatally flawed from inception, and that only a veneer of lies and platitudes has ever held it together.
But I’m not sure how transparency, let alone reform, would be possible without at least thinking the unthinkable.
All Shambhala members have to now grapple with the question of what exactly Chögyam Trungpa had to offer beyond a charismatic mirage of care, confounded by addiction and trauma-related mental illness, and punctuated by interpersonal violence. Today’s Shambhala members have to ask what Trungpa’s most prominent followers were actually supporting, beyond their idealizations of him, the contact-high they got from his grandiosity, and, tragically, their likely addiction to the disorganized-attachment-loop chemistry of seeming love and actual danger flowing from the same presumed caregiver.
When the hagiographies of Diana, Hayward, and Midal are fully deconstructed, what will members conclude about one of Trungpa’s root liturgy coming out of a beer-soaked “retreat” in Bhutan, his phallic “Ashe” stroke revelations being fuelled by cocaine, and his teachings on “spiritual materialism” belied by arguably the most materialist display of pageantry in New Religious Movement history? How will they read Leslie Hays’ forthcoming account of Trungpa “channeling” the mythical kings of Shambhala to help him with daily decisions about regalia design and table manners?
For decades, the smartest talking heads in the room have spun these facts into rationalizations for crazy wisdom. That’s not going to wash anymore.
Similar questions came up all the time in my discussions with Ashtanga practitioners about how to deal with or understand the abuses of Jois and what they mean for his method and those who enjoy it.
Here’s an ugly example of how intractable the problem is: one of Jois’s survivors (Karen Rain, who is emerging as one of the most prominent voices of reform in the yoga world) suggests that Jois may have rigged the series of postures — supposedly sacred and ancient — so that the women practicing them would be in more vulnerable positions more of the time. In other words: this physical liturgy, to which all kinds of mystical benefits are attributed, might actually have emerged so that he could assault more women.
Let’s think about that in Vajradhatu or Shambhala terms: what part of the neo-Buddhist liturgy that members have been practicing might have come from Trungpa’s own obvious need to benefit sexually and financially from his followers? What aspects of that liturgy were then used to serve the silence required by that abuse? In this world, what is Vajrayogini sadhana really about, folks?
This leads to your last question. The influence of the front organizations that legitimize Shambhala as a secular/humanitarian institution MUST be fully studied. Hannah Arendt wrote that the front organization is any seemingly legitimate business, publishing house, or academic institution that provides social cover for the totalitarian group. They often function as “transmission belts” for recruitment, i.e.: you’re not going to get the explicit Shambhala download as an undergrad at Naropa, but hey, here’s someone passing out flyers for the next Warrior Training. It’s just a few blocks away.
Naropa has to be studied as a front for Shambhala. So too does Shambhala Publications, because although they loudly state that they are not technically related to Shambhala International, their entire back catalogue is the Trungpa & Co. library.
Assessing the overlaps between the group and the fronts will take a long time and several PhDs, if anyone is brave enough to supervise the topic. But it’s important, because the impact of entire disciplines like “contemplative psychotherapy” (emerging from Trungpa’s dubious ideas around exposure therapy, but which has of course developed since then) are pervasive in new-age therapy culture. I’d love to see data on how many people graduated from Naropa in CP and then went on to counsel how many people in the apolitical Shambhala values of nurturing sadness, disappointment, tenderness, openness, and many other dispositions that are ill-equipped to form firm boundaries, resist abuse, and foster structural analysis.
A former Ashtanga person asked me in an interview: “How do we avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater?” She was wondering whether the revelations of institutional abuse in the Ashtanga world meant that she had to abandon her beliefs and practice?
After the thousandth time hearing that question, asked with such pain and sincerity , it suddenly occurred to me that the baby isn’t the Ashtanga series — or the Shambhala curriculum or the Scorpion Seal. The baby isn’t the posture, the mantra, the visualization, mandala, the kusung, or the Kalapa house help.
The baby is you.
You are the baby, and if you had a nice bath for a while that’s because you enjoyed the water. But if the bathwater is now dirty, it’s time to get out and dry off. The baby is the goodness you came with, not the “basic goodness” propagandized by the cult as its proprietary content.
But then there’s a darker aspect to consider relating to false attribution of value: maybe the baby embodies the privilege you came with.
If you had a good experience in the cult, how sure are you that it wasn’t a continuation of the male or white or class or intellectual or academic privilege you’ve enjoyed all your life, now framed as spiritual virtue?
To what extent did the cult tell you what the culture at large was already telling you — that you’re special and deserving and smart and can save the world through the goodness of who you naturally are?
Maybe one of the reasons that cults really like to recruit middle-class educated people is because their sense of entitlement can easily be transferred over into the spiritual domain, while their relative sense of invulnerability will blind them to the trauma the cult is causing.
I can’t prove this, but I’m willing to bet that many of those who emerge from a cult feeling mostly unscathed are coming from backgrounds of privilege. And as they reintegrate into the larger society they will hold the party line familiar to every apologist for the middle class: Everyone’s fine, things unfolded as they should, lessons were learned, I still have my 401ks. But if you have PTSD, you don’t say these things.
Question 2: Shambhala and neoliberalism.
I know you’ve touched on this in some blog pieces but speaking a bit theoretically, I wonder what conclusions you’ve reached about if or how yoga and meditation play a role in the property-ization of everything (and especially the body/mind) under neoliberalism.
I think you might be referring to these notes:
I’m not that up on “property-ization” as much as “privatization”, but I’m sure they’re intrinsic. It’s an enormous topic; I’ll try to keep my remarks focused.
IMO, Shambhala’s liturgy and metaphysics present a sophisticated turn on neoliberal spirituality, in which every answer to every structural issue (if it is ever raised) is reduced to the need for enhanced self-improvement efforts.
It’s sophisticated because it inverts the typical consumer affect, and makes members and potential members believe that it’s not about consumption. Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism is a best-seller, after all.
Lululemon dictates tyrannical happiness. Shambhala advocates immersive melancholy. Chip Wilson wants you to lean in to your triumphant self-actualization, while Pema Chödrön, perhaps in echo of Trungpa’s own radiant depression, invites you to lean in to your brokenheartedness.
They are parallel in the sense that the product of both is neither data nor material good, but the reimagined self. They are parallel in that neither provide, nor even gesture at, a structural analysis of health and wellbeing and what prevents it. Both offer pictures of “enlightened society” without analyzing power. Citizenship in both costs a lot of money.
Neoliberalism, like the cultic, is rooted in lies disguised as empowering paradoxes, such as:
The world is one, but you’re on your own, and it’s all up to you.
Abundance or basic goodness is freely available, but you have to actualize it personally, and if you don’t, screw you.
The specific Shambhala takes on these paradoxes include preaching ephemerality while maintaining a fetish for material accumulation and preservation. Or appealing to a pre-Buddhist shamanistic eco-world of coherent oneness (dralas), while offering no publicly visible support to environmental or indigenous causes.
I’ve often wondered whether creation-stage Tantric visualization, as taught within Shambhala and other neo-Tibetan groups, is pathologically ill-suited to a culture that wants us to believe in limitless growth and the myth of the uninhibited individual. It’s a spirituality that wants us to prepare for Tantra by “driving all blames into one”, and then fantasize it by dreaming of a glittering palace or refuge field. What’s the overlap between mandala visualizations and commercials for Sandals resorts?
Shambhala’s neoliberalism is additionally sophisticated in that Trungpa left an elaborate, though symbolic, bureaucracy which seems to yearn for the orderliness he may have never experienced himself internally. (This is a familiar theme: charismatic leaders often seem obsessed with acquiring the exact conditions they cannot fathom having themselves.) So on the surface, Shambhala seems to offer an institutional framework, a structural analysis of human behaviour and relations. But this is confounded by the persistent reversion to personal practice as the baseline of Buddhist participation and identity. It looks like a kingdom, but everyone is all alone.
The relative absence of institutional support or accountability in Shambhala seems to be unconsciously rationalized as a comfort with “groundlessness”. Lack of care is conflated with a kind of desirable altered state. If you’re sufficiently sad and tender about the suffering of the world as it is concentrated and microcosmic in the group itself, you’ll apparently be fine.
Gilles Deleuze has the opposite take: that the gaseous and unrooted quality of transnational late capitalism is dissociative and homeless. So it’s almost like Shambhala took the basic psychosomatic dissociation of the age and tried to rebrand its depression and anxiety as insight into the heart.
They were too smart to make it look too idealized. They don’t use the language of Lululemon to sell you meritocracy and self-responsibility and the idea of an invulnerable body. They’re going to tell you to invite in your sadness, your woundedness: take ownership of these ungraspable things, meditate on them until you are resolved that the world is a melancholic but beautiful place where you can pay to nod off to sad haiku.
To speak to an earlier point, this is not a spirituality of resistance or revolution, even though it sometimes appropriates that very language. Meanwhile, the most basic orderly precepts for Buddhist living in any historical sense — the very precepts that would provide moral anchoring — are nowhere to be found. Buddhists aren’t supposed to drink, right? Does anyone remember this when they get nostalgic over the years-long frat party that was Vajradhatu?
So if you feel that you float alone through this globalized datascape, blown about and disembodied by the winds of marketing and banking, Shambhala seems well-equipped to catch you, love-bomb you, and say, Lean into that confusion and overwhelm, that’s where your treasure lies. I wonder if this is like using an opiate to overwhelm dissociation.
Question 3: How do we talk to each other?
I often feel very uncomfortable within the expressing my feelings and vision about the current situation with Shambhala and the Sakyong.
How could we avoid hurting each other ? How could we stay out of schism and polarization while still maintaining our intuition, critical intelligence and integrity towards our dharma practice?
Wishing us all love, clarity, liberation and inspiration.
Such a hard question. I hope my answer conveys the empathy I feel when I read it.
To start, I think group members have to take care with the first person plural. “How could we avoid hurting each other?” doesn’t identify who the “we” is. The sad fact is that group members have vastly different experiences based upon privilege and abuse exposure. Let’s consider also that people enter and leave groups along different timelines and arcs.
One of the things that high-demand groups do really well is to get members to use the first-person plural, to reinforce the notion that everyone is doing the same thing and feels the same way. They don’t. And often they have neither the opportunity nor language to share their differences. The group doesn’t want them to, and enforces a monochrome view through the elevation of jargon which is never fully explained. In a way, the abstract premise that experience is unitary and shared within the group is reinforced by unquestionable yet entirely vague terms like “basic goodness”. Everyone is supposed to nod in unison, but are they sharing meaning?
Alexandra Stein (a hero of mine) has this to say about the fractured “we” in the cultic organization:
“Contrary to public perception, the key experience of membership in a totalist group is one of isolation, not community or comradeship. The follower is isolated from the outside world; he or she is isolated from an authentic relationship to others within the group – allowed only to communicate within the narrow confines of the groupspeak and rigid rules of behavior; and, due to the dissociation that is created, the follower is also isolated from his or her self, from his or her own ability to think clearly about the situation.” (Stein, A. 2017. 21.)
What about polarization? I believe polarization is inevitable not only where group members have already been triply-isolated as Stein describes, but where the stability of the organization has been built on a shifting set of divisions between those who (consciously or not) enable abuse, and those who suffer it. The schism has already happened, but it hasn’t been visible, because the survivor’s stories have been suppressed. I don’t see any way around conflict when we’re talking about trying to reckon with crucially different experiences of the same organization. I think it’s incumbent on those who (think they) have benefited from a group to take a seat when the survivors of that group begin to speak. Patience is required. As painful as it is to listen to stories that stir waves of disillusionment, no real resolution will come before those stories are heard.
Oftentimes well-meaning members will use their training in “right speech” or “peacemaking” to pre-emptively call for unity or cohesion. I think the task there is for the peacemaker to really ask what the cost is of trying to dodge that discomfort, trying to prematurely mend open wounds. What’s so pernicious about Shambhala jargon is that it weaponizes even this language of leaning into discomfort to promote some kind of post-cognitive blur. Some have figured out how to turn medicine into poison through overdosing.
It also pays to reflect on how the manipulation of spiritual virtues often plays a more active role in silencing victim’s stories to begin with. When I was maintaining Michael Roach’s version of the Tantric vows I was asked to confess to myself any negative or even doubtful thoughts I had about him, six times per day. In that world, merely thinking that something was off in his relationships with women half his age was punishable with a kind of psychological torture. In cases like this, the sense of “we” being all on the same page, or all in this together is coerced.
So how to maintain integrity? This might sound strange but perhaps a diversification of views and expectations is a good place to start. That might mean adding more diverse values to your excellent wish list of “love, clarity, liberation and inspiration”, such as: renewed agency, permission to feel rage, ability to demand accountability, and the opportunity to receive resources.
Question 4: Dharma and social justice.
What affiliation/experience do you have with Shambhala?
How would you characterize the relationship between dharma and social justice?
What advice do you have for those in this community who are reeling from their experience in Shambhala and may feel like they’re de-programming from a cult experience?
I went to a Shambhala programme once at Karme Chöling, and Shambhala literature and members were always hanging around my own neo-Buddhist cult (Michael Roach).
The programme creeped me out. I remember feeling stiff and thinking that it was compulsory to sit up straight and affect a Mona Lisa smile. The liturgy was intensely theatrical in a way that I now associate not with artistry or even magic, but rather false self-ery and defensiveness. I was more attracted to the cult of Michael Roach at the time, maybe because it felt more hippy, less institutionalized. Perhaps it was a timing thing: Roach in those days felt more like Vajradhatu than Shambhala — but inverted, so that faux puritanism was the value, instead of libertinage.
But the groups shared metaphysics and practices, so I’m familiar with what Shambhala members are doing when they do sadhana and keep samaya. The basic neo-Tantric visualization of an idealized world that includes and transforms everything is familiar territory for me. I now recognize that it is extremely vulnerable to bypassing.
I don’t see any concrete and actionable relationship between “dharma”, as practiced by people in Shambhala, for example, and social justice. Obviously the skills and values of social justice as developed from centuries of resources by BLM and #metoo workers, for example, are only nominally foreshadowed by medieval or ancient Buddhist ethics. Nobody who earnestly and effectively practices social justice today got their tools from the Vinaya, from Shambhala, or Rigpa, or Michael Roach, or Pema Chdörön, or Jack Kornfield, or Michael Stone. They got those tools from feminist and subaltern activists who have built a mountain of value largely invisible to the mainstream. Following in the great tradition of new age plagiarism, content producers in modern global Buddhism and yoga are now pilfering that work.
I’d go further and say there’s a real danger in conflating dharma with social justice. One alarming thing that’s coming out of the Shambhala crisis communications right now is a kind of “wokewashing”, where a seemingly newfound concern about racism or colonization or misogyny or patriarchy is being used to deflect, abstract, and change the subject from more obvious issues of institutional abuse. Of course Shambhala and every Global North organization should tackle its white supremacy issue, but there’s no excuse for doing that at the expense of delaying the creation of a reparations fund for people who have been abused in the organization, for example.
Sorry: you don’t get to bypass the stories of Buddhist Project Sunshine with trending virtue-signaling designed to make your donors feel like they’re on some progressive moral high ground.
Having said all of this, there are POC activists in or around Shambhala who really are bringing the goods, and they’ve been doing the work for a long time. They are not virtue-signaling, but virture-generating. I don’t know much about Rod Owens, Angel Kyodo Williams, and Professor Smalls, for example, but it’s clear that they and others are adding immeasurable value to the de-cultification process by showing how it’s intersectional with anti-oppression discourse and the decolonization work that would start to unravel what it means, for example, for Shambhala to have commodified and gentrified Tibetan culture to the extent it has.
There’s something dharmic about Shambhala turning to POC wisdom leaders during a crisis, but also something a little strange about asking them for guidance through a largely white mess. I’m concerned that white liberals find it a little too easy to perform deference to POC activists or indulge in feelings of contrition and piety that avoid the nausea of the cultic. Yes: the issues are all connected, but the wisdom of POC activists shouldn’t be used by cult people change the subject. Isn’t this just another theft?
As to your last question I want to state clearly that I am not a trained therapist and I’m not giving out personal advice. I can, however, share thoughts from my personal experience, my beginner’s understanding of cult analysis literature, and from what I’ve gathered from hundreds of interviews with high-demand group members.
If an ex-member of Shambhala is using the language of cult recovery, that might be a positive first step. Cult recovery discourse can be invaluable for learning about undue influence and restoring agency.
But it also can be cold comfort. Literally. That’s because there’s a large clinical chunk of it that was developed in the early days of the Cold War, and then amplified in the anxious aftermath of Jonestown.
The best support an ex-member can use to supplement the literature is that of secure and trusting relationships, especially with family, if possible, and friends who know them outside of the group context. This can take a lot of work, especially if the group caused or encouraged alienation from family or former relationships. Many groups actively seek to destroy the intimate relations of members.
Remember all those supposedly “crazy wisdom” stories of Trungpa or Tom Rich having sex with whoever they pleased? And now Mipham Mukpo as well. That criminality is never just about narcissistic predation and domination. When the victim of clerical sexual misconduct is intimately partnered at the time, the betrayal that occurs when they are seduced or coerced into sex with the leader also functions to damage or sever the powerful emotional bonds that can serve as a safe haven against the demands of the group. Controlling sex — whether forcing people to have it, or depriving people of it — is cultic tactic 102. (Deception is 101.) If the group can dominate and control the most vulnerable part of your somatic relationality, the eros that dates back to nursing and cuddling, it’s got you.
Securely attached relationships formed outside of the group can provide valuable reality-checking, exposure to language beyond jargon, and emotional expression beyond the group’s legal sentiments. No resource on this is better than the work of Alexandra Stein. If you go to her website she also does qualified recovery counseling. Rachel Bernstein is also excellent, and her podcast IndoctriNation is a powerful resource. You can also call her office at 818-907-0036 for an appointment.
Question 5: How do we heal?
What do you suggest for people that left Shambhala already?
How can we unclutch from it?
Depending upon how long you were involved, the ties can go super deep. In some cases it’s not just the ideology or the practices or even the relationships both real and fantasized with leaders that have to unravel. It’s also major life choices, marriages, career moves, choices to have children or not. There can be huge financial commitments and repercussions.
It’s not just members unclutching from it sometimes, but members figuring out how to get the claws of the organization out of their flesh.
As above, I’ll reiterate that forming or repairing relationships to people outside the group is so helpful.
Also I’ll add that some of the “clutching” — if you feel you’re doing that — can be correlated with cognitive injury. If you’ve been speaking and hearing the “loaded language” (Lifton) of the group for years, your capacity to think and imagine independently might be limited. I’m not a neurologist obviously but it seems clear that is not just a habit or bias in many cases: it’s seems to be an actual form of brain damage. If you’ve ever listened to a group apologist continue the same tape-loop of jargon despite tons of new information coming their way and thought: “They must be insane” — you really might be on to something. Indoctrination is no joke.
In Take Back Your Life, Janja Lalich has a lot of good material on what helps with cognitive injury. Simple things like reading newspapers, listening to NPR, noticing when you use a group term and using a thesaurus to come up with an alternative.
It’s all a lot of work. And the fact that you have to do it might give rise to resentment. Cultic dynamics steal your time and energy and creativity. They destroy families and life savings. It’s valid to be enraged about that.
Question 6: Shambhala and Diamond Mountain.
What do you see as the main points of similarity and difference between Michael Roach/ Diamond Mountain and Shambhala? Can you speak to the question of where it is important to distinguish a given group’s particularity from the ways in which it fits into a larger or more universal dynamic? Thinking of a recent discussion here about The Guru Papers.
Kramer and Alstad really broke the code with that book. If anyone hasn’t read it, please do. They managed something really difficult: they wrote in purely theoretical terms about desperately real modes of manipulation. They didn’t work journalistically to name names, yet they managed enough detail to keep it riveting.
Cult analysis literature provides short and snappy tools for seeing patterns.
However, models are not people, and people will resist being squeezed into them. Rightly so. It doesn’t work to say “All these groups are the same.” Much more effective to say: “We can see similar dynamics at play at Diamond Mountain and in the Kalapa Court.” Don’t give apologists the opportunity to say: “They’re tarring all spiritual seekers with the same brush.”
What I try to do is to maintain a double view. Zoomed-out, the patterns shine. Zoomed-in, the details speak to unique landscapes of yearning, hope, and disillusionment. Those details are super-important for those recovering from the group. Like the peculiar artifacts of a dream, they illuminate how the pattern played out, how it made sense at the time.
On the level of the pattern, we can say that both Trungpa and Roach deceived their students in similar ways. They maintained pretenses of lineage and historical cohesion, even though they were relentless innovators. They hid their power plays over students behind Tantric justifications. Both bricoleurs, they freely borrowed and remixed from incoherent sources. The only coherence they offered wasn’t theirs; it was provided by the mass transference of their followers.
On the level of detail, the differences are significant, and may speak to the types of followers that each were able to recruit. Trungpa’s Buddhist cred was infinitely more plausible, though inflated by the idealizing orientalism of his followers. Roach’s apparent fluency in Tibetan and self-reported monastic training gave him some street cred, but the orientalism of his followers was aspirational: I loved Roach not because he was mystically Eastern, but because he had somehow become mystically Eastern. He traded in his blue jeans for the robes he wound up defaming. Trungpa seemed to have gone in the other direction: leaving his robes behind for a bizarre mashup of Warhol and Downton Abbey. Roach retreated from the postmodern, even as he spun a syncretic web. Trungpa overtly embraced and perfected pomo sensibility.
The details are endless, and endlessly fascinating. And they give a lot of grist for the mill of apologists who want to say that every situation is absolutely unique, and that No! Of course the BITE model doesn’t apply here! Religious studies people can do this too, though they are generally exercising the type of scholarly generosity geared towards preserving respect for religious sensibilities, as well as access to interview sources who might be insulted by cult analysis language.
Finally, we have to consider that no group is monolithic or hermetically sealed, and that clinical categories might persuade us otherwise. I often speak to the issue of what “Ashtanga Yoga” is (that we can sensibly speak of it as having structural patterns and features comparable to those in other groups) by referring to the maps of California during wildfire season. Think of the subculture as the whole state. It’s not all on fire, and it is possible that when the fires have passed that the unburned patches will be the immediate source of renewal.
Question 7: Lineage, enlightenment, trolling.
Question 1: “Lineage”, “Enlightened Society”, and “Enlightenment” were these big-word justifications for much in Shambhala. Still we can see that the interim board is keeping loyal to SMR because he is the only Shambhala lineage holder.
Q1 part 1: My view on enlightened society is pretty negative, I think it was never something that was really happening in Shambhala and was primarily a justification for lots of misappropriated funds and labour. What are your thoughts on “Enlightened Society”?
Q1 part 2: Lineage I am feeling ambivalent about. I think the general idea is that the teachings are to come from a legitimate source that somehow can be traced back to Padmasambhava or the Buddha, therefore not made up, and also to ensure that the teacher had proper training and education in real Buddhism. I guess going forward I would still like to believe that the teachings are connected to the Buddha or Padmasambhava in some way, and that the teacher was well trained, but I have also seen it used as an unjustified appeal to authority. It has been very dissapointing to see “lineage” used to justify continued loyalty to an abuser, to justify covering up the abuses to begin with, and used to legitimize this teacher who is now obviously not embodying any of the qualities the org projected of him. It has also been used to value SMR over the well being of the average member. I don’t quite understand some of what you have said about “post lineage”. Could you explain how you think people should navigate the balance between trying to find someone who’s teachings and training come from a decent source versus the attached baggage and magical thinking that have come along with “lineage”?
This lineage thing is very tricky because we have the 16th Karmapa who claimed that Trungpa was a Mahasiddha and then Penor Rinpoche who claimed that Mukpo was Mipham. Now Penor might be easier to dismiss because he made several other questionable “identifications” such as Steven Seagal being a Tulku. But nearly everyone in Tibetan Buddhism treats the 16th Karmapa as a super enlightened being. Michael Roach was denounced by the Dalai Lama but we see that Trungpa and Mukpo have not been. For many this might lend some legitimacy to their “lineage”.
Q1 part 3: As for Enlightenment. Do you believe it is a real thing that a person can achieve? If no, why? if yes, what do you think it is and how do you think people can achieve it?
Sorry that is a very long and involved 3 part question. If you can’t answer the following in addition to the above that is ok. Most interested in the response to the above.
Question 2: Another question I have, and if this is too personal feel free to not answer, is that you probably receive a lot of hate from various loyalists from various cults. Does your partner ever worry about this? Has this ever resulted in negatative in-person confrontations or threats via mail?
I appreciate what you have done very much. The analysis you’ve offered has been very helpful in me understanding the dynamics at play in Shambhala. Thank you for putting yourself at risk for the benefit of others in this way.
Question 3: Before the Kusung report some people were dismissed as being racist for their “excessive” anger towards SMR. Shambhala also had many classes followed by Buddhist project sunshine about power privilege race and gender but was not talking directly about its own monarchy and guru dynamics. You’ve documented that this happens in some abusive yoga groups as well. Would appreciate any insights you have Into this.
Q1 part 1: “Enlightened Society” sounds like what Derrida would have called a “transcendental signifier”: a term with strong emotional valence and social power, but very low definability. I think the fact that you’re puzzling out what it means to you, even though it is a ubiquitous term in the culture, and presumably you’ve been contemplating it for a while, shows that it is used more to communicate power and manufacture consent rather than to share information and care.
Q1 part 2: A solid history of lineages in global Buddhism is beyond my education. So too is the political landscape within which the endorsements fly. But I do know that terms like “lineage” and “tradition” can be a manipulated concept for the reasons you describe: to historically validate an innovation. In the yoga world, and in Ashtanga particularly, the Sanskritic ideal of “parampara” has been weaponized to consolidate social power within the Jois family, though they present no evidence of preserving anything beyond the innovations and business model of the late patriarch.
She applies the concept to the yoga world in describing how three pillars of vertical authority have all been contested to the point of crumbling:
- We now know that historical claims made by yoga entrepreneurs are mostly overstated.
- We now know that medical claims made by yoga entrepreneurs are mostly overstated.
- We now know that claims of moral or spiritual authority made by many yoga leaders are bankrupt.
In this landscape, Wildcroft asks — how to people find and validate practice? Through communities and peer networks. We’ve moved from siloes to rhizomes. We’re learning from each other. AMA on reddit is a good example of that.
Q1 part three: I don’t feel my personal opinions about enlightenment are that interesting, tbh. They also change with my mental health circumstances!
Q2: Thank you so much for asking. I have been defamed consistently for over three years. Here’s the most recent example, presented through a rebuttal made by my publisher:
Forget about what this attack claims about me. When the defamatory statement says that my book on Jois “adds nothing to the conversation”, it effectively erases the voices of the sixteen women Jois assaulted who offered their stories to the book. It’s saying that because my credibility is in question, so too are the stories of the women.
Thank you especially for asking about the impact on my partner. That’s extremely thoughtful. No one has asked me that publicly before and it gives me the chance to say that while cults of course wreak havoc in the lives of individual members, their effects radiate outwards into family and community life. In a few weeks I’ll be hosted alongside Alexandra Stein for an event in London presented by the Family Survival Trust — a non-profit dedicated specifically to supporting the family members of cult victims.
The families and friends of whistleblowers are likewise targeted in circles that extend outwards. In our own circumstance, one of the worst examples of this is provided by a certified Ashtanga teacher who has suggested that I write about abuse in the yoga industry because it’s my kink, and has harassed my wife online and via email. I don’t want to speak for my wife’s experience, but generally I can say it’s been difficult for her, and that she left social media in part because of the hostility.
In at least two cases I have lost employment over trolls harassing my hosts. Additionally, my colleagues have been targeted as well, guilty by association with me.
Personally, the attacks have taken a toll on my physical and mental health. It’s been so constant and casual that for years I failed to identify it as cultic abuse. Defamation and harassment are odious and illegal. I’m not disclosing this for sympathy but to show a little bit of what’s at stake for whistleblowers. It’s far worse for survivors.
Q3: “Wokewashing” is a real thing. I hope I’ve said enough above!
Question 8: Why can’t dharma communities help their victims?
Why are yoga and meditation communities so powerless to help people who have been harmed by those very same communities?
I think we must ask whether practice techniques can fix the problems they often serve to bypass or cover up. The fact that leaders like Simmer-Brown ask Shambhala members to “keep practicing” while offering no concrete policy initiatives that centre the testimonies and needs of Shambhala survivors is a big clue as to how this works, and what the priorities of high-demand groups and their leaders actually are. No part of the Shambhala curriculum helped mitigate the abuses of Trungpa and the alleged abuses of Mipham.
Modern yoga and Global Buddhism are vast industries that presume to offer physical and emotional care for practitioners. They are self-professed wellness and healthcare platforms. Yet neither are regulated, and with the exception of the smartest Yoga Therapy practitioners, neither employ tools like scope of practice or informed consent.
No high-demand group wants to admit to its failures of care, and that would be the first step in helping those it has harmed.
A last point here, extrapolating from Jennifer Freyd’s work, is that it might actually be a good thing that survivors of institutional abuse have to seek outside the group for healing and redress. Her research shows that asking the institution that abused you or enabled abuse for help might be retraumatizing. We see this in the stories of the women Larry Nassar abused being additionally betrayed by his employers when they sought to take action. I’ve seen this retraumatization happen up close as people who Pattabhi Jois assaulted have sought acknowledgement from senior Ashtanga teachers and have either been ignored, patronized, or co-opted into a false reform discourse.
Question 9: Performing vs. modelling reform.
Several teachers that remain in Shambhala seem to have stepped away from teaching Shambhala Buddhism and are instead teaching some mix of Buddhism and social justice (ostensibly to reclaim some legitimacy?) Yet, they still remain under the Shambhala umbrella. What do you make of this?
I hope my comments on wokewashing above are helpful.
I don’t know which teachers you’re referring to, but nobody who cares about transparency or spiritual care should regard Shambhala content or networks as a resource to be scavenged but as a liability to be mitigated.
Two women who Pattabhi Jois assaulted over long periods of time — Karen Rain and Jubilee Cooke — are about to post a groundbreaking article about what survivors of abuse in spiritual communities need. One of the stunning but also obvious things they suggest in it is that if you were educated in a method or community with an abuse history, your shingle is stained, and you really ought to consider upgrading your training with an organization that has taken care of business.
You should be able to show the public how you have acknowledged, understood, and sought to repair the harm and injustice of the school you rely on for validation, if that’s what you’re doing. I also take this to mean that if you come from an organization that has acted out intergenerational trauma under the guise of “tradition” or “lineage”, then I’d like to see your training in trauma care from a legit educational institution before you start offering meditation retreats. Deal?
Some examples for perspective:
- If you made money running the recording studio where R. Kelly cut hit tracks, I want to see your workplace sexual harassment policy.
- If you made your name in US gymnastics as a trainer, I want to know whether you’re a mandated reporter of child sexual abuse.
- If you’re a Catholic deacon, nun, or priest, and your job has anything to do with children, I want to know who you’ve made yourself accountable to outside of your clearly criminal church.
Can we imagine justifications for NOT doing these things? Of course. People will say: “But I still produce sick music, bro!” “But I have a good track record in helping gymnasts overcome injury.” “But I know the gospels really well, and they offer relief and guidance for all mankind.” In the yoga and Buddhism worlds, the justifications are the same: “But the holy dharma! I teach the holy dharma! People NEED the holy DHARMA!”
But who cares what you love to do, and how do you know what anyone needs? I want to know that you’ve nailed down the basics of not abusing or enabling abuse.
We’re getting to a point at which virtually everyone who has professionalized in yoga or Buddhism has to reckon with the fact that large parts of their education come from a new age equivalent of Oral Roberts University, and their teaching certificates are like degrees in creationism or faith healing. The question now is: are they going to bury that, or get square with it? It took me ten years to come out as a cult survivor in my bio note, ten years to own that I learned some of what I learned from sociopaths, and to show what I was doing about that. I was hiding from that history because of a reasonable shame but also for a terrible reason: I didn’t want my professional image to be obscured by illegitimacy. And yet: what was I building that profession on? Shame is an appropriate personal response to recognizing your cultic recruitment. But it is not a responsible professional disguise.
Sometimes I wonder whether the tyranny of happiness and good vibes that can turn the yoga and Buddhist worlds into Stepford conventions are actually a reaction formation against held secrets. “Look at us! Everyone’s fine!” Smile smile, blink blink.
There are countless people now in this same conundrum. How will they get clear on the identity and autobiographical crisis of owning a cultic past? I think the transparency statement will soon become the new personal inventory amongst yoga and Buddhism teachers. If it doesn’t, how will future practitioners be able to trust what they learn, and the relationships they learn it through?
Here’s where we get into the problem of secondary harm. When yoga and Buddhism teachers aren’t clear about where they’re coming from, they can radiate deception outwards, causing damage and wasting people’s time. I wrote about two examples of that here:
TLDR on the article: one of the examples shows how two Women’s Studies professors did months of fieldwork on a yoga service programme in NYC and concluded that the programme “has inspired a confidence that a feminist-informed social justice orientation to community engagement emphasizing ethics of care, commitment, shared power, and mutual political vision is indeed possible.”
So what was the programme? It was “Urban Yogis”, run by one of the Jois family’s staunchest representatives, someone who has done nothing to address the abuse history in public, even while he continues to professionally associate with the Jois brand. Did the scholars know about the abuse? No. They were deceived by omission. So let’s think about how many undergrads, especially women, will read that article and get all excited about the feminist values of Ashtanga Yoga. This is not to say that positive reform isn’t possible, but at this point the premise is absurd and abuses people’s time and emotional energy.
Question 10: Do dharma groups attract the vulnerable?
It seems to me that Buddhism, Yoga and other “alternative” religions and therapies naturally draw a lot of people with a history of suffering, abuse and general ill-adjustment to society. This is very risky, because on the one hand traumatized and ill-adjusted people might benefit a lot from those traditions, but on the other hand they might be easier targets for abusers and charlatans. Also, they might add a lot more neurosis to organizational dynamics than “healthy” people. How can a sangha be welcoming to those in need, but at the same time not be compromised by the neurosis they potentially bring into it?
(I did my best not to be offensive here, but English is not my native language, so it is difficult to appraise how some words might be triggering.)
I think you did really well with a very sensitive question.
I’m imagining you know it’s sensitive because focusing on the mental health profiles or prior histories of abuse victims is irrelevant when we’re seeking clarity on criminal acts committed against them. It can easily veer off into victim-blaming territory. Also I must make clear that there is NO evidence in the cult research that suggests that there are solid predictors for who is recruited. Recruits come from all socioeconomic and educational backgrounds, and likely from a wide range of scores on the ACE. The people I was with in the two cults I was in came from all over. Racial diversity was low (which has led me to wonder about where and how cult dynamics intersect with race) but every other category was extremely diverse.
That said, I think we can find a sensitive way to acknowledge the fact that group members are often recruited at points of “situational vulnerability” — after having moved, after an illness/divorce/accident, between jobs or careers. Also, anecdotally, especially in the US, there is a high degree of antipathy towards conventional medicine and therapy, given the predatory costs. I’m wondering whether future research will show that yoga and Buddhist groups attract higher-than-average numbers of people with untreated mental health issues by promising self-regulation in markets where citizens are deprived of health care. Of course that research would have to measure the positive effects against the negative. But if we’re talking about the negative impacts being on the overall culture of the group, however, that would be additionally difficult to analyze.
Question 11: The “guru” is out of scale.
Do you feel we are in a unique moment with regard to the worship of celebrity? In other words, what sort of cultural or societal antecedents and trends interest you in this whole affair?
I feel like that’s a very broad question but maybe I can pull on one thread that pops out in relation to cultic dynamics in global yoga and Buddhism.
The postmodern transnational spiritual leader that emerges in the mid-late 20th century (lots of factors involved here, including the 1965 Immigration Act in the US) seems to have only an imaginary connection to prior forms of spiritual leadership indigenous to South Asia. I can’t see how any of the intimate protocols that governed premodern guru-shishya bonds or samaya vows could survive the scale made possible by first cheap print and then cheap international travel, and now online virality. Cultic groups manipulate the nostalgic/romantic/orientalist appeal of that intimacy and deceive members into believing it’s on offer. I’ve heard people describe having “personal” relationships with Amma, Sai Baba, Gurumayi, Pattabhi Jois, Mooji, Trungpa, Mipham Mukpo, Sogyal Rinpoche, Michael Roach, Adyashanti, Byron Katie.
This is delusional. None of these people are thinking about you when you’re not there. Or even when you are. It’s not reciprocal. And if they’re “traumatized narcissists” to use Daniel Shaw’s term, they actually exist by erasing you.
One of the women who Pattabhi Jois assaulted repeatedly and who offered her incredible story to this book had this to say:
“I’m not even sure he knew my name. I didn’t get any sense that I was an important student that he was transmitting something to. That was not the experience. It was more like I was a piece of ass in an open position that he could dry hump. That’s what it felt like to be the receiver, and then the chorus of interpretations of that morphing it into something else, as a special thing, was just incredibly confusing for me.” (PAAIC, p.4)
In neurological terms, any leader who has more than 150 followers would find it impossible to have the kind of full and rich communication with each of them that I imagine any kind of “traditional” samaya would demand. Our brains aren’t built for more. Check out “Dunbar’s number” for more on that. Beyond 150, the leader will begin thinking symbolically and generically about students, rather than personally. Any buffer against them treating students as objects is weakened. I wonder if that’s why so many of them look glazed over: if there are too many of you, the celebrity leader can’t even see you when you’re standing in front of them. They dissociate to avoid the barrage of attention, to become anonymous amongst the anonymous masses. The icing on the cake is when group members interpret that blankness as some sort of altered or mystical state.
In some cases, however, deception regarding bonding can comes from the top, and it’s effective. I remember the first “private” meeting I had with Michael Roach, which meant that it was with him and his “sangyum” (they didn’t use the term) who was about half his age. It was the only time I remember him looking me in the eyes. That brief contact seemed so precious that I built a one-sided bond out of it that survived the fact that he never met my eyes again in three years. Everybody spoke about Roach as though he was so accessible, approachable, close. That would only ever have been true for a shifting handful of people who surrounded him constantly, working day and night.
All that said, I don’t in any way want to foreclose the possibility that smaller-scale, more intimate, perhaps more premodern learning relationships still exist in global yoga and Buddhism, and that they work well, and actually fulfill the promises carried by the indigenous (and still sacred to many) terms “guru” or “lama”. That’s not my experience nor my research focus, so I don’t know a lot about it. But I hope if those learning contexts do exist and are functional that the students who benefit from them step up and describe them in accessible ways, because of course we need good modeling.
Question 12: Success stories?
What examples of best practices for ethics, accountability, and atonement can you point to / describe for teacher authorization and organizational governance that could serve as a role model for a reformed Shambhala to aspire towards?
This is beyond my scope if we’re talking about global Buddhism It’s really a question for Professor Ann Gleig, who specializes in this area, and who might be a good AMA guest.
In the yoga world, Kripalu is often held up as having made a decent re-organizational recovery after sacking Amrit Desai, but more research needs to be done there. I’ve heard that the dynamics weren’t entirely horizontalized, which makes sense: I think it’s extremely hard for any charismatic model to flatten out without simply expressing a routinization of what came before. Everyone who is primed for leadership in a charismatic or high-demand setting will have gotten there through a certain amount of mimicry. When there’s a power vacuum at the top, who’s ready to step in?
The most interesting story going on in yogaland right now pits alleged sexual predator Manouso Manos against his lifelong peers in the Iyengar Yoga National Association of the United States. I wrote about it here:
TLDR, from the end of the report:
“IYNAUS standing firm and posting their statement in the face of [legal] intimidation [from Manos] marks an extraordinary moment in the history of modern global yoga in which an older paradigm of top-down leadership is firmly challenged by public-service models of governance and accountability.
“It might be the clearest and most public example yet of what yoga scholar Theodora Wildcroft has identified as an increasingly visible shift into a “post-lineage” era, in which practice and accountability are negotiated and nurtured by peers, rather than dictated and avoided by charismatic personalities.”
Most of the yoga world has utterly failed to even approach reform with integrity. In the worst cases, schools like Jivamukti have used quick-fixes like offering consent cards for adjustments while cynically positioning themselves as leaders in trauma sensitivity — not long after settling a sex harassment suit against one of their teachers.
I reported on that here:
Recently, Jivamukti co-founder David Life was on FB musing about how Jivamukti is only using them “as insurance against litigation”, because “litigation is the issue in the States where abuse is a testy issue.” Well, he should know.
So what we have is something even worse than apathy: organizations pretending to do the work as they brand-wash. Just think of what they’re stealing from those who spent more than a decade trying to say: “Hey look, consent cards should be a thing.”
Sorry I don’t have better news here. I just don’t think organizational reform can truly come from within dharma organizations that have abuse histories related to power that were covered over by dharma-content. Outside influences are crucial, and the best ones on the horizon might have their impact as yoga and mindfulness work moves into the public health sector, which will prompt new levels of professionalism and accountability.
I realize many are worried about McMindfulness, secularization, and the bureaucratization of practice, but my question for them is that if dharma organizations can’t ensure public safety and accountability to the same degree that psychotherapy colleges or public schools can, do we really have a choice? If all the Acharyas and Shastris had been mandated reporters for sexual abuse from the 1980s onwards, would Shambhala be in the position it’s in now?
Question 13: Academic insight, academic collusion.
Can you say anything about how “academia” shapes your own position and the manner in which you are received by others, including negatively? I can’t help but notice that you are in some very productive dialogues with some interesting academics who share your overall view but that some other academics associated with some of the organizations or cults you have criticized/critiqued have received you negatively. Maybe also relevant to speak to the seemingly contradictory roles of Simmer-Brown as both a scholar subject to peer-review while also an “acharya” in Shambhala.
As a twice-dropout, I’ve been awfully blessed in the yoga world by the scholarly generosity of Theo Wildcroft, Mark Singleton, Jason Birch, Jacqueline Hargreaves, Jim Mallinson, Andrea Jain, and others. They answer long and surely irritating emails from me on a regular basis and really embody scholarship as public service. I couldn’t have done half of what I’ve done without them.
But the academic/practitioner dual identity can pose a lot of problems when the person is involved with or belongs to a high-demand group. That can have true cultural impacts at certain scales: see above for notes on Naropa as a front organization for Shambhala International. In the example of how the efforts of two academics were manipulated by omission into boosting Ashtanga as a feminist practice, we can see out even scholars outside of high-demand groups can be impacted.
In terms of individual cases, you bring up Simmer-Brown. I too would like to know how exactly can someone bound by samaya also be bound by peer-review? Is it a matter of switching hats? How can there not be a conflict of interest that deprives her academic students of critical distance? I understand that the insider-outsider debate has been dealt with in detail in Religious Studies over the decades and that many have developed past that dichotomy. But the split remains plain when group members gain social power within the group, in this case academically, and then function to legitimize the group to the general public.
Can scholarship even cover over the most important data at hand? Let’s consider Holly Gayley’s scholarship (this is not an attack on her person) on “Sangyum”, for example, in this paper (Religions 2018, 9, 179; doi:10.3390/rel9060179):
Gayley provides a well-researched review of the concept and practice of the “secret consort”, beginning with premodern sources, ostensibly relevant against the backdrop of contemporary abuse scandals. Gayley spends a fair amount of space reporting on Sogyal Rinpoche’s abuse (not her word) of the tradition, but only has the following to say about Trungpa’s engagement of it. Trungpa remains the spiritual head of the community she teaches in from a mixed position of devotion and scholarship:
“In North America, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (1939–1987) was unique in naming seven women as sangyum, who served as his companions and personal representatives toward the end of his life. They remain respected members of the Shambhala community, given prominent seats at events and addressed with the title Sangyum before their names. In addition, Diana Mukpo, whom Trungpa Rinpoche married in England after disrobing in 1970, received the title Sakyong Wangmo, a royal designation from eastern Tibet. Still today, she and several of the sangyum teach advanced trainings in the Shambhala teachings based on terma that Trungpa Rinpoche revealed in the late 1970s. The public nature of these contemporary women’s roles—from Tsering Chödrön to Diana Mukpo—has given them a stature that illicit trysts, tantric or otherwise, do not. Nonetheless, by their own accounts, the role is not an easy one to navigate.”
But Trungpa didn’t just “name” them. He seduced many into sexual relationships of questionable or no-consent, including Ciel Turzanski, reportedly at or before the age of 15 — same age Diana was when they first had sex. “They” do not all remain “respected members”. Ciel is deceased and Leslie Hays hasn’t attended events for years, and more recently she’s been ostracized and defamed for describing the abuse of her spiritual “marriage” to Trungpa.
So what’s going on here? How does this research and historicization and academic gentility contextualize and normalize a crucial aspect of the very group Gayley has ethnographic access to? Was it part of Gaylely’s scope to interview any of these women? If not, why not? As teaching staff in Shambhala, and based in Colorado, I can’t imagine that Gayley wouldn’t have access to those interview opportunities. The timing is so important if unintentional and unlucky. The publication data says it was submitted in April of 2018, but Leslie Hays starts disclosing her experience on Facebook before it was published in July.
I’m careful here to say nothing about Gayley’s character or intentions but rather to point at the impact of a paper like this: that is flattens her own community into a textual artifact rather than a living network. I hate that I have to give that disclaimer, but ad hominem is so normalized in this landscape that people do it, see it, and feel it everywhere. I think it has something to do with the intimacy of the content. We’re fighting over what we love, and how we have been betrayed.
So there’s direct scholarship, generated from with the group, which provides a cover of legitimacy for the group. But I also think we also have to consider the influence of other academics who lend abusive organizations credibility — and this is weird — whether as apologists OR reformers.
Here’s a post I wrote about a social sciences prof who publicly attacked Ann West, whose sexual assault complaint against Manouso Manos has forced him to his knees and his oversight organization into a whirlwind of reform. The prof uses academic and social justice language to claim that West is in part driven by white supremacy. The prof, Manos, and Ann West are all “white”, although West’s heritage is Roma.
The TLDR here is that it doesn’t seem to matter how well-trained someone is as a scholar or whatever: the cultic will override it, and force the weirdest things out of their mouths.
Totally different example: how does Associate Professor Shanté Smalls (St. John’s University English) drop all of the rules of academic rigour to drag me in the comments on that meme? How is she using the legitimacy, if not the responsibility, of her scholarly position to discredit an outsider’s analysis? I don’t care if she psychoanalyzes me or calls me mediocre or a parasite, or the Bernie Sanders of white Buddhism, which is pretty funny. I’m interested in her disinterest in the facts about someone who is interrogating the spiritual organization that she’s teaching seven trainings for this spring.
Professor Smalls writes that I’m using my moment to be opportunistic. She mocks me for having been in the cult of Roach. She speculates that I’m writing about Shambhala because I failed to “heal” Roach’s community.
The facts are that it’s neither shameful nor discrediting to have been in Roach’s cult. I broke the Roach story in 2012, and because I haven’t been part of his cult since 2000, it’s not mine to heal, which an absurd demand. My “opportunism” has covered Shambhala, Rigpa, Iyengar Yoga, Anusara Yoga, and Asthanga Yoga all in the same way. It’s like calling a weatherman opportunistic because he says: “Hey look there’s rain.”
I feel this is important because the power Professor Smalls holds as an academic competes with that of Simmer-Brown — even though they might be anathema to each other — as the remnants of the Shambhala demographic figure out who has moral and intellectual authority and who to listen to. I believe they deserve care from scholars who don’t make things up.
That said, Professor Smalls is totally right that I and every other white person has to do the work of dismantling white privilege as we dismantle the cultic. They are connected, and I look forward to what she has to say about that in the future.
Above all, transparency about positionality is key. Because it’s not just academic-practitioners who can fail to be clear about the hat they’re wearing. The confusion can run the other way as well, with non-academic practitioners and teachers learning how to adopt academic language and mannerisms to such an extent that their students are very confused about their training. In the worst cases, this contributes to deception.
When I met Michael Roach, his apparent fluency in Tibetan was really impressive. I think the consensus generally is that his language skills are legit, and that he really did accomplish at least some of the memorization work demanded of Gelugpa training, even if he wildly exaggerated the time he actually spent enrolled at Sera Me monastery. I’ve also heard legit Tibetan scholars speak highly of his ACIP work in preserving texts. However.
But was he really a translator? If so, how exactly did he turn Prasangika philosophy into a prosperity and “spiritual relationships” gospel? I’m not stupid, and I was earnestly impressed by what turned out to be a performance of competence in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and culture. When he had to move on to the yoga world to gather recruits, of course he published a translation of / riff on Patanjali. When I was in his group, we all believed he was a Sanskritist as well. He’s not.
This kind of overreach takes more benign forms as well. My late friend Michael Stone was a compelling commentator on Buddhist and yoga ideas. I’ve met a number of his students who believed he was a translator as well — that he was reading in Sanskrit and Pali and even Japanese. He wasn’t, but I don’t remember him ever saying aloud: “I’m not a Sanskritist, so I’m relying on what this real Sanskritist is saying here…”. And I think that added to the pressure I believe he felt in having to be exceptionally smart or accomplished, and we all know now that pressure was the last thing he needed.
Question 14: Cancelling Vajrayana?
Do you see anything of value or worth preserving in Vajrayana Buddhism as a whole?
I don’t think anyone is going to cancel Vajrayana. In global terms, it’s a strange, compelling, beautiful, problematic part of Indo-Tibetan heritage. But it still has indigenous practitioners. I certainly don’t think global consumers disenchanted with what may be its bastardization through cultic groups get to decide what it’s worth. They’re free to walk away from it as they came, as seekers, but also consumers.
If they are still under undue influence, however, they are not free to walk away. And this I believe highlights something important: that while Vajrayana’s power systems might be easily exploitable by the cultic, they are not necessarily cultic per se. One useful axiom from the cult literature is that the content of the cult doesn’t matter: the power patterns do. That’s why religious, political, psychotherapeutic, business and athletic cults all operate the same way. As Cathleen Mann told me: I don’t care what you believe as an adult. I care about how you treat others.
I’m fairly sure that the Vajrayana practitioners of Howell, NJ, with whom I took samaya vows binding me to Khen Rinpoche Lobsang Tharchin were mostly well-served by meditating on his nature as inseparable from that of Vajrayogini. I’m sure it gave them some relief in life, and I never got the sense that the group was anything more than devotional and nerdy and had a relationship of mutual respect and support with the Mongolian refugees that KR was sent there to serve. Michael Roach came out of that environment, but I don’t have any sense that he was taught to deceive or control others there.
I do have a Julian Jaynes-level question about the premodern vs. contemporary neurological makeup of the practitioner — especially with regard to irony and skepticism. It seems to me that premodern Vajrayana has to be in some way predicated on a nervous system that tends towards credulity. I’m not sure how I could have grown up in the 1970s and completely abandoned the rational materialism, feminism, and postmodern theory of my formative years to remain a steadfast devotee of anything, even though it gave me relief for a while. So I have questions about how other people do it. Lyotard’s famous definition of the sentiment of our age is “incredulity towards metanarratives”. What could be a larger, bolder, more grandiose metanarrative than the Shambhala mandala? Who is more of the modernist Great Man of History than Trungpa, according to his press? He is a hero, a titan of singular and unique achievements that can never be replicated. He is divine in that sense.
I’ve seen some devotees circumvent the credulity problem with comments like “chanting is good for the Vagus nerve”. Yes, and so is reciting Shakespeare or rapping along to Digable Planets, I’m sure. There’s a lot more going on than sound and rhythm.
What do you have to do to your brain to believe all this in a sustained way? I understand believing in it for a while as an antidote to postmodernity. I remember the relief of the contact-high I got from Michael Roach’s self-certainty. But I really wonder how credulity in the Vajrayana vision — the primary requirement of creation stage practice, as I understand it — can be sustained without the application of strategic dissociation. Because the world just isn’t Vajrayogini’s mandala.
Question 16: How to talk to true believers.
I have had a lot of conversations in recent months with “true believers” (people who remain loyal to the teacher or teachings they cherish in spite of all the evidence that they are members of a dangerous cult). It’s a little frustrating sometimes, because their blind spot seems so obvious to me. The trouble is, you can’t just say to a person, “Look, here is your blind spot,” because that puts them on the defensive and the conversation goes downhill from there.
What techniques have you developed to engage such people, without making them feel like they’re under attack? What signs are there that there is just no use, that the person is not ready for the conversation? Is there a way to end it gracefully, without hard feelings? And what about the openly aggressive trolls who are not interested in conversation at all, but who merely want to shut you up– Any insights on dealing with them?
Such a hard question. To reiterate some points from above, it really seems to depend strongly on the strength of your prior relationship to the person, or on your capacity to present and model secure attachments. This is punishingly difficult online. It’s often chaos.
I try to make distinct strategic choices. I’ll communicate differently based upon whether I really am trying to forge a relationship or whether it feels more important to speak truth to power in public. When I engage the latter, I try my best to stick to the facts at hand. At this point, ex-Shambhalians or reformers have extraordinary documentation to cite, and cite, and cite. It’s always less provocative to point at evidence rather than confronting the emotional jargon directly.
I’d also say that there’s a strong possibility that whoever you’re talking to has been traumatized by the group, whether they know it or not, and that they’re defending a wound, or a gusher of shame and humiliation. They may not be defending the group so much as trying to push down the revelation of a personal tragedy that might feel like it will wash them away. If they’re attacking you, it might be because they feel they’re dying. With that in mind, gentleness is always helpful, but you may not be able to manage it. I’m sure as hell not.
It’s also really valuable to look at whether the language of critique you are using is accessible, or whether it shuts the group member down. I’ve got a section in my book that goes to some length to describe the liability of using the word “cult” in conversation, given how shameful, isolating, othering it can be. Here it is:
Those broader dynamics are often referred to with a popular but problematic term. The word “cult” is not only imprecise: it can be inflammatory and marginalizing. Even lifelong cultic studies researchers are conflicted about using it. In certain quarters, it might itself be classified as a form of “loaded language”, employed to dismiss entire religious or political groups out of hand.
Lalich and Landau provide a list of helpful synonyms for “cult”. They describe concerning groups as “high-demand”, “high-control”, “totalistic”, “totalitarian”, “closed charismatic”, “ultra-authoritarian”, and “self-sealed”. The term “self-sealed” is related to Lalich’s work on “bounded choice”, which she uses to describe an environment in which every occurrence is interpreted to suit the needs of the group or its leader. “When the process works,” she writes, “leaders and members alike are locked into what I call a ‘bounded reality’ — that is, a self-sealing social system in which every aspect and every activity reconfirms the validity of the system. There is no place for disconfirming information or other ways of thinking or being.” (Lalich, Janja, and Madeleine Landau. 2006. Loc 226, 665.)
The notion of “undue influence” is another useful framework. Undue influence is a legal concept dating back over 500 years, applied to assess whether a contract formed between a person with more power and a person with less power is truly consensual. As we’ll see, non-consent is a core theme of the Jois event. Throughout this book I’ll alternate synonyms for “cult” to soften any impression that we’re speaking about a precise phenomenon. We’re not. We’re talking about patterns and relationships. (PAAIC, 14-15)
Question 17: Mainstreaming critical thinking.
Hi, first I want to thank you for doing this work. I’m a political economy student and yoga teacher (conflicting) and did a research project on race/class/gender inclusion in yoga (and yoga under capitalism/patriarchy) and your articles were very valuable to me. Any advice for someone looking to lead a discussion group on these topics in a studio setting?
I’m hoping to make it to Portland for your upcoming training, are you open to having people only come for a portion of the training?
Thoughts on cultural appropriation (or maybe you can direct me to talks you’ve already done on this BIG question)?
And tied [a] great question [from above], is there a way to keep teachers and studios accountable while allowing them to operate as a business under capitalism? Seems the values of yoga conflict with the status quo. How to treat yoga as a commons while valuing teachers for the work they put in?
Thank you for the kind words. I’m fresh out of marketing advice for this content! I just try to foster strong IRL relationships with studio owners and YTT directors and work from there. But the industry is contracting. At the same moment that critical content is emerging the workshop economy is collapsing. Sometimes it looks like the webinar is a good avenue, but that too is very competitive landscape. But in straightforward pedagogical terms, I think the material is best served with data that frames the questions clearly and then Socratic exercises for nurturing diverse answers.
You can come to anything you want, just run it by the host!
Cultural appropriation is really another AMA, I feel. In yoga, Andrea Jain is a must-read, and Susanna Barkataki’s Honor Collective Project offers a number of really great perspectives. Try to be wary of white virtue-signaling in this area, especially when it comes from people tied to high-demand yoga groups that claim they’re preserving indigenous practices. See if there’s evidence for that.
Yoga under capitalism is a paradox, and another huge question. And as I’ve mentioned above the only positive pathway forward wrt accountability might lie in the demands of professionalization into public health and education sectors.
Question 18: Separating the teacher from the practice?
A dialogue I’ve encountered a lot lately when talking about sexual misconduct is that the leader is separate from the practice. Ex) Satchidananda’s translation of the Sutras is still valuable despite his misconduct. Or Ashtanga is still a valuable practice despite Pattabhi Jois’s sexual assault.
Seems like every school of yoga has been involved in some power or sexual misconduct, can a practice really ever be separated from its founders?
I hope that the first answer, up top, esp the baby+bathwater remarks, is useful here.
One enormous problem with separating practice from founder is this so often relies on a fiction regarding the ancientness of the practice itself. Practices associated with charismatic leaders bear their psychosomatic echoes. When you practice Iyengar Yoga with one of his senior students, you literally feel his body — not just his method — in yours. Can we really separate out the authoritarian by-rote pedagogy of Bikram from the somatic echo of his dominance over other bodies?
Practices are practiced by people. People communicate them. They don’t float above people in the ether, and stay there when the people are sleeping or dead. If you were a direct student of Trungpa who still thinks that he was some sort of supernatural person, you’ll likely feel that in your tissues. If you don’t believe that, ask yourself what it would feel like to have Larry David record the audio book for Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. Or Gene Simmons.
Whatever yoga is, whatever Buddhism is, I don’t see how you can pluck it free from the relationships through which it is communicated.
Question 19: Does practice make you a better citizen?
I wonder if you can say something also about Thich Nhat Hanh as good example (or not) of the fertilization of dharma and social justice?
No, I’m afraid I don’t know much about TNH or Plum Village.
In the abstract, I think with any community my first question is whether or not there’s a presumption that practice is coherent with or supportive of particular political values. Be Scofield pretty much slam-dunks this as false, arguing that whatever sublime/unitary experience that the practice values cannot be reliably channeled into any specific political position not dictated by the surrounding culture. This is how we get Zen warrior monks and Nazi yogis. So I tend to think about dharma practice and activism not as mutually exclusive but as unreliably linked. The best personal answer I have is that practice enables resilience in the face of dread.
I addressed some of these points here:
Question 20: Dialoguing.
Is there a pubic figure within the broader world of mindfulness, meditation, yoga, etc with whom you would be most interested to do a public dialogue? Roach?
Ha, that’s unlikely.
It’s a great question, because it makes me see how I’ve divided (or the investigative journalism practice of the past 3 years has divided) my world up into colleagues that nurture me with questions, and then people I want hard answers from. I can think of a bunch of people I’d love to interview, but I’m not going to telegraph the names!
Outside of that binary, I think it would be cool to sit with Ganesh Mohan and ask him about his take on the Krishnamacharya legacy. Or to sit with Lama Rod Owen and talk about the intersections of the cultic and racial and gender injustice. Or to talk with Donna Farhi about the under-researched feminist arc in modern yoga history that attempts to reclaim agency.
Question 21: Heteronormativity.
Do you see a relationship between Hindu/Tantra heteronormative values of “sacred masculine/feminine” and how that has been used to suppress women and sexual assault scandals today? Is Yoga inherently patriarchal? Tied to other questions, do you think “sacred masc./fem” energies pose any value as a metaphor? The more I dig the worse it gets. These are big, would be happy just to have suggestions of other authors to look into.
If you haven’t read Roots of Yoga by Mallinson and Singleton, it gives the slam-dunk answer on cultural and historical misogyny in Hatha Yoga. TLDR: it’s patriarchal.
You’re totally on to something with the heteronormativity of the legacy, although we should be clear that there are nonbinary devotional forms and all kinds of gender trouble in the Puranas. But are these aspects well appreciated in the global marketplace? I don’t see that, and my gut says that that is because the heteronormative aspects of Tantrism, for example, allow otherwise liberal Boomers and even Gen Xers to backslide comfortably into a binary familiarity. They get spiritual permission to be conservative. Think about the gendered symbology of Ayurveda, for instance, or whether “goddess” culture is an orientalization of a throwback vision of being able to perfect all “feminine” (especially nurturance) roles at once.
Facing Investigation into Allegations of Sexual Assault, Manouso Manos Goes Full DARVO. IYNAUS Is Having None of It.
On March 8th, Manouso Manos posted a letter on his website, announcing his resignation from the Iyengar Yoga National Association of the United States. In its claims and defensive-aggressive tone, the letter positions Manos as the target of an unfair independent investigation into allegations of sexual assault potentially dating back to 1992. It also pits him against IYNAUS as the legitimate representative of the Iyengar family’s wishes, wisdom, and legacy.
Manos’s statements were elaborated in a 23-page support statement from his lawyers. Together, the documents present an object lesson in what psychologist Jennifer Freyd has defined as DARVO: a strategy used by those accused of crimes to turn back scrutiny and accountability.
Without mentioning the still-unrefuted 1991 Mercury News investigation documenting numerous complaints of sexual assault against him, Manos and his lawyers deny all allegations past and present. They attack the credibility and ethics of Ann West, whose 2018 complaint prompted the independent investigation, after IYNAUS found that the initial ruling of its Ethics Committee was problematic. The documents attack the IYNAUS Board of Directors for ordering the investigation, as well as the media for “unfair characterization”, though they give no examples of unfairness. Beneath the denial and attack runs a riptide of role-reversal in which Manos is portrayed as an exemplary and blameless upholder of yoga virtue, victimized by an attention-seeking accuser and a venal bureaucracy that is not, in Manos’s words, “upholding the original principle the organization was founded to do: To propagate the work of B.K.S. Iyengar.”
On Friday, IYNAUS refuted both documents in a searing statement published to its site. The statement meticulously detailed the timeline of communications, contradicting many of Manos’s claims. It includes:
- An assertion that IYNAUS is not accusing Manos, but investigating accusations.
- That IYNAUS bylaws allow for its Board to review Ethics Committee decisions, and that it voted unanimously to follow up on the West decision with an independent investigation.
- The opinion that the investigator holds an impeccable reputation in her field and is following standard confidentiality and disclosure procedures.
- The opinions that Ann West was within her rights to protest the initial findings of the Ethics Committee.
- That IYNAUS declined Manos’s initial offer to resign because the offer was contingent on the Board killing the investigation. They reasoned that this would be against the best interest of both the organization and the general public. They write: “Whether or not Manouso is currently an IYNAUS member, an unbiased independent determination of these issues will be critical to addressing many issues in our community, in restoring confidence in IYNAUS and Iyengar Yoga, and in contributing to an important national discussion and debate. If Manouso were found innocent, that would have immense importance for our community and its reputation. If he were found guilty and particularly if a pattern of sexual abuse were found over a period of many years, it would raise profound issues about the appropriateness of IYNAUS’s past actions, about our culture, and about future restorative and other steps to be taken in our community. And questions of sexual abuse in yoga have been much discussed in the press and have great public importance. The results of this investigation will be matters of intense interest to legislators, regulators, other leaders, and to the public in the U.S. and in much of the rest of the world. The Executive Committee thus concluded that Manouso’s resignation, without more, could not justify termination of the investigation.”
The IYNAUS response also released startling internal communiqués between the Board of Directors and the Iyengar family. On November 15th, Geeta (now deceased), Prashant and Abhijata Iyengar wrote to IYNAUS to defend Manos as “a very senior member of our family (Association) who has done a lot to take Guruji’s teachings to the people. We all know him and we, Geeta, Prashant and Abhijata are very hurt that the National Association, instead of being fair, is out hunting for reasons to tarnish Manouso and his image.”
Earlier in the letter, the Iyengars also object to IYNAUS extending its investigation back to 1992 and accepting anonymous complaints for review. They cite the lineage patriarch regarding anonymous complaints, writing that “Guruji said that those who express views without revealing their names, are in political terms fence-sitters so that they can move to the side which is convenient to them. He did not accept those views and we honor his wisdom- that is yogic way.”
This reasoning resonates with BKS’s public statements about Manos in 1991, after he restored Manos to his position at the San Francisco Iyengar Institute. As reported in the Mercury News at the time:
Reached by phone in India and asked if he believed the allegations against Manos by the woman quoted above, Iyengar replied, “No. That is an old, old story. I doubt its truth. I do not believe past things when they are kept quiet for so long.”
Asked if he thought perhaps the woman had been too embarrassed or ashamed to report the incident, he said, “I do not believe that.”
Did he question Manos about whether the woman’s charge was true? “He did not say,” Iyengar replied. “Why should I ask him? I don’t want to listen to hearsay. When a report is fresh, immediate, then it is more likely to be true. When reported later it is all dexterous words.”
IYNAUS responded to the Iyengars in a gracious letter dated November 27. It made many of the points revealed in the current statement, but also added insights into the as-yet-unreleased investigation. These include:
- That IYNAUS “received well in excess of 150 reports relating to these issues… Many were supportive of Manos. Many others made credible allegations that he has abused his position by making sexually inappropriate adjustments. Based on these and other reports, we believed that there were many other individuals who would come forward if given an opportunity to do so safely and that some would allow their identities to be revealed. Finally, we also learned that rumors of such sexual misconduct by Manouso have been circulating in our community for many years.”
- That the reports “convincingly explained that the victims of the misconduct and many witnesses were afraid to file formal complaints because Manouso has immense power in the U.S. and worldwide Iyengar Yoga community and because they feared retaliation and reprisals by him and others in our community.”
- That 48 leading members of IYNAUS, including yoga scholar Edwin Bryant, had signed a letter requesting the independent investigation.
- That input from several legal, PR, and industry consultants had confirmed that the initial clearing of Manos by the Ethics Committee of the West allegations was not credible, and that an independent investigation was warranted to ensure organization integrity.
The Friday statement from IYNAUS also notes that the Iyengars have not renewed their call to stop the investigation and that “the Iyengars are now awaiting the independent investigator’s report.”
Anticipating the Friday statement, Manos’s lawyers sent a letter to the Board of Directors on Tuesday, threatening them each with legal action should they release it, or the findings of the investigation.
IYNAUS standing firm and posting their statement in the face of intimidation marks an extraordinary moment in the history of modern global yoga in which an older paradigm of top-down leadership is firmly challenged by public-service models of governance and accountability.
It might be the clearest and most public example yet of what yoga scholar Theodora Wildcroft has identified as an increasingly visible shift into a “post-lineage” era, in which practice and accountability are negotiated and nurtured by peers, rather than dictated and avoided by charismatic personalities.
Back in August, I analyzed a dharma talk given by Judith Simmer-Brown in Boulder. The talk was given on the heels of a convulsive July for Shambhala International. Mipham Mukpo (the “Sakyong”) had just announced a then-temporary (now perhaps permanent) resignation from his administrative duties amidst further allegations of sexual assault and an announcement from the Interim Board of Directors that he would be the subject of a third-party investigation. Buddhist Project Sunshine had already produced numerous and credible allegations against Mukpo in its Phase 1 & 2 Reports.
Simmer-Brown’s talk sought to provide an insider’s reassurance of the basic goodness of the organization amidst escalating criticism and international news coverage. The core message, repeated from many different angles, was that in the eye of the storm, Shambhala members should keep practicing the content that Chogyam Trungpa had given the organization, and that she as a group leader and Mipham Mukpo had spent many years nurturing (and commodifying). As per custom, she tied her comments to the ancientness of a Buddhist teaching called “The Four Reliances”, which encourages student to look beyond the everyday world for their hope and salvation. Deploying this text at this time implied that digging into the details of systemic abuse constitutes an abandonment of spirituality. Simmer-Brown also spoke of the dangers of the kind of doubt that could lead a practitioner to abandon their path.
Simmer-Brown’s talk bolstered the premise that the teaching content of an organization rife with institutional abuse is an appropriate response to that abuse. This is despite the fact that spiritual teaching content is consistently used to suppress abuse testimonies in yoga and Buddhist groups.
I analyzed the talk as a typical crisis response in the yoga and Buddhist worlds. Such responses are oriented more at protecting the ideology and its administration than accounting for institutional failure. Simmer-Brown’s talk may have gone farther than mere deflection: arguably, it weaponized the spirituality of the organization against those enraged by its failures.
Most notable was the complete absence of any mention of Shambhala victims or survivors. Simmer-Brown repeatedly referred to Chögyam Trungpa with honorifics and in idealized terms, despite the fact that Leslie Hays’ testimony of his abusive behaviour while she was one of his “sangyum” or spiritual wives was circulating widely on social media at the time.
This past Tuesday, Simmer-Brown published an article on the SI newsletter site, Shambhala Times. The biases, omissions, and affect are all the same, despite the fact that in the seven months that have passed since her Boulder talk, the revelations of institutional abuse and betrayal within SI have only deepened. Mukpo has now absconded to India, leaving his organization in such dire financial straights that the Interim Board is considering liquidating the residential property where his elderly mother resides. Six of Mukpo’s former personal attendants released a blistering statement alleging his drinking and sexual predation have been well-known and uncontrolled for years, and that he has physically assaulted inner circle members. The allegations described Mukpo biting, slapping, and throwing drinks in the faces of devotees who cross him.
I’m going to annotate Simmer-Brown’s new article here because, as with the August dharma-talk, it presents an object-lesson in institutional denial and spiritual hairsplitting and deflection. I believe it’s crucial that high-demand group members and their families study and understand the hard limits of even the most well-intentioned appeals for reform that come from inside the group, and how a focus on the group’s spiritual content can effectively derail concentration on the group’s behaviour. With this article, Simmer-Brown unintentionally provides a vital argument here for centring the voices of the victims of spiritual abuse in any attempt to reform the organization that has abused them.
When I posted my analysis in August, I was careful to limit my criticism to the content of the talk as a product of Shambhala communications. I do not know Simmer-Brown and have no reason to believe she is ill-intentioned or fails to care for her students. Nonetheless, and expectedly, several commenters accused me of personally attacking her, cherrypicking the worst possible details, demonizing the organization, or punching down at a vulnerable woman expressing heart-felt sentiments at a difficult time. I both understand and reject these subject-changing arguments. I specifically reject the DARVO implication that she is a “victim” of critique. A Distinguished Professor at an accredited university is contractually obligated to be responsible for the implications and impacts of their public statements.
The article has also been both praised by group members and eviscerated by ex-members on its home page and on Reddit. I encourage you to read both threads.
Considering the Future of the Treasure of Shambhala (March 12, 2019 – 12:47 am) — Judith Simmer-Brown
In these heartbreaking days, while we are committed to redesign the entire structure of our community and practice, I wanted to add an element that may provide some historical perspective for our considerations. This is not meant to in any way dictate what we decide to do; those directions will be shaped by the community input to the Process Team, and by auspicious coincidence. Certainly, I have no idea or recommendations for the future. But the Buddhist and Shambhala teachings are often predicated on the question of what we are to accept and what to reject.
Opening with the term “heartbreaking” positions the voice of the text as receptive and vulnerable. But it also minimizes the emotional carnage evident in the social media feeds of those directly impacted by Mipham’s behaviour, Trungpa’s “crazy wisdom”, and the stress of bungling investigations and institutional betrayal. Heartbreak (rather than, say, PTSD) is then presented as a homogenous experience through the first person plural. While the Shambhala Times is plausibly published for devoted members, it is also on the internet, and being read by the devoted, the disillusioned, and the traumatized alike. The plural presumes to speak for all of these, but because it can’t, it instantly illuminates the boundary of the in-group by implying that everyone in Shambhala should share the same experience and values. This boundary is echoed in the final sentence, which gestures at the dialectic of Tibetan philosophical debate, which often hinges upon a binary choice between truth and falsehood. From the outset, the voice of the article presumes both a unified plural and the possibility of exclusion or abandonment. That possibility, or threat, will be made more explicit further down.
As a student of my root guru, the Vidyadhara Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, I have tried in the decades since his passing to understand who he was and what he did. I have puzzled over the final ten years in which he continued teaching the profound Buddhadharma, but he obviously prioritized the Shambhala teachings as chief among his heart treasures. As a scholar-practitioner, I have witnessed how the Shambhala teachings became primary sometime after his passing, and I have increasingly understood this decision as core to the Tibetan tradition and lore of terma itself.
Here the voice establishes its religious commitments with idealized epithets. Vidyadhara translates roughly as “awareness-holder”, and anchors a sentence meant to convey Trungpa’s “unfathomable” nature, commonly lauded in both Shambhala’s liturgy and its popular literature. Pema Chödrön evokes something similar when she tells Tricycle in this 1993 interview:
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?
According to Chödrön, this is a good thing, and is a refrain within her teaching on “groundlessness”. Both Chödrön and Simmer-Brown express their maximal devotion meeting his minimal accountability.
Simmer-Brown finishes this article by hinting at the main thesis: that Shambhala teaching content, and particularly its deviation from Trungpa’s premodern educational roots, is synonymous with “Tibetan tradition”, and an expression of its most precious gift, which the role of historian can now illuminate.
Terma are “discovered treasure” teachings, also known as “close transmissions,” especially associated with the Tibetan Vajrayana tradition. They are contrasted with the Kama teachings, that are the “long transmissions” through historical lineages of greatly realized adepts like Naropa, Milarepa, and the Karmapas. Terma teachings are called “new transmissions” because they arise without a long lineage of adepts and are destined to address the new conditions that arise throughout history in fresh and immediate ways. The Shambhala teachings are primary among the terma teachings discovered by the Vidyadhara, the Druk Sakyong, over a series of years.
The end of this standard presentation of Tibetan revelation presents an assumption prepped by reference to saints’ names and a designation that refers to a legitimate lineage. Trungpa is now not only the Vidyadhara, but the “Druk Sakyong”. This sounds historically legit but is actually a term innovated by Trungpa himself that translates roughly as “Dragon Earth Protector”. This lays the groundwork for continuing, later in the article, to refer to Mipham Mukpo as the current “Sakyong”, an honorific that emphasizes his status as an elevated symbolic figure over that of an alleged assaulter anticipating extradition. I hope that in the near future the ongoing convergence of Trungpa’s entrepreneurial mysticism with the orientalist yearnings of his early adopters is interrogated through the lens of decolonization studies.
Historically speaking, there have been many terma discovered over the centuries by “treasure discoverers” (tertons) like the Vidyadhara. Most of those terma have remained obscure, and have even disappeared, because there is more to a terma than its discovery. Scholars have identified the prevailing historical skepticism that terma have faced within Buddhist traditions over the centuries in Tibet; tertons have been accused of being charlatans, eccentrics, and frauds, even among the most traditional yogic practitioners. Even the great 18th century Jigme Lingpa, discoverer of the Longchen Nyingtig, was deeply concerned with providing legitimacy for his discovery, given the skepticism of his age. The dissemination of a new terma is scrutinized closely, and terma are eventually considered legitimate only in special circumstances, such as whether they lead to palpable realization of some kind or provide clear benefit to beings in the dark age.
Because I’m not a scholar of Tibetan Buddhism, and because the article provides references instead of footnotes, I know that I’m not being given information here to evaluate the two main claims in this paragraph: 1) That Trungpa was widely accepted by his peers as a terton and not a charlatan, eccentric, or fraud (and that if he was, this process wasn’t complicated by nepotism), 2) that the Shambhala content has been legitimized within its culture of origin as having led followers to “palpable realization” or “clear benefit”. Without citations, how are readers to know whether academic discourse is being waved like a magic wand over faith claims?
Tertons have typically relied on a lineage-holder to propagate the terma, a terdak. That is, the terton discovers the treasure, and the terdak provides commentaries and support for practice for the principal discoverer, and so the terdak is a key figure in the destiny of the treasure teachings. Sakyong Mipham has committed his life to being the terdak of his father’s Shambhala terma. Another key element has been the practitioners who engage in the practice, and whether they develop realization of the teachings. In the case of societal teachings like Shambhala, a great deal depends upon the community of practitioners.
“Sakyong Mipham has committed his life to being the terdak of his father’s Shambhala terma” may be an unintentionally ambivalent claim. According to Buddhist Project Sunshine and the letter from the former attendants, it’s clear that Mipham was committed to many things besides supporting the revelations of his father. But given the alleged overlap between how they treated their students, perhaps Mipham really has been faithful to the task.
This suggests that for the first generation or two, the future of terma is most fragile and subject to scrutiny. If the teachings do not take root, traditionally the dakinis whisk them away to the lha realm where they may remain until a future, more auspicious moment. Certainly, the career of the terdak can influence the future of the terma, which we are witnessing in a major way in our community right now. But also the practice and realization of this first generation of practitioners has a tremendous impact on the future of the terma.
Here the article makes Mipham and his students equally responsible for the impact of his alleged crimes on whether or not the precious teachings will survive. His actions are euphemized here as his “career”. The article never comes close to disclosing the seriousness of the allegations against him, but here presents followers with a challenge and a threat. Because the teachings have obviously taken root in Mipham, it’s up to his followers, regardless of his conduct, to prove to supernatural beings that they deserve what he offers. If they don’t practice enough, the supernatural beings will take it all away.
Among some members of the Shambhala community there has been enormous bitterness about the Sakyong’s decision to make the terma central in our community, sidelining the precious Buddhadharma teachings. I have at times felt that way myself, as I continue to hold the Buddhadharma transmissions of the Vidyadhara as central in my life. Could it be that at least some part of the Sakyong’s decision had to do with the commitment to sustain the terma? That is, would we as a community have explored the depth of the Shambhala terma if it had remained sidelined in our lineage?
And now, the conduct of the Sakyong that has surfaced is definitely threatening the future of the terma. He has devoted the last ten years of his teaching to deepening our realization of the power of basic goodness and creating enlightened society, and many of us have felt the transformative power of those teachings. The flourishing of Shambhala has been directly related to the power of the terma for individuals and the whole community. I like to think that current events are the way the protectors and dralas are cleaning out our lineage’s closets and basements so that the terma can deliver on its promise. There is no way we could or should continue with secrets that are in direct contradiction to confidence in basic goodness and enlightened society. There is deep health in the breakdown of our damaging structures and behaviors, but whether the overall outcome will be beneficial to our community and humanity depends in part upon what we decide to do.
The sentence: “And now, the conduct of the Sakyong that has surfaced is definitely threatening the future of the terma” should win some kind of award for tone deafness, selfish erasure of victims, and DARVO — all rolled into one. Note the passive construction of “has surfaced”, which ignores the harrowing efforts women have made to disclose on social media and then again to the independent investigator Selina Bath, and then again to An Olive Branch. We’re not talking about the head on a pint of beer but about traumatizing stories that had to fight against obfuscation, bypassing, and groupthink to be heard. According to this sentence, the real victim of Mipham Mukpo is the content Simmer-Brown and others are paid to teach.
The other outrageous sentence here is “I like to think that current events are the way the protectors and dralas are cleaning out our lineage’s closets and basements so that the terma can deliver on its promise.” I can’t add any more to this than to cite the following comment on the original post:
It almost suggests that you think the suffering of survivors is serving some spiritual purpose, as if you are rationalizing their suffering as a means to a greater end. Well, that’s obscene. People’s lives are blighted so the terma can take hold? Really?
If we were given a choice between losing arcane knowledge and rationalizing violence, I say, goodbye arcane knowledge. Come back to us another day. Instilling fear that the institution might falter is EXACTLY what apologists do when there is scandal.
As we make decisions and plans for our future as a community, it is important to recognize that we are the generation of practitioners who have received the precious Shambhala teachings in the introductory curriculum, the intermediary practices, and in the advanced retreats. The future of those teachings rests in part on how we respond to this crisis. In my devotion to my root teacher, I wonder about this essential part of his legacy. Can we embody the core teachings of basic goodness and enlightened society as we experience the heartbreak and make the necessary changes in our community? Can we continue to highlight the Shambhala terma in our practices and community life? Will the terma continue beyond this generation of Shambhala practitioners, or will it go the way of the obscure or irrelevant ones? The Vidyadhara, the dakinis and dralas, and the lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, are closely watching.
Not only does this last line pose a genteel threat — it also reveals the voice that has been delivering this “historical overview” as belonging to someone with paranormal powers.
For further historical context, please consult:
Andreas Doctor, Tibetan Treasure Literature: Revelation, Tradition and Accomplishment in Visionary Buddhism (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2005).
Janet B. Gyatso, Apparitions of the Self: The Secret Autobiographies of a Tibetan Visionary (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998).
Janet B. Gyatso, “Drawn from the Tibetan Treasury: The gTer ma Literature” in Cabezón and Jackson, ed., Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 1996).
Tulku Thondup, Hidden Teachings of Tibet: An Explanation of the Terma Tradition of the Nyingma School of Buddhism (London & Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1986, reprint edition 1997).
Note: I wrote this as an epilogue to Practice and All is Coming. For me, it rounded off the narrative journey of this 3+ years process. I’d gotten to know Karen Rain over several interviews, dozens of phone calls, and hundreds of emails. It was extraordinary to meet her in person finally, and go with her to a movement space where she didn’t have to speak her story anymore, but could show me something of what had helped her heal from being abused within the Ashtanga world. It really felt like the last word. However, as the book developed, its ending swerved away from the personal and towards the study of community health best practices. My editor and I eventually decided that this piece was ultimately distracting from that arc — even though it feels like the beating heart of how it all came together. So here it is, on its own, opening with a quote from Kathleen Rea, who hosted us that night.
Explorations of different themes, such as intimacy, sensuality, surrendering control, anger, fighting, being contained, grief etc. are welcome as long as they are not explicitly sexual, and are created through a step-by-step verbal or non-verbal consent building process. Please note that a newcomer to contact dance improvisation sometimes has not yet acquired the language or skill through which to build consent for dances exploring intense themes. We, therefore, ask that you limit exploring intense themes with newcomers.
— Kathleen Rea, “Wednesday Contact Dance Improvisation Jam Boundary Guidelines”
It’s a Wednesday evening in Toronto, mid-March. It’s chilly, and Karen clutches her bulky sweater close as we walk from the car to Dovercourt House in Toronto’s west end. On Friday we’ll be filming our big interview at Diane Bruni’s house. We’re chatting about it, going over the questions. The plan for the interview is to have something raw and humanizing to accompany The Walrus article when it drops. We know that people will try to discredit her, and me, and we’ve calculated that the in-person format will minimize that. We know what it feels like to talk with each other, and we’re thinking that if people can eavesdrop, they’ll get it.
But she’s nervous about it, and I can feel she wants to stop talking. The evening is crystal clear. We’re heading to a dance.
It’s a Contact Improv Jam, to be specific. The host is Kathleen Rea. She was in the ballet world, and is now a psychotherapist. We slip out of our coats and shoes and into her class in the enormous third floor room, and watch from the sides as she guides a small group. The dancers pair off and turn around each other, touching hands, arms, hips, backs, slumping together, pushing off gently, rolling down to the ground, supporting each other, trading weight back and forth. I feel relaxed and slightly mesmerized.
The class ends and Rea announces that the Improv session will be starting in ten minutes. She asks that if anyone is new to the experience that they meet with her outside to hear the intro talk and some ground rules.
As we file back out into the hallway, more people arrive. A musician begins to set up. It’s Jeff Burke, who locals know from his haunting busking on the subway. He has dreadlocks reaching down to his ankles. He’s smiling and melancholic, and bent low under an enormous dufflebag. As he unpacks it seems like some musical tickle trunk that can never be completely empty. He draws out a black bassoon, a tin whistle, and a theremin.
Karen and I sit down cross-legged in the hallway with three millenials, also first-timers to this space. Karen isn’t new to Contact Improv, which, she’s told me, has been very helpful in her healing process, post-Ashtanga. It’s helped her feel her body in relation to other bodies again. In public spaces, in safety, in sensual but non-sexual ways. Karen suggested we come to Rea’s class because Rea is famous in the Contact Jam world for the clarity with which she runs her space. Like Rain, she has been a reformer, calling out abuses and problems with consent in her subculture.
Rea starts her intro talk from the groundwork of affirmative consent. This is an art-form, she explains, in which touch is common. It’s often evocative and nourishing, but it’s also not essential. She says that any dancer can and should say no to an invitation to dance at any time, and can also express withdrawal verbally or non-verbally. She says that we might notice that people who have been coming for a long time have unique and complex dance-stories that have evolved between them. That can be cool to watch, but probably not to try to imitate.
She explains that Contact Improv can bring up all kinds of complex sensations, feelings, and thoughts, some of which might be sexual in nature. This is nothing to be ashamed of, she says. But in this space we agree that those feelings will not be acted out. There are spaces in the subculture in which that’s part of the scene, she says. But here, sexualized contact is strictly forbidden. She assures us that while she’ll be participating in the dance, she’ll also be available for questions and to help us process any complexity that comes up.
So I’m sitting there and it’s starting to sink in. How extraordinary it is to be here with Karen, listening to a teacher give us a ten-minute safer-space talk about touch and consent. How would Karen’s life have turned out, I wonder, if this level of clarity had been available twenty-five years ago in the Ashtanga world?
I can feel also something else. A terror has built up in me while writing this book that there is no safety to be found in this world. That yoga classes and dance jams are somehow always and forever strained by unconscious desires and aggressions fanned by unequal power dynamics, and that there’s nothing to be done about it.
This is not true. We can do lots of things about it.
Rea checks in to see if we have any further questions. A young woman asks about feeling shy or out of place. Rea nods and says, “You can just watch, too. And you can just wait for someone to ask, and see how you feel.”
I like that answer. It’s also for me.
We file back in and sit down against the wall. Jeff Burke has started to play. There’s a pickup plugged into the mouth of his bassoon. It sends a low drone through an amp and into a loop machine to keep it going. Some of the dancers are already up and at it.
I feel shy, not only about the dance, but about sitting there with Karen, not talking about Jois. We’ve put aside the history, and now there’s music.
Two days later, after our interview and over lunch, Karen summed up our awkward moment, and a few others.
“So when we stop talking about Ashtanga,” she says with wry smile, “will we have anything else to talk about? How likely is it that we’ll be friends after this is all over? Do we have anything else in common? I’m queer and you’re a straight guy with a partner and kids and very little free time. You’re also still in the yoga world.”
Half sad, half elated, I laughed. Of the many things this whole experience had done to and for Karen, it had above all else made her brutally honest. I know she doesn’t like this word, but I can’t think of any other that fits: for Karen, honesty is the highest form of spirituality.
As I drove her to the airport the day after that lunch, we talked about the sacrifice this spirituality demands. We were talking about the pros and cons of having gone through all of this, especially for her. How much it cost to disclose everything and remember, and retell, and weather the denials and rationalizations all over again. But also: how much clarity it had provided. How it had helped to change an entire culture.
“When I first dialed your number,” I said, “I had no idea that all this would happen.”
“Neither did I,” Karen said.
The landscape hurtled by.
“What can I say?” said Karen. “I hate you for this and I also love you for this.”
We laugh and cry.
Back in that dance room on that Wednesday night, I remember my shyness slowly turning into a pre-teen-style goofball shame that I wasn’t just getting up and dancing.
“So are you going to dance?” Karen asked me.
“I think I’m waiting for someone to ask me.”
“Okay.” She smiles. I’m sure I look funny to her. Just another man, used to thinking of himself as so confident. But really, deep down, afraid to dance.
“Would you like to dance with me?”
“Look,” she said. “I feel safe with you. I don’t think you’re a creep. But don’t give me all your body weight. You’re a big guy.”
I still felt too shy to look her in the eye. That was okay. We went to the centre of the room and sat down, back to back. The bassoon got louder and Karen leaned into me. As she pushed her back into mine I felt a flush of warmth and resolution and friendship.
And I was surprised, in a new way, by how strong she was.
It will soon be a matter of common knowledge that the integrity of globally successful yoga and Buddhism brands founded by charismatic evangelists have been grossly compromised by histories of abuse.
We don’t have to name names: they’ll just come to mind. Fill in the blank of “The ______ yoga community”, and you will likely have named an organization in which the leader and/or his/her key lieutenants have been abusers.
In some cases the relationship seems to express a morbid calculus: the more abusive the leadership, the more successful the organization.
The jury is out on whether abuse prevalence is higher in globalized-Indian-convert-spirituality groups than in other groups. But we can say that in a completely unregulated landscape confounded by idealization and orientalism in which charisma is the primary coin of the realm and consumers have little if any way of assessing the competency of producers — even in matters as tender as their own bodies, psyches, and inner selves — abuse is easy to pull off and devastating in effects.
Understanding how the abuse works systemically is impossible, IMO, without diving into cult studies, which provide a robust framework for how the behaviours, information, thoughts, and emotions of group members are controlled (cf Hassan) through the manipulating strategies and deceive and negate the self (cf. Mann).
When (not if) this analysis becomes normalized, the notion that these brands and their communities “protect” a particular kind of knowledge — a language that’s emboldened by references to “tradition” or “lineage” — will start to ring hollow. It will become clear that the shadow function of the organization has been at least dual. Aside from the good the organization has done, it has used the notion of
- Protecting proprietary/precious information to…
- Protect the image of the abusers said to hold it.
The vehemence of those who protect “purity” seems to rise in direct proportion to their shame.
The pressing question becomes “Who then was doing the protecting?” The answer is that it takes all types, from the goon-enforcer all the way up to the academic who gave the group uncritical validation by overlooking its cultic machine. But here I’d like to focus on the most respectable and popular types, who continued on in their careers after abuses became known, largely without changing tack. Let’s call them the Respectable Bystanders (RBs).
Think about the teacher who is well-respected for conflicting reasons:
- They have a strong relationship to a socially viable brand (i.e., they are “traditional”), but
- They have also tacitly distanced themselves from it (they are “independent”).
They often enjoy privileged status within the group, held up as paragons of virtue, as people who got the “true” message of the teachings, as luminaries who didn’t succumb to the foibles of the corrupt leadership. They were able to “separate the teacher from the teachings”. In public they’ll maintain enough of a relationship to the group to serve as an apparently safer or saner alternative to its darker regions. At the same time the RB will profess just enough ambivalence towards the group to not be dragged down by association.
The RB is not a safe person. They managed to capture the glow from the charismatic halo, bottle it up, and repackage it. They couldn’t have done that while also saying “My teacher was an abuser and together we have to heal his legacy.” And if they spent twenty years or more not speaking out against the abuse of the community in which they went on to attain mentor status, you can bet that they didn’t pay much attention to the power dynamics they themselves were creating.
More importantly, consider whether their mentor status now positions them to “save” the brand with their maturity and guidance. That’s not just cynical on their part. It’s dangerous. Because one thing that RBs generally share with the leaders they hold at arm’s length is a grandiosity that believes their internal goodness constitutes all the learning they need.
Theodora Wildcroft was just here in Toronto beginning her first post-doctoral foray into the mainstream yoga training sphere. Her research generated the concept of “Post-Lineage Yoga”, which does many things, including describing the way in which communities practice after their leadership is compromised by abuse revelations.
Because these revelations are now ubiquitous, and because sources of authority on movement and science and history are now horizontally networked instead bestowed from above, the truth is that we are all post-lineage practitioners now.
This goes for the bystanders and enablers as well, unless somehow they sealed themselves off from all other influences. In the case of the Respectable Bystanders, they didn’t. They diluted their socio-economic links to the abusive leader in part through being open to and sometimes taking on other influences.
Wildcroft is clear that post-lineage doesn’t mean anti-lineage, which is why the term also can describe the RB. What her scholarship has done, however, is to amplify some basic transparency questions that can only improve safety in the shadow of RBs and others:
“Do you know where you stand in relation to X group/method/tradition?” “Are you clear about the conflict between benefit and harm in your heritage?” “What are you doing to help those who were hurt by the system you benefited from?”
There are several friends and colleagues I’d like to thank for helping me crack this part of the code. Ironically, naming them here would make them targets of further harassment. They know who they are.
Summary: Several prominent and combative figures on yoga social media are or have been embedded within yoga cults. This post speculates that by not disclosing these connections, and by blending or obscuring their religious agendas with anti-racist and social justice oriented concerns, these figures free themselves to harass or troll targets with impunity, in ways that preserve familiar cultic behaviours, while avoiding responsibility for their complicity in abusive organizations. Their attacks consistently express paranoia regarding the traditionality of yoga practice, in which authenticity is measured by all-or-nothing, black-and-white litmus tests for religious and ethnic purity. This paranoia combines the absolutisms of religious purity and performative wokeness, but conceals the absolutism of cultic control. It helps explain why these figures rarely if ever criticize the rising tide of Hindu nationalism and its implications for global yoga culture, and why they consistently fail to criticize malignant power structures in yoga groups. Their attacks on the “inauthenticity” of others may also be a way in which they project and act out a displaced shame over the abuses and charlatanry of their own communities, none of which are “traditional” in this globalized era.
Who Are All These Nasty Yoga People?
For about the last five years, the questions have been gnawing.
Who are all these nasty yoga people? What motivates them to harass others online?
In some ways they present diverse and even competing interests. But their basic behaviour and go-to themes glue them together. So does, I believe, a shared demographic trait: many are current or former yoga cult people, continuing their culty behaviours under the cover of spiritual integrity, and, more recently, social justice.
On the face of it, these are folks who claim special authority over the history and spirituality of Yoga (note the capital Y) which they define in terms that are equal parts simplistic, mystifying, and exclusionary. Their voices gather in comment threads, often calling each other in with long strings of tags. They gang-roll through Facebook groups, mocking and abusing seemingly anybody for a range of sins against Yoga: insufficient piety, a fixation on the body or the material world, blind participation in commodification, being too American, too millennial, too “postmodern”, failing to recognize a particular philosophical position as forever correct, or harbouring an egotistical refusal to surrender to a “qualified” teacher or some vaguely-described Absolute Truth.
They would predictably challenge their targets on their training, always implying it is inadequate. They’re really, really fixated on this point: “Who’s your teacher? Who’s your teacher?”
When this was thrown at me — “Look, look! He doesn’t have a teacher!” — it put me back on my heels. The truth was that my core experiences with teachers had been distorted by cult dynamics. I had both learned in and been abused by cultic organizations. I was ashamed of that tangled history, and I didn’t know how to talk about it. Until I came out as a cult survivor, and fully reflected that in my full bio, I didn’t know how to respond to an accusation that was accurate in one sense, but victim-blaming in another.
Being on the defensive distracted me from something crucial. While harassing me for my lack of education, the troll would usually speak as though they were a Faithful Student of Somebody. But they would never name that Somebody. This was a red flag, and I missed it.
As time wore on and I started to numb out to the personal sting of these exchanges, it became apparent that this wasn’t just random nastiness. I could begin to predict who would be ganged up on. Favourite targets included yoga scholars studying the innovations and globalization of “Modern Postural Yoga”, non-Indian professional Sanskritists who do not translate yoga texts as an act of religious devotion but as a service to history, women asana teachers who became critical of the anatomical naïveté of early 20th century asana teachers and developed smarter ways of moving — and goals for movement, like functionality and strength. If those women also criticized the abusive pedagogy of some of those early Indian teachers, they were doubly hounded.
What all targets share in common is not their beliefs, content, or commitments, but their methods and sources of validation, which are networked, peer-reviewed, and interdisciplinary. Of course, if you happened to be the scholar who stood back and collated immense amounts of data in order to describe this mode of horizontalized authority as “Post-Lineage”, well, you were also in big trouble. Because you would be rightly seen as legitimizing all this creativity and free-thinking as a real social phenomenon worthy of study.
Finally, extra vitriol was spewed all over those who worked for, appreciated, or were merely ambivalent towards Yoga Alliance. This went way beyond all of the reasonable criticisms — that the organization has been ineffective, sloppy, marred by mediocre leadership, etc. The trolls turned the Yoga Alliance employee or sympathizer into Public Yoga Enemy #1. I now suspect that this too was about vertical vs. horizontal authority. Here was non-profit actually taking steps to crowd-source ways of making yoga safer and yoga schools more accountable. Yoga Alliance is attempting to democratize an industry so far built upon charismatic pyramid schemes. It’s calling for greater oversight and higher educational standards. What kind of a person, belonging to what kind of group, doesn’t want that?
Trolling from the Left
If you have experience with spotting religious fundamentalism, such attacks might be easy to counter with something direct, like: “Wow, it looks like you brought your hereditary authoritarianism to the mat with you. Didn’t we all come here to get away from that stuff?” For yoga people committed to liberal democracy and education, it’s easy to brush off evangelical trolling.
But what happens when the trolling comes from the left, and weaponizes the language of wokeness?
That’s what started to happen a year or two into all of this. Suddenly, it seemed, the theological arguments about the One True Path You Are Obviously Not On So Too Bad Loser began to merge with the language of anti-racism, decolonization, and social justice. The posturing and aggression was eerily familiar, but the content had changed in such a way that seemed at first to be legitimate, and even irrefutable.
Who would argue, after all, that cultural appropriation was not a thing? That global yoga does not emerge from and carry with it the trauma and inequalities of post-colonial economies? That Indian culture has not been objectified and commodified for export to allow the Global North to feel spiritual about conspicuous consumption? That Desi folks in the global diaspora don’t often feel excluded from yoga spaces? That everyone who benefits from yoga, especially according to their privilege, is responsible for engaging these issues?
This shift in focus was complicated by its diversity of sources. There are many South Asian writers who present the necessity for decolonization in a compelling and solution-based manner. (I’ve linked them elsewhere but will not here, because they will be harassed if I do. Yes, that’s already starting.) Their arguments are tight and their activism empathetic. So when trolls started link-dumping these excellent think-pieces into harassment threads, they gained new social and intellectual power. In a sense, they appropriated the discourse of cultural appropriation to bolster an already-held posture of moral and spiritual superiority.
Bizarrely, this new tactic began to attract other followers, whose main commitments were in fact oriented towards social justice and anti-colonialism. This strange romance between theological purity and political progressivism led to some very strange bedfellows. Like self-identified feminist/woke yoga scholars aiding and abetting Hindu nationalists, for example.
For me, sorting out the real from the manipulative — and the manipulated — in the cultural appropriation debate has pivoted on a single puzzle: who are all these white people who have taken up the issue like a crusade? Given the often-apolitical zeitgeist of the modern yoga movement, could they truly be allies? Did they have sudden conversions to political wokeness, or are they just doing white guilt sun salutations? Why do so many have Sanskritized names? Where are they coming from? Why are they so rarely self-reflective in relation to their own privilege? Do they have any actual history and training in anti-oppression movements, or has their Yoga made them an expert in everything?
It’s going to take someone years of quiet, incognito fieldwork to answer these questions. The absence of hard data leaves a gut feeling that all is not as it seems.
It’s well-established that the oxygen of all cultic mechanisms is deception. An abuser, dominator, or high-demand group deceives the public and its members about its purpose and methods. The falsehood might look progressive, virtuous, on the right side of history, and spiritually liberating. Both leaders and members can truly believe it. The falsehood can appeal to their deepest values and motivate their unique passions and skills. That’s what the falsehood wants: to co-opt and redirect passion and skill.
Online Cultism vs. IRL Cults
Before I get too far down this road, I want to be clear: a group of online yoga trolls do not constitute a cult in any clinical sense.
As a group, they can indeed present many cultic behaviours: black-and-white thinking, circular logic, a fetish for jargon, leader/follower pathologies, and disorganized attachments that oscillate between attacking and fawning. They can definitely cause material harm to their targets. In my case, my heath was negatively impacted and I lost at least one YTT job because my employer was trolled for planning to host me. That’s nothing, of course. In more extreme online environments, like in the gaming world, women are doxxed and sent death threats for merely pointing out misogyny.
But the online yoga troll landscape has far less cohesion than the IRL yoga cult. Allegiances are fleeting and made fragile through competition, because the trolls are also using these spaces to advertise their brands. There’s huge and fast turnover of eyeballs, coming out of a seemingly limitless supply of social media users. Online trolling groups may control language, thought, and information, but crucially, there are no strong group behavioural controls, such as are deployable in ashrams. When push comes to shove, the bonds between online yoga trolls are easily frayed. Participants can disappear at any time, and no-one asks after them. With the exception of one malignant dyad, I’ve often wondered whether there are any IRL relationships between them that have become stable. Most of them haven’t met each other.
So we are talking about a herd phenomenon that wouldn’t happen outside of social media. But the herd is rag-tag, and the environment and technology are profoundly isolating. We know from the crash of Bentinho Massaro that web-based cults are fragile, whereas Narcis Tarcau can survive being outed as a rapist in the international media and be back at work in a few months, because he has IRL capital assets maintained by IRL people, sequestered in Thailand.
This brings me back to considering the individuals involved. Like the ones I referenced above who talk about having sacred teachers, but never name them. Who are they, as individuals? Where do they come from?
What I’ll propose here is speculative, because I don’t know any of these people personally. I’m offering a reflection on some prominent clues that are beginning to form a pattern. I’m writing here out of my experiential understanding of cult mechanisms. Some say that this is a narrow and obsessive lens for me. I own that, and want to be clear that what I’m proposing is by no means complete, and only one lens of many. I hope as well that by speaking from personal experience I can encourage empathy.
Here’s the thing: off the top of my head I can think of at least ten highly active yoga enforcers who are or have been connected with or committed to high-demand yoga groups.
I’m not going to name names, because my point isn’t to shame but to inform. By not naming names, however, I do risk the perception of a form of McCarthyism, creating the impression that cult people are all around us. To this I’d answer: Chill out, everyone. If you’re in the yoga world, cult people are all around you. It’s no great aberration, but rather the natural outcome of an industry that in the absence of regulation has built itself up through networks of charisma. There’s no shame in it: it’s just something we have to understand better.
Whoever you imagine is being profiled in the following list shares traits with many others. The particular details don’t matter. What matters is whether a person harasses or bullies you, whether they’re telling you the truth about their commitments and values, whether they are manipulating your sense of justice in order to exercise their control issues.
- A devotee of Amma, who, when privately asked about Amma’s politics and alleged abuses, tries to distance themselves from her. But in public, the devotee enforces a yoga purity narrative that they legitimize, in part, by their devotionalism.
- A person who spends a lot of time policing yoga authenticity and waxing poetic about the perfection of indigenous knowledge while rarely if ever discussing the fact that they followed and propped up the pseudo-Tantric cult leader named “Dharma Bodhi” (look up “Kol Martens”) for years. This sojourn isn’t listed in their bio.
- A devotee of Gurumayi Chidvalisananda (Malti Shetty) of SYDA, founded by the sexual predator Muktananda. When working as his translator, Shetty allegedly helped procure women for Muktananda to assault while he was alive, and has gilded the turd of his legacy after his death. This devotee really likes to police the traditional-ness of even their close peers. In their bio for their yoga business, they claim authority through a “spiritual teacher”, but they don’t name Gurumayi.
- A whole yoga festival was derailed by members of a yoga-and-MLM cult who deployed an anti-racism argument to amplify their outrage that their leader had her speech clumsily shortened and wasn’t sufficiently lauded as a mystic saint. They attacked the organizer without mercy for months.
- An activist who implies they were empowered by Swami Dayananda to express the one holy truth of everything, but if you ask them about their relationship to Swami, or his connections to Hindu nationalism, or how those connections are incoherent with their own social justice values, they go ballistic and turn it back on your own alleged lack of education.
- A bullying tag team who back up their “devotion” to protecting “tradition” in part through their allegiance to a student of a student of Pattabhi Jois.
- A gaggle of White Hindus who are clearly keyboard warrior-ing from the mess halls of American ashrams. They’ll never tell you where they’re from. They demand to see and judge everyone’s yoga credentials from the great beyond of jargon. Their brand of authenticity has nothing to do with personal disclosure and everything to do with litigating their faith and who can practice it.
This is not a cult. It’s a parade of people with cult issues who may be metabolizing the stress of their group experiences by finding each other, endorsing each other’s frustration, and rallying against a common enemy: anyone who’s moderately successful in the yoga world, and who shows they are free from authoritarian commitments.
Social Justice as Cover
Adopting the language of anti-colonialism and anti-racism might have earnest roots for some or all of these people. It might be baked into their lived experience as Desi women and men. And it might actually do real educational good in some cases. But I also believe it might be serving them personally within a broad range of unhealed cultic wounds:
- If they are current group members, it may serve them in the public sphere by creating an attractive and unimpeachable front for their real commitments. This involves hedging bets on whether the social capital of wokeness will surpass the social capital of being a spiritual devotee.
- If they are on the brink of leaving, it may serve them by allowing them to selectively promote the (apparently) more socially relevant content of their experience, while ignoring abuses or downplaying those parts with which they have become secretly disenchanted.
- Finally, it may serve the ex-cult member who hasn’t been to therapy or had the benefit of anti-cult resources by allowing them to release an exhilarating self-righteous revenge in all directions except that which points back to the leader or their enablers.
The language of wokeness can easily be used in the same all-or-nothing, proselytize-and-punish way that characterizes cult language. It can express absolute values that energetically dovetail with a pre-existing authoritarianism, which itself has often been bolstered by an absolutist ideology of Oneness.
The best analysis of the intersection between “Oneness” doctrines (of which yoga trolls are very fond) and authoritarianism is Alstad and Kramer’s classic book, The Guru Papers. But the very title of this now decades-old text throws gas on a particular fire where all of this complexity coalesces:
The trolls listed above consistently complain about the implicit racism of criticizing “gurus”. The guru-shishya paradigm is indigenous and traditional, they say, and essential to the preservation and transmission of yoga lineages. They are correct. But can contemporary international-celebrity charismatics be “gurus” in any traditional or premodern sense? Because I doubt this possibility, I’ve stopped using the word to describe figures like Jois, Gurumayi, Amma, Yogi Bhajan, Muktananda, etc. In terms of ethics and the outsize scale of their operations, they’re not worthy of the term.
What “guru” experience do these trolls actually have? If it’s with any of the leaders above, they are not defending “tradition” by arguing over the correct usage of the word. They are defending an authoritarian power structure they associate with safety. They are defending the way in which their leaders have propagandized themselves. They are defending their own postcolonial distortion. This is tragic, because they are likely victims of it too.
They also might be in mourning for an ideal: a protective, nurturing, intimate relationship with someone who could rightfully be called “guru”. Is such a thing possible? Anything’s possible. If it exists, it should be verifiable in some way other than in dubious claims about a students’ attainments. The least we should ask for is an absence of abuse allegations. As it turns out, this is a tall order in the yoga world, whether we’re talking about Rochester, Rome, or Rishikesh.
For cultists-cum-activists, running woke software through the old cult hardware might preserve those familiar warm feelings of self-certainty that cult participation promises, briefly delivers, and then withholds.
At the same time, it allows them to conceal the shameful source of that certainty. There’s a reason so few of these people are transparent about their teachers, even as they demand transparency from everyone else. If they are current devotees, they may feel that the abuse allegations against their leaders are a conspiracy against truth and love, but choose to maintain enough pragmatism to know that flaunting their membership carries social risk. If they are ex devotees, they might be ashamed of who they loved, and of how they harmed others with that love.
In the borderland between present doubt and past regret, generating a sense of certainty can be super-important for the cult-wounded. What else do they have, after all? Often, there are no relationships they can trust. Often they are alienated from family. If their primary commitments are religious instead of political, they might feel self-conscious and exposed in secular activist spaces.
They’ve bet everything on a leader or organization. What happens if the cracks begin to show? At least they have the “dharma”. And they have to make it work, until it can’t. And they might be enraged at anyone who doesn’t share their burden, their sacrifice for the Holy Truth.
Now: imagine that they’ve secretly gotten to the point of despair in relation to the organization or the leader. At the same time, they can’t imagine themselves leaving. Who then would be more loathsome to them than the yoga person who has no high-demand commitments, who seems to have taught themselves, who seems to be happy?
Might this be close to the root of the hatred slung at the white yoga women who they troll mercilessly? That they seem to be happy? That they’re oblivious to the pain of searching for, suffering for, and holding onto Eternal Truth? That in their sometimes goofy, consumerist, postmodern, eclectic way, they’re happy with those postures, that breathing, that mindfulness? That they are not compelled to love an abuser?
Yes, the stereotyped white yoga woman can embody privilege and all of the Stepford violence of white heteropatriarchy. But insofar as she has no authoritarian teacher nor belongs to any totalist group, she can also embody a type of secular freedom. In some ways, she’s figured it out on her own. And there’s nothing the cultist craves or fears or hates more than a person with agency.
In case it’s not clear: it totally sucks to be in a cult, or to carry unresolved cultic wounds. The harassment and manipulation presented by certain trolls comes, I’m convinced, from a combination of training and trauma. My advice is to be kind with these folks, but also boundaried.
And first: do a quick search to inform yourself. If someone you’ve never met, and who seems like a super-devout yoga person on their home page, starts attacking your integrity or education with language that’s full of jargon and blends theological demands with social justice platitudes — look them up. If they immediately launch into ad-hominem attacks, change subjects abruptly, or deflect every issue back onto you — look them up. If they seem to be energy vampires — look them up.
See what they say about themselves. If they’re showing an obsession with your background when you’re just trying to chat about something, look into their background. If they make mysterious reference to an unnamed Teacher, let your eyebrows rise. If you ask about who that teacher is and they give a weird or defensive answer, that’s a red flag.
If you find out that they’re a devotee of Amma, try to see if they’ve issued an accountability statement in response to Gail Tredwell’s book.
If you find out that they’re a devotee of Gurumayi, try to see if they’ve issued an accountability statement in relation to documented abuses and enabling at SYDA.
And so on. You get the picture.
After a few minutes of research, you might find yourself blurting out things like:
“Hey — are you really schooling me on authenticity when you’re devoted to an abusive cult leader who’s hiding out in upstate New York?”
“Are we really going to compete in the Wokeness Olympics when you’re prostrating yourself in front of rapist?”
Or maybe something a little more give-and-take, like:
“Sure, I’ll talk with you about my implicit biases and ignorance of social justice and decolonization issues. But first, can you explain to me what you’ve done to take action to repair the harm that the cult you’re in has caused?”
Saying such things out loud, however, might drive the person further into their rationalized self. It’s really hard to know what to do with these folks. In defence of my physical and mental health, my policy is to block.
However you do it, the outcome should be that you don’t feel the need to be schooled by people with grossly conflicted personal agendas. There are plenty of people who do justice work because that’s their real commitment and training. You can learn from them.
Bottom line: if a person’s activism is truly intersectional, they will have examined it and purged it of all cultic violence. If they haven’t, wish them well in your heart if you can, and avoid them.
I just had the pleasure of answering some interview questions posed by an old friend about the health care needs of ex-cult members.
Such a great topic. I talked about digestive issues and depression and how reading Harry Potter to my five year-old has helped me recover from the abject disenchantment of spiritual abuse.
It also made me remember a few other things, or see them slightly differently.
I came to yoga after my cult years (1996-2003), and quickly began to professionalize into it. It made sense: I hadn’t finished college, had travelled too much, didn’t feel settled or productive, wanted and needed to connect with people and show value, etc. Part of what worked about that is that it offered an alternative/unconventional pathway towards a job in which I wouldn’t have to answer for the lost years.
(As an aside: all this anxiety around yoga teacher’s education and “authenticity” is IMO heavily wrapped up not only in the fact that nobody’s in charge, but in the biographical havoc and shame that high-demand groups wreck on people’s lives. My gut says that most of those who accuse me and others of not having proper teachers — and therefore nothing worthwhile to say — are either covering up or spiritualizing their own cult abuse stories.)
The other part that worked was that both the practice and its professionalization seemed to grant a sense of agency and maybe even autonomy. Yoga culture wasn’t a cult, or at least I hadn’t run into specific yoga cults, yet. As a recovery zone, it seemed as wide-open as any new economy. Studios were opening with DIY pluck on the leading edge of gentrification, alongside art/design shops and digital marketing startups. There was a sense that the world was wide open and everything was material to excavate, and that the basic premises of psychosomatic exploration would yield private but shareable wealth.
I now understand this was a late crest on the Human Potential Movement wave, which began to roll in 70s. And I suspect that the neoliberalism that these movements both fronted for and concealed managed to capitalize on whole swaths of people who felt the need to escape systems of control. Yoga really did become the religion of neoliberalism, not just because it was commodified as the sign of freedom and spiritualized flexibility in relation to the precariat, but because it really did embody freedom for people leaving abusive constellations. In many cases, it made only bodily demands upon devotees. It felt “grounded” that way.
In my specific case, the post-cult need for autonomy, playing out in the yoga zone, meant that I had no instinct nor education towards the protection of indigenous sources or modes of learning. The basics of cultural appropriation — detach, reframe, commodify — were built into the globalizing economy, but also intersected with a personal need to have something of my own following years of being manipulated.
I now see what I was using and why and am doing my best to realize my own sense of unreality did not give me permission to plant a flag over real things from real places. Travel there, yes. Dialogue with, yes. Live “your yoga” as though you were the center of the universe, detached from global injustice and inequality? No.
My education in and fascination with Ayurveda allowed me similar leeway. A premodern self-care regime based on intuitive poetry gave me a sense of autonomy over a body that cults had taught me was disgusting or unreal. But it also protected me from the scrutiny of diagnostic medicine, which I subconsciously feared would force me to ask hard questions about whether in fact I needed more professional help.
I survived depressive episodes without self-harming, but I’m very concerned that the self-reliance expressed through these practices — itself a trauma-related response — can at times go too far, convincing people that the vata will eventually calm down with a little more sesame oil, or that everything will improve when Jupiter enters Aquarius, so long as you’re attuned to it and have merited the blessings of the transit, etc. People can really jeopardize themselves through shaky mechanisms of self-reliance, which aren’t really self-reliant at all if they rely on mystification.
When the yoga world showed its cultic ass to me, I really didn’t want to believe it. I really didn’t want to see what I saw on that video of Jois, or hear what I heard from students of Iyengar or Choudhury. I went so far as to shut down my friend Diane’s story of Jois’s assaults. More on that in the upcoming book.
Yoga was a zone of freedom, I insisted, and if people didn’t find it there, that was on them.
Oh yes, I really thought that, and not just from my layers of privilege, but from the perspective of not having digested the shame of having been in cults.
My response was out-of-phase. I was hearing cult abuse stories in my zone of cult recovery. I was angry about the contamination. But I got over it.
So now I’m wondering how much of the blowback that yoga cult victims get is not just generated by the cults themselves, but by the more general belief and marketing that yoga was the zone so many of us went to for agency — and, in lock step with neoliberalism, we had to believe in it to feel functional or even survive.
As a specialized subgroup, we yoga people were indoctrinated to blame the victim. We were under the illusion that we had autonomy, and that our healing could come from within ourselves alone.
What a joy that it does not.
1. A Personal Cult Memory
1. John of God is deluded:
2. John of God isn’t a big deal:
3. Let’s get John of God to come to Wisconsin so we can have a healing summit!
Blink. Blink. Blink.
2. Portraits in the Omega Institute Faculty Dining Room
This past fall I got to spend a great week with folks from the Yoga Service Council on a writing retreat at Omega. Omega donated the space. One of our breakout groups was allowed to use the faculty dining room, just off the main hall. This is where all Omega presenters come to eat, away from the crowds.
The walls of the room were lined with portraits of famous past guests. Like if you went to House of Blues and all the musicians are up there, holding silent court.
I took a video tour of the room. The lede photo above is a screenshot. Aside from Philip Glass in the top left, counterclockwise from the bottom left, we have:
John of God
What kind of a place, what kind of a generation stitches these figures together with some pretence of coherence?
There’s Steinem, hemmed in between two men. John of God sells snake oil and assaults women, and Tolle mumbles dissociative word salad to cool a burning world.
All three have been at Omega. All three have appeared on Oprah.
Under the assumption that they share something in common, these men are elevated on either side of the feminist activist who actually got shit done.
I had this conflicting impulse to either take Steinem’s picture out of there, or take the other ones down. Who really deserves to be there?
Who will tell us what this part of the Left’s history means? How activism was kneecapped by and equated with self-obsession on the workshop circuit?
Who will show how John of God has been valued at places like Omega because, in part, he posed an alternative to the medical realism so essential to things like the reproductive rights movement? Or because he represented an acceptable, “shamanic” version of how to dominate (mostly women’s) bodies with charisma?
Who will study how Tolle has been valued at Omega because he let people off the hook of agitating for structural change, by telling people that conflict is all story in their minds?
When I think about the fractured Left, I keep thinking about this room, this photo gallery, as incoherent as a family’s. John milking charisma with that smile. Eckhart perpetually out-of-focus. Gloria, beaming fullness and generous agency.
I try to feel better about the world because at least I’m eating a vegetarian meal, and the folks at the table next to me are working on their chakras.
And when the sarcasm subsides I look out the window and know that the woods are still dark and deep.
Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Minimizes Clerical and Institutional Abuse in Christmas Message to Rigpa Students
On January 3rd, Rigpa International members received a letter from Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, dated December 25th. It was emailed by Rigpa’s “Vision Board”. The Vision Board is the advisory committee now directing the global neo-Buddhist organization after the resignation of Sogyal Lakar in August, 2017.
In July of 2017, Lakar was accused of decades of physical, sexual, emotional and financial abuse in a now-famous letter written by eight former devotees. Lakar has not denied any of the allegations. After Lakar stepped down, Rigpa International commissioned an independent investigation that found the allegations to be credible and advised that Lakar be barred from all contact with Rigpa students.
The Christmas letter by Khyentse Norbu (Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse) minimizes the allegations against Lakar and suggests that critics of how Rigpa has handled the crisis are personally dissatisfied, are thirsting “for Rigpa’s ultimate destruction”, and intent on discrediting Buddhism in general.
Norbu was appointed as an advisor to the Vision Board after more than a year of vigorously supporting Lakar following the publication of the allegations. A month after the letter from “The Eight”, Norbu posted an essay in support of Lakar and Rigpa management. It was shared over a thousand times on Facebook. The essay, which Norbu insists must be read in its ten-thousand-word-entirety to fully grasp its wisdom, was lauded by his students around the world as a nuanced defence of the version of Tantric Buddhism proffered by Lakar and himself. In it, he criticized the letter-writers for their lack of spiritual maturity and loyalty.
“Frankly,” he wrote,
for a student of Sogyal Rinpoche who has consciously received abhisheka and therefore entered or stepped onto the Vajrayana path, to think of labelling Sogyal Rinpoche’s actions as ‘abusive,’ or to criticize a Vajrayana master even privately, let alone publicly and in print, or simply to reveal that such methods exist, is a breakage of samaya.1)“Abhisheka” indicates a Tantric initiation that binds the student to the teacher through a strict code of allegiance called “samaya”. Consequences of breaking samaya include rebirth in torturous realms.
In October, Norbu went further, and mocked the victims of Lakar, and all other victims of clerical sexual abuse. In a post he has since tried to delete, he presented a sixteen-page spoof contract produced by “Bender and Boner Lawyers” designed to ensure Rinpoches like himself “who desire to save all sentient beings yet also wish to have fulfilling sex lives” can do so with their students.
Lama Tsultrim Allione denounced the post.
Norbu’s Christmas letter, reprinted below, characterizes the allegations of criminal wrongdoing against Lakar as administrative faux-pas:
“Sogyal Rinpoche appears,” Norbu writes, “to have mishandled, mismanaged and misread a number of events.”
The letter also conflates criticism of Rigpa’s handling of the abuse crisis with criticism of Buddhism in general, while suggesting that those who think critically about Lakar or Rigpa are somehow not discerning practitioners.
“I can’t help but feel frustrated,” Norbu writes, “when I hear that Buddhadharma is being labelled a ‘cult’. Perhaps more than any other world religion, Buddhadharma actively encourages its followers to apply critical thinking to everything it teaches.”
Norbu also offers high praise for those “Western” Rigpa students who are maintaining their loyalty.
His compassion for international students, however, remains selective.
More than a year after posting his satirical sex contract, he posted the following 4chan-flavoured troll video targeting his critics, complete with Tibetan throat-chanting in the background.
Text of Letter
Letter from Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche to the Rigpa Sangha
Dear Followers of the Rigpa Mandala, who have taken Guru Padmasambhava as their refuge in this life, the next life and the bardo states.2)Guru Padmasambhava is said to have brought Buddhism to Tibet from India in the 8th century. His archetypal legend, which involves civilizing a hostile climate and subduing local demons, is a favourite amongst Tibetan evangelists today. The “bardo” refers to the liminal realm inhabited by beings after death and before rebirth.
I write to you with a heart full of warmth and jubilation. There is no need for us to dwell on the rough and precarious road that the Rigpa Sangha has been traveling recently, but I must confess that for a while I wondered if you would manage to stick together. Now I realize that my doubts were the symptom of a kind of cultural conditioning that made me skeptical about whether westerners are even capable of grasping the Dharma, let alone that you possess the resilience and persistence to continue to follow the spiritual path in the face of such turmoil.
Make no mistake, we are in a very difficult situation. History has shown us that when faced with similar crises – both in the East and the West – whole Sanghas, lineages and institutions have became demoralized and discouraged. Some became so disheartened that they now no longer exist.
For many reasons – some known, some unknown – Sogyal Rinpoche appears to have mishandled, mismanaged and misread a number of events. This is why we find ourselves in the current situation. Yet, from what I hear, far from falling apart, the Rigpa Sangha is alive and well. Not only do you continue to function as an organization, but you still practise together and, in spite of all the uncertainty, you have maintained the continuity. How have you managed it? As I contemplate this question, I always remember one very important aspect of Rigpa: that Sogyal Rinpoche introduced an enormous number of people to a great and authentic lineage of teachings and to some of the most remarkable, learned and realized teachers of our time. You then thought about and contemplated everything you were taught and, as a result, have realized that there is much more to Buddhism in general and the Vajrayana in particular, than just one person. So the contemplation, study and all those introductions have borne fruit, and will continue to bear fruit long into the future.
Never forget that ours is a path that not only cherishes but also strongly encourages its followers to prepare themselves through ‘hearing and contemplation’ before they engage in any of the practices. The path of the Vajrayana is no exception. I can’t help but feel frustrated when I hear that Buddhadharma is being labelled a ‘cult’. Perhaps more than any other world religion, Buddhadharma actively encourages its followers to apply critical thinking to everything it teaches. By hearing, contemplating and analysing the Dharma, we develop an unshakable trust and devotion for the path. This must be what the Rigpa Sangha must have done because all over the world, despite of a roller-coaster eighteen months, you continue to gather together on the 10th day for the Guru Rinpoche tsok, the 25th day for the Dakini tsok, and for daily Riwo Sangchö, Tendrel Nyesel and Vajrakilaya practices. This suggests that somewhere along the way, you must have realized that the Buddhadharma is not just the Vajrayana and that the Vajrayana is not just a person called Sogyal Rinpoche. You must also have realized how much wisdom there is in the Buddhadharma and how many skilful means it offers to help both oneself and others. This is how you, as a Sangha, have kept the spirit of Rigpa alive. It is also why Rigpa hasn’t fallen apart. And for me, if this is not confirmation that the Dharma has taken root in the West, that firm foundations have been laid and that the Dharma in general, and especially the Vajrayana, are now sprouting shoots, I don’t know what is.
At the same time, I know that many of you are confused, disappointed, even desperate and depressed. And who wouldn’t be in such a situation? What’s impressive, though, is that however wretched you feel, you have all remained devoted to the path of Shakyamuni Buddha.
When any system is transplanted to a new place and culture – political, commercial, educational or religious – it often faces innumerable difficulties and challenges for a very long time before it can be said to be firmly established. This is doubly true for the sacred path of the Dharma. No one ever said that following a spiritual path was going to be easy! The teachings are full of information about potential obstacles that will continually test a practitioner’s character, especially in the Vajrayana.
At this point, I would like to encourage all of you to continue to listen to and contemplate the Buddhadharma. In fact, I would like to request that you never stop listening to and contemplating the Dharma, particularly the Vajrayana, because by doing so, you will come to realize that it is utterly flawless. The more you listen and contemplate with an open mind, the more confident you will become about the path. As your confidence in the path and its result increases, even surrendering to a guru and following the path of the guru will become the exact opposite of precarious! In other words, what had seemed to be a risky path will instead be safe and secure.
Most of the Rigpa Sangha are practitioners of the Vajrayana, so undoubtedly, you will have taken the bodhisattva vow. As followers of the bodhisattvayana path, you know that your path is the path of long-term planning – in this case, your plan or aspiration is to enlighten all sentient beings. You also know that bodhisattvas mean what they say, so this aspiration is not just some kind of a feel-good fantasy. And having taken the bodhisattva vow, you know that the big vision of the bodhisattva path is to propagate, preserve and introduce the Buddhadharma to all those who have a karmic connection with it.
Rigpa has been a very effective vehicle for Buddhadharma. Through Rigpa, a great many people have been introduced to the Dharma. You should continue this activity. Never imagine that the propagation and preservation of the Dharma is the job of just one person. I have always considered Rigpa to be very important in terms of upholding, preserving and introducing the Dharma to the western world. I still see it that way, now more than ever. Each and every Rigpa student should bear this in mind. Of course, I don’t mean that you should all take on teaching roles! Rather that Rigpa’s network of Dharma centres around the world should continue to provide everything students and practitioners need to study and practice the Dharma, including a good teaching programme through which those who are interested can meet authentic Dharma teachers. Basically, that Rigpa continues to provide a vessel that creates the causes and conditions through which the Dharma is upheld, preserved and introduced for the benefit of all, now and for years to come. This activity is so important and it also sends out all the right signals.
Yes, Rigpa’s image has been tarnished over the past year or so. But for decades many of Rigpa’s activities earned it a good and wholesome reputation. Rigpa’s positive, beneficial contributions to the Dharma far outweigh the bad, so it would be silly to dwell on the difficulties. Instead, we must look at what we can learn from this situation, correct the misunderstandings and errors, and make Rigpa even better. This is what the bodhisattvayana path is all about. Bodhisattvas of the past have gone to extraordinary lengths to help sentient beings – some crossed oceans of fire and others willingly leapt into the hell realms in order to preserve the Dharma and for the sake of helping others. In the light of such heroism and valour, will we allow ourselves to be daunted by a few avoidable obstacles that are entirely transformable?
Many of you have taken the Vajrayana to heart. And despite everything that has happened, many of you also continue to feel an unwavering devotion for your master, Sogyal Rinpoche. This is your choice. If you choose to follow the Vajrayana path of your own free will, sensibly, soberly and with the utmost devotion – basically, if you know exactly what you are doing – all I can say is that I rejoice at your decision and am full of admiration for you. Other people may criticize your devotion for Sogyal Rinpoche, but their approval of your path is far less important than your decision to follow it.
There have been, are, and always will be people whose sense of personal dissatisfaction leads them to oppose, slander and, I dare say, even thirst for Rigpa’s ultimate destruction. Instead of wishing such people ill, we must always remember that we are followers of the Buddha. We must therefore feel compassion for all those who stand against us and try to understand the cause of their pain – especially if they were once our Dharma brothers and sisters. Try to embrace them with compassion and pure perception. And rest assured, if their pursuit of the Dharma is genuine, sooner or later they will see the truth and find a path back.
Yours in Devotion to Guru Padmasambhava,
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche
25 December 2018
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||“Abhisheka” indicates a Tantric initiation that binds the student to the teacher through a strict code of allegiance called “samaya”. Consequences of breaking samaya include rebirth in torturous realms.|
|2.||↑||Guru Padmasambhava is said to have brought Buddhism to Tibet from India in the 8th century. His archetypal legend, which involves civilizing a hostile climate and subduing local demons, is a favourite amongst Tibetan evangelists today. The “bardo” refers to the liminal realm inhabited by beings after death and before rebirth.|
J Brown’s 11/26 podcast with Karen Rain generated a lot of comments.
The response has been split, owing to the tension of the second part (from 1:25:00 onwards). This is the segment in which Karen and J have a followup conversation, which was scheduled after Karen sent an email to J about some misgivings she had about the first segment, and wanted to give him feedback about how he’d handled the Ashtanga abuse story generally. To his good credit, he accepted.
You should listen yourself, but Karen’s main objective was to show that in his guest schedule and interviewing style J has shown some of the common biases that helped suppress the abuse revelations and discouraged Jois’s victims from reporting. She doesn’t suggest he’s done this intentionally, and not in any active, overtly victim-blaming way to be ashamed of, but certainly in ways he might look at and work on.
Three key points Karen made were that
- J only really asked Kino MacGregor tough questions about Jois’s assaults, while lobbing softballs at Danny Paradise and Richard Freeman (who both admitted to knowing about the abuses, whereas MacGregor didn’t);
- J made an off-record agreement with Eddie Stern to not ask about the issue, even after Anneke Lucas had been on the podcast and disclosed she’d been assaulted during an event hosted by Stern; and that
- It was potentially hurtful to uncritically present the complaints of Ashtanga practitioners who now feel embarrassed or ashamed to identify as such, as though they’re the new victims.
On the podcast, J listened to all of Karen’s feedback pretty well, offered some explanations, some mildly prickly defences, and committed to looking more closely at the responsibilities of his role. As you’d expect, there were a few tense moments.
As of this writing, there are appreciative comments on the podcast page, neutral comments (“I can see both sides”), but also comments that range from mildly to strongly critical of Karen’s audacity in even bringing up these problems.
The critical comments orbit around three key feelings: that Karen is angry, that she is unfairly grilling J without knowing his style or the history of the podcast, and that J doesn’t deserve to be in the firing line because he’s just learning like everyone else. I have four thoughts on the critical comments.
It’s remarkable to see how intolerable it is for some to have the basic power structure of an interview overturned. Listeners got to spend more than an hour soaking up the disclosures and emotional labour of Karen, who has repeatedly described how hard it is to talk about and relive the personal and institutional abuse. But as soon as she adopts a different voice — a voice that does not confess but that asks for accountability around how that labour is used — that voice is described as “awful”, “angry”, “defensive”, “attacking”. One commentator maligned her changed “tone” in the second part, when what’s obvious is that the only thing that shifted between two parts of the podcast was her position, and the fact that making declarative rather than confessional statements meant that she was more likely to be interrupted, and would have less patience for it. The critics seem to like Karen as a victim, but not as an activist.
Critics of Karen seem to misunderstand the value proposition of the podcast format. J is skilled at yoga-fying digital platforms, networking and having his finger on hot-button yoga culture issues. But it’s the guest, the content provider, that brings the money. In Karen’s case, the play and share numbers will be through the roof. On iTunes this episode has already surpassed MacGregor’s in popularity (and my meta-review here will boost it some more). J’s podcast and brand benefits from having Karen on. So what should that cost him, as it supports the rest of his international platform? Looking in the mirror: what should it cost me to investigate stories like Karen’s? Answering tough questions about power and narrative — for which we are all responsible — is very small price for media producers like us to pay. We’re not doing Karen a favour by taking feedback. We’re undoing harm, which is something we should want to do, grateful for the incredible education.
Critics are missing something crucial in the fact that J’s podcast is small enough that he can personally choose to take a “risk” here, yet large enough that it will have broad impact. That’s powerful. How many times have you seen Yoga Journal take responsibility for platforming abusers? Jubilee Cooke describes going to Mysore — where Jois assaulted her for months — in part because she was inspired by the Feb 1995 edition of YJ, in which a load of Jois devotees talked about his magical hands etc. Were his abuses known in 1995? Oh yes they were. Did anyone at YJ do any real homework back then? Nope. Did YJ jump at the chance to make amends when Cooke’s article was offered to them for publication? Nope! Accountability does not tend to happen on a mass media scale. But it can happen on a phone call between two people, made public. That’s something to nourish, no matter how uncomfortable.
One commenter wrote that “it kind of pisses me off that [Karen] is making you the whipping post for all men and perpetrators of sexual abuse.” Setting aside the exaggeration here (Karen neither said nor implied anything close to this), I believe this comment carries a deeper concern. J has always been seen as a kind of Yoga Everyman — unaffiliated with particular authority, respectful of pretty much everything, somebody you want to be friends with, identify with, share stories with. That’s a core appeal of the podcast: that J affects familiarity while he connects old and new things, and near and far places. He offers a fraternal embrace emerging out of, but not entirely clear of, the shadows of an earlier time. So while the commenter above exaggerates with the phrase “all men and perpetrators of sexual abuse”, she is illuminating this Everyman role within the yoga world. I think what’s so deeply uncomfortable about Karen confronting J is that her story begins with a revelation about Jois, but by implication impugns an entire culture for idealization, misogyny, and bypassing. Beneath Karen’s straightforward questions to J about how he’s handled a single news story is the drone of a deeper question posed to the Everyman: What exactly have we all been doing here over the past fifty years? Could there be a bigger yogic question?