“Feminist-Informed” Ashtanga and “Trauma-Informed” Kundalini: How Cultic Deception Can Harm Academics and Therapists
High-demand groups hurt members and their families directly in physical, emotional, and financial ways.
That harm is contagious.
In this post I’ll look at two instances in which the primary tactic of the high-demand group — deception — radiates harm outward, wasting the time, resources, and emotional labour of well-meaning people who come into contact with the group and wind up promoting it, even as it belies their values. One comes from academia, and the other comes from the mental health world.
The 2016 article “Yoga As Embodied Feminist Praxis: Trauma, Healing, and Community Based Responses to Violence” (1) by Beth Catlett and Mary Bunn is built on meticulous fieldwork that assesses the efficacy of yoga programming in communities living with and recovering from violence. Bunn’s contribution comes from her work with Project Air, a non-profit bringing services including yoga instruction to HIV-infected survivors of the Rwandan genocide. Catlett’s focus is on the Urban Yogis programme for marginalized youth in Queens, New York.
Urban Yogis, as Catlett and Bunn report, is co-directed by an anti-violence activist named Erica Ford, and Eddie Stern of Ashtanga New York. Interviews with Stern and time spent in his service classes impressed the scholars with his humility and altruism, and dispelled their reservations about whether the patriarchal structure of Ashtanga Yoga could really serve a pro-social mission.
“Our engagement with the Urban Yogis program,” they conclude,
“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.”(2)
Had Catlett, Bunn, and their editors known about the active and unresolved abuse history in Ashtanga yoga when they began their research? If they had known, would they have chosen to highlight an Ashtanga yoga community in a book about feminist-oriented social values?
By email, the scholars vigorously confirmed they hadn’t known.
“Our starting point,” they wrote,
is always to listen to, and take seriously, the voices/experiences of those who have experienced violence and abuse — this is the way that we can learn about the ways that power operates in institutions, and these voices are important to inform our work to dismantle unjust systems of power, privilege, and oppression within such institutions.
We knew nothing of these experiences of sexual assault, abuse, and harassment at the writing of our chapter, and therefore, this new information about the abuse of power within the ashtanga community is something with which we will have to grapple as our work moves forward.
But why didn’t they know? Was the research naïve, overcredulous? Perhaps. But it’s also true that certain high-demand nodes of the Ashtanga yoga world hid crucial facts.
Stern himself plays a role in that story through his editorship of the propagandistic book Guruji: A Portrait of Sri K Pattabhi Jois Through the Eyes of His Students, The volume’s co-editor, Guy Donahaye, recently distanced himself from the book, writing:
Since his death, Guruji has been elevated to a position of sainthood. Part of this promotion has been due to the book of interviews I collected and published with Eddie Stern… which paints a positive picture of his life and avoids exploring the issues of injury and sexual assault. In emphasizing only positive stories it has done more to cement the idea that he was a perfect yogi, which he clearly was not.
By burnishing his image, we make it unassailable — it makes us doubt the testimony of those he abused. This causes further harm to those whose testimony we deny and to ourselves.
How then, does Stern become cited as a facilitator of “feminist-informed social justice” in the yoga world? How does he come to occupy that space to the exclusion of one of the hundreds of people, mostly women, that have been teaching consent-based trauma-sensitive yoga to at-risk populations for years?
Consider the enthusiastic undergrad and Master’s students who will read Catlett and Bunn’s essay and come away with a partial view of the method and community under discussion. Will there be a correction issued? Who will see it?
And how will Jois’s victims feel about reading feminist academic accolades to their former male colleague who has yet to publicly acknowledge the abuse? Months of fieldwork by two feminist scholars are now of questionable value, not because they don’t have productive observations to contribute about yoga service in general, but because their good will was confounded.
Trauma and addictions recovery specialist Gabor Maté works closely with a Canadian organization called Beyond Addiction, which offers a yoga-based training programme “for individuals seeking to develop healthy habits and overcome addictive behaviour, for health professionals and yoga teachers who work with addiction.”
The yoga community providing content for the program is 3HO: the “Happy, Healthy, and Holy” organization founded by Yogi Bhajan in 1969. Recent scholarship has shown that Bhajan’s postmodern “Kundalini” blend of Tantric Yoga and Sikhism has few historical roots in any stream of Indian wisdom tradition, despite the community’s lofty claims.
More importantly, anyone who Googles “3HO abuse” will find that the organization settled two lawsuits against Bhajan, including one case of rape and confinement brought by a woman who entered his harem of “secretaries” at age eleven.
Did Maté do a basic background check on the organization he’s promoting to his platform of 100K Facebook followers? Should he be concerned that a person with a trauma load might come to one of his 3HO-related trainings, do that Google search halfway through it, see that the Kundalini instructors he’s collaborating with still quote Yogi Bhajan without reservation? Should he be concerned if that person feels both triggered and betrayed?
“Dr. Maté is well aware of the possibility and actuality of abuse in any spiritual or medical culture,” wrote his assistant in response to an emailed request for comment.
That’s just not good enough.
Bottom line: if you’re going to platform a yoga community, method, or personality — especially with the altruistic intention of using those resources to help vulnerable people — do your research. Prepare to find out that that community, method, or personality has likely failed its vulnerable members and followers — and in the worst cases, traumatized them.
Then: work out how you’re going to relate to that community, method, or personality with transparency, integrity, and justice, in such a way that the patterns of harm, enabling, or bypassing stops with you.
(1) In Berila, Beth, et al. Yoga, the Body, and Embodied Social Change: an Intersectional Feminist Analysis. Lexington Books, 2016. 259-275.
(2) Ibid. 267.
On Saturday, August 4th, senior Shambhala International teacher Judith Simmer-Brown gave a talk in Boulder as part of a series called “Conversations That Matter”. The title was “Caring for Community,” and it was structured around a set of slogans called “The Four Reliances”, which are meant to help Buddhist practitioners separate out mundane and spiritual concerns.
In this context, the slogans were offered to help Shambhala practitioners in particular renew their commitment to the group’s ideas and practices, in the midst of continuing revelations of abuse within the group itself. They advise the practitioner to see immediate and obvious circumstances — and their interpretation of those circumstances — as ephemeral (or at best instrumental to a higher purpose) and to develop a depersonalized, non-judgmental, and non-verbal devotion to the group’s content.
The “Four Reliances”, featured in several Buddhist texts dating back to the first century CE, are:
- Do not rely on the personality or individuality of the teacher. Rely on the Dharma teachings themselves.
- Do not rely on the literal words. Rely on the meaning of the teachings.
- Do not rely on merely provisional teachings. Rely on the definitive or ultimate teachings.
- Do not rely on conceptual mind. Rely on the nondual wisdom of experience.
The presentation series is hosted by the group’s flagship Center, founded in 1970 by Chögyam Trungpa. Simmer-Brown’s talk was livestreamed for members of the public who registered via the Zoom platform. I registered under my own name, and recorded the event. No copyright notice or privacy request was posted.
Appropriating a popular concept from trauma-recovery discourse, Simmer-Brown explained that her talk would offer “foundational things that we need to know in order to be resilient practitioners.” In the Q&A that followed, she suggested that such resilience could be nurtured by the activities of the very group that had caused the trauma. “Our confusion and pain,” she told one questioner,” might drive us more deeply into practice.”
The appeal from group leaders to double down on group practice in the face of group abuse is a common theme in the crisis responses of yoga and dharma organizations. When the news of Pattabhi Jois’s decades of sexual assaults on his women students began to go mainstream, a common insider response was to repeat Jois’s most famous aphorism: “Practice, and all is coming.”
As the Shambhala foundations shake, many devotees are likewise relying on beloved sayings of Trungpa, such as: “The essence of warriorship, or the essence of human bravery, is refusing to give up on anyone or anything.” (the recent remarks of Susan Piver, as well as Pema Chödron’s 1993 and 2011 responses to Trungpa’s own abuses. Continue reading “Judith Simmer-Brown to Distraught Shambhala Members: “Practice More.” (Notes and Transcript)”A similar theme grounds
This is a followup on notes I published about the structure, language, and impact of disorganized attachment evident in the Shambhala organization. It also provides an update on the question of Chödrön’s approach to Shambhala history, and whether it provides clarity or obfuscation in relation to the present revelations of institutional abuse.
On July 13th, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse (Khyentse Norbu) cited Chödrön’s 1993 interview with Tricycle as a laudable example of how a Vajrayana student is to view and contemplate their teacher. However, Norbu incorrectly dated Chödrön’s statement to 2015. I argued that this unfortunately could create the unfair impression that Chödrön’s 25 year-old views are current, and perhaps issued to pre-empt current criticism of Shambhala.
But in the 2011 hagiographical film “Crazy Wisdom: The Life and Times of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche” (New York: Kino Lorber), director and Trungpa student Johanna Demetrakas records Chödrön delivering an aphoristic encapsulation of her 1993 statement.
At time cue 51:00, Chödrön says:
People say to me, how could you follow a teacher like that? Or how could an enlightened person do that? I do not know. I can’t buy a party line where they say it was sacred activity or something like this. Come up with ground to make it okay. I also can’t come up with ground or a fixed idea to make it not okay. You know, I’m left, really left in that I don’t know. I don’t know. But I can’t answer the relative questions because he defied being able to answer them.
Just over a year ago, eight long-term students of Sogyal Lakar (known as Sogyal Rinpoche) sent him a letter that is still shaking the foundations of his “Rigpa International” corporation. The letter from “The Eight” accused him of decades of physical, emotional, psychological and sexual abuse of students, a “lavish, gluttonous, and sybaritic lifestyle”, and degrading the image and meaning of global Buddhism. The accusations have not been denied. Lakar has retreated from public life, and RI says that it’s investigating. Whether this will result in transparency and restorative justice remains to be seen.
Khyentse Norbu (Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse) comes from a decorated family of Tibetan Buddhist teachers, and is said to be a “Rinpoche” — a reincarnated “precious one”, born to carry perfect and rare teachings forward from a primordial source. Norbu is known for engaging his cosmopolitan global audience with pugnacious erudition, pot-stirring books, and a flair for documentary filmmaking, in which he was reportedly tutored by Bernardo Bertolucci, who he met on the set of “Little Buddha”.
Norbu shares a global stage with Lakar as a popular teacher of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism (Vajrayana). Accordingly, his students asked him to comment on the accusations against Lakar. A month after the letter from “The Eight”, he obliged by posting a ten thousand-word essay that was shared over a thousand times on Facebook, and lauded by his students around the world as a nuanced defence of Vajrayana’s abiding magic and the unorthodox but salvific bonds it promotes between teachers and students.
“Defence” is perhaps not the right word, however. The essay spends none of its time on the accusations. Rather, it sermonizes on the glory of the Vajrayana process, and laments the poor education of those who claim to be hurt by it. The Eight, Norbu argues, must have known what they were in for as Vajrayana students. They should have had “superior faculties” that would have allowed them to transform the perception of Lakar’s abuse into a belief in his spiritual care. These faculties should have been further cemented by the students’ “samaya”, or psychospiritual commitment to Lakar. The essay reminds readers that for Lakar’s students to break samaya by not framing all of his actions as beneficial condemns them to aeons of literal hell. Continue reading “Tantric Trolling, Tantric Fixing: Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse’s Posts on Clerical Sexual Abuse”
A source forwarded the following email, sent by a Shambhala leader to volunteers and residents at Vermont’s Karmê Chöling, the Buddhist retreat centre founded by the organization’s “root teacher”, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, in 1970.
The email follows up on a group meeting of volunteers and residents to discuss whether the portrait of Ösel Mukpo, now accused of forced confinement and sexual assault, should be covered or taken down from the altar in the staff shrine room. The letter indicates the same questions are being asked about the photographs of Trungpa.
Core teaching content is delivered in Shambhala shrine rooms, as well as group liturgies, ceremonies, and empowerments. These events often involve generating deep feelings of love and devotion towards group leaders, and the teaching content. At this moment, shrine rooms throughout the organization are surely fraught spaces for many members, who may suddenly feel they are sites of personal and institutional betrayal.
What is at stake in this discussion is whether those who have been sexually assaulted (statistically one in four women who enter that room), along with those who bear other traumas, will be asked to meditate in a space presided over by the image of a credibly accused assaulter. Because the staff shrine room altar is the focus, this is also a workplace issue.
I’m posting it below with a few brief notes in red because I think it might be useful for members to track in real time how cognitive dissonance emerges and is managed by power structures at crisis moments in yoga and Buddhist communities. I believe if members can be supported in seeing this clearly, recovery time will be hastened. Continue reading “Shrine of Devotion, Betrayal, or Indoctrination? An Internal Shambhala Email, Annotated”
It identifies Mukpo as both the reincarnation of a Tibetan saint and a meditational deity. It says that he is a king, a ruler of the “three worlds” (of desire, form, and formlessness), and the “manifestation of buddha activity.” The chanter prays for Mukpa’s influence to spread through Jambudvipa, which basically means “earth”, but from the perspective of deities who can perceive multiple worlds.
According to members I’ve spoken with, this chant is deployed to two contexts. At some Shambhala centres, entry-level members are introduced to it at weekly gatherings. When they ask about the chant’s meanings or express discomfort at praying to human being as if he were a deity, they are typically told that they can understand it “symbolically” for now, and that deeper meanings will be unfolded at higher levels of commitment.
The second usage of the change comes at those higher levels, where, along with explication, the chant itself becomes an expression of “samaya”.
“Samaya” is a “contract” to a teacher made in Tantric streams of Indian wisdom culture. Breaking it, which can happen through as little as thinking badly about that teacher, is said to result in endless cycles of disgusting and horrific torture in “hell-realms”. Over the years I have received communications from members of neo-Tibetan tantric groups who say that this is a source of literal terror for them.
I don’t think it matters that much that the literal meanings of these threats might be lost on postmodern practitioners. When I had “samaya” with Michael Roach and his teacher, the late Khenpo Rinpoche, I took the gory details as metaphors for inescapable psychological pain.
Many traditionalists would say that a text used for Tantric practitioners is actually forbidden to those who are not initiated. In other words, it would be “illegal” for students who had not attained a certain maturity in relation to the teaching content to be asked to read ritual literature “symbolically”. Amongst all of the ways in which the followers of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche have, like him, both appealed to “tradition” while holding it in contempt, what would this one be about?
A commenter on my Facebook feed wrote about how he was asked to hold the meaning of the chant symbolically as a new student. He remarks:
“Sadly it turns out that this soft-symbolic, “Don’t worry about it’, ‘You are your own meditation instructor'”, guidance on the chants is actually a bait and switch for those who enter the Vajrayana path, which I fortunately never did.”
The commenter’s observations describe a well-known feature of cult media.
The two performance levels — intro and advanced — allow this same chant to perform the dual functions of propaganda and indoctrination described by Alexandra Stein (via Hannah Arendt) employed by cultic organizations. She explains the difference here. My argument is that the intro-level chant, explained to newcomers as symbolic, works as propaganda. The advanced application, with its more literal implications and commitments, functions to deepen indoctrination.
“Propaganda is not indoctrination, though it may be the first step towards entering a process of indoctrination. Indoctrination is what happens during the subsequent process of brainwashing within an isolated context. Importantly, those to whom propaganda is directed are not yet isolated or are only partially so. They still have some points of reference in the outside world. They may still have friends or family or colleagues with whom they can check out their impressions. The much more intense process of indoctrination to extreme beliefs occurs when the new recruit has been successfully separated from their external contacts. Then they can begin to be broken down, to lose their own sense of reality, their own common sense, and they can eventually be pressured to take on new and often dangerous or damaging ideas and behaviors. This part of the process can sometimes take years. Propaganda can be seen as the softening up process that gets the recruit to the point where indoctrination processes can start to be implemented. Propaganda must be believable enough, must have some kind of hook into the real world so that potential recruits will follow the thread and not simply be repulsed immediately.” (2017, 53-54)
According to this schema, it would be worth investigating the relationship between popular Shambhala-based books and media content and the ritual literature of the inner core. The books on the Shambhala Publications back list, for example, might function as a “transmission belt” (again, after Arendt) towards the inner core and its high demands.
I don’t know how many people have “samaya” with Ösel Mukpo, but there are at least 200 gathering on the 15th at the Shambhala Mountain Centre. (More on this in this earlier post.)
Emails to registrants confirm that Mukpo won’t be there, and suggest that the retreat leaders will be attempting to “separate the teacher from the teachings”. In the case of this upcoming “Garchen”, those teachings are said to have been mystically revealed to Mukpo’s father in the early 1980s, and now Mukpo himself.
But this chant, in which devotion and metaphysics are inextricable, makes it clear just how difficult separating the teacher from the teachings actually is in this and other communities governed by modern appropriations of “samaya”. Devotion is the content. The medium is the message.
Reformers who really want to work towards student empowerment and safety have to not only insist upon the physical and administrative withdrawal of an abusive leader, but re-imagine a curriculum somehow separate from its origin story. The content didn’t come from outer space.
The manual from which this is taken ends with the statement: “This material is available in limited publication, and no general publication is made or intended. No part of this material may be reproduced or published in any form without the written consent of the Nalanda Translation Committee.”
Here it is anyway, because transparency, right? It’s important for everyone in yoga and Buddhist communities, which are so susceptible to mechanisms of undue influence, to see how hidden materials of indoctrination work.
Also, no author gets to establish the “intention” of a text as somehow separate from the way it is read, or its various impacts. That goes for me as well, which is something I contemplate as I continue to cover this subject.
On June 30th, meditation instructor Susan Piver posted this reflection on the crisis unfolding within Shambhala International. On July 5th, I published this response. But before I did I reached out to her to let her know it was coming, and to make sure that she felt it was fair. She asked for one correction, which I made, but then also suggested we book time to discuss our text-exchange via Zoom, and record it. Here it is.
I’d like to thank Susan for her invitation and her resilience in considering criticism. I’d also like to say something I think I left out of recording: I’m sorry my analysis hurt her feelings at first. I really admire her ability to pivot into a discussion nonetheless, and to have been inspired enough to turn this moment into a learning opportunity for her community, and for me as well.
A Disorganized Attachment Legacy at Shambhala: Brief Notes on Two Letters and a 1993 Interview with Pema Chödrön
On Sunday, a unknown number of unnamed “Women acharyas” released this unsigned letter. The acharyas are a group of Shambhala International leaders, empowered by their current head, Ösel Mukpo, to represent the legacy and teaching content of the organization. Their letter responds to a call for action from members outraged by revelations of continued institutional sex and power abuse in their community.
Mukpo stands accused of sexual misconduct by three anonymous women whose voices have been recorded by Andrea Winn in her Project Sunshine report. He has posted a vague admission of guilt. Winn’s work has pried opened an unhealed wound carved out by the abuses of Mukpo’s father, Chogyam Trungpa, and his lieutenants. Those stories are still coming to light, and they are unbelievably savage.
Insiders will be able to better parse out the likelihood of whether this particular political constellation of “acharyas” is equipped to understand the dynamics within which it is embedded and strong enough break out of them. I don’t pretend to have any insights on that. I hope I can, however, point out a key characteristic of crisis communication that does not bode well in the present, and which has deep and influential roots in the past. Continue reading “A Disorganized Attachment Legacy at Shambhala: Brief Notes on Two Letters and a 1993 Interview with Pema Chödrön”
“But the Shambhala TEACHINGS are precious. They changed our lives. We CAN’T let them go. We HAVE to separate them from the organization and its leadership.”
This is the active-ingredient argument you may be hearing from some of your fellow community members. It’s based on the premise that beneath all of the human imperfections and “conventional realities” of Shambhala International, there was something essentially good and true communicated by Trungpa and his followers, and that that essence was what changed lives.
A further premise is that that essence can and should be isolated and mobilized.
Those who talk about the “essence” of the teachings are those who are still in one way or another within the learning community or high-demand group. They might believe that the essential teachings were universally clear; they could test this belief by asking those who left the group what they believed the teachings were.
They would be also be the ones who would be least likely to consider the placebo effect of the teaching content. Continue reading “Maybe It Wasn’t the “Shambhala Teachings” That Changed Your Life: A Brief Note on False Attribution”
Accountability Or Apologia? Reading Between the Lines When Yoga and Buddhism Leaders Issue Crisis Statements
Many of today’s leaders in yoga and Buddhism built themselves through online marketing. This means that when abuse in their communities is revealed, they must be prepared to make online responses. It’s good to be able to see where the responses are continuous with the marketing: this may give clues as to how earnest, considered and educated those responses are.
The speed at which it all happens is both terrible and revealing. Terrible insofar as it suppresses sober second thought. Revealing because it lays bare microdynamics of cultic control that in the pre-digital age were invisible outside of the group. Today we can watch cults get penetrated by reporting and instantly try to circle the wagons. It’s easy to see the crude damage control of the attempt to discredit victims or reporters. What’s harder to see is how the reporting can be deflected by selective acknowledgement or yes-but statements. Whatever the responses are, they play out in the open field, like some kind of cult-exit obstacle course reality show.
We have to learn the difference between structural change and rebranding. Especially as people are getting better at co-opting and monetizing discourses around trauma-awareness and justice. There’s a lot of leaders in the Shambhala org right now who will be ramping up the trauma awareness language and dusting off their Naropa psychology chops. But if they don’t simultaneously call for the Sakyong to be removed and the org to be investigated independently, they are abusing that language and those tools. This may not at all be their fault. They may be under the illusion that those values actually came from the Trungpa legacy, instead of having been co-opted by it. Continue reading “Accountability Or Apologia? Reading Between the Lines When Yoga and Buddhism Leaders Issue Crisis Statements”