Quotes from Ram Dass That Fit the Pattern of Spiritualizing Sexual Abuse in Yoga

Not long after the glowing obits for Ram Dass started packing my feeds, Karen Rain, a trusted friend and colleague messaged me:

“Did you know that Neem Karoli Baba was a sex offender too?” No. No I didn’t.

Neem Karoli Baba was Dass’s guru. Bhagavan Das introduced them. (Falk has the rundown here.) Karoli Baba is essential to the bios of Krishna Das and Jai Uttal as well.

Rain pointed me to a book that I was able to download and search in a few minutes. Miracle of Love (Dutton Publications, 1979. ISBN-13: 9780525476115). It’s a hagiography of Karoli Baba, compiled by Ram Dass.

Dass has an entire chapter in the book called “Krishna Play” (loc. 4661). Here’s how he introduces it:

IT SEEMS AT ONCE surprising and obvious to note that Maharajji was quite different in the quality of his relationship with men and with women. With men he hung out and gossiped, scolded, and guided—as friend, father, and sage. With the women, on the other hand, in addition to those roles, he seemed frequently to assume roles like that of Krishna, as child and playmate and lover. Such play on Maharajji’s part of course created some consternation and confusion among devotees and also grounds for criticism on the part of people who did not like or trust Maharajji. But for the women devotees who were directly involved with Maharajji in this way, his actions served as a catalyst to catapult them to God.

Okay Boomer.

Here are some of the testimonies that Dass compiles for this section:

We’d be sitting outside and Maharajji would pull my hands under the blanket and make me massage his legs, almost pulling me under the blanket. I loved touching him, but I was not sure how far you can go in touching Maharajji. I’d be working on his feet and calves, and he’d grab my arm and pull my hand up to his thigh. So I’d do his thighs for a little bit and then my hands would start wandering down to his calves again, because all of a sudden I’d look around and see all these people staring at me. An Indian woman would be gasping, and I’d get real embarrassed, so I’d start working on his feet again. Then his hand would come sliding down and grab mine and pull it up again. He would often perform this puzzling ritual with me. And if I tried to explain it to myself, no sooner would I have the thought than he’d turn to me and yell “Nahin!” and then go on with his conversation.

 

One Indian widow who had no children came to Maharajji, worried about who would take care of her. Maharajji said, “Ma, I’ll be your child.” She started to treat him like a child and then he said, “You know, Hariakhan Baba used to suck the breasts of women. I’ll sit on your lap.” And he sat on her lap and he was so light and small, just like a child. He sucked on her breasts and milk poured out of them, although she was sixty-five. Enough milk came from her to have filled a glass. After that she never missed not having children.

 

I felt a great deal of fear of Maharajji and experienced a kind of awkwardness with him, wanting so much to do the right thing yet afraid that I wouldn’t know what that was. He called me into his room in Kainchi one day. (Of course it always happened on the days when you really needed it.) He had me close the doors. He was up on the tucket, I was sitting on the floor, and he leaned down to hug me. I reached out to hug him back and he meant for me to come even closer. He said, “Come closer, come closer, you’re not close enough.” And he just lifted me off the ground, onto the tucket, and into his arms. He put his arms and his blanket all the way around me. He absolutely covered me with his blanket and with his being. He swallowed me whole! I melted—all my fears, all that stuff totally vanished into the sea of Maharajji. I was completely out of my body, totally immersed. So that’s how he answered all those questions: Just by one hug!

 

I was kneeling before Maharajji when he grabbed at my sari and started pulling at it. Then he was holding my breasts and saying, “Ma, Ma.” I felt for the first time as if I were experiencing an intimate act free of lust.

 

There are stories about gurus doing things with women. But somehow around Maharajji there was a feeling of such purity that people could tell me anything he had done, and it never shook my total trust in him at all. It was clear that he needed nothing; he had no desires of his own. I believe that he would do things with women for whom the sexual part of their lives was not straight. In retrospect, it looks as though it served a very direct function for them.

In the introduction to the book, Dass explains that the material comes from interviews with over one hundred devotees. He writes:

These stories, anecdotes, and quotations create a mosaic through which Maharajji can be met. To hold the components of this mosaic together I have used the absolute minimum of structural cement, preferring to keep out my personal interpretations and perspective as much as possible.

Any Stanford psychology PhD should know that it’s not that simple. Inclusion choices are also exclusion choices. Dass put together the book by either cherry-picking statements that frame experiences with Karoli Baba as transformative, or, most likely, by not having interest in or access to survivors’ narratives in the first place. There is a difference between cult literature and survivor literature.

Interestingly, the most visible time Dass displayed a critical eye in relation to sexual abuse in the guise of spiritual intimacy was in his vicious take-down of “Joya”, a female spiritual teacher living in Brooklyn in his 1976 Yoga Journal essay “Egg On My Beard”.

Then there’s this bit from Dass’s obituary in the New York Times:

Mr. Leary accused Mr. Alpert [Das] of trying to seduce his 15-year-old son, Jack, whom Mr. Alpert often took care of while Mr. Leary, a single parent, traveled.

I’d like to know more about that. Can’t find much.

There’s an entire genre of male writing that mystifies, rationalizes, or spiritualizes women’s experiences — especially of sexuality — within modern global yoga and Buddhist cultures. I believe it has both blessed and reinforced a misogynistic pattern that has prevented survivors’ stories from being heard.

Consider these two passages, both written by men, glorifying Chögyam Trungpa’s relationships with women:

For those of his fortunate female students who wished it, his love could manifest in the most intimate physical manner. Those who did take up his invitation almost always remembered these times as some of the most precious of their years with Rinpoche. They were felt as times of profound teaching — though rarely was there any formal dharma discussion between them — as well as times of lightness, freedom from care, and playful humor. At the same time, of course, anyone in any similarly intimate situation with Rinpoche was pushed to the edge of their little ego games, pushed to be open and genuine; and, for many of us in the West, sex provides one of the deepest entrenchments for ego.

— Hayward, Jeremy W. Warrior-King of Shambhala: Remembering Chögyam Trungpa. Wisdom Publ., 2008. 48.

and:

A measure of his compassion can be gleaned from the reports of a number of female students who experienced spending intimate time with him as a very precious communication. Some women reported that, even when there was no sexual intimacy involved—as was often the case in the last years of his life—they experienced spending the night with him as the greatest kind of intimacy.

— Midal, Fabrice, and Ian Monk. Chogyam Trungpa: His Life and Vision. Shambhala, 2012. 153.

Hayward and Midal obviously didn’t ask Leslie Hays about her experience of Trungpa.

I’m left with uncomfortable questions, given how wall-to-wall the praise has been for Dass. The way he was mourned over the holidays positioned him as some kind of unimpeachable saint. I started to notice that every single portrait of him captured exactly the same overwhelming beaming smile.

But this is the yoga world, and I’m skeptical of single-toned portrayals.

So I’m wondering if he also benefited from the mythologization of his guru. And if that mythologization depended upon the suppression of abuse stories.

I’m wondering how many bystanders to abuse in the yoga world felt consoled — for decades — by that enormous, unfailing smile.

I’m wondering if he was the guy who somehow made it all okay.

 

Sharath’s Statement on Pattabhi Jois’s Assaults: Context, Links, Notes

Context:

Sharath Rangaswamy Jois has posted an acknowledgement of harm committed by his grandfather to his Instagram account. The post features a photograph that has been used venerate Jois and highlight Sharath’s relationship to him for years.

The context I’d like to provide here is with respect to the women who made Sharath’s statement not only necessary, but possible, and whose names he does not mention.

Continue reading “Sharath’s Statement on Pattabhi Jois’s Assaults: Context, Links, Notes”

Shambhala Centre Will Rehang Devotional Pictures of Alleged Sexual Predator: Announcement Annotated

On June 19th, Myra Woodruff, the Executive Director of the Karmê Chöling retreat centre in Barnett, Vermont, sent an email to the centre’s mailing list. The email announces that the devotional portraits of Chogyam Trungpa and his son, Mipham Mukpo, will be reinstalled in the centre’s shrine rooms.

Karmê Chöling was founded by Trungpa in 1970. Initially named “Tail of the Tiger”, it was an early site for recruiting members and establishing the model of “land centers” through which Shambhala International has extended its assets. After dying of cirrhosis of the liver related to terminal alcoholism, Trungpa was cremated at Karmê Chöling in May of 1987. Continue reading “Shambhala Centre Will Rehang Devotional Pictures of Alleged Sexual Predator: Announcement Annotated”

Shambhala Centers Still Holding “Sealed” Retreats to Venerate a Leader Under Criminal Investigation

A New Year’s Eve email sent out from the Sky Lake Retreat Center of Rosendale, New York, invited qualified practitioners to attend a seven-day “sealed” retreat, beginning on February 23.

The event, named the “Monarch Retreat”, will be focussed on generating loyalty towards the spiritual “kingship” of the leader of Shambhala International, Mipham Mukpo, known as the “Sakyong”. Mukpo is the son and heir of the Chögyam Trungpa, the founder of the organization. In 1995, Mukpo was recognized as the reincarnation of Mipham the Great, a Tibetan philosopher, astrologer, and mystic who died in 1912.

This past July, Mukpo stepped down from his administrative leadership of Shambhala International amidst accusations of sexual assault published by Buddhist Project Sunshine. Mukpo has issued a vague apology for past behaviour, but he has since denied all criminal allegations through his lawyer. Continue reading “Shambhala Centers Still Holding “Sealed” Retreats to Venerate a Leader Under Criminal Investigation”

Pattabhi Jois Sexually Assaulted Men: Photo Evidence

Content warning: photos of sexual assault, below. 

This post is intended to facilitate access to the following already-available images, which will be cited in Practice and All is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics and Healing in Yoga and Beyond (March 2019).

In the first photo, Pattabhi Jois is seen sexually assaulting a male practitioner in Supta trivikramasana. Jois is seen sexually assaulting Karen Rain in the same posture in a similar photo. The photo below was taken in the old Lakshmipuram shala, and so dates from before 2003.

In the second photo, Jois is seen assaulting a male practitioner in a forward fold. A source says that the photo was taken in 2003 in Encinitas.

The identities of the practitioners are unknown. They remain anonymous because their faces are hidden.

I’m posting with the awareness that the practitioners might dispute that the photographs depict sexual assault.

However: victim testimony alone does not define sexual assault. Other factors can include whether there was full consent, whether the alleged victim was capable of granting full consent at the time, whether the alleged victim was in a position or condition of submission, whether the contact was administered under the false premise of medical treatment, and whether there was a significant power imbalance between the alleged assaulter and the victim.

Karen Rain commented on these photos in a thread on Facebook:

I’ve heard a couple stories about P Jois sexually assaulting men, including one story of a male digital rape. I know that the AY community likes to say that what he did to women wasn’t sexual assault because he did the same thing to men. This is the most nonsensical argument. Imagine if we used that reasoning with priests: they did the same thing to young girls as they did to young boys, so therefore it isn’t sexual abuse(??). It’s important to understand that sexual abuse/assault is about power not about sex. Unfortunately, males are perhaps, even more than females or non-binary people, conditioned in ways that prevent recognition and disclosing of sexual assault. So much for the argument that P Jois was tempted by effusive, scantily clad western women.

If Jois’s sexual assaults on men were more difficult to recognize and disclose, this may have increased the tendency, especially among the senior male students, to ignore or rationalize assaults against women as well.

 

Jois assaulting male practitioner in Supta trivikramasana, before 2003.

 

Jois assaulting male practitioner in a forward fold position, Encinitas, 2003.

 

 

Maybe It Wasn’t the “Shambhala Teachings” That Changed Your Life: A Brief Note on False Attribution

Maybe It Wasn't the "Shambhala Teachings" That Changed Your Life

“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”

Why Reasoning with Jordan Peterson Fans Can’t Work, Or: Privilege is a Feeling State

Why Reasoning with Jordan Peterson Fans Can't Work, Or: Privilege is a Feeling State

So Nellie Bowles wrote this piece of magic.

Then former Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro stayed up all night and sweated out this response.

My post here will avoid the content weeds to zero in on a single syntax transition that Shapiro made, and that somehow made it through editing. The indented graf is Bowles. The second sentence is a direct quote from Peterson. The second graf is Shapiro.

Read how the highlight connects them.

Slow down if you have to.

 
One more time, isolated:

Bowles: “[Peterson direct quote]” he said.

Shapiro: This is not what Peterson is saying. 

This freaked me out. I talked it through with my partner Alix to get clearer on it. Here’s what we explored together:

It never matters what Peterson said.

It matters what he’s saying.

As in: generally, and all the time. And most specifically (speaking as a Peterson devotee): right now, in my head, as my internal homunculus of reassurance.

Continue reading “Why Reasoning with Jordan Peterson Fans Can’t Work, Or: Privilege is a Feeling State”

“Deception, Dependence, and Dread” — via Michael Langone

Farber, Harlow, & West (1957) coined the term “DDD syndrome” to describe the essence of Korean war thought reform with prisoners of war: debility, dependency, and dread. Lifton (1961), who also studied thought reform employed in Chinese universities, demonstrated that the process did not require physical debilitation. Contemporary cultic groups, which do not have the power of the state at their disposal, have more in common with this brand of thought reform than with the POW variety, in that they rarely employ physical coercion. In order to control targets, they must rely on subterfuge and natural areas of overlap between themselves and prospects. As with all Korean era thought reform programs (those directed at civilians and at prisoners), however, contemporary cultic groups induce dependent states to gain control over recruits and employ psychological (sometimes physical) punishment (“dread”) to maintain control. The process, in my view, can be briefly described by a modified “DDD syndrome”: deception, dependency, and dread. Continue reading ““Deception, Dependence, and Dread” — via Michael Langone”

Talking about The Walrus Article on Jois with Colin Hall and Sarah Garden on Bodhi Talks Live

Talking about The Walrus Article on Jois with Colin Hall and Sarah Garden on Bodhi Talks Live

Resources:

Why We Don’t Listen to Trauma Survivors (the “Contagion” principle)

Why We Don't Listen to Trauma Survivors (the "Contagion" principle)
I had another in the series of revelatory conversations with my colleague Theodora Wildcroft the other day that have helped me at least begin to see why we don’t listen to trauma survivors. We don’t listen, ironically, even when we say we’re trying to listen to them. Even when we write articles about systemic harassment and enabling, when we host panels on the subject, when we write the think-pieces.
 
“We are contagious,” Theo said, “and those we speak to will suffer vicarious trauma. I can’t speak my truth without hurting other people.”
 

Continue reading “Why We Don’t Listen to Trauma Survivors (the “Contagion” principle)”