Preserving Magic vs. Supporting Victims: A Judith Simmer-Brown Article, Annotated

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 2 & 3 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).

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