reddit AMA: 21 Questions on Shambhala
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.