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

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

Karmê Chöling was founded by Trungpa in 1970. Initially named “Tail of the Tiger”, it was an early site for recruiting members and establishing the model of “land centers” through which Shambhala International has extended its assets. After dying of cirrhosis of the liver related to terminal alcoholism, Trungpa was cremated at Karmê Chöling in May of 1987.

Karmê Chöling is also the site of a sexual assault allegedly committed in 1983 against a fifteen year-old boy named as “Keith” in the Phase Three Report from Buddhist Project Sunshine. “Keith” told BPS that when he brought the allegation forward to Shambhala International in 2003, they did not go to the police, but rather offered him the opportunity to have a mediation meeting with his alleged assailant, John Weber.

Weber was formerly the art director at Karmê Chöling, instrumental in creating the graphic design elements of the organization’s in-house publications and decorative accessories, such as the faux military pins worn by Trungpa and his lieutenants.

After internal discussions began a year ago, the shrine portraits at Karmê Chöling were first covered with silk and then removed, in light of the accusations against Mipham Mukpo — now verified by an independent investigation — and his father, as reported in several public posts by one of Trungpa’s five surviving “spiritual wives”, Leslie Hays.

Woodruff is a Clinical Social Worker and Psychotherapist practicing in Burlington, VT,  and has been a student of Mipham Mukpo for twenty years. She has announced that she’s stepping down from her position at Karmê Chöling in November of this year.

Here is Woodruff’s letter, with questions and analysis annotated. As with earlier discussions of Shambhala responses, none of the following criticism attributes any personal intentionality to Woodruff. I’m analyzing this as an institutional response, because it shows in real time how institutional betrayal functions and reinforces itself through the silencing of victim’s voices and needs.


Subject line: Holding the Long View

From the outset, the message is positioned as a broader, larger, more comprehensive perspective than is common as the details of the abuse crisis are discussed. The very subject line initiates a language and perspective of minimization.

Dear Friends of Karmê Chöling,

In the last few weeks, a number of people in Shambhala whom I respect have told me that they think it is time for the lineage pictures to be consistently back on all shrines at Karmê Chöling.

The opening disclaims personal responsibility for the decision. Responsibility is assigned to unknown respected others. The disowning of personal responsibility also positions the writer as an objective assessor of various opinions. The following reports of “some people say x, while others say y”, anchors that “objective” position. The decision about the photos can then be presented as the outcome of an attuned process of listening.

“All shrines” flags the following distinctions that will be made between public and private spaces.

Since last fall, the director of each program has decided whether or not lineage pictures should be hung above the shrine with consideration for how the participants feel.

Assuming this means the director of each program at Karmê Chöling over the past year, this shows that there was no official center policy, and that participants were asked for their input on the portraits. This brings up red flags about the power dynamics of such decisions, and how many participants would feel confident enough to vote them down, given the institutional bias for leaving them up that this email shows.

For some, this approach is abhorrent because for them the pictures should never be up again as they symbolize continued support of patriarchal abuse of power and sexual misconduct. For others, this approach is abhorrent because for them it is a denial of the preciousness of the teachings and the lineage holders who transmitted them.

This paragraph initiates a pattern of equivalencies that are repeated later in the letter. The equivalencies supposedly a All the equivalencies are false, however, because they compare what for some is a literal threat to psychological safety with the need that others have to affirm their religious commitments.

The false equivalence here pivots on the misuse of the word “symbolize”, and the vague grammar that surrounds it. Are the portraits symbols? Or does the act of keeping them up symbolize an attitude? Either way, for those who want the portraits down, “symbol” is the wrong word. The portraits themselves are not symbols but facial likenesses of men credibly accused of sexual assault. The act of keeping them up is not “symbolic” of an attitude but rather a continued act of assault upon those survivors.

The email apparently cannot consider what it is actually like for assault survivors to walk into a space and be greeted by the smiling face of their assailant, and watch other people bow in front of it. For some survivors, this alone would make the shrine room a traumatizing space.

There’s a further misrepresentation here. Those who want the portraits reinstalled are said to equate their removal with a “denial of the preciousness of the teachings”. That is not the main point of those who want them removed. It plays into the common institutional betrayal response that what survivors, whistleblowers and their allies are really motivated by is a hatred for the spirituality, instead of a hatred of abuse. In some discourses, this misrepresentation can be twisted into such a knot that survivors are depicted as colonial aggressors against South Asian wisdom traditions, bent on destroying knowledge and lineage.

At the same time, whether Mipham is or ever was an actual lineage holder in any legitimate sense is a matter of debate.

Many city centers in North America do not have the lineage pictures on the shrine in the public shrine room. Often they have the pictures on the shrine in the vajrayana shrine room, if there is one.

I’ll break into this paragraph here to point out that the distinction between public and “secret” shrine rooms seems on the surface to indicate a sensitivity to the public. But in fact, if a center only has the portraits up in the Vajrayana room — restricted to initiates — this does two dangerous things.

Firstly, it conceals the commitments of inner-circle or more advanced practitioners from casual practitioners. The public shrine room without the photos then serves as a more socially-acceptable site for member recruitment. In cult studies, this makes the public space a “front”.

Secondly, it concretizes the commitments of the more advanced practitioners within what Janja Lalich calls “bounded choice“, in which a high-demand group coerces members to accept and tolerate cognitive dissonance.

Many city centers struggle with how to continue in Shambhala. Some centers have closed. Others continue to host community gatherings exploring what Shambhala, Buddhism, and meditation mean to them and how to go forward. Lineage, leadership, and how we arrived where we find ourselves now form core questions in these conversations.

There is a pressing need for leadership at the global level. The volunteer members of the Interim Board are grappling with severe financial issues that threaten the existence of the central Shambhala government and mandala support staff. The Process Team, containing widely divergent perspectives, has worked hard to develop structures and processes for the global mandala to engage in exploring healing and protection, governance, community building, communication and cultural change. As these are not yet in place, over the last year each city center has struggled on, with little support relative to the seismic shifts.

The introduction to the idea that there is a leadership vacuum is first presented in financial terms. Leadership is mostly concentrated on keeping the organization solvent. How then can they really spend time absorbing the radical knowledge of survivors?

This paragraph introduces a vision of the small but scrappy struggle to survive that local centers, like Karmê Chöling, have undertaken. The centers are positioned as the victims in the abuse crisis, which is likened to a natural disaster through the metaphor of “seismic shifts”. Natural disaster metaphors are very powerful ways of minimizing and deflecting responsibility.

The Sakyong has published three letters to the community, two in July 2018 and one in February 2019. At the point of writing this, we do not know what he is intending to communicate or do next. 

For some, there is no question that the Sakyong should never teach nor hold office in Shambhala again. For others, what the Sakyong has expressed in apology is sufficient and we should now return to the way things were. Another spectrum of people has debated or proposed what they consider the Sakyong needs to do in order to teach again.

Here is another set of false equivalencies, presented as a democratic conundrum in which all voices should and will be heard. What is carefully omitted is that Mukpo is accused of felony offences. What is carefully omitted is what the numerous victims of his alleged assaults might have to say about his fitness for duty.

At every turn in this and many other communications from Shambhala International explicitly exclude and ignore victims voices.

In previous posts I have clearly expressed that “Karmê Chöling has already taken a public stand against all abuse and misconduct, sexual and otherwise, particularly by those in positions of power.” That continues emphatically to be my position in these last 4 1/2 months as Karmê Chöling’s executive director. We have instituted mandatory staff training on inclusivity that spans the topics of identity, privilege, class, intersectionality, trauma, patriarchy, gender, ableism, ageism, and racism. These are held in the context of dharma.

What does a “public stand” actually mean? How can that public stand be supported by the return of the portraits? How could it not include any reference to the eight recommendations made by An Olive Branch in conjunction with the release of the Wickwire Holm report? The recommendations include transparency measures with regard to abuse history, enacting a new code of conduct, and providing a tracking mechanism for grievances.

Who conducted the trainings, and why is “sexual assault” not on that list, but rather a parade of social justice terms in which Shambhala International has historically shown zero interest?

Leaving after what will be almost 6 years isn’t easy. My stalwart staff, for the past 10 months at 2/3 of full complement, remain cheerful, dedicated, and wonderfully committed to providing an environment that fosters relaxation, open heart and connecting to basic goodness. These participant statements reflect typical comments in our “Gratitude Box”:

I was worried that the atmosphere here would be depressed and destitute – I am so grateful instead to enter into this warm, awake space. Thank you.
After 49 years of practice for some of us – we still need to come back to the deep immersion into it. At KCL, the sky, wind, greenery, and flowers, the house and pavilion, form a perfect environment to do that. Thank you so much for supporting us with your hard work, ingenuity, kindness, and care. Quick to help, cheerful, we feel your efforts and so appreciate them. Oh- and the food! Just wonderful! I hope our practice will help sweeten the world and your efforts for us will continue into the world in that way. Many thanks.

Transparency (Olive Branch Recommendation #1) would dictate the inclusion of feedback from those who cannot attend Karmê Chöling because of the portraits, and the attitude that supports displaying them. 

While most programs have significantly fewer participant numbers, the teaching of the profound dharma continues unabatedly for the rest of this Summer Session until October 31st. During the Winter Session, November – April, we remain open to offer individual and group in-house retreats as well as cabin retreats.

Recently J.P., a former Karmê Chöling staff member, returned after eight months of travel, during which time he spent six weeks at Tassahara. They went through a similar painful period in their sangha in the 1980s. J.P. was told it took 10 years for them to heal. We have to have a long view for the work that needs to be undertaken.

This is a false comparison. “Roshi” Richard Baker resigned from the San Francisco Zen Center amidst numerous allegations of clerical sexual misconduct. The community he left repaired itself in part because he didn’t come back, and, as one commenter on Reddit affirms, “I mostly practice Zen and guarantee that when Baker Roshi left, no one put his photos back on SFZC altars.”

Where is Karmê Chöling in the midst of all this as the first land center seat of the Shambhala lineage?

For Shambhala to exist a hundred years from now, the teachings must continue. We have received numerous texts and practices, studied at Shambhala levels, Enlightened Society, Warrior and Sacred World Assemblies, various abhisekas and Scorpion Seal Assemblies. All of these teachings and practices exist because of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. Acknowledging that, holding the long view of a residential land center, and recognizing that there is a vast amount of work to be done to transform Shambhala, the lineage pictures will remain on the Karmê Chöling shrines. Not to signal “business as usual,” but to symbolize the provenance of our Shambhala path.

“For Shambhala to exist a hundred years from now, the teachings must continue.”

A more appropriate formulation here might be: “For Shambhala to exist a hundred years from now, its members must be respected and held in safety.”

“All of these teachings and practices exist because of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche”

is only partially true. What it omits furthers the general and falsely-impotent disclaiming of personal responsibility: the teaching and practices also exist because places like Karmê Chöling have preserved, commodified, and marketed them, and because administrators of such places, along with their programme directors, have built social and financial capital by selling them.

Not to signal “business as usual,” but to symbolize the provenance of our Shambhala path.

But in fact, other than trainings, the email offers no concrete measures that mitigated the reinstallation of the pictures as a way of holding out the possibility that Mipham will indeed return.

How will Shambhala and Karmê Chöling transform, flourish and endure? It will take bravery, dedication, love, unconquerable spirit, collective wisdom and faith in the essential need and impact of meditation practice, Shambhala, and Buddhism in this deeply troubled world. We are at the very beginning of the journey of healing and transformation. May we have the patience and compassion to shed what needs to be shed and nourish the healthy essence of our being.

By the end of the message, the exclusionary nature of the “we” being addressed is clear. It does not include victims and survivors of Shambhala, because the message offers nothing to them. The picture is one of an organization recovering from shame, rather than rectifying what has caused it. With the replacement of the portraits, what Karmê Chöling seems to be shedding, with “patience and compassion”, is any sign than the victims actually exist.

Please come to Karmê Chöling as your home away from home.

With gratitude,

Myra Woodruff
Executive Director
Karmê Chöling Shambhala Meditation Center


Note: For a comprehensive strategy that organizations can use to respond to abuse crises, please read this article by Karen Rain and Jubilee Cooke.

1 Comment

  • I appreciate how you are careful to frame this as an institutional response, rather than suggesting any kind of agenda on the author’s part. It’s important to separate the message from the messenger here. I actually hear contending voices in what Myra has written, as if she’s struggling with it herself. What I imagine her really trying to say is, “Look, I know this sucks, but we’re just going to have to get used to it. This is the way it is, and nothing’s gonna change.”

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