Shrine of Devotion, Betrayal, or Indoctrination? An Internal Shambhala Email, Annotated
A source forwarded the following email, sent by a Shambhala leader to volunteers and residents at Vermont’s Karmê Chöling, the Buddhist retreat centre founded by the organization’s “root teacher”, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, in 1970.
The email follows up on a group meeting of volunteers and residents to discuss whether the portrait of Ösel Mukpo, now accused of forced confinement and sexual assault, should be covered or taken down from the altar in the staff shrine room. The letter indicates the same questions are being asked about the photographs of Trungpa.
Core teaching content is delivered in Shambhala shrine rooms, as well as group liturgies, ceremonies, and empowerments. These events often involve generating deep feelings of love and devotion towards group leaders, and the teaching content. At this moment, shrine rooms throughout the organization are surely fraught spaces for many members, who may suddenly feel they are sites of personal and institutional betrayal.
What is at stake in this discussion is whether those who have been sexually assaulted (statistically one in four women who enter that room), along with those who bear other traumas, will be asked to meditate in a space presided over by the image of a credibly accused assaulter. Because the staff shrine room altar is the focus, this is also a workplace issue.
I’m posting it below with a few brief notes in red because I think it might be useful for members to track in real time how cognitive dissonance emerges and is managed by power structures at crisis moments in yoga and Buddhist communities. I believe if members can be supported in seeing this clearly, recovery time will be hastened.
The competing impulses in this letter show the incompatibility of private devotional entrainment with public ethical responsibility. Realizing this conflict might have figured into the mass resignation of members of the “Kalapa Council”, Mukpo’s Board of Directors. But are any leaders of Shambhala International still qualified to hold space for this crisis? If they are religiously committed through the vows of “samaya” to never speak ill of or reject their religious leaders, how can they provide care for members who have been harmed by those same leaders?
The email proposes a compromise. Instead of removing the photograph, it will be covered.
The premise of such a compromise is that the conflict is between parties that share equal power. This is not true. On one side is a religious power structure beholden to answer for institutional abuse. On the other are the direct or proximal victims of that abuse, who retain rights to that institutional space by virtue of their prior emotional labour, volunteer efforts, and financial support.
While the email below relates specifically to photographs of Mukpo in Karmê Chöling’s ritual spaces, there are also images of him in common areas. The photo just below, sent by a former volunteer who wishes to remain anonymous, shows a large-sized high-definition photograph beside the stairs going down to the main shower/bathroom/cubby-storage area and some of the dorm rooms for both men and women.
“Anytime someone wants to go to the main shower area,” the source writes, “the cubby/storage area, or to some of the dorm rooms, they have to walk by this life-like picture of him that feels like he is looking at you.”
This part of the Shambhala tragedy parallels a similar conflict in another community. In response to recent confirmation of long-suppressed accounts of the abuse of Pattabhi Jois of his yoga students, the global Ashtanga community has wrestled with the convention of honouring his portrait in practice spaces. A lot of this discourse has been driven by the activism of Jois victim Karen Rain. The Ashtanga network is far less organized and centralized than Shambhala International. Also, the diffusion of Jois’s charisma following his death in 2009 has naturally given rise to more democratic expressions of authority and meaning-making. This, I believe, has helped individual teachers like Sarai Harvey-Smith take the lead in making clear policy statements about how to address abuse.
Taking devotional pictures down from community spaces is a first step, Harvey-Smith suggests. Second is the abandonment of honorifics. She writes:
I have stopped using the term ‘Guruji’. I will now refer to my one time teacher as Pattabhi Jois. Elevating someone to Guru status creates a culture of idealisation and unquestioning acquiescence and deference. This contributed to the power this man had and abused, as well as the culture of silence around it.
Consider what would be left if the honorific language of this email — which can consolidate power and silence victims — was stripped away.
(As with earlier discussions of Shambhala responses, none of the following criticism attributes any specific intentionality to the writer. I’m analyzing this as an institutional, not a personal response.)
Thank you for our discussion this morning. It was good to hear our collective wisdom and hearts. We didn’t really have time to hear from everyone who might have wanted to speak about the shrine photos being removed or staying up. Since this is a discussion that needs time and care, I would like to offer a further conversation about it soon in addition to inviting you to email me with your thoughts and feelings. I look forward to hearing more about how you are thinking and feeling into this topic. Meanwhile, for now, we are planning to cover the Sakyong’s photo in the Shambhala Shrine Room.
As we discussed, here is some information about the view and meaning of our Primordial Rigden shrine:
Note on “Primordial Rigden”. The Rigdens are the mythical/etheric kings of the Tantric land of Shambhala, described first in the Kalachakra Tantra, then fetishized by Trungpa in a series of visionary writings at the root of Shambhala International’s liturgy. A source tells me that Trungpa claimed that he was talking with the Rigdens on a regular basis. So, after the intro paragraph, the email immediately appeals to the mysticism of the deceased leader.
One way we might look at the shrine and the photos is from an outer level. From this perspective, shrines have changed over time; they have evolved. The lineage photos are just photos, which also have changed. There was a time, I am told, when there were six photos: His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, His Holiness the Sixteenth Gyalwang Karmapa, the Vidyadhara, the Sakyong, Suzuki Roshi, and the Vajra Regent. The photo of the Sakyong is now making a number of people feel uncomfortable. Since we want to honor and respond to the requests and perceived needs of members of our community, we should take his, and possibly the Vidyadhara’s, photo down. It or they can be put back up at some point.
“Uncomfortable” is a minimization. “A number of people” is an abstraction when there are now clear reports of harm committed by Mukpo against distinct individuals. It is minimizing to victims of sexual violence to suggest they are “uncomfortable”, or that they have “perceived needs”. They have material safety needs.
However, there is an inner level, too. The Primordial Rigden shrine does not exist in pieces. Shrines represent the lineage – past, present, and future – and the photos are representative of the lineage. The shrine is a transmission of the warrior-guru principle altogether, not one specific teacher. The shrine as a whole is also the abiding place of Shambhala dralas; it represents our deepest heart. It represents basic goodness, Great Eastern Sun, and the unity of the two, enlightened society. This is a complete manifestation that represents our connection to the lineage for the long-term.
Note on “dralas”. Appropriated or absorbed from the shamanism of indigenous Tibetan spirituality, this term refers to pre/postcognitive sensory wonders at the root of phenomenological experience. A really good overview of their meaning is provided here by Bill Scheffel. In a further shock to the community, Scheffel died by suicide last week.
This paragraph deepens the privileging of metaphysical over ethical concerns. The non-cognitive drala principle here functions to unfocus the issue at hand. The facts of actions committed by real people like Mukpo are dissolved into a fascination with colours and shapes. As Scheffel points out, the point is to return to childlike curiosity about life. Here the email might clarify how this direction is not simultaneously infantilizing.
Overall, the “inward turn” here presents a basic conflict of interest. “Inner levels” of shrine meanings are by nature subjective and ambivalent. Policy with regard to harm reduction is not. Is this an appropriate forum for teaching about the ideas of known abusers? Restorative justice is not an interpretative art.
There is also another perspective: The Primordial Rigden represents the lineage and is also offered to us from the lineage. The meaning of the Primordial Rigden is part of the very heart of the shrine, us, and the lineage and, from another perspective, the Primordial Rigden does not exist without the lineage who introduced us to this universal principle.
See here for a discussion of “lineage” as a deceptive and appropriated term.
In this paragraph, Rigden is not an artifact of a conditioned religious culture appropriated for global consumption, but a “universal principle”. In other words: too big to fail. And also: validated through a feedback loop. The “lineage” gives contact with the Rigden; the Rigden validates the “lineage”.
Perhaps another aspect to consider is the role of lineage holders.
Lineage holders can be seen as sacred and pure. However, lineage holders are not models because they are sacred or pure, or different from us, but because they are the same as us. In the long history of lineage holders, each has his or her story of overcoming personal obstacles – from murder to anger and more. The teacher, our whole path, is about transforming human karma and bringing it to the dharma, to see the basic goodness beneath our confusion. Human mistakes have to be included or there is no path. Acknowledging our mistakes is key to this. This is true for both teachers and ourselves. The key is that those human mistakes are seen, acknowledged, purified, and overcome. Our lineage stories are filled with this truth. From this perspective, Shambhala doesn’t exist without lineage. If we take away the Sakyong or the Sakyong and the Vidyadhara’s photos, we are removing the Shambhala lineage.
Here, criminal activity under the influence of substance abuse and protected by institutional betrayal is minimized as “human mistakes”. Said mistakes are forgiven by being “seen, acknowledged, purified, and overcome”. How has this happened? “Our lineage stories are filled with this truth.” Really? What did Trungpa “overcome” by dying of terminal alcoholism at the age of 47? What did his “Vajra Regent”, Thomas Rich, “overcome”, by having unprotected sex with his vulnerable male students while he and his colleagues knew he was carrying HIV?
“If we take away the Sakyong or the Sakyong and the Vidyadhara’s photos, we are removing the Shambhala lineage.” It would be good to see transparency in relation to the fact that this statement would be felt by some to be coded threat to their religious/Tantric identities, which depend upon “lineage” bonds, presented as equally precious and fragile.
The Sakyong is taking time away from teaching and administration to do very challenging personal work. He has already started that work. At the same time, he is still the Sakyong, the Shambhala lineage holder. We can turn away from the Sakyong because of his actions. We can hold and feel our pain and work with both the human and the teacher. We can hold our confusion and sanity at the same time. These are very personal decisions.
This directly contradicts the above statement: “However, lineage holders are not models because they are sacred or pure, or different from us, but because they are the same as us.” Here the Acharya re-asserts that “Sakyong” is a separate and ostensibly uber-human identity.
Also, “confusion” here is conflated with pain, and “work” in relation to pacifying that pain is conflated with “sanity”. The implication is that pain is insane.
There is not just one or the other approach. In fact, we may find that removing or keeping the pictures up will not make things more or less difficult. We will still need to feel our pain.
Victims of sexual assault and institutional abuse do not need to feel more pain. Telling them that they do, and implying that they are avoiding it by suggesting that the picture of an assaulter be removed, conflates criminal victimization with existential contemplation.
Put another way: this statement posits a false equivalency between abuse and the First Noble Truth of suffering, as if they belong to the same category, as if the former was as inevitable as the latter. It further weaponizes the basic teaching trope of the organization — that it is desirable to dwell in awakened sadness — against its members.
It joins many other examples in popular Shambhala literature and language to paint a picture of a spirituality strongly invested in the tensions of authoritarianism and sado-masochism.
Alternative approaches to taking the photos down that have helped people in some communities include covering one or both of the shrine photos, but not taking them down. For now we will start there, with covering the Sakyong’s photo.
It would be good to have transparency around the “we” here. The plural seems to speak for the community, but the need for this email is evidence there is no consensus on what should be done.
For those of you who would like to have a further conversation about this and voice your feelings, I look forward to talking soon or receiving your email.