Susan Piver’s “On Shambhala”: An Abuse Crisis Letter, Annotated

Just yesterday, I published a list of the rote defences commonly mobilized by leaders of yoga and Buddhist organizations in which institutional abuse has come to light. I feel it’s important to see these defences clearly as they unfold in real time. I have four reasons for this:

  1. Analysis — especially from the outside — can be an important reality-check for group members who are emotionally vulnerable through a crisis that casts doubt on whether leaders who they believe care for them actually do care for them, or have the tools to care for them.
  2. The defences are sophisticated. Crisis statements often conflate acknowledging organizational abuse with the encouragement for members to re-commit to the organization. They conflate transparency with damage control and rebranding. They present the unfolding of institutional betrayal in real time. Abuse with organizational roots has already manipulated the time, labour, and emotions of members. It’s not the time to ask them to give more.
  3. The defences are sophisticated, part 2. The basic teaching content of modern global yoga and Buddhism is easy to weaponize against those who were evangelized by it. People are often attracted to this content because it provides cognitive relief by focusing on the somatic present through techniques like breathwork or bodyscanning. At first, people can really benefit from the encouragement to question judgment, to disconnect feeling from thought, to take an ironic stance towards thought altogether, to change or pause thought rhythms with mantras or silencing meditations, to chase emptiness and silence, to adopt a metaview beyond all positions, and to imagine themselves or more often their leaders as always already perfect. But in crisis situations, an organization can ask members to use every one of these methods as forms self-abuse: to undermine critical thinking, cover up power differentials, minimize perceptions of harm, and silence victims.
  4. Reading these defences for their impact (and against their intention) reveals important aspects of the nature of the group and its teaching content. If you want to know what a group really teaches, listen carefully to what it says in crisis-mode.

I also wrote that “I’ve taken a lot of criticism for pointing out stuff like this. Usually I’m told that it’s not good to shame people who are trying to make accountability statements. I get that, which is why I try to identify trends instead of naming names.”

But within minutes of hitting “Publish”, a reader sent me this post by Susan Piver. Piver is a prominent figure in the global Shambhala community, although she carefully qualifies her relationship to Shambhala International, suggesting she is independent of the brand and its network. That network is now grappling with accusations that the son and heir of Shambhala innovator Chogyam Trungpa, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, is, like his father, a heavy-drinking womanizer who regularly abuses his power as a spiritual leader. The accusations have been painstakingly compiled by Andrea Winn, a life-long Shambhala member with her own personal story of sexual abuse with the community. The Sakyong has issued a qualified apology.

I’m not offering the following analysis of Piver’s community letter to shame her personally, nor because it employs many of the defences I described yesterday, even while it makes strong statements of support for Shambhala victims. I’m analyzing it because it offers nine points of advice to her followers that I believe are poorly resourced, information-controlled, and victim-silencing. Piver suggests her letter is prompted by online reactions she names as “dangerous”. I would argue that what she offers her followers falls short of emotional safety.

I hesitate to publish this, because I can predict the blowback. People will say that it’s a misinformed outsider’s opinion, or that criticizing a woman’s heartfelt communication with her community is misogynistic, or that this is a personal attack. I’ve weighed these possibilities carefully, because it’s never okay to punch down. I’m not punching down. I’m critically analyzing a public document that comments on abuse revelations within the enormously wealthy and powerful institution to which the author is tied through content and method.

To address these objections up front: I’m making no claims about Piver’s intentions, which seem genuinely altruistic, but rather focusing on the letter’s implications and impacts. If criticism of a public document feels like a personal attack, it is because yoga and Buddhist public figures have been encouraged by neoliberal propaganda to commodify personal spaces and moods. This makes it easy to conflate private intuition with public responsibility. The letter’s content is self-reflexive: I believe an outside view will be informative. And while I will never entirely shed my own misogynistic conditioning, I know enough to tell when pseudo-feminist arguments are being used against whistleblowers and those who call for reform.

Finally and on a grateful note I’ll say that I reached out to Piver with a draft of this before publishing, because I saw that she was really listening to and responding to criticism on her blog. This is miles better than the Shambhala International bureaucracy. She wrote back with an important correction and then, by phone, expressed appreciation for the perspective. “I think you should publish whatever you think is helpful,” she said.

I felt a lot of empathy for Piver and told her that I believed she was in a really difficult spot. Having started practicing with the Shambhala group in 1993, she’s having to re-evaluate the joys, troubles, and sunken costs of twenty-five years in a very short period of time. “This is an active learning situation,” she said.

We agreed to continue to discuss these issues and our differing approaches, and may film a conversation for broadcast. I’m really looking forward to that.

My notes are in red italics.

_____

Dear friends, students, and Shambhala Sangha,

If you haven’t heard, the head of my Shambhala lineage has been accused of clerical sexual abuse.

The reports are here. Not linking them can distance and abstract the issue. Project Sunshine is not gossip, but solid research and reporting created at enormous personal expense. 

The community is reeling. Whether you are in the Open Heart Project community or are a fellow Shambhala practitioner, I want to share with you my own thoughts and feelings about what is going on.

This statement of intention frames and limits what follows as personal. This seems reasonable, but it’s problematic. The statement is published on Piver’s personally branded blog, but she is also writing as the meditation coach and guide for the more than 20K followers of her online platform, the Open Heart Project. Through online meditation lessons, Piver’s voice has become a trusted source of internal guidance for many. By virtue of this pedagogical structure alone, her own thoughts and feelings will be easily internalized by those entrained to relax into the instructions that follow. But the instructions themselves are not framed as personal, but as universally useful.

First, thank you to those who were brave enough to bring their experience to light. My heart goes out to you and I am grateful to you for being willing to step forward.

The women making allegations in the two parts of the Sunshine Project have remained nameless. But Andrea Winn has taken incalculable risks to openly platform their voices. Naming her and platforming her efforts would be an excellent gesture.

Note: if any part of the neo-Buddhist practices commodified by Shambhala International are about actual rather than performed transparency, if they are about actual rather than meditated-upon compassion, its figureheads should be on their knees, asking Winn what they can do to help, as well as for her teachings on insight, courage, and forbearance. 

For those of you who don’t know me: I have practiced in the Shambhala lineage since 1993, graduated from Vajrayana seminary (as it was called) in 2004, completed meditation instructor training in 2007, and attended several additional programs for “advanced” students between 2007 and 2015.

The use of the word “lineage” is deceptive. (This is not a comment on Piver’s intention, but on the effects of a repeated untruth.) “Lineage” has been deployed by Trungpa devotees for over forty years to suggest that his innovations have historical or scriptural roots in medieval Tibet, or even earlier. While Shambhala narratives do borrow from early Indian and Tibetan tantrism, Trungpa had as creative a relationship to historical sources as he did to ethics, describing his teachings as “termas” — discovered or channeled texts left by previous enlightened beings. He was skilled at getting other luminaries in the Tibetan diaspora to verify them as authentic.

In its current usage, “lineage” also implies that the honorific “Sakyong” has historical depth, when in reality it dates to the enthronement of Trungpa’s son, Ösel Rangdrol Mukpo, in 1995, two years after Piver began her practice. This all seems academic until we consider that the primary mechanism of cult formation is deception and secrecy — about the leader, the origin stories, and the group’s intentions. This is worth considering when words like “lineage” are often used to inflate the legitimacy of a yoga or Buddhism organization and increase member loyalty.

In 2011, I started an online practice community called the Open Heart Project and there are now close to 20,000 members all over the world. I send out a meditation instructional video once a week to everyone (for free). We have free and paid online programs. It is an amazing, loving, genuine sangha.

Everything I teach is what I have learned along my path as a student in Shambhala. I don’t reference or hide my affiliation and I have no official role within Shambhala. I rarely teach at Shambhala centers and I’m not connected to the current curriculum. I say all of this for context.

Context can be useful, but it can also distance and limit liability. This passage initiates one of the letter’s main drives, which is to attempt to separate the content of Shambhala materials from the institution that creates and maintains them. We must consider whether this is truly possible. Whether this platform and letter would have social capital, or have emerged at all, without the seminary, programmes, and networks of the institution. Whether the general message is somehow separable from the medium. Whether there would be visible content at all without an original charismatic leader, land centres, an organization of think tanks, a university, a credit union and a media empire. The plea to “separate the teacher from the teachings” is common in crisis situations, but ironic when employed by organizations that profess to teach non-dualism.

One needn’t have legal or formal financial bonds with Shambhala International to be tied to the harm it produces. If it becomes clear that SI is cult, it will also become clear that it is encircled by front organizations and businesses that can function to recruit members towards the centre. Hannah Arendt describes this as the “transmission belt” effect in totalitarianism. Not everyone will be drawn into a deeply committed relationship to SI, but those who are will be more easily drawn if exposed to lower-demand versions of its culture and ideology.

Nor are legal or financial bonds necessary for the expression of softer powers. Piver makes clear use of Shambhala teaching content through various media streams. What’s less overt is her expression of the routinization of the Shambhala leadership charisma that tracks directly back to Trungpa himself. This can be seen through seemingly peripheral details, from aesthetic similarities to performative overlaps. If you’re using Tibetan colours, Trungpa-style low teaching thrones, and filming yourself in front of rice paper screens or a neo-Tibetan altar, the continuity is clear. The medium is the message.

More important than design elements are the performative affects that constitute the habitus of the organization — the general way it feels to sit in a Shambhala room, listening to a Shambhala teacher. Close observation shows that bodily postures, speaking speeds, Mona-Lisa smiles, and the counterpoint rhythm of seriousness and irony are shared amongst many Trungpa senior teachers. There are strict dress and grooming codes. This mimicry might not be conscious, but it’s not by accident, either. It is the way in which the somatics of Trungpa’s charisma have been distributed throughout his senior followers after his death. 

So what do we do when we hear that our Gurus are also humans who do fucked-up things, awful things, things that harm others and cause trauma? The answer is I have no bloody idea. We are all grasping for a way to meet the current circumstance.

Part of the intention here might be about fostering a sense of normal humanness and vulnerability. This can be helpful at dissuading followers from developing idealizing transferences. At the same time there is no excuse for being in a leadership position and not having ideas. There are plenty of ethical policy resources available, including those from An Olive Branch, and The Faith and Trust Institute. Anyone can Google “restorative justice”, or take a look at how Andrea Winn struggled to raise $10K to fund more than a year’s worth of research. Compare that to outsized wealth of Shambhala-related businesses, and ask whether a donation is in order.

With this graf, Piver initiates the second main drive of the letter, which is to support the idea that the abuse should mainly be addressed through the internal work of group members — work in which she is not a leader, but an equal partner. Power differentials, however, confound the premise of equal partnership. Finally, if the picture of systemic abuse coming into focus through the efforts of Winn is accurate, it is likely that a percentage of the 20K members of OHP have experienced harassment or boundary violations in relation to the Shambhala hierarchy. Here would be an ideal place to direct them to a grievance procedure or independent services. 

Even better: the letter could encourage readers to support Winn, or for victims to bring their stories, if they are comfortable, to the investigator employed by the Sunshine Project.

I have heard from my own students and have a longing to offer something of benefit, as do so many others. Here is what I have been telling them. I share it here with the vast hope that it might be useful. I will be happy if you benefit from my clarity or confusion. I offer both without quite knowing which is which.

Here are the various responses I’ve seen on the Shambhala Facebook page in an effort to make sense of where we are right now:

Here several paraphrases are presented in italics as quotes. I’ve bolded portions that seem to be additions/caricatures.

The Sakyong is a dick/criminal/bro/alcoholic, we need to fire him.

The Sakyong is a dick who is also a flawed human, we should separate those two manifestations.

I love the Sakyong and that is not going to change although I abhor what he has done.

I don’t see what’s so bad.

Like father, like son.

We need to force the Sakyong out; sign petitions; remove his photos; turn away from him completely. Hesitation in doing so to be interpreted as supporting the abuse.

Hierarchical structures and faux Asiana are part of the problem; Shambhala should be a democracy. We should vote for the next Sakyong.

The next Sakyong should be a woman.

Maybe Pema Chodron will come lead us.

Our alcoholic culture is the problem. 

This is samsara, what did you expect?

We don’t need a Guru. (Related: the Guru is within; Gurus are always trouble; there is no such thing as a Guru; follow the teachings of the Guru not the personality of the Guru, and so on.)

Forget about Sakyong Mipham. The victims are the ones who need our attention.

You feel empathy for Sakyong Mipham? Fuck you. What about the victims, huh? Huh?

Shambhala is a cult and I am out. (Related: I always felt something was off and my intuition told me to stay away; I’ve heard stories that made me feel weird; it is riddled with patriarchal dysfunction)

He is guilty, guilty, guilty, screw “allegations.” It’s obvious. I am the judge, jury, and executioner, and I say off with his head.

I’ve been around him a lot and I never saw any such behavior.

I left Shambhala long ago and man, was I right to do so.

He’s not my teacher and this is not my Sangha, but here are all of my dharma-opinions anyway.

It’s over.

It’s just beginning. 

Multiple invocations of the Four Dharmas of Gampopa, especially, “Grant your blessing so that confusion may dawn as wisdom.”

Perhaps each of these responses is quite accurate. However, with the exception of the last one, they are useless (or worse) in this particular moment.

Without citing Winn, describing the allegations, or referring to Shambhala’s intergenerational history of abuse, the letter now assesses the utility of diverse responses. These responses are admitted to possibly being accurate, but that their accuracy is divorced from their utility. In black and white, therefore, this letter is suggesting that there is a difference between what is true and what is useful. Useful to whom? To what?

Next steps are critical and what I see so far from our sangha (with some notable, profound, beautiful exceptions) feels dangerous—not because strong emotions are involved, but because some space is required in order for our wisdom to choose the way forward rather than our neuroses. With space, we plant our words and decisions in clarity. Without it, when our words and decisions are rooted in an attempt to feel better/make others feel better/offload painful emotions, we add to the confusion.

How are the next steps critical, and for whom? Here, the virtues of non-reactive communication are lauded, and the alternatives, listed above (with some parody), are deemed “dangerous”, and the product of “neuroses”. The advice that follows is previewed in contrast as “space” through which “wisdom” will “choose the way forward”. This elides the letter itself (and by extension its author) with “wisdom” and “clarity”. The words and decisions of the letter will not attempt “to feel better/make others feel better/offload painful emotions.” All of these impulses are positioned as inferior.

Apparently, it’s okay to have painful emotions, but the advice that follows offers no pathways for expressing them, whether informally in the social media forums discussed, or through any formal institutional or third-party grievance process. 

Here are some alternatives.

One: Examine your personal relationship to the teacher.

A place to begin is by contemplating your own relationship with the teacher. Not Susan’s relationship, or Johnny’s or Missy’s or the victims’ or the students of 1974 or 2004. Yours.

My relationship to Sakyong Mipham is via the teachings themselves. I have studied with him during retreats that have lasted for months on end. I have read his books and other writings. That is how I know him.

The only relationship I have ever had with the previous lineage-holder, Choygam Trungpa (who died before I entered the lineage), is through his books. It is impossible for me to overstate the power these teachings have had and continue to have in my life. They altered my trajectory completely into a far richer and more powerful place than it seemed I was headed for. (I might still be a bartender in Texas, who knows.) (Not that there was anything wrong with that.)

This may be the world’s biggest cop-out, I get that. And it is easy for me to say, as I have never experienced sexual misconduct or a power trip from Sakyong Mipham. I have compassion for the individuals mentioned in the report and am horrified on their behalf. There can be no excuse for such behavior and nothing in here is intended as such. However, when I examine myself for what I know to be true, this is what I find. I think that is always a good place to start.

Editorial note on Jul 3: I removed this paragraph for three reasons. One, I realized it could easily be misconstrued as a way to excuse inexcusable behavior. Two, I was being wishy-washy. My reasoning was murky and more applicable to my relationship with Chogyam Trungpa than Sakyong Mipham. Chogyam Trungpa is not the issue here, Sakyong Mipham is. Three, it hurt someone’s feelings and she was right to be hurt. I APOLOGIZE.

It’s really great that Piver removed and apologized for this graf, which was odious. It suggested that if a member didn’t have personal contact with either of these leaders, their verifiable experience would be limited. If, as in Piver’s case, the institutional or literary contact was non-abusive, this should be the starting-point for discussion.

This is (was) an isolating message, encouraging an individualistic and solipsistic relationship to “community” in which private experiences and interpretations are valued above all. Surely that “all” must include and privilege the experiences of victims. For more on this, the concept of “I got mine-ism” might be helpful. 

Two: Make your personal practice the very center of your life.
What I tell myself (and you) is this: Do what you need to do to deepen your practice. Period. That is the only thing that matters. If it is to practice for longer, do that. If it to retreat into study, do that. If it is to leave and study elsewhere, do that. If it is to be utterly confused and uncertain about what to do, do that. Your practice is the teacher. Your inner wisdom is always, always present.

If this letter is addressed to “friends, students, and the Shambhala Sangha”, what practice is it referring to, other than techniques and methods and sentiments that are inspired by the organization itself? What does “your personal practice” mean when referring to something that has been derived from a seminary experience and a costly pyramid of workshop programmes and trainings? What is being asked here, really? Who has defined and conferred “inner wisdom”, and how can this be distinguished from the agency of the member? The letter holds out the possibility of leaving, but fails to acknowledge how terrifying that might be to people dependent upon the group. Nor does it point to resources beyond the practices that surely Chogyam Trungpa and his son were themselves practicing, and which offered their students no protection against institutional abuse.

Three. Protect your relationship to the teachings at all costs.
At my seminary, Sakyong Mipham tossed off what could have been heard as a throwaway line, but it implanted itself in my head. Paraphrasing: “In Tibet,” he said, “When it comes to the Guru, the conventional wisdom is to live three valleys away.” Three valleys! Close enough, presumably, to receive teachings and far enough to be insulated from the goings-on of the inner court/sausage machine. That’s for me, I thought, and I have kept my version of that distance.

Leaving aside the incongruence between the item and the explanation — “inner court/sausage machine”? Really? Is this letter telling us that abuse is inherent to the organization’s administration, but that this is to be expected? That it’s better to just eat the sausage, and not know where it comes from or how it’s made? 

Four: Consider the institution and the teachings separately.
If you have lost trust in Shambhala, that is totally understandable. Some may even have lost trust in the teachings. In any case, it is important to hold Shambhala the institution separate from the Shambhala teachings. You may choose to keep both or to toss one and keep the other. Or opt out altogether. It is completely up to you and no one has the right to question your decision or tell you what to do.

This highly contradictory statement continues the attempt to separate form and content. It directs the member to do this, but then advocates personal choice.  

Five: No one will save us.
I invite you to join me in contemplating the lojong slogan, “Abandon any hope of fruition.” There is no papa who is going to save us. While there are countless beings who know infinitely more than I—and when I encounter them, I will supplicate them for their wisdom and compassion—there is no one who can figure out my life for me. To hear that the Guru may be deeply flawed gives us the chance to give up such expectations once and for all. Stop looking for someone to rescue you. Focus on what is rather than what you hoped would be. Stop wishing there was another now. In this way, you make your heart and mind available to our world that needs you so much. I’m not saying we should not hold perpetrators accountable. We most definitely should. Hold Sakyong Mipham accountable in the conventional courts if you choose, but hold yourself accountable in the ethereal courts.

Meditation slogans won’t save us, either. Here the activities of social and political change are degraded as the infantile wishes of those who aren’t wise enough to recognize the innate goodness of the present moment. Wanting justice or even clear answers is conflated with “wishing there was another now.” Worse, such desires are said to limit one’s capacity to engage with real-world issues. This is not true. Wanting justice or clear answers is also a present and embodied state. 

“To hear that the Guru may be deeply flawed gives us the chance to give up such expectations once and for all.”

Or, hearing that the Guru may be deeply flawed gives members the opportunity to examine how and why he ascended to power, and how he was enabled both materially and through his organization’s valuing of empty and perfect nowness, whilst relying on idealizations of magical pasts and futures for validation. It gives members the opportunity to ask where all their money and labour and emotional energy went, and how they might get some of it back.

The last line mobilizes a Mahayana teaching on the division between conventional and absolute reality to subtly degrade legal remedies, and then goes farther to make Tantric reference. “Hold yourself accountable in the ethereal courts,” will read like a thinly-veiled threat, unfortunately, to fully-ensconced Shambhala members. As a part of their “Vajrayana” commitment ceremonies, they have all been told about the horrible afterlife consequences of even thinking negatively about their Buddhist teachers. 

Six. Hold your seat.
“Feel the feelings. Drop the story,” said Pema Chodron. It is very important to do this at a time when emotions are powerful. The more powerful, the more important. Fortunately, as practitioners we know exactly how to do this. Whether you feel rage, sorrow, numbness, all of the above, turn toward it immediately and lean in as deeply as you can—unless you are traumatized and/or triggered due to past abuses, in which case, DO NOT DO THIS. Meditation may actually be harmful. Please turn to whomever you can for help and feel the love of your sangha in whatever way you can. And know that my heart goes out to you so bad.

Otherwise, “feel the feelings” means something like locate it in your body and rest within the sensations as best you can. When thoughts arise: The Sakyong should be fired/we live in a patriarchy/I feel so sad for everyone…just as you do in meditation, let go. Return attention to the feelings until you are ready to stop. Trust yourself. Know that in so doing, you are priming the ground of power, not desperation.

Here the meditation techniques of Trungpa, Chodron, and the Shambhala organization are turned against against members who are merely thinking about ethics policies, social conditions, or even the pain of abuse victims. 

This advice conflates transparency with aggression by acknowledging the feelings of abuse and betrayal as real while making the member responsible for resolving them. In applying this message to this circumstance, the letter suggests that “Yes, there is abuse, and it has real effects on you. Ultimately you alone are responsible for those effects. You’ve been given tools for neutralizing this pain. It’s your task to use them. When the feelings stop, through the use of our techniques, you will be more powerful.” 

Seven. Dudes: check yourselves.
I haven’t exhaustively parsed the vast kaleidoscope of comments on the Shambhala Facebook page, although I have been following the threads as carefully as I can. Some things I’ve read have been truly helpful while others have really pissed me off or made me depressed. Cool. That’s how these things go. However, I can’t help but notice that the majority of voices calling for unilateral moves, making demands, and telling others what to do come from our friends with penises.

Men. Thank you for decrying the patriarchy. However, I would like to suggest that you consider taking yourselves out of the center of the conversation by asserting black-and-white opinions, calling for reprisals, airing condemnations, circulating petitions, and so on. Try to listen. Let other voices come to the fore. Consider asking more questions and issuing fewer proclamations. Many have said they wish for more female/feminine energy voices. This is one way to accomplish that. Otherwise you’re not going to get these voices to step into the conversation. This is not because we are fragile and we certainly do not need hand-holding but because the conversation will simply arise in a different way if you stop dominating it via edicts and mansplaining.

This is 101% my view and if my sisters and brothers want to dispute me on this, that would be awesome.

These points should be foregrounded as crucial to fostering women’s leadership in all yoga and dharma organizations. The content,  however, is inconsistent in relation to nine items of top-down directive advice given by this very blog. Piver is drawing on content created within a dominance hierarchy that fantasizes about a heavenly monarchy headed by a transcendental king that will eventually rule the world.

Letting “other voices come to the fore” could first involve platforming Andrea Winn and her reporting subjects.

Also problematic is the parallelism here between “feminine energy” and the bias of Piver’s advice, which seeks to avoid taking a solid and active position in the face of systemic abuse, preferring internalized examination and silencing. Mansplaining is patriarchal, but dharmasplaining is not necessarily a feminist alternative.

Eight. Stop aiming your weapon at yourself.
This is something I have seen so many times, in myself, you, the planet. When we are upset about something, we do that exact thing in response. If it wasn’t so painful, it would be really funny. A made-up example:

Person 1: What you just said is so judgmental. Who made you the judge and jury? Stop telling me what to do.
Person 2: Wait. You just did all of those things.

Obviously, this is a silly example. but I have seen so many instances where we do exactly what we tell other people to stop doing and then wonder why the conversation isn’t going anywhere.

Conflict in such circumstances is often minimized as dramatic or childish. Here the letter is presents a high road voice, above it all. It presents the conflicting views as though their perspectives are equal, when in reality the main “sides” in authority crises in high-demand groups express a power disparity. Generally speaking, on one side are those who demand restorative justice, while the other side attempts to preserve power and order. This is not childish bickering, but a values dialectic that will be bitterly contested until the status quo changes or is re-established.

Nine. We’re on our own. And that’s okay.
It may seem like now we are on our own and it is up to each Shambhala person to bring the heart of the teachings to the world. It is true. But this has always been true. In no way is this meant as an excuse for the behavior attributed to Sakyong Mipham or to bypass the suffering of anyone who may have been harmed by him (which, to varying degrees, would be all of us). Do whatever you can to bring the teachings to life in your world with the support of the three jewels, however they arise for you.

“In no way is this meant as an excuse for the behavior attributed to Sakyong Mipham or to bypass the suffering of anyone who may have been harmed by him (which, to varying degrees, would be all of us).” Perhaps not. But what is the impact of writing over 2K words without referring to a single restorative action the author, her students, or the broader Shambhala sangha might take in relation to the victims of institutional and systemic abuse?

Here the concept of bypassing is addressed, which creates the impression that it is a studied and digested mechanism. This is belied by the teaching content of “letting go”. Lastly, the reinforcement of the value of privatized religion marks the overlap between the rise of Shambhala and the wave of neoliberal sentiment and politics in the Global North. I don’t know if “We’re on our own” was the message of Trungpa, but it certainly was the message of Thatcher and Reagan.

You got this. And speaking on behalf of all humanity, I implore you to take your seat with wisdom, compassion, and power.

Finally, please know that I am reevaluating my relationship to Shambhala (the institution, not the teachings). I don’t know what the future holds for me, although I am committed without question to the dharma, to you, and to my path as a student and a teacher.

I offer this post, not as an activist or jurist, but out of spiritual friendship.

This sign-off statement reminds readers that the letter is coming from a higher place, a place beyond agitating for reform or restorative justice, or enacting policies that would help prevent harm.  

May it be of benefit.

Good luck everyone.

Love, Susan

24 Comments

  • my spontaneous feeling is you are pretentious arrogant and completely full of yourself.
    your hard edge I know it all stance and I Matthew Remski am going to explain it to everyone is both laughable and makes me cringe, correction vomit ~ ~ your whole stance is like driving an SUV at 200 mph and smashing into a brick wall. There is very little space left between the metal and the stone. There is no true intelligence to be found in such a compressed space. I am an outsider too, but have taken in the presence of the Shambhala Center and it’s teachers way more than several times ( and never before in my life encountered this quality of open hearted genuineness. ) Your observation on the teachers and atmosphere of the center are sophisticated sophomoric crap.

      • I totally agree with this response to your article. My “practice” changed and saved my life.
        Following the Buddha’s teaching, test it with your life, if it works, keep on, if not drop it.

      • You have commented to someone downthread that you’re not suggesting that Piver’s readers are stupid.

        This is a classic example of doing just that kind of thing. This is a dismissive, arrogant comment which completely fails to engage with what the poster is saying–which of course is your right, but to me it’s cowardly and you would have been much better to keep silent.

        My impression from this whole site is that it’s a shrine to your view of your own intelligence–which is the point the OP was making. I don’t get any sense of compassion or even social decency, of wanting to help someone. That includes those who have made the allegations: it’s seems that they’re just collateral in the great crusade to show the world the intellect of Matthew Remski.

        In my experience, that’s usually the sign of someone whose intellectual prowess is not nearly as great as he (sic–it’s almost always men who do this) thinks it is. However it also makes you look like those you’re criticising: mere objects in the path of your bullying, self-obsessed juggernaut.

        • Thanks for commenting. I’m happy to field criticism, but quotes are useful. If you have a negative gut-reaction to the site as a whole, I hope you don’t burden yourself by looking at it.

    • There were some brilliant moments in your critique (which I enjoyed). This statement is astute:
      “Generally speaking, on one side are those who demand restorative justice, while the other side attempts to preserve power and order. This is not childish bickering, but a values dialectic that will be bitterly contested until the status quo changes or is re-established.”

  • Thanks MR! I am glad you are continuing to write this articles and taken the heat. I witnessed the implosion of the Zen Center of Portland and how many people hid behind their “practice” as a way of not dealing with the reality of their beloved teacher hitting on students and patients in his private practice. I saw the minimazing, the calls for more “sitting with your feelings, etc…Spiritual bypassing is not a joke. Thanks again.

  • I wouldn’t choose the harsh words like Stephen but the direction is ok.
    You sabotage yourself and the valid points you have. It seems to me it’s a self therapy for you with a fanatic touch administering the absolut rightness to the people. In the end it’s not helpful it must be feared.

  • Thank you Matthew. I feel much better having read your critique because what Ms. Piver wrote sounded good but left a slightly sour taste in my mouth. Now would you please turn your brilliant genius (I am being serious) to breaking down the letter the Acharyas released by the Office of Practice and Education ? I can forward it to you if you need it.

  • Thank you for this post, Matthew, and your work in general. One critical comment for you: the term “womanizer” feels problematic, objectifying, and antiquated, in the context of this post especially, but also in general. It just struck me as a very wrong note. I haven’t gone any deeper than that in an analysis of it.

  • As a person feeling the pain and betrayal of severe harm in this Sangha every day, Thanks for pointing out the methods that are typically employed in minimising people’s experiences of abuse of power. What Piver appears to miss, perhaps because she has no experience of such betrayal, is that in pointing to such abuse for four years now I have not been mansplaining so much as speaking truth to power, something for which Andrea Winn is now being fêted.

    Piver recommends that peace can be found by listening rather than talking. What she clearly fails to understand is that the dialogue which I began in 2014 in this Sangha about criminal abuse of power was one sided until Winn began her timely work, because the Administrators simply stopped talking. I tired of waiting for a voice to listen to and burned every Shambhala associated article in my possession on a bonfire one night, retaining only the voluminous reports which I had written on my experience and the sycophantic, hand-wringing responses and reactions which I had received in return. I did this for one reason: the people who harmed me are a danger to society and themselves and will one day be brought to Justice for the very real benefit of a more enlightened society.

    While Piver is free to choose to use her elevated position as a socalled Teacher, she disregards the most basic starting point of buddhism, that of reincarnation. Trungpa once said that if you believe in reincarnation you are a buddhist. She would do well to regard both men and women as sentient beings suffering in samsara and stop riffing on the eternal conflict between male and female. There is no joy in shutting down men to elevate “our friends with vaginas” . Such language simply elevates conflict and misses the point which I bel;ieve both myself and Andrea Winn are making which is that abuse of power is an obstacle to enlightenment, and in many cases it adversely affects its victims for decades.

  • Also posted on Susan’s blog, re the pitfalls of post-modern methodology.

    While Matthew’s writing in the piece you linked to is exquisite, and his heart is in the right place concerning disarming structures that perpetuate abuse or shield abusers, I personally find much of his methodology deeply flawed.

    He is invested in an extreme form of post modernism that leaves little humanity for individuals and instead seeks to place people in group categories for value assessments.

    In fact, Matthew hinself has become the unshakingky confident, uncompromising, distant and unnerving guru he critiques in his work. There is a strong self image put forward, and very little introspection or willingness to accept mistakes or even slight flaws in his methodology or way of seeing the world.

    Perhaps this is a product of the work itself. i cannot remember who uttered this pertinent quote:

    “Do not argue too much with fundamentalists,
    Lest you yourself become a fundamentalist”

    I would add that to understand better her own tradition Susan would be well advised to invest time to study the Tibetan language and Tibetan history. Then there can be a deeper understanding of the authentic tradition of which Shambhala is a neo-liberal offshoot.

    • Thanks for commenting, Nina. I agree that basically everyone invested in SI would benefit from actual Tibetan studies. The organization has been super-sophisticated at mobilizing the idealized orientalism of its members.

      I’d be interested to know specifically where you think my method is “postmodern”, instead of the product of a postmodern era in which grand narratives — like SI’s utopianism or its presentation of leaning into meditative sadness as being universally good — are viewed with skepticism.

      Because what you pinpoint — that my criticism here “leaves little humanity for individuals and instead seeks to place people in group categories for value assessments” — ignores the time spent in this article focusing on the category confusion between individual yearnings and public responsibilities. I’m not focused on Piver’s individuality, or my own, because to do so in this context would be to further that confusion and muddy the argument with an ad hominem tone. I’m not going to attack her personally. The group has already done that, by mobilizing her obvious good will.

      IMO, if we’re trying to understand how abusive groups work, we have to look carefully at how personal narratives are used to reframe, minimize, and validate structural harm. The group has already weaponized personal narratives against its members. Guided by the neo-liberalism you rightly point out, it thrives on getting people to speak from their authentic hearts etc. Pointing to the tragedy of this is the opposite of the seemingly heartless aspects of social constructionism I think you’re targeting.

      I’d also like to point out your false equivalency between building and wielding institutional power that abuses students (neo-“guru” model), and building and wielding an analysis of that power. If my work here starts building a multinational high-demand group that extracts money, sex and emotional labour from devotees, then you’d have a good point. Until then, the comparison serves SI.

      • Dear Matthew Remski,
        I am a Shambhalian from Germany. Please excuse if my English might have flaws or is not very eloquent.
        The beginning of your article was interesting, because I thought you would be interested in making clarifications for people who are members of spiritual groups, so that they might learn from it.
        Then I realised that you have certain ideas and categories in your thinking which you are applying to Susans Blog Post. And those ideas are actually very limited and negative; (only one example: IMO, if we’re trying to understand how abusive groups work, we have to look carefully at how personal narratives are used to reframe, minimize, and validate structural harm. The group has already weaponized personal narratives against its members. ) You are criminalizing with your words, “the group… weaponized”, a whole community of good people.
        It seems you believe that, because people are interested in Buddhism, or spiritual practice or read advice from other people like Susan Piver, they have no critical mind of their own? Now I am hurt by your personal narrative, disguised as objective analysis, which denigrades me as stupid. I can come to my own conclusion looking at and getting information about the events.
        What I see is that mistakes have been made an various levels and that there is a lot of goodwill to learn from these mistakes and intention to do better in the future and that meanwhile people are exchanging thoughts and opinions in order to collectively understand what has happened and what it has to do with the teacher’s personal shortcomings, or with systemic problems and with individual ignorance.
        There is no need to reduce this very complex situation of Shambhala International, different groups, backgrounds, education, cultures, history of religious traditions, enculturation of a different spiritual practice a.s.o., so that YOU can feel you have it in your pocket.
        It sounds smart, but I think you just do not have the whole picture to summarize Shambhala as an “abusive group.” This is just not true. Most people attend workshops and classes in Shambhala, because they choose to do it and they seem to get something out of it. It is a long road until they have to make a decision to become a member. They are free to come or go as close or distant as it feels right for them. The meditation technique is completely empowering a persons self-awareness. No one tells a person, what they should experience. You strengthen your intuition AND your own critical understanding when you meditate.
        I appreciate a sharp mind. I think you have a great and wonderfully sharp mind. But how far do we want to push this? Here it is just an expression of not trusting anybody’s good intention. In fact I find it cynical. You can call it critical thinking in a post-modern era.
        I call it small minded. Try to zoom out and look at the bigger picture. Use your mind to disarm real villains who abuse people.

        • Dear Anne —

          By your email address it seems that you’re the director of the Koln Shambhala Centre. I imagine this is a trying time for you. The stress doesn’t give you leave, however, to reject the very principle of criticism: that public statements from public figures are influential, deserve to be taken seriously, and responded to. This is a natural and democratic process.

          Nowhere in my article do I suggest that Piver’s readers are stupid or lack critical thinking. However, because her readership (and yours) will contain those with commitments up to and including samaya to a high-demand group with profound international cultural influence, it’s fair to assume that certain attitudes and ideologies have been favoured over others. You also conflate criticism of a crisis response with criticism of “interest in Buddhism” or “spiritual practice”. This is false, and redirects attention away from the clear and unaddressed structural harm at the heart of SI from the 1970s.

          Yes, high demand groups feature members of all kinds. I’m writing mainly for those who would benefit from a perspective without the conflicts of interest that yours and Piver’s must carry.

          Finally, this statement: “The meditation technique is completely empowering a persons self-awareness. No one tells a person, what they should experience. You strengthen your intuition AND your own critical understanding when you meditate” belies a dangerous grandiosity, and a failure to reach out to and understand people who have have the OPPOSITE experience within and because of SI. I wish you well.

  • Dear Matthew Remski,
    First off, I am a member of Shambhala. So, in your eyes, I have a conflict of interest that means my views aren’t legitimate. Second, I value what I see as your core criticism – that there is a history of abuse in Shambhala and that SMR’s behavior along with other teachers is inexcusable. The culture of silencing victims and other disagreeing members of the community is poisonous and needs to change. Many, probably most, members of Shambhala feel this way. There are also ones who do not. We may end up divided and diminished.

    I’m also a retired engineer with 40+ years solving problems. Many times while solving problems, one must live with them quite a long time before they can be resolved. You can’t wave a magic wand and redesign a product, empty the pipeline of affected product, change factory processes in an instant. Hopefully, your customers work with you and still see you as their best choice. To succeed long term you have to get this right more often than not.

    When solving problems, the first thing is to acknowledge the problem and clearly state what it is, a team is brought together to solve it. Immediate steps must be taken to communicate with those affected and if possible stop the problem from occurring.

    Often immediate steps aren’t complete solutions and are expensive making the product infeasible. So longer term root cause, corrective action, and steps to permanently resolve the problem are necessary. All this occurs in a constrained environment of resources and competition with other business opportunities and the necessity to be profitable and grow. Miracles happen on TV and in movies. In real life, there are major losses and often businesses fail.

    As I see it, Shambhala teachings are fundamentally buddhist teachings with a view of how to engage society, not just a spiritual community. CTR came out of the Chinese invasion of Tibet and destruction of the Tibetan Buddhist culture. In my study of his books and other Buddhist teachers, they are of the same ground. The Shambhala teachings are said to be his revelations. Many religious communities have revelatory teachers and teachings. Personally, I take all of these with a large grain of salt.

    What I don’t see you offering is much anything constructive. It’s more of a stop shipping, go out of business, black hole. The articles by Susan Piver and Judith Simmer-Brown, are in my mind about dealing with the immediate shock of the allegations. We don’t yet know the full depth of the problem as there is another report due from Andrea Winn soon and no doubt that won’t be complete. Perhaps your writings will help ensure we solve the problems. Maybe Shambhala will go out of business. But most of us “Shambhala” folks want to move forward. We feel deeply inspired by the Buddhist / Shambhala teachings and there are others who want to have these teachings in spite of the problems. Our problems are important and not unlike those of many other religious communities. Why do these things happen? How can we prevent them in the future? It is urgent that we address these problems this time. We are going to take some hits, though.

    Oh – I also see that you pick apart every critique, ultimately “proving” it isn’t legitimate. Given my years in engineering, I’m down on consultants as well. 🙂

    • Thanks David. I hope I validate the legitimacy of your critique by agreeing that the function of cultural criticism is not immediately constructive. My studies focus mainly on how power is managed and maintained in spiritual groups, and in showing how time and time again, the insularity of spiritual language, combined with high-demand social mechanisms, usually works to fail victims of institutional abuse.

      One thing I try to make clear across many articles is that the beliefs of group members are fine in and of themselves. Many Buddhists may argue with you and SI’s interpretation of its content as being coherent with the larger tradition — especially given that things like the Five Precepts are ignored. But that’s beside the point. There are plenty of people who love implausible things who don’t wind up enabling institutional abuse. The point I’m trying to make, here and elsewhere, is the otherwise benign or useful ideas can mobilized to distract from or even hide criminal behaviour that has been rationalized for decades. That’s a very specific data point.

      You’re totally right that for many of these articles to stay on that point, there is little room to speculate on solutions (which may be even more intrusive than critique). But here’s an idea: instead of 60 people gathering in a shrine room to listen to Judith Simmer-Brown use a piece of dharma to not talk about the ethical pathways forward, how about she (or Pema, or anyone in leadership) conducts a series of public interviews with sexual assault workers and trauma therapists and specialists in institutional harm. They could cede the teacher’s seat to experts in the actual problems that are pressing. Let this happen in the shrine rooms. If you really are interested in stating the problem, let qualified people do it.

      If people like the SI teaching, that’s great, it’s not going anywhere, and they’ll like it next year. As someone whose departure from high-demand groups was delayed by continuing to consider the group’s content rather than what my own agency should be, I’m saying it’s not the right material now, and also suggesting that restorative action is the higher form of spirituality given the circumstances.

      Sending care.

  • Hello Matthew,
    Thank you for your reply and suggestion. I too want to see experts in the field of sexual or other harm engaged. SI is engaging with An Olive Branch, a project of the Zen Center of Pittsburgh. I am not sure of their expertise, but it is said to address clergy sexual misconduct.

    Our community is not of one mind. Some people might agree wholeheartedly with all of your critique. Others, who are close to and devoted to the Sakyong are in my view wishing for the status quo. Over the years many former students of CTR have drifted away, in part because they aren’t aligned with the Shambhala teachings instead wanting the Nyingma and Kagyu teachings. In the past, we welcomed Buddhist teachers from various lineages. Recently, that seems to be discouraged at some centers. In my view, the recent revelations will hopefully lead to needed changes. I’m biased. I like this community and want it to do well. In my view it is first a Buddhist community. Shambhala teachings as I understand it were Trungpa’s vision of how society must change to go forward in a sane manner. Certainly Utopian ideals usually fail. Of course, if we can’t address harm inside our own community, we are deluded to say the least. I imagine you’d agree there are a lot of problems in the world right now. We aren’t ignoring the environment, promoting guns, and authoritarianism. Maybe we have some goals in common.

    Regarding the Five Precepts, they are part of Chogyam Trungpa’s teachings. I just this week read them in Vol 1 of the Profound Treasury, a compilation of his teachings. I first learned them doing a Dathun at Karme Choling in 2002. I don’t think we have lost sight of them as a community. However many of us feel that the Buddhist teachings that are the foundation of Shambhala aren’t being emphasized enough. I’m told the curriculum is being revised to include a body of Mahayana teachings – a clearly necessary component. Some people liked the Shambhala teachings because they were “secular”. I don’t think our community has resolved this yet. I’m not sure what is taught in Dathuns of recent.

    As a whole, I think SI is falling short of my wishes. In my experiences in engineering, good relationships are very valuable in influencing others. So is expertise – providing solutions. Someone said that if you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem. There is a lot of momentum in our current culture and cultural changes I’m told are hard. Regardless, our first priority must be preventing harm and addressing the harm that has occurred. Other changes will take more work and time.

    Good wishes,
    David

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