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.
I’ll preface this post by saying that, in accordance with the clinical research, I do not believe there are strong correlations between prior life experience and the likelihood that a person will join or stay in a cult (or “totalist”, or “high-demand” group.) What follows is a speculation, based on memory and anecdote, on why people who are already inside such a group may be more prone to the kind of enabling and moral harm that Philip Deslippe has described to me as “I got mine-ism” (IGM).
IGM is a defensive strategy by which a member who has not (or believes they have not) directly experienced abuse or institutional betrayal within the group deflects stories of abuse within the group by immediately self-referring, saying things like: “I don’t know about other’s experience; I find/found the teacher/teachings to be profoundly helpful in my life.” The statement is usually couched within an unwillingness to act on behalf on victims or mitigate future harm. Continue reading “The Unbearable Smugness of “I Got Mine-ism” Amongst Cult and ex-Cult Members”
It can be really hard listening to stories of abuse, especially if they implicate people or institutions that you love and benefit from. If you ever feel that strange tingle, followed by the urge to say:
Wow, that sounds like an intense and difficult experience; if you want to share more about it, I’ll listen…
…the following reminders can really help:
- Encourage all accusers to only talk about the here and now: “There’s only the present moment.” (They’ll thank you for this wisdom later.)
- Another angle is to relieve them of the terrible burden of history: “But that was so long ago. Do you really want to rehash that?”
- Or, remind them that history is also precious, in the memories of other people — innocent people, people they should care about: “But he’s been dead for years. Think of what this will do to those who really loved him.”
- Or, remind them that history is incomprehensible: “He came from a different time. He lived through unimaginable things. He’s a survivor.” (This is particularly important to tell the person who is calling themselves a “survivor”.)
- Memory is a part of consciousness. You really want it to be dirty?
- You can also cast doubt on their future in general: “What exactly do you hope to get out of this?”
- Or, in particular, being sure to predict their future unhappiness: “What satisfaction can you extract from a old/senile/dead man?”
- Remember that because Truth is Real and there is no separation and all that, literally anything can be re-framed as love. That’s right — anything.
- The only limit to your reframing capacity is fear, and fear is the root of the accusation to begin with. You are hearing the accusation because you haven’t fully accepted the power of Truth.
- Put more simply: you can appeal to the language of spiritual unity to explain why telling stories about abuse is divisive.
- Remember to always conceal your personal need to avoid consequences behind an abstract wish for collective peace.
- Remember that accusers want revenge. You know this is not healthy for them. It’s your job to save them from the mental and moral hell of revenge. Somebody must do it.
- Remember: you got exactly what you needed from that teacher/guru/organization. It/they transformed you. Don’t let any victim or their snowflake victim mentality take that from you. Nobody can disempower you.
- Also, remember how hard you worked to always see the good, then and now. All the sunken costs you gobbled up, all the humiliation you smiled through, how many goddam mantras you had to say to dull the pain of cognitive dissonance. You repressed that shit like a mofo. Don’t let anybody steal that work from you.
- Make sure to question the “intentions” of people who want to share their stories of abuse. Intentions are everything. And the intention to be divisive is reflective of a divided self.
- The Law of Attraction says that talking about abuse invites more abuse. But you don’t need the LoA to know that. Just look at what happens when you do it. Do you really want to subject yourself to abuse?
- Remember that the intentions of the teacher/guru/organization were ALWAYS good.
- Remember that your intentions are ALWAYS totally neutral. You have nothing at stake in how that teacher/guru/organization is portrayed.
- On the other hand, the accused, even if dead, has a lot at stake: “He has a wife and children. Think of them!”
- If you ever doubt the intentions of teacher/guru/organization, remember that people are always flawed. What’s important are the teachings.
- Whenever you say the word “teachings” aloud, pretend it has a capital letter. Teachings. Go ahead and say it again. Louder. You can do the same thing with the words “perception” (as in “it’s just your Perception“) and Forgiveness.
- Suggest that the need to be heard and seek justice creates more cycles of karma.
- Explain that no one needs justice if they can pretend to have equanimity. You can practice the facial expression of equanimity by gazing into a mirror while gently massaging your anus with an oiled finger.
- When you look at the accuser with the gaze of equanimity, your eyes should be slightly unfocused. This will give the person the feeling that you are listening-but-not-listening, seeing-but-not-seeing. If they ask Where the fuck are you anyway I’m saying something important!, you can breathe deeply and reply that you’re listening to and looking at them through the lens of non-judgement in that field where Rumi is posting to Facebook with one hand and massaging his anus with the other.
- If you’re doing all this noble work through email, make sure to sign off with “Love and Light”, so that your intentions are crystal clear!
- If it’s in person, make sure to offer the accuser a hug. They might recoil, but don’t back down. If they step back, step towards them, saying something like: “Let’s just take a moment to join in the present.” When you do hug them, count to at least ten, and then five more for good measure. Breathe deeply and let out a sigh. Show the accuser how warm your chest is, how human you are, how it’s like you’re the same person, which means it’s all going to be alright. If they pull back, hug a little tighter. Make them feel like it’s best for them to relax into it. Besides, they might just be smelling your poopy finger. That’s not gonna kill them.
If you appreciate this satire/not-satire, please consider supporting the International Cultic Studies Association.
One of the hardest questions I get asked by friends or family of people in cults is about how to talk with them about their experience. How do you have a conversation with someone who you think is being deceived, who has become dependent on a power structure you suspect is harming them? What if they say they’ve never been happier, and you can’t shake the gut feeling that there’s something off? There’s never an easy answer.
So much seems to depend upon the trust you share with the person, how well you make them feel heard, the state of their basic life-resources. In all of the stories I’ve heard about people extricating themselves from cults, there never seems to be any single decisive factor that pried them loose. But often, people will say that a key exchange with someone helped them change course.
I once had an exchange like that.
In 1999, a good friend of mine wrote to me about my immersion in the cult of Michael Roach. I recently found his typewritten letter during a closet clean-out, and read it again. And again. I’m retyping it out here with minor edits to protect anonymity.
Though I didn’t fully absorb them then, these words haunted me for the entire year between receiving it and leaving Roach. Today I can’t believe how lucky I was to have such a friend who could write them to me.
I hope you enjoy my friend’s kindness and subtlety, how he unfolds his argument slowly, with wit and pathos. How he takes me seriously, and tries to imagine and validate my inner life, even as he feels alienated from it. How he avoids the question of cultism and possible abuse for just long enough to have space in the end to back away from it with cheerful melancholy.
I hope you enjoy his self-awareness, humility, uncertainty, and bravery. Beyond his many salient points, perhaps it was his modelling of these virtues that made the deepest impression upon me.
(The opening reference is to an audio tape of Robert Thurman, probably teaching elementary Tibetan Buddhism. I’d sent it to this friend as a way of explaining what I was into. Or justifying it: Thurman was a lot more mainstream-able than Roach.)
Thanks for the tape, I’ve listened to it and found it both fascinating and puzzling. Thurman seems to fluctuate between academic instruction and personal inspiration. It’s all new to me.
I have to admit I find your increasingly devoted, if not feverish, attachment to Buddhism somewhat frightening to me. It makes me feel simultaneously apart from your experience and intrigued.
What does it feel like to actually believe in something? Really believe? I admit I have never truly believed in anything — all religions make me feel like an outsider, someone looking in on a transcendent experience, never one of the blessed (?) the inducted (?) the knowing (?).
So, when I hear of you growing more and more a part of something that appears to loom so large in your minds and hearts, I figure, well, there he goes — in a couple of years, or shorter, he’ll be off to some austere place (mental or geographical) where only the fellow enlightened can reach him. Essentially, it feels like you’ve already begun to pack for a figurative (or real) Tibet. I will miss you greatly.
By now you’re probably reading the above as et another instance of my relentless negativity, my self absorption — but, as true as that may be, I do still feel what I fell, which is that you are disappearing, or, to be more precise, changing shape.
That in itself is, of course, good and should be accepted by anyone who loves you, except that the catalyst for this change appears to me to be an all-encompassing, and excluding religious practice. I celebrate your new found happiness and clarity, but will the vehicle for this change ultimately make me and others that love you but who do not follow the same practices irrelevant?
Will you begin to see non-Buddhists as unenlightened, backward, and no longer necessary for your happiness?
Finally, and this is perhaps the most contentious of my concerns, I just fundamentally distrust and worry about people, especially people I love, who see their redemption (? wrong term, I’m sure) as coming through a single person, a “teacher”. I have always been suspicious of anyone who would set him/herself up as a teacher of intangibles, of ultimately unknowable things.
I fear the possibility of cultish servility — although I hardly think of such an ancient and resonant religion as a cult. But that does not mean that there are not charismatic people within Buddhism who are seeking followers to dominate.
I guess it all boils down to personal psychology — as a recent victim of a massive abuse of authority and trust, I’m afraid to see my friends potentially falling under the sway of another persuasive personality.
Call it projection (accurately), call it melodrama (possibly) — but I ask you to please keep a small part of yourself open to questions and the tiny voices of disquiet all intelligent people carry inside them as protection against fraud.
Know that I love you, and that this little diatribe has been brewing in me for awhile, and is not easy to write.
I admit I’m always confused, but sometimes I’m also very perceptive.
Am I losing you? Is the world? Please accept my love,
This post might mark a shift of this blog into firmly opinion-column/commentary territory, as a lot of what I’m working on now beyond book projects is mostly higher-stakes investigative journalism, and when I publish on a corporation like Jivamukti, for example, it needs to be on a U.S. site with a U.S. server, because libel laws in Canada are pretty stiff. Here I can be sued on the premise that I’ve harmed a company’s reputation, even if the reporting is accurate. Because the major paying publications in the U.S. yoga world have turned down these articles and I have no independent liability insurance I’m grateful to Be Scofield at Decolonizing Yoga for taking them on.
I’ve published four articles on the now-settled sexual harassment case against the Jivamukti Yoga School. One about what the plaintiff actually had to say after the school essentially called her a liar, one on how JYS and other yoga groups use silencing tactics when complaints emerge (including the failure of the Ashtanga world to address the open secret of their guru’s sexual harassment), one on how the case has provoked a powerful discussion about the need for trauma-sensitivity training in yoga culture generally, and a fourth on how JYS and Michael Roach, the charismatic and controversial American Buddhist leader, exchanged both form and content from 2003 to 2012.
This post is about a side-issue that’s emerged in the online dialogue surrounding these articles. Continue reading ““But He’s Not Erect”: Rationalizing Videos and Lies”
Spiritualized Narcissism as Trauma Response: A Review of – and Meditation on – A Death on Diamond Mountain by Scott Carney
(This article first appeared in Yoga International.)
It begins with your family
but soon it comes ‘round to your soul
— Leonard Cohen
On April 22nd, 2012, Ian Thorson died in a cave in the Arizona desert.
The Cochise Country coroner ruled the cause of death as dysentery-induced dehydration. But members of the cult that effectively chased Thorson into the wilderness without the psychiatric help he needed still search for his cause of death in the garbled neo-Buddhist jargon of their leader, Michael Roach.
Due out tomorrow, journalist Scott Carney’s tangled probe into the tragedy points in a different direction: towards the dangers of spiritual striving. He begins A Death on Diamond Mountain with the question, “How much should someone strive to know their own soul?”
Full disclosure: I broke the news of Thorson’s death to the global media on May 4th with the first of three hasty, mostly accurate, and highly emotional polemics against the cult of Roach. I worked from local news reports, Roach’s deflective justification for the terrible decisions that drove Thorson to his cave, and my own vivid memories of the three years I spent in Roach’s community. So for me, reading through Carney’s book is like seeing old photos from novel angles in an album that I didn’t assemble, reading captions that stray from my own narrative just enough to make me doubt my recollections and illuminate the agendas that form them. This I know for sure: I’m too close to the story and too embroiled in how it has unfolded to have cleanly approached what Carney has succeeded with here. Continue reading “Spiritualized Narcissism as Trauma Response: A Review of – and Meditation on – A Death on Diamond Mountain by Scott Carney”
TRIGGER WARNING: descriptions of child rape, sexual assault, violence against women and children, cult abuse.
“Sri Swamiji [Satyananda] always loved children, and children loved him. In fact, I may call myself his first love, although I know that many others have loved him and he has loved many other children before me.” — Swami Niranjananda
“You can take even the worst possible rogue as your Guru…. You should never look into the defects of the Guru. You must deify the Guru.” – Swami Sivananda, Yoga in Daily Life
“The next day, Akhandananda came up to me and said, ‘How are you feeling?’ And I said, ‘I’m very confused.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry about your mind. Your mind belongs to me.'” — Royal Commission witness Jyoti (104:10908)
“The ashram was the kind of place where, if you scream, no‐one comes.” – Royal Commission witness APR (106:11099)
“You would only have to look at Yoga for the Young, which is a book that we were very involved in – all of us are in that book, and all my drawings, and the other kids did drawings and we all contributed to that book – that book was still sold by Satyananda Ashram years later, after people knew that some of us were sexual abuse victims.” – Royal Commission witness Alecia Buchanan (104:10899)
Why I’m Writing
Something extraordinary happened in a Sydney conference room last week. A vast swath of the modern global yoga movement went on trial. Or pre-trial, as it happens.
Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse heard testimony from over a dozen witnesses who resided at Satyananda Yoga Ashram at Mangrove Mountain from the mid 1970s through the late 1980s, including eleven who were children or young teens at the time. The ashram was founded to spread the practices of yoga. But without exception, the former child residents told harrowing stories of pervasive physical and sexual abuse. Continue reading “Boycott Satyananda’s Literature and Methods Until Reparations are Made for Sexual Abuse”