Stories of abuse and betrayal tremble beneath the veneer of spiritual groups. Silently. For decades.
The veneer functions like money does in the Epstein world to write the laws, conceal the truth, and dispose of the evidence. Spiritual groups don’t have Epstein-level money, but they have other shiny objects to distract and confuse. They have stories of extraordinary men, spiritual transformations, and a coming enlightened age.
One type of question I often field is “what makes the Jois story a yoga story?” or: “What makes the Rigpa story a story about Buddhism?” I counter the deflection of this question by saying “It’s true: these are rape culture and high-demand group stories.”
Then I add: “But it’s important that we see how they play out in environments in which they are explicitly not meant to happen: places where vulnerable people come to be protected from abuse.”
But there’s another reason I believe stories of spiritual abuse are important to investigate and understand. In some cases, the group has an outsize impact upon the broader culture, usually through having found a way to conceal its origins, manage its image, and secularize and popularize its techniques.
I’m not talking about groups like Scientology, which unduly influence celebrities who carry a lot of social power, but which also have a hard time commodifying their core content. (One test here is that Dianetics has always been published in-house, while much of the “advanced” literature is hidden altogether.) With Shambhala, for example, the core content is sanitized, legitimized, and monetized through institutions like Naropa and a number of spiritual/self-help books that became touchstones in the 1990s neoliberalism that believed it was progressive.
That core content is a group effort. More importantly: the group effort conceals itself through the presentation of individual genius. Nowhere is this more efficient than in the spiritual book industry.
Spiritual books are marketed on the basis of the awakened personality and the intimacy of the author’s written “voice”. The public ends up thinking they’re encountering the realized presence of Pema Chödrön on the page, for example. That page, and the buzz around it, gets her onto Oprah.
But Chödrön’s ascent to Oprah isn’t driven by her personal wisdom or virtue. She gets that gig because she has risen to the top of a high-demand group as a spokesperson.
The moderators at r/ShambhalaBuddhism kindly invited me to do an AMA on March 20, 2019. Here’s my opening comment, followed by the questions and answers that I worked on for about a week prior to the event. I’ve edited slightly and left out secondary exchanges. The whole thread can be found here.
Two things off the top:
Firstly: I’ve worked on these answers throughout the week, as they’ve come in. The reports from An Olive Branch were released yesterday. I’ve scanned them but not in enough detail to better inform my answers where appropriate. If it’s useful, I may return to these answers later to add citations from the reports. On first glance, it’s clear that the reports offer compelling evidence for what many Shambhala survivors have been saying for about a year now: that the organization’s dubious claims to spiritual lineage are eclipsed by the shadow of intergenerational trauma and abuse. Shambhala members are going to have to start asking whether the former was a fiction that functioned to cover over the latter. Continue reading “reddit AMA: 21 Questions on Shambhala”
Back in August, I analyzed a dharma talk given by Judith Simmer-Brown in Boulder. The talk was given on the heels of a convulsive July for Shambhala International. Mipham Mukpo (the “Sakyong”) had just announced a then-temporary (now perhaps permanent) resignation from his administrative duties amidst further allegations of sexual assault and an announcement from the Interim Board of Directors that he would be the subject of a third-party investigation. Buddhist Project Sunshine had already produced numerous and credible allegations against Mukpo in its Phase 2 & 3 Reports.
Simmer-Brown’s talk sought to provide an insider’s reassurance of the basic goodness of the organization amidst escalating criticism and international news coverage. The core message, repeated from many different angles, was that in the eye of the storm, Shambhala members should keep practicing the content that Chogyam Trungpa had given the organization, and that she as a group leader and Mipham Mukpo had spent many years nurturing (and commodifying). As per custom, she tied her comments to the ancientness of a Buddhist teaching called “The Four Reliances”, which encourages student to look beyond the everyday world for their hope and salvation. Deploying this text at this time implied that digging into the details of systemic abuse constitutes an abandonment of spirituality. Simmer-Brown also spoke of the dangers of the kind of doubt that could lead a practitioner to abandon their path.
Simmer-Brown’s talk bolstered the premise that the teaching content of an organization rife with institutional abuse is an appropriate response to that abuse. This is despite the fact that spiritual teaching content is consistently used to suppress abuse testimonies in yoga and Buddhist groups. Continue reading “Preserving Magic vs. Supporting Victims: A Judith Simmer-Brown Article, Annotated”
A New Year’s Eve email sent out from the Sky Lake Retreat Center of Rosendale, New York, invited qualified practitioners to attend a seven-day “sealed” retreat, beginning on February 23.
The event, named the “Monarch Retreat”, will be focussed on generating loyalty towards the spiritual “kingship” of the leader of Shambhala International, Mipham Mukpo, known as the “Sakyong”. Mukpo is the son and heir of the Chögyam Trungpa, the founder of the organization. In 1995, Mukpo was recognized as the reincarnation of Mipham the Great, a Tibetan philosopher, astrologer, and mystic who died in 1912.
This past July, Mukpo stepped down from his administrative leadership of Shambhala International amidst accusations of sexual assault published by Buddhist Project Sunshine. Mukpo has issued a vague apology for past behaviour, but he has since denied all criminal allegations through his lawyer. Continue reading “Shambhala Centers Still Holding “Sealed” Retreats to Venerate a Leader Under Criminal Investigation”
As reported previously, the Shambhala International Interim Board of Directors was sworn in on October 17th with a religious oath that pledges allegiance to the now-resigned spiritual leader of the organization, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche (Mipham Mukpo). Mukpo has been accused of sexual assault by several community members.
On December 1, Kevin Anderson, a former coordinator of the Sackville Meditation Group in Sackville, New Brunswick, wrote the following letter to the Interim Board. By email, Anderson explains that the group has recently “taken a first step away from Shambhala due to the recent allegations” against Mukpo. (Correspondence shared with permission.)
Dear Shambhala Interim Board,
I’m writing you because a discussion arose between some members of the
Sackville Meditation Group, concerning the appointment of the new
Interim Board. I am hoping you can help us deepen and nuance our
understanding of this.
According to some media outlets, the new interim board has “Sworn a
Religious Oath to Leader Accused of Sexual Assault”. The article proceeds to discuss the implications of this, and provides what purports to be a copy of this oath.
The questions that arose are threefold:
1. Is this oath text accurate as reported?
2. Who authored the text?
3. If SMR [Mukpo] has “stepped back” from the organisation for the time being,
why then was the oath worded with direct references to him?
I personally am quite concerned that the optics of this kind of language
can undermine the credibility of the Interim Board. Therefore I look
forward to your input on this matter.
Thank you for taking the time to write to the Interim Board. You may know it is traditional for leaders in any leadership position in Shambhala to take a oath when they begin their position. Shambhala oaths are a statement of loyalty to the principles of our community. The Shambhala Interim Board was appointed by the Transition Task Force, and is not a governing body appointed by the Sakyong. The Board functions independently of the Sakyong in terms of our legal and fiduciary responsibilities.
We are currently focused on understanding the financial, operational and ethical issues before us and plan to make regular reports of progress to the community. We appreciate you taking time to contact us and will include your comments in our considerations.
Yours in the Vision of Shambhala,
The Shambhala Interim Board
Veronika Bauer, Martina Bouey, Mark Blumenfeld, John Cobb, Jennifer Crow, Sara Lewis, Susan Ryan, Paulina Varas
Dear Interim Board,
Thanks for your reply.
I will comment here, but probably not pursue this further. Imagine, for a moment, that I had asked a trusted person (a friend, or a spouse, a child, a spiritual friend) those very direct, and very reasonable (though uncomfortable) questions. If they had avoided my questions as starkly as you have, it would have eroded my trust. In that light I’m finding your answers to be dishonest.
Commenting each question:
1. You could have said, “yes the wording is accurate”. Since the oath is on your website, it would have been easy to say that.
2. You avoided the question of authorship – it would have been easy to say “We don’t generally reveal authorship, but we can assure you it was not SMR”. Since you didn’t answer, that leaves open the possibility that Mr. Mukpo authored it.
3. I’m really not surprised that you didn’t address this, but in any other organization it would have made sense to build trust by at least temporarily distancing oneself from a leader. It erodes my trust that you have chosen not to do that, or somehow because of “guru logic, samaya logic” you feel unable to do so. An honest answer would have been to at least address the question in some fashion.
With kind regards,
On October 17th, eight Shambhala students chosen by the Transition Task Force to form an Interim Board of Directors were sworn into service for a twelve month period.
The move comes as the global neo-Buddhist organization navigates allegations of sexual assault committed by its spiritual leader, Ösel Mukpo, also known as Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche.
The allegations against Mukpo were first publicized by Buddhist Project Sunshine in February. BPS is headed up by Andrea Winn, a life-long Shambhala member, along with independent investigator Carol Merchasin. The team’s three reports also contain allegations of intergenerational and institutional abuse within the organization, which was founded by Mukpo’s father, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, in 1971.
The revelations have shaken Shambhala International to the core, triggering the resignation of its Board and forcing Mukpo to step down from his administrative role. Recent financial reports show that the organization, which posted 18M in North American revenue in 2017, is now in financial crisis. Some local centres, including the one in New York City, will soon be closing.
Winn’s team, along with the women who provided their testimony, also prompted Shambhala to commission its own independent investigation, led by the Halifax firm Wickwire Holm. Some community members have doubted the impartiality of the investigation and its gag order on complainants.
According to its new website, the Interim Board is charged with several tasks, including keeping the crippled organization solvent, coordinating international affairs, and communicating the results of Shambhala’s collaboration with An Olive Branch, an American Zen-based group that consults on ethics policies for Buddhist groups.
The website also states that the Interim Board will “Release to the community as much of the Wickwire Holm report as is legally and ethically possible while respecting confidentiality.”
The report is due out in early January. In early December, the Interim Board will convene in Halifax, where they plan to meet with Mukpo.
Additionally, the Interim Board is to keep Mukpo “apprised” of their work, “even though he is not responding to any administrative aspects of Shambhala or the Interim Board.”
The installation of the Interim Board required that members swear this oath:
While highly unusual for any not-for-profit, this oath is consistent with Shambhala’s culture and mythology, which posits that members are living in, aspiring to live in, or trying to manifest an enlightened world, parallel to this one, governed by supernatural beings.
The “Rigden” to which Interim Board members are bowing is an archetypal ruler of that world, linked to the divine realms described in medieval Tibetan tantric literature. (The lede image for this article is of an incomplete painting of the “Primordial Ridgen”. The image is featured on many Shambhala Centre altars around the world.)
“Dorje Dradül” is an epithet for Chögyam Trungpa, who died of alcoholism in 1987, and was believed to be in telepathic communication with the rigdens.
“Kongma Sakyong, Jampal Trinley Dradül, and the Sakyong Wangmo, Dechen Chöying Sangmo” are epithets for Ösel Mukpo, Trungpa’s son and business heir, and his wife, Semo Tseyang Palmo. The term “dralas” refers to the embodied nature spirits that were a feature of Tibetan indigenous religion, prior to the arrival of Indian Buddhism in the 8th century.
The Interim Board was appointed by the Transition Task Force, led by senior Trungpa devotees, including Pema Chödrön. It is comprised of long-term Shambhala students and leaders, including the Chair of the Shastri (teachers) Council, a former President of Naropa University (founded by Trungpa in 1976), and a feminist anthropologist and psychotherapist who will teach at Naropa beginning in 2019.
Three of the Interim Board members are also practitioners of the “Scorpion Seal”, an initiated ritual meditation said to be divinely received by Chögyam Trungpa, and later revealed by his son. Part of the ritual, which is kept secret, involves visualizing the Mukpos as enlightened beings, as seen in this more introductory practice.
On their website, the Interim Board asserts that “We are especially sensitive to resisting a top-down approach that seeks to polish or smooth over harm that has already occurred.”
However, they did not respond to a request for comment on how they planned to impartially oversee the investigation of Mukpo, given their religious commitments to him as leader.
The outgoing “Kalapa Council” — the Board of Directors for Shambhala International — sent out a newsletter on Saturday. The newsletter was meant to clarify the role played by the Halifax legal firm, Wickwire Holm, in an internal investigation of possible sexual misconduct within Shambhala’s leadership, including the allegations against the spiritual leader of the organization, Ösel Mukpo.
The Shambhala investigation doubles up on the third-party investigative work of The Buddhist Project Sunshine, which has ignited a firestorm of controversy throughout the organization. Shambhala International has not denied any of the findings of the BPS, although a key leader has tried to discredit the motivations of the investigators, claiming they are staging an “attack upon the Mukpo family”. Continue reading “Shambhala Investigator Tells Sakyong Accusers Not to Talk to Anyone”
On Saturday, August 4th, senior Shambhala International teacher Judith Simmer-Brown gave a talk in Boulder as part of a series called “Conversations That Matter”. The title was “Caring for Community,” and it was structured around a set of slogans called “The Four Reliances”, which are meant to help Buddhist practitioners separate out mundane and spiritual concerns.
In this context, the slogans were offered to help Shambhala practitioners in particular renew their commitment to the group’s ideas and practices, in the midst of continuing revelations of abuse within the group itself. They advise the practitioner to see immediate and obvious circumstances — and their interpretation of those circumstances — as ephemeral (or at best instrumental to a higher purpose) and to develop a depersonalized, non-judgmental, and non-verbal devotion to the group’s content.
The “Four Reliances”, featured in several Buddhist texts dating back to the first century CE, are:
- Do not rely on the personality or individuality of the teacher. Rely on the Dharma teachings themselves.
- Do not rely on the literal words. Rely on the meaning of the teachings.
- Do not rely on merely provisional teachings. Rely on the definitive or ultimate teachings.
- Do not rely on conceptual mind. Rely on the nondual wisdom of experience.
The presentation series is hosted by the group’s flagship Center, founded in 1970 by Chögyam Trungpa. Simmer-Brown’s talk was livestreamed for members of the public who registered via the Zoom platform. I registered under my own name, and recorded the event. No copyright notice or privacy request was posted.
Appropriating a popular concept from trauma-recovery discourse, Simmer-Brown explained that her talk would offer “foundational things that we need to know in order to be resilient practitioners.” In the Q&A that followed, she suggested that such resilience could be nurtured by the activities of the very group that had caused the trauma. “Our confusion and pain,” she told one questioner,” might drive us more deeply into practice.”
The appeal from group leaders to double down on group practice in the face of group abuse is a common theme in the crisis responses of yoga and dharma organizations. When the news of Pattabhi Jois’s decades of sexual assaults on his women students began to go mainstream, a common insider response was to repeat Jois’s most famous aphorism: “Practice, and all is coming.”
As the Shambhala foundations shake, many devotees are likewise relying on beloved sayings of Trungpa, such as: “The essence of warriorship, or the essence of human bravery, is refusing to give up on anyone or anything.” (the recent remarks of Susan Piver, as well as Pema Chödron’s 1993 and 2011 responses to Trungpa’s own abuses. Continue reading “Judith Simmer-Brown to Distraught Shambhala Members: “Practice More.” (Notes and Transcript)”A similar theme grounds
This is a followup on notes I published about the structure, language, and impact of disorganized attachment evident in the Shambhala organization. It also provides an update on the question of Chödrön’s approach to Shambhala history, and whether it provides clarity or obfuscation in relation to the present revelations of institutional abuse.
On July 13th, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse (Khyentse Norbu) cited Chödrön’s 1993 interview with Tricycle as a laudable example of how a Vajrayana student is to view and contemplate their teacher. However, Norbu incorrectly dated Chödrön’s statement to 2015. I argued that this unfortunately could create the unfair impression that Chödrön’s 25 year-old views are current, and perhaps issued to pre-empt current criticism of Shambhala.
But in the 2011 hagiographical film “Crazy Wisdom: The Life and Times of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche” (New York: Kino Lorber), director and Trungpa student Johanna Demetrakas records Chödrön delivering an aphoristic encapsulation of her 1993 statement.
At time cue 51:00, Chödrön says:
People say to me, how could you follow a teacher like that? Or how could an enlightened person do that? I do not know. I can’t buy a party line where they say it was sacred activity or something like this. Come up with ground to make it okay. I also can’t come up with ground or a fixed idea to make it not okay. You know, I’m left, really left in that I don’t know. I don’t know. But I can’t answer the relative questions because he defied being able to answer them.
Just over a year ago, eight long-term students of Sogyal Lakar (known as Sogyal Rinpoche) sent him a letter that is still shaking the foundations of his “Rigpa International” corporation. The letter from “The Eight” accused him of decades of physical, emotional, psychological and sexual abuse of students, a “lavish, gluttonous, and sybaritic lifestyle”, and degrading the image and meaning of global Buddhism. The accusations have not been denied. Lakar has retreated from public life, and RI says that it’s investigating. Whether this will result in transparency and restorative justice remains to be seen.
Khyentse Norbu (Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse) comes from a decorated family of Tibetan Buddhist teachers, and is said to be a “Rinpoche” — a reincarnated “precious one”, born to carry perfect and rare teachings forward from a primordial source. Norbu is known for engaging his cosmopolitan global audience with pugnacious erudition, pot-stirring books, and a flair for documentary filmmaking, in which he was reportedly tutored by Bernardo Bertolucci, who he met on the set of “Little Buddha”.
Norbu shares a global stage with Lakar as a popular teacher of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism (Vajrayana). Accordingly, his students asked him to comment on the accusations against Lakar. A month after the letter from “The Eight”, he obliged by posting a ten thousand-word essay that was shared over a thousand times on Facebook, and lauded by his students around the world as a nuanced defence of Vajrayana’s abiding magic and the unorthodox but salvific bonds it promotes between teachers and students.
“Defence” is perhaps not the right word, however. The essay spends none of its time on the accusations. Rather, it sermonizes on the glory of the Vajrayana process, and laments the poor education of those who claim to be hurt by it. The Eight, Norbu argues, must have known what they were in for as Vajrayana students. They should have had “superior faculties” that would have allowed them to transform the perception of Lakar’s abuse into a belief in his spiritual care. These faculties should have been further cemented by the students’ “samaya”, or psychospiritual commitment to Lakar. The essay reminds readers that for Lakar’s students to break samaya by not framing all of his actions as beneficial condemns them to aeons of literal hell. Continue reading “Tantric Trolling, Tantric Fixing: Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse’s Posts on Clerical Sexual Abuse”