This excerpt from a 2014 “dharma talk” by disgraced former Dharma Ocean founder Reggie Ray provides a textbook example of how the terror of disorganized attachment – as analyzed by cult survivor and researcher Alexandra Stein – can be framed as a spiritual necessity.
This theme is especially prominent within the Trungpa mythology. Pema Chodron reveals it here.
There’s not a lot of analysis required, but I’ll add some notes in red to the transcript. Ray succinctly provides a perfect vignette of the terror-euphoria cycle that characterizes the trauma bonding that Stein argues is central to cultic coherence. Of course this is not his framework. He’s telling the story as a kind of hero’s journey that has the secondary advantage of justifying a continuation of these dynamics within his own circle.
And so we have this very ambivalent reaction, I think, to the path, very ambivalent response, which I myself often felt with Rinpoche. I would spend time with him, I would sit down to dinner with him or a more likely lunch at the picnic tables in Tail of the Tiger and he would be sitting there. I would come downstairs, Oh, I’m sure he’s there. He’s having lunch. And of course nobody’s sitting around him and there’s a reason for that. So, you know, um, you know, I’m in Chicago in graduate school and I come and visit and I think, okay, this is my big chance.
“Ambivalent” is a misleading framework here. In the literature of Klein and others, ambivalence refers to a maturation beyond idealization, through which a person can come to understand the blending of good and not-good qualities that characterize the psyche. Ray goes on to describe extreme idealization, and being terrified.
So I sit down next to him, Rinpoche, and suddenly I am overcome with terror. And I’m not exaggerating. I start [hyperventilating]. You felt like your clothes were totally stripped off at all times and you try to say something like, Hi, Rinpoche.
The stripping off of clothes, used here as metaphor for spiritual transparency, is ironic given Trungpa’s serial sexual abuse, including the criminal act – around that time period – of having W.S. Merwin and Dana Noane forcibly stripped of their clothes at a party at the Boulder temple in 1973.
And the amazing thing was, I think it was his field of awareness. You saw this pitiful, pathetic, terrified little person basically trying to get a handle on them and you’re trying to manipulate him and you’re trying to get him to acknowledge you and all I said was, Hi, Rinpoche and all of a sudden my whole thing is totally exposed and then of course the big problem is lunch has just started.
Note that the student in fear is labelled as “pathetic” and “pitiful” – as if this were there nature state of original sin – instead of someone responding reasonably to psychosocial stress.
And I would start to sweat and I would more than anything I wanted him to like say back Hi, but he didn’t, he would just turn slowly and look at me and I many times thought I’m either going to faint or I’m going to die. Those are the only two possibilities. It was so hard being around him and it was so hard being around the community for the same reason. Somehow we created a situation where everybody’s mask was basically, I wouldn’t say it was off, but it was falling off all the time and you kept trying to put it back on and I could falling off.
Note the absence of any question as to why Trungpa doesn’t give a response. What appears to be callous neglect is framed as transcendent wisdom.
At Tail of the Tiger, there was this long driveway and I used to take the bus up and they would drop me off. At the end of the driveway. And the minute I got off the bus, I would start to feel like throwing up and I would feel like throwing up from that moment until I got back on the bus three or four days later, a week later, whatever it was. But here’s the ambivalence, which I think we all feel. I would, um, I get away from him because I spent half my time trying to be closer to him and the other half trying to get away from him.
Here Ray discloses that he was violently ill whenever he was close to his master. He’s describing what Stein analyzes as the state of “fright without solution” that provokes disorganized attachment behaviours. To quote:
[Disorganized attachment] responses occur when a child has been in a situation of fright without solution. Their caregiver is at once the safe haven and also the source of threat or alarm. So, when the child feels threatened by the caregiver, he or she is caught in an impossible situation: both comfort and threat are represented by the same person — the caregiver. The child experiences the unresolvable paradox of seeking to simultaneously flee from and approach the caregiver. This happens at a biological level, not thought out or conscious, but as evolved behavior to fear. The child attempts to run TO and flee FROM the caregiver at one and the same time… However, in most cases the need for proximity — for physical closeness — tends to override attempts to avoid the fear-arousing caregiver. So usually the child stays close to the frightening parent while internally both their withdrawal and approach systems are simultaneously activated, and in conflict.
— Stein, Alexandra. Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2017. Loc. 894
And when I would get away from him. Um, even during seminars, you know, you go through these, you know, periods cause he hung around the house, you know, he, he was in the dining room, he was talking to people, he was, he was there. So it was in your face a lot of the time. And it was a very small community at that time. Very, very small. And, um, what I would do is after his afternoon talk, he would talk after lunch in about to, um, during the warm weather. There was, uh, it was a Hill up in, back. And I, like many of us I had a little tent cause the farmhouse couldn’t like, couldn’t sleep very many people. And um, about two o’clock or three I would go up and I go to bed for the night.
Personal anecdote: in both of the high-demand groups I was in it was very common for the stress of the group meditations and activities to be so excruciating that group members would try to disappear for as long as they could avoid their service work. Dead-to-the-world naps or hour-long weeping jags were common. We would whisper to each other that “the transformation is intense” or “these practices go so deep” or “I’m converting so much right now.” For the most part, however, I believe we were trying to recover, and unwittingly sharing the group’s propaganda amongst ourselves to reassure us that the cycles were spiritually appropriate.
But then I would wake up the next morning and I would be in a different place. And suddenly the feeling of being completely suffocated by my own vomit and my own shit and the feeling of, uh, incredible, overwhelming anxiety all the time, which really I felt that much of the time when I was in the in the first year, first year or two, um, it would be completely gone. And I would get up and you know, you know how it goes because you go through this too and look outside and it’s an unbelievable day you’ve ever seen. And you look at the mountains and you smell the air and um, you, you feel the warmth of the sun and you feel so open and you run into parts of yourself that you didn’t even know where there. Beautiful parts and inspired parts and open. And you look at people’s faces and you see them and you feel the tremendous sense of their sacredness and you feel love for them.
Stein describes a paradoxical moment of relief when the nervous response to cultic stress collapses into fold or fawning mode. She writes:
Giving in – dissociating and ceasing to think – is experienced as relief. In my own experience I remember well this sensation: overwhelmed with confusion and exhaustion, the thoughts that were trying to enter the cognitive part of my brain just could not make it there and they fell back out of consciousness. Simultaneously I stopped struggling and decided to commit myself more fully to the group even though I disagreed with it. That too felt like relief – I didn’t have to fight anymore. In fact, as we shall see later in more detail, key regions of the brain that connect emotional (largely right brain) and cognitive processing (largely left brain) are shut down in the disorganized and dissociated state.
I can report from interviews with and reading the testimonies of students of Jois, Iyengar, and others that the relief portion of this trauma-bond cycle – especially if it is also contrasted with the physical pain of yoga practice or sitting in meditation for long periods of time – can be amplified into euphoria.
And so then when lunch came, I go back into the dining room and Oh, Hi Rinpoche sitting there and no one’s sitting around him. And I would go through the whole process again. And that is the nature of the journey. And you know, at that time and later I used to think, well, is there some way I can get out of the journey and be up here and look down at myself being completely freaked out and be okay with it? And the answer is actually no. The thing about the journey is it is all consuming. We, um, many times, you know, uh, those of us who meditate would like to orchestrate our own enlightenment. We want to be in charge of what happens on our journey. And it’s understandable because that’s how we work as humans. But there’s one place where it doesn’t work. And this is it.
Ray concludes by framing the spiritual journey as a beneficent and necessary terror-euphoria loop that is to be repeated over and over again. Most disturbingly, he openly names the loss of personal agency that is central to traumatic experiences as being a positive development. Not only does he present the trauma-bond rhythm as a spiritual path, he equates the traumatic loss of agency with enlightenment.
Given Ray’s training and capacity to reframe the traumatic experiences he describes as necessary, it’s little wonder that Dharma Ocean’s dynamics go on to produce this extensive testimony of abuse.
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.
(With great love and care for independent booksellers everywhere.)
As part of my tour to promote Practice and All is Coming, I was invited by a well-beloved bookstore in a major North American city to give a presentation and sign copies as part of their author’s series.
This gorgeous bookstore is proudly independent, and has supported spiritual seekers, social progressives, and environmental activists for decades. The staff were kind and professional and encouraging.
I arrived early for the AV check and looked around. Behind the little stage area where I was supposed to stand stood the entire yoga section.
And there they all were.
It was strange and tense and activating to see piles of yoga books written by or associated with abusive leaders and institutional betrayal. I was there to present an argument against the messages and the media of exactly these books.
At the risk of wearing out my welcome, I made use of the paradox in my presentation. When I offered the following slide of The List of yoga organizations that have unresolved abuse histories, I was able to tie almost every one with a book from the shelf. I was worried about making the staffers uncomfortable, but they were really grateful and supportive. Who wants to sell compromised goods, after all? Continue reading “How Good Book Stores Become Unwitting Retailers for Yoga and Buddhism Cults”
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”
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.
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”
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. Continue reading “Shrine of Devotion, Betrayal, or Indoctrination? An Internal Shambhala Email, Annotated”