To the Shambhala sangha,
I write this letter in a difficult time for our community as well as our world. Turmoil engulfs us internally and externally as across society people wake up to the ways the institutions that surround us have failed those who they should serve. Our community is no exception, and the last three years have been a painful reckoning with where we have fallen short of our aspirations.
I spent 17 years of my life with the Vidyadhara, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and was present for nearly every step of his journey to bring his sacred heritage from his lost homeland to ours. One day, shortly after we moved to Boulder, I said to Rinpoche, “I love you more than anyone in the world.” He responded by saying, “I love you second best.” When I asked who came first, he said, “I will always love my guru Jamgon Kongtrul most because he represents the dharma.”
For two decades, I watched as he devoted every fiber of his being and life force to what he felt was his duty: to share what he brought over the Himalayas with us in these faraway lands. He believed teaching the dharma was his reason for being on this earth, and this permeated all his actions.
During his life as well as after his death, tens of thousands of people contributed to building the sangha that he inspired and guided. They lifted tents so that mountain fields could become sacred teaching environments, cooked meals for one another, washed sheets, windows, and dishes as a service to their fellow practitioners, worked tirelessly to build spaces in cities across the world, and dedicated their precious time and money to our community.
Now, what was built by all that exertion is in peril.
We must be honest. It is in peril because of us. In our zeal to see only what was nourishing and profound about the world we were creating, we failed in our duty to listen to and protect the vulnerable among us. This was a collective failure of leadership that stretched across eras, and we cannot brush it aside.
I know that this letter will be read by some of those who were abused by teachers or fellow practitioners in our community, or who were subjected to harm and dismissed when they tried to express what had happened to them. To you, I say: I am sorry. We failed you, and there are no words that can fix what you experienced. You deserved better.
Now, our community finds itself at a crossroads. The heartbreak, anger, and disappointment that we have collectively experienced has fractured us and left us frozen about how to move forward – or for many, whether we should at all. For some, this pain is new. For others, it has been carried for years or decades. One thing is clear – for our tradition to continue, it must change, and so must we.
The work of addressing the cultural and institutional patterns that brought us to this point cannot be carried out by one person, nor any small group, no matter how well-practiced or devoted they may be. It is a collective responsibility that all who wish to see the Shambhala tradition emerge from this crisis now share. The wisdom that is at the core of that tradition is owned by no one. Everywhere it has arrived, it has adapted and changed to meet the intelligence of those who have been entrusted with it.
I feel that it is important to say this clearly and without hesitation: Shambhala is all of us. It is the community of warriors, teachers, meditators, and workers who have devoted their sweat and tears to its propagation across decades and generations. Now, we must decide how to care for that inheritance so we may pass it along to others, just as it was given to us.
Throughout the history of our sangha, authentic dharma has been offered by our teachers in many forms. The insights gained on zafus, benches, and teaching chairs have transformed people’s lives and given them tools to work with their minds and contemplate the nature of reality. But that is understandably of small consolation to those who were hurt, and who left exhausted and disillusioned.
Chogyam Trungpa once told us to “never give up on anyone.” But that is not a license to evade responsibility for harmful behavior or abuses of power. When we harm others, consciously or not, we must be brave enough to face the consequences of our actions, and if we cannot do so, our positions of leadership are not inviolable. None of us is above a reckoning with that pain.
I recognize that this includes me. And I know that some of you who are reading this may feel that my own proximity to power and authority over the years makes me a questionable spokesperson for change. All of those who have held leadership positions must be willing to account for the moment we are in and how we arrived here. I am no exception to this. But this brings me to the purpose of this letter.
When the Vidyadhara died, he passed on responsibility for his legacy and sangha to a number of people. While it is undeniable that he hoped the Shambhala tradition would be carried forward by his son, he left me with control over the copyrights for all his writings, practice instructions, sadhanas, translations, and termas. I believe that this was intended to provide checks and balances in case there were difficulties in the future. After his death, in my role as the Druk Sakyong Wangmo I periodically gave authorization to sangha members who wished to practice the Werma Sadhana.
I will now be making all of that material available to those who wish to carry his legacy forward, outside of any single line of strict control. In the coming months I will be convening a representative group of practitioners across generations and eras to discuss how we can provide opportunities for all those who wish to receive those materials in the future to do so. My hope is that ultimately the sangha itself will become empowered to craft a path forward without replicating the dynamics that brought us to this painful point.
When I reflect on the Vidyadhara’s life’s work, I am struck by the array of meditative forms and teaching streams that he created to help people cultivate a relationship to the dharma. He established programs for dharma art, offered traditional Karma Kagyu-Nyingma practice instructions, invited teachers from the Zen and Kyudo worlds to share their traditions, and created a new language for Tibet’s spiritual warriorship tradition, which he called Shambhala. In addition, he built relationships with scholars and meditation masters from across the world, many of whom were instrumental in the founding of our community from its earliest days.
I hope that those who now hold these wisdom traditions in their hands – all of you – can bring them into a new era and help to shape the society that contains them.
I would like to make it clear that I am not seeking to assume administrative or spiritual leadership of the sangha, nor attempting to establish a new hierarchy through a closed process. Rather, I plan to use what power I do have – those over the Vidyadhara’s copyrights – to support those who wish to create an independent path for students to receive training in the forms and practices he taught, and to develop new environments in which they can be shared. I hope that by conferring these authorizations to a new generation, I am carrying out the responsibility that was entrusted to me by my husband before his death.
The contours of what our community choses to do with the treasures it holds is not mine alone to decide. But by opening up space for new possibilities, perhaps our collective wisdom will illuminate the way forward.
Some of this work is already being done, and has been for some time. People who were trained or raised by the Shambhala community have struck out on their own, and are currently serving as teachers in their own communities, whether local or otherwise. I find this encouraging and note that many of these environments are thriving as they commit themselves to addressing spiritual power dynamics that, if left unchecked, can breed abuse.
There can be no mandate for every teacher or sangha affiliated with our tradition to pledge allegiance to one central body. Many will wish to continue as they are and build on the work that they have been developing, on their own, without becoming too tied into any larger group. I hope to be able to give authorization for some of those teachers to share the Vidyadhara’s writings and termas so they may have additional resources to offer their students.
Many sangha members, however, are understandably unwilling to carry on with business as usual, but do not wish to see the unique forms, customs, and practices of what has been known as Vajradhatu or Shambhala over the years disappear entirely from their lives. I find myself in this group, and it is this group to whom I would like to offer as much support as I can.
None of this is happening in a vacuum, of course. In recent months, it has become clear that Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is choosing to work with a smaller group of students, provided they are willing to continue with their samaya and the other vows they have made to him. The actions that many had hoped would take place through this crisis do not look likely to occur. I recognize the depth of commitment that some of members of our sangha have to him, and I respect their decision to remain on their journey. My aspiration is that we will continue to see ourselves as part of a broader family and not become inhospitable to or alienated from one another.
I recognize as well that many newer students have questions about Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and his personal conduct. Those questions are valid. Nobody is beyond scrutiny, and there is much about his behavior that we have emulated in ways that have been unhealthy and dangerous over the years. However vast his mind may have been, he was still a human being.
But as someone who spent years by his side, I want you to know that I never met anyone who was kinder, more devoted to others, and more unfathomably brilliant than him. Without doubt I can say that what he brought into the world, he did so because of a bone-deep commitment to the awakenment of sentient beings. I feel incredibly lucky to have spent the time with him that I did, along with a profound commitment to his life’s work.
For his heart transmissions to survive, we will need to hand the shrine room keys to a new generation of leaders and teachers. Over the years, I have met countless members of our extended family of practitioners, both young and old. I know that we have tremendous resources to draw on, and I believe fully that our sangha can rise to the challenges we face.
At the heart of my husband’s work in his later life was the idea of an “enlightened society.” It informed and guided so much of his teaching and creativity. So much of his energy was spent building a sangha that didn’t shy away from celebration or participation in the world, but could do so from the ground of meditation practice, basic goodness, and appreciation of sacred world. It is now our responsibility to recognize where we have stumbled, and to move forward in a way that does not repeat past mistakes.
But we might also remember how fortunate we are, as well as what our tradition and community has to offer when it is at its best. To give up entirely on our sangha would be another mistake, and a grave one.
For those of you who do not want to give up, I will be doing everything I can to ensure that you have every resource that is in my power to provide.
Yours in the dharma,