(Note Before Reading: I have no intention to take attention away from the voices of those who have been harmed. Their voices are the most important. I wrote this with some hesitation. I wrote this because many friends have asked me to make a public statement and share thoughts about recent revelations. What’s below is offered to those who have expressed a desire to hear my thoughts. It is posted on my own website. I speak for no one but myself. If you choose to read it, please also listen directly to the perspectives and the requests of those who have been harmed.)
You may know by now that Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche sent a communication this past Monday in response to allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct with students, and that Project Sunshine released a report yesterday with three anonymous first-hand accounts of sexual harm caused by him. The first outwardly shared allegation, which was articulated on social media last Friday, took place in 2011 and involved the Sakyong exerting a power differential to violate the boundaries of one of his female students in the kitchen of his home in Halifax while his wife and one year-old daughter were asleep upstairs, after his daughter’s first birthday party. The harm caused has been substantiated and the generally egregious nature of that incident is not in doubt. The other two accounts involved times before his marriage and abusive sexual interactions during ongoing relationships with committed students of his.
(You can find the report here. Additionally, a second initial report involving a fourth incident in Chile in 2002, has now been published here, and it includes a credible allegation of sexual assault.)
I would just like to say bravo to all the Shambhala community members – especially the female-bodied ones – who have been courageous enough to make their voices heard so far about being harmed. Seriously, thank you.
These are obviously devastating stories to hear about one’s guru, who has taught me so much about how to open my heart and sharpen my mind into a space of confidence and relaxation. Also, as close friends know, this has been the second reckoning of harmful actions by very powerful and “progressive” male figures whom I looked up to and hold quite dear, within the span of just about six weeks. Given that my own daughter’s first birthday party is this weekend, everything about this moment feels immediate, yet shockingly surreal.
I am taking this opportunity to reflect on the work I still have to do on my path as student, friend, husband, father, colleague, teacher and leader. I am also reflecting on how toxic masculinity and the constructed superiority of powerful men (especially of the cisgendered straight white male) creates a system of societal interactions that leaves nobody happy. For better or worse, an Asian version of this patriarchal construct has also descended through the transmission of the Tibetan lineage that Shambhala sits within.
In addition to listening to students, friends, colleagues and mentors speak about their painful experiences in relation to these revelations, I’m taking this time to check in with those colleagues, friends and students around me, to see if they have any issues, in general, with my actions or our interactions on the path together, even from the distant past. I would like to hear about it directly so I can request forgiveness for that which is mine. I am hoping that more of our leaders, especially male ones, will also take this opportunity to listen to direct feedback, not about the Sakyong or Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, but about ourselves. As Reverend angel Kyodo williams said during the Q&A of a recent dharma talk, requesting the students not to demur when confronting her or asking tough questions: “I’m not fragile.” As for me, I’m very tender right now, but I’m not fragile. Any teacher or leader worthy of their position should be able to say the same and demonstrate it. Especially Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche.
I am not leaving Shambhala over these revelations. At this point, it would be as impossible as pretending I am not a member of my own family. In fact, I am more committed to Shambhala than ever before—at least as a vision, if not as an organization (that part depends on what happens now). I also pray that the Sakyong – who has taught me so much — can rise to this occasion and further his own manifestation of vulnerability and goodness. He will need—at the very least— to invite new voices into his inner circle of empowerment, especially those who have historically not been heard, and that requires him to trust new people (especially non-white non-males and those who haven’t served as his personal attendant or “kusung”) to give direct and critical feedback and, more importantly, take on seats of true power, rather than do any sort of cheerleading for him. I don’t see Shambhala surviving without him doing so right now. [Note: since the writing of this post, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche has stepped down pending an independent investigation, and the entire governing Board of Shambhala International has resigned] If he doesn’t move from his seat of relative distance from his students to meet us all at eye level, then according to his own teachings, the energetic influencers of this world (called “drala”) will not aid any attempts to expand the Shambhala teachings. The wrathful energetic protectors of truth (called “dharmapalas”) will block this community from creating more confusion and causing more harm. Other, more appropriate and worthy communities will develop instead. And wow, does the world need loving and fiercely determined communities right now!
There are major problems. Not minor problems. Major problems. Not only with the interpersonal harms being revealed, but with the energetic and systemic structures of this organization. I’ve thought about these problems a lot since my teaching path and career began 16 or 17 years ago and have always tried to listen deeply to my friends and students about their concerns with the Shambhala teachings and organization. Every thoughtful person in this community will be able to tell instantly if the leadership proposes minor solutions to our major problems. Little tweaks are not going to work this time.
A blind approach to patriarchy is one of the deepest problems we face. Blind patriarchy creates a power structure which thrives on non-transparency and gaslighting. The basic message of any strict patriarchy is this: “Daddy gives you what you need and keeps you safe. Don’t ask how Daddy makes his decisions or what Daddy does. You don’t need to know.” The non-transparency of blind patriarchy creates the shielding for leaders to profess certain values while straying far from those values themselves. It is the harm and hypocrisy caused by these systems which so many in our world are waking up to right now, especially as we have perhaps the most distortedly hypocritical and illegitimate patriarch in modern history occupying the seat of power in the United States.
In the case of Shambhala and Tantric Buddhism, this general lack of transparency often manifests in opaque language around the “ordinary magic” of the lineage and the presumed-before-witnessing purity of the guru’s conduct. Magic is a beautiful thing. But when the “ordinary magic” of the deep bond with one’s guru is misunderstood, it quickly becomes “magical thinking” and students are encouraged to ignore their own insights into the parts of the teacher and community that feel misaligned, insights which, if delivered in loving transparency, could help everyone grow! This is a tragedy. Luckily we are becoming more aware of the harm caused by hidden power differentials which magical thinking doesn’t even allow us to name, much less change. If you want to experience ordinary magic, you have to call out magical thinking.
Shambhala’s mythology and root texts propose an alternate society with an alternate leadership structure based on a sort of compassionate monarchy. There are many positive aspects to imagining a society with such an arrangement. But, in reality, Shambhala is a small but global community situated within Western democracy and capitalism. Therefore, all the problems of our actual society are also Shambhala’s actual problems: The legacy of slavery, racism, misogyny, sexism, sexual violence, homophobia, extreme wealth inequality, nonconsensual power differentials, and much more. Luckily, all the benefits of Western grassroots movements are also available to us: especially the ability to organize and respectfully—with love for our teacher, our tradition and all beings—demand change within our own community.
One thing I’ve noticed about the psychology of community in general, especially the Shambhala community – we often take an “extreme” approach to our participation, bouncing back and forth between polarized views on our commitment and loyalty. We are either “IN” with zero doubt and wide, foggy eyes (I call this facial expression the “Shambhala glaze” and I’ve seen it so many times when any topic comes up which requires critical thinking, nuance, and above all, authenticity – and friends have seen it in me and were gracious enough to call me out on various occasions), or else we are “OUT” due to betrayal, negative interactions or reactions we might have with the organization or representatives of the organization.
I’ve wanted to leave in the past. Everyone I know in a leadership position has thought about doing so at one point or another, even if we don’t share that publicly. It’s a really enticing possibility, especially given the tendencies of mean-spirited gossip and secret competitiveness for the leader’s attention that can occur in a guru-focused culture. It isn’t hard at all for me to imagine leaving right now and still having what I need in this life and in the dharma, even if our whole world is on fire.
The Shambhala teachings and techniques become even more powerful at the Vajrayana level, and I am always saddened when students think they have to leave the community because they feel they can’t be who they are here. I’ve had to watch this happen hundreds, if not thousands, of times to friends and students I cared about. And if it happens because a person feels unsafe in Shambhala, I want to cry. This week, I have cried.
And despite that ever-present possibility of hitting the exits, everything here feels worth fighting for, or worth practicing for, together. Our teachings are incredibly powerful, especially the teachings on fearlessness, compassion and confidence.
There is a middle path between “The Shambhala glaze” and “hitting the exits.” It’s to bring your voice, your fierce compassion, and your protest further *into* the community. For me, it’s to realize that there is so much here worth practicing, worth learning, and worth building together. As somebody with a voice, privilege and platform, it’s about being a good ally to those with less voice. Because I get to talk plenty, right now it’s about listening. Whatever you do, please don’t ever be afraid of showing your loyalty via dissent.
But, of course, this is relatively easy for me to say. I would never even try to speak for survivors, or for those who don’t have as privileged an embodiment as I do. I don’t speak for anyone but myself here. If any of it resonates, awesome. Regardless, I am grateful to everyone who cares about these matters.
Now is not the time for me to teach. I’ve never wanted to teach less than right now. Now is the time to listen to others. We have a weekend program to Reimagine Enlightened Society this coming weekend. I hope friends attend. I look forward to listening.
Yours, with great appreciation in the view of basic goodness and enlightened society, and with deep trust in your own path,