|A drawing I made this week when I couldn't write about this yet.|
I am writing today as a teacher, Vajrayana sangha member/student, and lineage holder in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition. Most of my life is deeply entwined in Shambhala; all I teach has at least some if not a lot of contact with Shambhala. Today is the end of a very long and hard week for those of us in Shambhala, and I want to write to you about some of my story this week with my feelings (first) then thoughts (second) and resources (last).
Some of these things have appeared elsewhere – in Facebook conversations, in personal exchanges with others – some of these are new. I wanted to compile them all together for myself, for my fellow sangha members who are suffering, and for those confounded by the news and outside the circumstance all together. Everything I say here is in my own words and my own experience, however, I don’t exist in a bubble and I have been greatly inspired, and supported by many folks this week, especially my Shambhala Office of Social Engagement peeps this week.
I will insert a trigger warning here, because there is mention of sexual abuse and clergy sexual misconduct. I myself am a sexual abuse survivor, though I have never experienced abuse in this lineage. Please read with care – lots of self-care and also care for me and for other survivors who tell their stories.
1. 1. My story this week and how I have felt
I started this week, on Monday morning, coming out of teaching a one-week contemplative writing retreat. This form – contemplative writing – is based off of Natalie Goldberg’s writing practice, and over time I have blended it with Shambhala, contemplative psychology, movement and more. It is not fully Shambhala, but definitely Shambhala-flavored. I arrived home midday exhausted and ready to sleep for days; Monday mid-evening I got a text from a friend telling me to check my email and see the email from Sakyong Mipham.
In this email, Sakyong Mipham writes a letter to all of Shambhala, letting us know accusations have come out about him having what he calls “relationships” in which “people felt I harmed them.” Being a sexual abuse survivor myself, and knowing of at least one story in which he deeply sexually harmed someone prior to this letter, and having a feeling there was more, at first I felt relieved. Yay! He is speaking up, and BEFORE anyone else says anything about him. But then it became clear someone on Facebook HAD said something, only it was privately on her own page, and she removed it soon thereafter for fear of retribution/people’s reactions. By late Monday evening, I had seen screenshots of her story, and I felt enraged at what seemed to me to be gaslighting language and an evasive non-apology by my teacher. Not to mention lots of people had not seen the individual post, so his letter seemed to come out of nowhere and actual cause more confusion than clarity.
By Tuesday, I understood that Project Sunshine, an investigative series of reports by Andrea Winn, the first of which came out in February, was due out on Thursday. This time the report would detail sexual harm committed by Sakyong Mipham exclusively (the first one dealt with cases of sexual and other harm done against community members over the years by other teachers and people in power). I felt his letter was a warding off of, an anticipation of the wave of blame about to come at him. This left me feeling quite mixed as well.
Parallel to all of this, I am part of the Shambhala Office of Social Engagement (SOSE), a recent office, and we were discussing amongst us what changes were needed. We concluded a few measures were necessary: 1. Absolutely transparency and 2. Change of leadership at the level of Kalapa Council, which is our governing body below Sakyong Mipham. We are long overdue for representation of non-white, non-straight, non-cisgender people on Kalapa Council; the Council is also majority male. My co-officers in SOSE remain tremendously and fiercely inspiring to me, and a big part of my hope for Shambhala moving forward.
I was part of many phone calls, received many emails and messages both from people within our sangha and outside of it. Lots of confusion and hurt, people wanting to see the message posted by the woman anonymously if need be, and those of us who had seen it knowing she didn’t want it shared widely in that way. There was a sense of waiting until Thursday, when Project Sunshine Part II was due. I also held space on my own Facebook page and encouraged people to contact me as well as stay in a feeling state as much as possible when posting on my wall, rather than speculation, analysis, or questioning.
The Kalapa Council sent out an email ahead of Project Sunshine’s next release, late on Wednesday night, and while it detailed actions they are taking, and had more feeling than previous letters from them to our sangha, it still remained a bit distant and non-specific about, say, whether Sakyong Mipham can stay in power during investigation, and other significant details. The biggest accomplishments in that email were a real sense of feeling absent in other emails, and an admission they have messed up, badly, throughout this whole thing.
Thursday morning hit like a bomb. I woke up to a phone call with my local sangha, and Project Sunshine was released at the very beginning of the call. Many of the places I had been following filled up with people’s immediate reactions; I felt strongly I could not look at these reactions until I had read it myself and I was not ready to read it. I went for a walk, cried with my wife, and finally, sat down to read the 52-page report. Early on, I realized with great shock that I am 95% certain I know the first woman whose story is detailed so strongly; I felt heart sick to realize I knew her around the time she left Shambhala. If it is not her story, it is very close to hers. I was relieved to see the story from the woman who had posted on Facebook her more recent incident (2011) in the report. Overall, actually, I was relieved. As a survivor, secrecy – even when it is being used to protect victims – really triggers me, more than hearing details. I believe the victims 100%.
Realizing I almost certain I know one of these folks did something important for me – it gave me a face. I deeply respect the anonymity of victims; also I wish it didn’t take me realizing I know one of them personally for me to feel deep compassion and rage. But there we have it. It did help me connect into the wounding more deeply. It also made me realize how I have distanced myself in my own way from other sangha’s tales around this kind of thing recently; while I never thought our lineage was perfect, I feel some embarrassment at that and deep gratitude to those from other lineages or outside of Shambhala who have expressed tremendous compassion for what a hard time this is and will likely be for a while. These issues are up for so many groups nowadays; I feel a familiar sense of relief that I/we are not alone, along with a horror at realizing just how awful so many people are feeling in a lot of groups, not just ours, and not just in Buddhism.
I switched into deep care mode – for myself and others. Thursday I spent most of the day in communication with various people, and felt optimistic we can change this governance of Shambhala, that Sakyong Mipham can do the work he needs to do, and that I can stay as a teacher, a Vajrayana student, and as a leader in Shambhala.
By Thursday afternoon I started getting flashbacks. The wording from the report, all of the recounts of his sexualized actions towards female students became intrusive and wouldn’t leave my mind or vision. I used all my techniques and they helped but it was hard. I barely slept on Thursday night. Getting together with my local sangha was tender, heart-rending, supportive, and also challenging, as people work through this experience at their own speed, and with different defense mechanisms. I started to doubt my connection to Sakyong Mipham, going so far as to pick up researching other possible teachers (which I have done before). I began to feel it necessary to be very, very honest with students and other community members about my experience, while also being respectful and not name-calling, making conclusions, or making demands. Holding that kind of space for my own mind as well as others is incredible delicate and intricate, and while I have mostly felt I have done it well, it got a lot harder once flashbacks kicked in.
On Friday, yesterday, I took quite a bit more space, not constantly looking at my various social media outlets. Kalapa Council sent out another email updating people on third party investigations, which will begin next week, and again insisting they have never threatened a lawsuit against Andrea Winn or Project Sunshine. The whole question of who to believe, for as I know a LOT of people in Shambhala having taught many different places in the last 10 or so years, is tricky. There are reasons not to believe the Council, and reasons not to believe Andrea. I became very angry that it feels up to “us” – all the teachers, senior students, leaders in Shambhala to be on social media and mopping up the messes for the Council and Sakyong Mipham. A few people began insisting Sakyong Mipham step down during investigations, folks posted very thoughtful and detailed questioning of our current governance structure, and more.
Alongside all of this sanity and compassion also remain very divisive and extreme views. There are people who are leaving, in droves, and I don’t blame them. There are people who are 100% committed and cannot see there are any problems here. There are people who blame the ‘victims’ (their quotes, not mine).
In spaces I have influence over, I have asked people not to make statements like “Anyone who stays in Shambhala now is complicit,” and instead express feeling, personal experience over opinion. This remains most important to me – to hold our sanity, even in, especially in, deep confusion. Stay with feeling, groundlessness, and fear, even rage – without looking to resolve it immediately.
This morning I lead a contemplative writing class online – the first I have formally taught since last Sunday – and I gave space for folks to express their experience with all this, as quite a few of the members are Shambhalians. The word “devastating” is the most common word I have heard this week. Devastating. While in the class, I wrote a letter to the woman I am 95% certain I know and am reading the story of when I read the first part of Project Sunshine; I realized after I was done that I want to and need to join the ranks of teachers stating their experience publicly right now.
So here I am.
Overall, I can’t get over how I came into this coming right out of retreat. I am grateful for that, as though I was deeply exhausted and it was a shock, I was also deeply settled in my own sanity and a great deal of tenderness for other humans – all humans. Often, when we finish a retreat, teachers in our tradition warn people to be very, very careful after retreat – that returning to “our other life” or “the real world” can be painful, and we are tempted to make rash decisions based on sudden reactions to the intensity of the return. We advise people to wait and feel, give it some space, before deciding. And that has been my intuitive technique this week – feel first, give it space, know I don’t have to decide or cognitively analyze any of this yet.
Feeling – and feelings – has/have been most important to me, and so I expressed those first. I have had very little capability to express thoughts about all this, much less articulate opinions. If you are in that state, skip to part three for resources.
2. 2. My thoughts
I have had lots of hope for Shambhala in the recent months. The Shambhala Office of Social Engagement consists of lots of folks doing hard work for social justice in the world and also in our sangha – people of color, white allies, men who want to break patriarchy, white women who are ready to look at our complicity in both white supremacy in our organization as well as societal and our own personal neglect of black women in particular. It’s a heartening group, deeply inspiring, and they have been my backbone this week.
I also want to acknowledge the thread of patriarchy and whiteness which have played great complicit roles in this whole thing. Myself included. I gave the metaphor earlier on this week in a meeting of the way patriarchy has slipped into our sangha through the Trojan Horse of “masculine energy” – a real and, despite its name, non-gendered energy. To heal from patriarchy, both immediately and long term, we are in deep need of “feminine energy” – not just women, or female-identified people, but space, accommodation for feeling, and finding ourselves able to be in groundlessness. In order to overcome the patriarchy in all of us and in our midst, especially reinforced by whiteness, we need space, time to feel in our bodies, and have feelings. (Please see feminine energy article in resources for more on this view)
So even as I make “thought” comments, I believe space and time to recover, feel shock, have all the feelings and connect with others is top priority. None of these are “immediate demands” – just my current beliefs/thoughts, heavily informed by many great writers in lots of traditions who have been through this recently, and my amazing fellow sangha members.
For those who want them, my current thoughts are this:
A. Alcoholism and sexual misconduct are a deep part of the social reality of the Shambhala lineage. Sakyong Mipham needs to go into recovery for both.
B. We need a kind of truth and reconciliation process so people are actually safe to tell their horrific stories publicly without retribution. (Please see link to Lama Willa Miller’s article below for a beautiful description of this kind of process)
C. The Kalapa Council needs to dissolve and re-form. We need representatives of our sangha, not just those who are more like trusted advisors to Sakyong Mipham. Again, as I said above, I am in alignment with SOSE on this: we need immediate change of leadership at the level of Kalapa Council. We are long overdue for representation of non-white, non-straight, non-cisgender people on Kalapa Council; the Council is also majority male. (Though I do not agree with all he says, see the Medium article by Fred Meyer below for some great clear thinking on problems inherent in the current structure)
D. The process of working out whether to stay or not stay in Shambhala is going to vary GREATLY for many people – depending on if we are survivors of sexual abuse ourselves, adult children of alcoholics; on whether we just did Level I, are considering going to Enlightened Society Assembly; or are deep into the Vajrayana track. For those who are Vajrayana students, this is a deeply difficult and troubling time – I post a few articles below to help guide your thinking and support understanding the difference between holding a guru accountable for actions and devotion to the guru. I suggest people be calm, give themselves time to feel, know they don’t have to make any decisions now, and get a lot of support from people they trust. If you feel you need to leave now and that is clear, know I support you in that, too. Please don’t pressure anyone one way or the other, much less insinuate they are dumb for making a decision one way or another.
E. Third party investigations are already being put in place; any investigations and support for victims have all moved WAY too slowly, and must start next week, which Kalapa Council now says they will. Anyone complicit should step down during investigation process.
F. For me to feel at ease, as well as others to trust him again, Sakyong Mipham must apologize directly for harm he has caused. No self-forgiveness (see article on the problem of men self-pardoning below), no evasive language, or language with the impact of evasiveness, which is how a lot of people, not just me, received his apology letter on Monday.
G. I also believe Andrea Winn needs to not be a part of the investigations, other than to provide contact or connections. She is far from impartial in all of this, and I don’t just mean as a victim. She does not make a clear investigative third party. I am so incredibly grateful for her work; and with her history in Shambhala, of which I have heard many mixed things, she needs to leave room for a completely separate third party to investigate.
H. I am not going anywhere, at least not at this point. Shambhala is literally my life, in large part, and I still have faith in great change. I am also wary, paying attention, and feeling deeply wounded by the human manifestation of my guru. I am not making any decisions, but staying committed to sanity at all levels, and the long haul of working this out. For now. Just my honest experience at this moment. For me, Shambhala is as much the people as my guru and the governance. That has been important to keep in mind, and the people have been, for the most part, powerfully resilient, intelligent, and compassionate this week. We are showing our true colors, even as patriarchy and white supremacy also show their shadows in our structures.
These are, as thoughts go, subject to change and also not representative of anyone but myself. I know that goes without saying but, I had to say it.
3. 3. Resources
I mentioned some resources above and will list them here with links that you can hopefully follow (this is why I am posting this on my blog, and linking to it via other places – Instagram, Facebook). Finally, I want to add that the general Facebook Shambhala group has mostly been a horror show this week – full of a wide range of responses, some quite heartfelt and some over the top nasty. I know there are moderators there, but the group is 10,000 some strong, and it’s been way too much this week to moderate. If you are a member of Shambhala and looking for a good place to share your heart and have strong moderation, look up Societal Lhasang and ask to join. Please only do this if you are involved in Shambhala in some way.
Articles are here:
You can search for articles in Think Progress, Lion’s Roar and Tricycle (and I am sure more by now) to see what the “public” is seeing about this week in Shambhala.
You can also find letters from Kalapa Council and Sakyong Mipham linked in the public Shambhala Facebook group. I am going to assume most of the readers have read them.
Resources below include how to work with all of this, including how to be with indiscretions by your guru if you are a Vajrayana student, next steps for Shambhala, Project Sunshine itself, and a couple of academic articles on consorts:
Olive Branch’s “white paper” on clergy sexual misconduct (including good quote from Dalai Lama):
Good article from Dalai Lama on criticizing a Varjayana Lama:
Lama Willa Miller’s article on her sangha’s truth-and-reconciliation style process:
Mingyur Rinpoche article on what to do when a guru commits misconduct (great for all levels of practicioners, from beginner to Varjayana):
Fred Meyer’s article on what to do with Kalapa Council/Shambhala Governance now:
The problem of men self-pardoning in terms of sexual misconduct:
Feminine energy in Tibetan Buddhism:
Sunshine Report – Phase I is about overall misconduct, Phase II is what was recently released and covers only Sakyong Mipham:
Please know I am holding you, dear reader, regardless of your connection to Shambhala, in my heart. If you are reading this, you likely know me. If you don’t know me, and you are offended by something I said, please take my basic goodness into account for intention then let me know the impact either through comments or messages.
Overall, be kind with yourself and each other – which doesn’t mean not being direct. It simply means being feeling-based, non-accusational, watching assumptions, and taking space and time before expressing reactions or responses.
If you wish to share any of these, please attribute and link back to my blog. This is important, as I wish none of what I share to be understood out of context when possible. Quoting it is fine, but make sure to point back to the source so folks can see the context.