This is the public statement from one of the first people to come forward to give testimony regarding the sexual misconduct of Mipham J. Mukpo (whose aliases include Ösel Rangdröl Mukpo and Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche) and other senior leaders in the Shambhala Buddhist organization.
She is identified in the Wickwire Holm report as Claimant No. 1. This statement was originally shared on Facebook on June 22, 2018, and it is reprinted here with her permission.
The last 6 months have been both treacherous and clarifying as conversations have unfolded, dragged on and danced around the topic of Shambhala sexual abuse. I have often thought it deserves its own unique brand. It’s as if a collective community trauma has been triggered and we are drawn to replay, revisit, deny and avoid patterns that seem so engrained to the community. I’ve watched, listened and engaged in these conversations both online and off— some held really close and privately, some that spread far. I have followed and at various points engaged both Project Sunshine and Shambhala Initiatives to Address Harm and the various strategies being churned up this time around. After being harassed and manipulated to ultimately STFU (sometimes asked really kindly) by ‘friends,’ court staff and various leaders (of which pretty much everyone is), after being given this “incredible opportunity” to stand in the deep river of this community’s relationship to sexual abuse and feel how its currents continue to impact me, I realize that the (false) hope I had reignited for change in December has died.
I was sexually assaulted by the Sakyong in the kitchen of the Halifax Kalapa Court after his wife, the Sakyong Wangmo, retired for the night with her first daughter, following the celebration of her first birthday in August, 2011. This experience was traumatic for me. It took place one year after we welcomed Jetsun Drukmo home on that very lawn. It also marked the one year anniversary of meeting my then partner, who stood in the same room as me that night and watched, did nothing, turned the other way. As time went on, the community’s formal responses and members’ processes of relating to this disclosure and fact have overall exacerbated my confusion and suffering and eroded my mind and body’s health. The responses and denials continue to trigger me and prevent me from moving on from that harm and I believe are preventing the community from its own “healing”. It is truly sad, hard and painful for me to admit this and I would encourage people who deeply care about this community and this family you serve to realize that nothing can change if it doesn’t begin with honesty and recognition of the facts and factors we are working with. The Sakyong’s Chief of Staff is most certainly aware of this incident of “sexual misconduct” despite what he has said to the contrary and to the Project Sunshine Mediator. Kalapa Council members know about this sexual misconduct, one of whom was supposed to be my MI around this time but never followed up. I have told several personally. And I know I am not the only one.
For me, these past 6 months have strengthened relations, turned up new alliances, softened family members and neighbors, challenged, stretched and at times snapped long-held friendships. I have wondered if and how connections with those I adore and appreciate could continue and be cultivated, how our experience of our relationships might have meaning beyond and regardless of our relationship to Shambhala. I met a lot of you through training, practicing, staffing, being socialized in and socializing as an adult in the community and with community members. And although I love you dearly, the Sakyong and his family included (and this is actually true—it’s pretty fucked up), I can’t keep “doing” Shambhala and shambhala as we have been taught and are restricted to do it anymore. I know this because it forces me to twist my heart in ways I know it should not have to be twisted. I know there are many meaningful connections with those I’ve met ‘there’ and I invite you to continue to cultivate those with me without the filter of Shambhala the Thing, The Project.
Come be a friend, become a Velveteen —please do. But please don’t ask me to grapple with this experience through a Shambhala lens. Please consider the contradictions in your practice of the teachings if you have to omit the teacher. I cannot have the guru suspended from teaching duties and remove his body, speech and mind from the throne at programs where he tells me how and what to do with my mind, like you might an abusive Acharya or a sangha member. So because none of these initiatives are addressing the Sakyong and the community is not willing to include him in the remedies being touted, I have no choice but to step away. Don’t come to me and ask me to explain my experience in detail, don’t tell me write it up or file a report, don’t propose mediation, don’t try to pull me in and close to keep me quiet, don’t tell me I’m breaking samaya when it has already been broken by him. The labour required to repair that relationship from his end will require much more than a private meeting. Stop coming to me and asking me to talk about my traumatic experience in your way, or on the terms of Shambhala the organization, the vision, the Sakyong. Don’t tell me to not have any dark hidden corners of my mind and then insist Shambhala and the Sakyong need some. Don’t instruct me to lean in and visualize and dissolve into someone who deeply violated not just my physical/sexual boundaries, but who took advantage of my spiritual boundaries/experience/practice too. Don’t tell me to push myself to the brink of suicide and just accept it because Marpa was abusive. Stop accusing me of wanting the headlines, attention or money. I’ve had the unfortunate opportunity to become really familiar with all the tactics over the course of my life and I can see them — including “kindness”—coming a mile away. I will not keep grappling and replaying this by conceptualizing or justifying trauma as Tibetan crazy wisdom. I will not keep quiet and pretend it’s all ok by embodying some fucked up version of British colonial denial. But what I will do is invite you to be a friend, and I will be yours if you become real.
In the most recent situation, 2011, the Sakyong is alleged to have pulled up a women student’s dress, groped her breasts, kissed her, stuck his tongue into her mouth and made a lewd suggestion. He was drunk. This was done without her consent and in full view of at least one other person in a shocking disregard of her physical and emotional well-being. She deflected his advances, but was left humiliated and confused. She had contemporaneous conversations about this incident with a number of KC leaders and other Shambhala members which should provide corroboration of her allegation in a full investigation. I also reviewed some text messages which appeared to indicate that at least one senior leader was aware of the assault sometime in 2011.Carol Merchasin, Buddhist Project Sunshine Phase 2 Report
In 2011, the Sakyong sexually assaulted a woman in the kitchen of his house in Halifax after the birthday party of his daughter. Members of Kalapa Council were aware of it. The Sakyong has never denied this. Indeed, he appeared to have “apologized,” calling it a “personal relationship,” which it was not.Carol Merchasin, Buddhist Project Sunshine Phase 3 Report
I believe that the witnesses present in the kitchen are the least likely to show the Sakyong in an unfavorable light. They appeared unable to believe that the Sakyong would act inappropriately and therefore would only deny the allegation.Selina Bath (Wickwire Holm Report, edited by the Shambhala Interim Board)
I am concerned that there may have been some degree of collusion to set a particular narrative. I believe there may have also been an attempt to discredit Claimant No. 1 as an incredibly troubled individual who is making more out of a situation than necessarily occurred… It remains open to Claimant No. 1 to decide whether or not to pursue criminal charges.Selina Bath (Wickwire Holm Report, edited by the Shambhala Interim Board)
I find Claimant No. 1 to be a creditable witness. She gave her evidence in a straight forward and forth right manner without hesitation. She was consistent in her story and her answers to my questions.Selina Bath (Wickwire Holm Report, edited by the Shambhala Interim Board)
She was trying to see the Sakyong as her teacher and the perfect being that Shambhalians are taught he is… it was not the type of behavior she expected from her teacher… and wondered “am I supposed to be doing this?” and “am I being set up, is this a test of some kind?”. She was not sure what to make of this behavior and was in no way interested in it… He did not ask… She feels it was an impulse stemming from his sense of entitlement that he could do or say what he pleased… it did not seem that he was paying much attention to her reaction or response to his advances.Selina Bath (Wickwire Holm Report, edited by the Shambhala Interim Board)
Claimant No.1 asked him whether this behavior would be harmful or helpful to their friend, her partner… The Sakyong then made his way up to bed. The others present followed him and Claimant No.1 was left alone in the kitchen. None of the men present had tried to intervene or stop what was happening. None of them spoke of the incident with Claimant No.1 that night… The impact of this incident on Claimant No. 1 has been significant. She had a great deal of difficulty trying to reconcile the Sakyong’s behavior with how she had been taught to see him as part of her practice. This incident has ruined her practice and has shattered her connection to the community.Selina Bath (Wickwire Holm Report, edited by the Shambhala Interim Board)
I do find that the Sakyong violated her personal and sexual boundaries in a manner to which she did not consent. He did so without invitation and without permission. I am also mindful of the significant power imbalance between the two parties: he, the teacher who is revered, and she, the student who has been taught he can to nothing that is impure.Selina Bath (Wickwire Holm Report, edited by the Shambhala Interim Board)
Other Survivors’ Statements
The following are statements from other survivors of Shambhala sexual misconduct that Claimant 1 has gathered. They are reprinted here with her permission. Most of these accounts already appear in published reports, but in one case I have redacted the name of the alleged perpetrator as his actions have not (to my knowledge) been independently verified. ~Webmaster
Disclosures of sexual and gendered violence experienced by students of the Shambhala Buddhist community (November 8, 2018)
Below are voluntary first-hand statements storying individuals’ experiences of sexual and gender violence in the Shambhala buddhist community. Most – but not all – were written in the last year. I thought that putting some of the disclosures side by side might help illustrate qualitatively some of the patterns, beliefs and impacts current and past community members are up against when they seek support, challenge abusive norms or are simply attempting to pursue their connections to this intergenerational community and its spiritual paths. I also felt inclined to share because many statements were offered before or independent of BPS but the patterns remain consistent. The statements reflect a range of views and express different hopes and expectations by people variously affiliated with the community, many of whom have left or been pushed out. I will share in another note the accounts and reports Carol Merchasin put into her own words that stem from data collected in her interviews with those who were not able, did not feel safe enough, or did not want to write their own statements. By no means do Carol’s reports scratch much beneath the surface of the experiences (and many have shared their experiences to less public audiences confidentially), but I believe there is value in the fact that her interviews and analysis have resulted in the most public, coordinated and methodical exposure of the community’s negligible regard for sexual violence and clergy sexual abuse. The stories below are mostly from those who cannot reconcile the community’s inability to respond to harmful impacts and provide safety and the need to process the burden of their experience of abuse within a community that continues to enable the conditions that generated it in the first place.
#1 (from Buddhist Project Sunshine Report 2)
Some months ago, I read Project Sunshine’s Phase I report. What powerfully stood out for me were the impact statements of those who had experienced sexual abuse within the Shambhala Buddhist mandala. It was the heartbreaking details – from what happened, to how what happened had affected and continues to affect the lives of those women and men who suffered these abuses and transgressions, that pierced my heart and branded themselves in my mind’s eye. How true it is that the devil is in the details! For this reason, I have decided to write my own impact statement – so that light may be brought into a darkness that has persisted over many years and to encourage anyone who reads this statement to learn the truth about not only the abuses described, but also to peer into the larger culture of collusion and blindness that has functioned to sanction and excuse such abuses. This impact statement seeks to present both a description of SMR’s sexual misconduct as well as the larger context in which the events and experiences I experienced unfolded.
The first time I saw Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, I knew he was my teacher – not just a teacher for this life, but a teacher I had known before and with whom I was now reconnecting in this lifetime. I sobbed with joy after my first conversation with him – a conversation whose content was irrelevant to my sense that our communication had nothing to do with what was said, but that it was part of a larger recognition of the open wisdom and compassion that forms the bedrock of our lives. From that day on, I turned my entire life toward the Dharma and toward my teacher. I did whatever I could to offer myself to the Shambhala world and to serve SMR.
Over years I studied, practiced, and trained to serve. I completed almost every practice available in the Shambhala Buddhist mandala. I studied every text. In particular, I trained in service to the Shambhala mandala on multiple levels. First, I trained as a server in the Sakyong’s household. It was in serving in this role, often late at night at banquets or dinner parties that extended into the wee hours, that I first saw the patterns of heavy drinking that I later became intimately familiar with. As I moved up through the ranks of service, I was around SMR more and more. I trained as a kasung and as a kusung-in-training. I left behind my secular life, my friends, and almost my family. Shambhala was my world, my home, my deepest joy. I loved serving, I loved practicing, I loved studying. My dearest friends were sangha. At the center of all of this was my teacher, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche.
I provide this background as context for what happened. Shambhala was my world and the inner mandala was my home.
Over these years another story played itself out. Part of this story, the part I take responsibility for, was my romantic fantasy of a Tibetan Buddhist guru who could see in and through me, who intimately knew exactly who I was and who could and would orchestrate whatever conditions were required to wake me up. The other part of the story was the clergy sexual misconduct enacted by the Sakyong and condoned, supported and hidden by those who served him.
From early on, I watched myself and others (both men and women) strive to secure a place near SMR. One way this dynamic evolved took place around the “parties” that occurred wherever SMR was staying. Sometimes there would be only one party, other times more. These parties formed a secret world behind the regular programs and events of SMR’s visits to different centers. They lingered in the shadows, tantalizing us with their promises of unusual and intimate experiences with the otherwise distant-seeming guru. To be invited to such a party signaled a kind of acceptance to the inner mandala, the secret mandala. When I first began to be invited to these parties, I was elated. I felt as though my devotion was being recognized and acknowledged and that I now genuinely “belonged.”
The parties all followed a similar pattern. They began with socializing and drinking, music and banter. At some point food was served and the drinking continued. Most of us became highly intoxicated, but few so much as SMR himself. The more intoxicated he became, the more he demonstrated various kinds of outrageous activities – spontaneous poetry competitions, long monologues, harangues of some people who had displeased him. Alongside these (mostly) harmless demonstrations, SMR also pursued another activity. He went after whichever woman took his fancy. For me, this manifested in an experience that occurred repeatedly over years. When he was completely intoxicated, SMR would pull me into a dark corner. He kissed me and groped me while aggressively encouraging me to come to bed with him. Most of the time, another woman who had been invited to the party was already present. For me to comply with SMR’s wishes, I would have had to displace this other woman. Knowing how painful this would be for her, I couldn’t do it. Year after year, I resisted. There was only one night that I slept in SMR’s bed. There had been no girlfriend present that night. He was so drunk that I spent much of the night holding a bowl for him to vomit into. I snuck out of the room before dawn feeling bewildered and ashamed. Several days later, when he had recovered from the alcohol and I saw him, there was no mention of what had happened. Indeed, there was never any mention of these encounters.
This pattern continued year after year. Trying to make sense of how he could desire me while drunk, but act as if this abuse had never happened the rest of the time, I became more and more confused about what devotion to the teacher meant. And since I was often present at the court, I began to recognize another repeating pattern. This pattern consisted of SMR calling women to his bedroom, spending intimate time with them, and then losing interest. Without any warning or communication, they would be dismissed. This pattern occurred with women SMR culled from seminaries for one-night stands, sending out the Kusung to bring one or another newbie to his bed and it also occurred with longer-term girlfriends. All these women were one moment close and the next minute invisible.
Observing this pattern and experiencing the push and pull of his intoxicated desire for me, my sense of devotion became mixed with ordinary emotional needs to be seen, appreciated, valued, and wanted. I never had any strong sexual desire for SMR, but, I wanted to be special and indispensable. I wanted to be “the one” that was never discarded or abandoned and, for many years, by keeping myself at arm’s length, I believed that I had found a way to stay protected from the pattern of harm that I saw him repeatedly enact.
At the same time, this kind of sexual intimacy appeared as the primary way that an attractive woman could be valued or recognized. Although this horrified me, because he was my teacher, I harbored fear that if I resisted his desires, I would be exiled – I would lose the Dharma, lose my friends, lose my teacher, lose my world. Like so many other women, I continued to hope that he would eventually realize that I was his true consort. I clung to the idea that an intimacy would eventually develop between us outside of drunken midnight groping. But, year after year, this same pattern continued and, year after year, I found myself struggling to rationalize his behavior by telling myself I was being shown the patterns of my own poverty mentality and grasping, my desire for recognition and connection. These patterns were wrong and SMR’s actions were meant to purge me of them.
Finally, however, common sense and the reality of how ashamed, anguished, and bewildered I felt prompted me to speak out.I could no longer rationalize what was happening. After one particularly egregious night, I spoke my mind. I told him, after he’d recovered from his hangover three days later, that if he thought I was waiting around for him to ask me to marry him, he could think again. I told him that I’d seen how he treated women and I wanted no part of it. Years of frustration and wondering what he wanted from me bubbled up. As I spoke, SMR sat with a stunned look on his face and for some time said nothing. When he finally did speak, he said that he was sorry, that he had not meant to hurt me. That was it. He left the room. From that time on, he never spoke to me privately again and bit by bit, I was pushed from the inner circle. There was never any form of clear communication but slowly and steadily I was dismissed, my jobs were taken over by others, and I found myself grasping at clues trying to figure out what was happening. A staff member eventually confirmed that I was being dismissed and he himself would be taking over my tasks.
My final meeting with SMR took place about a year after the incident where I told him what I really thought about his treatment of women. He was sitting in his father’s old bedroom. I was on the floor. I begged him to tell me if he didn’t want me around anymore. I asked him to tell me the truth. I acknowledged that hearing the truth would be hard for me, that I didn’t want to leave, but that knowing was far preferable to trying to figure it out in the dark. He got up and walked out of the room.
When SMR walked away, after so many years and so much work, after so much time together and sense of connection, when he abandoned me with so much ease and without a second thought, I was devastated. Had I made this whole thing all up? Was it all just a one-sided daydream? I doubted everything about the Dharmic connection I had before felt so much confidence in. I found myself in a miasma of distrust of my own intuition, those deeper levels of knowing. I questioned all the times he had drawn me aside, alone, or with others, to talk to us about his plans for his first teachers, describing how we would be his first teachers, trained by him to teach in the Dharma as we received it from him. I was tortured recalling how it seemed that I was only desirable to him when he was drunk and that my primary value was as an object to be groped and seduced.
And there was no one to turn to. As soon as I was dismissed, the inner court and almost all my “friends” turned their backs on me as if I never existed.I was ghosted, ignored, and at the few programs I attended in a desperate effort to reconnect, those who had been my closest friends were cool, distant, and even actively unfriendly.The few public conversations I had with SMR were brief and general. I continued to struggle with the feeling that I had done something wrong.
When I think back on these events now, I wonder that I was willing to endure these experiences for so long. SMR played this game with me for many years, holding me at a distance, bringing me in close, and dangling me out again. I had tried strategies to break this cycle of torture by distancing myself from him and engaging in other romantic relationships. All along, I wondered what I would do if he ever truly beckoned me in a real way to be with him. By a real way, I mean, in the light of day, with full faculties and honesty, a genuine and real communication of the heart rather than the surreptitious midnight liaisons from which the woman must sneak away before dawn so as not to be seen or known to have been with him. I had seen so many women have that experience. I was there when women were brought to SMR in the middle of night and pushed out the door before dawn to stumble back to their beds and await his choice for the next night. Wondering if they would be chosen again. Waiting day after day to see where his fancy might fall.
At one point, SMR asked me to take care of some of the women and to try to help them “understand.” Understand what, I never quite knew and even if I had “understood” what could I say? But, like a good student and sycophant, I tried to help others with the emotional distress they were experiencing, particularly when it became clear that SMR was about to turn his back on them.
Writing this now, I can still feel the bafflement that has been with me ever since SMR turned his back on me as my teacher. I genuinely believed in the understanding of samaya between the guru and the student that states that samaya is a two-way street in which both teacher and student uphold and support the connection. When SMR turned his back on me because I told him what I thought about how he treated women, it was clear that there was no room for honesty, no room for genuine communication and no room for the exposure and purification of neuroses. One was either with SMR all the way or out. I had believed that SMR and I shared a deep level of both intellectual and non-conceptual intimacy. I had felt this connection in my bones, my blood, my skin. It wasn’t a conceptual thought, it was a deep awakening in my nature that resonated with the Dharma as it came through him. I had trusted this intuitive level of my being, deeply trusted it, and had relied on it for protection from the surface whims and painful vicissitudes of his desires. And then it was gone.
Since those days, I have had to rebuild my dharma path from the bottom up. For many years, I struggled in silence and shame, without anyone to confide in or rely on for help. It was only when I finally realized that the Dharma could never be taken away from me, that it was folded into the very marrow of my bones, that I began to recover some semblance of confidence and clarity. This confidence has allowed me to reclaim my path and to turn the abuse and pain I experienced into a catalyst for growth and compassion. It is my hope that by sharing my story,others who have experienced similar, and often, much more egregious and harmful experiences with SMR will feel encouraged to find healing and resolution.
I continue to hope that deep down, SMR possesses the kind of integrity, compassion and wisdom that I had believed him to possess. I pray that he can find the courage to take responsibility for the harm he has caused. It is unconscionable that he should be speaking of intolerance for sexual misconduct without taking responsibility for all the years of his own enactment of clergy sexual misconduct with so many women. Even if he is no longer engaging in these kinds of activities at this present moment, what about those women who experienced abuse from him for many years who have suffered in silence, isolation and shame? Isn’t their suffering just as important now as it was then? The excuse that all of this happened many years ago holds no water. Wouldn’t the three daughters of SMR want to know that their father cares about the welfare and the spiritual paths of all his students – male, female, transgender, gender-fluid, etc.? Harm was experienced. I experienced it. My honesty is what lost me my home in Shambhala and any sense of a genuine connection with my teacher, who could not face the truth of his actions.
#2 (from Buddhist Project Sunshine Report 2)
When I first learned of Project Sunshine and the conversation that was happening on Facebook I became completely engrossed, reading all that I could find.I was surprised to see that there seemed to be no mention of the Sakyong in the conversation except for people saying how relieved they were that this pattern of abusive behavior was isolated to the old days of the Vidyadhara. Reading through the discussion made me realize how much I longed to hear from other women like myself who had kept the shameful secret of the Sakyongs’ behavior to myself for all these years.
Over many years I had several sexual encounters with the Sakyong that left me feeling ashamed, demoralized and worthless. Like many young women in the sangha, I was deeply devoted to the Sakyong and did whatever I could to serve him and be close to him. I witnessed the steady stream of attractive women that were invited into his quarters and I longed to be the one that he fell in love with and was worthy of being his wife.
During a program you could often tell who the Sakyong was going to pursue that night by who he made eye contact with during the teaching or feast. One night I received a call from his kusung at 11pm or 12pm saying that the Sakyong would like to see me and that I should come to his suite. I was thrilled and nervous. When I got there, he was dressed solely in a robe with no clothes underneath. We chatted for a while. Then he led me into his room and began kissing me and removing my clothes. I said that I couldn’t have sex with him. He seemed stunned. He thought for a while and then pushed my face down towards his penis and said “Well you might as well finish this.” I was so embarrassed and horrified I did it. He rolled over in bed and didn’t say another word to me.
On another occasion I was invited to a dinner party where the Sakyong was encouraging everyone to drink a lot. He then insisted that we take off our clothes. He led one woman into his bedroom while the rest of us danced. After a while his kusung came out to get me to come to the Sakyong’s bedroom. I went into the room and discovered the Sakyong and the woman on his bed having sex. He said to me “She won’t come. Do something to help.” I stood there stunned and he said “Play with her tits. Do something.”On another occasion I was serving in the household and took some tea to him in his bedroom where he was watching tv. He asked me to sit down with him on the bed. He was only wearing a bathrobe. After a while he opened his robe to reveal his penis and said “I was hoping you could help me out.” Again, I did it and felt completely disgusted with myself, but I was so conflicted with doing what my teacher asked of me, feeling so devoted to him and not wanting to displease him or fall from his graces. This time especially felt even more demeaning as I was in uniform. More and more it felt like he had no interest in me or my well-being. Only his pleasure.
For years I struggled with these memories and my devotion to him as my guru and the brilliant teacher I believed him to be. I pushed them aside, instead internalizing the tremendous shame and feelings of unworthiness.
It has been one of the great heartbreaks of my life to leave the Shambhala Sangha. It was my life and my family for so many years but I could no longer hold the dichotomy of the Sakyong as my guru and a man who made me feel like I meant nothing.
#3 (from Buddhist Project Sunshine Report 3)
After reading the painful and long-overdue reports of systemic abuse within Shambhala International, and particularly those reports concerning Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, I have chosen to come forward and share my own story, which has haunted me for many years and because of which I eventually left the sangha.
I have chosen to come forward, albeit anonymously, because I believe it is important for the Shambhala community to know exactly what has been happening within the Court in this regard, as it reveals a long lineage of sexual misconduct, from VCTR to the Vajra Regent to SMR.
From 2003–2005, I had a consensual,non-monogamous sexual relationship with Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. Since the “relationship”, for lack of a better term, was carried on publicly and was well-known then to many sangha members worldwide, any privacy which I might have wished for then and now has long since been yielded.
I would like to assert that during our relationship, I was never coerced into any sexual acts, nor was I physically or verbally assaulted by SMR. I would also like to assert that I stand behind those women who allege sexual assault and extreme misconduct on behalf of SMR and the Court, and I believe them. The stories of assault are nothing short of horrifying. Absolutely, utterly and completely horrifying. My heart breaks for these women.
I first met SMR when I was 23 years old, during my Vajrayana Seminary. I was a deeply devoted student, living in a practice center. I had a degree in Buddhist Studies and I had been training as a Tibetan language interpreter for several years. I had a great desire, like so many others, to make a profound and lasting spiritual connection with my teacher, and I was greatly honored when, during a private interview, SMR began speaking to me in Tibetan and inquiring about my studies. I felt a personal connection had been established, for which I had longed so fervently, regardless of the stories I had heard of his experience with other women in the sangha.
Shortly after this interview, I was approached by a Kusung, who told me that SMR would like to invite me to a group dinner that night at the Court, which I gladly accepted. That evening, after SMR had excused himself from the table, I was approached by the continuity Kusung, who subtly tapped me on my elbow and whispered in my ear that SMR would like to see me upstairs. I had heard enough of the sexual exploits of SMR that I knew what this invitation meant. But still, I felt very special that SMR wanted to spend time with me.
In the Tibetan tradition, one learns to choose one’s guru carefully, and once Samaya is made, to nurture and cherish that spiritual connection. Despite the fact that I was in a long-term relationship with the Rusung of my practice center, I felt that it was an honor and a pleasure to have a personal connection with and offer myself to the guru—whatever that meant. So I went upstairs, and we had small talk for a few minutes. Then SMR said to me, “well, I feel like we know each other well enough. Would you like to join me in bed?” And, although it was certainly an unusual situation, into bed I climbed. Naively, but willingly.
I want to be clear that this was not a desperate act for attention, or a childish whim, or a misguided hope that I might receive some secret teachings. I entered his bed as a woman and a scholar and a practitioner with devotion in my heart. I enjoy interpersonal and physical intimacy, and I was devoted to my guru. It seemed an obvious enough equation.
My presence was regularly requested throughout Seminary, the invitations always facilitated through Kusung or members of the Court. I remember these invitations with great embarrassment and distaste, as these men (almost always men—although I know firsthand that some women of the Court and many of the female Kusung also protected and slept with SMR) really functioned as vajra pimps, fetching the ladies for their teacher. I found out later that a dear friend from the practice center, who had had multiple sexual encounters with SMR, had attended a dinner the night before I was first invited—she had also been summoned upstairs, but turned down the invitation. Another woman was also requested later during seminary as well, but also chose not to spend the night with SMR.
There were many dinners and late nights throughout that Seminary, which turned into late mornings sleeping in at the Court. So many that my MI asked if it was possible for me to attend more morning sitting sessions. I felt very conflicted, because I was missing those sessions to have breakfast in bed with our teacher. She knew that. Everyone, it seemed, knew that.
It was a strange thing, sleeping with the guru while also still in a relationship with my then- partner, with both of them completely aware of the other. Looking back on it, it seems that this open secret was acceptable within the community only because this was a pattern that had been happening for so long, since the time of the Vidyadhara. But that doesn’t make it less weird or ridiculous. Looking back on it now, it is completely fucked up.
I was then invited to spend a few weeks in Scotland with SMR after Seminary, while he was working on his latest book. This invitation I turned down, because I felt that the relationship with my partner would not withstand this separation. Within a few months, that relationship ended, and I then began spending time here and there with SMR—at Karme Choling, in New York, in Boulder. I also flew to Halifax several times at SMR’s invitation. He would split the cost of the plane fare with me. During these visits we would socialize with other sangha members—nothing was carried on in secret, nor was there ever any privacy. Kusung were always around, always in and out of the bedroom, while I lay there under the covers.
This went on through 2005. SMR invited me up to Boston to watch him run the marathon, and for an afterparty that evening. Although we didn’t spend the night together then, he told me he was about to leave for India for a few weeks, and that he wanted to see me in Rhode Island when he returned.
When I knew he had returned, I received a phone call from Josh Silberstein. I assumed he was calling to plan my visit, but instead he told me that SMR got engaged while in India, and that a community-wide announcement was going out shortly. He also said SMR wanted to talk to me, and would give me a call shortly.
The email announcement of the engagement went out within five minutes. It took six months for SMR to call me. When he did call, he didn’t address the engagement or ask me how I was doing. He was mostly silent, and I was so embarrassed by this silence that all I could do was ask for advice on my upcoming monthlong retreat.
More than a year passed before I was granted an interview with him, by the same Kusung that used to arrange my plane tickets and bring me breakfast and who now wanted to know “what I wanted to discuss with SMR” before fitting me into his busy schedule. SMR was cold and remote when we met, and barely looked me in the eye.
Now, I had been under no such illusion that I was SMR’s girlfriend, or that our relationship would ever be more than a series of weekends together here and there. I knew that he was sleeping with other women concurrently. I had other partners as well. I also knew that he had ghosted other “girlfriends”. But I was under the illusion that we had a friendship, and that he had even a modicum of personal interest in me as his student and friend and former lover. We had spent a lot of time together, we had great fun, we were very affectionate, we enjoyed each other’s company. What hurt me the most in the end was to be dropped and ghosted the way I was, without any thought to maintain even a hint of kindness.
Beyond this, because our “relationship” had been so public, sangha members around the world felt comfortable sharing their opinions with me about SMR’s engagement and bride-to- be. Once the announcement went out, I was absolutely inundated with calls and emails from sangha members who felt that I was “the slighted girlfriend” and wanted to talk. It was all terribly embarrassing, and I had no idea how to respond.
My connection to the sangha, which had been my entire world, began to crumble. I felt that I couldn’t talk to anyone about my experience, because I felt that sharing my intimate experience with others might pollute their relationship with their teacher, or sow discord in general. So I remained silent, and felt great shame in my inability to practice, in my anger at my teacher, for breaking my samaya. I was completing a Master’s degree at Naropa by then, and I felt so incredibly isolated in my shame and heartbreak and complete inability to practice. Shambhala was all around me, and yet I wasn’t a part of it.
During this time, I was a ngondro practitioner doing guru yoga practice. I found it more and more confusing during guru yoga to identify with and visualize SMR. Were all acts by the guru considered to be pure? What was I to make of our relationship? Of the way I was sent for around the world, and then casually dismissed and ignored, like a prostitute? I tortured myself, wondering if the confusion and pain I felt was self-induced, was a result of my own impure thinking, wondering how I could venerate someone that had hurt me so profoundly. And it lead me to wonder: what was the point of our sexual relationship, if it wasn’t for heartfelt companionship or out of genuine affection? Was it just for sex only?
I realized that yes, yes, it was just for sex only.
And this realization, that I had been used for sex, and discarded when no longer useful, was terribly painful. I was unable to continue with guru yoga, it was too painful to see his face in my mind’s eye, again and again, seated on a lotus throne. I blamed myself, I was disgusted with myself.
I began to withdraw from the sangha, slowly at first, and then completely. It has been many years since I last visited my local practice center. I was only alerted to Buddhist Project Sunshine through an old friend and an article in the New York Times. I had just given birth to my daughter, my first child, and my heart was so tender and open and vulnerable. It still is. Reading the stories put forward by such brave women broke my heart all over again, to see myself as part of a greater cycle of utter weirdness, of sexual coldness and spiritual cruelty.
What surprised me was how few women have come forward, especially since I know that many of their experiences were as weird as my own. I know firsthand of at least seven other women who have slept with SMR, all friends of mine from long ago—and none of these women have yet come forward. (Women, where are you?)
Of course I knew, and had always known, much of what had been going on with SMR—his womanizing, his sloppy handling of “relationships”, the string of hurt women in his wake, conveniently labeled after the fact as bitter or difficult.
We all knew. Jesus Christ, WE ALL DID. I am astonished by the quotes given by senior teachers and practitioners who claim that they had no idea what SMR was up to behind closed doors. Are you kidding?
WE ALL KNEW.WE ALL KNEW.WE ALL KNEW.We were all complicit. Myself included.
#4 (from Buddhist Project Sunshine 1)
I was married to an emotionally and verbally abusive husband who was a senior teacher in the Shambhala community. It was very hard to finally realize I had no choice but to end the marriage. I tried every way I could to keep it private and not upset the community or expose my husband, because that somehow seemed the right thing to do. It became necessary for me to seek help from Shambhala when the next Scorpion Seal retreat was approaching (year 6 for me), because I needed to do the program so that I could continue on my spiritual path. I asked for help from a number of people: first my husband himself, who declined to step aside, then the local centre Health & Wellbeing officers, then the Desung, then the President of Shambhala, who finally referred me to the acharyas. I was asking to be able to attend the Scorpion Seal retreat, and I was asking my husband, as a senior teacher, to graciously staff it elsewhere, without blame. (I had program credit at this particular centre and couldn’t afford to pay tuition and travel somewhere else, while my ex- husband was paid to attend wherever he went.) A person in the Office of Social Wellbeing was assigned to facilitate this situation. She wanted me to attend the program with my husband present, and she said arrangements would be made so I would never see my husband and that they would ‘protect’ me from him. I knew that it would be impossible for me to feel safe in such a small and intense group retreat setting, and I made it clear that I could not do the retreat in an atmosphere like this. Shambhala at all levels, including the acharya group, labeled me as the problem when I couldn’t consent to do the retreat with him with their ‘protection,’ and they declined to assist me at that point. In short, the well- being of my ex-husband, the perpetrator, was given a greater value than mine. So, adding to the trauma I was experiencing from the years of abuse and upending my life by leaving the marriage, I was unable to continue on my practice path and stay with my closest sangha who had been going through the retreat together. I felt that I was not believed, not valued, not cared for, and simply thrown away to allow the status quo to continue.
Furthermore, this official met with my husband (we were in the process of a divorce through all of this) and she told him that I had filed a complaint against him, which was untrue and threatened to derail our delicate divorce negotiations. I felt deeply betrayed by this official’s actions.
The atmosphere resulting from all of this was toxic, with all but my close friends either ignoring the issue when they saw me or actually avoiding me. The silence from every level of the organization spoke volumes about the “culture of blindness” pervading and poisoning the societal aspect of Shambhala. I eventually decided to leave my home and community in Canada, which was triggering and painful for me, and I now live in the city where I am originally from in the United States. No one from any level of the Shambhala hierarchy has ever contacted me since then to offer any kindness or guidance about my spiritual path or to inquire about my well-being. After being a highly contributing member of this community for over forty years, fulfilling roles at various levels, including secretary to the Sakyong at one time, this has been a profoundly devastating experience that has broken my heart and completely changed my life.
#5 (Project Sunshine Report 1)
I am a gender queer person, who uses the pronouns “they” and “he”; I was socialized as a male. I’m a survivor of clergy victimization from my experiences in the Catholic Church where I was groomed and raped as a young teen by 2 different priests over a period of years. After years of recovery and therapy, I entered Shambhala as an adult thinking that was all “behind me”. I became a dedicated Scorpion Seal practitioner. I had heard stories about sexual misconduct in Shambhala. I had heard that a senior teacher had raped men. I felt concerned. For over a decade I experienced a few incidences of sexual violence from both men and women in Shambhala. The greatest impact came from a male sangha member who sexually violated me on retreats and trainings. He exposed his entire naked body to me and asked me “Do you like what you see” he told me that I would have to use his “dick” to unlock the community computer, He would make regular references to his “balls” and “ass”, and made homophobic comments to me by calling me a “Sissy”. He had a pattern of acting out on retreats and trainings. Complaints had been made against him. I had even mentioned his behaviors to my therapist, who was a sangha member, but nothing seemed to change and it all got really confusing. I eventually wrote a letter to the community leaders that included an Acharya, Shastris and Kasung. The accused was finally suspended from leadership. He tried to justify and defend his behaviors. He was then immediately allowed to be a Kasung at Children’s Day, and I realized I needed support outside the community. I obtained an outside sexual assault advocate and non-sangha – therapist to support me in the process. I spoke to a lawyer who wanted to “sue the socks off” of Karuna Training and Shambhala. I was not interested in pursuing a lawsuit. The community leadership seemed confused on how to address the issue skillfully. They put together a panel to work with the accused. I felt concerned about a spiritual organization like Shambhala trying to assess and treat someone with issues of sexual pathology. It seemed outside the scope of our local center to do this. I think the accused needed a professional psychosexual evaluation and outside treatment program. My outside advocate helped me in obtaining a temporary sexual assault protection order and filing a police report.
The impact has been painful on many different levels. I have experienced a reoccurrence of PTSD symptoms from past abuse. I have wanted to leave the sangha. Even though he did not touch me, his assaults felt like a rape. I have experienced anxiety, mistrust of sangha, fear, guilt and isolation. Due to the stress of speaking out about the sexual violence, I got in a bike wreck and broke my arm. The treatment is expensive. I have felt overwhelmed at times and also enraged at the denial of certain community members. I also have felt supported by some of the sangha and empowered by my outside advocate, and new therapist.
#6 (Project Sunshine Report 1)
What happened to me is that I was sexually assaulted during a gathering at the home of a friend and fellow sangha member, who I will call Mary. For reason(s) never revealed to me she refused to give me the name of the man who assaulted me. She also indicated that perhaps I was fabricating being assaulted. Mary is a Meditation Instructor, Kasung, Programme Coordinator, and gives out information regarding end of life planning at my local Shambhala Centre.
I made a number of attempts to obtain the name of the man who assaulted me. After a mediation session with the local Desung, Mary threatened me that if she gave me the man’s name and I went to the police, she and I would likely no longer be friends.
Eventually I went to the police without the identity of the man and made a statement. Only after Mary was questioned and the man charged did I learn his identity. After the inhumane way Mary has treated me, I ended our friendship.
The time has come to tell this story publicly. In October of 2013, I was sexually assaulted by [REDACTED] while I was coordinating his program at the Portland Shambhala Center.
He tried to kiss me and I clearly said no. He kept pressuring me to have sex with him, using Shambhala-language like, “lean in.” He also said, “I think you have trust issues – maybe this will help,” after I had explicitly said again that I didn’t want to have sex with him.
He eventually pressured and manipulated me into sexual contact that I didn’t want.
I already had a history of sexual trauma, something that I told him that night. I was drunk. There was a power imbalance – he was a teacher and I was a student. Because I was also young and wanting to learn how to teach in Shambhala, I admired him and wanted to learn from him. I put him and many other Shambhala teachers on pedestals – something I had been encouraged to do over the years, having been steeped in Shambhala’s top-down hierarchy, with an “enlightened monarch” as our leader. Those are some of the puzzle pieces that are part of what happened, but ultimately, it was [REDACTED]’s decision to sexually assault me.
It’s taken me five years to recover from the shame and trauma of that experience enough to clearly, without doubt, say that what he did was sexual assault. Furthermore, his actions were clergy sexual misconduct. Since there is trust with a spiritual teacher or guide, as well as an agreement that you can be vulnerable with this person and they will not misuse their power and your vulnerability to exploit or harm you, clergy sexual misconduct can be especially painful and confusing.
I reported my story to Shambhala International’s leadership soon after [REDACTED] assaulted me. Their response was unskillful, uncompassionate, gaslighting, and caused me further harm. I have since come to find out that Adam Lobel has made a statement saying that he and the other leader involved in my case provided “five years of continued support, suggesting opportunities for further assistance, and offering access to resources” to me. This is not my experience. Gaslighting and befriending me in order to win my silence is not support.
After that experience of speaking out and being shamed, I stopped talking about it. I wasn’t willing to let go of the community that had been so precious to me for almost ten years at that point – my entire adult life. At that time, it was easier to blame and silence myself.
But that time is over.
I am sharing this story now because I deeply wish for no more harm to come to other women from [REDACTED]’s actions. I share this story so that there can be greater truth, and from that truth, greater healing. I share this story in solidarity with other brave survivors – so that they may know they’re not alone. I share this story so that I may continue to heal and no longer carry this heavy, silent weight alone. I share this story so that [REDACTED] has the opportunity to face and be accountable for how much harm his actions have caused and can seek appropriate support and treatment. I share this story with the hope that we may grow brave enough to believe and lovingly support others who come forward to share their stories. I share this story with the aspiration that one day, we will evolve to create communities and societies where sexual harm, patriarchy, white supremacy, hetero-normativity, and all other forms of oppression cease to exist.
P.S. I’ve been feeling and talking about my own and others’ sexual harm A LOT over the past few months and past few weeks in particular. I am full to bursting, and now need to prioritize my own self-care and healing. What would be supportive to me right now is your offerings of love and kindness. It is not supportive for me to engage in more dialogue, discussion, debate, or to answer any questions or help you process your own feelings about this or other stories you may have heard. But please do seek out those spaces elsewhere, such as the Societal Lhasang Facebook group, or by talking with others who are more resourced to support you. Finally, please know that if you do reach out to me, there’s a good chance that I may not respond, so that I can better channel my energy into caring for myself during this incredibly painful, charged and tumultuous time.
#8 (Reply to: Letters of The Current Situation on the Chronicles https://www.chronicleproject.com/letters-of-the-current-situation/ )
This letter has been brewing for 16 years, at times boiling over and burning the stove. I want to genuinely applaud your bravery for publishing the letters. What struck me most was the ever evolving path our community and teachers took as we continued to gather information and attempted to consider points of view that differed from our own. Having been very close to the sangha member who contracted HIV from the Regent, having been there at the moment he took his last breath, I feel somehow the beating heart of this family’s real pain has never been publicly acknowledged or apologized for.
The path the family took who lost an only son, brother, lover, and best friend has been one of bravery, insight, intelligence and woundedness. I’ve seen this beloved family struggle, and there is nothing so horrible as seeing a mother grieve the loss of her only son, a sister grieve the loss of her only sibling, and a father grapple with the emptiness of losing his child. With the death of one so young come many losses.
I was so fortunate to be able to talk frankly to this young man during the last months of his life. We talked about his pain and frustration, about his conviction that he contracted AIDS from the Regent, about his fear for the well-being of his family. We grieved the loss of his unborn children and his future. During this painful time, the family received no apologies; in fact they were often asked if they were sure this young man contracted AIDS from the Regent. There was much discussion about his past sexual history, as if he were a case study rather than an innocent. False and irrelevant allegations such as one of his old girlfriends used needles, this one was promiscuous, an uncle had recently died of AIDS, etc, abounded. Rather than embracing this family with loving kindness when they needed it most, they were often treated badly and gossiped about.
The financial strain placed on his family was great, and no compensation was ever offered. His mother spent her entire retirement fund, and is now older than she would like to admit and unable to retire. They continue to face life bravely and without depression, and they are a strong, loving, and cohesive family. Have we reached the point yet where we can genuinely apologize? Perhaps the letters are a step in the right direction.
Yours in the Vision of the Great Eastern Sun
Dr. Ford has been incredibly brave today, so I need to be brave as well. I’m finally ready to say one name, thanks deeply to those who have helped me with this mess over the past ten months (and ten years). Think about who you hire as teachers of the dharma. Please don’t contact me to ask “when Nick can teach again?” This is painful for everyone…
In the spring of 2008 I was working on my second album of dharma songs with Nick Kranz, someone I considered a good friend and kalyanamitra, who I first met at Karme Choling. At this point, I was also friends with his long-term girlfriend and I myself was also in a long-term relationship with a live-in partner. Nick and I met to talk about the album and during the meeting I went to use the bathroom. When I returned, he was completely naked, and invited me to join him. My first thought was – where are his clothes? I blurted out, “What about (name of his girlfriend)?” And he replied: “This doesn’t concern her.” I was completely shocked and also completely confused as to what to do or say. I declined to get naked and have sex with him but he remained naked and oddly demonstrative for about an hour (standing with his penis out in front of a window). It was a deeply uncomfortable encounter that violated our working relationship, our friendship and my view of him as “spiritual friend” further along the path. It also forcibly brought to mind other smaller incidents of him getting erections while we recorded in his room together or while talking dharma at Karme Choling – which his co-workers laughingly called his “dharma boners”.
The episode with Nick was my third sexually violating incident in the sangha (he didn’t know that), and simply one of a string in my non-sangha life. That is the trick of sexual violation: you never know what traumas you are going to trigger off in those you violate. In this case, I was triggered to simply flee: I didn’t confront him, I just broke off our recording agreement, and didn’t speak to him for ten years. He never mentioned it or reached out. In the meantime, I hired a different sound engineer and went on tour. Outside of singing dharma songs, I stayed at a safe distance from the Shambhala community. I didn’t attend any major programs and felt largely consumed by inchoate anger watching the young(ish) men from my cohort rise and rise, not understanding the privilege they had to pursue dharmic activities without harassment, violation, assault, and the resulting fear and rage. I will also note that many of the men from my cohort, due to the fact that they weren’t sexualized as practitioners, were given opportunities denied to those whose role as practitioners included a sexualized element. My personal forms of confusion from having the sexual desires of older men non-consensually intersect with my dharmic interests were anger, sharpness and an unwavering desire to know more about the overall position of the embodied female in Vajrayana Buddhism.
When #MeToo broke in November 2017, I posted a general statement of my experiences in Shambhala on Facebook and was met with tremendous support. Largely due to that wave of similar stories, similar sadness-es, similar rages, in December I texted Nick and asked if we could talk. We set up a time in January, but then I think he remembered the incident and started to text me repeatedly to meet sooner, several texts in one day, etc. I felt really overwhelmed, anxious, sweaty and afraid, but decided to just DO IT. We set up a meeting and I told him it was going to be an uncomfortable conversation but that it needed to happen. I am, at heart, a lighthearted person with a sense of humor who detests conflict, so I wanted to forgive him very much. And it was good to talk with him, but he didn’t really understand that it was anything other than a pass gone wrong. In fact, it was indecent exposure, which is illegal and highly manipulative behavior. He talked about how he first saw me skinny dipping near Karme Choling years ago (which I don’t remember), and how sexy I was, how erotic my voice was, how he wasn’t having any sex in his relationship at the time, and how he wanted to “play with me” like a wild yogini, Milarepa, etc. I did want to forgive and move on, but as the months passed I realized more and more how much he was blaming me and my sexuality for his actions and deeply conflating my person-hood with the nameless, poorly described consorts that populate many of our Vajrayana practices.
I initially asked for Nick to step down completely as a shastri, but he refused so I asked Nick to step down from teaching as a shastri for six months, which he has also refused. He has had a version of this statement for nine days now; I have tried to be as kind as possible to give him advance notice of what action I was taking. I would like him to take time to work on issues such as boundaries, especially since Social Meditation involves prolonged eye contact. I myself have dealt with ten years of consequences from this violation and the compounded harm of what it triggered off – social, sexual and dharmic – and I think it is fine for him to now experience consequences for his actions, though I do not want them to be catastrophic.
Perhaps most importantly, I aspire to continue as a practitioner of meditation without the weight of feeling as if the sexual violations that occurred within the sangha by Vajrayana male practitioners were my fault. I want to remember what it is like to attend a retreat without corporeal fear of someone. This is not a worry most men in the sangha have and thus they are able to proceed along the path without extra encumbrance. To those men and women, mostly titled, who did nothing despite knowing about one, two or all three of my violations, who had long thoughtful conversations with me leading nowhere and who repeatedly asked me when Nick could teach again and to understand him as an “innocent” person: understand that you are an enabler of behavior like this; that is simply what an enabler does. There are many non-white, non-male practitioners in our sangha who will rise as excellent teachers without a history of misconduct to help change our sangha’s culture. I am making a public statement not necessarily for me, but for the young, excited and brilliant women who will be drawn to the dharma in the future. Sarva mangalam.
#10 (Project Sunshine Report 1)
I grew up in the Shambhala community. I was sexually abused by several men. The greatest impact came from one, who I will call John. When I was a teenager, I did my first serving shift with a primary teacher in the teacher’s residence. John was close with the family and living in the same house. I had to pass by his room every time I did something for the principle I was serving. John kept stopping me at his door to talk with him. Then, one time he asked me to come in the room and shut the door. He was sitting under the covers of his bed and removed the covers and I saw he was naked on the bottom half. He had me sit by him on the bed and told me to kiss his penis. I was young, a girl, and I wanted to respect him and “be nice”. I was profoundly confused. A friend of mine years later was physically attacked by John, and five of us dharma brats came to my friend saying we had been abused by John. This is when I learned his child abuse was wide spread. The rape counsellor I was seeing said that if five of us came forward, there were likely many more who had been abused by him since it is rare for anyone to speak about child abuse. I spoke about my experience of child abuse in my local community. The leadership held secret meetings and sent me a threatening email telling me to stop speaking about the abuse. My experience of abuse in the Shambhala community has impacted my life over the decades. Every intimate relationship I’ve been in has been a high intensity nightmare. I want to be close with someone, but I am terrified. It’s like I don’t have the ground within me to build healthy trust. Having been both sexually abused and demonized by my community when I spoke about it, I have had no community connection for over 15 years. I’ve resorted to living very alone. For instance, recently I had a bad pneumonia and nearly died. I had no one in my life to visit me in the hospital, except for one Christian man who saw it as his Christian duty to visit me twice. It’s hard to admit this, but my intense loneliness hits me at night. I stuff myself with food and watch TV until late. I am quite sad about this. My rape counsellor says this profound loneliness is part of the cost. I love the Vidyadhara and I am deeply committed to Shambhala. At the same time, having been abused by many leaders in the community tears at the fabric of my being. The psychological pressure has been overwhelming. It has been hard to establish a life and also hard to have a meaningful or safe relationship with meditation.
#11 (Buddhist Project Sunshine Report 3)
Until now, I have disclosed to only a few close friends the reason why I left the Shambhala community in the mid-1990s. I am speaking up now in response to Sakyong’s July 10 letter in which he states that his troubles began in 1995 with his enthronement that subsequently led to his heavy drinking. However, I experienced similar behaviors of his that have been reported in Buddhist Project Sunshine much earlier than that. My first encounter was in the Fall of 1987 in Kathmandu, where several sangha members had gone to study after the Vidyadhara’s passing.
At that time, the Sakyong was known as Sawang; therefore, I will refer to him as such in this statement. During our stay in Kathmandu, a close friend (a second-generation sangha woman) confided to me that she had spent an evening with Sawang rejecting his sexual advances. She said that Sawang hadn’t seemed to care, but that he was much less friendly with her after that. She had hoped they could still be friends and there would be a way she could fit into the community, but it soon became clear to her there wasn’t. This young woman eventually ended up leaving the community to study with another teacher.
In early 1988 I was invited to Rumtek, the seat of the Kagyu lineage, in Sikkim, India to celebrate Losar, the Tibetan New Year. A few days before leaving, I mentioned to Sawang that I was worried about traveling there alone—it was a two-day journey that involved plane changes, numerous taxis and rickshaw rides and a final descent into Sikkim via helicopter. To my great relief, Sawang was also going and invited me to travel with his entourage that included two attendants who I didn’t know. I was very happy for the invitation and felt I’d be safe with them during the journey.
However, things became unpleasant for me right from the start of the trip. At the Kathmandu airport, Sawang told me to carry his bags and continued to do so at each point of travel. In addition to managing my own bags, I had to carry his bags too—no easy task in the days before wheeled-luggage, while he walked hands-free and his two male attendants only carried their own bags. It felt demeaning, but I wasn’t sure how to say “no” to the new head of the Shambhala lineage. To make matters worse, after restaurant meals along the way, his attendants would hand me the bill for the entire table without offering any contribution. I began to feel resentful and exploited, but again didn’t know how to refuse. Finally, after paying for our third meal, I found my voice and told the three of them I couldn’t afford to pay their way—that from then on, I would be paying only for myself. I also made sure each time we went in/out airports or took taxis and rickshaws, that I stood as far away from Sawang’s luggage as I could get—I was determined to not carry his bags again.
The journey from Kathmandu to Rumtek required an overnight stay in Calcutta and a connecting flight the next day. Upon arrival, we discovered the main hotels were completely booked except for one hotel that had two rooms available. We decided to share the two rooms—Sawang assigned me to stay with one of his attendants and he roomed with the other. After settling in for the night, my roommate pulled out a syringe and injected himself with a drug. I had never seen anyone shoot up and was really disturbed by it. I had no idea what kind of behavior might follow and was concerned for my safety. Fortunately, he quickly passed out and stayed that way until morning.
At breakfast the next morning, I told Sawang and his other attendant about the drug use, but they just shrugged their shoulders. I was troubled that this behavior didn’t alarm them too, especially on a trip to visit the spiritual head of our lineage. Later I learned it was well-known the man had a serious drug problem. Years later a sangha friend pointed out the real danger to me would have been if he had over-dosed—I could have ended up in a Calcutta jail. Reflecting back, I feel Sawang had callously put me at risk.
Once we reached Rumtek, Sawang and his attendants were given rooms in the monastery and I was housed with a Tibetan family that lived just outside the gates. Each day the four of us participated in monastery events and outings nearby. On several occasions the beautiful young daughter of the family I was staying with joined us. A light flirtation developed between Sawang and this young woman. At the time, it seemed rather sweet to me.
Towards the end of our week-long visit, Sawang instructed me to arrange for the daughter to come to Kathmandu so they could get to know each other better. He told me to tell her father that she would be my guest, that she would stay at my apartment and that I would chaperone her. I felt a bit uneasy about it, but also felt honored to be included in the “inner circle” by helping Sawang. With my assurances, the father agreed to let his daughter come to Kathmandu as my guest.
A few days after we got back to Kathmandu, Sawang informed me that the visit had to be canceled right away. One of his advisors had told him that he couldn’t marry a Tibetan woman—he had to marry an American woman who would be accepted by the community. I was surprised that marriage was being discussed—I thought they just wanted to get to know each other better. I had to make up an excuse to cancel the visit and felt bad telling the father that his daughter’s trip had to be postponed due to a timing conflict.
Not long after canceling the visit, I bumped into another of Sawang’s attendants in downtown Kathmandu. He berated me in public right there on the street, firing questions at me such as: “Who do you think you are playing cupid for Sawang? How dare you get him in such a comprising position? Do you realize all the trouble you’ve caused him?” and so on. I tried to tell him that the visit wasn’t my idea, but I could hardly get a word in edgewise. I was shaken to the core from the verbal assault and the realization that Sawang had blamed me for a situation of his own making that he had to extricate himself from.
A few hours later I told a sangha friend about the terrible encounter with Sawang’s attendant. He was very disturbed and immediately took me to Sawang’s house where trembling and struggling to hold back my tears, I asked him to acknowledge in front of his attendants that he alone was responsible for the situation with the woman. Sawang asked everyone to leave the room so that he could speak to me privately. I thought it odd he wasn’t willing to set the record straight in front of everyone, but a private apology would have been OK too. After everyone left, Sawang laughed and said, “This is really no big deal—just let it go.” I was very hurt that he couldn’t apologize to me even in private and that he had no empathy for the pain I was in. I lost respect for Sawang at that moment and walked out of his house.
Now, after reading recent statements from women who accuse Sawang of a pattern of procurement of women, I realize that even back then he had involved me in procuring a woman for himself, then blamed me when it became awkward for him.
A year or so later Sawang invited me to attend Kalapa Assembly, but I knew I couldn’t give my allegiance to someone of his character. Later, I did receive an empowerment from him, but as a proxy for the Vidyadhara so that I could practice with the community. But, with time, it became clear to me that my presence at Shambhala programs was not fair to those who revered him when I felt just the opposite; therefore, I chose to leave the sangha which was then under his leadership.
It has been truly disheartening to me over the years to not be able to practice with the Vidyadhara’s sangha, but I never left him as my teacher. The Vidyadhara is always in my mind and heart and I still practice his teachings faithfully.
Numerous personal impact statements from some of Sakyong Mipam’s closest servants, dated February 16, 2019.