The Secret is In the Open: Shambhala Sexual Abuse Discussed on CBC Radio

The Secret is In the Open: Shambhala Sexual Abuse Discussed on CBC Radio May 30, 2018

Last week Andrea Winn, creator of Project Sunshine, was interviewed on Canadian Broadcasting Radio on the topic of “Allegations of sexual abuse in Shambhala Community.” Joshua Silberstein, Chair of the Kalapa Council, which is the leadership group for Shambhala Buddhism, responded.

Silberstein gave the concrete number of 14 allegations and investigations by the Care and Conduct committee of Shambhala International since 2002. This leads one to wonder if it might be helpful for the records of those proceedings to be made public, with survivor names redacted if they so wish. Otherwise, there may be ‘teachers’ who were found to have engaged of abuse and have been stripped of teaching credentials but perhaps put in other places of authority where they continue to cause harm.

Without clear and open accounting of their work in this regard, it may be difficult for Shambhala members and the public to trust the organization.

So far Mitchell Levy, former personal physician of Chögyam Trungpa and current husband of Lady Diana Mukpo (who was married to Trungpa at the age of 16 in 1970 until his death in 1987), is the only person to publicly responded to allegations against him by recusing himself from Kalapa Council conversations on this topic. But he has not given details about what those allegations are or if he denies them.

As for that number, fourteen, it would be helpful to know if that matches the number of people who have come forward to Andrea Winn or others working with survivors of abuse in Shambhala International. In particular, I have personally encountered several cases of misconduct being found to be unfounded according to Shambhala leadership (these cases being related by current/former members of the organization). Perhaps those cases were dismissed at a local level of leadership, however, and did not reach the Kalapa level of accounting. In fact, I know directly of one person who reached out to the director of a major Shambhala center and was ignored.

In any case, more transparency – and third party oversight for accountability – would go far to ensure that insiders in the organization don’t simply sweep problems under the rug.

Along those lines, my own current stance toward Shambhala is one of strong caution – and this is what I will tell any students or friends interested in the organization for now – that while much of the teaching there seems excellent and there are clearly amazing people there at many levels, there is also an organizational culture that seems problematic at best, dysfunctional at worst. The number of stories of frustrated members who have attempted to resolve abuse issues and persons raising allegations of abuse are simply too numerous to ignore.

To offer just a few quotes I have read from people involved closely with the organization (posted publicly but made anonymous here):

  • One woman who attempted to address problems in the organization wrote that, “Shambhala leaders … stonewalled backtracked and refused to even discuss in general terms better ways forward.”
  • A man who had worked closely in various capacities with leadership in the organization wrote that there is a “culture of harassment [which is] completely pervasive and practically unchecked.”
  • Another woman, after sharing that she had been subjected to repeated abuse in the organization, continued that, “women who have messaged me have reported that Care and Conduct was not helpful.”

Another man wrote to me directly to share his story – mentioning Mitchell Levy – saying that while he spent years as a devoted student and volunteer at Shambhala, he found himself strangely relieved that his teenage daughters show no signs of interest in the organization.  Stories like this and numerous others continue to feed concern that the misconduct is widespread, as noted in Tricycle’s March story on the topic, and quite likely to be ongoing (as so many of the survivors say that abusers continue to hold power in the organization).

Also useful, however, was Silberstein’s encouraging those who have been abused but have not come forward to do so now. It might be wise for those people to do so while also reaching out to Andrea’s Project Sunshine to advocate, track correspondence, and perhaps coordinate discussions and third-party assistance.

Further questions arise such as to why exactly so many survivors feel unable to come forward; this is incredibly complex and personal, I understand, but nonetheless, the root causes and the institutionalized structures of fear and intimidation (terms that have been used by several survivors) must be addressed if positive change is to be made. A further question arises with relation to Shambhala’s spiritual proximity to other Buddhist groups: can members meaningfully leave abusive Shambhala centers and simply continue their practice at a Kagyu, Geluk, or even Theravadin or Zen Buddhist center or group? Or is the language, training, devotion, etc of Shambhala so specialized and thus isolated (and isolating) that members feel that they cannot transfer the lessons and practices they have developed to another context?

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