Why can’t people just leave Shambhala Buddhism?

Why can’t people just leave Shambhala Buddhism? August 15, 2018

With a steady stream of abuse allegations against senior leadership and well-known teachers, many Shambhala Buddhists are asking the obvious question: should I stay or should I go?

Before the Project Sunshine report, published in February 2018, Shambhala International had maintained a relatively low-key profile in the American religious scene: a somewhat questionable but charismatic founder in the 1970s, mostly (?) standard Tibetan Buddhism teachings, plenty of drama but, perhaps, stability in its second generation…

I have gotten to know Waylon Lewis, founder of Elephant Journal, over the years, as well as Ethan Nichtern, and Lodro Rinzler and Susan Piver. But I knew them all more for their individual activities rather than as members of or teachers in Shambhala International. So my first response to the unfolding abuse of power scandal was to reach out to Andrea Winn, who authored the Project Sunshine report to find out more.  as the scandal has opened up over the last 6 months I’ve watched mostly as an outsider, as I have with most contemporary Buddhism,  for the last 18 years (in part as academic research, in part out of simple curiosity about this strange phenomenon and writer here).

I’ve been most interested in those urging caution about overly romanticizing Buddhism: in part likely because I have at times overly romanticized it. However, I have also seen real benefit in many aspects of the religion.

One of my earliest writings (Feb 27) on the topic noted both my lack of surprise and my hope:

This is certainly shocking but absolutely not surprising for those watching Tibetan Buddhism in recent decades and particularly in the last six months. The abuse at Shambhala is doubtless widespread and will be persistent. If the report is to be believed, and there is no reason to doubt it, senior members of the organization have long engaged in the exploitation of women, children, and others. Yet more within the organization actively covered up that abuse by threatening, demeaning, and shunning abuse victims who attempted to resolve issues.

The question now is: are they rotten to the core or is a sort of redemption possible? If they lash out at the press, victims, and advocates who are exposing problems … we’ll know that they are rotten to the core. If they support those parties with openness and honest examination and a willingness to part with the predators in their organization, then redemption it is.

I had hoped that their early response, which they labeled a “wake-up call”, would mean that they would really take the allegations to heart and seek help with a little humility. What followed, however, seemed to me to be mostly obfuscation and misdirection. I got in touch with several survivors of the abuse within Shambhala, and their anger and dissatisfaction only grew with each passing month of delayed action and attempts to minimize the damage.

I’ve also read accounts of some who have left the organization. Many of those have left in frustration or exasperation about the mismanagement of the scandal. Others have noted that in hindsight it is apparent how deeply patriarchal and damaging the organization has been since its founding.

Major figures stay, go, waver

Ethan Nichtern observes some of this in his July 20 blog post, “Stepping Down As “Shastri,” Staying For The Shambhala Community.” He recognizes, it seems, the taint of his “Shastri” title: coming as it did from Sakyong Mipham who has just stepped down in the face of numerous sexual misconduct accusations levied against him.

But, rather than denounce the guru (Mipham), Nichtern says in part, “I am resting in ‘not-knowing'” and “Anything is possible.”

Susan Piver seems to also be a bit unsure. In an excellent interview with Matthew Remski (which follows from a post she wrote and his critical response), she says she is not sure if she is in any more or out and has been moving out for five years now. The interview and the writings are highly recommended insofar as they highlight the language and modes of thought that might make it difficult for others to leave. And Remski helpfully draws from his own experiences in high demand and dysfunctional religious groups (or as he says, “cults”) to show some of the difficulties that people in Shambhala might be encountering.

Lodro Rinzler’s exit from Shambhala is perhaps the most spectacular to date. According to ThinkProgress, he quit Shambhala just after getting word that he was himself under investigation for sexual misconduct and that Shambhala centers were being asked by leadership not to invite him to promote his new book.

One leader who has so far definitely stayed in the organization has been Judith Simmer-Brown, who has 40 years of experience in Shambhala and is a professor at Naropa University. Her response to Shambhala members has also been covered by Remski (and one might hope she would follow-up with an interview like Susan Piver did).

Two things seem obvious to me at this point. First, more allegations will arise. More big-name teachers and community leaders will be named as recent or long-past abusers of their power. And second, the difficult decision of staying or leaving won’t go away. The complexity of each person’s involvement with the group simply cannot be encapsulated in any other person’s advice or experience.

The climate of abuse created by leaders in Shambhala International shows a clear pattern of leadership knowing of abuse and covering it up. This kind of activity likely led to honest, ethical people in the organization leaving, opening up paths of promotion for abusers and their enablers.

Shambhala as a “cult”

Some people who have left have used the word “cult” to describe the group in hindsight. The term carries with it strongly negative connotations to most. Another highly recommended set of readings comes from Elliot Benjamin, who has written extensively about modern religions and wrote last year a long, detailed analysis of Shambhala based on his fairly extensive experiences with the group. There, he engages in a detailed, 15-point analysis of “cult danger” in Shambhala. The result, written around December 2017, suggests nothing major to worry about.

That was before Project Sunshine though. Following a number of comments on that post, Benjamin wrote a follow-up in March 2018 incorporating further research on Shambhala. There he moves Shambhala into “Moderate Cult Danger” territory. He concludes there:

And who knows—perhaps all the courageous and honest communications of the participants of the Project Sunshine forum will significantly reduce the cult dangers of Shambhala so that in some future time, I could do yet another analysis of cult dangers in Shambhala and find that from my combined integral experiential and non-experiential perspective, that Shambhala has moved into the Neutral category, or perhaps even back into the Mildly Beneficial category. I am an optimist and idealist at heart, and I will therefore end this essay on this positive note.

However, a third article suggests a crushing of that optimism as Benjamin examines the head of Shambhala: Sakyong Mipham. There he details the allegations of abuse against Mipham and concludes that, “In truth, this is all sickening and confusing to me. On one hand I now have very little trust of Mipham, and I essentially consider him to be just another unethical guru, and that Shambhala should give serious consideration to removing him from his role of Shambhala Sakyong and ‘lineage holder.'”

The best ongoing discussion and analysis I’ve seen comes from Matthew Remski, already mentioned above. Articles like Are Cult Members Stupid? Are Cult Recruiters Evil? (Let’s Talk About Viruses Instead.) bring us both particular cases of manipulative tactics and a discussion of how they are used more generally in some religious movements. He has also shed light on powerful abuse enablers such as Dzongsar Khyentse, as in Tantric Trolling, Tantric Fixing: Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse’s Posts on Clerical Sexual Abuse.

What is often most confusing for members of destructive religious groups is the dissonance between the joy and benefit they received from the group and its prescribed practices and the recognition of abuse and/or cover-up by the same teachers and leaders. Remski discusses this with alacrity at Maybe It Wasn’t the “Shambhala Teachings” That Changed Your Life: A Brief Note on False Attribution.


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* Photo by Aimee Vogelsang on Unsplash

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