I forwent my normal Monday morning blogging ritual this week, instead making the decision to head to the beach for my morning meditation: coming back from a week’s holiday I felt the need to mark that transition, and having meditated outside every day whilst camping, the early morning sunshine encouraged me to continue to do so. There was also another reason – whilst I was away, the news broke that following the release of Project Sunshine (a report investigating the occurrence of sexual misconduct in the Shambhala Buddhist organisation), Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche – the leader of the Shambhala Buddhist lineage – has come forward to admit he has “struggled to find [his] way, and fumbled with unhealthy power dynamics and alcohol”. As a practitioner in the Shambhala community, I’ve been processing this news, trying to digest what it means, holding the victims in mind, and (trying to) stay open to the uncertainty that it throws up: I feel confused, I feel a little “homeless”. Where is my spiritual ground, where does my path lay?
Much of what I know about this developing situation is second-hand, and I don’t claim to even come close to knowing the “truth” behind what has happened (although it seems to be well beyond simply allegations, now the Sakyong has released a statement). And I certainly don’t claim to have any kind of authority or voice to pass comment. I do have a hope though: that somehow we can apply the Dharma teaching we buddhists study – to help the victims, their friends and family, the perpetrators, the colluders, and the community to make this an opportunity somehow. I appreciated the conversation between Lama Tsultrim Allione and Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo discussed the matter – that like a boil, things need come to a head and perhaps get ugly before healing can take place. You can watch that clip here.
Lama Allione also encouraged practitioners to not confuse the teacher with the teachings. I am holding this in mind. The mistakes of a human being do not bring down the power of the Dharma or the meditation practices – I know that. I have experienced the change in myself, in others around me and attest to the transformational power they offer. In some moments I notice however, my confusion, maybe a feeling of betrayal? How can a teacher, a lineage holder with apparent high realisation of the teachings not realise his actions are causing harm? To think of the years that he has studied Buddhism, the number of students he has helped – and yet when he most needed to apply the teachings, he failed to do so. So yes, the teacher is not the teachings – but how does one keep faith that these ancient wisdom technologies DO work?
There is also the challenge to stay open-hearted to all involved. When I heard the news, the obvious place for compassion was toward the victims who are coming forward. Yet I also noticed my suspicion – how can this be true? I didn’t feel I could comment or make a call until I knew “the facts”. The facts soon came – teachers speaking up, more testimonies, experiences of senior practitioners I respect; and then the Sakyong himself admitting and apologising. The teachings also compassion, like the rays of the sun, is not selective. Compassion for all beings – including the perpetrators, the colluders. It would be easy to condemn ‘guilty’ parties. In my practice, I watch how these emotions, the polarities of opinion, rise and fall.
But even with all this “truth” and “facts”, I still don’t really know what to think, or how I feel about Shambhala. Although I have been with Shambhala for some 7 years now, it has been an “on and off” relationship. My first connection with the teachings and the lineage came through the Sakyong’s father, Chogyam Trungpa. I have written elsewhere on this blog how powerful an effect his writing had on me. I have not had that same heart connection with the Sakyong, but Shambhala felt like the most appropriate place to call “home” for my path – it was a conduit for my connection to CTR. The senior teachers had been students of CTR, and I felt I could connect to him through them. Yet CTR was also an alcoholic and had sexual relationships with students. I have thought a lot about whether I am applying double standards: Have I allowed myself to be blinded to CTR’s behaviour? Does that behaviour take away what we might consider his spiritual genius? What I have long made figural was how his son didn’t have the same “charisma”. I am now becoming aware of the dangers in that view.
In 2013 I left Shambhala. I took time out of the structured Shambhala path and searched for another home; my wilderness years as I refer to them. But somehow I never reached ’escape velocity’ and ended up attending a Shambhala retreat again in the Spring of 2015. It was then that I spoke with a teacher about my Shambhala doubts. The teacher called these doubts “healthy” – didn’t the Buddha himself teach the importance of remaining in a not-knowing stance? The Shambhala teachings on fearlessness have always called to me given my own path is one of working with anxiety and fear. The very fact I didn’t have complete certainty about Shambhala was the very path I needed to tread. Shambhala offered me a path of courage, to be a warrior with the fear around uncertainty – to feel it, to embrace it, to find compassion for it. Shambhala Buddhism emphasises this above any other Buddhist lineage: the fit felt accurate, so the doubts remained but felt more workable.
And it was on retreat this Spring when the full power of the Shambhala teachings dropped in to my experience. I had felt at home in the culture of Shambhala like never before. In my heart, I felt a commitment deepening, and I felt inspired to look ahead again. And now? I simply don’t know.
My intention in this piece is not to pass comment on what has happened, certainly not to pass judgement or to even try to apply Dharmic principles to what has happened. There are far more experienced people doing that. What I want to communicate is the importance of taking life as a continual lesson. One thing that is for sure in my experience as a Buddhist to date, I can see how accurately the teachings point to uncertainty and groundlessness. Just when I thought I had found a “home”, the carpet has been whipped away from under my feet. I don’t have a clue what my relationship to Shambhala is right now, even if with an independent investigation, the Sakyong stepping back and senior teachers having acknowledged their part. But I do retain my commitment to the path, my path – whoever that is with, wherever it is housed.
As well as the experience of uncertainty, there feels like another lesson for me in all of this. A reminder that we cannot take security from any one relationship, situation or person. In reflecting on this current situation while I was away in France, I remembered a quote from “It’s up to you” by Buddhist teacher Dzigar Kontrul Rinpoche…
…and I know I still have work to do in this area personally – I can place too much reliance on particular people and having life “just so”. It is one I am aware of professionally too. As a therapist, I am cautious about how people make me an expert, an authority in who they are and what they should do. They look to me for the answers and to providing what they need: safely, love or praise. Some of this work is a judgement call – developmentally, they might need to start with dependence on me: but I have to be mindful of always helping them release this need: toward independence with the capability for inter-dependence. I am given power by my clients, and wherever power and hierarchy exists, the opportunity for power abuse is also co-existing. Just this week as I returned to work, one client referred to me as their teacher, and I noticed an internal reaction to that (which I shared with them). Probably a bigger reaction given the current context.
In some ways, I feel more resolved and inspired than ever to “wake up”. When I read the Sakyong’s explanation and disclosure of his alcoholissue I got a deep sense of his pain. I doubt anyone can imagine what it was like for him growing up in the shadow of his idealised father and then being expected to take on that “kingdom” after CTR’s death. He didn’t handle it well. For me, it speaks to a man with severe psychological wounding – and no amount of spiritual practice can repair that: the two processes might be compatible, but they do differ. I am resolved to both my spiritual and my psychological well-being.
So yesterday morning, I sat on the beach. I meditated in front of the sea, underneath an expansive sky. I was responding to an intuitive call to give all of this situation, the confusion, the emotions some space. Space, and time too.
I think that’s all I have to say, all I want to say. I simply hope that whatever arises from this can be used for the benefit of all.
In trying to understand this situation and the consequences, I have relied come across some useful links. I share them with you so that you can reflect upon your own reaction and position.
The Project Sunshine report can be found here http://andreamwinn.com/offerings/project_sunshine/
The news breaking in the popular press in the UK https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jul/11/shambhala-buddhist-group-leader-steps-down-over-sexual-assault-claims
Two teachers with whom I have studied, practitioners in the Shambhala tradition, share their reactions:
I trained as a meditation teacher with Ethan Nicthtern with http://www.ethannichtern.com/reflections-on-shambhala/ ; and I have written previously about the impact of Susan Piver on my life and recent marriage https://susanpiver.com/on-shambhala/
And finally, a statement from Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche sent to all Shambhalians last week https://cdn.tricycle.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Sakyong-Statement-July-10.pdf