Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche has stepped aside from his teaching and administrative roles at Shambhala International amid an investigation into his alleged sexual misconduct, a statement released by his office over the weekend said, adding that he “fully supports” the probe. The Sakyong has also resigned from his position on Naropa University’s board of trustees and as the Naropa Lineage Holder at the request of the board, according to his statement as well as a separate statement from the university. Shambhala International’s nine-member governing body, the Kalapa Council, also stepped down, the council said in a statement. “We recognize that parts of our system are broken, and need to dissolve in order to make room for real change,” they wrote, explaining that they are planning a “phased departure” to maintain legal responsibilities while transitioning to new leadership. Read more here.
Coming off the heels of a public apology for what might be perceived as harmful “relationships” earlier this week, a new report is claiming that Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche sexually assaulted multiple women in the Buddhist order that he leads and that members of Shambhala International actively covered up his tracks.
The report was written by Andrea Winn, a leadership coach and second-generation Shambhalian who says she was forced out of her Toronto sangha in 2000 after speaking up about the childhood sexual abuse she experienced from multiple members of the community. The latest findings are the second phase of Project Sunshine, which Winn started a little over a year ago as a way to give survivors a support network.
Winn said she did not hear about any allegations against the Sakyong until women started reaching out to her after the first Project Sunshine report was published in February.
This “phase two” report, released on Thursday morning, includes two accounts from anonymous women who closely served the Sakyong. Both women, whose names were not included, alleged that the encounters took place at or after alcohol-fueled private parties that were thrown for the Sakyong.
“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,’” wrote a woman in one of two impact statements in the report. She wrote that over the years, when the Sakyong was “completely intoxicated,” he “kissed” and “groped” her while “aggressively encouraging” her to go to bed with him. She says she resisted his advances for years, and only ended up sleeping in his bed one night, during which she spent most of the time holding a bowl for him to vomit into. According to her account, when she confronted her teacher about his treatment of women, he “said that he was sorry, that he had not meant to hurt me” and after that, she was gradually relieved of her tasks in his “inner circle.”
A second impact statement describes multiple sexual encounters that left the woman feeling “ashamed, demoralized, and worthless.” She also alleges that his kusung, or close attendant, summoned her to the Sakyong’s bedroom on two separate occasions.
“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 . . . More and more it felt like he had no interest in me or my well-being. Only his pleasure,” she wrote.
“I hope the community will press for the investigation,” said Winn of the new allegations.
The preliminary investigation into the allegations against the Sakyong was conducted by Carol Merchasin, a retired employment lawyer who says she has investigated numerous sexual misconduct cases. Merchasin said she completed several levels of Shambhala training in Boulder, Colorado, in the early 1980s, and that her husband was a student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the Sakyong’s father and Shambhala’s founder. She reached out to Winn after reading about Project Sunshine earlier this year and later agreed to review some of the allegations.
“When there are claims of sexual misconduct, you can’t assume that they’re true or false, you have to investigate and try to move the allegations into facts if you can,” Merchasin explained. “Shambhala cut off communication channels . . . without access to Shambhala, and anyone accused, it was impossible to do a full investigation.”
Merchasin said that the women who have alleged sexual misconduct either had “very little or no connection to one another,” were from different cities, and if they did know each other through service, had gone their separate ways, debunking the idea that the accusers have a vendetta against the Sakyong.
“A pattern is a very strong indication of truth being told,” Merchasin said, adding that any “reasonable organization” would recognize these links and use their resources to complete a full investigation of what might amount to “institutionalized sexual abuse.” She added that all accounts were corroborated when possible through interviews and supporting documents, such as text messages, but many people she reached out to were unwilling to speak with her.
The latest assault allegation occured in 2011, according to the report.
Winn and Merchasin said they met with a mediator, Kathleen Franco, a lawyer who they say is a Shambhala member, on May 24 to share their findings. They then asked Shambhala to respond within eight days as to whether they were willing to appoint a neutral investigator to look into the allegations and have the Sakyong step down while that investigation was carried out. Winn said they received no response other than that they should both expect to be sued by Shambhala if they went ahead with publishing the report.
Tricycle’s efforts to speak with the accusers on the record were not successful.
Ashley Dinges, a spokesperson for the Kalapa Council, Shambhala’s governing body, when asked if Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is being investigated for sexual misconduct, and for confirmation on the meeting with a mediator, on Wednesday sent Tricycle the following statement: “The Kalapa Council and Shambhala leadership have not been made aware of the contents of Ms. Winn’s document and therefore cannot provide comment on it at this time. We will provide a response once we have had an opportunity to review it.”
A message was sent out to the Shambhala community by the Kalapa Council that evening maintaining that “this leadership body has never threatened legal action against any survivor, ally, or mediator. No one on the Kalapa Council has ever asked a victim to remain silent. However, we acknowledge the power systems that create the pressure to remain silent.” The statement said Shambhala is working with An Olive Branch, a project of the Zen Center of Pittsburgh that supports religious organizations during times of conflict, to improve their sexual misconduct reporting policies.
“Our lineage is led by human Sakyongs. They have offered us profound teachings, and as humans they can cause harm,” the Kalapa Council’s message said. “We are heartened that the Sakyong has taken a first step in engaging his community around these issues. As well caring for the victims, our hearts are also with the Sakyong, [his wife] Sakyong Wangmo and their family as we navigate this challenging time. We stand with our lineage through the pain of our heartbreak,” the statement also reads.
On Monday, a letter from the Sakyong was sent to Shambhala members.
“It is my wish for you to know that in my past there have been times when I have engaged in relationships with women in the Shambhala community,” the letter reads in part. “I have recently learned that some of these women have shared experiences of feeling harmed as a result of these relationships. I am now making a public apology.”
The Sakyong added that he has “apologized personally to people who have expressed feeling harmed by my conduct, including some of those who have recently shared their stories.” The letter does not indicate when these “relationships” took place.
The leader of more than 200 international Buddhist centers lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with his wife and said in his letter that with her support he intends to enter “a period of self-reflection and listening.” He urged the community to “completely immerse itself in caring and kindness.”
Earlier this year, the Shambhala community issued an apology for past “abhorrent behavior” and improper relationships between students and teachers in the past that were “not always addressed with care and skill.”
This announcement coincided with the release of Project Sunshine’s first report in February, but Shambhala was careful to distance itself from Winn’s findings, which detailed five anonymous accounts that included childhood sex abuse and alleged cover-ups by leaders in the organization. At the time, Shambhala told Tricycle that their announcement on past handling of abuse cases was not a preemptive response to the Project Sunshine report.
Shambhala announced a change in the way they handle and report sexual assault the following month, and Mitchell Levy, a member of the governing Kalapa Council, recused himself from policy discussions due to social media allegations against him. And, in late March, the Sakyong led a day-long retreat in Los Angeles that included a panel discussion with Rev. angel Kyodo williams as well as the director of a local sexual and domestic violence prevention center on “how we can relate to each other with compassion in these challenging times.”
Shambhala joins a growing list of Buddhist organizations that have recently acknowledged misconduct by top teachers. In August 2017, Sogyal Rinpoche resigned from Rigpa and entered a period of retreat after accusations of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. Last year, Lama Norlha resigned as abbot of New York’s Kagyu Thubten Choling Monastery after accusations of improper relationships with women. He died earlier this year.
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