Tricycle: The Buddhist Review

Two Embattled Buddhist Leaders Pressured to Stop Teaching

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and Noah Levine. | Photos by ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo and Against the Stream

Two prominent Buddhist teachers accused of sexual misconduct are facing new actions from their communities, which have urged them to stop teaching after internal investigations found the allegations against them credible. Shambhala International head Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche announced that he would be stepping down from teaching for the “foreseeable future” in an email sent out to students on February 21. A day earlier, the Spirit Rock Meditation Center released a statement withdrawing authorization to teach from Noah Levine, who founded the now-shuttered Against the Stream Meditation Society (ATS).

While the Sakyong and Levine have both been accused of abusing their power, the details of the allegations and how they were handled differ in many ways. Most notably, Levine was removed from ATS, which closed its centers soon after, while the Sakyong has remained the lineage holder of Shambhala.

The Sakyong had previously announced that he was stepping aside while a law firm hired by Shambhala, Wickwire Holm, investigated the claims against him. The investigation, released this month, found that the Sakyong “more than likely” engaged in sexual misconduct in at least two cases. Earlier this week, a group of the Sakyong’s former kusung, or personal attendants, released a statement further detailing decades of inappropriate and harmful conduct.

In his email on Thursday, the Sakyong said he will continue to step back from his duties now that the investigation has concluded. He writes that he made this decision after receiving a letter the day before from Shambhala’s 42 acharyas [senior teachers] asking him to do so.

The Sakyong also apologized for “all that has happened,” adding, “I understand that I am the main source of that suffering and confusion and want to again apologize for this. I am deeply sorry.” The statement did not specify what exactly he was apologizing for or admit any guilt. Following another message of apology on June 25, 2018, the Sakyong’s attorney, Michael Scott, clarified that the statement “should not be misinterpreted as a validation of the accusations.”

Meanwhile, in a statement this week, Spirit Rock and its founding teacher Jack Kornfield, who empowered Noah Levine to teach in the Theravada tradition, “indefinitely” revoked their authorization.

Levine was removed from teaching at ATS following an internal investigation that found he likely violated their rule, based on the third precept, requiring teachers “to avoid creating harm through sexuality.” The ATS board of directors also decided to dissolve the organization. Since then, Levine has continued to teach at other centers and stream his talks online.

The Spirit Rock Ethics and Reconciliation (EAR) Council said in their statement that they came to their unanimous decision after conducting their own investigation. They write that they held “meetings with Mr. Levine, interviews of witnesses and a review of extensive documents” as well as interviews with “several women who have alleged harm, staff members of ATS and another organization Mr. Levine founded, Refuge Recovery.” They also reviewed the federal lawsuits filed by the RR board of directors against Levine and his countersuit.

“The interviews and extensive reports we reviewed are gravely disturbing, detailed, and similar in nature,” the council said in the statement. “They show a pattern of behavior that raises critical concerns regarding Mr. Levine’s adherence to the Spirit Rock Teacher Code of Ethics. The EAR Council investigation revealed repeated breaches of the precepts of nonharming by Mr. Levine; delusion about the accumulation of harms caused; a lack of willingness to accept responsibility for his actions; confusion regarding the ways his actions reflect cultural and systemic conditioning; and a failure to honor the explicit instructions of his respected mentors. Mr. Levine’s misapprehensions and delusion have led him away from the wisdom and compassion necessary to be a teacher of the dharma.”

The statement goes on to say, “Levine is no longer part of the Spirit Rock teaching lineage, no longer enjoys the support of its teachers, and may no longer claim any association or connection with Spirit Rock or Dr. Kornfield. We further recommend that Mr. Levine cease all Buddhist or meditation teaching and dedicate his energy to the rehabilitation of his own heart.”

The Spirit Rock statement left open the possibility that Levine may one day return to the lineage if he commits to change. They note that Kornfield “following the Buddhist tradition of sanghadisesa, will allow this to be revisited in years ahead, should Mr. Levine demonstrate a significant transformation.” The EAR council also said that they “might consider revisiting this decision” but only “after a period of years in which Mr. Levine demonstrates a profound spiritual and psychological transformation—and a clear commitment to humility and non-harming in all spheres of life.”