Sex in the sangha certainly didn’t start with Sogyal Rinpoche. But in July 2017, the influential Tibetan Buddhist lama, who founded the international Rigpa community and authored the bestselling Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, was accused of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse. What followed was a chain of events, fueled by the larger #MeToo movement, of Buddhist organizations coming to terms with long-held, and often well-known, secrets.
The accusation came just months after it was revealed that Lama Norlha Rinpoche, founder of New York’s Thubten Chöling Monastery, had been having sexual relationships with his students for decades. Then, starting in early 2018, a series of reports by a group called Buddhist Project Sunshine highlighted numerous stories of abuse in Shambhala, a large international community that follows the Tibetan Buddhist teachings of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. The accusations went all the way to the top—Trungpa’s son and lineage holder Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche has been accused of sexual assault. Both law enforcement and third-party investigators are looking into abuse claims against the Sakyong and other people in positions of power in Shambhala. Other communities, such as Against the Stream, has had to address claims of misconduct against founder Noah Levine. As a result of these revelations, grants have not been renewed, publishers have pulled books, and accused teachers have disappeared into retreats or abroad.
While the number one concern is the survivors of abuse, thousands of followers have also had to weather the fallout and navigate the difficult emotions and conflicting points of view on social media and in community meetings. And some members have had nowhere to go, as their centers have shut down entirely.
“Sexual misconduct is one of the worst things that can happen to a spiritual community,” says Gento Steve Krieger, who was the head monk at Rinzai-ji Zen Center in Los Angeles when news broke in 2014 that Zen master Joshu Sasaki Roshi had allegedly abused hundreds of students over decades. “After their community is ‘exposed,’ practitioners are going to experience hell. Their hearts are going to break, and break and break and break . . . It’s a terrifying time and the hardest thing to do is let your guard down, shut up, take a breath, open your heart, and really listen and give people who have been harmed your full attention.”
Practically speaking, the reaction of sangha leadership may be another matter entirely. Not all scandals are created equal, and there is certainly more than one way to address one. Both Shambhala and Rigpa, for instance, have hired lawyers to represent Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and Sogyal Rinpoche, respectively, and have employed law firms to independently investigate the claims made against their leaders and give new victims a chance to come forward and share their stories. Shortly after Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche stepped aside from teaching in July 2018, a public relations firm started fielding questions for Shambhala. And in August 2018, more than a year after Sogyal Rinpoche stepped away from Rigpa, an independent investigation concluded that many close to the teacher did indeed face physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Shambhala hired a Canadian law firm, Wickwire Holm, to conduct a third-party investigation, with the results expected in late January.
Shambhala and Rigpa had clear ethics codes and complaint procedures—even though many victims and critics have found these channels grossly inadequate. But in the case of the much smaller Thubten Chöling Monastery, which has only about 15 residents, the group didn’t even have teacher policies in place, and had to build guidelines from scratch while navigating the allegations against Lama Norlha.
All this raises some questions: Do sanghas have what it takes to properly and thoroughly investigate ethics violations within their own groups? What might these organizations learn from other communities that have had to deal with these difficult situations in the past? And how might students of these and other disgraced teachers move forward with their spiritual practice?
Below, we’ll take a closer look at two Buddhist communities that are in the thick of their own ethical conflicts, a third sangha that has taken clear steps to rebuild their community more than a year after accusations came to light, and talk to those who have already weathered the storm of a sex scandal and come out the other side. For one, the Zen Center of Los Angeles learned that the long healing process can take years, even decades. But a sangha’s strength to survive is tested only with time and, perhaps, the community’s willingness to go deep and take a look at what got them in trouble in the first place.
In February 2018, a group called Buddhist Project Sunshine released a report detailing five accounts from anonymous accusers that alleged childhood and adult sexual abuse, betrayal, and coverup by senior leaders.
The report was authored by Andrea Winn, a second-generation Shambhalian who alleges that she was abused by several men in the sangha as a child. Winn said that when she brought up the allegations to her Toronto center around the year 2000, she was “treated in such an aggressive and violent way” that was “generally more traumatizing than the original assaults.”
Winn said she was forced out of the sangha after speaking up, but still considers herself a practitioner. She had been in touch with other women who had experienced abuse in Shambhala and, on the occasion of her 50th birthday, started Buddhist Project Sunshine as a way to bring these stories out into the open and bring “healing light” to the community.
“[The abuse and the reaction] has had a deep impact on my quality of life. I have not been able to have a healthy partner relationship; I have not been able to have children,” Winn said in an interview. “I’ve come to realize now, it’s been a heavy burden for a lot of people.”
Winn, a leadership coach, started collecting survivor accounts, and claims that several members of the Kalapa Council, Shambhala’s governing body, had discussed their own findings with her. Before the first report was set to publish in February 2018, Shambhala released a statement that announced they were looking into “past abhorrent behavior” that was not always handled with “care and skill.” At the time, Shambhala told Tricycle that the announcement was not connected to Winn’s findings.
The report sent shockwaves through the community, both virtually on social media and in centers. Buddhist circles revisited the group’s controversial founder, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who drank to excess, slept with his followers, and did many questionable things that are often understood by his students as manifestations of “crazy wisdom.” Meanwhile, more survivors came forward to share their stories with Winn.
Then, in late June 2018, Shambhala released a statement from lineage holder Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, apologizing for any harm that he might have caused others. What followed the announcement was a second Buddhist Project Sunshine report that had multiple (and anonymous) women accusing the Sakyong of summoning them for sex after boozy private parties, and an attempted rape in Chile. This time, the allegations, many of which could not be fully corroborated, were investigated by Carol Merchasin, a retired employment lawyer who completed several levels of Shambhala training in the past. After the report, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche stepped down from his teaching and administrative duties pending the outcome of a third-party investigation, and the Kalapa Council announced their phased departure to “make room for real change.” (An interim Kalapa Council was seated in October 2018.)
The Sakyong’s statement infuriated survivors, Winn said, that led to even more women sharing their stories. “This light started to spark in them, and then they started getting angry. Really, Mipham Rinpoche actually helped to spark a level of anger that was necessary for the amount of truth that came forward.”
A third Buddhist Project Sunshine report, with the image of a nail donning the cover page, was released in late August 2018, and contained the most damning allegations yet, prompting Shambhala’s legal team to issue their first denial. Shambhala’s lawyers criticized Winn’s report, saying she was “grossly irresponsible” for publishing “salacious” and “defamatory information.” Michael Scott, who is representing Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, expressed disappointment that accusations of the Sakyong abusing children were included, and said she should contact law enforcement with this information. Scott also clarified that the Sakyong’s apology earlier in the summer “should not be misinterpreted as a validation of the accusations being advanced by Ms. Winn and her associates.”
Winn has expressed disappointment at Shambhala’s unwillingness to reveal who is paying for the third-party investigation and believes this to be a conflict of interest.
“It’s far more likely that whoever hired them is a person or a group of people who want to keep things the way that they are. They’re not honestly interested in the truth coming out. Very unlikely,” Winn said.
Shambhala International has not responded to Tricycle’s interview requests. In an email sent to the Shambhala community on September 11, 2018, Shambhala reiterated the steps that were being taken by the sangha to address abuse. They’ve brought in An Olive Branch, an initiative of the Zen Center of Pittsburgh that helps guide religious groups in crisis, to offer direct support to community members.
Meanwhile, law enforcement in Boulder and neighboring Larimer, Colorado, where Shambhala Retreat Center is located, said last month that they have been investigating possible criminal activity at the retreat center. No arrests have been made, the Calgary Herald reported.
Leslie Hays, who was a student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and, she says, one of his seven sangyum (secret wives who were publicly believed to be his secretaries), started a private online group for Shambhala abuse survivors in mid-December 2017. Hays says she left the sangha for good a decade ago after a local teacher “hit on” her then-12-year-old daughter.
“The traumatic experiences I had with Chogyam Trungpa have totally and completely ruined the practice of meditation for me,” Hays said when asked if the Shambhala teachings can be separated from the teacher. “I completed my ngondro [foundational practice] while visualizing him at the center of the refuge tree somehow, but soon after I saw him in my mind’s eye throwing fireplace logs at cats, forcing himself to vomit, being too drunk to walk, and snorting cocaine”—all things Hays says she saw Chogyam Trungpa do.
Hays, who isn’t interested in seeing a new Shambhala rise from the ashes, said that “every single thing” sent out to the community in 2018 has been “re-traumatizing and unkind to survivors.”
“I sure wouldn’t want to be ‘Ann,’” said Hays, referring to the pseudonym of a woman who accused Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche of abusing children.
Hays said she doesn’t see Shambhala “honestly working to make reparations for the real harm” that was done to the victims.
“I hope they dissolve,” Hays said when asked about the future of the organization. “I suspect they will always have loyal followers—even Jim Jones still does—but my hope is their numbers will decrease significantly, and I don’t think they can financially continue.” (Centers have seen a drop in donations, and the Shambhala Center of New York permanently closed in December with tentative plans to reopen in a more affordable space.)
Winn, however, sees a way forward.
“It’s clear in my mind that Sakyong Mipham is not going to be able to move forward being a guru any more than Sogyal Rinpoche is able to move forward being a guru. These things are clear, but the path forward is kind of this new frontier that we have to explore,” Winn said. “I believe that all of us are lineage holders of Shambhala . . . We all have to dig deeper and open to the power of these teachings so that we can honestly create a structure for them going forward.”
Against the Stream
Noah Levine started his Buddhist practice when he was locked up in Santa Cruz Juvenile Hall and looking at seven years in prison. His father, the late meditation teacher and conscious dying advocate Stephen Levine, gave him mindfulness of breath instruction over the phone.
The younger Levine started a meditation practice, later crediting it for enabling him to stay away from drugs and alcohol. He eventually got serious about the dharma while on a retreat with Spirit Rock’s Jack Kornfield, who would eventually empower him to teach. While he was there, Levine realized that “the dharma was my only hope, my only refuge,” as he told Tricycle in 2014.
His punk rock approach, outlined in his books, including Dharma Punx and Against the Stream, was wildly popular among younger generations of practitioners. Levine founded Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society (ATS) in 2008, which expanded to include three locations in California and affiliated centers in 14 other states, the District of Columbia, Canada, and the Netherlands. That same year, Levine helped start a nonprofit, peer-led addiction recovery group called Refuge Recovery, which offered a new approach to the traditional 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous with a Buddhist spin. Levine’s book, Refuge Recovery: A Buddhist Path to Recovering from Addiction, solidified these teachings when they were published in 2014. The organization began convening peer-led recovery meetings across the country and online.
Then, in March 2018, accusations of sexual misconduct were raised against Levine by numerous women. Like Shambhala, ATS hired an attorney to investigate the claims against Levine, and he was suspended following the outcome. Levine responded by saying the allegations were “made through a third party regarding a woman I was dating who has apparently made a claim that some of our own consensual contact was somehow non-consensual. This never happened.”
The results of the investigation, released in late August, found that Levine likely violated ATS rules, including the third precept of the teacher’s code of ethics, which says teachers must “avoid creating harm through sexuality.” ATS centers have shut down, citing irreversible financial hits that accompanied Levine’s investigation. (Against the Stream reported $1,232,370 in income and $1,358,523 in expenses in 2016, putting it in the red for the most recent financial information available on their website before it shut down.)
Many affiliate centers are refocusing and rebranding without Levine’s influence. Levine responded to the third-party report by saying that these allegations were made by women outside of the sangha, and that he always “honored” physical and emotional boundaries that were explicitly stated, while adding that he realizes now that he hadn’t considered his “power/privilege and status as a dharma teacher” in his dating life.
Levine sharply addressed his colleagues in his statement, saying that he has felt “betrayed” and “abandoned.” “You were my family. We taught compassion and forgiveness together. I feel you did the opposite. You silenced me. You isolated me. You did not give me the benefit of the doubt, and you offered me no path to forgiveness and healing.”
A leaked copy of the report that Tricycle obtained in November 2018 cast doubt on Levine’s claims that he wasn’t involved with his students and that his behavior didn’t rise to the level of misconduct. In the report, former ATS senior teacher Mary Stancavage says that Levine admitted to have sex with one student who he says pursued him, and two unidentified students told the investigator about allegedly inappropriate encounters in which Levine made them feel “uncomfortable.”
Levine continues to teach meditation in California. The Refuge Recovery Treatment Center, which he founded and served as CEO, closed in 2018, and Levine’s social media posts point to a new branding called Freedom Through Wisdom. He did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
The nonprofit Refuge Recovery, which is independent from the treatment center, now has 618 meetings a week across the country, and had already been working for more than a year to respectfully distance themselves from Levine to get back to the vision of a peer-led model. When Refuge Recovery learned about the accusations and accompanying Los Angeles police investigation against Levine, they asked him to step down from the board, which he did. Executive Director Jean Tuller said that the board did not have adequate resources to investigate the claims, and declined to do so, in part because ATS was. ATS’s August findings, however, were not shared with Refuge Recovery. With regard to the difficulty of working through Levine’s supposed ethical lapses, Tuller said she believes that Refuge Recovery made the correct, and less painful move, to neutrally present the findings on Levine without taking a formal position.
Levine’s ouster at ATS sent a clear message to Refuge Recovery groups: they needed to urgently and proactively define ethical violations, and figure out what the consequences would be, in order to ensure that members of their sangha felt they were practicing in a safe environment.
A ten-member working group was assembled shortly after, and Portland Intersangha Chair Stephanie Podasca said they have been working to define cultural terms and behaviors, outline consent, and have bylaws in place for what happens when ethical violations occur in the future. Tuller is clear that the police must be called if an assault is reported, and Podasca said the group’s policy will define responses to more ambiguous behavior, such as unwelcome hugs or hand-holding.
“We’re in recovery because in the past we’ve had an issue with boundaries, with impulse control, maybe sketchy judgment, and our perceptions and relationships to other people have been skewed,” Podasca said. “Our goal is to create a culture of safety, of language, and have it be a preventative measure. If nothing is there, no one understands how to behave properly.”
She knows this firsthand: when she went to her first recovery meeting at Against the Stream’s Melrose Avenue (Los Angeles) location about a year ago, she found herself swarmed by multiple men approaching her right away to ask her questions after the meeting had ended. “I felt really bombarded and unsafe,” she said. “It was my first meeting ever, and my anxiety was through the roof. I started asking a guy friend to come with me.”
Members of the safety committee, which has expanded to address issues related to sexism, racism, and classism, identify themselves at the beginning of meetings and let attendees know they can come to them with any concerns. A day-long retreat held in Portland in November 2018 was devoted to a working draft of Refuge Recovery’s sexual misconduct policies. Once finalized, the recommendations will be made available to groups across the country as a model.
“Stephanie and I agree that the work that’s been happening over the past eight months has profoundly influenced our sangha. We’re definitely a kinder, gentler crew these days with a heightened awareness of how to be with each other,” Tuller said.
Update (1/31): In January 2019, the Refuge Recovery board filed two lawsuits in California against Levine and three of his for-profit businesses that use “Refuge Recovery” in its name, alleging that Levine’s copyrighted use of the “Refuge Recovery” for his for-profit business endeavors violates their fiduciary responsibility and puts their nonprofit status in jeopardy, among other accusations. Levine has filed a suit against Refuge Recovery for trademark infringement.
Kagyu Thubten Chöling
Kagyu Thubten Chöling Monastery (KTC) is a small community run by about 15 monks, nuns, and laypeople in Wappinger Falls, New York and affiliated centers in 10 states and the District of Columbia. The Hudson Valley center, about 70 miles north of New York City, was founded by Lama Norlha Rinpoche in 1978. Lama Norlha, a monk and meditation master who studied with Kyabje Dorje Chang Kalu Rinpoche, was born in eastern Tibet in 1938 and escaped to India by foot. Lama Norlha believed that because Buddhism was new to the West, a stable dharma center (with traditional three-year retreat offerings) was crucial to ensure that the teachings were preserved for future generations.
In April 2017, the sangha learned a painful secret: Lama Norlha, who had retired one month earlier at the age of 79, had been having sex with his students for decades. The sangha called a community meeting that month moderated by outside consultants—two from An Olive Branch, and a third who is a “friend” of KTC and experienced in conflict management—during which six women read statements about their experience. Three of Lama Norlha’s accusers read their own statements, and the others were read in absentia. Counselors were present as well, in case they were needed. Lama Norlha wasn’t present; his taped apology was played for the crowd.
“The last year and a half has been a painful whirlwind for our sangha. Moving forward after the 2017 disclosures has been an immense challenge,” Lama Lhadrun from Kagyu Thubten Chöling said in an emailed statement to Tricycle. Complicating matters was Lama Norlha’s failing health. He had been diagnosed with a terminal illness a year before the accusations became public, Lama Lhandrun said, and required 24-hour care by resident monastics at the center in the months leading up to his death in February 2018.
After the accusations were revealed, the community took a multi-step approach. They acknowledged the improper relationships Lama Norlha had, created an ethics policy that barred sexual relationships between students and teachers (KTC’s five-member ethics council includes a resident monastic, board member, non-monastic or lay member, and two additional members) and assembled a weekly team to plan events, work on policy, and address any issues that have come up. All KTC residents and visiting teachers must now adhere to the ethics policy.
“We have come to understand that this necessary process of change will take time,” said Lama Lhadrun, who added that the organization has not done as much outreach with the sangha immediately following the revelations as they would have liked.
“One thing we would emphasize is the intense human dimension of all of these events,” Lama Lhandrun continues. “We are still grieving, learning, and recovering. However, what we have gone through has shown us the importance of each of us having personal agency on the path.”
Learning from the Past: Zen Center of Los Angeles and Triratna
Wendy Egyoku Nakao Roshi, who became abbot of the Zen Center of Los Angeles (ZCLA) in 1999, spent the first decade of her tenure, she said, “just sitting within the burned out field” of her sangha. The center was started by Taizan Maezumi Roshi, who in the 1980s admitted to being an alcoholic and to having sexual relationships outside his marriage with some of his female students. Once this behavior became known, the community nearly unraveled. Many left, as is often the case when a major scandal breaks, and those who remained had a lot of emotions to process. Maezumi remained abbot of ZCLA until his sudden death in 1995.
“Crisis times require a whole different skill set, and it’s a long-term process because everyone is affected differently,” Nakao said. “Some sanghas cannot do it. Some sanghas’ fabric has never been that strong to begin with.”
Nakao said the focus at ZCLA has been building a sangha strong enough to survive conflict. One piece of this is having a living, breathing grievance policy that is reviewed on a regular basis, coupled with routine events such as precept studies and days of reflection and atonement that serve as an “anchor” for the group.
“We all have to work hard creating a culture where we’re educated about how our conduct is affecting everyone else,” Nakao said. “That’s the aim at ZCLA—not for just a few people to go deep, but for everyone go deep and wide together in the dharma.”
Triratna, a modern Buddhist group first called Friends of the Western Buddhist Order founded by Sangharakshita in the 1960s, was steeped in controversy from nearly the beginning. Sangharakshita had sex with a number of his followers throughout the ’70s and ’80s under the guise of spiritual development, as alleged many years later in the Guardian.
Munisha, a longtime Triratna practitioner who joined the order in 2003, became the group’s safeguarding officer in 2013. “Safeguarding” is a British English term that refers to an institution’s duty to protect the well-being of their members, and is required by all British charities. About half of Triratna’s 2,200 members live in Great Britain, where they run about 30 centers and retreat centers. As is required by law, each is registered as a separate charity, whose trustees are legally responsible for safeguarding.
“I said, ‘We need [these guidelines]. You can’t run a charity today without having these things in place,’” said Munisha, who goes by her single dharma name. “I started talking about this to the chairs of our centers, and of course they’re all very busy, and by the next year I thought they’re not really going to do this unless we give this to them on a plate.”
She took it upon herself to start working on policies, which included external legal requirements as well as internal guidelines based on the five precepts—the Buddhist principles that say to refrain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, intoxicants, and harmful speech.
“There’s nothing illegal about a teacher having sex with a 19-year-old student,” Munisha said. “So that’s covered by the ethical guidelines.”
By 2015, the policies were adopted by the British centers, as well as by international Triratna sanghas that opted in. Now, every center in the UK has a safeguarding officer, and their photo, name, and contact information are clearly posted at the center.
Munisha said, however, that there was some resistance among practitioners who thought that the precepts were already a strong enough guide to see the organization through an ethical breach.
“When a fire breaks out in your center, what immediate use are your precepts? If it were a fire, you don’t want everyone saying, should we leave by the front door or the back door? Who should be in charge of deciding how we leave?” Munisha said. “When someone brings a complaint of sexual misconduct, what you don’t want is everybody having a discussion. So the safeguarding policies say immediately when this happens, the only person you tell is the safeguarding officer. And collectively (as an ethics committee) we decide if this is a police matter or an internal discipline matter,” she explained, adding that the police are always contacted if a possibly criminal act is reported.
The policies just barely preceded a big announcement by Sangharakshita who, in December 2016, apologized “for all the occasions on which I hurt, harmed, or upset fellow Buddhists.” An update, posted on Triratna’s website two months later, confirmed that this was meant to be his confession for “breaching” the precepts. (He died in October 2018 at the age of 93.)
“I think the [safeguarding policies] set in writing that we would not expect anything that happened in the past to happen again,” Munisha said. “If you’re doing your safeguarding well, you want to communicate confidence.”
While Gento Steve Krieger, the former student of Joshu Sasaki Roshi, intimately knows the pain that can come with a sex scandal, he says it also offers an opportunity to “clear the deck for a collective moment of complete honesty.”
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