Spurred by the #MeToo movement and anticipating articles in the Guardian and Newsweek, the Shambhala International Buddhist community recently announced that the organization is looking into past “abhorrent sexual behavior.”
“In our complex history there have been instances of sexual harm and inappropriate relations between members and between teachers and students. We are still emerging from a time in which such cases were not always addressed with care and skill,” reads the statement, posted on Shambhala’s Facebook page.
The statement, dated February 12, was written by the Kalapa Council, Shambhala’s governing body. No senior teachers were under investigation at the time, according to the statement, and no new complaints have been filed since, Kalapa Council spokeswoman Ashley Dinges said in an email sent to Tricycle on Wednesday.
Shambhala is an international Buddhist community with more than 200 groups and centers.
“Members have at times not felt heard or have been treated as though they are a problem when they tried to bring complaints forward. We are heartbroken that such pain and injustice still occurs. The Kalapa Council takes responsibility for creating spaces to recognize and heal wounds from the past, and we are feeling how full attention to such healing is in great need,” the statement reads in part.
Shambhala leadership is, however, distancing themselves from a 39-page report called Project Sunshine, which was published on February 15 but made available to Shambhala in advance, according to the report’s author. In a second letter sent earlier this week, the Kalapa Council said that their original announcement was not in response to the report, written by former Shambhala member Andrea M. Winn, which contains five accounts that include childhood sexual abuse, betrayal by senior leaders, and a male sangha member exposing himself on retreat.
In a telephone interview with Tricycle on Wednesday, Winn said that not only were several members of the Kalapa Council aware of the report, but also that they were sent—and presumably read through—drafts of the report, and saw the finalized version ahead of publication.
Winn said that Kalapa Council members Adam Lobel and Jane Arthur were planning to write statements supporting Project Sunshine, but ultimately they “did not feel comfortable” doing so. Winn said she developed what she thought was a collaborative and trusting relationship with Lobel and Arthur over the last few months, but that there has been a “curious breakdown” in communication over the past week. Winn said she was not sent a copy of Shambhala’s letter and only heard it had been sent out through the grapevine.
“If they come to a place of wanting to work together, I’m open to that. This is all about bringing . . . actual healing to the community,” Winn said.
Winn, a second-generation Buddhist, said she was forced out of her Toronto Shambhala community around 2000 after speaking up about the childhood sexual abuse she experienced. She has continued to practice on her own, and a year ago, decided to reach out to other survivors in the Shambhala community. She holds a master’s in counseling psychology specializing in treating relational trauma, and the report also outlines steps that she believes needs to happen, including an unbiased needs assessment and training for Shambhala leaders in trauma-informed practices so that abuse survivors are not re-victimized.
Shambhala members can report abuse, harassment, and other improper behavior to the International Care and Conduct Panel, and the complaint is investigated by the organization on a local, regional, or international level. Law enforcement may be contacted if there is a credible threat of harm.
“A lot of people have been harmed going through the process,” Winn said. “I have heard of one case where the woman was happy with the process—and many cases that left the survivor further traumatized and forced to leave the community.”
Tricycle asked the Kalapa Council to outline how the organization specifically investigates abuse situations. Dinges, the spokeswoman, declined to answer, but said that the council will investigate “serious allegations from the past even if no formal complaint is submitted” with the help of a third party. Dinges also said there will be a Shambhala-wide announcement on March 19 outlining next steps for investigating the Project Sunshine accounts.
Prominent teachers in the tradition, including Judy Lief and Acharya Judith Simmer-Brown, are supporting Winn’s report and findings.
“I am quite hopeful that this is a turning point for the Shambhala community. It is admirable to bring such discussion into the open,” Lief told Tricycle. “May it begin a path of healing for all involved.”
Ravenna Michalsen, a musician not associated with Project Sunshine, said she pulled back from Shambhala after experiencing harassment about a decade ago. Since taking her story public last fall, Michalsen said she initiated a conversation with one of the men involved, whom she says is now a teacher and has since resolved the issue with her. She also became a co-moderator of a Facebook group called Societal Lhasang, where Shambhala members can discuss abuse and brainstorm a way forward.
“I ended up having many conversations with different women about their experiences, and it broke my heart to hear how so many of them tried to report what occurred and were not believed, or ignored, or shut down . . . These experiences were so at odds with the truly luminous teachings of Shambhala, and I believe that dissonance caused many to leave the sangha,” Michalsen wrote in an email. “[Our group] has attracted the attention of those within the Shambhala hierarchy, so I am hopeful that active teachers and those seeking to be teachers will educate themselves about the patriarchy, the intersections of power, gender, and race and general common sense with regards to sexual behavior.”
Shambhala International is not alone in beginning to examine sexual abuse allegations. Last year, several Buddhist communities announced steps to rectify abuse and improper relationships within their groups. In August 2017, Sogyal Rinpoche resigned from Rigpa, the international Buddhist organization that he founded, following accusations of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Sogyal was said to enter a period of retreat following the announcement (though he was seen shortly after at a conference in Thailand). Last spring, Lama Norlha, the abbot of New York’s Kagyu Thubten Choling Monastery, stepped down after multiple women whom he allegedly had sexual relationships with came forward. Norlha died last month.
Update: The Kalapa Council released a statement on March 20 describing some of its efforts to address issues of sexual harm. The organization says they are working to create “new sexual misconduct strategies, policies, and procedures,” instituting a “safe spaces to listen to those who have experienced harm and have not felt heard by Shambhala leadership in the past,” further investigating past abuses, and issuing mandatory training for leaders.
The statement adds that Kalapa Council member Mitchell Levy has recused himself from discussions around the new policies. In a separate statement, Levy acknowledges that there are allegations against him on social media, but he does not say whether or not the accusations are true. “I hear them and feel that a thorough process should be invoked to relate fairly both for anyone who has grievances against me and for myself,” Levy says.
Update (4/27): Andrea Winn has begun work on Phase 2 of Project Sunshine, a four-month project to produce a healing toolkit for the community. Project Sunshine is raising funds online to create the toolkit as well as “an open, transparent, decentralized healing process outside the influence of Shambhala’s hierarchy.”