Shambhala International’s leader, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, has announced that he will step aside amid an investigation into his alleged sexual abuse of students, and the organization’s governing body, the Kalapa Council, said that all nine of its members will resign—leaving the community with an uncertain future.
The Sakyong will stop teaching and step away from his administrative duties until an investigation is completed, he said in a statement released on July 6. He has also resigned from the board of trustees at Naropa University and as the Naropa Lineage Holder, according to a statement from the university released a day earlier.
The Kalapa Council, meanwhile, is planning a “phased departure” as they hand over their responsibilities to new leadership, who have yet to be determined.
“We recognize that parts of our system are broken, and need to dissolve in order to make room for real change,” they said in a July 6 statement.
The change in leadership was spurred by a series of sexual abuse allegations against Shambhala teachers over the past few months. The accusations were contained in two reports created by Project Sunshine, a group that Shambhalian and abuse survivor Andrea Winn started over a year ago, initially as a support network for other survivors. The first report, which was released in February, described five accounts of misconduct that included childhood sexual abuse, betrayal by senior leaders, and a male sangha member exposing himself on retreat. “Phase two” of Project Sunshine, released in late June, revealed allegations against the Sakyong himself. Two women described being abused by him during boozy private parties. (He preempted the report with a statement three days before its publication that apologized for harmful “relationships.”)
Winn told Tricycle on Monday that she was encouraged by Shambhala’s leadership shake-up.
“The Sakyong stepping aside during the investigation is an action we have been calling for since we presented the initial findings of our preliminary investigation to the Kalapa Council,” Winn said.
She also said the Kalapa Council’s resignations was a “positive step that was called for from the community as they lost confidence in that governing body,” adding that three senior members were accused by the Sakyong’s alleged victims of having been “complicit” in the abuse.
The fallout has left many Shambhala members feeling lost; a July 8 statement from Shambhala’s female teachers described a sense of “groundlessness” amid their institution’s upheaval.
“Our Shambhala world has been turned upside down,” reads the statement from the Women Acharyas [instructors] of Shambhala. “As women, we have experienced the impact of systemic power imbalance in our community; some of us have also personally experienced gendered harm in our journeys. . . We encourage you to listen, nurture each other, and stay strong as a sangha [community] and as friends.””
“We support the Sakyong’s decision to step back from teaching for now,” it continued. “We appreciate how he has brilliantly introduced thousands of people to the path of dharma . . . At the same time, we now see a lot of pain, sadness, outrage, and fear in our community . . . Our eyes have been opened to many of the patterns we have not seen before.”
During a talk at the Tara Mandala center in Colorado on July 1, the prominent Tibetan Buddhist teachers Lama Tsultrim Allione and Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo also discussed the sexual abuse allegations against the Sakyong.
Lama Tsultrim noted that it is the communities whose leaders admit fault, and then either change or leave, that tend to survive scandals. But if the leaders refuse to take responsibility, she said, practitioners have the option leave. “Remember that the dharma is yours,” she counseled the audience. “No one can take it away from you . . . So you’ll be OK. You’ll find another sangha, you’ll find other friends, and go on.”
Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo remarked that sexual abuse—a “deep-rooted problem” in Buddhism and Western culture at large—has long existed underground. “As it is now coming more to the surface,” she said, “it may be very painful, but I believe that pain, if we embrace it with compassion and wisdom and understanding and acceptance, can heal.”
Shastri Ethan Nichtern, a second generation Shambhalian and senior teacher, also voiced his “devastation” at discovering the harm caused by his supposedly “progressive” guru. He explained in a blog post how despite seeing itself as an alternative society ruled by compassion, Shambhala still exists in a culture influenced by the historical patriarchal structures of both Tibet and the West. However, Nichtern said he would stay with the community to try to engender change, saying that leaving would be “as impossible as pretending I am not a member of my own family.”
Meanwhile, the Kalapa Council said that they have hired the law firm Wickwire Holm to continue investigating accusations of abuse or misconduct in Shambhala. They have also signed an agreement with the third-party group An Olive Branch to improve their sexual misconduct reporting policies.
The Sakyong office said in the July 6 statement that he “fully supports a third-party investigation and wishes to provide the time and space for it to properly occur. He will use this time to enter a period of self-reflection.”
Shambhala has reportedly hired the public relations firm Hiltzik Strategies—headed by Matthew Hiltzik, who has represented Justin Bieber, Katie Couric, and former Fox News host Glenn Beck. Hiltzik also has ties to officials in the Trump administration.
Update (7/10): Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche has sent an email to Shambhala members expressing “sorrow” and “heartbreak” and explaining his decision to step aside. In it, he described the period of his life when he assumed leadership of Shambhala, saying that he “fumbled with unhealthy power dynamics and alcohol.”
“I failed to recognize the pain and confusion I was creating,” he wrote; he continues, “I am realizing that I have much to learn and am committed to that process. I hope that by my doing this, our Shambhala community and organization can evolve, and become a true place of kindness, respect, and dignity.” Read the full statement here.
Correction (7/11): A previous version of this story claimed that Matthew Hiltzik of Hiltzik Strategies had represented Harvey Weinstein. This was not the case. Rather, Hiltzik worked for Weinstein’s production company, Miramax, nearly 20 years ago.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.