It’s been revealed that the Shambhala Buddhist “Emperor”, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, has no clothes. An in depth investigative report, spearheaded by a former member of the Shambhala community months before the #MeToo movement made headlines, has turned up searing and horrifying stories of abuse of power, including sexualized violence, over a period of decades. Sadly, I am not as shocked as I might have been a few years ago.
When I lived in Denver, I went on a Thanksgiving meditation retreat at the Shambhala Center in Red Feather Lakes, CO. I had heard the setting was beautiful. The Buddhist sangha (spiritual community) whose teachings I followed at the time was based in California, and getting to the monastery for a retreat was more onerous than driving a few hours into the mountains. I wondered if I might find inspiration a bit closer, plus I could celebrate the holiday in a way that was nearer to my heart: quietly, contemplatively, and without the gluttony associated with typical Thanksgiving feasts. I also hoped I’d find a simpatico environment to which I could return, giving my home practice an occasional boost by meditating in community.
When, after what seemed like a long trip on narrow, winding roads, I finally arrived at the entrance of the center, I was struck by both a fierce wind that blew directly into my bones and the pageantry of the place: prayer flags and banners flapped everywhere. Compared to my Zen teacher’s monastery, modest in both scale and amenities (it had more outhouses than flush toilets, more tiny rustic hermitages than indoor beds), I felt as if I had landed in a strange kingdom, whose centerpiece was the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya, erected in honor of the late Chögyam Trungpa, one of the major figures who brought Tibetan Buddhism to the West. An oddly colorful and somewhat garish tower, the stupa seemed out of place in the Colorado mountains, more akin to a strange, Las Vegas-like tourist attraction than sacred architecture.
But the oddest part of all was the palpably hierarchical nature of their spiritual practice (think military meets meditation). The organization had a clearly defined path and ranks and, as I vaguely recall, either different colored sashes or buttons that indicated who was who in the pecking order. My understanding of the spiritual path had little to do with linear, quantifiable progress, such as retreats attended or hours spent on the cushion, or with social signifiers such as clothing indicating who was a step ahead on the path to enlightenment. Either you diligently practiced and, to the extent you could, embodied the teachings and lived accordingly…or you didn’t. The proof was in the pudding. We can often tell by being around a person whether they are present, calm, kind and clear headed, and speaking from their heart rather than spouting dogma, trite phrases or dualistic thinking. I know my energy and mood change palpably when I am in the presence of someone who is present, no matter what they are wearing or what their religious affiliation.
At that point, I had already been disillusioned by a charismatic and popular head rabbi at the only synagogue I had ever joined. While he had been censured but not fired for sexual improprieties (involving other women), the debacle had made me even more sensitive when it came to choosing groups and people that offered the prospect of spiritual development, something I craved. Was there a community I could join where I might practice with an unguarded heart and without reservations about ethical behavior? Could I trust not just the teachings but the structures, too? It was easy for me to devour books and listen to recorded lectures by Pema Chodron, a well-known interpreter of and ambassador for meditation (her root guru was Chögyam Trungpa, father of the now disgraced Shambhala head). Being at Shambhala, however, felt mildly creepy, even though I had no clue at that time about the degree of its leader’s depravity and, also, the organizational and cultural dysfunction that allowed his behavior (and that of other leaders) to persist. Perhaps when power (spiritual or financial) is concentrated at the top, or there is too much devotion to a particular person or ideal rather than to the teachings themselves, those who are invested in the status quo may look the other way, actively cover up abuses or gaslight people who are trying to shine light into dark places.
Many years ago, at a transition point in my life, I read Pema Chodron’s “When Things Fall Apart – Heart Advice for Difficult Times” for the first of what turned out to be several readings. I had run out of steam and enthusiasm and lacked an organizing idea or vision for my life. I couldn’t picture the future. I wasn’t sure what my next steps should be or even where I should take them. Then, that things had fallen apart felt deeply personal, as if I were a failure for not having figured things out like everyone else. Pema’s words offered reassurance and a much needed antidote to the American obsession with “happily ever after”, shiny new “career moves”, and the tendency to gloss over moments of personal crisis with platitudes or reassurances. Her words moved me from paralyzing doubt to more engaged action. These days it seems that many things are falling apart or rapidly rearranging, on a national if not a global scale, often prompted by the actions of a few that gain momentum (think #MeToo). It’s as if the political and social upheavals underway are highlighting the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence: “All temporal things, whether material or mental, are compounded objects in a continuous change of condition, subject to decline and destruction.” I would reframe: impermanence also means that nothing is fixed and, with care and attention, what might seem intractable can be transformed. When things fall apart, it is tempting to scramble to put them back together as a way to save face. I understand that Shambhala International is, sadly, doing just that…for now. Let’s hope that decision, too, proves to be impermanent.
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