Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche (robertivanc / Creative Commons)
The Shambhala Buddhist community in North America is being rocked by allegations of sexual abuse at the highest level, according to multiple reports including the New York Times.
The allegations revolve around the prominent leader and creator of the Shambhala iteration of Buddhism, Mipham Rinpoche. Referred to as Sakyong Mipham— sakyong is a Tibetan word that can be translated as “king”— Rinpoche was the subject of a detailed, incriminating report released on June 28th. The lengthy report was compiled by Andrea Winn, an active member of the Shambhala community since her childhood, who contends that she was sexually abused by “multiple perpetrators” in the Shambhala community as a child—then forced to leave.
Winn had previously filed a report detailing the sexual abuse she and others faced while part of the community, but had not mentioned any direct involvement of Sakyong Mipham until now. In the second report of what Winn is calling “Project Sunshine” (her efforts to bring to light the sexual abuse that’s plagued the community for “nearly four decades”), she’s compiled statements from various women who allege they were abused by Sakyong Mipham.
One woman describes how she left behind her “secular life” and nearly all friends and family to follow Sakyong Mipham, with whom she had an intense spiritual connection. “Shambhala was my world and the inner mandala was my home,” she said in the report. “At the center of all of this was my teacher, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche.”
According to the woman, she frequently worked as a server in the Sakyong’s residence, attending to dinner parties and banquets. She mentions an “experience that occurred repeatedly over the years”: after a party or dinner, a drunken Sakyong Mipham would kiss and grope her, later “aggressively encouraging me to come to bed with him,” the woman claims. Not wishing to provoke the ire of the other female guests whom the Sakyong was also pursuing, she declined most times this occurred. However, she did sleep in the Sakyong’s bed one time; he was so drunk, she explains, she spent “much of the night” holding a bowl for him to vomit in. She managed to sneak out of the room, and says “there was never any mention of these encounters.” The woman alleges that the Sakyong would regularly seek out women to bed, then quickly lose interest and replace them with a new woman.
When she spoke up about her experiences with the Sakyong, the woman was slowly exiled from the Shambhala community, effectively losing all friends and connections therein.
Another erstwhile devotee shared her harrowing testimony in the report as well. This second unnamed woman claims she was invited to the Sakyong’s residence late one night, where he greeted her wearing nothing but a robe. He allegedly led the woman into his bedroom, where he began kissing her and removing her clothes. “I said that I couldn’t have sex with him,” she said in her statement. “[The Sakyong] seemed stunned. He thought for a while and then pushed my face down towards his penis and said ‘Well you might as well finish this.'”
“I was so embarrassed and horrified I did it,” the woman explains. On a separate occasion, she was invited to a dinner party at the Sakyong’s residence, “where the Sakyong was encouraging everyone to drink a lot,” she says. After insisting that everyone take off their clothes, the Sakyong allegedly led one woman into a room while the rest of the party continued. One of the Sakyong’s associates led the unnamed woman from the report into the Sakyong’s bedroom, where she discovered the Sakyong having sex with the woman from earlier. “He said to me, ‘She won’t come. Do something to help,'” her testimony reads. “I stood there stunned and he said, ‘Play with her tits. Do something.'”
A few days before the report was officially released, the Sakyong issued a public statement of his own, in which he acknowledged that he engaged in “relationships” with women from the community, some of whom “have shared experiences of feeling harmed as a result of these relationships.” The Sakyong emphasized that he was “committed to healing these wounds” and would be “entering a period of self-reflection and listening.” He later stepped down, the Times reports.
The governing council of Shambhala International (based in Nova Scotia, Halifax) also announced they would be resigning.
This is not the first time the Shambhala Buddhist community—which has locations across the world, including one in New York—has faced allegations of abuse. In the 1980s, reports that a high-ranking Shambhala leader knowingly infected sexual partners with HIV rocked the community.
Despite the disturbing nature of these claims, both Winn and the governing council (who will slowly be phased out of leadership roles, the Times says) are now focusing on “beginning a healing process for our community.”