The Shambhala Scandal; An Inside Perspective

The Shambhala Scandal; An Inside Perspective

By Melanie Klein, Director of the Boulder Shambhala Center


In Spring 2018, accusations of sexual misconduct against Shambhala’s primary teacher and leader Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, became public. The accusations also include abuse of power complaints by a small group of students who worked closely with the Sakyong, which emerged in February 2019.

The Shambhala organization has taken numerous actions in response to these accusations, such as the resignation of its governing board, known as the Kalapa Council, and the Sakyong “stepping back” from all his official duties for an indeterminate time. The Sakyong repeatedly apologized for having caused harm, without addressing the specific content of the accusations.

Shambhala also engaged An Olive Branch, a non-profit company that works with communities around conflict, harm, and organizational health to explore Shambhala’s history with sexual misconduct and determine how extensive such misconduct has been over Shambhala’s nearly fifty-year history. In addition, Shambhala contracted The Wickwire Holm law firm to investigate the accusations against the Sakyong. Links to these organizations’ reports along with other documents related to the situation can be found at the bottom of this letter.

Naturally there are many perspectives about the accusations and about what is true and what is not. There are many opinions about how to go forward, what role the Sakyong should hold, if any, and about the ethical standards of Shambhala culture and how well or poorly these align with Buddhist virtues.

This inside perspective is not meant to be anything like a definitive account of our current situation. It is meant to share something of the intense challenge our community is undertaking, the questions we face, and the potential benefit to Shambhala if we can navigate a genuine, courageous exploration of all this, and be more caring and just for it. Given the undeniable parallels to the broader #metoo movement, we naturally hope that as we learn from this painful situation we’ll be able to offer something of value to others addressing misconduct in their communities, workplaces, and institutions.


Shambhala and Harm

There is no question that people in Shambhala were harmed, including and beyond the scope of accusations against the Sakyong. While it’s true to say that the type of harm that occurred in Shambhala is typical of the ills of greater society and that most of the accusations refer to events twenty and thirty years back, it would be woefully incurious of us to leave it at that. Instead we’re asking: was there something about Shambhala culture, whether in the ‘80s or ‘90s or more recently, that actively promoted or gave a pass to harmful sexual conduct in our community? And when incidents did come to light, did we respond to misconduct with care or disregard?

We’re also wondering how we relate to the criminal charges against two former members related to sexual misconduct with minors in the ‘90s. These cases are now making their way through the Boulder, Colorado courts. Shambhala recently opened a third-party investigation to assess BSC’s response when one of these situations first came to light. The results will feed into a comprehensive review of Shambhala’s care and conduct policies now underway by the greater organization.

Like the questions above, is there something particular about Shambhala culture that didn’t recognize or adequately address signs of misconduct by these two people? Should misconduct in the past be related to differently than more recent misconduct (of which there is relatively little)? How can survivors be better supported, whether surviving events long ago, or today? How can we be sure their voices are heard? What do we still need to learn about respecting girls and women?


Shambhala and Basic Goodness

Critical to our exploration is basic goodness, the primary tenet of the Shambhala teachings. This is the understanding that every person is basically sound, completely whole—that each of us possesses inherent kindness, wisdom, and strength. This is why we value the founder’s teaching that we never give up on anyone. So, we can ask, how does the recognition of basic goodness factor into accountability for misdeeds? How are justice and human dignity related? What role does karma play in understanding harm and suffering? What does forgiveness mean?


What about the Sakyong? 

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche was empowered as Shambhala’s leader in 1995, some years after the passing of his father, Shambhala’s founder, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. According to Trungpa Rinpoche’s body of teachings, a good, awake, caring society requires a brave and benevolent ruler. These Shambhala teachings were inspired by an ancient Himalayan culture of human goodness and joined with the traditional teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. In Shambhala this view of benevolent rulership has been established as a family lineage. The current Sakyong (a title meaning earth protector), the son of Trungpa Rinpoche, the first Sakyong, spent more than twenty years making accessible—accomplish-able you could say—his father’s remarkable teachings. In the future, one of the current Sakyong’s daughters, following extensive training in both secular and Buddhist wisdom, may one day take the helm.

The idea is that this hierarchical arrangement—a monarchy—attracts the potency of wakefulness, or sacredness, which is always available in the world, making it possible for society to overcome destructive tribal instincts. Unsurprisingly, at this time (reflecting not only concern about the Sakyong’s conduct but greater society’s concern with power sharing), there are many questions about the value of this spiritual hierarchy and how Shambhala’s organizational structure might look different if and when the Sakyong returns as its leader.


Buddhist Teachings and the Role of the Guru

Part of the situation’s flavor is related to Tibetan Buddhism’s approach to enlightenment, which includes a particular kind of teacher-student relationship. In advanced stages of the path, the teacher is regarded as the gateway to awakenment. Seeing the teacher, or guru, as an example of enlightenment is the basis of rousing confidence in basic goodness, thereby letting go of the primary obstacle—doubt about one’s true nature. This kind of devotion to the teacher is a critical tool to undercut ego, which works by placing the student’s attention outward on the teacher’s example, as opposed to inward, on propping up oneself as uniquely special and self-existent. As these notions are fairly new to the West, there is tremendous potential for misunderstanding, which can manifest as blind faith in the teacher. A beneficial teacher-student relationship depends on mutual trust and dedication by both to developing clarity and virtue.

According to this tradition, clarity and the virtue that flows from it arise by understanding that the process of revealing our wisdom also reveals our confusion. The path, therefore, simultaneously invites students to see the teacher (and oneself as a reflection of the teacher) as an unchanging embodiment of wisdom while acknowledging that confusion will appear. This paradox requires us to ground our path in discipline (on the meditation cushion and off), so we can properly hold this seeming contradiction and avoid mistaking confusion as wisdom, mistaking harm as non-harm. Protecting others against harm and encouraging those who cause harm to return back to wisdom are essential parts of any good society. The purpose of the Buddhist path is to offer the sanity we discover and its practical expression to others. In other words, all of this—the meditation practices, the guru, rousing confidence, seeing the inseparability of wisdom and confusion—is to help others find freedom from struggle.


Going Forward

What connects all members of our community is concern for how best to care for others. Some of us are primarily focused on protecting against harm within Shambhala. Others see the Sakyong’s teachings as being uniquely able to address society’s confusion and so wish to continue to practice and share them. Still others long to more widely offer Trungpa Rinpoche’s potent presentation of Buddhism for the benefit of students. This connection to caring is instrumental to our ability to take this journey together.

Some of the allegations against the Sakyong and others describe actions that are completely unacceptable. An upgraded Care and Conduct Policy to institute greater internal protections will soon be released for community review. There’s longing by many to receive a more pointed expression of the Sakyong’s regret as well as hearing what he is learning about himself as a person, his role as teacher and leader, and the path of awakenment and glorious auspiciousness altogether.

Currently the Sakyong is on a journey of self-reflection. He is living in Nepal with his wife and daughters and their extended family. He is spending significant time on retreat. The Shambhala Board has been empowered to lead the organization for the next two years and works in consultation with the member-led Process Team to implement systemic change.

Meanwhile, BSC’s community will attempt to answer the difficult questions posed here so we may preserve and offer the teachings of basic goodness, increase the health and well-being of our community, and move closer to Shambhala’s vision of living in a caring, inclusive, joyful society.

This reflection is mine and no doubt differs from others’. 


Melanie Klein
Executive Director
Boulder Shambhala Center
October 16, 2019