Shambhala leader steps aside amid sexual misconduct allegations

The spiritual leader of Halifax-based Shambhala International, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, is stepping back from his duties pending the outcome of an independent investigation into sexual misconduct allegations.

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is the subject of a 3rd-party investigation

A report last month detailed sexual misconduct allegations against Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, the spiritual leader of Shambhala International, which is based in Halifax. (The Canadian Press/Andrew Vaughan)

The spiritual leader of an international Buddhist organization based in Halifax is stepping back from his duties pending the outcome of an independent investigation into sexual misconduct allegations.

In a recent letter to the Shambhala International community, the office of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche said he fully supports a third-party investigation and wishes to provide the time and space for it to occur.

Inspired by Tibetan Buddhism, Shambhala is one of the largest western Buddhist movements with more than 200 meditation centres around the world.

Mipham's father, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, visited Nova Scotia in the late 1970s and soon after made Halifax the world headquarters for Shambhala Buddhism, encouraging many Buddhists — most from the United States — to move to the province while prompting locals to join the community.

Meanwhile, members of the Shambhala governing council are also stepping down, saying that despite the "groundless situation," Shambhala can emerge healthier and more supportive.

"We recognize that parts of our system are broken, and need to dissolve in order to make room for real change," nine members of the leadership body said in a letter.

They said they will "exit responsibly," and have hired Halifax law firm Wickwire Holm to investigate the allegations.

The upheaval within the Buddhist community comes after a report last month by Andrea Winn detailed sexual misconduct allegations against Mipham.

In the report, multiple unnamed women accuse the Shambhala leader of heavy drinking and using his attendant to "procure women students for his own sexual gratification."

The women describe being torn by their devotion to Mipham as their guru, alleging they were cast out of his inner circle if they resisted his sexual advances. They also alleged that members of the Shambhala leadership were aware or enabled his behaviour.

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and his wife Princess Tseyang Palmo pictured at their wedding in Halifax in 2006. Multiple unnamed women accused Mipham of sexual misconduct in a report last month. (The Canadian Press/Andrew Vaughan)

None of the allegations has been proven in court and no charges have been laid.

Mipham, who is often referred to as the Sakyong, was unavailable for an interview Monday.

Pattern of behaviour

Carol Merchasin, the lawyer and sexual misconduct investigator who oversaw the preliminary investigation, said the women interviewed made "credible allegations of sexual assault and/or sexual abuse."

"The pattern of behaviour that their stories establish is compelling," she said in a memo included in the report.

In the letter to the Shambhala community, Mipham's office said he was entering "a period of self-reflection."

"The Sakyong has decided to step back from his administrative and teaching responsibilities within Shambhala during the independent investigation of these allegations," Mipham's office said. "He is also stepping down from his positions and responsibilities at Naropa University."

The private liberal arts college in Boulder, Colo., issued a statement last week calling the accusations against Mipham "credible and believable."

Winn, who oversaw the report into the sexual misconduct allegations, said she was "overjoyed" to learn Mipham has stepped aside.

"He's allowing the flow of goodness to happen and I'm very grateful for that," she said in an interview Monday. "It had to happen for the community to have an authentic healing process."

'Phased' mass resignation

Winn said the leadership council's mass resignation was a good move, given that some members were aware of Mipham's alleged behaviour.

The Kalapa Council said there will be a "phased departure" of members to ensure there is a board in place to uphold legal and financial responsibilities.

In addition to hiring a law firm, the council also brought in An Olive Branch, an organization members say will serve as a neutral party for receiving allegations of harm, survivor advocacy and consulting on Shambhala's policies going forward.

Winn said it's unclear what the intention of An Olive Branch will be, and said the law firm had still not reached out to Merchasin.

"I still feel no confidence until that law firm is in touch with our investigator and our investigator gives the thumbs up," she said.

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