Warning: This story and the accompanying audio deals with sexual abuse in spiritual settings.
When Patricia Ullman first stumbled upon the spiritual teachings of the organization now known as Shambhala more than 40 years ago, she was literally searching for the meaning of life.
Raised as “a strict southern Baptist” — albeit one with a Jewish father — Ullman said she was depressed and, like many people in their early 20s, looking for direction as she made her way in the world.
Having just moved to Washington state, she met a young man who had been studying meditation in Boulder, Colo., under a Tibetan Buddhist teacher named Chogyam Trungpa.
“He described the meditation practice to me in a very simple way, saying that the basis of these teachings is that you don’t have to keep searching outside of yourself for other people or other traditions that have the answers, but you can just sit down and look at your own mind,” Ullman recalled in an interview with Mary Hynes, host of CBC Radio’s Tapestry.
“And to me, that was like a bolt of lightning. Why didn’t I hear this before in my life?”
Ullman went to some seminars with the spiritual leader, Trungpa, “and I could see the energy around him. He was attracting a lot of very intellectual, very powerful people.” They included the likes of poet Allen Ginsberg and author Ram Dass, who is credited with establishing yoga’s popularity with the Boomer generation. Joni Mitchell even wrote a song, Refuge of the Roads, about Trungpa.
Based in Halifax since 1986, Shambhala is an international organization with roots in Tibetan Buddhism. One of its core tenets is that every human being has a fundamental nature of basic goodness.
Yet Shambhala has been mired in allegations of abuse and sexual misconduct since 2018, when an initiative known as the Buddhist Project Sunshine raised questions about how a religion associated with kindness and non-violence could allow abusive leaders to go unchecked.
Buddhist Project Sunshine was started in February 2017 by Andrea Winn, a sexual abuse survivor who had grown up within the Shambhala tradition, to bring light to “widespread sexualized violence in the community.” Winn, who says she was forced out of the community around 2000 when she raised concerns about the abuse, teamed up with lawyer Carol Merchasin to investigate abuse allegations in the community, which by then was under the leadership of Trungpa’s son, Mipham Rinpoche — known in the Shambhala community as the Sakyong.
Amid allegations of abuse in 2018 against the Sakyong, Trungpa and other teachers, the Sakyong stepped away from his duties.
CBC Radio has not independently verified these claims.
LISTEN: In Tapestry’s special, part one looks at sexual abuse allegations that surfaced in the Shambhala Buddhist community and explores the power imbalances in guru-student relationships. We ask why this keeps happening in spiritual communities around the world and hear from Shambhala’s board of directors.
The organization says the Sakyong is now teaching only outside the Shambhala organization, but current and former members dispute that claim. They point out that the Sakyong is still prominently identified on the organization’s website as their top-billed teacher and “temporal and spiritual director of Shambhala.” They also say there are numerous arms and multiple legal entities that comprise Shambhala, and that the Sakyong was set to teach, for example, at a 2020 event planned prior to the pandemic at Dechen Chöling, a retreat centre in France that is clearly identified as part of Shambhala.
Phil Cass, a member of the board of directors for Shambhala, told Tapestry the organization has a whole new body of trustees in charge, and it has implemented extensive training as well as a new code of care and conduct.
But Ullman said the alleged abuse started decades ago, when the organization was much newer.
Shambhala became established in Canada following a journey that took its founder around the globe.
Trungpa was among a small group of Tibetan monks who spent nine perilous months crossing the Himalayas into India following China’s 1950 invasion of Tibet. There, the Dalai Lama appointed him spiritual adviser to a group of young monks.
Trungpa studied at Oxford University and then moved to the United States in 1970, travelling around for a time before settling in Boulder. There, he became spiritual teacher to a group of artists, hippies and seekers, and established the teachings and organization that would come to be known as Shambhala.
WATCH | How Shambhala came to be:
Ullman said that from the early days, the organization was set up in a way that centralized — and deified — its leader.
“These kinds of teachings are established on what’s called a mandala principle, which is basically something that has a centre, and then everything radiates out from that,” said Ullman. “And [Trungpa] was the centre…. It was his mind at the centre of the mandala, which theoretically is supposed to permeate everything so that you have a most uplifted society.”
Ullman said Trungpa set up his household as “a court.”
“Students would do all of the roles of service as a way of being near the teacher and, you know, practising the teachings as a societal kind of structure.”
Some would work in the organization full-time, but many others would study there part-time in a way that could be likened to belonging to a church, synagogue or other religious congregation.
Today, there are more than 100 Shambhala meditation centres around the world, including locations all across Canada.
WATCH | How Shambhala brought new ideas, tastes and sounds to Halifax:
Ullman said boundaries between Trungpa and his students were often non-existent. “I was one of the women who had an intimate relationship with him, although that’s not saying a heck of a lot, because ... many, many people did,” said Ullman.
“There [were] all these young, pretty women and that culture, that also seeped into the students, so that young women coming into the community were like prey.”
When Ullman declined Trungpa’s proposal of marriage, their sexual relationship began to peter out, but she remained part of his court. “I continued being one of the servers and I was one of the close ones who would be with him and help him get dressed and all that kind of thing.”
Concerned that the U.S. was becoming too materialistic, Trungpa decided in the mid-1980s to move the headquarters to Nova Scotia. This was the result of a visit to the province, during which he determined that Nova Scotia had a positive energy that reminded him of Tibet. He built a monastery, called Gampo Abbey, near the northern tip of Cape Breton.
Trungpa asked a number of his students, including Ullman, to move to the Maritime province with him.
By now married to one of the Shambhala leaders and a mother of two, Ullman was able to move to Canada on a student visa. Having previously passed entrance exams for law school, she applied to the law school at Dalhousie University and got in. “It was almost like I was going to law school in order to get a student visa to live there.”
But Trungpa died of liver failure in 1987, most likely due to his excessive drinking, which was well known in the community.
His son, Mipham Rinpoche, had been studying in India for a few years. In 1995, he was asked by a group of Tibetan lamas to become the Sakyong — which means Earth Protector — and lead the Shambhala organization.
When the Sakyong took over after a period of interim leadership, Ullman said she initially had reservations about him being a strong enough teacher. Ultimately, she said, “I felt like it was worthwhile to support him in order to carry on the organization and the teachings that his father had started.”
Ullman said that “as the years went by … he became a better teacher, and I became close to him. I was one of his secretaries for a while. I travelled with him.”
She said he also had multiple sexual relationships with women in the organization. “And then at some point he met his future wife,” said Ullman. “Many people thought, well, that was it. You know, he proclaimed his faithfulness and love for her and he was going to be a family man.’”
In 2006, the Sakyong married Tseyang Palmo, a Tibetan princess whose father is the leader of another Buddhist movement. The union was celebrated as a Buddhist “royal wedding,” with 1,300 guests gathering in Halifax for the three-day event.
Ullman said that because the alleged behaviour was hidden, the Sakyong’s sexual misconduct didn’t fit his public persona as a married Buddhist dignitary. This contributed to the general disbelief when people started to come forward with allegations.
“Some of these things that have come out ... aren’t believed by a lot of people — that he was messing around with other people, and also that he had a serious drinking issue,” said Ullman.
“A lot of people just said, ‘Well, I never saw him that way.’”
In an open letter to the Shambhala community after the allegations surfaced in 2018, the Sakyong acknowledged he’d had relationships with women in the community. It read, “I have recently learned that some of these women have shared experiences of feeling harmed as a result of these relationships. I am now making a public apology.”
Andrea Winn’s allegations of abuse in the Shambhala community emerged with the first of three Buddhist Project Sunshine reports, which was published in February 2018.
That’s when Carol Merchasin, a retired Philadelphia employment lawyer who specialized in workplace misconduct investigations, got in touch with her.
“I suggested that she ask Shambhala to do an investigation, that that’s really what the next step needed to be,” said Merchasin, who is now living in New Jersey. When Winn told her that Shambhala leadership were no longer speaking to her, Merchasin offered to work pro bono with her as an independent investigator for Buddhist Project Sunshine.
Merchasin began to investigate the claims that were considered current, meaning the alleged abuse had taken place within the last 25 years, in order to determine whether there was definitive evidence of hidden sexual misconduct in the Shambhala community.
Within the first 10 days of her investigation, a woman came forward to ask if Merchasin would be investigating sexual misconduct of the Sakyong himself. Merchasin said it was the first time either she or Winn knew of allegations linked not just to instructors and senior members of the organization but to Shambhala’s leader.
While Merchasin was investigating those allegations, two other women came forward. Those findings were published in June 2018, in the first of the two investigative reports Merchasin helped Winn produce.
“It involved those first three women, all three of them with credible corroborated allegations against the Sakyong,” Merchasin said.
The lawyer said she’d sometimes spend three months communicating with the women just to build trust before they’d agree to answer questions about their experiences.
“There were probably eight or nine that I interviewed in terms of misconduct allegations against the Sakyong,” Merchasin said. “As more women came forward, it weighed on us that we were carrying the stories of these people who had been silenced. Because what became clear was that this was not just about the Sakyong and sexual misconduct, but there was also institutional betrayal.”
Merchasin said that “in one way or another, the power structure has turned [these women] away. The power structure has said, ‘We don’t want to hear this. We don’t believe you. We’re not going to do anything about it.’”
In cases like these, victims are then prompted to look for other kinds of power, she said.
“It’s often media that really try to shine a light on what is happening in some of these communities and the kind of reform and accountability that needs to be there.”
It’s been said that when abuse takes place within a spiritual community — where people specifically go to find meaning and understanding of their place in the world — it affects victims in a particularly damaging way.
Ullman said she worries about others just joining a spiritual community being taken advantage of in this way. “You have to open your whole heart and mind and you’re so grateful because it’s all amazing and good and you feel part of something. And having that collapse is very devastating.”
When her own marriage to a senior Shambhala teacher was in crisis, Ullman said she felt the community abandoned her.
“I loved the work. I loved the people, but I was also kind of in hell a lot of the time,” she said. “It got so bad that I finally left the marriage.”
Ullman still wanted to do the next retreat at the centre in Tatamagouche. She asked her husband — from whom she was by then separated — not to attend, so she could take part in the retreat without the stress of their marital breakdown. He refused.
“So I started asking within Shambhala to help me. And that went up from the local care and conduct group to the international care and conduct group, to the president of Shambhala, who was a friend. None of them felt they could help me … They gathered their wagons around him.”
In retrospect, she thinks she had a psychological breakdown. “I was losing my marriage, I was losing my community. I was fairly prominent. It just didn’t dawn on me that nobody would care.”
Ullman wrote a few letters to the Sakyong, who she had once been close to, but he never replied. And so, after 40 years with the community, she left.
“I still thought somebody would help me figure out how to continue on, but nobody has ever contacted me to this day.”
When the allegations against Shambala came to light in 2018, it wasn’t the first time a Buddhist organization had been tied to alleged abuse.
Academics Amy Langenberg and Ann Gleig are collaborating on a book called Sex, Abuse and the Sangha, which explores alleged sex abuse within Buddhist organizations, like the kind that led to the shuttering of the Against the Stream Meditation Society in 2018.
Although Shambhala is not one of their case studies, Langenberg and Gleig have interviewed a number of former Shambhala members as part of their research.
“One of the things that we have been paying a lot of attention to is the way that Buddhist doctrines get kind of brought into the process of justifying the abuse or somehow making it OK in the community, or somehow making it disappear in the community,” said Langenberg, an associate professor of religious studies at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla. “Doctrine often is sort of brought in and, you could say, weaponized.”
Langenberg cites the example of the Buddhist concept of “beginner’s mind” — “an idea that has to do with emptiness and has to do with you not kind of spending a lot of your mental energies making judgments, but kind of holding a place of unknowing.”
In interviews she and Gleig did for the book, Langenberg said, “we’ve heard people bring that in as a way to not come down and take a position when there have been allegations of sexual abuse. So we’ll hear something like, ‘Well, I don’t know what the facts are and therefore I choose not to judge.’ And sometimes it’s legitimate … but a lot of times, there’s a lot of information upon which you could kind of take a stand — for instance, to support victims.”
Community cohesion is often prioritized at the expense of survivors, said Gleig, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.
“We realized that there has been, in some cases, a tremendous pressure on survivors to forgive, you know. There’s some kind of recognition that abuse happened, and then it’s like, let’s move on quickly to forgiveness. You know, that’s another violence to survivors.”
Fear also gets in the way of people coming forward, she said.
She said there’s “cosmic fear” of speaking up against the guru because “it’s going to have consequences for your spiritual unfolding over many lifetimes.” Then there’s “the fear of retribution from the community … especially when the teacher is so beloved.”
She said there are plenty of examples of senior teachers attacking women who have spoken up against abuse. “Often we find this tremendous naiveté amongst some Buddhist practitioners, of like, ‘Why didn’t they speak up earlier?’ or ‘Why didn’t they say no?’ I mean, it’s such a naive and limited understanding of the power contexts — [there’s] conventional earthly power that we all know, but then there’s also the kind of spiritual layers to it.”
Toronto author Matthew Remski has studied abuse within a number of spiritual communities, including Buddhist centres and the Ashtanga yoga movement, some of which is described in his book Practice and All Is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics and Healing in Yoga and Beyond.
“There’s a kind of deceptive way in which the sexual abuse is rationalized or spiritualized by a culture that believes that it’s beyond it, and that believes that somehow the intrusiveness of the teacher, the demands that the teacher makes of the student’s person and their body, is somehow part of a spiritual process,” Remski said.
“Very often, the survivor of abuse in these circumstances spends a lot of time trying to figure out what exactly happened, why it felt so terrible, why they were told that it was part of their awakening, why no one came to their aid.”
Victims may also try to ignore alarm bells that go off when the abuse is happening because of the central idea that ego and the critical mind are obstacles on the road to enlightenment, he said.
“There is a very beautiful and haunting part of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy that deals with the absence of essential reality, of what we know as being the self,” said Remski.
“You know, that the ego’s structure that I carry around and that I interrelate with the world through is largely illusory, that it’s passing, that I’ve constructed it out of habits and circumstances … This kind of mask that I wear in the world.”
Remski said that’s a very powerful idea.
“And it can also be really weaponized against the person who is suddenly thrown into an environment in which their basic feelings, their basic responses to stimulus are being labelled as signs of their delusion rather than, you know, reasonable responses to stress or to stimulus.”
Carol Penner, assistant professor of theological studies at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ont., said that while abuse in the Catholic Church is most widely talked about, “there’s sexual misconduct in every religious organization.”
“I think whenever people have power over other people, they can take advantage of them and abuse them. That’s just the reality.”
Penner told Tapestry that spiritual groups have fallen behind other organizations, such as the professional bodies that regulate medicine and teaching, in putting safeguards in place to prevent abuse.
Abuse looks particularly bad on religious organizations because of the strong moral teachings they espouse, she said. “So if there is any place that should be safe in our society, it is a religious organization. And so when misconduct happens there, it’s such a shock and a betrayal.”
LISTEN: In Tapestry’s special, part two looks at sexual abuse in spiritual communities from the perspective of survivors. It explores what tends to happen to survivors who speak out against their spiritual leaders and groundbreaking ways we can listen to abuse survivors who choose to remain silent.
Philip Cass, who joined Shambhala’s board of directors in May 2020, told Tapestry‘s Mary Hynes that the organization’s original board of trustees stepped down in 2018 and asked the Sakyong to do the same.
After the Sakyong stepped away from his leadership role in July 2018, the organization’s governing council appointed the Halifax law firm Wickwire Holm to conduct an independent investigation into the matter.
In February 2019, the firm determined the Sakyong had made inappropriate sexual advances against two female students.
“There were numerous investigations,” said Cass. “We looked at the issue of harm. And since then, a lot of work has been done to create policies and procedures for the care and conduct of people in our community.”
A new care and conduct policy just came into effect in February. As a result, Cass said anyone who comes forward with an issue of harm will now have clear pathways for accessing designated people for support and for the resources they need to file a complaint if they choose to do so.
The new policy requires the development of a regional and international council of counsellors “to basically intervene and investigate and, if necessary, adjudicate claims of harm.”
He said that “those people are just being recruited now and being trained.”
Cass said the organization has also provided training for all Shambhala leaders, raising awareness of power, sexual harm, trauma and healing, and is now conducting training on gender dynamics.
He said the Sakyong is currently teaching outside of the Shambhala organization, but his photo and bio were still on the organization’s website as this story was being completed. Cass said that regardless of the Sakyong’s rarified lineage, if he ever returned to teach with Shambhala, “he would be required to work under these care and conduct policies and procedures as well.”
He also said he would “take a look at” why the Sakyong’s photo remains on the website.
Cass said there are some members who believe that without the Sakyong, there is no Shambhala. “There are people who are his students, and who continue to be his students, and want to be able to continue to learn from him.”
However, Cass added that “the majority of the feedback we got was that he should not come back and teach. So we’re in that discussion and in that assessment as you and I talk right now.”
Yet prior to the pandemic, the Sakyong was scheduled to teach at a June 2020 Shambala retreat in France, at a centre called Dechen Chöling that is identified as part of Shambhala. Its website says “Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, lineage holder of Shambhala, was very excited about the selection of this site over other spaces considered in Europe.”
Tapestry asked the Sakyong for an interview as part of this special report; he declined. His office sent a statement that reads, in part:
“The Sakyong will not be offering further comment on these issues. He has repeatedly apologized for his behavior, both publicly and privately, and has acknowledged the harm he caused. The Sakyong believes, and has taught, that like all human beings, teachers have faults and virtues, and that he is no different.”
Langenberg and Gleig say there are things people can do to protect themselves from being taken advantage of — in any capacity — within a spiritual community.
“There is this tendency to think the spiritual framework has all of the answers,” said Gleig. “And I’ve yet to meet a community, religious or secular, that has a complete map of life. So I just say [to potential participants] remain open to other sources of knowledge and expertise, especially related to power and psychodynamics and also gender dynamics.”
Langenberg also suggests that anyone interested in joining such a community should research it using outside sources.
“Find out what their history is. It doesn’t mean that, you know, you can’t go to a Zen community [where] a past teacher was involved in some abuse. It may be that the community has changed or the community is different and has a different leadership. But no, don’t be naive.”
RESOURCES FOR SURVIVORS:
Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868
Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-833-900-1010
First Nations and Inuit Hope for Wellness Help Line: 1‑855‑242-3310
Crisis Services Canada: 1-833-456-4566, or text 45645
CBC Radio Tapestry’s Basic Goodness show producers: Rosie Fernandez, Mary Hynes, Mary-Catherine McIntosh, Erin Noel and Arman Aghbali
Copy editor: Andre Mayer | Lead digital producer: Sinisa Jolic | Digital producer: Ruby Buiza
Top photo lead image: Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters