Tucked down a dirt road among the forest and meadows of the Cobequid Highlands in mainland Nova Scotia, the MacKay House has long been a place where people come to escape from the rest of the world.
The 19th-century farmhouse, overlooking the Northumberland Strait, is usually the bucolic setting for children’s summer camps and adult outdoor retreats where on clear nights the stars seem to go on forever.
But recently, this serene property has become the focus of an unusual eviction battle pitting a yoga teacher against one of the largest Buddhist organizations in the western world. That dispute, now headed for Nova Scotia’s Supreme Court, has also exposed a rift that erupted within the group three years ago over allegations of sexual misconduct against its spiritual leader.
The property is owned by Halifax-based Shambhala Global, an international, non-profit Tibetan spirituality group spread over 50 countries that includes meditation centres, retreat centres, monasteries and a university. The man they’re trying to remove from the farmhouse, Sean Drohan, says the way he’s being treated shows the hypocrisy in the group’s mantra of kindness, generosity and finding the “basic goodness” in everyone.
In 2018, Shambhala’s spiritual director, Osel Rangdrol Mukpo, stepped down after some of his most devoted female followers accused him of drunken groping, sexual abuse and forcing them to perform sexual favours. Mr. Mukpo, whose followers call him Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, or just the Sakyong, a Tibetan word that translates roughly as king, publicly acknowledged in a statement what he called “relationships” that left women “feeling harmed,” and relocated to Nepal.
While some of those allegations were corroborated by third-party investigations commissioned by Shambhala, there were no formal complaints to police. The Halifax-based governing council of Shambhala resigned en masse, and said they hoped it would begin a healing process for their organization.
Three years since the scandal, the group has rebranded itself as Shambhala Global, with a new charter and board of directors. But there’s still a devout loyalty among many members to Mr. Mukpo, who has resumed acting as Shambhala’s spiritual director and teaching from afar. Followers celebrate him as the descendent of a royal Tibetan Buddhist lineage. “They took a vow to defend him, and they’re not letting go of him,” said Mr. Drohan, who has been a member of the Shambhala organization for 15 years. “That’s what this is about. They’re loyalists and I’m not, so they want me out.”
Mr. Drohan has been the caretaker of the MacKay House property since September, 2018. In September, 2019, his rent increased to $500 a month, double what he paid a year prior. He insists he’ll only pay $250 a month – part of what he calls a “historical agreement” that has allowed Shambalans to live at the farmhouse for low rent while caring for the property.
He claims Shambhala’s Nova Scotia leadership is trying to push him out because he’s vocally opposed to Mr. Mukpo’s prominent role within the group. Mr. Drohan also produced a long list of alleged neglected repairs to the property as proof they’re trying to get him to leave the farmhouse.
“The primary reason for all this is unspoken. I don’t believe the Sakyong is fit to teach. They only want people in positions they can control who want the Sakyong to return soon,” he said. “I’m taking them to task for how they’re treating people.”
Shambhala, meanwhile, says it has tried to accommodate Mr. Drohan, but that it has the right to end the lease after his former partner and co-tenant provided the group with a Tenant’s Notice to Quit more than a year ago. The group as been trying to remove Mr. Drohan since last September.
Shambhala says it gave the yoga teacher full notice the rent would be increasing and even offered him the chance to stay at the farmhouse for free for the past few months until the lease expires in September. The group says it’s not trying to evict Mr. Drohan; it just wants him to leave voluntarily.
“This tenancy matter is not an eviction; we just do not intend to renew the lease beyond the termination date. We have properly communicated this to the tenant for the past 10 months,” the group’s spokesperson, Rose Keyes, said in an e-mailed statement.
Ms. Keyes said Mr. Drohan’s opposition to Mr. Mukpo’s role within Shambhala didn’t factor into the decision to end his lease. The group wants him out of the farmhouse because it has other plans for the property, including possibly using it as a residence for teachers and students visiting Dorje Denma Ling, a nearby Shambhala retreat centre, she said.
“The organization wants to regain use of the property, and Mr. Drohan’s opinions about the Sakyong ... have not been of any consideration by Shambhala Canada in our decision not to continue his lease,” she said.
Ms. Keyes said Shambhala is trying to address concerns about sexual misconduct through a new code of conduct that defines issues such as consent and gender dynamics, and how they are affected by positions of trust and authority.
“We are moving through a process to resolve open questions about Sakyong Mipham’s role as teacher and leader in Shambhala. This process includes the release of improved policies regarding community care and conduct, as well as facilitating conversations to acknowledge the community’s wide range of perspectives, and joining these with our foundational values of human dignity and uplifted, awake society,” she said.
Carol Merchasin, a retired employment lawyer who has investigated sexual-assault complaints within Shambhala, said there has been a rift inside the community ever since the sexual-misconduct scandal. Members who remain loyal to Mr. Mukpo and see him as their infallible guru are trying to root out those who don’t want him to return, she said.
“Many people left in droves when these stories first came out, and the group has never really repaired the damage or healed from that,” said Ms. Merchasin, who began documenting women’s stories of sexual misconduct within Shambhala at the request of former member and sexual-abuse survivor Andrea Winn. Ms. Winn first exposed the problem with a report she called Buddhist Project Sunshine.
While Mr. Mukpo has acknowledged he harmed women, and the group has funded some therapy for victims, many of the women feel they’ve never received a genuine apology, Ms. Merchasin said.
Shambhala’s senior leadership also spent years ignoring the married guru’s drunken womanizing and members’ complaints of abuse, she said. She’s concerned the new sexual-misconduct policy is difficult to enforce, and persuades victims to take part in “talking circles” instead of filing a formal complaint.
“They’re trying to have their cake and eat it, too,” Ms. Merchasin said. “They’re not willing to actually say the Sakyong did bad things.”
Mr. Drohan says he shouldn’t have to leave just because his former partner, an employee of the organization, moved out. He says he wants to fight for change within the organization, including what he calls a “toxic” culture among senior leadership. He and other Shambhalans want Mr. Mukpo to step down permanently.
The MacKay House dispute is now winding its way through the legal system. In February, Nova Scotia’s Director of Residential Tenancies sided with Mr. Drohan, and allowed him to stay at the property.
Shambhala appealed, and in April a Small Claims Court adjudicator ordered Mr. Drohan to vacate the premises by September, 2021, ruling that his lease had expired. The adjudicator agreed, however, that the organization “unlawfully increased” his rent during his first year of tenancy – but said Mr. Drohan was also not entitled to withhold a portion of his rent because of neglected repairs.
“A tenant cannot unilaterally withhold rent from their landlord, even in the event of conflict with a landlord,” Shelly Martin, the Small Claims Court adjudicator, wrote in her decision.
Mr. Drohan filed his appeal to the Nova Scotia Supreme Court on May 28, and says he’s going public with his story because he wants to expose Shambhala Global and remove Mr. Mukpo as its leader.
“He’s just carried on, but there’s mountains of bad karma for what he’s done,” Mr. Drohan said. “I had hope the lineage could recover… I just feel we’ll fail if he comes back. He’s unfit to teach and to guide us anymore because of the harm he has done to people.”
Mr. Mukpo’s Tibetan-born father, Trungpa Rinpoche, moved the Shambhala headquarters from Colorado to Nova Scotia in the 1980s. Like his son, he was dogged by controversy, including allegations he had sexually abused multiple women students. He died in Halifax in 1987, surrounded by devotees who had uprooted their lives to live near him.
Mr. Drohan, meanwhile, said he eagerly moved from Fall River, N.S., three years ago to take the unpaid job of caretaker. Despite the bitter fight with a group whose values he says he still believes in, he says he has no intention of leaving.
“This has become my home. I love it here,” he said. “I’m in harmony with the energy here.”
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