The head of one of the largest Buddhist organizations in the Western world is being asked to “take responsibility for the harm he has caused” and “express true sympathy” for having inappropriate sexual contact with Shambhala followers.
The international organization’s governing council made the request on Sunday as it released the findings of an independent investigator hired to probe dozens of allegations of sexual assault and misconduct against influential Shambhala leaders – including its spiritual director, Mipham Rinpoche, whose title “Sakyong” translates roughly to “king.”
Based in Halifax and Boulder, Colo., the Sakyong directs more than 150 meditation centres with over 14,000 people who follow the practice, which aims toward a path of enlightenment. Named Osel Mukpo at birth, the Sakyong inherited his position in 1995 when he was in his early 30s. He has publicly admitted to having “fumbled with unhealthy power dynamics and alcohol.”
The organization’s board is urging him to take responsibility for the pain he has caused.
“We feel strongly that Sakyonog Mipham Rinpoche should work to find a path forward to carry his acknowledgement of these past actions in a way that reflects the honesty and bravery that are the hallmarks of the Shambhala teachings,” the board wrote. “It is our strong wish that he express true sympathy and speaks from his heart on how he will proceed.”
The sex allegations date, in some cases, as far back as the 1980s. News of the allegations splintered the Shambhala community last year. The allegations were released in a series of reports by a former Shambhala student, Andrea Winn, and retired lawyer Carol Merchasin, who titled the effort “Buddhist Project Sunshine”; the allegations they investigated related to incidents in Canada, the United States and South America.
Shambhala International hired investigative attorney Selina Bath from the Halifax law firm Wickwire Holm to conduct the investigation. Spanning five months, Ms. Bath’s probe delved into allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of the Sakyong and other senior Shambhala members.
While she initially had contact with about 100 people, Ms. Bath’s investigation narrowed to 42 individuals with sexual misconduct-related claims. In her report – anonymized for the Shambhala board to protect the privacy of her interviewees – she details the struggle that many individuals had with coming forward. Several withdrew from the investigation.
In her report, which was in some cases limited by a lack of direct access to those who alleged they were victims and to the Sakyong himself, Ms. Bath still said “there was enough consistency” to glean a picture of the Sakyong’s inappropriate behaviour between the 1990s and up to 2005. It “included frequent sexual contact with women who were his students and, [was] thus characterized by a power imbalance,” she wrote, adding: “No one reported criminal behaviour.”
Ms. Bath expressed certainty that the Sakyong did engage in sexual misconduct on at least one occasion. A woman who attended his daughter’s birthday party reported being kissed and groped by the Sakyong, who was “intoxicated and unsteady on his feet,” the report said. The claimant had not specifically consented to kissing the Sakyong or to his alleged request to see her breasts.
In another matter, Ms. Bath found the Sakyong had “more likely than not … attempted to have sexual relations with the Claimant and any sexual advances towards the Claimant constituted sexual and clergy misconduct.”
Ms. Bath reported she did not find evidence to support other allegations, including reports the Sakyong had forced a claimant to have sex with other men and that he had sex with teenagers.
A request for comment to a lawyer who represents the Sakyong was not immediately returned.
Ms. Winn is based in Halifax and grew up in the Shambhala community. As an adult, she connected with other Shambhala members over their stories of alleged abuses while she was trying to heal from abuse she suffered during childhood. In an interview last year with The Globe and Mail, Ms. Winn said she made the allegations public because she “didn’t want to die without having done my best to clear up the situation.”
“I would really like to see the Shambhala teachings flourish in the West,” she told The Globe. “For that to happen, we need to have a healthy community. That has been my motivation.”
Her second report, released in June, triggered the resignation of the organization’s governing body, known as the Kalapa Council, and moved the Sakyong to “step back” from his administrative and teaching responsibilities. In a letter to the community, he endorsed the hiring of a third-party investigator to look into sexual misconduct.
“In a state of complete heartbreak, I write to you, humble, embarrassed, and thoroughly apologetic for disappointing you,” he wrote. “Our teachings advise that we do not give up on ourselves or on each other. I am realizing that I have much to learn and am committed to that process.”