Buddhist Leader Sexually Assaulted Students, Report Finds
By Joshua Eaton
June 28, 2018
|Sakyong Mipham, Left, The Leader Of Shambhala International, Presents The Dalai Lama With The Living Peace Award At Shambhala Mountain Center In Red Feather Lake, Colorado, In August 2010. Credit: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post Via Getty Images|
A prominent Tibetan Buddhist leader based in Halifax, Canada, sexually assaulted three of his female students and engaged in coercive sexual relationships with others, according to a report released Thursday by the advocacy group Buddhist Project Sunshine.
Sakyong Mipham, whose legal name is Osel R. Mukpo, leads a global network of meditation centers called Shambhala International. The report includes two accounts by women who say Mipham sexually assaulted them and one by a woman who says he engaged in an emotionally abusive sexual relationship with her. Other women’s accounts are summarized in an appendix to the report.
Carol Merchasin, the lead investigator for the report and a retired employment lawyer, also spoke to a woman who says she personally overheard Shambala leadership discussing how to cover up an allegation of rape by Mipham. The report does not probe the rape claim, which it calls “second or third hand at best,” citing a lack of evidence.
In a letter to Shambhala members on Monday, Mipham acknowledged what he called “relationships” with women in the organization, but he stopped short of admitting any sexual misconduct.
“I have recently learned that some of these women have shared experiences of feeling harmed as a result of these relationships,” Mipham wrote. “I am now making a public apology.”
The Kalapa Council, a governing body appointed by Mipham, issued a second letter to Shambhala members late Wednesday, ahead of the report’s publication Thursday morning. It stopped short of acknowledging any specific wrongdoing and reiterated the council’s support for Mipham.
“Our lineage is led by human [teachers],” the council said. “They have offered us profound teachings, and as humans they can cause harm.”
“As well [as] caring for the victims, our hearts are also with the Sakyong… as we navigate this challenging time,” the letter continued.
The council’s letter said Shambala was working with An Olive Branch, a Buddhist consulting organization that purports to help “leaders understand the role of conflict in organizational health.”
There are two women on the nine-person council. One man on the council, Mitchell Levy, recused himself from signing the letter, citing unspecified “allegations against me on social media.”
Neither Mipham nor the Kalapa Council immediately returned ThinkProgress’ requests for comment.
One woman featured in the report, who also spoke with ThinkProgress, described an incident in 2011 where she said Mipham lifted up her skirt, groped her breasts, and began kissing her in the kitchen of his home in Halifax after a drunken birthday party for his one-year-old daughter.
The woman said she was taken aback by the behavior of her spiritual mentor, whom she had always tried to see as the Buddha himself — a common Tibetan Buddhist religious practice.
“It was gross. It was disgusting. I think I was just so shocked,” she told ThinkProgress. “I think I thought I was supposed to be doing this.”
The woman asked the remain anonymous out of fear of reprisal.
Another woman featured in the report described Mipham’s personal attendants calling her to his room late one night after a teaching. When she got there, the woman said, Mipham was dressed only in a bathrobe. After he began kissing and undressing her, she told him they couldn’t have sex.
“Well you might as well finish this,” Mipham allegedly responded while pushing her head toward his penis.
“I was so embarrassed and horrified I did it,” the woman said in the report. “He rolled over in bed and didn’t say another word to me.”
The allegations come after another report by Buddhist Project Sunshine in February alleged a pattern of sexual misconduct within the organization, including child sex abuse by some of its members.
In the wake of that report, the Kalapa Council announced measures aimed at addressing sexual misconduct, including the formation of a Sexual Harm and Misconduct Task Force.
The new allegations against Mipham are likely to hit the community hard. Tibetan Buddhism places a premium on the relationship between student and teacher, and some of the tradition’s most beloved stories involve teachers going to extreme lengths to shock their students into enlightenment.
Many contemporary teachers warn that those stories can be taken out of context and that students shouldn’t hesitate to point out when their teachers are hurting others. Other teachers, however, revel in a side of the tradition that has often eschewed conventional mores.
Chogyam Trungpa, Mipham’s father and the founder of Shambhala, was famous for raucous parties, drinking heavily, and sleeping with his students. The organization has cultivated a tamer image under Mipham’s leadership, but it still portrays him as a king at the center of the “enlightened society” it says that it’s building. Attendants wait on Mipham like royalty, and his home in Halifax is called the Kalapa Court. His Tibetan title, sakyong, translates to “earth protector.”
For one of the women who says Mipham assaulted her, that lofty view of his place in the world made it almost impossible to come forward.
“If you contest anything he says, you’re wrong, because there’s such a hierarchy,” she told ThinkProgress. “He’s a king. Literally, he’s a king.”
Do you have information about sexual misconduct in Shambhala or another religious organization? Contact reporter Joshua Eaton by email at email@example.com or by Signal at 202–684–1030.