By Kellie Schorr
“The bell has been rung.
It is echoing off every wall in my home.
It is calling me to meditate.
It is crushing my ability to concentrate.
It may never stop ringing.
It can’t be un-rung.”
Those were the words I wrote nine months ago when the accusations about Shambhala’s leader and king, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, were fresh and shocking.
Nine months. That’s long enough for a baby, a school year, or a trip to Mars. Nine months of revelations, devastation, and collapse with no end in sight.
For nine months the bell hasn’t stopped ringing, nor has it picked up any kind of recognizable melody one could sing. It has been persistently resounding like an obnoxious gong blurting at odd intervals, waking the neighbors and frightening the feral cats on the street.
The bell has evolved into a monstrous orchestra adding evidence of physical and emotional abuse, cruelty, financial irresponsibility, collusion on behalf of esteemed teachers, and a gallery of misogyny, intimidation, and suffering to its hall. It is no longer a call to meditate. It is a siren shrieking danger to a group of shell-shocked followers trying to decide whether to fight the fire or run away.
I was fortunate. I made a home in Shambhala for what I knew would be a limited time. I sought out a teacher, who happened to be trained in the Shambhala lineage, to learn one specific thing—how to live with an open heart. Four years and one valiant heart later I was already packing my practice bags, like a student heading off to college, when the first accusations shattered the silence.
I took the Sakyong’s books off my shelf, threw away the red string sent to me from a puja he performed, and walked away thinking of Shambhala as “somewhere I used to live.” I left without malice, holding gratitude for all I had learned. My dominant feelings were anger at the unnecessary suffering along with a hopeful vision for liberation. These last months have amplified both.
The Cacophony of Anger
Nine months ago, I saw this as a “Tale of Two Sakyongs”—the tragic story of an articulate inspiring teacher from a chaotic childhood manifesting as a predator through addiction and a harmful disconnect with his Buddha nature. Then another shoe dropped. And another. And another.
This scandal has more shoes than a centipede. Now my first and foremost thoughts are about the suffering of the survivors.
I see them, head-bowed, red-eyed, typing at their keyboards with shaking fingers that waver between shame and strength. The shame is not theirs, but they feel it anyway. Their minds tumble with thoughts:
If only I hadn’t…
I should have…
Why didn’t I…
No one would…
When will someone…
My heart is broken. Then…the rage. Into the survivors’ vulnerable void of “putting themselves back together” each new event rips off the scab and exposes their wounds once more.
- A narcissistic half-admission from Sakyong Mipham about his feelings and his “problematic” relationship with alcohol.
- An open letter from six of his closest male and female attendants describing being physically abused and bitten, emotionally battered and sexually humiliated by the Sakyong.
- Financial reports and testimony detailing lavish spending on houses, trips and high-end skin cosmetics for a vain and pampered king.
- A leadership council that spent years protecting the abusers with coded language and a wink-wink mentality steps down with little or no accountability for their own lack of action.
- A ridiculous explanation of the collusion by top spiritual leaders essentially saying “when Shambhala started it was a time of ‘free love’ so we didn’t realize harm would occur from a culture of sex and alcohol.” NOTE: I was alive in the 70’s and biting people, demeaning them and forcing them into sexual situations were not okay then either.
- A legal investigation commissioned by Shambhala International with a parameter so narrow it could fit through the eye of a needle finds the Sakyong “more than likely” guilty of harm.
- Another limited apology delivered after Sakyong Mipham arrived at his home in India for a “time of retreat” (known to some as “fleeing the country”).
- Other leaders, meditation teachers, and published authors named as people who engaged in sexual harm have walked away with nothing but the slightest scratch of scandal, continue to teach, and will never be called to account for their acts.
In the middle of this chasm are the people of Shambhala—left without a clear direction, struggling to remain in the teachings, even as they question the source. Some regret the time, money and support they gave a diseased system and make repeated calls to “burn the whole thing down.” Others see that same time and treasure as an investment in their local center, their family of friends and shared dharma.
They never met the Sakyong and don’t spend much time thinking about the “larger organization.” They are faithful and kind. They face losing so many things they truly love.
The pain of this angers me. The unfairness. The carnage. The loss. The tragedy of broken trust. Beautiful Buddhist ideas such as groundlessness, karma and devotion being misused in order to silence, gaslight and excuse.
My newly opened heart has been baptized by the fires of this graceless bloodletting. What can come from such a heartache? Nothing less than liberation.
The Song of Liberation
A common mistake we make on the path of awakening is to think of liberation as one total and permanent thing, like a plastic “Get Out of Jail Free” card that never expires. It’s not. As long as we are tethered to the physical world with bodies and minds, liberation is a state of being we can enter, and leave, over and over. Liberation comes from big realizations or small moments of amazing beauty. It can last for a lifetime or 20 minutes.
The tragedy of Shambhala’s past and current damage offers us opportunities to rest in a valley of liberation if only for a short time.
It gives us a chance to gain experience in the shadow of the inevitable. Shambhala, like all compound phenomena, is impermanent. Whether it falls to a scorched earth solution or somehow manages to cleanse, renew, and reboot—it will never be the same. Few will ever look at the name Shambhala and see the enlightened society as it was, or as it wanted to be. Letting go of delusion and destruction, is a sure path to an open, liberated life.
There is a call to right action as we are gifted with opportunities to reach out to survivors, affirming their courage, embracing their journey and inspiring their continued healing.
We can turn our compassion into action. We can find the words to sentences we never knew how to say. We can embody a person-to-person sangha worthy of refuge.
The path of clarity has been set before us. Something like this travesty gives us all an invitation to stop and ponder. How does being a Buddhist affect my thoughts in the current situation? How do I merit a teaching or a teacher? What’s important to my awakening? What am I ready to leave behind? Where do I go from here?
We don’t tend to do a lot of introspection when everything is going well, it’s only when the house shakes that you go and check the foundation. Now’s a good time to see what your journey is built upon.
It is hard to describe the aftermath in an event that is still unfolding and requires as much compassion and awakened intent as possible. What does that compassion sound like? Without resorting to spiritual bypassing or minimizing rationalizations, it sounds like accountability. It sounds like change. It sounds like sadness.
It sounds like anger. It sounds like freedom. It sounds like a bell.
The bell is still ringing.
It may never stop.
It is forcing us to pay attention.
It is leading us to one another.
It can’t be un-rung.
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