An open letter signed by six former personal attendants to Sakyong Mipham says that the leader of the Shambhala Buddhist community “has consistently shown a disturbing pattern of behavior,” including sexual misconduct, psychological abuse, and misuse of organizational funds. This story has been updated with reactions from leaders in the community.
A group of six former personal attendants to Sakyong Mipham have penned a 17,000-word open letter describing abusive behavior and sexual misconduct by the Buddhist teacher spanning more than two decades.
The letter writers are members of the Kusung, a quasi-military group of personal attendants selected by Mipham. Three of the letter writers served as “Continuity Kusung,” meaning they were with Mipham full-time for a year at a time. Five of the writers provided personal accounts of their experiences; the sixth was a signatory only.
On Tuesday, the Interim Board of Shambhala released a response, stating that it “disapproves of the Sakyong’s behavior described in the Kusungs’ letter.” The board says that Mipham’s behavior is “at odds” with the “fundamental principles” of Shambhala and that it will work to “determine structures of governance that make the most sense for Shambhala now and in the future.”
The letter comes in the wake of multiple allegations of misconduct within the Shambhala Buddhist community, including against Mipham, the head of the organization. Many of the allegations were first reported by Buddhist Project Sunshine, a community initiative to raise awareness of misconduct in Shambhala.
On February 3, Shambhala released the results of an official investigation into sexual misconduct in the community, carried out by Canadian law firm Wickwire Holm. That report found that Sakyong Mipham had likely committed sexual misconduct in two instances.
The open letter claims that Mipham “has consistently shown a disturbing pattern of behavior,” including “a long history of sexual misconduct,” “a long-standing history of questionable behavior towards his students, ranging from crude harmful speech to physical and psychological abuse,” and “misuse of organizational funds.”
The letter describes two specific instances of sexual assault. In one, Ally Canepa, who served as a Kusung from 1994–2018, recalls being called into Mipham’s room, where he fondled her breasts and forcibly tried to make her perform oral sex.
Three of the letter’s authors reference a sexual assault that is alleged to have taken place in Chile in 2002. One of the writers, Craig Morman, was at the event in question and was told by a young Chilean woman that Mipham had “forcefully tried to” have sex with her. In an update to the second Buddhist Project Sunshine report in July, the Chilean woman described a 20-minute incident in which Sakyong Mipham locked her in a room, groped her, and forcibly tried to have sex with her, which she repeatedly refused to do.
The writers allege that Mipham has had sexual relations with many students. Canepa writes that she saw “hundreds of women go in and out of [Mipham]’s bedroom” over the course of her years in the Kusung. She and another of the letter’s authors describe women leaving upset, “sobbing” and in “shame.”
Two of the writers describe Mipham biting people and leaving bruises. One of the writers says that he was once driving up a mountain road at night when Mipham bit him “so hard I lost clarity in my vision for a moment due to the pain.”
Ben Medrano, one of the continuity Kusung, describes a pattern of binge drinking by Mipham in the early 2000s and says several events were canceled due to Mipham’s hangovers. One night, after heavy drinking, Medrano says that he entered Mipham’s living room to see him ordering guests to remove their clothes. He writes that some of the guests “were crying and many appeared to be nervous.”
Medrano also says Mipham once demanded that he support the purchase of an Audi A8 luxury car for the teacher, saying “I want my FUCKING Audi!”
Several of the writers describe personal experiences of verbal and psychological abuse by Mipham. Kusung Laura Leslie also describes three personal experiences of sexual and verbal harassment by men with senior positions in the community, including by the then-president of the Shambhala organization.
Update February 20, 2019: In response to the Kusung letter, Diana Mukpo, the widow of the community’s founder, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and a teacher in Shambhala, released her own open letter addressing what she calls “deep dysfunction and unkindness at the heart of our organization” and stating that she feels “the model of the court and monarchy has become an obstacle” for Shambhala.
A group of Shambhala’s senior teachers, known as acharyas, also released a letter calling on Mipham to step back from teaching for the foreseeable future, writing that “We are shifting our emphasis from our role as representatives of the Sakyong to fully supporting the journey of the sangha.”
Update February 21, 2019: Following the Shambhala community’s response to the Kusung letter detailing abuses, Sakyong Mipham today issued a statement to the community apologizing for the “tremendous pain and turmoil in our sangha. … I understand that I am the main source of that suffering and confusion and want to again apologize for this.” He also reiterated his previous statement that he would “step back from my teaching and administrative duties in Shambhala for the foreseeable future.”