Allegations of abuse and civil lawsuits against Buddhist teachers are emerging with escalating frequency and visibility. Zen communities began facing their widely publicized reckoning over a decade ago. A reckoning now appears to be arriving for Vajrayana Buddhism.
Allegations of abuse have surfaced in all the Vajrayana communities with a large international presence: Rigpa, FPMT, Shambhala (Nyingma, Gelug, and Kagyu, respectively). Multiple smaller communities are facing serious civil lawsuits, such as Palpung Thubten Choling in New York (Karma Kagyu) and Dzogchen Buddha Path in Oregon (Nyingma). As such, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the problem is systemic.
When a community is rocked by allegations of abuse, the consequences for everyone can be devastating. When teachers who are presented as trustworthy and altruistic abuse their students, survivors can find their lives shattered, and the betrayal of trust ripples outward in all directions. Members of the community experience the secondary trauma of discovering they have entrusted themselves in profoundly unsafe spaces or have vouched for teachers who have harmed.
Crises of faith are common. As the most staunch supporters form a protective circle around the accused, marginalizing or driving out others who ask questions or seek clarity, communities splinter into those who align with the hardening power structures and those who do not. People from groups who know from experience that dominant power structures do not work in their favor will be less likely to stay, seriously complicating efforts to welcome more diversity in North American Buddhist communities. Board members end up spending their time and energy interacting with lawyers, investigators, and PR firms, and donors watch as the offerings they make in good faith to support the dharma are squandered instead on legal fees and/or out-of-court settlements. People newly approaching Buddhism may end up turning away when they learn that these communities are unsafe, ethically suspect, or full of profoundly traumatized people.
Everyone may be impacted, but few are speaking openly. Yet we know that silence enables abuse. Without conversations in our communities, it is impossible to identify the other conditions that are leading to abuse in so many Buddhist contexts.
Dharmadatta Community, the community of which I am a co-founder, has created a series of dialogues available on YouTube with the explicit aim of fomenting discussion. In an effort to foster preventing, facing, and finally healing from abuse, I am hosting conversations with survivors of abuse by Buddhist teachers, and with scholars researching it, as well as with psychologists, lawyers, and other advocates and allies of survivors. We explore a wide range of topics, including how students are groomed for abuse, the “weaponization” of Buddhist doctrines by abusive teachers, power dynamics in Buddhist communities, the question of consent, the process of healing after abuse, and the secondary trauma experienced by communities where abuse takes place.
The series of dialogues is being produced with support from a grant from Hemera Foundation’s Healthy Communities initiative. Because Dharmadatta Community serves Spanish-speaking Buddhist practitioners, many of the videos aired first with Spanish subtitles on the community’s YouTube channel. They are now being made available in English on the Dharmadatta Community YouTube channel.
Dialogues held thus far include interviews with Lama Willa Baker, Ann Gleig, and Amy Langenberg and Rachel Montgomery. New interviews will appear bimonthly through 2024, beginning in January with the German monk Tenzin Peljor, one of the few monks in the Vajrayana tradition who is both speaking openly about abuse and supporting survivors. In March, I will share a conversation with Carol Merchasin, a lawyer who came out of retirement to work pro bono with Buddhist Sunshine Project and the survivors of abuse by former Shambhala leader Sakyong Mipham, and who now heads the abuse in spiritual communities legal practice at McAllister Olivarius.
Several of the videos were recorded directly in Spanish and do not appear on the English-language channel, though they can be viewed here on the community’s Spanish-language YouTube channel.
Here is a summary of key videos so far.
Buddhist teacher and author Lama Willa Blythe Baker offers her unique insights into the ways Vajrayana teachings, practice, and the guru-student relationship can end up becoming conditions that lead to abuse or to its coverup. Lama Willa has written about her own experience of abuse by her Tibetan Buddhist teacher [ADD HYPERLINKS TO HER ARTICLES IN LR], and has served as an ally and advocate to many other survivors.
Lama Willa shares her insight into the survivor’s psychology, as well as an ally and activist to others who were also abused by their Buddhist teachers. This conversation explores pathways to address situations of abuse in our communities that allow the process to become a liberating process for all involved.
Two researchers share suggestions for productive ways to act in response to the situations of sexual abuse in our communities. They share their experiences developing a survivor-centered approach in responding to abuse. Amy Langenberg and Ann Gleig are professors currently working together on a book on sexual abuse in American Buddhist communities.
A survivor reflects on the ways that Buddhist teachings were used to groom her for abuse, describing her experience at the hands of her teacher and the community’s subsequent handling of her allegations. Rachel Montgomery is a survivor of abuse, an eloquent advocate for survivors of sexual abuse, and co-founder of the Heartwood Sangha survivors’ program. She is currently pursuing her masters degree in public health at Emory University.
And here are videos that will be posting in the days ahead.
Tenzin Peljor. “Preventing Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism: Can Gurus be Infallible?”
Live January 28, 2024
The German monk Venerable Tenzin Peljor takes a hard look at the notion of an infallible guru, and offers a teaching on the three qualities that disciples need to enter into healthy relationships with Vajrayana teachers. He shares insights from his own long process of recovering from abusive situations in a Buddhist community he identifies as a cult. Tenzin Peljor created and manages the “Tibetan Buddhism – Struggling with Diffi-Cult Issues” blog and teaches in Berlin.
Carol Merchasin “Holding Buddhist Organizations Accountable for Abuse. Exploring Legal Consequences”
Live March 10
Carol Merchasin presents the law as a strategy for holding not just teachers but also organizations accountable for their role in enabling abuse. This far-ranging conversation explores the relative benefits to survivors and to society of criminal versus civil legal options, the ethical implications of using donor funds to pay survivors of abuse and the power of lawsuits to prompt changes to the organizational culture of Buddhist communities. Carol heads up the legal practice of McAllister Olivarius, devoted to survivors of abuse by spiritual teachers. She served as a pro bono legal counsel to Shambhala survivors and the Buddhist Sunshine Project.
Other upcoming interviews will include an exploration of the teacher-student relationship with Grace Schireson, a Zen abbess, psychotherapist and teacher who studies the psychology and group dynamics of the sangha.