by Ann Gleig
In March 2018, “Buddhist Project Sunshine,” an innocuously titled GoFundMe page, illustrated with a bright orange sunshine over a green fertile valley began circulating on the Internet. The accompanying description of the project, however, was far from innocent. It declared that Buddhist Project Sunshine (BPS) had been launched to bring light and healing to widespread intergenerational sexualized violence at the core of the Shambhala Buddhist community. Andrea Winn, its founder, revealed that she and others had been victims of sexual abuse as children and adults by teachers in Shambhala. After unsuccessful attempts to engage Shambhala leaders, Winn published three consecutive reports on the Internet. Each contained statements by survivors detailing the impact of their abuse and a therapeutic reading method to digest the difficult material. Winn shared that the inspiration for the project had come from Yeshe Tsogyal, a famous 8th century female Buddhist teacher, and framed the project as the recovery of dakini wisdom, the divine feminine in Tibetan Buddhism. Combining Buddhist, psychotherapeutic, and feminist narratives, Buddhist Project Sunshine functioned, therefore, not only to expose sexual violence in Shambhala but to envision a new post-patriarchal Buddhism.
One of the most disturbing elements of BPS was that it uncovered an intergenerational pattern of abuse in Shambhala. Its founder Chogyam Trungpa was openly promiscuous and died of an alcohol related disease at the age of 48. His American dharma heir, Osel Tendzin knowingly had unprotected sex with several of his students while HIV positive and one student and his girlfriend later died of AIDS as did Tendzin. Chogyam’s son Sakyong Mipham, was forced to step down from his leadership position after the second BPS detailed numerous incidents of sexual and physical abuse by him.
The trajectory of Shambhala illustrates a reoccurring pattern of sexual misconduct and abuses occurring in Western convert Buddhist communities since the 1980s. Cutting across Buddhist lineages, but particularly visible in Zen and Tibetan convert communities, offenders have included many of the most renowned first and second generation Asian and American teachers. Amongst others, in 1983 Taizan Maezumi, a married abbot from the Zen Center of Los Angeles entered treatment for alcoholism and apologized for multiple affairs with students. In 2011, one of his American dharma heirs, Dennis Genpo Merzel received two successive public letters from fellow Zen teachers imploring him to step down from teaching because of repeated incidents of sexual misconduct. In 2010, Eido Shimano, founder of the first Rinzai Zen monastery in the U.S. was forced to resign after a 40-year period of sexual misconduct, which saw two students hospitalized, was reported on by the New York Times. Similarly, Joshu Sasaki Roshi, the founder of Mount Baldy Zen Center was also exposed for decades of sexual harassment. In 2017, senior students of Sogyal Rinpoche, the founder of Tibetan Buddhist organization Rigpa, published an open letter which detailed disturbing sexual, physical, and psychological abuses perpetrated by him. Shortly after, the supposedly celibate Lama Norlha Rinpoche of Kagyu Thubten Choling “retired” after his sexual relationships with female students—including nuns he had ordained—were revealed.
The naming of these experiences has been the site of conflict amongst Buddhists. Many use the Buddhist concept of ‘sexual misconduct” which locates them firmly in the realm of Buddhist ethics; others push for sexual abuse, assault, or violence to signify they are legal as well as Buddhist breaches; others yet question the validity of seeing them as unethical from either legal or Buddhist perspectives and narrate them within Buddhist narratives that view seemingly unethical actions as having a redeeming pedagogical function. Lama Willa Miller, for instance, opens her account of her sexual relationship with her teacher Lama Norlha, with a series of signifiers: “Victim. Survivor. Consort. Partner. One of “those women,”” noting that none of them fit quite right yet all capture dimensions of her experience at different times. Miller concludesthat what unites the varieties of experiences occurring across Buddhist communities and marks them as a distinct form of abuse, is “a violation of the safety zone” established between a spiritual teacher and student. Miller’s perspective resonates well with feminist philosophy Linda Alcoff (2018) who offers the term “sexual violation” noting that it captures “a broad set of events beyond those involving explicit forms of violence,” and acknowledges “structural constraints on consent.”
In our current collaborative academic book project on sexual violations in American Buddhism, which is under advance contract with Yale University Press, Amy Langenberg and I are examining how practitioners are responding to these cases and the wider impact they are having on the tradition. One response we have identified is a “Buddhist defense” perspective in which abuse is denied, teachers are defended through canonical doctrines, and victims are dismissed as misunderstanding their actions. For instance, Tahlia Newland’s Fallout: Recovering from Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism (2019), describes her shock as fellow Rigpa students defended Sogyal Rinpoche’s horrific abuse as upaya, an unorthodox but valid teaching method, and accused his victims of losing “pure perception,” a Tibetan Buddhist doctrine of seeing all of the guru’s actions as pure. Other Buddhists, however, have been reflecting on why and how these violations have occurred and how they can be prevented in the future. These community responses have been spurred on by the impact of technology and social media, which has seen the online circulation of public letters and reports, online groups, and websites dedicated to exposing abuse, as well as the impact of the #MeToo movement.
One of the first responses came from journalist and practicing American Buddhist, Katy Butler. In her 1990 piece “Encountering the Shadow in Buddhist America,” Butler rejected media coverage that cast these new Buddhist communities as cults, teachers as manipulative charlatans, and students as naïve fools. She claimed that these cases could not be reduced to “individual villainy,” but rather reflected unconscious wounds, doctrinal misunderstandings, and cultural clashes. Despite being written thirty years ago, Butler’s piece serves as a good starting point for unpacking some of the main frameworks—psychological, cultural, doctrinal, feminist, institutional—Buddhists have advanced to interpret these cases.
Butler first offers a psychological interpretation of why adult students do not hold their abusive teachers accountable. She suggests that many of these students come from families marred by alcoholism and incest in which denial, secrecy, and enablement are rife and that they have repeat these unconscious psychological dynamics in their spiritual communities. Other Buddhists have echoed Butler in emphasizing the psychological dimensions of the violations. In “Confronting Abuse of Power,” the 2014 winter issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioners’ Quarterly, two of the three contributors were psychotherapists as well as Buddhists. Buddhadharma’s coverage was followed by an open letter signed by ninety American Zen teachers who vowed to end the “culture of silence” and the “idealization of the teacher” that had enabled abuses. In both the magazine and the letter, the sexual violations were described primarily in therapeutic language: they were committed by narcissists, enabled by students’ idealizations, and occurring in Buddhist sanghas that resembled dysfunctional families. The open letter was co-authored by Myoan Grace Schireson, a Soto Zen Buddhist priest and former clinical psychologist, who has offered a comprehensive account of how psychological dynamics undergird sexual violation cases in American Zen.
Butler alsoadvances a Buddhist doctrinal interpretation, which links the sexual violations to a failure to follow foundational Buddhist practices. As Butler points out, two of the five foundational ethical precepts in Buddhism are to abstain from sexual misconduct and to abstain from intoxicants but these were downplayed in certain American Tibetan and Zen communities, which focused heavily on meditative practice. Other Buddhists have blamed individual “bad apple” teachers and students who either disregard foundational Buddhist ethical or misunderstand doctrines such as the guru-disciple relationship and upaya or skillful means, a Mahayana Buddhist doctrine which states that seemingly unethical actions can bring about awakening if performed by enlightened teachers with the right intention.
Closely related to doctrinal misunderstanding is Butler’s emphasis on cultural clashes between traditional Asian Buddhism and modern American culture. She notes that Buddhist devotional practices are balanced by Asian societal norms, which limit the power of individual teachers. However, such societal checks are absent in the U.S. cultural context and thrown further out of balance by naïve American practitioners who idealize all aspects of the teachers’ behavior. Butler identifies a series of cultural differences—Asian deference versus American license, Asian hierarchy versus American democracy, Asian emphasis on face-saving versus American emphasis on self-disclosure, and Asian sexual conservatism versus American sexual progressiveness—as contributing factors to the violations.
While Butler’s focus is on cultural clash rather than cultural blame, related interpretations have put “traditional Asian Buddhism” and the “modern West” into more oppositional positions. On the one side, some commentators have placed much blame on what they see as harmful hierarchical systems of authority that are being challenged by modern Western sensibilities. Books such as Newland’s Fallout (2019), and Mary Finnegan and Rob Hogendoorn and Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism: The Rise and Fall of Sogyal Rinpoche (2019), which detail abuse perpetrated by Sogyal Rinpoche, also identify the “medieval” “feudal” “hierarchal” model of Tibetan Buddhism in which he operated as a major contributing factor. On the other, commentators have questioned the role played by naïve Western practitioners, accusing them of distorting Buddhism, and linking this to wider patterns of cultural appropriation and commercialization. This is evident in Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s response to criticisms of Sogyal in which he blamed Western students for not understanding the guru-disciple relationship and went as far to suggest that modern liberal revisionings of the tradition “had the potential to destroy Buddhism far more surely than any of its internal scandals.”
Since Butler’s piece two additional interpretative frameworks have also come to prominence. One of these is a feminist analysis that sees structural patriarchy and sexism as core to understanding the violations. An early feminist account came from June Campbell who combined feminist and psychoanalytic thought with her own experience as secret “consort” to renowned Tibetan Buddhist teacher Kalu Rinpoche. In Traveller in Space: Gender, Identity and Tibetan Buddhism (1996), Campbell argued that an inherently androcentric Tibetan Buddhism had symbolically appropriated the divine feminine and excluded females from institutional authority. More recently, Lama Rod Owens, who identifies as a Black queer tantric teacher, has advanced an intersectional feminist approach, which looks at how patriarchy and racism intersect in abusive sanghas.
Another important interpretative framework is onewhich highlights organizational limitations. Proponents note that sexual violations have occurred in new communities, which are decontextualized from established Buddhist institutional support and authority, and do not have adequate organizational structures. One issue is that individual teachers often have absolute authority with insufficient peer support or community accountability to mitigate their power. Another is blurred organizational boundaries in which senior students are also governing board members and communities lack clear ethical guidelines and grievance policies.
Responses to the violations correspond with and combine the interpretive frameworks discussed above. Organizationally, many communities have developed more transparent and democratic governance structures, ethical guidelines and grievance policies, and teacher accountability models. A good example here is the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center whose founder Dainin Katagiri Roshi engaged in sexual relationships and unwanted advances to female students. On their website, they acknowledge this history and state that in response, “We instituted a clear code of ethics stating that any sexual relationship between a teacher and his or her student is inappropriate and unacceptable. We developed teacher training programs and a leadership structure designed to support a safe and transparent environment.”
Those who see the problem as residing in doctrinal and cultural misunderstanding have produced publications clarifying key Buddhist principles and practices in their specific historical and cultural context. A good example here is Alexander Berzin’s Wise Teacher: Wise Student: Tibetan Approaches to a Healthy Relationship (2010), which explains the teacher-student relationship in a traditional context and illuminates how differences in Tibetan and Western cultural norms and values can distort this relationship and cause great harm. We call these “canonical responses,” because they turn to Buddhist canons for solutions.
Others have looked beyond Buddhism and produced what we call “generative responses,” which combine Buddhist and non-Buddhist resources such as psychotherapy and feminism to generate new forms of Buddhist leadership, community, ethics and practice. Schireson, for instance, calls on fellow teachers to approach the Zen teacher-student relationship as analogous to the therapist-client relationship and utilize the regulating guidelines of the American Psychological Association. She believes that one of the most urgent tasks facing the Western Zen teacher community is to develop programs in psychological dynamics and healthy boundaries. She codeveloped one such program—the Shogaku Priest Ongoing Training (SPOT)—which aims to educate participants in “issues of power, transference, projection, idealization, and conflict.”
Female and feminist Buddhist teachers are promoting practices centered on the recovery of the divine feminine in Buddhism. Tsultrim Allione has developed a teaching called Wisdom Raising, which focuses on the dakinins—feminine wisdom energies in Tibetan Buddhism—and situates her teaching as an expression of “recent feminist resistance” seen in the #MeToo movement. Drawing on his training in sexual health advocacy, Owens has called on male and masculine-identified practitioners to take responsibility for abuse in sanghas and has co-developed a retreat on “Undoing Patriarchy and Revealing the Sacred Masculine,” which distinguishes between “patriarchal masculinity,” based in domination over the feminine, and “sacred masculinity,” rooted in collaboration with the feminine.
Such responses demonstrate the significant impact that sexual violations have had on Buddhist communities in America and beyond. They have contributed to a critical engagement with gendered power hierarchies within the tradition as well as a more mature reflection on its American cultural adoption and translation. In certain cases, this does not appear to have impacted the communities on a deeper structural level with traditional and modernist Buddhist models of authority prevailing despite internal protests and schisms. In the generative response cases, however, they are producing new forms of Buddhism that are marked by female inclusivity, community empowerment, and recognition of the human limitations of the teacher.
Ann Gleig is the author of American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity, and is a professor of religious studies at the University of Central Florida.
 Andrea Winn, Buddhist Project Sunshine http://andreamwinn.com/offerings/bps-welcome-page/
 These Buddhist convert communities began in the 1960s and 1970s and have been populated by an overwhelming white, middle-class, educated demographic. For a history of these communities see Ann Gleig, American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity (Yale University Press, 2019).
 Lama Willa Miller, “Breaking the Silence on Sexual Misconduct,” Buddhadharma: The Practitioners Quarterly (Summer 2018) https://www.lionsroar.com/breaking-the-silence-on-sexual-misconduct/
 Linda Martin Alcoff, Rape and Resistance (Polity Press, 2018).
 Examples include The Shimano Archive https://www.shimanoarchive.com and Tibetan Buddhism: Struggling with Diffi.Cult Issues https://buddhism-controversy-blog.com/impressum/ Andrea Winn credits much of the success of Buddhist Project Sunshine to the #MeToo movement. See “The Survivor Who Broke the Shambhala Sexual Assault Story” Columbia Journalism Review May 7 2019 https://www.cjr.org/the_profile/shambhala-buddhist-project-sunshine.php
 Kathy Butler, “Encountering the Shadow in Buddhist America,” Common Boundary May/June 1990. Available at: https://info-buddhism.com/Encountering_the_Shadow_in_Buddhist_America_Katy-Butler.html
 As we will examine in our forthcoming book one of the most problematic aspects of the cultural opposition frameworks is their reproduction of racialized and colonial tropes of the modern West “saving” Asia.
 Craig Lewis, “Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche Issues Public Statement of Recent Criticisms of Sogyal Rinpoche,” Buddhistdoor Global 2017-08-15.
 Lama Rod Owens and Lama Justin Von Bujdoss, “Healing From Teacher to Student Misconduct,” (July 3 2019) https://www.lamarod.com/blog/2019/5/3/healing-from-teacher-to-student-ethical-misconduct
 For an early response that tackles organizational and doctrinal issues see Alan Senauke ed. Safe Harbor: Guidelines, Process, and Resources for Ethics and Conduct in Buddhist Communities. Buddhist Peace Fellowship. http://www.clearviewproject.org/safeharborethics.html
 See chapter three of Gleig, American Dharma for an examination of the SPOT program. Another example is Buddhist Healthy Boundaries Online Training: https://www.faithtrustinstitute.org/training/white-plum-healthy-boundaries-online-course
 See for instance, Pema Chodron’s resignation letter to Shambhala in response to the boards’ decision to support Sakyong Mipham return to teaching. “Letter from Ani Pema Chodron’ Shambhala Times Community Magazine January 16 2020 https://shambhalatimes.org/2020/01/16/letter-from-ani-pema-chodron