Buddhist group investigating sexual misconduct claims against Halifax-based spiritual leader
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One of the largest western Buddhist organizations says it’s launching an independent investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against its Halifax-based spiritual leader.
Shambhala International leaders say they are in the process of engaging a third-party investigator to review allegations by multiple unnamed women against Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche.
In a letter to community members last week, the Kalapa Council said it is also finalizing an agreement with an organization that will serve as a channel for alleged victims of abuse to come forward with their stories and assist with advocacy.
“The Kalapa Council takes the allegations of misconduct within our community very seriously,” said the leaders of the Buddhist organization, which is based in Halifax and has more than 200 meditation centres around the world.
The letter comes after a former Shambhala community member, Andrea Winn, published a report last week with statements from women alleging sexual misconduct by Mipham, the Buddhist leader and holder of Shambhala lineage.
None of the allegations has been proven in court and Halifax Regional Police said there are no charges against him.
“I can confirm that HRP has not received any complaints and we do not have any ongoing investigations involving Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, nor have any charges been laid,” a police spokeswoman said by email.
The accusations suggest a pattern of behaviour by Mipham of heavy drinking and using his “kusung” or attendant to “procure women students for his own sexual gratification,” according to the report.
One woman alleges he pulled up her dress, groped her breasts, kissed her, stuck his tongue into her mouth and made a lewd suggestion while he was drunk.
Another woman alleges that she was called by his attendant late at night to come to his suite after a program, where she found him wearing only a robe.
“I said that I couldn’t have sex with him. He seemed stunned,” the woman recounted in the report. “He thought for a while and pushed my face down towards his penis and said, ‘Well you might as well finish this.’ I was so embarrassed and horrified I did it.”
The women describe being torn by their devotion to Mipham as their guru, and said they were “pushed from the inner circle” if they resisted his sexual advances. They also said members of the Shambhala leadership were aware or enabled his behaviour.
Mipham responded to the allegations in a letter to the Shambhala community last week.
He said he “engaged in relationships with women in the Shambhala community” and has recently learned that some of these women felt harmed.
“I would like you to know that over the years, I have apologized personally to people who have expressed feeling harmed by my conduct, including some of those who have recently shared their stories,” Mipham said in the public apology.
“I have also engaged in mediation and healing practices with those who have felt harmed. Thus I have been, and will continue to be, committed to healing these wounds.”
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Mipham, who said in his letter he is “now entering a period of self-reflection and listening,” was not available for an interview.
A Shambhala spokeswoman said he “takes these first-hand claims raised against him very seriously.”
“He fully supports and will be participatory in Shambhala’s third-party investigation,” Ashley Dinges said in an statement emailed to The Canadian Press by a U.S. strategic consulting and communications firm.
A source close to the Shambhala community confirmed that a third-party, independent legal firm has been contracted to conduct the investigation.
Winn called the Kalapa Council’s response disheartening.
“I’m not going to respond until they actually publicly announce who their investigator is, and the investigator has made contact with our investigator and we agree it’s a third-party investigator who can capably do an independent investigation,” she said in an interview Thursday.
Winn wants Mipham to step down pending the results of an independent investigation. An online petition urging Mipham to immediately suspend all of his teaching and governance functions had more than 500 signatures Thursday.
Winn also said members of the Kalapa Council leadership who were allegedly aware of Mipham’s actions should also step aside until the investigation’s findings are released.
One leader appears to have already recused himself from the council’s work on a new sexual harm policy as he confronts allegations levelled against him on social media.
Meanwhile, Carol Merchasin, a lawyer and sexual misconduct investigator who oversaw the preliminary investigation into allegations against the Shambhala leader, said the women interviewed made “credible allegations of sexual assault and/or sexual abuse.”
“The women are from different cities, their experiences are from different time periods, and they have little or no connection to one another until now,” she said in a memo included in the report. “The pattern of behaviour that their stories establish is compelling.”
The women described Mipham identifying a woman during a teaching session or other event, and then using his attendant to bring her to his lodgings late at night for sex.
“This pattern occurred with women (Mipham) culled from seminaries for one-night stands, sending out (his attendant) to bring one or another newbie to his bed,” a woman described in a statement included in the report.
“Women were brought to (Mipham) in the middle of the night and pushed out the door before dawn to stumble back to their beds.”
Women said they were concerned they would face repercussions if they rejected his advances.
“Because he was my teacher, I harboured a fear that if I resisted his desires, I would be exiled – I would lose the Dharma,” one woman said in the report, referring to her spiritual teaching and practice.
Another woman alleged Mipham’s attendant asked her to go to the leader’s bedroom, where she discovered him having sex with another woman.
“He said to me, ‘She won’t come. Do something to help.’ I stood there stunned,” she said.
Merchasin refuted Mipham’s suggestion that he had “relationships” with his students, saying the allegations involve sexual assaults and the complicity of Shambhala leaders.
The report on Mipham’s alleged sexual misconduct came after a report in February detailed abuse in the Buddhist community.
Winn, who says she was a victim of sexual abuse as a child growing up in Shambhala community, said the first report uncovered decades of sexualized violence.
Shambhala leaders responded to the first report by acknowledging that “abhorrent sexual behaviour” by some men in the community has caused some women to feel unsafe.
The Kalapa Council said the community was going through its own “collective wake-up call,” part of a broader cultural reckoning in contemporary society.
Yet Winn said the leaders haven’t taken any concrete steps to address the abuse and create change in the community.
Meanwhile, she said the first report encouraged women to come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against Mipham, considered royalty within the Shambhala community.
Winn, still a practising Buddhist but no longer a member of the Shambhala community, then launched the second phase of Buddhist Project Sunshine.
“It’s so shocking and so horrifying I’m still in the process of even digesting this,” she said of the allegations against Mipham. “These women deserve justice and they deserve redemption.”
© 2018 The Canadian Press