Report finds complaints of ‘sexual misconduct’ by leader of Halifax-based Buddhist church to be credible
Two claims of sexual misconduct against the Halifax-based spiritual leader of the Shambhala International Buddhist organization have been found to be credible, a long-awaited independent probe has found.
In a report released Sunday, an investigator with the Halifax law firm Wickwire Holm hired by the organization found clergyman Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche made inappropriate sexual advances towards two female students.
Lawyer Selina Bath noted a “significant power imbalance” in the relationships given the Sakyong’s position of authority as both the spiritual leader and lineage holder of Shambhala – one of the western world’s largest Buddhist organizations.
In one case, a claimant alleged that during a celebration at the Kalapa Court, the Sakyong’s residence in Halifax, he pulled up her dress, groped her breasts and tried to kiss her.
The report found that the Buddhist leader “violated her personal and sexual boundaries in a manner to which she did not consent. He did so without invitation and without permission.”
Bath added in her report that there was a power imbalance: “He, the teacher who is revered, and she, the student who has been taught he can do nothing that is impure.”
“His actions and behaviour on that night constitute sexual misconduct,” she said.
In another case, a female student alleged the Sakyong would ask to see her privately, but rather than discuss her practice he sought sexual encounters.
“I find it more likely than not that the Sakyong attempted to have sexual relations (with the claimant),” the report said. “This behaviour is consistent with evidence that I received from corroborating witnesses.
“In much the same way as with many other women, I believe that the Sakyong was interested in (the claimant) and tried to be intimate with her.”
However, the investigator said she was not convinced that he tried to force himself on her or force her to perform sexual acts on himself and other men as the claimant had alleged.
Still, the report said sexual advances in the context of a fiduciary relationship, such as that of clergy-penitent, “fall squarely within the definition of sexual harassment.”
In addition, the report said relative positions of power between student and teacher do not favour a finding of consent, and “sexual activity that is non-consensual falls within the context of sexual assault.”
WATCH: Sexual misconduct allegations cast dark shadow over Shambhala Buddhism
The investigation was launched after former Shambhala community member Andrea Winn published reports from women alleging sexual misconduct by the Buddhist leader.
The accusations prompted the Shambhala leader to step back from his duties pending the outcome of the third-party investigation.
While he apologized for the “pain, confusion and anger” sweeping through the Shambhala community, he has denied the allegations of sexual assault.
The situation prompted the mass resignation of the Kalapa Council – the governing body of the Buddhist group – and the decision to usher in an interim board.
On Sunday, Shambhala’s interim board said it takes seriously the reports of misconduct and lack of care that occurred in the Buddhist community.
“We must work together as a community to address the conditions that create harm and create opportunities for care, equity, and kindness to flourish,” the interim board said in a statement.
“It is our aspiration that we can work together to allow all voices to be heard and together create a Shambhala culture that is respectful and caring for all individuals.”
The Sakyong could not immediately be reached Sunday, but the interim board said he should work to find a path forward to “carry his acknowledgment of these past actions in a way that reflects the honesty and bravery that are the hallmarks of the Shambhala teachings.
“It is our strong wish that he express true sympathy and speaks from his heart on how he will proceed.”
Wickwire Holm launched its investigation into sexual misconduct allegations within the Shambhala organization last July, and was contacted by 100 people.
Of those, 75 engaged in follow-up conversations with the law firm, with 42 expressing concern with matters related to potential sexual misconduct.
Ten of the reports involved the Sakyong, 20 involved other Shambhala leaders and the rest had evidence to corroborate reports. In all, six met the criteria for investigation, with three “investigated to resolution” and included in the report – two of which involved the Sakyong.
The reports of sexual misconduct involving other Shambhala leaders detailed unwanted kissing and touching by men in positions of power or privilege, men having inappropriate relations with younger women, and men making inappropriate comments towards women, according to a summary of the reports by the interim board.
“The investigator shared one incident passed on to her of a senior teacher who tried to seduce women with a promise of secret tantric teachings,” the interim board said.
The investigator also received two reports of sexual harm to a minor, one of which has been reported to local authorities while a second individual did not wish to participate in the investigation, the interim board said.
Shambhala has more than 150 meditations centres worldwide, and more than 14,000 students. The Shambhala leader resides primarily in Halifax, although the Buddhist group also has a strong presence in Boulder, Colo.
© 2019 The Canadian Press