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Elliot BenjaminElliot Benjamin is a philosopher, mathematician, musician, counselor, writer, with Ph.Ds in mathematics and psychology and the author of over 150 published articles in the fields of humanistic and transpersonal psychology, pure mathematics, mathematics education, spirituality & the awareness of cult dangers, art & mental disturbance, and progressive politics. He has also written a number of self-published books, such as: The Creative Artist, Mental Disturbance, and Mental Health. See also: www.benjamin-philosopher.com.

SEE MORE ESSAYS WRITTEN BY ELLIOT BENJAMIN

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Is Shambhala a Cult?

Part 2:
A Combined Integrative Experiential
and Non-Experiential Perspective

Elliot Benjamin

Some of the information that I have learned about Shambhala since writing my above article has induced me to engage in further research on Shambhala.

My previous Integral World article Is Shambhala a Cult? An Integrative Experiential Perspective [1], was based upon my own experiences in Shambhala. I concluded that Shambhala is not a cult, as I came to the conclusion that it was “mildly beneficial” from my experiential cult dangers analysis [1]. However, some of the information that I have learned about Shambhala since writing my above article, much of which was stimulated by various comments to my article [1], has induced me to engage in further research on Shambhala, aside from my own experiences, and what I have learned is quite alarming. In particular, two books that I have read about Shambhala, written by long-time Shambhala devotees Stephen Butterfield [2] and Christine Chandler [3], have explicitly described the intensive, excessive, and extensive mind-numbing practices that higher level Shambhala devotees were required to engage in for many years, including hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of prostrations, chantings, and tedious mandalas, culminating with total absorption of the guru into one's innermost being. Furthermore, Christine Chandler, who commented on my above article [1] and spent almost 30 years in two Tibetan Buddhist groups, one of which was Shambhala, described a number of very concerning sexual abuse instances involving Tibetan Buddhist teachers, inclusive of Shambhala, and their students. Chandler's book is chock full of detailed references to back up her claims, and in particular she included a reference to the 39 page courageous report written by an individual Shambhala member, of sexual abuse in Shambhala, which she also included in a comment to my above article [1]; this report is entitled Project Sunshine [4] (see below).

The Double Mirror: A Skeptical Journey into Buddhist Tantra    Enthralled: The Guru Cult of Tibetan Buddhism

What I Learned about Shambhala after Writing my Article

After reading Butterfield's book The Double Mirror: A Skeptical Journey into Buddhist Tantra [2], I was repulsed by all the extensive prostrations, chantings, mantras, guru worship, ritualized formal hierarchy, nonsense-filled religious prayers, and exorbitant luxury that the gurus of Shambhala lived in. My reading of Butterfield's book was preceded by comments to my article [1] that stimulated me to learn about our historical knowledge of the Shambhala Rigden kings. Without going into detail, let me just say that the historical knowledge that I became familiar with was horrendous, full of brutal war-making and punishments, and opulent, exorbitant, waste of resources for these Rigden kings to live lives of luxury while the Tibetan peasants lived lives of poverty [5].

And then, to add to the churning that was going on inside of me, after nearly 2 months of no more comments on my article, I happened to check my article for a reference and there was a recent comment by Edmund Butler [1], full of very concerning accusations about the Shambhala monastery in Nova Scotia, involving physical assaults on him and even attempted murder through sabotaging his car, all because of his reporting of possible unpotable water at the facility [6]. Butler added three more long postings on my article that were taken from his blog [6], and included a response to my request for any information that anyone had about unethical practices of Trungpa's son Mipham, the guru of Shambhala since 1990, as I had found nothing negative about him in all my research about Shambhala, or in any of the comments to my above article. Although Butler did not report any concrete unethical behavior on the part of Mipham, he did say that Mipham refused to become directly involved in his situation, leaving it up to the director of Kasung, the military/guardian component of Shambhala [7], in the same way that he chose to not become involved in another Shambhala complaint [6]. Butler accused Shambhala of working very hard to keep things secret in the organization, not involving the police or outside investigations into criminal activity [6], and this reinforced Butterfield's descriptions [2] of the situation in the late 1980's withTrungpa's regent, Osel Tendzin (alias Thomas Rich), who had sexual relations with hundreds of Shambhala participants (mostly young men) while he had the aids virus, resulting in at least one death, and likely more deaths [8]. It was also interesting for me to read about Butterfield's personal associations with Tendzin, which brought this whole horrific scenario to life for me, and I began to shudder at what Shambhala was truly like as one progressed through their higher levels.

And finally, the stage was set for me to read Christine Chandler's book Enthralled: The Guru Cult of Tibetan Buddhism [3], with over 500 pages and 700 references. Chandler begins with an excellent incisive account of Buddhist “tulkus” [9], who are what Buddhists believe are reincarnated beings from previous renowned and revered religious saints and seers, and how the tulku process involves taking a small child from “his” mother and family and isolating him in a monastery with a private tutor for his growing-up years, while he is worshiped by hundreds or even thousands of adoring crowds [3]. This was how all the Dali Lamas were chosen in Tibet, including the famous present one [10], as well as how the founder of Shambhala, Chogyam Trungpa, was chosen. But Chandler, who is a social worker and psychologist, and has specialized in the area of sexual abuse in family systems, gives an insightful and disturbing analysis of what it is actually like for this Tulku child, and how unhealthy it is to grow up like this, leading to severe deficiencies in the ability to relate to people socially and with caring, as well as leading to extreme self-indulgence and narcissism [3]. And in addition to reinforcing many of the repulsive (to me) practices in the higher levels of Shambhala that Butterfield [2] described, Chandler focuses extensively on the Shambhala false image of being “non-religious,” its male dominated practices, female subservience, and especially the frequent atrocious sexual violations in all of Tibetan Buddhism, inclusive of Shambhala, and this is where I first learned about Project Sunshine [3], [4]. Suffice it to say that by the time I finished Chandler's book, I was up to my neck in shock and abhorrence regarding Shambhala.

Integrating What I Learned with my Actual Experiences in Shambhala

However, when I thought back to my actual experiences in Shambhala that I have described in detail in my above article [1], all this very alarming information felt so “unreal” to me. Thus I decided to make an effort to reconcile all this very alarming information that I had recently learned about Shambhala with my own actual experiences in Shambhala, utilizing the same kind of “integrative” perspective that I have used in a number of my previous articles [11]. And the first things that came up for me in this process were my preliminary disturbing red flags about Shambhala, most of which I have already mentioned in my previous article [1]. My preliminary disturbing red flags included the following:

  • my not feeling comfortable about going further with Shambhala
  • ”serving” the Sakyong Shambhala guru, as part of the Rigden Shambhala vows
  • homage to the ancient Shambhala Rigden kings, inclusive of their war-making
  • Rigden director giving us our Shambhala names with far-reaching authoritative assumptions
  • subservient way that the Kasung (Shambhala military/security branch) officer helped the Rigden director on with his coat, and the subservient way that the other Shambhala directors seemed to be looking up to this Rigden director
  • the Christian-type rituals that the Level 5 director indulges in, and his conveying to us that Shambhala rituals, as well as chantings, will become more common as we proceed further in Shambhala
  • the more frequent e-mail communications and notices that I was receiving from Shambhala, which I now receive about every other day, or more often
  • being required to always wear my Shambhala pin at Shambhala functions, to display my having taken the Shambhala vows
  • the concern with my possible thinking that Shambhala is a cult, sent to me from one of the Shambhala assistants
  • the whole military/security branch of Shambhala, referred to as the Kasung, along with Trunga's love of dressing up in military uniforms and admiration for military generals
  • Trungpa's regent's horrific and extensive sexual abuse and infecting Shambhala members with aids, leading to at least one death and likely more deaths
  • the emphasis and requirement of ceremonial bowing, that increasingly became more prominent as I progressed through the Shambhala levels (and which Chandler [3] described as the pathway that leads higher level Shambhala students to the prostrations)

The Ultimate in my Disturbing Learnings about Shambhala

Osel Tendzin
Osel Tendzin (1943-1990)

When I first read Edmund Butler's [6] criminal accusations regarding the Shambhala retreat center in Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia, Canada, known as Dorje Denma Ling, I thought that it was only fair to give Shambhala the benefit of the doubt, as perhaps this was just an isolated incident and not representative of the generic Shambhala organization. But Butler's description of how Shambhala refused to involve the police, in order to protect the organization from “dangerous” exposure, is very similar to what Chandler [3] described about how Shambhala operates in situations involving sexual abuse. There are also similar descriptions between Butler and Chandler in regard to violence in Tibetan Buddhism and Shambhala, as Chandler described how cars tried to force her vehicle off the road after her opposition to the Tibetan Buddhist political interests in Crestone, Colorado, as well as being thrown off a couch at a Shambhala event when she was not respectful enough of Sakyong Mipham. But what is the most repulsive to me of all that I have learned from reading Chandler's book [3], is that there is a Tibetan Buddhist center that follows the same lineage as Shambhala, less than 2 hours from where I live in Maine, that honors Trungpa's regent Osel Tendzin, and models their teachings directly from him [12]. And I believe this is approved of by Shambhala, with the blessings of Mipham, as in 2015 Shambhala commemorated the 25th anniversary of Osel Tendzin's death and honored him in The Shambhala Times, Shambhala's premiere magazine [13].

To give an illustration of what I consider to be the moral depravity and complete “crazy wisdom”[14] guru worship of the director of this Tibetan Buddhist center that pays homage to and follows the teachings of Tendzin, here is an excerpt from the center director's public statement defending Tendzin, written in March, 2016, part of which is included in Chandler's book [3] (pp. 293-294):

With each passing year the “narrative” on the Regent's actions grows more entrenched and enshrined as what actually happened. . . no one seems to approach this from the point of view of the lineage's teachings on the Guru Disciple relationship and samaya. . . One cannot view the Regent as an ordinary person nor what happened in a conventional way without violating one's samaya vow to the lineage of Trungpa Rinpoche. He was chosen specifically by the Vidyadhara and he was trained and given complete authority. . . . Ultimately it is impossible for “ordinary” people like us to understand what is actually happening in situations like these. The least we could have done would have been to not jump—to not denigrate the Regent. Our lineage history is full of situations like this. At the time that Guru Ripoche killed two “innocent” people by dancing on the palace roof and dropping his vajra and Khatavanga—everyone who heard the story must have thought he was guilty and should be put to death. Everyone knows the story—there was a miracle and people changed their minds about Guru Rinpoche. That is generally the way it works in our lineage. Well, there was a miracle with the Regent too—which should have changed minds—his body stayed in Samadhi for 3 days after his physical “death.” There were rainbows during his cremation. In the past, these types of displays of realization would have been understood to demonstrate that the “conventional view” is not what we are dealing with here. . . The main lesson here is to understand the difference between fools and realized beings—and follow the instruction of realized beings. [15]

Well there is not much I can add to this, except to say that according to Chandler [3], these “actions” of the “realized being” Thomas Rich, also known as Osel Tendzin, involved having unprotected sex in his private quarters with at least two of his young male Shambhala students every day, including when he knew that he had contacted the aids virus.

Project Sunshine

Project Sunshine

However, there is also a bright side to this whole contorted Shambhala mess—and the bright side (excuse the pun) is Project Sunshine [4]. I joined the Project Sunshine facebook page and posted my Integral World Shambhala article [1] and some questions about the current practices for higher level Shambhaal students, in terms of all the prostrations, chantings, mandalas, and guru worship. I wasn't sure how Project Sunshine would respond, as this site is primarily for Shambhala members with concerns about sexual abuse in Shambhala. But I am very pleased and appreciative with the series of responses that I received, that evolved into a number of conversations between people about the cult dangers of Shambhala. And it is precisely this openness to criticism, and free dialogue atmosphere, that is the best remedy I can think of to guard against cult dangers in any organization. One thing that I have learned, from an African American Shambhala teacher in New York City, is that apparently there is more flexibility about these higher level Shambhala practices in recent years. This particular teacher also responded with shock and sincere alarm to the posting of Edmund Butler about the violence he experienced in Shambhala [6].

In regard to my question about if there has been any serious unethical conduct on the part of Mipham, I still hold to the opinion that there has been nothing blatantly amiss in this regard. From what I have gathered from both Butler and Chandler's accounts of Mipham, the current guru of Shambhala won't take risks that could go astray for Shambhala, even if it is the “right” thing to do, and he is (according to Chandler) dull, ordinary, formal, uncaring (in particular to his severely handicapped brother (and tulku) who Chandler and her husband took care of for over 6 years), self-centered, skilled at hiring second generation computer-savy Shambhalilans to market Shambhala to the world, and lives in luxury. Chandler also described how he “shared” women with his father, but this was before he got married and became a family man, when he was in his 20's. So putting this all together, it appears that Mipham may not be the most exciting or caring of gurus, but he does seem to have at least not indulged in unethical sexual practices with his Shamahala students, and he is widely known as a teetotaler. However, one commentator on Project Sunshine posted a comment to my previous Integral World essay on Shambhala [1], mentioning that in her experience, Mipham was both unethical and mistreated women. I asked her for more information about this but did not hear back from her; and unless I hear otherwise, I certainly have not learned anything to warrant me jumping to her conclusion about Mipham.

To give an illustration of the richness, depth, and valuable information that I learned from some of these Project Sunshine commentators, the following are some of the responses (with a few grammatical edits) that I received from my Project Sunshine posting, which included a link to my previous Integral World article [1]:

I so appreciate your analysis and personal experience. I felt like I was reading my own journal for your level 1-3 thoughts. I have not found it possible to discuss higher level trainings with other Shambhalians. I have been told it's forbidden to reveal what is practiced at the higher levels. Which makes further involvement unattractive to me, although I suppose others could find it enticing.
Thank you for sharing this. . . I enjoyed reading it and learning about your experiences and reflections that you expressed so honestly. I very much liked how your method of integrative experiential, definition of cult and Bonewits scale for analysis were clear and accessible as well. It would be interesting to have multiple people with different backgrounds and experiences and who are from different places and in different “stages” of practice/training in the community (a cross-section if you will) undertake a similar exercise and see how they compare. I thought of this because (based on many of my own experiences as someone who was born into this community and has generally remained with it at 33—with my own doubts, of course), was personally quite surprised that many of the categories were rated so low from your own experience. I am certain considering the experiences of those of different genders, races, abilities, cultures, nations, etc. would shed some different light on the community too (obviously). I remember taking a few courses in my undergrad on comparative religion and the sociology of contemporary cults and naturally (being from the community) always had Shambhala hovering in my mind while working through the course material, so I found it cool to see someone with your training/profession, background, experience and analysis applied to the Shambhala community context. Maybe a decade ago I did a research project for an undergrad thesis and interviewed some community members about their views on gender inequities in Shambhala and gendered religious symbolism and language. I looked at how community members reconciled gender issues in the community with their understandings and articulations of the Shmabhala- Buddhist teachings, etc. Anyway, thanks for offering this here and glad you are finding more information to round out your previous assessment. I look forward to seeing your follow up article on Integral World!
One does not have to become a Vajrayana practitioner to be a Shambhala Guide or even teach (at least at the NYC Center), but each center is different and somewhat autonomous. I am a Vajrayana practitioner and it was very important for me to make that decision on my own and not be pressured. No one did. I knew I wanted the Sakyong as my teacher but I was very wary of “old school” Shambhala Vajrayana students who seemed unnecessarily mean, unkind, cold, exclusive, and remote. I actually found my inspiration to go forward with the Vajrayana path from talking to a dear friend who is a lama in the Kaguy tradition and a friend who is part of a Rime tradition in NYC that is mostly Nepali and Tibetan people. What you describe in your OP is not “Shambhala” but rather a part of the Indo-Himalayan tradition. I've always envisioned Shambhala being an open society with Vajrayana practitioners in the minority. I think we are also moving toward expanding the definition of teacher. However, Acharyas and Shastris are lineage holders, so yes, they have to be Vajrayana practitioners. But here are folks in the NYC sangha who teach Shambhala Training and are not Vajrayana practitioners. As a matter of fact, one is a Christian pastor. I also want to say that from the outside, the practices you mention can seem weird, especially for white folks steeped in the “rational” west. These are ancient and profound practices that are. . . sort of odd out of context. However, they are nothing you “have” to do, or at least shouldn't be. Shambhala is definitely not a cult: too disorganized, too poor, to open (in many ways), and I have seen no real pressure to become a Vajrayana in my 13 years. However, I think certain forms of adoration can seem like that.
A long time ago, I bought a book called Guru Yoga, it seemed relatively straightforward but also totally bizarre. It wasn't until I actually practiced guru yoga that I had an embodied experience and it changed my conception. It was the same with reading Sacred Path of the Warrior. I recently met with a student who was asking about all these terms: warriorship, spaciousness, drala, authenticated presence. We talked about the terms, but what I said to him was these are experiential terms as well and once he is introduced to those teachings (he is about to take Weekend 1) we might begin to have different conversations. One thing you might do is talk to younger and newer Vajrayana practitioners. My experience has been that we have been more critical about our engagement with these practices and that there is lots of room for questions or stopping. I sometimes feel that really old-time Vajrayana students don't have the patience for what some of us are asking, but we still do. We have autonomy, no one can force you to do anything. And my sense is that the Sakyong doesn't want a million Vajrayana students. I think spreading the reality of basic goodness both in Shambhala and out and making Enlightened Society and reality (in and out of Shambhala) is far more important than becoming a Vajrayana practitioner. I hope that helps.
There are books on the practices of ngondro you can read, but I would say, like all meditation practices, they are something you should experience before writing about them or denigrating them. . . . For me, as a person of African descent, they actually felt quite familiar, powerful, and very right. But we have to use our win discernment. Again, no one should be pressured to go anywhere on the Shambhala path. . . . I think there has been a big change in the last 10 years, but there is lots of karma and klesha around the path. I found having a solid MI [meditation instructor] who cared about me and not about an agenda, was one of the most important supports I had on the path.
I should also add that from your write-up, you are likely Shambhala's “type”--educated, intellectual, not as much body focused, middle-aged or above, and white. You might have had a different feeling of comfort if you weren't their type. The cultish behavior only starts being obvious from Rigden on, FYI. The vow to serve the Sakyong is something new, in the last 5 years. I, along with a few in my Rigden class, refused to take it. It was a general revolt— everyone agreed with the Shambhala principles, but why use that wording? From then on, that weekend was called the “Rocky Rigden” and it was discussed up the hierarchy and from then on they invited people to talk about the vow beforehand, so as to give time for people to make justifications and interpretations like you did. The thing is, less intellectual people would likely not have made interpretations like you. They could have chosen different wording—like serving a vision, valuing the Sakyong, etc. They didn't. And as I said, it's new. So why? I did one or two on from Rigden and I found less “meat” each time. Having been on other Buddhist retreats and done much reading on Buddhist thought and Advaita Vedanta, it did feel both oversimplified and sold, presented like it was magical. The cost just didn't justify it. So I came to India for my meditation—so much cheaper. I wrote about it here:
As to aligning myself to to another living being by way of vows. . . No way! Remember to take what works and drop the rest like a hot rock.
I would like to note that rejecting CTR's [Trungpa's] toxic behavior does not mean that we have to reject the teachings. It likely means that we need to dig even deeper into his teachings to see if there are patriarchal and/or misogynistic flaws, but digging deeper and questioning is a good thing, and is exactly what the teachings of clear seeing and authenticity call on us to do. . . . I was always and emphatically guided at my local center to not accept teachings as gospel, but to evidence them through practice. The value of the teachings are evidenced in their application, not in the teacher.
I think it is very important for Shambhala International to be explicitly clear that CTR's behavior was toxic and abusive. If it clearly condemns that which is reprehensible, as we have seen firsthand accounts evidenced here, then that sets the ground that it is safe and encouraged to call out abuse as no teacher is beyond reproach. As long as CTR's harmful actions are wrapped in the false robes of “crazy wisdom” then it leaves doubt in the minds of those who experience troubling behavior whether or not they will be believed coming forward. I know I would have no trust in an organization that claims to wisdom that cannot clearly differentiate between a circle and square.

And one of my Project Sunshine responses informed me that the Shambhala higher-ups were not particularly well-disposed to the open-ended sharing about sexual abuse in Shambhala that Project Sunshine has stimulated, and referred me to the statement put out by Lady Diana (Diana Mukpo), the ex-wife of Trungpa [16], in The Shambhala Times, as follows:

This has been a very dark don season for many people. It has exposed a tremendous amount of pain that people have experienced both in the Shambhala community and in the greater world. Having the Shambhala community as the focal point for the majority of my life, I have witnessed numerous times when many members of our community, myself included, have not been protected in a way that reflects our ideals and strengths. Culturally we are are at a powerful moment in time, which allows women a voice to express their pain. This has not always been the case in the past. We have a responsibility to one another to facilitate a conversation that is actually of benefit to our community and therefore the greater world.
Distortion of facts is extremely damaging and is counterproductive for this process. While I respect the need for everyone who has experienced trauma to find a way to be heard and to find healing, that does not absolve us of the poison of presenting assumptions and untruths. This has caused a great deal of pain and confusion and this is what I need to address.
When I first heard about Project Sunshine I thought it would be a wonderful way to embark on this important process. But now that I've seen its connection to the spreading of inaccurate, misleading facts, I no longer have faith in its ability to assist with this important task in an unbiased and honest manner. Embarking on the process of healing is a greater call to our sangha to come together and address these issues. This process is being hindered by a personal agenda to launch an attack on the Mukpo family. . . . When and where a transparent, measured, and responsible accounting of the facts shows that misconduct or abuse has taken place, or that the response of administrators and teachers has failed to adequately protect and care for those who were harmed, I am committed to healing and acknowledgment, even if that requires consequences for those at fault. But our tradition is not one that allows for mindless mob justice spun from aggression and half-truths….we are committed to finding the correct forum for this process to take place.

And here are some of the responses to Lady Diana's statement, that did not take her criticism of Project Sunshine in stride:

Prior to reading this statement I hadn't heard of project Sunshine. I looked it up and read the report. It seems to be objective and solution-focused. Is there another forum related to project Sunshine where the biases are showing through?
I had this same question. This letter and the Kalapa Council statement seem to have been dropped into the community without any context. Then the Shambhala Day broadcast was very odd. I am a center director and had no direct communication from Shambhala leadership about what these items were referring to. It gave me the uncomfortable feeling that there were things being alluded to but not talked about outright and I as a center leader had no information. Not until later did I hear anything about the Facebook discussions. Not everyone is on Facebook regularly. I would have hoped that if there was something my community should know about, center directors would have been informed. I'm hoping there will be more communication going forward.
Lady Diana, Thank you for your letter. As a gay man I have been hurt and ridiculed by the Shambhala many, many times. At what point do people like me get to share in the concept of “Basic goodness”? How do I heal?
Greetings all, I echo. . . experience of the Kalapa letter and Shambhala Day coming without context given to leadership in local centers. . . I too had never heard about the Sunshine Project and so read the report. . . I found it to be grounded, sane and caring. The report begins with statements of support for it from Agness Au, Judy Lief and Judith Simmer Brown [highly recognized leaders in Shambhala]. I didn't hear an attack on the Mukpo family or a sense of vendetta. No one was named in the stories shared. As a long time community member I have heard friends' stories of being subject to, and have had my own direct experiences of, sexual misconduct by teachers, leaders and fellow community members. I have witnessed the circling of the wagons by leadership, denials and dismissal, ostracizing and silencing take place when people have spoken up on this. And other uncomfortable topics—like money, power, class, and diversity. Even as I write this I have to debate whether it is “safe” to use my full name, for now it doesn't feel so. This is a great opportunity for us to open, to listen, to hopefully heal rather than perpetuate harm.
Dear Lady Diana, Thank you for your wise words. My question is this: I do wonder why you make the accusation of the Sunshine Project's “connection to the spreading of inaccurate, misleading facts”? In a world in which 1 in 3 women reports having experienced sexual violence in her lifetime, I rather fear that the cases reported on will only be the tip of the iceberg. May deep healing processes be supported in all communities effected by sexual violence.

And finally, here is a response from Edmund Butler [6], who has been very active on the Project Sunshine forum, and whose response I am in agreement with, and I believe tersely and effectively sums up Lady Diana's statement:

That letter is a Kalapa Council sanctioned broadside across the bow of Project Sunshine and the victims which are given refuge by this vessel, in case anybody is unclear. Just saying—it's blatant victim shaming, fundamentally “unshambhalian” and does nothing to restore the faith in our Administrators. It puts the lie to the Council's *SIMULTANEOUS* [sic] February 12th letter where they ask for forgiveness for poorly administering the systemic, criminal abuse in the Sangha on which this Project sheds such a clear light.

Mindfulness Meditation and Preliminary Integration

Christine Chandler [3] is convinced that Tibetan Buddhism has the mission to take over the world and convert all religions to its medieval hierarchical authoritarian format, and that Shambhala is at the forefront of this, very effectively inducing multitudes of Western academic and clinical professionals to lead the effort through the popularization of mindfulness meditation [17]. She may very well be right about this, but in my integrated perspective I need to think back to what I have actually experienced in my own mindfulness meditation practice, both in Shambhala and elsewhere.

As I discussed in my previous Shambhala article [1], I found the mindfulness meditation in my Shambhala workshops to be relaxing and therapeutic, and it was similar to the experiences that I have had with mindfulness meditation in other contexts. But I believe that the crucial aspect here is what happens “after” one engages in mindfulness meditation. There is no doubt that, as Chandler repeatedly claims [3], our current mindfulness meditation explosion was initially stimulated and orchestrated by Eastern gurus, and Trungpa and Shambhala have been major forces in this, though I think that a bigger force has been the widespread mindfulness-based stress reduction “non-religious” successful promotion by Jon Kabat-Zinn [17]. But unlike Chandler, I happen to think that there is a great deal of benefit to the inclusion of mindfulness in our American culture, especially in the present internet-addicted Trump era that we are currently living in [18]. From a number of Chandler's comments [3], it appears to me that politically she is both a Republican and Trump supporter, and her continuous praising of our American capitalist system runs very foreign to me. I will go so far as to openly say that I welcome a healthy intrusion of Eastern Buddhism to our American capitalist system, but of course without all the destructive and dangerous practices that I have been discussing in this essay. Yes I also understand what Chandler is saying about how excessive hours of mindfulness meditation have the potential to make one more susceptible to the dictates of unethical gurus [3], [19]. But on the other hand, it is also quite possible to use mindfulness meditation in healthy productive ways, and this is what I have experienced in my actual Shambhala training workshops, and what my wife has experienced in her mindfulness-based stress reduction workshops [17].

In spite of all the serious dangers of Shambhala that I have discussed in this essay, primarily at the higher levels, which I will certainly never do, when I think back to my actual experiences with Shambhala I still feel that Shambhala has been beneficial and comforting to me. But the bottom line for me is that I need to feel like I can be “myself” in Shambhala. Thus far, I have been able to voice my concerns in Shambhala workshops, about Trungpa, the regent Tendzin, “serving” the Sakyong as part of the Shambhala Rigden vows, reciting a chant of homage to the Rigden kings as part of the same ceremony, and about my spiritual agnosticism as I proceeded through the Shambhala levels, and it has all been taken in stride and accepted by the Shambhala higher-ups. And the responses that I have received from the Shambhala Project Sunshine members, as I described above, have been heartwarming and very informative to me, and I very much have appreciated all their understanding, support, personal sharing, and information. But sooner or later, and it may have already occurred, my concerns about Shambhala that I have described in both of my Integral World articles will come to the attention of the Shambhala higher-ups. What I have decided is that I am open to taking part in Shambhala mindfulness meditation workshops without the religious beliefs tagged on, and without any expectations that I engage in prostrations, chantings, mandalas, and guru worship. Furthermore, I would only participate in future Shambhala workshops if I am able to openly talk about the concerns that I have described here, to anyone I choose to, in or out of Shambhala.

Re-Analysis of Cult Dangers of Shambhala

Finally, based on what I have recently learned about Shambhala, one may ask: how does my previous cult dangers analysis of Shambhala [1] now fare? Can I still conclude that Shambhala is “mildly beneficial?” Well an immediate thing to consider here is that my cult danger analysis of Shambhala was experiential, and what I have subsequently learned about Shambhala is not based on what I have experienced in Shambhala (aside from the responses that I have received from the Project Sunshine members), but of course I cannot ignore what I have learned. Thus my ratings will certainly be different from what they were, so let me take a brief stab at a new cult dangers analysis of Shambhala. Based upon the categories that I previously utilized in my cult dangers analysis of Shambhala [1], here are my new numerical values, just focusing upon the seven (out of 15) categories and numbers that I am changing [and in the original table printed in bold type, FV].

  • Sexual Manipulation: previous: 1; current: 5
  • Endorsement of Violence: previous: 1; current: 3
  • Wealth: previous: 3; current: 5
  • Surrender of Will: previous: 2; current: 5
  • Censorship: previous: 1; current: 5
  • Recruiting: previous: 3; current: 4
  • Paranoia: previous: 2; current: 4
  • Total: previous: 47; current: 65
  • Average: previous: 3.1; current: 4.3

Bonewits Cult Danger Scale ratings of Shambhala (updated)
1 Internal Control 1
2 Wisdom Claimed 9
3 Wisdom Credited 9
4 Dogma 9
5 Recruiting 4
6 Front Groups 2
7 Wealth 5
8 Political Power 1
9 Sexual Manipulation 5
10 Censorship 5
11 Dropout Control 1
12 Endorsement of Violence 3
13 Paranoia 4
14 Grimness 2
15 Surrender of Will 5
  Total: 65
  Average 4.3

The cult dangers categories that I have previously used in my Modern Religions book [20] are as follows: High Cult Danger, Moderate Cult Danger, Minimal Cult Danger, Neutral, and Favorable.

Based upon these above changes in my scores and the respective numerical ratings that I assigned from my experiences in other modern religious group [20], I must now place Shambhala in the Minimal Cult Danger category. For a brief explanation of the above changes in my scores: the sexual manipulation and abuse in Shambhala certainly did not end in the 1980's like I thought, as it has been prevalent throughout its history, enough to warrant a great deal of present exposure and communication, as can be seen from the Project Sunshine report and forum [4]; there are indications of endorsement of violence in Shambhala, as conveyed in the accounts of Edmund Butler in his blog [6], as well as Christine Chandler in her book [3]; I have learned more about the living in luxury lifestyle of the Shambhala guru Mipham; the higher levels of Shambhala apparently have the goal of complete surrender of one's will to the guru; there is much more censorship in Shambhala than I had realized, as conveyed by a number of participants in the Project Sunshine forum, as well as by the letter from Lady Diana criticizing Project Sunshine [16]; the internet mailings I receive from Shambhala have increased in frequency, as I now receive a Shambhala e-mail every day or two; I have learned that Shambhala is very concerned about public leakage of controversial incidents within the organization. And let me be very clear that my perspective here encompasses both the Shambhala higher levels as well as the Shambhala preliminary levels. Certainly there is a very real possibility that anyone who engages in the Shambhala preliminary levels may proceed to the Shambhala higher levels, but it is also quite possible that Shambhala participants, like myself, may consciously decide to keep their experiences with Shambhala to these preliminary levels. Thus I am trying to cover ground here in both territories, but if I just focused on the higher Shambhala levels then my cult dangers score for Shambhala would be high enough to move Shambhala into the Moderate Cult Danger category.

Conclusion

So what is my conclusion to this more far-reaching study of Shambhala that I have undertaken since my previous Integral World article on Shambhala? Well there is no doubt that I have learned that there are indeed cult dangers in Shambhala, and very alarming, destructive practices regarding sexual abuse, which by no means ended 25 years ago. There is no way that I will proceed any further with Shambhala in regard to doing their higher level courses. I have learned that virtually all of my misgivings about Shambhala that I discussed in my Integral World previous article, as well as new alarming information that I have subsequently learned about, are all too real. This includes the violent and luxury living history of the gurus and Rigden kings of Shambhala; the esoteric and nonsense-filled (to me) content of their higher level teachings; the sexual abuse and violations committed by Shambhala teachers to their students; the apparent occurrence of violence in Shambhala on some occasions; and the extensive and intensive practice of prostrations, chantings, and mandalas in the higher levels of Shambhala, culminated by complete absorption of the guru into one's self identity.

After all these learnings, one may very well ask why I would ever consider doing anything further in Shambhala, at any level. And my answer is largely wrapped up with the beauty that I have seen in the free spirit of Shambhala, that has emerged in all its glory in many of the actual members of Shambhala, as evidenced in Project Sunshine. Project Sunshine is a wonderful and inspiring example of this, as is the courage of the Shambhala members who dared to publicly counter Lady Diana in her statement of criticism of Project Sunshine. These Shambhala members remind me of the genuine feeling of comradeship that I felt through my Shambhala levels, as we were all meditating and believing in the worthwhile goal of working toward an enlightened society. As I remarked above, I don't know how the higher-ups in Shambhala will respond to all that I have included in this essay. But if it turns out that I am still accepted in Shambhala, then I can see being open to continuing to engage in mindfulness meditation at Shambhala workshops, though not at the higher Shambhala levels. And who knows—perhaps all the courageous and honest communications of the participants of the Project Sunshine forum will significantly reduce the cult dangers of Shambhala so that in some future time, I could do yet another analysis of cult dangers in Shambhala and find that from my combined integral experiential and non-experiential perspective, that Shambhala has moved into the Neutral category, or perhaps even back into the Mildly Beneficial category. I am an optimist and idealist at heart, and I will therefore end this essay on this positive note.

Notes and References

1) See Elliot Benjamin (2017), Is Shambhala a Cult? An Integrative Experiential Perspective. Retrieved from www.integralworld.net

2) See Stephen Butterfield (1994), The Double Mirror: A Skeptical Journey into Buddhist Tantra. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

3) See Christine Chandler (2017), Enthralled: The Guru Cult of Tibetan Buddhism. North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

4) See Andrea Winn (2018), Project Sunshine: Final Report: A Firebird Year Initiative to Bring Light and Healing to Sexualized Violence Embedded Within the Shambhala Community: February 27, 2017 – February15, 2018. Retrieved from www.andreamwinn.com

For a 2016 article in The Shambhala Times that stimulated comments by a number of young women who conveyed their disturbing experiences of being treated condescendingly and disrespectully by male “elders” in Shambhala, and can be viewed as a mild precursor to Project Sunshine, see Amanda Hester (2016), Voice of Dissent in The Shambhala Times. Retrieved from shambhalatimes.org/2016/03/23/voice-of-dissent/

For a 2018 article in the well-known Buddhist magazine Tricycle about the sexual abuse in Shambhala conveyed through the Project Sunshine report, see Wendy Joan Biddlecombe (2018), Shambhala International Owns Up to Past Abuse, but What comes Next Remains Unclear. Retrieved from https://tricycle.org/trikedaily/shambhala-abuse

For a 2018 article in the mainstream magazine Newsweek about this same topic, see Tom Porter (2018), Buddhist Group Admits 'Abhorrent Sexual Behavior' by Teachers. Retrieved from http://www.newsweek.com/buddhist-group-admits-abhorrent-sexual-behavior-teachers-830333

5) See Victor & Victoria Trimondi (2003), The Shadow of the Dalai Lama—Part 1 – 10: The Aggressive Myth of Shambhala. Retrieved from http://www.trimondi.de/SDLE/Part-1-10.htm

In Christine Chandler's book [3] she describes some extremely horrific practices of punishment for minor crimes in Old Tibet; these horrific practices of punishment resemble the horrors of ISIS and I won't describe them in detail here (see Chandler's book [3]), but they are extremely antithetical to the public image of the “peaceful” warrior of Shambhala.

6) See Edmund Butler's blog at https://shambhalacrime.wordpress.com

7) For a description of the Shambhala Kasung see https://gampoabbey.org/commjunity/kasung

8) For information about Osel Tendzin in relation to his affecting his Shambhala students with aids, see tibetanaltar.blogspot.com/2010/05/tibetan-roulette.html

9) For a description of tulkus, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tulku

10) For information from Wikipedia about the current 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/14th_Dalai_Lama

For more disturbing portrayals of the current 14th Dalai Lama, see Victor & Victoria Trimondi (2003), The Shadow of the Dalai Lama: Sexuality, Magic and Politics in Tibetan Buddhism. Retrieved from http://lust-for-life.org; and see the Dalai Lama chapter in Geoffrey Falk (2009), Stripping the Gurus: Sex, Violence, Abuse and Enlightenment. Million Monkeys Press.

11) See the related references to my integrative perspective Integral World articles in [1].

12) See the website for the Dzogchen Meditation Center in Bath, Maine at http://www.dzogchenmeditatio.com

13) See a description of this celebration at http://www.satdharma.org/pdf/PSTL-PersonalStatement.pdf

14) For a description of crazy wisdom in religious traditions, see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divine_madness; see a number of articles on the Integral World website at www.integralworld.net on the topic of the dangers of crazy wisdom as applied by gurus Adi Da and Andrew Cohen. See also Geofrrey Falk [10] for a scathing and alarming exposé about the dangers of unethical gurus using crazy wisdom in a multitude of religions—both ancient and contemporary.

15) See the full letter from the Dzogchen Meditation Center director, Tashi Armstrong, at https://www.facebook.com/dzogchenmeditation/posts/1012651572136915

16) See the full letter from Lady Diana in the Shambhala Times at https://shambhalatimes.org/2018/02/12/letter-from-lady-diana

17) For a description of the history and practices of mindfulness-based stress reduction,.see Jon Kabat- Zinn (2011), Some Reflections on the Origins of MBSR, Skillful Means, and the Trouble with Maps, Contemporary Buddhism, Vol. 12, No. 1.

18) See my articles on both internet addiction and Trump at the Integral World website at www.integralworld.net

19) For a description of some of the pitfalls of excessive mindfulness, see Uptal Dholakia (2016), The Little-Known Downsides of Mindfulness. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-science-behind-behavior/201604/the-little-known-downsides-mindfulness-practice ; and David Brendel (2015), There are Risks to Mindfulness at Work. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2015/02/there-are-risks-to-mindfulness-at-work

20) See Elliot Benjamin (2013), Modern Religions: An Experiential Analysis and Exposé. Winterport, Maine: Natural Dimension Publications.





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