One of the west’s largest Buddhist organisations has admitted to sexual abuse by its teachers, announcing it will take urgent measures to tackle the problem. Leaders of Shambhala International, which has more than 200 meditation centres across the world, including several in Australia, admitted to major failures in how it dealt with “abhorrent sexual behaviour”.
They said the #MeToo movement, in which women share stories of sexual assault and harassment, prompted the community to go through their own “collective wake-up call”.
In an open letter to the community published online, the Kalapa council, the international leaders of Shambhala, said: “In our complex history there have been instances of sexual harm and inappropriate relations between members and between teachers and students. We are still emerging from a time in which such cases were not always addressed with care and skill.
“Members have at times not felt heard or have been treated as though they are a problem when they tried to bring complaints forward. We are heartbroken that such pain and injustice still occurs.”
The council said it wanted to make it clear it stood strongly against all forms of abuse and discrimination and any efforts to “suppress reports of wrongdoing or shame victims”. It added that “ignorance or uncertainty as to how to address the systemic nature of these harms” had made leaders “part of the problem”.
The letter comes after an active member of the Shambhala community in the US, Andrea Winn, published a report to raise awareness on “the frightening shadow of sexualised violence lying across the heart of out community”.
Winn, who said she had been subjected to abuse herself, investigated the subject for a year, saying it ad been suppressed for a long time. The report claims: “Known child abusers are freely active within the Shambhala community, some are even senior teachers. Meanwhile, many who have been abused have been left with no recourse but to leave the community to heal and move forward as best they can.”
The report aims to create a space for women to talk about abuse and collect stories. It also wants to promote a campaign so that Shambhala followers globally can “hear the truth”.
One woman, writing anonymously in the report, alleged: “I was sexually abused by several men … My experience of abuse in the Shambhala community has impacted my life over the decades.”
The report notes that a handful of male teachers have been removed from their positions as the result of care and conduct processes.
Suzanne Newcombe, a research fellow at Inform, an LSE-based charity that monitors new religious movements, said that many Buddhist groups were having discussions about consent and sex and power imbalances in light of the #MeToo movement.
“They are looking at their internal processes on how they deal with allegations of sexual assault or complaints against leaders and unethical behaviour in these groups. This is largely being led by victims and then organisations are determining what procedures to take,” she said.
Newcombe said other groups who were looking into this included the Triratna sect, which has faced controversy after a former follower claimed he was coerced into sex with one of its elders.
Newcombe said a lot of the calls they received, including reports of abuse, were about Buddhist groups in the UK. “We used to get a lot of requests [to investigate] about Scientology but now the majority are about Buddhist groups because some of them [with problems] have not been outed in the same way and have effective PR. People contact us because they cannot find out much about them online.”
Sarah Harvey, a senior research officer at Inform, said: “The majority of our inquiries at the moment concern Buddhist groups. I think that this is due to a number of inter-related factors. Obviously there is a current popular interest in the practice of mindfulness which has Buddhist roots which we receive some inquiries about.
“But also, to generalise horribly, I think there is a popular assumption that Buddhism as a whole is unproblematic and people are surprised when they do encounter controversies or have negative experiences.”
The Guardian also reports on the work of Andrea Winn, a counsellor and member of the Shambhala community. Winn recently published a report, entitled Project Sunshine, summarizing the findings of a one-year informal analysis of sexual misconduct in Shambhala. It includes survivor accounts and makes policy proposals to “inspire healing throughout the Shambhala community.”
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