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A response to calls for accountability in many allegations of sexual assault done by a Buddhist Spiritual Leader

There’s a bit of irritation for me. Let’s say, there have, in one generation, 20 men undergone the normal procedure to ordain, and one decided not to ordain properly. I find it natural that a vinaya-rule, which takes this case as illustration of its intention & importance, just reports the where&why-s, and I’m a bit irritated why and with which perspective we’re discussing what would had happened, if this man had behaved like the other twenty. Well, this specific example of one individuum would then be missing in the canon (nothing to report on saturday, 31.march 530 before christ, say), but likely some years later, there would be another individuum, and the vinaya would now report this case… and its related rule … or not? Would we now ask, why this man does behave like this and not like the other now twenty-one cases? ??? ehhmm, sorry, just a bit confused…

Trying to come back to the main focus of this thread.

I’ve noticed something curious in the handling of the matters - either in the blogs or in the responses of the organisations. It seems to me that “accountability” was called for by the victims of misuse towards the “teachers”/“gurus”, for installation of shelter when focused at the responsible organizations and so on. What I was missing was the calling for human, mature and compassionate behave from teachers to teachers.
For example, I’ve been a teacher myself (university) and of course - it may be written code-of-conduct or not - it is obvious that a teacher cannot get in sexual relation with a current student: this is completely asymmetric and the teacher has by role the power to influence exam. Now there are many occasions for informal talks between teachers, and if I would notice that someone is going to break that rules I think it is natural to get in discussion, question and critizise even thought-games and make even other collegues aware of such mind constellation between us.
Just in our department there has been such an unethical case: the candidate dean fell in love with a student before her exam; and of course the disgust & protest of collegues stopped any further attempt to become dean. I had a couple of long disputes with him (we’ve been near and befriended collegues), sparing no criticism: ethical and professional. He went off-country for a full year and came back after that time-out, married the student, which had in the meantime won her exam, and things cooled down. It was a big lesson: especially in reflection of accountability keeping alive between teachers , and do this before things go weired, or out-of-code, or even criminal.

This is a short, surely not completely told, story in some regular university. But I think in the same way there should be an informal - and as well as formal - communication between teachers/gurus when one between them is going to get afoul while in charge - and that specific aspect I’ve been missing in the online conversations about the matter as far as I could share them. The only example where I feel the handling of such a scandal raised to this level (of personal teacher-to-teacher interaction) was the scandal by Richard Baker Roshi in S. Francisco and where the collegium of leading figures took him into question&answer in a meeting and forced him face-to-face to immediately step down.

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Someone could, in theory, start a business doing mercenary Tar and Featherings for a fee, and then a fundraiser could raise money to hire the mercenaries. That to me seems about 100x more efficient than your idea, @Nessie. Not to mention 100x more entertaining. BTW: I don’t suggest that the tar be so hot as to cause a burn.

Edit: I clarified that this is a tongue-in-cheek comment below.

I agree that it is quite incredible that these people seem to ‘emerge fully formed abusers’ in positions of power, without any of their colleagues having been aware of the propensity for such wrong conduct. Even in the spirit of Kalyanamitta, and with all the Vinaya provisions for confession and confrontation for unwholesome ‘thoughts’ let alone abusive behaviour, that they would not have been identified and made accountable at an earlier stage.

I think this is a sound wake up call, for vigilance and action as soon as signs of wrong conduct appear. It is everybody’s (Lay and Ordained) responsibility to call out conduct that is inclining in the wrong way, and to either rectify it, or to remove the offender BEFORE it becomes such an entrenched issue and the perpetrator has already been able to establish a significant following.

One of my first jobs was in Childrens Protection, and the most significant thing that enabled abuse to occur was the silence of the friends and relatives that all turned a ‘blind eye’ to the many signs. We can each do our part in shining the light on this. It helps everybody; the victims and potential victims, the perpetrator themselves, and the group and community in which it occurs. It is always better to be open about it and to purge it, rather than to sweep it festering under the carpet…

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An issue of view in Buddhism that seems to crop up over and over again in my monastic life seems to go like this. The Buddha taught respect and deference to elders in a smallish number of occasions throughout the EBTs. That we can all agree upon, and have no doubt heard taught to us many a time. But there are also many, many checks and balances which the Buddha places upon those in positions of authority. The elders do not have absolute authority in Buddhism. Here’s just a few suttas lying within easy reach which are examples of reigning in unchecked power, and I could find many more if you like:

AN 1.140-149 - “Not the Teaching”

AN 1.150-169 - Non-Offense

AN 1.320-332

AN 2.42-44 - Assemblies

AN 2.47-49 - Assemblies

But when we take a look over to Confucianism, we see an effectively absolute loyalty to authority (I can dig out some quotations to this effect if you like). I would say that leaning too closely to a Confucian style of loyalty is a defect in view, on the part of Buddhists, as it’s too close to absolute.

In other words, our loyalty to elders should be tempered with an ability to push back on them, if they are corrupt, and unresponsive to gentle hints (made with right speech).

There’s also a further defect in view that I see many Buddhists having. There is a widespread belief, @Viveka, that absolute harmlessness is a teaching of the Buddha. But there are certain occasions where it’s OK for a monk/nun to defend himself/herself, even to the extent of punching and kicking, in the Vinaya, like if one is actively under attack, or a rape attempt is underway. If my “Tar and Feathers” idea offended you, @Viveka, I’m sorry. It was a tongue in cheek comment. So if you suggest that absolute harmlessness is a teaching of the Buddha, I don’t agree with you. Just harmlessness to the extent that Vinaya is satisfied. (Having said this, of course I praise the Brahmaviharas, Jhanas, etc, where a total absense of ill will, will be required).

If you’ve got no “teeth” whatsoever, then the bullies and narcissists of the world will have their way with you, and that’s not cool. It’s a delicate balancing act, to know when to use them.

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Readers of this thread might be interested in the work of the The Alliance for Buddhist Ethics, an international movement formed in response to systematic abuse in Buddhist communities.

Their work seeks to bring awareness to the ongoing issue of abuse, as well as accountability to abusers and justice for survivors of abuse. They want to create a culture that brings a focus on these issues to the community at large. One way they do this is through the Oath Against Harm.

In the practice of the Dharma, I hold the student-teacher relationship
to be a sacred connection which prioritises the spiritual development,
maturation, and well-being of the student.

Similarly, I hold that Dharma organisations exist to provide safe
environments which allow those who practice the Dharma to thrive
in supportive communities, founded on aspirations of good-will for
all, and supported by a strong ethical foundation of non-harming.

I acknowledge that any behaviour which would be categorised as
abusive—whether emotionally, physically, financially,
psychologically or sexually—or which is exploitative, coercive, or an
abuse of power, or which attempts to cover-up such behaviour, is
harmful and unnecessary in the practice of the Dharma. It is
unacceptable in all circumstances.

I am aware that harm has been caused by failures to meet these
standards in the past, and I declare my commitment to maintaining
them for the well-being and benefit of all. May this commitment help
the Dharma to flourish, both now and in the future, and may it help
to alleviate suffering and create a more compassionate world.

You can sign this oath your self and encourage your organisations and teachers to take the oath, also.

Every Buddhist organisation should have publicly available policies on sexual harassment and abuse, and protocols in place to follow if these things occurs.

Interestingly, I note that lay teachers are increasingly aware of the need for explicit safeguarding processes and protocols., such as these at Insight Meditation Centre and these at East Bay Meditation Centre.

Lay teachers I have booked for talks for Dhamma events often send their Ethics Statement with the booking confirmation. This practice sets out explicitly the expectations for both the teacher and the students. I’m not aware of any monastic sangha members who make such efforts, but it could be a good mechanism for creating healthy expectations in the lay community and awareness about these issues.

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I was rather saying the opposite. I’m not at all suggesting some form of non-defense or non-action in the face of abuse,. I think the Buddha was clear about this, it is wise to avoid harmful circumstances if at all possible (MN2).

What I was trying to say is that, in line with the sutta you quote (AN2.42 Assemblies), that harmony - that is not saying anything- within an ‘unwholesome’ assembly is misguided. The idea that harmony is more important than Right View goes against what the Buddha teaches.

And what is an assembly of the dregs?Katamo ca, bhikkhave, parisākasaṭo?1.5An assembly where the mendicants make decisions prejudiced by favoritism, hostility, stupidity, and cowardice.Idha, bhikkhave, yassaṁ parisāyaṁ bhikkhū chandāgatiṁ gacchanti, dosāgatiṁ gacchanti, mohāgatiṁ gacchanti, bhayāgatiṁ gacchanti.1.6This is called an assembly of the dregs.Ayaṁ vuccati, bhikkhave, parisākasaṭo.

2.1And what is an assembly of the cream?Katamo ca, bhikkhave, parisāmaṇḍo?2.2An assembly where the mendicants make decisions unprejudiced by favoritism, hostility, stupidity, and cowardice.

Pardon my inability to remember the specific sutta, but the Buddha does say that to call what is unwholesome, wholesome, and what is wrong as something that is right, is unskillful and unwise behaviour and not yielding good outcomes. Indeed it could be seen this is what can lead to a ‘bad assembly’.

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Good point. :slightly_smiling_face: A good test of whether a Buddhist Monk has a Confucian-style (virtually absolute) loyalty would be seen in whether he chooses to say nothing, when he indeed should say something to an elder (using right speech, as best he can), whom he’s actually living with.

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Seems like Buddha agrees. :pray: :slight_smile:

SN2.29 Susimasutta

At Sāvatthī.

Then Venerable Ānanda went up to the Buddha, bowed, and sat down to one side. The Buddha said to him, “Ānanda, do you like Sāriputta?”

“Sir, who on earth would not like Venerable Sāriputta unless they’re a fool, a hater, delusional, or mentally deranged? Venerable Sāriputta is astute, he has great wisdom, widespread wisdom, laughing wisdom, swift wisdom, sharp wisdom, and penetrating wisdom. He has few wishes, he’s content, secluded, aloof, and energetic. He gives advice and accepts advice; he accuses and criticizes wickedness. Who on earth would not like Venerable Sāriputta unless they’re a fool, a hater, delusional, or mentally deranged?”

“That’s so true, Ānanda! That’s so true! Who on earth would not like Venerable Sāriputta unless they’re a fool, a hater, delusional, or mentally deranged?” And the Buddha repeated all of Ānanda’s terms of praise.

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Just from my experience, this does happen sometimes, although not always with a satisfactory outcome In cases of child abuse or other serious allegations it is critical to report the facts to the authorities, rather than attempt to deal with it in-house. I have been involved in such cases in the past. In cases where the legality is less clear, legal advice should be sought.

In the case that you describe, it seems there was a sincere person caught up in a difficult but understandable emotional situation. Luckily you caught it in time and dealt with it well. Taking a pro-active and collegiate response is the right thing to do when dealing with a good person who is straying.

The case of Shambhala is different. Trungpa was a monster, and he founded a lineage of monsters. It is an empire of rape. Trungpa was enabled, and his lineage and heritage is still enabled by Buddhist students all too eager to fawn at his supposed holiness and excuse his depravity. And Buddhist institutions in the US continue to promote him and his works. Every time you see his books being promoted or his ideas quoted, Trungpa’s essential thesis is being normalized: that a spiritual teacher can commit the most horrifying atrocities and still be worthy of veneration, revered as a font of wisdom.

There’s no redeeming a teacher like that. You can’t reason with them or understand them: they must be stopped. And while I loathe the idea of incarceration, the only effective way to stop them is to send them to prison. They are simply too dangerous, and if allowed to remain free they will continue.

It is too late to hold Trungpa accountable, as he died young from what his examining physician described as the worst case of drug addiction she’d ever seen. Fortunately some of the senior Shambhala members have been convicted of crimes and are in prison where they cannot hurt anyone. There are a lot more.

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There are certainly some who are intractable and from whom others need protection, no doubt about that.

The point i was trying to make, was that through ‘early intervention’, and the establishment of a culture where it isn’t tolerated and virtually impossible to hide, the vast majority of situations can be headed off before they occur.

Here I’m talking of the vast majority of cases, and before serious abusive behaviour has had a chance to develop.

But complacency, wishful thinking, or an aversion to look at something most people wish to be ignorant of, is what allows it to continue.

What I have learned is that ANY topic can be raised, as long as one is coming from a place of respect… anything. It just takes some courage to do it. But using Right Speech, the most confronting and challenging things can be discussed. In most cases it is a relief for the person (if not immediately then soon after) to have been able to openly discuss something so difficult and troubling.

The quicker and clearer the unequivocal message that it is unwholesome, harmful (to self and others) and will not be tolerated, the less chance that it will develop into an entrenched pattern.

Added: I’m ‘going on’ about this point because this reticence to talk about it, is deeply entrenched. People are embarrassed and prefer to bury their head in the sand… Even with written codes of conduct, one can still find that while it may be written and agreed upon formally, the inability/unwillingness of individuals (you and me) to discuss it and raise it and ask questions, means that it won’t work. Codes of conduct only work where the written and unwritten rules of conduct are in alignment. You just have to look at the latest case in the Australian Parliament to see this occurring.

Be brave, and if in doubt, ask and talk about it, and don’t ever penalise anyone for talking about it :slight_smile: Bring it out into the sunshine, not hidden in dark places :sun_with_face: :sun_with_face: :sun_with_face:

May all beings find freedom from suffering :pray: :dharmawheel: :revolving_hearts:

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…unless the bad party in the position of authority is a Narcissist. A Narcissist will likely use a trick such as gaslighting you (or any of several other tricks they are extremely good at). With a narcissist, your only option, pretty much, is to “grey rock” (this is a term in modern Psychology), until you can escape them. Narcissists are virtually never brought to justice. They’re just too damn good at weaseling out of everything.

I strongly recommend learning more about Narcissists from Dr. Ramani. This would be a great intro video of hers.

Edit: “grey rock”, not “grey stone”.

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Dear Ven Subharo,

Fear of the possibility of a personally uncomfortable outcome, is hardly a valid reason not to act, when it is clear what is wholesome. There are many skillful means at our disposal to deal with these situations. The desire to retain the status quo even if it is unwholesome and harmful, is cause for the perpetuation of such harm. Confronting it is not easy, but to turn a blind eye has much worse consequences.

@Subharo Thanks for bringing this issue of abuse to the discussion :pray:

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I tell you solemnly, @Viveka , that Dr. Ramani tells it like it is.

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“grey rock” if anyone else, like me, is trying to google it unsuccessfully :wink:

I agree. No need to make excuses! If you simply prefer to do nothing, that’s great!

You’re never culpable for anyone else’s actions. That’s not how karma works. Even your own children’s actions are not yours, let alone the actions of someone else’s child. So, Let go! Really! It’s fine! The world got along just fine before you showed up.

Now if there’s something skillful you can do, and are inspired to do, by all means jump in and help out. Just know that it’s always extra. Help is never mandatory in Buddhism. There’s no concept of “moral duties,” so please don’t import them from Western, liberal discourse: no matter how well meaning such “advice” is, it’s harmful in the long run.

There is one very rare sutta in the EBT’s where it’s actually called “wrong” to not say something to correct another monk (which we might call a Dukkhata), if all the criteria are met which fulfill right speech. I just add to that, that a Narcissist will make you pay dearly for criticizing them, once you go ahead and do that. Furthermore, if Lovingkindness/Compassion/Equanimity is radiating out of your chest like the sun as you say it, you do greatly improve your odds of getting away with it with no backlash. Having pulled off this miracle, the Narcissist won’t be changed. They will be the same Narcissist the very next day.

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Oh really?? :pray: Do you have the reference?

Oh man. You weren’t kidding. It seems Sharon Salzberg just retweeted this approving post about Trungpa? Unless I made some mistake? Are there two Trungpas???

Screenshot for posterity

I’m actually really curious why this still happens. Did Trungpa’s “Crazy Wisdom” just fit so nicely into American (materialistic, nihilistic, hedonistic) ideas of “liberation” that even now some American Buddhists find his narcissism preferable to the real Dharma (with its challenging “renunciation” and “karma” stuff)?? Or is it merely a meme: most people don’t know any better and just kinda repeat the name dropping people around them do? Or is Shambhala still so powerful that people are willing to overlook stuff to suck up? Like… what’s going on here??

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I was not!

And Joan Halifax and Ram Dass (or his port-mortem twitter, whoever runs that) are doing it too. It beggars belief.

Less surprising, Trunpga is currently being promoted in the latest post on Shambhala Publication’s Facebook page. Congratulations to Alex Madsen who commented:

Shame on you for sharing the works of a known predator.

I dunno, but it seems like a plausible hypothesis. It’s boomer Dharma 101: sex and drugs and enlightenment.

Run of the mill folks, sure. But senior teachers of the same generation can’t not know about it. Heck, I know about it and I have nothing to do with American Buddhism. It’s like Weinstein: everyone knows but somehow everyone keeps up the pretense.

That’s a big factor in some cases—for example, advertising dollars in Buddhist magazines—but it doesn’t explain why people would just choose out of the blue to promote him on their social media.

Just the one: a sad little man who couldn’t survive without the twin delusions of drugs and adulation, and who in the end couldn’t survive with them either.

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