Thinking back to my “spiritual phase” a few years ago, I’m shocked at the proportion of gurus I took an interest to who turned out to be abusers, or at the very least, dangerously misleading snake oil salesmen. Rajneesh, Mooji, and Nithyananda lead (or led) toxic, controlling cults. Byron Katie and Esther and Jerry Hicks teach victim blaming and denial. Of course, there’s Teal Swan. And now, the Shambhala/Vajradhatu lineage holders: Chogyam Trungpa, Osel Tendzin, and Osel Mukpo, all of whom have been accused of terrible abuse and sexual misconduct.
In my last post from over a year ago, I wrote this:
A part of me wants to find a way to distinguish Trungpa’s actions from true spiritual abuse. I want this to be different. Of course I do. I got my degree at his school, and it was a wonderful experience. Becoming disillusioned with a respected teacher can be earth-shattering, and I would hate write anything that might hurt any of my friends, teachers, or fellow community members. I feel the need to say that, judging by my short time at Naropa, I’m confident that the amount of people Chogyam Trungpa has uplifted and inspired far outnumbers the people he has hurt.
I cannot stand by this statement anymore. Not after reading these harrowing stories by Leslie Hays, one of Trungpa’s “spiritual wives.” Not after learning about how Osel Tendzin, Trungpa’s Vajra Regent, knowingly carrying AIDS, continued having unprotected sexual encounters with students after a conversation with Trungpa convinced him that nothing could go wrong, that he could “change the karma.” Not after realizing that there is an epidemic of sexual abuse and misogyny in Shambhala that appears to originate with Trungpa himself, his loose attitude toward sexual boundaries and disregard for consent. Maybe he has helped more people than he has harmed, but the damage he and his successors have done is egregious. I have no choice but to conclude that Shambhala is a cult, and a part of me is angry at everyone who’s worked to convince me otherwise. I’m angry for the victims, and I’m angry for the students and practitioners who were never told the full story.
Escaping Teal Swan’s influence was difficult, but I’m grateful that I know better now. Eventually, after a year or so of blankness and confusion, my disillusionment gave way to the realizations that guide me today–that hierarchical institutions will never lead us to their promised goals of oneness, “enlightened society,” or utopia because their organizational structures are irreconcilable with those goals.
Patriarchal, misogynistic structures will reproduce the sickness of patriarchy and misogyny. (Shocking, I know.) Organizations that demand financial sacrifice and free or underpaid labor will reproduce class oppression and economic disparity. There are groups whose ideologies center equality as a hidden universal truth, yet deny the significance of systemic inequality in the real world, groups who preach essential sameness and who view the melting away of distinctions and the blurring of dualities as signs of spiritual attainment, yet worship all-powerful, divinely appointed leaders who give lectures while perched on thrones. Organizations like this will allow abuse to occur under their noses because they won’t be able to recognize it, let alone correct it.
The sad thing is, many turn to spirituality as an escape from these oppressive forces. Although I didn’t understand this at the time, I first began turning inward at age 18 because I felt overwhelmed and incapable of navigating this complex, alienating, late capitalist world where nothing seemed to make any sense. Uncomfortable with the competitiveness and aggression I was told I needed in order to succeed by any conventional measure, I rejected the status quo and sought presence and peace instead. But I fell into the ultimate trap. Unshakeable inner peace is a very enticing product, and I was an eager consumer. And in a world full of precarity and upheaval, achieving peace means tuning out reality.
I turned to spirituality to escape alienation, but it didn’t work. Now I have found new meaning by facing oppression head-on in the broader world and in my community. I’ve had positive experiences with spiritual communities since leaving Teal’s cult behind, but a part of me felt that I was forcing myself back into something I wasn’t ready for. The time wasn’t right then, and it may never be, and that’s okay. My belief systems were completely broken down in 2016, and I felt like the ground had fallen out from under me. It takes a while to recover from an experience like that. But my story makes sense now, at least it does to me.
I realize that I’m one of the lucky ones. Not everyone is able to look back and say it was all worth it, that it led them to better things. I wish I could promise to fight for everyone less fortunate than me, but I know it’s impossible. In this moment, strangely, I understand the impulse to pray.
May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness.
May all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.
May all beings rejoice in the well-being of others.
May all beings live in peace, free from greed and hatred.