Excerpts and paraphrases from an open letter to Rigpa and Shambhala:

We might lose almost everything after a very short time if we don’t stop this.

I’m just wondering if there’s any possible way to have a global clarification of what’s been happening to us. I have done extensive research and I no longer concur with the suggestion that our communities and all of us, are simply cults and complicit with cult thought. Yes, it is clear, that Tibetan Buddhism used, to this day uses, basic religious control theory and cult-like tenets to keep people and their institutions controlled and devoted. This is part of the organizational structure, and this revelation is very clear to us now and must change.

I’ve been studying religious control theory for two years and am being trained to be a religious trauma counselor though: https://www.recoveringfromreligion.org/. I have been in dialogue with many fellow survivors, read Cults in our Midst by Margaret Singer and the Guru Papers, Masks of Authoritarian Power and met in person and online with some of the foremost religious trauma experts like Steve Hassan. It has been a really hard time for us all, as I identify as a “survivor,”  one who has come full circle, and now speaks for healing, education and restorative justice.

I no longer believe that our Dharma community members are actual complicit cultists. I think that there’s still, so much beauty and power in our Buddhist community, practices and these teachers. Even though they have at times, severe misconduct, they have the power to confer, be a conduit for warmth, blessing and exceedingly helpful teachings, and I’m still devoted to them, personally and in essence. We ask simply that the conduct be seen and corrected, like HHDL suggested, as re-quoted below.

I just can’t stand to see it all crumble because of this covert misconduct of a few. I suggest that a Vajrayana council of western Buddhist organizations with one rep. from each, at least from we two Rigpa and Shambhala, should be formed immediately and meet, in person.

Our global centers as you well know, some of them provide solace, community and practice for people who might have even given up hope. To be introduced to sitting practice and community and these teachings of forgiveness and kindness,  I believe, we know, have helped exponentially more people than were ever harmed. I have received 10,000 gifts of kindness and help over 25 years, even with the few instances of harm.

I think we need to examine how this all happened, the fault of importing Tibetan feudal culture and unquestioning, ancient traditions over here. We must help to heal and support students, who including me, definitely got used and exploited. I feel I was one of them and left membership to a primary sangha for this reason. I felt that all communities were structured in unhealthy ways and people were often unkind due to hierarchy, wanting to maintain proximity to a teacher, and lack of grievance boards and transparency, and no one would ever listen to my and others pleas. Anyone who spoke out were simply deemed “vow breakers” and troublemakers, and often sadly, shunned.

It’s a tricky and delicate thing though because anything we say now, sounds like we’re not advocating for the “victims are survivors” or aren’t hearing the gravity of people’s lives that were impacted by harm, so this is indeed not an easy task but, worthwhile. Tibetans usually don’t get involved with this kind of raw honesty and openly talking about difficult issues but I think the whole “let the snake uncoil” itself and be silent, it’s not a good method here. If that’s their counsel to you, personally I wouldn’t listen to it. We need action and we need it now.

These teachers have been conducting themselves this way, I suspect for over 1500 years since the time of Gampopa where we began the monastic institutions, and they also have as part of their ancient culture,  the practice of what they consider to be courtesans. The guru’s consorts were then considered an honorific position rather than sordid “clergy abuse” and abuse of power, we can study ancient court history, or see the film, The Last Emperor.

What we’re seeing, as I’m sure you already have gathered, is a culture and time clash of what was the norm 1500- 2000 years ago versus what’s happening with #metoo movement of the West, 2017-2019. Tibet was isolated both physically and with media, and did not modernize into a democratic environment. They didn’t keep up with the times and modern professional workplace ethics in terms of us determining in the late 90’s, that it’s not OK for a position of power to have affairs with their students.

This was not always the case in human history and men in power, as we can see with the kings and emperors in the courts of Japan and China, India and Tibet.  This is, in 2019, the severe culture clash causing what we now consider control, abuse and exploitation of the king’s entrusted servants. This process is then furthermore sealed by religious punitive vows and rites that prevent questioning and ensure that absolute power and control are maintained. This will not continue in the west.

This is probably the heart of what DKR is unsuccessfully, trying to explain, this is it really not a dharma or a vow, demon or dark age problem it’s at it’s root, a cultural problem of two cultures in time, clashing.

I think we have to understand sociologically what happened and why. If we can understand that I don’t think we would consensually look at everything as simply abuse of power, and scandal, and people run away and remove dues and look at everything we created in the darkest possible light. It’s more like, due to Tibet’s isolation, the exile created a portal where they attempted to implant both powerful and wholly dated social tenets, like as if their cult-ure accelerated 1000 years into the future.

I think for me, and I keep writing this on social media and fighting for this for over 10 years now, nothing has really changed and I can’t seem to get through to anyone, so all I do is send people letters, blog and write on Facebook. The cultural conflict and actions these few dated leaders and their unquestioning supporters, who simply need to update into modern times and conduct, should not destroy everything we all built. We should not passively witness it falling, like a house of cards.

To lose this tradition in our society, as I can see, it is one of the brightest lights in our human treasury, that is in real danger of exhausting itself. I think that would be the greatest crime, well exceeding any of these teacher’s personal sex lives or attachment to power.

We can and should take very seriously each and every report of hurt, harm abuse and confusion, even I have my own painful story, still unresolved, and with attention, care, listening, ethics and if needed, professional legal help, work to heal and correct any damage collectively. The apologies cannot be perfunctory, we have to see and admit what really happened here over 45 years.

We should work so very hard to preserve community, and personally, when this finally all came out, I actually started paying dues again to Shambhala, and am very close to going back into the buildings to be part of the co-recreation process, long overdue. I’d much rather meet in small groups, there were unseen reasons why deleks are essential, and a few of us been lobbying to recreate them, since 2008.

It is so dangerous for so many to be calling the entire traditions and all communities cults, even though some of the social control tenants like a misused abuse of “samaya and vajra hell” are still used today, and do qualify for clear cult status. Buddhism is one of the major world religions that is filled with so many very good and well intended people that are not just broken and complicit, nor something that’s just wholly predatory and awful.

This dark framing of a 2,500 year old tradition with some very helpful methods, just needs to stop, now that was what wrong has been exposed. These voices of complete destruction are getting louder, they are now publishing books, lawyers and mediators spending $57,000 bills in wake of our pain, this is bottom-feeding profiteering, even well intended, is egregious.

If we let people profit from our destruction and define who we are, then indeed our decisions to stay silent and not protest, and not work really hard to fix and save and reinvent ourselves, will once again, contribute to one of the gravest losses in human society.

I have many teachers, they have given me so much, even though there has been pain. The other day, I was very upset on retreat and Tsoknyi Rinpoche helped me. Occasional contact with a compassionate teacher that really cares for us personally, can help so much when we have obstacles, or are sick or passing away, and I just can’t imagine a life with out them or community. We can’t let the voices that call this culture clash to reduce us all to cultists, and destroy all. In solidarity, we need to present a clear counter voice and action plan, please.

With so much love and hope and forward thinking,
Dawn Boiani

If one presents the teachings clearly, others benefit. But if someone is supposed to propagate the Dharma and their behavior is harmful, it is our responsibility to criticize this with a good motivation. This isconstructive criticism, and you do not need to feel uncomfortable doing it. In “The Twenty Verses on the Bodhisattvas’ Vows,” it says that there is no fault in whatever action you engage in with pure motivation. Buddhist teachers who abuse sex, power, money, alcohol, or drugs, and who, when faced with legitimate complaints from their own students, do not correct their behavior, should be criticized openly and by name. This may embarrass them and cause them to regret and stop their abusive behavior. Exposing the negative allows space for the positive side to increase. When publicizing such misconduct, it should be made clear that such teachers have disregarded the Buddha’s advice. However, when making public the ethical misconduct of a Buddhist teacher, it is only fair to mention their good qualities as well.

The Dalai Lama, Dharamsala, India March 1993


1 reply
  1. Rae hatherton
    Rae hatherton says:

    ThankYou so much Dawn for your commentary. It has been a long and rocky road but input like yours keeps us poking our heads above water. Having been with other teachers in small groups with the same standards I did not find the abuses so drastic since I understood the principles in a different context. I think bringing all of this to light will make the western dharma stronger as long as we keep on telling the truth without an agenda or emotional reactions. Again ThankYou! I will continue to hold ground. Love much rae of sunshine


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