Confessions from a female dharma practitioner insider who dared to express ethical concerns.
We’ve talked a lot about this over the years with, for example, the discrediting of Christine Blasey Ford during the #metoo movement and her very public, histrionic, mistreatment by Brett Kavanaugh. Men in positions of power, once again taking advantage of others, namely women, harming them and others and then turning around to discredit them and suggesting they’re lying or unstable. It’s called D.A.R.V.O., the acronym means: deny, attack reverse victim and offender. This is the quintessence of misogyny and many of my fellow sisters are still reaping the fallout from the #metoo movement. Men in power and an occasional woman, still continue to be cruel, exploit and then silence so many of us, it’s far from resolved in our society.
I’ve had a few years of direct experience of this in a Buddhist Community that borrows from tried and true cult-like tactics, where the dynamics of power and control, sexual misconduct, sexual violence and covert abuse is rampant to this day. It’s not only the Catholics that are guilty of clergy abuse, and coverups by crony “clothed” insiders; other religions have it as well, and it is still not yet wholly exposed, sadly. The type of abuse that happens under the auspices of one’s trusted religion is particularly egregious because those people in power, generally men, take advantage of people’s longing, vulnerability, trust and faith. My friends who left, both men and women, have lifetime, deep scars from what’s known as spiritual betrayal. Here’s a powerful excerpt from a whistleblower’s document from a woman who served a noted Buddhist spiritual teacher and community that I was involved in. When the teacher’s misconduct and alcoholism was exposed, people like her were counter blamed or forced to exit from the community.
“A community I came to that seemed warm and understanding and offered the promise of a healthy culture. As I moved closer and closer to the leadership and Mr. Mukpo himself, it became clear that instead a culture of abuse and rampant sexism trickles down from Mr. Mukpo to all below him. Along the way I expressed concerns to my peers and the leadership and was dismissed, insulted or placated every time. Dismissing me as an angry, hysterical person, who doesn’t see clearly, is a time-honored way to silence a woman. From much of my previous leaders and peers, I expect that I will get the same reactions now. But, I hope that some of you out there may hear this and find, reflected in my stories, truths long silenced in Shambhala.” Laura Leslie
I have been one of the people that brought up concerns for over 10 years against religious abuse, clergy abuse, child sexual abuse and problems with the division of power and control in these organizations. It did not work to bring up issues from within, people who expressed valid concerns were considered “evil, demonic, enemies and non-loyalists.” We were not permitted to question spiritual authority. These teachers, we were told to regard as divine, with magical powers and we are to do whatever they asked. It breaks my very heart to have been involved with something that has precious, ancient teachings but in part, hurts so many people and children. By speaking out, I’ve been defamed, projected upon and counter-blamed by abusers and orthodoxers, even those who I thought were close, trusted, lifelong “dharma friends” and still continue to be so.
I’ve feared for my well-being legally and even at times, for my very life. After 20 years, deeply involved with a Buddhist community that became increasingly more unhealthy, I had to leave. It was by my own choice, but I had this clear feeling that people were questioning what they called my “loyalty” to our leader as I began to question him and those in control. It was really painful, devastating actually, to have to leave a community that I devoted so much time and money, and fostered very deep lifelong friends with. I was not alone, people began to leave as they saw the same problems. We could see that the way that the community was organized was contracting, hurting and estranging people and upheld what’s called structural violence.
Buddhists don’t tell too many people this but later on, when you begin to study Buddhism and if you are involved with Tibetan Buddhism or Tantric Buddhism, they tell you that we actually have 17 Hells, and one of these hells is for people that speak out against their teacher or community. For sure, if you’re one of these #metoo women you have a one-way ticket there. So much anxiety and many tears were shed and in my departure: I doubted myself, I blamed myself and I actually bought into the thought I was “evil, bad or cursed” for having seen the problems with the organization that were very clear. I actually had to seek two years of spiritual counseling to begin to heal from the decades of cult-like infused psychological harm. I’ve been so grateful over the past few years with the women’s empowerment movement, of being able to expose the dark dystopian undercurrent of a lot of these religious organizations that harm women, children and men, with unethical power and control, under the threat of spiritual retribution.
I think that a lot of these organizations have been around for hundreds or thousands of years, and and these men in positions of power or clergy, that exploit others, will take some time to culture deconstruct, bring transparency and awareness to and to heal. I wish no harm on any of these abusers, I simply wish for them to stop the arrogance, ego and misconduct, relinquish their power and their titles and develop some type of conscience and sensitivity toward people that they’ve exploited and hurt. With regret, we can make the needed changes to form healthier communities. How harm, control and sexual exploitation ever became facets of these religions that posit ethics and compassion is beyond me.
Some people suggested that asking narcissistic men in power (and in these traditions, narcissists are ubiquitous) who behave in inappropriate ways to all of a sudden have some contrition is idealistic and naïve. I’ve even been insulted and verbally attacked by the whistleblowers and revolutionists for being cult-complicit with the belief that we could learn and correct misconduct. I’ve been a persona-non-grata by both sides, sadly since I took a moderate, restorative view. I sent a few “love letters” to this spiritual teacher pleading him to make real amends and heal the community as it is now dismantling, and he and his board doubled down with power and control and were not interested in any feedback, from any of us.
Somewhere, however naïve, I have faith in the power of the dormant human conscience; how can these men live with themselves? I believe that we can support each other to clean up misconduct even if centuries old, and learn grow and heal as a society. It’s been predicted that these unethical men, who use the dharma to hurt others will cause it’s downfall. I for one, with many other brave and ethical friends are trying to stop this momentum, as the genuine, simple dharma of self awareness, free of commoditization and institutionalization, is of so much benefit and needs to be preserved and upheld. Those who have devoted their lives to a structurally violent, “command and control”, unhealthy teacher or spiritual community and left have become my sangha, my refuge and my most trusted and treasured friends. A number of powerful and ethical teachers have bravely spoken out against harm too, thankfully. Maybe these religious organizations can create something new, a culture that is truly helpful, sacred and ethical could arise from the ashes of these times and after our pandemic where all is in question. I do have so much faith in the power and integrity of the human conscience, that cannot forever be covered when light is shed on it.
Here are some ideas for organizational change in these spiritual communities:
Here was a threefold solution that could provide a format to fix most of these problems, to modernize Dharma organizations, both Lay and Monastic communities… and beyond. After the many scandals of the past few years, many communities have begun to implement some of these ideas.
1. ETHICS/ SEXUAL SAFETY TRAININGS: Every non-profit/ religious structure should have mandatory sexual harassment and ethics training, like we do in the workplace, that the teachers, staff and participants abide by. Each community will create a reasonable and thorough code of conduct policy. (No tantric free passes!)
2. GRIEVANCE BOARD: Like Thich Nhat Hanh’s sangha, they reportedly have a powerful “peacemaking” listening council/ grievance board when there are inherent sangha conflicts or problems. It’s best if this can be elected or created by the sangha, rather than appointed. We listen, value each other and agree to work out our differences of opinions, even if they are with the teacher, to create a much more healthy, democratic structure. (No more victim blaming, accusing people of being “vow breakers” and suggesting they are hell bound if they were hurt. Furthermore, no shunning, silencing and excluding.) 🙄
3. TRANSPARENCY & CONSEQUENCES: Religion is not above the law, and we do not permit “secret conduct.” We have a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment, coverups, abuse or any type of harm to children. Any current laws broken are subject to due process. Repeat offenders will have to seek help, treatment and if untreatable, may be banned from community to protect safety of members and children.
If we implement these three things, we can clean up so much of the harm, heal and move forward during this time of seeming crisis.
With so much hope, aspirations for growth and forward thinking,
1st Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels