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On Gender and the Prevention of Harm

Miksang image by Charles Blackhall

Miksang image by Charles Blackhall

NEWS: from the Shambhala Office of Societal Health & Wellbeing

Town Hall Meetings to be Hosted (SEE NEW DATE LISTED BELOW)
On Gender and the Prevention of Harm in Shambhala

Mary Whetsell is the Director of the Shambhala Office of Societal Health & Wellbeing, and is the Chairperson of the Ad Hoc Panel on Gender and the Prevention of Harm in Shambhala. In her professional life as a psychologist, she has worked extensively with rape victims and survivors of sexual abuse, as well as patients who have experienced other types of trauma and have developed Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. She chairs the panel which consists of Jane Arthur, Charlene Leung, Dan Peterson and herself.

Times: What was the impetus for forming the Panel on Gender and Prevention of Harm?

Mary Whetsell: The Sakyong has asked us all to place much greater emphasis on developing strong communities at our city and land centers, with the cornerstone being an intentional focus on increasing deep and unconditional kindness towards one another. It follows that our communities must be places where everyone feels respected, valued and safe from harassment of any sort. Of particular concern to this panel is how we work with power differentials in Shambhala so that appropriate role boundaries are understood by our leaders and teachers, as well as by those whom they lead or teach. This creates a safe growth and practice environment for everyone.

Times: Why the emphasis on gender along with prevention of harm?

MW: Statistics tell us that one out of 6 women will experience sexual assault or attempted sexual assault at some point in their lives. This compares to one out of 33 men. Additionally, an estimated one out of 10 women will get PTSD at some time in their lives, with women about twice as likely as men to develop PTSD. This may be due to the fact that women tend to experience interpersonal violence (such as domestic violence, rape or abuse) more often than men. While there has not been a report of outright rape within Shambhala, reports about sexual behavior that is inappropriate and causes harm do occur.

To date, all complaints of this type have been brought against male teachers/leaders. We have never received a complaint about sexual impropriety lodged against a female teacher or leader. This means that women, and especially young women, are at higher risk than men for experiencing sexual overtures from teachers/leaders in Shambhala. They are also far more likely to arrive at our doors having experienced sexual trauma in their lives, and are thus significantly more vulnerable. (See Shambhala Times article “The Silence is Broken” published on 8/3/14).

Times: What do we know about the harm caused by sexual boundary violations on the part of teachers and leaders?

MW: In the situations that have been brought to our attention, the degree of harm caused varied. On one end of the continuum, we know of women who have left Shambhala in a great deal of distress and who told no one for quite some time about their experience. In their cases, there is a loss of trust for Shambhala, a loss of their dharma community and not infrequently self-blame and depression. At the other end of the continuum, entire communities have been traumatized by the inappropriate behavior of a teacher or leader whom they believed to be trustworthy. These communities are left to deal with deep disappointment and sadness. In some cases, divisiveness, blame and tremendous instability occur that can last for a very long time.

Times: How does the Panel plan to work with this situation?

MW: Our task is to develop recommendations for prevention, education and policy regarding sexual boundary violations. We also want to make recommendations about how to best help all concerned, including the person who caused the harm, the person harmed and their community. To this end, we will be holding “Town Hall” phone conferences through the fall of 2014 in which we invite interested Shambhala members to bring forth their suggestions and ideas. These calls will be focused on how to move forward as a mandala as opposed to reporting specific cases. Once the calls have taken place, our Panel will write a report and share our recommendations. Those who would like to join the conference calls should note that individual cases will absolutely not be discussed on these calls. Our first two calls will be on:

  • Sunday, Oct 26th at noon Eastern Time
  • Sunday, Nov 30th at noon Eastern Time
  • Times: How do I sign up to attend a Town Hall conference call?

    MW: In order to receive call-in information for this call, please email our panel at [email protected]. Your membership in Shambhala will be verified and the conference call call-in number and code will be emailed to you. You may remain anonymous on the call if you wish. Additionally, this gmail account can be used to offer ideas you may have on this issue.

    Times: If someone wishes to make a report about a specific situation, how would they go about doing this?

    MW: If you have a specific complaint about your experience within Shambhala you can contact your Center Director, Center Rusung, and/or Center Desung. You may also directly contact the International Care and Conduct Panel by emailing the Desung Care and Conduct Officer, Dan Peterson, at [email protected].

    Times: Who are the other Panel members?

    MW: Shastri Charlene Leung is the Chairperson of the Shambhala International Diversity Working Group. Dan Peterson is the Desung Care and Conduct Officer on the International Care and Conduct Panel, and works closely with the other two Panel members, John Sennhauser and Acharya Emily Bower. Jane Arthur is the former Director of Karme Choling and also the Boulder Shambhala Center. She currently serves as the Director of Residential and Retreat Centers.

    ~~
    In order to receive call-in information for upcoming Town Hall Conference call, please email the panel at [email protected]

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    14 responses to “ On Gender and the Prevention of Harm ”
    1. I had heard a few years ago that there was a rape in Europe–I think it was at one of the Italian Shambhala centers, and that the man was at that time the Director of Practice there.

    2. also, the shambhala times article you refer to contains a story of attempted rape at a shambhala center. So, I don’t know that your statement that there has never been a case of outright rape within shambhala is totally true. But thank you so much for trying to do something about that kind of harm.

    3. Terry Rudderham
      Oct 15, 2014
      Reply

      It appears that November 11 is a Tuesday and not a Sunday.

    4. Terry Rudderham
      Oct 15, 2014
      Reply

      Because I have direct knowledge from two rape survivors and indirect knowledge about other rape survivors, I am confident that rapes have occurred in the Shambhala community. And I am confident that, as Mary tells us in her interview, that no outright rape has been reported. That raises the question as to why women in the Shambhala community do not want to report that they have been raped.

      A good start to changing that would be to believe and acknowledge, as painful as it may be, that rape occurs in Shambhala. Even if no outright rapes have been reported.

      And I am doing just that. Believing and acknowledging. I hope others can join me.

    5. Jigme Urbonas
      Oct 17, 2014
      Reply

      Without having first hand accounts and a clear understanding of problems that have arisen in the past, how can a panel come up with valid recommendations on prevention, education and policy?
      It may be more helpful to begin this process by inviting those who have been harmed to tell their stories in an anonymous and safe venue…and then, to further the process, to invite those who are accused to tell their stories in an anonymous and safe venue.
      Without this ground, the process would appear to be based on guesswork and projection.

    6. Robert Pressnall
      Oct 17, 2014
      Reply

      In reply to Jigme, I would say that the “ground” and that “this process” for “coming up with valid recommendations on prevention, education and policy” regarding rape and sexual abuse have long existed in Shambhala, but that they are largely underground because voices are ignored, dampened or denied. I do agree that both the “harmed” and the “accused” as well others might be “invited” to voice their experience publicly, and sometimes they do. For example I would recommend the voice of Cathy Wyman in the comments section of the Times article “The Silence Is Broken” (linked in the above interview with Mary Whetsell). I am personally aware of several cases in Shambhala where it was difficult to speak out or be heard, yet change happened in at least one instance because of a mother’s persistence on behalf of her daughter’s experience. Your conclusion that “without this ground, the process would appear to be based on guesswork and projection,” tells me that you want more evidence and education, but it need not stop those of us who are well aware of this problem in Shambhala from moving forward with Mary’s proposals.

    7. This is a very worthy initiative about fostering openness about difficult issues and raising awareness within the mandala about why this kind of problems continues to exist; why women and minorities are afraid to speak up and most importantly why the leadership within Shambhala hesitate to take prompt and effective internal action (issue at least a verbal warning or temporary suspension of office after a legitimate complaints) against officials who are inflicting deep psychological pain and abuse of trust if not outright physical rape on naive members, precisely because they are allowed to get away with it. I feel Buddha’s teaching on virtue that promotes non-harm and kindness need to be embedded into Shambhala society, culture and decorum and member care and everyday staff conduct. It is hard enough to be a woman or man of courage these days. That is the path of warriorship.

      http://harvardpolitics.com/united-states/yesallwomen-combating-misogynist-culture/

    8. Margaret Jones Callahan
      Oct 20, 2014
      Reply

      I appreciate the current attempt to generate a public discussion of the issues relating to gender, and harm. However, I think the issues are broader than an adult member being sexually assaulted. For example, how does our community relate to known sexual offenders of children?
      The Canadian statistics re sexual assault appear to differ from those quoted. One in 4 girls, and one in 6 boys experience sexual abuse before age 16 while 53 per cent of women and 33 percent of men report experiencing “unwanted sexual contact” before age 18.
      The Canadian statistics on adult sexual assault and violence are not so clear cut. Different sources report the incidence differently so comparisons are harder to make.
      However, like Terry, I am aware of Shambhala members who have been sexually harassed, and others who have been assaulted. Some of their disclosures prompted further discussions that were part of the process leading to the formation of our current International Care and Conduct Panel.
      One of the main issues in how disclosures and complaints are handled within the community is the lack of confidentiality, respect, and safety for the parties concerned. Our leadership has to develop clear boundaries for all communications regarding such sensitive issues if we are going to try to publicly address them.
      I hope many of our community members and our leaders will step forward and participate in the discussion.the greater our transparency, the stronger our communities will be.

    9. AH – the elephant in the room is finally exposed.

      One of our lunch meetings at KCL was a talk on sexual safety of children during programs by Judi Robison. She discussed three cases of sexual molestation of children, one as young as three and another of twelve years who had been a victim of rape by an adult male. He should have been arrested, but was only made to leave. Judi was warning us to look out for situations that made us feel uncomfortable and report them.

      Years later, one of my meditation instructees was a victim of sexual advances of one of our visiting tulkus. She wound up on a psych hold in the hospital completely confused. Another young person was seduced by her MI. Because of his stature in the sangha, she thought maybe she was wrong to feel violated, that he must have been right since he was so experienced in the dharma and was well-regarded.

      All these cases were shoved under our very lumpy rug of secrecy.
      Where we had meetings trying to discuss matters like these or other concerns, we were instructed to keep our eyes on the VIEW and everything would be resolved. obviously, nothing ever was.

      Am I the only person who thinks that, by example, this climate of being sexually lax, low standards of comportment, was served up to us right along with the dharma teachings right from the beginning?

    10. annonymous
      Oct 20, 2014
      Reply

      I am fully in support of a dialogue on sexual conduct and mis-conduct – and fully in support of protecting all of our community from sexual assault or harm. However, the comment about an individual from Italy borders on libel or slader.

      Does the Shambhala Times take responsibility to verify such accusations? If yes – please let the community know. If no, please refrain from publishing this style of comment.
      This type of comment does not further the dialogue for me and evokes worry and concern for individuals named or indicated in this type of post. It is difficult, if not impossible to have a ‘safe’ conversation when such comments are allowed.

    11. Sheila Cataford
      Oct 20, 2014
      Reply

      I am encouraged to see attention being put on sexual abuse/harrassment in our sangha and I want to echo the concerns expressed above regarding paying equal attention to sexual abuse/harrassment toward men and boys in our sangha.
      Many, many years ago while on summer staff at a land center, I noticed a look of terror and panic in the eyes of a 14 year old boy when a certain male staff member passed him on the way to dinner. I will never forget that look but unfortunately it took me a long time to realize what it suggested. I will never know what happened between that 14 year old boy and that male staff member but based on that boys terrified look I know it wasn’t good.

    12. Linda Willow
      Oct 20, 2014
      Reply

      I am proud of all of you for opening up this difficult discussion. This raises my concern about the nature and power of higher level teachings, the unquestioned power and lack of accountability for leaders within the mandala, and absolute horror that such power can be distorted into rationalizing harm–to such an extent that survivors question their own take on reality. Bullying, coercing, sadism—in a vision where “everything” is sacred and viewed as phenomena–does this not indirectly condone such behavior?

    13. Buddha emphasized non-harm in all our daily conducts with body-mind-speech, especially for all those who take refuge within a spiritual community. In Buddhist ethics before one assumes position of power in a sangha, one must be thoroughly familiar and well practiced in trainings of non-harm to self and others.

      The way to address harm is to keep a closed box for notes from members and staff. Notes could be about good conduct and harmful conduct. If there is any serious allegation made that should be immediately brought to the attention of the accused by (Desung, DSHWB, Diversity office) if named. A process of at least three mediated meeting agreed by two parties must be held and harmony restored. Usually there is a pattern or habit of harming by such people (which they may be unwilling to admit). There is likely to be more than one allegation over a period of 2-5 years, if there is simply a box for notes and member feedback. There needs to be automatic internal suspension from office for some duration, so healing and amends can take place.

      Compassion without wisdom is blind and such idiot compassion (including protection and promotion of the offending party by the leadership) got to stop. One stitch saves nine later.
      http://wisdomquarterly.blogspot.com/2009/03/sexual-misconduct-defined.html

    14. You cannot libel or slander a person who is not identified.


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