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Sexually Enlightened Society

Introducing a draft policy on sexual harm and misconduct

by Crina Bondre Ardelean, Chris Kreeger, Terry Rudderham, and Alexis Shotwell

magnolia-1077384__340We are a working group that has spent the last year writing a draft of a policy for preventing sexual harm and misconduct within Shambhala and responding appropriately if it occurs. In this short article, we want to introduce some of the view we’ve been taking to this work, and would like to invite you to comment on the working draft of the policy before we submit it for consideration to the Executive Council of Shambhala.

In Shambhala, each human interaction has the potential to create enlightened society. The Shambhala terma teaches, and the Sakyong emphasizes, that in every moment, each of us is creating society, and we have the choice of turning towards either the setting sun or the Great Eastern Sun. These individual interactions add up to what holds sway in the prevailing society. Throughout history and the world, most communities have compelled the subordination of women to men, and prevailing sexual mores and religions, including Buddhism, have enforced this subordination.

In the Letter of the Morning Sun, and in multiple teachings thereafter, the Sakyong has proclaimed that the Shambhala community must change the social paradigm. Given the omnipresence of sexuality in each moment, an integral part of this social paradigm change must include shifts from unequal sexual relationships to mutually respectful and empowering relationships, which give witness to the basic goodness of everyone.

hands-63743__340As the Sakyong teaches in The Shambhala Principle, changing the social paradigm is not some massive feat of social engineering. Enlightened society begins with just you and me, with the interaction that occurs between two people. The Sakyong has called upon us to make our Shambhala Centers laboratories for enlightened society, and this intent should guide what occurs in our community. Then, what occurs between you and me contributes to the creation of the culture within Shambhala society. Shambhala society can show an alternative to the prevailing society, where people have learned to use sexuality to control, manipulate, and gain power over one another.

Our Shambhala mandala is not immune to the setting sun society it finds itself in, nor to the misuse of sexuality.  In our own history, there have been cases of harmful relations between teachers and students, as well as cases of sexual harm among community members. As a community, we are emerging from a period in which harmful sexual conduct was not dealt with skillfully, and in which people who were harmed did not feel supported to speak up and find their voices. We have our path to tread in rediscovering a sense of enlightened sexuality that is based on mutual empowerment. There is room for deep contemplation regarding the meaning of consent, especially in the context of uneven power dynamics. Within the context of creating enlightened society, it is crucial that as Shambhalians we turn our attention to our sexual expression, and to how we feel about the vulnerability that true intimacy invokes.

If people are not mindful and aware, ego protects itself from vulnerability through passion, aggression, and ignorance. Sometimes people use passion–particularly in sexual activity–as a strategy to avoid the vulnerability that is awakening in the practice situation, and then aggression and ignorance come along. On the one hand, when one is feeling particularly vulnerable, it may be natural to want to connect intimately with another human in a sexual way. However, doing so is destructive when there are differences in authority between the two people, or when one of them is the unwilling target of sexual attention. Reaching out sexually under these circumstances carries an extra force.

Teachers and others in authority, whether succumbing to ignorance, passion, or lust for power, shape what the dharma means to people. Sexual aggressors, whether in authority or fellow students, can undermine someone’s connection to the Shambhala community and teachings, because they make our community unsafe, especially unsafe for the vulnerability required when opening up to the dharma. People have left the Shambhala path altogether in response to inappropriate or unwanted sexual attention. To the extent that interactions such as these add up, the Shambhala community replicates the prevailing society, where one person dominates another, abetted by sexuality and the passivity of the community. It is necessary for our community not to be complicit in sexual harm, but instead to create a sexually enlightened society.

woman-1031507__340A Shambhala view of sexuality creates a safe space for vulnerability, which is needed to connect with basic goodness. It takes the power of openness to create enlightened society, overcoming the power of aggression. For this reason, all of our practice situations cultivate softness and open heart. Ultimately, all warriors bravely engage their world of household and work, maintaining their connection to basic goodness carried in the vessel of vulnerability.

The brilliance of the Great Eastern Sun illuminates what to cultivate and what to reject. The Shambhala Policy on Sexual Harm and Misconduct reflects the positive developments the prevailing society has undertaken over the past thirty years to prevent and respond to sexual domination. We want to take this a step further and cultivate a virtuous approach. So, the draft Shambhala Policy on Sexual Harm and Misconduct is the beginning of a journey in which we cultivate a good human society, with the expression of sexuality aligned to the basic goodness of relationships.

Update from Alexis Shotwell, as of February 2018: Our committee collected feedback on the draft policy between November 9th and December 9th, 2016. We worked through what we received from community members, and have sent a revised draft of the policy to Shambhala’s core services for their consideration for next steps. We also included a number of questions for Shambhala International that we did not feel able to answer but that we thought were worth considering going forward.

You can read the revised draft policy here.

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19 responses to “ Sexually Enlightened Society ”
  1. My comment refers to some of the Shambhala chants, which seem to reinforce the status quo regarding inequality between women and men and/or female and male. In particular, why do chants referring to certain female figures who have achieved enlightenment in their own right refer to these individuals as consorts? It is no secret that Buddhism arose within patriarchy, but why do we continue in Shambhala to refer to the female only as she relates to the male? Let us not allow our daily practices to undermine our shared aspirations to reduce sexual harm and misconduct by acknowledging what in our very own Shambhala culture serves to reinforce versus challenge our core beliefs about sexuality.

  2. I skimmed through the draft policy and there is so much wrong and at different levels that it is overwhelming. I can’t come up with a helpful criticism.

    I would like to second Judith’s critique of “sexually enlightened society”, that term. Let’s just start with “sexuality” and “society”. Do we even know what those things are? And combining them we have “sexuality within society” which is even more complicated, but I think that is what we are trying to talk about. I wish we could start there.

  3. Thanks very much to the people working on this policy. And ditto many of the comments thus far presented. A few things are on my mind about this:

    1. I had a rather visceral negative response to the phrase, “enlightened sexuality”. I would suggest that the word “enlightened” be used more sparingly, more appropriately, less jargony. “Sexually enlightened society” could be okay, although it still strikes me as jargon. We have to be very careful about the use of our words.

    2. Because we all have a lot of material to read these days in our current world — whether it is Dharma or keeping up with the news from various countries, or whatever it might be — I would like to suggest that the article be very carefully edited so as to not bombard us with overload of words. Keep it comfortably readable. More pith, please, without losing heart or the very important points that need to be made. Amanda’s suggestion of “a brief outline of the policy that is being proposed” would be helpful, as a start.

    3. Sexual abuse, verbal abuse, power abuse (to say nothing of misogyny) have all been rampant in our community, at least North American community, for as long as I can remember (1974). (Ravenna’s story is horrifying and not unfamiliar.) Heed this information carefully.

    Thanks again for your very important efforts!

  4. I’m sorry this happened to you, Ravenna. I’m glad you have come thought this with your heart intact.

  5. I’m glad you all are working on this! It’s just soooooooo late. I’m looking forward to reading the actual policy and agree with earlier comments about the power dynamic. Consent simply is not enough since there are layers upon layers of teachers in this sangha and thus the element of power. Also, just because it is Shambhala doesn’t mean our views aren’t deeply affected by the regular setting sun world. When I was sexually harassed at Karme Choling, I was not believed and the guy was promoted (I was asked to leave)! The little ways in which misogyny echoes throughout the shrine room.

  6. Carol Henderson
    Nov 20, 2016

    Good Morning! To read the actual policy, send an email to the link at the end of the story. A copy of the draft policy will be sent to you in reply.
    The editor.

  7. This is a beautiful letter and a beautiful contemplation on sexuality within our mandala but maybe I missed the actual policy? After reading it I still don’t feel clear about what the policy actually is, and whom the policy affects, in what context. With love,Thubten.

  8. You mention nothing about alcohol use and abuse and its role in both sexual attacks and harassment. I think you might think about suggesting (or even mandating) a policy about the use of alcohol for MIs, teachers and so on within the context of Shambhala programs. Victims of harassment by individuals under the influence are all to frequent in colleges, workplace and even family environments. it happens within Shambhala, I’m sure you know that.

  9. Carol Henderson
    Nov 18, 2016

    Hi Michael,
    If you send an email to the address in the story, you will receive contact information in response.

  10. Michael Smith
    Nov 18, 2016

    Is the contact information for the working group somewhere in this article and I am just not seeing it? Thank you.

  11. Dear Working Group,
    I echo the comments and appreciation for tackling this much needed realm of discussion within our community. I have read through most of your draft policy and offered suggestions, but I think there are some good suggestions for you to consider in these comments. The opening paragraphs in this article could stand as a view statement. I particularly echo Jean’s comments about defining terms, which could be clarified more in the draft. I also would like to see more conversations taking place in our sangha groups around these issues. We are all trying to grow as a culture of kindness and open heart; let’s help each other along.

  12. Hamish Anderson
    Nov 16, 2016

    Thank you for the care put into this draft policy. Thank you for also opening this up for suggestions.

  13. Jeanne Cain
    Nov 16, 2016

    First, I would like to echo Amanda’s thank you to the working group for drafting a policy on sexual harm and misconduct in Shambhala. We truly need to relate to this area of life. It’s time! Thank you.
    I would also request a follow up article with a brief outline of the policy. Defining some basic terms like consent and sexual harm would be helpful. The topic of violence against women (including sexualized violence, partner abuse, harassment, etc.) is receiving tremendous attention world-wide, could you recommend relevant reading on this subject, perhaps pointing us toward written material that has influenced the drafting of this policy? There’s a lot of wisdom in the world. Let’s share it.

  14. Thank you very much for taking on this subject! I have experienced in my own Sangha what I feel to be a negligence towards confronting misogyny at the root of this issue. There are examples of it all around us – our presidential election being the most dramatic exposure of our culture’s misogyny. If we can’t confront it within our own Sangha, how are we going to change anything outside of our Sangha?

    I had begun to think the history of Shambhala was to blame for this, and maybe Shambhala was not going to confront that any time soon, so I was considering leaving. I am heartened to read that people are finally going to look at this, and tackle our history and make some policy changes.

    And of course, it isn’t only misogyny at the heart of what “consent” really should mean – sexuality as power is used by all genders. The issue needs to be confronted as a whole.

  15. As someone who has gone through the whole process within Shambhala after something happened to me, I see room for some improvement and I am very open to be contacted to help in any way. All communities have to deal with this sort of thing, we are humans after all, not Buddha, but I know I can help and am open to help to make Shambhala the best it can be and a place that everyone feels safe and welcomed.

  16. It is so refreshing to see this topic being tackled so openly. Of course these issues will come up in a “co-ed” situation and things should come down to “no means no” and the golden rule of treating others as one wishes to be treated. Maturity is definitely needed among all people in close quarters to prevent problems.
    Sexuality is sacred too, between consenting partners…

  17. It would be good if we as a community started talking about the basic goodness of human sexuality and had teachings about it.

  18. Debbie McGee
    Nov 15, 2016

    I like this view very much. I applaud you for taking on writing about this most complex human dynamic. I understand Amanda’s comments on consent. But I believe that in the context of uneven power dynamics, even the most enthusiastic consent on the part of the least powerful one is not sufficient. Hence the need for “contemplation”.

    I guess my question is what next? How would we use this in the event of a complaint?

    I believe Chris Kreeger is a male of he species, and identifies as such. Good work, team!

  19. This is a very important area that we are woefully behind in as an organization and community, and I am so appreciative of you brilliant women who are taking this on. This article, while beautifully written, is less than specific considering it is an introduction to a draft on policy. I wonder if there could be a follow up article that gives a brief outline of the policy that is being proposed, as I am skeptical of how many will take the time to request and read the full draft. I am also slightly concerned with the description of a “deep contemplation regarding the meaning of consent.” I feel like your intention stems from the perspective where our conventional approach to and understanding of consent is limited and influenced by rape culture, and therefore needs to broaden and deepen to understand consent as being that which is enthusiastic. My concern is that not everyone shares or understands this perspective, and that there are those in the community who feel like they need to protect men from a new-age feminist witch-hunt. I feel like the language can be interpreted to suggest that consent is somehow a mysterious concept, rather than an incredibly clear and definite one. I am concerned that language like this while it may be intended to ease people out of the discomfort this topic may inspire, and into understanding, is actually creating a loophole for people to engage in victim shaming without meaning to or even realizing that they are doing so.

    Thank you so much for your work on this project.

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