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Feb 13
Preventing and Responding to Sexual Misconduct and Harm

A draft policy prepared by Crina Bondre Ardelean, Christopher Kreeger, Terry Rudderham, Alexis Shotwell.


View: Preventing sexual misconduct and harm

Creating enlightened society implies establishing a community where many forms of interpersonal harm don’t happen; this policy addresses, in particular, the prevention of and response to sexual misconduct and harm. It is a companion to the Care and Conduct policy, which focuses on how to respond to harmful conduct on the part of Shambhala office holders. While office holders bear a heightened responsibility to maintain the Shambhala vision, and thus are the subject of the Care and Conduct policy, we recognize that there are situations in which inappropriate or harmful behavior is coming from fellow participants in programs, staff holding temporary roles, or fellow sangha members.

Shambhala exists within a broader world that is pervasively marked by sexual harm; everyone who participates in our programs is affected by this broader context to some degree. Given that we do exist within a society in which people harm others using sexuality, it is important for us to address sexual misconduct directly. Indeed, avoiding sexual harm is one of the Five Precepts, showing that this has been a concern since the time of the Buddha. People of all genders, ages, racial groups, class positions, abilities and disabilities, and sexualities experience sexual harm.  Women, trans people, disabled people, people living in poverty, and others who experience social oppression are more likely to have experienced sexual misconduct or harm.

Many people who come to practice with us have experienced harm and trauma in their lives, and as a community we aspire to be a place that can facilitate healing. At a minimum, Shambhala wishes to be a community in which sexual misconduct and harm does not occur. Sexual harassment, rape, sexualized pressure, and other forms of sexual misconduct have no place in enlightened society; if we are practicing enlightened society, we are not waiting until some future time when these wrongs will not arise. We want a world in which they do not happen.  While we attempt in this policy to lay out appropriate responses for when sexual harm has occurred, clearly the best situation would be to have ongoing practices that prevent misconduct in the first place.

1.2 What is Harmful Sexual Conduct?

We realize that it is impossible to legislate virtue, and that it must be each person’s own spiritual aspiration for virtuous activity that motivates real progress on the path. However, since each one of us vacillates between moments of clarity and moments of confusion, we feel it is important to give some guidelines about what harmful sexual conduct can look like.

1.2.1 From Positions of Power

From people in positions of teaching power, any display of desire toward a student may be harmful. The objectification of a student as a potential sexual partner is inappropriate. This means that flirting, overly intimate behaviour and comments, suggestions about a student’s private life, and in general validation-seeking behaviour on the part of a teacher creates disharmony and disrespect not only between the teacher and the student, but also within the community. Under no circumstances should a teacher endeavour to make a student feel “special” by confiding in them a teacher’s private affairs and emotions. Such use of a teacher’s stature to receive personal validation is a grievous misuse of the teachings. In Shambhala, we value authentic and powerful presence, and this is something we wish to continually manifest. Since students are invited to fall in love with the teachings, it is most important that teachers refrain from seeking romance or sexual connection within the boundaries of the teacher-student relationship. Our best teachers are the ones who invite students fall in love with the teachings, rather than themselves.

In order to support this view we suggest the following guidelines:

  •     During a program, no teacher or staff should approach a participant romantically or sexually
  •     During a program, there should be no insinuation of future sexual or romantic alliances between teachers and students
  •    Should a romantic connection develop between a teacher, MI, or Guide and a former student, sufficient time should pass after the teacher-student relationship has ended for all involved to be clear that the connection is not arising from it. Other sanghas dictate a three-month gap. Should the relationship go forward, both the teacher/MI and former student must agree that it not be clandestine, and it must be made clear, both within the local Shambhala leadership structure and privately, that the teacher-student relationship is completely dissolved.
  •     If a teacher, MI, or Guide is seen to develop a pattern of finding ever new short-term relationships from within programs, intervention would be appropriate.

Teachers, MIs, and Guides are all human, and may also be available and looking for relationships. Love may eventually occur, as well as a desire for a committed relationship, and in those circumstances, we hope the goodwill of both parties will support the development of a reciprocal relationship that includes a healthy power dynamic.

1.2.2 From Peers Within the Community

We aspire to create safe places for everyone. For this to happen, all of us need to be more aware of our biases and assumptions about appropriate sexual vs affectionate expression. In a sangha, the development of authentic affection is important and desirable. However, it is important that we develop an attention to and respect for other people’s personal boundaries. These can change from one day to another. When greeting one another, we each have different perceptions of what kind of greeting is too intimate, and a conversation about this may be in order when getting to know someone. Among some people, kisses on the cheek are understood as a norm, where others find a simple handshake to be a warm and affectionate “hello.” Gratuitous touching or adjusting Shambhala pins on people’s chests are actions that belong between people who have a consensual understanding that this is acceptable. In general, adopting a practice of checking in before touching, kissing, or hugging is recommended.

We must protect against letting our affectionate environment be distorted by people’s desire for validation. It is possible that someone’s inappropriate behaviour becomes apparent to others in the sangha even if it does not become apparent to the person at whom the desire is being directed. In this case, it is important that those who feel concerned with the behaviour feel responsible and empowered to address the situation, either directly or indirectly. We do not want to wait until someone is hurt by inappropriate behaviour before boundaries are set. Since we aspire to create a culture of respect and recognition, this is all up to us to work with. Concern with behavior is sufficient reason to address it. The result of addressing it will vary; sometimes it might turn out there was simple a misunderstanding. This is no reason to avoid speaking out when witnessing “friendly” behaviour that seems frivolous or manipulative. Conversation is always appropriate, and it is important that we allow the stigma around boundary transgressions to soften enough so that when one is criticized for a boundary transgression, there is room for an undramatic resolution.

1.2.3 Setting up capacities for response before anything happens

At Shambhala Centers where there is governance capacity, the people holding key roles who would respond to sexual misconduct should ideally have training and have reflected on how to respond to sexual harm. This would be the representative for Societal Health and Well-Being, the Rusung, the Center Director, and the Director of Practice and Education. As well, it would be good to have at least one or two ordinary sangha members, not part of the leadership team, who would be available to provide support. In some centers members with expertise in psychotherapy, social work, and other helping professions would be appropriate adjunct members of the Center response team for working with sexual harm. The team and procedure for responding to harm should be set up before anything happens, and people should be clear about what their roles would be (consult the four pillars section, below, for areas of responsibility). If there are not appropriate people to hold these roles within a center, or the group is small, the leadership in a Center should understand how to contact and work with the international Care & Conduct Committee or the Office of Societal Health and Well-Being, as appropriate.

For the above reasons, and perhaps others, it would be productive to have regional committees tasked with working on prevention of sexual harm and available to respond (in conjunction with Shambhala Mandala Services) to any such harm, especially in small centers and groups. These regional committees could offer practical training to Centers and Groups in their area, and support the vision of the Office of Societal Health and Well-Being. It is also important that people who practice in the Shambhala context know that they can directly contact the central committee responsible for responding to sexual harm and misconduct (for example, if they have experienced harm while at a land center away from their local context, or if they are not comfortable approaching their local Center leadership).

SECTION TWO: Responding when sexual harm has occurred

2.1 Ground: Trust, listening, centering the person who has experienced harm

The starting point for responding to sexual harm in our community is understanding that it has happened. This means first recognizing that across our mandala and in a wide range of different contexts there have been situations in which someone has harmed someone else through sexual misconduct. As a society, we are working to make sure such misconduct no longer happens and to respond appropriately when it does.

Often, when someone brings forward a complaint that they have experienced sexual harm, the person receiving that complaint does not know what to make of it. The complainant can experience as skepticism the attitude the listener adopts if they take a wait-and-see posture when they don’t want to reach a judgment on what has occurred before hearing from all sides. A more helpful approach would be “trust without suspicion,” which the Dorje Dradul describes in the first chapter of his book, Great Eastern Sun. Trust without suspicion also is the theme of the first talk of Level V, Open Sky, Primordial Stroke; it is the ground of raising lungta. If the listener can be present to the complainant in this way, a sense of skepticism or reserve will be minimized, and the listener can, in that moment, be at the disposal of the complainant fully.  If a situation of sexual misconduct arises in your local sangha, this ground holds as well. In particular if someone comes to you to raise a concern about sexual misconduct or harm, the starting point is to believe that they have experienced harm, to listen carefully, and to center on their needs in the process of responding to the situation. Because sexual harm can be a shocking and difficult thing for us to confront as a community, there may be a tendency to wish that it hadn’t happened, and to behave as though nothing is wrong. In particular, when a person who has harmed someone else is a valued part of the community – for example an MI, teacher, or part of the administration of the Center – we might be unable to believe that they would do anything to hurt someone else. Or we might worry that addressing their harmful behavior will disrespect their basic goodness or exile them from a community they love. Feeling these things is perfectly understandable. However, even if someone does not think they harmed anyone, or that their intentions were misinterpreted, the starting point and core approach in responding to sexual harm begins with caring for the person who has experienced harm – affirming that they did the right thing in bringing the situation forward, explaining what the procedures for addressing it are, not minimizing or dismissing what they’ve experienced, making sure they are comfortable coming to the Center, listening to their needs, and so on. This is perfectly consistent with holding the basic goodness of everyone involved in mind and heart. In particular, it is important not to prioritize the needs and dharma path of someone identified has having caused harm while neglecting the needs and dharma path of someone who has experienced it.

2.2 Path: Practical Steps

View – Healing the target, healing the perpetrator, healing the community

Since we live in a society in which sexuality as an expression of dominance has been propagated, we need to look within, as individuals and as a community, to find the roots of behaviour that causes harm to others. Without genuine regret, no progress on the path can be made for the individual, and healing for the community becomes more difficult and complicated. We acknowledge that there will be individuals who are not yet ready to face the conditions that caused them to act harmfully and as a community we must be prepared to create appropriate boundaries in such cases.

In the aftermath of experiencing sexual harassment or harm, it can happen that individuals identify themselves or are identified by others in terms of the wound they’ve received. This identification may be expressed in a variety of difficult emotions. Such individuals should be supported in their journey to re-establishing their sense of power and agency, which could allow for genuine forgiveness which is felt as a liberation from the situation, and not as another burden that the recipient of the harm must bear for the community or for the one who caused harm. As a community we aspire to create and protect the space in which the ones who have experienced harm can feel what it is that they need in order to rebuild confidence in themselves and in the community.

In order for this to become possible, we must be prepared to face uncomfortable truths about our beliefs and conceptions. We may be confronted with a situation where someone we have long admired is revealed as someone who has caused such harm, and the emotions that arise from this will be very challenging. If we have experienced harm ourselves in the past, we may be confronted with feelings of shame when someone comes forward with their experience of harm.


We are within conventional society, and no internal policy supplants the conventional legal structures in place. Whoever within the Shambhala mandala becomes aware of sexual harm should begin by addressing any immediate, crisis-level aspects of the situation. Assess whether the police need to be involved. In cases in which someone has been raped, is in physical danger, or where there is an immediate threat to their well-being, involving conventional authorities is necessary. Even if the police or authorities are involved it is important to activate the processes for supporting someone who has experienced harm within Shambhala. Responders should take the lead of the person who has been harmed, and center their safety and well-being. There may be situations in which sexualized harm has been done, but the person or people targeted do not want to pursue a formal procedure or notify the police. In cases in which a perpetrator has been identified – whether because they’ve been identified by someone who does not want to pursue a complaint or because others have noticed their behavior – the leadership of the community should address this situation.

People who have experienced sexual harm should be invited to participate in an inquiry and response process to the extent they want to or are comfortable with.  However, they are not responsible for determining the outcome. It is up to the community leadership, taking its cue from the person who has experienced harm, to decide when perpetrators can resume their roles.

It is necessary for Shambhala Core Services to know as soon as a process addressing sexual harm has begun (when a complaint is made), how it is going, and how it concludes.


2.2.1 In cases in which Teacher/MI/Guide/Leader commits sexual harm against a Student:

When someone harms someone else, it is a part of respecting their basic goodness to support them in addressing the harm they have done; this may involve limits on or ending their staffing, teaching, and coordinating roles within our sangha.

Follow the standard Care & Conduct policy, with the addition of the following specific considerations in cases involving sexual harm or misconduct. Acknowledge the person’s experience of harm and assure them that it is taken seriously. This is important, because even when someone did not intend to, for example, sexually harass their meditation student, the student’s experience of feeling sexualized or inappropriately approached is real and deserves care.

2.2.2. Procedures for peers/community situations

Depending on the situation, there may need to be limits or negotiations on their participation in programs. For example, if someone has harmed a fellow practitioner and they are both applying to an advanced program, the default approach in situations (especially when the target has asked for this particular response) would be to ask the person who did the harm not to come to the program. As general guidelines:

  •      Insure that the person who has been harmed has a gender-appropriate person to talk with.
  •      Bring the appropriate people in Center leadership into the loop (normally the Desung, SHWB representative, and Director, as well as specific people in the community who have had training and are available to talk with survivors of sexual harm).
  •      Determine how much the person who has been harmed wants to be involved in the process of addressing what has occurred, making sure to respect their needs in the process (do not ask a survivor to tell their story multiple times). It is important to keep an ongoing engagement with someone who has brought a concern about sexual misconduct to Center leadership to make sure that they are respected and heard as part of the process.
  •      With the consent of the person who experienced harm, initiate a conversation with the person who caused the harm. In cases in which the person who experienced harmful behavior is not interested in pursuing a formal complaint process, it is still important that the violation is clearly marked and communicated. Particularly since people are often not cognizant that they have done anything wrong, an ideal first step is communicating that they have affected someone else.
  •      If someone wants to remain anonymous, such a conversation with a perpetrator may not be possible because it would reveal a complainant’s identity. In cases in which someone wants to remain anonymous, explore what things can be done to support them and their participation in Shambhala activities. This may involve a designated person to regularly check in with them. Simultaneously, this can be an appropriate time to heighten general awareness around these issues in your local context.
  •      Determine whether the person identified as having caused harm needs to be immediately suspended from a position or role that would prevent meaningfully engaging with the process of addressing a sexual misconduct inquiry. For example, if they are teaching a class and a student in that class has brought a concern to the Director of Practice and Education, it may be skillful to find a replacement teacher; if they are a co-participant in a weekend retreat with someone they are sexually harassing they may need to be asked not to come back to the program.

After an initial conversation with the person bringing a complaint, a variety of approaches may be appropriate. The response to sexual harm will need to be situational and nuanced, and so there is not a programmatic sequence of steps that should be followed in every case. However, there are some suggested practices that can facilitate repair when relations have been damaged.

  •      In consultation with the person who was harmed, designate someone locally who can serve as a contact person and support for the person or people who have experienced harm.
  •      In consultation with the person who did the harm, designate someone locally who can serve as a contact person and support for the person or people who are identified as having caused harm.
  •      Activate the group of people locally who have been previously identified and trained to work with situations like this.
  •      If the context of harm is distributed – for example, if a violation has happened at a residential retreat setting and the people involved live in different places, it may be necessary to have a third liaison with the retreat center.
  •      Communicate with appropriate people at the Shambhala International level. Depending on the context, this must include the Minister of the Pillar of Government, the Director of Societal Health and Well Being and the Desung Commander, and may include the Director of Practice and Education, and others.
  •      Identify what the central issues are that need to be addressed and whether there are additional specific resources from inside or outside Shambhala that should be brought in.
  •      Focus on the question of what repair and healing might look like for the person concerned and the community effected. We are not equipped to investigate cases, collect evidence, or prosecute cases, and this is not the goal of a process addressing sexual harm. Ask: What does the person or people who have experienced harm feel they need? What repair might the broader community in which harm has occurred need? What does this harm reveal to us about patterns and problems within the local context that may have enabled the situation to happen?
  •      If either party prefers not to have direct contact, their contact/support people can bring their requests and responses to the group working on responding to the harm.
  •      If everyone involved is open to talking together in a collective context, there are a variety of established modalities for holding conversations as part of a repair process, including a “circle method” from restorative justice practices, mediated conversation, or nonviolent communication. No one should be expected or pressured into engaging in this way.

As specific needs, actions, and responses are identified, the group holding the process should identify what ongoing results need to be tracked or implemented. For example:

  •      Make sure the results of the process have been clearly communicated to everyone involved.
  •      If there are authorization or leadership changes that have resulted from the process, such as revoking someone’s authorization as a teacher, MI, residential retreat center staff person, etc., enter those changes in the SI database and communicate to people who might invite them to teach or serve as MIs.

SECTION THREE: The Role of the Four Pillars Relative to Harmful Sexual Conduct

Pillar of Government

The Pillar of Government, particularly through its departments of Culture and Decorum and Societal Health and Well-Being, strives to create a healthy culture that minimizes the likelihood of harmful sexual conduct, as well as other harmful neurotic behaviors in the community. Ceremonies the Sakyong encourages us to conduct and participate in, such as the Nyida Day Celebrations and the Full Moon Shambhala Sadhana Celebrations, bring people into a society of basic goodness, thereby increasing everyone’s discernment that harmful sexual conduct is to be avoided.

Government can go further to promote the sensitivity that engenders sexual respect by conducting workshops that explore the occurrence of harmful sexual conduct in society and the effect that has on people. These can be occasions where people can consider how they can be insensitive in their own sexual behavior and reflect on how others in their Shambhala community most likely have been targeted by harmful sexual conduct at some point in their lives. Further, such workshops can also develop sensitivity to the experience of those in the LGBT community who experience harmful sexual conduct in the form of discrimination. The common denominator in all of this is the need to respect the basic goodness of each person in their sexuality.

Once harmful sexual conduct occurs, while leaders and participants in the other three Pillars have a role in responding, the Pillar of Government has principal responsibility to attend to the needs of both the target and the perpetrator and to ensure that the appropriate processes occur. In particular, Government must ensure that the Care and Conduct process is followed, when indicated. Whether or not a formal Care and Conduct process is involved, Government should attend to the continuing well-being of the target and perpetrator. In the latter case, this would be a formal plan, shared with the perpetrator, to work with them in continuing their Shambhala path, to monitor and guide their future behavior within the sangha and to ensure their continued appropriate engagement with the community.

Pillar of Protection

The Pillar of Protection provides the container for enlightened society. Protection can monitor what takes place in the local Shambhala Center and notice who might be approaching the edge of harmful sexual conduct. The Desung or another appropriate Kasung official might speak with that person to warn them of the effect their behavior might have on others. Protection also can monitor the use of alcohol in the Center to ensure it is being used appropriately, since alcohol often is implicated in episodes of harmful sexual conduct.

Pillar of Practice and Education

The Pillar of Practice and Education ensures that all its teachers and meditation instructors are aware of and abide by Shambhala’s principles regarding harmful sexual conduct. Training on this issue should be included in the training teachers and meditation instructors receive initially and ongoing.

Pillar of Economy

The Pillar of Economy’s responsibility is to promote the wealth of the community. Using financial resources to aid the target of harmful sexual conduct is just, compassionate, and a good investment in protecting the overall wealth of the community in this broader context. Such aid could include local Centers and Groups, or Shambhala International more general, establishing a fund to support people who have experienced sexual harm in the community that could be accessed to pay for therapy, dharma programs, and so on; perpetrators could be asked to contribute to this fund, and people in the broader Shambhala community could also be invited to give money.

In Shambhala society, wealth includes both financial and, more importantly, nonfinancial resources – the generosity of the community and the treasure provided by its teachings. Instances of harmful sexual conduct can greatly damage the community’s wealth. People can become skeptical of the teachings when sexual harm is conducted by a teacher or officeholder. When the morale of the community falls, due to harmful sexual conduct, the community becomes less able to fulfill its mission to create enlightened society.

Some broader questions for Shambhala International as they consider this draft policy:

  •      What is the relationship between the sexual misconduct policy and the Care & Conduct policy?
  •      Will there be separate groups dealing with/receiving complaints in relation to these issues? Or will they all come to the current C&C group?
  •      If harm has occurred laterally, from one participant in a program to another, for example, how should that information be tracked and communicated to future dharma contexts?
  •      How should the organization track situations in which no formal complaint has been made?
  •      How should information about teachers who are not authorized as Shambhala teachers (for example, yoga instructors at Shambhala Mountain Center) who commit harm be tracked and communicated?
  •      Should we have an anonymous survey through which people could express experiences they have had that they are not interested in bringing to their local Center or group?
  •      How do we ensure that there are people who are equipped and have capacity to manage sexual harm procedures?
  •      How do we manage the needs of people who’ve been targeted or harmed who do not want to go through a process or whose confidentiality needs to be maintained while also addressing the community’s needs to directly address harm? (Suggestion: to have a general meeting/workshop for the leadership in the community to address and work through the issues raised)
  •      How do we track and communicate to the local community when a process is happening, when it has happened, while respecting the confidentiality of targets who might not want it known that they’ve experienced sexual harm?
  •   How do we provide meaningful training about sexual misconduct?
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