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Aug 11
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Opinion Pieces
Shambhala Shrine Amidst Crisis

Working with issues and concerns related to Shambhala Center shrines and images of Shambhala teachers

by Barbara Heffernan

The Shambhala community is struggling to determine the appropriate response to recent accounts of sexual misconduct on the part of our spiritual leader and lineage holder, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche.

On a personal level, each of us is grappling with reconciling this information with the teachings we love and the teacher we have loved.  Some have already chosen to leave the community, some are dedicated to staying, and many are on the fence.  While these decisions are very personal and require considerable reflection, the response of one’s local sangha and the greater Shambhala community is critical.

As a trauma therapist, I am keenly aware of how the community response is inextricably linked to trauma.  When a person’s community (or family) responds in a caring, loving, and decisive manner, followed by action, the effects of trauma are significantly minimized.  When a person’s community responds with denial and accusations, the effects are multiplied manyfold.  And when a community responds in an in-between way, the effect is also damaging. 
“It is morally impossible to remain neutral” when faced with trauma caused by humans. (1)

As a trauma therapist, I am intimately aware of vicarious traumatization, which arises because we have empathy.  Others’ pain is our pain. Further, we are experiencing the direct trauma of betrayal.  Someone we have venerated, sworn devotion to, has been engaging in behavior directly in contradiction to his teachings.

Yes, the Sakyong is human. Perhaps we expected too much.  I feel compassion for the suffering he, his wife, and his children are going through.  I feel pain for the suffering he must have been living in for decades, both to cause this behavior and to live with it.

Yet, hypocrisy is difficult to bear.  Hypocrisy is not what we want our lineage known for. Compassion for someone does not mean they get to continue acting in harmful ways, or to ignore their previous actions.

At my local sangha’s meeting last week, one woman spoke emotionally about her history of abuse, and how she felt ill sitting in a room with the photographs of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and the Sakyong above the shrine.  She implored the community to support her and remove the photographs.  A majority of the people in the room were in favor of granting this request.

However, a number of key members of the community spoke up, wanting to keep Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s photo above the shrine.  This is the compromise we agreed to. After sitting with this for a week, I was not comfortable with it.  I am sharing some thoughts here for all Shambhala sanghas contemplating similar decisions. These thoughts also apply to many of our chants, which venerate our lineage, including the Mukpo clan. These chants are also triggering traumatic responses for people in our community.

The definition of shrine is “a place regarded as holy because of its associations with a divinity or a sacred person or relic.”  Perhaps our shrines should not have any human beings elevated to this level.

 Some core Buddhist concepts have been helpful to me in contemplating this issue:

  • Non-attachment to form
  • Non-attachment to concept
  • There are no deities.
  • The teachings are sacred because we can experience their truth, not because we are told to believe in them.

The shrine is meaningful in Shambhala Buddhism because it holds objects that represent core concepts, reminders of compassion, egolessness, and impermanence.  The shrine represents our lineage, but this is not a goal in and of itself.  The lineage should also represent compassion, egolessness, and impermanence.

At this time, unfortunately, part of the lineage is reminding many people of  institutionalized abuse of power and of sexual assault.  It is reminding people of the specific details described in the Project Sunshine report, of the Vajra Regent’s harmful behaviors, and of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s sexual behavior.

So, if these photos remind some in our community of horrific events, and remind others of the sanity they receive from the teachings, whose needs and interests should prevail?  One could argue that either group should be able to apply the teachings to their inner turmoil, their grasping, and their rejecting.

I would posit that those reminded of the sanity from the teachings can access these emotions in a direct way while they sit. Peaceful abiding practice is possible for them. Knowing how trauma impacts the limbic system of the brain, I don’t believe people experiencing trauma triggers can easily sit and access peaceful abiding.

If I am to engage in symbolic action, right now I would like to stand with the victims of abuse.  I would like to see my community take action on the side of the victims.  I ask my readers to consider the following points.

When traumatic events are of human design, those who bear witness are caught in the conflict between victim and perpetrator. The bystander is forced to take sides.

It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator.  All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. The victim, on the other hand, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering. (2)

I know of no core Buddhist teaching that says to hold one human being above another.  I know of no core Buddhist teaching that says one should choose one dharma teacher above all others. I know of no core Buddhist teaching that says I should hold the concept of a shrine and what it represents above the needs of a suffering human being next to me. I know of no core Buddhist teaching that says I should be attached to the form of certain photos or objects above the suffering of a human next to me.

I choose to stand in support of the victims of abuse and those currently suffering in our community from vicarious traumatization and the trauma of betrayal.  I choose this, over concept and form.


Barbara Heffernan, LCSW, is the founder and owner of Mindful Psychotherapy, LLC, a private psychotherapy practice in Norwalk, CT. Barbara specializes in working with individuals in the areas of trauma, anxiety and life transitions. Barbara utilizes Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, EMDR, meditation and visualization in her practice. 

Barbara was the Executive Director of the Domestic Violence Crisis Center in Fairfield County, Connecticut, from 2003-2007. In her first career, Barbara spent sixteen years in investment banking, primarily in mergers and acquisitions for Salomon Brothers and Merrill Lynch.  Barbara has a B.A. from Yale University, an MBA from Columbia University and an MSW from Southern Connecticut State University.  

Barbara is a senior student in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition called Shambhala.  She has been practicing meditation for over twenty-five years. 

Barbara’s website is www.mindfulpsychotherapyllc.com.  She can be reached via email at [email protected].


Footnotes:

1)   Herman, Judith, MD.  Trauma and Recovery: The aftermath of violence – from domestic abuse to political terror.  NY: Basic Books, Perseus Books Group, 1997, p. 6.

2)   Herman, J., pp. 6-7

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