The head of the Buddhist group Shambhala International drunkenly kissed and groped a woman without her consent, pressured other women into sex, and sought sex from his female students for years, according to a report the group published Sunday.
That report doesn’t say whether Sakyong Mipham will face any consequences. Meanwhile, one of the women Mipham allegedly assaulted said her life has been shattered since she decided to come forward.
“Pursuing this, pursuing the truth coming out — that process has actually destroyed my faith and my health,” the woman, who asked not to be named out of concerns for her privacy, told ThinkProgress.
The investigation was carried out by Halifax, Nova Scotia, law firm Wickwire Holm, which Shambhala hired after the advocacy group Buddhist Project Sunshine published a series of four reports that detailed allegations of sexual assault against Mipham.
Wickwire Holm’s report found a pattern of Mipham seeking sex from his female students from 1995 until at least 2005, but it did not substantiate claims that Mipham and other senior Shambhala leaders gang-raped a woman who worked in his household, or that he raped teenage girls. Mipham has denied both of those allegations.
In a letter sent to the Shambhala community last Tuesday, Mipham did not address the allegations in the report directly or offer an apology. But he said that he has read and listened to many women share their stories over the past several months, including meeting with some women he had relationships with in the past.
“I have deeply reflected on how I handled these situations and my past relationships, and am becoming aware of how my behavior hurt others … Addressing and apologizing for these situations needs to occur at a personal level. I have started this process and intend to make every effort to continue doing so,” Mipham wrote.
A lawyer for Mipham did not return a request for comment. Wickwire Holm referred questions about the report to Shambhala, which did not respond to a detailed list of questions.
The Wickwire Holm report comes the week after police in Boulder, Colorado, arrested former Shambhala teacher William L. Karelis on a charge of child sex abuse. Karelis has denied that charge. Police in Larimer County, Colorado, opened an investigation last year into allegations of criminal sex abuse at Shambhala’s meditation center there.
According to a summary of Wickwire Holm’s findings by Shambhala’s interim board, the firm received 10 reports of sexual misconduct by Mipham and 20 by other Shambhala leaders. It only investigated three — two against Mipham and one against someone else in a leadership role. The latter claim was not substantiated.
Buddhist Project Sunshine’s lead investigator, Carol Merchasin, called those low numbers “startling.” Merchasin said she does not question Wickwire Holm’s neutrality, but she said many alleged victims she spoke with were concerned after Shambhala announced that the report would go to its long-time general counsel, Alex Halpern — a decision it later reversed.
“The perception was this [investigation] was not neutral,” Merchasin told ThinkProgress by phone.
The report did not touch on one of the most serious allegations to come to light — that Mipham locked a woman in a bathroom and forced himself on her during a drunken party in Santiago, Chile, in 2002.
There were other limitations to the report: Wickwire Holm set a deadline for accusers or witnesses to come forward, for example, and would only investigate a claim if the person bringing it agreed to be identified to their alleged attacker.
The interim board’s summary also said that “no one reported criminal behavior” by Mipham. Each of the two allegations against Mipham published in the report include behavior that could be criminal, including an allegation Wickwire Holm substantiated.
The report eventually went to an interim board set up after Shambhala’s original board, called the Kalapa Council, resigned en masse in July. Mipham temporarily stepped aside from his administrative and teaching roles during the investigation. But he didn’t leave the organization, and members of the interim board swore an oath to “propagate the vision and culture of Shambhala as proclaimed by … Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche.”
Shambhala sees itself as building an enlightened society with Mipham as its king, complete with royal titles, courts, and thrones. That makes him, in many ways, indispensable.
It’s not clear whether Mipham will seek to retake his throne now that the investigation is over. In a letter that accompanied the report, the interim board called on him to “find a path forward to carry his acknowledgement of these past actions in a way that reflects the honesty and bravery that are the hallmarks of the Shambhala teachings.”
“It is our strong wish that he express true sympathy and speaks from his heart on how he will proceed,” the interim board continued. The letter from the board did not call for any criminal investigation or concrete action against Mipham.
Mipham’s own letter to the Shambhala community Tuesday night was just as vague about his future, saying only that Shambhala members need to “clarify who we are” in order to “decide if we want to be together in this relationship.”
“Each of us has to find our path on our own,” Mipham concluded. “I am no different.”
The report includes detailed investigations by Wickwire Holm of allegations by two women who say Mipham sexually assaulted them.
The first of those two woman said Mipham drunkenly kissed and groped her against her will after a party at his home in Halifax in 2011.
The report found that Mipham “violated her personal and sexual boundaries in a manner to which she did not consent,” but it stopped short of calling the incident sexual assault, calling it “sexual misconduct” instead.
The report also found that people who saw the incident colluded to downplay Mipham’s actions and to discredit his alleged victim.
In an interview with ThinkProgress, the woman said the report’s findings are a relief after years of feeling dismissed by the other people she was with that night, whom she described as friends.
“I’m actually shocked by what she decided to say,” she said of the Wickwire Holm investigator. “I feel like she got it. She understood my story so well.”
The second woman said that Mipham tried to coerce her to perform oral sex in front of other senior Shambhala officials on two separate occasions, the he pressured her to “donate” her townhouse in Boulder to him, and that she saw parents bring their teenage daughters to Mipham’s room for what she believed were sexual encounters.
Wickwire Holm concluded that Mipham sought out this woman for sex and that this violated his responsibilities toward her as her spiritual teacher. It also found that Mipham likely asked her to give him her townhouse.
“I find there is an expectation, formally and informally, that community members will give generously and support [Mipham], his family, and his spiritual pursuits,” the report said. “Indeed, the entire organization seems to be centered around supporting [Mipham] and his ability to teach.”
The report did not substantiate this woman’s allegations that Mipham sexually assaulted her, that he assaulter her in front of others, or that he had sex with teenage girls.
Thousands of Shambhala members around the world are gathering Tuesday to celebrate Shambhala Day, which marks the start of a new lunar year. Meanwhile, one of Mipham’s alleged victims who is featured in the report said she has had to leave the community, and her faith, behind.
“The act of speaking up, instead of remaining silent, you’re almost excommunicating yourself,” she said.
Do you have information about sexual misconduct in Shambhala or another religious organization? Contact reporter Joshua Eaton by email at email@example.com or by Signal at 202–684–1030.