Shambhala International budgeted half a million dollars in pay and other compensation for its leader, prominent Buddhist teacher and author Sakyong Mipham, even after multiple women said they told officials at the Buddhist nonprofit that he sexually assaulted them.
It allowed him and his family to live like royalty, documents show, even as most of the money went to support Mipham’s role as head of the organization.
Shambhala continued to pay Mipham and his family’s expenses even after two women reportedly told senior Shambhala leaders he sexually assaulted them, one in 2003 and another in 2011.
Their allegations, and those of at least three other accusers who say Mipham sexually assaulted them or coerced them into a sexual relationship in the early 2000s, appeared over the past month in two reports by the advocacy group Buddhist Project Sunshine (available here and here).
Shambhala budgeted $511,102 for Mipham and his family in 2016, according to an internal document obtained by ThinkProgress. That included an annual salary of CA$30,000 (30,000 Canadian dollars) for Mipham and CA$20,000 for his wife, Khandro Tseyang, along with health insurance for their family, according to Ryan Watson, Shambhala International’s director of finance.
“It is factually incorrect to total Shambhala’s 2016 budget line and call it a compensation package as it primarily includes amounts for office space, secretarial support, and other legitimate business expenses related to the running of an international church,” Watson told ThinkProgress in a statement.
Many of the expenses were business-related, according to the 2016 budget and a more detailed breakdown in Shambhala’s 2015 budget. In 2015, those expenses included Mipham’s personal secretary, editor, and travel coordinator; business travel; and communications.
But Shambhala views Mipham and his family as royalty, and it also paid to maintain what it calls the Kalapa Court — Mipham’s residences and entourage. According to the 2015 budget, those expenses included a financial officer for Mipham and his extended family; salaries and housing for two household servants and a cook; three staff for Tseyang, Mipham’s wife; nannies for their children; household expenses, including food; and cars.
One former director of a local Shambhala center, who spoke with ThinkProgress on condition of anonymity, said she was less bothered by the amount of money spent on Mipham than the royal trappings he and his family enjoy.
“The amounts never raised a flag for me personally,” she said. “The existence of that [royal court] structure, I have a more complex answer to.”
The budget documents show only what Shambhala planned to spend, not what it actually spent. Shambhala has not released annual reports for 2016 or 2017.
In his statement to ThinkProgress, Watson said the $511,102 budgeted by Shambhala for Mipham and his family in 2016 included “religious attendants and church administration roles.”
The figure does not include a $130,000 annual mortgage payment on Mipham’s official residence in Halifax, Canada, which is owned by Shambhala International. But it does include other expenses for that residence.
Watson justified the royal accommodations as a valid expense.
“The Kalapa Court is a combined teaching facility and office for the Sakyong, as well as being a residence for him and his family,” Watson said. “Shambhala has historically contributed to the expenses for Kalapa Courts in Halifax, Nova Scotia and Boulder, Colorado.”
Shambhala spent about a third of its nearly $1.6 million budget for 2016 on Mipham, his family, and the Kalapa Court, not including the mortgage on his official residence in Halifax. That money came primarily from the group’s more than 200 meditation centers around the world, along with its retreat programs and direct contributions from its members.
Several current and former members who are critical of Shambhala’s leadership told ThinkProgress they still value its presentation of Buddhism and the communities they made as part of the organization. Some also pushed back against critics who’ve labeled Shambhala a “cult.”
“The majority of people [in Shambhala] are experiencing the teachings and have nothing to do with the inside [power structures] of Shambhala,” the former center director said.
Shambhala International is based in Boulder and Halifax. Its two main legal entities in the U.S., Shambhala USA and Sakyong Potrang, do not have to file public tax forms because they are registered as churches.
Its two main Canadian legal entities, Shambhala Canada Society and Sakyong Potrang Canada, reported a combined CA$4.8 million in revenue and CA$5.4 million in expenditures in 2016, according to tax filings (available here and here). That included a combined CA$1.3 million spent on compensation.
All of the women spoke to Project Sunshine about Mipham’s alleged abuse on condition of anonymity. One woman told Buddhist Project Sunshine that Mipham pushed her head down to his penis after she said she couldn’t sleep with him. “Well you might as well finish this,” he allegedly told her.
“I was so embarrassed and horrified I did it,” the woman said in Buddhist Project Sunshine’s report. “He rolled over in bed and didn’t say another word to me.”
Another woman, who also spoke with ThinkProgress, said Mipham drunkenly lifted up her skirt, kissed her, and groped her in the kitchen of his official residence in Halifax after a birthday party for one of his young daughters in 2011.
Mipham locked a third woman in a bathroom during a drunken party in Santiago, Chile in 2002, she told Buddhist Project Sunshine. As she repeatedly told Mipham no, the woman said he kissed her, groped her, and force her hand toward his groin. After about 15 minutes, she managed to fend him off and escape.
Shambhala has hired Halifax law firm Wickwire Holm to investigate these allegations. The organization referred requests for comment to Mipham’s personal lawyer, Michael Scott, of the Halifax firm Patterson Law.
“Out of respect for the integrity of the independent investigation, my client will, for the moment, be offering no comment,” Scott told ThinkProgress by email.
The allegations against Mipham set off a leadership crisis that has shaken Shambhala to its core.
Shambhala’s governing body, called The Kalapa Council, announced its “phased” resignation after ThinkProgress reported on a private video call in which one council member seemed to admit the facts of the 2011 assault and another said he no longer sees some relationships Mipham had in the early 2000s as consensual.
Just over a week after the allegations agains Mipham first broke, he also temporarily stepped aside pending the results of the independent investigation. It was a dramatic fall for a man who once spoke to global elites at the Aspen Ideas Festival alongside Queen Noor of Jordan and gave the Dalai Lama an award at a ceremony in Boulder.
Since his departure, it’s not clear who’s in charge of the organization. The public relations firm Hiltzik Strategies, which is representing Shambhala to the press, declined to say last week whether Mipham or the Kalapa Council members have maintained their formal positions in the handful of legal entities that make up Shambhala International.
The firm also declined to comment on whether Mipham is still receiving a salary or other benefits. Shambhala announced last Friday that it will send a financial update to its members Wednesday.
“Shambhala’s commitment to full financial transparency will be officially announced on July 18, with a thorough report to follow on August 15,” Watson told ThinkProgress.
UPDATE (7/18/2018, 12:30 p.m. EDT): Ryan Watson, Shambhala International’s finance director, sent an email to the group’s members Wednesday, after ThinkProgress published this report, outlining what he called “financial challenges” and asking for “continued financial support.”
“Budget cuts are being initiated, and real estate assets that are no longer core to our operations will be mortgaged and may need to be sold,” Watson wrote. “Proceeds will be used to retire past operating debt, to provide a financial cushion during these uncertain times, and to stabilize the financial situation for the incoming leadership.”
The letter did not address whether the group’s leader, Sakyong Mipham, is still drawing a salary, benefits, or other perks during a leave of absence while an outside law firm investigates multiple allegations he used his position to sexually assault women.
Both Shambhala and Mipham’s lawyer have declined to comment on those allegations.
Shambhala was set to have more revenue than operating expenses in 2016, according to a budget obtained by ThinkProgress. But $201,955 it set aside for principle and interest payments on outstanding debt put it $3,852 in the red.
Shambhala did not release budgetsto its members for 2017 or 2018, and it has not released an end-of-year financial report since 2015. Watson’s letter Wednesday promised the group will send its members a financial report by Aug. 15.
Do you have information about sexual misconduct in Shambhala or another religious organization? Contact reporter Joshua Eaton by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by Signal at 202–684–1030.