ThinkProgress

Buddhist teacher quit Shambhala in ‘protest’ before his own sexual misconduct allegation went public

Lodro Rinzler attends BookExpo America 2015 at Jacob Javits Center on May 27, 2015, in New York City. CREDIT: John Lamparski/WireImage

Meditation teacher and author Lodro P. Rinzler announced that he was leaving the Buddhist group Shambhala International on July 1 after several women came forward to accuse its leader, Sakyong Mipham, of sexual assault. He failed to mention that he had been accused of sexual misconduct himself.

“I am feeling a lot of pain around what is happening in the Shambhala community,” Rinzler wrote on his private Facebook page at the time. “I personally have clarity that it is time for me to officially leave Shambhala as an organization and no longer teach there.”

It was one of the most high-profile departures in an organization that’s been in tailspin since the sexual assault allegations against its leader.

But Rinzler was already facing fallout from Shambhala over an allegation against him. A woman told the organization he had pressured her into sex in 2013 even after she said multiple times that she did not want to sleep with him. After Shambhala opened an internal investigation into that allegation last month, it asked local meditation centers not to host Rinzler’s upcoming book tour. Within two days, he announced he was leaving the group, according to interviews and documents obtained by ThinkProgress.

ThinkProgress is not aware of any other allegations of sexual misconduct by Rinzler. In a statement, Rinzler denied any sexual misconduct and said his decision to leave Shambhala had nothing to do with the allegation against him.

“I was deeply troubled by the allegations against the leadership of Shambhala and after learning of them stepped away from any involvement with Shambhala’s programs entirely of my own accord,” Rinzler said. “There is no truth to the allegation that Shambhala fired me. Nor have I ever been involved in any inappropriate sexual behavior or interactions with any individual.”

A source close to the Shambhala community confirmed that it’s investigating Rinzler for alleged sexual misconduct and defended how senior Shambhala officials Judith Simmer-Brown and Adam Lobel have handled the allegation since the woman first raised it in 2013.

“Lobel, Simmer-Brown and supporters within the Shambhala community feel confident that they took all appropriate measures, offering ongoing support and follow ups for over 5 years,” the source said by email.

“Let’s just relax and see what happens”

Rinzler, 35, ran Shambhala’s local center in Boston, Mass., before co-founding MNDFL, a for-profit meditation studio with three locations in New York City where he’s currently chief spiritual officer. He’s the author of six books on Buddhism and mediation, and his work has been featured in The New York Times. (Disclosure: This reporter pet- and apartment-sat for Rinzler for a week in 2015, when they were acquainted through Buddhist writer circles on social media.)

The woman, “Amy,” who requested we withhold her real name for privacy reasons, described her interactions with Rinzler in an interview with ThinkProgress. They first met when she coordinated his visit to Portland, Ore., to promote his book Walk like a Buddha in October 2013. Amy had been active in Shambhala most of her adult life and was interested in teaching meditation, so she was looking forward to working with a young teacher she looked up to.

After they talked at Powell’s bookstore, Amy said Rinzler invited her out for a drink and later up to the apartment where he was staying for a nightcap. She found the invitation flattering at first. But when he moved in for a kiss, she said she clearly told him that she wasn’t interested.

“I remember literally putting my hand out and pushing him away,” Amy said. “Like, ‘No, I don’t want to kiss you.’ He said, ‘Well no, I’m just curious. Let’s just relax and see what happens.'”

By that point in the evening, she was too buzzed to drive herself home. Rinzler suggested she stay there and promised not to touch her, even offering to build a pillow “wall” between them.

But once they were in the bed, Amy said, Rinzler continued his unwanted advances and began trying to kiss and touch her yet again.

“I think some part of me was flattered,” she said. “But I was also just really not into it. [I was] just going along with it.”

In a last-ditch effort to get through to Rinzler, she told him again that she didn’t want to have sex, and when he asked why, she revealed that she’d been sexually abused in the past. Instead of offering understanding and empathy, Amy said, Rinzler suggested that sleeping with him could help her break through the trust issues from her past trauma.

Then he began to touch her again, and she froze. She felt paralyzed, she said in an interview — as if she wasn’t in control of her own body. Tired, drunk, and dissociated, she said that she performed oral sex on Rinzler in the hope it would make him stop.

“I thought, ‘OK, I’m doing this to get him off of me without having to have sex with him and just survive,'” she said.

“[J]ust survive”

Amy told two people about what happened over the next two weeks — a local Shambhala teacher and a teacher at another Shambhala center. Both corroborated her account to ThinkProgress.

The next day, after an unsatisfying apology from Rinzler, Amy told the first official, based at the local center, about what happened the night before. That official sent an email, obtained by ThinkProgress, to senior Shambhala officials Simmer-Brown and Lobel with a brief description of what allegedly happened and an offer to put them in touch with Amy for more details.

Simmer-Brown responded to the local official five days later to say she’d read the email to Rinzler — without asking Amy first or obtaining her permission.

Rinzler was “heartbroken” over the “real mistakes” he made with Amy, Simmer-Brown wrote. But her email portrayed those mistakes primarily as a violation of the student-teacher relationship — not as an issue of consent.

“[Rinzler] is only now realizing the ramifications of pressing his affections while in the role of a teacher of Shambhala,” she wrote. “He was not defensive, and was very honest with me about what happened. He is also deeply sorry for any harm he has caused.”

Other things that Lobel and Simmer-Brown said gave Amy pause, she said. In one conversation, for example, Simmer-Brown talked about how she’d known Rinzler since he was a kid, making Amy wonder whether she would be impartial. And after Amy told Lobel what happened, she said he responded with, “Wow, that sounds really confusing.”

“It made it clear he had doubts about what I was saying,” Amy told ThinkProgress.

Lobel and Simmer-Brown offered two options for moving forward — mediation between Amy and Rinzler, or Shambhala’s internal investigation process, called “Care and Conduct.” But after a back-and-forth with both teachers, Amy decided to let it drop.

“At that point, I honestly just wanted to forget about it and not keep getting thrown around these different people,” she said.

Lobel checked in with Amy in 2015, according to a source close to the Shambhala community. She didn’t pursue more support from Shambhala then. But Lobel reached out again this year, after a report in February by the advocacy group Buddhist Project Sunshine detailed anonymous accounts of sexual abuse within the Shambhala community.

“I’ve been thinking of you in the midst of the painful and massive learning about gender and power that we are going through in Shambhala,” Lobel wrote in an email obtained by ThinkProgress. “I am wondering how you are and how this is all feeling to you? If you would like to check in, I would appreciate it.”

After a second report by Buddhist Project Sunshine publicized several allegations of sexual assault and sexual misconduct against Shambhala’s head, Sakyong Mipham, Amy decided to finally move forward with a Care and Conduct investigation. On June 29, she sent Lobel a written account that detailed the incident and her subsequent conversations with Shambhala officials. It matches her account to ThinkProgress.

In separate statements to ThinkProgress, Lobel and Simmer-Brown said they’re glad Amy decided to pursue Shambhala’ formal complaint process.

“After what has now been a few years of offering support, suggesting opportunities for further assistance, and access to resources through Shambhala’s Care and Conduct process, I am pleased that the complainant has decided to take the formal steps she feels are necessary,” Lobel said in his statement. “I stand behind her decision and remain completely supportive of her journey through this process.”

“I have been concerned for [Amy’s] welfare, and hope she will find the healing she seeks,” Simmer-Brown’s statement said.

On July 1, two days after Amy sent Lobel her written account, he wrote back to say a center director had heard about the allegation of sexual misconduct and confronted Rinzler about it. That triggered questions from other centers about whether they should host Rinzler as he toured to promote his new book of Buddhist relationship advice, Love Hurts.

Shambhala asked the centers not to invite Rinzler for book talks while the investigation was pending, Lobel wrote. But Lobel speculated that the question from the center director may have tipped Rinzler off. Rinzler announced he was leaving Shambhala that same day in a post on his private Facebook page, screenshots of which were obtained by ThinkProgress.

In that post, Rinzler also offered his support for anyone who wanted to talk about their experience with sexual misconduct in Shambhala.

“I will hold space and listen and share my heart if you would like me to,” he wrote. “I am truly available to you.”

Do you have information about sexual misconduct in Shambhala or elsewhere? Contact reporter Joshua Eaton by email at jeaton@thinkprogress.org or by Signal at 202–684–1030.

CORRECTION: This article previously stated that Judith Simmer-Brown spoke with Lodro Rinzler before speaking with “Amy.” Simmer-Brown and Amy did speak before she spoke with Rinzler, but she did not ask Amy’s permission first.

UPDATE (7/24/2018, 9:37 a.m. ET): The statement from Adam Lobel has been updated.