Dr. Deanʻs response to Ethan Nichtern Stepping Down As “Shastri,” Staying For The Shambhala Community

Dear Ethan Nichtern,

Thank you for your choice to give up your teaching title, perhaps instigating and helping to create a blank canvas for the teachings and community to arise.
I hope everyone gives up their titles, their pins, their levels, their ranks, their status and their uniforms, so we as a community can trust in the wisdom of beginners’ mind.
Hopefully, our collective wisdom will display how to proceed to preserve the teachings and the container of Enlightened Society.
Good luck to us all,
Aloha nui loa,

Stepping Down As “Shastri,” Staying For The Shambhala Community

[Note before reading: I continue to be in a mode of listening and learning. Since making my initial statement on June 29 (read here) about the revelations in the Shambhala community and allegations against Sakyong Mipham, I have tried to listen to insights and experience regarding the current state of the community from survivors, friends, mentors, colleagues and students as much as possible. I have been heartened by many of the steps taken by some local Shambhala centers in addressing the structures and culture which allowed these harms to repeat themselves. If you’d like an update on what the Shambhala Center of New York has done to address these issues, please look here . 

As we all attempt to move forward as a community, I have been asked two personal questions again and again. What follows is my attempt to answer these two. Both answers require some in-depth context. If you don’t have time to read, the headline above says the two most important parts. Again, I speak for no one but myself, which is all that any of us can do. In lovingkindness, Ethan]

Question #1: Is Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche Still Your “Guru”?

To answer this question, it feels necessary to briefly contextualize what it means to take the vow that enters you into a guru-disciple relationship. This formal vow is called samaya (loose translation: word of honor) and it is different from any other sort of student-teacher relationship on the Buddhist path. Anytime a student and teacher begin working together formally, there is some kind of mutual agreement to engage in the relationship. This mutual agreement is very important. We can admire or learn a lot from someone, but we can’t truly call someone our teacher (or our student) unless both parties have agreed to study together, even if the student-teacher relationship lasts only for the duration of a short meditation retreat, at which point it dissolves. The student-teacher relationship should always include the setting of some mutual form of boundaries, modes of accountability and expected conduct. For example, every time I take on a student in the capacity of “spiritual mentor,” (Also called “kalyana-mitra,” which is a decidedly non-guru relationship) we lay down a clear agreement about our working relationship in a way that either of us could decide to do something different and respectfully back out. Most student-teacher relationships are mutually non-binding – the student or teacher can decide to end the relationship if it is not working for them.

The guru relationship and samaya vow are very different, and it is the intensity of this difference which makes these accounts of abuse and assault by the Sakyong so challenging for his samaya students to contemplate openly, especially given that Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is the only active guru in the Shambhala lineage, a monolithic path structure developed by his own design. I wrote in The Road Home:

The important thing about the word “guru” is that it denotes a much more devotional and empowered relationship than those of the first two types of teacher. While the instructor and the teacher/mentor are both worthy of great respect, the guru is the one you make a full commitment to work with for life. The idea is that at a certain point you see the possibility of fully living in your own awareness; at this point, you must commit to your own awakening, and commit to benefiting others as a bodhisattva. On this basis, taking on a guru is a matter of making yourself accountable to someone for life. It’s the spiritual-teacher equivalent of getting married, and in many ways when we make the decision to commit to a guru, we make the decision for the same reasons we decide to get married. Not only do we feel great trust under a guru’s guidance and example, but we also realize, through a process of maturation, that we need to commit to certain relationships in order to overcome the fight-or-flight response that makes us jet at every sign of discomfort. At a certain point we realize that our fight-or-flight response is—literally—not very evolved. It’s when we stay committed to a relationship and a path of deep work with a guiding presence that we actually learn about our own habits fully. That’s the idea, anyway.

Many of my friends who have not taken this samaya vow have asked over the last several weeks why anyone would even consider continuing a guru-disciple relationship with Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, given these revelations. If the person asking has first or second-hand experience of an abusive relationship, the disbelief that anyone would stick with this “guru” only grows louder and stronger. At the same time, some of my friends and mentors who have taken this vow with Sakyong Mipham view their commitment as choiceless, not up for debate, and they view this current situation as a storm they simply must weather, even if they are also hoping that the storm brings needed changes to the structure of the organization and a newfound awareness to the man himself. 

The large rift between these two perspectives is exactly what could tear the Shambhala community apart. It is currently manifesting at many Shambhala centers in a way that might seem like a small formality to external observers: whether or not to cover the photos of Sakyong Mipham and Chogyam Trungpa that hang above our meditation hall shrines. Given that those who have not taken the samaya vow with Sakyong Mipham represent—by definition—any possible future that the Shambhala lineage might have, my loyalty lies with them right now. In my humble opinion, given that those who have been victims of assault and abuse need support to be heard and healed, we should consider their needs to feel safe in our spaces before holding to the forms and ceremonies we have grown used to as a community.

According to the teachings, when the trust of samaya is wounded or broken, it can be repaired. That’s very good news, and it fits with the idea of unconditional goodness which is so hard to apply in times of difficulty. Because the guru-disciple relationship is two-way, this trust can be broken or repaired in either direction. However, traditional literature says decidedly little about what happens when the guru breaks samaya (and simultaneously puts the future of their entire worldwide community in jeopardy through their actions). Traditional tantric teachings regarding samaya focus almost entirely on the ethical and spiritual burden of students in this relationship. Looking for thoughtful modern perspectives on how to handle breaches of trust on the part of the guru, I found the most help in this recent article by Mingyur Rinpoche which was published last year after major harms were shown to have been committed by another guru, Sogyal Rinpoche, toward his own tantric disciples. I encourage you to read it, because it lends credence to the idea, from a lineage holder, that sometimes you just need to respectfully leave your guru. That is certainly a possibility here. 

To determine the future of my own relationship with Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche as a guru, I find it necessary to consider both my role as a teacher along the path he has created (on which he is the only empowered guru), as well as my position as a personal disciple of his.

  1. As a teacher on his path: Right now, it would feel deeply irresponsible to encourage students toward a path which still assumes they will take him as their guru. Long before these accounts of abuse came to light, many friends have felt that a large structural weakness of our organization is the expectation that every student committed to the development of enlightened society would necessarily study under the same guru. Since I began teaching in 2001/2002, I have personally seen many, many people leave our community because, while they connected with our teachings and communal vision, they didn’t want to take the samaya vow with Sakyong Mipham, for a lack of personal connection or uncertainty about the commitment. To be very fair, the hit-or-miss nature of connecting with him is true of any teacher at any level. It certainly is true of my own journey as a spiritual mentor – I have had many personal students who would probably be better off studying with someone else. When this fact becomes clear, I often recommend other teachers to those who have come to me. Could you imagine a society, or even a community, where everyone had to love the same teacher? It’s just not possible:  I’ve even heard some people express dislike for the teachings of Pema Chodron, and she is by far the most globally respected wisdom voice in our entire tradition. Participation in a community should not be based on everyone having the same guru. Any society is composed of far more than one viewpoint. Shambhala’s structural problem of one solitary guru who empowers every single leader has been an issue for a long time, and the recent accounts of abuse by Sakyong Mipham have revealed these basic structural issues in greater clarity than ever before. Speaking only for myself, for the time being, it would feel wrong to recommend students to move forward with certain elements of our practice curriculum (vows and Vajrayana assemblies, etc) if it is automatically assumed that they eventually take him as their guru. I trust students to follow their own paths in the decisions they need to make for themselves.
  2.   As a student of his: I am resting in “not-knowing.” The Sakyong has given so many useful practice instructions over the 19+ years that I have studied his personal teachings, and the 16+ years since I took the initial samaya vow with him. Ironically (or fittingly), it is through employing many of the contemplative techniques he has taught me that any clarity about my relationship with him has arisen amidst all the pain and confusion. I am so grateful for every teaching he has offered. But any student-teacher relationship is an active relationship, and I am wary of how ours will evolve in the long-term.  To know if I am still his student in any meaningful way, he would have to make some request of me, and I would have to feel into his request based on whether or not it is helpful to me and helpful to others. He has never made any direct requests of me other than asking me to practice, and I have always found those practices beneficial to myself, and to my bodhisattva vow to help sentient beings, which I still consider the most crucial commitment I have ever made. He has never been the sort of guru to give much direct and meaningful feedback to his students. I am not the sort of person to say “never,” but right now, I can’t imagine putting him back on that throne he once occupied, either mentally or literally. 

It is possible in the future that Sakyong Mipham could become a very powerful example of open-hearted humility and transparency, embodying a redemptive story very different from the dark and simplistic tales of guru-power manipulation which the New York Times and Netflix both love to tell. Anything is possible. But for the foreseeable future, Shambhala wisdom must emerge from the ground up, not from the top down.  Ideally, Sakyong Mipham could eventually help overcome the insular patriarchy of his own organization, but he can’t lead the way in doing so, because that approach would be both insular and patriarchal. Making any assumption that he will eventually resume anything similar to his former role seems disrespectful to the personal work that lies before him, as well as the hard work that lies before those of us who remain as a community. In the meantime, my personal accountability as a student lies to my mentors, my colleagues, my students, my family and my communities, as we all find our own paths forward, separately and together. 

Question #2: What is Your Relationship To The Shambhala Organization?

I am letting go of my title of “Shastri” (The first of two tiers of senior teacher) at this time. I would like to continue participating in Shambhala as a community member and teacher, and if requested to teach in group settings within the Shambhala organization, I’d like to focus primarily on helping train, supporting, and amplifying the voices and platforms of a new generation of teachers, especially teachers who come from historically marginalized positions (racial, gender, orientation, class, and more) in our society. I would also like to work as a student in receiving further training from experts outside of Shambhala regarding the problems of toxic masculinity and white supremacy. Within Shambhala, I’d like to collaborate with other men in our community, especially white men, on these problems, deeply assessing together how these social poisons have affected our own paths, as well as biased our teaching work with students and sangha.

Why am I letting go of my title? I was relieved to hear that The Sakyong would be “stepping back” pending an independent investigation, and that the governing Board of Shambhala International (the “Kalapa Council”) would dissolve. These seem like first steps in the right direction to overcome an atmosphere of worship and insularity which permitted these interpersonal harms to occur. However, it is important to note that every leadership structure within Shambhala International operates on a similar top-down and patriarchal basis, even if many local centers have created their own healthy mechanisms for code of conduct, accountability to the local community and transparency in their decision-making. The New York Center, for example, has become increasingly accountable to the local community in recent years. Still, the senior teacher titles (Shastri and Acharya) which are given solely at the discretion of the Sakyong, are another example of the non-transparency and monolithic power structure which must end. 

I want to be exceptionally clear: I believe the vast majority of the Shastris and Acharyas we know would also be chosen as senior teachers in a transparent and merit-based system of empowerment. Some of the most important teachers and mentors I have ever had in my own life are empowered as Acharyas and Shastris in Shambhala. We truly have a lot of amazing senior teachers, and it has been perhaps the greatest honor of my spiritual and professional life to even be considered among them. However, merit and transparency are not the primary reasons we have our titles. We have our titles primarily because of the perception that we are loyal to Sakyong Mipham, specifically. I sometimes joke privately that the Sakyong has never even seen me work with students, and yet, he has given me a title as a senior teacher. This joke doesn’t feel all that funny anymore. I don’t feel like I can participate in such a system of empowerment going forward.

I feel like sharing my personal experience here. I became a Shastri in 2010 when the title was first created, but I heard multiple rumors from different sources, starting in about 2006, that Sakyong Mipham was considering giving me a senior teacher title. He never spoke to me directly about this, I just heard it from various others. The clear story shared with me was that, before such a title was offered, there had to be some “energetic shift” into open-hearted loyalty which the Sakyong was looking for. Not the testimony of students, not the number of hours of teaching experience or practice experience, not the reviewed recommendation of peers or mentors or the man himself based on one’s conduct as both student and teacher, but an energetic read of some sort which only he could oversee, an invisible litmus test of devotion, a silent signaling of one’s loyalty to him and the lineage. I never really knew what this meant, but friends I trust reported deeply intuitive experiences with him on an almost psychic level, and I had many powerful experiences of connection with him on a pre-verbal level during my own practice. So for about a decade, I “trusted the process.” Meanwhile, I kept doing the best I could working with students, with the organization, and with my own personal obstacles and shortcomings as I practiced these teachings on and off the cushion. Until just a year or two ago, I so often felt the subtle need—which was undoubtedly based on my own misunderstanding of the teachings—to “perform” my loyalty whenever I was in the presence of the Sakyong. Nobody said I had to do this, but something was always assumed, something floating in the air around him, an atmospheric persuasion that I found myself prone to as well. He wanted to be talked to a certain way, and if you were going to be around him, you had to comply or else you just wouldn’t be around him. And if you couldn’t be around him, he wouldn’t empower you at a higher level. It was that simple, though usually unstated, and to be clear, I never experienced anything from him personally other than a quiet, opaque gentleness. But ours was also a relationship with almost no genuine feedback about the path forward for me as either student or teacher, and without any honest conversation about what either person felt.

I now realize that this performance of loyalty (mixed with true, genuine gratitude for him and his teachings) made me energetically complicit in all of the systemic problems that have caused harm. To be clear, I knew very little of the Sakyong’s personal life, and I knew nothing of the abuse or assault allegations against him until they were made public at the end of June and early July 2018. But, like so many others in our community, I did want Sakyong Mipham to see me, and I wanted him to like me, and I wanted him to agree to give me more power to help others along the path that he held. I could argue that the whole reason I wanted him to empower me further was that I wanted to help others more (via offering vows and so forth), but that’s far too easy and innocent to claim. I now realize that this toxic performance of loyalties, mixed with genuine respect and admiration for our lineage, created an inauthentic and codependent relationship between us as well, and I would like to take responsibility for my part in that shared performance.

What I have learned more deeply than ever before in recent months is that there is always an interdependence between harmful systems and the causes of personal harm by an individual perpetrator. If we want abuse to end, we need to end the monolithic and non-transparent nature of patriarchy once and for all. This non-transparent structure has directly affected the way senior teachers are chosen in our lineage—including, sadly, a great deal of truly amazing teachers. For now, as honored as I am to have received a title among this group, I no longer feel able to participate.

If, in some future iteration of Shambhala, senior teachers are selected based on transparent and professional guidelines of practice and teaching qualifications, CVs, student testimonies and heartfelt performance/character reviews by mentors and other teachers, etc., and someone nominated me for such a title, I would be honored to be considered, as long as there is also a greater commitment to the many aspects of diversity amongst the cohort of senior teachers who select and review candidates (there is currently a decent gender balance among Shastris and Acharyas, but there are only three Acharyas of color, and zero Shastris of color). For now, I will continue as a kalyanamitra: to teach and mentor—and learn from— those who request to work with me both within and outside the Shambhala community. I will go by the title that those who connect with have always called me: Ethan.

Finally, the most important things are kindness and honesty. What I feel most protective of is the respect and friendship of everyone who knows each other in these amazing communities, and the need to see each other, to listen to each other, to care for each other. We don’t always speak to, or treat each other, kindly in this community.  But that’s partially due to patriarchy and a glazed devotion, so we haven’t always been able to get real with each other. Sakyong Mipham has emphasized kindness in so many of his public lectures over the last decade. But for kindness to be real, it must operate in an environment of transparency. This part has been sorely lacking. And I have been playing along in my role, hoping that things would somehow shift on their own, and hoping that the decent work we were doing at various local levels would overcome the clear problems with power consolidation at the center of our global organization. Those days of playing along are in the past now, and that is a basically good thing.

In love, friendship, and the vision of enlightened society,