A Meditation on Misconduct

When Jessica Bizub, director of the Shambhala Meditation Center of Milwaukee, learns that the spiritual and temporal leader of Shambhala has been accused of misconduct, she must find a path forward amidst “community chaos.”

Case Excerpt

The full case is comprised of an A Case, a B Case, and additional content.

At 26 years old, Jessica Bizub was newly married, with a research position she loved, yet she often found herself asking: “Is there something more?" [1] One evening, she picked up a small red book from her bookshelf: Awakening Loving-Kindness, by Pema Chödrön, a Buddhist nun. The book, from a one-credit college meditation class, resonated more strongly now: “I felt like she had something that I wanted to explore … She had this way of telling the truth about things in a warm-hearted way, which I thought was really unique.” Bizub regularly drove past the Shambhala Meditation Center of Milwaukee on Oakland Avenue on the way to work at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and recognized the name Shambhala as the publisher of Pema Chödrön’s book. [2] After months of driving by the low brick building with a deep blue awning, Bizub decided to attend an open house.

Tuesday open houses at the Shambhala Center included 45 minutes of meditation, a talk, and a tea social. With the broad vowels of a slight Wisconsin accent, Bizub is more inclined to serious conversation than small talk. She attended the open houses intermittently for two years before signing up for her first class. Once she did, her involvement “accelerated”: before long, she was hosting the open house and facilitating retreats. Bizub coordinated a visit from a senior Acharya before she knew the title meant “teacher”; he became her mentor and guide. Soon, she was appointed Rusung of the Milwaukee Center, the “protector” of the teachings, the teachers, and the community; then, at 35 years old, Bizub was appointed to a three-year term as Center Director. Her appointment letter was signed by the spiritual and temporal leader of Shambhala, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche (“The Sakyong”).

Through Shambhala, Bizub found peace and purpose. She believed in Shambhala’s mission of training people in meditation and the study of wisdom and compassion. “It felt really aligned with my values and the kind of impact I was hoping to have on the world.” As Center Director, she enjoyed providing care to the community, including a steady stream of new meditation students, some long-term members, and a group of advanced practitioners known as Vajrayana students. In her new role, Bizub had two priorities: fixing the roof and building a “sense of togetherness” in a community with varied levels of practice and training. Bizub began inviting each member, at every level of training and practice, to lunch or coffee; she wanted to hear their concerns and learn what they wanted to contribute to the community.

In February 2018—shortly before her appointment—Shambhala International’s governing body sent an email to the community about sexual abuse. For Bizub, this email from the Kalapa Council seemed “out of the blue.” It stated: “In our complex history there have been instances of sexual harm and inappropriate relations between members and between teachers and students. We are still emerging from a time in which such cases were not always addressed with care and skill. In particular, inappropriate or even abhorrent sexual behavior by some men in the community has caused some women to feel unsafe." [3] The email affirmed Shambhala’s “Care and Conduct” policy and procedure for investigating complaints. Bizub recalled, “I kind of regarded it as a distraction.” She reflected, “The tone of it was like, ‘Oh, we’ve already handled all this. This is all in the past.’” She wasn’t aware of anything happening at the Center. And, she thought, “We have a roof to fix.”

As Bizub continued with fundraising for the roof and hosting meetings—in addition to her full-time job at the University—she noticed additional emails from Shambhala leadership on the topic of sexual misconduct. On June 21, 2018, the Kalapa Council announced the creation of a Sexual Harm Task Force. Shortly after, the Sakyong wrote a letter to the community, stating: “It is my wish for you to know that in my past there have been times when I have engaged in relationships with women in the Shambhala community. I have recently learned that some of these women have shared experiences of feeling harmed as a result of these relationships. I am now making a public apology." [4] He continued, “Kindness can sometimes begin with acknowledging the ways we have harmed others, even if we did not intend to do so." [5] The Sakyong noted that, with the support of his wife, he would enter “a period of self-reflection and listening." [6] He added: “I have worked with, and at times struggled with, how to be a teacher and a human being." [7] Bizub was surprised to learn of the Sakyong’s relationships with students, although she appreciated his apology and humility.

Then, on June 28, 2018, Buddhist Project Sunshine (BPS) released a report detailing allegations against the Sakyong, including sexual assault, alcohol abuse, and sexual relations with numerous female students; more so, it implicated the Sakyong’s staff in facilitating misconduct. [8] Reading it, Bizub was in shock: “I was trying to come to terms with what I was reading about the Sakyong and square that with my image of him.” When she met him, Bizub found him to be reserved and reflective; she regularly heard that the Sakyong was a family man and a disciplined athlete. She wondered, “Is this true? What does it mean if it is true?” Some in the community quickly dismissed the claims as exaggerated or blown out of proportion. But Bizub, who has short, pixie-style hair and the thoughtful, intentional manner of a long-time meditator, reflected on those accusing him: “[T]hey have a lot to lose by coming out on this. And I feel like people generally don't make this up.”

The Sakyong’s presence was woven into the fabric of the community, from his framed image on the shrines to the portraits of his family on the walls; from his books that lined the bookshelves to the foundational teachings of his father, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. The Sakyong was not just the leader of Shambhala, but the sole living “lineage holder,” connecting the Shambhala community to Trungpa, the ancient teachers in Tibet, and to the Buddha. Confused and still processing the news, Bizub knew she needed to reach out to the Milwaukee community, but before doing so she paused and took a deep breath. She didn’t know how she felt, or what to say.

The Shambhala Meditation Center of Milwaukee

Bizub felt a sense of pride in the Shambhala Meditation Center of Milwaukee: one of the first to be established in North America, by 2018 it was one of more than 170 Shambhala centers around the globe, with some 90 in the U.S. [9] The Milwaukee center began in the 1970s as a Dharma Study Group that met in David Shapiro and Jane Hawes’s living room. With their embrace of Trungpa’s teachings, the community quickly grew. The Shapiros rented a building and were later granted official status as the Milwaukee Dharmadhatu Center in 1982. With continued growth, the community purchased a former mechanic shop on Oakland Avenue: it became known as the Milwaukee Shambhala Meditation Center in 1995. [10]

The humble building exterior offers little clue to the colorful decorations, extensive meditation practices, and vital community inside: the heart of the Center is the large meditation room with an elaborate shrine, following established Shambhala form. At every Shambhala Center around the world, three images are displayed above the central public shrine: a Tibetan painting, the Primordial Rigden Tanghka, depicting an enlightened royal figure seated upon a throne; framed photographs of Trungpa and the Sakyong are placed on either side. When visitors and new students inquired about these representations of royalty and reverence, Bizub would explain that these images were reminders of spiritual awakening, not objects of worship. Similarly, she noted, the Rigden Thangka at the center of the shrine represented diverse Buddhist lineages and teachings, united through Shambhala; its royal depictions were not indicative of hierarchy, but symbolized the enlightened nature of all people.

While the Sakyong was the sole living lineage holder in Shambhala, his father’s teachings—and remarkable story—still animated the Shambhala community. Trungpa fled Tibet at the age of 20, escaping Chinese communist rule on foot through treacherous Himalayan mountain passes, to India. With monastic education in the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism and training in the Nyingma tradition, Trungpa favored a non-sectarian approach. In India, he was appointed by the Dalai Lama as spiritual advisor to a school for young Lamas. In 1963, Trungpa moved to the U.K. for further studies; later, he established the first center of Tibetan Buddhist practice in the West in Scotland. Trungpa gave up his monastic vows, married, and came to the U.S. in 1970; he opened his first meditation center in Barnet, Vermont the same year. [11]

Trungpa quickly distinguished himself by his charismatic style and compelling way of adapting the Tibetan Buddhist teachings to the West, founding new meditation centers and the first Buddhist University in the U.S. A prolific writer, his 1973 book, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, offered teachings about the joyous liberation that comes from letting go of the self. Touring and teaching at a time in which many Americans were embracing alternative spiritual paths and practices, Trungpa became one of the most important Buddhist teachers in America. Sometimes called “the bad boy of Buddhism," [12the venerated teacher was known for his drinking, smoking, and relationships with students, as well as for his idiosyncratic teaching style. He referred to this method and message as “crazy wisdom,” an opportunity for true awakening through unconventional means. 

In the mid-1970s, Trungpa began receiving new teachings, preserved as Terma or “treasure” texts for more advanced students; he also began developing a secular form of “Shambhala training” to bring meditation to a broader audience. By the early 1980s, his umbrella organization Vajradhatu included more than 100 meditation centers across the world. Trungpa died in 1987, and by 1990 his eldest son took on leadership; from that point forward, the community would be known as Shambhala. Like the legendary kingdom after which it was named, Shambhala sought to build an “enlightened society.”

For Bizub, this vision of an enlightened society was enacted every day through the Milwaukee community’s meditation study and practice. Before the allegations against the Sakyong, Bizub was thriving in the role of Center Director. She enjoyed a wide range of responsibilities, from chairing the governing council to implementing the vision and policies of Shambhala; more so, she was tasked with “leading by example” in the practice and study of the Shambhala dharma. As Bizub considered the seriousness of the allegations, and the Sakyong’s intention to reflect and repair the damage he’d caused, she thought: “[In] Shambhala, warriorship is being willing to face the truth no matter how painful it is.” For years, she learned about basic goodness and kindness in the service of an enlightened society. Bizub thought, “OK, we've trained for this. We know how to face things directly. We know how to have courage. We know how to have warm hearts and work with it.” Resolved, Bizub sat down to draft an email to the Milwaukee community.

“Community Chaos”

On June 29, 2018, Bizub wrote an email to the broader Milwaukee Shambhala community on behalf of the governing council. She offered guidance on the importance of self-care and emphasized that there wasn’t one “right way” to respond: “[W]hatever you are feeling and experiencing now is okay—it is natural, understandable, and human in the most positive sense of the word." [13] She continued, “I personally find myself cycling through many emotions, including heartbreak, disbelief, anger, confusion, and worry." [14] The letter detailed the resources available within the community and beyond—including phone numbers for mental health and sexual abuse hotlines. Bizub’s message concluded: “[P]lease know I am holding our community in my heart with deep conviction in basic goodness and the profound, immediate potential of humans to manifest enlightened society in every moment." [15]

Shortly after, on July 3, she sent a second email to a group of more active members in the Milwaukee community, offered as a personal reflection: “I have been wondering what all of my time in Shambhala has been truly valuable to me, if the Sakyong is not the person I imagined him to be. Turns out—a lot. I feel that my experiences of my own and others’ basic goodness are undeniable. I know in my heart that the practices and teachings have benefitted me. I have tasted a sense of fundamental healthiness and wholeness that changed my life." [16] She also called upon the leadership of Shambhala to confront the truth: “If those in the highest leadership positions in Shambhala do not fully examine all aspects of what happened and how it happened, I feel that Shambhala will be severely damaged for at least a generation. In our cultural context, any attempt to gloss over events, explain them away, neatly put them in the past, or deny their impact will cause deep distrust among existing and potential community members." [17] Underscoring her sense of resolve, she noted: “This is an opportunity to clean up our past karma, make necessary changes, and demonstrate our principles.” She explained: “I do know that right now, I feel steadfast in my conviction in basic goodness and in the vision of enlightened society. …[N]o matter what, it will be a rocky journey. I hope the journey will be worthwhile." [18]

Three days later, on July 6, all nine members of the Kalapa Council, the international governing board of Shambhala, resigned under pressure. The same day, the Sakyong’s office announced he was “stepping back" [19] from teaching. In the wake of the report from Buddhist Project Sunshine, it became clear that the highest levels of governance were aware of the Sakyong’s misconduct—as well as misconduct by some Acharyas, Center Directors, and other leadership. Bizub noted, “It was incredible community chaos.” Before resigning, the Kalapa Council identified a “Transition Task Force” to identify a new board. They also hired an independent investigator, Wickwire Holm, to document the allegations and engaged the services of An Olive Branch, a Buddhist conflict resolution organization, to help promote justice and healing in the community.

While many in the global Shambhala community were in shock over the loss of the leadership, Bizub thought: “It’s appropriate.” She reflected, “[W]ith the Kalapa Council, these are the people who have been enabling and covering up. They can’t fix the mess.” As for the Sakyong, she thought, he had much work to do: “In my opinion, he should take responsibility for his actions, not how someone ‘received’ them.” She felt there should be reparations to the survivors. The “misconduct” was like an open wound: “When you’re wounded, you don’t just go on with your day. You attend to your wound, because it’s hurt. … You take care of the hurting part.” She looked forward to more guidance from the Interim Board about the next steps, but felt encouraged. She thought: “OK. Now all of our training is going to come to bear. And we're going to deal with this.” At the same time, she wondered quietly to herself: “But what if we don't?”

Discussion Questions 

1. Bizub must lead and support her local community in an emotionally charged, spiritually vulnerable context. What advice would you offer her?   

2. What specific, actionable decisions does Jessica face? How does this change over the course of the case? 

3. How does this case and "A Question of Membership" contribute to our understanding of the internal diversity, and unique challenges, of leadership in the American Buddhist community? 

 

Footnotes

Expand for Citation

[1] All quotes from Jessica Bizub, unless otherwise noted, interview by author, via Zoom, May 29 and June 3, 2020.

[2] While Shambhala Publications publishes titles by Shambhala teachers and the founder of Shambhala International, its website (Shambhala.com) notes: “Since our start in 1969, Shambhala Publications has been an independent, family-owned company, and we are not affiliated with the organization Shambhala International and its network of Shambhala centers.”

[3] Shambhala, “Shambhala Community Letter Addressing Harm (from Kalapa Council),” Feb 12, 2018, 
https://www.facebook.com/Shambhala.org/posts/1999897840264640, accessed May 2020.  

[4] “A Message from Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche,” June 25, 2018, communication from Kalapa Council online, https://mailchi.mp/1cedc6001e4a/kalapa-council-quarterly-update-767203?e=c0b519322c, accessed May 2020. 

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Andrea Winn/Buddhist Project Sunshine “Buddhist Project Sunshine Phase 2 Final Report,” (PDF file) downloaded from Buddhist Project Sunshine archive on Andrea Winn Web site, https://andreamwinn.com/project_sunshine/Buddhist_Project_Sunshine_Phase_2_Final_Report.pdf, accessed May 2020. (For more information on Buddhist Project Sunshine, established Andrea Winn, a 2nd generation Shambhala Buddhist, please see: https://andreamwinn.com/offerings/bps-welcome-page/)

[9] Shambhala, “Centers: Shambhala Worldwide,” (via Wayback Machine for April 2010)  https://web.archive.org/web/20100403090741/http://www.shambhala.org/centers, accessed June 2020.

[10] Gathering Places: Religion & Community in Milwaukee Web site, “Shambhala Meditation Center: The Dharma Study Group,” 
https://liblamp.uwm.edu/omeka/gatheringplaces/neatline/fullscreen/smcmke#records/154, accessed May 2020.  

[11] Shambhala, “Chögyam Trungpa,” https://shambhala.org/teachers/chogyam-trungpa/, accessed June 2020. 

[12] Crazy Wisdom The Movie, Synopsis,”  https://crazywisdomthemovie.com/synopsis/, accessed June 2020.

[13] Jessica Bizub email to Milwaukee Shambhala Community mailing list regarding Buddhist Project Sunshine 2, June 29, 2018, from Jessica Bizub.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Jessica Bizub email to Milwaukee Shambhala Community members with personal reflections on Buddhist Project Sunshine 2, July 3, 2018, from Jessica Bizub.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19]  Untitled letter from The Office of the Sakyong, July 6, 2018, online at https://mailchi.mp/8d682456ff22/kalapa-council-quarterly-update-767297?e=ac21d78f31, accessed June 2020. 

 

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