The renowned author and respected Dharma teacher Ani Pema Chödrön has retired from her duties as a senior teacher, or acharya, within the Shambhala International Buddhist community. In a letter to Shambhala’s board of directors, which was released publicly on 16 January in line with her wishes, the American Buddhist nun states that her decision to retire is a direct response to plans by Shambhala’s disgraced head and lineage holder Sakyong Mipham to return to teaching this year. Sakyong Mipham announced his decision to “step back from his teaching and administrative responsibilities within Shambhala” in the wake of a series of sexual abuse and misconduct allegations in 2018.
In the letter detailing the reasons for her decision, Ani Pema Chödrön wrote:
I have decided to step down as an acharya. As you know, I haven’t actually served as an acharya for a long time, and I have been considering retiring for a few years. And now, the time has come.”
When I read the recent letter from the Sakyong saying that he wished to start teaching again and would do so for all who requested, I was disheartened. I experienced this news as such a disconnect from all that’s occurred in the last year and half. It feels unkind, unskillful and unwise for the Sakyong to just go forward as if nothing had happened without relating compassionately to all of those who have been hurt and without doing some deep inner work on himself. (Shambhala Times)
Originally founded in Boulder, Colorado, in the US, and now headquartered in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in Canada, the Shambhala community is an international network of more than 200 meditation centers and groups with over 12,000 members spanning some 50 countries and six continents. Sakyong Mipham, the current lineage holder, was enthroned as sakyong in 1995. In 2018 and 2019, Shambhala International was rocked by a series of public accusations of sexual assault and misconduct by the community’s leader, Sakyong Mipham, and other senior teachers and members.
The allegations against Sakyong Mipham and other community members were first covered extensively in a series of three independent reports published by Buddhist Project Sunshine, a grassroots initiative started by Andrea Winn, a second-generation Shambhala Buddhist who grew up in the early years of the community. The Buddhist Project Sunshine Phase 3 Final Report included details of two harrowing alleged assaults, which members of Shambhala’s governing Kalapa Council and some senior teachers allegedly witnessed or even participated in. It also identifies community leaders alleged to have taken part in a group sexual assault or individual rape, who were allegedly present during such assaults, or who allegedly procured women on behalf of Sakyong Mipham.
Shambhala’s board of directors resigned in 2018, and an interim board engaged an outside law firm, Wickwire Holm, to investigate. The firm concluded that Sakyong Mipham had likely forced himself on two women, and over a period of years had engaged in frequent sexual contact with female students.
Ani Pema Chödrön’s letter continues, noting her dismay that the Shambhala board had approved Sakyong Mipham to lead an initiation ceremony in Europe later this year:
Then came the letter from the Board informing the Shambhala community that they have invited the Sakyong to give the Rigden Abhisheka in June, and I was dumbfounded. The seemingly very clear message that we are returning to business as usual distresses me deeply. How can we return to business as usual when there is no path forward for the vast majority of the community who are devoted to the vision of Shambhala and are yearning for accountability, a fresh start, and some guidance on how to proceed? I find it discouraging that the bravery of those who had the courage to speak out does not seem to be effecting more significant change in the path forward.
I understand that the Board’s decision to invite the Sakyong was based on the compassionate intention to benefit the 125 people who wish to take the abhisheka in order to continue on their path. But for me, personally, to have the very first indication of how we are going to manifest be that we are returning to business as usual is shocking and also heartbreaking.
I feel that as a community committed to creating an enlightened society, we deserve something better than business as usual. (Shambhala Times)
In a response to Ani Pema Chödrön’s letter, the Shambhala board issued a statement that was published by the Buddhist journal Lion’s Roar:
The Shambhala Board respects Ani Pema’s decision to retire from her position as acharya. She has expressed to us that she would like to remain a part of the Shambhala community. . . . We have been in dialogue with her, and are planning a meeting in the coming weeks to discuss with her ideas about how the organization can move forward. (Lion’s Roar)
The Shambhala statement quoted a private communication from Ani Pema Chödrön to the board emphasizing her commitment to the community:
At this time, I am still very hopeful that a path forward that would include everyone in the community can be designed and implemented. Therefore, I have no intention of leaving the Shambhala community and would always do my best to be there for anyone who might need it. However if no path forward can be found, that would break my heart, and I’m not sure what I would do. (Lion’s Roar)
Ani Pema Chödrön was born Deirdre Blomfield-Brown in 1936 in New York City. She studied under Lama Chime Rinpoche in London for several years, and with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in Califnornia. She became a novice Buddhist nun under Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa, in 1974. While in Hong Kong in 1981, she became a fully ordained bhikshuni—the first American woman to do so in the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition. She has authored numerous books, including: The Wisdom of No Escape And the Path of Loving-Kindness (Shambhala Publications 1991), Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living (Shambhala Publications 1994), and Don’t Bite the Hook: Finding Freedom From Anger and Other Destructive Emotions (Shambhala Publications 2007).