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Former Shambhala Member Expected to Enter Plea Agreement After Sexual Assault Charge

Michael Smith, right, arrives at court with his attorney. Image from
Michael Smith, right, arrives at court with his attorney. Image from

Court records from the case of Michael Smith, 55, indicated this week that the former member of the Shambhala Buddhist community is scheduled for a disposition hearing on 4 March, when he will be given the opportunity to enter into a plea agreement with prosecutors. This is a change from the previously scheduled 20 April start date for a five-day trial on one charge of sexual assault on a child by a person in a position of trust.

The updates follow Smith’s arrest in June last year and his release on US$10,000 bail. Smith was accused of assaulting a girl he had met through the Boulder-based Buddhist organization. A second victim also told police that Smith assaulted her during a Shambhala Buddhist retreat when she was 11 years old. The first victim was allegedly abused by Smith starting in 1997, when she was 13 years old.

The Daily Camera newspaper reported that the arrest affidavit indicated that the girl and her family lived in Boulder and all were very involved in the Shambhala community. She and her parents attended annual Shambhala retreats in Vermont, where she said she first met Smith when she was nine or 10 years old. The document continues that Smith rented out a room in their family house in Boulder, where he lived for 2–3 years. During that time, the woman says that Smith sexually abused her a number of times.

Police reports indicate that the she first told a family friend about the abuse in 1998 and later told her parents. A Buddhist teacher convinced her family to allow Smith to enter a “restorative justice” program rather than to press criminal charges. Smith’s girlfriend at the time told police that he had a physical relationship with the girl. She also said that Smith went to a Tibetan teacher who told him that since he didn’t have sex with the girl, “he was probably going to be OK.” (The Daily Camera)

Smith’s then-girlfriend added that she had overheard Smith and other men at a retreat discussing how “unfair” it was that they were not legally allowed to have sex with people under the age of 18.

Shambhala International has been rocked by numerous accusations of sexual assault and abuses of power by members of its leadership in recent years. Several accusations have been brought against the current spiritual leader, Sakyong Mipham. The advocacy group Buddhist Project Sunshine has been at the heart of publishing accounts of abuse and building support communities and resources for those affected. Mipham officially stepped back from duties in July 2018.  

Ani Pema Chodron, a prolific author and widely respected Dharma teacher, retired from her role as a senior teacher, or acharya, in January this year. In a letter, she expressed being “disheartened” by news that Mipham wished to return to his teaching role:

“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)

Mipham is the current lineage holder of Shambhala Buddhism, having been enthroned in 1995. He is the son of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the founder of the organization.

See more

Former Boulder Shambhala member appears headed for plea deal in sex assault case (Daily Camera)
Letter from Ani Pema Chödrön (Shambhala Times)

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