Mipham Rinpoche in 2005. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

More #MeToo lessons as a Buddhist 'king' falls

(RNS) — For some American Buddhists, seeing a photo of Mipham Rinpoche on the front page of The New York Times this week was a shock. Though he’s the leader of the largest Western Buddhist organization, Shambhala International, Rinpoche rarely draws attention from the mainstream press.  His last appearance in the Times was in 2005 when he ran the New York City Marathon.

This time the headline read: “The ‘King’ of Shambhala Buddhism Is Undone by Abuse Report."

Certainly those who have found in Shambhala, based in Nova Scotia, a community that offers the promise of well-being and steady inner peace, the allegations that Rinpoche had sexually abused female followers for years are powerfully disillusioning.

As a psychoanalyst, a woman, and long-term practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, I find these recent allegations sadly predictable. Some years back a documentary about Mipham Rinpoche’s father, the famous Chogyam Trungpa, was released, detailing his life as a beloved spiritual mentor. The film failed to explore Trungpa’s personal trauma history, his well-known addiction history, and countless examples of sexual misconduct.

Trungpa fled Tibet amid severe political turmoil, survived a life-threatening car accident, and founded a Buddhist community in a country far from home. He was also a heavy drinker, and engaged in behaviors that most clinicians would identify as clear indicators of trauma, possibly psychosis.

Yet Trungpa’s students were encouraged to interpret these extreme behaviors as examples of “crazy wisdom.” As in all Tibetan traditions, they were taught to perceive Trungpa as an enlightened being, and to cull spiritual meaning from his every word and action.

Teachers, however, are people, too. They have the capacity to get badly hurt, and like many, to protectively resist seeking help for problems that have become too much to manage alone. When they are identified as exceptional beings, endowed with spiritual insight that can generate boundless healing, teachers may feel they have to camouflage their personal problems — hide them away somewhere and live up to the idealizations they are saddled with.

The healthier spiritual teachers, such as the Dalai Lama, routinely try to soften students' need for an ideal mentor.

“I’m just an ordinary monk,” he often says, as a needed reminder that he too suffers, needs help, gets annoyed, and must set limits to stay sane.

These reality checks help spiritual seekers cultivate within themselves the attributes they are tempted to place solely in the teacher. This gets to the basic Buddhist teaching – that the capacity for genuine well-being does not belong to the lucky few. It’s within us all, but must be cultivated and nurtured.

Mipham Rinpoche in Munich in 2007. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

With the revelations about Mipham Rinpoche, we are contending with another generation of spiritual teachers who have clearly caused pain and suffering to many women and their loved ones. In the psychoanalytic tradition, there’s extensive discussion of what we call the intergenerational transmission of trauma. Research shows a parent’s acute, unaddressed suffering will be transmitted to the child through the attachment system; other studies have suggested that trauma is transmitted genetically, as is addiction.

If Rinpoche’s father sought refuge from feelings of aloneness and alienation by seeking sex and alcohol, in other words, it’s more than possible that his son inherited both the pain of feeling too alone and the defense against it through sex, the fantasy of being desirable to all, and the attempts to soften any residual guilt and shame through drinking.

There is a lesson here for all religious communities. No matter the wisdom a teacher or pastor or imam dispenses, no one is exempt from psychological suffering.

If this were more commonly understood in religious communities, it would be less shameful for exalted spiritual mentors to receive clinical treatment. It would also help students understand that it is possible to be simultaneously gifted and disturbed.

Great gifts of spiritual insight can coexist with psychological and psychiatric illness. Our talents and our troubles deserve respect and care. This is something I’ve tried to emphasize as a clinician active in spiritual communities where psychological problems are often treated as spiritual ones.

When Trungpa's transgressions came to light, the #MeToo movement had not yet begun.I appreciate all the women who have risked exposing their personal pain in this movement. These acts of courage have ushered in a new level of awareness that sexual abuse and harassment are far too common in women’s experience, across socio-economic, racial, and religious differences.

I would respectfully add that the Buddhist tradition has also been impacted by the sexism and misogyny that a patriarchal perspective creates. What we have learned about in the Shambhala crisis is not due solely to personal trauma; it is also informed by a culture that sexualizes and insufficiently respects women.

Perhaps in the years to come, the #MeToo allegations will usher in a growing awareness that sexism invariably sets the stage for suffering in all faiths. I hope for mine that it will create increased opportunities for female Buddhist teachers, and male Buddhist teachers who have grappled with their own tendencies and values regarding gender and sexuality.

Doing so will go a long way toward living out the historical Buddha’s primary wish: to understand and reduce suffering until all human beings are well because they have learned to live in a way that does no harm, to self or others.

(Pilar Jennings is a writer and psychoanalyst in private practice based in New York City. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)


  1. Only when somebody is being followed TOO much or revered TOO much can his or her extreme behaviors be passed off as “crazy wisdom”. The main problem with these guys is that women trusted them too much in some fog of hoodoo about who they supposedly were as “teachers”. It’s better to not try to excuse their actions.

  2. Even though I’m also trained in psychology, I’m not comfortable with how the author frames this … that is, aggressor as victim.

    Yes, what she says about inherited trauma is correct … and if Mipham was an ordinary person, then I’d agree. But Mipham is (presumably) a highly trained dharma ‘clinician’ (if we regard dharma as ‘medicine’, which is how it was originally framed). This means that he (should have) extensively trained to be extraordinarily aware of and sensitive to how his own mind works, and to how other people’s minds work. He (should have) extensively trained from childhood to cultivate in himself extraordinary compassion for all beings because he would have been deeply trained to see that all humans are always in a state of suffering … including each and every one of his students. I’m familiar with those highly accomplished teachers that provided the bulk of his training … anyone who knows them knows that the training Mipham received would have address these issues extensively, deeply, and thoroughly.

    I understand he’s had a very unusual life … one that has launched him to great heights. This can take a toll on any young person. But Mipham isn’t just any (relatively) young person … he’s studied with some of the most accomplished traditional elder dharma teachers in the Tibetan tradition since he was a child. My point is that he (allegedly) engaged in behaviors that he knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, were harming. And he (allegedly) proceeded. Given his comprehensive training, these (alleged) behaviors need to be understood as ‘choosing’. Extraordinarily wealthy, pampered, well educated, protected his entire life, in a position of near royalty, with all the power that all this accrues … it should be made very clear that this is not a victim. And it should be stressed that he is an alleged predator.

  3. Wait, what? “Mipham Rinpoche … the leader of the largest Western Buddhist organization, Shambhala International … had sexually abused female followers for years” – because of a disease called “intergenerational transmission of trauma”?! And he happened to catch it by having a daddy, “the famous Chogyam Trungpa”, whose “countless examples of sexual misconduct” got “inherited” by sonny boy?

    Okey dokey there, “Pilar Jennings … psychoanalyst in private practice based in New York City”. Whatever you say, doc.

  4. “Alleged”?! As in “alleged … intergenerational transmission of trauma”?! Or as in “alleged[ly] … trained in psychology”?!

    “Alleged[ly]” yours truly, then,


  5. “But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes you are / You’re gonna have to serve somebody / Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord / But you’re gonna have to serve somebody”
    – The 1979 to 1981 born-again Christian Bob Dylan

  6. Can you please explain the relevance of Bob’s lyric to this article or my comment?

  7. Why “somebody is being followed TOO much” is because “[they]’re gonna have to serve somebody”.

    Why “somebody is being … revered TOO” is because “[they]’re gonna have to serve somebody”.

    Why “women trusted … these guys … too much in some fog of hoodoo about who they supposedly were as ‘teachers'” is because “[they]’re gonna have to serve somebody”.

    “Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord. But you’re gonna have to serve somebody”.

    That’s what the 1979 to 1981 born-again Christian Bob Dylan would’ve told you.

  8. You know? I didn’t ask either you or Bob Dylan (37-39 years ago). But today I have blocked you from my view because you are behaving as a nut case. Bye, bye.

  9. Good article. However, one point that I beg to differ on is the statement “Great gifts of spiritual insight can coexist with psychological and psychiatric illness.” I believe that only people who have attained genuine levels of enlightenment have “great gifts of spiritual insight.” The Buddha said that all of us unenlightened worldlings are deranged. “Sabbe puthujjana ummattaka.” However, to say that an individual who has attained a genuine level of enlightenment, a Stream-Enterer or an Arya-Bodhisattva, would be subject to the same moral shortcomings as charlatan teachers like Mipham and his father, is a gross misunderstanding of what enlightened beings are like. In the Buddhist Sutras and the Abhidharma teachings it is taught that a Stream-Enterer (the very lowest level of enlightenment in the Buddha’s teachings) by nature would never break the major Shila of the five moral precepts. They are incapable of such misbehavior. Therefore, to have the idea that enlightened beings could still engage in such misbehavior is incorrect. Of course, one of the great teachings of Buddhism is that regardless of how messed up we are or whatever gross mistakes we make – including such great harm to so many women in the case of Mipham and his father – the potential to become enlightened can never be destroyed. Even if it takes many future lifetimes, all beings have as the Avatamsaka Sutra says “the wisdom of the Buddha” – all beings can become Buddhas. The Lotus Sutra states that even the Buddha’s cousin, Devadatta, who attempted to murder the Buddha several times will in a distant future life become a fully enlightened Buddha.

  10. Oh that’s nice. So, with a bit of ohm here and another dosage of ohm there, “the potential to become enlightened … [to] become Buddhas … [to] become a fully enlightened Buddha”, still awaits these “so many women” whose lives have been destroyed? By “the … moral shortcomings [of] charlatan teachers like Mipham and his father”? By their “misbehavior”? By their “gross mistakes”? By “such great harm”? Even if these father-and-son Buddhas had “attempted to murder” these “so many women”?!?!?!?!

    Nice. Very nice.

  11. Re: “Research shows a parent’s acute, unaddressed suffering will be transmitted to the child through the attachment system; other studies have suggested that trauma is transmitted genetically, as is addiction.” 

    Oh joy! Let’s blame the father for the son’s misdeeds. Then, presumably, we can blame the father’s father for the father’s misdeeds, and in turn the father’s father’s father for the father’s father’s misdeeds … and on and on and on and on and on it goes. Taken to its logical conclusion, this reasoning implies no one is ever responsible for his/her own actions. 

    Where, exactly, in all of this is the big metaphorical brake pedal we press, which causes us to stop giving people license for their misdeeds based on their pasts, and start holding them directly accountable for their actions? Just wondering. 

  12. I got what he meant without an explanation.

  13. It seems odd that you would inject the topic of homosexuality into THIS thread (an unrelated topic). But since you did, here’s another survivor of the 2016 Orlando mass shooting. His name is Angel Colon. He ain’t gay anymore. Charisma News, 07-16-2018 (today):

    “Though I’d grown up with a strong spiritual family who taught me right from wrong, I’d forsaken them and God for drinking, drugs and a lifestyle that drove me away from Him. The world told me I was gay, that my new identity was in the LGBT community, but at my heart, I missed worshipping the Lord. I was so consumed with drugs, alcohol and, most of all, homosexuality, that it took one of the worst massacres in U.S. history—and the power of a praying mother—for me to repent of my sin.”

  14. It seems odd that you would inject yourself into a discussion about Buddhism, which you clearly know nothing about, much like your ignorance about LGBT+ issues. Suck it up, beeyotch.

  15. What he meant was distraction and harassment. I got it too. That’s why I blocked him.

  16. I can see why both women and men might be physically attracted to him, he is pretty damn cute. An almost irresistible smile.

  17. You’re a classic example of the old saying “When a fool has nothing intelligent to say … a fool keeps talking anyway.”

  18. Is there “an old saying”, then, for people whose favorite word, when too chicken to state the glaringly ob(li)vious truth, is “alleged”, “alleged”, “alleged”? Nope, just a name: jeffision.

Leave a Comment