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Colorado police set sights on Shambhala Buddhist leaders over alleged sex crimes

(RNS) – Buddhism's #MeToo movement could soon be making the transition from a grassroots movement to the criminal justice system.

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche in 2007. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

(RNS) – Colorado police have opened a criminal probe into sexual assault allegations against the leader of Shambhala International, one of the largest Buddhist organizations in the West, according to a news report.

The progressive news website ThinkProgress reported Dec. 9 that the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office had launched the investigation, attributing the story to four sources who have spoken to investigators and to emails it had obtained.

Shambhala International denied the probe in a statement to ThinkProgress. “At this time, it is our understanding that there is no open criminal investigation in Larimer County,” the organization said.

The reported investigation follows mounting sexual assault allegations against religious leader Mipham Rinpoche, known as the Sakyong or the “king.” Since July, Mipham has temporarily stepped down from his duties after bombshell reports by Buddhist Project Sunshine, a survivors’ support group. Shambhala’s entire governing council resigned the same day.

Buddhist Project Sunshine, which describes itself as “a grassroots independent healing initiative,” was founded by second-generation Shambhala member Andrea Winn. It has published three reports over the past year detailing its unofficial investigation into Shambhala’s sexual abuse crisis. The reports included incidents as recent as 2011 and claimed extensive sexual violence in the Shambhala community, accusing Mipham of sexual assault, rape and sex abuse against minors, and and alleging serious cover-ups by Shambhala officials.

According to one of the most disturbing allegations detailed in the reports, Mipham may have locked a woman in a bathroom and forcibly groped her at a party in Chile in 2002.

Mipham’s attorney told ThinkProgress that his client “categorically denies assaulting anyone, sexually or otherwise, sexual contact with minors” or any other criminal offense.

But Shambhala leaders have acknowledged in private meetings that Mipham had previously engaged in a “wild culture” of heavy drinking, partying and sordid sexual exploits, according to ThinkProgress, and suggested the possibility of coercive sexual relationships that required “intervention.”

Mipham has apologized for “experiences of feeling harmed” that women have had as a result of his past “relationships” with them and, in a separate statement, said he “fully supports a third-party investigation and wishes to provide the time and space for it to occur.”

An independent report on the sex abuse allegations, commissioned by Shambhala International in July, is expected to be released in early January.

Though Mipham is based at the organization’s global headquarters in Halifax, Canada, Shambhala International was founded in Boulder, Colorado, by Mipham’s father, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, in the 1970s. The Boulder Shambhala Center, which has about 600 members, is the group’s U.S. headquarters and the first in a network of meditation centers that now numbers more than 200.

“The way Shambhala International has handled this situation has been re-traumatizing and further damaging to survivors,” former Shambhala member Leslie Hays, a Boulder resident, told a local news outlet, The Daily Camera, after the allegations emerged. In the 1980s, Hays was a “spiritual wife” of Trungpa. Now, she termed their relationship abusive.

Trungpa’s own sexual exploits and history with addiction are also open secrets.

“When Trungpa’s transgressions came to light, the #MeToo movement had not yet begun,” Pilar Jennings, psychoanalyst and practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, wrote in an op-ed for Religion News Service in July. “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.”