(RNS) — By any measure, 2008 was a bad year for Lama Surya Das, the popular author and teacher of Tibetan Buddhism.
His marriage ended.
His mother died.
And a sexual misconduct allegation tore his organization apart.
In the spring of that year, an adult student told a teacher at the Dzogchen Center, the nonprofit Das founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the 1990s, that she and Das had been having an affair.
Other teachers affiliated with the Dzogchen Center, as well as the organization’s board, confronted Das about the allegations.
According to several former officials, Das refused to make a public apology or accept public responsibility.
“It became apparent to me that he wasn’t getting it,” one former Dzogchen Center official told Religion News Service. “He wanted to basically throw this under the rug and forget it.”
Soon, teachers and board members began to leave Dzogchen Center. By that October, state records show, almost all of the board had turned over. In November, the center’s main weekly meditation group broke ties with Das.
“One by one, we all resigned,” said a former official who spoke to RNS.
In an interview with RNS last month, Das placed the blame for the controversy on the woman who came forward in 2008 and on the teacher she confided in.
Das also told RNS in a statement that he did apologize in 2008.
“In September at our Texas 100 day retreat I told the sangha what happened, that I had had an intimate relationship with this person,” he said, using a Sanskrit term for a Buddhist community. “I apologized for my poor judgement and indicated that this would not happen again – and it didn’t.”
The 2008 controversy at the center — which has not been reported publicly before — did little damage to Das’ standing as a Buddhist leader. He remains a popular retreat leader and teacher, has appeared at events with the Dalai Lama and is one of the best-known Buddhist teachers in the U.S.
Both current and former students described the 69-year-old Das, who was born Jeffrey Miller in New York in 1950, as a brilliant teacher with a gift for translating Tibetan Buddhism for his largely American audience. Several reached for this story talked about him in glowing terms, describing the positive impact his teachings about mindfulness and compassion have had on their lives.
Last year, five women raised concerns about alleged sexual misconduct by Das in a confidential report compiled by retired employment lawyer Carol Merchasin, who has investigated allegations of misconduct about other Buddhist organizations. She interviewed the five women and compiled the broad summary of their stories, which she presented to Dzogchen Center’s current board of directors in May 2019.
“We asked for them to do an investigation,” she said. “We were met with a distinct lack of interest in that.”
In a statement, the board said that it “was not provided with the names of any individual nor any personalized account” and “respected these individuals’ decision to remain anonymous.”
Das is not alone among Tibetan Buddhist teachers who have faced allegations of sexual misconduct in recent years. Shambhala International, one of the largest Buddhist organizations in the West, has been rocked by allegations of sexual misconduct by its leader, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. A third-party investigation found it was likely two of the allegations of misconduct were credible, according to a report from Shambala’s board.
Two other renowned teachers, Lama Norlha Rinpoche and Sogyal Rinpoche, have also been accused of sexual misconduct with female students, according to published reports. An independent investigation found that some students of Sogyal Rinpoche had been “subjected to serious physical, sexual and emotional abuse,” according to his organization’s board. Leaders of the Kagyu Thubten Choling retreat center disclosed in 2017 that Lama Norlha Rinpoche had been “sexually involved” with his students, according to Lion’s Roar, a Buddhist magazine.
Earlier this year, Das told RNS in an interview that he has had sexual relationships with adult women who attended his retreats in the past. A statement from a public relations firm hired by Das and the Dzogchen Center confirmed those “intimate relationships.”
Das insists they were consensual.
The Buddhist teacher also said that he “may” have had students sit in his lap as part of what he called a “yoga-meditation practice.”
This story is based on interviews with more than two dozen of Das’ current and former students, co-teachers and board members. Most requested anonymity, citing fear of reprisal. Those interviews included conversations with the five women in the confidential report, which was obtained by RNS.
One of the women, Laura Howell, said that Das propositioned her during a weeklong retreat in Garrison, New York, in 2005.
“I guess it’s like having your therapist proposition you,” said Howell, who is a licensed mental health counselor. “It just felt like such a breach of the trust and safety that I thought I had with him.”
A ‘superb’ practice
Howell told RNS she had been involved with Dzogchen Center early on but had to pull back when she had children. But relatives had agreed to babysit for a week so she could attend the 2005 retreat, and she was excited to have her first private interview with Das in years.
During her meeting with him, Howell said that Das suggested that it would help her spiritual practice if she meditated while sitting naked in his lap, and she should make arrangements for them to do that together outside of the retreat.
“I was just gob-struck,” said Howell, who never followed through on Das’ suggestion. “It was just really troubling. It freaked me out pretty badly.”
Howell later described this interaction to her husband and to another student of Das, who both corroborated her account.
Das made similar propositions to at least two other women during meditation retreats between 2001 and 2008, according to the report, interviews with the women and their written statements.
Some traditional Tibetan Buddhist art will show a male buddha sitting in meditation while a female buddha sits in his lap with her legs wrapped around his waist, her back to the viewer.
This position, called “yab-yum,” represents the union of wisdom and compassion — a common theme in Tibetan Buddhism. But it also illustrates an actual practice that some advanced yogis do to harness the power unleashed by sex and redirect it toward enlightenment.
Das described a similar position in his 2015 book, “Make Me One With Everything,” as part of a practice he called “Coupled Yoga.”
“Coupled Yoga is a superb co-meditation practice,” Das wrote, “and a few teachers do offer it today.”
In a statement, Das said that he doesn’t recall asking female students to practice the yab-yum posture with him but that he “may have used it prior to 2008-2009.”
Das and Janey Bishoff, his public relations consultant, both denied that the practice is sexual.
“If and when this position was used, it occurred in the context of meditation and Buddhist practices, not for his (or her) sexual gratification,” Bishoff said via email.
Das also said that if he taught this position, he would have remained clothed.
Janet Gyatso, a professor of Buddhist studies at Harvard University who has done research on the roles of sex and gender in Tibetan Buddhism, disputed the claim that these kinds of tantric practices are not sexual.
“This is an easy excuse for a teacher to get some sexual pleasure,” she said. “It’s deeply, deeply disturbing and confusing to the women who are subjected to it.”
‘It was not appropriate’
During a phone interview with RNS in June, Das said that he has slept with “probably one or two” followers over the course of his career but that they seduced him by getting him drunk and ambushing him in his bed.
After Das spoke to RNS, he sent a statement through Bishoff confirming those relationships and apologizing.
“I did have intimate relationships more than ten years ago with a few women who may have attended my lectures or retreats or who came to me for meditation practice,” he said in the statement.
“Although these were consensual relationships between mature adults, I believe it was not appropriate for me to enter into these relationships, given my role as a teacher and retreat leader. I apologize from the bottom of my heart to those who suffered any pain or harm that my actions may have contributed to or caused.”
In an email, Bishoff described Das as more of a retreat leader for large groups of adults than a teacher of specific students.
“While those who come to retreats and workshops come to learn, they are not students in the sense that the teacher holds any particular power in the traditional sense of a teacher-student relationship,” Bishoff said in an email.
Dzogchen Center’s board of directors said that it learned of the allegations against Das last year. In a statement, the board said that it “received assurance that the incidents involved only mature adults and that the situations had occurred a decade or more ago.”
At least one of his former students said that Das told her that sleeping with him would complete her Buddhist training, according to her written statement.
The experience was not what she expected.
“He left and I felt cheap and shocked at my own eagerness,” the woman wrote. “There was no follow-up, no talking it through, no friendship … no love, compassion, kindness.”
About three years later, the woman told three other former students about her experience with Das. They corroborated this.
“She was in tears, and she felt a lot of shame about it, that she’d been manipulated, and that he’d basically groomed her,” one of the former students said. “And she said it was just sex ... and it wasn’t even good sex.”
In a statement, Das denied ever propositioning a student during a private interview.
Das also allegedly had sexual relationships with at least two other women who were his students between 2007 and 2009, according to interviews with the women and written statements by them that were obtained by RNS.
In an interview, one of the women described her first date with Das. He began to kiss her as they sat talking, she said. Then he pulled her onto his lap and they had sex.
Afterward, as Das was leaving, the woman said, he turned to her and asked a question.
“Do you know how many other people would want to be in your position?” she recalled him asking.
“What, for sex with a lama?” she replied.
“No,” he said. “For enlightenment.”
Das said in a statement that he does not recall this relationship
The relationship between a spiritual teacher or a spiritual director and the person being directed is based on trust and vulnerability, according to Lisa Fullam, a professor of moral theology at the Santa Clara University Jesuit School of Theology.
In that kind of relationship, Fullam said, the teacher “carries kind of a numinous authority that makes it very hard for any kind of a consensual relationship to be legitimate.”
“The person’s whole spiritual path can be derailed when that kind of trust is abused,” said Fullam, who spoke about the relationships between spiritual teachers and followers in general, not the specific allegations regarding Das’ conduct.
Scott Edelstein is the author of “The User’s Guide to Spiritual Teachers” and “Sex and the Spiritual Teacher.” He said that people can sometimes excuse poor behavior by spiritual teachers that would be unthinkable coming from their doctor, counselor or other professional.
“Is this person doing something that 90% of people would never do? If so, that’s a huge warning sign,” he said.
Responding to concerns
After hearing from Merchasin, the board of the Dzogchen Center hired Laura Harshbarger, an attorney with the Syracuse, New York-based firm Bond, Schoeneck & King, “to listen and advise,” according to Bishoff.
“The board offered through the lawyer for any woman Carol was advising to come before the board and that it would listen to what they had to say and take their concerns seriously. No one stepped forward,” Bishoff said in an email.
Merchasin said the women did not feel comfortable coming forward to the board because they feared reprisals from Das, who is both president of Dzogchen Center and a member of its board of directors, according to the group’s most recent annual report, filed last October.
Merchasin, who previously investigated the allegations against Sakyong Mipham and Shambhala International on behalf of Buddhist Project Sunshine, said that one of the women and a former teacher at the Dzogchen Center came to her after hearing of her involvement in addressing allegations about other Buddhist organizations. Merchasin told RNS that she is not paid nor is she representing the women whose allegations are included in her confidential report.
The board declined to share Harshbarger’s findings with RNS, saying that her report was confidential.
Das has continued to teach at meditation centers across the country and online, but his retreat manager now sits in the room while he gives private interviews. Dzogchen Center has also posted a code of ethics and a policy against harassment and discrimination on its website.
Meanwhile, the five women said that they have struggled with the fallout. One told RNS that she still has trouble trusting Buddhist teachers and meditation groups.
The woman said that this is exactly what Das had told her he was worried about when one of his relationships first came to light in 2008.
“He said, ‘The main thing I’m worried about is if people stop practicing Buddhism because of this. I really don’t want that,’” the woman said. “I think that was one of the most genuine things he ever said to me.”
Das told RNS that he has adhered to the Dzochen Center’s code of ethics for years and that he has vowed not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
“In 2009, I did a great deal of soul-searching and requested and received regular counsel from my venerable teachers,” he said in a statement. “I made a vow then never to repeat any mistakes I had made. I am publicly renewing that vow now to ensure that I always strive to live the ethical and altruistic life of the compassionate bodhisattva.”
(Send tips to reporter Joshua Eaton at [email protected].)