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Pema Chodron on staying open when things fall apart

Pema Chodron with Sakyong Rinpoche, who resigned as leader of Shambhala last week

I’ve come to Boulder in Colorado, to hear a talk by the American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron. As I’ve previously written, I picked up Chodron’s book, The Places That Scare You, while on an ayahuasca retreat, in between two rather scary ceremonies. It was hugely helpful to me, and when I returned to my jungle hut that night, I looked at the book, and the photo of this small smiling shaven-headed nun, and literally cried tears of gratitude. I vowed to try and study with her.

It turns out that’s not so easy. I realized yesterday that thousands of people have similar stories, and feel their life was transformed, saved even, by Pema’s teachings. Pema is 81, and in huge demand as a teacher and speaker. She only accepts people on six-month retreats, after they have completed other initial courses. However, she does occasionally do public talks, such as the one I attended yesterday. It was at the summer seminar of a sangha called Mangala Shri Bhuti, where the head teacher is Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, Pema’s teacher.

The seminar is a ten-day course in Buddhist philosophy, taught by Rinpoche, his wife Elizabeth (they met in India when they were both very young), and their son. They moved to Colorado in the 1980s, and set up this community high up in the hills outside Boulder. It is so extraordinary to be able to study advanced Buddhist philosophy with a Tibetan lama, then cross the road to the national park and see moose, and then drive down to Boulder, this mountain town full of gurus and poets and hippies. It’s like Lhasa with better Wi-Fi.

Boulder has been a centre for Eastern wisdom ever since a famous Tibetan teacher called Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche moved here in the 1970s. He set up Naropa Institute, which is the only Buddhist university in the West. He also set up a sangha (community) called Shambhala, which is one of the biggest Buddhist sanghas in the West.

Chogyam was charismatic, funny and highly intelligent, and he attracted devoted students, including the poet Allen Ginsberg, the scientist Francisco Varela (who set up the Mind & Life Institute), and a young woman called Deirdre Blomfield-Brown, who came across an article by Trungpa when she felt like her world was falling apart after two divorces. She travelled to Oxford to be taught by him, then followed him to Boulder and threw herself into the dharma,  eventually being ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun called Pema Chodron.

Alas, something is rotten in the state of Colorado. Last week, Shambhala’s leader – Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Chogyam’s son – stepped back from his leadership position after facing allegations of the sexual abuse of students. The investigation, by a former student of Chogyam’s, uncovered countless incidents of sexual violence within the sangha going back decades, by several men. The board of Shambhala has resigned and the Boulder Buddhist community is in turmoil.

This is by no means the first western Buddhist community to go through such trauma. The other most prominent Tibetan sangha in the West is Rigpa, set up by Sogyal Rinpoche. He was also forced to resign, last year, after several allegations of abuse and sexual violence. And there have been many other incidents of sexual and spiritual abuse uncovered in western Buddhist communities over the last few years, including by the British founder of the London Buddhist Centre, Dennis Lingwood.

It’s dispiriting. It undermines one’s faith in the dharma when teachers – who are meant to be advanced practitioners of compassionate wisdom – turn out to be egomaniac sex abusers. What is the cause, what the remedy?

The problem is partly power. Spiritual communities often give too much power and veneration to priests or gurus, who then abuse that power. We are desperate for enlightenment, desperate for approval, and we think the teacher can grant us celestial approval like a god. People channel so much uncritical longing and authority to the teacher – I saw this at the Pema talk, where people wept as they spoke to her. This adulation creates a situation ripe for corruption. Secondly, spiritual traditions are often highly patriarchal. This is true across the world, in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Shamanism, Hinduism and Buddhism. It’s a time of great change in many of these traditions, as women challenge millennia of patriarchy and find their voice.

Thirdly, Tibetan Buddhism has two particular issues.  One is how lineages are passed on – successors are recognized as reincarnations of previous leaders when they’re children, and treated as semi-deities. This sometimes works (as with the Dalai Lama, a shepherd boy recognized as a lineage leader when he was a child), and sometimes doesn’t. Chogram’s other son, who makes hip-hop, made a great documentary about this tradition and how it goes wrong.

The other issue is that the Tibetan Buddhist tradition places a lot of emphasis on the guru-student relationship. Tibetan Buddhism, like Zen, is full of stories of gurus acting crazily and abusively – hitting their students, demanding ridiculous things of them. The student is expected to see their guru as the Buddha and accept whatever they do as perfect. The guru may also pursue Tantric sexual practices with their students. So you can see how this could go wrong.

Chogyam Trungpa

The seeds of Shambala’s present problems are arguably found in Chogyam’s behaviour. He was an alcoholic, who died of liver failure in his fifties. He slept with many students, and encouraged a culture of eccentric living and wild partying ruled over by his own monarchical authority. He then appointed a successor who had HIV and passed it on to other students. And he was succeeded by Chogyam’s son, the heir apparent, who is also a violent alcoholic womanizer. Yet no student ever criticizes Chogyam – he is still considered an enlightened being. His son must wonder why he, behaving so similarly, is getting such grief.

Various Tibetan Buddhist teachers have responded to these latest problems. The Dalai Lama, in response to the Sogyal Rinpoche controversy, said that ‘crazy wisdom’ behaviour is only acceptable in totally-enlightened gurus, and these beings are exceptionally rare and probably living in caves. In normal instances, the students should retain their agency and ability to say no. Tenzin Palmo, a British lady who became a Tibetan Buddhist nun and spent 12 years meditating in a cave, said last week this is an opportunity to ‘set some boundaries, and rethink the whole situation of the commitment between the student and the teacher’.

Up to this point, Pema Chodron had not commented on what must be a painful situation for her – Shambhala is her community, Sakyong is the son of her beloved teacher. But she was asked about it during her talk, and gave an interesting response. She replied:

This is the time of #metoo. How could I not support that – I’m a woman. Women should take a stand, what’s been dysfunctional should be addressed. When things fall apart, it impacts you, even at a subconscious level. At the same time, it’s an opportunity for something freeing to emerge. I have no preconceptions of what that will be. I have no idea what will happen with the United States, or with the planet – they’re not doing great either. But I’m an advocate for keeping your heart and mind open. Don’t get polarised into fixed, militant or fundamentalist views.

It’s characteristic of this time. Everything is blown wide open. That makes us all insecure. Our knees shake and our stomach is in turmoil. We don’t like that as a species. But the training of the bodhisattva is to become slowly able to hold that falling-apartness, with eyes wide open, with heart wide open. What we do – that’s the future.

She talked about many other things, particularly around the idea of bodhisattva warrior training. She used several examples from Christian missions, such as an organization called Homeboy Industries, which gives rival gang-members jobs and community, challenging the idea of Us and Them. She spoke about how painful it is to try and be a compassionate warrior – how sometimes, it simply overloads one’s nervous system and you have to take a break (she suffered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for several years). She spoke refreshingly about the balance between inner work and outer work – someone in the audience asked: ‘how can I be at this seminar, when I feel I should be at the border protesting?’ She replied instantly: ‘Why don’t you go afterwards?’

She spoke about taking seriously the bodhisattva vow to help and love anyone – including failed, abusive leaders: ‘Nothing will work if there’s no compassion. With a teacher it’s particularly heart-breaking. You’ve seen someone grow up and you love them dearly, then they do something that’s so painful to hear about. But how can you reject them? You can not condone their behaviour and still love someone, and know they can change.’

What I find most inspiring in her teachings is the idea of opening to the anxiety, shame and insecurity we all feel so often, seeing it as the juicy ground for practice rather than something to shut down. She said: ‘Your life is your training, not some time in the future when it’s more pleasant. The bad stuff that happens to you is what allows you to understand other people. We can practice kindness to our own stuff, our own stuckness. The part we’re ashamed of is what allows us to have compassion.’ This is so true.

She concluded: ‘The bodhisattva training has two big challenges. First, to grow in the capacity to live with nothing to hold on to, so when you die, and there’s nothing to hold on to, you’re trained.’ This, in fact, is what we’ve been studying all week – Nagarjuna’s teachings on emptiness, which I’ll write about next week. ‘Secondly, invite all sentient beings as your guests. There’s no guest list. All of them.’

I find her teachings profoundly helpful, but as always there are questions the critical student could ask: should Pema herself take responsibility as a leader of the community for supporting people, structures and practices that have been harmful? Is she rationalizing the abusive behaviour of her teacher? If we say ‘well, that’s the nature of samsara, everything falls apart and at the ultimate level no one has actually been harmed’, does this let Tibetan Buddhist teachers off the hook for errors and vices? What is the balance between inner work on fixing one’s mind and outer work on trying to heal the world? These are not easy questions.

Speaking personally, I still find the Buddhist path a very rich and rewarding one, and I recognize that I need teachers and I need community – but I no longer expect either of them to be perfect. I agree with Dzigar Rinpoche’s wife, Elizabeth, that ‘we need to retain our agency and critical reason on this path’. No guru can fix us and no teacher I’ve met is flawless, not even Pema Chodron.

How to recognise and escape spiritual abuse

bullyingThis week, I met Nataline Daycreator, a wonderful coach and author who works to help victims of spiritual abuse. She is herself a survivor of 14 years in an abusive Pentecostal community. She told me her story and the lessons we can draw from it.

Hi Nataline. First of all, how do we define spiritual abuse?

An organization called INAASA defines it as ‘a form of abuse that manifests when those in religious authority/leadership manipulate and use control tactics to undermine, disempower and subjugate those who look to them for guidance and advice in a religious capacity’. Most people who go into religious communities are trying to get close to God, not their leaders. Some leaders abuse their authority for power, money or sex.

What got you interested in this subject?

I experienced spiritual abuse for 14 years in a Pentecostal community in North London. I say community rather than church – a lot of places of worship may call themselves churches but often they’re not regulated by the Diocese of London or any ecclesiastical body. They use the term to validate themselves.

How did you become part of this community?

I grew up in Jamaica. Although I wasn’t brought up religious, growing up in such a beautiful place, I always had a sense there was some higher Being or orchestrator. My family moved to London, and I got pregnant when I was 18, and readily accepted the fact that I was a mother. I felt I needed support and God’s help. I thought if I got to know God He’d show me how to be the mother my child needed.

Nataline Daycreator
Nataline Daycreator

So I went on a quest to find God. I went to a shop near the Finsbury Park mosque, because I was interested in Islam, but the man in the shop was so rude and dismissive towards me that I walked straight out. Then I tried the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Whenever someone invited me to a faith community, I went, but I always asked questions – who was the Holy Spirit, who was Jesus? I had heard these terms but had no understanding of their relevance to who God was.

Most people answered these questions like they were trying to sell me a car. But I met one man, he was quiet, dressed rather shabbily, he answered in very simple and plain language. He seemed very humble and unassuming – they’re the worst ones! That was the pastor of the Pentecostal community I ended up joining for 14 years. I met his wife who was also a minister as an Evangelist, and I met their children. Then I went to hear him preach and talk. Initially it was just 12 people or so. We met in a church in Haggerston East London, the services were held there on Sunday afternoons. They rented the space from Haggerston church to have its sunday meetings, shortly after I had joined we moved to Edmonton Methodist Church, where again we hired the church on Sundays. This is common practice for smaller communities.

What did you like initially about the community and the services?

Well, I didn’t like the fact that they were quite long – it was usually from 2 until 5 every Sunday. But I loved singing in services and later started the choir. Though I was very new at learning this religious life, I had a sense of connection to God. And a sense of peace, in the early days, and of community, belonging and security, because you felt you were under God’s protection, and ‘in the right lane’. In hindsight I wish I had realised that connection was free and could be experienced anywhere, without terms and conditions.

Then, in my second year in the community, people started telling me what my purpose was, what my personality would be. I was given all these responsibilities – I was choir director, Sunday School director, the pastor’s personal PA. I wasn’t given any training, or  support or financial budget – I believed this was a part of my service to God and I paid for this out of my own pocket, although I was really struggling as a lone parent. Unfortunately these is not uncommon in some small unregulated churches.

Spiritual-AbuseGradually, I lost my sense of identity, my self, my passions and desires, I became a mechanism for the community. It felt like a treadmill, where I was always trying to please the pastor and his wife, so that I would win one of their public displays of affection and approval. For example, if you brought a soul ( a person you had invited ) to church, that would win you some public approval in front of the church, and everyone in the congregation would want that approval too. I was never praised for who I was, only for what I did for the ministry.

So you met your husband in the community. Was it an arranged marriage?

Not arranged, but it was certainly officially approved. We had a genuine connection, we were into similar things, we were both quite entrepreneurial. I don’t think the pastor and his wife liked the fact that, after marriage, I was more loyal to my husband rather than the church. So the first week we came back from our honeymoon, they gave my husband the Brotherhood leadership role. He was never asked, he was told that’s what he would do and he did it, with this came many responsibilities that drew him away from our marriage and further into ministry roles. They got their claws into him. Sometimes, when he got angry and lost his temper, I heard him repeating things the pastor had said to him.

Your husband was abusive, but the domestic abuse was closely connected to spiritual abuse by the pastor?

Yes. My husband was verbally and psychologically abusive to me and physically abusive to our children. But it was backed up by spiritual abuse. He and the pastor would twist scripture – they’d take a small verse like ‘the wife must submit to the husband’ and would leave out the rest ‘and the husband must submit to the wife’. If my husband was abusive, I would call the pastor (we could never call the police, who we were told were ungodly, worldly and secular – the advice of the pastor must come first), and the pastor and his wife would come round and tell me not to make my husband angry. His behavior was totally undermined as abusive, I was made to feel responsible for him and they would pray over us accordingly. I was warned to never call the police.

criticize-voltaire-550x414I believed if I went against the pastor, I was going against God. There was a sense that our religious leaders were higher than the state – higher than the police, judges or doctors. After five years in the community, I wanted to leave. But I was terrified that if I left, I was leaving God and would be open to demonic attacks. The pastor and his wife insisted that I was not spiritual enough, and if I had any doubts, it was the Devil trying to lure me away, and I should fast and pray until the doubts left. We were on an endless treadmill to win God’s approval and it seemed it only came through the mouth of the Pastor or his wife.

They tried to exert huge control over their congregants – the mind control was very extreme. They’d even say the Lord had given them power to come into our houses in the spirit, meaning their spirits would leave their bodies and watch what were doing in the privacy of our homes. Its seems crazy talking out loud about it now. When I think back now, yes some of it was sheer craziness.  We also gave contributions  to a trust to buy a church building, and were given permission by London Underground to fundraise at their stations but in fact, the money from the trust went to buy a house in the pastor and his wife’s names. But if you questioned any of this, you were giving in to the Devil and seen to be moving away from God.

Towards the end of my time there, I realized I really did know myself, the real me and that gave me a core of strength. I knew I couldn’t just leave physically, not yet, but I could leave mentally. So at services, I’d look out of the window at the seagulls. Or at worship, I wouldn’t try and win their approval. I’d shut down so it was just between me and God. I prayed to God that the pastor’s wife wouldn’t lay hands on me during prayer, and she stopped. I detached myself from the church, mentally, and realized the real truth that I wasn’t in danger of the Devil. I was building the strength to say no more.

Then one year I went to a Hillsong conference in Australia, on my own. I needed to get away from it all and have the space to think clearly. This was an act of rebellion in itself, as our ministry had a conference at the same time. At the Hillsong conference, I met a policewoman, and we talked and opened up to each other. She told me ‘you’re going through domestic abuse and spiritual abuse’. She gave a name to what I had been experiencing through all these years. It was an incredible wake-up. When I went back, my husband became angry over something. This time I told him to leave, I rang the police, and my husband rang the pastor. He left before the police arrived, and went to live at the pastor’s house. I never went back to the community after that. My ex husband wasn’t perfect, but I believe he could have got better if he’d got therapy. Instead, he only turned to the community and sought their approval.

But they made it extremely difficult for me to leave. They would turn up at a new church I went to and demand that the church give me back. I had to take out an injunction against the pastor. But I got out. I jumped ship, I and my six children, and landed on safe ground. I found freedom and peace and a stronger connection to God. I also read the Bible afresh, and before where I just saw condemnation and shame, I saw love shining out. When I was leaving the community, I was terrified of displeasing God. But I thought, if He’s really the God of Love, He’ll know I’m trying to do right.

How common is spiritual abuse?

Watchman+Profile+buttonIt’s extremely common. It happens in Christian communities, in Muslim communities, in Buddhism, Scientology, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses. I met someone from a safety agency, she said it affected perhaps one in four people in churches here in London. It’s very prevalent in African and Caribbean churches. In Nigeria, for example, Bishop Oyedepo, who runs a church with some 35,000 members, publicly slapped a girl in the face in the front of the congregation and called her a witch. In these countries, there are no women’s rights. And when these churches come to the UK, they often bring that culture with them.

What can be done about it?

The first thing is the government could introduce a national register of all places of worship. There’s a complete lack of accountability and regulation. Every Sunday, the most vulnerable people in London walk into places of worship – people with mental health issues, people who have been sectioned, alcoholics, people who are hurting immensely looking for some relief. And they’re placed in the hands of people who are not at all trained, qualified or accountable. The English judiciary also needs to be less deferential to ecclesiastical authorities in law cases – if someone has committed a crime, it shouldn’t matter if they call themselves a pastor. Finally, if people think they may be suffering from spiritual abuse, they can also contact me directly or organizations like the Family Survival Trust.

Did the experience put you off religion entirely?

I’ve redefined religion. It should have this meaning: something that brings well-being to the whole person. If it doesn’t do that, it shouldn’t be granted the status of religion. If it is intended to harm then it should classed and treated as an act against humanity. Personally, I have a very strong relationship with God, but I’m still wary of organized religion, and all these labels we put on people: Presbyterian or Pentecostal or Catholic or whatever. They just close people off from each other. That’s not who God is. Religion has taught me I that I carry that a sinful nature, while being in love with God has taught me that I carry the inherit blueprint of who He is. One of these beliefs sets me free, the other enslaves me. Religion led me to a life of beating up this self that God the artist carefully and mindfully crafted to be unique and diverse from my millions of kin, and yet still one with Him.

So you don’t miss the community of being in a church?

I have community that I fellowship with all over the world. Through Facebook, for example, I have developed a network of like-minded people, who have faith but are also free thinkers. It’s been very healing. I’ll still go to church too at times, when people invite me, and I enjoy it. I’m sure there are healthy churches, but I don’t seek it anymore, I am no longer led by fear.

Nataline is now writing a book about spiritual abuse, and can be contacted through her website.  She’s also on Twitter @daycreators