“The dharma is yours. And if you really love it and it’s gone into you, no one can harm that.”
– Tsultrim Allione, in response to a question on what one could take back to the Shambhala community following the revelation of sexual misconduct and abuse by the head of the lineage.
Buddhism saved my life. Or more accurately, Buddhism provided a framework for me where I had none, so I could be more capable of showing up for the fullness of my experience. I started with meditation—learned through the guidance and support of my psychologist—and soon found the wisdom of dharma from my primary teacher, Ani Pema Chödrön. For the first five years of my practice, I relied on my own diligence. I did not have a community connection, and didn’t even know that there were such things, but it didn’t matter very much to me because I felt the benefit of the practice.
In the fifth year on this path, I decided I wanted to go on a retreat, as this was something Ani Pema and other teachers I was studying often recommended. I understood that retreat would give me the opportunity to focus on my practice and amplify the experience of the universal wisdom available in the packaging called ‘Buddhism’.
I was living in London at the time, and with a little research, I found a retreat space called Dhanakosa. The appeal of this space was that they offered a sliding scale payment for attendees, which was helpful on my limited budget. I booked on to their nine-day introductory retreat and in the summer of 2012, I ventured by bus, underground, train and taxi to the remote hills of Scotland.
During the intake session for the retreat, one of the teachers asked us to indicate if we had attended anything with Triratna before. The name was unfamiliar to me, a word that made no sense, but I gathered it was the group that had organised this retreat and the organisation the retreat centre belonged to.
My experience on that retreat was profound. I made a connection with one of the teachers, and for the first time, felt a sense of community connected to my practice. I was thrilled to realise there were folks I could meet with regularly and spaces where we could come together to discuss and contemplate the teachings.
As soon as I was back in London I sought out the London Buddhist Centre and threw myself into the Triratna community with enthusiasm and excitement. I attended at least two public sittings a week and two to three talks a month, despite the long train journey from where I lived in South London to the Centre in Bethnal Green. I expressed my longing to take my Refuge Vow within the community to many members I met and spoke with, and set about finding out how this could be done. Interestingly, my enthusiasm was never matched. When I spoke of my desire, folks responded in a way which implied to me that they thought I wasn’t ready or didn’t understand the commitment of taking Refuge.
But I knew I was ready, even if they didn’t think so. I had considered myself a Buddhist since reading Start Where You Are back in 2008. I’d simply never had the chance to take Refuge before now. I found out the contact details of the Refuge ceremony organiser, sent her an email, and proceeded to inform myself on everything I could to prove I was ready. I was told, repeatedly, that reading The Triratna Story was a prerequisite, so I bought the book and began reading it right away.
I was also a little bit relentless in my pursuit of the Refuge ceremony organiser, as I learned that the next ceremony was in just a month and I didn’t want to miss it. I managed to pin her down through a series of emails and text messages, as well as by being present at the Centre frequently. I considered her reluctance to meet with me as a sort of test, to see if I was truly as devoted as I said. I was ready to prove to her that I was more than ready to take Refuge—I’d basically already done so but this was about making it official. She asked if I had read The Triratna Story yet. I told her I was halfway through it, and enjoying it immensely. She instructed me to let her know when I’d finished reading, and then we could discuss if I was still interested in taking Refuge with the Sangha. It was only with hindsight that I would understand that the reluctance to meet me enthusiastically was not at all a measure of my devotion.
The evening I reached the point in the book where the sexual abuse of the founder of Triratna is revealed lives in my memory as a moment of stark betrayal and shock. It was like a punch to the stomach to read the words on the page and reflect on my experience up to that point. I could not reconcile in my head, the loving, welcoming folks I had been meeting with the complicity and victim blaming language of the book. I felt lied to, but in a sneaky slippery way. It was like a bomb had been placed on my path and I had been gently encouraged to stumble across it and cope with the wreckage on my own. I realised that somehow, the members of the community I had spoken with had convinced themselves that this was what honesty looked like.
I was shaking as I read the version of events as they had chosen to publish it in their own book, published by their own publishing house. I remember going online and searching for their previous name, the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, which they changed to Triratna in the wake of survivors coming forward. Their book claimed the name change was part of the healing process, but I just saw it as damage control for search results they could not prevent under their previous name.
Pages of results of the abuse within the community came back. There were letters published by the survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of their founder and other senior students. Sexual abuse committed over decades on individuals as young as sixteen. Sexual abuse that, to that very day, continued to be debated as abuse at all by those who had chosen to remain loyal to the founder.
I felt sick. I felt betrayed and angry, and a deep sense of disappointment. I wished I could get back every five-pound note I had spent to sit in their shrine room twice a week for the past two months. I never wanted to go back again, and I knew I wouldn’t.
But I also knew that I was still a Buddhist. I understood what I understood about Buddhism through my personal experience, through examining, reflecting upon, and testing the teachings as I had been instructed, as I would a piece of gold. My understanding of Buddhism was that not causing harm was essential to it, and intrinsic to the work of cultivating compassion. We could not experience egolessness and still cause harm. We could not connect with bodhicitta and still cause harm.
I knew this because I felt it in my own momentum on the path. The more I opened myself to sitting with my own suffering, the more relatable the suffering of others was becoming. The more relatable the suffering of others became, the less important it was if I shared their embodiment or worldview. I could understand that all suffering deserves to be addressed and we are all as capable of waking up to that as we are capable of perpetuating the systems that create inequality and harm.
I considered what it would mean to me and my practice if someone came to me and said they had empirical evidence that Shakyamuni Buddha never existed, never taught the four noble truths, never reached enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. I asked myself, genuinely, if this would render my practice useless.
The answer was no. Because I had felt for myself the tender heart of bodhichitta and the power it has to transform my own experience. I could find a teacher useful, their guidance helpful to me and their experience relevant as something relatable as a reflection of my own potential, but I did not need the success of my teacher’s practice in order for my own to be fruitional.
My devotion to Ani Pema is deep and enriching. Just to think of her can bring tears to my eyes, as my heart expands so much in appreciation for all the guidance she has offered. But the trajectory of my practice remains mine. Ani Pema’s wisdom is only part of the equation. My own dedication and commitment to putting in the work have more value than anything external to me. If it didn’t I wouldn’t be walking this path. And being able to question, to draw boundaries as part of harm reduction, and to determine for myself what is absolute wisdom, is a key part of that path.
I chose not to continue my relationship with Triratna, and until now I have rarely shared this experience. I feared that to do so would have me labelled as judgemental. This is, of course, a result of the greater culture in which we live, where the voices of the most vulnerable are silenced through shame. It’s true that some judgements are made with great bias, but I do not think it is a failing to share our judgement if the intention is to prevent further harm from being caused. In the wake of the sexual abuse in Shambhala, and Rigpa, and in so many other communities regardless of spiritual affiliation, it is proven that secrecy is the greatest way to ensure that nothing changes.Browse Front PageShare Your Idea