My Spiritual Teacher Committed Sexual Assault. And He Saved my Life. What Does that Mean Now?

I’ve been part of the Shambhala community since 2007. The first Dharma book I ever read wasn’t a Shambhala book though – It was the Joy of Living by Mingyur Rinpoche and I was drawn to that book because Mingyur Rinpoche describes his anxiety and how his practice helped him overcome that. It’s a book about transformation. And that was what I was seeking – transformation. I was always depressed. It started when I was a kid, and then just progressed into my teens and twenties. Then at the age of 29, I finally hit rock bottom. The choices were 1-kill myself or 2-find something else that was out of the box. Since I’m alive, you can imagine that I chose #2. Meditation was what I googled only because I’d heard of it. I’d even tried it when I was around 13. And my grandfather in India swore by it. So, I typed the words meditation into Google, and out popped the Shambhala Center. That was the only reason I went there; it sure wasn’t out of convenience! It was located in Rogers Park and I lived in Lakeview and worked in downtown Chicago. I, Aarti Tejuja, did NOT go north of Lakeview when I was 29, so Rogers Park might have well been a foreign country. So venturing out there after work was a big deal. After a month of mulling it over, I showed up once and then I never looked back. I didn’t go because the community was so amazing (it really was not that amazing). I didn’t go because I was so drawn to Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche (SMR), Shambhala main teacher. (I didn’t like his books at all) I didn’t go because I liked meditating (I did not like it very much at all.) I went because the discussions after the meditation sessions drew me in. They were about deeper things than the surface level conversations many of us talk about in our day to day life. The discussions were rich, dynamic, and with strangers. It was refreshing to talk on this level. So I kept showing up, and then, slowly, the meditation began to work its magic too. Something was definitely happening to me. Something was changing inside me. I went on to take classes and I just kept going, thirsty for more and more. I think that is the reason why so many people do stay in Shambhala. There’s something magical it offers, and I don’t mean magical in a fantasy kind of way, but more in a reality kind of way. The realness of talking about life, about death, about fear, about hope. It’s what made me stick around. I am sure that others have had that experience when they find a spiritual community that speaks to them.

I never really jived that well with the community there though; it was a lot of older liberal middle class folks. I know how to navigate around that kind of person, but they’re not really always my kind of people. And yet, I stayed. And then I even started working there. That really is a whole other story, but let’s just say I went deep in. I took the plunge, drank the kool-aid.

The first book by Chogyam Trunpa Rinpoche (CTR), the founder of Shambhala, that I ever read was “Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism.” It was so brilliant that it literally felt like the sun was shining through me. I had not studied Buddhism much before, but when I read that book, I kept wondering who this author was and how they knew me so well. I felt somewhat naked as though all my inner feelings and thoughts had been exposed. I had a dream or two of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and I felt connected to this dead person. I listened to stories of him and felt myself feeling more and more connected. And I could not, no matter what I did, feel that way about Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. I saw him when he came to run the second Chicago marathon, and I was not impressed at all. His books did not resonate with me. I recall the frustration of feeling so connected to the founder, to the lineage, but not to the current main guru.

In the Shambhala path, once you get to a certain point, the next step is to go to Vajrayana seminary (that is what it was called when I went). Here,you attend the program and at the end you can take formal vows with the Vajra master, or Guru, which in Shambhala was Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche (SMR). I just could not figure out what to do. Then my meditation instructor said she felt I should go. In hindsight, I think it was a weird thing to tell me, but I rationalized it at the time by thinking I could go to the program and in the end, if I still didn’t feel a connection with SMR, I just would not take the formal vow. So I went.

And then the biggest gift was bestowed upon me.

I believe it was the second talk that SMR gave at the program. I don’t recall most of what he said. I just recall one part and how I felt. Something happened in the space in which I could feel my own essence, what they call in Shambhala “basic goodness.” What I call intrinsic human nature, intrinsic worth. I know I have had glimpses of basic goodness in the past but this was not that. This was really feeling my own essence for quite some time in the most deeply profound way. My own value, my own worth, completely exposed to me, fully. I was crying. And SMR said something like “and this is what you’ve forgotten.” And it felt like that: that I completely forgotten who I was; that I had been living in a fog of some kind, and he for a brief time, had just lifted the fog just enough so I could remember again. And I thought, if I forgot this then how many others don’t see their own value? How many others are in this same fog? And that began my real path – my new journey. I believe it also saved my life because before that depression haunted me.

Now I understand that SMR is not the only spiritual teacher who can offer this. And I understand that there are so many alternative paths to realizing the same thing. And I understand we all have the capacity to see this in ourselves even without another person’s help. But for me, that moment has shaped my life in a completely new direction. And for me, it was SMR that gave me, Aarti Tejuja, that particular gift. It was that moment that allowed me to commit myself even deeper, and accept him as a teacher. There was a moment of such power, clarity, transformation and such softness and care. Such a human to human heart level transmission. Such a gracefulness. And I will love him and be in gratitude for that moment and for other similar moments thereafter for the rest of my life.

And then it was revealed this past year – he committed sexual assault, multiple times, and often some years ago. He abused women. He treated women like shit. He was an alcoholic. This whole dark side that had been carefully concealed to his newer students in order to make his image seem so squeaky clean all of a sudden was fully exposed. I do not not have to write about this, there is plenty you can google if you want to find out all the details. But the utter shock that many of us felt was very real. And although I have always known SMR to have faults, I too did not know the extent of his abuse.

Beyond the sexual abuse, while working for Shambhala as the Director of Social Engagement the past few years, I also learned that SMR also doesn’t really understand his own racial identity, particularly how that plays out in the United States. Working in this role was very challenging. I began to push hard on the previous board who were the ones to predominantly interact with SMR. I could sense things were not right but I could never get real answers. And as a result of ignorance, we have a white, liberal community that is not just riddled with sexism and sexual abuse, but it is riddled with racism and racial abuse too. Not to mention classism, islamaphobia, ableism, lack of understanding around gender identity, and I could go on and on.

In addition, we have a community of people that includes enablers of my teacher’s behavior. We also have people within our community that have committed their own harm and have yet to take accountability for any of their actions.

So what does that mean then? Do I burn all my books? My Dharma materials? Do I break my vows to my teacher? Do I advocate for him to have jail time? Do I leave Shambhala? Do I look for another teacher somewhere else? All these, I think are reasonable choices. And who knows, maybe they’ll be the right choices for me at some point. But for now, I’m waiting and just taking it all in. I’m letting myself feel the paradox of loving someone because they’ve made the most difference in my life, and being angry at the same person because they’ve done things that are the antithesis of what I fight for in my social justice life. I’m letting myself feel the complexity of how complicated humanity is, how unclear it is. How there are parts in ourselves that we judge as good and we judge as bad. And how complex it can get when we are afraid to be all of who we are and when hide these sides of ourselves that we are ashamed of, even if they are in our past. And I am also contemplating how we judge and treat others when we decide they’ve done something “bad.” And I think that maybe our fears and the reasons we painstakingly try to hide our bad behavior is maybe because people will not only judge us but perhaps they will not forgive us or will not accept us anymore. Maybe we will even be shunned. And I wonder, how is it that we can hold people accountable for the harm they cause or create, while also making it acceptable for them to come forward and admit to having commit harm? And what do we do about people who commit harm, but don’t seem to care, or don’t understand what they’ve done? And how do we create spaces for the voices of those who have been harmed? And how to offer them healing? And how do we create spaces for those who knew but did or said nothing, so that they will be brave enough to come forward? And how to we create spaces for those who really didn’t know and are in complete shock?

I don’t think that I have answers that are clear cut right now. What I do know is this: I know that what is happening within my own spiritual community is also happening everywhere. I know we are in the midst of looking deeply now at this mysogyntic, racist, classist, casteist, heteropatrairchal world we have all created together and many of us are saying “no.” That this world, even though we have accepted it for so long, is NOT the world that is acceptable. Perhaps my teacher was and is still living to an extent, in that old world in which we were okay with turning a blind eye to a racist remark or even to sexual assault. But in this new world, many of us have decided that turning a blind eye will no longer be okay. We are saying that we can do better. That what has been allowed to continue for centuries, will not continue now, and that we are striving to live in a just society for everyone.

So for my teacher, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, I thank you from the bottom of my heart – you did save my life. And what you have done is not acceptable. I love you and I do not accept what you have done. What you have offered to us as students is NOT enough. I have gratitude for what you’ve offered, but we deserve better. We demand better. We expect you to learn and go deep into your own social conditioning, with the help of trained professionals. We expect you to work with others on your alcoholism by attending programs such as Alanon. We expect you to work with others to understand your own internalized racism, sexism, classism and all the isms you’ve allowed yourself to fall prey to. We expect you to work with a therapist to better understand your own trauma. We expect you work with others to understand the trauma and pain you’ve caused by abusing people. And we expect you to share your progress with us, and not by writing but by speaking to us via video, zoom and other methods of engagement.

We expect you to begin to understand what it means to be a guru in the year 2019. It is not the same as maybe it once was anymore.

And while you go and figure this out, I’ll be working with other social activists, organizations, spiritual communities, transformative and restorative justice communities and anyplace that really wants to better understand how we can transform our societies. I’ll be working with incredible minds and hearts who want to do the work it’s going to take for real transformation to happen in this world.

I hope that at some point, you will be ready to join me. And if not, that’s ok too, because I know what I need to do and that’s enough.

11 Responses

  1. Lina Cramer says:

    Thank you Aarti. How to navigate our human experiences – that at once – can be both wonderous and harmful? So many contradictions and dissonance – you write about – similar to many we each live with daily.
    So appreciative of your sharing.

  2. Fern says:

    Beautifully said.

  3. Janice Lewis says:

    Thank you for sharing. I agree that most importantly, you know what you need to do. Good luck!

  4. Charley Rosicky says:

    Thank you Aarti. What a well written and heartfelt expression. It helps me as I am navigating similar waters as a student of SMR. I especially like the confidence you express in knowing what you are about now no matter what others do.
    With warm wishes
    Charley Rosicky
    Lafayette, CO

  5. Jayne Sutton says:

    Thank you, Aarti.

  6. Thanks Aarthi, you hold both extremes in your hands with grace and power.

  7. Christina says:

    Thank you so much for sharing the incredible gift of this post. Your grace and honesty are inspiring and I’m so moved. I feel a lot of what you’ve said here.

  8. Gabriel O' says:

    Aarthi, Thank you so much for writing this brilliant piece. It is helpful for me. Your friend in the vision of the Great Eastern Sun, Gabriel

  9. drala1008 says:

    good on you Aarti! I am out of Shambhala too, I appreciate your brilliance, your honesty and this clear communication. Best

    • atejuja says:

      Hi – Happy to see that you are doing what is best for you. I wasn’t sure what you meant by “out of Shambhala – “too”” I’m not sure where inmy blog I stated that I was out, or perhaps that means something different to you than to me?

  10. Jamie says:

    Hi Aarti,

    Huge appreciation for these powerful words. If only we were seeing more statements like this…

    In solidarity,
    Jamie

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