Personal Addendum to the “Update on the Findings of Sexual Misconduct of the Sakyong”, Phase II, Project Sunshine Report (Merchasin, July 10, 2018)
Submitted by the ‘Corroborating Witness’ Cited in the Report
Dr. Julia Sagebien, July 20, 2018
The communique issued by Project Sunshine on July 10, 2018, provided the highlights of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s ‘Chile incident’ (as referred to in the Shambhala sangha). The report, written by Attorney Carol Merchasin, wove together the first-person testimony of the aggrieved party (the ‘Chilean woman’) with that of other individuals, such as myself (Corroborating Witness), with close knowledge of the incident and its aftermath.
Besides a series of productive conversations with Att. Merchasin, her investigation also included email conversations between myself as the Corroborating Witness, the ‘Chilean Woman’ and Att. Merchasin. The report is, in my opinion accurate. Nevertheless, there are a number of details that, while immaterial to the thrust of the investigation, very much deserve being made public for the sake of a more comprehensive understanding of the events vis a vis our collective dharma path.
The Chilean incident took place in Santiago de Chile, to the best of my recollection, in the early months of 2002. All of the dinner guests, including myself, left the event before there was any indication of a problem. As soon as what happened later on that evening became known to me as a member of the Sakyong’s traveling party, I contacted the Chilean woman. I made clear to her that such behavior on the part of SMR was simply not acceptable, and that he owed her a profound apology – an apology that SMR made via a letter from the Santiago airport en route back to North America (I recall it being the next morning.) The incident was neither hidden from the Chilean sangha, nor was it sensationalized.
Upon the return of the traveling party to North America, the incident was investigated thoroughly by the senior administration of Shambhala. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche accepted the advice and support of his closest students, staff and administrators, and did take it upon himself to rectify the habitual patterns that cause obscurations in his awareness (including the drinking of alcohol) and harmful behavior to others.
One of the male administrators that had traveled with SMR to Chile reached out to the Chilean woman during her 2003 extended stay in NYC. He introduced her to a senior female student, also living in NYC, who provided friendship, support and understanding to her. To my knowledge, this mutual openness was much appreciated by all involved.
The Chilean woman, a brilliant, kind, and elegant young woman managed such an unfortunate incident with exemplary self-care, openness and forgiveness. It should be noted that the Chilean woman strongly disagreed with the use of the term ‘attempted rape’ in an earlier draft of the report written by Att. Merchasin since the term overstated the level of force involved in SMR’s sexual misconduct.
With the ‘facts’ of the Chilean incident now in the public domain, I suggest we collectively ponder the question: why, if there was no rape, no lawsuit, no hush money, no guns wielded by angry husbands (as many believed), did the ‘Chile incident’ manage to become so monumental in our sangha’s collective imaginarium?
Physical distance, language barriers and limited contact between sanghas are indeed some of the reasons why. Like the children’s game ‘telephone’, the message has been garbled as it is repeated over and over. But for me, what made this event truly life-changing for SMR, as well as for those closely involved with him, was the profound ‘black air’, mamo season-like edginess of the disembodied Big No that filled the space. It was like the expansive wave of a nuclear blast.
According to VCTR’s Big No message to the Vajra Regent:
“That No is that you don’t give in to things that indulge your reality. There is no special reality beyond reality. That is the Big No, as opposed to the regular no. You cannot destroy life. You cannot by any means, for any religious, spiritual, or metaphysical reasons, step on an ant or kill mosquitoes at all. That is Buddhism. That is Shambhala. You have to respect everybody. You cannot make a random judgment on that at all. That is the rule of the king of Shambhala, and that is the Big No. You can’t act on your desires alone. You have to contemplate the details of what needs to be removed and what needs to be cultivated.”
Greater Eastern Sun, The Wisdom of Shambhala, Chapter 12.
I have experienced this overwhelming sensation sense of mamo season-like ‘spatial dread’ four times in my life: 1) when VCTR almost stopped teaching Vajrayana at the 1973 Seminary because we as students did not understand the container needed for such a teaching to be taught; 2) at VCTR’s 1984 Mill Village during the time of greatest danger to VCTR’s well-being; 3) during the Chile incident, though more as a sense of Ekajati’s reprimand to SMR; and 4) now. I imagine that it also happened during the Vajra Regent’s debacle, but I was not close enough to the epicenter of that quake.
Commentary on alcohol and women:
Based on my personal experience with both SMR, as well as with his father Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche (VCTR), I would like to briefly note that in my observation, the reaction of each individual to alcohol was totally, completely and radically different. No matter the amount of alcohol or the outrageousness VCTR’s actions - his awareness left no place to hide. How he did he do it? I have no idea.
On the other hand, I have more than once witnessed the effect of hard liquor on SMR and I have witnessed the sort of obscurations that liquor can create in him. This sort of change in personality, as well as propensity for inappropriate behaviour towards others, is well documented in the alcohol abuse literature. Fortunately, this malady is treatable and since 2002, I sincerely believe that SMR has indeed tried to manage this malady, sadly, not always successfully.
As far as relationships with women, based on my personal experience, VCTR did understand that NO was NO. Personally, rather than feeling demeaned and used, I only experienced the profound love and friendship of someone who was always there for me, there for himself, there for all of the sangha, there for all sentient beings, there for the Kagyu, Nyingma and Shambhala lineages.
From a dharmic point of view, what has remained with me as one of the most important lessons is the importance of individual personal responsibility. Whenever a transgression and/or harm by anyone, but especially by a senior teacher or a spiritual master takes place, every person involved, at every step of the crisis, should realize that they are more than capable of applying simple, every day decency and common sense. Granted, there are always opportunities for individual cowardice and institutionalized coverups – but it IS possible for each person to take responsibility for doing whatever little bit he/she can do to rectify the problem rather than drown the pain of the transgression in some sort of spiritual or political double talk. For me, this is what service to the Three Jewels is really all about.
Today, practitioners of all ages and stripes are currently struggling to understand what should be accepted and what should be rejected, both at a kitchen sink common- sense level, and at the much more profound level of vajra-samaya to all Three Jewels alike. The rapidly advancing darkness and chaos that seems to be swallowing the so-called ‘real world out there’ is demanding that we figure this out PRONTO in order to preserve the teachings and be of service to all sentient beings.
I am also posting a letter by His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, a close friend and ally of VCTR, a very important teacher of SMR’s, and a much-loved teacher and guide to our Vajradhatu/Shambhala community and to many other sentient beings worldwide. Though in the letter Rinpoche is referring specifically to 1989/1990 crisis over the Vajra Regent, it still offers excellent advice on how to go forward individually and collectively at these times of confusion.
Thank you for reading.
Dr. Julia Sagebien