freedom from religion

The Buddhist community of Shambhala has been called out very publicly for religious, sexual and clergy abuse over the past few years. I was a member for over 20 years, since I was a teenager. They are now offering therapy to it’s members as a form of reparations for those who are having spiritual, emotional or psychological problems from being involved, as they now are considered a high demand group. It’s a nice gesture, since there has been so much harm, we sadly even had a few suicides. I do commend them, as many other Tibetan Buddhist teachers have no accountability and rather, blame the students for not seeing their abuse as somehow, “pure,” or being spiritually mature enough for it’s inherent dangers. Former members are saying that it’s a few years overdue, and you can’t “drink from a poisoned well.” The damage for people involved is complex, long term and deep.

Rigpa, another large Buddhist group, according to the EU, is officially deemed a high demand group, or a N.R.M. or New Religious Movement, and it’s director psychologically unfit. Awful, unspeakable, sadistic abuse and rituals occurred in the communities and some things you can’t unsee- like stabbing effigies of people or forcing students to strip and dance nakedly as they cry. I have no tolerance for callous bullies, especially when cruelty is hidden behind the cloth, egregious. I had to seek help myself when Shambhala began to fall, namely, I had a fear of the hell they threatened, fear of retributive obstacles from unseen forces and spiritual punishments. We have clear vows that if one leaves or speaks out against genuine harm like this center in Belgium [edit], exposed for child abuse, sexual abuse and exploitative control, we will be punished, die etc., and are sworn to secrecy. Not healthy to say the least.

Cult-like groups generally magnetize the unassuming, “spiritual seekers.” If you come from a broken or dysfunctional family or have early core trauma, you always long to heal it and are very vulnerable to cult-like communities, narcissistic relationships and manipulation. In contrast, if you were raised with abuse, from the same wounding you could also become yourself, hardened, dissociated with no empathy, love then is equated to power and exploitation and these people often seek positions of power and are predatory. I don’t know yet, if gender plays a role with the outcomes. I am a child abuse survivor and am personally very vulnerable to these milieus. These high demand groups are sadly, riddled with these exceedingly unhealthy dynamics that it took me, many of us, 20 years or more, to see.

I can even see the very tenets of the well intended Buddhism/ Religions being used in an unethical way, to entrap and disable people: we are sick, needing to purify always, as soon as we purify we are stained again moments later, it can breed self mistrust and loathing. Enlightenment or absolution is always untenable, and we keep bound to the hope of “some day” and give all of our trust, money, hope and power to a savior to help us. It’s like religious encoded codependency.

Maybe this is precisely why so few of us aren’t really showing any signs of spiritual progress, we play out these narcissistic/ empathic (codependent) roles again and again, savior and saved, break you and come back, and no one seems to have the overview and wisdom to call it out. Well, honesty and admission are the first essential steps in stopping destructive patterns, and it’s suggested that survivors often need professional help to recover. Narcissism and social control is rampant culturally these days, and it is indeed, not the dharma.

It’s heartbreaking, because the core of some of what these communities offer is sound, as far as I’m concerned. Meditation, yoga and breath-work are empirically proven to help to reduce stress, calm the nervous system and clear the mind. There are genuine, humble Buddhist teachers (Gurus), that often do not run large organizations that can lead way to corruption; some are simple and exemplify qualities of compassion and wisdom. The positive qualities of my teachers and the power and efficacy of these ancient practices, I still hold very dear. Some accuse me of still being a cult-member for this very reason, but one has to discriminate what is helpful or not for one’s life. I now allow myself to have permission to question, think critically, to accept what was positive in these Buddhist communities, and request that what was unkind, exploitative, unethical, be seen and changed.

I have had to seek help over the years to heal from what is called “spiritual betrayal.” The entrusted religion or guru or spiritual friends that you found solace and refuge in, you see rather, you were used, and no one really cared for you. You were asked to offer yourself, in whole, without question and be loyal. However that “loyalty” was one sided, the first time you question or speak out, you are modern day shunned or asked to leave. This entire heartbreaking process has caused untold traumas.

Listen to noted author Robert Thurman discuss a Abuse in Buddhism in a recent, powerful recording.

So where are we at now? Well, it’s not been easy for many of us who devoted our lives to unhealthy, high demand groups. For me, it’s like I have to start at square one. I came in to my Buddhist community a child abuse survivor, seeking refuge and solace there. What I found later, was a system of exploitation and hierarchy that resulted in me feeling bad about myself and somehow spiritually stained. It triggered the core self-doubt and self blame that I have been raised with, and did deep psychological harm. People take a lot of teachings and empowerments and go on this tiered spiritual track of levels, yanas, bhumis, what have you, and at the same time, I really thought I was someone or something spiritually special. Now in retrospect what I realized is that I was just using my religion to spiritually bypass very very deep core wounding and wanted someone to tell me what to do, to make my life meaningful and help me to develop spiritually.

None of the qualities as promised, arose in these 20 years of practice and devotion to this tradition. So now I have to start fresh and go way back to the original deep, wounding from early childhood, bring honest awareness and healing there and then heal from all of the self-doubt, loss, victim blaming and abuse from being in a high demand “spiritual” tradition. Those of us brave enough to speak out against abuse in our religion have sadly been shunned and silenced and blamed…. abuse on abuse… how tragic. I lost many who I thought were lifetime friends, it feels like leaving Scientology.

The good news for me, and many of us, is that now having seen the “light,” real healing in my life has finally begun. I reconnected to the essence of my positive and supportive Dharma teacher who passed away, restarted my meditation and yoga practice and began to touch into the deep early brokenness that inspired me to seek out these communities in the first place. I have faith that if we seek real professional help, all of my dharma brothers and sisters can really heal well from a lifetime of hurt and betrayal. We should not be embarrassed to admit that we may need help, were harmed, may even have harmed others and want to for once, finally embark on a real path toward healing and enlightenment. No one can do this for us. We have to be a “lamp unto ourselves,” and with professional help if needed, we can shine brightly, no matter what we experienced before.

Here are some powerful supports for those who have left high demand groups:

Healing Resources

Warmest and well wishes to all, especially my dharma friends who were ever harmed or betrayed, may they seek needed help and find real inner peace.


Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels




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