3 troubling aspects of Shambhala's 'enlightened society'
(Opened to the public June 7)

Before the Project Sunshine FB group and report arose earlier this year, I new oddly little about Shambhala International. I have been familiar with them for years and have a number of friends - mostly distant / fb contact type friends - who are members. Through my writing I have gotten to know, for instance, Waylon Lewis - founder of Elephant Journal, and Ethan Nichtern, an author and teacher in the Shambhala tradition. 

But it is only recently that I've been exposed to some of the inside-details of Shambhala: many relatively disturbing and best set aside for now, but some more mild, like this idea that they are creating an "enlightened society." From their Vision Statement: 

This vision offers possibilities for a radical paradigm shift – not a utopia, but a culture in which life’s challenges are met with kindness, generosity and courage In action, Shambhala is both a spiritual path of study and meditation that helps us work with our minds, as well as a path of serving others and engaging with our world. These vital and timely teachings open the door to the compassionate care for ourselves and others. 

Sounds innocuous enough, but, when combined with the hierarchical structure of the organization (see "the Shambhala Path"), it sets the ground for an echo-chamber of righteousness, where moral infractions by higher-ups are overlooked for a variety of reasons. These include:

  • Power differentials (in a he-said-she-said against a senior member, the senior member will always win)
  • Tighter in-group status of senior members (by virtue of their place in the organization, the time spent, and the desire of lower-leveled people to be close to them, senior members will have built-in defenders in the organization that lower-level members will not have)
  • Group superiority complex (the claim that even if group members break rules, they are still 'better' than bad forces outside the group)

In the last couple months I've seen all of these at play in Shambhala International: in the stories of abuse survivors, in Shambhala's attempted control of information (shutting down comments on one of its own stories after they began to ask uncomfortable questions, issuing statements to 'members only', etc), and a senior teacher suggesting to a commenter that looking too much at internal problems risked 'false equivalency' with bigger issues like Trump. 

As I wrote a while back on 7 Points on Patterns of Abuse, Patterns of Denial, these are contributing factors to growth and potential abuse.

Shambhala is looking more and more like a struggling intentional community and while we can certainly laud their ideals, their history and structure may make them a group to be wary of at the very least. As Alexa Clay wrote recently in Utopia, Inc, there are many sensational reasons that new religious/intentional communities fail: 

But the more relevant drivers that cause many communities to unravel sound more like the challenges afflicting any organisation today: capital constraints, burn-out, conflict over private property and resource management, poor systems of conflict mediation, factionalism, founder problems, reputation management, skills shortage, and failure to attract new talent or entice subsequent generations. 

Of course, Shambhala can correct many of these problems by, for example, empowering new members and offering deep listening to survivors of abuse by past and current Shambhala leaders, ensuring that titles are dependent upon review (with power entrusted in an external oversight committee for ethical violations), and dedicating themselves to serious house-cleaning by working with survivors. 

As with so much, "we'll see." 

The problems aren't going away though, especially as abusive individuals are allowed to maintain their place and power in the organization.