A Catholic / Shambhala Member Reflects on Institutional Religious Abuse
Earlier this month I asked outright on my Patheos blog, "Why can't people just leave Shambhala Buddhism?

It was a bit of a rhetorical question: they can and some do quit. And those who choose to stay will do so for a variety of reasons. But for those of us on the outside, it is a question which lingers any time an organization is shown to be so deeply corrupt and abusive.

As I responded to a commenter on my blog who defended the idea of staying in Shambhala thus:

I think religious affiliation can be a lot like romantic relationships. A lot of us on the outside might see what we think is clearly something dysfunctional and abusive, but convincing the person *in* the relationship/religious group is a whole different matter altogether.
We can point at the testimonies of abuse (if you read the 3 reports and believe even just 50% of the first-hand accounts, it's pretty damning). We can point to parallel groups like the New Kadampa Tradition or Rigpa or even the Rajneeshees or People's Temple (but they will always be different in many ways) to show that people do find benefit in what outsiders will generally classify as dangerous religious groups. And we can hold up examples of 'good' religious communities who are similar enough (?) to what we see as a harmful group in the hopes that people will see that they can leave and still have nice practices and community.

This is where I'm left with Shambhala right now. Still as an outsider but one well-educated in Tibetan and Western Buddhism. I would suggest extreme caution for those interested in joining and urge deep introspection for those in the group who are considering whether to stay or go. But in the end, it's up to each to decide.

Catholicism is a whole topic of its own. I was raised Catholic and still identify in many ways as "culturally Catholic" even though I don't hold to the key doctrines of the Church or take communion. I do, however, find a lot that is beautiful in Catholic teachings and I have come to appreciate many of these, especially Jesuit spiritual practices.

Carl McColman, who writes for the Patheos Catholic and Contemplative channels, reflects on his path in both Catholicism and Shambhala Buddhism

I sure know how to pick them (he says, ruefully).
The two organizations that I have turned to for contemplative formation over the past decade — the Catholic Church and Shambhala Buddhism — have both been rocked by abuse and cover-up scandals.

He continues with a sensitivity and maturity that I find refreshing in this discussion; and all of this from someone choosing to stay with both institutions. He writes:

I am convinced that the vast majority of Shambhala Buddhists and of contemplative Catholics are truly good-hearted people who have affiliated with these institutions because we want support in our own spiritual growth. But I think it would be irresponsible not to ask the question, “Should I leave this damaged, toxic institution?”
Each one of us will have to answer that question in an individual way. Some people have been so hurt (directly or indirectly) by the institution, that they need to leave. I hope that such persons will find the succor and healing that they deserve, wherever that might be.

To this I agree wholeheartedly. He continues, and I think this is where he is most profound:

Others may feel so angry, so betrayed, or so devastated by the organization’s failings that they are no longer capable of relating to the organization except from a place of deep anger, deep grief, or deep bitterness. At this point, the relationship is like a marriage that has become toxic (for whatever reason). Again, they may need to leave. But if they choose to stay, I hope they are staying for the right reasons.
A toxic marriage needs either to be healed or to be ended, hopefully in a compassionate way. But just persevering in an unhealthy marriage without doing the hard work to heal it is like taking a little bit of poison every day — it may not be enough to kill, but it sure is diminishing your life.
This brings us to this question: “can I stay in this relationship and work to heal it?” That, to me, is the only sensible reason why anyone would want to remain a Catholic, or remain a Shambhala Buddhist. It’s saying, “I have seen first-hand how much good there is in this tradition’s ideals and teachings and culture. Of course, now I know just how much toxicity there is, as well. I’m willing to fight for the good, but that means I have to fight against the bad.” 

And where I part ways from him is in his choice, nuanced and thoughtful as it is, to stay in both organizations against the tide of what he calls "defeatist thinking:"

Many people are cynical about hierarchical institutions like the Catholic Church or centralized organizations like Shambhala. “Lay people have no power,” they say. “Change will be too little, too late.” “You can’t undo problems that were centuries in the making.”
I understand where those thoughts come from, and I don’t mean to minimize the barriers to change that currently exist. But I don’t want to give way to defeatist thinking.
These kinds of statements rightly challenge those of us who choose to stay in the toxic organizations. 

Again, Catholicism isn't my area of expertise or interest, but I think it is actually an easier religion to stay in precisely because it is so large and diverse. Shambhala is quite new and, I am told, has in fact diverted in recent years from its historical Tibetan roots. 

He continues:

Here’s how I see it. The Catholic Church is like a burning building. Most people will sensibly want to stay as far away from the danger as possible. But if we all walk away, the building is doomed. Some of us need to be fire-fighters, and work to limit the damage and extinguish the flames.
That’s dangerous work. To do it you have to go into the building. 

This whole analogy is fairly disturbing to me. Since when is the building so important that people would run into it as it burns?  To me, religion is an institution built for us. If it's on fire, we'd best exit. Especially if - to play with this analogy, we're not trained fire-fighters and the people who are - the leadership of each institution - is actively throwing gasoline on the building.

Here I think McColman is far too optimistic. However, he clarifies:

The “building” is not the institutional church, but rather the wisdom tradition. That’s true for both Catholicism and Vajrayana. The building is not the hierarchy, but the community. That’s what is worth saving.
Jesus did not cause the fire; nor did the Gospel. Nor did the contemplative and mystical tradition.
The fire was caused by toxic systems of power, outdated ideas about gender and sexuality, and a hierarchy that dominates rather than serves. That’s what us firefighters must work to extinguish.

This I can agree with. But again, in the case of Shambhala, the wisdom tradition was drawn from Tibetan Buddhism and one can go to many Tibetan Buddhist teachers, among them many women, who free of (or at least freer) the toxins of Shambhala. I think what has happened in Shambhala is far worse than just patriarchy run amok. 

He goes on to suggest some radical changes needed for Catholicism. I doubt we'll see much of these in our lifetimes (and I'm only 38). But these are some clear strong steps, nonetheless. 

But I realize that I cannot remain in the church and pretend that I am not profoundly convinced that our entire structure of governance must change.  

To which I might say, somewhat snarkily (is that a word now?), "the structure did change once, it was called LUTHERANISM."

Seriously though, Protestants have shown that there are many doors out of the toxic hierarchy for a few centuries. 

We need to dismantle clericalism in the church. We need to renounce any theology that even hints at “ontological difference” between the ordained and the laity. We need full accountability and transparency, all the way up the organizational ladder. We need to ensure that our teachings about gender and sexuality are healthy and consistent with the full scope of human knowledge. We need to dismantle mandatory celibacy and the barriers that keep women out of ordained ministry. Most of all, we must eradicate the culture of power and privilege that has shielded abusers and their enablers from accountability. 

Yes, Yes, and Yes. It's called being a Quaker or Unitarian Universalist. Again, that might have a hint of snark in it, but I don't think one can realistically ask for the Catholic Church to take much of this seriously. They'll move a bit here and there, but "dismantle clericalism?!"  

It won't happen. 

And that's not defeatist, I think. It's just a recognition of historical momentum and vested interests. Again, watch Spotlight. You'll see the power of momentum and vested interests. Read the responses coming out of Shambhala International: momentum and vested interests. 

That said, I do applaud those with the vision and willingness to oppose the toxic structures in these institutions from the inside. They deserve our support even if we don't agree with them on everything and even if we think they'll fail. 

It isn't about the results, but rather seeing the right course of action and taking it. For many within the "burning house" of a toxic religious group, the right course is to stay in.