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Power Structures


Unless you are already a mindfulness practitioner, you may not have noticed that Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, the leader of Shambhala International, one of the largest Buddhist organizations in the Western world, is facing a shocking number of sexual misconduct allegations.


Sakyong has stepped aside while an independent legal team is investigating. As well, the Kalapa Council who is in charge of the 200 meditation centres globally has announced that it will also be stepping down through a "phased departure."


This stepping down of the council is acknowledgement that there is indeed something wrong with the system that has supported the behaviour of its leader. My experience with this community was that there is a type of hero worship that evolved as a culture within the community. The photographs of Sakyong, as the Shambhala members casually refer to him, adorn each of the centres that I have visited. I thought it was strange at the time but found the teachings they offered to be intriguing. In fact, my experience on retreat with this community laid the foundations of a mediation practice that has become foundational for me.


I was devastated to learn of the report and the accusations of abuse by its leader. Despite my own connection to the organization and community, after some reflection I’ve realized that my spiritual commitment is unaltered and that this is a learning moment for me about the abuse of power. My thinking on this is that similar such organizational architectures, configurations and frameworks likely affect the nature and application of power in all organizations.


The power structure of Shambhala International is significant as it is shared by many organizations of different kinds. Where the power of an organization is focussed on a single member for inspiration, direction, growth, control and overall evolution, abuse of that power can be devastating. In this case, the span of this power has global implications; the effects ripple worldwide.


The source of these effects can be traced to one-on-one relationship. The role of gender is significant as well. One man who laid claim to unequivocal power repeatedly used that power to coerce women to perform sexual acts without their consent.


As has been demonstrated by the #metoo movement, the repetitive pattern is undeniable. It’s one of those cases, where when a line is crossed it becomes much easier to cross again. In fact it becomes easier to not see the line or recognize that there is an issue at stake.


It’s not the particular character of the leader that interests me; it’s the rigid hierarchical power structure that permitted these events to take place over and over again without discussion. Without discussion, these abuses were permitted and therefore condoned. It’s for this reason that the leader is not alone in bearing responsibility for this offense.


A flat and networked structure rather than a hierarchical vertical one would have reduced the likelihood of such episodes. A level structure would have ensured that the issue was addressed without the threat of power inequities that hobbled the Shambala International organization. Simply speaking, where the power is shared we each have our own influence. We all have power when power is shared.


Collaboration is a term bandied around in corporate circles. True collaboration would assume a level or flat power structure. How do we learn how to share power? These lessons are for all. They aren’t limited to a single spiritual community. They apply to all of us.


Contact margot@margothovey.com to talk about sharing power and flattening structures.

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© 2019 by Margot Hovey, PhD