Nova Scotia farm becomes fault line in Buddhist group feud over sexual misconduct scandal

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Sean Drohan lives on a former farm property, MacKay House, owned by Halifax-based Shambhala Global. Her ex-partner, an employee of Shambhala, also lived there, but moved. Now he and Shambhala are embroiled in a tenancy dispute.

Chris Donovan / The Globe and Mail

Nestled deep in a dirt road amidst the forest and prairies of the Cobequid Highlands of mainland Nova Scotia, MacKay House has long been a place where people come to escape from the rest of the world.

The 19th-century farmhouse, overlooking the Northumberland Strait, is typically the bucolic setting for children’s summer camps and adult outdoor retreats where, on clear nights, the stars seem to drag on.

But recently, this serene property has become the center of an unusual eviction battle between a yoga teacher and one of the largest Buddhist organizations in the Western world. This dispute, which now heads to the Nova Scotia Supreme Court, also exposed a rift that erupted within the group three years ago over allegations of sexual misconduct against its spiritual leader.

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The property is owned by Halifax-based Shambhala Global, an international non-profit Tibetan spirituality group spanning 50 countries and comprising meditation centers, retreat centers, monasteries and a university. The man they are trying to get off the farm, Sean Drohan, says the way he is treated shows the hypocrisy of the group’s mantra: kindness, generosity, and finding “basic goodness” in everyone.

In 2018, Shambhala’s spiritual director Osel Rangdrol Mukpo resigned after some of his staunchest followers accused him of drunken groping, sexual abuse and forcing them to perform sexual favors. Mr. Mukpo, whose supporters call him Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, or simply the Sakyong, a Tibetan word that roughly translates to king, publicly acknowledged in a statement what he called “relations” that left them behind. women “feel hurt” and moved to Nepal.

Although some of these allegations have been corroborated by third-party investigations commissioned by Shambhala, no formal complaint has been filed with the police. The Halifax-based Shambhala board of directors resigned en masse and said they hoped it would start a healing process for their organization.

Osel Rangdrol Mukpo, known to his followers as Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, smiles at his bride during their 2006 wedding in Halifax.

Andrew Vaughan / The Canadian Press

Three years after the scandal, the group renamed itself Shambhala Global, with a new charter and a new board of directors. But there is still a devout loyalty among many members to Mr. Mukpo, who has resumed his duties as spiritual director of Shambhala and teaches at a distance. Followers celebrate him as the descendant of a royal Tibetan Buddhist line. “They have made a vow to defend him and they are not letting go,” said Mr. Drohan, a member of the Shambhala organization for 15 years. ” That’s what it’s about. They are loyalists and I am not, so they want me to step down.

Mr. Drohan has been the custodian of the MacKay House property since September 2018. In September 2019 his rent increased to $ 500 per month, double what he paid the previous year. He insists he will only pay $ 250 per month – part of what he calls a “landmark deal” that allowed the Shambalans to live on the farm for low rent while taking care of the property. .

He says the Shambhala leadership in Nova Scotia is trying to push him back because he strongly opposes Mr. Mukpo’s leading role in the group. Mr Drohan also produced a long list of alleged neglected repairs to the property as evidence that they are trying to get him off the farm.

“The main reason for all of this is unspoken. I don’t believe the Sakyong is suitable for teaching. They only want people in positions they can control and who want the Sakyong to come back soon, ”he said. “I take them to task for the way they treat people.”

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Mr. Drohan is seated behind a broken window. He says Shambhala neglected repairs to the property, which he says is proof that they are trying to drive him away. But Shambhala denies that his criticism of Mr Mukpo was a factor in their decision to ask him to leave.

Chris Donovan / The Globe and Mail

Shambhala, meanwhile, says he tried to accommodate Mr. Drohan, but has the right to end the lease after his former partner and roommate provided the group with a notice of the tenant’s resignation there. is over a year old. The group had been trying to expel Mr. Drohan since last September.

Shambhala says he warned the yoga teacher that the rent would go up and even offered him the option to stay on the farm for free for the past few months until the lease expires in September. The group says it is not trying to expel Mr. Drohan; he just wants him to leave voluntarily.

“This rental business is not an eviction; we simply do not intend to renew the lease beyond the termination date. We’ve communicated this to the tenant correctly over the past 10 months, ”group spokesperson Rose Keyes said in an emailed statement.

Ms Keyes said Mr Drohan’s opposition to Mr Mukpo’s role in Shambhala was not factored into the decision to end his lease. The group want him to leave the farm as they have other plans for the property, including using it as a residence for teachers and students visiting Dorje Denma Ling, a retreat center nearby Shambhala, she said. declared.

“The organization wants to resume use of the property, and Mr. Drohan’s views on the Sakyong (…) were not taken into account by Shambhala Canada in our decision not to extend his lease”, she declared.

A barn is located near the farm.

Chris Donovan / The Globe and Mail

Ms Keyes said Shambhala is trying to address concerns about sexual misconduct through a new code of conduct that defines issues such as consent and gender dynamics, and how they are affected by positions of trust and of authority.

“We are moving forward in a process to resolve open questions about Sakyong Mipham’s role as a teacher and leader in Shambhala. This process includes the publication of improved policies regarding community care and leadership, as well as the facilitation of conversations to recognize the wide range of perspectives of the community, and link them to our core values ​​of human dignity and a waking and awakening society ” , she said.

Carol Merchasin, a retired employment lawyer who has investigated sexual assault complaints within Shambhala, said there has been a rift in the community since the sexual misconduct scandal. Members who remain loyal to Mr Mukpo and see him as their infallible guru are trying to root out those who do not want him to return, she said.

“A lot of people left in droves when these stories first came out, and the group never really repaired the damage or healed from it,” said Ms. Merchasin, who began documenting the misconduct stories. sexual intercourse within Shambhala at the behest of a former member and survivor of sexual abuse Andrea Winn. Ms. Winn first exposed the problem with a report she called Buddhist Project Sunshine.

While Mr Mukpo admitted to harming women and the group funded therapy for the victims, many women feel they never received a real apology, Ms Merchasin said.

Shambhala’s senior leadership also spent years ignoring the married guru’s drunken wives and member abuse complaints, she said. She is concerned that the new sexual misconduct policy will be difficult to enforce and persuades victims to participate in “talking circles” instead of making a formal complaint.

“They try to have their cake and eat it too,” Ms. Merchasin said. “They are not ready to say that the Sakyong did bad things.”

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Mr. Drohan meditates in his sanctuary room. He is appealing a decision by a Small Claims Court adjudicator that he must leave MacKay House by September.

Chris Donovan / The Globe and Mail

Mr Drohan says he shouldn’t have to leave just because his former partner, an employee of the organization, has moved. He says he wants to fight for change within the organization, including what he calls a “toxic” culture among senior management. He and other Shambhalians want Mr. Mukpo to step down for good.

The MacKay House dispute is now making its way through the court system. In February, the Nova Scotia Residential Rental Manager sided with Mr. Drohan and allowed him to stay on the property.

Shambhala appealed and, in April, a Small Claims Court arbitrator ordered Mr. Drohan to vacate the premises by September 2021, ruling that his lease had expired. The arbitrator, however, agreed that the organization had “illegally increased” its rent in its first year of tenancy – but said Mr. Drohan was also not entitled to withhold part of his rent due to neglected repairs.

“A tenant cannot unilaterally withhold rent from their landlord, even in a dispute with a landlord,” wrote Shelly Martin, the Small Claims Court adjudicator, in her decision.

Mr. Drohan filed his appeal in the Nova Scotia Supreme Court on May 28 and says he’s going public because he wants to expose Shambhala Global and remove Mr. Mukpo as leader.

“He just kept going, but there are mountains of bad karma for what he did,” Mr. Drohan said. “I was hoping the bloodline could recover… I just think we’ll fail if he comes back.” He is no longer able to teach and guide us because of the harm he has done to people.

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Mr. Mukpo’s father of Tibetan origin, Trungpa Rinpoche, moved Shambhala’s headquarters from Colorado to Nova Scotia in the 1980s. Like his son, he was embroiled in controversy, including allegations that he allegedly sexually assaulted several female students. He died in Halifax in 1987, surrounded by devotees who had uprooted their lives to live near him.

Mr Drohan, meanwhile, said he eagerly moved from Fall River, Nova Scotia three years ago to take on the unpaid janitor position. Despite the fierce struggle with a group whose values ​​he says he still believes in, he says he has no plans to leave.

“It has become my home. Love it here, “he said.” I’m in tune with the energy here. “

Chris Donovan / The Globe and Mail


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