Chogyam Trungpa founded Shambhala in the ’70’s and it has had a checkered history to say the least. Pema Chodron is perhaps its most famous student but even recently she has disgraced herself as I discuss here elsewhere. Trungpa’s son Mipham now appears to be a poison apple which fell not too far from the tree.
This is a profoundly tragic and shocking tale. It involves the child sexual abuse, associated drug abuse and suicide of a woman who was literally passed around the Shambhala leaders in the 80’s and 90’s as a sex slave, beginning at age 14. Her association with the Shambahala leaders continued until her death 20 years later. One of these leaders, Mitchell Levy retains a very senior leadership role in the organisation. In 2018 he recused himself from discussing the current crisis as a member of the (now resigned in disgrace) Kalapa Council on account of these allegations of his sexual misconduct having been known for years.
The current crisis centres around a litany of allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of Mipham. More broadly it involves abuse of power leading to the routine, systemic cover up of criminal behaviour while rationalising it with buddhist philosophy.
By Trungpa’s design, Ciel was in line to marry the currently disgraced leader of Shambhala who is or has been known generally as Osel Tenzin / Mipham Mukpo / The Sakyong. He and Ciel had an intimate involvement which did not end well. He rejected her cruelly, much like he has done with his many other women. This appears to have greatly fuelled Ciel’s tragic confusion and ultimate demise into suicide. It is said that when Mipham married in 2006, the entire Sangha breathed a sigh of relief as they no longer had to live in the tension of worrying about a sexual misconduct scandal erupting at any moment.
His behaviour towards Ciel is indicative of who this Sakyong character really is, today, right now, as he privately runs programmes which invite his students to venerate him, while publicly playing the role of a leader respectfully resigned pending the outcome of an investigation, ordered by and reporting to his own lawyers it turns out. Ciel’s experience (as far as we can understand it at this point) contains all of the trigger signs of a cult, and the denial of criminal wrongdoing which is currently blatant in Shambhala’s panicked Adminstrators.
In fact, Mitchell Levy didn’t even go to Ciel’s funeral despite having carried on an openly unapologetic affair with her for years while she was considerably younger than he, and having shared a house with her and his own wife. At the time, he was heard saying that he had nothing to do with her death, although her suicide note is widely reported to dispute this. My former boss, Jesse Grimes apparently has the note buried under some rug.
Mitchell in turn had for years been carrying on an affair with Trungpa’s legal wife, Diana (whom Trungpa married when she turned 16) and whom Mitchell then married after Trungpa’s death, at the time Ciel moved in with him and Diana. The constantly shifting intimacies clearly proved emotionally fatal for Ciel simultaneous with Shambhala blindly claiming to be establishing enlightened society. That was 25 years ago and still, nothing has significantly changed.
Please, take the above trigger warning seriously before reading further.
I first met Ciel when she was 16-years old. I didn’t know her well and I viewed her as a bit of a rival. Ciel was the sort of girl who would steal your boyfriend. I didn’t really get to know her well until the summer of 1985, when she was 17 and I was 24, at what was then called rocky mountain dharma center.
In 1984, after his retreat in Mill Village, which John Perks wrote about in his book, Chogyam Trungpa (CT) decided to marry some more women. To his devotees, this decision came directly from the Rigdens, who were these supposed ‘heavenly beings’ who sat around in the clouds above outer Mongolia and directed the actions of the self-proclaimed universal monarch. Apparently they had nothing better to do than watch the sangha and tell his majesty what strategic moves he should make in his efforts to take over the world. At first, the Rigdens said he should take three more wives, so in order of weddings that would have been Karen Lavin, Cynde Greives, and Wendy Friedman.
But as time passed they upped the number to five. That’s when I met him. I was number five and I was groomed to be attractive to him by the father of the children I nannied for. During the summer of 1985, after our wedding, CT apparently fell in love with Ciel, and she became number 6. Agnes Au followed about four or five months later, I think, bringing the total number of wives to 7. But just to be on the safe side, they had 250 copies of the marriage licenses made.
I need to say here that Ciel first slept with CT when she was very young, 13 or 14 years old. Of course people will deny this but it is the truth. She told me herself. I doubt anyone out there has the guts to back me up on this, however. Most still want to believe he was omniscient and powerful and not some pervy, rapey asshole who preyed on children. If your daughter was sleeping with the king of the universe at that age, would that be OK? The universal monarch who is in touch with heavenly beings daily decided that he loved Ciel, and it did appear that he loved her very much. He and the rest of them loved her to death.
In fact he made her the “Sangyum Wangmo” meaning the head of the Sangyum. Then she became the Sakyong Wangmo 2. This meant she sat in front of all of us. Previously, we sat in order of weddings, with Karen closest to CT. We occupied the front row of the court section at talks. And CT’s special attention further isolated Ciel from the rest of us. While she might have been able to share with her sister wives certain things, the pressure to be number one in all actions must have been intense. The secrets she held were way too much, in my opinion, for an 18 year old who was handed over to the king of the universe and groomed since birth to marry him. CT was not the only powerful man to reach out to Ciel–her love affair with Mitchell Levy began when she was 16. WE ALL KNEW-JESUS CHRIST WE ALL KNEW. Mitchell’s still in charge of a large part of the cult and he’s actively advocating for teaching positions in Europe and beyond, where perhaps he hopes no one knows the truth about his character. All narcissists hate to be ignored.
Ciel married CT on her 18th birthday. I was at the wedding, as were the other wives, and I remember her parents brought Polish caviar and vodka, or maybe it was champagne. Her father made a toast, saying he gave his daughter to CT completely, that he trusted him with all of his heart and soul, and that he was honoured to become part of the family, or something similar. CT toasted him back as his father in law and thanked him for his kindness or generosity or something. (Folks can you imagine?) The wedding was a very big deal that summer. Of course, only people who had attended Assembly were invited to this event. Seating was as always, highly regulated. The Sangyum sat in the front row of the court section, ladies on one side and men on the other. Assembly was the program where he talked about taking over the city of Halifax and the province of nova scotia by force, but there would be only limited bloodshed. So it was about the “Kingdom of Shambhala” taking over the world. And don’t forget it was all backed up by the Rigdens.
I think this was a lot of pressure for Ciel, who was the youngest sangyum. She took her seat bravely. Everyone talked about how beautiful she was, and how much CT loved her. Oh, she was elegant and sophisticated and breathtakingly beautiful. Always, when Ciel was mentioned, her beauty was touted, as if she had very little value outside of that.
After Seminary, Ciel and I were sent to Karme Choling to finish our ngondro. CT gave a talk that year, on Shambhala Day, about jumping the gun. His “talk” consisted of very few words, something to the effect of: “You know what you have to do, so do it! Jump the gun.” this was in February or march of 1986. This was a very celebratory day at KCL and of course plenty of sake was served. There were a number of us young people there–Liz, Kier, Ciel, myself and others–and after we got properly inebriated, we put on our skates and headed to the small pond in front of KCL for some skating. We enjoyed doing crack the whip, where we all held hands in a line and spun the person on the end out by spinning in a tight circle. But when Ciel was on the end, we whipped her too fast, and she badly broke her leg. This was the year and the very day CT told us we knew what we had to do, so just do it, jump the gun. Ciel suffered with the impacts of that badly broken leg for the rest of her life. Apparently, the doctors in St. Johnsbury Vermont didn’t set it properly, and years later she had to have it rebroken, which didn’t really fix the problem at all and made it worse. Both of these surgeries required strong narcotics, for an extended amount of time.
As you read this, please try to remember that all of this happened over 30 years ago, and my memory isn’t perfect, especially with the exact time line and order of these events. My brain seems to capture and remember events more than timelines. But I think that after Ciel broke her leg she went back to Boulder to be with her parents to heal. When CT died on April 4th, 1987, all the sangyum flew to Halifax. I flew in from Vermont two days before he expired. I remember seeing CT curled up in a fetal position in his hospital bed at the Infirmary in Halifax. I remember crying a lot with the other sangyum. I remember seeing Diana at his bedside. I had written her a letter saying I felt like I fucked up on a cosmic level, because CT had not really wanted to see me towards the end of his life. Diana took me aside and told me she didn’t think I should be so hard on myself. He’d married me, after all. I cried tears of gratitude. CT died around the time Ciel’s plane touched down at the Halifax airport.
Then the funeral was planned. The body was broken and cut and forced into a seated position and put on display in the front sitting room of the court in Halifax. People were scheduled to do mediation shifts with the body, and it was always packed with worshippers. I will never forget the stench of strong Tibetan incense and decay. It was chokingly overwhelming. Mitchell said his heart center stayed warm for three days, but I wasn’t allowed to get close enough to see if this was true.
The funeral would take place at Karme Choling, St. Johnsbury (KCL) and it would be a grand display, with visits from many senior Tibetan teachers arranged by Karl Springer. We chartered a plane and CT’s body occupied first class. Seats were removed to bring him in. The plane ride is a blur. Some people bought seats who lived in Halifax, but the Sangyum flew for free.
Everyone who was anyone was there at KCL when the body was brought back from the airport. The seven of us sangyum stayed in a rented bed and breakfast fairly close to KCL with a very nice gay couple who hosted us. Tom Rich and his followers rented a large house and named it Shangri-la. Shibata Sensei and Marcia and crew stayed in a smaller rented house. The hotel which later became known as Ashoka Bhavan (or some such) in Vermont was rented and filled to capacity with monks. Diana and her crew stayed at Bhumi Pali Bahvana which was a farm house with a barn that was purchased for her. After CT died, Tagi lived there for a short while. I don’t remember where the current sock yarn stayed, which means I probably wasn’t invited to any parties there. And it possible they bought the hotel for the visit. Eventually it became part of KCL. Dilgo Khentse took over the top floor of Karme Choling, which had previously been the shambhala shrine room. Many of the other rooms on the second floor of KCL were double or triple occupied by his monks. Lot’s of people stayed in tents on the way up to where the body would be burned in the purkhong the second field. Flags were put up, a round the clock sewing crew was established and set up in the KCL barn as all of the banners and flags and skirts that covered the shrines needed to be created. Reams of fabric were purchased. A purkong in which to cremate the remains was built. Every square inch was filled to capacity and beyond. The body was closely guarded in the main shrine room-salts were changed once or twice daily but they couldn’t mask the stench of decay.
After the funeral, Ciel moved in with the Mukpos in the court in Halifax, under the same roof as Mitchell and Diana. Ciel and Mitchell carried on with their sexual affair there and Ciel and I lost touch for a while. Mitchell was also having sex with a number of other women and girls at the same time. Basically, sex was everywhere, and Ciel was a much prized commodity. But she wasn’t really valued for who she really was, in my opinion. She used to be a runner, and she would regularly run up Flagstaff mountain. She once met a famous runner there, but I can’t remember which one. She was pretty healthy, I thought. But after she broke her leg, running was too painful-another loss suffered from being part of the cult.
So Ciel moved with Mitchell and Diana to Hawaii, after they embezzled a couple hundred thousand dollars from the sangha to buy a new court in Halifax. In fact they took the money, didn’t buy a new court in Halifax, sold the old one, and moved to Hawaii in the middle of the night. (Maybe the old one was too stinky for them.) Mitchell, Diana, Ashoka and David moved with Ciel and her BFF at the time to Hawaii. They left Gesar homeless in Halifax. Some claim Diana knew about the affair with Mitchell all along, and some claim when she learned of their long “love affair,” which was really molestation as it began when Ciel was 16, she was shocked and appalled and kicked Ciel out of the court.
Eventually, after Mitchell and Di and the rest moved to providence, Ri, Ciel fell in love with a normal man about her same age and social status named Craig. She got a job at Victoria Secret. Like Wendy and other girls in the community, college didn’t hold their interest as much as creating enlightened society. She got a brief breath of the air outside of Shambhala. They married and lived in Maine together, eventually moving to Halifax to live in the basement of her parent’s house. And for a brief moment in time she was happy. Then Craig died of a brain tumor, and she began to unravel. Her doctor prescribed many drugs for her (probably too many) to help with her grief. She began self medicating, drinking too much, and she crept into herself deeper and deeper.
Ciel eventually moved back to Boulder (her parents as well) and we attempted to restart our friendship. She began seeing Fleet Maull. She liked to take her top off and dance in her bra at parties. Fleet and her broke up, and she began seeing Leonard Hortick who had three small girls and was divorced from his first wife due to her substance abuse issues. Eventually, they broke up as well after Ciel went into a neighbors house and began raging at them, claiming it was her house, or something like that. Whatever happened, it was clear she was loosing her grip on reality. The neighbors called the police.
In the final sad chapter, she ended up dating Don Milani, one of Tom Rich’s straight boys. Something happened between them that was related to domestic violence, but I am not sure exactly what. Ciel claimed Don pushed her down the stairs and pulled a knife on her. Don claimed she got to his house and downed an entire bottle of sake and he called 911 on her. Ciel claimed she called 911.
She continued to get lost in her addictions, and called the detective on the case extremely wasted at 2 am one morning. I think at that point the detectives gave up working on the case. And Ciel was outraged. She began calling Don at all hours of the night and day and threatening suicide. Once Don called me, sincerely worried that she was going to follow through with the act. He asked me to phone her parents and have them check on her. So about six weeks or so before Ciel died I phoned Ludwig and told him about the call from Don.
Ludwig was at first pretty pissed off at me for speaking to Don at all, but a few days later he phoned me to tell me I had done the right thing in phoning him. I stressed that it might be important to hospitalize Ciel and help her with her addictions. I got the impression that Ciel was too sacred for this path to possible treatment. And six weeks later she was dead due to an overdose of pills and alcohol.
I was shocked, we all were, and it was a deeply sad time for so many of us. Word quickly spread that Ciel had left a note and that I was in it, along with Denise (Don’s ex wife) Don, and a few others. My understanding was she somehow blamed me for her death. I got a call from Mark Thorpe who told me the family didn’t want me to attend the funeral. I took it in stride and said, “whatever they need to get through this horrible time is ok with me. If it’s too painful for them to see me, of course I won’t attend.”
When her parents discovered her body, she was dressed in the silk pajamas CT gave her. They then phoned Jesse Grimes, who was a paramedic working for Boulder Valley. Jesse responded to the call. Jesse saw the note, Jesse saw the pills, Jesse saw the empty bottle of vodka, Jesse saw the grieving family. And as usual, Jesse kept his mouth shut about it all in favor of whitewashing the real history of this cult for public consumption.
Jesse saw Osel Mukpo treat Ciel like a piece of meat. There was brief talk Osel and Ciel would marry, this was why CT had put her on that huge unattainable pedestal, this was why he had made her Sakyong Wangmo II. Many, including Ciel, believed strongly they would marry, as he wrote poems to her and and acted loving and caring towards her. Then he dumped her like a hot potato. He had his staff refuse her calls (Mark Thorpe and others, you KNOW this, where’s your spine?). Osel refused to see her, he refused to talk with her, and he callously and unceremoniously broke her already repeatedly broken heart.
So look around in this sham of a community. There are people who worship Osel regardless, in spite of, or perhaps BECAUSE OF the way he treats women. But I truly believe it’s not just women he mistreats. If you are a man and you think you’re important to him, fuck off, because like everyone else you are completely disposable and really not worthy of a second thought. This is what happens when you make malignant narcissists cult leaders and give them absolute control and ownership over vulnerable people through brainwashing techniques. This is what happens when you believe some made up (or pilfered from other traditions) visualizations or practices with a sociopath at the center.
I miss Ciel, Kier, and Bill [*] I truly believe if they had gotten help outside of this toxic soup, Bill and Ciel might still be alive today. Hopefully they would find that the air out here is fresher. The stench of decay isn’t so strong, and the people are much, much kinder. They know better than to ask survivors to heal a community or forgive their abusers for the sake of the organization which victimized them in the first place. They aren’t impressed with titles and pomp and circumstance. They’re just real people who don’t believe in fairy tales, generally.
I write this with love, to anyone who is struggling with these issues, seek therapy outside of sham.
*Bill Sheffel, who recently took his own life in Boulder
Posted with permission from Leslie Hays