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Mar, 2019

Buddhist Project Sunshine: A Pale Illumination Indeed


by Charles Carreon
March 29, 2019


The Columbia Journalism Review just came out with an article about Andrea Winn, who published the Buddhist Project Sunshine reports. The thesis of the article is that sometimes journalism isn't actually up to the task of getting cult members to speak out about abuse. It takes someone like Andrea, who is willing to keep the names of all the victims completely confidential, to get them to speak out anonymously.

CJR wrote:

Winn, the creator of Buddhist Project Sunshine, does not consider herself a journalist. But she was able to get many other survivors to tell their stories, ultimately shining light on decades of abuse by faith leaders throughout the community. When reporters descended upon the story—requesting additional proof, corroboration, and on-the-record interviews—everything changed. Many survivors were wary, exhausted by their trauma and unwilling to put their names out for public scrutiny.

Actually, we might consider the other possibility -- completely not touched upon by the CJR -- that Andrea Winn collected a whole lot of stories from victims at the bulletin board she operated, filtered them through her own biased system, and released a sanitized production that could not be used as a basis for further journalistic work. Another fact left undiscussed is that, after pulling tens of thousands of dollars in Go Fund Me money into her bank account, and promising to use it to move BPS to another level, she simply took the money and split.

We might also ask ourselves what kind of behavior Andrea Winn modeled for the benefit of victims.

CJR wrote:

The roots of Winn’s project date back to her childhood in the Shambhala community, when, on several occasions, she was sexually abused by other members and one Shambhala leader.

What she modeled was SILENCE ABOUT HER OWN ABUSE. Read the entire BPS, and you will not find a single hint about who abused her, where it happened, the nature of the abuse, or how much pain it caused her. Instead, what do we get? The entire BPS is loaded with gushy nonsense about Andrea's "fierce dedication" to Shambhala, the "dakini wisdom" of the women in the group, and the importance of "holding space" when suffering abuse -- which amounts to swallowing after being given an unpleasant mouthful.

The attitude that Winn models in the BPS reports is "healing the community." It is hard to understand how she comes to this position, given that she claims to have been run out of Shambhala for insisting on talking about her abuse. Hasn't she seen enough of this "community"?

Fortunately, a lawyer came along to give voice to the women who actually had suffered:

Winn also heard from Carol Merchasin, a retired employment law partner at the law firm Morgan Lewis. Merchasin, who had experience investigating workplaces, hoped to lend credibility to Winn’s project. “I said, ‘You need to have more detail if you really want to have people believe you,’” Merchasin tells CJR. She joined Buddhist Project Sunshine as a volunteer, producing two investigative write-ups for the project’s “Phase 2” and “Phase 3” reports, published in June and August of last year, respectively.

In all candor, it is only the Phase 2 and Phase 3 reports that contain convincing material. BPS Phase 1 models Shambhala good-citizenship, holding out an absurd hope that Shambhala has crushed under the weight of total disinterest. Her "Values" are yoked to the very system that has dealt her and her sisters so much abuse:

  • We are fiercely loyal to the vision of the Shambhala Teachings.

  • We look to the Great Eastern Sun to lead us

  • We work to create safety and stability in our own minds and in community through practicing Shamatha daily

  • We fearlessly and compassionately acknowledge the impact of violation

  • We work with our own projections and act powerfully from the wisdom of our deep self-knowing: In moments of rage, we take a sacred pause to have mercy for our self and unpack what has happened before acting.

Winn's Goals are not to benefit individuals or bring any wrongdoers to justice, but rather, to burnish the institution that has wronged her and other victims.

  • Create a wise and empowered Shambhala right-relations activist group

  • Create the space to have emotionally safe and clear dialogs about abuse that has been suffered in our community

  • Collect impact stories from people who have experienced abuse and from leaders who have witnessed abusive situations in the Shambhala community

  • Create a promotion campaign to launch in 2018 so that Shambhala citizens across the globe are able to hear the truth of what has happened to women, children and other vulnerable people, and participate in creating healthy relational changes in the community

Some people have posted about how things actually turned out while working with Andrea Winn on the bulletin board where people came to tell their stories. Apparently there was a "back room" where the women who posted were analyzed, and their stories were deemed worthy or unworthy of being told. In any event, all of the stories disappeared when Andrea Winn took the board down. This was a great way to get women to come out, tell their stories, and then see them all go down the memory hole. The journalists who came to her, trying to get some people to interview went away empty handed.

CJR wrote:

Throughout the process, Winn acted as a gatekeeper, protective of the survivors who had shared their stories for her reports. She says she felt betrayed by some journalists who she believed didn’t put survivors’ needs first in their reporting. Jerry West, a producer at CBC Radio, declined to run a story about the Phase 2 report without an interview from one of the survivors. Winn says she wasn’t able to provide him with such an interview. “He didn’t get the fact that these women had been sexually abused and spiritually abused by their guru, and had been shunned from the community,” Winn says. “His expectations were outlandish.”

West says he had already interviewed Andrea for a story about the Phase 1 report, and he needed new sources willing to go on the record to move the story along after Phase 2. “I can’t just read a report into the record,” he says. “We need a live person to talk.” West says he still wants to run another story about the sexual abuse in Shambhala, but hasn’t yet found another source willing to go on the air.

Wendy Joan Biddlecombe Agsar, a reporter at the Buddhist magazine Tricycle, asked Winn if she might speak to a specific survivor mentioned in the Phase 2 report. Winn asked the survivor if she felt comfortable speaking to a reporter, but the woman, referred to as “Ann,” said she wasn’t up to it before the Phase 2 report came out. Agsar ultimately published her story on the report with a note that Ann “declined to speak with Tricycle about her accusations.”

“It simply isn’t ethical for me as a journalist to not attempt to reach out to anonymous accusers in a story about widespread abuse…and to omit the fact that I attempted to reach out,” Agsar tells CJR. “I’m reporting a story, not just relaying the information that Winn wants me to tell our readers.”

Winn, who was outraged by that sentence, has a different take on journalists showing all of their work in finished stories. “The last thing [the survivors] needed was Tricycle saying that Ann declined to make a statement,” she says. “When I hear that on the news, I think, Well, what do they have to hide?”

The net effect of the BPS reports has been to provide zero evidence for law enforcement or victims who might wish to pursue civil claims against their abusers. The Sakyong has gotten enough of a whiff of danger that he is out of the jurisdiction, probably for a very long while. After all, police don't generally investigate absent suspects, especially when the victims won't talk. The Kalapa Kingdom received the BPS disclosures with aplomb. The Sakyong's concessions that he might have upset someone once, here or there, while going about his sacred duties, were exactly the type of tepid denials that Andrea Winn's platitudes prepared the Shambhalian masses to accept.

CJR wrote:

Before new reports were published, moderators received extra preparation and training to help the community receive the news. They considered questions such as, “How do you respond to the aftershock and care for the people who are reading that news and are going to be devastated?”

By modeling loyalty to the organization that set her up to be abused as a child, by modeling silence about her own abuse, by keeping all reports anonymous and arguing that none of the victims could bear the light of public disclosure, Andrea Winn effectively contained explosive revelations in a bland, sanctimonious container.