Sexual harassment in Buddhist organizations

Yesterday I went to small claims court with a case against Tibetan Nyingma Meditation Center (TNMC), to recover funds they offered to pay me after I was sexually harassed by one of their long-time, senior members.

The person representing TNMC was Jack Petranker, lawyer, and another long-time member. Although Mr Petranker was not the person who sexually harassed me, he had also engaged in inappropriate behavior towards me, though thankfully, he had the sense to back off when I told him that it was unwelcome and should never happen again.

I presented evidence that representatives of the organization who were handling my instance of sexual harassment (there apparently have been many) suggested that I go to India on pilgrimage to recover, and offered to pay for the trip and additional money so that I would have resources to re-orient myself when I returned to the US after my travels.

Mr Petranker, who was a party to nearly all the e-mails that were exchanged at the time, in response to my evidence, said nothing about the harassment or the original intent of the committee to help me recover from the harassment and the brutal retaliation that followed when I said no.

In his attempts at putting up a defense to my claim, Mr Petranker showed his character. He tried to lie and misdirect the court from the facts of the case, which were that I was harmed, and the organization was responsible and had offered to provide compensation to remedy that harm.

A wonderful friend who spent the whole day with me, driving me to court and staying in the courtroom until my case was called pointed out that Mr Petranker did not acknowledge the harassment or express any regret or sorrow about what happened. Mr Petranker, a long time member of TNMC and allegedly a long time Buddhist, showed no kindness or compassion. And in his very first statement to the court, he deliberately lied, in an effort to mislead the court into simply dropping the case.

Then the judge asked him “Procedure aside, what would you like to say regarding the merits of the case? Can you dispute the plaintiff’s claim that someone from your organization offered her money to recover from the harassment?” He could not. Instead, he offered more lies and misdirection, which I then refuted.

How different it could have been if Mr Petranker had been willing to apologize and to acknowledge the harm done. How much more humane, let alone Buddhist. You don’t have to be a Buddhist for 40 years to be kind; in fact, if you have been a Buddhist for 40 years and the best you can come up with in the face of someone’s pain and suffering, particularly pain and suffering that you had a part in causing, is lies and denial, then it seems to me that those 40 years have clearly been a big waste of time.

Engaging in right action

You have to ask yourself what kind of organization do you want to associate yourself with, give your time, energy, and perhaps money to. It boggles the mind to think that any organization, let alone a Buddhist one, would allow a person known to sexually harass its customers and employees to remain in their position without doing something. Further, it is also unconscionable that they would make the person subject to this person’s bad behavior suffer even more as a result, by having them leave and treating them badly as well, in the interests of what they probably believe is protecting the organization. All this solely because the sexual harasser brings in a significant amount of money for the organization.

When money is the main motivator, virtue and right action are a distant, perhaps even non-existent second place. A Buddhist organization that does not balance its need for funding with the more important requirement to embody the teachings is in very bad shape indeed. Clearly, those leaders have not understood the Dharma at all. There is no teaching that says that if you need money and you ostensibly use it for the Dharma, you are allowed to discard moral discipline and right action at will. Even the most liberal, modern interpretation of the teachings would not support the idea that sexual harassment and manipulation are included in moral discipline, or that protecting someone who does these things is right action.  And yet, people who would call themselves long-time practicing Buddhists, some for over 30 years, believed that this type of behavior was consistent with what they had be taught and been ‘practicing’ for such a long time. It behooves us to ask whether we’d like to support an organization run by people who operate with these types of beliefs. Actually, what the teachings do say is that if you dedicate yourself to the Dharma, what you need will be provided for you (see The Life and Liberation of Padmasambhava, and The Life of Shabkar, and many other teachings.)

What can one do? In these degenerate times, it is difficult to find qualified teachers or excellent organizations to join. In the Dhammapada, it says that it is actually harmful to interact with teachers and groups that are not sincere and excellent practitioners. It also says that if you cannot find people (and by extension organizations) that are excellent examples and embodiments of the Dharma, then it is really better to study the Dharma on your own.

Perhaps you have interacted with the organizations that are part of the Tibetan Nyingma Meditation Center, which are the ones that Mr Maitland has been associated with for nearly 40 years. Or you have interacted with other organizations, Buddhist or otherwise, that have left you uninspired and wondering whether there is any good left in the world. We have to ask ourselves if we want to continue to support organizations that do not meet these simple standards, if we want to continue to give them our time, our energy, and our money, because what we support flourishes. Let’s make a commitment right away to only support those organizations and leaders that are inspiring and truly doing good things in the world.