Conference: Gender and Religious Exit, Moving Away from Faith

Tuesday, 28 November 2023 at 9:00–17:30 

Please use this form to register to attend the online symposium: Registration – Gender and Religious Exit (

Dr Nella van den Brandt, Coventry University, UK 
Dr Teija Rantala, Turku University, Finland 
Dr Sarah-Jane Page, University of Nottingham, UK 

From the conference organisers:

There have always been reasons for people to move away from a religious tradition, community or movement. Religious traditions are instrumental in providing individual members with a perspective on the world, a community and a relationship with the divine. Religious communities socialize their adherents regarding behaviour, embodiment and emotions. When people move away from their religion, their experiences may pertain to all or some of these aspects and dimensions. Leaving religion is thus a varied and diverse experience.

The one-day online symposium Gender and Religious Exit starts from the premise that motivations for moving away from religion range from experiencing cognitive or emotional dissonance to social marginalisation to a critique of power relations. The notions of ‘moving away’ or ‘religious exit’ should be considered in a layered and nuanced manner: they raise questions about what exactly individuals consider to leave, and what elements of behaviour, embodiment and emotions remain part of their environments, lives and futures. 

Moving away from religion can thus involve complex processes and negotiations of all areas of life and understandings of the self. An intersectional perspective and analysis of leaving religious is long overdue, since notions and experiences of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, race and dis/ability are central in shaping identity and the self. The multidisciplinary symposium invites scholars to investigate the variety of contemporary dynamics of leaving religion in the lives of individuals and communities.

During the opening plenary session, research findings will be presented that emerged from the Marie Skłodowska-Curie funded two-year qualitative research by Dr Nella van den Brandt (Coventry University, UK) on women leaving religion in the UK and the Netherlands. Keynote lectures on gender, feminism, apostasy and non-religion / leaving religion in various national and cultural contexts will be provided by Dr Julia Martínez-Ariño (Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, the Netherlands) and  Prof. Dr Karin van Nieuwkerk (Radboud University, the Netherlands). During parallel sessions, we will further look into current international and intersectional perspectives on moving away from religion.

read more


There are a few updates from The Shiloh Project. (We’ve been so busy we haven’t got around to writing a post recently.)

The Shiloh Project AHRC grant is drawing to an end. It has been a really productive collaboration and some of the outputs will be coming out for a while yet. Our recent public engagement event in Otley, West Yorkshire (on 30 January 2023), ‘What You Always Wanted to Know About the Bible But Were Afraid To Ask’ was a big success and was covered by the local press (see here). It is also the subject of a mini audio-documentary (Episode 12 of The Shiloh Podcast), which gives a vivid snapshot of the event. 

We also hosted an international day conference on Bible and Activism (University of Leeds, 31 January 2023), with presentations by Richard Newton (University of Alabama), Katherine Southwood (University of Oxford), Yannis Ng (University of Leeds), Robert Kuloba Wabyanga (Kyambogo University), David Tombs (University of Otago) and Jayme Reaves (Sarum College), and Mmapula Kebaneilwe (University of Botswana). Richard Newton, interviewed by Rosie Dawson, features in Episode 13 of the Shiloh Podcast. Please see the slideshow of images of events in Leeds. 

Look out for more episodes (in production!) of The Bloody Bible podcast, with Emily Colgan and Caroline Blyth.

The ongoing Abuse in Religious Contexts AHRC grant, led by Gordon Lynch is in full swing. Co-director Johanna Stiebert has begun to host a series of workshops. The first (led by Ellie Thwaites and Laura Wallace, University of Leeds, see here) brought together postgraduates and early career researchers exploring topics at the intersection of religion and trauma or abuse. The second (led by Ann Gleig and Amy Langenberg, see here) explored abuse in Buddhist settings and is the focus of Episode 15 of the Shiloh Podcast. The third was held with postgraduates of Trinity College (Bristol) and Bristol Baptist College, exploring secondary violations in biblical texts. More workshops are in the planning stages. 

Episode 14 of the Shiloh Podcast features highlights of a project webinar with Linda Woodhead and Gordon Lynch. 

read more

Late Night Phone Alerts and Other Intrusions: What to expect when you write about sexual violation in religion.

Today’s post comes from Amy Paris Langenberg. Amy is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Eckerd College, Florida. Amy is the author of  Birth in Buddhism: The Suffering Fetus and Female Freedom (2017, Routledge). You can read an earlier post by Amy, together with Ann Gleig, here.) This time Amy reflects on her experiences as a scholar who writes about sexual violence in Buddhism.

I recently wrote a piece on Buddhist cases of sexual violation and the Buddhist understanding of consent that was published online in Tricycle, an American publication read by Buddhist practitioners, teachers, and scholars. I argued that recurrent instances and allegations of sexual misconduct and violation  in American Buddhist communities show that Buddhism has a sexual ethics problem. I also contended that a doubling down on well-known Buddhist ethical principles, like non-harm and compassion, was not an adequate solution. I called instead for a Buddhist- but also feminist-informed path towards ethical reform and healing, and suggested that deep in the early tradition were overlooked resources that support a more survivor-centered approach to the issue.

People were triggered.

Sexual violation in religious communities is about sex, but it is also about authority and power. Challenges to patterns of abuse in Buddhism, even scholarly ones such as my piece, push on the cleavages and stress points in structures of power and arrangements of authority. It is not surprising, then, that the pushback I received challenged, in return, my authority for writing on such subjects and demeaned my qualifications as a scholar.

Much worse, the negative responses I received also implied that the multiple survivors of sexual violation in American Buddhism were not really harmed, or alternatively, not really Buddhists. These comments were delivered publicly on social media, but also over private messaging, sometimes lighting up my phone at odd hours of the night. I found the affective labor involved in receiving and deciding how (or if) to respond to these types of communications significant. How much worse must it be for survivors such as Andrea Winn, Rebecca Jamieson, or Lama Willa Miller, who, having battled through the trauma of the original experiences, have then withstood hostility and erasure, often from other Buddhists.

My Tricycle piece argued that the Buddhist tradition is not by itself adequate for responding to abuse, but that sources within the vinaya (monastic disciplinary texts) — namely uniquely Buddhist understandings of consent and intention — could be helpful for survivors wishing to find resources within a tradition they still find meaningful or a source of healing. Still, the most affectively charged responses I received were from people who positioned themselves as consummate insiders.

One such response came from an American bhikṣuṇī (fully ordained monastic woman) in the Chinese tradition living in Iowa. Her lengthy comments, which were posted to a Buddhist Studies Facebook group, characterized my piece as a “nice hodgepodge” of references (thus seeming to imply that it had no central argument or point). She critiqued the fact that I didn’t include endnotes and scolded me for not providing quotes from the vinaya. Assuming incorrectly that I did not have access to them in their original languages, she pointed me to places I could find vinaya sources in English. In response, I thanked her for her comment and respectfully explained that public facing scholarship in a popular publication like Tricycle didn’t allow for extensive quotation and citation. I spared her a full accounting of my scholarly credentials, but suggested that, if she take a look at my page, she might find some of what she was missing in the Tricycle article.

I don’t think she did bother to look up my background or scholarship, nor did she seem to put a lot of time into understanding the point of my Tricycle piece. This was to open up the tradition by reading against the grain and asking different questions than it explicitly asks of itself, a reading strategy well represented and well theorized as a feminist hermeneutic and historiography. Instead, in her next post she launched into an off-the-top-of-her-head list of unsolicited suggestions for other, in her mind better, research methodologies I could take up and other disciplines I could explore in order to address the issue of abuse in Buddhism. She finished by stating that since the issues of consent and abuse were not of concern during the Buddha’s time (a position with which I heartily disagree), my constructive work in exploring notions of consent in the vinaya and other classical sources was doomed to be “conjecture and comparisons which make for poor scholarship.”

Another far more more aggressive response came from a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner who claimed to have close connections with multiple Tibetan lineage holders and tulkus, including Chogyam Trungpa and his family. She described her relationships with a host of famous Tibetan Buddhist figures, to whom she was apparently babysitter, student, lover, and friend. Who am I, she asked, to question or criticize her Tibetan teachers? On what authority? What lineage was I a part of? What do I know about abuse in Shambhala or elsewhere? In fact, I did not attempt a full or detailed accounting of allegations against Tibetan teachers in my piece, as this was not my focus, and they are, in any case, detailed elsewhere. I did, however, reference apologetic or what I consider to be simplistic responses from Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and others as part of my argument that Buddhist solutions to abuse had not been adequate.

This reader further argued that my focus on survivor trauma and the vagaries of sexual consent infantilizes women and takes away their sexual choices. She accused me of telling her with whom she could have sex, and then documented her personal life, which apparently included a relationship with a prominent Tibetan Buddhist teacher (now deceased) as well as several well-known figures in the music industry. She argued that sexual abuse cases were only properly decided in a court of law where one is innocent until proven guilty and the burden of proof is high. Additionally, she questioned whether American Buddhism (the field of focus for my ongoing collaborative work on Buddhist sexual abuse with Ann Gleig) is real Buddhism as, in her estimation, real Buddhism is Asian.

In her gentler moments, this reader schooled me privately by direct message on the six perfections and the eight-fold path. At other times, she seemed to want to blackball me publicly by tagging multiple Buddhist teachers in a series of taunting tweets. In these public Twitter missives, she impugned me as arrogant and my scholarship as “shabby” and “bad academics” that mixed up things that shouldn’t be mixed up, such as psychology and different schools of Buddhism.

In total, this individual left only one initial comment on a private Facebook group page but private messaged me upwards of twenty-five times, many of which were substantial messages, with one reaching over 1500 words in length. She also included various and sundry attachments. In addition, as mentioned she sought me out on Twitter in order to disparage me publicly in a several-tweets-long thread. (My communications to her numbered three in total, the longest amounting to 33 words.) Overall, her tone ranged from pedagogical, to confessional, to loving, to taunting, to insulting. Twice, her private messages dropped very late at night, one after the other in a series. They lit up my phone and made me reach for it thinking they could be emergency texts from one of my children.

I learned from my Tricycle experience that our work on sexual abuse in American Buddhist communities is triggering. In different ways, both responses were inappropriate and intrusive given my qualifications as a scholar, what I had actually written in my Tricycle piece, and the courteous and professional manner in which I had engaged them online.

Ann and I know that we will likely field a number of similar reactions (or worse?) when we publish our book on sexual abuse in American Buddhism, as it will take an intersectional feminist approach and center survivors. Those I narrate here may be instructive of what we, or anyone producing public scholarship on sexual violation in religion, can expect. First, they are both from women, indicative of the fact that gender does not ensure a position supportive of survivors or survivor-centered work, and that it is not unusual for women to intervene to defend those in power. Second, both pushed against this work from insider positions that were marked. In one case, insider status was marked by monastic robes, from which an assumption of superior knowledge in all things seemed to flow naturally. In the other, it was marked by explicitly claiming lineage membership and closeness to religious authority (and challenging my assumed lack of lineage membership). Third, the responses attacked, erased, or sneered at my academic qualifications and scholarly chops, apparently without doing the necessary work that would allow for an accurate assessment.

What I found most demoralizing about these online interactions is the fact that both critics erased survivors and their experiences in their desire to protect the structures of power and authority in which they had invested. Neither expressed much concern for what Buddhist survivors of abuse have experienced. My monastic critic defended the tradition by arguing that sexual abuse was not relevant in the Buddha’s time. This amounts to an anti-feminist reading of the tradition, one that ignores the multiple accounts of rape and sexual assault in early Buddhist sources. If we read the sources in this way, we are, in effect, modeling the erasure of sexual trauma as Buddhist. My Tibetan Buddhist critic implied that no violation rises to something actionable unless it can be adjudicated in court. She also effectively denied that power inequities affect a person’s ability to consent. While she claimed to speak for the Tibetan tradition as in insider, in fact her position is quite different from that of the several Tibetan teachers that have spoken out against abuse. The Tibetan Buddhist tradition is not univocal on the subject of sexual abuse.

It was not pleasant to field these unfair, disrespectful, and sometimes insulting responses to my work. It was heavy emotional labor to receive the aggression of strangers in the disembodied realms of social media, especially when it arrived in the form of multiple ranting private messages at 2 AM. The affective experience of these exchanges was made stranger by the fact that they were often laced with Buddhist wishes that I “awaken my mindstream” and that “all sentient beings be happy.”

Receiving strangers’ aggression online felt confusing and toxic to me, but what I experienced was mostly a deflection of the hostility and obfuscation that is more often directed at the survivors themselves. It is common for survivors of abuse to have their legitimacy, commitment, honesty, and experience-based knowledge challenged and erased, up close and in person, within their own communities. . . often by people that are insisting on the good intentions and wise minds of their abusers.

read more

Why Are White Buddhists So Angry? White Rage and Buddhist Studies Scholarship

Today’s post comes from Ann Gleig. Ann is a scholar of religion at the University of Central Florida, and the author of American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity (Yale University Press, 2019). You can read an earlier post by Ann, together with Amy Langenberg, here.) This time Ann reflects on her experiences as a Buddhist scholar on the receiving end of white rage.

Steve: “Scary, postmodern virus infects North American Buddhism.”

Me: “Thanks for showing us what PoC Buddhists have to deal with every day in their sanghas, Steve.”

Steve: “Keep playing the victim.”

Me: “I notice your Twitter profile says “Zen Beginner,” maybe you could learn something from the Zen teachers in this book, who have been practicing for decades. Stretch that Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Steve!”

Steve: deletes thread and blocks me.[1]

The preceding was a short exchange I had with Steve, a stranger, on Twitter, after I tweeted about the publication of George Yancy and Emily McRae’s 2019 edited collection Buddhism and Whiteness. The book contained essays by Buddhist scholars and scholar-practitioners examining both how whiteness operates in Buddhist practice and academic communities, and what resources Buddhist thought and practice offer for challenging whiteness. While this was the first academic collection to attend to whiteness in Buddhism, Buddhists of Color have been confronting whiteness in American Buddhism for over two and a half decades. The landmark 2000 compilation Making the Invisible Visible: Healing Racism in our Buddhist Communities, for instance, shared that for many years the white Euro-American sangha has been resistant to efforts by People of Color to raise awareness of racism in Buddhist communities.

Twenty years later, the same white resistance is all too visible in Steve’s Twitter tantrum about Buddhism and Whiteness, a response which, ironically, performs the very thing he was denying existed. Drawing on similar responses, I want to make visible a specific expression of whiteness—what African American historian Carol Anderson has identified as “white rage”—directed at scholars of and scholarship on religion and racial justice.  

The Many Faces of White Buddhist Rage  

In 2016, Carol Anderson published White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, a searing history of white anger, resentment, and backlash against Black political and social progress. In his review of White Rage, Jesse McCarthy explains the book’s origins and intention:

In August 2014, as the headlines from Ferguson focused on the eruption of black rage, Anderson, a professor of African-­American studies at Emory University, wrote a dissenting op-ed in The Washington Post arguing that the events were better understood as white backlash at a moment of black progress, a social and political pattern that she reminded readers was as old as the nation itself. Her essay became the kernel for this book, which expands and illustrates her thesis. “I set out to make white rage visible,” Anderson writes in her introduction, “to blow graphite onto that hidden fingerprint and trace its historic movements over the past 150 years.[2]

In their recent book, The Religion of White Rage: Religious Fervor, White Workers, and the Myth of Black Racial Progress, scholars Stephen C. Finley, Biko Mandela Gray and Lori Latrice Martin extend Anderson’s work on white rage to religion. Anderson’s reframing of the narrative from Black anger to white rage also resonates with what I was finding in my research on racial justice in American Buddhism. Many Buddhists of Color have reported that white Buddhists often oppose racial justice efforts on the charges that they are motivated by anger and therefore not legitimately Buddhist. I had encountered the same objection directly tracking white Buddhist backlash to racial justice.

What has been left out of this conversation, however, is a reflection on white Buddhist rage—the white Buddhist backlash against racial justice gains in their communities. White Buddhist rage has many faces: innocence, denial, condescension, ridicule, resentment, and hatred. A glance at any comment thread under articles on Buddhism, racial justice and whiteness will show one or more of these different expressions. American Studies professor and Buddhist practitioner Funie Hsu received so much white Buddhist rage because of her article on the exclusion of Asian American Buddhists that Lion’s Roar magazine subsequently commissioned Ajahn Amaro, a white Theravadin monastic, to write in support of her work.

My own research has also been on the receiving end of white rage. One commentator under “Buddhists and Racial Justice: A History,” claimed “White privilege is racial profiling…Buddhists should know better than to pick sides and use racist terminology,” before presenting statistics on “black on black crime. Another declared “You cannot be ‘white’ and ‘Buddhist’ and ‘privileged’…and if you are it will not last it will be taken off of you and given to a more ‘deserving’ black or poc ‘Buddhist’ person…or ‘teacher’ as they call them.” After Hebah Farrag and I published an article on the spirituality of Black Lives Matter.—which included the influence of BLM on racial justice work in Buddhism—we both received several hate email. One of these called Black Lives Matter “a cult, evil and out to destroy Western Civilization,” and advised us to “Open your eyes and get real jobs.”

Similar, after publishing a more general piece on white privilege and redlining I received several emails, through both my work and social media accounts, ranging from condescending to aggressive. One white male shared that he has searched my “Rate Your Professor” evaluations and could see I was an excellent professor but obviously needed to read more conservative explanations of wealth and health racial disparities. Another reported that he had discovered I was British and come to the (erroneous) conclusion that I must have grown up very privileged and was now trying to divide Americans. A third was more direct, declaring: “You should be fired for your recent article. You are a disgrace to UCF.”  

White Buddhas

Responding to White Rage

My encounters with white [Buddhist] rage have significantly shaped my scholarly trajectory, pushing me from documenting and contextualizing racial justice work in American Buddhism to explicitly advocating for it. In a recent publication charting the reactionary right-wing Buddhist backlash to racial justice, co-written with Brenna Artinger, for instance, we make transparent our anti-racist research commitment and align ourselves with what Nancy Scheper-Hughes (2006) calls “the ethics of witnessing” in which ethnography is undertaken with an intentional commitment to vulnerable populations. In addition to cataloguing the right-wing backlash to racial justice, I have also directly confronted it. On social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, I have used a variety of strategies to challenge whiteness in Buddhism: educated dialogue, confrontation, humor, or simply ignoring and blocking.   

One example came after I published a short personal reflection on thinking about Covid from an engaged Buddhist perspective for Buddhist magazine Lion’s Roar. Here I emphasize how Covid death rates and treatment have highlighted racial disparities in health care between white and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) Americans. One online response to the piece on Lion’s Roar Facebook page was particularly hostile. Susan began sharply with a complete dismissal of the piece as “sheer nonsense” and a personal attack dubbing me a “left leaning would be academic,” and questioning whether I was a real Buddhist. I started an educated dialogue with Susan, offering some canonical resources, as well as historical context on engaged Buddhism to contextualize racial justice work. Each response, however, merely elicited a new line of attack, suggesting that her aversion was rooted more in resentment than reason.   

Another strategy I have employed is to ignore but make visible and to creatively subvert some of the hostility directed towards me. When Ade, an administrator of the Facebook group Contemporary Buddhism posted a diatribe against me and my piece, claiming that I was attempting “to  “pervert the dharma by means of identity politics,” I decided not to directly engage. Quite frankly supporting comments such as, “I’m so speeciaaal that I have to have my own river of suffering,” “People bleating utter nonsense about things they obviously know fuck all about,” and “you can’t polish a turd,” left me with little confidence that education was possible. Instead, I screenshot his post and re-tweeted under the title of ANN GLEIG, DHARMA PERVERT. After Ade continued to write sneering posts of other female engaged Buddhists who were advocating against white supremacy, I simply blocked him.

The Threat of White Rage

Confronting white rage has a cost. I myself know two female scholars who are weary of engaging with public scholarship on Buddhism and racial justice, because of either actual or anticipated aggressive responses. One of these received hate mail threatening a “cyber-attack” after she had given a talk on whiteness and Buddhism. Scholars working on whiteness and racial justice are often forced to make difficult decisions between their personal/professional safety and well-being and having their work be available in the public sphere. After disturbing tweets from self-identified alt-right Buddhists, Brenna Grace Artinger and I had to request the registration list be carefully monitored and no recording be made of recent lectures we have given on our research on reactionary right-wing backlashes to racial justice. Reflecting on the misogynist attacks she received, Audrey Truschke powerfully reminds us that minority scholars –female, non-binary, scholars of color, junior, and contingent—are particularly vulnerable.

In addition to the interpersonal threat, scholars working with critical race theory in the United States are increasingly facing institutional and legal vulnerabilities. Following the gains of the Black Lives Matter Movement, after the murder of George Floyd in summer 2020, classical liberals, Christian evangelicals and Republicans caricatured and launched a full-on attack on critical race theory. This culminated in Trump passing an Executive Order banning diversity training, which had immediate impacts in higher education. Despite Biden reversing the order, many Republicans continue to push related legislation. In response to a university book panel on Finley, Gray and Martin’s The Religion of White Rage, a legislator from Louisiana raised public concerns and has proposed a bill that could make it illegal for schools to teach about structural racism.

In my own state of Florida, Republicans are pushing a bill that threatens academics under weaponized concerns for “free speech” and to supposedly guarantee intellectual diversity.

Naming White Rage in Religious Studies Scholarship

Despite the threat of confronting white rage, I remain committed to do so for three main reasons:

First, scholars of color, particularly Black scholars, routinely face intense vitriolic hatred and threats of violence for their work on religion and racial justice. George Yancy, the co-editor of Buddhism and Whiteness, analyzed the white racist vitriol including death threats he received after his stunning editorial Dear White America. African American scholar Anthea Butler catalogued some of the hate mail she received after writing her powerful essay “The Zimmerman Acquittal: America’s Racist God.” White scholars simply must step up and carry some of the affective burden of naming the operations of whiteness in religion and philosophy.  

Second, a growing number of Buddhist Studies scholars are recognizing and seeking to confront Buddhist Studies’ ongoing legacy of colonialism and Orientalism. As Tibetan Buddhist scholar Constance Kassor concisely puts it: Buddhist Studies Has A Whiteness Problem. I consider work on racial justice in contemporary Buddhism as one way to confront and correct this legacy. 

Third, my ethnographic scholarship—and the academic recognition it has brought me—has been largely dependent on the generosity of Buddhists of Color who have given me their time and trust. Confronting and contextualizing white Buddhist rage through anti-racist scholarship is one way I have been able to reciprocate. Academic work can have a real impact for practitioners undertaking anti-racist work in Buddhist communities. 

While confronting white rage in religious scholarship is crucial, placing the burden on individual scholars, particularly scholars of color, is insufficient. Confronting whiteness in religious studies must be done collectively with not just symbolic but also material means of support from academic bodies and institutions.

[1]  May 29, 2019.

[2] Jesse McCarthy, “Why Are Whites So Angry?” New York Times, June 24, 2016.

read more

Sexual Misconduct and Buddhism – Centering Survivors

Image credits: Images are by Amanda Scoville. Amanda is a senior at Eckerd College (Florida), where she majors in Religious Studies. She created the images as part of a final-year project for a course on Buddhism and sexuality.

Today’s post is different from the majority of Shiloh Project posts. Its focus is sexual abuse in Buddhist settings. In popular culture, Buddhism is associated with peace, tranquillity, gentleness and self-discipline. But rape culture manifests many forms and, including, it turns out, in some Buddhist settings.

The authors of this post are Amy Langenberg and Ann Gleig. Both are Florida-based scholars, currently working together on a book about sexual violations and US convert Buddhism. The book is under advance contract with Yale University Press. 

In the first part of the post, Amy and Ann introduce their project, research aims, and methodology. In the second part, they share some of the challenges and pitfalls they have encountered. There is some inspiration and some good advice here for all who research, or wish to research, topics at the intersection of sexual violence and religion.

Centering Survivors? Methodological Reflections on Abuse, Sex, and the Sangha

In 2018, Andrea Winn, a former member of Shambhala Buddhist community, published three consecutive reports on the internet. Titled Buddhist Project Sunshine (BPS), these survivor-centered reports reveal an intergenerational pattern of sexual violence abuse. Shambhala’s founder, Chogyam Trungpa, was openly promiscuous until dying of an alcohol-related disease at the age of 48. His American dharma heir, Osel Tendzin, had unprotected sex with several of his students, knowing but not disclosing that he was HIV-positive. One student and his girlfriend later died of AIDS, as did Tendzin himself. Chogyam’s son, Sakyong Mipham, was forced to step down from his leadership position after the second BPS detailed incidents of sexual and physical abuse perpetrated by him. The trajectory of Shambhala illustrates one pattern of sexual misconduct and abuse in Western Buddhist convert communities since the 1980s. Cutting across Buddhist lineages, offenders have included many prominent first and second generation Asian and American teachers.

While there is a handful of popular books written by journalists, and a few autobiographical reflections by Buddhist practitioners directly involved, little academic work has focused on these cases. In our new collaborative book project—titled Abuse, Sex and the Sangha (under advance contract with Yale University Press) and funded by the Henry R. Luce Foundation—we hope to fill a gap. We pair ethnographic case studies of American Buddhist communities that have been the site of sexual abuse, with historical background on the Buddhist institutional, doctrinal, and ethical traditions that have influenced them. In developing this project, our original research questions focused first, on how Buddhists have interpreted these cases and second, on the new forms of Buddhist leadership, community and practices they have generated. We also have aimed to interrogate the authority and adequacy of classical and other premodern traditions for contemporary Buddhist communities in responding to scandal.

Our methodological orientation is rooted in the postcolonial feminist lineage of anthropology that advances ethnography as an act of identification, witnessing, and care. An early expression of this is Ruth Behar’s (1996) articulation of a “native anthropology” in which scholars claim a personal connection to their ethnographic sites and view identity rather than difference as key to research. Nancy Scheper-Hughes (2006) extends this identification with her anthropology of witnessing, in which fieldwork is intentionally undertaken as a radical act of empathy and protest. Yet more recently, in her work with sexual abuse survivors, Emma Louise Backe (2017) has called for an “ethnography of care” to be enacted towards both oneself and one’s interlocutors.

One very appealing expression of this feminist methodology is its collaborative nature: we share both the analytic and the affective labors of our research. Amy is a textual scholar whose expertise is in South Asian Buddhism, with a focus on monasticism, gender, sexuality, and the body. Ann is an ethnographer of convert American Buddhism with specialisation in issues relating to racial, gender, and sexual justice. On an analytic level, we want to bring together our disciplinary and methodological training and skillsets to give the project the depth it demands. On an affective level, we want to support each other in processing the intense emotional material we encounter in this project on sexual violence. At the level of ethics, we hold each other accountable while researching and writing about such a difficult subject.

Another expression of our feminist methodology is an emphasis on survivor voices. Drawing from intersectional feminism, a survivor centered approach is marked by “prioritizing the perspectives, needs and interests of survivors, and placing these at the center in developing and implementing interventions towards the eradication of gender-based violence.” While inspired by this approach, we have already encountered several obstacles with fully implementing such a model. We offer this reflection as a transparent work-in-progress that we hope might help other religious studies researchers also wanting to integrate survivor-centric perspectives.

Centering Survivors in Contemporary Ethnographies: Challenges & Opportunities 

Our first misstep was one of research orientation.

We began the project with the following research questions: How have Buddhist institutions and ethical systems from Asia set the terms of sexual abuse in American Buddhist environments? How can we understand the complex religious and socio-cultural contexts that foster environments in which abuse can occur? What specific religious symbols, discourses, and practices are mobilized around sexual misconduct and the cultures of secrecy that enable it to occur? How do the psychological and affective realities of abuse interact with religious symbol systems and doctrinal concepts? What are the generative effects of the scandals: for instance, what new doctrinal and organizational forms of Buddhism are emerging from them?

In other words, our orienting questions were tradition- and community-centered, rather than survivor-centered. As we discovered, this focus on doctrine, community response, and on the impact on Buddhism, unintentionally but automatically moved survivors to a secondary position.

Our second misstep was that we began by privileging certain survivor voices over others. In our own research, we have come to see three broad categories of survivors:

(1) those who stay and want to be part of community reform;

(2) those who leave their community but continue to practice Buddhism;

(3) survivors who leave their community and tradition and feel that community reform is part of the problem in that it can involve attempts to pressurize and make survivors conform.

Because we have been working primarily on community responses, we come into more contact with and therefore privilege those survivors who stay in communities (1) or who remain Buddhists outside of the community where abuse took place (2). It is clear to us that for those survivors, narrating their experiences in the context of community and/or finding resources within the tradition form an essential part of their healing process.

What we have started to realize, however, is that other survivors (3) experience the pressure to be part of community reform as another form of violence and dishonesty. They report that Buddhist communities have weaponized doctrines in support of community cohesion rather than survivor-centered justice. Thus, we observe tensions as well as differences between survivors. And this raises new challenges: How do we negotiate between these differences in experience and outlook? How can we avoid centering one survivor narrative over another?

A third obstacle, less a misstep on our part than an inevitable feature of seeking to understand abuse, is that of survivor silence. In one of our case studies, Against the Stream, the women who made claims of sexual violence against Buddhist leader Noah Levine, have chosen to be anonymous. This means we have not been able to interview them. How can you center survivors in their absence? One way that we have negotiated this is to draw attention to their absent voices and the ways in which this allows community members to erase them. 

Centering Survivors in Religious Studies: Challenges & Opportunities 

We have also begun to wrestle with a deeper issue that is at play in the centering of survivor voices in Religious Studies and Buddhist Studies contexts. We have come to doubt that the issue of sexual abuse impact on survivors in Buddhism can be adequately addressed by Religious Studies methodologies alone. This is because survivor accounts tend to center doctrines, institutional histories, and the practices of those that stay in communities, but not the experiences of ex-practitioners that have permanently left religious communities. Indeed, cult studies, critical trauma studies, sociology, and social psychology may provide preferable frameworks than Religious Studies for adequately addressing the experiences of those survivors who, due to abuse, have chosen to sever ties with Buddhism. 

In some ways, the subfield of Buddhist Studies is even less well equipped than Religious Studies for the task of centering survivors. The dominant core of the field continues to focus on the philological study of texts, and has tended to follow the intellectual contours of Asian Buddhist traditions in its emphasis on great thinkers and major doctrines. Although the field is rapidly changing, it has often neglected the experiences of those at the margins. Also, the voices and experiences of survivors can be difficult to locate in Buddhist textual traditions, especially in the absence of an explicit feminist hermeneutic.

For instance, texts about rape in the vinaya (the disciplinary traditions that guide monks and nuns) completely neglect the trauma of the raped person and focus instead on whether he or she can be deemed guilty of transgressing the rule ordaining celibacy. As an example, when the nun Uppalavaṇṇā is raped, monks wonder not whether she has been psychologically harmed, but whether, as a spiritually advanced being, she can still experience pleasure. Similarly, early treatments of sexual ethics for lay people tend to center the sexual obligations and rights of lay men, and leave aside the trauma of those women who are sexually violated or exchanged.  

Feminist and postcolonial scholars of Buddhism have challenged readings that ignore the experience of the less powerful and the marginalized, such as those subjected to abuse within Buddhist institutions. This can involve locating and studying primary sources that were previously unknown to the Buddhist Studies community. For instance, Sarah Jacoby and Holly Gayley have translated autobiographical works by female teachers in Tibet that discuss their sometimes difficult relationships to male Buddhist teachers.

Amy’s work on reading against the grain in classical Indic sources also emphasizes the recovery of marginalized female voices, including the voices of those that have experienced sexual trauma. Amy’s new research for this project now includes reading classical sources constructively in order to recover ethical perspectives, doctrinal resources, and institutional procedures that are not typically brought forward by Buddhist ethicists, perhaps because they have not previously tackled the issue of sexual abuse, and certainly not from a survivor perspective.

Through our research process, we have come to realize that survivors have to be centered from the very beginning when designing a research project on abuse. This is all the more the case when contours of our fields and subfields invite us to do otherwise. Survivors so easily slip out of view unless placed at the center of inquiry. Survivor narratives are diverse, and we must be intentional about representing the plurality of survivor voices and careful not to inadvertently privilege one type over another. We have also come face to face with the challenges of how to make survivors, both past and present, visible and centered when we don’t have access to their first-person accounts, or when, for legal or ethical reasons, we cannot reproduce their first-person accounts.

It was only through conversation with survivors, other scholars, and stakeholders that we realized some of the limits of our methodological perspectives. This points to the importance of approaching this topic of abuse in religion collaboratively, and pursuing methodological humility, integrity and flexibility.

Published with support from the Henry R. Luce Foundation

Ann is Associate Professor of Religion and Cultural Studies at the University of Central Florida and author of American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity (Yale University Press, 2019). 

Amy is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Eckerd College and author of Birth in Buddhism: The Suffering Fetus and Female Freedom (Routledge, 2017).

For a recording of a lecture by Ann and Amy on the topic of this post, please see here. (The lecture was part of the seminar series of the Centre for Religion and Public Life, University of Leeds.)

read more