Between Shambhala and the Catholic Church: On Being a Contemplative in Imperfect Institutions

I sure know how to pick them (he says, ruefully).

The two organizations that I have turned to for contemplative formation over the past decade — the Catholic Church and Shambhala Buddhism — have both been rocked by abuse and cover-up scandals.

Since 2004 the Catholic Church has been my spiritual home. I was confirmed as a Catholic at the Easter Vigil in 2005. Over the past fourteen years I have gone from being a timid student of Catholicism, to immersing myself in the world of Trappist monasticism, eventually becoming a life-professed Lay Cistercian — and then, to bring things full circle, since 2016 my wife and I have co-directed the RCIA program in our parish, which means we now assist others who are considering embracing the Catholic faith as adults.

Meanwhile, I have been a strong proponent of interfaith dialogue and interreligious spirituality throughout my adult life — really, ever since I read Autobiography of a Yogi in high school and discovered that mysticism knows no bounds. In the years since becoming Catholic, however, most of my interfaith exploration has been confined to my long-standing interest in Buddhism, which for the most part meant taking classes and meditating at the Buddhist center closest to my home, the Atlanta Shambhala Center — part of the Vajrayana (Tibetan) Buddhist community.

Earlier this year, the Shambhala community acknowledged multiple allegations of sexual abuse by its leader, Sakyong Mipham, the son of Chögyam Trungpa — who himself had a reputation for sexual misconduct.

Meanwhile the American Catholic community has been reeling from allegations that Cardinal Timothy McCarrick, had for years been abusing both teens and adults, primarily targeting seminarians (men studying for the Catholic priesthood) — followed by the August release of a grand jury report in Pennsylvania detailing allegations of abuse of over 1000 children and youth, by over 300 Catholic priests — a decades-long culture of abuse that was systematically covered up by the church hierarchy.

As the political slogan says, “If you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention.”

Not only outraged, but sickened. Appalled. Horrified. Devastated.

Contemplation and the Toxic Institution

I am a student of both Catholic Christianity and Vajrayana Buddhism because they are both ancient spiritual paths combining a rich wisdom tradition with a strong emphasis on contemplative practice and mindful living (yes, I know many Catholics have no sense of contemplation or mystical spirituality, but it’s there for those who look for it).

But — both Catholicism and Tibetan Buddhism also have strong patriarchal, hierarchical cultures, where spiritual leaders, whether bishops and priests, or lamas and rinpoches, are treated with deference and obeisance — which is a ripe culture for abuse to flourish. Abusers can take refuge in the hierarchical system, and many others (both above them and below them in the power-structure) can conspire to shield them, all in the name of protecting the institution.

I suppose a psychoanalyst would have a field day with me, trying to figure out why I have participated in two contemplative institutions that have turned out to have widespread abuse problems. But let’s set aside my personal neuroses for the moment, and ponder this question:

What should a sincere student of contemplation do, when facing the fact that the institution(s) where we have studied have turned out to have significant problems of internal corruption?

We could phrase this question another way. I’m hearing it more in the Catholic world, but that’s the world I am more fully immersed in. But I bet Shambhalians are asking the same question.

And the question is simply this: “Why am I here?”

Discernment, or, in the words of The Clash: “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”

I am convinced that the vast majority of Shambhala Buddhists and of contemplative Catholics are truly good-hearted people who have affiliated with these institutions because we want support in our own spiritual growth. But I think it would be irresponsible not to ask the question, “Should I leave this damaged, toxic institution?”

Each one of us will have to answer that question in an individual way. Some people have been so hurt (directly or indirectly) by the institution, that they need to leave. I hope that such persons will find the succor and healing that they deserve, wherever that might be.

Others may feel so angry, so betrayed, or so devastated by the organization’s failings that they are no longer capable of relating to the organization except from a place of deep anger, deep grief, or deep bitterness. At this point, the relationship is like a marriage that has become toxic (for whatever reason). Again, they may need to leave. But if they choose to stay, I hope they are staying for the right reasons.

A toxic marriage needs either to be healed or to be ended, hopefully in a compassionate way. But just persevering in an unhealthy marriage without doing the hard work to heal it is like taking a little bit of poison every day — it may not be enough to kill, but it sure is diminishing your life.

This brings us to this question: “can I stay in this relationship and work to heal it?” That, to me, is the only sensible reason why anyone would want to remain a Catholic, or remain a Shambhala Buddhist. It’s saying, “I have seen first-hand how much good there is in this tradition’s ideals and teachings and culture. Of course, now I know just how much toxicity there is, as well. I’m willing to fight for the good, but that means I have to fight against the bad.”

Julian of Norwich: just one of the many contemplative treasures in the Catholic tradition.

Contemplation Does Not Exist in a Vacuum

In our day, many people have rejected any kind of institutional religion — whether or not the organization has been accused of covering up abuse. To such people, staying in an institution in the wake of such allegations just makes no sense.

But those of us who choose stay are not staying because of the institution. No, we stay because of the wisdom, because of the community of people who share our desire to grow spiritually. And for Catholics, we stay because we love Christ.

As repellant as abuse or cover-ups are, I cannot deny how much Buddhist and Christian wisdom has meant to me. I continue to find nurture in the wisdom of Buddhist contemplatives like Pema Chödrön or Christian contemplatives like Martin Laird, Mary Margaret Funk, or Thomas Keating. I continue to be inspired by virtuous activists and advocates like Gregory Boyle, Simone Campbell, and James Martin.

I continue to find that the centuries-old wells of wisdom continue to inspire me, form me, and teach me — and that I need living teachers and companions to help me understand and interpret that great figures of the past like Meister Eckhart, John Ruusbroec, Julian of Norwich or Teresa of Ávila. Most important of all, when I am engaged in the church, I have ways where I can be of real service to people.

Because it’s the people that matter — not the institution, not the power-structure, not the hierarchy. The people.

Contemplation, and contemplative living, does not occur in a vacuum. We learn contemplation from others, and we live out the contemplative life (even if we are “mixed” contemplatives-in-action) in relationships with other people. We learn and we teach, we study and we instruct, we are nurtured and we serve.

Saving the Burning Building

Many people are cynical about hierarchical institutions like the Catholic Church or centralized organizations like Shambhala. “Lay people have no power,” they say. “Change will be too little, too late.” “You can’t undo problems that were centuries in the making.”

I understand where those thoughts come from, and I don’t mean to minimize the barriers to change that currently exist. But I don’t want to give way to defeatist thinking.

These kinds of statements rightly challenge those of us who choose to stay in the toxic organizations. We cannot be complacent or hide our heads in the sand, hoping that the problems will just go away. In the Catholic world, this means: we cannot rely on the Vatican to solve the problem, and we most certainly cannot rely on the Bishops. It’s up to us lay-folk to lead the way.

Here’s how I see it. The Catholic Church is like a burning building. Most people will sensibly want to stay as far away from the danger as possible. But if we all walk away, the building is doomed. Some of us need to be fire-fighters, and work to limit the damage and extinguish the flames.

That’s dangerous work. To do it you have to go into the building. You better have on the right protective clothing and be carrying the right equipment. You need lots of water or chemical retardants. It’s going to be hard work, but if the building is worth saving, then you’d better get busy.

The “building” is not the institutional church, but rather the wisdom tradition. That’s true for both Catholicism and Vajrayana. The building is not the hierarchy, but the community. That’s what is worth saving.

Jesus did not cause the fire; nor did the Gospel. Nor did the contemplative and mystical tradition.

The fire was caused by toxic systems of power, outdated ideas about gender and sexuality, and a hierarchy that dominates rather than serves. That’s what us firefighters must work to extinguish.

And, frankly, I believe contemplative practice is just the kind of “protective gear” that we need, those of  us who are choosing to remain in the burning buildings to fight the fire. And the “water” we need to extinguish the flames? Well, that “water” is simply the ability to tell the truth.

What Needs to Change?

For this final section of this very long post, I’m only going to talk about Catholicism, since that is my primary community of faith. But I think the points I make here could be applicable to Shambhala Buddhism or any other organization with a toxic hierarchy. And of course, for those who conscientiously believe it is best to leave toxic institutions, what follows may not seem too relevant. I’m writing for those who, like me, choose to remain within the burning building (and fight the fire).

I love the spirituality of Catholicism, and I am committed to “on-the-ground” Catholicism, whether that means the local parish, the local monastery, the local retreat center, or the local soup kitchen.

I remain committed to learning (and teaching) sacramental spirituality, mystical theology, and the ethics of life and justice. I continue to love the great art and culture of the Catholic tradition.

But I realize that I cannot remain in the church and pretend that I am not profoundly convinced that our entire structure of governance must change. I have tended to shy away from speaking my mind about church politics, mainly because I’ve wanted this blog to be a “contemplative safe space” where people of all political and theological persuasions can come together to pray and to reflect together on what unites us spiritually.

I still think it’s important to be inclusive as possible for anyone who claims to follow Jesus or to practice Christian contemplation. But I’m beginning to recognize something. When we refrain from speaking our conscience, we are abdicating our responsibility to fight the fire.

I can’t do that any more. And that might mean that I will lose a few readers. Well, so be it. I’m sorry. Contemplation does not exist in a vacuum. If we want to talk about contemplation we also have to talk about the difference between healthy spirituality and toxic religion.

So let me be perfectly clear.

We need to dismantle clericalism in the church. We need to renounce any theology that even hints at “ontological difference” between the ordained and the laity. We need full accountability and transparency, all the way up the organizational ladder. We need to ensure that our teachings about gender and sexuality are healthy and consistent with the full scope of human knowledge. We need to dismantle mandatory celibacy and the barriers that keep women out of ordained ministry. Most of all, we must eradicate the culture of power and privilege that has shielded abusers and their enablers from accountability.

We need an empowered laity, with a robust theology of the priesthood of all believers and the full engagement of laypersons in all aspects of church governance, oversight, finances, and discipline.

Ultimately, we must denounce the kind of authoritarian thinking that has made the privileged hierarchy possible in the first place. Authoritarianism and systems of privilege are contrary to the Gospel and to any form of contemplative spirituality.

This is just a first step. There’s much more to say, but this post is already far too long. If you have read (or skimmed) this far, I thank you for hearing me out. I promise I will get back to writing about contemplation with my next post. I know that readers of this blog come here for contemplative writing, and not for commentary on Catholicism or any other institution. But I realize that at moments like this one, I have to speak as my conscience dictates. And I hope that I will be more candid going forth, as well.

As always, I welcome your feedback, comments, and insights. But, I should mention, trollish comments that dogmatically reject Catholicism altogether or dogmatically reject conscientious calls for reform will either be ignored or deleted, depending on how offensive they are. You’ve been warned.


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Carl McColman
Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Catechist, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.


  1. I’m just reading your ‘Big Book of Christian Mysticism’, which I am really enjoying. However, I’m really confused as to why you find it necessary or desirable to be part of two faith communities at all.

    This issue of changing the organisation from the inside, which I totally agree with because of the value to society on the whole inherent within it, takes commitment, focus, and energy. It is difficult enough to do this in any one organisation. I would suggest that trying to do that in two just dilutes any effort.

    I also wonder, given the claims in your book about the richness, depth, and uniqueness of Christian mysticism why you feel the need to engage with both. It seems that in your ’leading by example’ you are saying that the Christian life is insufficient for you. Above which, isn’t the theology problematic, or as mystics do we just ignore that?

    Non of the above is intended as a criticism, but just genuine concerns from one navigating his own journey.

    Best wishes,


    1. Thanks, Ian, some great questions and they might eventually work their way into a future blog post. Let me just point out that participating in more than one faith community is not something I invented. Bede Griffiths, Abhishiktananda, William Johnstone, Robert Kennedy, Sara Grant, Paul Knitter and many others have done much creative work while engaged in more than one faith community.

      I am no longer active in the Shambhala Community, and I never was part of it with an intent to “change” or “reform” it. I was there to learn. When both Catholicism and Shambhala had scandals in 2018, that’s when I pulled back from Shambhala, for reasons very much like what you point out: it might be possible to *participate* in two faith organizations, but it’s not so easy (perhaps impossible) to take on leadership or teaching roles in more than one community. Since I do have a teaching role within Christianity, it seemed that’s where I needed to place my attention.

      But I still think there is an appropriate place for learning from other faith traditions, and that some people may in fact be called to do “dual practice.” But that’s an individual calling, and I would hope that those who are not called to do interfaith or interspiritual work would respect the fact that others do have such a call.

      I’m not sure what you mean by “isn’t the theology problematic” — do you mean the theology of interreligious dialogue? Or do you simply mean the fact that different religions have different theologies, cosmologies, anthropologies, etc. which on some levels are profoundly incompatible? If you mean the latter, then I think it’s true, someone who seeks to be a dual practitioner has to find a way to make peace with the philosophical conflict or tension. But there is deep paradox even within individual traditions (see chapter 7 of The Big Book of Christian Mysticism) that can be difficult to reconcile. I would submit that most people, even when adhering to just one tradition, have to do a bit of cognitive filtering to be able to accept the paradoxes and tensions within the “story” of their faith. That does not mean they lack integrity. But it does mean that, especially if they want to grow in their faith (and/or take on leadership positions) that they need to pay attention to where the paradoxes and conflicts arise.

      For me, since I never “took refuge” (i.e., became a Buddhist), I just simply accepted that there were philosophical conflicts between the two faiths. It wasn’t my job to reconcile them or resolve them, so I just accepted them. I studied Buddhism to learn its teachings about the mind and the heart, about meditation, about mental stability and clarity. You ask if I consider Christianity “insufficient,” — no, but I do think that the institutional form of Christianity has done a terrible job at preserving its own contemplative heritage, and that’s why many Christians have in fact abandoned Christianity for Buddhism or Vedanta or other contemplative forms of spirituality. So I do think that contemplative Christians have a responsibility to learn from others what our own institution has failed to safeguard for us from within our own history. Besides, I think the whole question of “Christian insufficiency” is moot. Christians have been creatively engaging with non-Christian philosophies and ideas from the very beginning: think of Clement of Alexandria’s reflection on Greek paganism, or how Aquinas drew from Aristotle. I don’t think either Clement or Aquinas saw Christianity as “insufficient” but they understood that God created all of creation, and therefore we can find authentic wisdom and insight even from traditions outside our own.

  2. Great article Carl. I am enjoying the questions that it raises in my mind. In a week where we also heard so much about the Boy Scouts, I question whether this has been an issue all along, but is only being brought into the light, or something that is getting worse over time.

    If it is getting worse, and it seems to be across so many institutions, is there something that is changing in society that is triggering more of this behavior?

    I guess I figure it’s probably more likely to have been going on all along, and that makes me feel very sad for all the victims we will never hear about. I’m glad you’re discussing this topic because if change in these institutions can save even one person from being a victim then that should be the priority right now.

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