Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds /Milk Tea Alliance

Refuge Recovery: A Pipeline for Predation

Letter from the Board of Directors of Refuge Recovery.org:

“As most are aware, the Board of Directors of Refuge Recovery and Noah have had differing views about the path forward. But neither claims to be the only authority on recovery from addiction.

The Refuge Recovery program and movement, as founded by Noah, are not ending. The existing Refuge Recovery non-profit will be dissolved.

Noah’s team is creating a new 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, Refuge Recovery World Services, and will apply for 501(c)(3) non-profit status, to provide support services to all interested Refuge Recovery groups moving forward. Noah and others vow to adhere to the program as outlined in the book authored by Noah, “Refuge Recovery: A Buddhist Path to Recovering from Addiction,” that includes peer-led, democratically run, local recovery meetings, and that also includes associated teacher-led meditation retreats and professional treatment options.

The Board will foster a new grassroots movement by forming a non-profit organization called Recovery Dharma Collective to provide support to local recovery meetings based on Buddhist practices and principles. The Collective will be entirely peer-led and democratically run, will not be engaged in designating specific or approved teachers for retreats or study and will leave the provision of treatment options to others. The Board also has supported efforts for the community to create its own literature that may serve to augment or provide an alternative to that contained in the Refuge Recovery book.”

So Noah gets to keep Refuge Recovery, the treatment program and the book, even though we could have beat him both in court and on the street. And the current Refuge Recovery is dissolved, and will now become Recovery Dharma Collective. I have a lot of mixed and conflicting feelings about this outcome.

First, Noah got away with all the shit he pulled, and he is still a NARCISSISTIC SOCIOPATH and a sexual predator. But here’s one thing I’ve learned from this whole process. Noah, like Sogyal and Chogyam Trungpa and his son Mipham, and all the other malignant narcissists who run Buddhists organizations are NOT THE EXCEPTION in Buddhism; THEY ARE THE RULE.

Buddhism is a corrupt and totally deformed religion. I’m not talking about ‘the Buddha’ whoever he might have been, or the things he might have taught. I’m talking about institutional Buddhism, which is not about liberation, but power and control. And this whole turn of events just proves that to the letter.

So here’s what I like about the situation. I was never convinced by the whole Refuge Recovery spiel. I didn’t like the book or the program–it had its good points but it was badly written and mostly irrelevant. From my perspective, as someone with 28 years in recovery and 10 years of meditation and Buddhist study under my belt, very little of it resonated with me or made any sense for the treatment of a complex disorder like full-blown addiction. Frankly, I could do better, and so could lots of other people. Many others in the Buddhist Recovery Network who have decades of recovery and Buddhist practice could get together and write a far better book that is far more relevant and effective at treating complex developmental trauma, which is the true ’cause’ of addiction. I hope that is one of the outcomes of this process. The Buddhist Recovery Network is far greater than Noah and his ego and has the expertise to come up with a truly effective program.

Coincidentally, I had stopped going to the Refuge Recovery group in my own town a couple of months ago. I was about to start a new ‘Meditation and Recovery’ group in my town, not identified specifically as ‘Buddhist’ recovery, not connected in any way with Refuge Recovery. Refuge Recovery is pushing a religion, as I have said many times but no one wanted to hear me. I don’t want to push the Buddhist religion on people who are trying to recover from addiction. They are extremely vulnerable and have enough problems to deal with without being subjected to the further abuses of a coercive and authoritarian religion. My approach would include secular meditation and a dharma program where the ‘dharma’ is not a simple reading of the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path, but a clinically-proven treatment program that addresses the core issue: trauma, emotional pain and disregulation and brain/CNS disregulation.


Here’s the upshot of this deal: most people will stick with Refuge Recovery because it is a recognizable “brand.” Recovery Dharma Collective, or some version of it, will work in a few places with a few small groups, but I don’t expect it to grow, or ultimately survive.

But here’s the real heartbreak of this deal: what Noah did will happen again because Noah hasn’t changed, and Buddhism hasn’t changed either. People in Refuge Recovery WS (World Services), mostly women, will be sexually assaulted. Other forms of gaslighting, brainwashing and coercive manipulation will be done to people in Refuge Recovery WS, as they are in every Buddhist organization. That Noah has set this up with a system for training teachers and teacher-led retreats almost guarantees that this will happen. Noah has created a PIPELINE FOR PREDATION. “Victims” will be groomed for compliance, sent to retreat centers with Noah and his hand-picked proteges who will do what he did: take advantage of vulnerable, needy, traumatized people, manipulate them and sexually assault them, and then gaslight them afterwards. This is all the more certain now that Noah has had no consequences for his past sexual predation. He realizes now that he can get away with it, so he and his cronies are certain to do it again.

I’ll give it about 2 to 5 years, and we’ll be reading another round of stories in the Buddhist press that multiple women and others in Refuge Recovery WS who have been coerced, manipulated, abused and sexually assaulted.

Mark my words: the first time we get a report of sexual predation by Refuge Recovery WS in the Buddhist or other press, I will revisit the article and say it loud: it was totally predictable.

14 comments on “Refuge Recovery: A Pipeline for Predation

  1. Shaun Bartone

    As a parenthetical comment to the above, I won’t be supporting Refuge Recovery WS. This is the last straw. I’ve been totally burned by Buddhism and I won’t participate in another Buddhist organization or movement. In the immortal words of Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams, “Fuck Buddhism.”

    But on second thought, I will support Recovery Dharma Collective. There is something beautiful and real about people coming together and sharing their pain and their wisdom, really hearing each other and being heard. The ‘dharma’ is people’s own wisdom, the path their lives have taken, the hard lessons learned.

  2. Michael Honeybear

    Unfortunately, I have to agree with you on a lot of this. Turn any philosophy into a religious institution and set it on low for a millennia or two and boom, you’ve got a perfect recipe for oppression, abuse, and general madness. There’s corruption essentially anywhere there’s concentrated power, especially where there’s inviolable doctrines to support its maintenance (even if it would seem that doctrine was supposed to be interpreted as love thy neighbor, or ahimsa). It frustrates me a great deal how many westerners I’ve met both in person and online who claim that Buddhism simply *isn’t a religion at all*, let alone a religion that deserves just as much scrutiny as every other.

    Moreover, yes, Noah and those around him will repeat their predatory behavior. It’s simply so likely, statistically, that I agree it’s simply a matter of time, the longest part of which will be the time it takes victims to get past the culture of silencing and gaslighting to come forward about it.

    I think there actually is some genuine substance to the refuge recovery program, insofar as there still is a lot of profound value to the basic behavioral and psychological tactics of southern Buddhism, which is essentially all that RR is. Moreover journaling, meditation, and finding a group of people to experience secure attachment and safely process/co-regulate your emotions with *are* known and effective parts of addressing developmental trauma and the addictions connected to it. However, while it’s nowhere near as explicitly anti-scientific as AA, I agree it would benefit from more specific employment of modern neuroscience and psychology.

    However, while it would be silly to act as if it doesn’t endorse Buddhist philosophy, I really fail to see how it pushes a coercive and authoritarian religion on people. RR does distance itself from “actual” (religious) Buddhism pretty significantly by not operating under any metaphysical assumptions whatsoever, such as traditional versions of karma and the doctrine of rebirth, which are rather important features of Buddhist religious belief and even specifically play into the power structures of its institutions (Chogyam Trungpa being one example: born into power due to his supposed past lives). RR in no way proselytizes guru-yoga or other esoteric (and not even universal across Buddhism) aspects of Buddhism. Folks that are psychologically vulnerable to getting caught up in the deep mythologizing and metaphysics that lends credence to the institutional coercion and authority which does exist in Buddhism could actually be *diverted* from those interpretations of Buddhist thought by being first exposed to it in an explicitly empirical and psychological framing. And of course, cults of personality, coercion, and tyranny can exist literally anywhere there are humans–if the program you envisioned starting became popular and had a huge impact on a lot of people’s lives, there would be people who would begin to revere you, hang on your every word, and see you as a kind of savior. If you wanted to manipulate or abuse these people, you could. It wouldn’t be inherent to your program, it would just be your own pathology.

    I’d really like to know what your specific ideas about how to improve the program are, though, it does sound like a great approach if you have practical ideas for implementing it.

    • Shaun Bartone

      Thanks for your comments…Recovery Dharma Collective is the remnant that will continue on without Noah and without the book. I’m not on the Board of their organization so I don’t know what they’re planning to do. I don’t have a detailed plan for what I will do with my group, should I start one, except to offer meditation, support and group sharing. (At this point, I’ve gotten as far as calling the local hospital to book a room.)

      Meditation is an essential feature of recovery from addiction. It even says so in the 12 Steps of AA. The beneficial effects of meditation are: slowing down and reducing reactivity; reducing anxiety; increased impulse control by not acting on every impulse; slowing down the ‘racing mind’ that many addicts suffer from; being able to distinguish feelings from facts; being able to identify all the different feelings and body sensations; knowing when one is feeling an ’emotion’ or a trauma-induced body sensation; clarifying thoughts; having one thought at a time; rational thinking; decreasing obsessive-compulsive behavior and thinking; becoming aware of cravings of all sorts; being able to ‘surf the craving’ so that you can let it pass without acting on it; being able to feel emotions without having to act on them; being able to feel emotions without having to endlessly repeat some ‘story’ about them (one story is enough); reducing paranoia and the belief that everything that happens is about ‘you’; self-calming; increasing stress tolerance. In general developing a calm, stable emotional and body state and a clear, rational-thinking mind.

      I absolutely agree that what “works” about any of these treatment programs is simply that you are getting together with other fellow addicts and sharing your griefs and struggles, listening to others, being heard, identifying with each other’s feelings and supporting each other’s success at remaining abstinent; the clinical term for this is ‘co-regulation’.

      I personally never found the 4NT/8FP to be particularly resonant as a person who has struggled with active addiction, emotional disregulation, reactivity, and toxic shame. They are a pretty good general guide for how to live your life, but they’re not specifically formulated to help people struggling with active addiction and many forms of mental illness.

      I would not limit authoritarianism and coercion to just Vajrayana and tantric Buddhist practice. Theravada is highly coercive: one must strive to become perfectly enlightened; one must renounce any sense of self; one must never suffer; one must maintain perfect adherence to all Buddhist practices; one must respond with perfect equanimity to all circumstances, no matter how stressful, and so on. In fact, I would suggest that Pema Chodron’s work would be more effective for learning emotional self-regulation than most Pali doctrines and texts.

      “I really fail to see how it pushes a coercive and authoritarian religion on people.” What I worry about is that people will learn how to meditate and learning some basic Buddhist principles and then fall into the trap of joining a Buddhist sangha. Once they get inside one of these organizations, the peer-pressure, coercion, gaslighting and manipulation becomes intense. The NKT (New Kadampa Tradition) specifically recruits people struggling with addiction because they know that they are the most susceptible to becoming members of their group. Addicts are extremely needy and vulnerable and are desperately looking for acceptance. They’re vulnerable to authority figures and strong peer pressure. Once inside these organizations, they are susceptible to being manipulated, brainwashed and sexually assaulted.

    • Shaun Bartone

      If you want to know why I think Buddhism is not suitable for people early in recovery, please read the next article. https://engagedharma.net/2019/07/08/fawning-and-abuse-in-buddhist-institutions/

      • Kellum Lewis

        Thank you very much for your detailed, well-reasoned, and well-supported response, at least to my fairly uninitiated eyes and ears. I am a psychotherapist looking for resources for a client suffering with an obsessive-compulsive-level of attachment to his drug of choice. I ordered the RR book but will reconsider suggesting it to him at this point as his attachment difficulties could play out disastrously in the power environment you described in your post. So thank you again.

        Additionally, writing this reply has given me some insight into my client’s issue. It’s the first time that I’ve labeled the quality of his addiction “obessesive-compulsive-level” and makes me question the direction of his medication as well as my focus. Secondly, it has reminded me that my perception of my client reflects some perception I have of myself and of the necessity to spend some time inquiring within.

      • Shaun Bartone

        You can refer your clients with confidence to Recovery Dharma, the successor program to Refuge Recovery. Recovery Dharma has 25 online meetings per week, as well as face-to-face meetings.Recovery Dharma is completely non-profit and completely peer-led. There is no one leader, teacher or guru. It’s run democratically by the group,just like 12 Step groups.Furthermore, Recovery Dharma is fully trauma-informed, one of the few in existence that centers healing and understanding trauma as part of the addiction syndrome. Recovery Dharma has its own book, written by the members. The book can be downloaded for free as a PDF. Find the book and everything about Recovery Dhamra online at https://recoverydharma.org

  3. I think one thing that Recovery Dharma Collective has going for it is that it looks like it’s trying to be especially de-centered and locally focused. Having power diffused and spread out may help cut whatever authority dynamics that tend to emerge and be abused anytime humans seem to form groups for any reason! This is my hope at least. I’m not in recovery but I sat with people in recovery for the entire time ATS was in existence. I’m from L.A. and sat with Noah for the better part of 15 years. I no longer do. Half the sangha was in recovery and I feel like they were all my dharma sisters and brothers. It’s been a long strange painful trip. But Noah comes first for Noah so here we are with the schisms. Alas…

    • Shaun Bartone

      I agree that Recovery Dharma Collective will probably be more decentralized and local than RRWS. RRWS will have local ‘peer-led’ groups, but they would be under the hierarchal structure of Noah and his team of teachers. At this point, I really don’t know what to think about Buddhism anymore; I’ve given up. It’s not liberating and its oppressive. I have my own group, Tiger Lily Sangha, a queer radical faerie buddhist mashup. We’re too queer and not enough Buddhist to be a bother to anyone.

      • We all have our own experiences. I can’t really say. I’m been practicing for 15 years and I still feel new. What I do is so divorced from traditional Buddhism it probably looks like something else all together although. However, I do identify as a Buddhist because that’s a good enough description in my eyes. For me, there is a lot of wiggle room in that. I like the dharma. How that gets translated into my modern everyday life in Los Angeles as a WOC, as a Latina, a Chicana, is pretty unusual anyway.

  4. Dave

    At first this seemed reactionary and angry (understandably), but the more I read and the more resonated with my experience the more I realized how I’ve been holding my feelings back on this. I helped start a sizeable RR group in my hometown and was facilitating ATS with an amazing group of people. I moved just before everything about Noah came out, I was in an unfamiliar city with no one I knew (aside from my partner) and suddenly had no community to connect with, I was out to sea without a raft and I was drowning. Luckily I’ve slowly gotten my feet back under me, but it wasn’t easy.

    The “empowered” teacher stuff always gave me a sour taste- I was introduced to Buddhism by my sponsor about 1.5 years into sobriety (he was attending Naropa University at the time), and he has always held small sitting groups in his living room, no guiding, no teachers, just people who want to be a part of a small decentralized sangha, and this is what drew me to the practice in the first place. It’s also what excites me about RDC, I see the potential for these groups to pop up and help some people even if they don’t necessarily flourish.

    I’ve been sickened to hear about abuses in all of the schools (even Theravada, there was a mass exodus of nuns from Theravada around the late 00’s due to abuses and manipulation), and honestly at this point I don’t know that I’ll ever attend large-scale meetings again, which is difficult for me because having that human connection to others in the practice is what makes me feel connected to a practice- if I rely entirely on myself I fall out of practice.

    I’m still holding out hope for a group that feels like the early days of the RR group in my hometown, it was all so exciting and new and it was the first time I felt a part of something I could invest myself in since my sponsor took me to a small building on the Naropa campus and I sat with 4 other people. Over a decade in and I’m still trying to find a place, I just hope and pray we all find our own little piece of belonging that isn’t marred by toxicity and megalomania.

  5. Pingback: Authoritarianism v. Anarchism in Western Buddhism | Engage!

  6. Kellum Lewis

    Thank you again. I’ll check out Recovery Dharma. I appreciate your quick response.

  7. iamrogercd68f4ab79

    You have a major ego problem, your assessment of Buddhism is totally off base. I hope others who read this see through you narcissistic inflated ego and negativity.

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