Interfaith Reflections- A Buddhist Who Grew Up as An Episcopalian


Dawn Boiani-Sandberg (Then I was Dawn Fiske) getting baptized at 10 by the Bishop, Emmanuel Church, Newport, RI

When I was 9, I joined the Episcopal Church in Newport, Rhode Island. This was my own decision, as I was close friends with some kind neighbors who invited me, who would later become my godparents, who I still keep in touch with today. My parents thought it was a bit odd, as they were quintessential 80’s somewhat self absorbed “yuppies,” and not really into religion. I became very involved with the church, went to Sunday school, community events and even joined the bell choir where we’d have to come to church to practice twice a week. I felt so much love and sincere kindness from this community, and it gave me hope and solace from a rather unsavory family life.


Choir Girls from Emmanuel Church, Newport RI circa 1980- That’s me third row- second to last on the right

As far back as I remember as a small child, I was always pretty religious or maybe hedging more toward spiritual. Every morning I would wake up and pray into space and thank “God” or the universe, for another day of life. It was kind of strange in retrospect because my parents didn’t really talk to me about god or religion but somehow there was this innate knowing or belief or maybe just hope- that we were connected to something vast, greater and it was intelligent and compassionate.

I felt completely at home and enriched by my connection to this Episcopalian Community. They became the center of my life. I was impressed by how sincerely kind and compassionate people were as well as socially altruistic. We would raise money to sponsor children in developing countries, have bake sales, parties, trips to the beach, talent shows- arts and crafts- volunteer for those in need-  in or out of the community; it was a full and rich life.

Later on, when I left Newport and went to boarding school in Massachusetts, I started to read about all of the world religions and go deeper into religious philosophy and introspection. That’s where I found the Tibetan Book of the Dead and that pretty much sealed my fate for the next 25 years. Tibetan Buddhism seemed to offer a very complex, detailed system of how the world was structured and a deep understanding of the human mind. It provided a yogic path of inner development- for us to actually make spiritual progress that was beyond just doctrine or faith. As soon as I could, when I was 19, I packed everything up moved to Boulder, Colorado to go to a Buddhist University, The Naropa Institute- to study meditation, Tibetan art and tantric yogic methods.

Looking for a Spiritual Path

We talked so much about benefiting the world, cultivating compassion and a bold vision of creating an enlightened society. The premise of the community was that if you developed yourself and cultivated qualities of calmness, wisdom and sharpened the skills of your human efficacy that you could actually attain enlightenment and at that point, constantly offer yourself to benefit others. We were told that we had  exceedingly fortunate lives, good karma from our past lives and that our task was to take a vow to be of service to our world. There were some heartfelt moments with one of my teachers, and some powerful experiences on retreats, and for these memories I am grateful. I followed all of their training diligently for many years, but noticed in myself and others that these qualities as promised were not emerging even though I performed all of their practices and studied.

During our covid isolation we’ve all had a lot of time to reflect on our life and what is meaningful to us. After the #Metoo movement, many organizations, religious and secular, were exposed for having unethical conduct and scandals behind the scenes, not just in Christianity, but in Buddhism too. What got exposed in our Tibetan Buddhist community worldwide, was pretty unsettling to say the least. We found out that teachers abused their roles of power and control and unquestioning trust and devotion, to take sexual liberties with their students of both genders, forced us to give money and property, swear us to secrecy under something called secret conduct, use violence regularly that’s what they called a “teaching method.” If anyone speaks out, expresses hurt, concern or doubt, they send out henchmen to silence, discredit and slander whistleblowers- basic cult and organized crime modus operandi. They collect small children as early as the age of six from families and ordain them into their monastic institutions worldwide, where children and teens are to this day, subject to daily, violent physical and sexual assault. The teachers in power all know and turn a blind eye, while they give daily talks about compassion and non-harming. That’s just a small snippet the problems with my beloved faith of refuge and solace.

Taking Care of Each Other

During the year where we were in isolation I actually caught Covid, and there were only two people from my Buddhist community of 10k, that called to check on me, offered to help or expressed any care. It reminded me of a few years ago when I was also concerned about my mom who had breast cancer and I was worried about myself too. Our main teacher here in Boulder, who we are to regard as a divine, enlightened “Buddha,” was performing a four day obstacle removing practice. I remember I was so worried about her and I reached out to my Buddhist community, the leader of a large dharma center and I asked if I could just come and practice with my teacher for an hour. They said to me curtly “the only people that are welcome are the people that are his closest students.” They have a graded, hierarchical system of who’s who, and I had little value. They couldn’t even be kind to offer any words of comfort, support and encouragement- it was just a back-handed slap, telling me that I meant nothing. I tried for years to lobby them to create healthy community, take care of each other, uphold ethics and relational resolution; but nope, they consider anyone who requests transparency and change to be “possessed by a demon or evil,” yes I’m not kidding.

The majority of the proceeds from our donations and attention are not on each other, helping the underprivileged etc. but were used to serve the teacher and uphold his royal, jetset, mansions, court lifestyle. This was the first time that I realized that this indeed, is NOT a spiritual community, they were not the spokespeople for enlightened society, they didn’t even have the basic entry level etiquette skills of human decency. My husband commented “most of your dharma friends don’t seem to be well at all, it seems like a narcissist training camp.”

I live in a town, chock filled with self-involved Buddhists who took vows of altruism, yet when in need, they don’t take care of each other if we are sick or dying. Older students who aren’t popular, noted teachers or major donors, are literally left for dead, alone.

The hurt and hypocrisy to me personally, as well as so many lives, has caused me to step back, start fresh and reevaluate what community, faith and what the religious “path” means to me. What do I need, what can really help me to grow and use this short life for something meaningful? I had to seek out religious trauma counselors and shed many tears about the hurt and betrayal of our spiritual leaders as well as the unkindness and callousness of a lot of people who I considered trusted friends. The Tibetan Buddhist community that I was involved with since 19, is falling apart now, they are hemorrhaging with a loss of funding and membership after these scandals, and this trend is global.

It’s About Kindness

So, a few months ago, out of nostalgia, longing and being community-less, I started to join some of the online zoom sessions with a local Episcopalian Church, that just happens to be right by my home. I met with their Reverend, Rev. Bruce Swinehart and he was very kind. I told them about all of my tears and woes, feelings of deep, core spiritual betrayal. This little tiny Episcopalian Church in our neighborhood raised one million dollars during our covid isolation toward building renovations. He also told me that the parish raises money to provide temporary housing to support immigrants and those seeking asylum who were stopped at the border by the Trump administration. He told me that their community is pretty tight knit, if someone in the community gets ill there’s a group of people that will check on them and bring casseroles to the family or when community members are in need. If there’s a couple struggling with their marriage or a teen in trouble, the priest meets with them for spiritual counseling. The clergy did not behave as holier than thou, inaccessible or untouchable, they want to help. What a difference between this community and my former “enlightened society!”

Here are some photos from the outdoor Sunday church, from Saint Mary Magdalene’s Episcopal Church where the bishop was there to offer communion. They sang a song about diversity and the voices of the LGBT population and talked about constant forgiveness, healing our broken hearts and world, and real love. I was moved. Everyone greeted and some hugged each other at the end. This warmth and benevolent aspiration is the magic of real human dharma.

Is my story the quintessential heroic journey where Dorothy goes on this elaborate, long, gold gilded path to encounter this fantastic giant faux authoritarian deity with magic, smoke and mirrors and then finds that everything that she needed she had already in her own backyard within her? Well no, that would be too simple and easy. I’m not willing to relinquish my investment of my 25 years in the belief system of my Buddhist tradition, one of my teachers who was always kind and some of the powerful meditation practices that I still perform today. My concern and aspiration simply pertains to community, ethics, viability and what it really means to create real love.

If you use your religion as a way to build yourself up and think that you’re superior, are arrogant, profit financially, use your tradition to sexually exploit and control others, or justify any intention or action of harm whatsoever, this is no less than the depth of human obscuration and what could be called- “evil.” Retribution and cruelty to others is not “protecting one’s faith,” hurting others, especially children is dead wrong and it doesn’t matter what you call yourself priest, monk, Catholic, Buddhist, there are universal, basic human ethical truisms.

It’s Not About The Outer Form

There’s a famous story of the Buddha’s tooth, where a woman reportedly attained enlightenment. She had so much devotion and faith that she had a relic of a dog’s tooth that she believed was from the original Buddha on her shrine and that inspired her to meditate fervently and become a compassionate person. It doesn’t matter if you are theist, non-theists, an atheist it doesn’t matter whatsoever, what outer form or methodology, practice, what doctrine you ascribed to- it comes to one thing and one thing only, are we kind? Do we treat each other with decency and respect? Do we care for each other when we are aging and ill? Do we use this life to learn and grow, be accountable for our mistakes and feel regret and vow to not harm? This is the essence of the spiritual path, the real Dharma, the real enlightened society, the real God or sacredness within. If you have a heart of kindness~ that is… everything.

9 replies
  1. Sarah Tarducci
    Sarah Tarducci says:

    We were very very touched in our hearts by this article about true and deep kindness To realize that your early spiritual experiences at Emmanuel Church nourished and helped to form your foundational ideas of what it means to practice kindness was humbling. We are fortunate to have had such a beautiful soul in our lives! Vinnie and Sarah

  2. suzanne1953
    suzanne1953 says:

    I, too, am still practicing and learning from my long-dead teacher, having joined Vajradhatu/Nalanda in the early 70s and left it in the early 2000s. I agree that our sangha did not really help each other on a personal basis; we competed fiercely for attention and power from the very start, and did not even help each other as we moved to Nova Scotia, unless one was sociopolitically aligned with powerful figures (e.g., Michael Chender moving his employees to Halifax). Many older students were abandoned there by each other, their voices stilled by each other, long before #metoo. But without sangha I would not be alive, I would not have a chance to wake up. We were, and still are, barbarians.

  3. Fred Coulson
    Fred Coulson says:

    The Abrahamic religions have at their core– whether they live up to it or not– a message of kindness, generosity, and justice. Tantra has no such message: the goal is to attain “enlightenment” in one lifetime, and you accomplish this through unquestioning service to an individual whom you are required, upon pain of eternal damnation, to see as completely perfect. Kindness, generosity, justice, and– especially– ethics, are completely irrelevant to this goal, as the stories of the tantric masters of yore amply demonstrate.

    I think your essay sums up the dilemma that many of us who have walked the tantric path and then abandoned it have struggled with, and you have actually provided the path out right here.

    “You will know them by their fruits.”

    On the one hand, you have a community of people who work quietly and diligently for the benefit of others. On the other, a community of people who dislike each other, who scoff at “ethics”, and who clamber over each other trying to gain access to the guru. Which group is a benefit to society? Which group devotes itself to activities you find socially relevant?

    Is enlightenment really the goal? How many of the latter group have attained their ideal of enlightenment? And even if they have, look at how it manifests! They are teeming with scandal, intrigue, sexual abuse, etc. If that’s enlightenment, honestly, who needs it?

    Thanks for this essay; your experience resonated quite a lot with me too, Dawn.

    • Dawn Boiani-Sandberg
      Dawn Boiani-Sandberg says:

      5 stars
      Thanks Fred, I read this somewhere, reddit or fb?- all we have is our authenticity. These Lamas aren’t listening anywhere- they are sadly just doubling down with power, command and control, unwilling to budge, clean up corruption, but rather say “its our fault for not freaking examining the Lamas first- off to hell with you!” One Rinpoche said to me in confidence “Tibetan Buddhism is REALLY REALLY corrupt” and I didn’t believe him really until today.

      I wrote a few basic ethical reflections here awhile back, but I guess if we have to tell men like word pablum to not frighten, threaten or assault people, we’ve already lost the battle. It’s sad though, some Lamas are pure, ethical and benevolent, right? These asses drag the good ones down, I feel sorry for them and for the viability of what was good in the tradition.


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