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Researching Abuse in Contexts of Buddhism

Event Reviews

A workshop report, by Johanna Stiebert

On Wednesday 25 January 2023 we hosted the second workshop of the Abuse in Religious Contexts Project (AIRC) – again, at the University of Leeds. The first workshop was primarily for postgraduates and early career researchers working on topics of religion and abuse, to create networks of solidarity and support. This second workshop homed in on research in progress: research with particular focus on abuse in Buddhist contexts. The facilitators were Ann Gleig (University of Central Florida) and Amy Langenberg (Eckerd College, FL).

How Did It Start?

Both Ann and Amy are researchers of Buddhism and complement each other in terms of expertise. Amy has training in classical Buddhism and Buddhist literary sources whereas Ann identifies as an ethnographer of contemporary Buddhism, primarily in US contexts. Both are part of The Religion and Sexual Abuse Project and they are co-writing a book under advance contract with Yale University Press on sexual violations in American convert Buddhism.

In October 2020, when the Centre for Religion and Public Life seminar was meeting online, Ann and Amy presented a fabulous paper on classical and contemporary Buddhist responses to sexual misconduct (see here). The presentation stayed with me, and I invited Ann and Amy to write a post for a project I co-direct, The Shiloh Project. The post, with the title Sexual Misconduct and Buddhism - Centering Survivors was published in November 2020 and has been viewed more than 8,000 times. The post provides a self-critical reflection on research method and on the importance of centring survivors from the very outset of any ethnographic study on sexual misconduct.

When I became involved in AIRC, I thought of Ann and Amy immediately. Their wealth of insights and contacts, and their generosity have been invaluable. Together, they have presented to the AIRC project team, they are writing chapters for a two-volume publication on abuse in world religions (under contract with Routledge), and now they have been to Leeds and shared some of the ideas that inform their research in progress.

Some Questions and Aims

A range of questions focused the wide-ranging discussions over the course of the day. These included:

  • How does our disciplinary home within the study of religion orient us towards abuse?
  • Does our work centre survivors? How and why (not)?
  • In what ways has our work on abuse changed how we research and conduct other work activities (e.g. conference organising)?
  • How is doctrine activated in incidences of and in responses to abuse?
  • What challenges have we faced in conducting research on abuse? What has been helpful and what is needed?
  • With reference to Amy and Ann’s research context: what do survivors report they have learned while and/or because of experiencing abuse? Which Buddhist texts or practices are experienced by survivors as meaningful or harmful? What do survivors say they need to heal? What are survivors contributing to Buddhism in the US (e.g. doctrinal, ritual, institutional and ethical innovations)?

Among our aims were:

  • to reflect self-critically on ourselves as researchers and on our research practices. Ann and Amy modelled this with remarkable willingness to make themselves vulnerable, not least by discussing work in progress and by reflecting out loud on the complex and problematic racialised, including Orientalist and colonialist, dimensions of their research field.
  • to find and facilitate pathways of trust that can enable and promote collaboration, intentional acts of empathy and protest, and methodological humility, integrity, and dexterity.
  • to discuss strategies and methodologies from a range of areas – e.g. cult discourse and critical trauma studies – for conducting research on abuse in religious settings.

Who Took Part?

Some of the workshop participants

The full-day event was attended by 20 persons in total. For our first workshop we put out an open call on Twitter and invited just over 20 of the first respondents who were postgraduates or early career researchers working in some area of religion and abuse and able to attend in person. But this time participants were invited based on their expertise in either Buddhism, abuse in religious contexts, minoritized religions, critical race theory, or a combination of these.

Amelia Wood attended both workshops. Amelia teaches on spiritual abuse in modern yoga and is researching abuse of power by modern gurus. Two postgraduates, also like Amelia at SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies), and also researching yoga, joined us, too: Jens Augspurger, an ethnographer researching spiritual tourism, and  Ruth Westoby, researching gender, embodiment and power. It is striking that research in religion and abuse, particularly ethnographic research, is led by emerging scholars like Ruth, Jens and Amelia. Amy and Ann made a point of raising this and of acknowledging how much their own work draws from emerging rather than senior and established scholars.

Caroline Starkey, sociologist of religion with expertise in contemporary Buddhism, attended, as did Sarah Harvey of AIRC and Amanda Lucia, Principal Investigator of the The Religion and Sexual Abuse Project.

Because the workshop dedicated focus to topics of racialised trauma, minoritised religions in western settings, and neo-colonialism, participants included scholars with research emphasis on Sikhi in western contexts: namely Jasjit Singh and Harjinder Kaur.

Among experts in new religious movements, participants included Philip Deslippe, Aled Thomas, and two representatives from INFORM, alongside Sarah Harvey also Suzanne Newcombe.

Sandrine Tunezerwe and Sarah-Jane Page joined from the University of Aston, and from the University of Chester Wendy Dossett (a Buddhism specialist) and Dawn Llewellyn. Like Tunezerwe, Page, Dossett and Llewellyn, Chris Greenough has a background in qualitative research and is interested in how identity shapes research.

Alongside Ann, Amy and myself, the other person in attendance was journalist Rosie Dawson.

Rosie Dawson and Ann Gleig


The research day consisted of a rich mix of presentations by Amy and Ann, small group discussions (some based on pre-circulated readings, e.g. the abovementioned Shiloh Project post), large group discussions, and informal conversations during short breaks, over lunch and dinner.

The day began with a grounding exercise drawn from the work of Resmaa Menakem. This ‘brought us into the room’ and acted as a reminder that our research is consciously embodied, with impact on bodies – our own and those of others. Next, we each introduced ourselves with some of us saying a word to capture what we were bringing into the room: friendship, curiosity, caution, excitement, commitment, communication all received mention.

After this – and with breaks incorporated – we had small group discussions first, on the role of doctrine in abuse and second, on cult discourse and what it brings to analysis of abuse in Buddhist contexts. This led on to whole group discussions and culminated in some focus on what we will take forward and how.


There were many take-aways from this full and inspiring day. For me one of the most prominent ones is how important it is, particularly with research on abuse, to collaborate. Ann and Amy’s collaboration and working friendship is wonderful to watch in practice. It was also notable how many others in the room had come together with someone or reported how important and fruitful they find it to work with either another academic, or a practitioner or, in Philip’s case, a journalist.

Another take-away was how sustaining it is to get into a room with others and think reflectively together about what we research and why. It was helpful to see how Ann and Amy have adjusted their research questions and methods over the course of working together.

The focus on Buddhism showed me (a non-expert) both how there are over-arching affinities between examples of spiritual abuse in a variety of religious contexts but also how important it is to have in-depth knowledge of discrete religious traditions. Our discussion on doctrine, and especially on how sacred texts are interpreted and applied, reminded me at times of observations from my own research field. It also became clear, however, that knowledge of Buddhist philology, history or practice illuminates significant distinctions.

We all, I think, came to feel more conscious and more mindful of how we conduct our research. Some of us learned more about Buddhism, Buddhism in the US, Buddhist doctrine, minority and minoritised religions, persistent colonialism, research practice, survivor-centred research, and more.

Next Steps

Please look out for AIRC project outputs, reports of upcoming workshops and… don’t miss our forthcoming Shiloh Podcast episode on this workshop. The Shiloh Podcast explores topics of rape culture and religion and is produced by Rosie Dawson. Earlier episodes are one-to-one interviews – including with AIRC’s Eve Parker (on Dalit theology and abuse) and with workshop participant Chris Greenough (on the Bible and sexual violence against men). Forthcoming episodes will follow a new format. The podcast is available on Spotify. Check out earlier episodes here.