mahayanadharma

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sex and the lama

Sex and the Lama

Is it acceptable for a lama to sleep with a student?

There have been tales recently of Tibetan teachers living in the West having sex with western female students. Some, it is claimed, entice the woman to bed with the promise that such elevated sex will bring great blessings to the willing co-operator. In response to this, it has to be asked where in the teachings of the Buddha does it say that having sex with a spiritual teacher is a practice on the path to enlightenment? I can think of no such teaching, and I would challenge anyone to produce one. However, there are those western students who defend such activities saying that while there is no specific teaching on this topic, there is the general injunction that the disciple should do whatever the guru asks of them. Also, they point out that it does not behove us to judge the actions of a lama, because they are the deeds of an enlightened being, and as such are far beyond the scope of mere mortals such as ourselves. Finally, some women justify their sexual cooperation with a lama by saying they have become “consorts” of the lama. There are then three justifications given for a lama having sex with a student:

1) We should do as the lama asks.

2) We are not capable of judging the lama’s motivation.

3) These women have become consorts of the lama, and so the relationship is perfectly acceptable.

Let us look at these three claims. First of all, there is no general teaching in Buddhism that the disciple should do whatever the lama commands. Any teacher of Buddhism should be examined well before accepting him as a guide on the path. This is stated many times in both Sutra and Tantra. Until that examination is complete, it goes without saying that you should not blindly follow his commands. The Sutra criteria for being qualified to take on the responsibility of leading students on the path are set out in Ornament for Mahayana Sutras by Maitreya. There are ten qualities that include being disciplined, having a pacified mind, possessing qualities greater than those of the student, love, wisdom and concern for the student, and so on. That work states that it is not essential for the mentor to possess all ten qualities, because it is difficult to find someone endowed with all of them. However, they should have as many as possible. It seems highly unlikely that a teacher whose five senses are disciplined, and who has the student’s welfare at heart would seek to take sexual advantage of a female student. Therefore, if a teacher does make approaches to a student, it is quite likely that he is under the sway of worldly desire, and so in such cases the student does not have to accede to these desires simply because of the instruction, “Do whatever the lama commands.”

There is an instruction specifically in tantra to do as the lama commands. But what does this mean? A vajra or tantric master is sought by those whose minds are well trained in the preliminary paths of Sutra. Anyone who jumps straight into tantric practice with a worldly mind will reap only worldly results, and many of them may not be that palatable. The path of the vajra vehicle demands that the mind uses its ability to transform the perception of the ordinary into the divine. The guru who gives initiation and who guides a tantric practitioner cannot be viewed as an ordinary person. Only Vajradhara can confer and transmit the phenomena of initiation to the student. After the initiation, only Vajradhara can impart the necessary core teachings on the generation and completion stages. Tantra simply does not work on the ordinary level or everyday perception, and every instruction from the guru is an instruction from Vajradhara. The tantric practitioner has committed himself or herself through various profound pledges to life on the tantric path, and following the lama’s commands is part of that pledge. It is said, for example, that if the lama asks you to eat his own shit, you should do it without hesitation. This is the ideal. This is the practice for someone who, having spent many years training their mind, is now ripe for tantra. And it is in this advanced environment that one must do as the lama commands without question. However, this is not the case for many of us who attend initiations without being ready for them, or just for the “blessings.” Therefore, if a western student has not reached such an advanced level of tantric practice, then they are within their rights to question the commands of the lama, especially those that appear particularly worldly.

One of the reasons why students take on the belief that they must do whatever the lama asks of them is that this instruction is often broadcast in teachings right from the very beginning. This leads the student to believe that it is applicable from the beginning of practicing the path, when, as described above, clearly it is not. These days more and more Western students come across lamas at Dharma Centres in the West. Often they are attracted by the promise that Tibetan Buddhism brings, and they can easily rush in and embrace the teachings more in hope than in a definite knowledge of what benefits they will bring. Their own enthusiasm carries them unthinkingly into the practice of guru devotion. This is where it can start to go wrong. Having embraced too much without enough introspection and analysis, they are faced with demands from the guru and feel that they cannot back down now, for to do so would constitute breaking samaya, or bond, with the guru. This is a sad situation, and not at all what the profound teachings on guru devotion were designed to bring about.

The second statement that is often thrown out to support a lama doing as he pleases is that he is an enlightened being and the rationale for his actions, however bizarre and unseemly they may appear, is not within the scope of our perception. Therefore, we should maintain a “pure view” of his conduct, and not judge or condemn him as we would an ordinary being. For the individual this can be dealt with as above, by assessing their own level of practice and their relationship with that lama. However, this rationale is often used by the members of a Dharma community in the West as a way of responding to allegations of irregular behaviour in their lama. It is true that we do not have the ability to judge a lama’s actions, but Dharma communities in the West carry the responsibility of presenting the teachings of the Buddha in a modern western environment. If the Dharma is to find its place in the western world, it should, as far as possible, conform to the conventions of the society it finds itself in. It is simply unacceptable in the world these days for those in positions of power and influence to have sexual relations with those who look up to them, or who defer and rely upon them. No doctor or teacher would last five minutes in his job if he was discovered having sex with his patients or pupils. Why should it be any different for a lama in a position of great influence over the minds of others? Therefore, members of a Dharma community have a responsibility to provide a public response to any allegations of sexual abuse in their community. To turn a blind eye is to evade that responsibility, and to counter allegations with talk of maintaining a pure view of his conduct is essentially to do nothing. This is not the same as condemning the lama. If he is seen to be breaching the codes embedded in that society, he should be approached and the issue addressed.

It is necessary to conform to the sensible prevailing attitudes that rule the society we live in. It is true that there are teachings that say we should not judge or condemn the misdeeds of others because they may be bodhisattvas using skilful means to benefit others. But this does not mean that, for example, there should be no criminal justice system, that offenders should not be arrested and tried, or that there should not be reprimand and censure. In the eyes of the world there is right and wrong; professionally, morally and legally. If a lama sleeps with a student it is wrong on that basis, and should be dealt with on that basis. The great Indian master Atiśa, when he was disciplinarian at his monastery, saw a breach of the rules in a monk. He had no choice but to expel that monk, even though in the back of his mind he felt it was not right. Sure enough, the monk turned out to be a great yogi with supernatural powers.  However, he followed the norms of the monastic society he lived in. Dharma Centre managers have no choice but to do likewise. It may be that the conduct of the lama has some hidden nature we are not privy to, but that is not the level on which the world operates.

The third reason that is given for women consensually sleeping with lamas is that they have become the lama’s consort. Well, taking the meaning of “consort” to be that as described in the tantras, and not just “wife” or “mistress,” then these women should know that they must possess certain qualities and characteristics that are either innate or have been developed. Wishing and hoping that they will be imbued with blessings is not one of these qualities.

In short, the transmission of Buddhism in the West is still in its infancy. Like a fragile shoot in the ground, it needs care and protection. The damage that would be inflicted on its growth if our rapacious media got hold of these salacious stories does not bear thinking about. Within the confines of the Dharma community too it is our responsibility to ensure that the teachings of the Buddha are not sullied by misunderstanding, and that we do not stray from their independently minded and altruistic message, and sink into a spiritual world ruled by personality cult alone.

Gavin Kilty

Kathmandu 2012

12 responses to “sex and the lama

  1. Drolma June 25, 2012 at 12:14 pm

    Gavin, that is a wonderful overview of this alarming situation within our western dharma centers. I think that if anything positive is to be made of all this trouble it is that westerners are being forced to dig deep and explore the dharma in new, strong, meaningful ways. Your metaphor of the shoot needing protection is very succinct, I believe. Unfortunately, there is a culture of students believing too strongly in their own expertise in the west and so they believe that there is a large, tough, protective tree when there is really only a tender sprout.

    When I read your comment, “These days more and more Western students come across lamas at Dharma Centres in the West. Often they are attracted by the promise that Tibetan Buddhism brings, and they can easily rush in and embrace the teachings more in hope than in a definite knowledge of what benefits they will bring. Their own enthusiasm carries them unthinkingly into the practice of guru devotion. This is where it can start to go wrong. Having embraced too much without enough introspection and analysis, they are faced with demands from the guru and feel that they cannot back down now, for to do so would constitute breaking samaya, or bond, with the guru. This is a sad situation, and not at all what the profound teachings on guru devotion were designed to bring about.”
    I thought about how we must remind ourselves that most of us in the west come from a Judo-Christian tradition, a faith-based tradition. I think the “born-again” habit is very strong in many of us and we are not aware of this. We want to become Buddhist overnight and then propagate it. Instead, the Buddha himself advises us to investigate and thoroughly examine the teachings and the teacher first– teachers like HH Dalai Lama tell us to spend years and years doing this. Perhaps these troubles can at least serve the purpose of bringing that instruction home to us forcefully!

    I also think that there is a chance we might lose our good lamas in the west if we are not careful to do the work that is urgently in front of us to do, if we are too reactionary and don’t do as you have just done and take charge with total respect for the dharma. So thank you for your post!

  2. DK June 25, 2012 at 7:00 pm

    When I first became involved with Tibetan Buddhism as a practitioner, the injunction to examine your lama for twelve years before deciding seemed like an eternity, and I did not really think to take the advice literally. From the perspective of twenty years on, it now seems eminently reasonable!

    The problem is that, often for newcomers, everything seems to be predicated on finding a teacher, and so it is hard to see how could one could even get started without one. In the Geluk lamrim, it is the foundation of the path. At least when I was starting out, I don’t recall any voices explaining that there are flavors of guru devotion–sutra and tantra. I was surrounded by true believers. Fortunately those teachers, as far as I know, were not involved in this kind of shenanigans.

  3. Juan Manuel Cincunegui June 29, 2012 at 3:39 pm

    Dear Gavin,
    I congratulate your initiative. I met the Mahayana teachings in the early ’90. I was a monk and I lived personally the misunderstandigs you are talking about. For the last 10 years, I tried to understand the nature of this misunderstandings. I hope I could contribute with my experience. First, we need to acknowledge where it is the knot of this misunderstanding. I think, that the clue is on the nature of our experience as moderns, in contradistinction to premodern visions of reality. So, we need to deal with history and what history made of all of us. But also, we need to be clear we are talking from a very limited perspective, that tend to understand itself as universal. I am Latinamerican. From my experience, I can say that the transmision of Buddhadharma in countries like my own, have to be carefully re-thought. We received Buddhist teachings, mainly, by the mediation of “central countries”. Our interpretation of those teachings are done with the tools and ideological vias of those who belong to those cultures, in many ways so different from our own. So, we should be carefull when we talk about western culture and modernity. Because we are not all the same, and many interpretations we are getting are obviously tremendously violent for us.We are prey of our ethnocentricity (another manner of the egocentrism). Religious traditions do have a political dimension. We should be aware of this dimension. The closeness of techno-capitalism and buddhism is a threat to the Mahayana in his true spirit. Many buddhist voices in the west do not understand what this means for the excluded of the world. We don’t need another version of caritative enterprise. Many of us feel buddhism in this postmodern version as a threat to our fights for justice and true recognition. So, we need to think buddhist transmission, not only by acknowledging the individual questions so dear to western culture. Also we need to think those collective causes that the sad history of tibetan people with communist China tend to mute. Right now we have a western buddhism quite liberal in social matters like individual rights recognitions and so on, but quasi-neoconservative in politics in the true sense of the word. The criticism we are receiving from the leftist are not banal chatter. There is a point there we need to acknowledge and work on it. As any “church” we will have a conservative and a liberationist versions of it. We should acknowledge there is not a “neutral” Sangha around, and will never be. We should acknowledge all dimensions of our conventional truth. Otherwise Buddhism will be intolerable for the inmense majority of the oppressed. If Mahayana will make a difference we should think karma and justice together. And also, we need to think the Buddhadharma, globalization and techno-capitalism altogether.
    Thank you.

  4. subincontinentia June 30, 2012 at 3:15 am

    A very clear and genteel overview of a very important topic. I would not have been so kind :)

  5. Ilona June 30, 2012 at 3:23 pm

    Thanks Gavin, for your thoughtful approach to this complex topic. Having followed the many recent discussions around this issue, I second the comment above, yours is a ‘genteel overview’.
    Buddhism in this age- Modern Buddhism, if you will – as defined by Donald S. Lopez stresses: equality over hierarchy, universal over local and individual above community. Buddhist culture developed differently over time in any of the varied traditions, yet the basic and foundational Buddhist tenets are the same. Keeping that in mind, the views and practices that lead to harm occur when complex teachings are simplified to suit a culture, an era and individual egos. When boundaries become fuzzy and are stretched through mythologizing and commodification the slippery slope of dilution and delusion find an easy foot hold.
    To staff this trend I second your assertion.
    “If the Dharma is to find its place in the western world, it should, as far as possible, conform to the conventions of the society it finds itself in. It is simply unacceptable in the world these days for those in positions of power and influence to have sexual relations with those who look up to them, or who defer and rely upon them. No doctor or teacher would last five minutes in his job if he was discovered having sex with his patients or pupils.”

  6. Pingback: Sogyal Rinpoche and the Silence of the Tibetan Buddhist Community and the Dalai Lama « Tibetan Buddhism :: Struggling With Difficult Issues

  7. jigje July 11, 2012 at 3:50 pm

    Thank you, Gavin, for the clarity and wisdom of your response to this issue that so many seem thoroughly confused about, even those who have been long-term practitioners. I have personally known those who, as bright and knowledgeable as they clearly are about the Dharma and the teachings, when it comes to the sexual misconduct of a teacher (usually their own teacher or a teacher they used to study with), will make every excuse under the sun to justify it, or at least minimize it. Perhaps a good example of cognitive dissonance?

    It isn’t enough to privately or personally acknowledge the sexual misconduct of a teacher; there should be an effort to make such behavior public knowledge to all within the community. How else to protect those who have yet to be exploited? Or force a teacher to stop such damaging behavior?

  8. Pingback: Reform and His Holiness the Dalai Lama « Tibetan Buddhism :: Struggling With Difficult Issues

  9. Sean Jones July 17, 2012 at 12:39 pm

    Well done Gavin for broaching this prickly subject with such a well balanced analysis. I have come across many specious arguments trying to justify the unjustifiable, sexual malpractices by so-called religious teachers taking advantage of their students to satisfy their voracious and misplaced sexual appetites. However when we survey all the Lamas we have experience of over time it is not difficult to see through these so-called justifications. Errant lamas attract a certain kind of people, those with integrity attract a different kind of student. It is plain for allwith eyes to see and those who look the other way and/or try to cover up and explain these sordid habits away are doing no favours to themselves. It’s a no-brainer, but so many people turn a blind eye and thus encourage it and become co-respondents to this disgraceful behaviour. So well done again, Gavin, for putting your head over the parapet and tackling the issue in such a reasoned manner. We have to put the church back in the middle of the village, as they say in French, and you’ve done a good job.

  10. Molly July 18, 2012 at 11:42 am

    Nicely written…. my sentiments too…

  11. Karina December 1, 2012 at 4:33 pm

    Discussion of this thorny issue and analysis of the erroneous beliefs underpinning it is long overdue, and quite refreshing. However, presenting Western women as accomplices in monks’ and Rinpoche’s misconduct obscures the matter of sexual abuse and coercion that countless women have suffered. While there undoubtedly are willing “consorts”, there are also many women who have been coerced into sex or outright assaulted, as well as droves of women who have been forced to abandon their sangha when their lama tried to get too cozy with them, to go in search of a place of worship and study that is harassment-free. This places an unfair burden on women practitioners and aspiring students, which amounts to a form of discrimination against women. All members of the sangha should be alert to potential abuses and take steps to ensure that the study environment allows everyone to participate on an equal footing. Ethics, integrity and the Buddha’s principle of virtue should be practiced by teachers and students alike, no exemptions.

  12. Pingback: sex and the lama « comoane

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