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

19 thoughts on “sex and the lama

  1. 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. 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. 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. 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.”

  5. 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?

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

    • First, thank you Gavin! Now, yes, Karina I do agree with you. I have known a lot of women who have become involved with “Lamas”. Especially, western women here in Nepal. Most of the women have exceptional Root Lamas and here they are studying language. The scene here makes it very difficult for newcomers to know who all of these “Lamas” are and some are swayed by them. Many are seeking practice instructions, divination, pujas for family members, etc. and they make connections in these ways. Since, this is not involving a Dharma center, it is often overlooked as “that woman’s problem”. Then all of the talk is about “her” mistake.
      In Gavin’s example of excuses, the one that may be missing, is the difficulty of women to receive instructions on ritual. Because of the sexism of the Tibetan and Nepali culture, even in the States women are often told that it is not necessary for them to learn instruments or even to do retreats, by the Lama-in-residence. So, now they are in a country where ritual is a way of life. But, even though it is starting to become a way of life for some women, ritual practice is still seen as a “man’s job” here in Nepal.
      One story I heard was a student at a school here that became involved with a “tulku” for many years. She really believed, and had no reason to believe otherwise, that she was his “girlfriend” and that he was honest. All his attendants and friends made her feel this also. She learned many things from him and expressed her gratitude for this, but when the truth of his deceit came to light, she was devastated! Of course, women can meet such men in their own countries, but there is something extremely damaging when a relationship that involves Dharma goes wrong! This one woman did not make any excuses! She “loved” this man and believed him. Most of this “belief” in him came from an underlying knowledge that he was a Dharma master, a Tulku, a Rinpoche. She honestly did not think he would lie, cheat, steal or kill!
      Anyway, this is just one story. Some others I have heard from around the World just reinforce what Thinley Norbu Rinpoche said in A Cascading Waterfall of Nectar”.”If you can not find a Lama without a lot of faults, be like the Swan that can separate milk from water. Take what you need and leave the rest.” I don’t have the quote in front of me, but close, I hope.
      Blaming women in these situations is not going to help the situation. Here in Nepal, the culture does not see “sleeping around” as a problem. Sex is looked at very differently than in the West. Many of the Lamas are coming from villages that hold tight to Tibetan tradition and culture. There overall view of sexual misconduct is not the same as in the West. Just as children marry sometimes at 14, men here do not see anything wrong with having sex with a girl in her teens. They see it as a “gift” or even a way of achieving a long life. Also, many have more than one wife. Sometimes because a wife has left and they have young children to care for, but if that wife returns it is no problem. Some have families in different villages and they just go and visit each when they can. Part of the need to get sponsors. In some places they have “night hunting”. They go to a woman’s house in the middle of the night, have sex and go on. In their homes, it is not talked about. They are not open about their sexual adventures, both men and women, but it is part of their culture. When they come to the West, they do not change “their” culture. NEVER! This is were it is important for women in Dharma centers to know that they truly do not care about the western norms, ethics or laws. No matter how many times they are told! And above all, in a lot of cases, Tibetan and Nepali Lamas, do not think that Westerns are Buddhist. In the West they will not say this, but if you stay in Nepal a bit, you will here it. So, if they do not think we are Buddhist, how can we be a spiritual consort? Of course, there are exceptions, but it is worth keeping this in mind.
      It is far better to support your Western sangha members and develop strong connections with them. The Tibetans that are part of your sangha that are accepting of Western culture while adapting to Western culture will become obvious. But, for relationships, tread lightly. Many of my women friends have long scars from these relationships. It would be great to start seeing more Western Lamas being put in the position of Lama-in-residence in Western Centers and the Western Monastics given their rightful place in the centers. We, as westerners, perpetuate the stereotype of Tibetans being “real” Lamas, Monks and Nuns, by not supporting them, but supporting all things Tibetan. There is room for both! We can not expect that Dharma will spread fully to the West in all its forms if the Western Sangha is not supported. Be aware of who is being sent to the West to lead your Sanghas! Are they really monks in good standing? I attended a retreat where most of the monks had disrobed, but were in robes and teaching. If you support Western monks and nuns in good standing, most likely you will know them and their qualities. Food for thought!

  8. IME the 3rd is most common, but more often in a context of Western women wanting to become special and powerful by having—or having had—sex with the lama. I am very familiar of two instances of American women now lording it over their “sanghas” due to their having been in relationships with their long dead teacher

  9. For a good example of a Tibetan Buddhist text claiming that sex with a spiritual leader can lead to enlightenment, please see this excerpt from the writings of Yeshe Tsirgyal:
    The author makes some good points but I dislike the implication that women are making this up, or that “tales’ of Tibetan lamas having sexual relationships with women to whom they promise enlightenment take place only in the West. I also disagree with the implication that we should keep the media at bay. How else will the public learn the risks of converting to Buddhism?

  10. It is not only in the western countries this is prevalent. This belief and practice that, “we should do as the lama asks, we are not capable of judging the lama’s motivation and these women have become consorts of the lama and so the relationship is perfectly acceptable”, is there everywhere and it is considered the greatest privilege for the women to get laid by lamas. They think by it woman attain divine forms of angels and thus they fall in line. And basically the high lamas are having great time in the process. The picture here is that a high, divine, holy lama is in need of a carnal earthly pleasure to satisfy his lusts. And they are very rich with donations holding millions of properties the world over. Are they really what they claim to be or taken to be or they are just like you and me with earthly desires. The sexual pleasure is the highest form of pleasure that a man can experience or can think of in this World. Thus the idea of paradise for Muslims is spending eternity in paradise with 72 virgins and perpetual virility. It is basically a carnal desire or idea of a natural man and there is nothing godliness here. The lamas and their woman followers are basically committing adulteries which is a great sin in the sight of God. In comparison to this what a contrast the life of Jesus Christ is. He says, “Thou shalt know them by their fruits” whether they are true of false. Jesus never had the requirement of these carnal earthly wants/desires. He had different nature, altogether lovely, apart from the things of this world and nature of the natural sinful persons. He was sinless, did not have sinful nature like you and me or the lamas or Imams, and holy without lusts and above this desires of the carnal worldly people. As such He had no requirement of sexual intercourse or to possesses great wealth or to rule the world. He came to save and not to destroy or enslave people in sexual slavery or likewise. He went about doing good, healing people of every kind of diseases, feeding hungry people, teaching the knowledge of God and giving them salvation. At the last He died on the cross bearing the sins of the people and rose up the 3rd day, now seated in the right hand of God in majesty. He was truly the Son of God, the God Himself and therefore had all the powers, as such He could accomplish only good. It is apparent to a sane mind as to who is false and who is true.

  11. The problem is, 95% of what western people refer to as ‘Buddhist Masters’ who have set up Dharma centres all over are total fake- who just know how to say something on Buddhism but totally lack the realization. They are the traders of Buddhism for money and possibly sex and this destructive system is somehow easily accepted in the western societies. The fault also lies with the people (people in the west) because western people are always after so called Buddhist Masters who possess name and fame, who are seated on a high decorated throne, who can speak eloquently and give reasons which they themselves have not experienced at all- straight away being poured what is in the book mixed up with the wrong promises. The realized ones who just survive on simple basic things yet contented and continuously keep working for the benefit of sentient beings are completely ignored. Also Knowing that there are highly realized female masters, people still go for such traders (as I have described above) who have now done nothing good but robbed off the money including your body and poisoned the mind of thousands. Let me tell you people… Buddhism has nothing to do do with it. It is your wrong choice mixed up with your ego and attachments that has brought you situations like this. For the fortunate ones, it will be easier to practice Buddhism but I promise you that the results will not be easily achievable as promised by these traders.

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