Buddhism has a sexual ethics problem. In 2018, the Dalai Lama admitted as much when he said on Dutch public TV that he had been told of sexual violations occurring in Tibetan Buddhist communities as long ago as the early 1990s. His admission was the result of a petition by a group of abuse survivors in the Netherlands. Their efforts are part of a larger trend of students speaking out publicly about their experiences. While international Buddhist groups are beginning to respond seriously to the problem of sexual abuse, the norm for many in positions of power remains closer to the Dalai Lama’s original response 25 years ago, which was to do very little. Indeed, some Buddhist teachers, including Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and Lama Zopa, have defended colleagues accused of multiple counts of sexual abuse, drawing on Buddhist doctrine to do so.
The mixed record of Buddhist teachers responding to abuse raises some questions. Where should our sexual ethics be coming from as Buddhists, if not from Buddhism and Buddhist teachers? Do the Buddha’s teachings include adequate ethics to answer cases of sexual abuse? Practitioners and groups hoping to address the issue of sexual violation are looking at how other Buddhist and non-Buddhist communities are responding. They are also exploring what classical Buddhist ethics have to say about sex and consent. This, however, is not as straightforward as it sounds.
The Buddha did not, for instance, teach about sexual consent, at least not as we understand the concept. While sex without affirmative consent is the definition of assault on college campuses today, the early Buddhist suttas (discourses) of the Pali canon did not define ethical sex between adults in those terms. Of course, such concepts would be anachronistic, but the issue runs deeper than that. The ordinary expression of sexual desire is not considered compatible with the higher goals of the Buddhist path. Lust and sensual enjoyment lead to craving, disrupt concentration, and result in many unwholesome actions. According to the Buddhism found in the earliest scriptures and developed in the commentaries and philosophic texts of the early tradition, the most realistic path to awakening or freedom from suffering is the celibate life of a monk or nun. (Certain threads of thought in Mahayana Buddhism allow for spiritually advanced beings to combine sex with the pursuit of enlightenment, or even use sex as a tool to achieve enlightenment, but few are thought to be capable of such feats.) The high value placed on celibacy in the early tradition means that discussions about adults incorporating sexuality into their lives in a responsible, loving, and positive manner is relatively undeveloped.
While a modern understanding of consent is largely absent from the suttas, one can find in canonical texts—in particular, the Vinaya or monastic discipline—another notion of consent, one based more on inner affective states than verbal permission. As a clear standard for ethical sex, this Buddhist consent falls short of the affirmative consent upheld by many institutions today, but it also challenges our contemporary approach to sexual ethics in healthy ways. Indeed, each idea of consent reveals the other’s strengths and shortcomings.
One can find in canonical texts a notion of consent based more on inner affective states than verbal permission.
To their credit, many contemporary Buddhists have taken steps to improve the state of sexual ethics in the sangha. In doing so, they have drawn from various streams of the tradition to address the issue of abuse in thoughtful and helpful ways. Senior Insight teacher Jack Kornfield has been a central figure in the development of ethical guidelines for the Insight community. At Kornfield’s Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California, he established a Teacher Code of Ethics that centers Buddhism’s third lay precept of non-harm as a guiding principle for ethical behavior in the realm of sexuality. The Spirit Rock guidelines state, “A sexual relationship is never appropriate between teachers and students,” and adopts a zero-tolerance policy for hookups or flirtation between teachers and students during retreats.
Kornfield is not the first to draw this connection to the third precept. Early formulations of the precept do attempt to guide ordinary Buddhists away from committing sexual misdeeds. But they fail to robustly address abuse or sexual harm. Of course, the precept developed in the context of ancient South Asian cultures which propagated patriarchal ideas. So it should come as no surprise that gender hierarchy is assumed in Buddhist texts, which define violations of the third precept largely in terms of the sexual rights and duties of men with respect to one another. A man shouldn’t sleep with another man’s wife or daughter—not because it is so wrong to cheat on his own wife, and not because sex for pleasure or outside of marriage is deemed immoral, but because of the harm to the other man and his sexual and/or ownership rights. The experience of the women is not discussed in any sustained manner in early formulations of the third precept.
Beyond the third precept, Buddhist sexual ethics is overwhelmingly focused on the cherished monastic value of celibacy. The Vinaya includes detailed descriptions of various sexual acts, ranking them according to how serious a transgression they represent. There, sexual misconduct is not defined in terms of harm or inappropriate boundary crossing. The trauma that sexual violence inflicts on victims was apparently of little concern for the monastic authors. (One part of the Vinaya recounts the story of a monk who abuses a child and is found not guilty of the most serious category of sexual transgression because the abuse did not involve the necessary type of sexual contact, namely, penetration of an intact orifice by the penis.) What was of concern was whether or not monastics were indulging in sexual behaviors and thoughts. The main purpose of the parts of the Vinaya that address acts of rape was to establish what counts as an actionable sexual transgression, and guilt is based on a subjective attitude of consent.
According to the Vinaya, nuns and monks who are sexually forced may be regarded as transgressing the law of celibacy if their bodies and minds accepted, in some sense, the sexual contact. Such thinking resembles some socially conservative interpretations of rape, like that of the former Republican congressman from Missouri, Todd Aken, who proclaimed in 2012, “If it’s legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.”
On the face of it, the patriarchal, monastic, and enlightenment-focused nature of early Buddhism does not seem too helpful in generating a robust sexual ethic suitable for our time. The Buddha did not teach consent— at least not in the contemporary sense—but the Buddhist monastic code can help us moderns understand better ways for responding to sexual harm. While acknowledging that these traditions come from a specific historical context, we can interpret or adapt some of the Vinaya’s ideas to complicate our notions about consensual sexual interactions. In particular, Vinaya notions of consent serve as a useful counterweight to formulations of affirmative consent—those that place too much emphasis on verbal permission.
Early Buddhism covets sexual purity as a high ethical value and prerequisite for the path to awakening, but it is not prudish or naïve about human sexuality. This is clear when one takes a closer look at Vinaya descriptions of sexual transgressions. These descriptions enumerate a wide variety of sexual behaviors and probe the complexities of sexual response. The Vinaya tradition also frankly acknowledges the many ways in which those of higher religious status may use their positions of power to exploit those of lower status as part of its elaborate case law.
Perhaps the most valuable insight to be gleaned from the Vinaya is tied to its most problematic passages. In holding monastics responsible for their sexual feelings even during a rape, it assumes consent to be something psycho-emotional, spontaneously arising, and below the level of conscious decision making. In the Vinaya, a consenting attitude arises in a person in the course of a sexual encounter and manifests as pleasure combined with a sense of owning or giving into the experience. Moreover, consent may occur at any time during the encounter: at the beginning, the middle or the end.
The Vinaya authors seem to get at the subjective aspects of consent in a way that may prove helpful to survivors who have experienced saying yes but feeling no, feeling yes but then suddenly feeling no, or some other combination of yes and no. An acknowledgment of consent as something dynamic, affective, and rooted in the body is missing from the contemporary discussion of affirmative consent as a verbal act of permission. Feminists have interrogated the very real ways in which our current emphasis on affirmative verbal consent as the measure of ethical sex silences survivors stuck in the grey areas of sexual violation. For instance, victims sometimes give verbal consent or tacitly give in to sexual contact because they are in an unequal power relationship with their abuser, or because they fear something worse will happen if they don’t.
This question of verbal consent arose when allegations of sexual misconduct, sexual violation, and rape were brought against meditation teacher and founder of Against the Stream, Noah Levine. Levine has denied the claims, arguing that criminal charges of rape against him—which were later dropped—stemmed from a communication breakdown, not from a fundamental problem with his sexual behaviors. Jack Kornfield, Levine’s former teacher, later revoked his authority to teach in the Insight Meditation lineage. Levine has continued to teach meditation. In fact, he has since spoken often on the third precept, insisting on several occasions, wrongly according to this analysis, that the Buddha taught affirmative consent.
Though developed in a very different context and to a very different purpose, Vinaya articulations of consent could inspire a richer language for articulating the experiences of individuals who feel pressured to verbally consent to sex while feeling violated by it, or whose level of compliance changes over time. At first, the Vinaya conflation of consent and giving into desire does not seem to serve progressive feminist concerns about sexual violation, but it may help us to better understand and assess the ethics of some situations. For instance, by the Buddhist understanding of consent, someone that verbally consents but does not psychologically accept the encounter, intend for it to happen, or fully embrace their physical response, cannot be counted as a consenting sexual agent.
When someone takes advantage of a power dynamic to coerce someone into sex, loving or benevolent background thoughts do not lessen their culpability.
Early Buddhist accounts of sexual ethics also further introduce the closely related notion of intention (often cetana in the early texts), which is found in the Vinaya but is more fully articulated in the Abhidhamma (systematic philosophical) texts of the canon. In this Buddhist context, intention is not really the feeling states or psychological attitudes that motivate an act. It is simply the thought or mental purpose that directs the action. One can have background thoughts or feelings that are kind or dharmic, but still intend an unskillful action and, therefore, still be accountable for that action.
In applying this understanding of intention to contemporary abuse situations, we can say that when someone takes advantage of a power dynamic to coerce someone into sex, loving or benevolent background thoughts do not lessen their culpability. Rebecca Jamieson’s encounter with the ex-Shambhala teacher, Lodro Rinzler, a frank account of which was published in the online magazine, Entropy, is an example of such a situation. According to Jamieson, a devoted Shambhala student, she sexually pleasured Rinzler as a means of safely ending an unwanted intimate encounter. Despite some level of compliance, Jamieson describes her inner state as one of refusal and disassociation throughout the interaction. Her ultimate experience of the encounter was trauma. Rinzler has publicly denied being involved in any inappropriate sexual interaction.
When making ethical assessments, most English-speaking Buddhists simply rely on the English sense of the word intention, which emphasizes the feelings and thoughts motivating an action. For instance, after it was revealed in 1989 that the former Shambhala Vajra Regent Ösel Tendzin (Thomas Rich) knowingly infected a student with HIV, a student defended him, saying, “The Regent never intended to hurt anybody, and my religion has taught me to never, ever reject anybody who does not intend harm.” The Abhidhamma authors would disagree with such an analysis. Ösel Tendzin may not have been an evil-minded person, but he certainly intended to have sex with a student while infected with HIV. He can be held responsible for that intention.
Of course, we should not equate rape or the egregious carelessness of Ösel Tendzin with less violent forms of sexual violation. At the same time, the similarities in the dynamics involved in a range of sexual boundary violations teach us something. Vinaya articulations of consent help us to understand the experiences of individuals such as Rebecca Jamieson, caught, as she describes it, in a “wasteland between yes and no.” And early Buddhist accounts of sexual ethics would hold Rinzler accountable for the intention to have sex with an inappropriate person that had expressed unwillingness. According to this view, any benevolent background thoughts Rinzler may have had while allegedly pushing Jamieson to have sex are not relevant for assessing his behavior.
Many Buddhists are working together to develop a more complete Buddhist sexual ethics. For instance, the Delhi-based International Buddhist Convention, a Buddhist umbrella organization, has formed a working group on sexual abuse that includes prominent Buddhist teachers such as Mingyur Rinpoche, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, and Ayya Tathaloka.
In a 2017 essay published in Lion’s Roar, Tibetan Buddhist teacher Mingyur Rinpoche addresses the issue of Buddhist sexual ethics as a response to an open letter written by eight former students of Sogyal Lakar (founder of the Rigpa network of dharma centers) accusing him of abuse. He puts limits on what can be viewed as ethically acceptable behavior for a teacher, particularly in situations in which the Vajrayana principles of samaya and pure perception are operating. He does this by affirming that Vajrayana practice must be grounded in the Buddhist ethical principles of nonviolence and altruism and governed by wisdom. He still allows that where the bond between teacher and student is very mature, unusual teaching methods may be beneficial. “The results of genuine ‘crazy wisdom’ are always positive and visible,” Mingyur Rinpoche asserts. “When a teacher uses an extreme approach that is rooted in compassion, the result is spiritual growth, not trauma.”
Dr. Nida Chenangtsang, a Vajrayana teacher and Tibetan medical doctor, also stays within Buddhist frameworks in his more controversial response to abuse. Nida’s 2018 English-language book, Karmamudra: The Yoga of Bliss, offers a corrective to the potential for sexual harm within Vajrayana communities. In his introduction, Nida explains his view that the secrecy and mystique surrounding sexual yogas (karmamudra), originally meant to minimize risk to unqualified people, at this point only lead to harm. This is because “without proper education and understanding about these practices, wrong views become rampant, especially in the age of the internet and social media where all kinds of information spread like wildfire. My book is really intended to provide clarification and increase transparency about karmamudra practice which I think is timely given the recent exposure of so many sexual scandals.” Here, Nida refers to the fact that Vajrayana teachers have sometimes manipulated students into having sex by inviting them to practice karmamudra. Dr. Nida proceeds to provide detailed instructions for practicing karmamudra techniques within the context of the ordinary sexual relationships practitioners already have in their lives. His intention is to undercut opportunities for teacher abuse by demystifying sexual yoga.
Calling in Buddhist principles like non-harm, wisdom, and compassion for guiding principles, as Mingyur Rinpoche does, seems benign. The way these principles are invoked is often too vague to really be helpful, however, and may actually create confusion when, for instance, victims of abuse are told that their teachers are showing them special kindness by initiating an intimacy. Similarly, harm and non-harm can be difficult to distinguish when a student experiences pressure from a teacher.
Nida’s demystification of karmamudra, as well as Kornfield’s practical guidelines for teacher/student romance, is better keyed to the realities of sexual abuse. They see the potential limitations and potential wisdom of the traditional Buddhist teachings when it comes to sexual ethics.
Wisdom and compassion are wonderful as broad ideals, but they are too easily drafted into empty virtue signaling. Sexual abuse relies on complex dynamics that are both interpersonal and institutional. Combatting it demands power-aware, trauma-informed, psychologically pragmatic responses. No, the Buddha didn’t teach consent, at least not in the contemporary sense, but Vinaya lawyers have something to offer on the subject.
The Vinaya literature is obscure; most American Buddhists know it only as a set of rules for monks. Technically, the Vinaya is for monastic eyes only, a restriction that protects monastic communities from lay criticism. If carefully framed so as to acknowledge and neutralize the tradition’s baked-in androcentrism and misogyny, Buddhist legal thought might support appropriate Buddhist responses to sexual abuse. In particular, Vinaya notions of consent are a useful counterweight to contemporary formulations of affirmative consent that place too much emphasis on verbal permission. Early Buddhist ethics is not equal to the task of confronting sexual violation on its own—something that is apparent from the inadequate responses of traditionally educated Buddhist teachers—but that doesn’t mean the Buddhist ancients don’t have anything left to teach us.
Aiming to provide a balanced and informed response to these revelations of sexual violence in Buddhist communities, Amy Langenberg and Ann Gleig (an ethnographer of contemporary American Buddhism) have been collaborating on a book project (under contract with Yale University Press) that they hope will be of value to scholars, advocates, and practice communities. This article introduces some of the approaches we will be using in our work together.
This article was made possible in part with support from Sacred Writes, a Henry Luce Foundation-funded project hosted by Northeastern University that promotes public scholarship on religion.
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