At Tintern Abbey, a medieval Cistercian monastery located on the border between England and Wales, a young monk was caught having an affair with a village girl. The abbot had the girl strangled, and the monk buried up to his chin in the river mud, where the tides rose over him and he drowned.

Punishments of maiming and death for sexual misconduct are prescribed in both the Old Testament and the Koran. Buddhists call this approach to morality “theistic” and “dualistic,” meaning that it defines right conduct by an external reference point, such as divine law, and splits the world into good and evil. The guardian of morals imposes the law with particular harshness against the sexual offenses of spiritual practitioners, because flesh and spirit are thought to be enemies. What comes from the flesh is evil, and must be chastised.

As American Buddhists, we like to think that our own ethics are more enlightened than this, but our deepest moral reflexes are still conditioned by theism. The revelation that a spiritual teacher is sleeping with his students seems to affect some of us like a rock thrown into a hornet’s nest. It presents a radical challenge to our preconceptions about spirituality.

Since the recent sexual scandals that have surrounded several teachers of Eastern thought in the West, a climate of opinion has sprung up in the mental health industry that sex between teacher and student ought to be considered taboo, and that strong sanctions ought to be applied against anyone who becomes involved in such a relationship. There is a disparity of power between teacher and student, so the thinking goes; therefore, sex between them is always and necessarily an exploitation of the student, who is turned into a sex object by the experience, feels abandoned, and will need to be rescued afterward by therapy.

Years ago one of my spiritual teachers was a woman, whom I found attractive; she did not refuse my physical overtures, but turned them into epiphanies. Part of her teaching was that our passion reflects our own basic goodness, and that being in love—inseparable from sexuality—is a path to enlightenment. After we became lovers I developed a strong attachment to her, and I felt deeply betrayed when I learned that the attachment was not mutual. Yet my sense of betrayal was my own problem: my teacher had done nothing to cause it. I did not need to pay a therapist for the privilege of perpetuating an image of myself as her victim. Any insightful person would have been amused if I had tried to claim that she had exploited me. I knew perfectly well that I was taking a chance. I wanted to get close to the source of power so it would rub off on me; I wanted the imagined prestige, even if known only to myself, of having slept with an “important” figure; I wanted to be swept away. My whole approach to love was full of this “I want.” It was only by not getting what I wanted that I gained any lasting insight into my own motives, or any power to respond differently. The love affair was an essential part of the teaching. Through it I met one of the places where I had always held back and protected myself. Then I softened and let go. It was the first time I had been able to love and let go, to love without expecting anything in return.

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