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.
As for power, I learned that my teacher had no more of it than I. No teacher has any inherent power or wisdom that cannot also be evoked in the student. This is a basic premise of the relationship between them. Otherwise, there would be no point in the relationship, except to mirror the teacher’s grandeur and the student’s inferiority. Teacher and student are equals from the start. The so-called power disparity is an illusion, a function of the student’s fear and sense of inadequacy. The difference between them is that a good teacher knows this, while the student often does not.
Perhaps I could have learned these lessons without sexual involvement, but the vulnerability induced by passion sped things up. I was brought quickly to a crossroads where, in order to go on loving and learning, I had to move past my fixation on self-defense. This choice is basic to the path—in fact, it is the path, since every stage of realization presents us over and over again with this same choice in many different guises.
The Buddhist challenge to conventional Western notions of spirituality illuminates the way we set flesh and spirit at war with each other. In Buddhism there is no original sin. Although noticing how we express our sexuality can certainly lead to an awareness of right conduct, the flesh is not regarded as representing a corruption or punishment of any kind, nor as an obstacle to the attainment of enlightenment. The root of human suffering is not sin, but our confusion about ego. We suffer because we believe in the existence of an individual self. This belief splits the world into “I” and “other.” The “I” may strive to maintain itself by identifying with spirit at the expense of flesh, or merely by identifying with the values of a particular social group. The role played by ethics in this process is to perpetuate some kind of division between us and them.
The origin of the words ethic and ethnic show how these concepts are related to the idea of ego: both words have the same Indo-European root, seu, or “self,” extended to swedh, “that which is one’s own,” from which came the Greek ethnos, “people of one’s own kind.” Thus ethnos and the ethos are an expanded version of the ego. What is implied about ethics by this analysis is that ethical systems have no absolute validity; they are devised by the conceptual mind to protect self-interest and group interests.
For a Buddhist, any standard of right conduct that does not transcend conceptual mind has not addressed the root of human suffering, which is the dualism of self and other. Concepts are not objectively real; we invent them, usually to serve our own prejudices. Ethical codes that originate in concepts are not necessarily bad on that account, but they are less than true, and may also be less than beneficial or wise. Some ethical codes might demand that we uphold the rights of slaveowners, burn witches, or turn political refugees over to the secret police. The source of right conduct in Buddhism is not ethics but karuna, or compassion, and prajna, or egoless intelligence. Neither has any taint of self-interest.
The object of the Buddhist system is to bring the disciple to the point where the discovery of egolessness becomes a direct personal experience, comparable to waking from a dream. Suppose that my ordinary life is a drama that I have authored; I am its main character. I experience hope, fear, anger, competition, good and bad luck, joy and grief, all according to the plot sequence, identifying with my role so completely that I forget this is only a drama that I myself am creating. Others are doing likewise. We all want to be the star. To keep from eliminating one another, we devise rules that define our parts more clearly. But the whole show is unsatisfactory.
No matter how many scenes and rules we add, the plot never seems to go anywhere, and my anxiety about it never disappears.
At a certain moment, I meet a character who says, “Look, this is only a movie, we’re just light and shadows. You can find out for yourself: sit down and do this meditation practice.” When I hear this, I realize that I have often suspected the same thing. Although I may be held back by attachment to my role, I have become so disgusted by the futility of this play that I want the truth at any cost. Now I turn the whole script to that end. This is the only resolution I will accept. Then the drama comes apart, and all of its preconceptions, hopes, and fears vanish with it. My schemes, my dreams, my good and evil deeds are irrelevant. So are the rules which controlled my choices in that world.
What is left? Compassion, intelligence, and the splendor of the light. These penetrate and dispel the dream, like advancing day lifting a blanket of fog. There is no duality in this compassionate intelligence. It implies unconditional warmth and mercy, giving without expecting anything in return. From this softness come the virtues we associate with high ethical conduct: generosity, decency, courtesy, and respect for others.
Rules for right conduct do exist in Buddhist tradition: students, for example, vow to abstain from lying, killing, stealing, using intoxicants, and sexual misconduct. The purpose of adopting these rules, however, is to heighten awareness, not to propitiate a Supreme Being or to invoke sanctions for wrongdoing. The value of taking a precept against sexual misconduct is that it directs awareness toward whatever relationship we may have with passion. The remedy for breaking a rule is to confess the violation to one’s spiritual preceptor or to another member of the Buddhist community. There is no guilt, penance, or atonement. The violation is viewed not as a sin, into an occasion for honesty and further mindfulness by the confession.
The rules expand with the path. Sometimes the intention to prevent harm to others might require that we steal and lie. Huckleberry Finn, when he lies to save his friend Jim and steals to protect a family’s inheritance from swindlers, is behaving unconsciously like a good Buddhist; his motive is compassion, and his means are intelligent.
The medieval Indian monk Atisha taught sixty slogans as reminders of how to behave according to the dharma on all possible occasions. “Don’t wait in ambush” (i.e. don’t look for a chance to attack when somebody’s guard is down). “Don’t build your happiness on the limbs of another’s pain.” “Don’t expect more.” “Don’t act with a twist.” The bodhisattva vow, which is the formal entry into the Mahayana path, commits the student to becoming a bridge, a boat, a highway for others to journey to the city of nirvana. At this stage we have already gone far beyond the concept of ethics, for the idea is not just to behave correctly, but to give up aggression, grasping, and ignorance, to hang onto nothing for oneself, to bring everything onto the path. The rules are like little guardians, telling us, “You have strayed into the woods here, get on with the journey.” That is all. Nobody enforces them.
Ethics are useful as a cocoon that ripens the student, until the insight of no-self has taken hold. But no rules are superior to a fully awakened mind. A Buddha expresses compassion by waking people up. The intention may require conventionally ethical behavior or its opposite, according to circumstance. The Buddha is master of ethics; ethics do not master the Buddha. As Christ put it, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Otherwise we could never transcend the products of our own thoughts.
The challenge to conventional ethics is particularly acute in the vehicle of Buddhist tantra. Tantra is a radically accelerated vehicle of instruction whose intention is to achieve enlightenment in one lifetime. For the moralist, neurosis is a threat; anger, lust, and greed are poisons to be shunned. But in tantra, poison is food. A good example would be the tantric approach to passion.
In Buddhist tantra, if we take sex between teacher and student as a metaphor of interpenetration, it is not forbidden; it is necessary. Tantra is an accelerated, notoriously outrageous path. It is not for everyone, and the student must prepare for it through a series of long and arduous practices. The aim, however, is common to all Buddhist lineages—to cut through the artificial division of self from other. Tantra does this by using and transforming neurosis instead of rejecting it, and by preparing the student, through devotion, for unity with the guru’s mind. This unity cannot occur unless the student no longer holds anything back. “Nothing can be sole or whole that has not been rent,” says Crazy Jane to the Bishop in a poem by W. B. Yeats. “Grant your blessings so that my mind may be one with the dharma,” says a Tibetan liturgical chant. For the ego, of course, this is the ultimate cheat. I give in, give up, and get nothing out of it, except more opportunities to do the same. Orgasm is no different, nor is dying, nor having a baby. “Love ruins everything,” said the one-armed man in the movie Moonstruck. This is the starting point for tantra. Genital sex need not be involved, and throughout most or all of the practice the guru is not physically present anyway; but if the process works, the kind of honesty achieved goes far beyond sexual nakedness. From this nondual perspective, the friction of body parts is a nonissue. It is no more, or less, inherently abusive and unethical than any other form of contact. The intentions and perceptions of the parties determine what it is.
Very few spiritual teachers who have slept with their students are tantric masters, and in most cases it may be accurate to claim that such behavior is a form of exploitation. But we must question what “exploitation” can mean in a context where two parties engage in sex by mutual consent. Let us assume that a student, of either gender, who sleeps with a spiritual teacher feels afterward that she or he has been diminished, alienated from self, abandoned, treated as an object, or used to enhance the teacher’s power. These feelings have a twofold character; they may reflect insight into the real nature of the teacher’s attitude, but insofar as they center on defending the self, they are also the ego-responses that Buddhist practice seeks to illuminate and undermine. An ethic forbidding the teacher to elicit such responses in a student assumes that self-clinging ought to be sheltered and protected. This ethic is ultimately demeaning to the student; it turns the student into a kind of ward: “Yes, the teacher really is more powerful than you; because you are not adult enough to make your own decisions, you should be put into protective custody.”
Fear of abandonment arises from insecurity about the ego: do I exist? Will I be honored, loved, respected, preserved? Am I being violated? Am I being used? How can I defend myself? Will I be pushed aside by a rival? Do I have power? Am I important? Am I stained, impure, stupid, ugly, unworthy? Am I a failure? Am I nothing? These kinds of questions are lyrics in the everlasting song of me, which issues from the inner chamber of ego-anxiety.
The arousal of passion opens the door to this chamber, stirring in us all the feelings of attachment, longing, desire, hope, and fear which we cannot control. Questions fly out like bats into the daylight. Our ordinary strategies for managing anxiety, which amount to ignoring it, no longer function. Passion disables them. “Love ruins everything.”
Most of us, overtly or secretly, want the heightening and transforming effects of passion because they open the heart and give us glimpses of a mode of being that is deeper and vaster than the ordinary world of getting, spending, and laying waste. We want the temporary ego-loss of being swept away. At the same time, the ego is very anxious about any experience that involves ego-loss. What most attracts us has the greatest potential for making us crazy, precisely because the very nature of awakened passion is letting go of personal safety. It is like jumping into space. The sense of risk is right there, palpable and raw. Our insecurity sets off the reflex to attack or grasp at something, in order to reconfirm self.
What we ask for, then, is a zone of safety where we can love without risk. We put this burden on our partner, by demanding that this person honor us, that is, open the chamber doors without stirring up the dust and the bats. It is like demanding a simulated parachute jump, where plane and space exist only on a wraparound video screen.
Passion without self-clinging is a form of enlightened energy; it is inherently pure, innocent, playful, caring, open, perceptive, tender, vulnerable, naked, full of color; it weeps and laughs, enjoys, nurtures, cries out in pain or pleasure; it moves toward experience; it is curious; it is intelligent. But unless the idea “I want something out of this” is recognized and released by meditation, the I of “I want” appropriates passion as a means of solidifying itself. Passion then becomes nothing more than music in the song of me. It becomes sticky, grasping, full of promises, betrayals, and power trips. It is the same passion, but dimmed now when experienced through the smoked lens of self. These two possibilities—passion as enlightened energy and passion as grasping—emerge together in the mind; in this sense, neurosis and wisdom have the same root.
In the Buddhist vision, a transaction is tainted if it involves self-clinging; thus, the teacher who uses his power to cling to the pleasure of passion is perpetuating samsara, the world of ego. It does not matter much if the medium of clinging is body, speech, or mind: the result is suffering. But the very same acts, performed without ego-clinging, may be experienced as sacred energies dancing with themselves.
A good teacher would not force a trauma of self-exposure on an unprepared student; the student must choose to take each step personally, giving up self-clinging only when it is seen to be useless anyway. But there comes a point where we have to stop playing games. Spirituality has to do with opening doors; thus the direction of the path is inexorably away from shelter. The teacher’s job is to help the student take off the suit of armor. If we think no private parts ought to be exposed in this process, we are living in a Disneyworld.
Any perceptive person will recognize immediately how dangerous it is to think that we can transcend ethics, or that they apply to others but not to ourselves. Some Buddhist teachers illustrate this danger through the story of Rudra. On receiving an initiation from his guru, Rudra took the idea of nonduality as license to act out his dark side. Since there is no absolute good or evil and all social codes orginate in the conceptual mind, he felt he could do anything he wanted. He ran brothels and criminal gangs, and taught yoga to his henchmen to make them more efficient murderers. When a fellow disciple told him he was perverting the dharma, Rudra asked his guru which of them was right. The guru told Rudra that he was wrong. Enraged, he drew his sword and killed his teacher on the spot. This act propelled him into hell. He was not put there as a punishment; his own state of mind put him there. And he never gets out.
In this story Rudra is lost only when he severs his connection with Buddha-mind by killing his teacher. This act cuts him off from the Source of ethics–egoless compassion and wisdom. Now he truly has nothing, since he has already discarded ethical conventions. It is to safeguard against this danger that tantra puts so much emphasis on devotion.
When I became a disciple of the late Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa, I learned soon enough about his outrageous behavior—that he had love affairs and drank, that he slept with some of his female students, whom he even organized into a club of official “consorts.” From what I could observe, any number of women were more than happy to get so close to him. Many students in his organization behaved the same way that non-Buddhist people behave: they wanted to be part of the inner circle, where the action is, and sleep with figures who had the power. According to my fellow sangha members, so many women wanted to serve Trungpa, in whatever capacity, that he made waiting lists, in order to broaden the opportunity to the greatest possible number.
My first reaction to all this was a mixture of envy and sarcastic humor. I was constantly laughing and shaking my head. My preconceptions about what a spiritual teacher should be were pulverized. But I did not walk away. I was learning too much.
The context of these scandalous events was a regular schedule of meditation practice and teachings conducted in a beautifully decorated, uplifting environment, along with shared work and constant encouragement from all sides to heighten awareness of oneself, let go of conceptual thinking, transcend self-imposed limits, and extend compassion and unconditional warmth to others. Trungpa was telling us, by example, to risk involvement with each other, to make fools of ourselves, to work openly with our baboon-mind instead of pretending that we don’t have it, to expose the hopes and fears we ordinarily hide, break one another’s hearts if we must, and to live with the raw wound of ourselves.
His outrageous style enabled me to accept myself as I am and relieved me of the burden of having to justify myself to anyone. Applying a code of sexual ethics to Trungpa was like accusing the tiger of having stripes.
After it was made public that Trungpa’s regent, Osel Tendzin, infected an unsuspecting student with AIDS, instant judgments about Trungpa reverberated throughout the press. Tendzin’s actions left a legacy of confusion and pain, especially for his students. But a concept of violated sexual ethics does not help us understand what happened, nor is it likely to safeguard anyone in the future. Tendzin himself died of AIDS. This fact has to create a pause in the flow of moral indignation, and in that pause is room for compassion. He gave up, he gave in, and gained nothing. He died. So must we all, every last one of us, lie down in darkness, and have our light in ashes.
In my personal life, I chose not to model my actions on those of Trungpa and Tendzin. Exclusivity is no less valuable as a spiritual practice than taking on multiple partners; and besides that, I would like to live longer than they did. I am free to make this choice honestly and responsibly because the man who taught me the most about loving was free to give his teachings as he saw fit, and for no other reason. If I had thought he was not genuine, I was free to leave him. Like everyone else, I benefit from the existence of limits that restrain others from harming me. But the Buddha was right: the root of suffering is self. If we are interested in transcending the ignorance and pain of self, sooner or later we must stop clinging to the rules. Genuine ethics are applied compassionate wisdom. If they are not this, then they are ethos, pure and simple—the group ego, or the law, commanding that the disobedient monk be drowned in the river.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.