From Spalding Gray’s interview with the Dalai Lama to Philip Glass and Khyentse Rinpoche, I have come to eagerly anticipate Tricycle‘s excellent interviews. But Harold Talbott on Thomas Merton is the very best yet! As something of a Merton nut, I am familiar enough with the growing body of material on Merton to know that much of it is repetitious and pious. How refreshing then to have Talbott’s fearless descriptions of Merton the man and Merton the monk. And to read them with the rare luxury of knowing that for a change, a beloved hero has met up with a trustworthy raconteur. Thank you Harold Talbott!

Providence, Rhode Island

Thank you for publishing Stephen Batchelor’s excellent article on Russian Buddhism and the life of Bidiya Dandaron. Batchelor may have erred, though, in presenting only the “official” story of Dandaron’s death as a result of a brain tumor and pneumonia. According to an earlier account, Dandaron was trampled during a food riot in the labor camp where he was being held and then was thrown—with several broken bones—into a punishment cell where he was held in isolation without medical treatment, and where he finally died. Whatever the circumstances of his death, he deserves to be remembered. 

Gaithersburg, Maryland

I found “What Does Being Buddhist Mean to You? Re: rats, mice, and cockroaches” in the Summer Issue very depressing. The healthcare worker in Atlanta would trade poisons for creatures in hospitals, hospices, and clinics. If I were a patient there, I would prefer not to be poisoned in her efforts to eradicate “pests.” The Taiwanese nun calls using chemicals “rational,” saying we must think of our neighbors. If she were my neighbor, I would prefer that she think this through more rationally, and not poison my ecosystem with deadly chemicals. Live-trapping and removal, organic chemical solutions (that break down in the ecosystem before they create wholesale broad-spectrum killing), and many old household remedies prove to be more effective and compassionate methods for dealing with rats, mice, and cockroaches.

Berryville, Virginia

While I was happy to see Rachel V.’s article, I was hoping to find a more in-depth comparison of Buddhist and Twelve-step philosophies and the parallels that can be drawn between them. I would have enjoyed seeing the Twelve Steps reworded in Buddhist terms—the understanding of impermanence, no-self, karma, and the absence of a supreme deity. Just how does a Buddhist come to believe that a power greater than himself could restore him to sanity, or humbly ask God to remove his shortcomings?

Evanston, Illinois

Rachel V. found a compatibility between Buddhism and Step Eleven of the Twelve Steps: “But perhaps there is also a fundamental compatibility in the First and Second Steps, where we admit we are powerless over our addictions and come to believe a Higher Power can restore us to sanity.”

The First and Second Steps are a source of current controversy and confusion. Some think that to admit powerlessness undermines the very self-esteem that we need to enhance. They say that what we need is not a Higher Power to save us, but the empowerment to save ourselves.

The AA “Big Book” makes clear that recovery from addiction is not likely if our efforts draw their energy from ego-based feelings such as pride, fear, and resentment. This is the real meaning of the First Step. But is the Higher Power of the Second Step something other than self?

Ippen, the thirteenth-century Shin teacher, said: “The distinction of self-power and Other Power is but the first stage. True Other Power means discarding utterly the standpoints of self and other and simply attaining Buddhahood in one thought-moment” He continues: “The Buddha’s teaching speaks of nothing other than the single thought-moment here and now.” What Higher Power can there be than the peace and compassion inherent in the Pure Land of this present moment?

But I sometimes say Deeper Power instead of Higher Power. Veterans of Twelve-step programs often enjoy this change of metaphor.

New Orleans, Louisiana

Rachel V. Responds:

I agree that much more needs to be written on the subject of Buddhism and the Twelve Steps. An in-depth comparison of the subject begs for book-length work, not a magazine story. And I’m working on it now.

Some of Sogyal Rinpoche’s students in Seattle have informally adapted the Twelve Steps for Vajrayana practitioners. Of the various versions I’ve seen, this is one of the best. For a copy of their adaption write:

Attention: Ruth Yeomans
P.O. Box 7866
Berkeley, CA 94707

Rachel V, is also the author of A Woman Like You, Life Stories of Women Recovering from Alcoholism and Addiction, and Family Secrets: Stories of Adult Children of Alcoholics.


David Rome’s letter states that “tension between individualism and community is a key to dharma in the West; I hope that Tricycle, which seems to call on a lot of ‘expatriate’ energy—inevitable perhaps—will not discount the importance of dharma community.”

I think Mr. Rome is referring to those contributors to Tricycle who, he believes, have withdrawn themselves from or withdrawn their allegiance to, the sangha. How does he discern from the variety of speakers who find a voice in Tricycle, which are “expatriates” or more ambiguously, express “expatriate energy”? On what basis does Mr. Rome presume to make a judgement about any individual’s allegiance to the sangha? Is he inviting readers to judge each author’s views as to whether or not their views are in accord with “mainline Buddhist doctrine” or are tainted by this “expatriate energy”? Does Tricycle give greater representation to the views of such “expatriates” than the views of the “patriots”? Who are the patriots, anyway?

In light of Shakyamuni Buddha’s instruction that one should regard the members of the sangha as those who have taken refuge in the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha, the notion of “expatriates” from the sangha is nonsensical. It is a false charge. Use of the term “expatriate” to characterize the contributors to Tricycle reflects only Mr. Rome’s view of whatever it is he means by “expatriate” and not what has been taught. Although I don’t believe Mr. Rome’s comments represent the views of the members of the Vajradhatu community, I certainly wouldn’t slur Mr. Rome’s good reputation by calling him an “expatriate!”

Austin, Texas

The presidential election is upon us, but I have not seen the “Quayle Question” addressed in the pages of Tricycle. I hope the editors have not forgotten Vice President Quayle’s reference to Buddhism in his now famous speech to the United Negro College Fund:

What a waste it is to lose one’s mind, or not to have a mind is being very wasteful. How true that is.

Mr. Quayle is obviously attacking the “no-mind” (wu-hsin) doctrine advanced by Hui-neng, the Sixth Patriarch. I am, however, still uncertain as to whether this plank in the Vice President’s platform reflects a general bias against Buddhism, or if his comments mark the rebirth of the Northern Ch’an school and of Huineng’s antagonist, Shen-hsiu.

Tricycle readers beware: Quayle is just a heart-beat away from being President Quayle—or is it Patriarch Quayle?

Salmon Beach, Washington

In response to your excellent article on abortion, one Mr. Richard Collet, in an apparent reference to reincarnation, wrote: “As a person in middle age, I may need a safe womb within twenty years.” Rarely, have we heard the urgent need for pro-choice revealed with greater clarity. Mr. Collet, if you are so concerned with safe wombs, you should pray to be one.

New Orleans, Louisiana

I found the letter from Lise Weil in the Summer Issue (and your response) somewhat disturbing.

The male/female issues seem of a very temporal nature and are concerned with transitory forms. Is it too unfashionable to suggest that the quality of the articles in your most welcome and instructive magazine should far outweigh the relevance of the writer’s temporary gender? I would appreciate your thoughts on this.

Troy, Michigan

Tricycle asked Lenore Friedman, author of Meetings with Remarkable Women (Shambhala Publications: 1987), to reply to this letter.

Lenore Friedman’s reply:
This view reflects, I think, a kind of dharmic dualism that elevates the transcendent, eternal, “empty” nature of our reality above what is temporal, earthly, here-and-now. It misses the central paradox of religion (Buddhism included) that this world and That World are inseparable. (Not one, not two, Zen adepts say.)

To be sure, gender issues are “temporal” issues relating to roles and forms. But form is emptiness and emptiness form!

The Buddhist canon exits entirely in the world of form. So does Tricycle and the “concept of multiple rebirth.” How we treat each other, who speaks and who listens, what angles of vision and experience are included or excluded—these mundane matters matter. This world matters. Karma and rebirth do not, I believe, change that. The perception that “nothing matters” is incomplete without the simultaneous perception that “everything matters” as well.

Finally, what exactly determines “quality”? Isn’t it depth and richness and multiplicity of view as much as technical or scholarly brilliance? However high a publication’s “quality,” if it conveys only half the range of human sensibility, isn’t it flawed?

Stephen Butterfields’s “Accusing the Tiger” is a provocative and convoluted justification of the abuse of power and sex that is unfortunately encountered in many organized religions and other professions. In spite of Mr. Butterfield’s sophisticated invocation of high Buddhist ideals, the bottom line is that one party is exploiting the weakness and insecurity of the other party in these situations. The Five Precepts should not be discarded so easily. Ethical behavior is a vehicle to enlightenment for most of us, not a hindrance. Shakyamuni Buddha was clear in stating: “A wise man should avoid unchastity as if it were a pit of burning cinders.”

Montgomery, Alabama

It is to Stephen Butterfield’s credit that he was able to glean some liberating insights from his sexual fling with his teacher—just as some exceptional hostages do from their incarceration. And you have to admire the earnestness with which he conducts his apologia for those rascals among Buddhist teachers who sleep with their students. But the effect is rather like that of an eight-year-old doing magic tricks: we may be touched by his sincerity, maybe even entertained, but certainly not fooled.

Although Butterfield makes some good points, his attempt to justify sex between teacher and student must be seen for what it is: rhetorical blue smoke and mirrors.

Rochester, New York

Does anything beat sexual love in its ability to excite ego-response? Not in my experience, although I have never been famous or particularly powerful. Anyway, that is why the issue excites such powerful responses among both principals and by-standers. I want to thank Stephen Butterfield for pointing this out and for making clear to me the basis of my own vaguely censorius judgements. I tended to identify with the victim, and it was my own ego insecurity that I was worried about.

Few of us are yet in a position to “transcend ethics,” but the least we can do is not use ethics to buttress our own ego defenses, blaming and accusing when we should be examining ourselves.

Deerfield, Massachusetts

Stephen Butterfield contends that for Buddhists right conduct is based on compassion and wisdom, not on a dualistic rule. His view would indeed make it conceivable, or at least rationalizable, that a teacher choose to use sexual involvement (with him or her) as a way to make the student experience passion as grasping and self-oriented, a step on the spiritual path.

Since its origin Buddhism has recognized the validity of codes regulating behavior because such regulations are necessary to any society, theistic or not. One of the three baskets of the Pali canon, the code of monastic discipline (Vinaya) is just that: precise rules with precise sanctions organizing the social relations inside the sangha and between monastics and laypersons. It is certainly conceptual and dualistic. In his article, Butterfield ignores the social dimension of Buddhist right action and sees in the teacher-student relationship only its spiritual dimension.

The realization of non-duality and non-self is ultimate truth (paramarthasatya) and the social code is conventional truth (samvriti-satya). Conventional truth is conventional but truth, not illusion. To introduce—as Butterfield does—ultimate truth in social codes, where it does not belong, results in confusion and absurdity: If the duality of red and green in traffic lights is illusory, why stop at a red light? If the Buddhist rules for right action are dualistic, why not ignore them, as Rudra, Trungpa, and Tendzin did?

Los Angeles, California

I cannot agree that the “so-called” power disparity (between teacher and student) is an illusion, a function of the student’s fear and sense of inadequacy.” I was an involved member of the Vajradhatu-Dharmadhatu community for over ten years. Students who questioned actions of teachers and senior students were often given the impression that they were simply not enlightened enough to see the “compassion” supporting the behavior. Often the alcoholism and sexual acting-out of these teachers and senior students was treated as evidence of egolessness and non-attachment.

Members who tried to address these problems through therapy and Twelve-step programs were regarded suspiciously. There was feeling that one should not go outside the community for help.

When it was revealed that Osel Tendzin had lied about having AIDS and had continued to sleep with students, and that those who had known did not speak up—many in the community were stunned. Many people left. Osel Tendzin was a mirror of the serious problems within our community. Problems the community was not addressing openly and honestly. It is not a matter of placing the blame in order to write off the problem. (And I do feel Mr. Butterfield took a blame-the-victim stance.) The issue is: are our Buddhist communities places where we can confront serious habitual patterns like alcoholism, and sexual addiction and victimization in honest fearless ways? It is so important that publications like Tricycle exist so that these issues like this can be discussed openly.

Leaburg, Oregon

Sometimes Stephen Butterfield writes as though his views represent “Buddhism.” But although his views are Buddhist, there is no one Buddhism. Some “Buddhisms” emphasize precepts and others don’t. The same goes for sexuality: some tantric traditions, like Butterfield’s, dance with it actively, others, like the Dalai Lama’s, work with it energetically. In the Pali sutras, on the other hand, Buddha describes the expression of sexual desire very negatively—as similar to lepers enjoying roasting their limbs over a charcoal fire.

My point here is not to “vote” for celibacy, tantrism, or roasting one’s limbs over charcoal fires. Nor to argue with Butterfield’s excellent point—that Buddhist precepts are not imposed by a punishing God or a repressive community. But when he dismisses non-Buddhist ethical systems as “devised by the conceptual mind to protect self-interest and group interest” … and perpetuating “some kind of division between us and them,” his language perpetuates division.

I’d like to offer another equally “Buddhist” point of view: that when we experience that there is no division between “us” and “them,” we treat ourselves and others tenderlywhether we call ourselves Buddhists, Christians, or Sufis. Our actions tend to coincide with standards of ethical behavior shared across cultures. We are not caught in a view of the self as overly solid, but we don’t cling to emptiness either. We experience others as both transparent and precious. We don’t dismiss their pain as therapist-induced victimization, or due to “mutual consent,” or as “the ego-responses that Buddhist practice seeks to illuminate and undermine.” We hold their pain as our own. We look at the person, the situation, in front of us—not at our ideas about “ego” or “theism.” And we don’t cause unecessary pain. Some people do better when trust is gradually established and arises out of a meditative practice, a stable life and a quiet mind. You don’t want to knock too many holes in your raft before you make it to the other shore.

So some people follow precepts before—and as—they develop deep compassionate wisdom. This doesn’t necessarily lead to hating sex or burying monks up to their necks in riverbeds.

It would be wonderful if exposing the “raw wound of ourselves” through sexual encounters with a Buddhist teacher so naturally facilitated spiritual awakening; it would be lovely if through the teacher’s helping and “exposing the private parts” doors would spring open. C’mon though. Butterfield, apparently caught in the idealization of his teacher, refuses to acknowledge the nitty gritty reality of our pervasive and profound confusion in the West regarding sexuality.

Recently teachers of vispassana in the West have agreed upon a code of ethics providing a clear reference point for teacher/student sexual relations—they advise against it, period. this realistically and compassionately addresses our confusion, naivete, and vulnerability. Rather than being at the mercy of the confusion, prone to idealization of our teachers, mis-interpreting such notions as “clinging to ego” and” letting go”, and re-enacting past sexual woundings, there is now a clear basis for remaining still in the midst of the confusion. We learn to know and trust ourselves, rather than heeding a premature and inappropriate bidding to “let go.”

Florence, Massachusetts

In Stephen Butterfield’s ultimate paragraph we learn that the author currently eschews promiscuous sexual conduct and accepts exclusivity as “no less valuable as a spiritual practice than taking on multiple partners.” This statement trivializes the precept which concerns the misuse of sex. Butterfield states that his female teacher felt that “being in love—inseparable from sexuality—is a path to enlightenment.” This concept within the teacher-student relationship should not be accepted by those espousing Buddhism in America. Down the road there is enormous potential for jealousy, confusion, distraction, anger, fear, unwanted pregnancy, and sexually transmitted disease.

Bolinas, California

I applaud Stephen Butterfield for his sensitive and radical defense of individual responsibility on the road to enlightenment. He is the sort of student who makes any teacher look wise.

Perhaps understressed in his account, however, is the stubborn reality that some otherwise serious students are not prepared to shoulder the full weight of the responsibility he thrusts upon them. Serious damage can result unless the teacher also accepts the responsibility to assess carefully the students’ readiness.

New York, New York

Stephen Butterfield is brilliant in his article on the subject of how to make use of teachings without getting in your own way—no matter what. As a therapist I wish more people were in his inner condition of realizing that their teachers have no more power than they have. The author questions what “exploitation” can mean in the context of sex by mutual consent. My experience is that it is most often compulsive submission, a habit of pleasing men with a craving to belong that itself reeks of status and power. The author makes it known on the first page that it was he who made physical overtures to his female teacher. Clearly he was in a different inner space than some students who have been seduced by teachers. His initiating overtures suggest an inner strength that some students do not have.

I do not see people with Buddhist teachers, particularly women, looking for “a zone of safety where we can love without risk.” I have seen women resonating empathically with what has been the selfishness and ruthlessness of some teachers. On a psychological plane it is wise to have enough confirmation of self to where one is ready and willing to “go crazy” without staying that way. But Mr. Butterfield might say, “there are no guarantees.”

I think bringing “everything onto the Path” is a state of health where all of life is a great teaching. Until I am there, I want to continue to respect whatever pain I have with spiritual teachers, be one with it, and never mix it up with truth.

Thank you for a very stimulating article.

New York, New York

I appreciate Butterfield’s point of view, which I take to be that any skillful, i.e., effective, means are justified in bringing people to enlightenment. I also appreciate the point that attachment to the precepts is still just clinging. I am glad that the author chose not to follow his teacher into death as proof of his non-attachment. What a waste it has been for Trungpa, Tenzin, and other fine teachers to throw their lives away on promiscuous sex and/or untreated, rampant alcoholism! What, in the end, did their deaths prove or accomplish?

Specifically, I feel that the side of Trungpa’s life described by Butterfield indicates a clinging to Emptiness, or Enlightenment-at-all-costs, on the one hand, and later becoming basically nihilistic, manifested as a clinging to the opposite of the precepts. Some aspects of what I call “material spiritualism” that I have noticed in various Buddhist teachers with tendencies toward rejection or ignoring the precepts:

1) Plain old materialism—fine cars, large houses, lots of good liquor, addiction to the use of women
2) Disrespect toward students
3) Suicidal behaviors such as untreated alcoholism
4) A tendency to interpret the precepts from a Vajrayana (Buddhayana, Bodhidharma) view point e.g., Who is there to be killed anyway?

Idyllwild, California

Stephen Butterfield Replies:
It is never wise to ignore traffic regulations, but we might take great liberties with them if we have ten minutes to catch a plane. Some drivers break rules frivolously, and become a menace; others compulsively obey them even when the situation demands an unhesitating direct response. Both extremes may be equally dangerous, especially at rush hour. Relating skillfully with social conventions is an art. There is always a dance going on between common sense, egoism, conscience, and regard for the background.

Buddhist masters bring to this art a presence of mind, sense of humor, clarity, honesty, playfulness, and desire to benefit others, which is ripened by long immersion in meditation practice; but there is no guarantee they will always do the right thing. One may never exceed a speed limit; another may drive his car through a window and paralyze half his body for life. Whatever the outcome, you can bet it will be worth study, if not emulation.

Sex between teacher and adult student, when both parties consent, is not inherently more exploitative than any other kind of sex. It is a simple human act which can be made complicated by the attitudes and expectations of the parties, or by the projections of self-serving professionals. To equate it with parent-child incest is inappropriate and misleading. The child is really a child-dependent, relatively powerless, unable to choose wisely in crucial areas like sex, drugs, or alcohol, and in need of trustworthy parental protection. The adult student may think like a child but is an adult nonetheless. A problem of many adult students might be that they have not learned to grow up, but the purpose of the path is to help them do so, not return them to the protected status of children.

The concept of the power disparity puts a fictitious and unrealistic burden on the teacher-student relationship: the teacher is placed on a pedestal and expected to behave like a mythological saint in white robes, while the student is demeaned into a follower who depends on the teacher’s approval for a sense of self-worth. While sex within this framework may demean the student even further, the problem is not in the sex; it is in the power disparity concept—the guru game—which any student or teacher ought to reject utterly from the beginning.

Passion is basic to all experience, even drinking tea. A strong appeal of the Buddhist tradition is that it does not stigmatize this fundamental life force as “original sin,” or seek to exclude it from the spiritual path. Some Buddhist teachers are committed to celibacy; some are not, and may be able to teach a great deal, by precept or example, about handling sexual passion in a dharmic way. The result might be neither titillating nor exploitive; it might be funny, fishy, tender, silly, disappointing, shocking, even boring. The point is to illuminate the experience by meditative awareness and sense of humor. Fixating on ethical concepts or personal outrage can only impede this process.

Of course, if the teacher is really hurting people, the student should leave—or warn others, or call the police.



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