90 - Buddhist History 11: Early Indian Buddhism - Stupas and Devotional Practice - Part 2
92 - Buddha's Teachings 11: The Five Hindrances – Part 1

The list of supposedly-highly-realized Buddhist teachers who have abused their power and acted in harmful ways – particularly in the realm of sex – is long, and getting longer all the time. Unethical and selfish behavior is incompatible with our Buddhist ideal of true enlightenment, and transgressing teachers are often exactly those held up as especially inspiring examples of realization and practice, so what does all of this say about realization and practice? Were the teachers ever really enlightened?

 

 

Quicklinks to Content:
Sexual Misconduct (or Abuse) in Modern Buddhist Communities
A Few Words about Sexual Misconduct by Buddhist Teachers
Holding Teachers to a Higher Standard
How Could They Have Done That?
A Buddhist Answer: The Teaching of the Five Ranks
Ethical Violations as Fourth Rank Pitfalls
Salvaging Enlightenment from the Ashes of Unethical Behavior

 

Sexual Misconduct (or Abuse) in Modern Buddhist Communities

The list of supposedly-highly-realized Buddhist teachers who have abused their power and acted in clearly harmful ways is long and getting longer all the time. Within the last year or so, credible accusations of serious sexual misconduct have been brought against Sogyal Rinpoche of the Rigpa community, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche of Shambala International, and Noah Levine of Against the Stream. These names are added to a long list of Buddhist teachers who have been accused of crossing the ethical lines within their own tradition regarding sexuality, respectful relationships, and/or honesty: Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Eido Shimano, Richard Baker, Joshu Saski, Genpo Merzel, Taizan Maezumi, Seung Sahn, and Dainin Katagiri. (I personally know of quite a few others who just happen not to be so famous.)

No sect or lineage of Buddhism seems immune from the phenomenon of, “Oh yeah, the wise, respected Buddhist teacher we’ve all come to trust and love? He’s been secretly gratifying his own needs at the expense of others all this time.” While the misconduct of a few of these guys is viewed with some degree of sympathy – they were lonely and horny, and they only had consensual relationships with one or a few women – in all cases their behavior caused confusion, hurt, and division in their communities at the very least.

The conduct of unethical Buddhist teachers raises many questions for practitioners. Why is harmful, selfish, deceitful sexual misconduct by Buddhist teachers apparently so common? Should we trust our systems of practice that put so much emphasis on the teacher-student relationship, or should we ditch them? Does encouraging reverence for a teacher just encourage us to indulge our human tendency to search for a personal savior? When a teacher causes serious harm through ethical transgressions, do his or her actions delegitimize their previous (apparent) acts of wisdom, compassion, and skillfulness? How do you honor the spiritual benefits you’ve received from an abusive teacher while rejecting his harmful actions, and perhaps – of necessity – ending your relationship with him?

I’m not going to focus on those questions, today, although they’re very important. Instead, I want to talk about another question I feel is subtler, but may be even more threatening to our faith in our spiritual path: Given that unethical and selfish behavior is incompatible with our Buddhist ideal of true enlightenment, and given transgressing teachers are often exactly those held up as especially inspiring examples of realization and practice, what does that say about realization and practice? Related questions include: Were the teachers ever really enlightened? If so, how could they have forgotten what they realized? If deep realization isn’t permanently transformative – if it’s something you can forget or ignore – what good is it?

A Few Words about Sexual Misconduct by Buddhist Teachers

Before I get into addressing those questions, though, I want to briefly explain why unethical conduct by Buddhist teachers, particularly in realm of sex, is so harmful, whether they’re having sex with their students, cheating on their wives, or breaking their public vows of celibacy. I want to make it clear these actions really are incompatible with our ideal of a truly awakened, liberated being.

Assault and harassment are clearly devastating – and illegal – but what about consensual sex? First of all, anything that requires deception within a spiritual community seriously undermines trust. Second, there’s a large power differential between teacher and student in Buddhism, even in fairly egalitarian communities without a strong tradition of reifying the master, making it extremely likely a student will be receptive to a sexual relationship for all the wrong reasons – to please the teacher, to get something from the teacher, to feel special, or because the teacher has convinced her that sex – with him, of course – is an especially effective way to work on her spiritual practice. (It’s not a coincidence that most of the men I mentioned earlier are, or were, very charismatic people.)

Third, it’s harmful for Buddhist teachers to have sex with their students, or even to wander around the edges of sex through flirtation or innuendo, because it introduces the whole issue of sexual attraction into a realm where it doesn’t belong. Spiritual practitioners and seekers in all traditions make themselves vulnerable as they explore the depths of their practice, open to new possibilities, and allow themselves to be guided in teachings and practices they don’t yet understand. Whether or not you’re someone who’s inclined to this kind of spiritual seeking, I’m guessing you can imagine how unguarded such a student might be at times.

From my own experience, I can tell you that when you’re exploring your deep doubt, or fear of death, or struggling in your practice, and you go to a teacher for encouragement or advice, the last thing you need is for him to tell you he finds you sexy. At the very least his comment will be confusing or distracting, and it might trigger mistrust, fear, or trauma. Not only that – what if I’m the next student, one he doesn’t find sexy, but I hear the teacher sometimes bestows such compliments? It’ll be hard not to wonder whether I’ll get his full attention seeing as I’m not on his sexual attractiveness radar.

As I see it, there’s no reason for a teacher to bring the issue of sexual attraction into a relationship with a student that’s worth the risk to the student or the community – so if a teacher’s doing it, it’s self-indulgent. The teacher rarely sees it this way, however. He usually spins a web of self-delusion and convinces himself his words or actions will somehow benefit the student, or that he’s such an incredibly skillful teacher he’ll be able to play with fire without any risk of injury to anyone. So now the teacher’s not only motivated by selfishness, he’s deluded.

Holding Teachers to a Higher Standard

Our ideal in Buddhism is a Buddha – someone who has awakened to the true nature of reality, given up self-attachment, and transcended selfish desires. In the Pali Canon Metta Sutta, the Buddha recommends what should be done by “one who is skilled in goodness:”

“Let them be able and upright, straightforward and gentle in speech… Contented and easily satisfied… Let them not do the slightest thing… the wise would later reprove… Let none deceive another… The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision, being freed from all sense desires, is not born again into this world.”[i]

In Mahayana Buddhism, we also emphasize that in realizing the empty, boundless nature of self, we recognize we’re ultimately not separate from others, but completely interdependent with them. There is nothing outside to desire, and it’s impossible to harm anyone without also harming ourselves.

In the Buddhist ideal, once we’re liberated from our self-centered dream, we naturally refrain from breaking moral precepts. Being “freed from all sense desires,” what would compel us to risk causing harm to self and others through lying, stealing, or misusing sexual energy? Why would we risk the well-being of another person, or our spiritual community, for personal gratification, if we’re “contented and easily satisfied?” Having obtained “clarity of vision,” why would we allow ourselves to backslide into delusion in order to justify doing something “the wise would later reprove?”

Few of us expect our human teachers to be perfect Buddhas. However, we certainly hold them to a much higher standard of understanding and behavior than the average person. After all, if they have any realization at all, moral and unselfish behavior should no longer be such a struggle for them. Not to mention tulkus and Zen masters who have attracted large followings because of their depth of insight and powerful teachings! Stories abound of students achieving profound insight and transformation under the guidance of the male teachers I listed at the beginning of this episode. There’s little doubt many of those teachers are (or were) pretty advanced on the path to full enlightenment, which is precisely why their unethical actions hurt so much. One would think they were exactly the kind of people who wouldn’t do those kinds of things.

How Could They Have Done That?

Which brings us back to our questions about the nature of practice and realization: Given that unethical and selfish behavior is incompatible with our Buddhist ideal of true enlightenment, and given these transgressing teachers are frequently those held up as especially inspiring examples of realization and practice, what does that say about realization and practice? Were the teachers ever really enlightened? If so, how could they have forgotten what they realized? If deep realization isn’t permanently transformative – if it’s something you can forget or ignore – what good is it?

I’m going to offer an answer to these questions that hopefully will preserve your faith in the reality and efficacy of the Buddhist ideal of enlightenment. In doing so, I believe it’s important to discuss the serious ethical violations of respected Buddhist teachers as happening in spite of their realization and practice, as opposed to being proof the teachers were never enlightened after all. If we conclude such teachers were actually frauds or fakes since the beginning, we undermine our ability to trust our entire practice tradition, because it relies on our ability to recognize and empower people to transmit the Dharma to the next generation.

So, if these transgressing teachers did have deep realization and strong practice, how could they have thrown ethical guidelines out the window like an ignorant beginner on the path, still caught in passion and delusion?

A Buddhist Answer: The Teaching of the Five Ranks

The Zen teaching of the Five Ranks addresses precisely this question. Or, more accurately, frames the path of practice in a way that can explain our enlightened-teacher-screwing-up conundrum.

Chan master Dongshan Liangjie is credited with formulating the Five Ranks teaching in China in the 9th century. This is a teaching much revered in Zen, although many practitioners also find it a little obscure and intellectual. I’ll just give you a very basic overview of the ranks (also called “Dharma positions”) to frame today’s discussion, based mostly on my own experience, and teachings received from my teachers. (I use the ranks, here, as a description of the arc of practice over a lifetime, but there are also subtler ways to approach this teaching. If you’re interested in learning more, I recommend Ross Bolleter’s book, Dongshan’s Five Ranks: Keys to Enlightenment.)

The first “rank,” or Dharma position, according to the translation used in Bolleter’s book, is “The Contingent within the Essential.” This describes the beginning of practice, when all we’re aware of is the conventional, mundane world of appearances (the relative, or contingent aspect of reality). The Essential, or absolute, nature of reality is, of course, fully present despite our ignorance of it. My teacher Kyogen Carlson likened this to a young girl who has no ideas bicycles exist.

The second Dharma position (I prefer that term over “rank,” which implies some judgment) is “The Essential within the Contingent.” This describes the awakening of “Way-seeking mind,” or the “thought of enlightenment.” Somehow, we become aware of something larger or deeper than the reality we’ve known so far, and we become determined to learn more. Kyogen compared this to when our young girl becomes aware of the miraculous phenomenon called a bicycle, and can think of nothing else except obtaining one.

The third Dharma position is “Arriving within the Essential.” This is when we personally awaken to the essential, or absolute, aspect of reality – when we comprehend the empty nature of all things, experience the falling away of dualistic distinctions, and see in what sense all things are part of one, seamless, luminous whole. This is a very important part of practice. (See my Handy Chart of Absolute and Relative.) Although I’m framing realization in Zen terms here, this is equivalent to a Buddhist in any tradition gaining the insight which liberates. Typically, when we arrive within the essential, we become pretty enamored of it. Kyogen likens this to our young girl finally getting her own bike and wanting to ride it from dawn until dusk, or at least gaze at it lovingly when she can’t be riding.

The fourth Dharma position is “Approaching from the Contingent.” This is a critical part of maturing practice, and often overlooked in favor of an emphasis on the third Dharma position. When we work on approaching from the contingent, we find ourselves back in the world of the relative, having to somehow reconcile our awareness of the essential with the conventional, mundane world of appearances and everyday life. Jack Kornfield writes about this in his book After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. It may seem difficult, at times, to break through to a direct experience of the absolute, but it’s actually much more challenging to integrate such an experience into your daily life in a fruitful way. You might compare this stage to our young girl having to come in to dinner or go to school instead of ride her beloved bike, but this is where our bike metaphor starts to break down: We’re generally much more attached to what we know of the Essential than a kid is to her bike.

Just to complete our exploration of the ranks, the fifth Dharma position is “Arriving at Concurrence.” I don’t claim to have any more than a limited intuition about what this stage is like, but the idea is that once we’ve completed the process of integration in the fourth stage, we function freely and skillfully in reality without getting caught in any dualism between “relative” and “absolute,” or “contingent” versus “essential.” This is sometimes called “returning to the marketplace with bliss bestowing hands,” where we manifest the fruits of mature practice without it being anything special. Our young girl just uses her bike – picking up and putting it down without a fuss.

Ethical Violations as Fourth Rank Pitfalls

I’m sure this isn’t the only way to frame the ethical violations of respected Buddhist teachers, but it helps me to think of them as fourth rank/Dharma position pitfalls. Most – if not all – of the Buddhist teachers (or other spiritual teachers, for that matter) I know seem to be practicing within the fourth Dharma position. This isn’t a criticism; heck, I suspect that if someone actually reached the fifth Dharma position they would go incognito as a strangely inspiring Uber driver, or an infinitely patient nursing assistant, not present themselves as a “Dharma teacher.” But we need Dharma teachers, so back to the fourth rank.

Practice in the fourth rank is prolonged and extremely challenging and tricky. There are all kinds of pitfalls and traps facing the maturing practitioner, especially if they have the added burden and temptation of holding the role of a teacher. As I see it, here are a three such pitfalls that can contribute to a serious ethical violation:

You can over-emphasize the contingent. You can get complacent about your practice and rest on the laurels of past insights into the essential. While direct experience of the absolute does permanently change you at some level, you can fall back into old patterns and overwhelm the change unless you keep up an effort to maintain a living connection to the essential. Even accomplished teachers need to keep meditating, studying, and paying attention to the wise counsel of elders and peers. As much as we would like realization to be a one-time, dramatic cure-all for all negative karma, that’s just not the case. Even a dramatic awakening experience fades over the decades if you let your practice stagnate, which it’s easy to do if you’re a teacher surrounding by students telling you how wonderful you are.

You can over-emphasize the essential. This means you relate to the absolute aspect of reality as if it’s more real, true, or legitimate than the relative aspect. From the absolute perspective, the “self” as we usually conceive of it is just a mental construct, so who is harmed when the teacher crosses sexual boundaries? From the absolute perspective, all distinctions fall away, so “good,” bad,” “right,” and “wrong” have no meaning. In the essential, all things are part of one, seamless, luminous whole, including the feelings of sangha members or spouses who are stuck in the relative and therefore feel devastated because of so-called “sexual misconduct.” If you haven’t experienced the “Zen sickness” of being attached to the absolute, these statements probably sound like crazy justifications, but I assure you these conclusions are often sincere. For example, I remember, at one point long ago, taking an action that I knew would have negative consequences because I figured my future self had a choice: Cling to relative judgments and feelings and therefore suffer, or let go into emptiness and realize all was well no matter what. What can I say? Human beings are crazy.

You can overestimate your own degree of integration and think you’re in the fifth rank. While you’re actually still under the influence of negative karmic habits and self-attachment, or while you’re still emphasizing one side – the contingent or the essential – over the other, you imagine your practice is fully integrated. Now you’re “returning to the marketplace,” and while it may appear you’re breaking moral precepts for self-gratification, those are actually just “bliss-bestowing hands.” This is the “crazy wisdom” scenario, where ordinary mortals may perceive an action as selfish or transgressive, but in fact the actor is an enlightened being whose great wisdom allows them to see how the action will actually end up being beneficial in the end (or at least not harmful). Maybe there are fifth-rank people in the world who have successfully pulled off crazy wisdom, but I’ll bet they’re vastly outnumbered by the people who thought they could, but didn’t.

Salvaging Enlightenment from the Ashes of Unethical Behavior

Given that practice in/with the fourth rank is so fraught with potential pitfalls, I’m hoping you can see how even teachers with deep realization and strong practice might, on occasion, throw ethical guidelines out the window like an ignorant beginner on the path. The way I described the three main pitfalls – over-emphasizing the contingent, over-emphasizing the essential, and overestimating your own degree of integration – may make the pitfalls seem pretty obvious. What kind of insightful, long-practicing, esteemed Buddhist teacher would fall into the traps of complacency, delusion, or arrogance? Sadly, plenty of them. Those who commit ethical transgressions are just the ones we notice; the rest of us continue to struggle inelegantly in more anonymity.

Or should we even say it’s “sad” that even fourth-rank practitioners fall into traps? It’s only sad if we have an expectation it should be otherwise – if we expect that deep insight into the essential should magically transform people into saints. That would be nice – we’d have a lot more saints walking around the planet – but that’s just not the way spiritual development works. Progress is still made, however, even if it doesn’t happen in one dramatic step. Whenever I read the verse associated with the fourth Dharma position, attributed to Dongshan, in Bolleter’s book, chills run down my spine:

Approaching from the Contingent
No need to dodge when blades are crossed.
The skillful one is like a lotus in the midst of fire.
Seemingly, you yourself possess the aspiration to soar to the heavens.

Fourth-rank practice is incredibly rich and rewarding, as you might expect when you’re learning to function skillfully in a universe with two simultaneously-operating levels of reality. Where is emptiness when your heart is clenched with grief over loss of a loved one? How do you bring “suchness” to bear in a heated argument in favor of justice? How can your daily life better reflect your deepest aspirations? The ancients say there is actually no separation between absolute and relative – how can we experience and manifest this, instead of feeling like our lives have to be split between the incompatible activities of operating in the relative, and contemplating the absolute?

The important issue is not whether teachers are saints, but whether they can be useful to you. This isn’t to excuse – in any way, shape, or form – sloppy, selfish, or unethical behavior on the part of teachers. You should, by all means, look for teachers who actually walk their talk. At the same time, all you really need is a good enough teacher to guide and support you. Have they practiced longer or more intensively than you have? Do they have some insight? Do their teachings inspire you? Does their example or guidance help you? Then go ahead and rely on them, without forgetting they’re capable of mistakes. And if they make a mistake – even a harmful, egregious one – try not to let their action destroy your faith in the practice, or cause you to give your aspiration for enlightenment. The path remains tricky right up to the end.


Endnotes

[i] “Karaniya Metta Sutta: The Buddha’s Words on Loving-Kindness” (Sn 1.8), translated from the Pali by The Amaravati Sangha. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 2 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/snp/snp.1.08.amar.html .

 

90 - Buddhist History 11: Early Indian Buddhism - Stupas and Devotional Practice - Part 2
92 - Buddha's Teachings 11: The Five Hindrances – Part 1
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