Sexual Ethics and Buddhist Teachers
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.