Sexual Ethics and Buddhist Teachers
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.
Stephen Butterfield is an English professor at Castelton State College in Vermont. He writes on Buddhist subjects for various periodicals including The Sun.