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."
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.
ALAN J. MARGOLIS
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.
STEPHEN J. KARAKASHIAN
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.
DIANE SHAINBERG, PH.D.
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?
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.