‘First Buddhism in America Conference’ (1997)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

10 minutes

During the First Buddhism in America Conference in 1997, participants brought up the subject of sexual abuse with Miranda Shaw and Samuel Bercholz. The full report on this conference can be found here.

Shaw responded to a question about sexual relationships between monks or teachers and students in Tibetan Buddhism as follows:

“I think, in the past, people have tended to see sexual relationships with spiritual teachers as more or less Tantric. Just because you have a spiritual teacher doesn’t mean you’re practicing Tantra. I have met some of these Tibetan teachers who have had relationships with their female disciples, or with women who were not disciples, and there was nothing Tantric involved. I discussed it with the woman involved, and in some cases I was able to interview the man about his understanding relative to Tantra. There was no Tantra from beginning to end, except the fact that, because he was a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner, there was some assumption that it must be Tantric. In a few cases, these people had no knowledge of Tantra whatsoever.

So that is actually one of the reasons I wrote my book. I flushed these people out. This is a cloak they’re hiding behind. There’s a cloak of secrecy in Tantra that’s meant to be there to protect the sacredness of that realm from those who are not prepared or even suited temperamentally to be there. But there’s also another cloak of secrecy of lack of information about which people can hide. That I sought to remove.

The word tantra means ‘weaving’ and this refers to the fact that Tantra is a path on which every aspect of daily life, relationship, and erotic intimacy is woven into the path to enlightenment. Tantric partners seek to interweave their energies and use their combined energies to attain enlightenment.

In textual descriptions of sacred union, the female partner is always the one who takes the initiative. She approaches him, she embraces him, she raises her lips to kiss him, and she initiates union. This is often described in very poetic terms, for example, one text says Vajrayogini wraps her arms around him like a ‘red-dawn cloud embraces a lapis lazuli mountain.’ Again, it shows that ‘she’s the one who’s moving, embracing. Retaining the right of initiative is away to assure that the woman’s actions emanate from her own motives and primary purpose, which is to attain enlightenment. So you can see that this is not a dynamic of domination, but a blissful and mutually satisfying process protected by the aegis of female initiative.

In a Tantric text that records a conversation between Vajrayogini and her consort, she emerges asa great champion of women. She closely identifies with women and insists, ‘Wherever in the world a female body is seen, that should be recognized as my holy body.’ She goes on to say that, since all women and female beings in the universe are her embodiments, they should be respected, honored, and served without exception: ‘I am identical to the bodies of all women and there is no way that I could be worshipped except by the worship of women.’ Her partner asks her how a man should worship her.

She replies that he should regard his female companion asa living goddess and thus should prostrate to her, and circumambulate her, and make her his religious refuge. He should give her clothing, incense, flowers, lamps, perfume, and sacramental meat and wine. In their daily interactions he should rub her feet, cook for her, feed her, and wait until she has eaten to partake of her leftovers, as a symbolic gesture. He should regard every substance discharged by her body as pure and should be willing to sip sexual fluid and blood from her vulva and to lick any part of her body if requested to do so. He must satisfy her sexually, cultivating his erotic repertoire, taking special care to incorporate the female superior position.

In one text I read, the writer said, ‘And why, you may ask, should you do the female superior position? To attain buddhahood, of course.’ The man should never verbally or even mentally criticize her: ‘He should always speak with pleasant words and give a woman what she wants.’ This becomes his prayer of aspiration: ‘I must practice devotion to women, until I realize the essence of enlightenment.’

In addition to outward expressions of devotion, the man must have a devotional attitude. A negative or derogatory attitude toward a female companion is expressly forbidden. A man seeking enlightenment on this path is warned never to abandon, forsake, or even criticize women. One text states that even if aman has been accumulating merit or good karma for a thousand lifetimes, it will all be wiped out by a single instant of criticism of a woman. A passage on this theme says, ‘One must not strike a woman, not even with a flower, not even if she commits a hundred misdeeds.’

In the following text, Vajrayogini’s consort, Chanda Maharoshina, joins her in her strong advocacy on behalf of women. He agrees to punish those who transgress against women and assures her that he keeps his sword and noose at the ready as he scouts for men who fail to pay homage to women so he can slash the scoundrels to pieces.

‘Mother, daughter, sister, niece, and any other female relative as well as a female musician, priestess, sweeper, dancer, washerwoman, and prostitute, holy woman, yogini, and ascetic as well. These he should serve in the proper way without making any distinction. If he makes a distinction, I will be provoked and slay the practitioner and throw him into the lowest hell and threaten him with sword and noose. Nor will he attain enlightenment in this world or the next.’

Chanda Maharoshina apparently feels very strongly about this because he repeatedly warns a man seeking enlightenment on this path never to abandon, forsake, or even criticize women.

‘The buddhas command that you must serve a delightful woman who will uphold you. A man who violates this is foolish and will not attain enlightenment. On this path women must not be abandoned. Never abandon women. Heed the Buddha’s words. If you do otherwise, that transgression will land you in hell.'” (pp. 158-159.)

Samuel Bercholz too was asked to respond to violations of the ‘sacred trust’ between teachers and students:

[The next question continued to address the issue of loyalty between student and teacher. ‘Would you say something about the relationship between fearlessness and loyalty? Particularly in a student-teacher relationship, there is a sacred trust, especially when the teacher is guiding you. You have to have faith in yourself as well as in that teacher. So how are loyalty and fearlessness balanced, or how do they come into that sacred trust?’]

Samuel Bercholz: You hit the nail on the head. Loyalty and fear go hand in hand. It’s all about fear, in fact. What I mean is, Who are you? I don’t have a clue. If I want to find out who you are, I have to approach you. I have to actually encounter you. This is at the human level. There’s a lot of fear. Again, it’s the same thing: We could have a nice little relationship. You could be my teacher because you’re obviously a wise woman. You could teach me a lot, I’m sure. But who are you? Who am I?

Fear goes along with nihilism because, if we really fear, we will materialize, empiricize, make everything solid. Everything has to be solid, because once it goes out of that realm we’re in the woo-woo realm and there is a lot of fear about that. Now loyalty is an interesting thing. When two people meet and actually become friends, one can be devoted to the other and the other can be devoted to the other, but the long-term issue is, What are we doing in this world? That requires a loyalty to take it further than just simple devotion. It’s not really even a spiritual issue, it’s a social issue. Okay, we’ve met. What do we do with this?

[Mr. Bercholz’s response prompted another participant to raise the issue of misconduct in the teacher-student relationship. She posed it in terms of trust and the potential abuse of that trust: ‘We all know that [the person positioning themself as teacher] is why the student puts their faith and their trust in the teacher. To me it follows that the teacher does not abuse that setting. I think this can place the student in danger, such as [of] sexual overture toward the student [by the teacher].’
Mr. Bercholz observed that ‘it happens all the time and the problem is that the person who calls himself a teacher is a human being. Even though you can make a rule—No teacher will sleep with any student—as soon as you make that rule it’s going to be more enticing, because of the taboo.’
The woman who posed the original question asked: ‘Is it taboo because it’s understood to make sense? Or is it taboo because somebody else said it is and we don’t understand why?’]

Samuel Bercholz: It always takes two people to have a sexual relationship. If the teacher is foolish and the student is foolish, that’s their foolishness. There will be repercussions from that foolishness. I know it’s politically correct to think that the teacher is the only responsible person, but every teacher is a student, no matter what they say.

[A participant raised a pragmatic question that clearly had been on the minds of anumber of participants: ‘If you go to [a meditation] center and you study and you listen to somebody for two hours, I don’t see where there is time for this meeting of equals.’
Mr. Bercholz responded that ‘a meeting of minds first of all happens outside of time. You go to a place and hang out there for a few thousand years, then it’s time to go to the next place. But how do you know if it’s been a few thousand years or just a week? You have to ask yourself that question. When it’s time to move on, you move on if you haven’t made a connection. But it’s not about shopping; this is not like going to the supermarket.’
The response clarified the issue for the questioner, who came back with, ‘but do you keep going when … there’s one person that is doing all the talking and one doing all the listening?’]

Samuel Bercholz: Well, that’s no meeting of minds is it? But it might happen that way, too, who knows? There’s no set formula: If you do such and such, and such and such, the next thing is going to happen. There is no set formula like that. If there was, we could all follow the formula and all be enlightened. But there is no formula. There auspicious coincidence, and when it happens you’ll know it; probably when you’ve stopped looking. The only way to stop looking is by starting.

[The next participant’s question drew on a widely shared experience in teacher-student relationships. She explained that she had had teachers with whom she felt no rapport, where she felt like she was asking ‘Who are you? What is this?’ With no answer forthcoming, she had ended the relationship. Other situations were examples of a meeting of minds, in which case, she said, ‘the loyalty, the devotion, the humanness, and the two-way interaction always follow. … Do you think that’s wrong, that I would have a teacher [for whom I have absolutely no] respect or loyalty?’]

Samuel Bercholz: I think you are speaking from very basic intelligence. If you bow to the wrong thing, you are just stupid. I think that it’s very important when you bow, that you’re bowing to something you respect. The way to know that is that something you respect always bows back. I’m not just talking about physical things. That’s the whole issue of meeting of mind. It is never one-way; if it’s one-way, run as quickly as you can run.” (pp. 292-293)

[Toward the end of the session, the discussion came back to the issues of loyalty and of abuse of the teacher-student relationship. ‘ls loyalty being awake so that you question, you don’t trust, and then, in a teaching situation, [if] a teacher does something that you find inappropriate, … does loyalty go? Is it that, whatever happens, because you find your mind has met with this person, who is inspired, then your loyalty continues even when something very inappropriate or wrong happens?’]

Samuel Bercholz: It’s interesting that loyalty comes up in that context, because that is not what I was talking about at all. But, it probably is connected. The way I’ve been talking about loyalty isn’t just loyalty to a person. It’s loyalty to the fact that we have a whole world of people and if we just create garbage continuously, we’re being disloyal to this world. If we toss away our wife, if we toss away our teacher, if we toss away our husband, if we toss away our boyfriend, if we toss away our garbage, if we’re not taking care of those situations, just because we may have a temporary or long-term aversion to them, something happens in our society. Loyalty is being loyal to the reality that we are in this together. And the ‘we’ is an interesting we. It includes the teacher, it includes your family, it includes other human beings, it includes sentient beings. Loyalty here is not just a simple thing about setting up your little world with your teacher. There is a bigger issue, and it’s connected with fear It is difficult to be loyal because we’re afraid. It’s much easier to hide.

What it comes down to is, if you have a relationship with someone where you’ve had a mind-to-mind meeting, not saying yes always. In fact, probably it’s rarely saying yes. A meeting of mind is not just saying yes, it’s a meeting. But it’s not being always combative. If you take it down to a person-to-person thing, it’s very domestic. Loyalty is cleaning up the dishes. Loyalty in the house is as simple asbeing willing to clean up your own mess.

[Another participant expressed her concerns this way: ‘If you have the teacher, you have the meeting of the minds, … and the teacher did things that were not on the list of approved things. Would the loyal and fearless way to handle it be to address your teacher and say “Look, this is what I find to be uncomfortable” and just talk about it and tell them basically what you see the misconduct to be and … where you don’t feel it’s a correct teaching relationship?’]

Samuel Bercholz: That’s up to you. I can’t tell you. Sometimes it’s about confronting, sometimes it’s about offering support, sometimes it’s about being angry, sometimes it’s about being kind. Loyalty always comes from kindness, but kindness has many different faces.

I had a very interesting teacher, a very traditional person. One day I was called into his office and he was extraordinarily angry. I was extraordinarily afraid because he was extraordinarily angry. He shouted at the top of his lungs to me “You’ve become a yes man. I don’t need you anymore if you are going to do that.” I was shocked because that’s what I thought he wanted, and so my teacher was very kind because I am a very stupid person.’ (pp. 296-297.)

Rapaport - Buddhism in America-Proceedings of the First Buddhism in America Conference (1998) - Shaw & Bercholz

About the author

Rob Hogendoorn

Investigative reporter and academic researcher Rob Hogendoorn (b. 1964) began researching the reception of Buddhism in Western society and culture in the early 1990s. His modus operandi remained the same ever since: independent, inquisitive and provocative.