‘Perils of the Path’ (1985)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

The July/August 1985 issue of Yoga Journal contained an 11-pages long dedicated section that focused on (sexually) abusive gurus: ‘Perils of the Path: Why Teachers Go Astray: Gurus, Sex, & Spirituality’. The full issue is available here.

Dio Urmilla Neff’s ‘Tumbling from the Pedestal: What Makes Spiritual Teachers Go Renegade?’ provides a general discussion of the reasons why “gurus run amok,” with a series of detailed explanations. To go along with Neff’s article, Daniel Goleman’s checklist ‘Early Warning Signs for the Detection of Spiritual Blight,’ previously published in the Newsletter of the Association for Transpersonal Psychology and the CoEvolution Quarterly, is reprinted in a box text (pp. 20-23, 64-65).

Of specific interest to anyone investigating Western Buddhists’ long-standing awareness of sexually abusive Buddhist teachers in their midst is Jack Kornfield’s ‘Sex Lives of the Gurus’ (pp. 26-28, 66). First of all, Kornfield answers the question: ‘Why make such a big deal about sex?” Having presented some motives for the practice of celibacy, he goes on to present findings based on his own collection of data in the preceding years:

“According to this survey—which includes information on 54 teachers, six females and 48 males—sexual relations form a part of the lives of 39 of them. Only three out of 15 Zen masters,three of nine Hindu and Jain swamis, less than half of the Tibetan lamas, and five of the 24 Theravada Buddhist teachers considered in this survey are celibate. The rest (including myself) have chosen to involve themselves in sexual relationships. Significantly, 34 of the 39 teachers who are not celibate have had at least occasional sexual relationships with one or more students. Sometimes these were straightforward and open, sometimes more covert.” (p. 27)

Kornfield draws some tentative, in hindsight inadvertently prescient conclusions from his survey:

“Clearly, many of those who are generally acknowledged to be accomplished meditation masters and teachers are sexually active. Indeed, as a group these teachers seem to represent the whole range of human sexuality.The birds do it, the bees do it, and many gurus do it, too! So when we meet Tibetan lamas, swamis, meditation teachers, or Zen masters, we cannot assume that they are celibate—or, for that matter, necessarily very conscious about their sexuality. We may discover that a person’s accomplishment as a master of meditation does not automatically ensure a similar level of sexual awareness. In fact, teachers are likely to have active and complex sex lives. We have to re-examine the myth that enlightenment implies celibacy, and that sexuality is somehow abnormal or contrary to an awakened mind.

In addition, we need to separate out the various issues involved in sexual relations between students and teachers. Certainly some of those relationships are conscious, loving, and freely chosen; others, while perhaps lacking in emotional depth, are openly and harmlessly sexual. There may even be rare instances of true tantric sexuality. Nevertheless, some have involved the exploitation of the teacher-student relationship and have, in a number of cases, contradicted the teachings of the tradition. We have to acknowledge that such incidents have occurred and that in many cases they have been harmful.

Compounding the problem are the situations that involve secrecy or deception, for deception has proven to be the greatest source of disappointment and pain in spiritual groups. The discovery of covert or inappropriate sexual relations between teachers and students is not an infrequent occurrence. In recent years such discoveries have caused major upheavals in nearly a dozen of the largest Eastern spiritual communities in America. Why? The answer is that the heart and body must be awakened together with the mind. Doing our yoga and sitting on our cushions is not enough. The force of eros, the life force, sexuality—all have to be made a part of our practice. Otherwise we will find that unconsciousness, fragmentation, frustration, andexploitation will continue.

Of course, the creative side of uncovering such exploitation is that we are forced to re-examine what is actually taught about sexuality and what does in fact take place between teachers and students. When such sexuality is overt and openly discussed, exploitation and misuse of power are less likely to occur.

Nevertheless, of the students with whom I have spoken, most of whom were women, approximately half report that such sexual relationships have undermined their practice, their relationship with their teacher, and their feelings of self-worth. In many cases, these relationships, by perpetuating the stereotype of women as limited and inferior, have caused a degree of pain and confusion that men have difficulty com‐ prehending. After all, these women have undertaken spiritual practice in order to achieve true liberation and have been met instead with a lack of respect and validation that has only intensified their suffering.
Of course, the suffering and difficulty have not always been limited to students. Teacher-student sexual relations have quite frankly been a source of great suffering for many of the teachers involved as well.

Often the teacher’s motivation for initiating such a relationship has not been misuse of power, but rather a longing for contact and intimacy, a longing to step out of the isolating role of teacher for a while.
No doubt the seductive and everpresent pull of sexuality in the West has been challenging and confusing to Asian and even American teachers. Also, disciples and devotees are prone to project or transfer unacknowledged and often powerful parts of themselves onto persons in positions of authority, and such projections often influence teachers as well as students. This problem is not a new one, but is familiar to practitioners of other professions, such as psychotherapy. To better understand it, one need only consult the psychological and feminist literature.

One of our tasks in the American spiritual community is to become clearer about our expectations—of gurus, teachers, and students alike. Although teachers are undoubtedly responsible for openly expressing their beliefs concerning sexuality and for maintaining sexual beliefs and practices that are consistent with the tradition they teach, students also have a responsibility to ask that this matter be openly addressed.

In this way, we may come to understand that many teachers are still dealing with the same human energies and conflicts as we are. The real challenge is to become unattached to falsely idealistic images or expectations. For some this may initially involve a sense of loss and grieving for imagined and cherished spiritual ideals. Yet our maturity and true freedom may grow as a result.” (p. 28, 66)

Next, Kornfield proposes a few guidelines “skillful sexual conduct” he derived from Buddhist teachings. In closing, he expresses the hope he had at the time:

“I believe that, as Eastern teachers and teachings have become more widely accepted and better integrated into American spiritual life, a new style of practice has begun to emerge. This new Western style of practice emphasizes an equally universal but different expression of truth than the monastic, world-renouncing form that has been prominent for so long in the East. Of course, we will continue to have monasteries and adopt a monastic life-style during intensive meditation retreats. But our American way will emphasize integrating practice into our everyday lives as householders.

This approach is expressed in the Sufi saying “Praise Allah, but tie your camel to the post” and in the last of the 10 ox-herding pictures in Zen, where the master “returns to the marketplace with his wine bottle and his staff, and everyone he looks upon becomes enlightened.”

Finally, one may ask how we can speak so much about sexuality without mentioning love, how we can divorce the mind and heart form the body or separate logos from eros. Of course, this schism is the source of confusion and suffering not only in sexuality but in our world in general. Yet we must begin by investigating the myths and practices and see how we actually live them. Only then—when we have come more fully into the reality of the present—can love begin to flower.

In working out a 20th-century Western, non-monastic approach to spirituality that incorporates the basic truths of spiritual life, we need to discover how to join sexuality, conscious awareness, and love, and how to integrate all parts of ourselves into our spiritual life. This may prove to be our own unique form of mindfulness, even a Western tantra, a way of using the grist of life in the mill of awakening.” (p. 66)

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.