‘Sex, Power, And Buddha Nature’ (1991)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

16 minutes

In 1990, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship hosted a ‘town meeting’ in Berkeley, California. Three panelists addressed the proliferation of sexual abuse cases among Buddhist teachers and students. Participants discussed such cases during the open meeting that followed. A Spring 1991 special issue of the Newsletter of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship offered a comprehensive report on the proceedings, to which various writers added their own perspectives.

This is a transcript of the talk during the town meeting by Yvonne Rand († 2020):

“Here’s a quote from the Buddha which I think should be tattooed on our eyelids: ‘Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders, but after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.’

Suzuki Roshi regularly used to say: ‘It is true that sometimes I am the teacher and you are the student. And it is also true that sometimes you are the teacher and I amthe student.’

It behooves us to educate ourselves about where the traditions we are following have come from. Then we can begin to separate out what is culture and what is the dharma. In the Zen tradition, a lot of what we think is Buddhism is Japanese culture and I, for one, am not so interested in continuing to try to be a good Japanese. In Japan men and women are separated and lead very separate lives. Priests are no longer respected very much, particularly Buddhist priests. I discovered on a recent trip to Japan that walking around Japan with a shaved head and robes was not a benefit. The priests are famous for drinking and womanizing.

I have also discovered that the precepts are not emphasized in the Zen tradition in Japan, at least not overtly. And it seems pretty clear that we want to emphasize the precepts. These traditional guidelines about what a wholesome life looks like are very helpful.

I think about the translation we used for many years, in our own sangha at the Zen Center, of the precept about sexuality. We used to say: ‘A disciple of the Buddha does not misuse the senses.’ It’s a very different statement than: ‘A disciple of the Buddha does not engage in sexual misconduct.’ It’s a little easier to waffle, to have some self-deception about what you’re doing, when you talk about ‘not misusing the senses.’ It’s a step away from what the precept is actually saying.

Our sangha was rather large, and we all went along with the program. So I’m convinced that a very important issue for the American sangha to keep considering is the whole question of keeping silent and speaking out. This meeting, I think, is a great step in the right direction, namely, speaking out.

Perhaps many of us have kept secrets, or pretended that things were okay. I know for myselIf carry a great degree of grief at my capacity to have been part of the secret-keeping mechanism, and it has been extremely difficult for me to understand how that happens, both in my own life and in the life of a community, a sangha.

If we have one other person who will give us a reality check, it can make the difference between feeling like ‘I must be crazy’ and ‘something is not quite right around here.’ That act of truth-telling, no matter how frightening it may be, is crucial in our practice life and in our sangha life. It is crucial especially because so many of us have grown up in dysfunctional families where we’ve learned too well how to keep silent and how to keep secrets.

In Japan, a teacher says to a student, ‘Don’t ask questions, just do what you’re told. Just do what everyone else is doing and you will understand.’ That formula does not work for us as Americans. We are not a body culture. We are essentially a mind culture and we do better when we understand what we are doing, when we can ask questions, when we can say, ‘I don’t get it. That doesn’t make sense to me.’

Two things have helped me a lot in my life in the Zen Center sangha. One is to practice reminding | myself that I am corruptible. In the position of teaching, I have to remember that I could go the same way; all the teachers that we all know about have gone, and if I don’t want that to happen, one of the things I have to remember is that I have the capacity to be corrupted. And the other thing is to keep myself from getting isolated. To stay in a feedback system.

I think virtually all the teachers we know about who have gotten into trouble have gotten into trouble because they got too isolated. They were not in some kind of a context. It is a great relief to me, personally, for a group of us of this size to come together with some willingness to speak directly, and to listen carefully to each other. Thank you very much.”

The report by Sandy Boucher on the town meeting continues as follows: 

“The ‘Sex, Power, and Buddha Nature’ tow n meeting raised my hopes and left me encouraged about the future of Buddhism in this country. Prepared by organizers who displayed an extraordinary sensitivity to the issues and to the members of the many communities affected by power abuse, the gathering allowed us to speak honestly and respond with compassionate acknowledgement to the feelings of students and others who are struggling with questions of relationships with teachers and sangha. It marks a crucial juncture in the progress of American Buddhism.

I had come to this meeting with some reluctance, given the less than straightforward manner in which most Buddhist institutions and spokespeople have previously dealt with the issue of power abuse in Buddhist centers. An index of their ambivalence may be seen in the convocation last summer of the Second Generation Zen Teachers on the East Coast (they included only two women among the dozen or so participants). While these teachers discussed sexual abuse in Zen centers, and I understand there were several of them genuinely concerned about this problem, it is significant that they chose not to join in makinga statement to the Zen world to communicate their disapproval of this behavior. Perhaps, as Peter Rutter suggests in his Sex in the Forbidden Zone, one of the reasons male teachers hesitate to condemn wrongdoers publicly is because they want to keep open for themselves the option of committing this transgression.

But the leaflet for the ‘Sex, Power, and Buddha Nature’ town meeting stated that most of the evening would be given over to an open mike to invite the participation of everyone. This seemed promising. So, instead of letting my reservations keep me away, I brought them with me to the First Congregational Church, where the pews in the large sanctuary were beginning to fill with Buddhists and some people from other spiritual traditions.

Eric Ingersoll of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship introduced the program, commenting that through instances of power abuse in our communities, ‘disempowered in the very practice we look to for solace and liberation.’ This evening’s event, he told us, would be a forum to explore issues of community, power and communication, in the understanding that ‘community building is a vital part of peace-making.’

In their opening talks, Susan, Peter and Yvonne created a context that fully acknowledged the problem and invited a questioning approach to our assumptions and habits of mind.

Then it was time for the open mike. Julie Wester introduced this segment by encouraging people to speak from their own experience. The point was not to put anyone on trial or to debate what might or might not have happened, she told us, but to honor the fact that each of us has a part of the truth to share, and that our communities will be stronger for including all of the stories. Then she led a short meditation to help us be aware of the memories and emotions awakened in this context. ‘The feelings you’re having just now are what this event is about,’ she told us.

I was amazed and deeply affected by what followed. People came to the microphone and truly spoke from their hearts. Women told of having been sexually abused in spiritual and other settings, and of the effects of that experience on their later ability to trust other people and to have mutually satisfying sexual relationships, as well as its effect on their subsequent spiritual practice. Women and men aired their questions and hesitations about relating to a community, given that some of us have learned in our families to respond in such self-destructive ways to other people. They spoke of a current situation in a yoga school in which a teacher guilty of sexually harassing his students has been rehired and will resume teaching there. How does one deal with this insensitivity on the part of institutions? They questioned their own participation in Buddhist practice, asking if it could have been, in some part, a way to opt out of real life, to avoid the difficulty and complexity of relationships, of sexuality.

There was a feeling that we all held each other there in that room, respecting the enormous vulnerability that some people were willing to expose in order to truthfully address our experience.

The remarks from the audience were not taped, to preserve confidentiality; I hope I have suggested the range and complexity of that sharing. But while content is very important, it is the intent and the openness of the dialogue that is most significant for the Buddhist community.

One of those who stood at the microphone was a woman I had met in a number of Buddhist settings over the years, had talked with, had done some political work with. And yet as she spoke I realized how little I had known her. She was telling of her own fears, her difficult experiences in community, admitting her complicity in the abuse she had suffered, and asking herself whether she would ever again be able to trust herself to interact closely with others, and be able to trust others to act in a humane and conscious way. My heart opened, and I looked around at the people in the pews, thinking how little we know each other, even in the midst of this practice which is meant to awaken understanding and compassion, how efficiently we hide from each other. That woman’s brave public sharing was a gift to me, letting me see how I run away from my humanness and that of others, how sometimes I use the practice itself to insulate myself.

When the last person had spoken, Julie Wester led us in a short meditation to accept and integrate the feelings aroused by what we had heard. I was grateful for this, as so much had been opened, looked at, spoken of, that was difficult. Julie reminded us that by including our pain and our questions, we are reweaving the web that connects us in community.

I wish the ‘second generation Zen teachers’ could have been in that sanctuary. I did not see them there (perhaps they were present). On the other hand, I wonder if people could have spoken so openly if the authority figures had been there. But the teachers, had they been present, would have benefitted, for the event was a beginning of healing.

Even so, driving homeI felt strangely incomplete. What more needed to have happened, I wondered. And I realized that the strands of that rich outpouring of experience could have been drawn together at the end so that this event might affect more than those of us there in that church. How to do that? Perhaps a way to increase and disseminate its power would have been to write up a statement that could have been signed by everyone there, stating something like: ‘We members of the Buddhist community send a message to our spiritual teachers that we wish to deal openly and compassionately with the instances of sexual power abuse in Buddhist centers, that we will hold teachers accountable to the highest standards, and will no longer tolerate the silence that has formerly shrouded sexual misconduct. We invite all who read this to join usin our commitment.’

Such a statement could be sent to all the Buddhist centers, to carry the resolve of that gathering out into the world in a tangible way.

Perhaps plans could be made to form, as Peter Rutter suggested, an ‘ethics committee’ of people from the various communities, to invite students’ disclosure of abuse by Buddhist teachers, to investigate each instance, and either absolve or censure the teacher.

Anyone who has known an abused person is aware that she finds it extremely difficult to reveal what has been done to her. In conjunction with the regulative body to deal with accusations, there would need to be a group of people who would comfort and support the victims until they felt strong enough to be able to speak out about the abuse.

I hope there will be many repercussions from the ‘Sex, Power, and Buddha Nature’ town meeting. If the dharma in North America is going to follow a true path of liberation, we will need more such opportunities for the safe public expression of concern. Perhaps this town meeting can serve as inspiration for other such events in every city where there is a Buddhist community. Perhaps through events like this, we will one day be able to heal our wounds and imagine a world without abuse, in which innocence and trust are held precious; and in sharing such a vision, we gain energy to create that world.”

In the same issue of the Newsletter, Norman Fischer, a lineage holder and ‘head of practice’ and Green Gulch Farm, shared his thoughts ‘On Teachers and Students’:

“Someone asks me what I think about Zen teachers becoming involved sexually with Zen students.

It shouldn’t happen. It is foolish to even think about it, it doesn’t do anyone any good, it’s hard to think of anything good to say about it.

I am very susceptible to the ‘crazy wisdom’ point of view, and I do not enjoy the narrow-minded, rule-bound sense of morality that seems to be an occupational hazard of the religiously inclined. But I have never yet encountered any Buddhist teacher proposing such a free and easy view of morality who I didn’t think was kidding himself about it, using the apparent permission of the non-dual teaching to engage in selfdeception on one level or another.

I used to see teachers who slept with their students as manipulative. Now I see that teachers can themselves just as easily be manipulated by their students. Mostly it is unconscious, I think. A failure on everyone’s part to appreciate how deep the power relationships that underlie sexuality can run.

I used to be shocked and upset when I heard about a Zen teacher becoming involved in a sexual episode. Now I am not shocked—I think it is very stupid. The teacher should know better. The student should know better too, but we expect the teacher to be smarter. Some teacher screams, ‘But you don’t expect me to be perfect, do you, I’m only human!’ Yet there are justifiable expectations. I don’t have my brain surgery done by someone with a spastic twitch.

The longer I go on the more I see how important the precepts, simply understood, are. It’s like Bird’s Nest Roshi said to Su Shih, ‘Yes, every child of five knows it, but not even a sage of 80 really understands it.’ That, and an enthusiastic study of the Mahayana| teachings about compassion and the activity that must flow from those teachings, seem to me to be the two essential pieces of background that are needed to complete the picture of Zen. Without them we have a lot of shouting, some flashy concentration experiences, and, eventually, a bunch of hurt students and teachers. With them I think we have a chance of realistically affecting our lives and the lives of many people. Of turning them toward the light. So far our record is not very good, yet students somehow keep coming. One of the worst things about a sexual scandal (and they are always scandals, even if the real story is relatively innocent) is that it is a disappointment to those students.

And yet it will probably continue to happen. Psychotherapists have strict rules against sleeping with their patients, and yet I am told that a high percentage of therapists are married to former patients. A Zen teacher is not a therapist. And yet it is foolish of us not to acknowledge the similarity. A lot of students practice with the same motivation, energy and rationale as people who seek out therapists. We will never purge the Dharma centers of such students nor would we want to. After all, if one doesn’t have deep personal suffering to take care of, why would one devote one’s self to Dharma practice, year after year? Because of flower arranging or Tibetan chanting?

But this is not as interesting as the relationship in general between Dharma teachers and their students. The sexual issue is actually just a particularly lurid and mythic eruption of the contradictions and difficulties that underlie the relationship from the beginning.

Any time you give up the sense that it is you who are standing on your own feet and only you who can take a step forward, that you and only you are at all times the boss … whenever you forget about that and begin to ‘surrender,’ you have already been screwed. We all want to do that. It is comforting not to have to be responsible for the whole universe, and to be able to be taken care of by someone who is. And it is very wonderful to have a lot of people depending on you and thinking you are very smart and goodlooking. These are the real elements of seduction. How often do we fall for them during the progress of our path?

Teachers need to be very very humble, I think. Students are smart, teachers are dumb. If anything good happens in a Dharma relationship it is because of the student; it has very little to do with the teacher. Everybody should know this. Teachers are supposed to show up at the right time and take care of their knitting. That’s it.

Teacher-student relationships come out of the fabric of the society that produced them. The Roshi comes out of the Sino-Japanese Confucian worship‐your-ancestors tradition. Put that beautiful Roshi in the middle of our Freudian Oedipal will-to-power tradition and it is little wonder that people are going to be confused for a hundred years or so.

I think we need to think about the teacher-student relationship a lot more, and we will, in the doing of it.

I’d suggest we start by taking the capital ‘t’ off teacher and making sure that students talk to each other a lot. And to their teachers. When Buddhist teachers are a dime a dozen and no one knows which ones are good and which ones are bad except by the results over a long period of time, we will probably be better off.”

A former editor of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship Newsletter, David Schneider, cautioned the reader that on his view ‘Abuse is a Slippery Concept’:

“I lived in two different Buddhist communities, for several years each. In one community, sex was covert; if it happened, it happened very discreetly. In the other community, sexuality was much more overt. These descriptions include relationships between teachers and students as well as just between students.

In the more ‘open’ community, a great deal of pain, loss and heartbreak occurred. In the more ‘hidden’ community a great deal of pain, loss and heartbreak occurred, with fewer sympathetic people to talk to about it. In a third community I visited—a monastic one, with men and women strictly segregated—a great deal of pain, loss and heartbreak occurred. In all these communities, pain, loss and heartbreak also occurred independent of sexuality.

I detect a current of anti-sex sentiment running through the social-activist-Buddhist community, and at the risk of political incorrectness, I want to argue against that.

As basic human energy, sex (not just ‘straight’ sex) will find its way into our dreams, our meditation, and at last, into our activities, though perhaps in disguised form. No Buddhist instruction I’ve ever heard recommended repressing thoughts, sexual or otherwise. Acting on sexual impulses is certainly more dangerous: it produces hope, joy, pleasure, understanding, misunderstanding, fear, and despair. My experience has been that when coupled with meditation, these emotions yield strength, compassion, and wisdom more directly than just thinking things over. I am not espousing a ‘tantric’ approach here; I am in no way qualified to act as spokesman for vajrayanists, but denying or ignoring sexual energy on the Buddhist path does seem like having a powerful car to drive, but opting instead to get behind it and push.

Mistakes have taken place, and also abuses. To me, they seem more related to abuse itself than to sexuality. We let another person or a teacher in through our ears, listening to them; through our eyes, looking at their gestures or their calligraphy; through tasting food they prepare, trying on ideas they put forth, smelling their incense or perfume (or their body). If the other person has been vocally or mentally abusive, physical relations with them would likely be that way too. If they have not abused us through any of the other sense-gates, there is no reason to assume they will when it comes to touch, and there is nothing inherently abusive about touch.

‘Abuse’ or misconduct is a slippery, community-specific concept. In one of my resident sanghas, it was perfectly acceptable to whack a meditator hard on the shoulders with a long wooden stick, but inappropriate to give that person a passionate kiss at a party. I have been publicly ‘undressed’ in dharma-discussions with teachers, and have seen the same thing happen to others, including the teachers themselves.

The complaint is made that sexual relations with a teacher constitute breach of trust, as though a legal agreement had been drawn up; there are calls for legislative and judicial bodies to govern such contracts. The only explicit ‘deal’ I made with any zen or vajrayana teacher was that we would work together to wake me up (and to wake each other and all beings up.) It was obvious from preliminary research that such teachers had used whatever means necessary to accomplish these aims, and that they would continue to do so. (Labels of maha- or vajrayana do not necessarily have sexual implications. My current teacher holds two Tibetan tantric lineages, but practices as a celibate monk.)

I know a great many people who learned an enormous amount, and profoundly deepened their connection to dharma, through sleeping with their teacher. Transmitting teachings this way has not always been culturally taboo, even during the last 5,000 years of patriarchy. Given the degradation of human relations with Earth, and with other forms of life on her, we do well to question the assumptions of our culture, including ideas about monogamy and patrilineage. It is widely accepted that the ancient matriarchical cultures—goddess cultures—worshipped in a way we would call orgiastic, with no split between physical and spiritual functions.

I am not advocating a return to orgies, or sleeping with a teacher, or with anyone else for that matter. I urge that we avoid a lynch-mob mentality, and look both more deeply and more widely at sex before casting blame.”

Newsletter of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (Spring 1991) REDUX

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.