‘Sexual Conduct and Misconduct’ (2000)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

7 minutes

In 2000, Gabriele Küstermann contributed to the book Innovative Buddhist Women: Swimming Against the Stream. In ‘Sexual Conduct and Misconduct: Buddhist Ethics in the West,’ Küstermann describes a ‘typical scenario’ that is commonly found in Western Buddhist centres.

“‘Teachers’ in the West include both fully qualified teachers trained in traditional Asian settings and also their Western disciples, who support them, translate for them, orient them to Western life, and organize Buddhist centers for them. This group of disciples has a very difficult task, especially if they chose to emulate their teacher by becoming a monk or nun. Let us take a typical scenario.

A male Buddhist teacher comes to the West on the invitation of a group of men and women who wish to receive Buddhist teachings from a qualified teacher. This teacher, sent by an organization or monastery in Asia, wishes to spread Buddhism to interested Westerners, and at the same time to help his own people materially and sometimes—as with the Tibetans, Vietnamese, and Cambodians—politically. Because they have in-depth knowledge of the political situation and sufferings of their people, they raise their students’ awareness of the need for freedom in their countries. Their students, ingrained with a sense of social responsibility due to their own Judeo-Christian cultural backgrounds, naturally adopt these causes espoused by their teacher and begin organizing political support groups and raising donations for welfare activities to benefit ‘refugees’ both in Asia and in the West.

Despite their mutual core interest in the Buddhist teachings, cultural differences and misunderstandings between teachers and students may arise along the way. These difficulties become especially obvious if the Asian teacher does not speak a Western language and is dependent upon certain members of the inner circle to interpret his (most are male) wishes and ideas. Without these interpreters, the teacher would be unable to fulfill his mission and might return to Asia, leaving a large group of followers alone and without guidance.

Westerners particularly admire teachers who teach through example, not merely with words. Fully qualified teachers—good role models held in high esteem—are rare. But becoming a Buddhist or being a Buddhist does not necessarily mean that we are saints. Human beings are constantly challenged by their shortcomings, and Buddhist groups are especially challenged to cope with the human tendencies to admire and overestimate, to indulge in wishful thinking, to expect ideal behavior, and to experience sexual attraction, particularly to teachers. Naive with expectations, students frequently overlook the weaknesses of human nature.

Sexual attraction is one of the deepest human instincts. It may be the most difficult to acknowledge and deal with. Under the power of sexual desire, we may deny it, disguise it, or postpone dealing with it until situations becomes dangerously out of control.

All human beings—men, women, laypeople, and monastics—are vulnerable to sexual desire. Therefore we cannot ignore the critical issue of sexual attraction in human relations. Whatever lifestyle we choose, harmful and ambiguous sexual relations will stand as obstacles in our path. Women, in particular, being vulnerable to assault, must be constantly mindful and aware. Under the influence of sexual desire, others cannot be trusted to have our best interests in mind. Relations with teachers are especially prone to ambiguity and the potential for exploitation.

Situations of sexual attraction with teachers are especially important occasions for awareness, whether it be attraction arising from the teacher’s side or the student’s. Teachers and practitioners alike need to develop mindfulness to recognize sexual desire, and clarity to deal with the situation honestly. Mindfulness, clarity, and honesty help us see how sexual desire makes us vulnerable to exploitation: sexual, financial, and psychological. We need confidence to make wise, forthright decisions, especially when our perceptions are clouded by desire.

Our emotional responses affect not only ourselves, but also the object of our desire. Monastics, particularly those with little sexual experience, are extremely vulnerable. Unaccustomed to the sudden rush of emotions, they may compromise their better judgment. If they are not careful, they may break the precepts before offering them back or refuse to accept responsibility for their actions. Such situations may lead to hypocrisy or worse. They rarely produce lasting happiness, and may lead to lifelong regrets.

An incident of sexual attraction may be ideal for observing the emotions, but this practice is also very dangerous. Because we are not yet capable of controlling our emotions, it is like honey on the edge of knife. Carelessness in matters of sexual attraction can lead to some very messy situations.

The requirements for tantric practice with a consort make it clear that both practitioners are required to have equal spiritual attainments, all the same empowerments, and many extraordinary qualifications. The accounts of women such as Machig Labdronma (Ma gcig lab sgron ma) give vivid descriptions of spiritual life in Tibet during the 11th and 12th centuries. Female consorts were often the teaching partners of lama practitioners. After the 13th century, however, we find few biographies of great female tantric masters. If tantric practitioners can only fulfill their objective through practice with partners of equal spiritual attainment, and qualified female tantric masters were lacking, we can assume that the practice declined over the past eight centuries as male practitioners secured the services of women without the required qualifications. Under the circumstances, many were forced to keep their special sexual relationships a lifelong secret under the threat of going to Vajra Hell. Not only were women compromised by these unequal relationships, but after the initial phases of the practice, they were not empowered to teach or share their experiences with others. As happened some centuries after the Buddha’s passing, women were here again deprived of female spiritual role models.

Gelugpa teachers such as my own now emphasize the symbolic meaning of the sexual imagery. The sexual union between men and women (yab-yum, or “father-mother”) shown in painting and sculpture represents the union of compassion and wisdom that is needed for achieving the goal of Buddhahood. Therefore June Campbell’s book, Travellers in Space, was an eye-opener for me. Similar claims of sexual involvement with well-known teachers followed in other women’s accounts, causing disbelief and outrage among followers. I met with June Campbell personally to increase my understanding. Her main objective in sharing her experience with the public arose from a concern that these secret sexual practices, which grew out of the Tibetan cultural context and are understood in the West as a means of furthering one’s spiritual development, would lead to intolerable situations when practiced by Western women drawn to Buddhism as a path of gender equality, especially when they involved secret pledges (samaya) and guru devotion to the teachers as sexual partners. Campbell regards these practices as culturally formed behavior that is not part of the Buddha’s teachings. Women need to be very clear about this and decide wisely whether they wish to take part in practices that are alien to our understanding of equality and openness between sexual partners. Misuse of power in this sphere can only be resolved through an open discussion of such practices, and when open discussion is construed as breaking tantric pledges and a breach of guru devotion, many misunderstandings can arise that may overshadow the deeper wholesome aspects of tantric Buddhist practice.

As Lori Pierce points out with reference to racism, the question of sexism and sexual exploitation cannot be adequately addressed simply by considering the feelings and actions of individuals. The question must take into account the structural flaws in a system that allows sexism and sexual exploitation to continue, and may even perpetuate it. June Campbell asserts in her book that the system perpetuates unequal power relations. By privileging men over women in spiritual training and by maintaining male-dominated power structures, such as the tulku system, Buddhist institutions contribute to women’s feelings of powerlessness, subordination, and inadequacy. In a system where nearly all gurus are male, where gurus are revered as enlightened beings, and where disciples are advised to please their teachers, women are clearly at risk.

Traditional societies have safeguards in place to protect women from exploitation, albeit frequently at the cost of women’s independence. Without this cultural security system, sexual symbolism is likely to be misunderstood and misused. In such a situation women may feel privileged to participate in sexual relationships with gurus who are respected in near-mythic proportions—and who may also be extremely wealthy. Even so, these ‘brushes with greatness’ often end tragically for both partners. Sexual relations are prohibited for monks and the monastic vows cannot be restored once broken. Even when both partners are aware of this, a temporary lapse of mindfulness has led to the disrobing of many a monk. There are many dangers for a monk living in a culture where people do not know what it means to be a monk. More disturbingly, since monks are usually trained only in religion and have few other means of earning a living, some continue to wear the robes of a monk even after they have relinquished their precepts, enjoying the privileges of being a monk without living by the precepts of a monk. This leads to confusion and misunderstandings in the community.

Many Buddhist women are still in the process of recognizing sexism in their temples and traditions and only beginning to ponder what to do about it. The process of Buddhist feminist awakening includes awareness of the way the feminine is glamorized, essentialized, and divorced from the immediate needs, both social and psychological, of flesh and blood women. How do women gain access to spiritual authority when males hold all the keys? The symbolism of the ḍākinī (woman as intuitive wisdom) is potentially liberating for women, but it fails to deliver in real terms when, like Holy Mary in the Catholic Church, it is defined, controlled, and manipulated by men. If this liberating ideal does not translate into real social freedom and spiritual benefit, it remains an empty symbol, useless for helping women realize their spiritual potential. By masking women’s powerlessness in the system, the myth of women’s spiritual equality merely perpetuates male domination. Women are left where they started, unable to actualize their spiritual potential.

It is a source of special concern among spiritual friends when women voluntarily allow themselves to be sexually exploited. Traditional Buddhist ethics teaches that individuals bear personal responsibility for their own moral conduct, and this does not explicitly extend to recognizing and preventing the sexual harassment and exploitation of others. Yet to shirk this responsibility may diminish the moral integrity of all parties and lead to disharmony in the practice community. Questionable sexual ethics among teachers creates competition, jealousy, and confusion in the Dharma community and may have far-reaching consequences beyond. Situations of cultural difference often make it more difficult to discern the boundaries of propriety, especially in relation to a dominant spiritual authority.

That is one reason traditional practices that pledge one to secrecy are coming into serious question. The question of women’s spiritual identity in a system that teaches selflessness, examined by both Campbell and Anne Klein, has important implications for sexual ethics. As Campbell discusses, surrendering the body and mind may lead to a diminishing of ego, but this sacrificial role that women have traditionally been expected to play is not without its dangers and costs. Public disclosures of promiscuous behavior by Buddhist teachers, sometimes distorted, are likely to reach the press, meaning that the public’s first introduction to Buddhism may be some sexual scandal. For all these reasons, it is essential that methods of intervention, constructive dialogue, and reconciliation in line with Buddhist values and goals be devised to ensure healthy, functional individuals and Dharma communities.” (pp. 287-291.)

Küstermann - Sexual Conduct and Misconduct-Buddhist Ethics in the West (2000)

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.