‘The Buddhist Experience in America’ (2004)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

5 minutes

In 2004, Diane Morgan published a textbook with her survey presentation of Buddhism in America in the series ‘The American religious experience.’ The full book is available here.

A separate section of Morgan’s The Buddhist Experience in America focuses on sexual misconduct:

“Avoiding sexual misconduct is the Third Precept. It has traditionally been explained as meaning celibacy for monks (although traditions differ here) and no adultery for laypersons. The Buddha himself had nothing good to say about sex; he felt that it was one of the worst kinds of desires that kept people from achieving Enlightenment. In the world of the Sangha, women were a snare and temptation. His anxious monks inquired as to what to do if they should happen upon women. ‘Don’t look at them,’ the Buddha advised severely.

‘But what if I have to look at them?’ persisted the monk.
‘Then don’t talk to them,’ the Buddha is reported to have said.
‘And if we must speak to them?’
‘Keep wide awake,’ counseled the Buddha, rather enigmatically.

As mentioned earlier, he stated that it was better for a monk to insert his penis in the mouth of a venomous serpent than to have sexual intercourse. It is difficult to think of anyone witha greater dislike for, or at least distrust of, the sexual act . (When tempted, the Buddha advised his monks to meditate on the idea of a corpse. He actually provided several varieties to choose from, including pus-filled, dog-mangled, and rotten, and, to make the lesson even clearer, he sometimes brought his monks to burial grounds to view and smell and meditate upon the real thing.)

In the Sangha’s Vinaya, or rules of discipline, all sexual activity is strictly forbidden, including masturbation and inappropriate touching of any person or animal. Even being alone with someone of the opposite sex was enough to get one kicked out of the Sangha.

The Mahayana tradition, in keeping with its celebration of Enlightenment in the midst of ordinary life, did not perceive sexual activity as a snare from hell the way the Theravada school did. Mahayanists felt that sexually active people were no further from Enlightenment than the celibate. Because sexuality definitely places one in the here and now, perhaps they were even closer.

Official Zen doctrine (if there is such a thing) is essentially silent about the subject of sex. Perhaps the founders thought that not mentioning it might make it go away. Despite this, however, Zen monks developed a rather unsavory reputation for sexual exploits in Japan, Korea, and China.

Tibetan Buddhists reserve for sexuality a powerful role in Enlightenment. Recognizing sex as a potent force, Tibetans developed Tantra, in which sexual activity was a means to Enlightenment. In most cases, they simply visualized sexual activity, but actual practice is not unknown, although it is restricted to only the highest adepts.

Later Buddhists had a tolerant, commonsense attitude to sex. On a practical level, of course, it is easy to be celibate in a grim monastery in the lonely mountains of Tibet. It’s a different story in contemporary American society. Thich Nhat Hanh has clarified the Third Precept for contemporary life by restricting sexual activity to people with a long-term commitment to each other—and to no one else. He also talks about protecting children from sexual abuse.

The current Dalai Lama stands by the Tibetan Lam Rim text concerning sexual ethics. This text specifically forbids sexual activity involving an inappropriate partner, organ, time, or place. Inappropriate partners include persons of the same sex. However, it also includes prostitutes paid for by ‘a third party,’ suggesting that prostitution paid for by the client falls within permissible sexual activity. And while prostitution is as common in the West as elsewhere, it is not considered ethical by any major religious tradition. Thus a similar case might be made for the allowance of homosexual behavior, which receives no more opprobrium than sexual activity with nursing or menstruating women, oral or anal sex, or even sex during the daytime, all of which were forbidden by the twelfth-century Buddhist teacher Gampopa (1070-1153). The same writer promised that those partaking of forbidden sexual acts would be reborn ‘in a place of much dust.’

Unfortunately, many Buddhist residential centers have been rocked by sexual scandals. Richard Baker, Maezumi, Soen Sa Nim (a Korean Zen Master), Chogyam Trungpa, and others were involved in inappropriate sexual relationships with students. Sogyal Rinpoche, author of the bestselling Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, was sued for sexual damages in 1994. While in some cases, the community survived and even prospered despite the scandals, leaking word of the sexual improprieties has done nothing to enhance the reputation of Buddhism among outsiders. It is interesting to note, however, that some committed Buddhists, including the noted and Buddhist feminist Rita Gross, a student of Trungpa, profess to be much more concerned about the secrecy and hypocrisy surrounding the activities of some teachers. In this view, the actual misconduct itself is not disturbing. She makes the point that she personally never expected ‘too much’ from a spiritual teacher in any case. She goes on to make a defense of sexual misconduct, mostly relying upon the position that women as self-determining adults should be able to make their own decisions.

Specifically, in her essay ‘Western Buddhist Women, included in The Faces of Buddhism in America, she writes:

‘I reject the frequent comparison of sexual encounters between spiritual teachers and their students to sexual contacts between bosses and secretaries or between professors and students. Secretaries and academic students rarely choose their bosses or professors in the way that Dharma students choose a spiritual mentor, and they usually can not exercise the degree of discrimination that is required of a Dharmas tudent vis-à-vis his or her guru. Most especially, I reject the comparison of the guru-student relationship to the therapist-client relationship.’

She continues, ‘I want to suggest that those who adamantly condemn sexual relationships between spiritual teachers and their students are overly reliant on conventional morality, especially conventional sexual ethics, which are often erotophobic and repressive.’ To not a few observers, this defense appears so weak as to be laughable. As a matter of fact, during the early days of the Sangha, the only opinion for which a monk could be censured was maintaining that there was nothing wrong with sensual pleasure.

This problem seems to be one shared by many religious institutions with authoritarian structures, in which the religious leader is perceived as being somehow exempt from ethical codes that bind others. Osel Tendzin, the successor to Chogyam Trungpa, apparently believed that even though he himself had contracted AIDS, his great spiritual powers prevented him from passing it on to others. (Why these spiritual powers did not protect Tendzin himself remains a mystery.) In addition, spiritual teachers are often charismatic, and students feel that sexual intimacy somehow draws them into a circle of spiritual power. It is equally clear that an abundance of adoring young students places a great temptation in the path of any powerful leader. This, of course, does not make such behavior any less reprehensible. New, more democratic leadership, which does not revolve around any one teacher, seems to be helping to solve the problem.

In addition, many Buddhist organizations, such as the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and others with democratic leadership, have tackled the problem directly. The BPF has produced a set of ethical guidelines for Buddhist teachers, which is being distributed to Buddhist centers throughout the United States. It has also co-sponsored support groups and training for those who have suffered sexual abuse by teachers in the past.” (pp. 283-286, links added).

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.