Thursday, November 29, 2012

Sex and the Lama

Is it acceptable for a lama to sleep with a student?

There have been tales recently of Tibetan teachers living in the West having sex with western female students. Some, it is claimed, entice the woman to bed with the promise that such elevated sex will bring great blessings to the willing co-operator. In response to this, it has to be asked where in the teachings of the Buddha does it say that having sex with a spiritual teacher is a practice on the path to enlightenment? I can think of no such teaching, and I would challenge anyone to produce one.

However, there are those western students who defend such activities saying that while there is no specific teaching on this topic, there is the general injunction that the disciple should do whatever the guru asks of them. Also, they point out that it does not behoove us to judge the actions of a lama, because they are the deeds of an enlightened being, and as such are far beyond the scope of mere mortals such as ourselves. Finally, some women justify their sexual cooperation with a lama by saying they have become “consorts” of the lama. There are then three justifications given for a lama having sex with a student:

1) We should do as the lama asks.
2) We are not capable of judging the lama’s motivation.
3) These women have become consorts of the lama, and so the relationship is perfectly acceptable.

Let us look at these three claims. First of all, there is no general teaching in Buddhism that the disciple should do whatever the lama commands. Any teacher of Buddhism should be examined well before accepting him as a guide on the path. This is stated many times in both Sutra and Tantra. Until that examination is complete, it goes without saying that you should not blindly follow his commands. The Sutra criteria for being qualified to take on the responsibility of leading students on the path are set out in Ornament for Mahayana Sutras by Maitreya. There are ten qualities that include being disciplined, having a pacified mind, possessing qualities greater than those of the student, love, wisdom and concern for the student, and so on. That work states that it is not essential for the mentor to possess all ten qualities, because it is difficult to find someone endowed with all of them. However, they should have as many as possible. It seems highly unlikely that a teacher whose five senses are disciplined, and who has the student’s welfare at heart would seek to take sexual advantage of a female student. Therefore, if a teacher does make approaches to a student, it is quite likely that he is under the sway of worldly desire, and so in such cases the student does not have to accede to these desires simply because of the instruction, “Do whatever the lama commands.”

There is an instruction specifically in tantra to do as the lama commands. But what does this mean? A vajra or tantric master is sought by those whose minds are well trained in the preliminary paths of Sutra. Anyone who jumps straight into tantric practice with a worldly mind will reap only worldly results, and many of them may not be that palatable. The path of the vajra vehicle demands that the mind uses its ability to transform the perception of the ordinary into the divine. The guru who gives initiation and who guides a tantric practitioner cannot be viewed as an ordinary person. Only Vajradhara can confer and transmit the phenomena of initiation to the student. After the initiation, only Vajradhara can impart the necessary core teachings on the generation and completion stages.

Tantra simply does not work on the ordinary level or everyday perception, and every instruction from the guru is an instruction from Vajradhara. The tantric practitioner has committed himself or herself through various profound pledges to life on the tantric path, and following the lama’s commands is part of that pledge. It is said, for example, that if the lama asks you to eat his own shit, you should do it without hesitation. This is the ideal. This is the practice for someone who, having spent many years training their mind, is now ripe for tantra. And it is in this advanced environment that one must do as the lama commands without question. However, this is not the case for many of us who attend initiations without being ready for them, or just for the “blessings.” Therefore, if a western student has not reached such an advanced level of tantric practice, then they are within their rights to question the commands of the lama, especially those that appear particularly worldly.

One of the reasons why students take on the belief that they must do whatever the lama asks of them is that this instruction is often broadcast in teachings right from the very beginning. This leads the student to believe that it is applicable from the beginning of practicing the path, when, as described above, clearly it is not. These days more and more Western students come across lamas at Dharma Centres in the West. Often they are attracted by the promise that Tibetan Buddhism brings, and they can easily rush in and embrace the teachings more in hope than in a definite knowledge of what benefits they will bring. Their own enthusiasm carries them unthinkingly into the practice of guru devotion. This is where it can start to go wrong. Having embraced too much without enough introspection and analysis, they are faced with demands from the guru and feel that they cannot back down now, for to do so would constitute breaking samaya, or bond, with the guru. This is a sad situation, and not at all what the profound teachings on guru devotion were designed to bring about.

The second statement that is often thrown out to support a lama doing as he pleases is that he is an enlightened being and the rationale for his actions, however bizarre and unseemly they may appear, is not within the scope of our perception. Therefore, we should maintain a “pure view” of his conduct, and not judge or condemn him as we would an ordinary being. For the individual this can be dealt with as above, by assessing their own level of practice and their relationship with that lama.
However, this rationale is often used by the members of a Dharma community in the West as a way of responding to allegations of irregular behaviour in their lama. It is true that we do not have the ability to judge a lama’s actions, but Dharma communities in the West carry the responsibility of presenting the teachings of the Buddha in a modern western environment. If the Dharma is to find its place in the western world, it should, as far as possible, conform to the conventions of the society it finds itself in. It is simply unacceptable in the world these days for those in positions of power and influence to have sexual relations with those who look up to them, or who defer and rely upon them. No doctor or teacher would last five minutes in his job if he was discovered having sex with his patients or pupils. Why should it be any different for a lama in a position of great influence over the minds of others? Therefore, members of a Dharma community have a responsibility to provide a public response to any allegations of sexual abuse in their community. To turn a blind eye is to evade that responsibility, and to counter allegations with talk of maintaining a pure view of his conduct is essentially to do nothing. This is not the same as condemning the lama. If he is seen to be breaching the codes embedded in that society, he should be approached and the issue addressed.

It is necessary to conform to the sensible prevailing attitudes that rule the society we live in. It is true that there are teachings that say we should not judge or condemn the misdeeds of others because they may be bodhisattvas using skilful means to benefit others. But this does not mean that, for example, there should be no criminal justice system, that offenders should not be arrested and tried, or that there should not be reprimand and censure. In the eyes of the world there is right and wrong; professionally, morally and legally. If a lama sleeps with a student it is wrong on that basis, and should be dealt with on that basis. The great Indian master Ati┼Ťa, when he was disciplinarian at his monastery, saw a breach of the rules in a monk. He had no choice but to expel that monk, even though in the back of his mind he felt it was not right. Sure enough, the monk turned out to be a great yogi with supernatural powers. However, he followed the norms of the monastic society he lived in. Dharma Centre managers have no choice but to do likewise. It may be that the conduct of the lama has some hidden nature we are not privy to, but that is not the level on which the world operates.

The third reason that is given for women consensually sleeping with lamas is that they have become the lama’s consort. Well, taking the meaning of “consort” to be that as described in the tantras, and not just “wife” or “mistress,” then these women should know that they must possess certain qualities and characteristics that are either innate or have been developed. Wishing and hoping that they will be imbued with blessings is not one of these qualities.

In short, the transmission of Buddhism in the West is still in its infancy. Like a fragile shoot in the ground, it needs care and protection. The damage that would be inflicted on its growth if our rapacious media got hold of these salacious stories does not bear thinking about. Within the confines of the Dharma community too it is our responsibility to ensure that the teachings of the Buddha are not sullied by misunderstanding, and that we do not stray from their independently minded and altruistic message, and sink into a spiritual world ruled by personality cult alone.

Gavin Kilty
Kathmandu 2012


  1. To answer the opening question: where among the Buddha's teachings does it say that sex with a spiritual teacher will bring enlightenment, advanced students of Tibetan Buddhism say the Buddha taught sex as a path to enlightenment when he emanated as Vajradhara. The author of the above essay himself says that "only Vajradhara can confer and transmit the phenomena of initiation to the student". Surely the author doesn't mean the historic Vajradhara, but his representatives, who are the tantric masters, i.e. the teachers.

    The author assumes that these sexual liaisons are consensual, but in many cases they are not. This article glosses over the pernicious issue of coercion of vulnerable followers with a childhood history of sexual abuse, and the issue of breach of trust, not to mention outright rape. Educating students of Buddhism to be wary is all well and good, essential, in fact. But this doesn't let predatory gurus off the hook. Ultimately, the responsibility for misconduct and abuse is theirs.

  2. Is it acceptable for a lama to sleep with a student? YES definitely, if everything is consensual. Sex is a healthy need for every person, no matter whether it's a lama or a Catholic priest. Every attempt to limit this human need will eventually lead to craziness or at least some mental problems. So please do not use any religious rules to rectify such wrong attempts!