“I think this [sexual abuse in monasteries] is something we should look at. It’s very important that people don’t forget: Buddhism and Buddhist are two different entities. Buddhism is perfect. Buddhists are not.” ~ Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche
“Whenever one person stands up and says ‘wait a minute, this is wrong,” it helps other people to do the same.” ~ Gloria Steinem
Bhutan Issues Condoms for Monks
This month is the sacred month of Saga Dawa, when millions of Buddhists celebrate the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and parinirvana (passing away) over 2500 years ago. Ironically, this same month, in the tiny Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, it was reported that health authorities are making condoms available at all Buddhist monastic schools in a bid to stem the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV among young monks who are supposed to be celibate.
According to one newspaper, warning signs of risky behavior among monks first appeared in 2009, when a report on risks and vulnerabilities of adolescents revealed that monks were engaging in “thigh sex” (in which a man uses another man’s clenched thighs for masturbation), according to the state-owned Kuensel Daily.
On the one hand,this is a shocking story about the moral degeneration of the Buddhist community, with supposedly celibate Buddhist monks engaging in sexual activity. On the other hand, it is a positive sign of a conservative, Buddhist society opening up and acknowledging there is a serious problem of sexual misconduct in their monastic institutions.
The point of taking monastic celibacy vows is to show one’s commitment and intention to renounce attachment to sexual desire that, from the Buddhist viewpoint, causes many different types of physical and mental suffering. Some might think “thigh sex” (if consensual) is a minor transgression. Yet, one might also question if this was really what the Buddha intended when he spoke about the path of celibacy?
In any case, whatever one might think about “thigh sex” between consenting adult monks, if they are contracting HIV and other STDs, that generally means full penetrative sex (with men or women); penetrative sex is a clear breach of their vows and the Buddha’s teachings on monastic discipline and ethics.
Over the last few years, I have heard several stories of monastic sexual misconduct and abuse in Tibetan monasteries in exile. At times it is difficult to distinguish what is second-hand gossip and what is based on facts or direct personal experience. Melvyn C. Goldstein also referred to the sexual activity of monks in his book History of a Modern Tibet (Vol 2) and Lama Shree Narayan Singh has also written about the historical origin of ‘thigh sex’ in Tibet; however, up until recently, very few Tibetans have taken the brave step of ‘going public’ with their personal experiences.
The Rape of Kalu Rinpoche
In October 2011, a famous and highly-respected reincarnate Tibetan Buddhist master, Kalu Rinpoche, posted a Youtube video in which he reveals the abuse he suffered as a young monk at the hands of adult monks in his monastery. Rinpoche’s allegations caused shockwaves within the Tibetan Buddhist community (particularly his western students). Since that time, I have not heard any Tibetan Buddhist teacher (especially those connected with Kalu Rinpoche) publicly respond to his allegations, let alone suggest there be a formal investigation and those responsible brought to account. One can only hope Kalu Rinpoche’s video exposure of this serious issue has not gone to waste and been brushed under the carpet in the hope that people might forget about it. Rinpoche recently gave an interview in which he details the rape he suffered:
Kalu says that when he was in his early teens, he was sexually abused by a gang of older monks who would visit his room each week. When I bring up the concept of “inappropriate touching,” he laughs edgily. This was hard-core sex, he says, including penetration. “Most of the time, they just came alone,” he says. “They just banged the door harder, and I had to open. I knew what was going to happen, and after that you become more used to it.” It wasn’t until Kalu returned to the monastery after his three-year retreat that he realized how wrong this practice was. By then the cycle had begun again on a younger generation of victims, he says. Kalu’s claims of sexual abuse mirror those of Lodoe Senge, an ex-monk and 23-year-old tulku who now lives in Queens, New York. “When I saw the video,” Senge says of Kalu’s confessions, “I thought, ‘Shit, this guy has the balls to talk about it when I didn’t even have the courage to tell my girlfriend.'” Senge was abused, he says, as a 5-year-old by his own tutor, a man in his late twenties, at a monastery in India.
If that weren’t bad enough, Kalu Rinpoche’s former incarnation was himself accused of sexually exploiting June Campbell, his former female student and translator. Her story is just one in a number of cases of sexually predatory and exploitative conduct by male Tibetan Buddhist teachers towards their (mainly western) female students (see Mary Finnigan’s recent article “The Lamas who give Tibetan Buddhism a bad name”).
Putting aside the issue of sexual misconduct and abuse, much has also been said and written about on the everyday specter of violence as corporal punishment within Tibetan monasteries. Stories of excessive corporal punishment and violence in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries are commonplace.
One Tibetan man I know very well (who was a monk for 15 years from the age of 12) told me that physical beating of young monks was the norm in his monastery. He related a story to me of how as a young adolescent he was held down on a bed by four adult monks and beaten with a heavy stick for the minor infraction of being late to morning puja. I can also personally verify that there was a violent incident at a respected Kagyu monastery in Nepal a few years ago, where a young monk used a meat cleaver to attack another young monk about the head and body, almost killing him in the process.
How was it dealt with by the monastery? Instead of handing him over to the police on an attempted murder charge, the monk was kicked out of the monastery and no more was said about it. Such conduct would have resulted in a criminal investigation in the UK.
Children, Mass Monasticism and a Culture of Silence
For centuries, it has been the cultural practice in Tibet (which has continued in exile) to send very young children to monasteries. The children are sent for a variety of reasons, including devout religious belief, education, poverty and a lack of family support. As Melvyn C Goldstein explains in Tibetan Buddhism and Mass Monasticism:
In Tibet, monks were almost always recruited as very young children through the agency of their parents or guardians. It was considered important to recruit monks before they had experienced sexual relations with girls, so monks were brought to the monastery as young boys, usually between the ages of 6-12. On the other hand, it was not considered important what these boys themselves felt about a lifetime commitment to celibate monasticism and they were basically made monks without regard to their personality, temperament or inclination.
Furthermore, according to Goldstein and other personal anecdotes, child monks who ran away from the monastery were generally not offered sympathy or support and typically scolded by their parents and family; with the child sent immediately back to the monastery. In The Struggle for Modern Tibet: The Autobiography of Tashi Tsering there is a first-hand account of abusive treatment at the hand of monastics.
Born in 1929 in a Tibetan village, Tsering developed a strong dislike of his country’s theocratic ruling elite. He was taken from his family near Drepung at 13 and forced into the Dalai Lama’s personal dance troupe. Severely beaten by his teachers there for minor infractions, Tsering (a heterosexual) was then raped by a well-connected monk (and other “official monks”) in exchange for protection, becoming a passive sex-toy or dronpo (Tib: guest).
Even in exile, many Tibetans enter monasteries as children below the age of 16, often as orphans or at a long distance from their parents’ home. Many children do not see their parents or family members for years; their sole place of refuge and care being the monastery. They are then expected to keep the celibacy vow through puberty and adulthood—not an easy task for an adult, let alone an adolescent.
Furthermore, whereas previously monastics lived in isolated places providing little contact with lay people, women or worldly activities, nowadays, the close proximity of monasteries to large towns and cities and the proliferation and easy access of internet porn and so on has no doubt increased and fed the monks’ sexual desire and frustration.
With this background in mind, issuing condoms to monks may not be the most ‘pure’ or suitable method, particularly in terms of preventing rape and abuse, but it is certainly a practical one if monks are contracting HIV and other STDs. The cultural background of “mass monasticism,” combined with the lack of child protection measures, leave child monastics particularly vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse. This is not to say that the majority of adult monks are abusing children (or that it is only a problem in relation to Tibetan Buddhists), but even if it is only a small minority it can have a devastating effect. It only takes a few rotten apples to spoil the bunch, as they say.
Ruben Derksen, a 26-year-old Dutch reincarnate lama who stars in the film Tulku, has stated that is is about time that Tibetan Buddhist institutions were “demystified and the shroud was removed.” Derksen, who as a child spent three years in a monastery in India, recently drew attention to the physical beatings that are a regular practice there. “I met Richard Gere and Steven Seagal, and they didn’t see any of this,” he says. “When celebrities or outsiders are around, you don’t beat the kids.”
And therein lies part of the problem: it’s well-hidden. Although there are personal stories of abuse among the exile community, some people argue that they need to see more evidence; yet, there is no reason to disbelieve all these testimonies either.
Tibetan Buddhist monasteries are, historically and currently, some of the most advanced centers of Buddhist scholarship and practice in the world today. They have produced some of the world’s most inspiring, compassionate teachers and practitioners of Buddhism, the Dalai Lama and the 17th Karmapa being prime examples. For an adult, one of the best places to study and practice Buddhism is within a Tibetan Buddhist monastic setting.
Consensual masturbation and “thigh sex” between adult monks is not the chief concern here—albeit such activity from the monastic viewpoint is far from “pure” and, if done out of frustration as opposed to one’s sexuality, it is not particularly psychologically healthy either. What is more worrying is the presence of children in the care of these all-male institutions.
Who can these children turn to if there is a culture of abuse, shame, silence and denial in their community?
Being open and accountable on these issues will enable reform and constructive action. International children’s rights laws apply globally. This is not an issue relative to a particular culture or tradition.
Understandably, the Tibetan community in exile does not always respond well to criticism or suggestions for improvement, particularly when coming from non-Tibetans. In response to a Facebook discussion I started on this issue, a Tibetan replied that:
It is time for the Tibetan community to stop defending those who abuse and exploit their position of trust. Exposure of these cases and others that are widely known within our communities must be brought out of the closets. As a community, we have NO obligation to defend these people nor anything to be ashamed of. Their actions are not a reflection on the broader community. If we are to prepare for the post-His Holiness era, we better create a realistic and honest image of ourselves to the world. Starting now. As Tibetans, we cannot pretend all of us to be mini-Dalai Lamas. Our community is no different than any others, we have the good, the bad and the ugly. The world must see us for what we are.
If children are being left vulnerable in Tibetan monasteries, why don’t the Tibetan exile leader Lobsang Sangay and the Tibetan monastic authorities follow the Bhutanese example and call for an official report into the safety of child monastics in exile? At the least, in line with their publicly-stated desire to modernize, they could establish adequate sex education and internationally-recognized child protection measures in the monasteries and schools.
When are we going to get a public response from the monastic authorities on these alleged cases of physical or sexual abuse, particularly that of Kalu Rinpoche? If even Rinpoche’s allegations are not publicly investigated then what hope is there for a young, unknown orphan child undergoing a similar experience? What about kick-starting a public initiative that provides both monks and ex-monks a confidential, safe platform to register and report their personal tales of abuse and neglect in the monasteries?
These testimonies could then be compiled into an official document and delivered to the CTA and monastic authorities to respond to. A simple, preventative measure is to bar anyone from becoming a monk until the age of 18. At the very least, setting aside legitimate concerns about violence and sexual abuse, doesn’t it make more sense for a person to take the decision to become celibate after puberty, when they are better able to make an informed, adult decision about it?
On a positive note, Kalu Rinpoche is not just taking on the voice of a victim but also that of a pioneer, creating a school for children whose families are in financial difficulty and barring them from becoming monks until the age of 19. Whatever anyone might think about this issue, first and foremost (following Kalu Rinpoche’s example) we all need to think about what is in the best interests of the children. The reputation of Tibetans or Tibetan Buddhism has to come second to that.
Dedicated to Kalu Rinpoche and the children.
Adele Wilde-Blavatsky has an MA in Philosophy and previously worked as a Philosophy lecturer. In 2007, she co-edited a philosophy book Aesthetic Experience with Prof. Richard Shusterman and is currently working on her first collection of poetry and essays for publication. Since taking refuge with the 17th Karmapa in India in 2005, she turned away from Western Philosophy and materialism and has spent the last few years living and studying yoga, the Tibetan language and Tibetan Buddhist philosophy in India and Nepal. Adele is also a mother to a very active son, a qualified yoga teacher, freelance writer, part-time translator and a passionate political activist on issues related to gender, sexism, civil liberties, Tibet and human rights. Recently, she worked for Free Tibet, an NGO in London and as a volunteer for the Tibet-led and staffed NGO, Tibetan Centre of Human Rights and Democracy. She wrote a expose of Free Tibet’s working culture in 2012 and has also published articles in Elephant Journal, The Huffington Post, Tibet Telegraph and the Tibetan exile online publication Phayul.com.
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Ed: Sara Crolick
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