March 20, 2012

Sex in the Sangha. ~ Jean Marie Byrne

Where spirituality and sexuality meet

On a recent Japanese Zen retreat I attended, the subject of sex seemed to come up a little more than usual. During a dharma talk, orgasm was described as a point where we let go and just ‘ride the wave of sensation’ or  be the sensation, a space where there is no separateness. There were a few nervous giggles in the air, and a definite perking up of interest.

During a dharma talk later that afternoon the female teacher began to talk of sex and orgasms as a point where we as individuals practice letting go of our sense of individuality and “ride the wave.” Having been involved in many discussions regarding sexual misconduct in yoga and Buddhist communities I was concerned as to exactly where this conversation was heading. However, as the conversation continued, other examples were used and my trepidation eased.

A post-retreat discussion with a good friend also attending revealed that she had masturbated while on the retreat. As “open-minded” as I like to consider myself, this was a little much. Latent Puritanism took hold of me as I exclaimed with shock “But you are not allowed to!” She pointed out to me that while we may have taken vows to save the many numberless beings or to abandon greed, hatred and ignorance, we definitely did not take any vows regarding masturbation.

So, following this retreat I began to ponder exactly how does sexuality relate to spiritual practice? So far the only conclusions I have been able to draw are about how a lack of awareness of this relationship has led to difficult circumstances in many Buddhist and yoga circles.

Recently a dharma group I am involved with invited a well known insight meditation teacher to conduct a retreat in my home city. At the time the teacher was on what could be called a “sabbatical” due to the revelation that he had engaged sexually with meditation students, both on and off retreats. I was surprised and slightly dismayed that the group I was involved with disregarded this issue when organizing the retreat.

In order to try and understand the situation, I had many discussions with close friends and then decided to write to two of the centers the teacher worked with. The response that I received was that the teacher was not teaching at either center for the year, instead the year was one for reflection and personal meditation. One center had invited the teacher back to teach in 2002 while the other center was “still in the process of deciding how best to respond to the situation, which we have taken very seriously,” and was unsure if he would be teaching in 2002.

I had hoped that the group I was involved with would similarly engage in a process of discussion, exploration, awareness raising and perhaps even come to a resolution regarding the responsibilities of both teacher and student in a retreat setting. Given that the group managing the retreat included a doctor, counselor, psychologist and medical student, I assumed that ethical issues would be a priority in organizing a retreat with a teacher who was on “sabbatical.”

Unfortunately, this was not the case. None of the retreat attendants were to be informed that the teacher had been involved in sexual relationships with students, nor was anyone told that the teacher was not teaching in the UK and North American centers he was connected to. Informing students was thought to be an unnecessary “hanging out of dirty laundry.”

A number of younger members (including myself) of the group forwarded a letter to the committee expressing our concerns. We had hoped that the organizers would inform the meditators of the situation. As this wasn’t to be the case we requested that “for the benefit of the teacher-student relationship that all interviews be held outside, under a tree or on a veranda, in a public place.”  There seemed to be reluctance on the part of the committee to enforce this request, and in the end the personal interviews were held in the teacher’s bedroom, meditation cushions adjacent to his bed.

Our letter writing wasn’t fueled by a Puritan need for punishment of sexual transgression. As Pema Chodron says when discussing Chogyam Trungpa’s relationships with women,

“You’re never going to erase the groundlessness. You’re never going to have a neat, sweet little picture with no messiness, no matter how many rules you make.”

All that was hoped for was a process. To engage our practice, openly and honestly addressing how and why inappropriate sexual relationships between students and teachers arise.  Instead, all I could hear was the loudness of silence.

Gradually, I began my own process of understanding through researching incidents of sexual misconduct in other spiritual communities. I found that many communities and their members had felt great suffering due to this silence and lack of process, and that in all there were similar factors which contributed to the situation.

Often there is a certain romanticism involved when one embarks on a spiritual path, or adopts a spiritual practice.  This is particularly true of non-western spiritual paths as we often begin to walk a path which is foreign and unknown. As we gain the benefits of our new practice, naivety often turns to idealization of the “other,” that which is non-western, and in the case of Buddhism and yoga, “Asia.”  This idealized notion of “Asia” and “Asian spirituality” becomes a convenient basis from which to critique the west and thereby reinforce one’s commitment to the Buddhist and yogic path.

Idealization and naivete often results in acting in out of character ways, such as compulsive bowing—bowing before entering rooms, bowing to mats, bowing to Buddhas and bowing to people. When I first began Zen practice, I wasn’t sure who or what I was bowing to, and wasn’t comfortable bowing to the resident teacher. But faced with a completely new “culture,” I was unable to express my discomfort.

Over time I began to understand why I was bowing and valued it as an important part of my Zen practice.  So why did I bow at first when I wasn’t comfortable? Like many western Buddhist students I was displaying devotion and obedience to a practice and teacher that I knew little about.

In some ways, I seem to have been mimicking what I thought was appropriate or “good” Zen Buddhist behavior (even though I don’t consider myself Buddhist!). Strangely enough, it seems that many Asian Buddhists adopt a more subtle approach to the Buddhist path, often withholding veneration of teachers until they have studied with them for many years. Perhaps the same skepticism also exists in India, where gurus are abundant.

Another contributing factor to inappropriate student-teacher relationships is an often unacknowledged power relationship. This is particularly true in Zen Buddhism where the relationship between teacher and student is very intimate. Teachings are given in private interviews, and Zen students often look to their teachers in order to validate their meditative experiences. Tibetan Buddhism also has intimate teacher-student relationships where male Tibetan lamas hold positions of authority, their followers demonstrating deference greater than that in many other forms of Buddhism in the west. Similarly, the guru-disciple relationship in yoga encourages the same sort of unwavering devotion.

Furthermore, the situation becomes more confusing given that few contemporary spiritual teachers offer clear guidelines regarding the relationship between sexuality and spiritual growth.This is not due to a lack of sexual relationships between Buddhist teachers and their students. On the contrary, in an informal survey conducted by Jack Kornfield (a western vipassanna teacher) out of fifty-four Buddhist teachers, thirty-nine were sexually active.  Of the thirty-nine sexually active teachers, nine were involved with their students. Similarly in the yoga community, yoga classes and trainings are often seen to be fertile ground for meeting future partners.

What surprises me is not the numbers of teachers who are sexually engaged with their students, but the lack of processes and procedures for dealing with such relationships. It seems that not all communities are aware of, or concerned with, potential negative outcomes of intimate spiritual relationships which lack guidelines, or communities which lack grievance procedures.  I have often thought of a Buddhist or yoga teacher’s role as analogous to that of a doctor, psychologist or counselor.  It is an intimate situation where the student or client in some way gives over his or her trust to someone in order to grow or heal.  Just as the possibility of healing is immense, so too is the possibility of suffering.

The suffering resulting from sexual teacher-student relationships is acute as in many instances the student has entered the relationship in order to find true awakening, but instead may be met with a lack of respect that intensifies their suffering.  Furthermore, those who have been involved in relationships with a teacher often leave their group, yoga school or community without publicly recognizing what harm has been caused. This inadvertently makes sexual misconduct a private rather than public issue.

Sexual misconduct in analogous professions such as medicine and psychology is now a public issue. Sexual interactions between these professionals and their clients are always inappropriate, as to engage sexually with a client is to engage in an act of power due to the trust that is necessarily “given over” to the professional in order for the client to grow. To violate predetermined sexually boundaries, with or without consent is a sexualizing of a non-sexual relationship that is integral to one’s development. As often the professional is a man, and the client a woman, this violation also reinforces stereotypes of women as primarily sexual objects.

Given that Buddhist and yoga teachers teachers are in similar position of power to doctors and psychologists, I am alarmed that they do not necessarily need to follow a similar code of conduct. While organizations such as Yoga Australia have a clearly set process for grievances of sexual misconduct/harassment, Yoga Alliance does not.

Why is it that many Buddhist and yoga communities are sweeping this issue under the carpet, or viewing ongoing discussion of incidents of sexual misconduct as a “hanging out of dirty laundry?” Primarily, I think it is due to an over-investment in teachers as the ultimate source of wisdom. Teachers may help us along the path (on which there really is no beginning and end) but fundamentally the path is one that we walk alone, sometimes with the silent company of others. To live with awareness as yoga and Buddhist practice asks us to, it is on our own experience that we must rely in order to realize the true nature of things. Teachers can only point us in the right direction.

Secondly, it seems that these relationships are abstracted from a social context when examined. “Women are wrongly viewed by society as “other” —subjecting a women’s vulnerability to abuse by individual men and male-dominated institutions.

To abstract sexual misconduct from a social context results in making a grey situation black and white, as women can “just say no.” Although some women can “just say no,” other women are immersed in a social system which denies their subjectivity and encourages passivity, making “no” a very difficult statement to make. This abstraction results in both parties being viewed as autonomous individuals with the free choice to enter into sexual relationships.

It is thought there is no blame, no right, no wrong. But there is responsibility, and in a state of vulnerability, students need to be able to trust their teacher to make decisions which will cause the least suffering to their student. Surely this is ahimsa in action?

For Buddhist and yoga communities to grow, and for some to heal, a suitable form needs to be decided upon, which not only details the responsibilities of both teachers and students, but also the steps that can be taken when teachers and students transgress boundaries integral to the continuation of healthy dharmic and community relations. Only when this has been established can Buddhist and yoga practitioners begin to safely engage in dharmic and spiritual relationships which will allow them to realize the expansiveness and interconnectedness of the world.


 Jean Byrne PhD is long term meditator, yoga practitioner and authorised ashtanga yoga teacher. She enjoys exploring the intersection between formal and informal practice both philosophically and in daily life. Jean co teaches the Mysore program at The Yoga Space in Perth, and has authored numerous academic and non academic articles on yoga, nonduality, feminist spirituality and childbirth education. She also oversees the delivery of not for profit yoga classes in the Perth community for disadvantaged women and children


Editor: Kate Bartolotta.

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