Question: Sexuality doesn’t seem to be discussed much in Buddhism, yet it’s a powerful, biological drive that can be destructive, especially within sangha. How does one deal with one’s sexuality on an individual level, within sangha, and especially with Buddhists in a teaching role?
Zenkei Blanche Hartman: It is my experience that sexuality is much discussed, although perhaps more in one-on-one conversations between teacher and student or in precept study rather than in dharma talks.
It is true that sexual energy is powerful. Suzuki Roshi once said that sexual energy and artistic energy are very close to zazen energy, “but they’ve already split off and taken form.” They have set up an object of desire. So my first response to your question of “How does one deal with one’s sexuality on an individual level?” would be, “With restraint and mindful attentiveness.” Note how your mind can grasp an attraction and make it into an obsession—or not. Notice how you can decide to feed the fantasy—or not. I would also suggest talking with your teacher if you are attracted to someone before initiating a relationship. I always suggest to my students that they develop a friendship first before proceeding toward a romantic involvement.
The third grave precept is “A disciple of the Buddha does not misuse sexuality.” (Another translation is “…is not sexually greedy.”) In our guidelines for residents practicing here at San Francisco Zen Center, the precepts are referred to as follows: “All residential practitioners are expected to practice in relation to the sixteen bodhisattva precepts… In addition, all residential practitioners agree not to initiate a sexual and/or intimate relationship with any other resident at Zen Center until both parties have been in residence at the practice center for at least six months. This agreement allows each new resident the opportunity to fully engage in a concentrated period of practice without distraction.” There is also the understanding that if a student finds him- or herself attracted to another student, he or she will talk with a teacher before initiating an intimate relationship. This is one way of handling sexual issues in a residential sangha.
Non-residential practitioners, especially if there is teacher-student involvement, should try their best to find another uninvolved teacher with whom to discuss any sexual situations or problems of which they are aware.
When training teachers, it is very important to teach them not only about the ethical restraints necessary to carry out the role of spiritual advisors but also about projection and transference. We should understand that students often project some ideal onto a teacher and “fall in love” with the projection. Teachers in training should learn how to recognize and avoid the pitfalls of both negative and positive projections in the teacher-student relationship, and teachers of teachers must be very clear that if a sexual attraction occurs in a teacher-student relationship, the teacher may not act upon the romantic relationship unless or until the teacher-student relationship has ended. Even then, a break of six months to a year is desirable to work on projections or other emotional issues pertinent to a student-teacher relationship.
In the traditions in which the teachers are celibate monks or nuns, sexual difficulties are referred to the most senior teachers. In other traditions, I think it is important that all teachers have some peer group where there is mutual trust and respect, and where ethical questions can be discussed openly and freely. Questions regarding appropriate or inappropriate sexual conduct are frequently discussed, for example, at meetings of the American Zen Teachers Association and at meetings of teachers who share a particular lineage.
Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche: In terms of sexuality, a traditional guiding precept is to not engage sexually with another’s wife, husband, or partner or cause someone to break their vows. As for the student-teacher relationship, it is important not to confuse this relationship with sexuality. That does not mean sexuality is bad or wrong. Often there is an exaggeration of the negative in relation to sexuality. Sexuality is negative as much as anger is negative. Does anger serve a purpose? Yes. But is anger necessary? No, it is not. Sexuality is an important part of life, but it is not necessary in order to live a fully expressed life.
In the tantric tradition, sexuality is used as a vehicle for awakening. The physical sexual union can be the outer doorway to achieving the inner experience of great bliss, the result of the union of masculine and feminine energies, of method and wisdom, of space and emptiness. Sexual union can be a vehicle for higher awareness. However, most of the high lamas are monks, and therefore that aspect of the teaching is not emphasized. So one might ask why is this teaching not emphasized in the West where most of the practitioners are lay practitioners and sexuality is part of one’s life?
While the expression of sexuality can be pure, most of the time it is not. In fact, it is a poor expression of love, and it is important not to confuse sexuality with love. Love has nothing to do with sex per se. With sexuality, there is intensity and excitement in a relationship, but that excitement often wanes with familiarity as well as in the face of the stresses and responsibilities of daily life. When sexuality has become the basis for intimacy and communication in a relationship rather than love and respect, this can lead to alienation and separation as sexual interest or expression lessens. So it seems sexuality is misunderstood and misused and also elevated in importance in a relationship.
When there is mutual attraction between two people, of course sexuality has a place. That is not to say you feel sexual energy and you just move on it! If there is a mutual attraction between two people who have not made other commitments, there is no reason sexuality cannot be a healthy and vital part of the relationship, especially if the people are capable of being open and having an emotional exchange. It is an error if sexuality becomes the basis for the communication between two people and is relied upon as the expression of love. That is where one needs to become conscious and aware.
In the relationship between the teacher and student, a sexual relationship is inappropriate. The relationship between a teacher and a student can grow so deeply and become a lifelong one. Unfortunately, sexuality destroys this development. As a student, you can feel so much openness and trust in relation to the teachings, and also toward the teacher who is introducing you to those teachings, that many feelings are heightened, sexuality among them. However, when sexuality enters the relationship and is acted upon, the student’s ability to be continuously helped by the teacher is interrupted. Both the student and the teacher need to be aware of that possibility and have more discriminating wisdom, knowing that acting on desire can destroy the beautiful relationship that is developing and compromise the student’s relationship to the teachings. The more you see this destruction as a probable consequence, the less likely you are to jump into a sexual relationship. The less aware you are of the consequences, the stronger the attraction and the more likely you are to follow your desire.
Is it possible to integrate sexuality with one’s open awareness? Yes, of course. Is it recommended as a path? No. Most people think they are capable of it. The basic principle of being open is not a misguided principle—burn and release desire and everything is clear and open. And of course, all good qualities come from being clear and open. But is it easy? No. Often the result is emotional pain, the direct consequence of following desires and grasping rather than liberating them. So what one imagines is possible and what one can actually do are not the same things. Desire always gives one this sense of “Yes!” But it is important to have a realistic perspective, a sense of consequence. Relatively speaking—which means for most of us—desire is a question of pain, not a question of bliss. If you are overly excited about the question of bringing sexuality to the path of transformation, perhaps that is a sign that it is not for you.
Narayan Helen Liebenson: I agree that sexuality is not discussed much in Buddhist circles, and I think it is essential, as lay practitioners, to hold this subject up to the light of the dharma. As a colleague of mine says, most of us have made fools of ourselves at one point or another because of the strong tug of sexual desire. It is an arena in which delusion often reigns supreme. On an individual level, in our sanghas, and as teachers, it is necessary to learn how to use our sexual energies wisely and with the utmost compassion.
Sexual activity, when aligned with ethical sensitivity, can encourage a greater degree of connectedness and intimacy. Woven naturally into a loving relationship, it can be one of the beautiful aspects of life. Sexuality in and of itself is not a problem. As a matter of fact, it’s a natural expression of life. However, when we are seeking pleasure as an end to itself, what has the potential to be beautiful becomes suffering. Attachment to self-interest creates an obstacle, making it difficult to examine our intentions and actions.
Fortunately, the Buddha gave us one guiding principle in areas where discernment is difficult: it is the wisdom of restraint. In other words, he recommended pausing before acting, to question an action before taking it, if there is any question about its skillfulness or wholesomeness. We need to step back and ask, will this action cause harm?
The expression of our sexuality often involves the desire to meet our conscious or unconscious needs. Because of this, we may not be able to immediately discern the impact of our actions. This is especially apparent in situations involving casual sex. Given how complex our histories are, sexuality is a charged area for many people. The only way to assure that our actions will not cause harm is to know the person and his or her situation very well. Knowing someone well means there is an established intimacy before having sex.
I have a friend who, when involved with many partners simultaneously, asked a Tibetan lama if it was OK. He reassured the lama that no one was getting hurt. The lama was silent for a time, and then quietly asked, “Are you sure?” Of course, my friend realized he was not at all sure.
As for teacher-student relationships, they do happen. It is more likely for people who are devoted to the dharma to meet at a meditation center than a bar. To protect students, the guidelines for the Insight Meditation Society and the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center teachers suggest that, following a mutual attraction that has the potential to be an enduring relationship, a teacher must immediately disengage from the teacher’s role with that student and wait at least three months before beginning a sexual relationship. As some sanghas know all too well, sexual misconduct on a teacher’s part can be extremely divisive as well as deeply harmful.
Zenkei Blanche Hartman is former abbess of the San Fransico Zen Center.
Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche is a lineage holder of the Bön Dzogchen tradition of Tibet.
Narayan Helen Liebenson is a guiding teacher at Cambridge Insight Meditation Center.