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Sex and the Buddhist teacher


Just finished listening to John Baker’s talk about Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, which was part of the class on “Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism.” Baker spent a lot of time talking about CTR’s drinking and his sexual activity, largely in response to questions from the students.

I think Baker is disingenuous when he calls CTR’s alcoholism “victimless” and says that none of the women he slept with ever complained. My guess is that people who were upset by it or uncomfortable with it or found it less than ethical left rather than argue their case with followers who were blindly devoted to their guru. I have a friend who was at Naropa in the late 1970s and wasn’t swept under the spell of CTR. I’m sure there were others. If everyone else is drinking the Kool Aid and proclaiming it ambrosia, leaving quietly may seem like the best option.

I’ve no doubt that CTR was an amazing teacher, and I’ve no doubt that without meeting him in person it’s impossible to understand the depth of his magnetism. Was he enlightened? As Baker said, who knows? I appreciate what he did in introducing Buddhism in a way that touched people deeply and encouraged its spread. While I sometimes think that Shambhala is less Buddhism than Trungpaism, anything that increases the level of mindfulness and the effort spent in building a more enlightened society can only be good for current society.

I think a lot of credit has to go to his students, however. Was it “crazy wisdom” or “crazy ability to find meaning in drunken ravings?” If the teacher is falling-out-of-his-chair drunk and chanting nonsense, is he brilliant or is it the student who can discern wisdom in it wise?

I don’t think I would have been that student. As the child of an alcoholic, I doubt I could have discerned the wisdom in his drunken speeches. As someone who was sexually abused, I can’t see sex between a teacher and student as something that brings them closer without creating other problems. Particularly in a guru-student relationship, it seems to me, there’s an imbalance of power that creates (perhaps unspoken) pressure for the student to acquiesce.

When I sat dathun at a Shambhala center, we would take the precepts each morning, and the teacher would release us from them each night when sitting ended – leaving us free to drink and fuck and kill bugs, I suppose. It seemed odd to me then, and it seems odd to me now. I see my life as my practice, not the time in the meditation hall, and this seems counter to that intention. I have a hard time seeing the precepts as something that can be ignored when they’re inconvenient. Is that crazy wisdom? How can you be sure it’s not just an excuse?

In his Huffington Post essay, David Nichtern (father of Ethan), talks about the future of Buddhism in the west and how teachers are viewed. Can you envision a western teacher in traditional trappings, sitting on a ceremonial throne? he asks. I admit, I always am jarred somewhat by westerners in monk’s robes – partly, I think, because I want to know their story. What do you know that I don’t?

The role of the teacher will be an interesting question to be worked out.

The NYTimes had a story this week about the dalliances of Eido Shimado, abbot of the Zen Studies Society of New York.

The Times wrote: “The root of the problem, some experts say, is that the teacher/student relationship in Buddhism has no obvious Western analogy. Priests and rabbis know the boundaries, even if some do not always respect them. Doctors, too, have ethical canons they are supposed to honor. A spiritual figure like a priest, an authority figure like a teacher, a therapeutic figure like an analyst — the Buddhist teacher may be all of those, but is not really like any one of them. Even sanghas, or Buddhist communities, that discourage such relationships often have no process for enforcing a ban, and as one Zen society in New York is learning, that can lead to problems.”

Robert Aitken’s papers were about to become public and described a history of Eido Shimado’s sexual liaisons, the Times reports. In a 1995 letter to the president of the Zen Studies Society’s board, Mr. Aitken wrote: “Over the past three decades, we have interviewed many former students of Shimano Roshi. Their stories are consistent: trust placed in an apparently wise and compassionate teacher, only to have that trust manipulated in the form of his sexual misconduct and abuse.”

The Times story goes on to say: “Sex, alcoholism and drug abuse by major Buddhist leaders have all been tolerated over the years, by followers who look the other way, or even looked right at it and pretend not to care. For example, the Tibetan Buddhist master Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who founded the Naropa Institute (now Naropa University) in Boulder, Colo., was often publicly drunk. The Buddhist journalist Katy Butler wrote a 1990 article called “Encountering the Shadow in Buddhist America,” in which she described the public alcoholism of Mr. Trungpa Rinpoche. “’We habitually denied what was in front of our faces, felt powerless and lost touch with our inner experience,” Ms. Butler wrote.”

So I guess everyone didn’t see his behavior as benign.(The Times story is here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/21/us/21beliefs.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&sq...

The Zen Society board met to create new guidelines that prohibit sex between a teacher and student. That’s a start.

Against the Stream Buddhist Society (aka Dharma Punx) has these guidelines for teacher/student conduct:

4) We undertake the precept of refraining from sexual misconduct.
We agree to avoid creating harm through sexuality and to avoid sexual exploitation or relationships of a sexual manner that are outside of the bounds of the relationship commitments we have made to another or that involve another who has made vows to another. Teachers with vows of celibacy will live according to their vows. Teachers in committed relationships will honor their vows and refrain from adultery. All teachers agree not to use their teaching role to exploit their authority and position in order to assume a sexual relationship with a student.

We acknowledge that a healthy relationship with a former student can be possible, but that great care and sensitivity are needed. We agree that in this case the following guidelines are crucial.

a) A sexual relationship is never appropriate between teachers and students.

b)During retreats or formal teaching, any intimation of future student-teacher romantic or sexual relationship is inappropriate.

c)If interest in a genuine and committed relationship develops over time between a single teacher and a student, the student-teacher relationship must clearly and consciously have ended before any further development toward a romantic relationship. Such a relationship must be approached with restraint and sensitivity – in no case should it occur immediately after retreat. A minimum time period of three months or longer from the last formal teaching between them, and a clear understanding from both parties that the student-teacher relationship has ended must be coupled with a conscious commitment to enter into a relationship that brings no harm to either party.  

5) We undertake the precept of refraining from intoxicants that cause heedlessness or loss of awareness. It is clear that substance abuse is the cause of tremendous suffering. We agree that there should be no use of intoxicants during retreats or while on retreat premises. We agree not to abuse or misuse intoxicants at any time. We agree that if any teacher has a drug or alcohol addiction problem, it should be immediately addressed by the community.   

These guidelines are adapted from those offered by Spirit Rock Meditation Center.

Of course, these are just words, and conduct is what matters. But having the words – the intention – is a start.

I’m curious – the class raised the question; has IDP looked at how to answer it? As IDP starts training teachers, it’s something to consider.

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Ambivalent and Yet Not

I imagine that those who have known or have been an alcoholic know how much suffering alcohol addiction causes to the addict and to his/her friends and family.  When friends of mine are comfortable and calm about addiction and substance abuse, I know that it is because they have not seen (or acknowledged) the darker side of drugs and alcohol.

From my experience, addicts will do anything they can, think any thought they can, speak any logic they can, to keep from having to face their addiction.  Facing a powerful physical and psychological chemical addiction is more than meditation can combat.  It becomes impossible to imagine life without the chemical.  Powerfully frightening.  The philosophy of Buddhism can be as much an excuse to keep from facing an addiction as the worst type of self-deprecation. 

One must not separate Trungpa's life from his texts.  From the little that I've read, Trungpa's texts were not necessarily from his typewriter.  I see that "Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism" and "True Perception" had editors.  I've heard it said that they are a collection of Trungpa's lectures.  Is the clarity that we read in his books due to the friends and collaborators he had; due to the interpretations of his words?  Did they experience the shreads of his wisdom and siphon it into sense and meaning?  Isn't all that we know about him the stories that are told from others and ourselves?  Words are so permanent, and we forget that even the most spiritual of men and women are as likely to deny the relationship between the creation of the knowledge and the position of the person who created it as a scientist.

Sex is complicated, but power is often involved.  Consent is not the universal sign for freedom to choose.  I'm a teacher.  The relationship I have with my students automatically includes a power relationship.  Because I am a white man, that power relationship usually has me on a pedestal--all I have to do is fulfill their modest expectations, and I'll stay there.  Trungpa may not have been white, but he systematically found people that regarded him as a guru, and so arrived at the same position.  I teach test prep, and I have power.  Trungpa was the founder of an entire spiritual tradition; I cannot imagine what manipulating students would be like.  I am guessing something like molding whipped cream.

If you were smart, an addict, and in power, you might find it easy to create a philosphy that justifies your experience.

For me, that is where the knowledge comes from.  I do not need to forget that while reading or speaking about him or his books.  Just understand that HE wrote it in THAT way from THERE.

On a inquirical note:  did Trungpa ever write about substance abuse or sex?  If he did, let's read it; if not, then we know what he could not face.


Just because the man in power was nice to you does not mean he was nice and ethical to everyone.

Confused as to the title of

Confused as to the title of your comment. Rapist? Not sure how that's relevant.


(I made a comment below as

(I made a comment below as Anonymous because I forgot to sign in before leaving the comment).

I found Baker's talk extremely impressive, not only what he said but the strong presence which he exuded, as well as the vivid picture he painted of what it was like to be around Trungpa Rinpoche on a daily basis. I have to admit I find all the controversy surrounding Trungpa's alcohol use and sexuality to be somewhat uninteresting --- although I'm glad some students brought it up, frankly it's not really the part of Trungpa's life that is of that much personal interest to me. I think of teachers as something more like artists than "holy people" --- that is to say, what they are trying to get across is in the realm of a radical, direct way of being, cutting across many preconceptions and habits, and while I laud the many teachers who live in a simple, uncontroversial way, I can't say I think of spiritual teachers as necessarily always "pure". That is to say, to my mind, if one were to look at the work of Picasso and spend most of your time reacting to his sexual escapades or his drinking as opposed to his artwork, it seems to me to be a little skewed.

This isn't to say I think the subject is unimportant; nor do I necessarily think that Trungpa made no mistakes or was in some sense a flawless human being. I suppose what I believe is that it is clear that he had tremendous presence and a lot of very valuable things to teach, and that whatever mistakes he made are not proof than his teachings aren't valuable but simply that having a deep realization of some very important aspects of how to live doesn't mean one will never make any mistakes at all. I think the old Zen saying "the life of a Zen master is a continuous series of mistake following mistake" is very apropos. There's a curious sense in which existing at all, being aware at all, inherently involves making a mistake of some kind, because one has to engage in some version of dualistic perception to be aware at all. One cannot avoid mistakes, but one can certainly learn what we can from great teachers, without believing that they are flawless in every respect.


Thanks for the post and sharing the guidelines.
I was left a bit conflicted or soured by last Monday's discussion, and I remain conflicted by CTR's teaching and legacy too. I was happy to hear Baker reminisce and share the profound impact Trungpa had on his and other's lives. But—and perhaps it was in part because so many of us had questions about Trungpa's sexual life—I felt an almost jockish and heavy male tone to the whole discussion. A lot of us laughed at Baker's stories like they were locker-room jokes. (Some were genuinely revealing, and funny too.) How much different and revealing would stories told about Trungpa told by a queer woman, for example, be? How different the perspective, and the tone?
I admire much about Trungpa's teaching, esp the early lectures. But I will never be able to say that ALL he did or said was equally part of the teaching. His sexual mores and tremendous drinking may have been "just who he was"—although that too seems a very non-flexible, non-Buddhist justification of attachment and ego identity)—but that doesn't mean these behaviors have to be wholly lined up with the teaching. They might actually be in conflict with core elements of his or any Buddhist teaching.
I’ve just read Diana Mukpo's memoir. Parts of their lives together, and CTR's later teachings, are pretty offensive. They weren't royalty, but it seems they tried to live like it sometimes. What do we make of the whole Kalapa Court business, and the increasingly militarist style and garb of CTR's later teachings? What do we make of the epaulets, the hierarchy, and compelling his students to learn Oxonian english pronunciation?

I wonder if radical openness and fearlessness are not sometimes a cover for unexamined indulgence and glorification in some of our more base instincts. And yet of course, I still wish I knew the guy too.

CTR's legacy of discomfort as well as great teaching

I think one thing that might not have been talked about (altho I didn't read too carefully to be honest) is the way this makes students contemplate their relationship with the teacher and the tradition.

Every I hear a discussion about Rinpoche's behavior or "misconduct," I get upset and defensive. I see this as a teaching on its own. Ie, a chance for me to contemplate my own defensive and chauvinism in regards to a teacher I love and a tradition I love.

I see it as a teaching. As with ALL of Rinpoche's teachings, in my experience, it multifaceted and complex in the extreme. You can contemplate and mull for days with it and still find more.

I also think, more generally, we need to think about being puritanical and naive about precepts and right conduct. There's also the issue of holding the teacher to the same standards as his students. This is a big one. Should the teacher abide by the same rules as the students? Is it as simple as that? Is it a cop out to claim otherwise, to say that a master teacher is in a different place ethics-wise than students?

I will always love Trungpa Rinpoche and am so grateful to him. I think his impact on American Buddhist culture, and American culture itself is profound, we'll only see how profound as time goes on. But that's just me, and I am a bit of a fanatic. :)



CTR sexual liasons and drinking

These are indeed challenging. But I've met several women he had sexual relationships with and none were harmed by it -- far from it. They see it as just another way of being with him. And, as his closest students reported, it seems his drinking kept him on this plane, even while it clearly destroyed his body. So all this needs to be seen in the broadest possible framework.

CTR sexual relations and drinking ....and precepts

As one of the many women who used to sleep with Mr. Mukpo, in hindsight ofcourse,.... and looking back over the last 30 years or so since I first met him, for me, at least, it was a very personal teaching situation. He would pick up on some habitual pattern of mine and chalenge it, just like he would do with anyone in his immediate environment... The kasung the kusung the cook....
As someone else remarked in an earlier post, he certainly was not trying to hide anything at all. That was perhaps the oddest thing about it. I first met his wife, Diana, one morning when she walked in to the bedroom, sat on the bed next to him and launched into a conversation about this and that, like married couples do. When she noticed me cringing under the sheets next to him, she leaned over him, patted my knee and said something like: "it's ok honey".
She is an amazing person.
From my limited perspective, I would say that he was always interested in AWAKE, which could be very irritating especially if you had your own concept going of what would be pleasant or entertaining. But if you were fortunate enough to let go of all expectations for a moment you could feel the full-on presence thing and the vastness.
Trying to figure out whether we should pass judgement on him for his sexual exploits or his drinking seems silly to me.
It is no commentary on whether or not we should do precepts during Dathun. If you want to do the dathun fully, you do the precepts. Just as the practice of functional talking or silence makes us aware of how speech can stimulate discursive mind and abstaining from it can slow it way down, so also, does participating in the precepts give us a contrast to work with. It is the experience of that contrast that teaches us about ourselves, one of the many tools we are offered in our own path to awakening.

Loved this post - some very good questions here...

Thanks for sharing! I really have had the same questions myself as a current student of Shambhala Buddhism. The teachings have such profound meaning to me - mainly because they are more true Tibetan Buddhism at the end of the day - no matter the translation. The circumstances around the drinking and mis-conduct has always struck me as counter being a teacher, and counter the practice and teaching themselves.

Good thoughts

I'd love to hear what others think. My sense is that we are in a different age now, and Trungpa Rinpoche would not be the same type of guru now.

Would love to hear how others reacted.

still an alcoholic

@ethan -- I'm not sure it would be different. in my view, he was clearly an alcoholic. doesn't mean he wasn't brilliant or compassionate or enlightened, just that his drinking was something he couldn't, or chose not to, control, and that it hurt him -- certainly physically -- and caused problems for those around him.
given that, it's hard to say what his other behavior would have been. alcoholism are not trustworthy. times were different pre-aids, but the change hasn't stopped lots of powerful men from having relationships that aren't seen as wise conduct by society in general.

an open honest conversation

I lived and worked at the Shambhala Mountain Center for two years, and had first hand knowledge from the very students who studied and had a sexual relationship with Trungpa Rinpoche.

While I was involved with sit practice and dharma study, I was also a Heart of Recovery 12 stepper, involved with the Care Council, and in group therapy at the Red Feather Lakes Clinic which made counseling for alcoholism/sexual abuse available on a sliding scale to Staff. There were several MI's and Program Staff who were prominent psychotherapists, part of the Shambhala Lineage, that participated for the longer programs, that also made themselves generously available to Staff.

The first time I heard testimonial about the CTR days and it wouldn't be the last, from a female sangha member who had slept with the Teacher...well...first reaction...was..."girl friend you don't need to sleep with the teacher to get enlightened, get anywhere in life, be cool, or any myriad dumb ass thangs you thought were smart at the time while you were sucking this man's dick and don't give me it was the time's we wuz livin in shit!" In the audience were a wide range of females from Shotoku, Teens, 20-50 somethings. Was this a good role model for our young women. I mean come on with each generation we get wiser, let's not take a step backwards... It wasn't until folks got to the Dining Tent for Tea Snack, that warrior's discussion broke out!

What I discovered was it seemed like a cultural divide between the Elder community and the New Practitioners raised in the more open awareness that exists today of human rights movements, abuse, addictions, personal conduct at work and university. To be fair, this woman who spoke her truth did not feel abused or taken advantage of and enjoyed her experience with the Rinpoche, she said with her husband proudly and supportively sitting next to her. Because of the committment I had entered into as a Staff Member, I had to really slow down this process and look directly with no prejudice and my own fears in play.

During my two years at SMC, plenty of people crossed some kind of line... drank, drugged, fucked like it was their last day on earth, slept with teachers and participants...sometimes with no repercussions... other's... had to leave the community in incredible heartbreak to themselves and the community.

So I am glad that some space is opening at our Dharma Centers and amongst our companions on the path to talk about this and listen to one another.

I personally choose not to sleep with a Teacher no matter how intelligent, wise or charasmatic. And yes the reason why is my personal history, the age we are living in and continued recovery and path to sanity I have committed myself too.


I'm sure you are right Ethan


I can only go on the evidence of the reports I have heard about these various teachers; and from what I have heard, Trungpa's drinking and sex did have an unusual character. I say this as someone who has never been a student of Trungpa's, though I have known and practiced with some of his former students, who have both positive and negative things to say about him. But the reports I have heard are fairly consistent in that they say Trungpa was not dishonest about his sex or his drinking, and that he was quite "present" even when he was drunk, in a way that was quite unusual.

In this sense his behavior does seem different from that of Eido Shimano roshi who apparently did lie about his sexual involvement with students and who encouraged his students to lie.

If this is accurate, does it excuse Trungpa's behavior? I don't know, but I certainly think it is worth noting.

great post

Thank you for writing this. I was at the class on Monday and I had questions myself. I am such a huge fan of CTR's teachings that I recognize I tend to dismiss stories about sexual antics and drunkeness as unimportant. @KimB - according to Baker and to Diana Mukpo (CTR's widow) in Dragon Thunder, he was quite open about his sexual relationships and his drinking, he didn't really hide anything. In some ways I wonder if his behaviors were deliberate - I asked this question on Monday - to get his students out of the usual mode of thinking about the guru having all the answers, being infallible. Otherwise it would be easy to deify him - which many probably did anyway. But I guess that's just excusing it. In any case, I still find his teachings incredibly powerful. He was what he was. He clearly hurt his own body through his drinking and he may have hurt others through his other behaviors. But at the end of the day he was an amazing teacher. The precepts you mention do seem helpful--we may be a lot less likely to cause harm if we've taken vows to heighten our mindfulness about particularly sensitive areas. Clearly, this is a sensitive area and would benefit from mindfulness.Thanks again.

If you love, love openly

I believe that any type of sexual relationship that must be kept a secret or requires lying and deceit cannot be a healthy or ethical relationship.

I don't believe that having sex with your teacher (Buddhist or any other type) necessarily makes you a victim of sexual misconduct.

Thanks for the thoughtful post.  Perhaps you know this wonderful koan?

If You Love, Love Openly

Twenty monks and one nun, who was named Eshun, were practicing meditation with a certain Zen master.

Eshun was very pretty even though her head was shaved and her dress plain. Several monks secretly fell in love with her. One of them wrote her a love letter, insisting upon a private meeting.

Eshun did not reply. The following day the master gave a lecture to the group, and when it was over, Eshun arose. Addressing the one who had written to her, she said: "If you really love me so much, come and embrace me now."

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