THE BLOG

Buddhism, Sex and Foot Locker

04/05/2013 03:12 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2013

Recently there have been several scandals that have come to light involving male Buddhist teachers who have engaged in sexual violations of female students. While this is certainly not the first time this has happened, the most notable instance involved a 105-year-old Zen teacher, who apparently had been groping female students for at least 50 years, and whose sangha was complicit in excusing his behavior and keeping him in power.

I have been thinking about how this might happen, when on a common sense level it seems outrageously wrong. A key element of the Buddhist path involves a commitment to ethical conduct and integrity, which is both the beginning and end of the spiritual path. For lay people this is articulated as the five training precepts, the first three of which involve avoiding killing living beings, not taking what is not freely offered to you and abstaining from sexual misconduct (the other two involve speech and intoxicants). There are more precepts that monastics undertake, but Buddhist teachers of any tradition should minimally be practicing these lay precepts along with everyone else on the spiritual path.

Some versions of these precepts are actually quite mainstream, and in fact are standards for behavior in any workplace in the United States. It is illegal to threaten or physically harm your co-workers, steal things from your workplace or other employees, sexually harass or sexually violate customers or co-workers, and you would likely be fired for showing up to work drunk or high. Granted all these things do happen, but the standard of behavior is that they should not, and you can lose your job fast over any of these behaviors.

It can be confusing when your spiritual teacher is acting counter to the five precepts, especially when they seem to have an understanding of deep and mystical things, a large and loyal group of followers, give good dharma talks, and use complex Buddhist terms while engaging in the very behavior which feels wrong. It is further confusing when you talk to other people in the community about the violation, and they dismiss it as cultural differences, or part of the teacher's radical teaching methods or "crazy wisdom," which they imply you are just not enlightened enough to grasp.

Sometimes it helps to keep it simple: consider whether the behavior of the teacher would be acceptable if the setting was any generic workplace. Let's start with the premise that a spiritual community should meet the minimal standards for human interaction upheld at a restaurant or retail store. For example, if you were a customer at Foot Locker, would it be OK if this teacher groped your breasts while you tried on tennis shoes? Ignore any sophisticated talk of emptiness or not-self and consider: if this teacher pressured you to massage their penis when they delivered your lunch at The Olive Garden, would this be something that you might complain about? Could they be fired over this behavior? Since the answer is yes, then honor your instincts, try to make it stop, and get out of there, regardless of what anyone else says.

Let's continue to keep it simple. If the teacher is using the language of ultimate reality to justify his behavior, and people say he is exempt from the precepts because he is so free and awakened, you can also perform a basic test using a fork. For instance, if he says something like "You are not a woman, I am not a man, it is all emptiness" while sticking his hand up your shirt and groping your breasts (paraphrase of an actual occurrence in above scandal), see how he responds to "This is not a fork, this is not your eye" while you move a fork quickly towards his face. Notice his reaction. This should be an equivalent and equally valid exercise for him.

Sometimes we can get lost in the complexity of language and ideas, but it is good to honor your instincts, respect the sanctity of your body and get out of these situations. Community members who hear about such situations might consider that though it takes courage to challenge the teacher and the status quo, this is positive and compassionate action towards all who are involved: protecting the bodies and lives of women in your sangha is an extension of the precept around non-harming; it is also an act of compassion toward the teacher to prevent him from continuing to cause harm. He is taking what is not offered and engaging in sexual misconduct, both of which are actions that plant unwholesome seeds for his future. If you hear about this kind of conduct going on, you owe it to your teacher to try to stop him.

Sure, none of us are perfect and human beings are all still learning. But if your learning edge is about respecting women's bodies and managing your own craving to touch people when they don't want to be touched, it is better to do your learning in a different job than as a Buddhist teacher. Maybe you should go work at Foot Locker or The Olive Garden while you are figuring it out. Though I think you will probably be fired, and I am guessing it will be sooner than 50 years.

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