Use Common Sense: Khandro Rinpoche about Sexual Abuse by Buddhist Teachers in the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition

The book “Dakini Power – Twelve Extraordinary Women Shaping the Transmission of Tibetan Buddhism in the West” by Michaela Haas (PhD) offers advice by Her Eminence Jetsünma Khandro Rinpoche with respect to sexual abuse as reported by Westerners and Easterners alike within the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition. I think her thoughts are very helpful for the debate of this topic. While Westerners tend to point the finger to the perpetrator and his deeds, Easterners tend to point the finger to the victim, reminding him or her to use common sense and not to allow others to exert power over oneself. In this way the victim is empowered to act instead of being passive and allowing others to take advantage of oneself.

It can be argued about the benefits and faults of both approaches. Although it could be argued that the teacher has more responsibility and more power than the student since it is hard to control teachers with respect to their ethical behaviour it might be wiser to empower the student to reject sexual harassment and to reject by all means to allow others to take sexual advantage of oneself. Of course in the case of a rape the police would be the right address to go.

Here an extract of the book, pages 34–37, as Food for Thoughts:

Refuge and Rape

Venturing into the West also triggered a different stance to Khandro Rinpoche’s early feminist approach. “It wasn’t the discrimination from the men but the naivete of the women that struck me. How much we are responsible—are we going to be so awestruck, so insecure, so indecisive, so emotional that we throw out all logic?”

Traveling in the West, she was shocked to hear repeated accounts of sexual abuse. She reached a turning point when giving teachings in Germany, where a woman in the audience was in tears. When Khandro Rinpoche investigated, the woman blurted out she had been raped. “By a Buddhist teacher.” At a refuge ceremony the teacher had told her to come later to the swimming pool, alone, naked. “Did you go?” Khandro Rinpoche asked. “Yes. I went,” the woman responded. In recalling the story, Khandro Rinpoche shakes her head and asks. “What happens to common sense?”

An initial impulse might be to blame the teacher who had the audac­ity to misuse the sacred refuge vow for taking advantage of a trusting. naive student. Yet Khandro Rinpoche does not take the route of blame. I have never heard her speak out in public against male teachers who abuse their position with sexual advances on admiring students. “She probably knows that ranting and raving doesn’t change this,” her stu­dent Rita Gross says.

“I speak about it very openly with my nuns and my Western students,” Khandro Rinpoche emphasises. “There are issues we have to address honestly, directly, while keeping in mind both sides of the story. Sometimes there is abuse, sometimes there is an abuse of the abuse. Making a big stance on it is always very tricky, because people can misunderstand the context. Hearing about it may create unnecessary confusion that may lead a person away from the dharma. it is a very discouraging topic.”

No Shortcut to Enlightenment

Now we are in blustery terrain. Sexuality is a precarious, easily misunderstood topic in the Vajrayana. Unlike other Buddhist traditions that tread on the safer path of renunciation, Vajrayana embraces sexuality as a powerful means of transforming neuroses. Of course, this risky business comes with the heightened danger that charlatans might employ it as a pretense for indulging in their passions. A number of abuse allegations have rattled the Buddhist communities both in the East and West. Conventional standards of appropriate behavior are routinely waived for high-ranking teachers who are regarded as the embodiment of Buddha’s brilliance, thus sanctioning even unconventional actions as enlightened deeds.

In the context of Vajrayana then, how would Khandro Rinpoche define sexual misconduct?

Her answer is clear-cut: “Study the Vinaya!” Though the Vinaya is traditionally the codex for the ordained, Khandro Rinpoche insists that it is crucial study material for lay people as well. “It provides a very strict and clear code of conduct, what is allowed and not allowed. If you study it, you can identify when someone manipulates and misuses the teachings, and then students can ask questions. There is a lot of goodness in questioning. If it does not make sense, question it! When we find careless ethical conduct, we need to ask, why is this happening?”

Breaking monastic vows obviously constitutes a serious offense for ordained teachers, but how can we define sexual misconduct for teachers who have not taken vows?

“Every teacher has at least taken the lay vows and the bodhisattva vows.” Khandro Rinpoche retorts. “Apart from the obvious misconduct of using force, taking advantage of your own position and the naivete of a student is abuse and very painful to see. Abuse is when there is pretense, conceit, or lying. Pretending someone has more realization than they actually have and thus misleading the student is very, very harmful. There is no shortcut to enlightenment,” she states, “and anyone who offers one should be treated with suspicion.”

Yet, I probe once again, how can a student, especially a beginner, judge whether a teacher is truly realized or just bluffing with charisma?

Khandro Rinpoche acknowledges that “the Buddhist teachings give a lot of freedom for each individual, so we cannot really enforce one statement for everybody, we have to look at the situation.” Again, sherefers to her father’s advice. Whenever she spoke with him [H.H. Mindrolling Trichen Rinpoche, the former head of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism] about the topic, “he always said, the solution is education. When you educate people well, you are giving them the tools to make their own decisions.” Khandro Rinpoche has adopted that credo for herself: “There is nothing that education cannot change.” Rinpoche’s father also suggested keeping dharma centers small in number in order to build relationships deeply rooted in mutual trust. “He said anytime you go into places where you don’t know everybody by name, then you are not able to train them properly.”

More about the Teacher-Student-Relationship

Spiritual Teacher and Sexual Abuse / Sexual Exploitation

See also

Related Discussion on this Blog

Update July 2017

There is a rebuttal to Khandro Rinpoche’s basic idea that common sense could protect women from sexual abuse or rape. The woman who wrote it, was abused herself: