By John Lee Pendall
So, here we go again—another Buddhist teacher accused of sexual assault.
William Lloyd Karelis was a teacher at Shambhala in Boulder, CO. He’s been arrested for allegedly sexually assaulting a 13-year old girl. He started teaching the girl when she was eight.
Several women reported sexual misconduct in 2003, and he was suspended in 2004 for other issues. Eventually, he was totally kicked out of Shambhala in 2008, and after that, he started his own meditation group.
This is only (as I write this) the most recent sexual scandal in the Western Buddhist world, and I doubt it’ll be the last. Recently, Shambhala also released findings that Sakyong Mipham was definitely involved in sexual misconduct.
Allegations of sexual assault and misconduct have been rocking the world of Vajrayana Buddhism for awhile now, but it’s not isolated to that Vehicle. In Zen, there haven’t been a lot of sexual allegations, but even one is too many, and I can think of four off the top of my head. And there was a recent scandal in the Theravada world that resulted in a whole organization totally disbanding.
The women trusted these men completely, and these spineless weasels betrayed that trust, and in the process they betrayed everything they stood for. They’ve cast a shadow on the Dharma—something that’s saved my life over and over again—and made it something cringe-worthy.
Imagine being new to Buddhism, researching it online, and you see all of these sexual allegations. “Well, guess Buddhism is just as polluted as every other religion.” That hurts because that person may have benefited from it a lot, but because of these degenerate leeches, they may cast it aside forever.
These temples, centers and communities are supposed to be places where people can learn to understand and cope with the cruelties of life—not be subjected to even more cruelty. A person shouldn’t have to be worried about being seduced or assaulted when he/she’s having a private meeting with a teacher. Children shouldn’t have to be worried about it. There’s no excuse.
I don’t care if you’re an advocate of Crazy Wisdom or not, keep your dick in your pants and your hands to yourself.
But I don’t want to focus on the problems here. I want to brainstorm solutions.
Everything depends on causes and conditions—that’s the bedrock of Buddhist wisdom. If we don’t change the conditions that give rise to this perversion in Buddhism, then we’re going to keep getting more of it; it’s not going to magically disappear.
Punishment is never enough. If it was, then these teachers wouldn’t harm people because they’d be too afraid of going to jail or losing their authority—prevention is key. We can’t just respond to things after the fact, we have to get ahead of them and alter the foundation that supports them.
That foundation is the feudal student-teacher relationship, the imbalanced hierarchies in Buddhist organizations and the elevation of teachers to sainthood by those organizations. Power attracts perversion. Power distracts from practice. As members of the Sangha, we have to rely on ourselves, the teachings, and each other—not organizations or men in robes.
It’s telling that there is no record of Buddha ever naming a successor. Before he died, he only said, “Be a light unto yourself, and let the Dharma be your light.”
We don’t need gurus, and we don’t need giant non-profit bureaucracies.
That isn’t the spirit of the West anyway, is it? We’re all brought up to value autonomy and self-reliance. The role of a teacher is accessibility, not deliverance. No one can enlighten us, so there is no reason to rely on teachers for understanding.
We need to see through these ancient hierarchies and interact human-to-human, not teacher-to-student. No more authoritarian power trips, no more patriarchy, no more lineage fetishes or delusions of grandeur. Just the practice.
Most of us are not monks and nuns—we’re laypeople. Laypeople typically didn’t receive close guidance from teachers of any sex, just public lectures and a few words here and there. So, in the West, all of these dynamics are newer to Buddhism—and it seems it isn’t working out too well.
Another idea could be to monitor or record all private teacher-student interactions, and that teachers wouldn’t be allowed to see their students outside of the Center or Temple—much like how therapists can’t socialize with their clients.
These are the only solutions I’ve got: community-centered, practitioner-centered, and/or start monitoring interactions. I’m just one idiot though—what other solutions can you think of? These offenses are against the Sangha as a whole and women in particular. We can’t rely on secular law and administrations to solve this problem—we have to do it ourselves.
Also, in Karelis’ case, I know he hasn’t been found guilty yet—so settle down. Even though my surname comes from a place where they used to hold witch trials, I don’t advocate a guilty till proven innocent approach. But just the possibility of it being so is unsettling enough, isn’t it?
It points to something broken here.
Buddhism isn’t like the Catholic Church. Its lineages and and organizational structures weren’t handed down by some kind of all-powerful deity. Buddhism is human; it has always been human. Now it’s up to us to keep it humane. If that means radically reorganizing it, or even totally rejecting traditional dynamics, then so be it.
We don’t need any of that; we only need the Dharma and our will to practice.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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He has a B.S. in psychology and lives between two cornfields in rural Illinois. His errant knowledge base covers Buddhism, philosophy, psychology, astronomy, theology, music theory, and quoting lines from movies.
Feel free to check out his Facebook page, and his blog "Salty Dharma".