By Kellie Schorr
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
A few weeks ago, Lama Surya Das, who is known by such lauded names as “The American Lama,” “The Jolly Lama,” and a “Dzogchen Master Teacher” spoke at an event I attended about death and dying.
He seemed a little cranky and older than his promo picture, but spoke with great affection about his family, his grief, and the ways he talks to people who are dying. It wasn’t the most groundbreaking talk I’d ever heard, but I remember thinking it was a nice night. He seemed like a good lama.
On July 30, 2020, writer Joshua Eaton’s article from Religious News Service was published detailing a history of sexual misconduct allegations against Lama Surya Das that ranged from the revelation he had an affair with a student that become public in 2008, to a series of women who brought complaints of his sexual advances to his center board in 2019. His response has been straight out of the misogyny handbook: blame the victims, deny the reality of it, minimize the feelings of everyone involved, and mumble a half-apology that he knows better now and there are new rules in place so it’s not a big deal. By all accounts, he seems like a terrible lama.
So, which is it? As uncomfortable as it is, the answer is… it’s both.
Sometimes humans do amazingly beautiful things. Sometimes humans do incredibly ugly things. Often, it’s the same human. When both sides shine at the same time, like a sparkling coin that inexplicably landed on its edge, it creates a sense of cognitive dissonance and our minds begin to reflexively seek resolution one way or the other. He’s either beauty or the beast. Turns out that kind of dualism is rarely helpful.
We’ve dealt with cognitive dissonance before:
- Steve Jobs, an iconic and beloved visionary, was also mean, rude, and had no record of giving to charity.
- John Lennon, the peace-loving song poet, martyred in death, abandoned his first wife, treated his son with contempt and in a 1980 interview shortly before his death admitted to slapping women—“any woman.”
- Bill Cosby, a comedic trailblazer and “every-dad” turned out to be serial rapist.
- Margaret Sanger, renown champion of birth control and women’s health, supported eugenics and encouraged enforced sterilization of those with “undesirable traits.”
When it comes to Buddhist teachers, however, it’s harder and more painful to understand the many stories that can reside in one person. Lamas use the language and images of our own heart practice. By their very position they inspire our best nature and thus exist in a seat elevated by gratitude and respect. There’s no laser that cuts as quickly or deeply as spiritual hypocrisy.
It’s not the car, it’s the driver.
Of the three vehicles of Buddhism—Mahayana, Theravada, and Vajrayana—it is Vajrayana with its tantric practices and studies on masculine and feminine energy that immediately draws criticism. The minute Eaton’s article described Lama Surya Das asking female students to meditate with him in a yab-yum position (a tantric deity pose that features male and female expressing partners in sexual embrace) this was bound to be tossed into the “Well, that’s tantra for you” basket. However, nothing in Vajrayana explains or creates this kind of bad action.
When a drunk driver hits a highway worker, we don’t blame Toyota. When a texting distracted driver slams into a road sign, we don’t disparage everyone who has an iPhone. When we care about or trusted someone it is very easy to dump the blame on the circumstance. That makes everything less painful. However, the accountability lies solely with the person who committed the act. Don’t substitute or generalize that responsibility.
The word tantra means “weaving” and is an evolving system of ritual, text and practices to produce both knowledge and liberation. There’s a lot more to tantra than sex, but to suggest some tantric practices are not sexual would be naïve and insulting. There are tantric practices and postures that are sexual and celebratory of the energy that can arise in ecstatic embrace.
Though some tantric practices are sexual, being a sexual predator is not tantric.
A suggestion or action that violates marriage vows, leaves the participants feeling cheap and used, breaks the 3rd precept, is done without consent, and has to be hidden from eyes of the organization’s board isn’t a spiritual anything. It’s just abuse.
Consent in a modern world
Before we go down the “he said it was consensual” road, let me say this one more time, really loudly, for those in the back.
It IS. NOT. POSSIBLE. for a teacher to have consensual sex with a student in this era. There is a power differential between teacher and student that limits a student’s ability to respond honestly without fearing rejection or consequence. Without the perceived freedom of self-determinacy, consent is not occurring.
It doesn’t matter if the student wore a sexy dress to sangha or invited the guru to her hotel room. It doesn’t matter if she thought it would make her feel special. It doesn’t matter if she believed him when he said it would be the road to enlightenment. The teacher has a responsibility to operate within healthy boundaries, and the student should be guided by them as well.
Know better, do better
Did 13th century Buddhist Masters have sex with students? Yes. Do we know more about social systems, and interpersonal power dynamics now? Yes. Should 21st century Buddhist Masters proposition students for sex? No.
Vajrayana teachers have committed sexual misconduct.
Zen teachers have committed sexual misconduct.
Yoga teachers have committed sexual misconduct.
All kinds of teachers have committed sexual misconduct.
Accept this. We must accept this. Because only when we cut away the obscuring padding of practice blame and hold the actual person accountable for their acts can we move forward to support the many, many lamas who are not abusive, and create centers, sanghas and small groups that traffic in compassion and right action.
So is Lama Surya Das a bad lama or a good lama? Yes.
Being mature in practice means understanding that each person is a book, not a single story. He has given great teachings, and committed serious wrongs. Not every story in this volume was one he intended to tell, but here they are for us to read and determine which to remember and what to learn from them. It is my hope that he will learn from them, and find a path that offers the courage of compassion to the survivors of his misconduct, and the power of honesty to transform his behavior, not because a monitor is in the room but because clarity is in his heart.
Until then, whether we practice Vajrayana, Dzogchen, Zen, or “meditating 10 minutes a day to keep me from yelling at the cat,” let us practice the immeasurable qualities that tell stories of light in our lives and the world around us: kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity.
Those are the best of times.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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