Article: Keeping The Precepts – Sexual Misconduct & Buddhism

There are five precepts that all Buddhists are committed to keeping. These are to not kill, not steal, not lie and not commit sexual misconduct or take intoxicants.

In the training for the Mahayanagana, students examine these precepts and consider the nuances – what do they actually mean in practice? What happens if we find ourselves acting contrary to these precepts either in spirit or in practice?  There is much to consider. These days there is a lot of anxiety in the Buddhist world, as in other areas of modern life about abusive behaviour and how to safeguard the vulnerable by adhering to firm moral principles. We have been working on such a policy within our Sangha along lines laid out by the government and charity law. How best to safeguard the vulnerable, which could be any one of us in fact.

As we in the Shrimalagana (the inner body of the Awakened Heart Sangha) consider this we realize that however careful we are with our rules of engagement in actual fact the only safeguard is our sangha ethos and for all of us to embody it. If we all take care about how we are communicating and connecting to each other, then we will not make mistakes that leave people feeling abandoned and abused.  Mistakes will happen.

We all tend to project onto each other and misunderstand each others behaviour and intentions. Nonviolent Communication (NVC) helps us to learn how to meet our own needs and be able to speak from a genuine and honest position which enables others to more readily understand and connect to us on a level that is meaningful and mutually supportive.  We all have a responsibility to learn how to communicate in this manner and this way we will all be able to play our part in safeguarding the vulnerable.

So how literally are we to take the way sexual misconduct is presented in the traditional texts?

Buddhist texts on right sexual conduct tend to be written from the point of view that all sexual activity is a distraction and caused by desire and attachment and therefore impure. To give up all sexual activity and be a monk or nun is held up as the ideal. In the Mahayana sutras however this position is challenged – especially in the Definitive Vinaya where the Buddha says that sometimes it is beneficial for a Bodhisattva to allow themselves to get caught up in desire because it helps them develop love for beings and they should be willing to keep returning to samsaric existence in order to help others.  For such a Bodhisattva, although desire is a fault, it is less of a fault than hostility and misguidedness. It is difficult to abandon desire entirely, so if it takes a long time to remove it is not necessarily a big problem. Hatred and hostility are the biggest problem but relatively easy to remove. The biggest problem is ignorance but that is hardest to remove and takes longest. Given this long term picture of how a Bodhisattva will have to keep their connection with others through love and compassion over many lifetimes, there is no need to think of desire and attachment as something we need to abandon straight away.  In fact loving relationships whether sexual or otherwise are to be encouraged.

For non-monastic Mahayana practitioners this means that we do not think of sexual behaviour as necessarily negative – in fact it can be positive, especially in the Vajrayana context where sexual union is given as the symbol of the great bliss free from all grasping and clinging – the non-conceptual, non-dual, great bliss of Nirvana. To be able to enjoy the bliss of sexual union without any grasping is a goal that anyone can aim for, making sexual union potentially a great practice opportunity. The trouble comes when there is a lack of openness, clarity and sensitivity by either partner. Relationships can become callous and abusive if love and respect are not maintained.

As for the details given in Buddhist texts that make it clear that homosexual relationships are considered negative, my understanding is that in societies of the time such relationships were socially unacceptable and therefore led to suffering.  This is how things were in the West until very recently. Over the course of my life we have moved from homosexuality being illegal to being publicly celebrated. In the terms of the society we find ourselves in today it is hard to say exactly in what sense homosexuality could ever be described as negative and what the Buddhist tradition ever found negative about it.

As with other issues around abusive and harmful behaviour sexual or otherwise it always comes down to love and respect – to values that support openness clarity and sensitivity and the realisation of our own true nature.

This year there have been various revelations about Sogyal Rinpoche and Sakyong Rinpoche that have lead them to resign their positions as heads of their respective sanghas. This has sent shock waves through the Buddhist world. If we cannot trust the heads of big Buddhist sanghas such as Rigpa and Shambala then can we trust anyone? For the students in those sanghas does it mean that all the teaching and empowerments they have received from these teachers were all the time invalid?

I don’t think we need to think they were.  In my forthcoming book on student teacher relationship I make it clear that teachers can play different roles for us.  One role is to head a Buddhist sangha and that enables many people to receive teachings and adhishtana from the lineage. If a teacher has played that role for us then they have genuinely helped us and are integral to the Mandala of Awakening that is reaching out to us beyond space and time. It is the action of the Awakened Heart itself. It is the Guru in principle. The Guru as the spontaneous activity of the Buddha’s blessing. There is no doubt that we have been connected to it and no doubt that the connection came through the very teacher we met and inspired us.  If we later find that there are things about that teacher that we can only see as faults we do not need to exaggerate the faults or deny them. They are self-empty – they are impermanent and need to be corrected. Yet the qualities that enabled them to link us to the Dharma are not destroyed by those faults. We can continue to feel grateful for them and make prayers that our connection with them will always be beneficial for both them and ourselves and lead all beings to Awakening. This way we keep good samaya but at the same time remain truthful and not try to cover up faults and prevent others being honest and open too.

There are statements in the Buddhist texts to the effect that it is wrong to criticize one’s teacher but they only present one side of the picture. Of course if a teacher of any kind is trying to correct us there is a danger that we will get defensive and angry and criticise them instead of looking at our faults and correcting them.  The other side of the picture is that the teacher might well be at fault. Only a fully Enlightened teacher would be beyond fault and such teachers are rarely come across these days. Even if we came across one we might not recognize them as such – so there is a very grave danger that we might criticize them without realizing who they were.

Since they are so rare we would be best to err on the side of seeing faults in teachers as faults and to takes precautions accordingly. This doesn’t mean we have to criticize them for their faults but we do need to protect ourselves and others. The whole sangha has to take responsibility for this and so it is important to discuss how we are going to develop and strengthen our values around using communication skills to ensure that our sangha embodies the principles of openness clarity and sensitivity. In other words all that is the exact opposite to abuse in any form.

Lama Shenpen Hookham


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