Tantric Buddhism, vows, sex and women – the importance of love, respect and consent

 ‘Only the united beat of sex and heart together can create ecstasy.’-Anais Nin

On this full moon day, this short new article is an attempt to clarify (in simple laywoman’s and unscholarly terms) some of the issues surrounding monasticism, sex, women, consorts in Vajrayana (or Tantric) Buddhism.  It does not claim to be comprehensive or in-depth but hopefully will be of benefit in one way or another!

Monastics and sex

During the years I have spent studying and practising Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, in predominantly Tibetan Buddhist communities, I have witnessed a tendency of some ‘cultural’ Buddhists (a term for people ‘born into’ Buddhism and not necessarily those who have studied the philosophy or practice the rituals and so on), and even non-Buddhists, to think the main vow for a monastic to maintain is not having actual physical sexual intercourse, and that apart from that, they are free to do whatever they like (with the caveat that they can purify it later with Vajrasattva if it is a secondary breach!).  It is generally accepted to be a breach of the root vows if a monk or nun has actual physical sexual intercourse (in any orifice) and they are supposed to disrobe after having done so. However, that does not then give a green light to any other ‘sexual activity’ (like Bill Clinton saying about Monica Lewinsky,  ‘I never had sex with that woman’, thinking that somehow meant his other sexual activity with her was somehow permissible and thus he had not been unfaithful to his wife). Monastics and Buddhist lamas are supposed to have reduced (or be actively reducing) their own desires for sexual arousal and pleasure for temporary, worldly reasons. Therefore, any activity that leads them, or any person they have contact with, into more attachment and interest in worldly sexual pleasure and desire would be considered to go against the general spirit of the Vinaya (the general rules of discipline for Buddhists).  For more on the Vinaya and its application to women, LGBT and transgender see this article by Devdutt Pattanaik here, ‘There’s a misogynist aspect of Buddhism that nobody talks about‘.

There is no denying that monastics are also often cultural Buddhists and ordinary human beings, with sexual desires and so on, but it’s the general principle that is important to remember. Monastic root vows also include not stealing and not lying too, so it’s not just about reducing sexual desires and attachment. Therefore, if a monk or nun regularly lies or is dishonest and appropriates things or property from another, then they can also be considered to have broken the five main root monastic vows and are supposed to disrobe if it is a serious infraction.

Aside from the sexual aspect of Buddhist ethics and discipline though, a Buddhist teacher (I refer to teachers here because they are supposed to have more developed inner qualities than that of a student), and especially a lama who gives Vajrayana empowerments and teachings, is also supposed to maintain three sets of other Buddhist vows: the Individual Liberation Vows (or Pratimoksha vows), the Bodhisattva Vows and the Vajrayana Vows (or root downfalls).  None of these are that easy to maintain and if they are breached, must be purified correctly and genuinely.  Turning to the subject of women though, how, if at all, do these three types of vows have a particular reference, or application, to women?

A foundation of love and compassion

First, to be able to hold pure Vajrayana vows it is essential to maintain the root vows of Individual Liberation and Bodhisattva.  The Individual Liberation vows are based on genuine renunciation of samsara (the cycle of suffering) and the origins of samsara. Thus, a person with genuine renunciation would no longer seek genuine happiness in worldly, temporary pleasures (such as orgasms) for oneself alone, recognising such egoistic desires and attachments to be the source of much suffering (long and short term).  The foundation of the Bodhisattva vows is the wish to bring all beings away from suffering and to a state of genuine, lasting happiness. So, if a teacher suddenly loses interest, shuns, ignores or lacks love or compassion for any being, for example someone who displeases them, or insults them or makes them angry etc. it would be a sign that they do not have genuine love and compassion for that being.  Taranatha explains clearly that these are essential qualities of any Vajrayana teacher.

Respecting and not disparaging women

To be a Vajrayana teacher one must not only maintain those two sets of vows well and purely but also the vajrayana commitments (or samaya).  One of the fourteen Vajrayana root downfalls  ( rtsa ltung bcu bzhi)[1] is that women should not be disparaged, abused, insulted or degraded, which includes individual women and also generalising about women as a group. So, casual sexist jokes or generalisations about women, e.g. ‘blonde women are stupid’ jokes etc. would be considered a sign of such a general lack of respect. I once challenged a well-known lama who told such a joke that it was sexist and he could not understand why. I said ‘replace the word ‘blonde women’ with ‘black people’ and maybe you will understand. Sexism is often not recognised because it is still  the norm in many spheres of life.

The reason why women are mentioned here, and not men, is because from the Vajrayana viewpoint, the winds and channels yoga of tantric practice, biological women (their biological physical bodies and channels) are considered the nature of wisdom in the union practice of method (male) and wisdom (female).  In addition, due to the pervasive nature of afflictive mental states and impure perception, sentient beings cannot always know, or see, who (or who is not) an actual dakini/enlightened female being. For that reason, it is also considered important not to degrade, insult or disparage women. You might be insulting a wisdom dakini!

What is a ‘consort’?

As Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche taught recently in France, a consort is not neccessarily a girlfriend or wife of a Buddhist lama.  Although, often that is how the term has come to be used.  In fact, being a consort has nothing to do with such a relation and is often ‘secret’ (the term in Tibetan is sangyum (gsang yum) literally meaning ‘secret mother’).  It is someone who engages in physical (or energetic mental union) with a Buddhist master focusing on visualisations and breathing and yogic exercises for the purpose of enlightenment, without excessive attachment or desires.   The enlightened master, Guru Rinpoche had five principal consorts (not many lamas can claim to be at that level though!).  Tertöns (treasure-revealers) in particular are said to require a consort who is considered to be an indispensable aid to the discovery and decipherment of termas (concealed treasures). Also, a spiritual consort might at times be recommended in order to rejuvenate and prolong the life-span of the male practitioner, or remove obstacles in his life, especially his health, and to promote his enlightened activities.  Female practitioners can also take a male consort, as in the case of Yeshe Tsogyal who took Acharya Salé as her consort.

Of course, a consort could be both a romantic partner of a lama as well as engaging in actual consort practice, and conversely a girlfriend or wife might not be a consort at all.   Monastics (those with monastic vows, be they fully ordained or not) are not allowed to marry or ordinary sexual relations. That is clear. This is why HH 17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje, recently recommended, it is important for non-monastics not to wear the monastic robes (or similar clothes) because it confuses people who might then think that such people can have girlfriends and wives and so on.

Vajrasttva in union with consort. Traditional Buddhist depiction.

The secondary Vajrayana root vows mention the downfalls about women in the context of consort (or Karmamudra) practice. In the last few decades, there has been more written recently in the English language (by women) about women and consort practice, such as Passionate Enlightenment by Miranda Shaw, Travellers in Space by June Campbell, the Love and Liberation: Autobiographical Writings of Sera Khandro by Sarah H. Jacoby and a recent academic article by Holly Gayley, Revisiting the Secret Consort (gsang yum) in Tibetan Buddhism .  Shaw, in particular, effectively claims that a genuine consort lama relation should be mutually fulfilling and equal.  However, judging by recent sex scandals of male Buddhist lamas ‘abusing’ and ‘using’ female students (including nuns) for casual sexual encounters and pleasure, it is clear that the ‘consort’ relation (and even the term itself) is still too often misunderstood and misused.  Even though I have not read his new book about the tantric sexual union practice, Karmamudra: The Yoga of Bliss: Sexuality in Tibetan Buddhism and Medicine, the author Dr Nida Chenagtsang states that the reason he wrote it was to educate and inform people about what an actual Karmamudra practice is and is not, in order to protect people from such worldly and abusive relations.

As I stated in a prior article ‘Monastic Abuse: The Tragic Case of Kalu Rinpoche’, consort practice is a very particular kind of physical (and/or energetic union) that is undertaken for the sake of enlightenment and not for sexual pleasure only. It is also an activity that involves a high level of yogic competency and expertise on the part of the lama, and in addition, the female consort is supposed to have certain qualities, such as vows, an understanding of emptiness and empowerments.

How is the sexual union itself beneficial for attaining enlightenment? Well that is a huge and profound topic that requires time, practice and study but is also something that finally can only be transmitted secretly and privately between master and student.  There are four states in worldly life that are generally considered ‘gateways’ into the luminous-empty nature of mind: sleeping, waking, intermediate state between death and birth and orgasm.  As Thrangu Rinpoche once replied when asked for an example on the ‘non-existent’ the nature of mind (in On Buddha Essence: A Commentary on Rangjung Dorje’s Treatise, p 127), that it is the example of a woman orgasming during sexual intercourse. This was an example given by Marpa and other great masters. Why? because ‘you cannot locate this bliss or find what it is; the nature of it is empty – but it is there, you can’t say there is nothing there because there is bliss. That is the example.’

The energy of orgasm and ecstatic sexual bliss, in particular (the life-blood of tantric practice) is the energy and nature of the ultimate nature of mind (the four kayas) and thus used as a tool by practitioners to become more and more connected to, merge with and reveal that ever-present state.  This is why, ironically for those who don’t understand, great tantric practitioners are actually celibate (which is not just about vows but means someone who does not have sexual intercourse for worldly pleasure or orgasm).  The sexual energy needs to be preserved to be used in spiritual and yogic union practice.

Qualifications and consent

The secondary root Vajrayana downfalls state that the vajrayana master or teacher, should not pick UNQUALIFIED consorts and also must not FORCE a consort. These terms are not so clear either, but generally speaking the texts and tantras refer to the woman (or consort) having a certain minimum level of attributes, for example, someone that has no vows, no stable practice, or has wrong views or not much understanding of emptiness etc would not be suitable.

But what is meant by ‘force’ here? Certainly, physical rape and coercion or blackmail would be examples of forcing someone. But what about when a lama uses visualisations and mantras, and their own tantric yogic tsa-lung practice to literally overpower and intoxicate a woman to feel very sexual and thus do sexual things towards and with that lama they might not normally do? This kind of experience happens more often than people might know or be aware of.  For example, some deity practices like Kurukulle, if done by a practitioner with certain skills, would allow them to gain access to a person in this way, like putting a drug in their drink, so that they lose all ability to think clearly and become totally overwhelmed with sexual desire and arousal. Yet, as one article says about Kurukulle: ”Despite depictions of her magnetizing powers as “magical,” they are not for the corrupted purpose of attracting a mate, or money, or luxuries.  Like other emanations of Tara, she is about the “activities” of compassion, in this case attracting and enchanting.”

However, it is also said that  tantric masters have mastery of the four siddhi activities of pacifying, enriching, magnetizing, and subjugating and thus perhaps ‘overpowering’ a woman in this way might be seen as that kind of legitimate enlightened activity.  Also, the sexual thrill of being ‘dominated’ or ‘overwhelmingly seduced’ may legitmately be part of the role play and energy union of the couple, to generate the desire and arousal, depending on what turns a person on.  However, generally speaking, if it is not based on genuine love, respect and compassion, and not based on the wish for enlightenment, and/or used for power and sexual pleasure, then it might be considered forced and non-consensual. If the woman (or women) feel ‘used and abused’ by it, that might also indicate a lack of clear and mutual consent or adequate qualifications on the part of the master or consort, or both. For example, if a relation is based on lies, deception and disrespect/force (see more on that below) then it is like rape, because the consent is not really there (and never was).

As HE Mingyur Rinpoche says in his excellent article, When a Buddhist Teacher Crosses the Line, on the issue of abusive or unethical conduct by Buddhist lamas:

The most important thing to know about these unusual teaching styles is that they are meant to benefit the student. If they are not rooted in compassion and wisdom, they are not genuine. Actions that are rooted in compassion and wisdom—even when they appear odd, eccentric, or even wrathful—do not instill fear or anxiety. They bring about a flowering of compassion and wisdom in the student.

In other words, the results of genuine “crazy wisdom” are always positive and visible. When a teacher uses an extreme approach that is rooted in compassion, the result is spiritual growth, not trauma. Trauma is a sure sign that the “crazy wisdom” behavior was missing the wisdom to see what would truly benefit the student, the compassion that puts the student’s interest first, or both.

Bliss, love, happiness, respect and realisation of  shared spiritual goals could be considered signs of authenticity and success in such intimate relations.

I personally have direct experience about this issue too, as I have also had extremely challenging experiences with a very well-known Tibetan Buddhist lama, which were valuable in showing me clearly what are the ‘red flags’ to look out for in male lamas who are using the teachings for exploitation, sexual pleasure and power etc. over women.  For more on that, please scroll down to the bottom of my article on this here.

Gender empowerment and the #Metoo movement

The increasing empowerment, education and gender equality of women globally, has led to an increased sense of concern and injustice at the many gender inequalities in the religious context, including Buddhism. Efforts have been made to improve the status of Buddhist nuns by Tibetan lamas such as HH 17th Karmapa, British nun and acclaimed teacher, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, the first Geshema Kelsang Wangmo, Malaysian nuns Dr. Tenzin Dadon and Karma Tashi Choedron and Buddhist feminist academics, like Rita M Gross and Holly Gayley. In addition, there are now Geshemas and nuns who are teaching at Buddhist nunneries in India, such as Dolma Ling, and more prominent female lamas and practitioners from all cultures and traditions.

Some might argue (like Miranda Shaw) that the consort-lama relation (done genuinely and with mutual respect and consent) was never unequal or sexist in principle and that it has become that way due to patriarchal and sexist cultural norms. Whatever the case may be, the empowerment of women also means them having more access to the information available on consort practice and being able to educate themselves about it. The #Metoo movement and  recent Sakyadita conference held in July 2019, as well as the formation of the Alliance of Buddhist Ethics, are signs that progress is being made on this issue, with more women speaking out and (importantly) supporting each other.  Knowledge is power and with more translations and publications becoming available on this topic as well, women are able to inform themselves before entering into a relation with a male lama and hopefully ensure that it is one based on genuine love and compassion and of wishing to be of genuine benefit to others and oneself.

I myself can say a lot more about this topic, as I  have had significant personal, direct experience of misuse of tantra and siddhi power to intoxicate and seduce into non-consensual relations which have [unsurprisingly] later turned sour due to a lack of love, compassion and respect for myself and other women and questionable motivation. More on that in the future perhaps. I know the difference between a sacred, spiritual union and practice and one which is undertaken out of lust, sex addiction and power. As Anais Nin alluded to in her quote that began this article, without genuine love there can be no lasting, genuine ecstatic bliss.

To end this brief article, I leave you with the words of a Buddhist nun, Dhammanada, one of the first Buddhist nuns to recently receive full ordination in Thailand:

“We need to get to the spirit of Buddhism, in spite of the structure we have,” Dhammananda says. “The Buddha was always for enlightenment, for equality. He even said himself, ‘Don’t believe in my words unless you put it into practice.’ If it works, only then you take it.

“You must keep in mind that the Buddhist texts came out of the Indian social context, in which women were lowest. Buddha refused to accept the Indian caste system. He denied the social structure of his time. This was very revolutionary. To be a revolutionary is to follow in the footsteps of the Buddha.”

My own personal experience (updated 8th October 2020)

As a woman myself, who has also recently experienced and spoken out about the emotionally and sexually abusive, deceptive and hypocritical conduct of a well-known, senior Karma Kagyu lama (and self-declared fully ordained monk-who appears to have been doing the same to several women over many years according to their independent testimonies) I know how difficult it is to speak out privately about such incidents (never mind publicly).

My own experience – consent by deception

My intimate relation with this Karma Kagyu lama was based on a fundamental deception and lies that he told me from the outset, which seduced me into thinking the relation was a genuine romance, particularly as he was also personally helping with translations of his texts, which I had freely offered to do. However, as time went on, and more women I randomly met at Dharma events and centres spoke to me about him, I realised that he had been lying to me, to those women and about them. In addition, he was even lying about staying in a hospital (later telling me when I discovered this, that he was staying in an expensive hotel paid for by sponsors in Tibet).

That persistent and gross dishonesty means that the consent I gave to participate in the romantic relation (that was also sexual in nature) was never present because it was based on deception and a lack of genuine love and compassion. Other women have made independent reports to myself and other senior Kagyu teachers expressing their concerns about his disrespectful and derogatory conduct towards women for years. However, it seems nothing has been done to stop him, or he refuses to change.

One woman reported being coldly told by him never to attend his teachings or contact him again after she refused to engage in such communications and relations with him. Another woman (who reported his conduct to two senior Kagyu lamas) told me she cut off all contact with him when after only just meeting her at a sacred Dharma event (and him giving her his email address without her asking) he bombarded her with romantic and sexual messages and photos, as she found him ‘creepy, obsessive and dangerous’.

Retaliation – bullying, defamation, impersonation

Perhaps that is not so surprising though, as the retaliation that I (and some of my friends/supporters) have faced since raising the alarm about it privately such as:

–Silencing (my Facebook account ‘Adele Zangmo’ that has been active without issues since 2007, was suddenly disabled without explanation at the same time). I have been unable to recover it since and lost all my personal photos and data in it. I was also unable to create a new one without it being disabled. I have been told that this can be done if several people report the account as ‘suspicious’.

–My email was logged into by unknown devices. Online bullying, impersonation (messages and posts were sent to people claiming to have been written by me) and slander online.

–A false and misleading letter that was sent by one of his enablers to Khyentse Foundation which caused me to lose precious time and funding . Such retaliation from the teacher and/or their enablers is often more stressful and damaging than the original conduct by the teacher.  Even though he has had nothing to do with it, my ex (and father of my son) was called up anonymously and threats were made to harm me if I didn’t shut up about it. This is illegal activity.

–I was even falsely accused by these same ‘anonymous’ people (or person) of being part of a team of people trying to destroy the Karmapa and Karma Kagyu (which I absolutely deny). Also, they warned me that I would not be able to attend any more Karma Kagyu teachings, that I would be ‘kicked out’ if I tried and that HH Karmapa was aware of my concerns and did not care about it.

–A misogynist and hateful petition was published (using a very unflattering photo of myself that I had never given permission for anyone to take or be posted/shared) and emails sent to my friends and supporters demanding that my translation work stop (or be ignored) and that I not be allowed to attend any more Dharma teachings or empowerments at all.

These allegations have been reported by myself, and by other women, to senior Kagyu lamas who have also been asked to tell HH Karmapa about it. As of yet I have received no formal, private response. A representative from the Alliance of Buddhist Ethics also reached out to the lama and his monastery enablers to discuss the allegations. Her email was never responded to. The strategy being one of disappear for months without any contact, no response, no investigation in the hope the woman will walk away and forget about it all. That is how it continues for years.

My view is that the truth, and what is ‘honest’, is paramount in such situations. If mistakes have been made, they need to be admitted and amends made with love and compassion. The reconciliation and peace that happened in Europe after the second World War with Nazi countries did not happen without justice and communication.  Silence is not always the best answer. Covering up, ignoring, demonising, bullying, slandering and threatening anyone who speaks TRUTHFULLY about matters of abuse, injustice and hypocrisy by powerful people, is not honest or ethical (never mind Buddhist) and needs to stop. Like continually sweeping dirt under a carpet, hoping it will go away, it will not . In fact, the dirt heap will eventually become so big and smelly that when someone finally lifts the carpet up it will be an even bigger mess to clean up than if they had just cleaned it up properly at the start.

I will say and write more about this topic in due course. For now, I hope that these matters can be resolved in a way that is just and compassionate to all. May all teachers who lie, abuse, deceive, disrespect and bully women be swiftly stopped from doing so!

May this article be of benefit in helping people understand what is a genuine sacred consort relation and thus avoid those that are not. May teachers who lie, abuse, deceive, disrespect and bully women be swiftly stopped from doing so!

Adele Tomlin, 4th October 2020.

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