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Letterman. Mitterrand. What about your guru?

from Davee Evans

Sex is in the news again, surprise surprise. I’m hearing nightly about David Letterman‘s confession of romantic affairs, and recently rehashing Frederic Mitterrand‘s prior sexual purchases as well. The latter, according to the AP, stemming from his recent public statements about Roman Polanski. Clearly the karmic result of sex can be huge, and sexual misconduct so much more so. As our cultural and political icons are fallible; what of our spiritual leaders? Perhaps celibacy was a darn good idea. Nonetheless, there’s been a long list of Hindu and Buddhist leaders with sexual controversy — in particular sleeping with adherents — not to mention recent Catholic karmic fruit. To what degree should that weigh negatively on those traditions do you think?


I do expect spiritual leaders, and social leaders like Letterman even, to lead by example and avoid harming others with sexual conduct. I’m not sure Letterman’s actions were harmful exactly, because I didn’t work for him, but they had that potential certainly. Of course we’re all human, but for spiritual leaders — especially those who prefect our bodhisattva vows or similar — we could at least expect them to be good bodhisattvas too right? Is having sex with your Buddhist teacher a problem?

I don’t think that it’s necessarily a problem, but that’s an ongoing contemplation for me and it’s always going to be edgy with my WASP-y cultural upbringing. The news lately has me pondering the parameters where it’s reasonable, or if I’m just drinking cool aid.


Historically, there is a strong tradition of celibacy in various faiths and lineages and there are also exceptions to that, including leaders who marry or are polyamorous, or traditions where sex is included as a kind of practice even. And cultures vary; Tibet had a cultural tradition of poly marriages, one common form was a woman marrying two brothers there. I’m not living in Tibet though. I unconsciously expect Buddhist teachers in the US to adhere to western cultural norms for relationships, though I don’t know why that should be the case. Maybe that’s just my hang up / shenpa…

I took a class with His Holiness the Dalai Lama once and a fellow student asked for advice concerning parenting, to which he answered, “How would I know? I’m just a monk!” He then attempted to offer advice and also further qualify it as suspect coming from a celibate monk. So perhaps there is a very practical use of having spiritual leaders who are married or have lived the ups and downs of dating, because they can then better relate to what we’re actually going through. You know, if you get dumped your lama can be all, “dude, I’ve so been there.”


And then we hear rumor of the super secret Buddhist or Hindu sexual meditation practices. That’s a titillating idea, though I have a hard enough time keeping my mindfulness when a girl merely smiles at me. Would I likely be able to watch my mind-stream as a practice while having sex? Mmm, doubtful. I’d probably be fooling myself to think I could. And various lamas also warn that particular practice is only for the most advanced practitioners. I bet it totally ruins the sexiness too. I mean they weren’t designing these practices to be fun really, like Dr. Ruth might advise. I bet they’re clinical.

It seems to me that teachers who are sexually active strikes a serious nerve in our culture, and I’m not sure if it’s just a cultural hang up or if it’s really saying something is amiss. For me there was a real impact and something I’ve had to consider. But hypothetically, if you were attracted to your Buddhist teacher, would you sleep with him or her? If I was respected in the morning, I think I would.

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posted October 9, 2009 at 11:26 am

this strikes a cord with me particuraly, because my most recent employement was as an assistant to a spiritual leader who wooed many of his young beautiful followers into his bed. i have yet to still understand how i feel about leaders and their personal sexual choices. however, i did leave my job position because of the implications my bosses sex life brought to the work environment and my concerns about his advances towards me. i have also seen some of his more discerning disciples leave him and his guidance upon examination of his personal affairs.
personally, i will not be seeking guidance from anyone who does not practice celibacy because of the drama and hurt i have seen unfold from misuse of trust.

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posted October 9, 2009 at 11:59 am

“personally, i will not be seeking guidance from anyone who does not practice celibacy because of the drama and hurt i have seen unfold from misuse of trust.”
I think one thing we can stand to learn from celibates is that while sex is interesting, exciting and can propagate our peoples, there are more fundamentally important things, like trust.

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posted October 9, 2009 at 1:33 pm

I don’t see David Letterman as any kind of leader that I would look to for anything but jokes, so I haven’t paid attention. assuming that the woman/women involved were willing participants, ala monica lewinsky, I don’t really care. sex between a supervisor/teacher/tv star and a subordinate is always fraught with potential for harm. the issue is power — would the less powerful person still want to have sex with the more powerful one if they didn’t have power over them? hard question to answer.
I don’t look to Roman Polanski for spiritual guidance but what he did is flat out wrong in any decade, and any attempt to excuse him or reduce his punishment on artistic merit is misguided. He not only used his power, he used drugs and he raped a girl far younger than him.
I don’t believe spiritual leaders need to be celibate. I do believe that they should conduct themselves honorably, and my respect for them is diminished when they fail to do that. Martin Luther King, to me, is still an authority on civil rights and a great man, but not an example of how to live my life. Chogyam Trunpa Rinpoche is a great teacher but, again, not someone I aspire to be like. sex should not be harmful to the people involved, which includes the families of those having sex.
I agree with the above posters that the issue involves trust and power and lots of weighty thoughts.

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posted October 10, 2009 at 1:56 am

bess that sounds awful; the kind of thing we can all agree is not helpful, so sorry to hear you had to deal with that. aside from celibate teachers, what about monogamous married teachers?
thanks for the comments, everyone. i linked to this post on my facebook wall as well and had 18 comments there so far. folks commenting there have noted that:
– it would depend upon the details
– you can’t get around the intrinsic power differential and the problem of transference
– students must be careful and guard themselves
– teachers have a higher ethical burden
– you only hear about the abusive teachers, not promiscuous students ever
– but one person noted seeing students infatuated with their teachers and entertaining romantic fantasies more so than the reverse
– Elizabeth Namgyal talks openly about her marriage to Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, who she studied with before their relationship as well.
– Jetsun Kusho Rinpoche’s relationship with her husband was beautiful to watch.
– June Campbell reflected in somewhat bitter terms the complexities of sexuality in relationship with Kalu Rinpoche.
– and various feelings of sure, maybe, and no way
i also have noted students sending energy toward teachers, at least in my situations. and i can appreciate that. i know i’ve found women i’ve worked for more attractive, i think in part because they were leaders. not so much for me because they had any power over me i think. but i do find attractive qualities like passion, accomplishment, competence, being respected and people in leadership roles or authority tend to have demonstrated all those things. therefore they’re more sexy. i’m over analyzing myself maybe. perhaps i just worked for attractive women. but i can at least empathize with people infatuated with teachers or anyone in leadership roles. i bet you just don’t hear about it in the news at all unless the infatuation turns into stalking.
very interesting thoughts and discussion on this so far. valuable for me to think about.

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Your Name

posted October 10, 2009 at 10:52 am

As a very attractive female practitioner, I usually bond with other attractive females at retreats and we talk about the teachers we’ve seduced. I know others and i myself have slept with multiple teachers who have taken vows. We’ve also talked about the fact that it seems like the many sex scandals are actually advertisements for more sexual affairs. I’ve met a handful of women who have slept with a famous Zen Roshi who feels that he has to keep up with the other teachers who are having so much good sex. Just my 2 cents.

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posted October 10, 2009 at 2:29 pm

@ Your Name:
all that proven sexual power..
all those weak men in laughable, so-called positions of authority..
all those envious, lesser-attractive women..
what’s Your Secret, Your Name?

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posted October 12, 2009 at 12:39 pm

I think this question will always be a minefield. More women teachers would definitely help though.

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Female Buddhist student

posted November 4, 2009 at 3:33 am

Thank you for bringing up the topic. As one of those flirtatous women (for reasons that are all but sane) I have found that importance of guarding myself as a student to be very true. As a grown up woman there are no ways I can count on being treated with care would Isend signals that I admire/am attracted and interested in a teacher.
No matter for what reason this – if this is your way of looking for attention to cover up for other issues, you still must have the basic sanity not to do it.
At the same time – uncertainty is often something that makes us search for answers within spiritual tradition, and it is very easy to get into a game of mutual manipulation, where I agree that the teacher must be more responsible because of his/her position of power, experience and knowledge.
Things happen in the dark, and those things are not good to anyone.
So – good to shed light on this. Thank you

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posted April 7, 2012 at 2:45 am

A short anecdote: in the 1980s, I was in Kathmandu and sat in on a talk being given by Jomgon Kontrul Rinpoche, then probably in his mid 20s (he died a year or two later in a car accident and has since reincarnated). The audience was made up almost entirely of several dozen young, attractive, western women who seemed to be following him on his teaching tours. Obviously these were Lama groupies…were they sincere students? I have no idea. Were they sleeping with him? Also, no idea…but they definitely emanated an air of infatuation that seemed more Hindu (think of the story of Krisna and the Gopis) than Buddhist and quite distracting.

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