Buddhist Perspective on Misbehaviors or Crimes
Editor's note: This article was first published in the now-retired Bodhi Journal, Issue 12, June 2009.
By the standards of American law, I am a criminal. By my own ethical, moral, and spiritual standards, I am guilty of misbehavior below them all. In the face of extensive external and internal judgment, shame, and guilt, the Buddhist teachings gave and continue to give me the insight necessary to place my past struggles in the proper context and move forward on my journey productively and positively. My lessons have been necessary and profound and I found it not at all coincidental when I saw the theme of this issue. It was an instant reminder of the Zen “Taming of the Ox” painting series. The additional paintings added to the original 8 show the monk reaching enlightenment and then returning to the village to share what he now knew. While I am only on the path and would in no way claim to have reached enlightenment, I do subscribe to the idea in the paintings that lessons learned are futile if not shared. So whatever hard earned clarity I have achieved as a result of my personal recovery, I am thankful for the opportunity to share it with others. As Shantideva said, “The protection of all beings is accomplished through the examination of one’s own mistakes.” This is the examination I have necessarily undertaken as a result of my actions, and I hope some small measure of protection for others can be accomplished by making such examination public.
For the purpose of “avowing my ancient twisted karma” as stated in the Bodhisattva initiation ceremony, I feel it is necessary to disclose my mistake so that the proper foundation is laid for the lessons that resulted. I have been a professional actor/director for 20 years and my path led me to teaching and directing theater at the high school level. I am married to an amazingly wonderful woman and was at the time I was teaching. Despite this, I fell in love with a 17 year old student and she with me. It was a gross abuse of the inherent trust and power afforded to me as a teacher and though there was little physical interaction between us, enough of an improper relationship occurred for me to lose my job, my teaching license, colleagues and many friends. There were also legal ramifications, publicity, and reactions that endangered my marriage, strained family relationships that have yet to be repaired, and called into question any sense of self I thought I had.
I had started studying Buddhism long before this occurred, but in my state of ego-based delusion that I had to be in to do something that was so outside my definition of right and wrong, I twisted the teachings to use them as rationalizations and justifications for engaging in self-gratifying behavior that was extremely harmful to everyone I cared about, including the student with whom I had the relationship. I would tell myself things like “I am only living in the moment”, an expression that is also used in acting to get actors out of their heads and surrender to the circumstances of the script. The difference, however, is a script already has defined boundaries with fictional characters and ramifications. Life does not afford that safety net. While struggling with what was occurring, I would come home and read from my Buddhist texts, looking for guidance. Unfortunately, I did not read or did not absorb the teachings of interconnectedness, interdependence, and karma. Rather, I read that lust was poisonous and love was positive and since I loved this student and was not in it for sexual gratification, it must be o.k.
Once forced into examination and reflection on my betrayal of my loved ones, the gravity of misuse of these teachings was clear. Without understanding the ripple effect of my actions, without the moral and ethical wisdom that comes from the teaching that we are all connected and every action affects the entire Sangha, I had no business “living in the moment.” It is only with that foundation of deeper understanding that I now truly feel ready to live in the moment with wisdom and compassion for all beings.
This change in my understanding and approach to life has been confirmed by numerous events. The most important one being my marriage not only remaining intact, but being closer and more connected than before my betrayal. But the most unexpected result of my attempt to uncover my Buddha nature and live accordingly, is the opportunity for a second chance to have a productive, beneficial relationship with the student involved. It is this result that I feel has the greatest power to instruct the larger society on the opportunities for healing and compassionate love, and alleviate the fear and misconceptions they suffer from.
I had been told throughout our imposed period of no contact with each other that the student had no ill-will towards me and, moreover, I knew that both the student and her mother had told the prosecutors they did not want or see the need for me to be punished. Now, I disagree with them. I felt my actions warranted punishment and the depth of the lessons I have learned would not have occurred without the severity of the punishment. However, it was a solace to know their feelings. I talked frequently with my wife about the desire to reach out and communicate with the student once the restrictions were lifted. The reason for this desire was to hopefully correct what I destroyed, the chance to be a positive source of guidance and mentorship. To my amazement, my wife understood and encouraged me to extend that communication when allowed. I sent a letter to the student’s mother, who then forwarded it to her daughter, who after a couple months, called me. The subsequent, regular communication between us has been liberating and enlightening. We are both grateful for the chance to be in each other’s lives in a productive, non-harmful way.
Obviously, this is not a typical outcome to this set of circumstances. Many people have expressed amazement and concern that she is back in our lives after going through so much. But this is the point. This is the lesson. What is the point of ascribing to letting go of the past, not attaching to pain or pleasure, but rather walking the middle path of equanimity if we don’t actually practice it? If my wife and I held on to the pain I caused her and our family, or I had held on to my need for ego validation and gratification, this opportunity for mutual healing would be unavailable. Instead, I have spent three years doing what I can to rid myself of ego so that all my actions are motivated by showing compassion to others with a foundation of moral wisdom. This is the evidence and work my wife needed to see in order to stay with me. This is the wisdom that allows me to help my student now, instead of harming her as I did initially. In my understanding, my life now is what is available when ego or selfishness is replaced with compassionate selflessness.
You can access the original Bodhi Journal articles in our archive.