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Enlightenment and Abuse in Buddhist Sanghas
When I started walking the Buddhist path, the only exposure I had to the Dharma were documentaries about His Holiness the Dalai Lama. So I thought that I was entering a world filled with beatific Buddhist monks and nuns who were always in a good mood. Furthermore, I expected all their disciples to be kind-hearted people, eager to help me on my spiritual journey.
It did not take long for me to be disavowed of these notions. As I explored online forums related to Buddhism, it became clear that Buddhists are just as screwed up as everyone else. People get angry, they say mean things, and they troll unsuspecting victims.
Buddhist Facebook groups can be especially dangerous. Fear and everlasting torment await the person who cannot back their statements with proof-texts from the sutras. Well, they may not receive everlasting torment, but there is a good chance someone will hit the laugh emoji on their post.
That said, it wasn’t unruly people in online forums that shocked me to my core when I was a baby Buddhist. The thing that disappointed me and almost caused me to leave the path were the large number of teacher scandals. At one point, it seemed as if every couple of months a new article was written about someone sleeping with their students or misappropriating funds.
What made all of this especially shocking was that these individuals had impeccable credentials. They sat the right number of retreats, received empowerments in established lineages, and showed a deep knowledge of the Buddhist teachings. They hit all the check marks for an “enlightened master,” but they did not behave that way.
Now that I’m a Buddhist teacher, I have had conversations with many people about how and why this happened. As I look through the scriptures, I find that the Buddha had strict rules around the appropriation of funds in the sangha and the abuse of sexuality. So there are rules in place to stop abuse from happening, but we do not follow the rules.
Why is that? I believe that part of the problem is the way enlightenment is presented in the West and the improper power dynamic that it creates. It seems that in many cases of abuse enlightenment is presented as some spiritual object that one attains through intense effort; it is separate from ourselves and we must grab onto it, like Qui Chang Caine snatching the pebble from his teacher’s hand in an episode of Kung Fu: The Legend Continues.
Of course, if enlightenment is good and non-enlightenment is bad, the implication is that the enlightened teacher is better than the unenlightened student. Thus, the student cannot question the teacher’s behavior, no matter how atrocious it becomes, because the student’s unenlightened mind is misinterpreting what is happening.
This misunderstanding and its unhealthy power dynamic explain why, in many of the scandals that have occurred over the years, it was outside parties—newspapers or people who did not practice within the sangha—who brought the abuse to light. The organizations and people had not bought into the misrepresentation of enlightenment, so it could not be used to keep them silent.
That said, we don’t need to strip the teaching of enlightenment from Buddhism to stop abuse from happening. Like I said, the rules are in place, we just don’t follow them. So we need to shift our understanding of enlightenment so that it’s in keeping with what the Buddha taught.
For example, in the Awakening of Faith Sutra, Asvaghosa writes:
The essence of Mind is free from thoughts. The characteristic of that which is free from thoughts is analogous to that of the sphere of empty space that pervades everywhere. The one [without any second, i.e., the absolute] aspect of the world of reality (dharmadhatu) is none other than the undifferentiated dharmakaya, the "essence body" of the Tathagata.
[Since the essence of Mind is] grounded on the dharmakaya, it is to be called the original enlightenment. Why? Because "original enlightenment" indicates [the essence of Mind (a priori) in contradistinction to the essence of Mind in) the process of actualization of enlightenment; the process of actualization of enlightenment is none other than [the process of integrating] the identity with the original enlightenment.
In other words, each of us has a mind that is already enlightened. Our true nature is buddha-nature, and we are inextricably tied to the dharmakaya. An understanding of this concept places the student on equal ground with their Buddhist teacher. There’s no possibility for a power-dynamic to develop because the original enlightenment of the teacher and the student is the same.
Thus, the authority that a Buddhist teacher possesses is no more impressive than that of a personal trainer who creates a workout plan for a client, or an auto mechanic who makes suggestions about car repairs. In each case, the person in question has expertise that needs to be respected, but it is the student, the client, and the car owner who have the final say on what does and does not happen.
Unfortunately, this concept is lost in Dharma centers where people who’ve received Dharma transmissions are seen as infallible.
We see the danger in this type of thinking in the following passage from the Nirvana Sutra:
One way of explaining this is that the Buddha expounds a middle path in which all living beings possess buddha-nature, but because it is obscured by the defilements, they do not understand it and do not see it. Therefore, you must diligently cultivate whatever expedient means you can to destroy those defilements.
This passage echoes the teaching from the Awakening of Faith Sutra, but it adds an additional layer. All beings have an original nature that is enlightened (buddha-nature), however, that enlightenment is covered by defilements. So the practice of Buddhism is to use the expedient means referenced in the Nirvana Sutra to eliminate these defilements.
However, it is important to note that, per the Nirvana Sutra, Buddhist teachers have defilements just like everyone else. And anyone who suggests otherwise must not be trusted.
That said, not all teachers are the same. Some are deeply realized individuals with wisdom to share. And some of them are frauds. How can we tell the difference? The answer can be found in this passage from the Nirvana Sutra, which details what complete enlightenment looks like:
If living beings do not uphold the ordinances and observances, how will they be able to see the buddha-nature? Although all living beings possess buddha-nature, they have to maintain morality; only then will they be able to see it. And it is by means of seeing buddha-nature that one attains annuttara samyaksambodhi.
In this passage, full enlightenment, annuttara samyaksambodhi, is defined as the complete removal of our defilements, which allows our buddha-nature to come forth into the world. Thus, we can measure a person’s level of realization through the morality of their actions. This is true because the defilements of greed, anger, and ignorance are antithetical.
So it doesn’t matter how many years a person has been practicing or what lineage they represent. If their actions are moral and upright, they are closer to complete enlightenment. If their actions are immoral and self-serving, they are further away from it.
We see this echoed in the example of the historical Buddha, who held both himself and his monastic community to a rigid ethical code of conduct. Anyone who failed to maintain this high level of morality was removed from the sangha.
It seems like we should hold contemporary Buddhist teachers to a similar standard. At the very least, students must be encouraged to leave sanghas where teachers are abusing their authority or causing harm to the people around them.
A simple way to protect students from abuse is to give them a measuring stick that can be used to gauge the worthiness of a teacher. The Buddha’s definition of enlightenment does exactly this by reminding us that the only good Buddhist teacher is an ethical one.
Hakeda, Yoshito S. Trans. 2005. The Awakening of Faith. Berkeley, CA: Numata center for Buddhist translation and research.
Blum, Mark L. Trans. 2018. The Nirvana Sutra (Vol. 1). Moraga, CA: BDK America.
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