1. ...I wish to ask you if I am crossing an ethical boundary when I offer you a hug?”

Justin: As a matter of principle, I feel that there is tremendous benefit in remembering that just because one might feel the need to offer a hug does not mean we need to let that translate into actual physical contact. In fact, when that impulse arises, I might use that as a place to practice the cultivation of insight. What exactly am I feeling? Why do I feel this way? Is this feeling an appropriate feeling to share? Does it need to be explicitly communicated, or can I just remain aware of the arising of this feeling and move on to the next experience? Like that. Again, just because we feel something does it mean at all that we need to physically act on it. If we feel that we would like to express whatever we may be feeling, we really need to check-in and ask the other person if that is okay. We can’t assume that everyone likes being hugged- we can’t really assume anything about others. We ought to operate from a place of assuming responsibility for ourselves which means checking-in and asking permission. Of course after we have done that we need to respect whatever the other person responds with. In full disclosure, I don’t really know why we need to hug at dharma events anyway.

Rod: I echo Justin on this. One other consideration I will add is to remind us that many of us experience significant body trauma and feel unsafe being touched by people we don’t know well. It is always important to ask for consent before hugging. With people I do not know well or at all I tend not to offer a hug. I am OK with receiving hugs from folks like this only if they initiate. If someone doesn’t consent then we must respect that and not make it about us but rather challenge ourselves to empathize the other person and see that they are practicing healthy boundaries that help them be well.  

2. “What I don’t get is if someone’s mind is so clear, how on earth can they get into deep states of meditation, having insights etc, but not realize that the sexual misconduct they are perpetrating, is unethical? How can one be so clear yet not ‘get’ that they are hurting people?”

Justin: Realizing the luminosity of mind and cultivation of deep insights do not necessarily absolve people of hurting others or making mistakes. Great wisdom can lead to the cultivation of compassion, but not all the time. The dualism and full range of emotions that we are tossed about within our own lives also affects the lives of our teachers- they too get upset, or depressed, lonely or needy. Teachers are people who struggle just as anyone else does- some show it, they are transparent about it. Some don’t show it.

In dharma culture there is an etiquette that has historically helped elevate teachers so that their ordinary qualities are less emphasized- and in some cases, rarely shown. This has helped create a notion that teachers are superhuman- and if they aren’t, they should be. This is artifice. It has more to do with the maintenance of a religious organization than anything else. Your teachers are ordinary humans- their realization might be extra-ordinary, but this does not necessary remove the ability to make mistakes. An honest reading of the history of Buddhism in Tibet will clearly demonstrate this.

Rod: I would emphasize that there may be significant cultural differences that may account for some of the misconduct we are witnessing. We do elevate teachers in such a way that we began to ignore some of these character and behavioral issues that may be normalized in their root cultures but are considered ethical boundaries in ours. This is certainly true for asian born teachers. For westerners, sometimes we mimic our asian teachers and take on behaviors that we think are realized and skillful when it is really not for other westerners. Subtle aspects of ego clinging can still create havoc for us. Also there are different levels of realization and awareness. I am not sure if we are that good at identifying people who are authentically realized or enlightened and if there is some realization then we have to be careful not to call it enlightenment. This higher level of consciousness or supramundane states are more complex than we like to believe. One may have gained insight into the nature of reality but that is a little different than mastering social boundaries.  

3. “I think you alluded to this but I want to make sure I’m clear on something and that you agree. The definition of sexual misconduct doesn’t always need to include non-consent on the part of the victim. When I made clear to a teacher I wanted spiritual guidance and he agreed to meet me for that, then took advantage of my vulnerability by coming on to me, I went with it because the wounded little girl in me was ‘on the hunt’ for an older, wiser, all loving, all accepting, women or man, to meet those early relational needs...Do you both agree that this too is sexual misconduct, even though I gave ‘verbal’ consent?”

Justin: Yes. I agree that this too is sexual misconduct. Misconduct in the sense that we are discussing it here has a lot to do with abusing our power. Teachers and students both have power positions. Teachers tend to be in what is called up-power positions- meaning they tend to have more power, and therefore, really ought to be held accountable for their abuses of power. At the same time, students have power as well, and when they misuse their power, they too can contribute to situations in which abuse can occur.

Rod: Yes. And I will also add that most of us struggle with boundaries around our teachers. We give into our unmet needs then open up when the teacher has not really earned that vulnerability. Teachers also struggle with their own unmet needs as well. Regardless there is a power difference and the teacher is responsible for maintaining boundaries and as students we could use more support in supporting our own boundaries.  

4. “How would you respond to a colleague who said, “Those women grieving what happened to them 30 years ago, on live television….well, they should do it privately. This is getting way out of hand. I was abused by my boss at age 19 and I dealt with it!”

Justin: I would say that it’s important to remember that the way we process trauma and grief as well as  difficult emotions is not necessarily linear. We often store unresolved pain and confusion, sometimes hiding it deep within us, such that it can arise at a much later date. This also makes healing from such traumas somewhat inconvenient in the sense that it can be an unpredictable process. Times have changed and abuse is something we can talk about in a more open way than say, 30 years ago- this is a good thing. It also sounds like your colleague is still hurting. I wonder what kind of support they might need right now?

Rod: When I hear people make these statements it shows me that they are struggling with acknowledging and caring for their own woundedness. What we are seeing is that people have no understanding of trauma and anyone who really got it would never make statements like this. I echo everything Justin has offered here and would say above that is we must support each other in developing the capacity to hold the space for the reality of violence that is pervasive in our communities. Also with these statements there is an energy of anger which often stems from unprocessed pain. I would doubt that this person actually has gotten over it.

5. “I listened to the program last night but found it very frustrating.  What I heard was a lot of review of Buddhist principles but nothing that would give comfort or assistance to the victims.Yes, there are private resources available to those that can afford them but what is needed is accountability at the source.”

Justin: I think that within the Buddhist tradition in general, and the Vajrayana tradition in particular you are correct in highlighting the lack of real-time resources available for those who are struggling with coping with sexual and other forms of abuse. This is a problem. In response to these forms of abuse in say, the Catholic tradition, extensive networks of support organizations have been created. Part of what led to the type of response that we see in the Catholic tradition was the removal of the veil of silence around sex-abuse in the Catholic church. I recently spoke with Barbara Dorris, the Executive Director of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), one of the largest national networks of support groups that work with people who have been abused by clergy. They began their work in 1988 in response to the abuse seen in the Catholic Church, and eventually began to offer support to other christian denominations, and now the support people of all faiths. She reiterated the importance of supporting one another regardless of faith tradition in healing from abuse, and told me that Buddhists should feel free to make use of the SNAP Network (http://www.snapnetwork.org/) and all of the resources that they offer. Groups like this have paved the way, and therefore, rather than re-invent the wheel to create Buddhist versions of such groups you might want to look at some of these groups too as well as those in your local community. As a full time professional chaplain I feel that it is vital for those that need support around these types of trauma seek professional care, and that SNAP and other similar networks can help connect people with the support they need- sometimes also including legal support. Rod and I have also spoken about collecting supportive resources that make sense for our communities.

6. “Obviously we don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and also we want to remain respectful. What's essential and what's cultural?  The answer will probably be different for everyone.  But could Lamas Rod and Justin offer any guidelines or suggestions for discerning this?”

Justin: This is a great question! Dharma, and the practice of dharma is about awakening. Culture is the means through which dharma is often communicated, it can be important as far as the conveyance of meaning is concerned, and affects how dharma is communicated, but culture itself is not dharma. Culture is culture. If one practices vajrayana then one will likely be exposed to some range of himalayan cultural expressions. Likewise one would likely encounter some range of Chinese and Japanese culture if they were to practice Chan or Zen. Now, here we are in America practicing dharma, a place of great mixture of cultures, as well as a place in which we are often encouraged to choose for ourselves what feels right. My personal feeling is that there is room to translate or interpret a great deal of the cultural expression of dharma that one finds in vajrayana, for example, into whatever cultural milieu speaks to you. I feel that this is inevitable. I also acknowledge that such views might make some people uncomfortable and I also want to acknowledge that mistakes might be made along the way, but they will be corrected for over time. This has happened everywhere in the world where dharma has gone. I also feel that this is something that we need to do for ourselves- we shouldn’t have to ask our teachers to do this for us. For me, this is the work of developing agency as a burgeoning Buddhist culture. So, I think we can play western music during tsoks, offer western foods, and, even practice in english. I’m a bit of a the-ends-justify-the-means kind of Buddhist teacher about this; if it helps your practice yield results you should experiment with changing up cultural forms. I never really understood why people feel the need to get all Tibetanized, except because they can’t see dharma in their own culture. Dharma is everywhere.

Rod: What’s essential for me is any teaching, practice, or ritual that actually helps me to experience a sense of freedom, openness, and contentment. When the Karmapa visited my 3-year retreat in 2008, my cohort was very busy preparing the traditional food offerings of sweet rice and milk tea along with other offerings of money, white scarves (katas), incense, etc. During the preparation I was completely aware that these offerings were cultural and meaningful for Tibetans. This began a discernment that has completely transformed how I offer dharma. I began to think how I would offer based from own own cultural roots being a southern queer black man. If I had my way, I would offer him a slice of sweet potato pie and iced sweet tea. But I didn’t have my way. However, because of the kindness of my friend who was our caretaker who moved out in the world on my cohort’s behalf, I did get a copy of a Sweet Honey in the Rock CD which I offered. That music was an offering of who I was within this country as a dharma practitioner. I doubt that he ever listened to it but it really didn’t matter. I have been experimenting and moving forward with rethinking dharma that is culturally attuned to this culture and to different bodies. I believe that this work will be led by marginalized folks and/or marginalized folks working equally with white westerners. I believe this because whiteness so disrupts white people’s authentic selves and we see so many dharma innovations that reinforce whiteness (as well as patriarchy, ablesim, ageism, class, etc.) I do this because of years of practice and study as well as the blessings of my root lama. My work going forward is exploring how to center justice, blackness, and queerness in my teaching and practices. Read more about this here.