Calling Out the Guru From Afar:
Dzongsar Khyentse's 'Contract' for Sexual Relations between a Tantric Master and their Disciples, and Unpacking the Subsequent Backlash
The contract linked to on this page was posted on Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche's public Facebook page in October of 2017, but was subsequently removed after 24 hours, presumably due to the intense public backlash that it received. However, discussion regarding it has continued in a very one-sided fashion, and since any context for the backlash (including from prominent members of the western Vajrayana Buddhist sangha, such as Lama Tsultrim Allione) has been dismissed by DJK, I felt that it was important for this document to remain accessible in order to allow the sangha at large to draw their own conclusions.
Please note that I do not own any of the material in this contract, nor would I want to claim ownership over it. This is being shared strictly in the spirit of allowing for transparency and fair dialogue between those who support his approach and those who find it questionable.
We must, as a global Buddhist sangha, make an unwavering stance against abuse. Sexual assault is not a joking matter, and all instances of abuse should be brought into the open in order to protect the community and lineage as a whole. Defense of abusers and the systems that allow them to take advantage of their students should be heavily scrutinized, and that is only possible when all of the information is available.
Below the linked contract, you will find my personal comments regarding this matter, particularly in response to DJK's decontextualized attack on Lama Tsultrim Allione, Loppon Yudrön Wangmo, Ian Baker, and others who were disturbed by his "joke."
On November 5th, 2017, Dzongsar Khyentse wrote a reactive Facebook post in response to the backlash, stating,
"...Since these teachings will be conferred by a Tibetan “feudalist” who promotes “rape culture”, whom Loppon Yudron Wangmo considers to be “disrespectful to women”, and whom Lama Tsultrim Allione, founder of Tara Mandala finds “disgusting and disrespectful unfortunately not surprising and definitely not funny,” I strongly urge you, for your own sake, not to come to Sikkim. As one author writes: These “lamaist teachings” are just “an androcentric, misogynistic cult, not a legitimate religion. Lama Dzongsar has just hammered another nail in their own coffins.”
In the words of author Ian Baker: “If enlightenment is arriving at a stranger’s door in a G-string and with a live fish protruding from your mouth, as Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche amusingly implies, maybe we are better off with the 18th century Western ‘Enlightenment’ that overthrew the tyranny of religious institutions and opened a new era of intellectual inquiry and scientific discovery.”
Discoveries which, I might add, have ushered in our present Golden Age of ecological, political and psychological glory in the west.
In sum, as these and many other notable commentators make clear, it is increasingly self-evident that tantric teachings are for backward, misogynist, male chauvinist, narrow-minded Tibetans, and I therefore strongly discourage people from attending the upcoming Sikkim teachings..."
Dzongsar Khyentse's Sex Contract "Joke"
I think it's important to note that Lama Tsultrim never said that Dzongsar Khyentse himself was “disgusting and disrespectful unfortunately not surprising and definitely not funny." The actual statement, made on Lama Tsultrim's personal Facebook page on October 22nd, was made in very specific reference to the 16-page "contract" that DJK posted (and then quickly retracted) which outlined, in rather graphic language, the many ways that a guru might want to engage with their student sexually, including everything from "cream pies" to erotic defecation (to view the full contract, click the link above). She felt that this "joke" was inappropriate in an age when sexual abuse is rampant, and particularly when men in positions of authority feel that they are entitled to sex with whomever they desire simply by virtue of their perceived power. The concept of establishing clearly-defined boundaries in these kinds of situations should not be treated as a farce, and I think it was disappointing for a lot of us to see it framed that way in his post.
In the preface for this contract, DJK elucidated its benefits for tantric masters who wish to have sex with their disciples, stating: "Let one of our ironclad consent forms protect you from fears of future litigation. Our in-house psychologists are on call 24/7 to assess your potential partners for any unsuitable moral quirks and/or tendencies to play victim."
Just to reiterate, that passage (which was clearly supposed to be an amusing jab at the current sexual abuse issues arising around notable teachers like Sogyal and Lama Norlha) did indeed seem to directly dismiss victims of sexual abuse as individuals with "unsuitable moral quirks" and "tendencies to play victim." Joke or not, this is a blatantly insensitive and unskillful way to address the painful and pervasive issue of abuse. There are countless women and men who have experienced sexual trauma at the hands of their "masters," who often dress up their pursuit of carnal gratification with mysterious notions about karmamudra and secret initiation. For these very real victims, such a flippant dismissal of their abuse is not a joking matter. It is, in the words of a different kind of tantric master, "disgusting, disrespectful, and simply not funny."
In an era when Kevin Spacey, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and countless other powerful men (not to mention the president) are being called out and publicly exposed for their blatant abuse of others, I am baffled why so many Vajrayana practitioners are seeking to defend these same trends in our precious spiritual tradition. Are we really prepared to draw a moral line protecting these "tantric masters" from identical behaviors, ignoring the fact that the perceived authority over their students transcends literally all mundane moral dynamics? Vajrayana gurus are not just teachers, bosses, or community leaders. Their power and influence over the minds of others vastly surpasses that of a Hollywood producer or head of state. For a Vajrayanist, it is expected that gurus be perceived as living Buddhas by their students - infallible sources of truth with the direct power to affect a practitioner's future lives and ultimate liberation. It is traditionally explained that all positive circumstances in this life and the next ultimately come from the root lama. It is within this sociological construct that Dzongsar argues that gurus simply "desire to save all sentient beings yet also wish to have fulfilling sex lives." This reduction of the vastly complicated teacher/student relationship dynamic is un-empathetic at best, though after multiple chances to reposition himself, it seems that Dzongsar is not only insensitive but also oddly resentful of the push to instill/preserve sensible ethical guidelines for tantric lamas’ engagement with their students. Samaya works both ways, and his statements do not seem to be overly conscientious of the vast responsibility and accountability a teacher has toward their students.
This post is perhaps the clearest indicator that Dzongsar Khyentse is devastatingly tone deaf regarding this issue, and his approach is simply not funny, cute, or even particularly outrageous. In a contrived attempt to appear as a "crazy wisdom master," he is only further exposing his immaturity, reactivity, and perceived superiority (via bypassing) over this admittedly challenging situation. This is perhaps most challenging for the sangha because DJK has clearly had a tremendously positive impact on the world via activities like the 84000 project, his offering of the Rinchen Terdzöd in Bhutan, and Lotus Outreach. He has been a vocal proponent of queer inclusion in Vajrayana, which is sorely needed, and his many publications (and films!) have inspired countless beings. With all of this, it doesn’t feel that his reaction to the situation at hand expresses the depth of wisdom and maturity that one would expect. I had genuinely believed that DJK would take a different approach in dealing with the backlash he's received. It would have demonstrated a tremendous amount of character for him to come out and say, "You know, all joking aside, I acknowledge that this is a problem and will work to minimize instances of abuse in the sangha." He wouldn't even have to admit that he was wrong. He would just have to not make fun of abuse survivors and the progressive push towards greater safety in the Dharma. Instead, he throws Lama Tsultrim and Lopon Yudron under the bus, acting as if they would be adverse to the teachings of great masters like Lhatsun Namkha Jigme (whose Riwo Sangchöd Lama Tsultrim teaches) and that they are somehow anti-“Lamaism” or anti-tantra, which is absurd. They are both extremely devoted to their Tibetan and Bhutanese teachers, and have been serious practitioners of Tibetan tantra for many decades. Lama Tsultrim has long stood up for women in the Dharma and pushed for greater equality in the treatment and education of nuns in the Himalayas. It’s time for the Tibetan and Bhutanese lamas to take a long and honest look at their own shadow, and the potential abuse that exists within their own traditions. H.H. The Dalai Lama has unsurprisingly been a brilliant example of how to do this wisely, knowing perhaps that if he does not do so he will be in a similar position to the Catholic bishops who covered up abuse in the priesthood, to the ultimate moral and financial detriment of the Church.
Dzongsar Khyentse commands a massive amount of respect, seemingly for good reason. His students are largely wonderful people, and all seem to hold him in very high regard as a kind and skillful teacher. But a teacher who doesn't have the wherewithal to take an unwavering stance against abuse should be heavily scrutinized. Period.
I applaud Lama Tsultrim, Loppon Yudron Wangmo, and Ian Baker (among others) for making the difficult decision to speak out and question the off-putting words of such a well-loved guru. I hope that Dzongsar Khyentse's sangha will push their teacher to consider the "other side" of his position, or at least consider a different method of sharing his opinion that doesn’t mock and dismiss the difficult experiences of some disciples on the path. There are countless women and men with impressionable minds and hearts who would benefit from hearing Dzongsar Khyentse make a solid stance against abuse of power.
Particularly, I want to say that I’m extremely disappointed to have seen Lama Tsultrim’s statement taken so far out of context and twisted to imply that she personally attacked Dzongsar Khyentse. One can remark on a person’s Facebook posts without personally deriding them, and it’s unfortunate that DJK took the approach that he did in his reaction to her honest critique.
My apologies if I have offended any of my Vajra brothers or sisters, some of whom are devoted students of DJK. I do not claim to understand his mind or his heart, which is kind of the point... It doesn’t seem that his recent posts (at least the past two on the subject) are intended to increase understanding, but rather to poke fun at what he deems to be a “western” obsession with the eradication of patriarchal abuse in power dynamics. I want him to do better on this issue, because I truly believe that he can. So please excuse any disrespect - I simply felt the need to reframe some of what’s being presented as it could not possibly strike closer to home for me.
Furthermore, to make it abundantly clear that the perspective expressed by Lama Tsultrim et al is by no means isolated, please view the following statements released by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche on the topic of abuse between Buddhist teachers and their disciples.
Video of H.H. the Dalai Lama's teaching on the Sogyal controversy - "Now, recently Sogyal Rinpoche; my very good friend... he’s disgraced."
Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche's article - When a Buddhist Teacher Crosses the Line