The Dangers of Buddhist Tantra: Power Struggles, Faulty Gurus and Alternatives

The Dangers of Buddhist Tantra: Power Struggles, Faulty Gurus and Alternatives

The Vajrayana school of Buddhism is one of the latest to evolve within the various Buddhist schools of thought.

Founded in the late the 8th century by a figurehead named Padmasambhava, this sect involves practices of Tantra that bear a great similarity to the Tantric practices found in Hinduism. While Tantra has developed a modern-day reputation for being merely sordid sexual practices, there is a vast array of practices that largely fall under two main categories: the right-handed path (dakiāmārga) and the left-handed path (vāmāmārga). The right-handed path generally follows a method of substitution and visualization for some of the more esoteric and radical practices of Tantra, including meat eating, consuming alcohol and sexual union. However, the left-handed path tends to engage in these practices viscerally and literally, and often within the relationship between a teacher and a guru (Young web).

As a means of self-realization, the practices of Tantra within Vajrayana Buddhism are generally taught by a qualified teacher to interested students. However, because these practices often involve sensitive activities that take place between the guru and student, the question of appropriateness and respect within these sacred dynamics is a critical one to ask. In the case of Yeshe Tsogyal, female student of Padmasambhava, we find tales of abuse, rape, an arranged marriage, and even an arranged relationship to her guru, Padmasambhava. Even beyond this are the accounts of Tantric sexual practices performed with Padmasambhava, apparently as a means of attaining a richer experience of the teachings, as well as enlightenment. Is this kind of subservience required on the part of an aspiring student of the Eastern practices, particularly of Buddhism? Is this kind of submission essential if a woman is to qualify as a spiritual leader? How can this kind of sexual relationship lead to any enlightened state if there is such a gross power differential between the two participating people? These questions are worth asking, particularly in today’s world where many spiritual practitioners are seeking Eastern methods of practice and wisdom.

The popularity of Eastern practices, such as yoga and Buddhism (both of which include methods of Tantra), has skyrocketed in recent years and was fueled by the arrival of a few key teachers of various Eastern lineages to Western shores. One notable teacher of Vajrayana Buddhism escaped the horror of Tibet to arrive on Western shores in the 1960’s. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche is probably the most notorious of Buddhist teachers and his movement and school in Boulder (Naropa University) can arguably be seen as the foundation of Buddhism on American soil (Demetrakas film). Once Rinpoche started teaching Westerners, he donned sharply tailored, handmade suits rather than saffron robes in order to seem more accessible to interested students. Many people gathered around him to hear his high teachings on Buddhist practices, and he quickly gained popularity. His ascent to spiritual stardom can be seen in the documentary, Crazy Wisdom, which gives accounts of Rinpoche having sexual relationships with many of his students. As Pema Chodron says, “Lots of students were his lovers. That was known” (Demetrakas film). As a practitioner of Tantra, Rinpoche would describe these relationships as part of the spiritual practice, but he often left emotionally damaged students in his wake. His alcoholism, chain smoking and womanizing ways were well known in his spiritual community, and yet people still continued to flock to his teachings and participate in his sangha—spiritual community. What was the draw when so many knew of his capacity for connivance? Certainly, Rinpoche is not the first nor the last spiritual leader to engage in intimate sexual relationships with students, but does something make it excusable in this context?

In the Western world, there are many accounts of Catholic priests becoming intimately involved either with parishioners, or even more unlawfully, molesting children. And, while the Catholic church may not be doing all that is necessary to correct and address this wrongdoing, they certainly do not condone this behavior. Indeed, even in the American school system, all the way up through the college level it is unlawful—or in the case of students older than the age of consent, strongly discouraged—for students and teachers to engage in intimate relationships. In a similar power dynamic, it is also inappropriate for most all therapists, counselors or psychologists to become sexually involved with patients. But yet, in the Tantra of Vajrayana Buddhism, sexual relationship is not only a spiritual practice, but also a potential means to enlightenment. What makes this relationship so different from other similar types of relationships? Or, is it really that different at all?

Can the human mind find a place to compartmentalize the practices of spirituality and the practices of sexuality? The evidence seems to point to the fact that most human beings have a difficult time extracting one from the other, and in fact the entangled involvement of a guru with a student beyond merely the verbal instruction of the practices become a sticky subject. Though, in the translator’s introduction of Lady of the Lotus Born: The Life and Enlightenment of Yeshe Tsogyal, it is said that:

Experience shows that this (the guru being born in a gendered body) can involve difficulties for the disciples. It is a delicate area and a fertile field for potential obstacles. In the nature of things, the teacher very often appears as someone profoundly attractive and this can easily trigger the natural emotional responses of samsaric beings who crave exclusive and reciprocal relationships. (Changchub xxi)

While this statement is offering up the perspective that the practices of Buddhist Tantra can present problems for the students who are attracted to the teacher, this statement also seems to echo a profoundly dangerous idea: that the attraction and involvement are the fault of the student. This kind of ill-fated thinking places heavy blame on the victim of this particularly imbalanced relationship, rather than placing the responsibility in the hands of the teacher to treat the relationship more delicately and with tremendous respect.

The crux of this problem that cannot be overlooked is simply that there is a power differential between teachers and students. Any time this exists in a sexual or intimate relationship, that power imbalance will serve to put one person in “control” and the other into a role of submission. This kind of imbalance also lends itself to manipulation, abuse, hurt and mistrust. On the other hand, relationships based on mutuality and equality engender a balance of power, as well as the clear opportunity for each participant to choose their level of involvement. When a teacher, mentor or therapist is calling the shots because they are the one in power, this places the student, mentee or patient on very dangerous footing. We see this dangerous footing portrayed in the documentary of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Crazy Wisdom, very clearly (Demetrakas). And, there is also clear evidence of this imbalanced psychological footing within the story of Yeshe Tsogyal. In fact, she herself describes the role of the guru to her students in the following way: “Supplicate and pray to your root guru, with pure vision, faith, and strong devotion, Never for an instant thinking She’s a friend on equal terms…” (Changchub, 179). Yeshe Tsogyal sets up this power imbalance for her students, just as her teacher, Padmasambhava did for her when he instructed her that “…it is quite certain that to repeat to others any faults that the teacher may have, to ascribe to him faults that he does not have, and to respond insolently to his rebukes will cause us to be reborn in the hell of Torment Unsurpassed” (Changchub 24).

In other words, in order to avoid “the hell of Torment Unsurpassed,” one must only say kind things about one’s teacher. This is a dangerous boundary to set upon one who is in a submissive role. This kind of distinction potentially creates shame or fear about speaking out about what may make one uncomfortable or what practices may be crossing personal boundaries. And, in fact, by putting the guru on a pedestal in this way, he or she can only be seen as always right, always in alignment with the high teachings he or she is giving, and may not ever be questioned by the disciple until after it is already too late. This was the case for many students in the recently developed lineage of Geshe Michael Roach and Lama Christie McNally. Roach had trained for decades in the Tibetan Buddhist lineage in order to attain the title of Geshe, only to be rebuked years later by the Dalai Lama himself (Kaufman web). When Roach got involved with a student twenty years his junior and declared her his consort, many in the Buddhist community asked him, at the very least, to take off his robes. Robert Thurman, a well-known Buddhist scholar spoke out publicly about Roach’s methods and transgressions from the popular teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, but Roach continued his path, citing Tantric practices and even gave lectures and teachings about the topic alongside Christie McNally, whom he himself had indoctrinated as a Lama (Kaufman web).

For many years Roach and McNally traveled and taught together, never straying more than 15 feet apart. Their popularity skyrocketed after the publication of Roach’s book, The Diamond Cutter, and they established their own Buddhist center known as Diamond Mountain. The pair were inseparable and seemed to be a new incarnation of Padmasambhava and Yeshe Tsogyal. However, as one might guess, this severely imbalanced relationship had a very dark shadow side. Around 2010, Roach and McNally started to be seen separately, Roach often adorned in Armani dancing at clubs in the wee hours in New York City. He then ended up in the popular Page Six Magazine of the New York Post, which featured an interview where Roach said of his speculative relationship with McNally:

We are not allowed to have sex, but in yoga there are practices that involve joining with a partner. They are secret, and you are not allowed to disclose them. You might think of them as sex, but their purpose is to move inner energy. It takes very strict training. There would be penetration, but no release of semen. (Landman 6)

In 2009, McNally and Roach divided their spiritual partnership and then she took on a consort of her own. Following in her own teacher’s footsteps, she also chose a student. The student, Ian Thorson, and McNally were married and then together they started to teach about the power of Tantra Yoga and Buddhism. On the eve of a three year retreat at Diamond Mountain, Roach backed out as leader and left the retreat in the hands of McNally and her new young husband, Thorson. While Roach continued to wear high fashion and gain popularity through his teachings, the young McNally and Thorson secluded themselves in the Diamond Mountain facility. Only 18 months into the 39 month retreat, whispers of an ill fate escaped the tight-lipped community. It was several months before scared students loyal to both Roach and McNally would begin to talk. Essentially, because McNally and her spouse had been having violent domestic disputes (one involved a stabbing with a kitchen knife), they had been removed as leaders of the retreat and kicked off the premises. Rather than leaving, they found a cave nearby and decided to continue the retreat remotely. Because of lack of water and food, a few short weeks later, McNally’s young spouse, Ian Thorson, died.

This tragic incident seems not merely exemplary of a diseased lineage within Buddhism, but also exemplary of the sheer lack of understanding and respect for what an imbalanced intimate relationship can engender: trust in those who are not trustworthy, faith in those whose judgement is severely impaired by unreasonably selfish thinking and an attempt to unravel one’s ego via a spiritual teacher whose ego has been inflated beyond reason. Both McNally and Roach engaged in the left-handed path of Tantra, where the physical rites of sexual union were acted upon in order to attempt elevated states of thinking. It seems that rather than a method of enlightenment, it is a method of self-delusion. In an open letter written after her spouse’s death, McNally writes: “I feel like people have started taking the practice of Tantra too lightly—it is not some recreational activity you do for fun, it is a path to enlightenment, and it is a fast path and very dangerous if misused” (McNally web).

Very dangerous indeed. It was not only her spouse and his family that were hurt by this incident, but all the students who looked to McNally and Roach for teachings, support and guidance. Many of the Diamond Mountain students were severely shamed, disenfranchised and scared at the events. One can only imagine that a fall from a pedestal so high will leave those standing below it in the wake of the destruction. McNally herself has not been seen or heard from since writing the open letter in April of 2012. It is difficult to know if she is receiving any psychological support for being on either end of this “very dangerous” guru-disciple relationship. Because, it would seem that some sort of psychological imbalance is what one would possess to stand either on the pedestal as the guru or below it as the student.

In order to be so overly confident in one’s teachings and decision makings so as to see them as being, in a sense, “always right,” one would need to inflate the ego to such a degree that there would be no room for error. On the flip side, in order to be a student who places complete and utter faith in a guru who is proclaimed (either by him or herself or other submissive students) to be “always right,” one must set aside all personal discernment, desires, common sense and sometimes even personal needs and safety. Within Buddhism, there is a powerful doctrine of compassion—empathy for fellow man—and while many teachers do follow this, those who stray create havoc and damage in their wake. Every human being deserves to feel safe, and when a spiritual teacher of any lineage creates conditions that are unsafe, it may be time to consider abandoning that particular practice.

As an alternative, the right-handed path of Tantra involves the symbolic activity of the esoteric practices, including sexual union. Practitioners visualize the divine union of masculine and feminine through imagery such as a mandala, painting, or meditation. It seems that the gods are the only ones perfect enough to attain this divine union through sexual intercourse without any residual emotional scars. In fact, when Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s wife realized he cheated on her for the first time, she confesses to “sobbing endlessly on the bathroom floor” (Demetrakas film). Eventually she comes to terms with his numerous transgressions by putting him in another category of being—she must make him “other” than her, “more holy” than her—once again immediately reinforcing the imbalance.

Had he merely instructed his potential consorts in practices of visualization or yantra, there may have been less of a need for her to psychologically subjugate herself. Maybe it is best to leave the perfection of sexual union to the perfected gods who can reveal to practitioners the way to this union on an internal, imaginal level, rather than an external, physical level. When the chances of too many people being hurt or misunderstanding are so great, it seems as if another avenue is worth exploring, like the imaginal path of the right-hand of Tantra, because the left-handed path of Tantra seems to be too fraught with suffering and damage for mere mortals to navigate.

Humans are fallible, and so it goes that these unconventional intimate practices would create rifts in an imperfect psyche. And, who’s psyche is ultimately perfected? According to Eastern wisdom, the only perfected psyche is either the one immersed in emptiness (sunyata) or oneness (yoga). As long as humans interact with one another, there is at least a shred of an ego in tact. For, it is through the ego that human interaction takes place. It is how we relate, how we understand one another and how we process events in our lives. Even the most venerated teachers must understand this—that no matter how “enlightened” they seem to be, there is still an ego operating within them for as long as they are in a human body interacting with other humans. Understanding this would encourage a sense of humility, for as “perfected” as one may be, one is still imperfect—only human.

This recognition of our innate humanness breeds compassion. And, compassion is the means to prevent unnecessary hurt and subjugation. Engaging in sexual intercourse in order to gain spiritual elevation or teachings is an uneven exchange. When Yeshe Tsogyal is described as saying, “He was like a vessel filled to overflowing. And after I had served him long in the three ways pleasing to a teacher, all that he possessed he gave to me” (Changchub 21). What if Yeshe had simply been a venerable student of Padmasambhava, rather than “given” to him as his consort? It is also of note that Yeshe Tsogyal was brutally raped on her way to an arranged marriage. This kind of sexual attack leaves even the most foolhardy and spiritually in-tact person shaken. Though we do not have concrete evidence of Yeshe Tsogyal’s actual existence, and this text is more likely an extraordinary mythic embellishment, it is interesting to ponder what may have been left out in terms of her abuse and actual feelings on the matter.

In the text, it is portrayed that she took this abuse and subjugation in stride. A minister “beat her with scourges until her body was mangled and bloody” and still, she was able to sing to the Buddhas of the ten directions (Changchub 12). The translator’s note remarks that “when she is raped by a gang of thugs, the strength of her bodhichitta and accomplishment are such that she is able to utilize the occasion to place her attackers on the Path, transforming a situation of sordid violence into one of the most astonishing and beautiful encounters of the book” (Changchub ix). It is honestly more astonishing that her attackers were not penalized and that her attack is justified because “the strength of her bodhichitta” made the thugs practitioners of Buddhism. Despite the fact that she is beaten, raped, sold and unwillingly made a consort, the preface states that “on the level of sexual identity, there is no need to aspire to be anything other than what one is. Female and male are of perfectly equal standing” (Changchub xi). What kind of messages regarding equal standing are being sent when the female mythical figurehead of the tradition sustains an attack and her only repercussion is to convert her attackers? There does not seem to be any evidence of equality between genders in the Tantric path. Not in Yeshe Tsogyal’s case, not in Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s case, and certainly not in Lama Christie McNally’s case.

While Yeshe Tsogyal’s story may be entirely a mythical work of fiction, McNally’s and Rinpoche’s stories are true, recent and involve people of the American Buddhist community. McNally was correct when she wrote that Tantra can be dangerous. It is always be dangerous when power is abused. In her case, unfortunately, someone she loved paid the highest price. In her open letter, she writes this of her husband’s death: “My Love is my Angel. He is my shining light, my Protector and Savior, my entire world. He lives in a world of pure magic and he takes me with him. We are on a pure path, and we work very hard to hold the line and stay there. We are holding hands in the sky now, can you see us?”

Unfortunately, that idyllic picture cannot be seen except within the mind of McNally. It is a tragic occurrence, seemingly justified by dangerous spiritual practices. Maybe the lesson is that the West is not ready for the left-handed path of Tantra. Maybe the lesson is that this path is better on the other hand, where the right-handed path uses visualization and symbolic substitution. The reality is simple: when people are placed in intimate relationships with a tremendous power differential, there is a high chance of psychological danger and potentially even physical danger—whether it be the psychological damage to the practitioner, disruption of the greater community, or in McNally’s case, death.

Even though Yeshe Tsogyal is quoted as saying, ““And I, without shame or hesitation, nor in the profane way of the world, but with joy and deep respect, displayed and offered the secret mandala” (Changchub 34), it is worth considering whether that “secret mandala” should not remain secret, and shared as an imaginal experience, only with those on equal footing.

Works Cited

Byaṅ-chub, and Nam-mkha’i-sñiṅ-po. Lady of the Lotus Born: The Life and Enlightenment of Yeshe Tsogyal: A Translation of the Lute Song of the Gandharvas ; a Revelation in Eight Chapters of the Secret History of the Life and Enlightenment of Yeshe Tsogyal, Queen of Tibet. Boston: Shambhala, 1999. Print.

Crazy Wisdom: The Life & Times of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Dir. Johanna Demetrakas. Perf. Chogyam Trungpa. Crazy Wisdom Films, 2011.

Kaufman, Leslie. “Setting Their Own Boundaries.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 14 May 2008. Web.

Landman, Beth. “Monk-y Business: Controversial NYC Guru Michael Roach.” NY Post11 Feb. 2010, Page Six sec.: n. pag. Print.

McNally, Christie. “A Shift in the Matrix.” Scribd. Scribd, 19 Apr. 2012. Web.