Buddhism & Sexuality – Member Letter from Pema Khandro

Dear Members,

I took a long walk today to decompress from serving on a panel with some colleagues about our work to undermine sexual abuse. This conversation takes place after I just finished leading three weeks of study and discussion on issues of Sexuality and Sex Abuse during our last three Vajrayana Training classes. I have been speaking out on these topics for so many years because I feel I have to, even if it is uncomfortable or imperfect. But it’s still intense to have these conversations. It reminds me of a HanShan poem where he says –

“there is no boat, and no oars, but yet you will find the way.”

Thanks to the brave voices of #metoo there are so many voices, and so many more resources, it is a great relief and I am continuing to learn about all the good work that is being done out there.   

I hope that the conversations we had in Vajrayana Training will help to promote a culture of awareness and prevention from harm through education. It may be surprising why I raise these issues, after all, I love Buddhism and for me Buddhist practice has been profoundly healing, it is a primary means through which I have recovered from the weariness of misogyny. It has offered me the profound methods through which I find peace again and again on a daily basis, and the view through which I make sense of my life. Its resources are profound and the positive qualities of my life are due to Buddhism. 

Yet, I also advocate that it is important not to take a naive approach to our study of Buddhism, if we do, I think we will miss its greatest gifts. One of the things I treasure the most about studying Buddhism is learning from the rich history of debates, struggles, contested issues, challenges, victories and failures that have taken place over the last 2500 years of the Buddhist tradition. I believe it is useful and important for my classes to include the broader perspectives of history, views of different traditions and contested issues. Buddhism is a part of a bigger world and shares the same issues as the world, openly engaging with that will only enrich and empower us in our journey of genuine wakefulness. 

To me it is a manner of how we orient ourselves to Buddhist study, if it is a genuine investigation in the nature of mind, self and reality, then we must be able to vigorously ask questions, challenge assumptions and even doctrines to see more fully. We can do this, respectfully, responsibly and with great care. That is the very spirit behind the Buddhist philosophical tradition, behind Buddhist debate and logic and behind the very idea of taking the teachings into experience. 

I believe that leaders in Buddhism, like every religion, every sector of society, every neighborhood and every family must address issues about misogyny and sexual abuse and that it’s our duty to have difficult conversations amongst ourselves and our communities so we can open up new possibilities for undermining abuse. I don’t have all the answers to how we can best do this and I am grateful for my minor degree in gender studies and my graduate research in gender in Buddhism to prepare me for these conversations – but even with that background, it’s very humbling to attempt to address the complex issues at hand. But I believe that sometimes even though we don’t have answers, those can be periods of greater awakening through our willingness to sit in the questions and open up conversations.

These three recent classes in VT were too short a time to discuss such an important subject and we barely scratched the surface. Talking about these issues is difficult and complicated, more so than such a short time allows. The bottom lines for me are the Buddhist commitment to relieving suffering and preventing harm, and the commitment to waking up, developing further and further awareness. I will be doing our final mini-series of the year on the topic of ethics in Buddhism and Sexuality in October. This was just announced in the new Fall Calendar. I hope you will join us.

As promised, here is a page on pemakhandro.org that discusses some of the issues I raised in that Vajrayana Training class and also provides resources I mentioned in that class: https://www.pemakhandro.org/oath-against-harm/

I know that many of you are affected by the fires. This has been a stressful situation for many and the air continues to be dangerous to breathe – which is an alarming situation. It was one of the difficulties I had with being in Nepal due to air pollution there. I am well acquainted with that strange feeling of not being able to open the window to get fresh air. These are stressful times. It is normal, understandable and ok to feel anxious, afraid, restless, angry, sad, depressed or tired. I hope you will take loving care of your body and mind through whatever feelings do arise. There is no one right response, there is no one Buddhist response – there is just how things are and our practice is to bring bodhichitta to relating to that.

Take care and stay safe,