Sex and Drugs and Buddhism

Lion’s Roar has not killed Buddhism. That was hyperbole. Obviously. I was mean to those guys and I hurt some people’s feelings apparently. I’m sorry for that.

A guy I know at Lion’s Roar said he was hoping for a public apology from me. But that’s the best I can muster right now. I still think that publishing articles promoting drug use as a form of Buddhist practice is incredibly irresponsible. So, for now, admitting that I don’t think even that level of negligence is capable of killing Buddhism and saying I’m sorry for hurting their feelings is all I can manage.

In my teacher Gudo Nishijima’s short booklet on the Buddhist Precepts, he quotes an old Chinese Zen master who said, “No rule is our rule.” Then Nishijima says that at the present moment we make our decisions about how to act directly rather than adhering to rules of behavior. “To be without precepts is our precept,” he says.

After this someone asks, “So is important to keep the precepts or not?”

To which Nishijima replies, “It is important to keep the precepts.”

Zen is confusing!

In light of that irresponsible Lion’s Roar article coupled with recent revelations that Shambhala, the organization behind Lion’s Roar, is embroiled in allegations of sexual misconduct by some of its teachers, as well as similar allegations against Noah Levine of Dharma Punx/Against the Stream (ATS), I started thinking about why the precepts exist.

I have to pause here and say that I have absolutely no inside knowledge about what’s going on at Shambhala or ATS. I’m sure people assume I must know all about Noah since we are closely associated in the public imagination. I’ve even seen at least two articles about me that used photos of Noah Levine labeled as “Brad Warner.”

In fact, I don’t know Noah or any insiders at either ATS or Shambhala — at least not to the extent they’d open up to me about anything that wasn’t already public knowledge. I know nothing about these allegations except what everyone else has been reading in the same articles I’ve been reading.

But I do know that Against the Stream has done a lot of good for a lot of people. I’ve met a number of people who were helped off drugs by ATS. I would assume that Shambhala has done a lot of good too. I know far less about them.

Yet the allegations against the leaders of these organizations are threatening to undo a lot of that good work.

And that is a damned shame.

It seems bizarre to me that, amidst the allegations against Shambhala, the folks at Lion’s Roar would publish an article that gives any credence to the notion that drugs can play a role in Buddhist practice. Shambhala was founded by Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche, whose alleged abuse of intoxicants and sexual proclivities were the stuff of legend. It is difficult for me to believe there was no connection at all between Trungpa’s alleged frequent inebriation and some of the weird sexual stuff that’s widely said to have gone down at Shambhala in his day, and seems to have continued well after his death in 1987. (Again, I have no inside info about this stuff. I’ve just heard about it for the past thirty-odd years.)

This is one good reason why we need to keep the precepts. So that we don’t undo our own good work.

The Buddhist Precepts, as they’re commonly understood in the Zen school, are not that difficult to uphold. They don’t demand any real austerity. They are, in brief:

Don’t kill

Don’t steal

Don’t misuse sex

Don’t lie

Don’t get high

Don’t speak of past mistakes (yours and others)

Don’t put people down

Don’t covet

Don’t get mad

Don’t slander the Buddha, the Buddhist teachings, or the Buddhist community

As Nishijima said, these aren’t rules. They are guidelines. If you want to have a better life, follow these guidelines.

Sometimes you may need to do something that goes against these guidelines. When that happens, understand that you’re opening yourself up to trouble and you’ll need to deal with that trouble. So don’t go against the guidelines unless it’s really important.

Whenever you violate these guidelines, your practice will suffer and you will suffer. You’ll set yourself back a little — or a lot, depending on how far you take it. Just like I invited trouble by speaking badly about Lion’s Roar.

I said what I said about Lion’s Roar because I thought it was important for someone to take a very strong, and unmistakably clear stand against what they were saying. I knew nobody else in Buddhist America was going to do that. Oh they might quietly say it’s bad for Buddhists to get stoned and claim it’s part of their practice. But they’re not going to strike hard against the idea.

Lots of people in recovery have sent me emails thanking me for taking that strong stand. They told me they know how easy it is to make excuses to slip back into addiction and how little encouragement is needed. I also heard from a few people who were considering using mind-altering drugs to reach some kind of “enlightened state,” but had chosen not to after seeing how strongly I reacted to the Lion’s Roar piece.

For folks like that, a mild rebuke phrased in polite language wouldn’t have meant very much.

But now I’m taking my lumps for it. For example, very few magazines review my books. I’ll never be featured in the New York Times like Noah Levine was. Lion’s Roar and its sister publication Buddhadharma were among the handful or publications I could count on to write about my new releases. I guarantee you’ll never see another mention of one of my books in either of those magazines, unless it’s a bad notice as an act of vengeance. 

I knew that’s what would happen when I chose to call them out. But it was important, so I did it. Hopefully a few of you will still buy my next book anyhow.

The precepts are important.

What we Buddhists are doing is valuable to the human community as a whole. But people are fickle. They are prone to enjoy gossip. They’ll look for any excuse to avoid doing something they know is good for them. When a meditation teacher — or even a meditation student — turns out to be a druggy or a pervert, that’s enough to make a lot of people throw Buddhism away without a second thought.

Keeping the precepts isn’t about restricting yourself from having fun in order to lead the dull life of a saint. It’s about how to have a better life.

It’s also about taking responsibility for something much greater than yourself.





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