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Kinky Buddhism



Whoop, Whoop, dat's the sound of the (Dharma) Police


It is time, isn't it?

The leaves have fallen here in Buenos Aires.

The cold closes in.

We huddle, shivering, next to our fires and we talk about Guru devotion.


And the question has risen again: Have you said to someone that the Guru / Disciple relationship is an asymmetrical power relationshio, like those in BDSM?


Oh, no.


I didn't just say it in a private conversation. I actually both wrote an article (The Parliament of Nerves, here: https://espanol.buddhistdoor.net/el-parlamento-de-los-nervios-las-relaciones-de-poder-en-el-budismo ), I explain it in a chapter of a book (Disruptions in Cinema - I develop the theme in my chapter dedicated to the movie "The bow" http://intersecciones.psi.uba.ar/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=261:lo-disruptivo-en-el-cine-ensayos-etico-psicoanaliticos&catid=9:perspectivas&Itemid=1 ) and I talked about it in so many congresses, talks, etc. that it would be boring to list them all. Just as a simple show, the last Buddhist congress that I organized (which you can watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUJsl9BMuds ) had a special panel on asymmetrical systems of power relationships. I presented my article on how Shambhala is a model of them in Buddhist thinking.



I mean, do you know who was the originator of that precise simile? None other than Dzongsar Khytense Rimpoche, in his book "The Guru Drinks Bourbon?" (https://www.amazon.com/-/es/Jamyang-Khyentse-ebook/dp/B01LZOO9RZ/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=the+guru+drinks+bourbon+by+dzongsar+jamyang+khyentse&qid=1686596150&s=digital-text&sprefix=the+guru+drinks+%2Cdigital-text%2C288&sr=1-1)


Think it is a modern phenomenon? Look at Ashvaghosa's 50 stanzas of Guru Devotion (https://www.lamayeshe.com/sites/default/files/pdf/373_pdf_copy1.PDF ) or the phrase that starts the commentary ("The great Indian pandit Naropa said, “Before the existence of the lama there was neither buddha nor deity.” He said this because buddhas and meditation deities are emanations, or embodiments, of the guru; that’s why there was neither buddha nor meditation deity before the guru. The great siddha Tilopa said to the great siddha Naropa, “The great results, blessings and inspiration you get from having fervent respect for your guru is due to your guru, therefore you should have fervent respect for him.”)


Buddhism is full of interactions of power exchange and the enjoyment of much of Buddhist life has to do with how much you can enjoy those interactions.


So, let's talk about Asymmetrical Power Relationships (APRs) and Buddhism.


APRs


There has been a lot of studies about power relationships and Buddhism, throughout the years. it would be a more academical approach to quote them entirely, so let me send you a couple of them, that relate the power relationships:

In all of those, you will see that there's a lot of analysis on asymmetries of power.

So, are there power asymmetries bad, then?

Do you know where asymmetries of power also pop up extensively?

In Educational Science. In a hospital. In any society where there are police (whoop whoop!)


Whenever you engage medical attention in a hospital setting, there is an asymmetric power relationship with the hospital staff. The knowledge, the know-how, is totally one sided. This means that the patient has a very simple choice: either they trust the health professional or they don't. It is not surprising to me that a lot of the anti-vaxx movement has so much overlap with the shrill criticism of gurus. The issue is: we are our own property and we have sovereign rights over our bodies. The, you know, anarcho-capitalist thing.


The counterargument of this is that, of course, you live in a society of interdependent individuals: your right to refuse something and risk greater infection is a risk to all society. To which anti-vaxxers will say, to hell with society, you've been brainwashed, and Samsara runs, and runs.


Same thing for education. This has been extensively researched. Say, in here:

(At this point, we could also just say "go look into Paulo Freire's whole body of work" who in my opinion was an emanation of Manjushri)


There are power imbalances in absolutely any learning institution. Why's that? Because part of learning is to be able to go beyond oneself and one's own abilities. And this requires an investment of power in a figure. There's no learning without the desire for knowledge. The way we become human is through this kind of learning; in Lacanian terms, the impossibility of fulfilling this desire of knowledge molds us.


What can we learn from this? That power dynamics constitute an indivisible part of the transmission of Buddhism. Not only in Vajrayana, no. Have you ever seen a Zen mondo?


Here's an example (bear in mind, this is something especially filmed to be shown around): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oW-beWUMWJM


I remember talking about this with people in my university. Often, people ask what do you learn in situations like this? Why do people who come to a Mondo and get ridiculed ask for another?


Sometimes I think it can help, like Tilopa's sandal to the head of Naropa. But why do people stick with it before they learn something? Naropa followed Tilopa for years before the sandal gave him enlightenment. And all those years were hard. What did Naropa get out of it, that kept him there?


I would say that two things did: faith, and enjoyment.


Faith in the Guru, and a certain perverse enjoyment of the situation is key in any good Buddhist teacher-student relationship but specially in the Vajrayana. It's the relationship Milarepa and Marpa had. It's Kyergangpa, receiving Avalokiteshvara's vision after a lifetime of search with a sarcastic "Why thank you, Oh lord of little compassion". It's a relationship, with its strategies, its ups and downs, the bittersweet difficulties, and all that Samsara brings.


And if you are really interested in getting Tantra, it's the only thing that there is. Very much like if you're into Kink or M/s relationships, being vanilla just doesn't do it for you. It is not for everyone, but if you're part of the small percentage that can do it, it's the only way to be.


But there are also other parallels between kink and Vajrayana. Everywhere I've been that there's kink, there is a scene (a kula, a community), there are frameworks and contracts (samaya vows) and there is a general direction towards a common goal of pleasure and consensual enjoyment (the Bodhicitta aspiration).


This is empowered by the consent of the student. In every empowerment we ask students if they want to commit to it. If they don't want, they can drop, and it is perfect to do so. But once they are commited we ask them to honor their word.


Also, in common sadly the need to hide from the public eye which would condemn those practices, misunderstanding the love and the intent of the practices themselves. How do they help to empower those who, paradoxically, seem the more submissive (remember, the pushy sub stereotype exists for a reason) and condemn the real acceptance that grows out of those relationships.


Is there the potential for abuse? Yes, of course. That is why we must unequivocally condem it, when we learn of it. There's no way that this is not a path with danger; we must clearly speak out when someone is abusive. In doing so, we protect beings, and we protect those relationships that work.


Because that's the core of the Vajrayana path: relationships. Relationships with your Kula brothers and sisters, relationships with the Guru, relationships that then expand into the world. Remember: you use the springboard of the Guru to practice with the Kula and from the Kula, you expand to the world. There's no exclusive value in the person itself, but it is the root of realization, since by practicing with the Guru you train all the obstacles of the world.


Nice, you might say, but how does this work out in real life, Fede?

I hate to do this, since it looks like a self-reference, but let me tell you from my own experience how this looks like to me.


How I dodged veganism: a play in two scenes


Scene 1: NYC


- I know what your problem is, said Khenpo Pema, one of my main teachers


We were standing in a big hotel conference room in NYC. It was June, it was hot and I was exhausted. We were in the middle of a big teaching by the Sakya Trizin 41, and I had been running around everywhere. Still, something seemed odd.


- My problem, Master? Just one, in the singular? If it's just one, I would say that it's the basic confusion of all sentient beings.


Khenpo Pema scowled. If the power dynamics of our relationship would be mapped onto a BDSM taxonomy, certainly I was the pushy bottom.


- Ohh, he said sarcastically, you're so sharp you're going to cut yourself. No, of course I didn't mean that. You have ONE big problem. It's you.

- But that's what I...

- Stop trying to wiggle! - he said - No, the problem is not something so subtle. It's you. The fact is, Fede, you're not cool.


I stopped for a moment to consider. It was a completely baffling thing to me. Not that I wasn't cool. I was many things, but cool was not one of them. Ugly? Certainly. Insistent? To a fault. A Volumetric Shit Compressor? No doubt about it. But cool was so beyond myself that not even in a relativistic universe folding into itself could I be considered near cool.


Still, it hasn't ever been a problem, until now, so I was at a loss on how to respond.


- What do you mean, Master?


Khenpo Pema looked at me kindly and smiled. I knew something was up; something he must have cooked in the months we'd been living together.


- What makes a teacher attractive?


I thought about it for a while.


- Well, the compassion and wisdom they... - I started to answer, but I was interrupted by Khenpo's laugh.


- No, no, no, no. Of course, it's not that. Fede, what makes a teacher attractive is how attractive they are. It is as simple as that. So, tell me, do you think you are as fair as that painting?


He pointed to a thangka of Buddha Manjushri. The Buddha is a handsome prince, lean and muscled. Manjushri, with his long hair and sweet eyes could easily be in a romance novel cover. He looked as dashing and as handsome as a young, romantic kind of pirate, with his flaming sword.


In comparison, if I were any kind of painting, I would be a Mondrian. I said as much.


- Then, if you're not beautiful, at least you can be cool. Are you cool?


Again, I said that no, I wasn't.


- But you can learn to be cool! And this will bring a lot more students, who will benefit from the Dharma.


(Khenpo Pema's lessons were always like this. His first teaching on how to be a teacher? Always remember your ABCs. Always Be Cool)


- And do you know who is ultracool and hip these days, Fede? The vegans.


I thought about it for a while. And in dread, I asked:


- So, do you want me, someone living in the most meat-positive place in the world, to be a vegan?


He beamed at me and nodded. But I wasn't going to stop there.


- Wait. Master. You are not a vegan yourself. You love barbecues. Why should I be one then?


KP never likes it when I try to catch him in a tangle, so he drew to his full height and said in his most grave voice:


- As your master, this is my vajra command. Next time we'll meet, you'll either be a vegan and have started walking the path of cool or you better have a compelling reason not to.


Oh, shit, I thought. Now, I love vegan food. But I didn't want to. Still, I had some time, to try and think this through.


With that, the activities re-started and we exeunt until the next scene...


Scene 2: Buenos Aires


One year had passed. I was picking up Khenpo Pema at the international airport, which is a little distance from the city. We were chatting in the car, but I knew that the vegan thing was coming. As I was driving down the highway, suddenly the conversation stopped, and I could feel Khenpo Pema's stare on me. He asked me:


- So, are you cool, Federico?


I shook my head.


- No, master, I'm not cool.


He leaned back and simply said


- Oh, this is going to be good. Proceed.


Taking a deep breath, I proceeded to lay down my explanation. I had been mulling over the problem for a year, so I had time to prepare a pitch. But now that the moment had come, I was almost shaking.


- The thing is, master, that I have been thinking about it. But there's a problem there, see? Whenever I go out with people to eat, or when I go somewhere to teach and we all go together to have a meal as a Sangha, there's the problem. Someone asks, "where should we go?" and someone says that restaurant. And another says: but I'm a vegetarian / vegan / humanitarian / etc. and another says, then we'll go to that other place. But a fourth person starts to say that they don't like the food there, it's too simple and soon there's a lot of back and forth. People start saying that if you harm sentient beings by eating meat you cannot be a Buddhist, and other people talk about sentience in plants and suddenly there's this big argument and everyone is angry and hungry. Now, if I, as the teacher, say: we're all vegans now, we should go to the vegan place they will go, but they will still be angry. And if I try to say that I follow such and such diet, people will ask if they should, and I don't know the medical requirements and it will cause more stress.


Khenpo Pema listened with his eyes closed. He nodded and said:


- Quite. So?


- And I worked out how to at least not contribute to that stress. I will go anywhere and eat anything that they offer me, happily. No matter what it is, no matter if it's vegan or not, if it's nice or horrible, I can at least eat it and smile and say thank you, I enjoyed that even if I don't. And that way, I'm not saying that I'm doing a good thing but at least I'm not doing a bad thing and everyone's happy.


Khenpo Pema didn't say anything for a long time. Until, when we were about to arrive to his hotel, he said:


- You're quite wrong, you know?


With a sinking feeling I asked how I was wrong.


He smiled at me.


- That is at least a little bit cool.


So, I keep that vow that I made to him. If I'm invited to teach and eat somewhere, I'll happily scarf down anything that you put in front of me and thank you for it. It might not be the perfect solution for everyone; I'm sure that there are some people out there who would prefer that I was a vegan or that I wasn't, or that I only eat sunshine. But at least, in this way, I can contribute to the overall benefit of beings by not being a point of contention myself.


But this small insight didn't come from me learning about Bodhicitta or reading a book. It came from me struggling to fulfill the command of my teacher, in a way that both respected the command that I was committed to obey and my own circumstances. Out of the constraint of the relationship the insight was born.


Imagine that Khenpo Pema wouldn't have skillfully brought this up. Would I have thought about Bodhicitta and each exchange that I had when I went to dinner with a group? Probably not. By binding me in the ropes of samaya, he focused my attention on Bodhicitta.


So, if it's in the tradition, if it makes sense and if it works, why are so many people scared about it?


My purely speculative conclusion


I cannot say, myself, why the strong reactions to this topic.

But if I were a betting man, I would wager that it is a combination of several things like:

  • People have a surface level understanding ot asymmetrical relationships, i.e. the 50 shades of grey malaise that produced so many headaches in the scene. Everyone: if you're watching someone get abused by a millionaire to get him to buy the company you work for and install you as the boss, so you can torture your erstwhile superiors, you're not watching a kink movie; you're watching a capitalistic revenge movie.

  • People who think all teachers are abusive.

  • People who make their own "intuition" the be-all end-all of knowledge. From that to anti-vaxxer or flat-earther is just a YouTube channel away.

  • People who really haven't thought about power dynamics in their lives, think that they are not subjected to them or that most power dynamics are about balance. A cursory reading on the sociology of power (start with Foucault!) will soon cure that.

  • People who shun commitments, taboos & vows, think that magic equals "do what you want" all the time, to the point that they feel that if you ask them to keep a commitment they've accepted equals being repressed. Even Crowley wasn't as individualistic as this, being that the Will is not something easily discerned. Any quick reading on anthropology of magic will show that a vast majority of systems of magic and sorcery have taboos and vows you must follow.

But clearly this topic comes back up repeatedly. I'll author a small book on the relationship between Gurus and Disciples. I think I'll call it "Buddhism for Kinky perverts".





So, to recap. Yes, I think that the power relationship between a Guru and a Disciple is asymmetrical. No, I don't think that it is a dreadful thing. Yes, I like kinky people. I am one of those kinky basterds. No, I don't like Kink shaming. It is disempowering.


And yes, I would like our socialist Shambhala paradise to be inclusive, to all LGBTQI+ people, to all kinky people and to all beings. Because all beings mean all beings.


And you can quote me on that.




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