Is Enlightenment Compatible With Sex Scandals?

Last year I reviewed The Mind Illuminated, a meditation guide by Buddhist teacher Upasaka Culadasa. Last month, Culudasa’s Buddhist community accused him of cheating on his wife with prostitutes for many years. Culadasa doesn’t seem to agree with the exact details of the accusations, but he also doesn’t seem to deny that there was something in that general category of thing. What can this teach us about enlightenment?

Culadasa has been meditating and studying Buddhism for over forty years and trained under some of the greatest teachers of his generation. I don’t know if he’s claimed to “be enlightened” in so many words, but he’s written books that describe how to reach enlightenment and that assert you can do it in a few years if you follow his advice, which sounds a lot like claiming enlightenment by implication. Other self-proclaimed enlightened Buddhist teachers seem to respect him and treat him as being at around their level.

And if Culudasa wasn’t enlightened, there’s a long list of other Buddhist masters with similar misdeeds. The Atlantic points out that three of the four great founders of American Zen “caused major public sex scandals”; the fourth, Shunryu Suzuki, was spotless, but his successor Richard Baker caused a major public sex scandal. The two most famous US teachers of Tibetan Buddhism, Chongyam Trungpa and Sogyal Rinpoche, both caused major public sex scandals. Trungpa’s immediate successor Ösel Tendzin caused a particularly horrifying major public sex scandal, and the current head of Shambhala Buddhism, Sakyong Rinpoche, also caused a major public sex scandal.

These teachers were among the most accomplished of our time. Many were officially certified as enlightened by the relevant governing bodies (of course there are governing bodies that certify enlightenment, we’re not barbarians). Doubt Culudasa if you want, but it would be hard to say none of these people had achieved enlightenment – at least if you want to maintain any reason to believe in enlightenment as an achievable state at all.

I don’t think many modern teachers say enlightenment makes you morally perfect. But I think at least some of them say it makes you free from craving or desire. And repeatedly cheating on your wife doesn’t seem like the action of someone who’s free from desire. It doesn’t even seem like someone whose desire has been moderately decreased. It sounds like the action of someone who has at least as much desire as anyone else. Maybe Buddhists should retreat to a minimalist account of enlightenment where it changes some brain networks around in a way that short-circuits some processing of experiences of suffering and selfhood, but doesn’t really lead to better decisions?

Tricycle Magazine discusses various theories for why Buddhist sex scandals are so common. Maybe Asians from patriarchal cultures do badly when transplanted to the more sexually liberal West (…but Culadasa was white and born in the US). Maybe powerful men are naturally tempted to behave badly when surrounded by vulnerable female students (but Culadasa didn’t have sex with his students). Maybe the Mahayana emphasis on how enlightened people transcend ordinary human norms causes enlightened people to, uh, transcend ordinary human norms (but most of Culadasa’s training was Theravada).

I recently got a chance to talk to about this with a very experienced Buddhist practitioner, one who claims to be enlightened himself. He said it’s accepted in his tradition that meditation “dissolves social conditioning”. In theory once you’ve dissolved all social conditioning, the Inner Light Of Compassion shines through and you can behave with true kindness. But in practice the Inner Light Of Compassion sometimes goes AWOL and you’re just left valueless. This works fine if you’re in a monastery like most advanced meditators were for most of history, not so well if you’re out in the real world with all the usual temptations.

This fascinates me for the same reason HPPD fascinates me. There are all these transformative practices that purport to give you a higher level of consciousness. But by Algernon’s Law, there’s presumably some reason we’re in this state of consciousness, some reason our system protects its usual state so diligently that you need powerful drugs or years of meditation to break through to anything else. Are there advantages to samsara? Are they related to the reason why so many enlightened people end up in sex scandals?

Or to put it another way: if meditation, like LSD, relaxes mental priors and increases entropy, do these failure modes help us understand what strong priors and low entropy are good for?

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289 Responses to Is Enlightenment Compatible With Sex Scandals?

  1. onyomi says:

    An important factor to keep in mind is probably that being a spiritual guru of some renown, like being a rock star or star athlete, radically increases the number of women signalling sexual availability to you.

    • shakeddown says:

      Culudasa’s scandal is about prostitutes, which are generally available even to non-rockstars.

      • CatCube says:

        True, but could the availability of willing women provide temptation that he then fulfills with prostitution? That is, women signal availability and he really wants to get his weasel greased, but recognizes that entangling himself with followers is going to go bad in more ways than getting caught in adultery, so he satisfies himself with prostitutes?

        I can’t recall the rockstar who supposedly said this (David Bowie?), but at his level, “you don’t pay hookers to sleep with you, you pay them to leave afterwards.”

        • quanta413 says:

          I’ve heard it was Charlie Sheen who said that.

          • Brandon Berg says:

            It’s also been attributed to Clark Gable and Errol Flynn. It definitely wasn’t coined in 2009 by Charlie Sheen.

          • jg29a says:

            @Brandon Berg

            It’s quoted in a season four (2000) South Park song, for starters.

        • onyomi says:

          Somewhat related: have heard anecdotes of Kung fu/Qigong teachers in Taiwan who hired prostitutes as part of their students’ training. Some schools of Chinese qigong, like Indian tantra, believe that not ejaculating is good for spiritual progress and that having sex without ejaculating is even better. Of course, I’ve also heard independent stories that prostitution was much more open and common in pre 1980s Taiwan, so if you combine a discipline that claims a need to govern one’s sexual habits and which includes not just abstinence but actual sexual practices with high availability and low social stigma, it’s not surprising you get such stories.

        • Aftagley says:

          “you don’t pay hookers to sleep with you, you pay them to leave afterwards.”

          Yeah, but in this case, he formed long-term financial/sexual relations with them. Reading between the lines of the various statements issued, it seemed like as much a sugar-daddy time scenario as a john/hooker one.

    • Charlie__ says:

      It also changes the behavior of the person in power. The entire reason why we have genes that push us to seek power is because they work well with other genes that push us to use that power to have sex with attractive mates and pamper our children. So of course we expect famous people to get embroiled in sex scandals – from a design perspective, that’s the reason they became famous in the first place!

      (In one version I see you edited out the part this was largely a response to, which was something like “being famous makes women more attracted to you,” which I’m saying is only one side of the story and anyhow doesn’t explain the prostitutes.)

      • onyomi says:

        I agree that the sort of person comfortable with being a famous spiritual guru is also the sort of person less likely to be uncomfortable about risky sexual behavior. I am also skeptical that fame seeking behavior and spiritual enlightenment often go together (yes, a particular meditation teacher could just be that good, but I think in most cases people who become famous are very dynamic personalities and good self promoters–charismatic types, and that there’s no necessary correlation between those qualities and propensity to seek spiritual enlightenment; there might even be an inverse correlation).

      • albatross11 says:


        Nepotism and powerful people getting sex from attractive subordinates are the default human behavior we should expect, in the absence of strong mechanisms to prevent them.

        • acymetric says:

          I think this is certainly true, but the question is about how it relates to “enlightenment” specifically. It seems clear (to me) that either these people weren’t really enlightened, or the way enlightenment is described and promoted (specifically by the people involved in this post) is wrong.

          • albatross11 says:

            I don’t know what enlightenment in the Buddhist tradition entails. I can say that a Christian could be a very good and holy person and still screw up. That wouldn’t mean they’d never been a good or holy person–people screw up, they do evil, and the best we can do with that is make sure they know how to ask for forgiveness and try not to do it again, and try to remove the temptation for whatever kind of evil is a danger to them.

          • Nicholas says:

            My exposure to “enlightenment” is limited to “why Buddhism is true” and a few chapters of “enlightenment now”, so by no means an expert, but my understanding of the claim it’s not that one walks around in daily life in a state of enlightenment, but that one can, on demand, achieve enlightenment through meditation. Maybe for rockstar level gurus the claim is different.

      • Reasoner says:

        The entire reason why we have genes that push us to seek power is because they work well with other genes that push us to use that power to have sex with attractive mates and pamper our children. So of course we expect famous people to get embroiled in sex scandals – from a design perspective, that’s the reason they became famous in the first place!

        What’s the best way to deal with this problem? Either on an individual level (you want to stay nice and honest even after your upcoming promotion) or on a societal level (you want to elect a politician and not have them abuse their power).

        • soreff says:

          >What’s the best way to deal with this problem? Either on an individual level (you
          >want to stay nice and honest even after your upcoming promotion) or on a societal
          >level (you want to elect a politician and not have them abuse their power).

          Some flavor of harm minimization, analogous to methadone maintenance?
          Admit that men above some level in their hierarchy are going to seek more sex
          than the mores for us peasants allow. Put a line item in the organization’s budget
          for sex workers for them. Mandate birth control, condoms, and regular STD

    • Exetali Do says:

      I’d say, there’s a lot of reasons why the Sangha is one of the Three Jewels, and one of them is that Right Action is a lot easier when one has a peer group to provide continuous feedback. Setting oneself up as a singular guru, answerable to no one, seems like a literal recipe for disaster.

  2. Elo says:


    1. Daniel Ingram of Mctb2, which you also reviewed, comments that these people are still human, and still able to make mistakes.

    2. Add Reggie ray to the list of people taking a beating recently.

    3. Integral theory (best book “integral spirituality”) makes the point that moral line of development (and lines generally) is different from enlightenment states of development.

    Along with there being different states, stages, lines, quadrants and types for which we can divide mind (in the aqal framework), integral theory makes the point that the spiritual heroes of the past, (Buddha, jesus) would be a bit out of touch by today’s standards. But somehow for their time they were “enlightened”. (assuming they existed etc.)

    Theres definitely a 4th point worth making around intellectual concept clash in the word “enlightenment” where people describe different things by the same word. Many people suggest culadasa has something great and teaches well, at the same time (similar to chongyang trungpa, Andrew Cohen, adi da and more) its possible to have something worth teaching and still be morally archaic.

    One last point – I like to propose that the people at the top need to take on extra responsibility for their actions, the higher the climb, the further the fall. The greater the hero, the more scrutiny their actions will take. BUT this is my own external narrative that I want to place on the concept of “people at the top” and I haven’t found any justification other than intuition for this.

    • CherryGarciaMillionaire says:

      You are trying to sneak Ken Wilber’s indefensible ideas into here, without mentioning his name.

      There have been two full-length books thoroughly debunking Wilber’s claims, and proving that he has unapologetically misrepresented his sources throughout his career.

      One is Jeff Meyerhoff’s Bald Ambition, available on the Integral World website of Wilber’s former biographer, Frank Visser.

      The other is “Norman Einstein”: The Dis-Integration of Ken Wilber.

      No one should take anything Wilber says seriously, without having first read both of those books.

      • Elo says:

        I wasn’t being sneaky about it at all? Seemed pretty obvious?

        I’ll take a look at the sources.

        Wilber sort of stole everything he has from other people without blatantly attributing it to them, he never really claims the ideas but never credits enough either. This is a big failure of his. But he did to his credit, bring ideas together and people together around those ideas.

  3. kaakitwitaasota says:

    Could this be a case of the murderous cardiologist fallacy? That is, without some sort of base rate and/or sense of the size of the population of Enlightened Beings, I don’t know just how outlandish and common these incidents really are.

    • martinw says:

      There are a lot more cardiologists in the world than recognized top-level, book-writing, own-school-starting Buddhist masters. This is like if you went through the Top 20 of most respected cardiology experts as published by the American Cardiology Association, and found that more than half of them had murdered someone.

      And if we accept that at least some of these guys are the real deal in the sense of having truly achieved Enlightenment if that word has any objective meaning at all, and that Enlightenment is supposed to free you of worldly desires, then even a single example of an officially-certified Enlightened person cheating on their spouse is interesting. It only takes one counterexample to disprove a rule, after all.

      • SuiJuris says:

        This is like if you went through the Top 20 of most respected cardiology experts as published by the American Cardiology Association, and found that more than half of them had murdered someone.

        I now feel someone should do this, just to check.

        • Randy M says:

          I doubt you’ll find too many murders among top cardiologists.
          I wouldn’t be surprised if you found a fair amount of infidelity and promiscuity.

        • Watchman says:

          But published cardiologists are generally academic focussed not murder practice focussed.

      • igor47 says:

        i still think there’s a population effect here.

        like, we have enlightened people, and also people who want to write books and be famous. maybe people who want to write books and be famous also want to get into sex stuff, while the vast majority of enlightened people are just living quiet, ordinary, enlightened lives. maybe that is what it means to be enlightened in the first place (definitely treading into semantics now).

        • dank says:

          I think this is a big factor. There could be thousands or even millions of ‘enlightened’ people out there, among whom only a few dozen try to become famous. Wouldn’t be surprising if those dozen are not a representative sample. Think about how different a rock star is from the average person who plays music.

  4. Logan says:

    First of all, there is a very real possibility that enlightened people are just broadly similar to regular people (and hence there is no need for an explanation beyond “they’re powerful men, duh they get in sex scandals”). This article is kind of assuming (as it admits) that enlightenment is a real thing that makes a big difference in the brain.

    If we discard that possibility, I’m not in any way surprised to hear that desire (as in, the thing enlightenment gets rid of) is useful for avoiding sex scandals and just generally getting along in the world. Why do you think an enlightened buddhist monk would *want* to avoid a sex scandal? If they’re truly enlightened, they shouldn’t be upset about the bad PR.

    The pointless and endless struggle from which enlightenment can supposedly free us is an important part of social cohesion, as you will quickly learn if someone tells you they are upset that their favorite sports-team/political-party/whatever lost the important contest and you respond “it doesn’t make sense to care about that.”

    • Frederic Mari says:

      What I find stupid is that they got into a basic and unlightened legal and moral engagement like a marriage… Goes a long way to prove their “enlightenment” is just b.s. (NB: I’m married and happily so but I find the institution to be ridiculous and definitely a residue from a darker, less ‘enlightened’ time)

      • sty_silver says:

        I think you’re mixing up two things that have nothing to do with each other. The enlightenment and being enlightened are two totally separate concepts that just happen to share a name. I don’t see any reason why becoming enlightened should make you oppose marriage. At most I could see a correlation, but no causal effects.

        • Frederic Mari says:

          I’m not sure why you admit correlation yet no causation?

          You may be right that ‘enlightened’ in the buddhist sense isn’t at all what I, a westerner, understand by the term i.e. an enlightened buddha doesn’t have to see marriage as a sexual and social regulating tool that got out of hands when Romantics and 19C bourgeois made it responsible for our happiness too, he doesn’t have to consider sexual jealousy, exclusivity and sexual possession as troubling.

          But in that case, we ARE using very different definition of the terms ‘enlightened’ b/c that’s the kind of stuff any slightly switched on person will know and will generally be aware of the issues with those concepts.

          • sty_silver says:

            There might be an effect like, smart people are generally a bit more likely to see the problems with marriage and are also a bit more likely to be interested in meditation. This would already cause a correlation.

            But I don’t see any reason for a causal effect. Meditation gives you little to no insight into how the universe works. It doesn’t have to change any of your believes that aren’t narrowly focused on meditation. If you take someone of any belief set and teach them to meditate, they’ll have roughly the same beliefs afterwards.

          • GearRatio says:

            It might also be worth considering that considering marriage to be a completely useless and abusive state is not exactly the majority view – it’s possible some gurus belong to the majority of people who think it’s at least potentially OK.

            The train of thought here reads a lot like “well, of COURSE he should have been an anarchosocialist – how could he claim to be enlightened otherwise?” in that it mainly only makes intuitive sense to the small minority of people who not only like anarchosocialism, but so much that they’ve abandoned the thought that there’s any possibility of an intelligent person thinking any other way, despite most other people not being anarchosocialists.

    • christiankl says:

      Buddhist monks usually take vows to have no sex with humans. You might argue whether “I didn’t have sex with a human but with a human transfigured into Tantric God X” allows some Buddhist monks to have sex without violating their vows but in plenty of cases even that argument isn’t made.

      Culadasa seems not to have taken the monk vows but still vows for following the five lay precepts. The statement by the Dharma Treasure Board of Directors seems to share he violated three of the precepts in this affairs and his own admission at least two.

      A good and enlightened Buddhist is supposed to feel empathy for the pain of others and as the sex scandal causes suffering for his students seek to avoid it to not do harm.

  5. RomeoStevens says:

    Elimination of desire is probably not the best translation. Like what would that even mean? Could the buddha not eat a sandwich when hungry? Would he be completely unable to express a preference for one sandwich over a different one? When he corrects a student does he desire that they practice differently? It’s more like there is a series of reactions within the perceptual stack. At one end you have sensory contact with the world and at the other end you have some sort of experiential thing happening. Somewhere in the stack suffering pops up. It’s in the step right after desire, often called craving, or the sense that you should get what you desire that seems to be the problem.* I’m unclear based on different translations if the cut that occurs is the link between these two stages or the stage of craving itself that is cut, or if that would even be a meaningful distinction. I suspect it takes direct experience to really get it.

    My assumption is Culadasa isn’t suffering. As the Buddha says, ‘I teach suffering and the cessation of suffering, not these other things.’

    Enllightenment is mostly a red herring that fascinates the peanut gallery. The vast majority of serious practitioners who get anywhere get to the first milestone (classical i.e. pre-buddha enlightenment) and that’s it. It is this that takes only a few years. Highly worth while.

    *the experience involves each word: ‘you’ ‘should’ ‘get’ ‘what’ ‘desire’ softening/becoming fuzzier and gaining insight into how you’re actually relating to them on a moment by moment basis. Not intellectually, though that can come after, but just watching yourself both create and react to whatever it is that those symbols mean in your conscious experience. Eventually the ontology shifts enough that saying ‘I should get what I desire’ isn’t meaningful in the same way, i.e. it doesn’t accurately refer to your experience anymore. Along with lots of other stuff, but this is fairly concrete at least.

    • janrandom says:

      Very much agree. I’m not enlightened but got to stage 5 in The Mind Illuminated and agree that in general, you gain more and more awareness of what really goes on in your mind and body. And that comes with the possibility of far-reaching control (though that is really the wrong word). Possibility. If the control is useful it is useful. The social structures of Buddhism (Sangha) usually make it useful to control certain desires.

  6. Ketil says:

    This works fine if you’re in a monastery like most advanced meditators were for most of history, not so well if you’re out in the real world with all the usual temptations.

    I think there might be some evidence that lacking the usual temptations, people will turn to the unusual ones.

    • Jerden says:

      I for one would be interested in seeing that evidence, I for one would love to move beyond the usual temptations in favour of truly weird ones.

    • Enkidum says:

      Rousseau says that the best way to be moral is to avoid placing yourself in situations where temptation arises. In my experience, this is the case. So I suspect you’re mistaken.

      • Aapje says:

        Does that really mean that you are then not giving in to temptation? Or are you ignoring the temptations that are (more) socially and/or morally acceptable?

        • Enkidum says:

          If it’s morally acceptable, who cares if you give into temptation? The point isn’t to be a monk, it’s to live a moral life.

          • Aapje says:

            My point was that there is a difference between seeking out acceptable temptations & steering clear of the unacceptable ones vs trying to eliminate temptation in general.

          • Enkidum says:

            Ah, fair. I suppose then yes, you are allowing yourself various less important temptations, because why not?

            But my original response to OP was simply that I don’t believe that in cases where some temptations are removed, you will make up new weird ones to compensate.

        • Nicholas says:

          If the temptations are nested, why would you need to distinguish? I find it somewhat difficult to restrain myself from eating a doughnut if there’s a box of them on my kitchen table, but have no problem not buying doughnuts at the store. If my goal is to not eat doughnuts, it isn’t necessary for me to first buy them, and then resist eating them in my kitchen.

  7. Aapje says:

    He said it’s accepted in his tradition that meditation “dissolves social conditioning”. In theory once you’ve dissolved all social conditioning, the Inner Light Of Compassion shines through and you can behave with true kindness.

    Isn’t this just the ‘man is naturally good, society causes people to do evil’ nonsense (basically the opposite nonsense to the claim in the protestant Heidelberg Catechism that man is completely incapable of any good and prone to all evil, unless born again by the Spirit of God).

    It’s similar to the noble savage trope: without the corrupting force of modern civilization, man can act naturally, which is completely altruistic and kind.

    • eric23 says:

      Exactly. I would say what really happens here is that meditation dissolves social conditioning, and the Inner Light of Lust shines through.

      • Secretly French says:

        This is pretty much what I wanted to say. My understanding of the end goal of meditation is that you reconceptualize your conscious thoughts not as part of your self but rather as an incoming stream of information, in the same way as your other senses. I don’t see why that would lead to saintly behaviour, though I can understand why it might change your personality and ease neuroses or whatever. We are still humans and humans are still animals, and our conscious thoughts are not our instincts. Meditation can dissolve whatever it likes but it doesn’t dissolve our humanity or our will to power, or else you’d expect the end result of enlightenment to be catatonia coma or death surely?

  8. Radu Floricica says:

    I don’t see why people insist on calling these scandals mistakes.

    Let’s break this a bit in two steps. Meditation is a tool that helps you achieve better X. Western morals are good. Where is the link between X and Western Morals?

    For another example, look at the (very) high rate of polyamory in the rationality community. Rationality helps you be a better Y – turns out that Y is also helpful in ignoring social norms. It could be that X is the same.

    It could also be that both X and Y (meditation and rationality) are themselves tools that are independent of your values. You have Shunryu Suzuki that has been a buddhist monk from an early age and knows what he wants from life – and meditation helps him achieve it, quite possibly also by helping him avoid occasional temptations. For other people it helps with their set of values, that happen to place monogamy lower.

    I remember reading an old evolutionary article/book that talked about Bill Clinton and Monica. “How come you work so hard to become president and then do something like this?” many people asked. Well, the question is stupid: your genes compel you to reach a high status so you can do this kind of stuff. Why wouldn’t you?! Having “sex scandals” is the default for high status individuals. That’s the main motivation for getting there, at least for their genes if not for their conscious mind.

    Also, we’re not a monogamous species. Come to think of it, there aren’t really any monogamous species – well, maybe a couple, with brains drowned in oxytocin. Our default value system is not to mate for life – that would be *drums* a social illusion. Which kinda suggests why both rationality and meditation go against it – while hopefully finding ways to avoid doing harm in the process. But first step is realizing there are alternatives – after that it’s a throw of dice and a matter of individual personality and context.

    And finally – Eastern culture is filled with drunken Buddhas. I don’t remember if philandering is specifically mentioned (that’s my lack of knowledge, most likely), but living to the fullest is definitely NOT incompatible with enlightenment.

    • melolontha says:

      ‘Cheating’ refers to something importantly different from non-monogamy-by-mutual-consent, and there are obvious reasons for a benevolent person to avoid it.

      • Frederic Mari says:

        Yes but that’s the fault of marriage, mostly. OTOH, they should have had the decency to dissolve their marriage before engaging in sex with prostitutes/others.

      • Radu Floricica says:

        What Fredric said, with the comment that marriage itself isn’t monogamous, in practice. I don’t have numbers of infidelities at hand, but I’d bet ($50?) that over half of marriages have some form of infidelity. Well, it’s actually easy money because to disprove monogamy we have to include divorces and separations, so this makes it rather unlikely that over half of all marriages end with monogamy for life.

        So with this taken into consideration, trying to judge The Enlightened for promiscuity starts to look a bit like isolated demand for rigor. You may try to accuse them of hypocrisy, but that’d be confusing them with Christian priests – most meditative techniques don’t really make “better morals” as one of the main promises.

        Note: (I actually tried to edit this in the main comment, but time expired) I’m very much not against monogamy. I think it’s a damn good way of living a happy life, not to mention the best way of raising children. I’m just saying that perfect monogamy is not that common in practice nor it ever was. And judging a subset of high status individuals is not particularly fair – ignoring a very possible correlation between status and infidelity, there is definitely more scrutiny and selection bias in what gets into the media.

    • Unirt says:

      I think a number of bird species are actually monogamous, while others are only “socially monogamous”, as are several human populations. I.e. they live in pairs but have some extramarital offspring.

    • shortchenpa says:

      I don’t think the phenomena to which Scott refers constitute polyamory. That’s a very different thing from Buddhist teachers, especially teachers with status, having sex with students.

      • Radu Floricica says:

        It is and it’s not. I’m not trying to equate polyamory with cheating, they were just two examples of different paths leading to less inhibition on breaking social norms.

        It’s outside my main point, but truth be told I do think that current society has a dose of “don’t ask, don’t tell” when it comes to infidelity, and that the socially … tolerated? way to be polyamorous is to have a mistress. This stands to a cursory reality check: what would be vastly more scandalous, a rumor that John has a mistress, or a rumor that John and his wife have sex with another woman? Think mainstream society.

  9. CherryGarciaMillionaire says:

    If nondual consciousness (a.k.a. the highest “Enlightenment,” or “One Taste,” with no division between subject and object, and no recoiling from psychological engagement) actually existed, it would be compatible with every possible behavior, from the lives of Jesus (if he had ever existed) to Hitler. Anything that happens in the universe is compatible with the Nondual Consciousness that has (supposedly) become everything, including every “red in tooth and claw” thing, whether or not it wears a saffron robe.

    As the Dalai Lama foolishly mused, of one ostensibly “Enlightened sage” with a propensity for sleeping with other men’s wives, supposedly for their (wives’) spiritual benefit:

    Smiling slightly, His Holiness explained that Drukpa Kunley could understand the long-term effects of his actions because he had attained the nondual insight known as “One Taste.” All experiences were the same to him: He could enjoy [eating] excrement and urine just like the finest food and wine.

    Yet for some reason, with the possible exception of the scatologically inclined Nityananda (Muktananda’s guru), these supposed “sages” tend toward the latter fine dining, not the former. Go figure.

    Stripping the Gurus: Sex, Violence, Abuse and Enlightenment covers all of this. It was written in 2005. Nothing has changed since then.

    And if you still think that spiritual experiences are real, and that meditation or psychedelics have the potential to take you outside of the “three pounds of meat” between your ears, there’s an Appendix in that book that offers enough evidence to the contrary that no rational person could continue believing in such pleasant fantasies:

    Sam Harris and “Spirituality Without Religion”.

    > This works fine if you’re in a monastery like most advanced meditators were for most of history….

    No, unfortunately it doesn’t work even there, since sexual indulgence/restraint is by no means the only socially conditioned behavior. What do you think happens in monasteries when the social conditioning against violence “dissolves”? Here’s one example:

    In Tokyo there are some Zen monasteries as well. In one of these monasteries … there was a Zen monk who happened to be very conceited. He refused to listen to whatever the master was trying to tell him and used the early morning interviews with the master to air all his pet theories. The masters have a special stick for this type of pupil. Our master has one, too, you will have seen it, a short thick stick. One morning the master hit the monk so hard that the monk didn’t get up any more. He couldn’t, because he was dead….

    The head monk reported the incident to the police, but the master was never charged. Even the police know that there is an extraordinary relationship between master and pupil, a relationship outside the law.

  10. Steve Sailer says:

    Not Buddhist, but here’s the amusing story of the scandal involving the Bikram hot yoga guy (although, admittedly, when it comes to enlightenment and modesty he makes Trump sound like the Dalai Lama).

  11. Tetrahedrex says:

    An interesting assumption that most observers of these sexual scandals seem to make is that our conceptions of morality matter to and should be applied to the so-called enlightened. My impression from the many things I’ve read on the topic is that enlightenment does not generally propel (or is even supposed to propel) people along the path towards traditional morality. Their moral trajectory seems, if not orthogonal, at least non-parallel.

    Indeed, ethics and morality seem to dissolve along with all other ideas among the fully enlightened. Compassion is emphasized in Mahayana, but only because in that school one is supposed to seek Bodhisattvahood rather than absolute enlightenment. There are many stories about Buddhist teachers rejecting moral codes and doing things like eating meat after enlightenment.

    • theriac says:

      I’m reminded of the koan attributed to Linji: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

    • christiankl says:

      It’s a mistake to judge a Buddhist by Western standards of morality when you want to know whether enlightenment helps them to act morally. You however can look at the moral values that a teacher teaches to his students.

  12. Steve Sailer says:

    What are fields that _haven’t_ had sex scandals?

    I’m not aware of any involving baseball statistics sabermetricians …

    • Randy M says:

      They may not score very often, but that’s because they are prioritizing on base percentage.

      • Brad W says:

        I think their idea boils down to the more often you get on base, the more often you score.

        Which is basically the same as PUA theory… It’s a numbers game.

        Which suddenly got creepy.

        • Reasoner says:

          I mean dating is basically a numbers game right? What else am I supposed to tell myself when a woman doesn’t respond to my text?

      • EchoChaos says:

        They get to first base all the time, but they keep expecting someone else to get them home.

    • indianbadger1 says:

      I heard something about Jonah Keri recently. So, yeah …. even Sabermetricians are prone to this.

  13. chaosmage says:

    The most reputable meditation teacher I have sat with, not big enough to have a Wikipedia page but big enough you could have heard of him if you follow the Buddhist scene, is a bit of an alcoholic. Hides it pretty well, if you don’t have the confidence of the maid who finds the empty bottles. Of course sex scandals are much harder to hide than alcoholism.

    I have a different hypothesis on causation, much more mundane. Social support, i.e. talking about it, is a big part of how we resist temptation. These teachers are expected to be past temptation, they make a living by seeming to live up to that expectation. So they can’t talk about temptations, so resisting them is harder.

    • imoimo says:

      Social support could certainly be relevant. Reading your comment made me think of selection effects too. The people I know who seek spirituality have deep issues they’re trying to work out. If enlightenment turns out to not actually solve issues people seek it for (like low self-esteem or anxiety), reaching fame could enable those issues to be acted out in new ways, such as rewarding oneself with lots of sex. /just-so story

      • acymetric says:

        The people I know who seek spirituality have deep issues they’re trying to work out.

        Incidentally, this is probably a big part of why people find teachers engaging in sex with students distasteful. The students seem like they would be more susceptible to being convinced to do things not in their own best interests, and to ultimately be harmed by such acts.

        I think at least one of the following is probably true:

        1) More students are harmed by sex with their teachers/gurus than are helped by it.

        2) Regardless of #1, the aggregate harm of those who are harmed probably outweighs whatever benefits are gained by the people it doesn’t harm.

        • chaosmage says:

          Being someone’s pupil means you get a bit of their status. If the teacher’s status drops, the pupil loses some status too. That’s unpleasant and it occurs even if the pupil is completely fine with what the teacher actually did.

  14. AllAmericanBreakfast says:

    An alternative explanation is that the enlightenment governing bodies, teacher-track system, and spiritual media are bad at detecting enlightenment. It may also be that being enlightened doesn’t make you much better at distinguishing it in others. It would not surprise me at all to find out that being able to project “enlightened vibes” is a lot easier and more common than actually being enlightened. And perhaps genuine enlightenment doesn’t project “vibes.”

    Although we might expect a truly enlightened person to have transcended all desire, fake gurus might crave the recognition and benefits that come with those Vibes. Meditation may genuinely decondition our social norms and mores, prior to the attainment of enlightenment, leaving practitioners vulnerable to behaviors they’d have rejected both at an earlier and later stage of spiritual growth.

    So the practice could genuinely work. Many teachers could be genuinely enlightened. But they might also be vulnerable to being confused by the charisma of their disciples into elevating them to “Enlightened” status. Those “Enlightened” fake gurus might be self-deceived about their own spiritual state. Conversely, true enlightenment may not project itself very well to even other truly enlightened people. The real master is hidden…

  15. Mr Mind says:

    … or, you know, enlightenment is just bullshit?

    • Frederic Mari says:

      Yep. We need to be more rationalist about this… 🙂

      • sty_silver says:

        Fwiw I self-identify has a hardcore rationalist and am pretty sure (> 90%) that enlightenment is a thing. I don’t know how many people actually have it, though. And, perhaps more importantly, the “taking away desire” part may be BS. What it does take away is suffering, but the incentive to have sex with prostitutes may remain.

        • Frederic Mari says:

          I thought it was supposed to make you not mind the suffering?

          TBF, I don’t really care too much either way i.e. whether enlightenment is real or not. It doesn’t give you superpowers, it doesn’t make you smarter and, crucially, it doesn’t even seem to make you wiser or more compassionate, 2 central claims, I would argue.

          Therefore, even if it is ‘real’, it doesn’t seem to do much of value, to the individual or to the group around said individual.

          And, on the downside, it seems like a gold mine for all kind of crooks, self-styled gurus and con men to prey on the weak.

          Basically – I’m innately suspicious of this kind of stuff b/c claims to enlightenment and building a cult like following is exactly what I would expect con men with good social skills and charisma to do.

          • sty_silver says:

            You can’t “not mind suffering” I don’t think, because by definition suffering is the thing that is terminally bad for you. What you’ve heard is probably that it makes you not mind pain. Pain is just the physical sensation you feel when you stab your toe. That remains with any amount of enlightenment, but the suffering that usually accompanies it disappears. Pain just becomes a sensation you can become interested in. It may even be pleasant.

            it doesn’t make you smarter and, crucially, it doesn’t even seem to make you wiser or more compassionate, 2 central claims, I would argue.

            I agree with all that, maybe with some minor caveats, but I think it’s still pretty damn useful. Getting rid of suffering seems like a superpower to me, and, although I’m far from enlightenment myself, I can report that meditation increases the amount I spent working. And it’s quite pleasant to do & doesn’t take a lot of time.

          • viVI_IViv says:

            What you’ve heard is probably that it makes you not mind pain. Pain is just the physical sensation you feel when you stab your toe. That remains with any amount of enlightenment, but the suffering that usually accompanies it disappears. Pain just becomes a sensation you can become interested in. It may even be pleasant.

            So would Buddha casually put his hand on a fire to reach for a piece of vegetable that he was grilling? Would he not flinch if he hit his toe on a corner?

            I don’t believe it.

            Pain just becomes a sensation you can become interested in. It may even be pleasant.

            This is called BDSM, not enlightenment.

          • NoRandomWalk says:

            nope, that’s pretty much it, and it’s a real phenomenon that is consistently replicated

            people who haven’t meditated have only experienced (pain+suffering) as a unit, so don’t realize that they’re two really distinct things.
            once you get good enough at meditating, you noting that suffering follows the experience of pain, and the extent to which you recognize this distinction results in the magnitude of suffering to decrease.
            for sufficiently advanced/enlightened people the suffering goes away completely.

          • Bugmaster says:

            @sty_silver, viVI_IViv:

            What you’ve heard is probably that it makes you not mind pain. … So would Buddha casually put his hand on a fire to reach for a piece of vegetable that he was grilling?

            FWIW, I don’t find this completely impossible, merely unlikely, based on my (completely statistically irrelevant) personal experience. I was in the hospital once, due to extreme pain, and the doctors put me on some pretty strong painkillers. The experience was similar to what sty_silver is describing: I knew that the pain was there, and I could feel it as strongly as before; however, I just didn’t experience it in any kind of a significant way (positive or negative). The experience of pain was no different from the experience of, say, a mild itch — even though I could still tell them apart.

            It is possible (though, perhaps, unlikely) that one could hypnotize oneself into the same mental state through meditation (as opposed to powerful drugs).

          • sty_silver says:

            So would Buddha casually put his hand on a fire to reach for a piece of vegetable that he was grilling? Would he not flinch if he hit his toe on a corner?

            I’m not sure whether you can get so skilled that any amount of pain can be uncoupled from suffering (though I suspect so), but I can personally report that a moderate amount of pain can be experienced without suffering. Given that I’ve spent maybe 100 hours total on meditation in my life and don’t think I’m super talented, it seems reasonable to expect that others can do the same on a regular basis and for much more intense pain.

            I tried to do it with an itching sensation once and failed miserably, but that hardly proves anything.

            The Buddha would probably not reach in a fire though, because that would cause him injuries and you don’t lose any awareness of that.

        • P. George Stewart says:

          There’s definitely a “thing” going on with all this that’s very unusual. I too am a rationalist who has had non-dual mystical experiences, I suppose you’d call them “satori” experiences or “glimpses” (as a result of wondering “who am I?” as a child really intently a few times), which I recognize in the literature. (At some point, roundabout adolescence, it got too difficult to do – I realized I’d have to put much more effort into it.)

          There is absolutely a there there that’s completely at right angles to our normal, everyday state of consciousness, and most people haven’t got a clue about it. But what connection it has to morality, whether it’s possible to have that “mode” of consciousness (let’s call it) in normal, everyday life, etc., etc., (such that one could say it’s more than a “glimpse,” with subsequent reversion back to the everyday frame of mind, but some kind of stable condition called “enlightenment”) – those questions, I’m not so sure there’s an answer to, and I’m not sure the great traditions have an answer to it either.

          It’s definitely got something to do with the function of the mind that distinguishes between self and other, and it’s definitely got something to do with knocking out of commission the ordinary, everyday sense we have of being a “ghost in the machine”, some mysterious thing inside the head peeping out at the world (a vague feeling that’s obviously – must obviously be – false, especially if you’re philosophically a materialist or physicalist). And knocking that function out of commission is by far the most stunning experience you can have in life, waaay beyond any drug experience (and I’m someone who once took 5 tabs of acid at Glastonbury in my mis-spent youth).

          But does having that experience, or being in that mode of mind permanently (supposing that’s what full-blown “enlightenment” is), make one a better person? Is there any connection between enlightenment and sainthood? I don’t think it necessarily changes that. In theory it’s supposed to (since the ordinary sense of self is supposed to be the villain of the piece). But I doubt it.

          What might change that is the prior moral training one has (in priories, monasteries, etc.), but then again, people aren’t going to go through that training unless they’re already inclined a bit towards being morally good. Still, the prior training (in morality) might affect the ruffian who’s had a change of heart (and there are tales in the traditions a bit like that).

          But from the point of view of the mechanics of enlightenment training, all that morality training is just meant to smooth out the psyche so that you can (as it were) stabilize the candle flame, get the requisite laser-like concentration going.

          At the end of the day, I’d say, yes, this thing is possible, and (judging from how hard it got to “get there” by adolescence) it is a bit of a hike (probably about as much of a time and energy commitment as excellence in any other activity, i.e. quite serious, not a thing for dilettantes). And yes, you may find the “result” to be worth all that effort in terms of its absolute beyond-stunningness. But does it have any value for everyday life? I think probably a bit, if you’re already a moral person, but not as much as it’s been touted to have, and not to the extent that it could turn a rotter into a decent human being overnight.

    • Bugmaster says:

      I don’t think it’s bullshit, necessarily; AFAICT it’s basically just a way to get high without any chemical assistance. Which is a valuable skill to have, if you enjoy getting high on occasion.

      • Ketil says:

        Not entirely unlike sex, in other words.

        • sty_silver says:

          Although even just as a tool to feel good, it’s at least different in that you do it all by yourself and there is no inherent limit as to how much you can do it.

      • aphyer says:

        If you asked me how likely someone would be to cheat on their spouse, the fact that their primary goal in life is the pursuit of a way to get high would not cause me to rate them as less likely.

      • Mr Mind says:

        I’ve always thought of enlightenment as a mild / intermittent self-wireheading. Which fits your description and makes it lowkey repulsive.

      • viVI_IViv says:

        Asian people: have 3500 years of history of Dharmic religions with elaborate theology, moral codes, customs, institutions…

        New age techbro hippie: dude, it’s a great way of getting high when you run out of drugs.

        Forgive the snark, but I think you, Scott and people who think this way are quite missing the point.

        It’s like converting to Judaism and studying the Kabbalah in order to create a golem to use as your personal magic robot waifu, then acting kinda surprised when you learn that Rabbis can’t actually create golems, and saying that maybe you subscribe to a minimalist interpretation of Judaism which is all about learning to cook fine kosher food.

    • Exetali Do says:

      I think a lot of Buddhists are way too attached to the idea of “enlightenment”. Seriously.

  16. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    How many of these scandals involve what might be called spiritual fraud? That is, the guru claims that sex with him (are these scandals always about men?) is important for his partners to gain enlightenment.

    • eric23 says:

      Alternatively: the guru claims to have reached enlightenment, but really hasn’t. It’s not like outsiders can verify their mental state…

      • christiankl says:

        Outsiders can’t verify the subjective experience but experienced mediators can pick up certain signs that correspond to mental states of enlightenment from other experienced mediators.

        But then it’s hard to know what it exactly means when you meet a person who has vibes that you haven’t encountered before.

    • Aapje says:

      @Nancy Lebovitz

      Calling it fraud assumes that the guru doesn’t believe in it himself. People commonly convince themselves of beliefs that benefit themselves, claiming that it benefits others.

      There was a recent newspaper story about an Australian guru who practices in my country, who has/had sex with his female pupils as part of tantra workshops & such. He was extremely blunt and careful about it though, requiring his pupils to sign a contract where they agree to sex, making them do an STD-test and explaining that they will have sex with him in a meeting, where he records their agreement.

      • Watchman says:

        That’s hardly a scandal unless you’re a tabloid editor. Teacher who tells students that a condition of his teaching them is that they have sex then having sex with his students is probably less scandalous than him not having sex with them after all…

  17. summerstay says:

    It’s interesting that you frame cheating as centered around sexual desire. It seems to me to be more about honesty or betrayal. You could ask instead, with as much justification, whether enlightenment reduces honesty or increases the propensity to betray those close to you.

    • David Shaffer says:

      The framing seems to be because enlightenment supposedly removes desires. The elimination of sexual desire is hardly the only reason one wouldn’t cheat, and liking honestly/disliking betrayal is another very good reason not to do so. However, if someone who supposedly doesn’t have desire cheats, the relevant confusion is “you (ostensibly) have no desire, yet you did a bad thing motivated by desire!”, not “you have no desire, yet are not honest!” While enlightenment is sometimes touted as improving moral character (indeed some people claim you need perfect moral character to be enlightened), the focus is always on the elimination of suffering through the elimination of desire.

      Thus, Culadasa either lost all desires, including the desire for the well-being of his wife and is now acting at random (literal Chaotic Evil, or at least a very dangerous Chaotic Neutral), or he isn’t actually enlightened, or enlightenment is bullshit. The first seems unlikely-odds are a man truly acting at random wouldn’t match a man acting according to ordinary desires so neatly. Between the prior against enlightenment and the fact the this is apparently a somewhat common thing among the enlightened, my guess is that it’s bullshit.

      “Elimination of desire” not working doesn’t mean that there’s nothing there. The elimination of internal monologue/separation of suffering from pain/feeling of being one with everything effects that are often claimed by meditators sound rather more plausible. Moreover, Scott has reported encountering patients who had mystical experiences while meditating despite not believing in, wanting or expecting those experiences. It seems likely that there’s a genuine alteration of brain function going on, but not one that removes desire.

      On a related note, is it really a good idea for the rationalist community to have such a focus on Buddhism and mysticism generally? The temptation is fairly clear-we seek ways to improve our minds, so a tradition based on doing exactly that is going to be appealing. But do we actually have good reason to even promote Buddhism to consideration, let alone give it the attention and respect it receives in rationalist circles?

      Scott of course has an interest in mysticism as such, writing beautifully about things like Kabbalah that we know don’t actually work (and that he explains why they don’t work). But Buddhism draws an interest among rationalists not merely as a source of entertainment but of potential self-improvement. Is there actually a good reason why?

  18. Ashley Yakeley says:

    Perhaps this kind of practice eliminates unhelpful attachments and obsessions, rather than desires? Some of those unhelpful attachments might be attachments to social rules, for example.

    What’s left is the Inner Light Of… something. Your true desires, some of which are compassionate, some of which are sexual, and so forth. If Culadasa found himself regretting his sexual experiences as meaningless, that’s a sign that he hasn’t let go of an unhelpful attachment. But if he found buying sex to be a totally awesome addition to his overall life, I would be willing to grant that Culadasa might still be “enlightened”.

  19. Frederic Mari says:

    [Life] isn’t a pit. [Life] is [the Maslow Pyramid]. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some are given a chance to climb, they cling to the realm or the gods or love. Only the Pyramid is real. The climb is all there is.

    All thanks to Littlefinger, a very enlightened dude.

    • J Mann says:

      That’s a great quote, but it’s show only, right? Book Littlefinger is such a pig that it’s hard to imagine him coming up with a gem like that.

        • Kindly says:

          I would not trust Quora in general and the answer you linked to seems particularly unconvincing.

          I have electronic versions of all five books and searched them for the words “chaos” and “ladder” and did not find anything resembling this speech.

      • Frederic Mari says:

        I dunno. I stopped reading around book 2 or 3 as the pacing gets all mushed up.

        But, yes, I love this quote and, IMHO, it’s a very good allegory/image. I like the adjustment I made b/c not everyone is as ambitious as Littlefinger and I find the Maslow Pyramid to really be the sum total of all human experience, regardless of cultural differences i.e. to me, it sounds like a genuine distillation of all human condition, including Littlefinger’s but not limited to it.

    • albatross11 says:

      The “chaos is a ladder” speech is truly beautiful as a summary of Littlefinger’s character.

  20. Faza (TCM) says:

    I couldn’t say whether enlightenment is compatible with sex scandals or not – not being enlightened myself – but it certainly seems that Buddhism is incompatible with sex scandals.

    Buddhism comes in many flavours, but it appears that the Five Precepts (Eight, in the case of monastics) are pretty much universal to all schools – much like the Ten Commandments are universal to all Christian churches. Let’s take a look at Precept 3, per Theravāda tradition:

    “I undertake the training-precept to abstain from misconduct concerning sense-pleasures.”

    or, how about a Chinese reading:

    As all Buddhas refrained from sexual misconduct until the end of their lives, so I too will refrain from sexual misconduct until the end of my life.

    Clearly, if you’ve found yourself embroiled in a sex scandal, this precept has not been kept.

    It should be noted that this precept, as stated, applies to lay Buddhists. In the case of monastics (monks and nuns) the prohibition is more stringent and requires a vow of celibacy. Again, I understand this is true for the majority of Buddhist traditions and am not about to speculate on why it isn’t for the exceptions, such as the Tibetan Gelug school (represented by the 14th Dalai Lama).

    What would the Buddha have to say of the people mentioned here? We can only guess, but Wikipedia has this – in my opinion, appropriate – quote from the scriptures:

    Worthless man, [sexual intercourse] is unseemly, out of line, unsuitable, and unworthy of a contemplative; improper and not to be done… Haven’t I taught the Dhamma in many ways for the sake of dispassion and not for passion; for unfettering and not for fettering; for freedom from clinging and not for clinging? Yet here, while I have taught the Dhamma for dispassion, you set your heart on passion; while I have taught the Dhamma for unfettering, you set your heart on being fettered; while I have taught the Dhamma for freedom from clinging, you set your heart on clinging.

    Worthless man, haven’t I taught the Dhamma in many ways for the fading of passion, the sobering of intoxication, the subduing of thirst, the destruction of attachment, the severing of the round, the ending of craving, dispassion, cessation, unbinding? Haven’t I in many ways advocated abandoning sensual pleasures, comprehending sensual perceptions, subduing sensual thirst, destroying sensual thoughts, calming sensual fevers? Worthless man, it would be better that your penis be stuck into the mouth of a poisonous snake than into a woman’s vagina. It would be better that your penis be stuck into the mouth of a black viper than into a woman’s vagina. It would be better that your penis be stuck into a pit of burning embers, blazing and glowing, than into a woman’s vagina. Why is that? For that reason you would undergo death or death-like suffering, but you would not on that account, at the break-up of the body, after death, fall into deprivation, the bad destination, the abyss, hell…

    Worthless man, this neither inspires faith in the faithless nor increases the faithful. Rather, it inspires lack of faith in the faithless and wavering in some of the faithful.

    • janrandom says:

      > Haven’t I taught the Dhamma in many ways for the sake of dispassion and not for passion; for unfettering and not for fettering; for freedom from clinging and not for clinging?

      Taken to its logical conclusion this could be taken to mean unfettering from the rules of Buddhism though…

      • NoRandomWalk says:

        The rules of buddhism are things that, if you practice, you will be more likely to attain enlightenment. Not things that should be done because they are moral goods based on some kind of consequential framework.

        When I asked a monk what creatures buddhism thinks is conscious, if we should ‘be nice to rocks’, etc. he basically said that you’re nice to conscious beings because of the state of mind it puts you in, and that if being nice to rocks has a similar effect, then by all means ‘be nice to rocks.’ I didn’t like that, in the sense of that not being the perspective of my ideal philosophy – it might be the objectively correct approach if the goal is to attain enlightenment.

        Maybe relevant excerpt from Ingram’s book:

        Another quick digression here: there is this odd idea that somehow a lack of effort is a good thing, or that it is bad to want to get enlightened. This is completely absurd and has paralyzed the practice of far too many. I believe this has come from an extremely confused misunderstanding of Zen or the Bodhisattva Vow. No one ever got enlightened without effort. This never happened and never will happen. Anyone who has really gotten into Zen or Mahayana teachings will know firsthand that they both require a tremendous amount of effort just like every other spiritual path. As one of my teacher’s teachers put it, “In the end, you must give up even the desire for enlightenment, but
        not too soon!” Sutta #131 in The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha is called “One Fortunate Attachment,” and in it the Buddha clearly states that making effort to realize the truth of your experience is an extremely good idea.

      • Faza (TCM) says:

        Not really, no.

        It is my understanding that terms such as “passion”, “fettering”, “clinging” as used in Buddhist scripture should be taken as terms of art. When the Buddha speaks of “fettering” and “unfettering” here, he understands them as meaning what his doctrine says they mean, regardless of what other meanings they may have in other contexts and to other people. This isn’t to say these other meanings aren’t valid in their domain, just that they aren’t useful for understanding the Buddha’s teachings.

        Sometimes I think the Buddha would have felt right at home on SSC.

        Regardless, the other reason why we should be careful with drawing such conclusions is that the Five Precepts aren’t rules, but a practice – as is all Buddhism, to the best of my understanding. You don’t keep the precepts “because the Buddha said so”, but rather because that’s what it takes to reach your goal (enlightenment).

        Pretty much the closest we could get to “unfettering from the rules of Buddhism” is by understanding it to mean that the enlightened being has no need for rules, because their life is an unconscious embodiment of them. A fully accomplished practitioner wouldn’t be thinking “the Buddha told me not to have sex with my students” – the very idea of having sex with his students would be alien to him. He wouldn’t be thinking in terms of precepts, he would be the precepts.

        This is how I understand “Kill the Buddha. Burn the scriptures.”

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      So monogamy isn’t significantly better than sex with students?

      • Faza (TCM) says:

        No, it’s obviously better.

        As mentioned, Buddhism distinguishes between the lay practitioner (householder) and the monastic. Being a Buddhist monk is a superior path than being a householder, but even the householder can come closer to enlightenment by following the Buddha’s teachings in his or her everyday life than by not doing so.

        Family life is part of being a householder. Indeed, it is one of the reasons why one might choose to remain a householder. The Buddha’s approach seems to have been that if someone isn’t ready to give up certain secular concerns and become a fully ordained monk, it’s better to offer them guidance on right living as a householder, so that when they are ready, they’ll be that much further ahead on the path.

        A lay practitioner in a monogamous marriage is keeping the third precept. The sexual activity they engage in with their spouse isn’t misconduct – it is a part of the role of the householder.

        Not so in the case of a teacher having sex with his students. The teacher is – almost certainly – a monk and has taken the stricter vows. Moreover, the students themselves are either monks already or should be preparing for an eventual renunciation – even if they choose to live as lay practitioners for the time being (renunciation should always be under consideration, because it is the superior practice). There is nothing proper about sex between a teacher and a student; more so, if either of them took a vow of celibacy as is expected in most traditions.

        Plus, if nothing else:

        This neither inspires faith in the faithless nor increases the faithful. Rather, it inspires lack of faith in the faithless and wavering in some of the faithful.

        Which is itself a sufficient reason not to.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          Yes, but note that the quote from wikipedia is actually about marital sex.

          • Faza (TCM) says:

            It is about sex involving a monk who took vows of celibacy.

            The monk was married and the sex he had was with his wife, but prior to that – in choosing to become a monk – he renounced his previous life as a householder (much like the Buddha, as it happens).

            The deed was blameworthy because it went against his oath and against the Buddha’s teachings. It would not have been if the man had never become a monk in the first place.

            It may have been even more blameworthy if the woman wasn’t his (former) wife, but the root of the issue was that he had any sex at all.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            And yet the quote is almost entirely about sex, very little about vows.

  21. Quixote says:

    Any discussion of subgroup rates needs to have a discussion of base rates. This is like, one of the core rules for real and serious discussion.

    Neglecting base rates is something that wouldn’t have happened during golden age SSC.

  22. lightrook says:

    I’m not a Buddhist, but I was always taught that it’s one thing to attain enlightenment, and another thing entirely to stay there.

  23. Robert Jones says:

    I’m afraid this does read to me a bit like worrying about why someone acted contrary to their horoscope. It could possibly be explained by, say, the influence of an undiscovered astronomical body, but that’s rather skipping over the obvious explanation.

    I’m puzzled by the fourth paragraph in particular. I find it easy to say that none of these people achieved enlightenment. I don’t think anybody has ever achieved enlightenment, if by that is meant an altered state of consciousness which is in some sense more attuned to reality. Did I miss a post where some prima facie motivation for believing enlightenment to be a meaningful state was presented?

    I don’t think we even need to invoke Algernon’s Law here: the shift in conscious state achieved by drugs or meditation is equivalent to pressing buttons at random. Meditation was developed by people who didn’t have any knowledge of neuroscience. Whether or not you think that human cognition can be improved at all, it’s certainly not likely to be improved by a random change.

    ETA I suspect part of the difficulty here may be the continuing confusion about consciousness. Once one recognises that consciousness is an illusion, a shift in conscious state is a shift in the illusion. There’s no difficulty in accepting that such shifts might happen. On the contrary, the difficulty is explaining why the illusion of consciousness is ordinarily so persistant. However, there’s no reason to think that a shift in the illusion would have any effect on reality.

    • Radu Floricica says:

      I don’t think anybody has ever achieved enlightenment, if by that is meant an altered state of consciousness which is in some sense more attuned to reality.

      I do it every day. First thing I do when I wake up, I go into the kitchen and make myself a nice shot of espresso with a bit of milk. It literally alters my state of consciousness and makes me a lot more attuned to reality. In the very practical sense that it significantly decreases the chance to bump into things.

      In my experience, meditation works, i.e it is useful. I didn’t do double blinded studies (mostly because I have a day job – I was actually tempted to try) but what little I did to test it worked. I unblindedly compared it favorably with small quantities of modafinil (~25mg). I also recently found that my desire/need to meditate disappeared when I stopped using social media – this wasn’t planned or expected in any way, and suggests a real effect (or at least cause).

      Now, enlightenment is a different thing. It makes higher claims, and also much fuzzier ones. So… I can’t really comment on it, mostly because it’s too fuzzy to comment on.

      Meditation was developed by people who didn’t have any knowledge of neuroscience. Whether or not you think that human cognition can be improved at all, it’s certainly not likely to be improved by a random change.

      I don’t claim it to have an effect on cognition (others might. I’d be skeptical if they did). But blacksmithing was developed by people with no knowledge of chemistry. Lots of things got developed by trial and error, including some where the thing to optimize is highly subjective.

  24. cactus head says:

    Wasn’t there a guy, who was an enlightened being, who about a year ago was commenting all over a particular SSC post about some blockchain dating site called Luna? We could just ask him.

  25. Bugmaster says:

    One simple explanation is that “enlightenment” is just a really awesome warm fuzzy feeling in your head that has little to do with any practical concerns — including morality, rationality, sex, or general desire (other than desire for more enlightenment, perhaps).

  26. rahien.din says:

    Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.

    After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.

  27. skaladom says:

    Ex-student of one of these mega gurus here. I think many things converge here.

    For one, the public’s expectations of morality on a spiritual teacher are subject to a particularly vicious judgmental streak. Not everything that the public is willing to condemn was necessarily unwholesome on the ground. Nowadays a guru will get flak for sleeping with a student, but in my view it really depends on the situation – if it’s a fairly mature relationship with no bullshit on either side, and no-one is being deceived, which does happen, I’d say it’s the public that having unrealistic expectations.

    OTOH, there are plenty of famous gurus who allow decidedly insane things to develop around them, who treat people as objects and who encourage personality cults and emotional dependency. As people has already said, these are people with very strong charisma, who work hard at becoming famous in their chosen line of work. My best guess is that this kind of motivation allows them to reach some milestones of spiritual development, some fairly refined states of mind at least on an intermittent basis, but it might not be compatible with an actual path that leads to complete enlightenment. It’s quite a theme in many traditional spiritual traditions that the real work starts after your initial satori or awakening, and it wouldn’t be too surprising that building a mega guru persona would interfere with that.

    As others have said too, it’s useful to look at what liberation or enlightenment actually does to one. Contrary to popular views, it does not stop motivations (i.e wishes, positive and negative) from appearing in awareness – that would turn the liberated person into a potato! It seems that the bit that gets the most weakened, or completely disconnected, is the emotional relationship to one’s sense of self. The rest of us are constantly watchful for what everything will do to “me”, whereas the spiritually liberated seem be completely relaxed about that. That does not mean they lose basic common sense (avoiding a lamppost while walking, etc.). This accounts for their consistently higher well-being (no emotional trigger for worries) and peace (absence of compulsive worrying thoughts).

    So far, this sounds pretty close to what Scott calls the minimalistic account of enlightenment. Given that it has until recently been the mostly province of religious systems, the durable shift in conscious experience that is enlightenment is objectively quite poorly understood. It’s clear that there is something there, and at least in some cases it’s clearly a very desirable state. But it’s not yet very clear what range of variation there is (does you get somewhere else by following Theravada, Vajrayana, Zen, Sufism, Advaita Vedanta…?), what kinds of complete or partial failure cases can arise, what can be done about them…

  28. Godfree Roberts says:

    Enlightenment has nothing whatever to do with sexual behavior.

    The Tibetan Mahayana tradition is explicit about this.

    Only dried up Hinayanans and Victorian Christians, neither of which has a tradition of radical realization, complain about sex being part of spirituality.

    Indeed, it is perfectly legitimate for a perfectly enlightened teacher to initiate his female students. It’s a great deal more effective and much quicker than yapping about it.

    But people like Chogyam Trungpa were really scholars, not tantric masters, as any of his consorts will tell you.

    There’s a great deal of bs about sex and a great deal more about enlightenment and only those who have mastered both are qualified to speak on the subject. They, alas, can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

  29. Lancelot Gobbo says:

    It’s not just the leaders who exploit their followers. In my part of rural Canada there is a large camp dedicated to retreats and courses for followers of a certain Buddhist sect. It became a standing joke that when one of their visitors called to make an appointment at my office it would be for an STD, and I can’t remember any office visit from them for any other purpose. Those boys and girls had a lot going on.

  30. onyomi says:

    I’ll go ahead and take this opportunity to advertise for my favorite spiritual guru, because he made what I think was a very wise choice, given how things tend to go for many gurus: remain anonymous.

    He’s published very detailed info online and in book form. He’s also given some radio interviews, but so far as I know, he’s still not gone public at all. One may also glean from what he says of his life story that he’s been following various meditation movements and gurus since the 70s or earlier and so has surely seen how destructive it easily ends up becoming, for the followers, and arguably also for the guru, when the guru, intentionally or intentionally, makes it about himself, which it can be hard to avoid doing, because people really, really want spiritual guidance and will become slavishly devoted to anyone who seems to be able to offer it.

    His way of describing enlightenment, btw, is much more of a process than a state or destination. This is quite right based on my own experience of practicing such things.

    Re. the idea of meditation melting away social conditioning and the like, I think a better way to put it would be that it makes things more transparent or clear, giving one greater freedom to chose how to behave. I guess this could sometimes result in rejection of conventional behaviors, but I think it’s very unlikely to result in more destructive or harmful behavior, all else equal. Which is not to say that very seasoned meditators don’t make bad decisions, only that it’s probably usually in spite of being a seasoned meditator, not because of.

    • albatross11 says:

      I know very little of Buddhism, but I am very sure that anything close to having people worship you is unbelievably corrosive to your soul. This happens to famous, rich, and powerful people all the time, and it makes them into much worse people.

    • JPNunez says:

      What are the chances this is a guru that got hit by a sexual scandal and then decided to restart as an anonymous guru?

      • onyomi says:

        Possible, I guess? But in that case I wouldn’t think he’d do radio interviews or record himself reading his audio books. Too much a chance someone will recognize his voice as that of disgraced guru so-and-so?

    • kenny says:

      This is also the (or one of the) favorite gurus of a friend of mine. He’s not happy with some of yogani’s teachings (e.g. the fixed mantra), was vocal about it on the forums, and even tracked him down and met him in person to discuss his differences.

      But just from listening to my friend describe AYP and the people involved in it or with it, it’s still mostly about him, ‘yogani’ – if in no other way than as being THE spiritual guide.

      Given how common a failure mode it is to elevate authorities beyond the limits of their expertise, everyone involved would be wise to heed the motto of The Royal Society: “on the word of no one”.

  31. joshuatfox says:

    Perhaps this explanation (that I am not fully convinced of): Censorious traditional Christian values keep most — not all, to be sure! — leaders in check. But Western Buddhism is a part of progressive society; indeed, it is the religious of progressives, if they have one. So, surrounded by progressive values of sexual freedom, these leaders are not kept in check.

    • Ozy Frantz says:

      I feel like in order for this comment to make sense the censorious traditional Christian values should ideally have resulted in no Catholic sexual abuse crisis. If we wanted to be really ambitious, there would also be none of this, but I understand that sexual ethics is hard and thus I would settle for every Catholic priest having gay sex once a day and twice on Sundays as long as none of them do it with kids.

    • onyomi says:

      There are many cases within India, China, and probably elsewhere, of guru sex scandals. In Chinese fiction from several hundred years ago, if not earlier, there are jokes about Buddhist monks who don’t exactly live up to their vows. To the extent you find a culture with a strong expectation of celibacy on the part of holy men and no sex scandals I’d guess it’s more likely that the culture itself has antibodies against revealing holy men’s sex scandals, not that sex isn’t actually happening.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        Miroku the horny Buddhist monk from Inuyasha is an old trope that the Japanese got from China.

  32. joshuatfox says:

    And don’t forget Issan Dorsey (documented in the biography Street Zen). His extremely promiscuous homosexual behavior resulted in the AIDS that killed him. This is behavior was not abuse of power, it is yet another example of not transcending destructive desires.

  33. NoRandomWalk says:

    After Scott reviewed Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, I got somewhat into meditation, and have now gone on silent meditation retreat.

    A couple of things are extremely clear to me now, for reasons that I am not able to persuasively articulate to a 3rd party so take this with whatever grain of salt you chunk at strangers on the internet who claim to know stuff you can’t understand.

    Buddhism, if properly practiced in the original tradition, leads very predictably to a sequence of changes in mental states that end in enlightenment, which is effectively a state of maximal calm and relaxed priors.
    If you are enlightened you don’t care about reality or outcome variables. If you see an empty bowl it is just as interesting to you as if it had water in it, and you are just as interested in that as everything else. You have let go of beliefs and experiential intuitions like ‘space or time is finite.’

    Now, it’s not technically true that an enlightened cannot have desires in the unconscious sense of ‘consciously fully amoral and just shambling around doing whatever, including sex,’ but it’s vanishingly unlikely.
    Let me explain.

    There are two ways to become enlightened.
    1. You enter progressively deep concentration states, the most important of which are comprised of sensations that have nothing to do with the physical world at all (i.e. you stop feeling any sensations from outside world, and for a pre-determined time investigate what it’s like to let go of the prior that space is finite). If you have basically any desires whatsoever, you will be too distracted to enter this mental states. Anyone who becomes enlightened through this path no longer has any desires. They had to let go of them earlier.
    2. You do ‘mindfulness’ meditation where you just observe your sensations and reflect on them. It’s technically possible to become enlightened without doing any concentration meditation, but it’s unusual. However, the act of this reflection makes the desires seem less interesting in a way that should very predictably lessen them significantly.

    Now, I have been told by a teacher I trust that according to teachers they trust only someone who’s enlightened can tell if someone’s enlightened (and also people who are enlightened are usually not open about it; the most senior monk at the temple is very famous in the west because he’s written remarkably lucid books in english about meditation but he evades any explicit question about ‘how enlightened’ is he). Buddhism is a progression of mental states, and after you advance to enough of them you start to believe the claimed higher states aren’t nonsense (because they were so so right about the first ones), so I believe this claim. Also everyone agrees on most of the details of the mental states before and after they start looking into Buddhism, and I think it’s unlikely that everything is true except for the stuff after the awakening (‘not even close to enlightenment, but the point where if you got there I would just assume you don’t have any desires at that point, most people don’t ever get there’).

    I am very sure that if anyone is involved in a sex scandal after being certified enlightened they are not enlightened, and were just faking it.

    I am reasonably confident that that means whoever certified them wasn’t enlightened either. I have no knowledge about how certification happens.

    • JohnBuridan says:

      If enlightenment relaxes one’s priors, how can one make a sound judgement about another person’s enlightenment? That particular claim seems like a Sunday School teaching, i.e. one that is not literally true, but shared widely because it is a nicely fitting idea, much preferred to saying “we don’t have any idea what angels are how to tell who is enlightened.”

      • NoRandomWalk says:

        Because the experience of having highly relaxed priors is extremely similar across all people, I would assume it’s the same for maximally relaxed priors.
        That’s why people who start on the path and hear about these fantastical ‘jhana’ concentration meditative states (or even the simpler ideas like the three characteristics) report with high consistency ‘your description is a valid way to describe what i felt’.

        Because when you meditate to enlightenment you don’t think in words (you can’t, thinking in words is an action, and in meditation you only observe), it’s very difficult to translate your experiences into words because language wasn’t developed to describe these types of experiences. I think that’s why two enlightened people might have difficulty confirming the other is enlightened, because even though they feel the same thing it’s really hard to figure out if the different words they use to describe it point to it.

        • kenny says:

          This just reads like typical bullshit woo. What are “maximally relaxed priors” exactly, or even roughly? I can’t translate that as anything other than an ‘ideal philosophy student of perfect emptiness’, which is impossible.

          I’m also unclear how thinking in words is an action whereas observation is not. Minds are physical entities. Everything they do is an ‘action’. It’s not possible to ‘observe’ with “maximally relaxed priors” unless maybe the maximum relaxation is for a specific mind, and even then the mind is doing something.

          I think the best explanation is that enlightenment is roughly the same kind of experience as using psychedelics – the feeling of perfect understanding and absolute truth is just that, a feeling, and it’s unreliable because the typically active cognitive skepticism mind’s perform is inert or disabled during the experience.

  34. b_jonas says:

    Do we at least know if these people committed scandalous after they became enlightened?

  35. Garrett says:

    In my limited experience with something similar-but-different, it becomes very easy to project the tools learned as a part of enlightenment onto others. That is, “my wife is enlightened and someone enlightened wouldn’t suffer from their husband sleeping with prostitutes, therefore me sleeping with prostitutes will cause no suffering”. And though possibly true in the abstract, the motivated reasoning involved probably doesn’t help.

  36. viVI_IViv says:

    Scott, you are treating enlightenment as it was some sort of level up in a video game. It is not. It’s a social convention, a credential even at times, as evidenced by the the governing bodies that used to issue enlightenment certificates.

    It’s like the Christian notion of sainthood. Certainly you can compile a huge list of saints involved in all kinds of questionable behaviors.

    Maybe Asians from patriarchal cultures do badly when transplanted to the more sexually liberal West (…but Culadasa was white and born in the US). Maybe powerful men are naturally tempted to behave badly when surrounded by vulnerable female students (but Culadasa didn’t have sex with his students). Maybe the Mahayana emphasis on how enlightened people transcend ordinary human norms causes enlightened people to, uh, transcend ordinary human norms (but most of Culadasa’s training was Theravada).

    Maybe promiscuity is just very common but it becomes newsworthy only when it involves some widely recognized spiritual leader. When Joe Sixpack cheats his wife with prostitutes nobody but his wife cares. When JFK, Bill Clinton or Donald Trump cheat their wives with (more or less) prostitutes, people tend to write it off as the sort of thing powerful dominant men do, when a self-appointed holy man does it, however, it’s a scandal.

    • HeelBearCub says:

      Yes, but saints are bullshit maximally unlikely to have true powers of intercession.

      The reason that “enlightenment” appeals to the rationalist crowd is that it theoretically is just the brain doing brain things. But if the claims made on behalf of enlightenment are false, or worse, made unfalsifiable, all of sudden rationalists committed to the idea of enlightenment as self-improvement have a Bayesian problem on their hands.

      • viVI_IViv says:

        Yes, but saints are bullshit maximally unlikely to have true powers of intercession.

        Neither do rationalists, and not for a lack of trying.

        The reason that “enlightenment” appeals to the rationalist crowd is that it theoretically is just the brain doing brain things.

        The brain does brain things also if you chant psalms eight hours a day or live on the top of a column, and so on. Probably also if you regularly go into a sensory deprivation tank.

        The fact that some people found some tricks to induce altered mental states isn’t strong evidence that they have gained any particular insight, and has little to do with the titles reserved to high status leaders of traditional religions.

    • JohnBuridan says:

      Except that Christian saints are (usually!) chosen for having led lives that are worthy of emulation… If you read the histories of all the big name saints, put the hagiography aside, you are not going to find “huge lists of saints involved in all kinds of ‘questionable’ behaviors.” Mostly because in Christianity, if a holy man cheats he is no longer considered holy.

  37. theifin says:

    I don’t think these data points mean anything without comparison to an appropriate reference class. The question should be: are sex scandals more common / less common among Buddhist religious leaders than among leaders of other religions?

    • Zeno of Citium says:

      That’s an interesting reference class – I think it’s useful to look at both scandals among Buddhist religious vs. leaders of other major religions, and vs. the general population where a given Buddhist religious leader lives.
      (I don’t care nearly enough to go find this data, but if someone found it I’d definitely read it).

  38. Hackworth says:

    Seems rather intuitive to me that people who cheat on their wives had their social conditioning dissolved alright.

  39. Alex M says:

    We should start by questioning our priors – in other words, the fundamental assumptions that society has about enlightenment. Popular culture says that enlightenment reduces desire, but popular culture says a lot of dumb, ignorant shit. Once upon a time, popular culture taught us that the world was flat, and obviously it isn’t. So it seems to me very likely that we have a bunch of dumb maladaptive concepts hammered into our heads by popular culture that we need to get rid of, because they make NO LOGICAL SENSE. Think of it this way: “enlightened” people are supposedly better than the rest of us. But if they have no desire, then they would never reproduce. That means that the traits that produce enlightenment are statistically less likely to occur over time as enlightened people die out. So according to popular culture, “enlightened” behavior is all being a better human being while statistically reducing the chance of other good human beings being born. How does THAT make any sort of sense? Seems pretty moronic to me.

    Another example is non-violence. According to popular culture, “enlightened” people are passive and non-aggressive, even in the face of aggression. You know what Darwinian evolution calls people like that? Victims. They end up getting bullied and exploited by anybody who IS aggressive, which makes it hard for their views to get perpetuated. So again, our popular (Western) view of enlightenment is that it is good for enlightened people to act like passive victims.

    I don’t think this is a healthy view of enlightenment. In my view, enlightened people are SUPERIOR to unenlightened people (I mean, that’s the reason people strive to BECOME enlightened, right?), and that means that they are unlikely to let themselves become punching bags for their moral inferiors. We have a few examples of that from religious texts – for example, many Muslims would say that Mohammed was enlightened, and he certainly didn’t let himself get exploited. Dude went on a killing spree against anyone who acted against him, which seems like a perfectly rational way to handle unprovoked aggression. Make a horrible example out of your enemies, and soon enough people stop wanting to be your enemy. So it seems like it’s only our uniquely Western cultural and religious views of enlightenment that align “enlightened” values with “being a passive victim.” There are many other cultural and religious worldviews that allow their prophets to be both sexual and aggressive. Maybe the REASON that Western values are on the decline is because the West irrationally fetishizes anti-evolutionary values. When your value systems conflates “enlightened” (aka morally desirable) behavior with “letting unenlightened people push you around and exploit you” then those value systems quite rationally tend to die out over time.

    Maybe we should revise our view of enlightenment to be more in line with social Darwinism. In other words, enlightened behavior is something that ought to make you more fit rather than less fit from an evolutionary perspective. You will be very cooperative with other cooperative people, but absolutely ruthless in punishing uncooperative defectors who try to exploit your cooperative nature. Thus over many generations, enlightened traits gradually spread pro-social behaviors in society while eliminating anti-social behaviors, eventually leading to a utopia. That sounds like a much better definition of enlightenment to me, and “lack of desire” or “lack of aggression” are orthogonal to those goals. On the contrary, both desire and aggression would beneficial in certain contexts.

    TL;DR: From a rationalist perspective, enlightenment should be willing to brandish a sword.

    • NoRandomWalk says:

      I will assume with low confidence this is parody.

      In case I am wrong (and I apologize) will make a couple points:

      1. Enlightenment is a state of mind that is accessible to basically anyone because of shared brain architecture, not a set of genetic factors that make you ‘more or less’ enlightened, and is achieved by statistically basically no one so there will be almost no evolutionary pressure to guard people against becoming enlightened.
      2. When we discuss enlightenment in this context we are talking about the buddhist tradition. ‘Muhammad’ was certainly not enlightened in that sense. Let’s not use the same word for different things, it makes discourse very difficult.
      3. It’s possible for someone to find a mental state experientially attractive, even if it is not genetically adaptive, and vice versa. For example, plenty of monks take celibacy vows and keep them; and plenty of billionaires choose not to spend their life savings to pay for thousands of surrogates to have their children.
      4. People get started on the path towards enlightenment for many different reasons, some of which are to become ‘better’ for varying definitions of ‘better.’ By the time anyone gets enlightened, if they get there,their motivation to do so is no longer ‘to be more successful/adaptively fit’ regardless of what it was when they started.

      • Alex M says:

        Your assumption is wrong. I believe you probably perceive enlightenment from a different aspect because you are a mistake theorist and I am a conflict theorist. I believe mistake theory is fundamentally wrong from an evolutionary psychology perspective – it is a delusion that people in power tend to support because it allows them to exploit those who believe in it. (Whether they support this delusion consciously or because it allows them to rationalize their unearned privilege is irrelevant.) To me, enlightenment involves breaking free from this mental prison, seeing the truth about how the world operates, and refusing to let yourself be exploited by the false belief that those in power are operating to benefit you rather than themselves.

        I am insulted by your assumption that this is parody. Just because you aspire to be a helpless victim doesn’t mean the rest of us should, and if you want me to engage with your ideas respectfully then you really ought to change your attitude. Rationalists are supposedly smart people, so you had to know that this would be insulting, but you chose to slip this insult under the radar anyway. If you genuinely want to act “enlightened” then we can start with getting rid of our pretenses. For example, you could be honest about the fact that calling my ideas “parody” is an attempt to insult me in a way that falls under the threshold for SSC mod intervention, and I can be honest about the fact that I feel contempt towards you for trying to avoid a ban by slipping personal insults into the dialogue in such an uninspired and unintelligent way. Wouldn’t it be refreshing for us to both have this level of self-awareness and honesty with ourselves?

        I do accept your apology, and I apologize for insulting you as well. Now we each got in one insult and one apology, so I guess we’re even. 😉

        • NoRandomWalk says:

          I claim that I asked ‘is this parody’ not because I wanted to insult you in a guidelines-acceptable way but because I found it genuinely funny and good parody (if it was intended as such). Now that you’ve clarified you’re serious I’ll believe that.

          Let’s back up a step.
          You write

          To me, enlightenment involves breaking free from this mental prison, seeing the truth about how the world operates, and refusing to let yourself be exploited by the false belief that those in power are operating to benefit you rather than themselves.

          Can we agree that the ‘enlightenment’ scott (and I) is talking about is something basically unrelated, and that we both recognize this?

          And if this is the case then maybe we should use different words for them if we’re going to have a conversation?

          • Alex M says:

            That’s correct. My point in that the definition of “Enlightenment” that you and Scott both use is wrong and logically inconsistent. It’s absolutely unsurprising that enlightened people fail to live up (or down, in my opinion) to that standard, because it’s not a standard that any exemplary person should be striving for.

            I would prefer to refer to your definition of enlightenment as “martyrdom,” and there is absolutely nothing enlightened about it. When you rephrase the question more appropriately – when you ask why so many exemplary (or wannabe exemplary) people fail to strive for martyrdom – then the answer becomes self-evident.

            To me, enlightenment is living according to a set of principles that are logically and internally consistent with the principles of evolutionary adaptation, such as this.


            Unlike my view of enlightenment, the definition of enlightenment that you and Scott use is not logically and internally consistent with evolutionary adaptation and seems very self-defeating in my opinion. That’s because my version of enlightenment is game-theory optimal while yours is not.

          • NoRandomWalk says:

            I’m confused.
            Let’s call the two things
            “enlightenment(b)” and “enlightenment(a)”
            (b for buddha, a for alex).

            I’m claiming that the buddha was enlightened(b) and that if you go deep enough in buddhist practice you might become enlightened(b), and that enlightened(b) is the natural path of proper buddhist practice, and that people who practice buddhist meditation in the style of the buddha who claim to be “enlightened” are claiming to be enlightened(b).

            Then you come along and say “enlightened(b) is not a standard that people should be striving for! My ideal standard is unrelated thing enlightened(a)!”.
            I’m not sure how that statement is relevant or what I’m supposed to do with it.

            Can you clarify which of my claims you disagree with, or otherwise help me understand the confusion?

            Maybe you think people who are enlightened(b) are not moral, and you think the reason we are surprised enlightened(b) people sleep around is because ‘good people don’t sleep around’ and ‘enlightened(b) people are good people’. But that’s not why we think enlightened(b) people are unlikely to sleep around and think ‘enlightened(b)-claiming people sleeping around requires explanation’. We think enlightened(b) people wouldn’t want to sleep around because part of the path towards enlightenment(b) involves letting go of physical desires.

          • Alex M says:

            Your last paragraph comes closest to understanding my perspective. I think enlightenment(b) is inherently self-contradictory, and the practitioners of enlightenment(b) are not good people. This is not to say that they are bad people either; they are simply brainwashed thoroughly enough by cultural tropes of good and evil that they exist in a state of complete delusion about their own true natures.

            Delusionary beliefs are hard to live up to because they are inherently inconsistent with reality, which is why it takes constant effort to live according to those moral codes. Therefore it is totally unsurprising that the false prophets of enlightenment(b) stray from the path that they themselves advocate. Enlightenment(b) is inherently self-destructive, so it is very difficult to follow its tenets. True enlightenment – in other words, enlightenment(a) – is the easiest thing in the word to live up to, because it is a more accurate perspective and therefore there are no double standards or false beliefs that need to be rationalized away through faith and self-delusion. It takes zero effort to live up to the principles of enlightenment(a) because it is a more accurate worldview and therefore there is less cognitive dissonance involved in maintaining those beliefs. Enlightenment(a) comes naturally, whereas enlightenment(b) does not.

          • NoRandomWalk says:

            Ah! I see where we disagree then, I think.

            People who become enlightened(b) find it effortless to continue to be enlightened(b).
            You could call the process of reaching enlightened(b) as permanent self-modification (that comes as a natural side effect of meditation in the buddha tradition) so that you have lessened and eventual no desires (physical or otherwise).

            Because you think this self-modification is ‘contrary to nature and difficult to maintain,’ you conclude that those who claim to be enlightened(b) have ‘returned to natural form because it’s hard not to’ and that we shouldn’t expect anything else.

            Because I think it’s an extremely stable mental state at enlightenment that is difficult to get to (and becomes progressively more stable at progressive stages of meditation ability), I think that people who claim are enlightened(b) who are part of sex scandals are not actually enlightened(b).

            I’m not sure how to convince you that my framework is correct. I think it becomes intuitively clear/plausible as you spend more time meditating in the buddhist tradition.

          • Alex M says:

            People who become enlightened(b) find it effortless to continue to be enlightened(b).
            You could call the process of reaching enlightened(b) as permanent self-modification (that comes as a natural side effect of meditation in the buddha tradition) so that you have lessened and eventual no desires (physical or otherwise).

            This is the part where you’re wrong. People in this state only achieve their false “enlightenment” because of their material privilege. They exist outside of the state of nature, due to the fact that laws are enforced by aggressive people like me. It is very easy to practice tolerance, unattachment, and pacifism when you are not at risk of being kidnapped and tortured to death for a ransom thanks to the efforts of police and military forces (who most certainly do not practice the detached ideals that you proscribe). When you put these “enlightened” teachers in a war-torn lawless state where their principles will get them killed, they very quickly either die or change their principles (with extremely rare exceptions, like Mother Teresa). This represents a very significant failure point in your philosophical view of “enlightenment.” If your “enlightened” philosophy can only thrive in the secure and peaceful conditions created by a rival philosophical viewpoint, then your philosophy is not collaborative – it is parasitic. You exploit other people to do the dirty work that needs to be done to keep society functional while you get to keep your hands clean and preach sanctimoniously at them.

            This is what makes enlightenment(b) a false and worthless state. If you can only attain enlightenment(b) thanks to the efforts of decidedly unenlightened(b) law enforcement who protect your rights, then you are a hypocrite who deserves to be condemned for said hypocrisy. It’s kind of like those “limousine liberals” who preach for open border immigration while they themselves live in gated communities where they are insulated from the increased crime rates caused by their own open border policies.

            My enlightenment – enlightenment(a) – is superior to yours because it is internally consistent. It can be equally beneficial whether it is adopted by people in prosperous civilizations, or people in war-torn communities. People in war-torn communities who adopt your version of enlightenment quickly die off. In other words, enlightenment(b) can only exist in areas civilized enough that you have the privilege of avoiding the harsh realities of life, and because enlightenment(b) fails to punish defectors, it gradually destroys the societies that it takes root in, because by tolerating defector behavior, it allows defectors to multiply. Enlightenment(b) is parasitic – there is simply no other way to describe it.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      As I understand it, the idea in India is to pursue enlightenment after you’ve been a householder, so enlightenment isn’t so anti-evolutionary as all that.

  40. aristides says:

    I would assume many Enlightened Buddhists get involved in sex scandals for similar reasons many clergy get involved in sex scandals. I’m honestly not sure what that cause is, but I’ll guess human failure and giving men too much power. Possible also that Positions with power attract people that want to abuse power.

  41. Gabriel Conroy says:

    My hypothesis:

    Perhaps “enlightenment” is like being “saved” in Christian tradition. The idea is that you are somehow granted a state of grace and that grace works through you your entire life. You are slowly perfected, yet never perfect. Therefore, you make mistakes along the way. You may backslide. And while you can/might turn away completely and become an apostate, it’s also possible that each mistake/instance of backsliding introduces you to further opportunities for grace.

    Necessary caveats: I know a little about Buddhism, but not much. I have some personal experience with the Christian tradition, but there are many Christian traditions and the following are all possible: 1) I’m inadvertently misrepresenting/misunderstanding those traditions; 2) my understanding is peculiar to the specific traditions I have been involved with (Roman Catholicism and protestant evangelicalism); 3) each of those traditions probably have sub-traditions and perhaps my narrow experience is even more narrow; 4) the fact that I’m (mostly) an agnostic probably compels me to misunderstand or misrepresent the Christian tradition.

  42. Zeno of Citium says:

    So, given this, how does The Mind Illuminated hold up if you’re pursuing meditation for anxiety reduction and clarity of mind, rather than some concept of enlightenment? Still good, or does this make it a little suspect?

    • NoRandomWalk says:

      I think the early stages of the path towards enlightenment are quite good for anxiety reduction/clarity of mind. You can just get off it if you’re not so far along that your values have changed to the point where you prioritize equanimity above basically everything else.

      Tools that meditation has given me that might be useful:
      1) Be able to turn off any word-thoughts, which is helpful if I’m trying to fall asleep but there’s an endless stream of words distracting me because I’m worried about something. I continue to feel the worry as a pressure in the head, but it’s really hearing the words that was keeping me alert enough to not fall asleep.
      2) At the margin, find random sensations a lot less distracting (I used to have an intense dislike of being rained on, now I don’t mind it unless tired)
      3) Make distinctions between experiences and the suffering attached to those experiences. If in some contexts the suffering just doesn’t make sense to me logically, there’s a chance it just falls away.

  43. caryatis says:

    I really do not like conflating serious crimes, like rape and child sexual abuse, with consensual sex, by lumping them all under “sex scandals.” We should all do better than that. We should not be shaming people for consensual sex, even if the sex was extramarital—how exactly do we know what was going on in their marriage?

    If you mean “sex crimes” or “sexual offenses,” say that. If you mean “extramarital sex,” say that. Extramarital sex is not a crime and we should not confuse it with things that are.

  44. kalimac says:

    Several of the comments here have been on the lines of “They may be enlightened, but they’re still fallible human beings” or say that enlightenment, like being saved in Christian theology, may include backsliding. That’s pretty impressive backsliding.

    My perspective, as an unbeliever who’s presumably being addressed by some of the apologetic literature of these traditions, is that these revelations of misbehavior suggest that the state of enlightenment doesn’t do what the ads imply that it does, and frankly isn’t worth very much. (In Christian tradition, being saved gets you into heaven, and that is worth something, but with these caveats it becomes a ticket assigned regardless of the recipient’s worthiness for it. I suppose that Buddhist enlightenment is supposed to take you to Nirvana or somewhere – I don’t know much about Buddhism – but, again, if this kind of behavior is part of enlightenment, then Nirvana is either practically inachievable or also not what it’s cracked up to be.)

    Lastly, I do wonder, in a semi-sarcastic way, that if your name is John Yates and you’re working in the US where certain types of names are generally easier to remember or grasp than others, whether you have to change your working name to [copies and pastes] Upasaka Culadasa if you want to be enlightened.

    • NoRandomWalk says:

      Re. ‘what enlightenment gets you in the buddhist tradition,’ I don’t know what all buddhists believe, but the most traditional monks/buddha’s teaching is that basically life is suffering, and enlightenment is the state of not having any suffering, which you get to in part by the process of letting go of any desires. The reward for this is you stop getting reincarnated, and so will have no more suffering.

      It’s an anti-natalist philosophy, in a way I don’t like. When I asked a monk why one might prefer being enlightened over non-existence (it took a few tries to explain, monks think in ways that are different from westerners who think in terms of causal chains, counterfactuals, and naturally apply concepts across domains) he looked at me and said ‘they’re the same’.

    • Bugmaster says:

      Everything I’ve heard about enlightenment so far leads me to believe that it’s basically a mental intoxication technique. As such, it is admittedly pretty impressive, but not exactly super useful. Naturally, if you build a religious tradition focused around getting high all the time, you’d expect to get a bunch of disinhibited high people walking around, doing what disinhibited people do; and, as usual, a charismatic leader could easily take advantage of the situation.

  45. ana53294 says:

    What is the point of enlightenment, if it doesn’t make you good, nor happy?

    I have seen people saying that enlightenment allows to reject suffering, by avoiding attachments. How is it different from stoicism?

    I am also not sure avoiding suffering by avoiding attachments is that desirable. While I may want to get rid of envy, I would want to grieve the people close to me when they die. While it would be har and painful, getting rid of my attachment to my family so I don’t grieve them doesn’t seem desirable.

    • Grek says:

      Buddhist practice involves three steps: a code of conduct, concentration meditation and insight meditation.

      Enlightenment is part of that last step, the thing that happens when you do insight meditation correctly and which provides you with insights whenever you do it. Supposedly, it helps you understand the transient nature of identity, the the lack of a fundamental distinction between self and non-self and how to start and stop particular mental sensations at will. This is regarded as particularly helpful with ‘dukkha’, which doesn’t have an exact translation into English, but gets translated as ‘suffering’ most of the time. Think frustration, angst, outrage, etc. You can also practice dhyana, which is essentially willing yourself to experience a particular sensation for the sake of experiencing it. People tend to go with rapturous pleasure, or with ‘not-experiencing-anything-in-particular-at-all-right-now’.

      Concentration meditation makes you better at staying focused, paying attention to small details and distinguishing between subtly different mental qualia. You do that before insight meditation, because insight meditation requires all of those things to do correctly. It is also occasionally helpful in your every day life.

      The code of conduct is a set of rules designed to promote an environment conducive to meditation. It overlaps with certain standards of healthy living and moral behavior, but only incidentally – you’re not supposed to avoid envy because envy is a sin, you’re supposed to avoid it because you’ll end up dwelling on your envy when you’re supposed to be meditating.

      All of this is often boiled down to “desire is bad, but if you become enlightened you will never give a shit about anything ever again, sign up today” in media.

  46. llamagirl says:

    Came to the comments in hopes somebody had a good answer. Base rate is a promising hypothesis. Is there sufficient data to evaluate it? Base rates of sexual impropriety across the population, compared to that amongst spiritual leaders?

    Besides that, some rambling thoughts:

    As a semi-kinda-maybe-serious Theravada practitioner, I’d agree that mindfulness meditation relaxes priors. By in large, this is a good thing – especially with regard to self-perception (because damn, we tell ourselves ridiculous stories about ourselves). However, this relaxation can be disconcerting. My mother used to say, “be open-minded, but not so much your brain falls out” – it irritated me to hear as a kid, but it sometimes fits now. I’ve trained my brain out of a certain set of judgements – in particular, judging humans of the past or present as evil – and sometimes my mind is sluggish to identify atrocity and bad ideas.

    I’ll cowardly use an example of this type of thinking from a friend who suffers similarly – I was talking about the horrors of dog fighting and she said “well, if the dogs want to fight, we should let them.” I let her know about the inhumane treatment of these dogs and that it is not just a matter of letting naturally aggressive and socially hierarchical creatures do their thing. I’m pretty sure her post-conversation posterior was significantly different than her prior – and, if she ever saw a dog fight, I’d bet her posterior would be “extremely high confidence: dog fighting is unethical.” So what’s the risk?

    I worry about the time required to correct the inevitably large number of such relaxed priors – a couple would be fine, but there are a ton of ’em. In other terms, the result of prior relaxation is the detachment of ourselves from societal moral knowledge. This is good in that society produces “morals” that are cruelty and oppression in disguise. But sometimes, especially in our liberal democracy, society has converged on a legitimately good deontology. We’re taking on an impossibly big task – examining every belief – when we drift away from that shore.

    That being said, our beliefs don’t matter so much as what we do with them. If we’re mindful in the moment where a belief becomes an action, then we have “just in time” mitigation for bad priors. Because of this, I consider mindfulness to be solidly a good thing. But it is totally disconcerting to catch my mind failing to identify obvious atrocity or obvious badness. It’s like hiking a narrow ridgeline heading to a moral peak (to use Sam Harris’ metaphor), but if concentration is lost, one will tumble down to a moral low.

    I don’t know if this is what happens to these gurus-gone-bad. Alternately, perhaps sociopaths are particularly good at appearing enlightened. Perhaps they are actually enlightened – as in, they “see things as they really are” and that the fabric of our existence is truly an amoral one. But it still seems like these sexual abuses would eventually lead to suffering for the perpetrator, and if so, these abuses are precisely a failure to recognize the impermanence of sense pleasures (<- the commonest of common unenlightened human fails). I dunno. All I know is that gurus can be mega narcissistic assholes and that it sullies what should be the good name of Buddhism and meditation.

  47. wittgenwho says:

    The enlightened one are simply staying out of sight.
    Getting to the stage we call enlightenment makes recognition/fame/attention feel empty, so we never hear about real people who get there because they don’t bother to make themselves known. The ones we hear about are promoting themselves at some level, therefore not enlightened. This way of interpreting the data doesn’t eliminate enlightenment as a real thing and it doesn’t require intellectual acrobatics to make excuses for the “representatives” of enlightenment.

    • NoRandomWalk says:

      So, the buddha teaches that once one becomes enlightened and has nothing more to accomplish on one’s own spiritual path before dying (at which point reincarnation cycles, because enlightened) they should help others become enlightened.

      You might argue the ‘most famous’ teachers are probably interested in fame and not enlightened, or you might say the ‘most famous’ teachers are the ones all the other ‘possibly enlightened’ individuals say are enlightened and it’s a hard to fake signal for those far enough along the path. I’m not sure what the ‘correct’ way to think about this, but I don’t think you can just say ‘anyone saying they’re enlightened and is telling me I should listen to them’ is a con artist.

      • wittgenwho says:

        Just to be clear, I never said “con artist;” I wrote “not enlightened.” And I didn’t write it that way just to be polite, but because “con artist” doesn’t describe what I was thinking. But in any case, helping others become enlightened doesn’t require writing books or becoming famous. Also, at a certain stage in the process, my understanding is that you aren’t following dogma or teachers or even slavishly following every word of the buddha. I would just be surprised if the path that emerges for most enlightened people would end up leading them to become famous public persons. But might they be helping other people – sure. I would just guess they would have a preference for doing it quietly. Does that seem like such a stretch?

        • NoRandomWalk says:

          Yeah that makes sense. I’ve seen a very large range of charisma in monks. And yeah I used ‘con artist’ to cover people who believed what they were saying but weren’t actually enlightened, which caused confusion.

          Your perspective makes a lot of sense, and I think is probably true, because I think the most-famous are probably famous because laypeople find them ‘mystical’ and the stuff they say seems ‘wise’ and they are generally charismatic, I just think it’s also possible to become famous because all the practicing buddhists can vaguely recognize one of their own and they all point to the same person and say ‘that person is clearly enlightened you should listen to this person’

          I’m thinking in particular of one sri lankan monk (the only ‘famous possible enlightened person’ i’ve met [but doesn’t say how far along he is on the path if asked directly, it’s considered rude in many traditions]) who is not charismatic at all and is well known because he’s written some of the best books in the field (most clearly communicate insights from meditation in english)

    • noyann says:

      For the one who hasn’t read it yet:

      There’s a great story of Baba Ram Dass back in the day giving a talk about higher levels of consciousness, some of which were achieved through hallucinogens as well as meditation. He noticed an elderly lady in the front row totally tracking everything he was speaking about. Curious, afterwards he approached her and shared that he noticed she seemed to really get what he was expressing. He asked what methods she used or practiced. In a very shy and conspiratorial tone, she moved closer and whispered in his ear, “I knit.”

      (source, better link)

  48. qemqemqem says:

    This might be related to the result that Mindfulness Meditation is linked to lower conscientiousness.

    • RomeoStevens says:

      Likely mediated by the increase in openness which is slightly anti-correlated with conscientiousness in the general population. It does look like the effect on conscientiousness is slight, from the paper. My pet theory is that high openness without some counterbalancing disagreeableness gets you to woo land.

      • Jacob says:

        Interesting! Can you elaborate on that?

        I seem to be more woo-skeptical than many of my friends who are equally Rationalist and open-minded. I used to chalk it up to having a high happiness set point – I don’t need magic/meditation/”facing the trauma of my birth” to deal with suffering. But maybe it’s just my low agreeableness.

  49. Erusian says:

    Buddhism demographically has two distinct populations: certain Asian ethnicities, among whom it looks much like Christianity does: older, poorer, more conservative, etc etc. However, among non-Asian buddhists its disproportionately white, educated, young, wealthy, and female. It also tends towards its more spiritualist and charismatic forms. It also resides in more liberal coastal areas, often areas with much higher than average levels of fitness. I suspect this is the population these scandals grow out of.

    This seems like the perfect recipe for sex scandals to me: fit, young women who are supposed to dissolve social bonds under the guidance of a male charismatic leader seem like easy prey (if the guru is predatory). And even if they aren’t predatory, that seems a natural setup for some degree of mutual attraction. It helps that the taboo against sex or sexual morality in general tends to be heavily de-emphasized or even railed against.

    On top of that, this is a population of women who have been trained to be eagle eyed about gender discrimination and harassment and have access to levers of power to punish the perpetrators. So unlike (say) a rural cult this behavior is going to get called out and punished.

    • Aftagley says:

      . However, among non-Asian buddhists its disproportionately white, educated, young, wealthy, and female. It also tends towards its more spiritualist and charismatic forms. It also resides in more liberal coastal areas, often areas with much higher than average levels of fitness.

      I’ve practiced for a few years now. I haven’t found the sangha to be overwhelmingly young – IMO it’s been a mix. For every millennial there’s at least one older hippy, sometimes more.

      Even more so with wealth, most people I’ve seen have matched the surrounding community pretty well.

      Fitness – again not really.

      Female – yes, but not overwhelmingly 60/40 on average, decreasing to closer to 50/50 once you start talking about the truly committed.

      • Erusian says:

        I said disproportionately wealthy. As in, compared to the baseline. That doesn’t mean they’re necessarily disproportionate to (say) the population of San Francisco, which is disproportionately fit, wealthy, etc.

  50. ioannes says:

    See also Shizen Young’s interview “Why Good Teachers Go Bad” –

  51. Artischoke says:

    I’m a committed meditator with what I think is enough personal experience to get a decent idea of where the path of enlightenement leads. And while I’m a strong believer in the power of meditation unfortunately the scandals dont surprise me. There are a number of reasons for that.

    The first reason is that enlightenment is not a state that you reach and then stay there. Rather enlightenment is best understood as an experience of a certain inner state of being that comes and goes just like any mood comes and goes. Once you experience and recognise the state of enlightenment you have reached the first stage of enlightenment (called stream entry in Theravada). After that you will likely continue to fall in and out of moments of enlightenment for the rest of your life. The rest of the path is “just” to improve the ratio of enlightened moments. There is a famous Zen quote that there is no enlightenment, just enlightened activity.

    While any qualified teacher has reached the first stage of enlightenment, to my knowledge most if not all masters do not reside in states of enlightenment permanently. So an enlightened being might sin in one of their ordinary moments of which there are likely to be many.

    The second reason is a bit controversial in buddhist cycles: While experiences of enlightenment afford you with great perspective and can attune you to the feelings of others (only if you bother to look though), they do not in themselves lead to (even just momentary) moral impeccability in my opinion. You are basically still yourself with all your basic habits and urges and overall personality. Enlightenment gives you an extremely powerful tool to work on yourself – but you still have to do the work. If I remember correctly there were some japanese Zen masters who saw the goal of the path as becoming able to cut a baby in half without hesitation and remorse. So yeah. You can still hurt others while in a state of enlightenment.

    Partly for this reason, non-western buddhism places the strongest emphasis on what you might call general moral development that will be familiar to anyone with a christian background. Especially important is the development of loving kindness. This part is sometimes under-emphasised in western buddhism imo, especially if you look at the rationalist darlings Ingram, Shinzen Young and (up to now) Culadasa. It’s really important though.

    Third and most controversially – while you might first become enlightened in a state of deep calm, it is also possible to recognise the elements of enlightenment in any inner state – confusion, anger, lust etc. Especially in tantric traditions there are practices where you seek out such difficult states and engage in behaviour associated with them in order to recognise even their fundamental enlightened nature and to learn to be in those states without clinging. Tantric sex is a real thing. It can be impossible to tell from the outside if someone is engaging in very advanced “crazy wisdom” or is just indulging their attachments. So a scandal from one perspective might be good practice from another. This narrative can be misused as a carte blanche for apologists of course. Imo the best thing one can do from the outside is simply look if other people were hurt and not to care about what went on inside the teachers head at all.

    As a last remark, buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield wrote a very good book length treatment of the path after the first stage of enlightenement called fittingly “after the ecstasy the laundry”. Recommended if you’re interested in what the psychology of enlightened people is actually like.

    • kalimac says:

      If enlightenment is such an unstable and transitory state, then there ought not to be things like certifications of enlightenment (as Scott has referred to) or rhetoric treating it as an achievable state, or statements treated as wisdom from the enlightened ones. All of which certainly happen.

      • JPNunez says:

        Well, it’s not like Olympic athletes spend all their time jumping upwards of 2 meters or running 100 mts in a few dozen of seconds, but we still award them physical tokens for their accomplishments. Maybe enlightenment is like that too.

        • kalimac says:

          Doesn’t parallel. Enlightenment is described as a state of being, not a specific act.

          • JPNunez says:

            I guarantee that you cannot rise out of your chair and decide to break some olympic record of running, as a specific act you can choose to do.

            If anything, that is more of a state of being, given how it both depends on the correct genetics for the given record, right nutrition, training, etc, and also the right age, which means the “state” part is stronger, as it is only a temporary thing.

        • kalimac says:

          Apparently there’s only so far in depth that these comments can go, so I have to put my reply back up here.

          First you argued that enlightenment wasn’t a state of being but a specific action, like an Olympic athletic feat. Then you argued that being an Olympic-caliber athlete is a state of being, like enlightenment. I’ll accept that as agreeing with my original point.

          You don’t expect Olympic-caliber jumpers to be performing Olympic-caliber jumps all the time, but you do expect that if they rise from their chairs to perform a jump, they won’t trip over their own shoelaces and fall flat on their faces. If they do, especially if they don’t have a past track record of accomplishment, one has leave to wonder if they ever were Olympic-caliber athletes to begin with.

          Similarly, if a person who claims enlightenment (and on what grounds of past accomplishment can we be sure they’ve achieved it) can’t keep his trousers zipped, one has leave to wonder if that person ever really was enlightened to begin with.

      • Artischoke says:

        The actual experience of enlightenment is transitory but repeatable. What can become permanent is the insight gained from this experience (indeed confirmations of enlightenment are error-prone and can be “knowledge-based” to some extent) and how your inner patterns evolve afterwards. If someone has daily experiences of enlightenment that will change your outlook profoundly. But its not the same as being in the state of enlightenment constantly. The former is achievable, the latter is not realistic.

        • NoRandomWalk says:

          This was very helpful, thank you.

        • Bugmaster says:

          As you might have seen from my other comments, I’m highly critical of enlightenment claims. Thus, I understand if you don’t want to answer, but still: what kind of tangible insights do you get from enlightenment, and are they in any way applicable to life outside of the (transitory) enlightened state ? You say that enlightenment will “change your outlook profoundly”, but lots of other experiences will do that; how is enlightenment any better ?

          • NoRandomWalk says:

            insights from meditation/’benefits’ from meditation, don’t need to have an objective benefit to be subjectively useful.

            Let me give you an example:
            Let’s say your subconscious normally processes 90% of visual input away, and sends you the other 10%.

            And then by meditating you ‘broaden’ your mind and it sends you 20%, so you ‘see’ in 100% higher resolution.

            Now, maybe your motor skills are a bit better, a bit worse (maybe you’re overloaded), but you experience a lot more input and you find that stimulating/interesting in a way that you value a lot, even if there’s no objective improvement as far as an external observer can measure (you’re not objectively a better driver, for example).

            Do you see how one might report meditation being very valuable, in a way you find it difficult to verify/they find it difficult to prove to you?

          • Bugmaster says:

            Sorry, but I can’t really relate to your example. If I could see in 200% higher resolution at will, I would be absolutely elated, because such an ability would confer enormous benefits — it’d be basically like giving yourself telescoping zoom-lens eyes ! It also would be trivially easy to demonstrate high-res vision to everyone, since there already exist standardized eye exam charts for that. My performance on every single task that relies on vision (which is most of them) would also improve, proportional to how much vision is involved in the task.

            On the other hand, if I e.g. ingested some drug that merely made me feel as though the world became more detailed, without any actual improvement; then, while I would certainly enjoy the experience (and perhaps seek it out again), I wouldn’t treat it as anything exceptional. But that’s just me personally; I don’t often enjoy being drunk or high anyway (outside of a mild buzz), so I acknowledge being atypical in this regard.

          • RomeoStevens says:

            responding to NoRandom walk

            >in a way you find it difficult to verify

            Those perceptual shifts have been measured in a lab. Experienced meditators do not fall prey to certain optical illusions and also score about five standard deviations above the norm on certain perceptual threshold tests.

          • Bugmaster says:

            I’d love to see some sources on that, ant not just because it would be the first time I’d seen any religious claim verified empirically. If there’s a mental technique I can employ to improve my visual acuity by 5 SD, then I absolutely want to know about it. Heck, I’d settle for 2 SD !

          • Artischoke says:

            Hm. I find that a tricky set of questions to answer and one that might be answered in VERY different ways.

            Heres one: Stream entry is perhaps most useful as providing a mental reference point that you can contrast your ordinary experience with. I became much much more attuned with the little naggings of the mind, all the moments where my mind basically says “this sensation here that I’m having is not ok”. These moments had mostly been there before but I started noticing them much more sharply. That nagging feeling is the essence of suffering under buddhist doctrine. Over time, I find that these moments seem to become less and moments of deep contentedness more. Moments when everything seems perfect just the way it is because it is enough that everything obeys the laws of physics. Where sadness is bittersweet and poignant and joy is infectious. It also seems to me that I tend to identify with my experiences less while at the same time feeling them more vividly on average.

            Heres another answer: You’re right to be skeptical of the miracle powers of enlightenment. It is sometimes said that enlightenment is hard to find because its so mundane, so close to ordinary experience that you will miss it. Many people with absolutely no meditation technically had moments of enlightenment that they forgot because they didnt stand out in experience. People with very impressive enlightenment experiences just went on with their lives and the experience faded and was forgotten without triggering any lasting change. Meditation is mostly a gradual work of letting go of subtler and subtler attachments. A moment of enlightenment is a peek at the finish line that can be your reference point and motivation. Stream entry can be the moment where you finally really understand what the practice is about. Other than that its not that useful.

          • Bugmaster says:

            I appreciate your reply; but, from my point of view, “stream entry” sounds like the kind of an altered mental state that one could enter by a variety of means (some of them chemical). It is consistent with my hypothesis that meditation induces all kinds of interesting subjective experiences, with few if any tangible objective effects (other than the normal effects that all subjective experiences of any kind tend to produce).

    • RomeoStevens says:

      >The rest of the path is “just” to improve the ratio of enlightened moments.

      This is a popular vedantin and dzogchen stance (not every school, but popular amongst those schools) that I think is incorrect. I am especially confident that nondual experience, specifically, should not be considered a synonym of enlightenment. It’s just a perceptual tool in the toolbox along with others like jhanic states (there are also schools that think jhana is enlightenment and also aim at a lifestyle that allows basically all your time to be jhana).

      • Artischoke says:

        It’s just a perceptual tool in the toolbox along with others like jhanic states

        This seems to me to be the sane view. I’m still working on fully embracing it though…

    • Exetali Do says:

      Yeah, that.

      (Lurker here, hi all.) I’ve also had some experience in meditation, in a weird little old Mahayana tradition. As far as I can tell, to the extent that it’s even acknowledged that “enlightenment” exists, it’s treated less as a state and more as a process.

      For what little it’s worth, my own experiences in that direction are that practice makes it easier to … just experience the world as it is, without projecting my own s–t all over it. It’s easier to recognize my thoughts and feelings, and where they come from. And it’s harder to engage in self-deception. But just like with martial arts, there’s always someone better than me, there’s always situations I haven’t encountered yet, and no matter how strong and fast and skilled I become, it might simply not be good enough. And I could reduce the likelihood of encountering any of that, by spending the rest of my life in a monastery. (“Lead me not into temptation.”)

      But in terms of warning signs, I’d say that conceptualizing enlightenment as a state to be attained once, seems to me to be a stereotypical ego trap, much like Lucifer’s “non serviam”. And it wouldn’t surprise me at all, if the rate of sexual misconduct was a lot higher among teachers who operate as independent gurus, vs. teachers who operate as part of a group, be that a temple or a monastery or commune or whatever. In my cynical opinion, if the teacher doesn’t have a Sangha where they’re one peer among many, or they can’t have frank (if private and compassionate) conversations with their peers about their own imperfections, then it’s just a question of whether they die before the mistakes start.

  52. JPNunez says:

    Maybe Culadasa knows that many Enlightened Teachers, for whatever reason, have sexual scandals, and decided to channel this danger into prostitutes, instead of the more natural way for anyone with prestige or power, ie, preying on subordinates.

    • Aftagley says:

      How would this even work?

      • JPNunez says:

        It would put his sexual desires, which maybe or (maybe not) he diminished through meditation, but not completely eliminated, into a course where it would damage the lesser amount of people (ie, only his wife, instead of also his students).

  53. sidereal says:

    I don’t really see the big deal here, or at least there seem to be some baked in assumptions I would like to elicit. Does Culadasa make some claim to moral purity w.r.t. (seemingly judeochristian) sexual mores? I’m sure it would be less controversial if he were caught expressing carnal desire through e.g. savoring a piece of cake, or by having sex with his wife. So, what really does this have to do with enlightenment?

    • Aftagley says:

      He committed to various precepts in following his faith as a layperson that this pattern of behavior pretty obviously violates. The three relevant ones are:

      1. I will not take what has not been given to me – he messed around with funds he did not have sole control over to pay for these prostitutes.

      2. I will refrain from sexual misconduct – having a series of extramarital affairs counts as sexual misconduct.

      3. I will refrain from false speech – He lied to a bunch of people, including his wife.

    • Grek says:

      The core of Buddhism is a set of instructions which claim to allow a person to experience Enlightenment. If you live a healthy life, abide by this specific code of conduct and then correctly perform this set of specific mental exercises in the correct order, you will experience Enlightenment. After claiming to have become Enlightened, Culadasa did several things that the code of conduct explicitly forbids people who are trying to become Enlightened from doing. This surprises people, for some reason.

  54. The Buddha himself spend part of his life as a randy guy. Meditation done right will strengthen your connection with your life urges & sexuality. A meditation teacher named Lorin Roche has some great stories about Eastern spiritual movements in California since the the 1960’s. He has taken some down some stories, a pity. But he did leave up a link specifically about sex scandals within Eastern meditation communities. One reason this happens is that many Eastern traditions have a spiritual dominance/submission model which is easy to abuse. It’s a big subject. But I have found Lorin’s web site to be a fun guide, particularly in avoiding the dangers within yoga, meditation practice, & associated communities. Well worth reading.

    • RomeoStevens says:

      >Be alert when you are starting to make up an Odious Rule, and start making fun of it.

      ha! this is great stuff!

  55. Hypoborean says:

    Reading about the sex/power nexus, I wonder how long it will be before we get a billionaire who leans into the ‘rational’ genetic approach and has hundreds of children.

    The easiest way this could be achievable would be to offer $100,000 + covering the costs of the procedure to single women / wives of infertile husbands wishing to use IVF to use it with said billionaire’s sperm.

    Since having children is a second-order desire that often isn’t gene-coded for as directly as desires for things that lead to it {sex, power, status}, it might be quite a while, possibly after several generations of sperm donor children making up a non-trivial fraction of the gene pool. Presumably, this would have to be a billionaire who had “exited” their relevant financial positions / responsibilities, since for the first person to do this the social blowback would be intense.

    • NoRandomWalk says:

      It’s either impossible or super impractical for our genes to code ‘maximize children’ vs. any of the indirect goals that are actually encoded (get status, good food, etc).

      Therefore, if a billionaire does it it will be because of some cultural meme/idea he has, and his kids won’t inherit that desire genetically.

      I don’t think his kids would have the urge to do the same, at all, unless he persuaded them that spreading your genes is what they should care about in life. Wouldn’t feel any more natural to them than anyone else.

    • Viliam says:

      The easiest way this could be achievable would be to offer $100,000 + covering the costs of the procedure to single women / wives of infertile husbands wishing to use IVF to use it with said billionaire’s sperm.

      It would be too tempting to sue the billionaire later for child support, using whatever clever or stupid excuse one could make.

      (I can’t find the link now, but a similar thing already happened, only the guy wasn’t a billionaire and didn’t offer money, only sex with him as an alternative to going to doctor. Some women took the offer… and then sued him, to get some extra money.)

      • Hypoborean says:

        How do lawsuits against people who can afford unlimitedly expensive legal teams usually go?

        If you structured the incentive as “$X upfront + $Y per year until the child is 18, with the latter payments stopping if you sue me” and also committed to dragging out any legal process to be as long and expensive as possible, the incentives to sue for greater child support wouldn’t line up, I think?

        Relevant alternative model: Donald Trump being consistently able to stiff contractors because the expected benefit of suing him to get him to pay the cost in full was less than the 30-50 cents on the dollar that he often offered.

        • Viliam says:

          How do lawsuits against people who can afford unlimitedly expensive legal teams usually go?

          Generally not well, but in this case the other side could also promise paying a nice sum to their lawyers in case of victory.

          The incentive you suggested seems nice, though.

  56. Douglas Knight says:

    What concrete claims to people make about (degrees of) enlightenment? To what extent do they agree? For example

    for laypeople there are the precepts to observe; but ordinary laypeople are not supposed to observe celibacy. Laypeople can attain certain stages of enlightenment-what we call “stream-enterer” and “once-returner”-before they have realized for themselves that there are inherent difficulties and problems involved in sexual activities. And laypeople can attain even the third stage of sainthood, which is called the “never-returner” stage. But soon after they attain that stage they themselves will decide from their own experience, from their own understanding, that involvement in sexuality is going to block the progress of their spiritual practice, and when they realize this they will voluntarily give up sexual activities. So you see, celibacy is not something that can be imposed upon us by force or command.

  57. Freddie deBoer says:

    Apparently the hardest attachment to break is the attachment to pussy.

  58. hls2003 says:

    I think I’m echoing others, but let’s suppose that “certified enlightened” in Buddhism is analogous to “ordained minister” in Christianity (or Protestantism, anyway). And suppose that the best gurus, the ones who become moderately famous, are similar to celebrity or megachurch pastors. If one supposes, for the hypothetical, some truth, and indeed an equal degree of truth, to each religious path, then each of those persons has in some respect “touched the divine” or had some sort of spiritual / meditative experience that you can expect to change a person; and each is well-qualified to teach others. Even with all that, it doesn’t seem to strain credulity that you could have sex scandals with any of that group. I don’t know if they’re more frequent – base rate unknown – but certainly you see such scandals in celebrity pastors moderately frequently. Why would it be notable in the Buddhist equivalents? Is it because Scott assigns more truth value to Buddhism, since he’s dabbled in meditation himself, and so he thinks “this is more real, it ought to change you more” whereas he subconsciously prejudges Christian divine contacts as charlatanism which of course would lead to such scandals? I just have a hard time justifying the surprise.

    • thisheavenlyconjugation says:

      It seems more plausible to me that scandalous pastors are charlatans than that meditators such as Culdasa are, even if pastors in general are not. If you say Culdasa is a charlatan then that means his big book on how to meditate is full of useless lies, but there’s no corresponding problem for pastors.

      • acymetric says:

        The lies not be regarding how to meditate, they may be the benefits/results of meditation (and/or whether Culdasa has actually attained them). In fact, I might be inclined to lean the opposite direction of you.

        Culdasa is either lying about the effects of meditation/enlightenment, or lying about having attained those effects. The message is about how meditation/enlightenment will change you and his actions contradict the message.

        For the Christian pastors, there are at least some groups that take the approach “Christianity will make you want to change to be more moral” rather than “Christianity will change you to make you more moral” which can still remain perfectly true even if you have significant moral failures.

        I’m not usually in the business of defending Christianity but like to at least be fair when comparing two religions/ideologies both of which I have disagreements or qualms with.

      • hls2003 says:

        I guess I’m not really saying either are necessarily charlatans. A celebrity pastor could be, generally, a pretty good man with (let’s postulate) a true connection to the divine Holy Spirit of Truth, and yet the Bible says that even such persons can sin and do bad things (perhaps for which they repent and apologize). It undermines their message some, sure, but it doesn’t mean they’re lying necessarily. I don’t see why it would be so surprising to say that a celebrity guru could be, generally, a pretty good man with (let’s postulate) a true connection to the divine truth of the universe, and yet still do bad things (for which they may apologize). If you postulate, for the argument, that each one is the equivalent of a “mountaintop experience” – meeting literal God, or meeting literal transcendence – then the fact that one can obviously screw up means I’d expect it to be true of the other also. Yet Scott seems to find one remarkable and the other not. That suggests that he thinks the guru is positioned meaningfully differently than the pastor. The only explanation I can think of is that Scott thinks of them differently because he respects the truth claims of the Buddhist more than the Christian.

        • acymetric says:

          The only explanation I can think of is that Scott thinks of them differently because he respects the truth claims of the Buddhist more than the Christian.

          I think it is also possible that different truth claims are being made, or at least they are interpreted/understood differently (causing a different degree or type of dissonance between claims and action for the two cases) rather than a difference in the level of respect for the claims. Not that your take is wrong, necessarily, I’m just offering a perfectly plausible alternative explanation.

          • hls2003 says:

            I suppose that’s true. Implicit in my equivalence, after all, is the supposition that “personally knowing God” and “personally knowing transcendence” would be expected to inspire similar reactions in terms of subsequent conduct. If that’s not correct, then the equivalence also fails.

  59. Viliam says:

    I would prefer to make this argument on Less Wrong, where I could take atheism and reductionism for granted, but anyway… why is anyone surprised by this?

    What is meditation? Essentially a breathing and attention exercise, with some mystical background.

    Can regular breathing exercises calm you down? Sure. Can regular attention exercises make you better at focusing your attention? Yeah, sounds plausible. Better at learning? More productive? Better at making money? Well, maybe, although I’d be suspicious if someone claims too big effect.

    Can regular breathing and attention exercises make you a morally superior being, or a supreme rationalist?

    Okay, in the spirit of “motte and bailey”, there are a few good arguments one could make in favor of such statement. Like, regular exercise (of any kind) is a signal of conscientiousness, which is a virtue. Being able to calm down reduces the number of impulsive things one does — both the immoral ones, and the stupid ones. Regular attempts at introspection probably help, too. So, yeah, you have a point, and you can even have a scientific study on your side.

    But when someone goes “oh, I know this guy who breathes regularly, and pays really good attention to his breath… but recently someone caught him cheating on his wife… how is that even possible?“, from my perspective this is a complete non-sequitur. Yep, the guy can pay attention to his breath for hours, and he can also score with a pretty chick… now where is the apparent paradox? Because I don’t see any.

    So, they say meditation can get you high, when done properly. Okay, good for you; you saved some money for drugs (maybe not worth it, considering the opportunity cost of your time, but whatever), and it’s probably less unhealthy. Still, I don’t see the apparent paradox between getting high, and having sexual adventures.

    Unless you really buy the mystical stuff… like the Buddha magically healing people, all the heavens and hells, gods and daemons, and how when you get really high you can see your previous lives and it’s totally true not just your hallucination… in other words, if you buy the entire Buddhist faith (or sufficiently large parts of it), not just meditation as an isolated exercise. Then, I suppose it is surprising why a person with great first-hand knowledge of heavens and hells, and supposed magical powers, just goes and does something that predictably causes them to be reincarnated one million times as an aardvark.

    It’s just… I don’t buy any of that magical crap. And I am really surprised when people in the supposedly rationalist community do. (Perhaps many people indeed have a magic-shaped hole in their heart, and in absence of a religion, any other religion will do. And somehow, all the regular breathing and introspection doesn’t help them realize it. I suppose it didn’t work for the Buddha either.)

    To get my perspective, imagine that someone claims that doing lots of push-ups will make you a morally superior being. And then acts surprised at this guy who could do one hundred one-handed push-ups, and yet was caught stealing candy from the shop. Now I don’t claim that push-ups are useless. They can give you some nice muscles. It’s just completely unrelated to morality. I thought that was obvious.

    • RomeoStevens says:

      False equivocation. The buddhist claims more commonly resemble something like moral realism, or at least an attractor basin for human morality.

      • Bugmaster says:

        I’m not sure what that means. I do know what “moral realism” means, but I don’t see what it has to do with Viliam’s comment; and I don’t understand what “an attractor basin for human morality” means, as applied to Buddhism. Can you elaborate ?

        • RomeoStevens says:

          Similar to CEV, then combine with Rawls’ reflective equilibrium. i.e. spending time investigating morality tends to reliably move people in a certain direction. No magic needed.

          • Bugmaster says:

            Are you predicting that people who study morality should be significantly more moral than average ?

          • Viliam says:

            spending time investigating morality tends to reliably move people in a certain direction

            Meditation and investigating morality are two different things, as far as I know. When meditating, one investigates their breath, and the arising of thoughts and feelings. Morality is how people interact with each other, and with society in general.

            Second, people have all kinds of biases, and their thinking is often self-serving. (There is a book Elephant in the Brain about this.) Thinking about things a lot is not a sufficient antidote.

            In my opinion, a more likely explanation is that, the traditional Buddhist context, when people meditate, they also study the same holy texts, for years, so of course at the end they arrive at similar “conclusions”. (It’s like spending your entire life praying and studying Bible, and then concluding that… surprise, surprise… the meaning of life is to follow Jesus Christ. It is quite reliable, but also not very convincing for an outsider.)

  60. UserNumber9 says:

    As another datapoint in the pros/cons of ‘enlightenment’, IIRC Culadasa claims that he ignored severe pain from a bowel obstruction for so long he almost died before going to a hospital (and that meditation is what allowed him to ignore the pain).

    I’ve also read some ‘high ranking’ posters on the TMI subreddit say that enlightened people become less self reflective and therefore need more external feedback on their behavior.

  61. RomeoStevens says:

    Culadasa hit some flags last over the previous year in his patreon QAs when he refused to answer some questions along these lines. I have some disagreements about Ingram’s material but this is an area I strongly agree with him. If you’re going to grant a lot of authority to someone then they’re held to a higher standard and questions that might be considered a bit too sharp become entirely appropriate. Questions like:
    What have you attained and why do you think you’ve attained it?
    Who agrees that you’ve attained these things?
    Which of the precepts do you consider yourself as upholding?
    Who are your past and present teachers?
    Have they authorized you to teach?
    What problems have you experienced in your teacher’s community while learning as a deputy teacher?

    Answers to these questions can vary quite a bit, and failings in certain regards might not be a big deal but a refusal to speak openly about them is a red flag.

    One other flag I’ve noticed is how allergic they seem to other teachers. The teachers who seem on the up and up are generally cheerful and excited to be talking about stuff with peer teachers. Bad ones seem defensive and competitive.

    • One other flag I’ve noticed is how allergic they seem to other teachers. The teachers who seem on the up and up are generally cheerful and excited to be talking about stuff with peer teachers. Bad ones seem defensive and competitive.

      True. Competitiveness can be harmful in teaching situation. Enlightenment is more about peace and joy of life, like that scripture (Romans 14:17) where the Kingdom of Heaven is joy, peace, and righteousness (moral peace).

  62. deluks917 says:

    No one can see into another person’s mind. So there is no reliable method to tell if someone is enlightened. Enlightenment certification is not a trustworthy process, regardless of who does the certifying. However, if you fix a definition of enlightenment, you can be quite sure someone is not enlightened. These people were certainly not enlightened in the traditional Theravada sense. Enlightenment implies severing the ten fetters: Here are the traditional ten in the Pali Cannon

    1) belief in a self
    2) doubt or uncertainty, especially about the Buddha’s awakeness and nine supermundane consciousnesses
    3) attachment to rites and rituals
    4) sensual desire
    5) ill will
    6) lust for material existence, lust for material rebirth
    7) lust for immaterial existence, lust for rebirth in a formless realm
    8) conceit
    9) restlessness
    10) ignorance's_list_of_ten_fetters . People like to quibble over the exact translation but none of these people severed the fourth fetter. They probably still struggled with many others fetters. Daniel Ingram and others use enlightenment in a more liberal sense. But I think whoever certified these people simply made a mistake.

  63. meditationstuff says:

    I’ve written about this a bunch.


    It takes thousands of hours to make large changes to the mind.
    There is a right way and a wrong way to do it.
    The wrong way cumulatively occludes access to material that nevertheless influences behavior. (So people can lock in bad stuff and basically be stuck with it for thousands of hours or forever.)
    De-occlusion is counterintuitive and can take at least as long as you took to do the occluding.
    Modern meditation handles systematic de-occlusion (and processing even responsive/de-occluded content) very poorly.
    One can do all sorts of good and enlightened-feeling stuff to one’s mind while having a huge amount of contingently triggered demons, as it were.

    De-occlusion and processing by itself doesn’t guarantee ethical behavior.
    Enlightenment has an absolute piece and a relative piece.
    In theory, the absolute piece can be done with whatever contingent experiences one has already had because we are all redundantly awash in exceptionless physical (and mental/psychological) laws.
    The relative piece requires one to encounter special evidence like doing X hurts people or gets one thrown in jail.
    The relative piece is sort of endless but can be bootstrapped by learning about the possibility of deliberate acquisition of ethics. This heavily generalizes for deliberate acquisition of X. This goes metametametameta…

    Long-run, an advanced meditator may figure out total de-occlusion as well as meta-learning and basically become a saint all the way down, but this isn’t guaranteed nor is it currently (or has ever been?) culturally supported.

    On Culadasa more specifically-ish:

  64. Grek says:

    It probably helps if you taboo the word “desire”.

    A key prerequisite to Enlightenment (as in, something you need to do before becoming Enlightened, not something that happens as a result of being Enlightened) is the ability to meditate in very specific ways for hours and hours on end without getting distracted. A very common distraction is ruminations on mismatches between how the world is and how one feels the world should be, be it dwelling on how there is something missing in one’s life or on how something present in your life is unfair or unpleasant. This sort of distraction is termed in classic Buddhist literature as “tanha”, and Buddhism teaches several methods for dealing with such feelings.

    A very common behavior in powerful men is having lots of socially unacceptable sex that they couldn’t get away with having if they were less powerful. In particular, having sex outside of of one’s marriage, having sex with students or employees, having sex with much younger partners and having sex with prostitutes. There are numerous cases of Buddhist teachers who are also powerful men engaging in this sort of behavior, despite Scott’s initial prior that a Buddhist teacher wouldn’t want to do that sort of thing. Classical Buddhist literature does not have a term for this behavior, so let’s call it “lustfulness” just so that we have a label for it.

    It seems obvious that there is an overlap between people who experience tanha and people who exhibit lustfulness, and that lustfulness might contribute to tanha in some way. Avoiding lustfulness certainly seems like a plausible element of an anti-tanha strategy. But it is less obvious that an absolute avoidance of lustfulness is a requirement for avoiding tanha and thus a requirement for Enlightenment. It may well be that some teachers only avoid lustfulness when they’re specifically trying to meditate and feel free to exhibit lustfulness at other times. Or that they are only able to avoid lustfulness while in the specific situations (monasteries?) where their Enlightenment-seeking meditation occurred. Maybe some of these teachers practice a form of tanha avoidance which does not involve avoiding lustfulness, but instead focuses on not letting it distract them during meditation.

    (None of the above should be taken as suggesting that cheating on your wife, having sex with your students or hiring prostitutes is a good thing to do. Nor should it be taken as suggesting that avoiding tanha and/or meditating toward Enlightenment is a moral good in and of itself. Only that the two practices might not be as mutually exclusive as previously suggested.)

  65. Carl Pham says:

    Reaction formation, duh

  66. Viper23 says:

    You are supposed to be having ALL OF THE SEX and anyone who preaches otherwise is just trying to secretly keep more of the sex for themselves.

    It is one of the very few resources that humans can create literally out of thin air and such it is the most regulated activity within civilization.

    Attempting to extinguish or diminish the inner flame of living desire so long as the heart is still beating seems like a silly strategy at life. Especially when enlightenment is inevitable no matter what one does…

  67. Watchman says:

    Is enlightenment a state of mind or a state of being? I’m seeing a lot of comments claiming an enlightened person cannot commit sexual misconduct due to various external factors (Buddhist teachings and creed particularly) which suggest that enlightenment is effectively something you publicly practice and live. Yet enlightenment is also something you can obtain on your own and never share surely?

    I’m tempted to suggest that the poor word enlightenment, already burdened with several contradictory meanings, here has not one but two meanings. At one level it refers to people achieving a certain experience through meditation or similar activities, which may or may not be significant to mental processes and may or may nor release a natural high. At another level it seems to describe an experienced practitioner of certain beliefs (involving meditation) who acts in a way prescribed by those beliefs, and therefore can be recognised as one who can help others attain the same state. These two meanings are not mutually exclusive, and I’d happily accept that the norm for publically enlightened is that they have achieved the experience of enlightenment. But if some of us view enlightenment as the thing we achieve in our minds (not that I would claim to be close to enlightenment, or even interested in finding it) whilst others as the embodiment of teachings of a school. I’m not sure without clear expression of what understanding of enlightenment is being used that we’re not having one of those rare moments where SSC comments start to talk past each other rather than to each other.

    • Faza (TCM) says:

      As I see it, the Buddhist claim is that an enlightened being is one of which a number of things are true (we might call them predicates of enlightenment) and that one such (compound) predicate is: they never act contrary to Buddhist precepts.

      Now this may sound perscriptive, but look at it another way: if there exists one – and only one – path to where you’re going (enlightenment) that involves going through X, Y and Z then if someone asks you to tell them how to get to enlightenment, you can only truthfully answer “by going through X, Y and Z”.

      Conversely, if you can see that someone hasn’t passed X, yet, you can say with 100% confidence that they are not enlightened, because passing X is a pre-requisite.

    • Brassfjord says:

      It’s not likely to have a constructive discussion about this when the definition of ”enlightenment” is so vague.

      Is it insight and knowledge or just an emotion? Is it a permanent state or a temporary experience? Is it a state of mind or a spiritual/religious concept? Are there different levels of enlightenment? Is the purpose of enlightenment Nirvana or just feeling good? Can you be enlighted without being Buddhist?

      Many equal enlightenment to being less attached to things and desire less, which to me seems like being more indifferent, caring less, being less subjective, in other words – being less alive.

  68. Bellum Gallicum says:

    My yoga teacher in Hawaii had spent time studying in India and he said all the name level gurus over their were total perverts and sexual degenerates. Second hand knowledge but he had descriptive and reasonable sounding stories to prove it, and his yoga was incredible.

  69. shortchenpa says:

    I am curious about purported correlations between lots of meditation practice and “going beyond” or side stepping normal social conditioning. I am 70 years old and have been intensely involved in several Buddhist communities since I was 20. I’ve seen a lot of this and in most cases it has nothing to do with going beyond anything – more a manipulation of sangha hierarchies. Here’s a personal example. My spouse and I have been married for a very long while and raised two children. We’re do real farm work together. In one sense we don’t need many social niceties in our relationship because we understand a lot already about what is going on with the other person – we’ve seen it all. But we still – even on the most trivial of tasks thank each other. “Thanks for making the bed.” “Thanks for cooking dinner.” “Thanks for doing the dishes.” etc. We engage in these and other social, courteous conventions even though we’re obviously way “beyond” that.

    I think it’s healthy that we do this – not that it’s part of any self-improvement program. Now this is a trivial example but there are other sorts of social conventions that we are conditioned to observe – like don’t hit on a student you’re teaching. My father was not a prude and was a life-long Democrat who voted for Bill Clinton. I can remember during the Monica Lewinsky mess, he said to me “Jeez. You just don’t hit on the interns. It’s not like an interoffice romance. You simply don’t pull shit like that.” So a lot of dharma teachers, American and Asian, have in different ways done something really similar. Does that have anything to do with their “enlightenment”, their formless practice, their transcending conditioning OR is it the result of dysfunctional community norms and community social practices (implicit or explicit)?

    • Enkidum says:

      Does that have anything to do with their “enlightenment”, their formless practice, their transcending conditioning OR is it the result of dysfunctional community norms and community social practices (implicit or explicit)?

      I have no real knowledge of the details of any of these cases, and I’m certainly not enlightened in the Buddhist sense, but it seems to me that in every organization/community I know of, a subset of people like to fuck / hit on just about anything, and without very explicit (and explicitly enforced) norms against hitting on Group A, Group A is going to get hit on. And if that’s interns / students / anyone from a demonstrably lower rung, shit tends to get messy very quickly.

      So I’d guess that it’s not a matter of dysfunctional norms per se, more the absence of some functional ones (“Don’t fuck your students” etc).

  70. J.D. Sockinger says:

    And let’s not forget the infamous Michael Roach scandal – although the scandalous aspects of the case went well beyond mere sex. A person actually ended up dead.

  71. spandrel says:

    How about treatment selection effects? I have often suspected that the apparently higher prevalence of sexual misbehaviour among Catholic priests was due to individuals who struggle more with their urges being more likely to enter the priesthood as a way to manage those urges. Especially if their attractions are not conventionally heterosexual. Could not the same be true here – individuals (okay, men) who have excessive or intrusive impulses (ie, can’t stop thinking about sex) might be more driven to pursue ‘enlightment’?

  72. Camerado says:

    For my own curiosity: Are there any high-profile Buddhist women who have gained enlightenment and have significant followings as teachers/authors/gurus? If so, is the rate of sex scandals similar among them, or different?

    • Artischoke says:

      There are many successful female teachers. Off the top of my head Dipa Ma, Sharon Salzberg, Pema Chödron, Tara Brach, Ayya Khema, Llama Tsultrim Allione to name just a few. No idea about their scandal rates though.

      • Camerado says:

        Thanks for the list! I realize the phrasing of my question made it sound like I doubted the existence of female teachers/high-profile practitioners – I spoke from a place of assuming there might be the same kind of disparity as there is in the Christian tradition I grew up in, where historical factors and cultural norms mean clergy still skews heavily male even where female clergy are technically afforded equal access to institutional prominence.

        If female teachers didn’t have the same sex scandal rates as male teachers, I’d be interested to see if they had higher rates of other behavior that would be scandalous in someone claiming enlightenment. Tax fraud, secret drug addiction, embezzlement, whatever. Stuff not becoming of someone who says they’ve overcome desire.

        If the scandal rates were just higher across the board for men, I’d fall back on what quite a few other people here have already said – it’s probably not something unique to enlightenment, just a way in which men who were inclined that way already are more likely to behave, given positional authority.

  73. ioannes says:

    Seems important to note that ~50% of psychologists reported assessing and/or treating at least one patient who had been sexually involved with a previous therapist:

  74. JohnBuridan says:

    Ben Franklin, Archimedes, Leonard Euler, John Von Neuman, Louie Pascal, Aristotle… I’ll settle for their version of enlightenment, if there is a path.

  75. newstorkcity says:

    Are enlightened people actually more disposed to infidelity, or is this more of a chinese robber effect. Without having a rough idea of how many people are enlightened and how many of those have a sex scandal, it’s hard to derive a claim beyond “some people who seem to be enlightened have sex scandals” which is not a very strong claim. I would suspect that the actual numbers would show that enlightened people cheat less than non-enlightened people, but I’m not confident that the effect would remain if you exclude people in monasteries.

    • acymetric says:

      I don’t think the question is whether enlightened people are more likely to engage in various inappropriate sexual activity.

      The question is whether noteworthy people who are supposed to be “officially” enlightened who engage in this activity conflicts with the supposed benefits or outcomes of becoming enlightened.

      • Viliam says:

        I agree. Sex is fun to debate, but it is not the most important topic here. “High status religious males have sex with lots of women” is only shocking for the believers of given religion; for most people it is “well, duh”.

        The difference is that unlike other religions, Buddhism has some specific claims:

        – that it provides a recipe for overcoming “suffering”;
        – which consists of overcoming desire (including sexual desire);
        – that there is a clearly defined success called “enlightenment”;
        – and that although this enlightenment can be difficult to describe to people who have never experienced it, people who have reach enlightenment can verify it by talking to each other.

        But here we have a few high-status Buddhists, many of them officially verified as having achieved the enlightenment, who obviously still feel desire — strong enough to make them violate one of the 5 basic Buddhist rules (the ones that apply to all Buddhists, not only monks).

        So, something obviously doesn’t work as advertised. Either you can’t really overcome desire (i.e. the “enlightenment” is either completely made up, or seriously exaggerated), or the enlightened people really cannot reliably certify each other (i.e. the whole certification system is just some kind of power/status game). The former throws serious doubts on all Buddhist claims; the latter only throws doubts on all certified gurus.

        • Le Maistre Chat says:

          So, something obviously doesn’t work as advertised. Either you can’t really overcome desire (i.e. the “enlightenment” is either completely made up, or seriously exaggerated), or the enlightened people really cannot reliably certify each other (i.e. the whole certification system is just some kind of power/status game). The former throws serious doubts on all Buddhist claims; the latter only throws doubts on all certified gurus.

          I’m not even Buddhist, and I’d say “doubt all certified gurus before the truth claims.” Like, what even is the certification system used by the set of guys we’re criticizing?
          From what I know of Buddhism, overcoming desire is supposed to be super hard. Thai Theravada developed a tradition of most males taking monastic vows and then defrocking after some years to get married: presumably this was supposed to achieve some mental benefit well short of extinguishing desire. Meanwhile Mahayana developed the idea that it was so hard that a compassionate Boddhisattva created, basically, Heaven where everyone could get in just by calling on his/her name, and do the monastic quest for enlightenment from there.

  76. Nearly Takuan says:

    Is it Culadasa or Culudasa?

  77. RomeoStevens says:

    WRT ‘just a way to get high’ if you don’t think on demand, unlimited, side effect free painkillers with an instantaneous effect are a big deal well, you haven’t been an old person yet.
    (This is a reference to jhana, not ‘enlightenment’ which again is a dumb/multiordinal term so it will *never* not result in pointless argument)

    Also for anyone who hasn’t seen it before, Shinzen’s pain processing algorithm:
    (pdf warning)

  78. Jiro says:

    Doing a little substitution on Scott: ” I’m not personally very good at feeling jealous, so wanting your husband to never see a prostitute, even if he doesn’t tell you about it, or make you think about it, or even agrees only to do it when you’re away on a business trip in another city – seems a bit odd. Honestly I would be tempted to take his wife aside and ask her whether she’s sure that she couldn’t deal with Culudasa seeing a prostitute, and whether maybe she wants to give it a chance, and whether maybe she just wants what’s best for him even if that makes her a little uncomfortable.”

    Disclaimer: I don’t believe this.

  79. bsrk says:

    I point out that these people are not the real thing. The real thing is indeed uncompatible with sensual passion.

    Now, there are weaker versions of awakening, which do not destroy all fetters (one being sensual passion). But even the weakest version of awakening (stream entry) gives you an understanding of what purity is. Such a person does not commit sexual misconduct (as per the definition given by the buddha).

    Now sexual misconduct is defined: “He engages in sensual misconduct. He gets sexually involved with those who are protected by their mothers, their fathers, their brothers, their sisters, their relatives, or their Dhamma; those with husbands, those who entail punishments, or even those crowned with flowers by another man.”

    Culadasa’s case is interesting, in that I cannot place it firmly as sexual misconduct.

    Next the intersection of virtue and meditation. The jhanas (advanced states of samadhi) are attainable only by one who is virtuous. Jhana is attainable only for the pure!

    Now there are is a caveat: If you can attain jhanas only at a retreat, you are holding yourself to a higher standard than your usual standards. So, attaining jhanas at a retreat is only a proof of purity as long as you are in retreat. Since most lay buddhists are dependent on retreats to attain jhana, they do not have a metric by which they can measure their day to day purity (a fatal flaw that requires correction).

    There are those who can attain jhana at will (independent of retreat conditions). These people, indeed will do no misdeed.

  80. Three Year Lurker says:

    In a similar vein to the the repeating word question, is spelling a name different ways in different paragraphs used in psychological tests?

  81. Reasoner says:

    I took a one month online meditation class a couple years ago that I ended up quitting early because I felt like it was fucking with my mind too much (actually most of the effects seemed positive, but it still felt like I was messing with stuff I didn’t understand, which scared me). The class was taught by a man and a woman. Recently there was some controversy when the woman publicly accused the man of being an abuser (I had no idea they were even in a relationship) and deleted him from her website. I didn’t know what to think. The fact that she was publishing this guy’s course on her website would appear to indicate poor judgement on her part (she said that he’d been abusing her for a long time), and the general tenor of her testimony made me think she was making mountains out of molehills. On the other hand, it’s very possible that this guy actually did horrible things and she’s just been super mature in not publishing the details. In any case, I’m glad I noticed the red flags and stopped taking their course, because at least one of them is in a place I don’t want to end up!

  82. WrathOfPiglet says:

    The Catholic Church has had an enormous series of sex scandals also, despite teachings that elevate sexual self-control. Professor Philip Jenkins has argued that there is no evidence that Catholic priests are more likely to be involved in child abuse than other professions. This makes me wonder if these Buddhist figures really do have higher rates of sexual misbehaviour than average, or reflect the general incidence of these in the public as a whole.

    It may be simply that there is a lot of sexual violence and infidelity, and people who aspire to high-mindedness are little better at controlling their desires than anyone else.

    • Viliam says:

      Most people in the rationalist community are already skeptical about Catholic teachings. Maybe it’s time to bring the same skepticism into debates about meditation and enlightenment.

      I mean, it’s not enough to dismiss the stories about magical powers and reincarnation. We should probably dismiss the stories about eliminating desire, too. They come from the same source anyway, don’t they?

      • Shivananda says:

        maybe you should practice first and see, if it brings any results?

        • Akhorahil says:

          No, that’s the wrong way of thinking – introspection and anecdotes suck, and it’s ridiculously easy to fool yourself.

          What you should do is to see what can be measured scientifically. That’s what separates results from mere talk.

  83. HowardHolmes says:

    Viliam said

    We should probably dismiss the stories about eliminating desire, too. They come from the same source anyway, don’t they?

    Before completely discounting the concept realize there is an issue with definition. If by elimination of desire it means I do not desire to eat lunch or even that I am totally indifferent to what I have for lunch, this is not happening. Rather I think in terms of what is eliminated is the feeling that our desires are important, or that it is important that we get what we desire. Someone expressed it as we “should get what we desire.” This IMO is what comes with enlightenment, the realization that our desires are not real in the sense of having meaningful consequences. I might desire to keep living but I realize I do not care in any meaningful way whether I live or die. A bird might desire to catch a bug, but no suffering ensues if it fails. The enlightened person realizes that judging our desires as important is optional and therefore suffering is optional.

  84. waltonmath says:

    You misspelled “Culadasa” a few times.

  85. Deej says:

    Combine characteristics of people that want to achieve enlightement – a bit weird – with people that want to lead some kind of movement….

  86. Peter Gerdes says:

    Hmm, I was initially skeptical of this explanation but the more I consider it the more plausible it becomes.

    Note that sex scandals and the like aren’t cases (like with forcible rape) where the perpetrator did something that seemed to be hurting someone in the moment. Generally, in the moment, everyone seemed very happy or at least comfortable.

    Rather, sex scandals tend to be about the violations of norms that are supposed to prevent long term harms that might not be visible at the moment. For instance, consider a professor who sleeps with his students. At the time it starts everyone tends to be really into it and no one is getting hurt. The scandal is because we believe that in the long term this creates serious problems the professor should see coming, e.g., what happens after breakup, will the student even feel comfortable breaking up, will other students feel pressured or treated unfairly, etc.. etc..

    It seems plausible that being good at enlightenment type stuff weakens the defacto tendency to simply defer to social norms while doing nothing to make the practitioner better at predicting or seeing harms down the road.

    Well that and the ambition involved in becoming a leader.

    • Shivananda says:

      The reason why professors and such like should not fuck their students is because there’s such a massive power imbalance between the student and the professor. Students can’t say no to a professor without fear of reprisal and destruction of his or her career. Professors do not have flings with their students, they sexually abuse them. The professors abuse their position of power as they fuck their students, and they know it, and they love it.

  87. Shivananda says:

    Buddhism is neither puritanical Protestantism nor orthodox Judaism. Having said that fucking whores is unwise activity to engage in as a Buddhist teacher since it brings bad reputation and decreases number as well as lowers the quality of the students. The fact that the dude lacked the omniscience to foresee the shitstorm that he’s curently in suggests that he’s not a Buddha, eh?

    • Viliam says:

      Buddhism is neither puritanical Protestantism nor orthodox Judaism.

      Sure, but Buddhism has its own rules, such as:

      “As all Buddhas refrained from sexual misconduct until the end of their lives, so I too will refrain from sexual misconduct until the end of my life.”

      “The third precept condemns sexual misconduct. This has been interpreted in classical texts to include adultery with a married or engaged person, rape, incest, sex with a minor (or a person “protected by any relative”), and sex with a prostitute.”

      So the people who supposedly reached the ultimate achievement of Buddhism actually fail at one of the (Buddhist, not Protestant) basic rules for laymen.

  88. Brian in Brooklyn says:

    “I don’t think many modern teachers say enlightenment makes you morally perfect. But I think at least some of them say it makes you free from craving or desire.”

    Working towards enlightenment grants a person the possibility of acting in a moral way, i.e., in accordance with the Eightfold Path.

    Short of being a fully enlightened Buddha, humans are going to generate and experience cravings/desires. From one angle, humans can be understood as desire manufacturing machines. Practice allows a person to unattach from desires as they arise, not stop generating them. When we unattach from a desire, we are placing the act of determining whether or not the desire can be fulfilled in accordance with the Eightfold Path above the satisfaction of the desire, no matter how good and/or harmless the desire might appear. All desires–whether to eat dinner or argue with my husband–are the same: they are empty, and cannot be categorized as being intrinsically good or evil (which is how Abrahamism deals with desires). All desires need to be put through the process of being analyzed in light of the Eightfold Path, which will tell a person if and how a desire may be satisfied.

  89. AnthonyC says:

    Ah yes, Zen governing board.

    “Let’s vote. Are they enlightened?”
    “Good, then we’re all agreed.”

  90. shortchenpa says:

    Related to Scott’s question “if meditation, like LSD, relaxes mental priors and increases entropy, do these failure modes help us understand what strong priors and low entropy are good for? “, see this paper “Why Does the Mind Wander?”
    The article attempts to show what value mind wandering has and offers a method to test such. Most forms of Buddhist meditation counter mind wandering. The article doesn’t directly answer Scott’s specific question but shows how one might approach answering it. In terms of sexual abuses in Sangha, alas, the question might be reframed as “what is the state of spiritual teachers not hitting on students good for?’ 🙂 But maybe that’s too easy to answer.

  91. Akhorahil says:

    I would expect a self-proclaimed enlightened sect-leader or other mystical teacher to get involved in far more sex scandals than the average Joe. Abuse of power comes as no surprise.

    The simple explanation here is that there’s nothing special about these mystical teachers and leaders, except for a charismatic ability to get others to follow them. They’re just powerful people with devoted followers – what do you think will happen? Sex scandals and economic corruption is what people do in these situations.

    Going by various American sect leaders, it seems that their definition of success is a huge gun cache, lots of cocaine, and sex with minors.