Late Night Phone Alerts and Other Intrusions: What to expect when you write about sexual violation in religion.

Today’s post comes from Amy Paris Langenberg. Amy is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Eckerd College, Florida. Amy is the author of  Birth in Buddhism: The Suffering Fetus and Female Freedom (2017, Routledge). You can read an earlier post by Amy, together with Ann Gleig, here.) This time Amy reflects on her experiences as a scholar who writes about sexual violence in Buddhism.

I recently wrote a piece on Buddhist cases of sexual violation and the Buddhist understanding of consent that was published online in Tricycle, an American publication read by Buddhist practitioners, teachers, and scholars. I argued that recurrent instances and allegations of sexual misconduct and violation  in American Buddhist communities show that Buddhism has a sexual ethics problem. I also contended that a doubling down on well-known Buddhist ethical principles, like non-harm and compassion, was not an adequate solution. I called instead for a Buddhist- but also feminist-informed path towards ethical reform and healing, and suggested that deep in the early tradition were overlooked resources that support a more survivor-centered approach to the issue.

People were triggered.

Sexual violation in religious communities is about sex, but it is also about authority and power. Challenges to patterns of abuse in Buddhism, even scholarly ones such as my piece, push on the cleavages and stress points in structures of power and arrangements of authority. It is not surprising, then, that the pushback I received challenged, in return, my authority for writing on such subjects and demeaned my qualifications as a scholar.

Much worse, the negative responses I received also implied that the multiple survivors of sexual violation in American Buddhism were not really harmed, or alternatively, not really Buddhists. These comments were delivered publicly on social media, but also over private messaging, sometimes lighting up my phone at odd hours of the night. I found the affective labor involved in receiving and deciding how (or if) to respond to these types of communications significant. How much worse must it be for survivors such as Andrea Winn, Rebecca Jamieson, or Lama Willa Miller, who, having battled through the trauma of the original experiences, have then withstood hostility and erasure, often from other Buddhists.

My Tricycle piece argued that the Buddhist tradition is not by itself adequate for responding to abuse, but that sources within the vinaya (monastic disciplinary texts) — namely uniquely Buddhist understandings of consent and intention — could be helpful for survivors wishing to find resources within a tradition they still find meaningful or a source of healing. Still, the most affectively charged responses I received were from people who positioned themselves as consummate insiders.

One such response came from an American bhikṣuṇī (fully ordained monastic woman) in the Chinese tradition living in Iowa. Her lengthy comments, which were posted to a Buddhist Studies Facebook group, characterized my piece as a “nice hodgepodge” of references (thus seeming to imply that it had no central argument or point). She critiqued the fact that I didn’t include endnotes and scolded me for not providing quotes from the vinaya. Assuming incorrectly that I did not have access to them in their original languages, she pointed me to places I could find vinaya sources in English. In response, I thanked her for her comment and respectfully explained that public facing scholarship in a popular publication like Tricycle didn’t allow for extensive quotation and citation. I spared her a full accounting of my scholarly credentials, but suggested that, if she take a look at my page, she might find some of what she was missing in the Tricycle article.

I don’t think she did bother to look up my background or scholarship, nor did she seem to put a lot of time into understanding the point of my Tricycle piece. This was to open up the tradition by reading against the grain and asking different questions than it explicitly asks of itself, a reading strategy well represented and well theorized as a feminist hermeneutic and historiography. Instead, in her next post she launched into an off-the-top-of-her-head list of unsolicited suggestions for other, in her mind better, research methodologies I could take up and other disciplines I could explore in order to address the issue of abuse in Buddhism. She finished by stating that since the issues of consent and abuse were not of concern during the Buddha’s time (a position with which I heartily disagree), my constructive work in exploring notions of consent in the vinaya and other classical sources was doomed to be “conjecture and comparisons which make for poor scholarship.”

Another far more more aggressive response came from a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner who claimed to have close connections with multiple Tibetan lineage holders and tulkus, including Chogyam Trungpa and his family. She described her relationships with a host of famous Tibetan Buddhist figures, to whom she was apparently babysitter, student, lover, and friend. Who am I, she asked, to question or criticize her Tibetan teachers? On what authority? What lineage was I a part of? What do I know about abuse in Shambhala or elsewhere? In fact, I did not attempt a full or detailed accounting of allegations against Tibetan teachers in my piece, as this was not my focus, and they are, in any case, detailed elsewhere. I did, however, reference apologetic or what I consider to be simplistic responses from Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and others as part of my argument that Buddhist solutions to abuse had not been adequate.

This reader further argued that my focus on survivor trauma and the vagaries of sexual consent infantilizes women and takes away their sexual choices. She accused me of telling her with whom she could have sex, and then documented her personal life, which apparently included a relationship with a prominent Tibetan Buddhist teacher (now deceased) as well as several well-known figures in the music industry. She argued that sexual abuse cases were only properly decided in a court of law where one is innocent until proven guilty and the burden of proof is high. Additionally, she questioned whether American Buddhism (the field of focus for my ongoing collaborative work on Buddhist sexual abuse with Ann Gleig) is real Buddhism as, in her estimation, real Buddhism is Asian.

In her gentler moments, this reader schooled me privately by direct message on the six perfections and the eight-fold path. At other times, she seemed to want to blackball me publicly by tagging multiple Buddhist teachers in a series of taunting tweets. In these public Twitter missives, she impugned me as arrogant and my scholarship as “shabby” and “bad academics” that mixed up things that shouldn’t be mixed up, such as psychology and different schools of Buddhism.

In total, this individual left only one initial comment on a private Facebook group page but private messaged me upwards of twenty-five times, many of which were substantial messages, with one reaching over 1500 words in length. She also included various and sundry attachments. In addition, as mentioned she sought me out on Twitter in order to disparage me publicly in a several-tweets-long thread. (My communications to her numbered three in total, the longest amounting to 33 words.) Overall, her tone ranged from pedagogical, to confessional, to loving, to taunting, to insulting. Twice, her private messages dropped very late at night, one after the other in a series. They lit up my phone and made me reach for it thinking they could be emergency texts from one of my children.

I learned from my Tricycle experience that our work on sexual abuse in American Buddhist communities is triggering. In different ways, both responses were inappropriate and intrusive given my qualifications as a scholar, what I had actually written in my Tricycle piece, and the courteous and professional manner in which I had engaged them online.

Ann and I know that we will likely field a number of similar reactions (or worse?) when we publish our book on sexual abuse in American Buddhism, as it will take an intersectional feminist approach and center survivors. Those I narrate here may be instructive of what we, or anyone producing public scholarship on sexual violation in religion, can expect. First, they are both from women, indicative of the fact that gender does not ensure a position supportive of survivors or survivor-centered work, and that it is not unusual for women to intervene to defend those in power. Second, both pushed against this work from insider positions that were marked. In one case, insider status was marked by monastic robes, from which an assumption of superior knowledge in all things seemed to flow naturally. In the other, it was marked by explicitly claiming lineage membership and closeness to religious authority (and challenging my assumed lack of lineage membership). Third, the responses attacked, erased, or sneered at my academic qualifications and scholarly chops, apparently without doing the necessary work that would allow for an accurate assessment.

What I found most demoralizing about these online interactions is the fact that both critics erased survivors and their experiences in their desire to protect the structures of power and authority in which they had invested. Neither expressed much concern for what Buddhist survivors of abuse have experienced. My monastic critic defended the tradition by arguing that sexual abuse was not relevant in the Buddha’s time. This amounts to an anti-feminist reading of the tradition, one that ignores the multiple accounts of rape and sexual assault in early Buddhist sources. If we read the sources in this way, we are, in effect, modeling the erasure of sexual trauma as Buddhist. My Tibetan Buddhist critic implied that no violation rises to something actionable unless it can be adjudicated in court. She also effectively denied that power inequities affect a person’s ability to consent. While she claimed to speak for the Tibetan tradition as in insider, in fact her position is quite different from that of the several Tibetan teachers that have spoken out against abuse. The Tibetan Buddhist tradition is not univocal on the subject of sexual abuse.

It was not pleasant to field these unfair, disrespectful, and sometimes insulting responses to my work. It was heavy emotional labor to receive the aggression of strangers in the disembodied realms of social media, especially when it arrived in the form of multiple ranting private messages at 2 AM. The affective experience of these exchanges was made stranger by the fact that they were often laced with Buddhist wishes that I “awaken my mindstream” and that “all sentient beings be happy.”

Receiving strangers’ aggression online felt confusing and toxic to me, but what I experienced was mostly a deflection of the hostility and obfuscation that is more often directed at the survivors themselves. It is common for survivors of abuse to have their legitimacy, commitment, honesty, and experience-based knowledge challenged and erased, up close and in person, within their own communities. . . often by people that are insisting on the good intentions and wise minds of their abusers.