When healthy desires arise they are based on right understanding of the dharma. These are desires that lead to practice, to the cultivation of compassion, to non-attachment, to generosity. They lead to selflessness and wisdom, to living in service to others. The impetus for unhealthy desires is in accord with samsara, with an understanding that leads to not practicing, to insensitivity to others, to not caring, to selfishness and to attachment. But why would those who have seen into the nature of samsara, of attachments, of the self, give validity and truth to their own desires? Being dry grass, why would they throw themselves into a burning fire? Because desire still remains. Karmic energies persist. There is still something outside which is wanted. There is still something inside which is seen as insufficient, even if it has been realized as empty. The fire is still burning.
Throughout history, wherever a crowd forms, wealth, power, status, recognition, love and sex also appear. These are the forces, the desires that are at the root of all suffering. But these forces can also be used for tremendous good. Yet the greater the force, the hotter the flame and the easier it is for it to burn out of control. The greater the force, the harder it is to hold it well, to not get consumed by it. And thus the Buddha says, better to keep your distance. That is why the Eight Awarenesses teach: “Have few desires. Know how to be satisfied.” The Buddha recognized that every desire is a flame. The more flames you’re tending to, the easier it is for them to get out of control. So keep it contained, keep it manageable. The Buddha also said, “As for love and desire, no desire is as deep-rooted as sex. Fortunately, it’s one of a kind. If there was something else like it, no one in the entire world would be able to practice the Way.” Is this the Buddha showing a sense of humor?
In Zen training, the dynamic between student and teacher is spiritually intimate. That’s its nature. To be intimate with oneself, one has to be intimate with the dharma, which in formal training means being intimate with the teacher. Over time, that intimacy increases as the student progresses. So it’s the teacher’s responsibility to maintain that intimacy yet not let it cross over into a physical or emotional realm. While the student is asked to deeply trust and be open to the teacher, this should not be regarded as submission. The student is fully in charge but has also given permission to be taught, engaged, and directly encountered. In that intimate working, it’s relatively easy for the student to get confused and develop other kinds of attachments. So it’s the teacher’s role to redirect the student’s feelings if they arise, to clarify them and not affirm them. If the student is unable to stay clear within the relationship, then the relationship needs to end. That student can no longer study the dharma with that teacher. And ending such a relationship is the teacher’s responsibility. But the teacher can also get seduced. As deeply as the student is asked to enter, the teacher must also enter. And so if the teacher, being a human being, sees sexual desires arising, he or she must redirect those energies, must clarify them and ultimately, drop them off. Otherwise, that teacher cannot teach that student. This insures that when the student encounters a teacher, the only thing he or she is seeking is the dharma; and when a teacher faces his or her student, the only concern is the practice of that student.
To acknowledge the power of sexuality means there is a need within all of us for diligence, sincerity, perseverance and thoroughgoing awareness so as not to become seduced by our own desire. This is why we must not pursue self-serving forms of power, giving rise to a mind seeking “fame and gain,” as Dogen speaks of it. The Wayseeking mind must not become a self-seeking or an other-seeking mind. Thus, the Buddha said, “Those on the Way are like dry grass. It is essential to keep away from an oncoming fire.” Being like dry grass, it’s easy to be ignited when coming into contact with fire. Understanding this and our own easy-to-ignite inclinations, skillfulness must include avoiding fire when necessary, for the wellbeing of others. In the Mahayana tradition, our ultimate challenge is to understand the dry grass and the fire as one thing and to live perfectly in accord with this truth. This is the realm of the layman Vimalakirti, who went into the brothels, into the bars, into all the places where the fire is burning and desires are abundant, so he could offer the dharma to beings in all the six realms. But that’s Vimalakirti, a deeply enlightened being—and a non-historical figure at that. Most of us are not in that advanced stage of practice. And so there is wisdom in keeping our distance from that which we may not yet have the strength or confidence to navigate.
People in perceived positions of power will often attract those who also seek power and the mandate is to not betray those people, whatever they’re seeking. Offer them what they need, which is the real dharma; not what they want, which may be just more desire-based delusion. While both parties are responsible⎯and the student is also accountable, the person with the greater power holds the greater responsibility for establishing and maintaining the correct understanding within that relationship. But we can’t do that if we’re not clear ourselves, which is our responsibility in this practice: to study and realize the self. Ultimately, this clarity has to arise from a deep motivation to live our lives in a way that is true to the dharma, true to ourselves, and true to others.