The Tibetan Buddhist community has recently been upset by revelations involving two highly esteemed lamas, Sogyal Rinpoche and Lama Norlha.
Although both teachers resigned from their organizations, their communities are left to work through the accusations of improper relationships and abuse.
Which raises the question: how did abuse in these communities continue unchecked for so long? As a psychotherapist, Dr. Miles Neale has worked with students from spiritual groups in crisis, including those affiliated with Lama Norlha, Michael Stone, and Geshe Michael Roach and Christie McNally, as well as yoga teachers Bikram Choudhury and John Friend. As a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner, Neale understands the guru-student relationship as essential to the institution.
Below, Neale, assistant director of the Nalanda Institute for Contemplative Science and a coauthor of Advances in Contemplative Psychotherapy, explains how the student-teacher relationship is supposed to work, why Western students often bring psychological baggage to their spiritual quest, and how traumatic events can actually be used as a way for communities to learn, grow, and strengthen.
Can you explain the traditional student-teacher relationship in Tibetan Buddhism? The unique form guru devotion found in Tibetan Buddhism is a vehicle of using another human being’s mind to accelerate one’s development. There’s a very sophisticated psychological component to this training, which basically mimics the child-parent bond for the student’s optimal development.
The idea is that the mentor is a living buddha, while the student becomes sort of a surrogate child. Their spiritual relationship acts as a catalyst for evolution. The human brain is hardwired to mimic, download, and process information from a caregiver. So one is basically downloading the awakened qualities of body, speech, and mind—the way that the lama thinks, acts, and speaks—to create a human bridge between the ordinary experience of the student and the stage of enlightenment.
Related: What Went Wrong
How long does it take for this sort of relationship to form? This isn’t something one normally dives right into. Since the institution of Tibetan Buddhism began, there has been a system of checks and balances on both sides of the relationship involving a set of vows called samaya. A sufficient amount of foundational knowledge and experience should be achieved by the student before he or she enters into a kind of contractual agreement with the lama for this intensive type of practice and close mentoring.
The student is encouraged to be scrupulous—to spend time with the teacher, to make a full evaluation. Of course, practically no one has that kind of time these days.
On the other side, the teacher will have training commitments, including very high ethical obligations. Not all teachers are fit to be gurus, and there are standards within the tradition about who is qualified.
In an ideal world, the teacher and the student are entering into a consensual contract with some specific prerequisites to ensure that both the student and the teacher progress. I think this is where, right out of the gate, too many assumptions are probably made on both sides. The student may be in a rush, or may not be psychologically prepared. And some teachers may be too eager to build a following and sustain a community. There is also a cultural divide. I don’t think Tibetans teachers are as informed as they could be to evaluate the psychological preparedness of their Western students.
Why not? Westerners come to spiritual practice with a lot of traumatic background, and there are some cultural reasons for this. I don’t want to make sweeping generalizations, but I think that students from postmodern industrialized Western societies can have more psychological attachment issues and childhood baggage than their Asian counterparts.
Preindustrial agricultural societies tend to have more familial support. Because of the breakdown in the extended family, as well as so many social and economic pressures and commitments, it’s not the case that all Western students have the assumed emotional maturity and secure attachment that would be required to safely enter an intimate spiritual relationship with a guru figure.
Some people come into a student-teacher relationship with many blind spots, unfulfilled wishes, unconscious fantasies, and unrealistic expectations that are challenging for the teacher to identify, navigate, and meet.
Related: How to Heal After Your Teacher Crosses the Line
How can this relationship go wrong, especially among Western students? A common problem is that students idealize their teacher in a way that resembles a child idealizing their parent. It’s called mirroring and is an appropriate aspect of healthy development. Some students entering that relationship have a lot of unmet needs, and the danger is that these students can get stuck in that early phase of development for years. They don’t progress along the appropriate developmental sequence to the next stage.
I call this the “glossy-eyed effect.” If you go into spiritual communities, sometimes you can see very devout and sincere students who have this twinkle in their eye when they look at their teacher, and I think that’s beautiful, natural, and understandable. But if it persists, this may become a developmental delay, with the student stuck in the inferior position of being a child fantasizing and idealizing the guru figure. The whole point isn’t to latch on to a guru in some infancy position forever; it’s to help you mature yourself so you can mentor others.
Are Tibetan teachers getting better at recognizing the needs of Western students? How can this gap be filled? The Dalai Lama has done a good job of being receptive and encouraging to cross-cultural and interdisciplinary dialogue. I think he is emblematic of the Tibetan tradition’s ideal kind of lama—he’s open to neuroscience, education, physics, and clinical psychology, and he wants to fine-tune and complement traditional approaches with contemporary insights and skills that will further his overall altruistic mission. He sees the Tibetan institution not as a closed or fixed system but as an ever-evolving one. And I think it would do other Tibetan lamas well to be more receptive to exchanges of knowledge.
There’s a term in my field of clinical psychology, “boundaries of competence,” meaning that you don’t operate outside of your training. You always know the limits of your capability, and if your client needs something that you can’t offer, you refer out. This is required by law, and it provides ethical standard that protects both parties.
I saw my own Tibetan master, the late Gelek Rimpoche, do this very wisely when he was asked a question about depression. He pointed to two senior students in the front row, both of whom were psychologists, and he said openly to everybody: “I cannot speak about that. You should consult my students who are psychologists.” I don’t know if every Tibetan teacher would do that; some might be quick to give an answer based on their own paradigm. But trauma needs to be handled by a trauma specialist. When you start to give spiritual advice for trauma, you are likely to trigger spiritual bypassing [the use of spiritual teachings to avoid difficult experiences], which serves no one.
We’ve seen two recent cases involving esteemed lamas who allegedly abused or had improper relationships with their students. What concerns does this bring up for the future of student-teacher relationships in the West? If Tibetan Buddhism is going to thrive in the West and maintain the guru-student institution in the modern world, its teachers will need to abide by the same ethical and legal standards that other health professions follow, become sensitive to mental health concerns that are specific to our culture, and follow the kinds of public policies and independent oversight governing any good organization that intends to ensure the safety of its members. The guru figure is a unique and amazingly powerful force for optimal development, but nothing that powerful should escape checks and balances.
The claim of “crazy wisdom” is no longer an acceptable excuse when teachers abuse their students. Physical and sexual harm on any level of reality is against every ethical teaching of the Buddha, and every vow any high lama or teacher takes.
When a student is the recipient of their teacher’s abuse, to say that it’s the student’s karma is tantamount to blaming the victim and dangerously gives teachers a free pass to continue unacceptable behavior.
Using samaya to deal with inappropriate behavior is a complete cop-out. If teachers decide to use their authority or a technical provision such as samaya or karma to bypass their culpability, we should refrain from deriding them out of anger and malice but instead simply distance ourselves from them. The matter of cautioning others should be done without slander, but with discretion and solely out of concern. Remaining silent is simply not an option. It fuels further abuse and is a form of being complicit.
Teachers who break their students’ trust by abusing them emotionally and physically are now on notice, because community members are now speaking out and will no longer tolerate that kind of impropriety. The Dalai Lama recently advised that publicly exposing a teacher’s indecency is a very powerful tool to end delusion.
In regard to checks and balances, do we run the risk of regulating a relationship that by nature defies regulation? Like that somehow we’re like superimposing cultural norms on top of a sacred relationship? What I’m suggesting are the very policies that lamas and monks are required to follow; they’re already supposed to abide by a code of conduct where they don’t injure or sexually violate their students. We’re not imposing that as Westerners.
If there’s an ethical violation where somebody is actually physically assaulted—as is the case reported at Rigpa, where a nun was punched in the gut in front of a thousand people—that is no longer a spiritual problem. That is a legal problem. That breaks the law of the country that Sogyal’s in. That’s an assault.
All I’m saying is: are we doing the bare minimum of holding the standards of the law of our nation, and are we keeping them accountable to their own due process of maintaining their own vows and conduct? I want to know how they are dealing with it behind closed doors. When these things happen, they get so concealed that it’s not clear to an outsider or sometimes even to a member of the community how the teacher is being sanctioned by his own lamas. How does he deal with his transgression of his vows?
If we’re getting into subjective senses of violation, he said/she said, if it’s not an actual physical assault or a sexual assault, then it becomes grey. If my lama is teasing me because he knows I have an insecurity and what he or she is doing while teasing me is really trying to show me how my insecurity is based in a fundamental egoic rigidity, and I get offended, then I think it’s a very grey area. That’s not assault. That’s not a legal situation. You can’t be arrested for that. Our nation is filled with people who feel insulted by all kinds of microtraumas that the supposed aggressor might not have intended.
But I think we can regulate behaviors. There’s this idea that if we regulate them, we’re somehow confining the guru. And I think, yes, of course, every time there’s regulation, we are in danger of straight jacketing or hindering an organic process. So I’m not one for overbearing, very meticulous bureaucracies. In the case of Sogyal and some of these great masters, though, I’m not saying we should have additional standards. I’m just saying we should hold them to the ones that we are all held to as members of this society.
Related: Why I Quit Guru Yoga
How can we support Tibetan Buddhists and students in the wake of these scandals? For those who have been hurt or otherwise negatively impacted by the scandals, I think an immediate reaction might be: Throw the whole thing out, we don’t need gurus. But that’s a very black-and-white reaction. It’s understandable, but unfortunate and not all that sophisticated or skillful. You also have the people with the starry-eyed complex who say He’s perfect, he’s blameless, you’re an outsider, you have no idea what you’re talking about. They are overly identified with and protective of their guru to such a degree that they can’t see the issues clearly.
I think we need to find a middle ground. These scandals can be used as a learning tool so that we can make the student-teacher relationship even more sensitive, useful, and effective. And one of the things that we can do as Westerners is say that teachers should be held accountable to a standard of ethics and checks and balances that are agreed upon by a community. For example, I don’t see why it’s OK for yoga teachers to sleep with their students but not OK for professors in an academic setting, since the power dynamic and vulnerabilities are the same. There also needs to be a board for Tibetan Buddhist sanghas and provisions for evaluation. I think that will make it safer for everyone to enjoy the benefits that a student-teacher relationship can provide.
We have to take care of people who have been abused, honor them, give them support, validate that this was not their fault, and let them know these kinds of behaviors will not be tolerated in the future. Otherwise we could retraumatize them because we’re complicit in denial.
The middle ground is also about keeping an open mind about what is going on with the teacher and not being so quick to judge. With every scandal, there is a vital opportunity for us to practice compassion for ourselves and for those students who have been directly abused in some way, as well as wrathful compassion for the delusion that still remains in a teacher who commits the abuse. We have a responsibility to the development of our teachers as well—it’s not a one-way street. Compassion is neither sympathy nor a rush to judgment but is grounded in discernment and clarity, allowing us to care for injury and blindness wherever it is found. But compassion is also about the confidence to call a spade a spade when necessary, as well as the patience to allow all the facts to emerge before responding.
In light of the egregious things that Sogyal Rinpoche and Lama Norlha have been accused of, as well as recent scandals involving other high-profile teachers such as Geshe Michael Roach and Lama Christie McNally, or from non-Tibetan traditions Bikram Choudhury and Joshu Sasaki Roshi, I suspect a sizable segment of students from their respective communities cannot tolerate the dissonance that arises when someone has achieved some level of meditative realization, insight, or skill but has also done something misguided and hurtful. I think it’s too easy to think, They did something wrong; they’re not awakened at all. It’s all a sham.
And that’s as sad a proposition for students who have invested 20 years in their training as it is for the teacher who, like us, is just another very complex human being. What is required to move forward is some degree of tolerance of cognitive dissonance that allows us to embrace a teacher’s awakened qualities while accepting and appropriately navigating their shortcomings. The middle way—that’s what the Buddha taught, and that’s ultimately what our practice is about finding.
[This story was first published in 2017]
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