Sogyal Rinpoche and Sakyong Mipham . . . alas, yet another wave of scandals around issues of sexual abuse by Buddhist teachers. In this case, public outcry has been partly inspired by the #MeToo movement, but is anyone still surprised by the recurring pattern?
Western Buddhists will presumably continue to do what we’ve done in the past: as disheartened students move on from their troubled communities, those on the outside will share their dismay for a while, until something else comes along to divert their attention. Before that happens, however, I think we should take a moment to examine whether these scandals keep repeating because they are symptomatic of something deeper.
If an abusive teacher is enlightened, why did he (it’s almost always a “he”) act so badly? Some students remain in denial, offering one excuse or another: it really wasn’t that bad; everyone shares responsibility for what happened; it was done for the student’s own good. Those who accept the disturbing revelations find themselves in a dilemma: either their teacher wasn’t that enlightened after all, in which case they’ve been conned, or enlightenment isn’t what they thought, which can be even more distressing.
Of the many issues raised in the discussions of the recurring problem of abuse, it seems to me there is a key aspect that has yet to receive the attention it deserves. In addition to the power differential in the relationship between a spiritual teacher and a student, there is often a spiritual transference. Like psychological transference in psychotherapy, spiritual transference can be beneficial to the student or, as we keep seeing, it can be harmful. How the transference is handled determines which it will be.
In psychotherapy, transference is a clinical term describing our unconscious tendency to redirect emotions and behavior felt toward someone in the past, like a parent, and project them onto someone else in the present (for example, one’s therapist or guru). It is a common way of trying to fill up our sense of lack by subordinating ourselves to someone who, we feel, is more real than we are, someone who can take care of us. Transference reveals how we remain childlike, misperceiving the world in order to compensate for a persistent, deeply rooted sense of inadequacy. As we mature, the urge to find security by subjecting ourselves to others often persists, transferred from parents to other authority figures such as teachers—including spiritual teachers.
This urge is not simply an emotional dependence but a matter of experiencing the other as one’s whole world, just as the family is for a young child. In his book The Denial of Death, the existential psychologist and cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker writes, “Mirabile! The transference object, being endowed with the transcendent powers of the universe, now has in himself the power to control, order, and combat them.”
According to Becker, this personification of our highest yearnings and strivings explains our urge to deify others, including (especially!) spiritual teachers: “The more they have, the more rubs off on us. We participate in their immortality, and so we create immortals.” Wanting to participate in our teacher’s enlightened being, we create the teacher as a being who is superior to us.
When you are surrounded by people who think you are godlike, and treat you that way, the danger is that after a while you will begin to agree with them.
The problem is that this process is largely unconscious and uncritical, a form of wishful thinking. One becomes extremely vulnerable to the views and actions of such a teacher, whose authority can easily be abused. But there is also a more positive aspect to transference. The person we identify with can motivate us to transform our three poisons: greed into generosity, ill will into loving-kindness, and delusion of a separate self into the wisdom of our interdependence.
No matter how well it functions, however, there comes a time when the transference needs to be broken—a process that almost always involves some pain. Spiritual maturity requires us to withdraw the projection and stand on our own feet. The teacher may be wise and compassionate, but he or she is also human, with some of the same foibles and shortcomings that afflict the rest of us. Breaking the transference requires not a breakdown in the relationship but a more mature version based on mutual respect. Instead of subordinating ourselves to the buddhanature of the teacher, we realize our own buddhanature and are guided by our own inner gyroscope.
Ideally, teachers will have some intuitive understanding of transference. Even if they don’t know anything about psychotherapy, they are able to use the transference to motivate and direct the student. At its best, this includes knowing when to break it, or helping it to end in a way that minimizes the inevitable awkwardness. Again, however, the relationship does not always progress so smoothly. In particular, teachers can get caught up in what psychoanalysis calls the counter-transference. And that brings us back to the problem of teacher abuse, sexual and otherwise.
When you are surrounded by people who think you are godlike, and treat you that way, the danger is that after a while you will begin to agree with them. Of course, one would hope that spiritual teachers would not fall into that trap, but obviously some do. We might suppose that such teachers are not yet mature enough in their own practice, but some of them are recognized by their tradition as possessing the qualifications to take on the responsibilities of being a teacher. And then things get tricky.
Related: Unmasking the Guru
The power differential that encourages transference opens up possibilities that are complicated by the freedom that the Buddhist path enables. According to the Zen tradition, those who have realized their true nature are free to follow conventional morality or not, and I believe that Tibetan tantra emphasizes the same thing. This freedom arises from the recognition that social morality is a cultural construct rather than an absolute set of ethical principles. The Mahayana concept of “skillful means,” upaya kaushalya, incorporates this insight: there may be occasions when, for the good of others, it is appropriate to break even basic Buddhist precepts.
Needless to say, such freedom can be abused. Yet this insight into the ultimate “emptiness” of moral codes highlights one of the most distinctive aspects of Buddhism: its focus on understanding and alleviating dukkha, “suffering,” right here and now. Fundamentally, the Buddhist path is not about good versus evil and salvation from sin, but ignorance versus awakening and developing the wisdom that sees through delusions that lead to dukkha.
The logic of Buddhism’s ethical perspective holds that those who are genuinely awakened will not be inclined to abuse others, because awakening frees them from the bonds of self-centered views and passions and causes them to refrain from behavior, including sexual behavior, that creates dukkha. For those who have ceased to view themselves as a separate self, external guidelines such as the precepts may be helpful as rules of thumb, but in the end they should not even be necessary.
That’s the principle, anyway. The long list of abuses by many so-called enlightened masters raises questions, of course. If awakening is very rarely (if ever) a matter of all or nothing, and if it isn’t integrated in a way that actually reforms self-centered habits, the freedom of realization can encourage and rationalize taking advantage of one’s position. And although awakening tends to make one less inhibited, is that always a good thing? If, as Buddhism emphasizes, the (sense of) self is mainly composed of habitual ways of thinking, feeling, acting, and so forth, then “letting go of oneself ” can include letting go of ego-constraints that prevent some problematic patterns of behavior. Like alcohol, this letting go can also “free” us from self-consciousness—and foster the difficulties that sometimes ensue. A practitioner—whose transference may include being enamored—may not be able to think clearly about the consequences of unskillful actions, but the teacher has a responsibility, and supposedly the wisdom, to understand the implications and set appropriate boundaries.
Given the potential difficulties with spiritual transference (and countertransference) in teacher-student relationships, it is important to understand the strong and largely unconscious tendency to romanticize spiritual leaders and the spiritual path. This entails, I would say, a more modest way of thinking about awakening itself. Rather than regard it as a superior state of being that some special people have attained, we might instead speak of awakened activity, which is motivated by altruism and compassion. It’s one thing to have experiences of profound realization, but something else—and much more difficult!—to integrate those insights into how one actually lives in the world, day by day, moment by moment. As another spiritual teacher once remarked, by their fruits shall you know them.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.