Last winter, on a chilly night just after the New Year, I sat in a darkened theater at the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan watching Crazy Wisdom, a documentary about the life of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Like most American Buddhists, I had heard the colorful stories about his unconventional, theatrical pedagogy—known as “crazy wisdom”—and more than a few anecdotes about his relationships to alcohol and women. I was curious to learn more about this legendary teacher who had influenced so many Western Buddhists, some who have become important teachers in their own right.

As the film progressed, I felt an increasing sense of dis-ease, or duhkha, as it’s called in Buddhist teachings. Images of a young Tibetan trying to find his way in a foreign country filled the screen as Trungpa Rinpoche recounted his loneliness and isolation and his painful recovery from a near-fatal car accident (possibly caused by his increasingly problematic alcohol use). But this footage was quickly eclipsed by the testimony of students who spoke with awe of his compelling presence and unorthodox teaching methods, his depth of insight and what—for them—was his obvious enlightenment. Indeed, the film marshaled extraordinary images: Trungpa, clad in an olive green uniform, arraying his cavalry and marching his students as if preparing for a military deployment; a preternatural rainbow radiating above his gravesite in the days after his death.

The students in the film described their enchantment with his charisma and prodigious energy but seemed oblivious to, or untroubled by, his traumatic background and what I perceived as his personal pain. The only seasoned American Buddhist scholar in the film, Robert Thurman, noted that Trungpa’s death at age 46, likely due to alcoholism, was lamentable. He could have lived much longer, Thurman suggested, carrying his teachings further. But the filmmakers didn’t linger over this analysis, returning instead to the steady flow of reverent praise.

Like other talented Tibetan monks in the 1970s and ’80s, Trungpa moved to the United States to introduce the dharma to Western students. I know other senior Tibetan teachers with comparable histories and have heard their stories of disorienting transitions to new countries, as if they’d landed on the moon without a space suit. For most of these teachers, including Trungpa, these dramatic shifts followed on the heels of a harrowing escape from the brutal Chinese occupation of Tibet. I imagined that Trungpa might also have suffered the ripple effects of culture shock and the loss of loved ones, and might have strained under the weight of his new American students’ expectations of the awakened master they wanted him to be.

As the documentary unfolded, it occurred to me that American Buddhists (with exceptions, of course) have skipped a developmental stage that would allow us to more readily notice and respond to our teacher’s subjectivity. We don’t often take into account that even revered teachers may have childhood memories in need of integration, unexpected personal loss, or addictions influenced by genetic predispositions requiring treatment outside the spiritual realm. I suspect that, still young in our acquaintanceship with the dharma, we struggle to accept our teachers as people, both gifted and flawed. We tend to idolize them, as we did our parents, in order to feel safely bonded to an idealizable, all-powerful other. And while these may be sweeping claims, and idealizations are a natural part of any teacher-student relationship, I nevertheless see a pervasive struggle in developing a more adult capacity to understand our teachers in context and to accept their participation in ordinary human experience.

Some of these struggles are complicated by practices that encourage students to envision their teachers as fully realized. Tibetan Buddhist teachings especially suggest that only when we recognize the buddhahood in our teachers may we receive the blessings of an awakened being. While these teachings offer the potential to expand and refine our awareness, they can also serve to split buddhahood from personhood, teacher from self. The restorative experience of turning to our teachers for their good counsel—which we do because we may see them as awakened—can trump the valuable activity of relying on our own capacity for wisdom and insight.

As a relational psychoanalyst, I have spent much of my training and professional life exploring how relationships—to oneself, to culture, and to loved ones—develop. As a Buddhist, I’ve been similarly engaged in examining how we cultivate a deeper and more authentic sense of connection. And as a Buddhist psychoanalyst, I’ve attempted to understand how these two disciplines might enhance our efforts to forge meaningful and sustainable relationships. For the past 30 years, Buddhist psychoanalysts have been contributing to a growing body of research and literature on the topic of the student-teacher relationship. Writers including the psychoanalysts Mark Finn, co-author of Object Relations Theory and Religion, Jeffrey Rubin, who wrote Psychotherapy and Buddhism, and Harvey Aronson, author ofBuddhist Practice on Western Ground, have been exploring the ways in which Buddhist teachers bring their psychological experience to their teaching endeavors. In their work, informed by personal and professional experience, they have also considered how Buddhist students in the West might be confronted with formidable cross-cultural challenges studying with Asian-born and/or monastic teachers. 

teachers as people
Kriti – From the Ashes of Agony, 2011, Acrylic on Canvas, Courtesy Rossi & Rossi.

With all this in mind, in the days after seeing Crazy Wisdom I found myself revisiting the psychoanalytic theory known as intersubjectivity and drawing on its insight into how we develop the ability to be seen and known and to see and know others. The intersubjective perspective explores how babies develop a sense of self and other through their relationship with a caretaker, especially through the nuances of physical contact during feeding, bathing, play, and preparation for sleep. Ideally, through this ongoing exchange, the baby and caretaker experience a growing sense of attunement, and as a result, a bolstered trust that their basic needs, feelings, and intentions can be known to each other. One of the primary fruits of this mutual recognition is that the baby begins to see that the caretaker has his or her own reality that can be discerned and related to, just as the baby has been known by his mother or caretaker.

As the theory of intersubjectivity evolved, its proponents began to describe the psychological terrain that develops between the infant and its caretaker or, for that matter, between any two people, as a “third space.” Particularly relevant to Buddhism is the notion that such a space requires a temporary surrender of self, and that through this surrender a young child is able to sustain connection to the caretaker’s mind while more readily accepting her separateness and personhood. If the parent is distracted, however—suffering from trauma or depression, for instance—he or she may be unable to offer the baby the nuanced attunement it needs. Thus, when a third space never develops, or develops and breaks down, the child may feel he lacks the ability to affect his caretaker. He may feel reactive and “done to,” as the New York University psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin, a leading theorist in this field, writes: it is a sense of being helplessly lost in the shadow of the other. Many adults see themselves in this helpless way when the third space in a relationship collapses—who hasn’t, at some point, been involved with someone who seems impervious to our subjectivity? What is harder to see are the ways through which we protect ourselves from a collapsed third space. Rather than suffer the terrible sense of being done to, we may opt to be the one who controls the collapsed space by dominating interactions within that relationship, opting to make others feel helpless instead of being on the receiving end of their efforts at control.

As skillful therapists from all schools of thought know, our ability to find and sustain healthy interpersonal experience does not depend on a history of perfect attunement. There is no such thing as two people—whether baby and mother, two lovers, or teacher and student—being perfectly in sync with each other’s needs and wishes. Real intimacy arises from an ongoing process of connection that at some point is disrupted and then, ideally, repaired. I think of this as an interpersonal crochet stitch: connection, disruption, repair, over and over again, until a fabric is created with enough strength and flexibility to endure the wear of any two people attempting to know one another.

But a “perfect match” is a compelling fantasy. When seeking romantic partners, we often hold out for “the one” who magically knows just how to talk to us, touch us, comfort us, without stress or discord. In seeking therapists, patients often expect to find that perfectly sage being who has transcended samsara and can serve as a knower of all truths, the perfect healer. And when seeking spiritual mentors, students are on the lookout for the enlightened being in their midst who glides graciously through life without effort and knows just how to usher the student toward awakening, as quickly as possible.

Having spent my entire adulthood and much of my childhood surrounded by Western Buddhists, I wonder if many of them had early relational experiences that stymied their capacity to feel safely engaged with a world beyond their control. People come to the dharma for many reasons, including a burgeoning sense that life could be more consistently fulfilling and joyful than previously imagined. And yet it seems to be true that relatively few arrive at Buddhist centers on the wings of psychic victory. Many people have a psychologically complex history, one influenced by trauma or loss. In this way, we practice to resolve thorny and entrenched forms of psychological pain.

The relationship between the Buddhist teacher and student is a dyad comparable to the psychoanalytic one. But in this case, it is the teacher and student who are enacting their individual emotional histories. As a result, the potential for boundary violations is rampant, and the possible victims include students who have felt manipulated and even abused by their teachers, and teachers who have felt manipulated and abused by their students. From what I have observed, both participants are vulnerable to their unconscious longing for perfect attunement, for a merger experience in which idealizations obscure a realistic view of an actual human being.

In much the same way that psychoanalytic research has emphasized the infant’s experience, and paid relatively little attention to the mother’s subjectivity, Buddhist scholars have attended to the more blatantly vulnerable actor in student-teacher relationships—the student. It is tempting to ignore the reality that there are two sentient beings in this dyad, and that both have psyches that make them capable of unskillful actions. Teachers, in fact, are vulnerable to the ways in which students project onto them both salvific and destructive capacities. And when a student idealizes the teacher to the point where he or she can’t see the guru as human, it becomes nearly impossible for that student to take into account both the teacher’s giftsand vulnerability.

But it takes two to build a third space. A teacher who has the maturity to be seen as a whole being—in addition to having a kind heart and a liberated mind—may invite the student to curb the idealizations and work instead toward cultivating the wisdom and agency they have been ascribing exclusively to the teacher. Teachers and students alike pay a price when this mutuality does not develop. Trungpa Rinpoche is not alone among famous spiritual teachers in having suffered in ways that may have required attention and treatment he never received. There are scores of senior Buddhist teachers (and I suspect this is true for all faith traditions) who privately undergo inner torment that is never addressed. The world was shocked when Mother Teresa’s journals were published, attesting to her 40 years of doubt and depression. What distressed me most was not that she had suffered depression, which is widespread, but that she was unable to seek help. Why was she left to manage such a long, dark night of the soul alone?

I can’t know whether or not Trungpa had concerned students who made efforts to respectfully confront him; I suspect there must have been some who were troubled by and worried about his alcohol use. Perhaps Trungpa resisted such concern. Whatever the case, it seems important to explore how Western Buddhist students can approach their teachers’ humanity and subjective struggles.

Having befriended a senior teacher in the Tibetan tradition, I am attempting, in my own right, to create a roomier third space between us. My teacher has a fantastic sense of humor and playfulness. We laugh together at the absurdity of our woeful human struggles. But if we’re looking to hide from a deeper, potentially more painful and healing exploration of these struggles, humor is a powerful defense. My teacher has lost some of his beloved students in the past few years, and when I asked him how he was feeling in the wake of these deaths, he replied with a joke: “How much are you gonna charge me for this session?” I laughed. When I mustered the courage to ask again, he dug his finger deep into his ear like a nervous kid, looked at the floor and said, “Truthfully, I feel numb.” I nodded. He looked at me and we nodded together. Then the phone rang, and the conversation was over.

A year ago, a senior monk and longtime friend of my teacher’s had a brain aneurism and fell into a coma for several weeks. We had all been together on retreat only a few months prior. When my teacher returned from his friend’s sickbed, I asked about his state of mind. There was more ear poking, more jokes. He shook his head, stared at his computer, his iPhone, his landline. Then he stared at the floor.

“When this happens I think, who’s next?”

For a fleeting moment we looked at each other. I added, “It’s rough when the people you know and care about get sick. Makes you feel vulnerable.”

He nodded, looked me dead in the eye and said, “How much is that gonna cost me?” I told him he should expect a hefty bill. We laughed and the phone rang, he received a text, and the conversation was over.

As I reflect on my concern for my teacher’s well-being, I see the complexity of this and other relationships that involve contrasting backgrounds and cultural influences. My teacher, like Trungpa, comes from a world shaped by his spiritual and monastic education, a world that prizes the freedom that comes from loosening attachment to personal experience. But this approach has its drawbacks. We must recognize the validity of seeing our teachers as individuals, too. My hope is that we may begin to bring them into clearer view, not only to better see their gifts of insight and compassion, but to accept the fullness of their own human struggle.

A version of this essay was first published in Spring: A Journal of Archetype and Culture, vol. 89 (Spring 2013).