The Tibetan Buddhist community has recently been upset by revelations involving two highly esteemed lamas, Sogyal Rinpoche and Lama Norlha.

While these teachers have either entered a period of retreat or resigned from their organizations, their communities are left to work through the accusations of improper relationships and abuse.

Which raises the question: how has abuse in these communities continued 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, Geshe Michael Roach and Lama Christie McNally, and Michael Stone, 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, who is assistant director of the Nalanda Institute for Contemplative Science and 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 recent 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?
Guru devotion is unique to Tibetan Buddhism, and it 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 that basically mimics the child-parent bond for 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—as a human bridge between the ordinary experience of the student and enlightenment.

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 called samaya [vows]. There should be a sufficient amount of foundational knowledge and experience 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 check out the teacher, to spend time with and evaluate them. Of course, practically no one has that kind of time these days.

On the other side, the teacher has his or her own 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 both entering into a consensual contract with some specific prerequisites that ensure both the student and teacher progress. I think this is where, right out of the gate, there are probably too many assumptions made on both sides. The student may be in a rush, or he or she might not be psychologically prepared. And perhaps teachers are too eager to build a following and sustain a community. There is also a cultural divide. I don’t think the Tibetans 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 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 proceed with that kind of intimate relationship with a guru figure.

And so people come into a student-teacher relationship with many blind spots, unfulfilled wishes, unmet developmental needs, unconscious fantasies, and unrealistic expectations that are challenging for the teacher to identify, navigate, and meet.

How can this relationship go wrong, especially among Western students?
It is common that students will idealize their teacher in a way that resembles a child idealizing their parent. It’s called mirroring, an appropriate aspect of healthy development. Some students entering into 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 also become a developmental delay, with the student stuck in  this 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 being receptive and encouraging of 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 doesn’t see the Tibetan institution 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 called “boundaries of competence”—you don’t operate outside of your training. You always know the limits of your capability, and if there is something that your client needs that you can’t offer, you refer out. This is required by law, and that is an ethical standard that protects both parties.

I have seen my own Tibetan master, the late Gelek Rimpoche, do this very wisely when he was asked a question about depression. He pointed to his 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. They might be quick to give an answer based on their own paradigm. Trauma needs to be handled by a trauma specialist. When you get into spiritual advices for trauma, you are liable of spiritual bypassing, which serves no one.

There have been 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, then it’s going to need to abide by the same ethical and legal standards that other health professions do, become sensitive to mental health concerns that are specific to our culture, and follow public policies and independent oversight that govern 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.

To explain that it’s their karma when a student is the recipient of their teacher’s abuse 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 the teacher decides 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 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 empowers further abuse and is a form of being complicit.

Teachers that break their students’ trust while abusing them emotionally and physically are now on notice as community members are coming out of the closet 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.

How can we support Tibetan Buddhists and students in the wake of these scandals?
For those who have been hurt or negatively impacted by the scandals, I think an immediate reaction can 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 might hold the opposite extreme of being overly identified and protective of their guru so much so 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 relationships 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 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. 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 for all the facts to emerge before responding.

In light of the egregious things that Sogyal Rinpoche and Lama Norlha are accused of, as well recent scandals involving other high profile teachers such as Geshe Michael Roach and Lama Christie McNally, or Bikram Choudhury and Joshu Sasaki Roshi from non-Tibetan traditions, I suspect a sizable segment of students from their respective communities cannot tolerate the dissonance that 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.

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