The Teacher-Student Relationship: Liberating or a Trap?

July 27, 2017   |   22 Comments  |   FavoriteLoadingAdd to favorites

I’m a 20+ year practitioner in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage, a Tibetan Vajrayana tradition. It is based on teachings brought to the West by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

There are things in these two seemingly straightforward sentences that might piss some people off.

For example, in my community, there are arguments about whether it is okay to say “Shambhala” and “Buddhist”in the same sentence. People may get upset about this and if you ask them why, they will have fiercely emotional reasons that make great sense — to them.

There are people who say that the Vajrayana (the third “yana” or vehicle of Buddhist teachings, aka the esoteric teachings) is not even a thing, that the Hinayana (foundational vehicle) exists, certainly, as does the Mahayana (greater vehicle), but the Vajrayana (indestructible vehicle) is actually a subset of the Mahayana.

And then we come to Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, acknowledged far and wide as a true meditation master, a teacher of the highest order — and a human being who drank, smoked, and had sex with his students. He died at the age of 47.

It is all very complex.

In recent weeks, we have been witness to other complexities in the form of crimes and tragedies among revered and well-known Buddhist teachers.

From the crime department: both Sogyal Rinpoche (one of the first Tibetan Buddhist teachers to gain fame in the West) and Lama Norlha Rinpoche have been called out for sexual and other forms of abuse. Their communities are struggling under a great weight. Among loyal students, some are questioning their devotion while others are arguing for their guru, and angry victims and witnesses are demanding consequences, all of which makes sense.

And a true tragedy: Last week, the brilliant young Buddhist teacher (and activist, artist, husband, and father) Michael Stone died completely unexpectedly for reasons related to his struggles with bipolar disorder and, perhaps, opioids.

It has been a terrible, terrible month. Though sexual abuse and a tragic death have little in common, both cause us to question what we should expect from our teachers. To question such expectations is a sign of intelligence.

Various responses I’ve heard include:

  • This (abusiveness) is why you should never trust a teacher.
  • Great teachers do things that may appear crazy but are really meant to wake you up.
  • Don’t criticize my guru.
  • We must criticize our gurus.
  • I disavow my guru and/or my tradition.
  • We should reduce our expectations of teachers who, after all, are only human.
  • It was one thing to have a guru if you lived in Tibet or Japan a few centuries ago, but we are a postmodern society and require a different model.
  • When a brilliant teacher dies young, he or she means to perform bodhisattva activity in a future life.
  • Teachers are just frail human beings like the rest of us.

Our teachers are human beings, of course, and have angels and demons just like the rest of us. Abuse of power is definitely real among Buddhist communities, whether against women or men, and it is absolutely indefensible. We must call it out when we see it. If a teacher (man or woman) uses his or her position to take advantage (or worse) of a student, it should be identified. We should warn fellow seekers about what we know. (About what we know.) It is true that terrible, mediocre, and great teachers have committed terrible, mediocre, and great crimes. These teachers should be disavowed. But there are also teachers who transmit great awakenment, if only we knew how to receive it. These teachers should be venerated.

I was just on Facebook, reading and occasionally interacting with others about recent events. One comment suggested that though it’s fine to call Sogyal Rinpoche out, was he any more “corrupt” than other teachers such as Adi Da, Trungpa, Rajneesh? The commenter went on to applaud the well-founded concern expressed about such teachers a sign that modern people were finally recognizing that expecting teachers to “transmit higher mind states” was simply a projection of the student’s.

Of these teachers, one — Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche — is of great importance in my life.

I never met Chogyam Trungpa in person. However, I have met many, many people who were close students of his. Some of my best friends, as they say. I have spoken to women who had sex with him, most now in their 60s, who continue to think of him as their teacher. My own teacher, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, is his son.

By all accounts, Trungpa drank. A lot. I have no explanation for that. Unlike other teachers who had sex with their students, however, he never hid anything or threatened anyone according to those who were close to him. He drank in public. He did not mask his sexual relationships or lie about them.

Why did he do these things at all? I have no idea.

For me, studying the work of Trungpa Rinpoche and practicing his teachings are all I have to go on to understand his mind. They are at the heart of my relationship to him rather than stories, legends, opinions, judgments, and hearsay of all forms, no matter how compelling. His teachings have pointed me down the path I am meant to be on and saved me (so far) from my own stupidity. I am grateful and beyond grateful.

Of course I have tried to figure out who Trungpa Rinpoche really was. Some say he was a crazy wisdom master who used alcohol and sex to wake people up. Some say he was a brilliant teacher who was also a deeply flawed human being. Some say he was corrupt, as did my Facebook friend over there.

Whenever I hear one of these theories (each of which is very compelling), I think, oh, so that’s who that guy was. Until I hear the next story about him which totally contradicts the previous story and the only conclusion I can draw is I will never know who that guy was.

So I’m going to have to stay within the confines of my particular relationship with him which exists solely in the mind-to-mind realm where it continues to shine brilliant light and provocative darkness on every aspect of my experience.

My advice is don’t scare easily, but do scare appropriately. The student-teacher relationship is intimate. It takes place on the most hidden and vulnerable level of one’s being. It is ripe for manipulation, confusion, and aggression on both parts. For us students, we could try not to mistake feeling intimidated for sacred awe or confuse brutishness with true power. We could discover the difference between neurotic doubt and intelligent doubt. We could allow our hearts to be broken open, not crushed. Though it is antithetical to the Western gestalt, we could examine devotion as something other than mute slavishness. (These are all very fine lines. obviously.) Stay awake, let go, and be willing to trust yourself. Rely on your true intelligence. It’s terrifying.

Some teachers seem to be both dysfunctional and brilliantly realized. Some are complete charlatans. Others are beacons of unending, stainless brilliance. Often, they look very similar. And sometimes the transmission of higher mind states from teacher to student is a trick and reflective of a lack of psychological evolution. Sometimes it is not.

In trying to make sense of it all, you could go the traditional route and place your trust in a guru and a lineage. This could be great or you could be completely fooling yourself. You could avail yourself of various respectable teachers and take what is valuable from each without committing to anyone. This could be great or you could be completely fooling yourself. You could forego the notion of a teacher altogether and embark on your journey using your own intuition as the primary guide. This could be great or you could be completely fooling yourself. If you’re interested in traversing the spiritual path wholeheartedly, you are going to have to figure it out.

In the meantime, here is what I suggest to my own students who are uncertain about what to do next in their spiritual practice: In addition to weighing the pros and cons of different teachers and communities, I ask them to pay close attention to the teachings themselves. They are of utmost importance. Do they mean something to you? Ask yourself over and over, what will deepen my personal practice? And then do that. Of course, if anyone tries to con you into thinking that they know you better than you know yourself, have a magical system which you may access once you prove worthy (or pay enough for it), and classify any doubts as an indication that you just don’t get it, you should run away.

My teacher once told us that in Tibet the conventional wisdom was to live three valleys away from your teacher: Close enough to receive teachings but far enough to remain separate from the infrastructure, politics, and squabbles that inevitably surround him or her. I have adhered to this assiduously because that is the right choice for me. (I seem to cause suffering to myself and others when I’m part of a group process.)

That said, there are those who enter the teacher’s inner circle and give and receive great benefit. But the inner circle is also where it becomes particularly confusing and complex, especially, I would say, when cultures collide; the student-teacher relationship is still quite foreign to us in the West. Still, if you long to serve your teacher from love and devotion, go ahead and knock on that door. But if you are seeking special status, secret goodies, or a position of influence, be very, very careful. (This is not to say that those who are victimized by power-tripping or manipulative teachers are guilty of anything. They are not. I just want to be clear about that.)

In the meantime, don’t throw the baby of true realization out with the bathwater of teacher transgression. Real teachers  are few and far between but they are definitely right here among us. So go slowly. Observe precisely. Be judicious. Be brave and be careful. And then make up your own mind.

The teacher-student relationship can be dangerous for both student and teacher. A deep, deep bow to students who seek with devotion and intelligence and to non-abusive teachers who endeavor to ride the ferocious waves of dark and light that come more and more quickly the further one travels down the path.

Keep me posted. If you need me, I’ll be three valleys away.

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  • Posted by:  Larry Rowe

    Such abuses and excesses are part and parcel of antiquated and obsolete patriarchal norms. That such abuses occur in patriarchal organized religion should come as no surprise, it has been the way of organized religion from the get go, as well as the way of patriarchal politics and family relations. Our very relationship with our planet and ecosphere has been effected by this on going patriarchal way of doing things. Time for a change?

    • Posted by:  Susan Piver

      Of course! But not all teachers are part and parcel of antiquated and obsolete patriarchal norms.

  • Posted by:  JohnC

    Anyone wondering about who Chogyam Trungpa really was would do well to read this book. Covers everything, his life, the brilliance of his teaching and the controversies.

    Chogyan Trungpa His Life and Vision by Fabrice Midal

  • Posted by:  Kellie Schorr

    “My advice is don’t scare easily, but do scare appropriately.”

    This just got a coveted post-it note spot on my writing desk in front of my face (so long faded Wiine-the-Pooh quote, enjoy your new home on the side of the filing cabinet). This lesson. I feel it deep in my heart.

    I am grateful to learn it from you.

    • Posted by:  Susan Piver

      Ditto. xo S

  • Posted by:  Gaea Yudron

    I am saddened by recent and older news of abuse. I am fortunate to have a Tibetan teacher who is quite traditional and who has always been trustworthy and reliable over the 40 years I have been his student. Please remember that there are enlightened beings, highly refined and trustworthy beings, who are on this earth.

    • Posted by:  Susan Piver

      I am saddened too. I do know that there are enlightened beings, highly refined and trustworthy beings, who are on this earth. You are absolutely right and we are deeply fortunate.

  • Posted by:  moira

    I so agree with learning from the teachings themselves! obviously their communication is vital in making us curious, and you are really doing a nice job! But at the end of the day one only keeps what resounds profoundly in our soul. Thanks for being one of my teachers!

    • Posted by:  Susan Piver

      I could not agree with you more, Moira. I’m so glad we are practicing all of this together. <3 S

  • Posted by:  Philip Keogh

    Thank you for these clear, honest and heartfelt words. Refreshing. I find the Sangha the most difficult to handle. Especially when there is willful blindness to ‘charlatans’. May open hearted teachers flourish. Yours from three valleys away.

    • Posted by:  Susan Piver

      So happy this resonated across the valleys!

  • Posted by:  Nathalie Desjacques

    Hi Susan, I was so happy and relieved to find your blog post on this topic.
    Very timely:
    I am on retreat and for the first time I feel weird about the teacher, not that there is any kind of abuse, fortunately, but I don’t feel the trust and kind of falling in love with the teacher and the teachings that happened on all other occasions when I did Shambhala programs. The container does not feel strong enough, people who are facing difficulties are not getting support it seems and some parts of the talks or answers to the questions seem to contradict what I learned from teachers I love and feel strong trust even devotion for. Your invitation to put primary attention to the teachings and what supports the deepening of one’s own practice is very helpful, as is – when sitting on the cushion with sadness and confusion – just feeling your memory along with other great warriors who give me inspiration. Thank you ?

    • Posted by:  Susan Piver

      Love you, Nathalie. The Shambhala container is incredibly nuanced and strong. We are very lucky to have been trained so well. xo

  • Posted by:  Sandra Pawula

    Thank you, Susan. As someone who has been a part of the Rigpa community for many years, I appreciate that you are speaking out against abuse and at the same time reminding us of the complexity of the student-teacher relationship and the danger in getting caught in to many constructs about it.

    • Posted by:  Susan Piver

      This was my intention exactly. Thank you and my heart goes out to your community.

  • Posted by:  suzanne o'meara

    it is sad that a refugee who fled came to usa & had so much money & centers & yet only such a few were able to partake & same applies today . so many people could have benefited if they could safely have stayed at his centers & many could also have immigrated to usa or canada . but this is not possible because he had bad ways etc .this is really a terrible fact . but he was a big success & had his compatible followers in his context . but it is kind of cruel & taunting for outsiders. with so many lamas like him one would have wished that somewhere along the line someone would at least have established another similar groups of centers for other types of individuals . & this is still largely denied . there must be many other tibetans , with no material wealth , who could be much better teachers than him & would benefit from teaching in the west .they should have done that .more effort should have been invested to find different types of lamas & temperaments & directly help those who would be able to develop . all the high lamas have very serious bad faults & are the same as any western professor or priest generally . most students need emergency help & equally many adults need help in the family parent problem situation . but no lama or priest is good enough to give THAT teaching ……not that i know of .

    • Posted by:  Susan Piver

      Not sure who you are talking about, Suzanne.

      • Posted by:  suzanne o'meara

        have said there are difficult teacher student relationships or someone can not even find a teacher in the first place – so what can one do ? if i still want to carry on but have not managed to find a teacher ? any teacher suddenly might clash at any time – one needs a list of options .
        some people do not want to die any more -so many problems in relationships generally – here one needs an immortal guide . that is what i mean . too many problems all the time .

  • Posted by:  Rick New

    Hi Susan,

    Thanks for your nicely balanced article.

    “to ride the ferocious waves of dark and light that come more and more quickly..” Yes, we are in the energy of the light and time of everything, opening up to that is an amazing gift and challenge. Ride on.

    What seems missing (to me) is perhaps, a stronger emphasis on the Sangha and the possible shifts they might be able to make together.

    Seems like we’ve all spent a lot of energy judging one another on our closeness to the teacher. How might this emphasis make our fellow travellers feel that it is appropriate to “seek[] special status, secret goodies, or a position of influence”? In what ways have we made one another more vulnerable to being taken advantage of?

    I’m not sure how David Bohm’s work has fallen through the cracks, but his work “On Dialogue” seems appropriate right now.

    Thank you.

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