Can an unrealised teacher induce a genuine spiritual experience in his or her students? This is something we’ve talked about before here, but for me, up until now, my examination has been very much informed by beliefs instilled in me by Tibetan Buddhism. In fact the whole quandary is due to the dzogchen teachings insistence that one needs a realised teacher for any genuine transmission of the nature of mind to occur.
‘So in Dzogchen, the direct introduction to rigpa requires that we rely upon an authentic guru, who already has this experience. It is when the blessings of the guru infuse our mindstream that this direct introduction is effected. ‘Dzogchen, Heart Essence of the Great Perfection, HH Dalai Lama
Now I’d like to step out of the Tibetan Buddhist framework of beliefs and look at this question from a different perspective.
Given this kind of teaching,
- When you discover that your dzogchen teacher is abusing people and so isn’t a reliable/authentic/realised guru, does that mean that what you experienced that you thought was the nature of mind, couldn’t have actually been the nature of mind after all?
- If you did experience the nature of mind, does that mean that the teacher must be authentic/realised/reliable despite evidence to the contrary?
These two questions – posed due to the dzogchen teachings emphasis on the importance of the teacher having some realisation – leave students in a bind. It means that any student who had a taste of the nature of their mind in the presence of their guru, when faced with revelations of that guru’s abusive behaviour, either has to believe that their teacher did have some realisation, or they have to deny their own experience, thinking that a fake guru means a fake experience.
The first option is the one taken by those who deny or minimise their teacher’s abuse. The second option is the one taken by those who declare that all Rigpa students wasted their time and couldn’t possibly have had any genuine taste of the nature of their mind.
But there is a third option. It’s just not the option the religion wants to emphasise because it diminishes the importance of the teacher’s qualifications.
The other ‘uncomfortable’ option
The other option is that one can have a genuine spiritual experience with a fake teacher.
Those invested in holding to either of the first two options might find this option uncomfortable because if you accept this possibility, you’re questioning the truth of the religion’s insistence on the necessity of having a realised teacher. And examining how such a thing might be possible leads one to see the whole religion in the stark and unromantic light of open enquiry.
To really be open to this option, to see what the video below is showing us, you need to step completely outside of the belief structure of Tibetan Buddhism. You’ll need to ignore, or put aside with a question mark, the opening quote in this article .
Watch this video with an open mind and suddenly you can see all those rituals, the words the lama says, how he says it, the gestures he uses, and the environment in which is occurs for what they are: the manipulations of a skilled mentalist. Realisation is not a requirement so long as you follow the procedures set down by the previous skilled mentalists in your lineage.
In this video, Derren Brown demonstrates how he can induce a ‘religious experience’ in an atheist. He reproduces a number of well known psychology experiments which show how even non-believers are ‘hard-wired’ to be susceptible to suggestions of super-natural (and religious) presences.
Note that when he tells the woman how he induced her experience, he states that her experience was genuine. It was ‘her’ experience, something real, not something he gave her. All he did was set up the conditions where it was likely that she would experience some kind of spiritual opening. Just like a lama induces experiences in us and calls it ‘introducing us to the nature of mind’.
But is it the ‘real’ thing?
When I first watched this, the Tibetan Buddhist indoctrinated part of me wanted to say that such an experience wouldn’t be the nature of mind, that it would be some other ‘lesser’ state. Then I realised that I’d fallen prey to the elitist cult tactic, the ‘we have the answer that no one else has’ belief. The point here is not what kind of spiritual experience can be induced in this way, the point is that a spiritual experience can be induced by someone who willingly admits that he is not a guru and has no special powers, just the knowledge of a mentalist.
What this video is showing is that what kind of spiritual experience we might have when the right environment is created through chanting, meditation, tone of voice, gestures, belief in the power of the guru, suggestion, and so on depends entirely on us, not on the guru. That’s the point. All the guru does is set up a situation where we are most likely to have some kind of spiritual experience. What we actually experience is individual, and could be any of a variety of mental states.
Given that as part of a pointing-out-mind instruction we would’ve had teachings on the nature of mind, the likelihood that those who are ready would experience the nature of mind would be quite high. And if we were following the instructions on what to do – or not do – with our mind, there is no reason to believe that such a thing would be a ‘manufactured version of the real thing’. If you believe that the teachings and instructions are a true guide, then why would we not experience it if following those instructions?
The point is that during pointing out instructions, the guru is nothing more than a catalyst to help us experience our own nature, and he doesn’t need any qualities other than knowing the procedure to follow to induce a spiritual experience in his followers. The religion has a reliable system in place that has worked for centuries. They’re not faking it; their religion simply works based on lineages of skilled mentalists. The delusion is the idea that these lamas are anything other than skilled mentalists.
Views on this issue from within Tibetan Buddhism
“It is possible to gain genuine realisation even when the teacher later proves to be unqualified. If the student has a direct realisation of the nature of the mind, then that is so, whatever the status of the lama who gave the pointing out instruction or facilitated this insight. Some teachers have the ability to open the minds of the students even when in other ways the conduct and wisdom of the teacher may be questionable. This is one reason for the confusion nowadays with lamas who have helped so many students yet have been shown to be unworthy of their role. Still these students were helped….”Tenzin Palmo. 30th December 2018 (Email response to a question)
Sogyal often told us the story about the woman who achieved realisation through praying to a dog’s tooth because she thought it was a relic of the Buddha. He told the story to us to show us that what was important wasn’t the quality of the teacher, but the quality of our devotion. I even heard him say on a couple of occasions that he might be ‘just a dog’s tooth.’
But don’t forget the most important part of the dzogchen teachings. The part that tells us that the lama doesn’t actually give us anything, and that realisation of the nature of mind is up to us:
‘What we have been looking for—the true nature of our mind—has been with us all the time. It is with us now, in this very moment. The teachings say that if we can penetrate the essence of our present thought—whatever it may be—if we can look at it directly and rest within its nature, we can realize the wisdom of buddha: ordinary mind, naked awareness, luminous emptiness, the ultimate truth.’Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche from the“Wild Awakening” lecture series , February, 2004.
The power of suggestion
In Tibetan Buddhism we practice ‘seeing the lama as a buddha’; what’s that if not using the power of suggestion? In the following video, the people gathered – all declared atheists – have been told that Derren has the power to convert people instantly. See what happens …
What you see in this video shows what is actually going on in Tibetan Buddhism when the lama introduces us to the nature of mind. There’s nothing magical or mystical about it. Our expectations simply make us highly suggestible. We want to experience something, so we do. But that doesn’t mean that what we experience is somehow ‘fake’. It’s a real experience of a real mind state.
Do we create something or do we drop our defences and allow something to arise? I expect that would depend entirely on our training. If you’re trained to drop everything and see what’s left, that’s what you’ll do. Hence, a genuine experience of the nature of mind can come from a guru who does not have the qualities of a realised being.
If this is hard for you to accept, why? What beliefs are holding you back? How do these videos make you feel about your experience with Tibetan Buddhism?