Confused or Conflicted? What the Dalai Lama Says About Teachers and Unethical Behavior

Feeling confused or conflicted?
You may have received teachings that tell you to see the teacher as a Buddha and all his actions as skillful means, enlightened activity, or crazy wisdom.  On the other hand, you may have experienced, observed, or heard about behaviors on the teacher’s part that seem outrageous and perhaps, even unethical.
Is it crazy wisdom?  Is it abuse?  Should you stay silent?  Should you question?  Should you speak out?
These kinds of questions can silently torment a student for months and even years.  The deep appreciation you feel for all that you’ve received — teachings that may have brought meaning to your life in inexpressible ways — pulls you in one direction.  The questionable behavior pulls you in another.  And fear of repercussions, like criticism, exile from your community or the threat of vajra hell, can keep you paralyzed.
Let’s look to the Dalai Lama for guidance on how to approach what appears to be unethical behavior by a teacher.   The Dalai Lama gave very clear instructions about this at the 1993 Western Buddhist Teachers Conference.

Some argue his advice was provisional, meant only for Theravadin teachers.  However, teachers were present at the conference from the Theravadin, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhist traditions, so how could that be?  In these instructions, he specifically speaks about  Vinaya, Sutrayana, and  Tantrayana and the behavior of “lamas,” so it’s quite clear he means all schools.
Is any kind of conduct acceptable on the part of a teacher?  This is what the Dalai Lama says:

Historically, although some Buddhist saints have acted with strange modes of ethical conduct, they were fully realized beings and knew what was of long-term benefit to others. But nowadays, such conduct is harmful to the Dharma and must be stopped. Even though one’s realizations may be equal to those of divine beings, one’s behavior must conform to convention. If someone says that since everyone has Buddha mind, any kind of conduct is acceptable, or that teachers do not need to follow ethical precepts, it indicates that they do not correctly understand emptiness or cause and effect. …

The Dalai Lama also points out how a naive or unbending view of pure perception can be dangerous:

The problem with the practice of seeing everything the guru does as perfect is that it very easily turns to poison for both the guru and the disciple. Therefore, whenever I teach this practice, I always advocate that the tradition of ‘every action seen as perfect’ not be stressed. Should the guru manifest un-dharmic qualities or give teachings contradicting dharma, the instruction on seeing the spiritual master as perfect must give way to reason and dharma wisdom. I could think to myself, ‘They all see me as a Buddha, and therefore will accept anything I tell them.’ Too much faith and imputed purity of perception can quite easily turn things rotten.

This is the Dalai Lama’s specific advice on how to go about expressing concerns regarding a teacher’s questionable behavior and the moral responsibility to do so:

We may criticize a teacher’s abusive actions or negative qualities while we respect them as a person at the same time. There are still some beneficial aspects of the guru. A mistaken action doesn’t destroy their good qualities. If you criticize in this way, there is no danger of hellish rebirth as a result. Motivation is the key: speaking out of hatred or desire for revenge is wrong. However, if we know that by not speaking out, their bad behavior will continue and will harm the Buddhadharma, and we still remain silent, that is wrong.

Deep faith, respect, loyalty, and devotion are important in our personal practice according to the Dalai Lama.  However, he says this should not stop us from speaking out about questionable behavior.  He even cites an example from his own experience with his teachers.
We strongly recommend that you view the videos of these meetings yourself.  Don’t just trust what someone else says, listen to the teachings and discern for yourself.
This series of videos from the 1993 Western Buddhist Teachers Conference covers a wide range of topics. Video 4 (from about 40 mins in), the first part of Video 5, and 60 mins into Video 5 are very relevant to the topic at hand.
What are your impressions after reading these quotes from the Dalai Lama? We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.  Please use initials rather than full names when referring to teachers and organizations.

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4 Replies to “Confused or Conflicted? What the Dalai Lama Says About Teachers and Unethical Behavior”

  1. Thank you For sharing this! Hope it helpt lots of People understanding that you can and even should speak out or ask questions if something feels wrong. And at the same time that you can be grateful For all the good that was/is also there. Very sorry to hear so many People suffered. May all be wel. ..

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