I was inspired to write my take on how to follow a spiritual teacher in a healthy way when someone directed me to a long post on Facebook by Dzongsar Kyentse (DJK) in which he offered the tantric (vajrayana) Drubthab Kuntu cycle of teachings and initiations. He said, among other things, “For those in limbo, wondering whether or not they should do this, I suggest following the tantric prescription to do a thorough background check on me. There are plenty of websites you can consult, and you might particularly want to read posts by Tahlia Newland, Matthew Remski, Joanne Clark and others.”
What do I think about that?
He’s being quite open about what he expects from the students who take up his offer, and that’s refreshing. And yet – as a cynical ex-Tibetan Buddhist – I can’t help wondering if it is genuine openess or a subtle manipulation to make the teachings and relationship with the teacher more ‘special’ and so more appealing to those who relish being the ‘chosen few’. It’s a common dynamic in spiritual groups that lures people into the cult’s ‘inner circle’. Such manipulation may be quite unconcious, and someone – be they the teacher or the student – is only free of it if they are aware of the lure of it from both sides. This is why both teacher and student need to be educated in cult dynamics to ensure a healthy relationship.
The basis of a healthy spiritual teacher – student relationship
Whether it’s this cycle of vajrayana teachings or some other, whether it’s a ‘special’ teaching or just the usual given by some teacher or other, and whether it’s this teacher or another, the old prescription for the Tibetan Buddhist teacher-student relationship should only be undertaken if you have a level of knowledge and awareness of self to enter into it in a healthy way, a way that will have the teachings and practice increase your self-esteem/ self-confidence, not destroy it.
The term ‘self-esteem’ does not have the same meaning as the word ‘ego’ as it’s used in TB. And yet thinking they are the same is a common misperception. The requirement for ‘complete surrender’ to one’s vajrayana master can easily become giving up one’s confidence in one’s own ability (self-esteem), and the lost feeling that comes from feeling completely dependent on someone else for their sense of value can be mistaken (by both teacher and student) for realisation of the concept of ‘no-self’ in Buddhism.
In TB ‘ego’ means ‘grasping at a false sense of self’, whereas the term self-esteem means ‘confidence in one’s own worth or abilities; self-respect’. It’s trust in your inner strength, not in your outer – possibly neurotic – manifestation, and it’s essential for healthy vajrayana practice. An unhealthy TB student-teacher relationship destroys one’s trust in oneself and that’s the opposite of what it should be doing.
With the realization of ones own potential and self-confidence in ones ability, one can build a better world. According to my own experience, self-confidence is very important. That sort of confidence is not a blind one; it is an awareness of ones own potential. On that basis, human beings can transform themselves by increasing the good qualities and reducing the negative qualities.Dalai Lama
Think of refuge practice. The purpose of that is to develop trust in your true nature, your Buddha nature. In other words the practice of refuge should develop confidence in one’s inner strength and potential. But the vajrayana requirement for total surrender and slavery to one’s teacher’s whims (as taught by DKR and other traditional TB teachers) can sabotage the development of that confidence in one’s true nature and diminsh one’s self-esteem.
Yes. Unfortunately, vajrayana, when taught by teachers who demand that students drop all personal boundaries can achieve the very opposite of what it’s supposed to achieve. (I write more on how certain teachings can be misunderstood and have a negative rather than a positive effect in my book Fallout: Recovering from Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism.)
Hence, choosing your teacher carefully is indeed as important as the teachings say it is.
Are vajrayana teachings for you
It’s pointless getting a cycle of tantric/ vajrayana teachings if you’re not dead serious about practicing it. And how many Westerners are? Very few. My advice is to only take vajrayana teachings that you intend to practice. Vajrayana (as distinct from other forms of Buddhism) is useless if all you do is collect knowledge. It is supposed to be practiced, and the insight into the practice and into one’s self only comes from sustained practice with the deep knowledge to know what you’re actually doing and applying it to yourself, to your own issues.
Gathering empowerments for the sake of having an empowerment is missing the point entirely.
It’s difficult with TB because there are so many cycles of teaching, and our tendancy towards spiritual materialism makes us want them all, especially because every single cycle starts by saying that the teachings in it are the most precious above all the others. But actually, they’re all most precious. Tibetan Buddhist tantric teachings are incredibly powerful and transformative when practiced genuinely – not rote mouthing of a language you don’t understand.
My advice is to choose JUST ONE cycle of vajrayana teachings and practice it until you’ve completed the required number of recitations. After that, you can do another if you want. Or maybe drop vajrayana practice because it’s done it’s job, and dzogchen / mahamudra then comes easily. That’s the purpose of vajrayana as a preliminary to dzogchen and mahamudra. Vajrayana practice combines the practices of shamata and vipashyana, and if practiced starting with the three samadhis and with the understanding of the true meaning of your visualisations it brings you to the state of one taste.
So these teachings do have value, but choose a practice (and it’s associated teachings) that resonates with you; don’t just take a cycle of teachings because that’s what’s being offered. Vajrayana can be complex and confusing. Keep it simple by working with one practice at a time.
What traditional teachers want from their students
TB teachers like DJK – and Sogyal Rinpoche when he was alive – want students who will not be bothered by their faults and who will not criticise them if they do something unethical. They want students who will see them as perfect in a worldly way as well as a spiritual way, students who do not question them and who obey their every whim. Students entering a vajrayana /tantric relationship with Dzongsar Khyentse need to know that entering into a vajra relationship with him means they cannot see anything he does as abuse, even if it is abuse. He makes that quite clear in his books.
However, once you have completely and soberly surrendered, you may not interpret certain manifestations and activities of the guru as the abuse of power. If you want to be fully enlightened, you can’t worry about abuse.Dzongsar Khyentse, The Guru Drinks Bourbon?
This is not just DJK’s view, this is the traditional Nyingma view, and for a student to undertake a relationship with such expections is akin to someone joining a bondage sex group. They don’t see being bound, beaten and raped as a problem because they get off on it. But we assume that they know that’s what will happen to them. And they always have an escape word, a word that stops whatever is being done to them. Tibetan Buddhism at the vajrayana level doesn’t have an escape clause.
This is not to say that you will be abused in any physical or sexual way, though you may be because traditional TB teachers (and many of their Western students) don’t see that as inappropriate – they see it as a teaching for you. But TB teachers of the old school seem to be very adept at emotional and psychological abuse – and financial abuse. With the common lack of transparency in TB organisations, you have no way of knowing whether the money you donate to all their ‘worthy’ causes isn’t just funding the teacher’s lavish lifestyle.
Choosing a spiritual teacher
See this article in Lion’s Roar for general guidelines for choosing a teacher.
in his Facebook post, DJK says he’s not qualified, which is good because he’s clearly not enlightened. (Given the list of qualties of a Buddha, I doubt anyone alive today is. ) His students will think he’s being humble in saying this, rather than truthful, but if they can see him as their perfect teacher, despite his faults, then that will support their vajrayana practice.
No matter who you go to for teachings, I advise people not to get into a personal relationship with any teacher because any emotional entanglement with a teacher is bound to be problematic.
Check out their students and group dynamics for signs of cult dynamics at play.
The problem is, as you can see by the gushy devotional comments, that the cult dynamics are strongly in play on DJK’s group, and so any attempt to make teachings for a select few is likely to make some want the teachings even more. They will want to be the special truly devoted students, and that’s a decision made from within the manipulation of the cult dynamics, not one made with full agency.
To give students full agency in making the decision of whether to take tantric teachings from them, a teacher would have to actively discourage the kind of co-dependency that the guru devotion aspects of TB foster – which we can see manifested on Facebook by copius prayer-emoji-using students. And for that, a teacher would have to read the cult dynamics literature. With TB teachers’ attitude towards Western psychology (in general), it’s unlikely you’ll find one who has done that, or who has taken the next step in making sure that they and their students don’t fall into those dynamics in their own group.
We’re talking here about teachers and students needing some awareness of how spiritual groups with a central focus of devotion to a teacher tend to operate, and the negative effects of some of these dynamics. Cult dynamics remove people’s ability to discern clearly, so someone caught up in those dynamics are unable to make a decision with full agency. A truly skilful teacher will set their students free from the psychologial and emotional dependency that TB tends to foster.
Look at the teacher’s students. What do you see? I see little sanity or genuine awareness in most of the comments on DJK’s posts.
In the end, the question for students is, Can you trust him to do you no harm? I wouldn’t trust DJK. He may not physically or sexually abuse you, but psychologically, given what I know of him, it’s almost guaranteed he’ll play with you emotionally like a cat with a mouse. He seems unaware of his arrogance, predjudice and emotional imaturity (as shown in some of his facebook posts) and if he is aware, he doesn’t see it as a lack of spiritual realisation, but rather delights in being against ‘political correctness’, completely ignoring the face that someone with what he calls ‘political correct’ ideals implies that they have a level of spiritual awareness which aligns with the Buddha’s teachings .
I don’t trust any teacher who doesn’t know the definition of pychological and emotional abuse or understand the meaning of codependancy not to mess with people’s minds in a negative way. TB teachers do it in the name of dharma, thinking it’s ‘crushing ego’, when all it’s doing is crushing the student’s self-esteem, the very self-esteen that they need as a basis for effective Buddhist practice.
So how can I follow a spiritual teacher in a healthy way when I don’t trust any of them?
Lack of trustworthy teachers aside, it is still possible for a student with knowledge and awareness to avoid the institutionalised codependency we see at play in many TB groups and take these teachings and work with them in a way that will have them far surpass the teacher.
For that, they need to know that the lama to which they pray and unify their mind is not the physical teacher, but the true nature of themselves and reality. That understanding and awareness is really what’s needed for a healthy TB guru relationship – not to mention effective vajrayana practice. With that, you can tell your teacher to lay off their games and help them wake up.
A healthy relationship is one between equals, and given that – according to the vajrayana teachings – we all have Buddha nature, teacher and student both, then even where the teacher thinks he or she is better than all their stupid Western students, the student can enter the relationship knowing they are every bit as equal in terms of their true nature. Yes, they have more knowledge of certain things – that’s why you’re taking teachings with them – but you are every bit as able as they are to realise those teachings. Drop all the shit and you’re equal in the deepest meaning of the word. As a student looking for a healthy relationship with a teacher, you need to always remember that. Never see yourself as inferior, even whenthey are doing their best to make you feel inferior.
Spiritual teachers have issues as well – look at the TB tulkus warped childhoods – and sometimes their issues make them blind to the fact that they’re spitting their shit all over their students rather than giving the teachings they think they are.
If you’re someone who understands how cult dynamics work – such that you can operate outside them even when surrounded by them – and if you’re someone who doesn’t have codependent tendancies, has clear boundaries and who knows you can tell your teacher to get lost when they’re being an idiot, then you’re good to go.
For such people there is an escape clause. And that is understanding that the idea that you’ll go to hell if you leave your vajra master is just a belief and not a fact about reality. And you can drop a belief at any time. (Best never believe it in the first place. I mean, hell? Really? ) If the practice works, dropping a concept like that will be easy.
Human potential is the same for all. Your feeling, ‘I am of no value’, is wrong. Absolutely wrong. You are deceiving yourself. We all have the power of thought — so what are you lacking? If you have will-power , then you can do anything. It is usually said that you are your own master.Dalai Lama
And as for samaya, on the outer level you can still have gratitude for what someone taught you even if you leave them after becoming disenchanted with them as a person. On the inner level, your samaya is with the true guru, the nature of self and reality itself, and that level of samaya, once you’ve recognised it, can never be broken because it has nothing to do with the physical teacher. They were merely a faciliator to help you recognise it.
Samaya is a statement that is true, genuine, pure, real. To apply oneself in a way that is in harmony with how the truth is, is called keeping the samaya. When the samayas are described in detail, there are hundreds of thousands that can be listed, but all of them can be condensed in this way.
The foremost samaya is when you compose yourself in a state in which you in actuality experience the fact that all sights, sound and awareness are visible emptiness, audible emptiness and aware emptiness. To have that certainty is called keeping all the hundreds of thousands of samayasEmpowerment & Samaya, Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche from Dzogchen Essentials: The Path That Clarifies Confusion compiled by Marcia Binder Schmidt (Rangjung Yeshe Publications), pages 55-56.
You may notice that many of the links go to the Rigpa Wiki; that’s because, regardless of the failings of the Rigpa organisation in general, the Rigpa translation team, headed by Adam Piercy, has created a reliable and precise source of information in the Rigpa Wiki. Adam’s translations in particular are excellent and insightful, and I am extremely grateful for his contribution to my education.