In June 2019, Damcho Dyson, Tahlia Newland and Jacki Wicks are delivering a paper together on Sogyal Rinpoche’s abuse and the fallout it caused as part of the Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women’s 16th International Conference. Jacki emailed Tenzin Palmo asking about an aspect of the conference and also asked what her thinking was on things like samaya and guru devotion in the context of abusive teachers. I found Tenzin Palmo’s reply refreshingly sensible and direct and asked if I could post it here. She gave her permission, so here it is:
Samaya goes both ways: the student has samaya to the teacher but the teacher also has samaya to the student. The student’s samaya is to cultivate devotion, trust and openness in order to receive the mind blessings of the guru. The teacher’s samaya is, through their knowledge and compassion, to develop the spiritual potential of the student. Therefore we must ask, do the actions and words of the guru lead to the students’ well-being, advancement on the path and general feeling of enrichment – or not?
Spiritual teachers cannot use the Dharma as an excuse for licentious or abusive behaviour. Tantra isn’t about coercing vulnerable women into having sex. Where is the compassion in exerting your position of power and authority to betray the very people who trust and obey you? Where are basic ethics and kindness?
If the students (usually -but not always – female) as a result of a sexual relationship with the guru, do feel enhanced, empowered and confident, then that was skilful means on the part of the teacher. But if the result is humiliation, confusion and disillusionment, then where is the wisdom and compassion in that? Where have they been helped?
Clearly the manipulative nature of these encounters causes so much distress. It all seems so egocentric and devoid of empathy. How can these teachers justify such behaviour to themselves? Although it is a mixture of power, loneliness, emotional immaturity and so on, still this does not excuse the kind of behaviour that would be condemned by anyone anywhere. That these teachers do have problems is one thing, but that they cannot use their own training to deal with these issues (or even acknowledge them) is really a problem! Actually, it is pathetic. Gurus need to observe the same ethical standards as doctors, psychologists, teachers and so on in order to be trusted and respected and not to drag down the reputation of Buddhism.
As Mingyur Rinpoche pointed out, we cultivate pure perception towards everyone, not just the guru. Nonetheless, present day lamas are not Guru Rinpoche or Tilopa, any more than the student is Yeshe Tsogyal or Naropa. Is the student benefitted? Good. Is the student psychologically harmed? Not good. It is so simple.
Tibetan Buddhism is based on a feudal system of total authority (however corrupt) and abject obedience. We do not need to go backwards to outdated social attitudes in order to be good practitioners. One troubling aspect is the effort to ‘cover up and defend’ by lamas who really should know better. Part of the ‘Old Boys Club’ syndrome. To try to defend indefensible behaviour by quoting tantric texts and accuse the victims, is to equate Tantra with violence, over-indulgence and sexual predatory activity, which hardly speaks well of that method as a valid path to Enlightenment.
When students are instructed to never question the teacher and to do everything to please them, then of course it leaves the doors wide open to exploitation. This feudal thinking has to be tempered with common sense and common caution. If it feels wrong – don’t do it, no matter who asks you. It is not breaking Samaya to say No.
As someone said: ‘…the happiness of the privileged is based on never starting the process towards becoming accountable…… the revelation of truth is tremendously dangerous to supremacy.’
So be grateful for what teachings the Lama has given and appreciate everything that has been helpful. But do not feel guilty about seeing and acknowledging where the boundaries have been overstepped by the teacher. The fault is with limitations and wrong conduct of the guru. Better luck next time.
All good wishes in the Dharma,
NB: Tenzin Palmo was NOT a student of Chogyam Trungpa. Read her biography here: http://tenzinpalmo.com/jetsunma-tenzin-palmo/
If any of you would like to donate a little something to help Damcho and Tahlia get to the conference to deliver the paper in person click here.