Dealing with Problematic Teachers

Applying Sutra-Level Guru-Meditation to a Faulty or Abusive Teacher

His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama had two regents during his minority. They taught him extensively and conferred upon him numerous tantric empowerments. They also engaged in a power struggle and had their followers take up arms against each other. His Holiness has explained that on his meditation seat, he had no problem in focusing with conviction on the good qualities that each regent in fact had. He also had no problem in appreciating the kindness that each had shown him. Yet, when he arose from his meditation seat, he publicly denounced his regents' political intrigues. His Holiness has described that he felt no contradiction in doing this and did not find it emotionally upsetting.

Some Westerners face similar situations with several of their spiritual teachers. For example, some famous masters disagree strongly about the status of a controversial Dharma protector and the consequences of propitiating it. They abuse their positions as spiritual mentors and, with threats of hell, forbid their disciples to have anything to do with teachers on the opposite side of the dispute. Other famous masters disagree violently over the identification of the incarnation of the highest lamas of their lineage. A few have even taken police action against each other's claims over inherited property. Sutra-level guru-meditation, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama has experienced, may help traumatized Western Dharma students to deal with these difficult, perplexing circumstances. It may also help those who have been sexually abused by their spiritual teachers or exploited by them for power or money. It may apply as well to disciples of abusive teachers, who have not been personally maligned, but have been devastated by learning of the actions of their teachers.

Many disciples find such situations too difficult to handle, especially if they have already built disciple-mentor relationships with both parties in a dispute. The Abbreviated Kalachakra Tantra advised that if disciples find too many objective faults in their spiritual mentors and they can no longer support close relationships with them, they need not continue studying with these teachers. They may keep a respectful distance, even if they have received highest tantra empowerments from them.

Whether or not we keep a distance from disturbing or abusive teachers, it is important to try to stop dwelling on their perplexing behavior or faults. Obsession with such matters only deepens confusion and spiritual despair. We must begin a healing process. Eventually, without denying the mentors' problematic sides, we may still be able to benefit from thinking about their good qualities and kindness.

Reviewing a Teacher's Faults and Mistakes

Hurt and confused disciples frequently experience emotional blocks in focusing on the good qualities of contentious or abusive mentors. With the passage of time and the help of support groups, they may overcome the manifest emotional fallout from their traumatic experiences. The spiritual damage, however, is often quite deep. Denial or repression of the problem solves very little. For thorough healing, spiritually wounded disciples need eventually to be able to view their mentors' faults and mistakes clearheadedly, free of naivety, anger, or recrimination.

The Fifth Dalai Lama added a preliminary step to the Kadam style of guru-meditation that addresses the problem. Before discerning and focusing on the good qualities and kindness of their mentors, disciples need to bring to conscious awareness the teachers' shortcomings and work on their view of them. The process resembles a surgical procedure. Cleaning an infected wound requires cutting it open, even though lancing the abscess and exposing the infection temporarily increases the pain. In the case of a festering spiritual wound, the hidden infection may be denial or suppressed rage. To purge the infection requires reopening the wound and bringing to the surface what festers beneath, even though the procedure temporarily may bring more emotional pain. The operation must wait, of course, until the injured person has sufficiently recovered from the initial trauma and has regained the emotional strength to attack the problem.

Creating a Protected Mental Space for Addressing Spiritual Wounds

To lance and heal a spiritual wound requires not only that the injured person have sufficient emotional strength. The operation also requires the support of a conducive, protected space; otherwise, the procedure itself may be too traumatic. In guru-meditation, the preliminary practices provide the appropriate mental space to contain and support the sometimes-painful meditation procedure of reexamining our mentors' faults and the way in which we have been viewing them. The preliminaries create the space through reaffirming our safe direction in life, renewing our bodhichitta motivation, and practicing the seven-part invocation directed toward the Buddhas and past and present great masters.

Focusing on the ability of the Triple Gem to provide a safe direction in life – and especially focusing on the Buddhist approach of working on ourselves to overcome the emotional problems we face – helps to reestablish a spiritual anchor. We need such an anchor when we have lost belief in the spiritual path and are drifting in life with no clear direction. Reaffirming the necessity to heal our emotional wounds in order to focus our attention more fully on others in need of assistance helps to revitalize our efforts along the path.

Focusing objectively on the good qualities of the Buddhas and of past and present great masters and showing respect through prostrating and making offerings help to reaffirm our sense of values. Without a sense of values, we will be unable to discern any good points in an abusive teacher. Openly admitting the disappointment and pain that we feel over our mentors' mistakes or failures helps to relieve some of the emotional tightness that may be preventing our further progress. Our mentors may not have lived up to the measure of the Buddhas. However, rejoicing in the good qualities and deeds of past and present great masters helps us to overcome the despondent feeling that qualified mentors do not exist.

Requesting other great masters to teach and not to pass away helps to open our hearts and minds to continuing on the spiritual path. Dedicating to the healing process the positive frame of mind and potential built up by the preliminary practice helps us to complete our construction of a protected, conducive mental space. When practiced with sincere feeling, the preliminaries for guru-meditation help to produce the emotional stability needed to reexamine objectively our mentors' faults.

Examining the Appearances That the Mind Creates

The surgical procedure of the meditation begins with bringing to conscious awareness the flaws of our mentors. Once these are exposed, we need to examine clearheadedly whether our teachers presently continue to have these shortcomings or to make these mistakes. We may be dwelling on past history. To heal, for example, the wounds of abuse, we need to acknowledge whether or not an abusive teacher has admitted and repented previous mistakes and reformed his or her behavior. Such acknowledgement does not excuse the teacher's previous misconduct, but an honest appraisal of the situation requires dealing with all the facts.

Moreover, examining the faults of our mentors requires focusing on shortcomings that they actually have. We need to sort out defects that we may be projecting because of our disturbing emotions or attitudes. Such projection often happens with problems less severe than spiritual abuse. For example, jealousy of other disciples may cause us to imagine that our mentors are ignoring us because of lack of concern for our welfare. In fact, however, our teachers may simply be attending to the needs of all the disciples, without any favorites.

Moreover, we need to discriminate between actual faults, such as unethical behavior, and seeming faults that merely reflect a different way of doing things than our own preferences. People often confuse the two and think that anything they dislike about a teacher is an objective fault with negative consequences. A mentor's style may be inconvenient or inefficient; this may annoy us at times and cause us to lose sight of his or her good qualities. Yet, insistence that a teacher's manner totally match our own dispositions is an unrealistic expectation.

Further, the faults that we focus on need to be relevant to our mentors' ability to guide us on the spiritual path. The fact that our mentors may lack the competence to teach us everything required for becoming a Buddha does not negate their abilities to benefit us at our present stages. Confirming the accuracy, currentness, and importance of the faults that we discern in our mentors enables us to sort out and dismiss distortions and outdated or irrelevant aspects.

Next, we need to examine the process whereby our minds produce and project deceptive appearances. Karmic obstacles from our previous experiences and our psychological profile may cause our minds to make flaws appear in our teachers that accord with our karma, such as that they care nothing for us. Our lack of awareness of behavioral cause and effect and of reality causes us to believe that these appearances are accurate. Moreover, whether or not the appearances are accurate, the deeply engrained habit of viewing things without awareness of reality causes our minds to make the faults we discern appear to exist in ways that do not accord with reality. Our minds make them appear to exist as permanent flaws, inherent and ultimately findable within our spiritual mentors and making them exist as deficient or terrible people, independently of causes, circumstances, and a conceptual framework. Lack of awareness then causes us to believe that our mentors truly exist in these impossible ways.

Guru-meditation does not ask us to deny the accurate conventional appearances of what our mentors' faults or mistakes may be. Our mentors may in fact be too busy to see us whenever we want, or may in fact be abusive. What the meditation asks us to do instead is to refute and dismiss our confused belief in the deeply deceptive appearances of how our mentors have come to exist with the particular faults that they actually have. We need to understand the logical absurdity and thus the impossibility that our mentors have particular flaws by virtue of some permanent, findable, internal defects that by their own powers, independently of anything else, make them inherently tainted people.

Such an understanding allows us to see how our mentors' faults and mistakes have arisen dependently on an enormous number of complex factors. This understanding allows the healing process to occur. It also enables us to ignore, for the moment, the faults that our mentors in fact may have, to focus instead in guru-meditation on their good qualities, and even to derive inspiration from them. We may do this whether we continue to study with them or we decide to keep a distance. If we keep a distance from our mentors, our understanding of how their faults and mistakes have arisen enables us to make that distance a respectful one, and one with which we are at peace.

The Analogy with Contextual Therapy for Victims of Abuse

In Invisible Loyalties, Boszormenyi-Nagy, the Hungarian founder of contextual therapy, suggested sensitive ways to heal the psychological injuries of victims of physical or sexual abuse. The methods he outlined parallel in many ways the approach taken in sutra-level guru-meditation. His analysis may augment our understanding of how the meditation may help to heal the wounds of students deeply hurt by abusive spiritual teachers.

Boszormenyi-Nagy explained that the first step in the healing process is for abuse victims to acknowledge their pain and that they are entitled to feel bad. They have in fact been violated, and for them to deny the truth will only add fuel to suppressed anger or feelings of guilt. Similarly, if we personally have been abused by our spiritual mentors or have learned from reliable sources that our teachers have maligned other students, we too need first to acknowledge our pain and our "entitlement" to feel bad. We were in fact wronged or let down. Guru-meditation may include this acknowledgement as part of its preliminary practice of openly admitting one's difficulties.

Contextual therapy calls next for trying to understand the context in which the abuse arose from both the perpetrators' and the victims' sides. This does not mean to rationalize the faulty behavior or the mistakes in judgement on the perpetrators' parts, nor for the victims to take on the entire blame and to feel guilty. Rather, abuse victims need to see clearly how the situations arose dependently on causes and conditions. The process parallels the conclusion reached in guru-meditation by deconstructing the deceptive appearances that one's mind projects concerning how one's mentor exists with his or her faults.

Victims of abuse also need to acknowledge that they are entitled to a better deal in life. In Buddhist terms, entitlement to happiness comes by virtue of having an innate network of positive potentials as part of Buddha-nature. Nevertheless, abuse victims need to earn that happiness by acting decently. For example, war refugees are entitled, simply as human beings, to homes and a livelihood in host countries. Yet, they need to earn good treatment by following the law and leading upright lives. Similarly, abused spiritual seekers need to reaffirm the necessity of following the guidelines of the Dharma.

Many victims of abuse have negative self-images. Either consciously or unconsciously, they blame themselves for what happened and may feel that they do not deserve better treatment. Even if they feel entitled to better treatment, they may resign themselves to further abuse. A similar pattern often emerges with victims who were told and felt that they were special. During the abusive relationship, an inflated sense of self-worth makes them unaware of being victims of abuse. They often deny the abuse and defend the perpetrators, even if confronted with the facts. Then, when their abusers find other "chosen ones," they feel humiliated, experience sudden deflation of their self-images, and become deeply hurt or completely outraged.

In all such cases, the victims need to dispel their identification with a negative self-image in order to gain or regain emotional stability. The same guideline applies to similar types of abused seekers for gaining or regaining healthy relationships with spiritual teachers. So long as they identify with being unworthy, they continue to open themselves to possible manipulation and abuse.

The next step in the healing process in contextual therapy is determining clearheadedly the legacy that the abuse victims may take from their relationships with the perpetrators. Is it just outrage, bitterness, and an inability to trust anyone else in the future, or can the victims take something more positive from them? The therapy encourages focusing on the positive factors gained from the relationship and discourages dwelling on the negative ones. Such constructive focus enables the victims to be loyal to the positive aspects and to incorporate them into their lives. In the case of incest, the process enables the victims to take the best from past generations and to pass it on to their offspring.

The process also helps the victims to avoid acting with misplaced unconscious loyalty to the abusers' negative aspects. Such loyalties may result in the victims' being inconsiderate of themselves and, due to feelings of guilt, denying their rights to have healthy relationships – conforming to the subtle message conveyed by abuse. Consequently, victims of abuse frequently experience mental blocks about emotional and physical intimacy, and may not feel entitled to get married or to become parents.

In guru-meditation, abused disciples can likewise focus on their abusive mentors' good qualities and stop dwelling on the teachers' improper behavior. Acknowledging the positive things that they in fact have gained in the disciple-mentor relationships with these teachers enables the disciples to repay the teachers as best as they can, in conscious, positive manners, by carrying on their spiritual traditions and trying to pass them on to others. In doing so, they "earn entitlement" to get on with their spiritual lives and to build healthy relationships with other teachers. If they only feel bitter or outraged, whether or not accompanied with unconscious guilt that the abuse occurred because of their personal shortcomings and faults – "I was not a good enough disciple" – they deprive themselves of feeling entitled to another trusting relationship. Dharma students traumatized by abusive teachers often become so disillusioned that they are unable to continue on the spiritual path.

Teachers Involved in Controversy

The approach used in Kadam guru-meditation, supplemented with the insights of contextual therapy, may also be helpful in dealing with confusion over teachers involved with spiritual controversy, but free of abusive behavior about it. Suppose, for example, our spiritual mentors do not command us, upon threat of hell, to uphold or to abandon a specific Dharma protector or a specific candidate as the incarnation of a great master, and thus do not abuse us in this way. Still, our mentors may privately practice or shun the protector, or may simply point out the advantages and disadvantages of doing or not doing the practice, while leaving the choice up to us. The same may be the case with respect to supporting one or another tulku candidate. We may have a different opinion from that of our mentors and agree with the other side, yet feel that in so doing, we are being disloyal. A healthy approach to the relationship would be to focus on and be loyal to the positive qualities of our mentors by adopting them to our behavior, while not accepting and not dwelling on the aspects with which we disagree.

The same advice holds true if we have already become disciples of teachers from both sides of the controversy. Both teachers may be on power trips and insist that we denounce and abandon the other side, or both may leave the decision up to us, or one may be one way and the other may be the other. It hardly matters. As His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama advised, people need to make up their own minds based on their limited powers of logic and reason and on their understanding of the scriptural sources. If spiritual seekers base their decisions on seeing both teachers as Buddhas or on reasoning merely from the ultimate viewpoint of voidness or the clear light mind, they will be unable to decide anything. Alternatively, they may need to decide that the issue is unimportant or irrelevant to their levels of spiritual practice and, with equanimity, maintain a distance from the controversy.

Whether we decide to keep a distance from one or both teachers, or to keep a relationship with each, we still may benefit from the Kadam style of sutra-level guru-meditation. We need to focus on the good qualities of each of our teachers and avoid dwelling on their destructive or enigmatic actions.

Overcoming Emotional Blocks in Appreciating Kindness

In A Lamp for the Definitive Meaning, Kongtrul correlated an essential element of bodhichitta meditation with guru-meditation. One method for disciples to develop bodhichitta entails recognizing all beings as having been their mothers in some previous life and focusing on their mothers' kindness. Similarly, guru-meditation requires focusing on their mentors' kindness.

Many Westerners, however, have difficulty focusing on the kindness of their mothers. Unable to find the goodness and kindness in their mothers, most cannot find any goodness in themselves either. Although they may be desperate for love and kindness, their mental blocks often prevent them from recognizing and appreciating the kindness of others, for instance their spiritual mentors. No matter how much kindness they receive, it is never enough.

One of the reasons for being unable to acknowledge our mothers' kindness may be that they fail to live up to our models of ideal parents. Similarly, when our spiritual mentors have shortcomings and do not live up to our models of ideal teachers, we may also have difficulty recognizing their kindness. Like children yearning for ideal love, we feel cheated if our mentors fail to meet our expectations.

Our emotional blocks in appreciating the kindness of our less-than-perfect mentors may derive from faults in mental labeling. Madhyamaka philosophy explains that words and concepts of knowable general phenomena, such as kindness, are mental labels that refer to a broad set of specific examples. If, however, we have fixed ideas of what kindness is, then we grasp at kindness to refer to only one specific form of kindness. Our fixed ideas make us unable to include other forms of considerate behavior in our concepts of kindness. Thus, we are unable to recognize and label those forms of behavior as kind and, consequently, we do not appreciate them.

For example, we may feel that being kind means to show warmth and physical affection. Our mothers may not be particularly warm, for a variety of reasons. They rarely cuddled us when we were children. Perhaps they showed affection in other ways, such as by taking meticulous care of our physical needs. Our mothers' behavior, however, did not match our fixed ideas of kindness. Because we hold only our limited ideas of kindness as the defining characteristic of an ideally kind mother, we are unable to label our mothers' physical care of us as kind.

A similar fault in mental labeling may be blocking us from recognizing and appreciating our mentors' kindness. We may have mental pictures of an ideal spiritual mentor – one who spends all his or her time exclusively on us, with loving warmth and affection like our ideal mothers or fathers would. Our spiritual mentors, however, may have many other disciples besides us and may not be particularly demonstrative of physical warmth. Moreover, in a society that is particularly hypersensitive to possible sexual harassment, our mentors may feel it better to be reserved in showing affection. They show kindness in taking meticulous care of our spiritual needs, teaching us with consistent dedication and enthusiasm despite our being less-than-perfect students. To recognize and appreciate our mentors' kindness and to gain inspiration from it in guru-meditation, we need to loosen and expand our restricted concepts of kindness. Correct mental labeling is another requirement for a proper rectification of terms.

Overcoming Emotional Blocks in Showing Respect

Many Westerners, particularly from the younger generations, have difficulty showing respect. They do not respect anything or anyone, perhaps because they feel that nothing or no one is trustworthy. Consistently, others have let them down or betrayed their trust, often starting with working parents who were forced by the pressures of modern life to leave them in childcare with strangers when they were toddlers. They see promises and treaties frequently broken, and political and spiritual leaders often involved in scandals. They feel that anyone who trusts someone in a position of leadership, or who trusts the words of such a person, is hopelessly idealistic and naive. Often, they lack respect even for themselves. Their unconscious feelings manifest in the attitude of "Anything is OK; it doesn't matter."

Consider the example of victims of child abuse. People whose parents have abused them as children usually lack any confidence in behavioral cause and effect. No matter how they acted, their parents got drunk and abused them. The treatment they received did not follow from their behavior. Even if they behaved well, they were violated or beaten. Such victims need to have their confidence restored in the proper workings of behavioral cause and effect.

Behavioral cause and effect, or karma, works in an extremely complex, nonlinear manner. It is not like kicking a ball and the ball goes flying. The ways in which parents respond to situations or events are not determined simply by those events, but by their personality profiles and personal histories, other happenings of the day, economic pressures, and so on. Thus, children's own behavior is not the sole determining cause of their receiving abuse from parents. Often, their conduct simply provides circumstances that trigger deeper psychological mechanisms in their parents. To gain self-respect, abused children need to gain a broader understanding of the manifold factors that have contributed to their parents' abusive treatment.

Guru-meditation similarly asks us to understand the wide scope of causes and circumstances that have brought about not only our mentors' achievements, but also their failures. The more we understand behavioral cause and effect, the more clearheaded we become about our mentors. Clearheaded belief and trust in a mentor are free of naivety.

To expect an abusive parent to act as an ideal parent would is simply naive. An abused child is correct in not trusting the person to be perfect. Similarly, if we idealize our mentors, we may blind ourselves to the workings of behavioral cause and effect that contribute to their actual conduct. When our mentors fail to live up to our ideals, we no longer trust them and find great difficulty in showing respect. If, however, we understand at least the principles of behavioral cause and effect, we trust that our mentors will behave according to them. We will not be disappointed.

For example, we may be practicing the Dharma sincerely, but our mentors may be too tired or busy to see us. If we expect that our mentors will always be available when we want advice, our trust in this happening is naive. If we expect the impossible, our mentors will inevitably let us down. If, on the other hand, we understand behavioral cause and effect, we trust in something more reasonable happening. We trust that our mentors will give us equitable amounts of time and attention if and when circumstances permit.

Reasonable trust derives from rational thinking, not from naivety or idealistic dreams. With such trust, we do not disparage our teachers as being bad mentors because they have no time for us now. Similarly, we do not put ourselves down by imagining that our mentors' unavailability now is due to our being bad disciples. Thus, reasonable trust allows clearheaded respect for one's mentor and for oneself.