Fear in a Student-Teacher Relationship

Fear of "A Breach of Guru-Devotion"

Almost every classical text on the disciple-mentor relationship includes a section on the hellish suffering that follows from what is usually translated as "a breach of guru-devotion." The material derives mostly from Ashvaghosha's vivid description of the horrors, which in turn summarizes some passages from the tantras. Although the point pertains specifically to relationships with tantric masters, most Tibetan authors take it to have a shared meaning that applies to relationships with sutra masters as well.

Studying this teaching causes many Westerners to inject a devastating element of fear into their relationships with their spiritual teachers. Fear of hell easily leads to a cult mentality and may open them to abuse from unscrupulous teachers. They become afraid to protest against improper behavior or to leave their teachers upon fear of burning in hell. To avoid this type of unhealthy relationship, they need to investigate the teaching carefully.

First, they need to know exactly which types of attitude and behavior the texts describe as leading to hell. Otherwise, if the translation term guru-devotion has already misled them, the dubious phrase "a breach of guru-devotion" may have confused them even further. Then, they need to understand the Buddhist concept of hell. Lastly, they need to appreciate the psychological implication of fear within a Western cultural setting.

Self-Destructive Actions regarding a Spiritual Mentor

Disastrous self-destructive actions regarding a spiritual teacher fall into three categories: (1) building a disciple-mentor relationship with a misleading teacher, (2) disbelieving the good qualities that one's mentor actually has, and thinking with a distorted, antagonistic attitude about them, and (3) relating distortedly to one's properly qualified mentor. Relating distortedly means being in violation of the first root tantric vow: to avoid scorning or deriding one's tantric master. It also includes violating either of the first two tantric vows outlined in The Kalachakra Tantra: disturbing the mind of one's tantric master or transgressing an instruction that he or she has given.

In the context of a breach of guru-devotion, both thinking with a distorted, antagonistic attitude and relating distortedly refer to changes in disciples' manners of relating to their qualified mentors after establishing healthy disciple-mentor relationships with them. The two do not refer to disciples' thinking or acting hostilely toward spiritual mentors who are not their mentors, nor to other peoples' thinking or acting hostilely towards the disciples' mentors – although hostile thought or behavior directed by any person toward another is, of course, destructive. Both the agent and the object of a breach of guru-devotion are specific.

Further, a misleading teacher is someone who is ruled by disturbing emotions, such as greed, attachment, anger, or naivety; who pretends to have qualities that he or she lacks; or who hides his or her actual shortcomings. Moreover, such a person has a weak sense of ethics, teaches only for personal gain, or gives incorrect information and instruction. Naive spiritual seekers may incorrectly consider some of the person's faults as assets or ascribe good qualities to the person that he or she lacks. Consequently, they build distorted relationships that are based on deception and lies.

Thinking with a distorted, antagonistic attitude is one of the ten fundamentally destructive actions described in Buddhism and constitutes a violation of one of the bodhisattva vows. It means to deny or repudiate what is true about someone or something, and entails planning to spread one's prejudiced opinion to others. Here, it refers to disciples' denying or repudiating the good qualities that their spiritual mentors actually have and planning to spread false information about the persons. The destructive way of thinking goes far beyond merely disbelieving in the good qualities that their mentors have.

Further, according to the Prasangika-Madhyamaka explanation, thinking with a distorted, antagonistic attitude may also include interpolating something false. Here, the destructive thinking would be for disciples to invent and project negative qualities onto their mentors that the teachers objectively lack.

Moreover, according to Tsongkhapa's Grand Exposition of the Graded Stages of the Path, the motivation behind thinking with a distorted, antagonistic attitude needs to include five further disturbing emotions and attitudes: (1) One needs to be stubbornly blind to the actual qualities of someone. (2) One needs to be contentious, from having a perverse sense of enjoying being negative. (3) One needs to be convinced of the distortion, based on incorrect consideration and analysis. (4) One needs to be mean, unwilling to accept that others have good qualities. (5) One needs to be headstrong in wishing to bring down the person, without the least bit of shame about it and without thinking it improper.

Distorted, antagonistic thinking about one's spiritual mentor, then, does not include all thoughts about his or her actual limitations or shortcomings. For disciples to think that their mentors are not fully enlightened beings who can speak every language in the world falls outside the sphere of this destructive way of thinking. So does thinking that the actual faults or mistakes of their mentors are in fact conventional faults and mistakes. Similarly, the destructive action does not include disciples' disagreeing with their traditional mentors' opinions that women lack the spiritual ability of men. Nor does it include deciding to keep a respectful distance from abusive spiritual mentors.

On the other hand, consider the case of disciples who dwell on their mentors' actual faults or mistakes and, with antagonistic attitudes, wish to publicize them. The way of thinking does not repudiate actual good qualities or invent fictitious negative ones. Thus, the mental act does not constitute distorted, antagonistic thinking. However, if any of the five disturbing emotions and attitudes that Tsongkhapa described accompany the thought, the act is negative and creates suffering.

Transgressing Tantric Vows concerning Interaction with a Mentor

For disciples to scorn or deride their mentors means for them to reject their previous respectful and appreciative attitudes toward their teachers and to show them contempt. The self-destructive action may include faulting or ridiculing the mentors, intentionally being disrespectful or impolite, or thinking or saying that their teachings were useless. In An Illuminating Lamp, Chandrakirti gave the example of a disciple who gained an intellectual understanding of voidness from receiving instruction from his mentor and from carefully thinking over it. Throughout the process, the disciple had conviction in the mentor's qualifications and appreciation for his kindness in teaching the topic. The disciple then came to despise the teacher and to think that the teachings were nothing special. So long as the disciple held these negative attitudes, he had no chance of gaining a deep understanding of voidness in meditation. In Refined Gold, the Third Dalai Lama pointed out that disparaging one's mentor usually comes from dwelling on the teacher's faults, whether real or imagined.

For disciples to disturb the minds of their mentors means for them to insult their teachers by acting or speaking destructively, because of disturbing emotions or attitudes, and not even thinking of refraining from doing so at any point during the act. Destructive actions include taking a life, physically causing harm, robbing, or acting sexually inappropriately. Destructive speech includes lying, speaking divisively, speaking harshly or abusively, and interrupting with idle chatter. Whether the disciples direct the destructive actions at their mentors or at other beings, the action would insult and displease their mentors.

For disciples to transgress instructions that their mentors have given means for them to commit in a hidden fashion any of the ten destructive actions or to violate any of their vows, after receiving specific instruction to avoid such behavior. The ten destructive actions include the physical and verbal acts just mentioned and to think covetously, with malice, or with a distorted, antagonistic attitude. The motivation needs to be a disturbing emotion or attitude. Moreover, the disciples need to recognize that destructive behavior displeases their mentors and to think nothing of engaging in it anyway.

Unlike the case of disturbing the mentor's mind, here the teacher need not necessarily learn of the misconduct or show displeasure. Transgressing an instruction, then, does not include disciples' politely refusing to act destructively or to transgress their vows if their mentors insist. Nor does it include respectfully excusing themselves from doing something beyond their capacities or means.

The self-destructive thoughts and actions regarding one's mentor, then, are totally specific and require an extremely negative mind to commit them in the full sense. Moreover, distortedly and antagonistically thinking about one's mentor, disparaging the person, disturbing his or her mind, or transgressing an instruction that he or she has given requires four additional binding factors before totally disastrous results may follow: (1) The disciples need to regard the negative actions as free of detriment, see only advantages to them, and undertake the actions with no regrets. (2) Having been in the negative habit before, they need to lack any intention to refrain now or in the future from repeating the acts. (3) They need to delight in the negative actions and undertake them with a perverse sense of joy. (4) They need to lack any sense of self-honor or concern about disgracing their families or teachers, and need to lack any intention to repair the self-damage they are causing.

Further, even if disciples have acted in any of the self-defeating ways regarding their mentors – whether with all four factors present or only a few – Ashvaghosha clearly indicated how to avoid experiencing the disastrous consequences. The disciples need to admit to their mentors their destructive conduct or thought, acknowledge it as a mistake, and apologize. In apologizing, they need to feel regret, not guilt, about the negative action, promise to try to avoid repeating it, and reaffirm their safe direction in life and bodhichitta motivation. To strengthen the positive potential arising from the relationship and to confirm the close bond, they need also to make small offerings to their mentors as tokens of appreciation and respect. Even if their mentors have already passed away, disciples may follow the procedure before pictures of their teachers or while imagining them as present. Western disciples, however, need special care to avoid misconceiving that making offerings to their mentors is a way to buy dispensation from their sins.

Hellish States of Mind

The connotation of the Sanskrit word for a hell, naraka, is a joyless state. The Tibetan equivalent, nyalwa (dmyal-ba), connotes a state that is difficult to get out of. The Buddhist concept of a hell, then, is a tortured, tormented mental state, with a physical counterpart, that lacks any joy and in which one feels trapped and unable to escape. Although the classical texts contain vivid descriptions, the important point is the mental state and accompanying physical feeling they describe.

Following a misleading teacher can bring the disasters of unsound practice or spiritual abuse that can ruin enthusiasm for the spiritual path. It can turn open-minded seekers into bitter cynics, completely closed to further steps toward liberation and enlightenment. The joyless, disillusioned mental state of such people is difficult to break. It is a living hell. We may understand this point by considering the analogy of being hurt in an unhealthy relationship with a seemingly upright partner or friend who has betrayed our trust. We may be so devastated from the disastrous experience that we close up emotionally and are afraid of entering another relationship. We may even repudiate the value of any relationships at all.

Similarly tortured are disciples who first have conviction in their mentors' actual qualities and appreciation for the actual kindness the mentors have shown, but then for some disturbing reason, have changes of heart. When this happens, they become obsessed with denying their mentors' qualities and kindness, with projecting invented faults, or with dwelling morbidly on the actual faults the mentors have. They may feel contempt for their mentors and act destructively or violate their vows out of spite, hoping that doing so will displease or hurt their teachers.

A similar phenomenon may happen with our true friends or loving, kind partners. A change of heart may come from deep psychological factors such as low self-esteem and paranoia. Feeling unworthy of receiving kindness or love, we may deny the attention and affection that we have actually received. Afraid of abandonment, we may reject the partners first, to avoid the pain of later being rejected. We may even try to hurt our partners or to force the abandonment by acting terribly with them or by having an affair. A change of heart may also come from the influence of misleading friends.

Such a mental state is clearly tormented and tortured. It creates a personal hell that lacks any joy and is difficult to escape. It may even weaken the immune system and bring on or aggravate a sickness. According to the Buddhist explanation of karma, most negative actions bring their results in future lives. Nevertheless, when a person directs an extremely destructive action at someone who has outstandingly good qualities and who has been especially kind, the results may ripen within this lifetime. The hellish consequences of thinking or acting distortedly and antagonistically toward our mentors, then, frequently occur shortly after the act.

Fear within a Western Context

Because many Western spiritual seekers lack clarity about which thoughts and actions regarding their mentors bring hellish results, they fear thinking or doing something that in fact does not lead to disaster at all. For example, they may fear accurately seeing as mistakes actual faults in their mentors, such as misjudgment, abusive conduct, or involvement in spiritual power politics. Their mentors' every action, they may think, must be perfect, because the mentors are fully enlightened Buddhas.

Misunderstanding the concept of guru-devotion and of seeing that the mentor is a Buddha may brainwash disciples into feeling that they must deny the truth. The conflict inevitably leads to anxiety and tension. They may fear criticism from fellow Dharma students if they bring up something about the teachers at their centers that disturbs them or does not seem right. They hold themselves back from speaking about the mistakes they see, for fear of being branded bad disciples and heretics who will burn in hell.

Further, some disciples may feel guilty for doubting even for a moment that their mentors are literally enlightened beings. Typically, Western seekers feel that to question their mentors' omniscience indicates that something is wrong with them. Thus, fear of punishment feeds a Western sense of inherent guilt and inadequacy, and low self-esteem. Moreover, a feeling of helplessness compounds the fear because, in Biblical thought, hell is eternal, with no way out.

According to the Buddhist teachings, only specific, extremely negative thoughts and actions toward a mentor result in a hellish state of mind; and, regardless of how terrible, no hellish state lasts forever. Through regret, open admission of their mistakes, and so forth, disciples may avoid or recover from tortured spiritual devastation. Nevertheless, many Western disciples question the benefit of contemplating the hellish consequences of distortedly relating to a mentor, which sutra-level guru-meditation standardly includes as one of its preliminary steps.

The Reason for the Descriptions of the Hells

As explained earlier, Western ethics derives from a belief in divinely or legislatively promulgated laws. Obedience of the law defines someone as a good person or citizen, worthy of reward, while disobedience makes the person bad and deserving of punishment. Therefore, many Western spiritual seekers unconsciously see the discussion of hells as describing punishment for disobeying the rules of unquestioning guru-devotion.

Buddhist ethics, on the other hand, does not involve obedience or moral judgment. People cause themselves suffering by acting destructively, motivated by greed, attachment, anger, or naivety. If they become aware of the effects of negative behavior and wish to avoid experiencing suffering, they need to try to refrain from acting in these ways. Thus, the description of hells in Buddhist texts is not intended to make people feel guilty or to scare people with low self-esteem into obedience. The description is intended to educate people about the consequences of self-destructive behavior.

Consider the case of traditional Tibetans. Because most do not typically suffer from low self-esteem, learning about hellish suffering does not cause them to feel guilty or terrified of disobeying sacred laws. However, the knowledge may help Tibetans to lessen their arrogant, unbridled behavior. Westerners may learn from this example.

Modern Western spiritual seekers often reject the idea of divine punishment, yet many may still be subject to guilt and low self-esteem. If they do not cower in fear of a breach of guru-devotion, they may compensate for low self-opinion by acting with unbridled arrogance. For example, as part of an unconscious process of transference and degenerative regression, they may impudently accuse a teacher of backward thinking when he or she teaches them something that they do not find pleasing, such as about hellish suffering. Like children feeling superior to their parents, they may haughtily feel that Western scientific beliefs are better than primitive Tibetan superstition that merely adds fuel to feelings of guilt and low self-esteem.

If we think like this, we might do better to look at the psychological truth of the hellish states of mind that distortions of the disciple-mentor relationship create. If we wish to avoid these tortured states, we need to gain a correct understanding of the teachings concerning a healthy relationship with a spiritual mentor.

Deciding Extremely Obscure Issues

Valid meditation experience and logic may decide certain issues, such as whether a Chittamatra view of voidness can eliminate all obstacles preventing liberation and enlightenment. They are inadequate, however, to decide extremely obscure issues, such as karma and rebirth. In such cases, Dharmakirti recommended in A Commentary on [Dignaga's "Compendium of] Validly Cognizing Minds," one needs to rely on valid sources of information. Experience and logic can validate what Buddha explained about obvious and obscure phenomena, such as concentration and voidness. Moreover, since Buddha's sole motivation for teaching was compassion for others to avoid suffering and since this motivation was sufficiently sincere and strong to enable him to overcome even the instincts of confusion, Dharmakirti argued that one can be confident that Buddha is a valid source of information. Therefore, what Buddha explained about extremely obscure phenomena is also valid.

If disciples rely solely on valid sources of information, however, to settle controversial issues, they can find passages from the Buddhist scriptures and from the collected works of the great masters to justify almost anything. Moreover, if disciples have received empowerments from tantric masters on both sides of an issue and have been regarding both literally as omniscient Buddhas and therefore both as valid sources of information, they still cannot decide which one is correct.

In A Lamp for the Definitive Meaning, Kongtrul stated that if tantric masters have the transmission of their lineage, they require no further examination. Seekers can trust their validity as qualified mentors, because to hold the transmission of a lineage means to realize and embody its authentic teachings. In some cases, however, the lamas on both sides of a controversy may equally be lineage holders. Using Kongtrul's criterion is still insufficient.

Buddha taught four guidelines regarding what to rely on: (1) Do not rely on a teacher's fame or reputation, but on what he or she has to say. (2) Do not rely on the eloquence of his or her words, but on their meaning. (3) Do not rely on words of interpretable meaning intended to lead deeper, but on those of definitive meaning to which they lead. (4) To fathom the definitive meaning, do not rely on ordinary levels of mind, which make things appear differently from the way they exist, but on deep awareness, which does not fabricate discordant appearances.

This does not mean to rely on deep awareness of what is ultimately true to ascertain the accuracy of a statement concerning what is conventionally true. A mind that validly cognizes the deepest truth about something can only ascertain the validity of how a conventional phenomenon exists. One needs to use a mind that validly cognizes the conventional truth about something to ascertain the validity of what something conventionally is.

The ultimate deepest truth about something is how it exists in terms of either voidness or the clear light mind. All phenomena exist as appearances of the clear light mind within the context of voidness. Thus, if one explains from the resultant point of view of a Buddha, then not only a specific protector or a specific tulku candidate is an emanation of an enlightened clear light mind, but all beings exist in that way. Therefore arguing from an ultimate or deepest point of view does not decide the question concerning the conventional identity of a protector or a candidate.

Resolution of the Disciples' Dilemmas

Dharmakirti gave another criterion to consider, which may be more helpful for resolving the dilemmas that many disciples face over disputed issues and thus more effective for dispelling fears over possible breaches of guru-devotion. If Buddha repeatedly stated a point throughout his teachings, then all disciples need to take it seriously as Buddha's true intention. On the other hand, if a point appears only in obscure texts, it either needs interpretation or is just for special persons and not for the general public.

Throughout his teachings, Buddha advocated that spiritual seekers rely on safe direction from the Triple Gem and on the constructive karma they accumulate for protecting themselves from suffering. Almost nowhere did Buddha recommend seekers to entrust their lives to Dharma protectors or even to rely on them. Therefore, in situations in which one cannot decide an issue such as whether a specific protector is an enlightened being, the best solution is to maintain a distance and to have no opinion. The issue of Dharma protectors is not crucial to anyone's practice for attaining enlightenment. Most important is to stick to the main teachings of Buddha on safe direction and karma.

The same advice pertains to accepting one or another candidate as the reincarnation of a great teacher. Buddha spoke repeatedly about the necessity that a spiritual mentor has learning, realization, and a kind heart. He hardly ever mentioned the need for a title or property. Controversy over tulku candidates has repeatedly occurred throughout Tibetan history, for example with the Sixth Dalai Lama and the incarnation of the Drugpa Kagyu master Pema Karpo. No way exists to decide the issue rationally. It is best to show great respect to both candidates, to maintain equanimity about their identities, and to let the lamas sort out questions concerning hierarchy and monastic property. A disciple's only appropriate concern is to receive teachings from these candidates, if the candidates become properly qualified. The title and property that each nominee holds do not affect the quality of his or her teachings.

Deciding Sensitive Issues Pertaining to Karma and Discipline

Buddha did not create the laws of karma, nor did he forbid anyone to act destructively. In teaching about karma and ethical discipline, he merely stated which actions bring about detrimental results to oneself and, either directly or indirectly, bring harm to others. Each individual needs to use his or her discriminating awareness to decide how to act. Within this context, Buddha differentiated between actions that are naturally destructive, such as killing, and those recommended for certain groups to avoid, for a specific purpose. An example of the latter is monastics eating after noon, because it affects the clarity of their minds for meditating in the evenings and mornings.

Let us examine two additional examples of actions that are not naturally destructive, but which Buddha recommended for certain groups to avoid, for specific purposes. The actions are treating nuns and monks as equals, in the case of the Buddhist monastic community, and engaging in homosexual acts, in the case of Buddhist practitioners with vows to refrain from inappropriate sexual behavior. When traditional mentors uphold Buddha's teachings that engaging in these actions causes problems for members of these groups, Western disciples often find it difficult to accept. Yet, they are perplexed about what to do. They fear that disagreeing with their teachers and insisting on the equality of women or of homosexuals constitute a breach of guru-devotion. To resolve the conflict, they need to understand the purpose behind Buddha's advice.

When Buddha established his monastic community, he hesitated at first to admit nuns. Because he felt strong compassion for all beings, he was concerned that society not disparage and reject the methods he taught for eliminating suffering. Indian society at his time would suspect improper sexual behavior if his monastic community consisted of monks and nuns mixing freely together and receiving equal treatment. Moreover, many of the monks lacked the maturity to deal with women in a nonsexist manner. Therefore, to avoid disrespect and trouble to his community and subsequent discredit of his teachings, he established the community of nuns as a separate entity, with a position inferior to that of the monks. In addition, he formulated additional vows for the nuns, to ensure that monastic conduct would be beyond suspicion. The community has followed these procedures ever since.

Similarly, under Kushan rule in third century Kashmir, Indian society encountered Iranian culture. The customs of the Iranians at that time differed greatly from those of India, especially concerning widely accepted sexual behavior. Following Buddha's guideline that respect for his community led to respect for his teachings, Vasubandhu expanded the traditional list of inappropriate forms of sexual behavior. He included for Buddhist laypeople sexual practices that Indian society at the time associated with foreign, "uncivilized" customs, such as incest and homosexuality.

The extent to which general Indian society and specifically Indian Buddhists engaged in these sexual practices prior to contact with Iranian culture is not the point. The point is that, in recommending against them, Vasubandhu was concerned with enhancing the respectability of the Buddhist community and teachings. Maintaining Buddhist ethics, after all, meant avoiding actions that caused problems; and condoning or following sexual customs associated with people whom society considered uncultured would surely lead to controversy and trouble. Since both Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism base their practice of ethical self-discipline on Vasubandhu's texts, their lineages still include homosexuality in their lists of inappropriate sexual behavior.

Buddha specified that, in the future, his community could change minor rules of discipline concerning actions recommended for certain groups to avoid for specific reasons. To change them, however, a council of monastic elders needs to convene, thoroughly research the issue, and reach a consensus. Modern Western society looks down upon discrimination against women and homosexuals. If Buddhist customs condone such prejudice, society may disparage the Buddhist community and discredit Buddha's teachings. Therefore, to maintain Buddha's guideline for avoiding controversy and trouble, a council of elders may need to reconsider these issues. His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, for example, has supported convening such a council, although he has admitted that gaining a consensus would not be easy.

Before resolution of these issues, most Buddhist masters who are responsible for maintaining the purity of their lineage have felt that they need to uphold the traditional teachings. They would be irresponsible to their position and duties if they were to do any less. Disagreeing with such a master when he or she is one of our spiritual mentors, however, does not constitute a breach of guru-devotion. A breach occurs only when disagreement boils over into distorted, antagonistic thoughts that the mentor is an intolerant reactionary.

Western followers and disciples who are confused or impatient about such issues need to understand that Buddhism is not an authoritarian religion. No single person has the authority to modify the teachings – not a head of a lineage or any other spiritual mentor. Therefore, it is inappropriate to seek the approval of a traditional Tibetan lama for one's actions as a woman or for one's sexual preferences. Each person needs to try to understand the principles underlying Buddhist ethics and use his or her discriminating awareness to decide how best to avoid problems and trouble.