Misconceptions about Buddhism

Dealing with Abusive Behavior by Spiritual Teachers

Unethical, abusive behavior by spiritual teachers, including so-called “tantric masters,” can never be justified, excused or tolerated. With compassion and concern for the disastrous effects on everyone involved, abusive behavior must be directly addressed and ended for the continuing well-being of the spiritual community.
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Understanding Abuse in a Buddhist Context

Some people falsely believe that Buddhism teaches nihilism, imagining that emptiness or voidness means that nothing exists, and because of that, there is no cause and effect. They take this as a justification that anybody, including the spiritual teacher, can do anything without any consequences. Others have a false view of cause and effect and imagine that abusive behavior, especially in the name of tantra, can lead to spiritual progress. Such naivety opens the door to spiritual disaster.

It is important to understand how these misunderstandings of key Buddhist concepts can sometimes allow students to put up with abusive situations, despite the fact that the Buddha’s teachings never allow for any kind of unwholesome actions on the part of spiritual teachers toward their students. In this article, we’ll look at cause and effect, voidness and ethics, and explore ways to deal with situations involving abuse.

Voidness and Cause and Effect

Voidness means an absence; it refers to the fact that our mind’s projections do not correspond to reality. What is absent is a reality that corresponds to our projections. For example, when you view a website on your computer or cell phone, it appears to be self-established: there it is, appearing all by itself! But, that’s not the reality. We don’t see the thousands of hours of work that went into producing that website and making it appear. It just seems as though it’s self-established, all by itself. But even though it doesn’t exist in the way it appears, it still functions and appears. We can validly see it and, through cause and effect, we can learn something from it. In that way, voidness confirms the operation of cause and effect. Because nothing is self-established – which means that nothing exists independently all by its own power – everything can function and produce effects.

Because of voidness, then, the behavior of the spiritual teacher and our own behavior have effects. To say: “Everything is void, the teacher is void, I am void, what he or she does is void” does not and cannot excuse or negate cause and effect in terms of each of our behaviors.

Ethics in Buddhism

Cause and effect is the basis for Buddhist ethics. It is important to understand that Buddhist ethics are not based on obedience of laws and moral judgments of good or bad. It’s not like the Abrahamic religions or our civil societies, where people are considered good if they obey the commandments or civil laws and judged bad if they break them. 

Instead, Buddhist ethics are based on discriminating awareness, usually translated as “wisdom.” We need to discriminate between what is helpful and what is harmful, what is constructive and what is destructive. Buddhism defines destructive behavior as habitual, compulsive ways of acting, speaking and thinking that are motivated by disturbing emotions, such as greed, anger and ignorance, or naivety. They are accompanied by a lack of any sense of self-worth or care for how our behavior reflects on ourselves, or others that we respect.

With this view of Buddhist ethics, we need to check and discriminate what is happening in our relationship with our spiritual teacher. If our teacher is acting with lust, greed or anger and we are responding with naivety, the actions of both of us are destructive and will cause suffering. They reflect badly not only on both our teacher and us, but on both our spiritual community and on Buddhism as a whole. We cannot excuse this misconduct on the pretence that it is void of truly established existence.

Being Realistic About Ourselves and Our Teachers

Further problems arise from misunderstandings about tantra, tantric masters, pure vision and “samaya,” the close bonds with the tantric master, simply because many people take tantric initiations prematurely. Lacking the stable foundation of prolonged study and practice of the sutra teachings, they have little understanding of the tantric path and have not sufficiently examined the tantric master.
There are many different levels of students and teachers, and there are long lists of qualifications for both. We are certainly not on the level – and in most cases, neither is our teacher – of Naropa and Tilopa, or Milarepa and Marpa. These examples from Buddhist history are irrelevant to us now. So-called “crazy wisdom” models of behavior do not apply to those who lack the qualifications. If, like Tilopa, the teacher can eat a live fish, lay its bones on the ground, snap his fingers and bring the fish back to life - okay! But can our abusive tantric master really do that? Or, as was suggested at the 1993 Western teachers’ meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama: if the teacher can drink a cocktail of diarrhea, urine, pus and blood as if it were nectar – okay, give them the test! In that vein, we need to be realistic about our own level and that of our teacher.

Like with most things, we want to get things cheaply. We’re looking for a bargain: access to tantra without doing the preliminary practices and without keeping vows. And even if we perform the ngondro preliminaries, we tend to think they just involve prostrations and so on. But every text states clearly that first we need to complete the shared preliminaries, like intensive study and practice of “the four thoughts that turn the mind to the Dharma.” Without a deep understanding of the four noble truths and Buddha-nature, and without renunciation, ethical self-discipline, concentration, discriminating awareness of voidness, compassion, bodhichitta, and so on, premature tantra practice is likely to cause us a lot of damage. This is especially true regarding the relation with the tantric master, pure vision and samaya.

Pure Vision in the Practice of Tantra

With pure vision, we regard our tantric master, ourselves and everyone as Buddhas in the form of yidams, or “tantric deities.” This only makes sense if we do this based on Buddha-nature, bodhichitta and an understanding of voidness and dependent arising. With bodhichitta, we stay focused on our own enlightenment, which has not yet happened, but can happen based on our Buddha-nature factors. We do so with the aim to attain that enlightenment and best be able to benefit all others. Focusing on enlightenment based on the Buddha-nature factors of our tantric master helps us always to keep focus on our own future enlightenment and thus to enhance our bodhichitta.
Pure vision is not an excuse for denying and tolerating abusive behavior even by our tantric master. Moreover, the samaya close-bond with the tantric master does not mean blindly obeying orders as if in the army and abnegating all responsibility to maintain discriminating awareness. The main premise of the relation with the tantric master is that everything he or she says or does is intended as a method to help us attain enlightenment. Its purpose is to free us from suffering, not cause us more pain. To enter such a relation, we need to have examined extensively, over a long period, whether the teacher has the compassion and wisdom to act in that benevolent way. We need also to have examined ourselves to determine if we are ready never to get angry with our teacher, but to try to learn from whatever he or she says or does. 

In Tibetan Buddhist circles, the term “guru devotion” is used a lot, and there seems to be a great deal of misunderstanding about the relationship with the spiritual teacher due to this particular word “devotion.” The connotation of the Tibetan term is one of trust and reliance on somebody, the type of relationship you would have with your doctor. You rely on the teacher because you have examined them well and you know they’re qualified; you entrust yourself to their care, just like you entrust yourself to the care of your doctor.

What to Do in Cases of Abuse

There are members of spiritual communities who will deny that anything is wrong even in the face of overwhelming evidence of abuse. They often come to Buddhism as an escape from the problems of the world, hoping for an ideal world with perfect teachers. Identifying with their projections of wishful thinking blinds them to seeing and accepting reality. A correct understanding of voidness can help them and us overcome a state of denial. Unbiased, discriminating awareness is always essential.

Once we acknowledge that something is wrong in our spiritual community, what is the most helpful way to respond to an abusive situation with our spiritual teacher? To respond with anger is never helpful. As a disturbing emotion, anger causes us to lose peace of mind and self-control. Not getting angry, however, does not mean that if our teacher acts unethically, we do not reject and try to stop it. The Vinaya teachings on monastic behavior state clearly that a monk or a nun should never comply if their teacher asks them to do something not in accord with the Dharma. This is the case even in tantra. 

At the start of conferring a tantric initiation, it is customary to read to the initiates the tenth-century Indian text, Fifty Stanzas on the Guru, where Ashvaghosha explains that if our teacher asks us to do something inappropriate or beyond our ability, we shouldn’t just blindly obey. He writes, “Explain in (polite) words why you cannot (comply).” The Kalachakra Tantra also states that if the relationship with the tantric master goes bad and you see that there are too many faults in the person, keep a polite distance. We need to differentiate between acting with anger and acting in a decisive way with a clear mind.

Dealing with Unethical Teachers

If our teacher acts in an unethical way or asks us to do something unethical or beyond our ability, as Ashvaghosha advised, politely state that we’re unable to comply and ask for further clarification. If this is the procedure even when we have properly examined the teacher and ourselves before entering the relationship, how much more so is it the procedure to follow when we have taken tantric initiations prematurely, without proper examination or preparation beforehand. 

If an abusive teacher does not reform after we have politely confronted him or her and asked for an explanation, we must not give up. Even if we’re unable to prevent anger from arising, we need to reflect on the situation and not act hastily. Acting out of anger makes our minds unclear and we lose self-control, leading us to do unwise things that damage not only ourselves, but others in the spiritual community. Taking strong measures in such situations – for instance, making the issue public to shame the teacher into desisting – does not mean doing so based on anger. We need to address the problem with a compassionate mind. With compassion, we want to help everybody involved to avoid suffering, including the teacher. Even if we need to take strong measures, when we act out of compassion, our minds are clear, we’re not upset and we can choose intelligently what to do.

Overcoming Guilt

People encountering abusive situations often face strong feelings of guilt. They might think that if they’re in an abusive situation, it’s because they are bad and deserve the ripening of negative karmic potentials in such a way as a punishment. This misconception brings in the moralistic Western concept of guilt into the Buddhist teachings, and only brings us more suffering. 

Guilt arises from identifying that I am bad, the teacher is bad, and what I did and what the teacher did are bad. We project that these judgments are truly and permanently established and we hold firmly onto these identifications and do not let them go. But if things existed in these impossible ways as we imagine they do, nothing could ever change. The situation could never be affected by cause and effect, and we and our community could never heal from scandal. It would be impossible to purify any negative karmic potentials and it would be impossible to attain liberation and enlightenment. We would exist eternally damned as bad, and so would the teacher. This is not Buddhism. Cause and effect are always valid, and even the most painful fallout of a spiritual disaster can be purified and we can heal.

As His Holiness the Dalai Lama points out, it’s important to differentiate between the person and the person’s behavior. We reject the person’s destructive behavior or our own naive behavior, but we never reject the person. With a calm, clear mind of discriminating awareness, we maintain compassion toward them and ourselves.

In Graded Stages of the Path: Personal Instructions from Manjushri, the Fifth Dalai Lama points out that we should not deny, with naivety, the shortcomings of our spiritual teacher. As many sutras state, it’s almost impossible to find a teacher that has all positive qualities; but at least the person should have more positive qualities than negative ones. In the same vein, we should never deny the positive qualities of even an abusive teacher. We are going to benefit much more from appreciating and acknowledging the positive qualities and what we have learned from the person than by getting upset and complaining about his or her unethical, destructive behavior.

Conclusion

When we have had a painful relationship with an abusive teacher, we certainly need to reject their behavior, and even take strong measures to end it, if more gentle ones fail. But we shouldn’t hold on to it so tightly, thinking it was “so bad,” and, continuing to complain, never letting go. In other words, we deal with the situation and then let it go, and we turn the emphasis to acknowledging the benefit we have gained from the person and what we’ve learned. Do not deny that. This approach is in accord with the Kalachakra Tantra advice to keep a respectful distance. It opens the door for a spiritual community to heal from such types of disruption. Otherwise, everyone remains in a state of trauma and many may become discouraged and give up their spiritual path. We need to help people heal. That’s why compassion is so important; it’s the key to all happiness.