The Teacher-Student Relationship: Liberating or a Trap?

I’m a 20+ year practitioner in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage, a Tibetan Vajrayana tradition. It is based on teachings brought to the West by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

There are things in these two seemingly straightforward sentences that might piss some people off.

For example, in my community, there are arguments about whether it is okay to say “Shambhala” and “Buddhist”in the same sentence. People may get upset about this and if you ask them why, they will have fiercely emotional reasons that make great sense — to them.

There are people who say that the Vajrayana (the third “yana” or vehicle of Buddhist teachings, aka the esoteric teachings) is not even a thing, that the Hinayana (foundational vehicle) exists, certainly, as does the Mahayana (greater vehicle), but the Vajrayana (indestructible vehicle) is actually a subset of the Mahayana.

And then we come to Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, acknowledged far and wide as a true meditation master, a teacher of the highest order — and a human being who drank, smoked, and had sex with his students. He died at the age of 47.

It is all very complex.

In recent weeks, we have been witness to such complexities in the form of crimes and tragedies among revered and well-known Buddhist teachers.

From the crime department: both Sogyal Rinpoche (one of the first Tibetan Buddhist teachers to gain fame in the West) and Lama Norlha Rinpoche have been called out for sexual and other forms of abuse. Their communities are struggling under a great weight. Among loyal students, some are questioning their devotion while some are arguing for their guru, and angry victims and witnesses are demanding consequences, all of which makes sense.

And a true tragedy: Last week, the brilliant young Buddhist teacher (and activist, artist, husband, and father) Michael Stone died completely unexpectedly for reasons related to his struggles with bipolar disorder and, perhaps, opioids.

It has been a terrible, terrible month. Of course sexual abuse and a tragic death have little in common — but they cause us to question what we should expect from our teachers.

Various responses I’ve heard include:

  • This (abusiveness) is why you should never trust a teacher.
  • Great teachers do things that may appear crazy but are really meant to wake you up.
  • Don’t criticize my guru.
  • We must criticize our gurus.
  • I disavow my guru and/or my tradition.
  • We should reduce our expectations of teachers who, after all, are only human.
  • It was one thing to have a guru if you lived in Tibet or Japan a few centuries ago, but we are a postmodern society and require a different model
  • When a brilliant teacher dies young, he or she will perform bodhisattva activity in a future life.
  • Teachers are just frail human beings like the rest of us.

Our teachers are human beings, of course, and have angels and demons just like the rest of us. Abuse of power is definitely real among Buddhist communities, whether against women or men, and it is absolutely indefensible. We must call it out when we see it. If a teacher (man or woman) uses his or her position to take advantage (or worse) of a student, it should be identified. We should warn fellow seekers about what we know. (About what we know.) It is true that terrible, mediocre, and great teachers have committed terrible, mediocre, and great crimes. But there are also teachers who transmit great awakenment, if only we knew how to receive it. Some teachers should be disavowed. Some should be venerated.

I was just on Facebook, reading and occasionally interacting with others about recent events. One comment suggested that it’s fine to call Sogyal Rinpoche out, but was he any more “corrupt” than other teachers such as Adi Da, Trungpa, Rajneesh? The commenter went on to say that the well-founded concern expressed about such teachers was a sign that modern people were recognizing that expecting teachers to “transmit higher mind states” was simply a projection.

Of these teachers, one — Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche — is of great importance in my life.

I never met Chogyam Trungpa in person. However, I have met many, many people who were close students of his. Some of my best friends, as they say. I have spoken to women who had sex with him, most now in their 60s, who continue to think of him as their teacher. My own teacher, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, is his son.

By all accounts, Trungpa drank. A lot. I have no explanation for that. Unlike other teachers who had sex with their students, he never hid anything or threatened anyone, according to those who were close to him. He drank in public. He did not mask his sexual relationships or lie about them.

Why did he do these things at all? I have no idea.

For me, studying the work of Trungpa Rinpoche and practicing his teachings are all I have to go on to understand his mind. They are at the heart of my relationship to him rather than stories, legends, opinions, judgments, and hearsay of all forms, no matter how compelling. His teachings have pointed me down the path I am meant to be on and saved me (so far) from my own stupidity. I am grateful and beyond grateful.

Of course I have tried to figure out who Trungpa Rinpoche really was. Some say he was a crazy wisdom master who used alcohol and sex to wake people up. Some say he was a brilliant teacher who was also a deeply flawed human being. Some say he was corrupt, as did my Facebook friend over there.

Whenever I hear one of these theories (each of which is very compelling), I think, oh, so that’s who that guy was. Until I hear the next story about him which totally contradicts the previous story and the only conclusion I can draw is I will never know who that guy was.

So I’m going to have to stay within the confines of my particular relationship with him which exists solely in the mind-to-mind realm where it continues to shine brilliant light and provocative darkness on every aspect of my experience.

The student-teacher relationship is intimate. It takes place on the most hidden and vulnerable level of one’s being. It is ripe for manipulation, confusion, and aggression on both parts. For us students, we could try not to mistake intimidation for sacred awe or confuse brutishness with true power. We could discover the difference between neurotic doubt and intelligent doubt. My advice is don’t scare easily, but do scare appropriately. Let your heart be broken open, not crushed. (These are all very, very fine lines. obviously.) Stay awake, let go, and be willing to trust yourself. Rely on your true intelligence. It’s terrifying.

Some teachers seem to be both dysfunctional and brilliantly realized. Some are complete charlatans. Others are beacons of unending, stainless brilliance. Often, they look very similar. And sometimes the transmission of higher mind states from teacher to student is a trick and reflective of a lack of psychological evolution. Sometimes it is not.

In trying to make sense of it all, you could go the traditional route and place your trust in a guru and a lineage. This could be great or you could be completely fooling yourself. You could avail yourself of various respectable teachers and take what is valuable from each without committing to anyone. This could be great or you could be completely fooling yourself. You could forego the notion of a teacher altogether and embark on your journey using your own intuition as the primary guide. This could be great or you could be completely fooling yourself. If you’re interested in traversing the spiritual path wholeheartedly, you are going to have to figure it out.

In the meantime, here is what I suggest to my own students who are uncertain about what to do next in their spiritual practice: In addition to weighing the pros and cons of different teachers and communities, I ask them to pay close attention to the teachings themselves. They are of utmost importance. Do they mean something to you? Ask yourself over and over, what will deepen my personal practice? And then do that. Of course, if anyone tries to con you into thinking that they know you better than you know yourself, have a magical system which you may access once you prove worthy, and classify any doubts as an indication that you just don’t get it, you should run the f away.

My teacher once told us that in Tibet the conventional wisdom was to live three valleys away from your teacher: Close enough to receive teachings but far enough to remain separate from the infrastructure, politics, and squabbles that inevitably surround him or her. I have adhered to this assiduously.

That said, there are those who enter the teacher’s inner circle and give and receive great benefit. But the inner circle is also where it becomes particularly confusing and complex, especially, I would say, when cultures collide; the student-teacher relationship is still quite foreign to us in the West. Still, if you long to serve your teacher from love and devotion, go ahead and knock on that door. But if you are seeking special status, secret goodies, or a position of influence, be very, very careful. (This is not to say that those who are victimized by power-tripping or manipulative teachers are guilty of anything. They are not. I just want to be clear about that.)

In the meantime, don’t throw the baby of true realization out with the bathwater of teacher transgression. Real teachers are few and far between, but they are definitely right here among us. So go slowly. Observe precisely. Be judicious. Be brave and be careful. And then make up your own mind.

The teacher-student relationship is dangerous for both student and teacher. A deep, deep bow to students who seek with devotion and intelligence and to non-abusive teachers who endeavor to ride the ferocious waves of dark and light that come more and more quickly the further one travels down the path.

Keep me posted. If you need me, I’ll be three valleys away.

PS To read about this topic from someone who actually knows what he is talking about, go here.