Devotion with Discernment – A question of personal responsibility

by Rob Preece

In 1973 I found myself seated before a colorful brocaded throne in a mediation hall in a small Tibetan Buddhist Monastery near Kathmandu, Nepal. I was amongst a large group of young Westerners waiting with some excitement for a Tibetan lama to enter. The atmosphere was electric with anticipation. After a few minutes there was a whisper ‘lama’s here’, we all stood up and most people bowed respectfully as a relatively young man entered the room made prostrations and rose to the throne. When he began to speak, I found myself immediately enthralled by his presence and playful humour. This man was to become an essential focus of my spiritual life from that point onwards. He became my ‘guru’.

Like many Westerners at the time I was somewhat lost spiritually and very wounded emotionally. I would have given almost anything to find someone to guide me and give me a sense of meaning and direction that would make my life feel worthwhile. I believed and trusted that this Tibetan would do so. I also really wanted to be seen, so that I might have a sense of affirmation of my value and my nature. Part of this relationship to my guru was therefore a huge emotional investment. I became devoted in a way that was akin to falling in love and had a very idealistic view of how special he was. I recall sitting with other students talking in a kind of romantic haze about all the qualities we felt he embodied.

When I apply my Jungian psychological hat to this relationship, I can see that at its heart was a massive projection. That isn’t to say the lama was not extraordinary, but that extraordinariness was the hook for my projection. Jung saw that what we are unconscious of in ourselves we tend to project onto someone else. In the case of someone who becomes our guru we project an image of our ‘higher Self’ onto a person who can act as a carrier of that unconscious quality. When this begins to happen it is as though we become enthralled or beguiled by this projection. In the case of the projection of the Self onto a guru we give away something very powerful in our nature and will then often surrender our own volition to be guided.

Something that was more problematic in this experience was that, like many of my peers, what I had projected was not just the inner guru, I had also imbued him with a quality of the ideal parent I dearly needed. In doing so I was giving away other significant aspects of my power, my own volition and my own authority and discriminating wisdom.

Looking back I can see that I had a lot of growing up to do. My desire to idealise the external guru was actually supported by teachings I received on ‘guru devotion’ which said explicitly that we should try to see the guru as the Buddha and that he (or occasionally she) was effectively perfect. My idealism was blinding me to my guru’s human fallibility and was being reinforced by the teachings. I was even given the message that to see flaws in the guru would lead to dreadful suffering.

The danger with indiscriminate idealised devotion to the guru is that we are trusting that the guru will really hold a place of complete integrity and that he will have no personal agendas. I feel fortunate that with most of my own teachers this has been the case. What happens, however, when we start to discover that the guru is actually very human and has his own issues, his own flaws and his own needs? Do we just dismiss this as our delusion or his crazy wisdom because he is after all Buddha?

In the 40 years that I have been involved in the Tibetan tradition it has become very clear that while there are some extraordinary Tibetan lamas with great integrity, they are not flawless. They may have extraordinary depths of insight but they also make mistakes, can have their own needs, and sometimes behave badly. As a psychotherapist I would go further and even suggest that a few of them actually have significant psychological problems. It is possible to have deep insights but struggle with the stability of their personal identity in the world. The exalted almost divine status of how certain Tulkus or incarnate lamas are brought up, can cause them to become narcissistic and surprisingly self-centred. Occasionally this can lead to bullying and even cruel and abusive behaviour with students. It does not then serve any of us to simply ignore this behaviour of or go into a kind of naive denial that says ‘it is my obscuration, the guru is perfect’.

H.H. the Dalai Lama himself recently wrote in his book The Path to Enlightenment:

The problem with the practice of seeing everything the guru does as perfect is that it very easily turns to poison for both the guru and the disciple. Therefore, whenever I teach this practice, I always advocate that the tradition of “every action seen as perfect” not be stressed. Should the guru manifest un-Dharmic qualities or give teachings contradicting Dharma, the instruction on seeing the spiritual master as perfect must give way to reason and Dharma wisdom. I could think to myself, “They all see me as a Buddha, and therefore will accept anything I tell them.” Too much faith and imputed purity of perception can quite easily turn things rotten.¹

Sadly the unquestioning devotion some of us hold towards gurus has indeed occasionally turned things rotten. While the majority of Tibetan lamas and Western teachers are genuine in their integrity, there are a few that do not behave skillfully and their students are extremely vulnerable to being abused and taken advantage of. It is in this respect necessary for us to wake up and not be beguiled by charismatic teachers and our own need to idealize. In our devotion to a teacher we can have a strong sense of respect, appreciation and indeed love, but not in a way that blinds us to their human fallibility. We need to retain our sense of discernment that recognizes and faces when things are not acceptable or not beneficial. If this means a level of disillusionment, then so be it. At least we will end up with a more realistic and real relationship. Again as H.H. Dalai lama once said ‘too much deference actually spoils the guru.’

Recognising boundaries

Possibly the most critical issue that arises in relationship to the guru is the potential for a loss of appropriate boundaries. As a psychotherapist there is consistent emphasis on the understanding of how teachers and therapists need to be clear of their ethical boundaries, especially because of the power imbalance in the relationship. When we consider the power we often give away to our gurus the assumption we make is that they will be skilful with us and not be abusive or exploitative. Unfortunately this is often misunderstood by both teachers and students. Boundaries imply a teacher or guru will respect the needs and vulnerabilities of a student and not take advantage of them for his own needs. This can be materially, economically, emotionally or sexually. Materially it is very easy for teachers to exploit the devoted student who wishes to practice generosity towards them and so provide money, material goods, a home, work, and so on out of devotion. Gurus can get very rich on the offerings of their disciples and in Tibet the estates of the highly revered Tulkus where often extremely wealthy and powerful.

Emotionally there can be a tendency for some gurus to actually feed on the devotion of their students. It can nourish a narcissistic need for love and to be seen as special that has been there since childhood. Possibly the worst form of exploitation is the sexual abuse of female students to satisfy a need of the teacher. It is this, which is the most blatant form of abuse of boundary and power and can often be dismissed or denied within the context of a dysfunctional community of disciples.

For a relationship between a teacher or guru and student to be healthy psychologically and emotionally ethical boundaries must be clear. I have seen in my work as a therapist and mentor that students who have experienced a teacher’s confused or loose boundaries suffer greatly. Students may then find they have no one within their community to speak to about it because there is a taboo against criticizing the guru. They may find that their community does not really want to know. The result is that the very heart of their spirituality has been betrayed.

Our teachers need to hold clear boundaries around their emotional and physical behaviour so that it does not become harmful to students. What can be problematic for us as Western Tibetan Buddhists is that some Tibetan lamas may not understand what this means in the West. Within their own culture boundaries were often implicit in the world in which they lived, be it the monastery or the Tibetan culture. What we need to recognise is that once Tibetan lamas move to the West they are not always held within their own culture and so it is totally dependent upon their own integrity to have clear boundaries. Sadly this integrity is sometimes lacking and lamas can become a kind of law unto themselves creating their own culture with boundaries that are arbitrary or absent. This culture can become like a dysfunctional family where a lama becomes an all-powerful parent whose needs and wishes are paramount. Who then is going to provide the safe and trusting environment within which a Westerner can practice and grow?

Taking responsibility

This brings me to a final thought which is about accountability and responsibility. Over the past 30 or 40 years it has been a privilege to be taught by some extraordinary lamas and to practice what they have given me. They have been the holders of possibly the most profound path to wisdom that has ever existed. They have brought this to the West in the hope that we may benefit from their knowledge and find our own experience. As a Westerner attempting to integrate the Tibetan tradition into Western life and Western psyche one thing that I have begun to realise is that I cannot expect my Tibetan teachers to have all the answers. In the West we have a very different psychological upbringing and our emotional and psychological wounding is particular to our culture.

This has lead me to recognise that there has to be a time when we begin to grow up and take more responsibility for our role in the integration of the Tibetan Tradition to the West. Part of this is the need to allow dharma understanding and practice to evolve in such a way that it can be genuinely accessible to Westerners with our different psychological needs. Just as Tibetans shaped Buddhism over the years, it will also evolve as it comes to the West. In many ways this is going to be our responsibility. I remember my teacher Lama Yeshe once saying that ultimately it will be Westerners that bring the dharma to the West.

There is also an important area of responsibility that needs to be taken in our relationship to our teachers. When I was in Daramsala recently I recall hearing H.H.Dalai lama refer to a concern he had about Tulku’s in the west. When I heard him say this I had a question on my mind, which I wanted to ask – ‘where is there accountability?’ We may put our trust in lamas with devotion, but if things go wrong then it is for us as Western practitioners to take responsibility for how we respond to it. If our teachers make mistakes it is up to us to address it and challenge them when necessary. If we see our gurus behaving in ways that are unacceptable it is up to us to name it and place a boundary. If gurus in the west do not demonstrate a skilful and appropriate boundary in their relationship to students then it is for students to hold the ethical ground when teachers do not. While the majority of lamas are impeccable, there are a few examples of lamas in the West behaving in ways that are potentially bringing Tibetan Buddhism into disrepute. Whether it is the accumulation of wealth and the establishment of cult-like organisations or the blatant sexual exploitation of vulnerable devoted students, it for us as Westerners to take responsibility for some sense of ethical integrity that says this is not acceptable.

Gone are the medieval days when fear could be used to say that someone who questions the guru will go to hell. We must begin to bring about a more healthy culture of accountability and responsibility in our Buddhist world if Buddhism is really going to flourish and benefit sentient beings. The aim of the dharma is to alleviate our human suffering, not so that we can establish institutions and organisations that simply cultivate a dysfunctional culture where lamas are surrounded by infantilised devotees, who don’t question anything the lama does. 

This need not happen if we respect that fact that our gurus need us as much as we need them. They need us to be honest, straight and real with them, not blinded by a haze of deferential idealism. They can then be real people with their own challenges and difficulties but with a great deal of wisdom to offer. If we can accomplish this then the Tibetan tradition has a chance to really flourish in the West with integrity. We can offer respect and even devotion to our teachers but with a real capacity for discernment and personal responsibility.  ■

¹ XIV. Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, The Path to Enlightenment, Snow Lion Publications, 1995, p. 71

ROB PREECE (BSc. Adv. Dip. Transpersonal Psychology UKCP reg.) is a psychotherapist, thanka painter and Tibetan Buddhist. He has been a practicing psychotherapist since 1988 gradually developing a style that is a synthesis of Buddhist and Jungian understanding.

Rob Preece is the author of The Wisdom of Imperfection; The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra and The Courage to Feel.

Header image: © Liran Ben Yehuda. Tibetan prayer flags at the Himalaya Mountains, Nepal.

© Rob Preece

With kind permission from Rob Preece.
A slightly revised version of this article was published in Buddhadharma, Winter 2014, under the title “Our Teachers Are Not Gods”, pp. 43–45.

For more see Rob Preece’s website: Mudra home page with Rob Preece and Anna Murray Preece or Lion’s Roar: Our Teachers Are Not Gods.

More about Teacher-Student-Relationship in Tibetan Buddhism
Spiritual Teacher and Sexual Abuse / Sexual Exploitation
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