When the Guru Misbehaves


Buddhist teacher misconduct

Lama Shenpen answers a student’s questions following the recent allegations of sexual misconduct by Buddhist teachers in the Shambhala community.

A Student writes:

How can we hold on to the precious teachings of the Guru despite his behavior which appears to contradict some of the teachings especially around ethics?

Lama Shenpen:

It is good to always remember that all of us, whether Guru or not, are in essence Buddha and yet this is obscured by confusion.

When we receive precious teachings we know they are precious because our Buddha Nature responds to them and feels inspired. Our Buddha Nature is meeting the Buddha Nature of the Guru and what happens is true and genuine. As such it doesn’t change even if we then become confused again or the teacher becomes confused again.

We are not taking Refuge in the confused side of either our own nature or anyone else’s nature.  We are taking Refuge in the Truth, the Buddha Nature itself and that never changes whatever we do or whatever the Guru does.

As for ethical behaviour, there are situations where ethical questions arise from misunderstandings and others where they arise from misbehavior. Each case has to be dealt with according to the situation. I won’t say more here about this because it could lead into all sorts of areas that perhaps you are not really asking about right now.

How can we have a heart connection with a teacher without giving all your power and sense of agency away?

Lama Shenpen:

A heart connection does not have anything to do with a power relationship.

Sometimes though we look to someone like a teacher for reassurance and when they give it we feel this feeling of reassurance is the heart connection.  Actually the heart connection is there naturally – although we don’t always feel it very clearly. That is why we feel love for some people and not for others. Actually we are connected to all beings in our heart.

The Guru has a heart and if we connect to their heart we will feel it – and if they are a good Guru then they will naturally respond to that and help you realise your true nature.

If they are not very good at playing the role of the Guru they might draw a student into a dependency relationship where the student clings onto the Guru and the Guru can exploit this – it becomes a power relationship and the Guru can start using it to control the student in a way that is not benefiting the student. This can happen inadvertently on the part of the person playing the role of the Guru – or in the worst cases deliberately.

Students are responsible for themselves ultimately. It is sometimes tempting to slip into a dependency role because it seems to offer a sense of security or belonging – the student may be overwhelmed by feelings of fear of rejection either by the Guru or the community around them.

This does happen and some people are poorly equipped to deal with their own feelings of dependency. In such cases we end up talking about abuse and vulnerability. Yet often it is not so much that the Guru has forced themselves on the student so much as the student just has not found what they needed to resist. This can be for so many reasons it’s hard to generalise. Group collusion is often a factor.

Yet giving all your power away isn’t really possible. You are still the one giving it away and so you are still the agent. You can still choose not to give it away. Of course you may find it impossible to exercise your own power like for example when in prison.

However nobody can really take away your power to choose your own response to that. Having said that we can find ourselves in situations where it is very difficult to choose our response and I think this is what you mean here when you ask if we can have a heart connection without giving all our power away.

It is important that we retain our own sense of agency in all situations. Even if we decide to obey the Guru precisely in all situations, it is our decision. It is we ourselves that exercise our own agency to decide we are going to do that.

Most people do not find themselves in a situation where they trust the Guru in all things to that extent nor do we often find Gurus who are willing to take the responsibility for telling us what to do in all situations. Mostly the Guru will give advice or even orders in specific situations and the rest of the time we are left to our own devices.

We never have to obey the Guru against our better judgement. It might have been better for us if we had done but it’s not a crime. We would not lose our heart connection with the Guru just because of that. The Guru might not want to bother with us as much as before but that was our choice. We chose to go our own way and so did the Guru. The heart connection is still there and we never need give up on that however much we may find ourselves somehow on the periphery of things.

In some circumstances, usually associated with Vajrayana teachings a student might be told that they will go to hell if they tell anyone what is going on between themselves and the Guru.  Again you are responsible for your decision to believe that.

Even if it were true, if in your judgement the Guru is making a mistake, if you are not motivated by ill-will or other kleshas and if you only ever tell the truth and do not exaggerate the faults or deny the good qualities the Guru has – then even if from certain points of view you are making a mistake, it can be rectified from the karmic point of view.  Better make an honest mistake than let an abuser continue to cause harm.

Lama Shenpen Hookham