Toward a New Spiritual Ethic
By Kate Wheeler
This article first appeared in Yoga Journal magazine:
"At a symposium with 22 Western Buddhist teachers, the Dalai Lama had strong words for teachers who abuse their power- and
students who give theirs away.
Scene: A Himalayan cave, or an ashram in Anytown, USA.
Not-So-Great Master (leaning down to touch New Disciple's Head): 'Yes, dear one, I will teach you. But the
spiritual path is full of perils and pit falls. Indeed, it is like walking a razor's edge.' New Disciple (eyes sparkling): "ooh, wow!"
Not-so-Great Master: "I'll hold your hand. Climb onto my lap. Good, good. I'll keep you safe.?
New Disciple: "What's this?'
Not-So-Great Master: "Don't worry. We must achieve
profound oneness so that you can be enlightened".
New Disciple (dubiously): "If you say so."
Spiritual practitioners do walk a razor's edge. In order to reach a new mode of
being, we question our assumptions, the very basis of what is real to us. In doing so, we make ourselves extremely vulnerable to the teachers we work with-and we all need teachers. Though spiritual
relationships come in many different forms, intensities, and duration, few of us can reach profound perfect enlightenment in profound and perfect isolation. We learn to read William Blake's "books in
the running brooks" from others, those who show us how. Ordinary books, as inquisitors long have sensed, aren't safe either-they're written by human beings.
The woods are full of dangerous
teachers: from gun-toting fanatics to self-made swamis promising instant psychic powers for a hefty fee, or more complex characters who have special qualities, but whose spiritual attainments don't include a
healthy use of power, money, or sexuality. Relationships with spiritual authorities can get confusing when we begin to question our own reactivity. If we feel resistant to a teacher's advice, how do we know
whether this is healthy caution or an undesirable and self-serving ego defense? Many of us come to spiritual practice precisely because our own judgment seems to get us into trouble. If we surrender this
judgment to a teacher, how can we remain morally and ethically responsible for our lives?
No teacher can meet our every expectation; perhaps disappointment is a part of spiritual growth. Before
returning to ourselves, more intact than when we started, maybe each of us must learn that no one is completely whole or perfect, at least not in the way we first imagined. Then again, in situations where
abuse really is occurring, we may deny our perceptions, telling ourselves-and being told-that we are seeing a reflection of our own neurosis. Especially if we were victimized as children, we may know all too
well how to love people who are also hurting us and not well enough how to leave them.
Such penetrating questions will play a part in our spiritual lives no matter what kind of childhood we had. They
don't just vanish after years of meditation. In fact, as our practice matures, we come to see our teachers' foibles more dearly, and we become insiders, privy to undercurrents from which newcomers are
excluded. As Western practitioners consider issues like feminism, the impact of child abuse, and the value of psychotherapy - topics that traditional Asian cultures have not explored as we find ourselves m
conversations with traditional teachers that lead nowhere, or, at worst, backfire. In an effort to resolve these and other questions, 22 Western Buddhist teachers consulted this spring with the highest, most
trusted authority they could find: His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Revered as a meditation master and schooled within his own tradition, His Holiness is also known for his openness to new ways of
thinking. His insistence on a non- violent stance in world affairs won him the Nobel Peace Prize.
These Westerners are the first generation of authorized European and North American Buddhist
meditation teachers. The conference was organized by Lama Surya Das, a native of New York who is now a teacher in the Tibetan NyingmaPa tradition. Each of the teachers had practiced for at least a dozen
years in either Japanese or Korean Zen, the four major Tibetan schools, Thai or Sri Lankan Buddhism, or the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, a Western school based in Great Britain. There were lay
people, monks and nuns, psychologists, scholars, essayists, translators; some had meditated in caves, others had Western doctorates. Most were actively teaching Buddhist meditation, not only in the West, but
in Asia, Russia, and countries like South Africa and Brazil.
None of them had yet stopped "living their questions," as Rainer Maria Rilke would put it.
His Holiness received the
teachers, and their questions, with enthusiasm at his residence in the hill town of Dharamsala, northern India. The four day discussion moved quickly to essential points.
Human beings are naturally compassionate and gentle, His Holiness said; the only real purpose of
Buddhism, or any other spiritual practice is to teach us how to develop these qualities in order to make
this a better world for all forms of life. Buddhist practitioners should try to become better people, not better than other people.
As for teachers, a genuine teacher is motivated to teach by unselfishness, not the reverse. Spiritual
practice connects us with the purity, love, and freedom that are human birthrights; someone who
has deeply experienced these states of being often feels moved to help others do the same.
"You are trying to make a good being," His Holiness said, "eventually a Buddha. Not have
someone to run your errands."
choosing a teacher, we should look first for benign and trustworthy behavior, making a strong effort to assess the person's inner qualities. Have they conquered their own selfishness, anger, and greed? If
so, to what extent? Are they really interested in helping others? And lastly, do they have the skills to guide us?
Good motivation is important, His Holiness said; but in order to really benefit
others, a person must also be able to take local circumstances into account.
A good teacher can be male or female, from any country. Though it may be important to know whether he or she has been
authorized to teach, credentials are not necessarily a measure of wisdom. Nor is charisma necessarily a sign of spiritual al attainment. We should not be dazzled by titles, high-sounding claims, an
exotic-resume, popularity, or wealth. Since it can be difficult to determine another's inner qualities, students must spend time examining a teacher closely. "Spy on them," His Holiness joked. Even
after making a commitment, we still should not give up our discrimination.
"The real authority of a teacher comes from the students," His Holiness said, not just from a religious hierarchy.
Therefore, We can and should question our teachers.
If asked to do something unethical, we have the responsibility to refuse; if our relationship with the teacher is a close one, we should explain why
we will not follow her or his instructions. How do we decide what is unethical? In Buddhism, the most fundamental basis for action is compassion for all beings. Five precepts are used as guidelines: No
killing, since all beings treasure their own lives. No stealing, since all beings like their possessions. No false or abusive speech, since all beings deserve to hear speech that is truthful, helpful, and
timely. No sex with anyone who is committed to a relationship with another, nor anyone who is mentally or psychologically incapable of caring for himself or herself; this, No intoxication, since it leads to
blurring of distinctions; under the influence, we may do and say hurtful things we otherwise would not.
Different interpretations of the precepts are inescapable. If we choose to adopt the five
Buddhist precepts, each of us must decide what they mean. For example, the Buddha was not a vegetarian, in part because he wanted to be able to accept food from anyone who offered it.
Buddhists often eat meat; but others, especially in the West, are vegetarians, as an extension of the first precept against killing. A teacher who behaves unethically or asks students to do so can be judged
as lacking in ultimate insight, His Holiness said. "As far as my own understanding goes, the two claims--that you are not subject to precepts and you are free-these are the result of incorrect
understanding." No behavior is free from consequences. For this reason, true wisdom always includes compassion, the understanding that all things and beings are interconnected with (and vulnerable to)
each other. Compassion is not abstract; it is visible as loving, considerate behavior. " one's realization may be higher than the high beings'," His Holiness said, "one's behavior should
conform to the human way of life." when teachers break the precepts, are clearly damaging to themselves and others, students must face the situation, even though this can be challenging. "Criticize
openly," His Holiness declared "That's the only way. " If there is incontrovertible evidence of wrongdoing, teachers should be confronted with it. They should be allowed to admit their wrongs,
make amends, and undergo a rehabilitation process. If a teacher won't respond, students should publish the situation in a newspaper, not omitting the teacher's name, His Holiness said. The fact that the
teacher may have done many other good things should not keep us silent. If there is no chance for change, perhaps we must choose to pack our bags and leave the teacher, though we still may feel inwardly
grateful for the help we received from him or her.
Tolerance and care are needed to decide what is really unethical in ourselves and others. Every person holds personal moral and ethical standards
that are, to some degree, idiosyncratic. If a teacher doesn't meet our ideal of how a teacher should behave, we must exercise all of our honesty and intelligence in determining whether damage has actually
resulted. If a teacher doesn't recycle his or her old bottles, for example, we don't need to call the local daily to report malfeasance. If we think recycling is important, we might introduce that concept to
the teacher. If she isn't interested, that doesn't mean we should immediately stop recycling in our own household. If recycling represents a profound value for us, perhaps we should look for a teacher who
values it, too. In general, His Holiness exhorted Westerners to retain their integrity and authenticity. To be enlightened, it isn't necessary to adopt Asian mannerisms or decorate our homes in Tibetan or
Japanese style. It is necessary to develop profound wisdom and compassion, a genuine understanding of ourselves. His message emphasized empowerment and affirmation, but also profound responsibility.
This message was more than a little scary for some who were present. At formal sessions, panelists spoke in vague generalities; afterwards, in their rooms, they admitted that they were afraid their teachers
would hear that they had talked and ostracize them. His Holiness entreated participants to help him avoid endorsing abusive teachers by telling him in a confidential letter about any bad situations of which
they had personal knowledge. But there was no eagerness to respond, and no one one afterward claimed to be writing such a letter.
New Disciple: "Oh, Not-So-Great Master, did you ask that widow to
sign her millions over to you?"
Not-So-Great-Master "Yes. It's good for her not to be so rich. "
New Disciple: "How do you know it's good for her?"
Master: "Because I see beyond. The money will be used for her spiritual benefit." New
Disciple: 'Why do you laugh at her behind her back?"
Not-So-Great Master: "She's deluded,
like you. I already told you that I see beyond. No more questions, or you can 't rub my feet any more. In fact, I kick you out of my group. "
Since the meeting was a discussion of principles, rather than an inquisition, specific names were not
openly mentioned; still, many of the Westerners had met teachers who claimed a greater moral license.
A British-born nun quoted one teacher as having rationalized his unethical behavior by calling it "a display of compassionate skillful means that cannot be understood by those of lesser attainment."
His Holiness replied, ?I cannot accept the outlook of perceiving all the actions of the guru in purity, and I never rely or depend on such a license."
The discussion turned to teachers who have sex with many women students, claiming to enlighten
them. To almost everyone's horror, His Holiness said there were a few cases where this might be possible. He
began musing about that famous yogi of medieval Bhutan, Drukpa Kunley, who used to sleep with other men's wives and all sorts of inappropriate people. His Holiness said that Drukpa Kunley did all this only
for the long-term benefits of everyone involved, benefits of which he was fully cognizant through his psychic powers. All of the emotional agony Drukpa Kunley caused purportedly turned out happily in the
Smiling slightly, His Holiness explained that Drukpa Kunley could understand the long-term effects of his actions because he had attained the nondual insight known as "one taste."
All experiences were the same to him: He could enjoy excrement and urine just like the finest food and wine. Traditionally, His Holiness said, the practice of tantric sex is permitted only to practitioners
who can match Drukpa Kunley's insight.
As for the teachers nowadays who sleep with many students, His Holiness laughed and said, "If you put into their mouth some urine, they will not enjoy."
This in itself would of their inadequacy.
A more traditional test to prove one's suitability for tantric sexual practice, His Holiness said, is to display psychic powers such as flying. "As far
as I know," His Holiness concluded, "zero lamas today can do that." Some of the meditators living in caves around Dharamsala are highly realized and possibly capable of such attainments, he
said, but they are celibate.
Not-So-Great Master: "Dear Disciple, for your own development, you must see all of my actions as perfect, no matter how strange they may seem to you. Yes, hmm. So
take off your clothes so that you can experience your self in all your nakedness." Not-So-New Disciple: "This seems weird. Are you really a master?"
Not-So-Great Master: "I have a paper from my guru. "
Not-So-New Disciple: "That's not good enough. I have to believe in you myself:"
Not-So-Great Master: "Don't you
believe that I'm beyond duality, good and evil? My actions don't reflect that petty distinction, do they?"
Not-So-New Disciple: "That's just what's bugging me "
Not-So-Great Master: "Let's get on with it. Strip!"
Not-So-New Disciple: "OK, but first, you have to pass the taste test. Here, enjoy this plate of shit.?
At an informal
interview after the conference, His Holiness slapped his knee and exclaimed, "We have started a revolution!
Kate Wheeler is a writer and former Buddhist nun.
read an open letter or for more information, send a stamped, self addressed envelope to the Network for Western Buddhist Teachers, 4725 E.
Sunrise Dr., Ste. 137, Tucson, AZ.
85718. Videos and
audio tapes of the meetings with His Holiness are being prepared; for information, contact the nonprofit Meridian Trust, 330 Harrow Rd., London WP 2HP, England.