With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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A few years ago, Swami Muktananda, a respected meditation master and an avowed celibate, was accused of having sex regularly with his teenaged disciples. About the same time, Richard Baker, one of the foremost Zen Buddhist teachers in the U.S., was forced to resign because of charges of financial and sexual misconduct. More recently, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the Indian sage who owned thirty Rolls Royces, fled the U.S. in the wake of an ugly controversy involving charges of blackmail and murder.
Now, yet another spiritual teacher has become embroiled in a scandal that has thrown America’s Tibetan Buddhist community into turmoil. I asked Stephen T. Butterfield, who writes regularly for The Sun, for his observations; this is, he says, the most difficult essay he has ever written.
The press reported recently that Osel Tendzin, the successor to Buddhist meditation master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, has had AIDS for years. Tendzin made love with some of his students without telling them they were at risk, and passed the virus on to them and their unknowing partners.
The disclosures about Tendzin raise issues of life, death, trust, the value of the Buddhist way — or dharma — and the relationship to one’s teacher. The job of assuring the public that Buddhist centers are not breeding grounds for AIDS may be left to the administrators of those centers. I speak only for myself, as a dharma practitioner in the hill country on the fringes of Trungpa’s organization, holding no position in it except that of meditation instructor, and as one who has never slept with Tendzin or any of his intimates.
According to the dharma, every situation — especially if it is negative and chaotic — contains wisdom. As a Buddhist, I am interested solely in how the Tendzin scandal can be used to deepen spiritual realization, and what can be said or done about it that might benefit others. If my town were to be attacked by terrorists, or if a burning plane landed on my house, I hope I would be able to say exactly the same thing.
Chögyam Trungpa, Tibetan master of Vajrayana Buddhism, was the holder of two major lineages of enlightened teaching. (In Buddhist tradition, a lineage is a line of oral dharma transmission from master to disciple that has continued unbroken for as long as twenty-five centuries.) He was also a “crazy wisdom” guru in the outrageous “thunderbolt” style of transmission called Maha Ati, the supreme wisdom. He was the living embodiment of the highest teachings in the Buddhist world. From 1970 to 1987, when he lived in this country, he presented Americans with the gentlest, most profound, compassionate, spacious, enigmatic, sometimes shocking, frightening, and controversial spiritual example that we are ever likely to encounter. His writings and transcribed talks are a palace of jewels, reflecting every essential aspect of the dharma, all the way from cleaning the kitchen sink to handling the sky if it should happen to fall on your head. It is amusing to report his unconventional behavior out of context: his drunkenness was legendary; he threw up on people in public places, tickled women’s feet, bit someone on the shoulder at a party. But these anecdotes usually miss the point of his actions, because they are based on selected secondhand information. The only way to understand a thunderstorm is to be in it, getting wet.
Trungpa was the first great Tibetan Buddhist lineage holder to select an American for his dharma heir: Thomas Rich, from Newark, New Jersey. Given the name “Osel Tendzin” and installed as Trungpa’s Regent in 1976 — an event of major importance in Buddhist history — Thomas Rich was empowered by Trungpa to be a gateway to Vajrayana Buddhism. Trungpa took a chance on us; we took one on him, by accepting his choice. Gateways to this incredible tradition are rare, and such individuals should be cherished — especially if they speak our language and have been raised in our weird culture of television, superhighways, and fast food.
Any student wishing to learn from an authentic master must take a chance. The consequences of choosing a fake may be much worse than losing all our money to support a cosmic Rolls Royce collector: the confusion spread by the fakes may permanently alienate us from any kind of enlightened teaching. But there is no safe, definite answer; even fake teachers usually have some enlightened insights, and genuine teachers sometimes miss the mark. The worst fakes present us with the same basic problem of all spirituality: how to work with chaos and confusion, beginning with our own. The teacher may assist us in that task, or simply provide the occasion for it, but no teacher can protect us from the anxiety of chaos. There is no way to evade the issue. If we reject all teachers, we take a chance on that choice, the same as any other. It is always our own choice; even the decision to surrender choice to the will of the master must come from ourselves. When the result is devastating, we must look in the mirror and realize where it came from.
I could not interview Trungpa and Tendzin to determine if they were fake masters before applying their teachings to my life. I did not want to interview them; I was afraid of being exposed as a fake student. That was my ego-burden: to be stumbling around constantly in a fog of opinions and discursive thoughts, afraid to be naked and alone, without disguises, without the reference points of good and evil, fake and genuine, right and wrong, self and other.
I gained confidence in Trungpa by realizing that he saw this ego burden very clearly, from all sides. He could see this way only if his view was coming entirely from outside ego’s territory. Learning that an egoless view is possible — and that I could recognize it — reassured me that I was capable of shedding my burden. The practices he taught — sitting meditation in particular — enabled me to see some of what he saw. Doing those practices completely transformed my life.
Because of his teachings, I could relate to people out of simple friendship, without demanding that they meet my imagined “needs.” I could marry boredom and disappointment, thereby losing the need to run away from negative mind states. Empowered to turn negativity into a resource, I found flowering in me an unconditional cheerfulness and patience that is indestructible, because it is not based on the rejection of obstacles. I learned truly effective methods of confronting my arrogance, stinginess, jealousy, anger, and dullness, my ego-based patterns of behavior and belief. I learned how to crack these habits open and discover the luminous, enlightened energy frozen within them — energy which became available for creative work and joy. My senses were sharpened: I could see, hear, touch, taste, and smell in much finer and more vivid detail. I became more skillful at relating with others; I could identify and drop those words and thoughts that were based on maintaining personal territory. I understood clearly that virtues are always cultivated from their opposites: patience is the ability to accommodate impatience, courage is the ability to handle fear, and wisdom is not possible unless confusion is allowed to emerge. Therefore I developed immense respect for my mistakes; without them, my discoveries could not have been made.
I say this not to boast, but to throw light on the issue of distinguishing the true master from the fake. The only meaningful way I could proceed was to test every teaching personally, questioning everything but believing nothing, especially not my own everlasting whirlwind of discursive opinions; to take all my own steps; and never to make a judgement of my teacher that would prevent me from learning more. Instead of getting stuck on the problem of trying to determine whether the teacher was fake, I tried to make sure that I was real. That was exactly what the dharma helped me to do, and as long as I do that, there is no problem. Knowing that I was applying a 2500-year-old heritage and not some pop shaman’s private vision sustained me during periods of despair.
Buddhism contains one central feature that distinguishes it from all theistic forms of spirituality. That is the teaching of shunyata, the view of emptiness: nothing has any inherent validity of its own, not even Buddhism. Shunyata works as a kind of built-in “shit detector” for false doctrine. Any doctrine that offers itself as absolute truth — even a doctrine asserting emptiness to be a reality — is exposed at once by its denial of shunyata. The aim of meditation practice is to see through conceptual mind — the faculty that is always interpreting and selecting experience, giving us fantasies, beliefs, roles, and masks. Realizing that our ideas have no inherent validity, and that their very existence depends on other ideas, we can afford to give them up and be simply as we are. Once you have had this insight, it is unlikely that you will be deceived by fakes. On a practical level, this is like working with genuine antiques for many years, until you can smell, feel, and taste their wood grains, colors, weights, designs, varnishes, and glues. When you encounter a fake, you do not need a written analysis to tell you what it is.
I have listened to talks by Osel Tendzin, heard him answer questions, and participated in dialogue with him. Everything he said on these occasions deepened my insight and inspired my path. Sometimes his words hit me like bolts of electricity, and I would come away smiling and shaking my head, amazed that any human being could be so skillful in responding, on the spot, not only to questions, but to the questioner’s state of mind — time after time, in a way that empowered and strengthened the student.
Some teachers are skillful in being clever and bright, so bright that the more questions they answer, the more dazzling they appear, and the more diminished and dependent their students become. Osel Tendzin’s responses would unerringly rob me of ego gratification, but would also bring answers out of what I said. Thus I became less afraid to expose my ego, and more confident of my wisdom. As I went farther on this path, I realized that I was benefiting not merely from Tendzin’s or Trungpa’s extraordinary talents, but from the sanity of an immensely rich and powerful tradition. There was no reason I could not emulate that sanity, if I was willing to accept the gift and blessings of the lineage behind it.
Osel Tendzin was the preceptor who administered my refuge and bodhisattva vows. These are major transition stages on the Buddhist path. Refuge is a commitment to give up home territory, becoming a refugee in a universe where nothing can be used to confirm or disconfirm the self. A bodhisattva is a refugee who has given up even enlightenment in order to help liberate others from suffering. The bodhisattva vow is a commitment to practice and study the disciplines that enable one to extend compassion to others without desiring anything in return. These vows are supremely ironic moments: we have no home territory in any case, because it is always being swept away; and we must give up enlightenment for the sake of others or it will never happen. The vows are recognitions of what is already known to be so, and inspirations to go further into the disciplines arising from that knowledge. The ceremonies had the flavor of a cosmic joke, if one had tasted the view of emptiness; but they were not fake, to me, or to him.
A bodhisattva also vows not to harm other sentient beings. Many Buddhists, myself included, were therefore deeply shocked to discover that Tendzin could keep silent about having the AIDS virus and transmit it to unwitting partners. If he could do that, one is tempted to ask, what did he learn from the dharma? Some members of Vajradhatu — the organization founded by Trungpa to carry on his work — feel that Tendzin violated the basic trust necessary between teacher and student; that he acted frivolously in assuming he was above ordinary human limitations and could not infect anyone else; that he broke fundamental Buddhist precepts against causing harm, and has therefore disqualified himself as a teacher.
The question of relating with the teacher in this situation is especially poignant and sharp in the tradition of Vajrayana Buddhism, for one cannot enter the Vajrayana without complete devotion to the lineage holder who administers the vows. Devotion is the ground for the higher teachings. Without it, both teacher and student run the risk of trapping themselves in a nightmare of mutual self-deception. Ignorant devotion to a fake teacher, on the other hand, is the same nightmare. If we really intend to step out of the world generated by the dualism of self and other, there is no way to evade this problem, any more than we can evade the problem of choice. The teachings mean what they say: that mind, experience, and phenomena are one; that pleasure and pain, existence and nonexistence, life and death are inseparable; that there are no limits to intelligence; and that any negative circumstance whatever can be transformed into wisdom and used as a means of further realization. This is a bold statement. By making it, we are inviting the abyss. We are saying to all the demons of chaos, “Come and visit me, if you like. Since there is no one for you to harm, there is no reason for me to fear. Your presence just inspires me to wake up.” In Buddhist tradition, this is called the lion’s roar, the fearless proclamation that egoless intelligence is unborn and undying, and cannot be defeated or destroyed. But we should understand that we are likely to find ourselves working with the chaos we have asked for. We cannot then slink back into the forest and hope nobody heard us.
Confronted by insoluble dilemma or feelings of betrayal, the habits of ego-mind are likely to reassert themselves. The discursive thought process begins to generate a deluge of questions, answers, opinions, and beliefs: “He should. . . . He should not have. . . . I would never have. . . . His partners should have. . . . We should. . . . What will everybody think? What should I think? What do you think?” This is exactly the old confusion of self and other, but transferred to the teacher — the old problem of the anxious ego, selecting and interpreting events in order to make a choice that is least threatening to its own existence. The temptation is strong to solidify our opinions and bring in a verdict, but verdicts contribute little to human wisdom.
The teacher does not exist apart from ourselves. We have created Osel Tendzin, by recognizing the profundity of the lineage with which he was entrusted, venerating him, consenting to his leadership, accepting Trungpa’s empowerment of him as our Regent, and respecting his talks. Doing that has conferred great blessings on me, and I know the same is true for hundreds of other Vajradhatu students. He has also created many of us, as bodhisattvas and Buddhists, by recognizing the seed of Buddha mind in us and helping us to cultivate that seed.
If we relate with a teacher naively, assuming that the teacher is infallible and will always act in our best interests, we are inviting betrayal. Only children relate that way, and no worthwhile teacher would seek to reduce us again to the dependency of childhood. On the other hand, when your purpose is to step out of ego’s world, you cannot hold anything back. To reject the teacher when he is in trouble is to deny his blessings, and to relate to him as a separate being — which brings back duality, and with it, the whole wretched and unnecessary suffering of samsara: aggression, grasping, ignorance, pride. Trust in the process of bonding between teacher and student is necessary. Since no relationship can be made entirely safe and secure, for the student this has to mean trust in one’s own ability to use any consequence, including betrayal, as a means for waking up. The appropriate response to suffering, no matter what the source, is compassion. A teacher may inflict harm out of ignorance, or out of a desire to wake up the student. Either way, the student should bring the result onto the path of meditation. Bonding to the teacher then empowers us, instead of reducing us to acolytes hoping to banish uncertainty by an act of blind faith.
AIDS is a potent vehicle for examining and deepening one’s relationship to passion. Now that it has entered the heterosexual population, it can no longer be viewed as a “gay problem.” It is everybody’s problem. Buddhists are not exempt, and the Vajradhatu board acted promptly and responsibly to alert all of our members and limit the damage. No one but a fool can look on a prospective sexual partner any longer and be unaware of death. We must consider whether sex is worth the risk, and why we are doing it at all. Even in monogamous relationships, one partner can never be entirely certain that the other has not been infected. We would like to deny our fundamental vulnerability and insecurity, but AIDS tells us that every act of intimacy is like jumping from a plane. If we hear the message, it becomes an invitation to connect with the vulnerability and suffering of all beings.
Every case of AIDS arises from the total environment, just as every auto accident is conditioned not only by the actions of a particular driver, but by the weather, the shape of the road, the level and speed of traffic, and the fact that we have collectively chosen highways and cars. There is no such thing as individually caused misfortune. Death is certain and comes without warning. It may come on the road, in the air, and in bed. The egoless world, what Trungpa called “the vajra castle,” is built on a charnel ground — the bones of hope and fear, the skulls of self and other, the hair and teeth of personal security. To enter the vajra castle, we must die, every moment, all the time. Any teaching that seeks to protect us from the knowledge of the charnel ground is fake dharma.
Regarding AIDS in this light is not a license to spread the disease, or an excuse for dishonesty. It is a guideline for how AIDS, or any sickness, may be used to deepen realization. The dharma teaches us to prevent harm, but also to transform affliction once it has occurred. Appreciating our common vulnerability enables us to give gentleness and care to our casualties, and to avoid compounding the damage by sending out aggression and blame.
The same task in a slightly different form has already been presented to me, since I have an incurable and degenerative lung disease. In all likelihood, I gave this disease to myself by repeated inhalation of marijuana smoke, through joint papers laden with asbestos fibers. I suffer greatly from it. If I take myself as my own best teacher and friend — which I do — then this teacher and friend has betrayed me, by accepting my trust and damaging my lungs beyond hope of cure. In addition, I have held myself in the bondage of ego and denied myself countless opportunities for liberation since the beginning of time.
Yet I will not, cannot, turn my back on myself and reject myself as my teacher. Why? First, because I know that pain is empty of any solid nature; second, because it is a means of discovery, and a teaching, if I take it that way; third, because it enables me to have compassion for the suffering of others; fourth, because I am empty of any solid nature, and the fool who damaged my lungs fifteen years ago has become the meditator who knows how to use that damage now; fifth, because the Buddha within me is inseparable from both the world and the fool. Therefore, rejecting myself would be rejecting my own Buddhahood.
At the same time, the unconditional trust that I give myself has to be sharp and hard-headed; I can be stubborn, stupid, impulsive, and proud. I have misled myself before and may do so again. That balance of confidence and skepticism, that willingness to trust and work with myself as I am — that seems to me the very razor’s edge of the path.
Exactly the same reasoning process may be applied to working with an “external” teacher. Doing so goes a long way toward cutting through the false division of self and other. We would like our spiritual teachers to be superhuman and supernatural, but they are not. They are only ourselves. We hope they are the best part of ourselves, mirrored back to us, inspiring us to go entirely beyond the notion of self. But in any case, the mirror still reflects. Our concept of a perfect leader must be given up to the charnel ground. If we wish to learn anything from teachers, we must take them as they are.
I will not attempt to explain why Osel Tendzin may have done what he did; that is his responsibility. Probably, no answer to that question could ever be complete, for explanations are always selective, and cannot give us anything but partial truths. Unless the story helps us to work with the results, it is irrelevant anyway. The root cause of all suffering is clinging to self, and the only effective response to that problem is to practice the dharma. The full truth is simply the event, contemplated in silence.
Disgraced and torn by public controversy, his life in danger, Osel Tendzin will have plenty of chaos to work with on his path. His dharma practice — and his teaching — will surely be inspired and deepened by the experience. It seems to me that his best insights have not yet been heard.
Stephen T. Butterfield
The following was sent to Stephen Butterfield and is printed here with Bob Saltzman’s permission:
I have great respect for the Buddhist tradition and for Chögyam Trungpa, from whom I learned a great deal of invaluable lessons. But your defense of Osel Tendzin was an exercise that seemed to me both foolish and totally deluded.
In your obvious contortions in Tendzin’s defense, you distorted the meaning of what happened. You made it seem as though Tendzin’s students had perhaps trusted him too much and now needed to come to terms with the repercussions of their credulity. To me, this is absurd. To me, the case is clear: having sex with another person while knowingly carrying the HIV, without first informing that person, is tantamount to committing murder, pure and simple.
Those pages of philosophical speculation on the meaning of a teacher turned murderer would have done credit to a Jesuit. I mean this seriously: perhaps all that pot smoking damaged more than your lungs. Wake up please.
I must respond to Stephen Butterfield’s heartfelt piece on Vajra Regent Osel Tendzin’s transmission of AIDS to unwitting students. Butterfield’s thoughts echo those of many people I know in the Vajradhatu community, and exhibit great compassion for Tendzin as well as a fierce determination to apply the insights of the dharma to a most challenging situation. I feel they also exemplify some of the dangers of Buddhist practice as it is evolving in the West.
To begin, it is only fair that Sun readers be acquainted with certain facts about the situation that were not revealed in Butterfield’s essay. These may seem inflammatory, but they are important, just as the details of Baker Roshi’s and Maezumi Roshi’s private conduct had to be brought to light before their communities could heal.
Immediately following the first public revelations of Tendzin’s condition in December of 1988, shock waves spread throughout the continental Vajradhatu community; because this particular Buddhist group has always looked benignly upon very free sexual mores (and because the extent of Tendzin’s circle of partners was well known) the specter of an AIDS epidemic loomed very large. Vajradhatu officials refused to supply clear information to concerned persons making inquiries, even to confirm that Tendzin was infected. Rick Fields, editor of The Vajradhatu Sun, was barred from printing any reference to the matter. (He was later fired for attempting to defy the blackout.) In Los Angeles, Lama Ken McLeod, a senior student of the late Kalu Rinpoche, consulted with the Center for Disease Control and the Los Angeles Buddhist AIDS Project, then prepared to announce publicly the details of Tendzin’s illness so that those at risk could take appropriate and responsible steps. Before he could do so, senior Vajradhatu officials approached Kalu Rinpoche, then visiting in Los Angeles, and within the hour Ken McLeod was told that Rinpoche required that he not speak publicly about Tendzin. McLeod obeyed the wishes of his teacher.
Vajradhatu quietly spread the word throughout its membership. Informal reports suggest that virtually all members were tested and, but for a handful, tested negative. If this is true, we are justified in sharing a great groan of relief, especially for those who had brief sexual contacts while participating in Vajradhatu or Shambhala Training programs and who then disappeared beyond the scope of a telephone-alarm network. Still, it remains that Tendzin did knowingly expose many partners, some of whom subsequently carried the virus into other liaisons, and that the institutional response to the crisis had the markings of a coverup.
It should also be noted that Tendzin was a controversial teacher far before this most commanding stroke of fate focused wider attention on him. He was an unreformed alcoholic and was known for harsh outbursts. His tastes for finery were generously indulged by his students. His meals were occasions for frenzies of linen-pressing, silver-polishing, hair-breadth calibrations in table settings, and exact choreographies of servers. If a stumbling novice carried a tray incorrectly or served from the wrong side, Tendzin was known to reprimand caustically. When he traveled, a handbook went with him to guide his hosts through the particulars of caring for him, including instructions on how and in what order to offer his towel, underpants, and robe after he stepped from the shower. Almost without exception, his students addressed him as “Sir.”
While it seems the majority of Chögyam Trungpa’s students found value in Tendzin’s teachings, there were many, this writer included, who found them thin. Troubled by the insults of his personal conduct, we became the uncomfortable citizens who saw that the emperor had no clothes. In Los Angeles, after two weekend intensives with Tendzin, several of us resigned from the group and left the Vajra Regent behind. Now that this awful tragedy has surfaced, Tendzin is a presence I must contend with. Yes, he now instructs me, as I work with revulsion, outrage, and horror. He instructs me not as a teacher, but in the way that the doer of any immoral or violent deed in my sphere compels me to work within.
Butterfield acknowledges that we, the students, “created” Osel Tendzin, which is an important insight. That he does not question whether we did a very good job of it reflects Western Buddhism’s discomfort with moral judgements. His stimulating and emotionally charged picture of the benefits of Buddhist practice is valid, but like many others, he uses the concepts of dharma teaching to reject any critical examination of the stranger fruits of the lineage. Trungpa warned us of “idiot compassion”; perhaps we should consider that we also might be practicing idiot devotion, or idiot equanimity.
If our understanding of the dharma leads us to believe that we shouldn’t be making any judgements, or in Butterfield’s words, that “verdicts contribute little to human wisdom,” we may have missed the point. I fear we reinforce ignorance when we dare not trust our own perceptions because we equate them with ego-activity. Trungpa transplanted the dharma to North American culture; he also transplanted a throwback subjugation of women. (In the years I was a member, all Vajradhatu officers were male, and a corps of beautiful young women who attended to and slept with Trungpa was formalized as the sam-yung.) He modeled disregard for the dangers of alcohol abuse. He was a brilliant teacher, but his later detachment from reality was excused as “crazy wisdom.” No one knows the grounds of Trungpa’s decision to make Osel Tendzin his successor. Is it heretical to think that he may have made a poor choice, or that he might have voided it had he lived longer?
The experience of Western Buddhists will give “devotion to the guru” a good shakedown, along with many other teachings that ultimately will be transformed just as they were again and again over the centuries, as the dharma spread to new territories. Credulity is an easier route to take, but it is the wrong one. Those who resist critical examination of our path might eventually have more in common with fundamentalist Christians, Scientologists, and Moonies than with the other Buddhists of the world.
The Buddha warned us specifically to test the teachings for ourselves, but sadly did not explain what to do when confronted with a teacher whose moral choices defy our sense of what is right. We’re on our own there; we can consult with other teachers about it, but the bubble is, and should be, forever burst.
Several recent letters to The Sun were critical of Stephen Butterfield’s article about the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Osel Tendzin [“When the Teacher Fails,” Issue 162], who had unprotected sex with some of his students though he knew he had AIDS.
I felt deeply touched by Stephen’s story of his own suffering and his obvious compassion for the suffering of others, which seem to have helped him transcend ordinary ego judgements and let go of moralism toward Tendzin. Yet in Stephen’s attempt to cope with Tendzin’s behavior, he misses something important, which I would call the distinction between transcendence and transformation.
Most spiritual paths are paths of transcendence. Transcendence is essentially a vertical journey to the center of life, to the Self behind all the roles and games of ego. It is a journey right past the flawed human personality, which manifests as flawed human experience — in this life as in past lives. Transcendence in fact takes us right past even the tendency to identify with the human form and melodrama.
I remember how [the spiritual teacher] Ram Dass used to talk about hanging out in his “heart cave,” his place of universal loving consciousness, perfectly aware that he still existed as Richard Alpert, with all his problems, on other levels of consciousness. And so it is. Touching the source within more and more deeply does not guarantee any change in the unredeemed or unevolved aspects of one’s personality.
For that, the process of transformation is necessary. If the transcendent path is that of the Buddha, a vertical journey into the heart and center of life, then the transformative path is that of the bodhisattva, a horizontal journey outward to bring back home all the aspects of ourselves that as yet do not realize their true identity, and hence are attached to various illusions, self-limiting attitudes, and negative emotions.
Ram Dass seems to have recognized his own need for something like this. He has become Richard Alpert again, accepting his own personal karma, and doing the work of meeting his life’s curriculum — the teachings offered by his life experiences — which will inevitably point back to the unloved and unevolved aspects of the self.
So it must be for all of us. Even as a part of us is plunging deeply downward to our center, we must stop along the way to reach out to other aspects of ourselves with love, to bring the unaware parts along with us. We must meet the inner darkness and distortions, and not sugar-coat them as something other than the limitations and human frailties that they are.
I think of the many spiritual teachers from India who have acted out their sexual desires inappropriately with their students. These men were often celibate as adolescents in a terribly sexually repressive culture. How perfectly human and natural, then, that when they came to the sexual candy store of America, they reverted to early adolescent behavior. Their sexual nature never grew up, even as their spiritual nature was becoming deeply refined.
Let’s not lose our clear thinking about the human and inevitably flawed aspects of a person just because he or she happens to be a spiritual teacher. Just as the temptation of the teacher is to be arrogant and feel special, the temptation of the student is to be subservient and dependent. I understand the human desire to find and surrender to the perfect master, the perfect parent, the one who can at last show the way. But, as Krishnamurti so insistently taught us, the way is within, and you must ultimately become your own authority, must sooner or later “kill the Buddha” you meet on the road in order to become the Buddha.
But that doesn’t mean spiritual teachers are unnecessary. We just have to keep perspective. Your spiritual teacher is like your plumber or your electrician, except that he or she is helping you clean out your psychic sewers and hook up your own spiritual power current. We need the services of the plumber and the electrician, but we don’t expect them to be perfect. The spiritual teacher’s vocation doesn’t make him or her perfect either.
Nor do our own transcendent meditations automatically take care of our own shadow side. The work of transformation of the shadow is a different kind of work from that of transcendence. In transcendence we see through the games of ego and error; we do not take them seriously. In transformation, we take our errors very seriously. We need to face and identify them honestly, stripping away the blinders of denial and self-delusion to face nakedly our places of shame, darkness, and fear, with courage and with self-respect. As we do the work of self-facing, identifying our flaws without identifying with them, we see where we have become attached to certain misconceptions and where we take pleasure in certain negative feelings. With hard work and good will, we can unearth and transform these attachments and replace them with positive intentions and positive life energy.
On the spiritual path we know that the good and bad in us are ultimately one energy current, and that the bad is only a temporary constriction or distortion of the universal energy. Thus we can often do the transformative work more quickly and efficiently than in conventional psychotherapy or counseling, both of which hold a more limited view of the human being. But the spiritual path does not free us from the hard work of facing and releasing the negative, cramped, distorted places in our souls, or from the need to accept the flawed, imperfect, and inevitable limitations of our humanity. Such work will make us human and keep us humble, thereby reducing the temptation and risk of spiritual arrogance, to which we are all so prone.
In regard to Susan Thesenga’s letter on the paths of transcendence and transformation [Issue 166]: when life is seen as a path, we never arrive. We study the past, calculate the future, and value the present moment only as incoming data for our continuous analysis. Work within is simply the ego working on the ego; the center remains fixed on ourselves. While circumstances change, the essence remains the same, untouched. Self-analysis is self-involvement, born out of fear. It is calculations to guard against the future, designed to get us through life as if life were a chore; therefore it becomes a chore. How can we meet life spontaneously if we set up all our reactions according to calculations based on our fears and desires, and our experiences, good and bad?
“Be happy now — without reason,” say the Zen Buddhists. Abandon all strategies. Life is lived by letting go, not by grabbing the reins all the tighter and steering to the positive side, into the right direction; not by obsessively examining ourselves, judging to see if we are measuring up, progressing, growing in the right way, keeping to the path. All that hard work leaves so little time to live. “The world is won by those who let it go,” according to the Tao te Ching, “but when we try and try, the world is then beyond the winning.”
Susan’s arguments are all well thought-out and persuasive; her ideas all add up, make sense, fit precisely. But they are getting in the way. Give them up! Let them go!
Many of my readers seem disappointed and angry that I didn’t criticize Osel Tendzin. I’m sorry, but it doesn’t interest me, and it doesn’t help. My purpose was not to justify him, but to apply the insights of the dharma to a painful and chaotic situation. The struggle between good and evil belongs in gothic movies. Anger is always acceptable; refusing to accept anger results in aggression. The task of a Buddhist is to treat this event exactly the same as all other forms of suffering: with intelligent and active compassion, nothing less. By doing that, our own suffering is healed and transformed.
I would call Osel Tendzin “Sir” even if he were a wino in the gutter, hand him his underpants, and kiss his big toe, as long as he didn’t ask me to go any higher. Anybody can be made to look bad by selective reporting.
Most of the Vajradhatu officers I interact with are women, and none of them are subjugated. At my seminary, students who came to the teachings drunk were expelled — gently but firmly. There is just as much confusion among us as there is anywhere else, but Trungpa’s “model” was to recognize the basic goodness of everyone, and to work with neurosis and disease as potential resources instead of moral weaknesses. How does it help me if my teacher is too chicken to burst my bubbles? Of course, if he’s going to kill me, that’s different; then I’d better start relying on my own mother wit — clarified and matured by the dharma.
We are all the emperor who has no clothes. Therefore, we can be naked without fear. Adult sensibility is cultivated by unconditional kindness and respect — first for ourselves, then for our world.
Thank you all for instructing me to examine my ground.
As in the case of Stephen Butterfield’s essay on Osel Tendzin [“When the Teacher Fails,” Issue 162], the refusal to judge sometimes seems like the ultimate manifestation of ego, a way of being More Enlightened than Thou. If Tendzin’s spreading AIDS is to be accepted “to deepen spiritual realization,” why aren’t his students’ anger, shock, and pain equally acceptable? Why can’t those responses be dealt with instead of resolutely transcended (repressed?) or oh-so-gently condescended to?
When a teacher fails, the most “advanced” students always say that it’s the ultimate teaching, because it throws us back on ourselves. (Or, as I wrote after the Rajneesh debacle, “Being enlightened means never having to say you’re sorry.”) But the “ultimate teaching” of such an event seems to be that the corruptions of ego are inescapable — they are to be found right at the heart of the very tradition in which one sought liberation from them. That seems a very defeating realization (if also horribly funny).
Maybe Tendzin’s “ultimate teaching ” at this point would be to tell his students, as best he can, what went on in him while he did these extraordinary things. There’s something other seekers could learn from. But Tibetan Buddhism seems far too hierarchical for that.