The Dalai Lama
Speaks About
The Conduct of a Teacher

The excerpt below on the subject of spiritual abuse both religious and secular and is taken from the "Worlds in Harmony: Dialogues on Compassionate Action." His Holiness the The Dalai Lama with Daniel Goldman, Stephen Levine, Jean Shinoda Bolen, Daniel Brown, Jack Engler, Margaret Brenman-Gibson, and Joanna Macy. (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1992). The book is on our reading list for those studying with us for service to others and is very enlightening. This excerpt is taken from the Section: "Buddhism in the West." Pgs.82-88.
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Stephen Levine: I'm not sure it is even possible not to be touched by another's pain when our hearts are engaged.

Jack Engler: Oh, it's possible. Therapists do it all the time.

Margaret Brenman-Gibson: Or they try to.

Stephen Levine: Not good therapists.

Margaret Brenman-Gibson: I am not in the least persuaded that it is useful for therapists to hold as an ideal the aim of "being above the suffering" of those who come for help.

Jack Engler: No, we do this all the time. Your Holiness, have been talking a lot about the importance of a helping relationship in psychotherapy and spiritual practice. I remember hearing you say, "If you can't help, at least don't harm."

You also said that if one is going to face one's suffering and penetrate it deeply, it needs to be done in the context of trust, safety, and understanding. That often means with another person or in a community, a sangha, with a teacher; and that brings the teacher and the student, or the therapist and the patient, into a very close, intimate relationship with each other. In some ways they even have to love each other. Maybe there is some combination of love and attachment, but the relationship is there and it grows.

That relationship poses certain vulnerabilities, dangers and risks for both of them, particularly for the student or the patient. It is very sad that we see so much evidence of this today, where the helper has abused his or her position or power. In Boston, where I practice, almost every month the newspaper has headlines of another therapist who has been accused of misusing his or her power by his or her clients, usually men abusing women. We have also heard many similar examples in the Buddhist sanghas around the country of teachers who have abused positions of power and trust.

In my clinical practice, I am having more people come to me who have been abused by therapists. Recently, a number of therapists themselves have come who have abused their clients and are asking for help. It is very difficult to work with fellow therapists who have abused their clients, but we must. They need help as much as anyone else. In Western psychotherapeutic training, one is taught how to anticipate these situations and deal with them in order not to fall into that danger.

Even so, people fall. The risks are great. But at least the major professions that most therapists belong to-psychiatry, psychology, social work, nursing-are regulated by state licensing or certification boards that oversee professional conduct. Substantiated, ethical misconduct can lead to the therapist losing their license to practice in their profession.

Clients also have recourse to civil or criminal action in the courts. Is there anything equivalent to this oversight function in Buddhism? How is that handled with Buddhist teachers? How is it handled in their training; and secondly, if it comes to public attention that some teacher is having difficulties in this area, how is that then handled in the teaching community?

Dalai Lama: Part of the blame lies with the students, because they pamper the spiritual teachers; they spoil them. In the Buddhist tradition, someone becomes a spiritual teacher in relation to a disciple. There isn't any particular license or piece of paper or degree that you give someone qualifying that person as a spiritual teacher. You are a lama because you have students.

In cultivating a relationship with a spiritual teacher it is important not to be too quick to consider that person to be your spiritual teacher, because it is a very powerful relationship. For however long it may take-two years, five years, ten years, or longer-you simply regard this other person as a spiritual friend, and, in the meantime, you observe closely that person's behavior, attitudes, and ways of teaching, until you are very confident of his or her integrity. Then there is no need for any license. But it is very important, from the beginning, to have a very firm, sound approach.

There isn't any aspect of the training towards becoming a lama that is specifically designed to help you avoid abusing your own students, if you ever have students. But the very nature of Buddhist practice is to cultivate compassion, a sense of altruism towards others, and if this is pure, then the teacher will not abuse his influence.

Jack Engler: That's a very big "if" one is pure enough. I think people enter into these relationships on the assumption that the teacher has some degree of enlightenment; and then, when the abuse takes place or similar mistakes are made, the disillusionment is quite strong.

Dalai Lama: I normally recommend to Buddhist practitioners not to see every action of their spiritual teacher as divine and noble. In all of the Buddhist teachings, there are specific, very demanding qualities that are required of a spiritual mentor. If one has a teacher who is engaging in unsuitable or wrong behavior, it is appropriate for the students to criticize that behavior.

It says very explicitly in the sutras, in the Buddha's own teachings, that in those aspects were the teacher's behavior is wholesome, you should follow in that teacher's footsteps, but where it is unwholesome, you should not. So when it is incompatible with the wholesome, when it is incompatible with the Buddhist teachings, then you don't follow in the guru's footsteps.

You don't simply say, "It is good behavior because it is the guru's." This is never done. It states explicitly in the sutras that if the guru's behavior is improper, you should identify it as being improper and not follow it. It states explicitly that you should recognize the unwholesome as being unwholesome, so one might infer that it is worthwhile to criticize it. In one text of The Highest Yoga Tantra, it explicitly mentions that any advice that your teacher gives you that is unsuitable to your Buddhist way of life, your practice, should not be followed.

Jean Shinoda Bolen: But everything you've said puts the responsibility on the student, not on the one who is presumably more enlightened.

Dalai Lama: The guru, the spiritual teacher, is responsible for his or her improper behavior. It is the student's responsibility not to be drawn into it. The blame is on both. Partly it is because the student is too obedient and devoted to the spiritual master, a kind of blind acceptance of that person's guidance. That always spoils the person. But of course part of the blame lies on the spiritual master, because he lacks the integrity that is necessary to be immune to that kind of vulnerability.

Jack Engler: Your Holiness, the relationship of a student and a teacher starts as an unequal relationship, much as a therapeutic relationship does. One person has much more power and, supposedly, more wisdom, more insight. The other person is in the position of seeking help and is therefore much more vulnerable to being mistreated.

I am concerned that the way you have presented this so far puts too much responsibility on the person who is being mistreated or victimized. It seems to me that the higher responsibility must reside, at least in the beginning, with the teacher or the therapist.

Dalai Lama: Yes, you are speaking quite practically. In fact it varies with different centers and different lamas. One thing that I have noticed is that most Dharma centers in the West have come into existence as a result of an individual teacher's contacts with a few students. These Dharma centers did not come into existence as part of some program of a central organization, and, therefore, there has not been any way to check them.

In the future, we are thinking about having some kind of central organization. I receive quite a number of letters complaining about these different teachers. Therefore, I think the time has come. We can do something. The advantage of having this kind of central organization is that whenever a new Dharma center requires a teacher, a Board of Directors could recommend a particular teacher who possesses the basic qualifications that are necessary to be a spiritual teacher.

Then, on the basis of such a recommendation, someone could be selected. When the selection has been made on the basis of an individual contact, it is often difficult for the student to have the knowledge to judge whether the spiritual teacher is suitable or not, qualified or not. Imagine that a person has been appointed to be the head of a center and, after two or three years, this person's behavior starts to degenerate. At that time the Board could withdraw its support, saying, "You are no longer suitable."

Daniel Goleman: I think this is good news for many Dharma students-licensing for lamas. I think it is clear that the majority of teachers have been very good. It is a small group who have had problems, though you may know more than I do since you get so many letters.

Jack Engler: Your Holiness, in the relationship of students and teachers, where the teacher is abusing the student, dominating the student in an improper way because of the teacher's greater training, presumably greater wisdom, greater position of power, if this happens isn't it really the teacher who is guilty, rather than saying it's the student's fault because they were faithful too quickly? Do you feel that the responsibility really lies chiefly with the student?

Dalai Lama: No, in that case, the responsibility does lie chiefly with the teacher. When the person is supposed to be offering Dharma, offering spiritual teaching, and he himself indulges in an action that he has been preaching to others to avoid, then it's disgraceful. One can say that person has betrayed the task...

Daniel Brown: I think there is a middle ground. Sometimes there is too much attachment, what we call pathological attachment, and relationships become compulsive. There is too much desire. On the other hand, there are individuals who get too detached. They remain aloof and distant. They have some problem engaging in a relationship that in and open and honest way with their feelings. Somewhere in between is a kind of engagement that is healthy, and helping a client find that middle ground is useful.