Nexus : March/April 1994

"Toward a New Spiritual Ethic"

by Kate Wheeler

Scene: A Himalayan cave, or an ashram in Anytown, U.S.A.

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 pitfalls. Indeed, it is like walking a razor's edge."

New Disciple (eyes sparkling): "Ooh, wow!"

No-So-Great Master: "I'll hold your hand. Climb onto my lap. Good,

good. I'll keep you save."

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 relationship come in many different forms, intensities and

durations, 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, whose 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 judgement seems to get us

into trouble. If we surrender this judgment to a teach, 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


Then again, in situations where abuse really is occurring, we may deny

or 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 clearly, 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 fully - we may find ourselves in

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 scholar 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 Price.

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 teaches had practices

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 on Great Britain.

There were laypeople, monks and nuns, psychologists, scholars,

essayist, 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


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 quicky 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


In 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 attainment. We should not be dazzled

by titles, high sounding claims, an exotic name, 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 desire 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, since all being are

emotionally vulnerable. 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. Traditional Buddhists often eat meat; but others, especially in

the West, are vegetarians, as an extension of the first precept

against killing.

A teach who behave unethically or asks students to do so can be judge

as lacking in ultimate insight, His Holiness aid. "As far as my own

understanding goes, the two claims - that your are not subject to

precepts and you are fee - these are the result of incorrect

understanding." No behavior is free from consequences. For this

reason, true wisdom always includes compassion, the understanding

that ll things and beings are interconnected with (and vulnerable to)

each other. Compassion is not abstract; it is visible as loving,

considerate behavior. :Even though 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, behaving in ways that 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 aid. The fact that the teacher may have done many other

good things should not keep us silent. If these 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 hold 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 cal the local daily to

report malfeasance. if we think recycling is important, we might

introduce that concept to the teach. 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 teach 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 emphasize empowerment and

affirmation, but also profound responsibility.

This message was more than a little scary for some who were resent.

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 h im in a confidential letter about any bad situations of which

they had personal knowledge. But there was no eagerness to respond,

and no one afterward claimed to be writing such a letter.

New Disciple: "Oh, Not-So-Great Master, did you ask that widow to sing

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?"

Not-So-Great 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'll 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 on teacher as having rationalized his

unethical behavior by call 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

actions of the guru in purity, and I never rely or depend on such a


The discussion turned to teacher 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 sort of

inappropriate people. His Holiness aid that Drukpa Kunley did all

this only for the long-term benefits of everyone involved, benefits of

which he was full cognizant through his psychic powers. All of the

emotional agony Drukpa Kunley caused purportedly turned out happily in

the long run.

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 aid, 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 be proof 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 meditators living in caves around Dharamsala are

highly realized and possible 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 yourself in all your nakedness."

No-So-New Disciple: "This seems weird. A you really a master?"

Not-So-Great Master: "I have a paper from by 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."

In an informal interview after the conference, His Holiness slapped

his knee and exclaimed, "We have started a revolution."


Kate Wheeler is a write and former Buddhist nun.


To read an open letter or for more information, send a stamped,

self-addressed envelope to the Network for Western Buddhist Teacher,

4725 E. Sunrise Drive, Suite 137, Tucson, AZ 85718. Videos and

audiotapes of the meetings with His Holiness are being prepared. For

information contact the nonprofit Meridian Trust, 330 Harrow Road,

London WP2HP, England