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
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
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
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
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
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