Spiritual Teacher as Role Model

Superman20Alex20Ross207Our Autumn retreat at Mt. Baldy Zen Center is over and done. But those of you who didn’t go will get another chance when we hold our next retreat there in April. Stay tuned right here for details.

One of the many interesting topics that came up this past weekend was the matter of the spiritual teacher as role model. One of the participants asked about whether a teacher is responsible when her/his students imitate that teacher’s behavior and end up causing problems.

I wasn’t sure if he was referring to the well-known case of Chögyom Trungpa and his successor Ösel Tendzin. But during my talk I addressed this because I prefer to talk about specifics rather than generalities. I feel there’s much more that one can say if one talks about things that have actually happened rather than talking about hypothetical cases.

In a nutshell, Chögyom Trungpa was a Tibetan Buddhist teacher famous both for his great insight and his love of wild sex and alcohol. He died at age 47 of liver failure. His successor Ösel Tendzin was, according to Wikipedia, “bisexual and known to be very promiscuous” and “enjoyed seducing straight men.” Also, according to Wikipedia, “(it was revealed) in 1989 that Ösel Tendzin had contracted HIV and for nearly three years knew it, yet continued to have unprotected sex with his students, without informing them.” One could say that Tendzin was merely following the model of his late teacher*. Tendzin died of AIDS in 1990.

That’s just one very tragic case. There have been other less tragic cases, such as students of teachers who were heavy drinkers who then began to drink themselves. My first teacher loved strong coffee in the morning and I aped him in this habit which ended up giving me a pretty strong caffeine addiction.

Students at the Autumn Retreat at Mt Baldy with their dubious role model.

Students at the Autumn Retreat at Mt Baldy with their dubious role model.

I think if we follow this question to its logical conclusion we end up asking a more fundamental question about whether a spiritual teacher is obligated to be a role model for her/his students. And when I think about role models, I think of Superman and Jesus Christ. The story of Superman is basically a modern retelling of the story of Christ. According to Stephen Skelton in his book The Gospel According to the World’s Greatest Superhero, ““Superman’s story goes something like this… From above, a heavenly father sends his only son to save the Earth.  When he comes down to Earth, he’ll be raised by two parents who originally had the names Mary and Joseph — now this is the Superman story we are talking about.”

Superman and Jesus Christ are also morally pure. Like Jesus Christ, Superman never has anything but good intentions. He never does anything mean or selfish. The fictional character Jesus Christ is very probably based on a real person who, we can be sure, sometimes had bad thoughts and sometimes did things that weren’t completely nice. But the Jesus we read about in the New Testament and hear about in most churches is not real, at least not in the historical sense. Superman is understood to be completely fictional.

Real people are not like Superman or the fictionalized Jesus of Sunday school classes. So our real life teachers can never be role models like them. They will always fail to live up to such expectations. I think most of us are aware of this at least on a cognitive level, even when subconsciously we may tend to expect our teachers to behave like Superman. Though I’m know for certain some people really do expect their spiritual teachers to be superhuman.

That being said, I think it’s reasonable to expect a decent spiritual teacher to at the very least not infect a bunch of his students with HIV or break up their marriages or steal their money. It’s not OK to demand perfection, but one should at least be able to expect common decency and honesty.

Also, fictional role models do have their value. George Washington may not have ever really said, “I cannot tell a lie” and then owned up to chopping down his father’s cherry tree (I never understood why he chopped it down in the first place). But it’s a story that taught me the value of honesty when I was a child in spite of its lack of historical accuracy.

But why do some teachers seem to go bad, often spectacularly? One person at the retreat said that it seemed to him that cases that of Tendzin and others seemed to indicate that either a) the teacher was not truly “enlightened” or b) the teaching itself was false. This begs the question of what is this so-called “enlightenment” thing we keep hearing about?

Often “enlightenment” is a word used to refer to the profound experiences some meditators have in which they come to understand themselves no longer as individual human beings but as living expressions of the infinite, or, if you like, living expressions of God. This experience is real. But it’s not exactly what most people imagine it to be. Dogen says, “Realization does not break the individual any more than the reflection of the moon breaks a dewdrop. The whole moon and the entire sky can be reflected in a dewdrop on a blade of grass.”

The problem often is that people who have such experiences are just like anyone else. They’ve read the same trashy comic book versions of the spiritual experience, seen the same bad movies about “enlightened masters,” and hold to the same illusions of what such an experience means as anyone else who has not had one themselves. They’ve watched Superman cartoons too.

I count myself lucky in that when I started having such experiences I was just a guy working at a desk in a company in Tokyo. There was nobody around to be impressed by what was happening to me. My coworkers just thought I was being weird. My bosses told me to stop goofing off and get back to work.

If, as often happens in cases like this, I had been surrounded by a band of fellow spiritual seekers who both admired and were jealously envious of my experiences things could have gone very differently. I think that when that happens often a poisonous feedback loop gets created in which the newly “enlightened” person’s own delusions about her/his enlightenment and what it means get endlessly amplified until they spiral totally out of control.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that such a person’s so-called “enlightenment experience” was false or that the insights they’ve had are worthless and phony. But the ego can latch on to absolutely anything — including the understanding of its own ultimate unreality — as a way to enhance itself.

So the teaching isn’t false, nor is the person not truly “enlightened” — at least if enlightenment is defined as a simple experience of deep insight. But it means other things have gone wrong and perhaps that we should come up with a new definition of “enlightenment.”

As to the question of whether a teacher ought to be a good role model, I suppose my answer is a qualified yes. A spiritual teacher should at the very least live up to whatever they demand their students to be. If they demand their students to be sexually chaste, they themselves should also be sexually chaste. If they demand their students never to touch intoxicants, they themselves ought to be straight-edge. I think that’s reasonable. If the teacher can’t live up to their own demands upon their students, that’s a problem.

But I think it’s also important for students to take responsibility for themselves. Pema Chodron talks about her take on this as a celibate follower of the decidedly non-celibate Chögyam Trungpa. When asked what advice she would give to other female students of Trungpa were Trungpa alive today she says, “I would have said, You know he loves women. He’s very passionate, and he has a lot of relationships with women, and that might be part of it if you get involved with him… And you should do that knowing you might get an invitation to sleep with him, so don’t be naive about that and don’t think you have to do it. But you have to decide for yourself who you think this guy is.”

In short, it’s really ultimately up to the student to decide what’s right and what’s wrong. You can’t just blindly follow someone else’s behavior.

* There is a further allegation (also reported by Wikipedia) that “Tendzin had asked Trungpa what he should do if students wanted to have sex with him, and Trungpa’s reply was that as long as he did his Vajrayana purification practices, it did not matter, because they would not get the disease.” But since this allegation has been disputed, I’m leaving it aside for now.

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52 Responses

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  1. Broken Yogi
    Broken Yogi November 14, 2013 at 6:44 pm |

    btw, I’ve read Sargent’s book, and it’s brilliant. And that’s why resistance is futile, but consciousness always triumphs.

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