‘Toward a New Spiritual Ethic’ (1994)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

4 minutes

The March/April 1994 issue of Yoga Journal presents Kate Wheeler’s reminiscences of the Western Buddhist teachers’ conference with the Dalai Lama in 1993: ‘Toward a New Spiritual Ethic.’ The full issue is available here.

Wheeler introduces her narrative about the conference that was held inside the Dalai Lama’s residence in Dharamsala as follows:

“Spiritual practitioners do walk a razor’s edge. In order to reach anew 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 relationships 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, those 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 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 judgment seems to get us into trouble. If we surrender this judgment to a teacher, 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, may be each of us must learn that no one is completely whole or perfect, at least not in the way we first imagined.

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

Corroborating Tenzin Palmo’s testimony in the Arte-documentary Abuse in Buddhism: The Law of Silence, Wheeler notes that almost thirty years ago the Dalai Lama himself explicitly stated that he would stop endorsing Buddhist teachers whom he knew to be abusive:

“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 emphasized empowerment and affirmation, but also profound responsibility.

This message was more than a little scary for some who were present. 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 him 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.”

Wheeler continues:

“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 one teacher as having rationalized his unethical behavior by calling 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 the actions of the guru in purity, and I never rely or depend on such a license.”

The discussion turned to teachers 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 sorts of inappropriate people. His Holiness said that Drukpa Kunley did all this only for the long-term benefits of everyone involved, benefits of which he was fully 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 said, 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 of the meditators living in caves around Dharamsala are highly realized and possibly capable of such attainments, he said, but they are celibate.

In an informal interview after the conference, His Holiness slapped his knee and exclaimed, “We have started a revolution!”

About the author

Rob Hogendoorn

Investigative reporter and academic researcher Rob Hogendoorn (b. 1964) began researching the reception of Buddhism in Western society and culture in the early 1990s. His modus operandi remained the same ever since: independent, inquisitive and provocative.