‘When The Teacher Fails’ (1989)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

11 minutes

In May 1989, Stephen Butterfield published his response to the then recent exposés of the abuse by Swami Muktananda, Richard Baker Roshi, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and Ösel Tendzin. His article ‘When The Teacher Fails’ in The Sun Magazine is available in full here.

Butterfield introduces his discussion of the recent disclosures about Ösel Tendzin by saying:

“According to the dharma, every situation—especially if it is negative and chaotic—contains wisdom. As a Buddhist, I am interested solely in how the Tendzin scandal can be used to deepen spiritual realization, and what can be said or done about it that might benefit others. If my town were to be attacked by terrorists, or if a burning plane landed on my house, I hope I would be able to say exactly the same thing.

Chögyam Trungpa, Tibetan master of Vajrayana Buddhism, was the holder of two major lineages of enlightened teaching. (In Buddhist tradition, a lineage is a line of oral dharma transmission from master to disciple that has continued unbroken for as long as twenty-five centuries.) He was also a “crazy wisdom” guru in the outrageous “thunderbolt” style of transmission called Maha Ati, the supreme wisdom. He was the living embodiment of the highest teachings in the Buddhist world. From 1970 to 1987, when he lived in this country, he presented Americans with the gentlest, most profound, compassionate, spacious, enigmatic, sometimes shocking, frightening, and controversial spiritual example that we are ever likely to encounter. His writings and transcribed talks are a palace of jewels, reflecting every essential aspect of the dharma, all the way from cleaning the kitchen sink to handling the sky if it should happen to fall on your head. It is amusing to report his unconventional behavior out of context: his drunkenness was legendary; he threw up on people in public places, tickled women’s feet, bit someone on the shoulder at a party. But these anecdotes usually miss the point of his actions, because they are based on selected secondhand information. The only way to understand a thunderstorm is to be in it, getting wet.

Trungpa was the first great Tibetan Buddhist lineage holder to select an American for his dharma heir: Thomas Rich, from Newark, New Jersey. Given the name “Osel Tendzin” and installed as Trungpa’s Regent in 1976—an event of major importance in Buddhist history—Thomas Rich was empowered by Trungpa to be a gateway to Vajrayana Buddhism. Trungpa took a chance on us; we took one on him, by accepting his choice. Gateways to this incredible tradition are rare, and such individuals should be cherished — especially if they speak our language and have been raised in our weird culture of television, superhighways, and fast food.

Any student wishing to learn from an authentic master must take a chance. The consequences of choosing a fake may be much worse than losing all our money to support a cosmic Rolls Royce collector: the confusion spread by the fakes may permanently alienate us from any kind of enlightened teaching. But there is no safe, definite answer; even fake teachers usually have some enlightened insights, and genuine teachers sometimes miss the mark. The worst fakes present us with the same basic problem of all spirituality: how to work with chaos and confusion, beginning with our own. The teacher may assist us in that task, or simply provide the occasion for it, but no teacher can protect us from the anxiety of chaos. There is no way to evade the issue. If we reject all teachers, we take a chance on that choice, the same as any other. It is always our own choice; even the decision to surrender choice to the will of the master must come from ourselves. When the result is devastating, we must look in the mirror and realize where it came from.

I could not interview Trungpa and Tendzin to determine if they were fake masters before applying their teachings to my life. I did not want to interview them; I was afraid of being exposed as a fake student. That was my ego-burden: to be stumbling around constantly in a fog of opinions and discursive thoughts, afraid to be naked and alone, without disguises, without the reference points of good and evil, fake and genuine, right and wrong, self and other.”

Having ascribed his own experience of Buddhist practice to Trungpa, Butterfield says:

“I say this not to boast, but to throw light on the issue of distinguishing the true master from the fake. The only meaningful way I could proceed was to test every teaching personally, questioning everything but believing nothing, especially not my own everlasting whirlwind of discursive opinions; to take all my own steps; and never to make a judgement of my teacher that would prevent me from learning more. Instead of getting stuck on the problem of trying to determine whether the teacher was fake, I tried to make sure that I was real. That was exactly what the dharma helped me to do, and as long as I do that, there is no problem. Knowing that I was applying a 2500-year-old heritage and not some pop shaman’s private vision sustained me during periods of despair.

Buddhism contains one central feature that distinguishes it from all theistic forms of spirituality. That is the teaching of shunyata, the view of emptiness: nothing has any inherent validity of its own, not even Buddhism. Shunyata works as a kind of built-in “shit detector” for false doctrine. Any doctrine that offers itself as absolute truth — even a doctrine asserting emptiness to be a reality — is exposed at once by its denial of shunyata. The aim of meditation practice is to see through conceptual mind — the faculty that is always interpreting and selecting experience, giving us fantasies, beliefs, roles, and masks. Realizing that our ideas have no inherent validity, and that their very existence depends on other ideas, we can afford to give them up and be simply as we are. Once you have had this insight, it is unlikely that you will be deceived by fakes. On a practical level, this is like working with genuine antiques for many years, until you can smell, feel, and taste their wood grains, colors, weights, designs, varnishes, and glues. When you encounter a fake, you do not need a written analysis to tell you what it is.

I have listened to talks by Osel Tendzin, heard him answer questions, and participated in dialogue with him. Everything he said on these occasions deepened my insight and inspired my path. Sometimes his words hit me like bolts of electricity, and I would come away smiling and shaking my head, amazed that any human being could be so skillful in responding, on the spot, not only to questions, but to the questioner’s state of mind — time after time, in a way that empowered and strengthened the student.

Some teachers are skillful in being clever and bright, so bright that the more questions they answer, the more dazzling they appear, and the more diminished and dependent their students become. Osel Tendzin’s responses would unerringly rob me of ego gratification, but would also bring answers out of what I said. Thus I became less afraid to expose my ego, and more confident of my wisdom. As I went farther on this path, I realized that I was benefiting not merely from Tendzin’s or Trungpa’s extraordinary talents, but from the sanity of an immensely rich and powerful tradition. There was no reason I could not emulate that sanity, if I was willing to accept the gift and blessings of the lineage behind it.

A bodhisattva also vows not to harm other sentient beings. Many Buddhists, myself included, were therefore deeply shocked to discover that Tendzin could keep silent about having the AIDS virus and transmit it to unwitting partners. If he could do that, one is tempted to ask, what did he learn from the dharma? Some members of Vajradhatu—the organization founded by Trungpa to carry on his work—feel that Tendzin violated the basic trust necessary between teacher and student; that he acted frivolously in assuming he was above ordinary human limitations and could not infect anyone else; that he broke fundamental Buddhist precepts against causing harm, and has therefore disqualified himself as a teacher.

The question of relating with the teacher in this situation is especially poignant and sharp in the tradition of Vajrayana Buddhism, for one cannot enter the Vajrayana without complete devotion to the lineage holder who administers the vows. Devotion is the ground for the higher teachings. Without it, both teacher and student run the risk of trapping themselves in a nightmare of mutual self-deception. Ignorant devotion to a fake teacher, on the other hand, is the same nightmare. If we really intend to step out of the world generated by the dualism of self and other, there is no way to evade this problem, any more than we can evade the problem of choice. The teachings mean what they say: that mind, experience, and phenomena are one; that pleasure and pain, existence and nonexistence, life and death are inseparable; that there are no limits to intelligence; and that any negative circumstance whatever can be transformed into wisdom and used as a means of further realization. This is a bold statement. By making it, we are inviting the abyss. We are saying to all the demons of chaos, “Come and visit me, if you like. Since there is no one for you to harm, there is no reason for me to fear. Your presence just inspires me to wake up.” In Buddhist tradition, this is called the lion’s roar, the fearless proclamation that egoless intelligence is unborn and undying, and cannot be defeated or destroyed. But we should understand that we are likely to find ourselves working with the chaos we have asked for. We cannot then slink back into the forest and hope nobody heard us.

Confronted by insoluble dilemma or feelings of betrayal, the habits of ego-mind are likely to reassert themselves. The discursive thought process begins to generate a deluge of questions, answers, opinions, and beliefs: “He should. . . . He should not have. . . . I would never have. . . . His partners should have. . . . We should. . . . What will everybody think? What should I think? What do you think?” This is exactly the old confusion of self and other, but transferred to the teacher — the old problem of the anxious ego, selecting and interpreting events in order to make a choice that is least threatening to its own existence. The temptation is strong to solidify our opinions and bring in a verdict, but verdicts contribute little to human wisdom.

The teacher does not exist apart from ourselves. We have created Osel Tendzin, by recognizing the profundity of the lineage with which he was entrusted, venerating him, consenting to his leadership, accepting Trungpa’s empowerment of him as our Regent, and respecting his talks. Doing that has conferred great blessings on me, and I know the same is true for hundreds of other Vajradhatu students. He has also created many of us, as bodhisattvas and Buddhists, by recognizing the seed of Buddha mind in us and helping us to cultivate that seed.

If we relate with a teacher naively, assuming that the teacher is infallible and will always act in our best interests, we are inviting betrayal. Only children relate that way, and no worthwhile teacher would seek to reduce us again to the dependency of childhood. On the other hand, when your purpose is to step out of ego’s world, you cannot hold anything back. To reject the teacher when he is in trouble is to deny his blessings, and to relate to him as a separate being — which brings back duality, and with it, the whole wretched and unnecessary suffering of samsara: aggression, grasping, ignorance, pride. Trust in the process of bonding between teacher and student is necessary. Since no relationship can be made entirely safe and secure, for the student this has to mean trust in one’s own ability to use any consequence, including betrayal, as a means for waking up. The appropriate response to suffering, no matter what the source, is compassion. A teacher may inflict harm out of ignorance, or out of a desire to wake up the student. Either way, the student should bring the result onto the path of meditation. Bonding to the teacher then empowers us, instead of reducing us to acolytes hoping to banish uncertainty by an act of blind faith.”

Next, Butterfield discusses AIDS as “a potent vehicle for examining and deepening one’s relationship to passion,” and surmises: “We would like to deny our fundamental vulnerability and insecurity, but AIDS tells us that every act of intimacy is like jumping from a plane. If we hear the message, it becomes an invitation to connect with the vulnerability and suffering of all beings.” He continues in closing:

“Regarding AIDS in this light is not a license to spread the disease, or an excuse for dishonesty. It is a guideline for how AIDS, or any sickness, may be used to deepen realization. The dharma teaches us to prevent harm, but also to transform affliction once it has occurred. Appreciating our common vulnerability enables us to give gentleness and care to our casualties, and to avoid compounding the damage by sending out aggression and blame.

The same task in a slightly different form has already been presented to me, since I have an incurable and degenerative lung disease. In all likelihood, I gave this disease to myself by repeated inhalation of marijuana smoke, through joint papers laden with asbestos fibers. I suffer greatly from it. If I take myself as my own best teacher and friend — which I do — then this teacher and friend has betrayed me, by accepting my trust and damaging my lungs beyond hope of cure. In addition, I have held myself in the bondage of ego and denied myself countless opportunities for liberation since the beginning of time.

Yet I will not, cannot, turn my back on myself and reject myself as my teacher. Why? First, because I know that pain is empty of any solid nature; second, because it is a means of discovery, and a teaching, if I take it that way; third, because it enables me to have compassion for the suffering of others; fourth, because I am empty of any solid nature, and the fool who damaged my lungs fifteen years ago has become the meditator who knows how to use that damage now; fifth, because the Buddha within me is inseparable from both the world and the fool. Therefore, rejecting myself would be rejecting my own Buddhahood.

At the same time, the unconditional trust that I give myself has to be sharp and hard-headed; I can be stubborn, stupid, impulsive, and proud. I have misled myself before and may do so again. That balance of confidence and skepticism, that willingness to trust and work with myself as I am — that seems to me the very razor’s edge of the path.

Exactly the same reasoning process may be applied to working with an “external” teacher. Doing so goes a long way toward cutting through the false division of self and other. We would like our spiritual teachers to be superhuman and supernatural, but they are not. They are only ourselves. We hope they are the best part of ourselves, mirrored back to us, inspiring us to go entirely beyond the notion of self. But in any case, the mirror still reflects. Our concept of a perfect leader must be given up to the charnel ground. If we wish to learn anything from teachers, we must take them as they are.

I will not attempt to explain why Osel Tendzin may have done what he did; that is his responsibility. Probably, no answer to that question could ever be complete, for explanations are always selective, and cannot give us anything but partial truths. Unless the story helps us to work with the results, it is irrelevant anyway. The root cause of all suffering is clinging to self, and the only effective response to that problem is to practice the dharma. The full truth is simply the event, contemplated in silence.

Disgraced and torn by public controversy, his life in danger, Osel Tendzin will have plenty of chaos to work with on his path. His dharma practice — and his teaching — will surely be inspired and deepened by the experience. It seems to me that his best insights have not yet been heard.”

Ösel Tendzin died of AIDS a little more than a year later, on August 25, 1990.

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.