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Confusion within tantra

Confusion within tantra

  • The importance (again) of examining a spiritual teacher before taking teachings from him
  • How Western culture contributes to the creation of difficult or harmful situations
  • Using our wisdom when examining and listening to a spiritual teacher
  • Understanding tantra and consort practice properly
  • Listening carefully and understanding the commitments that come with tantric initiation

I want to continue on from yesterday where I was talking a little bit about how to handle situations where a teacher has acted in ways that students consider abusive. Yesterday we talked a little bit about some of the things like “how this could happen.” Some of the factors that contribute to it.

Another question arises then. Are there any things in our particularly Western situation, or Western culture, that are conducive for this kind of thing happening? We don’t really hear accounts from our Tibetan friends or Tibetan teachers of this thing happening. Of course, Tibetan culture tends to keep those things under the table so people don’t lose faith. But still, there haven’t been any examples that have been given.

Some of the things that I think contribute to this, form our side—and this relates to what I talked about yesterday—is that we’re new to Buddhism so we’re naive. The whole topic of checking the qualities of a teacher and being careful about forming a relationship, and so on, we don’t even know about, or we didn’t think about. And even if we do check, we don’t check necessarily very closely. One of the things that I think contributes to that is that when a teacher is very charismatic we just fall in love with him. I think in Asian countries more, since Buddhism is more established, the people know: “Don’t look for people necessarily who have high titles. Screen people better.” And they know the proper behavior for teachers, so they look for that.

In our culture many of the people who come to Buddhism were kind of fed up, or the religion they grew up with just didn’t resonate with them, so they were looking for something new. And we live in a culture where there’s this whole emphasis on being famous, having the best thing. We always like to look at movie stars. Look at People magazine. Who are the famous people, and they’re so fantastic. We elevate sports heroes. They’re way up there. We kind of have a tendency in our culture to idolize people, I think. I think that came in a subtle way in terms of Westerners encountering some Tibetan teachers, because when the teacher just pulls out a standard Tibetan text and reads from it and explains it, well okay. But when they tell jokes, when they speak really good English, when they know something about our culture and make us laugh, and their eyes sparkle, and they pay attention to us, and they flatter us, and whatever, then we kind of go for it. Don’t we? This whole tendency to idolize people. So I think that plays a role in it, according to our culture in the West. Especially in America. We go for fame and sparkle and big things. Who’s the most successful. Oh, they have a lot of students so…. And then there’s all the Tibetan trumpets and bells and drums and high thrones and brocade. Then incarnations of past masters. All of that kind of exotica. We’re charmed by it. So it can, in some ways, reduce our critical analysis.

The whole thing—not only for the women who say they were sexually abused, but I think also for the men who were at high places, and the women in high places in the organization’s institutional structure—people feel so flattered to be given a post, to be asked to do a certain thing. Kind of, “Oh, the guru thinks that I’m qualified to do this.” There’s that, but there’s also people’s very sincere wish to contribute to the flourishing of the Dharma. I’m certainly not saying that all the students were suckers for flattery. I’m not saying that. There’s a very sincere wish to serve the Dharma, and help the Dharma spread. So people go for that, then later they find out that there are some things going on that aren’t so kosher.

It’s kind of like, we trust at the beginning because we love the teachings that we’re getting. It’s very natural to do that. And I think it’s quite a betrayal of trust on the part of the spiritual mentors when they don’t behave in ways that are concordant with the teachings.

This is why His Holiness always says if you have a spiritual teacher who is telling you to do things that are contradictory to the general Buddhist way of doing things, or they’re teaching something contradictory to the general Buddhist view, then you don’t follow those instructions.

There’s a story of the Buddha in a previous life where one teacher told him to go out and, I think it was lie or kill or something like that, and the Buddha said to the teacher, “No, I’m not doing that.” And it was a case of the teacher testing him.

It’s this kind of thing, too. We have to use our own smarts and to see that we have the responsibility to question if we’re given instructions to do things that don’t seem right. And it’s not rude to do that, it is fine to do that. But to do it in a respectful way. If you go in to the teacher and you start yelling and screaming and saying (loudly), “But we’re not supposed to do this, and you’re teaching us this and it’s contradicting my precepts, and who do you think you are….” And you know, we yell and scream and we create a big uproar, that’s not the way to do it. The way to do it is to go in and talk to the person sincerely, and try and work it out by talking to them. And I think in this situation, from what I gather that these students who wrote the long letter, they went to talk to the teacher, and they explained in a very respectful way, and he wouldn’t listen. They did their part.

His Holiness did say in those kinds of situations, if the teacher doesn’t listen then, you kind of have no alternative but to make it public.

Again, it’s a thing of choosing what to make public and how to do it. If it’s a situation, for example, if a teacher is definitely acting opposite to the precepts (and so on), or they’re embezzling money, or they’re misusing money, or they’re sleeping with the students…. In other words, some really big ethical thing, if you go privately and the teacher doesn’t listen, then those are the kinds of things really you don’t have any alternative but to make public.

On the other hand, if it’s a thing where you’ve been studying with somebody for a while—maybe not for terribly a long time, just a short time—but you realize it’s really not working for you, something’s not fitting. It’s not that the person is a bad or unethical person, it’s just that it’s not clicking. In that kind of situation, then…. Mingyur Rinpoche was saying in his article (on the web), in those situations then you go and you just kind of thank the teacher for what they’ve done and then you can go and study with other teachers, but you don’t disrespect that person.

I remember one time when I was teaching in Seattle there was one woman who had been studying at DFF with me for some time, and then she came to me and she said, “You know I’ve also been going to this other group, and I really appreciate everything that you’ve taught here, I’m very grateful, but the meditation style in this other group is really something that is working better for me, so I just want to let you know that I’ll be going there and I won’t be coming here, but I’m very grateful for what you did.” And that was such a beautiful way of doing things. There were no bad feelings on her part, no puzzlement about what was going on on my part, the relationship still remained. That’s the way to do it in those kinds of situations.

There’s another question that comes here, especially in the situation…. Because there were several areas in which this particular teacher had behaved poorly, and one of them was in terms of sleeping with his students. It was posted on the web and described on the web and everything. The question comes, “Well, in highest class tantra isn’t there a certain practice of practicing with a consort?” Because we see the deities in union, we hear about guru Padmasambhava and Yeshe Tsogyal, so isn’t there this practice? So couldn’t what he’s been doing have been a legitimate practice like that?

Here’s where we really need to understand tantra, and especially highest class tantra. Usually these things are not made public, but His Holiness has started talking about some things publicly just to counter the misinformation that is around, because the misinformation is, “Oh, well, Tibetans practice tantra so they’re all busy sleeping with each other and drinking. And the monks and nuns don’t keep celibacy.” This is a common superstition around the world. And people criticize His Holiness, they criticize Tibetans.

One time, many years ago—this was in 1986—I was in Hong Kong, and one man called the center and he offered sangha dana, and I accepted. Then when we’re eating lunch he starts asking me if I practice tantra, and what kind of tantra, and am I available to teach him tantra, and I went home as soon as I possibly could. I was like, where did this guy get this idea? Well, it’s from this common misperception and superstition. It really needs to be clarified.

Part of the reason that there’s this confusion is because we hear stories. The Tibetans are a very conservative society, but there’s an undercurrent of rebelliousness in there. We hear stories, for example, of Tilopa and Naropa. Both were great Indian masters. Tilopa was a yogi. Naropa was the abbot of (I believe) Nalanda. He knew a lot, studied a lot, very well-learned, but he knew that he needed to go on to the next stage. So he left Nalanda and he was looking for a tantric master. He found Tilopa, who was this old kind of person just sitting around a fire frying fish. He recognized that Tilopa was actually a great tantric master, took him as his teacher, and then Tilopa, in the process of training Naropa, had him do all sorts of things. Like, they were walking one day and they were standing at the edge of a cliff, and Tilopa said, “If I had a real disciple he would jump off this cliff.” And Naropa jumped off the cliff. He fell down, broke his bones, and Tilopa healed him. They often don’t emphasize that last part. It’s the first part. He was so devoted to his tantric master that whatever his tantric master said, he did immediately without questions. Jumped off that cliff.

There’s another story. I remember Zong Rinpoche telling this one, and some of my teachers who were there just laughing their heads off at it. There was a wedding party, there was a wedding going on, and Tilopa told Naropa to go up and grab the bride’s breast in the middle of the wedding. So Naropa goes up and does that. They’re laughing hysterically. We’re going [scratching head]. But we’re told this is perfect guru disciple devotion. Your teacher tells you to do that, you do it.

We hear these kinds of stories, so then we get the idea that we’re supposed to act like that, too. One of my teachers quoted one of his teachers who said…. Excuse my Cambodian (I can’t say French anymore), “If your teacher tells you to eat shit, you eat it when it’s hot.” As an illustration of you follow your tantric master’s instructions. One of my teachers, whom I love and respect, quoted his teacher, who is a very famous lama who said that.

Now, the thing is we have to understand this properly. When we’re given the examples of Tilopa and Naropa…. Of course, Tilopa was highly realized. He caught the fish and he fried them, he also restored them to life afterwards. Niropa jumped off the cliff and broke bones, Tilopa healed him. I don’t know what happened after he grabbed the bride’s breast. He must have been protected somehow, otherwise I’m sure he would have gotten beaten to a pulp.

Then we hear about how Marpa treated Milarepa, making him build the tower and then take it down and build it and take it down, and so on and so forth. We get the idea that, “This is the way it’s going to be for me, and even if I’m asked to do something way out of the normal, I’ll do it because I’m following the example of these highly realized yogis. I’m following my guru’s instructions. And these are my masters from highest class tantra.”

The thing is, and this is what His Holiness says, you check, and if your teacher has the qualities of Tilopa, and if you have the qualities of Naropa, then do that. If you’re both highly realized beings, and you’re seeing it as a display of the wisdom of bliss and emptiness, then it’s fine. But, if you’re teacher doesn’t have the qualities of Tilopa and you don’t have the qualities of Naropa, then you say no. His Holiness is very practical.

But the students don’t necessarily know that, it hasn’t been explained to them. They hear this thing about you take highest class tantra, you have this samaya, if you break your samaya (especially not listening to your teacher’s instructions, or worse yet, criticizing your teacher) it is a one-way ticket to Avici hell, so you don’t want to do that. You want to keep your samaya.

Yesterday remember I was saying that teachers don’t always explain this well enough to Westerners before giving highest class tantra initiation. Or even if they explain it during the initiation, it comes across as just part of the ritual, it doesn’t come across as something (or people don’t hear it as something) necessarily to really listen to carefully, because they’ve all been told, “This is a wonderful opportunity to take this highest class tantra initiation, you’ll never have it again. Go.” So they don’t listen carefully, it’s not explained well. So people don’t know.

And then if you admire your teacher, then it’s easy to think, “Maybe my teacher is Tilopa, so maybe… I don’t feel like I’m Naropa, but maybe I’m at that edge of having realizations and this one thing will push me over, and I’ll have instant enlightenment, instant realizations. I’ll be like one of those yogis of old. Instantly it’ll come to me.” And so you go ahead.

So, first of all, in order to engage in consort practice you have to be not just practicing general Mahayana Buddhism, but practicing Vajrayana. Not just practicing the three lower tantras, but practicing higher class tantra. Not just practicing the generation stage, but also practicing the completion stage. And you have to be at a certain level on the completion stage. So you already have full renunciation, bodhicitta, wisdom understanding emptiness. You already have some psychic powers. One of my teachers says you could look across at the apple tree over there [points out the window] and by your powers you could make the apple fall off the tree. And then you can make the apple go up and reattach itself to the tree. While you’re here and the tree’s way over there. So, you have that kind of ability.

Or as Zopa Rinpoche once said to somebody who was acting in ways that were quite unconventional and controversial…he told the story of Gelongma Palmo. She was the nun who is the head of the lineage of the Nyung Ne practice. She had leprosy. People thought she was just a leper, get away from her and ick. To illustrate to them the power of her practice, she cut off her head and held her head, and then of course reattached it later on. So Zopa Rinpoche said to this particular person, “You’re claiming this and this, but please do something like what Gelongma Palmo did, and then we can see your power.”

If you have those kinds of powers, where you can cut off your head and reattach it, or make the apple drop from the tree and reattach it, then you’re at the level to do this. Otherwise, we aren’t and our teacher isn’t.

When you engage in this kind of practice, both partners have to be at an equal stage on the completion stage practice. It isn’t that one of the partners is and they just use somebody else. It’s both partners have to be at the stage. So you need to check yourself, and you need to check the teacher, what’s going on there.

You can see that if both people are really at this stage, then … nobody’s going to ever cry abuse, because there’s not going to be any abuse. Because both of them have meditated on emptiness, have reappeared as the deity, are seeing their bodies as the deity’s body, their speech as the deity’s speech, and their minds as the deity’s mind, and then they’re manipulating the winds in order to make manifest the fundamental innate mind of clear light and use that to realize emptiness. So for two people who understand all that, who are doing consort practice, and especially if you can manipulate the winds and do that, then there’s no question. Nobody’s going to say there’s abuse. Because they’re both practicing and they’re both gaining realizations.

The number of people who are at that stage who are alive now are probably less than the number of fingers on one of my hands. And those people do not go around telling other people that that’s what they’re doing. Those people are very discreet. So this whole thing of this one teacher having multiple partners for quick jobs, and then the partners saying, “I feel abused and un-cared-for and used, that’s not going to happen if highest class tantra completion stage practice is being done correctly.

That’s enough to chew on. We’ll continue tomorrow. But I hope this is clarifying some things for people. Because the whole point is…. What the solution to all this kind of difficulty is education. We’re responsible for our own education. So if we can be educated then at least one person in all of this is educated, in case something happens.

Tomorrow we’ll talk about the whole thing of seeing the guru as the Buddha and what in the world that means. I think this is enough for today.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.