top of page



Devotion with Discernment

A question of personal responsibility 

by Rob Preece



In 1973 I found myself seated before a colourful brocaded throne in a mediation hall in a small Tibetan Buddhist Monastery near Kathmandu, Nepal. I was amongst a large group of young Westerners waiting with some excitement for a Tibetan lama to enter. The atmosphere was electric with anticipation. After a few minutes there was a whisper ‘lama’s here’, we all stood up and most people bowed respectfully as a relatively young man entered the room made prostrations and rose to the throne. When he began to speak, I found myself immediately enthralled by his presence and playful humour. This man was to become an essential focus of my spiritual life from that point onwards. He became my ‘guru’.


Like many Westerners at the time I was somewhat lost spiritually and very wounded emotionally. I would have given almost anything to find someone to guide me and give me a sense of meaning and direction that would make my life feel worthwhile. I believed and trusted that this Tibetan would do so. I also really wanted to be seen, so that I might have a sense of affirmation of my value and my nature. Part of this relationship to my guru was therefore a huge emotional investment. I became devoted in a way that was akin to falling in love and had a very idealistic view of how special he was. I recall sitting with other students talking in a kind of romantic haze about all the qualities we felt he embodied.


When I apply my Jungian psychological view to this relationship, I can see that at its heart was a massive projection. That isn’t to say the lama was not extraordinary, but that extraordinariness was the hook for my projection. Jung saw that what we are unconscious of in ourselves we tend to project onto someone else. In the case of someone who becomes our guru we project an image of our ‘higher Self’ onto a person who can act as a carrier of that unconscious quality. When this begins to happen it is as though we become enthralled or beguiled by this projection. In the case of the projection of the Self onto a teacher we give away something very powerful in our nature and will then often surrender our own volition to be guided. 


Something more problematic in this experience was that, like many of my peers, what I had projected was not just the ‘inner guru’, I had also imbued him with a quality of the ideal parent I dearly needed. In doing so I was giving away other significant aspects of my power, my own volition and my own authority and discriminating wisdom.


Looking back I can see that I had a lot of growing up to do. My desire to idealise the external teacher was actually supported by teachings I received on ‘guru devotion’ which said explicitly that we should try to see the ‘guru as the Buddha’ and that he (or occasionally she) was effectively perfect. My idealism was blinding me to my teacher’s human fallibility and was being reinforced by the teachings. I was even given the message that to see flaws in or to criticise the guru would lead to dreadful suffering.


The danger with indiscriminate idealised devotion to the teacher is that we are trusting that the he or she will hold a place of complete integrity and will have no personal agendas. I feel fortunate that with most of my own teachers this has been the case. What happens, however, when we start to discover that the teacher is actually very human and has his own issues, his own flaws and his own needs? Do we just dismiss this as our delusion or his crazy wisdom because he is after all Buddha? 


In the 40 years that I have been involved in the Buddhist world it has become very clear that while there are some extraordinary teachers with great integrity, they are seldom if ever flawless. They may have extraordinary depths of insight but they also make mistakes, can have their own needs, and sometimes behave badly. As a psychotherapist I would go further and even suggest that a few of them actually have significant psychological problems. It is possible to have deep insights but struggle with the stability of their personal identity in the world. The exalted almost divine status of how certain teachers such as incarnate lamas are brought up, can cause them to become narcissistic and surprisingly self-centred. Occasionally this can lead to bullying and even cruel and abusive behaviour with students. It does not then serve any of us to simply ignore this behaviour or go into a kind of naive denial that says ‘it is my obscuration, the teacher is perfect’. I am sometimes shocked when I hear students describe how the critical, bullying way in which they are treated is a necessary part of the destruction of the ego and so is completely acceptable.


H.H, Dalai Lama himself recently wrote in his book The Path to Enlightenment:

‘The problem with the practice of seeing everything the guru does as perfect is that it very easily turns to poison for both the guru and the disciple. Therefore, whenever I teach this practice, I always advocate that the tradition of “every action seen as perfect” not be stressed. Should the guru manifest un-Dharmic qualities or give teachings contradicting Dharma, the instruction on seeing the spiritual master as perfect must give way to reason and Dharma wisdom. I could think to myself, “They all see me as a Buddha, and therefore will accept anything I tell them.” Too much faith and imputed purity of perception can quite easily turn things rotten.’


Sadly the unquestioning devotion some of us hold towards teachers has indeed occasionally turned things rotten. While we can hope the majority of Eastern and Western teachers are genuine in their integrity, there are a few that do not behave skilfully and their students are extremely vulnerable to being abused and taken advantage of. It is in this respect necessary for us to wake up and not be beguiled by charismatic teachers and our own need to idealise. In our devotion to a teacher we can have a strong sense of respect, appreciation and indeed love, but not in a way that blinds us to their human fallibility. We need to retain our sense of discernment that recognises and faces when things are not acceptable or not beneficial. If this means a level of disillusionment, then so be it. At least we will end up with a more realistic and real relationship. Again as H.H. Dalai lama once said ‘too much deference actually spoils the guru.’


Recognising boundaries


Possibly the most critical issue that arises in relationship to the teacher is the potential for a loss of appropriate boundaries. As a psychotherapist there is consistent emphasis on the understanding of how teachers and therapists need to be clear of their ethical boundaries, especially because of the power imbalance in the relationship. When we consider the power we often give away to our teachers the assumption we make is that they will be skilful with us and not be abusive or exploitative. Unfortunately this is often misunderstood by both teachers and students. Boundaries imply a teacher will respect the needs and vulnerabilities of a student and not take advantage of them for his or her own needs. This can be materially, economically, emotionally or sexually. Materially it is very easy for teachers to exploit the devoted student who wishes to practice generosity towards them and so provide money, material goods, a home, work, and so on out of devotion. Teachers can get very rich on the offerings of their disciples and in Tibet the estates of the highly revered Tulkus where often extremely wealthy and powerful. 


There can be a tendency for some teachers to emotionally ‘feed’ on the devotion of their students. It can nourish a narcissistic need for love and to be seen as special. Possibly the worst form of exploitation, however, is the sexual abuse of female students to satisfy a need. This is the most blatant form of abuse of boundary and power and can often be dismissed or denied within the context of a dysfunctional community of disciples. Devoted students may choose to turn a blind eye on such behaviour because is shakes the stability of community to the foundations. 


For a relationship between a teacher and student to be healthy psychologically and emotionally ethical boundaries must be clear. I have seen in my work as a therapist and mentor that students who have experienced a teacher’s confused or loose boundaries suffer greatly. Students may then find they have no-one within their community to speak to about it because there is a taboo against criticizing the guru. They may find that their community does not really want to know. The result is that the very heart of their spirituality has been betrayed.


Our teachers need to hold clear boundaries around their emotional and physical behaviour so that it does not become harmful to students. What can be problematic for us as Western Buddhists is that some Eastern teachers may not understand what this means in the West. Within their own culture boundaries were often implicit in the world in which they lived, be it the monastery or the Thai, Japanese or Tibetan culture. What we need to recognise is that once Eastern teachers move to the West they are not always held within their own culture and so it is totally dependent upon their own integrity to have clear boundaries. Sadly this integrity is sometimes lacking and teachers can become a kind of law unto themselves creating their own culture with boundaries that are arbitrary or absent. This culture can become like a dysfunctional family where a teacher becomes an all-powerful parent whose needs and wishes are paramount. Who then is going to provide the safe and trusting environment within which a Westerner can practice and grow? 


Taking responsibility


This brings me to a final thought which is about accountability and responsibility. Over the past 30 or 40 years it has been a privilege to be taught by some extraordinary Tibetan lamas and to practice what they have given me. They have been the holders of possibly one of the most profound paths to wisdom that has ever existed. They have brought this to the West in the hope that we may benefit from their knowledge and find our own experience. As a Westerner attempting to integrate the Tibetan tradition into Western life and Western psyche one thing that I have begun to realise is that I cannot expect my Tibetan teachers to have all the answers. In the West we have a very different psychological upbringing and our emotional and psychological wounding is particular to our culture. 


This has lead me to recognise that there has to be a time when we begin to grow up and take more responsibility for our role in the integration of the Buddhist Tradition to the West. Part of this is the need to allow dharma understanding and practice to evolve in such a way that it can be genuinely accessible to Westerners with our different psychological needs. Just as the Tibetans and the Japanese for example shaped Buddhism over the years, it will also evolve as it comes to the West. In many ways this is going to be our responsibility. I remember my teacher Lama Yeshe once saying that ultimately it will be Westerners that bring the dharma to the West.


There is also an important area of responsibility that needs to be taken in our relationship to our teachers. When I was in Daramsala recently I recall hearing H.H.Dalai lama refer to a concern he had about Tulku’s in the west. When I heard him say this I had a question on my mind, which I wanted to ask – ‘where is there accountability?’ We may put our trust in teachers with devotion, but if things go wrong then it is for us as Western practitioners to take responsibility for how we respond to it. If our teachers make mistakes it is up to us to address it and challenge them when necessary. If we see our gurus behaving in ways that are unacceptable it is up to us to name it and place a boundary. If teachers in the West, and this includes both Eastern and Western, do not demonstrate a skilful and appropriate boundary in their relationship to students then it is for students to hold the ethical ground when teachers do not. While hopefully the majority of teachers are impeccable, there are a few examples of teachers in the West behaving in ways that are potentially bringing the various schools of Buddhism into disrepute. Whether it is the accumulation of personal wealth and the establishment of cult-like organisations or the blatant sexual exploitation of vulnerable devoted students, it for us as Westerners to take responsibility for some sense of ethical integrity that says this is not acceptable.


Gone are the medieval days when fear could be used to say that someone who questions the teacher will go to hell. We must begin to bring about a more healthy culture of accountability and responsibility in our Buddhist world if Buddhism is really going to flourish and benefit sentient beings. The aim of the dharma is to alleviate our human suffering, not so that we can establish institutions and organisations that simply cultivate a dysfunctional culture where teachers are surrounded by infantilised devotees, who don’t question anything the they do.  


This need not happen if we respect that fact that our teachers need us as much as we need them. They need us to be honest, straight and real with them, not blinded by a haze of deferential idealism. They can then be real people with their own challenges and difficulties but with a great deal of wisdom to offer. If we can accomplish this then the Buddhist traditions have a chance to really flourish in the West with integrity. We can offer respect and even devotion to our teachers but with a real capacity for discernment and personal responsibility. 



bottom of page