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The Teacher Student Relationship, Part 2


Rob Preece



Unfortunately a teacher may not be entirely impeccable in how they carry the projection of the guru. The danger of having endowed another with so much power and authority is that they can use it as they wish. If they have integrity and are genuine, caring and honest they will carry it skilfully. The outer guru may be aware of the influence he has and honour the trust that is being placed in his hands. Conversely the guru may be quite aware of his power and yet unconsciously use it for his own ends under the auspices of helping the disciple. Most often problems arise when a teacher is unaware or even in denial of the subtle motivating forces that cause him to use this power for his own end, thereby actually abusing his disciples.


This becomes most abusive when a teacher begins to enjoy the seduction of students’ projection. If there is any remnant of a narcissistic need in a teacher, this can be problematic and possibly totally unconscious. This can particularly occur with male gurus that find some inner need is satisfied by the projections of women disciples. The instance of teachers becoming sexually involved with women disciples is regretfully common. We may see this in the world of Western teachers who become involved with their students, but it also is not uncommon with Eastern teachers too. There have been some well-known recent examples of Tibetan lamas who did not have clear boundaries around their own sexuality and failed to honour the trust involved in the guru/disciple relationship. This has lead to a number of women being drawn into sexual relationships with Tibetan teachers. In the case of one lama in London, women disciples were apparently selected for their attraction and told that a sexual relationship would be an aid to their practice as a kind of initiation or blessing. This would be very seductive to some women particularly if they were sexually abused as children, as they would have no experience of healthy sexual boundaries.


This leads to another significant aspect of the process of projection. We may project the inner guru onto the teacher, but this will often carry with it much of our unresolved parental needs. It is very familiar to hear disciples speak of their guru as though he were the parent they always wished for. His or her unconditional love and kindness seems to be something many of us thirst for. When we project this need onto a teacher the result can be extremely healing if the teacher treats the relationship with integrity. The boundaries in this kind of relationship are crucial, however, and disciples must trust that the teacher knows how to hold them. 


Regretfully some teachers do not seem to have this understanding and do not recognise the damage that can occur when boundaries are unclear. When a teacher crosses that boundary and invites or seduces a student into a relationship that becomes sexual this is a gross abuse of trust and of power. In the case of the lama spoken of above, some of the women involved were indeed caught up in paternal projections, which were totally abused. It became apparent that some of them had been sexually abused as children and as a result had inevitably very confused sexual boundaries.

When such an abuse of the trust and integrity within the guru/disciple relationship occurs there can be a number of symptoms which reflect the confusion it creates. Perhaps foremost of these is the need to collude in an atmosphere of silence and denial. Like all abusive families keeping the underlying abuse protected in a cloak of silence is the only way to cope. Public declaration is far too risky to those who are caught up in it and for those around it is hard to cope with the shock of disillusionment. Some will choose to deny its reality others will feel horribly betrayed. 


Another symptom of the dysfunctional nature of the community around a teacher is reflected in the vying for favour and special-ness that goes on in relation to him. Who is the favoured child? There can be an immense short-term sense of inflation at being the special student. Sadly this is an extremely precarious position because usually someone else will take their place, leaving the one who is demoted, devastated and abandoned. In the example of the Tibetan lama I have spoken of earlier, I knew two of his ‘consorts’ quite well. In one the pain of being brought into an intimate relationship and then held at a distance when another woman came along, was terrible to see. Like a child waiting for father’s favour to return and unable to move forward.


Whether the guru/disciple relationship has undertones of father/daughter or projections of a divine lover the abuse on behalf of the teacher is just as destructive. The power imbalance that arises in the teacher-student relationship will always place the teacher in the more powerful position. The trust and openness that a disciple may place in the teachers hands is a precious and vulnerable thing and requires much care if it is not to be abused. When students project an inner need for the perfect parent onto a teacher this may be very powerful and if treated skilfully can be very healing. I am aware of having done so with one of my own Tibetan teachers. His capacity to respond to this projection in a healthy way gave me a sense of approbation and understanding that I never received from my own father. What he did not do at any time, I felt, was to exploit the implicit trust I had in him, particularly having invested him with great power and authority over my life. 


In many prayers and teachings that describe the relationship to the guru in the Tibetan tradition it is familiar to see the guru considered as a loving parent. In the east this is a very comfortable notion as their parent/child relationship is held as more sacred than in the west. Here we have a considerable ambivalence towards parents. In part we have often suffered the psychological consequence of damaging parents and dysfunctional families. There is also far more reaction to any notion of trust in another’s authority. Individuality emphasises that we break free of the constraints and influence of parents and become autonomous and self-reliant. Even so very often our wounding around parental difficulties leaves many of us with a deep-seated need for the perfect parent. When this is unconscious, inevitably it is projected into the relationship to the guru as the loving, longed for ideal parent. 


The hazards of this projection are that we must be alert to the possibility that the guru will not carry this projection particularly skilfully. He may not know how to handle the degree of intensity of emotion that will be part of the relationship. He may also find the depth of need some disciples express either frightening or irresistible. Often when disciples have a history of damaged parenting the emotional need for parental love is so great it becomes unbearable. If this is not understood, and many Eastern teachers will not understand the depth of damage some suffer in the west, boundaries can become confused. Teachers may unwittingly cross those boundaries unaware of the nature of abuse that will bring to the surface. Someone transgressing those same boundaries under the guise of helping never heals abuse in childhood.



In projecting the guru and parent archetype we are putting outside of ourselves the root of our own potential autonomy and individuation. It may be extremely beneficial to allow ourselves to be guided. There may be so much we can learn from this outer relationship when nurtured with care and respect. Problems often arise, however, when the disciple begins to take back something of his own autonomy, or starts to question the validity of the outer guru’s authority. A teacher who has nothing invested in holding onto his power and position of authority will be happy to see his disciples growing in independence and responsibility. The less secure or more traditional teacher may however find this unacceptable. In the Tibetan world for example, there are those teachers who gladly give their students autonomy and let them go. There are also those who follow a hard line that demands that their authority is unquestioned. They become tyrannical and disempowering towards anyone that tries to challenge them or break away. Fear of recrimination and guilt at challenging an ultimate spiritual authority are powerful weapons to use against the student that does not tow the line.


Unfortunately in the east as in the west, orthodox religions have a powerful patriarchal basis to their authority structure. This permeates the very roots of the guru/disciple relationship in practice and has also become encoded into the heart of doctrine. Within the hierarchy teachers have a clear knowledge of their place in the lineage of power and usually any infringement upon this structure is treated with great disapproval and even hostility. The consequence of challenging this line of authority is extremely difficult for those who do so to handle. They will often be vilified and scape-goated. Once cast from the structure of power they will have no basis for their practice. I have known a number of Tibetan lamas who chose to challenge this religious order in their own tradition. They were not ‘bad’ lamas and their only crime, so to speak, was to be unorthodox and not follow the party line. The consequent scandal made their lives very difficult. In the case of two lamas I have known, their decision to disrobe and get married left them alienated from their own culture for some time. Eventually however they found living and teaching in the west was the place they belonged. 


The patriarchal nature of most religions does not readily welcome dissent or individual autonomy. The transmission of empowerment is only given on the condition that one upholds the authority of the patriarch and does not step outside of it. Unfortunately this patriarchal disdain for autonomy can deeply effect the way Eastern teachers view their position. In their own world they know their place, they pay allegiance to their teachers and their disciples must do the same to them. It has even been written into doctrine that to break this code is to commit a most heinous crime, with devastating consequences. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition for example there is supposed to be a special hell where those who criticise the teacher will go. If there were such a hell I suggest it is the hell of guilt, fear and torment a disciple is likely to suffer for his challenge to the authority of the teacher. A hell inflicted often by the social hostility that can come from threatening the established order. A hell that is also born out of the pain and confusion of disillusionment and the need to break free of patriarchal dominance. 


It is, however, not just the patriarchal nature of the teacher’s role in established religions that is at issue. Whenever the relationship between student and teacher goes wrong the result is very distressing particularly for the student. It can wound very deeply. In my work as a therapist I have had the occasion to see a number of Buddhist practitioners whose relationship to significant teachers has broken down for a variety of reasons. In almost all cases the main distress was a deep sense of betrayal, disappointment and grief at the loss of trust. Most often this was because the teacher had betrayed their trust in one way or another. Often a key problem was that there was no one to talk to about the confusion and disillusionment they felt. This would inevitably alienate them from their peers who would generally not receive criticism of the teacher with openness. 


In the experience of those who spoke to me the most important factor was that the teachers tended to refuse to acknowledge that they had made a mistake. It was as though the fault would be placed back into the lap of the student for failing to practice properly. In many cases the recognition that the teacher was fallible was a painful but maturing process. Invariably once the student had been able to speak about and digest some of the suffering the rift with the teacher had caused there was a renewed sense of personal validity. As in the dysfunctional family when a child is abused, the inability to speak is the cause of so much pain. 


Ultimately it would seem the disillusionment that occurred in these relationships could actually be turned into something positive. This leads me to suggest that for some disillusionment is a natural process on the path. It is the antidote to the illusions and idealised fantasies we create around gurus and their spiritual power and authority. Disillusionment causes us to bring back our projected ideals and begin to face reality. As we do so we may for the first time begin to see more objectively the person we have idealised. This may be very painful at first. We may feel angry and even begin to demonise the previously idealised person. In time this will enable us to clarify a more balanced view. 


Disillusionment may also be part of the shift in emphasis from outer references for acceptance, approval and authority, to an inner resource and a sense of inner authority. To genuinely bring personal responsibility onto the inner guru drawing back the power of projection is important. The awakening of the inner guru is connected to a growing sense of inner authority. It also marks the beginning of trust in ourselves. This brings greater personal responsibility, with the compassionate understanding that sometimes we will make mistakes. Strength, self-reliance and individuation can be born out of disillusionment as we grow to discriminate between inner wisdom and emotional confusion. One thing that my teacher Lama Thubten Yeshe would always emphasise was that the capacity to trust in ourselves and to discern truth from self-delusion was crucial. He also knew that this would not grow from constantly solving our problems for us and telling us what to do. In this respect he was the loving parent who allowed his children to find their own way in life knowing that sometimes we would make dreadful mistakes. He was able to empower his disciples into a real sense of their own inner wisdom. This led to a relationship that did not go through the same degree of disillusionment, perhaps because there was less illusion in the first place.


Having explored these different facets of the relationship to the guru it is necessary to touch on the question I have explored before. Is the guru/disciple relationship fundamentally compatible with the principle of individuation? Personally I believe so, but this may not be a simple question to answer. It would inevitably be dependent upon the individual. In the life of the Buddha, which is a good example of individuation, he entered the guru/disicple relationship several times. He would follow their instruction until he reached a certain point of development and then realised he needed to move on. Did he go through some sense of disillusionment; was he disappointed that a teacher could only take him so far? Did he suffer a sense of uncertainty when he parted and moved on? These questions we cannot answer, but I would not be surprised if he did. There are stories, which suggest there was considerable reaction from his five companions when he finally decided to go off on his own. 


In the Tibetan traditions there are many examples of lamas who in the course of their journey had to go off on their own and follow their individual path. They would retain a close connection and devotion to their teachers but their path was a particularly individual one. My own retreat teacher Gen Jhampa Wangdu was a good example of a faithful disciple to his teacher but a very strong individual in his journey. He was never someone who would just follow the collective norm. There are equally many monks and nuns that will only follow their teacher’s direction as though they have relinquished all personal volition. 


In the west today two ingredients make the situation very different. Firstly there is great emphasis on individuality, and secondly there are few opportunities for practitioners to be supported in the way that monks are in monasteries. Generally the individual must find his own livelihood and largely find his or her own way practically in the world. The guru may be some help in this, but his or her role is more appropriately in the spiritual domain. I have often been surprised at the inappropriateness of advice given by lamas regarding the worldly lives of their students, particularly around relationships. 


Individuation has at its core the discovery of an inner relationship to a sense of personal integrity, authority and wisdom. Individuation is a process of self-actualisation. This is not incompatible with the need for guidance and spending periods of time with a teacher or mentor. We must however learn to become self-sufficient and discover the inner reference to the guru as our inner resource. The fact that the outer guru can teach and guide us need not detract from retaining a sense of our own inner truth. 


Problems arise if a teacher in any way damages the relationship to our inner truth. If we become over dependent, or give over our personal responsibility to a guru we are in danger of loosing our way. If for any reason a teacher supports or cultivates this dependency the situation may become counter to the heart of individuation. This is the kind of problem that arises in any spiritual culture that becomes fundamentalist or cult-like. In cults where devotees maintain the unquestioned supremacy of the cult leader’s authority the relationship is regressive and essentially infantilising. 

This could potentially happen within Buddhist organisations as much as any other organised religion if it is the disposition of both the teacher and disciples. In this respect it is easy to turn religious organisations into a collective reflection of our personal pathology. Unfortunately there are examples of Buddhist communities that have a subtly undermining influence on the individuals need to individuate. When organisations become prescriptive and narrow in their definition of what is acceptable, those that remain true to these prescriptions are often then venerated. Those that challenge these prescriptions can receive considerable subtle pressure to tow the line. 


Leaving the culture created in such an organisation is often very painful. Members may see it as an affront to the principles they uphold and can become defensive and even aggressive. A common factor that seems to arise is that the defector will often be persuaded to stay. This may take the form of an attempt to give the impression it is the person’s problem not the organisations. In the case of one woman I know this persuasion was gradually undermining her own sense of her truth. She was loosing the capacity to trust her own judgement as to what she needed or believed to be true. Her need to leave was fundamentally a healthy movement towards individuation, something the organisation she was caught in was not readily able to appreciate.


The guru/disicple relationship does not need to be anti-individuation unless some unconscious pathology causes it. A teacher with integrity who genuinely has disciples’ interests at heart will not restrict the individual’s journey. Possibly the most valuable asset on the journey as we struggle to find our individual way, is someone who can be there as a reference. We do not need to relinquish our own integrity and personal responsibility in the relationship to the guru. In many ways this will require the willingness to cultivate a more straight and honest relationship. One that can allow for challenges in both directions. As the Dalai Lama has said we spoil our teachers by too much deference. 


We have much to learn as Westerners about how we view and relate to spiritual teachers. We may choose to follow the Eastern way with teachers, but this can be thoroughly misleading as our cultural and psychological differences are so marked. With teachers that come from the east, we may have no choice but to follow their expectation of how students should respond. This may lead to much confusion and misunderstanding and only a few may readily settle into the relationship. Westerners may challenge the approach of the Eastern teacher and some may be willing to change, for others it may be entirely inappropriate. 


There is much to suggest that a teacher at this present time must be able to bridge Eastern tradition and our Western psychological and cultural nature. Some Eastern teachers find this relatively easy to do, others do not. What often makes this bridging possible is a greater degree of honesty, openness and authenticity about personal experience. In the east the guru seldom expresses personal feelings or difficulties. The guru is kept at a distance that maintains a sense of mystique. Their private inner world is totally out of reach. This may in part arise from the disposition of Eastern people to not speak as we do of their inner experiences. The effect, however, is often to place gurus in an inaccessible and remote place where their humanity is not available to scrutiny. They will not often welcome personal enquiry and will also tend to cloak their fallibility in a shroud of privilege. 

One consequence of this may be, as H.H. Dalai Lama once said in Daramsala many years ago, that ultimately it will be Westerners who bring the Dharma to the west. With Western teachers, however, hiding behind the traditional mystique of the guru is seldom healthy. In the west the teacher needs to be more real than this. 


To counter the tendency to idealise the guru it requires a straightforward and honest relationship without deceptions and illusions. It may be tempting for Western teachers to also indulge in people’s idealisations, but ultimately this leads to a deception that serves no one. To be able to remain real and honest with regard to human fallibility is the best way to keep the fantasising idealism at bay. So long as students are thirsty for spiritual validation and to have people they can turn into icons, both teachers and students are open to deception. Icons may have some value but we must be able to ground our spirituality in genuine experience that is not clouded by romanticised illusion. 


There are two contexts in which the teacher/student relationship evolves, one is the formal teaching setting, the other is in one to one relationship. Within the group setting where teachers may remain somewhat distant the potential to mystify and idealise is relatively easy. It can often be in the one to one setting that the teacher/student relationship becomes problematic. This is the setting in which the potential for boundaries to become confused is most evident. Male teachers that make sexual advances upon students usually do so in this setting. Equally this is the place where teachers can resort to a secure role of the authority figure who is still distant.


It is within this one to one context that a teacher may learn from the world of counselling and psychotherapy. A counsellor or psychotherapist learns to skilfully respond to clients in a way that is principally ‘person centred’. The emphasis is upon the client’s psychological process and wellbeing where the counsellor or therapist keeps his or her own needs outside the relationship. This is often in stark contrast to the disposition of teachers in the one to one setting who tend to place their own authority and knowledge of the doctrine as central. The student comes to ask for guidance and advice. The teacher offers his or her experience and knowledge. 


Unfortunately having spoken to many people who have experienced problems in their relationship to teachers, it is often because the teacher stays in the place of authority and then gets it wrong. They may speak with great authority telling the student what to do, but do not really respond to, or listen to their actual psychological needs. This is to say it is not person centred it is authority centred. I do not think we should assume that our teachers know how to counsel us or indeed how to guide us, and there may be great benefit in teachers learning to do so even from their students.


Having worked a great deal as a workshop facilitator and psychotherapist it has become increasingly evident that there is a place where the teacher’s one to one role can benefit from a more counselling style. This would shift the emphasis, placing the student’s process as central. The teacher might then listen more to what the student is experiencing and actually elicit what the student needs for themselves rather than giving advice. I am aware that very often my own lama, Lama Thubten Yeshe would often say to me "what do you think" whenever I asked him questions. It was as though he recognised that when I came to my own understanding of something it helped me to discover my own inner resource of insight. This was very empowering and was liberating me from dependency upon his wisdom.


I believe there is a great deal more that needs to be explored before the role of the teacher/mentor/counsellor is fully appreciated in the west. Gone are the days when a teacher can maintain a mystification through distance. There may also be some for whom the role of teacher becomes a kind of protection, when more personal relationship exposes their actual inability to relate authentically. There is a term in Tibetan Ge.Gen, which is often translated as spiritual friend and refers to an individual who, as an experienced practitioner, becomes a guide or companion on the path. This role may include some aspect of a teacher, as one who imparts specific knowledge and instruction into the spiritual practices of the individual. The primary ingredient in this process however is that the Ge.Gen is there to respond specifically as a support for the individual needs of the practitioner in their personal journey. 


While I was living in India spending many years in retreat I had a particular spiritual mentor whose name was Gen Jhampa Wangdu. He died in 1984, but while he was alive he became one of the most important figures of my spiritual life. In many ways he was as important as Lama Thubten Yeshe my root teacher and some of the Lamas from whom I received empowerments and formal teachings. He was my friend, my guide, my counsellor and an important model of someone attempting to live the life of a Buddhist practitioner while being thoroughly human and authentic. He was never grand and distant despite his profound realisation and considerable reputation as a meditator. Compassionate, humble and down to earth to the last days of his life he was an inspiration to me.


Recently I was fortunate to meet a Lama in his fifties who had lived in the west for the past twenty-five years or so. As a Tulku, an incarnate Lama, within his own culture there would inevitably be great formality around him. In the west he has grown to live as a Westerner in a family. It was refreshing to discover a man who, as a Lama, was willing to talk about his experiences and not just in a somewhat monitored Dharma language. He was genuine and authentic in his openness about himself, his joys and his struggles. His way of being was a true validation of how I have always felt Dharma teachers could be in the west. 




The teacher-student relationship is taken from The Wisdom of Imperfection published by Shambala Publications. 



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