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Buddhadharma : Winter 2014
winter 2 0 1 4 buddhadharma: the Practitioner’s quarterly 45 it. At least we will end up with a more realistic and genuine relationship. To quote the Dalai Lama again, “Too much deference actually spoils the guru.” Possibly the most critical issue that arises in relationship to the teacher is the potential loss of appropriate boundaries. 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 encountered a teacher’s confused or loose boundaries suffer greatly. And because there is a taboo against criticizing the teacher, students may then find they have no one within their community to speak to about it. They may also find that their community does not really want to know. In the end, the very heart of the stu- dent’s spirituality has been betrayed. Our teachers need to hold clear boundaries around their emotional and physical behavior so that it does not become harmful to students. In some case, Eastern teachers may not fully under- stand what this means in the West. Boundaries were often implicit in the world in which they lived, be it the monastery or Thai, Japanese, or Tibetan culture. Once they move to the West, having clear boundar- ies is totally dependent upon their own integrity. Sadly, this integrity is sometimes lacking, and teach- ers—both Eastern and Western—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; a teacher becomes an all-powerful parent whose needs and wishes are paramount. Who then can provide the safe and trusting envi- ronment within which students can practice and grow? Over the 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 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. However, I have also come to recognize that we must begin to grow up and take more responsibility for our role in the integration of Buddhism in the West. This includes taking more responsibility in our relationship to our teachers. We may put our trust in teachers and express our devotion, but if things go wrong, then it is for us as students to take responsibility for how we respond. If our teachers make mistakes, it is up to us to address and even challenge them when necessary. If teachers do not maintain appropriate boundaries in their relationship to students, then it is for students to hold the ethical ground when teachers do not. 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 chal- lenges and difficulties but also with a great deal of wisdom to offer. If we can skillfully navigate this, then the Buddhist traditions have a chance to 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. While there are extraordinary teachers with great integrity, they are seldom if ever flawless. They may have extraordinary depths of insight, but they also make mistakes and sometimes behave badly.