An excerpt of this piece appears in our July 2009 "For 30 Years
the Best of Buddhism in America: Commentary" retrospective. Here, we present
the piece in its entirety.
To see all of the complete "Best of" commentaries, click here.
God, Guru, and Gender: Issues in the Modern Teacher/Student Relationship
The root of the problem, says Rita Gross,
author of Buddhism After Patriarchy, is our theistic
the spiritual teacher. Her prescription for the doubts and complaints
that torment American Buddhism is less moralism, a better
understanding of the proper nature of hierarchy, and female teachers
with real authority.
Being a feminist before I became a Buddhist has
perhaps stood me in good stead in not expecting too much from a
guru—in not expecting someone I can completely model myself
after, someone who will never disappoint me, or someone who is always
all-wise. It has always been obvious to me that the guru is not the
perfect, infallible authority on all issues.
On this point we have the most complete
example from Buddhist tradition and history that we could possibly
want. Even the Buddha was not all-wise on every social issue, as is
clear from his handling of the founding of the nuns’ sangha and
his insistence on the eight special rules.
If even the Buddha is not a perfect role
model, why should we expect it of the men and women who have enough
spiritual insight to function as gurus today? This principle that the
guru is not an authority on all issues needs to be much more
thoroughly assimilated, for in my view much of the disappointment
many people express about their teachers’ conduct results from
theistic expectations of the guru—from confusing the guru with
God or from longing for him or her to be the perfect mummy or daddy
one never had.
It is also my view that the demand for a
perfect guru is an aspect of resistance, a phenomenon well known to
every meditator as one of the tricks of habitual mind or “ego,”
in the Buddhist sense, to protect itself from deconstruction and
freedom. The demand for a perfect guru is resistance in the form of
the statement, “Unless I find a guru and a spiritual scene that
I totally approve of, I won’t practice meditation with them.”
I do not think there is a spiritual teacher
out there who is also a perfect, flawless role model in every regard,
whatever that might be. I would suggest that the quest and demand for
such a teacher is quite immature and that the student’s
rejection of a teacher who is not “perfect” says more
about the student than about the teacher.
If teachers are not authorities on all issues
and cannot be expected to be perfect role models, in what areas are
they authorities and role models?
As I understand it, a teacher understands the
nature of mind and can point that out to the student. If one doubts
the teacher’s insight into that sharp nameless quality, one
should abandon the teacher forthwith. Every teacher with whom I have
worked would say the same thing. A teacher also understands the
skillful means, the meditation practices, to bring a student to
penetrating insight into his or her own unsullied mind, and can
transmit those practices and instruct the student regarding them.
I first met my principal teacher, Chögyam
Trungpa Rinpoche, as a skeptic who doubted that so-called spiritual
teachers knew any more than I did. But in a penetrating non-verbal
interchange, it became immediately obvious to me that this was the
only person I had ever met who knew something I wanted to know that I
didn’t and wouldn’t learn easily, if at all, by myself.
His Mercedes became small potatoes in that
context. I do not have to approve of every nuance of teachers’
behavior to respect and learn from them, because I do not expect them
to be all wise and I do not expect them to model for me all aspects
of my life.
This middle path of revering the spiritual
teacher as an authority on mind-to-mind transmission, but not
necessarily an all-wise or all-perfect role model, guards against
excessive attention to a teacher’s everyday actions at the same
time as it protects the heart of the teacher-student bond. My
questioning, or even my disapproval of certain actions taken by a
teacher, does not harden and solidify into ideology or fixed mind.
To me, the ideological fixation and
conventional moralism of those who insist that teachers’ sexual
misconduct is an overriding concern sends up red flags. More than
anything else, their self-righteousness and moral rigidity make me
suspicious and wary. My experience of Buddhist meditation practice is
precisely that it enhances a quality of flexibility, humor, and
non-judgment that has nothing to do with being passive and
When I encounter ideological moralism instead,
I am not inclined to take the complaints too seriously. And I fear
that the energy exhausted by grief and ideology over teachers’
disapproved behaviors is seriously depleting Western Buddhism at a
Likewise, my assertion that the guru is not the authority on all
issues does not conflict with the devotion to the guru that is so
important in vajrayana and some other forms of Buddhism. One is
required to appreciate and follow the guru’s meditation
instructions, but one is not required to worship or imitate his or
Devotion is not blind hero worship but
intelligent application of the teacher’s methods and messages,
which is why I am completely confident when confronted by some
Buddhists, usually men, who object to my feminist Buddhist teaching
as disloyalty to my guru. Some discrimination regarding devotion is
If one confuses devotion to the guru with
imitation of the guru, rather unfortunate behaviors result, as was
the case with many of Trungpa Rinpoche’s students, who imitated
his lifestyle in unhealthy ways. The ridiculous results of confusing
devotion and imitation are aptly summed up by the reprimands some
self-righteous students directed at me, suggesting that I was being
disloyal to my guru since I like cats very much and he, reportedly,
hated cats, in keeping with widespread Asian prejudice. Even now,
students sometimes ask me why he disliked cats so much and I reply,
“Because he was wrong on that point, which has nothing to do
with his reliability as a teacher.”
To be unable to differ from the teacher, to
imitate the teacher’s every behavior, is the flip side of
requiring the teacher to fulfill one’s own expectations of
morality. Both are serious misunderstandings of devotion and the
absolute bond that holds a student to a teacher in vajrayana
For these reasons, I reject the frequent
comparison of sexual encounters between spiritual teachers and their
students to sexual contacts between bosses and secretaries, or
between professors and students. Most especially, I reject the
comparison of the guru-student relationship to the therapist-client
relationship, which is so inegalitarian that sexual relationships
would almost always be exploitative.
I reject both elements in this comparison. The
guru is not a therapist and the meditation student is not a therapy
client. While I am sure that others have had more positive
experiences of therapy, in my experience therapists see themselves as
experts and their clients as incompetent and in need of fixing. If
the client questions a therapist’s conclusions or advice, the
client is said to be in denial, which puts the client in a
double-bind situation in which she is encouraged to mistrust her own
Gurus, at least the ones I have worked with,
do not treat their students in such a fashion, but encourage students
to test a guru before committing to the relationship and then
encourage them to discover their own basic goodness and intelligence.
Furthermore, I do not see a meditation student
as a needy client in a dependent therapeutic relationship, but as
someone capable of rejecting sexual propositions from teachers if the
terms are not acceptable. Certainly in the community in which I
participate, such rejections occurred.
Because the guru is not an all-wise absolute
authority and the student is not a needy, immature person in need of
fixing up by such an authority, it cannot be claimed that sexual
relationship between a spiritual teacher and a student must be
inappropriate and exploitative, though under certain conditions such
a relationship might be exploitative and inappropriate. Such a
relationship could also be mutual and mutually enriching, and, in
some cases surely has, as has been attested by some women I know.
In my view, the current Buddhist furor over
teachers’ sexual behaviors is in large part our own version of
the moralistic backlash now sweeping our society in general, a
phenomenon whose long term effects will probably not be positive.
I want to suggest that those who adamantly
condemn sexual relationships between spiritual teachers and their
students are overly reliant on conventional morality, especially
conventional sex ethics, which are often erotophobic and repressive.
On the one hand, there simply are too many examples of outstanding
people, including religious teachers, who engage in unconventional
behavior to assume that adherence to conventional sexual morality is
any safe guide to judging people’s worth. On the other hand,
the repressiveness of conventional sexual ethics produces a great
deal of pain.
Since I have never been particularly impressed
by conventional standards of sexual morality, I am not quick to judge
or condemn the sexual activities of others. I would suggest that it
is unfair and inappropriate to deny to spiritual teachers an active
sex life simply because they are spiritual teachers. I do not expect
my teachers to be less interested in an active, enjoyable, meaningful
sex life than I am.
What troubles me most about the topic of teachers and their sexual
activities is the hold it has on Buddhist practitioners and
communities. Many people seem to have a great deal of trouble
practicing the Buddhist virtues of equanimity and detachment when
discussing their teachers’ sex lives. The way in which people
nurse wounds and hold grudges is not at all a Buddhist way of working
with the issues.
Nor am I impressed by the dogmatism and
absolutism that flares up in conjunction with the issue of sexual
relationships between teachers and students. In my view the
emotionalism that swirls around teachers and sex ethics is quite
detrimental to the founding and flourishing of Buddhism in the West.
While I don’t feel a personal need to initiate comment on
teachers’ sexual behavior, I do feel, quite strongly, that too
much energy is going into this issue, and that this energy needs to
be spent on much wiser causes and issues.
I appeal to the feminist principle of choosing
our battles wisely because we can’t fight them all. I consider
the interdependent issues of community and authority to be much more
basic to the well-being of Buddhism in the West.
One of the reactions to the scandals
surrounding Buddhist teachers has been to question whether hierarchy
in spiritual communities should exist and whether gurus should have
spiritual authority. Many attempts to de-centralize Buddhist
communities and disperse authority among more people have occurred.
Indeed, on some occasions when I have
suggested that the most important issue for Buddhist women is the
transmission of spiritual authority to female gurus, women have
adamantly insisted that guruship is an inherently corrupt phenomenon
and should have no place in post-patriarchal Buddhism. But I
adamantly disagree with that conclusion.
I would not give my life energy to a
community, spiritual or secular, that was either completely
authoritarian or completely democratic in its organization. My
reasons for withholding support and commitment from organizations
that are too authoritarian or too egalitarian are the same.
Learning, discipline, accomplishment and
wisdom—qualities that I believe are essential to human
well-being and should therefore be honored—are irrelevant in
both authoritarian and ultra-egalitarian institutions. In fact, some
ultra-democratic groups strive for leaderless communities, which
strikes me as an oxymoron. In particular, I cannot imagine a
spiritual community without hierarchy and leadership being very
successful at effecting spiritual transformation among its members.
Among the many things I have learned as a student of Chögyam
Trungpa, none has been more helpful to me than the “natural
hierarchy” which he taught, but not too publicly.
At first hearing, most people would think that
this concept means that hierarchy is inevitable or inherent in human
life, and so we’d just better kowtow to the powers that be. The
first part of that conjecture is correct, but the second part is not.
Hierarchy is natural, in the sense that, for
example, a tree grows best when its roots are in the ground, its
branches in the sky, and its trunk joins them. Thinking that all the
parts of the tree should be equal, and therefore equally exposed to
the earth or sky, is not too helpful.
But nothing in the concept of natural
hierarchy assumes that whatever hierarchies we may currently
experience exemplify natural hierarchy. In fact, since most
conventional hierarchies we experience are based on irrelevant and
arbitrary criteria, such as gender, race, class, sexual orientation,
etc., rather than on learning, discipline, accomplishment and wisdom,
they are most certainly unnatural hierarchies.
The term “hierarchy” seems to
imply a vertical structure, a pyramid. In any specific moment, a
natural hierarchy may indeed look like a pyramid, because one person
or a small group of people are the focal point of activity, for now.
But at heart, the basic geometric form that describes natural
hierarchy is the circle rather than the pyramid.
The more accurate picture of “natural
hierarchy” is the mandala structure of center and fringe, in
which the parts are organically connected, mutually interdependent
and in constant communication. But it is difficult to talk about
authority in such a circular and interdependent manner.
Natural hierarchy has much to do with
recognizing that not everyone is equally good at everything and,
therefore, communities flourish when people can find their niche at
which they are most comfortable, most productive, and most able to
contribute to society.
Natural hierarchies are also fluid
hierarchies, in the sense that no one is always in the center and
most people will be in the center at some point. In some situations I
will be in a middle position, in other situations in a bottom
position, and in others at the top of the current hierarchy.
Sometimes I serve, and sometimes I direct, depending on what needs to
be done and on my abilities, achievement and training. All roles are
valuable as learning experiences.
In living out natural hierarchy, I am grateful
to have learned many things I am sure I would otherwise have missed,
such as how to serve a table properly and how to receive such
service. But more importantly, I have learned that serving is not
inherently degraded, but is extremely pleasurable and dignified.
Two things make service difficult in our
egalitarian setting. One is the standard interpretation of the
concept of equality to mean that serving is demeaning because not
everyone does the same thing. The other is the fact that there is
little fluidity in our supposedly egalitarian society, which means
that servers stay in their positions, which builds resentment.
But for myself, I would not trade for anything
the hours spent running the institutional-size dishwasher or slicing
endless vegetables on work period assignment at meditation programs.
They are the perfect counterpoint and antidote for the weekends I
spend as top dog directing programs, teaching and being served.
Without my experience of filling all positions in a fluid natural
hierarchy, I suspect I could be an arrogant and humorless director.
Natural hierarchy degenerates into unnatural
hierarchy when who may fill what niches is predetermined by
irrelevant criteria such as gender, which is what has happened since
the creation of patriarchy. By contrast, natural hierarchy honors the
experience and achievements relevant for holding authority in any
particular situation, without limiting who may have the necessary
experience and achievement.
Needless to say, in situations of genuine
natural hierarchy, women would flourish. We would not be shunted into
roles based on anatomy, but could find our niches in the tree of
life. Some of us would become spiritual leaders, among other things.
The fact that this is such a rare occurrence demonstrates quite
clearly that most of the hierarchies within which we live are at
least partially unnatural and therefore deserve to be challenged.
In patriarchal systems, by definition, women
are forbidden to hold authority, although feminist research shows
that they often wield considerable power nevertheless. Since the
defining trait of patriarchy is formal male control of the society,
clearly women who held formal authority would fundamentally
contradict the system.
With some exceptions, Buddhism has followed
this patriarchal norm throughout its history. Thus, there is no
question that Buddhism cannot become post-patriarchal until women
wield authority in Buddhism—however that comes to be defined
and structured eventually in Western Buddhism. That is one of the
reasons why I claim that the presence of female gurus is the central
issue for Western Buddhist women.
The transition point when women finally
achieve authority in Western vajrayana Buddhism is, however, fraught
with another grave danger. I long to see a female feminist lineage
holder within my lifetime. That second word is crucial.
Unfortunately, in many systems, the first women to achieve authority
are more patriarchal than the men who have always held authority,
which solves almost nothing.
As we in academia have learned, many a non-feminist female dean or
chancellor is worse than many a male dean or chancellor. Why this is
so is quite clear. A system that has functioned under unnatural
hierarchy for millennia cannot be basically healthy. Therefore,
merely putting a woman in charge does not guarantee healthy change.
Using the analogy of the tree house with the
sign “No Girls Allowed,” I often suggest to my students
that just getting into a messy dilapidated tree house is not enough.
It needs to be cleaned up and restructured, which is why it is so
critical to have not only female but feminist gurus involved in the
transmission of Buddhism to the West and the transition to
post-patriarchal Buddhism. They could quickly deal with issues such
as the lack of gender-inclusive chants or lack of positive feminine
imagery in the meditation hall. That is the nature of authority and
that is why it is so crucial to have not only female but feminist
Gurus understood realistically rather than
theistically are nonetheless powerful and compelling presences. As I
argued extensively in Buddhism After Patriarchy, given what we
know about sex, gender and role models, it will be transformative and
powerful, for both women and men, to relate routinely to women whose
presence exudes confident, compassionate authority.
is why one of the things I would most like to see within my lifetime
is a female and feminist lineage holder in my lineage. In general,
vajrayana Buddhism in the West seems to be well behind Zen Buddhism
in the West in giving dharma transmission to women, but eventually,
as Venerable Jetsun Kusho-la assured me when I discussed the issue
with her, it will happen.
This is the complete version of the author's piece as excerpted in the July 2009 issue of the Shambhala Sun.
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