Meditation helps transform abusive behavior

ARTICLE: The Path to Inner Wisdom - Thoughts on the teacher-student relationship in the Dharma

"The teacher-student relationship requires a protective field of mutual trust, openness as well as clear ethics and favorable framework conditions" - a contribution by Lisa Freund on the subject of ethics in the relationship between teachers and students in Buddhism.

Everyone who follows a spiritual path in our post-modern, science-based, materialistically oriented performance society, does so within this society. Each of us brings our own biography. This contains individual imprints that are typical for the generation to which we belong. We carry within us the traces of the world in which we were brought up.

On the Buddhist path we now encounter the power of the thousand-year-old teachings of the Buddha. We hear teachings from Asian teachers who come to us from completely different social, cultural and societal traditions and follow their instructions. We study the scriptures, practice meditation, and try to develop a practice that is right for us.

In our Dharma organizations, we often adopt structures and manners that are unquestioned in Asia, e. B. Tibet, and are hierarchical, authoritarian and patriarchal. We take it over, although here in the west we have outgrown the agrarian society with its class structure for centuries. The spiritual teachers are not only our role models, but we elevate them to overfathers / mothers, turn them into idols onto whom we project all our hopes and desires. So we don't have to take responsibility ourselves. We are still at the very beginning to develop a middle way in dealing with the Dharma and the teachers, a way that suits us and our culture and includes a modern interpretation of the teachings. For this we need free discussion, the common search for solutions to problems. The wealth of Buddhist teachings makes it worthwhile to dare to deal openly with sensitive topics, e.g. B. concerning the teacher-student relationship.

Based on my own experience, I think it is important that those interested in the Dharma are given criteria for choosing a teacher. We should also know how projections work and how our own neurotic patterns are activated or an abuse of authority takes place and how we can protect ourselves from it. We need contact persons who listen to us seriously and respect us in a crisis with a teacher, as well as appropriate forms of conflict resolution and problem-solving strategies.

Buddha's words for the verification of the teacher

The teacher-student relationship requires a protective field of mutual trust, openness as well as clear ethics and favorable framework conditions. The Buddha gives numerous hints on this, e. For example, in a discourse in which monks ask him how to find out if a teacher is fully awakened. The Buddha replies that one should check the teacher's states of mind with the help of one's eyes and ears. “On the Tathagata, neither the eye nor the ear can perceive states that indicate contaminated states of mind.” (MN 47: Vimamsaka Sutta, 4-5) The Buddha further says: “The venerable is self-controlled, without fear, is not of Controls fear, and he avoids indulging in sensual pleasure because he is free from desire because of the annihilation of desire. ”(MN 47: Vimamsaka Sutta, 9) And a monk explains:“ Because the Blessed One taught me the Dhamma in such a way, I came to a conclusion about the teaching in this Dhamma through direct insight into a certain teaching. ”(MN 47: Vimamsaka Sutta, 15) A teacher or the teaching of the Buddha himself initiates cognitive processes in the student that are based on direct insight. The student reflects and comes to his own conclusions.


Personal responsibility counts

We can examine, accept and authorize the teacher to accompany us on the spiritual path. We have to walk the path ourselves. In his book The Great Moment, Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche compares the teacher with an alarm clock: “Usually our guru, our spiritual friend, is the one who guides us on the Buddhist path. Because of this, we always feel like we have a point of reference and that we are blessed. However, this is not to be understood as implying that our teacher has complete power over us. A teacher cannot free us from samsara. The Sutrayana level teacher is like an alarm clock. You have to make an effort to get to such an alarm clock and activate the alarm for the right time. When the alarm goes off in the morning, you have the choice to get up or go back to sleep. It is your own responsibility to choose whether to hit the snooze button or get up. The attitude towards the teacher should be as balanced as possible. A teacher or spiritual friend is very important on the path, but he is not God. So you have to make an effort yourself. "


Teaching role in Tantric Buddhism (Vajrayana)

Tantric teachings, which found their way into Buddhist teachings about 1300 years after the Buddha's death, especially in Tibet, convey a completely different teacher-student relationship. The teacher becomes the guru to whom the student completely submits. The Buddha himself does not speak of a guru, instead he emphasizes that the disciple should go his own inner path with the help of the teacher.

The relationship with the teacher, whom one visualizes as a guru, is comparable to the relationship between a doctor and a patient who desperately asks for the cure of a life-threatening disease. Ideally, the guru is enlightened. The master's actions, his teachings, serve to introduce the student to the nature of the mind, which sometimes happens like a bolt of lightning out of the blue. This can be done by merging the student's mind with the wisdom mind in which the teacher rests. In this case the teacher is the bridge to the wisdom spirit. In this transference process, in which one becomes one with the wisdom spirit, one does not connect with the personality of the teacher or his mistakes, but with what lies behind it, the field of pure perception, the Buddha nature, which is at the same time the nature of everything. That is why there is an instruction to ignore human weaknesses that one discovers in the Master. Fixing the attention on the mistakes of the master promotes the impurity of one's own perception, since it provokes judgments combined with attachment and aversion. The pure perception is not dualistic, not judgmental, all-encompassing.

“Tantra is clearly of the opinion that the spirit is king, that the inner attitude is decisive. If we regard the guru as an average person, then we will receive the blessings of an average person. But if we see him as Buddha, then he will act as Buddha for us and our relationship with him will quickly lead to enlightenment. "(Vessantara)

Devotion to the guru is manifested in an alliance called samaya which is at least as binding as the alliance between the meditator and the Buddha or bodhisattva figure he is visualizing. The meditator becomes part of the guru's lineage and receives its blessing.

“In the Mahamudra teachings it is said that the compassion of the Guru and the Buddhas are the same - there is no difference ... The more intensely the sun of devotion shines, the stronger the stream of blessings flows. ... Surrender is the path, and surrender is at the same time the realization. Surrender is experience and surrender is the result. ”(Dzogchen Pönlop).

Devotion is essentially based on unwavering belief in one's own enlightened heart. From this space one aligns one's consciousness completely with the spirit of the guru. A mind-to-mind connection or transference process occurs. The personality traits of the teacher are irrelevant. What is dissolving is the dualistic perception, and what matters is the transmission of the wisdom mind.

In this process, enormous psychic powers can be activated. A teacher who rests in the wisdom mind can confront the inner shadows and demons of the students, subdue or transform them and thus open the door to the nature of the mind. This goes hand in hand with profound inner experiences. It's not a walk in the park. One should keep this in mind and seek therapeutic help when neuroses or fears are activated that threaten to flood the student. They block the access to the Buddha-nature, lie over it like a dark cloud.

There are teachers who radiate the essence of the teachings through sheer presence. You can read from a phone book or simply be silent and still transmit the Spirit of Wisdom when the student is ready.

In mind-to-mind transmission, misunderstandings easily arise, not least because we like to dock with our neurotic side with the teacher, with our longings and projections. Ethical behavior on both sides, the student and teacher side, is important here. That also means that you stick to rules and conventions. The Dalai Lama says:

“Historically, although some Buddhist saints have acted ethically in strange ways, they were fully realized beings and knew what in the long run would benefit others. But today such behavior is detrimental to the Dharma and needs to be stopped. Although one's own realizations may resemble those of those divine beings, behavior must conform to conventions. If someone says that all behavior is acceptable because everyone has the Buddha nature, or that teachers do not have to obey moral precepts, it shows that they do not correctly understand emptiness or cause and effect. "


My own search

In search of liberation and a spiritual teacher who would lead me through the labyrinth of my everyday confusion, I came across Buddha's teaching in Tibetan garb in the 1980s. I was looking for a living Buddha, resting in the mind of enlightenment. He should be ethically perfect and at the same time a spiritual friend and companion. My Buddha should pick me up where I am, take me by the hand, show my stubborn ego the red card. Thus, on the bottom of my longing desire for enlightenment in my mind, the projection of the Ideal Master blossomed.

When I meet a teacher for whom my heart is aflame, I project my hopes and desires onto him. I give him responsibility for my spiritual path; choose to do what he says to become enlightened quickly. I consider that to be humility. I recite Tibetan texts and perform rituals that I do not understand, follow his instructions or rebel against him like a child rebels against his parents. Sometimes he's the bad father, then again the forgiving mother or the only one who really loves me. No partner has a chance against him. Sometimes I am jealous of everyone who is close to him, then again full of criticism of his behavior or I love him for having great visions.

So I get caught up in strange and complex transfer processes. And the lessons? They are important to me, but the inner back and forth with the teacher takes up more space. My projections onto the teacher repeatedly trigger emotional turmoil in me. I experience the shock of trained behaviors and the disintegration of my self-image, i.e. personality crises - an emotional-spiritual tangle that is difficult to untangle.

It is different when I immerse myself in the nature of the mind for a moment. Then everything becomes quiet; Space and time dissolve. As a student of a tantric master, I grew into a spiritual transmission as I connected with my master's wisdom mind. In this process, my teacher becomes the mediator between the Buddha's teaching and my Buddha-nature. His personality or character are unimportant, what counts is his spiritual competence. When my mind opens for a moment, it is a process in which my teacher and I no longer play a role. Both dissolve. In this way I get from the personal to a supra-personal level that goes beyond the therapeutic and shows the way to liberation from suffering. This process is an individual and at the same time universal experience.


The fatal confusion of devotion with symbiosis

It is surrender based on deep trust that sustains me in the process described above. Where are the boundaries between surrendering to the master and giving up all personal responsibility? Based on upbringing and habits, many Dharma students tend to see the guru as a substitute partner, surrogate father or mother. In this way, personal responsibility is delegated to the teacher, who is given a deputy role and is also placed on the pedestal of a saint. One wants the guru to be infallible, unlike normal parents or partners, even if he is properly human. In fact, he is perfect in his being. However, this also applies to the student. Because our true nature is not the personality, the ego, but the Buddha nature, which is inherent in all sentient beings. Yet as human beings, plagued by attachment and aversion to the spiritual poisons, we are anything but perfect on the samsaric level. This also applies to a teacher who is not yet fully resting in the wisdom mind.

Physically, mentally or emotionally abused Dharma students often justify themselves by stating that the teacher said yes to them, it was a privilege to do what he told them to do, for example to have intimate intercourse. The teacher pretends to act out of the wisdom mind. This accelerates the liberation of the ego and so the student will be freed from the cycle of samsara more quickly. Yes, who should judge what is right? What standards should the student apply? She has developed devotion to the teacher - now is this demanded in a very practical way? What is right? What is wrong? The Buddha says something about this, the Dalai Lama updates it.

Profane sexuality, which serves the acute satisfaction of needs, which is ultimately an expression of desire that one is about to overcome, can thus be reinterpreted as a privileged and consciousness-expanding act. The pupil experiences a clouding of consciousness because her belief and the longing for a connection with the wisdom spirit blinds her to everything that the teacher demands, e.g. services, financial benefits, sexuality. A teacher who is ruled by greed also has a perceptual disorder. That means both suffer and bear the consequences of their actions. One question remains for me: What is the motivation from which the teacher and the student act? What if both of them mean it sincerely in their delusion? In 1993 the Dalai Lama said:

“At the level of our personal spiritual practice, it is important to have trust and awe for our guru and see him in a positive light in order to achieve spiritual progress. But on the level of Buddhism and in society in general, it is poisonous to see all the actions of a teacher as perfect, that can be abused. This attitude corrupts all of our teaching by giving teachers a free hand to take improper advantage. "


With this in mind, the student simply needs a dose of common sense when there is misconduct on the part of the teacher.

When Dharma students learn devotion, they need a protected space of appreciation and security, in which one can meet with dignity. Anyone who practices sexuality with their own spiritual teacher as long as the transference process is working gets into a slanting position. This also applies if the student wants nothing more than an erotic relationship with the teacher and possibly provokes it. There is no eye level in this encounter; unless both have a pure perception. The shelter that the student needs to develop her Buddha-nature is usually canceled, even if the opposite is asserted, because the framework conditions for an equal relationship are not there. Not only the teacher should know that. Those who heed the following advice from the Dalai Lama can avoid falling into the dependency trap. For me, this has a lot to do with civil courage at Dharma level.

“Just as there are three ways of relating to a guru, there are three ways of responding to his or her instructions when they contradict the Dharma. According to the Vinaya, if a teacher directs you to do something contrary to the Dharma, you should refuse his advice.According to the Paramitayana (the bodhisattva vehicle) you should follow an instruction if it is consistent with the Buddhist path. According to Vajrayana (or Tantrayana), if a guru gives an instruction that is inconsistent with the Dharma, a disciple should not follow it and go to the teacher to clarify and explain why he cannot follow the instruction. This advice comes directly from the Buddha and is found in the scriptures. The same is true if you feel that your teacher's advice is unwise or unwise, even if it is ethical. The teacher's purity of motivation is not enough: his guidance must also be appropriate to the situation and culture of the place. "


Doesn't every person who mistakenly regard a symbiosis as uninhibited surrender feed the power or authority of false gurus? Does this not lead to unspeakable perpetrator-victim scenarios that are counterproductive on the way to liberation from suffering? The sad and harrowing actions of Buddhist and other spiritual teachers, which have so far come to the public for violating the law, reveal a misery. On the part of the teacher it is about abuse of power. Various reports from pupils who were once the lovers of their teacher indicate that they struggled for years to process these experiences. They recognized that the so-called voluntariness in sexual acts was based on a relationship of authority that was in reality a relationship of dependency.

Still, for all criticism, a compassionate attitude should be our core attitude towards both the teachers who create such unnecessary suffering and the students who experience it. It's about understanding mistakes and changing behavior, making amends for whatever damage has been done, understanding and reconciliation and, above all, honesty. This development begins with constructive criticism. Once again the Dalai Lama on this:

“If you present the teachings clearly, it is for the benefit of others. But if someone is to teach the Dharma and their behavior is harmful, it is our responsibility to criticize it with a good motivation. That is constructive criticism, and you don't need to feel uncomfortable about it. "The Twenty Verses of the Bodhisattva Vow" states that actions of any kind that are carried out with a pure motivation remain free from guilt. Buddhist teachers who abuse sex, power, money, alcohol or drugs and who fail to correct their behavior when their own students present them with legitimate complaints should be openly criticized by name. This can embarrass them and lead them to regret and end their abusive behavior. Highlighting the negative creates space for the positive side to grow. When publishing such misconduct, it should be made clear that such teachers have disregarded the Buddha's advice. However, it is only fair to mention their good qualities ... "



It is important to check the motivation of both the teacher and the student in all allegations. Insights can be gained about this, the teacher can repent and end his behavior. Then one can look for ways of healing for those affected and the community.

The symbiosis of a student with a teacher - in whatever form - is a major obstacle on the spiritual path as well as its downside: constant doubt, which leads to the rejection of the teacher and the teachings.

True devotion on the spiritual path, on the other hand, arises from the need for liberation and the trust in the Buddha nature that we all have. It is based on natural self-esteem. We take responsibility for ourselves, reject unwholesome things and open our hearts to others and to the teacher. Everything becomes a mirror. A wise, authentic teacher who plays his role compassionately, competently and ethically is helpful in this process.


Be a light to yourself

“It does not occur to a perfect man:“ I must lead the community of monks, or the community must follow me ”... Therefore be the light to yourself, be your own refuge, seek no other refuge, have the teaching than Light, have the teaching as a refuge, seek no other refuge. "(Dighanikaya Sutta 16 II)

The Buddha clearly states here that the teaching is the refuge, not the teacher. In Tantra, devotion to the teacher is seen as a spiritual fire that opens the heart to the spirit of enlightenment. And that is why the teacher is given such a high priority.

Mostly he also has the highest rank in the hierarchy of his Dharma organization, and there, not only in tantric Buddhism, it can easily lead to confusion between the guru role of the teacher and his role as the “worldly” head of the spiritual community. This can lead to great misunderstandings, especially if the teacher comes from Asia and uses his undisputed authority there as the yardstick here too, possibly only because he doesn't know it any other way. In strongly hierarchically structured communities, which hardly allow criticism of the teacher, there is a subliminal unspoken agreement that the teacher is inviolable and really stands above everything. If he makes mistakes simply because he is human too, he will be resented or concealed. This gives rise to avoidance strategies and unspoken and therefore unsettling codes of conduct for Sangha members. The underlying taboos obscure perception. You no longer know what is right or wrong. There is little openness, but there is a cult around the teacher and that opens the door to diverse forms of abuse. The Buddha repeatedly warned against this in his writings.


On the strength of human weaknesses

As long as we worship authorities, we choose authorities as models. Role models, including gurus, quickly become idols in our media-addicted society. We idealize them and turn them into a projection surface for unfulfilled hopes, wishes and dreams.

Chögyam Trungpa, a Tibetan, Buddhist-Tantric teacher, was married but had a lively relationship with numerous partners in public. He was often drunk. Nevertheless, he was very much revered by his students. Trungpa Rinpoche was - despite or perhaps because of his obvious human weaknesses - a great teacher who made it difficult for his students to identify with him as a human being. He countered his veneration as an inviolable authority by presenting his weaknesses in public. Whoever does not sit on a throne cannot be overthrown by it. His disciples could choose to live with the Master's human weaknesses and trust his spiritual competence or to leave. In this way, possible symbiosis longings on the part of the students were put to a stop. In this sense, Trungpa acted with "crazy wisdom" that served as a bridge into Buddha-nature. Could the Buddha have imagined a Dharma teacher like Trungpa? We can only speculate about it.


Ethical essentials

Does this mean a license for Buddhist teachers who violate applicable law or ethical principles, who may kill, steal, or engage in sexual abuse? The bond of a master to the Dharma and to the basic ethical rules that are derived from it, as well as the bond to our Western understanding of law, seems to me to be very essential. Anyone who violates this has to answer, right?

The emotional and mental dependence on the master is often a transition stage, not only on the tantric path. It dissolves as the student grows up spiritually and begins to trust her inner teacher more and more. Spiritual teachers have a special responsibility in this context. They must not take advantage of the devotion of their students, but should accompany their inner growth appropriately and lovingly.

Special legal regulations apply to psychotherapists, e. B. They must not have sexual contact with clients during therapy. This is considered relationship abuse. In the Dharma we also have clear ethical rules for dealing with teachers and students. The Buddha formulated it clearly.

If a spiritual master violates applicable ethical norms or rules, it affects the students who are in a transference process with him, especially those who are psychologically dependent on the teacher. They often take personal damage. If a teacher falls into disrepute, he should take responsibility for his or her actions, keep an eye on the teaching and the welfare of the students, and take a clear position vis-à-vis the Sangha and, if necessary, a wider public.

An open conversation about wrongdoing, misunderstandings and injuries based on mindfulness and mutual appreciation, then the practice of forgiveness and spiritual cleansing as well as the reformulation of the commitment between teacher and student could make a healing process possible for the spiritual community and the teacher. It is important for everyone to develop understanding for one another and the common path on the basis of compassion.


The teacher as primus inter pares

Buddhism conveys the wonderful message that we are all fundamentally the same as beings who have the Buddha nature. Enlightened beings differ from us in their realization. They show us what is possible for each of us. If we ask them for help on our path, they will give it because they feel a need to lead us to realization too. From this it follows: The teacher differs from an ordinary being through his experiences on the path, through knowledge of the teachings and methods, his realization as well as his involvement in a living, spiritual tradition. It is primus inter pares.

Some medieval cults of worship, hierarchical structures adopted from Asia, which establish strong power gaps, are no longer up-to-date in today's times, in which traditional structures are dissolving, authoritarian societies hardly have a future and the globalization and networking of the world is advancing. Ultimately, they contradict both Buddhist teaching and the principles of equality in democratically constituted societies. The wisdom teachings serve the liberation of all sentient beings. Spiritual teachers are your ambassadors, are our friends and guides. They help us to ignite the inner light. The spiritual path that the individual is walking today is not a collective one, but a very personal one.


Take a clear stand

From associations and umbrella organizations that represent Buddhism in public, for example the DBU in Germany, I expect ethically sound statements based on the teachings on the misconduct of teachers who create unnecessary suffering under the guise of "ego shooting" and violate applicable law. I am happy that we live in a democratic society. Here one deals with misconduct and legal violations of individual citizens in accordance with the rule of law. In a constitutional state, a court judgment on a person does not apply to an entire religion and its followers. But one expects a public statement from associations, clubs, religious communities, parties, for example, when it comes to abuse of positions of power that potential perpetrators exercise as part of their commitment to these organizations. This is particularly important in religious communities because they stand for ethical values. You have a role model. Their representatives represent the teachings they represent. The involvement of spiritual leaders in scandals shakes people who sympathize with or trust a religion or worldview. You need an orientation, a guideline. There must be a chance for them to discuss allegations impartially. This creates appreciation and confidence. Doubts can be dispelled.

The public discourse on abuse of power is an achievement of free societies, not comparable to feudal or dictatorial systems.

Based on our understanding of democracy and the associated sense of justice, it is necessary that affected associations and individual organizations, especially the German Buddhist Union, position themselves publicly and ethically. Not the actions of individual teachers but the refusal of Buddhist organizations to take a clear stand will otherwise lead to the fact that the Buddhist path will no longer be a viable path for more and more people. I believe that this is especially true for younger, network-savvy generations who are used to democracy, for whom hierarchies as closed systems are a fossil from yesteryear.


Dalai Lama: Ethics in the Teacher-Student Relationship: The Responsibility of Teachers and Students; Script made from notes during the meeting of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Western Buddhist teachers, source:

Bhikku Bodhi: The Teacher's Review, MN 47, Vimamsaka Sutta, in: Bhikku Bodhi, In the words of Buddha, Beyerlein and Steinschulte, 2nd edition, Stammbach 2011

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, The Great Moment, Theseus, Bielefeld 2012

Peter Gäng, Tantric Buddhism, Theseus 2000

Vessantara, Flames of Metamorphosis, do evolution, Essen 2003



Lisa's friend

Lisa Freund, born in 1951, has been a Buddhist since 1990 and has been actively involved in the hospice movement since 1989, among other things as a voluntary dying companion, supervisor, teacher, speaker, seminar leader and author of several books. It brings together Eastern wisdom and Western knowledge in dealing with dying and death. In 2016 she founded the Internet magazine together with Michael Ziegert on the subject of "Living, Dying, Death and Becoming": Further information at:

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