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Shambhala Sun | July 2009

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 expectation of 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 manipulatable.

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 critical time.

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 her lifestyle.

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 especially important.

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 Buddhism.


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 intelligence.

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 lineage holders.

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.

That 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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