Patience with the spiritual teacher

A few weeks ago, I dropped out of a weekend teaching-retreat because the teacher wasn’t what I needed. She was telling students off, for not formulating their question very well and I had too much going on in my life to stand for it. I went home a day early and enjoyed a quiet weekend. I’m learning to take care of myself.

This weekend my own teacher got angry at his translator and didn’t have the patience to hear his reply. He was in pain as a medical condition of his was returning and couldn’t keep his cool. I stayed. All of us in the audience waited patiently for him to get back on track and calm down. He did and later apologized.

Why did I stay in one case and leave in the other? My relationship with the teacher. It isn’t that one was a bad teacher and the other was good. One is right for me, the other is not. For some reason the humanity of my teacher touches me in ways that help me on my path.

There is a lot of talk these days about abuse of spiritual power in Buddhist circles. There are good reasons for this. Yet, there is another side. I was touched today by an interview with Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara (Zen Buddhist) who talks about her relationship with Maezumi Roshi. She says:

He had his alcohol issues. He had his womanizing issues.


He was so humble and so ordinary and able to be intimate with you immediately. But he had his issues. I never witnessed any of that, interestingly enough. His drinking was done at home, not at the center when I was there, and he had no ongoing relationships with anyone that I could see. I wasn’t there spying, I was there practicing. For me, within this quality of, “Yes, it’s broken, I’m broken,” is the heart of humanity.

Similarly, in Dakini PowerPema Chödrön describes her relationship with Chögyam Trungpa, a 60s guru who slept with his students, drank, used alcohol and was still a respected teacher. When he taught her meditation, he would touch her and she would push him off with her high-heeled shoes. She didn’t give in, she didn’t walk out. She merely set her boundaries as clearly as was necessary in the circumstances and learned what she needed to learn. She simply treated his attentions as a distraction and got back to her meditation. (*)

In hindsight she is sorry she didn’t warn female students about him, because not everyone has her kind of strength. And that’s an important insight. However, the other side of the coin is that she did learn a lot from him. Pema Chödrön too has this tremendous ability to embrace the brokenness of being human.

In all three cases I think the central point isn’t that you SHOULD stay, or you SHOULD walk out, or you SHOULD warn people. It is about doing what is right for you (and the people you’re talking to). If there is something in you that draws you to a certain teacher, stick with it. But that doesn’t have to mean you turn into a toady. You can still set your boundaries and you can be true to your own emotional truth. That is mindfulness combined with wisdom.

(*) Chögyam Trungpa didn’t force himself on Pema Chödrön, he merely came onto her. Rape is unacceptable, especially within the student-teacher relationship. As a general guideline, sexual relations are usually unhealthy as well. Generally, it’s the teacher who sets (and should keep to) that kind of boundary. It is interesting to see how well Pema Chödrön did by setting it herself.