Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly

Forum: Is the Guru Model Broken?

A YEAR AGO, it would have been hard to imagine publishing an article with this headline in our journal. But a lot happened in a year: the #MeToo movement hit the world by storm, and shocking revelations of abuse by Buddhist teachers in high-profile communities, including Shambhala and Rigpa, became mainstream news.

While communities are still grappling with these allegations and legal issues remain to be resolved, these allegations have given rise to many questions and concerns regarding the role of the teacher in Buddhism.

In light of the most recent upheavals, we’ve chosen in this discussion to focus on the guru model in the Tibetan tradition, in which the teacher is central to the path. Our panelists are deeply involved in guru practice and offer, from the inside, insights into how that teacher–student model may or may not be workable going forward. However, the conversation is relevant to any Buddhist traditions in which the teacher—whether a lama, roshi, or ajahn—holds great power. —Editors






BUDDHADHARMA: The question at the heart of this forum is, “Is the guru model broken?” We’ll explore an actual answer to that, but first, how do you feel when you hear the question?

LAMA RIGZIN DROLMA: I’m not sure I want to tell you this, but when I heard the question, my first reaction was alarm. Like, no, it can’t be broken! Because if it’s broken, then the whole tradition is broken. Relationship is crucial to one’s practice at every level of the path, and definitely key to progress in tantra and Dzogchen.

LOBSANG RAPGAY: My initial reaction, too, was to say, no, it’s not broken. But I also think there’s a contextual element to it in the culture. In Tibet, the teachings are passed down from one guru to another, making the guru indispensable. However, given the vast cultural, social, and political differences between Tibet and the West, it is critical to examine whether that model is also feasible and sustainable here.

PEMA KHANDRO RINPOCHE: I feel a sense of curiosity about what the question means, because there are a lot of different models for teacher–student relationships in Tibetan Buddhism. Some are more authoritarian, some are more parental. Sometimes it’s more intellectual and teacherly. Other times, it can be more like a coach or even a spiritual friend. I’ve certainly met lots of Vajrayana practitioners who believe there is one model and one right way for this relationship to be, but in my experience, it’s tremendously diverse.

When I hear the word guru, I feel this heaviness in my guts—I did even before I came onto the Buddhist path. We’re transplanting a certain kind of relationship that was prevalent in another culture onto this Western paradigm, and I think we are still doing the work to unlock what the guru means for us as Westerners. I don’t know if that model is broken. The guru means different things to different people. My personal

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