Mingyur Rinpoche has provided important clarifications about the role of ethics in Buddhism and in particular, about ethics in the student-teacher relationship in a recent Lion’s Roar article published on August 9th. In the introduction to the article, he says, “The one time people ask me about ethics is when scandals or controversies happen in Buddhist communities.”
He answers critical questions in this piece, ones plaguing the minds of many Rigpa students, including whether it’s okay to leave a teacher and how to do so, how to respond when a teacher appears to be committing serious ethical violations, and how to differentiate between “crazy wisdom” and abuse.
Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche is a master of the Karma Kagyu and Nyingma lineages of Tibetan Buddhism. Sogyal Rinpoche holds him in the highest regard, and once asked him to guide his students in the future. In his letter to the Rigpa sangha, penned after allegations of abuse surfaced, Sogyal Rinpoche said he would especially seek advice from Mingyur Rinpoche.
Is It Okay to Leave a Teacher?
So many students feel catapulted into extreme conflict when they consider leaving a Vajrayana teacher. Mingyur Rinpoche says:
“Many students of Tibetan Buddhism mistakenly think that they cannot, or should not, leave a teacher once they’ve made a commitment to them. This is not the case. The whole point of the teacher–student relationship is that it should benefit the student. It is not for the teacher’s gain or profit. If you have tried your best and have found that it is not a good fit, you can look for another teacher. This is not a problem or personal failing. It is good judgment.”
He goes on to say when the student-teacher relationship is not a good fit, it’s best to leave quietly without criticizing the teacher or disturbing other students’ positive view of the teacher. But there is an important exception to this.
How To Handle Serious Ethical Violations on the Part of a Teacher
When serious ethical violations occur, you are not bound to a quiet departure. Mingyur Rinpoche tells us:
“In that case, the violation of ethical norms needs to be addressed. If physical or sexual abuse has occurred, or there is financial impropriety or other breaches of ethics, it is in the best interest of the students, the community, and ultimately the teacher, to address the issues. Above all, if someone is being harmed, the safety of the victim comes first. This is not a Buddhist principle. This is a basic human value and should never be violated.”
Is it a breach of samaya to raise your concerns about serious ethical violations? Not according to Mingyur Rinpoche:
“In these circumstances, it is not a breach of samaya to bring painful information to light. Naming destructive behaviors is a necessary step to protect those who are being harmed or who are in danger of being harmed in the future, and to safeguard the health of the community.”
When Is Crazy Wisdom Appropriate and How Do You Differentiate It From Abuse?
A segment of Rigpa students excuse what appears to be abusive behaviors on the part of Sogyal Rinpoche as “crazy wisdom.” But Mingyur Rinpoche clarifies that the use of “crazy wisdom” is the rare exception not the norm. He says it also depends entirely on a very mature spiritual relationship between the student and the teacher. He explains:
“In other words, the results of genuine ‘crazy wisdom’ are always positive and visible. When a teacher uses an extreme approach that is rooted in compassion, the result is spiritual growth, not trauma. Trauma is a sure sign that the ‘crazy wisdom’ behavior was missing the wisdom to see what would truly benefit the student, the compassion that puts the student’s interest first, or both.”
Some Rigpa students cite stories of physical abuse on the part of spiritual masters like Marpa, Tilopa, and Patrol Rinpoche to explain Sogyal Rinpoche’s behavior. However, Mingyur Rinopche makes it abundantly clear that these extreme teachings styles were uncommon and a last resort.
“Not only are these extreme teaching methods used only with very mature students and in the context of a relationship of stable trust and devotion, they are also a last resort. There are said to be four kinds of enlightened activity: peaceful, magnetizing, enriching, and wrathful. Wrathful activity is only used for those who are not receptive to more subtle approaches. So again, this style is not a norm, but something that is only employed in certain circumstances.”
He further clarifies by saying:
“Thus we must distinguish teachers who are eccentric or provocative—but ultimately compassionate and skillful—from those who are actually harming students and causing trauma. These are two very different things, and it is important that we do not lump them together. There are plenty of teachers who push and provoke students to help them learn about their minds, but that is not abuse. Physical, sexual, and psychological abuse are not teaching tools.”
If you are wondering how other teachers have responded to the allegations of abuse in Rigpa, you might want to read these articles.
- The Dalai Lama Speaks Out About Sogyal Rinpoche
- Buddhist Monk Matthieu Regard Comments On The Letter
There is no question that Sogyal Rinpoche has benefited thousands of people through The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying and his teachings around the world. Most students who have concerns about abusive behavior, remain deeply gratitude for all they have received from Sogyal Rinpoche. They do not deny his brilliance as a teacher or question his authenticity. They are only raising concerns about what appears to be ethical violations in the student-teacher relationships, following the guidance of the Dalai Lama.
Has Mingyur Rinpoche’s advice helped you? What has it clarified for you? We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Note: The photo is from Mingyur Rinpoche’s Facebook page.
More personal and private support for current and previous students of Rigpa can be found in the What Now? Facebook group. Please contact us via the contact page and ask for an invite. Include a link to your Facebook profile or the email address you use on Facebook.