There have been recent developments in the case of a well known Tibetan Buddhist teacher accused of abusing his students over a long period of time. Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse posted a substantial statement about this issue, going into detail about the relationship between teacher and student in Vajrayana tradition. It was informative and clear and helpful. If you’re interested, you can access it here.
In some respects, this story is a parable of our time. As Eastern religious tradition has intersected with Western secular culture in the past 40 years, the dictates of a teacher, even what we might regard as extreme prescriptions, are not always fully understood in the context of developing pure perception, the foundation of clarity and vision that lead to the propagation of compassionate action for the benefit of all. The teacher may deliberately push buttons to confront the student with their own projections and egotistical habits in order to incite a full understanding of karma, the nature of reality and the ultimate purpose of the teachings.
In secular culture, however, we have laws governing and setting limits on interpersonal relationships. At some point those laws place a limit on student-teacher relations allegedly devoted to personal spiritual development. The western student might have some understanding of the traditional eastern student-teacher relationship, but at the extremes the relationship with a teacher may be tested by familiar western secular limits. Not that these are misplaced or that they don’t apply. Of course they do. The question in each case is when the teacher-student relationship crosses into abuse.
To say that it is always wrong for the student to question what’s going on would be ridiculous. Likewise, for the teacher, the temptation to abuse can be a corrosive mix of intra-personal dynamics, the amounts of money involved, the tug of war between personal ethics, spiritual teachings, the power dynamics of the relationship with students and a failure to take the karmic nature and ultimate purpose of the relationship into account. To overdraw the limits on the relationship, however, would likewise be counterproductive.
Similarly, the presence of Donald Trump in the Oval Office is pushing the limits of the consensual relationship of American citizens with the government. Not to paint Donald Trump as a guru, but in some respects he is very much a teacher whose every act reflects our collective views on leadership, our collective progress toward conscious action in the world and the limits of our tolerance for aberration and abuse.
The dynamics of abusive relationships are well-understood and shed light on what happened with the students of the Buddhist teacher in question. The abuser typically uses gaslighting to sustain his/her position and power. Gaslighting is the attempt to convince the abused that their own intelligence is faulty. The abused’s version of reality is undermined to the point of making internal excuses for the abuser’s behavior, a dynamic that can last years, even decades.
The abused comes to question her own perceptions, even her own sanity. This might explain why it takes so long for the abused to speak up and what it takes for the abused to finally speak up. By virtue of the devotional nature of the relationship, a teacher has a great deal of influence over the student. When there is true abuse, the internal struggle of the abused is to convince oneself of the truth and reliability of one’s own perception.
Here in America, on a much grander scale, amidst income inequality, plutocracy, rising authoritarianism and a king-tide of personal desperation, the conditions are ripe for a populist-nationalist ideology. We have entered into relationship with a classic sociopathic serial abuser – someone now identified as a malignant narcissist. We’ve placed an abuser at the head of the family table. His abuse is evident in his relations with women, his family, business partners, employees and subordinates of every kind. He now employs aides, advisors, attorneys, linguistic contortionists and elected representatives to leverage the abuse. The cumulative acts he performed throughout his campaign and since his election are singularly devoted to dominance and amount to gaslighting on a massive scale.
Yet to describe Trump, even gaslighting is an inadequate term that doesn’t nearly cover the full dimensions of what is afoot. The Republican congress have become not merely enablers of the abuser, but abused themselves, and actively leading in the deconstruction of government because that has been their objective all along. The base, the dead-enders, like the classic abused spouse, cling to the relationship with practically no regard for what is dished out, railing against “elites,” rationalizing egregious behavior with ever more bizarre and convoluted conspiracy theories, misplacing their faith in an illusory vision of lost prosperity, lost agency, lost racial purity, supporting destructive policies neither in their own nor in the national interest.
The abuser has not only deflected focus on the abuse itself by using racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric, he is undermining the very definition of leadership, respect for law, responsible governance, the social pact between citizen and government, the constitution and the values of the nation. The psychological defense against gas lighting is to cling to “normal,” even if the primary feature of normal is denial. As the desecration continues, what some people will do to reinforce their version of “normal,” what they manage to excuse for the sake of maintaining a sense of normalcy, becomes ever more extreme.
As the assault on truth and the conventions of leadership continues daily from the White House, clinging to a reconstructed version of normal becomes an increasingly urgent, tortuous, yet thoroughly misguided psychological defense. Print journalists have been doing it since before the election, television is certainly doing it to varying degrees, conservative talk radio is doing it by rationalizing violence and calling for more violence in too many forms to enumerate here, even to the extreme of suggesting that the President is being drugged, and falling for every distraction for the sake of creating and maintaining the patina of normalcy of this administration. This is self-destructive violence.
Against this backdrop of dissolution, millions have managed to resist the instinct to retreat behind the sheltering barricade of normalcy in the face of the hurricane of lies, misdirection and deconstruction. The purest act of resistance is to name the abuse itself, to face the truth of our own desire for “normalcy” and any tendency to fall into exhaustion, depression and disengaged compliance. Donald Trump is proving to be a powerful teacher whose extreme behavior has so starkly driven individual clarity, commitment and the urgency of collective action.
As Dzongsar Khyentse might have described it, radical abusive behavior is driving us closer to the true meaning of pure perception. Trump presents a continuous challenge to resist the comfortable, to elevate engagement, sacrifice, community and diversity; to resist the debilitating effects of the continuous assault on truth, to resist violent confrontation without shying away from opposition, to embody the true meaning of leadership in our own lives, to embrace the sacred, act with kindness, share without reservation and speak with compassionate honesty.
Between the twin threats of nuclear conflict and climate change, the drama has reached existential levels. Yes, more direct acts of resistance are necessary, but we are not truly dealing with Others. We are in an extreme karmic dance with our own demons, avarice, hatred and ignorance, temporarily represented as political opponents. And even as “they” appear to be intransigent and however monstrous the deconstruction of civil society or “normalcy” may appear to be, the dynamic is just as much internal as external. It becomes an even greater imperative to use the the accelerating influence of abuse to break free of its gravity, to break through escapism and the comfort of insular thinking, to examine and address the roots of violence, to demonstrate in all our relations the depth and truth of a more humane way. Otherwise, with all of this supposed clarity, we will blindly perpetuate our problems rather than solving them.