My relationship with my then current dharma teacher had always been good. We had been dharma acquaintances for several years before I became her student. There was always a light, joking tone to our conversations. Before she had ordained, I remember I used to joke with her how she would make a “kick-ass” nun. At the time I meant that in a good way. Even when I became her student 4 years ago, there was still a lightness in our interactions. She didn’t have big expectations or me, nor did I of her. I came to class but didn’t put in much time helping the center.
When I came back from festival and got serious about my practice, our relationship likewise got more serious. I found she was relying upon me more as a hand around the center, and as a confidant. She asked me to serve as the Education Program Coordinator (EPC) since our previous EPC had deserted the center and her practice after a mental health crisis over the summer. Granted, there were not that many other viable candidates for the position, but I was still honored to be asked.
I think the closest I felt to her was when we were visiting another practitioner, Gary, in the hospital. Gary was a cantankerous and pervy old goat, but had the heart of a bodhisattva. He went into the hospital for heart surgery, but ended up with a series of fatal complications. I was moved and impressed at how our community handled Gary’s illness and death. It was rare to find his hospital room empty. As someone who doesn’t have any family (or at least any I talk to), knowing I belonged to such a caring community felt very reassuring. One afternoon, near the end, when Gary was in a vegetative state, my teacher and I went to see him. We knew this was possibly our last visit because his family had been summoned to discuss disconnecting the life support. We were there alone with Gary. There were no words left to say, so we chanted the Prajnaparamita sadhana and recited the Heart Sutra together. Even writing this now, I’m at a loss to describe how beautiful and meaningful it all felt. It is moments like that where faith no longer feels so elusive.
Through my Vajrayogini counting retreat, my teacher was my lifeline. I kept a daily, private retreat blog that I shared with her. She would send me encouraging emails, which I sorely needed. Though toward the end of the retreat, I could tell she was getting a little nervous about how much work was piling up for me at the center.
After my retreat there was a bit of a honeymoon period. She was grateful for my help and support, and I was happy to be pleasing my kind teacher. We had long talks about my fellow students and their spiritual failings. It is these conversations I regret the most. I was fully complicit in that all-too-common NKT mindset that sees the students as either “one of us”, a potential “one of us” or “filled with delusions or obstacles” and is simply “not serious” about their practice. In retrospect, I feel horrible about going along with those judgments and being agreeable so that my teacher would like me. My fellow students would complain to me about how judgmental or cold our teacher could be, but I hadn’t experienced that myself, so taking a clue from teacher, I just thought they had “obstacles and delusions.” They were the problem. If only they would see our kind teacher as a Buddha, they would reap the benefits. Oh man, I really drank the kool-aid, didn’t I?
Soon the honeymoon was over. My teacher started snapping at me and told me in no uncertain terms that I was not treating her with the respect that she deserves. Wha? I had been busting my hump at the center. People had been fleeing, and many tasks that had been the domain of some of our fallen comrades were now on my shoulders. Finally, I was starting to get a taste of what other people had understood for a while. And damn, it stung. It stung far beyond the mere words that were said.
Now, that I joined the ranks of the wounded ones, I started hearing all the stories of her angry outbursts and generally cold and brusque treatment of some of the other practitioners. We all have human failings, so our teacher is certainly allowed hers. But, it felt like she was trying hide hers behind robes of righteousness and teacher infallibility. If people took offense to her behavior, they were labeled as deluded, and lacking in faith.
After one particularly egregious outburst on her part, I wrote an outraged email to my friend John just to vent. As it turns out, Monk-la was in town, and would I join them for dinner. Absolutely! When I told Monk-la the situation, he assured that her behavior was not correct. While we are encouraged to see our teachers as Buddhas when they are on the throne giving teachings, when they are off the throne if we see them doing something wrong, we need to address it. Oh shit. I actually had to take responsibility for this and not merely just bitch about it, or run away (as is my want).
It took about a month for my mind to settle so that I could address this issue with her with a mind of compassion rather than anger. I’m a big chicken, so I did it over email. These were some hard truths I was going to tell her, and they needed to be said in one coherent thought. My phone rang within minutes of hitting the send button. That conversation was one of the most difficult I’ve ever had. She was devastated. She was hurt. She was angry. She was confused. She felt unloved. It broke my heart.
Soon she sent out an email to our class saying that class was going to be canceled for a few days because she needed some time to absorb what had been said. She apologized for any hurt she had caused, and that it was her wish to be the teacher we needed her to be. I felt close to her again, and was impressed with the humility, courage and love that it took to write that . Particular after, no doubt, feeling attacked by me and unloved by her students. I felt hopeful that things were going to get better for her, my classmates and me.
Too little too late? Part 5 coming soon