Question: Is it ever appropriate for a teacher to be wrathful with a student? If so, how can wrathfulness be used effectively to teach a student and when is it potentially harmful? How does a student know when a teacher’s wrathfulness is skillful means rather than a symptom of the teacher’s own problems?
Geshe Tenzin Wangyal: A loving mother is not always peaceful in relation to her child. Whenever it is necessary to create a clear boundary or to show there is a limit, a mother may display a wrathful demeanor. So it may be with the teacher who sees a need to be wrathful in relation to the student. It is healthy to be able to display wrath when there is a true and loving relationship between the teacher and the student.
Perhaps this is a cultural difference, but if a teacher is straightforward and expresses something directly, and even wrathfully, a Tibetan will think it is a sign of being close like family. If a teacher isn’t comfortable doing so, it is a sign of distance, like saying, “Do what you want; I don’t care.” In the West, people are not as tolerant of direct communication, let alone wrathfulness. Forget about being wrathful! Sometimes just being clear and direct can be interpreted as being mean.
How can wrathfulness be used to effectively teach and when is it harmful? With any human being, when something happens gradually, it is harder to grasp its significance. When it is stated in a stronger way, there can be a greater chance to understand consequences. Many are familiar with the example of the frog. When a frog is placed in a pan of water the same temperature as its ordinary environment, and the temperature of the water is gradually increased, the frog will remain in the water until it dies from overexposure to the heat. The frog simply does not register danger. However, if the frog is placed directly from its ordinary environment into the hot water, it perceives the danger and jumps out immediately.
In everyday life when things are going well, a person is not as motivated to practice meditation and is not so observant. When that same person experiences personal pain, sickness, or tragedy, he or she is more likely to shift their view and examine their priorities or outlook. If the teacher is aware of a student’s tendency to become overly comfortable in a situation, and uses enlightened wrathfulness to guide the student, it clearly can be beneficial.
A student should be able to discern whether a teacher’s actions have clarity. With enlightened wrathfulness, the teacher does not lose connection to the ground of compassion. If the teacher has lost that connection and is simply angry, that is not a guided action. If that is the case, harm can result. The student should examine whether to follow the teacher, and always has the option not to follow. Check your experience. Hopefully you can clearly check your own mind. If there is a degree to which you feel the teacher’s action is unhealthy, do not follow the teacher.
One of my teachers, Lopon Sangye Tenzin, could be characterized as a wrathful teacher. Whenever he gave advice regarding teaching and practice, there was not much space for negotiation! His students were those who could tolerate that, and continue to follow him. People who could not handle his teaching style had a more distant relationship with him.
By contrast, my root teacher, Yongdzin Tenzin Namdak, is a peaceful teacher. I truly appreciate and enjoy this relationship, but there have been times because of his peaceful nature that I displayed a tendency to negotiate and not completely follow his advice. When I did this, no one challenged or tested me. At times, I was able to recognize my tendency and reinforce my efforts to follow his advice, but there were times I was not even able to see that I had stopped following his advice.
Nothing should interfere with the relationship between you, the student, and an authentic teacher. Once you have examined and accepted a teacher, your job is to grow, and nothing else. The teacher is the teacher, and in the teacher/student relationship, the student clearly needs to give up more than the teacher does. But in the West we have all seen examples of students who approach the dharma with personal ambition or an agenda to fulfill. To the extent that a student is unable to see this, it is easy to give up following the path, or turn against the teacher or fellow students when ambitions are not fulfilled, mistaking injury to ego with actual harm. If one’s heart is blocked, one will have a difficult time discerning the difference and will judge wrongly. If one’s heart is open and clear, one can find a way to discern the difference, and continue to deepen the relationship with one’s teacher and, ultimately, oneself.
Zenkei Blanche Hartman: A great deal depends on the mutual trust already established between a teacher and student. When I began to practice with Suzuki Roshi I was very unsure of myself and sometimes self-disparaging. In that circumstance he was very kind and encouraging, sometimes even complimenting me on the sincerity of my practice. Later, I went to see him in dokusan (a private interview) during a one-day sitting when I had become quite concentrated on my breath. I was quite pleased with myself and said, “Roshi, I can count every breath now, without missing any. What do I do now?” I think I expected him to say, Good for you, or something like that. Instead, he became very fierce and said, “Don’t ever think that you can sit zazen. That’s a big mistake. Zazen sits zazen!!”
That’s as close to wrathful as I ever experienced, and it was very effective. I could see how much I was focused on myself and on his approval, and how far removed I was from sitting with “no gaining idea,” as he so often instructed us.
There was, however, an event in the history of our sangha in which Suzuki Roshi was wrathful with the whole sangha, and I would call that incident quite skillful as well, because it was so rare that we never forgot it. I was not present because it was my husband’s turn to sit sesshin (we still had children at home, so we took turns).
During sesshin one morning, the person who rang the wake-up bell misread his clock and rang the bell an hour early. Then he realized it and went around saying, “I’m sorry, it’s an hour early. Go back to bed.” The only ones who went to the zendo were Suzuki Roshi, my husband, and one other student. An hour later the bell rang again and everyone else came and began to sit zazen. Then Suzuki Roshi began to speak, growling, “You are all foxes and badgers sleeping in your zazen caves. When the bell rings, GET UP AND GO TO THE ZENDO! Tell me, Who is priest and who is layman?” As he was speaking he jumped up and began hitting each student with his kyosaku (encouragement stick) really hard. “Whack, whack, whack, whack” could be heard all over the zendo. The zendo was very full, and as he went around he began running out of steam.
I think we all learned from this how important it is in Zen training to follow the schedule completely. Do whatever is next. Don’t pick and choose. Just do it! But more important I think is my appreciation of how completely Roshi threw himself into showing us the spirit of wholehearted practice. He exhausted himself for us to be sure we got it, that this practice was not some exotic trip or a passing fad, but a matter of life and death which required an equal commitment from us to meet him completely with our whole heart.
Narayan Helen Liebenson: The expression of wrath is never appropriate or skillful in the teacher/student relationship, given that the word “wrath” means vengeful anger.
It is important, however, to distinguish between selfish anger aligned with a personal agenda, and the forceful use of energy in the service of compassion and liberation. The trouble is, this is not so easy; there is a lot of potential for misinterpreting strong energy. Some of our interpretation depends on our conditioning and experiences. What appears to be wrath to one person may be experienced as spiritual urgency and compassion by another, encouraging a deeper level of investigation.
An instance when a forceful approach may be skillful is when it is consciously used in the context of established forms of practice, such as in certain lineages of Zen. To me, it seems important that teachers who use forceful methods have peers and are part of a respected Buddhist lineage, and that the context is understood by the students as well as the teachers. For the student, trust in the teacher and in the lineage is essential.
In the Theravada tradition, the concept of compassionate or skillful wrath does not exist. The orientation in the practice of insight meditation is that it is the student’s responsibility to explore their resistance; this implies an organic and non-induced readiness to awaken out of self-delusion. When this readiness is present, ideally the teacher is there to meet the student where they are and to help them to see the next step. In this process, there is mutual respect and an expectation that the practitioner be willing to take responsibility for their own awakening.
As I see it, the expression of forceful energy is potentially harmful when a student has a history of trauma. In my experience as a teacher, when a student has been subjected to violence in childhood, a potential danger exists of establishing a pattern in which one continues to subject oneself to provocative situations as an adult, with the deluded view that these situations may do one good. Even if the student realizes that what’s happening is not really helping them, they may put up with it, thinking they’ll eventually get something out of it.
It isn’t possible to be sure of anyone’s motivation—all we can see is a person’s actions. If you are unsure of the situation, there are a couple of things you might consider: Is secrecy involved? Or is there the freedom to question? Talk to the teacher involved if possible. Talk to your fellow students. It’s important to feel both safety and trust in your interactions with your teacher in order for real learning to take place.
Zenkei Blanche Hartman is former abbess of the San Fransico Zen Center.
Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche is a lineage holder of the Bön Dzogchen tradition of Tibet.
Narayan Helen Liebenson is a guiding teacher at Cambridge Insight Meditation Center.