Samaya as Symbiotic Relationship

Damchö Diana Finnegan on the guru–disciple bond in Vajrayana Buddhism, and how to navigate it in healthful, beneficial ways.

By Damchö Diana Finnegan

From the series “Spectral Evidence,” 2016. Photograph by William Scully.

For a long time, I thought of samaya as the intimate bond of care in which students agree to entrust themselves entirely to a teacher, and the teacher agrees to act entirely in ways that benefit the student. This understanding did not come primarily from what is taught during and after empowerments, but from how I heard the term used in more vernacular Tibetan. The idea that two individuals could make this sort of commitment to one another seemed beautiful and inspiring to me. 

Then, some years ago, as I began serving as an ally to survivors of abuse by Vajrayana teachers and hearing their stories, it became clear that the notion of samaya has been one of the principal mechanisms of coercion in these cases of abuse.

 All the survivors I know are strong and exceptionally intelligent. I was confident they had not misunderstood what they had been taught. Had the concept of samaya been misrepresented and weaponized against them? Is samaya inherently conducive to abuse? Is it outdated and inappropriate to our times? Does it still have anything wise or beautiful to offer us? 

The Common Understanding of the Samaya Bond

The person who is offering the dharma to us can become a fundamental figure in our spiritual lives, and different Buddhist traditions have distinct ways of viewing and working within that potent relationship. Samaya is unique to Vajrayana Buddhism, opening a portal to understanding the link between teacher and student, or guru and disciple. 

A guru establishes samaya with disciples during a Vajrayana empowerment, thereby entering into a sacred bond between student and teacher and, at the same time, outlining the conduct required to uphold that bond. “Samaya” can refer to that sacred relationship, or it can refer to the specific vows and commitments through which one honors that bond. My preferred translation is “sacred bond,” highlighting the relational aspect, but it can also be rendered as “sacred oath,” “vajra commitment,” or just “commitments,” highlighting the vow aspect. 

 I think it’s fair to say that many Vajrayana students have been taught about samaya primarily as their vows of loyalty, service, and obedience to their guru, and their commitment to engage in mantra recitation or sadhana practice daily.  

Obligations (and Consequences) for Students

Vows can help create community by articulating what we can expect of one another. Ideally, samaya vows should make clear what the terms of the relationship between teacher and student are. However, the teachings on samaya are very heavy on the students’ obligations to the teacher, but exceedingly light on the teacher’s commitments to students. 

Every long-term Vajrayana practitioner will have heard of the catastrophic karmic consequences of breaking samaya vows. They are made to feel personally accountable for maintaining their vows by descriptions of the special hell awaiting samaya breakers. And collectively, students are held accountable by the community itself through an injunction to shun any fellow students who have broken their vows. But who has heard of consequences to the teacher for not upholding their end of the relationship? One is left with the impression that the labor of maintaining the samaya bond between teacher and student falls entirely to the student. 

 Yet Buddhist teachings on interdependence demonstrate that there is no such thing as a relationship that affects only one party and not the other. Even in relationships where the power is terribly imbalanced, such as between guru and disciple, each party is both giving and receiving something. Both are changed in some way by entering into the relationship. 

Is there a way to recontextualize those vows and find our way back to a basis for recognizing teachers’ transgressions for what they are, and holding them accountable to students?

These lopsided teachings on samaya have enabled abuse in multiple ways. First, the karmically and collectively enforced requirement to obey all the guru’s commands makes the withholding of consent virtually impossible for serious dharma practitioners when they are pressured to offer sexual services to their guru—and there have been shockingly many. Expressing nonconsent becomes ethically impossible and soteriologically disastrous because saying “no” has been (mis)represented as breaking samaya. Transgression of samaya vows is said to place immovable obstacles in one’s path to awakening and to put one beyond the pale ethically and socially. 

Many students do not acquire their first samaya commitments voluntarily. Often people incur samaya only after a teacher advises them to take an empowerment from them. During that ritual, students are commonly made to repeat certain syllables in what is, for them, a foreign language, and are only later told that they have sworn to obey all the commands of the guru and refrain from criticizing said guru. In this way, students end up unwittingly vowing obedience without the opportunity to decide if they actually wish to comply.  With this, conditions for coercion have been established, in the name of the dharma. There will be little or no explicit guidance on what the guru’s ethical commitments are to disciples, leaving students in the dark as to what is within the bounds of that relationship and what is not. 

Third, there is little or no discussion of teachers’ accountability to students. The very idea that students might hold teachers accountable is anathema in many Vajrayana communities. 

What Do We Hear of the Responsibility of the Vajrayana Guru Toward Their Students?

Canonical texts tell us that Vajrayana teachers are obliged to investigate students’ preparedness before giving them empowerments, and to refrain from granting empowerment to those not ready. To not do so is against their samaya. In Vajrayana terms, it is the teacher’s responsibility to determine whether a student is a “suitable vessel” for Vajrayana teachings. This only stands to reason, since before receiving them, the student does not know what those teachings say and so cannot reasonably be expected to assess whether they can live up to them. This obligation turns back on the teacher all the arguments that one hears blaming students for not being up to the challenge posed by the Vajrayana student–teacher relationship. 

More generally, a valid Vajrayana guru is understood to offer compassion and altruistic care to students, while the students offer devotion and loyal service to the guru. It is explained that when the guru’s compassion and the disciple’s devotion meet, blessings arise and speed students on the Vajrayana path to enlightenment. 

 Ideally, the guru’s samaya with students entails acting exclusively in ways that are of disinterested benefit to students. If this is the case, wouldn’t (for example) exploiting students, using them for one’s own sexual gratification, break the guru’s samaya? I have posed this question and heard answers, first- and second-hand, from several Vajrayana teachers, all renowned for their erudition and recognized by their lineages with titles like Geshe, Khenpo, and Rinpoche. Each said that the samaya between guru and student would be broken when the guru asks the students to provide them with sexual services. Therefore, according to this doctrinal interpretation, students who are being pressed for sex are no longer bound by any samaya commitments to comply. The guru has already broken that sacred bond with the disciple. 

Most of the survivors I know had been taught that their samaya commitments obliged them to comply with the guru’s demands for sex. Sometimes it was the guru saying this, other times it was the community around the guru.

Asking questions about the guru’s samaya obligations to students, starting conversations in our Vajrayana communities, and gaining clarity about this forgotten side of the samaya equation will help broaden its one-sided presentations. I do not have permission to quote the teachers on this; hopefully someday learned Vajrayana teachers will go on the record with their positions. It might begin to alleviate some of the pain inflicted on abuse survivors when they are shamed and shunned as supposed “samaya breakers” by their dharma brothers and sisters. (We should be clear that this lopsided application of samaya and the emphasis on unquestioning obedience readily lends it to “weaponization,” as Ann Gleig and Amy Langenberg have called it.)

From the series “Underwaterlilies,” 2011. Photograph by William Scully.

Finding Our Way Back

Is there a way to recontextualize those vows and find our way back to a basis for recognizing teachers’ transgressions for what they are, and holding them accountable to students? The canonical texts and the wisdom embedded in vernacular Tibetan usage offer suggestions for doing so. 

 The Sanskrit term samaya is etymologically rooted in the idea of “coming together” or “meeting place.” In Vajrayana texts, the samaya bond between teacher and student is a manifestation of a much larger understanding of samaya as a “meeting place,” specifically for jnana (primordial wisdom) to become embodied. Samaya thus can arise when a deity is given form in a mandala or other representation, in an empowerment, or through visualization during sadhana practice. The relationship between guru and disciple also forms one such meeting ground where wisdom can take shape in students’ lives. When encoded in a set of vows, samaya serves as an ethical guide to living in such a way that we embody that wisdom. 

Seen in its original context, samaya is clearly far vaster and subtler, encompassing much more than the common understanding of samaya limited to a promise to obey any religious authority or perform a liturgy once a day. 

 Because samaya is a uniquely Vajrayana concept, most of us will have heard the term in a Tibetan Buddhist context, where it is translated as dam tshig, rendered and pronounced “damtsik.Damtsik literally means “words that bind’’ and thus implies a pledge, oath, or promise. However, damtsik is also used by Tibetan speakers to describe important relationships and the responsibilities they entail for both parties, stressing relationships’ two-way nature. 

 One of my teachers, Tai Situ Rinpoche, spoke of samaya as existing naturally between any two people and between human beings and the natural world, suggesting that the current ecological crises are a sign that humans have “broken our samaya” with nature, and thus the mountains and oceans no longer abide by the terms of their relationship to us. 

 In her writings on the early twentieth-century Tibetan yogini Sera Khandro Dewai Dorje, Sarah Jacoby describes the term damtsik used in reference to the yogini’s bond to a particular sacred mountain. Sera Khandro narrates how a sacred bond was established between herself and the mountain, calling this relationship the “damtsik of sacred place and guest.”  

Within that damtsik, there is mutual interaction, as both parties make and fulfill requests from each other. As guest, Sera Khandro honors a request from the sacred mountain to offer it nutrients and remove polluting elements from it, ritually. In turn, the mountain honors the yogini’s request to reveal hidden treasures to her. 

This narrative tells us that when two parties come together in a relationship of mutual care, each giving and receiving from the other, samaya arises. When we recognize samaya or damtsik as a sacred bond present in all exchanges and all of our relationships, we begin to see how it could open a place for wisdom to take form in our lives. 

As we explore our commitments to human and nonhuman kin in the light of climate, ecological, and social injustice, we can be inspired by samaya’s reminder that relationships are sacred and ask something of both parties, always.

Reducing samaya to unquestioning obedience to a vajra master is a terrible impoverishment of the expansive and life-embracing vision that Tibetan speakers keep alive in their daily use of the terms damtsik or samaya. Moreover, it has allowed samaya to serve repeatedly as a tool of coercion and devastating harm in the many cases of abuse coming to light in Vajrayana contexts.

Where Does This Leave Us?

On one hand, we have a vast and liberating vision in which we embrace our connectedness. On the other, a notion of voluntary bondage to a human vajra master. Where does this leave us?

 In India, there was no fixed list of samaya vows. In fact, no two tantras present the same list. From around the twelfth century—several hundred years after Buddhism arrived in Tibet—Tibetan masters began to codify sets of samaya vows. In some early texts, the vows could be highly transgressive, but the standardized versions that developed later tended to omit the most transgressive vows. This history of modification is worth noting, because samaya is so often presented as ahistorical, universal, and monolithic. It is none of those things. 

 The understanding of samaya that one encounters today is also a product of historical conditions and institutional considerations. The fact that it has on occasion been transmitted in a one-sided manner and successfully used to justify and mask abuse can be redressed—but only if Vajrayana teachers and communities feel it is important enough to do so. 

Damchö Diana Finnegan

Damchö Diana Finnegan is a translator, author, and cofounder of Comunidad Dharmadatta (Dharmadatta Community), a Spanish-speaking community that locates gender and ecological issues at the heart of Buddhist practice. She co-edited and translated Interconnected: Embracing Life in a Global Society and The Heart Is Noble: Changing the World From the Inside Out. From 1999, she held monastic vows for over two decades.