Naming (and Preventing) Psychopompogenic Harm

Harm caused by clergy and spiritual teachers is rampant. What can we—especially Buddhist and Zen teachers—do to prevent it?

When a patient is harmed by the actions of a medical provider, we call it iatrogenic harm. Iatros comes from the ancient Greek word for “healer “and genic means “caused by.” A psychopomp is a spiritual guide (Greek: psyche = soul, pomp = guide). So psychopompogenic harm means “harm caused by someone who offers spiritual guidance.” Abuse—sexual, emotional, spiritual, and financial—by clergy and spiritual teachers is rampant.

Sometimes it is dramatic and catches headlines. Other times it is more subtle, slowing damaging individuals and groups over decades. Whatever its form, it definitely deserves its own word. Identifying a problem is the first step towards addressing it.

OK, so I coined the word. A Google search on it says “no results found.” (Is there a prize for that?) But how do we recognize, respond to, and prevent it?

Brief Background Note

As I recently blogged about, the Zen Buddhist sangha I belong to has been through two major upheavals in the last four years. I received Dharma transmission (i.e., authorization to teach Zen independently) in the middle of the second crisis. As a result, I experienced the most recent upheaval with (to put it a bit simplistically) one foot in the “student camp” and the other in the “teacher camp.” 

The “teacher camp” was made up of all the teachers who had received transmission before we found out that our Spiritual Director had had a year-long secret and sexual relationship with a Zen student. From the start, those teachers interpreted the situation quite differently from the “student camp.” Over several months, and much back-and-forth between the “camps,” they all chose to disaffiliate from our Zen center.

The “student camp” included all members of the sangha’s board, myself, and a substantial number of other (lay) leaders, less-senior teachers, and members. So what remains at the Greater Boston Zen Center now—and what we have bolstered with the selective  recruitment of new teachers—is a group deeply aware of, and concerned about, the issue of teacher abuse of power. We have put together a set of documents, the Resilient Sangha Project, that seeks to inform others facing issues of misconduct by clergy or spiritual teachers about what we wish we had known when the crisis first broke. We also focus on the structural and cultural changes that we believe need to be made in order to prevent future harm.

Yet what is (so far) referred to only obliquely in the Resilient Sangha Project documents is the depth of the pain and harm I felt, and which I also heard expressed by others. The words and actions of both the Spiritual Director and the other teachers aroused deep woundedness, disappointment, loss of faith, and, at times, anger among many of us. We had looked up to them, learned from them, and loved them for so long! That harm is not directly addressed in the group Project, because that is primarily constructive and forward-looking. 

It’s Not a “Bad Apple” Problem

But, talking with fellow teachers, I find that many still don’t “get it” where psychopompogenic harm is concerned. So that is what I want to address in this essay. What is this harm, and what is the responsibility of teachers for addressing and preventing it? 

The most important point to understand is that psychopompogenic harm is not a “bad apple” problem, caused only by a few “bad teachers.” The teachers who make headlines may be predators and sociopaths, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. All of the teachers who have left my sangha have some quite wonderful qualities. Many students continue to fruitfully learn from them. What I write here is not at all intended to blame what happened in our case on them as individuals (“There but for fortune…”). 

Rather, it is imperative that we bring this kind of harm to light for the good of all sanghas. Only then can we investigate its nature, the causes and conditions that cause it to arise, and come up with changes that could help with prevention and healing.

Five Lessons for Teachers to Learn

Students or members of a religious group are often reluctant to suggest that their teachers or clergy have something to learn. They are the authorities, right? Isn’t going along with what the Sensei, Lama, Priest, or Reverend says the key to achieving enlightenment or salvation?

Actually, we leaders are still human beings with the same clay feet as anyone else, whatever spiritual insight we have gained. Teaching is a role, not a novel ontological state of being. At my transmission ceremony, no blinding light came down from above inserting something special in my soul.

Whatever spiritual path a student is on, teachers and clergy are still on it, too.  Even Shakyamuni Buddha continued to practice after his enlightenment. If we stop learning or practicing we have become “full teacups,” impervious to spiritual influence. So I would like to suggest five lessons that should be part of the continuing path for any teacher:

  1. Boundary Violations Deeply Harm Individuals and Communities
  2. Spiritual Teachers are Prone to Creeping Ego-Inflation
  3. Any Spiritual Teacher Can (and Likely Will) Cause Harm
  4. Self-Policing Doesn’t Work
  5. Spiritual Teachers Need to be Clear About What We Offer and Last Words

Author: Julie A. Nelson

Julie A. Nelson is a writer on gender, ethics, economics, ecology, and Zen; a Professor of Economics, Emeritus; a Dharma Holder and Teaching Coordinator at the Greater Boston Zen Center; and mother of two grown children.

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