Boundary Violations Deeply Harm Individuals and Communities

When a spiritual teacher fails to put their students’ interest first, devastating spiritual and emotional harm can result.

A serious breach of trust or “boundary violation” occurs when a professional with specialized knowledge and power breaches the appropriate limits of the relationship between them and the person seeking their help.

Whether Buddhist teachers recognize ourselves as professionals or not, once we hang out our shingle (so to speak) as a spiritual leader we have made an implicit promise. Much like a therapist or lawyer, we have promised to always put the interests of the student (or congregant or client) ahead of our own. We have announced “Here, you will find a safe space.” We have said, “You can trust me.”

As the Resilient Sangha Project describes, spiritual teachers are imbued with a special kind of spiritual and emotional power by virtue of our recognized authority. This isn’t a matter of wanting to have power, or feeling that one has power—one often doesn’t—but simply a matter of fact. Students are in need of something and believe we can help them find it. They may entrust us with the care of their very spirits. Students often share important, personal details about their lives. Students make themselves vulnerable.

It is always the responsibility of the person with more power, and that person alone, to maintain the boundaries that create a safe environment for spiritual growth. The student-teacher relationship must remain protected, sacred, and used only for the student’s well being. If we teachers fail at this, we risk causing psychopompogenic harm.

I, myself, put a lot of trust in my teachers as I started on the Zen path. I looked up to them as models of the sort of insight, wisdom, and compassion I hoped to develop in myself. I revealed aspects of my emotional and private life to them, and asked for their guidance. I assumed that various logistical and financial changes they promoted were meant to benefit the sangha (i.e., the community). Such trust was encouraged by the teachers. For many years, my trust seemed to be rewarded.

That is, until I saw teachers making a grab for power and financial assets. Until I observed a teacher engage in egregious manipulation, deceit, and emotional abuse. Until a teacher wanted to wrap a sangha around themself like a warm blanket, totally uncritical and admiring. Until a teacher admitted to a year-long secret sexual relationship with a student.

That is, until I observed teachers taking the trust their students had put in them in hope of spiritual guidance and using it for something else. Starting with the opening made by being entrusted with our hearts and spirits, they invaded further, laying hold of wallets, capacities for caregiving, and sexuality. Exploiting the trust and vulnerability of their students to meet their own desires for power, money, emotional validation, and sexual gratification destroyed the sanctity of the teacher-student relationship.

Let me reiterate that I don’t believe that all this happened because these teachers are “bad people.” They perceived all these situations quite differently. This difference came about precisely because they were on the powerful side of a lopsided relationship. Some things are harder to see from there.

Let’s get back to the viewpoint of those on the less-powerful side. I was not a direct target of much of the abuse I just described, except for some financial exploitation. Yet the shock of seeing how other students’ trust was catastrophically manipulated still shook me to my core. The cataclysms our sangha experienced caused me and many others to not only question the wisdom of these particular teachers, but also to question our faith in the Dharma, the sangha, and even in ourselves.

How could someone I love so much hurt me (or others) so badly?
Is everything I learned from them wrong?
Is my community gone ?
Can I ever trust anyone again?
Can I even trust myself, my own judgment?

It’s not uncommon for people to leave spiritual practice entirely and/or spend years in therapy after such a violation of trust. Teacher boundary violations can be, in short, spiritually and emotionally devastating.

There is plenty of research out there about power, abuse of power, the harm it causes, and how to remedy and prevent it. There are plenty of resources one can look up to learn more. Yet, I have found, teachers may often act like “full teacups,” resisting learning because we believe we already know enough. Teachers can become psycho-pompous

That will be the topic of my next post.

Previous in this series: Naming (and Preventing) Psychopompogenic Harm

Next in this series: Spiritual Teachers are Prone to Creeping Ego-Inflation

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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