Spiritual Teachers are Prone to Creeping Ego-Inflation

If WE believe we’re humble, we must be humble. Right? (Well, maybe not…)

“I’ve seen the kind of teachers who pretend to be above it all,” you probably say and nod, “but I’m not one of them.” Please consider the following:

Often we don’t notice the buildup of pride, which grows out of commendable self-confidence, but then climbs unnoticed until we find that we are stiffly defending our position and our patch. An old Hasidic teacher compared the unnoticed inflation of pride to taking a journey by carriage. We look out of the window and swear that the country-side is level. Only when we begin the sharp descent do we realize the preceding slow climb of our pride.

Ross Bolleter, Dongshan’s Five Ranks: Keys to Enlightenment, p. 183.

To some degree it’s probably inevitable that students will hold a somewhat idealized image of teachers, at least early in their practice. Some Buddhist writings seem to encourage reverence and an attitude of subservience. When we are new students, we may also need to project onto teachers our own confused intellectual understandings of what it means to “be enlightened,” simply to bring those beliefs to the surface. (Seeing through them, we hope, develops with greater spiritual maturation.) But when students treat us as exceptionally wise and special, this creates a feedback effect on unwary teachers. If we don’t recognize what’s happening, we will start, as one of the other participants in a Buddhist Healthy Boundaries course I took put it, to “believe our own PR.”

I’ve started calling this trap the “gold rakusu effect” after the gold-colored, bib-like garment that only transmitted Zen teachers are allowed to wear. Having only recently transitioned from wearing a black (student) rakusu to a gold one, I think I now have a good visceral sense of how slow creep of pride comes about. Almost immediately, people who always before had just been my fellow students started to demonstrate respect, deference, and gratitude in a thousand tiny but cumulatively important ways. They have started to listen more to what I have to say. They have started to apologize in situations where perhaps I am at fault. They have started to stand back as I pass by.

Some acts of deference seem spontaneous, while others (such as standing back) may actually have been taught as part of a sangha’s culture. Unless you are very aware of this going on, it’s easy for it to go to your head. Admiration, gratitude, and reverence directed towards the Dharma can be easily confused with admiration of the teacher themself, in the minds of both students and teachers.

And also, importantly, upon transmission I was admitted to the meetings of the other transmitted teachers. In such meetings I could see interpersonal bonds and shared opinions being formed and reinforced. When teachers (who may often be old friends, even spouses, and at least respected colleagues) mirror attitudes of confidence and superiority back and forth among themselves, the feedback effect compounds mightily. And it’s insidious. I could talk about appropriate humility all day, and could sincerely believe that I personally have not become proud…as long as my favorite “mirrors” keep telling me that I’m doing just fine.

Finally, there is a widespread notion that teachers “lead the sangha.” Zen monasteries in Japan were headed by abbots who were both teachers and chief administrators. Teachers may feel, therefore, obligated by the needs of the sangha to display strong leadership, confidence, and decisiveness. Both teachers and students may expect that the teachers be consulted, trusted, and followed on all sangha decisions—whether or not these are anywhere near the teachers’ actual areas of wisdom, expertise, or responsibility.

Our (recent, but now former) transmitted teachers were our local experts on the Dharma. Yet the teachers tended to converge on the very common (and human, and wrong) perception of the Spiritual Director’s misconduct as mostly a case of  adultery. That is, they primarily saw it as an “extramarital affair” perpetrated by the him and by the (they believed) “consenting” adult student. (Consent was not possible.) While they expected to lead the response to our Spiritual Director’s misconduct, they largely ignored research findings about the dynamics of power and abuse. They also were resistant to learning about the legal responsibilities of the board of a U.S. 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.

Most tragically, they mostly declined opportunities to learn about the experience of the student, as well as from others who felt spiritual and emotionally shipwrecked. We, on the “student side,”  hoped to ultimately reach a situation in which we recognized their authority in teaching the Dharma, while they recognized the authority and expertise of others in other areas. Instead, they left.

This failure to learn did not come about, I believe, because they are “bad people.” They were and continue to be, by and large, very good people. They generously volunteer time from their otherwise busy lives to try to guide others in the Dharma. But the culture of our sangha and the resultant feedback effects set them up to fall into the very human trap of ego inflation. They were (over-)confident that they “knew best.”

Is the only solution to erase the teacher-student distinction? I don’t think so. Rather, I think finding practices that can regularly remind teachers of our limitations and the reality of the temptation to pride may offer a better path.

I’ve found, for example, that keeping a journal of my own “gold rakusu effect” moments—that is, flashes of pride, ambition, pique, or jealousy that arise from expecting to be treated as extra special—seems to help. Think of it as taking a carpenter’s level along on that carriage ride up the hill. It’s not pleasant to have to record my very human failings. But how else would I become awake to my own life? 

We have also, in our new teacher group, started to change some of the sangha cultural traditions that had seemed to exaggerate the teacher/student divide. We senior teachers take on service roles in our practice groups, when needed, for example, and take care of our own tea and cushions at sesshin (residential retreats) rather than having jishas (student attendants) serve us. We continue to explore other ideas.

As a sangha, we have restructured our governance practices to make it clear that the board, not the teachers, have primary responsibility and authority for such things as finances, facilities, communications, and staffing. Rather than “leading the sangha,” we teachers “lead the teaching.” Our roles within the sangha as a non-profit organization are more similar to contracted freelance consultants than to Japanese abbots. Our teaching is highly respected. If we voice opinions on other things, however, we speak as sangha members.

Maybe we know best. Maybe we don’t.

Previous in this series: Boundary Violations Deeply Harm Individuals and Communities
Next in this series: Any Spiritual Teacher Can (and Likely Will) Cause Harm

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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