Self-Policing Doesn’t Work

Self-policing of conduct hasn’t worked for police forces, the military, or the Catholic Church. Why, then, would we think it should work for Buddhist teachers?

The sanghas I’ve been a part of have had groups of senior teachers, instead of just one, at least in part on the philosophy that teachers are less likely to abuse trust when other teachers are watching them. Nice idea. Doesn’t actually work.

Why should we be surprised? It hasn’t worked for police forces: When situations of excessive force are adjudicated by commissions populated by other police officers, the offending officers usually get let off, and violence isn’t stopped or prevented. It hasn’t worked for the military: When victims of sexual harassment are required to report the problem up the same chain of command that caused the harassment, it’s the victim who is usually punished. It didn’t work for the Roman Catholic Church: Given a choice between protecting the reputation of their institution or protecting children from clergy sexual abuse, the leaders prioritized the institution.

In our sangha, the senior teachers seemed to be more concerned about the well-being of the perpetrator (who after all, was an old friend, etc.) than the (relatively unknown, and unheard) student. Just because a particular in-group is “spiritual,” doesn’t mean it’s immune from the issues endemic to in-groups. Research confirms that the professionals including therapists and social workers tend to not do much to address abuse committed by their peers, perhaps because of personal friendship, a desire to not publicly embarrass their profession, fear of retaliation, or confusion about their responsibilities (Celenza, Ch. 8).

What about appeals to higher levels of authority? Zen—much less Buddhism as a whole!—in the United States has no overarching supervisory or authorizing body. Yes, Zen teachers can apply to become members of the American Zen Teachers Association (AZTA) or Soto Zen Buddhist Association (SZBA). But these bodies have historically only seen their mission as cultivating relationships among teachers from different lineages, not as policing teachers’ behavior in relation to their local sanghas. Only on rare, repeated, and particularly egregious cases of abuse have Zen teachers issued a public censure and warning. These have usually taken the form of open letters from individuals (examples) or informal groups (example), or groups of teachers within one lineage (example–see p. 4example).

Yet, through the diligent efforts of some abuse-savvy people in leadership of AZTA and SZBA, this may at last be changing. The SZBA hired an outside independent non-teacher to investigate whether our former Spiritual Director had violated SZBA’s own code of ethics, which includes honest self-reporting of misconduct. If I understand correctly, his suspension from SZBA (he later resigned) and (so I heard) expulsion from AZTA was a first for both organizations. No doubt these actions were due to decades of dedicated fighting by those Zen teachers who recognize the damaging nature of boundary violations.

While some teachers see abuse as only a problem of “scoundrels and sociopaths,” others are, like my local sangha,  “committed to changing the culture of silence and the idealization of the teacher’s status that has been so detrimental to students” (open letter). Yet the fact it took so long for the AZTA and SZBA to take action, despite the occurrence of many previous egregious and serial cases of abuse, underscores the scandal of decades of complacency and complicity.

Clearer codes of professional ethics set by such organization, including effective reporting and remediation processes, would no doubt be of some help. At least the expectations would be spelled out. Most clergy as well as other professionals such as therapists and social workers already have codes and procedures that can work as models. In practice, however, such policies are too often “walked right through” by clever offenders and complicit ombudspersons and commissions, as the police force example demonstrates.

We teachers need to admit that we are not in control here, and that the problem of abuse by teachers cannot be solved entirely “in house” by teachers ourselves. But neither can we just irresponsibly shrug and say, “Well it’s inevitable—nothing can be done.” There is a third option: Can we be humble enough to ask for help?

Can we learn from academics, lawyers, and/or therapists who particularly deal with clergy abuse? Can we be willing to learn from research, from other organizations, and—most importantly—from the students who have been harmed? Can we regularly incorporate knowledge gained from these sources into our training and criteria for ordination or transmission? Can we be humble enough to accept directives from our sangha boards, as they act to maintain the mission of the organization? Can we support victims, rather than reputations, when survivors of abuse appeal to the legal system for redress?

I hope so. I have reservations about being a Zen teacher, if we cannot.

Previous in this series: Any Spiritual Teacher Can (and Likely Will) Cause Harm

Next in this series: 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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