Spiritual Teachers Need to be Clear About What We Offer

Students assume that spiritual teachers will act with the sort of wisdom and compassion that we teach about. But what happens when expectations and reality collide?

Upon finding out that our Spiritual Director had engaged in a year-long secret emotional and sexual involvement with a student, many members of our Zen sangha felt emotionally crushed and spiritually adrift. Our trust in him, and even in the Dharma, had been badly violated. We reached out for understanding and help from our remaining teachers.

What Our (Former) Teachers Offered

But the transmitted  teachers we had at that time appeared nonplussed by our reaction. Because they largely framed the issue as a private “affair,” they couldn’t understand why we were so upset. “We need to move past this and get back to the Dharma,” we heard from some. No teishos (formal talks) attempted to address the pain we were feeling. Some of us were told in dokusan (private interviews with teachers) that it was not appropriate, in that context, to discuss the abuse. More than one teacher told me that they did not consider the spiritual and emotional distress of students—especially any student who was not “theirs”—to be their concern. Nor did any seem to think they had the least responsibility for it, in spite of it being caused by their teaching peer. (So much for “self-policing.”) Some teachers’ identity as teachers seemed to be formed exclusively around giving talks and working with individuals on Zen practice forms and koans.

Yet let me describe to you, frankly, what this felt like from the student side. It was as if our Spiritual Director were a bus driver, and crashed the vehicle into an embankment at high speed. We passengers lay broken and bleeding on the side of the road. The most-harmed student was in need of immediate intensive care. We expected that health professionals (read: our Zen teachers) would arrive and help us out. But some of them drove right by. Others stopped and offered us advice on nutrition and exercise. Some got in the way of us trying to bind up each other’s wounds. Some, believing we were overreacting, tried to get us to move on by kicking us. Eventually, they drove off to have breakfast together.

The teachers are who they are, given the causes and conditions that brought them to this place: I am not trying to “lay blame” by recounting these events. My sense is that was likely the (far too common) gold rakusu effect that caused them to act as though they know better than students, and could not have anything to learn from us. It looked to me like their ego “carriages” had been rising without their being aware of it. (Not understanding why we couldn’t always defer to them in making decisions, they suggested that we were emotionally unstable, manipulative, vindictive, and/or “anti-teacher.”)

While they were not “bad people,” bad actions—hurtful actions, actions that caused students to question the Dharma—did happen. While recognizing that it is causes and conditions, both in the sangha culture and in our personal psyche, that can bring us to the brink of causing psychopompogenic harm, we still have to take responsibility for what happens next. We teachers could choose to continue on the same path, causing the same harms.  Or we could choose to stop, listen, learn, and endeavor to explore new ways.

Possible Remedies

Let me address this in terms of two somewhat separate problems. The first is in labeling. Since people’s time and energy is limited—and especially in our case, with all our teachers having been volunteers—one can’t expect every teacher or clergy person to perfectly meet everyone’s needs. Some teachers, given their own spiritual and emotional make up, are far more comfortable (and effective) discussing the Diamond Sutra, say, than discussing students’ personal life challenges. Some people are able to write and give public talks that are very effective in attracting people to the Dharma, while at the same time their personal behavior is nothing to imitate. (Extreme examples include Alan Watts, or more recently Genpo Merzel).

Part of the distress from the bus crash scenario then, we might consider, may have come from expecting that all health care professionals can act like good EMTs when the situation requires. But it could be that some health care professionals were academic only. Others might steal the morphine for themselves. So perhaps, moving to the spiritual case, we need a greater diversity of teacher titles to delineate various kinds of teachers. These might include Tradition Teacher and Safe-Only-at-a-Distance Teacher, as well as Pastoral Teacher. Such caveats on our  teaching “shingles,” and perhaps clearly delineated written covenants between teachers and students, might at least serve to lower expectations and inspire caution.

The second problem is more serious. While we hoped our teachers would be would be trained “Emergency Spiritual Technicians,” we also would have welcomed help from people who were simply compassionate, responsive adult human beings. While not every teacher will be an EST—nor a grief therapist, nor a specialist in sexual trauma—was it reasonable to hope for at least some spiritual first aid? I believe so. After all, Zen teachers talk a lot about wisdom and compassion. Part of the idealization that students direct towards teachers comes from the belief that we will model these.

Such a belief is exactly what gives teachers power—the power to do serious harm to students’ spirits, if handled wrongly, as well as the power to touch their spirits in a way that helps them find and maintain the Way. My sense is that if we give into the  gold rakusu effect and refuse to learn to handle power wisely, we become not only lousier-than-average at giving first-aid in cases of abuse, but actually add to the harm.

When a teacher denies that abuse has occurred when it has, we add harm. When someone writes or speaks with the authority of a Sensei or Roshi or Lama in a way that overlooks, downplays, or excuses incidents of abuse, we add harm. When someone with a voice of authority proposes “ethics lite” training and remedies for misconduct that don’t treat it seriously, we add harm. Simply slapping on the label of “Tradition Teacher” or “Just-Stick-to-Their-Podcasts Teacher” in such a case is not warning enough! What is being taught is not the Dharma.

Ultimately I think anyone who offers any kind of spiritual guidance should aspire to be the kind of people that our students (want to) think we are, while constantly being on the lookout for evidence of our own inevitable failures. That, of course, means not only studying the traditional wisdom, but becoming well-educated about power, abuse, and ethics, and becoming at least minimally proficient in compassionate pastoral care. It means doing our best, while regularly and publicly atoning for our screw ups. There is a long road ahead of us, though, if we want to make sure that our sanghas, lineages, training, and literature adequately institutionalize and reinforce safe practice.

Last Words

Please, spiritual teachers and clergy, let’s leave some room in our teacups. Please, let’s not let ourselves get inflated with psychopompousity. Instead, let’s expend some effort to learn about power and abuse, and become vigilant about our own potential for it. As one of my sangha-mates has put it, “Putting up with abuse should not be the price of entry to the Dharma.”

Previous in this series: Self-Policing Doesn’t Work

Introduction to this series: Naming (and Preventing) Psychopompogenic 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.

4 thoughts on “Spiritual Teachers Need to be Clear About What We Offer”

  1. Julie: I found the bus crash example to fit really well with how I felt when I heard about this; and my feelings were not in the least diminished by my absence from the Zen Center for the year before it happened. I was surprised by the intensity of my feelings. At one point I boxed up everything I owned that had anything to do with the Zen Center and put the box in a closet. The mere sight of the items made me distraught. And when I heard that the remaining teachers turned their back on the Sangha, it was as if the crashed bus was hit by a semi. How sad to hear now how the teachers we respected showed so little compassion.


  2. HiJulie—

    Thanks for this, and for all the hard work you do to keep the sangha going:

    I’ve meant to respond sooner but the questions you raise are all over the map, so maybe this stream-of-conscience pice is maybe OK for starters.

    One of my spiritual parents is Thomas Merton (another is Simone Weil—it’s embarrassing how many of them are Catholics or almost Catholics).

    And one of the quotes of him I like best is “The great sin remains idolatry. And there is an idolatry of concepts as well as one of graven images.” (I think it was in a letter from him to a Muslim friend).

    I think one of the main idols of Zen people is permanence. Like, if something, say a particular teacher, is a good way to convey the teaching, then it has to be forever, right? Wrong! Everything, including tracers, is impermanent. Realize that and you’re getting it right. Don’t realize it and you’re wrong. Funny how we cling to a certain flavor of impermanence, even though we are plainly taught otherwise.

    Love, Dave O’Neal

    Sent from thinkmy iPhone



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