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.
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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.”

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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?

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How Do I Take Responsibility for My Life?

Zen practice emphasizes “no self” and often involves doing things that don’t make rational sense. How, then, can we also exercise appropriate self-responsibility?

Consider this koan, “Jeffrey: Dr. Doctor Rides the Bus,” from from The Book of Householder Koans by Eve Marko and Wendy Egyoku Nakao:

Dr. Doctor had a common cold, but he still rode the bus to work. He began to cough and sneeze into his handkerchief. Every time he coughed, all the people on the bus tried to cough. Every time he sneezed, all the people on the bus tried to sneeze. Finally the doctor exited at his destination. “Whew!” the driver signed. “What would we do without good medical advice?”

On the one hand, it’s a silly story. But on the other, the story raises a serious question about Zen practice.

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Our Resilient Sangha

My sangha that has spent the last year and a half recovering from yet another case of Zen teachers’ abuse of power. We’d like to share what we learned.

In the late fall of 2020, our Greater Boston Zen Center (GBZC) sangha was still recovering—spiritually, emotionally, financially, organizationally—from our split with Boundless Way Zen (BoWZ) over issues of teachers’ abuse of power. Then, just before Thanksgiving, a new issue came up for our now-separate group: Our GBZC Spiritual Director engaged in year-long secret emotional and sexual misconduct with one of his students.

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Which Battery Do We Charge?

Kanzeon, the bodhisattva of compassion, is said to “receive only compassion.” Does that mean she blocks everything else out?

Every so often I have the experience of reading through a sutra that I have chanted or read hundreds or thousands of times before, and a line suddenly pops out. It may be a line that I hadn’t noticed, or a line that I’d always been puzzled by. That happened recently for me with part of the “Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo” chant that we do at every sutra service.

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Non-Duality IV: Relationships in Process Thinking

We can widen our views of the types of relationships that are possible by comparing our habitual “entity” thinking with Zen-inspired “process” thinking. This may help organizations prevent or deal with abuses of power.

Recall that in “process thinking” we acknowledge that what we commonly perceive as “things” actually arise from activities and relationships (Non-Duality Part I). There are no static “essences,” and the world is in continual cycles of creation and destruction. The provisional “thing” I call “me” is no exception.

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Nonduality Part III: Relationships in Entity Thinking

Our usual way of viewing the world as made up of entities that first exist and only later act and relate to each other constricts our thinking. Within it, we can only image three ways of relating: equality, merger, or domination.

In the yin-yang diagram, both light and dark are necessary, and their relationship is dynamic. But in our habitual Western thought not only do we separate the two and think of them as fixed, we tend to associate light with superior and dark with inferior.

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Non-duality Part II: Yin-Yang

The yin-yang diagram illustrates how nonduality includes duality—but must be understood through dynamic “process” thinking rather than static “entity” thinking.

While the metaphor of the ocean (oneness) and the waves (many) that temporarily arise is a wonderful illustration of nondualism, it doesn’t spawn much further understanding. The ancient Chinese yin-yang diagram (shown here), associated with Daoism, highlights more dimensions. 

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Non-Duality Part I: Entity vs. Process Thinking

To understand nonduality, we have to take a step backward and look at the fundamentals of how we think about the world. If we take an “entity” view, it makes no sense. If we understand the world as “process,” though, we can see that this is, in fact, the reality of our life.

Abide not in duality,
refrain from all pursuit of it.
If there’s a trace of right and wrong
true-mind is lost, confused, distraught…

From One-mind comes duality,
but cling not even to this One…

These verses are from the Zen sutra entitled “Affirming Faith in Mind” (“Xinxinming” by Jianzhi Sengcan).

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