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.
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.
No human is perfect. The question is whether our less-than-skillful uses of power will be minor or devastating.
Sometimes teacher misconduct is thought of as something committed by only a very few “scoundrels and sociopaths” (source of quote: open letter signed by 90 senior Zen teachers). Yet if we stay uninformed about teacher power and do not use it with extreme care, it is not only possible but likely that we will end up misusing it ourselves.
The longer I’ve been practicing, the more fellow practitioners I find who are on their second, third, or fourth spiritual community…or have given up entirely. They encountered teachers who acted like bullies. Or know-it-alls. Or who spread around things told to them in confidence. Or demanded complete, unquestioning loyalty. Who misspent funds, lied to authorities and to the sangha, or, yes, pushed sexual boundaries. Or simply did little things that made a student feel “icky” one too many times.
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.
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.”
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?
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.