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?
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.
A few days ago, I was interviewed by Oshan Joshan for his podcast series “Musing Minds.” We talked about both economics, Zen, gender…so on some of the same themes I’ve addressed elsewhere on this blog.
Oshan gave the interview the title “What If ‘Capitalism’ Isn’t the Problem?” That’s not to say we don’t have enormous problems! Only that we have mis-identified their source.
It’s been over a year since I first posted about problems in the Boundless Way Zen community. While I had hoped “that we will all get through this together,” that is not what happened.
It’s been over a year since the last comment on my essay about problems in the Boundless Way Zen Community, Letting in Some Air, was posted. I think it’s time for a public postscript about what has happened since then.
Unfortunately, while I had hoped “that we will all get through this together,” that is not, in fact, what happened. David Rynick and Melissa Blacker’s insistence on their own unquestionable superior teaching authority, and the facilitation of their power grab by several senior students, led to a deep and painful schism. The other five Boundless Way Zen Guiding Teachers, many members, and a number of sitting groups ultimately left that organization over the fall of 2018 and early 2019. Most of us now affiliate with the Greater Boston Zen Center. David and Melissa continue to lead the Boundless Way Temple (BWT) and Boundless Way Zen (BoWZ).Continue reading “Postscript to “Letting in Some Air””
Zen is about awakening, and not about experiencing any particular state, or becoming “good,” or displaying any peculiar powers.
Zen is about awakening, and not about experiencing any particular state, or becoming “good,” or displaying any peculiar powers. These points, which I talked about in Part I of this two-part series, are beautifully summarized by the following text by Keizan Jokin, a Japanese Zen teacher born in the 13th century. Continue reading “Dangers of Zen, Part II”