Lama Willa Miller offers suggestions on how to support a survivor of sexual misconduct by a Buddhist teacher.
Survivors of sexual misconduct are human beings. They are not just human beings who could have been you. They are human beings who are just like you. What I mean is that they have the same emotions, same vulnerabilities, and same fears. However, they have had a different experience from you, and that is important to keep in mind.
Clergy sexual misconduct is defined as sexual advances or propositions made by religious leaders to a person in the congregations they serve (who are not their spouses or significant others). Misconduct includes such actions as minor as a proposition, up to and including sexual intercourse. Buddhist sanghas are as prone to this kind of misconduct as any other religious community.
Here are some things you should know if someone approaches you who is a survivor of sexual misconduct by a Buddhist teacher:
- Listen deeply. Instead of telling the survivor what they should do, ask questions. Ask them about their direct experience. Most survivors have been told by their abuser how they should feel, and what they should do. But deep down they know that their experiences and feelings hold the key to their freedom. You can do a great service to hold the space so that these experiences and feelings can be fully explored. Pure, deep listening is a good way to begin, with occasional gentle questions to explore the complexity of their situation.
- Don’t shy away from the subject matter. Most survivors feel very alone and isolated. They may have been sworn to silence for years. They might have told themselves (or even been led to believe) that no one cares. Tell them you care and want to know about their experience—all of it.
Explore whether they would like to write it out and read it to you, given that speaking the details of what happened can sometimes be hard to do. Writing can be therapeutic, allowing the survivor to process feelings that they have yet to explore. Later, the written statement may be useful during a disclosure process.
- Let them know that you are an ally.
- Let them know you believe their account.
- Express to them that you have confidence in their strength and resilience.
- Remember that most survivors of clergy sexual misconduct are indoctrinated. It is common for a survivor to create explanations around the abuse that sanction it under the rubric of a dharma narrative. Eventually, it can help to find allies within one’s tradition who understand these narratives and can speak to the survivor in their terms. Healing will mean coming to understand how the dharma has been harnessed to perpetuate abuse, and the survivor will need to refashion a relationship to their spiritual resources that allows these to be supportive. This can be a long process.
- Keep their confidence. Confidentiality is the foundation of a trusting relationship. Confidentiality and secrecy are different. Secrecy involves hiding activities that contravene your commitments or responsibilities to an individual or community (as in the case of a teacher engaged in a secret relationship with a student). Secrecy is toxic in a spiritual community. Confidentiality, on the other hand, involves keeping the confidence of someone who has trusted you with their vulnerability. Confidentiality is healing to a spiritual community but must be navigated with care.
- Widen the circle of support. First, suggest therapy. If the survivor is open to it, psychotherapy can be an important part of the healing process and can help a survivor develop perspective on their situation. Beyond that, encourage the survivor to cultivate a small circle of support, a few trusted confidantes who know their story. You should not be the only ally they are leaning on or talking to.
- Let the survivor know that you will support them and be there for them if they decide to speak up. Speaking their truth will help others, but it is not easy to do. It takes enormous fortitude and a willingness to be vulnerable. It requires much love and support from friends. When other survivors see this kind of courage, it can be healing and inspire them to find their own voice. Tell the survivor you will remain at their side through this process, or you will help them find an ally who will. Survivors need fast friends who can help them navigate the complexities of coming forward.
- Let them know that you will support them and be there for them if they decide not to speak up. Some survivors will not want to come forward, even with support and encouragement, even under the best of conditions. Respect this decision. Every person is different, and the trauma of coming fully forward (and yes, it can be re-traumatizing to come forward) is not for everyone. There are other options such as coming partially forward (anonymous disclosure, for example), and these can be explored.
- Don’t speak for survivors or wonder publicly about their motives. That is one of the most insulting experiences for survivors. One of the most healing things you can do for survivors is ask them how they want to be heard, and help them find an outlet for their personal story, their own voice. You might even be able to help set up the conditions so that they can tell their stories in a context of safety to the same community in which they were harmed. These voices hold the key to educating a community, to healing and restoring integrity. This is the point at which a professional neutral intervention organization might come in. It can help create a safe container and establish rules of engagement. If that professional organization is hired by the offending teacher or his center, however, there is a conflict of interest for them to fully represent the survivors. This issue can be offset by the survivors hiring their own representative.
If you are a survivor’s ally, come to their public disclosure. For a survivor, this may be one of the most vulnerable moments of their entire life. Your physical presence matters.
Unfortunately, some communities shun the survivors (and their allies) once their stories have leaked or come out in a public process. This is a risk to be aware of.
- If a survivor decides to confront their abuser, make sure they are not alone. Ideally, at least two allies, or more, should be present. These individuals are there as witnesses, but also to intervene if the interaction should become too re-traumatizing.
- Don’t assume you know what it was like for all the survivors because you have heard one person’s story. You most certainly don’t. People are unique; their experiences are too. There are as many perspectives on the abuser as there are survivors. This range of perspectives is fascinating, surprising and sometimes completely mystifying to witness. The best way to support survivors is to honor this complexity, and not try to shovel all the victims into one pile.
- Don’t demonize the perpetrator. Perpetrators are human and deserve compassion, whether or not rehabilitation is possible. The psychology of perpetrators is deeply complex, and you don’t know this teacher’s personal history. It is not uncommon for perpetrators of boundary violations to have been victims themselves. Given that, self-righteousness is probably not the wisest reaction. Be curious, not judgmental.
- Don’t hate the people who side with the abuser. Hate begets hate. If we are going to live the ethics of ahimsa (non-harm) and compassion, it is time for communities to rise above hate. It is possible to challenge a perpetrator, hold them accountable, and heal a community with love.