The Promise and Peril of Spiritual Authority

Gina Sharpe, Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara, and Pilar Jennings examine spiritual power, the roots of its abuse, and how we might learn to hold it differently going forward.

By Gina Sharpe

Pilar Jennings, Roshi Pat Enkyo O'Hara, Melvin McLeod
Photograph by Bill Armstrong. “#1700,” from the series “Partial Appearances,” 2017.

If, as Lord Acton famously said, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” what are we to make of spiritual power?

Monarchs and dictators merely control people’s lives in this world. For believers, spiritual authorities have power over their fate for eternity. If we follow what they say, we can go to heaven or reach enlightenment. And if we don’t, we could go to hell or suffer endlessly in samsara. Added to that is the allure of special knowledge and the promise to save the world. That’s a lot of power.

Of course, the thing about spiritual power is that it’s supposed to be wielded by people of virtue—those who are wise, kind, dedicated to the well-being of others, exemplars of their particular spiritual tradition. That is both the essence of their authority and the guarantee it won’t be abused.

The reality, we know, is different. If anything, spiritual authority may be easier to abuse than other forms of power. The wise and virtuous role is pretty easy to play—particularly when reinforced by a title and special attire—and people are all too ready to buy in because of their deep spiritual hunger.

We need transparency, protections, and self-awareness to ensure this beneficial power is not misused.

Spiritual power is abused for many reasons—wealth, prestige, sexual gratification, flattery, or simply power for its own sake, because that’s ego’s ultimate currency—and it has a spectrum of manifestations.

The abuse of spiritual power can happen at the individual level, ranging from the out-and-out abusers like the prominent Buddhist teachers who have been exposed for systematically exploiting their students sexually, to relatively normal people acting out their relatively normal neuroses.

It can be institutional, placing the reputation and power of the church or community above justice and the needs of victims through silence or denial.

It can be societal and systemic, reinforcing the modes of domination like sexism and racism.

Those are the perils of spiritual power, and they’re all too real, as we know from bitter experience. Yet the basis of that power—the role of teacher, mentor, guide, role model—is an essential part of the human journey.

Wisdom and knowledge must be passed down. We need to see examples of spiritual growth to really believe in its possibility. Wise people who have compassion can help us see both our kleshas and our enlightened nature. We need these things, but we also need transparency, protections, and self-awareness to ensure this beneficial power is not misused.

I had the honor to moderate the discussion that follows. It was held at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, and features three outstanding women Buddhist teachers. They are all intimately familiar with both the promise and peril of spiritual power. As longtime students in major Buddhist communities, they have benefitted from the wise guidance of teachers, and they have also seen close up the many ways that authority and hierarchy can be abused in Buddhist sanghas. Today, they are all prominent teachers in their own right, exploring new forms of community and new ways to manifest spiritual power.

As Buddhists, let’s join them in creating a new—and yet timeless—paradigm of spiritual power, one with less peril and full of promise.

—Melvin McLeod, Editor-in-chief

Gina Sharpe: We may not want to talk about authority or power, but it’s the elephant in the room, isn’t it? If we’re not talking about it, we’re abusing it, because we’re not being conscious. The silence is toxic and harmful. Students begin to lose confidence in their own intuition; they see something happening with the teacher and they think there’s something wrong with their perception rather than something awry with the teacher. We’re dancing on that edge all the time.

I’ve seen abuses of power—not so much the sexual misconduct of teachers, but other misuses of power. I prefer not to talk about it just in terms of sexual abuse, because then we miss a larger issue of how power is wielded and the systemic negligence in not educating people about power and training them how to use it properly.

I practice in the Theravada tradition, which is primarily a monastic tradition, and many of the kinds of abuses we’re talking about now were probably happening but behind the scenes, so I didn’t know about them. But what I’ve noticed in terms of power—both its use and abuse—is that because the Theravada tradition was brought here by laypeople, the use of power is not something that’s been really conscious in our training.

I’m a teacher in a training program, and power is one of the topics I feel is incredibly important, because it’s implicit and invisible. Historically, we have systemic negligence in educating ourselves about the use of power, seeing the power that is invested in us when we have authority as teachers, and learning how to actually use it benevolently rather than toxically.

Enkyo O’Hara: Zen Buddhism has always been touched with difficult power issues. The main way that Zen approaches that is through koans and stories, which are really dialogic in nature. If you read them, they’re always about this confrontation and power work that the teacher and student are doing together. Rather than the teacher just giving the teachings, there’s always this kind of feisty back-and-forth. However, the teacher almost always wins. We treasure the koans where they don’t!

Zen in the United States in the seventies and eighties was influenced by the sexual revolution and countercultural ethos. So it wasn’t some kind of ancient tradition, but rather reflected what was happening in the culture at the time. I chose to go to a monastery in upstate New York because I wanted to find a method, a way to practice.

My teacher was an American. I knew he had authority—he was a sensei—and yet I could see that he was in many ways a broken man. I thought, how wonderful that despite that, he chose to try and share the tradition. So I was able to follow his ways of doing things without feeling like a victim of his power—until I did.

In my case, it wasn’t a sexual thing. It was about his inappropriate actions with other sangha members. I left him and went to study with Maezumi Roshi in California, who was very soft and sweet then because he’d already been through some terrible scandals of alcoholism and sleeping around, and was now staying with his wife and no longer drinking. He was Japanese, so there’s all that idealization, but I learned a lot from him. I could see that he too was a broken man. Therefore, I never really thought that if I practice Zen I would somehow be perfect. You know, in Japan, everybody knows that all of the teachers are regular people, or broken people, rather than some sort of enlightened beings sitting on a cloud.

After Maezumi Roshi died, my last two years of study before I was authorized as a teacher were with Bernie Glassman, another wonderful Zen teacher who was one of Maezumi Roshi’s successors. With Roshi Glassman, I would say his use of power with me was I worked for him—a lot. His use of power, if it was in any kind of negative way, would have been that. But I also learned a lot.

All three of those teachers married women students of theirs. That wasn’t shocking to people at the time; again, these were times of countercultural and sexual revolution. A lot of things were permissible then that are no longer permissible today because we came to realize that actually they’re very harmful.

Pilar Jennings: The Mahayana path is very devotional—there’s something so heart-centric about that devotionalism that I was attracted to. Perhaps because I’m an introvert, I observed a lot of different sanghas and teachers before I found myself immersed in a particular lineage and working closely with a teacher.

During that time, I was also training to become a psychoanalyst. It was interesting for me, while training to become a clinician, to be so immersed in this tradition that encouraged practitioners to see our teachers as a buddha—to really feel the reverence, the profound devotion. I was reading a lot of clinical literature that discussed those human longings for a powerful, idealizable other. So I was often covertly analyzing my sangha members, as well as my own dynamics with my teacher. I will say, I feel extremely fortunate that while my teacher was raised in a Buddhist culture and therefore not psychologically oriented, I experienced him as being very psychologically curious. He would ask things like, what’s the deal with Freud? And what was actually going on between Freud and Jung?

Sometimes he would say things that were irksome to me—for example, that once somebody is really committed to the dharma, then something like therapy surely must be irrelevant. I don’t see it that way, and I didn’t see it that way at the time, either. I believed we could grapple with the relevance of both approaches to the human condition.

Enkyo O’Hara: I don’t actually know what spiritual authority is, but it has to do with someone who studied hard and practiced for many years, who has run into all these ghosts and dreadful places and can say, “Watch out there! Go this way, read this, consider this.” It’s also about taking care of the business aspects of making sure there’s a place for the community to practice. For me, those are the uses of spiritual authority.

Abuse of spiritual authority happens in all kinds of interpersonal ways—it’s not just sexual. There’s abuse of money, there’s abuse of people’s time. You know, you really have to watch to see who is cleaning the floors at the zendo all the time. What’s going on there? Are we abusing that person? We have to bring awareness to what’s happening. People can also be abused financially—there’s plenty of history of that.

Pilar Jennings: In analytic work, we talk about the need for asymmetry, for the therapist to be responsible for how a treatment is progressing. But we also acknowledge that it’s so important in any healing dyad to feel that there’s a sense of being a fellow traveler, that we’re both human, we both suffered, we both struggle. Neither one of us has it all figured out, and yet there is a need for some asymmetry—for someone to have some awareness, some knowledge, some training, some responsibility. This is a generative use of power. It’s just a matter of how it’s held. As Enkyo was saying, when it’s held skillfully, usually the idea is to help the other locate healing resources and power internally. The difficulty is when asymmetry gets exploited, which can so easily happen, but not for random reasons. I think we can understand a lot about why that asymmetry can be exploited—and also how it doesn’t have to be. I have needed my teachers, who know more than I do, in order to feel that there’s somewhere to go that’s healing and to be inspired.

We just need the good-enough teachers who are boundaried and use their power skillfully.

Gina Sharpe: When we’re talking about the personal relationship between a teacher and student, it’s important to remember that it’s operating in a system. What we’re seeing these days, especially with the particular scandals that are happening, is the lack of a system to deal with the inequities in relationships, which can lead to abuse.

The modern Insight tradition came to America in the seventies, so it’s still very young, and the people who brought it here were mostly in their twenties. I don’t even think their executive brains had been fully developed yet. They had gone to India, Thailand, and Burma, and practiced there and got fired up about it, which is beautiful. When they came back, they established centers that were basically hippie centers. Everyone was in love with the practice. They brought monks over from Asia who led long retreats, and people were inspired by those retreats. Yet there was no acknowledgement that with spiritual authority comes power, and that because we’re human, power can easily be abused and really hurt people.

The responsibility of a teacher is profound; it’s an enormous privilege to be asked by a student to guide them.

I practice law, so I’m very interested in structural integrity. One of the profound problems we have is that in our teaching structures, there is very little discussion about the fact that the teacher is invested with all of this power, and while it can be of enormous help, it also has the ability to be of enormous harm. How do we as teachers hold that, and what happens if we slip up and actually hurt students? What do we do then?

Some of the institutions in my tradition, Spirit Rock in particular, have what we call an ethics and reconciliation council that you can go to if you feel you’ve been harmed by a teacher. But there is still very little discussion about what it means to be a teacher and how to hold this longing in the student very delicately, as if we have someone’s heart in our hands. What does it mean to have the power to direct that, or to help to direct it? What does it mean to have the power to actually listen deeply to someone who’s been hurt by another teacher? What are the skills that need to be developed to be able to hold that in a way that does no further harm?

The responsibility of a teacher is profound; it’s an enormous privilege to be asked by a student to guide them. We as teachers have the responsibility to investigate what it means to have this power and how to use it in a way that is not harming.

Enkyo O’Hara: In the White Plum Sangha, which has several hundred Zen centers in Europe and the US, we’re all now looking at these issues, both in terms of our own use of power and when we’re authorizing new teachers coming up.

It’s an exciting time—people are becoming much more aware through the #MeToo movement and other movements. Many dharma centers in the Vajrayana, Theravada, and Zen traditions are establishing ethics codes. We have ombudsmen. We have all kinds of new techniques that we’re trying to put together, and we’re beginning to offer teachings in this way, particularly to those people you recognize could be teachers in five years, so it’s best to get them on board now.

I completely agree that the problems are systemic, and I think we’re on it, but we need to keep paying attention. Individually as practitioners, we need to be asking, How am I? What is my relationship to power? And as a teacher, it’s so important to be modest and to let people know your faults. Almost every dharma talk I give, I make some ridiculous joke about how I messed up again, screaming at the doorman or whatever, so that students don’t start idealizing me or the path. I think that matters.

Gina Sharpe: In my teacher training, there was nothing about the topic of power—no conversation, no reading or thinking about it. So I’m endeavoring, as my teacher Jack Kornfield always says, to create the training that I wish I’d had. In the current teacher training, we’re also talking about power and bringing people into the conversation who are not necessarily Buddhist but who really know a lot about power.

Enkyo O’Hara: We’ve been using a Christian group, Common Boundaries, that teaches boundary issues to sanghas and individuals. They’ve been great.

Pilar Jennings: It feels like we may be in a maturational process as American Buddhists. I was struck, Enkyo, by your reference to how you routinely let your students know that you, too, sometimes chew out the doorman. You show your humanness. Heinz Kohut, the founder of self psychology, wrote beautifully about how when we’re very young children, one way we cultivate a feeling of safety is to feel safely connected to an all-powerful idealizable other, but that the so-called good-enough caregiver or parent offers what he called “optimal frustrations.” Nontraumatic, optimal frustrations allow the child to see the humanness of the parent in a fractionated, digestible way. I think skillful dharma teachers do that intuitively, to help the student mature and also tolerate the humanness and subjectivity of the teacher. Without that, the student might be calling on the teacher to give something that the student needs to find internally or in other healing relationships. Fantasies can get mobilized to find a safe merger, which the student may never have had before.

Many of us are drawn to the dharma because of our prior psychological pain or trauma. I would like to see a way to support spiritual dyads that can explore the fantasy that might be arising in the student and pulling the teacher in. It requires a lot of maturation for the student to finally recognize that the teacher represents for them an idealizable other, and to be able to reflect on their own traumas or relational history that fuel the need for the teacher to be so idealizable.

Gina Sharpe: Sounds dangerous.

Pilar Jennings: It has to be done slowly, bit by bit.

Enkyo O’Hara: What you just said is so powerful. We all idealize—it’s so easy to do. And because it’s just an ideal, it’s not a real thing. There’s a fantasy about Buddhism that everything will be perfect and I’ll be “all one,” plus I’ll be successful. But it’s just a fantasy. And if it’s not caught, it gets lodged in the psyche. That’s when the teacher gets excused for behavior that’s not appropriate, whether it’s sexual or involves money or work—any kind of appropriation of the other.

Gina Sharpe: And that leads to spiritual bypass. There are traditions in which the teacher is held to be enlightened no matter what they’re doing. The students, especially if they’ve been called to have special jobs or be a special student of the teacher, become entranced by that. The spiritual bypass of what the teacher is doing to “enlighten” them—no matter how harmful or outrageous—is excused.

Pilar Jennings: It might help to know that as children, we assume the burden of badness. This was Fairbairn’s idea that because we need to feel we’re in connection with someone who can care for us, we cannot really tolerate seeing the shadow in our caregiver. That can get reenacted with our spiritual teachers and mentors very easily. If we have teachings to amplify this—the teaching of crazy wisdom, for instance—we can milk that early need to only see the good in a caregiver for all it’s worth.

Enkyo O’Hara: The question is, how do you dissolve that fantasy, that idealization? It’s really important for the spiritual authority figure in a community to be able to catch it and also for the community to be able to catch it among themselves, so that it can become part of what people talk about. Then it’s not, “Oh, my teacher is so great,” regardless of what they do. Instead it’s “Gee, I just caught myself thinking that she did that because she was so enlightened. But, actually, she just dropped that cup.”

It’s not just the teachers, but the sangha that needs to step up and help one another.

All of us idealize and make up all kinds of stories. I think this is the time for sangha to also take some responsibility. It’s not just the teachers, but the sangha that needs to step up and help one another, and create rules, ethical statements, and so forth, that are followed. Raising everyone’s consciousness will make a big difference for this postmodern Buddhism that we’re working on.

Gina Sharpe: Many years ago, when the Dalai Lama first came to America, he was asked by someone in the audience, “How do I find a teacher?” He stopped and considered it for a moment, and then said, “Well, when you find them, look them over for fifteen years.” And everybody laughed. He went on to explain that we needed to look at the teacher both in front and behind the curtain—look at what they’re like with their family life, and certainly as a teacher, but also look behind the curtain to see how they treat other people and what they do. That stuck with me, and I often think of that when I catch myself doing things that I would rather my students didn’t see me doing.

It’s even more important today, given all we’re dealing with, that we not only don’t idealize the teacher, except as it might be helpful to our journey, but also that we hesitate to give them that power or authority until they’ve been fully vetted.

Pilar Jennings: It’s such a compassionate thing to do, right? To observe without suspicion, to care for the experience of the teacher. The dharma is also about caring for each other and doing everything we can to reduce suffering, and many teachers are suffering privately because there’s so little room for their subjectivity to be on view. I’ve often wished there could be ways to support sanghas in deeply respecting their teachers while simultaneously holding the room for the teacher’s suffering to be known and cared for.

Gina Sharpe: And it is awareness that we’re teaching.

Pilar Jennings: Yes, nonjudgmental awareness.

Gina Sharpe: Well, I don’t know about the nonjudgmental part. When you’re looking at a teacher for fifteen years, I think you’re allowed a little judgment.

Audience: You mentioned the responsibility of the sangha as a whole and also of students to give room for the teacher’s suffering. I’m wondering about that responsibility in relation to humility. In the Tibetan tradition, the student is expected to approach the teacher with humility—if I don’t approach the teacher with humility, I don’t learn as much. So how do you balance the humility part while also acknowledging the imperfection of the teacher?

Enkyo O’Hara: Part of our job as teachers is to show our humanity and acknowledge our imperfections—to model humility. That lowers the idealization we’re talking about. Teachers also need to feel that they’re not above the sangha, they’re part of the sangha. It’s just that at times they have a certain role, and that role is to offer the teachings.

Pilar Jennings: I know what you mean, though. As a sangha member, it can feel very bold, especially if the teacher is a revered guru, to inquire about their personal well-being. It can seem somehow mutually exclusive from the humility that you want to embody. But this can be an interesting way to discern for those fifteen years. Is this teacher able to offer a glimpse into their humanness? His Holiness the Dalai Lama is always saying, “I’m just an ordinary monk”—that it’s the blind leading the blind. The best teachers do this all the time. When they don’t, that’s something to be aware of.

Gina Sharpe: It’s an interesting edge: the teacher is modeling the qualities of an awake mind, yet they must do it with humility too. It seems paradoxical, but it’s actually quite harmonious. We have some confidence in the dharma and in our practices as practitioners, and there is complete humility in approaching it at the same time.

Audience: In some traditions, teachers can take precepts of renunciation, such as celibacy or not handling money. Do you think that can have a protective effect on teachers and students?

Gina Sharpe: It’s certainly part of my tradition, which is mainly rooted in a monastic tradition. Monks take vows of celibacy. But when you look at sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, for example, I think there’s a real conversation to be had about whether requiring celibacy is helpful, because with celibacy rules comes a whole lot of secrecy and shame. Things become distorted in all kinds of ways.

When it comes to handling money, when I have a monk staying at my house, it’s awkward in terms of getting them from the airport to the house and back without them handling money. Somebody has to go with them to transact all of the business. I’m not sure about that. I think there’s a beautiful conversation to be had about whether it’s still a useful tool.

Pilar Jennings: I’m also in a monastic tradition, so I can appreciate the power and beauty of consciously working with very strong parts of our human condition, such as sexuality, and transforming or sublimating it for the good of all sentient beings. But there are very few people who can do so skillfully. The psyche doesn’t like to feel split, so to have to split off sexuality—I’m not suggesting that all monastics do that, but some do— it’s a lot to have to contain. I agree with Gina—we need to have an active conversation about that process, that choice.

Gina Sharpe: It’s also at the root of a lot of the misogyny in Buddhism. My body tells me that there is something awry when the bodies of half of the population are deemed to be dirty or unclean. Misogyny is actually a part of the tradition in which nuns walk behind monks, no matter how senior they are. If this is where it leads, it bears examination.

You know, the reputed last words of the Buddha were, “Be a light unto yourself and strive on with heedfulness.” It’s the final instruction that he gave. Yet in so many ways, we encourage credulousness in our students—to not see the things that are actually right in front of their eyes in terms of the teacher’s behavior. For me, “Be a light unto yourself” is a powerful and important instruction.

Audience: You’ve all talked about how we might change the nature of the relationship between a student and a teacher so as to perhaps diminish the power that goes with it. Still, aren’t you bound to experience abuses if the power you give someone is too great, particularly when devotion is involved?

Gina Sharpe: What you’re pointing to is the complexity of needing guidance. If we’re in the dark, we need to flip on a light switch rather than try to fumble around in the dark. That’s the function of a teacher. So do we stay in darkness and hope that somehow the light will come on and we’ll find what we’re looking for? Or is it more efficacious to actually have someone who guides you, while being aware of the warning labels on the package?

You can be devoted to whomever, and have a reflective capacity that helps you see a fuller truth.

Pilar Jennings: I don’t think devotion and critical thinking are mutually exclusive. You can be devoted to whomever—to your partner, to your dear friend, to your teacher—and have a reflective capacity that helps you see a fuller truth about who you’re in relationship to and what’s happening between the two of you. One way of discerning the relative health of the relationship is to see if some mutuality is possible. Can the devotion shift and change and grow over time? Or does it stay in that more childlike—and I don’t mean that in a pejorative way—but in that earlier developmental stage?

Audience: In some centers, the organizational model is very distributed—there is a strong group of teachers who are both intimate with each other and with the sangha. Most of the stories of misuse of power seem to stem from those centers that have a more hierarchical model, with one person in charge. What effect might changing the organizational model have on the use or abuse of power?

Enkyo O’Hara: Team teaching, or having more than one teacher in a sangha, is wonderful. It rebalances the energies. Even when another teacher is in the room but not teaching, they’re there to witness when something seems off, and they can help address that. But even then, we still have work to do. We need to be looking at how to have an ombudsman or group that can listen to the issues that come up. That’s really important.

Gina Sharpe: At Spirit Rock, we have a council where those kinds of issues can be brought up. The council is made up of teachers, board members, and community members. What I worry about is that teachers do have outsized power, so it can be a risk to bring a complaint against a teacher—and I’m not making any allegations, I’m just concerned.

Looking at the way our dharma communities have grown up, the teachers were the ones who were the founders, and then they became board members, so their authority is in many ways unquestioned. My lawyer’s mind says that there are structures that can be put in place in which people recuse themselves, for example. But I don’t know how sophisticated we are yet as dharma organizations in terms of putting those complex systems together. Hopefully we will grow and get better as time goes on.

Gina Sharpe

Gina Sharpe

Gina Sharpe was born in Jamaica and immigrated to New York as a child. After successful careers in government, the motion picture industry, philanthropy, and law, she cofounded New York Insight Meditation Center in 1997, where she led its People of Color sangha and served as its guiding teacher until 2017. A member of the Teachers Council at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, she led, with Larry Yang, Lila Kate Wheeler, and Rachel Bagby, the most diverse dharma teacher training in Spirit Rock’s history, which was completed in September.
Pilar Jennings

Pilar Jennings

Pilar Jennings is a psychoanalyst and a teacher of Tibetan Buddhism in the Sakya lineage. She is a visiting lecturer at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University, as well as a faculty member of the Nalanda Institute for Contemplative Science. She teaches widely on integrating Buddhist modalities with a psychoanalytic approach, examining the impact of racism on children, of narcissism on environmental issues, and more. Her book To Heal a Wounded Heart is a psychoanalytic memoir about her entry into work as a Buddhist clinician.
Roshi Pat Enkyo O Hara

Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara

Pat Enkyo O’Hara, Roshi, is the founder of Village Zendo in New York City as well as a founding teacher of the Zen Peacemaker Order, which began with the vision of Bernie Glassman, from whom she received dharma transmission. She holds a doctorate in media ecology and for many years taught new media technologies at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She is the author of Most Intimate: A Zen Approach to Life’s Challenges.

Melvin McLeod

Melvin McLeod is the Editor-in-Chief of Lion’s Roar magazine and Buddhadharma.