“One is not called noble who harms living beings. By not harming living beings one is called noble.” —The Buddha, in The Dhammapada
The Buddha’s teaching is crystal clear: of the three foundations that support the whole path of practice, the foremost is sila—ethical living, goodness. The other two, samadhi and prajna, meditation and wisdom, follow. Given this clarity, it’s troubling to see communities once again grappling with the abuse, betrayal, and damage that continue to haunt and discredit our Buddhist world.
In addition to the well-publicized scandals involving Sogyal Rinpoche, Sakyong Mipham, and Eido Roshi, I could name two dozen discredited male teachers from recent decades. As a psychologist and dharma teacher, I’ve observed and consulted with several communities struggling with their teacher’s misconduct. And I’ve been through my own devastating experience. In the 1990s, the scourge of substance abuse and sexual misconduct robbed me of the Zen master husband who was the love of my life.
When a spiritual teacher betrays the sacred trust and open heart of a student, it cuts deep.
I know firsthand the heavy price families and sanghas pay when the teacher can’t live his teachings. Why does this keep happening when the consequences are so painful? Here, I will name some of the issues and suggest what’s become clear to those of us who have walked this painful road.
In the early 1980s, shameful revelations of sexual, financial, and substance abuse by several respected Zen masters and other teachers of the dharma first came to light. These teachers were idolized by their communities. Some had encouraged such idealization to strengthen their students’ faith, but it left them alone on their pedestals, without checks or balances on their behavior. In those days, practically no one demanded accountability and transparency, nor dared give honest feedback to teachers. Students whose teachers abused their trust either stopped practicing or left their sanghas.
I know women who are still recovering from the damage done to their spiritual lives back then. Even today, women Buddhists who dare to speak out face derision and scorn from their male teachers and those who support them. Of course, some men have also been victims of abuse, usually at the hands of male teachers.
Buddhism is steeped in the same patriarchal oppression found in most of the world’s religious institutions. Women have been widely erased from Buddhist recorded history, denied access to robes and leadership positions, and victimized by male teachers and leaders.
Sexual misconduct by otherwise reputable teachers is fostered by these hierarchical power structures in which the teacher’s voice is the most important. Sometimes, those in positions of authority in a sangha collude with the teacher’s abusive behaviors by rationalizing them or covering them up to protect the teacher from uncomfortable feedback.
The pervasiveness of patriarchy in Western Buddhism allows abusive male teachers to cause harm without being held accountable. Until we eliminate patriarchal power dynamics in our communities, voices that question the vested interests of the status quo will inevitably be silenced.
I realize that using words like patriarchy, oppression, and misogyny may make this problem sound academic or remote. But this is about real grief and pain—mine and yours. When a spiritual teacher betrays the sacred trust and open heart of a student, it cuts deep. It becomes hard, if not impossible, to maintain faith in the teachings and the possibility of transformation.
I’ve spent years trying to understand the causes of this betrayal. When the duplicity occurs in the context of one’s marriage, it is doubly disastrous. I was lucky. Because my faith in the practice was already unshakeable, I remained connected to the goodness of Buddhism while I explored the scary depths of what humans can do with unchecked power. How, I wondered, can enlightened beings act so… unenlightened? It was confusing!
At the big teachers’ meeting at Spirit Rock in 2001, I asked an esteemed monk from the Thai forest tradition, Ajahn Jayissaro, about this. His answer was so simple: “At the very least, teachers should be able to keep the five precepts.” Jack Kornfield, the second love of my life, my beloved husband, has written extensively on this topic. He quotes Suzuki Roshi, who said, “Strictly speaking, there are no enlightened beings; there is only enlightened activity.” We’ve learned to look at a teacher’s actions, not just their teachings.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama suggests taking time to get to know a teacher. Do they follow the eightfold path and keep their precepts? Do they proclaim their own enlightenment? It’s also important to look at the members of their community: are they blinded by authority? Are they willing to speak about challenges openly and freely? Are they willing to look at ways they might be colluding with harmful situations? Are they focused on collective as well as individual flourishing? Do they emphasize unconditional love?
Perhaps the greatest harm of unchecked abuse is that it sabotages our capacity to do the work Buddhist practice is intended to do—to alleviate our suffering and that of the world. When the Buddhist community tolerates abuse, we disable the very practices that promote wisdom, compassion, harmony, and love. We undermine the foundations of sila, samadhi, and prajna.
Unless students feel safe, how can they shift their identification with a separate self and see that we’re all connected in love? Without feeling safe, it’s impossible to relax into concentration and meditation practices. We all bring our wounds and suffering to the practice, and we need safety, space, silence, and support to learn how to be present with all that we experience and to free our hearts.
Some communities are working skillfully to train teachers, put safeguards in place to prevent abuse, and support survivors when it happens. Here are eight steps I see to a wise response:
- Use the wisdom of the Buddha and his teachings on social and communal harmony to counter the toxic, distorted views of our culture. Examine and correct the structures we’ve created that foster marginalization and injustice.
- Team-teach as a way to protect each other from various temptations and mentor new teachers. Working together encourages feedback, transparency, and accountability.
- Educate our communities about professional, established ways to deal with abuse. Educate young practitioners.
- Raise awareness and address fears of being disbelieved, rejected, or ostracized, which inhibit people from coming forward.
- Establish policies that apply equally to everyone, in all situations.
- Teach and coach staff, teachers, and community members how to overcome discomfort and follow reporting guidelines.
- Train community leaders to implement policies and guidelines in a sensitive and timely way.
- Create an atmosphere of support and respect for everyone involved, especially those with the courage to come forward.