The last Inquiring Mind contained a short article dealing with the issue of sexual activity between students and meditation teachers. This issue is a complex and disturbing one and must be considered in a more full and serious manner than the article allowed.
The practice of spiritual teachers becoming sexually involved with their students is very widespread and deserves our careful, thoughtful and thorough discussion as a sangha. In a survey on the sexual activity of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain teachers in America, done by Jack Kornfield and published in the July issue of Yoga Journal, thirty-four out of thirty-nine teachers who were not celibate reported that they had been involved with their students at least once.
There are different ways that teachers can be sexually involved with their students, some of which may be harmful and some of which may not. A teacher may be openly in a relationship with a student or former student. Since most of the people in a teacher’s life may be in one of those two categories, it is understandable that their choice of sexual partner or mate would possibly be a student. It is especially when a teacher “sleeps around” or is involved in “sexual play” with a number of students, when the activity is covert or when the teacher purports to be celibate but engages in sexual activity, that this conduct can be potentially harmful to the students, to the teacher and to the entire sangha.
In the article that appeared in the Inquiring Mind, a “spirit” exhorted us to look at our reactions to the issue and then reminded us that teachers are human. While it can be useful to understand our reactions and to accept human fallibility, what disturbed me the most was that nowhere was there any consideration given to the hundreds of women, many of whom have experienced devastating effects from their sexual involvement with their teachers. While not all women have had negative experiences, many women have been through much turmoil, confusion and guilt to the point where they stopped their spiritual practice and left their sangha. There has also been much pain experienced by the teachers involved, by the husbands and mates of the women involved, as well as within the community as a whole.
Sexual involvement between teachers and students is not only an issue of potential sexual misconduct but one of potential abuse of power as well. Sexuality tends to be a confusing issue for most people, and when it involves one who is in a position of authority, especially if the one in authority is a male, then it becomes an even more potentially confusing issue.
The relationship between student and spiritual teacher is one involving some of the deepest levels of opening and trust. In spiritual practice we are at our most vulnerable and look to the teacher for guidance along the path. While it is true that, technically, women can say “no” when they are approached by a teacher, in fact it can be very difficult and confusing to refuse. Women have been taught from a young age to submit to male authority figures. Early childhood sexual abuse experience can also make the issue more explosive and confusing. Most studies on childhood sexual abuse suggest that a conservative estimate is that one in four women have been sexually abused as children by an adult male, often a family member. This fact adds to enormous confusion that can be experienced when a woman is approached by a teacher, a man in authority, whom she has deeply trusted.
Sometimes it has happened that it is the woman student who has approached the teacher in a sexual manner. While both parties are responsible for their behavior, it seems that a teacher has an added responsibility as a leader in the spiritual community to take special care to set an example of right conduct. Just as a psychotherapist or doctor should refrain from sexual activity with their clients or patients, so too should a spiritual teacher. Teachers are, of course, as human as the rest of us and we need to allow them to make mistakes. But we must also acknowledge when their behavior has been inappropriate, dishonest or harmful.
The vipassana community has seen some refugees from Zen Centers where sexual involvement with the teacher has caused great pain and disruption in the sangha and with the individuals involved. But we, too, need to confront the issue within our own community.
So far, as a larger community, we have not faced the issue of Munindra’s involvement with two women students with any real degree of openness. After some initial reluctance to deal with this matter, the situation was made known at the Center in Barre and discussed extensively among the teachers, the staff and the Board of Directors. Jack Kornfield went to India and had several meetings with Munindra, involving many hours of discussion. In addition, at an open community meeting in Barre the matter was brought up for discussion. However, the larger community of meditators has not had the opportunity to engage in these discussions. One reason for this is because it is a painful and scary topic for people to address. Also, Munindra has not returned to this country to discuss the matter. When and if he does, it will be important to discuss it directly with him.
Whether or not is is openly discussed, the disturbance and uneasiness is there and we must decide how best to deal with it with integrity and compassion. Silence only adds to the unclarity and perpetuates Munindra’s isolation. Many of us respect Munindra as a teacher and it is as much for him as for the sangha that we need to honestly begin to talk about it. While we can hope to include Munindra when he returns, in the meantime this incident can be used to focus our attention on this whole area, so that the difficult issues of sexuality, teacher–student relations, authority and power, can be brought further into consciousness and made a real part of our practice.
To question a teacher is a healthy and necessary part of our practice and growth as individuals and as a community. We must question teachers when their behavior is not in accordance with their words and their teaching. When teachers who are considered to be “enlightened” abuse the power of their authority, we need to question what we mean by enlightenment. It would seem that a person is capable of having an “enlightenment experience,” but that this experience is not necessarily reflected in his/her behavior in the world. This use of the term “enlightened being” in Theravada Buddhism lends itself to many myths of perfection. We must begin to explore the reality of those myths in order to let go of them. It is a scary process when we come to realize that there are not many role models out there and that we must look to the authority within ourselves. This, however, is what we must do.
When confronting the issue of improper sexual activity by a teacher, it is important that we not condemn them or ostracize them for their conduct. On the contrary, if we can bring compassion and our very practice to the situation, perhaps that could aid and support the teacher to begin to work with the problem with us and with himself, to the benefit and greater consciousness of everyone in the community. So it feels important that we firmly confront them and openly acknowledge that this kind of behavior is both unacceptable and potentially harmful to the women involved, to the sangha and to the teacher as well, and expect that they will change their behavior. It is essential that we face this issue with integrity, openness of heart and complete honesty.
This letter is written in the spirit of love for the dharma, the teachers and the sangha in the hope that we will mature in our spiritual understanding through facing a difficult issue with clarity and caring.
With loving kindness,