Vipassana teachers from America and Europe have held regular teachers’ meetings since 1975. Over the years we have become more aware of the responsibilities held by us as teachers, and the care that such a role requires.
It is instructive to note that this is the first time in the history of Buddhism that there is a large Buddhist community led by lay teachers. The monks who are the main teachers of the Theravada lineage in Asia take on 227 vows and follow strict Asian customs. However, these conduct guidelines for Asian monks and nuns are not appropriate for lay teachers in the West. Without monastic vows and Asian customs, we see a need for clear Western lay guidelines. Therefore, at the past two meetings, the vipassana teachers have worked together to clearly articulate a code of ethics for ourselves, as well as an ethics procedure to guide and involve our whole community in matters of teacher conduct.
There are several reasons for establishing a clear code of ethics for teachers. The precepts which make up this code are necessary for creating a safe and sacred space within which deep meditation can be practiced. Therefore, at every retreat and gathering of our tradition we ask ourselves to commit our hearts to the five fundamental Buddhist precepts. As teachers we feel united in our commitment to these principles in our lives and in our practice, as well as in our role as community leaders. We are committed to practice what we teach and to bring the spirit of nonharming and virtue—the foundation for the holy life, according to the Buddha—into all parts of our lives. The practice of ethical conduct and the joy from a life established in virtue is essential to spiritual well-being.
In establishing a clear code of ethics, we are confronting problems that can arise from misguided or unethical teacher behavior. Teaching can at times be an isolating and difficult role, which we as teachers are often just learning ourselves. In the history of all organized religions and similar institutions one periodically encounters some misuse of the roles of the leaders. In American Buddhist communities there have been a number of accounts of teacher abuse involving power, money and sexual misconduct.
In the earlier parts of the eighteen-year history of vipassana in America, there were several such problems, with teachers who are no longer actively teaching. In past years, when these difficulties arose for us they were often poorly handled, largely because there were no guidelines for attending to them. This led to further confusion, conflict and aggravation of the initial difficulty. Therefore, it is important for us to address this issue as a way of guarding against future problems. We believe that it is essential to establish guidelines for appropriate behavior and a procedure to follow on occasions of teacher misconduct.
Over two thousand years ago in the Patimokkha (Code of Discipline), the Buddha established a clear set of procedures to follow when monks and nuns broke their precepts. In minor cases these included formal apologies, the admission of misconduct, and the retaking of precepts. In more serious cases a meeting was convened of twenty elders who would discuss the misconduct and set periods of suspension and practices for reinstatement. A second meeting would be required to allow the return of suspended members to the community. In the very gravest cases, monks and nuns were suspended from the order for life.
As vipassana teachers in the West, we have established the following guidelines for ourselves. All of us recognize that the foundation of spiritual life rests upon our mindful and caring relationship to all the life around us. In keeping with this understanding, and for the long term benefit of ourselves and the community at large, we, as teachers, agree to continue to uphold the five basic Buddhist training precepts we have taught for so long. Furthermore, in the discussions that led to this agreement, we refined these precepts to make them appropriate to our role as teachers of the dharma at this particular time in history and in this specific cultural setting.
 We undertake the precept of refraining from killing.
The essence of this precept is to acknowledge the interconnection of all beings and to respect life. Some, although not all among us, recommended vegetarianism. Some were concerned with the implications of this precept in issues ranging from abortion to the killing of cockroaches, lice and other pests. We all agreed to continue to refine our understanding of not killing and nonharming.
 We undertake the precept of refraining from stealing.
Beyond our fundamental agreement to respect the property of others, we agreed to bring consciousness to the use of all of the earth’s resources, to be honest in our dealings with money and not to misappropriate money committed to dharma projects. We also agreed to offer teachings without favoritism in regard to students’ financial circumstances.
 We undertake the precept of refraining from sexual misconduct.
In general, we agreed to avoid any sexual harm or exploitation. In particular, we are concerned with relations between teachers and students. We do believe that it is possible for a responsible and healthy relationship to develop between a teacher and a former student, but great care and sensitivity is necessary. Several teachers in our community have developed marriages or partnerships with former students. We agreed that the following guidelines are crucial:
a) Teachers should never exploit their authority and position in order to assume a sexual relationship with a student
b) A sexual relationship is not appropriate when a teacher and student are still in any teacher-student role with one another, or when either the teacher or student perceives those roles to exist
c) During retreats, any student-teacher romantic or sexual relationship or intimation of the possibility of future relationship is inappropriate
d) Sexual relations between teachers and ex-students must be handled with great restraint and sensitivity; in no case should they occur immediately after retreats, a suggested guideline being at least three months; if a genuine relationship develops over time between an unmarried teacher and someone who has been their student, the student should be advised to work on their meditation practice with another teacher.
 We undertake the precept of refraining from false speech.
We agreed to speak that which is true and useful, to refrain from gossip in our community, to cultivate conscious and clear communication, and to cultivate the quality of loving-kindness and honesty as the basis of our speech.
 We undertake the precept of refraining from intoxicants that cause heedlessness or loss of awareness.
It is clear that substance abuse is the cause of tremendous suffering. We agreed that there should be no use of intoxicants during retreats or while on retreat premises. We agreed not to abuse or misuse intoxicants at any time. We agreed that if any teacher has a drug or alcohol addiction problem, it should be immediately addressed by the community.
Just as in monastic life groups of elders are established to deal with problems and misconduct, we recognize the need to establish such a council in our own community to deal with such difficulties. In the coming year, both IMS (East Coast) and IMW (West Coast) will staff Ethics Committees comprised of four members who are widely respected for their integrity:
If a teacher’s ethical conduct is questioned, then
Furthermore, the Ethics Committee, in conjunction with the teacher body, will also recommend ethical guidelines for staff and board members in the fulfillment of their responsibilities to these organizations.
In creating and further developing these guidelines, we hope to support and include our whole community in a continuing refinement and investigation of ethical living. We do not intend the Ethics Committee to be some kind of moralistic body that seeks out bad teachers or students to punish them. We all jointly hold a responsibility to create an environment of integrity. We invite all students and staff members to help us create this environment, and hope that any feelings and concerns can be shared among us all.
We hope that the issues that finally come before the Ethics Committee will be infrequent and easily resolved. By articulating and clarifying the basic Buddhist precepts and our commitment as teachers to follow and refine them, we are honoring a life of virtue and the liberation of all beings. As it is traditionally chanted after the recitation of the precepts:
The five precepts of virtue
Are a vehicle for our happiness,
A vehicle for our good fortune,
A vehicle for liberation for all.
May our virtue shine forth.