As Buddhism becomes established in the West, the role of the dharma teacher and the nature of the student-teacher relationship need continual reflection and clarification. The string of ethical crises in American Buddhism brought on by teacher misconduct shows that this relationship can be the occasion for great suffering. But it can also hold the potential for tremendous growth and learning for both teacher and student. To protect students, teachers and the relationship itself, many American Buddhist communities have—not without controversy—created teachers’ codes of ethics.
Because spiritual practice evokes our fundamental issues of existence, the teacher-student relationship can be of great personal consequence. Both the student and the teacher usually assume that the teacher understands something—the nature of the path, the goal, our illusions—that the student does not. Students may present themselves and their deepest concerns to a teacher. They may follow a teacher’s example and recommendations regarding practices, views and perhaps even lifestyle choices. This deep trust makes students vulnerable.
Moreover, gratitude and devotion to the dharma can get mixed up with feelings for a particular dharma teacher. Especially in the West, where a student may not recognize that the teacher is manifesting a long tradition, the student may confuse the wisdom of the dharma with the wisdom of the teacher. Or perhaps she or he may confuse the delusions of the teacher for the dharma.
As witnessed by the many ethical transgressions in American Buddhism, these conditions can lay the grounds for abuse—typically around such issues as sex, money and power. The abuse can be overt—such as inappropriate sexual relationships, financial exploitation, or intolerance of dissent. It may be subtle: for example, undermining a student’s self confidence, making him or her dependent on the teacher. It may be deliberate, or inadvertent, a result of a teacher’s ignorance of the full nature and extent of his or her authority and of students’ vulnerability.
What, then, should be the authority of a teacher? What are the responsibilities of students and teachers? What is the relationship between a teacher’s personal ethics and his or her role as a teacher? How are these issues addressed in teacher training? And what do we do when abuse happens or conflicts arise? These are some of the questions that we as Western dharma practitioners need to address. They do not have easy answers.
All teachers make mistakes. We personally know of no Western teacher who, in traditional terms, has completed his or her practice and has no need for further practice. While most mistakes are minor, some are not. The question for dharma communities is how to protect the teacher-student relationship without impeding it.
Western practitioners have only limited precedents to which we can look for help. Our closest models are probably academic teachers, therapists and priests, none of whom are exactly analogous to dharma teachers. (Some would say these models are not even close, but Western students may approach dharma teachers with these models in mind.) Buddhism also offers multiple models. In some Vajrayana traditions, the teacher’s authority is nearly absolute and his or her conduct unquestioned. At the opposite extreme, some vipassana teachers see themselves mostly as spiritual friends offering inspiration, advice and feedback. As students and even teachers study in more than one tradition, these different understandings of the role of teacher influence each other in often subtle ways. To add to the confusion, students may not always understand that different traditions have different expectations of the student-teacher relationship and the teacher’s authority. They may not realize that the informality of vipassana, for example, is not appropriate with a Tibetan Vajrayana teacher.
The search for models is complicated as the Buddhist student-teacher relationship evolves in the American environment, incorporating such American values as egalitarianism, non-sexism and democracy. Furthermore, Buddhism has no precedent for the great surge of lay dharma teachers in the West. This is especially true in the vipassana community where virtually all teachers are lay people. This marks a departure from the traditional forms and contexts that shaped and often protected the student-teacher relationship.
Historically, in Buddhist Asia, a number of powerful containers tended to constrain this special relationship. One was the long tradition of dharma teaching and student-teacher relationships. Both parties came to the relationship with a shared understanding. Teachers seldom operated in isolation. They were usually monastics, living under vows that regulated their behavior and held them accountable to a monastic community. And, in many Asian countries, people’s relationships with teachers and other authorities continue to be more formal and circumscribed than in the West.
While Asian Buddhism has not been without ethical transgressions, Western Buddhism is in some ways more susceptible to such problems. Without the traditional safeguards, mistakes and abuse of authority happen more easily; and in the West we are required to address issues unknown in more traditional Buddhist communities. For example, the sexes mix more freely, and teachers normally have many students of the opposite sex. Some teachers are isolated in their roles; without peer feedback, they are all too easily subject to problems that can come with idealization and projection. With few institutional supports to help them sort out their financial relationships with their students, some teachers who rely on donations may be tempted to give preferential attention to big donors. And students bring teachers a wide range of personal, psychological and emotional issues, sometimes leading teachers to become more therapists than spiritual guides, perhaps going beyond their training and expertise and even beyond what may be appropriate in the practice setting.
How then do we protect this relationship? One important protection is to hold students and teachers responsible and accountable for their actions. Accountability requires:
1) openness, not secrecy;
2) clear standards or principles to which behavior is accountable;
3) accepted, safe and readily-available forums in which conflicts can be addressed and behavior explained; and
4) procedures for making amends, promoting reconciliation and, when necessary, applying censure.
Since 1990, many American Buddhist groups have begun to create accountability by producing ethical codes for teachers. These are not merely abstract exercises; in many communities the impetus has been instances of abuse by teachers. Teacher codes of ethics are meant for both teachers and students. Codes are intended to help students understand what behavior is unacceptable in a teacher. They are useful in encouraging student as well as teacher responsibility. It is important to recognize that the student, too, does have a responsibility. For example, the Buddha recommended that a student study carefully the behavior of a teacher before accepting him or her.
Buddhist communities have often struggled in deciding which areas of teacher conduct to address in these codes. Obviously, codes should prohibit sexual or financial exploitation of students by teachers. But how should they address the disjunction in power and authority between teacher and students? Should they also address teachers’ personal ethics—their behavior, not just in their teaching role, but in other aspects of life, such as abuse of alcohol, or investment in tobacco companies or arms manufacturers?
Some claim that the only criterion by which a teacher should be judged is whether she or he points to the truth; it does not matter what he or she does with the other hand. According to this line of thinking, if a teacher’s focus is meditation technique, perhaps personal ethics are irrelevant to his or her teaching. In contrast, we believe that Buddhist teachers convey the dharma not only by words but by embodying their teachings. Therefore, the overall conduct of dharma teachers is crucial to their capacity to teach.
Jack Kornfield took the lead in producing one of the first American Buddhist ethics codes. The “Insight Meditation Teachers’ Code of Ethics” describes the commitment to the five lay precepts by the teachers at the Insight Meditation Center in Barre, Massachusetts, and at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County, California. This commitment covers not just issues directly relevant to the student-teacher relationship but also some areas of personal ethics. Instead of positing each as independent, the personal and the public conduct of teachers are seen as interdependent with one another.
When this code of ethics was published, it generated controversy about the role of the community and the code in overseeing teachers’ behavior. Some critics complained that the code was too strict; others thought it too lenient. Some felt that no problem existed; others insisted that a code of ethics was not the way to remedy existing problems. Some feared that rules would dominate, maybe even obscure, our potential for meditative and spiritual transformation; others thought it weak, avoiding important issues of personal ethics outside of the student-teacher relationship.
One of this code’s most important elements is often overlooked: the creation of a committee in which conflicts and hurts can be addressed. At Spirit Rock this is the Ethics and Reconciliation (EAR) Council. This council reflects a commitment to ethics as a central realm of practice. The Spirit Rock approach to the resolution of ethical conflict is perhaps a little different from that with which most people are familiar. Here are the opening paragraphs of a recent document describing its EAR Council:
Conflicts will inevitably arise within the Spirit Rock community. The health of our community is not measured by the presence or absence of conflict as much as by our willingness to find effective, responsible and compassionate means of resolving interpersonal tensions as they arise. The intention to attend to and learn from conflict is a clear application of Buddhist practice into our daily lives; without this intention, practice can too easily be a comfort rather than a deeply transformative vehicle for our lives.
Buddhist conflict resolution is not based on good or bad, blame or guilt, winning or losing, offenders or victims. Rather it is based on fully addressing the suffering of all concerned. Hurt, fear and anger are taken seriously through forums in which everyone may speak honestly, safely and completely about their own direct experiences and feelings. In looking for resolution, Buddhist practice values dialogue over silence, reconciliation over estrangement, forgiveness over resentment, confession over accusation, and atonement over punishment. Because the process of reaching such resolution is often very difficult, Spirit Rock’s Ethics and Reconciliation Council (EAR Council) offers support.
The Spirit Rock process is less concerned with assigning blame than with bringing all involved to an understanding of the causes of suffering and conflict. It encourages all those involved to take responsibility for their contributions to the conflict.
But because the teaching role is one of authority, the teacher must assume the greater degree of responsibility in safeguarding the trust inherent in the student-teacher relationship. The more trust the teacher accepts, the greater the responsibility. Our hope is that, at a minimum, dharma teachers will make the commitment never to turn their backs to someone’s suffering. Perhaps the stronger this commitment, the less the need for explicit codes of ethics. However, we are all human; we each follow the Buddha Way in our own way, in fits and starts, sometimes stumbling. None of us is above accountability, and none is beyond forgiveness.