The intimate connection between teacher and student is at the heart of spiritual practice in every time and place. Teacher and student challenge each other by embracing a reality beyond words. This kind of teaching is rooted in one-to-one trust. Such trust depends on the teacher not wanting anything for him—or herself. No monetary or material transaction, no emotional dependence. Also the intimacy of spiritual relationship is often sexy. Naturally it gives rise to desire, ambition and the ineffable yearning to merge with another. There is nothing necessarily wrong about such feelings. In fact, this is fuel for practice. But for the fires to burn cleanly and completely, there has to be the deepest trust and care between teacher and student.
This is not always the case. Scott Edelstein’s excellent new book, Sex and the Spiritual Teacher, arrives as two prominent teachers in Western Buddhism have stepped down from their respective centers after admitting to histories of inappropriate sexual relations with students. These are not the first cases of misconduct in the Buddhist world. They will not be the last. Nor is this endemic just to Buddhists. Edelstein writes:
The problem of spiritual teachers seducing or sexually abusing their students tarnishes every spiritual tradition, in seemingly every culture—and recorded cases go back many hundreds of years. These misdeeds damage the lives of women and men, children and adults, the rich and the poor, the foolish and the wise, the gullible and the discerning.
Obviously the teacher has a responsibility to act within the boundaries of ethics and wisdom. But Edelstein’s book is really speaking to us as students, as adults who must take responsibility for the relationships and communities we participate in. He urges us to question our teachers and to question ourselves.
Questioning or challenging a teacher is a vital part of any student-teacher relationship. When something a teacher says doesn’t hold up to your careful observation, it’s important to question them, challenge them, or ask them to help you refine your understanding. . . . When a teacher’s response falls short, it gives you a better feel for their weaknesses and limitations. [When questioned] it also gives the teacher a better sense of how you think and feel.
Edelstein’s writing is simple and precise. He properly values “sanity and safety.” I am impressed by his ability to at once maintain moral clarity and an open, nonjudgmental mind. Edelstein sees sexual transgression as a human failing. Our weaknesses as students and teachers have to be part of our awareness. When problems arise, they must be met with thoughtfulness and transparency rather than reactivity. When a teacher fails, there are ripples of suffering that flow from his or her (usually his) deluded actions. Students feel betrayed, and communities fall into camps condemning or defending the teacher. Very often people’s faith in spiritual practice is broken. Walking away from a teacher and a community, they may never return to practice. This is a tragedy.
Like other teachers, over the years I have spoken to numerous women and men wounded by a teacher’s blindness or arrogance. I have seen mistrust flourish and communities dissolve. Aside from a circle of trustworthy teachers and psychologists, there have been few resources to offer people before or after trouble has arrived. Edelstein’s Sex and the Spiritual Teacher is a book I have been waiting for. It is not a manual, as such, but a guide—logical and thorough—to this most delicate kind of relationship. I recommend it without reservation, and plan to include it prominently in the curriculum for any teachers I may have the good fortune to train in the future.