I hear about scandals in Buddhist centers. That makes me nervous about joining one.

Scandals happen in Buddhist communities—as they do in other communities, whether religious or social in nature—because they are populated by human beings, and as the Buddha taught, human beings are prone to ignorance and delusion. For that reason, he and his disciples developed a monastic discipline code (the Vinaya) containing comprehensive regulations (based on real-life situations) to protect monastics and those around them from transgressive behavior, and to advise them how to handle a situation when someone did transgress. The Vinaya includes vows of celibacy as well as rules meant to prevent the abuse of power.

The five precepts that most Buddhists pledge to live by are also intended to safeguard practitioners and the people they encounter from the consequences of bad behavior: in this regard, the second precept (not to steal or take what is not given) and the third (not to engage in sexual misconduct) come in very handy.

But even though ethical conduct is the foundation of Buddhist practice, both teachers and students can become entangled in scandal, especially that involving sexual misconduct. Students may become so enthralled by a teacher that they see his or her sexual attention as a form of spiritual approval rather than as the violation it really is. And teachers may delude themselves into believing that the guidelines don’t apply to them.

Or a teacher may believe, and may convince students, that the teacher’s behavior is always a means of helping students cut through their own delusion and mental obstacles on the spiritual path. When applied to sexual conduct, that approach is a recipe for abuse, as we have seen in recent cases.

Like any religious community, Buddhist communities can become isolated and enabling of misconduct. To upend that tendency, dharma communities must openly and honestly regulate themselves—just as the Buddha intended.

Before committing to any Buddhist teacher, exercise critical examination of that teacher’s personal behavior. And as the psychotherapist and former Tibetan Buddhist monk Lobsang Rapgay has said, “If students really want to find a good teacher . . . they should find one who shows true interest in the student’s well-being, by which I mean to say they show interest in that student as a person.”


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