In Buddhism’s relatively short history in the West, there have been so many scandals—sudden scandals and gradual scandals, scandals of all shapes and sizes—that it might not be long before someone decides to write that history not as a noble narrative of high aspiration but as a series of depressingly lowbrow misadventures. Whether they are about money, sex, power, substance abuse, or, as is most often the case, some combination of them all, one thing seems to be clear: while isolation is a symptom of scandals, scandals are not isolated events.

As to the first point: Scandalous activities seem to thrive when individual communities isolate themselves—socially, ideologically, or in other ways—from the bonds of broader communities, both religious and secular. In such an atmosphere, assumptions tend to go unchallenged not because they are seen as valid but because they are not seen at all. They are just taken for granted. Scandals feed off isolation in another way too: when individuals within a community who try to raise questions about how things are done and what gets done are isolated—marginalized, discredited, even banned—the concerns they raise are readily dismissed. Sooner or later, this way of doing things proves detrimental to all concerned. 

As to the second point: These scandals are not isolated events, and so they deserve to be looked at systemically. To contribute to this process, Tricycle brought together a panel of Buddhist teachers from various traditions and backgrounds to share their thoughts on such matters, especially sexual scandals: Jack Kornfield, cofounder of both Spirit Rock Meditation Center and the Insight Meditation Society; Myoan Grace Schireson, guiding teacher of Empty Nest Zendo; Lama Palden, founder of the Sukhasiddhi Foundation; and Shinzen Young, cofounder of the Vipassana Support Institute. Emma Varvaloucas, Tricycle’s managing editor, moderated the phone discussion. 

We conducted this interview with the awareness that some readers may wonder whether there isn’t an inherent problem in asking dharma teachers to lead the discussion. After all, they are commenting on the very system within which much of their spiritual lives developed and upon which much of their authority rests. Nonetheless, we think the four teachers at our roundtable all make telling observations, and they are worth listening to. Admittedly, what our dharma teachers have to say is only part of the story. The other part is how the rest of us will respond by taking up the conversation, refining, critiquing, and applying it as best we can. 

If, after reading this, you feel as though something is missing, that is probably a good thing. In fact, the sense of something missing may well be the most important thing. Rotten behavior is a constant in human affairs, and even the Buddha’s own community was not immune to it. (Why, after all, do you think there are so many canonical rules delineating what is and is not proper conduct?) The measure of a community’s vibrancy and beneficence is, I believe, found less in its ability to control or eliminate troubling behavior than in its response—or lack thereof—and whether or not it brings people together. Troubling behavior is not something to get rid of so we can get on with the business of getting enlightened. To be human is to grapple with our shortcomings, individually and collectively, and it is by grappling with what we are that we grow into who we are. At our best, we muddle ahead together, hoping to get things right occasionally and trying not to do too much damage along the way. It is in the muddling that we find our humanity, and in doing so, if we are lucky, we find each other.

—Andrew Cooper, Features Editor

Sex between teachers and students: Let’s begin by defining the problem. What is it? The relationship itself, the aftermath, or a combination of the two? 

Jack Kornfield: There’s no problem with sex itself. Some people choose to be celibate. Some people choose to enjoy sexual relations. Both can be done as a part of spiritual practice. The problem that we have seen in many communities arises when spiritual leaders misuse their role of authority to get sexual favors, often, although not always, causing a great loss of faith and a sense of being misused or abused. Often it happens because of the teacher’s own unconsciousness about sexuality and his or her needs. 

Grace Schireson: There are two other problems as well. The first is that the sangha members, while they may know about some of these “secret” student-teacher relationships, don’t know what to do about it. Some people in the sangha may feel that the student in the relationship has earned some special favor or status. Others may feel that there’s a secret that needs to be kept or are confused about what the nature of the teacher-student relationship is. The harms to the community that can occur are rather complex, and eventually the sangha needs to deal with the situation and talk about it to avoid having it become a deeper, systemic issue. 

The second problem is broader community response. How do we help the teachers and the communities where this problem is going on? We have no overarching institution to go for help in this respect. 

Is a sexual relationship between a student and a teacher always a problem, then? What about the traditions of Buddhism that view sex as a potentially emancipating activity? 

GS: A person doesn’t come to a Buddhist community to grow through a sexual relationship with a teacher. They come to a Buddhist community to study Buddhism. So in a teacher-student sexual relationship, the primary purpose of that relationship has been subverted. 

Lama Palden: Even in the lineages of tantric Buddhism, which have somehow been hijacked to mean “something to do with sex,” it is a rare case where sex is engaged in as an actual spiritual practice, and there are stringent criteria that you have to meet to do so. This isn’t what we’re seeing in these situations of harm and sexual abuse. Sexual activity as spiritual practice has to be with truly consenting adults who are both being honored. Sexual activity that is based on a power differential, where the person in power is using the other person in order to get their own needs met, is not the same as true spiritual sexual practice. 

Related: What Went Wrong 

JK: Right. In most of the cases we’re talking about, this isn’t a fantastic growth opportunity for the students. Rather, what’s actually happening is a needy or addictive process that’s very painful for everyone involved. Some teachers have caused a lot of harm to students because they’re quite unintegrated—and they are acting from needs, addictions, misunderstandings, and sometimes, cultural differences, none of which have been made conscious. 

What do you mean that they are “unintegrated”? 

Shinzen Young: A major cause of sexual abuse is imbalance in a teacher’s practice. There are many dimensions to this practice, and the classic goal is to have balance in all of the dimensions. If you grow in some dimensions, most of the time you will grow in the other ones as well. But occasionally, great growth in one dimension, specifically the dimensions of emptiness and transcendence, might stunt growth in other dimensions. In these instances of sexual abuse, the teacher may have had great insights into the emptiness of everything, but that insight hasn’t been integrated into their moral behavior in everyday life. Our model here should always be the historical Buddha, who had seen beyond all the rules of the human domain and yet was an admirable person by the ordinary standards of his society. 

JK: I’ve talked to Zen masters who say, “Shila [ethics] and virtue and integrity are appropriate for everyone in practice, but once you become a Zen master, there are no longer rules. You are free.” But that allows Zen masters, in their own minds, to do anything they wish. 

Often we don’t fully understand that a teacher may have wisdom in certain areas of human life and none in others. You can have an Olympic athlete who is an emotional idiot, or a Nobel Prize–winning physics professor who can’t find her left foot. Similarly, you can have very accomplished spiritual teachers who know nothing about how to deal with their own sexual impulses or how to engage in intimate relationships. 

It seems to me that it’s not only some Zen masters who think this, but their students as well. Believing their teacher to be free, to be extraordinary, they excuse them from the normal behavioral standards of society. So far we’ve been talking a lot about what prompts a teacher to be engaged in a sexual relationship—but what about students? 

JK: There is a tremendous amount of idealism. Many people who come to spiritual practice come with suffering, and they are looking for relief from that suffering. And then the teacher says, “I can end your suffering,” and the student begins to look at the teacher as all-powerful, or as a savior. This idealization makes a potential relationship all the more titillating. When there is a teacher a student thinks can do anything, all rules are off. 

Also, if you’re the only teacher in a community, it’s terribly isolating. That isolation is increased by all the idealization and transference, because you are imagined as not having normal, human needs—you aren’t seen as both a teacher and a human being. And that sets you up to have a lot of problems, because your own personal needs are not being addressed by the community or by your own practice. What we’ve tried at Spirit Rock is to make sure that people teach in teams, or that sister centers are developed with a teachers’ council, where there are peer colleagues teachers can talk to in order to feel less alone. 

Bringing it back to the student, though, we also have to educate the public so that people’s expectations when they come to a Buddhist center are wiser and more realistic. 

We teachers, we’re all going to make mistakes. It’s not a question of if. It’s just a question of when and how many and how serious

GS: We also haven’t integrated the Buddhist teacher-student relationship within the usual relationship contexts that we see in Western culture. We’re a little confused. We’ve heard about the devotion that we need to have toward the teacher, but we haven’t been able to integrate our emotional intelligence, common sense, our values, and mature, adult wisdom into these relationships, I think because they don’t fit into any preexisting relationship contexts that we have in the West. We haven’t carried over the tradition from Asia of a teacher-student relationship into a context that we can work with. 

There also seems to be a bad habit among students: many, when they go to a center, are so keen on finding relief for their suffering that they check their critical thinking skills at the door. 

LP: Exactly. People want to give away their responsibility. It’s part of our job as teachers to encourage people to turn back again and again to their internal wisdom. That’s what the path is about. 

GS: There should be a warning sign over the gates of Buddhist centers: “Be sure you pay attention.” There’s no substitute for awareness and for checking in with yourself. And always trust yourself if something isn’t feeling right. 

That being said, when conflict arises, people tend to want to move away from it rather than be present with it. We really need to work on being able to talk about things that are uncomfortable for us within a community. 

That view—to stay with conflict when it arises—can also be a dangerous one, though, if the conditions for sexual abuse are deeply embedded in the organization and functioning of the community. When is it wise to stick with a sangha through the upheaval of a sexual scandal, and when is it wise to say, “This is unhealthy, and I need to leave”? 

GS: We teachers, we’re all going to make mistakes. It’s not a question of if. It’s just a question of when and how many and how serious. The real questions are: How approachable are we about our mistakes? How honest is the community about what is going on? That, I think, determines whether one should continue to practice in a particular community with a particular teacher. 

LP: And there’s also a dialogue in between stay or leave. You don’t just sit silently for years and years and then bolt through the gate. What are the options? What process is there for you to bring up this issue? It’s a way for you to mature, and for your community to do that, instead of just leaving, carrying what’s bothering you on your back and not telling anyone. 

Also, there’s a distinction to be made: whether a teacher actually has an addiction, and sexual abuse has been a pattern with many, many students over many years, or whether a teacher has fallen into a sexual relationship with a student once or twice through their own unfulfilled emotional or sexual needs. 

Keeping this distinction in mind, how do we view teachers who do make mistakes, whether they are one-off mistakes or serial addictions? Is it possible that this behavior will change, or are we better off steering clear of those teachers? 

SY: It’s always hard to change. But it makes a difference if the teacher wants to change or not. I’m a great believer that if a person wants to change, they can. If a strong motivation can be instilled in them that they’re going to be a much better teacher and a much happier person if they take care of the issue, the prognosis is pretty good, I think. The real difficulty lies in these unbalanced, unintegrated practice situations, because the teacher doesn’t see a strong need to make these changes. 

JK: I don’t want any of this to be black-and-white. For people who are really addicted and have spent decades using their students for their own sexual needs, the response might be that they need to stop teaching. As you would require of anyone who is addicted, they have to stop “using.” But there also might be ways to put in safeguards for them, to have them teach with someone else, for instance, so that they’re not in that isolated teacher role, and aren’t tempted to—or aren’t able to—act out their addiction. 

Photographs by Gerald Slota
Photographs by Gerald Slota

It would be easy to dismiss these issues of sexual abuse as arising from one or two “bad egg” teachers. But if we look at the entirety of American Buddhism, it’s clear that that’s not the case: these issues arise across traditions and communities, suggesting that the very way our sanghas are set up is contributing to their existence. How do we address these deeper, systemic problems? It seems that even if there is a process in place to lodge a complaint against a teacher, often it does not go anywhere, because the complaint is processed through a board whose members are very close to the teacher. The whole organization is usually structured from the top down: there’s the teacher, and then the board, and then the general sangha, precluding horizontal communication. 

JK: You’re quite right that our communities are structured from the top down. That’s because the traditions themselves have been patriarchal and top-down. To address this, what we’ve set up in our community at Spirit Rock is an independent ethics council. A small group of teachers who are most respected for their balance and integrity are elected to it—the balance is important, because these issues can stir up a hornet’s nest, and when emotions are triggered, people tend to think unclearly. So the council is made up of the elected teachers, a community member, and a board member who are independent from the board or the head teacher. They have the power to investigate, to look for reconciliation, and, if necessary, to come back to the board or the community and require changes. There has to be a process that’s outside of the hierarchy that you described. 

SY: After a retreat, we have the students fill out evaluations of the teacher, and the teachers have to look at their own evaluations. That’s one very tangible mechanism for horizontal input. 

JK: We do that too. But let’s be practical about it. We’re talking about American centers—the Soto Zen tradition and the Vipassana communities are primarily run by Western-born people. Western-born teachers mess up, too, but the situation is more complicated when it’s a foreign-born roshi or lama who is used to the patriarchal system. They aren’t used to being called into account in any way, because there’s still that cultural sense that they’re doing their students a favor. 

Despite these problems, people are becoming more conscious of certain teachers who engage in abuse. It gets around. Teachers nowadays are being talked about and being called to task. Certain ones have been sued for millions of dollars or written about in The New York Times.

GS: Still, in the West, we are missing peer interaction and the consequences of it. In Asia, should there be a large problem with a teacher’s behavior, that will be heard through the grapevine, and either a peer or their senior will come to talk to the teacher about that problem. This has been missing in the first generation of Asian teachers in the West—they haven’t had any peers here to give them feedback. 

LP: In the Tibetan Buddhist world, even when the head of a lineage does hear about a problem and comes to talk to their lamas about it, they’re ignored. Because each center is like its own little kingdom. 

GS: Right. To be shunned in a place like Japan by your peers is very difficult psychologically and emotionally. But we don’t have that here yet. 

Related: How to Heal After Your Teacher Crosses the Line 

This goes back to the problem, Grace, of what you mentioned in the beginning of the conversation—not having an overriding institution to deal with these abuses. What would such an institution even look like? And since we don’t have one yet, what are the responsibilities of our community leaders to create one and, in the meantime, bring these instances of sexual abuse to light for the good of the greater community? 

JK: There have been a number of instances in the last 25 years where senior teachers in the Buddhist world, even the Dalai Lama, have spoken out against certain teachers, and it hasn’t made a lot of difference, because there haven’t been any consequences. And because the community where it is happening is usually isolated, that teacher is still seen as the great authority. 

Responsibility needs to be paired with the creation of a collective process, an institution that will hold for the broader Buddhist world. For instance, in the Vinaya Pitaka, if a monk broke a serious rule—created harm through the misuse of sexuality, for instance—it required the calling together of a group of elder monks. Their job was to hear what happened and prescribe a restorative way of practice and making amends. 

Similarly, a respected group like the Buddhist Peace Fellowship could be empowered to create a council of respected elders from across traditions, to whom students from any Buddhist community in North America could go to with these kinds of problems. The elders would meet and then call upon the leaders of communities in difficulty and help guide the reconciliation. The focus would be on reconciliation and learning, although at a certain point, consequences might be necessary. Perhaps down the line, if they see systematic abuse occurring, they could involve the legal authorities. But it wouldn’t be a witch hunt or the dharma police—it’s not as if the freewheeling spirit of Zen and the great traditions of sexual tantra would be undermined by American moralism. It’s the care of elders, whose mission’s basis is in compassion, finding real solutions and showing everybody, including the teacher, that this behavior creates a lot of suffering for themselves and others. 

Let’s talk about the gender issues inherent in any sexually abusive situation. Our spiritual communities reflect our culture at large, which is, sadly, one where sexual abuse and violence is usually directed at women, although of course not always. How do we see these issues playing out in these situations of student-teacher sexual relationships? 

LP: Yes, we are dealing with these issues as a society. We have to start saying to women, “Sex is an equal-opportunity playing field.” In any sexual relationship, you have to assess whether it’s appropriate. Many of the teachers who become involved with their female students tell them things like “I love you,” or “I’m going to marry you,” or “I’m going to enlighten you.” We have to educate women that they aren’t always going to hear the truth. 

GS: As long as women feel that their seductiveness is a route to their own power and competency—in other words, as long as they aren’t encouraged or appreciated equally in society—that will be the primary delusion that women can bring to practice. In our society, women see themselves as powerful through their seductive abilities, through sexual ingratiation. So we have to educate the teachers first. It’s their responsibility to put on the brakes, even if a woman who is a student says, “I’m all in.” Because if they don’t understand that a woman ingratiating herself is actually expressing delusion about herself, they may take it as a compliment. They think, “Isn’t this great? This woman doesn’t want to learn to give talks. She doesn’t want to have any power in the sangha. She just wants to be nice to me; she loves me.” If the teacher can’t see through that ingratiation, it’s difficult. 

We also have to educate our dharma brothers in the sangha. Men may not understand that women feel humiliated when they are treated as sexual objects, even if they are fully capable of defending themselves against potential abuse. They feel disrespected that the teacher is regarding them as a sexual object rather than as a spiritual vessel—that is something that is hard for men to get. 

JK: It’s not just about educating women or educating men; it’s educating everybody. Educating the communities—that’s really the game. The responsibility has to be held collectively. And in addition to the standards of education, there has to be a method of response, so people know what to do if these problems are happening to them or around them. 

And there are women who abuse their role as teachers as well. It’s not as frequent, and not as frequently in the sexual domain, but the misuse of power is really something that is endemic to the role of being a teacher, not endemic to which gender the teacher is. 

Going back to larger cultural issues, it’s also that our Buddhist communities reflect our habit of avoiding talking about sexuality in an unabashed, deep way. 

JK: Yes, and it’s also because in the monastic tradition, sexuality is avoided except as a series of warnings and strictures. It’s often life-denying—Buddhist texts are filled with stories about the impurities of the body, just like those you would find in the Catholic Church. And so there is a lot of confusion, because the body isn’t seen as a vehicle for sacredness, but more as something to transcend. In the lay community, we are not taught how to make it a deliberate part of our practice, guided into making sexual activity a wise part of our life. But the body could be, and it’s time for it. Sexuality can open us beyond ourselves, to grace, ecstasy, communion, oneness, and natural samadhi. Let us teach sexuality as a domain of practice and health instead of a realm of pathology or anti-spirituality. 

SY: There are two aspects to sexuality as practice. First is the ethical aspect, which goes back to the principle of “do no harm,” the guiding principle in the ethics of Buddhist sexuality. And then the other aspect is: In what ways does sexual experience become an adjunct to practice? To me, it’s straightforward. To the extent that one can bring concentration, clarity, and equanimity to their sexual experiences, they can bring insight and purification. 

LP: This is part of a larger discussion about the intersection of the divine and the human. What does it mean to be a human being, and how can certain kinds of needs and desires be fulfilled in a healthy way, so that they become part of our growth? And how can all of our human wants and needs, not just the sexual, be integrated with the spiritual journey? These are the underlying questions.