Clergy misconduct is a systemic problem requiring systemic solutions. One key aspect of a systemic solution is care—care for students but also for teachers. Where care for students and teachers is lacking, the risk of clergy misconduct increases.
Here we offer some additional reflections on the type of care needed for students and teachers. Our reflections relate most directly to our particular Soto Zen practice but may be useful to other Zen communities or to other Buddhist communities more generally.
Inadequate Education of Students
Students need to be aware of the potential dangers in a student-teacher relationship. They need to be informed about the potential pitfalls of transference and countertransference, the inherent power differential in a student-teacher relationship, the importance of healthy boundaries, and the dangers of unconscious behaviors. Developing this awareness should not be the personal work of students but should be material provided proactively by sangha leadership. When student education is too vague or too infrequent, students are at greater risk.
Inadequate training for teachers
Teacher training in our tradition has centered on meditation skills, koan practice, and the determination that one has insight into their own True Nature. It almost never touched on the issues of power and its potential abuse, sexual boundaries, transference and countertransference, appropriate administration of an organization, stress management, self-care and appropriate support systems, etc. The gap has left teachers at greater risk of committing clergy misconduct.
The issue of inadequate teacher training relates to the question of criteria for transmission. Currently, the criteria for teacher transmission in our tradition are vague and highly subjective and don’t require being versed on dynamics related to power. Transmission in most cases is a unilateral decision by an individual and thereby subject to few external controls. Clergy in almost all other established religions have much more well-defined criteria and training requirements before being ordained as ministers or chaplains.
Failure to Address Unconscious Behaviors
All of us are subject to unconscious behaviors, often called our personal shadow. These behaviors arise from the side of our personality that contains all the parts of ourselves that we don’t want to admit to having. They are difficult to recognize because we are not conscious of them—they are by definition hidden from us. Even though these unconscious behaviors may be out of sight, they are still part of us and function in insidious, subterranean ways, often causing harm to others. Because they are unconscious behaviors, they rarely arise within our conscious awareness and are not often visible to us on the cushion, which means that we are not as awake to them.
As a result, otherwise even highly realized teachers often cause unintended harm to students and others due to unintegrated personal shadow. Most often this happens through projection where we project the unwanted behavior onto the other person and think the problem is with them: “I am not an angry person, but you seem to be angry at me,” or “You do not respect me” rather than “I do not respect myself.”
Another form of shadow is the unconscious and very powerful process of transference, in which we idealize or project onto an authority figure the attributes of someone significant in our past, often our parents. We seek a place for love, perfect goodness, and perfect justice and imagine that our teachers are what we want them to be instead of seeing their humanness. When students see a teacher as perfect, the teacher may become similarly deluded. Conversely, a teacher may transfer emotional and other needs onto a student, creating countertransference.
Because shadow behaviors can be the source of such harm and are not visible to us in our practice, it is imperative that teachers commit to examining and investigating their personal shadow through therapeutic practices specific for illuminating shadow. It is also important that we offer information about shadow to students so that they can integrate this work into their own practice of awakening. When sanghas don’t care for teachers and students in these ways, it puts the sangha at greater risk of suffering misconduct.
Teachers need to be taught how to set limits on their time, maintain a healthy lifestyle with good work/life balance, and have a good external support system, including friends and a therapist if needed. When a teacher relies on the sangha for emotional support, problems of countertransference can develop, and a teacher can find themselves isolated and without support when an issue like sexual attraction to a student arises.
The Dangers of Power
Once a teacher receives transmission, becomes surrounded by adoring students, and perhaps starts running a practice community, they may develop feelings of power. They have the mind-seal of enlightenment, which may be (subtly or more overtly) misunderstood as meaning that they are now, permanently, an essentially different kind of being. Cult-like communities may form around them, increasing the teacher’s sense of power.
One unfortunate outcome for some teachers is that with the accumulation of power, changes can occur in the brain that diminish their ability to take the perspective of another person. Teachers can do something about this themselves: they can commit to being lifelong students, maintaining relationships as students of other teachers, and they can also participate in peer communities of teachers that are committed to supporting each other’s ethical commitments. Ultimately, though, it is the board’s responsibility to ensure that sangha norms, culture, and policies keep teacher power in check. When the board fails to do so, it fails to care for teachers in a way that reduces risk of harm.
Published June 12, 2022