The relationship between a Zen teacher and student who regularly meet in dokusan (one-on-one private meetings) is of a very similar nature to that of a therapist and their client or a clergyperson and a parishioner seeking counseling. (Note: In our recent case at GBZC, the student regularly saw the teacher in dokusan and was also a client in the teacher’s “contemplative counseling” practice.) While the training of a Zen teacher generally takes place outside of formal accredited institutions and state licensing structures, it is prolonged, provides specialized expertise, and provides a title and aura of authority. The practice of one-on-one spiritual guidance invites students to enter into a deeply personal spiritual relationship. Zen teachers—whether ordained or lay, paid or unpaid, whether they feel they have power or not—share powers and responsibilities very similar to those of other caregiving or spiritual professionals.
When functioning correctly, the professional relationship creates a space of safety in which the student’s well-being is of utmost concern. The teacher (or person in the position of power) is responsible for maintaining the integrity of that space. The student (or other person who is seeking help) makes themself vulnerable, sharing what is closest to their heart and spirit. The relationship is, in a real sense, loving—and because it is, it is not only possible but actually likely that at some point the student may interpret this as a different kind of love (in a process sometimes called “transference”), and/or that the teacher will do so (“countertransference”). It is the teacher’s responsibility to be aware of this dynamic and firmly hold to appropriate professional boundaries. When, instead, the teacher allows their own needs and desires into this protected space, the safety of the space and the exclusive focus on the needs of the student are destroyed. Common results include severe and often long-lasting emotional and spiritual confusion, hurt, and harm. Ethical guidelines for all of these professions state, therefore, that romantic relationships are prohibited.
The literature recognizes that student “consent” in this sort of case cannot really exist. While a student may feel that they have “consented” to a romantic relationship—may even feel that the relationship was truly loving and may remain ambivalent after its end—this in no way changes the fact that the relationship was an abuse of power. The structure of the power relationship and the vulnerability of the student makes the situation somewhat analogous, in a legal and ethical sense, to situations of exploitation of very young or intoxicated persons.
In most cases, the mandate to maintain professional boundaries applies at all times and to all situations: entering a powerful role requires committing to not acting on any attractions that may arise. The greater the power differential between teacher and student, and the more intense the one-to-one relationship of spiritual guidance, the more important this rule is to prevent serious emotional and spiritual harm. Violations of the mandate may result in the loss or suspension of relevant licenses; suspension or termination of employment or community membership; civil lawsuits brought by the students for emotional harm; and, in some states, even criminal prosecution. The case we faced in our sangha—of a secretive relationship between a roshi (the highest level of teacher) and a student they had regularly met with in dokusan (private interviews)—is of this level of seriousness.
Spiritual communities sometimes do modify the rules for cases in which the power differential is much less (e.g., between more senior and less senior students); the intensity is much lower (e.g., when a student does not have a one-on-one relationship with this particular teacher); or when a romantic relationship precedes the advancement of one partner in the teaching ranks. At a minimum, full disclosure of the relationship, consultation with community leaders, and a minimization of opportunities for romantic partners to meet in student-teacher roles are generally required. A directive to wait a substantial period of time between breaking off any kind of teacher-student relationship and beginning a romantic one is also a common rule. Secrecy and simultaneous intense teacher-student and romantic relations are never appropriate.