Why I Stayed: A Message from the Survivor

A message from the survivor of clergy abuse at GBZC:

I write this in the hope that it will serve other individuals and communities who have gone through clergy abuse.

I found a Buddhist contemplative therapist and started attending GBZC because I wanted to study and practice seriously with a Buddhist teacher. After over a year of a cultivated therapist-teacher / client-student dynamic, that teacher breached boundaries with me. What ensued was based entirely on a power dynamic. Part of the nature of abuse from a spiritual leader is that it is hard to see from the inside. It’s hard to find language for the ways in which things feel wrong. It took me time and pain to come out of that fog and face what had really occurred. Holding that story and learning how to express it will be a lifelong journey for me.

It has been very difficult for all those affected, myself included, to re-build community in the wake of teacher abuse. Those in the sangha who understood the nature of this abuse and manifested wisdom and compassion in the face of it unfortunately endured even further betrayal and spiritual pain from the larger teaching community.

Having been through this, I can understand why victims of teacher abuse in most Buddhist/religious communities leave (often quietly and often never to practice that spiritual path again). Some in this community fought hard to find a different way, to turn toward the power dynamics and structures in our practices that contribute to this kind of systemic abuse of spiritual power. They aspired to provide a safe space for survivors, including me, to continue practicing rather than the more typical response of shielding the teacher from accountability and/or sweeping the matter under the rug. Those who supported me were up against a lot.

In the wake of a teacher who abused my spiritual love for his own needs/wants, additional harmful experiences I was subject to included:  

  • The lack of education on the topic of teacher abuse by the majority of the teaching community, accompanied by their apparent feeling that they had nothing to learn
    • the constant conflation of sexual misconduct with adultery, which are two separate issues
    • the perspective that our community did not need an ethics policy because it sounded “too corporate,” paired with the argument that  only “ethical principles” and “trust between teacher  and student” were needed (as if nothing had breached that)
  • The misdirected “prevention” and “education” our community did receive from sources recommended by a former SZBA president, which focused on the teacher and alleviating the perceived shame he must be feeling
  • Being targeted by the teacher as the real manipulator/problem (common in systemic abuses, and unchallenged by and large by the teaching community)
    • being faulted by the abuser for speaking to leadership about what had happened, after he had isolated me from any supports 
  • Dharma talks given by other teachers that excused or ignored the transgression, including:
    • a talk drawn from a koan in which a teacher pulls a stool out from under a student and the student’s heart “breaks open in gratitude” for the teacher’s clumsiness, because really, it leads to enlightenment 
    • a talk about how great teachers are, and how we all need them as our guides, with no mention of the abuse that had just occurred in our community
  • Some transmitted teachers requesting I not speak to them about what had happened, utilizing spiritual bypassing language (i.e., “it is not our practice to ‘tell stories’” or “memory is not reliable”) in order not to listen
  • …and much more.

Why I stayed:

In the wake of the abuse, all the transmitted teachers left the community–some wanting to simply “move on,” others investing themselves in relationship with the abuser. I stayed as a member and regular participant because many others in the sangha responded differently– with incredible resilience, wisdom, and compassion in turning toward. Leadership in this community lives into the commitment to social justice that we vow. They live into embodying bodhisattva values even amidst the most trying waters of spiritual betrayal and spiritual bypass. 

As we see, the issue of sexual misconduct is rampant across many spiritual communities. I stayed in this community because they fought to have me. They prioritized my healing and re-finding my footing on a path that had caused me harm. Board members and the sangha at large, as well as two Senior Assistant Teachers, responded to this issue with wisdom and compassion. That is the light I want to grow toward; that is the light I want to follow. I was lucky, for it is very rare to have people care for a victim after this kind of misconduct, particularly when the teacher is the beloved public figure. In this community, there were those deeply practiced enough to know how wrong this was, to come to my aid as a member of the community who got hurt, and to move forward in a way that held space for safety. I have seen how hard-won their steadfast compassion has been to one who could have become simply invisible. 

I owe the pace of coming out of the “fog” and healing after such an isolating experience to GBZC leadership. Board Members, Practice Leaders, and Senior Assistant Teachers did the following with steadfast tenderness:

  • listened to what had happened, believed me, and expressed over and over that it was not my fault
  • came to my aid and support because of their knowledge of ethics, including the rule requiring spiritual teachers to maintain boundaries, not cross them 
  • spent time with me even when it may have been uncomfortable 
  • met me with patience and understanding
  • encouraged and emboldened me to reach out to resources (friends, family), while modeling the lack of judgment and compassion required to let a victim know she is not to blame
  • reached out in ways people can for one another moving through injury: making soup, sharing their own triggers, and letting me know they are by my side, sheltering together amid the communal earthquakes, calibrating and keeping sane together
  • planning and holding a Circle of Care for me despite many obstacles
  • offering a Dharma Talk about sangha–utilizing Seung San’s metaphor of potatoes in a bucket being cleaned more quickly when they bump against one another in the bucket, rather than individually scrubbed: “However, sometimes one of the potatoes becomes bruised, and then we care for that hurt.”

In many ways, caring for the victim in this situation necessitated going against the current or grain of Zen power structures. The transmitted teachers at GBZC were more focused on the teacher who had breached boundaries. The way I and we have been able to move forward is together. It took me many months to remember I was no longer alone, and would no longer have to face teacher abuse alone, would no longer feel the need to protect him against all costs to my own life. This community, due to its stellar leadership as example, came together to support me and one another, and that is what we want the Resilient Sangha Project to carry forward, in our community as well as others. 

Next: Additional Roots & Risk Factors: A Potentially Cultish Culture

Published June 12, 2022