Education for Zen Students on Misconduct in Sanghas

by Myoan Grace Schireson, Sweeping Zen, Feb 21, 2011

Studying Personal, Interpersonal and Transpersonal Levels

Central Valley, CA (USA) -- In studying the recent revelations of the Zen Studies Society (Rev. Eido Shimano) and Kanzeon Zen Center (and the apology of now disrobed Genpo Merzel), we see similar actions, sangha reactions and harm to students and communities.

<< Abbess Myoan Grace Schireson, Empty Nest Zendo

My view is that we cannot count on either the teacher or the sanghas where the misconduct has occurred to explain to us what has gone wrong with their Zen practice. Rather we need to study ourselves, our own sanghas and the way Zen transforms our awareness to look for explanations and more importantly, to find ways to prevent this harm where we practice. I have been studying three levels of interaction between Zen students and Zen sanghas and wanted to share my views.

Students come to practice with unique personal issues and expectations; Zen sanghas organize according to interpersonal dynamics inherent to people and institutions, and Zen brings its own technologies for spiritual development to this intersection. So to study this problem. I propose we consider all three levels: personal, interpersonal and transpersonal.  We cannot just say that these problems occur because of “bad actors” or sociopathic teachers– there are far too many similar situations to call these problems anomalous. We need to carefully study how all parts work together to intoxicate the Zen sangha and to enable a misguided teacher to harm its members. This is not about blaming teachers, but it is about making sanghas safer for practitioners through education and self-reflection—both outstanding attributes of Buddhist practice.


First of all, when we come to Zen training, we all want to be cared for, and hope for that care from a Zen teacher and community. We also have strong needs to belong to a group– probably harking back to our days in a “tribe.” Once we join a group, and connect with a teacher, we may (secretly) think that we need to secure our position in the sangha or with the teacher through our abilities.  We may begin to think that just practicing is not enough, and we focus on being good at practice, being special to a teacher or having a position in the sangha depending on our personal needs. The ego does its job! If we stray unconsciously into these realms we may not be aware of how our needs to be needed may intersect with the teacher’s (unconscious) needs to be special to us or to be too central to our life. We need to stay aware of our personal longings to be loved and known, and to have a relationship that makes up for previous losses. Like infatuation, we think: “this is the one!” Sadly, some teachers like to be “the one.”  And when these two impulses meet, there’s real risk. The danger is increased by these longings happening in our unconscious and therefore “flying under our radar” both for teacher and student.

Some teachers because of their own unresolved needs or issues want their previous losses or insecurities to be healed by the adulation of their students. Bad idea! Teachers may also be undeveloped psychologically and morally, and they feel a sense of entitlement to all privileges and adulation that their students bring forth. Some teachers are naturally charming and inviting and they combine their sense of entitlement with an intention to manipulate their students sexually, emotionally or financially. With this combination of lack of development and charisma, cult status and no legal prohibition against acting on sexual urges or addictions, we may also find other misconduct.  Often in these situations the teacher’s special status has resulted in financial improprieties, drug or alcohol abuse and other indulgences. All of these behaviors characterize a personal lack of development of mature adult integrity on the teacher’s side, but they also depend on an enabling factor from the sangha. When these qualities dominate or lead a sangha, we see the ways the teacher’s habits are protected or institutionalized by an adoring sangha. Which brings us to the second level–the interpersonal, or in other words the sangha dynamics. We need to look at how sanghas can become healthy Dharma centers and not be pulled into idolatrous cults. As Zen teacher and Unitarian minister James Ford says: “We need to come out of the cult and into the sect.” This means we need to make use of our specific Zen lineage teaching without becoming a closed system, with an idealized teacher, that lives in a parallel universe apart from common sense and healthy adult development.


A sangha should be guided by the unfolding of Dharma, but often it comes under the sway of a teacher’s personality. My teacher taught me that the person with the deepest Dharma understanding leads the group. In this way, the group does not become a social clique, or a cult of personality. If the sangha remains rooted and guided by the Dharma, the teacher’s flaws and personality quirks can be honestly acknowledged. But if the teacher has a kind of mystical cult force over the sangha, his/her failures of understanding become the acceptable norm or even behavior to be emulated. The old folk tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” describes these community dynamics very well.  It is essential for the teacher to have consulting peers to uncover his/her foibles; one cannot count on students to reveal these stubborn traits because students depend on a teacher’s approval to move forward in their careers.

Students are also needy for the emotional approval of a teacher and would not easily jeopardize that by criticizing the teacher.  But serious Zen students need to learn how to test integrity in a Zen sangha. What happens when they voice criticism? Also, a practice committee that is a rubber stamp to a teacher is not healthy. While a harmonious view is important, opposing views also need to be expressed. Some of our (blind) obedience in a Zen setting may come from our mistaken views of how our Asian ancestors, both students and teachers, interacted in Zen communities. We may be attempting to imitate a tradition we do not fully understand—a tradition embedded in a different culture with different checks and balances for teachers, students and communities.

A.sangha is naturally grateful for the teacher’s generosity in sharing what s/he has uncovered in a long life of practice. Teachers are not usually well compensated financially and devote themselves to the Dharma because it is essential to their own lives. We must learn to evaluate a teacher’s character by how he/she relates to the sangha’s financial contributions. If there are larger donations, sincere teachers use the funds for developing Dharma venues for the sangha. If a teacher is becoming personally wealthy due to his or her Dharma teachings, this is a red flag that may indicate harmful and undeveloped aspects of a teacher.

In my opinion, teachers are ordinary human beings who have been transformed into Dharma vessels by their practice. The sangha should be aware of how the teacher is making this process visible—by regularly exposing his/her own difficulties and how practice is addressing his/her own flaws. One needs to also look at who is being trained, who else can give talks and who can help new students.  Does the group the teacher is training for succession represent the entire sangha? Is there a special type that s/he prefers?  Besides the red flag indicated by a non-representative group of senior students, there is also the case of no one being empowered as an independent teacher. Excessive emphasis on the teacher as a special being, when no other person can ever attain to such a level– this attitude is a giveaway that something is wrong in the sangha.

As Westerners we are accustomed to having a voice in our communities, and we should not stifle that voice because of a mythical view of the Zen teacher. How are the opposing views met in a sangha? Does the sangha try to listen to the opposition, or do they react defensively as if critical feedback is a threat? And from whom does the teacher receive honest and critical feedback? If there is no way to do that within the sangha, does the teacher have a peer group or association to which s/he is accountable? Sometimes when a teacher is called up for an ethics breach, the sangha will split into those speaking up and those defending him/her. Lineage elders, special mediation services, or a peer association may be helpful in healing the split without covering over the mistakes. Clearly, as Zen matures, peer associations, ethics boards and clergy misconduct laws will all have their place at the institutional level to prevent harm in sanghas.


Human beings are sensitive to arising spiritual energy in themselves and the exchange of spiritual energy they experience in practice situations. Zen training amplifies spiritual energy; Zen meditation and practice help to refine and integrate the spiritual energy and its wisdom with our everyday cognition and physical sensations. In order to develop spiritual energy and insight, concentration is increased and psychological resistance and defenses are decreased by meditation practice. Yogic postures (zazen positions, rituals and ceremonies) enable the flow and integration of spiritual wisdom in the body.

It is not difficult to mistake spiritual energy for sexual energy, physical attraction or even human love. In fact, spiritual energy may be one of the bases for human attraction. We may not in fact be able to truly distinguish the differences between these energies, but the fact of their (simultaneous) existence needs to be clearly understood. Boundaries to protect practitioners from potential blurring of these energies and their uses need to be established and explained. We have not yet begun explicitly training Zen teachers (or students) about these energies and the harm done in overlooking the boundaries between personal and spiritual relationships in Zen practice.

Communities and societies have been developing rules and boundaries about the exchange of these energies for a long time. There are even laws protecting those in unequal power relationships (doctor-patient, therapist-client, clergy-congregant, employer-employee) from the vulnerability associated with receiving cognitive, emotional or spiritual support from another human being. Sadly, many states lag behind in laws governing clergy misconduct. With spiritual guides, we may feel the flow of intimacy and energy; we may mistake it for a more personalized love, and become prey to what may be a routine act which takes advantage of our vulnerability. In other words, we believe that this flow of energy, experienced as nourishing or loving, means that we are special and the beloved of our teacher. This may or may not be the case. A teacher may take advantage of our expressed or intended vulnerability and explicit need to be taught, counseled and helped by accepting our willingness to engage in a sexual relationship. Actually, some teachers have learned how to project spiritual energy in a seductive manner, and they rely on this skill to attract and seduce followers with this special brand of yogic charisma. Forewarned is forearmed.

When we come to spiritual communities, our task as beginners is to admit we need help and to become open to change. That vulnerability allows us to see where we have previously been shut down and allows us to grow and feel a new sense of freedom. Integrating Zen liberation with everyday good sense may or may not occur depending on the sangha’s level of understanding. Beginning students depend on the healthy development of more senior sangha members to distinguish inappropriate teacher advances. We may mistake a sexual predator in Zen priest’s clothing for an angel of liberation, but a wise sangha member can help us. We may use the zazen or Buddhist language about the absolute to disconnect us from our usual protective common sense, but counsel or spiritual practice discussion with a more senior student can redirect us even if the teacher misses it. Spiritual bypassing has been described in detail by John Welwood and we cannot teach enough on this tendency to cover over or repress suffering with the cloak of a spiritual high.  It is an occupational hazard for Zen practitioners. All sanghas need to study these dynamics along with the words of Zen adepts about transcendence.

The goal of Zen awakening is to integrate awareness into each and every thought and each and every action. This is why enlightenment may be sudden but must also be gradually integrated into our everyday life. As Yunmen answered, when asked “What are the teachings of the Buddha’s entire lifetime?”: “An appropriate response.” Not a Buddhist response, not a Zen catch phrase, but the real thing as it applies to you and your actual life experience.  The process of integrating spiritual wisdom into our daily work and suffering requires exquisite attention to understanding the ways humans interact in the three spheres of personal experience, interpersonal relationships and spiritual development. In order for Zen to be successfully transplanted to the West we must introduce Western studies—our own language– of unconscious personal needs, studies of group process and organizational structures, and broad and diverse reports of how healthy spiritual development unfolds.


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