A Dharma Student’s Bill of Rights

At the 2012 Buddhist Geeks Conference I facilitated a small workgroup to brainstorm a Dharma Student’s Bill of Rights. While the workgroup was small (6 people) it sparked great interest at the conference and I was approached by many people in the days following the workgroup offering their ideas and encouragement.

The idea for the workgroup was hatched just one night before, when I saw a senior and well respected Dharma teacher say something to a young student that struck me as patronizing and disrespectful. The teacher’s statement was very public and rather than be upset at the teacher’s behavior, the crowd that witnessed it applauded. I realized that this kind of disrespectful behavior happens all the time, and that many of us have become so accustomed to it that we actually applaud when we see it. Many have come to see it as the sign of a confident and accomplished teacher rather than a sign of dysfunction in our communities.

The instance disrespect at the conference is not the only one that I have personally come in contact with. As a teacher myself, I’ve been privy to the stories of many students who have shared their difficulties, humiliations and outright violations when seeking the advice of a teacher. This is an important problem.

The goal of a bill of rights is to place limits on power. Teachers hold a great deal of power and can easily be abusive with it if not given clear limits. In fact, teachers can hold so much power that students can be exploited unless the limits of that power are clearly stated. Teachers, even those who are awake, are human. We are all familiar with the scandals that have hurt students in recent years, and in each case that I have examined there were no clearly articulated limits on the teachers in their relationships with students.

We are in a time of transition in Western Dharma communities. The hierarchical student/teacher roles that fit so well in other cultures are not working. A new formulation is needed, one that is modeled on mutual respect and a clear recognition of the rights of students and limits of a teacher’s power.

These are a brief list of the rights that students themselves agreed that they want in their relationships with teachers. This list is only a beginning and a living document. It will be added to over time and I urge anyone who reads it to contribute their thoughts by email or in the comments section below.


Revised 9/8/12

A Dharma Student’s Bill of Rights

 I.          I have a right to be free from the sexual exploitation. 

Sexual advances of a teacher are not part of the teaching and are not allowable. If I as a student I begin to develop a mutually respectful romantic relationship with my teacher, it is the teacher’s duty to formally end the teacher/student relationship and support me in finding another teacher to continue practice.


II.           I have a right to be free from economic exploitation.

It is understood that different communities and teachers have different methods for compensating teachers and financially supporting the teaching. Whether the compensation is donation-based or fee-based, I as a student should be able to openly discuss these matters with a teacher without concern that I will be judged for openly talking about money.  Discussing financial compensation is not shameful to the student or teacher and should be transparent, not secret.

As a student, I should never be asked to give to the point that it causes me severe financial hardship. If I am unable to compensate a teacher or organization because it would cause me hardship, it is the responsibility of the teacher to create an atmosphere in which discussing these matters is welcomed, and fair arrangements can be made for everyone.

Financially supporting a teacher or organization should never make me dependent on that teacher or organization to meet my own needs for housing, food and other necessities.

In cases where I as a student am unable to compensate a teacher for teaching, and offer to barter services in lieu of financial compensation, I have a right to have my labor honored at a fair market value.


III.           I have a right be made aware what qualifications a teacher has for claiming expertise.

It is not disrespectful for me, as a student, to inquire into the teacher’s claims of expertise and question the teacher on their knowledge. I have a right to know what kind of training the teacher has had, who the teacher’s teacher was, and whether the teacher has been given permission by a well recognized teacher or organization to teach. I also have a right to know whether the teacher has ever had permission to teach revoked.

In cases in which a teacher does not have recognizable qualifications I have a right to three sources of information:

  1.  What the teacher’s claims are to attainment or realization (if this is appropriate in the teacher’s tradition)
  2.  A statement of the teacher’s principles by which she/he can be evaluated
  3.  Contact information for other students who can speak to the teacher’s level of expertise.


IV.          I have a right to respectfully express my disagreement with a teacher.

If in the course of teaching the teacher expresses a view that I cannot agree with, I have a right to express disagreement without fear of repercussion.

It is the teacher’s responsibility to create a context that supports safe disagreement.


V.           I have a right to be free from verbal harassment.

As a student I have a reasonable expectation that my teacher will speak respectfully to me and will not use their greater knowledge or expertise as a reason to treat me dismissively, harshly or without regard for my dignity as a person.

The teacher may not treat me harshly in order to free me from self-concepts or delusions that I may have. Realization is not an excuse for cruelty. If I feel that my teacher is unable to teach without resorting to verbal attacks, then it is the teacher’s responsibility to refer me to another teacher at my request.


VI.           I have a right to privacy.

As a student I have a reasonable expectation that my teacher will respect the confidential nature of the teacher/student relationship.

The personal information that is shared with the teacher is to remain private and strictly between the teacher and student.

Teachers may share private information about a student only when the student has given the teacher permission to do so.

 It is recognized that there may be instances in which a teacher needs to share information about a student with others, when seeking consultation from another teacher or when illustrating an important aspect of the teaching for other students. In those instances the teacher is expected to take every reasonable precaution to de-identify the information being shared.

It is also recognized that in instances in which a student’s safety is at risk, the teacher may break the student’s privacy in order to protect the student from harm. For example, if a student becomes suicidal or homicidal, it is reasonable for the teacher to seek help for the student and disclose the nature of the relationship in which the teacher obtained the information.


VII.           I have a right to a second opinion.

As a student I have the reasonable expectation that I can request another teacher to provide guidance or evaluation without fear of repercussion.

The teacher should create an atmosphere in which the input of other teachers is welcome, even if that input is from different traditions or perspectives.

 If I ask the teacher about obtaining a second opinion, the teacher should support me in finding an appropriate source.


Posted on August 14, 2012, in buddhism, Dharma, Morality, Sila and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. It is good to see such a document take shape, and I more or less agree with all five points. I do have a comment on point number II: I can’t tell whether it is an implicit blanket rejection of the practice of dana-based compensation. Therefore, it needs to be re-worded so that the reader knows whether dana-based payment is being rejected. This subject is complex and it’s not clear to me that a fee-for-service system is, hands-down, better than a dana-based system under all circumstances. However, I am very happy to see a movement toward fee-for-service as an acceptable choice. I think that calling dana-based compensation “economic exploitation” is an exaggeration. How about: “I have a right to know what the teacher considers to be fair compensation.”

    Likewise, teachers should have the right to be compensated under a fee-for-service system. Perhaps a complementary Dharma Teacher’s Bill of Rights is in order.

  2. Hey Ron, I like the explanations you offer for the points here, and I think they are valid points. I still think there is room (and a similar purpose is served) by addressing a more fundamental change in defining the relationship. That is, a thing like this bill of rights gives a student who feels taken advantage of the confidence (maybe) to say “hey, you are not following the rules” and step back. But to a great extent the abuses and power dynamic problems that occur come from a fundamental assumption of there *BEING* a power dynamic. If you undermine THAT in the statement, it also goes a long way towards the same purpose. That is, start with defining what the purpose of the relationship is. For example: “A dharma teacher is a person who has the experience to assist you, the student, in developing your own insight. A teacher cannot make you wake up or give you enlightenment. He/she is a normal human being who happens to have traversed the territory you are seeking to discover and may be able to offer suggestions to help you in your own process of discovery. The teacher student relationship is one of mutual respect as mature and independent free-thinking adults. Both parties will strive to maintain honest communication and are free to end the relationship at any time.”

    Do you see what I’m saying? I don’t see this as in opposition to the points you are suggesting (which are all quite good), but as a supplement to it, to contextualize it.


  3. Ona, I love this! This sounds exactly right.

  4. Terry, I totally see your point. I’m going to polish that up and make it more clear. As I think about it, I’m not rejecting Dana out of hand, but rather, I think it needs to be changed to be more clear to students what they are paying and how much (if anything) is reasonably expected. Thanks for that suggestion.

    Wow – what an awesome idea Ona! I have some ideas of my own, but with this project in particular it is important to me that the outcome is as collaborative as possible, so I’ve posted your suggestion to more clearly define the roles on the Kenneth Folk Dharma Forum.

    I have my own idea of what a dharma teacher is and what one does, and what the relationship should be like, but I really want others to be a part of making this document.

    I look forward to making those changes!

  5. I can’t tell if in point three, is one of the “sources” a student is able to check is the authorizing teacher or center? at my center, we know of a teacher who did NOT receive authorization at our center, or by our abbot, who claims on his website that he did. so far we’ve not tried to do anything about it.
    Also, we have an ethics policy – is there right to a clearly stated policy for addressing ethical issues? this has been somewhat of a can of worms at times, but it still seems important.

  6. Hi Laurie,

    I believe that an authorizing teacher or organization is the most common kind of source, and it should be obvious to students who or what authorized the teacher. Sometimes teachers get a bit sloppy in making this clear, and if so, point number three is all about making sure students can feel comfortable asking about it. If there was not an official authorization, then there are the other three options: checking with other students, claims of attainment, and a statement of principles. And students should feel comfortable asking about those.
    It is concerning when teachers make claims to authorization on websites that simply are not true, because potential students (in my experience) rely on those a lot in weighing whether to approach the teacher. I can imagine cases where this could just be a misunderstanding and could be taken care of with an email or a brief conversation, but if it is a deliberate misrepresentation then it is best to have a senior teacher discuss it with this person directly. The thing to avoid, if possible, is a public debate about it. No one wins such things.

    I have been working on an ethics policy on and off for some time now and hope to have it up soon. However, ethics policies are pretty limited if there is no mechanism to have ethical lapses addressed. Then they’re just suggestions. For most people that is enough. However, there are problems in all sanghas with ethical issues from time to time. It’s just human nature (even awakened human nature!). So having a way for students, even novices with very little time in the community and very little status, to address an ethical lapse by even the most senior teacher is a good idea, just to make sure everyone has a shot at being treated by a basic standard of fairness. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. The policy could simply be to appoint a person in the organization to listen to grievances confidentially and address them as needed.

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