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Scandals, Apologies, and Excuses: Why we disarm our discernment

Buddhists, nondual folks, and people engaged in the work of awakening are generally the nicest people one could ever hope to meet. They are warm-hearted, earnest to a fault, and sincerely interested in improving the world. They tend to avoid conflict like ebola. This is the beautiful side of the spiritual life. Seeing the Dalai Lama refer to the Chinese government as “my friends, the enemy” warms the heart. One way spiritual teachers and seekers avoid anger and accomplish this level of compassion is through self-examination whenever pain and anger arises. This is smart and effective. But while this level of forgiveness and self-examination is generally a good thing, I also believe it can become a problem. A much bigger one than we may be willing to acknowledge. Why? Because this is the kind of habit that keeps abusive people in power.

This thought occurred to me while following what has occurred with the famous nondual teacher Andrew Cohen, who recently released a letter of apology. Why the letter of apology? I don’t want to go into the details here, as his behavior has been written about extensively. For more information on the scandal read Enlightenment Blues by Andre Van der Braak, American Guru by William Yenner (former students), or the book written by his own mother The Mother of GodThere is also an entire website devoted to cataloguing the allegations.

While this kind of scandal is concerning, there is something else about it that is beginning to concern me more, and that is how people in spiritual communities are reacting to Andrew’s apology. In my own honest opinion, the apology was disappointing. I felt that the apology was inauthentic and did not fit the magnitude of the abuses, and a close friend pointed out that the admission of wrongdoing was sandwiched in between layers of self-aggrandizement. I believe that this is plain to anyone who reads it. Many people commented on Cohen’s blog to this effect and people who follow such things have noted it in social media. However, there were a significant number of people on social media and in the comment section of the apology itself who responded to criticisms by pointing out that critics should examine their own “shadow sides” and engage in more self-reflection. As chatter about Cohen’s apology spread on social media, this meme began making the rounds:

While I agree with the sentiment in principle, and even find it beautiful, these reactions gave me chills. As a family psychologist who has worked with many victims of abuse, and abusers themselves, what I was seeing was disturbingly familiar. This is how abusers stay in authority. I realized that the same family dynamics that are well-understood in psychology are at play in spiritual communities. People are downplaying the magnitude of what happened, blaming those who bring it up, and trying to make everything OK when it isn’t. As I read the comments I kept asking myself if this is what the Buddha really meant in that instruction to examine ourselves.

What is really happening when people who express their appropriate skepticism of an abuser’s mea culpa are told, essentially, to be quiet? What does “skillful” really mean in this context?

When faced with the crimes of spiritual teachers, spiritual seekers tend to perform a strange kind of psychological judo on themselves and others by disarming anger and judgement with spiritual techniques. With intense self-investigation we avoid investigating the crimes committed. When abuses happen and we turn inward, we should ask ourselves if we are using spiritual practice to avoid the hard work of confronting abuse or crying out for justice when others don’t want to hear it. We should consider if the “shadow side” in these situations is not our own anger but the avoidance of it. We should ask ourselves if we are excusing misdeeds by omission of an appropriate emotional response. Perhaps in these situations it is important to understand that there are many kinds of anger – not all of them are unskillful in certain contexts. In my work with children of abuse one of the phases of therapy children often go through is what I call “permission to be angry.” I think the same can be said for spiritual communities.

People like Cohen seem well aware of the habit spiritual seekers have of turning indignation into navel-gazing, and he has a history of using it to his advantage. In the books linked to above there are many instances in which people attempt to criticize, or merely question, Cohen but are shut down by being told to look at their own issues first. Over and over again he accused people who questioned him, or had his inner circle accuse people, of giving in to ego trips, underlying narcissism, and of being consumed with jealousy for his realization and enlightenment. By doing so he fostered a sense of chronic self doubt and mistrust in those who followed him, leading to a deeper dependence on his certainty. Essentially, he used people’s habit of self examination and forgiveness to disarm their wise discernment.  This isn’t something that only happened with Cohen, or only in neoadvaita communities. In his Atlantic article “The Zen Predator of the Upper East Side” Mark Oppenheimer points out that the kind of western Buddhists who fell victim to Eido Shimano “…proved extremely, perhaps uniquely, willing to forgive.” In response to the sexual predations of Jashu Sasaki Roshi, Joan Halifax wrote:

There is something about our religions… that disallows us facing the shame associated with sexual violations…

I would take her statement farther, and say that in spiritual communities, especially Buddhist ones focused on kind speech and avoiding division, people are particularly vulnerable to abuse because confronting others runs counter to the way we are trying to live. As Buddhists we excel at ethical self-inquiry but are ill equipped to confront violations when they arise in our own communities.

I am not claiming to know how to determine what an appropriate expression of anger is for abuses such as sexual harassment, beatings, death threats, or financial ruin. But I do believe that some expression of anger, even for those on the path to awakening, is appropriate. Finding how to balance the expression of authentic anger with liberating insight into it may be one of the most mature of spiritual practices. It may also be one of the only sustainable solutions to the constant reoccurrence of abuse that seems to happen in our spiritual communities.

If a psychologist, lawyer, medical doctor, or school teacher were caught doing any of the things Cohen is alleged to have done they would not only have to write a letter of apology, but state licensing boards would revoke their ability practice, civil penalties would be leveled against them, and criminal investigations would begin. In our society we recognize that no one, no matter how well-trained or accomplished, is invulnerable to behaving recklessly. But when it comes to spiritual leaders we seem to throw out the rules and expect people to be something greater than ordinary. This is a problem. The most disturbed people seem to know this, and gravitate toward the role of spiritual leader, as the late great meditation teacher Bill Hamilton pointed out in his book Saints and Psychopaths.

Changing this problem is worth the discomfort, and even anger, of speaking up. It can be done. I am an optimist about this. We can have spiritual communities in the west that are free of these kinds of abuses, but it requires that we all agree on basic rights for meditation students, and that we stop telling those who are offended by the violation of those rights to point their attention back at their own failings. Things can get better, but first we need to change our relationship to anger, and understand that in some situations expressing it is an appropriate response. Once expressed, we can get on with business of insight and healing. At that time, it may be useful to point others to examine their own “shadow sides.” Until then, allow responses to be what they are. Allow people to call for justice. Allow the process of wise discernment to take its first uncertain steps.

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.