‘Conspiracy of Silence: The Problem of the Male Teacher’ (1988)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

3 minutes

In 1988, Sandy Boucher published the book she had imagined seven years previously: Turning the Wheel: American Women Creating the New Buddhism.

With almost 50 pages, Boucher’s fifth section, ‘Conspiracy of Silence: The Problem of the Male Teacher,’ likely provides the most extensive discussion of sexual abuse by Buddhist teachers available at that time, the late 1980s.

Over time, Boucher spoke with over hundred women. About this fifth part of her book she says:

“This has been a difficult section of the book to complete, a fact that bears witness both to the continuing pain and problems created by these events and to the efforts still being made by some women students to protect their teachers and their institutions from criticism. Patriarchal culture maintains its institutions in part by withholding certain kinds of information about the behavior of leaders and participants. We hide what is going on for a number of reasons: to protect our teachers whom we see as deep Dharma teachers and who have given us so much; to spare younger students the inevitable anguish and questioning that follows disclosure; to maintain the validation and power we get by associating with a powerful male teacher; to protect the institution that provides us with, in some cases, our livelihood, in many cases, our sense of purpose. For all these reasons, many women are reluctant to talk about the discord that has rocked their Buddhist centers as teachers’ behavior was revealed, or to be forthcoming about the damage done to themselves in severely masculine settings.

Several times I wanted to abandon this section of the book, as it became more and more problematic. The reason I persevered is that I believe that as women we cannot afford any longer to maintain, by our silence, the conditions that disable us. In order to move skillfully through the challenges we encounter, we need information. This is information that only we can give to each other, for it will not be printed in the books written by me nor in the brochures of Buddhist centers or told to us by those who welcome us to those centers.

I struggled ahead with this section, also, because of the bravery and clarity of some of the women in its pages who have chosen to speak as honestly as they possibly can about the events they have witnessed, the experiences they have lived. They have, again and again, articulated for me the importance of our letting in the fresh air of just-looking-at-what-really-is, in order that we may help each other to understand and change it.” (pp. 213-214)

Through the testimonies of the women she interviewed, Boucher presents several case studies of abuses by Buddhist teachers and communities throughout the United States in the preceding years. Also, she quotes a group of women who looked back on the abuses they witnessed, and provides some tentative analyses of the psychological and social dynamics seen in abusive communities.

The sixth section of Turning of the Wheel contains another section that focuses on Buddhist responses on (childhood) sexual abuse. This section closes with these remarks about one of Boucher’s sources, Michele:

“It’s clear that Michele’s facing of her own truth has made her brave, for several nights later I see her stand up publicly for what she believes. A panel discussion on spirituality and sexuality features three well-known people in the Buddhist world—one teacher and two authors—and a woman teacher from another tradition. The event takes place in the sanctuary of a church in San Francisco and is attended by hundreds of people. In response to questions from the audience about sexual behavior in relation to spirituality, all of these spiritual guides speak of the positive value of having one-night stands, multiple relationships, of not possessing people, and so forth; not one of them mentions commitment or responsibility in relating. Finally Michele rises from her seat in the audience, goes to the front to climb to the stage, and speaks into a microphone set up for questions. Her voice trembling, she says she wishes to bring forth a viewpoint that has not been presented: the situation in which two people care deeply about each other and express that sexually, which implies responsibility, being faithful not because they seek to possess each other but because they know their having affairs would hurt their lover. When she finishes and leaves the stage, some in the audience applaud.

I catch Michele’s eye as she goes past my row back to her seat, thinking of what she had told me. ‘Every time I speak, I shake for hours, and I cry. But I’m starting to speak.'” (pp. 305-306)

Boucher - Conspiracy of Silence-The Problem of the Male Teacher (1988) REDUX

About the author

Rob Hogendoorn

Investigative reporter and academic researcher Rob Hogendoorn (b. 1964) began researching the reception of Buddhism in Western society and culture in the early 1990s. His modus operandi remained the same ever since: independent, inquisitive and provocative.