‘The Elephant in the Meditation Hall’ (1990)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

10 minutes

When Katy Butler’s long essay ‘Encountering the Shadow in Buddhist America’ was published in Common Boundary (May-June 1990), it was but one part of a special issue on abusive spiritual teachers and communities in all but name.

Dubbed ‘The Elephant in the Meditation Hall,’ this extensive discussion of abusive behaviour by spiritual teachers, many of whom were Buddhists, was introduced by editor Anne Simpkinson:

“American spiritual communities—Hindu, Buddhist, ‘New Age’—have also had their share of problems created by teachers blurring the lines of propriety and right action. The list of spiritual teachers who violated sexual boundaries with students has grown steadily over the years.

Concerned about this and other issues, Common Boundary sponsored a think tank at the College of Preachers on the grounds of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., in June 1988. Fourteen people were invited to explore psychotherapy’s relationship to meditation. Why spiritual groups go awry was one of the topics discussed. During the two days of conversation, think tank participants talked about personal experiences with spiritual teachers and gurus, the psychological dynamics of spiritual communities, narcissism, ethics and crazy wisdom. Alter the mecting, senior editor Joanne Sanders began transcribing and editing the tapes from that meeting. The fruits of her efforts, published on page 24, highlight various facets of the issue and underscore the complexity of teacher-student, teacher-community relationships.

In early 1989, national media—The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, The Washington Post and others—carried stories about Osel Tendzin, head of Vajradhatu, the largest branch of Tibetan Buddhism in the U.S., who reportedly was infected with the AIDS virus for several years and did not tell sexual partners of his condition.

‘The Current Situation’—TCS, as it was dubbed by the Vajradhatu community—got us thinking again about the implications of teachers breaching their communities’ trust. Katy Butler, who reported on the 1983 crisis at San Francisco Zen Center for Co-Evolution Quarterly, agreed to explore the larger issues related to scandals in American Buddhist communities. Her report takes a systems approach to the problems. Rather than simply scapegoat the teacher, Butler looks at larger forces at work: community member complicity and collusion; addictive behavior that breeds patterns of denial, shame and secrecy; and cultural clashes between East and West.

Butler, a practicing Buddhist and journalist, said she struggled to find ‘a language that neither blames nor denies and that does not reduce the religious impulse to psychological terms.’

In writing the article, she said she was reminded of a proverb: When a pickpocket sees a saint, he sees only pockets. ‘In this piece I hope to see with more than a pickpocket’s eyes,’ she said. ‘I hope to be part of a long conversation among American Buddhists, seeking to create more sustainable, less damaging communities.’

My hope is that both articles in this issue help us recognize not only the elephant in the meditation hall, but elephants wherever they may be.”

The first box text that was printed alongside Butler’s essay says:

“In the late 1960s, a bright-eyed, patrician woman I know entered San Francisco Zen Center intending to give her heart to the practice. She was in her early twenties, shaken by a failing marriage, with a fierce, lionhearted energy that kept her back straight for longhours in the meditation hall. Several years after the death of her first teacher, her second teacher—who was married—pressured her to abandon her plans to attend the rigorous winter training period at the Tassajara monastery and to become his personal assistant. She resisted for months, knowing that this would mean living in his house and traveling with him. After she finally agreed, he asked her to enter what he called a ‘practice relationship’ with him that was to be kept a secret from the rest of the community.

‘I’d never really felt intimate, never really felt known before,’ she told me recently. ‘Until he began to relate sexually to me, he had been the most important man I’d ever met, a wonderful teacher. He touched my deepest primal self, and I felt the promise of a spiritual intimacy that I longed for with my whole being, I very much hoped that by breaking through to that forbidden area I would somehow, magically, break through to all that was held frozen and paralyzed within me.’

For six years, my friend remained enmeshed in this secret sexual relationship. It healed none of her old wounds; it created new ones. She becamea priest, but at the same time, she was guilt-ridden, isolated by secrecy from the rest of the community, and yet unable to pull away. Even after ending the relationship, she guarded its secret for years. She ultimately gave up her priest’s robes, left the community and entered therapy to repair the damage.

‘As soon aswebecame sexually involved, any possibility of real spiritual intimacy with him ended,’ she told me recently. ‘And so did my trust of my own inner center. It felt like incest to me—it was very physically unrewarding, and after every time, I would feel just destroyed.’

My friend’s experience was not unique. Presumed taboos against sexual relationships between students and spiritual teachers from Asian traditions are frequently broken. When they end badly, these relationships cause the same damage seen in women sexually abused by therapists: guilt, emptiness, suppressed rage and an inability to trust.

In the worst cases, women have tried to kill themselves, have been confined to mental hospitals, or have seen their marriages, their self-confidence or their religious vocations destroyed.

Jack Kornfield, a psychologist and co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society, informally surveyed 54 Buddhist, Hindu and Jain teachers in the United States as well as their students. In a 1985 Yoga Journal article, ‘Sex Lives of the Gurus,’ he reported that 15 of 54 were celibate. Thirty-four of the remaining 39—including Tibetan lamas, Zen roshis, vipassana meditation teachers and Indian swamis—had had sexual relationships with their students, ranging from one-night stands to committed relationships ending in marriage. Half of the students told Kornfield that the relationships ‘undermined their practice, their relationship with their teacher, and their feelings of self-worth,’ he wrote.

Kornfield, a former Theravadan monk, said the teachers’ motivation was not always a misuse of power, but a lack of training in the psychological dynamics of transference and counter-transference and ‘a longing for contact and intimacy, a longing to step out of the isolating role of teacher.’ Not all the relationships were disastrous, Kornfield added.

Many teachers, from all traditions, including Kornfield, have married students or staff members they met during retreats.

The late Maurine Stuart-roshi, a Zen teacher based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, distinguished between sexuality and sexual abuse when she broke off contact with Eido Shimano roshi of New York. ‘I wasn’t judgmental about sex, or about a teacher having sex with a student, but in this situation it was an unloving act,’ she told author Helen Tworkov, who profiled Stuart in Zen in America. ‘It was the misuse of sex—and of women—and the manipulations that were so devastating.’

While the distinction between sexuality and sexual abuse is a valuable one, others argue that such relationships almost always turn out badly because of enormous differences in power, experience and hope between the people involved. Peter Rutter, M.D., a San Francisco Jungian analyst, believes women are drawn into such relationships by psychological wounds: a background of incest, the desire to be deeply seen or the hope of spiritual and psychological healing.

But the promise of healing almost always goes unfulfilled, explained Rutter, author of Sex in the Forbidden Zone: When Therapists, Doctors, Clergy, Teachers and Other Men in Power Betray Women’s Trust.

‘The number of healthy relationships that emerge are minuscule,’ he said in a recent interview. ‘The damage is almost universal, and it is absolutely identical, whether the relationships take place within imported Eastern disciplines or Western psychotherapy.’ Rutter says the relationships bear the hallmarks, and cause the damage, of incest relationships. ‘There’s the same difference in power, the built-in admiration for the symbolic father, and the inability to displease him or see that he is damaging her.’

‘These relationships are mostly temporary, and the women are usually discarded,’ Rutter said. ‘They break the student’s connection to his or her own spiritual source, and that connection can be forever lost.’

A second box text to go with Butler’s article lists “a sampling” of then-known abuse cases within Buddhist communities in America:

The Zen Studies Society of New York: In 1975, 1979 and 1982, the married Japanese abbot, Eido Tai Shimano-roshi, was accused of seducing emotionally vulnerable women students—accusations he has repeatedly denied.

San Francisco Zen Center: In 1983, American abbot Richard Baker, successor to Shunryu Suzuki-roshi, resigned under pressure after affairs with women students, including his best friend’s wife, were acknowledged. In 1987, Baker-roshi’s successor Reb Anderson was arrested waving a loaded pistol in a public housing project shortly after being robbed at knife‐point. Investigators discovered that Anderson had taken the pistol four years earlier from the body ofa suicide he discovered in a park. He had not informed the police. Anderson took a six-month leave of absence from administrative responsibilities and now shares the abbacy with another teacher.

Zen Center of Los Angeles: In 1983, Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi-roshi, a married Japanese abbot, entered an
alcoholism treatment program and openly apologized to his students for affairs with several women students, including a teen-age girl.

Kwan Um Zen School (Rhode Island): In April 1987, it was revealed that the widely respected and supposedly celibate Korean Zen teacher, Soen Sa Nim, had had secret, long-term sexual relationships with two women students.

Insight Meditation Society (Barre, Massachusetts): In the early 1980s, American meditation teacher Jack Kornfield flew to India and confronted an elderly, celibate Indian teacher who had sexually approached a young woman student during a retreat in Massachusetts. Kornfield, representing the Insight Meditation sangha, told the teacher he would have to openly discuss the incident in a community forum before he would be invited back to teach in the United States. It is one of the few cases where an American Buddhist community has confronted sexual boundary violations before they became unmanageable.”

This issue of Common Boundary continues with a report on the “think tank” it sponsored in June 1988. Under the heading “Crazy Wisdom,” this discussion follows:

D[aniel] Goleman: In the therapeutic tradition of the West, there’s a strong ethical tradition against abusing the power of the therapeutic relationship, although some therapists do. When spiritual teachers come to the West, there’s an ethical rhetoric, but there’s no one to see that it’s not abused. There’s typically a metabelief that everything that’s happening is for your own good. But there’s good reason to question whether everything that happens is for your own good.”

[Kathleen] Speeth: Crazy wisdom.

D. Goleman: Is it crazy or is it wisdom?

Tara Bennett-Goleman: Beings who can break the rules must have a more sophisticated understanding of karma than the rest of us. Karma is really about the intent behind actions. Maybe they know they’re not going to hurt anybody when they do something.

D. Goleman: It’s OK to be crazy if you have the wisdom.

Frances Vaughan: Crazy wisdom deliberately says that conventional morality no longer applies. That’s where you get into difficulties.

Edinger discusses the value of disobedience in his book Ego and Archetype. My understanding is that any new level of consciousness is always preceded by breaking the rules of the former level of identification. The rules that are important at one stage of development may have to be broken in order to move on to the next stage.

For example, in separating from parents it may be necessary to break the rules in order to become an autonomous person.

Joseph Goldstein: The tricky issue is the motivation behind breaking the rules. It seems so easy to justify one’s desires in the name of crazy wisdom or growth.

Thomas Hurley: I think our society has encouraged a cult of the individual. We cherish individuality and individual freedom. Perhaps we are attracted to crazy wisdom because it appears to free us from both conventional morality and the conformist aspects of any morality.

Goldstein: I had an experience that may have relevance to our particular American cultural conditioning in which following a rule was more radical than breaking it. Following a Buddhist precept opened up a whole new dimension that, in my American ‘There’s nothing wrong with this’ attitude, I was missing out on.

Some time ago, I decided to stop drinking for a while. All these years I didn’t see anything wrong with having a beer or a glass of wine. It felt fine. But I wanted to see what would happen when I didn’t. It was a big difference, a real shift in consciousness. I never would have I suspected it because it seems like such an ordinary thing. So I think there’s a lot of power we may be missing because of our rebelliousness.”

The special section ‘The Elephant in the Meditation Hall’ closes with a report on a conference between the fourteenth Dalai Lama and Western psychotherapists held in Newport Beach, October 5-7, 1989.

This meeting became especially memorable because around midday on October 5, the Dalai Lama was notified that he had won the Nobel Peace Prize. That afternoon’s session focused on “Spiritual Teachers Who Abuse Power.”

During his discussion with the psychotherapists, perhaps for the first time in recorded history, the Dalai Lama volunteered that he had been receiving “a number of letters of complaint related to teacher abuses of power. It is reported thus:

“[Jack] Engler brought up the topic by saying, ‘Every other week, I hear of another therapist who is accused of misusing power, of sexually abusing clients.’ He noted that the situation is similar in American Buddhist communities where spiritual teachers have had sexual relations with students. He explained that in the Western psychotherapeutic tradition, a therapist’s license to practice can be revoked. ‘How should we handle this with Buddhist teachers?’ he asked.

The Dalai Lama replied that part of the blame rests with the students. ‘They pamper and spoil the teacher,’ he said. He went on to explain that in the East, no piece of paper certifies a spiritual teacher. ‘You are a lama because you have students,’ he explained. He suggested that Western students take time to cultivate a relationship with a teacher. ‘Go slowly. Take two, five, ten years.’ Regard the teacher only as a spiritual friend, he instructed. He also warned against seeing all the teacher’s actions as noble and divine, adding that it is appropriate for students to criticize a
teacher’s unsuitable behavior.

‘But that puts all the responsibility on the students, not any on the apparently enlightened one,’ Bolen responded. The Dalai Lama answered that although the guru is responsible for his behavior, students must guard against excessive devotion and blind acceptance. ‘But the relationship starts out unequally,’ Engler interjected. ‘A person seeking help is more vulnerable to being mistreated.’

At this point, the Dalai Lama seemed to soften his stance. He admitted having received a number of letters of complaint related to teacher abuses of power. He then suggested establishing a board that would select or recommend teachers to American centers that requested them. The board could also withdraw teachers if their behavior deteriorates. ‘It is hard for students to judge whether a teacher is qualified or not,’ he admitted.”

Common Boundary (May-June 1990 pp. 5, 14-22, 24-29, 37-40) 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.