‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ (1993)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

7 minutes

In 1993, Jack Kornfield published The Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life. This book contained a wide-ranging chapter that focused on abusive teachers and communities: ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes: Problems with Teachers.’

Kornfield begins by identifying four main areas of concern: misuse of power; misuse of money; sexual abuse; and addiction to alcohol and drugs. Having discussed the first two, he introduces the issue of sexual abuse:

“A third major area of difficulty is harm through sexuality. Sexual abuse is prevalent throughout our culture, and spiritual communities are not exempt. The teacher’s role can be misused in hypocritical or clandestine sex that contradicts the vows or tenets of the teachings, in forms of exploitation, adultery, and abuse, or other behavior that endangers the physical and emotional well-being of students. I have encountered this in many ways, from Zen masters who solicit sexual favors as part of their meditation instruction sessions (‘Come sit on my lap’), to swamis who have created a secret harem. One Indian teacher I knew who came from the very strictest sect, where celibacy was unquestioned, ended up having secret affairs with many of his married students. Many other lamas, Zen masters, swamis, and gurus have done the same, eventually wreaking havoc on the lives of students and their community.

Sometimes a secret sexual encounter is carried out in the name of ‘tantra,’ or in the name of special teachings. At its worst, there have been cases involving underage boys or girls or the transmission of AIDS to students. All too easily, unconscious sexuality can be mixed up with sincere teachings. One Insight Meditation teacher who recently died used to give naked meditation interviews throughout some retreats and combined his very real gift for teaching with a very confused sexuality.” (p. 257)

About the fourth problem, addiction, Kornfield says:

“A fourth area of problems with teachers and communities involves addiction to alcohol or drugs. Sometimes this is clandestine, sometimes public. (The Zen tradition has a history of famous drunken poets and masters.) Public encouragement for drinking in several communities where the teacher was alcoholic has led many students to follow suit, and certain Buddhist and Hindu communities have needed to start AA groups to begin to deal with their addiction problems. Drug addiction, though less frequent, is also an occasional problem among teachers or in communities. At its worst, clandestine addiction to alcohol and drugs is combined with misuse of sexuality and power.

Students who enter spiritual communities do not imagine they will encounter these kinds of difficulties. Idealism, fantasies, and hopes fail to include these shadow areas as part of their work. However, recent newspaper stories, articles in Easternjournals, and the tenor of o u r times have made students more aware of these problems, and they are beginningto address them. Power, money, sex, alcohol, andinflatedegos are difficulties for humanity at large. Should spiritual teachers be exempt from them? Of course, many spiritual teachers do not abuse their role and are exemplars of virtue and compassion. But because the problems are widespread, it is important to consider how and why these problems arise in order to create more conscious communities in the future. (pp. 257-258)

In the next section, Kornfield refers to his own discussion on ‘The Sex Lives of the Gurus’ in Yoga Journal, eight years previously:

“Most teachers (whether they acknowledge it or not) are only partially enlightened, only partially awake. Buddhist teachings name distinct stages of awakening, in which understanding changes first and character much later. So, after our first experiences, we can give inspiring and genuine lectures on awakening, but only much later on the path will we have transformed the roots of our deepest desires, aggressions, fears, and self-centeredness.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the area of sexuality. The power of sexuality is enormous—it produces all of humanity; it is that creative force that dances through all of life. Yet its exclusion from much of spiritual life has been disastrous.

Hoping to bring greater openness and awareness to this area of community life, some years ago I wrote an article for Yoga Journal called ‘The Sex Lives of Gurus.’ I interviewed fifty-three Zen masters, lamas, swamis, and/or their senior students about their sex lives and the sexual relations of the teachers. What I discovered was quite simple. The birds do it, the bees do it, and most gurus do it too. Like any group of people in our culture, their sexual practices varied. There were heterosexuals, bisexuals, homosexuals, fetishists, exhibitionists, monogamists, and polygamists. There were teachers who were celibate and happy, and those who were celibate and miserable; there were those who were married and monogamous, and those who had many clandestine affairs; there were teachers who were promiscuous and hid it; and there were those who were promiscuous and open about it; there were teachers who made conscious and committed sexual relationships an aspect of their spiritual lives; and there were many more teachers who were no more enlightened or conscious about their sexuality than everyone else around them. For the most part the ‘enlightenment’ of many of these teachers did not touch their sexuality.

Traditionally, in Asia, vows and moral precepts have protected teachers and students from sexual and other forms of misconduct. In Japan, Tibet, India, and Thailand, the precepts against harm by stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, or abuse of intoxicants are understood and followed by all members of the religious community. Even where certain precepts have been relaxed or modified (such as allowable drinking in China or Japan), everyone understands certain strict cultural norms for the behavior of teachers. Whole communities support this, for example, by dressing modestly to protect the teacher and student from sexual interest, by jointly knowing the appropriate limits concerning the use of intoxicants or power.

In modern America these rules are often dispensed with, and neither TV preachers nor Eastern spiritual teachers have clear rules of behavior regarding money, power, and sex. Our society brings money to teachers or offers them enormous power without any clear guidelines. Alcohol and drugs are freely used in the West without any great moral compunction; lacking a clear commitment to traditional monastic guidelines, who is to say how much a teacher should drink? Spiritual practice without any common commitment to traditional precepts and vows can lead both teachers and students astray. Communities need to clarify their vows for the long-term benefit of teachers and students alike.”

Next, Kornfield specifically addresses the issue of “transference and projection”:

“To further understand the difficulties of teachers and communities, we must acknowledge the intense forces of idealism and projection that operate in spiritual relationships. ‘Transference,’ as it is called in Western psychology, is the unconscious and very powerful process in which we transfer or project on to some authority figure, a man or a woman, the attributes of someone significant in our past, often our parents. Like young children, we tend to see them as all good or all bad, as we did before we could understand how complex human beings can be. We hope they will take care of all of our problems, or fear they will judge us the way our parents did, or look to them for what we wanted to get from our parents.

People project a great deal on to their teachers. A good image for understanding this is that of falling in love. We ‘fall in love’ with spiritual teachers. We seek a place for love, perfect goodness, and perfect justice, and in longing for it so deeply, we project it on to another person. In spiritual romanticism, we imagine that our teachers are what we want them to be, instead of seeing their humanness. For students whose families and schooling taught them never to question but to hand over their power to authorities, this tendency is particularly strong.

Transference is rarely addressed in spiritual communities, whereas in psychological, therapeutic relationships it is purposely discussed so that clients can eventually come to relate realistically to the therapist and the world around them.

Transference and idealization have a powerful effect on teachers as well as students. They create a climate of unreality, and often feed the teacher’s isolation. When the teacher is insecure or lonely, student projections increase these feelings. When students see a teacher asperfect, the teacher may become similarly deluded.

A teacher may be surrounded by adoring devotees and yet have no peers, no one with whom he or she can have an open and honest conversation. They may have little private life and always be on duty for the spiritual needs of the community. They will often be mother, father, confessor, healer, administrator, master, and camp counselor all rolled into one. Few people realize the extent to which teachers can be isolated in their role, especially in communities where they are the sole acknowledged leader. The process of transference increases this isolation and is one of the key reasons for teacher misconduct. After some time, the unmet needs and unfinished business in a teacher will arise and be drawn into the fire of the community.

The problem of transference is sometimes made even greater by the nature of the students who come to spiritual communities. We have already noted how often spiritual centers draw lonely and wounded people. People come to spiritual practice looking for family, looking for love, for the good mother or father they never had. They look for healing, for friendship and support, in the difficult task of livingin our society. They hope their spiritual community will provide the wonderful family they never had. But if the practice of the community doesn’t address the unfinished family issues and pain of its members, then these deficiencies will continue to intensify. When a number of unconscious and needy community members live and practice together, they can easily re-create their old painful family system in the spiritual center. In an unconscious way, they may live out their fear, anger, or depression in a new ‘spiritual’ version. Margaret Mead put it this way: ‘No matter how many communes anybody invents, the family always creeps back.’

Even when students become aware of community problems, they may be afraid to confront them or leave because they don’t want to lose their ‘family’ again, just as abused children choose to go back to their abusive parent because the feeling of belonging is so important.

But if members of a community are unable to deal with their dependence, insecurity, and other threatening issues, further dependence, hypocrisy, and isolation will result. Genuine spiritual communities must acknowledge and make conscious these difficulties. Almost every community will inevitably have some difficulties and problems. Some will be ordinary, some will involve teacher misconduct. Although the great majority of teachers are not unscrupulous, whenever idealism, inflation, compartmentalization, and confusion of teacher role and needs exist, abuse and exploitation can still result.’

Kornfield concludes this chapter by listing some best practices to deal with “teacher-community problems.”

Kornfield - The Emperor's New Clothes-Problems with Teachers (1993)

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.