Author Topic: Abuse of Power in the Sangha: Featured Topic, Winter Issue, Buddhadharma mag  (Read 1376 times)

Offline mysticmorn

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Buddhadharma Quarterly is the first of the Dharma media outlets, as far as I know, to break the silence on a pernicious problem that has plagued more than a few Buddhist sanghas and teacher-student relationships since the time Mahayana Buddhism was introduced to Westerners in the 1960's: corrupt teachers and the abuse of trust in the teacher. Unethical teachers. Longtime practitioner and psychotherapist Rob Preece provides an important analysis of the dynamics involved, in an article titled "Our Teachers Are Not Gods".

The author cautions against idealizing the teacher in the face of teachings that exhort students to view the teacher as the Buddha, and therefore as infallible. He says he came to the realization that guru devotion practices backed up by teachings that say that perceiving flaws in the teacher or criticizing him would lead to tremendous suffering, had "tied [him] into a belief system that acted as a powerful snare using very skillful rationale".  Not all teachers are have enough integrity to be able to handle being put on a pedestal, he observes; idealization of the teacher and the abandonment of discernment that goes hand-in-hand with that "can cause [teachers] to become self-centered or narcissistic. Occasionally this can lead to bullying and even cruel and abusive behavior with students.  ...  So often this reflects the narcissism of the teacher rather than some kind of enlightened skillful means."

Preece continues, to point out that "the most critical issue that arises in relationship to the teacher is the potential loss of appropriate boundaries. For a relationship between a teacher and student to be healthy psychologically and emotionally, ethical boundaries must be clear.  [...]  Our teachers need to hold clear boundaries around their emotional and physical behavior so that it does not become harmful to students. [...]  Sadly, this integrity is sometimes lacking, and teachers--both Eastern and Western--can become a kind of law unto themselves, creating their own culture with boundaries that are arbitrary or absent.  This culture can become like a dysfunctional family; a teacher becomes an all-powerful parent whose needs and wishes are paramount."

He quotes the Dalai Lama in instructing that "Should the guru manifest un-dharmic qualities or give teachings contradicting dharma, the instruction on seeing the spiritual master as perfect must give way to reason and dharma wisdom.   [...] Too much faith and imputed purity ... can quite easily turn things rotten."

The solution is for students to not relinquish their autonomy and critical thinking to the teacher. Respect for the teacher's knowledge is one thing, heedless devotion is quite another, and potentially problematic.  "If things go wrong, then it is for us as students to take responsibility for how we respond. If our teachers make mistakes, it us up to us to address and even challenge them when necessary," Preece concludes.

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This is a good beginning for creating a discussion of the pitfalls of putting the teacher on too high a pedestal without screening them first, to see if they merit that depth of trust. What did readers think of the article?

I'd like to add that the practice of guru devotion is something normally practiced only at the highest level of teachings. It is not for beginning or intermediate students. Any teacher that urges students to view him or her as the Buddha himself, and to show appropriate devotion, when only teaching basic meditation techniques or introductory or basic texts, should be avoided as a potential predator at worst, manipulative and deceptive at best. It's not appropriate to introduce guru devotion outside of Highest Yoga Tantra, a highly esoteric course of study exclusive to the most advanced students who choose that path.

Having participated in a variety of sanghas representing a variety of traditions, I've never heard mention of guru devotion.  Bear in mind that most teachers are not imbued with any special wisdom; they're merely teaching the same root texts with the same commentary their own teachers presented to them. Most of what is taught in the earlier stages of study is read from routine texts with memorized commentary, or textually-based commentary. Some teachers may be adept at putting the commentary into colloquial language, but there's nothing magical or personally-inspired about the concepts they present. Parroting what they learned in their studies doesn't make them inherently "wise".  It makes them good lecturers. The Buddha was wise.

At the early and intermediate stages of study (which take years to cover), the teacher is more like a university professor or graduate student instructor; some may have a lower level "degree" in their studies, others may have their Geshe degree (PhD equivalent), but indeed, they are not gods. They're just instructors.  There's no call to view them as quasi-divine. An ethical teacher won't require that. A teacher with ulterior motives will. An alert and conscientious student will know the difference between the two.

« Last Edit: January 08, 2015, 12:06:30 am by mysticmorn »

Offline Dharmakara

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If I recall correctly, this isn't the first time that Buddhadharma Quarterly has published an article in regard to the subject in general, and they're certainly not the first of the Dharma media outlets to break the silence on this problem --- it's actually been a problem for quite a while, with articles having appeared in most publications, including Mandala Magazine, Tricycle Review, and Elephant Journal, not to mention the number of times that the Buddhist Channel has covered the issue through the years.

Offline mysticmorn

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Really? That's good to know. I'd gotten the distinct impression it was a taboo issue, or controversial, at least, in the mainstream publications.

Oh well. I guess it's old news then, lol. But I found it useful that a psychologist dharma practitioner gave his perspective.

Offline DCEA108

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At the heart of a current dilemma for me is my (vajrayana) samaya with my guru and how it is affected by his Sangha's Administrative coverup of crimes against myself. I feel that I am unable to practice in that Sangha per my Guru's instruction. Every effort the Administration has made to protect me from the abuse which they acknowledge has come to nothing but a lack of courage in them to satisfy myself that they have addressed, or neutralised the abuse. I have been told that they will not question the alleged perpetrator for fear of "...creating legal problems...". I feel events are obliging me to choose a different Guru. This feels fundamentally wrong, as well as counterproductive for my path. The teachings which he represents have benefitted many and on balance I find tremendous wisdom in them to this day. Here then is a narrative to put things in perspective for the reader. Clearly there is much left out, so please keep an open mind.


I was one of 12 Staff at a residential Retreat Centre in 2014. It hosts around 1,000 guests annually. My role was as Health, Safety and Security Officer, on the physical, emotional and spiritual levels. The position was senior management. In investigating a Water Boil Advisory, the person responsible for wilfully supplying officially non potable water to over 600 guests and Staff over a period of 56 days became convinced that I should lose my job as I was acting beyond my remit. She had well recognised, unaddressed mental health concerns, by her own admission. She had been responsible for the departure from Staff of four others in that year alone.

I became the victim of attempted murder following a three month campaign of bullying at the hands of three of the Staff and, more subtly the "psychoemotionally deaf" Centre Director, in the words of my former Supervisor. This bullying included five physical assaults, two of them witnessed and an almost hourly litany of noises at night, doors slammed in my face, verbal abuse in front of participants, improperly witheld pay etc. etc.

In one of them, the Assistant Director removed my assailant from my person. The assailant was the one responsible for the non potable water. She has a somewhat co-dependent relationship with the Centre going back 20 years or more. However, the Assistant Director denied witnessing the assault, and does so to this day. A week later, my vehicle was twice sabotaged, once with life endangering consequences to myself and unknown others.

The Sangha is unwilling to discuss either the demon, or the actions of the people who appear to have perpetrated these crimes. I feel the Sangha is unsafe, its integrity compromised and its residential intensive programmes unavailable to me. My Guru is inaccessible to myself as he is surrounded by self-serving administrators who are covering up crime.

After many failed internal conflict resolution processes the Administration advises that I approach the Police, practice, study and get counselling. Some of those processes are elaborate. In one, the information I shared with the Panel at their request and "in confidence" was shared with undisclosed people and without explanation despite my repeated requests. That information contains my sources for monitoring the activities of the alleged perpetrators.

Having fled the country in December 2014 I am unable to fully engage in the Police enquiry which I have begun. It is compromised on the other end by silver tongues who skillfully apply the Dharma to create an appearance of fairness on their part and madness on my own. For instance, the Assistant Director told the Police that the Centre is safe for me because my assailant and I had attended mediation on one occasion. I am unable to muster support for my case in the community around the Centre, if only because nobody wants to admit that such activity may have occurred and I am conveniently on another continent. Such a discussion necessarily casts a poor light on the Sangha which it seems everybody in it wants to avoid as it reflects on them personally in many ways. As such, the Police concluded in 2015 that the Sangha is safe, despite much documentary evidence from within that it is not. They failed to interview the Director concerned prior to their conclusion, which was prepared while he was being fired.

I have spent 7 years cultivating a relationship with my Guru. I married a Sangha member in August 2015 whose best friend is intimately associated with the core of our Sangha's Administration. For instance she hired the Director's replacement after he was removed for, "...failing to resolve conflict between Staff" but did nothing to address my ongoing lack of safety in that practice container. She is coming to stay with us in a few months. I am unable to attend the annual summer residential intensive programmes for fear of my life.

While I alone am responsible for my enlightenment, and having taken many vows including "The Bodhisattva Vow", I am curious how to act. I have seen much benefit in my own life and others' lives from these Teachings and wish to propogate them for the sake of sanity. However, to continue to practice in my Guru's Sangha is to face more slander, and my unresolved attempted murder and the threat of further violence.

I have had a rich experience here which I would like to see benefit others. Primarily, my concern here is for those Sangha members, indeed Centre Staff who felt that sabotaging a vehicle was a reasonable response to an investigation into the wilful serving of non potable water to hundreds of people, including the Sangha's leader and his pregnant wife. Further, there may yet be some benefit to the Administration in pursuing this discussion as they clearly feel that the two vehicular sabotages should not be reported to the Police by themselves even though they are aware of the overhelming possibility that they were conducted by Centre Staff and have a fiduciiary responsibility to report a crime in the organisation. Indeed, the Assistant Director at the time advised me to cease my investigation due to the violence and to allow the continued illegal removal of the Boil Water Advisory Notices despite the Director's view that doing so compromised his personal liability.

The Director recognised that a threat to my life had occurred in this case and sent out an email to 14 of the most senior Administrators appealing for help in making the Centre "safe" for me, without response. In fact, since that email in December 2014 I have received no recognition of the disruption this has caused my life or assurance that this behaviour has been investigated by the Sangha's Administration. To my mind, this is what our leader's father and the Sangha's founder referred to as, Idiot Compassion.

A very senior Sangha member and former PR Chief of Amnesty International has encouraged me to report to the Police referring to the incident not as "wilful or reckless sabotage" but as "attempted murder, while simultaneously engaging the Organisation's Grievance Procedures. I did so and found that the Police were lied to by the Centre's Assistant Director, failed to interview the Director or the alleged perpetrators and advise me that the Centre was safe for me. I agreed to disagree with that conclusion and have since collected sufficient evidence to show that there is a coverup of a number of crimes against me here.

I feel that my Guru's Lineage and its Teachings are being co-opted by charlatanism. Do I not have a responsibility to act? Is it as simple as pursuing the Police investigation by presenting more evidence in different ways? Or, as I have been informally advised by a senior Judge and friend, should I, "Leave those nasty people behind with the shame they must, at some level feel" ? What does my samaya oblige me to do? Surely with the correct motivation (i.e. to benefit others) I could pursue this Police action, even though it may appear as though I am seeking retribution?

While I have approached my Guru on this directly, his response also directed me to request the conflict resolution process which in turn shared my reports without my consent, contrary to its solemn undertakings and without explanation. That Panel's findings were found, on Appeal, to be remiss with respect to its Policies: it had failed to attempt to resolve the conflict which by then existed between myself and the Director. Those Appeal findings were delivered in January 2016.

Both the Panel's and the Appeal's findings failed to make any mention of attempted murder (perhaps unsurprisingly), vehicular sabotage, physical assault or mob bullying. However, when I interviewed with the former President of the Organisation, he was very clear: I should NOT refer to these acts as "wilful or negligent sabotage" but distinctly as "attempted murder".

On the issue of the resulting uncompensated redundancy which I experienced, at one day's notice shortly after the final physical assault, the Appeal by the leader's Secretary found that no compensation is due, based on the Director's slanderous false quotes of myself and my supervisor. My supervisor has remained silent on that, leaving the Secretary's findings unchallenged. I had moved my entire life to serve three years at this Centre and create a new community for myself. I brought with me an 11 ton container of a 30 year collection of woodworking tools to set up a business in Joint Venture with the Centre. My moving costs were in excess of $10,000. On account of the illegal and unauthorised nature of the proposed Joint Venture I was compensated for those initial moving expenses but not for the equivalent return costs.

I am unable to revert to my Guru as he resides on another continent. His Secretary, through whom ALL requests for access to my Guru go has recently closed the file on this issue. While he emphatically stated in January 2016 that he is unable to make a "binding decision" on the issue of my compensation, after I presented evidence of the Director's slander against me he stated, in July 2016 that his decision is in fact binding and the discussion, closed.

Any comments will be most appreciated. Many thanks in advance.


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