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Are you My Teacher? One Seeker's Quest to Deepen Her Practice, Part 2
Submitted by O. Susanna on Sun, 2/27/2011, 4:31pm
How do we know when we're safe with a teacher? lessons from a recent scandal involving a vaunted Buddhist teacher may point the way.
Back when I was growing up in Indiana in the Reagan/Bush years, there wasn’t a sustained and open dialogue about child molestation. What there was instead was a rumor -- persistent, creepy, whispered between friends at school, and sleepovers, and on the bus – that there were ‘dangerous men’ who lived in my neighborhood, and that they tried to ‘touch little kids.’ I didn’t really know what this meant, but I knew it was deeply sinister, and I also knew that the kind of touching they were referring to was implicitly sexual. These guys almost always posed as teachers – giving music lessons, coaching soccer – and thus, situating themselves within easy access to children in vulnerable moments.
I never found myself targeted in one of these awful scenarios, but I was keenly aware of their reality. With an overactive imagination, I lost a fair bit of sleep over the possibility that I might be. Perhaps that explains why the recent revelation of yet another example of a Buddhist teacher being involved in a abusive ways with students sexually has made me anxious and raw as I begin my search for a teacher.
I don’t know Dennis Merzel personally, though I have read his work over the years, being at least marginally interested in the idea of the “Big Mind” (all the links to which he appears to have taken down) and the kind of facilitated, speedy enlightenment it promised. After reading and researching it, I quickly discerned that it was a tempting but empty ruse, as others like Brad Warner have suggested.
But that being said, it’s clear that Dennis Merzel had a large and devoted following, and that he held a position of great esteem in his Sangha in Utah. It’s also clear that by his own admission, he abused his position of power to gain access to women that he wanted to be sexually involved with, and that this not only caused a deep rift of mistrust between him and his sangha, but also, created the conditions for the end of his marriage.
I’m not interested in dissecting Merzel’s actions or knowing the sordid details of what he did, or did not, in the name of selfish disregard for his students. It appears he is making amends, and has in fact disrobed. What I am left wondering is, given that his esteem for his students and his reverence for the teaching process went so terribly wrong, how does one ensure – or rather, trust, since there is no assurance – that they will not be abused by a teacher? How can I use the lessons gleaned from the suffering of others to help me enter into a healthier way of being with a teacher?
There are a few obvious possibilities that could be instructive: don’t choose a male teacher, check your references, and check your gut. Regarding gender, I’ve been somewhat disinclined to attach a specific requirement to the teacher I will seek. I am a gender activist, in my work and in my soul, and it pains me to imagine that around half of all potential teachers (or more, given that Western Buddhism has, to some extent, followed its Eastern forebears in promoting male teachers to the most visible and accessible roles) I might consider are not safe, simply by virtue of being male. And yet—my attempt to find evidence of female teachers sexually abusing their students in a Buddhist context came up empty.
I should check references. This will figure strongly into my quest to find a teacher—I am confident that the word of others and the experiences of learning they have will strongly shape my seeking process. Great, but even then, references may be incomplete. Someone’s experience of a teacher may or may not reflect my own, and the individual dynamics of the teacher/student relationship may go smoothly with one student, tragically awry with another. Genpo Merzel did not sleep with every one of his female students, after all.
Then there’s my gut—my gut, which as a woman living in 21st century America, regularly warns me when I might be in danger, which is approximately every single time I find myself on a dark street, in an isolated place with no clear idea of where I am going, or in a social setting where I’ve had too much to drink and don’t know anyone. My built-in safe-o-meter also seems to spike a bit when anyone who may not have my best interests at heart is in the room, whether it’s actual physical danger or just a less than reputable salesperson. It’s almost laughable how naturally this protective factor kicks in, and I trust it will serve me well in this seeking process. Problem is, I bet a dollar to a donut that some of Genpo Merzel's victims felt the same way about their safe-o-meters.
And so I am left wondering what the reliable warning signs of teacher malfeasance are, especially when they are draped in Buddhist robes. What leads one to take the deep investment others have made in him or her, and turn it into permission to seek self-gratification? What mis-wiring of one’s personal and spiritual development enables a short circuit to secretive, harmful behavior? What, in short, are the signals that a teacher’s heart is not in the right place? And when you spot them, what do you do?
Thankfully, I’m not a kid anymore, trying to make sure I’m not in the back room alone with a creepy music teacher. But the lessons of Genpo Merzel’s behavior remind me, and all of us, that creepy takes many forms, and that “realization” may be one of them.
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