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Are you My Teacher? One Seeker's Quest to Deepen Her Practice, Part 2

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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Comments

Warning Signs

 

Roshi Jan Chozen Bays (who had an affair with Maezumi Roshi while she was his student and they both were married to others) recently wrote a letter about her experience after the affair ended in public disgrace.  Below are the "warning signs" she believes could indicate that a sangha might be vulnerable to abuse;  they seem like very practical and helpful considerations for all of us.   Her full letter can be found here:  http://sweepingzen.com/2011/02/24/response-to-kirsten-mitsuyo-maezumi/

O.Susanna, I'm glad you're sharing your teacher-search and look forward to more posts!

From that study I concluded that early warning signs that a group is headed for trouble are these.

  1. over-adulation of the teacher
  2. too much power residing in the teacher, with lots of “yes” men and women, and no checks and balances
  3. believing that the ends justify the means (as in having healthy young people go on welfare at ZCLA so they could be on “staff”)
  4. talking about us “inside” who know the truth and the “outside world” who do not
  5. resultant loss of outside perspective
  6. lack of clear ethical guidelines, maintained first and foremost by the teachers
  7. resultant misuse of power – monetary, sexual, etc.
  8. secrecy
  9. manipulation, intimidation, coercion or threats

 

Thanks so much, Kim, for

Thanks so much, Kim, for adding your thoughts. I have wondered wished that more women (and men) victimized by unscrupulous Buddhist teachers would share their insights about what to watch out for-- it's an incredibly brave thing to do, but so necessary, at the same time. Natalie Goldberg's book 'the Great Failure' discusses her realization that Katagiri Roshi (her Zen teacher, now dead for many years) was involved with his students, and what a devastating realization that was. I'm grateful to these women for their courage and enduring the backlash that inevitably followed, and to you for bringing it to my attention, as well!

Guidelines I use for myself

As someone who unfortunately has a decent amount of experience with this topic, I have a few rules that guide my own travels in spiritual life:

  • Focus less on finding the “right” mentor or mentors and more on developing healthy relationships based on mutual respect, transparency and kindness.
  • Associate with people you are proud to call your friends. This includes any teacher and other students of that teacher.
  • Keep in touch with people who do spiritual practices very different from yours to help maintain a fresh perspective on your own path. Allow “outside” influence into your spiritual life.
  • Avoid communities where the words of the teacher are used to suppress or end meaningful debate among students. What the teacher says should not be the final word in every case.
  • Avoid teachers / communities that claim they are offering something that cannot be found anywhere else, with anyone else, or claiming something extraordinary about this time in history and the special information / technique now available that has never been available before. This is the most important rule in my opinion. Once people feel like what they are doing is extra-special, it’s much easier to make the jump to extra-deserving-of-physical-comfort-and-sexual-satisfaction.

The book Influence by Robert Cialdini is an also excellent read for anyone who wants to understand more about leader/follower dynamics and avoid common pitfalls associated with teachers and communities of all kinds – even knitting circles ;)

These are pretty great

These are pretty great guidelines, anonymous, and I dare say they could be applied to any process of discernment about one's companions,
above and beyond spiritual seeking. Your last bullet point especially rings true, and is one of the reasons I tend to seek out the least flash-y
spiritual communities, with the least amount of expressed hero worship. Thanks for the book suggestion too- I'll check it out and maybe incorporate some of the ideas into a future blog post.

Guidelines I use for myself

As someone who unfortunately has a decent amount of experience with this topic, I have a few rules that guide my own travels in spiritual life:

    Focus less on finding the “right” mentor or mentors and more on developing healthy relationships based on mutual respect, transparency and kindness.
  • Associate with people you are to call your friends. This includes any teacher and other students of that teacher.
  • Keep in touch with people who do spiritual practices very different from yours to help maintain a fresh perspective on your own path. Allow “outside” influence into your spiritual life.
  • Avoid communities where the words of the teacher are used to suppress or end meaningful debate among students. What the teacher says should not be the final word in every case.
  • Avoid teachers / communities that claim they are offering something that cannot be found anywhere else, with anyone else, or claiming something extraordinary about this time in history and the special information / technique now available that has never been available before. This is the most important rule in my opinion. Once people feel like what they are doing is extra-special, it’s much easier to make the jump to extra-deserving-of-physical-comfort-and-sexual-satisfaction.

The book Influence by Robert Cialdini is an also excellent read for anyone who wants to understand more about leader/follower dynamics and avoid common pitfalls associated with teachers and communities of all kinds – even knitting circles ;)

I am a woman who studied with

I am a woman who studied with a male teacher and shifted to a female teacher. It was a gut feeling. I couldn't pinpoint anything, and felt the teacher above reproach and a model of ethical behavior. But my instinct pulled me away. And then dreams and "signs" began to appear, and I finally felt I had to obey whatever was talking to me from my subconscious. A few months after I left the teacher, a scandal of that sort broke in the sangha. I was stunned. It doesn't in my mind diminish the power of the teaching I received there, or the validity and authenticity of the teacher, but something in the situation wasn't right for me, and I trusted it.

That said, when is your ego telling you to leave a teacher because you just don't like the honest feedback they may be giving you? A good teacher will challenge you, and that is uncomfortable.
Follow your instinct, but take time to be sure it is not your ego trying to protect itself from discomfort.
How do you know the difference? (i have no idea!)
but i feel overwhelming devotion to the teacher i am with now. my heart tells me i am home.

I wish you all good luck on your search for the right teacher.

Thanks for sharing your

Thanks for sharing your story-- which really speaks to the power of listening to gut feelings in determining the best fit for a teacher. Fortunately, six years of graduate school has made me relatively immune to sensitivity of criticism or honest feedback from a teacher-- I've got some pretty thick skin on my heart as a result! I'm banking on the fact that run of the mill discomfort or annoyance with having to face a hard truth feels really different than feeling like a teacher is positioning him or herself to take advantage of you. But your advice is well-taken-- making sure to really reflect on any uncomfortable feelings, and contemplate their potential for my growth, will be key to this process.

thanks for the well-wishes! I hope to find the kind of connection that you have, in my own process.

I have similar questions

I'm not sure that I could surrender to a male teacher.
I have a sense that there may be a line ... I would do what the teacher tells me to do, but I would not let the teacher do something to me. teachers have power over students, and I just can't conceive of a situation where a sexual relationship would not be an abuse of that power.

Another wrinkle...

...is that since people teach most what we need to learn, the people who speak most of integrity and concern for others may only aspire to have that. A person's heart may indeed be "in the right place," but that doesn't guarantee he is able to act on his own highest ideals.

In my experience, one flag that a teacher may not yet be able to walk his talk is the attempt to use "spirituality" as a means to avoid the emotional work involved in healing wounds that lead to abusive patterns.

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