March 16, 2011

Sexual ethics for Buddhist teachers

As @rebelbuddha said on Twitter yesterday, we’re discussing a “hot topic” right now at the Tricycle Book Club. Author Scott Edelstein is responding to everyone’s comments as we explore the many important issues he raises in his new book, Sex and the Spiritual Teacher. And he’s not shying away from any of the hard-hitting questions either. Here's a some of the dialogue happening at the book club right now about sexual ethics for Buddhist teachers:



mgh writes:

Thanks, Scott, for opening up this shadow material. I do have some thoughts about the following comment you made.

"...for instance, in the case of teachers who have harmed some of their students in one-to-one encounters, we should let them make videos and write books and give public talks--but let's refuse to sponsor or endorse any more one-to-one encounters. (And if they've done something illegal, someone may also need to file charges.) This applies regardless of what form the harm has taken."

If a teacher/leader is involved in helping others with recovery from addiction (anything can be used here), it is assumed that they themselves are in recovery. If they relapse, they then take care of their relapse (or not) before they continue on as leader in this area. If you go to a financial adviser and they themselves are in bankruptcy, how can you trust them to advise you? Of course, if they recover from bankruptcy and go on to be financially successful, then they have alot to teach from that experience, as does a teacher in recovery, etc.

Ethics and precepts are the foundation to Buddhism. If a teacher has created serious harm from any kind of abuse, how is it that they can keep teaching, making videos, etc. without really owning and looking at their behaviors? Without making amends to their victims and the sangha? How is it that they can still hold the mantle of a teacher? If you are a monk and break precepts, you disrobe. If a teacher/adviser creates serious harm from abuse, then they need to step aside from that role and go back into retreat!

Thanks again for opening up this discussion!


Edelstein responds:

Another important issue. In an ideal world, teachers who have transgressed would all own up to their misdeeds, make amends, and (if appropriate) trade in their monk's/priest's/nun's robes for ordinary clothing. It sound as if you agree that these folks should be allowed to continue speaking, writing books, etc.

But what about those folks who would keep on exploiting others if they could? How and where do we set the boundary--not in terms of an ideal, but in terms of what can actually work?

Sometimes we can force such folks to don street clothes (and sometimes we can't). We can also--one organization at a time--ban them from teaching one-to-one. But we can't stop them from publishing books or videos. (In the past, the Catholic Church tried banning certain books, which often dramatically increased their sales.)

Public speaking is more of a gray area. Of course, organizations would be wise to not sponsor talks by, say, an unrepenant serial rapist who thinks he's the reincarnation of Buddha or Jesus or Muhammed. But for teachers who have been less exploitive, and less then 100% unrepentant, it's not so obvious where to draw the line re public speaking. The salient principle is keeping people safe, while offering them wise or useful guidance. (Can a teacher who has sexually exploited or abused their students offer wisdom in a public talk? Strange as it sounds, the answer is often--though certainly not always-- yes.)

One-to-one teaching is a different story. It's in these teacher/student relationships where serious harm can be done. That's why it's so important to make these off-limits for teachers who have transgressed.

Should this rule be enforced for the rest of the teacher's life? It depends on the specific teacher and situation, I suppose--but it's better to be too careful than not careful enough.


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