Sex and the Spiritual Teacher

A Tricycle Book Club Discussion with Scott Edelstein

This book is about spiritual teachers who have sex with their students, the suffering that such encounters often cause, and what all of us can do about it.

This is not a book of finger-pointing or whistle-blowing. Nor does it defend or apologize for spiritual teachers who lose their way. In fact, as we will see, the more we attack or defend wayward teachers, the more we encourage their waywardness.

Instead, this book is intended to create greater safety and spiritual intimacy between spiritual teachers and their students, and among members of spiritual communities.

Everything in this book is eminently practical and down-to-Earth. It’s about real human emotions, interactions, and dilemmas—and genuine safety and suffering. Almost nothing in it is academic or theoretical. It’s written for anyone who is (or hopes to become) part of a spiritual community: students, teachers, clergy, lay leaders, and even casual visitors.

Although my hope is that a great many spiritual communities will use this book, it’s not a mere manual or guidebook. It’s a book of inquiry, awareness, and social and spiritual change.

The problem of spiritual teachers seducing or sexually abusing their students tarnishes every spiritual tradition, in seemingly every culture—and recorded cases go back many hundreds of years. These misdeeds damage the lives of women and men, children and adults, the rich and the poor, the foolish and the wise, the gullible and the discerning.

A list of spiritual teachers who have committed sexual transgressions during the past few decades reads almost like a Who’s Who of modern spiritual figures, and includes priests, ministers, rabbis, gurus, yogis, roshis, senseis, swamis, lamas, maggids, and imams. Sometimes their misconduct involves other transgressions as well (misappropriation of money, physical or emotional abuse, attempted brainwashing, etc.). This widespread misconduct has created scandal after scandal for these teachers, and much suffering for their students and spiritual communities.

With very few exceptions, each of these teachers is or was male; each offered something genuinely worthwhile to their students; each knew that sex with their students could have potentially damaging consequences for those students; and each—including those teachers raised in other cultures—understood that the prevailing social norms prohibited such sexual relationships. Many of these teachers were married, and thus had vows of fidelity to uphold, as well as (presumably) willing sexual partners. Some had taken vows of celibacy. So why did they act against the best interests of their students, their own spiritual communities, and, ultimately, themselves?

There are five commonly accepted answers to this question. They are deeply divergent, and in some cases mutually exclusive:

1. These transgressions are rare exceptions—the outcomes of a few troubled teachers’ psychological problems.
2. Men are pigs. Whether they’re spiritual teachers, college professors, or plumbers, men just can’t keep their pants zipped up.
3. Spiritual teachers are all frauds who delude others, themselves, or both.
4. The misconduct is not about sex, but power. The spiritual teachers are power junkies, and sex is simply a means of exercising their power.
5. The previous four positions are all bogus. The teacher and the student are both consenting adults who are responsible for their own actions. These so-called transgressions are legitimate, consensual relationships.

In this book I argue that all five of these explanations are largely off the mark. In part this is because each one lumps all sexual transgressions together, as if they were variations on a single consistent theme (which they are not); in part it is because they assume that all transgressing teachers share a single personality profile (which, of course, they don’t).

In fact, as we look closely, we will see that there are three distinct types of spiritual teachers who lose their way: exploiters, errants, and exceptionalists. In Chapter 2, I look at and define each of these groups; I also discuss the common variations within each group.

Similarly, the catch-all term “sexual misconduct” covers a very wide range of transgressions, from felonies to exploitation to poor judgment. These include (from most to least harmful) sexual assault; role bait-and-switch; sex as a spiritual teaching or tool; power plays; sex as a prize or honor; verbal manipulation; inauthentic professions of love and/or proposals of marriage; sexual dealmaking; ordinary seduction (or attempted seduction); simple, straightforward offers of sex; and giving in to mutual attraction. Teachers who transgress in any of the first ten ways are unlikely to maintain long-term monogamy or celibacy, and should not normally be permitted to continue as teachers. However, for some teachers who give in to mutual attraction, and do so only once, there is considerable hope.

Furthermore, there is much that we can do—as individuals, spiritual communities, and a society—to help prevent our spiritual teachers from losing their way. The last nine chapters of this book offer a wide array of these practical preventive measures.

Scott Edelstein has studied happily and productively with several spiritual teachers, including Toni Packer, Dainin Katagiri, Tim McCarthy, and (currently) Steve Hagen. He has also served as editor and literary agent for two well-known teachers. He is a longtime practitioner of both Buddhism and Judaism, and a committed proponent of serious spirituality in all forms and traditions.

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Scott Edelstein's picture

On page 17 of Sex and the Spiritual Teacher, and in the Notes section in back, I provide quite a few sources. (Go to amazon.com and search inside the book.) Researchers Peter Rutter, Karen McClintock, and Marie Fortune of FaithTrust institute have done lots of work on this subject. McClintock reports that roughly 30% of clergy across denominations anonymously report having crossed a sexual boundary and had sex with one or more congregants.

So it might be fair to say that sexual misconduct is currently rampant among many denominations. But I called out the Roman Catholics because sexual transgression among Catholic spiritual teachers (as opposed to their ordinary clergy, such as parish priests, etc.) seems to be quite rare. Those folks are doing something right.

fairway Linda's picture

ha! Thank you Mr Edelstein. I am a piece more in fear of my mechanic than I am of my doctor (even though I see a lot of the one and not much of the other) but I get your point! I commented on another blog that it was very sad to see the children of the "me" generation suffer for their parent's selfishness. How much of ethics is worrying about doing wrong? But the me generation, especially it's Buddhists, were all about the themselves, and the poor kids just got drug along for the ride. Maybe I'm veering off course but isn't fear of hurting your spouse a reason not to cheat? Free love ain't free, folks! Hello? Ahimsa, anyone???

Scott Edelstein's picture

Thank you; well said.

A big part of my book focuses on spiritual community, because spiritual teachers' transgressions do not happen in vaccums. Often their communities enable their misconduct--in most cases unwittingly, of course.

This means that spiritual communities can also do a great deal to discourage such misconduct--by separating spiritual and organizational authority, by practicing and encouraging transparency, and by encouraging teachers to build and use their own personal support systems. For community leaders, it means shouldering the responsibility of creating safety for all community members. This includes listening mindfully to members with issues or complaints; investigating all such credible complaints; and, when necessary, temporarily or permanently removing a teacher from their teaching role. For community members, it means speaking up when anything seems amiss.

As members of sanghas, we have big responsibilities to one another--including the deeply important responsibility to keep each other safe. When faced with the choice between protecting other human beings' safety or protecting a teacher's reputation, or an organization's solvency or credibility, or our idea of the Dharma, we need to protect our fellow flesh-and-blood humans. Indeed, I'd argue that Buddhism, and all other authentic traditions, demand this of us.

Scott Edelstein's picture

If spiritual communities can have a couple of simple, clear, widely known rules for spiritual teachers' conduct, that's usually very helpful. Rules, though, are only one piece of a much bigger puzzle, which includes the conduct and attention of everyone in the community. As Jack Kornfield has wisely noted, "A spiritual community will reflect the values and behavior of its teachers and will participate in the problems as well. Because spiritual community is so important, only when our community life is made a conscious part of our practice can our own heart and spiritual life become integrated and whole."

Richard Fidler's picture

You understand the problems better than I do--I am an outsider. Stories, rumors, secrets can fly around a Center and distract students from what they came to the Center to do. You are saying the reputation of the teacher and the reputation of the Center are closely connected. A perceived moral failing on the part of the teacher can stain the name of the Center. Certainly that sounds reasonable.

Every Center must decide what behaviors they can tolerate and what behaviors they must forbid. There is no reason one Center should have the same rules as another--beyond the rules I suggested above.

Policies should be made clear to the teacher (of course) and to prospective students. One way of decreasing unpleasant incidents is to inform participants what the rules are. As a former school teacher, I made a practice of telling my students what the rules were at the beginning of the year. It did clear the air.

Richard Fidler's picture

How about following the rules most universities have: Professors should not have sex with their students. Add to that: the Zen Center is an inappropriate place for sexual encounters. That is it. What a teacher does in his private life is no business of the Zen community. Issues of sexual assault, of course, should be brought before law enforcement. Teachers who break the law in this regard should be declared unable to teach.