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How Sexual Misconduct Shatters Spiritual Communities: Lessons for Buddhists

The authors of this essay are all founding members of An Olive Branch Associates LLC, consultants that work with organizations to prevent sexual misconduct or address it when necessary.

When a trusted spiritual leader is accused of sexual misconduct, the sangha frequently splits apart. After sangha members dedicate years of their lives to practice with, and service to, their teacher, allegations of misconduct may rock the very foundations of their commitments to the Way. One group of followers, the loyalists, finds it impossible to believe that their teacher could be guilty of misconduct. Their instinctive response is to deny or dismiss the allegations outright as untruthful. They may even disparage those making the allegations in order to protect their teacher’s reputation. A second group, the allies, are quick to side with the accuser(s), knowing all too well that the potential for abuse has become an unfortunate reality in religious organizations—and Buddhist organizations are no exception. This group accepts at face value the claims of those alleging abuse and seeks to protect them and relieve their suffering. Still another group, let’s call them the agnostics, adopts a wait-and-see attitude, perhaps hoping that the allegations are the result of a big misunderstanding and that life can return to normal as soon as the truth is known. Unfortunately, that outcome is unlikely unless the organization addresses the causes of the problem and undergoes an intentional healing process.

What happens within the organization?

In helping Buddhist and non-Buddhist clients contend with sexual misconduct allegations, we at an Olive Branch have learned that organizations as well as individuals are negatively impacted by abuse. As Figure 1 shows, sangha members may experience a range of emotions in response to misconduct, and it is not uncommon for members to oscillate back and forth among several different feelings. For example, members may initially feel shock and disbelief upon hearing the allegations. These feelings may shift to anger when they realize that their practice and access to their beloved teacher have been disrupted. Others may feel angry at the teacher for causing harm to fellow sangha members. As more information surfaces, these same sangha members may experience guilt and/or remorse when they realize that their own unwitting actions may have enabled the abuse to occur or to continue unchallenged.

Fig. 1: Range of members’ feelings after allegations of abuse. Adapted from “Grief and Loss: Dealing with Feelings,” P. L. Liberty. In When a Congregation Is Betrayed: Responding to Clergy Misconduct, B. A. Gaede (Ed.).
The Alban Institute 2006, p. 44. Image courtesy of the authors

Once followers split into factions, conflict at the organization level typically erupts and the sangha becomes paralyzed. Loyalists and allies accuse each other of being disingenuous and often stop communicating altogether. Loyalists may feel angry at the whistleblowers who first surfaced the allegations, seeing them as disloyal to their teacher. Allies may accuse loyalists of lacking compassion for those harmed. Meanwhile, agnostics may simply clamor for information. And if information about what happened is not shared widely within the sangha, it leaves the door open for rumors and half-truths to prevail.

The organization’s board, too, may become paralyzed at a time when its leadership is most desperately needed. Further, it may be especially difficult for the board to act if the teacher whose behavior is under scrutiny is a voting member and has not voluntarily stepped down or recused themself from involvement in any decisions the board may make in response to the alleged misconduct. Nonetheless, it is the board’s responsibility to remove the spiritual leader from any spiritual, teaching, and administrative responsibilities until an investigation has been conducted.

All too often, a sangha’s initial public response is one of inaction, denial, or attempts to smooth over the issue. There are many reasons that sanghas drag their feet or deny allegations outright. Members may do so out of deference to the teacher’s spiritual prowess or fear of their disapproval, or because the teacher exerts tight control over the organization’s affairs, or because the members themselves are confused about the right course of action. This confusion is understandable if the sangha does not have a clear ethics policy proscribing behavior that is off-limits for teachers and sangha members, as well as a grievance process for handling allegations. Even with an ethics policy and a grievance procedure, sanghas often need the assistance of a neutral third party to address the allegations and the fallout from them.

What constitutes sexual misconduct and who is responsible?

Sexual misconduct occurs when a person in authority takes advantage of a vulnerable person to extract sexual favors. It can range from rape or child abuse, to unwelcomed touching, to the use of sexualized language or the sharing of pornographic materials. Given the elevated status a spiritual teacher holds within a community, sexual misconduct is also an abuse of power. In spiritual communities in which allegiance to the teacher is paramount (i.e., students often take a vow to assiduously follow their teacher’s wishes), a student can misconstrue this vow to include engaging in sexual behavior with the teacher.* There are many reasons why students may accede to their teacher’s advances, including students’ low self-esteem, confusion of spiritual intimacy with sex, adoration, and teachers’ demands for complete allegiance.

What is most important to remember about teacher-student relationships is that teachers are responsible for maintaining safe boundaries with students expressly because of the inherent power difference between them. A spiritual leader “has the power and the responsibility to maintain these boundaries in order to preserve the pastoral relationship. Clergy sexual misconduct is simultaneously a sexual transgression and an abuse of power. It is a betrayal of trust . . . in the clergy-congregant relationship.”** Claims by the teacher that the attraction was “consensual” belie the power dynamic inherent in teacher-student relationships. Even when a student is willing, “the teacher must always put aside their own desires and agendas and do whatever is in the student’s best interests.”***

Organizational factors that facilitate misconduct

Why are religious organizations, and Buddhist organizations in particular, susceptible to teacher misconduct? One reason stems from the Buddhist practice of looking inward to confront our own delusions and egoistic behavior.**** That type of self-exploration, especially when conducted in private one-on-one interviews, can leave both teacher and student open and vulnerable. “A relationship with a spiritual teacher often feels both deeply intimate and deeply safe. This safety and intimacy are themselves extremely sexy and alluring.” ***** When teachers become intoxicated with their own power or students mistake joy over their own spiritual awakening with love for their teacher, affection and sexual attraction may arise.

Equally explanatory are several organizational characteristics of sanghas that make them more susceptible to teacher misconduct. If a teacher oversees both spiritual and administrative affairs of the sangha, there is little or no countervailing authority to prevent abuse. If the organization’s culture demands zealous and unquestioning commitment to a teacher and strict adherence to practices that restrict questioning and discourage expressions of doubt or dissent, students may believe that such loyalty is the only path to enlightenment, especially if dissenters are often publicly shamed or punished. Coupled with demands that community participation supersede familial, professional, or friendship ties, such loyalty may produce a complicit inner circle whose members are aware of abuse but work to keep it under wraps to shield the teacher from scrutiny and broader exposure—presumably because they themselves derive benefits from their complicity or fear reprisals or ostracization should they speak up. Taken individually, these practices may not seem problematic, but collectively they have the potential to create fertile ground for abuse to flourish. While no one likes to view sanghas as cult-like, in sanghas where abuse has occurred, in hindsight, members often portray them just that way.

Who is responsible for the organization’s well-being?

While teachers are responsible for maintaining their own boundaries, it is the board that holds fiduciary responsibility to ensure the sangha’s well-being. This responsibility includes contending with the conflict and paralysis within the organization and deciding how to answer thorny questions such as:

  • How do we determine whether or not the allegations are true?
  • What information should be shared with the sangha and with the public?
  • How do we care for those alleging harm?
  • Should the teacher be relieved of their responsibilities until a determination is made about their guilt or innocence?
  • How do we begin to quell the turmoil and heal conflict within the sangha?

In its nine years of advising spiritual communities faced with sexual misconduct, An Olive Branch Associates has developed processes to help them navigate these tumultuous times. While the processes are customized to meet each organization’s unique circumstances, hallmarks of the approach include transparency, deep listening, care, and compassion for all involved. Ensuring that an independent investigation of the allegations is conducted and made public enhances transparency. Deep listening processes promote healing in several ways. First, they provide a safe, independent, and impartial place for those harmed to report their experience in confidence and without reprisal—an essential step toward their individual recovery.******  Second, listening circles for the entire sangha ensure collective knowledge about the organization’s response to the investigative findings and help to gauge the pulse of the community. Third, through listening circles, members process the conflicting welter of emotions stirred up by the allegations, bearing witness to and normalizing the spectrum of pain experienced by the sangha as a whole. Critical to the success of any sangha gathering is affirming clear ground rules and invoking an overarching spirit of compassion for self and other during sangha meetings. Care and support for the board as it wrestles with decisions about the future status of the offending teacher and changes in governance procedures is also paramount to promoting organizational healing.

* The Dalai Lama explicitly commented on this issue on 1 August 2017. He was described as saying: “The Buddha encouraged his followers to question and examine the teachings. Thus, it’s wrong to think you must do everything a teacher says without examining whether his instructions are in accord with the Dharma, in particular the principles of non-harming and compassion. If they’re not, the student should respectfully refuse to comply.” From What Did the Dalai Lama Really Say? 27 August 2017.

** Grenz, Stanley J. & Roy D. Bell. 2001. Betrayal of Trust: Confronting and Preventing Clergy Sexual Misconduct. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, p. 87.

*** Edelstein, Scott. 2011. Sex and the Spiritual Teacher. Boston: Wisdom Publications, p. 53.

**** As in Dogen’s teaching “Hence you should take the backward step and turn the light inward,” in Fukanzazengi. Kazuaki Tanahashi (Ed.). 2000. Enlightenment Unfolds: The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Dogen. Boston: Shambhala, p. 32.

***** Edelstein, p. 61.

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