Buddhist Teachers and the Abuse of Power:
A Psychodynamic Exploration of Dharma Practice
This article is dedicated to all those individuals, and their families, who have been hurt by the unethical actions of dharma teachers. My hope is that these reflections and insights will contribute to a stronger, healthier, and more vibrant Western dharma.
Canaries in the Coal Mine
"The false prophet and the genuine spiritual master both undermine the habitual patterns of self. Yet one does this in a way that creates bondage, while the other does it in a way that promotes liberation. What is this important difference? How does genuine spiritual authority operate? This is not a simple question.”
- John Welwood
Some years ago, the 20th century Vedanta Master, Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, was asked by a disciple, “How can I make out whom to follow and whom to mistrust?” Nisargadatta replied, “Mistrust all, until you are convinced. The true Guru will never humiliate you, nor will he estrange you from yourself. He will constantly bring you back to the fact of your inherent perfection and encourage you to seek within. He knows you need nothing, not even him, and is never tired of reminding you. But the self-appointed Guru is more concerned with himself than with his disciples.”
The questioning underlying this article have been working on me for years. This writing grows out of a long-felt need to speak up about the suffering certain dharma teachers have caused their students, sangha members, and families through their manipulative and abusive behaviors. Here we’re not talking about unskillful interactions that have arisen from a lack of insight or training, nor about the fact that every teacher, including myself, makes mistakes. Rather, this article is about coming to terms with the kind of violence inflicted by certain teachers through behaviors that just about anyone would know are wrong. Sometimes these behaviors are overt, as when a teacher gets involved sexually with students, but there are certainly other instances where teachers have misused their power and position to re-enact their own unconscious issues and needs. Having myself been subjected to a measure of a teacher’s vindictiveness (although fortunately not from my own), I can personally attest to how harmful such abuse can be.
A psychodynamic view of the dharma rests on the understanding that practice affects us on both conscious and unconscious levels, and that as practice deepens, the unconscious comes to play an increasingly significant role. My sense, and my concern, is that the Western dharma is suffering from a failure to understand the ways that intensified practice affect the whole of the psyche. These dynamics include a range of complex emotional systems comprised of the feelings themselves, along with corresponding needs, desires, impulses, and expectations. The repressive side of these systems also includes layers of defensive structures that have arisen to help us avoid the painful and threatening aspects of feeling. The most entrenched parts of these systems almost always arise out of unresolved attachment and developmental levels, as well as pre-verbal and trauma-based dynamics that may date back to our earliest years. This article will focus primarily on the impact of the most common mental affliction that arises in this regard—the repression of feeling.
In the course of dharma practice we can choose to work with hidden realms of feeling in transformative ways that open our hearts and free up their energy—or we can turn to repressive forms of practice, and suffer the consequences. When repression has the upper hand, we most commonly direct the destructive forces against ourselves. As a result, we experience a range of self-isolating, self-critical, and self-sabotaging states that often arise repeatedly. The more entrenched manifestations feel familiar; they may deaden our sense of aliveness, and leave us haunted by a sense of unworthiness. In truth, these are just mechanisms, but to the extent that we believe in them, our lives and practice suffer.
We may also project these destructive forces outwardly, and re-enact them through our relationships with others. This pain-producing process is one that can intensify over time, and when this happens others are made to suffer. This second channel is most likely to become active when someone who has a “loaded” unconscious is put in a position of power. To be clear: practice doesn’t create these dysfunctional conditions, but it will bring our hidden neurotic tendencies closer to the surface.
As we explore these dimensions, it can be helpful to keep in mind that a prominent feature of the Western psyche has to do with the functioning of what we loosely refer to as the id and superego. These interlocking systems revolve around the forces of sexuality and aggression on one side, and guilt on the other. All of us carry some measure of inner conflict in these areas, and while most practitioners have fairly benign material to work through, others have much more troubling issues buried away. These are complex matters; the same underlying conflicts that help propel us into practice in the first place, if not worked through, may later wind up fueling internal obstructions, or manifesting themselves through disruptive relationships. And, of course, it sometimes goes in both directions.
To whatever extent these unresolved issues are present, they’ll be stirred up by intensified forms of practice. The deeper, longer, and more intense the practice, the more fully these powerful feelings and impulses will be aroused. How skillfully we are able to work with them often comes to define our practice, and our lives. And so, as painful and unsettling as it may be, looking with some honesty into the unethical behaviors of dharma teachers offers us a high window into some of the significantly dysfunctional ways practice can be used and misused.
Taking this a bit further we can say that the unethical behaviors of dharma teachers function like the proverbial canary in a coal mine: their actions expose not only an individual’s lack of integrity and character, but they also reveal an element of the systemic dysfunction that seems self-evident in the emerging dharma of the West. As has been widely reported, a number of the documented cases of abuse have been committed by non-Western teachers, so while not all of what’s written here applies directly to them, much of it will. Since a fair amount of what’s written here applies not just to teachers, but to all Western practitioners, it hopefully will be of some general value as well.
Our emotional systems are thoroughly dynamic. Each of us touches into a mixture of experiences through practice—some more painful, some more affirming and compassionate, and some are clearly with aggressive and destructive impulses. All these forces can be stirred up through intensive practice, and they often emerge as if in some layered form. Though perhaps obvious enough, one aspect of this work has to do with how thoroughly, and truthfully, we’re in touch with what’s going on inside of us; another side depends on how deeply we buy into these mindstates and how strongly they influence our behaviors. The well-known quantum physicist, Richard Feynman, once voted by his colleagues to be the smartest man alive, has said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.” Dick Cavett put it this way, “It’s the rare person who wants to hear what they don’t want to hear.” Without some initial clarity, and some measure of understanding of our subliminal processes, there’s no sure way of working towards transformation. And as Yamada Koun Roshi taught, “The purpose of Zen is the perfection of character.”
It's comforting, of course, to imagine that the dharma only awakens our healing energies—that we simply have to work harder on the mat to resolve our problems, and to live out of a more selfless kind of wisdom and compassion. It’s also comforting to think that kensho or awakening experiences serve only to purify one’s character and open one’s heart. For much of the first half of my Zen training I believed this was essentially the way things worked – the “deeper” you went, the “better” a person you would become – after all, we’re all Buddhas aren’t we?
Now, entering my 50th year of practice, and with close to twenty-five years of teaching and psychotherapeutic training behind me, I see more clearly the real depth and power the dharma has to offer. At the same time, I’m also much more aware of how easily the whole system can be hijacked by our own pain-producing conditionings and how, for some charismatic individuals, it can become a vehicle for acting out hidden, narcissistic desires.
Years back, big cracks began to grow between my idealism and the disgraceful things being done by certain teachers, and it seemed significant that this behavior was being revealed at so many of the larger dharma centers around the country. On one hand we’d hear about how charismatic and inspiring certain teachers could be, and in almost the same breath there would be talk about this person’s lack of disciplined training, or lack of true experience, or karmic baggage. Still others have written about the impact of different cultural expectations. One young man kindly explained to me how his teacher’s alcoholism was in fact an expedient teaching, while another told me that because their teacher had achieved “no-self,” relational difficulties (transference and counter-transference issues) could never arise. At times it would seem as if these teachers were two different people, saints and sinners of sorts, hidden beneath their priestly garb.
Throughout all the chatter, however, this fundamental question remained:
How are we to understand the fact that people who have practiced the dharma for decades, taken the precepts, purportedly had awakening experiences, and been sanctioned as teachers—how could they behave in ways that would so obviously cause harm to those who placed their deepest trust in them?
And the other questions that also arose weren’t simply about the harm that was being done, but also about the rationalizing, the forgetfulness, the blindness, and outright denials that would all too often follow.
I still find it surprising to see how long it took me to get a handle on what now seems so obvious, but my idealism ran pretty deep. These earlier views first came into question in the context of a dharma-based men’s group I was a part of for many years. Later, a further level of clarity came about through my training in a style of psychotherapy that focuses on the unconscious, and some strong personal experiences that grew out of that training. Working therapeutically with sangha members was in some ways the most helpful: people would share with me what they were going through privately, and during these longer sessions the unconscious dimensions of their practice could be more fully explored. Hidden dimensions of the changing atmosphere at the center where I had originally practiced were coming to light, and while there were many fine aspects, some significantly disturbing things were coming into focus as well.
Through these experiences I came to see some of the ways that we can use, or misuse, our individual practice to reinforce barriers we put up between what’s conscious and unconscious. What also became clear are the ways that community practice can be used to reinforce that semi-invisible line between what’s allowed to be presented publicly, and what a teacher may wish to keep hidden. On both individual and community levels we find that the wider the gap, the greater the dysfunction, and the greater the dysfunction the more likely it is that people will get hurt. It goes without saying that it takes courage to publicly cross those lines, especially when it means calling into question one’s own training, and revealing what may be embarrassing personal truths, especially when they’re of a sexual nature.
Another significant shift in my understanding came about in regard to the widely accepted concept of “spiritual bypassing,” the proposition that we can somehow push unresolved emotional issues onto the back burner. I realized that this notion itself actually creates a deeply misleading view of how practice works. Practice doesn’t pick and choose between the desirable and undesirable; it simply cannot do that. Once our inner work crosses a certain threshold, practice begins stirring the whole of the psyche—the healing and compassionate sides, but also potentially much more that can be painful and disturbing. The longer we practice and the deeper we go, the more thoroughly we activate levels that, at least for some, will contain pretty dark energies as well.
And so at the same time that deepening practice brings forth bright, compassionate energies fundamental to us all, it simultaneously activates the more turbulent, conflicted, painful, and destructive realms as well. As this process deepens, the actual spirit of practice takes on greater significance. If we take on a more “closed” approach—in other words if the inner conflicts are ignored or pushed back down—they don’t evaporate; they become empowered. “Out of sight, out of mind” hardly applies to the unconscious. What we find, in fact, is that the reverse is true: the harder we push something down, the more intensely it wants to spring back. Though some may disagree, it has been my experience that what happens on unconscious levels plays a significant role in everyone’s practice. By cultivating an informed understanding of what goes on in these murky waters, we may discover significant truths about hidden emotional realities revealed by our dharma work.
“To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven;
the same key opens the gates of hell.”
Once our practice crosses a certain threshold it becomes much more than just a soothing process. Rather than providing the silver bullet of well-being we all wish for, it winds up stirring and magnifying the whole of our experience. This is clearly true on sensory levels: food tastes better, birds sing more sweetly, and the whole world seems more alive. And the same thing happens in terms of our feelings and memories—although this is an area where our inner experience can begin to get complicated, sometimes much more complicated.
At some point feelings connected with loss and connection arise for almost everyone. Sexual feelings and other ‘thirsts and cravings’ also become intensified. Sexuality is one of the more complex areas because these libidinal energies rarely stand alone; often we discover that they’re fused with other feelings that may have ties back to early, highly personal relational issues. As someone once paraphrased Oscar Wilde, “Everything we do has to do with sex, except for the sex itself, which has to do with everything else.” If we don’t face and resolve these issues, these sexually-based conflicts and complexities may be painfully re-enacted with others.
The same holds true for heavily repressed anger, a force that’s widely misunderstood, and one that for many is largely inaccessible on experiential levels. Like sexuality, anger is astonishingly complex, and we often mistake our defenses for the thing itself. What’s also true is that, as with other feelings, anger rarely stands alone, and is often mis-represented internally because we resist acknowledging the ways it includes the wishful impulse to hurt another. When these feelings have arisen early on in our lives, they’re often closely linked with loving feelings, and thus also joined by significant layers of unconscious guilt. Guilt is that underlying force which in some circles is referred to as “the perpetrator of the unconscious.” It is this unconscious guilt that drives many of the self-punitive systems that arise for Westerners.
When left unaddressed, these punitive systems can take a big bite out of a person’s life and dharma work. They often have roots that stretch back to early childhood and so can be difficult to recognize—and because these forces become increasingly activated with deepening practice, it’s easy for us to get stuck in them. As we begin to develop ways of working with them, however, other levels of change become possible.
Through practice we naturally become more sensitive on conscious levels, and through different kinds of inner work we can become increasingly open to pre-conscious realms as well. These are the layers we ‘semi-choose’ to avoid, yet which are still relatively accessible. As the superficial chatter of the mind becomes quieter, disquieting experiences may begin to arise. One tempting option is to bounce back up to the surface, another is to continue to delve deeper. If we choose to go deeper then we can either work skillfully with what comes up, or use the practice itself in the service of still further repression. Since there has been little information readily available about these dynamics, this “choice” is seldom made consciously.
It seems to me this is exactly where our Western dharma hasn’t caught up with Western psychotherapy. We have a brilliant Asian system to work with, but in certain important ways it simply doesn’t make a very good fit with the intrapsychic realities of the West. At the same time, we also have remarkable Western psychotherapeutic systems that help us see into the complex and often contradictory dynamics buried beneath the surface. Carl Jung wrote, “(Our) task is to become conscious of the contents that press upward from the unconscious.” This “pressing upward” is what becomes enhanced during practice. Jung also said, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular.”
I understand that what’s being put forth here goes against the spirit of most contemporary dharma teachings, which assure us that through practice we can connect more thoroughly with deeper layers of our own compassion. Loving-kindness practices and retreats, of course, focus specifically on doing just that. Most people equate the arising of compassion with spiritual development, while at the same time creating an internal split by dismissing threatening feelings and mindstates as being ego-based, grounded in ignorance and delusion. This dualistic approach to feelings in practice often mirrors what we do elsewhere in our lives. When this happens, practice becomes just one more poorly conceived attempt to suppress painful or threatening aspects of our own inner life.
Some people believe that if we’re practicing correctly, then those unwanted things just shouldn’t be there, or can be dealt with at some later time. In my experience, however, this is just another form of magical thinking. As Jung wrote: "The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge." He goes on to say: "Wholeness is not achieved by cutting off a portion of one's being, but by integration of the contraries."
Buddhist teachings are actually full of allusions to these darker energies. The Wheel of Birth and Death includes much about the hellish realms, and “demonic” forces are often portrayed in many ways throughout Buddhist iconography. The second of our version of the Four Bodhisattvic Vows reads, “Endless blind passions I vow to uproot.” More to the point, though, is that many of the early Ch’an Masters such as Tai Hui (12th c.) spoke of practicing “without departing from lust, hate, and ignorance,” but rather using practice to transform these conditioned states “into angels protecting the Dharma.” There are many other examples of this spiritual integration, and my understanding is that such an approach is fully consistent with the Genjokoan work of Zen masters Hongzhi, Dogen, and many others.
Part of the reason for the more contemporary forms of this disconnect in dharma practice may be due to the fact that until recently, no clear link has been made between intensified forms of dharma practice and the mobilized unconscious. In our culture this is especially true for those dynamics related to what we’re loosely referring to as the Western punitive superego. Westerners commonly get stuck in a range of disruptive manifestations: the defenses and the myriad forms of self-attack that so often arise out of these subliminal dynamics. Unfortunately, practice can easily be misused repressively, and when this happens, rather than seeing into the heart of what’s going on, we get stuck beating ourselves up. As Meister Eckhart said, “God did not make you to hate yourself.”
I know how the repressive side of practice works because I got pretty good at it. In part, my early retreats were focused on becoming more effective at pushing away the painful and threatening material that would inevitably surface. I now see that aspects of this training simply reinforced many of those repressive mechanisms, helping to create what was in some significant ways an emotionally unbalanced practice. My concentration was deepening, and I was certainly becoming more engaged, more single-minded, with the koan work. I had some truly life-changing experiences, but was also becoming more proficient in cutting myself off from the shadow-like realms. At the time, this is what was expected, but I have no doubt that the first 10 or 15 years of my practice would have been more effective if there had been some small acknowledgement, and understanding, of the unconscious. My whole approach would have been different, and my life on and off the mat would unquestionably have been more wholesome.
Working with difficult material inside or outside of formal dharma practice is never easy, so it’s only natural that we’d wish to avoid whatever comes up. Westerners may be uniquely resistant because our cultural view of mental health and our institutional view of spirituality are both rooted in the myth that there’s something fundamentally wrong with us. Since almost all of us have been well-conditioned to believe that the deeper we go the darker, and more primitive it gets, why would we want to go there? When we buy into this cultural narrative, repression and denial do make perfect sense. The beauty of the Buddha’s teaching is that it tells a radically different story, and offers us practices with the power to reveal more authentic truths.
- Part II -
Mobilization refers to the ways that practice stirs up the whole of the psyche, and the dynamics of this global activation relate to every dimension of our practice. In terms of the mobilized unconscious, this refers specifically to the ways that we become more open and vulnerable to the whole of our hidden emotional life. For some, this activation touches into early attachment issues; it also has the power to touch into developmental issues, trauma, inter-generational material, and sometimes even pre-verbal experience. In particular, it refers to the activation of the full range of our repressed feelings and impulses, as well as the corresponding defensive systems that co-arise with the feelings themselves.
The remarkable intrapsychic fluidity that often arises out of intensive forms of practice offers us the opportunity to work for resolution and transformation. Equally, and even more so, it invites further repression. There’s a bit of a dance that goes on here. Again, quoting Jung: “The unconscious wants to flow into consciousness in order to reach the light, but at the same time it continually thwarts itself, because it would rather remain unconscious.” This process unfolds over time, and if we don’t see into, and work against, our repressive tendencies, these unconscious needs, desires, and expectations become more and more deeply woven into the hidden neurotic structures of a person’s character. As pressure on them increases they become more likely to be triggered, and when triggered these forbidden energies have to go somewhere. As we’ve been emphasizing, these forces can be internalized though self-destructive channels, or they can be projected onto individuals, and re-enacted within the sangha—all unconsciously.
Marcel Proust described projection this way: “We pack the physical outline of the creature we see with all the ideas we already formed about him, and in the complete picture of him which we compose in our minds, those ideas have certainly the principal place. In the end they come to fill out so completely the curve of his cheeks, to follow so exactly the line of his nose, they blend so harmoniously in the sound of his voice that these seem to be no more than a transparent envelope, so that each time we see the face or hear the voice it is our own ideas of him which we recognize and to which we listen.” This is the poetry of transference and counter-transference, and it often comes with a dark and troublesome side as well. . .
Freud used the term “repetition compulsion” to refer to the unconscious urge to repeat the internal or relational patterns of the past. As someone with a less poetic voice once put it: “It’s not one damn thing after another, it’s the same damn thing over and over again.” Through practice we may gain some insight into the ways we repeat painful or obstructive patterns—in our lives, and equally so in practice. It may be in terms of some internal state, or through a kind of common “flavor” that originally came into being through a relationship with a person, couple, or perhaps even a whole family constellation. Depending on how we work with them, these templates can function either as barriers against, or as passageways into, deeper levels of awareness.
In terms of practice, what this also means is that the unconscious needs and expectations embedded in this repressed material can come to determine significant aspects of the student’s relationship with the teacher (transference), as well as the teacher’s relationship with the student (counter-transference). It’s really the same dynamic working in both directions. When working together closely, it can become an even more potent force in the teacher-student relationship than when it arises in a psychotherapeutic setting. In practice, as with therapy, unless such issues are skillfully addressed, these hidden dimensions can, over time, become increasingly prominent and disruptive. While this is an area often focused on in the course of a psychotherapist’s training, when it comes to dharma teachers there seem to be some significant gaps, at least in some lineages. In my own dharma teacher training, there was little helpful or relevant information about it at all; it was only years later that I came to be aware of its singular importance.
To sum all this up: if we approach practice with the belief that getting deep enough, or even coming to awakening will “fix” these types of emotionally-based issues, then avoiding them makes perfect sense. The same holds true if we believe we can somehow set them aside. Unfortunately, these theoretical models don’t fit with the realities of practice, and attempting to practice while guided by these false assumptions only makes things worse. Most of our ‘hiding out’ is difficult to see, though, because so much of our conditioning tells us to disconnect from whatever is distasteful, threatening, or worse. As practice brings up unconscious emotional material, it also activates the unconscious mechanisms of further repression. Unless we practice with some measure of insight, therefore, we easily wind up getting sucked back down into the shadowlands.
There are a few things worth noting here. The first is that our previously existing repressive systems are reinforced through concentration-based practices—especially those that lean towards splitting and other dissociative mechanisms. There are also the mutually reinforcing dynamics that arise out of the ways we idealize the practice and our teachers—and conversely, by the pervasive sense of unworthiness that engulfs so many. Writing about himself, Eric Clapton put it this way: “I found a pattern in my behavior that had been repeating itself for years, decades even. Bad choices were my specialty, and if something honest and decent came along, I would shun it or run the other way."
We can also misunderstand the spirit behind certain teachings such as “bow and serve.” This teaching isn’t meant to imply taking a one-down position to anyone or anything, but rather it’s a way of connecting with, of bowing to, and of serving the truth of our own nature. Likewise, the phrase “that’s just your ego,” is often used in a derogatory way—as a means of putting someone down. In other words, it usually serves to mask the speaker’s real feelings. And if the person it’s directed at swallows it up, it can cause them to split off from those unacceptable parts being called into question, as well as from the feelings they might feel towards someone who would criticize them that way.
An environment that establishes strong, disciplined training can also be misused in the service of the teacher’s unconscious feelings and privately held desires. Again, John Welwood: “The false prophet and the genuine spiritual master both undermine the habitual patterns of self. Yet one does this in a way that creates bondage, while the other does it in a way that promotes liberation.” Without some psychodynamically-informed insight into these processes they can easily come to color or even take over the practice. Unfortunately, we may come to judge the depth of our practice by how serenely we appear to others, how close we are with our teacher, and how adept we become at distancing from any inner states we deem to be “negative.”
A kind of inner denial, or cutting off from unsavory internal experience, comes naturally to many of us, and we can get “better” at it as time goes on. Much of my own earlier training was based on the implicit notion that not paying attention to whatever might be seen as non-essential was the direct path, and that holding fast to the teaching of “only the practice” was the road to freedom. This way of working can have great appeal, and although “only the practice” certainly has its place, it can also be misinterpreted and misused.
Too narrow a path can encourage us to create an inner split—we wind up viewing the inner landscape of our own emotional lives as if through the eyes of Dorian Grey. A carefully preserved spiritual persona may well have some dark secrets lurking in the depths. If we get caught up in still heavier repressive forms of practice, we can wind up with the kind of splitting that more closely resembles the lives of Jekyll and Hyde, and all the dangers that implies. “In each of us,” Jung wrote, “ is another whom we do not know.” Repressive forms of dharma work, coupled with deepening concentration, can serve to increasingly magnify the ways we disconnect and dis-identify with the unacceptable parts of ourselves.
These dissociative mechanisms can be applied to many different areas: we can disconnect the spiritual from the non-spiritual, good feelings from bad, public from private, and the implicit and explicit selves. We can become quite skillful at splitting off the sexualized and aggressive impulses on one hand, from the empathetic and guilt-linked ones on the other. What we know, though, is that the greater the disconnect, the more empowered the unacknowledged feelings and impulses become. Simultaneously, we become better at rationalizing, reframing, or denying what’s going on, especially in terms of ourselves. In some contexts, the self-disparaging and depressive states may take over, while in others the more outwardly domineering forces may gain the upper hand.
Just as forbidden libidinal and aggressive feelings become empowered through repression, the same thing can happen when we use the practice to repress the sense of who we are. When this occurs the repressed sense of self may manifest itself through feelings of unworthiness or, flip-wise, through a kind of pridefulness or “spiritual” narcissism. As Jack Engler cogently wrote, "My impression is that narcissistic personalities represent a sizable subgroup of those individuals with borderline levels of ego organization who are drawn to meditation." That’s quite a telling observation, and the question becomes what happens to these inner inclinations if we fail to address them on the level of the unconscious? I once heard a teacher say, “We practice in order to bring honor to ourselves.” No doubt this was a slip of sorts, but then again, the unconscious is always lurking in the background, and revealing itself in unexpected ways. The question here is, how willing are we to listen?
Text-book narcissists are people who like to be the center of attention and, parenthetically, they can be very difficult to get close to. They typically see themselves as being blameless for any difficulties, instead pointing their finger at others, and control is always a big issue. They can be empathetic, but only when their narcissistic desires are not triggered. Because narcissism intensifies a person’s focus on their own “entitlements,” in equal measure it loosens the restraints against hurting others. When a spiritual narcissist doesn’t get his or her way, the underlying anger may well rise up, causing the person to become “uncharacteristically” manipulative, competitive, and vindictive.
Charismatic narcissists by definition have the gift of attracting people – of drawing others into their self-enhancing world view. This is not meant to imply that everyone who leads and inspires others is a narcissist, but clearly some are. For narcissists, the individual and the community exist to meet their needs, and a community that encourages an idealized view of such a person helps perpetuate the internal systems that make that possible. Cults represent an extreme, but all kinds of other groups, especially “spiritual” communities, may be implicitly and blindly organized around these principles, especially when it comes to a group’s “inner” circle.
What all this means is that to the extent that practice is being used to foster areas of repression, it will empower the opposite of what’s intended. Repression of the “sense of self” can lead to increased narcissism; repression of anger and sexuality can and will empower them both. Again, the harder we push them down, the stronger they come back. When triggered in a teacher, these issues can manifest themselves relationally as excessive forms of manipulation and control—through seductive, hurtful, and predatory behaviors, by picking favorites, and so forth. Over time, specific relationships may come to mirror such an individual’s underlying and unresolved neurotic tendencies. These malignancies may become focused on a specific person, or on a couple, and they almost necessarily come to permeate the training atmosphere as a whole. “An institution,” observed Ralph Waldo Emerson, “is the lengthened shadow of one man.”
"It is common enough that we triumph over adversity,
but if you truly wish to test a man’s character, give him power."
When a person is put in a position of power, all kinds of complications may arise. Speaking simply, though, I think it’s fair to say that power brings with it a certain kind of energy, and perhaps uniquely so for men. In some not-so-metaphorical way, the handcuffs come off, and then the destructive side becomes free to cut loose in different ways. What happened at the Abu Ghraib prison, a situation that involved guards of both sexes, offers one extreme such example, but there are many, many others.
These energies can be channeled in ways that include excellence in sports, or business, or through more directly creative and compassionate avenues. Obviously, however, they can be channeled through narcissistic, sexual, and destructive pathways as well. Power tends to super-charge what’s already there, and in doing so, reveals much about a person’s implicit character. It may bring forth the best in someone, or not, and as with all such things, the emphasis can shift over time. The point is that being in a position of power stirs up primal energies, and at the same time further opens the door for either helping or exploiting others.
What’s also apparent is that these more primal energies can merge with a person’s unresolved issues, with his or her unconscious needs and thirsts. Power easily reinforces narcissistic tendencies, becomes sexualized, and feeds off idealism and submission. Having power over others offers a convenient, self-gratifying outlet for these energies, which may lead to preying on those who are most vulnerable. Power tends to facilitate a person’s paying more attention to their own needs than those of others, and so may complement those same tendencies that are brought to the surface through repressive forms of practice.
In a letter to an Anglican bishop, Sir John Dalberg-Acton wrote, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men..." He was writing specifically about “the corrupt and even criminal behaviour of many Popes, and the appalling treatment of dissidents and heretics during the Inquisition.” As Abraham Lincoln observed, how people respond in positions of power has much to do with their fundamental character—and in its depths, a person’s character is, to a large extent, governed by their unconscious. The punitive unconscious realms contain the unresolved wounded, hurtful, and sexualized energies of a person’s life, and when they become activated, they’ll seek to express themselves wherever possible. So if we look honestly at the whole process, what we find is that repressive dharma practices work to empower rather than resolve the darker energies of our lives.
In the past, before all the revelations of teacher misconduct, most Western practitioners would likely have maintained that a teacher’s practice, and any enlightenment experiences, would help immunize them from the forces of an unhealthy unconscious. Most might assume that even if there had been unresolved issues in a person’s life, practice and awakening would somehow “make things right.” Though I once also believed that to be true, I now see that the whole notion is based on an idealized view of how practice actually works. What now seems absolutely clear is that it’s exactly because of a teacher’s deeper practice, that he or she would be most susceptible to the unresolved issues of their lives. They are the ones who would potentially have the most highly mobilized unconscious, and might therefore be working with the greatest intensity of unresolved feelings, and the deepest unconscious needs. These same individuals could also be the ones with the most highly cultivated repressive systems, including splitting. If and how their issues might become re-enacted through relationships would depend on many things, including the depth and nature of their unresolved issues, their entrenched spiritual narcissism, and how repressively they used their practice.
What’s obvious is that many unethical dharma teachers act out of a deep, often unconscious, personal thirst coupled with a grossly unbalanced sense of spiritual entitlement. There’s at least an implicit, if not explicit aggressiveness in their behavior in that they are willing to make others suffer, sexually and otherwise, in order to meet their own needs. And once that door actually cracks open, and those counter-transference impulses begin to be acted out, it’s hard to pull it closed again. As Eknath Easwaran wrote: "Trishna is that force which drives all creatures to seek personal satisfaction of their urges at any cost, even at the expense of others. It is the deadliest and subtlest of snares because its gratification almost always brings a surge of satisfaction, reinforcing the compulsion to act on that desire again. It is only later that the consequences of pursuing self-centered desires begin to burn like coals smoldering under the ashes."
To put it more simply, then, we can say that being put in a position of authority not only taps into certain primal energies, but it may also serve to further activate a range of someone’s more neurotically-driven subliminal needs and impulses. When a person is in a position of authority it’s easy for them to project their needs and desires into their relationships. There’s nothing new here. In Jung’s words, “Projection of our own shadow makes the whole world a replica of our own unknown face.” What we see is that when someone is confined—by themselves or others—to a place of “spiritual purity,” being placed in a position of authority can super-charge their shadow-like energies.
When a clock strikes thirteen, not only do we know something’s wrong with the hour, but it also calls into question all that came before. When a teacher engages sexually with students, not only is it obvious enough that something’s off with those relationships, it also calls into question the character, teachings, and just about everything else about that person as well. That such people may be inspiring can certainly be true, and yet of course it’s that same ability to inspire that would make them good at manipulating others. As Nisargadatta said, the question comes down to whose needs are they trying to meet, and what is it they’re really teaching?
Going a bit further, what we’ve also seen in a number of sanghas is that unethical behaviors can be passed on intergenerationally. To paraphrase another Zen teacher, “I know what we teach consciously, but what I’m really interested in is what are we teaching unconsciously?” If we understand how the unconscious works, we would expect to see the good as well as the shadow-side being passed along; this intergenerational transmission speaks to the process as a whole. These are complicated issues, but in some ways not all that complicated. If we ask ourselves if we’d want our daughter to be left alone some evening with one of these people, it cuts through a lot of the fuzzy intellectualizing about the situation, and reveals what kind of people they really are.
When sex is involved, these ethical breaches wind up getting the greatest visibility, and no doubt we all understand why. But it’s well to keep in mind that many other types of unspoken and less obvious wounds can be inflicted too, and then covered over by the teacher’s “goodness.”. When certain ethical breaches occur once or twice, that’s one thing. But when the exploitation of students is part of a pattern that extends over years, or even decades, that’s quite another. It doesn’t seem much of a stretch to claim that the more persistent and predatory a teacher’s actions, the more disturbing the underlying neurosis must be. And when the victims are young people, or when triangular relationships are involved, we can assume that there are more complex, more disturbing, dynamics at work as well.
John Welwood has written about his experience at Synanon, where he saw teachers using their positions to break up relationships. Of course we may choose to resist opening our eyes to such things, but the truth is that teachers who use their positions to destroy existing relationships are not just causing great harm, they’re also revealing deeply concerning things about themselves. To the extent that Oedipal issues are playing themselves out, we would expect to see a teacher creating enticements for one person, while manifesting a competitive vindictiveness towards the other. In terms of the larger community, one of the couple would be drawn closer to the inner circle, while the other would be excluded. Of course, these kinds of dynamics are driven by deeply forbidden needs, and so remain largely invisible to the person acting them out, and perhaps to the community as well. Needless to say, most teachers don’t hold such dark secrets, but such things may not be as uncommon as we’d like to think.
One thing that is difficult to acknowledge about these dynamics is that, again, if we’re honest, there’s always an aggressive side, a hurtful element, on the teacher’s part. These behaviors, sexual or otherwise, are not just expressions of some sort of self-indulgent “I want this, so I’m going to do that” kind of thing; there are real victims involved, and real people are hurt. My experience has been that spiritually-oriented people, and Buddhists in particular, have considerable trouble coming to terms with this aggressive side of their nature – it strains our wishful assumptions of what spirituality means. Grief, sexuality, and shame may be all right up to a point, but in my experience we’re pretty well conditioned to turn a blind eye to aggressive feelings and impulses of any sort.
And the perpetrator, unless truly sociopathic, would on some level know, and have feelings about the pain they’ve caused. This unconscious guilt may help explain the alcoholism and self-destructive behaviors we’ve seen with some teachers. Some might say that the alcoholism contributed to the behaviors, which is true enough. But even more so, this kind of alcoholism can be seen as a way of trying to cope with the unconscious guilt. Excessive drinking, like so many unethical behaviors, combines a mix of self-indulgence, self-medication, and self-destructiveness – in this case all from the same bottle.
It’s been my experience that when someone repeatedly breaks the precepts, the underlying roots of this behavior can be traced back to unresolved unconscious issues, and often to ones involving the complex feelings connected to repressed anger. “Spiritual teachers often exhort us to be loving and compassionate,” writes Welwood, “or to give up selfishness and aggression, but how can we do this if our habitual tendencies arise out of a whole system of psychological dynamics that we have never clearly seen or faced, much less worked with? People often have to feel, acknowledge, and come to terms with their anger before they can arrive at genuine forgiveness or compassion.”
More specifically, this aggressive side is often a significant element within relational re-enactments. Dr. Doug Carmidy, a psychotherapist specializing in these areas, has written about the ways one person may be “competing to destroy another individual’s family relationship to satisfy their own unconscious destructiveness.” This is rough stuff, and obviously powerful forces are at work, so again it feels important to emphasize the point that it’s precisely because the true depth of the anger isn’t experienced consciously, that it’s free to manifest itself in ways that satisfy those underlying unconscious needs, desires, and impulses. This is why people hurt each other.
- Conclusion -
When I first began practicing, we had heard only faint rumors about the sexual transgressions of one particular teacher, but not much more. Now, decades later, there are many of us who feel scorched by the fact that so many practitioners have been badly hurt, plagued by doubt, or turned against the dharma altogether, because of the shameful actions of a prominent few. I’m sure that if some of the transgressions reported within dharma circles had occurred within a psychotherapeutic context, the therapist responsible would have lost his or her license, names would be published, and in some cases criminal actions initiated. Inexplicably, we seem to expect less from dharma teachers.
If I had anticipated such hurtful things occurring, I wonder if I would have started practice at all. No doubt my fears would have revolved around the idea that practice had been responsible—that it was somehow being transformed into a kind of Black Magic. Obviously I’m still practicing, and at this point am well aware that that’s not what’s happening. What has become clear are the ways that practice brings to the surface what’s already present, even though it may involve issues buried away for decades. Practice doesn’t make us more neurotic, more unethical, or for that matter, more compassionate—but it does activate what’s already in us, and offers us the rare opportunity to refine and resolve these energies, rather than getting sucked back down by them.
So these ethical breaches not only reveal an individual’s unresolved issues and lack of integrity—taken collectively they expose a systemic problem growing out of a dangerous misunderstanding, and misuse of practice. Through psychotherapeutic research, we know that to the extent that someone uses any system in the service of repression, those repressed feelings, impulses, and needs will work to find some form of expression. And the ways they manifest themselves often lead to the opposite of what’s intended on a conscious level. As we’ve discussed, unconscious anger may be directed inwardly through various kinds of self-blame, neglect or attack, or else re-enacted outwardly through destructive relationships. Working with the unconscious also reveals that repressed feelings, and the defensive structures that encase them, are often linked to early painful relationships. Our wish, really our need, to repeat aspects of these relationships is what fuels those “transference” and “counter-transference” neuroses that lie at the heart of dharma-related unethical behaviors.
No doubt aspects of these dynamics hold true for everyone, but for Westerners this mobilization includes the activation of certain libidinal, aggressive, and guilt-laden forces that form such core elements of the spiritual and psychological norms of this culture. Most of the time we turn these unconscious forces against ourselves where they come to life through all kinds of physical symptoms and psychological suffering. But for some, especially when put in positions of power, these unresolved feelings become re-enacted with others.
It seems self-evident that as long as we’re unwilling to deal with the threatening emotional systems activated through dharma practice, we can expect difficulties to arise, and people to get hurt. Understanding the power of the unconscious to influence practice doesn’t mean somehow adding psychological work on top of the dharma, but rather expanding our understanding of practice itself so that it encompasses both the conscious and unconscious realms naturally tapped into as practice deepens. This richer understanding of the ways practice actually works can lead to far more skillful and effective forms of teaching and practice. It opens the door to establishing a truly Western dharma, one far more responsive to the unique intrapsychic features of the contemporary Western psyche.