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Cooking a Spiritual Scandal

In the class I am co-teaching with Ethan Nichtern and Miles Neale on Buddhism and Psychology: Spiritual Awakening NOT Spiritual Bypassing at the Interdependence Project, there has been a good deal of discussion — and some debate — about the dual nature of spiritual practice. Like most things in life it is two-sided: it can cultivate kindness and wisdom or be implicated in disturbing scandals. Lest we assume, as some do, that this is a thing of the past, here is a link to a recent troubling scandal involving a venerated Zen master.

If you are like me, you are sick of reading about all the most recent spiritual scandals in Buddhism and yoga. You find spiritual teachers sexually exploiting their students, abusing power, or stealing money from their communities both disturbing and disillusioning. While a world without spiritual scandals is unrealistic, we increase the chances of lessening the heartache they cause by looking at the ingredients that go into spiritual misconduct.

Take a large spoonful of an overly ambitious spiritual teacher with a lust for power and a belief in his or her own infallibility, a resistance to feedback about his or her behavior, and a reluctance to exert control over his or her wishes and desires. Add a group of students who mistrust themselves and follow their teachers blindly, believing that “experts” can tell them how to live. Blend that with a willingness on the part of students and administration alike to turn a blind eye to a teacher’s runaway authority and bad behavior, and to scapegoat anyone who questions it — and voilà! You have cooked up a spiritual scandal.

I’ve had the rare privilege of studying with some wonderful yoga and Buddhist teachers — Joel Kramer and T.K.V. DesikacharJoseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, Shinzen Young and Lou Mitsunen Nordstrom — and those experiences have given me a taste of some of the crucial ingredients that go into a healthier teacher-student relationship.

Take a spiritual teacher with self-awareness and a dose of humility who knows he or she is “human, all-too-human” and who knows he or she can learn from his or her students. Add the teacher’s recognition that supporting the growth of his or her students is more important than expanding his or her own spiritual kingdom. Better yet, mix in a teacher who thinks that spiritual empires are deadly, and not just for students. Blend that with the teacher’s capacity to study the gaps between his or her spiritual ideals and actual behavior.

Mix the whole thing with students who do not make any teacher — no matter his or her reputation or stature — the final authority on their lives. Finally, combine it with students who are committed to questioning theories or practices that are harmful or exploitative.

Now you have a healthier teacher-student relationship and a recipe to decrease the frequency of spiritual scandals.


(This article first appeared in Elephant Journal. Image from Kadampa.org)


Jeffrey B. Rubin Ph.D is a practicing psychotherapist and teacher of meditation in New York City and Bedford Hills, New York. Considered one of the leading integrators of the Western psychotherapeutic and eastern meditative traditions, he is the creator of meditative psychotherapy. Dr. Rubin is the author of the new ebook, Meditative Psychotherapy and the critically acclaimed books "The Art of Flourishing," "Psychotherapy and Buddhism," "The Good Life" and "A Psychoanalysis for Our Time." He has taught at various universities, psychoanalytic institutes and Buddhist and yoga centers. His pioneering approach to psychotherapy and Buddhism has been featured in The New York Times Magazine. His website is drjeffreyrubin.com

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well said!

Thanks very much for your words of insight! Its just sad to be hearing about such scandals within Buddhism and religion in general. Its within religion that we are suppose to develop a larger picture about ourselves and others. Buddhism specifically has the intention of reaching outside the cultural norms of narrow thinking and opening ourselves up to non dual awareness. If our practice is learned and practiced how the Buddha intended the teachings to be, there just shouldn't be any spiritual bypassing and demeaning behaviors within the sangha. I feel we as Buddhists should really cultivate a pure intention with our practice and commit to sticking with it in this manner. We should allow these teachings to penetrate us deeply and whole heartedly and don't jump ship when old habits take over.

Really appreciate Jeffrey Rubin's teachings!

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