Why does it seem so many spiritual leaders are involved in scandals? It is likely that spiritual leaders are not involved in scandals at any greater rate than the average for leaders, but the impact on observers is much greater because the general sense is that those who hold themselves out (or are held out by others) as spiritual leaders should behave better than the average. And this is not at all an unreasonable expectation. Spiritual leaders should be admirable people within the culture in which they teach and, by word and especially by example, they should encourage their followers to also strive to be admirable people. And so the failure rate is disturbing. It casts doubt on the truth of spiritual practices and turns away people who might otherwise follow a spiritual path and find greater happiness.
Let's address the easy part first. Some spiritual leaders are simply charlatans. They have no greater insight into spiritual truth than the average person but they have found an easy path to power and money through manipulating people into believing in their wisdom or holiness. Because they are ordinary people, subject to being driven unconsciously by craving and aversion, they have the same moral failings in their actions as ordinary people. By their fruits shall they be known. When the fruit is exploitation of those who trust them, then we know the nature of the tree. Damaging as it is, this scenario is not a puzzle.
Having dispensed with the charlatans we have explained ninety percent of the problem. And although those ninety percent do tremendous harm to those who trusted them, they don't present a deep philosophical problem: they are just dishonest people with ordinary vices whom people have erroneously placed in positions of power. We can all understand how that happens and the results that follow. But the remaining ten percent DO present a much deeper conundrum. There are spiritual leaders who are without question deeply enlightened. Let's call these people “teachers” to distinguish them from the charlatans. These teachers, for the most part, have followed a rigorous path known for thousands of years to bring about the purification of consciousness and freedom from the driving forces of craving and aversion. They give freely of their knowledge, ask for nothing in return, show compassion far beyond the norm, reveal deep insights, and regularly and reliably lead their students away from suffering and towards happiness. The great preponderance of their fruits show that the nature of the tree is true liberation. How is it that these trees sometimes drop a piece of fruit that looks rotten? Hold onto your hats because what I am going to say now may come as a shock. But stick with me. Don't jump out of the canoe in the middle of the river.
The truly, deeply liberated person has no conscience. If we define “conscience” as an internal set of concepts of good and bad and some kind of enforcement mechanism (like guilt), the enlightened teacher knows no such thing. This is because they have seen past good and bad, right and wrong, and every other concept about the world. The key word here is “concept”, by which I mean a symbolic mental construct relating to or characterizing actions, circumstances, objects, people, other concepts, and so on. Morals and ethics are concepts. They are thoughts. “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”
The enlightened person has cut through the binding force of thoughts. We usually think of this as becoming free from the thoughts that limit us and cause us to suffer, and indeed it is that. But it is also cutting through the binding force of concepts of good and bad, cutting through the binding force of ethical and moral systems. Enlightenment is, among a myriad other things, liberation from what we know as a conscience. Given this, instead of asking why do some teachers engage in scandalous conduct, one might ask why are not all teachers unmitigated sociopaths? The answer is that when the teacher is liberated from the concepts of good and bad, something else – something much deeper and more powerful – is revealed.
Human beings are meant to be together. We are social creatures in our deepest nature. It is not just a matter of culture, or tradition, or habit, or economics. As organisms we are hard-wired to be together. Science has discovered that our subtle biological rhythms synchronize when we are near each other. Our breath, even our heart rate variability, harmonize with those around us. So why, if we are meant to be together, do we seem to be so bad at it? It is because we are driven by craving and aversion. We act unskillfully because of unconscious fear, anger, sadness, shame, greed, and so on. As the enlightened teacher is liberated from the restraining concepts of ethics and morality, their natural humanity, their hard-wired social nature is also liberated. The teacher is no longer driven by attachment to concepts but is instead motivated to care for the manifested world, especially humanity, by the true nature of being a human being. The teacher's compassion doesn't come from the concept of “I should feel or act in this way because that is what good people do and I am a good person”. Instead it arises spontaneously from their true nature as a social creature like the mountain spring pouring clear water out from the crevice in the rock. So a natural, spontaneous, powerful, inexhaustible love and good will towards humanity arises in the teacher as the artificial, conceptual morality and ethics - the conscience - fall away. That is why teachers are not dangerous sociopaths. But that leaves unanswered the initial question: why the inappropriate sex, substance abuse, and appearance of avarice?
The enlightened teacher experiences the dissolution and reformation of the sense of being a fixed, separate thing called a “self” again and again. The self that reforms is never again convincing or compelling in the way it once was, and it is less and less fixated, less reified, and more of a flowing process than a congealed entity. But it does reconstitute into a self-process and, most importantly for this discussion, it re-inhabits existing behavior patterns. When the teacher re-manifests as a functioning self, that teacher can walk, talk, drive a car, put their pants on correctly and so on. The sense of self reanimates its habitual personality – absent craving, aversion, and unconsciousness – but still flavored by the individual teacher's personal history and culture. And it is here that potential problems arise. Enlightenment does not erase a teacher's personal and cultural tendencies and quirks. These tendencies and quirks may be pleasant, interesting, colorful, endearing, helpful and so on. But they also may be inappropriate in the context of the culture in which they are teaching or in some cases inappropriate in ANY context.
A teacher's habitual self may have an excessive fondness for alcohol, sex, money, or food. The habitual self may have a tendency towards scolding, humiliating, or otherwise abusing students. And since the teacher is unencumbered by any moral or ethical rules and can see these behaviors as harmless or as compassionate teaching, or see the entire manifested world, including their misbehavior, as illusory and of no real consequence, there may be no internal “brakes”. The problem is made dramatically worse by the common pattern of teachers being surrounded by students who actively try to shield the teacher from social feedback and hide the teacher's misconduct from those outside the inner circle. But let's not skip over the issue of a teacher regarding the manifested world, including their misbehavior, as illusory and without consequence. The problem is that they aren't wrong. When tea with the queen and an orgy with your students are experienced as equally empty, what does it matter?
It matters because people in general expect those who hold themselves out as spiritual leaders to behave in the manner of an admirable person in the context of the culture in which they teach. When teachers fall short of this standard, they risk turning their own students away from the practice. Even worse, they discourage untold multitudes from taking the practice seriously such that they never even begin a practice with ANY teacher, having concluded, with some evidence provided by a particular teacher's misbehavior, that the practice as a whole is a sham. So properly understood, the natural love and good will a teacher has for humanity demands that the teacher behave in a manner that encourages people to trust in the teaching.
But a teacher who lived in a monastery in Asia from the time they were an adolescent until the time they were sent to the USA to teach very well may not have the slightest idea how to engage with lay people in the unfamiliar culture. This is particularly true of lay people of the opposite gender. In fact the teacher, trained in isolation, may not know how to relate to lay people from their own culture, let alone from a very alien culture.
For example, one cultural difference that looms large is in the realm of sexuality. Compared to most of the rest of the world, Americans are generally both more squeamish about, and more obsessed with, sexual matters. Rooted in American culture is a notion, conscious or not, that sexual intimacy is sordid, vulgar, and not something “nice” people do except as required for reproduction. Most of us reject that idea intellectually, yet it remains as a cultural undercurrent. And it is definitely NOT true in all, or even most, other world cultures. So it is not hard for a teacher who, consistent with their native culture, doesn't think sexual matters are taboo to run afoul of American sexual norms. Other cultural differences exist as well, but none more likely to lead to problems than sexuality.
So given that teachers can have cultural quirks and personality problems that are not “cured” by enlightenment, what is to be done to protect students and keep the reputation of contemplative practices from being damaged?
Teachers need to LEARN to act as admirable people within the culture in which they teach. They need to drop inappropriate behavioral habits and acquire more appropriate habits. As a threshold matter, the teacher needs to open themselves up to the idea that if they are going to hold themselves out as teachers, their behavior matters and that they need to invite feedback about their behavior from the people with whom they interact. Getting feedback on behavior from the general public is not difficult, except that teachers are often somewhat isolated by their senior students, assistants, and “handlers”. Not only does this inner circle block feedback from outsiders, it often develops its own culture of unconditional approval of whatever the teacher does and actively hides the teacher's problems. This is a very unfortunate situation because teachers need feedback concerning their behavior. Teachers that receive no feedback because of their exalted status and isolation can only be expected to continue doing what they have always done – right up to the point that the scandal breaks. And then it is too late.
This isolation and protection of teachers seems to arise almost automatically unless the teacher takes measures to combat it. This requires some adjustment of traditional hierarchies and student/teacher relationships. If they are going to successfully move towards becoming admirable people withing the culture in which they are teaching by changing their habitual behavior, teachers need to take definitive steps to make students feel comfortable giving unfavorable feedback, actively evaluate that feedback, and act on it as appropriate.
“Mere Zen is not enough. It must be intelligent, sensitive, tasteful, courageous, modest, un-inferiority-complicated, non-hysterical, extreme Zen.” - R. H. Blyth