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Pedestal Practice: Harmful Student-Teacher Relationships

Sangha & InclusionGuiding Teacher5 Comments

In recent weeks, a very painful situation has come to light in the greater Buddhist sangha. Many practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism are upset at allegations of harmful behavior by a very well-known teacher. Similarly, the Abbot of a very large and prestigious Thai Buddhist temple has been accused of breaking the ethical vows of his tradition and of breaking the law. A year ago, a very painful scandal emerged at one of the larger Soto Zen centers in the US. Unfortunately, these are not the first instances of abuse of the relationship between Buddhist teachers and students. These kinds of situations have occurred time and time again, across various traditions and geographic locations.

As I am not personally familiar with any of the situations mentioned above, I don't feel qualified to discuss the details. However, I do want to share my thoughts on possible reasons for how and why these kinds of abuses happen, why they seem to go unaddressed for long periods of time, and how they might be prevented. Each situation is different and complex, but there may be discernable patterns at work.

Some people come to Buddhism in search of a more positive sense of self. While a bit ironic, this is natural, since one of the most fundamental messages of Buddhism is each person's innate capacity for and expression of wisdom. People like the idea that Buddhism says, "You can be a kinder, calmer, happier, wiser person, if you just work on discovering your own goodness, your own true nature." In Zen this shows up as the teaching, "All beings are fully endowed with buddhanature." It's a very positive message about the basic goodness of a human being.

However, in the search for a better self, problems sometimes develop as students look for and encounter a teacher. They look up to that person, and begin to see that person as someone special. Of course, if they didn't do a bit of that, that person could not be a teacher to them. Yet, one consequence of this admiration may be that seeing the teacher as special makes the student feel special by association with the special teacher. Whether or not this sentiment is spoken aloud, it also makes the teacher feel special because of the positive messages coming their way. This set of beliefs tends to feel good to both parties, and therefore tends to be reinforced.

Thus, the student feels that the teacher can help them be a better person. And it seems to be true because the teacher expresses confidence in the student, and the student seems to feel better about him or herself. It also seems to be true because usually more than one student is saying these things about the teacher. As for the teacher, he or she begins to believe these positive things students are saying about them, and begins to believe that they are the special person who can help the students to be better people.

If all of this belief and counter-belief is turned toward the goal of keeping teacher and students on the path of wisdom and compassion, then it can be helpful. Students feel motivated to really practice hard, support the teacher and the sangha, and work on discovering self and other. And the teacher works hard to support them to do this for themselves and for all beings. Then they are all working at living the practice, and at fulfilling this idealized vision of themselves.

However, a problem can very easily develop with this kind of scenario. If this kind of behavior gets stronger and persists for a while, the student or many students may put the teacher on a pedestal, holding them up much higher than other human beings because of the great respect and appreciation they have for their teacher's teachings. Again, it's important to recognize that one underlying motivation, whether conscious or unconscious, is that the student gains status in their own eyes, and perhaps in the eyes of others, by being associated with the person who is on the pedestal. And the person on the pedestal enjoys a lot of attention, authority, prestige and, often, material comforts because they have been elevated in this way. However, if the teacher begins to believe that they are so special that they stand above the rest of humanity, then naturally problems will arise. I call this “pedestal practice.”

A teacher who has been convinced of the positive beliefs their students have about them may begin to think that they can do no wrong. They may think that no matter how they use their authority, or how they use the teachings and training, it will be beneficial for the students. They may think that they cannot make a mistake, and they may actually convince themselves that to admit a mistake would be harmful to the students.

I recently had a conversation with a woman who is a psychotherapist and long-time Zen practitioner about her teacher, a Rinzai Buddhist with a long history of abuses. She said, "It would crush him to have to admit that he was wrong." This she offered as an explanation for his inability to stop harmful behavior or to apologize to the community. It was then that I realized that when a person sincerely believes that they are so spiritual they cannot possibly make a mistake, harm to other beings in inevitable. The teacher's delusion about self has gotten so big that it blocks out any compassion for the experience of the students. In this teacher's case, pedestal practice cannot be acknowledged even when it has hurt many, many people.
This is truly ironic, and a clear indicator that the teacher's practice is lacking in compassion and wisdom. In Zen there is the practice of reciting the verse of repentance, which is part of the monthly precepts renewal ceremony called the Full Moon Ceremony, or "Ryaku Fusatsu" in Japanese. The repentance vow is this:

All my ancient twisted karma,
from beginningless greed, hatred and delusion,
Born through body, speech and mind,
I now fully avow.

This vow is key to Zen practice, because it begins with the acknowledgment that one has taken intentional action, “karma,” based on the three poisons of greed, hatred and delusion. Reciting the vow is only possible if one has the humility to admit to oneself and others that one is still impacted by the poisons, and by the workings of karma and its results, called “vipāka.” The power of the vow comes from the fact that being able to clearly discern the harmful or less skillful ways in which one has acted, means being able to more skillfully deal with the consequences of those actions and with future conditions. It is a powerful practice. Any teacher who is truly wise and compassionate will be able to admit that they too are subject to karma.


What about when students know that their teacher has been abusing their power or breaking their ethical vows, but they choose not to address it? This is actually a very complex question. It may be that the student cannot take the teacher off the pedestal because then they would have to take themselves down a notch as well, and they are not willing to do that. Or it may be that the student believes that the teacher is someone who is leading them on a special journey that does not fit within the boundaries of normal ethical and practice standards. Sometimes students simply feel ashamed of having broken their own vows, or of having believed in someone who turns out to be flawed. For all of these reasons, and more, students may be very reluctant to speak out against a teacher of high standing.

Supported by these inter- and intra-personal dynamics, pedestal practice can go on for a long time. In fact, students who have not yet experienced any harmful behavior may pressure the students who have to keep quiet, because they do not want to see the problem or deal with its repercussions. Teachers have been known to get angry, and to threaten or to abandon students who question their authority or their wisdom. Whole communities have kept secrets about harmful behavior for decades rather than go through the painful process of bringing them to light and addressing them.

Fortunately, there are things can be done to prevent this situation from reaching such a harmful state. First, it is critically important for Buddhist communities to structure opportunities for teachers to have input from their peers. Ideally this can happen among teachers, away from a public setting, so that there is no need to keep up appearances for the students’ sake. Often teachers can be seen more objectively by other teachers. This helps to keep a teacher from getting put on such a high pedestal that they fall off their practice of wisdom and compassion. It also provides a place and time for sharing the joys and challenges of the teaching role, helping the teacher feel more connected to, and more identified with other teachers. These kinds of relationships can remind the teachers that their situation is not one of a special being above humanity, but of a human being devoting their entire life to the well-being of their students.

Second, students need to be aware of and take responsibility for the ways they relate to their teacher. They must deeply study their motivations. They must hold their behavior and their teacher's behavior to a high ethical standard. This is simply an expression of the Dharma, which has always been based on a foundation of compassion as ethical action. Students need to investigate their views of self. If they feel that they are leaning on a relationship with a teacher to bolster themselves, they can turn toward the teaching that practice is something only you can do for yourself. Practicing with a recognized teacher can be a great support, but ultimately the student is responsible for their own ethics. Choosing to practice in an upright manner is always in accord with the Dharma. That is true fearlessness.

Lastly, teachers would also do well to study their motivations regarding students. If a teacher's motivation is to use students to satisfy their own physical or emotional needs, or to keep students perpetually in a position of subservience, this is a sign that the teacher is using their position to bolster their self-esteem. Any teacher with a deep understanding and practice of the Dharma wants their students to discover their own deep expression of compassion and wisdom. When teachers acknowledge students' capacity, ability, and expression, this is expounding the Dharma of “endowed with buddhanature.”

The Way of Buddhism has brought forth many, many wonderful teachers. Still, any teaching, any practice, no matter how profound, can be twisted into something harmful by delusion and the frailties of human beings. When students and teachers build up each other’s self-esteem at the expense of ethics and compassion, deep harm is the natural result. Complex relational dynamics are at play, and can perpetuate even harmful relationships. Yet, working together toward the manifestation of the Way of compassion and ethics, teachers and students can support each other to move beyond pedestal practice and be an embodiment of the fearless Dharma.