Some time ago I wrote a couple of posts about Buddhism and psychotherapy as well as some of the woo out there that some folks wish to append to the Buddhadharma. (here, here) And it is something that I’ve wanted to post about again particularly with regard to psychotherapists as Dharma teachers and introducing alternative methods to dharma practice. There have been numerous recent blog posts related to this topic as well. (links at the bottom for more discussion)
Further to that, someone sent me an email with their perspective on this topic and they’ve allowed me to share it here under agreement of confidentiality.
I have been concerned about this matter. I am a layperson, not a professional.
This matter warrants concern. I used to attend a meditation group led by someone who teaches in the vipassana tradition. This person had a list of Vipassana Therapists for members to consult, most of whom were affiliated with the same retreat center on which this teacher was part of the teaching council.
This particular meditation center is supposed to be Buddhist but is also a hub for some non buddhist and rather questionable methods that use…[specifics redacted]. On long and silent retreats one becomes tender and receptive and it can be very easy to accept recommendations from a friend or teacher one has come to feel close to.
I know of just one Buddhist Center (I think it is Berkeley Zen Center in Berkeley California, with Mel Weiztman as abbot, where they had posted an ethics section on their bulletin board.
You can read this excellent list here.
http://www.berkeleyzencenter.org/EARguidelines.pdf [I’ve used a shorter link than the one that accompanied the email]
Psychotherapists who understand boundary issues know that there is a great hazard, both morally and legally in what is termed a ‘dual relationship’–that is to say when a therapist tries to combine roles of teacher, friend, business associate. It is considered the safest course for a therapist NOT to be one’s friend, ones guru, ones practice teacher, and therapists should operate on a clean, fee for service arrangement and avoid unnecessary socializing outside of the sessions with clients.
Another matter that is often not understood is that if a therapist becomes famous and in demand as a dharma teacher, he or she acquires a public persona, and that interferes with the creation of a therapeutic alliance in which the two parties are to interact as human beings, without masks.
Two, if a therapist becomes famous as a dharma teacher, all too often that means he or she risks being seduced onto the Dharma Celebrity Circuit. The person is out of town for retreats, for conferences, and that interferes with being available to clients. There are only 24 hours in a day, and something has to give.
Finally, one is often flattered and deferred to as a Dharma teacher/Dharma celebrity, which can provide a great deal of flattery. A client may risk being subconsciously drawn into nurturing the therapist/gurus public persona and, disastrously, in the guise of therapy, re-enact the kinds of early childhood relationship traumas that made therapy necessary in the first place.
Finally if a client is troubled, where can he or she go? That client may risk having to leave the sangha of which the therapist is head, or an honored senior member. That troubled client may lose friends who continue to venerate the therapist as a guru.
The only way I could solve my issue was go to my Zen Center, but consult a therapist who practices in another city, is very well informed in Buddhadharma, but who himself practices in another tradition entirely. I would refuse to seek therapy from anyone affiliated with the network of Zen Centers of which mine is a part.
To illustrate the hazards, here is what happened in California when some therapists were besotted with an unlicensed guru and recruited their clients into a group. One client who expressed misgivings was brutally rejected by her therapist. But..she was lucky. She was less damaged and had the energy to bring a lawsuit.
The author sent a few related follow up comments as well:
… some Buddhists mix in a strange stew of techniques that are, IMO ‘bells and whistles’ and not part of the heartwood of the Dharma…
Buddha supposedly stated that he had not held anything back and had passed on all that was needed. So one need not fret that some hidden teaching has to be found on a cave wall, or [elsewhere].
Feel free to use whatever you suspect may be useful to readers. I am not a well traveled Buddhist, so I have no idea whether the Berkeley Zen Center is the only place that has seen fit to mention that association in the sangha is never to be for personal gain, and that professionals must beware of the temptation of dual relationships.
And sangha by extension is not supposed to be used as a marketing node or ‘point of recruitment’.
There are quite a number of issues apparent in this communication. The ones I would like to address are:
- Sangha codes of ethics
- Dharma stew-mixing untested, unscientific, psychologically manipulative techniques into Dharma practice without outlining potential dangers to Sangha members. Informed consent at the very least should be sought before such techniques are introduced.
- Marketing of services by Sangha members and leaders
- Fishing for psychotherapy clients in the Sangha pool
- Dharma fame
- Dual relationship
- Boundary issues
1. Sangha codes of ethics.
There are now numerous groups that are publicly placing codes of ethics or similar documents in their policies. Here are a few more examples:
FWBO has an ethics page on their main website and outlines it’s application to members
San Francisco Zen Center has quite a number of pages under it’s Ethics heading on their website
Spirit Rock, Insight Meditation Society, and Gaia House have a joint document on ethical guidelines for teachers including a procedure for grievance redress. (could be posted a bit more prominently on the website though-took some digging to find it)
Zen Center of Denver has the Diamond Sangha Teacher’s Ethics Agreement posted
2. Dharma stew and 3. Vulnerability
There are a lot of things one could call skillful means. That is those things which help students to gain understanding, deepen their practice or clarify and relieve passing issues such as anxiety and lack of concentration as well as assist others in these endeavors. Many, such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction for example, which serves to teach people:
…how to use their innate resources and abilities to respond more effectively to stress, pain, and illness. The central focus of the Clinic is intensive training in mindfulness meditation and its integration into the challenges/adventures of everyday life.
and we might also cite something like Upaya’s Being with the Dying programs which:
…addresses the need for healthcare providers to develop knowledge and skills in the psycho-social, ethical, and spiritual aspects of dying: an approach to caregiving that is relationship-centered, including community development and cross-cultural issues; the development of skills related to care of the caregiver; and the means to implement these skills in traditional medical settings. Much of this content is not addressed in the current training of physicians, nurses, psychologists, social workers, and other healthcare providers, and is essential in the care of dying people.
as examples which integrate science, psychology, medicine and other disciplines with a Buddhist methodology or techniques in a legitimate way. Their aims, curriculum and related information are easily available and participants are informed about the purposes of any accompanying activities. They are not experiments by untrained or unethical or self-serving individuals conducted at the expense of naive participants, particularly for personal profit.
These have been developed in controlled settings and backed up by open and qualified research. There are adequate safeguards in place and backup techniques should a participant experience psychological difficulty while undertaking these methods or courses. Significant training on the part of teachers and leaders is involved in order to provide these services.
Some techniques may be rather benign and others rather powerful. If there is readily available information about them, then students can do a little research and discover what their purposes are and how they work. Any reason for using adjunct measures in a Sangha context should be explained fully and justified. Ideally any group leader will provide this information or at least sources for further study. Those employing such techniques should be properly trained in their use and be able to recognize any arising difficulties. A procedure should be in place for such difficulties. Providing references to co-facilitator’s psychotherapeutic practices should not be part of the procedure.
But that is not what is meant by Dharma stew. The types of things being talked about include, but are not limited to:
- Enneagram of Personality or Forth Way Enneagram
- Neuro-Linguistic Programming
- Byron Katie’s The Work
- Big Mind
- binaural beats (here also)
- floatation tanks and isolation “therapy”
- deep psychological tests (such as the MMPI)
- past life regression
- any other kind of pseudoscience (there’s a real big list on that page)
Dharma teachers pushing their pet theories, employing alternative methods or deciding who needs this kind of “help” without considering the ethical ramifications are abusing their positions of trust as well as compromising (read watering-down) the power of the dharma itself.
Sure, they may think they’re a good person who only wants to help the people they practice with. All these “tools” are often methods to display some kind of fake expertise when actual dharma training and knowledge is lacking. It’s easy to become a past-life regression therapist (16 days) or a Reiki master-teacher. I know because I did the latter, from start to finish, in less than a month. (It was fairly entertaining and not completely without benefit. I’ll make a post about it some time-apparently I was spiritually precocious! Ha.)
But thorough grounding in the Buddhadharma takes years if not decades of both study and practice. Sometimes though, even those who have gotten the grounding succumb to the temptation of offering quick results to make a fast buck. This rather mystifies me. What would cause someone, who had spent decades in study and practice, to just say “Fuck it! Gimme the money.” and then proceed to bilk hundreds of people? Did they run out of patience? Did they go off on a tangent and attempt to rectify that mistake by turning it into a corporation? Did they not get the results they had anticipated with practice? Were they disappointed to find their results were “nothing special” after all?
It just strikes me as a really cynical thing to do. And actually I feel a certain amount of compassion for that because of the shallowness of it. When someone, after years of practice decides to only chase after the riches of materialism and celebrity, basking in large, almost captive audiences while sitting under a spotlight on a stage, especially when it’s at the expense of others who would place their trust in that teacher, because they have not fully realized the riches of the Buddhadharma, then it’s a painful situation all around.
Most people don’t know much if anything about the Buddhadharma when they walk into a practice group. They are curious and receptive. And because it is purported to be a nice religion run by such nice people as HH Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, and followed by such other nice people as Richard Gere and Goldie Hawn, they are preternaturally trusting.
Abusing that trust in this way can only be called spiritual vampirism.
Is it a Sangha or a swap meet? At the link for the Berkeley Zen Center mentioned in the email author’s communication. It states:
Therapists and Helping Professionals
Sangha members are discouraged from using the community as a source of
business or professional clients. We request that BZC teachers and sangha
members who work as psychotherapists, physicians or attorneys avoid entering
into professional relationships with sangha members. Others in the helping
professions are asked to be sensitive to the delicate balance between worker
and client, and the possible complexity of dual relationships when both parties
practice at the same dharma center.
While I’ll take up the issue of dual relationships in another section, this is exactly the type of complicated situation that can be foreseen in any group setting. And one that a group can be prepared for.
Simple transactions between people will naturally occur in any group setting, particularly as people get to know each other. Someone is selling their old aquarium or looking to find a music instructor for their child or wants a companion to join them at a used book sale. These are incidental occurrences that don’t necessarily involve an ongoing relationship, divulging of personal information, or legal and ethical matters to any great degree.
On the other hand, I certainly would not want my divorce lawyer meditating next to me and involved with my Buddhist practice, nor my doctor who gave me a pap test (or for the guys your prostate exam), nor a therapist who knew all the details of my family history. Way too close for comfort. And if the professional relationship goes awry it’s rather difficult to disguise that. The ramifications affect the entire sangha when members have internal problems with each other enough. Adding outside and unknown relationship problems compounds the issue as well as leads to gossip. It becomes everyone’s problem.
Using the sangha as a fishing pond for clients is as uncomfortable as the situation of those who bring their creations for their Ebay store to work every Monday and try to sell them to workmates. You may be deft with the old wood-burning set but, NO, I don’t need a piece of toast with the shape of Manjushri burnt onto it. [Save it for the Rocky Horror Picture Show revival]
There’s a time and a place for such things. Forcing these issues can violate people’s comfort zones [not always a bad thing] and cause confusion as to the purpose of a group activity. It’s awkward, there’s a sense of false obligation and it risks alienating people and setting up a scenario of resentment.
It leads others to believe that they too should be doing business in the sangha which sets up all sorts of conditions for competition, disappointment, wounded feelings and territoriality. [“My clients”, “My products”, “My services”, “My methods”]
And if it’s the dharma teacher doing it that compounds the discomfort. Why even go there?
6. Dharma fame
Some people become well known and start to believe their own hype. We see it in the tabloids all the time with Hollywood types. If someone is not fairly grounded in reality there is a lot of temptation to revel in the attention, praise, importance, material benefits, sycophancy and power that comes along with celebrity.
Everyone around a celebrity wants advice, time, a share of the spotlight, material benefit, intimate knowledge and connections from the famous and soon the illusion of celebrity is leading and controlling the person’s life rather than the other way around. And the scope of acceptable, allowable behavior becomes larger as the spotlight becomes brighter or larger. People don’t say no to celebrities often. In fact people will encourage even more outrageous behavior if it is possibly to their benefit. And if the celebrity can’t say no to themselves first when necessary, as well as to others then consequences are often disastrous.
This is the situation in the lives of all people who accrue power or fame in any realm. The dharma celebrity is no different.
7. Dual or multiple relationships and 8. Boundary issues
In the American Psychological Association’s Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct states:
(a) A multiple relationship occurs when a psychologist is in a professional role with a person and (1) at the same time is in another role with the same person, (2) at the same time is in a relationship with a person closely associated with or related to the person with whom the psychologist has the professional relationship, or (3) promises to enter into another relationship in the future with the person or a person closely associated with or related to the person. section 3.05
It would not be out of line to question someone from your sangha who seems to insist on acting on your behalf in a personal matter, or who insists on asking for professional opinions repeatedly. In the first instance if you had sought their opinion on a particular matter, due to their expertise, and whether they provided an answer or not, this does not obligate you or them to develop an ongoing professional relationship. Likewise if someone asks for an opinion, the professional should feel perfectly free to cite conflict of interest or other professional ethical codes and decline. Neither party should push the matter nor feel resentful.
From a piece by Lorne Ladner Taking a Stand-The importance of healthy boundaries
This is precisely the way to go about setting healthy boundaries. You begin by correcting the person, telling the other how you wish to be treated, or stating what you are or are not willing to do. It can be difficult in the short run to set a clear boundary with someone you care about, but not doing so often leads to many more difficulties over a much longer period of time.
Boundaries provide a framework for relationship. Without them, without some critical judgement, questioning, and decision making all manner of activities become acceptable. No one takes the time to really examine their limits of acceptability. Such things are forgotten and anything goes. It reminds me of the old phrase “Those who stand for nothing will fall for anything.”
The Dharmic Conclusion
Shodo Harada Roshi said in this video:
When in the past we each could just consider our own needs and be aware of what the small world around us was requiring, we are now approaching a time when we can’t do that any more. The world is just too connected, just too full of things that are connecting all of us. For example the amount of information that comes into everybody. It gives us the sense of not needing to judge things for ourselves any more. We’re always being told what to do, what to wear, how things should happen.
People’s lives have really taken on a sense of isolation without any way to express how miserable that makes them feel. And along with all that comes all the business of life because of all the media, because of all the information, because of the pace of things happening right now. In the middle of this isolated, uncomfortable mind we are walking around a world that is so busy we can’t even find time to find out what it is in our mind that is making us so discontent and unhappy. And in order to somehow assuage that feeling we go into entertainment that has so much stimulation that we are just kind of numbing ourselves to all of that. Or we become intoxicated on things like drugs or alcohol. Or a hobby that takes us away from thinking about how unhappy we are inside. Our world has become a place where we are always avoiding facing the core issue and dealing with what’s really really our true nature. Instead we try to find some satisfaction in an external world outside of ourselves.
The whole series of talks he gives are eye-opening.
The sangha, retreat or other place of refuge and teaching, when fraught with “the business of life”, ceases to function for it’s allotted purpose. It becomes another place to which we must numb ourselves rather than free ourselves.
The need to recover a sense of autonomy within the Buddhist path is necessary. Yet so is the need to examine whatever sense of autonomy that is currently present and insure that it’s direction is in accord with the Dharma if we call ourselves Buddhist and wish to have the benefits of the Buddhist path. It is with some trepidation that I would cite the Kalama Sutta here because that has been over used and abused too many times.
Unfortunately, what I see happening in some cases is a rejection of the Buddhist path in favor of personal opinion or wishful thinking. One small section of the Sutta is often cited, though more often paraphrased, without reference to the context, to justify this rejection:
Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’
This is not a blank check to use to fulfill every whim we have. Nor is it license to throw Buddhadharma out the window and substitute a bunch of woo. Particularly related to the teachings themselves, rejection is very popular. There may be several reasons for this.
There is a strong anti-intellectual tendency in popular Buddhism globally. To some degree that is even reinforced by some of the hierarchical structures within the Buddhist establishment. So it is quite understandable that a knowledge approach would seem rather unattractive compared to an intuitive or “organic” approach. But both are necessary.
As well rejection is often confused with judgement. Rejection and judgement are not the same thing. Rejection or acceptance are decisions made after investigation and analysis. They are results of judgment which is a result of analysis which is a result of investigation. There is a whole chain of events that precedes rejection. This is the meaning and method of free inquiry that is encapsulated in the Kalama Sutta.
The criteria for judgement are laid out plainly in the Sutta. They immediately follow the above quote. On the subject of rejection it is stated:
Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,’ abandon them.
And similarly for acceptance:
Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them.
These are the criteria for wise decision making. We cannot accept or reject until we know what it is that is being dealt with. Just because somebody on Twitter says “Buddha said to reject texts, or precepts, or teacher’s opinions, or our own ideas.” do we blindly accept that opinion? It’s tempting to do so because it gives us license to do whatever we want. Without references to any alternative, since we have rejected them, we are left to fall back on our own greed, delusion and desire. Acceptance and rejection are conditional upon knowledge and experience of the subject. A priori rejection [the blank check] is not included in this approach.
Yes we need to maintain a critical eye towards what is and isn’t beneficial. But beneficial in the relative sense of the ego and beneficial in a much larger sense are two very different things.
There may come a time for rejecting. When one has digested and benefited from their study then particulars fall by the wayside. The raft is left behind as it were. This seems to be the emerging trend and that is not a problem for mature practitioners. However, for those who have not yet benefited from the raft, its disposal may be a little premature leaving them lost on the little island of I. (Yes I am referring to Batchelor’s latest work but that’s for another post)
Setting boundaries, making informed decisions, questioning methods, using sound judgement, asking for proof, abandoning the harmful, accepting the beneficial, knowing what we are accepting and rejecting intimately are all part of the process.
But most importantly these criteria are also to be applied to ourselves. We have to look within and monitor our own actions and reactions. The Buddhadharma as a whole is not only some kind of lens with which to examine and judge that which is deemed outer to ourselves. That sets up our egos to be the ultimate arbiters of everything. We remain in the same position as always and are essentially running in place.
While it can certainly be useful for the purpose of external observation, it is a mirror with which we are to view ourselves as well. Buddhism as an external thing, a refuge outside of ourselves is ineffective. It is like a medicine in that sense. To be taken not merely looked at or displayed. It is only a costume if we do not apply the same scrutiny and criteria within as without.
So when it comes to teachers, students, methods, “tools”, relationships, ideas, occupations and ethics, a rigorousness and universality needs to be applied in approaches to the Buddhadharma.
On a few blogs,related topics have come up and comments were quite interesting. Check these posts for more:
Dying of New Age on Petteri’s blog Come to Think of It… on New Age “woolly-headedness”
Caution: Meditation May Lead to Brainwashing from Gniz at Reblogging Brad Warner blog followed by Cautions about Meditation and “Brainwashing” Revisited
Big Mind, Big B.S. Nosan Lawrence Grecco on The Wheel of Dharma blog discusses …”packaging Zen Buddhism as if it were instant oatmeal.”
The inimitable Brad Warner of Hard Core Zen has been into similar subjects for quite some time. One of his more recent posts is THE END OF SUFFERING IS POSSIBLE FOR YOU
Semi-Related Videos in a Somewhat Comedic Vein
(she reminds me of the Phoebe character on Friends in that last video!)