by Scott Kiloby
Is it ok for a teacher to yell or curse at a student to free him from his own ego? What stops a teacher from sexually groping a student after satsang? When a teacher is not equipped to deal with a particular issue, like heroin addiction or trauma, is there any duty to refer the person to a professional trained in such matters?
In Buddhism and other established traditions, teachers and practitioners were expected to adhere to certain codes of conduct e.g., right speech, right action. As modern teachings become increasingly divorced from tradition, the question of ethics becomes much blurrier. It’s actually very rare to see a modern teacher adhere to any written code of ethics.
There are many modern teachers who act with integrity and good ethics always. They don’t need a written code. It’s the bad apples that make this question of ethics so important. When a bad apple stands in any position of power, the potential for abuse exists. The lack of any established code of ethics is at least one of the reasons we continue to see teachers crossing boundaries, abusing students and otherwise acting inappropriately. There is often an unexamined assumption in modern non-dual teachings that the teacher is always coming from Awareness or Higher Self. The “Absolute” becomes a way for teachers to rubber stamp anything they say or do.
When a teacher acts inappropriately, the student has only his or her own discernment to trust. Some students are able to discern quite wisely, leaving teachers who engage in inappropriate behavior the moment it happens. Other students find themselves caught up in cult-like settings for years, even decades, blindly trusting the teacher even when their gut tells them that something is off. Teachers who continuously engage in bad behavior have shown that they cannot be trusted to police themselves, take responsibility or correct their misbehavior. When boundary crossing occurs, there is no appeal to a higher authority. The teacher is the highest authority within most modern teachings. If the teacher has shadows, control issues or lacks the ability to take personal responsibility, that authority is corrupt.
In my current profession as a registered addiction specialist and my former profession as an attorney, codes of ethics are/were standard practice. In both professions, there are strict guidelines around virtually every imaginable behavior that could potentially harm or traumatize a client. If I, or my addiction center, is not equipped to handle a particular client’s issue, there is a duty to refer that client to a professional or facility that can address the client’s needs. The certified facilitators who use my mindfulness work online with people abide by an extensive code of ethics that they created, governing everything from confidentiality to inappropriate relationships to how to handle a client with suicidal ideation. This code includes governance by a board that oversees and responds to grievances by clients.
I don’t share all this to pat myself on the back, but rather to make some suggestions. I am not suggesting that non-dual teachers and teachings become subject to state regulation or that a board be created to govern the behavior of teachers (although the latter is not a wholly bad idea). I am suggesting that teachers begin to seriously entertain the creation of a code of ethics and adherence to that code. The creation of one code of ethics governing all teachers is ideal in my view, as it would allow standards of behavior to be established across the board. Publishing a code of ethics allows students to expect a teacher to behave a certain way. When misbehavior occurs, a student can then point to the code of ethics to bring the issue to the attention of the teacher and to other students. When something is in writing, it is simply harder for a teacher to rationalize his or her questionable behavior away. A grievance procedure included with such a code would provide added protection and due process. A good code of ethics would also include a duty to refer a student whenever the teacher is not equipped to deal with the student’s mental health issues.
All of this would go far, in my view, in creating a safer space for students where the first rule of thumb is always “do no harm” just as it is within the health care space.
Scott Kiloby is an author and international speaker on the subject of non-dual wisdom, addiction and trauma. He is the co-founder of the Kiloby Center for Recovery in Palm Springs, California, the first primarily mindfulness/non-dual based treatment center in the U.S. Scott is the co-owner of the Natural Rest House, a detox and residential treatment center also in Palm Springs. He is also the founder of the Living Inquiries Community, a group of mindfulness and inquiry facilitators and trainers who work with people all over the world.