Quite a few western Buddhist communities have, unfortunately, become objects of scandal, often of a sexual nature. In fact, many Buddhist teachers have abused their position of power by engaging in sexual relations with their students, male and female.

Since the 1980s, the sangha of the San Francisco Zen Center has been deeply aware of just how complex the relationship is between student and teacher. For this reason, the Zen Center has developed clear ethical guidelines for the relationship, as well as specific training for Dharma teachers that includes elements of western psychology.

One of the principle problems is that Dharma teachers do not know, or are not able to manage, transference and countertransference, or projection and counterprojection.

In the field of psychoanalysis, transference is something that a patient projects on the analyst. The projection may be positive, that is, associated with esteem, affection, or love; or it may be negative, associated with fear, competitiveness, envy, jealousy, and aggression. It is the responsibility of the analyst to draw on his or her skill and professionalism to manage these projections. As the objects of such love or hate, analysts must also know how to manage their own emotional and affective reactions, or what is called countertransference. That is, they must not make projections of their own on patients, but maintain a distance between their feelings and those of the patient. This skill is not required of patients. Instead, it is the analyst who must help patients to liberate themselves.


The same dynamic operates in the relationship between students and Dharma teachers. Students tend to idealize the teacher and to project on him or her the perfection of Buddha and, often, the figure of the loving parent of whom they have such need. In this way, students abandon their own capacity for judgment and entrust themselves to their teachers as a child does to its parent. Clearly, the projection could instead be negative, and the teacher may be seen as the castrating parent: as for an analyst’s patient, the projection is an expression of a need or of a trauma.

The skillful teacher must know that such projections are inevitable and have nothing to do with him or her personally. Thus the positive or negative image is not something that should be believed. For example, if the projection takes the form of love, the teacher has to be aware that this is not a true falling in love, but a construction of the student’s, or, rather, an appeal for help. In showing such love, students are in fact showing their problem with trust. The teacher who—instead of helping wisely—enters into an affective relationship with the student, violates that trust and causes great damage.

Teachers are always in a position of power, spiritual, psychological, emotional, and physical, vis-à-vis students. The spiritual Master is in fact an archetype operating in the student’s mind that generates these projections. Projections are a source of power that should be re invested for the benefit of the student, to promote his or her spiritual, psychological, and physical well-being, and not used to advantage the teacher.

Teachers, too, must be very attentive to their counterprojections. However wonderful it is to be seen as perfect, however intoxicating it is to be invested with unlimited power, however exciting it is to be loved, it is essential that a conscientious teacher not give way to the temptation to use that power.

Teachers of the Dharma, even spiritually evolved ones, are just human beings and as such are full of human defects and emotional wounds of their own. The student’s projection can therefore easily latch onto a psychological or emotional need of the teacher. For this reason, teachers have to be aware of their own mechanisms, their own needs, their own wounds, and not call on the student to satisfy those needs, but rather work on them with their own teachers and with a psychologist.

As much as one may know how to meditate, it is very difficult to see with the mind what is hidden by mind: eyes cannot see the eyes. What is needed is an outside gaze that acts as a mirror and helps the teacher recognize his or her own mechanisms. Teachers should also be aware that wounds and emotional needs may be buried in the unconscious, in the “storehouse consciousness” (in Sanskrit, alaya vijnana, to employ a term from Buddhist psychology) and be activated only in the presence of particular causes and conditions, such as, for example, the projections one receives from a student.

There are therefore clear ethical guidelines that delineate the relationship between teacher and student. For example, at the San Francisco Zen Center—and, consequently, at the Centro Zen l’Arco of Rome, which is affiliated with the SFZC—we have the following ethical rule:

A disciple of the Buddha does not misuse sexuality but rather cultivates and encourages honest and caring relationships: it is considered a misuse of authority, responsibility, and sexuality for a Zen Center teacher to engage in sexual behavior with his or her student. If a teacher and/or student feel at risk of violating this guideline, they should suspend their teacher-student relationship at least until they have sought counsel with a senior Zen Center teacher. Furthermore, it is considered a misuse of sexuality for a teacher at Zen Center to form a sexual relationship with a former student within six months of the termination of the student-teacher relationship. Before forming a sexual relationship, all Zen Center priests, head students, or other persons in a formal role that entail clear advantages of influence in relationship to others should discuss the appropriateness of the potential relationship with a teacher or practice leader.

In addition to having such rules, it is essential that the student who feels he or she has been abused—verbally, physically, sexually, psychologically—has someone to turn to without fear of not being heard, of being judged or distanced. A person is likely to feel very afraid to talk to other students of the failings of a teacher. Dharma centers must therefore have dedicated support groups within them that collate all the occasions on which the person feels he or she was abused, check the facts of the case, act as a medium of communication to the teacher and the rest of the community, and—at the same time—provide psychological and spiritual support to the presumed victim.

To offer compassion to an injured person is a central practice of Buddhism, but compassion is for everyone. I have often seen that the victims of abuse are shown great compassion in Dharma centers, but not the teacher. Although it is essential to identify the people responsible for abuse and to correct the situation, it is also necessary to give abusive teachers the help they need to fully understand their own actions and the consequences of those actions.

When a sangha becomes aware of its collective, positive projections on the teacher, it can try to wrest back the trust it gave, and transform the person they once considered a saint into a monster. But this is tantamount to a new projection—this time, a negative one. In such a circumstance, both sangha and teacher lose an extraordinary opportunity for compassion and collective growth.