From scandal-like to just plain ugly

Elephant in Varanasi, India 2010

The elephant has left the room…

A post I wrote in August, American Buddhism: Unraveling a Scandal, drew some attention to an issue involving the “pragmatic Buddhism” teacher Ken McLeod and one of his former students, a Canadian social worker with a Ph.D. in philosophy. The issue then, to summarise, was that something inappropriate had taken place between McLeod and herself, and that she (and another unnamed individual) was seeking a healthy resolution procedure to gain closure and move forward.

The former student wrote in August that she was “ignored” by Unfettered Mind, the organization for which McLeod is listed as the principle teacher, writing of “unyeilding silence.” The response she did get was brief, and promised further consideration. You can read it here.

Beyond that there seems to have been nothing. A piece at Sweeping Zen got some deserved attention, in part for including Ken McLeod’s name “in the same breath as Richard BakerEido ShimanoDennis Genpo Merzel and others whose charismatic teaching careers were marred by ethical lapses.” (as I wrote in the earlier post) Ivan has also gained some allies in calling for clearer resolution procedures, including the great Kobutsu Malone, who has shown vigilance in teacher abuse issues for some time now.

About two weeks ago, the former student did share much of her story. We’ll return to that.

Moving ahead not too far, Adam Tebbe, owner or Sweeping Zen posted yesterday (Sunday, Sept 30) a letter from Unfettered Mind’s attorney, the same one who had written the former student. In that letter Mr. Conrad (the attorney) demands an open apology to McLeod and a removal of statements about him in the above-mentioned article on that site. The letter goes on to ‘note’ that the legal costs from defending a hypothetical lawsuit over the matter “is likely to exceed $100,000.”

In response to that letter, George Draffan commented that:

In several private conversations with me during 2011 and 2012, Ken acknowledged that emotional entanglement and physical intimacies had occurred, and he acknowledged it in a conference call attended by Unfettered Mind board member Robert Conrad, myself, and others (May 21, 2012).

He continues:

Out of concern for those directly involved and for the wider community, I told Ken I would be as discrete as possible but would not participate in a cover-up. I listened and offered advice while Ken struggled to find an ethical and effective response, but he and the Unfettered Mind board have instead offered public silence and private threats, which have further confused the community and multiplied the harm.

What’s been set in motion cannot be resolved by secrecy, scandal, or lawsuits….

Indeed. But perhaps the most enlightening comment of this whole discussion also came from Draffan, who prefaced the above by stating, “As a pioneer in translating Buddhist teachings into Western culture, Ken McLeod has acute insight and broad knowledge. At the same time he is a human being with reactive patterns and blind spots.”

From the Buddhist perspective it would seem that that is the heart of the matter. We all have blind spots; we all make mistakes. But if we’re to grow and make things right, we have to acknowledge our blindnesses, failures, and weaknesses. It seems so simple. If you go to Dharma talks you probably hear this a couple times a year, from stories of Buddha facing Mara as opposed to his ‘evil’ cousin Devadatta, to the reformation of Angulimala…

On another level, all of this is important in that it makes concrete the fact that even really wonderful teachers are human. In all traditional forms of Buddhism there is the belief that one can transcend “reactive patterns and blind spots” and thus there will always be the potential for abuse of that belief. It’s better that we discuss that openly and regularly than ignoring it until people feel hurt and compelled to create their own blogs or websites to discuss these things, far away from the teacher and his/her inner circle.

Let the elephant out of the room.

UPDATED: Thich Nhat Hanh drinks tea, smiles in rehab
“Why am I here?” – an interview with Zen priest and interfaith dialogue participant, Rev. Dr. David Zuniga
Mapping Buddhism in America
Practicing Compassion, a review
  • Thill

    At the root of these sorts of issues lies a ghastly pretension to “holiness” and/or “wisdom”. If I teach computer programming and fall into “emotional entanglement and physical intimacies” with a student in my class, I am being unprofessional. There ends the matter.
    However, if I pretend to possess some “spiritual” insight or wisdom and pretend to teach it, the reality of who I am, warts, desires, aversions, contradictions and all, is going to show through my masks one day. My feet of clay, then, are going to stink real bad when the “holy boots” are taken off!
    Why pretend to be anything other an ordinary person with the usual appetites, needs, desires, contradictions, anomalies, and so forth?

    • Carol Aguilar

      I agree, the guru holdover Buddhist model is the first lie. This clouds the basic fact that a person in a position of sensitive trust has acted unethically and unprofessionally. The other important issue that is usually overlooked is that the women involved and the community are complicit.

      • P. Ivan


        You raise some issues that were recently addressed by Stephen Batchelor in a recent article to which I have written an Open Response. You might be interested in reading them.

        We have to be careful not to assume that women who have been abused were “complicit” to a particular Buddhist teaching model. Abuse can occur as the result of misplaced trust, regardless of one’s spiritual traditions and beliefs. Granted, the more control you relinquish in a relationship, the more vulnerable you are to abuse, but vulnerability is not the sine qua non of abuse. Exploitation is.

  • Justin Whitaker

    Good question – why pretend? Well, religion tends to reward those who behave in extraordinary ways. While that is certainly good in the cases of Mother Theresa and the Dalai Lama, it obviously encourages the unscrupulous to ride on their holy coat tails. I believe that most of those folks are ‘outed’ early enough; plenty of people can smell a fake. But others, by virtue of actually having some good credentials, character, and practice – or by sheer charisma – can get quite far and then simply fail (as humans do). This is okay, in that it’s human and we can all get past it. But to engage in denial blocks that ‘getting past’ – and when a whole community conspires in what appears to be a ‘cover-up’, then it’s up to the rest of us to call them on it and support those who are hurt and (like Adam Tebbe at Sweeping Zen) are recieving new ‘warnings’ over talking about the issue openly.

    Anyhow -that’s a longish answer to a short question. (Of course one of the great things about people like Mother Theresa and the Dalai Lama is that they present themselves as humble servants; so perhaps that helps keep them out of the trouble that can come with such fame and power…)

  • Michael

    My own thought is that if you’re smart enough to become a Buddhist scholar, or teacher, or go through training and ordain, then you’re smart enough to know that to engage in sexual activity with a student in your sangha is at the very least a very bad idea, and at the very worst a form of abuse. Yes, we are all human, but being human does not excuse abuses of power. Being human does not mean taking advantage of your position of authority and power as a teacher or guru to commit sexual transgressions. Gautama kinda figured all of this out 2500 years ago, and articulated quite clearly the harm that arises from misuse of sexuality. If you’re a practicing Buddhist (here comes the metaphor) you can’t claim that when you negligently drove through the intersection, you didn’t know there was a traffic light….you live in the town, and the light’s been there for years.

  • Maia Duerr / The Jizo Chronicles

    Not being a man, I don’t really understand why this is… but…. it seems to me that men can be smart about all sorts of things and yet still not ‘get it’ that it’s not a smrt thing to engage in sexual activity that trangresses the limits of decent boundaries, morality, and ethics. Witness Bill Clinton.

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  • Carol Aguilar

    What I have found in my limited experience is that often women who have been “exploited” by their Buddhist teachers or mentors knew full well what they were doing and continueed to profit from their intimate contact for years, if not decades later. I have the greatest respect for women’s ability to calculate profit/loss. I acknowledge that women are susceptible to these kinds of power dynamics because of societal sexism and inequalities. Nevertheless, I think it must be part of the conversation.

  • Cynthia

    My heart goes out to you in this difficult time. However, I want to point out a few things:

    1. Ken never claimed to be a nice person. In fact, he repeatedly states in his podcast that “Buddhism is not about being a nice person”. He’s also referred to instances in which he admitted to being “arrogant” and also “kind of a jerk”. He never claims to be perfect.

    2. I love Ken’s podcast and they have brought be tremendous comfort in times of difficulty. However, I never assumed he was a God at any point, I never assumed perfection, or frankly anywhere near perfection. I always assumed he was a person with many faults. I listened to his words as “food for thought”, and “take this with a grain of salt”. Not as any gospel or holy word to live my life by. But, it has brought me great guidance nonetheless.

    3. Ken does not say that he is a perfect person by any means. But, it seems he tries to balance compassion with effective action. In that, I would like to remind you of one of his quotes, and this I would advise you to take as a warning:
    this quote I was unable to find, so it may be quite mixed up, but from my memory:

    “if you don’t let me walk away, I will embarrass you
    If you don’t stop when I embarrass you, I will injure you
    If you don’t stop when I injure you, I will maim you
    If you don’t stop when I maim you, I will kill you
    Please let me walk away, because if you don’t let me walk away…”

    You might want to consider that Ken might be in the “please let me walk away” stage. I am not saying that this is his strategy, I am just trying to make you aware of a distinct possibility. I believe he is truly enlightened. Not perfect, but enlightened, and not necessarily a “nice” guy.

    Above and most of all, if Ken did what you say, and I am not sure of it at all, but if I were to consider that he did what you said, then I would say that he he has crossed the line between teacher and student. I hope, if this is the case, that he shares any and all wisdom he has gained in going through these difficult times. I was not looking for a perfect teacher. I was looking for an imperfect teacher, who would thus I would be able to learn from his trials and imperfections. If he has done this, then he has that error then that is an error to be effectively dealt with separately.

    However, no matter what, Ken did not ruin your marriage.

    This is because Ken did not cheat on your husband, YOU did.

    Please do not try to make light of your own errors by blaming someone else.

    There is a truly unfortunate situation in our society and many others. That we expect perfection out of our teachers, our parents, and our leaders in various forms. No one is perfect, but with imperfections, and the humility to admit them, we can learn a lot.

  • Lynett

    It is so obvious what happened between Dr. Ivan and Ken McLeod. They were attracted to each other. They hooked up. She was more emotionally invested than he was, and consequently, deeply hurt when he ended it. Yes dear Patricia–you were unceremoniously dumped, and it hurts…a lot.
    Shame on you for making this about some silly grievance protocol and indirectly diminishing real abuse issues that deserve serious investigation.
    In my own professional community (the film business) we call the two of you “star fuckers”. Both of you are very attracted to power and the result of that kind of pride is always the same.
    Ken didn’t abuse you Patricia. You were not raped or molested. In your own words you “were used”. From reading your own account, obviously your intentions were unbalanced going into the relationship so there was never a hope that it would produce a balanced result. I suspect that Ken entered the relationship from the same place (one of imbalance) but so what?
    It doesn’t make you a worse social worker or he any less of an effective teacher.
    All of the academic masturbating I’ve read about this incident makes me sick.
    We are flawed skin sacks full of fluids shaped by karmic ripening having an experience. Part of that experience includes being emotionally devasted from time to time. Stop whining. Next time make better choices for better reasons.

  • john


    I am very curious why you left your comment on this particular blog post. Did you read it?

    Let me summarize. It refers to an attempt by a UM Board Member who doubles as Ken’s Attorney (an ethical breach right there) and directly threatens a costly lawsuit (another ethical breach) for daring to do what you yourself are doing: publicly discussing this incident.

    You compare Ken McLeod to a movie star who “hooked up” with someone because he is, in your delightful expression, a “star fucker.” Although I happen to admire some of Ken’s contributions, I am tempted to agree with you on this point, except that Ken did not seem quite able to accomplish all that that expression implies. But that is a different topic.

    You state that what each did in the situation did not “make [Ms. Ivan] a worse social worker or [Ken] any less of an effective teacher.” That is an interesting comparison. You might consider this: had Ken been paying Ivan for her services as a therapist (rather than her paying him as a meditation teacher), and had she “hooked up” with him after mentioning the possibility of marriage and unilaterally declaring the end of the professional relationship, and had she then met him in a hotel room and exchanged physical intimacies, there would have been quite a few “silly grievance procedures” easily available to Ken and he would have been able to get Ivan’s license summarily revoked.

    Please recall that it was Ken McLeod himself who chose to invent and champion, against his own teacher’s wishes, the pay-for-services “professional” and “consultative” model of meditation instruction. Yet now he chooses to hide behind the well documented lies of his non-profit board and unethical threats of lawsuits against those who dare even discuss his behavior and whether or not he should be held to professional standards.

    If Ken feels harmed by Ms. Ivan’s writings on the matter he is quite free to respond, but he has not done that, choosing instead to hide behind sophomoric defenses such as yours, and various evasive maneuvers to close down as tightly as possible all public discussion of his behavior and the issues raised by it.

    By the way, if, as you say, we are all “flawed skin sacks full of fluids shaped by karmic ripening having an experience” why do what you perceive as the flaws of others, to wit their “academic masturbation,” make you “sick?” You seem a bit selective in whom you defend on the basis of your “philosophy?”

    I myself am not ashamed of masturbation. Something tells me you probably aren’t either. But I have often wondered whether Ken McLeod can say the same. Maybe I missed that podcast.

    Anyway, I wish you both “all the best” in “the movie industry.”

    John O.

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