Nonduality and Teacher-Student Ethics

Nondual teachings, such as Mahayana Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta, proclaim the ultimate unity of all experience, in the end deconstructing all oppositions—self-other, good-bad, even the distinctions between samsara and nirvana, liberation and bondage, and teacher and student. What role then can there be, in a domain where all borders and distinctions dissolve, for clear ethical boundaries in the student-teacher relationship? In particular, how in the face of the awareness of limitless unity and freedom, can there be clear prohibitions against teacher-student sexual relations, financial exploitation, authoritarianism, physical abuse or any other form of potentially harmful conduct between teacher and student?

Ethical boundaries create a necessary safe vessel—an environment that is free (as much as possible) from fear of exploitation—in which teacher and student can deeply explore the realization of nondual openness and freedom. Without a sense of safety, at least from gross harm and exploitation, the deep examination and questioning of the reality of all distinctions, leading to the dissolving of all borders in nondual realization, will almost certainly not occur. For this reason, it is precisely the teacher’s commitment to communicating and facilitating nondual understanding that demands the discipline to refrain from transgressing ethical boundaries in the teacher-student relationship. Ethical boundaries, such as Buddhism’s five precepts—not to kill, lie, steal, slander, or engage in inappropriate sexuality—provide the necessary safe structure in which nondual inquiry and realization can effectively occur.

Any teacher who is genuinely concerned with fostering nondual understanding will find ethical limits in the teacher-student relationship useful and liberating, rather than a limiting burden. And any student who genuinely hopes to realize nonduality will find the safe vessel of ethical boundaries an environment in which nondual inquiry and liberation can most readily occur.

For some, these basic principles may seem obvious. They are clearly set forth in all genuine nondual (not to mention dualistic) spiritual traditions. Yet, perhaps, due to the subtlety of nondual understanding, the novelty of widespread nondual spirituality in the West, and the often unconscious power of greed, anger and delusion—even in those who appear to be realized—they need to be stated, clarified and affirmed, it seems, again and again.

May all students and teachers fearlessly enter and enjoy the safe vessel of nondual inquiry, free from harm and exploitation.

5 thoughts on “Nonduality and Teacher-Student Ethics

  1. . . . so well stated
    It seems to me your ethical teacher/student model can apply to the practitioner/delusion relationship as well. Seeing delusion as the cause of harm can lead to repression which in the long run never works. On the other hand we are all experts at creating rational justifications for our selfish motives.

    So I like the idea of maintaining an ethical relationship with my delusions. I feel this will take some more field research to really be understood. Thanks for this.

  2. Thank you for this post. Many gurus and other spiritual teachers have run into the temptations of abuse of power, self-aggrandizement, improper behavior and exploitation of students’ vulnerability. We are all human: the guidelines given are healthy boundaries that protect the teacher and the student.

  3. Nobel sentiments and advice, Hal. Zen may be entering an Egypt Moment with the recent indiscretions: most recently Genpo [Big Mind] Roshi’s karma caught up with him. Check out David Chadwick’s 2/14 entry on for links to the details.

  4. “Genpo made no secret that he was charging $50,000 a person for his instant enlightenment seminars. Didn’t anyone think that was just a tad excessive? It doesn’t sound like Genpo has any intention of not doing that anymore. He’s just going to be a little more careful about where he puts his penis.”

    now that’s what I call a crooked cucumber

  5. Great presentation on this issue, Hal. I would like to add that it could easily be applied to human potential group processes as well as professional relationships between therapist and client. In the case of many spiritual traditions in the West, the boundaries between therapeutic processes and spiritual path practices can be rather fuzzy. But in both domains, there are methods that can release a lot of energy, which can too easily go into sexual expression and/or inappropriate conduct. While this can be bi-directional, the therapist and dharma teacher have the heavier responsibility to hold the boundaries of the container firm when dealing with clients/students (or devotees/disciples).

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