Establish Clear Ethical Guidelines

The most obvious principle in the maintenance of a wise spiritual community is the establishment of clear ethical guidelines that are followed by all. Each great spiritual tradition has some version of these. The question is: Are these precepts acknowledged, valued, and followed? One Zen master told me that the moral precepts were very important for students to follow, but, of course, Zen masters didn’t need to bother with them since they were “free.” You can imagine what troubles later visited that community. If in your own community the guidelines for teachers and students are not yet clear, ask about them, figure them out. If you need to, get outside help from respected elders of your tradition or wise friends of the community. In the Insight Meditation community, we have formal guidelines, for students and teachers alike, that follow the five Buddhist precepts. They explicitly address the common areas of teacher misconduct and include commitment to refrain from harm to others through misuse of money, sexuality, or intoxicants. They also establish an ethics council and method for addressing difficulties that involve students or teachers. For a sample of such guidelines see the Appendix. In the traditional rules for Buddhist monasteries, the resolution of ethics violations is seen as a healing process, one of seeking restitution and reconciliation. Sometimes confessions and apologies to the community are needed, sometimes vows must be taken again, sometimes a period of penance and reflection is called for. In creating guidelines, include a clear process for how to address misconduct, a place for honest words, for compassionate and ongoing support for ethical standards. Create regular community meetings, ethics ombudsmen, and the channels and skills of useful communication. If in trying to bring form to the emperor’s new clothes I’ve made these issues sound straightforward or easily dealt with, I assure you they’re not! These can be the most painful and stormy areas of a community’s life, and they ask for enormous perseverance and wisdom of everyone involved. Only with this spirit will healing prevail.   This excerpt is taken from the book, “A Path with Heart

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