Linda Modaro on the need for ethical reflection by teachers and dharma leaders

July 15, 2021

Linda Modaro, a contributor to the Secular Buddhist Network, is a meditation teacher and founder of Sati Sangha in California. Linda is developing a reflective approach to meditation that helps meditators to integrate the teaching of early Buddhism into their lives. I recently interviewed Linda about a course she has developed and taught on 'ethical reflecting' for meditation teachers and dharma group leaders. The following is an edited and condensed version of our discussion, which took place 14 July 2021.

-Mike Slott, SBN Editor

SBN: Hi, I'm Mike Slott from the Secular Buddhist Network and it's my pleasure today to talk with Linda Modaro. Linda is a meditation teacher who has a deep commitment to cultivate human ethics while learning and teaching the dharma. Linda facilitated a three-day course on ethical reflecting for meditation teachers and sangha leaders to two groups in the early part of the year, in January, February and March, and plans on teaching the course again in September. So today, we're here to talk to Linda about the topic of ethical reflection. Linda, to start off, there are not many courses available on ethical reflection for teachers. My first question is, why did you decide to develop and teach the course? Why did you feel it is important to have such a course available?

LM: Hi Mike. Thank you for that introduction. And you know, it's interesting that you say there's not many courses on ethical reflection and  yet there are so many courses on ethics in general. I think you're right. There are not that many courses on how you integrate ethics into your practice of teaching. How do you look at the situations that you find yourself in when you're teaching the dharma, when you're teaching meditation, when you're a sangha leader?  In my view, reflection is an ethical safeguard. It's something that you can add to anything, to review it, to remember it, to refine it. And that I think it takes a while to develop the taste for reflection. It's something that one has to cultivate and it's not usually a given that we know how to reflect on our ethics and what the purpose is of doing that. And how do we pull out the pertinent learnings from that reflection and then enact them and make them a part of the way we go forward in our teaching with people that we care about deeply.

SBN: That makes sense. I know that in your history with the dharma and your teaching that you have encountered challenges with organizations that you've been with that involved violations of ethical boundaries and so forth. And that's certainly been the case in many Buddhist traditions and lineages. Was that the kind of major stimulus for you to work in this area or was it that you felt that there was a lack in the training of teachers in ethics?

LM: Looking back on my involvement with my first sangha, that was very dear to me. And I feel like we were quite naive. Even though there’s a long history of ethical misconduct in Buddhist circles and sanghas -  it's not something new - we didn't have structures in place that would really support us in resolving our conflicts, which led to the dissolution of our ‘happy’ sangha. We assumed things would always be OK. Yet, we know that that's part of the teaching. It's not going to continue forever and ever. And that things will become hard at some point. And that we're going to have to start looking at the power differential with a teacher and with students. And this was something we didn't have the language for 2500 years ago. This has become an issue that's secular, current, modern…. the dynamics that happen within groups and within sanghas. They've been mostly covert or underneath the surface. It didn't travel over on the boat with Buddhism from the east, right? So, we've had to really go into that, that study and that in-depth experience from the pain and the suffering that we've gone through. So, I really feel like the topic of ethics chose me. I would have preferred to sail along, not know. And now I would say, I'm grateful that it happened and because it was inevitable, and that I was able to face something that was not being faced. And that feels reviving, enlivening. It really has changed my practice significantly.

SBN: Yes, I agree. And I think that it's something that as Buddhism moved to Western countries, we've had to sort of challenge and work through what should be the ethical relationships between the teacher and students. Or, in a ‘flatter’ Buddhist organization, between group leaders and members of the group. And to look at exactly the issue you're talking about, which is power, issues of ethics and so forth. So, I think as difficult as it is, this is certainly an important challenge for us, I absolutely agree with that.

LM: The practice of Buddhism is about ethics. I think your point about the sangha, the way it's structured, whether it's with a teacher or whether it's with peer group leaders, it’s crucial to really be able to map the power relationships out. Being more transparent about who's in power, who has some of the control. This is something that came up in the ethical reflecting course, which is that we're all peers in the sense of we're all Dharma teachers or meditation teachers. We all have the experience, maybe to a variety of depths. But I actually have the power in the course to make the schedule, choose the resources, direct the learning. And being able to state that in the second module, I think that was when it came up, it was a little bit difficult. It was something that I think we had to struggle with a bit, not even on the surface but underneath. There are always some reactions when you talk about power in Buddhist circles, right?

SBN: Right. And, you know, it's very much there in the course. By the way, I should tell listeners that my spouse, Sharon, and I were participants in the course, and we got a lot out of the course; it’s certainly worthwhile to take. And I think that certainly one of the goals in the course was really to foster that sense of transparency and self-understanding in reflecting about ethics, to really try to get into the nitty gritty of it and not look at it on a surface level. And I wonder, your approach to meditation is reflective. Reflective meditation. And so I assume you feel that in doing ethical reflection, you want to really be present with all our experiences just as we are in meditation, that ethical reflection should, in a similar way, kind of connect us with all the elements of things that affect how we'll deal ethically with people. Is that a fair statement?

LM: Yes, that really fits in.  With reflective meditation, the focus there is on all that happens in the meditation sitting. And that's really the anchor. It’s the same with ethical reflecting, I feel like ethics has become the anchor because although people are in different traditions, we are all there because we do think ethics are highly valuable. And we've seen the harm that has come from a lack of reflection. And we want to reflect upon them more and all the facets of that. It's a huge topic, isn't it?

SBN: Yes, and I think one of the nice features of the course that I participated in was that there were people coming from different places within the Buddhist community; there was a Zen Buddhist priest and there were some folks from reflective meditation, and Sharon and I from insight meditation and as secular Buddhists. Also someone from a Tibetan Buddhist lineage. And it was interesting that there wasn't any sort of neat division in terms of how we worked through the issues based on the lineages or schools that people came from. It was just people together trying to reflect on these issues. So in some sense the issue was kind of a unifier, in a way, for people interested in the dharma, but trying to deal with the same type of challenge. So, I thought that was quite good.

LM: I'm glad you brought that in because it kind of comes from my participation in the Gen X Dharma teachers community. I really saw that when we focused on ethics and talked about what's going on within our communities regarding values, norms, and codes of conduct, we weren't debating practices. Whose practices are better or who is the authority. We were really put back into our own experience and about something that we're all dealing with. So that unification I think is relevant because our topic at the conference next year for Gen X Dharma teachers is how Buddhism is emerging, how we are this variety, multiplicity and not a unified tradition, given that  there are so many differences amongst us.

SBN: Well,  that would be another wonderful topic to discuss after you've attended the conference. But let me go back to the course itself. Were you guided by any particular sort of ideas about how you would present the material or what, from your perspective, is the best way to do this kind of course? By the way, it was a Zoom course that took place over three separate days, one day each month. What were you thinking about in terms of what type of pedagogical approach that you would bring to the course?

LM: I really did rely on knowing that I would be able to collaborate with people. That's something that I'm really interested in. And I know that I have a skill in being able to do that. And that led to a lot of my thinking about how to present the material. We're going to reflect upon the issues and then we're going to collaborate and think about it together. And so that obviously has reflection and inquiry-based learning built into it. These approaches come more naturally to me than presenting a didactic course. I really didn't want to fall into that too much because I feel that there are too many didactic courses. And I wanted to pick resources that were more experience-based and then could have people question their assumptions about something. For example, one of my resources is an article that hierarchy is not the problem, its power dynamics. And so, there's no evil triangle out there running around trying to prevent us from getting into friendly circles, right? The author argues that there's really this middle way between an authority and a consensus model that we're swimming in. So that makes it more difficult. And also, for me, more true, real. Again, I'll use the word alive. Winton Higgins used word that with our sanghas. So I'm kind of borrowing that. But, I really did want it to be about people's experience. That they could come to this course and bring the conditions of their lives, of their sangha. And that could be included in the course, not be excluded.

SBN:I think in some sense you are kind of enacting in the course the model of how you'd also like to see how our sanghas function as well. In other words, groups where people can come in with different levels of experience and contribute in ways they can and learn from other people. And not have such a rigid division between the person who kind of presents the material as the expert, right? And those who are just receiving it in a passive way. And I think that this is also another important component of what we as contemporary Buddhists in the United States and throughout the world are trying to sort of figure out:  how do we structure the dharma groups that we're in - of all the different types that exist, whether it's meditation or discussion groups or kalyana mitta groups, or whatever? How do we create structures that are viable, that are participatory?

LM: Yes, this is very important. Because I don't think we do know all the time how to do this. Maybe I should speak for myself of the discovery process of what works and what doesn't work. And that you know, sometimes it takes a little bit of courage to try something new. Same with the course; it’s a discovery process. So, for the first day or module of the course, I really wanted it set up as a slow go. It's not a real definite – ‘Here I am’. This is the conflict that I've gone through with my sangha because it takes a while to build some trust to start to talk about these issues. Many people have a lot of trauma. A lot of the ethical concerns haven't been addressed in their communities. There's confidentiality, privacy, secrecy, and many things. And some of the other people may not have had as many problems in their sangha. So, it could feel a bit voyeuristic like, ‘Oh, what happened to you’? And we really don't want that to happen. We want to have people go inward and have the safety within themselves to present what they feel comfortable in the group and how they want to talk about it. So that first module is a little bit slow. We're just kind of touching the surface of something. And to get to know who's there and who do I feel safe with and how am I going to work with this for a month until the next module?

SBN: So, since you started to discuss the first module of the course, can you give the listeners a sense of the main components or themes within this 3-day course?

LM: Right, so in the first module the focus is giving time for rapport and trust to develop. And, in the second module, we're really going into holding the impact that we have from ethical transgressions in sanghas. This could be from not having policies and procedures or clarity all the way to, you know, things that really affect us deeply - sexual misconduct, financial misconduct. So, taking the time to actually hold that, look at the conditionality of it and see how many things were affected. Because this process is a reflection, a broadening out of more than what people thought probably affected them, because that's common in trauma. You know that one thing is remembered and then you see all the tendrils and links when you reflect back on it. But the third module then, we really go into exploring and beginning the healing process. How can we heal from this? How can we support healthy Buddhist communities? How can we support each other? I mean, I really hope that people become friends on the Zoom calls. That they get interested in each other's worlds and that we have more teachers that are interested in each other, which will help us be more interested in other traditions and other ways to continue putting ethics first.

SBN: I'm sure you had in mind some goals in terms of what you wanted the participants to take away from the course. What were your goals? And then after the course was over, did you feel those goals were met?

LM: Not to avoid the question, but what did you take away from the course? What came of it for you?

SBN: Well, first of all, I think it was really valuable to listen to and learn about other people's experience, some of which was much, much more difficult than what I've experienced. I've been sort of fortunate in that respect. But I think I also came away with a sense that the issues that you're raising in the course are not just about whether there's sexual abuse, as horrible as that is. But that it goes to really being able to reflect honestly on our relationships with each other as we walk along the path. And that’s a universal issue for all people who are interested in the dharma from a variety of different perspectives. And I think that I became much more sensitized to that. And also that, you know, it's like you said earlier, that it is a process of discovery; that we are not done with this, that this is something that we are going to have to work with. And even if an organization has written out a very extensive code of conduct and has a very detailed process. We're looking at all sorts of issues that come up. Whether it's interpersonal conflict, violation by teachers, boundary issues or whatever. That just having that code of conduct doesn't mean that these issues are resolved. And I came away in some sense reaffirming what I already believe, which is that we have to put a conscious effort to reflect on these issues on an ongoing basis, that there has to be check-ins. There has to be more formal assessments of the power structure, the dynamics, whether people feel that they are heard and respected in a group. And I think that that was something that I came away very strongly impressed with the need to do. What do you think? Do you feel good about that in terms of your goals?

LM: I do. I'm really just kind of touched by you saying it in the sense that it's not just my problem. It's our problem. It's not just the single individual's problem with the people who had bad things happen to them. It happened to us all. This is very common -  that people feel like bystanders as part of the outer circle. So, they didn't know the inner circle, so they weren't affected. They got what they needed and they just moved on. And that attitude has its own kind of apathetic, deadening weight on our traditions. We need to be coming from curiosity, coming from complexity, seeing how they affect people so deeply that it's something – ethical reflecting -  that we want to do. I want it actually to be an aspiration for people to be more involved. So yeah, that's lovely. Thank you.

SBN: You're doing the course in September again. And I know you really encouraged a lot of feedback from the participants in the course that I took. Are you going to make any changes in the course coming up in September? And by the way, if you want to, you should let listeners know if there are any openings left in the course. If there are, you should let folks know how to send an application for the course. So, do you plan to make any adjustments to the course, any changes?

LM: Yeah. I think the biggest adjustment that I made from the feedback that I got is that people wanted more. They actually wanted more things to do in between the modules and wanted more dyadic dialogue opportunities. They wanted to be connected with each other and also to do their own independent study. And that it really helped remind me that this course is for teachers. This isn't just for students. This is for those of us who have taken this on as a kind of a life commitment to a goal, and that we do have the energy and resources to attend to more. And, so I put in a lot more ‘strongly suggested’ things to do between the modules. Again, giving people that option. We're all busy. We all have a lot of things to do. But I really feel that there was just much more. The majority of people said, give me more, give me more opportunities to connect, more opportunities to study this, to reflect upon it.

SBN: I agree with that. I think that I would've certainly taken up the opportunity to have done that. But I just want to say to you - I don't wanna make you blush or anything - but you are really a fabulous facilitator. And I think part of it is because you have the capacity to have yourself open to the dynamics that are happening in the process. And to just be willing to kind of make, you know, quick adjustments based on the situation. I mean, I think it's the mark of a really good teacher. And I also resonate very deeply with your desire to move away from the sort of traditional teacher-student role not just in Buddhism, but in actually most of Western education and other spiritual traditions as well. I think that this is a really important challenge for us and I think something that future generations will continue to work on. But I see that as a very positive development. And I think you're one of the people in this country now who are helping to sort of create the path for people as we move along.

LM: Yeah. Thank you, Mike. It's really a mutually reciprocal relationship. I appreciate your time and attention and the work that you do at the Secular Buddhist Network. I'm highly involved and invested in that also. But I just want to tell people that they can, if they'd like, to register for the course. The website is ethical And it's reflecting, it's that kind of verb rather than a noun per se. I also just want to end with this thought. Spiritual teachers, meditation teachers, Dharma teachers, that relationship sinks in deeply. It's different than just a professor or your aerobics teacher or your art class teacher. That dynamic is something that people remember; they remember what their teacher said to them 40 years ago, 50 years ago. And it's a really, really kind of ‘to the bone’ relationship. So, changing that is also a huge deal, to kind of modify that and start to find that depth of impact that two people can have learning the dharma in a highly respectful and long-term relationship way, right?

SBN: Yes, absolutely. So, you have a good day and we'll talk soon.

To watch a video of the conversation, go to:



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One Reply to “Linda Modaro on the need for ethical reflection by teachers and dharma leaders”

Winton Higgins

Bravo Linda and Mike! Linda’s development of ethical reflection as a practice that suffuses sangha life and teacher-student relationships enriches the experience of dharma practice in the west. I’m tempted to paraphrase the Buddha: ethical reflection is not a part of the spiritual life; it is the whole of the spiritual life.

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