Algernon over at Notes from a Burning House continues the conversation about institutional oversight of Zen with his current post. It's a real barn burner of a post, and I'm interested to see what comes in the next few posts he's going to write about these issues. Here is the first half for you all to consider:
He was a Zen Master, and he wanted my girlfriend.
I am not certain that he wanted to fuck her. Maybe so. What is certain is that he wanted her to move across the country to live at his Zen Center, work there for him full-time; and he fixed her up with a young postulant monk who was also living there. She disclosed to me that he said things to her like, "One day, I will give you inka."
(Inka is when an authorized Zen teacher recognizes your maturity and authorizes you as a teacher. It's considered a big deal, and the desire to become a teacher is a common pitfall in developing a consistent lifelong practice. Using that desire to hold students in place and get them to do things for you is rather awful.)
During the couple of days where she disclosed to me her sexual relationship with this young monk and her plans to move to that Zen Center, she received phone calls and emails from the teacher encouraging her to make a clean break from our relationship, hurrying her along, manipulating her and using her obvious attraction to him to his advantage. It was a weird way to break up with somebody. In hindsight, the lady was clearly ready to move on anyway. It broke my heart at the time but that's how it is with young love. (The lady's life took quite a few turns after that and although we are not often in contact these days, she appears to have a wonderful, happy life with a terrific husband and a baby.)
A short while after this went down, I learned that this man got into some serious professional trouble, which suggests his abusive behavior was not limited to his work as a Zen teacher.
It has been well over ten years since that incident took place. I have not written about it and have rarely spoken about it, for the most pragmatic of reasons: this Zen teacher has a following, and he or his organization could likely sue me. Talking about it all requires me to omit details that could be used to identify the person or his organization.
One of the things I have found interesting is how many people believe that those involved in religious/spiritual communities should be "responsible adults" who are "in control" of their reactions and interactions in said communities. A few comments on my recent post about institutional oversight suggested this, and I've seen others saying similar things on various blogs, in commentaries, and on chat boards.
Let me unpack this a little further. Clearly, Buddhist teachings point each of us towards taking radical responsibility for our "body, speech, and mind." The precepts, or ethical teachings, are designed to train us to check our motivations, watch our actions, and review everything we are thinking and doing. Zazen, or meditation, is all about accepting everything as it is, without any wiggling whatsoever. In fact, on the surface, the whole works of Buddhism can look an awful lot like the political philosophy of personal responsibility, that is, if you ignore that we really aren't separate selves and that everything occurs within an interdependent context.
What does any of this have to do with Algernon's post?
Well, first, when you look at the situation, there's a tendency to leap to hand full of conclusions. The teacher is a jackass would be one. Another might be that the students involved were naive and earned the suffering they incurred because they acted stupidly. A third blunt response might be something like this is just like those Catholic priests, and shows why we should just say fuck it to religion completely.
Those are nice anger rails, but they are cardboard cutouts when it comes to working with what happened.
What happened in Algernon's post, or at my zen center, or at San Francisco Zen Center, or any number of other places is complicated, messy, and involves both individual and collective responsibility.
Do you hear that people! Both individual and collective responsibility.
And you know what, it's bigger than that even. Just as parents pass down certain traits and habits to their children, and had their own set of traits and habits passed down from their parents, so, too, do communities of people - hell, entire cultural groups and nations even - pass down certain traits and habits to the next generation. Now, each person has the opportunity to work with that material, but we're not the "free agents" we think we are.
So, the history of Zen communities, for example, plays into what is happening today. How could it not. And yet, I still find it pretty easy to locate people who will basically say "All of that is fucking irrelevant! You either take responsibility for everything in your life, or you're fooling yourself."
Sounds a lot like Glenn Beck Buddhism if you ask me.
Towards the end of Algernon's post, he writes:
In the west, this history [of Zen center scandals] gives rise to a natural question: is there a need for a large institution to hold Zen teachers accountable for actions like this? Can we leave this to the organizations that support a particular teacher's work? Or should the various schools and traditions band together and make one large institution that is empowered to act when a teacher gets weird?
This is something we are good at: making institutions and conducting hearings.
And power and sex abuse scandals continue to occur despite those institutions and hearings, which shouldn't be a surprise.
This is what I find pretty fascinating about all of this, as a member of the Zen community. For people who spend hours and hours investigating our individual minds, and seeing how they work in ways many others never learn, we suck at understanding group dynamics. Many of us sit in silence together day after day, or week after week, and yet when something explodes in our community, be it a sex scandal, or a simple argument over a teaching, too many of us act shocked, confused, or even appalled that these things are occurring. And how often does one of these explosions turn into an effort to locate the perpetrators, so the group can assign blame, and "move on" with it's calm, happy day.
I want to be very clear. The teacher in Algernon's story, as it is written, abused his power and should have been held responsible for that abuse of power. It sounds like life brought that responsibility to his doorstep in a different form.
However, in writing what I did above, I'm pointing to the problem inherent in either arguing that it's all personal responsibility or it's all institutional/systemic responsibility. Clinging to either side is simply being lost in dualism.
This is one of the issues I see in creating a large institution to deal with "bad Zen teachers" and whatnot. In fact, it's one of the problems I feel is almost inherent in legal systems themselves - you end up abstracting actions and intentions that occur within a particular context. And let's face it: individuals get away with doing some pretty awful things because the legal system doesn't have a law to address the exact particulars of what they did. (I'm not suggesting that we should do away with laws, or get rid of all large institutions, but it's important to see the potential limitations of such things.)
On the other hand, Brad Warner's suggestion that Zen teachers should be treated like individual "artists" fails to take into account the impact said teacher can have on students and/or followers. And the calls for people who experience harm at the hands of spiritual leaders to buck up and take responsibility for their own safety and well-being are not only pretty callous, but also suggest that people have a kind of freedom that is rarely, if ever, possible. The enlightened Siddhartha still had to deal intimately with clan warfare, corrupt political leaders, gender issues within the original sangha, and possibly even being poisoned at the end of his life. All of those issues, and others, shaped not only his own life, but also the ways in which he taught the first sangha, and thus the teachings that were handed down to us. In fact, the long lists of monastic precepts that have come down to us are probably a direct result of the group dynamics that played out in that original sangha at that particular time and place. Had Buddhism developed in another place at another time, I'd bet that those lists would look at least somewhat different.
So, this long post is pointing to a few things.
First, I think taking a long, hard look at the group dynamics manifesting in Zen centers today probably would be worth doing, regardless of whether it ends up reducing the number of power abuse scandals. Each community could do this and perhaps national surveys of such issues could be conducted.
Second, even though all of us must take radical responsibility for our lives, and to drop of the tendency to blame others for our lot in life - we must also recognize that there ARE group dynamics at play in everything as well. Katagiri Roshi called it the total dynamic functioning of the universe, this interplay of the individual and collective, the relative and absolute.
And finally, I'm convinced that there really aren't any easy answers to dealing with power breaches in spiritual communities. Because if there were easy answers, we'd already have figured them out, and put them in place.