Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Sexism in the Sangha Scandals

I have felt disturbed by some aspect of the ongoing discussions, both within my sangha and also online, concerning the various Zen teacher scandals. Up until now, it was really just a feeling, some sense that something was off, but what that was wasn't very clear.

As I read through this letter from the eldest daughter of Maezumi Roshi, and the subsequent comments, suddenly it started to dawn on me: there is sexism going on here.

Kirsten Maezumi's letter details the painful fallout that occurred during and after an "affair" between Maezumi and Zen teacher Chozen Bays. This was before Bays was a teacher, but after Bays had gotten married, and become the Maezumi's family doctor. It's quite a messy tangle, one that really doesn't reflect the majority of cases where Zen teachers have treated students like sex objects as part of an abuse of power pattern.

What struck me about Ms. Maezumi's letter was her utter defense of Genpo Roshi as a teacher, coupled with a lack of defense of Chozen Bays as a teacher. While acknowledging that Genpo's repeated offensives were greatly harmful, she goes on to write quite glowingly about the future of Zen and Genpo's place in that.

Of course what Genpo Roshi did was wrong and caused a great deal of hurt and pain to his wife Stephanie, his children and the sangha.

Does this mean as punishment he should be cast out and not allowed to teach or be recognized as a senior Zen successor?

To do this is throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Genpo Roshi is a wonderful teacher and humanitarian, and I feel that his contributions to Zen in America and the raising of consciousness now and in the future are of great importance to continue on my father’s work and his own personal vision as an American teacher of Zen.

I think to deny what he can offer in the evolution of Zen in America would be a travesty.

On the other hand, Chozen Bays receives forgiveness, but no glowing account of her value as a Zen teacher. Even though Chozen has led peace missions to Japan to honor those killed by American atomic bombs, has done endless amounts of work around various spiritual forms of healing, and has co-led a growing sangha for over two decades, without the accompanied power abuse baggage since becoming a teacher, her value as a teacher to Ms. Maezumi is decidedly low. Certainly, this is a personal issue - that she's probably too close to the situation to offer anything more than forgiveness, but there's such an uneven sense of adoration for Genpo presented, especially since his offenses have impacted more lives in similar ways to what happened in Ms. Maezumi's family.

What's more interesting, though, are the comments that follow. At one point, a male commenter dismisses Ms. Maezumi as "delusional," never mind that she does raise some troubling questions about a relationship that involved multiple power line bending over each other (Zen teacher and family doctor). Moving beyond Ms. Maezumi, there are multiple arguments that display a decidedly sexist (in my opinion) approach to all of this.

One commenter, Mary Rosendale, writes the following:

Can we please get away from this idea that female practitioners are low-hanging fruit for any Zen teacher? It is sexist and demeaning to women. I think I know a fair number of Dharma sisters who are devoted to their teacher. Without exception, all of them have a strong moral compass, do their best to keep the precepts and do good for others. Kirsten reminds us that it takes two to tango and points out that the other willing partner in the relationship with her father broke more than one vow; she slept with a patient; slept with the father of other of her patients and consistently lied to a friend (and probably her husband) for 5 years. This is not a passing indiscretion. These are wilful and deliberate acts. Both consenual participants were responsible for the break-up of Maezumi’s family.

This comment is fascinating to me because Rosendale points out that sexism is at play and then goes on to use the "it takes two to tango" line, which denies the validity of other women's claims that what happened to them was abuse of power. Consider that in all the prominent cases, it has been male teachers sleeping with female students. And that unlike the Bays/Maezumi situation, most of these students have not had a corresponding power base (like being the family doctor) that they were coming from. Yet, the arguments that 1) it's always only been about sex and 2) that the sex was consensual are commonplace.

Beyond this post, there have been a fair number of calls for Zen students to take responsibility for themselves, to reclaim their power, etc. I support this, and believe that blind faith and idealization on the part of students have aided in teachers going wrong. However, let's consider the circumstances again. These calls for Zen students to basically grow up are coming as a result of scandals in which female students are the main victims. And yet, sanghas are not all women working with a male teacher. What about all those male students? Why is it taking numerous scandals where women have been the primary visible victims to get us to call for students to "grow up"?

I was a male student in my sangha under a teacher who crossed the power lines. As a relative newcomer, I didn't have enough insider knowledge or status to do a whole lot about our situation, but there were plenty of male practitioners who could have. We men, too, needed to grow up as students, and stop idealizing and/or blindly following our teacher. And this is true of the men in Genpo's sangha, and Shimano's sangha, and all the rest.

What it comes down to is that the male students of these broken sanghas are mostly invisible. Whatever mistakes they made, including ways they ignored or allow abusive behavior to go on, are also invisible for the most part. While at the same time, the women, especially those who were involved sexually with the teacher, are totally exposed.

So, even though calls for zen students to reclaim their power and responsibility are evenhanded in intent, I believe the appearance of the calls is directly tied to a stereotypical image of a female Zen student who is emotionally vulnerable, and idealizes her teacher.

In my view, it's important to note that these questionable at best gendered lenses are being used by both women and men. That despite all the efforts of numerous women and feminist-minded men in the broader Western Zen community, there are still unexamined patterns of sexism that I would argue are influencing who we consider to be "great teachers" and also how we treat those who have been in abusive situations.

If Genpo Roshi were a women with the same sordid track record, would there be so many people willing to defend his teaching, and offer that he's a "humanitarian" and that his "contributions" to Zen must be continued? Somehow I think not so much. And that should make all of us pause.

For those interested in learning more about the dynamics of power and sexual abuse in spiritual communities, check out Scott Edelstein's excellent book.


Dwan said...

This is a good post. Thank you for writing it. I think you're spot on on just about all of it. Respectfully, 'though, I would suggest the possibility that Ms. Maezumi's perspective is more likely related to the behavior of her father and its effects on her childhood?

Nathan said...


Yes. I think her letter is complex, as was the situation she grew up in. Certainly, her father's behavior plays a role in all of this. Mostly, I just felt that it was really curious that she still upholds Genpo, and even her father to some extent, as great dharma teachers, but offers none of that for Chozen Bays.


Carol said...

Ms. Maezumi's letter reveals that she is still sorting things out, and is still very angry with Jan Chozen Bays, notwithstanding her "If I can forgive Jan Bays" statement. The letter speaks loudly that she hasn't.

That doesn't trouble me. She still has a long way to go, and her letter is heartbreaking. I wish her well.

But the responses -- many predicated on the notion that her forgiveness of Genpo (who was presumably NOT sleeping with her father) is some great demonstration of compassion -- leave me truly perplexed.

Jan Chozen Bays has clearly done the work over the intervening 30 years to redeem herself. Genpo has clearly not. So why is this attack on her gaining any traction? See the Tricycle Editor's blog, for example:

I don't get it.

Kenneth said...


Thanks for this thoughtful post. You wrote:

"Consider that in all the prominent cases, it has been male teachers sleeping with female students. And that unlike the Bays/Maezumi situation, most of these students have not had a corresponding power base (like being the family doctor) that they were coming from. Yet, the arguments that 1) it's always only been about sex and 2) that the sex was consensual are commonplace."

Personally, I am of the opinion that the notion of the possibility of having a truly consensual sexual relationship between teacher and student in a religious context is a mere fallacy, regardless of whether the teacher/student is male/female; the (perhaps unconscious) personal agendas, levels of intimacy and trust, as well as the inherent hierarchical structure involved in such relationships simply preclude this. There are good reasons why such relationships are forbidden in certain professional areas, which, it could be argued, are psychologically far less sensitive than in a religious context.

At any rate, you may find it interesting to know that there is an ongoing sex scandal here in Germany which involves men being victimized by their male teacher. I've written about it here:


Nathan said...

Hi Ken,

"there is an ongoing sex scandal here in Germany which involves men being victimized by their male teacher."

Yes, this is interesting. I think we have had a couple examples like this in the U.S. a while back, but I can't recall specifics.

As far as teachers, students, and romantic relationships, the way I see it, there is a tiny bit of wiggle room. But it requires decisions that don't appear in any of these high profile cases, nor in what happened at our zen center. Like the student doing the bulk of their spiritual work with a different teacher, in a different sangha. And even then, the points you raise about the different tangles within a teeacher/student relationship are really difficult to unpack, especially if that relationship has been sustained over many years.


Carol said...

Jan Chozen Bays has published a moving and thorough response to Kirsten Maezumi over at sweeping zen

Anonymous said...

Genpo pays the bills for Ekyo to go to Japan and live her lifestyle so of course her daughter is favorable towards Genpo. He has always played the Hero in the ZCLA Sangha/saga. My understanding is that Ekyo demanded that she be supported following the death of her husband Maezumi!