Sunday, November 25, 2012

Teacher Scandals: An American Zen Koan

There's another American Zen teacher scandal flaming up the interwebs right now. I knew nothing about Joshu Sasaki Roshi before the current discussion. Other than that he's an old dude. Really old. 105 to be exact.

And about that discussion. It's unfolding so much like the others. Lots of fluffy Zen talk amongst those who wish to defend the teacher. Lots of hell and damnation talk from those who are outraged at the teacher's alleged conduct. More than a little bit of puritanical talk about sexuality. Accompanied by some good ole boy "guys will be guys" nonsense from others. Finger pointing is commonplace. Calls for greater oversight at a level higher than the individual sangha continue to ring loud, if not hollow.

I used to love to dissect all this kind of stuff. It felt very important, vital really - having been from a sangha that went through it's own teacher scandal several years back.

Now. I don't know. We seem terribly muddled about both the power of sexuality, and the nature and forms of power itself. There's a lot of abuse of power, and seemingly endless numbers of people writing about it, trying to figure it all out. Perhaps most humans in general, but American Zen in particular, since that's the focus here. And for all the muck brought to the surface, and revelations that seem to be made, the heavy muddled quality remains.

When you think about it, the intersections of sex, money, and power - the three biggies in nearly all of these Zen teacher scandals - are perfect koans for Americans. We think we understand them, have penetrated their depths, but I doubt many of us do. I sure as hell haven't at this point in my life. In the absolute sense, they're empty of inherent nature, right? But in the relative world, each of them has a myriad of forms that baffle and shift, stick and cause us to stumble.

Yes. Sasaki, like Suzuki, Katagiri, and other founding convert Zen teachers, weren't born in the U.S. However, it seems to me that they plugged right into the particular matrix we have here around the big three. The odd mixture of puritanical views coupled with provocativeness when it comes to sexuality. The curious blend of anti-authority individualism mixed with obsession with heroes and guru figures. The heightened tension between viewing voluntary poverty as a sign of divinity, and the desire for more, more, more than drives the capitalist machine. None of these founding teachers really exhibited all three entry points in the way many American born Zen teachers in scandals have, but they've still be in the matrix all the same.

Will this matrix that's causing so much suffering change, and for the better? I don't know. I'd like to hope so, but that's just hoping, something I don't put much faith in these days. I do think, however, that cracking the koan nut of this matrix - or set of matrices - may be the key to truly establishing a living Zen tradition in this country. As opposed to a struggling copy. Or a lot of "not bad" institutions that are helpful to people's lives, but ultimately fail to foster enlightenment.

Fellow Zen blogger Algernon has a cantankerous post up right now in which he offers the following:

What happens when you have an elaborate ecclesiastical structure meant to support and inspire dharma practice, but the dharma practice is shallow or, worse, pretend? What happens when you have temple full of people who have robes and know a lot about ceremonies and ritual, but they can't function spontaneously and ethically? Well, what you are left with is a dead religion. And when you have dead religion, there is nothing left to do except fight over the property and the money and the social position. This is not unfamiliar in human history, is it? Indeed, many of the teachers who brought their zen to the United States in the 20th century said they did so because this is what happened to zen in their homelands. They wanted to work with hippies who could jump into practice with a fresh perspective. My generation, on the other hand, is a generation of experts. Generation X and Generation Y zenboos organize big, fancy conferences for people in their thirties and forties who have become "Buddhist leaders." So much expertise. And yet. Hmmm.

I have a sickening feeling that a lot of zen in my country is a bad play. A play of the sacred. The stink of zen.

How to stay fresh, responding with right now mind, even when what we are responding to is great suffering? I'm not sure questions like this are being asked enough, especially during "dark times," such as the unraveling of a teacher scandal.


Bill said...

I participate in a meditation group facilitated by an experienced practitioner who studied for a while under Sasaki, and, living for nearly two decades in the area during my drinking days, I got ripped more than once at Baldy Lodge, not far from Sasaki's digs, in an earlier, completely unsuccessful attempt at stopping suffering. My impression of the whole enterprise under Sasaki, based on the people I know who practiced there, is quite positive.

When I read this, I partially thought about myself and how powerful sex is as a karmic process. It's a couple billion years old on our planet, I think. Maybe a little less. Much older than people, though. It exerts a powerful force. My decision making process has been distorted chasing after sex, though the particulars aren't the same as Sasaki. I imagine we all have stories of our own sexual idiocy.

I feel like one thing that is often missing in North American Buddhism is an emphasis on the five lay precepts. In the Chinese organizations I've participated in (and continue to) there is a lot of talk about a fairly traditional morality--though, interesting, I've never heard homophobia from any of the monastics. Anyway, I think an emphasis on the precepts is really important. Sheng Yen wrote (I paraphrase) that any practice not thoroughly based in the precepts cannot be considered Buddhist. This kind of emphasis gets pooh-poohed at times by hipster Buddhists, but it's critical.

Nathan said...

I'm totally with you about the precepts. They're essential to work with, and too often minimized or cut out all together.

And yes, sex has tripped me up before as well. I think practitioners - including teachers - would do well to be more honest about how challenging sexual desire can be. It seems to be a topic few want to talk about, and not going there is clearly not working.

John K said...

It's interesting how it seems the whole blogosphere has a different reaction to this generally than the Shimano & Genpo scandals.

But they're different people, and this isn't exactly like the Genpo & Shimano scandals (though it's much closer to the Shimano scandal).

Nathan said...

I do wonder if there is either some scandal fatigue or perhaps a bit more awareness of the complexities playing into the current Zen blogosphere commentary. Far fewer people seem to be writing about Sasaki. He's less well known than the other two, though, so maybe that's part of it.

Bill said...

Less well-known, but in my circles incredibly well-respected. I've talked to nobody about this. The Baldy Center had the reputation of being the place in So Cal where a person went if they wanted to go all the way, up at 3 am, etc. There's some element of it being "hard core," etc., but from my point of view, never having been at the Center itself, I was glad--and am glad--that it's there. I want a place around that's about long, extended sits, and feel like while that may not be for everybody we're screwed as practitioners if that option isn't there.

So, it is somewhat painful that it's Sasaki who is the author of this mess. It's not personal to me if it were my own lineage. This doesn't mean you can't do a good retreat on Baldy, but it is a massive blow.

The take-home from this is that the Precepts are central. We don't talk in this country about the Third Precept. "No sexual misconduct," but what does that mean?

There's a huge impulse in the convert Buddhist crowd to avoid the negatives of North American Christianity. Rules, for example. "Sex is bad," for example. So, a lot of people, proving that the road to a hell realm is paved with good intentions, rationalize out the strict standards of conduct that have been characteristic of historical Buddhism--for lay and monastic both--often in the name of "adapting Buddhism to the 'West.'"

Way I see it, Buddhism's actually pretty strict. I have yet to hear someone satisfactorily defending drinking booze, for example, on Buddhist grounds. Not all historical Buddhist traditions are vegetarian, but mine is, and pretty clearly so.

We tend (I use the collective pronoun for some reason I'm not entirely sure of) to avoid the use of the word "morality." Probably because of how the word has provided cover for social violence. Yet at the same time we have as a species evolved communities, historically, that have taken morality as their basis. We rationalize it away at our peril.

The whole thing is a total clusterf*&k, Dharmically speaking. Every time a teacher takes sexual advantage of anyone totally undermines Buddhism's most powerful argument in its own favor: that it works.

I've been toying a while with the idea that we need fewer teachers, with stricter standards, and more procedural guidelines to establish communities of practitioners. Too many people s#$t on the transmission in both its giving and taking. There's one guy locally who pulled similar nonsense. It's way too common.

Nathan said...

I agree that it's painful to hear about these things, regardless of how closely connected you are to the particular situation. Having been through a teacher scandal in my own sangha makes it all more real. Because I've experienced the suffering during the fallout, and what it takes to rebuild a community.

The trouble with sexual morality, in my view, is that there's a tendency to either swing too strict and oppressive, or to swing too loose and permissive. I don't think really strict guidelines around sexual expression work. There are endless examples of monks throughout the ages finding loop holes, or making loop holes, to get sex in response to celibacy - or near celibacy - requirements. I say that not to reject celibacy for some monastics, but to suggest that when there are a litany of heavy, externalized rules around sexuality, folks tend to rebel.

And in my view, Judeo-Christian teachings on sexually have often been quite oppressive, to the point of fostering self-hatred and extremist practices around maintaining some mythical form of purity. So, it's understandable that convert Buddhists coming from predominantly JC cultures would want something different.

On the other hand, the lack of directly addressing sexuality as a "positive" and "negative" force is biting convert Buddhists in the ass these days. What I'm seeing amongst Soto Zen communities is an increasing effort to develop ethical guidelines to help prevent teacher/student abuses. Which is a good thing, but not at all sufficient. We actually need to aim at what is healthy sexual conduct and what is "misconduct" using the rest of our teachings to suss this out.

And I believe it needs to be adapted to our modern lives. We need to get better at seeing the ways that the dominant culture we live in is fostering both oppressive and excessively permissive sexual views + practices, and we also need to embrace some of the "liberation" of sexuality that has occurred over the past several decades. For example, the general empowerment of women, which wasn't present throughout most of Buddhist history.

This commentary by Stephen Batchelor offers some pretty good points in my opinion.