I was going to stay out of the discussion about all things Zen sex scandal, but then I left a short comment on this post, which essentially supported a major point in a minor way from a recent piece by Zen teacher Brad Warner. Here's the comment I made:
Brad isn't completely off in my view. I don't think it's wise to create 100% prohibitions around this kind of thing. Because every case is different, and not every student that has sex with a teacher is a victim. There is a heavy puritanism that appears whenever American Buddhist scandals break out, something that in my opinion came from our Christian brothers historically. And so, I tend to reject absolute statements about sexuality in general, and sex with teachers in particular.
At the same time, the percentage of "ok" cases is probably very low. Most of the time, I agree that the power imbalance is enough to make such relationships problematic at best. Brad's attitude seems like the reactive opposite pole to the one I spoke of above. He's advocating for the 5% or less of cases where a prohibition isn't needed, while throwing out all the intelligent guidelines and restrictions that support maintaining uprightness. Most of the time teachers just shouldn't go there. That's a given, but I don't think it's as simple as teachers should never go there. If that were so, our precepts would simply be commandments in the Judeo-Christian sense.
And here is response I received from farmer monk, who writes the "Go Cloud, Run Water" blog:
I'm not supporting witch hunting, but if you're referring to prude nature, I prefer puritanism to patriarchy.
When Brad says in his blog:
"Joshu Sasaki has done a great service to American Buddhism. I won’t go so far as to speculate that he did it intentionally. He’s probably just an old horn dog. But whether he meant for this to happen or not, he did a great thing. He helped kill off the image of the Enlightened Master as something beyond human. He did so by leaving a legacy not just of sexual misconduct but of deep, profound insight. I like Sasaki better now than I ever did, even while I wish there had been a better way to do this. Ultimately this scandal just might help save Buddhism in America by transforming it from a cartoon stereotype into something real."
It reeks of entitlement; there are blind spots a mile wide. Like, when the hell did Brad do any American zen practice? He's never done one monastic practice period in America. Guest student stays do not qualify.His polarized response doesn't warrant an analysis. If the 95% of relationships are excusable because the the perpetrator is just a "horn dog," I disagree. This kind of bro-talk makes me sick and is testament to one's own patriarchal entitlement, even if they're not aware of how they sound.
Puritanical witch hunts resulted from superstition and paranoia; Brad Warner brags in his book that he fucked a zen student more times than Richard Baker ever did; this is what he wrote, published, and stands by.
What are the precepts in light of that? That if you're self aware, you can do what you want? His story might still make a good NY times article; The NY times didn't write this story, Brad enacted it and wrote it himself, wearing the Buddha's robe.
So do we stay open and groovy and subject 95% to abuse or do we hold lineage holders accountable and possibly stunt the 5% of these positive relationships?
I was about to leave the following in a comment over there, and then saw it's length and thought it would be better as a blog post. And perhaps useful to some readers out there.
First off, in his post, farmer monk makes an important distinction between teachers and students that Brad seems to be pretty dismissive of these days. Specifically, pointing to the power vested in such a position, and how that power calls for respect and care. What I see in Brad's focus of we are all basically the same is the absolute side of the equation. And in farmer monks rebuttal to that the relative side. They're both needed, and we can't find the truth without considering both.
Overall, I don't care much for Brad's comments on sex scandals. His current post references what happened at my sangha, and dismisses it as simply an "affair." That was only the end point. The last in a series of actions and approaches to sangha and the teachings that fostered an atmosphere built on patriarchy, authoritarianism, and favoritism. As such, I'm not given to minimizing nor trivializing the kind of damage that often comes from these situations. But I do think there's a shadow side and a streak of troubling puritanism in the numerous American responses to these scandals that must also be addressed as well.
"Like, when the hell did Brad do any American zen practice? He's never done one monastic practice period in America. Guest student stays do not qualify."
This is a grave error. Equating Zen practice with monasticism essentially condemns all of us outside the monastery. Including a fair percentage of American Zen teachers, who rarely if ever spend time in monastic settings. I recently listed to a dharma talk by Duncan Williams during which, he spoke about the incomplete history of Soto Zen that we have. We know a fair amount about the early days, Dogen and his immediate disciples. And we know a lot about the 20th century teachers and communities. But very little is said about the period between 1400-1850. In the 1700s, for example, there were either 1700 or 17000 (I can't remember which number) active Soto Zen temples in Japan. And of those, the majority did not focus on monastic training, or even place a heavy emphasis on zazen. You might see that as corrupted dharma, but I see is as diversity of practice. Certainly, some of it was probably of the "wedding and funeral" variety that's seen today in many Japanese temples. But I'm guessing that the rest was variations of what lay sanghas in America are exploring today.
Frankly, lay and monastic folks need to do a better job of respecting each other. And stop assuming superiority or inferiority. Brad's done plenty of practice. That's not the issue. Zen is filled with stories of "junior" students trumping "senior" students in all sorts of settings. Amount of practice and location of said practice doesn't = level of enlightenment or awareness.
I can disagree with 95% of what Brad says about this stuff, and yet still see that he's offering something worth considering. Specifically, that the precepts are more subtle that yes/no or right/wrong.
How can we hold that, and also hold those who abuse power or aid abuse of power accountable? Because if it's just about saying Brad's bad, or Sasaki's bad, and they must be punished - we really aren't much different from fundamentalist Christians.
*Painting by Rothko