Sunday, August 4, 2013

Why the Genpo Roshi Controversy Just Won't Go Away

I was going to write about something else today, but when I opened the blog today, I had a comment waiting on a postfrom over two years ago. The infamous Genpo Roshi article during the height of his implosion back in 2011. This post is, by far, the most read piece ever published on DH. Almost 10,000 views and 67 comments to date, a crazily high amount given that most of my posts get a few hundred views and a handful of comments, and then essentially stay quiet in the archives.

Something about Genpo's story keeps people hooked. There have been plenty of other Zen teacher scandals in recent years. Several have broke open since Genpo. I've written about more than one of them here, and while those posts gained a lot of attention as well, none have had the lasting power of the Genpo post.

Sure, there's kind of a flies attracted to garbage thing around these scandals in general. Gawking at the downfall of folks with some elevated level of wisdom is a popular pastime these days. Maybe it always has been. And certainly these stories always give the opportunity for dissecting delusion, and offering warnings and insights into how to practice - especially with teacher figures.

But for some reason, the Genpo post in particular lingers on. If you type in "Genpo Roshi controversy" into Google, the post comes up #6 on the list, so that's probably part of it. I tend to think that the big money making of "Big Mind" also plays a role in continued interest. Power scandals that involve lots of money are always major attention grabbers. Along those lines, the most recent commenter said this:

It interesting to me that as soon as someone, particularly someone who is teaching something in the spiritual sphere, makes money from what they do then it's a scam.

Good on Dennis Merzel for having the courage to share his work and charge what it's worth, the world is a better place because of it.

This linkage between making money and what's being offered being considered a scam is worth investigating. Living in a capitalist society creates a lot of challenge for spiritual lay teachers, writers, and others on similar paths. The safety net of support from a community, or even societal norms that monastics traditionally have experienced, just isn't really there for most lay folks. Even monastic sanghas in countries like the U.S. are finding it difficult at times to support the needs of its individual members, and also offer teachings and/or practice opportunities to the broader community without cost (or at low cost.)

In capitalist societies, those teachers, spiritual writers, and similar others who are able to give freely most of time are often in economically privileged places. They aren't dependent upon students or interested folks giving them money for the time and energy they give teaching. And the expectation that this be the case - that they not be dependent for material needs on their students and interested others - is a really curious warping if you think about it. Instead of figuring out ways to develop communities of giving and receiving that encourage a general flow of material support to those teaching, writing about the dharma, etc., we've mostly imposed a capitalist framework that turns offerings of the dharma into products for purchase. So, either teacher X accepts the commodified exchange, or they have to get their material needs met elsewhere. Usually in the form of a job or career of some sort.

So, in one way, what someone like Genpo does is really just an exaggerated form of compliance to the capitalist framework imposed upon the dharma. Charging piles of money for the teachings he is "giving" ensures that he'll be able to keep functioning for a long, long time as a teacher within the framework. Most others charge much less and either barely get by, work somewhere else for pay, or are privileged. But in all cases, what's reinforced is the notion that an individual "I" is fully responsible for covering his/hers material needs at all times. A notion that really runs counter both to the teachings of interdependence, as well as the ways in which sangha and "enlightened" societies are supposed to run.

The greed that I see in folks like Genpo streams forth from this collective place. When you are indoctrinated from a very young age to believe that "a good citizen" is someone who always produces, always has enough money, always takes care of their needs on their own or within their own immediate family, it's terribly likely that you'll feel compelled to take more than you need when you can. That you'll horde and justify hording. That you'll exploit others in small ways or great ways. Because in the back of your mind, you don't want to be viewed as "a failure." You don't want to be at the mercy of something like a faceless government bureaucracy, unforgiving family members, or random strangers on the street. It doesn't matter how much you pile up, there's that nagging feeling of lack hanging around which never seems to let up. Not only fears about lack of material goods and/or money, but a lack of self worth as well.

None of this justifies charging $50,000 for a Zen retreat, for example. Nor any of Genpo's power abuse, sexual greed and exploitation of his students either. However, I think that one of the reasons why stories like Genpo's remain "hot" long after they have cooled in a certain sense is that they provoke all the unexamined and unsettled narratives each of us have around need and lack, especially those of us born and raised in capitalist dominant economies like the United States. Where self worth and value is intimately tied up in money making, continuous production and consumption, and "personal" responsibility. And where power is mostly linked with control over the general consensus means of gaining that self-worth (i.e. the jobs, money, and material goods.

Greed is certainly a universal, human predicament. But it's that much harder to face and overcome when you live in a society that essentially is built upon rewarding and upholding acts of greed. And has as a central narrative the rejection of all those "in need," whether temporary or ongoing. We won't get anywhere with issues like power hungry, greed ridden spiritual teachers as long as the communities we built around them fail to address the broader issues of need and lack head on. As a regular, ongoing focus of practice.

*If you're interested in going more in depth on these issues, I highly recommend Scott Edelstein's excellent book.


Bruce Wilson said...

I studied with Genpo Roshi back in 2006 (or was it 2007?) as a guest at the Kanzeon Zen Center in Salt Lake City for about six weeks. I have mixed feelings about him as a teacher and a person. Your examination of his behavior as a teacher, charging $50,000 for a retreat and putting it in the broader context of our capitalist culture for me was personally liberating. To be quite honest, the man has always spooked me a bit. I felt a fair amount of inner conflict in my informal student-teacher relationship with him from the beginning. Interestingly it continued after I left Salt Lake City and returned to Oakland where I live. That conflict certainly involved some of my own baggage. Your post has relieved me of some of that in that it directs me toward our common predicament that is our inheritance as human beings. Thank you for that.

Anonymous said...

I felt bullied at one of his SLC sessions, he was very aggressive, and so I never returned. I saw him at another event, and he gave me a look...I sensed he recognized me and was up for another display of aggression.

Anonymous said...

I have known genpo since 1979 and I can say that he is driven by fame and the need to be important over greed. He is extremely selfish with anti-social qualities (traits). He did the EST Training and he took off from there. He is a modern day Werner Erhardt. He is not schooled in psychoology and yet he steals key elements of it, zen and EST. I would never study with such an unenlightened being that is addicted to sex and lies to get what he wants. He is not an example to anyone wanting to improve themselves. He has cheated on every wife he had and does not value integrity but worse than that, says he does. Stay away from him if you want to have clarity. If you like drama, then you should study with him but do not call it zen.
He also has tried to sound like maezumi roshi as I witnessed him trying on japanese inflections it was really quite transparent and not a good impersonation. He actually humiliates people in his V. Trainings just like EST !

Andy said...

First of all it will be helpful to remember that Genpo received transmission from a teacher who for years engaged in extramarital and secretive sexual liasons. One learns all sorts of things from one's teacher. Second, several have made the point that there is always some complicity of the student in these affairs. While that may be true it is a matter of degree, and everyone understands that the teacher bears the great majority of the responsibility because of his/her position of power, not to mention the fact that s/he represents the Buddha and buddha nature itself. Third we all deserve forgiveness.

Andy said...

One more comment on the complicity issue. The first and most important Buddhist precept is "Do no harm." If we reflect on student/teacher sexual relationships we see many students and sanghas who have suffered serious emotional and psychological harm. Some have even abandoned their Zen practice. Do we see any teachers who have been harmed in this way? Perhaps their reputation has been harmed and rightfully so. I think this puts the complicity issue in perspective.

Nathan said...

Hi Andy, As a member of the leadership of my sangha in the years following a teacher scandal on a smaller scale, I can readily say that emotional and psychological harm are pretty commonplace results. In addition, I'd argue that in many cases, the sexual affairs are only one of many power abuses in play.

Part of the reason there are so many differing views about teacher-student sex is the broader context of sangha. Those who view such actions in isolation, as something between two individuals, fail to consider the general power dynamics of the sangha. Others place all the burden upon the individuals involved, and fail to recognize the ways in which the rest of the sangha helped create an environment where power abuses can flourish. And finally, some people treat every sexual connection between a student and a teacher as the same - it's all horrible abuse, or it's all totally fine. When the reality is usually somewhere in between.

The forgiveness issue is an interesting one. I think it's liberating for anyone who has been harmed by a spiritual teacher to come to a place of being able to forgive. Even if it's decades later.

And yet, I don't know if forgiveness does much for the teachers in these situations. Especially if they haven't really taken responsibility for their role in the whole thing. I tend to they that they have to forgive themselves for screwing up so royally. That this is where the bulk of the healing can really open up for a "fallen" teacher.

Andy said...

Hi Nathan. I appreciate your response and find nothing to disagree with. There are many forms of power abuses in play wherever there are human beings. I think they are often magnified in sangha because we are all interdependently striving to overcome such things or at least we like to think we are or that we should be. And yes, we should be.

Furthermore, our spiritual lives seem to be at stake. When we have the desire for enlightenment experiences, we are easy prey for spiritual materialism in its endless manifestations. I guess it's an occupational hazard. And since we are all interconnected, the whole sangha is necessarily involved as you argue.

However for me there is no doubt that the primary responsibility lies with the teacher who is after all supposed to be the teacher of the dharma, even if there is ultimately no dharma to be taught.

As far as forgiveness goes I was indeed talking about forgiving the teacher. But the primary purpose of forgiveness is not to help the teacher (although that is a noble and compassionate practice) but to enable the student to find release from feelings of hatred, fear, mistrust, shame, anger and betrayal; to put an end to the harm that was done and to reaffirm commitment to the path of the dharma. There is a brilliant You Tube video by Jack Kornfield called The Ancient Heart of Forgiveness that makes this crystal clear.

Nathan said...

This is exactly what I was trying to get at.

"But the primary purpose of forgiveness is not to help the teacher (although that is a noble and compassionate practice) but to enable the student to find release from feelings of hatred, fear, mistrust, shame, anger and betrayal; to put an end to the harm that was done and to reaffirm commitment to the path of the dharma."

Forgiveness is really about liberating one's self in the end.

Nathan said...

Also, I agree that a teacher holds the primary responsibility in any ethical breach.

Andy said...

"Forgiveness is really about liberating oneself in the end."

Yes, and that is what Buddhism and Zen is about as well. After all we can only liberate ourselves. We cannot liberate another.

More emphasis on this might help to balance power differentials in the sangha. Too often we look to the teacher for our own realization. The wise teacher points us back toward ourselves and our own practice and resists the temptation to encourage dependency or adoration.

On the other hand since we are all interconnected, one's own realization is never complete until all are realized.

Anonymous said...

As a follower of Roshi's for some time, I am confused as to the latest events. I am wondering who owns the house on Maui and who is paying for all the trips back and forth to the U.S. Does he have to ask such large sums of money to support his lifestyle or his teaching or both?

Anonymous said...

As a follower of Roshi for a long time, I am concerned about this financial focus. Who owns the Maui house and who pays for his trips back and forth to the mainland? Why is he charging large sums of money for his teachings and retreats? Why is he asking for financial support on his teleconferences?