Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Institutional Oversight of Zen Part Two

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.


Kyle said...

Another excellent post Nathan. I quoted you on your last post, and I think it is refreshing to see the community talk about this stuff.

You're right, there are no easy answers. Can we really stop a person intent on abusing there power as a teacher? I don't think we could without some absurd oversight.


Barry said...

I don't have much to add to the oversight part of your post, Nathan. You reason it brilliantly, it seems, and you final words: "if there were easy answers, we'd already have figured them out, and put them in place" are spot-on.

Most Zen practitioners practice within an organizational context. And an increasing number of organizations have adopted codes of ethics. And, despite these codes, transgressions continue to occur.

Human life is a messy place. And because we so frequently decline to accept this, we project sainthood onto Buddhist teachers, therapists and many other authority figures. Our projections are the root of the problem and yet we depend, in some measure, upon our guides and teachers for support in unfolding these projections.

The Buddhist psychologist, John Welwood, has written persuasively about what occurs with awakening and the need for ongoing investigation of the ego and its patterns.

I've certainly known people who have received certification, inka, etc., and yet are completely in the thrall of old behaviors and unexamined beliefs.

One of the great opportunities ahead for Western Buddhism may be the opportunity for a merger of wisdom traditions - the transformation of Buddhism and the engagement of psychotherapy.

In the long run, this may provide a way for people to work through these difficult issues of abuse.

In the meantime, each of us can continue on the upright path, and support others in their efforts to come upright.

Brikoleur said...


The whole discussion has been going on at the wrong level of abstraction. It's not a matter of whether there should be big oversight institutions or not; it's a matter of understanding what kinds of poisons circulate socially, and then devising antidotes to those.

I'm pretty sure the Vinaya Pitaka would have a few pointers—and perhaps a part of the reason for the situation is that it's been (IMO) swept to the sidelines in Western (mostly lay) Zen. I doubt it'd be possible to apply the whole shebang line by line, conditions being different and all, but I think it would be worth taking a close, hard look at it.

I would expect it to have a pretty deep underlay of understanding about the kinds of problems that happen in "spiritual communities" (for want of a better expression). Even if the remedies aren't directly applicable, we could use that to devise ones more suitable to our conditions.

Perhaps we need a Vinaya Master as well as a Zen Master after all.

Unknown said...

"we suck at understanding group dynamics".... Oh that is a good call!! You may be right on that one. Who knows? My community is mostly an online community, which I really like. Its more fluid in a way. I will wait with interest to hear what people say to your post.

Nathan said...

One quick addition re: the "we suck at group dynamics" comment. When I look around, I think this is true of humanity in general. Most of us struggle just to see how our own lives work, regardless of our religious or ethical background.

Here we are - social creatures constantly making groups - and yet we don't really get how they function and malfunction very well.

Pretty interesting...

Anonymous said...

This issue hits 4 suck points.

Using the old-culture list of 10
-no gods [teachers]
-no craven images [projecting perfection on ordinary human beings]
-no adultery [teachers or students]
-no false witness [aka crass opinionators]
-no craving someone else's spouse [ this means you]

Pretty basic path really. Yet
-teachers get away with murder for years
-students crave teachers over and over again
-community members blow hot retribution, rumor and fractionate without reconciliation
-computer screen critics are full of false freudian wisdom,moralistic fundamentalism, and rumors about real people in unfortunate circumstances who they never met and never will have any relationship except "skillful" opinion
-sangha board members and community leaders who have real responsibility fall silent and dither.

We don't lack for examples of broken pots, we do lack for menders, minders, examples of transgressors who have mended their ways.

it is like a world of drunks before AA.

Maybe more tonglen practice, more repair and reconciliation, fewer computer-screen expert commentators about what's broken; more finding what was broken and is now mended into compassionate workability.

Brikoleur said...

LOL@Anonymous — what a perfect illustration of Nathan's point about refusing to consider group dynamics, instead turning it into a simple case of "more compassion, better morals, less judgment."

arnie said...

I guess my comment is probably a rant. Rather than put it all in here and distract anyone from your purpose, I will only put in this little bit and anyone who is interested in the rest can find the whole thing on my blog at Nutzenbolts

I am always surprised at how people are resistant to learning lessons from history. To wit:

Institutions and organizations are often subverted by corrupt people. Young women are often prey to the machinations of self-interested father figures. People join cults to find an ideal family and then end up drinking poisoned kool-aid (figuratively or literally). A young man promises to love a young woman for ever but he has told the same thing to five other women concurrently. Zen teachers seduce a string of students. Etc., etc. An endless history of avoidable disasters. It isn't like these kinds of disaster haven't been written about extensively. Why aren't they common knowledge? And corruption! It isn't like we haven't tried to set up institutions that prevent corruption. And then the institution becomes corrupted. Why are we surprised when these everyday things happen? What makes people ignore all the good advice from the past? Ah, but of course – the old 'it can't happen to me' syndrome. And why do people always trust people who say, “Trust me.” It isn't a matter of trust. It is a matter of keeping ones eyes open to spot one of the deepest characteristics of human nature: the tendency toward self-interest in spite of the unfortunate effects ones actions might have on other people. ...


Algernon said...

This post and the comments are so refreshing; thank you, everybody. It has occurred to me that there might not be any need for the posts I am writing at all, but making myself write it out has helped clear some my unexamined cobwebs, so I am moving forward.

Sara said...

Very cool post Nathan. I love how you've teased out the complicated dance between individual responsibility and group dynamics.

I'm trying to think of a book about this problem in US zen (was it about one particular centre in california?). Is it called something like 'leave your shoes at the door'...I can't remember. I'd like to read it though.

Nathan said...


The book was "Shoes Outside the Door" by Michael Downing. It's specifically about San Francisco Zen Center's history, but certainly would be of use when considering this broader discussion.


Anonymous said...

Clergy, teachers, camp counselors, amusememnt park workers, ice cream vendors, professors, doctors and such should all undergo rigorous psychiatric testing under Obama Health Care Overhaul before being allowed near children.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Vernon

I disagree with your assertion about prescriptive psycholgism

i suspect I disagree with your characterization of the new healthcare law. It IS the law of the land. It belongs to you and me and millions of people including Obama. We can improve health care in this country; we can also have leaders who are trustworthy.

many ordinary people in positions of responsibility can be trustworthy without prescription.

We don't actually need worst case reasoning and public policy cynicism either.