Friday, February 11, 2011

Zen Teacher Scandals, Group Dynamics, and The Swamp of It All

I'm feeling a bit disturbed today. My great grandmother, at almost 102, is probably on the way out of this life. It's amazing that this spunky, sassy woman has lived so long, and mostly in pretty good health, so it's hard to feel to down about it. But there's still some sadness.

Secondly, I was thoroughly dressed down on the thread of this post from a prominent feminist website. I enjoy learning about new issues and theories, especially when they might aid me in seeing through some of the warped cultural conditioning I have inherited. My only comments about what happened there was that my mistake was not shutting up earlier, and that I feel this kind of behavior amongst people "on the left" for lack of a better term is one of the main reasons social movements have gone nowhere in recent decades here in the U.S. (Please, no feminist bashing in response to these comments; it's not about that, it's about how people struggle to work together across differences, and end up tearing each other to shreds in the most uncompassionate ways.)

Finally, this Zen teacher scandal business moved from wherever it had been down to my gut this morning. An anonymous commenter left a comment on my recent Genpo Roshi post that basically defended Genpo through absolutism, and I kind of went off on that person.

This whole defend the "victims" at the total expense of the "victimizer", or defend the "victimizer" at the total expense of the "victims" is a pair of sick delusions that we all need to wake up from.

James Ford over at Monkey Mind has some great comments this morning about the state of "Western Zen":

There are those who say we need to grow up and walk away from Zen teachers.

I respectfully say you can. And you may well find a true and useful and healthful path. It won’t, however, be Zen.

The Zen way has evolved within a system of training, or rather a cluster of training systems, all of which require spiritual direction.

The way Zen came west, through individual teachers with limited supervision, and then establishing centers that are more or less isolated from each other has created a cultish system. That’s the problem, aggravated, of course, by the inflated language of transmission. I’ve explored both of these issues before.

I’m confident we are also at the edge of a time where people are no longer dependent upon keeping a relationship with a specific teacher or giving up the practice. In some ways the scandals reflect that reality. We don’t have to put up with the inappropriate in order to have access to the way.

Over at Sweeping Zen, Erik Storlie has an even more provocative essay about Lineage, Dharma Transmission, and teacher scandals.

So long as American Zen relies on dharma transmission as a credential, there will be one Shimano after another – and dharma heirs who will go to great lengths to protect the master that conferred authority upon them. For if the master who has declared me awakened has erred, if he does not, indeed, “dwell in the Absolute,” then my own credential is called into question – along with my prestige and authority in the community and my ability to confer this power upon others.

Even if the magical claims of dharma transmission are discarded and it is recognized as an ordinary human institution, it still should not be retained as a method of training Zen meditation teachers. No truly meaningful credential can be conferred simply at the pleasure of one person. Indeed, as a method, it creates toxic interpersonal dynamics in communities, for the future recognition or preferment of a student is entirely dependent upon pleasing a dharma heir, or a presumptive dharma heir. If I wish to rise in this hierarchical system, I must pay court to the dharma heir and his or her favorites, and as a courtier in such a system, I can never openly acknowledge my self-interested pursuit of attention, for my goal is always, theoretically, “spiritual” development. Yet, of course, my ability to please a dharma heir and receive, in my turn, recognition and/or authorization will give me status and even employment opportunities. The dynamics of court, courtier, and courtship create endless distortions of human behavior even in ordinary institutions – a business, political party, or college. These run wild when the king, queen, pope, or dharma heir has imputed “special” powers. Anyone connected for a length of time to a Zen Center can cite examples.

This is perhaps a bit cynical. I don't think that dharma transmission has created "a toxic" environment in all the "Western Zen centers" out there. Or even a majority. However, the delusions around the student/teacher relationship on both sides of the equation are certainly exploding all around us, and I agree that attachment to stories about lineage, dharma transmission, and teachers as mostly perfected bodhisattvas are major concerns that need to be addressed.

Anyway, it's all very swamp-like to me today. I'll be heading over to see my friends at the local college meditation group this afternoon, which seems like good timing. Take care everyone.


Mumon K said...

Geez...I just read that exchange re: the Genpo supporter. There's simply no excuse for Genpo's behavior, IMO, and blissy experiences you can "flash on" whenever you want aren't worth what people have been paying for them.

Algernon said...

I just read it as well, Nathan, and though you may have indulged a bit of anger, I think you are still very well spoken right here:

"People love to hide out in statements about emptiness and the world being a delusion. But when it's your best friend, or partner, or mother or father crying and feeling torn up by an exploitive experience with a teacher, I bet your fucking tune changes."

I doubt I could have chosen better words.

Nathan said...

Yeah, I'll acknowledge the anger on my part. Seems the bit of leftover baggage from our center's teacher scandal is "up" for me. It came up in a couple of discussions I had with folks at the center recently, so I can see how that bled into this discussion.

dragonfly said...

Hi Nathan,
Sorry to hear about your great grandmother. It can be hard to watch someone drift out of life, even when it's time. Sounds like she lived very fully - my deep respect to her for that. And wishing you peace in the process of letting go.

Nathan said...

Thanks. She's a tough cookie, but it sounds like - from family reports out in Michigan, where she lives - her time is coming really soon.

statusquestionable said...

Hey. Dosho Port over at Wild Fox Zen has just posted his take on the latest Genpo fiasco and the resultant cyber reaction and possible safety measures that could be taken by zen communities.
Seems like there are models out there already to protect both teacher and student so I'm curious why so many teachers in the zen world seem to feel a need to reinvent the wheel. .so to speak. .Is the zen teacher/student relationship THAT different? Not in my 25 years of zen experience. Projection/transference/abuse of power and infatuation (both ways) are pretty much the same wherever you experience them. Let's recognize the ever present and very human interpersonal aspect of training and protect all parties concerned. Time to be spiritual adults I think!

Anonymous said...

As a former Zen student, I agree with every word Erik Storlie says. Years of intense practice, of knowing zen teachers and sangha dynamics have brought me to exactly same conclusions - resulting in leaving the Zen practice altogether.
It was an extremely painful discovery after putting years of my life into practice.
And it is not imperfections of teachers that were so difficult. It was a total refusal to look into any of this stuff - which offered no hope for any chance of improvement.

Nathan said...

Statusquestionable - I think there are a few things that are perhaps a little different, but you're right many of the issues are commonplace, and that models are around. One of the struggles I see is that Zen communities are mostly on there own, and getting them to work together is like herding cats - and this is an issue that needs to be worked with in a larger space, with collective agreements across sanghas.


I'm sorry to hear of the disappointment and, it sounds like disillusion, that you experienced. I know you aren't alone.

"And it is not imperfections of teachers that were so difficult. It was a total refusal to look into any of this stuff - which offered no hope for any chance of improvement." This, to me, is one of the major issues.

I do think there are plenty of Zen teachers and priests who are putting energy towards addressing these issues, and maybe the high profileness of Genpo and Shimano will spur people on to take more clear, collective action. Or maybe not.