Wednesday, October 5, 2011

On Those "Meaningless" Zen Sex Scandals

"Genpo Roshi is quite active here in The Netherlands. But his influenced has waned considerably lately. It's hard to tell if that's just because of the very highly publicized and largely meaningless sex scandal or because people realized what a joke the whole Big Mind® thing was.

The above comments are from Zen teacher Brad Warner's current post on Zen in Europe. For anyone who hasn't read Brad's writing before, his persona is frequently smart ass and irreverent. Furthermore, he loves to take shots at Dennis Merzel(Genpo), to the point where it's almost become a cliche.

Anyway, what struck me in the above comment is the decidedly cavalier attitude Warner takes in regards to the "sex scandal" that rocked Genpo's sangha several months ago. This is not a new view from Brad, nor is it an uncommon view around the convert Zen world. In response to various posts I have written about the scandal that happened in my own sangha, as well as what happened with Genpo and other Zen teachers in recent years, I have received many comments suggesting that "it's no big deal" and/or that the grievances are "all in the students' head, completely blown out of proportion."

This morning, as I reflect on all that I've experienced, and also what I have read about sex scandals in spiritual communities (which are almost always about much more than sex, I find myself thinking about how our attitudes about sex really explode the holy masks so many of us love to parade around in.

There are endless streams of Buddhist writing about compassion, and yet when it comes to suffering borne at least in part from sexual relations, how often does that compassion get tossed under the "emptiness" bus?

Or on the other side of the coin, how often do we resort to fast and easy moral judgments about those involved, be they teachers or students?

In other words, how often do we simply choose a relative or absolute shortcut, essentially out a desire to avoid the karmic mess before us?

For every cavalier statement like Warner's, there are as many or more final and total condemnations of teachers like Genpo, or of the "infantile" students that held their former teachers on a pedestal.

Perhaps it's not terribly surprising, but it is sort of ironic that a lot of Buddhists seem entirely unable to demonstrate compassion when it comes to their fellow dharma brothers and sisters.

And I believe that when it comes to something with such intensity as a sex scandal, which tends to unravel a knot of power abuse along with it, one of the main reasons that so many of us fail to embody compassion is that we can't figure out what compassion truly is in such a situation.

On the one hand, there's a need to deal with the facts of the relative world. A need for some accountability and responsibility taken.

On the other hand, there's the emptiness of the situation, that in an absolute sense, what happened was "no big deal" or that, anyway, "it's ok as it is."

If you think about it, this struggle between addressing the absolute and relative plays out in every moment of our lives. However, the power of sexuality seems to not only highlight the two poles, but effectively blasts all but the most seasoned of practitioners into one camp or the other. If I consider my own experience, it's been filled with a lot of swinging between the two ends, and more recently attempting to find some middle ground in what I say, write, and think.

Nagarjuna's tetralemma comes up for me in all of this. It's essentially a warning to not get attached to any of these four views:

X (affirmation)
non-X (negation)
X and non-X (both)
neither X nor non-X (neither)

When I have deliberately worked with this, examining "answers" or "conclusions" about something, at some point, I have found myself empty handed. Without anything to hold onto. It's startling, so much so that I've noticed getting stuck to being startled. To the point of paralysis.

Yet it seems to me that this is the pivot point, the opportunity to truly embody compassion and liberate suffering. However, ever desiring some solid ground, some fixed right or wrong, we tend to miss the opportunity time and time again.

I'll leave you with this poem from Zen master Ikkyu, no stranger to sex and sex scandals, to ponder.

From the world of passions,
returning to the world of passions.
There is a moment’s pause --
if it rains, let it rain,
If the wind blows let it blow.


Ben said...

Wow, yeah.
I've definitely had mixed feelings about these sex scandals (which, I should say, were unknown to me until rather recently): it's definitely difficult to address the issue of abuse of power when sex is at the heart of the issue (even if, as you said, it's much more than just sex, as soon as you think or talk about it it gets wrapped up in all our ideas about sex and sexuality).

In my personal life, I try to view my own sex "for what it is," and step away from the social constructions of it. Obviously this is, first, impossible; and second, arbitrary in its own right. I do feel though I have succeeded to a large degree (perhaps as a Queer [White, academically-educated, middle-class-raised] man I have an advantage here because redefinition is just something Queer folk have to do) in coming to see sex a little bit more realistically.

With that perspective though, I also have to acknowledge the reality of social constructions. To anyone who might say the scandals are "all in the students heads," where else would they be? An event that has already happened doesn't exist anywhere else! Isn't our concern about a sex scandal a concern for the harm done to an individual? And I don't think we can look at these scandals properly until we bring gender into it-especially since the trouble is already identified as an abuse of power!

I'm wondering now why I even felt compelled to comment, isn't it this phenomenon that makes a misdeed into a scandal? Haha, complicated shit! Seems even those of us that would see sex off its pedestal (or out of its closet), have strong feelings about it, one way or another!

Mumon K said...

For every cavalier statement like Warner's, there are as many or more final and total condemnations of teachers like Genpo, or of the "infantile" students that held their former teachers on a pedestal.

Brad's motivation behind his comment is hardly cavalier, and based on his (very valid) point that the sex scandal is indeed a minor issue compared to the fraud that was/is "Big" "Mind."

Merzel's schtick conflated the kind of practice that requires years of training with the "spiritual" equivalent of a get-rich-quick scheme (which it was, literally, on a small scale for Merzel, as it happened).

I put "spiritual" in quotes because I think the word is a very poor word to use given its connotations, but I don't have another at the moment.

That's basically selling snake oil; its LGAT mass hypnotism packaged as "practice."

Warner's not saying the scandals caused hurt; he's saying "Big" "Mind" was far more damaging.

I agree.

Mumon K said...

that should say:

Warner's not saying the scandals didn't cause hurt; he's saying "Big" "Mind" was far more damaging.

K Grey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nathan said...


I hear you about all the contradictions. And although I've written and spoken a fair amount about the issues surrounding such scandals I, too, sometimes stay quiet, and sometimes wonder what exactly is driving me to speak. It's an interesting place upon which to stand.


You may be right. I've seen Brad speak in a similar manner about Zen teachers and sex scandals before, though, so I'm not sure this is just about Genpo.

But I can definitely see that if you believe Big Mind is totally hogwash and causing damage (which I know is the view of many folks these days), then anything else Genpo has done could pale in comparison.

Algernon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Algernon said...

[Revised comment -- I really am too long-winded sometimes]

There is a very shallow understanding of "emptiness" that is very common among practitioners who are excited about "freedom." I meet very few people who start practicing Zen because they long to experience compassion; more often than not, it is a yearning for a kind of freedom, usually an idea they picked up somewhere.

This plays out predictably when there's a controversy around sex. People interested in their own liberty can elaborate clever apologetics for being "free" of "conventional morality."

In intimacy, there is pain. To someone in love with "freedom" intimacy often seems like a fetter (which is what the Buddha named his son after all) and a limit on freedom. It's messy and they don't want to get into it. That aversion is a limitation on their freedom but they don't get that.

I've been there: I've experienced desire for somebody outside of my committed relationship. I felt the desire, but , no way, everyone would have suffered. The person and I had a good laugh about it and let it go and in that moment, in the acknowledgment and relief, we actually felt closer -- and as for the sexual energy, well, my partner was more than happy to receive that. Where some would see this choice as limiting my freedom, it can also be viewed as expanding that freedom and sharing it.

And that has a lot more to do with emptiness than just getting to do what you (or your penis) want. It's worth exploring.

Carol said...

Yeah, the Nargarjuna's tetralemma applies. I have not found any solid ground to stand on as I cycled through various perspectives over the past year wrt the Eido Shamano mess, and then Genpo, and also previous difficulties where teacher-student sex and falling in love and deceit and secrecy were implicated in my former sangha.

Every position has a "yeah but". That's true, Yeah, but, still...

@Algernon: I'm surprised to read that you think most people come to practice looking for freedom. That didn't occur to me in the beginning, not that I recall. I was looking for an answer to and/or way out of suffering. Freedom came later ... the possibility.

Bottom line for me ... when you use someone else to prop up your own self-image you're not actualizing the genjo-koan or returning to the marketplace with open hands. Teachers who make these mistakes will always be with us. If you run into one and if s/he can't face the consequences, then it's not Zen being taught but delusion.

Algernon said...

Hi Carol,

I did not include the "looking for a way out of suffering" category, it is true. I meant only that the "freedom seekers" seem to outweigh the "compassion seekers" according to my unscientific observations. I certainly did not mean to ignore people who start practicing with no goal other than wanting the suffering to stop somehow.

Nathan said...

It's interesting - this what people enter practice seeking issue. When I consider my sangha, I see a lot more of what Carol speaks of - people trying to deal with their suffering. Desires to have more calm, stability, and ease. In fact, I often hear folks, even those who have years of practice under their belts, saying things like "I don't think about enlightenment in this lifetime. I just want to be more sane." A position I both feel sympathy for, and also find limited and limiting.

In terms of this discussion, though, what seems interesting to me is how (at least from what I have seen) whichever one of those positions is driving one's practice, the level of dysfunctional response to sex scandals remains the same. The conclusions look different - the self-compassion seekers getting hooked on moral judgments, while the freedom seekers are getting hooked by emptiness - but in the end, it's still dysfunctional responses coming out.

I think Algernon's call to examine this stuff as it comes up in your own life is really important. Because there are usually plenty of opportunities to do so, but most of the time, we miss them.

Carol said...

Yes, it's important to examine these issues as they come up in our own practice. I wonder whether there is a correlation between "freedom seekers" and emptiness sickness vs "compassion seekers" and moral judgments. I just dunno.

Surprisingly, I had a dream today about this issue ... still some unresolved stuff of my own about it all.

My personal take on it is that true intimacy with suffering leads to deep compassion. But compassion without prajna isn't enough, just as prajna without compassion isn't enough.