Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Absolute and Relative of Zen Scandals

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


Bill said...

Ya know, I'll have to go with farmer monk here. I went a long time where I was on a "judge not, lest thee thyself be judged" trip, but what ended up happening was that I ended up trusting people who called themselves "teachers" who really were idiots. My first teacher--I moved, and was looking for someone local--had always said, "you have to exercise wisdom." This is absolutely true. I'll exercise a little wisdom here and say that Warner's position is appalling. Run the guy out of town on a rail.

I'll also take issue with you on farmer monk's critique about doing a monastic practice period. You may come from a lineage that doesn't have a monastic tradition. I don't know, but my impression is that historically in Japan because of the relationship of Buddhism to the state that monasticism was less common and more teachers--priests--would support themselves either through some other work or by professionalizing their teaching. I could be wrong, I am aware.

Anyway, the way I see it is that, damn straight, I have a lot to learn from someone who has shaved her or his head and does the practice full time, who's said "this will be my whole life," and put it into practice. I put a lot more stock into what that person tells me (all things being equal) than what someone who does it--to put it somewhat cynically--part-time.

I've never been done wrong by a monastic. I've never known anyone who's been done wrong by a monastic. I know it happens, but I don't know anyone who has. Even locally, I can list off a number of lay "teachers" who have taken advantage of students, not only but including sexually.

Let's say that the burden off proof is on the side of "let's schtupp our students." I'm curious under what conditions it's a good thing that a teacher of any sort schtupps his or her student. I myself can't imagine any.

Quite the contrary, it seems to me that you have to be a deeply fouled up person to take it upon yourself to schtupp your student. Three billion women in the world, and it's precisely this student of yours, the schtupping of whom you're compelled to rationalize? You couldn't have chosen any one of those others? Something else is at work here, I imagine, aside from true love.

We can say, correctly, that positing moral absolutes as ontological truth is un-Buddhist. But Buddhism is above all practical. Fairly simple guidlines, like the Precepts, are useful because they are practical. The Buddha taught them--to the nuns and monks--for good reason.

Jeanne Desy said...

It may be in his book, "After the Ecstasy, the Laundry" that Jack Kornfield sets forth a very careful approach to sexual attraction between teacher and student. As I recall, he says they need to entirely break off the student-teacher relationship and not see each other for three months.

People, this is not rocket science. When someone in power coerces or allows an "underling" to have sex, it is called sexual harassment and it is punishable by law. Why should religion be any different? In my opinion, the punishment should be worse for religious teachers and ministers, because they have so much emotional power by virtue of their office.

Kōgen 光現 Dito-Keith said...

Dear everyone,

I'm so sorry to imply that monastics are in anyway better than non monastics. I have a lot of explaining to do, which I will in a separate post, as I think this monastic v.s lay is an important topic, but far different than the initial topic, so again, I'm sorry for miscommunicating.

For the record, the term monk in my tradition is self applicable, with or without ordination, and that term is usually someone who is at Tassajara and may end when they leave Tassajara, even if they lived there for 20 years. I use the handle farmermonk carefully; it's playful for me and helpful for me to live my life. I may look like a monk, and feel like a monk, but I can't live up to the title.

Nathan, I didn't consider you outside of monastic practice: you are accountable to a sangha, you have memorized chants, you know how to do prostrations, and you come from a tradition the same as my own. ( a wild guess!) I want to suggest that monastic forms are for lay and ordained.

Pointedly and hardlined; I do want my teachers to have long term monastic practice supporting them, and that's not fancy enough; I'd also like them to have outside training, like Grace Schireson's S.P.O.T training.

There's so much more to this. But one more for here- I'm not sure Dogen's zen is without practice periods. He writes about them, beautifully. I'm not sure we can separate Dogen's zen from monastic forms, but you don't have to be a monastic to practice monastic forms. Nathan, Bill (nice to meet you) and Dalai Grandma practice monastic forms.

Again, very sorry.

Deep Bow,

(Please call me Kogen!)

Mumon K said...

Interesting post, Nathan. I see people are taking away from these things different kinds of's an odd kind of synoptic Gospel-like evolution of memes going on here.

But I digress, except to say that I took something completely different away from it.

I side more with Brad on this, especially his main point: Zen "teachers" are HUMAN BEINGS! They are human with all the failings, problems, etc. etc. And we should not see them as either bodhisatvas or hungry ghosts exclusively.

I really think this is a failing of American Buddhism, that it still retains a dualistic outlook here. It's why I inevitably get grief when I try to suggest that our Tibetan kin are less than perfect too.

BTW, I know, I know, I know that Western Soto Zen derives from the version of Zen as handed down by Dogen and his descendants. But the Chinese version of Soto still exists today; Tiantong-si still exists today.

Also, based on what you've written and what Brad's written about what happened at your temple, I'm still a bit confused by things, except to say when you refer to "a series of actions and approaches to sangha and the teachings that fostered an atmosphere built on patriarchy, authoritarianism, and favoritism," except for the last thing, you're making it sound like it was an affair after political incorrectness. I'm sure it was more than that, I don't want to know any more than what you've written...but if that's how it was expressed to Brad I can understand his response.

Algernon said...

Brad does, I agree, offer a couple of points worth considering here: regarding the subtlety of precepts, as well as the value of "humanizing" the zen teacher.

On the other hand, he blows it in his presentation. I also picked up the "bro" attitude that Farmer Monk complains about it. Ho ho ho, you old horn dog, and all that back-slapping boy privilege. But below that, there is a deeper error: it is not necessarily beneficial that a teacher gets "humanized" at the human expense of the victims of sexual abuse. I know this point isn't lost on you, Nathan: the old cliche that "everything is a teaching" does not mean that sexual abuse is pedagogy. Intentionally or unintentionally, jokingly or not, Brad's words imply to many readers including me that there is some *redemptive* value in what Sasaki did by unwittingly humanizing the zen teacher.

I haven't had much time for blogging or writing at all for several weeks. There is a piece gestating (maybe for Sweeping Zen, although Adam won't like the piece much) here about how the *response* to these scandals has become a kind of performance art. There are all kinds of earnest discussions going on and I'm noticing a whole lot of good/bad and other Manichaean categories being brought in, and judgments about teachers/bloggers/organizations/etc. based on how they participate in this performance art.

But ultimately, that's ALL ego. What we do in response to these events counts, but at some point the seventh precept ("I vow not to praise myself and put down others") becomes a concern. Cause and effect are clear. What we do matters, but much of this talk has a circular and egocentric tendency.

Which may be why you felt an urge to stay out of it, for the most part. And may be why the topic, although I recognize its importance, also leaves me feeling fatigued and impatient.

Nathan said...

An interesting set of responses for sure. I have written about these issues from many angles over the past few years, in large part because of seeing so much of the dualist outlook Mumon speaks of.

Bill, I'm not sure where you get the idea that Soto Zen has no monastic tradition. It does. And has. Even with the complicated relationship with the Japanese state. An issue that maybe was heightened in Japan, but certainly has been present in many other places where Buddhism has flourished.

The rest of your comment - I have nothing to say other than that wisdom is not beholden to specific forms.

Jeanne " When someone in power coerces or allows an "underling" to have sex, it is called sexual harassment and it is punishable by law. Why should religion be any different?" I was thinking this the other day, as Benedict resigned. All of these scandals across religions seems to be calling for a major change. Immunity for abusive religious leaders because they are "holy" or "enlightened" needs to end.

Mumon, I wrote more about what happened at my zen center in multiple posts awhile back. I don't know how it was presented to Brad back when he was at Clouds, but one thing I have noticed is how the lens has widened the longer we've gotten from the end point affair. It took more than a few years for those of us who stuck around to get a better sense of all that had happened. I can easily imagine some telling Brad or another visiting teacher that the sangha was nearly broken up by an affair. Instead of years of different actions that built up a highly pressurized sangha where women felt marginalized, female teachers were basically driven out if they questioned things, and where subtle guilt and shame pushed many of us to ignore our health and well-being in a quest for something we called "enlightenment." We collectively built this experience, including projecting all kinds of perfection narratives on the head teacher. But he led it, and too often supported or cultivated those "negative" qualities, instead of trying to steer us in a different direction.


Thank you. I wasn't really upset, but that monastic/lay thing is an old trigger for me. And actually, I think it's been an issue since the beginning - with people on both sides of the fence getting puffed up in thinking they're the holders of "the true practice." And at the same time, I've read numerous beautiful stories where the fence between lay and monastic hasn't been an issue. Where the symbiotic relationship and mutual respect rule the day. That's where I aim for.


"there is a deeper error: it is not necessarily beneficial that a teacher gets "humanized" at the human expense of the victims of sexual abuse. I know this point isn't lost on you, Nathan: the old cliche that "everything is a teaching" does not mean that sexual abuse is pedagogy. Intentionally or unintentionally, jokingly or not, Brad's words imply to many readers including me that there is some *redemptive* value in what Sasaki did by unwittingly humanizing the zen teacher."

Yes. Very true. There also seems to be underlying many of the efforts to "humanize" a desire to sever cause and effort in the process. "Look, we make mistakes too. Forgive us." Where's the accountability? Where's the facing of one's karmic oats?

In terms of your performance art comment - I hope to see your post somewhere at some point. It seems to me that there's a fair amount of pride in particular lingering behind the efforts of some of the "tellers." Pride in being the whistle blower. Pride in being a teacher or student "above all that." Pride in being one who is "doing something" in the face of injustice.

I see this a lot in activist communities. It's feels very familiar to me.