Sangha, i.e. “The Crowd You Run With”

DalaiLamaCrowdAfter I put up my previous piece about Zen Predator of the Upper East Side, a short book-like Kindle object about the sex scandals surrounding Eido Shimano, a commenter who calls herself Shade said, “Okay, as a member of the fairer sex, this is what I don’t get… if the women in this man’s charge had a problem with the way he was behaving toward them, why didn’t they just high tail it?”

I’ve heard this kind of question a lot whenever these Zen sex scandals arise.  If just men asked that question I might think it’s something to do with the supposed differences between male and female psychology. But both men and women seem to ask it. And I have wondered the same thing myself.

After all, in all of the sex scandals involving Zen people in the West the issue has never been about anyone forcing himself upon someone who was defenseless. The so-called “victims” are never children or the mentally handicapped or anything like that. They are always adults, often not even very young adults (some of Sasaki Roshi’s conquests were in their 50s and 60s), and always of reasonably sound mind. In Shimano’s case he did seem to target women who were psychologically vulnerable. Still, even this is relative. Though they may have been in somewhat compromised psychological states, they weren’t so impaired as to be unable to say no.

Reading the book-like object (is a “Kindle Single” a book?), you get a sense of what was really involved. Commenter mtto said, “There are also a variety of witnesses and enablers. Robert Aiken who sent Shimano to New York from Hawaii, making him someone else’s problem. The students who didn’t care that Shimano was an abuser because he didn’t abuse them, and he ‘worked for them’ as a zen teacher. The women who didn’t feel victimized by their affairs with Shimano, but knew he was molesting women who were harmed. Those who were appalled by Shimano, but didn’t want to harm Zen in the West, so kept quiet. To me, these are the real villains.”

He’s on the right track. But I think we can take things even further down that line.

We in the West are prone to view our individuality as the most important aspect of what we are as human beings. We imagine that we move through life as autonomous units, making our own individual choices and being singularly responsible for every action we take because it is of our own personal free will. But is that really true? And are we just who we are, or are we as much who we seem to those around us to be?

In Buddhism the so-called Three Treasures are Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Sangha, which basically means “who you hang out with,” is considered extremely important. The crowd you run with is vital to your spiritual path.

I never really liked this because I tend to be a loner, a rebel. Like Pee Wee Herman. You don’t want to get mixed up with me. Sangha seemed like more of a pain in the ass than a treasure.

Yet much of my supposed “individuality” comes from my environment. When I lived in Japan I behaved differently from how I’d behaved in Akron. Learning a new language reshaped the way I thought. Being around Japanese people forced me to change how I acted. I had to tone everything down, for one thing. I remember expressing what I felt was mild annoyance in the office where I worked and watching the people around me react as if I’d just screamed and thrown my desk through the window. I found out that in Japan you must express your mild annoyance much more subtly if you want it to be understood for what it is.

The actions that happened between Shimano and his conquests alone in the dokusan room where no one else could see involved a lot more than just two people. The entire community was part of it. The community gave Shimano, a pudgy, pasty-faced guy, a rock star aura he could never have created for himself. They made him seem like the kind of guy a woman might want to say yes to.

Once I was doing a talk in a city where the Dalai Lama happened to be speaking the very same day. Suffice it to say, my audience was not so huge. Someone I knew who’d gone to see Mr. Lama rather than attend my talk (grrrr) was gushing later on about how he could feel the tremendous spiritual power emanating from the Dalai Lama as he passed, ringed by his retinue of Secret Service men and fawning worshippers, and surrounded by a thick throng of people elated to be near such a holy being.

How much of what my friend was feeling really came from the spiritual power of the smiling little man at the center of that mess?

This doesn’t absolve individuals of their own actions. But the circumstances in which those actions take place cannot be disregarded. There was a lot more going on when these women said yes to Shimano’s advances and much of it was beyond them and even beyond Shimano. Shimano himself was under continual pressure to be the spiritual superhero his followers wanted him to be. This doesn’t mean he wasn’t a jerk. But that kind of thing is hard to take. I know. I’ve been there myself.

In the comments section, Hungry Ghost said, “I played in DIY political punk bands my whole life and always seemed to have some grasp on what kind of person I was. Then I played in a band with a record deal, fan base, worldwide touring and, it didn’t happen immediately, but after a few years of fans and promoters and club owners fawning over us and signing autographs I changed a lot — became entitled, reckless, confrontational.” He wondered if this kind of thing didn’t affect spiritual teachers who become super famous too. It does.

We don’t like to think of ourselves as being so mixed in with the people around us. I know I certainly do not. I want to think of myself as self-sufficient, self-determining, sovereign. But if there is no self, how can I be self-determining and self-sufficient?

If we are going to prevent scandals and other abuses like this from continuing to happen, we have to see how we all work together to create the conditions in which they occur. It’s no good to simply blame the bad guy at the center of it all or to tell the other people involved they could have just said no.

Shade’s question is the crucial one. Why didn’t they just get out of there? Why didn’t the people at Jonestown just refuse to drink the Flavor-Aid (Jim Jones was too cheap to buy real Kool Aid for his mass suicide, which I think makes the whole thing that much more tragic)?

The answers to these questions are as complex as the groups and circumstances out of which they arise. But I think if we continue to research them, patterns will emerge. They have been emerging from the serious investigations into these cases.

A lot of times the discussions on these subjects devolve very quickly into just a bunch of lurid poking into people’s private affairs or a lot of self-congratulating “well I would never do anything like that!” sort of reactions. Rather than looking at these matters as stuff that happens to others, we need to look at how we ourselves do the same sorts of things. Maybe our own versions of those same things don’t end in sex scandals and mass suicides. But we do them too. All of us.

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Here’s my upcoming touring schedule:

Aug. 2 Dogen Sangha Los Angeles

Sept. 5-7 Houston Zen Center (I will probably do events in Austin, El Paso and Dallas around the same time)

Oct. 3-5 Helsinki, Finland all events to be determined

Oct. 6 Movie Screening in Espoo, Finland

Oct. 8 Lecture in Munich, Germany

Oct. 9-11 Retreat in Munich, Germany

Oct. 12-17 Retreat at Benediktushof near Würzburg, Germany

Oct 18-19 Retreat in Bonn, Germany

Oct 20 Hamburg, Germany

Oct 24: Lecture in Groningen, Netherlands

Oct 25: Day-long zazen in Groningen, Netherlands

Oct 26: Lecture in Eindhoven, Netherlands

Oct 27: Evening zazen in Eindhoven, Netherlands

Oct 28: Evening zazen in Nijmegen, Netherlands

Oct 29: Lecture in Rotterdam, Netherlands

Oct 30: Lecture in Amsterdam, Netherlands

Oct 31: Movie screening in Utrecht, Netherlands

Nov 1-2: Retreat in Utrecht, Netherlands

Nov 4-6 (or 3-5 possibly) Retreat in Hebden Bridge, UK

Nov 7-8 Something in Manchester, UK (to be determined)

95 Responses

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  1. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote June 25, 2014 at 2:56 pm |

    I forgot to mention one other tiny detail for Theravadin nuns, the reason why they refused her ordination and she left the home temple: it takes a minimum of five monks or nuns (I think the number is the same) to give ordination to a novice; at some point in the history of what is now referred to as Theravadin “Way of the Elders” Buddhism, the necessary number of nuns was lost, and ever since nuns have been unable to be ordained and remain novices. Some have gone outside of the order for ordination in another tradition, while remaining Theravadin; just that there ordination isn’t actually recognized as officially Theravadin.

    Twisted, I would say, were it not for the lives that have been devoted to the order regardless of the strict adherence to rules, about which Gautama said before he died, only the main three needed to be followed (no one could agree on what those were, so they still follow them all).

  2. shade
    shade June 25, 2014 at 3:15 pm |


    “It takes a minimum of five monks or nuns (I think the number is the same) to give ordination to a novice; at some point in the history of what is now referred to as Theravadin “Way of the Elders” Buddhism, the necessary number of nuns was lost, and ever since nuns have been unable to be ordained and remain novices.”

    I don’t mean to be insensitive, really, but that’s almost comical. Also about the controversy regarding which rules laid down by Gautama were essential… they couldn’t come to a consensus so they decided to adhere to all of them – like what, “just to be safe”? There’s a certain logic to that I suppose but I also think that’s they way you wind up with three hundred and seventy “rules”. Which to me, seems like a bit much (Thanks for all the information though, by the by. It’s been fascinating)


    And regarding the root of all evil (i.e. money), Christ I’m seriously tempted to go on a rant here, because this is one of those things I have a very big “opinion” about. But I think I’ve infected the comments section of HZ enough for the week, so I’ll just say this… If money is a “measuring instrument”, what exactly is it supposed to measure? (to clarify, it’s not the physical object itself – dollars and cents, euros and – I’m opposed to. Paper and metal are not evil in and of themselves. It’s the value that’s placed on them I have trouble with)

  3. AnneMH
    AnneMH June 25, 2014 at 4:11 pm |

    Mark: That is true about the ordination, I think they borrowed from other traditions. There is a lot of information out there on it so you can look up the details I am so bad at.

    I am actually in Colorado, I stick to the punks one way or another so here I am with Against the Stream/Dharma Punx groups that are supportive of this Theravadan nun. For reading however I enjoy Brad’s writing and style. So I refuse to choose in the end

    1. minkfoot
      minkfoot June 25, 2014 at 5:20 pm |


      When did the last two letters of your name change to MH!?

      If I am mistaken, that means everything I think is questionable! Damn!

  4. Alan Sailer
    Alan Sailer June 25, 2014 at 7:40 pm |


    “If I am mistaken, that means everything I think is questionable! ”

    Stand back, thar’s a dangerous regression heading your way.

    We’re sending in a team of experts to deal with the situation. Stand calm, let the nice people do their job and everything will be OK.


  5. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote June 25, 2014 at 8:40 pm |

    Alan, I was just about to forgive you for “Isn’t the void prohibited by law?”, and then you go and send in the clowns. Tch, tch!

    Yes, if I had the capacity to keep 270 rules, or even 10, I probably would have succeeded in joining up… joining something. As it is, I just come increasingly unjoined.

    1. Alan Sailer
      Alan Sailer June 26, 2014 at 9:12 am |


      I’d apologize, but zen means never having to say you’re sorry.


    2. minkfoot
      minkfoot June 26, 2014 at 12:44 pm |

      MF (the other mf) sed:

      As it is, I just come increasingly unjoined.

      “So I said to myself, ‘Self, get ahold of yourself!'”

  6. AnneMH
    AnneMH June 26, 2014 at 5:34 am |

    minkfoot, just clean your glasses, it is all ok

    1. minkfoot
      minkfoot June 26, 2014 at 12:47 pm |

      “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

      ”• Julian of Norwich

  7. Mumbles
    Mumbles June 26, 2014 at 3:57 pm |

    Anybody have a link to Harry’s website? I’ve lost him…

  8. The Idiot
    The Idiot June 26, 2014 at 4:35 pm |

    Is that Julian who works at Dan & Whits?

    Mumbles, google Harry Dogen Ireland and you get:

  9. Mumbles
    Mumbles June 26, 2014 at 6:26 pm |

    Hmmnn, interesting -and thanks The Idiot- but I was referring to his old website/blog thing-a-majig, maybe he’s taken it down?

    1. Mumbles
      Mumbles June 26, 2014 at 6:37 pm |

      & if so, that would be sad. He was an original thinker and always fun to spar with.

  10. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote June 26, 2014 at 8:22 pm |

    “The focus will be on zazen (seated meditation), kinhin (slow walking) and samu (work periods). There will be no chanting or formal ceremony although zendo etiquette will be observed (bowing on entering and leaving the zendo, bowing before and after sitting etc.) It will not be a strictly silent event, but silence will be observed at the communal meals (which will be very tasty veggie fare!)

    No teacher will be in attendance, so this retreat is only suitable for those who have already established a regular practice and/or who have attended a retreat before. There will be themed discussion periods instead of formal Dharma talks.”

    Harry’s description of the retreat in Co Tipperary in 2012. Sounds like a good one to me!

  11. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote June 26, 2014 at 8:24 pm |
  12. Harlan
    Harlan June 26, 2014 at 9:19 pm |

    That’s it Mark. Harry is a great teacher with a gift.. then he decided to shut up. Maybe someday he will get over himself and talk freely here again. I loved reading his comments.

  13. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon June 27, 2014 at 5:37 am |

    One likely reason for why Harry has not commented here for awhile is mentioned in this very essay: “Sangha, which basically means ‘who you hang out with,’ is considered extremely important. The crowd you run with is vital to your spiritual path.”

    (The “spiritual path,” as well as the “road to hell,” is paved with good intentions and often has the same destination.)

  14. Fred
    Fred June 27, 2014 at 2:18 pm |

    Harry would get into it with anyone, but it felt like he started to mellow about a
    year ago.

  15. Conrad
    Conrad July 8, 2014 at 12:25 pm |

    Why didn’t they just get out of there? Why didn’t the people at Jonestown just refuse to drink the Flavor-Aid (Jim Jones was too cheap to buy real Kool Aid for his mass suicide, which I think makes the whole thing that much more tragic)?

    Well, in that particular case there were armed guards shooting people to death who refused to drink, so it’s a bit more understandable.

    But I guess you could ask why would they stay in a place like that long enough to get to that point? Or in any other cult setting. The answer is that people get something out of cults. They get stability, security, the sense of being a part of something important, of knowing and living the truth that others have missed, of making sacrifices for that truth, of living an authentic life through those sacrifices, of achieving a kind of redemption or salvation through all those practices and adherence to community and so on.

    These are basic human traits, well honed by thousands of years of human culture, and even millions of years of human evolution. They are hard to see past and break free from, even when things seem to be going south. It’s the same thing in many cases that makes people religious at all, including the more benign manifestations of it that we see in the mainstream, and also in “esoteric” circles like Zen or Advaita or any other mystical path. It’s a strange question for religious people to ask because religion is based on the notion of living a life based on sacrifices to some higher truth, and to the authority of people who know and teach those higher truths.

    So this should not be a mystery at all. It’s the same motivation that gets people together in a room to stare at blank walls, and then tell one another how life-changing and important that was, and how we have to keep doing that if we want to have any hope of a genuine life. Do that long enough, and you’re going to start believing in all kinds of other things, and make sacrifices in their name. Including giving the teachers of blank-wall-staring huge leeway in the things they do and demand of their students. It’s part of the deal. It’s also guaranteed to lead in many cases to really stupid or dangerous or exploitive things, because that’s built into the whole system of staring at blank walls, or invoking various deities, or doing rituals in the belief that they will change your relationship to the universe.

    I’m not trying to put those things down, because I think they can have real value. But they also have an inherent downside that is bound to take hold in a great many, even all, cases. It’s just a question of how far down that goes, not whether it goes down at all. That’s why it’s essential to have some kind of safeguards in place, just like we have seat belts in cars. Because we know that car crashes are going to happen, it’s just a matter of where and when and who. It’s built into the physics of travelling at high speed down public roadways. And these kinds of abuses are built into the physics of spiritual practice and staring at walls. Accept it and deal with the consequences as best you can.

  16. webber
    webber August 27, 2014 at 1:34 pm |

    This is a rarely well balanced comment on the problem. But even here most of the things said could mostly be said also about a relationship of a piano teacher and his student, and of the dinamics in any kind of group. The part that seems to be missing in all the articles dealing with the problem is the fact that buddhist teachers, especially of tantric traditions, have certain special abilities and knowledge used for “compassionate breaking of the barrieres and liberation” to paraphrase one teacher, for “mind to mind power transmissions” to paraphrase another… the abilities that actually allow them an access to another human being on levels that can be overwhelming even to accepte as possibility, especialy to a newcomer. Let allone to accepte the possibility of their abuse. I’m talking about siddhy powers. And they are never mentioned in cases of abuse.
    I suppose that there are lots of people who had some sort of encounter with obsessive lovers or potential lovers that have realy “hard time” to accepte no for an answer, or that the ralationship is over… Now let us suppose that kind of personality with siddhi powers; how do you leave him/her; where do you go; and how do you tell the others what happend?
    I’m talking from my own experience. I did leave. It didn’t make much of a difference.

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