After 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 WÃ¼rzburg, 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)