In Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the three wise men from the east who came to Judea to worship Jesus Christ at his birth mistakenly arrive at the wrong house. There they attempt to worship the baby Brian much to his mother Mandy’s consternation. At one point Mandy says, “So you’re astrologers are you? What sign is he?” They reply that Brian is a Capricorn. “What are they like?” Mandy asks.
“He is the Son of God,” says one of the wise men, “Our Messiah, King of the Jews!”
“So that’s Capricorn, then?” Mandy says, confused.
“No that’s just him,” one of the wise men replies.
“Oh! I was going to say otherwise there’d be a lot of them!” Mandy says.
When I lived in Japan I’d see other American teachers of English do idiosyncratic things that expressed their usually weird personalities. Japanese people would comment on these things and say, “That’s what Americans are like, I guess.” They did that with my strange behaviors as well.
When you don’t know much about a particular category of human beings, you might be inclined to take the idiosyncrasies of the few you encounter to be characteristic of all of them.
The New York Times doesn’t write much about Zen Buddhists. That’s why it was a shock to see their story about Eido Shimano Roshi and the sex scandals surrounding him. It’s what we Zen Buddhists fear the most, what keeps people hiding such scandals when they learn about them.
The New York Times almost never runs any stories about Zen Buddhists. So the readers of the New York Times don’t know anything much about Zen Buddhists. And then, all of a sudden they learn about Zen Buddhists for the very first time. And it’s about an old Zen Buddhist monk who lures naive young women into his private room and then forces himself upon them. “So that’s what Zen Buddhism is about?” they think. And forevermore for all those New York Times readers, perhaps a few million scattered across the country and beyond its borders, Zen Buddhism is about old men forcing themselves upon naive young girls in their private rooms.
People ask why these scandals are often hidden. This is why.
I’ve read a lot of articles and books about sex scandals in Zen Buddhism in the West and very few of them mention this point. Perhaps it seems so obvious as to not be worth stating. I recall one article about Taizen Maezumi Roshi’s sexual advances upon students in which one of Maezumi’s sangha was described as crying to the writer of the piece not to print it. She said that the dharma was so young and weak in America that she feared it could be killed if the story got out.
But the story got out and the dharma did not die. In fact, even Maezumi’s own reputation was not destroyed by the news. He continued to teach and his dharma heirs became popular and continue to run their centers even today.
Still, whenever some kind of scandal like this happens and it gets covered up, people on the outside are often puzzled as to why the people surrounding the teacher in question so often attempt to hide it. There are reasons other than this, of course. Students often go into denial when these things come to light, refusing to believe its true even when evidence becomes overwhelming. Embarrassment also plays a role. Students feel they’ve been duped and are ashamed to admit it.
But I think very often, students of teachers who get involved in such scandals feel like they have received great benefit from the things those teachers have taught them. They don’t want to risk damaging the dharma itself just because the person they’ve learned it from turns out to be kind of a jerk sometimes.
In his book Sex and the Spiritual Teacher, Scott Edelstein makes a very important point. People wonder how someone can be so grounded in some areas of life and yet do things that seem to contravene very basic moral principles, for example sleeping with other people’s wives as Shimano is accused of doing. Edelstein reminds us that one of the basic teachings of Buddhism is that human beings are not single solid entities who move through life essentially unchanged. Rather, Buddhism teaches that we human beings are just the manifestations of causes and conditions. We’re not consistent at all. So it shouldn’t be such a shock that a particular person can be a masterful exponent of ancient wisdom in the afternoon at a dharma talk and a womanizing cad three and a half hours later in his private chambers.
Still, one would expect better of someone who has dedicated his life to a philosophy that stresses morality as one of its key principles. If all that monastic training didn’t even teach him it’s wrong to screw somebody else’s wife, which is something most people without such monastic training know, then what good is it?
I’d like to take up one possible answer in my next installment.
Brad is at Tassajara until September 11th. He does not have Internet access there so his friend Jayce is posting these articles he wrote before he left. Nevertheless, the donation button and the store still work. Just in case you were wondering.