So That’s What Zen Buddhism is About?

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.

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128 Responses

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  1. King Kong
    King Kong August 22, 2012 at 3:23 am |

    testing 123
    testing 123

  2. Andy
    Andy August 22, 2012 at 4:02 am |


    “A master of something is a master of that thing, he masters physics but we don’t expect him/her to be “moral”, moral which would be what? Some stratified cultural, societal deposit, taboo from some patriarcal clan boss (in our western society)?”

    I think I get where you’re coming from Boubi.

    I agree that morals are relative constructs, and the attempt to impose uniformity can be oppressive. Morals are down to individuals to wrestle with, and perhaps, in that sense to ‘master’. That’s why Buddism has precepts and not commandments.

    Using your example of a chess teacher having sex with a pupil: Given only that information, one can’t say that such an act is immoral; and if we can, we certainly can’t then impute immorality to chess, or for that matter teaching.

    There will always be human beings engaging in sexual acts or other forms of behaviour deemed immoral and harmful – some of them extremely difficult to view as anything other than wrong (having sex with small children, for example), with others causing outrage largely due to the taboos of the day.

    I think your point about ‘masters’ is important. Whether this is a useful term or not, with regard to Buddhism we are talking about some form of intitutionalised or traditional form of legitimacy to take on the role of a teacher.

    I may have mastered Physics at home, but I’m not going to be allowed to practice my expertise in nuclear fusion without some form of legitimate proof of that ‘mastery’. Furthermore, if I wish to teach Physics to children, I would have to have certification of my ability to teach and of my suitability to take on the responsibility of dealing with vulnerable human beings. Through observation, I have to have shown myself to be a psychologically heathy person with a moral compass, and someone who can negotiate such within certain ethical standards set by the profession and the law.

    That one may still go under the radar and behave appallingly doesn’t mean that society should stop with its attempts to define what a ‘fit’ person to teach should look like. As a parent, I might apply similar things as rules of thumb when checking out the chess teacher my child might be spending many hours with alone.

    This also works the other way. My standards as to what a ‘fit’ person to teach chess, or society’s standards as to what makes a person fit to teach in schools, might be narrow-minded and oppressive and blind-sided.

    It also relies on the problem that one person might be ‘fit’ today, ‘unfit’ tomorrow. Able in some circumstances, weaker in others.

    As you have suggested, the fact remains that we live in the real, messy, relative world. But in such a world, the fact also remains that adults are also vulnerable. Of the people who seek out teachers, many will have done so at a vulnerbale stage in their lives seeking answers, seeking help. Whether it be should so, or not, we transfer and project. We gravitate often to those with legitimised authority as sign posts of authenticity in the wildernessness of our most intimate concerns, needs and desires.

    I imagine that such a teacher will experience continual emotional pressure from their encounters with students, especially those intimate and often secluded situations where teacher-student relations play out.

    I think the moment we confer authority onto somebody like a Buddhist teacher, we run the risk of assuming that who they were and how the behaved last year, or yesterday, and in different situtaions, is going to be the same now. And this may encourage both adults to veer into harmful situations and acts.

    But, I think, to gloss over these situations as being one of ‘adults’ free to screw who and how they see fit, and free to screw-themselves up, if they like, might be one where we run the risk of turning away from engaging with the ethical considerations whereby we see everyone on occasion as needing some form of protection or help from others or ourselves.

    As Poepsa pointed out “it is ultimately the students who authenticate and authorize the teachers.” Which still leaves those who are authenticated and authorized to examine how best to present what they are all about in such a way that students and potential students understand their role in legitimsing a teacher. This also involves examining many things about their own tradition that feed into rasing up the status of teachers (or such things like ‘zen masters’) in others and perhaps their own minds.

    What Mark Foote and Broken Yogi have been discussing touches upon an important point for me. In discussing such designations as Arhat and what such a person could or wouldn’t do, how much are we parsing a mythic beast?

    Does ‘Arhat’ fit into a story whereby once an Arhat always an Arhat, a story where there is literal rebirth? Or can we understand John (the Arhat) as not being able to indulge in sex on Tuesday’s ‘rebirth’, while on Wednesday John (the man) gets a stonker on Wednesday’s ‘rebirth’, yet rechannels his energies by means of some skillful Arhatting, such that Jayne and Fred get a good teaching to from John the Arhat on Wednesay evening? Ahem.

    In my limited knowledge on such matters, could it be that such ancient designations like Arhat or Bodhisattva are really mythic ideals suggesting fixed levels of attainment and attribute, where they might be better translated as states expressed; the frequency of those states expressed leading to others looking back on a person’s (collective) story so far, as one deserving the honorific ‘S/he was/is a bodhsattva’?

    Wouldn’t it be easier then to see how we might deserve to value such a person and their acts as exemplary, while at the same time being able to incorporate subsequent investigations revealing all too human ‘blots’ on the record? And doesn’t this apply to the big G himself (the sexist!)?

  3. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon August 22, 2012 at 5:02 am |

    Git’cher own blogs, you deluded, long-winded bastards!

  4. boubi
    boubi August 22, 2012 at 8:28 am |

    WOW, how many words !

    By master in physics, chess or whatever i mean “transmitted” mastery as in chess society (you get master after winning competions), in physics (through university) and so on.
    BTW you can’t play at home with high energy physics, at least not to my knowledge.

    The act of one could taint HIS OWN image not the image of the branch of knowledge.

    In the case of the yogi fart “something Das”, which was presented a few posts ago by Brad, what was object of critics was the old fart himself, not his yoga lineage.

    Now what i like in Brad Werner is that he is trying to show people that a “zen master” is a person like everybody else.

    Unluckily people seem to need some kind of sexless fatherly Santaclaus (that doesn’t exist) .

    Something i like is the approach of ancient mahasiddhi teachers who would literally throw they pupils to the dogs in order to shake them out of their self righteous self, i remember of one brahnim who was sold by his master as a slave to a prostitute, and it worked the brahmin became a great adept and mahasiddhi. Now here you have to trust the guy.

    Join fight club 🙂

  5. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote August 22, 2012 at 9:53 am |

    Maybe spend some quality time in a mosh pit, rather than fight club?

    wikipedia- “A mosh pit can open up anywhere in the crowd by means of “crack-back” (where a group pushes back against everyone around them with their arms outstretched), people shoving each other into others until space is made, or simply swinging their arms and legs violently until space clears around them.”

    Ok, not keen on violent anything, but I did have a good time with “people shoving each other into others” although I was never a shover. Or maybe just krump.

    “Now what i like in Brad Werner is that he is trying to show people that a “zen master” is a person like everybody else.”

    I think it was Dogen who said that details of a Zen master’s personal life should not be disclosed. Shunryu Suzuki did not want the details of his personal life retold; Chadwick finally got permission from his widow. I guess the danger is that the teacher looks all too human when you look at how he treats his kids and some of the consequences of some actions, and people can lose respect.

    Since most Zen teachers rely on their actions and their aura of respectability to convey what they have to teach, and disdain the use of any kind of representation in words, to remove their aura of respectability essentially ties one hand behind their back when it comes to teaching.

    There are a lot of masters in a lot of traditions who emphasize awakening to a spiritual truth. The Gautamid stated that any intelligent person who practiced sitting down cross-legged and setting up mindfulness for at least seven days would either become enlightened or else become a never-returner (how many people do we know who have sat 7 day sesshins, who we foolishly did not recognize were either enlightened beings or never-returners?).

    Later (I think it was later) he spoke of a particular variation on setting of mindfulness, which he said was his own practice before and after enlightenment, and he described cultivating and making much of this mindfulness as “something peaceful and choice, something perfect in itself, and a pleasant way of living too” (SN V 321-22, Pali Text Society pg 285). No more talk of seven days to enlightenment or non-returning, he saw the harm it could do (the monks that committed suicide meditating on the “unlovely”) and started talking about “a pleasant way of living”. In words, quite explicitly. I suppose it’s “just sitting”, but he had a bit more to say about it than that, and that’s what makes him a great teacher. Zen teachers, they could almost be Sufis, or Christian mystics, or anything else; they don’t really talk about it.

  6. Andy
    Andy August 22, 2012 at 10:17 am |


    “By master in physics, chess or whatever i mean “transmitted” mastery as in chess society (you get master after winning competions), in physics (through university) and so on.”

    Yeah, I was agreeing with that and contrasting that ‘transmitted’ mastery of say Physics or Chess to a situation in which you are affecting others and in a role of responsibility ie a teacher. ‘Zen master’ in the Buddhist world means you’ve been told you have ‘mastery’ and are able to teach.

    “The act of one could taint HIS OWN image not the image of the branch of knowledge.”

    It would be nice if that were the case, and to some extent it is. But when a teacher ‘transmits’ the right to teach as a recognised part of some lineage, this represents something more than the student’s individual reputation. It represents something about Zen Buddhism as a whole, if that person is either a Soto or Rinzai Buddhist for example. Potential students are encouraged to ask who their teacher was and what lineage he comes from etc.

    This isn’t about only ‘a branch of knowledge’, otherwise taking precepts and making vows wouldn’t be involved. It’s about helping oneself and other people. It’s also a matter of trust within the world of Buddhist practitioners and without.

    “Unluckily people seem to need some kind of sexless fatherly Santaclaus (that doesn’t exist) ”

    I would say that some form of that inheres in all of us. We can position ourselves against this ideologically, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t in thrall to some version of our own. Like I suggested in a previous post, sometimes thinking oneself anti-institutional can detract from very similar, if differently orientated, forms of the thing one is against.

    Fight Club: The story of a guy who thought he was a certain type of person, found out there was more to it, and then turned into something just as bad?

  7. SoF
    SoF August 22, 2012 at 12:36 pm |

    The metaphor of a University Master’s does not apply to Zen.

    The transmission of dharma is from one teacher to one student.

    In a University Master’s program, one takes a variety of classes from a variety of professors. And, their is an advisory committee (not one) which certifies the Thesis (or ‘capstone’ proficiency in cases where a thesis is not required).

    Also, Universities are accredited by associations. Zen lineages are self-accredited.

    I would guess (but not know) that there are as many unaccredited universities (most of which are useless) as there are fraudulent lineages. THAT is one rare parallel between ‘academic’ and Zen instruction.

    A critical analysis of the Platform Sutra and the folklore surrounding Huineng (638-713) may identify the Chan tradition (particularly in regards to the matter of lineage) as fraudulent.

    Thus, even Dogen in his later years dropped the folklore and went upstream to the tripitaka for a deeper – more authentic – understanding of original Buddhism.

  8. SoF
    SoF August 22, 2012 at 12:37 pm |

    theirs is


    there is

    either way

  9. boubi
    boubi August 22, 2012 at 3:33 pm |

    The fight club* guy freed himself from his own … (?) obsession (?), he did it his own way, i find it very close to what ancient indian tantrics did in their time, he found himself and became “whole”, he literally killed his illusions (there should be something of this kind in the hindus scriptures), kind of the skulls necklace symbol.

    Somewhere (can’t find again) i read that Tilopa real teacher Vajradhara was Tilopa himself, strikes some chord?

    Now to imagine a Zen teacher for what he is not, rots, makes everything more difficult from the beginning.

    One of Linchi’s most famous saying was exactly to kill Buddhas, arhats, masters and every kind of comic book mono dimensional figure that would give the impression that to get “enlightened” you should be different from a standard issue person.

    And to this i’m very gratefull to Sensei Brad, even though and exactly for this reason i don’t feel myself restrained at saying what i think.

    We go back to “what the * is Zen” and “what the f* is enlightenment”?

    Are we projecting things that don’t belong, things that are part of “us”?

    ” … and then turned into something just as bad?” i disagree, in other cultures people would probably have started to bring him fruits, flowers, offerings.

    “The mind’s original nature is like space;
    It pervades and embraces all things under the sun.
    Be still and stay relaxed in genuine ease,
    Be quiet and let sound reverberate as an echo,
    Keep your mind silent and watch the ending of all worlds.”
    Tilopa’s Mahamudra Instruction to Naropa

    In my understanding the guy, this imaginary figure (wink wink) was “gate, gate, paragate, samparagate”

    * just in case, i don’t do it neither plan to do any of what shown in the movie, it’s a methaphore , but the guy JUMPED out of the airplane, try a walk on the wild side 🙂

  10. Broken Yogi
    Broken Yogi August 22, 2012 at 3:47 pm |

    About Gautama and sex, there’s a few possibilities. One is that he was just plain anti-sex in a rather conventional way. More likely, however, is that he was most interested in getting people to take his teachings very seriously, and to practice them with great seriousness, which to him would mean taking on the strongest kinds of discipline that would help bring craving to an end the most quickly. Since sex is such a distracting craving, it’s understandable that he’d advocate celibacy. Most spiritual paths teach that the quickest way for the most serious aspirants involves celibacy. Gautama was probably no different.

    So I think it’s important to see that Gautama was trying to develop a renunciate society of monks, those with the most intense dedication to enlightenment, and that to him celibacy was one of the important parts of that discipline. It’s understandable also that he would expect even enlightened disciples to be celibates, as role models for everyone else, even if celibacy wasn’t really necessary for the enlightened. It was important to maintain the integrity of the sangha, however, which was just as important.

    However, Gautama wasn’t exclusively about celibacy or the monastic order. There were a whole lot of lay followers also, and they received a lot of instruction as well. Over time, the lay followers vastly outnumbered the monastics. There were different injunctions and instructions for the lay Buddhists that differed considerably, and it wasn’t considered impossible for lay practitioners to become enlightened. Vimalakirti certainly comes to mind. It was just considered more likely that the monkish path that included celibacy would be quicker.

    Plus, of course, we don’t have total certainty as to which instructions in the scriptures are actually Gautama’s, and which are add-ons or interpolations from disciples and others. And then of course we have the universal instruction of Gautama’s not to merely accept any teachings on mere authority, but to put them all to the test of experience and reason.

    And then we could also say it’s possible that Gautama was just wrong about sex and enlightenment, or even that his own enlightenment was incomplete. Or a combination of all these things. It’s something we have to weigh and consider ourselves, and not depend on scripture alone to figure out for us.

  11. SoF
    SoF August 22, 2012 at 7:36 pm |

    I suspect that ‘the original mind’ is the original harmonious space – where nothing that we call “thing” existed.

    That is a kind of classical nirvana.

    And it’s NOT the god particle.

  12. boubi
    boubi August 23, 2012 at 3:46 am |

    “Also, Universities are accredited by associations”

    Who accredits the associations?

    “.Zen lineages are self-accredited.”

    I thought they all descended from the historical buddha Sakyamuni as recited in the morning.

    NOW we should have THE question right?

    Who EVER accredited Sakyamuni Buddha ?

    Who the *blip* ever gave him transmission?

  13. Ted
    Ted August 23, 2012 at 6:50 am |

    The Buddha studied with great masters in many lifetimes before his enlightenment, according to tradition.

  14. boubi
    boubi August 23, 2012 at 9:01 am |

    Answer one :
    And Superman came from the planet Krypton.

    Answer two :
    Who taught those master? And their master’s masters? And their master’s master’s masters? repeat ad libitum … don’t tell me some kind of god, please 🙂

  15. boubi
    boubi August 23, 2012 at 9:08 am |

    Is it so difficult to conceive that Gautama Siddharta was a guy who found some answer?

    It even seems to me that he tried very hard to avoid his deification during his lifetime. He died for some reason like everybody (most probably because he was born, but it’s still under verification ), he didn’t rise from the dead after 3 days or whatever, bacterias and bugs eat his body.

    He accomplished one of the greatest feat of human history, as a man with his own limitations, and it makes it even more admirable.

    BTW, for all buddhist schools he is the HISTORICAL buddha, it means there has been others before …

  16. Ted
    Ted August 23, 2012 at 9:59 am |

    The notion that there has to be some original cause is in fact one of the arguments that the Buddha rejected. An original cause implies a creator, sentient or otherwise.

    The insistence that the Buddha must have arrived at his enlightenment on his own is a fairly typical example of grasping to self—the precise form of self-grasping that acts as an obstacle to hearing the Dharma.

  17. Broken Yogi
    Broken Yogi August 23, 2012 at 11:31 am |

    All resorts to authority are illegitimate.

    The efficacy of the Buddha’s teachings, and of any Buddhist teacher’s work, rests entirely upon their own value to those who use them. If that value is found without authority, lineage, or accredition, it’s just as valid as any with these. And having these credits does not in any way assure the value of a teaching or teacher. Just as often these are masks used to create a facade of value where the reality is much poorer.

  18. boubi
    boubi August 23, 2012 at 3:00 pm |

    “The notion that there has to be some original cause is in fact one of the arguments that the Buddha rejected…”

    “… insistence that the Buddha must have arrived at his enlightenment on his own … acts as an obstacle to hearing the Dharma.”

    So no original cause BUT you cannot on your own.

    These seem to me as two fundamentally contradictory statements.

    I believe that Lord Newton found Gravity’s Law on his own but it isn’t an obstacle for me to hear His Law.

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