Before my rant, I want to officially announce our upcoming Zen retreat at Mt. Baldy Zen Center April 26-28, 2013. You can sign up here. Yes this is the very place where Joshu Sasaki allegedly fondled so many! But if you want to be fondled by me it will cost you $175 extra, I’m afraid. (I’m here till Tuesday! Don’t forget to tip your bartenders!)
My friend Christine posted this response to my previous blog post:
Hey Brad. So here’s one problem with your argument: it assumes that we can’t hold ordinary, non-perfect, unenlightened people to high standards of common decency and non-abusive behavior. Sure, zen teachers aren’t perfect. But abuse, harassment and unethical conduct is abhorrent in any situation from anyone. This is especially true for people in positions of authority (including ordinary people like professors, doctors, police officers, child caregivers, managers in the workplace and zen teachers). So it seems to me that while they may be provocative, your remarks aren’t really hardcore or subversive or challenging to the status quo. That “old horn dogs” are just boys being boys is the same argument that has justified sexual harassment and violence for ages. It’s the patriarchal party line no matter how you say it. And it’s harmful.
I was scratching my head trying to figure out why I came off sounding like I was saying that “we can’t hold ordinary, non-perfect, unenlightened people to high standards of common decency and non-abusive behavior.” Because I do not believe that at all. Nor do I think Sasaki’s actions are merely just a case of “boys being boys.” It sounds like it goes way beyond that if all the accusations are true, and Rinzai-ji doesn’t seem to be denying them. It appears to have been a whole interlocking system of really reprehensible behavior on the part of a great number of people that went on for a really long time. And that is not good.
All I can think of that might have made my friend believe I was saying this was that the sentence “I suggested that it was natural to expect non-celibate Buddhist teachers to have consensual sexual relations with their so-called ‘congregants’” appears in an article which also talks about Sasaki’s actions. And many are saying that Sasaki’s so-called “victims” gave their consent. So it might appear that when I said “consensual sexual relations with congregants” some people might have thought I was referring to Sasaki’s actions. I was not.
I was referring to what I talked about in an earlier article called “Terrible Nicknames to Earn.” In case you don’t want to follow the link, it’s about what happens if, for example, a single, non-celibate Zen teacher working, for example, in a remote town with a small group of fellow meditators happens to fall in love with some member of that group. If we start equating the very high-profile and very anomalous case of Sasaki Roshi with the much more common cases of people simply falling in love in unusual and difficult circumstances we’re going way too far.
I think what’s missing from a lot of the discussion about this topic is how extremely unusual the Sasaki case and others like it are. I go to a lot of Zen places all around the world to give talks. Most of them are tiny, like the hypothetical place I described above and referred to in an unstated way in that other article. They’re often run out of someone’s house and attract less than twenty people on ordinary days, sometimes far less. They invite me because I can bring in a lot of people who never would show up otherwise. So suddenly there are, like, forty-five people jammed into their tiny living room, or they rent out the local VFW hall and get a hundred.
Rinzai-ji, San Francisco Zen Center, whatever Genpo Roshi calls his thing, and the other Zen places where most (perhaps all) of these sex abuse cases have come up are like mega-churches, at least by Zen standards. They’re much, much bigger, and therefore highly unusual. Some have multiple locations in multiple states or even other countries. I often wonder if it’s the bigness of the places more than anything specifically about Zen as such that causes much of this kind of weirdness.
But look at me, just to take one far more typical example. I can count on one hand the number of times since 2005 when I started holding weekly zazen meetings in Santa Monica that more than twenty people have shown up. And I’d still have three fingers left over. That’s enough fingers left over to fondle someone with! (That’s a JOKE! Calm down!)
What I’m saying is that the scale is vastly different, which means everything else is vastly different.
But let’s change the subject back to her other point, that of holding Zen teachers to high standards. Yes. I think we ought to do that. The problem is when people start believing “Zen Masters” are quasi-divine beings and thus hold them up to standards so high that nobody in the world could ever hope to live up to them. It doesn’t help when you’ve got guys running around pretending to be so divine that merely being in their presence will get you enlightened. That’s one of the reasons I complain about those knuckleheads so often.
One time I visited a small Zen center where a sex scandal had recently happened. I was told that the sexual improprieties of their former leader “threatened to tear apart” the whole place. So I asked what happened. Turns out the ex-leader of the center, who was married, had an affair with someone who came to the center, who was also married. So I’m kind of going, “OK. And…”
And nothing! Alright, there was one more thing. Turns out the couple hid their affair for a while until it became too hard to hide. Like people do when they’re having affairs. But that was it! And I’m kind of like, “That is enough to tear apart this whole community of meditaors?” Maybe I’m weird. But it made no sense to me at all.
Look. One likes to believe that a so-called “Zen Master” would never cheat on his wife or her husband or do anything else that anyone could find fault with. But you know what? “Zen Masters” or not, we’re all just over-developed apes. Shit happens. That doesn’t make it OK. It’s still bad. That doesn’t excuse it. But excuses aren’t necessary. Moving on is what’s necessary.
There is a Truth of the Universe and it can be known by ordinary people, and it can help them tremendously. But it doesn’t change the people who know it from being over-developed apes into angels. That can’t happen. Sorry. It generally makes them better than they were before, though. And that’s important.
Often I think (and this’ll get me in trouble, but I’m on a roll) that some of this “tear the center apart” kind of stuff is just an excuse to avoid practice. The Master is not perfect! So there is no point in practice! Yay! I can quit now! I suspect this because I had these thoughts myself when I started learning how human my teachers really were.
But I didn’t quit. And you can’t quit either. Somewhere hidden in the darkest depths you know that.
I’m not sure why I’m even posting a link to my donations page after that one.