Gorillas and Zen Masters

Gorilla Ohio TweetA few days ago (May 28, 2016) a little kid fell into a gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo. A 450 lb. (220 kg.) male silverback gorilla named Harambe dragged the kid around until zookeepers shot and killed the gorilla. Then the Internet went crazy.

Everybody has an opinion — about how the gorilla should have been spared, about how the parents should be punished, about how the gorilla was only playing with the kid, about how it’s an example of racism, about how we care about that gorilla but we don’t care about thousands of cows being killed, or care about the people in wherever there are people having a hard time… It just goes on and on and on.

A huge amount of the chatter is about what should have been done and what the folks posting the various articles and comments would have done if they’d have been the zookeepers, or if they’d have been the boy’s parents, or if they’d have been at the enclosure when it happened. So many action heroes.

It’s a depressingly familiar scenario that plays out on the World Wide Web whenever some tragedy happens.

The subject of the various Zen Master sex scandals comes up on a regular basis in my world. Invariably I am asked things like, “When (fill in the name of your favorite disgraced master) fondled his students, was he breaking the Buddhist Precepts?” This question is never asked in the spirit of genuine inquiry. It’s a challenge laid down to see if I’ll say what the questioner thinks is the right answer.

My usual answer is, “I wasn’t there. I don’t know.” This often leaves the questioner frothing at the mouth, accusing me of siding with the alleged molester and trying to excuse his bad behavior. Often this answer has them speculating that I’m advocating that Zen Masters are somehow above the law, that their privileged, “Enlightened” state allows them to do whatever they want. Sometimes their fevered imaginations create scenes in which I too am a molester, as a popular Zen website did a few years ago in an article they later removed.

To try and avoid some of these accusations, lately I’ve been adding, “But I think if I were to grope someone who came to me for Zen instruction against that person’s will, then I would be violating the Buddhist Precepts. That’s why I charge extra for groping.”

A lot of the chatter and the various open letters and suchlike I’ve seen coming out of the Buddhist community in the wake of these sorts of scandals strike me as not a whole bunch better than all those armchair zookeepers and armchair parents flapping their mouths about what they would have done if they’d been at the Cincinnati Zoo that day.

I have my own opinions on these scandals just like anyone else. And if you want to know, my opinions are more-or-less like those of the folks who enjoy getting out their laptops and sending them off to the world. One of the reasons I got into Zen in the first place was because I was shocked and outraged at the abuses of certain high profile Christian leaders. When I see that same crap happening in the Zen world I’m as disgusted as anyone else. Still, I was not there. And I don’t think my opinions on what I would have done had I been there have any real value.

Some folks in the Zen community speculate that the reason we have these problems is because, “the American Zen tradition does not yet have a central authorizing body capable of sanctioning and removing a harmful teacher,” to quote one of the more popular open letters on the subject.

The operative word in the quotation above is “yet.” The folks who signed the letter seem to believe that they could do a far better job running such a central authorizing body than other such central authorizing bodies like the Catholic Church have done. The same way as all those armchair zookeepers and parents could have done a much better job if only they’d been in charge of the situation at the Cincinnati Zoo.

But we were not there when all those abusive things happened, the same way none of those wanna-be gorilla keepers were at the Cincinnati Zoo that day. We don’t know what we would have done. We can’t.

Every situation is unique. It involves factors and nuances that nobody outside of the situation can ever know. Hell, it involves factors and nuances even those who were involved in the situation can never know. How many incidents in your own life can you look back upon and not really be sure why you behaved the way you did?

One of the most important aspects of the Buddhist Precepts is that they only ever apply to you, never to other people. Any time you ask whether someone else has violated the Precepts, you’re just speculating. You might as well ask whether there is a Dyson sphere orbiting Tabby’s Star.

Speculating about how to prevent similar tragedies from happening in the future may have some value. I’m sure the Cincinnati Zoo will beef up the barriers surrounding their animal enclosures and that’s a good thing. But when it comes to preventing human abuses things get trickier. You might end up doing what the USA’s Bureau of Homeland Security has been doing for the past 15 years, putting a huge amount of effort into trying to prevent a very specific type of terrorism that probably couldn’t happen again anyway.

Still, I think working on ways to prevent Zen centers from turning into sex cults is a good idea. Preventing them from turning into drug cults is also a good idea if you ask me, although I’ve been watching a few that seem to be going that direction and nobody seems overly concerned. Sex sells better than drugs, I suppose.

Anyway, I think it’s more important to educate students about how to spot abusers than to set up bureaucracies to punish abusers after the fact. When you refer to someone as a “student” there’s an unconscious tendency to see those people as children. But there aren’t a lot of children at our Zen centers, and anyhow nobody’s real worried about the few kids that are there. They seem, instead, to want to set up structures that can allow adult Zen students to behave like children and give over responsibility to some proposed parent-like central authorizing body rather than taking responsibility for themselves.

Most Zen teachers are not silverback gorillas. Most Zen students aren’t three year-old boys. Most Zen centers are not zoos. But lots and lots of members of the Buddhist community jabber about them just like they were.

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If you’re in Los Angeles, come see me at The Last Bookstore on June 2nd at 7:3o

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July 1, 2016 Cleveland, Ohio Zero Defex at Now That’s Class!

July 4, 2016 Cleveland, Ohio Zero Defex TBA

July 8, 2016 Seattle, Washington EastWest Bookshop 7:30pm Talk & Book Signing

July 9, 2016 Seattle, Washington EastWest Bookshop 10am-3pm Workshop

September 10-11, 2016 Belfast, Northern Ireland 2-Day Retreat

September 14, 2016 Belfast, Northern Ireland Zazen and Discussion

September 16-17, 2016 Dublin, Ireland 3-Day Retreat

September 22-25, 2016 Hebden Bridge, England, 4-Day Retreat

September 27, 2016 – Wimbledon, London, England – Talk and Q&A

September 29-October 2, 2016 Helsinki, Finland, 4-Day Retreat

October 3, 2016 Turku, Finland, Talk at the University

October 4-5, Stockholm, Sweden, Talk and 1-Day-Retreat

October 7, 2016 Berlin, Germany Zenlab

October 14, 2016 Munich, Germany, Lecture

October 15-16, 2016 Munich, Germany, 2-Day Retreat

October 23-28, 2016 Benediktushof Meditation Centrum (near Würzburg, Germany) 5-Day Retreat



Every Monday at 8pm there’s zazen at Silverlake Yoga Studio 2 located at 2810 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Beginners only!

Every Saturday at 10:00 am (NEW TIME!) there’s zazen at the Veteran’s Memorial Complex located at 4117 Overland Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230. Beginners only!

These on-going events happen every week even if I am away from Los Angeles. Plenty more info is available on the Dogen Sangha Los Angeles website, dsla.info

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