I find it odd that I am sitting here at my kitchen table on a sunny Wednesday morning in Los Angeles working very hard to compose a response to something that, to me, hardly even merits a casual glance.
A guy who calls himself Ryushin Sensei has stepped down as abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery because he was having an extra-marital affair. The news is on the Lion’s Roar website if you want to read it. My initial response to this story, when people started forwarding it to me on Facebook and what-not was, fine, whatever. I don’t know this Ryushin Sensei fellow or his wife and I don’t know whoever he was having an affair with. I’m not part of their sangha. It’s really none of my business.
Then I started seeing this news get shared and commented on and shared again and commented on some more… That’s when I started trying to figure out if I could understand what the fuss was about.
We have a statement by someone who calls him or herself Shugen Sensei, who carries the title “head of the Mountains and Rivers Order” who says, “Ryushin’s infidelity — his betrayal of… his intimate partner, and thus his marriage and monastic vows — is a most serious breach for a person in a position of spiritual and ethical authority and leadership.”
And we have a statement by Ryushin Sensei in which he says, “Over the last six months, I formed an intimate relationship with someone outside our sangha, betraying Hojin [Ryushin Sensei’s partner], not being honest and forthright with her, and breaking our spiritual union vows and ending our marriage… These actions are also a betrayal of your trust in me.”
Maybe I’m the weirdo here. Maybe I’m just wired differently from nearly everybody else. I will accept that as a possibility.
Yet I am not certain I can understand what a “position of spiritual and ethical authority and leadership” actually is. Why is it we need to be lead by people in positions of authority when it comes to spirituality and ethics? Why is this stated in such a way that it appears to be beyond questioning?
I’ll see if I can explain a little of my own reaction. To pick just one item, even in spite of Ryushin’s comments, I don’t see any reason to be completely certain this wasn’t a case in which he and his partner had an open relationship which was discovered by the members of the community and found to be unacceptable to them. It would not be the first time someone has lied about the nature of their sexual relationships in order to save the myth of the heteronormative monogamy. For that reason among many others, I don’t feel any need to rush to conclusions.
I do see a few things going on here that I’m not sure too many others are seeing. For one thing, demanding Ryushin Sensei to step down from his position is a very Christian and very American response. It is impossible for me to imagine a married Japanese temple abbot being asked to step down from his post following the discovery of an extra-marital affair.
I am not saying the Japanese are right and the Americans are wrong. But to me, it’s sort of like when there was all that furor over Bill Clinton getting a blow job from his intern. Everyone in the United States was ripping their own hair out. I was in Japan when that was going on and my friends over there found the American reaction mostly weird and funny. Like that, this is also a culturally based reaction. I think it’s useful to understand that.
I get that it’s probably best for Mr. Ryushin to step down from his post. It’s probably even best for this Shugen person to demand he do that. However, this is not because of some Universal Truth out there somewhere in the vastness of space that says that someone who commits adultery cannot be trusted to teach people how to sit and stare at walls or to handle the administrative duties necessary to keep a Zen center running. Nor is it best because someone who has committed adultery can never counsel people about the difficulties that occur in their practice. That would be absurd.
It’s best because so many people are freaking the fuck out and it’s good to try to get people to stop freaking the fuck out – although clearly people are still freaking the fuck out anyway. Personally, if you want me to freak out over something, you’re gonna have to give me a more compelling reason than this.
If I had found out one of my teachers had had an extra-marital affair I can’t imagine it would bother me even a tenth as much as this news seems to be bothering people who didn’t even know anyone involved. It would be like finding out my guitar teacher had an affair. Fine. Now show me how to do that thing Jimi Hendrix does with the wah-wah pedal in the middle of Voodoo Child (Slight Return). It’s difficult for me to see the relevance.
I guess maybe the problem is ethics. A Zen teacher is supposed to be someone who has taken a vow to uphold a certain ethical code. This same set of vows is generally also taken by that teacher’s students as well. In fact, it is a common practice at Zen temples for everyone to gather once a month and publicly re-take those vows as a group – teachers and students all chant them in unison.
My best guess is that people are looking for someone to follow. They want to be lead. They want to be sheep following a shepherd, just like it says in the New Testament. A shepherd leadeth his sheep to lie down in green pastures. He scares away the wolves. He shows the sheep where the food and the water is and keeps them from going into dangerous places.
More importantly, the shepherd is a different kind of animal from the sheep. You wouldn’t want a fellow sheep to be your shepherd. And we certainly don’t want to have to be our own shepherds!
Perhaps my difficulty is that I have never seen things this way. I never saw my Zen teachers as shepherds whose duty it was to provide an example of moral perfection and to protect me from harm. I always saw them as fellow travelers on what was a difficult and dangerous journey. I figured they had just a little bit more understanding of the terrain than I did. But I never demanded that they be free of error or unable to make mistakes. Expecting anyone to be like that would be to believe in a kind of person that clearly does not exist. It would be stupid.
I get that a teacher is different from a student. But I tend to look at this from the literal meaning of that much beloved Japanese word sensei. The two Chinese characters used to spell that word are å…ˆç”Ÿ. The character å…ˆ means “previous” or “before.” The character ç”Ÿ means “born” or “alive.” A sensei is not a different sort of creature from you, she is a creature like you who has had more experience at whatever it is you’re trying to learn from her.
If you want to get your undergarments in a knot about things like this story, there’s not much I can do to stop you. I just thought I’d take a moment to express that there may be a different way to respond.
Someone sent me a link to the article upon which the Lion’s Roar pieced was based. It is here. Interestingly, there’s a lot in the original article about Ryushin Sensei’s introduction of shamanic practice and philosophy into his Zen activities and all the confusion and objections that brought about. Lion’s Roar completely omitted this aspect as if it was entirely irrelevant. Fascinating.
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Every Saturday at 9:30 am I lead zazen at the Veteran’s Memorial Complex located at 4117 Overland Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230. All are welcome!
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