Saturday, December 10, 2011

Roshi romances

This post will also be about sex, though it's also about domination (so don't be put off).  Sometime after I started going to Wind in Grass every week, I started looking around online at other Zen places in San Francisco.  Obviously the first one to show up in search results was the San Francisco Zen Center.  It claims to have been the first Buddhist temple of any denomination outside of Asia, and today it must be one of the largest Zen communities in the Western world.  I've only recently visited the place, and I'll have other more positive things to say about it in other posts (as well as more negative things, I'm afraid).  But for now I want to tell you about a story that caught my eye virtually as soon as I started looking into the history of the place.

The first head of the center was a Japanese emigr√©, Shunryu Suzuki, who's famous for the concept of 'beginner's mind' that provided the name for this blog.  Nobody seems to have anything bad to say about him.  The first American abbot at the center was a man called Richard Baker; he succeeded Suzuki.  Baker was by most accounts a charismatic and dynamic figure; he built up the Zen Center's property holdings, increased the size of the community, and hobnobbed with local bigwigs, like erstwhile (and current) California governor Jerry Brown.  But it later emerged that among the extracurricular activities was the energetic pursuit of a number of affairs with his students, including a woman who happened to be married to one of the center's main benefactors.  All of this is covered in detail in Michael Downing's 2002 book Shoes outside the Door.

Baker was forced to resign in 1984, but you might supect that the episode had a lot to do with a bunch of hippies in the 60s and 70s entering into authority relations and spiritual practices with naive optimism rather than cautious skepticism.  But people are more realistic now, and that kind of sex scandal must now be in the past, right?  Wrong, unfortunately.  Just this year, in February, Dennis Merzel admitted to three adulterous affairs with students and announced that he'd be disrobing as a Zen teacher (that's the term for it, though it's an unfortunate one in the context).  After a number of American Zen teachers issued a statement calling for him to stop teaching, he agreed, only to change his mind shortly afterwards.  No longer part of Zen, he now teaches his own brand of meditation.

And the evidence that sexual affairs involving Buddhist teachers and students is not just anecdotal.  Jack Kornfield published a study a few decades ago now in which he surveyed 54 Bud­dhist, Hindu and Jain teachers in the United States.  According to their responses to his brief questionnaire, only 15 observed celibacy.  34 out of the 39 others admitted that they'd had sex with students on one or more occasions.  The particular predilection teachers appear to have for the bodies of their students appears to cross demoninational boundaries (with Tibetan teachers performing particuarly strongly), as well as differences in sexual orientation.  The only factor that appears significantly to lower the likelihood that a teacher will commit sexual improprieties is being female. 

For a lot of my friends, a consensual relationship between a teacher and a student isn't a big deal.  As they point out, it happens all the time, at various sorts of educational institution.  It's easy to understand the dynamic and the temptation, and also easy to see that you can be overly cynical, given that some of these relationships actually lead to loving partnerships.  I accept that valuable relationships sometimes do develop in this way, but I'm skeptical about how often they do, particularly in view of the disparities in power written into every interaction between teachers and students.  I'm not saying that Zen teachers should all be celibate; the fact that most of them in America don't pretend they're not sexually active is a healthy thing.  But I don't really understand why guys who are meant to be all spiritually complete have to turn to their students for sex when they could presumably just log onto a dating website.

It's true that nobody's perfect, and that sexual transgressions don't necessarily invalidate a person's teaching or erase all the good they may have done by introducing others to meditation.  This is one of the reasons I'm still part of the PZI community, even though I've heard from reliable sources that the group's founder John Tarrant had a fling with one former student (when they were both single), and even though I know that he's now in a relationship with another (they seem open, though not in-your-face, about it).  John's an insightful speaker and an open-minded organizer, and I'm happy to go on retreats led by him and listen to his talks while having David Weinstein as my main teacher.  At the same time, I think I have a duty to be open about what I've learned so that others can make up their own minds.

Scott Edelstein's new book Sex and the Spiritual Teacher deals firmly with the excuses that teachers guilty of transgressions often have recourse to, but also recognizes that sexually transgressive teachers may nonetheless have much of value to say.  He suggests a simple principle: rather than dismissing wayward teachers wholsesale, we should allow them to continue to do good (by lecturing, for example), but take steps to stop them doing harm (by limiting one-to-one meetings with students, say).  He also recommends that spiritual communities have clear codes of ethics and behaviour, and that they have proper oversight by independent boards.  I don't think PZI currently has a code of ethics, and though it has a board of directors, that board is headed by our main teacher.  I have to admit that I'd be happier if things were arranged differently.  In the meantime, this is my shot at right speech.

1 comment:

  1. I have been corresponding on the subject of Zen teachers and sex with a relative of mine, who is a scholar of Asian religions. With his permission, I copy our exhange here in the hope that other may find it informative.

    JMS: 'I agree that the many Zen Center sex scandals are off-putting. It's tempting to shrug these off by attributing it to a) human weakness; b) male weakness; c) corruption of those in power; and/or d) the hypocrisy of religious leaders (cf. the Catholic Church), but I do think that there is something about Zen's antinomian character (or pretensions) that leads to this sort of behavior -- and it's paralleled by the appalling lack of ethical/political standards by most Zen figures during Japan's military period.

    At the same time, I also think this 'radical' aspect of Chan/Zen can be channelled in positive directions. I'm researching a Soto Zen priest named Uchiyama Gudo, who developed an 'anarcho-communist' Zen, which he put to use against the emerging ultranationalism and imperialism of the late Meiji period (he was eventually disowned by the Soto sect and executed by the state as a 'traitor'). You may also be aware of Ikkyu-Sojun, the 15th c. Rinzai monk who embraced a form of Red Thread Zen that openly embraced sexuality, but was also a fierce critic of the pretensions and hypocrisy of the institutional leaders of his day (and never, as far as I know, seduced his own students).'

    JCK: 'I think b) male weakness may actually have something to do with it. In Scott Edelstein's recent book he estimates that something like 20% of American male Buddhist teachers have had sex with their students, but only 5% of female teachers. Which is yet another reason for having more female teachers (at least in America, where this is possible).

    I think c) corruption of those in power, also has a lot of explanatory force, if we make it 'corruption of those in power by power itself'. It's interesting that most of the scandals seem to happen with Tibetan/Vajrayana and Chan/Zen teachers, where the authority relation is especially strong. But these authority relations may just be a product of the societies these traditions developed in, which presents us with the possibility that the authority structures can be taken away without any harm being done to the actual practices.

    The anarcho-communist Zen guy sounds very interesting. I don't know about Red Thread Zen or Tantric Buddhism, since I worry that the emphasis may slip onto the sex rather than the awareness, but I will say that I'm a bit more comfortable in a lay Sanbo Kyodan lineage like the Harada/ Yasutani people I'm currently with in the Pacific Zen Institute. I don't see why teachers and priests shouldn't marry, though maybe that's just residual Anglicanism.'

    JMS: 'You're quite right about the element of power; I was thinking of this as Lord Acton's general principle, but it is certainly true, as you note, that Vajrayana and Chan/Zen traditions tend to emphasize authority more than most other Buddhist sects -- and some of this, certainly the Chan/Zen part -- can be attributed to East Asian/ Confucian concepts, which had a deep impact on Buddhism in China, Korea and Japan.'