Friday, February 24, 2012

Beating the drum

If you've been reading this blog, you'll know that while I'm keen on meditation, I'm also aware that there have been problems in American Buddhist organizations, and especially in Zen groups in which there isn't a sufficient level of oversight or criticism of the head teacher of master.  You'll also know that I've had my doubts about John Tarrant, the head teacher of Pacific Zen Institute, which is the larger organization of which my smaller sitting group, Wind in Grass Sangha, is a chapter.  I found out online that John has been accused of misconduct - 'professional, sexual, and organizational', to use the words of Nelson Foster, a rival and critic - and so have talked to a few senior members of the organization to hear their version of events.  I also talked to my main teacher, David Weinstein, about the same topic.

All these sources admitted that John had made errors of judgment in the past - usually involving dating students - but they all ultimately defended him, saying that none of his mistakes could be considered harmful.  But since I found it hard to find out the truth about what had gone on in the past, and since my real concern was not that John had dated students but that he had refused to be accountable to them or to his own teacher Robert Aitken, I decided to talk to him myself about what had happened.  Of course, I appreciated that it was hardly a gentle act to dredge up someone's sexual past, and I felt myself that it was no easy one, since I'm relatively new to Zen and teachers are treated with some deference.  Yet at the same time my mind was clear: if John answered my questions reasonably, or gave reasons why he could not answer them, I would continue to go on PZI retreats; if he reacted unreasonably, I could be sure that I didn't want to associate with him further.

Besides the occasional one-day event, I only ever see John at retreats in Santa Rosa, and I felt asking him about the issues I had on my mind during dokusan - a kind of one-on-one interview with a teacher somewhat reminiscent of confession - would be the natural thing.  I felt nervous going into the interview room, but reassured myself by reflecting that John had extensive experience both as a meditator and a teacher; I also knew that other, older students had aired similar issues with him before.  When I went in, he asked me how things had been going, in his usual, friendly enough manner.  I told him there was something I wanted to talk to him about, and that I felt very much at home at WiG, had learned a lot from his talks, and had enjoyed my previous retreats.

I then tried to put what I was about to ask in context, by saying that when I'd decided to take refuge I'd felt the need to better inform myself about American Zen, and had found out about the serious abuses committed by teachers such as Richard Baker and Dennis Merzel.  On reflection, this may have been a mistake - whereas I'd meant to make my questions look understandable by putting them in the context of my learning about misdemeanours by other teachers, I think John took me to be accusing him flat out of having been up to the same kind of thing.  Although, come to that, John's first response to what I'd been saying was to say that Dick and Genpo were friends of his, and that 90% of the things people had said about them online weren't true.  I found this surprising, since it was my understanding that Baker and Merzel had both admitted that they had been involved in adulterous affairs.

I also told him that I'd been writing a blog in which I'd raised some of these issues, which seemed to make him angry.  He said that people criticizing each other on the internet was just like two 12-year-olds playing first person shooter games, or like a food-fight in a meal hall, and added that he didn't see a point in responding to it.  This appears to have been his position all along - not to respond to criticisms at all, and to retain a dignified silence.  And if you spend any amount of time looking at the unseemly controversy surrounding Merzel, for example, you can see where he's coming from.  At the same time, I think it's also important to see that many of the people criticizing teachers and passing on information about them are acting with some sort of integrity: they're trying to encourage transparency, or accountability, or hold true to the precept against lying.  But when I put this to John, he again reacted angrily, saying that all critics were motivated by spite or envy. 

This began a new phase of our interview, in which he questioned why I'd decided to take the precepts in the first place.  This seemed to me to be a strange thing for a Buddhist teacher to be doing, on the face of it, although I can understand that someone might be taking the precepts for the wrong reasons.  He asked me whether I even knew why I was taking them.  When I responded, 'I think so', he immediately contradicted me, saying 'No, you don't'.  Now, I can accept that embracing 'not knowing' (as the koan puts it), and not being sure about our own mental stories can sometimes be a healthy thing, allowing us to release our hold on certain obsessions and delusions.  But it did strike me as odd that while I didn't seem to have permission to make even tentative statements about my own mental states, John allowed himself to make very confident pronouncements on my mental states.  It seemed like an element of Zen psychology was being used as a way of shutting me up.

His main gripe about the way I seemed to be approaching the precepts was that I was doing so in a moralizing way.  When I asked him if he thought the precepts weren't about morality, he said that they were to some extent, but that he didn't want to be in a community where people were policing each other.  And I can certainly see the dangers of becoming a religious prig.  At the same time, is there anything wrong with members of a community supporting themselves in sticking to the key elements of a practice they've all freely committed to?  I suppose I do take the precepts to be concerned above all with morality, which isn't to say that you have to be perfect to take them, just that you should make an honest effort to abide by them.  But maybe there is room for reasonable agreement on that point.

By the last ten minutes or so of the interview he had calmed down considerably.  He asked me why I'd begun practising in the first place, and I told him that it was because of chronic pain and anxiety.  (Earlier, he'd said, 'Look at you, you're anxious', as a way of backing up his claim that all my concerns were reducible to paranoia; I'd replied, 'I know - that's partly why I'm here'.)  After this, he became more sympathetic, and we settled back into what I take to be the usual pattern of his interviews with students, where he dispenses advice to the troubled.  At one point he even said that I could ask about whatever I wanted and criticize whatever I wanted, though since he'd spent the first two thirds of the interview trying to convince me my concerns were entirely a result of paranoia and priggishness, I found it hard to take this as sincere.

At the end of the interview I repeated what I'd said at the beginning, just to make sure he heard it - that I thought PZI was wonderful in lots of ways, and that I was grateful for his teaching.  I shook his hand, as warmly as I could (admittedly not Zen practice, but a sincere effort on my part), and he banged his drum, signalling the next person should come in (which seemed brusque, but is the standard way of ending dokusan).  I went back to the meditation hall and sat for one period or two - I'm not sure - with thoughts racing around in my mind.  I realized that I wasn't going to get much meditating done in my emotional state, so I asked an older member of WiG to come take a stroll with me outside.  When I told him I'd approached John and that he'd reacted angrily, his reaction was, 'Shit!  Shit!  Fuck!  Christ!' and that John's reaction was a matter of personal disappointment to him.

He also defended John, saying that it was sesshin, which involved putting fifty people together and limiting the amount of time they slept (to seven hours a night or less).  (I've heard this excuse before for blow-ups on retreat, but if the traditional way of doing things does encourage mindfulness and compassion, why the occasional explosions?  And if it doesn't, why not change it?)  He reminded me that John spent hours at a time working with people in physical pain or psychological anguish, paid only by donation, and suggested that for all his failings, John had probably done more good than harm.  And I agreed with this - but failed to see why we shouldn't encourage him to reduce the harm.  I was also told that someone had once characterized John's leadership style as recalling a maxim of British diplomacy in the imperial period - 'never explain, never apologize'.

My older friend urged me to try to talk to David again before I left.  I was snuck into David's interview room just as the bell went for dinner.  David suggested that John hadn't heard all the positive things I had to say about PZI, but I insisted that I'd made the point doubly clear.  He also said that the issue I'd raised was a sore spot for John, since he'd been criticized for it so much in the past.  And I definitely understood that, while failing to see how accusing me of being delusional constituted a mature way of reacting to my concerns, whatever the soreness.  David said he'd talk to John about our interview, and that he'd look forward to see how things unravelled.  I told him I hadn't wanted the interview to go badly.  He said, 'I know that, but John may not, because he doesn't know you, and so he also doesn't understand how what you did was courageous.'  I left that night, my mind as clear as day.