Sunday, February 24, 2013

Showing spine

I have a friend in England who occasionally sends me links to articles about meditation.  They're usually more or less enthusiastic explorations of meditation or mindfulness.  But a couple of weeks ago he sent me the recent New York Times piece about allegations of sexual harassment against Zen teacher Joshu Sasaki.

It's all very sad.  A few months ago, the same friend sent me a link to Sasaki's Mt. Baldy training center.  I spent a few minutes on the site and distinctly remember thinking, 'How nice, an old-style Zen center without any sign of untoward behaviour or controversy'.  I sent an email back saying, 'Looks like a good place to do koan work'.

That judgment will have to be revised now.  It seems that the kind of koan work that went on at Mt. Baldy involved women being encouraged to expose their breasts to the teacher as a way of 'showing' the answer.  It also seems to have involved a lot of unwelcome groping, and the occasional tea-time at which the Zen master would do his best to seduce his students.

My own view of this is clear: Sasaki should be stripped of his status as a roshi and should never again be allowed to teach.  More generally, Buddhist teachers who fail to live up to the few simple rules that govern their conduct - the norms that we apply to teachers of any sort in our society, as well as the basic ethical tenets of their own religion - should no longer act as teachers (at least for a significant period of time).

Western Buddhist communities need to apply these rules strictly for a number of reasons.  We need to send a clear signal to those who might be interested in Buddhism that sexual harassment and abuse will never be tolerated.  We need to affirm in a public way that everyone in our communities, from the most experienced practitioner to the complete beginner, partakes of a fundamental equality and is bound by the same rules.  And we need to make it clear to those in authority that abuse of this sort will not be taken lightly, so that it is less likely to happen again - or, at least, so that it happens less frequently in the future.

This is, of course, not the first case of a Zen teacher abusing his authority for sexual gain.  Part of what upsets me about the Sasaki case is that it is the latest in a long line of such cases.  And nobody ever seems to learn from the past.  Each time this happens we are told that next time, things will be different.  More people are going to speak out earlier.  Nobody is going to be hoodwinked by a charismatic teacher ever again.  From now on, people will go into things with their eyes open.

Then the next scandal breaks, often revealing (as in Sasaki's case) that abuses had been going on for decades.  That nobody had been brave enough to speak out against them (or only a few people, who were ignored or condemned by the community at large).  That the master's inner coterie had done everything they could to sweep the allegations under the carpet.  And that people calling themselves Buddhists had, on the whole, preferred perpetual forgiveness of the master to standing up for the rights of their fellow students.

If everyone agreed on what needed to be done, that would be one thing.  If everyone agreed that what we need to do is ensure that our religious institutions are accountable and transparent, then we could start the conversation about how exactly we might go about doing that.  Instead, as a glance at any online Zen forum will tell you, a lot of people think that we should avoid being too harsh, or judgmental, or hung-up on sex, or disrespectful of the tradition, or whatever.  A lot of these people have the best of intentions, but it's worth pointing out why their arguments won't wash.

The first argument I've seen is that we shouldn't take action against teachers like Sasaki since to do so would be unkind.  In other words, it would violate one of the core teaching of Buddhism, that we should be compassionate.  Some people even claim that whistle-blowers like Eshu Martin - who broke the story of Sasaki's abuses with a letter to Sweeping Zen - are guilty of triumphalism, or showboating, or of profiting from others' suffering.  In any case, stripping an 105-year-old priest of his dignity can hardly be seen as the kind of acts Buddhist should be advocating.

The problem with this argument is that we can all agree to be kind, while disagreeing about what being kind should consist in.  It's arguable that if we take into consideration everyone that might be impacted by this - including potential future victims of harassment - the kindest thing to do is to impose strict sanctions on teachers who do wrong.  And while it's good to remind ourselves that showboating doesn't help, the actions of whistle-blowers can also easily be interpreted as acts of kindness, since the intention behind them is often to reduce future harm.

The second argument is a more sophisticated, more Zen and less Buddhist, version of the first.  It is that we should avoid being judgmental of others, and that we should have a certain detachment from the judgments our minds often make.  But it seems impossible to avoid judging altogether.  In Sasaki's case, not taking any action would constitute a judgment just as much as taking robust action would.  Given that we're all going to judge the situation in various ways, we need some way of arbitrating among judgments.  So it's probably better to focus on whether a given judgment is accurate than to try to get rid of judging altogether.

The Zen recommendation to keep your thoughts at a certain distance is often a helpful one, in that it can prevent us from taking our own upset for a disorder in the world.  But it's important to realize that never endorsing any of your own thoughts leads to an infinite regress.  Radical doubt is simply impossible, because the thought 'I should never believe any thought I have' leads to paradox.  People who say 'we should not judge at all' are caught in a bind; if we shouldn't judge anything, why should we judge what they say to be true?  The healthy way of applying the original recommendation is to remember to take some time to gain some perspective on each thought as it arises.  Eventually, though, you will have to decide one way or the other. 

There's another reason that it's perfectly permissible to judge teachers like Sasaki by certain ethical standards.  This is that they themselves have chosen to take certain vows and precepts as Buddhists and as Buddhist teachers.  It's not like we're imposing some entirely foreign system of values on them that they never signed up to or saw coming.  All Zen students who take refuge agree to the ten Boddhisattva precepts, among which is the precept against sexual immorality.  Zen teachers are obviously bound by these precepts too - indeed, as teachers, we should expect them to be especially committed to them.  And though ideas of what constitutes sexual immorality thankfully change over time, what Sasaki was up to clearly fits the bill.

This helps with a third common argument, that we in the West are too hung up on sex.  Really (the argument goes) there's nothing intrinsically wrong about sex; and even if there were, the way we are reacting to the Sasaki scandal is exaggerated.  In the normal course of things, teachers will sometimes have sex with students, and there's no reason for us to freak out about it.  (This seems to be Brad Warner's view, though he is careful to draw a line between consensual sex between students and teachers and Sasaki's non-consensual groping.)

I don't want to revisit the issue of why consensual student-teacher sex is unacceptable, except to remind everyone that power differentials within Zen groups is often considerable.  But I will say two things.  The first is that in the case of Sasaki, it's clear that the vast majority of his groping was done without the consent of the women involved.  You don't have to be prudish about sex to see why this is wrong.  All you have to understand is that sexual choice is an important right, and that this right was violated by Sasaki's actions.

The second thing I'll say is that the idea that we should be careful about sex is not simply a Western idea.  It is present in many Eastern belief-systems too.  One of these is Buddhism.  Both the ten Mahayana precepts and the five Theravada ones warn us to avoid sexual immorality.  Of course, we can disagree about what sexual immorality is, and whether a particular person has committed it.  But the idea that we are introducing Western concerns about sex into Buddhism is a non-starter: the concerns about sex were already there.

The final argument I want to confront is that stripping Sasaki of his authority as a teacher would be an affront to his ancient lineage.  Now, I personally am moving towards the conclusion that we shouldn't have spiritual teachers at all: the potential for abuse is just too great.  The claims of lineages seem especially spurious: even if were true that there were chains of teachers reaching all the way back to the Buddha, I still wouldn't see why that would necessarily make people at the end of those chains better teachers.

But I recognize that there are lots of good people who value lineages.  I can certainly appreciate the intangible and yet real value of being part of an ancient tradition.  And I have met and worked with teachers who had a lot of worthwhile things to say.  Even if we grant that lineages should play a role, though, we might still want to take action to make teachers accountable.  Indeed, people who value lineages should arguably be the most active in disciplining renegade teachers, since their transgressions visibly dishonour the traditions that those teachers claim to be part of.  Besides, if we truly believe that the precepts reduce suffering, helping teachers to abide by them is a gentle act.

The bottom line in all of this is that we need to remain level-headed about meditation and meditation teachers.  If a teacher in a high school sleeps with a student, he ceases to be a teacher.  If a doctor fails to live up to a code of medical practice, he ceases to be a doctor.  But whenever a Zen teacher is caught abusing his position for sex, and (moreover) contravening a clear ethical code he himself has signed up to and continually advocates, there is always a chorus of voices saying that no practical measures should be taken.  Why?

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The mousetrap

Yesterday we decided to do some cleaning.  We at Wind in Grass have been talking about this for some time, and now we've finally gotten around to it.

We meet every week in a space owned by the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House.  The main building, designed by Julia Morgan, has several different rooms which always seem to be in use and which get a corresponding amount of upkeep.

The space we use is a kind of annex to the main building, except that it's actually entirely separate, and you can't get to one from the other.  It also fronts onto a different street, so to get to us from the main building you have to walk around the corner and the down some steps.

That will get you onto Carolina, a street which plunges sharply downwards.  From the top you get a marvelous view of the skyscrapers downtown and the Bay Bridge and the flashing Coca-Cola sign.  To find us you have to break your downward plunge and take a sharp left into a little entranceway.

I love everything about our location, even though the first couple of times I tried to find the group I walked right by it.  During one-days you can take food outside and eat it on the street and look out over the city like you were sitting on the grassy slope of a mountain.  A few times I've gotten a lift downhill on Michael's scooter -  a moment of pure experience if there ever was one.

I also love the space itself.  It is down to earth, unpretentious, simple.  It is basically a large rectangular room with four pillars near the center.   In one corner there is a bathroom and on the far side there is a small antechamber leading to a slightly larger storage area.  We have dokusan in the antechamber.  It's good to practice with humility and simplicity, and easy to do so in a place like this.

On the other hand, those wooden floorboards are pretty rough, and it's not uncommon for people to get splinters in their feet while doing walking meditation.  I like it to think it keeps us awake, but it's probably not the best introduction to kinhin for newcomers.  The place looks generally dilapidated.

So we've finally decided to try to renovate it a little.  Yesterday was the first scheduled day of work practice.  We spent most of it clearing out the storage area.  Apparently nobody had done any kind of sorting of the stuff in there since the 1970s.  The result was a sort of archaeology.

The top layer was our stuff: a few large crates containing stuff for the tea, stuff for the altar, and two big piles of mats and cushions.  The next layer down contained pictures and magazines and children's art projects from the 90s and 80s.  The next two layers, Vietnam War posters and JFK campaign material.

After that things started to get ugly.  At the lowest level the stacks of magazines started to dissolve into amorphous lumps of pulp.  If you tried to pick a pile up half of it would come away in your hands.  By this point you could see the ancient mouse-traps and the scatter of rat-droppings on the floor.

We pulled everything out and placed it into three piles: keep, throw, maybe.  Miscellanea in the throw category included: a set of leather-bound volumes of the complete works of classic authors; a series of large plates for stamping pre-computer spreadsheets into being; milk cartons swilling mysterious liquids.  

The keep pile included an old notebook in which someone had copied hundreds of passages of poetry and philosophy.  I was going to throw it when Marika saved it for our liturgy.  The maybe pile is still there: it is how objects that are too awkward to be carted to the dump have so far avoided destruction.  There are also some pictures nobody wants but were too nicely framed to throw away.

It was all much worse than I had thought.  Every month I've gone into the antechamber to meet with David, who sits right in front of the door to the storage area, blithely unaware of the rat-droppings carpeting the room behind him.

And every week we've sat in the main room practicing mindfulness, completely ignorant of the piles of rotting newsprint festering on the other side of the wall.  There was all this trash right there, just beyond a space we felt so sure of.  The hidden stuff was going to make itself felt at some point, so it's a good thing we dealt with it sooner rather than later.