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Barbara O'Brien

More on Yin, Yang, and Zen

By December 6, 2012

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To recap the last post -- the recurrent revelations about sexual predation by U.S. Zen teachers have been coupled with a charge that Zen bypasses the heart and is dismissive of emotions. And as I wrote in the last post, I've been around U.S. Zen long enough to understand where the charge is coming from.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, when Zen centers and monasteries were being established in the West, many Zen centers in the U.S. developed a rigidly militaristic energy that made Zen training seem something like Marine boot camp for mystics. There also was a lot of sexual mistreatment of women students, combined with the age-old patriarchal dismissiveness of women.  Much of this wasn't made public until years later.

This wasn't true of all Zen sanghas and Zen teachers, but it was common enough. I remember a conversation with a male Zen student, ca. 1992, in which the guy complained about all the macho posturing he kept running into in Zen.

I've seen a lot of change in the past several years. Today a large percentage of western Zen teachers are women, and younger male teachers seem less caught up in the old John Wayne masculine mystique. I'm seeing emotional sensitivity and open hearts being encouraged. I argue that it was never Zen itself that bypassed the heart or dismissed emotions, but rather the 20th century cultural conditioning of men getting in the way.

This cultural conditioning of men is something Joseph Campbell and Sam Keen, among others, wrote a lot about way back when. See, for example, Campbell's intro to Hero With a Thousand Faces. I highly recommend Sam Keen's Fire in the Belly. And, of course, you find the same theme in Robert Bly's Iron John.

I postulate that much of the sexual, um, activity still roiling the greater U.S. Zen sangha is a symptom of the way 20th century culture (in the West, at least, and I suspect it was true of Japan as well) desensitized men from their own emotions. And I believe the psychological literature will tell you that both women and men sometimes become promiscuous as a means to feel something they want to feel, but aren't, or to bury something they are feeling but would rather not.

And I also want to remind everyone that there is a huge difference between a sexual relationship among two mature and consenting adults, even if they are married to other people, and the exploitation of less mature students by older teachers in positions of respect and authority.

When we respond to another round of allegations with another round of talk about sexual morality and our puritanical hangups, I think the real issue is being missed. I say the predatory/abusive behavior can best be reduced not by hiring morality police but simply by restoring a balance of yin to tone down the yang. In communities where the practice and perspectives of women are genuinely respected, the senior sangha will not laugh when women complain they were groped by the Roshi.

One other observation -- for centuries there has been a persistent belief that women must be reborn as men to enter Nirvana. I don't believe the historical Buddha said any such thing, and I don't know where this notion came from. Further, this belief was directly refuted in the Vimalakirti Sutra. But I still run into it from time to time.

Once someone asked my first Zen teacher about this. As I remember it, he said that it was true that women must experience themselves as men to realize enlightenment. But it is equally true, he said, that men must experience themselves as women to realize enlightenment.

December 6, 2012 at 5:55 pm
(1) Gloria Galasso says:

I completely agree with your comments above. It dove-tails nicely with my experiences, both then and now.

December 7, 2012 at 1:41 am
(2) Giridhar says:

it was said that buddism agreed with sex between two consenting adults whetherthey are married to each othe or not.Only, they should be loving each other.
How right is this?


December 7, 2012 at 5:30 pm
(3) James says:

When anyone is groping anyone it is a violation be it in a subway or a confessional — it certainly doesn’t appear as if that teacher is “brilliant and talented and highly experienced or particularly remarkable human being…

December 7, 2012 at 11:49 pm
(4) buddhanonymous says:

I disagree that groping students has anything to do with sex. I also disagree that we need more “yin.” What we need is a better balance between male power and female power. If men see women as two legged pets, housecleaning machines and sex appliances, they are likely to violate women’s boundaries because they don’t realize that women have any boundaries- just like you don’t think of your pet poodle as having boundaries. The more power women have in a situation, the more likely that men will understand that women must be treated with respect.

I do have some compassion for older Japanese teachers- who must be completely flabbergasted by American women. Learning a different set of cultural norms is difficult. However, Americans who sponsor Japanese teachers break the Precepts if they fail to explain American cultural norms, and Japanese teachers who continue to act in a way that causes harm even after they should realize that harm is being caused also break the Precepts. This is very sad.

December 8, 2012 at 8:16 am
(5) Barbara O'Brien says:

I disagree that groping students has anything to do with sex.

Yes, that is one of my points.

I also disagree that we need more “yin.” What we need is a better balance between male power and female power.

Saying that we need more “yin” means the same thing as “a better balance of male power and female power,” except it goes beyond just power.

FYI, I don’t believe Sasaki Roshi’s behavior would have been tolerated in Japan, either. See Mumon (the blogger, not the koan compiler) on that point.

December 10, 2012 at 1:51 am
(6) buddhanonymous says:

Thank you for pointing out that my words were subject to being misunderstood. Some people stated in the comments that the problem was “attitudes about sex,” and I was responding to that, not your post.

I read Mumon’s essay, and also an essay by a Western Zen student that he refers to. I agree with you that the problem was and is with the American sangha who failed to see or do anything about blatant breaking of the Precepts until the matter was publicly published.

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