1. Religion & Spirituality
Send to a Friend via Email
Barbara O'Brien

Yin, Yang, and Zen

By December 6, 2012

Follow me on:

Mila provided a link to an article by Bob O'Hearn called "Zen and the Emotional/Sexual Contraction."  O'Hearn is a former (1971-1974) student of Joshu Saskai Roshi, the 105-year-old Zen teacher involved in sex scandals.

I agree with some of what O'Hearn says, such as --

"Most so-called spiritual practitioners don't ever inspect, much less resolve, the emotional/sexual contraction at the core of their psychological make-up, and so tend as a rule to indulge the classic "spiritual by-pass", which is a form of avoidance and even a strategic denial of a critical aspect of human development. . . .

. . . What's clear and apparent is this: the "spiritual" practice itself, even most if not all religion itself (both esoteric and exoteric) as it is practiced today, has become one big exercise in misdirection. When it comes to sexuality, it represents nothing but a habitual form of avoidance, played out on a cultural and institutional level for centuries. However, there is no enlightenment, no liberation, salvation, redemption, or transcendence outside of the way we behave right here, in the very midst of this life, which includes sexuality at the very core of who and what we are as human beings."

I'm not sure that sexuality is at the very core of who we are, etc., although maybe it is. I'll reflect on that. But otherwise I think this is true, and I would add that this is one big, fat reason religion (and religious people) get tripped up by sexuality.

I have a few "howevers," however. One, non-religious people get tripped up by sexuality, also, because of cultural mores and attitudes. I don't think it's clear whether religious ideas have been imposed on culture, or whether cultural ideas have been imposed on religion. Or maybe this  is a chicken-and-egg issue, in which culture and religion are locked into a really funky feedback loop where sex is concerned, but there's no way to know which came first.

Two, I don't know whether sexual predation is more or less common among clergy than among non-clergy. For example, O'Hearn mentions the "Catholic Predator-Priest Scandals" and suggests the predatory behavior was generated by Catholic teachings on sexuality. That's kind of a leap, IMO.

I believe I have heard that the ratio of predators to non-predators among Catholic priests is probably about the same as in the general population. If true, this indicates that Catholicism doesn't turn people into predators. The more interesting question is why the institutional Church is so colossally inept at dealing with sexual predation among priests. Just so, regarding Sasaki Roshi I am less interested in what winds him up than in the way senior students apparently refused to deal honestly with Roshi's behavior.

Three, there's sexuality, and then there's sexuality. I wrote in the comments to my last post on Sasaki,

"I don't give a hoo-haw what anybody does with himself or other fully consenting adults. I'm not even that negative about teacher-student relationships as long as both partners are mature and self-aware enough to know what they're getting into. But sexual assault or exploitation even in its milder forms is not an issue of sexual morality but rather of objectifying women as something like ambulatory sexual appliances. It's the gender bias that's the main issue here, not sex."

O'Hearn writes, "He [Roshi] told me that I wanted to attach to the Absolute, but needed to first totally throw myself into the objective world, which included sexuality. I understood his point." I am hoping that O'Hearn mis-remembers this, or else that Roshi has problems with English, because no Zen teacher of my acquaintance advocates attaching to the absolute. But let's go on ... if he's trying to say that one must become thoroughly intimate with oneself to realize enlightenment, then OK. I agree.

[Note: I want to clarify here that Roshi argues that releasing sexual inhibitions is useful for realizing enlightenment. O'Hearn writes, "Roshi was quite the horny old fellow, and that sanzen [private interview with the teacher] for many female students consisted of a lot of fondling and sex play." Traditionally, the interview is limited to spiritual matters.]

However ...

Maybe I'm projecting, but it seems to me that both O'Hearn (reading his whole essay) and Roshi are looking at sexuality from an entirely male perspective. Meaning, the consideration begins and ends with how men come to grips with the demands of testosterone, without noticing that women, and sometimes boys, are being used like disposable handi-wipes in the process.

Which takes me [O'Hearn again] ...

"In any case, this practice [Zen], with few exceptions, attempts to bypass the heart, because it is confused by and even fearful of what lurks there (the emotional/sexual contraction), so instead it by-passes it, in pursuit of a conceptual ideal of enlightenment, where emotions themselves are commonly shrugged off as something akin to delusional poisons."

Ah HAH, say I.

It's true that practice/teaching can be like that in some western Zen centers. But from what I've seen, the "there's no crying in Zen" attitude was more common 20 or 30 years ago than it is now.  Years ago many western Zen centers felt a bit like Marine boot camp, except with oryoki bowls instead of mess kits and marathon zazen instead of distance running in full combat gear.  Seniors monks often behaved a lot like drill sergeant, even.

Put another way, in 1970s-era western Zen lots of teachers and students were thoroughly armored with cultural maleness. And the women among them were conditioned to be OK with that. I can't speak to how much of the armoring might have been imported from postwar Japan, and how much of it came out of an American culture that made John Wayne an icon of manhood. But cultural maleness of the day fostered emotional insensitivity in men to an extreme degree. (I encourage you to find and read a book from the early 1990s, I believe, called Fire in the Belly by Sam Keen. Keen wrote at length about how culture armors males from their own emotions.)

I have observed that people who are sexually randy often are using sex as a substitute for emotions they don't allow themselves to feel. As I once read of the operatic character Don Giovanni, he loved many women because he couldn't love one. Rather than being the door to liberation, sometimes "liberated" sex is just another distraction from what's really going on at the core of our beings.

These days, men are less armored and women are receiving transmission, and I have seen entire zendos full of students and teachers weeping and laughing and otherwise being unabashedly emotional. Yet it's still rigorous Zen.

In other words, maybe the real problem isn't repressed sexuality. Maybe it's too much concentrated yang.What's needed isn't more sex but a stronger counterbalance of yin.

[Update: I want to add that if you've been keeping score, the serial offenders were/are either Japanese teachers who came to the U.S. in the 1960s  and 1970s or their U.S.-born male students of the same era. If my theory is correct, there will be much less of this nonsense in the following generations.]

More in the next post.

December 6, 2012 at 1:50 am
(1) Darwida Brzee says:

Well, it is certainly easier when you are the first to comment. It is a first for me. I just want to make a remark or two from my limited perspective. As regards sex, it is certainly a very much overwhelming force that we humans have to deal with, and as I understand it, there are two types of tantra, broadly speaking, sexual and nonsexual. Because sexual energy may be somewhat akin to sitting on a live volcano, why not harness that energy for spiritual purposes?

I personally think it is difficult to evaluate past acts or events by today’s more open standards, any more than we can imagine a Roman world that was 80% slave. Again, just my humble opinion.

December 6, 2012 at 7:06 am
(2) Barbara O'Brien says:

Because sexual energy may be somewhat akin to sitting on a live volcano, why not harness that energy for spiritual purposes?

That’s fine, but this is Zen we’re mostly talking about. While Japanese Zen does contain tantric elements, actual sexual practices have never been part of it. And from what I know of sexual tantra, it never involves teachers seducing or groping their students. It’s a practice for two spiritually mature and advanced tantric practitioners.

I personally think it is difficult to evaluate past acts or events by today’s more open standards

I don’t understand how that relates to what I wrote. Maybe you should read the post again.

December 6, 2012 at 10:27 am
(3) cl says:

I agree Barbara. The misunderstanding of what is called “tantra” (really a misnomer) is all hung up on this thoroughly western limb that confuses dormant sexual energy with power and control relationships. They are two different things. Formally speaking, abuses occur in organizations because they so often service the notion of power and control relationships, whereas the basic natural function of sexual energy does not require this kind of interplay. In this narrative of Buddhism meets West (greater western culture not just America), the principle of displacement or estrangement from emotional flaws or attachments tarnishes the natural state of ‘sexual’ energy.


December 6, 2012 at 1:32 pm
(4) Bob says:

Hiya Barbara,

Thank you for your comments on my essay!

Just to briefly respond to a few of your points:

1. Roshi did not recommend that I “attach to the Absolute”. What he was pointing out was my imbalance in that regard, in which he suggested that I needed to immerse myself in the objective world and embody the realization of the absolute in human relations, in order for those insights to become fully actualized (made manifest).This observation of his was based on his assessment of my tendency to prefer samadhi states, which can be disassociative. I was grateful for his mentoring in that respect, which served me well in my life.

(My response will continue in the next post, due to the text restriction)

December 6, 2012 at 1:35 pm
(5) Bob says:

(this is the second part of my response)

2. I do agree with your observations about the nature of the Zen culture of the 70′s. Mt. Baldy in particular had a definite “boot camp” atmosphere. I must admit that I am not too involved with Zen sanghas currently, and so may be operating on insufficient data (such as what I have been able to observe by browsing the Buddhist online forums, for example).What I have seen, perhaps in reaction to the “old days”, is the emergence of what I call the “Church of Zen”, which is a new kind of Buddhist institution which is a nice cozy social gathering that pays lip service to liberation, but is not really committed in that direction, and would probably make passionate characters like Hakuin spin in their graves! LOL! In any regard, in terms of the emotional/sexual contraction, it seems firmly in place, even in these politcally correct sanghas, and remains largely uninspected (imo).

3. My comments about the emotional/sexual contraction apply to both religious and non-religious alike, men and women alike, and I did state that. However, I also stressed that most religious structures (including Buddhism) not only fail to thoroughly address and illuminate the issue, but in fact compound delusion in regard to it. Sufism comes to mind as one exception, btw. In terms of Catholicism, for example, I have no doubt that the Church’s teaching on sexuality directly contributes to pathology in that area, and I say this after spending a good deal of time exploring Catholicism on “the inside”, including 7 years in a Catholic Seminary. It took quite a bit of work (and Grace) to free myself from the misguided views perpetrated by that institution.


December 7, 2012 at 2:45 am
(6) Dev says:

Pashus cannot leap over the sex hurdle which is why the five M,s are provided for them in Tantric Buddhism. The recent sex scandals that were the subject of much newspaper coverage in the U.K. actually occured in the Irish Republic and not in the U.K. Perhaps British Catholic priests, especially the English ones are not up for the job where sex is concerned which is why the investgationist journalists found only a few examples in the U.K. much to their chagrain. It could be the Guiness that makes Irish priests so randy (tip, drink Guiness). Concerning -ise and ize the rule is -ise for Latin words and -ize for Greek words, American always get it wrong and mispell words ending in -ise. Anyway if you are still doing it aged 105 you are to be admired not condemned. So carry on carring on I say.

December 7, 2012 at 8:48 am
(7) Hein says:

What’s needed isn’t more sex but a stronger counterbalance of yin.

Thinking out loud: are there any cases where there are a too much concentrated yin? What would be the effect if it is so? Perhaps in this new era (some call it the Age of Aquarius) there will be less yang and more ying?

December 8, 2012 at 8:20 am
(8) Barbara O'Brien says:

Thinking out loud: are there any cases where there are a too much concentrated yin?

The only example that pops into my head was my high school home economics class. :-)

December 7, 2012 at 11:22 am
(9) Tom Fitzsimmons says:

Dev, the Irish gov’t and the Catholic church were two sides of the same coin. Much different in England. The scandals there were part and parcel of that societys’ attitudes and were based on Jesuit and Dominican social cultures and attitudes. This is what allowed the atrocities (not all of them sexual and not all perpetrated by males) to thrive unpunished, unnoticed even.
We’re just not ready to face these issues of sexuality and practice. This is one of the main reasons I would like to condemn Guru Yoga as a popular religious movement. The opportunity for sexual abuse is too great. What one person decides he or she must do is of course their own business, but to encourage wholesale unquestioning obedience on a mass scale is just inviting disaster.

December 7, 2012 at 5:26 pm
(10) James says:

If the teacher is groping his students, it certainly doesn’t appear as if that teacher is brilliant and talented and highly experience or a particularly remarkable human being … not any tracher from kindergarten to Zen …

December 8, 2012 at 4:45 pm
(11) Mina says:

I have a question regarding Zen Buddhism and it relates to your sexuality topic. I had met a Vietnamese Zen monk that’s married but not living with his wife. I had asked about nun ordainment for married people, just in case I got married. I was told that marriage is not allowed for monks and nuns. So I am confused. I know the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) allows it, but why would Zen not allow it?

December 9, 2012 at 11:07 am
(12) Barbara O'Brien says:

Mina — the original rules of the Vinaya (rules for monks and nuns attributed to the Buddha) forbid any sort of sexual activity for monks and nuns. If a person already married entered the monastic sangha, he or she was not necessarily “divorced,” but he or she was expected to be celibate anyway. Many of the various sects of Buddhism still go by these rules, and I believe that would include Vietnamese Zen.

About 150 years ago, the Emperor of Japan repealed the celibacy rules within his empire. So in Japanese schools of Buddhism, including Japanese Zen, there are no obstacles to ordained people getting married.

There are a few sects other than the Japanese sects that allow marriage. These include part of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism and a small number of Korean monks. I’m surprised NKT allows marriage, since it originally was a sub-sect of Gelugpa Tibetan Buddhism, which is mostly celibate. However, at this point NKT may be making up its own rules as it goes along, since it no longer has any institutional connections to the rest of Tibetan Buddhism.

December 9, 2012 at 12:16 am
(13) Roger Wells says:

I think it’s mistaken to say that emotions come from the heart, as O’Hearn says:
“…this practice [Zen], with few exceptions, attempts to bypass the heart, because it is confused by and even fearful of what lurks there (the emotional/sexual contraction….”

The heart knows, and this knowing arises as patterns of hormonal energy and sensations in the body, which we then make into emotional reactions of various kinds, depending on our conditioning.

So it is the conditioned mind that creates emotions – and as such, it is the conditioned mind that forms the barrier to enlightenment – an enlightenment already fully formed in the heart.

Heart is everything.

December 9, 2012 at 9:41 am
(14) Lee says:

at the core is: breath … take in air … transform air into energy to keep the fire burning within each cell in the body… block the passage of air and see how long until your body screams for the blockage to go away!
food … take in food (other living creatures) transform them into energy to help fire each cell in the body …
reproduction … find another being and together transform into another being. Miracle! Wonderful! Exciting! Powerful!
AT THE CORE … Within training I have found it necessary to bow to each of these things. The intent that lies behind the action is vital. The killing for food … Do I take and eat so I can try to give back … do i use sex for greedy satisfaction (on many levels) or do I continue to try to convert greed hate and delusion into ‘love, compassion and wisdom’ …
each of these things .. breath…food…sex…are cutting edge training … the basics … try blocking your air way … panic within seconds … food and sex have just as powerful messages in the mind and allow justification, rationalization and greed to abound…and i have found in training that my mind is a wily critter and intent must be sometimes inspected. Copping a feel does not seem to fit into the unselfish mode…unless i think of myself as so wonderful that any person would love me to touch them in any manner at all .. years of delusion reinforcement could have such an effect I would think?.. gashho!

January 28, 2013 at 6:00 pm
(15) Jo says:

NKT is like the other groups mentioned. You do not have to divorce but you take a vow of celibacy. It was explained that it takes into account the western life where some of these ‘couples’ have children, incomes, etc.

Leave a Comment

Line and paragraph breaks are automatic. Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title="">, <b>, <i>, <strike>

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.