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Barbara O'Brien

When Teachers Disagree

By December 13, 2012

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I went over to Brad Warner's blog to see what he is up to, and found that he is distressed about something written about him at Sweeping Zen.† I believe this is the offending piece.

First, let me say I have never met either Brad Warner or Kuzan Peter Schireson. I have met Grace Schireson, who is also a Zen teacher and Peter Schireson's wife, and I have enormous respect for her. The Schiresons have lineage connections to Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, who is also a dharma ancestor of my teacher, Susan Postal. Brad Warner is a dharma heir of Gudo Wafu Nishijima Roshi, also a Soto Zen teacher, although one may have to go back a few generations to find common ancestors with the Schiresons.

Disclaimers aside -- This is about the Sasaki situation, the long-standing allegations of sexual abuse surrounding Joshu Sasaki Roshi of the Rinzai-ji Zen Center in Los Angeles. I wrote quite a bit about this a couple of weeks ago and would rather not repeat it all. Let's jump ahead to the responses.

This controversy has generated many views from many perspectives. This is normal. I say there is no one "correct" view in this matter. In fact, the only really "incorrect" view (other than ignoring the issue entirely) is to insist there is only one correct view. One-size-fits-all moral absolutes are unskillful.

Brad Warner provided a fairly nuanced perspective on the Sasaki situation a few days ago (scroll down a bit). His perspective differs in some respects from mine. I think he misses some points, but I agree with him on other points. At the very least, I think there is a lot there worthy of clarification and discussion, as well as disagreement.

Peter Schireson's response to Brad Warner, on the other hand, seems to offer little but ridicule of Brad Warner. I am surprised at this, to say the least. Then in a partial walkback, Peter Schireson wrote,

"Perhaps going forward, there will be a sub-set of practice groups and Zen sanghas or centers that are explicit about having a policy of 'student/teacher sex and romance are okay.' I tried to parody such a policy idea in my original post. I now gather some may think it's actually a worthwhile proposition. I don't."

I went back and re-read what Brad Warner wrote, and I don't see him saying "student/teacher sex and romance are okay."† He's saying that where there is student/teacher sex, reactively sorting all participants into victim or perpetrator categories is not always helpful.† And I think that's true. On the other hand, where a teacher is behaving as Sasaki Roshi allegedly behaves, we should be looking for a pervasive pattern of treating women as second-class students. Brad Warner seems to miss that.

I'm as opposed to sexual predation as anyone could be, and I think it's particularly awful when institutions allow it to continue by looking the other way. We could all use some guidance on how not to look the other way. But flipping into lynch mob mode may not always be the way to go.

It also strikes me that people often react to Brad Warner's persona as the Bad Boy of Zen, more than to what he actually says or does. As I've said, I never met Brad Warner and am certainly not authorized to speak for him. But my impression is that, packaging aside, he is not really the revolutionary anti-institutional anarchist his detractors, and some admirers, make him out to be.

December 13, 2012 at 2:08 pm
(1) Charlie Martin says:

Barbara, I rarely agree with you 100 percent, and I even more rarely comment when I agree but this time I’ve got to say I think you’ve got this one on the button. The old man never made a pass at me, but then I’m male and not notably attractive anyway.

I don’t know what else may have gone on, but the thing I’ve noticed for following this not very closely is that there seems to be a dearth of people who were actually involved who feel victimized, and a plethora of people who think that the women who were involved are victims who aren’t able to decide for themselves whether they were victimized.

This strikes me, as you say, unskillful.

In Japan, Zen Masters are often married, and have children. This suggests that somehow, sometime, they date, fool around, interact with women. Shunryu Suzuki’s mother was the daughter of a priest, his father a Zen priest and head abbot of a temple. Since we don’t believe in Immaculate Conception, it would seem likely that the parents had sex. This is not a scandal. In Japan.

My own opinion is that a lot of American Zen students think Zen teachers are saints, not, well, Zen teachers; this also strikes me as unskillful.

In the mean time, I can’t help thinking of the story of an old priest who helps a beautiful geisha to cross a muddy street by picking her up and carrying her across. His kohei is shocked, and after hours of simmering finally explodes in his outrage.

The old priest’s response — “Are you still carrying her? I put her down back there.”

December 13, 2012 at 2:53 pm
(2) Mila says:

“Since we donít believe in Immaculate Conception, it would seem likely that the parents had sex. This is not a scandal. In Japan.”

LOL :) Perhaps we should consider advocating for the addition of that doctrine (as, perhaps, a “lost chapter” of the Pali Canon)?

Anyway, slightly off-topic, but not completely so ….. midway through this interview with Osho he offers some truly choice reflections on the Immaculate Conception.

December 13, 2012 at 2:57 pm
(3) Mila says:

hmmm …. HTML not working at the moment, I guess. Anyway, here’s the URL to the Osho talk on Marriage & Children


December 13, 2012 at 5:08 pm
(4) Mumon says:

Great post; I remembered there was once a time where you & I had a disagreement over something, but it must not have been that important.

One thing I’d say different was I think Brad’s real beef is with Myoan Grace Schireson’s post more than her husband’s, but regardless I think he’s written that he doesn’t think they’re nice.

December 14, 2012 at 5:41 pm
(5) Kerry says:

These are sex addiction problems especially on the behalf of teachers who engage in sex with members of their sangha, plain and simple. Goes to show even more that “awakening” is not a destination and most teachers are mortals, just like the rest of us. Think twice before helping Roshi with his “needs”. – Let’s all try a little more to not cause harm with our sexual energies. I think that’s on a list somewhere, isn’t it?

December 14, 2012 at 11:57 pm
(6) Barbara O'Brien says:

“These are sex addiction problems especially on the behalf of teachers who engage in sex with members of their sangha, plain and simple.”

Of course, but the issue is not so plain and simple. As I wrote in several earlier posts (which you might want to read before assuming what anyone thinks about these things) the more interesting issue here is not Roshi’s behavior, which is reprehensible, but the fact that this went on for years, and senior sangha just laughed it off when women complained. This is a pattern we keep seeing over and over, and IMO there are some complex behavioral pathologies going on here. Further, at least some of the Roshi’s victims say they don’t feel victimized at all — although many do — and there’s a whole ‘nother complex of behavioral pathologies surrounding our ideas about victimization and what people are “supposed” to feel.

Finally, looking at the broader issue of student-teacher sex, there’s a spectrum of circumstances ranging from the sort of predatory and exploitative behavior ascribed to Sasaki Roshi, and other situations in which a student and a teacher develop feelings for each other and enter into a relationship. Not every circumstance calls for torches and pitchforks.

If you think all this is simple, you need to look closer.

December 18, 2012 at 12:02 am
(7) buddhanonymous says:

The Buddha said: “Monks, a statement endowed with five factors is well-spoken, not ill-spoken. It is blameless & unfaulted by knowledgeable people. Which five?

“It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will.

“A statement endowed with these five factors is well-spoken, not ill-spoken. It is blameless & unfaulted by knowledgeable people.”

I am very sad that teachers of Buddhism refer to each other in public
in a way that fails the Buddha’ definition of right speech.

December 18, 2012 at 11:26 am
(8) Vanya says:

“Sex addiction” is just an excuse for bad behavior. As is, “Oh well, they are only human.” I’ve seen this rationale in other Buddhist groups as well. The moral relativism you subscribe to here is what turns me off about Buddhism. As does the childish behavior of Brad, et al.

December 18, 2012 at 2:24 pm
(9) Barbara O'Brien says:

The moral relativism you subscribe to here is what turns me off about Buddhism.

What moral relativism?

As does the childish behavior of Brad, et al.

What childish behavior?

December 19, 2012 at 5:49 pm
(10) Vanya says:

The moral relativism you subscribe to here is what turns me off about Buddhism.

What moral relativism?

“One-size-fits-all moral absolutes are unskillful.” Yet another excuse for bad behavior, imo.

As does the childish behavior of Brad, et al.

What childish behavior?

Attacking each other on the internets. I don’t know why anyone would follow such people.To quote from an article you linked to: “What does being nice to others have to do with enlightenment? For one thing, it helps us realize that “individual me” and “individual you” are mistaken ideas. And as long as we’re stuck in the idea of “what’s in it for me?” we are not yet wise.”

December 20, 2012 at 10:48 am
(11) Barbara O'Brien says:

Vanya: The short response to your comments is that “moral absolutes” are all about avoiding the “what’s in it for me” attitude. Moral absolutes give us simplistic rules to apply to all situations, no matter how messy and complicated they are, so that we don’t have to consider larger issues like suffering and selfishness. We just have our list of rules, see, so we don’t have to actually think about anything, including how much suffering we’re causing by applying the rules (such as, for example, forcing rape victims to take a pregnancy to term). Just apply the rules. Stay asleep. Don’t think. Don’t feel. Don’t care.

Buddhism has moral precepts, so we do have “rules” in a sense, but the practice is all about delving into the roots of “what’s in it for me” so that we get beyond a selfish perspective. Morality is central to Buddhism, actually. But morality is to be practiced with our eyes and hearts open so that we see clearly what we’re really doing. For that reason, Buddhist morality tends to be more situationist (a better word that relativist, IMO) than the way the “moral clarity” Ten Commandments crowd generally practices morality.

However, were you not asleep, you might have noticed (going back to all the posts and comments written about Sasaki Roshi) that most of us here, including me, condemn his actions and give him no excuses. You plucked one comment out of the pile and formed a universe of judgments about it.

Instead of judging us, look to yourself.

I intend to write a longer response to this later today, and will link to it here when it’s written.

December 28, 2012 at 10:30 pm
(12) N. Likes says:

Kerry, I’m not sure what you mean to clarify by your dismissive reference to “sex addiction,” and Vanya, I’m not sure what you mean to clarify by your dismissal of “sex addiction.”

My own view is along the lines of Barbara’s, possibly with a shading here and a nuance there. We Americans tend to imagine that religious leaders – Buddhist or otherwise – will in some way be exemplary of something other than what they teach. One can be an advanced, seemingly enlightened being and still be a hot mess (cf. Chogyam Trungpa, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, all of whom had their sex problems). It needn’t detract from a teacher’s authority for him or her to be human, to have struggles.

Sometimes, those struggles may extend beyond the merely circumstantial, or opportunistic, and into the realm of the pathological. And still, this need not in any way diminish the authenticity of the teachings offered.

One key question raised in situations such as these – and I’m totally agnostic on the answers to this question when it comes to Sasaki – is the question of abuse of power, of potential victimhood. It’s definitely tricky in a teacher/student relationship, but as many a grad student/professor couple will confirm, just because there’s an imbalance of power, doesn’t mean there’s a victimization.

Whether Sasaki was a “sex addict” (and, for what it’s worth, sex addiction is by no means a universally accepted diagnosis) seems to me to be a red herring in this discussion.

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