The New York Times story on the Sasaki Situation that I mentioned last week has touched off an inter-blog squabble. People are piling on Brad Warner for, once again, writing something that violates current sociocultural orthodoxy. And, once again, while I don't agree with Brad Warner entirely, I don't think he deserves the trashing he is getting.
Here is Brad Warner's take on the New York Times story. I agree with a lot -- not all -- of this, but I want to call out just this part --
"But here's the thing. We Buddhists, even our so-called "Masters," are just people like everyone else. This is enshrined within our philosophy and practice. It goes right back to the founder. ...
"... When we fail to complain about "Zen Masters" who present themselves as so incredibly enlightened they can charge thousands of dollars for ordinary citizens to sit in their presence whereby they will be divulged the secrets of the universe, we are killing Buddhism. When we teachers allow ourselves to be presented as free from our base attachments because we know that sells books and gets more butts in seats at our talks, we are killing Buddhism."
I agree, and you might recognize that Warner is taking a swipe at teachers like Dennis Merzel. Sexual exploitation is just part of a larger issue, which is that westerners often expect their master teachers to be supernaturally wise and holy; like a cross between Mr. Miyagi and the Wizard of Oz (before Toto pulled back the curtain). And that expectation has allowed a handful of teachers to exploit students, and not just sexually.
Another blogger blasted at Brad Warner that his comments are excusing an "entitlement to sexuality" that "drips with patriarchy." Actually, he's arguing against entitlement and patriarchy, as I read it. I can see that someone might take this as making excuses for misbehaving teachers, but I don't think that is Warner's point. And, once again, I agree also with Brad Warner that incidents of student-teacher relationships can't all be put into the same box.
Nathan at Dangerous Harvests makes a good point about looking at the student-teacher relationship from an absolute and relative position. Ultimately, all those hierarchies are no hierarchy (which, playing on the Diamond Sutra, is why we call them hierarchies).
However, consider a young woman just entering practice, who is hurting and confused and looking for Cosmic Validation, and here is this admired older man from whom she craves approval. She's a long way from seeing no hierarchy. In this case the teacher is the bull, so to speak, and the student's psyche is the china shop. A teacher who takes advantage of her vulnerability just to scratch his own itch is not worthy of the robes he wears.
And, of course, the Sasaki Situation reeks big time of patriarchy and the notion that the women students were just there for the amusement of the Serious (male) Students and their teacher. Again, all indications are that senior monastic staff made excuses for Sasaki for years. This should not be overlooked, and I sincerely want to know if any of these senior monastics are having regrets about that now.
On the other hand, I know of a situation in which a teacher and senior student, both married to others, fell in love and had an affair. No doubt this stirred up a whole lot of nasty karma, but it's not anywhere near the same ball park as sexual predation, IMO.
I also know of a situation in which a teacher and senior student, neither married, were in an openly acknowledged relationship. I don't think that was anyone's business but theirs. Japanese monastic orders are not celibate. Consensual, non-exploitative sex is not considered a violation of the precepts.
So, it's complicated. If these situations jerk our emotional chains, part of our responsibilities as Zen students is to examine those chains and consider what they are made of. Put another way, if a teacher does not fulfill our expectations, we should at least consider whether our expectations are reasonable. Not doing that indicates a lack of spiritual maturity.
I also think that a lot of the flapping about patriarchy I'm seeing in Buddhist blogs is a bit, well, late. Once again, the really egregious behavior seems to be coming from either Asian teachers who came to the U.S. many years ago -- the 1960s, usually -- and the first generation of American-born teachers, most of whom were men who started practice in the 1960s. I'm not blaming the 1960s, an era I remember with some fondness. But these are guys whose ideas about sex and women developed during the Mad Men-Playboy Bunny era, and apparently some of them never grew out of that. And it's also the case that they were given outrageous amounts of slack because students were too worshipful.
So Sasaki Roshi turned his interview room into a petting zoo, and he got away with that because people didn't realize that wasn't "normal." Well, it isn't, and at this point there are enough experienced students in the West that it would be hard for a new teacher to pull that one off without somebody blowing a whistle.
I do think Brad Warner goes way too far in this paragraph --
"Joshu Sasaki has done a great service to American Buddhism. I won't go so far as to speculate that he did it intentionally. He's probably just an old horn dog. But whether he meant for this to happen or not, he did a great thing. He helped kill off the image of the Enlightened Master as something beyond human. He did so by leaving a legacy not just of sexual misconduct but of deep, profound insight. I like Sasaki better now than I ever did, even while I wish there had been a better way to do this. Ultimately this scandal just might help save Buddhism in America by transforming it from a cartoon stereotype into something real."
As I wrote in the last post, I equate Sasaki with a physician who takes good care of some patients while using others as test subjects in risky medical experiments, without their knowledge or consent. Sasaki may have some great teaching skills, but any deep profound insight that comes from his behavior would not, I suspect, be his.
I also think there already is "a better way to do this." A growing number of Zen teachers in the West are women. And women are transmitting the dharma to women. There goes the patriarchy.
And I agree with what Nathan says about the shadow of puritanism and the tendency to treat the precepts as if they were the Ten Commandments. This is a teaching/learning moment that ripples out in all directions. It's not just about misbehaving Zen teachers.