1. Religion & Spirituality
Barbara O'Brien

Of Puritans and Patriarchs

By February 19, 2013

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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.

February 19, 2013 at 4:23 pm
(1) Mumon says:

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.

One aspect that I think is underestimated in all of this is that certain organizations tend to transfer their “problem employees” to remote field offices.

I really think that’s the undertold story here.

But yeah, I agree with you very much here, Barbara.

February 19, 2013 at 4:42 pm
(2) Barbara O'Brien says:

One aspect that I think is underestimated in all of this is that certain organizations tend to transfer their “problem employees” to remote field offices.

The same thing occurred to me.

February 19, 2013 at 8:15 pm
(3) Jonathan says:

It is ironic that the sub-title of Nishijima-roshi’s great book, To Meet the Real Dragon, was ‘seeking truth in an age of chaos’. Sure is plenty of chaos around Zen circles. I really liked that book, in fact even set out to find Nishijima’s dojo on a visit to Tokyo in the 90′s, but circumstances conspired to keep me away. I have nevertheless been a long-time, if self-directed, student of his style of Zen meditation.

Anyway, the whole situation of Zen teachers groping their students is highly regrettable. It is just all grist to the mill for the many anti-spiritual and anti-religious forces in today’s world. “They’re all the same” – I can hear it. Maybe there’s some truth in that. Maybe that’s why I’ve never joined a Buddhist organization despite being a devoted student of it for 30 years.

As for Brad Warner. there’s often glimmers of truth in what he writes, but it is mixed in with a fair amount of idiosyncractic homespun philosophizing. I certainly don’t agree with him that there is no difference between a Zen adept and the next person.

Anyway, all that said, I like your column, you do a great job of balancing a lot of sometimes conflicting viewpoints.

February 20, 2013 at 10:28 am
(4) cl says:

Your presentation of this ‘case,’ both general and specific, is really good.

“There goes the patriarchy.”

Good riddance.

I also agree with being careful to consider the different contextualizing factors in these relationships and breaches of various ‘contracts.’

In general, I recently read the following from Krishnamurti and it made a good deal of sense:

“You know that word `guru’, which is so misused all over the world, means `the one who points out: like a post by the roadside he points out the direction. You don’t build a shrine round that post, you don’t put garlands round it, you don’t obey it, you don’t give respect to it, you look at it and pass by. But when the post becomes important then you are lost, then you are exploited. In asking questions (and we must), we need a great deal of intelligence, not intellect. Intelligence comes with maturity and maturity is that state of mind which is completely alone. One doesn’t see the enormous beauty of being alone, one is afraid of it. love is alone and therefore it is incorruptible. ”

That longing in the West does indeed seem to have been exploited as a kind of commodity by many of the masters/gurus who came here in the 1960s, a Wild West where panning for the growingly complicated and distorted psyche of ‘young’ America was equivalent to gold to some and fools gold to others.


February 20, 2013 at 11:39 am
(5) Barbara O'Brien says:

That’s a great quote, cl, thanks! And I agree about the spiritual materialism.

February 20, 2013 at 10:32 am
(6) CL says:

I also wanted to say that many cases of misconduct in the this 20th and 21st century Western dharmic context seem to arise from the stench of patriarchy as much as fetishized spiritual materialism and a basic lack of understanding, perhaps even an over-complication of true dharma.


February 21, 2013 at 8:57 am
(7) Mila says:

I also really like the Krishnamurti quote — though the definition of guru that he uses here is clearly in the service of his sign-post metaphor, and not really true to the terms etymological origins, or standard usage.

Guru is a Sanskrit adjective meaning heavy (in the sense of weighty). So when applied to a teacher, it basically means the heavy person. So its a person heavy with knowledge and wisdom; or unmoving in the sense of being firmly rooted in Reality. The term is also used as a name for Jupiter — the heaviest planet; so when applied to a teacher also carries the connotation of someone in whose presence once experiences a strong gravitational pull (not unlike a moth to the flame).

Less accurate, but also common, is to render guru as the dispeler of darkness — by breaking the word into gu = shadows/darkness & ru = light or disperse/dispel.

Anyway, considering these more standard renderings of guru allows us to explore the limitations of Krishnamurtis metaphor of the guru as being like a post by the roadside that points out the direction. A road sign — say pointing the way to San Francisco — is only a representation; in no way is it San Francisco itself (obviously!). A true, realized guru, however, is an embodiment as well as a representation of Truth.

February 21, 2013 at 8:59 am
(8) Mila says:

In terms of our sign-to-San-Francisco metaphor: a realized guru is like a sign that points the way not only by saying this way to San Francisco, 200 miles — but also by offering (to those who are receptive) an actual glimpse of what its like to be in San Francisco. This allows us, when we actually do arrive, to know experientially that yes, this is indeed San Francisco — because weve had a taste of it previously. Also, if were able to surrender fully to the glimpse — to dissolve into it — the sign can become a wormhole — transferring us immediately (sans the space-time requirements of a road to be traveled upon) to our destination. This is the deeper meaning of pointing out the way: a mind-to-mind transmission, beyond the confines of space & time.

And such a capacity to dissolve into a glimpse of Reality is perhaps more accessible to someone who has a devotional approach to the teacher/student relationship — an approach which, IMO, is absolutely legitimate. It was Krishnamurtis dharma to extol the virtues of doing it on your own — of being highly independent and a bit suspicious of authority figures, in relation to our spiritual unfolding. Though he himself underwent many years of guided cultivation (if I understand correctly) — so his strong speaking out against such institutional support is not without a kind of irony.

February 22, 2013 at 12:42 am
(9) buddhanonymous says:

I think the closest actual thing in contemporary American culture to a Buddhist teacher is a sports coach. You may be able to do well at a sport all by yourself, but to really excel, you need a coach. The interesting thing is that there have been dozens of coach scandals, many involving minors. Yet, no one thinks that you can become an Olympic star without a coach. Instead, rules are put in place to lessen the temptation to get involved in a sexual situation with the young athletes.

I see the Precepts as a doorway: a structure that makes it safe to practice in a sangha and accept the guidance of a meditation teacher. They are a doorway to the path of training While I do not see the Precepts as the Ten Commandments, they are a clear warning sign that to proceed in a particular direction is a mistake.

It is really easy to come up with all sorts of excuses for doing things one wants to do. It is difficult to look closely at one’s actions through the fog of delusion. No one said training was easy.

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