Thursday, March 17, 2011

On Zen Teachers and Students Part 2

Eric Storlie mentioned in his piece that Eido Shimano Roshi's behavior was known, and documented in Robert Aitken Roshi's papers which surfaced after his death.  Storlie says

In forty-six years of Zen practice I’ve observed Asian (and now Western) swamis, tulkus, roshis, rishis, dharma heirs, lineage holders, and masters of various stripes, as well as their disciples, explain that the master’s fiscal extravagance, alcoholism, cruelty, sex addiction, violence, and even rape is – of all things – "a teaching!"
Perhaps. Certainly the Age of Aquarius is marked by sexism in the guise of sexual freedom. I wonder if he judges the present based on his experience decades ago.  I also wonder if it is more ambiguous, as I think about how to write a document that says, "Take care."  I have contact with many leaders in my area, and I respect many of them.  Some I have reservations about.  I know for a fact that one did have an affair with a student. (I did not have reservations about him.)  I suspect another who has other obvious issues with sexism, not to mention authority, and simple courtesy.  The problem is not Transmission, but this Wild West infancy of American Buddhism.  Anyone can hang up a shingle and call themselves a professional priest.  Most people encountering Buddhism won't know anything about certifications and qualifications.

What I have to be concerned about is more subtle.  People seeking a new spiritual direction encounter kind and generous people, and they also encounter predatory people.  Myoan Grace Schireson's husband Kuzan Peter Schireson penned a comprehensive article on this that went along with my thinking: it's not just about sex, it's complex, and it can include vulnerability to cults.  He makes several points, drawing on the International Cultic Association website What is often considered good medicine in Buddhism can easily turn bad: respect for the teacher turning into unquestioning subservience; or letting go and leaving home turning into isolation and loss of autonomy.

Peter said, and I'd been thinking along these lines:
What I’m suggesting is that it might be useful to consider every spiritual community, every Zen sangha, as a cult risk. Human tendencies in this direction are strong. Societies and groups develop hierarchical structures and the impulse to endow leaders with special traits and powers seems hard to resist, arising from deep socio-biological roots. And these impulses are especially dangerous when a leader himself (or herself) – often an ambitious person despite other good intentions – is pulling for adulation and power.
I'd say these impulses are so strong even when a teacher isn't pulling for adulation and power, the students give it to them, and especially because they are good people, and modest, such teachers don't realize how isolated they themselves are in their opinions and views, because few disagree with them.

Later, Myoan Grace Schireson added a vital piece to the discussion.
So to study this problem. I propose we consider all three levels: personal, interpersonal and transpersonal. We cannot just say that these problems occur because of “bad actors” or sociopathic teachers– there are far too many similar situations to call these problems anomalous. We need to carefully study how all parts work together to intoxicate the Zen sangha and to enable a misguided teacher to harm its members. This is not about blaming teachers, but it is about making sanghas safer for practitioners through education and self-reflection—both outstanding attributes of Buddhist practice.
Things don't always start out this way, but thanks to the heady dynamics of spiritual intimacy, this pattern can easily happen.

In my own experience, and in those I have witnessed, I must say Myoan's third category to examine, the transpersonal or spiritual level, is very important.  This Buddhist practice of meditation and examination opens up areas of our beings long held constrained.  It is quite natural as barriers and boundaries dissolve, to feel love arise.  I suspect perhaps this may very often first manifest as falling in love in someone in particular.  It is compelling.  It would be difficult to turn away from, to say no to.  Such a connection feels too Big to ignore or wait for, yet if a love cannot go through a reasonable waiting period while such conditions of teacher and student are dissolved, perhaps it is not Big enough to be a lasting love.  In ordinary cases it arises between peers, and it is almost becoming a standard form in my community for young ordained to take time off from monk training to develop a newly found love interest.

Myoan says
It is not difficult to mistake spiritual energy for sexual energy, physical attraction or even human love. In fact, spiritual energy may be one of the bases for human attraction. We may not in fact be able to truly distinguish the differences between these energies, but the fact of their (simultaneous) existence needs to be clearly understood.
 I would go so far as to say, why separate them?  This cosmic goop of interconnection is what love comes from, what spiritual uplifting comes from, indeed what attraction comes from.  My teacher has often said that even the most heinous acts, such as murder, arise from this wish for not-two.  But, simple as the love impulse may be, repercussions (aka karma) are complex, thus the ethical rules.

I could see how a priest or other clergy leader could experience this once, discover the powerfully heady emotions, and seek it again and again, soaking up the excitement and the power.  I could see also how, because rules say it is wrong, and because we as repressed Americans are already poorly equipped to manage sexual feelings, that a clergy leader could be caught in this trap in spite of themselves, because they only have (poor) tools for abstention, not tools for management of these feelings.

  1. Legitimacy
  2. Guidelines on boundaries
  3. How to recognize cult-like dynamics
  4. How to understand personal and interpersonal dynamics of the spiritual quest
These are the things I need to list and hone.

Oh!  How did I get this far and not mention my own community's ethics document? I'm sure I've got some specifics I can glean from there.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

On Zen Teacher and Student Behavior

This first quarter of this year has been marked by teacher/student sex scandals in the Zen world.  I've been following Sweeping Zen on Facebook, and at least a dozen responses to these events from various American teachers have appeared there. For a couple of years I've intended to create a document for the Buddhist Festival in the Park that would say that a group's participation at the festival does not necessarily mean an endorsement by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and here are some warning signs, etc.  Considering this is on the minds of folks in the Buddhist world, it's about time I followed through with this intent.  I'm sure I'll have plenty of material to glean from these many articles, including some from psychologists who are also teachers.

For now, I'm going to try to collect my thoughts, so this may take several posts.

One person's response is to do away with Dharma Transmission.  Here was my response at the time:

I think Storlie mistakes the form for human nature. It doesn't matter what form it takes, human nature will bring about problems with power, authority, and institutional practices. The fairy tale is not dharma transmission, the fairy tale... is the archetypal transmission of power we humans give others. Take away dharma transmission, and we will insist on filling the void with new corruptible practices. Whether a 10 year institution, or a 1,000 year institution, diligence will always be required against this tendency to corrupt veneration and trust, no matter how pure the intent. Plus, no matter how you try to clear the slate, karma will still remain. Horrific things have been done while trying to ignore this. The Protestant Reformation quickly corrupted. Erase the tsars, create new despots among all the communist equals. Does it help or hurt for those of less corruptible intent to boycott the institutions? Personally I think it hurts more when something is erased and the void is left to be filled by ignorance. There are plenty of charlatans out there who refuse the institution of dharma transmission for their own gain.
A couple of days later, a Zen teacher and psychologist responded with an argument quite similar to mine. ( is quite likely she saw my post...glad I could help.)

Aside from the question of sex with teachers, there is the question of legitimacy, and power and authority that needs to be addressed.  This is a huge topic, a morass of spiritual aspiration, heart entanglement, psychology, and ethical guidelines that attempt to put harnesses on this mixture of lofty and base predilections of this human animal. 

I guess what has triggered my procrastination pattern is this entangled morass, but in the end I suppose all I, and we who present the Buddhist Festival, is give some of the same old ethical guidelines, and point to them when it comes to light that someone has been violated.

So far:

  1. I wish to address the issue of legitimacy.  How do you, a potential Buddhist practitioner, decide on the credentials of the person you look on as a teacher?  There are teachers who do not come from a line of Dharma Transmission.  There are teachers who have ethical and/or psychological training.  There are teachers who have been judged to have a spiritual understanding that enables them to guide you on this path of enlightenment. How do you judge these things?
  2. Regardless of credentials, teachers will be human, and will transgress boundaries.  Guidelines regarding these boundaries need to be listed.