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.

1 comment:

truffula said...

The potential for abusive relationships between teachers and students is not unique to religion. These problems can arise anywhere one person holds some form of power relative to another. It might be the power to heal, the power to redeem, the power to change the course of another's life. I know this because I have seen it first hand.

Have you ever seen the way academic students respond to a very talented teacher? Students flock to these teachers and that reaction can be, I think, an intoxicant to the teacher. Where this turns into trouble is where the teacher either has bad intention from the start or indeed becomes intoxicated and flaunts the rules of conduct. The Buddha gave us pretty clear commentaries about all of this. Where priests/teachers get into trouble must similarly be where they either have bad intention from the start or become intoxicated and flaunt the teachings.

Setting problem of priests/teachers abusing students up as in some way special (or dissimilar to other abusive relationships) opens a door for the action to not be the responsibility of the actor. It is possible to have compassion for the abuser without letting him off the hook in this way.