In recent years, revelations of long-standing sexual misconduct on the part of several Zen teachers have shaken the Zen community. The most recent, involving 105-year-old Joshu Sasaki, founder and head abbot of the Mount Baldy Zen Center, here in California has more or less erupted into an online firestorm.
Over the past month, I’ve read many of the blog posts dealing with the Sasaki issue and I’ve read quite a few of the comments to those posts. It is a difficult problem, and without a doubt, sexual misconduct by those in a position of leadership or authority is wrong.
From the material posted online I’ve seen the ethical approach, the organizational policy approach, the clinical psychology approach, and from Stephen Batchelor, a sort of historical approach. This week, things got pretty nasty, when several Zen teachers starting sniping at one another. I’ve seen precious little of the dharma approach, the faith and practice approach.
I can’t help but feel this is a mistake, one that does Zen folk, their tradition, and the Buddhist community at large, a huge disservice. Unless I’ve missed it, there hasn’t been any discussion about how this issue could be an opportunity for all to deepen their practice and understanding of Buddhism. Except for one or two people, I really haven’t seen anyone talk about taking responsibility, and to my mind, everyone in this situation should be responsible to some extent, if only for contributing to the creation of a climate where misbehavior could take place, and for allowing it to continue. After all, they built it, together.
From my understanding, Buddhism teaches that no one is allowed to escape accountability for anything. Both victimizer and victim must assume responsibility – the victimizer for his or her wrongful behavior, and the victim for the internal cause that drew them to such an experience.
It seems to me that the women preyed-upon are not the only victims here. Everyone in the community is a victim because the situation has had such a wide-ranging negative effect. So, I direct my comments today to that aspect.
There is both an internal and external cause* for every experience. Why did we have to meet a person who would mistreat us? An internal cause help put us in that situation. We can call it a potential or a disposition planted in the psyche of the individual, or we might call it temperament. According to Helen Fisher, Ph.D., writing for Psychology Today several years ago about the ‘laws of chemistry’ that help determine who people find themselves attracted to, “[It] is now believed that 50 percent of variance in personality is due to “temperament”—our predisposition to think and act in certain ways. Cross-cultural surveys, brain imaging studies, population and molecular genetics, twin studies—all suggest that the traits of temperament are universal and tied to our genetic makeup.”
If we are drawn to certain types of people, in both matters of the heart, and for other relationships, then it would seem to follow that we are also drawn to certain situations and experiences, and even though this temperament has a genetic link, that doesn’t mean that it’s set in stone.
If there is no self-reflection, no recognition of an internal cause, but instead, only blame towards another party (no matter how justifiable), then there is no real possibility of changing the fundamental suffering. External changes may help, but in the long run they are somewhat cosmetic. After self-reflection, there should be the vow or determination to change the internal cause, to modify our temperament, to transform. Then, most crucial of all, is to take action, to use practice to overcome the suffering.
Kunzang Pelden, one of the great scholar-monks of Tibet, called it “the strength of remedial practice.” The spirit of taking responsibility for everything that happens to us, regardless of our lack of culpability or distance from the situation, should lead us to this strength. If we are truly Buddhist, then we must truly believe in a dharmic solution.
And this is what I have not yet seen in all the online discussion over this issue. Next to nothing about how to use the practice of Buddhism to overcome the suffering. If meditation is only for calming the mind, and not also for the development of wisdom, and for understanding how to apply that wisdom to every problem of daily life, whether it be an individual or group problem, then, I say an opportunity has been missed. It’s a waste of time to follow a philosophy and not use it.
But, it’s certainly not up to me to tell anyone how to conduct their affairs, especially a community that I am not a part of, and yet at the same time, sometimes outsiders can offer a fresh, objective point of view. And, they are discussing the issue publicly. No one has asked my opinion, but if they did, I would suggest that perhaps there’s been enough of the clinical talk, the discussion of authority and who’s a Zen teacher and who’s not, and certainly enough of the misguided parodies and taking umbrage. Perhaps, it’s time for dharma.
This reminds me of something the Dalai Lama said in Los Angeles in 1997,
Given that dharma is like a medicine of the heart and mind, one must utilize it in the correct manner. When we are ill, we use medication and the medication is aimed at not only eliminating the symptoms but also by getting at the root of the conditions that cause the illness. Similarly, we should be able to use the dharma at the right instance, when it is needed the most, through constant self-awareness, mindfulness, and self-investigation. When one confronts a situation where, within the mind, there is any possibility of even an inkling of an arousal of negative emotions or non-virtuous thoughts – it is at that moment the dharma should be able to counter-act these disruptive forces.
Because negative action is an expression of the negative motivation or negative states of mind, if you are able to apply dharma at the right instance, before it becomes expressed in negative action, then you will be able to deal with it at that time. Otherwise one’s practice will become as [one] master said, “sometimes for some people, the dharma can only been seen when things are fine.” There is a verse that reads that some can only be a practitioner when their stomach is full and everything is like sunshine, but the moment he or she encounters a crisis, the dharma goes out the window and they are complaining and blaming everybody and they act worse than someone who has no belief in dharma practice. This is not how we should do.”
* The concept of internal or primary cause (Jp. nyo ze in) comes from the “Ten Suchnesses” of T’ien-t’ai Buddhism, based on a passage in the 2nd chapter of the Lotus Sutra where ten categories of all reality are presented: “That is to say, all existence has such a form (nyo se so), such a nature (nyo ze sho), such an embodiment (nyo ze tai), such a potency (nyo ze riki), such a function (nyo se sa), such a primary cause (nyo se in), such a secondary cause (nyo ze en), such an effect (nyo ze ka), such a recompense (nyo ze ho), and such a complete fundamental whole (nyo ze honmak-kukyoto).” [The Threefold Lotus Sutra, Bunno Kato]