Zen Scandal, Zen Practice

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]


6 thoughts on “Zen Scandal, Zen Practice

  1. 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.

    This is one of the areas where Tibetan Buddhism (especially Gelugpa) differs from some other doctrines. In the Pali suttas, it is stated that not every experience is due to karma– that there can be innocent victims. If I were to walk out on the street and punch a random stranger, we know that I will (in this life or the next) suffer the karmic consequences of that action. What we do not know, however, is whether the recipient received the punch due to karma, or non-karmic causes. They may have simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Tsongkhapa, of course, doesn’t see things that way.

    Personally, what I have been missing in all of the discussions is a grounding in the precepts. Sasaki took a vow to refrain from inappropriate sexual behavior, and everyone around him was aware of that fact (and took similar vows themselves.) I don’t see how permitting that behavior to persist for decades was compassionate towards anyone.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Michael. I stayed away from mentioning karma since it is no longer universally accepted and it would have necessitated explanation making the post much longer. Besides, the general idea of an internal and external cause doesn’t have to be wrapped around karma.

      I agree completely that allowing these situations to go on is not at all compassionate.

  2. Very good points, David. There is certainly a lot of defensiveness that co-arises with realizations that we are all so terribly human.

    Michael’s comment about the precepts is a good one and it’s important to keep in mind that a precept of non-harming, for example, is not something that takes traction in all cases of harm. I can take a vow of non-harming that takes traction as not eating meat. However, if I do eat meat it’s not against cultural or legal expectations. This, I believe, is the moral loophole that allows authority figures to argue fro the rightness of their actions. For that reason, I believe there needs to be a process of accountability – guided by practice – which is clear in its expectations of the boundaries to be respected by teachers and sangha members as well as the consequences of blurring or violating those boundaries.

    1. Thanks for your contribution, Lynette. I hope I don’t sound as if I am dismissing organizational and policy solutions. I’m just saying that let’s not forget dharma. There will always be some scope for misconduct no matter stringent the governing principles are. Ultimately, the change, the decision not to engage in bad conduct, or the determination not to do it again, must come from within.

      But I do agree with you, there should be a process of accountability. Consequences and the knowledge that there is a will and a process to impose those consequences can be a deterrent to misbehavior.

  3. When i first read that the buddha had at first excluded women from ordination in the sangha [ way back in the seventies] i was a bit bemused.
    As we all know he allowed himself to be persuaded but he also said, very clearly, that this would have the effect of diminishing the energy of the teaching to such an extent that within five hundred years it would be halved.
    Now look at where we are.
    In my opinion, sexuality relates to samsaric rebirth, thats its function.
    Put men and women together in any situation and there is going to be attraction and or aversion to some degree. I have witnessed this all my long life and experienced great personal difficulties accordingly.
    If we return to the buddhas original wisdom i suggest the problems will diminish by themselves.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Larry. Traditional Buddhism had, or sill has, a rather misogynistic aspect to it, and I feel it is one of those things that is best left in the past where it belongs. I certainly think you are right about what happens when you put men and women together. I have witnessed the same thing. However, I am not too sure about the idea of sexuality = samsaric rebirth. I think perhaps some in the Vajrayana schools may have some disagreement about that, too. To me, to deny sexuality and to keep people divided according to gender is just a form of dualistic thinking.

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