Thursday, January 15, 2015

Confronting Abuse of Power...

The Winter 2014 issue of Buddhadharma had a dramatic, stark cover with “Confronting Abuse of Power” emblazoned across its center. Under this, was written, “How it harms practitioners and communities; What can be done to prevent it; How to address abuse when it happens; Steps you can take to protect yourself and others.”

When I saw this at the newsstand (I’ve let my subscription lapse as I’ve grown increasingly disappointed with what passes for contemporary buddhist ‘journalism’) I scooped it up and eagerly looked forward to reading it with relief that finally at least some buddhist media was willing to actually confront abuse. What I found was weak and frustratingly superficial.

In the same way, now a group of 90 zen teachers has published an open letter at Lion’s Roar (a website sponsored by Shambhala Sun and Buddhadharma), initiated by Abbess Myoan Grace Schireson of the Empty Nest Zendo and Rev. Genjo Joe Marinello of the Choboji Zen Center. To my mind, it is yet another anemic response offering too little and coming, if not too late, certainly long overdue.

The letter pointedly mentions in particular the wonderfully researched and written article written by Mark Oppenheimer for The Atlantic that covered the abuses of zen teacher Eido Shimano over the course of several decades. Only now, with this “revelation,” the mainstream zen teacher community pledges “to build more visible ethics codes” and work “toward consensus on national standards of behavior.” The letter goes on to state that, “as Zen Buddhist community leaders we are committed to changing the culture of silence and the idealization of the teacher’s status that has been so detrimental to students.”

After referring to “scoundrels and sociopaths,” some of whom become teachers and priests, the letter states that “revelations concerning Eido Shimano” are now taken “as a wake-up call to each of us to pay close attention to the safety of the members of our community and to monitor our own behavior as well as that of others.”

So, all this sounds good. What do I have to criticize about such a sincere response? Am I simply being a curmudgeon? Well, to begin, the letter suggests that Oppenheimer’s article “exposed” a problem with Eido Shimano, and yet I – at best described as an outlier of the zen community – had heard about such abuse twenty years ago. Stripping The Gurus notes that "rumors" about Eido were already spreading in the early 70s, just before I began practicing at the New York Zendo. What I hadn’t known until only a few years ago, but still way before the Oppenheimer article, is that such a respected teacher as Aitken Roshi had known for even longer and had kept quiet about what he knew in order to “protect the dharma.” Of course this is a classic excuse for justifying and maintaining silence when the right thing to do is clearly to speak out. For someone who has written a classic on zen ethics (The Mind of Clover) this is one major ethical fail! It speaks to the tightly wound web of secrecy that is endemic to zen tradition.

Second, why only now after this particular scandal are mainstream zen teachers pledging to do something? This after Richard Baker Roshi, Taizan Maezumi Roshi, Genpo Marzel Roshi, and Joshu Sasaki Roshi which is already too many. And it’s not about sex. Or finances. It’s about power, hierarchical structures of power that become oppressive and de-liberating. It’s about secrecy and the  obfuscation promoted by much of zen culture. For too long, teachers and students have turned a blind eye to the problem posed by “scoundrels” because they are merely the symptom of a problem that lies at the very heart of zen culture. And that’s why the focus on “scoundrels and sociopaths” is ultimately the safest, most anemic, and irresponsible position the zen teacher community can take! The problem is not simply “a few bad apples,” but the mythic-based structures that enshrine dysfunctional power relations within zen communities, most particularly the magico-mythos of “transmission” and the elevated ideal of the “teacher” found in zen, and in particular Japanese zen, which has had the biggest influence on American zen.

Interestingly, even James Myoun Ford has written at his blog, “So, I think we need teachers, but they need to be taken down a peg or two. The analogy I’ve used in the past continues to hold for me. In the Christian tradition the myth of Catholic apostolic succession and bishops as magical successors in a lineage gives way to an Anglican view, where the form of bishop is retained but seen as functional rather than magical. We need Zen teachers in succession who see themselves not as magical inheritors but as long time students entrusted with a terrible and beautiful responsibility.” What I find ironic is that this is the same man who authored a book entitled Zen Master Who? In that book, Ford writes: “This transmission – perhaps more correctly with a capital T -- was clearly about spiritual authority. It was the acknowledgment of realization and the right to teach in the name of the lineage. This Transmission was now clearly distinguishable from simple ordination into the monastic sangha.” I would assert that transmission (most especially with a capital T), authorization, and lineage are at the heart of zen’s dysfunctional relationship to power.

The legendary biography of the buddha has him a Prince, the son of a King who ruled autocratically, as kings do, in his kingdom. The reality, however, is that the buddha was born into the Sakiya (Sakhya) republic. Republics were named after the ruling clan. His father was elected to a position equivalent to president of the republic and speaker of the assembly. I think this is important to remember because it was upon the structure of the republic and the council that the buddha modeled his sangha, and not the kingdoms that were forming at that time.

It appears that the buddha did not grant himself autocratic control of the sangha, though I’ve no doubt his word generally received greatest respect and was mostly followed. That said, there is a story I’ve found amusing about a time when the monks were caught in an argument amongst themselves, and when they refused to take the buddha’s advice, the buddha left the sangha for a few weeks, finding the monks tiresome! It was only after they had resolved their issues that they approached the buddha and requested he return to the sangha.

Before he died, the buddha was explicitly asked by Ananda, his cousin and attendant, for “some last instructions respecting the community of bhikkhus.” To this, the buddha responded: "What more does the community of bhikkhus expect from me, Ananda? I have set forth the Dhamma without making any distinction of esoteric and exoteric doctrine; there is nothing, Ananda, with regard to the teachings that the Tathagata holds to the last with the closed fist of a teacher who keeps some things back. Whosoever may think that it is he who should lead the community of bhikkhus, or that the community depends upon him, it is such a one that would have to give last instructions respecting them. But, Ananda, the Tathagata has no such idea as that it is he who should lead the community of bhikkhus, or that the community depends upon him. So what instructions should he have to give respecting the community of bhikkhus?

The Tathagata held no idea that he led the community or that the community depended upon him! But zen’s founding myth is the mysterious, subtle “direct mind-to-mind transmission” from the buddha to Mahakashyapa, the first of such “transmissions.”

What American zen teachers choose to ignore is that zen’s origins in China were as an upstart sect that created the “transmission outside the scriptures” supposedly creating a lineage of enlightened masters as a way to create a sense of legitimacy and to gain acceptance of the Chinese populace. This is already a far cry from the buddha’s assertion that he made no distinction between esoteric and exoteric doctrine.” Along with this myth, the emphasis on “authority” and “lineage” comes as the inheritance of Confucian ancestor worship that encouraged the reverence for the patriarchs of zen. Finally, with the “transmission” to the fifth Chinese patriarch, Hui-neng, we see more mystification and secrecy, the transmission taking place in the dead of night, with no witnesses, only teacher and disciple.

As I write in my essay on Hui-neng, lineage “has come to mean the “certification,” the “seal of sanctioned approval” of one Master’s enlightenment by another through a “mind-to-mind” transmission, certifying the legitimacy of the succeeding teacher to be a teacher and leader of the Sangha. It is this idea of lineage transmission  that is greatly emphasized in Zen. This practice can be seen as a means of ensuring that only properly certified and genuinely enlightened people are allowed to teach, which would be seen as a protection for those of us who are unenlightened from being exploited, or it can be seen as a system for maintaining priestly power and creating mystique.”

The elevating of the teacher found in zen is the consequence of these various factors: the myth of “mind-to-mind transmission” certifying one’s enlightenment; the emphasis on lineage inherited from Confucianism; and the obfuscation to make the obvious non-obvious that I write about in the above linked essay.

The blog post from James Ford, and the open letter signed by 90 zen teachers both speak of the need to “take teachers down a peg or two” and to “change the culture of silence and the idealization of the teacher’s status that has been so detrimental to students.”

I’ve been arguing this was needed for decades. I’m happy to see the more established, mainstream zen teacher community finally getting onboard. But as long as the focus is on “scoundrels,” I won’t expect too much to change.

My teacher, Samu Sunim, created a seminary program with a curriculum of training leading to ordination as a dharma teacher (poep sa). This is a move of great transparency. But the term “dharma teacher” has itself become idealized through structures that treat the title and the person as “magical inheritors.” A well-respected zen teacher told me that he thought decades of practice and study are required before one can be authorized and authenticated to be a dharma teacher. Yet, the fact remains that every one of the teachers mentioned above who have shown themselves to be “scoundrels” were “authenticated and approved” to be inheritors of mind-to-mind transmission and enlightenment. Why not just treat them as teachers? Folk who know a bit more about the subject and who can give guidance and advice? Like, you know teachers!

It may be relevant to note that while such examples of grievous misconduct are all too easy to find in the traditions that idealize the role of teacher such as zen and Tibetan buddhism with its guru-centric practice (to the point of adding going for refuge to the lama as a fourth refuge!), there doesn’t seem to be the same issue in western vipassana (mostly lay teachers who manage to keep precepts better than the zen priests!) or Theravada buddhism. Perhaps among the reasons for this is that structurally, the Theravada traditions view teachers as teachers! They are not idealized, but rather appreciated, with reverence, as friends-along-the-path (kalyana-mitta). This is the difference Ford points to when he compares the apostolic succession of Catholic and Anglican bishops. It is a function served, not mystical, magical or even about the person per se.

Here in Tucson, our sangha is modeled after the republican council of the buddha’s sangha. All our meetings: community planning meetings, board of director meetings and membership meetings are open to the public. Not just members of the sangha: the public. All decisions other than practice related (and some of them are open to discussion) are made by consensus. I have no unilateral, absolute power to make decisions outside of spending two-hundred dollars a quarter. This commitment to transparency has empowered all our members to speak up and speak out whenever anything seems less than obvious. These are structural issues that were put in place prophylactically, so to speak. And, despite this, we are currently working on a Code of Ethics, as well as a Grievance Process, because being prepared with eyes open truly is already the best protection for teacher, student and community.