American Buddhism: Some Big Names in Crisis (UPDATED)

UPDATE via Buddhadharma online (11/24/12): “the Board of Directors of Rinzai-ji Zen Center in Los Angeles has “convened for a meeting this weekend to discuss allegations of sexual abuse by their teacher, Joshu Sasaki roshi.” Read their full statement here.

Crises and scandals are nothing new to American Buddhism, or to religion in general – the world around. But this week prominent members in the Zen community at large and one of America’s largest Tibetan Buddhist organizations, Shambhala Mandala, are voicing specific concerns.

Adam Tebbe - Sweeping Zen

Adam Tebbe, founder of Sweeping Zen, perhaps the worlds leading repository and discussion forum for Zen Buddhism in the world today, discusses the latest sex scandal in the Zen Buddhist community, this one surrounding 105-year-old Zen Master Kyozan Joshu Sasaki. His article is titled either “When Right Speech Becomes a Cop-out” or “I’m Sorry, Was This An Inopportune Time? Maybe Next Week Would Have Worked Better?” Both titles speak to the heart of a matter that is at the heart of many Zen, Buddhist, and indeed religious communities.

Adam writes that, “I really am awestruck anymore by the reactions to scandals when they are published. The poor readers are tired of it all (let’s just gloss over those victims). One man contacted me on Facebook to inform me I am the “Pee Pee Police.”” – I discussed some of Sweeping Zen’s coverage of a recent issue involving Ken McLeod here. Frankly, Sweeping Zen’s coverage and discussion of these issues has been thoughtful, multiperspectival, and open, quite unlike the responses demanding removal of posts and silence of discussion, often from anonymous commenters.

It takes great courage to step out and speak up against this kind of wrong in a religious community. A big part of that is because most people in a religious community have a vested interest in that community looking good. There is a sort of transitive property to that desire, especially amongst new converts. People new to any form of Buddhism seem most likely to vigorously defend any and all allegations against contemporary Buddhist masters, whether they are personally close to the issue or have any relevant facts or not. Likely this is true across religions: mature (personally, spiritually, whatever) Catholics will be those who are most capable of disagreeing with The Church on certain aspects while still holding close to that which they find most important in their faith.

Tebbe continues and concludes:

You know, maybe what happened with Sasaki is a failure of curiosity. I started hearing about it all right away, from the moment I began running the website. It would come out in off the record interviews or in casual chat. It didn’t take me very long to start becoming curious. But, this went on for decade, after decade, after decade…

And nobody in the broader Zen teaching mahasangha thought to ask: “Hmmm, maybe this should be looked in to. Maybe we should try and address this.” Nobody? Somehow, everybody knows, and yet everybody claims to have not known?

I’ll tell you what. It didn’t take me long to figure it out. One female Zen teacher said he was nothing like Shimano — it reminded me of Bush’s “I saw Putin’s soul” moment. I wanted to gag in my mouth. This was after I’d been told that Sasaki had allegedly asked one female teacher in that person’s organization to sit on his lap one time during an interview (I’d heard that from multiple sources). This same person, the one who saw in to Putin’s soul, was sent a link to Eshu Martin’s piece by a concerned individual and they replied, “Why did you send me this?”

Move along, everyone. Nothing to see here. Buy my book, by the way…

To get a real sense of the frustration that Adam seems to be feeling you probably have to spend some time in the online Zen (or Buddhist) community. I recall dropping out of one online Zen Discussion Group years ago after a very frustrating back-and-forth between myself and a particularly annoying Zen fellow (I felt like Plato taking on a sophist).

And now Waylon Lewis, a (more-than) life-long member of Shambhala Mandala, is coming out with a public discussion of that organization’s crisis. As he puts it:

Waylon Lewis - Elephant Journal

Shambhala is hemorrhaging money month by month (I’m not at liberty to name numbers, but hemorrhaging is apt, and without hyperbole). We’re insecure (we now exclude teachers from other traditions at our many Shambhala Centers, whereas before we were a big tent, the umbrella under which all Buddhist lineages drew strength). We’re staffed and led by valiant but often overwhelmed, head-down, passionate (it’s impossible to generalize—Shambhala is led by many responsible, kind servants—but by and large appointments seemed characterized not by a desire for leadership or entrepreneuralism or outward-facing, magnetizing troublemaking…but rather by enthusiastic allegiance to new curriculum. Everyone’s doing the best they can, and better. Everyone’s trying). We’re divided in two: the Sakyong‘s innovation (which is profound and needed) has step-by-step replaced his father, Chogyam Trungpa‘s teachings, classes, paths. And elder students, with their enthusiasm, deep training, joy and…money…have left in waves, wave after wave after wave over the years. Another wave of “culture loss” and diaspora just occurred.

For the first time since I was 16 or so—when the Shambhala sangha (community) was painfully split by Trungpa‘s death and then his successor’s inglorious fall and, then, saved by the Sakyong, young and uneager to teach, riding forth as if on a white horse to lead and heal our community—my community seems poised to fall apart, to dissolve, to become a fractured shadow of its former mainstream, well-known, joyful, outward-facing self. (read the full article here)

There the current crisis seems to be mostly financial, though that is due to a decline in community cohesion and membership.

Waylon and Adam deserve our utmost respect and appreciation for their courage in openly discussing these issues. Not only are new converts and immature (spiritually, emotionally, whatever) devotees often strongly against discussing such issues, so too are the big publications. When these Zen and Tibetan (and there have been scandals in Theravadin organizations too) organizations and their affiliates are major advertisers and sponsors, it is difficult to publish op-eds condemning sexual, fiscal, or other improprieties.

It seems essential that these crises (and others that will surely arise) are dealt with as clearly and openly as possible. It’s nearly 2013. The age of the exotic and mystical Eastern “Other” is coming to a close – we hope.

I venture to suggest that despite the Buddha’s own teachings, an incredible amount of veneration of relics, statues, paintings, and personality have found their way into Buddhism. All of this may ‘serve’ as part of any practitioner’s personal development journey, but it might also be an abandonment of personal responsibility (which I would venture to suggest is central to the Buddha’s understanding of karma and rebirth).

Accusations against (and basic problems with) Buddhist teachers and organizations must be heard. If they can be resolved privately, all the better – but they must really be resolved, not just covered up until the next accusation comes out. Often enough, victims of abuse of all kinds (and whistle-blowers and inside critics) remain silent because they feel alone, alienated, and likely to be shamed and doubted by the community if they come forward.

The best thing we in the religious/Buddhist community can do is to support those who do come forward. Indeed there will be those who speak out with no evidence. Those cases are difficult. Recently I had the privilege of interviewing Lama Surya Das, one of America’s preeminent Buddhist leaders. In the comments someone accused him of being  “a sociopathic serial womanizer.” Given the content of the comment and the lack of substance to back it up, my response was simply that this is an unsupported claim from an anonymous commenter. However, if this is a substantial claim, it is best that it is made, that it may be supported by others (or, alternatively, shot down or ignored). So, you see, it’s difficult. It’s like the old English idiom of the elephant in the room, whether we like it or not, it’s there.

As I wrote back in early October:

We all have blind spots; we all make mistakes. But if we’re to grow and make things right, we have to acknowledge our blindnesses, failures, and weaknesses. It seems so simple. If you go to Dharma talks you probably hear this a couple times a year, from stories of Buddha facing Mara as opposed to his ‘evil’ cousin Devadatta, to the reformation of Angulimala…

On another level, all of this is important in that it makes concrete the fact that even really wonderful teachers are human. In all traditional forms of Buddhism there is the belief that one can transcend “reactive patterns and blind spots” and thus there will always be the potential for abuse of that belief. It’s better that we discuss that openly and regularly than ignoring it until people feel hurt and compelled to create their own blogs or websites to discuss these things, far away from the teacher and his/her inner circle.

Let the elephant out of the room.

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