The Scandal of the Zen Teacher and Where it Takes Me

I’ve had a brief exchange of notes with someone concerned about the large number of scandals related to Zen teachers. He suggested the ratio is almost one to one. A bit of an exaggeration, but a real question. He also puffed me up a bit suggesting that Barry Magid and I were among the few sane teachers he was aware of, so he was addressing this burning question to me. Flattered at being thought one of the sane ones, but also knowing I better fess up quickly, here’s my response, slightly modified and with a couple of expansions here and there that I realized I needed to add after I sent the note off…

Dear one,

Thank you for the kind words and clearly articulated concern.

But fair warning, I do not claim to be a “sane” Zen teacher.

Like you I had to work my way through the mythic structures of Zen.

At first I was aware the rhetoric around the Zen master was different than the rhetoric around gurus. It was one of the two reasons I did not pursue Vedanta the first spiritual tradition to attract me after my rejection of my childhood Christian fundamentalism. In the Hindu vedantic model the guru is perfect, in fact God. My brief experience of Hindu teachers in the Bay Area did not support the story. The other, which no doubt, turns closely on the same issue, was an intuition that the natural world had to be where I would find what I needed. And assertions of some sort of purity to which one should aspire, a transmutation of matter, didn’t resonate for me.

I heard many things about Shunryu Suzuki, some included miracle stories, but mostly that he was some sort of “Zen master,” and that he taught a very simple form of meditation. I was attracted to the meditation. But from the beginning I found the miracle stories unlikely, and was relieved when I began to sit with a branch of his organization that no one actually there told such stories.

I was very young when I began. I had one thing going for me and against me: a critical nature.

I quickly saw that zazen was good.

I also quickly learned that teachers were problematic creatures. From my perspective, the person who was my first real teacher, in the sense of my having a formal relationship, Jiyu Kennett, did see herself as a guru.

After not quite three years I left her. I had learned how to sit in the Zen style. I also carried a number of scars and one open wound. That wound which haunted me for many, many years was having been given her Dharma transmission.

I tried to find a way within Western culture. I loved the Episcopalians but couldn’t embrace that single metaphor upon which the Christian story is built, and particularly the assertion it was literally true. I tried a looser organization, what I would call ecclesiastical gnostics, trying to reinvent the whole thing. But too many, just about all of the leadership were just playing games. By my best read, anyway. I then tried a universalist school of Sufism. I learned much but ultimately knew that with my character, I needed a prajna school more than a bhakti one. That’s when I found what seemed to work for me for the long haul, a combination of Unitarian Universalism and Zen practice.

The teacher I picked after a bit of weighing and fretting was John Tarrant. He never pretended to be a guru, or any kind of perfect master, and over the years he proved that was true. He once observed to me that a friend will help you move, but a real friend will help you move a body. Says a lot about him, of course not all good, I hope you notice. He remains my real friend, and I his… But also I feel a need to work as a teacher in a different way than he does.

My take away.

I believe there is such a thing as awakening. I have experienced it. It is the direct insight into the fact we are two things at once. We are creatures woven out of a constantly moving dynamic of relationships, including genes and our experiences. And we are one. Or, I do like the Buddhist metaphor for this, we are empty. We lack any abiding essence. But that “essencelessness” is actually an openness. My experience of this is that this knowing, or again, the Zen metaphor better describes, there is a not knowing that is permanently a part of who I am. But, but both things are happening at once, the constrained and the open. In fact there is no way to unravel the temporal and conditioned from the boundless and free.

So, the basic way we’re made is always, always there.

I am fond of that little pseudo psychological model based in the observation we’re created out of three demons: greed, hatred and ignorance. I see these as the constellation of grasping, the constellation of aversion, and after much reflection, the constellation of certanties.

So, I am aware of who I am, at least in all the big strokes and many of the smaller ones. And I can tell you, I am a greed type. I want. I have always wanted. And I have to report I know I shall always want. My chances of becoming one of the scandals is always there. I am aware of it.

I don’t know Barry well, although I admire him very, very much. And I can assure you as a creature woven out of these three demons, there is always a chance of fucking up. True for Barry. True for me. True for all Zen teachers, just like it is true for everyone…

So, my assessment of the Zen scene.

I think Zen masters are useful. They have walked the way a long time and someone who has also walked the way a long time has endorsed them. They have no magical powers. Their shit stinks. And, if they don’t bind themselves to rule and direction they are liable to moral drift, as is true of anyone. And even if they do bind themselves, they’re liable to various abuses of themselves and others. Like all of us. I would be wary of teachers who do not have some form of continuing checking of themselves, either with teachers or peers.

But teachers remain important. My sense about this is simple.

I think we need to be able to bow, to be able to take instruction. And we need to never put someone else’s head on top of ours.

A difficult enterprise, no doubt.

But I haven’t seen a way around it.

The people I’ve seen who are completely independent, who do not put themselves under rule of some sort, seem even more prone to mistakes, to missing the mark, and mostly confuse the rumblings of ego with wisdom.

I think Zen has a great deal to offer. And I think it needs reformation. Like everything else, it is a work in progress.

The parts that work for me are the disciplines of shikantaza and koan introspection. I also think conscious adherence to the Bodhisattva precepts, as formulated in the Japanese-derived Zen schools are critical. I constantly think of the first five of the grave precepts, the same as lay precepts in world Buddhism. I bind myself to them and watch my constant failures with them. And I think spiritual directors are critical and I think Zen teachers are, on balance, among the better one may choose. So, I am committed to practice within the school, to bow to something larger than me in a real and tangible way, my sangha, and my co-teachers. To teach and to learn. And to try to not screw up, at least too much… And when I do, to wake up to it as soon as possible, and try to clean up after myself in appropriate ways.

If you’ll forgive a self-reference, I point you to my talk to our Boundless Way annual meeting a couple of weeks ago. it spells out a lot of what I’ve been thinking on the subject.

I hope this is helpful.



  • Kari Reid

    It would be helpful if you’d tell your readers what happened in the Dharma transmission you received from your first Zen teacher, that left a wound that haunted you for years. Newbies like you were back then need to know what to watch out for, in order to avoid experiencing anything that would cause wounding. Buddhism is, after all, about ending suffering, not causing it. Please join the effort to warn others about masters, gurus and lamas who misuse their authority or otherwise harm students.

  • Sam Blight

    I found this account very interesting. Having spent time in the Rajneesh cult for a number of years during the late seventies and early eighties, I have seen at first hand how badly the master/disciple game can end up. I was particularly struck by your view on the necessity of teachers, despite the tremendous hazards inherent in this kind asymmetrical power relationship. You say:

    “But teachers remain important. My sense about this is simple.

    I think we need to be able to bow, to be able to take instruction. And we need to never put someone else’s head on top of ours.

    A difficult enterprise, no doubt.

    But I haven’t seen a way around it.”

    There is implicit in this the idea of having to “outsource” one’s spiritual authority which I’ve come to view as the crux of the endless abuse and scandals in all spiritual traditions, not just Zen.

    It’s not as if there are no alternatives. One approach that I’m aware of and which has proved profoundly helpful to me personally, has been pioneerd by the English philosopher Douglas Harding. It provides a way of sharing awakening without recourse to any spiritual authority except the “’essencelessness’ (which) is actually an openness” that you point to earlier in the piece.

    This is in essence a non-verbal, experiential mode of transmission which obviates the need for psychological transference. In the spirit of our modern, post-Enlightenment (in the western historical sense) times, it is profoundly democratic, collegial and grounded in a more inclusive application of rational empiricism. This from Harding himself (Written in the 1970s):

    “Over the past thirty years a truly contemporary and Western way of ‘seeing into one’s Nature’ or ‘Enlightenment’ has been developing. Though in essence the same as Zen, Sufism, and other spiritual disciplines, this way proceeds in an unusually down-to-earth fashion. It claims that modern man is more likely to see Who he really is in a minute of active experimentation than in years of reading, lecture-attending, thinking, ritual observances, and passive meditation of the traditional sort. Instead of these, it uses a variety of simple, non-verbal, fact-finding tests, all of them asking: how do I look to myself? They direct my attention to my blind spot – to the space I occupy, to what’s given right here at the Centre of my universe, to what it’s like being 1st-person singular, present tense.”

    Because of a striking perceptual feature of conscious first-personhood, this approach has come to be known as “The Headless Way”. So as a way of “never (putting) someone else’s head on top of ours”, I’d suggest exploring getting rid of the head that’s already there, if you’re interested.