The recent events at the Zen Studies Society, including Eido Shimano’s public apology for his actions, his resignation as abbot, followed by a letter to the NY Times that while not published, was widely shared, denying he resigned because of any sexual misconduct and the subsequent uproar from the Western Zen world including the Zen teacher mahasangha has set me to thinking about the question of sexual boundaries, ethics, codes and enforcement within our emerging Western Zen mahasanga.
The allegations are that while married for many years Eido Roshi has apparently conducted numerous affairs with students. It appears his sexual advances have even taken place among other venues within the dokusan room, that is the private place where spiritual direction takes place. The accounts reported from many of these women suggest strongly he frequently took advantage of his position of power to have these sexual encounters. I use modifying terms like apparently and suggest because to date there has been no official action taken by any of these women, criminally or civilly. Based upon the weight and number over time I believe these allegations are true. And frankly, I hope some one will step forward and bring these charges into a court.
I am one of the Zen teachers who have written the ZSS board urging them to dismiss the roshi from any positions that allow him access to students.
One colleague wrote me about my letter saying that he objected to my suggesting that one of the reasons I had not taken a public stance earlier was because “the way our culture tends to address matters of sexuality and sex, to my mind swinging wildly between libertinism and Puritanism, rarely balanced, makes it hard to have clear and unambiguous positions.” In fact while I made that statement it was not given as a reason for my decision for when to speak out publicly, which I said in the letter was because until the roshi’s latest manipulation, I felt I could be of more use as a voice of support and counsel to his senior dharma successors, both of whom sit on the ZSS board.
As this sad tale moves toward its conclusion, or not, the roshi is notoriously slippery, I find myself thinking about this sentence, by which I stand, and with which I struggle as one of the central leaders of a Zen community.
The way our culture tends to address matters of sexuality and sex, to my mind swinging wildly between libertinism and Puritanism, rarely balanced, makes it hard to have clear and unambiguous positions.
In addition as our Zen communities take shape we are haunted by a contributing factor. Sociologically Zen communities in the West are mostly cults. That is a single figure sits at the center and is the center. This grows out of the myth (in both good and ill uses) of the Zen master and the importance of an authorized Zen teacher for the community to exist or continue to a new generation.
The San Francisco Zen Center complex and the Kwan Um School of Zen have grown beyond cult, into what I guess would best be called sects, although possibly they’re even advancing toward denomination. And that’s about it on the Zen scene in the West. There is a forming Soto Zen Buddhist Association which may well become a denomination, looping in the majority of Japanese-derived Soto lineages. But it is a fragile flower, and not yet to be relied upon for enforcing anything difficult.
So, the personality of the teacher involved also affects the situation regarding sexual ethics. No doubt. For example a venerable Japanese teacher has been followed with hints and rumors of sexual liaisons with students for as many years as Eido. But, I would be shocked if it ever rises to the level of offense as has happened in Eido Roshi’s case. The difference, best I can see it, is that one is generally liked and admired and the other has created a long list of enemies over the years.
So, what is good for goose and gander? What would equality before the community look like?
Some suggest we should have ethical guidelines that follow the pattern for psychologists or other mental health workers. I think they can be helpful, but they miss the fact that Zen groups are essentially religious and have a major communal element to their existence. It’s perfectly okay to tell a psychiatrist that should they fall in love with a patient they must sever the therapeutic relationship and must wait a further two years before any physical acts may take place. It is unlikely a Zen teacher is going to find a partner anywhere outside of their community. What is a humane way to deal with this conflict? What seems clear to me is that the two year wait seems a formula for failure.
At the Boundless Way Zen sangha we’ve been struggling with these issues, and related. We’re currently in the process of reflecting on a draft document, which follows. We have looked at numerous ethical codes including those from the San Francisco Zen Center and the Kwan Um School of Zen, although the actual document started with the ethical code of the Berkeley Zen Center.
The final document will be different, but in all likelihood will look much like this.
I hope it may prove to be of help to others struggling with these issues.