A Few Random Thoughts in the Midst of Zen’s Various Sex Scandals

I find myself heartsick.

Together with my Unitarian Universalist life, Zen sits at the center of everything that matters to me.

The cascade of issues around sex and sexual misconduct are multiplying like those proverbial rabbits.

I went back to look at what I had to say about Genpo Merzel, Eido Shimano and Joshu Sasaki in my 2006 Zen Master Who? A Guide to the People and Stories of Zen. It was of course pretty much all written a year or so before the publication date. So, a while ago. I made no reference, I see, to the various scandals attached to Mr Merzel’s leadership in Maine and France prior to his returning to America and setting up shop in Utah. With the Venerable Shimano I noted that from his time in Honolulu there “began what would be lasting allegations of improprieties…” With the Venerable Sasaki I noted “there have been allegations of improprieties with students.”

No doubt I could have done better…

There have been various other scandals small and large around sex. I think of Walter Nowick, caught up in allegations of sexual improprieties with people of the same gender, and who retired from formal teaching at that time, a long time ago now. And of my own teacher John Tarrant, where I see not a predator, but rather someone who simply refuses to be bound by conventional and what I’d call Professional boundaries. I would add here the number of teachers who’ve given Dharma transmission to their spouses or partners – at best to my mind a very messy thing. In addition I can think of several teachers who have been tangled in an affair that does not appear to suggest a pattern. In fact, drawing upon my observations of what has happened in the life of Unitarian Universalist clergy, where it was fairly common in the middle of the twentieth century for male clergy to have second marriages with subordinates, religious educators, church secretaries and musicians, and where it seems many of these relationships would prove to be lifelong, causes me to be very reluctant to absolutely condemn when these things happen.

As I think of all these people and the multiple circumstances of their lives, I find I’m extremely dissatisfied with much of the tone, as well as the very broad brush with which all matters touching upon sexuality and sex are being covered. With Merzel, Shimano & Sasaki we have long term patterns that most would see as exploitative. But, there’s much more going on, and it is quite complicated.

Stupid humans…

I was privileged to see Scott Edlestein’s Sex and the Spiritual Teacher while still in galley. I thought it thoughtful and useful. And I felt I saw a real problem. He attempted to outline a sense of male sexuality that opens men to inappropriate sexual behaviors. There was, however, no accompanying chapter on women. I suggested at the time that either an accompanying chapter be written, or that the one on men be deleted. I thought in fact if that second chapter was written it would show the first chapter was rather arbitrary and probably pretty far off the mark. Like most of my brilliant suggestions, my friends decided to take a pass, and published the one chapter.

Now, first and foremost. I think there need to be bright lines regarding sexual conduct between teachers and students on the Zen way. My own community Boundless Way addresses this in what I consider a compassionate and yet clear way. (For a link to the Boundless Way Ethics Code, go here)

That acknowledged and I hope underscored, I have some serious problems with the current conversation.

That serious conversation probably can’t happen unless we can start with a generous acceptance of the fact we are animals with natural sexual urges. One example of what this might look like is accepting that sexual attraction involving power differentials is itself a pretty natural thing. A point that simply is not part of the current conversation. I’m pretty sure we can find a number of other examples.

And, of course, just because something is natural, doesn’t mean it is necessarily good for everyone. For example that natural enough attraction within power differentials is a wide field for potential exploitation…

Similarly societal rules are arbitrary. They are mainly about what is the best for the most people. To get too emotionally involved in the rules as something inherently moral or good rather than simply useful is, to my way of thinking, very dangerous.

The bottom line as I see it, is starting with what is.

As best we can perceive that what is.

And knowing, always knowing, even our best efforts are going to be compromised by all sorts of things, blind assumptions, our individual sexuality, oh I suspect the list is very long…


If we have a vaguely accurate start with that what is, well, then maybe where we will end up will in fact be healthful and helpful.

And I hope even as we’re stuck with fixing an airplane in flight, we will engage all of this with a modicum of humility, of generosity, and care.

For all parties.

And for the tradition, which I believe, with all my being, brings great gifts to us.

Two cents early one morning.

THREE APPLES FELL FROM HEAVEN A Meditation on the Centenary of the Armenian Genocide
He Drew A Circle
Annie Walks on to the Stage
  • Willy

    Thanks for this, James. My personal history with zen has been pockmarked by these scandals. In my twenties, following up with an interest garnered from reading and a conviction that I needed to get closer to real sources, I became involved with a zen community where I learned the rudiments of practice and working with a teacher. That community went through their own scandals with the accompanying fallout, including me leaving. It wasn’t the sex. I expect sex among adult humans and it’s often accompanied by awkward social readjustments in any community setting (I’m setting aside the outright cases of abuse or molestation). It was the denials and the weird justifications. Somewhere, I picked up this from a discussion about human reasoning: “He ain’t dead, and if he is, I didn’t kill him, and if I had, the bastard had it coming.” I witnessed the same weird three phase logic in the events in the zen community I was involved with and hear echoes of it in all of these scandals in other communities that’s followed. Frankly, I expected better and have seen better in other social settings. I’ve seen adults with lesser internal resources own up to their flawed behavior and work more skillfully with the consequences. I don’t expect saints, but I do expect adults. I realize that’s my issue, my expectations, but I hope the path I’ve chosen, zen, enables me or will enable me to shoulder the consequences of my actions with honesty, clarity, and compassion.

    • adam fisher

      “He ain’t dead, and if he is, I didn’t kill him, and if I had, the bastard had it coming.”
      Excellent summation, Willy. Thank you.

      As to the wider issue addressed by James, I agree that the intricacies are worse than a kaleidoscope and not nearly so beautiful. But it occurs to me that one of the reasons the volume is so loud and the clawing so ferocious is precisely because there have been few if any previous outlets … or, when the outlets did appear, they devolved into hug festivals (gimme a Samoan hug!) that barely scratched the surface of the long-festering issues. My take is … let ‘er rip! Get it out! Get it on a table that is not cluttered with ersatz compassion or ‘healing’ phraseology that heals nothing. In many cases, the screams have been held within for too long and getting them out is important to whatever more honest, new-normal may evolve.

  • http://mtsutra.wordpress.com L. BrightHeart Headrick

    I admit to sniping at others. When I speak of other’s faults, that is praising me not getting caught yet. To brand like Rick Hanson does, “our minds seem to hang on to bad/shameful news/gossip like Velcro and good info like Teflon.” Temper that with Rumi confessing that, “when your body betrays you, my feet have gone where they shouldn’t, the genitals say, “me too.”
    I do appreciate having a spouse who corrects my assumptions about sex and attraction. I give her my testosterone-driven perspective about human interaction, and she amends with what oppression and male-dominance skews, and I correct for heteronormative bias, then we talk about our experiences and redacted versions of others’ private concerns that we’ve heard.
    “How certain are you that you’ve correctly stated your partners’ complaints about you?” is one of the questions I’ve ask of each one of a contentious couple. Marriage and relationships are uncertain in a culture where the paradigm is shifting. Add a gloss of oriental religious thought, and dysfunctional dynamics across sangha as family and no one is safe from constructs of purity, virtue or emergent clay-footed idolatry. I still don’t know, but I will try to be more careful about spreading news about which I am uncertain.

  • http://www.taisheridan.com Tai Sheridan

    Thanks for your inquiry James, I resonate with much of what you say. The footnote for me is that the deep character flaws and acting out perhaps begin with issues of love, bonding, and attachment…very early and repeated childhood stuff that results in shame and loneliness, the two core features of any kind of addiction (read ‘habits’ for Zen). I think that one underbelly of sexual confusion regarding healthy teacher-student relationships is about love, both the ability to love oneself and to feel that one is loved. Many leaders have such profound narcissistic wounds that their inability to respect love boundaries and the sanctity of spiritual relationships is an accident waiting to happen. Close spiritual intimacy is as profound as it gets, and for a wounded man, it can be a banana peel into the shadow world. Sadly, this isn’t about Zen as much about men in the world at large, and how much there is to learn about being intimate. If that journey isn’t taken before a man has authority, especially if he is magnetic and dynamic, the possibility of causing harm lurks in the open spaces.

  • Geri Larkin

    For me, any sexual relationship with a student is an inappropriate relationship. Period. There are plenty of other teachers available to the students of today. This includes teachers for spouses, partners, lovers. And while I have read about one female teacher who had inappropriate relationships with students, when I was the guiding teacher at Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple, the reports to me personally of inappropriate sexual behavior by male teachers (with both female and male students) happened so regularly that, at one point, I had to decide for myself if the buddhist path as it is today could contain woman at all. It was that bad and it was that regular. Heartbreaking for all of us. As a tradition we can do so much better.

  • Wendy Roberts

    Could you please explain what you mean when you say the discussion around sexual ethics and abuse has moved ‘to a “woman-centered” view’? If that were case – then wouldn’t that mean that these scandals would be disappearing as women felt able to speak up and abusive male teachers were revealed before years or decades of this type of behavior had occurred? Or perhaps that we would see men more frequently being accused unfairly of abuse that had not occurred? Or perhaps that we would see more female teachers being accused of abusing male students if the conversation had moved ‘to a “woman-centered” view’? Or that more women would write blog posts and comments on blogs regarding sexual ethics and abuse scandals? My completely unscientific survey seems to show that men’s voices are heard more frequently echoing in the blog-o-sphere on this topic then are women’s voices. I am completely baffled as to any interpretation of the current scandal regarding sexual ethics and the discussion around it that could lead one to conclude that the conversation has moved ‘to a “woman-centered” view’. I would appreciate your feedback on this topic.

  • http://www.boundlesswayzen.org jamesford

    Wendy, not at all where I was trying to go. In particular the blogosphere was not in my mind as I tried to unpack shifts in perspective about issues of sexuality and how they seem to be largely unconscious. When I tried to rewrite for clarity I found it just bogged down too much. So, with the hard earned lessons out of years of writing, I cut the paragraph.

  • http://www.boundlesswayzen.org jamesford

    A friend was actually incensed that I cut a paragraph from this blog entry. He seemed to be of the opinion that because it had been published those words were now somehow inviolate. Hah! Obviously not someone who has enjoyed the pleasures of editing…

  • Wendy Roberts

    Thank you for some clarification. I have done a lot of writing and editing in various spheres of my life, and totally understand your right to edit, or demonstrate impermanence of digital text, or whatever you else choose to do with this blog! In general I have appreciated your thoughtful comments on the current topic (and other topics) and hope that at some point you will write again about the ideas you were expressing in the now-deleted paragraph.

  • Shak’ey

    10 directions – clearedcleared