A Couple of Pointers Within the Mess of Our Conversation about Sexual Ethics in the Western Zen Community

Prior to my time away from the world wide web the Buddhist blogosphere, or at least the part of it that I tend to follow, was pretty focused on Zen priest Eshu Martin’s public revelations of allegations of years of sexual misconduct on the part of the now one hundred and five year old Zen teacher Joshu Sasaki. A variety of responses followed, many archived at Sweeping Zen. I thought they were mostly thoughtful reflections from a number of angles by people with a deep commitment to our emergent Western Zen sangha. They’ve included a powerful reflection by Zen teacher Grace Schireson, as well as reflections by Dosho Port, and Koun Franz, as well as by the independent scholar and liberal Buddhist teacher Stephen Batchelor. I even offered a very small comment, myself.

But sometime while I was on retreat things took a turn.

The priests Grace Schireson, Peter Schireson, and Brad Warner, as well as Sweeping Zen editor Adam Tebbe found themselves embroiled in a public dispute with some unpleasant things being said to one another. As is the case in our blogosphere life, there were also numerous comments from the sidelines, many cruel and, I notice, often written without a real name attached to them. (It seems anonymity often frees inner demons when writing on the web. Personally I’d encourage people with passion in these areas to at least sign their real names…)

I found all of this particularly painful for a number of reasons. I consider Grace and Peter friends. While we’ve never actually met in the flesh, I feel the same about Adam. And I think well of Brad. (I like to point out to people that I was the only formally authorized Zen teacher to “endorse” his Hardcore Zen when it came out.)

I admit I just didn’t know what to say about this mess. Many thoughts, but they weren’t, aren’t coming together. Absolutely the issue of sexual abuse among our Zen teachers must be addressed. And, this time around I think people have gotten carried away and way too personal. I notice to date only Adam Tebbe has made any attempt at apologizing for his overheated responses. I really think it would be good if a couple of others could dance back a bit. Not off the deeper points, but the personalization, if that’s a right word.

(An addition: Grace Shireson has told me that she and Peter have both offered apologies to Brad Warner.)

And there’s an important reason, I believe, to do this. I think there’s something really important going on within this conversation that can be lost if we aren’t careful. Important points.

As I’ve been trying to catch up, I found a brief piece by the blogger Genju at 108zenbooks. I thought it very helpful.

It, in addition to a nice shout out to our Boundless Way Zen code of ethics, pointed me, and, I hope, many of us to a substantive reflection by the blogger Nellalou at Smiling Budddha Cabaret, a blog I consider one of the most important within our public Dharma conversation.

Dances With Power is, I think, a critical read. And I hope you will.

I don’t agree with everything she opines. I think she’s too harsh with Peter. I think maybe she lets Brad off a tad easier than I would. But… The heart of her argument is, I hope, the direction we will choose to go toward.

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  • http://mettai.blogspot.com Mettai Cherry

    The Boundless Way ethics statement on this is spot on. I think it follows from one of the clearest precepts, found in the Metta Sutra: “Do nothing that the wise would later reprove.” The BoWZ guide ensures that relationships cannot be hidden and ethical at the same time. This is how to start to examine the grey area. Thank you for your post.

  • adam fisher

    The Buddhist sexual typhoon is tiring from this old man’s point of view. So tiring, in fact, that I am unwilling (or perhaps unable) to enter the winds as I have in the past. About the only thing that can inspire me to enter those winds as once is the understandable but misguided effort to make nice. As has been proven in any number of venues (the Vatican pedophile abuses comes to mind as does Penn State’s child-abuse tsunami), making nice is not, in the end, very nice. Slip-sliding into ersatz compassion and phoney-baloney understanding … yes, it’s a wonderful relief for old and lazy farts like me.

    But when has Buddhism ever had anything to do with relief?

    I applaud all or any who are willing — right, wrong or indifferent — to enter the eye of the storm I sidestep of late. Mess or no mess, honest Buddhism deserves no less.

    • Jeremy Wardle

      Adam, I think you have misunderstood James’ point. I do not see him as trying to “make nice’ about the sexual improprieties at hand. Rather, his point is entirely about the nature of the discourse that occurs around those issues. It is critically important to distinguish the two.

      These are gravely important issues, all the more so given the way they keep coming up throughout the maha-sangha. Clearly, there are matters to be discussed, considered and addressed. I believe it is possible to condemn the misdeeds in no uncertain terms while maintaining a respectful tone in the discussion about “what next?” It is all the more important that we do so so that the discussion itself does not get co-opted by polemics and personal attacks. It is far too important an issue to allow that to happen.

      I might also add that for an “Old Man” like James, it must be exhausting to see these issues come up again and again over the many years. They demand our attention and point to sorely neglected needs, but for him as for may of us, it may also feel like a distraction from other work in the ongoing evolution of the Dharma in the West.

  • Stephen Slottow

    Some of the letters have taken on an extreme tone of attack and (self) righteousness, not to mention grating sarcasm. When emotional aggrandizement appears to be gaining an upper hand, when people become so absolutely certain of their positions in a very heavy-handed sledge-hammer rigid kind of way, with a lot of collateral damage, when then I begin to wonder about their motives and agendas.

  • Stephen Slottow

    Perhaps a better approach would be to make some sort of sexual molestation a REQUIREMENT in the Zen communities? And deal summarily with teachers that won’t cooperate? Eh? Embrace the Dark Side?

    -sps

    • Dave Laser

      (snicker) Grating sarcasm, Stephen? Of course, you raise an important point- and one that I think is becoming more prominent as this discourse progresses: what is the SOURCE of all this emotionality & righteousness? What is being protected/defended? I would suggest that what’s being driven up in these conversations is really valuable ( our collective discomfort is a pretty strong hint), and is fueled, at least in part, like everything else in this outrageous, beautiful, and maddeningly unique country, by the amazing diversity of our fledgling mahasangha. Everybody has a point of view–where things get emotional/defensive is when we identify that point of view as ‘me’. I really have faith that, as it progresses, the level of this conversation will rise, and we’ll all end up on a higher ground. What do you think?
      regards,
      Dave Laser

  • Stephen Slottow

    Me? No, I don’t think that’ll happen. I’m pessimistic. I think we’re in a circle, not a spiral. Sisyphus. The ol’ plod.
    Deja vu. I might be wrong, of course.

    -sps

  • Al Coleman

    James,

    The Buddhist sex scandal thing has pointed out one thing to me……I haven’t seen anything public of this nature in the Theravada lineages. There probably have been instances of this, but I haven’t read of any.

    Considering that Zen and Tibetan Buddhism take vows of the Bodhisattva and Theravada Buddhism is apparently concerned only with personal liberation, I find this odd. Could it be that personal liberation is the key to not causing harm to others? With the emphasis on a gradual and systematic approach to liberation, could it be that the students see a teacher in the Theravada lineage as merely a guide that simply has more repetition rather than someone who had “realized” something?

    I’m just posing these questions because they have appeared to me. Personally, I’ve only ever practice Zen.

    Al

  • Stephen Slottow

    It has occurred to me that many of the Japanese teachers (Eido, Maezumi, Sasaki, etc.) viewed America as a paradise of freedom and free love, far away from the rigid social expectations of Japan, and that they felt quite unconstrained, not detecting the hard Protestant core values that lie a little below the surface. Another aspect might have to do with the precepts. I have heard that Japanese monks are not much respected in other Asian countries because of what is viewed as their disregard for the precepts (and because they are encouraged to marry). And I think that much more is made of the precepts in American than in Japanese Zen.

    Another thought: perhaps all this sturm und drang might, after all, be part of the growing pains towards some vestige of maturity. Take Eido. For many decades, Aitken Roshi and others tried to do something (in part, at least) that would stick. Now it has stuck. That is a change. So perhaps we are not simply in (pardon the pun) a rut. Perhaps now we have to be careful to keep the exploration going, while resisting the temptations towards righteous zealotry. And we have to remember that Sweeping Zen has been and continues to be important in this process, and that currently Sweeping Zen is fragile and depends on one person who, it appears, is being attacked from all sides.
    -sps

  • http://enlightenmentward.wordpress.com NellaLou

    Thank you for the mention of my post and it’s possible usefulness. I take issue with the notion of importance however. Importance, self- or otherwise bestowed, tends to make people do very stupid things.

    Your criticism, “I don’t agree with everything she opines. I think she’s too harsh with Peter. I think maybe she lets Brad off a tad easier than I would. But… The heart of her argument is, I hope, the direction we will choose to go toward.” is understood.

    When I have an issue with Brad Warner I take it to his blog, or wherever the comment is made and stick it in his face directly. He usually responds, dialogue ensues and even if agreement isn’t forthcoming at least some amount of mutual understanding is. He does this with just about anybody that brings forth an issue. As far as I can recall he’s always engaged unpretentiously with people even before he had books that brought him some attention and continues to do so.

    He’s just one guy with a pretty much self-run website and a few books that are in a niche of a niche category. He doesn’t have titles like Abbot of a well known sangha nor perhaps the ambition for the same, or an alternate well-paying career to fall back on should the writing gig blow up in his face, a cadre of actual or potential dharma heirs to cover his ass whenever he slips up, the means (or perhaps even the interest) to attend all the Buddhisty conferences to press the flesh with colleagues nor the means to contest libelous statements implying he is a sexual predator (now that unsubstantiated viewpoint, however facetiously meant, is out there it will cause a certain amount of damage), membership in all the dues paying teaching organizations with their high-flown connections and email lists, a website with a dedicated editor supported by the status quo Zen community to solicit national opinion and promote it everywhere on social media, etc.

    I know Brad can take care of himself and doesn’t need me to play Joan of Arc on his behalf. My stance is one based on a principle.

    James, if I slant my pieces a little too much in favor of the lone guy getting torn up by The American Zen Machine™ (yes that’s hyperbole but you get the point) maybe it’s because I fear, as one with strong opinions, that the day The Machine, of whatever variety, comes for me, there will be no one standing beside me.

  • http://www.boundlesswayzen.org jamesford

    Dear NelaLou, should the day of the tyrants come, I hope you will find me with you…

  • Stephen Slottow

    Up against the wall, James…

  • Bob Anderson

    My disheartening take from this catfight is that if this spectacle is what a lifetime of committed zen practice leads to, maybe the very institution is flawed. A teacher I trust reminds always that zen isn’t about self-improvement but is there something about the robes and titles that turns adults into petulant children? That is a koan I definitely will sit with.

    • tyson davis

      Bob, my thoughts exactly. Up until recently, my only contact with zen had been through years of reading books. There were no teachers in my area. The books i connected with the most were from a teacher who i later found out had his own sex scandal. The problem is that most books portray the Roshi as super-human, especially the ones from zen’s so called golden era. From my limited contact with zen teachers this is hardly the case and has made me question what enlightenment really means and what good it does. What is the point if these so called enlightened beings have the same problems i have, and evidently have even larger ones?

  • http://www.boundlesswayzen.org jamesford

    An addition, I’ve added to the text. Grace Shireson has told me that she and Peter have both offered apologies to Brad.

  • http://enlightenmentward.wordpress.com NellaLou

    Thank you James. I hope we can all be standing together.

  • Weasel Tracks

    Welcome back to Samsara, James!

    Sure a lot of distraction from the original issue. A conspiracy-minded person might almost suspect the Schiresons and Brad have performed their play to make people forget all about Sasaki-roshi, perhaps on his orders.

    What I am waiting for, however, is to hear from a victim of Sasaki’s. Strange none have come forward yet.

    Nonetheless, Eshu Martin’s account of how he was treated is disturbing in its own right.

  • Cushing

    “What is the point if these so called enlightened beings have the same problems i have, and evidently have even larger ones?” This question I think points to the core of the matter, and underscores where we all risk losing our way. Given that the three pillars of Zen are determination, doubt and faith, when in our spiritual journeys can we ever afford to ignore that pillar of doubt without causing the entire structure to collapse into stinky rubble? In this regard, surely Zen is exactly the same as every other worthwhile human enterprise – whenever we put total trust in any teacher or leader, our endeavors cease to be whatever they were and become simply fascism.

  • Weasel Tracks

    What I am waiting for, however, is to hear from a victim of Sasaki’s. Strange none have come forward yet.

    Ah! Just came across the message from Rev. Shari Young.

  • Stephen Slottow

    Well, Koun Yamada divided Zen practice into three parts–concentration, realization, and actualization, and that the last has as its ultimate goal the perfection of character. Perhaps coincidentally, I am not aware of any sexual scandals that involve Sanbo Kyodan teachers, perhaps because the SK exerts a strong top-down control on its teachers.

    Bob Anderson comments that “maybe the very institution is be flawed.” But there is no institution. There are a lot of smaller institutions: Rinzai-Ji, Boundless Way, The Pacific Zen Institute, the Sanbo Kyodan etc. I suppose the biggest would be the Soto Zen Buddhist Association?

    • scott macneilage

      What seems clear is that for all the talk of “Spiritual Practice” and “Transmission” the Zen “community” is just a group of scared, confused self-promoting sophists that prey on the insecurities and pathologies of those they pretend to help.

      Brad Warner is clearly the self proclaimed leader of the predatory Zen cult of personality that also includes frauds like Noah Levine and Kevin Bortolin.

      Zen has a long history of sexual abuse in Japan – A tradition that Brad Warner never openly discusses or laments, but which he seems to fear being completely disclosed – the destructiveness to “Zen” (and his profitable position in it) more the important issue for him. He is no different that the Catholic hierarchy in this regard and perhaps worse given his Zen pretenses.

      I sit zazen. The Zen subculture does not sit well with me.

      In all seriousness, how can anyone not call these asses on their bullshit?

  • scott macneilage

    What seems clear is that for all the talk of “Spiritual Practice” and “Transmission” the Zen “community” is just a group of scared, confused self-promoting sophists that prey on the insecurities and pathologies of those they pretend to help.

    Brad Warner is clearly the self proclaimed leader of the predatory Zen cult of personality that also includes frauds like Noah Levine and Kevin Bortolin.

    Zen has a long history of sexual abuse in Japan – A tradition that Brad Warner never openly discusses or laments, but which he seems to fear being completely disclosed – the destructiveness to “Zen” (and his profitable position in it) the more important issue for him. He is no different that the Catholic hierarchy in this regard and perhaps worse given his Zen pretenses.

    I sit zazen. The Zen subculture does not sit well with me.

    Serious people would stop identifying and re-identifying with this immature bullshit and tear down the facade of farce being created by these clowns stuck in the three poisons.


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