Stopping, Taking a Breath, and Recalling Why we Need to Attend to Ethical Codes and Practices Within our Emerging Zen Sanghas in the West

Yesterday I walked into my favorite coffee shop, where one of the baristas, a young and attractive woman, who over the last couple of years I’ve come to like a fair bit without, of course, really knowing her, commented how she loved my hat. I opined how one of the nicer things about the winter is being able to drag out one’s hats. She agreed, and then added, “your hat is just like one my dad has.”

Okay, a couple of things.

I’m not on any market. But, I do have a vague hope that should I need, I could be.

And, yes, her dad is probably a couple of years younger than me.

And, a cascade of thoughts about sexuality and sex and human relations bubble up from this and then downhill like a rushing stream…

I have a vague fantasy that the great North American Zen scandals are pretty much over. I’m pretty sure at least part of what allowed them, the cultish quality of Zen magnified by the isolation of groups and the scarcity of teachers has had its day. Well, except for the “only true Zen” groups, Zen communities that think their teachers are the only real Zen masters around. They continue and will continue to be seedbeds for scandal. But for most of us the scene has irrevocably changed. Not only do we increasingly understand that Zen teachers are not gurus, are not perfect masters, but also there are a variety to choose from. If one is not a good fit for any reason there is another not very far away…

We still, however, need to work our way through what are appropriate relationships between Zen teachers and students.

And within that mix the reality of human sexualities and all its complexities…

Now for some the question of what a Zen teacher is, is still open. But not for me. A Zen teacher if ordained is two things, if not ordained, one. If ordained, there is a ministerial aspect and general cultural expectations of behaviors. If a lay teacher, then its a bit murkier, but still counselors and therapists provide rough approximations for behavior expectations.

However, these can only be rough approximations. Zen communities and teachers remain counter cultural or in some rare instances, such as in the San Francisco Bay Area, at the edge of the mainstream.

A consequence of this is there are no larger groups that can exercise control – for good or ill – over individual teachers or sanghas. (The sole exception is the emerging Soto Zen Buddhist Association. For which, more anon)

Bottom line is that we’re all pretty much on our own here, teachers and communities.

So my view:

If the sangha is of any size it should start developing codes of various sorts, and ethical conduct should be among the first. And they need to be crafted in ways that give them credibility to those who might need to use them. The proto-denominational organization, the Soto Zen Buddhist Association will be invaluable as we go forward, I think. It is notable that among their first actions has been drafting ethical codes. For those with teachers not aligned with the SZBA its rougher. And particularly for teachers and very small sanghas.


The call is for all of us to be more real, to acknowledge our humanity, and with that our vulnerabilities, and to take actions to allow this wondrous discipline that is the Zen way to take root, to grow, and to flourish.

However we do this we who teach must take on the responsibility of continuing to training. Assuming that Denbo or Dharma transmission is the end of training is a serious mistake. I counsel my teaching colleagues to form small support groups of teachers, where one can go, and to share one’s experiences. Here the idea of confidentiality needs to be re-examined. Secrecy is good for no one. Have it written down that the teacher continues to work with other teachers and what is discussed in interviews will likely be discussed within that group which has covenanted to hold the confidence within the group. So, among other things the teacher can bring issues to the group. The student who looks just like a long ago love and whom the teacher discovers herself, himself thinking about a bit too much. The student who expresses love and a desire to show it in a more specific way. Confessions. Questions. In the era of skype and similar devices there is no reason not to form such groups.

One suggestion.

However we come to do these things, it is so important to address these issues.

The need is so great.

The gift is so important…

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