Sex and the Zen Teacher, Among Other Things: A Draft Ethics Guideline

Sex and the Zen Teacher, Among Other Things: A Draft Ethics Guideline January 4, 2011

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.

Draft Ethics Guidelines
For the Boundless Way Zen Sangha
I vow to avoid evil
I vow to do good
I vow to save the many beings

We who are given the responsibilities of leadership and teaching within our sangha acknowledge that we are first of all continuing students of the great way. We also acknowledge there are power differentials in our relationships and how with leadership our words and actions carry even greater weight than might be the case in other circumstances. As such we agree to bind ourselves consciously to a code of conduct that nurtures our community as well as our own continuing practice.
We already have committed to walk the way of the Bodhisattva vows. From these precepts we find an outline for our lives. As leaders and teachers our first continuing commitment is to not knowing. Our second is to walk this path with humility. Our third is to accept correction as generously as it may be offered. Through these vows and the guidelines listed below we seek to cultivate a community of openness, generosity and wisdom.
All members and active participants are assumed to be willing to abide by these codes in general, and may avail themselves of the formal complaint procedure, as may non-members who are actively involved. There is also a limited provision outlined below for people not in the community to use the process.
Everyone who is invited to leadership as practice leaders, dharma teachers, senior dharma teachers and transmitted teachers within the Boundless Way agree to conduct himself or herself in accord with this Ethics code.
Raising Concerns
We are human and so contain within our hearts all the possibilities of being human. Something may happen within our sangha that causes concern. Ideally we can approach one another and speak of any such concern. Sometimes this doesn’t feel comfortable or right, or perhaps, even safe. If so, a process is in place to smooth the way toward reconciliation.
The Ethics and Reconciliation Committee
In the course of daily sangha interactions, disagreements, conflicts, misunderstandings and unethical behavior can occur. Often the ethical lines will not be obvious. The Ethics and Reconciliation Committee (EAR) is formed to assist in that process of clarification as well as to pursue more serious allegations. Any member of the sangha is encouraged to bring concerns to any member of the EAR committee for consultation, support and advice.
The number and membership of the EAR committee is determined by the Leadership Council and Guiding Teachers and are appointed by consensus. Tenure is for one year and may be renewed for up to three years. After an absence from the committee for a year, a person may be reappointed.
Should an ethical concern arise the sooner one can consult with a member of the EAR committee the better.
Often a meeting with a single member of the committee will prove sufficient. This can be an opportunity to air a concern and in that conversation often matters are made clear. Possibly there is a need for additional consultation. This can be mapped out with the committee member.
However in some areas involving significant inappropriate behavior, inappropriate sexual conduct, abusive behavior, harassment, incompetence or the use of position for personal gain or exploitation, the matter should quickly be brought to the whole committee. Some areas require anyone aware of them to bring the matter to the committee immediately. This would be anything that a therapist or minister would be mandated by law to report, such as suspected abuse against a child, an elder or a spouse or partner, misappropriation of funds or gross and harmful incompetence in leadership or teaching.
While the EAR committee offers a listen ear and counsel, it may not impose sanctions. If a dialogue between the parties does not lead to reconciliation then the recommendations of the EAR committee are forwarded, in the case of all but the transmitted teachers, to the Teachers council. In the case of transmitted teachers these recommendations are conveyed to the Leadership council.
We understand confidentiality to be a reasonable assumption of privacy. It is not a strict code of secrecy.
A central part of our practice is spiritual direction. There is a right to a reasonable sense of confidentiality regarding what is said in dokusan or similar interviews. However, it is the practice of this community that the senior dharma teachers and transmitted teachers consult with each other and hold confidentialities among themselves rather than alone. Personal details disclosed during interviews not relevant to practice are not shared.
When complaints are made or concerns are expressed, again, one person should not be expected to hold these things in secret. The matter may and probably will be brought to the EAR committee. As is appropriate and as described here these complaints or concerns may be forwarded to the Teachers council or the Leadership Council.
Relationships and Intimacy
Our practice is one of intimacy. It can be warmhearted and close. And relationships between teachers and students, as with therapeutic relationships usually involve powerful psychic conditions including projection, transference and counter transference. In addition there are the complexities found within the power differential that exists between a teacher and a student. With these various circumstances it is easy to cross a line from intimacy to sexual intimacy. And whatever the merits of sexual intimacy, this type of relationship tends to confuse the other aspects of intimate relationship necessary for a successful teacher and student relationship.
Again, sexuality is a natural part of life and as a non-celibate sangha sexual intimacy is going to be a cherished part of our shared lives. However those who lead and who teach have those additional responsibilities and our covenant includes several commitments regarding sexual behavior.
No leader or teacher who is married or in a committed relationship should engage in sexual activities with any other person.
Any leader or teacher not married or in a committed relationship who finds a romantic relationship beginning with a member of the sangha should inform the EAR committee of this relationship and seek guidance as to the most healthful way to proceed.
If the people involved are in a teacher student relationship, a choice must be made between either pursuing that personal relationship or continuing the teacher student relationship, but not both. The EAR committee should help in this decision making process. A resolution should be achieved with as little delay as humanly possible.
Professional Conflicts
Many of our members are psychotherapists, coaches, physicians, attorneys, contractors and others who may offer services to other members of our sangha. It is important to be mindful of the complexities that can arise in dual relationships, and while we do not discourage these relationships, we ask all to be mindful of potential abuses. If there are questions or concerns it is appropriate to bring these concerns to a member of the EAR committee.
All matters of a financial manner made among members of the sangha should be engaged with open hearts and clear heads. If a leader or teacher is engaged in a business arrangement with a member or members of the sangha it is important that a member of the EAR committee be made aware of this. In any business arrangement written covenants are very important. Consultation with the EAR committee is strongly encouraged.
Maintaining the wellbeing of the sangha is the mutual responsibility of all its members. If you feel the guidelines are not being observed, or simply wish to share your discomfort, please bring those concerns to a member of the EAR committee. Your questions will be taken seriously and examined according to a principled and confidential process. We hope that diligent inquiry; honesty, compassion and openness will strengthen our sangha and support this important practice into the future.
Again, whenever possible, a direct conversation between parties is best.
When it is not, then one should bring concerns to a member of the EAR committee. If the matter can be brought to a satisfactory conclusion through an informal process, this would be the end of the matter.
If the matter cannot be resolved informally, or with more serious concern, a process has been developed outlined below as the “Formal Procedure.”
There are many possible consequences to a complaint. Healing and reconciliation is the goal. But all parties cannot always be satisfied. Serious violations, particularly of personal intimacy between leaders or teachers and other members of the sangha may necessitate interventions possibly including a recommendation to the Teacher’s council, or in the case of transmitted teachers to the Leadership council, which may include various sanctions including dismissal from leadership or teaching within the Boundless Way Zen Sangha.
Formal Procedure
Our formal grievance procedure is available when informal attempts at reconciliation have not worked or are inappropriate.
Some areas that are appropriate for this formal procedure include situations in which a member wishes to appeal an administrative decision regarding her or himself personally or situations where a member feels another member, leader or any teacher has engaged in significant misconduct or unethical behavior.
A nonmember who is an active participant in BoWZ activities may also have standing to use this process. In general this process is for the community. The EAR committee can determine whether a complaint by a non-member who is not involved directly in the life of the sangha, should be addressed.
The EAR committee has responsibility for determining whether allegations of misconduct have occurred, and what the consequences (if any) should be, excluding expulsion from the sangha or sanctions on the senior teachers. In those cases their recommendation is forwarded in the case of transmitted teachers to the Leadership Council, and in other cases to the Teachers Council.
Any complaint to the EAR must be made in writing. It may be given to any member of the committee. Anyone who registers a complaint with the EAR committee should be given a copy of the Ethics code along with acknowledgment of receipt of the complaint.
The complaint should describe the alleged behavior, a history of any attempts to resolve the complaint informally, and a general statement about the desired resolution.
The EAR committee should respond to the person who has registered the complaint in writing within a month with the decision and the reason for the decision.
Among the possible responses are a finding of no breach, suggesting a mediated resolution, a limited finding acknowledging some breach and forwarding this to an appropriate second party, a reversal of an administrative decision or action, a private and mediated apology, a private reprimand, follow up meetings with affected parties, a public apology, public censure, reparation when possible, a recommendation for psychological counseling or similar program, a period of probation, suspension or dismissal with the exceptions noted above.
Anyone may appeal the EAR committee’s decision to the Leadership Council. However, the council is expected to work from an assumption that the EAR has acted in good faith and with due diligence, and so to not lightly overturn the findings of the EAR committee.


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