Tuesday, July 27, 2010

On Zen Masters and Institutional Zen, Part One

He was a Zen Master, and he wanted my girlfriend.

I am not certain that he wanted to fuck her. Maybe so. What is certain is that he wanted her to move across the country to live at his Zen Center, work there for him full-time; and he fixed her up with a young postulant monk who was also living there. She disclosed to me that he said things to her like, "One day, I will give you inka."

(Inka is when an authorized Zen teacher recognizes your maturity and authorizes you as a teacher. It's considered a big deal, and the desire to become a teacher is a common pitfall in developing a consistent lifelong practice. Using that desire to hold students in place and get them to do things for you is rather awful.)

During the couple of days where she disclosed to me her sexual relationship with this young monk and her plans to move to that Zen Center, she received phone calls and emails from the teacher encouraging her to make a clean break from our relationship, hurrying her along, manipulating her and using her obvious attraction to him to his advantage. It was a weird way to break up with somebody. In hindsight, the lady was clearly ready to move on anyway. It broke my heart at the time but that's how it is with young love. (The lady's life took quite a few turns after that and although we are not often in contact these days, she appears to have a wonderful, happy life with a terrific husband and a baby.)

A short while after this went down, I learned that this man got into some serious professional trouble, which suggests his abusive behavior was not limited to his work as a Zen teacher.

It has been well over ten years since that incident took place. I have not written about it and have rarely spoken about it, for the most pragmatic of reasons: this Zen teacher has a following, and he or his organization could likely sue me. Talking about it all requires me to omit details that could be used to identify the person or his organization.

Preying on the vulnerable is pretty disgusting, and it is natural to feel some anger arise. The history of Zen Buddhism in the States includes several incidents where people anointed with the position of a Zen Master have abused their power, not limited to sex, although the sex scandals are powerful. (We so easily forget how much harm can be wrought by careless sex.) It also scares people away from the dharma, which perhaps increases the harm done by such actions.

In the west, this history gives rise to a natural question: is there a need for a large institution to hold Zen teachers accountable for actions like this? Can we leave this to the organizations that support a particular teacher's work? Or should the various schools and traditions band together and make one large institution that is empowered to act when a teacher gets weird?

This is something we are good at: making institutions and conducting hearings.

Over the last couple of days, a couple of Buddhist blogs that I read have been entertaining this question. I've been busy doing manual labor, and as I've worked this old incident and the comments I've been reading have danced around a bit in my mind. In the midst of trimming tree branches and other landscaping work around my new home, I thought I would take to this blog to explore the subject and maybe cross an unfinished "t" in the process.

To make this easier to read -- if anyone even cares to read -- I'm going to break this up over a couple of posts. One will deal with the idea of the "Zen Master" and another will deal with institutionalizing Zen. And maybe this will help close up a circle concerning this manipulative Zen teacher, who is still active, teaching many students, and -- I sincerely hope -- not doing anyone harm.

In writing about this, I guess I am erring on the side of open discussion, because Zen practice has been something of a salvation for me personally, and because the buddhadharma contains wisdom useful for all human beings, regardless of what religious identity people wear. I hope not to muddy the waters further.


Kyle said...

Thanks for the thoughts, this has become quite the hot topic!

Rev. Paul Dōch’ŏng Lynch said...

Hi Mumon,

Seems like we are all writing about this lately, thanks for you openness and honesty and sharing.