Wednesday, July 28, 2010

On Zen Masters and Institutional Zen, Part Four

On July 4, 2010, Eido Shimano Roshi stepped down from the board of directors of the Zen Studies Society (ZSS). This was prompted by allegations of clergy misconduct. The ZSS is committed to fully investigating, clarifying and bringing resolution to this matter. Eido Roshi’s wife, Aiho-san Shimano, also stepped down from the Board at that time.
Kwan Seum Bosal, Kwan Seum Bosal, Kwan Seum Bosal.

This event ignited discussion of Zen and institutional oversight on a number of Buddhist blogs and other web sites. James Ford wrote of the need for "larger institutions that oversee teachers and communities," not just for each community or Zen school, but "a pan-lineage organization with some teeth."

Brad Warner, author of the popular Hardcore Zen blog and a very busy Zen teacher himself, wrote a response that included some polite objections: "I’ve seen too many instances where that has broken down to believe that the simple existence of a big institution with an ethical code with teeth will always prevent abuses, or even prevent most abuses, or even prevent the worst abuses. ... Institutions have to justify their existence somehow. They have to keep doing something. When legitimate problems fade away they tend to start making up new things and labeling them as problematic so that the institution has something to do."

There is also this objection, from the same article, and it represents a point of view Brad Warner has expressed before: "I feel that Zen teachers are more like artists than like religious instructors. If you bind artists to institutions, you kill their ability to create art."

One of my favorite Buddhist bloggers, Nathan Thompson, has explored some of the personal ramifications of power and institutions in Zen in a series of good posts, like this one, this one, and this one. See also my old friend Paul's take on transmission and community sickness. There have many other interesting contributions which I must omit from mention for now.

For what it's worth, I would like to respond to the Ford and Warner articles jointly, as these seem to have ignited much of the discussion that has followed. In conclusion, I will return to the case of this anonymous Zen Master to whom I've been alluding throughout.

In response to scandals involving Zen teachers, some of us have resorted to familiar modern habits: litigation, making institutions, almost to the point of corporatizing Zen. Years ago, an insurance agent even approached Cambridge Zen Center about liability insurance for koan practice. In case, you know, someone had a nervous breakdown while thinking about a koan and decided to sue!

A Holy See?

Instinctively, I am concerned about the idea of a major "Zen See" that can intervene in events within any Zen school or lineage. Very few people talk openly about this, but there are some deeply prejudiced attitudes toward other lineages, held by teachers as well as students.

For a "pan-lineage" organization to treat different lineages and teachers' individual styles fairly and with respect, these attitudes would have to be aired. There would also need to be open conversation about things like, oh, say, teachers who claim their deceased Zen Master gave them dharma transmission in a dream, and other claims of secret or private transmission. Would the "Zen See" have authority over these as well? I'd like to think we are ready to jump in and have these discussions mindfully and honestly, yet I wonder.

Would such an authority really limit itself to reacting to extreme cases, or would it gradually impose a homogeneous standard on teaching methods and rituals? For example, would the Korean yonbi -- a small burn applied on the arm during precepts ceremonies -- come up for debate, or even banned? Would we begin parsing the different cultural inheritances and force the creation of an "American Zen style" rather than let it distill itself?

Within the Kwan Um School of Zen itself, I have noticed some of Zen Master Seung Sahn's original methods have been quietly dropped. His system of breath and movement exercises, soen yu, are seldom taught or practiced in North America, although a few of our older monks have kept it alive and will demonstrate it upon request. Meanwhile, Seung Sahn's "special energy practice," which I have described as "dancing in tongues," has gone underground and to my knowledge is very rarely practiced anywhere. (Several years ago, some of us Dharma Zen Center folks went out to Tehachapi for a few days and tried this practice with Mu Ryang Sunim. I don't entirely understand why it freaks people out -- we had a couple of people flee the temple crying "shamanism" in Korean.)

Zen Master As (Martial) Artist

Although one of Zen Master Seung Sahn's famous catch phrases was "don't make anything [in your mind]," he was very spontaneous and creative, and sometimes I miss that. There is something to Brad Warner's analogy of the Zen Master as a kind of artist: perhaps a performance artist using the immediate moment as her material.

Soen Nakagawa Roshi's retreats in America were, by all accounts, loaded with spontaneity in the midst of the regimented zen sesshin schedule. There are anecdotes of him playing pranks in the interview room, waking people up to bring them outside to show them a blooming flower, putting on masks and dancing. Bernie Glassman went from traditional Zen retreats to introduce street retreats, contemplative retreats at Auschwitz, and clowning as an awakening practice. Daido Loori roshi did some beautiful work developing a strict course of Zen training that incorporated the arts and wilderness. These are just a few examples -- there are more.

Instinctively, I tend to think of Zen as a martial art with religious elements, that can interface easily with other traditional martial arts as well as different religions. Why do any of these things? Who is doing it? Whatever art you practice, are you willing to use it to enquire deeply into the truth of this moment? Can you let the grandiose sense of "I" and its greedy desire burn away completely until it is no longer "you" acting, but the universe (or God or Tao or whatever name you want to give it) doing its thing?

Proactive vs. Reactive

Whether the Zen Master is a priest or a martial artist or a clown, the question of oversight remains. The community needs recourse in the event that a teacher mishandles her authority and causes harm. But now we run into our culture's frequent confusion of "proactive" and "reactive." You can't prevent harm by thinking reactively. You can prevent some things, however, by working proactively.

A great deal of growth might be accomplished by encouraging local sanghas to build democratic structures and to practice the skills of conflict resolution, dialogue, listening, and other aspects of group dynamics. It would make sense to build zazen into these structures, to make sangha management an aspect of our awareness practice, not to mention practicing the noble eightfold path in a conscious and open manner.

I trust this far more than I trust some sort of overriding federal or corporate body, a "Dharma See" that would legislate over the heads of the local sangha.

One more thing on this. Blanche Hartman once said to me, touching on the Baker roshi fiasco, that part of the problem was that "Dick didn't have peers. He didn't accept peers." How clear and simple that is. The sangha jewel supports and enriches us at every stage of our practice; it is much harder to stay clear in isolation. The Zen Master is still a practicing person, and by associating with others in a position similar to his, there can be a healthy peerage forging proactive working relationships and dialogue. And "pan-lineage" associations of teachers are appearing.

A Conclusion of Sorts

Would any of this have prevented or remedied the situation with the Zen Master who went after my girlfriend back in the 1990's? He was initially part of an organized Zen lineage, an established school. When that community began asking him questions about his conduct, he simply left and formed his own independent lineage. What is to be done at that point? Does anything need to be done? One could spread the word, but then we invite litigation, as well as the possibility that unproven accusations and slanders would spread. None of that seems very skillful.

How much control and safety are really conducive to awakening? The universe is not under our control and not especially "safe." I don't welcome unpleasant or dangerous experiences, but there is yet some value in going straight into the belly of the whale. When someone pointed a gun at my face, I learned things about myself (and the person I was with at the time) that cannot be "taught." It was the same when I got beat up on a New York City subway and was left bleeding on the floor. In retrospect, would I want to be "protected" from these experiences?

That may sound a little dark, but I'll leave it there. Yes, there is a need to respond to abuse, and to prevent its recurrence where we can. At the same time, we do need some exposed nails and broken bits of glass out there around our path.

Inconceivable is the Buddha way. We vow nonetheless to attain it.


Matthias said...


thanks for these very insightful and open posts.
What is to be done: Creating yet another institution might not be too helpful. What if it becomes corrupt itself over time, as organizations tend to do often?
What we need, in my opinion, is rather a healthy disbelief in authority, any sort of authority. The Buddha taught not to believe a single word he said, but to verify his teaching for yourself. Somehow this simple yet powerful teaching gets overlooked far too often in institutional Buddhism. What we need is more open discussion, just like what you started here. We should not be afraid of making mistakes or of libel suits either. The only thing that consistently works against abuses of authority of any sort is full public exposure. It is also the way of the Buddhadharma: to shine the light of your mind onto it. We, as a Sangha, need to do this.
It would also help to abolish the institutional insignia that symbolically elevate the teacher over the student (f.i. the full prostrations to the teacher...), as these forms do have the effect of furthering the belief in the unquestionable authority of the teacher. True wisdom does not need any of this, as it will shine even brighter the more it gets questioned.

Kelly said...

I've found this series of entries very interesting, Algernon. Thank you for the thought and effort that went into them.

I know very little about Zen practices or traditions, mostly just what I've learned from your blog. What has come to my mind while reading this, however, is how often abuses of position or authority occur in many walks of life... Christianity (just look at the Catholic Church!), the military, schools, and more. Self-policing obviously doesn't work in most situations.