Wednesday, November 28, 2012

On teaching and desire

In 1979, a terribly sad scandal rocked the New York theatre scene.  A well-known and respected master acting teacher, Paul Mann, was exposed in a Village Voice article alleging that he was fucking some of his female students on the pretext of helping them release pent-up emotions and creativity.  Mr. Mann was later mentioned prominently in an article for Spy Magazine that examined sexual and psychological abuse of student actors, and was sued in a class action by several of his former students.

This was not, however, an isolated case.  Here is how Richard Hornby summarized the case in his book The End of Acting:

An acting teacher named Paul Mann, whose classes included such techniques as group nudity, allegedly had sexual relations with his students as a method of "releasing" them.  Had he been bisexual he might have gotten away with it, but students noticed that the "special sessions" in his private office were limited to the female members of the class, and the more attractive ones at that.  Interestingly, after the Voice exposed this outrageous "teacher," other acting instructors were quoted as saying that Mann's approach was perfectly reasonable; they too had sex with students.  In this they were being logically consistent; if the goal of actor training is the release of real, honest emotions, then rape by deception is certainly one way of achieving it.

From my observations of similar scandals in American zen, I think it is actually plausible that some if not all of these acting teachers actually believed there was some beneficial "teaching" in this activity.  Paul Mann (who died in 1985) has a memorial website that defends his methods:

A major element of Mann’s unique and challenging acting technique and training deeply explored the actor’s physical life by nurturing and encouraging the release of an uninhibited imagination through exercises. This aspect of his training - the un-self-conscious comfort of the actor’s physical being-- was noticeable in his own performances and in the actors he trained professionally. Uninhibited imagination, comfort in one’s body in order to release oneself in the circumstances of the play and trust in embracing one’s sexual being, resulted in an authentic physical truth from his actors and directors.  

For a very long time, and probably still today in some corners, acting classes were predicated on a weird corruption of psychoanalysis.  Acting classes looked like bad group therapy sessions, with students subject to exercises exhorting them to confront unpleasant memories, push boundaries of personal safety in their relationships with each other and the teacher, and to "release" powerful emotions or impulses in the studio.  This is not art.  It is a very bad parody of what Freud rejected as "wild psychoanalysis" and does not address what an actor actually needs to do.  The actor does not need her personal inhibitions to be "released," she needs the artistic skill and analysis required to play a role in a work of theatre.  Acting is not neurosis, and students in an acting class are not patients.  The actor's personal life and emotionality are certainly useful in making art, but it is not the primary source of inspiration.

The mock-therapy milieu is not only bad for the art, but it puts the teacher in a very powerful social position: the position of a therapist or even a guru.  In an atmosphere where trusting followers are cultivated, it has too often been the case that the teacher has taken advantage of trust and attraction, acted out of lust, and then rationalized the behavior as serving the student's art.  There you have it: the famously corrupting combination of desire and power. 

This should sound terribly familiar to readers who are familiar with the numerous sex-related scandals in American Buddhism.  Replace the acting studio with a zendo or temple.  Put the teacher figure in Buddhist robes.  Surround him with trusting and adventurous young students.  Here, the rationalizations are not about the student's art, but about the student's spiritual progress.  The rapist is simply wearing a different costume.

If you tear apart all the glossy wrapping and get to what's going on with that teacher, I suspect you come right back to one of the elementary teachings of Buddhism.

Tanha in Pali. What we call desire, or craving.  Also known as the second noble truth.  Suffering originates in desire.  Desire has a certain nature and a certain affect.  It creates a sense of lack.  It causes suffering.

Desire arises and is simply part of life.  This is why the Buddha presented the Eightfold Path and the precepts.  These are structures we can use to direct ourselves toward an upright life, knowing that suffering and craving are basic truths of existence.  Indeed, we call them "noble" truths, because they are the impetus for waking up

So what's going on with zen priests who can't keep it in their pants?  Especially the ones considered great zen masters?  Why are recent scandals replaying the scandals of the past so closely, as if the culture had learned nothing from previous painful experience?

Apparently desire is a persistent phenomenon.  Wow, who knew?  And apparently, also, ordaining as a priest or even achieving dharma transmission does not make a person insusceptible.  Are we surprised?

Let's return to some basics.  There are said to be three kinds of desire (tanha):

The first kind is the most familiar.  Kama tanha, the desire for sensual pleasure, as derived from food, sex, sleep, or other things.  There is no lasting satisfaction from sensual pleasure.  We have sex, then we feel hungry so we snack for a bit or maybe smoke a cigarette, and then we want something else, and by the time we've quenched that particular thirst it's about time to have sex again or eat some more. 

The second kind is also relevant to the problem we are discussing.  Bhava tanha is broader than the desire for sensual gratification.  This one is about ambition, attainment, becoming something.  This is the desire for power, position, adulation, money, and fame.  This is also a dangerous and deceptive kind of desire, because it is very adept at disguising itself as selfless aspiration: "I fondled her in order to release her emotions!"  In zen, there is a great deal of theorizing about freedom and non-attachment, and one can easily use this kind of speech to delude oneself and others about what is going on in a relationship.

The third kind is vibhava tanha, the opposite of bhava tanha in that it seeks to get rid of something.  It dovetails back into bhava tanha because the motivation to get rid of something leads to a desire to become something different.  Among other things, this leads people to beat themselves up or put up with abuse out of a desire to become something new.  This is why students are encouraged to recognize thoughts and desires and let them go without attaching to them or trying to drive them away.

In response to repetitive incidents involving money, sex, and power among Zen Buddhist teachers, we read a lot of discussion and argument about reactive measures.  There is comparatively less about prevention or how to address the issue at its root -- the issue at the root of Buddhism itself.
The nature of desire is not a mystery outside of Buddhism.  I work in the theatre, where one encounters attractive people, where people undress around each other and often are called on to kiss and touch each other.  Passions fly and people deal with it -- usually with success, although the failures get more attention.  Also, I teach acting classes, many of them on a college campus where there are large numbers of nubile young women everywhere I look, and once in a while I notice a student taking a passing fancy to me. Managing these distractions and returning to correct situation, correct relationship, and correct function is usually not difficult, but it is an ongoing practice.  Sometimes passions are difficult to manage, and a demonstrated understanding of this has got to be a basic competency of a dharma teacher.  We have all got to stop kidding ourselves that a fly whisk and a transmission certificate make a person infallible.

It might be very useful for all our zen schools to reflect honestly on how people are currently prepared for the role of a dharma teacher, and whether the process adequately equips candidates to handle issues of desire, power, and temptation.  Does the teacher maintain a healthy attention to their own emotional life and behavior?  Will the teacher have access to help if they need it?  And what are early signs that a teacher may have a problem but doesn't recognize it?  Who is empowered to investigate and confront such problems when necessary? What role can students themselves play in that process? 

During the twenty years I've been a student of zen, I have encountered several people who were legitimately empowered as teachers but exhibited fishy ideas or behavior.  Under the mantle of authority and a legitimate-looking temple, fishy ideas can pass for dharma, and fishy behavior is all too easily excused.  ("It's just roshi.")  They are not the majority, but again, the failures get more attention -- and do real harm.  How do dharma teachers get to this position without clearly showing their own teachers that compassion and ahimsa (non-harming) are spontaneously manifest in their lives? 

Lastly, what about the structures where teaching and practice take place?  Maybe a narrower gap between the status of the teacher and the status of the students would foster a safer environment for everyone concerned. Fundamentally, a dharma teacher is still a practicing person, and whether in the role of a teacher or student, "guest or host," we are practicing together; and in the culmination of the bodhisattva vow, we are responsible for one another. 

[Image: your correspondent, doing some hands-on teaching at an acting workshop in New Mexico]

[This piece also appears on the Sweeping Zen website.]


Russell Kellogg said...

Beautiful, articulate post. Have you seen "The Master"? One review that I read has the thesis that this film was about method acting. Thanks for your eloquence.

Algernon said...

Thanks for reading and commenting! How are you, Russ? It's been a while. FB me!