Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Teacher Is Not Special

Dear American Zennies:

Have you noticed how much Zen lore involves old ladies who run tea houses, have very clear minds, and don't think twice about beating up Zen Masters and monks? If they aren't cowed by the figure of the Great Enlightened Master, neither should we be. If your Zen Master is a rascal, stop feeding him rice cakes and make him take a long walk in the snow.

This winter we have more controversy involving a prominent Zen Master, the roshi Eido Shimano of the Zen Studies Society. And so I have occasion to write a brief afterword to the series of posts I wrote this summer about the unhealthy adulation of Zen Masters, which concluded with this post about Eido-roshi's resignation.

In September, Eido-roshi wrote a public letter of apology for his conduct. This month, bizarrely, he wrote a letter to the New York Times in response to this story which appears to deny established facts and contradict his own public apology (which itself did not go far toward accepting responsibility for the harm).

For his sangha, a very bad situation is now worse. And in the kerfluffle, predictably, there are concerns that this is being handled in a way that shows more concern for the great honored Zen Master than for the victims of his actions.

In my own school, we had a problem involving our founding teacher, Zen Master Seung Sahn, back in the 1980s. From those who were there at the time, I have heard positives and negatives about how it was handled. One painful lesson that emerged from the process was the impulse to protect the teacher at the expense of transparency and trust. While we are far from perfect ourselves, I think we have now dropped this idea of the Infallible Enlightened Master.

Now the Zen Studies Society has to pass this koan. What is correct action? There is no formal procedure for revoking dharma transmission, but neither is there any compulsion to permit a Zen Master who is causing harm to function as a teacher on the sangha's property, nor to shield him from civil or even criminal procedures arising from his actions.

The Zen Master is not special

No matter how impressive the person is as a teacher, no matter how much gratitude we may feel for their contributions, no matter how attracted we are to them as people, we must kill the guru.

I'll stop there since I've blathered enough about this in the past.

[Photo: Eido-roshi in formal robes.]


Unknown said...

Well-said. I appreciate both the content and the brevity.

Rich Streitfeld said...

Nicely stated Algernon. More suffering is necessary.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post!

Joe Gin said...

I assume none of us knows Edo-roshi personally. We have only heard one side of the story. We are eager to assume that any woman who has sex with an authority figure is ipso facto a victim, thus denying her her own adult status and responsibility. But who cares—let the witch hunts begin!

Joe Gin said...

I should add: killing the guru is fine, but if you want to do that, first you have to kill yourself. Thanks for listening.

Algernon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Algernon said...

Nice handle, Joe Gin.

Are "we" eager to make such assumptions? I am not, and don't. In fact, you may notice if you read again that on this blog, we offer no opinion about what happened, the accusers, or Eido's guilt.

I'd like to move on to your second comment. Yes, you are essentially correct, and at the same time let us all beware of pseudo-dharmic communication-squashing. It is something I have noted in a number of older Zen students. Say something from your heart around them, and they'll smile a sad smile and say, "What a pity, you used the word 'I' in that statement twice."

Before you can kill yourself, you have to kill your clever Zen persona.

Joe Gin said...

Thanks, Algernon, good teaching.

I also apologize for my first comment, which was actually triggered by somebody else's speech. I'm sorry I aimed it at you.

Joe Gin said...

Thank you Algernon for your good teaching. It helped me a lot.

(I tried to leave this comment earlier but it didn't seem to work.)

Algernon said...

Hey Joe,

No offense, seriously. You bring up an important side to this, too. Your comments are welcome.