The Urban Dharma Newsletter - February, 2011
In This Issue: Sex, Teachers and Buddhism
1. Zen and the Art of the Sex Scandal
2. Famous Zen Master Genpo Roshi has announced that he is disrobing
3. Sex Scandals, Zen Teachers, and the Western Zen Dharma
4. Another Zen Master Scandal
5. Scandal and Allegation Updates
Stuff to think about… Sex, Teachers and Buddhism… Not a good combination… This newsletter is food for thought.
A new book has just been published, THUS WE HEARD: RECOLLECTIONS OF THE LIFE OF THE BUDDHA… It’s turning out to be a good read and I’d like to recommend it to anyone interested in Early Buddhism, and especially teens… It’s a good introduction to the Buddha, Arahants and the Dharma through the art of story telling.
THUS WE HEARD: RECOLLECTIONS OF THE LIFE OF THE BUDDHA / By Walpola Piyananda and Stephen Long
From the Foreword
The timeless teachings of the Buddha have been our source of inspiration, our guidelines for happy living, our motivation for practice, and our tools for higher spiritual attainment for many decades.
The question always arises: Just who was this prince who renounced the world to seek enlightenment and eventually became the Buddha?
Many books have attempted to answer this question, and many have done an admirable job. None, however, have really satisfied our desire for an eye-witness account of who he really was.
We decided that the best and only place to look for him was the Tripitaka, the Three Baskets of 84,000 teachings that were organized during the First Sangha Council ninety days after the Buddha passed away, and then first written down three hundred years after the Buddha’s Parinibbana.
Our first intention for writing this book was to present a biography of the Buddha from the perspective of the Tripitaka itself. The ancient Pali-language Canon contains a wealth of information on this subject, and we decided to mine it for deeper clues that might enable us to discover exactly who and what the Buddha was – minus the speculations, fables, and tales from the early Buddhist commentaries.
Our second intention for writing this book was to share verbatim as many translations of the Buddha’s primary messages as we could, realizing that most readers would never have the chance to read them unless they took it upon themselves to engage in countless hours of research.
Our third intention for writing this book was to share the life of the Buddha in a way that would appeal to Westerners and Easterners alike. To do that, we realized the need for a contextual story platform that would make the material both accessible and entertaining: hence the creation of the fictitious First Sangha Council sub-committee that recollected the life of the Buddha.
Thus We Heard: Recollections of the Life of Buddha became an amalgam of three kinds of books: a fully-researched biography of the Buddha, a collection of his important Dhamma messages, and a historical novel that “might have happened,” but we’ll never know for sure.
The nine fully-enlightened arahants on the sub-committee are real historical disciples of the Buddha that may have attended the First Sangha Council; we know that at least three of them actually did: Maha Kassapa, Ananda, and Upali. In regards to the other six, the records tell us they were alive at the time of the Buddha’s passing away, which means that they may have attended. The characterizations of the arahants in this book are based upon information gleaned from the Tripitaka, as well as from insights drawn from our own understanding, plus some imagination. The conversations they have with one another are fictitious, of course, as are the events we portray as having taken place during the course of the Council. The characters that make “guest appearances” at the subcommittee meetings are real and historic, and their genuine contributions to the Sasana are duly recorded in the Tripitaka.
Since both of us have close connections to Sri Lanka, it might be expected that we would include stories about the Buddha’s reputed three visits to that island in this book, but we did not. It is our intention to cover these fascinating tales in a future publication.
We hope you enjoy Thus We Heard: Recollections of the Life of Buddha, and gain a greater appreciation for the Fully Enlightened One and his influence on all of humanity for the past two and a half millennia.
May you be well and happy!
About the Authors
Bhante Walpola Piyananda is the author of Saffron Days in LA and The Bodhi Tree Grows in LA – both of them subtitled “Tales of a Buddhist Monk in America.” “Saffron Days in LA” has become a classic in American Buddhist literature, often used as a textbook in Buddhist Studies courses in universities; it has been translated into Mandarin, Korean, and Sinhalese.
Bhante Piyananda was ordained in 1955 as a novice monk in Sri Lanka at the age of twelve. He graduated with Honors with a BA from Kelaniya University in 1967. He received post-graduate degrees from the University of Calcutta in India and from Northwestern University in Chicago; completing his doctoral coursework at the University of California, Los Angeles. Bhante also received an honorary Ph.D. from the University of Oriental Studies in Los Angeles. He received the title of “Tripitaka Dharma Visarada” from the University of Ruhuna in Sri Lanka.
He first came to America on July 4, 1976 and founded Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Vihara in Los Angeles in 1980. He is the President of the Sri Lankan Buddhist Sangha Council of America and Canada, Chief Sangha Nayake of America, and Abbot of Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Vihara.
Dr. Stephen Long (Bodhicari Dharmapala) is the author of Karmic Ties: A Novel of Modern Asia, first published in the U.S. in 1999, and again in Asia in 2005. He is also a business consultant, screenwriter, journalist, editor, and meditation practitioner. In 1998 he was ordained a Buddhist lay minister (Bodhicari) at Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Vihara in Los Angeles; and in 2009 he received a Doctorate of Dharma from Buddhist Studies International, Los Angeles. He is Chairman of the Board of Captive Daughters, an all-volunteer California non-profit, which is dedicated to ending sex trafficking in the world. (www.captivedaughters.org)
1. Zen and the Art of the Sex Scandal / The American-based Zen Studies Society comes to terms, compassionately, with a revered teacher’s transgressions. / By Gary Gach / Gary Gach is author of Complete Idiot's Guide to Buddhism (third edition)
It will take decades before anyone can truly see how Buddhism will take hold in the West. Meanwhile, the evolution is interesting. October of last year saw women ordained as Theravada nuns (bhikkhunis) in Perth, Australia, for the first time in that lineage since the 13th century. (What took them so long?) Ramifications of the ensuing controversy will continue to ripple; that is, the ultimate significance resonates beyond themes of gender alone, embracing social, cultural, and political issues, as well. In a nutshell, it’s a reflection of how adoption by contemporary society is continuing and renewing the message of the Buddha.
2011 began with a news item of similar impact. Twenty Zen teachers in the West sent open letters to The Zen Studies Society in New York. With compassion and understanding, their general thrust is to ask that the Society’s former head, Eido Tai Shimano, not be allowed access to students—a strong penalty for a teacher.
Once You Mention Sex, Everything Becomes Sex
Like they say, it’s a long story. Here’s a quick backgrounder. The Zen Studies Society was established in 1956 to support D. T. Suzuki, one of the first Buddhist scholars to teach in the West. Ten years later, Zen monk Eido Shimano took charge and changed emphasis there from theory to practice. Two Zen temples resulted, one in Manhattan and one in the Catksill Mountains. Last year, he retired from the Board, then soon thereafter from the head monk (Abbot) position. In the process, he acknowledged his sexual misconduct there. That it had gone on for some time, and was not a complete secret, leaves certain questions in the air. For instance, who knew of his conduct, within and outside of the Zen Studies Society, what did they know, when did they know it, and what did they do about it? One might also wonder why there haven’t been any lawsuits, as within the Catholic Church of late. Was he influenced, perhaps, by the behavior of the 15th century eccentric Rinzai figure Ikkyu, who entered brothels wearing his robes of a Zen priest?
The Zen Studies Society declined to offer a statement, but has made it known they’ve brought in outside help. Much of the story is being documented at a self-appointed, online “Shimano Archive” to a degree of granularity of detail that is, in and of itself, rather remarkable. The situation, on the face of it, provides a point of departure for contemplation. In it, we can see aspects of ourselves, and Buddhism relation to other traditions; as well as key dynamic elements within Buddhism.
Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, another seminal founder of Zen in the West, once said, “Once you mention sex, everything becomes sex.” Indeed, to a hammer everything looks like a nail. And the powerful hold sex has over humanity makes hammers (and nails) of us all. Just glance at how often mainstream media manipulates sexual power to compel and coerce—like they say, “sex sells.” Now, look deeper: see our ancestors recognizing and grappling with such fundamental reality.
If the Bible is, indeed, open to interpretation, one camp of such literary critics (from St. Augustine to Rabbi Lawrence Kushner to William Irwin Thompson) see carnal knowledge as the culprit in the Garden. When God confronts Adam and Eve, they look at themselves, behold they’re naked, and feel ashamed. Ashamed at what? Why? And as they then hide their sexual organs, so to each of us is hidden any direct experience our origin, unlike every other event throughout our lives. Buddhism, on the other hand, is not so worked up over where we come from, or even if there ever was a first cause. Rather, of primary importance is needless suffering, its nature, and how understanding can lead to transformation and liberation. In that light, events surrounding Shimano Eido’s improprieties bring to mind three things come to mind for general consideration: the unique politic of Buddhist ethics; the ever-present potential within suffering for healing and transformation; and the situation’s potential to transform the nature of institutional Buddhism.
Buddhist Ethics, Buddhist Politics
In the spring of 2010, I wrote elsewhere on the perennial attention to ethics in Buddhism. One point I didn’t cover there was what might be termed the politics. Though such fundamentals as reverence for life, respect for property, sobriety, etc. all seem identical to Western codes of conduct, they arise differently in Buddhism. The Decalogue was revealed by divine commandment. In Buddhism, there’s no creator deity. Nor is there any central Buddhist institution, such as a Vatican. Rather, in establishing one of humanity’s first monastic orders, the Buddha set forth a matrix and process of conscious behavior (vinaya) based on actual conduct. As such, it’s thus not top-down but, rather, bottom-up. Different cultures put their own spin on the teachings (Dharma). Some schools have five central precepts; others, ten. But, however you divide the ethical pie, sexuality is always a primary ingredient to be aware of in our behavior.
Humanity has known rituals for a confession and renewal since ancient tribal times. In the time of the Buddha, the Sangha would, every full moon, gather for healing personal shortcomings (“beneficial regrets”), and to address and rectify disharmony in the community. As Vietnamese Zen Master Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh notes, “To begin anew is to look deeply and honestly at ourselves, our past actions, speech, and thoughts—and to create a fresh beginning within ourselves and in our relationships with others.” The latter phrase isn’t to be skipped over. Practicing with and as a group, alone with others, atonement (at-one-ment) implies interaction between the individual and the collective. There are also processes for reconciliation in Buddhism where all parties agree to be present together to enact a peace treaty.
Deep wounds can take many years to heal, but just one ray of light in a room that’s been dark for a many years can dispel many years of darkness. The Zen Studies Society’s treatment of the situation can effect change not only within their community, but the community at large; which is to say, all beings.
2. Famous Zen Master Genpo Roshi has announced that he is disrobing. / by Brad Warner
For those not acquainted with obscure Buddhist twists on familiar phraseology, to “disrobe” as a Buddhist monk means that you formally quit the Buddhist order and give up your status as a priest and/or monk. Ironically, it was disrobing that got him into trouble in the first place. It seems that Genpo, who is married, had an affair with the woman he was grooming to be his successor.
Genpo Roshi put a short essay explaining his side of the story entitled “Owning My Responsibility” on his website. It said in part, “I have chosen to disrobe as a Buddhist Priest, and will stop giving Buddhist Precepts or Ordinations, but I will continue teaching Big Mind®. I will spend the rest of my life truly integrating the Soto Zen Buddhist Ethics into my life and practice so I can once again regain dignity and respect. I will not give up on, and will still continue to be available for people who wish to continue studying with me as just an ordinary human being who is working on his own shadows and deeply rooted patterns… that have led me to miss the mark of being a moral and ethical person and a decent human being. Experiencing the pain and suffering that I have caused has truly touched my heart and been the greatest teacher. It has helped open my eyes and given me greater clarity around my own dishonest, hurtful behavior as well as my sexual misconduct. I am in deep pain over the suffering I have caused my wife, children, students, successors and Sangha.”
It’s signed “With Sadness and Love.” Isn’t that just the most precious and special thing you’ve ever read in your entire life? Feh.*
Some of you reading this probably already know that I have been highly critical of Genpo Roshi for a number of years [as has elephant, from time to time. ~ ed.]. In March of 2007 I published an essay on the Suicide Girls website titled “Big Mind® is a Big Load® of Horseshit“. In that essay I took Genpo to task for teaching a ridiculous technique that he claimed in his literature at the time could give a person a true Buddhist enlightenment experience in just a few hours. Not long after that Genpo introduced a new, extra special version of the Big Mind® seminars for which he charged $50,000 per person. I spoke out about that as well. In 2008, the folks in Genpo’s organization came after me for daring to criticize their teacher in the comments section of this Elephant Journal piece.
Now Genpo’s sexual misconduct has been found out and he’s all contrite and lovingly sad about it. Yet he promises he will still continue teaching Big Mind® and he will truly integrate Soto Zen Buddhist Ethics into his life. There is something seriously wrong with this picture. Deeply, deeply wrong.
Maybe I’m just weird. But Genpo’s affair seems like a pretty minor thing. Which is not to say I think it’s fine and dandy. But it’s a matter between him and his wife and his lover. I’ve come to believe quite strongly that monogamy is not at all the natural condition of human beings, despite what we’ve been told for so many years. For some people it comes effortlessly. For others it is absolutely impossible. I think for most of us it is possible, but extremely difficult. When I hear that someone has failed at it I am never shocked or surprised.
I understand that Genpo presented himself as a happily monogamously married family man and that these new revelations have shown this to have been a lie. I can see why people are upset at finding out that a man they trusted to lead them to the Ultimate Truth could not even tell the conventional/relative truth about his marital situation. Even so, the man’s sexual infidelities and his dishonesty about them, as bad as they are, are not even close to what I perceive as his most damaging misconduct.
People are falling all over themselves to congratulate Genpo for disrobing and “doing the right thing.” I don’t see it that way at all. Doing the right thing would have been remaining as a monk and ending the whole Big Mind® program. By leaving the Buddhist community, Genpo has now put himself beyond the reach of the only people who could legitimately criticize Big Mind®. I expect to see Big Mind® get even bigger and cause more destruction. Even absent the Big Mind® nonsense, remaining in the Buddhist order would have been the best way to address the other matters. Now that he’s on his own, Genpo has no one to answer to and can become as big of a cult leader as he pleases. That’s what typically happens in cases like this.
As usual when a sex scandal hits the news, this one has been accompanied by a whole series of other revelations. A former insider in Genpo’s organization stated on Facebook that Genpo’s community “has given him (Genpo) enough money to have three houses, two new cars and a Harley Davidson, not to mention a couple hundred thou a year salary and all expenses.” Yikes!
This all just has me scratching my head and furrowing my brow. Maybe I simply do not comprehend how normal people think. Because very little of this makes any sense to me at all. I get that the whole love affair thing was hidden. I get that people didn’t know about it till now. But this financial stuff had to have been all right out in the open. Genpo’s community didn’t know he had three houses, two new cars and a Harley? Really? Even I have seen photos of him on the Harley. And yet nobody noticed any problem with this? Seriously? That’s your story?
Look. I am not insisting all Zen monks take a vow of absolute poverty and live on just what they can carry in a knapsack slung over their backs like the monks in ancient China did. I know we’re living in a completely different society than they were. I own three bass guitars, a used PT Cruiser, and a ten-speed bike. I wouldn’t want to have to stuff those in a knapsack. But three houses? For the love of God, who needs three houses? I don’t even have one!**
Genpo made no secret that he was charging $50,000 a person for his instant enlightenment seminars. Didn’t anyone think that was just a tad excessive? It doesn’t sound like Genpo has any intention of not doing that anymore. He’s just going to be a little more careful about where he puts his penis.
I don’t care where he puts his penis! I’m sorry for the pain and suffering his wife and kids and his girlfriend had to endure. And it does show a lack of judgment and honesty that could reflect on other areas of his life and teaching. But it is so completely removed from the more truly damaging stuff he’s been doing (and apparently intends to go right on doing) that it hardly even registers as far as I’m concerned.
Sexual misconduct is a serious matter in Buddhist practice. It is one of the top ten things we vow not to do when we declare to the world our intention of following the Buddha Way. Long ago the Buddhist order tried to specifically define what is and is not sexual misconduct. But many centuries before any of us were born they realized that what constitutes sexual misconduct is very much tied to the society you live in and the attitudes of the people you interact with. There can never be any universal definition of sexual misconduct. Nevertheless there is still a universal thing that we can call “sexual misconduct” in spite of the fact that the specifics of what it is are so variable. Therefore we vow not to conduct ourselves wrongly in the area of sexuality. Then we have to figure out for ourselves what precisely that means in our own lives and in the lives of those we interact with.
It sounds to me like Genpo probably did engage in sexual misconduct. He clearly defines his behavior as such. In another instance having sex with someone other than the person you married would not be sexual misconduct. There are many married couples who do not feel that extra-marital sex is sexual misconduct. There are even entire societies who do not feel sex outside of marriage is anything to get too worked up about.
This is why these sex-related allegations against Genpo mean nothing at all to me. For all I know maybe Genpo and his wife were swingers and the affair was not nearly so hurtful as he’s making it out to be. He could just be too ashamed to admit it and is taking this public stance as a way of avoiding doing so. I don’t know and I don’t care very much. I don’t even understand why everyone else seems so overwrought about it.
There is another issue, though, that I am personally concerned about regarding this scandal. Some people have misread my book, Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate, as containing the revelation that I had an affair with one of my Zen students. Some have even so deeply misconstrued the book as to believe it says I had two affairs with two students. In fact, I fell in love with a woman who had come to a handful of the Zen classes I taught and then stopped attending them a few months before we got together. The other woman mentioned in the book was not only not a Zen student, she had not even the slightest interest in Buddhism. Neither of them ever entered into anything like a formal teacher/student relationship with me. In Zen, the teacher/student relationship is a clearly defined thing that involves a specific public declaration and ceremony.
Even so, this experience led me to understand how and why teacher/student love affairs develop so frequently in the Zen community as well as in other spiritual communities. Most of them are nothing at all like what happened with Genpo. There is no deception, no cheating on spouses, and no abuse of power going on in the majority of these relationships. They are simply cases of people finding mutual attraction based on a deeply held interest that precious few people can even understand let alone share. Where else would an un-partnered Zen teacher be most likely to encounter a person like that other than among her students? Sure there are six billion other people on the planet, as one guy pointed out on Facebook regarding Genpo, but how many of them are committed practitioners of the thing that that un-partnered teacher has dedicated her life to?
Unfortunately for these lucky people who have been able to find their so-called “soul mates,” the Genpo case may very well be absorbed into the psyches of the rest of their community and lead them to believe that something terrible is going on when really nothing could be further from the truth. Besides the whole Big Mind® mess, this is what saddens me most about the Genpo Roshi affair.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Big Mind® is a deeply hurtful and dangerous technique that goes absolutely against the real teachings of Soto style Zen Buddhism. It is far more unethical and immoral to run a Big Mind® seminar than it is to cheat on your spouse. The potential damage far surpasses anything a love affair could produce. I’ve written more extensively about this on my blog.
Buddhist style “enlightenment experiences” (I despise this term, but it’s in common use, so I’m stuck with it) are not something one should take lightly. There’s a very good reason why Zen teachers for thousands of years have cautioned their students to go very slowly and cautiously along the path. These sudden breakthroughs can seem very thrilling when they happen. People might even pay good money for them. But they can also mess your mind up in a very big way if you go into them unprepared. Yet here’s old loving Genpo making it so you can walk in off the street and have one in a couple hours. That’s like giving random people massive doses of LSD and saying, “Here! It’s fun! Now you’re going to see God and love everyone in the world!”
And Genpo has vowed to keep right on doing it. Wonderful. Just wonderful.
* And poor Ken Wilber! He’s up there on YouTube from a couple years ago telling the world, “Isn’t Genpo Roshi about the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen? It’s not just Genpo as a human being and as an Enlightened human being. He’s a deeply, deeply decent human being. Which is much harder than being enlightened, incidentally.”
**Hey former Genpo followers! I’m struggling to find a way to pay the rent on a cheap apartment in one of the most rundown communities in America. If you really want to stick it to Genpo, why not take away one of his houses, sell it, and give the money to his worst arch-enemy and nemesis–me? Then I’ll buy myself one house and it’ll all be even steven. Hit me up. We’ll talk.
Brad Warner is a Zen monk and author of Sex Sin and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between, Sit Down and Shut Up! and Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate. He maintains a blog about Buddhist stuff.
3. Sex Scandals, Zen Teachers, and the Western Zen Dharma / by James Ford
The recent revelations of continuing sexual misconduct by Kanzeon Zen Center abbot and Big Mind originator Dennis Genpo Merzel, following as it does close on the heels of the scandal and clouded retirement of the Japanese missionary priest and founder of the Zen Studies Society, Eido Tai Shimano, has badly shaken the Western Zen mahasangha.
As it should.
Within the firestorm of complaint and allegation that finally sparked after many years of rumor, Shimano Roshi did everything he could to save his position. After apologizing publicly for at least the most recent of the many, many allegations of sexual misconduct, which seemed to slow the storm, he then apparently wrote a letter to the New York Times denying the substance of his apologies and the reasons for his retirement to an emeritus status. Although it seems instead of mailing it, simply producing a Japanese version to be sent to supporters in that country. Speculation about why he chose to do that is speculation. He did it. However, when it was translated into English this became some sort of last straw leading many Zen teachers, myself included, to publicly call for his dismissal. How the ZSS has negotiated his final separation is still taking shape, but it seems he really is no longer going to be allowed to teach at their centers.
Merzel Roshi seems to have a bit firmer control of his organization even in the midst of his own firestorm. While “disrobing” and resigning from the larger White Plum lineage community to which he had belonged, he seems to have appointed the vice-abbot for what appears to be only a nominally separated Kanzeon Zen Center. However he appears to have decided to continue using the Zen title roshi. The shove to push of his reformations seem to be summarizable in the statement “Roshi will not be teaching at the Zen Center for an indefinite period of time.” His strategy appears to be to separate himself from the principal organization to which he has any accountability, the White Plum, and to then lay low for a bit…
His credibility among the mainstream of Zen teachers has long been strained. I've felt uncomfortable with his accepting money from the Frederick Lenz Foundation, an organization that exists to purchase a revisionist view of the late and extremely notorious cult leader who operated under the self-proclaimed style “Zen Master Rama.” The truth is a number of Zen folk have accepted their money. And, it could be argued the only difference between accepting money from the Lenz Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation is time from when the scoundrel who started it died. However, I then found that Merzel has gone beyond taking dirty money to pretending that Lenz was some kind of Zen teacher. This is amazing and hard to excuse from someone who is supposed to be a Zen teacher.
I don’t know what to say about Big Mind (registered trademark) beyond saying if it is, as Merzel has claimed, another turning of the Wheel, a new revelation of the Buddhadharma, I will have to admit I’ve missed what the Dharma is all about. As have all other Zen teachers along the way before this great revelation. Which, to my deluded eye, is a silly adaptation of Voice Dialogue therapy, an interesting, if to me, not especially compelling psychological model, adding in, from where I stand, a dualistic projection of personality as if it were sunyata.
Bottom line to Genpo: Don’t let the door slap yr butt…
But the fallout for the Zen dharma is my real concern. Not Big Mind (registered trademark) Zen, real Zen.
And what is going on? What do these sex scandals and others in the past and, you know, coming in the future mean?
There are those who say we need to grow up and walk away from Zen teachers.
I respectfully say you can. And you may well find a true and useful and healthful path. It won’t, however, be Zen.
The Zen way has evolved within a system of training, or rather a cluster of training systems, all of which require spiritual direction. It is based upon at its core the relationships between teachers and students.
The way Zen came west, through individual teachers with limited supervision, and then establishing centers that are more or less isolated from each other has created a cultish system. That’s the problem, aggravated, of course, by the inflated language of transmission. I’ve explored both of these issues before.
But this is a historical anomaly, being corrected by the expansion of Zen in the West and the constantly increasing number of teachers, domestic and imported.
I’m confident we are also at the edge of a time where people are no longer dependent upon keeping a relationship with a specific teacher or giving up the practice. Already this is true in the San Francisco Zen Center inheritance as well as the Kwan Um School of Zen. Even our little Boundless Way project with three and in a few months four teachers mitigates significantly the cultish inclination. In some ways the scandals reflect that reality. We don’t have to put up with the inappropriate in order to have access to the way.
Today there are plenty of teachers out there. (Although I'd do more than just look at the list. I believe Genpo is still listed there...)
And teachers are essential to the process. And they, we, are not minor deities. You need to know it. They, we, need to know it.
We need, rather, to keep our eyes on the ball.
Awakening is the project.
And we need to hold each other to account on the way.
We do this in healthy and respectful ways, then Zen will weather these and other scandals and bumps of our institutional adolescence.
And our way will, indeed, help in the great human project.
4. Another Zen Master Scandal / by Barbara O'Brien / Thursday February 10, 2011
This time, it's Dennis Genpo Merzel, Soto Zen teacher and dharma brother to my first Zen teacher, the late John Daido Roshi. Genpo has disrobed and resigned as abbot from the Kanzeon Zen Center of Salt Lake City. He also has resigned from the White Plum Asanga, an organization of Zen teachers in the lineage of Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi Roshi.
Right now I don't know many details -- I hadn't even heard the pre-resignation gossip, which means I'm way out of the loop on this one -- but what's coming out seems to be eerily close to the Peter Baker Roshi/San Francisco Zen Center episode of several years back. Like Baker Roshi, Genpo, who is married, resigned as abbot after disclosing that he had been carrying on an affair with one of his students.
Genpo will, however, continue teaching his trademarked -- and controversial -- Big Mind™ process. I never quite "got" what Big Mind™ is, but I gather that it's a cross between Soto Zen and western psychology. And that sounds fairly innocuous. However ...
What always (to me) made Big Mind™ sound hinky is that it is marketed as enlightenment on speed dial. By using Genpo's techniques, the pitch said, you could save yourself years of sitting zazen before realizing satori. Big Mind™ is taught mostly through seminars that charge a hefty enrollment fee, beginning at $150, which I'll come back to in a minute. I understand some people have paid as much as $50,00 for quickie enlightenment.
Soto Zen teacher Brad Warner has been one of Genpo's most outspoken critics for a long time. Way back in 2007 Warner Sensei called Big Mind™ a scam, and I find the sensei's arguments persuasive. More recently Warner Sensei said,
As usual when a sex scandal hits the news, this one has been accompanied by a whole series of other revelations. A former insider in Genpo's organization stated on Facebook that Genpo's community "has given him (Genpo) enough money to have three houses, two new cars and a Harley Davidson, not to mention a couple hundred thou a year salary and all expenses." Yikes!
Yikes, indeed. But this also parallels the Richard Baker Roshi situation. As described in Michael Downing's book Shoes Outside the Door, Baker abused his role as abbot and teacher to live far more lavishly than he needed to, while the members of the sangha were making significant sacrifices in time and money to realize Baker's plans for himself and SFZC.
Daido Roshi always spoke highly of Genpo, whom I never met personally, but I was Daido's student in the years before Genpo began marketing his Big Mind™ process. Whether Daido ever expressed an opinion on Big Mind™, I do not know. The situation with Genpo saddens me, but even more, I am saddened that someone who has "walked the walk" for so long could so abuse the Soto Zen tradition.
And once again, we Zennies find ourselves asking questions about trust versus blind following, and the management of Zen centers, and the student-teacher relationship.
Here are more comments from our resident curmudgeon, Mumon, and from Kyle the Reformed Buddhist.
Update: I forgot to add what I wanted to say about the enrollment fees. From time to time, I hear people complain about charges for classes or workshops. Christian churches don't usually charge for stuff like that. And the response is that most Buddhist centers and monasteries have to be self-supporting in ways that chuches of major Christian denominations usually aren't. Most Buddhist centers and monasteries in the West depend on member dues and charges for workshops retreats, etc. to keep the lights turned on and the monks fed.
However, reasonable and necessary charging for services are one thing; abusing people's desire to "do good" and practice the dharma to provide luxuries for teachers is something else entirely. These days we don't expect teachers, priests, and monks to live in abject poverty (although some do), but three houses? Please.
5. Scandal and Allegation Updates / by Barbara O'Brien / Sunday February 20, 2011
Welcome to scandals and allegations roundup! Let's start with updates to the recent post "Another Zen Master Scandal."
Soto Zen teacher Dosho Port has more commentary on the Genpo Merzel situation. First, he has published a letter written by Les Kaye, a teacher at the Kannon Do Zen Meditation Center in Mountain View, California, that provides more background.
Apparently, way back in 1992 Genpo Merzel already had a pattern of sexual misconduct and misappropriation of funds. Members of the American Zen Teachers Association (AZTA; then called Second Generations American Zen Teachers) expressed concern to Maezumi Roshi of the Los Angeles Zen Center, who was Genpo Merzel's teacher, and asked that Genpo's permission to teach be revoked.
However, many of Genpo's students, including women students, wrote to Maezumi to support Genpo and to question the ethics of his accusers. This was followed by a meeting at Green Gulch Farm at which Genpo faced some of the women who had accused him of abusing them, but in the end Maezumi chose not to revoke Genpo's teaching privileges.
Les Kaye added, "Almost twenty years ago, we tried to curtail Genpo's behavior and were told that we were in the wrong. Today we are being told by Genpo's more recent students that we are in the wrong for NOT doing something."
In a separate post, Dosho Port comments that part of the problem is that western Zen students and their teachers often fall into a kind of child-parent relationship, and this is not healthy. Adults students are, well, adults. Don't give up your power, Dosho says.
I agree with Dosho, but it's also the case that a lot of people coming into practice are in an emotionally vulnerable state. After all, if everything in their lives were peachy, they'd be less likely to seek out a Zen teacher.
And the Zen situation is complicated by the fact that, for the most part, there is no institutional authority over the teachers. The AZTA is a glorified listserv; as an organization, it has no disciplinary power beyond deciding who can be a member of AZTA. So I would say it is enormously important for Zen centers and monasteries to establish some kind of oversight that is separate from the teacher(s).
In other words, if a teacher is abusive, there should be someone in authority to complain to beside the teacher. And there should be a board of directors with the authority to discipline or dismiss the teacher.
I'd also like to point out that, so far, the scandals I know of have involved male teachers who were from Asia or in the first generation western-born teachers. That group was nearly all male, but today I'd guess about half of Zen teachers in the U.S. and Canada, at least, are women. And my impression is that a larger percentage of students are women than was the case at first.
I've written before about what might be called the de-macho-fication of American Zen. Years ago, some Zen centers could feel like samurai boot camp. I remember, ca. 1990, talking with a guy who had just left a Zen center headed by a famous teacher. If he had wanted that much macho posturing, he said, he would have joined the Marines. I can't speak for every Zen center in the West, but my impression is that, generally, there's a better balance between yin and yang now.
The recent scandals in U.S. Zen -- involving Eido Shimano and Genpo Merzel -- had both been simmering for many years. That both scandals were finally exposed now may be a signal that Zen women collectively are no longer giving up their power.
Sorta kinda related -- there's a new documentary out on the life of Chogyam Trungpa, who also was known to be, shall we say, sexually adventurous. Pema Chodron was one of Trungpa's students, and in this documentary she said that with most teachers who have sexual relationships with students, the real problem is not the sex but the deception. Blanket statements rarely cover all circumstances, but I suspect there's some truth in that.
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