Zen and (the sad art of) Sex Abuse

When I went to the New York Times web site on February 11, 2013, the lead article was Zen Groups Distressed by Accusations Against Teacher. It isn’t often that the Times lead article is about something Buddhist, and sadly the topic was sex abuse. The article describes a Zen community founded by Joshu Sazaki who has been “groping and sexually harassing female students for decades”. Sazaki even tried to break up the marriage of one of his students, and encouraged him to have an affair.

This is not the first time something like this has happened, and it is an occurrence that seems particularly prone to happening in Zen communities. The San Francisco Zen Center, one of the first and most prominent Zen centers in the U.S. (started by the famous author of “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”, Shunryu Suzuki), had a similar scandal when Suzuki’s successor, Richard Baker, forced female students to have sex with him, and coerced his students into turning over all their money to the Zen center. While Baker lived in luxury, his students were relegated to a life of poverty and manipulation.

These incidents all have three things in common:

  1. The trust in and reliance on a “guru”, who is given almost complete, unquestioned authority.
  2. The closed and somewhat secretive nature of these communities.
  3. A misunderstanding of some of the more subtle teachings of the Buddha.
  4. A disregard for the Buddha’s foundational teachings on morality.

Those Pesky Gurus

The Buddha famously did not appoint a successor before he died. He was very wary of unchallenged, religious authority. It is one reason why his monastics were forced to gather alms on a daily basis. Misbehaving monks and nuns could then be held in check by the lay community on whom they were dependent. Even during the Buddha’s life badly behaving monks were held in order by lay communities that were disgusted by their poor behavior.

When a monk or nun was ordained – in a practice that continues in some lineages to this day – the monastic was assigned a “preceptor” to help them learn the nuts and bolts of how to behave in the monastic “Sangha” (community), and a meditation instructor. Neither of these people were gurus, and neither one of them were given unquestioned authority. In fact, questioning is a vital part of the tradition. Even on his deathbed the Buddha asked several times if anyone there had any questions for him. He even went so far as to say that if anyone had a question but was too shy to ask, they should have someone ask it for them. He tried in every way he knew how to encourage them. The Buddha himself never asked for unquestioned authority.

Even today in many traditions it is considered bad form for a teacher to give a Dharma talk and then not answer questions. It is actually considered something of a failure if students don’t have anything to ask. The second factor of enlightenment is “taking an interest”, probing into a topic or issue.

There is a Pali term that is used in “Southern Buddhism”, and that is “kalyana mitta”. It means something like “spiritual friend.” Your preceptor and meditation instructor are to guide, point the way, provide encouragement, answer questions, and to help you along the way. But it was never the idea to give over unquestioned authority to a “guru”. This is something that came much later – during the 1st millennium – and is an example of what I call “creeping Hinduism”. And while it is true that guruism is more a mark of the Mahayana traditions – like Zen and Tibetan Buddhism – to be fair many teachers in both of those traditions teach more like kalyana mittas than gurus.

The Buddha created a decentralized community, and when he died he told his monks and nuns to rely on the Dharma and the Vinaya (the monastic code) as their guides. So his final advice was not to follow a person or persons, but to trust in the path – the Vinaya – and the “reality of the way things are” – the Dharma:

And the Lord said to Ānanda: ‘Ānanda, it may be that you will think: “The Teacher’s instruction has ceased, now we have no teacher!” It should not be seen like this, Ānanda, for what I have taught and explained to you as Dhamma and discipline will, at my passing, be your teacher. [Mahaparinibbana Sutta, DN 16]

Larry Rosenberg, a co-founder of the Cambridge Insight Meditation Society, says that he is always amazed to see how otherwise intelligent, educated, successful people check their common sense at the door when it comes to their spiritual practice.

Misunderstanding the Dharma

Of course, certain aspects of Buddhism add to this problem. There are some very subtle teachings. This is a mystical tradition, and unfortunately the subtlety and counter-intuitive nature of some of the teachings can be used to manipulate students. If you don’t understand something, the implication is just that you are not spiritually advanced enough. (It’s sort of how the computer industry makes people feel like it is the user’s fault if they can’t make something work. The idea that maybe it’s bad engineering never occurs to most people.)

A prime example is those elusive notions of emptiness, nothingness, and non-self.

I have heard some very prominent teachers make the following statements:

There is a difference between conventional reality and ultimate reality.

Ultimately, nothing exists.

I challenge anyone to show me where the Buddha said either of these things. You can throw non-duality into the mix as well. Then there is that slippery issue of non-self.

The first statement does not make any sense. How can there be more than one reality? Things either are as they are or they aren’t. The word Dharma itself can be translated as reality. The Buddha did not teach Dharmas, he taught Dharma (or, more precisely, Buddhadharma).

Because I am typing on a keyboard that is made up of ever-changing quarks doesn’t mean there are two realities. It is still the same reality. I am typing on a keyboard that exists, and the causes and conditions that cause it to be are based on probabilities that make those quarks form into a keyboard. It is the way things are. The fact that quantum physics gives me a more sophisticated way of understanding the universe doesn’t mean there is more than one reality. It just means that I have a deeper understanding of that reality.

And to say that nothing ultimately exists is equally foolish. Now to say that ultimately nothing exists in the way in which we normally perceive it, that is quite a different thing. The keyboard exists, but not – as the Buddha famously said – in any permanent way. That is true for beings as well, and our minds. We exist as an ever-changing process, one that is different moment-to-moment. There is no soul or permanent essence. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t exist, it simply means that we don’t exist in any permanent unchanging way. Those are two very different things.

Take some conventional realities: rocks and the weather. A rock is pretty solid. It doesn’t change much. But a weather system changes every moment. But no one would say that the weather doesn’t exist. If you believe that I invite you to shovel the non-existing snow the next time we have a storm here in Vermont.

As to non-duality, as Bhikkhu Bodhi points out (http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/bps-essay_27.html), the Buddha never taught a non-dual universe. First of all, how can you become one with everything (something else he never taught and another example of creeping Hinduism), if in the first place you claim that nothing ultimately exists? But more importantly, this notion that Samsara (conventional reality) and Nirvana is the same is specifically not a teaching of the Buddha’s. The Buddha was quite clear that Samsara is Samsara and Nirvana is outside of Samsara. When the mind, free from clinging, becomes unbound, when the body dies, the stream of consciousness is free from the Samsaric world.

So what does this have to do with sex abuse? Well, if you believe that people don’t really exist, and you believe that nothing ultimately exists, then morally you have given yourself a way to justify anything. The Samurai famously gravitated towards Zen because of this – misunderstanding – that no one really exists. You could kill someone, for example, but since that person didn’t exist to begin with, it was a moral loophole of sorts.

(The issue of whether the Buddha understood a self to exist is also a little thornier to me than is often taught. The Buddha was clear that the khandas – the body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness – are not self. But in the Ananda Sutta [SN 44.10] the Buddha famously refuses to answer the direct question of whether there is a self. To me this leaves open the question of whether there is some other way of thinking about a “self” that perhaps is beyond the scope of conventional thinking, like the proverbial problem of explaining what an elephant is like to a blind person.)

If you believe that our suffering comes from attachment to an ego – a very Western word, by the way – then you can do whatever you want to someone, because it is their attachment to ego that is the problem, not the fact that you are inappropriately groping their breasts or trying to ruin their marriage. The fact that you are causing suffering is their problem, not yours. You are just trying to free them from their attachment.

The Buddha did not teach nihilism. He taught causality (sometimes called phenomenology in modern terms). A set of causes and conditions gives rise to a set of results, which then become the causes and conditions for the next set of results, and so on. This is true in the physical world, and it is true in the psychological world, the world of the mind. Unskillful acts precipitated by unskillful intentions cause suffering. If I am acting out of anger, hatred, greed, fear, etc,. I have already lost the karmic battle.

Causality is quite a different thing from nothing. Causality describes a universe – and a mind and a consciousness – in constant motion. It’s a universe of verbs, not nouns. But that is not to say that it doesn’t exist. It is to say that it is not static in the way that it – conventionally – appears to us, and in fact our attempts to make it static are one of the main reasons that we suffer.

(At the risk of getting too obtuse, those familiar with the meditative absorptions – a.k.a. the jhanas – know that the 7th Jhana is the base of nothingness, which might make the case for nothing ultimately exists. The word nothingness is also sometimes translated as no-thingness, meaning that there are no permanently existing things. Many people who practice the jhanas experience the 7th jhana as a sense of motion. That, I believe, argues more for the case of the universe as fluidity, rather than nothing.)

Morality and Ethics

This brings us to the issue of sila, the Buddha’s teachings on morality. And now that I have seemingly pointed the finger at the Zen community, let me say that one of the very best teachers on this topic is a Zen teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh.

Around the world the vast majority of Buddhists do not meditate, but they do practice sila. If Buddhism were a pyramid, the ground would be generosity, and the first layer of stone would be sila. This is a teaching that goes back to the time of the Buddha.

There are four fundamental precepts, and a somewhat elusive fifth one that changes a little from sutra to sutra. These are:

  1. Do not kill – harm – living beings.
  2. Do not take that which has not been freely offered.
  3. Refrain from sexual misconduct.
  4. Refrain from false speech, which has four aspects: do not deceive, do not speak abusively, do not “cause discord in the community” (i.e., talk behind people’s backs”, and refrain from idle speech (gossip).

The fifth one usually shows up as refraining from the use of intoxicants. (In another sutra the fifth precept is about killing rice seeds and plants, but that was to a community of “wanderers”, or “recluses”, who presumably would not be using intoxicants.) The understanding is that the use of intoxicants is not, in itself “immoral”, but that it tends to make one more susceptible to unskillful behavior, a.k.a, causing suffering.

Since the topic at hand is mainly sex abuse, precept three has particular relevance.

Sharon Salzberg explains the precept in this way. She says that it is about “not using your sexual energy in a way that does harm to yourself or others.” I think it is particularly interesting to note the cases where sexual intercourse may harm you but not someone else. I think that some – probably most – prostitution falls into this category. It doesn’t hurt the customer, but may be harmful to the prostitute even though the sex may be consensual. That kind of sex may be quite humiliating.

The Buddha was quite aware of the power of sexual energy. In the Vinaya there are a number of rules to prevent even the appearance of sexual impropriety. A monk was never allowed to be in the company of a woman without at least one other person present. Monks were never allowed to touch or be touched by a woman. Even if the woman was the monk’s sister or mother, touching is not allowed. One of the purposes of the Vinaya is to earn and keep the respect of the lay community, and there are a number of rules in place to make sure that what may seem like innocent acts are not misinterpreted.

You can already see what a far cry the Buddha’s instructions on sexual misconduct are from a Buddhist teacher having sex with his students. It is about as far away as you can get. Likewise, with the second and fourth precepts in the case of Richard Baker. He used “false speech” to deceive students into giving up their wealth which was not – certainly – freely given. The Vinaya also has a number of rules in place to prevent even the most subtle suggestion that something be given to a monk or a nun. Monastics are not allowed in any way to indicate that they want anything. (I believe the one exception is water, for which they are allowed to ask.)

I read many years ago – I believe in the book “Foundations of Buddhism”, by Rupert Gethin – that Buddhism is interesting in that when it reforms, it reforms back in the direction of orthodoxy. In other words, over time people stray from the original teachings of the Buddha, and then they get into trouble, so they go back to being more like the way the Buddha taught. Usually we think of reform as a process of moving away from an outdated norm into a more progressive one, like the abolition of slavery or gender equality. It is quite a monument to the Buddha that we don’t progress away from his teaching so much as we stray from it, get into trouble, and find our way out of trouble by reverting to his original instructions.

(It is worth noting that some might make the argument that the rather hideous treatment of women in Buddhism is an exception. But there is a considerable amount of debate over whether the treatment of women – particularly the problem of their full ordination – goes back to the Buddha or was added later by societies with extremely sexist norms. Since there is good scholarship arguing for the latter, and the way in which women came to be treated is so inconsistent with the whole of the Buddha’s teachings, I think the latter to be more likely.)

An enlightened human acts naturally in an ethical and moral way. The rest of us need some help. As Thich Nhat Hanh points out, the precepts are our guardians. They help prevent us from causing suffering to ourselves and others until we are enlightened and no longer need them. Further, the Buddha’s training helps to cultivate a mind that is altruistic, kind, generous, loving, compassionate. Further training helps cultivate wisdom, so that we can behave in skillful ways, causing less suffering. This is the cyclical, iterative, holographic nature of the practice, as each aspect in turn strengthens all the other aspects.

(As a side note, I was once told by a Shambala member that it was all right to be having sex with more than one woman because, as he put it, “There are no precepts.” This was his way of justifying behavior that would inevitably create suffering by forcing it through the veil of “nothingness”. It is probably no accident that the first thing the Buddha taught was sila, to prevent just this sort of thing. Get the moral house in order before we start creating all sorts of new kinds of suffering through delusion about the teachings.)

Final Word

When I first started to practice, I was told that the Buddha’s discourses were repetitive and boring, and that I should not bother with them. For years I followed that advice, but eventually I got frustrated at being told what the Buddha said. I really didn’t want to hear about it second hand. One year I bought a copy of the Majjhima Nikaya, the Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha. Life has never been the same since. What I found was that a great deal of what I was being told was wrong, and a great deal was being omitted.

Curiously, I was in a Buddhist Studies program some years ago where a student derisively referred to what he called “Nikaya Buddhists”. I always thought that was a funny term. It is like saying “Bible Christian” or “Torah Jew” or  “Koran Muslim”. I’m still not sure what he was thinking.

I admit that the canonical literature is not exactly a quick read. But I strongly suggest to anyone who is interested in the Buddha’s teachings that they take the time and effort and read it for themselves. It is the closest thing we have to the true words of the Buddha, and whatever its faults the canon has been quite carefully preserved for over 2400 years. And personally I think that any genuine attempt to understand the Buddha’s teachings will help prevent the more egregious acts in the modern Buddhist world. Sometimes you just have to go back to the original source.

Nowhere does the Buddha say that you are to be groped, humiliated, abused, or forced to give all your money away. And if you don’t want to read the Middle Length Discourses, you can just take my word for it.

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