Thursday, April 15, 2004

Buddhism/Zen Thursday:
Reckoning with Sex Scandals

We'll start by noting that maleness is pancultural because dicks and sex drives are pancultural. We'll also note that human beings are, for the most part, social creatures. Further, they're mammals-- primates that tend to organize themselves according to dominance hierarchies. Human self-consciousness is acute enough that we can observe this as it's happening, comment on it, and even gain a historical perspective on it.

The question of sex and power dynamics is a tricky one. To submit oneself to another person's authority, as a student or child or organizational subordinate, is to make oneself vulnerable. The vulnerability, which is a function of open-mindedness, is a necessary prerequisite for learning and continued progress. There are risks implicit in this choice, but the amount of risk is affected by any number of variables that are hard to quantify-- variables like trust level, for instance.

In the case of Buddhist monasteries or Buddhist/Zen "centers" (which aren't monastic but can and often do house monks), authority and trust go together. A student places her trust in the teacher; the teacher also places a good deal of trust in the student. As Andi pointed out to me, responsibility is mutual (something Mark Salzman also touches on in his fantastic Iron and Silk. Salzman is writing about the wushu student's awesome responsibility to his sifu, but the basic themes are there).

Because Buddhism has evolved for so long in Asian cultures, and is still, therefore, largely an Asian cultural phenomenon, there are authoritarian presumptions implicit in monastic and "center" life that affect such matters as dharma transmission. East Asian Buddhism integrates a lot of Confucianism into its practice; while Buddhist empiricism fosters an ethos of "examine/discover it for yourself," there is a parallel ethos of "trust me; I've been further along the road than you." Buddhism in America might be democratizing (a trend that's likely to continue), but it is by no means non-hierarchical in worldview and practice.

Dicks, sex drives, and dominance hierarchies can be a volatile mix, though they don't have to be. There is no reason to assume that all men are merely animals and therefore potential rapists, for example: this is far too reductionist a view of male nature. But at the same time, it's a given that most rapes are male-initiated. It's also a given that most sex scandals involve a male in authority, whether the sex is consensual or not. The authority issue isn't unique to Buddhism, or even to religion. Classic 1980s-era Steven Spielberg on the subject:

MARIAN: I was young! I was in love! It was wrong and you knew it!
INDIANA: You knew what you were doin'.

Dr. Jones, you'll recall, was banging the starry-eyed, college-aged daughter of a colleague, Abner Ravenwood. Somehow this experience led Marian Ravenwood-- the daughter in question-- to become a hard-drinking barkeep in the Himalayas (we won't think too hard about how one thing could lead to another that way). This wasn't a "sex scandal," per se, since no one really seemed scandalized, but Spielberg is showing us an extra-monastic example of the same sex/power problem. There are always issues when one party in a sexual relationship has some sort of authority over the other. For Buddhists, this brings up questions of the use and misuse of one's sexual energies. Here's an abstract of a chapter written by Robert Aitken roshi (an American Zen master) called "The Third Grave Precept: Not Misusing Sex," found in a book titled The Mind of Clover: Essays in Buddhist Ethics:

Aitken and his wife, Anne, established a Zen organization, Diamond Sangha, in Hawaii in 1959. In 1974, he was given the title of roshi by his teacher, Yamada Koun Roshi. One in a series of brief essays that examine the Ten Grave Precepts of Zen Buddhism in order to clarify them for Western students. Regarding the precept related to sex, states that because “the sexual drive is part of the of the human path of self-realization,” like other drives and emotions, it should not be avoided or rejected. As a human element, it can be “integrated into our daily-life practice and our zazen practice.” Pages 44-45 express his concern “about the grave upsets in American Zen Buddhist centers recently that have followed upon affairs of teachers with their students. These cases seem to reflect a misuse, not just of sex, but more generally of the teacher’s role in the sangha.” Calls for teachers to be responsible for their power. Acknowledges the archetypal place that the role of teacher occupies in the psyche of students: “When the teacher, in the role of teacher, confronts a student sexually, the archetype is violated, and the student is deeply confused and disturbed.” If students had been seductive with their teachers, it “simply reflects the fact that they were not yet mature in their practice, and that they were carried away by their investment. The teacher is one who can acknowledge sexual attraction in a dokusan situation, and draws the line at that moment.” Calls for students to avoid blind allegiance, affirming that in Buddhism each person is responsible.

My quick and superficial Google search this evening didn't turn up anything significant regarding the putative Seung Sahn sex scandal of Cambridge Zen Center. Personally, I was a bit disturbed to see news of a possible sex scandal, since I've had the pleasure of reading three of the Korean master's books and have enjoyed reading and listening to the teachings of his spiritual children-- people like Hyon Gak sunim and Lorianne Schaub, who are adherents of the Kwaneum school of Korean Seon (Zen).

To what extent does a sex scandal taint a Zen school? Here's a partial reprint of a recent email I wrote (it got the recipient's seal of approval, or at least her agreement, so I think it's on the right track):

Scandals aren't new in religion, of course; they're old hat for the Zen (and larger Buddhist) tradition-- cf. a case from a few years back involving a very popular Vietnamese Buddhist monk who was discovered to be engaging in more than a little carnality with his followers. And you don't have to search far in Christian (and even Jewish) circles to find similar (if not worse) problems of abuse of power and authority.

Scandals are especially discomfiting from an American perspective, because we have a cultural tendency to view "teacher" and "teaching" dualistically-- "hate the sin, not the sinner," we say-- a proposition that doesn't make much sense from a nondualist perspective where act and actor, teacher and precept, are not-two (which of course isn't to say they're one: that's the whole point of nondualism!). So especially for Americans in nondualist traditions, scandals are problematic. Adherents will want to avoid stigmatizing the entire school by assuming that the teacher's tainted everything. At the same time, the very nature of acts like "dharma transmission" make stigma-avoidance difficult. A person who's received transmission from the master or his/her spiritual descendant might be tempted to view [his/her] own spiritual status with some doubt.

I think, though, that there's a nondualistic answer to this conundrum, and the proper analogy is the Buddhist image of the candle flames, where one burning wick ignites another-- a continuation of process, not essence. When Candle 2 is lit by Candle 1, Candle 1 doesn't stop burning. It's its own process, so to speak. A new process is set in motion with the ignition of Candle 2, and the fact that Candles 1 and 2 are related by this ignition. Candle 2's flame, then, both depends and doesn't depend on Candle 1: in an original sense, there's some sort of dependency due to the causal relationship. But in a practical sense, there's no denying Candle 2's flame is a distinct process.

So there's no real question of "taint" here. So what if Seung Sahn nailed a few people? This is scandalous for reasons OTHER than my own spiritual taint (unless, of course, I'm one of the master's putative victims). It's scandalous for all the practical reasons that go along with power/authority dynamics, and the misuse of one's spiritual gifts. If Seung Sahn is guilty of something punishable, then he should be punished. But does this detract from whatever inka he's given his students? I don't see that this is necessarily so. If he helped them awaken something in themselves, there's no reason the students' flames won't burn brightly and truly on their own.

I plan on doing a bit more research on this-- asking around, seeing what I can find. Maybe there's no scandal. I hope that's the case. I'm probably going to buy and read Sandy Boucher's Turning the Wheel: American Women Creating the New Buddhism. This is the book that details the Cambridge Zen Center ugliness with Seung Sahn. I consider myself to be in the fact-finding phase, so stay tuned.


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