destructive behaviour and the collusion of communities

108 Zen Books publishes once a day as a form of practice.  If there is something significant that shakes the ground of practice, I feel it important to put out another post.  The fragility of our world of practice was brought into clear focus last week with the resignation of Eido Shimano following decades of unresolved suffering caused by his sexual liasons with students in the Zen Studies Society.

This morning, I read one of the most lucid, compassionate yet fearless commentaries on the issue by Barry Briggs of Ox Herding. I have developed a fond respect for Barry’s teaching over this year of blogging. Today, I bow deeply to his strength of practice and devotion to the Dharma. You can read Barry’s commentary here.

Each time I read and hear of teachers engaging in sexual activities that cause such deep and profound damage (suffering just isn’t a sufficient word), I am enraged.  And sadly, I have learned through my own attempts to intervene and call organizations to account for exploitative behaviours by their teachers that a lone voice will not suffice. What I’ve learned from the Shimano debacle also is the amount of time it takes when organizations close in and become partners in the abuse.  Decades.  That, perhaps, is the greater travesty: not the actions of the man but the cowardliness of the community.  But we are frail and need our structures to protect us even if those structures are only reflections of our rotted beams and foundations.

I want to add something here that might get forgotten in such frays.  Sexual relationships with teachers are not for the good of the student.  Emotional relationships with teachers are not for the good of the student.  They are exploitations of vulnerabilities.  If you suspect you are in such a relationship, do not be ashamed.  Seek help.  Expect not to be believed because of the inherent blindness of the organization.  Then, keep seeking help until you are heard.

(Post-drive to work edit: If you are a community member and especially if you are someone in a position of some authority who receives information of boundary violations: Please listen.  Please see the trust under the distress.)

Please practice,


12 thoughts on “destructive behaviour and the collusion of communities

  1. I think you were implying this, but please let me spell it out anyway:

    If your efforts to be heard are falling on deaf ears, don’t waste time but get out immediately and seek help from outside the organization.

    (and then, perhaps, you may choose to encourage others to leave and seek help; but don’t expect many to follow you.)

    You don’t owe an abusive organization anything, and you needn’t be complicit in their blindness. It’s not your responsibility to fix them.

    And be gentle with yourself. It’s tough to have your world shatter all around you. But you do have the strength to rebuild a better world for yourself (and others).

    • Thanks, Bruce. It’s a complicated process and I fear I’ve tried to articulate it in too few words.

      It won’t be long before the denizens (awful pun) of the Buddhist realm will start blaming the victims and attributing their distress to a lack of developmental fortitude. It’s a sad fact that even if the victim’s needs are addressed, they will be the ones who lose the most.

      Thank you for your support!

      • “…blaming the victims and…they will be the ones who lose the most.”

        Yes, that’s what brings tears to my eyes.

        Another sad aspect is that many won’t be able to see that they were exploited. But for those who can see it, your post will be a source of strength and comfort.

        Thanks for dealing so clearly and forcefully with this issue.

        • Thank you but I don’t think I’ve dealt with it forcefully enough. Our discussion is clarifying for me that wu wei is the operative practice for the moment. It doesn’t mean not to to act responsibily but rather to be vigilant and wait for the time to act. And, in the meantime, be available for the support that is needed.

  2. Thanks for this great post, and your follow-ups, Bruce. If I dwell on this topic for too long, my thoughts and feeling take an unhealthy direction, yet I feel we have a responcibility to speak out, both to warn those in situations like this, as well as to let people know that this kind of behavior is flamingly unacceptible.

    • Thank you, Sunim. It means a lot to hear it from you. Bruce is an awesome practitioner and I aspire to his wisdom… but I don’t have to achieve it because he’s already done the job! 😉

      Situations like this are unhealthy and we are going to be toxified by them. That is why we have sangha; it’s a process of detoxification. As sangha leaders and teachers, it is our responsibility to ensure the silenced voices are made audible, the invisible victims are given form.

      Frank made a good point tonight. This behaviour is not tolerated in any organization where a difference in authority risks exploitation. We tend to be reluctant to confront it in spiritual organizations because we confound the spiritual path with the guide of the spiritual path. To hold the guide accountable is not to diminish the path. It validates the path as responsive to the real needs of its practitioners.

      I’m livid about one of the responses to Barry’s post. Free speech and whatever, it blames the victims and is so typical of the ignorance around the trauma that the emotional rape which underlies sexual exploitation causes. `Rather than poop all over Barry’s excellent blog, I’m just going to rant here. 😐

      • “Rather than poop all over Barry’s excellent blog, I’m just going to rant here”


        On a more serious note, I agree with you about the cluelessness of the post. When I read the Village Voice article that was squashed in 1982, I was so p.o.’d that I just about couldn’t see straight. The worst thing for me was that all this had been known in 1982. It wasn’t a case of a monk falling in love or a consentual affair(if there could be such a thing); it was much more the actions of a sexual preditor. The guy should have been deported in 1964. It aggrevates me so much, because I know from experience of life in asia, that nothing he did is “Zen” or “Buddhism” or “teaching”. Word of his actions would spread, and he wouldn’t be allowed to even spend the night at any temple that had heard of him.
        I can’t blame Atiken Roshi too much; he’s always seemed like a very ethical person, and when people are confronted with something they never imagined and never seen handled before, it’s not uncommon for them to freeze up.

        • You raise an important point, Sunim. There is very much a possibility of monks falling in love (Thich Nhat Hanh wrote about his own struggle when he was a young monk.) There are also situations where a teacher and student have realized their feelings for each other are profound and beyond that of teacher/student. That in itself is not what makes a violation of boundaries. We are human and we grow in the light of another’s reflection of our Buddha nature. Where the damage occurs is when the relationship is kept at a power imbalance and the perpetrator only allows his “partner’s” growth to be for his own ego service. What makes a relationship consensual is not that both agree to begin the liaison; it’s consensual when both realize they share a set of ethics and the upholding of the precepts is what created their love for each other.

          We don’t have a say about when we find our life partner. But we do have a say about how to hold them and ourselves safe as we negotiate through treacherous waters. For me, it’s about honouring the Buddha in my Beloved.

          Am I still ranting? >>sigh<< I'm afraid I did over at Barry's post today too… I need a vacation! 😦

          • First, thank you for this thoughtful discussion, Genju (and Sunim & Bruce).

            Second, there is no inherent problem in a student/teacher relationship, provided that it’s handled with respect and does not arise from predatory behavior. In my Zen community, when a student and teacher form a relationship, two things happen. First, the two individuals make the relationship known publicly; second, the student ceases to be a student of the teacher. This seems to work just fine and certainly doesn’t threaten the viability of the community.

            Oh, and I certainly don’t view your comment on today’s OH as a rant – not at all. I thought it was one of the most powerful comments the blog has ever received. Thank you for exposing the truth in this way.

            • “Am I still ranting? >>sigh<< I'm afraid I did over at Barry's post today too… I need a vacation!"

              ^-^ did you say that or did I say that?!

              Hi Barry, that sounds like a very, very good policy.

            • Kudos to your sangha, Barry! I’ve heard of other enlightened sanghas who have that policy. It is transparent, clearly & openly stated, and the expectations are established. I know groups of dharma teachers who are trying to set up accountability processes too. Once sanghas get past the defensiveness and perception that they are going to be labelled as sex fiends, it can work and work well.

              Well, Sunim, I’ve decided to go back to Upaya for Rohatsu. Something about all this has stirred up guck and I need the curative comfort of my obsession with oryoki! 😆

  3. Thank you, Genju, for your kind and generous compliment above. I am just a beginning student in this school of life and have a long way to go, but it is encouraging to get a note of approval from one of my teachers!

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