February 20, 2011

Sex in the Sangha: Apparently, we still haven't had enough

The sex scandals that have rocked the Zen communities in recent weeks are pretty depressing. First it was Eido Shimano, whose exposure on the internet was followed up by a New York Times report. Zen teacher John Tarrant is now under fire for writing an obit for the late Aitken Roshi. Aitken had disowned Tarrant for what Aitken considered credible allegations of sexual indiscretions with students, and also criticized Tarrant's teaching style and conduct as a therapist. So Tarrant didn't win any points with Aitken's Diamond Sangha for what they considered a veiled attack on their teacher. Now, Genpo Merzel, among the dharma heirs of Maezumi Roshi, has publicly apologized for breaking his marriage vows by having sex with students.

None of this is new. People have talked of Eido Shimano's behavior for years. Once, as my predecessor prepared to publish accusations against Shimano, his accusers withdrew their names and the story never saw the light of day. Another, non-Buddhist publication made the same decision about the story for the same reasons. Discussions of Tarrant's alleged relationships with students are old news, too, and Genpo Merzel has had like trouble in the past.

It's easy enough to judge others' actions. Plenty of times we have seen the damaging results of the sexual, financial, and professional indiscretions that have torn dharma communities apart. Usually, following revelations that rival our political sex scandals, the pile-on  begins, and perhaps it is well deserved. But a whole new dimension is added when teachers' sexual partners have been called out for their part in creating the very suffering they condemn. One of the 44 signatories to the American Zen Teachers Association's open letter to Kanzeon Zen Center regarding Genpo Merzel's unacceptable behavior was Jan Chozen Bays, resident teacher of the Zen Community of Oregon, who was given inka by Genpo. In a letter posted at Sweeping Zen today, Maezumi's daughter Kirsten Mitsuyo Maezumi writes of the damage and pain her father and Bays brought to her family by having a secret affair. Both Maezumi and Bays were married—and not to each other—and both had small children at the time. Bays, a pediatrician, was the Maezumis' family doctor, confidante to Maezumi's wife, and doctor to Genpo Merzel, according to Kirsten Maezumi.

Another signing the AZTA open letter was Roko Sherry Chayat, heir to Eido Shimano. Shimano's behavior had been known about for years, and yet it continued with the full knowledge of many of his students. It is almost impossible to imagine that Chayat herself did not know given her position as Shimano's heir and the length of time she studied with him. Yet it was pressure from without that forced the issue, one that had otherwise continued for years.

But better late than never. It's just that since Kirstin Maezumi has spoken up, both Bays and Chayat might want to shed some light here and discuss their respective parts in these matters if any. We haven't heard from Tarrant publicly; perhaps, disagreeing with his former teacher, he feels he's done nothing wrong. Shimano stepped down last year in the wake of a string of allegations online, after which the Times article appeared. And of course, there was Genpo Merzel's public apology.

I don't know what to say about sex between teachers and students. In almost all cases we hear about, it's consensual (or at least physical force was not involved), and it usually falls to the student to determine whether the relationship was appropriate or not. But the power differential is real, and should be acknowledged. Some regret their actions, feel taken advantage of, and grapple with a deep sense of betrayal and shame; others claim to be unaffected—or even positively affected—by such relationships. It's really for the student to decide. But it always seems to end poorly when teachers make a habit of it, especially when a lot of secrecy and denial come into play.
When it comes to sex, regulations are necessary but in the end they are not really an answer. Desire doesn’t obey one’s wishes; in fact, it is often quite at odds with one’s wishes. If that were not the case, it would be much easier to be a good person. But it isn’t easy. Still, regulations are there so that when abuse of any kind does happen, people can be called to account. But that it happens and will continue to happen is certain. Sex can make a fool of anyone and often does.

How we deal with desire is a pretty good indication of where we are on the path, but that we're tripped up by it is nothing that should surprise any of us. I think there is a good question we could be asking ourselves right now: What about the way our dharma communities are organized supports and creates situations in which our leaders act in ways that are damaging and undermine our, and their, best intentions, and how do we go about creating community structures that discourage damaging behavior and allow us to deal with it effectively when it occurs? And let’s not wait for our teachers to do it for us. They have as much to learn here as anyone. We should know at least that much by now.

As for those for whom relationships between students and teachers are acceptable—fine, and you have no reason to hide it. If you don't think it's all right, ask your teacher about his or her own experience with this and how they feel about it. Make your own decision.

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wildrose's picture

"Her [Bays'] history does not make her an ideal public spokesperson on such matters or her advice credible, particularly when she was so closely involved with the teacher in question." On the contrary, I would think it makes her advice more credible than most -- having been involved in such misconduct and evidently seen through it to understand the harm more fully than perhaps most of us probably do.

As for the "motives" of Foster and Shoemaker, the fact of their resurrecting dried up old shit now speaks for itself, and it doesn't make them, or Aitken Roshi, smell good.

Kirsten Maezumi does not say she can forgive Bays, she says "If I can forgive Jan Bays", whom she refers to earlier as "this woman." But, as you say, that's not the issue here. I hope she can forgive and, from reading her letter, it looks like she has a ways to go. My heart goes out to her in that long hard journey.

P.S. Full disclosure: I'm a member of the Diamond Sangha. Foster and Shoemaker don't speak for me, nor do they speak for a number of Diamond Sangha members I know in the US and Australia -- though they may speak for a good number, I really don't know. Perhaps we should just take them as speaking for themselves. Aitken Roshi was an inspiration, mentor and friend to many. His teaching shines through ... even with his imperfections, and that is what I took most from Tarrant's memoir of him.

wildrose's picture

James says, "Discussions of Tarrant's alleged relationships with students are old news." That's true. It's been about 12 years since the "alleged relationships" occurred. Foster and Shoemaker's bringing it up again now because they don't like Tarrant's reminisences about his old teacher is just plain dirty and underhanded "settling old scores" while ironically accusing Tarrant of doing so. Bah! If they wanted to polish up Aitken Roshi's image, they could have written their own shiny obit. I'm sure Shambhala Sun would have published it. But, no, it's a great time to drag Tarrant through the mud while the torches are burning and the witch hunt is on. As far as I'm concerned, their actions tarnish Aitken Roshi's legacy and the Diamon Sangha far more than anything Tarrant said about Aitken. Precepts? What about the precepts against idle gossip or raising oneself up by disparaging another? Did Aitken Roshi teach those precepts as well?

Tricycle is happy to fan the flames. Sex sells. And we're a mob of sanctimonious voyeurs buying it.

Kirsten Maezumi's letter his heartbreaking ... and her inability to forgive Jan Chosen Bays is understandable. But, again, this happened about three decades ago. Let us observe Bays' great work in the intervening years, and be grateful that redemption has been possible for her and might be for us as well. (I don't know about you, but I could use some redemption looking back on my life.)

So, yes, let us look and see what we do to enable sexual misconduct when it occurs so that we may do less of it in the future, and let us support those sanghas working their way through it with our heartfelt best wishes for healing and reconciliation -- or where that is not possible -- for the wisdom and compassion to abstain from ill-will.

Dominic Gomez's picture

"Let us look and see what we do to enable sexual misconduct when it occurs so that we may do less of it in the future, and let us support those sanghas working their way through it with our heartfelt best wishes for healing and reconciliation -- or where that is not possible -- for the wisdom and compassion to abstain from ill-will."


Anreal's picture

I also agree with the above quote just as a basic 'what we can learn about it' rule.

ZenIrishChai's picture

The most troubling part of these issues for me is how it reflects on the state of mind our teachers were in when they were teaching - something we obviously paid attention to, and were learning from. It's hard for me to not question those teachings if their mind was not clearly on the material and application of what they were teaching rather then letting their desires get the best of them, nor were they as skilled at those same teachings as we believed to fall prey to desire and temptation at it's most obvious.

Every time I practiced zazen at a local temple, all that came to mind when I noticed someone attractive was one very simple and obvious fact. I wasn't there for that. That isn't, and never was, the reason I walked in that door and sat on the cushion. That also means I don't walk right outside the Dharma hall and entertain my romantic interests. Maybe that's missing the point of applying Zen to all areas of my life, but it has worked in keeping me out of trouble so far. If I go to a restaurant but don't order anything to eat, I am asked to leave. When I go some place to sit and practice mindfulness and awareness, that is what I do. I don't think about what I would like to be doing with the people around me. Now I am by NO means any kind of Zen teacher, nor perfect practitioner by any means. I can barely keep a consistent pattern with daily zazen much less deeper practices, but I think I can still understand why I am sitting. Is that simple understanding of place and purpose sneaking past some of Western Zen's greatest teachers? In fact, I am pretty confident I was practicing the exact opposite of what they were doing. I thought we were there to overcome the dangerous and harmful actions of our desires and/or aversions from manipulating or coercing our actions. Of course we will come in to contact with attractive people and desirable situations in life, at work, at temple, etc. but I always thought it was obvious to keep that relationship in the context of where we were. If you both are interested in something more, it needs to be treated as such well outside of the walls of work, religious or otherwise, and with obvious respect for prior commitments. marriage, position within the sangha, etc. So I keep asking myself, am I missing something about these circumstances, or am I really reading that these mistakes occurred not only between people unable to control themselves, but also from within the places they specifically practiced and taught self-control and mindfulness?

It honestly confuses me and equally angers me to have to put many of these teachings in context due to these teachers being incapable of 'practicing what they preached'. I admit I am deeply and emotionally attached to wanting a teacher that can live within the ideals they set forth. I can't help but feel that research is a new requirement of studying Western Zen now, weeding out the teachings that apparently didn't work from those that do. I had some faith before these issues arose in the people that were ordained to be reasonably skilled in keeping their desires and aversions in check. I don't have that faith now, and think that's a very valid concern from anyone at this point.

I know some would say that these issues merely 'humanize' them, and act as evidence at their spiritual work on the same level as ourselves. I don't agree. I've never believed in putting my teachers up on a pedestal or altar of perfection. I recognize their weaknesses as not only what they learned from, but also what keeps them on the path of learning each and every day. My problem is when you take a basic fundamental teaching as overcoming our attachments, especially to desires and aversions, then you have people completely incapable of overcoming that, acting contrary to it in our place of worship, and teaching us how to do it. If they had done these things many years ago and overcome these things, then that is clearly valid and welcome instruction. Instead, we are seeing people that practiced and taught mindfulness for years, then failed to apply it after being awarded for their skillful understanding of the material. It's like asking for an accountant that failed math class. I think I've been asking the wrong people about Zen Buddhism. Take the four basic truths; suffering, it has a cause, it can end, and how to end it. We're talking about an ordained teacher that failed to recognize or apply all four, with the exception of illustrating the suffering they can personally cause the community. I can't learn Buddhism from that person.

On the other hand, maybe this will only lead to a deeper practice for us all. I have never felt so motivated to return to the source material that our teachers learned from rather then reading their interpretations of it. As I said before, my faith being natural towards those people who have been ordained is broken. Maybe evaluating the material regardless of it's author, or learning how to read the source material instead of another's interpretation of it, will be a very important change in my practice. If nothing else, I have learned how my deepest attachments to a simple title has lead to a disillusioned faith in what they have to say.

Also just to be clear, I don't feel it is fair to attack or involve the people who practiced under those responsible of misconduct. My sympathies go to the people at Zen Centers affected by the actions of their founder and teachers. I don't even know what to say to these honest and dedicated practitioners. I just hope they find a deeper commitment then ever before to discovering truth and enlightenment amid great confusion and suffering. I feel we would all have a lot more to learn from them about true Buddhism then from any of their teachers that caused them this amount of suffering.

Thank you James & Tricycle for tackling this issue, as it is timely and should be important to all of us practicing.

Anreal's picture

It is a very important thing that you point out and I agree whole heartedly ....

It should always be about the teachings, not the teachers (in my opinion) at the same time a spade should always be called a spade and when abuse of teachings take place instead of being angry at the people, we should take note as a reminder of the corruptibility of the un-enlightened mind.

gloonie's picture

Exactly what was going through my mind. Thank you for your comments. The issues you raise are not merely about power and control in the relationship between the student and the teacher (which are important in themselves), but also how this type of behavior reflects on the validity of the teaching. This is terribly important and we can't side-step the issue with a simple explanation like "teachers are frail and human too". That is a bit like politicians who apologize for racist remarks by explaining they were "angry". It often takes an army of commentators to explain that not everyone makes racist remarks when they are angry.

beatrice's picture

Bravo! So well said. I agree to every word.

Anreal's picture

Firstly, thank you for the article and the open discussion. It touches on something that I find incredibly important. There are two things I'd like to touch on.
1. The process of choosing a master or accepting a student
2. The guru/consort relationship

1. Traditionally there is quite a process involved in choosing a master/teacher as well as accepting a student/disciple. It is said that someone who wants to study Tantra should observe their possible teacher for ten years before finalizing ones choice. Of course in a modern society ten years seem like a life time but I do believe the principle is very important. We as westerners have a tendency to view spiritual practice in the same way one chooses a beauty salon or a new yoga teacher - by recommendation of friends, a cool advertisement in a magazine or even a 'special offer' from somewhere. Then we march right in, plop ourselves down and consider ourselves 'joined'.

The importance of observing a teacher cannot be stressed enough, at least for someone who is serious about their spirituality. There are many things to think about.
- Does the teacher walk his talk?
- Do the students walk their talk?
And that's not even mentioning the observation of one self during all of this.
- What am I looking for?
- Why am I here?
All of this should take place long before officially choosing the teacher and sangha because not only will one be certain of the integrity and truth of the teachings but one also enters the situation empowered enough not to be taken advantage of.

As far as the Teacher choosing a student, another problem with how we do things in the west is that it seems anyone can get teachings as if it is an open seminar. Traditionally teachers were under no obligation at all to "just teach everyone". Of course a monastery is a whole different scenario where each individual already demonstrates his/her commitment to the teachings, so it is a given. In our society this is not necessarily the case. In Tantra, students would often offer bowls of gold dust and precious gems that took them a life time to collect, as they prostrate at the feet of their chosen teacher. By demonstrating their commitment in this way the chances that they would not squander the teachings and thereby wasting the teacher's time as well as their own were significantly diminished. Furthermore, a teacher really needs to ascertain whether the student is "an appropriate vessel" because if not, their psychological, intellectual and.or emotional construct might simply shatter when coming into contact with the teachings.

Naturally I am not saying that everything should be done according to these strict traditions, but we can adapt and modernize it without it losing its purpose which at the end of the day simply boils down to:
- appropriate time
- appropriate teachings
- appropriate vessels
- appropriate teacher .... and so on.

2. To say that a student cannot learn from and sleep with her Teacher is simply rubbish, coming from a tantric and especially Tibetan Tantric perspective. When reading about the Mahasiddhas of India, it becomes clear that the sexual relationship can be and is (for those ready and able and so inclined) a powerful teaching/learning experience. The most famous tantric couple would have to be Padmasambhava and Yeshe Tsogyel and their sexual relationship was not exclusive at all, nor was their teaching relationships, for that matter. What WAS exclusive was their commitment to their own awareness, and to the Teachings.

Whatever a relationship may be, whether teaching-based, sexually-based or both, if the commitment is there it will be a vehicle for lasting, enlightening experience, not only for oneself but for all those involved. At this stage compassion and impeccability are natural expressions so conduct no longer needs to follow any rules. One's behavior becomes 'enlightening Buddha activity'.

We as westerners need to educate ourselves better as Buddhism is still a fresh and new thing to us and we do not have generations of traditions in terms of how to investigate, choose and approach teachers and teachings to decide whether it is appropriate for us or not. It is easy to point the finger at 'them' and 'let's make rules for this and that'!. I do not support that, we are ever responsible for ourselves. There are no hard and fast rules but we owe ourselves the time and patience to look for and distinguish quality, in others and ourselves.

"Plucking the lotus without touching the water.
The yogin who has gone to the root of things,
Is not enslaved by the senses, although he enjoys them fully." - Saraha

"When one’s own vision is pure the entire universe is seen as a divine mandala and everything in it as ambrosial nectar." - the 13th Dalai Lama

Sareen's picture

Hi Anreal,
I am curious about your own experience in tantric communities. Have you been a member of communities where teachers have multiple consort relationships with students as a spiritual practice? And if yes, was it clean and clear that the practice was a spiritual practice and not a romantic relationship or purely for sexual gratification? How does this actually pan out in the real world of imperfection and attachment?

My experience in two different Tibetan buddhist communities was that the teachers themselves were confused about using the practice for sexual reasons vs spiritual reasons.

June Campbell has written a book "Travellers in Space" documenting her experiences as the sexual consort of Kalu Rinpoche and she felt it was harmful for her.

Thanks for bringing this into the discussion.

Anreal's picture

All I can say at this stage is:
Such is life! :) It is complex, unique, moving, chaotic, challenging, painful, confusing.
Indeed this is Samsara, the wheel of conditioned existence where we go around in circles trapped by ignorance, greed, hatred, pride etc. Samsara is right here, right now, BUT so is nirvana, and samsara turns into nirvana in the space of a single thought when one Wakes up. The nature of reality is that it continues to manifest nonetheless, so it doesn't end with waking up, it only starts and then to view each moment and each experience with full awareness is the path and the goal. But if in each moment we can turn suffering into bliss then nothing lost and everything gained. This to me, is the path of Buddha-hood.

Also >>> Everything is perfect as it is, the challenge for us, the major challenge and the goal of Buddhism ultimately is to free ourselves from the Mind that still perceives impurities. When one sees the perfection in the rotting corpse as well as the shining sunset then surely one has achieved the goal, because what then can truly make one suffer?!

>>> Confusion Dawns as Wisdom to the mind ready to perceive it.

If people understood the nature of THE MIND and THEIR MINDS they would be far more at peace with the choices they make, the experiences they have etc.
I have not read the book so I cannot comment. All I can say is when anyone, man woman or child finds themselves in a situation that makes them suffer - they should get out.
Dust themselves off, soldier on, hopefully wiser than when they started. If not, well its not for me to say, i'm not the one suffering. I hate suffering, and when I do I do anything and everything to get out of it. Ultimately this is the main reason for suffering, if you leave all the theorizing at the door Suffering exists so we can learn to find ways out of it. Simple really. And until we find a way out, we will continue to suffer. So, its all good at the end of the day. Pure perfection in every molecule of existence, perfection in joy, perfection in pain.

More reason to concentrate on the Dharma!

Sarah E. Truman's picture

Hi Anreal;

I appreciate and agree with your comments. I think that if students followed your advice on waiting and observing for 10 years before choosing a teacher, fewer people would get hurt. And once a student/teacher relationship is formed, how they go about practicing is between them as consenting adults.

beatrice's picture

your second point is rubbish.

Richard Fidler's picture

I don't think a female student can practice Buddhism and be a lover to her teacher at the same time. That is not consensual sex--if they did not have a teacher-student relationship then it would be different. There are rules set up by the sangha; if they are violated, then discipline is appropriate. What I can't understand is, how could the board that hired the Zen teacher be unresponsive to the situation if it KNEW something was going on? That board is committing a crime by remaining silent. A lawsuit may be appropriate in this case; you cannot knowingly allow such behavior to continue. It is too much like the Roman Catholic Church and pedophile priests. The Church hierarchy in many cases knew what was going on and did nothing. Consequently, lawsuits have been brought against the Church and many have been won by the accuser.

Is there a procedure for "defrocking" a Zen monk or priest? That is, can such a person be barred from teaching? Given the fact that many monks were ordained abroad, it may be impossible to do such a thing. Maybe that is something American Zen should consider: having monks vow to uphold a set of principles and if serious violations are discovered, to prevent those monks from teaching. Simply dismissing a monk from a local sangha and allowing him to go somewhere else is not enough. That person must not be a religious teacher--he cannot be trusted.

James Shaheen's picture

From Thai Forest Monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu:

I just read your blog, which I thought was thoughtful. I would have made more of the point that even though rules don't prevent misbehavior, they do provide standards for what counts as misbehavior, and clear standards are surely needed in this area. The Pali Vinaya is extremely clear on this: a monk who has sex is out for life; a monk who even suggests that another person would benefit from having sex with him is on probation until the community senses that he was learned the error of his ways. It would be good to have similar standards throughout the Buddhist world. For lay teachers, this would mean no extramarital sex; for monastics, no sex at all. Whether an affair is consensual doesn't matter: Other people are sure to be hurt; the level of trust and honesty in the community (I wish people wouldn't use the word "Sangha" to mean any Buddhist community) can suffer for generations. So the more light brought to this topic, the better.

myojozen's picture

At last. A sensible comment on the situation from an actual Buddhist perspective. If one is not seriously practicing the precepts either as a monk or as a lay person then there is very little point in practicing meditation(except perhaps to find out why we practice precepts) let alone teaching. People want the position without the responsibility. The Buddha wasn't afraid to be clear about this and neither should we. It is absurd to pose as a monk or lay teacher whilst breaking precepts. In my tradition(Soto Zen) it is allowed for 'monks' to marry which makes them lay teachers in any other tradition, but we should be true to our vows both buddhist and secular or we can't possibly practice properly or hope to be taken seriously as teachers. Enlightenment is the highest happiness to which we can possibly aspire(worth giving up a few rolls in the hay for) and the Dharma is the greatest gift we could ever recieve. We should value what we have been given and preserve the Sangha through our own self discipline.

Daiho's picture

With respect, This is not about the sexual abuse of innocent adults or the sexual abuse of mnors. To have an intelligent discusion of sex in the sangha it seems to me we must make sure we are talking about the same thing. As I read this article it is about consenting adults having sexual relations where there may or may not be an abuse of power or authority inoilved or where there may or may not be harm involved. While I do not across the board condone such behavior, sexual relations between an adult teacher and a consenting adult student are not ipso facto an abuse of power. For abuse to occur there must be coercion, a use of power or authority to obtain something from a victim. If the "victim" is an adult, mentally competent, and a free moral agent who engages in the behavior, how is it "abuse"?. Should teachers enter sexual relations with students? No. It is not an acceptable norm. Do they? Yes, obviously. Is it something that should be addressed? Of course. My suggestion, however, is that it be addressed within its context and with compassion, not wiith the voice of a district attorney.

Patricia.I's picture

Thank you for sharing your comments. With respect, they represent a very narrow point of view. A kind of knee-jerk reaction based on intellectual understanding.
Why not look into this like a student trying to solve a koan: pause and reflect, savor every point of view, think, feel, meditate. Why not even have a peek at the copious research that is available from experts in the field of human psychology and challenge your preconceptions? You may find that this enriches your answer to the dilemma.
When teachers and students do not question the power dynamics within a sangha, they tend to replicate them.

Finder's picture

This argument might make sense if the two consenting adults weren't already committed in a marriage. However in most of the above cases, they were breaking marriage vows.

Read the open letter (linked in the article) by Maezumi Roshi's duaghter and the pain her fathers affair(s) caused her as a 4 year old child and then I think you'll agree there have been victims.

Richard Fidler's picture

Suppose word gets around that the roshi regularly has sex with his students during dokusan. What would that do to the dharma? If he has sex outside of a religious context--through social contacts made outside the Center--then I do not see a problem. But I do see a problem if the encounters occur within the grounds of a Buddhist retreat--sometimes in the very room where teacher and student meet.

There is a right place and a right time for everything, but a teacher having sex within a Center during a retreat is definitely wrong.

As for the DA, it depends upon the situation--perhaps--but remember the female student did NOT decide come to a retreat because she wanted sex. It is easy for such a person to be manipulated by the reputation and power of a well-known teacher. The whole notion of "consensual" becomes open to question under such circumstances.

Stone bridge's picture

Are there any students seeking to seduce teachers as some sort of spiritual fast track? Power is two ways in these instances and surely in a mixed community especially in the West the boundaries are not strong. A more traditional teaching arrangement may have to be introduced with greater emphasis on monasticism. These sex scandals can really undermine a lot of good work that has been done to establish a credible sangha and this is a time when we really need it to flourish.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Somehow, after nearly 3,000 years, Shakyamuni Buddha's ethical realization that suffering is caused by human craving for sense objects has yet to sink in. It's especially sad when seemingly respectable leaders of Buddhism itself are the perpetrators. The ones who suffer the most in these cases are the ones who should be cared for and protected the most precisely because of their sincere search for truth.

RAMACHRIST's picture

Even though students have agency and responsibility for their own decisions, the burden should fall on the teacher, as s/he is the one in a power position. As people have already been saying here, power can be used to manipulate and exploit, and it happens more often than we'd like to believe. A power differential also makes it harder for the teacher to obtain informed consent, and it is harder for the student to give informed consent. It's also important to draw a line between sexual desire and using sex as a way to feel powerful/dominate another, because one is sexuality (former) and one is sexual violence (latter). Especially if sexual interactions are not to be spoken about (much less happen) in a sangha, I can only imagine how terribly silencing it must be and unsafe it must feel for somebody who's been exploited or assaulted.

Like any other group, Buddhists and their communities need to have open discussion about sex and sexual violence in the sangha. The only things we're doing by not having dialogue is 1) denying/being ignorant to what's happening, thus possibly silencing issues and others who need to speak out, and 2) creating an environment conducive to exploiting others.

azure47's picture

I was a member of a Sangha in Boise, Idaho and was inappropriately touched in the dark at the end of a meditation session. When I reported this to the "practice council" it fell on deaf ears ( the perpetrator was also on the council).
I was the person who had to leave the Sangha, I believe now that I was not the first or the last of this man's victims and that those in authority, if you will, should have offered support and understanding rather than silence. The lack of response to this kind of report is as damaging as the act itself. The person who crossed the line admitted to his acts to my husband when confronted but in less than a minute of indulgence on his part the trust was broken. I have not been able to return to a Sangha since. How can these betrayals be stopped when there is no censure for them ?

NellaLou's picture

Nice to see Tricycle stepping up to the plate here.

Dalai Grandma's picture

I was sexually and emotionally abused at great length as a child by my father - now dead - something decent people find hard to believe who knew him as a scoutmaster and churchgoer. As an adult, I have also played guitar with a man who had served three years in prison for an "affair" as he saw it with a three-year-old child. He always saw this as consensual, and my father was able to do it by manipulating my consent. The kind of powerful energy a parent has over a child, and a teacher over a student, is difficult to describe unless you can remember experiencing it. It is that elder who is always responsible, and should always resist the temptation of desire. Jack Kornfield has written good guidelines for the teacher who does experience sexual/romantic desire for a student. Our sanghas are experiencing these problems for the same reason the Catholic church in Ireland is, and the same reason every abused child does - teachers/priests/fathers are institutionally endowed with a mystical special quality of holy power. I believe this is rooted in our animal nature that seeks heirarchy and its escape from freedom. It is the very thing the Buddha warned us against in his last words.

DougVieques's picture

I was very moved by this. As a child both my parents were involved and complicit in my abuse. It was a ritual cult still active and widely respected in the world. I was not even aware of this until I broke down in middle age. The glimpses I got of this childhood abuse were devastating but the awareness came with the help of a gifted therapist and I moved on to heal. Both my parents are dead and I have forgiven them, but the aftershocks of such parental/teacher abuse and mistreatment can be tremendous. Please do not take these reports lightly. This is not People magazine stuff. We need to scour our hearts to be sure that we do not act ourselves with complicity by tolerating this kind of behavior nor can we perpetuate the oppression any longer.

viryaparamitas's picture

In reference to spiritual development it is a critical point to understand the value of boundaries. When one works with a teacher the very potential of the student is undermined by violating this essential dynamic. It is also true that there is an exception and rarely therapists do go off and have long term relationships with some client and the like goes with doctors, psychiatrists etc. When a teacher displays behavior that borders on having a harem around then what are we doing? It is self aggrandizing and in the end a destructive display of power. Hopefully the discussion continues so the expected behavior is solidified.

Finder's picture

Self aggrandizing is exactly what it is... and that is exactly when Zen is supposed to eradicate. If the ones who are supposed to be showing the way OUT of self-aggrandizement are up to their elbows in it, then there is something seriously wrong.

Jotai's picture

In the Bays/Maezumi case a teacher crossed the line (Maezumi) and a doctor crossed the line (Bays who was apparently physician to maezumi, his kids and Genpo and his wife). There was power and moral accountability on both sides of the situation. It is good to open up this discussion to one of mutual responsibility. Many Zen students walk away from a teacher when they hit a sticking point. The fact that a married woman does not when she is faced with temptation is relevant to her karma and her practice. Doesn't necessarily make her a victim.

robert nelder's picture

A teacher, a doctor, a psychiatrist etc, each of these is in a position of trust and sometimes power. Whether consentual or not, they have crossed the line. Sexual misconduct includes the hurt and pain caused to spouses, partners, children, parents, the sangha etc.