Is it Dharma or Drama?-added notes for those keeping score

A while back in this post there was some discussion about conflicting views two teachers had over the appropriate way to deal with ritual objects in the Zendo. The folks involved were Ven. Dogo Barry Graham (aka Urban Monk) and Ven. Gomyo Kevin Seperic (aka Hoodie Monk) both of whom have been students of Ven Kobutsu Malone founder of The Engaged Zen Foundation among other things.

It appears this little tiff has blown up to a point where reputations, credentials, intentions, mental health and the future of the Sangha involved is at risk. Not to mention the trust of any students practicing there. The latest episode is posted here on Ven. Gomyo’s blog with contributions by Ven. Kobutsu in the comments. I won’t go into the details here, you can read it for yourself.

By the time these kinds of disputes become so very public the damage has generally been done. And in my opinion the responsibility rests with the teacher as much as with the two individuals involved.  To give sanction to someone without appropriate due diligence is a mistake that can have disastrous consequences. For a student to attempt to correct the teacher’s mistake compounds the issues. And for another student to sever ties with those who have (apparently) given assistance with numerous things regarding a Sangha is also a mistake.  It grows exponentially. And I can’t help but wonder what an upcoming book has to do with all of it?

The threads of such in-fighting are a tangle and no doubt there is a great deal more only those involved know about. It’s all a very unpleasant situation. Through their writings and engaged work I have come to  respect all three of these people. All seem sincere and passionate about the Dharma.

Ultimately though, we are each responsible for our own well-being and for our own actions. If decisions have been made that are regrettable it is best to correct what can be corrected and learn from the experience.

And though generally what I write here is for other students, teachers also need to wake up a little more and stop relying on their “teacherness” to discern other’s motives and GET SOME REFERENCES !

Further note: This event continues with Ven. Graham’s response which has recently been moved to here

Feb. 5 A note on Ven. Kobutsu’s reply to the above response with images of letters and other proofs of credentials. Correction. This information has been available for some time and was only recently cited by link on Ven. Gomyo’s blogpost.

Feb. 5 Please also read Jame’s Ford’s very insightful and informative post on Teaching Credentials in  Zen

Thanks to comment writers also for your responses. And to other bloggers who have reflected on this issue in terms of what it means to you, such as this honest reaction on the Just Zazen blog,with its insightful ending, we are all getting some lessons here and what we choose to take from them will be useful for our practices and understanding.

If you have written a reaction to this situation that you want to share please feel free to leave a link in the comments. It may benefit someone else who is currently questioning.

I have made a post for people questioning especially those who are questioning the value of Buddhist practice here Cosmic Drama.

12 comments on “Is it Dharma or Drama?-added notes for those keeping score

  1. From what I gathered from his blog Ven. Gomyo Kevin Seperic Has PTSD.
    Or at least that is what it appeared like he claimed in a post on his old blog. If this is the case I am truly sorry for him and hope he is getting good help.

  2. Yes PTSD is a terrible thing. I had a 14 year relationship (9 of those married) to someone with a severe form of this condition so am very familiar with it. Most people don’t know that it becomes sort of “contagious” in that it has dramatic and traumatic effects on all those who are close. It is far too undertreated and unrecognized as the serious situation it is. Sometime I’m going to take that up on this blog but I’m not quite ready for it yet.
    Even so people with PTSD and those close to them cannot use it as an excuse for deception if indeed deception occurs. That is a different matter.

  3. Again, and so, even this.

    Right action begins with self.

    I am a newbie in this place and have not got a clue what havoc entropy is currently creating on the sites (and in the Zendo) you mention. All I know is there is no room for ego where love is concerned and what the head makes cloudy, the heart makes very clear. (Thank you, Don Henley, “Forgiveness”.)

    Maya, girls and boys, maya. Learning how to play together or play apart if that is what is needed.

    Okay, I am dropping out of this dialogue.

    May everyone find peace.

    *sigh*

  4. Just to clarify, Ven. Kobutsu never “sanctioned” Mr. Graham in any official sense. What he did do was allow Mr. graham to refer to him as his “teacher.” While it may seem unorthodox, or even naive, of Ven. Kobutsu to have accepted a student, sight unseen, it bears mentioning that the majority of the Venerable’s teaching career has involved prisoners, many of whom he never met. Ven. Kobutsu never wanted distance or cicumstances to get in the way of the dharma, and so he has made it his practice to accept students he has never met, espcially when they demonstrate a great deal of sincerity. Ven. Kobutsu also provided Mr. Graham with material and financial support. He did so in the belief that Mr. Graham was an ordained priest in the Soto tradition. Mr. Graham had been already teaching Zen for several years by the time he asked Ven. Kobutsu to serve as his teacher. The Venerable had no reason to doubt that his claims to be a monk were false. Mr. Graham’s teachings, which were generally on point and seemed to illustrate a deep understanding of the Buddhadhama, and the fact that he had several students in both Phoenix, AZ, and Chattanooga, TN, seemed be proof enough. As Ven. Kobutsu has admitted, himself, that was an error in judgement.

    Finally, the question of whether or not Mr. Graham has received Dharma Transmission is a new one. Never in his two year association with Ven. Kobutsu did Mr. Graham claim – either to his “teacher” or on his Web site – to have received Dharma Transmission. That particular claim has appeared only within the last few weeks, since the Venerable severed his ties with Mr. Graham. Prior to that, Mr. Graham’s story was that he was only priest ordained, and had not received Dharma Transmission, during any monastic training he may (or may not) have undergone in Japan. This new claim is what has caused Mr. Graham’s former associates to question whether or not he is even ordained. As Mr. Graham has refused to furnish proof of either his ordination or his Dharma transmission, the answer to that question remains to be seen.

    While it is unfortunate that Ven. Kobutsu’s esteem and affection for Mr. Graham caused him to overlook inconsistencies in his former student’s claims, let’s not overplay the Venerable’s role. Mr. Graham has claimed to be a Zen teacher for at least six years, while Ven. Kobutsu has only known him for two. All the Ven. Kobutsu actually did was provide him with some additional props to play the role.

  5. Thank you for your input. No doubt this matter will be completely clarified in due time. And all will be able to heal.

  6. “To be ‘open’ means to be a doormat for the world.” Without acceptance, this does not seem to be achievable.
    Thus, as a “nobody” in Zen, I would just say to those on the offensive in this situation: “keep practicing”.

  7. It is unlikely people outside of the situation will actually ever know who is on the offensive here and who started what. But it would appear that Mr. Graham initiated things by contacting Ven. Kobutso with regard to being a teacher. Probably after finding out it was he who wrote the blurb of endorsement on the back of Ven. Brad Warner’s first book.
    And whether in offensive, defensive or just spectator position, practice is always helpful.

  8. I’ve been fascinated and slightly miffed reading this story over the last few days, googling all the parties and clicking all the links (I used to be a journalist, and I feel like the ol dog is back in the hunt.) This actually story was one of the last I’ve found, and one of the more helpful.

    This is really very simple. Gomyo first, and then a number of students afterward, after encountering what all perceived as questionable word and deed, asked to have confirmation of Barry Graham’s qualifications, and verification of his stated claims for, well, anything (‘just show us something, anything’) – claims that all had heard first hand. No question should be easier to answer. Any teacher worth their salt should just say “ok. Here.” If they don’t, run, don’t walk, to the nearest exit.

    How did he go 10 years without being asked? Ignorance. I would never have studied Zen with a 25-35 year old man who claimed to be a monk but had no affiliation with any larger organization, and apparently until meeting Kobustu, no robes even – I think this is common sense. But as the saying goes, sense ain’t all that common. Its quite variegated.

    This is not to mention Graham’s ‘teachings’ themselves, which are about as compelling as wacking my head with a book, or my laptop (which might lead more quickly to some real insight). God, he’s insufferable – pompous, simplistic, preachy, drippy, and self-righteous.

    I’ve talked with another quite well-known teacher (who’s met Graham) about this, and he was pretty blithe. “Well, teaching will sort him out.” I suppose that is one possibility. But me, I am not quite so sanguine. I took 20 years to decide to become a Soto priest, after practicing in different traditions and lineages. I’m a couple years younger than Graham. The process is powerful, transformative, and both liberating and burdensome. I think there are dangers involved. You NEED the teacher, you NEED time, you need peers and sangha to get through it. To change.

    Why would one pretend to be ordained? And then to have transmission? For one simple reason – some kind of pathological wish for power, respect, and a twisted sort of notoriety. There is no other reason. I think the tie-in (mentioned above) to Warner’s book is exactly what I intuited. Look at his proposed book cover (now scuttled after this story blew up) – it’s got that same “Dharma Punk” pastiche. I didn’t even like the first wave, much less now the copycats.

    Everything about Graham just screams ‘poseur.’ I think he needs to continue to have his feet held to the fire. Those who choose to study with him should know full well of his standing and reputation in the broader American sangha. Which is quickly plummeting.

  9. From the Sitting Frog Zen website – On Barry Dogo Graham:

    “Abbot of The Sitting Frog Zen Center, is a Zen monk who has been practicing for two decades, beginning at River of Dharma Zen Sangha in Glasgow, Scotland, and continuing his training at Butsudo Zen Center in Kyoto, Japan, where he received Dharma Transmission from Ando Yamashiro Roshi.”

    In the course of this Drama, it was revealed that there is no record of River of Dharma Zen Sangha in Glasgow, Scotland OR Butsudo Zen Center in Kyoto, Japan OR any person named Ando Yamashiro Roshi.

    Even the Soto-shu was involved… and there was neither a center with that name in Kyoto OR a priest that went by that name.

    Barry Dogo Graham is a fraud in the 3rd degree.

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