Joan Halifax Roshi, founder of Upaya Zen Center, wrote a statement some time back regarding the ethical sexual issues that are plaguing the American Zen scene Why Buddhism?: Violations of Trust in the Sexual Sphere on Facebook. It also appears on Upaya’s website and on the blog, The Jizo Chronicles. In that missive she discusses the situation with regard to Eido Shimano’s many abuses, but many of her words are pertinent to the current situation with Dennis Genpo Merzel, a Buddhist teacher who cried crocodile tears a few months ago at being caught in another (for there have been many) compromising ethical position. Mr. Merzel pledged to disrobe, take counseling, set things right and basically get his shit together.
But now, less than a month and a half later he is announcing he is retaining his Zen master title and going back to teaching. That was fast. But you know these dharma-transmitted enlightened Bodhisattvas have so many super-human powers that no doubt one hour of counseling for them is equal to a year for the rest of us. Unfortunately there will be many who will be stupid enough to buy into that kind of magic thinking though.
In her statement Roshi Joan wrote:
“Many of us women have brought these issues to the attention of the wider community and have been shamed and shunned over the years.”
Of course there were some who felt she overstated the issue and others who were indifferent to it. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. [tree, forest, etc] In a further note that appeared on the Internet, Roshi Joan along with Grace Schireson Sensei indicated the level to which this kind of shaming and shunning has happened in the realm of the Zen teachers themselves. An excerpt from correspondence that appeared on the American Zen Teachers Association listserve, an organization to which Genpo Merzel had belonged, although he is no longer listed as a teacher at Kanzeon Zen Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, was published along with various mea culpas, explanations, recontextualizations etc. What was stated, and yes it appeared in ALL CAPS.
(AN INTERESTING TURN OF EVENTS: GRACE AND I WERE PUBLICLY
BULLIED BY ONE OF THE AZTA ZEN TEACHERS FOR OUR COMMUNIQUES,
INTERESTING PUSH BACK TO SAY THE LEAST. THIS IS JUST ONE MORE
PIECE IN THE PUZZLE OF THE CONFOUNDING BEHAVIOR THAT HAS
SURROUNDED THE SITUATION WITH EIDO SHIMANO AND A TYPICAL
RESPONSE WHEN WOMEN STAND TOGETHER AGAINST VIOLATIONS OF
THIS KIND. HEREIN A REDACTED VERSION OF ONE EXCHANGE, AFTER THE
FIRST EMAIL FROM HIM TELLING GRACE AND ME TO (EXCUSE THE
LANGUAGE) “BUTT OUT.”
Further the author of the “BUTT OUT” comment, Nonin Chowaney, then outed himself and had more to say in the ZFI forum. The incredibly patronizing tone of his remarks, which he published there, although they are available elsewhere, speaks volumes and thoroughly confirms Roshi Joan’s assessment in my opinion. He wrote:
It was me. Joan Halifax’s remarks are self-serving and inaccurate. Here is what I actually said, directed to two people, Joan and Grace:
At this point, I urge you both to butt out of ZSS’s business and let those on the ZSS Board do what they know that they need to do. They are also well aware of what needs to be done to heal their sangha, and this is no time to be making demands on the ZSS Board that you have no authority to make. If they want your help or recommendations, they’ll ask for them. …You two are coming across as crusaders who think that they know best for everyone concerned. I, for one, am very tired of your attitudes….
Joan, your presentation on the Shimano archives included all that you said but not all that I said. You only included one statement of mine to support your skewed view of what I said. This is intellectual dishonesty.
You also tried to to present my remarks as an example of men downgrading women. I do not downgrade women and try to keep them “in their place.” My remarks to you and Grace were remarks to you and Grace, and they were meant to downgrade your behavior and your “positions.” If men had written your remarks, I would have said the same thing.
This kind of scolding, as if they are naughty little girls is insulting. It is not surprising that the recipients were taken aback by it. The pointing out of their lack of authority is rather telling in that he himself assumes an authority to tell them what they should and should not be doing. It is not like the ZSS folks can’t do that themselves. He presumes to speak for them as well. In a further communication he writes:
Your statement about the issue not touching me in the way it has touched women is nothing but a red herring and a manifestion of 70’s feminism, which most people, especially savvy women, have gotten beyond.
Not only does Nonin Chowaney know what’s going on in all these situations and presumes to speak for ZSS and many others (read the entire comment thread) he also apparently knows what goes on in the minds of “savvy” women and can speak for their behavior as well. He can tell us the motivation for other’s statements, “manifestation of 70’s feminism”, what is in the minds of “most people”, in particular that they have “gone beyond” all that. Must be amazing to have such mindreading abilities.
Dismissing a woman’s statement as a “red herring” is a convenient way not to bother to address it. It says that her feelings on the matter are not only not worthy of consideration but further bolster the previous accusation of “intellectual dishonesty”.
Add it all up. Read all the comments, many of which have been reproduced at length here. That’s called paternalism.
Further he writes, as if it justifies this paternalism:
I’ve receive four messages from female Zen teachers that were sent to me privately. All supported what I wrote to Joan and Grace, but a couple of they said they’d wished I hadn’t used such strong language. I’d print those messages here, but they were meant to be private, so I won’t.
Yes in the very end there is some alleged moral high ground to be claimed, by not divulging secrets. Seems that particular non-action is the paragon of American Zen virtues. Isn’t that the way most of these sex scandals have been perpetuated through the decades? And I’m quite sure Roshi Joan could find 4 female Zen teachers and a whole raft of students too, if the commentary on the Upaya website is any indication, to support her position as well.
Now two of the principals Grace Schireson and Nonin Chowaney who made the statements seem to have reached a position of détente. Nonetheless it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Long discussions regarding this matter appear on the ZFI forum.
It is something of an indictment of the misogyny that has prevailed in American convert Zen sanghas and in general. I felt a sense of frustration coming through Joan Halifax’s words.
Such misogyny has been accepted culturally in the “progressive” American culture forever, and it appears frequently in spiritual realms, though often somewhat disguised. It is not only within the teacher community itself but everywhere. I read it on Twitter, in certain “enlightened” publications, on blogs, in comments, emails and hear it in person. It is pervasive, malicious and culturally engrained. For example recently I’ve noted, on Twitter, female members of the #twangha, which is an informal label for Buddhist people who use Twitter, being discussed or labeled with “juicy”, “naughty”, “sexiness”, “babes”, “boobs” (lots of boob references), being asked “Are you available?” (Most people use DM-direct messaging for this kind of pick-up line), by men who are essentially, strangers to them, meaning they only know each other from Twitter or blogs.
The thing that saddens me the most is that some women buy into it as well. Women through fear, ignorance, cultural teaching, discouragement or for other reasons either don’t make a strong stand or are bowed, under pressure from maintaining that stand. We see such pressure being applied to the women teachers above who made strong statements. In some cases women go along with this climate because there doesn’t seem to be any alternative. It’s a sub-current that is woven into much we do, even in the spiritual realm.
On one blog last month a male commenter [ZenDirtZenDust] wrote:
“The worst part, the absolute clincher, is that when people (Buddhists) speak up against it other Buddhist tell them to STFU!”
STFU means Shut The Fuck Up. His reference was to speaking up and opposing discriminatory legislation as well as in other situations of injustice. I wrote a rather long response. Some of it deals directly with the Genpo issue and the way many Zen teachers jumped on the bandwagon once one or two spoke out. Here is an abbreviated, edited version.
A stand has to be made. We each do it in our own ways according to our abilities. There is no problem for me to stand up against any sort of organized or unorganized idiocy by bigots, misogynists, homophobes etc. and that is because it is their ignorance talking. And when borderline newby Buddhists suggest “not right speech” that is also not too difficult to deal with.
And I don’t expect other Buddhists to agree with my opinion, set of actions or world view. I explain my attitudes, ideas and the issues as I know them to the best of my ability. And they are not set in concrete. If someone has reasons why they disagree I am happy to hear them because I don’t believe I have all the information in the world on every single subject or issue there is. That would be stupid in the extreme. Obviously. But when I see those who’ve had decades of practice advocate exactly this same thing, that STFU approach, it becomes disheartening.
As a woman on the internet too there is an added misogyny that is all too recognizable as well. Let the men take care of this little lady-some asshole “Buddhist” actually called me sweetheart at the end of such a diatribe on Twitter a while back. There is often just as much ignorance in Buddhaville (or should I call it Hooterville?) as there is in the general public.
Those who try to alleviate that, by one means or another, get shot at with everything from anti-intellectualism, misogyny, homophobia veiled as crass humor, twisted interpretations of anything and everything they’ve written, unfounded classist remarks, faked up accusations and all manner of personal smears. And not by one or two people but by a mob.
Example-I made a point with which several people disagreed. 11 good “Buddhist” men immediately began mocking not only the point but myself personally. They did not deign to question me personally or even consider that I might have wanted to discuss the matter. Instead I became an “object” of their derision. Some of these I had never interacted with at any time and didn’t know me from Adam (or is that Eve). And some of these I had interacted with on quite friendly terms many times. The term for that kind of activity is an Internet gang-bang. Many of these were experienced practitioners, some with blogs we all read, you know … the good guys. But I’m not out to name and shame.
Now I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, nor do I expect congratulations of any kind. I do expect some amount of flak every time I express myself. (and I know I’ll get it for what I’ve written here too–just watch and wait for it) In fact I am sometimes deliberately inflammatory in my remarks. I will push the envelop. And I’ve taken the time to think long and hard about where those boundaries are with everything I say. But there are some lines I absolutely do not cross.
But back to the point. Buddhists need to stand up for themselves and others. And not have to constantly worry about getting fragged by their own ranks because of personal grudges or ego trips. When there’s something to be said then say it at a time that is relevant. Storing up decades of resentment and then issuing schadenfreude filled manifestos is ridiculous.
The Genpo situation is a case in point. Many who signed that letter [of discipline, advice, castigation] are blatantly hypocritical in their opinions. Most belong to the AZTA (American Zen Teachers Association ) which had admitted Genpo quite a few years ago despite knowing his history and the problems which had occurred with other Zen centers which which he was affiliated. He was still a member until very recently when the pack turned on him lest they be exposed as enablers. Some who signed the letter against him have offered Big Mind workshops at their own facilities to help pay costs. Others have had affairs with him that went sour and they may be a little bit vindictive. (response to that link) Others have stood by for years and simply done nothing while it all unfolded. Some though have refused to sign it pointing to the issue thusly:
On days like today, though, one thing that strikes me is how American Zen has attracted a self-righteous lot quick to pounce on someone when they’re down and bragging about how right they were about it all to begin with. Looks like sanctimonious self-righteousness. ~Dosho Port
After all this time these folks issue this list of “demands” for that is how it is worded, that he must comply with to be readmitted into their esteemed ranks as if their effluvium don’t stink to the sky. And they are trying to make some psychotherapist an arbiter of morality which is utterly ridiculous. But then again since they have all abrogated their responsibilities in that arena they need to set up a scapegoat in case of future problems.
If they really cared about helping they’d have done something a lot sooner, not profited over his efforts, however dubious they may be, and they wouldn’t be making en masse public demands that have such a belittling tone to them. They want to humiliate and punish him, not correct his behavior, not to serve the dharma, not to assist the victims, none of that has any bearing nor is it even mentioned but as a sideline. It’s a show, a circus in which everyone is hell bent on demonstrating their moral contortions. It’s all about intent there. And the intent is pretty clear-personal revenge and personal gain on the moral appearance front. They don’t call it the “Zen Mafia” (John Tarrant’s term written to me in a personal but public comment on Facebook) for nothing.
All in all there are much bigger issues between Buddhists and the world and between Buddhists themselves to be dealt with. Petty ego battles aren’t worth derailing that. And that’s what STFU often comes down to.
There’s a kind of subtle and not so subtle social pressure women are subjected to particularly with regard to spiritual matters. One is supposed to be the “helpmeet” or the “foundation” or other such ancillary roles to the males greatness. Always the inji and rarely the Roshi. And even though it seems women can finally get rid of those ugly puffy sleeved pink ceremonial gowns and into the golden bibs the pressure remains to attend to “women’s Zen”, which usually involves some kind of caregiver role directly or teaching other caregivers. And this sits well with the patriarchy.
What I mean by “women’s Zen” is this. When we do a survey of Zen teachers we can see that many are involved with caregiving/helping professions as well as with the work of teaching Zen. This includes hospice work, parenting, chaplaincy, teaching, nursing, doctoring, ministering, psychotherapy and the like. One thing I can’t help but notice however is that for the men the teaching of Zen stands on it’s own. And for quite a number of the women the teaching of Zen directly includes the helping role as adjunct to that teaching.
Listen to a lot of dharma talks by both men and women. You will see for yourself.
Men will talk about dharma, often in an intellectual way and often without reference to their personal context, outside occupation, marital or other family status . Women will talk about dharma and personal experience, related to the caregiving role and emotion. If one looks at Zen related books that have been recently published. I did a search and survey of those published since 2005-excluding those which are reprints or revisions of older works, and found results similar to those I found when I looked over various lists of dharma talks.
Have a look at some lists of dharma talks such as at SFZC for example. I’m choosing them only because they provide such a comprehensive list of talks that cover 2007-2010. A good sample size. I’m sure if I looked around the Internet and collected from individual sites the results would be similar. Figures are approximate as I’m doing the math mostly in my head.
Of over 550 talks listed there 34% are presented by women. In a bit of a linguistic analysis I compared various words used in the titles of the talks with the gender of the speaker. Here are some of the words that are used. I tried to compare both fairly common and fairly unique words.
Compassion- 2.1% of men used this word in the title while 6% of women did.
Men used far more dharma related words than women as well as more psychological terminology-dharma, buddha, awareness, practice, paramita, ritual, Dogen, Zen, subjectivity, objectivity, cognitive, neuroscience with the exception of the words Bodhisattva and emptiness which was used more often by women. All the recordings marked as children’s talks seem to be given by women as well.
Words used more often (at least 2 to 1) by men than women-freedom, fire, happiness, death, fear, anxiety, heart, courage, business, generosity
Words used more often by women (at least 2 to 1) than men-love, wisdom, kindness, nourishing or nourishment), gift or giving, moon
Words used exclusively by men-dragon (4 times), pirate, despair, donkey, bathroom, pig pen, beauty, aesthetic
Words used exclusively by women-sadness, trauma, hope, cake, aging
Just in the choice of titles alone there is some difference in the tone that is recognizable. In the talks themselves, and I have listened to quite a few over time, women were far more likely to mention their children and family than men. This is similar to what I found with the books except for the percentages of women writing about Zen, that is far less-guestimating that less than 5 % are written solely by women. About 5% are co-authored with men, whose name generally precedes the womans. The rest are written solely by men. This is true for both academic books as well as those for a general audience.
Now whether this is because women in teaching roles have different communication styles than men or choose to bring in material from their life experience or whether there is a lack of confidence in knowledge of dharma or whether women are not fully feeling secure as a dharma authority and wish to bolster that with material which projects competence in some other arena is anyone’s guess.
There has been less opportunity for women to practice to the same level as men in the Zen traditions. And that American Zen still operates as something of a boy’s club is not surprising. Even contemporary male dharma-transmitted teachers will use sex as a ploy to attract attention, bolster their egos and ramp up reputations as being or having been “players”. This is particularly evident when they have products to sell. A couple of examples include Brad Warner and his column on the soft-porn site Suicide Girls, particularly where he criticizes Genpo Merzel and labels him as a “Zen monster”. I am not insinuating that any of Brad Warner’s behavior is of a character similar to that of Genpo or Shimano or any others. What I am saying is that there is a willingness to exploit and objectify women on Warner’s part in order to attract attention. This includes his outbursts about “boobs” on Facebook and other such juvenile commentary.
There is also Junpo Dennis Kelly’s recent statements on the Integral philosophy’s website in a post, In Defense of Promiscuity, which rather lasciviously outlines his being apparently seduced by a student many years his junior. That Junpo Kelly is associated with Eido Shimano in the past and the Ken Wilber organization currently, to which Genpo Merzel is also attached is not surprising considering how much sexual misconduct has been attested to within that organization’s long and convoluted history. These are just a couple of the more overt expressions.
It is difficult for those in positions of privilege to acknowledge that. When one is only seeing the benefits and not the detriments of a particular situation it is easy to assume that there is no problem. However when one is not is that position the detriments become that much more clear. So perhaps, if we return to the Halifax/Chowaney exchange and the charge that as a man Chowaney may not be fully sympathetic or understanding of the position and viewpoint of women there is some truth to be had there.
What all this comes down to is ethics. Ethics are not a koan to be pondered endlessly, each of us coming up with our own unique solution regardless of whatever context we may be in. And Buddhist ethics, Zen ethics in particular, despite some opinions to the contrary are fairly well defined.
Zen Buddhism is sometimes seen as taking no sides on morals, as allowing the performances of any and every action, from the chopping-up of cats to the beating of the innocent, as having, by definition, nothing relevant to say on the matter. It has been suggested, in what has gone before, that the Zen Buddhist tradition does, in fact, have something to say on the matter of moral behavior, that, indeed, there is evidence that enlightenment requires certain moral (and intellectual) preconditions, and that what it does have to say is cogent, consistent, and, not least, Buddhist.
conclusion to The nature and status of moral behavior in Zen Buddhist tradition by Brear, A. D. in Philosophy East & West V. 24 (1974) pp. 429-441
Read the entire article for it places the Zen ethical position squarely within the Mahayana stream.
In these many sexual scandals there are the occasional outbursts of moral outrage but more often than not in America there has been plenty of forgiveness for the male but little ‘forgiveness’ for the woman or minority for being in that circumstance. There are innuendoes passed, suggestions made and even outright accusations of everything from insanity to jealousy to being behind the times with regard to those who have gotten the short end of the privilege stick. And where accusers and their allies are vocal the attempts to either shut them up directly, by way of bullying, innuendo or exclusion are many.
I was recently accused of attempting to smear the reputation of the American Zen Teacher’s Association. The person making this accusation also stated emphatically that Merzel was not a member of the AZTA (although as of Feb. 11, 2011 there was some question as to whether he was still listed or not, by an AZTA member) The accusation came from someone I’ve mentioned in this post. The unofficial spokes person as someone described him to me. Fine. I shall defend my position with regard to my quandries, reservations and even occasional incivilities about that institution.
On the one hand the AZTA puts itself forward as some kind of supportive peer group, at other times it is described as merely a listserve and at other points it attempts to put forward some kind of authority such as in the Merzel case when as a group they wrote letters to Maezumi Roshi (mentioned here) regarding Merzel’s behavior twenty years ago, not unlike the group effort that was recently made on the same issue.
It is called a peer group organization yet it is envisioned as a service to the general public. They have strict entrance requirements yet do not count themselves as a credentialing or authorizing body. Additionally on that note there are statements regarding “properly qualified Zen Teachers” which are listed on their database. They do not credential or authorize but merely recommend. This is while simultaneously conducting organized campaigns against teachers who have been listed with them (Genpo) and even those who have not been listed(Shimano). There are committees and officers yet it’s purpose is stated to provide information and dialogue opportunities.
All of these attributes are found on their website or actions produced on their behalf.
So which is it? It seems to be an organization that flip flops on it’s identity and assertions as often as some of these Zen masters do.
Looking a little further afield there’s more to be said about the AZTA.
Here’s an interesting note from Angie Boissevain, the leader of the Floating Zendo quoted in Mourning the unborn dead: a Buddhist ritual comes to America by Jeff Wilson.
[Kobun Chino Roshi] taught us very little. He taught us oryoki, and the Heart Sutra, how to do the ceremony at the altar, and that’s about it. As some of us got older and were asked to teach at various places, we were eventually asked to do weddings and things like that. We would go to Kobun and ask how to do the, and he would say “Make it up.” …so my own way of learning has been a lot of making it up. I just met again a woman in Switzerland, a woman who I had met before, and we got to talking about rituals and she said that she didn’t know how to do anything and Kobun told her just to make it up. And she’s now transmitted and has her own place, so I bundled up and sent her all the things we’ve accumulated. So I think that’s what we mostly do, is pass around what we’ve done. I found that I had two new baby ceremonies that people had sent me, and an eye-opening ceremony that someone had sent me. A couple of weddings. In the AZTA [American Zen Teachers Association] listserve, people just write back and forth: “Hey, does anybody know how to do a house blessing?” And then several people write back with their versions of how to bless a house. So it’s very curious how we’re doing this. There is a book, Shasta Abbey has a book with all the ceremonies in it in the Sojiji style. But most of us I think are just kind of winging it. (p. 66)
The evidence of that statement can easily be found in the (dis)organization that is known as the AZTA.
“Winging it.” for the past couple of decades has apparently worked well for these second generation Zen teachers. Look at the glorious situation which has come about by this haphazard methodology. Zen teachers themselves are declaring,
As one teacher friend pointed out the average age of the American Zen teacher is somewhere in her or his early sixties.
What I think we’re looking at is a dying off of Zen in the West within the next twenty years.
I don’t think Zen will go away. But it will be a much smaller thing than it currently is.
For what reason would anyone with any sense want to become a Zen teacher at this point? To receive such a disorganized, frequently indecisive, confused, meandering inheritance is not something to look forward to.
The situations that have gone on, and that continue, demonstrate aptly either how out of touch the Zen teachers are with their own peers, how out of touch they are with Zen students, how out of touch they are with the ethical foundations of all Buddhist traditions, how out of touch they are with “savvy” women or women in general, or how out of touch some of them are with reality. In any of these cases it does not bode well for the future of Zen in America.
If the elite of the AZTA are merely running a recipe club rather than an organization that is of some dharmic purpose why not say so and stop with the semi-authoritarian posturing. On the other hand if they are indeed serious about establishing, building and representing the Buddhadharma by way of Zen practice then maybe it’s time to do just that. Comes a time one has to either do the job or use the shitstick and get off the pot.
Marianne Faithfull-The Ballad of Lucy Jordan