Sympathy for the Devil

It must be horrible to be a Buddhist teacher. All the zombie hordes showing up at the door trying to suck your brains out, get what knowledge you have, leeching on your experience, wanting something that passes for enlightenment handed to them on a platter.

I read that Maezumi Roshi’s students liked him to be drunk because he told the truth to them then. He told them what he really thought. Maybe Trungpa’s students felt the same way. Doubts and truths brought up during a drunken ramble are easy enough to dismiss if one doesn’t like what they’re hearing.

There is a great doubt in Buddhists that what we encounter and how we live is not the truth. What lengths we will all go to in order to pursue that truth! At the same time what lengths we will go to in order to avoid that truth! Running back and forth between these extremes for most of our lives-at one moment pursuing and the next being pursued. Covering the same ground, the same safe ground again and again.

Buddhism encourages questioning and “great doubt”. It’s not only doubt about what to wear to the sangha meeting or how much one should offer as dana. It’s GREAT DOUBT. BIG, GIANT, HUGE, MONSTROUS DOUBT about everything one believes and clings to for security.

Doubt is painful but it’s a useful sort of pain. I try to keep at least 10% doubt in everything I do, including what I write. It’s the crack that lets the light in. The oxymoronic perfection of wabi-sabi. Sometimes it’s a huge relief to be wrong or misguided. No need to keep up appearances any more. No more pretend. No more faking it.  No more pressure to put on the act. No more stage fright.

I’ve gone on at length in various blogs about Zen sexual scandals. My viewpoint has evolved somewhat over the past 4 years that I’ve been writing about these things. There was initially a kind of moralistic fit throwing which got some attention. That served the purpose because the situation required actual conscious attention. Then was more considered analysis and recommendations such as restorative justice. Then was brief focus on meta issues such as misogyny in the sangha. It’s quite possible I may revisit any one of these perspectives in future but for now I want to go for a new perspective. One that is lead by and examines doubt.

There’s a lot of blog posts right now about the situation with Genpo Roshi in Utah. Nobody seems to really know how to take the situation or what to do, and by the letter from that particular sangha, that includes people in Utah as well. 66 Zen teachers write another letter of direction. Sangha responds. Blog posts abound.

There’s a lot of despair, anxiety, discomfort, anger, insecurity, accusation and doubt. That’s good. All these wrathful deities, to borrow from the Tibetan tradition, dancing on the dining table, shitting in our food, laughing in our faces. Shake their hands. Give them a kiss. Take a solid bite of their putrid flesh. Drink it down with tiger blood. Apropos now that Genpo has become the Charlie Sheen of American Zen.

If you think I’m being facetious with that comparison think again. Consider either of these men, Genpo or Sheen, each with their particular talents and abilities. They worked for years, under the shadow of more well known leaders in their fields, made connections, developed their own styles and careers or positions and became popular. But then, and there’s always a “but then” in these situations, with popularity comes a certain amount of unsavory baggage. People come into a popular person’s life who don’t have their best interests at heart. Situations arise much more easily in which temptations of all sorts appear. Everybody wants a piece of the star, particularly when they are on the rise as if some of that success will rub off. After a while these are not even seen as temptations or impediments but part of the package of that popularity. It becomes the new normal.

Friends in similar positions, who help to maintain that illusion of success and popularity also appear. Cozy little self-justifying groups are formed. Since these friends all have the same or similar circumstances in common there is a sense of camaraderie. And a sense of competition. Which leads to more over the top behavior and at some points a sense of infallibility and immunity from consequences. Playing God. Greatest role of a lifetime.

I don’t know the depth of many of the particulars of Charlie Sheen’s situation other than his fondness for sex workers. He doesn’t really seem to have friends any more, only connections, admirers and social leeches. He has alienated people including his family, former wives and friends by buying into the public popular image he has created for himself.

One wonders what the situation with Genpo is, considering his alienation from the greater Zen sangha, family, former friends and his more recent connections with Wilber, Cohen, the Lenz Foundation and the surrounding coterie of ardent admirers and hangers-on. Not much different it seems.

Those on the margins of these individual’s lives have made and continue to make pleas for them to consider their actions, to change directions and to realize the errors of their ways. A lot of Zen teachers are trying to save this person (and his followers) from himself.

Such pleas are useless because, like with any addiction, and popularity/celebrity can very much be likened to an addiction-it makes one feel real good for a while and keeps reality at bay-the addict is well aware of what they are doing and why they are doing it. Maybe they don’t admit it but it’s there, all the time. The doubt nagging. That is part of the addiction cycle-to disguise itself with denial and other forms of psychological self defense.

The only way these situations resolve themselves is when the principal person involved either relinquishes their illusion to the valid doubts that exist or are by circumstance forced to face it.

Doubt is the doorway to reality. It is within doubt that the truth can be found.

Sometimes it takes a few false starts. Sometimes the fear of what doubt reveals is too much to face. Sometimes it is easier to ignore the doubts and just pretend to continue on with things the way they have been going. Pretending though only makes the crash with reality a lot bigger and more tragic. Hitting bottom. Just wait for it…in both these situations. Because that’s pretty well all that’s left to be done.

I don’t know what will happen to the sangha in Utah or to its leader. Seems to be some amount of backtracking on facing the doubt that was revealed. Some kind of fear that there is nothing on the other side of the façade. Reading the correspondence from the sangha…well strikes me as a bit of a parent-child relationship there. We need our daddy. Learned helplessness. Why has this man had to carry the whole situation?

If he gave up any Zen and Buddhist connection, ran his self help seminars with his cohorts there is little doubt that he would be successful. He could make millions off all the hangers-on looking for a quick fix. He could put on a real big show, franchise the whole operation and retire to the Caribbean. A spiritual Tony Robbins or other such huckster. He could become as rich and popular as Deepak Chopra if he really wants to. He could move to India and be worshipped as a god. Now that the old faker Satya Sai Baba has bought the farm there’s a vacancy. One doesn’t need any kind of credentials for that sort of endeavor. Nobody cares as long as they’re being spoon-fed the little escapes from the pain that they’re used to. [I just had to stick some Depeche Mode lyrics in there]

But he keeps returning to Zen. Zen with it’s focus on realization. Zen with it’s sharp point of truth.


It’s not really about the money. There’s plenty of that for a person with his talents. Good talker, well connected with the woo crowd and authoritarian cult leaders. Fine examples of how to comport one’s self without too much concern for messy stuff like ethics.

It’s not really about the popularity, perks, sex or whatever else arises out of that situation either. There are many easier ways to get that. Junpo Kelly offers a lot of tips on that over on Wilber’s Integral website.

After so many years it is likely that Genpo Roshi has experienced something that doesn’t let him rest easy. If that were not so he would not be having the difficulties he has now. A while back he did a Buddhist Geeks interview about returning to the marketplace. It was a blatant rationalization for unrestrained accumulation and greed. That was at the height of the 50K meet ups and the hoopla that entailed. Then comes a backing away from all that. An attempt at humility.

It’s about doubt. Those who do not experience doubt do not experience a lack of confidence in their activities. They are committed to the story to the bitter end. Look at Donald Rumsfeld, Donald Trump, Mohammar Quadaffi or similar people. Confident and absolutely without doubt. Wholly engulfed by their delusions of not only grandeur but correctness. People who have no doubt are dangerous as hell to the rest of us and to themselves. And yes I’d put Shimano in that category which is why this post is not addressing his situation.

But apparently Genpo Roshi has doubt. And a lot of it. I find myself oddly rooting for him.

So if I were looking Genpo Roshi in the eye I’d have two words for him.

“Just stop”

Maybe some of those close to him will say it. Unlikely. Because they have to stop first. Co-dependence is like that. Maybe he’ll have the courage to say it to himself. He appears to have tried. At least once.

“Admit you are powerless over your situation.”

That’s Step 1

“Just stop”

Sometimes the best solution is to walk away. Sometimes co-dependents need that as much as an addict.

Doubt is the demon we all want to deny. It erodes anything we call confidence, anything we feel we can rely on or be comfortable within. It demolishes all our facades, plans and desires. By doing that it allows spaciousness. Great spaciousness. Sometimes all we need is room to breathe. Sometimes demons need to be embraced rather than shunned.

Here’s a little poem to sum up the situation

Pleased to Meet You-a poem for Genpo Roshi

“We’ve got to save this”

“We’ve got to save that”

Clinging clinging

A sangha shouting,

“We’ve got to save the temple.”

”We’ve got to save reputations.”

Clinging clinging

66 Zen teachers shouting

“We’ve got to save Zen”

“We’ve got to save Genpo”

Clinging clinging

“We’ve got to save the money.”

“We’ve got to save relationships”

Save yourselves!

Just stop

Like death!

Just stop

Drop the flattering friends

Shred the letters

Erase the names

Close the temple

Burn the robes

Live in a hut

Sit in a field

And start again

Abide with nothing

To hold you back

Pleased to meet you

Won’t you guess my name

[All the Zen teachers in their leather jackets and colors.]


4 comments on “Sympathy for the Devil

  1. I remember reading Genpo’s interview somewhere, Tricycle maybe, a couple of years ago. He discussed his shadows there, how a long time ago he “became spiritual” and renounced eating meat, sex, and what have you, and then how all of those disowned shadows came back with a vengeance.

    I thought then (and still do now) that he was totally out in the woods in thinking that he had now successfully re-integrated those shadows, but I also thought (and still do now) that that description of his spiritual journey rang true. He was a genuine seeker who went off the rails from trying too hard. There is a tragic dimension to it.

    That interview, in fact, is one of the bigger things that alerted me to the dangers of repression in spiritual practice: the difference between facing down demons and conquering them and turning your back on them and pretending they’re not there is a subtle one, and it’s way too easy to think you’re practicing one when you’re really practicing the other.

    That’s what happened to Mr. Dennis Merzel, I think. Not the first, and certainly not the last.

    Thank you for another thought-provoking post.

  2. NellaLou:

    Thanks for this great post. Like Petteri I knew that when one starts boasting about how one was “integrating” “shadows” that right there, right then, that was not about any kind of “spiritual” development.

    It was so obvious to me.

    But I think there was something else too: This practice is, when all is said and done, a Buddhist practice.

  3. Pingback: Buddhism and Doubt | Ego_and_Me

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