Dances with Power

I have a post in the works about rationalizations people use when confronted with ugly realities of improprieties in their beloved institutions. It’s really long and won’t be finished for a couple of more days. (That’s not a promise as I’m wrestling with it) It started with looking at the current brouhaha going on in the Sasaki situation but it became pretty clear that the issues are way bigger than that so it expanded and still needs some rewriting. There are some parallels with the Shimano situation but it’s not exactly the same. The details of these kinds of situations tend to be rather sordid so I prefer not to go into them and look at the context which allows such behavior to occur. AKA structural issues. In other words there are themes that recur and they recur with such frequency we take them as somehow normal. Normal is just another word for habitual and conditioned in the most popular fashion. So that’s in the upcoming piece as well.

In the meantime I have been noting an interesting back and forth between Brad Warner and Grace Schireson on the Sweeping Zen site recently. The commentary that followed by many others. It has been interesting and the fallout of it pretty ugly.

Additionally Peter Schireson, husband of Grace, wrote a post related to this dialogue. Dude, you’re not as funny or as smart as you think you are. That’s all I’m going to say about his “contribution” to the discourse.

The original debate was about a very critical point. Or rather several points that have been conflated into one. Hence I think Brad and Grace are to some degree talking at cross-purposes. So here are some of the points with my brief responses. I’ll elaborate on some of them after the list.

The big question: Can there be a legitimate emotional/sexual relationship between someone in power and someone not?

My view: Possibly, but with a lot of caveats.

That brings up some tangential questions though:

  • Is it always wrong for a dharma leader to be involved with someone in their own sangha? My view: While both are in a formal teacher/student relationship there should be institutional regulations and escape mechanisms to deal with such an eventuality. And it is an eventuality in many situations. To think otherwise is to either be hopelessly naïve, morally arrogant or willfully blinkered to the human condition. The Boundless Way sangha has actually thought about that in their Code of Ethics with this clause:
  • Any priest, senior Dharma teacher or transmitted teacher who finds a romantic relationship beginning with a member of the sangha should inform the EAR Committee of this relationship and seek guidance as to the most healthful way to proceed.

    If the people involved are in a teacher-student relationship, a choice must be made between either pursuing that personal relationship or continuing the teacher-student relationship, but not both.

  • Can a woman voluntarily and of her own free will enter into a relationship with someone who is in a position of direct power over her? Yes. Caveats.
  • Should women who have been victimized by those in power over them be protected, fought for and expect justice?  Yes. I will always stand up for women who have been victimized. And I hope others would too out of compassion, empathy and solidarity.
  • Doesn’t that infantilize them to have someone else speak on their behalf? Sometimes. Depends who’s doing the “white knighting” and why. (I got on Brad’s case about infantilization in comments on his blog. I was objecting to his use of the word “girls” in a rather facetious way while referring to women who practice Zen. He recognized my objection and stated his reasons for the terminology as well as apologizing for the offense. I’m cool with that.)
  • Is this even “white knighting”? What is white knighting? Usually it’s men who jump at the chance to defend the virtue of women mostly to bolster their own sense of manhood and importance. It tends to be dismissive of the actual concerns of women in favor of what these men think is good for them. Some people, men and women, do “white knight” in situations like this. Others not. It’s exploitative when “white knighting” is done mainly to bolster the egos and sense of moral rectitude of the defenders. Righteous indignation can be such a high! We have to check pretty carefully what’s underneath that particular rock before we pick it up and throw it. I know this because I’ve been bitten a few times by what crawls out of there.
  • What constitutes victimization? Coercion. By individuals, groups, institutions, cultural and sub-cultural morays, economics, gender roles and all the other potentially oppressive factors. I have a lot to say about coercive relationships in the next post.


Let me tell you first how I come to this viewpoint. I have 4 angles of view on it. All from experience. (though activism, Buddhist practice and academic study puts it in further perspective)

  1. I have been violently sexually assaulted in my life.
  2. I have been in situations of gendered coercion.
  3. I have had, quite a few years ago, a non-coercive, fully voluntary beneficial relationship with someone 20 years my senior who was also one of my professors at university.
  4. I have been in several positions of power that I could have easily exploited sexually or otherwise had I chosen to do so.

I’m not going to give out the sordid details of any of it. But it has all been instructive.

Grace wrote a heartfelt piece A Zen Woman’s Personal Perspective On Sexual Groping, Sexual Harassment, And Other Abuses In Zen Centers. She does a good job in capturing the current zeitgeist and the oppression and abuse women face with alarming frequency. Rape culture in all of its manifestations is alive and well, even in the Zen community. Rape culture isn’t just about physical violence or forceful sexual intercourse. It is a psychological, emotional and experiential milieu of coercion, submission, shaming, belittling, dismissal,  fear and intimidation. It was all pretty familiar to me since I’ve experienced it too. Most women have. And she also covers some of the bullshit we are fed, or after while sometimes begin to feed ourselves, about the desirability of men in power, that it is the power that defines male sexuality and desirability, and to become an object of that power by any means necessary defines female sexuality, and in a larger context male-female gender relations in general. Pretty sad state of affairs. So she wrote some important things there. And she is pretty absolute in her moral opinion that under no circumstances should intimate relations develop between teachers and students. In a perfect world that would be…well, perfect. But neither Buddhist practice nor present day society requires people to become eunuchs-male or female*. Alas and alack we have to look around and see things are not always as we think they should be. So we have to deal with that. (*reference to Germaine Greer-the eunuchs of first wave feminism have moved on)

[Side Note: It is unfortunate that Grace dragged in an innocent unaffiliated woman to fling down as some kind of trophy to demonstrate moral and rhetorical superiority in her second piece where she brought up Brad’s former girlfriend, who was not a student, in an attempt to shame him for enjoying a physical relationship. Cheap shot, exploitative and sensationalist and unnecessary to make the point. Also the allusion to that in her husband’s post. Same objection.]

Some men do bad stuff like coercive sexual abuse. More often it is men because men are more often in positions of power. (one of a number of reasons why) We cannot however go so far as to declare all men “the enemy”. They’re not. I am unsure if there even are people in these situations who are “The Enemy.” There are people who are, in various combination, damaged, arrogant, ignorant, selfish, sociopathic, greedy, foolish, entitled, patriarchal, blinkered, rude, self-involved, egotistical and corrupt involved in these kinds of situations. In painting a portrait of male abusers as enemies we run the risk of using an overly broad brush thereby painting all men in the same fashion. Is this not what women, and especially feminists, object to? We also risk distorting situations to fit that enemy narrative and creating scapegoats of all kinds. Or at the very least punching bags upon whom we release our righteous anger.

That too is harm.

Further by jumping on bandwagons to rally troops under a morally righteous banner in order to fight these “enemies”, we invoke notions of superiority and particularly purity, that ultimately serve to exclude, vilify, shame and dehumanize anyone who falls in the shadow of and finally under the wheels of that juggernaut. Ultimately that will include nearly everyone. Nobody’s pure enough to drive that chariot for long. It causes a lot of collateral damage particularly when we lose focus and become blinded by our own rage.

That too is harm.

One thing I’ve always admired about Brad Warner is the transparency he brings to his public face. That’s really unusual in American Zen. The posturing is pretty absurd in that realm sometimes. (see current drama for a whole bunch of that) He might be a bit too much of a smart ass sometimes, use vernacular terminology that gets misinterpreted or not always avail himself of the wonders of Google when fact checking things but there are three things that are consistent with what he writes:his blatant honesty, his courage to put himself and his personal experience out there for scrutiny (with the consent of those he might choose to include-that’s important) and his compassion for just about anyone (except Genpo maybe). Even when I disagree with him vehemently, which is often, it’s never the case that he seems totally unreasonable, unapproachable or unwilling to examine his own position. That’s also pretty rare in American Zen where certitude and inviolability seems to rule.

It is a little dismaying to read some people’s interpretations of what Brad Warner has said. Did they even read it? There’s some serious disconnect with reality to some of the criticism. Almost hallucinatory in it’s warped portrayal. Outrage at imaginary statements is the delicious poison of the day. I’ve read pretty much everything he’s written and do not recognize those portrayals at all. Sure there are some points worth re-examining and some valid criticisms, not so much of the position he takes but perhaps about the way it has been expressed or the tone used. I don’t however see him advocating full scale Caligula inspired orgies in Zendos or anything even remotely similar.

My take on it is that people are people with real feelings and human longings. This is in contrast to those scenarios of abuse and coercion and non-consent. These are different categories of human experience and conflating them is a mistake. I think that’s a valid point and seems to be what Brad was getting at.

After Grace’s piece Brad wrote in comments:

Abuse is abuse. But not every romantic relationship between a “member of clergy” and a “congregant” is abuse. It would be wrong to make all such relationships illegal.

What is being conflated is roles and people. We are not our roles. If we get rigidly entrenched in and attached to those roles we buy into a socially contrived and supported story about ourselves, and often our own importance. Performing the role becomes the central factor in our being. That is a position that is inherently insecure and leaves someone on the defensive most of the time.We slip into and out of roles all the time. That’s our social nature.  It takes a certain amount of clarity, maturity and wisdom to delineate the differences. Zen practice, all Buddhist practice is in part about developing those abilities, though some people may have missed that page in the Big Book of Buddhism.

I’ll return to that snippet I quoted from Boundless Way that I mentioned above. It seems pretty clear to me this person/role distinction is being recognized.

If the people involved are in a teacher-student relationship, a choice must be made between either pursuing that personal relationship or continuing the teacher-student relationship, but not both.

I think there’s some amount of wisdom there. To attempt to continue in both aspects is a sure fire way to undermine both. So making all relationships “illegal” under every circumstances is not only unduly rigid and unrealistic, it also denigrates the person in favor of the role. It turns them into a shell of a human, easily replaceable by anyone who can learn the proper script. That is the kind of thinking that leads to the kinds of problems under discussion so furiously in the Zen Buddhist corner of the Internet presently.

I agree with both Grace and Brad on a lot of their points. In fact it seems some of their points overlap. That seems to beNew SVG image getting lost in the language being used.  I’m talking a Venn diagram here not a polarity.

There also seems to be a notion that there is only one version of the truth, one acceptable moral stance, one way of expressing that, and one winner out of all of it. In the mean time women who have been negatively affected are the pawns of those who wrestle for moral superiority. And other women, who report no lasting effects or damage from their interactions are similarly being ignored and dismissed.

All these women carry the truth.

To deny any of them their truth is to deny them their humanity and to choose to only view a partial picture. Partial pictures serve particular agendas. Partial pictures objectify. Everybody know how bias works.

It strikes me that from a Buddhist context, truth is a pretty primary thing, the whole truth not only the parts that we want to be true or those that serve our arguments best.

If women have entered into consensual, non-coercive relationships that have brought them benefit then we have to accept that as possible.

If women have been coerced into activity to which they did not consent and which has done harm we have to accept that as well.

In the first instance there is nothing to be done. There is little point in trying to paint a victimhood status on someone who doesn’t view themselves as a victim. There are such things as fully consenting, non-coercive, enjoyable and fulfilling relationships borne out of what may have been at some point a situation of power imbalance. Does it always have to involve exploitation? No. Does it always end badly? No.

One could say, in some circumstances, “Oh they’re just not educated in power dynamics or oppression and so forth” That would be making a big assumption, removing their agency, denying their experience and in effect doing the very thing that an alleged abuser is accused of doing. This is a very tricky area to get into. Where there is no structure in place people in the direct vicinity do the best they can in the abusive situation.There’s a reason why police or the state are often the ones to lay the charges in domestic violence or rape cases rather than the victim. There may well be a condition of denial or shock. Certain outsiders fulfill the role of surrogate victim in those instances. There is a structure, however flawed, in place for that. These surrogates are both authorized and trained to act in that capacity. Random commenters and other do-gooders, no matter how well intentioned are not.

It also strikes me that even if people somehow involved in one way or another are credentialed in some helping profession their proximity to the Zen community precludes any pretext of objectivity. Outside agencies or people without vested interests that may conflict with the best interests of those who have been harmed are the better solution to dealing with the multiplicity of harms lest it become amplified by the echo chamber.

In contrast to the voluntary, consensual relationships that happen, some people’s lives can be altered irrevocably and not for the better when on the receiving end of coercive sexual attention. This is harm. This must be recognized even if there are other cases of not-harm. Cases of not-harm do not mitigate or cancel out cases of harm. It is not a zero sum game. Harm remains until it is addressed. Some women have put their experiences out there for the public to read. Most choose not to. That is a choice that must be honored in light of harmful circumstances which did not allow choice previously.

What we also have to consider is the harm done to those who were also affected as members of a particular sangha and the mahasangha. In this case there are several men who have spoken out about their discomfort with the situation, about trying to stop what had been reported to them as abuse and about their rejection by the community for that activity of conscience. This too is denying harm by denying them their experience, their agency and their opportunity to address the harm that has come to them, not indirectly by hearing women’s stories, though certainly that would be distressing to most caring men, but harm directly administered by other members of the sangha who assisted in enabling the primary harm and silencing those who wished to stop it. In attempting to uphold certain values that are not only implicit in much of American society, but explicit in the Buddhist context, they have been belittled, shunned, shamed and had their characters assassinated.

This too is harm.

11 comments on “Dances with Power

  1. I appreciate your post here. I’ve noticed how lost in much of this discussion the three levels of the precepts are. That they are not literal commandments, but nuanced teachings that open up multiple angles depending upon the entry point. When I read some of the comments on Brad’s posts, and Sweeping Zen, it sounds little different from reading responses to sex scandals from conservative Christians. That includes elements of Grace’s second post, as well as some others responding to Brad’s relationship. Bible verses have been replaced with Zen language, and that’s about it. Which makes me pause. Even allowing for a window open appears to be too much for some of our fellow Buddhists, and that’s troubling. In great part, because I wonder how they’ve arrived at such conclusions, given the teachings we all claim to study.

    “My take on it is that people are people with real feelings and human longings. This is in contrast to those scenarios of abuse and coercion and non-consent. These are different categories of human experience and conflating them is a mistake.” This seems to be the pivot point. Somehow, figuring out a way to collectively become more clear about what is harm, and what to do with the experiences that fall into gray areas, feels key to changing the endless back and forth around these issues.

    • Hey Nathan.
      Thanks for your perspective. I too find the hellfire Christian undertones disturbing. And the scapegoating. And the calling people to atonement for things they never even did. And the character assassinations. And the rigidity.
      It takes focus away from the actual harm, and the covering up and excusing and rationalizing and continuation of the harm.
      Some people may have a grudge against Brad Warner for whatever reason, but he doesn’t present himself as anybody’s savior. Explicitly rejects that role.
      There’s a lot of savior mentality going on. It’s kind of nauseating.

  2. Pingback: On Humiliation | Full Contact Enlightenment

  3. Thank you for the most balanced, sane analysis of this situation I’ve yet seen (both the entire issue of power dynamics in relationships as well as the specific “conversation” that got sparked from Brad’s comment). I appreciate how you recognize that each of us has agency, while at the same time recognizing that there is potential for harm and exploitation. It’s a complex world, and we are complex people. The savior mentality doesn’t do anyone any good, from my perspective.

  4. Pingback: zen & the art of winning and losing in sexual misconduct | 108zenbooks

  5. I finally got through this…it’s a great post, as others have said. I wish others the same degree of maturity and then some.

  6. Hi NellaLou — Adding my thanks here.

    Also a few random thoughts from someone whose life has been transformed by the rigors and deep inquiry of Zen koan practicethese past 8 years … Reading the old ancestors’ tales and stories … all the hitting and shouting … one sees how easily this could all be distorted/perverted into cult-like abuse and zombyism — really dangerous stuff! On the other hand, all the refusal to provide answers, throwing one back on oneself time and again and again, all the while pulling the rug out from under whatever positions of certainty we try to adopt, and one wonders how anyone could remain so firmly attached to a teacher/teaching that we could allow abuse to grow and fester unchallenged. But, again, dangerous stuff when one loses one’s footing. Not knowing is most intimate. And most terrifying. So I suppose that’s why we keep grasping at straws, anything really, to believe in and to insulate us from the ultimate and complete responsibility we bear, each one of us, always. It’s such a harsh lesson.

    Anyway, as we struggle along, slip and fall in the mud, we are somewhere on the continuum from slinging it around to truly, deeply loving each and every one as oneself.

  7. Pingback: A Couple of Pointers Within the Mess of Our Conversation about Sexual Ethics in the Western Zen Community

    • Yes, it is relevant. I’m very ill-at-ease with the “one story” about the devastating effects of teacher/student romance and/or sexual relationships. It may be harder to deal with the complexity, but I believe a more wide-ranging inquiry must take place and enough flexibility in policies and codes of conduct to deal with it.

Comments are closed.