In 2009, a venerable American Zen teacher was holding a week-long sesshin. Students came from all over the country, and the world, for the sesshin, and there wasn’t enough room for them all to sleep at the house the Zen Center had rented, so some students who lived locally were asked to let visitors stay with them.
One man found his house-guest quite pleasant until he found that the guest had urinated on his carpet and also emptied a bottle of hair-dye on it. When the sesshin was over, the man told local sangha members what had happened, and tried to arrange to see the teacher to complain.
Instead, he was allowed to talk to one of the teacher’s Dharma heirs, who was a businessman. The Dharma heir lived out of state, and was just visiting, and didn’t know this man, but he tried to get the man to recant his story and sign a statement that what he’d said wasn’t true. “It was the standard corporate thing,” a member of the sangha told me. “Just coming up with an official line and trying to get everybody to agree to it.”
The man stuck to his story, and other sangha members vouched that he wasn’t crazy.
He wasn’t crazy, but he was now hurt and angry. He wrote an email to the Zen Center, saying that the teacher must have known what the guest—a longtime student of the teacher—was like, and yet hadn’t warned him. The teacher didn’t read email, but a family member who lived with the teacher did. The family member, declaring that the man was crazy, went and bought a gun in case he became dangerous. The teacher didn’t expel him from the sangha, and he kept coming to the sits, even though he was in danger of getting shot. The Dharma heir kept trying to get him to recant his story.
This, remember, was a zendo led by a great teacher. But, clearly, something wasn’t working.
Recently, there have been two high-profile scandals in the American Zen world, both involving the sexual behavior of prominent teachers. (Full disclosure: I have been accused of misconduct myself.) The allegations made against these teachers do not seem to be in doubt, and both have resigned from their positions as leaders of their respective Zen Centers. And both have continued to be spitefully attacked by other Zen teachers online—so much so that the former students of one of the two wrote a letter asking 44 Zen teachers to back off, essentially saying that they were harassing rather than helping. The teachers who displayed this pack behavior claimed to be doing so for the good of the “Maha Sangha.”
In fact, it was driven as much by personal vendettas. One of the two teachers was finally exposed when a colleague, who, in the past, had lied to cover up for him, went public with letters dating back 40 years that revealed the teacher’s sexual intrigues. The reason he made the information public was that he was approached by a former student of the teacher who was angry because the teacher had written a letter announcing that the former student had not been ordained to teach and was fraudulently claiming that he had. It was about revenge.
The other disgraced teacher, the one whose former students were being hounded by 44 other teachers, has been particularly loudly and persistently denounced by a fellow Zen teacher who didn’t bother to mention that she was sexually involved with him back in the days when they were Zen students together, or that she had also had an affair with the teacher they both practiced with.
Career ambitions… Sexual affairs… Lies… Revenge… Does this kind of drama differ from what you find among the long-term employees of any corporation?
When Rachel Boughton Roshi heard I was writing this piece, she suggested that we should get 44 Zen teachers to write an open letter against Internet flame wars.
I remarked to another Zen teacher who has abstained from joining the clamoring mob: Recently, with the mean-spiritedness I’ve seen by Zen teachers directed at _ _ _and _ _ _, I’ve been pondering the fact that in the U.S. it seems to be about package rather than about content, and that the Zen community behaves like any other organization, ruled by petty, personal agendas. If there is such a thing as the “Maha Sangha” they keep speaking on behalf of, I want nothing to do with it. It’s become clearer to me that Zen as it’s traditionally practiced, transferred to the west, doesn’t go deep enough, or maybe far enough.
It may be that there’s going to be a gradual splintering into fundamentalist and liberal Buddhism. The core of fundamentalism seems to me the “I’m right and you’re wrong” stance.
On reflection, I realized that I was wrong in seeing it just as a problem of the west. This kind of thing is not new in Zen’s institutions. Legend has it that in the 7th Century, when Hongren, the Fifth Ancestor, declared Huineng his successor, he advised Huineng to leave the monastery and go into hiding, or else envious monks might try to kill him.
Stephen Batchelor, in his book Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, debunks the romantic story of the silent transmission Mahakashyapa received from the Buddha, and explains that when the Buddha died Mahakashyapa pulled off a power-grab.
As it was then, so it is now. Discussing her time as a student of Taizan Maezumi Roshi, Charlotte Joko Beck Roshi laconically observed that the people who were practicing with Maezumi “weren’t being very nice to each other.”
John Tarrant Roshi has written, “In the end, Zen is only true if it has a good heart.” By that criteria, throughout history, institutional Zen has rarely been true.
Is the problem with Zen, or with institutions? Buddhism began not with someone deciding to form a corporation or pursue a career, but with a person having left all institutions, first secular and then religious, simply looking at the universe in a clear light, asking for nothing, free of self-concern. So the Buddha’s Zen was true, as was Huineng’s, Hakuin’s, Ikkyu’s, Dogen’s…
The First Ancestor, Bodhidharma, is said to have sat in his cave ignoring a man standing outside in the snow until the man cut off his arm to prove his sincerity, which convinced Bodhidharma to accept him as a student. Centuries later, Ikkyu wrote:
don’t wait for the man standing in the snow to cut off his arm help him now
In the 13th Century, when Dogen Zenjii was dying, he gave his final instructions to his student Gikai. He said, “Within the Buddha Dharma you have a strong Way-seeking mind… but you have not yet cultivated a grandmotherly heart.”
Zen isn’t true, or at least isn’t complete, without grandmotherly heart—not the attached, self-centered love of a proud and controlling parent who wants their kids to do one thing and not another, believe one thing and not another, be one thing and not another—but the benevolent, accepting love of a grandparent who just wants the kids to be happy. Grandparents don’t form corporations and strategize to get the title of best grandparent, or grandparent-in-chief.
Zen isn’t really about sitting still, contemplating emptiness. You can do that for forty years, and still be as mean-spirited and self-centered as you were before you started your practice—but now you’re a mean-spirited, self-centered person who’s really good at sitting still and contemplating emptiness. For our practice to be true, we must all become grandmothers, taking everyone—friends, enemies, strangers, rabbits, microbes—as our grandchildren.