Saturday, December 21, 2013

Zen "teacher" scandals, their critics, and the fetishism of the "teacher" of Zen

One reason I'm kind of bored with the Shimano thing is that in looking at the Sweeping Zen stories (they don't seem to stop), I kind of get to wondering what this all has to do with Zen practice, with the practice of most of us who aren't involved in Zen teacher scandals,  and who aren't in any of the sanghas that have been blacklisted.

I mean, yeah, the jokers are still out there, but if you google "genpo," the number 2 suggestion is "genpo roshi affiar."  A similar result holds for "Eido Shimano."   While it's not the sole focus of the Sweeping Zen website by any means,  scandals do seem prominently displayed.  So why the focus, especially when anyone could google a Zen osho these days to find out if there's any dirt on them?

I think it has to do more with issues of attachment than many of the people talking about his would like to admit, and the fact that there are avowed "Zen teachers" in the thick of this leads me to question their credentials,  at least in terms of the root meaning of the word (i.e., what do they have that would give you credence in them).   I'm not talking about Genjo Marinello here, by the way.

This stuff doesn't have to do with the improvement or edification of  my practice, and I suspect it's true for others as well, at least directly. 

I do think for many of the people who are ostenisibly "Zen teachers" who are commenting on this stuff there is a dynamic of the fetishism of the "teacher" of Zen - and this doesn't just express itself as a positive idealization of the "guru," but also  but also as a condemning idealization of the guru.

Let me ask a question: Ethics aside, does anyone think Dennis Merzel or Eido Shimano or Sasaki knows nothing  or has no experience about Zen?  Are they worthy of compassion?  Yeah, don't let them near attractive women students...but then again I wouldn't recommend anyone go near a "teacher" who says things like

Japanese men in power and Western men in power tend to indulge in sexual encounters with subordinates as part of their privileged position. Whether they are US President, congressman, or business man, or spiritual teacher or minister, sexual liaisons seem to be included in male privilege all over the world.

This "teacher," in my view,  raises red flags to me just as much as Shimano or Merzel would.

I happen to be a white male working in an international company in a managerial role; I have had numerous dealings with professionals from pretty much every name electronics company you can think of outside of some industrial applications.   In my experience of about 35 years in the profession, there have been, amongst the thousands of people I've been working with there have been just two cases of sexual indiscretions. One was clearly consensual, and in the other the woman was hardly powerless in the situation.

Companies in the West have good reasons for ethical guidelines they have about these things (less so in Japan, but on the other hand there are other forces at work in Japan that put a lid on this to some extent).  Disturbing the 和 (wa or harmony) of the workplace is very bad for business, and most business people get that.  Even in government, it's the exception rather than the rule.  For every Bill Clinton or Jack Kennedy you've got more than a couple of a Richard Nixons,  Jimmy Carters, and Barack Obamas.   They arguably misuse their power anyway,  but they are generally acting on behalf interests that want power misused that way.

From someone who claims to be a "Zen teacher" who writes the above,  I would question their credentials as a "Zen teacher."   From someone who claims to be a clinical psychologist, I would wonder what kind of professional and ethical criteria relate to someone who makes such generalizations.  I wonder how this attachment to stereotypes of males in power ripples through their practice. 

I realize that my criticism can be applied to myself here, and I wouldn't say I'm completely free of attachments myself,  but then again, I think it does harm to perpetuate a false stereotype, and that ought to be in the "public interest" as much as any "Zen scandal."

I'm done with this post, I've got to take a long shower.


genkaku said...

I too am out of steam when it comes to Shimano, Sasaki, the Catholic pedophiles, etc. It's too tiring for these old bones.

But, without reigniting the flames, I do think it's a good idea for students to address directly the matter of, "Are these men exceptions or are they products?"

In the first instance, there is all sorts of dithering about "let's not throw the baby out with the bath water" and "are they not worthy of compassion" and "let's create an ethics policy."

In the second instance (which is more difficult and personal), the onlooker examines the history and structure within which s/he has staked a claim. In the Catholic Church, for example, sexual dalliance has been the subject of canonical wriggling and writhing since at least 309 AD. ( And a similar close examination of the system that houses Zen Buddhism is also worthwhile ... personally worthwhile. If, personally, a student cannot address the systemic factors his or her practice encompasses, then I would say that practice will suffer... which, to my mind, is a pity.

As I am tired of the affairs of Shimano and Sasaki and the Catholic priests, so I am tired of the various camouflaging agents that are too often brought to bear ... let's 'compassion' it into silence; let's rule-book it to death; let's not look too closely but rather paper things over with oozing and sentimental sentiments.

But it's all a personal matter, a matter of practice. Are these events just anomalies on the great white highway to the sky or are they a matter worthy of systemic examination.

Your life, your choice.

Mumon K said...


I'm with you, I also think that in what we do in response to the structures that gave rise to such behaviors that we have to keep in mind our own deformations and ignorance.

genkaku said...

Mumon K -- There is also a time when a simple "no" will suffice.

jundo cohen said...

Hi Mumon,

As a 25 year resident of Japan, I disagree with you a bit. I wrote the following comments over there about sexual harassment here in Japan. Especially, please read the SALON story I link to below:



Grace’s references to cultural differences with Japan are largely true, although there is a generational aspect. For someone like nearly 80 year old Shimano or 106 year old Sasaki, it is true that such behavior was more tolerated and even encouraged as “manly” in Japan until the development of the women’s rights movement and the import largely from America in the 1990′s of the concept of “sexual harrassment” (the Japanese use the English term because there was no common Japanese term in public consciousness before then).

Sasaki and Shimano came to America before all that. Even now, I would say that there is a great de facto tolerance for “sexual harrassment” in Japanese work places and, although there is now much more public consciousness than just 20 years ago, claims here in Japan are still relatively rare.

That does not excuse such behavior on the part of Sasaki and Shimano, especially as they were both in America so long. But it does offer some perspective on the attitude they may have brought with them.

Let me add that such behavior was certainly not encouraged among priests in Japan at any time or any generation, although such things went on. I was speaking with regard to attitudes toward the behavior of adult males in general.

Gassho, Jundo (25 year resident of Japan)


Hi Mumon,

I agree that it is the exception rather than the rule in most work places. However, the emphasis on WA “group harmony” is one reason that folks tend to look the other way when such behavior does occur. Claims are rare, although cases are not rare at all. The de facto place of women on the ladder mostly as charming “tea servers” meant to work for a few years until they get married is another factor. I believe that, like many forms of discrimination which come to public attention, the sexual harassment has tended to become a bit more subtle and “underground” (avoiding witnesses for example), but a talk with about any woman I know here in Japan will quickly educate one about how common this is. “Sexual harassment” is not even quite illegal here in Japan. Here is a recent case that may open your eyes a bit.

Again, we are talking about Japanese businessmen, not Buddhist priests who hopefully should know to act better.

Gassho, Jundo

jundo cohen said...

Oh, and by the way, I might say that you and Genkaku tend to be of the "baby Buddha out with the bathwater" school of Zen criticism. Not everything is rotten with all the Zen teachers even if some folks are. Teachers are generally good and helpful. Do not be so jaded on this perhaps.

Gassho, Jundo

Mumon K said...


I have simply never observed it nor knew people that did, and while I haven't lived in Japan for 25 years, I do have a close relationship with my Japanese counterparts going back over 15 years.

The status of women in Japan is of course an issue, but again, this does not necessarily mean that sexual coercion is therefore rampant.

As I said, it does not comport with my experience, and I'll have to go with my experience here. You might have a different experience, but it's not my experience.

Furthermore, Graces's sweeping generalizations about "men in power" really do nothing at all to help the situation, and I'd submit actually harm the situation.

There are good men in power and there are not so good men in power; they "tend" to generally try to execute, in varying degrees of competence, whatever function their power allows them to do for the objective for which they were given power in the first place.

To make any other generalization other than that - men in power use power for the ends for which it was given to them - is rank nonsense.

And I think you misapprehend my view on Zen servers.

Nathan said...

I'd argue that the structures of patriarchy and male dominance are present in both the U.S. and Japan. In differing degrees, based upon how each place has addressed them. And that it's not so much about individual bad apples, or even about men being "the bad guys" per se, but about swimming in cultural waters where power has historical and to some degree still lies in the hands of one gender - men. But it's not only about men being in power, but also a particular approach to power that leans far too much in the top-down direction. One that leads to oppression, coercion, and all sorts of other distorted patterns that impact all of us, men, women, and other identifying genders.

We can go even deeper than patriarchy, though, and unearth a general human struggle to being with and embodying power itself - individually and collectively - as opposed to being owned by power in some form or another. Whether it's foolish or naive submission, coercion, manipulation, straight up power over dominance, or some other permutation, the failure to look power straight in the eyes and then develop structures that manifest it in ways that honor both the horizontal and vertical poles, is behind so much of these scandals - in religious communities and elsewhere.

In m view, new ways of "leading" are needed, as well as new ways of not leading. Or another way to look at it is to see the emptiness of power and also the forms, and to be accountable enough to consciously - as much as possible - choose how to relate to power.

And finally, there's a need to recognize difference and impermanence - something that seems to get lost in so many of these discussions. In some ways, I applaud the AZTA folks for trying to come up with a collective response and guidelines for all of this. In other ways, it feels like an attempt to create a one size fits all approach to conditions that are not one size fits all. If it just ends up being about prohibitions and moralistic shaming, we'll be in no better position than groups like the Catholic Church. Folks like Grace repeatedly appeal to the ethical codes of "professionals" and monotheistic clergy, which I'd say are both good as guidelines, and also fail to really address the deeper, collective structures. They're band aid protections, maybe necessary (at least under current conditions) but not sufficient.

Mumon K said...


I don't deny there's systemic problems, but believe me there's a lot of people using power to use it in the ways in which they're sanctioned to do so, for the purposes for which are in accordance with their fiduciary obligations.

Moreover, I tend to agree with Rollo May, who made the point in Power and Innocence that a) it's actually healthy for people to use the power they have, and b) it's unhealthy to abjure the use of power.

The problem is when power is used for ends which are not conducive to actually helping people. But if you don't cultivate power to help people, you're bound to accept the alternative - that there will be those who will acquire power to hurt people.

I'd go further and expound upon the "mandate of heaven"" as the kind of example where power is not distributed well (or our current government).

A lot as I wrote has to do with idealization and fetishism. Power and innocence shouldn't be idealized or fetishized (a form of reification), just as humans who have or believe they lack power should not be either.

Anonymous said...


I agree with you in general about the disproportionate emphasis on this topic, and even if I didn't I couldn't say you are wrong because you are not. But I do think you have slipped a little ethically, in so far as defending the offenders I will provide some hypothetical examples which I hope will at least give you pause to think more deeply on this.

If an athlete in the Olympics, who has spent most of his life training for this event succumbs to the temptation of doping in order the maximize his chance of winning: does this disqualifying action mean he knows _nothing_ about the sport or has no skill which apart from the doping is worthy of admiration? Or have his actions discredited him to the point that his relative merits simply no longer apply?

If a doctor goes through medical school and a rigorous internship, then spends several years in practice before committing some grave error which kills one of her patients and is sued and disqualified from practice by a board of her professional peers: does this mean she knows _nothing_ about medicine? Or have her actions disqualified her from engaging in a profession which might also kill someone else through negligence?

If an artist who has cultivated certain talent in his medium succumbs to the temptation of plaigarism, and steals someone else's work, even though their own work stands on its merits, does this mean he knows _nothing_ about art?

If a CEO of a prosperous company, which rewards its shareholders with dividends and has a happy, thriving work force succumbs to the temptation of embezzeling, does this mean she knows _nothing_ about running a business?

Certainly in each of these cases, I think you would prefer not to have the doping athlete compete in an event where doping is prohibited, the malpracticing doctor removed from a role where they can cause more harm, and a leader of business who behaves ethically as well as efficiently. At least I would.

I don't see how trying to turn these individuals into the black beasts of Zen is helpful to the sangha, but I also think that the level of noise is proportionate to the level of offense, which in some cases, is grossly harmful and repugnant to Buddhist ethics and at the very least, contraindicated by Buddha's teachings which, whether we choose to apply them in our own lives or not, do require a certain moral fiber which seems lacking on the part of the teachers in question.

But I'm sure that message has been largely received already by most of the American Buddhist community: unfortunately, the message has apparently not been received by those individuals who caused the ruckus in the first place. Anyway I think that's why we continue to see so much attention paid to it.

Anonymous said...

The "sweeping generalizations" of teachers like Grace Schireson would almost lead you to believe that they are running for public office. This issue is not only about exposing abuse, it's also about how teachers like Grace, Genjo, Jundo etc. would like to use this issue for personal political gain in the form of, I don't know, establishing new institutions of power complete with new methods and new dogma. As disgusting as sexual misconduct is, we shouldn't allow certain teachers to hijack the debate with their inflated rhetoric and scare tactics. If these teachers on Sweeping Zen want to remake Zen in their own image, they can do that with their own sanghas. The rest of America doesn't need their precious opinions.