Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving Zen Scandals

Oddly enough it seems when holiday season comes around, it's time for another scandal at a Zen center somewhere or other.  

I am beginning to have  mixed feelings about all these "Zen Center Scandals."  Yeah, don't sexually harass folks, Zen teachers.  No sh!t, Sherlock, at this point, right?  But some of this stuff, especially the Mt. Baldy stuff, does not start to make sense to me at all.  I was going to write a lot more about this, but I would just like to take one example for now, that featured prominently Sweeping Zen.

Myoan Grace Shireson, you almost write were groped on the grounds of a Zen temple. I believe you. But when you say "Not only was there a culture barrier, but we had been instructed to be friendly to lay people..."  Culture barrier? Culture barrier?  Are you kidding me???? I have no idea how old you are, but I guarantee you  that when you were in Japan there was a name for such people: 痴漢, ちかん which translates as "pervert."  Yes, they have issues like this on trains in Japan (and a reverse problem where many men are afraid to sit near a woman on a train for fear of  being falsely accused).   But in no way is this an accepted part of the culture.   There are different sexual morés in Japan, to be sure and yes, they have had more than their share of issues with gender equality to put it mildly.   But in Japan, the guy who groped you was a 痴漢,   such people are not tolerated and haven't been for years, and what you experienced wasn't a culture barrier but instead an ignorance of their culture.

I also don't know how long you've been in Japan or how many times you've visited there, but if you've been there frequently, and if you have a reasonable knowledge of the language and culture today, there simply is no reason for you to have phrased your experience there this way - you'd have known what the culture is in this regard; all you have to do is know people and ride a train in a major city, for example.

I might add the rest of your post there is similarly culturally uninformed and hardly inclusive in language, presupposing that the only form of harassment that can take place is a male in a position of power abusing a female with less power.  Police and authority figures in government are indifferent to everyone; I'm sure it's worse with women, but c'mon, been through airport security lately?

The best way for Zen centers, frankly, to deal with this problem might not be to register as religious institutions, but as corporations subject to corporate law on harassment, etc.   The law is an imperfect tool, but it does at least provide redress and remedy when harm is done.

One other point I want to make about this, as a guy who's been studying Zen for a number of years. It's why I'm increasingly ambivalent about this whole Zen scandals everywhere thing.  When you've studied with a teacher for a number of years, they don't really seem as gods, but they seem every atom a human being.  I don't care what the teacher is teaching, but every good teacher, if you are with them long enough, you will see they're slobs just like you, though with more knowledge and skill.

I'm reading about the Mt. Baldy scandal, and I just can't square "sexual scandal" with "the teacher is a slob just like you."  That is to say, - and I direct this to commenters who are citing POWER POWER POWER as a reason for "why" these scandals happen - when you've trained for a period of years, it is simply inconceivable if you're training with any halfway competent teacher that you will see any kind of "power" differential at all, because why the teacher may be older, more knowledgeable and more skilled, after a certain point it gets to the point where it becomes kind of obvious that you're capable of getting there without that particular teacher, because whatever's getting you there isn't him, isn't really you, but it's in the nature of - or lack thereof - in the 5 aggregates so to speak. It just is.  And so your teacher isn't a god, but a guy helping you along, even if you're never actually given adulation and praise for a snappy koan answer.  You've come to expect that bell to ring telling you sorry bud, sanzen's over for today, better luck next time, and it's not so important that you have to invest ego, time, worry, self-image, etc. etc. over it.  It's important, but not important to use a logic by which Leonard Cohen described Joshu Sasaki roshi.

That's what I find hard to square with this sexual harassment.  Plus the guy's over 100 years old.  But mostly the former. Sasaki roshi was evidently, at least echoing what was an effective teaching at least for some people.  And maybe he was a 痴漢.   Maybe he's been both of them.    But it reeks of Orientalism to say that such things as gropings are tolerated in Japan, and yeah,  what Stuart Lachs has said elsewhere.   These people aren't gods and aren't viewed as such in their own societies.  They may be rare in this country or the world, but isn't everyone?


Anonymous said...

I agree with the cultural issues you've discussed here. I'm getting quite put off by that kind of argument for the reasons you suggest (Orientalism) but also because it absolves the white convert sangha of taking responsibility for allowing and abetting these things. When it can just be written off as "that's how THEY are" then no one is forced to look at their own enabling behavior.

As one who does go on about the power issue I can see where you're coming from in that regard. I will say in many cases it is different for men than women in a heterosexual context. Men aren't expected to "give it up" in the same way that women are subtly socialized to. It's more likely that men will reach that place of equilibrium you write of with a male teacher due to not having to overcome gender issues.

I'm doing a blog post about this too and will include some of your arguments. Thanks for this post.

jundo cohen said...


As a 25 year resident of Japan, I will say this. What is now not socially tolerated was often more tolerated in the past, in old decades and generations, much more than the present. At least, there was a great tendency (and still is) to look the other ways until someone was caught in a way that gave rise to some shame. The influence of the womens' rights movement and consciousness has worked great changes now, but it is still largely a mans' world here, and "boys will be boys" mentality is still at play quite often. This is especially true, for example, when someone acts under the influence of alcohol, which explains and forgives many transgressions. Groping and other forms of sexual harassment of still widely found here (and in other countries too).

Gassho, Jundo Cohen

Bob said...

Zen and the Emotional/Sexual Contraction

Mumon K said...

Thanks; I'll be looking for your post.

I've only been going to Japan since 1995; regularly since '97, but even before 1995, such actions as groping in public were considered 痴漢 behavior. However, in generations past, yeah; it would not have been behavior that would be repudiated; that's pretty much common knowledge. But the same is true in the US as well.

But everyone speaks from their own experience; within the social circle of folks from Japan with whom I associate such behavior is unthinkable.

I think though my point still stands; although I can't be privvy to the personal experience of Myoan Grace Shireson, unless she's 20 years older than I am - which strains credibility, as I'm in my 50s - she would have experienced Japanese culture a little closer to my rendering than the 1960s rendering, and at any rate there wasn't really a "cultural barrier" between her and her groper, if said incident took place at least in the 90s.

jundo cohen said...

Hi John,

Even though frowned upon, and a criminal offense if caught, I am afraid that it is still a daily happening here.

Recently here in Japan, prominent news casters, judges, politicians, university professors and the like have been in the news for engaging in groping on the train, peeping and the like.

Buddhist priests have not been immune.

Of course, it is not the whole male population, or perhaps even most ... but it is enough.

Gassho, Jundo

jundo cohen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jundo cohen said...

Oh, and don't miss these reports ...

I will say that the situation has that the situation for women in the workplace here has only marginally improved these past 10 years.

Gassho, Jundo

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