Zen Buddhism. It has been a constant source of strength for me since I was 19 and so frazzled by anxiety that I didn’t think I would survive my own mind.
Alan Watts, an openly hedonistic part of the Beat Zen scene in northern California, was my gateway “teacher” via a book called The Meaning of Happiness. I can remember where I was standing – in the bookstore of the University of Richmond – when I saw and bought the book. I had dabbled in Zen via existentialism and absurdist art, notably the work of playwrights Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett. But with Watts’ brilliant explanation of Zen, my path was a little clearer and perhaps a little less bitter than the existential angst of Sartre and Camus.
I became a Zen tourist, making pilgrimages to this or that workshop, learning meditation from Roshi Philip Kapleau who wrote The Three Pillars of Zen, and from one of Sasaki Roshi’s senior students, Genro, when I came to New Mexico in 1976 and went to the Rinzai-ji Zen Center in the Jemez Mountains.
For a few years, I veered off into the Tibetan-flavored Buddhism of Chogyam Trungpa, until I could no longer sit with his devoted students’ support of a teacher whose alcoholism and womanizing were sad and blatant contradictions to the Buddhist precepts. At one point, when I was challenging one of Trungpa’s senior students with the logic of his teacher’s hypocrisy, I got pushed into a clump of bushes.
Back to Zen, where I thought at least dishonesty and bullshit are less likely to occur in a path so fiercely dedicated to experiencing reality. Unfortunately, it is also fiercely and persistently dedicated to a Japanese patriarchal mythology.
When I finally made the commitment to take on a teacher, I went much more intensely into practice, attending sesshins (Buddhist meditation retreats) and even considering ordination as a nun. I was appointed to the board of my teacher’s center, which eventually meant that I had to participate in firing that teacher. One woman and then others came forward to claim that he had engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct with them.
The list of Zen teachers in America who have engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct is long – ridiculously and pathetically long — as long as the list of Catholic priests who messed with little boys and politicians who fathered children with women other than their wives.
For me the list of lying, horny, predatory Zen “masters,” ends with the latest allegations against Sasaki Roshi, whose organization Rinzai-ji oversees the Zen center I’ve been sitting with on and off for the past 35 years. The details have been in the The New York Times recently and are playing out in a sickeningly familiar battle involving lawyers, outraged students, and strident devotees.
What is thoroughly disgusting about this to me is the senior students and inner circle of devotees at Rinza-ji and their zombie-like defense and enabling of their “master” for 50 years in America. Most of them men.
I think that some of those monks actually admire the old man for his sexual manipulation of women who came to him for spiritual guidance — women he would select, women who would be brought to him in a room where he lay ready to have his genitals attended to. I think that some of the men who continue to support this 105 year old Jabba the Hut’s status as an enlightened, albeit “retired” teacher, consider his sexual exploits to be part of his greatness, though they will never admit that.
And then there are the women who willingly and eagerly have affairs with these predators, some of them being the initiators of such encounters, despite the fact that they are victimizing the teacher’s wife. Some of these women are teachers themselves now.
This is all bullshit. Pure and simple.
One of the most obscenely irrational arguments in support of these primate shenanigans is that the teacher is showing us that he is human.
Well, I think a fart or sneaking out for donuts, or maybe even one affair might do the trick. I know a lot of humans who don’t set themselves up in the role of spiritual guide and then sexually molest people. I don’t need them to go that far to show that they’re human.
Happily, I continue to do the practice, to do zazen and feel its power. Happily, I believe in the wisdom of the precepts, including the one that calls for “right sexual conduct.”
Sadly, I am unable to tolerate the lineage crap and the rituals that go along with it, whether the teacher is a man or woman, just as I am unable to believe that the Old Testament is a scientific explanation of the development of species. Sadly, I have no faith left in the institution of Zen Buddhism, especially in America, where the intoxicant of hierarchy gets teachers drunk on power, including financial and sexual power.
Sadly, people will continue to seek refuge in religious institutions that are traps. Those lured in will find themselves asked to financially support some teacher’s lifestyle, whether it be humble or require Rolex watches, a new S.U.V., and include a sexual addiction.
There are enough books on Zen meditation and philosophy to help someone begin a practice of zazen. There are enough fellow practitioners to form group meditation support. And any teacher, anyone who is kind enough to share his or her experience on this path, should see him or herself as a servant, not a master, as a person who drives a bus or practices law for a living and teaches as a voluntary effort to help others who want to sit down and shed their delusions.
The emperor of American, maybe all, Zen Buddhism as an institution with boards of directors and marketing experts, has no clothes. This emperor is telling you he’s got a fine set of robes on that can help you find bliss and freedom, if you’ll only just stroke the cloth a little, you know, just to feel how fine it is.
When your own eyes and your own brain tell you, “This guy is naked,” you’re on your way to a fearless confluence with the truth. And that is Zen.