Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Zen of Sex Scandals, Sex and Gender Neutral Bathrooms

Everyone always asks me if my life is really peaceful and great out here at Green Gulch, being all Buddhist and everything.  My answer is: Zen is not a cure for being a hot mess, or an a**hole or any other problematic personal condition.  You have to actually know you are a hot mess and to not want to be one.  So Zen can help with that.  Zen is a practice in studying the self and in that process, if you are honest, you may discover some things about yourself you never knew (or at least never admitted).

This begs an interesting question.  Can you be a hot mess and a good Zen teacher?  I think I might argue that yes you can be both, at least for a little while.  This brings me to ZEN SEX SCANDAL 2012/2013.  Actually it's been going on for years (and of course really for centuries but I'm not going to go there yet).  As reported in the New York Times, more concrete reports of sexual misconduct have come out against Joshu Sasaki Roshi of Rinzai-ji temple.  It is being written about everywhere from the LA Times, Sweeping Zen, Shambhala Sun, and of course the blogs of Brad Warner, my husband and other internet-using Buddhists.

I have been thinking about this for quite some time but was not sure how to approach it in writing, here's my best go.  The question is not whether Sasaki did anything wrong.  The answer is most clearly yes.  He repeatedly made sexual advances and coerced women to do sexual things they did not want to do and many of the things he requested he did so under the guise of the spiritual development of his victims.  The controversy lays more in the response to the occurrence of these events.  It is claimed that the powers that be at Rinzai-ji actively tried to cover up what they knew was going on.  We have a range of reactions in regards to what should be done in a situation like this.  No doubt some people want Sasaki's penis on a stake outside his temple.  Others want him removed from his position, which amounts to more of a symbolic move because he's over 100 years old now.  And still others want more action from the Buddhist community at large to deal with the hierarchy that let this continue when they knew what was happening.  Finally, people want open dialogue.  People want to talk about the rules of behavior in a community where there is hierarchy, "teachers," human beings and the historical oppression of women world-wide (and especially within Zen) since the very days when the Buddha would not ordain a woman.

Brad Warner is a very vocal Zen "teacher" who hails from under the flag of punk rock or hard core and uses this to appeal to certain crowds and as he says "get their butts on the cushion."  This is all very fine and good and his punk rock jam includes approval for teachers sleeping with students.  Part of this may be self-serving, since he also has been involved in such actions (see his book "Doc Martens Outside the Door") but at the same time there is a dose of reality here: we are humans, sexual beings and sometimes this does not follow along the lines of a man-made hierarchical structure.  In other words, there's a grey area!  This is our life!

As a woman, my (first) reaction, and that of many others people is that Sasaki and even Brad Warner are chauvinist exploiters of women and follow their dicks around ('scuse my language) regardless of the vows they took.  Now of course my more rational brain knows that not all "scandals" are as atrocious as Sasaki's wrongs.  And that "scandal" is quite relative, we humans do love some drama don't we?  Richard Baker cheated on his wife having an affair with a beautiful married student.  Brad Warner had a relationship of some kind with a student but neither of them was married and it was consensual.  Priests, and many students, of Zen take vows that include not misusing sexuality.  And this vow is made with no clear outline for what it means.  It is a point of inquiry.

I am really stumped by the question of abuse of power.  It is commonly accepted that in any given situation there is often a power differential that makes it beneficial for the person with less power to please he person with more power.  The benefit could be material (a better job, fancy clothes) or status or some other feeling of increased self-worth based on association.  In a university a teacher can't have a relationship with a student who they have to grade otherwise it's ok but maybe frowned upon.  At a workplace it is against the rules for a boss to get sexual favors in exchange for something but if there's no clear "exchange" it's just two consensual adults.  But is it?  Women have developed over centuries as humans with less power than men and didn't they have to adapt in ways that accept that as the rule?  For another example, is it possible to look at the statistics and experience of African-Americans in the United States outside of the fact that less than 150 years their ancestors were legally still enslaved?  Can we look at the current experience of women outside the fact that less than 100 years ago we couldn't actually vote?  So who's responsibility is it for women to learn how to love themselves without needing to be sexually desired by men?  (Or by anyone for that matter but that's another blog post, this one is quiet long already)

Oh yeah and about those gender-neutral bathrooms.  All of these LARGE questions above boil down to what can I do?  What does all this drama for me and my practice of upholding the vows I just took last weekend ?(!)  What am I doing that contributes to a culture in which men still think it is harmless when they just do it with any sexy woman throwing herself at him or in which people cover it up when high school boys drug and rape a fellow student (Steubenville, OH) or Sasaki Roshi's cronies cover it up when they can't get him to stop?  What am I doing that makes people feel less than?  OR better worded, what can I do to make people feel more welcome and accepted for who they are?  Maybe something like gender-neutral bathrooms at Green Gulch is one way.  And we have to keep a healthy dose of skepticism about the rules and norms.  In a community like Green Gulch, where I live, what is appropriate sexual conduct?  Who can fall in love with who?  Is the topic of sex something that should be kept behind closed doors or discussed puritanically?  Are women the only ones who need to dress modestly?  What does dressing immodestly look like for a man?  Why do we have a small section in the library called "women in Zen?" Etc. Etc. Etc.  The quest continues.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Zen In the West?

Can I just say that I am really enjoying all this discussion as of late about "zen in the west."  It seems to be popping up everywhere.  You might enjoy this blog I follow by a Zen priest named Jiryu, it is called "No Zen In the West" The link I specifically pasted here is to a recent post about American Zen.  (Contrary to the title, I don't actually think he believes there is no zen in the west).  The question came up again at this new blog called 'Original Mind' I found through my husband, the Farmer Monk, who also responded.

We are all having this adolescent (I don't mean that in an insulting way but more of a natural developmental sort of way) identity crisis trying to be autonomous from our parents (founders).  But as we all know, we can't change who our parents are and we will definitely find ourselves repeating some of the same stuff they said despite our best efforts to be different.  So while it is great to struggle with these questions and it helps us to figure out who we are and get comfortable in our skin, I think I will find it helpful not to fight with my dharma siblings about it.  And to acknowledge that there is no way we can be Japanese because we aren't.  Clinging to forms, whether Japanese, Chinese or Indian is clinging to forms whether we want to dump it into the cultural appropriation* category or not.  But this fight we are having as Zen settles into the west is not new or unique so we shouldn't beat ourselves up for being "stupid" Americans or something.

As I felt and observed at my jukai ceremony yesterday, we are a group of sincere practitioners who are doing our best to follow Buddha's way.  And it will not look the same for any single one of us regardless of whether we all say interview or dokusan.

* I would like to add a caveat about my use of the words cultural appropriation, I am not trying to dismiss the importance of this issue.  Just so we're clear, cultural appropriation can be extremely problematic when a dominant culture exploits a minority culture; they force them (or try) to conform to dominant ideals or practices and then the dominant culture steals some of the very same symbols they took away with no respect for their original source or cultural value.  There is a great discussion of this over at Jezebel and you can tell by the comment stream that people feel very strongly about it.  I am resisting getting angry and fired up, as we speak.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Waking Up In the Office?

Tibetan Cherry tree in the Peace Garden
Well folks things are a changin.  After almost a year as a garden apprentice at Green Gulch Farm I am moving on to a new 'crew' at the gulch.  I like to think that 'once a gardener, always a gardener.'  When I started this blog I am sure I knew of the possibility that I wouldn't stay in the garden forever.  And I think I did believe there was a possibility that I would be enlightened ("wake up") in the garden, some sunny day as I mindfully weeded.  Who knows what changes have happened to me in the past 11 months, they are inconceivable and as the sutra says "buddhas do not necessarily know that they are buddhas."  But alas, the blog title 'waking up in the garden' has a nicer ring to it than 'waking up in the office' and waking up really could happen anywhere or anytime.  So the blog title will remain.

I was once Lauren the gardener, I then spent a little time working in the kitchen for the January Intensive retreat with Reb Anderson and starting next week I will move to my new home in Guest Programs.  People are surprised to hear that I actually requested this move; the kitchen and guest program crews are always in need of staff and MANY people want to work in the farm or garden.  But let us be honest, of course working outside is the bomb and I love getting my hands dirty and hugging trees BUT I might love working with people even more.  I will be spending my days taking care of guests, making them feel welcome, attending to their needs, helping Green Gulch from an administrative standpoint, learning about conference planning and hopefully working to offer even more Zen and more Green Gulch to those who want it.  As my mom put it, it should be a mutually beneficial move.  In a community that is maybe 90% introverted having one of the few extroverts in the office is a plus for everyone!

In the meantime I will spend my time enjoying the gardens not as a gardener but simply as a resident.  Doesn't mean I can't take pride in our New York Times feature!  Click here.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Winter Book Reviews

(1) Wesley The Owl

Four stars for its readability and heart.  Did you know that a barn owl mates for life?  Did you know that the barn owl needs to eat a diet of mostly whole mice and that after its body digests the mouse its skeleton is coughed up in an 'owl pellet'?  Did you know that its ears are spaced asymmetrically on the side of its head and its face is shaped sort of like a bowl to reflect sound to the ears to make its echolocation so good it can hear a small animal's heartbeat under a few feet of snow?  These are just a few facts you will learn while reading this amazing story of a barn owl adopted by a researcher at Cal Tech.  This owl's life was saved by the author Stacey O'Brien and he became part of her family.  She learned things about owls no researcher had ever been able to observe in the wild.  This book will give you a whole new perspective on how humans and animals can relate to each other.  Loved it!

(2) Reservation Blues

Four stars for bringing a deeply human voice to the pain and endurance of life on an Indian Reservation. Knowing the history of the land we live on is crucial to living a whole and honest life.  And to see this history through the eyes of young people who still believe in the traditions of their ancestors, who can still hear the music of the trees around them is a miracle.  Sherman Alexie tells the story of a magic guitar brought to the Spokane Indian reservation by Robert Johnson himself.  This guitar unlocks many a deep dream and old hurt in a group of friends, including Thomas-Builds-the-Fire, who start a band and simultaneously try to escape and reclaim their past.  This beautiful story also serves as a social commentary on what contemporary life looks like for many of the Americans who were here first and what the white man did to them.  I ask myself 'can I accept my part in this?'

(3) The Poisonwood Bible

Five stars in my four-star rating system.  As my friend said 'it is the perfect political novel.'  Political fiction is one of my favorite genres (it makes history not boring for me to read).  The gist of the book is a Christian missionary family from Kentucky moves to a rural village in the Congo so the minister father can save everyone.  In this beautifully written book by Barbara Kingsolver you have a book that includes feminism (the minister has four daughters and his wife with him all of whom he oppresses with the lord Jesus Christ AND the story is told through the eyes of each woman and never from his point of view), colonial oppression and blood diamonds (the Congo being one of the richest countries in natural resources wanted by the white man), the American CIA getting involved in foreign politics that don't support their agenda, RACISM, the beauty of rural village culture and trying to preserve it, and so much more.  I HIGHLY recommend this book.

(4) The Bean Trees

Another Barbara Kingsolver book.  I really enjoyed it in its relative simplicity.  It was a quick read (I read it in less than a day, granted I stayed in bed for at least 5 hours doing so).  It is the story of a young woman, Taylor, who manages to escape her small town life and her little beat up VW bug and head west until she gets some place she wants to stay.  On the way a silent young native american child is left in her arms and she makes a choice to take her with.  She ends up in Arizona and starts her new life.  She crosses paths with people and in their crossing sees sides of herself she may never have otherwise.  Many social justice issues are explored and you end up wanting more.  But you get to think a little about the Native American experience of what is lovingly known as the United States now.  You get to meet illegal immigrants from Guatemala escaping political terror.  You meet single mothers, social workers, and doing what you have to do.  Doing what it is right.  The heroine of the story is someone you'd like to be friends with.