Sunday, February 24, 2013
The Zen of Sex Scandals, Sex and Gender Neutral Bathrooms
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.