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 Is There a Problem with Buddhism? - from Brad Warner's HardCore Zen blog

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Jcbaran

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PostSubject: Is There a Problem with Buddhism? - from Brad Warner's HardCore Zen blog   Thu Sep 19, 2013 10:31 am

Is There a Problem With Buddhism? - from Brad Warner's blog - hardcorezen.info
Published by Brad on September 18, 2013 | 18 Responses


My friend Danny Fisher wrote an article called Misogyny and Sexual Assault Are Still Missing Links in Conversations About Sangha Sex Scandals. It’s a good article and I don’t have problems with anything he says in the article. I think that what he says in it is right.

But the existence of the article and so many others on the same topic lately made me want to make some comments about it on Danny’s Facebook page, which started a conversation I’ll reproduce for you below.

ME: The thing that bothers me most about the Sasaki and Shimano cases is that they’re being taken as evidence of some kind of general trend in American Buddhism. But I don’t think that’s true. This isn’t to deny anything you said in your article, such as pointing out that even Buddhist “masters” can be misogynists and commit sexual assault. Sure they can. But what was going on especially with Sasaki is extremely peculiar. It sounds to me more like some kind of bizarre compulsive behavior that was unique to him than any kind of evidence that there is something wrong with Buddhism in general.

JOSH BARAN: It isn’t just a few bad apples. It may not be “something wrong with Buddhism in general,” but there are some repeating patterns of “masters” who succumb to grandiosity and feelings of entitlement that include abuse of power and sometimes sex. Too many teachers think they are far more awakened then they are and create toxic communities around them where absolute obedience is demanded. Evidence — in the late 70s and early 80s, I ran a support group for people who had left spiritual groups and gurus – and counseled and talked with probably over a thousand people who had left many kinds of groups, gurus and teachers. Shadows need to come to light. In 1981, I heard about Sasaki.

JOSHUA EATON: This isn’t just a problem with Sasaki and Shimano. It’s also a problem with Trungpa Rinpoche, Osel Tendzin, Kalu Rinpoche, Genpo Merzel Roshi, Maezumi Roshi, Jetsunma Akhon Lhamo, Lama Surya Das, Geshe Michael Roach, and others. Honestly, I’ve heard so many stories about abusive student-teacher relationships—many involving prominent teachers—that it’s hard to know where to begin or whom to trust.

ME: Joshua, I don’t know about half of these scandals. But the ones I do know (Sasaki, Shimano, Trungpa, Tendzin, Merzel, Maezumi and I’d add Baker) all take place in large institutions which which all grew at a very rapid pace. Comparable incidents have happened in Hindu, Christian and Islamic based institutions which were similarly large and grew at a similarly accelerated pace. I would suggest the problem is not something to do with Buddhism but with these types of institutions.

Taken from this perspective, Buddhism actually comes off pretty good. There has yet to be (and hopefully will never be) a Buddhist equivalent of Jonestown or Waco (Aum Shinrikyo may be the exception here, but they were only very tangentially Buddhist). Trungpa’s institution had a lot of weird sexual stuff going on but it pales in comparison to the alleged child abuse and drug/power scandals associated with the Hare Krishnas who emerged around the same time and grew at a similarly accelerated pace.

Maybe Buddhist institutions don’t need to be so big. Maybe they don’t need to be so institutional.

Later Josh Baran responded to what I said noting that, “It may be the myth of the fully enlightened master / sage combined with the narrative of skillful means and crazy wisdom, and throw in demand for absolute obedience – produces a particular kind of abuse potential.” I agree that this is the root of the problem. But I don’t think any of this stuff really belongs in Buddhism. It’s there in lots of contemporary Buddhist institutions. But it’s not fundamental to Buddhism. In fact, it shouldn’t be there at all. None of it. Ever. Let me go through Mr. Baran’s points one by one.

1) The Myth of the Fully Enlightened Master: This comes from the standard narrative of Gautama Buddha’s life in which he sits under a tree and meditates and after a while ~poof!~ he’s a fully enlightened master forever and ever, amen. From then on he’s no longer plain old Siddhartha but is now The Buddha, the World Honored One. This is the way it’s been told for centuries. And there are many cases of people in years gone by discussing if a Fully Enlightened Master was or was not capable of making mistakes and so forth. The traditional story of Hyakujo’s Fox is one such case.

But this myth came about only after Gautama Buddha himself was dead and gone and could no longer challenge it like he had when he was alive. Like every other great person who dies — John Lennon, Mother Theresa, JFK, Kurt Cobain, the list is endless — Gautama Buddha was mythologized after his death into something much more fantastic and unreal than he had been in life. But while he was alive, Gautama told of being visited by Mara — that is, dealing with the still living karma of his pre-enlightenment years — right up till the end of his life. So even the original and arguably greatest Fully Enlightened Master of our lineage was not the kind of “Fully Enlightened Master” the myth makers want us to believe our contemporary masters are.

2) The Narrative of Skillful Means and Crazy Wisdom: The idea of Skillful Means originates in the Lotus Sutra wherein the Buddha does whatever it takes to bring about realization in his followers even if, on the surface, it seems to be deceptive. Of course such a narrative is ripe for abuse. So is the idea of Crazy Wisdom, which can be used as a cover for plain old unwise craziness. The original intention of these ideas was to convey that wisdom doesn’t always look the way we think it ought to. This is true and important. But neither of these notions means that Buddhist wisdom always has to look crazy or that so-called “skillful means” must always be some sort of trickery.

3) The Demand for Absolute Obedience: This is absolutely not part of Buddhism. No decent Buddhist teacher has ever demanded absolute obedience. It’s antithetical to Buddhism, which stresses the necessity of questioning everything including the supposedly enlightened pronouncements of one’s own teacher. Any teacher who claims that students need to “come under the teacher” to quote what Genpo Merzel Roshi had to say on the subject doesn’t deserve to be “come under” by anyone at all. To say such a thing is to demonstrate that one has absolutely no clue what Buddhism is about.

The other factor I think is crucial to point out in all of this is that, whether he meant to or not, Joshu Sasaki (and others to some extent) taught us American Buddhists something very valuable. And that is that we should never blindly obey religious authority figures even if they are Buddhist Masters. You might say that we didn’t need that lesson. But clearly we did or none of this would ever — indeed none of it could ever — have happened.

We’re not talking about Adolph Hitler with the might of the German Army to enforce his will. Sasaki is a tiny little old man in black robes. The only thing Joshu Sasaki ever had that he could use to compel anyone to obey him was his student’s desire to obey the arbitrary whims of a religious authority figure, their desire to be dominated. And it worked like magic. On people who should have known better, who, I would argue, did know better and chose to ignore what they knew.

Be careful out there.

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    stonemirror
    stonemirror September 18, 2013 at 9:10 am | Permalink | Log in to reply.

    “…comes off pretty good…a Buddhist equivalent of Jonestown…”

    Well, there’s Shōkō Asahara, and Aum Shinrikyō. What they were up to certainly had little actual relationship to Buddhism, but he was happy to use mikkyō trappings when it suits him, not to mention the “social currency” of dharma-tourist pictures of himself with the Dalai Lama, etc. Quibbling over the fine points would seem a bit like a “No True Scotsman” argument.

    There’re also packs of Buddhists merrily stoning Muslims in Burma, pretty much even as we speak.

    We’re in for yet another round as it comes out that the guy who shot up the Washington Navy Yard turns out to have been involved in Theravada. This is, I think, the “totally enlightened master” syndrome writ small — people are somehow amazed that it’s possible to both be a Buddhist and be either violent or mentally ill.

    (This also ties into yet another gripe with many of the denizens of places like “Sweeping Zen” — Buddhism being conflated with some sort of “therapy” for something…)
    sri_barence
    sri_barence September 18, 2013 at 10:09 am | Permalink | Log in to reply.

    When I was growing up on The Farm, Stephen (Gaskin) said at one point, “Don’t say ‘Stephen says.’” It seems like he had realized at some point that people would take what he said and use it to excuse bad behavior. Also I think it was important to him (as it is for Brad) to encourage people to think for themselves. I think this is one of the reasons The Farm never turned into Jonestown or Waco.

    Stephen was not faultless; I remember hearing of several incidents where he gave orders and expected them to be obeyed. And people did often obey those orders. Many of them came to regret it later. But Stephen did eventually step down from his leadership position, and settled into the role of “teacher.” I suspect this was partly because people told him they weren’t willing to blindly obey him anymore. On the whole I think this has been a good thing for The Farm. They are still there, more than 40 years after the place was founded. Not many hippy communities can make that claim. I doubt The Farm would have lasted that long if they were playing ‘follow the leader.’

    The Farm did have its share of sexual misconduct issues. And these did seem to coincide with a rapid increase in membership over a relatively short period of time. (The population of The Farm went from 150 to about 1500 in less than 10 years – a tenfold increase.) So my sense is that Brad’s linking the rapid growth of an institution with incidences of abuse is spot on. I wonder if there have been any anthropological or sociological studies that would shed light on this kind of trend. (If indeed such a trend can be shown to exist.)

    I was raised in a culture that praised questioning authority. As a so-called “Zen student,” I never ask the teachers how to live my life, or what I should do next. I have asked them for their point of view from time to time, and it has often proved helpful. But I make my own decisions, and I take responsibility for the consequences of my actions.

    Randall: do you want to be leader of this gang?
    Strutter: No, we agreed: No leader!
    Randall: Right. So shut up and do as I say.
    (from ‘Time Bandits,’ (HandMade Films, 1981)
    Harlan
    Harlan September 18, 2013 at 11:39 am | Permalink | Log in to reply.

    American conservative News blogger Matt Drudge linked this story..
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/shooters-interest-in-buddhism-prompts-debate-about-stereotype-of-peaceful-faith/2013/09/18/f0ecd938-1fcf-11e3-94a2-6c66b668ea55_story.html
    to the Navy Yard shootings under the headline..

    “Buddhism holds ‘special attraction’ for mentally ill”
    senorchupacabra
    senorchupacabra September 18, 2013 at 11:45 am | Permalink | Log in to reply.

    I think you nailed it quite early in the post, Brad. It’s not Buddhism, per se, it’s what happens in institutions, period. And the larger a particular institution becomes, the more powerful (and, thus, corrupted) its leadership becomes.

    Add to that that there’s always a certain amount of theatre within the existence of the institution as it is. Generally the leaders dress and speak and certain way, and the underlings dress and speak in a way that concedes the power and control to the leadership and so on. But within religious insitutions, this theatre is manifested 20-fold. You’ve got “masters” who wear specific robes and who demand certain courtesies. But they’re not just “leaders” or even “masters,” they’re leaders or masters who have and/or are a direct link to “The Divine.” I mean, the whole set-up is ripe for various kinds of abuse and corruption.

    I’ve always sort of felt that institutionalizing something as fluid and dynamic as Buddhism was to lose some of its “essence.” But I also suspect that, because of human nature, it’s inevitable. I always just kind of assumed the most enlightened people were not going to be very pretentious people. They weren’t going to go around trying to convince anyone they were “enlightened.” Real “masters” probably lives down the street from some of us, and we don’t even realize it. They just go about their lives and try to stay out of people’s way.

    That’s my assumption, but what the hell do I know?
    Fred
    Fred September 18, 2013 at 11:46 am | Permalink | Log in to reply.

    A Zen Master is just someone who got there before you did, not that there is
    any where to get or any one to get there.

    Sasaki’s blackmail was that he would quit if they made a big deal about his sex
    manipulations. No one called him on it because they believed they were someone
    going from point A to Z with his help.

    So the problem was the student confusing the relative and the Absolute, and
    the teacher ignoring the relative while he was the Absolute.

    Great delusion on both sides.
    adam fisher
    adam fisher September 18, 2013 at 11:57 am | Permalink | Log in to reply.

    “The only thing Joshu Sasaki ever had that he could use to compel anyone to obey him was his student’s desire to obey the arbitrary whims of a religious authority figure, their desire to be dominated. And it worked like magic. On people who should have known better, who, I would argue, did know better and chose to ignore what they knew.”

    Brad — To the extent that the above conveys a blame-the-victim sentiment (“should have known better” … “did know better”) I take exception: 1. I agree with the notion that each must bear his or her own responsibilities … it’s your life; read ‘em and weep but also 2. any serious student I have ever known comes to the teaching/teacher from a tender place, a raw place, a confused place. The attempt to put life in order involves some work in hitherto-shadowed places, places kept under wraps. Implicitly or explicitly asking for help feels naked and unsure. And what’s the first thing anyone does when s/he feels unsure? My guess is that s/he seeks out some certainty, whether real or imagined. Does s/he leave common sense out of the equation? To a certain extent I think s/he does… and I also think it is common as dishwater. Enter the teacher/teaching. The teacher/teaching may not think of itself as a life preserver, but it does not strike me as unusual if the student might. So, if this description is more or less acceptable, whose responsibility is it? Clearly, on the one hand, it is the student’s. But equally clearly, if the teacher/teaching is worth his/her/its salt, it is the responsibility of the one playing the teacher role. If they cannot address a simple issue like hero/heroine worship, if they cannot understand the laying on of an authoritative halo, if they cannot, in short, know the realm of uncertainty in which the student lives, then what the [banned term] good are they in the first place? Where is THEIR common sense?

    I think this may be called a shared responsibility, perhaps, but I do not believe that the entire weight belongs solely to the student … even if it does.

    As to the question “is there something wrong with Buddhism?”: If by “Buddhism” you mean real Buddhism — the Buddhism without “Buddhism” — then of course the answer is no. But if you mean the formatted and institutional Buddhism, then I think the answer can be a qualified yes. I don’t know enough specifics to feel confident in the assertion, but my sense of Buddhism’s history is that its institutions have been hierarchically shaped — a vertical power that flows from the top downward. This can be seen in the documents that shape any number of organizations: The king’s on top and the courtiers await his or her (sometimes oozingly subtle) decisions. To some extent, this is an organizational necessity, but to some extent as well, it reflects an ego trip. It is wide open to power politics and sociopathic behavior. Would a well-praised democracy actually work better? I doubt it. Sasaki and Shimano, among others, are not really aberrations — they are part of a systemic framework that nourishes both flowers and weeds. Those with ranking positions or dearly-held beliefs may say their homeland is pure as the driven snow (let’s get another ethics statement out) but this is just a snow job under cover of “compassion” or “clarity” or “Nirvana” or some other that’s-for-me brocade. No one wants to lose their job or their beliefs.

    Oh well … too much hot air from here. Apologies. But I agree with you about at least one thing: “Be careful out there.”
        mtto
        mtto September 18, 2013 at 8:29 pm | Permalink | Log in to reply.

        It’s not the victims that should have known better and are therefor also to blame, but the community, especially long-term or so-called “advanced” practitioners / senior students, who know these things are happening and don’t stop it.

        A lot of discussion has taken place regarding codes of conduct, and if an organization wants to implement a code of conduct banning sexual harassment that is a good thing, but on some level it shouldn’t even be necessary; if you don’t know that sexual assault is wrong, WTF and you need more help than a code of conduct can provide!
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chisanmichaelhughes

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PostSubject: Re: Is There a Problem with Buddhism? - from Brad Warner's HardCore Zen blog   Thu Sep 19, 2013 3:03 pm

Josh turning this to our situation with Kennett, my view is I think she managed to create a situation where she was almost untouchable,I mean criticism, or spiritual challenge of her was almost impossible,you saw more of her than me ,would you agree with me on that?
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Jcbaran

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PostSubject: Re: Is There a Problem with Buddhism? - from Brad Warner's HardCore Zen blog   Tue Sep 24, 2013 11:39 pm

Yes, not unusual. Many authoritarian leaders build a fortress around themselves, armoring.  Surrounded  by loyalists, they are able to avoid any honest feedback or criticism or challenges.  They do this not out of strength, but our of fear and weakness.  Kennett could not bear even the slightest disagreement.  Sad woman.
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PostSubject: Re: Is There a Problem with Buddhism? - from Brad Warner's HardCore Zen blog   Wed Sep 25, 2013 2:51 pm

Michael said: "Josh turning this to our situation with Kennett, my view is I think she managed to create a situation where she was almost untouchable,I mean criticism, or spiritual challenge of her was almost impossible,you saw more of her than me ,would you agree with me on that?"

Michael, I totally agree with you. The same is true of Kennett's most ardent disciples, especially the person I have written about here. Reading the blogs that Josh posted, I kept thinking about the monks at North Cascades who always insisted on drinking tea out of "their" special cup. Where is the line between ordinary respect for another person and obsessive, autocratic leadership. Demanding a particular cup, requiring everyone to stand when you enter the room, etc., etc. -- these cross the line and symbolize to me and unhealthy relationship between student and master.

Another good point from the blogs is that a person injured by a master is not necessary to "blame" for the harm done to him. People who come to a so-called "master" for help may be vulnerable -- confused, afraid, depressed, mentally ill. The "master" must have enough training and common sense to deal with the situation. Telling someone "Follow me and do exactly as I say and I will point the way to enlightenment" is not enough. Demanding obedience can make things far worse, as some of the stories told on the Forum prove true.
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PostSubject: Re: Is There a Problem with Buddhism? - from Brad Warner's HardCore Zen blog   Wed Sep 25, 2013 8:11 pm

Carol wrote:
Another good point from the blogs is that a person injured by a master is not necessary to "blame" for the harm done to him. People who come to a so-called "master" for help may be vulnerable -- confused, afraid, depressed, mentally ill. The "master" must have enough training and common sense to deal with the situation. Telling someone "Follow me and do exactly as I say and I will point the way to enlightenment" is not enough. Demanding obedience can make things far worse, as some of the stories told on the Forum prove true.
You are right of course Carol, Mike made an excellent point. Blaming the pupil is pure sophistry. If you demand total obedience then you take on responsibility for outcomes, even if the outcome is that in trying to obey the master the person is driven to the point where they can't obey anymore and comes to harm or harms others. This does not absolve the pupil totally either though; the plea of 'I was only following orders' does not hold in International Law if the action is illegal, nor does it hold here if the action is illegal or immoral.
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PostSubject: Re: Is There a Problem with Buddhism? - from Brad Warner's HardCore Zen blog   Thu Sep 26, 2013 1:52 am

Look I do have a sort of spiritual confession to make here...I do have my own fine porcelain cup for drinking tea out of, if my girlfriend an I have had an argument when I make her coffee in 'her' cup I always put extra sugar in it, and when she makes me tea after a disagreement she always puts less sugar in mine....however my real confession that I had a rather heavy mass produced black mug which was reserved for my ex mother in law with whom I broke all the right thought precepts that have ever been written.
These teachers who can lead people to enlightenment, sell  enlightenment for big bucks, abuse their disciples and pretend to show them something special other than who they are ,and  how they behave, are basically nuts
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