When Spiritual Leaders Abuse

I’ve always had problems with authority. From a very young age, I questioned everything anyone in a position of power over me told me with a tenacity that I’m sure was often hideously annoying.

My mother loves to tell strangers the story of how, at the ripe age of 9, I declared over the dinner table that we live in a DEMOCRACY, so I shouldn’t have to do what she said. My mother responded that outside the house, America was indeed a democracy. But inside? We were a dictatorship. Hail to the Queen.

As much as she asserted her parental authority, though, my mother encouraged my spiritual bullheadedness. She insisted that there was no “One True Way” of experiencing the Divine. It was my mother who gave me the Bhagavad Gita to read when I was in elementary school, and who purchased my first set of Tarot cards, inspiring me to believe in myself and recognize my experience of the world as authentic and true.

I came across a lot of books on Zen Buddhism in my spiritual wanderings. As a boisterous extrovert, I was drawn to the idea of a spiritual practice that valued silence and stillness. But every book I picked up on the subject was impenetrable. They all felt the same. Bland blue covers. Endless droning about peaceful stillness. I was filled with energy and anger, and couldn’t connect with the idea of placid, peaceful acceptance.

But then, when I was 22, I came across a book by Zen teacher Brad Warner titled Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies, and the Truth about Reality. The back of the book seemed written directly for me, proclaiming:

“This is not the same old crap you’ve seen in a thousand books you don’t want to read. This is Zen for people who don’t give a rat’s ass about Zen. This is the real deal.”

I picked it up and consumed it all in one sitting. I followed his instructions on how to sit and began to sit every morning. Then every evening. I dedicated 40 minutes of my day every day for nearly three years to the practice of zazen. I embraced the slow and subtle changes that took place in my mind.

As my practice deepened, uncomfortable things started happening to me on the cushion. I would enter practice feeling calm and relaxed, but leave feeling furious. Or sad. Or turned on. Once I sat down to practice without setting a timer and accidentally sat for three hours. I stopped being able to watch action movies or witness meat being prepared because the realities of violence and death were too present and upsetting for me.

I got scared. I wanted to reach out to the community around me, but I didn’t know how to access it.

I took to the Internet to look for a teacher, naively assuming that the path that I had chosen would be magically unproblematic. Instead, what I found disturbed me.

Abuse In Zen Buddhism

When I was in grade school in the late ’80s, the accusations and allegations of sexual predation among the priests of the Catholic Church came to light. A lot of the people I knew felt angry and betrayed by a community that they had trusted so intimately. I, for my part, had no faith to shake. I was angry at the priests who had taken advantage of the children in their care. And I was equally angry at The Church, which seemed content to shuffle predators around and did not seem to care about the harm that they were doing.

In the Zen community, the problem of sexual misconduct has been less systematic and more centered on specific individuals. But those individual acts were enough to give me pause.

Richard Baker, for example, was the abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center in the 1970s. In 1983, Baker was revealed to have been having an affair with the wife of a sangha* member. In the ensuing storm, several other women came forward and admitted to having had sexual relationships with Baker before his tenure as abbot began. The American Zen community panicked at these accusations, and Baker was forced to resign in 1984 from his position.

Baker’s misconduct, though egregious, was not necessarily criminal. The behavior of the other two Zen teachers who have gained notoriety in the American Zen community is much more troubling. Joshu Sasaki, head abbot of the Mount Baldy Zen Center in California, had a lifelong reputation for groping his female students, interfering in their sexual and romantic relationships, holding sexually coercive private meetings, and indulging in sexual relationships. And Eido Shimano Roshi, who was the founder and head of the New York Zendo in the mid-1960s, used his authority as a Zen teacher to cultivate sexual relationships with his female students over the course of his time in the United States. In 2010, the scandal broke publicly, forcing him to resign from his role as abbot of the Zen Studies Society.

Seeking answers on how these incidents could’ve happened, I turned to Brad Warner, whose latest book, Don’t Be a Jerk, contains an entire chapter on the feminist views of Dogen Zenji, a Zen teacher who lived and taught in 13th century Japan. Warner has been open and vocal in his discussions of sexual misconduct in the American Zen community, taking to his blog repeatedly to talk about it, and receiving a lot of criticism for his refusal to react with outright outrage, instead insisting on a measured approach in dealing with these issues.

I asked Warner what he thought had contributed to the culture of sexual misconduct in the American Zen community. In answer, he addressed the cultural differences of teachers like Sasaki and Shimano, who came from a double removed place, having been raised in a Japanese culture fully a century ago. “In the cases of Shimano & Sasaki Roshis, they’re Japanese and not only that, but they were from another generation of Japanese people,” he said. “Especially Sasaki, who just died at 107 years old. So he’s coming from a very removed place culturally. I think that figured into it.”

Warner also noted the role of power dynamics, particularly when American Zen was just starting to gain in popularity:

“A lot of these things happened at a time when this stuff was new to us in the West and people were seeing these masters as rock stars. There was an almost groupie aspect with younger people encountering these men. But as we become more acclimated to having these Zen teachers in our midst, they become less exciting. I think I’m certainly less exciting than the generation of Zen teachers before me.”

When I spoke with Zuiko Redding, a resident female teacher at the Cedar Rapids Zen Center, she also spoke of the power paradigm at play:

“I think [abuse is] likely to lessen greatly from here on out. Because one of the things that has contributed to it is the idea of the teacher as an all-knowing and all-powerful guru. I remember when Katagiri Roshi died and I was at Minnesota Zen Center and we were discussing succession, one person said, ‘Well no one could succeed him because he was a perfectly enlightened being.’ And I remember another person during those years who told me that ‘I’d rob a bank if Katagiri told me to because I’d know it was right.’ And I don’t think he wanted that sort of worship, but people sort of gave it to him.”

Power Dynamics, Religious Authority, And Consent

Such incidents of abuse are not, of course, limited to Zen Buddhism, or, for that matter, to Catholicism. Research shows that spiritual abuse can occur in virtually any space in which there is a hierarchy of power that can be exploited. Certainly many cults are characterized not only by their various forms of indoctrination, but also by the sexual abuse that is often perpetrated by cult leaders. When so much of the power in a relationship is held by one person, grooming another to accept their sexual advances is frighteningly easy.

In part because of the power hierarchy prevalent in many institutionalized religions, it can also be complicated to define what’s abuse, and what’s consensual.

The instances of Shimano and Sasaki groping their students non-consensually are inexcusable. But in the cases of their longstanding reputation of romantic affairs, the waters get murky. In my interview with Brad Warner, he told me that he had heard from at least one woman who had an affair with Shimano who did not feel at all victimized. What do we do with that? Catholic priests molesting children whose emotional and spiritual well-being has been entrusted to them is an easy thing to condemn. But entering into relationships with adult students as non-celibate clergy? That’s more difficult to judge.

Were these women entering these relationships willingly? Or were they being coerced by men they trusted and then groomed for sexual relationships that they would not have otherwise consented to?

Complicating matters further are the doctrines of Buddhism. The Buddhist Precepts do not contain rules condemning sex between teachers and students. In the five main Buddhist Precepts, the third states that one “should not misuse” sexuality, but that instruction opens itself to a high level of interpretation by the individual. According to Warner:

“There’s nothing more specific than [the third Precept] in the Zen world. You learn one on one with your teacher, and your teacher might say to you [that you shouldn’t sleep with your students], if he or she thinks it’s necessary to say . . . But there isn’t a canonical piece that says to avoid sexual relationships with your students. It’s sort of assumed that you’re not going to do that.”

The Buddhist Precepts are five statements that make up the code of ethics in Buddhist practice around the world. They are very general, and boil down to a commitment by practitioners to refrain from lying, intoxication, harming other living beings, stealing, and sexual misconduct. Since there is no strong statement in the Precepts about not dating your students, and no vow of chastity for Zen clergy, sexual and romantic relationships are going to crop up — particularly when you consider the fact that someone who has dedicated their entire life to the practice of a spiritual path is unlikely to find a suitable partner outside of the community they serve.

Warner, for his part, has talked in the past about this difficulty, and, in discussion with me, conceded that he believes sexual relationships between students are probably, all things considered, a bad idea. Of course, choosing to abstain from a romantic relationship when you feel drawn to a person is not as easy as one would like. To quote Warner, “It’s not like you’re going to the supermarket and there’s Wheat Chex and Corn Chex and you’re like, ‘Don’t get the Wheat Chex, get the Corn Chex.’ It’s not that simple.”

But while not all sexual interactions between teacher and student constitute abuse, that threat is very real. All of which left me grappling with a question other spiritual women have no doubt asked as well: How do I continue practicing a faith that could make me vulnerable to abuse?

Skittles Theory And Moving Forward

Unsure what to do with what I had found out about the teachers in my chosen community, I stopped sitting for a really long time. My practice had been stymied by the anomalies that arose when I was sitting, and I was too nervous about the practices of men like Shimano, Sasaki, and Baker to risk reaching out to find guidance. The fear that any teacher I might choose could behave like those men was Skittles Theory in action.

Skittles Theory is a shorthand way of describing the concept that if someone offers you a bowl of Skittles and tells you that 10% of the bowl is poison, you will be unlikely to want to eat any of the Skittles. And even if they come to you and tell you that the poisoned Skittles have been removed, you will likely still be reticent to eat the Skittles. This theory is often applied to dating as a femme person, because the men that you are dating have a certain percentage chance of being creepy or flat-out being sexual predators.**

Skittles Theory doesn’t come out of a void of information: In America alone, there are 293,000 sexual assaults every year. Of those assaulted, 68% of survivors will not report their assault to the police. And 98% of rapists will never spend a day behind bars for their crimes. With numbers like that, reaching into the bowl becomes a seriously daunting prospect. When you apply Skittles Theory to spiritual spaces, the same rules apply.

With the information that I had about Zen teachers, Skittles Theory dictated that some of the bowl was poisoned, and I had no way of knowing if I would be safe.

In light of these circumstances, it’s up to religious institutions to offer protections. Since people cannot always be trusted to make the best decision and “get the Corn Chex” instead of the Wheat Chex, the Buddhist leadership must put rules in place to protect teachers and students when it comes to the issue of sex in the sangha.

As of now, though, because there isn’t a central entity establishing rules and regulations for these relationships, individual centers are doing the work themselves. In my interview with Zuiko Redding, she explained to me that the Cedar Rapids Zen Center has come up with a code of conduct that includes an admonition against sleeping with one’s students. But she, like Brad, had some thoughts on the efficacy of any approach that totally bans romantic involvement between teachers and those who come for study, stating pragmatically that, “I can see a situation in which a teacher is unmarried and one of the people in the community has a mutual attraction, and after considering it they decide to drop the teacher-student relationship and go for it.”

Both Brad and Zuiko expressed dismay at the fact that I had stopped myself from seeking out a teacher because of the threat of poison Skittles in my community. And the fact of the matter is that, unlike the Catholic Church, which spent ages shuffling priests from place to place and insisting that the “poisoned Skittles” didn’t exist, the American Zen community condemned and ousted these men after their attempts to deal with their issues internally failed. They admitted the Skittles were poisoned and did what needed to be done. They didn’t allow the poison to spread throughout their community for decades and do irreparable harm.

In a way, the openness about these scandals by the Zen community has helped to dispel the final remnants of the unchecked worship that allowed these things to take place. Through that honesty, Zen teachers have been transformed from “perfectly enlightened” beings from The Far Off East into everyday humans who happen to spend their free time sitting on a cushion. And that’s a good thing. That’s healthy. The less we expect our spiritual leaders to be perfect examples of humanity, the less shocked we will be when they transgress. And the less likely we will be to allow them their transgressions.

* Sangha is a Pali and Sanskrit word that means “community” or “assembly” and refers to a Buddhist community of monks, nuns, novices, and lay people.

* It should be noted that sexual assault is something suffered by men as well. These statistics refer to how I calculated my odds of running into sexually predatory behavior.

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