Sunday, April 3, 2011

Reply to John and more

Thanks John for the thoughtful post. I recall once we were discussing, in the context of therapists, that interventions must be carefully weighed to discern if the intervention is serving the therapists' needs or the clients'. We're making empirical progress on this front in therapy, with outcome measures to track clients perceptions and alter the modality based on client feedback. This is all to the good.

And I agree that it's not charisma itself that's the issue. Classical psychodynamics teaches us that the narcissist has often suffered a profound wound, and the personality compensates by declaring its specialness. I fear that, deep down in the murk of the unconscious,  the charismatic/wounded teacher, to maintain the illusion of being special, pressures the student to maintain them in the guru role. This is obviously true in groups that go off the reservation, so to speak, like the Rajneeshies or followers of Da Free John (Adi Da, etc). These teachers clearly - to my eye at least - have some authentic realization of the non-dual, but ultimately couldn't put the guru role down enough for their students to claim their own light.

You mention the trust issue. I never did see anywhere that Shakyamuni said "you can't trust yourself", but do you recall how often we were told this at ZenWorld? It was practically in the (admittedly delicious) soup. This was a big part of my choice to leave there and go to Asia to work and study, and to seek the Diamond Sangha when I came back. I remain grateful for the training back there that got me started, but once I was ready to move toward claiming sparks of my own light I could not stay. There's a koan about this in the Miscellaneous Koans that goes:

In the sea of Ise
Ten thousand feet down
Lies a single stone
I wish to pick up that stone 
without wetting my hands

The top line is a signature....

Another guest post, this one from John Eich

 John and I began zen practice together in 1989, and in a deep sense I have always had the feeling he and I are in it together, though he does not sit formally with a sangha these days. He's grounded in Buddhism and the shamanic traditions of Central America, and is also skilled at baking the small French baguettes known as Batards. His post was a comment below but I like it so much I wanted to mark it up before replying.

If we're calling charisma a combination of eloquence and personal magnetism, I'm not sure that charisma by itself is the problem. The work of shifting our consciousness is often difficult, and boring, and painful, and if the teacher has some quality that makes them attractive, then that can keep us coming back to the work when instincts pull us away. Many a time I've been simmering in my own suffering during sesshin, and been very grateful for the lift provided by a rousing, inspirational exhortation.

I think your friend's implied point though is that there is the suspicion that a charismatic teacher might use that power to further a personal agenda, one which is not in the student's best interest. Sadly, discerning ethics is much harder than charisma. But, as you point out (and echo Jung), I think the truth is that every teacher has some level of personal agenda, some measure of shadow. So if part of the teacher's shadow involves their ability to influence others, the important question is how bad is it? Bright light, dark shadow...brilliant light, engulfing shadow. Does the fire warm, or burn?

Our shadow here is also key to this equation. We have to ask ourselves why a charismatic teacher gives us the willies. "I don't like feeling hypnotized by someone" or "it isn't healthy for someone to have that kind of sway over me" is another way of saying "I don't trust myself" (not to become a groupie, not to take bad advice and make poor decisions, etc).

I think it comes down to an honest assessment of our strengths and wounds, and how they match or don't match those of the teacher. Perhaps it's useful to look at how we fall in love. If we have a tendency to get swept away and hand over power to another, then that's probably how we'll approach our relationship with a sprititual teacher. If so, then best to stay away from the stronger magnets. But, if we're naturally resistant to others' influence (which has equal drawbacks), then blacksmithing next to the forge might turn out ok. :)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Hot or Not?

Often after sesshin at Mountain Lamp I crash with my friends Chris (below) and Rebecca in Shoreline, WA. Last year we got to discussing the issue of charismatic teachers in Zen, and the hazards and rewards of practicing with people who have an almost shamanic power in manifesting the Dharma. Rebecca said she once met a teacher like that, and said "I didn't quite trust him. There was something too hypnotic about it, even if he was amazing to be around." I asked Rebecca, who has handed me many a tissue to wipe away sesshin tears, "Do you think that would be an issue for me if I ever became a Zen teacher?"

Without missing a beat, she said "No." So much for my fantasies of becoming a Yoda-like master, with gnomic utterances dripping from my lips while my awestruck students gazed admiringly on.

After I recovered from the blow to my ego (Rebecca said to me, "what is it with men and their egos anyway?"), I wondered if that were a good thing, or, in more zen terms, a useful thing. Was it skillful to not be flashy, to not be particularly sparkling in presentation, but rather to be less theatrical so as not to manifest a barrier that could lead students into further alienation from their own deepest Buddha nature.

This seemed at odds with a lot - though not all, by any means - of what I'd seen in 20 plus years of practice in American Zen groups and the Buddhist Himalaya. The dramatic, and sometimes petulant, Lamas of the Mustang region inspired me less than the villagers in Kagbeni, who toiled away without complaint. In America I was inspired by the oratory of dramatic teachers, and the seeming resemblance of their exhortations to the Masters of the T'ang. But it didn't last, and it seemed that the more luminous the speaker, the deeper their woundedness, at least as shown in what Jung called "shadow" behaviors, deeds at odds with the stated aspirations of the actor. Jung called this propensity to behave in ways contrary to the ego self "Enantiodromia", the superabundance of a force that produces its opposite.

More on how this seems to appear in spiritual communities tomorrow. In the meantime, I would encourage y'all to look at Stuart Lachs' fascinating essay on demystifying a couple of modern teachers. It's here:

Friday, March 18, 2011

A guest post from Chris Nielsen on sado-masochism in American Zen

Chris Nielsen and I have practiced zen together for what feels like kalpas. He's been in the American zen world since the mid 60s and gave me the green light to share this post. He's a professional potter, well read Red, and connoisseur of fine whiskies and wines as well.  Salud!

Scotty-lad – rather than conforming to the blogovian rigamarole, which I don’t understand (profile? What’s a profile?) --

I think it’s important to go beyond the (totally justified and necessary) critique of particular abuses and abusers to examine what it is in (a) ourselves and (b) in Zen that causes the phenomenon. I always think back to Erich Fromm’s Escape From Freedom, his analysis of the psychology of fascism (written in real time, around 1940). His operative analytical phrase was sado-masochism, a tendency of people to subordinate themselves to fuehrers out of ego-weakness and desire to partake in their perceived power – and of those fuehrers to crave followership out of their own ego-weakness. The sadistic abuse is actually welcomed by the masochists as part of the exchange, and of course reinforces the sadists’ sense of power. When I tried out that idea on our mutual “old friend” Chosen (sic) Bays, she was nonplussed. Did not compute. Surprise.

As another old friend of mine often said (quoting WC Fields, perhaps), there’s a seeker born every minute. In the old days of romantic Zen (as opposed to the prevalent therapeutic Zen of today), we were all afflicted with a large amount of magical thinking, and in spite of our oh-so-conscious anti-authoritarianism we were subconsciously seeking fuehrers to lead us out of the dark nights of our various souls. Both facts made us vulnerable to abuse and disillusionment. We need to see through that tendency in ourselves and others and counteract it. We need to see through the dynamics of Zen sanghas, pick out the aspects of them that are sado-masochistic, and counteract them. The pretensions to authority in hierarchical groups needs to be deconstructed, using conventional psychology and ethical thought, and also a wider, non-sectarian investigation of Buddhist philosophy that can demystify the putative authority. An honest investigation of Buddhist literature, history, and scholarship can only demolish any kind of dogmatism and the behavior it justifies, since all Buddhist traditions can be shown to be historical, cultural, and literary constructions. Above all, we have to counteract magical thinking in ourselves and others – stop looking for the “hot line to heaven,” miraculous cures for our psycho-pathologies and existential angst.

Zen is, after all, a religion much like other religions. It’s not a unique Technology of Personal Transformation. Despite centuries of dogma to the contrary, it does not resolve all doubts or require unquestioning obedience to an enlightened master. There are no Enlightened Masters in any absolute sense anyway. I’ve certainly never met one, and I’ve known five fairly well. Teachers can help or hinder depending on their character, ditto for sanghas. We might get some good out of Zen, or we might not. It might save our lives, or it might not. At its best – or at our own practices’ best – it can truly seem magical. But that’s mostly an illusion created by the neurological effects of zazen and our own wishful thinking. Outside of that, Zen tradition contains some worthy philosophical ideas that can illuminate our existential predicament, and maybe help with our more conventional psychological problems. Zazen can help us slow down our mental reactions, back away from them, and contemplate them in a broader philosophical context. But it’s not magic, it’s not absolute truth, and we need to counteract our and others’ tendency to fall into the delusion that it is.

All religions seem to share tendencies toward dogmatism and obscurantist authoritarianism. I think Buddhism is unique in that those features can be stripped away without demolishing the basis for practicing it. Without the magical notions, it includes elements of philosophy and contemplation that are valuable in themselves, and can be seen as faithful to the broad sweep of its own tradition if not all its expressions. It can even be seen as worthy of reverence. But not unquestioning obedience to any putative authority.


Feel free to share this with your audience if you like.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

American Zen becomes a profession

The change seems to have begun, in earnest, with my old teacher Robert Aitken Roshi's decision to make public his vast archive of materials related to the sexual abuses perpetrated by Eido Shimano. Aided by the democritizing power of the Internet, many disclosures and calls for accountability have come forth from the Mahasangha, and there is now an ongoing airing of past traumas and attempts at both healing and enforcement of reasonable codes of ethical behavior.

When I left ZenWorld, some of us wondered why they did not have some sort of ethical code. "It weakens traditional zen training", the Sensei said at the time (ZenWorld now does have a code of ethics). If one reads the T'ang literature this would seem obvious. Pai-Chang did not take insurance payments (as far as we know!), and didn't sue when his leg was broken by his master. But Dharma leaders, whether monks, laity, or what have you, were doubtless held to some standards of behavior in their communities. I lived in the Himalaya for 3 years, and monks who screwed the pooch (not literally, well, ahh, mostly not anyhow, except in VERY remote places) were typically called on it by people in the villages, and within the regional authority.

As my old friend Chozen Bays mentioned in a recent post on Sweeping Zen, being a Zen teacher is a profession. I am glad that here in the USA, at last, the power of the net is inviting people into a relatedness that makes it much more difficult for abuses of power to go unnoticed, and for the victims of them to be silenced. There is much more on this change to address, which I shall soon.

Of course Zen is not just a profession - it has its interiority, the vast wildness of mountain winds, infinite creativity, and at bottom the no-thing-ness (sorry) that shows the denominator as all things. But this post is about the human side and spirit of practice and how to manifest that skillfully.

And since this blog is satirical....

When I v isited Lhasa in 1998, I took time to visit all the main temples in the vicinity - Sera-Je, Ganden, Tsurphu, and Drepung. While wandering around Sera, I rounded a corner of the labyrinthine walkways and surprised an older monk and a, ahh, novice. In flagrante delicto, shall we say. Or exploring the interpenetration of phenomena. I saw a similar incident in Nepal in 1994. At the time, this prompted me to write to a friend (Laith Na'ayem), "Om Mani Padme Hum" should really be said as "Oh Mommy He's Well Hung". 

Well, you must admit that the early Jesuit explorers in Tibet did liken "Lamaism" to Catholicism, identifying the exotic rituals of the Vajrayana with Rome while likening the austerity of Theravada with Protestantism. Ahem.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

It's about Power, and I don't mean Shakti

Facebook and the fine site Sweeping Zen are awash in reports of abuses of power, mostly sexual, dating back to the big flourishing of American Zen in the 70s. As a therapist who spent years treating sexually abused children I should not be shocked that it's taken this long for some of these matters to come to light. In any case it's a good thing on every level, especially for the practice and people new to it. Of course it's good to have hope and inspiration, and the poetic beauty of Zen teachings, to inspire us. I never would have made it through my first few long sesshins without the ancient stories and the spindrift call to wholeness they evoke. But long marketed illusions about so-called "awakened" people and the need to submit to them have created, and continue to create, immense harm in the Sangha.

What's galling to me is that the current letters of censorship toward Genpo and Eido Shimano (scorn that both these preening jackasses well deserve) are signed , in some cases, by teachers who eagerly opened up a can of authoritarian narcissism on me, and others, on many past occasions. The first zen center where I trained, which I will call ZenWorld (tm), refined the aggressive 'ego reduction' criticism into an art form. They made EST trainers look like a bunch of pussies. This Center was mostly free of sexual scandal as far as I could tell, but man did they let us have it with the scorn.

I trained at ZenWorld from 1989 - 1993, with a year and a half in residence there and at one of their affiliates. Upon moving to ZW to live, we had to sign an oath of fealty. It said "I promise to obey, without question, the orders of (the Abbot) and his senior students". There were a lot of senior students, many of whom I wouldn't trust to piss on me if I was on fire (and a bunch that I, umm, would, and am friends with to this day, but that's not much fun to read about).

Here's one instance of a senior student making a swashbuckling effort to reduce my ego. I moved to ZW from Wisconsin, and at the time intended to return there. I wished to keep my Wisconsin driver's license. But the student, who I will call Captain Correction, and who went on the become a teacher in multiple lineages before stepping down in disgrace last year, insisted I have a NY driver's license. "The insurance of ZW requires it" he said. "DO IT!" But I knew that my friend EF had a Pennsylvania license, and he'd lived there for years, merrily driving the ZW vehicles hither and yon.

This was my big mistake. I did not check my brain at the door.

I blew off getting the NY license since I knew the insurance story was bullshit. But Captain Correction was having none of it. After one morning sitting, as I exited the zendo (meditators will know that people are very emotionally open and vulnerable after long zazen), he blocked my path, and yelled "you will not drive ZenWorld's vehicles any more". I explained that my friend EF also did not have an NY license, and EF got ego corrected too. I wept for hours, just from the intensity of his rage and the fact that my teacher encouraged it.

Afterward I thought, isn't there enough pain going on (there certainly was for me, as I was mired in serious depression much of the time back then) that it's unnecessary to invent crises to swoop in and then "fix"? In the wake of this many koans were cited as justification, from the breaking of Yun-Men's leg to Nan-Chuan hacking up the cat, etc. "You're lucky we just criticize" the saying went. But the earliest Gen-Xers who came to zen in the late 80s were largely different from our Boomer predecessors. We didn't arrive en masse on a mighty zen wave, we arrived alienated from the world at large, in very small numbers. Reeducation and public shaming only reinforced our negative views of ourselves.

It seems there's a lot more to be said about power tripping in American Zen. Perhaps the supposedly self-absorbed Boomers benefited from such treatment, though I doubt it. The stories coming out now are just the beginning of a long overdue process of clarification and healing.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Someone has to do it

American Zen is on the rocks, with narcissistic teachers flogging students with their dongs left and right. There's been plenty of earnest thought lately about how to hold these guys accountable, and to try to restore some integrity to the Sangha.


But no one has really taken Guano Merzel, Eido Schlongo, and their ilk to the satire woodshed.


In medieval times the Jester was also called the jokerjokesterfoolwit-crackerprankster or buffoon (Wikipedia).

They could often get away with speaking forbidden truths beneath the guise of a rapier wit.

Welcome to Dharma Jester. DJ has spent 25 years knocking about the Dharma world in Asia and America, and just hopes to have a little fun. And shed a little light. At the expense of a whole bunch of Dharma narcissists......