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.

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