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Friday, February 6, 2015

Scoundrels, Rapists, Abusers and Their Teachings

In every tradition there have been teachers and ministers who have abused their authority in a way that impacted their followers. In the days of our innocence, we believed the biggest problem we could encounter would be the teacher with an addiction or a bad temper. Over the last fifty years, we have come to wish that all we had to deal with were addictions and personalities. The highest profile example of this was the pedophilia scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. On perhaps a lower profile over the same period of time there have been ongoing scandals in the Zen communities, where it seems that nearly every Japanese Zen master who came to America, and some western masters as well, have engaged in sexual misconduct with their students. Recently, Zen teachers gathered and issued a joint letter to Zen communities in response to these scandals. They acknowledged that the lack of a central authority in Zen makes it very difficult to discipline renegade teachers and pledged to work together to find a way to make Zen centers safe places to be.

The other traditions in Buddhism are not without their own problems. In Tibetan Buddhism the most
notable example was Trungpa Rinpoche, who slept with many of his students and essentially drank himself to death at the age of forty-eight. He often showed up to teachings hours late and intoxicated, but people waited for him and to this day speak of him as a great teacher. He and other teachers have attempted to justify their misconduct by saying that it is part of an ancient tradition of "crazy wisdom," but, in the west at least, we do not identify taking advantage of an imbalance of power as either wise or enlightening in any way.

The thing that has long puzzled me about these cases is that even when the truth comes to light people quite often still talk about the teachings of these individuals with great respect and admiration. How are we to understand this phenomenon? Traditionally, it has been argued that there are many conflicted feelings that arise in victims of abuse toward their abusers. I agree with that, but what confounds me is that the group of people who continue to speak of these teachers and their teachings with admiration and respect includes not just abuse victims but also those who were not abused. It seems that the same people who decry the actions of these individuals towards their students quite often also still hold that they were great teachers or offered great teachings the transformed the lives of their students.
Sasaki Roshi

I think this flies in the face of conventional wisdom, and it certainly flies in the face of my experience. I have struggled to understand how people can give respect and admiration toward the teachings of individuals who abuse their students. It seems to me it requires almost a pathological compartmentalization in their understanding of the words and actions of these teachers. Yet so many people, including people for whom I have great respect, continue to sing praises of the Trungpa Rinpoches and Sasaki Roshis of the world. How can this be? Am I out of line? Even into his nineties, Sasaki Roshi was groping his female students during personal interviews. Since personal interviews are a part of the teaching process, it seems to me that this disqualifies him from being categorized is a great teacher. Unlike Sasaki Roshi, in the case of Trungpa Rinpoche even some of the female students who slept with him and were therefore by definition victims of his abuse still speak of him as a great teacher. I am unaware of anything comparable among the followers of Christian clergy who were abused by them. In this, I believe, must be found a clue to the behavior and esteem in which Buddhist students hold their teachers who have fallen from grace. In fact, this is in esteem which makes a complete fall from grace nearly impossible.
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

I believe that offering a teacher or a member of the clergy a kind of unearned respect and esteem is always problematic. We saw that kind of unearned respect and esteem offered toward Roman Catholic priests during the 1950s and 1960s, and as people have investigated the pedophilia scandal in that church they have discovered that that respect and esteem translated into well-meaning and well intended people repeatedly leaving their children alone with their abusers. That statement is not intended to blame either the victim or the victim's parents, it's intended to show that placing authority figures on a pedestal and so giving them too much authority colors and clouds the decisions we make. In Buddhist circles, in the Zen and Tibetan traditions it has always been assumed that the teacher is fully enlightened. How could a fully enlightened person do anything contrary to the best interests of anyone they encounter, most especially their students? And so in the same way the door of opportunity is opened and unscrupulous, pathological individuals who have no business in positions of authority will walk through that door.
Cardinal Bernard Law

The question that remains is whether or not the teachings of these pathological individuals still deserve a place of respect and honor in their various traditions. In my world, the answer is "no." We do not, for example, scurry about cataloging the teachings of Cardinal Bernard Law because we find the truth that he continually reassigned abusing priests to new churches and so offered them new victims to outweigh anything positive that might have been contained in his teachings. I would assert that a pathological mind does not stop being pathological while speaking the teachings and then become pathological while acting them out. In Christian terms, I can not be a good and authoritative teacher in the pulpit if I am abusing people in the confessional. The same thing is true, and it is a strikingly close analogy, of the Buddhist teacher who gives wonderful Dharma talks and then abuses students in private interviews.

I also find it extremely unsettling that, with the exception mentioned above of Trungpa Rinpoche's female students, the support and respect offered to disgraced Buddhist teachers most often comes from males. In doing so, these men perpetuate the rape culture that is so predominant in our society. I believe that when well known celebrities and clergy such as Leonard Cohen and Father Thomas Keating sing praises of Sasaki Roshi they also, perhaps unwittingly, sing praises of the fact that he raped his female students. That quite simply has to stop. We need to wake up. We have to stop declaring those people great teachers, and start declaring them what they were - unscrupulous abusers of their students. We cannot say with any consistency whatsoever that one a Roman Catholic priest abused somebody it was a terrible heinous crime and then with our next breath declare Buddhist teachers who engaged in the same behavior wonderful and enlightened masters. Unless and until Western Buddhism is willing to change this behavior and take a hard line against teachers who abuse their students, they will struggle to create a safe place for their students. Ultimately, it may be the biggest challenge and the biggest limitation facing Buddhism in the west.

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