” . . . [S]erious Zen students make their best effort to be mindful of the trap of self-orientation, guided instead by a world view that puts emphasis on the well-being of others, rather than on themselves. They aspire to live authentically, according to their true nature and to Buddhist teaching, which emphasizes a high moral standard in the conduct of daily affairs . . . ”
– Les Keido Kaye, Roshi
On September 19th of last year, I posted a blog comment about a then-breaking Zen news story concerning decades-long sexual and financial misconduct on the part of the abbot of a prominent Zen training temple on the east coast. That story is ongoing. The teacher in question has never really acknowledged or atoned for his deplorable betrayals of his students’ trust. In fact, in at least a significant portion of his life, he has consistently conducted himself in a way that is exactly 180 degrees opposite from what we as Buddhist priests vow. Clearly, the man is in need of professional help, and it’s already too late to prevent the irreparable harm his actions have caused to many of his sangha members. And — by failing to recognize and name the pattern, confront the teacher, and protect the community from exploitation — many of the senior students surrounding this teacher have come to be seen as somehow complicit in the teacher’s sociopathic behavior. The ripple effects of both the teacher’s gross abuses of power and the senior sangha’s failure to respond effectively and in a timely way will continue to be felt — both in the directly affected sangha and in the greater American Zen community — for probably decades.
Now, this week, news is emerging about yet another prominent Zen teacher’s long-time sexual misconduct, and the efforts now being made by his sangha to limit the damage going forward.
Both of these cases raise questions about the teacher-student relationship, about how to assess the behavior of allegedly enlightened individuals and their methods, about how much accountability senior students have for their teachers’ actions. Even about the level of legal, civil liability a board of directors has for the conduct of its nonprofit organization director. There are so many variables and grey areas — so many cultural aspects, personalities and subjective view points — that it can seem almost impossible to generalize about such situations. And all the many first-order questions are only further complicated by our Buddhist recognition of dependent arising, and by our right-speech reluctance to speak publicly about matters in which we are not directly involved.
But one thing is clear: Both the current generation of well-established Zen teachers and we novice, next-generation Zen priests and teachers have a lot of work ahead of us. To begin with, we need to initiate a formal, consensus-building dialogue that will lead to our establishing more concrete professional standards of behavior and “best practices” for American Zen teachers and practice centers. And then I believe we should devise easily-understood behavioral criteria that sanghas both large and small can use to measure their own communities’ and teachers’ religious health and well-being. These two sets of skillful means deliverables seem like pretty obvious first steps in what should be an ongoing, comprehensive process of macro-level reflection and professional self-development.