Zen and the Art of the Sex Scandal

It will take decades before anyone can truly see how Buddhism will take hold in the West. Meanwhile, the evolution is interesting. October of last year saw women ordained as Theravada nuns (bhikkhunis) in Perth, Australia, for the first time in that lineage since the 13th century. (What took them so long?) Ramifications of the ensuing controversy will continue to ripple; that is, the ultimate significance resonates beyond themes of gender alone, embracing social, cultural, and political issues, as well. In a nutshell, it’s a reflection of how adoption by contemporary society is continuing and renewing the message of the Buddha.

2011 began with a news item of similar impact. Twenty Zen teachers in the West sent open letters to The Zen Studies Society in New York. With compassion and understanding, their general thrust is to ask that the Society’s former head, Eido Tai Shimano, not be allowed access to students—a strong penalty for a teacher.

Once You Mention Sex, Everything Becomes Sex

Like they say, it’s a long story. Here’s a quick backgrounder. The Zen Studies Society was established in 1956 to support D. T. Suzuki, one of the first Buddhist scholars to teach in the West. Ten years later, Zen monk Eido Shimano took charge and changed emphasis there from theory to practice. Two Zen temples resulted, one in Manhattan and one in the Catksill Mountains. Last year, he retired from the Board, then soon thereafter from the head monk (Abbot) position. In the process, he acknowledged his sexual misconduct there. That it had gone on for some time, and was not a complete secret, leaves certain questions in the air. For instance, who knew of his conduct, within and outside of the Zen Studies Society, what did they know, when did they know it, and what did they do about it? One might also wonder why there haven’t been any lawsuits, as within the Catholic Church of late. Was he influenced, perhaps, by the behavior of the 15th century eccentric Rinzai figure Ikkyu, who entered brothels wearing his robes of a Zen priest?

The Zen Studies Society declined to offer a statement, but has made it known they’ve brought in outside help. Much of the story is being documented at a self-appointed, online “Shimano Archive” to a degree of granularity of detail that is, in and of itself, rather remarkable. The situation, on the face of it, provides a point of departure for contemplation. In it, we can see aspects of ourselves, and Buddhism relation to other traditions; as well as key dynamic elements within Buddhism.

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, another seminal founder of Zen in the West, once said, “Once you mention sex, everything becomes sex.” Indeed, to a hammer everything looks like a nail. And the powerful hold sex has over humanity makes hammers (and nails) of us all. Just glance at how often mainstream media manipulates sexual power to compel and coerce—like they say, “sex sells.” Now, look deeper: see our ancestors recognizing and grappling with such fundamental reality.

If the Bible is, indeed, open to interpretation, one camp of such literary critics (from St. Augustine to Rabbi Lawrence Kushner to William Irwin Thompson) see carnal knowledge as the culprit in the Garden. When God confronts Adam and Eve, they look at themselves, behold they’re naked, and feel ashamed. Ashamed at what? Why? And as they then hide their sexual organs, so to each of us is hidden any direct experience our origin, unlike every other event throughout our lives. Buddhism, on the other hand, is not so worked up over where we come from, or even if there ever was a first cause. Rather, of primary importance is needless suffering, its nature, and how understanding can lead to transformation and liberation. In that light, events surrounding Shimano Eido’s improprieties bring to mind three things come to mind for general consideration: the unique politic of Buddhist ethics; the ever-present potential within suffering for healing and transformation; and the situation’s potential to transform the nature of institutional Buddhism.

Buddhist Ethics, Buddhist Politics

In the spring of 2010, I wrote elsewhere on the perennial attention to ethics in Buddhism. One point I didn’t cover there was what might be termed the politics. Though such fundamentals as reverence for life, respect for property, sobriety, etc. all seem identical to Western codes of conduct, they arise differently in Buddhism. The Decalogue was revealed by divine commandment. In Buddhism, there’s no creator deity. Nor is there any central Buddhist institution, such as a Vatican. Rather, in establishing one of humanity’s first monastic orders, the Buddha set forth a matrix and process of conscious behavior (vinaya) based on actual conduct. As such, it’s thus not top-down but, rather, bottom-up. Different cultures put their own spin on the teachings (Dharma). Some schools have five central precepts; others, ten. But, however you divide the ethical pie, sexuality is always a primary ingredient to be aware of in our behavior.

Humanity has known rituals for a confession and renewal since ancient tribal times. In the time of the Buddha, the Sangha would, every full moon, gather for healing personal shortcomings (“beneficial regrets”), and to address and rectify disharmony in the community. As Vietnamese Zen Master Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh notes, “To begin anew is to look deeply and honestly at ourselves, our past actions, speech, and thoughts—and to create a fresh beginning within ourselves and in our relationships with others.” The latter phrase isn’t to be skipped over. Practicing with and as a group, alone with others, atonement (at-one-ment) implies interaction between the individual and the collective. There are also processes for reconciliation in Buddhism where all parties agree to be present together to enact a peace treaty.

Deep wounds can take many years to heal, but just one ray of light in a room that’s been dark for a many years can dispel many years of darkness. The Zen Studies Society’s treatment of the situation can effect change not only within their community, but the community at large; which is to say, all beings.