I call myself a Zen Buddhist because Zen is the tradition that I find closest to my actual beliefs, and I practice zazen on an almost-daily basis, so, like all American Buddhists, I was troubled by the recent spate of sex scandals in Zen communities.
For those of you who don’t follow Zen—or sex scandals—the short version is this: A whole series of highly respected (and highly married) Zen masters had multiple sexual relationships with female students. In some cases, the teacher used the ritual of sanzen—the private meeting between teacher and student that is a much-honored practice in Zen circles—to coerce students into sex.
Of course, scandals involving spiritual leaders are nothing new. From the cheating of yoga trailblazer John Friend to the financial swindles of televangelists like Creflo Dollar and Kenneth Copeland, to the con artistry of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love guru, a disturbing picture emerges. Not that all (or even a lot) of clergy are lechers and liars, but that there seems to be something broken in the way the clergy are viewed.
What bothers me about most of these scandals (I’m not talking about ones involving children—a whole other thing entirely) is that they stem at least in part from the notion that the cleric has a special relationship with the Sacred. Whether he is a priest who can absolve sins or a monk who has achieved Buddhahood, his spirituality is seen as far above everyone else’s. It is not a great step from that level of reverence to the belief that you can trust the cleric with everything—your money, your body, your soul.
The minute people start thinking a guru, priest, minister, or master is spiritually unique, something goes wrong with their own spiritual life. Elizabeth Gilbert’s starry-eyed description of the first time she heard her guru speak suggests this kind of devotion: “Her words gave me chill bumps over my whole body, even across the skin of my face,” she writes. “ . . . And when I heard she had an Ashram in india, I knew I must take myself there as quickly as possible.” I saw this devotion in my aunt who, dying of breast cancer and living in poverty, would scrape together a few dollar bills whenever she could and send them in an envelope to a wealthy TV preacher in hopes of a cure or salvation. And it was the same with the women who fell victim to unscrupulous or predatory Zen masters: They had so much faith in their teachers, that when they were told sex was a path to enlightenment, they neither questioned nor challenged it.
During my three years in India in the 70’s and 80’s, I met scores of people searching for gurus to devote their lives to. They were often hurt in some way, and vulnerable. I was hurt and vulnerable, too, but I felt myself naturally averse to the very idea of a guru. I studied many spiritual practices, read widely, and talked to everyone I could, but I had no intention of devoting myself to a person, no matter how charismatic or convincing. The whole notion seemed contrary to the very point of a spiritual life, and to this day, I find unquestioning reverence for clergy of any tradition to be absurd and dangerous.
This isn’t to say spiritual leaders aren’t important. What I’ve learned from wonderful teachers of Zen and other traditions, through classes, writings, talks, and face-to-face discussion, has been immensely helpful, even transformative. We need people to lead spiritual communities, transmit knowledge, and offer advice and support on our journeys. But none of my teachers have ever pretended to have some special key to the Universe. None of them called themselves “masters” or demanded devotion. None of them acted as if they had God’s private number.
Causes Jill Jepson Supports
Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, Interational Society for the Protection of Burros and Mustangs, National Wildlife Federation,...