Sunday, September 29, 2013

Is There a Problem with Buddhism?

Below is my response to Brad Warner who posed the above question in a recent blog post he published on his website, Hardcore Zen:

Thank you for clarifying your position in response to Adam Fisher.   Of course the onus for abuse lies on the teacher and not on the student.  

You say, “I don’t blame the victim” while you claim that “blind obedience” is the culprit.  But who obeys?  It still sounds like you are pointing to the student.  Moreover, in all these cases of abuse, even when itcomes to Sasaki or Shimano, nobody ever issued an “order” to which anybody ever “obeyed”.  

Brad, are you sure that the student’s (pathological) obedience to the teacher is the issue, as opposed to the teacher’s abuse of the student’s (healthy) trust?  Even your well-meaning piece of advice “Be careful out there,” while probably intended to empower students, makes it look like you think that the abuse of authority is due to students’ lacking vigilance as opposed to their not knowing what to look for.

While I appreciate that you are trying to deconstruct the “myth of the fully enlightened master”, I do not think that this will ever prevent abuse.  That is because the potential for abuse lies not in some wingy projection of perfection on the part of the student, but in the very natural power differential that occurs when one person seeks guidance from another who occupies a position of trust and authority.   There is a necessary polarization that occurs in the roles of teacher/student, just as there is a necessary polarization in the roles of doctor/patient.  In itself, this polarization is not abusive.  Still, that is where the potential for abuse lies: power can be misused.

To prevent abuse, students need to be not only aware of the normal power differential between them and their teachers, but helped to recognize the signs of its misuse.  I frequently cite Chris Hamacher’s list of behaviors to watch out for in one’s teacher (from his article Zen has No Morals): 

- becoming angry and/or defensive when confronted with criticism
- having a penchant for formality or extravagance
- blaming the student's own ego to deflect personal criticism
- not practicing what he preaches (is a hypocrite)
- manipulating the group to adopt an us/them attitude
- controlling the flow of information to students, with teachings emphasizing self-published works
- considering himself special or exceptional, the rules do not apply to him 
- adopting a non-democratic method of institutional control (at the level of the board and overall organization of the institution) 

Finally, I think that what is missing from Buddhist organizations is an ongoing review of power structures and relationships within the organizations where everyone, not just teachers and other leaders, is invited to openly discuss their experiences and criticisms before situations get out of hand.

Everyone is discussing Shimano and Sasaki now, mostly due to the efforts of Kobutsu Malone to document their misdeeds, but there are hundreds of situations where people are being harmed in relationships to their teachers.  It always seems like, until gross abuse can be proved, the benefit of doubt is always given to the teacher.  That is another form of blindness enabling the teacher and it does not necessarily come from the abused student.