Lessons from Zen teachers of the past Barry Magid April 17th 2010

I was recently sent a selection of letters from Aitken Roshi's archive that were just recently released to the public that I sent around on our listserve so you have a chance to read it as well. These letters date back to the early sixties when Aitken Roshi was first establishing the Diamond Sangha in Honolulu under the auspices of Yasutani Roshi, who sent him as an assistant his and Soen Roshi's young protégé, Eido Shimano, who was being groomed to be the Dharma heir of Soen Roshi. And Aitken's letters reveal the turmoil that this beginning sangha was thrown into by the repeated predatory sexual behavior of Eido Shimano and also by Aitken's repeated futile attempts to get Yasutani or Soen to acknowledge the problem or do anything about it.

Now many people when they read this material are inclined to say that this is very old news, and there's really nothing to say or do about it now. This is something that happened 40 years ago. But I think there are very important lessons to learn from this history.

And I think that it is not irrelevant that what are the first Zen Buddhist sanghas to be established in the West suffered from these problems. You can say we were warned. Maybe the other way that we could have been even better warned was if somebody had unearthed a 2500-year-old stupa, in India… a big life-sized depiction of Shakyamuni sodomizing Ananda, with an inscription in Pali saying if you give away your power you will get fucked. It's a lesson that we have a lot of trouble learning but seems to return re-presented to us, over and over in each generation.

There's a lot we need to see about these kinds of situations. First in terms of power relationships, that's unquestionably a big part of it. But also in terms of our own notions of what we think practice is, what we think we're gonna get out of it, what we think enlightenment is, and how we imagine that transforms people. All these questions.

Sometimes when there are cases of a monk or teacher behaving badly, we hear it said, "Well, they were not really, thoroughly enlightened. If they were really enlightened they couldn't do any of that. I suppose at some level that's true, but I think what we also have to realize is that in this particular case, Yasutani Roshi and Soen Roshi are probably considered two of the greatest masters of the 20th Century. They put great store on kensho experiences. I don't know that anyone could be a greater authority on genuineness or depth of kensho experiences than these teachers.

So that they must have seen and recognized something that they believed was genuine in this young monk, Eido Shimano. I don't think you can say that his experience wasn't the real thing. These guys knew the real thing. They were it.

So it has to make us think something about what these experiences do and don't do. And I think we need to take this very pragmatically and scientifically as evidence about what happens in practice and what doesn't happen. To me, one of the things we learn is that even very deep genuine experiences of realization can be very dissociated from ongoing characterological problems. That we would like to imagine that these deep experiences, if repeated over and over again, will somehow wash away or dissolve deep-seated attachment and ego and so forth. But the fact of the matter is this can go on for decades and simply foster a bigger and bigger split in a personality. And that's just the fact of the matter. You can wish it wasn't so, but there are just too many cases out there. And if you want to hold onto the idea that that's not true of the real thing, the real Buddha, the real master, well fine. But it doesn't do much good if that's something that happens only once in a million cases. What we have to deal with in all the rest.

Often we quote the third patriarch, saying, "Great Way is not difficult. Just avoid picking and choosing." And we often reduce that to something rather bland and trivial, as if it were a matter of saying, "Oh I'll eat whatever I'm served on my plate. I'll eat those lima beans even though I'd rather have asparagus.. But that's not the level of picking and choosing that we're really confronted with. It means that we're told that we have to take packages whole. We can't pick and choose the parts we like and the parts we don't like. It's more like saying, "How do you like Christianity. It's really good but if you want it you're gonna have to take a lot of abusive priests and the Inquisition. Do you want the whole package or not?"

And there's something about our Zen practice that is gonna be like that. It says, just at a very ordinary level: Do you want to practice? Well it's gonna hurt. There's gonna be pain. There's gonna be restlessness, there's gonna be doubt. It's gonna be very long, hard and difficult. It may do wonderful transformative things and it may put you at risk of having to deal with some pretty unsavory characters. Do you want to take the whole package or not?

If any of you are beginning students, this is your chance to get up and leave. Get out while the gettin's good. All these things that we do need to come with clear warning labels. It's not that when we take the whole package we say well, I guess I just have to put up with abusive teachers if I want to get enlightened. That's not the idea at all. We'd better realize that we're gonna have to face the deal with these difficulties along the way.

Our own minds should come with this warning label that says: This organism is subject to unreflective idealization and transcendental fantasy. Beware.

So much of what happens in practice that makes people liable to abuse is this fantasy which I call the myth of the perfect master. The fantasy that out there there is someone who has transcended all of the problems, attachments, delusions, desires, suffering that have played in our lives. And that we have transcendent fantasies of our own, curative fantasies. That one way or another this practice is going to turn us into something more than human. But there's an old saying that those who try to become more than human end up as monsters. I think it's very important that we learn the lessons of history, not to debunk this practice, or disparage people who have difficulty and have lapses along the way. It's not a matter of condemning the black sheep and thinking well now we've gotten rid of that bad apple, now everything's gonna be fine.

It's like Pogo said, "We've met the enemy and he is us." We have to acknowledge in ourselves the desires for transcendence, the out-of-control idealizations that put us at risk. This practice can give us a wonderful appreciation of our life just as it is. But that life is difficult, complicated. If we're going to appreciate it we're going to have to be honest and realistic about what life is and who we are and what we think practice does and who we think our teachers are.

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