Open Buddha

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Sexual Controversies and Zen Buddhism


By Al Jigong Billings

Controversies around sex and Buddhism, mostly focusing on Buddhist teachers, are not new. There are a number of infamous cases within the Vajrayana community, such as those of Chogyam Trungpa and his successor, whose sexual hijinks are rather infamous at this point. There is also the famous case of Richard Baker and the San Francisco Zen Center, which came to crisis point in 1983 and left him ousted out of the Zen center that he founded.

I received the following e-mail from the H-Buddhism list today (a list for academic study of Buddhism), concerning a previously unknown controversy in the Zen community that revolves around a current living teacher:

I would like to announce a new paper "The Aitken-Shimano Letters" jointly written by Vladimir K., owner of the Zensite and myself, Stuart Lachs. The paper can be accessed at: http://www.thezensite.com/ZenEssays/CriticalZen/Aitken_Shimano_Letters.html This paper looks at a controversial aspect of Zen in America beginning in 1960 and continuing up to the present. The paper is based on what was until recently, the sealed section of the voluminous Robert Aitken Roshi collection of papers and letters at the University of Hawaii at Manoa library. It refers to letters between Robert Aitken Roshi and Eido Shimano Roshi as well as between Aitken and his teachers Soen Nakagawa, Yasutani, and Yamada Roshis as well as letters to and from the wider American Zen community. The letters give an insight into the development of American Zen not usually available to the public. Stuart Lachs Oslo and New York

These letters, which are authenticated as being from the actual parties, accuse Eido Tai Shimano Roshi of sexual improprieties, of which a number of Zen teachers became aware at least by the mid-1990's. This alleged misbehavior had apparently been going on since the 1960's. Aitken Roshi and a number of other prominent Zen teachers asked for him asked Eido Tai Shimano Roshi to resign in the face of a pattern of misbehavior. To this day, he has still not done so and is considered a prominent and well-known Zen teacher.

You can read the entire essay on the matter at the above site and I encourage people to do so. I don't do so out of some interest in tawdry gossip but because this has been a reoccurring pattern within the Buddhist community (not to mention Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and others at various points). My own school requires members in seminary to read "Shoes Outside the Door," which documents the controversy at the San Francisco Zen Center with Richard Baker in order to make sure that those of us who becomes priests are well aware of the kinds of thing that have happened and to help prevent such misbehavior in the future. As the Catholic church has realized, sexual abuse or misbehavior needs to be confronted, not simply ignored and allowed to fester in the background, damaging the lives of people and the ability of us to transmit the Dharma.

We can do better than to allow this sort of thing to pass.