Zen Sex Scandal Goes Mainstream
By Al Tesshin Billings
There have been ongoing rumbles about this scandal going round the blogosphere and tweetverse since this time. In mid-June, the board of the Zen Studies Society met and decided to produce ethical guidelines for their organization that included both sexual conduct and also a somewhat weak acknowledgment of past improprieties by Shimano Roshi. People were somewhat mollified but I know quite a few felt like it was still kind of sweeping it under the zabuton (or is “sweeping under the tatami” a better metaphor?). I’d heard that things had heated up after this but had not been paying much attention to it during the last two months because, really, what do I have to say about the conduct of a Zen master that I don’t know in an organization that I have no connection with when so many others have said so much?
Well, the issue has hit the mainstream press now. There was a New York Times piece on it this last Friday, August 20. It turns out that part of why the issue heated up again is that it turned out that (surprise!) the misconduct was not all well in the past but still ongoing. From the piece:
"In interviews over the past two weeks, four board members, including Mr. Marinello, said that on June 21 a woman — whose name he would not reveal — stood up during dinner at the Catskills monastery and announced that for the past two years she had had a consensual affair with Mr. Shimano, who was at the dinner. Several board members have said that Mr. Shimano later admitted the affair in conversations with them. On Wednesday, the society issued a statement acknowledging that 'in June of this year, a woman revealed that there was an inappropriate relationship between herself and Eido Roshi.'"
To quote Homer Simpson, "Doh!"
You know, if I was the focus of ongoing discussion about my role as a teacher and my sexual behavior, discussion going on not just for years, but for decades, I might try to find a way to avoid even the appearance of impropriety that comes with even a consensual sexual relationship with one of my students. I understand that things can be quite complex between adults, believe me, but good sense and knowledge of one’s role to others (not to mention power dynamics between teachers and students) just makes this kind of thing a bad idea even if one is not already underneath a cloud and being gossiped about by others. The fact that we are now reading this in the New York Times does actually damage the standing of the Dharma in the eyes of the public, doing it a great disservice. The solution, of course, is not to hush things up (as some might do) but to not engage in this behavior as a teacher!
I do not know Shimano Roshi. I have no real desire to know him. I also have no real ability to judge him as a human being, not knowing him, his situation, or his relationships. I do have a responsibility as a Zen priest to the Dharma though. I have enough problems keeping my own conduct in adherence with the Dharma and my precepts for both my own benefit as well as that of others, without seeing people engaging in out and out egregious behavior. That is what prompts me to say, in no unclear terms, that Shimano Roshi’s behavior, at least when it comes to his relationships with women, is in no way acceptable or within the bounds of the behavior of a Zen teacher (nor probably anyone else, come to think of it, given his position of authority). The fact that tens or hundreds of thousands of people who know little about the Dharma or Zen are now reading about it in the newspaper just makes the damage all the more severe. This is going to be a longterm scandal, just like that of Baker Roshi and the San Francisco Zen Center, that we will hear about for decades to come. Given our inability to police our own teachers and community, it is probably well deserved in a way.