Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Birds Do It, the Bees Do It

Even Buddhist roshis do it.

Since the 1960s, Eido Shimano Roshi has been the chief teacher of the Zen Studies Society, which is based in NYC but owns a honking load of property in the Catskills. There were always rumors of sexual impropriety on Shimano's part (read: schtupping the students), which were finally confirmed when the papers of another roshi, the late Robert Aitken, were opened. Aitken had interviewed many of the schtupees, and saw a consistent pattern of sexual misconduct.

(They sometimes call Shimano the abbot, a monastic title with Christian origins which may be a little misleading, since the Buddhist vows and hierarchy are a bit different, but does serve to sharpen the point.)

The Times has a story, linked above. It isn't especially deep or thorough, but it does touch on a key issue, which is that both the rules for Buddhist clergy in the US and the means of enforcement are murky at best. It also touches on the difficulty of adjusting a religious tradition from one cultural environment to another:

Clark Strand, who led Mr. Shimano’s Upper East Side zendo from 1988 to 1990, said that on American soil, Asian Buddhism’s sexual ethics, in particular, had to change.

“What you see in America is a lot of Asian Buddhist teachers coming into contact for the first time with spiritual communities that include women,” Mr. Strand said. “And they weren’t necessarily prepared for that.”

“To be blunt about it, a Japanese Zen monk could go over the wall and visit a prostitute and a blind eye could be turned to that.” In America, he added, “it wasn’t as easy to turn a blind eye to going over the wall in his own monastery.”

A statement like this is easy to make fun of: "Ah, I see -- breaking a monastic vow is okay as long as the monk pays somebody for the privilege." But the truth is that, whether we like it or not, many religious communities have difficulty adjusting to a new social environment. And why not? Passing on a tradition is almost by definition going to be at odds with adapting to change.

Consider the scandals within Roman Catholicism. It seems to us that they can, at least in part, be ascribed to the same process -- the poor adaptation of a religious tradition to a changing society. Neither Buddhism nor Christianity considers moral rigorism the goal of its spiritual practice, so much as the external structure of the practice. Therefore, there are longstanding means of excusing moral lapses -- from the formality of confession and absolution to the more casual "turning a blind eye." And all of it depends upon a certain level of secrecy. Simply put, the more you talk about this stuff, the less room you leave for pastoral discretion. So, at least from the fifth or sixth century forward among Christians, the custom has been to keep it all confidential. (Protestants go even further, often reducing the conversation to one between the penitent and God, leaving the pastor out of it.)

So what to do in the modern West, which has created a novel environment of public scrutiny, not to mention skepticism about authority? The world of Wikileaks and surveillance cameras has an explicit bias against customs of secrecy or even privacy, especially among public figures. How else would we know that Strom Thurmond and Al Sharpton were cousins?

Perversely, one result of the new environment is the creation of a new moral rigorism, often enforced by people with no particular commitment to any moral code. A newspaper reporter does not necessarily pursue a gay pastor or drunken roshi because of any a priori objection to homosexuality or drunkenness, conditions at which he may smile among his own social set. He may raise a row about "hypocrisy," which is fair enough, but in fact the reporter follows the story because it will sell newspapers. The process of public revelation is almost mechanical, determined as much by economics as by ethics.

(Obviously, Aitken's private report is an exception, as are the calls for reform by expressly Catholic groups.)

Religious leaders called to adjudicate (bishops, or the board of the Zen Studies Center) are often torn between their own laxist customs -- "Well, we'd better find Bob a new parish" -- and the rigorist demands of the new environment -- "We'd better defrock this guy before the lawsuits come in." It seems to them that they are being denied the prerogatives of discretion and compassion, while it often seems to outsiders that they are simply twiddling their thumbs. At their very worst, the various bishops and other people in authority begin to turn paranoid, muttering darkly about conspiracies against their church or other community. The moment they do so, they demonstrate their failure to understand the new environment.

We offer no solution here. We most certainly do not want to take sides with Shimano roshi, nor with the Romish bishops, who have been grossly derelict by any standard but their own. But we do think that the public narrative of "religious leader with a dirty secret" has grown stale with repetition. A more interesting and fruitful story, to be told either by the press or by academic researchers, might be "old traditions meet new world."


Pastor Joelle said...

You've really got right to the heart of the reason behind why we are in a such a seeminging moraless culture that is so willing to crucify certain people for certain moral lapses.

Father Anonymous said...

Thank you. I was just proud of myself for coining the word "schtupee."

Father Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark C. Christianson said...

Thanks for the interesting post. I rather like your description of the disturbing and problematic cultural situation. There is also here a cultural drive to make people pay for behaving badly (all too often that's literal, as in pursuit of large monetary pay outs). It strikes me to be lashing out and tearing down for it's own sake, and often as simply seeking to be vindictive. There ends up to be a grotesque level of perversity here, and the issues of legal liability play no small part in creating and sustaining it.

That perverse system ends up destroying any idea of reconciliation, which is (or is supposed to be) at the heart of the gospel, yet our churches are caught up in that perversity. Everything gets caught up in this (false) moralism while a very real manifestation of our bondage to sin gets continued and even aided by not only the world but the church as well. Perhaps we really can't escape it in this life, but it would be an improvement to at least recognize it and shine our theological tradition onto it.