Friday, April 23, 2010

a necessary lie?

On the radio yesterday, a former Benedictine monk who quit and now acts as an advocate in the sex abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic church, gave a very informative look at the ways in which the church covered the tracks of its offending priests.

I can't find the NPR interview to cite the man's name or his interview, but the thing that interested me was his statement that although the Catholic church and its minions espouse a non-sexual position, the church itself is thoroughly sexual in its people and particulars. In essence he said, everybody's doin' it, doin' it, doin' it ... and the church has no mechanism for facing its own sexual proclivities. He wasn't rowdy or outraged in his assertions. It was as if he were casually pointing out that the sky was blue.

The lie is too big to undo. If canon law says, "don't screw around" and everyone in fact is screwing around ... well, that would imply a necessity for changing the law ... or being content to live as a hypocrite.

How many other things are there in life where the enormity of the problem overwhelms the capacity for any real solution ... and so the lie is left alone in favor of a patchwork quilt of non-answers? Banks were "too big to fail" comes to mind. Going to the heart of the problem would be a massive undertaking, one going all the way back to the beginning of the banking business or the Catholic church.

Banks, of course, don't lay claim to any but the most thinly-veiled virtues. But the Catholic church -- like Toyota -- needs a credulous customer base and virtue is one of its very serious sales mechanisms.

Oh well ... back to the emperor and his outstanding clothes. As with all outrageous and egregious errors, the only message worth learning is ... don't you do that!


  1. Have you read Shoe Outside the Door or Zen Master Who? Either of those books may leave one with the impression that not a small number of Zen teachers are sexual predators and/or alcoholics. Perhaps we should revamp the precepts because the teachers cannot live up to them?

    Can’t say that my experience of Zen teachers in the last ten years has done much to dissuade me from having a jaundiced view of zen centers in the states.

    Your post strikes me as a pot and kettle situation…..splinter in your brother’s eye and all that. Don’t get me wrong, 2,000 years of fucking it up is certainly something to focus on. I simply wonder if something on Buddhism would be a bit more uncomfortable (and close to home)?

  2. Chris -- I agree with you completely ... sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander. I didn't mean to portray Buddhism as free from sexual exploitation -- and therefore could issue some uppity nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah! -- but rather was simply interested in the Catholic version of a rock and a hard place.

    I do think the discomfort either Buddhism or Catholicism might feel when the microscope was pointed in their direction would be differently framed. Don't get me wrong -- hypocrisy is hypocrisy, and upsetting the Sangha is a distinct no-no in Buddhism -- but I do think that sexuality as an error would be argued somewhat differently. Buddhism has no Vatican and no canons that demand to be obeyed. It does have Vinaya strictures ... but no central authority promising to hit anyone on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper if they transgress.

    All of this and more like it may be splitting hairs when it comes to the sadness and confusion that arises from such situations in any arena.

    Here are a couple of links posted to this blog that address sexual exploitation in the Zen Buddhist arena: and The 29 comments on the latter suggest that Buddhists are not entirely blind to the possibilities ... which still doesn't change the sorrow and uncertainty.

    Anyway, if I gave the impression that I was pointing out the faults of others from an elevated vantage point, I am sorry. I was simply interested in the Catholic dilemma during that particular bit of writing.

  3. "Buddhism has no Vatican and no canons that demand to be obeyed. It does have Vinaya strictures ... but no central authority promising to hit anyone on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper if they transgress."

    Isn't this part of the problem? Lots of rouge teachers doing whatever they want because they are enlightened? Perhaps some of the later victims of these teachers could have been spared?

    I read your previous posts, they weren't nearly as far ranging as your comments and prescriptions on Catholicism. I wonder if you have any observations about how Zen could clean up its act?

  4. Chris -- You have a point, but I think all swords have two edges. With a Vatican, there are demonstrable fuck-ups. Without a Vatican, there are demonstrable fuck-ups. A central authority with its rules and regs can point the way and define the scene in very consoling and sometimes fruitful ways. But in the matter of so-called religion or spiritual life, it seems to me fair to say we are talking centrally about what is limitless or ineffable or some similar word.

    Could Zen clean up its act? I doubt it. As someone once observed approximately, there is no solution for which a problem cannot be found. Some Zen centers have adopted codes of conduct -- ethical laundry lists that address the difficulties that have arisen. Some simply tough it out. But through it all, we're talking about human beings and their good or bad will as regards the limitless/limited. When it's time to say "yes," say "yes." When it's time to say "no," say "no."

    I have a hard time comparing Catholicism and Buddhism. Partly because I do not know enough about Christianity and partly I know enough. That 'enough' (whether it is or isn't enough) consists in the understanding that Christianity encourages belief in what its churches are the intermediary for. Buddhism has no intermediaries although it does have suggestions.

    Does Buddhism need to clean up its act? Sure, just as any other human activity might. I wish I had the answer and I am certainly saddened by the questions. But I am grateful not to be a part of any institution that asserts its ultimate correctness and authenticity.

  5. Your comments are a bit disheartening. As a younger person interested in Zen (we ain't many) this cynical there is nothing to do about sexual predators is perplexing. Certainly people are people. Skeptics of religion who point out the hypocritical nature of religious institutions are naive. Any institution made up of people is going to have fuck ups and missteps. Even scientists, gasp!!!! So on one level, I agree there isn't much to do. But in this post you are ready and willing to 'fix' Catholicism's problems but a shrug of the shoulders response to the same problems in Zen?

    "That 'enough' (whether it is or isn't enough) consists in the understanding that Christianity encourages belief in what its churches are the intermediary for. Buddhism has no intermediaries although it does have suggestions."

    This strikes me as splitting hairs. One teacher I worked with said that practicing zen without a teacher is like practicing psychotherapy without a therapist. The dana bowl still gets passed around just like the collection plate and someone has a financial stake in your participation and reliance on them.

    "But I am grateful not to be a part of any institution that asserts its ultimate correctness and authenticity." The Buddhist teachers I've worked with are pretty sure they're right but they are willing to let you practice long enough to agree with in that regard your triumphalist statement is correct.

  6. Chris -- I'm not sure what you want me to say. I lived through three sex scandals at a particular Zen center I attended. I know what it is to work uphill, with confusion and sorrow and wishing to comfort those more directly affected than I was. I have seen the action others took in similar circumstances at other Zen centers ... some more, some less effective.

    Was it wrong and mistaken? Yes. Was it painful? You bet. Have there been repeat instances of the same mistakes? Yes. Are there people working to try to make things better? Yes.

    I see no reason to be downhearted about the mistakes that others make. I came away from my experiences with a hip-pocket aphorism that I honestly think makes some sense: "The teacher may be a liar, but zazen is no liar." So I practice zazen as I have in the past with some pretty good teachers.

    As to the Catholics, please don't think I disdain any opinion you may have. The bottom line is -- since there is nothing I can do, I don't do much. But that doesn't mean I can't think about it or make observations.

    Thinking about these things, painful as they may be, offers the same lesson that all tomfoolery does: Don't you do that!

    I hope you will keep after your good practice, whatever it is. What an old fool like me says doesn't need to interfere with your own good wisdom.

  7. In all honesty your post struck me as irony reified. The american Zen tradition has not a small amount of lumber lodged in their own eye. I'm sure you would approach advice from Catholics on dealing with sexual predators with some skepticism. All I'm attempting to point out is that the reverse is true.

  8. Chris -- I have yet to hear of Zen folks screwing altar boys and girls or their naive equivalents, but I take your point.

    And I wouldn't try to elevate Buddhism by climbing on the back of some other religion or philosophy ... that's too much like other religions and philosophies, and just as fruitless.

    But I see not reason not to offer a point of view about the hypocrisies of either Catholicism or Buddhism ... either alone or in tandem. It's hurtful and foolish stuff, whatever the clothing.

    Anyway, I feel as if the dead horse is already dead so beating it is unnecessary. Let's just agree it might be better not to make similar mistakes.

  9. Genkaku-
    I have yet to see any kids at ANY zen centers I've been to. I'll bet a box of incense that in Japan there have been more than a small number of instances.

    "And I wouldn't try to elevate Buddhism by climbing on the back of some other religion or philosophy ..." You often take a stance that suggests otherwise.

  10. Your speculations and conclusions may well be right, Chris. I don't mind.

    And I have been known in the past to speak of roses without ever mentioning all the other flowers available in nature. I suppose this could be call remiss. Also -- perhaps a worse transgression -- I have been know to speak of two flowers in a comparative way ... a way which is entirely my responsibility and reflects my leanings and mistakes alone.

  11. Genkaku,
    Appreciate the time and effort you've put into your response. Your flower metaphor is a good one. The absurdity of comparing two flowers and always finding fault with one and beauty in the other is obvious. Perhaps our culture has a predisposition to dislike dandelions and find much fault there. In that way, your expression of your culture (liberal white progressive Northampton) is as understandable as rain. Though your dislike of dandelions may be something to explore as dandelions haven't done anything to you, at least in liberal white progressive Northampton--evangelicals and fundamentalist Christians are about as common as sweet potato pie and have become a convenient boogie man. We all need to project our shadow somewhere.

  12. I'll sign off here as I've made me point so often I'm becoming sick of it myself. Enjoy the back and forth. Don't know seems to be the only conclusion worth uttering over and over again but it is fun to tug and pull a bit. Be well.