Sex, lies and the dharma

Jun 26, 2002 at 12:00 am

It’s a place of meditation and devotion, a source of solace and inner peace, a refuge where we seek a sense of continuity with life. Call it a church, temple or center, we go there to worship or practice in confidence and trust ... or do we?

Though Catholics have been the latest to question their shepherds — wondering why so many priests seem intent on bringing them down instead of helping them to a higher plane — scandal is no stranger to the American spiritual scene. Just last summer, a book was published that examined in uncomfortable detail the controversies that rocked one of the principal fountainheads of Zen Buddhism in this country: Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center (Counterpoint, $26, 385 pp.) focused on the trials and troubles at San Francisco Zen Center after the death in 1971 of its founder, Japanese Soto Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki-roshi, and the subsequent direction it took under Richard Baker-roshi, Suzuki’s hand-picked successor.

Written by Michael Downing, a novelist with little or no Zen experience, the book was both hailed and damned by Buddhists of all persuasions for its thorough airing of the Zen Center’s dirty laundry. During three years of research and preparation, Downing interviewed more than 80 Zen Center veterans, then managed to couch his narrative in eminently readable, often poetic prose. Shoes is evidence of Downing’s having achieved a fairly clear notion of Zen’s ideals and means, while nevertheless taking an investigative approach to his subject.

During Baker-roshi’s tenure, San Francisco Zen Center, the most highly visible of all American Zen institutions, bought ever more real estate, transformed ever more Bay Area buildings into meditation halls, living quarters and administrative facilities, and launched into such complex business ventures as Greens Restaurant, the Tassajara Bread Bakery and the Greengrocer. But Baker’s dazzling entrepreneurial abilities and high-level schmoozing with the likes of then-Gov. Jerry Brown were matched by his outlandish spending sprees on imported statuary from Japan, exquisite building materials for his numerous apartments, cross-country corporate meetings and a sleek BMW. This while students were taking vows of humility and simplicity, living in cramped quarters and working for slave wages (under the idea of work-practice) in the Center’s businesses.

But the most damning accusations involved Baker’s numerous sexual adventures with women disciples, his continuing denials of same and (in a defense echoing the notion of papal infallibility) his resistance to being held accountable for any of his actions.

“In San Francisco, people had dealt with sex,” says one former student. “But to this day, [Baker] says things didn’t happen that did happen. One example is the number of different times he has said he didn’t have sex with people with whom he did.”

Baker left Zen Center in 1983, but Downing reports that the problem was hardly limited to that particular situation:

“In 1985, Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist Jack Kornfeld published the results of his interviews with Eastern (principally Buddhist and Hindu) spiritual leaders in Yoga Journal. Of the 54 teachers and gurus Kornfeld interviewed, 34 told him they had been sexually involved with students.”

Throughout its history, Buddhism has been handed down by means of a web of lineages — traditions of face-to-face transmission of the dharma (or the wisdom of Buddha’s teachings) from master to disciple. During 25 centuries the teaching spread to each of the countries of Asia, from India to China and Japan, to Vietnam, Tibet and Korea. Buddhist practice varied, often considerably, from one country or lineage to another, but an emphasis on compassion and mindfulness — above all, on doing no harm — continues to be shared by all adherents.

As the paperback edition of Shoes Outside the Door is readied for September release, and as both the Vatican and American Catholic bishops try to limit the damage to their church’s credibility, I wanted to know what Detroit-area Buddhist teachers thought about these sensitive issues. What happens when the old cliché about “make me one with everything” smacks up hard against the reality of a spiritual teacher’s transgressions in the realm of the flesh?

P’arang Geri Larkin, guiding teacher at Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple in Detroit, was trained in the Korean Zen tradition. The author of such books as Stumbling Toward Enlightenment, First You Shave Your Head and Tap Dancing in Zen, she takes an openly feminist, contemporary approach to her practice.


Metro Times: You’ve read Downing’s book. What do you make of the way Baker acted? Aren’t there rules or safeguards in spiritual practice?

P’arang Geri Larkin: At one level, flat out, was what he did ethical? I think it’s pretty clear that Baker crossed that boundary quite a bit. Then at another level, there’s this whole issue of how angry were people because of style, because of the way he was? Then there’s a way to get back at this guy who’s made you so angry.

But there have to be student-teacher principles. There has to be a code of ethics around that relationship — I don’t care what tradition it is. We’ve got one posted [at Still Point]. It’s basically the Precepts: no sexual relationships between students and teachers, no abuse of alcohol or drugs so your mind is confused, no lying, no taking what isn’t given to you (and that starts with physical stuff — that’s where it would be the easiest). One of the things every religious institution needs is a code of ethics that’s posted that anybody can have. When we started Still Point, I had them out so people could take them home.

The other thing that’s a protection is a good board of directors. When I think of the Catholic priests ... one of the things my mother said to me was, “You know, honey, if there had been a couple of grandmothers on those church boards, this wouldn’t have happened.” I thought, “You know, she’s right, at least in my experience.”


Metro Times: It seems that Zen has been changed a lot by coming to America.

Larkin: It’s a transformation from East to West and from male to female. I think that men and women come from different planets on a lot of levels. I think that’s a great thing, but it also makes it really hard when you’re in the deepest intimate relationship with somebody trying to wake up spiritually.


Metro Times: But don’t students relinquish control over themselves to some extent when they decide to practice Buddhism?

Larkin: I don’t think a student needs to “give up” anything. I actually feel strongly that when you hear of students having problems with teachers, the reason is because they’ve stopped trusting themselves. I know when someone’s coming on to me sexually — I don’t care who it is. I know when somebody’s being abusive. So with my teacher, I knew when he was yelling at me and it was dharma … and I knew when it was just some old guy being furious about something. When we hand that over to somebody and say, “Well, I don’t know,” that’s when problems happen. It’s why the Catholic Church is such a heartbreak, because children haven’t had a chance to grow up to where they can trust themselves. That’s why that’s such a deep betrayal.


Metro Times: Christianity has always sought to bring children into the faith at an early age. Does Zen sidestep the Catholic problems by simply not addressing itself to children? And aren’t its concepts and methods a bit severe for youngsters in the first place?

Larkin: We accept children into the practice in the sense of ... now more and more Zen centers have children’s services that are run by their parents by and large. But Zen is even hard for teenagers. I think it’s hard for young adults under 22 or 23. This is hard work for a young person. On the other hand, a young person doesn’t have the layers and layers of the neuroses that you get at 50 [laughs]. There’s a real trade-off.


Metro Times: So Zen is kind of an ongoing process of intuitive checks and balances.

Larkin: The best student-teacher relationships in Buddhism are those where a student can trust that a teacher’s not going to cross particular boundaries ... those of abuse, whether it’s sexual or money. Where it gets wobbly or gray, as at least in my experience, there’s a lot of physicalness to the training. There’s a lot of getting up after three or four hours of sleep and doing manual work — that’s part of it and why it gets a little bit gray.

What’s really interesting about this whole topic right now — this is hilarious — when Buddha was dying, his attendant, his favorite monk, kept saying, “Who’s going to take over? You’re dying. Who’s going to take over?” And Buddha wouldn’t answer him. Instead he said, “I’m dying here. You do your own work. You take over.” And I think that’s a great teaching on you trust yourself. You have to be your own wisdom. So a good teacher can give you tools and a good teacher can be a nag. On my last day on this planet, I hope somebody will say, “She was a great nag.”


Rinpoche Nawang Gehlik, president and founder of Jewel Heart in Ann Arbor, a Tibetan Buddhist center, is the author of Good Life, Good Death: Tibetan Wisdom on Reincarnation. In the words of one of his disciples, the late Allen Ginsberg, “Rinpoche Gehlik is a heartfelt, tender teacher with a vast analytic mind.”


Metro Times: As we see people of spiritual authority — from Zen masters to Catholic priests — abusing their positions, how does this issue relate to the Tibetan Buddhist teacher’s influence on his students?

Rinpoche Nawang Gehlik: Tibetan Buddhism, even more than Zen tradition, is about the student and teacher relationship. This is Vajrayana Buddhism, which according to us is even more complicated and profound — [smiles] that’s the propaganda. In it, the student-teacher relationship is a guru-devotional practice. It is the very strong, fundamental basis of Vajrayana practice. So much so that the students — let’s call them disciples — look to the gurus as though they are actual Buddhas. And the guru is the role model, the teacher and the guide. Naturally you do not expect that the Buddha will have some “funny” thing to do. The practice demands that much devotion and that much responsibility. That’s what it traditionally is. But of course in modern times, it becomes different.

So in the West, looking at gurus as Buddhas is not an appropriate thing to introduce as the first step, which traditionally it is. Tibetan Buddhism came here at a time when there was a tremendous amount of guru scandals, in the ’60s, in the ’70s.

Metro Times: The Catholic Church encourages the veneration of its priests as if they were in a special relationship to God. But some of these holy men have shown themselves to be untrustworthy, to say the least.

Rinpoche: It’s unfortunate. The Catholic Church is such a wonderful institution. It’s been a real source of inspiration for so many people for so many years ... But I’m not surprised, because when you go that long, that far, that much people, there are bound to be things like that. But I am surprised if they treat this as usual, for the priests to do that sort of thing, and it becomes like “don’t ask, don’t tell.”


Metro Times: In his book of daily wisdom, The Path to Tranquility, the Dalai Lama writes: “I normally recommend to Buddhist practitioners not to see every action of their spiritual teacher as divine and noble. There are specific, very demanding qualities that are required of a spiritual mentor. You don’t simply say, ‘It is good behavior because it is the guru’s.’ This is never done. You should recognize the unwholesome as being unwholesome, so one might infer that it is worthwhile to criticize it.” What happens when a teacher misuses his position?

Rinpoche: Transmission is a very important part of Tibetan Buddhism. The teacher, the individual person, is the representative of Buddha, so mistreating that person is really like mistreating the ambassador of Buddha — just as mistreating the ambassador of a country is an insult to the country. But along with that comes the total responsibility of the individual. You are not just a single Mr. A, or a representative of X — you represent Buddha to somebody, playing the role model for that person as a Buddha. So the responsibility is there.

Personally, I’m against punishment. I’m very much against capital punishment particularly. And I’d love to see the prison system as a learning and correction center rather than as a punishment center. But the society here seems to be using the word “punishment” all the time, particularly with our “war on terrorism.” However in Buddhism the emphasis is on responsibility, because we do have a karma — if you have a negative karma, you have negative consequences. Whether you look at the consequences as a punishment or just consequences is for the individual person to judge.


Metro Times: Does a student simply break off with such a teacher?

Rinpoche: The funny thing in Tibetan Buddhism is that once you become the guru of somebody, you remain as the guru of that somebody. No one appoints the teacher — the teacher becomes the teacher because students request it. It is always the students who select, who choose the teacher. So once you choose an individual as a guru, I don’t know how to divorce that. Somehow that person will have that role as a teacher, and remains a teacher even though he goes to jail or dies. Whether you listen to that person or not is the responsibility of the student. Normally the teaching tradition says that you listen to the guru, but if what he says doesn’t make sense, talk to him and explain your problem ... because you can definitely say “no” — it’s not that you cannot say “no.” But then if you say “yes” and later you say, “Well, I made a mistake,” then you both made a mistake. You can say, “From now on, I don’t have any relationship with you” — you can do that — but what spiritual effect that will have on the individual, I don’t know. And that’s what I mean when I say, “How to divorce that?”


Metro Times: When does any student-teacher relationship come to an end?

Rinpoche: Actually the proper word here is “disciple” — disciple-and-guru relationship, rather than student-and-teacher. I am a disciple of all of my gurus, whether they are alive or dead. Once you are a disciple, you remain a disciple — you don’t get “promoted.”


The gap between Larkin’s and Rinpoche’s approaches seems huge: an American-pragmatic “let’s fix it ourselves” vs. a very traditional Buddhist “this is how we do it.” But instead of reading these as age-old differences between Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, we notice that Larkin’s feminism, a distinctly Western compassion, takes her straight to a solution that we’re more comfortable with. Rinpoche, on the other hand, is suggesting something more difficult for us Puritan free-enterprisers to grasp: responsibility not punishment (i.e. no notion of sin), no final profit or reward (i.e. no heaven or hell except right here) and no end to the spiritual work.

Richard Baker was asked to resign as head of Zen Center because he adamantly refused to take responsibility for his actions. His students and fellow teachers finally came to recognize — over and above the veneration due him as roshi — good old exploitation when then saw it. Baker had forgotten the fundamentals: to pay attention and do no harm. And this was America, not Asia.

And “no end to the spiritual work” also means that Buddhism, like Catholicism and the other faiths, will no doubt be grappling with this problem forever.

Jewel Heart Center is at 207 E. Washington St., Ann Arbor. Call 734-994-3387 or go to

Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple is at 4605 Cass Ave., inside the First Unitarian-Universalist Church, Detroit. Call 313-831-1201 or go to

George Tysh is the Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at [email protected]