February 8, 2012 § Leave a Comment
This fall a copy of Merry White Benezra’s novel Special Karma: A Zen Novel of Love and Folly arrived in the Tricycle office. The book closely tracks the experiences of the narrator, Iris (modeled on the author), as she makes her way through an unspecified Zen Monastery dealing with an unspecified and unscrupulous Roshi. Those who have paid attention to the Zen scandals that finally broke through to the mainstream recently will know just what is being referred to, and Ms. Benezra clearly speaks from experience. But even if you have no idea what the book might be based on, you will still be able to understand the book.
The intimate descriptions of life in the monastery are convincing and moving in their details as the story moves on, month by month. Knowing how it is to end, it might be thought painful or depressing, but actually it fits in the tradition of Zen-practice-narratives-by-blundering-Westerners that is something of a sub-genre. The ending of the book is far more uplifting than the stories of many women who shared in the actual events, so don’t stay away on that account.
Special Karma is a beautiful little book, and anyone interested in Zen practice viewed through a very personal lens will find value in it, and those who have experienced pain and betrayal in their sangha will certainly see their own experiences reflected and validated there.
- Philip Ryan, Tricycle
November 29, 2011 § Leave a Comment
I have just finished reading Special Karma, and I want to express my gratitude to Merry White Benezra for her steady view of Zen practice—both its shining beauty and its shadows. There are many reasons to read Special Karma: To understand Zen monastic practice, to see the dangers of unbalanced Zen practice, to learn how a teacher’s wisdom and blind spots affect Zen training, and to keep the discussion of these matters alive so that “secrets” do not allow abuse to continue. Benezra has illuminated all of these important topics in a well written, gripping novel.
Like Merry, I fell hopelessly in love with Zen when I was 20 years old and have spent a life time devoted to Zen practice and its mysterious transformative power. Merry has expressed the tenderness and poignancy of spiritual practice and the heartbreaking effects of a misguided community. Like Merry, I believe that seeing life as it is, rather than as one would wish it to be, is the aim of Zen practice. Merry portrays her teacher trying to help his student see reality, but through his chronic and long term sexually predatory advances we also see him as he actually is—a trained Rinzai Zen teacher, handicapped by a sexual addiction, enabled by a community. Anyone who has been following the distress of the New York based Zen Studies Society (ZSS) won’t miss the dead-on likeness of Merry’s Roshi to Eido Shimano and ZSS Daibosatsu Monastery. This forty year real life drama has been covered by the New York Times and is well documented in the Shimano Archive.
Special Karma gives a peek into how a well-meaning institution and its members can go astray. The more I have studied the first-person testimonials, the NYT’s article on Shimano and the ZSS, and Shimano’s own public apology and the retraction of that apology, the more troubled I have become. I have been appalled by the extent of the damage, the lack of sincere leadership, the corruption of the institution, and the chronic harm wrought by Eido Shimano’s untreated addiction—enabled by his community. When I have personally attempted to intervene in the Zen tragedy known as ZSS, I have learned first-hand that facing reality was (tragically) not the main practice. Protecting the teacher, the “Dharma,” and the opportunity to practice in a monastic and city setting were favored at the cost of the sangha’s (community’s) well- being.
Benezra describes the range of attitudes toward the Roshi’s inappropriate behaviors—including her own. True to Benezra’s description of conversations with monastic members, I have learned from former and current ZSS members that some became convinced that they had an opportunity for enlightenment, and the harm being perpetrated on others was of no consequence. Others were manipulated by their own idealism, unmet needs, sleep deprivation and isolation. The techniques described by Benezra, and also employed by ZSS, bear a startling resemblance to classic cult inductions. Depression and mental instability resulting from ongoing membership, suffered by those who were exposed to this kind of deceptive practice, confirms the potential diagnosis of unwholesome cult-like psychological manipulation. Rather than trying to convince you of this diagnosis, I invite you to study these characteristics as they are outlined on the internet and make up your own mind.
Just as Benezra has enriched the conversation about abusive Zen situations and teachers with her book, a number of Zen teachers have spoken up about the sexually exploitative situation at ZSS. I took the opportunity to write to the ZSS Board of Directors to encourage the organization to remove Eido Shimano from his position and provide authentic healing to all community members harmed by his (apparently) unrelenting sexually predatory behaviors and other unrepentant cruelties. As an empowered Zen teacher of Rinzai koans and Abbess of my own community, I quoted to the ZSS Board of Directors the Japanese expression: “Water drunk by the cow becomes milk; water drunk by the snake becomes venom.” Very much like the Roshi in Special Karma, Eido Shimano is like this metaphorical snake, in effect using ZSS as his breeding grounds and poisoning many well intentioned Zen practitioners with his personal venom—unresolved sexual addiction and predation. Benezra’s book helps us to see just how this happens and helps us to continue a public conversation. I do not believe that keeping this “special karma” a secret has helped Zen in the West. In my opinion, the events, their cover-up, and the continuation of harm at ZSS have tarnished American Zen practice. I congratulate Benezra and her book for bringing more attention to the importance of exposing this kind of harm.
Abbess Myoan Grace Schireson, Founder and Head Teacher of the Empty Nest Zen Group, Modesto Valley Heartland Zen Group, and the Fresno River Zen Group, and author of Zen Women: Beyond Tea Ladies, Iron Maidens, and Macho Masters.
November 25, 2011 § Leave a Comment
I recently finished reading Merry White Benezra’s novel Special Karma. I was immediately transported to DBZ, and though I wasn’t there until the 90′s, I felt a palpable inner resonance with every nook and cranny of the location and the impact the place and practice had on the people training there. Merry pegged the experience of the place, the practice, and especially the presence of Eido Shimano Roshi. She also captured how isolated and dismal it can be for any residents staying over the DBZ winter break. I can only imagine how bleak it will be for the two female monks planning to stay over this winter’s break, and my heart goes out to them.
I find myself still greatly disturbed and betrayed by the fact that Eido Roshi’s sexual advances towards students did not end more than 15 years ago, as I was assured they had, when I began to train with him. Indeed, we are all now well aware that his sexual advances, which sometimes even rose to date rape, did not stop. Perhaps the frequency diminished a bit with age, but not because of any real understanding of the harm he had done or was doing right up to the latest exposer in June of 2010 that forced his retirement last year. The book also should help everyone see just how insidious, confusing and detrimental such advances let alone conquest can be not only to the one pursued, but to the whole training sangha, both those who were subtly or grossly aware of what was going on, and indirectly to all those who didn’t have a clue. Of course given Eido Roshi’s gross lack of respect for ethical boundaries, he was always a poor example to his students in this crucial area of practice. How tragic that such an inspired teacher and leader could have such a big gap in his training and psychological maturity. Clearly his great gifts were repeatedly used to excuse or minimize his great gaps.
It is my sincere hope that the continued dialogue prompted by such courageous and revelatory writing as Merry’s will keep pressure on the Zen Studies Society administration to make the needed organizational reforms that will allow real healing to begin.
Abbot Genjo Marinello, former ZSS board member and Abbot of Chobo-Ji in Seattle, WA
November 25, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Somewhere, as I write this, a serious academic is scowling as he creates an essay about the reasons why Jesus walked into the desert of Christian mythology. Jesus did not go in order to sip tea and eat cookies with his friends and neighbors. He went alone. It was hot. It was hard. It was … well what it was, no one can ever know until they walk into the desert and face the fierce aloneness that is part of walking the walk in any spiritual persuasion.
Merry Benezra’s Special Karma: A Zen Novel of Love and Folly is a delicately-written invitation to anyone who has walked or is considering walking into the desert of spiritual life. Her central character, Iris, spends and on-again-off-again eight months of intensive practice at a Zen monastery, much as Benezra herself did.
But Special Karma is a novel, not some spiritual screed. There are no subtle lectures on the elevated wonders of Zen practice (though there is a glossary of Japanese terms that crop up within the text). Neither is there a gushing surprise at the wonders she encounters, including the confusing sexual advances of the Zen teacher. Instead, with deft and quiet understatement, the book does a subtle and thorough job of depicting one human being’s hopes and discoveries and rewritten dreams that are then rewritten anew.
What happens in Special Karma is nothing very special … and for that reason, for anyone interested in the fine-print factuality of spiritual life, Special Karma is really quite special indeed. There are vegetables to cook and clothes to wash and periods of intense silent meditation and encounters with fellow students … all of it flowing smoothly and with a wonderful redolence of things just out of reach. It is a quiet book whose carefully-worded sentences build a cocoon of understanding around the reader. And it makes any reader wonder, perhaps ….
Why would anybody in their right mind submit to such a fierce, demanding, upending, delicious, horrific, and burning regimen? Why would anyone in their right mind walk into the desert of spiritual practice?
No one can answer ‘why’ questions satisfactorily. Anyone in their right mind knows that. But where the desert beckons and where the mirages rise up, some will accept the invitation. Special Karma provides a wonderful picture of what it is like when the challenge is accepted and the implications of that invitation are, for better and for worse, embraced.
Genkaku Adam Fisher, Author of Answer Your Love Letters: Footnotes to a Zen Practice and meditation leader of Black Moon Zendo.
September 18, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Special Karma is a fascinating novel, of interest to anyone who has attempted to do meditation practice or follow a spiritual discipline, to anyone who has fallen in and out of young love. In it one experiences the intensity of life deeply apprehended, the attractiveness of a character who is both honest about and just slightly amused by the events of her life.
The author’s extraordinary sensitivity to nature prompts some luminous writing on the seasonal changes that the protagonist observes from the shelter of her Zen center. And the relationships in the book reveal a developed sense of the subtleties of human interaction.
Central to the story is the theme of a spiritual teacher (the Japanese Zen Roshi) who abuses his position by initiating sexual liaisons with his female students—and whose approaches to the protagonist, Iris, ultimately lead to her disillusionment about practicing Zen and living in a Zen center. The recent real-life ousting of New York Zen teacher Eido Roshi for his sexual misdeeds attests to the relevance of this subject matter. Special Karma is the only novel I know of that presents the theme of the sexual misconduct of a Zen master. But the book is not an expose or diatribe. Benezra eschews sensational treatment of this delicate subject, and handles it instead with an understatement and irony consistent with the thoughtful, personal tone of the whole book.
Iris’s own relationships with the three male students reveal a number of aspects of Zen training, a number of options of how one may pursue a spiritual discipline.
Benezra is a gifted writer who, in Special Karma, has evoked, with restraint and fidelity to the truth of a young woman’s experience, a chronicle of events in a spiritual setting defined and controlled by men. Her honesty about her own motives and capacities precludes hasty judgment of any of the characters (yet she never seeks to gloss over or excuse the Roshi’s behavior). Her facility with language allows her to evoke the feel and taste of beginning Zen practice. Her insight into male-female relationships makes the sensual/sexual encounters of the Zen students vivid and convincing.
I hope you will read Special Karma with as much pleasure as I have.
Sandy Boucher, Author of Turning the Wheel: American Women Creating the New Buddhism; Opening the Lotus: A Woman’s Guide to Buddhism; Discovering Kwan Yin: Buddhist Goddess of Compassion; Hidden Spring: A Buddhist Woman Confronts Cancer; Dancing in the Dharma: the Life and Teachings of Ruth Denison.