Shining Beauty and Shadows

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.

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