This magazine was founded in 1991 in the wake of upheavals that cast a shadow over Buddhist communities in North America. The previous decade had witnessed scandals in a series of sanghas, including two of the largest and most well-established—Vajradhatu (now Shambhala International) and San Francisco Zen Center. These and other communities were rocked by allegations of sexual exploitation, abuse of power, and questionable financial dealings. The hierarchical and largely male-dominated authority structures in place left little room for transparency and criticism. Those who did speak up were often publicly denounced or shunned.
These events were not the reason Tricycle was founded, but they were not irrelevant. They were among a number of signposts pointing to a need for an independent forum in which Buddhists in the West could openly discuss the challenges we faced in the transmission of our traditions to a new cultural and historical context. That sometimes led to difficult decisions to publish what we knew would not be received well by those directly affected. But the bottom-line consideration was simple: would it be of benefit to readers, many of whom had been so hurt by abuses of power?
It may have seemed that the troubles at Shambhala and SF Zen Center were driven by each organization’s particular circumstances, yet it’s now undeniable that problems of authority and abuse were endemic to Buddhist communities and that they were not isolated events: each spate of revelations since then has been followed by the next, and sometimes in the very same communities, where issues of authority and abuse have been poorly resolved if at all.
In this issue, in an interview conducted by the German magazine Buddhismus aktuell (“Unmasking the Guru,”), professor of media studies Bernhard Pörksen considers the status of the guru in the age of digital networking. Pörksen describes an overall “implosion of spiritual authority” at a time when “suddenly anyone can compose a petition or post a description on blogs and forums of what has been done to them.” Questioning the viability of heroic models in all our narratives, including religious ones, Pörksen challenges us to find a way forward in the absence of models that are no longer persuasive or even possible.
Some years ago in this magazine, when asked how modern historical study can approach religion in a way that is both appreciative and critical, sociologist Robert Bellah cited the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur:
First, [Ricoeur] speaks of “primary naivete,” such as your Buddhist meditation master’s unquestioning acceptance of religious authority. Next, he describes criticism, which arises on several levels from the modern pursuit of suspicion of all received truth.
Then he outlines a third perspective, which he calls “second naivete.” Modern criticism is suspicious of received truth as a form of domination, class interest, or psychological self-delusion…. Second naivete accepts the critical process, yet “in and through criticism” it lets the symbols and narratives embedded in tradition speak again; it listens to what they are saying. From the position of second naivete, one opens to the possibility that these traditional forms arise not from reason but from the immediacy of experience, and that their depth and meaning is inexhaustible.
In this way, Bellah provides at least a partial answer to the challenge Pörksen puts before us. It is an answer that has guided us at Tricycle ever since.
Articles like these are in part the reason Tricycle was initially conceived. Until then, there was no independent Buddhist journal that could approach these and other challenging issues with any degree of candor. Publications that did exist were community newsletters advancing the teachings and views of their own teachers. If those teachers went astray, there was little in the way of a critical space to address the fallout.
As we move beyond old models of leadership, I imagine such explorations will become only more relevant. If we are able, as a broad community, to be forthright and self-critical in dealing with controversy, we will demonstrate not only that we are willing to face it honestly but also that we all benefit when we face it together.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.