In Buddhism’s relatively short history in the West, there have been so many scandals—sudden scandals and gradual scandals, scandals of all shapes and sizes—that it might not be long before someone decides to write that history not as a noble narrative of high aspiration but as a series of depressingly lowbrow misadventures. Whether they are about money, sex, power, substance abuse, or, as is most often the case, some combination of them all, one thing seems to be clear: while isolation is a symptom of scandals, scandals are not isolated events.
As to the first point: Scandalous activities seem to thrive when individual communities isolate themselves—socially, ideologically, or in other ways—from the bonds of broader communities, both religious and secular. In such an atmosphere, assumptions tend to go unchallenged not because they are seen as valid but because they are not seen at all. They are just taken for granted. Scandals feed off isolation in another way too: when individuals within a community who try to raise questions about how things are done and what gets done are isolated—marginalized, discredited, even banned—the concerns they raise are readily dismissed. Sooner or later, this way of doing things proves detrimental to all concerned.
As to the second point: These scandals are not isolated events, and so they deserve to be looked at systemically. To contribute to this process, Tricycle brought together a panel of Buddhist teachers from various traditions and backgrounds to share their thoughts on such matters, especially sexual scandals: Jack Kornfield, cofounder of both Spirit Rock Meditation Center and the Insight Meditation Society; Myoan Grace Schireson, guiding teacher of Empty Nest Zendo; Lama Palden, founder of the Sukhasiddhi Foundation; and Shinzen Young, cofounder of the Vipassana Support Institute. Emma Varvaloucas, Tricycle’s managing editor, moderated the phone discussion.
We conducted this interview with the awareness that some readers may wonder whether there isn’t an inherent problem in asking dharma teachers to lead the discussion. After all, they are commenting on the very system within which much of their spiritual lives developed and upon which much of their authority rests. Nonetheless, we think the four teachers at our roundtable all make telling observations, and they are worth listening to. Admittedly, what our dharma teachers have to say is only part of the story. The other part is how the rest of us will respond by taking up the conversation, refining, critiquing, and applying it as best we can.
If, after reading this, you feel as though something is missing, that is probably a good thing. In fact, the sense of something missing may well be the most important thing. Rotten behavior is a constant in human affairs, and even the Buddha’s own community was not immune to it. (Why, after all, do you think there are so many canonical rules delineating what is and is not proper conduct?) The measure of a community’s vibrancy and beneficence is, I believe, found less in its ability to control or eliminate troubling behavior than in its response—or lack thereof—and whether or not it brings people together. Troubling behavior is not something to get rid of so we can get on with the business of getting enlightened. To be human is to grapple with our shortcomings, individually and collectively, and it is by grappling with what we are that we grow into who we are. At our best, we muddle ahead together, hoping to get things right occasionally and trying not to do too much damage along the way. It is in the muddling that we find our humanity, and in doing so, if we are lucky, we find each other.
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