Image: Steven Baines, Bird Future, 2010, oil on canvas 16 x 16 inches.
Image: Steven Baines, Bird Future, 2010, oil on canvas 16 x 16 inches.

In the past year or so, the Buddhist world has been rocked by several high profile sex scandals. Joshu Sasaki Roshi, Eido Shimano Roshi, and Dennis Genpo Merzel Roshi have all been accused of doing some pretty sleazy stuff with their students, and as a result a lot of deeply disappointed former students of these very popular teachers are now wondering if their entire practice has been a total waste of time. After all, if these so-called “masters” with all their years of training behind them and all their followers couldn’t behave in an a manner consistent with the very precepts they ceremonially gave to so many students, then how can we believe Buddhist practice is good for anything at all?

There is a lot of speculation in the Buddhist community about how such things could happen. Many would like to try to preserve their belief in the power of practice by blaming these teachers for not living up to their own standards while still believing that there are others who do live up to them. But many others have simply given up. To a lot of those who have never done any meditation themselves, it appears obvious from all these scandals that Buddhist practice isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. Cases like these allow them to easily dismiss the whole thing as a big hoax.

And yet here you are, dear reader, still reading a Buddhist magazine. So I can assume you’re not one of those who have given up entirely. But you have to be wondering what gives. I know I sure am! And I’ve been at this practice for close to 30 years now and have made my living these last few years writing books about it.

The cases of Shimano, Merzel, and Sasaki are big enough that they’ve gotten mainstream press, leading to many people who really don’t know much about Buddhism making a lot of random statements about what it is. When such assertions are backed by the authority of respected news agencies, they can take on a tremendous amount of importance for people just starting to get interested in Buddhism.

I don’t want to explain why seemingly good teachers go bad; I don’t think that’s the really vital question. However, I think it’s important to say that these cases are all extraordinarily atypical. They have all taken place in very large institutions with multiple centers that generate substantial incomes. These are extremely unlike the typical Buddhist centers in the West that generally have a single temple, often in someone’s living room or garage, with a handful of members—and they struggle mightily just to keep even that running. Some in the mainstream media are speculating that these scandals are somehow related to something fundamental about Buddhist practice. But I wonder if they’re not more related to something fundamental about large religious institutions in general, regardless of which religion they’re associated with.

I think there’s a much more fundamental issue for those of us who know about these gossip-magazine type of scandals and yet choose to stick with Buddhism anyway. All of us will at some point in our practice have to deal with the problem of what to do when our revered teachers reveal themselves to be just as human as we are.

Most of us probably won’t find this out by reading about our teacher’s decades of tawdry sexual peccadillos in The New York Times. It will more likely be far subtler than that. Often it doesn’t take much. Perhaps we’ve heard that Buddhism is about mindfulness, but then we start seeing our teacher constantly leave his lunch on the bus or not remember students’ names. Or we know there’s a precept against drinking alcohol, but we see our teacher at a party with a beer in her hand. Or we hear that Buddhism is supposed to make you free from anger, but our teacher got pretty mad at his computer the other day. Or we hear that Buddhism teaches nonattachment, but now our teacher has a girlfriend that he seems pretty attached to. And—oh my! She used to meditate with the group!

Stories like this can add up and make us start doubting our practice. If our own teacher isn’t perfectly mindful, pure in all habits, and completely free from anger and attachments, how can we ever hope to achieve these things? And when some famous and highly respected master goes spectacularly bad, that really makes us start to think twice about the effectiveness of Buddhist practice.

I had all of these thoughts and more when I was starting out in my practice. I have to admit that there was just a little sparkle of joy in the back of my brain whenever this kind of thing came up. Practice is hard, and hearing the tawdry stories from time to time gave me hope that there might be a good reason to just give it up and go back to being a normal person again instead of a weirdo who got up early every morning to meditate before work.

But much as I wanted to give up, I couldn’t. I knew my practice really was useful to me. Maybe the ultimate solution to all my problems wasn’t waiting at the end of the rainbow. But something was happening, and I could feel it. And I could see that my teachers, even with their flaws, were part of that positive transformation.

It’s OK to hold our teachers to reasonable standards of ethical behavior. We definitely should. But sometimes we expect too much. The problem is when people start believing that “Buddhist masters” are quasi-divine beings and thus hold them to standards so high that nobody in the world could ever hope to live up to them. It doesn’t help when you’ve got guys running around pretending to be so divine that merely being in their presence will get you enlightened.

My teacher Nishijima Roshi used to say that practice made him “a little better” than before. It may not seem like much, but “a little better” can add up to make a big difference.

There is a deeper truth of the universe, and it can be known by ordinary people. It can help them tremendously. But it doesn’t transform the people who know it from overdeveloped apes into angels. That can’t happen.

If you discover that your teacher has been behaving in a really heinous way, like breaking the law or utterly violating the trust people have placed in her, maybe it’s time to seek another teacher. If the teacher makes claims that no ordinary human being could possibly live up to, that’s also a good reason to look elsewhere. But when it’s a case of the teacher showing himself not to be quite as divine as you had hoped he’d be, maybe it’s time to look at why you wanted him to be that impossible thing.

Remember that in Buddhist cosmology it’s considered better to be born in the human realm even than to be born as a celestial being. Whether you actually believe in celestial beings or not, this philosophical stance points out that Buddhist practice is not about becoming divine. It’s about becoming fully human. The fact that your teacher has flaws should be a source of joy rather than disappointment. It means that your teacher is a true person and perhaps he or she can point the way for you to become one too.



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