In 1983, the journalist Katy Butler, then a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, published an article about what is now a well-known scandal at San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC): its head teacher, Richard Baker Roshi, was engaging in sexual relationships with his students. This was a time before scandals in Buddhist communities had become more commonplace—and before there was a precedent for approaching and writing about those communities with a journalistic eye.
Butler, a student at SFZC at the time, ended up leaving the community as a result of the fallout. Seven years later, in 1990, she covered another Buddhist group in the throes of a scandal that had erupted after the death of its influential founder, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. The new leader of Vajradhatu (now Shambhala International), Osel Tendzin, had been sleeping with students without telling them he was infected with HIV. At least one of his sexual partners died of AIDS as a result.
Nearly three decades after publication, the insights in “Encountering the Shadow in Buddhist America” are as relevant today as they were then. Tricycle has republished the essay online.
Below, Butler revisits her pioneering work in the context of the #MeToo movement and reiterates the intention of service behind her writing. While accounts of abuse continue to surface in Buddhist communities, as the Dylan lyrics go, times they are a’changin’. And they are doing so in no small part thanks to those that have been brave enough to speak out.
Butler is the author of the memoir Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death as well as The Art of Dying Well: A Practical Guide to a Good End of Life, forthcoming in 2019. She spoke with Tricycle’s executive editor, Emma Varvaloucas, by phone.
What was it that led you to write these pieces, both in terms of the zeitgeist back then and personally? I encountered Buddhism, much to my surprise, when I was 28 and a nonreligious newspaper reporter. I stumbled into Tassajara [San Francisco Zen Center’s mountain monastery] on a camping trip and was moved to change the direction of my life. Three or four years later, my new community became one of the first to confront a teacher who was having harmful sexual relations with his students. I was asked by Stewart Brand, the publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog, to write about the crisis for his quarterly. You know how they say that “fools rush in where angels fear to tread”? I said yes.
Why did I do it? I was not your average Zen student. I didn’t live in a Zen center building or work in a Zen center business. I was a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and I owned my own home, so I had multiple sources of identity, and that gave me some intellectual independence. I was also a feminist. I came of age in 1968, when women were starting to find their voices.
The depth of the scandal was brought home to me one evening, listening at my kitchen table to one of the women from San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC). She had been our head teacher’s attendant, and he had seduced her into a secret and highly damaging relationship. It made my blood boil.
That’s what led to my first article about this: my deep sense of feminist outrage. My deep sense that women were not being given the opportunity to practice with the same emotional safety that men were. That what should have been a place of sanctuary and protection was putting women at risk. I wanted to warn them.
What kind of reaction did you receive when the SFZC article was published in 1983? I had faith that speaking up and laying things on the table would be a healthy thing. But I was emboldened by my own ideas of the importance of truth-telling without being sensitive to the feelings of people who had committed their entire lives to Buddhist practice—people who were working, living, and raising their children there.
When the article about SFZC came out, the whole community was reeling. People who supported our head teacher left and followed him elsewhere. Many of those who didn’t support him nevertheless felt violated by my article. They felt that I had aired dirty laundry, that their intimate lives had been exposed, and that I had publicly shamed their former teacher and made things worse. I heard the equivalent of “You’re just a newbie. You don’t understand Buddhism. You don’t even live here. Who are you to speak?” Several students wrote me letters of objection, put them in a bag, and delivered them to my doorstep. And there was an unspoken coldness, a distance. Some years later, when I went to Tassajara for a week, someone made the comment, which got back to me, “Is she even allowed to come down here?” The end result was that I felt I could not practice there any more, which was tragic for me. I didn’t feel I could come back until I was nearly 70, and just about everybody who knew anything about it had either forgiven me—I hope—or gone on.
What about the Vajradhatu article, which came out in 1990? It was easier, because while I had friends within the Vajradhatu [now Shambhala International] community, it was not my community. So the piece was received, I think, as less judgmental. I was able to take a birds-eye view and explore what was going on from a cultural standpoint rather than from an emotional one—what I saw as the core issue was that these scandals are fed by a toxic cultural combination of Western sexual license and Eastern hierarchy.
Also, by then so many scandals had erupted—Eido Roshi, Maezumi Roshi, later Sasaki Roshi—that people were casting around to try to get a handle on what was going on. So the reaction to that article was pretty good, actually. I didn’t suffer. And it is still being passed around and read, and I still get emails from people thanking me—that it helped them have the courage to confront things within their communities or at least articulate their own experience to themselves.
But the people from within Vajradhatu who spoke to me for the article did get a lot of flak. One woman called me in tears after it ran. It was similar to what I had experienced at SFZC, where I was shocked by the degree of blowback. I may have been naïve and blundering, but my intentions were good, as they are for most of us, most of the time. I think the people who spoke to me from Vajradhatu felt the same way. On the one hand, they knew it was important to air these realities. But on the other hand, you’re deeply attached to a whole community, with its own norms, and you love the people within these communities. Breaking certain taboos, you become scapegoated. It’s devastating.
Has your thinking around the causes of these community problems changed from 30 years ago? I just was rereading the Vajradhatu piece this morning, and the one thing that struck me is the illusion that the Buddhist communities are somehow going to be safe from every other current in our society. That strikes me as naïve now. We’re all human beings. We all suffer, and we all struggle with the same things. We Buddhists are nothing special, although I hate to say it like that. I don’t think I wrote about that at the time, because I didn’t really see it then.
We had a certain grandiosity and hopefulness as young practitioners helping establish an ancient tradition in a new country. I, for one, saw Buddhism as something I could use to escape from my own karma, by which I mean all the causes and conditions that had created me: my family lineage, my culture, my quirks. But it turns out we American Buddhists are no better and no worse than the culture that we spring from, even if we call ourselves Sensei or Roshi or True Lotus (my dharma name from Thich Nhat Hanh) or Lord This and Lady That, as they did at Vajradhatu. The Vipassana community has avoided much of this over-glorification, this specialness.
In that article, I compared dysfunctional patterns within Buddhist communities to the “rules of engagement” in alcoholic families. Now I wonder. I don’t think that Buddhist communities are particularly pathological, or more like alcoholic families than, say, Standard Oil. I think these patterns —a hierarchical focus upward, limited peer-to-peer connection, imbalances of power that create opportunities for sexual and emotional harm, failure to give honest feedback to a leader until things boil out of hand—pervade almost all organizations. We’re just seeing it vividly now because of the #MeToo movement. So I think what I see differently is that the times have caught up with me and with us.
What in particular has the #MeToo movement changed in regard to these issues? The #MeToo movement has permitted women to articulate not only the damage done but also the inner experience of their responses to threat in a larger context: not just the inner experience of being forced or manipulated into something, but being afraid to say no because you’re not going to get ahead in your career, or you might lose your job. Or just that you’re incredibly shocked and embarrassed and you’ve never been trained on how to get out of a hotel room when a guy—a boss, a religious teacher, someone with power and authority—has a towel around him and is asking for a massage.
A decade or two ago, women who disclosed these experiences were accused of being wimps, or liars, or careerists, because they hadn’t just walked out of the room. Even now, we don’t know what to call them—the New York Times calls them “accusers,” which doesn’t feel right. When the scandals erupted at SFZC, some people held the women equally to blame without acknowledging the power imbalances or the ethical responsibilities of spiritual leaders. But now the inner world of female experience is being delineated and elaborated and heard sympathetically; there’s a shared language and an openness that didn’t exist before.
Thoreau said it takes two to tell the truth—one to speak and one to listen. The culture is now willing to listen. The fact that you can have a front-page story in the Times about the Sakyong [Shambhala International’s leader] going into retreat [because of the misconduct allegations] is astonishing. And what is being described publicly now is not nearly the level of devastation that I saw in the 1980s. We’re not talking about someone giving someone AIDS. The sensitivity level has been raised much higher, which is really, really healthy. It means we’re talking honestly about more subtle situations.
There are also more women in positions of authority, in newspapers and in religious communities, in anthropology, in every field. When I was at SFZC, the ideal was a shaven-headed athletic male with very good posture. Almost all the people we looked up to fit into that category. That’s very different now; there are many women in leadership these days, as abbots, heads of practice centers, and head priests. I am just returning to Buddhist practice, and I now have a female Zen teacher who has a background in body work and as a therapist. I feel I can bring anything to her; it doesn’t have to be an imitation of a Dogen lecture.
You talked about society’s evolving view of sexual abuse survivors. What about society’s view of the perpetrators? Where do you see their place currently? I think we have not gone far enough yet. When I read stories in the paper, part of me feels so happy that victims are finding their voices and being heard. Then another part of me quails. We are stigmatizing and demonizing these guys. I feel great sympathy for them, because the norms have changed under their feet. Behavior that was once either shined on or taken very lightly is now sometimes taken as evidence that there’s something essentially wrong with their characters. I see things from a more social point of view, which is that we’re all responsible for creating norms—not just the women who get victimized and not just the guys who get away with something in private. It’s the bystanders, in a sense, who really matter. If the bystanders create a better container for our lives—and in Buddhist communities, articulate and hold people to the precepts—maybe we won’t need to demonize and scapegoat these men so deeply.
The Buddha said there is no inherent essential self, that we are the product of multiple causes and conditions. There are numerous seeds in the treasure house of our consciousness, and we can water some of them and pull out others. The Buddha did not say that there are inherently evil people and inherently good people. Practice is about not taking ourselves too seriously and not solidifying our sense of self, and understanding that self is extremely malleable based on the culture that surrounds us, as well as the efforts that we personally make.
In the Buddha’s time, there was a full moon ceremony once a month during the rainy season. Everybody got together, and people would openly confess the ways they had transgressed against the sangha or against the rules. There’s something of that spirit that we haven’t quite gotten to yet. We’re still in this phase of uncovering and naming and being outraged and delivering consequences to the people who are violating these norms. That’s all to the good. But we haven’t gotten to redemption yet. I do think there’s a further phase that I hope we’ll see coming.
As you said, you’re back at SFZC now, and it sounds like the environment is much altered. What about within you? Has your approach to practice or community life been altered? I’m sitting formal zazen daily, alone, and I have a teacher within the Zen center community, but I’m not fully a part of community yet. As for practice, I feel encouraged by my teacher. She says, “Listen to your intuition, listen to your body. How does your body feel when you’re thinking ambitious thoughts? How does your body feel when you’re asking, ‘What’s my deepest intention?’” I feel more capacity to let my practice unfold from the inside out, rather than trying to idealize and imitate others. I think that’s very different.
When I was younger, I think I had a hidden hope that I was going to have a classic big satori [breakthrough] experience that would wipe out my daily human problems, and then I was going to go on and become a Buddhist teacher. I have zero belief in that now. I see spiritual life and emotional and personal development as very incremental now, and my ambitions are modest. My ambition is to continue to sit and to continue to . . . I don’t know, learn to accept life exactly as it is, moment to moment.
As for community life, when I first entered the zendo, nobody would help a newcomer who was stumbling through the service and couldn’t find her place on the chant card. When I recently visited Tassajara, somebody would always lean over and help. That’s a huge change.
Looking back on these articles, is there anything you would have written differently today? I think I might express more gratitude for my first teacher. Neither Green Gulch farm nor Tassajara Mountain Center would exist if he hadn’t had the skill and chutzpah to raise the money and establish them. I get to return to practice there today because of him. Other than that, I don’t think I would change much beyond little nuances.
I don’t think everyone saw this, but I was trying to say that this is not an individual problem. This is a problem we co-created as a community, in which I played my part. In my idealism and enthusiasm for practice, I lost my voice for a while. I tried to imitate the people I thought were more advanced than me, and before the crisis, I did not speak up much about my misgivings. I became quiet. I became complicit. As a community, we were all complicit. That’s what I was trying to say.
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