Zen Abuses
by Ming Zhen Shakya, May 21, 2000

Zenmar, that irrepressible oracle of Dark Zen, kindly recommended that I read Caryl Gopfert's doctoral dissertation: "Student Experiences of Betrayal in the Zen Buddhist Teacher/Student Relationship. "It is," said Z, "a manual for how not to teach Zen." Because I value Z's opinions, I purchased a copy of the work.

The dissertation, a treatise in Transpersonal Psychology, has long technical sections in which the author defines the specific betrayals she has studied and reviews the relevant literature. But then she records the personal statements of her informants in which they related their experiences with ecclesiastical superiors who had exploited and abused them - sexually in most instances. And then the work takes on the strange fascination of highway wreckage, the mangled cars we hate to see but cannot look away from.

Those of us who teach Zen and hear the usual horror stories can play a guessing game about which Zen Centers and alleged masters are involved in the transgressions that Gopfert's informants relate. That so many institutions are possible candidates tells us something about the state of Zen in the U.S. and Europe, today. (Yes, I know. Most of the guilty ones can laugh all the way to the bank, and isn't that part of the problem?)

I've had a few experiences that I would have loved to share with Caryl Gopfert - not for her to include in her study but just for commiseration's sake.

I've also known a few real masters in my life and I've never met one who didn't insist that a novice pursue his or her formal education. In fact, I knew one novice in Taiwan who took the bus into town every week just to take piano lessons. Her master had insisted that she not neglect this discipline while she was studying to become a nun. All bona fide masters insist upon the completion of an academic course of study. An uneducated priesthood serves nobody. Keeping this in mind....

Back in the 70s I spent a week in a Zen Center in which I shared a room with a new Buddhist novice, a recent nursing school graduate who had a professional problem. She had taken her licensing examination and had passed all but one section of it; and according to the law in the state in which she had taken the exam, she had six months in which to retest for that one section. If she passed it, she got her license. If she didn't or otherwise failed to retest in that period, she had to wait a year and then reapply to take the entire test again. Clearly, it was to her advantage to retake the small portion of the exam that she had failed. To me, there was a certain urgency about this - only a month was left in the grace period; but to her, it wasn't nearly so urgent. Nursing was only one of two career options available to her: she had been promised a position as a teacher and administrative assistant in the Zen Center.

I had once been a medical secretary and had some basic knowledge of medical terms, and so I offered to help her study in the evening's free time. I'd read a question from a study-guide and she'd answer it. We were having an altogether pleasant experience - we'd laugh or groan or cheer according to her responses - when suddenly a knock came on the door. She answered it - I heard a man's voice - and then she told me that she had to go out. We'd have to put off studying until the next day. The delay was distressing because she clearly needed to put some study-time in.

I could see various prescription bottles on her dressing table: spansules that woke her up and tablets that put her to sleep. I wondered how the monastery's Mother Superior felt about all this... whether she was paying this girl the attention that she needed. It also seemed odd to me that though she was preparing to be a teacher of Zen, the few books on her shelf were merely popular books by Alan Watts and the like.

The next evening the young woman told me that she had a date and couldn't study. She put civilian clothes on and a little make-up. But since the Zen Center was in a rough neighborhood - there recently had been a murder on the street outside - I reminded her to be very careful when she went out. She looked a bit surprised. "I'm not going out," she said. It was an 'in house' date.

I read awhile and then fell asleep. Along about midnight I was awakened by a man's hands groping me. Startled, I shouted, "What the hell are you doing!" It wasn't a question. In the glow of a night light I could see the bald head of a monk.

He was flustered, of course, and apologized, saying that he hadn't realized there was a guest sharing the room. I told him the resident nun was out for the evening, and he explained that he had been away and had not been due to return until the following night. He thought he'd surprise her. He asked me if I would deliver the message that he had returned early and would be in his room. I said I would tell her, and he left.

I fell back to sleep and then, somewhere around 1AM, she returned, looking very "used". I gave her the message and she squealed, "Oh... he's back!" and with that she bounded out of the room.

I fell back to sleep again and then around 4 AM, just after the bells had rung to awaken the clergy for the morning meditation session, she came back into the room. This time she really looked beat. She stripped off her clothes and, naked, flopped back onto her bed in time to hear the second, final bells. Immediately she jumped up, went to her closet and pulled on her Buddhist robes. She opened a prescription bottle and I could tell from her movements that she was exhausted and on-edge. I said sleepily, "What time is it?" And she snapped, "There is no talking before morning services!"

I mumbled an unladylike phrase of understanding. "Ah, we can ----, but we can't speak."

She marched out and I laughed until I thought about her sitting there in her robes without benefit of bathing. Then it wasn't funny anymore.

She had talked about her parents; and I thought about them, how relieved they must have been to learn that she was safe in such a holy place, sending her a little extra spending money, proudly telling their friends that their daughter was going to become a Buddhist nun. Maybe in their mind's eye they could see her kneeling in a flower-decked chapel, the morning sun shining on her upturned face.

There are those who would say that nobody forced her to service the monks. To them I would say that the day that it is perfectly acceptable for Buddhist monks to act like pimps, johns, and sexual predators is the day we should all embrace a religion - any religion - since ours no longer qualifies for that description.

She was a nice kid and I hope she managed to pull her life together to pass her nursing exam. I didn't see her after that because she was moved to a more private room and another guest stayed in her place.

I don't know what her life would have been like if she had not come to that Zen Center a few months earlier; but it's hard to imagine that she would have been worse off if she had gone elsewhere. Aside from the sexual plundering was that other pernicious element: she had been led to believe that the Zen Center was her home, that she would prosper there and could offset the loss of her nursing career by gaining the status of a clergywoman, a teacher of religion.

As Caryl Gopfert's sad histories indicate, this career opportunity, when offered by Zen Centers, too often has much more in common with the world's oldest profession.

And we, as Buddhists, at the very least ought to be chagrined and saddened by such ongoing abuse.

Editor's note: Gopfert's dissertation (#AAT9934565) can be obtained from UMI Dissertation Services 1-800-521-3042 or from their website.