In The Name Of Enlightenment
By Debi Goodwin
Like many in the West I always considered Buddhism as a philosophy, a religion, that offered insights into how to live a more fulfilling life in a very secular, competitive world. My impression had a lot to do with the saintly image of the Dalai Lama, the Buddhists I encountered, and the words associated with the religion: compassion, the path, right action, awareness and enlightenment.
So my first reaction when I started researching Buddhism in the West was shock at discovering the numbers of Buddhist masters – particularly in the Zen and Tibetan traditions – who have taken advantages of their disciples by being unethical with money, by abusing their power and, yes, by taking sexual advantage of those who came seeking support, comfort and something Buddhism promises: an end to their suffering. As one man, a former Buddhist told me, sometimes we forget that masters are men first and men want power, money and sex.
I'm not the only person to react with surprise. When I describe to friends, family and colleagues the documentary I am working on and the direction it is going, the response more often than not is: "Oh, no. Not Buddhism. I thought it was the good one." People, it seemed, have as much naivety about Buddhism as they do skepticism toward Catholicism.
Yet, some of the stories about scandals in Buddhism in the West date back to the '70s, when Westerners turned to the East for spiritual answers. In the 2001 book, Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion and Excess at San Francisco Zen Centre described the already known sex scandals surrounding Richard Baker, the centre’s abbot in the ‘70s and ‘80s who was forced to resign. Rumors about another Zen leader, Eido Shimano Roshi have been circulating for decades and came to wider attention in a New York Times story this summer. We have also had a very public scandal in Canada. The Western Buddhist leader Osel Tenzin was at the centre of the scandal in Halifax, a scandal reported throughout North America and listed in Wikipedia. Tenzin was bisexual and promiscuous. A diagnosis of AIDS didn’t stop him from multiple relations. Before he died he had fatally infected another man.
Stories of abuse in the West were so well known among Buddhists that several leading thinkers met with the Dalai Lama in 1993. The result was an open letter, which the Dalai Lama did not sign in the end, calling on students to confront unethical teachers and, if that doesn’t work, to go public. But they hardly ever do.
Victims don’t want to come forward because the chances of succeeding of bringing down a master are low and the personal costs are high. I talked to several women who have not told their full stories before. They told me that getting out from under a master’s control to confront him is easier said than done. I spoke to one woman who became a sexual partner to a celebrated Zen master in the United States. It took her decades to speak to outsiders about this because the master was so well regarded, because when she did tell her story to people she knew they didn’t want to hear it. Eventually, she took a writing course to figure out a way to get it all out. She shared her writing with me confidentially. It’s a painful account of how a hurt woman got pulled in by a powerful roshi. No journal has ever published her writing. The risks of lawsuits are high for those who do. And there is a sense that those who profit from Buddhism in the West and those who fight for the cause of Tibet liberation do not want to hear anything that will tarnish their image. I spoke with another women who told part of her story years ago of how a Tibetan Buddhist lama had taken sexual advantage of her. She received death threats then. But she has now decided to speak up because she is ill and does not want to leave this unsaid. People tell her that if she speaks against an enlightened master she will go to hell. She has decided that not telling the truth is what will send her there.
The fear of speaking out is real. I heard repeatedly about similar threats. One woman was told that her karma, and the karma of all her family, would be destroyed forever. And ostracism happens. Several people I spoke to pointed to author June Campbell who wrote about being sexually abused by her master and was condemned roundly by Buddhists.
It is not just fear that stops women. Many question their own part in the affairs or know others will. The victims are often vulnerable women who have lost parents or been sexually abused before. They are confused young disciples who sometimes find the only comfort they have known in years in a Buddhist centre or in a master, women who have grown up without figures they could trust in their lives. When relationships became sexual they feel unsure of what to do. Two women who wanted to confront the master who had used them sexually were told by a leading Buddhist thinker to “get over it.” One woman told me that if any other “guy” had jumped her, she would have known what to do. But when a Tibetan, supposed to be a reincarnation of a lama, did, she found herself questioning whether accepting this was part of her path to enlightenment. Another woman describes herself as being so worn out from all the work she had to do in service to the master she was unable to reflect on the sexual relationship once it started.
When I spoke to women on the telephone they seemed relieved that they were finally talking. For all of them, the events had happened years ago and they wanted to see them as something that was behind them. But doing an interview to be televised was another matter. One woman, who was eager to get her story out, took days to respond to my specific request to interview her on a certain day. She told me later that the reality of it hit her very hard and she really had to rethink if she wanted this out there. Another woman, once she finished her interview was filled with doubt and the realization that it was hard to open wounds she believed were healing.
The women I have encountered have lost so much and have fought so hard for their equilibrium. Trying to recover from pasts by following a spiritual path, they were betrayed by the very masters who pretended to offer them hope.
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