Behind Closed Doors

Like Dosho Port over at Wild Fox Zen, I have lots of things I want to write about, but when everyone is talking about a scandal, not talking about it starts to feel like avoidance. Today, to many people such as myself (who have never been privy to the American Zen gossip mill), the news about Joshu Sasaki comes as a surprise. So did the very disturbing details about Eido Shimano not long ago. But the greater surprise, for me at least, is learning that so many people have known so much for so long. I am not mystified by how these things happen — I have seen for myself how students can enable teachers, and how they can look away from actions and “teachings” that bear greater scrutiny. I have also seen how a teacher can become so insulated that there is no real pressure to act like — or be– a mature adult. It’s a trap, one that everyone sets together. The Zen world — all over the world — needs to do some serious housecleaning. But that is painful, and sad, and it gets ugly along the way.

I do not feel that I have much to offer regarding the current scandal. The scope of it is still being defined, and while that’s happening, people have already stepped forward and said much of what needs to be said, at least at this stage (Myoan Schireson’s article at Sweeping Zen, “A Zen Woman’s Personal Perspective on Sexual Groping, Sexual Harassment, and Other Abuses in Zen Centers,” is a good place to start). I don’t want to waste anyone’s time. I will say that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a Zen teacher desiring sex. That just means he or she is human. For that matter, I’m not concerned with a teacher being attracted to a student — we do not have much control over who or what we desire. But when a teacher, in a practice setting, acts on that attraction (even with just a word, or a gesture, or an unmistakable look), the teacher is elevating that desire to primary importance. He is saying that satisfying his desire or his curiosity is more important than the student, more important than the transmission of the teachings, more important than the practice, more important than the health of the community. That is the mindset of a child, and we don’t need children teaching Zen. But all that’s obvious, and it’s been said better elsewhere.

There is one aspect of this scandal and all the others, however, that seems not to be getting much airtime, so I’d like to try to explore it here. It’s dokusan.

Dokusan (or sanzen in the Rinzai world — even more confusing, sanzen is also a Soto word, but with a completely different meaning), is the formal, private meeting between student and teacher. Some Zen centers offer it year round, others only during sesshin or special practice periods. Generations of Westerners know, from Philip Kapleau’s Three Pillars of Zen (and other books describing koan-based practice), that dokusan is where the excitement is. It’s where student and teacher tangle eyebrows, where they shout and hit and stare and cry and break through to something new. If you’re a new student, dokusan is where you go to find your most romantic ideas about Zen; if you’re a teacher with a new student, dokusan is where your authenticity is tested, where you do or do not live up to that student’s dreams. It can be intense. (My advice: don’t live up to those dreams.)

But dokusan is also the setting and starting point of almost every sex scandal in the Zen world. Dokusan is where a teacher touches a student’s knee, where a teacher suggests that the student is special and that theirs is an intimacy that goes well beyond the mind, where the teacher cultivates an ambiguous sexual tension to see where it might go. It is where a student and teacher having an affair can be perfectly alone, but in public. In some cases, it is where the teacher assaults the student outright. And it is also where, by the nature of it, the student is most vulnerable, most raw, most receptive to whatever the teacher is offering. It’s the scene of the crime, over and over and over again.

My own experience of dokusan: The first time I entered that room was as a student here in Japan, with a Soto teacher who uses koans. It was not magical or even all that intense, but it was honest, and I was grateful for the encounter (in that one sesshin, I learned a lot about how not to behave in dokusan). My second experience of it was as a teacher, receiving students. That may seem shocking, but in the Soto world, at least for those of us who trained in Japan, that’s normal. In the conventional Soto Zen world (meaning temples and teachers who do not use koans as teaching tools), there is no such thing as dokusan. I’m sure there are some exceptions to that, but in my 12 years in Japan, I have yet to find even one. A student can always meet formally with a teacher — structures exist for that. But even then — even if the meeting opens and closes with prostrations, even if it produces all the intensity we might expect — it is also more likely than not that tea will be served, and that the conversation will stretch on for an hour or more. There will not be a line of students waiting their turns; there will not be an attendant guarding the door.

In the West, due largely to the influence of Philip Kapleau’s book (and some others), Soto Zen practitioners decided decades ago that dokusan is indispensable to Zen practice. The fact that it is employed is not a bad thing — it creates an encounter that is deliberate and formal in ways that are difficult to maintain at other times, perhaps especially in the casual world of the West. In the teaching seat, I have seen how it throws even seasoned practitioners off center to walk into that room, how it makes them open to something new. And that’s good. I have watched people with whom I have only ever had casual conversations bow, sit down, tear open their chests, and hand me their beating hearts. It is a very humbling place to be. I have also had the profound privilege of serving as an interpreter for Japanese teachers visiting the US and conducting dokusan at students’ requests. From my spot in the shadows, I have been able to watch encounters that are not intended for an audience; I have witnessed how skillful teachers can create that open and forgiving space, how they stay so clear and so honest in the face of so many projections and so much transference.

I have also seen where it can become complicated. A woman I had just recently met once came to me in dokusan and told me that she felt like she might have a crush on me. She described this as a feeling that was confusing to her, but her presentation was giggly and a little flirtatious. I don’t believe she wanted anything to happen between us. She was considerably older than I was; it didn’t feel like a proposition. But she was also inviting me to respond. She was testing me a little, and maybe also seeking out some sort of affirmation. I told her this: those feelings are natural, even normal. I, too, have felt something like a crush on teachers, male and female — that initial attraction, that desire to be close to the teacher or even to be considered special is probably only rarely a romantic one, but since those feelings are so analogous to romantic feelings (we don’t even have multiple words for “crush,” though they are obviously needed), it is easy for either party to be confused. She and I shared a laugh about it, and we went on to talk about other things. But in that moment between what she said and how I responded, what if she had reached out and touched me on the hand? Or what if I had touched her hand, just to be reassuring or friendly? It could have happened, easily. One of us would have been left wondering what on earth it all meant.  She could have told that story to the rest of the sangha any way she wanted; I could have done the same. Or we could have held that moment as a secret between us — this little thing, that should have meant nothing, could have transformed into something that needed to be resolved, or hidden, or somehow followed up on. A small gesture like that, when two people are so exposed, can tear the world down the middle. It can terrify or excite the student — maybe both. And it can embolden a teacher — making others uncomfortable or afraid can be an intoxicating kind of power, whether it’s about sex or not.

I don’t know if any of the horrible stories we hear about teachers molesting and assaulting and generally manipulating students start out in that small way. But I think I see how easy it is for that dynamic to fall away from what it should be. We sometimes describe Zen in dangerous terms, and rightly so — zazen is not a safe activity. Walking into a room and exposing your heart to someone is not a safe thing to do. Nor should it be. But even recognizing and honoring that, we can agree that the dokusan room, in more conventional terms, must be a safe space. There must be rules. There must be guidelines that are public — not only so that teachers can be held accountable, but so that students can know, without any question, that what just happened was a transgression and not a teaching to be unraveled.

I do not want to dissuade anyone from walking into that room. There is a beautiful, honest, uncomfortable encounter to be had there, and Zen is all of those things. I encourage anyone who wants that confrontation to seek it out. But given the problems that continue to occur there, I also want to offer two thoughts, for what they’re worth:

The first is that Zen teachers do not need to touch students. Ever. As someone who teaches at a university, I am not allowed to close the door when a female student visits my office. This is for her protection and mine. In dokusan, the door will be closed, so there needs to be transparency before it closes about what can and cannot happen there. I don’t know what other teachers do; I don’t want to suggest all sorts of arbitrary limits. But I cannot imagine how a teacher is hindered by not physically touching the student. Teachers, just don’t do it. Students, don’t press the issue. If the student really wants to hug the teacher, that should be done later, and it should happen in front of other people. But even better, let’s bow to each other. When I visit American Zen centers, I find that bowing is being traded in for handshakes and hugs, but what is lacking in a bow? I used to visit a women’s prison where I was expressly forbidden from touching anyone in the prison population. Every time as I left, the woman we visited there most often would say she wished she could hug me, then we would bow instead. But that bow contained that hug. It contained more than a hug. I loved that bow.

The second thing I want to say is that dokusan is not at the center of the practice — let’s be careful not to put it there. I’m not sure that can be said of the koan tradition — there, it may be difficult to move forward without it. But in Soto Zen, there is nothing your teacher can offer you in that room that is more special than what she offers outside of it. And if you try to bring more to that room than you do to the way you sit or walk or stand or lie down, then you are missing what actually is at the center. If you go into dokusan, then really show up, really be there. But then, after the bell rings, open the door with that same presence, and walk away withholding nothing, offering that action and the next and the next. Be careful about anything special happening in that room. I don’t just mean sex — I mean anything.

There is no room more special than the one you’re in right now. There is no encounter more important than the one you’re having in this moment.

Dokusan is just another room, just another encounter. Let’s try not to forget.

You Know This Blog is No Good Because I’m Trying to Write It

The other day, as I was finally emerging from under a large-scale translation project that consumed my time over the last few months (and basically shut down this blog), I checked Facebook and saw this quotation making the rounds:

Teachers who think they are actually teachers teaching something are to be avoided. Good teachers are people who are themselves simply working on their own practice and are willing to share their lives as best they can with others. In this sense the “best” teachers are often the worst teachers; the more brilliant the teacher, the more exciting, the more enlightened, the worse it is for the student. The student ends up lusting after time with the teacher, hanging on her every word, and forgetting that this is about him or her, the student, not the teacher. – Zoketsu Norman Fischer

From the source that I saw, inside of a day, this was shared more than 30 times and “liked” more than 100. So I’m sure it’s all over the place by now. It is not my intention to pick on Zoketsu Fischer, for whom I have a lot of respect. Nor do I know the context in which any of this was said. But this statement — standing alone, which is how it is being embraced — reveals two of the most dangerous ideas we can encounter when we enter into Zen practice.

Of course, there is truth to it, too, so we should acknowledge that first: a lot of Zen teaching (especially in the Soto world) does not always look like “teaching” in a conventional sense. Like any apprenticeship, the first condition is proximity, not words — that proximity allows the student to watch and absorb and question and imitate. It also makes possible a kind of friction between teacher and student — one could argue that this friction is important in any teacher-student relationship, but in Zen, it carries an unusual weight. So yes — a lot of Zen “teaching” rests primarily on the teacher sharing the practice with someone who is invested in receiving it. Also, a teacher with an inflated investment in being a big shot is confused from the start. But that is not at the heart of what the quotation above is saying.

The most obvious problem here is what we might call “Zen exceptionalism,” which reaches back as far as Zen does. Zen exceptionalism, in a nutshell, is the assertion that everything in Zen is a kind of “opposite world” in which the surest way to accomplish a task in a “Zen” way is to do the opposite of what any ordinary person might do. That is to say, Zen has its own rules, its own physics. If I say there’s no truth to that, I’m lying — paradox is at the heart of many Zen teachings. That said, however, we shouldn’t be too quick to embrace something that doesn’t make any darned sense.

What if I write that “History teachers who think they are actually teachers teaching history are to be avoided”? Math teachers? Piano teachers? It doesn’t hold up. Not only is it absurd, but it creates a dangerous standard for everyone involved.

Zen teachers might teach in all sorts of covert ways. It might not look like teaching. And Zen teachers — unlike, say, math teachers — may not aspire to that role. They might find themselves there by accident. That’s fine. But for the teacher to actually have no sense of teaching in the moment that teaching is happening is for the teacher to be unaware that there, in front of him, is a student. That is not only dangerously ignorant, but highly implausible. It’s just talk.

Scholars continue to debate the degree to which Taoism influenced Zen after Buddhism reached China, but it seems to me that we can hear a pronounced Taoist voice in these kinds of upside-down Zen assertions. Taoist literature speaks of the sage who always seems to do things by not doing those things: The sage drinks coffee by not drinking coffee. (Or something like that.) But even the sage knows about coffee. The sage, while drinking coffee (however he does that, or does that by not doing that), does not think, “I am not a drinker of coffee. I would never drink coffee.” The sage is not so unaware of the act of drinking coffee that he does not own up to it even as he is doing it.

Yet we are being told not only that the teacher teaches by not teaching, but that the teacher does not recognize her function as a teacher. The teacher who teaches is not a true teacher; the teacher who notices that she is teaching is, by definition, no longer a good teacher. And the more skillful a teacher seems to be, the less skillful that teacher actually is. The more awake, dynamic, or intelligent the teacher, the more dangerous.

If this is true, then how is a student to proceed? How is a teacher to proceed? If I am a new student at a Zen center, armed with this list of criteria for choosing a teacher, I have it easy — the first time the teacher offers me any kind of guidance, I can just write her off. I know she’s a fake, because she’s actually trying to teach me.  Do her Dharma talks leave me inspired and full of questions? Well, she’s no good — I know better, now, than to be seduced by that kind of so-called “skill.” Does she seem awake in her actions — does her presence disarm me a little? That is a definite no. What I need is a teacher who, in addition to having no discernible skill as a teacher — or awareness of the role itself — also makes literally no effort to teach me. That would be the real thing.

I sometimes wince when people talk about robes being “dangerous,” but here, I understand. Robes provide a kind of reverb to even the most absurd (or common-sense) statements, transforming them into something profound and paradoxical. If I sit on the high seat in robes, take a deep breath, lean forward, and say emphatically (maybe with a whisper, maybe with a shout), “You all need to wash your hands,” the audience’s first response is not to look at their hands to see if they are dirty. The first response is to think, “This means something.” If the point I’m trying to make is really as straightforward as it sounds, I may need to change my presentation. If I just put on ordinary clothes, cut out the theatrics, and maybe motion to my hands or others’ hands, and say, “You all need to wash your hands,” there’s a much higher chance of that message getting across the first time. If I say, “A true cook doesn’t cook,” well, we know from that start that something about that is not quite right. But if I make it a Zen thing, if I say, “A true tenzo never cooks,” then that’s food for thought. That just feels true–not in spite of the fact that it makes no sense, but because of it. It’s even more fun if I change it to say something that has no connection to anything: “You cannot eat a sandwich until you forget the sandwich.”  A Zen student hearing that might chew on it for days, convinced not only that it’s meaningful, but that it must be true.

You can eat a sandwich, or you can forget a sandwich, but you can’t do both.

The other, more subtle, issue in this quotation is in the last line: “The student ends up lusting after time with the teacher, hanging on her every word, and forgetting that this is about him or her, the student, not the teacher.” All the various sexual scandals popping up these days should serve as reminders of the dangers of completely losing oneself (and one’s sense of agency) in the face of a manipulative teacher. That’s the truth of it, but again, that’s not really what’s being pointed to here. The message here is this: the practice is about you.

And that’s not true.

We get a hint of this earlier: “Good teachers are people who are themselves simply working on their own practice….” But “my practice” is not Zen practice, not yet. If you are looking for a criterion by which to accept or reject a teacher, this is a good one: Is he practicing for himself? If he is — if the practice in which he is engaged is best described as “his practice” — then he is in no position to be teaching in the first place, whether he knows he’s doing it or not.

There are two basic ways to talk about the why of practice. The first is to say that we practice and offer that practice to all beings; the second is to say that we practice for the sake of practice, or even that we let practice practice. The second is harder than the first, but that doesn’t mean the first is easy.

The relationship between teacher and student is most definitely not about the teacher, but nor is it about the student. That’s a dangerous trap, one in which the student becomes the customer.  The teacher-student dynamic is exactly that: a dynamic. Not a transaction.  And that dynamic is about the practice. It’s about excluding nothing, expanding and challenging and including and transcending and offering — in all directions, including to each other.

It is an intentional dynamic. It may be messy and complicated, but it is not an accident. It is intimate, and it is mutual, and it is not, strictly speaking, personal. It’s bigger than “my” or “mine.”

To me, describing it any other way just doesn’t make any darned sense.