Spiritual Teachers and Sex Scandals: What's Going On?

Spiritual teachers just don't seem to be able to keep their hands off their students. Sex scandals go back for as long as there have been spiritual teachers, and right into today (John Friend, Sasaki Roshi, Bikram Choudhury).  

Let's cut through the bullshit, and talk about what's really going on. 

This is a provocative excerpt from The Heart of Zen. 


          Amrit Desai, Chögyam Trungpa, Eido Shimano.

          Amrit Desai, Chögyam Trungpa, Eido Shimano.

Jun Po Roshi (JP): I met the Dali Lama back in the 90’s, as part of a delegation of first generation Western teachers teaching the Dharma — to go and see dad, as I liked to say. (laughs) Someone in the audience asked His Holiness to explain how a Tibetan monk many of us knew could have come to sleep with his students, causing all manner of lawsuits and turmoil. 

The Dali Lama smiled, and said simply, “Easy.  His spiritual insight isn’t deep enough.” 

Well, I had met this monk. I had to raise my hand, and someone handed me a microphone.  “Your Holiness,” I said, “Can I say something here?”  He nodded.  “Bullshit,” I said.  (laughs). Man, his eyes just lit up.  So I continued, “Look, I’ve trained with this man. He trained with you personally for a decade, and did three three-year solo retreats.  I’ve sat with him, and his insight is very deep.  I think there’s something else at play here aside from his insight.” 

The Dali Lama offered me this brilliant smile.  And then he said, “That’s because your insight isn’t deep enough.”  

I sat there with my mouth hanging open.  He had me.  

Keith Martin-Smith (KMS): Deep spiritual insight transforms behavior?

JP: Absolutely. When your spiritual insight is deep enough, it is no longer possible to act in a purely selfish way. Compassion, which is inexplicably but inarguably linked to Enlightenment, makes acting selflessly just far more interesting than acting selfishly.

KMS: Your teacher, Eido Shimano Roshi, has had some very public problems with fidelity and boundaries around affairs with some of his students.  He admitted to this in a public letter, and has resigned as head abbot of Dai Bosatsu, the monastery in NewYork where you were given inka and made his dharma heir.  How do you view this? 

JP: With sadness. Eido Roshi was for me and many others a true meditation master, with incredibly clear insight.  (pauses) Yet some of his behaviors were very problematic.

KMS: You witnessed his indiscretions when you were his student?

JP: (pauses for a long moment) My experiences with his duplicity concerning his unconventional sexuality at Dai Bosatsu helped to show me that meditation alone wasn’t enough; insight alone wasn’t enough.  I resigned my vice abbotship in protest over his behavior, and gave up my secession of the monastery in the spring of 1993.

KMS: In protest of what?

JP: He was being deceitful.  I do not object to consenting sex between psychologically healthy adults, or even polyamorous relationships where people have open sexual relationships with more than one partner.  I’m not even necessarily opposed to adult teachers sleeping with adult students, so long as it is open and honest— if you’re not willing to do what you’re doing in the public eye, and with everyone aware of what’s going on, you should probably think twice about the behavior. 

     Sexual union is divine art and we need to come to that realization. When and how our culture awakens to this truth is going to require evolution — and evolution has it’s own timetable. But the Mondo Koan Process started with Eido, because of my need to understand his confusion, sexual immaturity, reactive duplicity, and cultural bondage. 

KMS: You seem like you’re really struggling to give me these answers.  

JP: (nods and sighs) It’s a mess.  The rules of Zen are very old and very rigid, and they can’t be broken by someone like Eido Roshi, who lives within their confines and teaches them. Classic Zen doesn’t evolve — they do things now they same way they did them 400 years ago.  So he had to go into psychological shadow and duplicity.  Many times he took advantage of women because he saw their weakness around him.  And more than once, I watched women take advantage of him because they saw his weakness around them.  

     These things are seldom as neat as the stories we create about them.   It’s an impossible dilemma Zen, and culture in general, finds itself in around sexuality. How could a traditional Japanese Zen master deal with complicated sexuality between consenting adults, and remain in cultural integrity? How could he express his sexual desire, and remain in personal integrity?  Now there are two koans for you. Traditional Zen and American puritanical, and occasionally hysterical, views on sexuality were little help back then. I don’t condone his behavior — let me make that clear. But I see it as a symptom of a much larger problem of immature sexuality in our culture. In most cultures. 

KMS: What did you say to him?

JP: I told him just tell the truth. You have the opportunity to enlighten us.

KMS: Anything else? 

JP: Be sure you’re clear on the difference between love and lust.

KMS: You’re not sure that he was. 

JP: I don’t know.  I do know that love doesn’t leave anyone feeling used or pissed off. That much I can tell you. But now I get to understand and compassionately live with what Eido taught me. What to do classically, and what not to do culturally and personally. I am eternally grateful for both teachings. 

KMS: What are the biggest lessons you learned?    

JP: You can keep the light shining in the face of lust.  Then, it’s inconceivable you could choose to cause another being pain through selfish action.  Getting laid, and deceiving someone because you’re unwilling to stand honestly with your desire and its consequences, doesn’t work anymore.  Not as an ethical edict from outside but as an interior moral, from within.   

KMS: You stumbled publicly yourself in this domain, yes?

JP: I fell in love with a priest in my order in the mid-2000’s, when both of us were in relationships with other people. But it was before Mondo Zen had been developed; I too ended up falling into duplicity and madness and deceit, and tore my own community apart.  My insight wasn’t deep enough. (pauses) I didn't 'stumble in this domain'; I fell. 

KMS: That’s why you hold that Compassionate Wisdom beats Crazy Wisdom.

JP: Any day of the week. 

KMS: And I should note you’re married to that priest now. 

JP: (nods) I will forever be on my knees for my duplicity, begging for forgiveness.  (pauses) But I will never apologize for falling in love.  Love takes no prisoners.  


Keith Martin-Smith is a published author of fiction and non-fiction, a Shaolin Kung Fu lineage holder and teacher, and an ordained Zen priest. 

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