‘A Gathering Of Spirit’ (1987)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

6 minutes

In 1987, the booklet  A Gathering of Spirit: Women Teaching in American Buddhism, a collection of talks and discussions held during a ‘Women and Buddhism’ conference in 1985, was published.

Among the discussants are more than a few female Buddhist teachers who made names for themselves later: Gesshin Prabasha Dharma Roshi, Toni Packer, Jan Chozen Bays, Ruth Denison, Pema Chödron, and Joanna Macy.

A Gathering of Spirit contains several striking references to sexual abuse by Buddhist teachers. For instance, Jacqueline Schwartz Mandell writes (p. 24):

“I’ve heard too many distressing stories this year. Some of these have been published. Other stories I’ve heard directly from individuals. They included deep depressions of women students who were approached sexually by their teachers. The students did not know how to deal with this type of behavior. They had no context in their spiritual communities in which they could relate these kinds of experiences. At first there was little, if no communication about these experiences. The most distressing story I heard was of a suicide. A woman had an affair with her teacher. Then, he left her and moved on to another place. This was too confusing for her.
Many of you have an enormous amount of life wisdom. You have seen a lot and have tried many things. You have tried to work on your problems and on your lives in many ways and you have come to spiritual practice. Then some of you, even with the life wisdom, turn away from looking at the current community problems, even to the extent of saying, ‘We don’t have those problems here.’ Perhaps you think, ‘I just want to surrender, I don’t want to think about that anymore.’ Here surrender is used as avoidance. A lot of you come here thinking, ‘That’s not what I’m dealing with; I’m just dealing with meditation practice.’ And yet, we also have to remember our own maturity and adulthood. There are certain phraseologies of becoming ‘Children of the Dharma,’ of having ‘child-like minds.’ This does not mean acting like a child. Some of you may not be able to look at these situations because of dependency. This could be dependency on the teacher or on the institution. This dependency needs to be looked at. I know this is a difficult investigation.”

During one of the panel discussions, Prabhasa Dharma († 1999) referred to her own sexual relationship with Joshu Sasaki Roshi († 2014), in response to this question:

“One of the issues that’s most painful to talk about, for women who go through training, is having had male teachers. Although the Buddhist teachings are fair and equal, all teachers do not manifest this teaching in a fair way. All teachers do not challenge the biases within and the male ego they carry with them, because they are not challenged by their teachers to do so. I and maybe other women too have had to leave teachers because of direct and indirect abuse.”

Prabhasa Dharma answers:

“What you were saying about your personal story, I deeply feel with you because I went through that myself. I’m here as an example of what one can do with that. Maybe you can do something different with it. I don’t think we can make rules about this to solve the problem. That is why we always go so deep and say that basically, we must become whole and healed. Then we find our role and will evolve as a teacher, no matter what we do, even if we become bakers or something, we will be a teacher. We will find a way to manifest what we most want to be. This is what I believe in.’

Not quite persuaded, the questioner retorts:

“Ideally all things are in balance. But that person is still causing pain to other people. I can heal and go to practice, but what happens to the others?” (p. 65)

This instructive exchange is followed by another. It was triggered by Pema Chödron, who surely was fully aware of the numerous allegations of physical and sexual abuse against her own Tibetan guru, Chögyal Trungpa and his followers: 

“Pema Chodron: I think it’s a question of how you relate to injustice in the world, any injustice, even if it’s someone hurting your cat. How do you relate to things not being right? It brings up self-doubt. Otherwise,why wouldn’t you just blast out in a nonagressive way? (Laughter) If you have confidence.

Q: This is your Buddha teacher. You’ve taken vows with this person. This person is experienced and has more sitting wisdom, intuition coming forth than you. And this person does something to you. Certainly you grow a lot, but I don’t think you ever get to be sure.

Pema Chodron: When you stand in the hallway outside this room, you can see the calligraphy that says, Bodhidharma sat for nine years and in spite, he killed the Buddha. Then you say, that’s what it means.

Q: The problem of isolation is one I’ve felt most acutely. I’ve come to a conference like this specifically to hear things brought up because I spenda lot of my time alone. I’m a single mother with tw o small children. It’s actually a battle to make that time to sit every day. Last year Jan Chozen spoke with such beautiful humor about being in the bathroom and having a kid pounding on the door. It’s enough to run into a situation of daily life, never mind injustice, when you have no community around you to say, ‘Yes, we felt this too and what you’ve gone through is very troubling.’ I wonder why we’re afraid to say the name of a person who’s causing trouble. Somehow we need to have a network.

Prabhasa Dharma: There are already a lot of women teachers in this country. If you have problems with men teachers, just go to the women teachers.

Q: And let them continue using people? Just ignore them and go away?

Prabhasa Dharma: One thing I’ve learned in this country is that businesses go out of business when you don’t buy their product. (Laughter and applause) But we have to be very, very careful. The Buddha said, hatred is not appeased by hatred. If we find something wrong and take the same measures and attitudes and weapons to strike back, then we’re no better. We’re in the same club.

Q: Which guru or rinpoche or whatever is doing this? We’ll put up a list here. I think that would be great. If people have had these experiences, I think it should be out immediately. We all love truth, don’t we? That’s why we’re here. Seriously, let’s look the Buddha right in the face. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have compassion, but does that mean you have compassion for the cat who eats the mouse, and for the mouse who dies, so you stand by and watch? ‘Ah, nature! Dukkha!’ When does one take political action, and when does one sit and meditate?

Ruth Denison: On such issues, one can use one’s intelligence and the quality of observing closely, which has kind of an objective attitude. First you get a bit of distance. Then you will be able to see in that space what possibility there is for you to directly touch that problem. That is my way of dealing with problems. I have a lot of criticism about injustice, but I don’t allow myself to be contaminated by any reaction to it.
Some kind of objectivity is necessary because if I allow myself to be too involved with criticism, I am too much in the process and have no energy left to see my opportunity for helping. As Prabhasa already said, because of that momentary impact, it’s impossible for you to help or do anything without accumulating some other karma or contaminating your heart with anger. We need an immediate relaxing and pacifying. I fall back to the First Noble Truth. Why do you think the Buddha spoke as a result of his enlightenment? To give a truth, the truth of suffering and imperfection and what we have to go through.
If you can, just keep the energies alive and awake and train a bit more for what is necessary, until you are more capable. Most of why we are not able to get into this, but stand back and talk about injustice, is we’re not capable or we doubt ourselves. As Pema said, strike! Provided you have immaculately investigated your possible effectiveness so that you can now not just grossly enter that event, but sensitively. It doesn’t need to be big compassion, but just a little. Be modest, take the crumbs and don’t wait for the whole loaf, or until it is your enlightenment. We will never make it. Meanwhile, we will be destroyed. Use the moment to moment opportunity with the possibilities you have.” (pp. 65-67)

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About the author

Rob Hogendoorn

Investigative reporter and academic researcher Rob Hogendoorn (b. 1964) began researching the reception of Buddhism in Western society and culture in the early 1990s. His modus operandi remained the same ever since: independent, inquisitive and provocative.