Dutch director Laetitia Schoofs—the former head of a Buddhist network on national tv and radio, which is now dissolved—recently used footage of the Thai Vipassana teacher Mettavihari († 2007) in the opening scenes of the second part of her television series ‘Buddhas in the West’. The footage was shot in 1974 and shows Mettavihari walking down a street and taking the pulpit in the Thai temple in Waalwijk. Schoofs’ use of the excerpt is entirely decorative. Her report provides no context at all. So, she fails to mention that Mettavihari sexually abused underaged children and young men in the 1970s through 2000s.
As it happens, at the time this footage (starts at 2.25 mins.) was recorded Mettavihari had already begun abusing underage children in this very temple, which was established in a single-family home. Among them a 12-year-old boy. The boy was neither a Thai nor a Buddhist. He just happened to live on the same street. The boy was lured into the temple with a glass of lemonade and was sexually assaulted. Many years later, in 2015, while he was watching a news report of the Dutch Eight O’Clock News about Mettavihari he recognized his abuser. He had never told anyone what happened inside the temple.
Schoofs provides no background at all, and I find this problematic. Perhaps she does not know. Perhaps she is unaware that such footage re-traumatizes survivors of abuse. Or perhaps sexual abuse simply does not concern her at all. Either way, it makes Schoofs unfit to serve as Buddhists’ mouthpiece on national television. And yet she does. To me, as a practicing Buddhist, such dereliction of duty characterizes the public image of Buddhism more than anything else. It is a feature, not a bug.
Schoof’s series was broadcast by the KRO-NCRV network, one of several Dutch national media that cultivate a Christian heritage. It is simply inconceivable that KRO-NCRV would have broadcast a series about 21st-century Christians which was decorated with footage of an abusive pastor inside the church where he sexually abused minors—just because the director meant to adds a picturesque, folkloric local color. Or of an abusive Roman-Catholic priest inside his cathedral, an abusive rabbi inside his synagogue—never mind an abusive imam inside his Mosque! After all, that would be tasteless—and risky too. But as far as Buddhists are concerned: anything goes.
With friends like these, Buddhists really need no enemies. American Professor Jay Garfield says, right before the footage of Mettavihari:
‘I think it is important that Buddhism—if it is going to survive, and it will survive—becomes a modern ideology. An approach to taking up with the world that recognizes things like rights and duties and justice. These are ideas that are completely foreign to Buddhism as it evolved. Because those are ideas that really only arised in the West, in the 17th and 18th century. So, as we see Buddhism grappling with these ideas, we see Buddhism becoming a more modern approach to life.’
Grappling indeed. Take a moment to consider these words in-depth.
Who are the practicing Buddhists who raise their voice and openly declare that Schoofs’ trifling, callous way of doing things is morally abject? Who are the practicing Buddhists who demand that those in charge of the KRO-NCRV network reprove Schoofs for this? Are there any at all? For the sad state of affairs is this: many Western Buddhists would find such assertiveness and exacting standards pitiful—for Laetitia Schoofs, that is.
Postscript: After she read my op-ed, Laetitia Schoofs wrote to me saying that she was shocked to learn that she had used the excerpt without knowing its background. She took the second installment of the two-part series off line right away, and re-edited it. The new version (without the contested extract) can be watched here.