‘Events Are The Teacher’ (1983)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

3 minutes

In 1983, the CoEvolution Quarterly devoted a 25-pages section to abuse by spiritual teachers. Titled ‘The Politics of Religion,’ this section starts with an exposé on Swami Muktananda (pp. 104-111).

It is followed by Katy Butler’s lengthy report ‘Events Are The Teacher: Working Trough The Crisis at San Francisco Zen Center’ (pp. 112-123) and ‘Perils of the Path’ by Rick Fields (pp. 124-129).

Butler reconstructs, in minute detail, the fallout of the disclosure of Richard Baker Roshi’s extra-marital sexual relations with female students and uncontrollable spendthrift.

Butler’s discussion of the ‘culture of diffidence’ that enabled Baker’s conduct is apt and, in hindsight, serves as a poignant reminder of many a Western Buddhist leader’s ahistorical nostalgia and distinctive obstinacy: many of the insights Butler already shared in 1983, are presented today as if they are real finds. She writes, for instance:

“Despite growing unhappiness and increasing resistance to Baker-roshi’s expansion plans, the community could not effectively tell him to stop. Among the senior students, who might have said stop, the atmosphere was like a medieval palace, one said. The courtiers strove to outdo each other for approval of their insight. Said one senior monk, ‘Then, when it comes time to confront Baker-roshi, you don’t feel like the person you are competing with will support you.’

Other senior students were not caught in this web of competition, but felt too dazzled to challenge him. He seemed so articulate and worldly to these men and women who had become monks in their early 20s. And so many of the projects for which he argued so convincingly had worked so well.
When a friend of Blanche Hartman’s hinted that Baker-roshi had been involved in affairs she said, a little too quickly, ‘That’s hearsay.’ Now she says she thinks she was saying, ‘Please don’t tell me. I don’t know what I’d do. I might have to leave, and I’m 58 years old; my whole life is here.’

Among newer students like myself, a confusion about certain Buddhist ideas contributed to people’s inability to trust their own common sense or speak out about their doubts. The first of these ideas is the concept of Dharma (teaching) transmission. Most simply put, as I understand it, the goal of each Buddhist teacher and student is to gain or allow access to the student’s enlightened mind through meditation and practice together. The ceremony of transmission acknowledges that the student has found access to this clear, big mind, which all of us have the potential to find, which is the same as the teacher’s mind, and ultimately, Buddha’s.

It is a tricky concept. We speak of a Zen ‘lineage,’ or dharma ‘heirs,’ as though the essence of Buddhist teaching had been handed down through the generations like a patrimony. The language can lead us to think that the teacher who is a dharma ‘heir’ possesses something as physical as the brown robe and bowl that symbelize it.

At Zen Center, the idea of dharma transmission became a way of keeping Suzuki-roshi alive. Richard Baker was conceived of as a fragile vessel that contained Suzuki-roshi’s pure mind. Many senior monks told me they felt powerless to disgrace or stop Baker-roshi until he transmitted Tenshin Reb Anderson, so that Suzuki-roshi’s lineage would survive. Thus, the concept of transmission began to tyrannize. In 1972, when the Board of Directors resisted the purchase of Green Gulch Farm, Baker-roshi threatened to leave if it wasn’t bought. The Board then acquiesced. ‘He used the authority of dharma transmission to frighten us. He said, I’m going to take mye baseball bat and go home, and you guys won’t be able to play Buddhism any more,’ remembered one senior monk.

The conception of dharma transmission is intertwined with a popular image of a perfectly enlightened human being whose every gesture is a teaching—an image that makes it hard to question a teacher’s actions even when one’s common sense cries out for an explanation.

‘The idea is out of context here,’ said Lew Richmond, the head of religious practice at Green Gulch Farm. ‘In the Orient, every craft has transmission from master to disciple. Its purpose is to protect against unauthorized and self-appointed teachers. But this aggrandizement of transmission in the minds of young meditators has not served our interest. What are you authenticating? Every word and deed for the rest of your life? We have an idealized image of an enlightened person. It’s not, strictly speaking, accurate to speak of an enlightened person, but rather of enlightened activity.'” (pp. 120-121).

Like Butler’s essay, Rick Fields’ discussion of Daniel Goleman’s ten ‘Early Warning Signs For The Detection of Spiritual Blight,’ first published in 1981, strikes me as eerily prescient of the numerous abuses that have taken place since.

One could be forgiven for thinking that leading Western Buddhists in most every denomination were simply unteachable and suffer from a developmental delay that goes back decades. If ‘events’ are indeed the ‘teacher,’ as Katy Butler wrote, little did they learn from them.

Rodarmor et al - Special Section on the Politics of Religio (CoEvolution Quarterly (40) Winter 1983 pp. 104-129) REDUX

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.