‘No Picnic at Spirit Rock’ (1994)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

8 minutes

In 1994, Judith Simmer-Brown published a critical report in Shambhala Sun about The Art of Teaching conference at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California. She was a student of Suzuki Roshi and Chögyam Trungpa and went on to become a teacher, professor, and dean of the faculty at Naropa Institute.

Simmer-Brown introduces her report on the conference as follows:

“It is both the strength and challenge of Buddhism that it will not provide easy answers. In an atmosphere of unprecedented frankness and emotion, more than a hundred western teachers of Buddhism gathered at The Art of Teaching conference at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, in Woodacre, California, in early September. Some revealed decades of submerged doubts and pain surrounding relationships with their own teachers, in particular, sexual relationships. But while many call for codes of conduct, Buddhism doesn’t even have niles about havingrules, and the dialogue will continue. Here, the Shambhala Sun presents the views of some leading participants onethical issues raised at the conference, and on the role of psychotherapy in modern Buddhism.”

Simmer-Brown continues:

“When anumber of Jesuit disciples were told by the Venerable Kalu Rippoche that it was time to visualize Jesus in place of Bodhisattva Chenrezig in meditation, were they still practicing Buddhism? When the most senior Zen roshi in America gives a koan about finding Buddha Nature while driving in Los Angeles, is that a real Zen koan?

As Buddhism has come to America, it is not only these Asian masters who face the questions of how best to teach here. Even more, it is a question for several hundred North Americans, the first generation of western Buddhist teachers.

With such questions in mind, 115 Theravada, Zen and Vajrayana teachers gathered in conference at Spirit Rock and the Green Gulch Zen Center. In the past, the great Buddhist traditions have almost never talked to one another. In fact, mixing in any way with other traditions has often been taught to be dangerous and confusing.

So the first accomplishment was how easily we talked together. We had hoped to bring teachers together to create a place of honest, heartfelt conversation—without recording, without journalists, without trying to create rules. Just to talk. I don’t want to make it sound all wonderful—some of our conversations were also difficult—but just to start to talk was a great blessing.

In the room there was probably jointly 3000 years of yogic experience—people who had spent years in caves, and done jnana and samadhi practices, kundalini and chakra work, and extended retreats. And then there were others who didn’t do all that spectacular stuff, but had devoted themselves to 20 or 30 years of steady and patient practice that deepens, as the Buddha says, like the great depths of the ocean. You could see it in their eyes, a kind of beauty from their years of practice.”

Even so, Simmer-Brown critiques the teachers’ discussions that focused on abuse:

“For a morning, the gathering allowed itself to become a spontaneous grief circle, where those with histories of dharma abuse, loss, isolation and secrecy spoke. From all three traditions we heard accounts of the fiery gate of betrayal and the necessary search for what’s true in each student’s life. When it was over, there was a sense of the incredible generosity of those who shared, and a rawness and tenderness like a newborn baby.

This was not an easy group. It was challenging and painful and left many questions. How do teachers with great wisdom and brilliance still fall into this? How do students lose themselves, lose their own integrity? What is really transformative in practice? What should be the proper place of vows of secrecy, tantra, of sexuality in western practice? How can we tell the truth about difficulties and still not undermine the faith of those who come to practice?

In all this, I felt there was a tremendous gratitude for our teachers, a real love for them and for the dharma that was given to us and has transformed our lives. It was not a question of blame but of the deep need to sort it out. It also became clear that this was the beginning of an honest conversation that will inevitably continue in American Buddhism. Perhaps in all of this our task is not to become some ideal, but to speak the truth, and hold ourselves, our teachers, and our students all with infinite respect, with the awakened heart of kindness of a Buddha.

The Art of Teaching conference did not, unfortunately, deal with the art of teaching. The planning group had decided to invite non-Buddhist “experts” to help conference guests deal with what was perceived as “American Buddhism’s shadow.” In my view, the Buddhist teachers present merely gave their power away to these experts, who were outside the mandala of American Buddhism, and the results were unfortunate.

An alarming number of teachers from American Buddhist communities reported wrenching accounts of sexual abuse and exploitation from their teachers, many of whom were Asian, and of the resulting secrecy and hypocrisy, betrayal and denial within their communities. Many of these occurrences were ten or more years ago, but their pain seemed fresh and unprocessed.

These stories created an atmosphere of doubt, victimization and shame. The events of sexual intimacy were secret in most cases, and were surrounded by denial. Many confessed they could not discuss their feelings with their own sanghas. Most also expressed open doubt in their teachers, even though they had received many transmissions from them.

While many present thought this confessional atmosphere was wonderful and strongly supported the environment of personal disclosure and unveiled pain, I found myself deeply saddened. It struck me that those present had completely bought the psychotherapeutic model of liberation, casting aside the tools they had developed through their dharma practice. From this point of the conference on, we even threw out our dharma vocabulary, our discussions of practice, even our practice of meditation. Can American Buddhism survive if it is merely a quasi-psychological cult?

The psychotherapeutic model was not the only problematic factor to me at this conference. The other distressing influence was the panic surrounding sexual abuse—in the form of harassment, abuse, and incest—which is sweeping our culture in this decade, a kind of swing to the right from the “free love” seventies. This hysteria sees sexual abuse everywhere, and feeds a sense of victimization and powerlessness. I do not deny that there is genuine sexual abuse which pervades our culture, but I do challenge the “witch-hunt” attitude of its inquisitors.

We live in a culture fixated on sexuality, and every Asian teacher who has taught here has had to deal with this, sometimes skillfully and sometimes not. What was considered acceptable and even “enlightened” in the seventies is firmly rejected in the nineties. Every religious community, every power matrix in America, is subject to these uses and abuses of sexuality and their revelations. And whether it is the seventies or the nineties, the nature of our sexual fixation remains. And this fixation has made sexuality the “Buddhagate” of American dharma.

What distresses me is that we have had the courage to go “against the stream” of samsara in the tradition of Shakyamuni, but we have also fallen into the same myopic cultural neurosis we find all around us. Certainly, it is important to speak the truth, but how deeply are we going to seek the truth? Can any solid, formulaic way of seeing the teacher-student relationship be the truth in the genuine dharma?

While it is healthy to clearly understand the devastation of sexual abuse which has permeated all areas of our society, wemust go deeply into the situation, see it in its entirety, and find the key which can end suffering. As Buddhist practitioners, we must look at the whole picture: why is this such an issue for us? What is really going on here?

At the lowest point in the conference, in a triumphant, adversarial mood, the entire group arose and sang ‘We Shall Overcome.’ Blame perpetuates the suffering, whether we blame ourselves or we blame our teacher; from a dharmic point of view, blame is extra. How can we work with this pain without becoming moralistic, which sets us back in our practice and our ability to truly benefit others? How can we view the pain as yet more evidence of the pervasiveness of samsara, even in our communities, without losing trust in the dharma? This is what our practice teaches us.

Is the sexual relationship with a dharma teacher always abusive, exploitative, damaging? I think not. As Robert Hall, a Buddhist therapist expert at the conference pointed out, the wounding factor in the student or teacher is not so much a particular event itself, but the way in which the event is dealt with by a teacher and student and by the particular culture or community. If sexual relationships are surrounded wit h deception, secrecy, and betrayal, it appears they are incredibly damaging, psychologically speaking. Even if they are not, they may arouse unprocessed karma about previously damaging abuse, causing harm.

But there is nothing inherently damaging about the sexual relationship itself, in my opinion. The relationship with one’s teacher is profound, groundless, and naked, whether or not it is a sexual relationship; it can be insulting, intimidating, gratifying, but it is always intimate. In Tibetan tantric texts, the consort relationship is presented primarily as a teaching situation, one which highlights that intimacy. A dynamic relationship is essential to the development of one’s practice. Losing that relationship, through whatever means, is devastating. If we cut ourselves off from our teachers, citing conventional wisdom in areas such assexual abuse, we damage ourselves even more extensively than we thought the relationship itself damaged us.

Are there, then, ethical abuses we should be concerned about? Ethics is a major concern for our generation of Buddhist teachers and students, but we must acknowledge that ethical considerations in Buddhism have always relied upon the motivation upon which the act is based. A blanket absolutist code of ethics, based only upon external behavior, misses the subtlety of Buddhist traditions. Whatever action arises from passion, aggression or bewilderment, no matter how seemingly virtuous it might be, carries a residue of defilement which causes harm to others. And whatever act is motivated by compassion or transcendent knowledge carries a liberating power. No matter how scandalous, it can liberate if the mind of the teacher and student are in harmony.

In this context, Buddhism has a rich heritage of seemingly abusive acts: Tilopa slapping Naropa in the face, Unmon giving Tozan sixty blows, Gutein cutting off his student’s finger, Yeshe Tsogyal’s husband offering her asa gift to his teacher, Guru Rinpoche. These acts taken in a conventional way are nothing short of outrageous. But for the student trapped in samsara, they are experienced asacts of great kindness, motivated by deep wisdom and compassion, For many of us, only the most direct communication has the ability of cutting through ego and its deceptions.

In short, we cannot judge the acts of others from external appearances. We cannot simply say that a particular community is an incest family in denial, or that a particular teacher is exploiting his or her students. We must use our discrimination concerning our own relationships with our teachers. We must question when questions arise, and we must take adversity asan invitation to go deeper. We must open up to our teachers and communities and use pain and crisis to enrich our practice.

The agenda broke down on the third day as people began to speak spontaneously of their deep grief over betrayal of trust by spiritual teachers. Men and women cried as they spoke, often of finding spiritual practice as a last resort in their lives, when suicide seemed a likely alternative. Deep wounds had occurred when students felt betrayed by trusted teachers through the many possible misuses of power. One woman cried out, ‘I don’t know if ___ was a brilliantly enlightened teacher or a demented alcoholic.’ (Maybe, we have to admit, both.)” (pp. 40-42)

Simmer-Brown - No Picnic at Spirit Rock-Power, Sex and Pain in American Buddhism (Shambhala Sun 2-3 January 1994 pp. 39-42)

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.