‘Not Mixing Up Buddhism’ (1986)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

5 minutes

Thirty-six years ago, Carla Brennan wrote in Not Mixing Up Buddhism: Essays on Women and Buddhist Practice (1986):

“Numerous cases of spiritual teachers (some married and others supposedly celibate) initiating sex with students have become common knowledge. I have been close to the source of some incidents and distant from others and I cannot verify all the specific details or information. However, even a conservative estimate would show this behavior to be widespread. Certainly not every instance of sexual relations between teachers and students constitutes sexual misconduct. It is understandable that a single, non-celibate teacher might become involved with a student. It is the motivation behind the sexual act that determines whether the precept has been broken. Is the sexual activity a genuine expression of love, intimacy, and connection to another human beingor is it an expression of power and an attempt to exploit another person to satisfy one’s desires? Although many people are uncomfortable with the sexual behavior of some teachers and students, there has been considerable reluctance to speak out publicly against this activity. This silence may come from self-doubt, deference to a teacher, or fear of being ignored, ridiculed, or ostracized. Some people may fear that the controversywill threaten the continuation of their community. Investigating incidents of sexual abuse can unearth painful and angry feelings.”

This slim volume—”the first of its kind”—consists of 116 pages. It claims to have sprung from the encounter between the Western feminism of its day and Zen Buddhism. After her introductory remarks, Brennan continues her essay ‘Sexual Power Abuse:’

“My own experience of sexual harassment from a spiritual teacher may help explain the complexity of feelings involved. Although my experience was mild compared to many other women’s, it shows how these situations may develop and indicates the effect they can have.
My first and only encounter with this Zen teacher was during a seven day retreat. After the second or third day he began to touch and hug me during the frequent interviews. At first this contact seemed casual and friendly and helped me feel welcome in a strange environment. However, he became more aggressive. I soon realized that his actions were motivated by sexual desire and not by concern for me.
I became confused and embarrassed; I began to worry about what he might do next. The touching felt intrusive and disrespectful. However, | found it difficult to effectively rebuff his advances. I was afraid he would not listen and would accuse me of makinga mountain out of a molehill. I didn’t want to make a scene, possibly “ruining” the retreat and alienating the teacher. I felt vulnerable and alone. I responded by being timidly discouraging; his efforts began to subside and the retreat soon ended.
Afterward I was angry with myself for feeling intimidated and for not responding more assertively. I was angry at the teacher for imposing his desires on me and using his position as a teacher to indirectly elicit subtle sexual contact. He was diverting time and energy away from the purpose of the interview. Most importantly, he was relating to me, a woman, as a sexual object rather than as a serious Zen student. I have not returned to study with this teacher and I have vowed to express loudly and clearly my disapproval if I should have a similar experience. Although this situation was more annoying than traumatizing, it made clear to me how potentially painful sexual harassment can be and how it can interfere with one’s practice.”

Brennan goes on to quote from a brochure about sexual harassment published by the University of Massachusetts. She points out that sexual harassment is illegal, and continues:

“Hopefully, situations of sexual misconduct can be resolved from within the community rather than in a court of law. However, stronger measures may need to be taken to curb this behavior, protect students, and afford women equal treatment. It is important to understand that sexual harassment is taken very seriously in the secular world and that spiritual teachers are not above the law.
Spiritual teachers are often accorded an unusual amount of uncontested political power within their community. The hierarchical organizational structures adopted from the East often give the head teacher the final say on all decisions, no matter how important or petty, practice related or worldly, or how qualified the teacher may be to advise. Systems of peer supervision, accountability, and grievance procedures may not be adequate.
These hierarchical forms reflect the values of the feudal systems of class division and authoritarian control of the societies where most Buddhist traditions developed, rather than the modern values of democracy, equality, and individual responsibility.”

Here, Brennan quotes Katy Butler, who investigated the sexual abuse at the San Francisco Zen Center, as saying:

“For a long time, most of us accepted without thinking it through, foreign conceptions of hierarchy, of information restricted on a “need to know” basis. Coming from a culture almost devoid of ways of showing respect, some of us hungrily took on another way. Now these foreign ideas are being tested for their usefulness against the genius of Western culture: democracy, open information, a free press, psychological development, the separation of Church and State, and a system of checks and balances.”

Brennan goes on:

“The organizational structures handed down to us from the East are not sacred; there is nothing more “spiritual” about one organizational form over another. However, the structure should be appropriate to the time and place, reflect the values and vision of the group, and serve the needs of the members. Since power abuses as well as related problems are re-occurring in spiritual communities, we need to question seriously the effectiveness of strict hierarchical forms and begin to investigate alternatives.
The “myth of infallibility” is another source of power for spiritual teachers. This is the belief that teachers always act, think or feel from an “enlightened” state and are therefore always right. Often when students do not approve of what a teacher is doing, they blame themselves for not having enough wisdom to understand the teacher. This belief gives spiritual teachers nearly unlimited authority, and such power may be very attractive. Although a teacher may be put on a pedestal of perfection, he (or she) may have less than ideal desires and act in less than ideal ways. In order to maintain and protect this powerful false image a teacher may decide, consciously or unconsciously, to deny or hide his acts. Other members of the sangha who rely psychologically on the ideal image of a teacher may aid in the deception. However, as Santayana says, ‘There is, indeed, no idol ever identified with the ideal which honest experience, even without cynicism, will not someday, unmask and discredit.'”

After this, Brennan describes some common patterns in the sexual abuse of women, including the conditioned responses of women to men in positions of power that she observed. She concludes:

“To consciously stop this cycle of abuse, we, aswomen, need to explore our illusions of teachers and practice, our dependency needs, and our unconscious actions that create pain for ourselves by stepping out of patterns that perpetuate sexual abuse, while at the same time, confronting teachers on their sexual misconduct. We need to replace complicity with truth.
We live in a world where sexual and physical abuse of women is part of our “normal” existence. Rape, sexual abuse of children, wife battering and pornography have touched many women’s lives. As one researcher on sexual harassment says, ‘the intimate violation of women by men is sufficiently pervasive in American society as to be nearly invisible.’ It is as if we have lived with the foul smell of abuse for so long that we cannot always perceive it.”

Brennan’s essay ends on a positive note:

“The serious self-examination that is taking place in several Buddhist communities in the West is helping to heal the damage that has been done, and to bring to light the issue of sexual misconduct. Feminist awareness is growing within American Buddhism, and women are talking openly and honestly about what has been happening. As we begin to look clearly at sexual misconduct, we can return to the third precept to explore its meaning, and to reaffirm its value in a new time and place. And by doing so, we will reach a deeper, more fulfilling, and mature relationship with ourselves, with our practice, and with the world around us.”

I reiterate, this essay was written thirty-six years ago. I was struck by its astute, matter-of-factly stance and the appositeness of Brennan’s analysis of the problem at that time. Clearly, between the 1970s and the mid-1980s sexual abuse by Buddhist teachers was so prevalent that it was evoking some powerful public objections.

Hopkins et al - Not Mixing Up Buddhism-Essays on Women and Buddhist Practice (1986) 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.