Note to students in Zen or similar practices: You can lose your mind and keep it

Written by Mark Baldwin

17 minutes

Mark Baldwin (b. 1941) has been a journalist, carpenter, Zen student, and runs a greeting card company – Borealis Press, Blue Hill, Maine, in the United States of America.

People who pay attention to what’s happening in Buddhist communities know case after case where self-serving teachers have caused pain, disruption, (and, likely, contributed to suicide) for students and/or their children.

Some of this awareness comes from academics who build scholarly, detached cases about the religious structures that have allowed, if not caused this chaos. Much of the most forward work is by Stuart Lachs, who has practiced Zen in the United States of America (USA) and abroad for over 50 years. In the 1970s he was the senior student where we both studied with Walter Nowick in Surry, Maine, in the USA. On the other hand, you won’t find much criticism in the more popular Buddhist publications, where readers hungry for spirituality find puffy profiles of Buddhist masters, and placid exhortations to be here now.

Here, I’m going to attempt a simple personal essay, a warning to students and would-be students to take care of themselves in their quest and, importantly, not become part of the problem. It is built on my experience and other people’s work, both writings and heroic cases where students have come forward with painful, probably embarrassing accounts of their experience.

Here is the fundamental issue. When studying with a teacher in the Zen, Tibetan, and some other traditions, the student accepts the absolute authority of the teacher (Zen master, Roshi, Sakyong, Rinpoche, or whatever exalted name the tradition bestows). This authority can be so powerful that it makes a drill sergeant’s command sound like a suggestion. When a teacher makes a request it might elicit what looks like a hypnotic response from the student, even if the student doesn’t see it like that at the time. This includes a teacher soliciting sex or money.

In Japanese Zen, for example, the student might respond with an instantaneous “HAI!” which means “yes” in ordinary Japanese but which means a thousand times that in this context. In personal matters the command may be subtle, but the relationship is the same. The student comes to understand what is required. It is a mark of progress on the path.

In Zen this authority is justified by lineage, or what is purported to be lineage, that guarantees that a Roshi (master) is in direct succession from the Buddha. This happens because the new Roshi has been authorized by another Roshi who personally decided that a student is worthy to be called a master. This declaration is called dharma transmission from one enlightened person to another. Possibly the overwhelming majority of practicing Zen students take this direct person-to-person authentication as historical fact, though Stuart Lachs and others point out that at least some of these stories are myth, partly because some of the purported teachers and students did not live at the same time. Also, it has been common for dharma to be “transmitted” for blatantly mundane reasons, such as connections to donors, or to sons or sons-in-law.

Why is the claim of actual “transmission” important? It is because Zen and other Buddhist sects are institutions as well as a practice, and a major goal of any institution is to preserve itself. In the case of Zen, authenticating this authentic person-to-person lineage is the essential job of the religion’s establishment because dharma transmission is the keystone in creating faith in the teacher, and hence faith in the practice, and faith in the institution, and thus faith in the key individuals in the institution. There are no weak links, unless you count the doubtfulness of actual linear continuity. This faith justifies (in the West, anyway) whatever teaching methods the teacher may use because, after all, Zen is about breaking down old ways of thinking. Again, there are no weak links, no constraints, unless you count common sense.

Note: Just because some of the institutional claims are dangerous, I don’t mean to entirely denigrate the practice. I personally am grateful for the experience, despite regrets about not seeing some bad things soon enough.

In the last decade or so some in the greater Buddhist community have become more sophisticated, but it is fair to say that the sanctity of lineage still holds sway. Buddhists, perhaps especially American Buddhists, take this model of maintaining the authenticity more seriously than Catholics regard the way the church chooses popes who, as direct successors of Peter, are given the mantle of religious and moral infallibility. Educated practicing Catholics may know about the venal and corrupt history that runs through the line of popes, but they do not feel that this compromises the validity of the church’s sacraments, or teachings on god, or sin, or damnation and redemption. Lately, criminal behavior has destroyed confidence in many clerics, high and low, but people still go to mass.

I also am quite sure that many (most?) Zen Buddhist practitioners believe that enlightenment, guaranteed by dharma-transmission, is an absolute defense against bad behavior. It is common for students to say that whatever an enlightened teacher does is “the teaching.” If you hear devoted students justify some behavior with the words “the teaching,” be careful. It’s a problem. (See “crazy wisdom” in the section on Trungpa and Tibetan Buddhism.)

The point is that for student, teacher, and the institution, accepting a teacher’s authentic enlightenment simplifies a student’s total submission. We’ll come back to “enlightenment.”

Where Zen uses dharma transmission as a keystone of authenticity, other expressions of Buddhism have their own measures of authenticity, such as interpretations of the sutras. For example, a branch called Soka Gakkai, established in the 1930s, bases its authenticity on sutra interpretation. Soka Gakkai says it is the one true Buddhism, claims over ten million members, and has great influence in Japan. A much newer movement called Celtic Buddhism claims an authentic lineage possibly back to the Buddha. Its website says the lineage was suggested by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition today the most well-known leader is the Dalai Lama. Lama is the title given to an incarnation of the Avalokiteśvara (a bodhisattva of compassion), but a Dalai Lama does not lead the religion in the way that a pope does. Authority for individual teachers in the Tibetan tradition often is hereditary through an incarnation certified by high lamas. In the West, at least, students of Tibetan masters give as much reverence to their teachers as Zen students give to their Roshis—this despite knowledge of even more bizarre behavior by some Tibetan masters. I mention the present Dalai Lama but he has not been associated with the kind of abuses described in this essay, though he has said that he has heard about sexual predation since the 1990s.

In recent years one of the best-known Tibetan teachers in the west is Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the eleventh incarnated Trungpa. In the early 1970s he established the precursor to the Shambhala institute, which now claims over 200 centers worldwide. It is well known that Chögyam Trungpa was an accomplished raconteur, self-marketer, alcoholic, drug addict, lecher, and capitalist. He attracted a wide following partly because he brilliantly described his behavior (hence teaching) as “crazy wisdom.” This slogan, which may be the most salable in marketing history, had enormous appeal within his franchise, and to people on the outside who make of it what they will. Within the practice (even if other aspects might have been useful) “crazy wisdom” led to indulging Trungpa’s drug-induced imaginings, grasping for the toys of wealth, and forced acting-out pornography. Some might want to put an asterisk after “forced” because the women were not children and were not physically restrained, but the asterisk would be wrong because of the teacher’s absolute, lineage-certified authority that promises a path to something ultimately desirable.

Trungpa’s son and successor, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, enjoyed the same claim to authenticity and inviolability while reportedly indulging his sexual fantasies with women students.

This may be an over-simplification, but Tibetan lineage is maintained by a visible body of living lamas that authenticates true incarnations. They might be called the institution. In Zen the “institution” establishes and maintains the lineage, but don’t think of the institution as having an office you can write to or call on the telephone. At any given time the institution has two parts: the dispersed body of Roshis, who are less connected to each other than Tibetan lamas, and practitioners, whether with a teacher or on their own. This entire group is called the sangha.

What to do about the terrible dilemma?

So, who can regulate the behavior of teachers who have been conferred with such awesome authority, and who are like great independent countries? Only other teachers, or you the student might have influence, though for “you the student”; it may take a heroic effort.

Buddhism does have a “Noble Eightfold Path” that describes the way to live, but we rarely see other teachers using forceful, if any, intervention in behavior by another teacher. In fact, given recent revelations, it is hard to find a Roshi without personal issues. We have seen students themselves dismantling individual centers when damage reached a breaking point, but before that students and children, if they have any, are always the ones who pay the price.

A student who begins a practice may be driven with an enormous urgency to stop living the wrong way, and to live the best way. The student accepts, really accepts, that she or he is in the position of a young child with a parent, or a devout altar boy with a priest: what the teacher tells you is real, it is the truth whether it makes sense in your old way of thinking or not. Especially not. To follow this path you give up the old mind. This is the terrible dilemma for a student in this kind of practice: how to lose your mind, and keep it.

I asked Charles Munitz, a thoughtful and experienced friend, to tell me if he thought this article would be useful. Among other comments, he said the following better than I have:

How to lose your mind is the heart and soul of your piece and needs more elaboration. Repeat it. Say whatever it takes to get your reader to understand that the vulnerability of student-hood seems to demand the giving up of one’s own judgment, to be utterly vulnerable without any retained sense of judgment whatever, while the awful truth of corrupt teaching makes that determination tragic.

Another note on my point of view: I studied Zen with Walter Nowick in Surry, Maine for about nine years during the seventies. Stuart Lachs was regarded as the senior student for several reasons, all of them deserved. I had a family, but single students like Stuart were sometimes, unofficially, called monks. Some American Buddhist communities mimic the style of the countries the tradition comes from, with roles, robes, titles, hierarchies, and mannerisms. Walter said that kind of behavior is a hindrance, and he broke it any way he could—except for private koan interviews and his absolute authority in all parts of a student’s life, or at least as far as students went along with it, which not all did, entirely.

The time in the zendo and on Walter’s farm was intense. During the “training season” the zendo sitting schedule could run from four to ten or twelve hours a day, plus other zendo or farm activities. Walter rarely sat in the zendo. Sometimes he would pull one or several people out of the zendo to work with him on the “farm team.” It was a mark of honor. It seems likely that Walter was demonstrating dominance over those, principally Stuart, who thought that the sitting practice should not be disrupted. Once, Stuart says, he told Walter that splitting the group gives a mixed message and causes destructive competition, and Walter agreed to do it less. The next year Walter said, “If you don’t like it, you can leave.” This was not abuse, and on the face of it you could say that it was a teacher’s legitimate prerogative. Stuart and some others could stand up to it, but what about a student who desperately (repeat, desperately) feels a need for his or her teacher, whose life is not making sense without the teacher “Put up with it or get out” is not only mean, it’s coercive.

Individuals being in or out of favor ran through the group like a river. There were times when it could be said that I was in favor, including, a couple of times when Walter and I went to Japan together. Other times I was thrown out of the zendo and off the farm and Walter forbade people to talk with me. Some obeyed. I was not unique. In Surry, and possibly in other groups, shunning was a way to enforce discipline. In one case I was kicked out for a month or so because I would not take part in one of Walter’s frequent group criticisms of another student. I can’t remember reasons for other times, but they may have been more “legitimate.” I would say that I was an indifferent student.

Walter had homosexual encounters, or “relationships” with four or more students. I suspect that the in-favor/out-of-favor seesaw was part of the process for some of those people.

Some Surry students had a particular knack for calling everything “the teaching.” In the early days of the farm, the early 1970s, Walter debunked some students’ devotion to organic food and vegetarianism as distracting attachments, and would even come back on the tractor with one or two students covered in whatever chemical they were spraying. Presumably this was a way to break old ways of thinking. It was the teaching. A decade later he became something of a food faddist: “the teaching” again.

Unlike so many religious leaders Walter was indifferent to money and possessions. He gave much of his land to students to build homes. After his own house burned, he slept on a mat in the tiny loft of the milk house, and then moved into the small, barely-altered calf barn. In terms of sexuality he was outwardly conservative and secretive. He did have a long relationship with the flamboyant and funny Harry that started in World War II when they were fighting across the Pacific. I don’t know how public that was, though Harry was wide open when he visited the farm once.

In ordinary life Walter’s sexual orientation would be neither here nor there. At a personal level it is sad that Walter tried to be in the closet, though his closet was partly the compliance of the whole community. To call his sexual relations with some students “the teaching” is utter bullshit.

The fact that many of these teachers are intelligent people makes it more despicable, and I’d be surprised if any exceeded Walter in mental capacity. The best I came up with (woefully inadequate) is that his life progressed from one circumstance to another, none of them conducive to “normal socialization.” But the heart of the problem is the system that bestows the ultimate power to command abandonment of common sense. This seduces teachers as well as students. In at least one case with Walter it caused frightful damage, well beyond psychological effects. The message again: don’t fall for the pop Zen fantasy about there being no principle, no good nor bad, or whatever. It may be “true,” but it’s an excuse.

Besides sex and money, Walter, and other all-powerful “gurus,” meddled in all aspects of students’ lives, in all of their hours, down to whether they should or should not have children, all in the name of teaching, all because students came with a legitimate and fierce drive to make better use of their lives.

In time some students began talking about whether Walter really received dharma transmission from his teacher, Goto Roshi. The actual arrangement between Goto and Walter meant more to some students than others, but as far as I could see the idea of dharma transmission itself, which is the basis of “lineage” and hence the foundation of absolute authority, was never questioned. Later, Stuart became one of the main people in our time to publicize the oddities involved with lineage.

On the public admirable scale, Zen Roshis get a ten. Most American Buddhist teachers we know of are charismatic to some degree. It may be inherent in the particular teacher’s personality, or it may grow because of the awe that people, including the media, bestow on enlightenment and on the titles. Walter was inherently charismatic. People outside of the student group fell over themselves to be near to him, and why not? He was a superb pianist, especially as an interpreter of the Beethoven sonatas. He was fluent in high Japanese, read Chinese, and was passably fluent in Russian, and was a farmer. Outsiders vied to offer hospitality when he travelled, and them spoke of how close they were to the Roshi. One such person, a Harvard professor who came to Surry to interview students and former students for a “scholarly paper,” had so many preconceived fantasies based on her “friendship” with Walter that her paper—replete with footnotes—resorted to making up ridiculous quotes from students to justify her fascination and her connection. The “Real Roshi” authenticity makes people who are not even students act stupidly.

Walter cultivated this urge for people to feel they had a unique relationship. On the farm, or when he gave concerts outside in Maine, or Japan, or Russia, he kept himself at the center of all individual and group events, like the hub of a wheel with many spokes. He actively discouraged strong friendships between students, despite the nearly holy idea of the sangha. I’ve seen other examples of this since I stopped being Walter’s student, and am fairly sure that this is a common management technique. Donald Trump comes to mind. In Surry it led some students to say out loud that they had a “special relationship” with Walter. It was worn like a badge and came with strutting, being holy zennish, practicing that little “Buddha smile,” or speaking for the teacher.

Therefore, Dear student…

In Surry there were no monk’s robes or ranks for students, but the putting-on-airs and “speaking for Walter” were no less comical. If you are a student in a place where you can wear your attainment on your sleeve, or if you have a “special relationship” with the teacher, try not to be a fool.

Here’s a warning. You can be in a group with a dangerous teacher problem (try to find a group where that doesn’t apply) and not recognize it. Here’s an admission of how dumb I was. One morning I went into Walter’s house and smelled semen. I just shrugged and made no connections about the student who was currently the favorite. Again, there is no connection whatsoever between being gay or straight and being abusive. Simply put, I, at that time, was not registering the sexual abuse of power. Had I been smarter I might have been able to do something. For a time I was part of a communal blindness.

Another time I was driving Walter to town (he did not drive) and he squeezed the top of my thigh, hard. He did that sort of pinch-your-cheek mob boss thing. I instinctively smacked him and he jerked his hand away and that was the end of it. Was it a sexual come-on? I don’t know. I’ve been told that I am a little dumb about those things. I think I reacted to the pain and distraction while driving. Later when I travelled alone with Walter nothing similar ever occurred.

In a case painful to remember, the parents in a family were clearly being disrupted by something. Some of us may have known more details than others. A few years later a sweet child, one of the most engaging young men I have known, committed suicide. It’s an impossible call, but I’m not the only one who attributes some or all of that tragedy to Walter’s disruption of the family.

This is important: if you are a student and you see fellow students suffering because of “the teaching,” it affects you too. This is a real problem when you are working so hard and are not sure exactly what you are working on. (Beware if you are sure.) In your search for balance you may be off balance, but taking advantage of that is the teacher’s fault. It is not the teaching. It is not the student’s fault. If sex is the issue, it is a problem even if the student wants it with the teacher. Power is a sexual draw. Just be clear with yourself, OK? Sex when one person has absolute power is not a good thing, whether it involves you or a fellow student. Do not be complicit.

What about “enlightenment” and my old teacher? Enlightenment is at the core of the Buddhist practice, though it might be coolly fashionable to say “I spit on enlightenment, or the quest, or any such notion.” Buddhist stories often have seekers of enlightenment circling back to the ordinary way of living, but in a different way. I never heard Walter mention enlightenment beyond giving a few “teaching talks” about those ancient masters, the likes of whom conveniently are gone. Part of Walter’s iconoclastic style was seemingly ignoring enlightenment, though the way he used koan study seemed to imply attainment, and he never shied away from the personal power of an enlightened master.

In the case of acknowledging his own behavior, when I was leaving the group I told him that I could not be a part of what I had come to see. At that time he said, “I am sorry for problems I might have caused.” In 2013 when he was dying he was confused sometimes, though clear when I was speaking with him. I spent a while giving a break to his caretaker and asked Walter if he would do anything differently. He said, “I have no regrets.” I took this to mean that he knew what he did, and wasn’t apologizing. Perhaps it was also a comment on the uselessness of regret, or on his own “attainment,” or who knows what. In the early 2000s Charlie Munitz, whom I quoted above, spoke with Walter at some length and did get the impression that he still carried some regrets. There are two points here. The first is that Walter may be slightly unique: it is hard to imagine a teacher like Trungpa expressing sorrow for his actions. The second is that my delayed response to Walter’s behavior while he was active contains a warning.

A person may wonder why go through a program that can have so many pitfalls? Whatever your views of enlightenment or the hoops that religious people jump through to justify their beliefs, there is a benefit in breaking embedded ways of thinking, of acting with pure action. Practical benefits do arise through the process of personal abdication, of putting your head down, and sometimes reducing your internal dialog to “HAI!” In Surry, and in America, students often said that Zen is not a religion, has no beliefs, and worships nothing. That’s silly, or at least irrelevant.  A person can be (hopefully will be) at a loss or unwilling to explain the results of an immersion in the practice, and can be grateful for the experience even if they passed through, or near, bad things in the process. I’m grateful, and I’m a normal unenlightened joe going through a normal life. But I regret not being more perceptive, and more assertive. Perhaps you can avoid this.

So, is there an answer to how to do this and keep your common sense, how to lose your mind and keep it? Is there a way to absorb the wisdom in Zen aphorisms without absorbing what is called “the stink of Zen?” Can we ignore the hagiographical puff pieces about teachers in some Buddhist publications and still find a way to practice with a teacher? How can a student in the Rinzai Zen branch, for example, take part in theatrical koan practice without becoming a Zen clown?

Know this for sure: even if you can discern self-serving crap on the part of a teacher, you don’t have to go along with it because it’s “the teaching.” If you hear that, go away.

Even though most of these practices have to do with accepting paradox, you don’t have to be stupid.

And what about enlightenment?” Some beliefs rely on a body of “lost wisdom,” available, if at all, only to rare beings. Others venerate a history of enlightened mystics who, if they were alive today, would be harried out of their caves and jailed for infractions. Authenticated continuity to the Buddha is a particularly effective way to prove enlightenment. The cool among us might say that, outside of divinity school or closing hour at the pub, there’s little use in playing the What-Is-Enlightenment game.

I ask you just this, again: don’t do anything that will seriously hurt anybody, or yourself, because somebody implies that you could attain enlightenment. That includes turning a blind eye. It’s a problem, but you can solve it. Good luck.

Note: In 1971 the brilliant political and social reporter Andy Kopkind rode his motorcycle to Surry for a visit. I took him to hear Walter play the piano in the barn for an audience of students and a few from the outside, including Catherine Filene Shouse, who founded Wolf Trap, and some of her friends. By intermission Andy wanted to leave. “Walter plays well, but I’ve seen that kind of fawning before in Switzerland, Germany, Scotland – all of it over some sort of charismatic spirituality – and I don’t want to be around it.” At the time I couldn’t understand that observation. Stuart Lachs recently said that he wouldn’t have understood it at the time either. Such is the power of belief.

About the author

Mark Baldwin