‘The Ethical Outlook of American Zen Students’ (1982)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

8 minutes

In 1982, Steven Tipton published Getting Saved From The Sixties: Moral Meaning in Conversion and Cultural Change. The third chapter, ‘Antinomian Rules: The Ethical Outlook of American Zen Students,’ presents Tipton’s findings at “Pacific Zen Center”, a “composite of Zen groups in the San Francisco Bay Area,” one of which was San Francisco Zen Center. The entire book can be found here. Tipton has this to say about ‘Gender Roles, Courtship, and Marriage’:

“Sixties youth typically arrive at Zen Center uncoupled, and single students are more likely than couples to stay and become committed members. Though sexually experienced, few of these youths were married when they arrived, and fewer still were divorced. Their earlier sexual relationships were marked by the same self-consciousness and concern for independence that characterized their earlier social relations generally. ‘My relationships with lovers were an inward sort of experience,’ remembers a young man, ‘like y o u might have with drugs or with the small kind of zazen experience that explodes just inside your head. I was involved, but it was most real inside myself.’ A young woman stresses the theme of independence:

‘I never really wanted to commit myself to the kind of loving that had consequences, like marriage-kids-family consequences. I balked at having unreal relationships, where you just close your eyes and screw, but the only real ones I saw were like suffocating for my own being. I didn’t want to give up responsibility for myself and my own adequacy just to get acceptance and security, or even love.’

Such attitudes among upper-middle-class youths in their twenties, out of school but not embarked on careers and not at ease with the idea of conventional adulthood, added up to an unwillingness to make lasting commitments to stay coupled, marry, or raise children.

Compared to the Christian sect, Zen Center says little about sexual identity or conduct and exerts little direct control over its members’ sexual behavior, which varies widely. ‘There are really only two Zen Center rules in principle,’ says a priest. ‘You don’t hurt others and you don’t deceive them. Any relationship that doesn’t hurt or deceive, we have nothing to say about it.’ These two commonsense rules nonetheless delimit sexual relationships at Zen Center, which can be grouped into several categories. Serious incoming students during their first six months of residence at Zen Center are not to start a sexual relationship with another student, although sex with outsiders is permitted. ‘This is not a rule about sex,’ says a priest. ‘It’s a rule about practice. To protect the new student’s opportunity to practice, without it being colored by some intense relationship.’ The rule also helps protect the community from newcomers enacting their earlier values or desires for sex, status, or personal comfort at the community’s expense. Novices find few chances to do so, moreover, since they must face the demands of beginning to meditate and follow a regimen that affords little chance for personal interaction within the daily round and little access to the social network of older students. Monastic celibacy is not an institutional norm, but some older students may choose to maintain celibacy for months or as long as several years with the counsel of the master, and other students respect their doing so.

Casual or promiscuous relationships among older students are formally proscribed ashurting or deceiving others. They are also discouraged by Zen Center’s communalism. ‘Responding and responsibility are so close in Zen. You can’t respond to another person without being responsible for them,’ a student remarks. ‘I feel part of a family with other students. And anything you do, it will get around to the other members of the family. It will have some effect on the house in which you live. You don’t want to mess up your own bed.’ Within the community sexual relationships among older students begin cautiously, almost invisibly, based on long-term familiarity and friendship. They proceed in the privacy of students’ own rooms, along the edges and in the gaps of the monastic schedule. Once they have begun, the monastic community, like the sect, encourages couples to stabilize rapidly—either to split or become publicly recognized. Then the partners may live together within Zen Center and move together between its monastery, farm, and urban center. Such coupling is serious and personal, lasting for months or years, but it ends as often with the partners separating as marrying.

Marriage is supported in serious relationships at Zen Center, though not at the expense of single life. Those ordained as priests or considering it must receive the master’s permission to marry, while other serious students usually consult with him before doing so. Perhaps one of three sixties youths at Zen Center has married or definitely intends to do so, another third report no such intention, and the rest are undecided. Although it is neither familist nor natalist, Zen Center treats weddings, and births, as joyful occasions, and it celebrates them in serious rites. ‘Marriage is practice, too,’ remarks a student. ‘When you get married it’s a sort of ordination.’ Some members see the high rate of breakups among established couples, like the divorce of married members, as problematic. ‘We’d like people to stay together once they’ve chosen that,” says a priest. ‘But we can’t make them.’ What Zen Center has done is to lend support to young couples and families by giving them extra time, space, and privacy to live together, setting up a day-care center for the kids, and arranging some staff jobs around parenting.

Nonetheless, Zen Center’s primary commitment to rigorous meditation within a basically monastic setting puts pressure on married life. An older student considers the question:

What’s it like being in a couple or having a family at Zen Center? Are there any special problems with it?

There are couples here, and children. But, still, Zen Center doesn’t elevate the family to the point where it obscures the individual in relation to practice. It’s much more like Jesus saying ‘I am sent to set husband against wife.’ And, in fact, it does set husband against wife.


By pressing each person to express himself fully and stand on his own ground. It puts pressure on you not to be satisfied with role playing. You can’t ever find a permanent refuge from yourself and the problem you have. You can’t get away and go stand on being a husband or beinga father.

Couples come together and come apart here. Maybe you think, ‘Oh, it shouldn’t be that way.’ On the other hand, maybe it’s good to have a community that can take care of couples changing like that, since that’s what’s happening.

Why is it happening here? Why do couples break up?

I think there are different reasons. Practice is one. It makes heavy energy demands on you, without any letup, and so does a relationship or a family. Usually one person in a couple that splits up will be getting more involved in practice. That person will feel like the other one is getting in the way of their practice, and the other one will feel cut adrift.

Maybe another reason is that Zen Center itself is a kind of family, so the real family can be looser, because there’s more to fall back on, where outside there’s nothing. … You’ll hear married people, even the priests, say their family is not so important to them. They’re just like all the other people around. There’s no extra care put into family relationships. … Outside, you’re either married or not. In Zen Center there’s a much wider range of living together, living together with kids but not as sexual partners, or parenting without living together.’

The monastic role takes precedence over marital and parental roles, and it can take time and energy away from them. Meditation raises the problem of one’s own consciousness and life in paradoxical terms (the ‘genjo koan’) that require continued meditation to resolve. Monastic communalism permits the individual to loosen or sever marital ties, and still remain within a reliable network of friends and associates. It obliges him to follow out his parental and family responsibilities, yet it offers him alternative arrangements for doing so. Thus Zen Center accommodates the increasing fluidity of marital ties characteristic of the larger society, especially the urban upper-middle-class milieu its youth come from, with an uncharacteristically resilient religious community. Unlike the familistic Christian sect, it enables sixties youth to support themselves into adulthood without settling down into conventional jobs or careers, the occupational anchor of marital commitment. With work still unsettled, marriage is more likely to seem an unsettling prospect and to turn out to be an unsteady tie.”

Under the heading ‘Male and Female’ Tipton writes:

“At first glance Zen Center’s ethic elaborates no personality ideals along sexual dimensions. ‘The Buddhist standard is that there is no special sexual identity,’ a priest points out. ‘The aim for a man as a man is to become unattached to his idea of himself as a man. The same for a woman. Sexualre! lationships at Zen Center are influenced by an ethic, however elastic and implicit, of personal responsibility and friendship. The priest continues,

‘After some time you begin to see people as friends. You respect their capacity, not to be a woman and handle a woman’s problems, but to be a person and stand her own ground. You don’t find yourself noticing something about a person as a man or woman. You notice, “Is this person still manipulative or not? Is he greedy? What’s he clear of?”‘

A woman adds, “In between being lovers and not being lovers, there’s a widening space for friendship. I could kiss the ground for that! Somehow ‘friend’ has more room in it than ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend.’ Friends last longer, too. From ‘friend’ you can decide what kind of friend you want to be.’ Here, as with the Christian sect and as opposed to the hip counterculture, more regulated, slower-moving sexual relationships lead to greater positive liberty and permanence in friendships between members of an ongoing community.

Zen students hold a strongly egalitarian view of gender roles. Accordingly, Zen Center has ordained women as ‘priests,’ not as Japanese-style nuns, and it has consciously included them in its hierarchy. There are proportionately fewer women than men ordained (a 5:8 ratio among sixties youth) and in positions of authority, however, and women have grown firmer in calling this situation into question over the past several years. ‘The change in how women look at their lives has touched Zen Center,’ acknowledgesa priest. ‘They’re saying, “I want to choose my own life, and not just fit in.”‘ Zen students report convergent changes in their understanding of themselves as men and women, notably a growing sense of independence and competency among women and emotional ‘softening’ among men. ‘I think of myself as a person, like almost all of the women at Zen Center,’ says one. ‘There’s total equality in the practice itself. It puts you on your own. You have to do it. No one else can sit for you.’ Another adds,

‘I guess as a woman I feel much more comfortable with my own aggression and strength. Yesterday, for example, someone was trying to help with dinner, but he was in the way. I could just say, ‘You’re in the way,’ without worrying about it. I can take on more in work. I feel stronger and more at home in my body from sitting.’

Equality, independence, unstrident since unworried self-assertion (‘selfless self-assertion’ one woman called it), active competency in work, and physical ease: these sound familiar as feminist goals. A male student suggests the other side of the issue:

‘You see a few people get into the samurai role, strutting around like ‘Macho Roshi,’ but basically Zen practice softens up the idea we have of ourselves, whatever it is. … I was never very hard or tough as a man. Zen didn’t change that so much as make it more OK for me to be the way I was.’

Independence and activism for women are bred by zazen and monastic work instead of the Christian sect’s fixed rules and housework. Meditational instead of devotional ritual softens male emotions. Although they differ in genesis, form, and statement, changes in gender roles among youthful Zen students have occurred in the same convergent directions as those among members of the Christian sect.” (pp. 145-150).

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.