Why Buddhism?: Violations of Trust in the Sexual Sphere ~ Roshi Joan Halifax

Click HERE for a continuing list of Zen teachers that are speaking up against sexual and spiritual abuse of students.  About fucking time.  Good on ya James Ford.


We all know that rape as a weapon of war has been used against women and nations for thousands of years. Rape, forceable seduction, seduction through trickery, power and domination, seduction through loneliness or delusion have also been part of most, if not all, religions. Yes, if you want to demoralize a nation, rape its women, its daughters, its sisters, its wives…….. And if you want to deepen the shadow of any religion, turn wisdom and compassion into hypocrisy, and stand by, conflict averse, as its male clergy disrespects women, has sex with female congregants, dominates women, abuses women, degrades or rapes them.

But as a Zen Buddhist priest, as a woman, I have to ask, why my religion? Why Buddhism? This is not what the Buddha taught. I like Buddhism; I love my practice of meditation; Buddha’s teachings are practical; they make sense to me. But for too long in the West, and I am sure in the East, gross misogyny has existed in the Buddhist world, a misogyny so deep that it has allowed the disrespect and abuse of women and nuns in our own time, and not only throughout history, and not only in Asia. The misogynistic abuse is not only in terms of the usual gender issues related to who has responsibility and authority (women usually don’t have much if any), but it is as well expressed through mistreatment of women, through sexual boundary violations of women, and the psychological abuse of women. 

Since 1964, according to the late Robert Aitken Roshi’s archive (http://www.shimanoarchive.com/), a Buddhist teacher, Eido Shimano, has been engaged in sexual misconduct with a number of his female students; sometimes the sex was forceable; sometimes crude, tricky, and coercive. And it has been ongoing, for more than forty-five years. Many Buddhist practitioners have known about this for a long time, although the late Aitken’s archive was closed until just before his death in the fall of this year. What was this silence about, I have asked? Why did we not act? Why are we, as Buddhists, so conflict averse?

On August 21, 2010, the NYTimes published an article, Sex Scandal has U.S. Buddhists Looking Within (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/21/us/21beliefs.html). This article publicly surfaced Eido Shimano’s long pattern of sexual violation. Sadly, On December 1, the principle figure in this article wrote a rebuttal, basically denying his culpability and blaming the NYTimes for dysinformation: http://www.openbuddha.com/2010/12/26/eido-shimano-kinda-sorta-denies-it-all-and-chastises-the-new-york-times/ The Times reporter, Mark Oppenheimer, responded to this self-serving letter from Eido Shimano: http://markoppenheimer.com/front-page/a-buddhist-vs-me.html

I think that this rebuttal by Eido Shimano was the straw that broke the camel’s back for many of us Buddhists. We were incredulous on reading Eido Shimano’s communique to the Times’ reporter. Naively, we had thought that this problem was taken care of; the teacher was full of remorse and had resigned as abbot and board member of the institution that he founded; and the institution was committed to addressing this issue and redressing the ills suffered by the women involved and the wider community. 

But we were wrong……. and I assure you, this is not the first time we have been wrong about similar violations……. 

Fortunately, the response to Eido Shimano’s unempathic, self-centered and self-serving communique has been building, nationally and internationally, over December and into January. Buddhists are finally getting it. You have to take a stand, a strong and vocal stand, against the predatory behavior of its religious figures. You have to speak truth to power, and speak it loudly. And you have to act………. 

I have been waiting for this moment not just for the many months since the discussions have been happening among Zen teachers. I have been waiting for years for a concerted response to such violations against women in our Buddhist world. Many of us women have brought these issues to the attention of the wider community and have been shamed and shunned over the years. But finally, just before New Years, the flood of letters addressing Eido Shimano’s behavior has found its way onto the shores of his Buddhist monastery and the internet. Herein, one of first of those letters, my own……  http://www.upaya.org/news/2011/01/02/open-letter-from-roshi-regarding-eido-shimano/

It will take a while for us to fully understand why we as Buddhists took so long to act. If Eido Shimano had been a doctor, lawyer, or psychotherapist, there would have been rapid social and legal consequences. But there is something about our religions, whether Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Islam, or Buddhist, that disallows us facing the shame associated with sexual violations and the gross gender issues that plague most, if not all, religions. 

I understand that letters are easy to write. Less easy are the creation of protections so women (and religious communities) will not be harmed like this ever again. And even more difficult is changing the views, values, and behaviors that made it possible for someone like Eido Shimano and others to engage in such harmful acts for so long. Yet, it is not only a matter of the sexual violation of women and the painful violation of boundaries that are based in trust between teacher and student, it is as well a matter of the violation of the core of human goodness; for his behavior is also a violation of the entire Buddhist community, as well as the teachings of the Buddha which are uncompromising with respect to the unviability of killing, lying, sexual misconduct, wrongful speech, and consuming intoxicants of body, speech and mind. The northstar of goodness has been lost from sight in the long and recent past, and we are all suffering because we cannot see how deep the wound is to the heart of our world and to the coming generations. 

Protections, dialogue, education are all necessary at this time. And a commitment to not forgetting……… as well as vowing to not repeat the mistakes of the past, and to practice a compassion that is clear and brave, liberating and just. 

I am aware that these words do not address issues related to the sexual violation of children and men by clergy. I am also aware that power dynamics between women and men are inadequately referenced here, nor are issues related to the exploitation of students by female clergy. What I have written, however, is meant to address specifically the violation of boundaries and trust, whether by force or consent, by Buddhist male religious clergy of their female congregants and students, and a particular case in point that is in the foreground of the Zen Buddhist community in the United States at this time

As author and Buddhist Natalie Goldberg wrote in her book “The Great Failure”: “We are often drawn to teachers who unconsciously mirror our own psychology. None of us are clean. We all make mistakes. It’s the repetition of those mistakes and the refusal to look at them that compound the suffering and assure their continuation.” It seems as though the time has come for us to take a deep look at our individual and collective psychology……… and to strongly request that those teachers who have crossed the boundaries of trust to engage in sexual intercourse with students and congregants step aside, so the healing of individuals and sanghas can begin.

3 thoughts on “Why Buddhism?: Violations of Trust in the Sexual Sphere ~ Roshi Joan Halifax

  1. Thank you for this excellent post. As a Buddhist practitioner in both the Zen and Tibetan branches I have seen this problem and seen it treated as Joan Halifax has described. There are always excuses that attempt to use Buddhism to excuse what is a clear violation of the Buddhist tenets as well as socially acceptable behavior. In thinking about how we can approach this to create a really viable set of ethics that can operate in current times I am suggesting the following:We already have a similar situation to the student-teacher relationship operating in Western society and that is the psychotherapist-patient relationship. Having operated in Western culture for a sufficiently long time, a system of ethics has been developed that we Buddhists can use as a starting point to develop our own. This set of ethics is not gender specific and can be used to cover all violations, be it male-female, female-male, male-male or female-female. I would like to see set up a Buddhist Ethical organization that certifies those organizations that subscribe to its ethical principles. This can be a virtual organization with a board consisting of Buddhist leaders and practitioners whose are committed to the elucidation and establishment of these principles in the Buddhist sangha. This organization would have a web site which would serve Buddhist students in determining whether the organization they are considering subscribes to these Buddhist ethical principles. As more and more Buddhist organizations subscribe to the ethical principles, it would be possible to put some teeth into it in the form of public shunning of Buddhist organizations which do not subscribe to the principles and where there have been clear ethical violations. For instance if Buddhist publications which subscribe to the ethical principles refused to publish articles and accept advertisements from shunned organizations this would have an effect of their ability to operate. I think this is something which is possible to actually accomplish and around which the greater Buddhist community can rally.

  2. Protections, dialogue, education are all necessary at this time. And a commitment to not forgetting……… as well as vowing to not repeat the mistakes of the past, and to practice a compassion that is clear and brave, liberating and just.

  3. @waywuwei It seems my last comment was truncated…perhaps a hint that I talk too much. Anyway, I wanted to include that the Zen Studies Society has included a basic ethical guidelines for students and teachers as well as a grievance process that other Buddhists centers can learn from and adopt.”The Zen Studies Society is a community based on trust and respect. Sangha members are expected to interact with one another in a manner that reflects this trust and respect and are expected to behave in an ethical manner flowing from the Precepts. At Dai Bosatsu, no hunting or fishing is allowed. In addition, no driving of any motor vehicle or water craft is allowed while under the influence of alcohol or any other drug. The following behaviors are not permissible for any teacher, guest lecturer, monastic, Sangha member, program attendee or visitor at either Dai Bosatsu Zendo or New York Zendo:• Failure to conform to zendo or monastery rules.• Any willful removal or damaging of property, or theft of funds.• Withholding or falsely reporting any income generated by the Zen Studies Society.• Threatening, abusive or obscene behavior.• Disrespectful or preferential treatment towards anyone on the basis of race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, age, physical disability, income or national origin.• Willfully causing injury, whether physical or psychological, to anyone.• Any type of illegal drug use, possession or sale.• Consumption of alcohol unless served at an officially sponsored event.• Possession of any firearms or other weapons.• Misrepresenting personal information requested for any program sponsored by the Zen Studies Society.• Engaging in any type of unlawful activity.• Sexual advances or liaisons between teachers or guest lecturers or monastics and Sangha members, program attendees or visitors.• Sexual harassment, defined as any single act or multiple persistent acts of physical or verbal conduct that is/are sexual in nature and (1) sufficiently severe or intense to be abusive to a reasonable person in the context; or (2) unwelcome or offensive behavior in the view of the receiver of such attentions.”

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