In 2012 I presented an essay called Zen Has No Morals! at the annual conference of the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) in my home town of Montreal, Canada. The paper discussed student abuse in Zen Buddhism, and compared the cases of Eido Shimano in New York and Klaus Zernickow in Germany. The paper was generally well received, though it was criticised by some and has even become the subject of litigation where I currently live in Germany.
The experience of writing that paper, and the reactions it prompted, really opened my eyes to the fact that, despite all the rhetoric about Zen being “beyond words and letters” or “free of dogma”, there were indeed a number of dogmatic beliefs in Zen that were considered off-limits for discussion. This hypocrisy has only increased my resolve to continue working with other critical Buddhists to expose abuse.
Two of the most prominent people I met during those years were Stuart Lachs, an American Zen critic, and Tenzin Peljor, the creator of this blog. Their valuable work and support led me to suggest that the three of us host a panel discussion about cultic abuse in Buddhism at the ICSA’s 2017 annual conference. We all felt that Buddhism as a religion was still held in unrealistically high regard by the public imagination.
The 2017 conference was held in Bordeaux, France. Over 300 academics, therapists, lawyers and former cult members came together there for dozens of lectures and presentations over three days, all under the topic of “Cultic Dynamics and Radicalization”. Our presentations and the ensuing discussion at the panel “All Life is Suffering – Cultic Tendencies and Student Abuse in Buddhism” was recorded, and the video has now been released for the public by the ICSA
In the first talk, Stuart highlighted the aspects of Zen Buddhism that facilitate student abuse. Taking examples such as the famous Rinzai teacher Joshu Sasaki, Stuart showed how Zen masters have exploited the institution of “dharma transmission” and its accompanying mythology to deflect serious criticism, sometimes for decades. A written version of his talk can also be found here.
Tenzin gave the second talk (beginning at approx. 24:45 of the video), in which he explained the aspects of the Tibetan tradition that can lead to misunderstanding among Western students and, in the worst case, abuse by the lama. Based on his experience with the “New Kadampa Tradition”, Tenzin illustrated how, for example, concepts such as purity, trust or guru devotion can be wilfully misinterpreted by Tibetan teachers. (The PowerPoint presentation can be found here.)
Finally, in my talk (beginning at approx. 52:30) I compared four Rinzai Zen groups in terms of how they dealt with the aftermath of respective accusations of abuse. I end with the observation that, even though the truth behind a given allegation may never be conclusively determined, the manner in which a group responds can, in itself, already be a good warning sign that the group is inherently dysfunctional.
The quality of the recording is not the best, but I hope you find our discussions interesting nonetheless. Stuart, Tenzin and I look forward to any comments you may have. Many other talks are also available from the ICSA here.
January, 3, 2021