Should you judge a religious community based on its leader?
January 15, 2008 10:52 AM   Subscribe

How can you trust a temple/church/etc if its leader has had moral failings?

I've been a (barely-practicing) Buddhist for a few years now, and I'm getting my ass in gear and looking for a sangha (community/congregation). This place is the closest to me, and their tradition (Soto Zen) is in line with my beliefs. However, the roshi (teacher/priest) was trained by Taizan Maezumi Roshi, who founded the Zen Center of Los Angeles. Maezumi endured considerable controversy after he went into rehab for alcoholism (drinking is verboten in Buddhism) and admitted to affairs with students (besides abusing his authority, he was also married). He ended up drinking himself to death. Lineage is an important concept in Buddhism, as knowledge is handed down from teacher to student. I'm not casting any aspersions on the roshi at Great Plains Zen Center, or on any of its members, but the whole thing just leaves a weird taste in my mouth. Other Zen centers in the West have been plagued by similar scandal and I'm wondering if any have gone untouched.

I am not claiming to be any sort of saint myself - previous posts are evidence of that - but I do like to think that someone who is teaching me holds themselves to a higher standard than I do myself. And hopefully has better grammar skills.

Given that I do want to find a community with which to practice, should I give up the notion of moral standards in religious leadership? If so, how do I make this mental shift?
posted by desjardins to Religion & Philosophy (23 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I don't think you have to give up the notion of moral standards, but it might help if you shift your viewpoint a bit. Lineage is important, but is it assumed that we just mimic and recreate our teachers? Isn't Buddhism coming from the belief that we can move up through degrees of enlightenment, or at least learn from our pasts and do better next time?

I wouldn't support someone who was actively teaching things I found immoral. But I would love to practice with someone who is willing to forgive past immoral acts (his own, or others) and learn from them, and teach me that same grace.
posted by occhiblu at 11:06 AM on January 15, 2008

Matters of lineage aside, judge your teacher as an individual. Based on what you know of this person, do they have something to teach you? That should be all that matters.

By being in a religious community, you do not surrender your instinct or right to think critically. As you go, your instincts will help you know the quality of the experience you're getting from this one.

I understand the weird feeling, and in a way I think it comes from a yearning for authenticity when it comes to these matters. It's what happens at that place when you're there, though, that determines how authentic your practice is, not what happens in the outside world.

If your trust issues continue to interfere with your spiritual practice there, then of course move on to other options-- but try to gauge how much this issue has to do with you, versus with the Center. That may instruct you in the work you can do on your own in the meantime.
posted by hermitosis at 11:08 AM on January 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

You can't. These church leader transgressions go through cycles of cover up, revelation, and public repentance. Occasionally these cycles take years. These leaders are kept on because their charisma and public image are worth more than the integrity of the congregation, which is harder to measure than money and butts in the seat.

My suggestion is that you find a small community that doesn't use money much.
posted by ewkpates at 11:09 AM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

We ALL have moral failings. It's part of being human.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 11:29 AM on January 15, 2008

I'm Buddhist. Like you, I'm coming back from a long time away from practice. The scandals in SF and LA were things I found out about while I was away, and I guess they were a small factor in keeping me away.

Right now I deal with it by being a pragmatist about the whole thing. My life is better when I sit more often. I'm more likely to sit — and I find it easier, somehow — if I'm doing it with other people. If there's a pretty building where I can sit once a week, with tea and cookies and pleasant conversation afterwards, then I'm more likely to show up and do it.

And that's enough for me. If the leader of the sangha is an enlightened being with an unbroken line of succession back to Siddhartha Gautama, and sitting with her will lead me to nirvana, then that's pretty awesome. But if she isn't, she's still a kind person, she's given me good advice, and she delegates responsibility to make sure the building's available and the tea and cookies are nice and warm. That's awesome too, you know?

I guess it helps, too, that I'm pretty skeptical of the idea that I'm practicing what the historical Buddha taught at all. I already know I break plenty of the rules he set for his monks: I drink alcohol, I have sex, I touch money, I eat after noon, I own loads of shit. And as for the practice — well, every school's got its own take on how to do it, and they can't all be right. It would be an amazing coincidence if this temple I went to out of sheer convenience — they were up the street from my dorm at the time, plus which, tea and cookies blah blah blah — happened to be the one that had preserved the practice unchanged.

So the cynical element here is that I think the big claims about legitimacy and authenticity are all bullshit. And if nobody's practice is perfectly authentic, then you may as well just do what makes you happy. I guess if you think that someone out there has a perfectly-transmitted copy of the Buddha's teachings inside his head, and you're convinced you'll keep suffering lifetime after lifetime until you meet that person, you'll probably be less casual about the whole thing than I am.

posted by nebulawindphone at 11:40 AM on January 15, 2008 [3 favorites]

(One last thing. There are teacher-less sanghas out there. I sat with one for a few months. They had various reasons for not wanting a teacher, but one common one was the sort of distrust of authority that you're voicing. If the sangha's what's important to you, I'd see if there's one of these in your area. In my experience, they're usually called "sitting groups" or something like that.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:43 AM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

I can empathize with you so much; the first sangha I considered joining, I spent some time painting the interior and exterior to pay for a class they required, but I couldn't afford. While I painted, I got to hear all about the sangha drama- petty drama, over potlucks, and who brought nothing, and who didn't return a dish. It soured me on joining; I was so disappointed that these people weren't better than that.

Then I realized- they're people. They're all working toward enlightenment, just like I'm working toward it. It's unreasonable to expect them to have achieved it just because they've done it longer and learned more.

So if I were you, I'd work on your attachment to the idea that your teachers should be better people than they are, and better people than you are. They *are* you, and the more you struggle against that, the less likely you are to learn from the mistakes they haven't made that you have, and it guarantees they'll never learn from the mistakes they've made that you haven't.
posted by headspace at 11:55 AM on January 15, 2008

Make SURE you read Shoes Outside the Door to see how the San Francisco Zen Center community was devastated by, and persevered through Richard Baker's various transgressions.

It's a *great* book, and I recommend it not only because of the juicy gossip, but also because it actually deals with the very complex issues involved in trying to transplant a monastic tradition from a very hierarchical society to one in which authority is questioned, trust must be earned, and blind obedience is not seen as a good idea.
posted by jasper411 at 12:04 PM on January 15, 2008

We ALL have moral failings. It's part of being human.

Totally agreed. As I mentioned, I am no saint. However, just as I would not take accounting classes from someone who'd been convicted of embezzling, just as I would not trust a doctor who'd been accused of patient abuse, I would be hesitant to entrust my spiritual path to anyone who has flagrantly flouted their own teachings. I'd also have trouble respecting someone who had trusted such a person (after knowing about the scandal).

nebulawindphone, not to get too far into a derail, but my understanding is that most of the rules for monks were never intended to apply to laypeople. Only the 5 precepts (which does cover drinking, but not celibacy, money, etc.)
posted by desjardins at 12:16 PM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

I would be hesitant to entrust my spiritual path to anyone who has flagrantly flouted their own teachings.

I can accept failures, provided that:
1) the teacher acknowledges it as a failure (preferably before anyone else can notice), and
2) does not attempt to punish anyone else for those same failings.

...absent those two points, I figure the "teacher" is just a self-serving bugger who found a new way to abuse others. I take a flexible line on #1, depending on the nature of the offense and how rapidly other people found out about it (after all, if you fail in front of an entire class it's pretty tough to beat 'em to the punch). I am not even remotely flexible on point #2.
posted by aramaic at 12:34 PM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

There's an interesting (but characteristically rather inconclusive) chapter on this in Jack Kornfield's book After The Ecstasy, The Laundry. The chapter is called The Dirty Laundry.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 12:39 PM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

This is going really well. I thought this might turn into RELIGIONSUCKS AMIRITE? and I'm really pleased at the level of discourse and the depth of the answers. Thank you.
posted by desjardins at 1:14 PM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Whether or not drinking is verboten in Buddhism is kind of up for debate. It depends on the tradition and the lineage and honestly to what extent the drinking is done. I know it's the fifth precept but most Buddhists I know talk about the whole middle way thing where as long as things are undertaken in moderation and not done to a point where you might hurt someone else because of it (ie get so drunk you are a danger to someone, even an emotional danger) it's more or less okay. Obviously this is not the case for those living a monastic life or even strict Zen Buddhists who are lay people.

As far as whether or not you can judge the community by it, I'd say yes and no. Everyone has faults and makes mistakes. I think part of it is what kind of mistakes, since some are unforgivable (sexual assault, murder, etc) and some are forgivable and common (to me that includes addiction) and may not preclude someone's wisdom or compassion.

In terms of judging the community, how do they talk about it and process it? That would be the x factor for me. I found that Shambhala Buddhists (no offense to anyone, this is my experience) are incredibly averse to speaking with anything other then grand reverence about their leader and previous lineage holder (his son is the current lineage holder) Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. I've spent a lot of time in Shambhala communities and found that adherents had a cult sheen to them especially when it came to Trungpa,who was known for womanizing, drinking too much and driving drunk (he caused a car accident when driving drunk that left him paralyzed). When I asked the questions you are asking here I was looked at like a heretic and my potentially divergent point of view was not welcome. This wasn't cool to me and totally turned me off Shambhala. If they had been able or willing to engage in an honest conversation about the man and talk about his good sides and shortcomings and how they affected his practice and teachings, that would've made all the difference. Again, I don't mean to offend people who practice Shambhala. This is one person's experience.

In total I think it depends on how you feel about their transgressions and how it affects the person's ability to be a leader or teach compassion and wisdom. The other stuff I mention about how the community deals with it may be relevant, too.

I think it's awesome you're taking the time to think this out. It's not necessarily common to do but it's admirable.
posted by sneakin at 1:16 PM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

When you're talking about Trungpa, his escapades involving WS Merwin's wife are chronicled in the Great Naropa Poetry Wars. I can't leave the subject of Naropa Institute without mentioning that shameful moment in time when it was headed by Trunga's disciple Ösel Tendzin (aka Thomas Rich) who not only continued the tradition of having sex with students, but continued to do so after he was diagnosed with HIV!

All this stuff can get pretty lurid and I bring it up not so much because it's exciting and scandalous, but because the issues that you're struggling with are things that anyone who's interested in Buddhism in the west should struggle with. Your experiences and thoughts on this issue can help illuminate the way for everyone who is trying to figure this stuff out for themselves and their communities.
posted by jasper411 at 1:38 PM on January 15, 2008

sneakin: Yeah, I'm actually turned off by Tibetan practice in part because I perceive a greater emphasis on uncritical reverence for gurus. Also, the idea of deities and empowerments doesn't really resonate with me. If that's someone else's path, great, it's just not for me. And I'm not an anti-authority sort in general; I'm actually pretty trusting in my daily life. It's just important for me to respect my teachers in particular, and I have a hard time respecting someone who commits adultery. I'm more forgiving on the alcoholism, and i understand your point about there being differing views on alcohol within Buddhism. But I haven't heard of anyone that says "Yeah, it's fine to drink until you pass out."
posted by desjardins at 2:04 PM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

They used to call the Tibetan practice "crazy wisdom" suggesting that achieving nirvana in one life required taking a lot of shortcuts, and that lay people should not judge the guru's actions based on the standards held for everyday society.

For evidence of this, read the wonderful Life of Milarepa about the 11th century Tibetan saint who had some very heavy karma to work off because of his days as a sorcerer. His guru, Marpa, was a total drunk, often passed out and who gave Milarepa all kinds of crazy tasks to perform (building towers, taking them down again). Milarepa was near suicide in despair of ever getting admitted as a full disciple of Marpa.

These stories are both inspiring and off-putting. It's hard to not admire the single minded devotion of Milarepa, but also hard not to think that Marpa's a crazy guy who should be regulated somehow. But that's the issue - if the lay person is not fit to judge the actions of the guru, who is? Many illustrious and wonderful people (including Thich Nhat Hahn) advised SF Zen Center folks who were unhappy with Richard Baker to leave the Zen Center and find themselves another guru. And they were concerned about the Center's decision to empower a board of directors (lay people) to oversee religious practice in some measure to fulfill their fiduciary duty to ensure that students not be harmed by the organization's practice. But what's the alternative? As a culture, we've had too much experience of the misuse of power and authority to allow us to feel comfortable with blind obedience.
posted by jasper411 at 2:32 PM on January 15, 2008

But I haven't heard of anyone that says "Yeah, it's fine to drink until you pass out."

Yup, that was part of my point. Anything that would compromise our mindfulness to the point where we could hurt ourselves or another is definitely frowned upon. But I think it's drinking to excess that's verboten rather than alcohol itself. Small point that doesn't really further the answer to your question. Sorry!
posted by sneakin at 4:40 PM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yeah, desjardins, it's my understanding too that some of those rules are for monks. I was just trying to point out that there's been lots of mix-and-matching, at least in this country — we get bits of monastic practice, bits of lay practice, bits of who knows what else, and at a certain point worrying about purity or authenticity starts to seem silly.

Then again, it sounds from your later comments that you're not worried about lineage as a way of proving authenticity — you just want to be sure that your teacher isn't an asshole — in which case that part of my comment may be irrelevant anyway.

posted by nebulawindphone at 4:46 PM on January 15, 2008

I actually found the Tricycle article you linked to be pretty illuminating - it seems like at least some of his students found the experience painful and disillusioning, but that they ultimately learned from it. I would go the center near you and observe - don't marry them, just date them to begin with.
Ask direct questions, because you won't be comfortable there if you don't. Maybe you'll get evasive answers, maybe they'll be really direct. Decide how important lineage is to you personally, and whether the heritage Maezumi Roshi left behind was to make his students enablers or to make them older but wiser.
posted by smartyboots at 5:03 PM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm not concerned with lineage per se. I'm concerned with hypocrisy. If lineage is so important in Buddhism and the teacher is to be viewed as the fountain of knowledge, then that teacher better be the paragon of moral virtue. (I realize I'm distorting things here to make a point.)
posted by desjardins at 5:48 PM on January 15, 2008

I'm trying to think of this in light of scandals that plagued an intentional spiritual community where my aunt lives (it's founded on the teachings of Parmahansa Yogananda, the yogi in Autobiography of a Yogi). The swami (not Yogananda himself, but his disciple) was accused of affairs with younger women, iirc. It's weird, the scandal made me quite turned off by swami-dude, but my aunt and a few of the even-more monk-like women who live there are still very much people I'd learn from. I'm convinced of their integrity and see the results of their commitment to the practice.

So, it seems to me there's a slight distinction between the teachings and the immediate teacher. If everything someone learned was dependent on the teacher, then it might be impossible to surpass the failings of your teacher. But if someone was working within a solid tradition, and it turned out that their immediate teacher was a yokel, I might still go check them out to see whether they'd done enough self-teaching to set themselves straight. It seems like if the Great Plains Zen Center roshi has really devoted his/her life to learning a particular Buddhist tradition, they might have read the foundational texts on their own, or spent a "semester abroad" with Maezumi's own roshi, or had personal insights through meditation, or just had a stronger practice than he did (maybe Maezumi got so swept up in fame that he quit doing the basic meditations every day). Maybe they accepted his help to get where they are now but ultimately surpassed him in wisdom. Certainly happens in academia.

That said, I'd go with your gut if you don't get a good feeling about the place.
posted by salvia at 11:31 PM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm not concerned with lineage per se. I'm concerned with hypocrisy. If lineage is so important in Buddhism and the teacher is to be viewed as the fountain of knowledge, then that teacher better be the paragon of moral virtue.

That's actually a problem I've had with buddhism, and one that I deal with by... um, ignoring it, mostly.
Mainly I try to focus on the dharma, and see lineage as the means by which the dharma is supposed to be passed down undistorted (which it probably isn't anyway). I don't see it as meaning that every teacher and every teachers teacher has to be without flaws, because if that was my standard I wouldn't be able to practice buddhism at all - after all, buddha himself abandoned his wife and newborn son to go hang out with a bunch of freaks in the woods. That's not the sort of behavior I normally endorse. But as I continue with my practice I find the actual dharma to be valuable and to reflect reality. So I keep doing it. YMMV
posted by smartyboots at 12:11 PM on January 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Also, what salvia said.
posted by smartyboots at 12:14 PM on January 16, 2008

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