When do we speak out?

This post arose from an online conversation with Barry at Ox Herding, about criticism, and the need to speak up.  Generally, criticizing others isn’t something helpful to our practice, yet when is it necessary to speak out?  When do we speak up? When is this the healthier choice?

Barry:  I have violated the “precept” of speaking about others so many times and usually have come to regret my speech.

Zen Master Seung Sahn used to say that the mouth is “the number one problem gate” and all available evidence supports this, at least in my case.

At the same time, there are times when we must speak out about the behaviors of others. I think about Eido Shimano in this context and the decades of silence that enabled the ongoing abuse of his students.

What if Aitken Roshi had spoken out in the late 1960s rather than in the last year of his life? How might that speech, had it occurred four decades ago, have helped?

In recent years, when confronted with some troubling behavior or speech, I’ve tried to examine my own troubling behaviors and words. If I can see how such actions arise within myself, then I can also see clearly how they arise in others. Then I might speak out. (But it’s hit and miss!)

Chong Go Sunim: I can see enough of my own faults to realize that, (in general) I definitely have no business going on about others’ behavior. That said, there are still times when it’s necessary to have the “hard conversation” with someone, when I have discuss something really unpleasant or uncomfortable.

I’ve heard of companies that have a “no gossip” policy, where they actually will fire someone who keeps it up. There, they define “gossip” as complaints/criticisms “given” to someone who has no power to do anything about them. I think there is something to this that helps separate the “bitch session” from the “hard conversation”. In the second it actually is my job to do something about it.

I can kind of imagine some of what’s involved with situations like the one with Shimano. I’d guess that a lot of practitioners (in other places) who only heard glimpses of the problem didn’t say anything because they felt that the people best able to actually solve this problem were the ones at that temple. I think this may have played a big role in the silence; plus, as outsiders they may have also felt uncertain about what exactly was going on.

On the one hand, it seems like that situation is continuing because the people in the middle of it choose to let it continue. So what’s my responsibility? As near as I can tell, it is to people new to Buddhism who might actually believe those kinds of behavior are “enlightened” or some kind of “non-dual wisdom” or even crap like “Asian culture.”

I kind of feel for Aitken Roshi, I’ll bet he really regretted not having had the guy deported back in 1964. Aitken Roshi seems to have been an honest and sincere person who was thrown for a loop when confronted for the first time with Shimano’s behavior. At the time, it didn’t fit the traditional “call the police” model for despicable behavior. And he’d probably never encountered anyone like that before. I’m pretty sure that Aitken unconsciously tried to deal with Shimano in the way Aitken normally treated people, as if they were basically honest and sincere. But this model doesn’t work with a compulsive behavior. I don’t think honest people react well, or decisively, to these situations until they’ve been burned once or twice. Until then, it’s something they never really imagined or had a need to think through.

11 thoughts on “When do we speak out?”

  1. last week, I was thinking about Angulimala, and how the Buddha didn’t speak about him to anyone, he went and confronted him directly.

    It’s not entirely the same situation, though. I don’t know a whole lot about the Shimano situation, either. Was he confronted directly?

    1. Well, the Buddha was the Buddha, after all!^-^

      Confronting someone works best when it’s a fairly honest, sincere person who knows, and can admit, that they’ve been behaving in a bad way.

      With long term, compulsive behaviors, there’s usually a whole lot of denial going on. I think that when the behavior is rooted in a compulsion or addiction, talking doesn’t do much good. There has to be an intervention, and their environment has to be structured in a way that they can’t continue to harm others.

      Someone once said that “if an addict’s lips are moving, they’re lying.” They will say, and do, anything (really!) to continue with their compulsion.

      I think this is where Aitken Roshi may have stumbled, in that as an open, honest person himself, he unconsciously assumed that what would work for him (if he were in that situation) would work for others. So he relied on honest and open discussions. I think that he didn’t realize that the other person, (Shimano in this case) didn’t necessarily share the same characteristics as himself.

      In the case of the community around Shimano, there are a lot of different opinions about this, but I would guess it’s a large part of simply just not knowing how a true practitioner behaves, together with some denial, dependancy issues (wanting someone up on a pedistal, a “daddy” figure), fear of loss of credentials, and again, sincere people not knowing how to deal with someone who’s much more manipulative.

      Truth be told, I’m not a particularly confrontational person, and I really(!) hate talking about this stuff, but people need to know these things so that they don’t fall into the same pits themselves (or at least have a bit of a chance to avoid them).

  2. Thanks for this post. These conversations need to keep happening so that the deeper level issues come out, the ones beyond any specifics of Shimano’s case for example. My sangha went through a much shorter version of this several years ago. Most of us were fooled and/or awestruck by the charisma of the teacher, as well as false notions about the power and authority tied to his position. Direct confrontations by individuals failed over the course of maybe five years, and many of those individuals ended up leaving the sangha. It took a group of long term students acting on a formal, detailed complaint from another long term student to set the chain of events going that led to the teacher’s dismissal.

    Unlike with the Shimano situation, it was less than three months before we had essentially broken all teaching ties and required a thorough reconciliation process to occur before any reunification would happen. He refused all of this, and ended up starting up another community a few years later. But I think what worked in our favor, and may be working against Shimano’s sangha, is the amount of time involved. The power and sexual abuses that occurred in our community were mostly within a six year time frame, and there were enough of us (like myself) who hadn’t been around long enough to have established a commitment to the teacher. Whereas, with the multiple decade pattern in Shimano’s community, the preponderance of students have been ushered in under his wing, and in order to make a clean break, have to admit to themselves they’d been terribly fooled and misled by certain behaviors, and that individually and collectively, they had failed to take responsibility for their spiritual practices. It was really hard for our more seasoned practitioners to do all of this, so I can imagine it’s terribly challenging for a lot of those within Shimano’s sangha.

    Which is why outside voices can be the necessary mirrors that help reflect the truth, as well as next steps. But beyond this, these kinds of scandals are opportunities for every sangha to consider how to foster student-based responsibility for their practice, as well as collective forms and mechanisms for ensuring that teachers and students work together in manners that promote healthy, awakened lives.

    1. Thanks for sharing this, Nathan.

      I think that it’s good for people to hear about how these situations can be dealt with. Sometimes it seems like the first step is simply knowing that these situations can be addressed, and that there is life on the other side of them.

  3. Thanks for continuing this important topic, Sunim. And thanks, Nathan, for your contribution to it.

    As I said in my comment at the beginning of the post, and as you repeated so clearly, the work of transformation requires each of us to penetrate our own trouble-making natures.

    As we do this, we will begin to understand (not intellectually) the factors behind the damaging behaviors of others. We have the same factors within us.

    It’s easy to express moral outrage about Shimano but I believe that such outrage only inflames the situation and fails to help either Shimano or the victims of his actions.

    But, in our words and actions, we manifest our own deep understandings of the causes and conditions that produce afflictive behaviors, then our outrage can actually help transform suffering.

    I have seen many people swept up in moral outrage about Shimano (or moral righteousness, as in the current events in Egypt), but I have yet to see many people look within themselves to learn what might sit behind Shimano’s behaviors

    That’s what I tried to capture when I first wrote about Shimano (link below) although the effort was only partially successful.

    How can I use the many situations of life to help this world? That’s the place for practice, at least for me.

    1. Thanks Barry,
      I definitely agree with you. I think that in order to speak out correctly, we have to do it with a certain humility and to keep in mind that each of us has the same basic building blocks (that created this problem)within us. Just let our habits and desires carry us away for a bit too long, and we could be that person.

  4. I would like to say something about Aitken Roshi as a student who lived at Koko-An and Palolo in my younger dumber days.

    Aitken Roshi absolutely did not remain silent about the situation, was not so naive to believe that he should rely on some fundamental goodness in ES. He talked to members of the community, comforting and collecting information. He went to a higher authority and reported ES. He did what, I believe, he felt was all that was within his power given the nature of the harm. It is not as though you can call the police to report what would most likely have been called “consensual” activities. And he was not silent until the last year of his life.

    I remember being a young student back in 1990, new to practice. But I had already heard rumors of ES’s horrible behavior, and the behavior of other teachers in Buddhism, a list that seemed far too long to me, of sexual relations, drunkeness, and brutality. And I went to Roshi and said, in my ego-confusion, “If this is where this leads, if attainment doesn’t make me a better person, then what the hell are we doing?” He said two things, and for both of these things I am forever grateful.

    First he said that it is ever so important that I not be bogged down in my practice by such thinking. That during this intensive time I should devote all my energy to koan, zazen, and samu. That perhaps the answer to my question was another question: Who is hearing this sound? I believe today he felt it was necessary to say this because form IS emptiness. It really is. And it was what I needed.

    And then he said that, at the same time, my question is an important question. He told me very openly about ES, what had happened, how he had responded. Even how he had felt inadequate despite his efforts, how it raised questions for him as well. His response was open, honest, and human. He was not even vaguely silent. And I believe that he felt it necessary to add this because emptiness IS form…this too is true.

    Even in this age of societal consciousness about such things, we can see how difficult it is to affect change. 47 years ago, Aitken Roshi was able to get ES removed; and in 2011 we can see that the ZSS is having difficulty getting his influence removed from their presence.

    Who can say what more he could have done? As for me, I’m biased. He and Anne quite literally saved my life. To me he was never silent. He still isn’t.

    1. Thanks for sharing this Michael!

      It’s really wonderful to hear from someone fortunate enough to have practiced with him. Although I never met Aitken Roshi, he always seemed like a very sincere, consciencious person.
      I never meant to imply that he didn’t work hard to resolve the situation with ES, just that in hindsight, knowing more about what kind of a person he was dealing with, Aitken Roshi might have reacted even more forcefully. But this is just supposition, and the point I was hoping to make was that there are some people with whom talking just doesn’t cut it. (People with whom clear, behavioral standards are necessary.) If I came across as belittling Aitken Roshi in any way, I would like to deeply and sincerely appologize.

      In his sincerity, integrity, and effort, I think Aitken Roshi was one of the great role models for Western Buddhists. If you are interested, do you have a story about him that you would like to share with others? Perhaps something that would inspire others, that I could put up as a guest post? Thanks again for sharing your experiences.

      with palms together,
      Chong Go

    2. Michael, I’m grateful for your description of Aitken Roshi’s commitment (in words and actions) to resolving the Shimano situation. Your comment is the first such description I’ve seen, which probably says more about my own unwillingness to look than anything else.

      And I appreciate also your willingness to share Roshi’s response to your question about our shared practice. As is so often the case, a good question is better than a good answer.

      Thank you.

  5. Another good example of speaking out is the Dalai Lama when he speaks of China and what they did in Tibet. He doesn’t hold back on sharing what was done, and still continues but isn’t it amazing how well he keeps it at that!

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