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On Gender

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Mar 27, 2011
Location: Headlands Institute
In topic: General Topics in Buddhism
Norman speaks "On Gender" and the many issues that arise within Sangha over gender and sexuality.
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On Gender

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | March 27, 2011


Abridged and edited by Ryusen Barbara Byrum



Good afternoon, everybody.  In the last couple of months, there has been a flurry and discussion on the Internet about sexual misconduct on the part of several male Zen teachers.  This erupted all at the same time.  I am on two different list serves of Zen teachers in America.  The Zen teachers involved in the scandals were actually very important, famous Zen teachers - Eido Shimano, who is a Rinzai Zen master, and founded Dai Bosatsu Zendo Kongo-j in upstate New York; and Genpo Merzel, a very powerful disciple of the late Maezumi Roshi.  Genpo founded several important Zen centers in various places, the latest one is in Salt Lake City.  Genpo is also famous for having created the Big Mind process, which is a kind of quasi-Zen psychological training that a lot of people believe in. 


So this was big news, and, unfortunately, is also old news, because this stuff has been going on for thousands of years, literally.  These two guys have been going on with this stuff for decades.  So this was not a sudden shock.  This was something people have known about for decades. 


Reflecting on it, it seems to me that there actually is some kind of psychological syndrome involving charismatic and powerful male spiritual teachers.  I don't know if there is a name for it, but there should be.  It must be an identifiable problem that we should understand as such.  We rightly condemn theses actions; because it turns out - when it all comes out - it is so hurtful to so many people.  You wonder how people could do these things that have such terrible consequences.


At the same time, I can really understand how someone could be quite destabilized, without knowing that he was destabilized, by the psychic pressures of being a spiritual teacher.  People think, "It must be great to be a great spiritual teacher.  Zen master Eido Roshi.  Zen master Genpo Roshi."  But it is not that great, I think.  It is actually a lot harder than it looks, because the more you seem to be on top of things and wise and powerful and enlightened, probably the more crazy-making and difficult the situation can become internally.  I think that being enlightened and therefore always having the controlling and correct point of view can literally make you crazy. It can make you do very irrational things. 


So what do you say when something happens like this in a Zen community?  To me it is mostly sad, but this time, after all these years of dealing with this kind of stuff, it was actually better, because what happened was that Zen teachers from all around the country, myself included, wrote letters to the Boards of Directors of these centers.  We urged them to be strong in their calling these teachers on this behavior and telling them that they could no longer continue to be to Zen teachers in these centers.  In both cases there were empowered successors who stepped in and assumed leadership.  All these Zen teachers pledged that they would support the new leaders. There is now a national community of Zen teachers, and this helped.  Still, both situations were very difficult, and I am sure continue to be very difficult.  So this is really good and much better than when it happened in the San Francisco Zen Center in the 1980's, when there were not so many letters coming from the outside, and not so much sense in understanding these things, and not so much sense of support for the troubled community. 


Anyway, I am just mentioning this.  This is not what I want to talk about today, because I think that this is something that we all understand very well, and I don't think any of us are confused by this kind of thing, or any of us would say, "Oh, that's not so bad."  I think we all understand that it is not okay, and I think this is not a problem we have in our Everyday Zen sanghas - at least as far as I know.  If we ever had some person like this around, whether it was our teacher or some senior person who behaving like this, I think that this guy would not last very long!  It would take about a quarter of an hour before people noticed, "Oh, look at that!  That's weird.  That's not okay.  That's not what we do around here."  I don't think that the women in our sanghas would stand for this for very long.  So it's not a worry I have. 


But I mention it because it is related to something that I would like to talk about today that is much more subtle and much more important, it seems to me. It is something that we never talk about, because it is not a subject that ever appears in any direct way in the traditional teachings, and since that is what we always talk about - the teachings - this never comes up.  This is the issue of gender dynamics in our practice.  This is what I want to try to talk about today, and in talking about this, I am not trying to give you definitive teachings or perspectives, because I think this is one of those issues about which nobody could have anything definitive to say, because no-one could be free of some gender bias.  There could be no-one who could find a place to stand outside of gender and comment on gender objectively.  We are all feeling our way around in the dark.  So I am only here trying to open up the subject somehow. 


Even though, as I said a minute ago, I don't think that we really have a problem with sexual misconduct or sexual predation in our sanghas, I am pretty sure that there are gender dynamics that can be hurtful or problematic.  It is hard to talk about this stuff, because it stirs up deep feelings.  We all have a lot on our hearts about this, and usually we don't think about it.  But I know that it is hard, because a while ago in our dharma seminar we had the topic of Women in Buddhism.  We spent about a month on this topic, and it wasn't that easy, actually.  We had some difficult conversations.  They were good conversations, I think - pretty honest - but not the most comfortable, happy-making times that we had, because this is a topic that makes us all feel uncomfortable, myself included.  When I try to say what I want to say now, I will try not to make you feel uncomfortable, but especially not to make myself feel uncomfortable in the things I am going to say, because I don't really like feeling uncomfortable about these things either. 


As I said, I am pretty sure that we don't find male sexual predation in our sanghas.  I also hope we don't find narrow-minded, puritanical, misogynistic attitudes in our sanghas either.  But the truth is that those are really extreme cases.  There is a lot of space for hurt and misunderstanding in between those extremes.  All sorts of subtle confusions and delusions and hurts and pain.  All sorts of ways that, probably without any of us intending it, male attitudes hurt women, and, sometimes, maybe, it goes the other way.  Women's attitudes hurt men.  We almost never speak about this, and probably that's because none of us can really be sure about it, you know?  Is this just my oversensitivity?  Should I just forget about this?  Or maybe I am not really feeling this. 


So we don't talk about it.  Also, so much of it we don't even know about ourselves, because it is unconscious.  It happens, and we don't even understand it ourselves.  Everybody here comes from a family.  Every family has a history.  In our families we have all been trained in these gender dynamics in various ways, usually not so wonderfully.  Maybe some of us have come from families where there has been a lot of hurt and pain around these things.  


Naturally, when we meet each other in practice, all of this comes into play.  We bring all of our wounds and habits into our daily conduct.  We feel wounds or inflict wounds on each other despite our best intentions not to do so.  But it happens anyway.  It happens all the time.  It happens in the world at large, and it happens here, I am sure. 


I feel like the world we live in is a very fortunate world, where we don't have the kind of radical, violent, unfair, socially sanctioned violence that exists against women in a lot of societies.  Pretty much we have a world that is very fair, in which women have an equal chance and are accorded equal respect.  In this country that is actually the law.  Little by little it is actually becoming social custom that everyone accepts. 


Still, there is plenty of hurt and confusion.  Even when the day comes when it never happens again that there is any more of this kind of hurt and confusion - it's all gone - we will still have the history of this, that will be in our hearts for a long time to come.  We all try our best to bring to awareness what we are not aware of, to follow through with our commitment to benefit others, and not to damage others. 


In our Soto Zen tradition, as you have heard me say so many times, warm and personal relationship is at the heart of our practice.  Trust in one another.  Affection for one another and mutual commitment together is at the heart of our practice.  We give honor and a kind of power to our senior practitioners just because we respect them for having practiced a long time. 


So I think this is all great.  I appreciate this about our tradition.  This is the way that we have inherited.  To me it is so much better than another way in which we would be validating and honoring more than anything else brilliance, accomplishment, charisma, enlightenment, social connections, social polish - which is honored and validated in many other religious traditions and in the world at large. I appreciate that for us it is not those things that are the highest values.  I feel that our way is a simple, warm-hearted way.  I think it is the way of love.  We become really close to one another in the dharma.  We become good friends as we go forward practicing together. 


But with this emphasis on love and warmth and human relationship, maybe there are also some problems.  Sometimes when people love one another, we can hurt each other more.  Maybe the possibilities for misunderstanding actually increase when you have expectations of one another in love and warm relationship.  Maybe we don't intend these misunderstandings, but sometimes they happen anyway. 


I know that sometimes women have complained about me and other male leaders of the sangha as not really understanding something that they were presenting or saying or feeling.  Not really getting it.  Or being in some way, without being too overt about it, dismissive.  Or trivializing something that was actually important.  Sometimes women have complained about me or other senior male students in the sangha for saying and doing things - maybe words or gestures - that in the grand scheme of things maybe are not such a big deal, but in the hearts of the person involved, a big deal.  Saying things or doing things that are maybe disrespectful or maybe even understood to be sexually suggestive.  Maybe we have misunderstood one another, so that it seems as if something inappropriate is being fostered. 


Probably this kind of stuff is happening all the time and I think that we all try to deal with it in an adult way and the best way we can.  I do feel that, on the whole, we are understanding people and pretty mature people, and we do well.  I don't think we have a problem about this stuff.  I don't think I have a problem about this stuff...I hope.  I hope.  Now that I have said all this, someone will no doubt let me know, and it turns out I am wrong about this!  But that is my belief and my hope. 


If it turns out that we do have a problem, or several problems, or a whole host of problems, I really do trust in the good will of our sangha and the intelligence and kindness of our sangha to deal with those problems and work them through.


I am saying all this to give everybody permission to let us know - to let me know - if there are such things that we should be dealing with and talking about.  I hope that with my words today that everybody will feel that it is okay to bring up something, if it seems important.  Not to be shy about it.  Not to feel that that is forbidden territory.  "I better not discuss that.  It is too embarrassing.  It's too difficult." 


On the other hand, if some of these things do come up, and it is just as easy to forget about them, I would encourage you to forget about them!  I guess what I am trying to say is please do bring up something that is important, but imagine a world in which we were always letting each other know about all the things that we said to each other that fell short of perfect thoughtfulness.  Imagine if we started our sitting today with this invitation, "Let's all discuss with one another things that we have said or done."  If we had done that, not only would we not have had a moment to sit all day today, but I would have never made it out of my house to get here today for having such discussions!  [Laughter]


I think you understand what I am saying.  We should bring up something.  Please do.  If you wonder, do it anyway, but also, it is not necessary to bring up everything.  A lot of things we can feel them, and we can let them go.  It's not denial.  It's okay.  That's what we do, right?  We let things come and go.  But, still, it would be very educational, and we would all learn a lot, if we did occasionally.


The usual discussion of gender dynamics goes something like this: "Men are so clueless."  [Laughter]  "They have no concept of feelings or emotions.  It's like: Put on the sports, open up a beer, and that's it.  They are completely clueless.  Women, on the other hand, are incredibly sensitive about these things.  All things emotional."  I wish there weren't enough truth in that there unfortunately is.  However, like all things that have a lot of truth in them, they are not entirely true.  So it would be too easy to leave it at that. 


I think it is possible that women are off emotionally as well.  Not understanding, not seeing something emotionally.  Men's gender cluelessness may be greater than women's gender cluelessness, because a person who is on the "bad" end of these things always had a greater vision than the one who is on the "good" end, so to speak.  In other words, the powerful don't see what the less powerful see.  Nevertheless, we can all be blind sometimes.  Let's not make it too black and white.  Everybody has a limited vista, and we see what lays within that vista. 


I am going to close my talk with a quotation from Chris [Fortin], who acted the part of Miaozong in a play performed at the Everyday Zen women's retreat. These are the beautiful words that she said:


The theme for the Everyday Zen women's weekend is "Authentic meeting: ferocious  vulnerability - vulnerable ferocity."  The dictionary offers us this about the source of these words.  "Ferocious" denotes "wild."  "Vulnerable" is "capable of being physically or emotionally wounded; completely seen."  Miaozong was literally naked in this encounter.  "Nakedness" is "unarmed; without addition or concealment; nothing extra; bare."


On reflection, this seems to express the heart of the practice that we share with Miaozong and all of our ancestors.  Zazen becomes the naked, unarmed, bare act of ferociously, wildly and wholeheartedly committing ourselves to sitting and breathing - in the midst of the vulnerable suffering of being a human being.  It is where we meet ourselves and the whole world.  What arises from this practice is a deep confidence and trust that is rooted in the body, in everyday activity, and in an awareness of the interconnected, karmic dance of cause and effect between all beings.


With a faith that makes us vulnerable, that humanizes and connects us, we vow not to turn away from what is uncomfortable.  This is ferocious vulnerability.   Practice awakens our hearts and minds to the wisdom and compassion of the buddhas.  It cuts through limiting discriminations and self centered views - the root cause of human suffering.