Monday, February 7, 2011

Genpo Roshi: Another Male Spiritual Teacher Involved in "Sexual Misconduct"

This morning my attention was directed to a statement of resignation from Genpo Roshi, Zen Priest and lineage holder and member of the Integral Inner Circle. He posted the following statement on his Big Mind web page:

Owning My Responsibility

A Personal Statement from Genpo Merzel

I have chosen to disrobe as a Buddhist Priest, and will stop giving Buddhist Precepts or Ordinations, but I will continue teaching Big Mind. I will spend the rest of my life truly integrating the Soto Zen Buddhist Ethics into my life and practice so I can once again regain dignity and respect. My actions have caused a tremendous amount of pain, confusion, and controversy for my wife, family, and Sangha, and for this I am truly sorry and greatly regret. My behavior was not in alignment with the Buddhist Precepts. I feel disrobing is just a small part of an appropriate response.

I am also resigning as an elder of the White Plum Asanga. My actions should not be viewed as a reflection on the moral fabric of any of the White Plum members.

As Genpo Merzel, I will continue to bring Big Mind into the world and to train and facilitate people who wish to study with me. I will not give up on, and will still be available for people who wish to continue studying with me as just an ordinary human being who is working on his own shadows and deeply rooted patterns.

With great humility I will continue to work on my own shadows and deeply rooted patterns that have led me to miss the mark of being a moral and ethical person and a decent human being. I appreciate all the love and support as well as the criticism that has been shared with me. Experiencing all the pain and suffering that I have caused has truly touched my heart and been the greatest teacher. It has helped open my eyes and given me greater clarity around my own dishonest, hurtful behavior as well as my sexual misconduct. I recently entered therapy and plan to continue indefinitely with it. I am in deep pain over the suffering I have caused my wife, children, students, successors and Sangha.

With Sadness and Love,

D. Genpo Merzel

The Infinite Smile blog posted the following statement from the White Plum Asanga:

“The White Plum Asanga Board of Directors has accepted the resignation of Genpo Merzel from White Plum Asanga membership as well as an Elder of the White Plum. This resignation is a result of his recent disclosures regarding sexual misconduct with several of his students. Please see the Big Mind website for their statement. On behalf of the White Plum organization, I extend our support for Genpo’s efforts in recovery and treatment and to the teachers and members of the Kanzeon Sangha in their efforts in healing and realigning their communities. — Roshi Gerry Shishin Wick, President, WPA”

Interestingly, Monkey Mind today posted Ethics Code for the Boundless Way Zen Sangha today - coincidence? I don't think it is. One part of the ethics code reads as follows:

Relationships and Intimacy

Our practice is one of intimacy. It can be warmhearted and close. And relationships between teachers and students, as with therapeutic relationships, usually involve powerful psychic conditions including projection, transference and counter-transference, among others. In addition there are the complexities found within the power differential that exists between a teacher and a student. With these various circumstances it is tempting to cross a line from spiritual intimacy to sexual intimacy. And whatever the merits of sexual intimacy, this type of relationship tends to confuse the other aspects of intimate relationship necessary for a successful teacher and student relationship.

Again, sexuality is a natural part of life and as a non-celibate sangha, sexual intimacy is going to be a cherished part of our shared lives. However, those who teach have additional responsibilities and our covenant includes several commitments regarding sexual behavior.

No priest, senior Dharma teacher or transmitted teacher who is married or in a committed relationship should engage in sexual activities with any person outside of their stated commitment.

Any priest, senior Dharma teacher or transmitted teacher who finds a romantic relationship beginning with a member of the sangha should inform the EAR Committee of this relationship and seek guidance as to the most healthful way to proceed.

If the people involved are in a teacher-student relationship, a choice must be made between either pursuing that personal relationship or continuing the teacher-student relationship, but not both. The EAR Committee should help in this decision-making process. A resolution should be achieved with as little delay and as much openness and transparency as humanly possible.

These are clear and useful guidelines for any spiritual community, including the integral world (where there is no code of ethics for teachers, despite a series of transgressions in the community).

Buddhadharma covered the story and we have been having a serious and heated discussion at Facebook.

Unfortunately, this will become another example of a male spiritual teacher behaving badly. Have you ever heard of a female teacher being involved a situation such as this? I'm sure it happens, but it happens far more often with men.

One friend who I very much respect said this (at FB):

I'd agree with school of thought that it's more likely an inherent part of the leading edge progressive leaders. Those inclined to push the cutting edge, to cut knew paths and discover and more inclined to have "hitches in the get-a-long," by design.

I disagree with this perspective - it feels like giving men a pass just because they are brilliant in some way. I have no doubt that we are all human and we are prone to mistakes - I've made WAY more than my fair share. And even our teachers are going to make mistakes.

My friend John Wagnon - in his post on this topic (Spiritual Teaching and Sexual Ethics: Genpo and Gafni) - offered a very useful distinction between how Genpo Merzel is choosing to handle this situation and the ways in which Marc Gafni has repeatedly blamed others and denied any responsibility for his actions.

I am probably most disappointed because I was told that Genpo Merzel was one of the only Integral people who did not want to be associated with Gafni - not at events, not in online promotions. In that case he was on the right side, so it's disappointing to see this come out.

I side with John on this topic - and while I respect another of my friends very much, I disagree with his view on this (from FB):

I think the cure of men having to publicly flog themselves for consensual affairs and give up their otherwise valid posts is much much worse than the disease in these cases. To be clear, I've never done Big Mind, never planned to, and have never met Genpo. But it seems like he was helpful to lots of people. So in the larger moral universe a few affairs with consenting adults (even students) doesn't compare in any way, in my mind, to the fact that he may be a quality spiritual teacher who has impacted a large number of people positively.

This, for me, is about living in a realistic but improved society. In our real world, people suffer tremendously for all sorts of serious reasons--disease, war, exploitation, etc.. Given that, I just don't think we can afford kicking out otherwise effective people because they make a few flawed decisions.

Adyashanti--not my teacher--is maybe the most important spiritual teacher of our time. He hasn't had a sex scandal. Maybe he will. Do I want him to stop teaching if he does. Oh lord, I hope not. Same with Tolle. Or Obama. We need all the help we can get.

I think there is some truth in this, but I generally tend to disagree that we should let it slide because he has helped some people. That's like saying, "Boys will be boys" when men are inappropriate with women, and letting it slide because they are professional athletes (Roethlisberger) or President (Clinton). We should not publicly flog these people, but we should not tolerate their behavior.

In this case, Merzel took marriage vows with his wife, which he acknowledges violating, and he took vows as a Zen Priest, which he also acknowledges violating. Maybe this is not on the same scale as murder, or embezzlement, but it IS something that requires sanction of some kind. Perhaps divorce in his private life. Perhaps disrobing in his professional life.

Yet, as long as he is not in a position to re-offend, let him teach Big Mind. Let him write books. Let him film videos. Let him co-lead retreats. Just do NOT enable him to do it again.


Anonymous said...

I don't care about Genpo's affair--people make mistakes, he's not a real monk (the vinaya requires expulsion for this sort of issue), and we can make amends--except that it was with a person that he later "certified" as a successor in one of his lineages. You see the problem there? You know, "power dynamics" and all that. There's tons of ways to dismiss the affair as a minor ethical transgression, but misuse of power is more critical to me...and most people don't seem to be paying attention to that.

Julia Stewart said...

Thanks for a thoughtful article about this. I am a serious student of Genpo's and I was more upset that he disrobed, than that he had affairs.

That said, I'm glad that he and the Buddhist organization that he led have taken it seriously. He broke vows and promises, while he led others who are attempting similar vows and promises.

In addition, as you've pointed out, there is a special relationship between a spiritual teacher and his students. If the teacher doesn't respect appropriate boundaries, there is by default a violations of students' trust.

I once read an psychological article that said that extremely successful leaders, like Bill Clinton and others, can develop an insane level of confidence that can cause them to take seemingly self-destructive risks with affairs and other transgressions.

The old, 'power corrupts' proverb apparently is true.

What ever the case, this isn't the 1st time Genpo has been involved in such a scandal. I hope he gets the healing he needs.

Anonymous said...

In a case like this he has practiced deciet and broken the third precept. He conspired with others to lie as well; on his behalf. That is not holding the principles of a teacher.
Having said that it is his path and he openly chose it. Now he has to be responsible for that choosing. There is an issue of power here...