The TAT Forum: a spiritual magazine of essays, 
poems and humor.

December 2013

Sex and the Sangha
by Gordon Gross

The practice of abiding calm which I think is the basic aim of most meditation practices is to create a calm state of mind and remain undisturbed no matter the conditions around us. This is sometimes called Shikan-Taza in the Zen tradition. I viewed the new living quarters as an ideal situation to develop deeper calm despite the conditions. That was my thinking but the actual experience was somewhat different. The world in the winter turns off around 5:30 pm for homeless people. They have no light after it turns dark early. I rigged up a reading light so I could study at night, but most homeless people on foot have no such luxury and the world becomes a dismal, forbidding place after lights out. What made it truly difficult was seeing all the lights in houses around town and realizing all those people still had a life, hope and comfort that extended beyond sunset. They also had warmth and a refrigerator to open and get a snack or to store food in so they could prepare meals. They had warm beds to lie in when they were tired or ill. I became aware how much we are addicted to comfort and ease. With no fresh food storage available, my meals were simple dried goods or canned food. It was difficult not seeing my boys when I wanted to and then at night finding a safe place to park. My idyllic parking space was soon gone as it was too far out of town and my lack of gas money severely limited the amount I could drive. Over the course of winter months a sense of darkness crept into my awareness as the ever -present weight of the darkness of winter pressed upon me.

During this time I was leading a meditation group in east Raleigh called, “Greatmind Sangha.” We practiced a Zen style of meditation with a few Yoga and Tantra meditation twists tossed in for good measure. None of the practitioners in the group were aware of my situation nor did I feel any need to share it as one situation is as good as another for practice so why complain or feel positive about wherever we are at? Nonetheless by late February the van was feeling quite cramped. I suppose I had “van” fever. I missed not being able to practice my musical instruments as there was nowhere to store them. It was difficult to store much of anything such as clothes, books etc. as it was a mini- van.

One Monday night at the meditation everyone left except for one woman. She came up to me and began talking. She was about my age and physically attractive. She very bluntly explained that she was lonely and enjoyed the meditation and lived alone in a large house and would I be interested in getting together with her? She was offering an exit of sorts from the life I had been living and I was very tempted as I was alone a lot and do enjoy sex while in a relationship, but felt that it would corrupt my function as a teacher and possibly disrupt the sangha if I accepted.

When I decided to offer a meditation sangha a year before that, I thought carefully about what that meant and how my role as a teacher should be defined. I always try to remember the first principle of practice as espoused by Bodhidharma. (well, at least allegedly espoused, I wasn’t there ;-) The first precept is, “Awareness, no holiness.” What that meant in this situation was that what I should offer was simply awareness of the process and a possible outcome. I sensed that she was somewhat impressed by my status as a Zen teacher so was impressed by my holiness. In truth I have none as I am no different than anyone else but her motivating attitude didn’t come from a place of clarity and I was there to support clarity not further delusion. I also believe that the sangha is to be a place of clarity and ease for everyone and the teacher having a relationship with one or many other practitioners can muddy that very quickly.

Recently I read about the scandal regarding Joshu Soseki, a Japanese Zen teacher on the west coast who imagines himself to be an abbot and used his power of holiness to have manipulative sex with many different women in his zendo. There have been some who were outraged by his behavior and others who have rationalized it. I don’t have an opinion about him per se but I do feel that anyone who has attained even the first level of Buddha mind awareness opens up to the connection to others and thus compassion. That awareness of commonality leads us directly to the first precept of Bodhidharma. “Awareness no holiness.” If we are all aware sentient beings and thus the same, who then who is to be holy and more importantly who has a right to act holy? I think that holiness is at the heart of the difficulties that arose in that zendo. Many people feel inadequate and incomplete and seeing the world from a deluded mind seek for some realization of wholeness outside themselves and feel they need to be guided by others who have the “holiness’ and clarity they are lacking. They believe if someone else is holy then those people have achieved the clarity that they personally lack and desperately seek. As a result they are willing to give up self-determination to get it and will sometimes forgo self-respect and clarity to be told by someone else they are on the right path. For some this is giving up “ego” by sublimating that to a master. For another to take advantage of this need is to be holy. This process doesn’t create unity between people, it creates delusion and separation.

When we look at holiness in our world we can easily observe that priests and religious leaders everywhere see it as their first function to convince others of the need for them and their superior “holiness.’ Money flows and religious hierarchies, temples and power are built upon that need. Religions evolve out of it and swords and temples are raised, books written and then self-awareness of Buddha mind or whatever you want to call self-realization is long departed and the abuse of power begins. I wonder if that had anything to do with the Shakyamuni Buddhas injunction against writing sutras or building temples? When I hear anyone addressed as “His Holiness,” or a similarly pompous title, I am aware that the people addressing another with that title haven’t taken the first step to self-awareness. Abbott, lama, rinpoche, priest or other “titles’ also will do as a reasonable substitute. Holiness is a snake that when let loose in a sangha creates mischief and leaves it poisoned. The first precept of practice is perhaps more about the practitioner than the person venerated. If we are to take a first step on the path to clarity it must be from a place of self- awareness. What priest, abbott or holiness did the Buddha study with? Undoubtedly he considered the teachings of many but in the end it was his own self-determination and efforts that made the difference. His final teaching also related to this. While on his deathbed and sharing the experience of a lifetime, he told his favorite disciple not to follow his numerous numbered lists of teachings but to find his own enlightenment. We are never closer to awareness than when we take the time to consider our own interior aspect and never more removed from clarity than when we stop discovering that and listen to someone else's vision of reality and revere what we believe to be their ”Holiness.”

Some of us believe we need that other person's clarity and vision to “help” us. We believe them to be people of power and that we are powerless. How much power do those powerful holy people have if we offer them none of our own? In the Zen tradition we obtain “help” from realizing own clarity and power. It is this addiction to the power of external father figures and holiness that leads us astray. The path of Zen is a solitary one. Anyone who tells you different has something to sell. The Buddha spent six years seeking enlightenment and Bodhidharma sat many years in a cave before clarity arrived. In our modern times we see Tibetan masters who spend many years meditating and practicing mindfulness before coming to self-realization. These are determined efforts. When we turn that effort over to someone else we substitute holiness for self-awareness and we let the snake of delusion loose. If we truly don’t know who we are or where to begin it is best to sit quietly and listen to what we do and don’t know. There is always a starting point that begins with recognition of self wherever that may lie. The stopping point of the inquiry into awareness is when we believe someone else can discover it for us and we hand responsibility over to them. Awareness arises from our own bodies. No one else can give us power over this.

The problem then with that Soseki fellow was not that he was abusive but that others created the end of personal self-inquiry and power to change by worshipping his alleged “holiness’ and power and letting the snake loose and allowing it to occur. Would they have worshipped him if he showed up to the meditation sangha in jeans and a t-shirt and said, ”Hello everyone, I am Joshu and I am a janitor at the local high school and I am going to share Zen with you." There is no difference between you and I, so lets get started with a sitting. ” He showed up stinking of Eastern Japanese Holiness in holy robes dragging his holy title behind him like a peacocks tail that attracts the best females. Apparently that worked for him and others. (Evidently I do have an opinion about him after all ;-) The one question I have is would we want our mother, sister or daughter to be treated in such a disrespectful manner by someone like him? The other question I have is why has nobody asked that incredibly simple question?????

The woman left our sangha that night after I thanked her for her kind offer but she was clearly somewhat put off that I didn’t respond in the way she wanted, which was an aspect of her delusion in regards to her motivation for attending the meditation in the first place. I wish I could’ve given her the stories the wind carries. Life was no different for it. The sangha was still a clear, quiet place to practice meditation and mindfulness and I was still clear about what it represented for myself and others. To leave a trail littered with disappointment, confusion and mistrust behind us is to have missed the target of Zen by a mile. Hopefully old Joshu will become a skilled archer in the next life.

The van awaited and that night as the winter wind blew wildly once again I sat in the cold and quietly breathed in the vast wind and stillness of the winter and awaited the police to stop by in a few hours to tell me to move once again. It is best to not move at all…

~ Email

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