enabling zen – the history of no history

so i have been involved in some zen teachers e-groups that talk about everything from congratulations to new teachers to why some new teachers are not allowed. as a new teacher it has been daunting and exciting to try to introduce myself into the culture both socially and spiritually.  i have tried to ask questions about how things work, how certain issues get addressed, why some issues are not addressed, and offer observations about what aspects of the prevalent teachers culture is not working and what seems to be working great.

after about 6 months to a year of these back and forths my overriding take on this situation is that is a very deep and mostly unconscious enabling environment.

enabling is essentially a function of suffering. without suffering there is nothing to enable and so it is a symbiotic relationship.

it is also largely a family dynamic in which there are black sheeps,  good cops, bad cops, shining stars, etc and as long as everyone plays their role correctly then everyone gets to continue the pattern, whatever it may be.


in the short history of zen in america there are a few big names that have become infamous in the lineages i know about. admittedly, i know very little about zen in america in, general, and so i will not even try to map out a list of teachers and their successors to show who was troubled and who was or is in integrity. it’s not easy to get an authentic history for most teachers who came from other countries, particularly japan.

it might be an interesting project for someone to map such a zen family tree or perhaps it’s already done?

for this blog i simply want to point out a pattern of teachers who were sent to america from japan as zen missionaries who had deep flaws that were not discussed openly or supported effectively to maintain integrity.

susuki was sent here after his wife was murdered by a crazy monk he allowed to live in his monastery in japan.  sasaki was left here after he was expelled from japan for creating a huge scandal in his home temple. maitzumi was sent here and none seems to know but it has been felt that he may have been quite a rebel and perhaps sent here as an attempt to relocate him. eido shimano may have had trouble in japan but i don’t know of it.

to my mind this pattern of relocating monks who have caused trouble in japan to america set the stage for a legacy of secrecy, covering up, forgetting, omitting, withholding, avoiding, and being defensive if questioned.

these patterns of behavior mixed with a hierarchy that was strict and without accountability or tolerance for open questioning of authority is a formula for a very dysfunctional spiritual path.

so the second generation of american students who trained with such teachers have had a great deal of secrecy, avoidance, withholding, and defensiveness around lack of integrity and the use or abuse of students.

so now we have an exponentially large pool of 3rd generation teachers who are starting to wake up out of what seems to be a multi-generational slumber and denial about the problems with much of the cornerstones of zen training.

lack of history

in a family dynamic of abuse, addiction and enabling it is almost impossible for the family members who are defensive and resistant to change to see their blind spots and the ways they contribute to the problems they decry.

it is easy to not see what is wrong with our pattern if we can’t look at where we have come from clearly. those students who were trained by sasaki did not even know he was a criminal who spent a year in prison in japan for abusing money, power and sex.

so how could they have known that they were inadvertently being trained to keep his secrets and make sure no one would ever find them out? they were all trained to enable him to do whatever he wanted without being questioned or confronted. and if someone did confront him the entire sangha was trained to shun them, without really knowing what pattern of his they were enabling.

so in a large family such as zen is becoming with every new generation, it is a huge and widespread dynamic to open up to and see how deep it runs in our history. very few really know how to do that kind of detective work since they have mostly been trained to enable silence and reject any exposure. and even if they do uncover the real stories they don’t know what to do with such toxic information.

zen training in america has largely been about learning not to look at the red flags, not to vocalize any fears about the red flags, and not to question those in power who tell you what it means to see clearly.

so when i try to bring up such deep thoughts about how things have gotten this way and how we might support each other in shifting our enabling training models i mostly get ignored.

i know I’m hard to take in many ways, I’m often silly, arrogant, irritating, crazy, outspoken, and blunt. i don’t expect the zen teachers culture to applaud me or laugh with me, but i do expect them to acknowledge that i am here too, and see that ignoring me when i suggest that we should reach out to those who might be vulnerable to an abusive teacher is an enabling part of the root problem. i expect them to answer my questions about why no one was told there were serious problems occurring until it was too late.

they continually congratulate each other for what they are doing and offer their condolences about how shitty it is and they say they are available for support. but they do not demand accountability and they do not offer practical solutions.

this is a generalization, of course, but i believe it is a fair one that captures the essence of the long standing culture of zen in america which is still enabling bad things to happen to vulnerable people by not taking stronger stands for accountability and open communication, not to mention refining training standards to help insure a safe transmission of the dharma that is strong enough to see through fear and anger and the buddha’s honest truth when it is abusive and defensive.


zen has focused a lot on individual awakening and personal experience of true self, this made sense in isolated communities or teacher-student relationships. but now in a global marketplace things have shifted in a way that needs group experiences of oneness and emptiness, collective awakenings.

healing a family pattern of abuse and enabling means we all have to change. we all can see how our action or inaction contributes to the pain and patterns of the others.

we are no longer able to go somewhere else to work these issues out. because we are all here now. we should stick with it together here now and wake up to the history of no history and tell each other about each others blind spots so that we can all see more clearly through the eyes of our support systems.






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4 thoughts on “enabling zen – the history of no history

  1. Brent Mitchell

    If while enjoying the most delicious soup in the finest restaurant someone were to say “You know the chef cheated on his wife and waitress is snorting cocaine.” I might say “be quit and let me enjoy my soup” People have attacked brilliant teachers publicly and behind closed doors saying their teaching is no good, no one should listen to them. “The bad apple should submit to us and do as we tell them or be ostracized and discredited.” They don’t see what they are saying about themselves and how it has turned people off and away from the empire. Maybe looking at themselves, what are they clinging too that makes them feel threatened. The jealousies, resentments and competitiveness goes back decades. That pent up energy found a release and a focal point. It’s like yelling at your brother when you are pissed at your dad.

  2. GrannyZen

    I agree with your analysis of how zen in America got started on the path of denial. My observation is that all human institutions tend to act this way unless transparency and accountability are explicitly built into their structure (which is rare). Transparency and accountability are powerful antidotes to ignorance, fear and greed – organizational or personal.


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