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“Zen Has No Morals!”

The Buddhist Channel, July 15, 2012

The Latent Potential for Corruption and Abuse in Zen Buddhism, as Exemplified by Two Recent Cases

Montreal, Canada -- Zen Buddhism was long considered by many practitioners to be immune from the scandals that occasionally affect other religious sects.

<< Dr. Klaus Zernickow (a.k.a Sotetsu Yuzen, left) and Eido T. Shimano

Zen’s iconoclastic approach, based solely on the individual’s own meditation experience, was seen as a healthy counterpoint to the more theistic and moralistic world-views, whose leading proponents often privately flouted the very moral codes that they preached.

The unspoken assumption in Zen has always been that the meditation alone naturally freed the accomplished practitioner from life's moral quandaries, without the need for rigid rules of conduct imposed from above.

The perfect embodiment of this state was held to be the Zen Master, a type of person to whom almost superhuman qualities of insight, spontaneity, compassion, and freedom from desire have been imputed.

However, the veracity of such claims is now slowly being called into question, due to numerous modern Zen Masters having in the meantime exhibited behaviour no less scandalous than that seen in other religious communities

In his paper, “Zen Has No Morals!” Christopher Hamacher examines two of the most recent and egregious of such scandals in Western Zen: the well-publicised case of Eido T. Shimano in New York, USA, as well as that of Dr. Klaus Zernickow (also known as Sotetsu Yuzen), who is still relatively unknown outside of his home country of Germany.

Both of these Zen teachers have been accused of long-term, systematic abuse of their students, with allegations ranging from sexual predation to financial improprieties.

Hamacher reviews the respective case histories, including the disconcerting facts that Shimano has only recently stepped down - after almost fifty years of documented misconduct - and Zernickow still teaches unhindered even today.

Hamacher continues by categorising, with examples, eight types of behaviour that are characteristic of both, namely: the inability to deal with criticism reasonably, favouring formality and extravagant accoutrements in their practice, blaming the student's own ego to deflect accusations, hypocrisy, using group dynamics in their favour, controlling the flow of information to students, self-aggrandisement, and autocratic leadership of their organizations.

The paper then discusses how these teachers could have been allowed to continue teaching for so long, despite the flagrant abuse and even though, at least in Shimano's group,scandal after scandal had erupted over the years.

Hamacher argues that there are in fact several reasons why, on the one hand, such conduct by a Zen teacher might not have been considered inappropriate in the first place, and, on the other, why Zen students might not have been inclined to take action even if the conduct had been deemed wrongful. Hamacher also notes that the discussed behaviours are all typical warning signs for high-demand/cultic groups, and suggests that, as a consequence, more serious structural problems with Zen underlie the teacher misconduct.

He finally concludes that, far from being immune to scandal, Zen Buddhism as it is currently practiced in the West in fact needs serious re-examination if it intends to remain a viable alternative to the more traditional Western religions.

>> Download full paper here (PDF)

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Christopher Hamacher graduated in law from the Université de Montréal in 1994. He has practiced Zen Buddhism in Japan, America and Europe since 1999 and run his own Zen meditation group since 2006. He currently works as a legal translator in Munich, Germany. This paper was presented on 7 July 2012 at the International Cultic Studies ssociation's annual conference in Montreal, Canada.



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