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Rising Up to End Sexual Abuse in Buddhist Communities

Video Transcript

Happy Valentine’s Day BPFers! I’m heading out today to join up with One Billion Rising, a movement to recognize that over 1 billion women and girls will be sexually abused in their lifetimes, and it’s going to take at least 1 billion of us to rise up together to make a revolution to end this violence.

[Video clip of Dawn dancing to One Billion Rising's song, "Break the Chain" - if you aren't watching the video, you are missing out!]

Sexual abuse has hit close to home again in our Buddhist communities, as last month an independent council of Buddhist teachers verified that Joshu Sasaki, a Buddhist teacher, has groped and sexually harassed female students for decades.

People have been asking, “How does something like this happen? What are the conditions that give rise to sexual abuse?” In my experience as a sexual violence educator for over 10 years now, I find it particularly helpful to look at the differences in power that often exist beforehand between a victim and an abuser. We often find both that abusers will exploit that difference in power, and that after the abuse happens it actually strengthens the difference of power that previously existed in the relationship.

We often talk about violence against women and girls, but we actually see astronomical rates of violence among all communities who are made vulnerable by oppression and by power differentials in our society. So you see huge rates of violence among kids vs. adults, among people of color – particularly Native American women who have faced colonialism for centuries, among immigrants, among queer and trans folks, and among people with disabilities.

A difference in power is in many ways embedded in our Buddhist tradition in this relationship between student and teacher. Often where we see a power difference become problematic is when that difference become fetishized or hardened where there is very little space for the person with less power to have any choice or authority in relationship with the person with more power.

Survivors of abuse are systematically silenced and accused of lying. When will we start accusing the institutions so obsessed with hierarchy and power that they’ll cover up sexual abuse as the real liars?

When we look at institutions that have fetishized hierarchies or differences in power – think military, prisons, the Catholic church – there are the places we see the worst cases of ongoing, rampant sexual abuse, as well as elaborate system of lies that are used to cover up that the abuse has ever happened.

These are one set of systematic lies that build empire, that makes billions of us feel less than, powerless, worthless. Which makes us easily exploitable.

As we’re rising today, I invite us to look together at how we participate in any way in a fetishization of the hierarchies in our Buddhist communities.

  • Do we get sucked in to the ‘cult of personality’ around ‘rock star’ teachers and put them up on pedestals as if they can do no wrong?
  • Do we, with our own teachers, feel like we have authority to question them? Or if they do something that feels uncomfortable to us, do we just chalk it up to not understanding the teachings?
  • Do we listen to and believe others who accuse our teachers – even if we are shocked or can’t quite believe that our teacher could do be one to do something like that?
  • Do we offer resources and options for support when people feel like they’ve been harmed by a teacher?

Collectively, how do we keep the teacher-student relationship balanced within our Buddhist communities?

  • Do we need advocates who can support students who feel like they’ve been harmed?
  • Do we need clearer mechanisms of accountability for teachers who abuse their students?
  • Do we need rituals for healing ourselves, both as individuals and collectively as sanghas?

I’d love to hear others’ reflections on how we rise against abuse in our Buddhist communities. So down in the comments – leave a note, let’s talk about this! I’d love to hear what others are thinking.

One Billion Rising: onebillionrising.org

Dancing together, we’re breaking the chain of violence.

 

Comments (13)

  • Philip Kienholz

    One key, not the only key, but one of the keys to non-abusive relations within some Buddhist teacher-student relationships has to do with the correct wielding of what is sometimes called the sword of ruthless compassion.

    In ruthless compassion a teacher does not put up with any nonsense, and does not waste any time. Maybe it would be akin to the Zen master’s use of a bamboo stick to strike meditators, I don’t know. But it is not physical, just building on the bond that arises between student and teacher after some time of working together. The teacher knows many of the ego-games of the student, has given some modicum of instruction in meditation practice and also has modelled ways of manifesting awakening in everyday life.

    But the student has not got it. The student presents their being to the teacher, but in a egoistic way still not free from the defilements or poisons of attachment, aversion, and confusion. The teacher in effect then just says “no!” in an emphatic way that is not necessarily dramatic, but that is nevertheless effective in undercutting the ego base of the student.

    For this relationship of instruction to not be one of abusive power, the wielder of that sword of ruthless compassion must also undercut their own ego base at the same time.

    The student, who was unable to manifest awakening, has the entirety of their presented being denied. It may be one root cause of the saying that the spiritual path is not a comfortable path, or that it is better not begun but once begun better finished. So what is the student to do–usually withdraw chagrined and try to regroup. It is easy to see that if the teacher has modelled that their own egotism is denied, or at least not reinforced, by their remarks and acts, the student can still at least find commonality with the teacher’s compassion. But if not, the student is left hurt and abandoned while the teacher can prance proudly away.

  • Rachel

    Philip: Tools like this “sword of ruthless compassion,” especially as described in your comment are precisely what enables these kinds of abuses because they seem to imply that the teacher is able to use it as intended. This puts the teacher on a pedestal and the student is dismissed as “unable to manifest awakening.” The teacher can hide behind the tool and claim the abuse is “for the student’s own enlightenment.” This creates a huge power-differential between the student and teacher that is wide open for abuse!

  • cowardly nameless

    Am I the only one who finds the direction and above all the style that the BPF has taken since these two young women took over annoying at best, mostly infantile and superficial (particularly in its dharmic aspect), and at worst insufferably narcissistic? So much revolves around images of them—they giggling, they rolling on the floor, they making faces, they doing silly dances, and in the case of Loncke’s own website (admittedly her own personal thing), pictures of her in bikini, with sexy tight clothes, doing yoga poses… I understand there is nothing inherently wrong in their silliness, and that they may even be working hard at trying to grasp the attention of a younger audience, hooked on their ipads and Lady Gaga. Still, something is missing. And let’s face it—those expecting a “System Stinks” curriculum (as promised enthusiastically last year among requests for money) are still waiting, in late February, for anything other than a topic each month, which we are invited then to “discuss” in the website. Any suggestion that, as a well established organization with access to many important Buddhist teachers, they could be offering a lot more material/guidance/leadership, will be met with a lame “education should not be top down anymore; this is about everybody sharing their opinions.” By the way, I agree with those who found the name, taken from a one time, specific protest sign by Aitken and transformed into the BPF’s permanent (for a year) public face and one phrase message, infantile at best, un-dharmic at worst. The one interesting video so far, with three Buddhist teachers discussing several issues, they offered truncated to the general public, reserving the compete version for $$$ contributors, thus selling the dharma. A sad decline for an organization that was once a source of inspiration.

  • Rachel

    CN: I totally disagree with you, and find it rather disturbing that your claim of “infantile” posts is a comment on a post about violence against women – hardly an infantile topic. Did you even read that article? It is an invitation to discuss that issue within the context of Buddhist communities, with a lot of thought-provoking questions at the end.

    Before Katie & Dawn started their work at BPF the organization was all but non-existent. They are trying to revitalize it by offering content in various forms, content which hasn’t been produced only by them. If you don’t like the videos, maybe you could just read the articles?

  • Dawn Haney

    Thanks for the comments here – I’m sad to be distracted with moving and working like mad on the first study guide (to be delivered via email on March 1) to respond to them as fully as I would like!

    I hope it was clear in the video that my dance moves weren’t my own invention, but one of the central pieces of the One Billion Rising movement. The song “Break the Chain” was commissioned just for this day, and choreographer Debbie Allen designed the dance moves for folks to perform in flash mobs all over the world.

    One of the interesting questions (to me at least) implied in CN’s comment is: Do dancing and playfulness have a role in social movements, particularly ones that deal with people’s pain and healing? Having worked for 10+ years in the rape crisis world, experiencing my own burnout, watching the burnout of all my coworkers, and being a survivor of child sexual abuse myself, my answer is yes. 100% yes. I’ve watched too many people shrivel under the weight of it all otherwise. In the language of the sexual violence movement, it’s the difference between barely surviving and thriving. I know I’m not alone in this, including among Buddhist activists: at a One Billion Rising event in Oakland, Jennifer Berezan (one of our great engaged Buddhist cultural workers) performed her song, “If I Can’t Dance,” drawing on activist Emma Goldman’s famous quote, “If I can’t dance I don’t want to be in your revolution.” Joanna Macy’s one thing she offers in EVERY workshop is to teach people the Elm Dance, as she tells the moving story of how this dance helped the people in Novozybkov, a Russian city still recovering from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, break open their years of silent grief and begin to “decontaminate” their broken hearts. (For anyone who wants to read the full story, it’s in her memoir, Widening Circles).

    Like Rachel, I find accusations of being too “infantile” and “sexy” to be extremely curious when related to a blog post about the dynamics of violence against women. These are both words that have been used historically to minimize and devalue women. This devaluation is an integral part of what makes it easier to commit violence against us. While I encourage debate and critique (we certainly don’t think we’ve got it figured out!), I also encourage us to be mindful of how we go about critiquing each other. We have some commenting guidelines here that are intended to help us debate and critique each other: http://www.buddhistpeacefellowship.org/commenting-guidelines/

    As always, we’re more interested in hearing your voices than our own (we get tired of us too, trust me). If there’s something you’d like to see published here – I encourage you to make it! Our next call for submissions for The System Stinks is due March 15 on Stolen Land, Stolen Culture, Stolen Time. If that’s not the topic that interests you, we accept submissions on any topic, at any time. Have a particular teacher or activist whose voice you’d like to hear? Invite them to do an interview, write it up and submit it! We dream of the day that we are so inundated with media submissions that we can publish 5 days a week solely with the contributions from you all. May that day be soon!

    General submissions guidelines: http://www.buddhistpeacefellowship.org/submission-guidelines/

    Stolen Lands, Stolen Culture Stolen Time call for submissions: http://www.buddhistpeacefellowship.org/call-for-submissions-stolen-lands-stolen-culture-stolen-time/

  • still cowardly anonymous

    Dear all,
    I totally agree and apologize for my meaningless, mean-spirited posting, which I hope someone will take down. Today was a bad day in a particularly bad month. I am ashamed and embarrassed, and can only ask for your forgiveness. I agree that both Dawn and Katie have done an excellent job keeping the BPF vibrant and challenging. In spite of my stupid comments, I keep coming back to the BPF website for reflection and inspiration. Evidently my message is reflection of my state of mind, and of nothing else. He who is unhappy often resents the joy others display, and there is the lesson for me. Again, please accept my sincere apologies. May all beings be happy and safe, from me above all.
    Peace,
    Still cowardly anonymous

  • Dawn Haney

    Sorry to hear it’s been a crap day in a crap month. Just now, I finally watched the viral “Pep Talk from Kid President” – maybe it will help? Even he says, “We can cry about it, or we can dance about it.”

    The kid’s got some dance moves! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l-gQLqv9f4o&list=SPzvRx_johoA-YabI6FWcU-jL6nKA1Um-t&index=7

  • Katie Loncke

    Hi everyone,

    Wow, when I woke up this morning, still thinking about your first message yesterday, c.a., I didn’t expect to find an exchange like this. Hope today finds you well, and things improving. All three of you have my thanks for demonstrating the thoughtful bravery that is actually possible in response to a heated internet comment!

    Although you might feel in hindsight that your first comment was “meaningless,” c.a., in my experience, if one person is taking the time to type the opinion, then there are probably 20 other people who share it. My mom, for instance has qualms similar to yours about the silly vibe we sometimes put out there — she and I get to have open conversations about her concerns, for which I’m thankful.

    So if it’s okay I’d like to go through your comment and respond to some of the issues underneath the prickly mood, since I actually think you points to some useful ideas to consider, even if the tone was kinda patronizing.

    1) Featuring ourselves a lot. You’re right in the sense that our faces and voices are very much present, especially in promotional materials and video for BPF. Partly, this expresses our desire to meet and connect with other political Buddhists *as people,* not just as an organization. Building relationships with people who are thoughtfully grappling with questions of spiritual and material liberation, how Buddhists can hep confront and heal systemic oppression, is what keeps us going. So we do want to make ourselves visible and available in that way, and so far this “bat signal” has called forth some pretty wonderful people. In a way I’m even glad it’s led to this conversation.

    Still, as Dawn said, we sometimes get sick of our own faces onscreen, but another reason we still feature them a lot has to do with economics. Right now BPF is not in a position to hire an amazing full-time videographer to go around the world collecting clips of people, or to even compensate people for their media submissions. Although I know and appreciate that some people are eager to contribute original work to Turning Wheel just for the sake of enriching the dialogue on spiritual practice and politics (and I deeply appreciate their efforts), politically I am still struggling somewhat with soliciting pieces from people whose work I admire (especially more broke, on-the-hustle people) without even being able to offer them an honorarium of some kind. Feels weird to me. And yet, this is BPF’s financial reality at the moment. In the future, we want to explore possibilities of paying people for original media, and for collaborations on promotional stuff, but for now, setting up my laptop camera and doing it myself feels somehow less complicated. Does that make sense? I don’t have an easy answer on this one; it’s something I’ve been asking others for advice on, as well.

    2) Silly and sexy. Rachel and Dawn already spoke to this, well, but I just want to add my own thoughts and experience since, again, you’re not the only one experiencing conflicted feelings. It’s an issue I have seen come up from time to time, especially when I’m in dialogue with feminists of my mom’s generation. I often hear concerns that when women or gendernonconforming people present ourselves in overtly sexy ways (judged according to a dominant cultural standard), we are playing into the hands of patriarchy by objectifying ourselves, and failing to take ourselves seriously enough as human beings. Believe me, I share frustrations with the ways a misogynistic society reduces women’s bodies to decoration: to performances of beauty suited for selling commodities (i.e. in advertisements), and sometimes as part of the commodity of labor-power that we sell even if we’re not working as models: women are encouraged to look attractive (coded in various ways, from “professional” to “fashion-forward”) as restaurant hostesses, retail workers, bankers, and most work that involves interfacing with customers. My mom, a lawyer, used to call her makeup “war paint.”

    But if this article from The Onion captures the frustrating feeling of inevitable objectification in society (“Teenage Girl Blossoming Into Beautiful Object.”), then this article, addressing claims that performer Beyoncé objectified herself in her recent Superbowl halftime performance, adds the complicating factor that women can display their bodies without *reducing* themselves to objects.

    Dusenbery notes that the definition of sexual objectification is the reduction of a person to their sex appeal only. And, ironically, this is what the conservative commentators did to Beyoncé, not something she did to herself. Sexual objectification is not found in a person’s clothing choices or dance moves; instead:

    “[Objectification is] watching Beyoncé’s show — where she demonstrated enormous professional skill by singing live, with an awesome all-women band I might add, while dancing her ass off in front of millions of people — and not being able to see anything besides her sexy outfit.”

    Indeed, these conservative commentators are arguing that Beyoncé’s talent can only be fully be appreciated in the absence of sex appeal (whatever that might look like). And that is the problem.

    So, not to go off on a tangent too much, but if some people are seeing *only* Dawn’s dance or my sports-bra yoga and missing the essay that accompanies her video, and the four years’ worth of posts adding context to my pictures, then that may say more about them than it does about us.

    On the dharma tip specifically, though, I will say that I have struggled at times with how to balance a “come-as-you-are” approach to places of dharma study — which I appreciate as making dharma accessible — with a respect for traditional forms, and even at times a sense of guilt that if I dress the way I want to, it might be “distracting” to other people who are trying to concentrate. The idea that women’s bodies are responsible for other people’s behavior is actually a concept impressed upon me at a young age, by a powerful institution: my large, public middle school. At a certain point, they banned tank tops for girls, even though boys could still wear them (basketball jerseys, etc.), saying that the girls’ clothing was too distracting to the boys. I thought about this on New Year’s Eve, last year, when, after an evening of dinner, dancing and typical festivities, I wanted to spend the rest of my night in a community of silent meditation. So I showed up to one of my favorite places, in my neighborhood — Berkeley Zen Center — in my sequined short-shorts. (Under a long coat.) This may have been a bad move; I’m honestly not sure. But it felt wonderful and meaningful to me to ring in the new year in that zendo, and I hope that on balance my presence did not detract from everyone else’s experience.

    3) The New Year’s zendo story brings us to the last point I want to acknowledge: the low doses of dharma in BPF these days. Honestly, I think that’s a fair assessment. Dawn and I both come to this work from a political background, more than a strong background of dharma study, and certainly neither of us was raised Buddhist. Slowly but surely, we’re trying to identify pockets of dharma that speak directly to cutting-edge efforts at dismantling oppressive structures. It’s a process, and in the meantime I’m really glad to hear that there is something about BPF that keeps you coming back for inspiration. We’ve inherited the fruits of many years’ worth of amazing work — stretching back to even before BPF was officially created. I just hope we can keep nursing it back to a fierce and thriving place.

    Thanks again, Dawn and Rachel, and sincere thanks you, c.a., for giving me an opportunity to reflect, and to be transparent about that reflection. Thanks also for apologizing and explaining where the saltiness was coming from. Hope the weekend, and the coming month, has great things in store for you.

    best,

    katie

  • Dawn

    Philip, I’m a bit confused by your comment about teachers needing to wield the sword of ruthless compassion. You seem to imply that a cause of sexual abuse is the ego-games of students? I’m worried this falls into a typical “blame the victim” mode of understanding sexual abuse.

    Perhaps more what you are pointing to is a skill that non-abusive teachers have to cut through any delusion caused by sexual energy between teacher and student, or even just the ways that students put teachers on pedestals. I think it’s important to note what *does* work so we can try to build on that, but I’m worried about this as a primary solution because entirely depends on the ethics of each individual teacher.

    I’m curious how as a community, we can wield a sword of ruthless compassion when a teacher uses their power unethically? Is there a council of teachers – or teachers AND students – who have some authority to wield this sword?

  • Philip Kienholz

    Rachel – The tradition is to follow the tradition of the teacher you find. The compassion is that the teacher has learned ways from their teacher, and through their own experience with the dharma, to authentically act in the world in ways that manifest their meditation experiences. This authenticity has been transmitted through countless generations of practice. The compassion is that they are able to show, not tell this, to students. The teacher in their training has learned “not to take a high seat,” that you rightly point out as an error–this phrase “not to take a high seat” is also phrased as ” not to take an ego position that separates me from the oneness of all beings.” The student has not yet learned how to refrain from taking those ego positions in their actions, that is the point. As they try and fail, the teacher, rather than use false kindness to make the student feel good, just tells them in true compassion, “No, that is not it.” The process is not abusive if the teacher at the same time shows, with their own compassion, what “it” is. That is what makes them a teacher.

    It is not that there is a power differential between the student and the teacher, but that there is differential in practiced ability. That is why the teacher is valuable to the student.

  • Philip Kienholz

    Dawn – I was not saying that the teacher must always use ruthless compassion with students. It was an issue, however, in the tradition in which I learned. I wanted to pass on how it worked, and how it didn’t work. It may not even be important in other situations. Please read my response to Rachel above to better understand what I meant, apart from the metaphor that I had learned for the practice. There may well be times when only sympathy is called for. The teacher’s relating properly to the texture of the situation could mean a myriad of other responses. I also was not specifically addressing the problem of sexual misconduct by teachers. I have no knowledge about that, nor experience with other than training to refrain from it.

    Nor did I mean to imply that a students’ ego-games justify sexual abuse by a teacher, nor that they should cause sexual abuse. Sexual abuse ought not to occur, period. I have heard that some esoteric tantric practices involve sexual relations between student and teacher, but I cannot comment beyond that. I was not considering any “sexual tension” at all in my statements. That seems, though, to be the issue that Rachel and you are concerned about. I am sorry that I cannot offer more on that matter.

    Once a student starts working with a legitimate, trained and experienced Buddhist teacher, they need to try what the teacher suggests. Not blindly in obedience, but with consideration aforethought having determined that at the very least it doesn’t appear to be harmful or dangerous. If the practice does not work for the student, the proper course is to report that back to the teacher, to discuss and work with them, and keep trying to find ways that do work–that is another value of the teacher to the student, the teacher has probably learned many variations on basic practices to try.

    If all attempts to find commonality fail, rather than argue and fight with the teacher, the student’s proper responsibility is to walk away and look for someone else to learn from.

    Thanks to both you and Rachel for your thoughtful queries.

    Philip

  • Cliff Clusin

    Back to the original question:how we rise against abuse in our Buddhist communities? I am finding the statement of ethics developed by the Soto Zen Buddhist Association, which they are requiring all member teachers to develop with their sanghas, and to publicly sign and file with SZBA, to be a helpful exercise in reflecting on these problems.

    I don’t have time to read all the back and forth above; but my heart is with your efforts, joys and pains.

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