Compassion Betrayed Spiritual Abuse in an American Zen Center

Cultic Studies Review, 3(1), 2004, 28-55

Compassion Betrayed: Spiritual Abuse in an American Zen Center

Katherine V. Masis, M.A.

This paper describes spiritual abuse in an American Zen center. Drawing on the author’s fifteen-year experience at this center and one of its international affiliates, elements of religious conversion, authoritarianism and thought reform are highlighted. Difficulties emerging from Western Zen students’ prior vulnerabilities, transference relationships, and idealization of Zen teachers are discussed. The rhetoric of the Zen institution’s legitimation of authority is portrayed as a significant reinforcer of the above. Finally, education about the Zen institution is proposed as a tool for preventing excesses at American Zen centers.

The last decade has witnessed a growing interest in the subject of abuse in spiritual and religious contexts. Recent revelations of past sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church and the spiritual and psychological damage caused to its victims have stimulated a rethinking of the roles of the clergy and the rights of the laity. The “anti-cult” literature has dealt with psychological abuse, but mostly as it relates to large organizations with overtly charismatic or manipulative leaders and aggressive recruitment tactics (Langone, 2003).

There has been far less coverage on abuse in less visible, more subdued, non-proselytizing religious sects such as Zen Buddhism. Perhaps because of its non-proselytizing stance, Zen Buddhism has acquired some immunity to accusations of cult-like endeavors. Over the last decade or so, numerous reports have documented incidents of sexual misconduct and financial exploitation in American meditation-oriented Buddhist centers of various denominations (Boucher, 1988; Butler, 1991; Downing, 2001; Finn & Rubin, 1999; Sherrill, 2001). But it is only recently that the more subtle but nonetheless insidious forms of spiritual abuse in American Buddhist, and specifically Zen centers have come to light (Gopfert, 1999; Lachs, 1999).

Spiritual abuse, as used in this paper, refers to any type of physical, sexual, or psychological harm perpetrated by a spiritual or religious leader on a member of a spiritual or religious group. Typical outcomes of spiritual abuse to members of dysfunctional organizations include rage, anxiety, and symptoms of depression such as low self-esteem, dysphoria, and withdrawal (Gopfert, 1999; Rubin, 1996). Abusive spiritual leaders tend to invalidate the perceptions of their abused followers and are hard-pressed to find anything wrong with their own behavior (Gopfert, 1999; Lachs, 1999; Rubin, 1996; Wehr, 2001).

This paper has two parts. The first part documents my fifteen-year experience in a Zen center based in a New England state and one of its international affiliate centers. This center’s organization, membership, and relationship dynamics are far from unique to American Zen, as shown in findings about other Zen centers (Downing, 2001; Gopfert, 1999; Lachs, 1999). In the second part, spiritual abuse in American Zen centers is discussed in the light of individual motivations to undertake Zen training, problematic transference relationships with Zen teachers, and problems arising from the Zen institution’s legitimation of authority.

I. Portrait of an American Zen Center

Organization and Membership

Heir to a Japanese Zen lineage, this particular center was under the direction of one sole Teacher. The center’s bylaws stipulated that the Teacher was vested with absolute authority to direct its spiritual and administrative affairs. The Teacher imparted instruction in Zen meditation, conducted ceremonies, led retreats, and assigned roles and duties to the center’s students. The Teacher unequivocally expressed rejection of “rule by consensus.” Occasionally, the Teacher asked students to express their opinions and vote on matters such as wearing robes versus street clothes during meditation periods, but the Teacher could later overrule these decisions by fiat.

While devotion-oriented Asian-American Buddhist temples are visited by families who practice together and have usually been Buddhists by birth, meditation-oriented American Buddhist centers of various denominations tend to have mostly Caucasian, middle-class, educated converts practicing under a monastic model while leading lay lives (Fields 1992, 1998; Finn and Rubin, 1999; Imamura, 1998; Nattier, 1998; Prebish, 1998). This center was no exception. At the time that I broke with the Teacher, this center was made up of lay practitioners, with only one novice monk. The vast majority of students had jobs, spouses and children; many attended college or graduate school. As is the case in most American meditation-oriented centers (Preston, 1988), most students at this center were the only family members practicing Zen Buddhism.

A casual tour of the grounds and buildings of any of the sites under this Teacher’s direction would reveal nothing but thoughtful attention to detail and efficient organization. Meticulously tended gardens, lawns and ponds with fish, immaculate floors and walls, beautifully decorated interiors, the delicate smells of incense and fine cooking, and the far-away tinkling of chimes in trees all contributed to an atmosphere of exquisite taste and quiet reflection.

Visitors were welcome to tour the grounds at all times. The Teacher would regale non-practicing spouses, children, parents, and friends of practitioners with broad smiles, lingering chitchat, and casual jokes. Ignored greetings, the cold shoulder, looking bored, rude interruptions, scathing remarks and scoldings were not unusual fare for the Teacher’s longstanding students, with three exceptions: pregnant students, students with infants or young children, and students who had a non-practicing spouse, family member, or friend within the Teacher’s earshot.

Most, if not all regular attendees to the center’s meditation sessions were active members of the center and had formalized their status as the Teacher’s students through a ceremony. Longstanding students practiced sitting meditation, listened to the Teacher’s formal talks, held private interviews with the Teacher regularly, and participated in liturgical rites, rituals, chanting, meditation retreats, outreach activities, and social events with other students. Zen practice became increasingly identified with the contextual tradition and worldview of Zen Buddhism, a natural and expected development in meditation-oriented centers (Lachs, 1999; Preston, 1988; Shapiro, 1994).

Only a handful of practitioners, usually single men and women, rented individual rooms at any of the center’s sites. Living there was entirely voluntary and those who chose to rent space could leave at any time, and usually did after a year or two, albeit retaining their membership status. A small number of residents stayed on for more than five years. Residents were expected to perform extra chores for the center in exchange for low rent. Most residents had outside full- or part-time jobs and/or were enrolled part-time in college or graduate school.

Designed to give attendees a taste of Zen meditation and the basic principles of Buddhist doctrine, the Teacher held introductory workshops every two months. These were announced in small ads in the cultural events sections of local newspapers and posted on the center’s website. The attrition rate at these workshops was high; about eighty percent or more of workshop attendees never came back to the center to attend a formal meditation session or ceremony. Former attendees were never called or tracked down; attendance records were kept for the sole purpose of saving attendees the trouble of repeating a workshop before joining the center as full-fledged members.

At workshops, the Teacher described Zen as a sect of Buddhism and presented Zen meditation as a difficult practice. In keeping with most Zen Buddhist centers, the Teacher discouraged proselytizing and asked students to invite and welcome non-practicing family members to ceremonies and social events only, as the decision to start the long, hard road of meditation practice was a highly personal one that could never be forced. The Teacher often emphasized the difficulty of maintaining a disciplined meditation practice and the privilege this represented. At the same time, the Teacher warned students against falling prey to Ego and feeling “special.”

Ego as Enemy

Spiritual abuse of students in Zen centers may be the result of leaders’ blatant disregard to ethical norms and moral codes, or the outcome of leaders’ harshness, fundamentalism, and what Storr (1997) aptly calls the “charisma of righteousness.” At this particular center, the latter was the case. The center had no external enemies, no secular foes to hide from or attack. Families, jobs, and school in the ordinary world were perceived as opportunities to challenge and thus refine Zen meditation practice. The identified foe was internal: the human Ego or sense of self, also referred to in Zen Buddhism as ignorance. Denigration of the Ego replaced the Judeo-Christian fundamentalist denigration of the Fall; the dichotomy of Enlightened action versus acting out of Ego replaced the Judeo-Christian dichotomy of good versus evil. Absolute faith in the Teacher’s guidance and submission to the Teacher’s authority supplanted the Christian fundamentalist’s clinging to Bible-based religious beliefs. The Teacher encouraged wholehearted, intense meditation practice and participation in Zen liturgy as ways to see through the false layers of Ego and experience Enlightenment, that is, a direct epistemic experience of one’s true, original nature of wisdom and compassion, an experience that some twentieth-century schools of Zen have unfortunately described as pure and free from cultural and historical influences (Sharff, 1993, 1995).

Just what was this notion of Ego? Other than vague generalities about Ego consisting of a “separate sense of self,” and being “different from the concept of Ego in Western psychology,” most students didn’t quite know how to define what was so attacked and vilified. The Teacher described Ego as manifesting in human beings at about age two and as useful “for not walking into walls” After early adulthood, the Teacher said, Ego had basically outlived its purpose.

The Teacher seemed to conflate the concept of a psychologically differentiated self, with an ontological notion of self or “the feeling or belief that there is an inherent, ontological core at the center of our experience that is separate, substantial, enduring, self-identical” (Engler, 2003, p. 52). As is all too common in Western Buddhism, the Teacher undervalued healthy ego strength, which contains hidden resources and which classical Buddhist texts present as a prerequisite to meditation practice (Engler, 1984, 2003; Gopfert, 1999; Rubin, 1996; Welwood, 2000).

Overhearing a student remarking on the concept of embeddedness of the self in Western psychology to another student, the Teacher impatiently interrupted the conversation and expressed surprise that psychology was moving away from its preoccupation with “strong Egos.” In a similar vein of misunderstanding, the Teacher seemed to enjoy dressing down self-confident students. The Teacher scornfully told a student in a private interview that such dressing down was not necessary, given this particular student’s “low self-esteem.” When another student asked the Teacher about keeping “appropriate boundaries” regarding the center’s expectations, the Teacher did not let the student explain further and answered, “We’re not here to build boundaries, we’re here to dissolve them”—likewise without explaining further.

The Teacher often quoted Buddhist texts illustrating the illusory nature of Ego, yet constant reification of Ego was at play by virtue of its denigration. The Teacher claimed that the root of all social, political, and environmental evils was to be found in Ego; consequently, the remedy for all human evils was to become enlightened by seeing through Ego, which in turn was to be accomplished through intense, dedicated meditation practice and participation in ceremonial practices such as chanting, repenting of one’s faults, and commitment to the Buddhist precepts or ethical guidelines.

Some longstanding students were wary of talking too much about themselves, at least within the Teacher’s earshot, as the Teacher usually cut them short by rudely interrupting, changing the subject, or stopping the conversation altogether. Doubts about the doctrine or the Teacher, critical thinking, questioning of unfair decisions, the wish to explore Buddhist doctrine through scholarly reading, and disagreeing with the Teacher’s views were seen as manifestations of Ego. The Teacher quickly squelched disagreements among students, and interpreted them as manifestations of Ego. The primordial manifestation of Ego was anger: it was almost forbidden for students to express anger; to acknowledge its existence was shameful. As happens at many American Zen centers (Gopfert, 1999), the Teacher seemed to have the right to express anger at students or in situations in which students were involved without being labeled as “acting out of Ego.” Students usually interpreted angry words hurled at them as “for their own good.”

Censorship and Information Control

Claiming that Zen is a tradition “outside the sutras” (i.e., not dependent on Buddhist canonical texts), many Zen masters in the West have misunderstood the role of competency in the literary traditions of Zen in the course of training, and thus tend to discourage their students from educating themselves in this regard (Sharff, 1993, 1995). The Teacher openly disparaged “intellectual stuff” and claimed that reading books about Zen Buddhism (except for a few recommended titles) would only clutter students’ minds with concepts and notions that would hinder their progress in meditation. The Teacher presented intellectual discernment regarding Zen Buddhism as a handmaiden of Ego and a potential trap to lure students away from Zen meditation.

Many students unquestioningly practiced in ignorance of the historical, cultural, and social roots of Zen—some despite yearnings for such knowledge. The only knowledge officially acquired by students in this regard was through the Teacher's formal talks. In these talks, the Teacher often read and commented on selections from classical texts, usually in a spirit of moral admonishment and inspiration so as to increase commitment to meditation practice. The Teacher also disapproved of indefinite seeking and questing, and urged students to “be finders” instead.

The Teacher frowned on reading novels or watching TV programs, but apparently seeing movies (at the theatre or on video) was all right. Many students followed suit. Some senior students even rented the Teacher’s favorite movies for home viewing and recommended them to other students. When the Teacher objected to one popular Buddhist magazine, several senior students stopped subscribing to it.

Except for attendance to events at affiliate centers, this particular center was isolated from the greater American Zen and the greater American Buddhist communities. Nobody announced news or activities from other local Buddhist centers, even if such news and activities were in keeping with a Buddhist “ecumenical” spirit. When an internationally known Zen monk, author, and peace activist came to the New England city where the Zen center was located, only a handful of center members went individually to his public talks, albeit with some inner conflict of loyalty. When members of a prison group where senior students facilitated meditation requested this author's tapes and books, senior students expressed concerns about this afterwards, for this author did not belong to the Teacher’s lineage. But in spite of its isolation from the greater Zen and the greater Buddhist communities, the center fostered links with its geographical community through meditation classes for prisoners and occasional peace vigils.

In several talks, the Teacher mentioned that Zen masters from ancient China and Japan had a senior monk serve as their “Eyes and Ears.” Apparently, the Teacher had entrusted a senior student with this task, someone who observed and reported what was going on in others students’ lives to the Teacher, often disregarding the private nature of these events.

In the early years of the center, the Teacher expressed great reserve concerning mental health professionals, especially psychologists and counselors. Over time, the Teacher modified this view and occasionally recommended that students see a therapist, if only to avoid “burdening Dharma brothers and sisters” with their problems. Feeling that their meditation practice should be sufficient to attain wholeness, several students expressed feelings of guilt or shame for needing to see a therapist in the first place, feelings shared by many American Buddhists of various denominations (Finn and Rubin, 1999; Welwood, 2000). In the first few years of the Zen center, the Teacher proclaimed that psychotherapy was not as effective as Zen meditation, and assumed that forms of specific, personal suffering would automatically disappear when Ego was sufficiently atrophied, a belief upheld in many Zen Buddhist circles (Gopfert, 1999; Young-Eisendrath, 2003). As time went by, the Teacher began to acknowledge that perhaps psychotherapy was effective for certain kinds of personal problems.

Psychiatrists who prescribed psychotropic medications, on the other hand, enjoyed a better status. Rather than consider the possibility that the Teacher’s leadership style, problems with the Zen tradition of authorization, and faulty group dynamics were at least contributing factors to troubled relationships within the center, the Teacher readily advised upset, angry or confused students to “take medications,” not before being labeled as “mentally ill” or “severely disturbed.”

The center’s newsletter contained only good news about the center, the meditation practice, the ceremonies, and the Teacher. In keeping with the Japanese tradition of “conversion stories,” (Shimazono, 1986), albeit without acknowledging them as such, tales featuring gratitude for having found Zen practice, the Teacher, and the teachings prevailed, as did reports of positive experiences following attendance at a meditation retreat, ceremony, or social event at the center. Personal essays summarizing conversations with the Teacher about life decisions and the good results of following the Teacher’s advice were also printed. Every piece submitted for publication was read and edited by the Teacher. Articles of a questioning, critical nature were never published, and were dismissed as detrimental to meditation practice.

Troubled Relationships

American Zen students who are hurt or troubled in their relationships with their leaders or fellow students are usually alone in their suffering and have no one to turn to within the group (Downing, 2001; Gopfert, 1999). Attempts to find solace in fellow Zen students at this center, if only to share difficult feelings, were met with horrified stares, cold silences, scoldings, sermonizing or, more often than not, interruptions followed by a sudden change of the subject under discussion. After breaking with the Teacher, several former members of the center reported struggling to admit to themselves or to fellow students that anything was wrong with the Teacher or the organization; they had ignored the warning signs of dysfunctional relationships, a common phenomenon among American Buddhist students grappling with cognitive dissonance (Butler, 1991; Gopfert, 1999; Lachs, 1999; Sherrill, 2001).

Teacher and students often cited two precepts or ethical guidelines, that is, abstaining from gossip and not slandering the teachings or the community of practitioners. Following these directives, students refused to share their feelings of confusion and consternation with each other regarding the Teacher’s or senior students’ behaviors. The Teacher also stated in public talks that “Dharma brothers and sisters” were not to “burden” one another with their problems. “If you need to have a cry, you cry alone,” said the Teacher to one student struggling with a personal problem.

Teacher and students acknowledged universal suffering (death, illness, and old age) as the springboard for engaging in Buddhist meditation and at the same time avoided discussions of personal suffering, a common trend in American Zen centers (Young-Eisendrath, 2003). Acknowledging and sharing personal suffering were approved only when obviously related to universal suffering, such as the death of a loved one or having a family member with a serious illness.

Typical behaviors of Zen masters in dysfunctional centers include direct private scoldings, scorning, shaming, and blaming. Students at such centers suffer from loss of self-esteem, feelings of invalidation, loneliness and symptoms of depression, rage, and anxiety (Gopfert, 1999; Young-Eisendrath, 2003). Also typical is the complete unwillingness of these Zen teachers to acknowledge any responsibility for harming their students in these ways (Downing, 2001; Gopfert, 1999; Lachs, 1999). At this particular center, the longer students practiced under the Teacher, the worse the Teacher’s treatment toward them seemed to get. Students explained away such treatment by saying that the longer they practiced, the higher the Teacher’s expectations were.

Some students would receive a gift from the Teacher or an invitation to a home dinner with the Teacher’s family. Conversely, after accepting these invitations, relaxing and letting their guard down a bit, these students would be harshly upbraided or coldly ignored by the Teacher at their next encounter.

It is beyond the scope of this paper to explain the Teacher’s motivations for such behavior. Spiritual and religious leaders have perpetrated unusual behaviors in the name of the tradition they represent, for reasons that are difficult to understand. Was this Teacher emulating masters in ancient Zen stories who behaved in bizarre ways as a model for teaching? Was the Teacher feeling guilty for being too hard on students and trying to make up for it? Conversely, was the Teacher having misgivings over being too “chummy” with some students and acting harshly to prevent them from feeling “special”? Was the Teacher attempting to find the Buddhist Middle Way between extremes? Or was the Teacher merely acting whimsically or getting a kick out of exercising power? This paper does not attempt to answer these questions, but one thing is certain: students who were confused about these behaviors kept their confusion to themselves, never questioned these behaviors openly, and often struggled to come up with explanations that satisfied Zen Buddhist doctrine and the principles of wise and compassionate action.

In formal lectures, the Teacher publicly aired matters that students brought up during private interviews with her. The Teacher would praise students and their way of handling a difficult situation, or criticize them, scoff at the situation, or belittle their feelings. The Teacher always omitted names, but most students well knew whom the Teacher was alluding to. During such lectures, the Teacher spoke about marital disharmony, difficulties on the job, conflicts among students, and even complaints by female students of sexual harassment by male students. Without the benefit of a second opinion, the Teacher publicly commented on matters that some students had unwittingly brought up privately with the “Eyes-and-Ears” student.

The Teacher often stated that conflicts among “Dharma brothers and sisters” were ways to “show your Ego in a mirror.” At the same time, the Teacher seemed to offer no tools to deal with conflicts other than to privately rebuke and shame, publicly air the issues, preach the Buddhist precepts, and prescribe more meditation. The following example illustrates the way in which the Teacher seemed to foster jealousy and confusion among students for its own sake.

Once, the Teacher wished to have Jane (not her real name), work as head cook for the Teacher’s own Zen master, who was visiting at the center for a few months. But, long ago, the Teacher had appointed Mary (not her real name) for this duty, considered an honor at the center. The Teacher assigned the “Eyes-and-Ears” student the task of calling Jane long-distance with strict orders to “not say a word” about this change in plans to Mary, the original candidate. Mary quickly found out about the situation by glancing at the center’s newsletter and through third parties who innocently mentioned that Jane was going to cook for the Teacher’s master. Very upset, Mary asked the Teacher about the situation. The Teacher scolded Mary in private, and publicly alluded to the third parties and their faulty Egos during a talk on the precept of abstaining from gossip. Hurt feelings and rifts between Jane and Mary were the result. Jane, Mary, and the third parties never questioned the Teacher’s secrecy and apparent scheming about these matters and fully attributed their hurt feelings and resentment to their own “Egos.”

Some senior students, when troubled and perplexed by the Teacher’s tendency to foster confusion, jealousy, and resentment, would sometimes explain the Teacher’s actions as free-spirited, non-attached behavior that transcended logic, or as “Zen testing” of the students’ limits, nevertheless lacking the cultural and social contexts in which such testing—if that is what it was—would have made sense.

Stoic Service

Always very busy, the Teacher carried out the administrative duties of running the center and traveling to the international sites to conduct retreats and ceremonies. Even when seriously ill or recovering from surgery, the Teacher ignored the doctor’s advice for rest and carried on as usual. Ill students on retreats who performed their usual duties, such as leading chanting sessions in spite of sore throats and bronchitis, were commended for “being an inspiration” to others—I was one of them. Numerous talks given by the Teacher and conversations among senior students at social events featured people who went through tremendous pain and suffering “without complaining” and who had endured hardship “with a smile.”

The Teacher often encouraged students to “always do more” for the purpose of fulfilling the Mahayana Buddhist ideal of compassion for all sentient beings: sit more, work more, do more community service, be more self-sacrificing in all areas of life. For this Teacher, it would seem as if fulfilling the Mahayana Buddhist ideal meant fulfilling the impossible task of being better than one actually was. Students with the most seniority were encouraged to donate blood and platelets as often as was medically possible, in part to serve the Mahayana Buddhist ideal of compassion, but mostly to rid themselves of “attachment to Ego.”

The Teacher expounded the view in formal talks that the more “enlightened” or spiritually advanced people were, the busier they became. The Teacher derided an American public speaker’s characterization of American Zen as Calvinist in nature, only to complain a year later that one of the center’s international affiliate sites was slow to blossom because of its cultural and historical “lack of a Protestant work ethic.”

Individual and Group Monitoring

An essential part of Zen practice consists of private interviews between Zen teachers and their students, mainly for the purpose of monitoring progress and clarifying questions about the mechanics of meditation practice. A significant portion of Zen teachings is communicated during these private exchanges between students and their teachers (Gopfert, 1999; Lachs, 1999).

Private interviews were held three times a day during meditation retreats and at least twice a week during formal meditation sessions when there were no retreats. The Teacher often used private interview times to point out and scoff at students’ shortcomings, a common occurrence in many Zen centers (Gopfert, 1999). On the grounds of not sharing highly personal information not meant for others to hear, students generally followed a rule to never disclose what transpired in a private interview.

Several times a year, the Teacher announced month-long periods during which students were to commit themselves to increasing their daily quota of meditation practice, community service, and/or adherence to the Buddhist precepts. Students chose their own practice goals in writing, submitted them to the Teacher, and read them out loud in front of fellow students as part of a ceremony. Signing up for these periods was voluntary, but many students felt subtly pressured to do so. Following these periods of augmented practice, the Teacher held group check-in sessions. In the early days, some students sheepishly confessed how they fell short of their desired goal, but as the years went by, the Teacher made it clear that there was no desire or need for sharing difficulties in complying with the practice, and that this was “not what others wanted to hear.” Sure enough, group check-in sessions quickly turned into glowing reports of how wonderful and energized students felt after increasing their daily quota of meditation practice and/or commitment to Buddhist principles or center activities, and how this enabled them to “do more.”

Special Powers

A booklet with instructions for students who helped to run workshops admonished students to “avoid answering questions” about the Teacher’s “enlightenment.” The Teacher often said that Zen masters had special knowledge about their students’ inner depths that the students themselves could not (as yet) access. The Teacher hinted at having psychic powers, such as being able to read people’s thoughts and see people’s past lives, and even made remarks about previous familial relationships that some students may have had among themselves in a past lifetime, such as having been twin siblings—pronouncements that were readily believed by the students in question. The Teacher even made auspicious predictions to some students about future situations in their lives, such as romantic relationships, predictions that caused them to feel especially honored.

At the same time, the Teacher cautioned that seeking psychic powers was an obstacle to “real enlightenment,” and warned that involvement with them was “feeding into Ego.” Complaining that psychic powers were a burden, the result of “bad karma” and behaved as uninvited guests, the Teacher nevertheless appeared to exercise them at will. Quoting the Zen dictum of “we’re all One Mind,” the Teacher stated that perceiving others’ thoughts was “no big deal.”

Some students feared the Teacher’s reputed abilities to read thoughts and became hypersensitive to cues, not only from the Teacher, but from senior students as well. These students second-guessed the Teacher’s actions, only to be admonished, in private and in public, that doubting or second-guessing the Teacher’s motives and actions was a “sure sign of Ego” and of slandering of the teachings.

Emulating the Teacher

Reports about other Zen centers in the United States reveal that teachers have counseled their students in areas far removed from their scope of competence (Downing, 2001). The Teacher of this center was fond of announcing that Zen masters were not the same as gurus and, therefore, not involved in the details of students’ personal lives. Nevertheless, senior students felt a need to consult with the Teacher over major life decisions such as marriage, changing jobs, following a course of study, and moving closer to or farther away from the center. The Teacher was ready to give advice—and did. Openly urged by the Teacher to have children, some married students privately expressed mild concerns among themselves about not being able or willing to fulfill the Teacher’s wish. When the Teacher’s husband was running for office in the community, the Teacher personally requested me to vote for him (an action which I did not carry out).

After several years of Zen practice, many American Zen students tend to imitate the Teacher’s personal style of relating to others. Typical examples are exhibiting standoffish behaviors and withholding expression of affect (Gopfert, 1999). At this center, longstanding students imitated the gestures and mannerisms of the Teacher, appeared to hold back smiles and maintain neutral expressions when newer students or workshop attendees displayed humor or plain fun, and extended long silences in conversations, even when newer students seemed to shuffle and squirm awkwardly. But when the Teacher laughed at a humorous story or told a joke, all students, especially senior ones, would also laugh. When the Teacher showed disgust at a situation, senior students also showed disgust.

As the years went by, some of the more experienced students, both male and female, began to dress in the same dark colors and plain style as the Teacher; some men shaved their beards, moustaches, and heads; some women cut their hair very short. After one talk in which the Teacher expressed pride at having grayed and aged, some female students stopped touching up their hair and gave up what little make-up they did wear.

II. How Spiritual Abuse Occurs in American Zen Centers

Conversion to American Zen

Committed, contemporary American Zen practitioners of meditation are rarely born into the tradition. Generally Caucasian, educated, and middle-class, they join Zen centers in adulthood in an entirely voluntary manner. With the exception of Soka Gakkai, most Buddhist denominations such as Zen, Tibetan, and Theravada are for the most part non-proselytizing (Nattier, 1998). Whether gradually or quickly, practitioners develop an affiliation with the contextual and liturgical tradition of Zen and adopt its worldview; in this sense at least, conversion takes place. At the same time, Lifton’s (1989) thought reform categories of loading the language, milieu control, sacred science, doctrine over person, demand for purity, and mystical manipulation can be easily identified in the day-to-day affairs of the Zen center portrayed in the first part of this paper.

Nobody joins a Zen center with the goal of being deceived, betrayed, or abused. But people do seek out Zen centers, and engage in meditation practice for reasons that do not seem to differ from those of people who seek psychotherapy. Achieving ordinary developmental tasks such as obtaining stable, meaningful work, engaging in significant long-term relationships and belonging to a supportive community has become increasingly difficult in American society (Engler, 2003; Welwood, 2000). As opposed to ethnic, family-centered Asian-American Buddhist temples, educated, middle-class Americans usually discover Buddhism “as isolated individuals in the midst of pain and confusion” (Imamura, 1998, p. 236). The common motivations for engaging in Buddhist meditation practice are to seek freedom from behavioral, cognitive, or emotional confinement, to identify a larger and deeper meaning in life, and to enhance human potential. More specifically, these motivations include loneliness, alienation, existential angst, death of loved ones, separation and abandonment issues, and the desire to overcome early emotional losses, restore a fragile sense of self, and heal addictions (Gopfert, 1999; Imamura, 1998; Finn & Rubin, 1999; Lachs, 1999; Welwood, 2000). Of particular interest in this regard is low self-esteem, which seems to be prevalent in the West and which has baffled the Dalai Lama and other Eastern Buddhist teachers of various denominations (Goleman, 1997; Engler, 2003).

Zen teachers often say that suffering is what brings human beings to meditation practice. This is not to say that American Zen centers actively recruit troubled people to join their ranks; they do not proselytize. But people who join Zen centers likely have a combination of psychological pain and spiritual angst, and it is often difficult to sort out which is which. There are likely more Zen students in psychotherapy than is generally acknowledged. Many students learn meditation as an adjunct to psychotherapy. A small handful recognize that psychological pain will not necessarily be eased with more meditation (Gopfert, 1999; Kornfield, 1993; Welwood, 2000) and begin psychotherapy after several years of meditation practice.

The subjugation of Zen students to the often unkind authority of the Zen master is viewed as a paradoxical way to break through Ego and thereby connect with an internal, immanent, numinous, transhistorical, and transcultural power that increases autonomy, and from which wise and compassionate action spontaneously emerges (Lachs, 1999; Sharff, 1993, 1995; Young-Eisendrath, 2003). Considered “a hierarchical relationship that fosters true independence” (Magid, 2003, p. 286), this connection is sometimes viewed paradoxically and, more often, sequentially. In other words, present subjugation leads to future autonomy. Because this connection supposedly consists of merely tapping into, accessing, and uncovering what already exists in their inner depths, students do not perceive this connection as a merging with the “otherness” of an external source. It is likely that many committed American Zen students mistakenly think that herein lies their protection against falling prey to a “cult.” After all, if one only taps into one’s own pure, original resources, how can that be harmful? But harm does occur at some centers and with some Zen masters. Alongside the tapping into one’s own inner resources is a powerful idealization of the Zen master—the belief that, because the Zen master is enlightened regarding his or her True Nature, he or she is mostly, if not absolutely, infallible. Thus, every action carried out by, every word uttered by the Zen master, no matter how harmful, is considered to be “for your own good.” As mentioned before, feelings of confusion and symptoms of depression, including dysphoria, low self-esteem, guilt, and withdrawal are common in students who train with problematic Zen teachers. In addition to depression and confusion, shattered faith, and lack of trust in other human beings and spiritual practices are typical outcomes of Zen students who sever ties with abusive Zen teachers (Gopfert, 1999).

The subjugation of students to their Zen masters may compromise the very spontaneity, creativity and spiritual autonomy that they seek. Why, then, do Zen students remain under the direction of a harmful teacher? Two main processes are at play: (a) students are engaged in problematic transference relationships that foster idealization of the teacher and (b) the structure of the Zen institution itself promotes subservience to authority that is assumed to be historically veracious and spiritually justified.

Transference and Idealization

As anyone who has sat for a thirty-minute period of Zen meditation knows, Zen training is arduous and produces no instant gratification. At most American Zen centers, it is assumed that teachers have gone through ten, twenty or thirty years of training and have been subjected to stringent testing by their own teachers. Committed Zen students who have begun the process of contextual identification with the Zen tradition earnestly wish to tap into their own spiritual potential, and develop feelings of awe and profound admiration for their Zen teachers.

Japanese Zen masters teaching in the United States have almost mockingly remarked on the degree of solemnity and seriousness with which American students embrace the Zen tradition, in contrast to Japanese students, who seem to be able to take the often exaggerated claims of the spiritual accomplishments of Zen masters with a grain of salt (Downing, 2001). Japanese Zen students seem better able than American students to “take what’s good” from a Zen master and disregard the rest (Butler, 1991). Going through the outer motions of deference while privately withholding respect in the face of disappointment at a Zen master’s questionable behaviors would likely be considered hypocritical by American but not by Japanese Zen students (Butler, 1991).

This may explain in part why committed American Zen students tend to give themselves over entirely to their relationship with their Zen masters and develop sensitive, intense transference relationships with them in which over-idealization takes place. When interacting with their Zen teachers, Zen students may perceive their Zen teachers as parental figures, and may reenact or elicit problematic familial behavioral patterns from their childhood. Buddhist teachers of many denominations become repositories for projections of perfection from their students (Gopfert, 1999; Magid, 2003; Rubin, 1996; Young-Eisendrath, 2003). Many Zen students fantasize about their teachers and communities in terms of “super-parents” and the “super-family” (Tart & Deikman, 1991, p. 46).

Transferences between meditation teachers of Eastern traditions and Western students tend to be mostly Kohutian mirroring and merging types. Students invest hope that their teachers will mirror them by providing a source of approval and validation, or perceive their teachers as a source of extraordinary power with which to merge (Cushman, 1986; Engler, 1984; Rubin, 1996). These hopes may be fulfilled or thwarted, depending on the Zen teacher’s personality and teaching style. Unconsciously induced to act as if they were indeed their students’ parents, many Zen teachers engage in projective identification. An oscillating kind of transference may also occur between Buddhist teachers and students, who alternate between veneration and devaluation of the teacher (Engler, 1984). When students’ need for idealization is coupled with debasing of self and others, they may attribute extreme virtues to their teachers. But when the teacher is unable or unwilling to meet the student’s high expectations, students may engage in extreme debasement of their teachers (Engler, 1984).

Over-idealization of spiritual teachers may arrest development and set the stage for the perpetration of unhealthy patterns of relatedness learned from the past (Gopfert, 1999; Rubin, 1996; Tart & Deikman, 1991). This situation is complicated because Zen teachers often have little or no understanding of the nature of transference relationships or they choose to ignore their importance (Gopfert, 1999; Magid, 2003; Young-Eisendrath, 2003). Zen teachers “may underestimate the extent to which an apparently devoted student may spend years stuck in a role of compliance, having formed a morbid dependency on the teacher or otherwise succumbed to some form of pathological accommodation, masochistically enduring a painful training solely as a way to maintain a tie to an idealized selfobject” (Magid, 2003, pp. 257-258).

Moreover, the Zen teacher-student relationship discourages the expression of overwhelming or negative emotional states. Trained to ignore such states as unimportant distractions to meditation practice, Zen students lack the benefit of interpretation of and reflection on these states in the teacher-student relationship, thus paving the way for unconscious and problematic transference, countertransference, and relational reenactments (Young-Eisendrath, 2003). If Zen students’ submissiveness, self-devaluation, and over-idealization of their Zen master remain unexamined and unresolved, these dynamics may play themselves out in other relationships, especially if after long years of training with an over-idealized teacher, those students go on to become teachers themselves (Young-Eisendrath, 2003).

The Authority of the Zen Master

Zen masters do not necessarily proclaim their Enlightenment or spiritual attainments to their students or the world at large, at least not directly. To do so would be considered an act of pure Ego. Rather, the Zen institution makes those claims for them (Lachs, 1999). Zen students who are affiliated with the contextual and liturgical traditions of Zen, over time come to believe that their Teacher is at least considerably more spiritually “advanced” than they are. Thanks to the means of authorization facilitated by the Zen tradition, some Zen masters themselves may come to believe that as well. Others, however, may play the role even though they may know at some level that they are not as spiritually “advanced” as the Zen institution claims (Lachs, 1999). The legends, texts by Zen masters, chanting, and other rituals foster idealization of the Zen master and hierarchical styles of authority (Gopfert, 1999; Lachs, 1999; Young-Eisendrath, 2003).

One of the most influential factors in fostering idealization of the Zen master is the received tradition of Dharma transmission, which has the dual meaning of (a) the passing on of the Buddha’s teachings through generations of teachers, and (b) the ceremony or ritual that sanctions this transmission (Downing, 2001; Gopfert, 1999; Lachs, 1999; Sharff, 1993, 1995). Zen Buddhist tradition states that the purest teachings of the historical Buddha have been passed on from teacher to teacher without recourse to canonical texts. That is, the Zen master’s mind is as enlightened as his or her own master’s, whose mind is, in turn, as enlightened as his or her own master and so on: “It is the continuity of this chain of enlightened minds in an unbroken lineage, supposedly unique to Zen, going back to the historical but also highly mythologized figure of Shakyamuni Buddha . . . that forms the conceptual basis for the present teacher's considerable authority. . . . Dharma transmission justifies giving the teacher the authority that one would accord to the Buddha himself” (Lachs, 1999, n.p.).

Claiming authentication through lineage traditions with roots that reach as far back as the historical Buddha, Zen masters promote themselves as officially sanctioned agents who have the wisdom and compassion to employ whatever means they deem necessary to bring their students to an inner connection between their mind and the teacher’s mind. This inner connection is said to consist of a realization that the teacher’s and their students’ inner depths are essentially the same. Thus, unkindness in the Zen master may be disguised compassion; bizarre and confusing behaviors may be disguised wisdom—or so Zen students are taught to think (Downing, 2001; Gopfert, 1999; Lachs, 1999). Subjugation to the authority of the Zen master is perceived as a tool that will open the door to greater spontaneity and spiritual autonomy. Committed, serious, and solemn about their meditation practice, American Zen students who have at least begun the process of affiliation with the liturgical and contextual traditions of Zen seem to embrace the Zen narrative of authorization wholeheartedly, and therefore seem to deal with their cognitive dissonance by readily explaining away unethical or simply cruel behaviors on the part of Zen masters as serving some “greater good,” as yet unperceived by the students.

It is possible that contradictory, bizarre, or otherwise confusing behaviors may be better tolerated and interpreted by Japanese than American students. Accustomed to the nuances of paradox and indirect communication that might be considered manipulative, deceptive, or simply unclear by Americans (Becker, 1986; Tannen, 1994), Japanese students may not have to expend as much effort in second-guessing their Zen masters or in going through the outer motions of respect and obeisance, as noted above. Perhaps taking lineage narratives and the hagiographies of past Zen masters in their stride, Japanese Zen students may well have less all-or-nothing idealization and therefore less cognitive dissonance to struggle with in the face of their Zen masters’ unethical, unkind, or bizarre behaviors.

American Zen and Cultural Adaptation

Did the Teacher betray her belief system with her behaviors, or did she believe in it wholeheartedly, albeit failing to make the necessary cultural adjustments? I do not offer a conclusive answer to this question, but the following is a speculation on the interplay between the Teacher’s belief system and the question of cultural adaptation. The Teacher attempted to achieve consistency with the belief system as portrayed by the center’s particular teaching lineage. The Teacher also adhered to the injunction to not read or pursue scholarship and rejected intellect as a valid way of gaining knowledge of Zen Buddhism. This injunction was in keeping with the lineage’s unquestioning obedience to authority and, perhaps, to the authoritarianism peculiar to Japanese Zen in general (Lachs, 1999). At the same time, this very injunction contributed to further ignorance and thus to the betrayal or at least a serious compromise of the broader Buddhist principles of wisdom and compassion.

Thus, transplanting a highly authoritarian position common in Japan to a Western setting, the Teacher’s behaviors were consistent with a belief system that was poorly investigated due to the conflation between behaviors peculiar to Japanese authoritarianism and behaviors that supposedly would be a wise and compassionate outgrowth of years of practicing meditation. The injunction to avoid scholarship further aggravated this conflation. On the one hand, the Teacher, partly due to ignorance, likely believed in that poorly investigated and largely unchallenged belief system. On the other hand, the Teacher may have also engaged in deceptive behaviors. It is highly probable that the Teacher knew on some level that she was not as “Enlightened” as the Zen narrative maintains Zen teachers are, if at all. Likely knowing that she did not match what the Zen institution proclaimed she was, the Teacher nevertheless continued to play the role according to institutional definition, through rituals, liturgy, and top-down management of the center’s affairs. As mentioned before, the Zen institution itself staked the claim to spiritual advancement for the Teacher (Lachs, 1999). Eventually, this role likely played into the Teacher’s needs—needs that apparently consisted of inculcating a dogmatic adherence to a “greater good,” according to the lineage’s belief system.

The Teacher’s dogmatism and rigidity seemed to grow in time, perhaps partly in response to the sheer authority she wielded over her students, perhaps partly because, as mentioned before, Zen students idealize their Teachers and induce them to behave in ways that emulate past parental relationships.

Religious institutions come to match the cultural context of the places where they take root, and Buddhism is no exception (Lachs, 1999). American Zen teachers like to talk about the ability of Buddhism to adapt to the cultural context of the time and place where it takes root (Kapleau, 2000). Within Buddhism, Zen is but one denomination and is practiced in different ways in Japan, Korea, China and Vietnam. Even within Japan, Zen’s major schools of Soto, Rinzai, and Obaku differ on doctrinal and liturgical aspects.

In the United States, American Zen Buddhists have talked about Western contributions to Zen, such as the role of women as Zen teachers and the impact of a largely lay Zen community. American Zen Buddhists have debated over the desirability of wearing robes, displaying shaved heads, or practicing liturgical rites in the mother tongue. But American Zen Buddhists have had very little to say on aspects of the Zen institution such as its authoritarian structures, its mythology, and its hierarchy (Downing, 2001; Gopfert, 1999; Lachs, 1999). Perhaps this discussion is lacking in part because many Zen Buddhists do not see scholarship as a valid way of gaining knowledge about Zen.

Because American Zen Buddhists can never be Japanese Zen Buddhists, they cannot afford to practice in ignorance of the historical and cultural roots of Japanese Zen Buddhism without risk of harm. The better educated about these aspects American Zen students become, the more immunity to excesses of authority they are likely to acquire and the better able they will be to facilitate necessary cultural adaptation.

Concluding Thoughts

Most Americans who join Zen centers and continue their membership do so through a process of conversion; that is, they become increasingly affiliated with the contextual tradition of Zen. The Zen tradition fosters intense transference relationships between Zen teachers and their students which are in part the result of Western Zen students’ prior susceptibilities and in part the outcome of the narratives of the Zen institution itself and how they have been interpreted in the West.

It would seem that Western Zen teachers’ conflation of psychological differentiation of ego with an ontological sense of ego leads to an attack on both, with particularly harmful consequences to their students. Heirs to a culture and a time in which normal developmental tasks are achieved with difficulty as compared to their parents’ generation, and likely struggling with a much lower baseline of self-esteem than their Eastern counterparts, Western Zen students may well be at a high risk for spiritual abuse. American Zen teachers’ expectation of their Western students to “break through Ego” in part by confusing, shaming, scorning, and belittling them, far from eliciting a healthy psychological response or deep insights into the nature of the self, seems to foster maladaptive coping strategies and defense mechanisms such as extreme, masochistic subjugation and/or identification with the aggressor. Such coping strategies and defense mechanisms are likely to play themselves out further as advanced students, who, emulating their teachers’ behaviors and deprived of the opportunity to question, examine and reflect on their relationship with their teachers, become Zen teachers themselves, or assume other roles of authority in their Zen centers.

Moreover, the Zen institution itself seems to foster Western students’ idealization of their Zen teachers. Usually ignorant of and often discouraged by their teachers to investigate the cultural, social, and political trappings of Zen Buddhism, Western Zen students may easily swallow wholesale the rhetoric of unbroken lineages of Zen masters who have transmitted pure teachings that transcend history, tradition, gender, culture, and social conditions. Unable to contain both a public self who goes through outward motions of obeisance to authority and a more discriminating private self who only takes what is good from the teacher-student relationship, most Western Zen students develop intense transferences with their Zen teachers and tend to over-idealize them. Heirs to language systems that view paradox, contradiction, and indirect communication as problematic, and discouraged from education about the narrative of the Zen institution, Western Zen students may be highly disquieted by and unable to interpret Zen masters’ confusing, bizarre, and unkind speech and behaviors.

Education about the narrative of the Zen institution and its legitimation of authority, the nature of transference and the dangers of idealization would seem to afford some immunity to excesses and abuses of power in Zen centers. Unfortunately, as has been the case with countless leavetakers of American Zen centers, such education often comes after one or several traumatic incidents. Preventive education in this regard is a challenge that cannot be postponed and must be undertaken by the American Zen community at large. Undertaking this challenge will likely imply an uncomfortable yet necessary revision of the role of intellectual discernment in Western Zen practice.


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Katherine V. Masis, M.A., works as a counselor in a community mental health agency in the greater Portland, Oregon area. Ms. Masis practiced Zen Buddhism for about fifteen years, the first ten in Latin America and the last five as a full-time resident at a Zen center in New England. Correspondence concerning this article may be sent electronically to

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