“Clerical Impropriety” Is So Hot Right Now

Those of you who thought Buddhism was still the proverbial last righteous man in Sodom might be disappointed to read August 20th’s New York Times. In his article “Sex Scandal Has U.S. Buddhists Looking Within,” Mark Oppenheimer likens a recent sex scandal in a New York-based Japanese Buddhist society to the slew of sexual improprieties among religious leaders made public over the past year. Apparently, Abbot Eido Shimano of the Zen Studies Society has been a little more than a spiritual guide for several female members of his community—yeah, you get my drift—and has been doing so for at least the past thirty years. Allegations have been building both on the board of the society and in the media for the past two years. Last month Shimano ended up resigning from his position after a woman publicly pronounced that she had had a consensual affair with him.

It is undeniable that the news is hot on stories of what Oppenheimer calls “clerical impropriety.” As distressed as I am over the sentence I am about to write: it seems as though it is only a matter of time until every religion has its fifteen minutes of sexual scandal. But while stories like this one are trendy, it could be dangerous to analogize one religion’s scandals with those of others.

While this particular instance obviously and unforgivably includes abuse, it is an abuse unique to this particular religious society, and to this particular religious leader. The article makes it seem as though this abbot’s misconduct occurred only among adult women, and we know at least one affair was consensual. The story here is less about adding Buddhism to the list of religions that have had public scandals, and more about how this one community is handling the situation.

Oppenheimer suggests that while characteristically Western faiths have a built-in protocol for abuse (with, if I may editorialize, the nauseatingly true sentence: “Priests and rabbis know the boundaries, even if some do not always respect them”), this does not exist in Buddhism. He says, “The teacher/student relationship in Buddhism has no obvious Western analogy,” and in this context of blurred lines, there is a gray area in terms of sexual relationships. The article also explains that questions regarding the appropriateness of such relationships are becoming an issue now as many Asian Buddhist leaders are encountering Buddhist communities that include female members for the first time, and that they don’t always know how to react to the situation.

While Oppenheimer might be onto something here, I tend to err on the side of skepticism in this particular instance of abuse. Let’s be honest here: you would think that a married abbot, one who has been the head of this society since 1956, at a monastery on 67th between 2nd and 3rd should, in some way, be in touch with Western societal constructs.

Even if I am wrong, and Shimano did not feel that his behavior was inappropriate, it was pressure from Western voices that led to his resignation. Once the record of Shimano’s affairs got into the hands of bloggers and other U.S. media outlets, there was a frenzy of criticism that the Zen Studies Society leadership, and ultimately Shimano himself, could not ignore. Stepping down might not be an admission of guilt, but it is definitely a nod to the attitudes of troubled critics. And by the way, the article doesn’t mention that Shimano’s wife was also a board member, and she has also resigned.

The fascinating part is, even though this issue is somewhat resolved, it seems as though the society still doesn’t quite know how to handle the aftermath. If you go to its website, you will notice a point of information right on the home page about ethical guidelines. The write-up on Shimano’s leadership it links to is both critical and reverential. It understands and is troubled by his misconduct but also retains respect for him as its spiritual leader. In addition, after some thought, it has decided to outsource the management of the remaining fallout to the FaithTrust Institute, “a multifaith organization that addresses ethical violations by spiritual leaders.” In the meantime, Shimano will “remain committed to ordained and long-time students for as long as his health allows.”

If Oppenheimer is right, and Buddhist societies are encountering these kinds of problems more and more, will we begin to see standardized protocols like the one the Zen Studies Society is working to build? And what affect might these protocols have on Eastern Buddhism? I guess we will just have to wait to find out.

(H/t Josh Baran.)

Jessica Miller graduated from Barnard College in 2009 with a BA in religion, and is psyched to finally have an answer to the question, “so what does one do with a religion major?” Her writing has appeared on Jewcy, Mashable, and the Huffington Post.  In her spare time she can be found sailing, playing music, and blogging about boomerangs.