Monday, June 13, 2022

La Volonté de Savoir, Foucault on Sexuality

McLeod Ganj, Vesak

After all the bad press, after the astronomical settlements of lawsuits, after the decimation of congregations, Zen masters, priests and politicians continue to behave badly--still. Recently a gifted young teacher, Josh Bartok, resigned from the vibrant Greater Boston Zen Center. As he was trained by James Ismael Ford, my teacher’s teacher, I took note. Let me try to examine the situation in a general way that might shed some light rather than simply confirm a long standing belief system. Along the way, I might do some excavation of persistent, seemingly compelling but useless assumptions.

About sex

In Jesuit school, we teenage boys lined up in chapel on First Friday mornings to receive absolution for the sins of the flesh, or what was euphemistically called “self-abuse.” Maybe there was an occasional confession of cheating on the Latin vocabulary quiz, but we all masturbated. 

The line for Father Halloran’s confessional was long because he was understanding of adolescent sex, or at least he seemed more tolerant than immigrant Father Murphy who was Puritanical, angrily demanding manly resolve that you would never to play with your penis again. Halloran might have simply been bored, or realistic, or perhaps he’d just given up, but he still demanded a sufficient level of shame before he dispensed the penance of 5 “Our Father’s” and 10 “Hail Mary’s.” 

When the inner compulsion for shaming became intolerable, or you’d made the pious decision to try to live like a saint, you quickly ducked into Father Murphy’s booth where all hell broke loose. I made the mistake of asking for his absolution once and never went back. I also didn’t want to be seen in that line by Saint Aloysius’s shrine because the boys who masturbated together feared that you named names when Murphy asked the prescribed question from the confession manual “with yourself or others?” Dealing with ostracization as well as shame. Social ramifications have always part and parcel of sexual training.

Sex, shame, purification, resolve, failure to meet the standard demanded by the Irish Catholic cult, sex, shame, repeat. Perhaps this was just the way things have always worked, La Comédie humaine. We know without a doubt that some Zen teachers, priests or politicians will continue to abuse just as surely as the same faces will be back at the understanding, tired or just fed-up Father Halloran’s confessional the Friday before they are next obliged to perform the Sunday ritual of Holy Communion with their parents, free of mortal sin.

Shifting Zip codes

Then some of us became Buddhists. Perhaps part of the motivation for our seeking was to find a more tolerant setting for our sexual personna or nonconforming proclivities, or at least an escape from the charade. This was certainly part of my story. I joined a truly ecumenical movement. Irish Catholics may have a particular flavor as opposed to the Jews, but basically the same tales, the same guilt run through the whole sangha, and this includes the immigrant communities, the only difference being the level of toleration.

However, we soon discovered that our sexual training, repression and taboos had simply shifted zip codes. They are persistent and stubborn. The public uproar at the San Francisco Zen Center around Richard Baker’s alleged misconduct has subsided. Or has it, really? The list of other Zen teachers who have confessed to abusing their students is long and continues to grow. Perhaps we’ve weeded out some bad actors, or maybe they have become more cautious. Some might even have developed an awareness of normative ethics, but still, when we survey the landscape rigorously, we see wreckage; friends who fled practice, or stayed but never seemed to make much progress; teaching careers short circuited or ruined; persistent rumor and recrimination that harm the sangha. The evidence of unresolved trauma and hurt is vast. 

To our credit, we have made our practice spaces more safe; to varying degrees people feel free enough to open up without subjecting themselves to exploitation. There are ethical guidelines in place in most centers. We have even asked professional therapists to help us craft the norms. But honesty, if pressed, I do not think that most people feel that the issues surrounding sex and practice have been resolved. Some feel that we’ve only added another layer of admonition and prohibition to our norms for sexual behavior. Some say it will take a generation to heal the wounds. Others say what we need is a return to that old time religion.

At the outset let me be clear. I am not setting out to excuse anyone. I do not intend to rewrite history. I will not whitewash what is clearly harmful behavior, nor will I play the game of weighting a teacher’s charisma to offset egregious failings. I don’t want to reduce our practice to the level of a cult. We cannot suppress genuine feelings of hurt that arise from past experience because, as the saying goes, time heals all wounds. It does not. I was a victim of sexual abuse myself. Bob Hoffman raped me within a few months of completing his Fisher-Hoffman Process of Psychic Therapy. This story remains almost entirely in the shadows. When I’ve attempted to bring it to light, I’ve been ignored or gaslighted. A senior teacher of the Process told me, “It was 50 years ago so get over it.” But this New Age “Love and Light” process is a cult, and it costs a lot of money, so the behavior is pretty much expected.

The history of sexual abuse in our Buddhist communities has been tumultuous. There has not been a full accounting of the alleged misconduct because, for the most part, sexual conversations are secret; even when we talk about them, there are some areas that remain hidden; the secrecy adds to their power, making them more difficult to dislodge. There has never been a full recognition of the depth of the abuse because it touches the deepest core of human intimacy; people, mostly women, say that they are still hurting; we should believe them. I do. The abusers have not taken full responsibility; people are still speaking up despite calls to move on. There should be more compassion for both victim and abuser. We are a Buddhist community; understanding and compassion are at the heart of our practice. There’s always room for improvement.

Taboo or precept?

I ask myself how as a practitioner I might address the situation. A friend, a Zen priest I admire and trust, warned me against “starting off from [a] wrong assumption... and end up justifying a forgone conclusion.” I’ll frame my question to mirror my friend’s fear, and I will address it directly: what are the assumptions that seem to drive everyone to a foregone conclusion? Let me frame the inquiry in another way. The same question is asked over and over, and the answer that’s repeated continues to be unsatisfactory. Is it a bad question, a good question asked in the wrong context, or simply a question not designed to reveal useful information?

I will do my best to recreate the set of assumptions that are the underpinning of the conversation, and I would add, provide ammunition for presumptive guilt. Then, hopefully, I can challenge them to see what remains. 

The first assumption is that the perp’s, even a Zen perp’s action takes place in a vacuum, against the stark moral backdrop of right and wrong. The further assumption is that by simply labeling it and calling it out, we can tame the beast. False. 

We haven’t eliminated sexual abuse from our practice because we can’t. The way sex manifests in each individual will be unique, but just because one enters the zendo and sits without moving does not guarantee that the sexual impulse sits quietly. It’s more likely that we notice how active it is. It’s the nature of self-investigation. Sex cannot escape our investigation, but it does not deserve a special place. Nor can we eliminate risk when we venture into uncomfortable or forbidden territory. Those may seem like extremes, but my non-professional survey points to both the exclusion of sex and evading dangerous territory are common in most practice centers. How often is sex discussed in dharma talks? My experience: rarely and then only as a footnote. How often is it the subject of scuttlebutt and rumor? If the walls had ears! What’s the first response when people ask about what’s been done since Roshi’s picadillos were uncovered? We’ve put a set of ethics in place. Don’t you worry your pretty little head.

I have been studying the French philosopher Michel Foucault’s first volume of The History of Sexuality, La Volonté de Savoir. It’s a real eye-opener.

Foucault says that despite the liberal claim that sex in our Victorian era has been repressed, forced into silence, or even neglected, the truth is that the level, frequency and specificity of our conversations about sex have actually increased. These conversations are varied, complex, and sometimes thinly disguised. Talking about sex does not create a problem; the way we’ve been trained to talk about sex, specifically in the West since the 17th century, a conversation has been created that didn’t exist before, and, I would add, certainly one that didn’t exist in the Lord Buddha’s day. You don’t need a hefty dose of Irish Catholicism in your early school days to be part of this conversation. It is pervasive. The Irish have merely repeated the conversation with our particular brogue as have Jews and Latinas and Italians and Asians, each with their own inflection. Foucault fills three volumes with his analysis. I will only focus on the first few pages of the fist volume where he defines the scope of his inquiry and spells out his methodology.  

This seems to fit with what occurred at Zen Center. When the scandal of Richard Baker’s romance with a married woman began to tear the San Francisco Zen Center apart, they called in a triage team. People were counseled by therapists and senior practice leaders that they had to talk about it. And that they did. I was not present, but I know many people who were. A lot never stopped talking about it. They are Buddhists so, at least on the surface, the intent to gossip, blame, or take sides, was absent. Also Baker removed himself, so there was no lightning rod, but among most of the people I know from Zen Center, they were definitely taking sides. I was trained by two men who followed Baker to Santa Fe where he started over. When they returned to San Francisco’s Hartford Street Zen Center, both Issan and Phil Whalen established a congenial working relationship with senior people who had taken over running the San Francisco Center, but, well, let’s just say that they didn’t talk about Baker’s sexual exploits, real or imagined, in polite conversation. I will make my mother happy and not join that conversation either, though I will allow myself a few general statements about the nature of the conversation.

The Zen Speakeasy

Or a general economy of discourses on sex, or the way in which sex is “put into discourse.’”

I will try to follow Foucault as closely as I can. “The central issue . . . is not to determine whether one says yes or no to sex, whether one formulates prohibitions or permissions, whether one assets its importance or denies its effects, or whether one refines the words one uses to designate it; but to account for the fact that it is spoken about, to discover who does the speaking, the positions and viewpoints from which they speak, the institutions which prompt people to speak about it and which store and distribute the things that are said.” [Page 9]

He says further that his main interest is locating “the forms of power, the channels it takes, and the discourses it permeates in order to reach the most tenuous and individual modes of behavior…” I will try to use these questions as prompts for my own self-investigation. When I was coming into my sexual maturity in the Jesuit school, I learned that even the solitary pleasure of masturbation has a structure in the public conversation. All the boys at my prep school knew that Father Halloran would be less judgmental about adolescent sex just by the length of the line that formed by his confessional.

Foucault does not claim that this examination will yield some correct position or reveal the truth about sex and power, but rather bring forth “the will to knowledge,” la volonté de savoir, which serves our inquiry. I will address the questions from the point of view of being on the meditation cushion and not as a leader among the poobah of a practice center. Different sets of concerns yield different answers. Though my concern is shaped by the institutional response, it’s not my job to formulate more polished or refined words to designate it. 

From the very beginning, there was a lot of sex going on at San Francisco Zen Center, at least among some groups. It was an open secret. This was equally true when Suzuki Roshi was alive as when Baker Roshi assumed the helm. I assume that Suzuki Roshi knew about his students’ trysting. To my knowledge he said nothing publicly. He surely did talk about it in private practice conversations, but we only have anecdotal evidence and no way of knowing what he really said. He was also steeped in Japanese temple culture which colored his attitude in ways that we will never fully understand.

What’s also true is that there was a lot of negative judgment about sexual behavior at Zen Center. We can all trace the outline of the public conversation. I can recognize the “orthodox,” public judgments simply by listening to the conversations that persist. But there is also evidence of personal struggle, admonitions, conflict about sex that people struggle with. Issan once said to me, “People call all the time. They need to talk.”  One of the reasons why Issan was such a popular teacher was that you could talk about sex openly with him. He really did understand. Not being judgmental gave him the ability to listen. When sex presented a problem in our adolescent lives, we lined up at the Father Halloran’s confessional, the priest who at least pretended that he understood your plight. How much better a priest who really understood and could be compassionate.

Here’s what one student told me when I asked him about the sexual culture of Zen Center. “There was definitely a Puritanical aura about the place, ‘a disciple of the Buddha does not misuse the senses.’ . . . It was like being Catholic again, though in a small community full of the smart, good children in the front row of the class, who love to click their tongues at others and rat them out in senior student meetings. It was kind of an unwritten rule that you had to be in a committed relationship to have sex, but sex was never really mentioned.” Apparently this student found his way to Father Murphy’s confessional box by the Saint Aloysius shrine.


The Case: Phil blurted out, “the Presbyterians got the upper hand.” 

Foucault says that it is legitimate to ask why sex was associated with sin for such a long time and question how this pervasive attitude was formed and why it persists. Of course partial blame goes to the scriptures and the taboos of our Abrahamic religious past, but close examination will show that the Sabbath celebration has roots is the celebration of sex, and most taboos single out specific sex acts. Foucault notes that the association with sin comes part and parcel with the religious power structure; they define the taboos. Phil exploded, slurring a notoriously staid religious sect while in the same breath berating a particular group of senior students. The ascetic discipline is “especially careful in repressing useless energies, the intensity of pleasures, and irregular modes of behavior.”[Page 9] If I didn’t know better I might label John Calvin a hidden Zen master (or an extremely strict, Western, image of one). The confusion might have its roots in history but it continues to exist in the heads of some zennies. And, in answer to Phil, the Presbyterians had no need to stage a coup d’etat when the war was going on in peoples’ heads..

In Buddhist ethics, the precept that is cited is the Misuse of Sex, whereas Foucault’s analysis is to observe and trace the use of power. It’s a tricky distinction. We’ve enlisted sex in the service of domination, or that is the assumption. Let me cite an example. If a person wanted to assert his or her position in the hierarchy, why does an expensive dinner at Green’s pass under the radar, while sex is a red flag? What if, perhaps, what we took as a sexual violation was a consensual sexual encounter which we couldn’t recognize, and I underline, “we couldn’t recognize.”

Foucault also notes that “[t]oday it is sex that serves as a support for the ancient form--so familiar and important in the West--of preaching.” [Page 7] I would note that we are not talking about a sermon about the Joy of Sex, popular in the hey day of the California New Age, but sin, hell and damnation. (Foucault also notes the “solemnity” that pervades most public conversations about sex. [Page6] This rings true. How often have have we heard a sexual joke in dharma talk?)

It is just not possible to remain unaffected by this discourse. Most of the automatic response in the west, across the board, would be for the sin and damnation side, or, if we are in a rebellious mood, a swing towards the Joy of Sex’s happy sermon. Both positions are simply reactions within a set of cultural sexual norms.

If we define the relationship between sex and power as repression, Foucault points to that he calls the speaker’s benefit. “If sex is repressed, that is, condemned to prohibition, nonexistence, and silence, then the mere fact that one is speaking about it has the appearance of a deliberate transgression. A person who holds forth in such language places himself to a certain extent outside the reach of power; he upsets the established law; he anticipates the coming freedom.” [Page 6] He goes on to an analysis of the way that early psychiatrists or the 19th century felt compelled to make excuses when they broached the topic of sex.

Taking a position is getting your feet wet even if the position is against what appears to be repression. I noticed the same pattern of apology in the initial unmasking of a Zen teacher’s sexual transgressions, and I notice in myself a kind of self-approval when I side with the accusers. But then these speakers quickly pivot to a broader condemnation, including for example teaching style, politics, spending habits, and other things they might find objectionable. Taking the high seat, it is a short leap from sex outside of marriage to fast cars and expensive suits even though there is zero logical connection. This is also the speaker’s benefit and a tough one to catch because it is shielded by the righteousness of “correct” sexual behavior. 

I would venture this extends to the tone, and even the content of practice instruction. I noticed that when I was talking to a teacher, and stumbled on some strong inner objection to what was being said, I dismissed it with an inner notation that he or she is a hot mess so why pay attention? When teachers can’t be saints, and control their penises, nothing they say has any value.

Blurring the question

“Only in those places (the brothel and the mental hospital) would untrammeled sex have a right to (safely insularized) forms of reality, and only to clandestine, circumscribed, and coded types of discourse. Everywhere else, modern puritanism imposed its triple edict of taboo, nonexistence, and silence.” [Page 5] 

What happens when I realize that I’m just following, or reacting to a set script; that there is a conversation that has shaped what I hold to be true? It is a cultural creation, perhaps not entirely specific to the west, but in many other ways, entirely a creation of western culture.

Reading and studying Foucault, even when I didn’t fully understand the analysis (one could have hoped that he was easier to understand, but he was a French academic), I realized that there is a script. It exists outside our zen communities, and does not have its roots in Buddhist precepts. Foucault has shown that this is a creation, a “mental reaction” in a particular time and place, so it might be possible to break free. 

Can I use this analysis to discover a hidden treasure? I am obliged to thread the needle carefully. I can see that I am part of a particular conversation, and, necessarily, I will remain part of that conversation. But perhaps if I can follow it carefully, I will become less enmeshed in it. There may be echoes in psychotherapy, but it seems a bit broader. It is not just my sexual proclivities and an analysis of their root cause in my unconscious, but the context where I first learned about sex.

I used to say about several of the men I know whose careers have been the subject of accusation and lots of scuttlebutt: they and their partners were consenting adults. End of conversation. But this is using the “Get Out of Jail Free” card. If I am going to be rigorous, I have to also examine this statement. I began this discussion by mentioning Roshi Bartok and then never said another word about him. I don’t know Josh, and I can’t comment. However I will bet that the conversation in the Greater Boston Zen Center contains many of the elements that Foucault describes. Does that excuse anyone? No, but it might provide some insight for the people who struggle with what occurred. 

Were there repercussions of those First Friday line ups of shame and guilt, barriers to experience sexual pleasure? Of course. Has the barrier between me and the pleasure of sex vanished? Not entirely, but I am a lot happier than I was when I was obliged to stand in line for Father Halloran’s absolution. 

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