Monday, February 7, 2011

Spiritual Teaching and Sexual Ethics: Genpo and Gafni

So Genpo is stepping down and he will be Roshi no more. I wish I knew why. The rumor mill (that is, my friends who I have frantically canvassed in an attempt to discover what happened and so gain some illusory control over my world) says he had an affair and this is why.This raises so many questions, so I'm going to write about it as if it were true. But maybe its not, at this point I can't know.

A friend of a friend on FB compared his actions to Gafni in a positive way, lauding Genpo for handling this with integrity while reviling Gafni. I tend to agree with her but I wonder about the dependence on context and reaction. Can one's actions after the fact really exhonerate one? Is the original sin so terrible?

So lets be clear. I understand that Genpo is rumored to have had an affair and that this is the reason he is stepping down. He did this once before in Maine, I have read. In general I am indifferent. An affair is a private problem between spouses, although it certainly damages a teacher's ability to expound on sexual ethics unless he finds a way to integrate the transgression honestly into his teaching. It becomes more complicated if the affair is between Master and student. I don't know what the standard Zen position on this is. I suspect that in a deeply traditional way, Zen tolerates this as the purview of the feudal community leader. But I don't know. I do know that its inappropriate in the postmodern world. We know too much about human relationships and power dynamics to believe this is ok. If a spiritual teacher has a sexual relationship with a student, at the very least they have to forsake one of the roles. Either the sexual relationship ends or the teaching relationship ends. Honestly I doubt that this minimal response would be sufficient, but its at least necessary. So, not knowing the details of Genpo's situation, I speculate that he may be taking this minimal step.

Or he may be acting to satisfy our more puritanical urges, paying homage to our inner traditionalism.

Or he may be acting to divest himself of these traditional expectations so that he can go about his business with what he perceives to be more freedom. As I said above, I don't think that would work given our postmodern understanding of power.

Some part of me that wants to think the best of Genpo, fantasizes that he is stepping down as an act of leadership within the integral community. That he is showing up the sexual ethics of others, demonstrating the way sexual infractions on the part of spiritual teachers should be handled. I suspect this is just a fantasy projection of mine.

No matter how I look at it though, I think this action, if he did have an affair with a student, is appropriate. I think it satisfies community needs on multiple levels: the traditional, the modern, the postmodern. I don't think he should give himself a pass and stay in his position as Roshi. Perhaps he could come back to it later, but stepping down for now seems right.

I can't leave this topic without touching on the question of Gafni. There are multiple allegations of sexual misconduct against Gafni, some of them involving underaged girls. Gafni's respons has been to deny and respin, maintaining that he's just behaving in postmodern and postconventional ways and being judged harshly by the unselfreflexive traditionalists among us. And he does deny - allegations involving a very early involvement with an underage girl (she was 13, he was 19) are met with claims that it was a sweet teenage romance. He produces lie detector results showing that he believes he once had a letter from her establishing the kind regard they held for one another. He only produces lie detector results because he can't produce the letter. He claims other stories were invented by disgruntled spouses, or by hysterical teens, or by shady and unscrupulous journalists. Every claim has enough confusion around it that there's no smoking gun and Gafni remains largely unaffected - though I suspect he would rejoin that losing his ministry in Israel was hardly remaining unaffected. I could only respond that he seems to be landing on his feet quite well, once again.

So I think the differences here are pretty clear. Genpo had two relationships with students seperated by 20 years. He stepped down in both cases. Clearly he has a problem remaining monogamous, but as far as I know his infractions are against his marriage vows, not any kind of abusive relationship. I think its appropriate that he step down from his role as Roshi. As an informal student and admirer of his, I expect him to deal with this with a certain amount of transparency if we are to continue to look to him as a spiritual teacher, Roshi or not. Otherwise I don't think we'd be giving appropriate attention to the power dynamics involved in teacher/student relationships. I hope he does exhibit some leadership on this and threads the needle between transparency and accountability on the one hand, and tabloid voyeurism on the other. God knows the integral community could use some leadership by example in this arena of sexual ethics.

By contrast, Gafni is accused of multiple infractions that go beyond simple affairs and he has admitted to guilt in exactly zero of them. He's misunderstood. He's vilified. He was naive. He was a "young kid in love" etc. etc. etc. Anything but responsible. Google "Secoya teenage Gafni" and tell me if they sound like "young kids in love". I am distantly connected to Secoya through my personal relationships (real-life, not merely Facebook), and I have every reason to believe the online letter is genuine. I can't expect the general public to take my word for it, but I know whose account I believe.

Genpo and Gafni are anything but equivalent, in their teaching, in their authenticity, in their infractions, and in their responses.

I hope Genpo goes the extra mile and provides the integral community with leadership on spiritual teaching and sexual ethics. We badly need it. I suspect that I hope in vain, but I still hope.


  1. I am completely amazed that you, whoever you are, chose to write such a long blog post on a topic that you admit you know nothing about. The details are out there, and you hit on a few, missed many more, but still, you felt the need to post on the internet your opinions about what you were guessing about.
    Many people have been hurt by the changes in Kanzeon sangha, and your guessing game here is not at all helpful. Please be more responsible.

  2. Excellent - to add to the Gafni thang, I have spoken to women he has "affairs" with that did not become public and who were never spoken with about his actions - denial is the tip of iceberg that could sink even his inflated ego.

    I hope that Genpo Merxel provides exactly the example you suggest and hope for - and I hope he can heal the damage in his family.

    ~ Bill

  3. I was at the meeting where he announced this and he actually said he had had several affairs with students, all consensual and adults, but all students nonetheless. Only one was named which was KC Gerpheide, his latest zen successor (also known as Kyozen Sensei) and who was also installed as vice abbot last year. Everyone is now trying to divine who the others were which is really ugly and unfair to all the women in the sangha who's names come up and they don't even get a chance to deny it.. KC has disappeared from the scene and Genpo Roshi said they had agreed to split up and that she wouldn't be teaching anymore at Kanzeon, but that she is free to teach anywhere else. Some questioned her transmission but Roshi said it's still good because he saw her deep wisdom and potential early on.

    I was around when the Gafni thing happened and mostly it seemed like associating with Gafni was just "bad for business" and Roshi didn't want to be tainted by that.

  4. Anonymous #1 from 2/7. I'm not a journalist. I'm a member of the integral community. We are affected by Genpo's actions. He is one of the spiritual teachers we look to, largely on the endorsement of II, I-Life, ISE, ISC, etc. The rumor mill was running rampant when I wrote that post and the details were really not public. My goal was to bring some balance to a somewhat hysterical conversation. We have to talk about these events openly. We have to talk about our fears and speculations openly. Silence helps no-one. I'm taking part in the discussion and I hope my input helps more than it hurts.

  5. Anonymous from 2/8: Thanks for confirming the rumor about multiple partners. Yes, it does seem unfair to speculate about who his other partners were. I rather hope some of them come forward. It would be my hope that they could confirm the benign nature of the relationships that they seem to have. But its a difficult thing to come forward and I wouldn't criticize them for wishing to remain private and anonymous.

  6. Anonymous from 2/7: BTW, I'm John Wagnon of JFK University in California and St. Edwards University in Austin, TX. You can find me on Facebook if you want to take me to task more directly. I kind of doubt you're reading the comments - I'm really lax about approving them because I don't get many of them. This is more a place for my use. If some people read it and get something out of it, then that's good, but I'm not primarily writing it to an expected audience.

    I want to take the opportunity to thank you for inviting me to reflect on my own actions. I don't think I've behaved unethically, but I'll continue to reflect on it. I take criticism to heart and I take it seriously.

    By the way, I didn't say I knew nothing. I just said I couldn't know for sure. Like I said above, I was intentional participating in the murmuring scandalized crowd attempting to help my community sort itself out.

    Thanks again.


Please keep it civil, folks.