Tuesday, February 8, 2011

More on sexual ethics and spiritual leadership.

So lets just talk about sexual ethics and spiritual leadership.

I want to just jot something down here, and I'm not going to take too much effort to be subtle about it. I'll just present it like its the ten commandments and then we can talk.

Its OK to:

Be single and promiscuous
Have an open marriage.
Create polyamorous relationships, married or not.

Its not OK to:

Screw your students.
Screw your clients.
Screw the underaged.
Cheat on your commitments to your significant other(s).
Cheat on your commitments to your spiritual community.

Its very easy when talking about sexual ethics to descend into a kind of puritanical response, or to accuse valid critiques of performing this descent. When anyone discusses sexual ethics and spiritual teachers, they're actually talking about power, not sex. A spiritual teacher can have all the sex they want with as many people as they want provided they aren't committed to a tradition that frowns on that. Power, integrity, commitment, responsibility. These are the important topics, not Tab A into Slot B or who falls in love with whom.

Now a separate topic might be whether or not promiscuity, open marriages, polyamory, etc. are spiritually advisable. Are they safe? Are they healthy? But this is a different ethical question than "What are the limits on sexual behavior that one must accept to be a teacher or guide to others?"

I even can allow that there might be spiritual paths that actually do involve teachers and students having sexual relationships. But they would be distinguished by making the sexual relationship a conscious, central part of the practice. I've read there are actually erotic tantric teachers who do this, though I have yet to meet one or know enough about anyone actually doing this to form an opinion. But that is a very different thing than cheating, secrecy, and exploitation.

This obviously has come up because of Genpo and I didn't write this to dog on Genpo. Genpo didn't betray *me*. He betrayed his wife and his sangha and his students, most especially the students with whom he had romantic/erotic relationships. He has a lot to make amends for there - to those people, not to me. I'm writing about this because we can let our shock and outrage run out of control and take irrational positions about sexual misbehavior. When we allow ourselves to just be shocked by the sexual component, which honestly in Genpo's case is pretty tame, we cloud and confound the issue. Its not about who a teacher *screws*. Its about *who* a teacher screws. If I am not careful with this, then any critique I make can be discounted as simple sexual puritanism.

It doesn't matter to me if a spiritual teacher wants to have hot monkey sex with the entire population of Kalamazoo. As long as s/he isn't teaching any of them and as long as that doesn't break any of their commitments to spouse and community.

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.