Commentary: Bubbles of Delusion, with Some Sex

David Loy on the denial and rationalization that must also be addressed when discussing sexual abuse by Buddhist teachers.

Why do we usually believe something, such as a particular political ideology? Not because that belief system is based on evidence. It’s no coincidence that children normally have political opinions very similar to their parents’. We learn to believe something because it is believed by others whom we respect/identify with/want to be like/want to be liked by. We are good at finding reasons to justify what we believe, but it is much more difficult to examine critically and sincerely our deepest beliefs. In fact, we are not usually aware that they are beliefs: they are not just true, they are reality. We do not normally distinguish the stories we hold about the world from the world itself.

The Buddha was aware of this problem, and emphasized the importance of not being attached to views. He applied this to his own teachings, which he described as a raft that can help us to get across the river of samsara (this world of suffering, craving, and delusion) to the “other shore” of enlightenment. He warns us not to think, “This is a great raft, I’ll carry it with me everywhere.” Let it go!

In place of the Abrahamic duality between good and evil, Buddhism focuses on ignorance and wisdom — the insight that comes with awakening. Delusion (moha) is one of the “three fires” or “three poisons” (the others are greed and ill will) that cause suffering when what we do is motivated by them.

Because it emphasizes individual awakening and personal transformation, Buddhism has not had much to say about collective delusion. Yet it is of some importance that my delusions are usually not that different from the delusions of other people, especially those around me. I live within a bubble of beliefs that’s not separate from theirs: in fact, our bubbles normally overlap so much that we can refer to group bubbles of delusion. These collective bubbles can help us understand why the world works the way it does, especially the institutional structures that perpetuate social dukkha (suffering).

For American Buddhists, some examples of institutionalized delusion have recently been receiving much attention. Once again, sexual scandals by senior Zen teachers have come to light, which expose not only widespread suffering on the part of those abused but also widespread denial within the centers involved — something especially ironic, since the point of Zen practice is to free us from delusion, especially the delusion of an ego-self that is separate from others. I wonder if sexual abuse by teachers is not the fundamental problem for such communities: perhaps even more alarming is the inability of senior students to acknowledge and address such incidents in a compassionate way, which suggests a deficiency in their training. One person takes advantage of his situation to abuse, but he could not continue to get away with it without the complicity of many others.

Because of ego-investment in the enlightened example of their teacher, students — especially senior ones, who have the most responsibility, as well as the most at stake in the outcome — end up perpetuating a collective bubble of delusion regarding what their teacher is getting up to. There is cognitive dissonance between their image of the teacher and what they actually see and hear. They can’t both be true, so… they repress what their eyes and ears reveal. Or they rationalize it: the master is wise, so what he is doing must be okay.

Denial in such situations is not uncommon, of course, but it is especially damaging for those on a path of awakening. The motivation to deny or ignore is understandable, because personal benefit complicates the issue: long-term students have sacrificed much to devote themselves to intensive practice under the guidance of this particular master, and whatever authority they have gained, or hope to gain, derives from his approval. They are especially vulnerable to this father figure’s opinion of them. Yet such self-concern undermines the whole process of personal transformation for everyone involved. Not only do the students tacitly agree to maintain a collective bubble of denial; the need to do so conflicts with developing the compassion that is just as much the goal of Buddhist practice.

The sexual abuse is bad enough, yet what the scandals indicate is arguably worse: these Zen centers, which ostensibly exist to cultivate wisdom and compassion, are inculcating collective delusion and indifference to the suffering of others. When does such a community become a cult?

Such group bubbles of denial become much more difficult to dispel, or even to become aware of, because people consciously or subconsciously believe they benefit by not seeing them. That suggests a Buddhist response: by truly letting go of the most fundamental delusion of all — a sense of self whose well-being is separate from others’ well-being — the self-interest that sustains the bubbles is undermined. Whether or not Zen students have realized their true nature, however, the challenge cannot be evaded. When teachers engage in inappropriate sexual behavior, members of their practice communities need to recognize that the kind of personal awakening and transformation they seek does not occur if they are indifferent to what is happening to other members of their community.

For more from David Loy, visit his website. Loy is featured in Continuum, “a feature-length documentary about where we’ve come from, where we are now, and where we’re going in the future.” The film, produced by the Planetary Collective, is in post-production, and the filmmakers are trying to raise $80,000 to finish the project. Watch a trailer (and consider pitching in) on Continuum‘s Kickstarter page.