(Who wrote this post? See A New Voice on No Zen.)
In the context of the recent heartbreaking tangled situations involving Eido Shimano Roshi and Genpo Merzel Roshi (a good summary of the events are here for those of you who haven’t been following it), I was amazed to read last week about an 18th-century Zen priest sex scandal in Sagami Province (now Kanagawa Prefecture) in eastern Japan.
The whole thing is described in Duncan Ryuken Williams’ The Other Side of Zen: A Social History of Soto Zen Buddhism in Tokugawa Japan, which is a fascinating and useful book. In the convert Buddhist world, we’re really beginning to grow up in our Dharma understanding, I think—and it’s largely through the work of the amazing scholarship that’s been done in English in the last twenty or thirty years. We’re finally approaching a place where we can play fair in talking about our tradition. For too long, I’m afraid, we converts were able to claim the deepest, most beautiful insights of Buddhist philosophy–or what we took Buddhist philosophy to be!–without having to acknowledge the hypocrisy and greed of Buddhist historical institutions. Imagine if all you knew about Christianity was Meister Eckhart or St. John of the Cross. It’d be amazing, right? And it would be a deep sign of maturity once you found out about the Crusades, or the crisis of clergy sexual abuse, and had to wrestle with, absorb, confront those deep failings and limitations. As convert Buddhists, we’re finally there—or beginning to approach it—in the West, I think. It’s a very good sign and I’m very grateful to those working on the academic/historical/scholarly side of the Dharma. May they continue to surprise us.
The story, as Williams unfolds it, takes place in the 1780’s. A Soto priest named Tetsumei, an abbot of the local temple, occasionally had a married parishioner named Towa repair his robes. On one of his visits, he made advances towards her and was rejected. When time came for him to enroll Towa’s family on the Registry of Religious Affiliation, he visited her again and said that unless she had sex with him, he wouldn’t put his seal on her family’s registration.
For context here, we have to remember that anyone who wasn’t registered with one of the official temples ended up on the Registry of Nonhumans (!) and was subject to all sorts of discrimination, both in this life and in the funeral rites that prepared for the next. Tetsumei’s threat, then, was a naked abuse of his power over her and her family, and Towa agreed to sleep with him. On several occasions in the ensuing years, Tetsumei and Towa were caught together by Towa’s husband, Matabee. The first time, Matabee was convinced to let the matter drop, at least partly because reporting the abbot would be insulting to the family’s ancestors. (The logic is sort of skewed there—I confess to not quite following how exactly that would work. But it’s a sign, again, of the power of the temple priest—power to affect the spirit world, the world of the ancestors, and the world of the parishioner’s next lives.) The second time the husband catches them together, though, he threatens to divorce his wife, and in the ensuing chaos, she writes a letter to the authorities (which Williams quotes at length.)
Tetsumei denies the whole thing at first (he eventually confesses) and the abbots of neighboring temples all close ranks and support their fellow-priest. The most amazing wrinkle to me, though, is that the villagers themselves don’t back off. Furious not only at Tetsumei’s transgressions, but also at the fact that he was rumored to be bragging about how he had gotten away with it, they demand his resignation. From a 1786 letter from one parishioner to the Soto authorities:
How is possible that we could trust a man of such character with the abbotship of our family temple, which means he is in charge of memorial rites for our parents and ancestors? Eventually, we too will have our funerals conducted by this man. This is completely unacceptable for we will be the butt of jokes. Even if we ignored what others thought of us, we [would nevertheless] absolutely refuse to accept him [in this position.] (quoted in Williams, p. 33)
Under this pressure from the villagers, the head temple removed Tetsumei from the abbotship, although since he doesn’t seem to have disrobed, Williams admits that it’s possible he was simply moved to another temple. Still, the most interesting part of all this for me is less the scandal—although remembering that people have always been nuts is hugely helpful—than the fact that even in Tokugawa-era Japan, it was the laypeople’s organized, outraged, public response to the abuses and hypocrisy of power that changed the situation. They held their religious leaders accountable. I say there’s a lot of wisdom in taking them as our inspiration.