Written by Roshi Eve Myonen Marko
Bernie and I went to the movies and saw “Spotlight” yesterday. It’s a terrific film about the group of Boston Globe journalists who reported on the extensive abuse of minors by many Catholic priests in Boston. I can’t recommend this movie highly enough.
I particularly appreciated that it didn’t portray the journalists as pure, white-horse knights going out to seek the truth and slay deniers and perpetrators. It showed, in fact, that they had received several tips in prior years about what was going on, and they’d shut their eyes to it, like many others, or didn’t bother to put the dots together and present the full story till much later, after many more children had been abused.
I thought of the abuse I’ve seen in dharma centers. It’s easy to say that it was nothing like the horrific scale of what went on in various Catholic dioceses across the world. It’s easy to point out that, at least in the West, children are almost never involved if only because most of our dharma centers don’t have family programs. But we’ve certainly had our share of abuse by teachers of students.
This morning I’m thinking about the silence that supports these things. I’m thinking about the subtle moments that some of us experienced, when there’s a dissonance between what I hear and what I see, and I withdraw and remain silent rather than ask uncomfortable questions. This goes both ways. I’ve watched teachers hide behind authority, and I’ve also seen students let go of responsibility. I’ve watched many practitioners, including me, seek in a like-minded group a refuge from living responsibly in the world, learning how to deal with money and each other, and accepting the consequences of our decisions and our actions. A place where we won’t have to grow up. Who has lived or practiced for years in a dharma center without witnessing some of these patterns?
A new consciousness seeks to change these ways. What has happened in Catholic dioceses is a flashing-red-sign warning to everyone of what can happen when an entire system not only permits abuse, but then protects and sheathes it in a tight cocoon of silence. As one character says in the film, if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to destroy the child. It’s never just one person, it’s many.
If mindfulness means something, it should at least be a practice of detecting a lack of comfort in myself, a desire to hide or get away, shut my eyes, or say something completely bland and noncommittal. It should at least reflect back to me my desire to disengage from whatever calls for attention.
Bernie Glassman likes to say that we’re all members of clubs. I think of it more like that we’re all members of systems, and as such we have our roles. In my life, one of those systems for sure has been the dharma center, in which every single person plays a role, even if you only come occasionally to hear a talk. There are teachers, senior students, retreat participants, people who come for classes, people who just come to sit. But are there any bystanders—or bysitters? Can anyone just come to sit and not want to know about anything else? I think one can believe that a million times over, and it won’t change the fact that you are playing a role there, even if a seemingly passive one, and that comes with the responsibility to be faithful to your own experience of things, to the sensations that arise in certain situations, and to the mechanisms we use to block them off.
I am now a Zen teacher myself, viewed as someone high on the authority pole, or at least higher than other folks in our small zendo. As any teacher can attest, teaching is a huge learning about expectations (including my own) and projections (including my own). There are people who have told me that a certain exchange with me in the recent or distant past changed their lives. There are also people who can’t forgive me, they say, for words I’ve uttered.
I listen carefully to both extreme views. Personally, I feel that the vastness of life dwarfs the impact that any one teacher can have. I don’t say this out of humility or as a defense of myself or others, simply that no one person can be singlehandedly responsible for another adult’s basic pattern of relationship or behavior, those things develop over time and as a result of many interactions.
I try to focus on the smaller stuff: the person whose eyes I don’t like to meet, the situation when I can’t summon up the energy to be engaged. The times I say it’s not my business. It’s a small but important first step: When do I feel uncomfortable? What—or whom—don’t I wish to look at? What don’t I wish to express? It’s bearing witness to backing off.
The poet Christian Wiman has written in his great book, “My Bright Abyss”: “For many people, God is simply a gauze applied to the wound of not knowing.” But God is certainly not the only band-aid around.
Read more of Eve’s writings at www.evemarko.com