GUEST POST: “Why Buddhism?: Violations of Trust in the Sexual Sphere” by Roshi Joan Halifax

Roshi Joan Halifax.

Today’s guest post is by our friend and past intervieweeJoan Halifax Roshi — one of the modern engaged Buddhist movement’s great heroines. A Zen priest, anthropologist, shaman, activist, and author, Roshi is also the founder, abbot, and head teacher at Upaya Zen Center, a Buddhist monastery in Santa Fe, New Mexico. (I’ve written a long biography for Roshi that you can read here.)

I blogged recently about Roshi’s response to the fracas surrounding the “Shimano Archives.” In addition to that statement, Roshi has just written more on the matter. When she forwarded me a copy of her thoughts this morning, I immediately asked for her permission to run them as a guest post, and she graciously consented.

What has been particularly striking to me about all of Roshi’s responses to this situation are the ways she has underscored the specific issue of violence against women; it seems to me that this sometimes gets missed or glossed over in these conversations about sex abuse and teachers, which often revolve more around the issues of lying and the power differential between teachers and students.

At any rate, as usual, I very much appreciate Roshi’s voice and leadership. I think I speak for readers too when I say, “Thank you, Roshi.” — DANNY FISHER

Why Buddhism?: Violations of Trust in the Sexual Sphere
Roshi Joan Halifax
Founding Abbot
Upaya Zen Center

We all know that rape as a weapon of war has been used against women and nations for thousands of years. Rape, forceable seduction, seduction through trickery, power and domination, seduction through loneliness or delusion have also been part of most, if not all, religions. Yes, if you want to demoralize a nation, rape its women, its daughters, its sisters, its wives…….. And if you want to deepen the shadow of any religion, turn wisdom and compassion into hypocrisy, and stand by, conflict averse, as its male clergy disrespects women, has sex with female congregants, dominates women, abuses women, degrades or rapes them.

But as a Zen Buddhist priest, as a woman, I have to ask, why my religion? Why Buddhism? This is not what the Buddha taught. I like Buddhism; I love my practice of meditation; Buddha’s teachings are practical; they make sense to me. But for too long in the West, and I am sure in the East, gross misogyny has existed in the Buddhist world, a misogyny so deep that it has allowed the disrespect and abuse of women and nuns in our own time, and not only throughout history, and not only in Asia. The misogynistic abuse is not only in terms of the usual gender issues related to who has responsibility and authority (women usually don’t have much, if any), but it is as well expressed through mistreatment of women, through sexual boundary violations of women, and the psychological abuse of women.

Since 1964, according to the late Robert Aitken Roshi’s archive (, a Buddhist teacher, Eido Shimano, has been engaged in sexual misconduct with a number of his female students; sometimes the sex was forceable; sometimes crude, tricky, and coercive. And it has been ongoing, for more than forty-five years. Many Buddhist practitioners have known about this for a long time, although the late Aitken’s archive was closed until just before his death in the fall of this year. What was this silence about, I have asked? Why did we not act? Why are we, as Buddhists, so conflict averse?

On August 21, 2010, the NYTimes published an article, Sex Scandal has U.S. Buddhists Looking Within ( This article publicly surfaced Eido Shimano’s long pattern of sexual violation. Sadly, On December 1, the principle figure in this article wrote a rebuttal, basically denying his culpability and blaming the NYTimes for dysinformation: The Times reporter, Mark Oppenheimer, responded to this self-serving letter from Eido Shimano:

I think that this rebuttal by Eido Shimano was the straw that broke the camel’s back for many of us Buddhists. We were incredulous on reading Eido Shimano’s communique to the Times’ reporter. Naively, we had thought that this problem was taken care of; the teacher was full of remorse and had resigned as abbot and board member of the institution that he founded; and the institution was committed to addressing this issue and redressing the ills suffered by the women involved and the wider community.

But we were wrong……. and I assure you, this is not the first time we have been wrong about similar violations…….

Fortunately, the response to Eido Shimano’s unempathic, self-centered and self-serving communique has been building, nationally and internationally, over December and into January. Buddhists are finally getting it. You have to take a stand, a strong and vocal stand, against the predatory behavior of its religious figures. You have to speak truth to power, and speak it loudly. And you have to act……….

I have been waiting for this moment not just for the many months since the discussions have been happening among Zen teachers. I have been waiting for years for a concerted response to such violations against women in our Buddhist world. Many of us women have brought these issues to the attention of the wider community and have been shamed and shunned over the years.

But finally, just before New Years, the flood of letters addressing Eido Shimano’s behavior has found its way onto the shores of his Buddhist monastery and the internet. Herein, one of first of those letters, my own……

It will take a while for us to fully understand why we as Buddhists took so long to act. If Eido Shimano had been a doctor, lawyer, or psychotherapist, there would have been rapid social and legal consequences. But there is something about our religions, whether Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Islam, or Buddhist, that disallows us facing the shame associated with sexual violations and the gross gender issues that plague most, if not all, religions.

I understand that letters are easy to write. Less easy are the creation of protections so women (and religious communities) will not be harmed like this ever again. And even more difficult is changing the views, values, and behaviors that made it possible for someone like Eido Shimano and others to engage in such harmful acts for so long. Yet, it is not only a matter of the sexual violation of women and the painful violation of boundaries that are based in trust between teacher and student, it is as well a matter of the violation of the core of human goodness; for his behavior is also a violation of the entire Buddhist community, as well as the teachings of the Buddha which are uncompromising with respect to the unviability of killing, lying, sexual misconduct, wrongful speech, and consuming intoxicants of body, speech and mind. The northstar of goodness has been lost from sight in the long and recent past, and we are all suffering because we cannot see how deep the wound is to the heart of our world and to the coming generations.

Protections, dialogue, education are all necessary at this time. And a commitment to not forgetting……… as well as vowing to not repeat the mistakes of the past, and to practice a compassion that is clear and brave, liberating and just.

I am aware that these words do not address issues related to the sexual violation of children and men by clergy. I am also aware that power dynamics between women and men are inadequately referenced here, nor are issues related to the exploitation of students by female clergy. What I have written, however, is meant to address specifically the violation of boundaries and trust, whether by force or consent, by Buddhist male religious clergy of their female congregants and students, and a particular case in point that is in the foreground of the Zen Buddhist community in the United States at this time.

As author and Buddhist Natalie Goldberg wrote in her book “The Great Failure”: “We are often drawn to teachers who unconsciously mirror our own psychology. None of us are clean. We all make mistakes. It’s the repetition of those mistakes and the refusal to look at them that compound the suffering and assure their continuation.” It seems as though the time has come for us to take a deep look at our individual and collective psychology……… and to strongly request that those teachers who have crossed the boundaries of trust to engage in sexual intercourse with students and congregants step aside, so the healing of individuals and sanghas can begin.

8 thoughts on “GUEST POST: “Why Buddhism?: Violations of Trust in the Sexual Sphere” by Roshi Joan Halifax

  1. Thank you for questioning WHY do people stay quiet when sexual abuse is going on?. I believe that, until humanity transends the thrill of orgasim this event of the male /female experience will continue as it has done through all of time so far. Having read much on sexual abuse and worked with victimns of such events i can truly believe that the teaching in this dilema is to transend the sexual act. The endless sexual obsession of habitual desire within our self should not be given. We should also not give so much attention to it’s perpartrators. Whether they be a victimn or a perpatrator.If we Find COMPASSION ..FIND LOVE… SEE the self in another etc….. At this point you cant hurt even a flee. Firstly look in the mirror and say i love myself; i am beautifull; i am all that is good in nature. Then you will experience a Buddha Nature that will not put the self in harms way or place another to experience harm. This is, in my view, true buddha nature bliss. It is so simple so easy and so hard to miss as it require true honesty ; rather than the lie of i am no good, i am bad i cant do this love compassion thingor Karma made me do this.Please all Dharma practioners make 2011 your year to truly love yourself and cease bothering about those who do not. In this way we are free from duality within or without. Men rape and women rape. Thus, who do we point the finger at. To find liberation from samsara is to truly love ONEself.Ask doctors and nurses when they are busy saving a life if they consider the persons faults ie were they are a good or bad person; The medic does not even consider this as they are busy respecting a precious human life. Through compassion and love for self one sets an example for others to follow. Martin Luther, Ghandhi, Dalai Lama are examples of the peacefull way and the courage it takes to love the enemy. If you love you then there are no enemies just folks who need help.There is no man or woman to rape or hate.

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  3. You will find surely plenty of details like that to take into consideration. That is an awesome point to bring up. I provide the thoughts above as general inspiration but clearly you will discover questions like the one you bring up where essentially the most vital factor might be working in honest very good faith. I don?t know if preferred practices have emerged about items like that, but I’m sure that your job is clearly identified as a fair game. Both boys and girls feel the impact of just a moment’s pleasure, for the rest of their lives.
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  4. I’m impressed, I must say. Seldom do I encounter a blog that’s both educative and engaging,
    and without a doubt, you’ve hit the nail on the head.
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