Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Non-Harming is Serving - Being Humility is Non-Harming

The precept of non-harming can be stated as being serving, being humility. Humility is required to encounter life. It is to be ordinary. It is serving rather than harming.

Recently, there have been public revelations of two charismatic Zen teachers, Eido Shimano and Genpo Merzel,  being involved in sexual misconduct which has harmed many of those close to them and those who trusted them. I bring this up to clarify these reflections on non-harming because our own practice life is working with the self-centeredness habits which drive the sort of extreme behavior engaged in by these individuals. This is about our practice life, about indulging in these habits which results in harm.  Certainly this non-harming is the first Bodhissatva Pure Precept, which is often translated as “Not Doing Evil.”

These events are quite public now - I will not go into details which are available on the net:(see Shimano Paper
and Big Mind  as a starting point.)

I have been connected to both of these men (yes, they are both men – there have been problems of abuses of power by women as well, though different in detail and without the sexual abuse).  At times each of them was my teacher. They supported my practice and life, encouraged and even nurtured me. I loved them. And I am indebted to them in ways that I cannot repay. This makes it all the more sad and painful to see the harm, the tremendous harm in some cases, that they have done despite their  abilities to help others and their personal and organizational accomplishments, despite their Zen practice. And even as the scandals about their behavior have been exposed time and again over many years (these latest revelations are not a first), even when they made some changes, their harming behavior continued in the midst of maintaining power, privilege and all the other structures that seemed to feed whatever personal demons which manifested as their harmful actions.
Their charisma and attractiveness seemed to allow others, and maybe because of this allowed them, to believe that they deserved special privileges and rewards. It is good for us all to reflect on these sorts of habits in terms of our life practice.

Of course, this is not unique to Zen teachers. We have similar scandals in many religious/spiritual groups, the Catholic Church and in Orthodox Judaism to name just two recent examples. Working with this behavior should most certainly be a central part of practice life and yet somehow seems to escape notice for some. How come?

The pomposity and hubris of celebrity culture is well known and even reveled in by American and world media. Does a public persona and publicity have to feed self-aggrandizement? 

The abuses and expectations of privilege are rampant in our political culture, on all sides of the political spectrum, whether John Edwards, Nancy Pelosi and Charlie Rangel on the left or Tom DeLay, Mark Sanford and Sarah Palin on the right, to name just a few. Political, media and business elites expect to get more, do as they wish to others and not have the rules and expectations of daily life apply to them. Entertainment celebrities seem to take this to a special height. There is an expectation of privilege and power which goes far beyond how most of us live.  Many world political leaders and autocrats also seem to exhibit this behavior.

An antidote to some of this, and to these tendencies and habits when they arise for us – which they certainly do from time to time – is to develop the practice of serving, of humility.  It is to recognize and emphasize the importance of being ordinary.  

Certainly major transgressors of all sorts, including both Eido Shimano and Genpo Merzel, would learn a lot if for an extended period they took humble jobs, humble duties. Maybe in the midst of the turmoil of their resignations and withdrawal from their past life responsibilities this would be especially appropriate for these Zen men. There are all sorts of venues wherein one could serve beings in everyday functioning, so that the habits of charisma and being in the spotlight would not be fed. But this is not about others but about our life, our practice. In our daily life, in ordinary ways - especially when we are not seen or known by others, where and how can we serve? How can we take care of and nurture the ordinary universe that is our life? What is it for us to be humble? Doing this, rather than encouraging self-centeredness, rather than feeding greed or an underlying fear of being ordinary, is wonderful and easily available. And yet it requires a conscious effort at first. The effort is to see the opportunities and then do what is needed – not living out of habits of self-focus and self-concern.

© 2011 Elihu Genmyo Smith