Thursday, June 14, 2012

Dirty Zen Laundry

Be Vigilant when meeting New Friends
Be Vigilant when meeting New Friends, Hong Kong, 2010

I am going to do something slightly radical here, and air some dirty laundry from the Zen center where I practice.

While I have been talking to a number of people involved and attempted to verify all the facts stated in the narrative, all opinions and interpretations are my own, as are any errors. I have neither sought nor received permission from anyone to publish this. I do not believe I am betraying any confidences; all of the facts of the matter are already on the public Internet, or have been stated in open forums like our sangha meetings or the Helsinki Zen Center mailing list. Nor am I privy to any great secrets anyway.

The story is about something that happened in our sangha in the autumn of 2010. I have found it helpful to go over all the information I've been able to gather about it and attempt to fit together the pieces, to get some kind of understanding of what happened and what it means. While I don't have much – if any – new information to add to what's already been published on the Internet or in other open forums, I thought others might benefit from my attempt at explaining the events to myself.

So for whatever little it's worth, here's my personal interpretation of what's come to be called "the crisis."

The crisis

About two years ago, in the autumn of 2010, our sangha leader, Sami, quit rather dramatically. A lot of upset ensued. An affiliated Zen center in Oulu also cut its ties with the tradition. There was some pretty heated discussion on the Zen center's mailing list. We had a few meetings where the teachers were present too. Some stuff changed, a lot of stuff got discussed, and then life went on. I wrote this piece at the time, and I think some of the people in it recognized who they were.

Recently, Sami and a few other ex-members wrote their stories on a blog. A good deal more discussion and debate ensued. And naturally there's been a lot of talk about it among people practicing at Helsinki Zen Center.

I didn't know Sami well at all. I was quite new to the group when "the crisis" broke, and I mostly went on Thursdays whereas Sami led the sitting on Tuesdays. I did participate in one retreat where he was first zendo leader, and talked with him on a few occasions. Overall he struck me as a pretty OK type of guy, but I never developed any kind of connection or particular affinity with him.

Sami's story makes for pretty shocking reading. It sounds a lot like someone recovering from a cult. There's a lot of bitterness, hurt, and anger there. No surprise either; he did spend over a decade of his youth very deeply dedicated to the group, sat his sesshins and passed his kôans, and what good did it do him?

The dissonance

Sami's story created a pretty serious dissonance for me. I did not believe Sami was deliberately lying. Yet I barely recognized anything of his story from my own experience with the group, or from the stories of many people who have been hanging out with it for a lot longer than I have.

I have found relations with the instructors and teachers to be uncomplicated and relaxed, not authoritarian and hierarchical.

I have not noticed anyone encouraging us to idolize the teachers or instructors, or consider them somehow superhumanly wise, benevolent, or compassionate.

I have found the discussion culture to be open and lively, not stifling and rigid.

I have not felt that I'm being pressured to do anything at all. Most direction I've gotten has come as responses to direct questions I've asked.

The teachers do not live the high life on the students' dime. As far as I've been able to ascertain, they'd make more money flipping burgers.

I haven't heard even a hint of sexual boundaries being crossed. Not even from Sami or the other former members.

So what gives? How can it be that Sami's story is so different from my experience, or the experiences of the others I've talked to?

How cults work

The first and scariest possibility is that everything Sami relates is objectively true. That means I've been brainwashed, and have simply bought into the group's mythology. That's why I've done some reading into the various ways cults indoctrinate recruits. The mechanics of that process are pretty well understood; it's not like there aren't plenty of examples to study, sadly.

The fact is that I have encountered none of those techniques.

I have not been love-bombed.

There have been no attempts at all to get me to sever or loosen my ties with non-members. On the contrary, my social relationships have improved over this time, and I don't hang out with the Zennies outside the Zen context much. My relationships with them remain pretty superficial in the grand scheme of things, compared for example to my relationships with my wife, family, colleagues, or old friends.

There is nothing shady about the group's finances. I've even looked at the books. Most of the money by far goes toward rent for the zendo, and much of the rest toward upkeep of Zengården. I have heard that some close pupils of the teachers have donated to them personally, but the sums are paltry, in the tens of euros per month.

Nobody has solicited me for donations beyond the monthly membership fee, and "penny in the box" kind of thing on retreats and teacher visits. What I pay amounts to less than a gym membership.

I have not been offered any magic answers to my problems. There have been no claims that this center, these teachers, or this lineage is sole proprietor of The Truth. On the contrary, the teachers and instructors often refer to teachers and teachings from other lineages, even other traditions entirely, with a great deal of respect.

I have not seen any attempts at demonizing former members. In fact, there's been a marked reluctance to be critical of Sami in particular; it's as if people are bending backwards to avoid it.

I have not discovered any attempt at concealing the group's activities or purpose. For example, it's been perfectly obvious to me from the get-go that this is a Buddhist group, not just a group that does meditation for some other reason. The altar with the Buddha, the robes, the bells, the vows, and the bows are a bit of a dead giveaway.

All my questions have been answered frankly and immediately. I've never been to Zengården, but I've never encountered any real reluctance to discuss the stuff that goes on there, either, even some of the rather messy human kind of stuff. On the other hand, there is a great deal of respect for our privacy.

Simply put, the group just doesn't tick any of the "cult indoctrination" boxes. Those boxes are pretty obvious if you're looking for them. I mean sure, we do meditate and go on retreats, but if that makes HZC a cult, then so is every Buddhist group. No matter how I look at it, HZC just seems like no more or less than a relatively sane and stable place to practice.

So I have rejected that hypothesis.


I've been talking to some other people closely involved in the crisis. Their narratives are very different from Sami's, and each other's for that matter, and I've been trying to find ways to reconcile them. I'm proceeding from the unusual premise that everybody is telling the truth as they see it. Sami really is recovering from a cult. Yet Helsinki Zen Center with its Swedish parent group Zenbuddhistiska Samfundet is not a cult.

Here's one story that makes a kind of sense to me. Obviously it's constructed from incomplete data. I wasn't there, and I can't get inside people's heads. I have talked to many of the people involved about this, and I have read Sami's story and the other stories on his blog very carefully. I'm filling in the gaps with my imagination. All of us construct these stories I'm sure. This is my version.

It starts with a look at the social dynamics of a cult.

Cult indoctrination works by plugging into fundamental human needs. You desperately want something, the cult provides it.

The seeds for this type of dynamic are in every group, Zen, social, work, you name it. All of us crave. For validation, love, belonging, explanations, truths, status. Some of us crave a leader or paragon to follow. Others want to become leaders and paragons themselves. That's just how we, social primates, are.

A cult leader and cult follower are like the opposite poles of a magnet. The attraction is created by the charisma of the leader and the longing of the follower. The most deeply craving ones become most tightly bound to the leader, and the leader's magnetism gradually magnetizes those around him, like an electromagnet and pieces of iron. The dynamic of a cult is all about projection: the followers projecting their hopes, desires, needs, cravings, dreams on each other and especially the leader; the leader reflecting them back and amplifying them. This creates a feedback cycle which results in a kind of shared hallucination; a black hole with a self-contained reality increasingly at odds with the rest of the world.

I believe it's possible to create a similar singularity at the personal level. A micro black hole if you will. All you need is a massive need to project, and a surface from which to reflect those projections. These surfaces are available everywhere, and perhaps a 'spiritual' environment like a Zen group is especially rich in them. Under the right circumstances, an individual can disappear into such a reality without anybody noticing.

The unpleasantness

Something unpleasant happened at Zengården, the training temple in Sweden, in the mid 2000's. I don't know exactly what. I don't want or need to know the details; most of them are bound to be highly personal in nature and I do not want to be privy to that kind of information.

It concerned several Finnish Zen practitioners that went into full-time training, and one way or another it went wrong. There were psychotic episodes. Some went into treatment. I don't think it can have been quite as bleak as Sami makes out, though, as some of them remain active sangha members to this day. Psychiatric problems are difficult things and there are any number of ways they can sneak up even on trained professionals, never mind laymen, and I can imagine many scenarios that involve no malice nor even gross negligence from anyone.

Be as it may, it was a difficult time. It left a mark on everybody involved, and remains a kind of shadow at the edges of HZC ever since. The teachers and instructors certainly appear to be on very high alert for that sort of thing.

I believe this episode lies near the root of the problems. It is also here that we enter heavily speculative territory. I'm imagining how Sami may have experienced the developing situation, and how it may have affected him, based on his words on his blog, and trying to fit that with the stories other people have been telling me. The verifiable facts are not much in dispute. What they mean is most unclear.

Since Sami was the Finnish sangha leader, a lot of the people's problems fell on his shoulders. He knew the people affected, and had directed and encouraged their practice. He felt responsible, and tried to sort things out as far as he could. Perhaps he knew these people well. Perhaps they were even friends. He certainly felt a lot of their pain. It took a heavy toll on him. Psychiatric care professionals get training for dealing with these kinds of situations, and they can be extremely taxing even for them. I can only imagine how rough it must have been on Sami, who did not have the benefit of such training.

A contributing factor must have been a certain isolation Sami had in his leadership position. This was due to friction between Sami and another of the most central instructors in the sangha, Ari. Ari is somewhat older than Sami, and when the teachers made Sami the sangha leader, this created a tension between them. Sami describes it as a power struggle. Ari has described it to me in somewhat different terms. Be as it may, the relations between them were somewhat problematic. When the thing blew up, a lot of that came out as overt animosity.

Consequently Sami was left pretty much alone with the burden he was carrying. He did not trust Ari or Ari's closest friends, also close to the center of the group, enough to unburden himself to them. He was certainly angry at the senseis for allowing the problems to get as bad as they did in the first place. So he found other ways to cope.

He confided his doubts to some of his friends in the group. Perhaps this created a kind of clique; a set of people who started to see the tradition in a different light than the others; a small echo chamber that amplified and solidified those feelings and perceptions.

Then he went into therapy.

Solidifying doubts

Sami chose a therapist with no background in Zen or Buddhism, and talked about what he had been going through. This changed his perspective on the whole exercise. He started to see it through the lens of psychiatry and psychology; perhaps to think of it as a type of therapy itself. Suddenly a lot of it stopped making sense: the temple hierarchies, the special position of the teachers, the lack of discussion of everyday concerns and personal problems. This and the unpleasantness at Zengården permanently soured him on the idea of full-time practice, so when the teachers started recommending it to him, it only made things worse.

This is where we come to what is for me the most striking divergence in narratives. Sami hints in his account that dharma transmission was in the air; he compares the extent of his kôan study to that of Philip Kapleau, the founder of the lineage, and mentions some suggestive things the teachers said. Almost everyone in Helsinki that I've talked to saw him the same way: as the teachers' closest and most promising pupil; the Finnish almost-teacher; the dharma heir-apparent for whom the lack of official permission to teach was almost a mere formality, soon to be straightened out.

Yet in those sangha meetings after the crisis, the senseis said they had no idea about this. They had not intended to create such an impression, and nobody had told them about it.

There are obvious uncharitable explanations for this divergence. The teachers could be lying. Sami could have been deliberately cultivating a cultlike following all along. Yet I don't believe it's necessarily so, or even that it's very likely so. It could be that everybody is telling the truth and nobody had any nefarious plans for power grabs. Even at the risk of getting deeper into speculation, here is my attempt at reconciling these narratives, and at the same time explaining how it was that Sami saw HZC as a destructive cultlike structure, while most of us see it as something completely different. It involves that dynamic of projection, reflection, and magnetization that I discussed above.

As Sami was struggling with his solidifying doubts about Zen practice and the tradition, he developed another coping strategy. He did not want to let go of Zen completely. Instead he wanted to fix it. So he started to see himself as the prospective dharma heir who would put it all to rights when he would be handed the reins. He created an image of himself as the benevolent and wise future Zen teacher, projected it on the surface offered by the sangha and the senseis, and started to act the part. "He was so perfect" is a phrase I heard from more than one person to describe him.

He solidified this projection by latching on to phrases dropped by the teachers, and the positive energy he was getting from the people he was guiding in Helsinki. The teachers, already diminished in his eyes by the unpleasantness in Zengården, seemed to be increasingly out of touch. His trust in them eroded as the dynamic in Finland reinforced his sense of proprietorship of the Helsinki sangha.

If someone in Helsinki noticed this happening, they did not speak up about it. The teachers were left in the dark. This left Sami with no way to ground these perceptions. He was in an impossible situation, rapidly receding into a reality that diverged from that of the teachers or the Swedish sangha, and pulling much of the Helsinki group with him. Yet on the surface, everything went on as before. He was leading zazen, offering daisan, arranging teacher visits and retreats, revising the website. All seemed calm, settled, tranquil, normal.

I do not believe any of the people were intentionally deceiving each other then, or are doing so now. I believe it's far more likely that we just had fundamentally well-intentioned people talking past one another, with their worlds, values, and plans gradually diverging, not recognizing when things started to go off the rails. It certainly didn't help that the senseis were in a neighboring country, and had no way of keeping their finger on the pulse of the Helsinki sangha.

The crisis breaks

Usually, diverging realities like this eventually intersect and break. This time the breaking point came in Sweden during a zendo leaders' meeting. Sami's internal conflict had gotten to the point where he could no longer keep a lid on it. So he started doing what I'm doing here – talking. That caused a lot of confusion, and things started to unravel fast. A blow-by-blow account is in Sami's blog; I wasn't there, and I'm not sure how much the details matter anyway, so I won't recount what I've gathered about that here. It was messy. People got angry and did and said ill-considered things.

The first I learned of it was when Sami dropped a curt "So long and thanks" type note on the Helsinki Zen Center mailing list, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Forms and hierarchies

This dynamic can be hidden by the forms of Zen. It is a formal practice. Many of the forms create a social construct with obvious and visible differences in status, most dramatically visible in the special rituals related to the teacher. It's also present in the normal seating arrangement in the zendo, with, from left to right, the teacher's spot, the first zendo leader's spot, the second zendo leader's spot, and the timekeeper's spot, with the zendo leaders facing inward, seemingly strictly observing that everything goes according to protocol. A bit theatrical. Silly even.

Yet I feel, intuitively, that these forms of Zen are very important to maintaining it. They create a safe space for practice. The scent of incense, the bells and the sticks, the benevolently overseeing apparent authority figures, the rituals repeated the same way every time, tread a path for the mind to follow. I'm sure it's possible to practice without them, but I have found them immensely helpful. Even that visible, theatrical, and slightly absurd hierarchy. It does give muscle to people in positions of authority, but it also serves to domesticate our hierarchical monkey-mind impulses. For I do not believe for a moment that a group without these rituals and hierarchies doesn't have a pecking order – the only difference is that there the people rise to those prominent positions on their monkey characteristics alone. That rarely works out very well.

What is to be done?

In the Zen context, it's the teachers' job to watch out for this dynamic of projection, transference, and construction of personal realities. From what I've seen, Kanja and Sante sensei are aware of this risk and do a fair bit of just that, as do the instructors I've gotten to know.

Clearly, they failed Sami. In what way I can't be sure; if not this way, then some other way. They're good teachers. They know their Zen. But they're not infallible anuttara samyak sambuddhas. (Er, I think.)

Perhaps there's a tendency for Buddhist practitioners to concentrate too much on their own practice, and miss cues of things going wrong. There's sometimes a reluctance to take a stand, or to take action, or even to speak your mind, from a fear of provoking conflict and causing confusion. There's a gentle but pervasive pressure to take the option of noble silence when in doubt. Which, us being who we are, is more or less all the time.

The difference between healthy social interactions and unhealthy ones is a blurry and sliding one. Most have both benign and malignant characteristics, and they can move from the one to the other and back again. It's the same in all relationships. Marriages go bad as spouses think they're talking to each other although they're not. Parents project their dreams on their children. Siblings re-enact childhood rivalries. It's not easy to see the difference between a healthy relationship and an unhealthy one of projection and codependence. It's especially difficult for the people involved. By the time things break surface, they will already have gone pretty far. Sometimes too far.

Maybe we could watch out for each other more. Look out more for unhealthy projection; of cultivating false images; of sowing those seeds of cult-like behavior. And, more importantly, for behavior encouraging unhealthy projection and behavior. Speak up about it. Take action, even at the risk of being unskilful. Conflicts can be resolved. Confusion can be clarified. They're not the end of the world, and sometimes attempts to avoid them backfire, and end up making things worse. Social structures with lots of independent actors are chaotic and unpredictable. Shit happens, however hard we try to stop it from happening. But if we're lucky, some problems could be nipped in the bud, before things get out of hand.

I believe the potential for good in these practices in enormous, but there is also great potential for harm. I don't believe it's ever possible to entirely eliminate the risks, life being what it is. But risks can be managed, and we could do more to manage them.

In case you were wondering if my previous post has anything to do with this one, the answer is 'no, yes, kinda, sorta.' No, in the sense that I did not stop being a zendo leader in order to post this. Yes, in the sense that it is an example of the kinds of things I have to say that I feel more comfortable saying from the back of the room rather than the front. And kinda, sorta, in the sense that I delayed publishing this one so the previous one would come first.


  1.'s not adding anything at all to the party to note that it's not my experience.

    Still, it is not. At least not in the Zen center life.

    But I understand that kind of stuff. It is the very bark and woof of organizational behavior, though. Stick around any company long enough and you'll see multiple instances of what you're relating, as I'm sure you know.

  2. Sorry, Mumon – what's not your experience?

    (And too true, re organizational behavior. We had a crisis at work that was uncannily like this one around the same time; the CFO and CEO fell out and the CFO left suddenly and dramatically.)

  3. It's not my experience that this went on in a Zen center...but yeah, I've seen that story in the workplace.

  4. I like how you wrote about the difference between healthy social interactions and unhealthy ones being blurry and sliding. I think the same principle could be applied to religious groups / cults as well. It’s not easy to divide such groups to cults and non-cults. I think it’s more like a scale, where group can be somewhere between 0-100% cult. Further I think it’s like a spectrum of different factors; in some aspect a group can be more cult-like and in some aspect less. Even if a group would be healthy in many areas, maybe in some areas it’s not healthy at all. Of course there’s also difference within a group between the inner circle and the ones that aren’t so close to it. In Sami’s blog they even write about guru-relation with the leaders. Maybe it could explain some of the differences between Sami’s and your experiences?

  5. I believe, though I cannot prove it, that any organisation of sufficient size (say more than ten) will end up making someone feel excluded and will contain at least one person that everyone else would rather was not there (but doesn't want to say so). This may not be the same person. The former is generally over-sensitive and the latter insensitive :)

    The great mistake is to personalise one's feelings towards a group. To look for blame, either within the group or within oneself is fruitless as the reasons are seldom the result of "fault" but merely the result of personal or emotional incompatibility. History is littered with heroes and brilliant minds who could not stand to be in the same room with their peers.

    One can learn to deal with certain people, but it requires a degree of enlightened detachment that few master - in other words you first have to deal with yourself and your own emotional reaction to conflict.

    This is perhaps the hardest thing of all, especially if you crave a sense of belonging which, let's face it, is why most people participate in group activities in the first place. Falling out with the group can be every bit as irrational, and acrimonious, as any other divorce.

  6. A great many Buddhist and Yoga centers in the USA, some founded by world class masters, Chogyam Trungpa's, Swami Satchidananda's, not to mention many others (the list is quite long .. ) have had their own scandals.
    I don't think this is too surprising, as many texts emphasize practicing ethical development before/ while practicing advanced meditation techniques.

    Because with power comes the opportunity to misuse it, and given that *** it is a given*** that we practitioners, even advanced ones, are NOT perfect, many are bound to make mistakes.

    So it is a paradox/ conundrum. We need to practice and get help from others and at the same time then take the risk of being misled/ abused (for some).

    Not too unsimilar to what happens in the "normal" political world. We are all members of some nation, take advantage of its benefits (for the lucky ones) but then also know that what our government does to others is not really ethically good (to use a polite euphemism).

    Hoping for the best - Andre in NYC