Burn It All Down

I have a mysterious illness that strikes every few months. One day I will be fine and the next I will be too tired to get out of bed. I will lie in bed in the dark crying from how exhausted I feel until I finally, hours later, I have the energy to get up. I will go into the living room and within ten minutes I am too tired to even sit with my head up. This lasts for a few days before I can return to "normal."

I have been to the hospital. They have done blood tests, checked for anemia, thyroid disease. Depression is an obvious and simple diagnosis.

But sometimes I wonder if I am just exhausted from all the secrets I carry. This illness is new. I did not have it when I was a teenager, although I have had psychological problems for as long as I have been fully aware of what the world is like. But the exhaustion is new. The older I get the more severe the exhaustion, because the older the get the more secrets I have to keep, the more grief and rage.

This afternoon my mother forwarded me an email from Against the Stream, announcing that Noah Levine is being investigated for sexual misconduct. I have known about this for months. I kept the secret because I wanted to honor confidentiality. I removed his blurb from my book months ago. I didn't tell my publisher why. Because confidentiality. I tiptoed around the subject like I always do.

I am a teaching assistant for a large lecture class in college. The other day a young white man dressed as a janitor interrupted the lecture. He was carrying a large plastic bag and it was obvious he was not a real janitor. He pulled a T-shirt out of his plastic bag. "Is this anybody's T-shirt?" he said over the professor's voice.

"No, it's not." The professor said. "Can you please leave? I am in the middle of a lecture."

"Sorry, but I just want to know if this is somebody's T-shirt," the obviously-not-a-janitor continued, ignoring the professor. Everyone could sense something was off, but we didn't quite know what. I felt uncomfortable.

"I need you to leave," the professor repeated, more firmly. The fake janitor left. Ten minutes later he returned, with his big plastic bag. "I see what's going on," the professor said immediately. "I need you to get out right now. GET OUT!"

I felt relieved when the fake janitor left and was grateful for the professor for kicking him out. But then what I felt was jealousy. If it was my class, I would have let the man stay, with his big mysterious bag full of T-shirts or guns or magician's rabbits whatever was in it. I would have been polite. I would have felt increasingly uncomfortable and scared. I would have stood frozen, like I have so many other times, unable to say "no."

I carry so many men's secrets. So many successful, famous, Buddhist men's secrets. Men who have hurt me and who have hurt my friends. I have so many names. The priest who beats his wife. The famous teacher who sleeps with younger women. The other famous teacher who sleeps with younger women.

I keep their secrets because I have convinced myself I am the one at fault. There is a psychological term for this. It makes more sense to live in a world where women are constantly at fault then one in which men abuse innocent women.

I wrote a book about being young and naive and giving myself completely to spiritual community, about the death of a friend, about my mental illness and doubts about a religious tradition I loved with my whole heart. I wrote about being a mess and being twenty-four. I am planning a book tour and reached out to several Zen centers. Most people have been welcoming. But one abbot of a famous monastery said it was "too soon," to invite me to teach. Too soon meaning too young, presumably. I am not mature enough. I need more practice.

How dare he.

How many years of Buddhist practice do you need before you can speak with authority about your own life? How many years do you need to be alive before you know what is right and what is wrong? Naomi Wadler gave a speech at the March for Our Lives last week. She was only 11 years old. "My friends and I might still be 11," she said, "And we might still be in elementary school, but we know. We know life isn't equal for everyone and we know what is right and wrong."

How dare this system. How dare these other men. How dare they hurt women and continue being teachers. How dare people believe they can be teachers at all. They are old and have solved all the koans and achieved unshakeable enlightenment and yet they are nothing, they are shit.

The lineage is shit.

And yet I keep their names a secret, to protect them. Buddhists don't start drama, don't get angry; we just swallow it.

How much anger do we have to swallow and how sick do we have to make ourselves with secrets before we just burn it all down?


  1. Hallelujah! It's strange, but that's the first word that came to mind after I finished reading this. It's rare that one can find so much truth in a single article, and I thank you for choosing to be vulnerable.

    When I first started practicing, I thought Buddhists were perfect people who were beyond all the normal vices. It turns out that we are just as messed up as everyone else, we just deal with our pain in a (hopefully) more effective way.

    I've lost a great deal of faith in the institution of Buddhism, but practice has helped a great deal in my personal life, so I keep doing it. Perhaps we don't need to burn it all down... just most of it.

  2. Very relevant to conversations tonight. So much heart. I said that somewhere else but I really appreciate it. I think with my head enough already. Let's get the rest on board. Please and thank you. -Noa

  3. Your illness issue sounds very similar to one I have with hormone metabolism (mostly estrogen). After doctors completely failed to diagnose I went to a naturopath who gave me DIM complex and ran a bunch of tests that were kind of hard to gather much from. Regardless, the DIM complex (i used “metabolic maintenance” brand) is relatively affordable and completely turned my life around. I had also had a symptom where I wasn’t sweating and overheating with exercise and it fixed that too. I was pretty shocked. It’s sad but with the lack of investment into women’s health issues not surprising I guess.

  4. So sorry to hear about your illness, Gesshin. That totally sucks. Thanks for your radical sharing. I don't want to burn it all down, but our world is insane and more of us need to fearlessly speak out and say the obvious, "The emperor has no clothes."

    1. Thanks Domyo. I don't really want to burn it all down. But I have been thinking a lot about the koan of the monk who burns his transmission papers. About the imagery and significance of burning the tradition. And, it's not a literal destruction, but there is something there...

    2. I am sorry for the physical discomfort you're experiencing. Not a fan of western medical model. I have many friends seeking diagnosis for multi-symptomed issues and finding doctors are simply ill-equipped for what we are presenting to them. My best bet: keep loving your self in ways you never thought possible (and maybe a functional medicine person?).
      Re: allegations and Noah. I've stopped being disappointed for having, what I now see, as completely unrealistic expectations for our teachers. I have always set the barre higher for these individuals. Why? They are only human. And, is it too much to ask, that, with one who has years of practice and training behind them, that, they can't differentiate between what is consensual and what is not? And, as I said in my comment to your previous post, perhaps institutions will begin being a thing of the past.(yes, let the burning begin). As long as we continue having any organizations/institutions where a power structure has been put in place, there will come a day where abuse will find its way. I love my zen practice and will continue regardless of people's behaviors, even if it requires me to leave a place where abuse of any kind is going on. I'll always have my own cushion. You are not alone Gesshin, please continue speaking out.
      deepest respect,

    3. Agreed. Sometimes I long to be able to say what I really think and shake things up, but I'm pretty cowed by my own limited views. I usually regret speaking like good old Zen masters Rinzai or Hakuin. Maybe it's TOO SOON? But then how many women never speak up because it's too soon? And why are those who feel ready pretty much always men?

      Also, I get great catharsis from watching Bill Maher's Real Time, but at the same time no more than one or two out of his 4-5 guests are women. It's so demoralizing. This day and age, and he's essentially saying only 20-25% of the people worth talking to are women. I don't know why I'm bringing that up here, I've just been chewing on it for so long...

  5. I seriously hope you find out what exactly is going on with your mystery illness. It must be terrifying to go from okay one day to overcome by grief and exhausted the next and then a few days later just return to “normal”. I'm glad you found the energy to write this. As somebody already said; this is very relevant and said with a lot of heart.

    When I got to the part about the Abbot telling you it was “too soon”, my blood pressure spiked. Inexperience is not what's keeping him from allowing you to teach. It's his ego. The ego I've seen more than once when dealing with Zen “masters”. It's a bit contradictory. I've seen members of sanghas and temples guard their positions with their lives.

    I would say you need to recognize a windbag when you see one but I think you did that perfectly when you said “they are nothing, they are shit”. The lineage is shit. But only because as a community we continue to be awestruck by these old, and young, men who pretend to know what they are doing.

    The Noah Levine sexual misconduct touches a nerve.

    Nyogen Senzaki said: “Hesitation and discontinuity are enemies of Zen, and imitations are the worst”. This sentence always jumps into my mind when I see a person of notoriety in the Zen or Buddhist community monetizing the practice and seeking attention in the form of appearances, YouTube videos, t shirts and the glamorization of Zen. It stands out particularly when an individual appropriates a culture or ethos such as punk to give Zen a “new spin”; to make it cool, to make it attractive to the younger crowd, to make a buck. Imitators all.

    That is not Zen. That leads to celebrity. That leads to the dissolution of centuries of hard earned insight and wisdom. What does Dogen say about seeking fame and status in the name of Zen? Bankei had the right idea by telling his monks to never transcribe his teachings (although we would not even know about him if it weren't for a select few rebels who did not listen). This fame was not thrust upon these enlightened teachers.

    The current culture in which celebrity is worshiped is made for the flashy, loud and misguided who seem more than happy to pick up the mantle of spiritual guru, preying on the insecurities of people who show up and say “teach me”. People who feel they need guidance and that they might have found a path. Instead of experiencing true teaching they have their enlightenment held for ransom and the price is something heinous. Yes, this has been going on since the dawn of man, but I am focusing on the Zen “masters” of today.

    We are all firstly, lastly and forever students in Zen. “Nobody masters Zen” as Kobun Chino said.

    Question everything.

    As a human and a Buddhist, please get angry. You are allowed. I won't pretend to know your situation at all, especially when it comes to keeping a secret to protect someone. It doesn't make sense to live in a world where men have free range to subjugate women. Get angry. Anger can lead to action. Hesitation is an enemy of Zen. If you want a lineage that isn't shit, start a fire.

  6. Postpartum depression? Start something new.

    Do you exercise? If not you need to. Nature, gardening are also potent antidepressants.

    1. I exercise! I jog and do yoga. Although I live in Los Angeles, so palm trees are the only green for miles... :-(

  7. This strange illness of yours might not be as strange as you think - It could just be a message that needs to be listened to. Ask yourself what the consequences of this illness? What happens as a result of it? If this illness was a distorted way of getting some need met what would that need be?

  8. Hello Gesshin,

    The title of this blog post and the issue with misconduct strikes a nerve in me as well. I immediately thought of a kongàn we use in our tradition. It is titled "the old woman burns down the hermitage." The kongàn originates from the "Seonmun Yeomsong Seolhwa 禪門拈頌説話" and is dated from the 13th Century.

    An old woman built a hermitage for a monk to practice hard. She also provided food and clothing. The monk practiced for ten years but sent no news. Therefore, the old woman sent her beautiful daughter with special instructions to see the monk. When the daughter arrived at the hermitage, she bowed to the monk and said, “You have been practicing here for ten years, therefore, my mother has sent this special food and clothing for you.” “Thank you very much,” the monk replied. “Your mother is a great Bodhisattva.” Just then, the girl, as she had been instructed, embraced the monk, kissed him, and asked, “How does this make you feel?”

    The monk calmly replied, “Rotten logs on cold rocks. No warmth in winter.” Releasing him, the girl bowed deeply and said, “You are certainly a great monk.” She returned home. Her mother asked her, “What did the monk say?” “Oh, his words were wonderful. He said, Rotten logs on cold rocks. No warmth in winter.” “What!” shouted the old woman? Fuming, she grabbed a big stick, ran to the hermitage and beat the monk shouting, “Go away! Get out of here! I’ve spent the last ten years helping a demon.” Then she burned the hermitage to the ground.

    This is a very difficult kongàn for Men to answer, they usually misread the story and their programming kicks up. When they finally see through it, most are really embarrassed with their initial responses. The real wisdom that comes from this scenario transcends normal responses because the old woman is looking for the monk's wisdom to shine forth, and sadly he fails miserably. The huàtóu is what could you do which is insightful and wise to prevent the old woman from burning your hermitage to the ground, or more importantly what is a compassionate and insightful way of dealing, not only with the young lady, but we have to also include the old woman in our response.

    From my perspective, the old woman, felt as you do in this post in response to other's misguided and unwise actions. Burn it all down. Seems you are in good company.

    1. I like that a lot, thank you. There are many koans about fire and burning stuff, it seems.

  9. I saw this today and immediately thought of your last post:

    1. I don't know where this came from, but it is not true.

  10. Please, don't hesitate to name names. The patriarchs' time is up, everywhere; it needs to be. Buddhism is not exempt. Look at the recent Sogyal scandal, or Sasaki, or Shimano--people protect these guys for decades, thinking they're protecting the buddha or the dharma or the sangha or themselves and their own personal journey to enlightenment, but that's how it's always been. That's how it always goes. We don't need or want a world where *spiritual* teachers, especially, gallingly, get away with this misogynistic shit. Again and again and again.

    Overturn the teachers' chairs like Linji; mock them like Satsu. Zen will be fine, and the aspects that don't survive such interrogatory fire probably aren't worth keeping anyway.

    “Bhikkus, all is burning.”
    —Ādittapariyāya Sutta


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