Saturday, August 21, 2010

The impact of archival records on American Buddhism

Today, the New York Times published an article by Mark Oppenheimer about American Buddhists' efforts to come to grips with revelations that some of their spiritual leaders have been romantically and sexually involved with their adult students. The source of these some of these revelations: the personal papers of American Buddhist leader Robert Aitken, which the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa's Special Research Collections staff unsealed in 2008.

The unsealed papers included files in which Aitken documented the sexual relationships that Eido Shimano, who is now the spiritual leader of New York's Zen Studies Society, had with adult female students between the mid-1960s and the early 2000s.

Oppenheimer notes that the debates about the conduct of Shimano and other Buddhist spiritual teachers are, for a variety of reasons, distinctively American. Digitized copies of Aitken's Shimano files found their way onto the Internet and engendered considerable discussion in the blogosphere. The American news media, which played a key role in publicizing scandals that have rocked other faith communities, is now on the lookout for clerical impropriety. Moreover, American Buddhist spiritual communities generally consist of both men and women, and Asian Buddhist leaders accustomed to working only with male students may have been unprepared for the temptations that awaited them in the United States.

In response to these and other developments, American Buddhist attitudes about student-teacher relationships, which were once seen as uniquely privileged and private, are changing: in July, revelations concerning a recent relationship between Shimano and a female student forced Shimano and his wife to depart from the board of the Zen Studies Society, which has drafted a new set of ethical guidelines for its leaders and members.

In the absence of the Web, the blogosphere that the Web made possible, and news media outlets primed to expose clerical sexual misconduct, the information in Aitken's files might have been unknown to anyone except a handful of academics and Buddhists interested in Aitken's life and work. However, in our Webby, bloggy, clerical-impropriety-is-big-news age, the information in Aitken's papers has been widely disseminated and has had significant impact.

I have the feeling that in the years to come, we're going to see more and more instances in which the Web and, in particular, Web 2.0, gives the information contained within archival records explosive force. By and large, this is a very good thing: as those of us partial to freedom of information laws are fond of noting, sunlight really is the best disinfectant. However, I suspect that it's also going to pose some challenges for the archival profession. Those of us who work with manuscript collections may find that some donors want to restrict access to their papers for increasingly lengthy periods of time, and those of us who work with government records may find that creators are less and less inclined to document their activities completely or to transfer their records to the archives.

1 comment:

records management said...

It is a very surprising news that American buddhists or spirituals leaders are romatically involved with their students. People should stop following those spirituals leaders. Thank you for awareness.