One of the big names in psychology Philip G. Zimbaro was a guest on Skavlan, the popular talk show in Sweden. He talked about the Stanford Prison Experiment he was running in 1971 and what it revealed about the situations in which “good people are placed in bad circumstances. ” I had learnt about the famous prison simulation a few years ago from the German film “Das Experiment” (2001). (It was not exactly something one learnt about growing up in the Soviet, the whole country being basically a prison cell.)
The experiment scheduled for two weeks was interrupted after six days as the situation started spiraling out of control. Watching the film today it is hard not to draw parallels with the prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib by the American soldiers.
What astonished me in Dr Zimbaro’s account was that he acknowledged how in the matter of six days he totally identified with his role of the superintendent of the prison, stopped seeing the people and saw only “prisoners”, how the only thing he cared about was that the “guards” followed their routines, although he saw the escalation of the abuse by the “guards”. Could that be?
The site dedicated to the experiment takes us on a tour around it, “uncovering what it tells us about the human nature.” I catch myself lingering over the Begin the Slide Show button. What am I about to see the proof of? That in difficult circumstances we forget about being human? (The roles of the prisoners and guards in the original experiment were assigned by chance, nobody actually wanted to be a “guard” from the beginning).
Another experiment comes to mind: two groups of volunteers (novice meditators and what I would call mega meditators – those who had spent more than 10,000 hours in meditators, like Matthieu Ricard) submitted their brains for scrutiny by neuroscientists when practicing compassion meditation towards all beings. The difference between the two groups was striking, the monks showing a dramatic increase in high-frequency brain activity called gamma waves that are said to underlie higher mental activity such as consciousness. The novice meditators “showed a slight increase in gamma activity, but most monks showed extremely large increases of a sort that has never been reported before in the neuroscience literature,” says Prof. Davidson, suggesting that mental training can bring the brain to a greater level of consciousness.”
So if we practice meditation for hours and hours, we can actually change the structure of the brain and become more compassionate? That if anything is a good reason enough to introduce meditation in schools and working places, right?
As I was writing this post a few evenings ago, I learnt about Genpo Merzel´s decision to disrope and read his official statement. I felt sadness and confusion and stayed with them for a while. Some of my emotional response was the reaction to what I read in those lines and to the realisation that there was a lot of pain that I could not know about behind and beyond those lines. Some was coming from the reaction I saw in the comments to the statement here and there. I do not know Genpo Merzel or the people around him who had been influenced by his conduct, but somehow it felt like a personal blow. Why? There was this kind of righteous indignation I recognised, the one I feel when I know someone who was not able to protect themselves was abused, a child, an animal or a grown up in a vulnerable state. Then there was another thing I saw, something I preferred would remain in the dark: it was about Genpo Merzel being a Zen teacher and is he not supposed to be immune to those temptations? If those folks cannot do it, where does it leave the little me??? (This also brought some reflections on what it is I want from my practice, reconnecting with the intentions. Was it to become a perfect human being or a whole human being?)
Stuart Lachs, interviewed on Buddhist Geeks on the topic a while ago (Episodes 72 & 73), wrote a paper on the institute of Zen Roshi in the West in which he explores the myths of the perfected being in the person of the Zen master, analyzes the mechanisms of power and authority in Zen and among other things explores the motives “for “not seeing” the master as he really is, whether there be an absence of compassion or wisdom or the presence of sexual improprieties or alcoholism.”…
“Some of these qualities imputed to the Zen master are simplicity, innocence, and lack of self-interest or desire. The master is said to be a person whose actions flow solely out of compassion for other sentient beings. He is imputed to possess a timeless and transcultural wisdom, the ability to see the truth behind appearances and to have the prerogative to speak expertly on all subjects. In fact, he is taken to be last in an unbroken chain of enlightened, unblemished masters reputedly going back 2500 years to the historical Sakyamuni Buddha. But, this portrait can only exist if we ignore the irritating complexity and contradictions of actual lives and real history.”
From Stuart Lachs’ paper, The Zen Master in America: Dressing the Donkey with Bells and Scarves, 2006, p. 2.
If we gave up the idea that even Zen teachers are people and therefore not without self-interest, where would it leave us?