Feb 18, 2013

Unpacking the Zen Scandal

A recent blog post on The Huffington Post lends more insight into how the Joshu Sasaki scandal unfolded within the Zen community. Adam Tebbe is the editor of Sweeping Zen, which published Eshu Martin's article and started this firestorm. Tebbe discusses what it was like being caught in the backdraft. Both he and Martin were subjected to the hostility of a Zen community bent on shooting the messengers. I suppose that anyone in a position to tell bitter truths should be prepared for that reaction.

Eshu's initial piece was an icebreaker of sorts, a shot across the bow that quickly grabbed the attention of many. Martin alleged a history of abuse and cover-ups involving his former teacher that stemmed his entire career. He received considerable backlash for his piece, accused of being nonspecific in his accusations. And, while it was partially true, readers did not know that at the time there was more information at his disposal which would and could be used if necessary. It was not released instantly because much of it needed to be said by Giko David Rubin, a priest ordained by Joshu Sasaki and his translator of many years (see: Some Reflections on Rinzai-ji). When Giko's reflections on his experiences at Rinzai-ji and of Sasaki were first published, the mood was rather somber. It remains one of the most detailed and painful articles I've ever had to publish in my work at the website.

Rubin's piece does indeed make for painful reading -- not just because of the detail it provides on Sasaki's behavior and peoples' varied reactions to it. It's an extremely honest revelation of the author's process of disillusionment over a period of years.

This passage actually made me wince.

Joshu Roshi also has the ability to sometimes know exactly what a student is experiencing without having to be told. This is quite remarkable, and I believe gives his students a feeling they are in the presence of someone with extraordinary spiritual power. As a young man I sat in zazen and felt my hand spontaneously open on my outbreath, and felt my sphere of consciousness expand with it. Then on the next in breath my hand unwillingly closed to a fist. The next time I saw Joshu Roshi, I bowed in silence as usual, and sat up. At once he looked me in the eye, open and closed his hand, and said, “Now you can be a Zen teacher.” How could I not feel this man knew me better than anyone could? I believed I could I trust him completely.

Maybe it's because I'm psychic for a living but immediately my inner cynic piped up. That's it? He knew you opened and closed your hand? Really? This was, of course, hideously unfair of me. And, sitting with that forced me to deal with why I felt tweaked. This is precisely the kind of thing that people who do this kind of work need to be extremely cautious about! What is a very basic level of intuition for someone who does psychic and healing work, can bring life-changing moments for the people receiving that insight. That makes disseminating this kind of information an awesome responsibility. Like all births and rebirths, these moments are very sensitive. Transformational expansion leaves us vulnerable as we shed one skin and await the firming of the next layer. And while these should be moments of personal empowerment, too often people discovering their own power can't seem to give it away fast enough, which looks to be what happened here. Rubin took exactly the wrong lesson in that moment. What was important was that he had been through a spiritual initiation that prepared him to teach. He made it about the teacher who gave him that insight. And Sasaki let him.

It is so important for those of us who do any kind of spiritual teaching to take our egos out of it and keep the focus on clients and students. Sasaki was very good at telling other people that they needed to break down their egos -- often by grabbing their breasts, apparently. No matter how gifted a spiritual leader you are, you are not the source of anyone else's reality. If you didn't tell someone what they needed to hear, they would source another teacher to tell them, simply because they were ready. None of us is indispensable.

Instead, it seems like a whole lot of people were catering to Sasaki's massive ego. There was a very complex architecture of deceit put in place to protect him from consequences for a vast number of sexual assaults over decades.

To keep his inner circle in line, he used blatant emotional blackmail. When confronted he would just threaten to stop teaching (abandonment). This happened on many occasions but reached a fever pitch in 2007, and the realization of how closed Sasaki really was to meaningful change, pushed Rubin to the door.

After the meeting Joshu Roshi began calling people who wanted to discuss his sexual activity his “enemies (taiteki in Japanese). It seemed he was helping to form a party line; to criticize Joshu Roshi is blasphemy. To say he has a serious sexual problem means you don’t understand his teaching. If you are working to have Joshu Roshi face his problem and change then you don’t love him and should leave. The sentiment I remember hearing the most from other Oshos was some version of, “We must weigh the good of Joshu Roshi’s teaching against the bad. The good is incredibly good. He is probably the most enlightened person alive in this world. There is no way to stop the bad, only contain it. He will never change. The good, however, far outweighs the bad. If we try to guide Joshu Roshi towards changing his behavior he will resign and stop teaching, and all the good will be lost.”

He's the "most enlightened" person in the world, but he'll never change his bad behavior. I guess I have a different idea of what enlightenment means. 

When Rubin tried to air his concerns, he was heaped with scorn by Sasaki's devoted following and by Sasaki himself.

When I “came out” and raised my concerns about Joshu Roshi’s sexual conduct some Oshos told me I had no Zen understanding and should be beaten with sticks; I was an arrogant blind fool; I had “kindergarten understanding” and obviously had never passed even one koan. Joshu Roshi told me I would never get enlightened if I thought about these things. I was told by one Osho and one senior student I would be blamed for Joshu Roshi’s death if I tried to make him change his behavior, and that I would be responsible for ruining his legacy. “You are killing him!” was shouted at me more than once. Another Osho told me that Joshu Roshi had demanded I do a special repentance ceremony if I ever wanted to practice with Joshu Roshi again. When I asked the Osho if he had argued my case to Joshu Roshi, or even asked for an explanation he said he hadn’t. I was banned from coming on the property of one Zen Center, and banned from teaching at another. Joshu Roshi began calling me “attached to honesty,” and “bakashoujiki” (meaning “stupidly honest”) to others and to me. [emphasis mine]

I have noticed, through the years, in my dealings with American Buddhists, that the ideal of "non-attachment" tends to be whipped out whenever some Buddhist doesn't want to take personal responsibility for something. It's funny how that works. If it's something you don't want to do, suddenly it's "attachment." It's a hideous distortion of a spiritual principle. But this is not just some American kid being ignorant and hypocritical. This is one of the foremost Buddhist teachers in the Western world abusing a central teaching and in a thoroughly puerile manner. What gives the obvious lie here is that Sasaki was clearly very attached to his power over his monks and to his compulsive pattern of sexually abusing women.

Rubin's article is a strong piece of writing, heartrending and sincere. I can't help noticing that throughout he still refers to Sasaki by the honorific Roshi. It is so hard when we find out that people we admire have feet of clay. Healing from that can be a very long process, especially when there's that much clay.

I just feel the need to point out that Sasaki's behavior is not some little foible. Groping and fondling people against their will is sexual assault, for which any number of his victims could have filed charges. These are sex crimes. He's a criminal, not an old man with a bad habit.

I also have to say, as I learn more about the progression of this unfolding scandal, that I think it telling that women complained for years but it took male teachers of some authority coming forward for the problem to be taken seriously. Sexism, it seems, is alive and well in the world of Zen Buddhism... as is basic, human denial. No, it ain't just a river in Egypt. So I will just close with this passage from Adam Tebbe's post because it's excellent.

I know that many Zen practitioners would like to see this coverage go away. To many, it's time to move on. I get why they want that. This whole thing appears to reflect undesirably on the Zen tradition, and many have criticized the mainstream press for having stereotyped the entirety of our Zen institutions. There's some truth to that. With that said, this isn't exactly a story that lends itself well to backslapping. And, moving on? I thought that's how we got here.

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