I’ve been going to Tassajara every summer for a few years now. Usually I spend about a month. But this year, a week was all I could do. That’s really not enough, but it’s better than not going at all.
Joshu Sasaki’s viewing is tomorrow. I’d like to have been able to go, but I can’t. He has a memorial later this month that I can’t attend either.
After I called Joshu Sasaki “one of the greats” a few people demanded I explain myself. I’ve sat down and tried to write out my feelings about Sasaki a few times, but I failed.
For most of you reading this blog, the very first time you ever heard of Joshu Sasaki in your lives was when the sex scandals broke out. In fact, I doubt very many of you actually read Eshu Martin’s 2012 Sweeping Zen article Everybody Knows, which was the first big public statement about what had been going on in Sasaki’s organization for decades. My guess is most of you first heard of Sasaki through the many much more visible responses to that article in the New York Times and Huffington Post.
The New York Times and Huffington Post represent so-called “responsible journalism.” That means that they are practiced in the art of writing lurid allegations in such a way as to seem tasteful while still pushing all the same emotional hot buttons that writers for the New York Post or the Sun push far less pretentiously.
That’s not where I first heard of Joshu Sasaki.
I first heard of Joshu Sasaki in the early Eighties when I was studying with my first Zen teacher, Tim McCarthy. Tim had sat a few sesshins with Sasaki in the Seventies. As far as I know, he was unaware of any groping going on. In those days it was known only to the inner circle of Sasaki’s students, and Tim was not one of those.
Tim had good things to say about Sasaki back then and he owned Sasaki’s book Buddha is the Center of Gravity. I borrowed that book and read it. I enjoyed it so much that I tracked down a copy for myself and ended up reading it around ten more times. It became one of my favorite Zen books and still is. Later on I started listening to Leonard Cohen and I could hear a lot of Sasaki’s teachings from that book in his music and lyrics.
Not long after I arrived in Los Angeles, I had a chance to see Sasaki give a talk. He was very old by then. The only thing I remember about his talk was that he spoke with the same accent as my then-wife’s dad, who was from the same region of Japan, rural Miyagi Prefecture. The talk wasn’t nearly as good as his book. It was sort of rambling and the translator had a lot of trouble with it. The translator was smooth in his delivery, but since I understood Sasaki’s Japanese (thanks to Yuka’s dad!) I was probably one of the very few in the room who could tell how much he was struggling.
Sometime after that was when I began hearing rumors that Sasaki was a groper. There was no context to any of what I heard. Only one of the people I heard these rumors from had any firsthand knowledge. She was a veteran Zen practitioner in her fifties when she went to one of Sasaki’s sesshins and ended up getting grabbed. She’d been told he might do that, and when it happened she just told him to cut it out. He did.
It was only after this that I read Eshu Martin’s article and some of the rest of the stuff that’s been written. It was all very deeply disappointing.
And yet his book is still good. There was a bit of argument on my Facebook page when a reader pointed out that he liked Sasaki’s book. Someone said, “Re-read in the light of what you know now. How wonderful can it still be? Is it a one-sided fairy tale or the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Maybe, knowing who wrote it and how this person behaved in daily life could influence the way you would read it now.”
He wasn’t asking me that. But if he did I’d say, “I don’t think so.” Nor do I think Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism is a worse book knowing that the guy who wrote it allegedly once forced a couple to participate in an orgy and then drank himself to death at age 47. Hell, I even still like to listen to Ted Nugent. Stranglehold is a better example of early 70s Detroit rock than anything The Stooges or MC5 ever did, great as those bands were. The fact that Nugent is a loudmouth with some truly ridiculous political views can’t change that.
So what was Joshu Sasaki really? I certainly don’t know. I’m not sure how much it matters. He’s dead now. God rest his soul.
The stories about Sasaki are all over the map. I can’t make much coherent sense out of them. So I don’t try. But there is a whole lot more nuance in the actual statements made by the real-life recipients of his boob grabs than are represented in the two or three lines one gets in a NY Times article. I won’t try to defend his actions or to vilify him.
I’ve been vilified myself for not vilifying him. But I won’t. I do think we’d all have been happier if he could have refrained from doing that stuff at all. But who cares what I think?
Sasaki did a lot more than grope, though. He was a pioneering Zen teacher in America. He established several centers that still endure. He taught a lot of people lessons that those people value, including people whose body parts he also grabbed. He wrote a really good book (or someone else wrote it based on transcripts of his talks). He inspired some tremendous songs.
I don’t know why he grabbed people. You don’t either.
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Even though I’m in Tassajara, my rent is still due when I come home. Your kind donations help keep a roof over my head! Thank you!
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My on-line retreat at Tricycle.com is still happening. Check it out!
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Here’s my upcoming events schedule:
Aug. 16 9:30 AM – Noon at Dogen Sangha Los Angeles in the Veteran’s Memorial Building 4117 Overland Blvd. Culver City, CA 90230
Sept. 6 Houston Zen Center All Day Zazen
Sept. 9 Austin Zen Center
Oct. 3-5 Helsinki, Finland all events to be determined
Oct. 6 Movie Screening in Espoo, Finland
Oct. 8 Lecture in Munich, Germany
Oct. 9-11 Retreat in Munich, Germany
Oct. 12-17 Retreat at Benediktushof near Würzburg, Germany
Oct 18-19 Retreat in Bonn, Germany
Oct 20 Hamburg, Germany
Oct 24: Lecture in Groningen, Netherlands
Oct 25: Day-long zazen in Groningen, Netherlands
Oct 26: Lecture in Eindhoven, Netherlands
Oct 27: Evening zazen in Eindhoven, Netherlands
Oct 28: Evening zazen in Nijmegen, Netherlands
Oct 29: Lecture in Rotterdam, Netherlands
Oct 30: Lecture in Amsterdam, Netherlands
Oct 31: Movie screening in Utrecht, Netherlands
Nov 1-2: Retreat in Utrecht, Netherlands
Nov 4-6 (or 3-5 possibly) Retreat in Hebden Bridge, UK
Nov 7-8 Something in Manchester, UK (to be determined)