My friend Danny Fisher wrote an article called Misogyny and Sexual Assault Are Still Missing Links in Conversations About Sangha Sex Scandals. It’s a good article and I don’t have problems with anything he says in the article. I think that what he says in it is right.
But the existence of the article and so many others on the same topic lately made me want to make some comments about it on Danny’s Facebook page, which started a conversation I’ll reproduce for you below.
ME: The thing that bothers me most about the Sasaki and Shimano cases is that they’re being taken as evidence of some kind of general trend in American Buddhism. But I don’t think that’s true. This isn’t to deny anything you said in your article, such as pointing out that even Buddhist “masters” can be misogynists and commit sexual assault. Sure they can. But what was going on especially with Sasaki is extremely peculiar. It sounds to me more like some kind of bizarre compulsive behavior that was unique to him than any kind of evidence that there is something wrong with Buddhism in general.
JOSH BARAN: It isn’t just a few bad apples. It may not be “something wrong with Buddhism in general,” but there are some repeating patterns of “masters” who succumb to grandiosity and feelings of entitlement that include abuse of power and sometimes sex. Too many teachers think they are far more awakened then they are and create toxic communities around them where absolute obedience is demanded. Evidence — in the late 70s and early 80s, I ran a support group for people who had left spiritual groups and gurus – and counseled and talked with probably over a thousand people who had left many kinds of groups, gurus and teachers. Shadows need to come to light. In 1981, I heard about Sasaki.
JOSHUA EATON: This isn’t just a problem with Sasaki and Shimano. It’s also a problem with Trungpa Rinpoche, Osel Tendzin, Kalu Rinpoche, Genpo Merzel Roshi, Maezumi Roshi, Jetsunma Akhon Lhamo, Lama Surya Das, Geshe Michael Roach, and others. Honestly, I’ve heard so many stories about abusive student-teacher relationships—many involving prominent teachers—that it’s hard to know where to begin or whom to trust.
ME: Joshua, I don’t know about half of these scandals. But the ones I do know (Sasaki, Shimano, Trungpa, Tendzin, Merzel, Maezumi and I’d add Baker) all take place in large institutions which which all grew at a very rapid pace. Comparable incidents have happened in Hindu, Christian and Islamic based institutions which were similarly large and grew at a similarly accelerated pace. I would suggest the problem is not something to do with Buddhism but with these types of institutions.
Taken from this perspective, Buddhism actually comes off pretty good. There has yet to be (and hopefully will never be) a Buddhist equivalent of Jonestown or Waco (Aum Shinrikyo may be the exception here, but they were only very tangentially Buddhist). Trungpa’s institution had a lot of weird sexual stuff going on but it pales in comparison to the alleged child abuse and drug/power scandals associated with the Hare Krishnas who emerged around the same time and grew at a similarly accelerated pace.
Maybe Buddhist institutions don’t need to be so big. Maybe they don’t need to be so institutional.
Later Josh Baran responded to what I said noting that, “It may be the myth of the fully enlightened master / sage combined with the narrative of skillful means and crazy wisdom, and throw in demand for absolute obedience – produces a particular kind of abuse potential.” I agree that this is the root of the problem. But I don’t think any of this stuff really belongs in Buddhism. It’s there in lots of contemporary Buddhist institutions. But it’s not fundamental to Buddhism. In fact, it shouldn’t be there at all. None of it. Ever. Let me go through Mr. Baran’s points one by one.
1) The Myth of the Fully Enlightened Master: This comes from the standard narrative of Gautama Buddha’s life in which he sits under a tree and meditates and after a while ~poof!~ he’s a fully enlightened master forever and ever, amen. From then on he’s no longer plain old Siddhartha but is now The Buddha, the World Honored One. This is the way it’s been told for centuries. And there are many cases of people in years gone by discussing if a Fully Enlightened Master was or was not capable of making mistakes and so forth. The traditional story of Hyakujo’s Fox is one such case.
But this myth came about only after Gautama Buddha himself was dead and gone and could no longer challenge it like he had when he was alive. Like every other great person who dies — John Lennon, Mother Theresa, JFK, Kurt Cobain, the list is endless — Gautama Buddha was mythologized after his death into something much more fantastic and unreal than he had been in life. But while he was alive, Gautama told of being visited by Mara — that is, dealing with the still living karma of his pre-enlightenment years — right up till the end of his life. So even the original and arguably greatest Fully Enlightened Master of our lineage was not the kind of “Fully Enlightened Master” the myth makers want us to believe our contemporary masters are.
2) The Narrative of Skillful Means and Crazy Wisdom: The idea of Skillful Means originates in the Lotus Sutra wherein the Buddha does whatever it takes to bring about realization in his followers even if, on the surface, it seems to be deceptive. Of course such a narrative is ripe for abuse. So is the idea of Crazy Wisdom, which can be used as a cover for plain old unwise craziness. The original intention of these ideas was to convey that wisdom doesn’t always look the way we think it ought to. This is true and important. But neither of these notions means that Buddhist wisdom always has to look crazy or that so-called “skillful means” must always be some sort of trickery.
3) The Demand for Absolute Obedience: This is absolutely not part of Buddhism. No decent Buddhist teacher has ever demanded absolute obedience. It’s antithetical to Buddhism, which stresses the necessity of questioning everything including the supposedly enlightened pronouncements of one’s own teacher. Any teacher who claims that students need to “come under the teacher” to quote what Genpo Merzel Roshi had to say on the subject doesn’t deserve to be “come under” by anyone at all. To say such a thing is to demonstrate that one has absolutely no clue what Buddhism is about.
The other factor I think is crucial to point out in all of this is that, whether he meant to or not, Joshu Sasaki (and others to some extent) taught us American Buddhists something very valuable. And that is that we should never blindly obey religious authority figures even if they are Buddhist Masters. You might say that we didn’t need that lesson. But clearly we did or none of this would ever — indeed none of it could ever — have happened.
We’re not talking about Adolph Hitler with the might of the German Army to enforce his will. Sasaki is a tiny little old man in black robes. The only thing Joshu Sasaki ever had that he could use to compel anyone to obey him was his student’s desire to obey the arbitrary whims of a religious authority figure, their desire to be dominated. And it worked like magic. On people who should have known better, who, I would argue, did know better and chose to ignore what they knew.
Be careful out there.
(Special thanks to James Ford for unknowingly contributing the image used on this page, which I stole from his blog.)
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