Is There a Problem With Buddhism?

monk and nudes censored for your moral safety Crazy_Photos_From_Asia_20My 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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Also, be sure to sign up for the 3-day Zen retreat I will lead at Mt. Baldy Zen Center November 8-10. The info is all at this link!
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78 Responses

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  1. Mumbles
    Mumbles September 27, 2013 at 3:36 pm |

    Another good article Mark! Thanks again!!

    About 15 years ago I organized an exhibit of this artist,
    through the generosity of his widow Lynda and several of his students who were also friends of mine. He was a powerful shaman who after surviving WWII Nazi concentration camps had been initiated by Huichol shamans into all kinds of interesting mysteries. At the opening of the exhibit Lynda put his bear claw and shell necklace around my neck to wear, a great great honor I will not soon forget.

  2. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote September 28, 2013 at 8:46 am |

    “dancing together, gods and man dreamed of the universe, and it was!”

    Beautiful stuff, thanks John.

  3. Fred
    Fred September 28, 2013 at 9:21 am |

    ” Those six words, “Call back your spirit or die,” are so powerful to me. They are a mantra for healing and transformation. They are a call to wholeness.

    David would later say that those moments in the Little Colorado River were the very hardest of his life. He had to fight himself for himself.

    David reported he was able to see the big picture; he understood why things unfolded as they did. For example, he realized that the raw chicken parts were meant as a source of protein to sustain him so that he might live.

    David Paladin was thrown into the river as a very broken — and broken on every level — man. And David emerged out of the Little Colorado River like the phoenix out of the ashes. He had metaphorically walked through the fire, or, in this case, swum through the currents, and had come out alive. He was born again.

    To my understanding, David did not need his braces anymore, and he went on to work with priests and addicts. He became a shaman, a teacher and an artist. He died in his middle years in the mid ‘80s.”

  4. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote September 28, 2013 at 9:56 am |

    Comment on Koun Franz’s blog, concerning what I called here “the gate”:

  5. Fred
    Fred September 28, 2013 at 10:38 am |

    “What Are the Depths to Which You’ll Go?”

    I suppose the depths are deep into the subconscious conditioned neurons, if
    one continuously identifies with that self.

  6. Fred
    Fred September 28, 2013 at 10:44 am |


    “The second very important reason why our Tonal is a great tool is that it provides us a reference point from which we can make sense of our experiences within the Nagual. The Nagual is infinitely mysterious and unknowable, words will never be able to describe it as words are strictly confined to the realm of the Tonal. So we need to be able to dissolve our Tonal so that we can experience the Nagual but then we have to recreate our Tonal so that we can both make sense of our experiences and also so that we can reveal and elucidate the ‘road’ leading to the Nagual to help others on their way.

    It is this ability to create and dissolve the Tonal at will and have a completely fluid perception that, to the Toltec, constitutes true spiritual freedom.”

  7. Fred
    Fred September 28, 2013 at 10:49 am |

    You can use different words to describe the dissolving of the self through a
    gate and a return to a self, and the question ” What Are the Depths to Which
    You’ll Go ” has a different meaning.

  8. Mumbles
    Mumbles September 28, 2013 at 12:16 pm |

    “But you must, when you’ve had an inner experience, understand that the inner experience belongs to the spiritual world and material life is another aspect. You’ve got to obtain harmony between the two.”

    -My alchemy teacher Jean Dubuis (R.I.P.), who also said “great loss equals great reward”* in describing what he called (among other things) the Contact With Eternity, a series of experiments designed to connect the Qabalist to Binah (see the Tree of Life) or the planet Saturn, with its heavy leaden, melancholic aspect which allows one to step out of time. Saturn (via alchemy/qabala) is the physical portal (gate) out of space/time.

    The troubling aspect for one who successfully dissolves the concept of time is an often unbearable sadness, however, this can be resolved by the realization that there is no illusion of self to be troubled by anything at all.

    *In the experiential realm this can be expressed as: the only way to know the heights is to know the depths. One that bottoms out has nowhere but up to go, and that “up” must balance or match the depth, and this topping out can be dazzling indeed.

  9. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote September 28, 2013 at 8:10 pm |

    Reading Stigweard’s quote (?) again, I do like what he’s saying, especially “It is this ability to create and dissolve the Tonal at will and have a completely fluid perception that, to the Toltec, constitutes true spiritual freedom.”

    I would say this is about distinction in the experiences of the senses to the point of a loss of judgement, yet for me I return to judgement naturally enough, while the statement “create and dissolve” sounds like living life from the lack of judgement.

    The ups and downs, that sounds almost manic! Echos of impermanence, detachment, cessation, and relinquishment, the four aspects of the mindfulness of mental states Gautama practiced in connection with inhalation and exhalation. If you could call it practice, although he did.

  10. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote September 28, 2013 at 8:12 pm |

    living life from the lack of judgement, not a bad thing, yet the action without volition in living life from the lack of judgement depends in part on belief. As I’ve come to know it.

  11. Proulx Michel
    Proulx Michel September 29, 2013 at 1:38 am |

    There is no real problem with Buddhism, just with Humanity…

  12. RandomStu
    RandomStu September 29, 2013 at 3:17 pm |

    I’ve read that certain qualities of psychopaths are common to the most successful businessmen (wildly excessive belief in one’s own vision and ability, etc). Surely, we have geniuses like Steve Jobs, who by all accounts could be abusive to employees. Maybe all things in this world even out: the path to the wonderful iPhone may be paved with not-so-wonderful delusions.

    There are all sorts of meditation/spiritual teachers who present themselves as gods, or at least substitute parents. The teachers have grandiose ideas about themselves, and those ideas fuel their efforts to create spiritual organizations or empires. Those empires aren’t necessarily bad or worthless.

    As children, we got comfort from believing our parents are flawless, and some of us maintain a desire to follow a supposedly-perfect figurehead for our whole lives. I personally have no interest in such a teacher. But who am I to decide for others? Authoritarian teachers exist *only* because students follow them. If such teachers didn’t exist, we’d have to invent them, to satisfy the market.

    Followers of such teachers get the wonderful comfort of belief in a Perfect Being. They get the great benefits of a community held together by shared belief in their specialness. Eventually, in oh so many cases, they get the horrible abuse that grows out of unquestioning belief and absolute power.

    When the abuses become too obvious, many students start questioning the dogma, and decide that benefits of the belief-system aren’t worth the cost. Only then are they open to something new.

  13. stonemirror
    stonemirror September 29, 2013 at 4:14 pm |

    I worked with Steve Jobs. He could definitely be a dick, but I’d say you’re making a completely unjustified reach in the apparently unquestioned leap to his being some sort of psychopath or sociopath.

    You may or may not recall that zen therapist Grace Schireson nodded approvingly at the characterization of our host, Brad, here as a psychopath over on Stinking…er…Sweeping Zen a while back.

    I’d think people might want to take a care batting around psychobabble when they’re not qualified to make diagnoses.

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