As regular readers know, I have been struggling for quite some time to properly express what I feel concerning the stuff surrounding Joshu Sasaki Roshi and the allegations that he sexually abused a number of his students. It’s not the allegations that concern me. I’m not interested in trying to dig into what happened. Other people are already doing that and they don’t need my help.
What interests me is the reactions people are having. We can’t do anything to change the past and at age 105, Sasaki isn’t even appearing in public anymore let alone fondling anyone. It’s what we do from here-on-out that matters and very little of it has anything at all to do with Sasaki. It’s about us. And that’s a lot harder to deal with than rehashing what happened to somebody else back in the 80s in a cabin in the mountains.
I feel that a lot of the discussion surrounding Sasaki is moving us in a direction of agreeing in principle to things we probably should not be agreeing in principle to.
For example, it is a bad thing to sexually grope people in sanzen (private spiritual discussions between student and teacher). It is a bad thing to take advantage of psychologically vulnerable people. It is a bad thing for for spiritual teachers to abuse the trust placed in them. And consent is not the ultimate trump card that excuses everything. Yes does not always mean yes. I addressed this particular matter in my most recent book Sex Sin and Zen in the discussion about BDSM relationships and related the dynamics of those relationships to the relationships that develop between student and teacher.
All of this is true and I think any sensible person would agree with it.
But a lot of the discussion I’ve seen on the Intertubes appears to me to be using these sensible notions to launch into other areas that I think are not only mistaken but potentially dangerous. I see a lot of talk demanding that Zen students be provided with a “safe environment”. OK. If by that you mean that students ought to not need to worry that they might be groped in the sanzen room or taken advantage of in other ways, I’m all for that.
But there is an unstated undercurrent in this demand for safety that bothers me.
I feel like one of the most important lessons of the Sasaki case is not that students need to be provided with a perfectly safe environment. It’s that responsibility goes both ways.
It is very dangerous to suggest this. If you do you will be accused, as I have been, of excusing the perpetrators and blaming the victims. I do not blame the victims for what they suffered. But we need to always bear in mind that Sasaki’s victims were not rounded up by armed gestapo, herded into box cars and shipped to him for his pleasure. All of them came to him of their own accord. Which is not to excuse what he did or to say that their apparent consent makes everything OK (see above). But it is a very significant aspect of what happened that we need to always remember in any discussion of the matter.
It’s important because what happened with Sasaki was nowhere near as bad as it could have been.
I just watched a documentary on the Jonestown Massacre of 1978. One of the most horrifying scenes in the documentary involved one of the survivors describing how he watched his wife make their infant son drink some of the cyanide-laced Kool-Aid and then drink the rest of the cup herself. They both died in his arms, frothing at the mouth. That’s when, he says, he knew it was time to leave.
It’s baffling. I couldn’t help thinking to myself, “That’s when you knew it was time to leave?” I’m not trying to insult the guy. It’s clear from the way he tells the story that even he has the same question. The documentary does a good job of trying to answer it.
Jonestown did not start off with a madman ordering over 900 people to commit mass suicide. It started with lofty and laudable ideals. Jim Jones was a champion of racial integration and equality. He had a unique talent for implementing positive change in troubled communities, getting people off drugs, getting them to make constructive contributions to their neighborhoods. He was charismatic and charming. It’s easy to see why so many people were drawn to him. Jonestown was a beautiful agricultural community carved out of the jungles of Guyana. It was an impressive achievement. You didn’t have to be insane to want to go there.
Jim Jones didn’t go from charming to bat-shit crazy in one quick movement. It happened by degrees over time. And the people followed along, continuously accepting ever increasing degrees of madness.
Responsibility in the case of the Jonestown Massacre went both ways. Jim Jones didn’t act alone. He needed willing accomplices. He needed willing victims.
Part of what I see going on in the demands for a safe environment that are cropping up in response to the Sasaki scandal is a demand for an environment free from personal responsibility. I wonder if this might be an unconscious demand for a more Jonestown-like environment in our Zen centers.
It seems to me that we want to demand that our teachers be perfectly good so that we can enter into a state of baby-like trust in them. Nobody thinks that’s what they want. They will all protest that they don’t. But I have to wonder. I wonder because I know for certain that I want that. I really do. And I have acted in ways that would have been disastrous if I’d had my own Jonestown to run off to. I would have gone there for sure. No question about it. We all want that, I think.
But our teachers can never be perfectly good. They can be better than Jim Jones or Joshu Sasaki. They ought to be. And we are right to demand at least that much. But I feel like there’s an undercurrent to some of what I’m seeing that wants more than that.
The problem is we can’t have an environment so safe that we adults can ever let go and fall backwards into a fluffy warm state of infant-like trust. Babies have no choice but to place their total trust in their parents. Sometimes this trust is misplaced. But babies are powerless to do anything about that. So society steps in and tries to make sure that all parents treat their babies well.
Adults don’t have that option. No matter how many committees “with teeth” we put into place to try and make it that way. Again, I often wish we did. In Japan, where I lived for 11 years, many adults place a ridiculous amount of trust in the government to be like surrogate parents. After the debacle following the 2011 tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster a lot of that trust is gone. Which is a good thing. As bad as the disaster was, it did have the effect of making people a lot more realistic about their government. Which is not me saying that Japan ought to have more nuclear melt-downs any more than my recent statements about Sasaki are me saying we ought to have more sexual abuse by Zen masters.
I think it’s crucial that we derive the correct lesson from what happened with Sasaki and his group. It’s that we, as students, have to be very careful about giving up our personal power and responsibility to our teachers. Otherwise things can get a whole lot worse.
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BRAD’S SPRING MICRO-TOUR 2013
• March 5th (Tuesday) 7:00 pm NASHVILLE, TN – 12 South Dharma Center 2301 12th Ave. South, Suite 202, Nashville, TN 37204 (2nd floor, stairs in back of building). Meditation at 7pm (two 25 min periods with a 5 minute kinhin). Dharma talk following at 8. Newcomers are invited to come 15 minutes early for orientation.
• March 13th (Wednesday) 7:00 pm CHICAGO, IL – Zen Buddhist Temple of Chicago, 608 Dempster St., Evanston (near the Dempster Purple Line station). The event goes from 7-9, and includes one 40-minute period of zazen, 10 minutes of kinhin, after which I’ll give a talk.
• March 17th (Sunday) 10:20 am MILWAUKEE, WI – Milwaukee Zen Center 2825 N. Stowell Avenue, Milwaukee, WI 53211-3775 My talk will start at 10:20 am but come at 9:30 am if you want to sit zazen with me too.
I will also be in Akron, Ohio from March 6-13 if anybody wants to set up a thing out there.
• April 26-28 ZEN RETREAT AT MOUNT BALDY ZEN CENTER F0r more info or to sign up, click here. No groping.
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If this blog entertained you or made you think, please make a donation. The coffee shop I’m writing in is way too expensive and the library is closed this morning. Plus there’s some TV industry dude with a million tattoos shouting to the people at his table about his project and all the famous people he knows. Ugh!