The Sasaki Case: Part a Million and Seven

Before my rant, I want to officially announce our upcoming Zen retreat at Mt. Baldy Zen Center April 26-28, 2013. You can sign up here. Yes this is the very place where Joshu Sasaki allegedly fondled so many! But if you want to be fondled by me it will cost you $175 extra, I’m afraid. (I’m here till Tuesday! Don’t forget to tip your bartenders!)


My friend Christine posted this response to my previous blog post:

Hey Brad. So here’s one problem with your argument: it assumes that we can’t hold ordinary, non-perfect, unenlightened people to high standards of common decency and non-abusive behavior. Sure, zen teachers aren’t perfect. But abuse, harassment and unethical conduct is abhorrent in any situation from anyone. This is especially true for people in positions of authority (including ordinary people like professors, doctors, police officers, child caregivers, managers in the workplace and zen teachers). So it seems to me that while they may be provocative, your remarks aren’t really hardcore or subversive or challenging to the status quo. That “old horn dogs” are just boys being boys is the same argument that has justified sexual harassment and violence for ages. It’s the patriarchal party line no matter how you say it. And it’s harmful.

I was scratching my head trying to figure out why I came off sounding like I was saying that “we can’t hold ordinary, non-perfect, unenlightened people to high standards of common decency and non-abusive behavior.” Because I do not believe that at all. Nor do I think Sasaki’s actions are merely just a case of “boys being boys.” It sounds like it goes way beyond that if all the accusations are true, and Rinzai-ji doesn’t seem to be denying them. It appears to have been a whole interlocking system of really reprehensible behavior on the part of a great number of people that went on for a really long time. And that is not good.

All I can think of that might have made my friend believe I was saying this was that the sentence “I suggested that it was natural to expect non-celibate Buddhist teachers to have consensual sexual relations with their so-called ‘congregants’” appears in an article which also talks about Sasaki’s actions. And many are saying that Sasaki’s so-called “victims” gave their consent. So it might appear that when I said “consensual sexual relations with congregants” some people might have thought I was referring to Sasaki’s actions. I was not.

I was referring to what I talked about in an earlier article called “Terrible Nicknames to Earn.” In case you don’t want to follow the link, it’s about what happens if, for example, a single, non-celibate Zen teacher working, for example, in a remote town with a small group of fellow meditators happens to fall in love with some member of that group. If we start equating the very high-profile and very anomalous case of Sasaki Roshi with the much more common cases of people simply falling in love in unusual and difficult circumstances we’re going way too far.

I think what’s missing from a lot of the discussion about this topic is how extremely unusual the Sasaki case and others like it are. I go to a lot of Zen places all around the world to give talks. Most of them are tiny, like the hypothetical place I described above and referred to in an unstated way in that other article. They’re often run out of someone’s house and attract less than twenty people on ordinary days, sometimes far less. They invite me because I can bring in a lot of people who never would show up otherwise. So suddenly there are, like, forty-five people jammed into their tiny living room, or they rent out the local VFW hall and get a hundred.

Rinzai-ji, San Francisco Zen Center, whatever Genpo Roshi calls his thing, and the other Zen places where most (perhaps all) of these sex abuse cases have come up are like mega-churches, at least by Zen standards. They’re much, much bigger, and therefore highly unusual. Some have multiple locations in multiple states or even other countries. I often wonder if it’s the bigness of the places more than anything specifically about Zen as such that causes much of this kind of weirdness.

But look at me, just to take one far more typical example. I can count on one hand the number of times since 2005 when I started holding weekly zazen meetings in Santa Monica that more than twenty people have shown up. And I’d still have three fingers left over. That’s enough fingers left over to fondle someone with! (That’s a JOKE! Calm down!)

What I’m saying is that the scale is vastly different, which means everything else is vastly different.

But let’s change the subject back to her other point, that of holding Zen teachers to high standards. Yes. I think we ought to do that. The problem is when people start believing “Zen Masters” are quasi-divine beings and thus hold them up to standards so high that nobody in the world could ever hope to live up to them. It doesn’t help when you’ve got guys running around pretending to be so divine that merely being in their presence will get you enlightened. That’s one of the reasons I complain about those knuckleheads so often.

One time I visited a small Zen center where a sex scandal had recently happened. I was told that the sexual improprieties of their former leader “threatened to tear apart” the whole place. So I asked what happened. Turns out the ex-leader of the center, who was married, had an affair with someone who came to the center, who was also married. So I’m kind of going, “OK. And…”

And nothing! Alright, there was one more thing. Turns out the couple hid their affair for a while until it became too hard to hide. Like people do when they’re having affairs. But that was it! And I’m kind of like, “That is enough to tear apart this whole community of meditaors?” Maybe I’m weird. But it made no sense to me at all.

Look. One likes to believe that a so-called “Zen Master” would never cheat on his wife or her husband or do anything else that anyone could find fault with. But you know what? “Zen Masters” or not, we’re all just over-developed apes. Shit happens. That doesn’t make it OK. It’s still bad. That doesn’t excuse it. But excuses aren’t necessary. Moving on is what’s necessary.

There is a Truth of the Universe and it can be known by ordinary people, and it can help them tremendously. But it doesn’t change the people who know it from being over-developed apes into angels. That can’t happen. Sorry. It generally makes them better than they were before, though. And that’s important.

Often I think (and this’ll get me in trouble, but I’m on a roll) that some of this “tear the center apart” kind of stuff is just an excuse to avoid practice. The Master is not perfect! So there is no point in practice! Yay! I can quit now! I suspect this because I had these thoughts myself when I started learning how human my teachers really were.

But I didn’t quit. And you can’t quit either. Somewhere hidden in the darkest depths you know that.


I’m not sure why I’m even posting a link to my donations page after that one.



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76 Responses

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  1. sri_barence
    sri_barence February 20, 2013 at 8:16 am |

    Hee hee. “Penisauraus.”

  2. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon February 20, 2013 at 4:02 pm |

    Hardcore Zen, meet softcore Zen.

    1. anon 108
      anon 108 February 20, 2013 at 5:22 pm |

      Yes. I am coming. Coming into your zen garden. I see the white light. The coyfish playing in your deep pool. I take a sip of your water (not ordinary water) – all the way down to the bottom. I am restored.

      Very helpful, TGC. Cheers.

      1. The Grand Canyon
        The Grand Canyon February 21, 2013 at 3:48 am |

        *Chuckle* I’m glad that you enjoyed that video, anon108. I just found out about ASMR videos this week and thought I would share with the Hardcore Zen community. Here is the (pseudo) science behind them.

    2. thomas
      thomas March 6, 2013 at 4:07 am |

      Pretty funny. Although, I must admit, I couldn’t make it past the 20 second mark.

  3. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote February 20, 2013 at 5:57 pm |

    woo woo!

  4. boubi
    boubi February 21, 2013 at 7:09 am |

    What a crap !

  5. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote February 21, 2013 at 8:38 am |

    Rolling Stones got nothin’ on that!

  6. A-Bob
    A-Bob February 21, 2013 at 2:19 pm |

    Shut up boubi.. She is enlightened and wise and stuff.

  7. Fred
    Fred February 21, 2013 at 5:04 pm |

    Boubi : ” What a crap ! ”

    I can do the head orgasm ASMR without external input.

    I think that it is there below the threshold of ordinary consciousness, but
    normal consciousness is inhibiting it.

  8. MJGibbs
    MJGibbs February 22, 2013 at 7:34 am |

    You know the Sasaki scandal has really gone main stream when they talk about it on the Young Turks show:

  9. Mr. Propter
    Mr. Propter February 25, 2013 at 10:22 am |

    I’ve been following your posts on the Sasaki case and I have to say I find it hard to tell exactly what your take on this is. On the one hand, teachers are human and we shouldn’t be surprised when they get up to the kind of mischief Sasaki got up to. On the other, you say repeatedly that what he did was wrong. So do you think we should do anything about it? It would appear that you don’t think we should, but it’s hard to be sure.

    In any case, I agree with you that Buddhist teachers are human. At the same time, they’re Buddhist teachers, and that, to simple old me, suggests two things: 1) they take the basic principles of Buddhism seriously; and 2) they are especially committed to them, to such an extent that they spend their lives advocating them to others.

    Now, I know we can disagree around the edges on what Buddhism is, what Zen is, etc. But is seems pretty clear to me that both Buddhism and Zen have a very simple ethical code at their center, one represented by the Five Precepts in Theravada and the Ten Boddhisattva Precepts in Zen schools. Both of these sets of precepts include a warning against sexual immorality.

    We can also disagree on what sexual immorality is (and we certainly don’t want our views on this to remain completely unchanging), but it’s pretty clear to most people that non-consensual groping is sexual and immoral. (I also think that having sex with someone below you in a clear hierarchy is immoral, but here there is I think more room for reasonable disagreement.)

    So it surprises me that you think that Buddhist teachers groping or having sex with their students is no big deal. It’s not because I’m a prude – it’s because Buddhist teachers are Buddhist teachers, and it’s perfectly reasonable to expect them to be more committed to certain ethical principles than others (and to stop being Buddhist teachers if it turns out they’re not).

    I also think it’s surprising that you don’t understand how two married people having an affair can tear a community apart. Finally, I strongly disagree with the idea that criticizing teachers who do wrong is a way of avoiding the practice. It is often an act of great courage and integrity that reflects a deep commitment to the precepts and to the practice in general. And anyway, many of the people who fall out with various teachers (myself included) go on practicing on their own or with other groups.

    By the way, I do agree that part of the problem here is large institutions with power concentrated at the top. It seems to me that the lifeblood of American Zen practice is in small groups in living rooms and community halls.

    Anyway, thank you for your blog. I always enjoy reading it.

Comments are closed.