Zen in the News

The Joshu Sasaki sex scandal has made both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times thus making it officially news, as opposed to just the stuff that gets bantered about on Buddhist blogs.

One of the reasons things like this have been covered up in the past is the knowledge among us Buddhists that we are a very tiny minority. We know that there is little information available to the general public about what Buddhists believe and practice. We know that sex sells. We know that if papers like the NY and LA Times start coming out with headlines saying “Buddhist Sex Scandal” the general public, who know so little about us, will forever associate Buddhist with sex scandal, thus rendering all of Buddhism as “those guys who have the sex scandals.”

This was a major part of why the troubles with Richard Baker and Maezumi Roshi were hidden. Those scandals happened in the Seventies when there was even less available information. But we haven’t come that far yet, so it’s still a big fear.

And now what we feared has come to pass. Here is how the New York Times explains Buddhism to its audience;

Such charges have become more frequent in Zen Buddhism. Several other teachers have been accused of misconduct recently … Critics and victims have pointed to a Zen culture of secrecy, patriarchy and sexism, and to the quasi-religious worship of the Zen master, who can easily abuse his status.

So Zen Buddhism is all about the quasi-religious worship of Zen Masters and has a culture of secrecy, patriarchy and sexism. It has to be true because the New York Times said it and they’re not allowed to print anything that’s not true.

The Zen I have studied and practiced for most of my life never had anything to do with secrecy, patriarchy or sexism. Nor was there even the slightest hint of quasi-religious worship of the two teachers with whom I studied. Both of them were resolutely against secrecy, patriarchy and sexism, and neither would have stood for anyone even attempting to worship them. Dogen Zenji, the founder of our school, championed women’s equality in medieval Japan for gosh sakes! I’ve encountered a lot of Zen teachers in my travels and only one of them has ever been accused of sexual impropriety. And even his case was not all that clear cut.

But it hardly matters when authorities like the New York Times tell everyone otherwise.

Perhaps the anxiety over this is what has caused the witch hunt mentality within the Buddhist community. When I found myself accused of being a “psychotic sexual predator” on a website so authoritative it is cited as a source for the NY Times article because I suggested that it was natural to expect non-celibate Buddhist teachers to have consensual sexual relations with their so-called “congregants” it was clear that we had crossed a line.*

We had become so frantic in our quest to root out the evil in our midst that we were turning on everyone who could even in the remotest way be accused of sexual misconduct. “Look!” we said to the media, “I’m not like those bad guys! Here’s another one of us you can tear up! Just don’t go for me!” I’m sure I was not the only one who felt the wrath of those who wished to present themselves as the champions of justice ready to vanquish all aggressors and make everything clean and pure again.

But here’s the thing. We Buddhists, even our so-called “Masters,” are just people like everyone else. This is enshrined within our philosophy and practice. It goes right back to the founder.

In the Sixties we somehow got lost in a rush to present Buddhism as some kind of magic mojo and its teachers as superhuman Masters who had transcended the muck of all human frailties. This cartoon-like image persists even now, fueled by the media and perpetuated by we Buddhists ourselves.

When we fail to complain about “Zen Masters” who present themselves as so incredibly enlightened they can charge thousands of dollars for ordinary citizens to sit in their presence whereby they will be divulged the secrets of the universe, we are killing Buddhism. When we teachers allow ourselves to be presented as free from our base attachments because we know that sells books and gets more butts in seats at our talks, we are killing Buddhism.

Joshu Sasaki has done a great service to American Buddhism. I won’t go so far as to speculate that he did it intentionally. He’s probably just an old horn dog. But whether he meant for this to happen or not, he did a great thing. He helped kill off the image of the Enlightened Master as something beyond human. He did so by leaving a legacy not just of sexual misconduct but of deep, profound insight. I like Sasaki better now than I ever did, even while I wish there had been a better way to do this.** Ultimately this scandal just might help save Buddhism in America by transforming it from a cartoon stereotype into something real.

Of course since I’ve said this, I will now be called one of those who excused the abuse and the harm that it caused. But that’s not the truth. I don’t excuse it. It is very sad that it happened. I’m sorry so many people were harmed. That’s not good. Just because I believe something positive will come out of this doesn’t excuse the abuse itself.

But I really wonder if we Americans would ever have been smart enough to understand what Sasaki has taught us if we’d just been told it was so rather than having it demonstrated in unmistakable actions. I kinda doubt it. We’ve already been told but we still wanted to believe in supermasters in our midst.


* I am not referring here to Sasaki’s alleged gropings and so forth as “consensual sexual relations with congregants.” I am referring back to the kinds of relationships described in an earlier article titled Terrible Nicknames to Earn. See that article or this one for clarification.

** When I say that I like Sasaki, I don’t mean I like what he did. I think it’s awful. Did you read that? I’ll write it again just in case because I’ve noticed these parts tend to get skimmed over. I think what Sasaki did was awful. And again. I think what Sasaki did was awful. When I say I like him I mean that I still very much like a lot of the things he said in the context of being a teacher. His book Buddha is the Center of Gravity is still one of the best. And in some perverse way, I like the fact that such teachings came from a man who was so clearly troubled and not at all holy. It means there’s still some hope for the rest of us. He was not a monster. He was a human being. Like me. Maybe like you too? That’s not for me to say.


Oh yeah. Like I’m gonna get any donations after an article like that! But they sure would help.

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203 Responses

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  1. Broken Yogi
    Broken Yogi February 15, 2013 at 3:56 pm |

    Noah, yeah, good questions.

    “Someone please tell me the difference between Trungpa and Sasaki on the one hand and Adi Da and David Koresh on the other, other than a matter of scale? We’d like to say the former have real wisdom. But I think the followers of the latter might say the same.”

    I have to chuckle at Adi Da being grouped with Koresh, but I understand quite well the point. Just because followers think there’s wisdom there, doesn’t mean it’s so. But just because outsiders don’t think there’s wisdom there, doesn’t mean it’s absent.

    The question is really about the spiritual process itself, and what happens to these body-minds of ours as we open ourselves to something greater. Apparently, lot’s of shit starts flying. And there’s a strong tendency to label some of that shit as “God”, even assuming that “God” and “shit” are opposites that can’t coincide in the same person, much less the same tradition. Separating wheat from chaff isn’t always possible, it seems, because from different perspectives, sometimes shit looks like God, and God looks like shit. There’s a major lesson in all that, I think, and I too am grappling with it.

  2. Broken Yogi
    Broken Yogi February 15, 2013 at 4:10 pm |


    “Just live, and stop putting another head on the one you’ve already got.”

    Again, this is just a tautology. I’m already alive, already living, and spiritual life is a part of that living. How, exactly, does one “stop putting another head on the one you’ve already got?” Does that mean, stop thinking? How does one do that? Or, just stop thinking about spiritual practice? Maybe I should stop thinking about pink elephants while I’m at it? The admonition is itself an example of the thing it admonishes. So your comment is itself an example of “thinking about spiritual practice”. It violates its own message.

    You see, you just aren’t making sense, no matter how much you think you do. It’s not even remotely original. People have been saying this sort of thing for endless time. It’s how Buddhism got started even. Buddha wanted to bring an end to the cycle of his own recursive thinking and suffering. He sat down, and went through what he later called the Four Nobel Truths and the Nobel Eightfold Path. A lot of people saw great wisdom in this, and tried to emulate him. No one ever expected the system itself to liberate them. But it was a very good guideline that helped a lot of people “work out their own salvation”. And along the way, there’s been a lot of wrong steps and corruption and so on, as is to be expected.

    So what do you have to offer in its place? Nothing, it seems, except pointless tautologies. Is that really helping anyone?

  3. Broken Yogi
    Broken Yogi February 15, 2013 at 4:29 pm |


    To answer the above question from Noah more directly would be hard, given the details one might need to get into. But in general, I’d say it has a lot to do with the qualities of the individual body-mind, and the basic attitude of surrender beyond the controlling inner sense of self that we use to regulate the body-mind. Whatever form of spiritual practice one engages, a basic, even primordial element of these is surrender beyond oneself. Some Buddhists here call it “entering into a hypnogogic state”. Christians have their own language, as do Hindus. But in general, it means entering into a mode of mind in which we let of ourselves, and allow whatever arises to arise, and even to arise creatively and powerfully.

    In the process of that practice, all kinds of powerful emotions, impulses, and even spiritual energies and consciousness arise and “take over” the body-mind. This is even what is often sought, and the experience often feels genuinely “liberating”. Adi Da, for example, taught early on that the process should be called “Guru enters devotee”, as the Guru force enters and takes over the individual body-mind, literally living it, and creating an inspired life. This is even a self-description of his own experience. And I think something similar happens with others, like Trungpa. Don’t know about Sasaki too much, but I wouldn’t be surprised either.

    The problem is, even when this process has some genuine truth to it, we still have the body-mind and all its qualities, desires, and impulses. Some of them are sexual. And so these teachers, infilled with Spirit, and no longer operating by normal constraints of mind and so forth, go wild, and do all kinds of things that seem to them to be an expression of their inner Divine source, but are, at least in part, also an expression of their body-minds and its various character deficits and qualities.

    One might even posit that some of these people could be considered “enlightened”, at least in their grasp of the transcendental nature of consciousness, and their surrender to it. But that’s not all there is to life. The qualities of the body-mind remain to be dealt with. Guys like Trungpa and Da, who felt they were genuinely enlightened, thought that they were using their body-minds in the service of the liberation of others. That’s obviously questionable, even at the level of enlightenment, but certainly at the level of what they ended up doing to “serve” others. A mixed bag of tricks, to be sure. I’m sure that they felt that they were helping liberate people from their restraints on surrender, and making them more available to the “Guru force”, or whatever they might call it. But it doesn’t seem that’s all they were up to. They had some serious problems of their own that they hadn’t transcended, and were avoiding dealing with. And these came to color most everything they did, often wiping out whatever good they might have intended. It’s a good set of lessons for all of us, in too many ways to list.

  4. Fred
    Fred February 15, 2013 at 4:58 pm |

    I read your blog from 2 years ago – it’s very good, as is this.

  5. hrtbeat7
    hrtbeat7 February 15, 2013 at 5:23 pm |

    Broken Yogi writes: “So what do you have to offer in its place? Nothing, it seems, except pointless tautologies. Is that really helping anyone?”

    The level of reactivity in your response is interesting, BY, and revealing too. It seems I have touched a nerve. Even after all your time with the Adi Da fiasco, you seem to be still conceiving of spirituality from a relatively infantile stage of maturation, in which the aspirant needs to check themselves into the local religious hospital, where a black-robed or white-robed father or mother doctor will confirm their disease and require them to submit for the rest of their life to various regimes for their own healing and ultimate cure.

    Most seekers never even stop to question their own motivation. They just hear somebody else’s idea about spirituality, and then off they go, taking on all sorts of practices and borrowed beliefs. They cherish some operatic fancies about liberation and so pursue lines of action that end up being totally futile. They concentrate, they meditate, they torture their mind and body, they do all sorts of unnecessary things, but end up missing the most essential — what has been right there from the beginning.

    All I have been suggesting, on the contrary, is that one learn to stand on one’s own two feet, but apparently that prospect is a bit threatening, and I suppose it always has been, hence the proliferation of comfy cults where one can park one’s zafu and fantasize on being a “helper”.

    In that respect, I am reminded of the idiot compassion of the monkey who had some sort of epiphany, and then imagined himself to be a “helper”. He set off to save beings, and came upon a fish in pond. He scooped the fish out of the water and placed it in a tree branch to keep it from drowning. Thanks for the help, Brother!

    On the other hand, what might actually be helpful, imo, is to save some folks the trouble and heart-ache of wandering down dead-end streets. It’s been said that a word to the wise is sufficient, and maybe there is sombody out there in blogland who will stop and question their own motives for getting involved in these various spiritual schemes in the first place. If so, my efforts here will have been of some service.

    Enough said, over and out!

  6. Broken Yogi
    Broken Yogi February 15, 2013 at 8:14 pm |


    Thanks for the psychobabble diagnosis! Again, so helpful. I guess I struck a nerve in you too.

    Look, you’re still not really saying anything, just throwing around straw men and meaningless ad hominems about people you don’t even know. Exactly what religious hospital have I checked into? I am not a part of any tradition, I have no teacher, I don’t even practice Zen or Buddhism or anything of the like. I do appreciate these traditions, and the people in them, but it’s not out of any personal attachment to them. I just think you are talking like an empty windbag and not appreciating the human dimension of spiritual life. Which is precisely what is what is so lacking in the kind of people you criticize. I suggest you become more human yourself first, and then come back to talk like an adult who doesn’t pretend to know all the answers.

    I have no truck with cultists, but anti-cultists are just another form of the same problem, with the added conceit that they’ve gone beyond it. It’s even more obnoxious, in some respects. Once you go beyond cultism and anti-cultism, you still have to deal with reality, which is still spiritual in nature, and that can’t be avoided forever.

  7. hrtbeat7
    hrtbeat7 February 15, 2013 at 9:02 pm |

    BY writes: ” I don’t even practice Zen or Buddhism or anything of the like.”

    I was wondering what your real stake was in all of this, given that you admittedly don’t have any association now or in the past with the actual practice of Zen Buddhism. Perhaps an intellectual diversion, assuming a particular position in an internet debate? Still, what is behind your hostility? I’ll leave that to you to consider. Games of one-upmanship are not very productive, and if you haven’t gotten my drift by now, further elaboration would not seem very worthwhile.

    Cheers, Mate!

  8. Broken Yogi
    Broken Yogi February 15, 2013 at 9:58 pm |


    Why are you still trying to psychoanalyze me? Why not, you know, just say something meaningful about the issues we’ve raised? You can end the one-upmanship, by ending the attempt to figure me out, as if the answers to these questions are in your somehow knowing what makes me tick. Why not just engage in a grown up discussion about something other than ourselves? My hostility is pretty easy to figure out, if you realize that I come here to have interesting conversations with intelligent people about matters that I care about. Often, I find that here. With you, not so much.

  9. Andy
    Andy February 16, 2013 at 8:45 am |

    To hrtbeat7

    “Andy asked: “Would you include zazen as in “the delusion, imho — expecting some system to change us.”?”

    Yes, if you are expecting zazen to change you, you have already misunderstood.”

    I agree. To be more specific, would you say that practice of zazen is a delusive means to better see into the reality of one’s life? And given that it were not a delusive means would not one of the side-effects of a transformed view lead to a different set of actions by the practitioner to the extent that some change would be effected?

    1. Andy
      Andy February 16, 2013 at 8:49 am |

      ‘change’ in the sense that a change in one’s behaviour from previous habits also effects changes in the person both physically and mentally for the better?

  10. Fred
    Fred February 16, 2013 at 2:31 pm |

    “would you say that practice of zazen is a delusive means to better see into the reality of one’s life?”

    zazen = an opening for the universe to see itself.

    Delusive means = ?

    reality of one’s life = a delusion

    better see = a different delusion

    1. Andy
      Andy February 16, 2013 at 7:01 pm |

      don’t be stupid fred

      1. Fred
        Fred February 17, 2013 at 5:36 pm |

        Fuck you.

        1. Andy
          Andy February 18, 2013 at 7:26 am |


  11. Brent
    Brent February 16, 2013 at 4:09 pm |
  12. Newleaf
    Newleaf February 18, 2013 at 6:08 pm |

    I’ve been a bit obsessed with this problem since early in my Buddhist affiliation. I waded through the Richard Baker thing, read up on Chogyam Trungpa and Maizumi Roshi. As a person with a rather eccentric love life, I was curious about how one behaves ethically as a single and very sexual person.

    Of course a Zen master who is dangling the carrot of enlightenment within the temple is another matter. Or not. It’s all about caring and concern, not hurting and full disclosure of one’s expectations. It appears that at least in some cases Sasaki failed at that.

    I’m always curious why those who thought themselves used didn’t do something sooner — change teachers or even practices, speak to their peers, something. Do people really thing that pure practice grows out of misbehavior? Why wouldn’t an adult walk away and maybe even speak up?

    I have been in such situations in non-religious settings and left quickly when I though actions were inappropriate. And this is not to detract from the seriousness of the accusations, but one should never never cede one’s good judgement to another, even if he’s a famed Zen master.

  13. floating_abu
    floating_abu February 20, 2013 at 6:48 am |

    I think the problem is more complex than it is presented here and perhaps those nuances will always be lost

  14. MJGibbs
    MJGibbs February 22, 2013 at 5:16 am |

    I thought it was strange that Adam did not respond to Brad changing the blog post from “by a website” to “on a website. After noticing this, my next thought was, “Did Adam like when he had something to argue with Brad about more than he liked Brad changing the blog post.” Just some thoughts.

  15. MJGibbs
    MJGibbs February 22, 2013 at 5:20 am |

    I’m fascinated by great teachers that do terrible shit. It seems to happen to be a common theme with some of the most beloved Buddhist teachers. Trungpa is probably the most interesting case.

    1. Gregory Wonderwheel
      Gregory Wonderwheel February 22, 2013 at 6:50 am |

      I’m also fascinated by the people who think that teachers of reality should all be saints.

  16. MJGibbs
    MJGibbs February 22, 2013 at 5:34 am |

    I once had something happen to me on a retreat that really fucked me up that I thought was horrible at the time. It was nothing like being sexually abused by a teacher (that is true horror), but it shattered my whole world. Part of me is still a little bitter about it. But at the same time, I think it was good that it happened even though it hurt like hell at the time. I was living in a dream and needed to be brought back down to reality by someone smashing the shit out of my dream. The dream felt a lot better, and I was never able to take hold of that dream again. However, I’m still sort of lost and not really sure what I was suppose to learn from it all. Maybe I should just sit and stop trying to figure shit out.

    1. Gregory Wonderwheel
      Gregory Wonderwheel February 22, 2013 at 6:49 am |

      Very cryptic. I’m curious how you even think that someone could come close to replying with no information to go on?

  17. Newleaf
    Newleaf February 22, 2013 at 6:06 am |

    Sitting, yes, MJ, but you might just try dropping the “figuring shit out” part. We get trapped in the stories when things are more easily resolved by just letting go of them.

  18. kigen01
    kigen01 February 25, 2013 at 3:01 am |

    Newleaf wrote:
    “I’m always curious why those who thought themselves used didn’t do something sooner — change teachers or even practices, speak to their peers, something. Do people really thing that pure practice grows out of misbehavior? Why wouldn’t an adult walk away and maybe even speak up?”

    Because anyone that has studied with Sasaki Roshi knows that he’s the real-deal, a true Zen master, straight out of the books (and just as “mean” as the ones in the books too). Everybody wanted the wisdom and insight Sasaki Roshi could teach…but they wanted it without the meanness, and that just never happened…or maybe it never could happen. I personally think that the women who stayed and endured his problematic behavior did so hoping that it would pass or that somehow they would still be able to get what they knew Sasaki Roshi might teach them. I believe that even the people who were hurt most by his meanness respected his ability to teach and help others and this contributed to their silence.

    1. Gregory Wonderwheel
      Gregory Wonderwheel February 25, 2013 at 11:15 am |

      At a Mt. Baldy sesshin, I once took Sasaki Roshi’s personal “Roshi stick” from him during sanzen and went back to the Zendo and put it on the alter saying aloud, “Who owns this?”

      I was told to leave the main zendo and sit in the alternative zendo until the officers could figure out what to do with me. Later they let me back in the zendo and at my next sanzen Sasaki laughed about it.

      I tell this story only to point out that Sasaki was not “mean” in any usual or conventional sense of the word and that he responded genuinely to people who came to sanzen ready to meet him eyebrow to eyebrow and not just wanting to get something fantastic.

  19. kigen01
    kigen01 February 25, 2013 at 8:50 pm |

    Gregory wrote;
    “I tell this story only to point out that Sasaki was not “mean” in any usual or conventional sense of the word and that he responded genuinely to people who came to sanzen ready to meet him eyebrow to eyebrow and not just wanting to get something fantastic.”

    Nah, sometimes he was just mean, and in more ways than one. Is that so hard to accept?

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