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.