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Barbara O'Brien

The Sasaki Situation

By November 26, 2012

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I'm a bit late commenting on the latest Zen teacher sex scandal. Really, this is getting tiresome. But here goes --

Recently the board of directors of Rinzai-ji Zen Center in Los Angeles met to discuss allegations of sexual impropriety against the abbot, Joshu Sasaki Roshi. This has allegedly been going on for years, and the impropriety allegedly is ongoing in spite of the fact that Roshi is now 105 years old.

If you want to read the last sentence a couple more times, I understand.

I have no personal knowledge of the Sasaki Situation and can only report on what I have read elsewhere, so please take all of this with a really big grain of salt. But here's the story --

Sasaki Roshi, born in 1907, is a Rinzai Zen teacher who came to the United States to found the  Rinzai-ji Zen Center. He also is abbot of the Mount Baldy Zen Center, also in California, and a number of affiliated Zen centers. He is best known for being songwriter Leonard Cohen's teacher.

I have only heard a few of the allegations, but allegedly Roshi is a compulsive groper. One former student said he had asked her to bare her breasts to him to help her break out of her mental limitations. There are vague hints of sexual relations with students, although nothing is spelled out. And that's about all I know.

In some ways the question of what Roshi did or didn't do is less interesting to me than the reactions to it. There seems to be a lot of belittling of the allegations going on, especially because of Roshi's advanced age. But the allegations go back many years, when his age was less advanced. Some groped women have testified that when they complained, senior students just laughed off Roshi's odd little habit of grabbing women's breasts at random times. That's just Roshi!

Because of the man's advanced age, I am not so interested in punishing or condemning him as I am in educating others, especially the menfolk, that the groping thing is seriously bad. Yes, worse things can happen. Yes, most of the time being randomly groped doesn't do permanent damage. But when the groper is a man in authority, someone said to be worthy of admiration, being groped, being treated as a sex toy, is deeply humiliating. It tells the woman that the man in authority doesn't take her seriously as a human being, much less as a student.

I think that must be hard for a lot of men to appreciate, but that's how it is. And, of course, if a woman has a history of being sexually abused, being groped by an authority figure stirs up all the shame and self-loathing that so often plagues sexual abuse victims.

The best analogy of awfulness would be to welcome African Americans into the sangha and then tell them they have to clean the kitchen while the white folks meditate.  And then tell watermelon jokes. Well, that's what it feels like to a woman when her person is so disrespected by someone in which she has placed her hopes and her trust. It's not the sex; it's the betrayal of trust and the belittling.

And while it's bad enough for Roshi to be a groper; when the senior students of the sangha brush off a woman's complaints and tell her to just get over it, to me, that's even worse.

That said, of course we women are very different creatures and don't all react to the same situation in the same way. Maybe some women don't find it to be a big deal. And maybe there are people with scars who don't mind being called ugly, or elderly people who don't mind being belittled as useless and senile. And since not everybody minds, those who do mind should just get over it, right?

Dosho Port commented on the Sasaki Situation, but what struck me is the first comment, in which someone (with a feminine name) complains that we shouldn't be so judgmental about sex. OK, but we should try to get points, and I say this really isn't about sex.

Adam Tebbe at Sweeping Zen says he got the same reaction when he wrote about Sasaki. "One man contacted me on Facebook to inform me I am the 'Pee Pee Police.' Another angry blogger previously commented that we're Sweeping Sins, now," he writes.

Again, I don't think this has anything to do with conventional or unconventional morality, or sin, or puritanism, or whatever is hanging somebody up. This is about signaling to certain people that they have no value as human beings and that their pain isn't important and won't be taken seriously. This is what the Buddha taught?

November 27, 2012 at 4:16 am
(1) Hein says:

The first precept is generally known as the precept against harm. If one is uncertain whether touching another might cause harm, then one should refrain from doing that, unless it is to save the other from a greater harm. To approach it from another side: if one’s reason to touch another is premised upon greed, lust or ignorance then one should not touch another. Why would you otherwise (aside from real noble reasons) want to do that so anyway, if not for impulses inflamed by one of those three poisons?
A brief story what happened to me whilst on retreat:
Whilst having a meal (sitting down) at the temple in the dining room at a place reserved for retreatants, a stranger (male) walked past me and touch me on my head under the impression I was somebody else. That brief touch gave me such a jolt (a week and half later I still remember it and still feel a small measure of irritation). Caused no physical harm and I know I have to “get over myself” and move on.
But reading Barbara’s article I just cannot even attempt to imagine what a female must feel when a male grope her.

November 27, 2012 at 7:50 am
(2) Mumon says:

Of course you’re right; the thing to me is that if one is really that well trained it ought to be easier I think to have intervened /stopped these situations from happening; as I said over at my place the more one trains in these situations the more human and less god the teacher seems.

That’s what puzzles me.

November 27, 2012 at 9:06 am
(3) Barbara O'Brien says:

Mumon — yes, and that’s exactly why I find the reactions to the allegations more interesting than the allegations themselves. I think it’s safe to say that, if the allegations are true, Roshi isn’t going to change now. Not in this life, anyway. ;-) And I’ll leave speculation as to what makes a groper grope to other people.

The bigger concern is why there are western sanghas still covering up or overlooking a teacher’s bad behavior. Haven’t we been through this before? Didn’t we learn anything? And the fact that most people seem to immediately frame the issue in terms of sexual morality tells me that people still don’t get the actual effect such behavior has on most women.

I don’t give a hoo-haw what anybody does with himself or other fully consenting adults. I’m not even that negative about teacher-student relationships as long as both partners are mature and self-aware enough to know what they’re getting into. But sexual assault or exploitation even in its milder forms is not an issue of sexual morality but rather of objectifying women as something like ambulatory sexual appliances. It’s the gender bias that’s the main issue here, not sex.

November 27, 2012 at 9:04 am
(4) Jeff says:

Quick note: you’ve repeatedly misspelled his name as “Sesaki” instead of “Sasaki” in the text of the article. Feel free to delete this comment after it’s corrected.

November 27, 2012 at 9:10 am
(5) Barbara O'Brien says:

Jeff- Thanks for the correction. I really do need a proofreader.

November 27, 2012 at 10:31 am
(6) Mila says:

“I don’t give a hoo-haw what anybody does with himself or other fully consenting adults. I’m not even that negative about teacher-student relationships as long as both partners are mature and self-aware enough to know what they’re getting into. But sexual assault or exploitation even in its milder forms is not an issue of sexual morality but rather of objectifying women as something like ambulatory sexual appliances.”

Great disciminations here, Barbara. Yes!

“Not in this life, anyway.”

Seems Roshi may be setting himself up for his next lifetime …. as a watermelon, on a fruit stand in a busy outdoor produce market, stroked and groped by thousands of passers-by (testing him for ripeness, or just admiring the smoothness of his exterior)…. until someone accidentally — with a carelessly unconscious swivel of the hip — knocks him off the stand, causing him to plummet to the dusty ground, cracking his rind (perhaps this will be the crack that lets the light in? :) ) — bright-red fruit and black seeds splattering in all directions …..

Anyway, echoing Mumon’s comment re: being well-trained in a spiritual discipline presumably filtering (at least eventually) into all aspects of one’s life. Which is what presumably makes spiritual training different from, say, learning how to swim, or how to bake muffins — or any other secular skill. But maybe this just isn’t the case — perhaps what’s happening is that we’re learning an esoteric skill-set — which makes no promises beyond its limited field of application? Don’t know …..

November 27, 2012 at 6:30 pm
(7) Wayne says:

For anyone on a spiritual path, who will likely come in contact with a religious organization of some kind, I highly recommend reading “Saints & Psychopaths” by Bill Hamilton. Its a very good guide to the behaviors to watch out for when you’re dealing with teachers and clergy. The bottom line is, if you don’t like the way that someone is acting, either speak up or leave.

November 28, 2012 at 9:19 am
(8) Mila says:

“The bottom line is, if you don’t like the way that someone is acting, either speak up or leave.”

Wayne — this seems like very good advice, for an individual faced with uncomfortable circumstances. Kind of in line with Eckhart Tolle’s advice to either take action to change the situation, leave the situation, or make the decision to accept it unconditionally. In other words, to remain in a situation in which you’re continuously in resistance to, is silly, stupid, insane.

That said, this kind of advice doesn’t address the issue of institutional responsibility for what is observed to be a long-term pattern, affecting many individuals. So for instance if over the course of say 40 years, hundreds of women have indeed chosen to either speak up and/or leave, but the pattern continues …. what then?

November 28, 2012 at 12:49 pm
(9) Mila says:

Just for the record: I am not at all averse to granting huge amounts of slack to a Teacher’s “personal foibles” — if their presence on the planet is of significant general benefit. Though I’ve not yet met Sasaki Roshi in person, a number of friends and acquaintances who are students of his, and whose perspective I have great respect for, have offered a glimpse of the brilliance of his teaching — and I have no reason to doubt this, and really do honor what he has contributed.

But, ya’ know, the line has to be drawn somewhere: If the “cute little foible” were cutting off people’s (male & female practitioner’s) little fingers in the dokusan room, year after year, decade after decade — would that be brushed off as no big deal? Or: if his preferred objects of groping were the bodies of male instead of female practitioners, would this be dismissed with equally glib indifference, year after year, decade after decade? Think about it …..

November 28, 2012 at 12:54 pm
(10) Lee says:

if the man is teaching others and has practiced for many years (at 105 i’d say probably so) then if someone tells him “it offends women when you touch them like that.” what would his reaction be? Either he would understand and resolve not to offend or he would continue his actions which would tell me a lot if I were one of his followers. I would be really interested in whether or not anyone ‘talked’ with him and his response…but i doubt that would ever become public information. I hope at 105 I still enjoy a womans beauty and have the wisdom to respect all!

November 28, 2012 at 1:08 pm
(11) cl says:

I think maybe this sentiment has already been expressed to a degree, but my feeling is to look at this formally, in a kind-of general sense of what happens upon the establishment of formal positions, gatherings, rituals involving transmission, just people together in an organized capacity, etc…. Just look at it and you will see it erode. It’s perfectly logical for it to fall apart, what remains illogical and childish is any aspect of ‘surprise’ we might try to derive from our observance of overt activity or our heavy suspicions. The question of remediation and avoidance occurs at the exact moment when there is nothing left to suspect or observe.


November 29, 2012 at 7:40 pm
(12) How says:

To all buddhist. Always remember that monks or the sangha community are also layman before they become part of the sangha community. Always use the dharma as our principal guidance.
There will be always some bad apples in any community.

November 30, 2012 at 7:57 am
(13) David says:

Well, this is depressing for me. Joshu Roshi is the teacher of one of my main teachers, which in effect means that I have absorbed the roshi’s teachings secondhand. I go to sesshin primarily at a zendo (which I suppose I won’t name) which is an offshoot of Bald Mountain though not located anywhere near it. One of my fellow sesshin regulars, a far more serious student than I am who has also done sesshin with Joshu, is a woman who did report flirtatious behavior on his part when he was, er, only in his nineties, but it was not abuse, just silly joking (he greeted her by saying ‘oh, my girlfriend, let’s boogy!’). She just thought it was funny. Nevertheless, I can not imagine making such comments as a Buddhist teacher and leader. There is no excuse for any of this, especially groping, but I think what we have here is the case of a Japanese man of an earlier generation who was never confronted and educated. It is amazing how stupid an otherwise enlightened person can be. BTW, my teacher to my knowledge has never been accused of any such behavior nor have I witnessed it.

November 30, 2012 at 11:42 am
(14) Mary says:

I do not know these people. I no longer sit nor do I have a community near by. I do know that we hold authority figures, such as teachers, policemen, etc., to a higher moral and ethical code. And although Joshu Roshi comes from an age that typically oppressed women, that is no excuse for taking advantage of any given situation or person. When he became a teacher, he accepted these moral and ethical codes as a way of life, whether he was aware of it or not. Groping is an unsolicated act, therefore consent was not given.
I believe that the women that have been groped need to speak up and make it known that the actions are not welcomed and that it will not be “swept under the rug”. Some followers may get the impression that this behavior is acceptable and may adopt it for themselves. If we just walk away, how will they know that it is not acceptable? Until we change our behavior, we can’t expect others to change theirs.

December 1, 2012 at 7:14 pm
(15) Mila says:

Insightful essay — in response to this situation — on Zen & The Emotional/Sexual Contraction.

December 3, 2012 at 7:09 am
(16) David says:

Interesting blog, thanks (maybe read “contradiction” for “contraction’?). I think that in fact all intense mentor relationships are prone to sexual misconduct. One need only think of exploited young women proteges of writers and painters, therapists who have relations with clients, and so forth. What a mess. The only solution I can see is constant peer review. No one person, especially a male, should be allowed to completely dominate a zendo, ashram, temple, church or whatever.

December 6, 2012 at 5:21 pm
(17) Ron says:

If you do not know this to be true why are you putting this information
on line ? Please no more gossip: Maybe the student wants bragging rights ?

December 15, 2012 at 9:27 am
(18) Ellen Steadman says:

Ref : The Sasaki situation…… Two points to consider…
1] Theravada Buddhist monks are obliged, through Vinaya (monastic rules / vows instituted when The Buddha Sakyamuni was still alive) not to be alone with any woman… I have recently personally seen a Theravadin Monastic respectfully implement that rule by opening the car door , putting his feet outside of the vehicle, and engaging in conversation with a passer-by, when he accidentally found himself “alone” in a vehicle, with me as the driver….waiting for someone to return to the vehicle …..This was dome with the utmost discretion – I’m sure I would not have known what was happening if I had not understood a little about monks rules.
2] A Taiwanese Buddhist monk reminded me, when I told him about the article [Sasaki situation]] ………A person is not a Buddhist monk when his behaviour does not reflect the Vinaya and the Sutras. A Buddhist monk is only a monk by virtue of his vows, not his uniform.
May all sentient beings be well and happy….
Kindest regards to you all , Ellen Steadman Johannesburg, South Africa

December 15, 2012 at 3:54 pm
(19) Barbara O'Brien says:

Ellen — I’m aware of the rules of the Vinaya. Unfortunately there are sex scandals involving Theravada monks also. See Sexual Abuse Allegations Against U.S. Theravada Sangha. Also, about 150 years ago the emperor of Japan ordered celibacy rules to be ended, so ever since monastic orders of Japanese schools are not celibate.

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