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Barbara O'Brien

The Sesaki Situation Hits Mainstream Media

By February 14, 2013

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A bit tardily, mainstream media has taken an interest in the Sasaki Situation. That's my name for the sexual allegations surrounding 105-year-old Joshu Sasaki Roshi, abbot of Rinzai-ji Zen Center in Los Angeles and its many affiliates.

Mark Oppenheimer and Ian Lovett of the New York Times have done some extensive reporting and bring new information -- new to me, anyway -- to light. The article is recommended. I do want to comment on some bits --

"The allegations against Mr. Sasaki have upset and obsessed Zen Buddhists across the country, who are part of a close-knit world in which many participants seem to know, or at least know of, the principal teachers."

Wow, we zennies sound like a secret club. I'd call us loosely knit rather than close-knit, since the several lineages in the U.S. don't always interact.  Continuing ...

"Such charges have become more frequent in Zen Buddhism. Several other teachers have been accused of misconduct recently, notably Eido Shimano, who in 2010 was asked to resign from the Zen Studies Society in Manhattan over allegations that he had sex with students. 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."

Not so much a "Zen" culture as a standard institutional culture, I'd say. Zen is not esoteric, and secret keeping has very little place in it. The one exception is the private interview between student and teacher, called sanzen or dokusan. Traditionally, what goes on in these interviews is not supposed to be blabbed about to the rest of the sangha.

However, the interviews also are supposed to take place within strict parameters. The way the student enters the room, bows to the teacher, and sits facing the teacher are all to follow strict forms.  Generally student and teacher face each other but don't touch, although I don't know that touching is prohibited. It would be unusual, and limited, though.

There's no strict time limit, but usually the interviews last anywhere from less than a minute to fifteen minutes or so. In my experience the norm is maybe eight to ten minutes.

More importantly, the conversation is supposed to be limited to dharma issues; the student is not supposed to discuss his personal life except as it relates to his practice. So, the things that aren't blabbed about would include guidance on a koan or an answer to a dharma question. They would not include intimate details of a student's life.

The "secrets" aren't that juicy, in other words.

Patriarchy and sexism are, again, cultural and institutional issues. They aren't intrinsic to Zen practice. Unfortunately, they are so pervasive in our culture that they persistently color whatever institutions arise in our culture, which include Zen centers.

As to the "quasi-religious worship of the Zen master" -- I am so fortunate that I have had teachers who were and are determined to not be worshiped. My first teacher, the late Daido Loori, not only told us point-blank we shouldn't worship him; he actually would withdraw from and/or get grumpy with students who were a little too fawning. (Although you didn't want to get cheeky with him, either.)

One of the greatest compliments you can give a Zen teacher is to say he or she is "ordinary." I once heard someone say of the late Robert Aitken Roshi that "I was surprised how ordinary he was," which told me Roshi was the real deal.

Unfortunately, it's common for people to come into practice looking for a Daddy or Mommy figure who will take care of them. And, apparently, it's common for second-tier teachers to try to fill that role, instead of guiding the student to understand they don't need Daddy or Mommy.

According to several past student, Sasaki Roshi turned the interviews into petting sessions. Very icky stuff.

"One monk, whom Ms. Stubbs said she told about the touching, was unsympathetic. "He believed in Roshi's style, that sexualizing was teaching for particular women," Ms. Stubbs said. The monk's theory, common in Mr. Sasaki's circle, was that such physicality could check a woman's overly strong ego."

I suspect that Roshi was not so concerned with checking a man's "overly strong ego." A pattern of sexually objectifying women is a tried-and-true way to keep women in their place. It may be that Roshi's issues are less about sex than dominance.

Several women said that Zen can foster an atmosphere of overt sexism.

Again, this is not intrinsic to Zen, which actually has a long feminist streak running through its history (see, for example, "Women Ancestors of Zen" ). Any sort of institution can foster an atmosphere of overt sexism -- workplaces, schools, hospitals -- you name it.

Finally, a monk currently in residence at Rinzai-ji said,

"What's important and is overlooked is that, besides this aspect, Roshi was a commanding and inspiring figure using Buddhist practice to help thousands find more peace, clarity and happiness in their own lives. It seems to be the kind of thing that, you get the person as a whole, good and bad, just like you marry somebody and you get their strengths and wonderful qualities as well as their weaknesses."

Sorry, but I'm calling bullshit on that. Sasaki Roshi -- who apparently is more or less retired at the moment -- may have been a good teacher to the male students. But-- if even half of the stuff reported in the Times article is true --  his behavior toward women has been damaging and inexcusable.

It's like being a doctor who gives some patients good treatment but uses others for risky medical experiments without their consent. Or working at a pet shelter and being wonderful to the cats but cruel to the dogs. Or feeding one of your children but letting the other scavenge in garbage cans.

Dogen Zenji said in the "Raihai Tokuzui" fascicle of Shobogenzo,

"In acquiring the dharma, all acquire the dharma equally. All should pay homage to and hold in esteem one who has acquired the dharma. Do not make an issue of whether it is a man or a woman. This is the most wondrous law of the buddha dharma."

Dogen also said that men who didn't properly respect the spiritual accomplishments of women are "ignoramuses." Do you want an ignoramus for a teacher? I don't.

Comments
February 15, 2013 at 1:41 pm
(1) FLO says:

There is no sound and no hands clapping at this story. I thought I would make a lateral shift from other Buddhist schools to Zen a couple months ago, and investigating “lineage”, ran across this and other similar stories. “Lineage” is thus over -rated, I believe. Supposedly Buddha said there would be no unbroken lineage 500 years after his Nirvana.
The precepts are supposed to represent the enlightened beings effortless behavior.
Zen is not above the precepts and those who act that way may be counterfeit.
My interest in Buddhism is other than the hypocrisy found in various western notions. I hear this story and have no interest in these centers.
My advice to those interested in Buddhism: Study the Sutras directly -there there is a lineage (awaken your Buddha nature): Diamond Sutra, Perfection of Wisdom in 8000 Lines, Heart Sutra, Pali Canon, Vimalakirti, Lotus etc. etc.

February 15, 2013 at 2:15 pm
(2) Barbara O'Brien says:

My advice to those interested in Buddhism: Study the Sutras directly -there there is a lineage (awaken your Buddha nature): Diamond Sutra, Perfection of Wisdom in 8000 Lines, Heart Sutra, Pali Canon, Vimalakirti, Lotus etc. etc.

Unfortunately, these are extremely steep and subtle texts, and without some guidance from a realized teacher you WILL misunderstand them. I’m serious. And avoiding teachers because some are jerks is not equanimity. So your plan for self-taught Zen is already screwed.

I’m not saying you have to move into a monastery and accept some teacher as your guru, but touching base with one at least a couple of times a year is a minimum requirement. Zen in particular simply cannot be practiced by oneself.

I first became a formal Zen student in 1988, and by now I think I know where most of the bodies are buried, so to speak. So, yeah, there are some lineage holders I wouldn’t bother to cross the street to meet. But others are the real deal. And with all the flaws, the lineage tradition has kept Zen alive all these centuries.

February 15, 2013 at 2:50 pm
(3) Gavin says:

The news about Sasaki is most troubling. For several months I practiced with a sangha here in Germany lead by a monk under Sasaki. One practitioner there told me that she felt that Sasaki was innovative and open since he decided to train men and women together. I don’t think she had trained with Sasaki specifically. I did not get the sense of any overtly aggressive patriarchal power from the monk in the sangha, but then again, I am a male. Perhaps this is a short sighted view, but after I read about the scandal months ago, I couldn’t find much reason to go back to this sangha even though Sasaki himself almost never travels to Germany. With some many sanghas and traditions to choose from, I don’t see why behavior like this should be tolerated in any way.

February 15, 2013 at 3:26 pm
(4) Barbara O'Brien says:

One practitioner there told me that she felt that Sasaki was innovative and open since he decided to train men and women together.

That’s the norm in the United States, though, and it’s been done before even in Asia. Dogen trained women as well as men for a time, back in the 13th century. In the U.S., all Zen centers and monasteries have been co-ed going back to the first Zen Institute of America, which opened in New York City in 1930. That was guided by a Rinzai master named Sokei-an, and there were women on the board of directors as well as women students. I wouldn’t know, but if anything Sasaki might have wanted to exclude women and took women as students only because he didn’t have a choice.

February 15, 2013 at 3:45 pm
(5) Mila says:

“Unfortunately, these are extremely steep and subtle texts, and without some guidance from a realized teacher you WILL misunderstand them. I’m serious. And avoiding teachers because some are jerks is not equanimity. So your plan for self-taught Zen is already screwed.”

Right on, Barbara :) — totally agree that, with very rare exceptions, studying texts such as these without at least occasional guidance from a living teacher is very unlikely to bear fruit.

And, along the same lines: putting our own (currently-ignorant) mind in charge of dissolving its own ignorance — is like putting the wolf in charge of the sheep.

Authentic teachers are precious, and we should not allow instances of unskillful action among them, prevent us from seeking and making connections and benefiting from their presence in our lives.

February 15, 2013 at 4:56 pm
(6) FLO says:

“Subhuti said to Buddha: World -honoured One, will there always be men who will truly believe after coming to hear these teachings?
Buddha answered: Subhuti, do not utter such words! At the end of the last five-hundred year period following the passing of the Tathagata, there will be self-controlled men, rooted in merit, coming to hear these teachings, who will be inspired with belief. But you should realize that such men have not strengthened their root of merit under just one Buddha, or two Buddhas, or three, or four, or five Buddhas, but under countless Buddhas; and their merit is of every kind. Such men coming to hear these teachings, will have an immediate uprising of pure faith, Subhuti; and the Tathagata will recognize them. Yes, he will clearly perceive all these of pure heart……..
This is why the Tathagata always teaches this saying: My teaching of the Good Law is to be likened unto a raft. The Buddha teaching must be relinquished; how much more so mis-teaching!”
Diamond Sutra Section VI Rare is True Faith
(NOTHING WRONG WITH HAVING TEACHERS EXPLAIN THIS!!! peace!) just saying the “Teacher” is clear here.

February 16, 2013 at 8:08 am
(7) Barbara O'Brien says:

FLO — I’m sorry to break this to you, but you’ve got a really bad translation of the Diamond Sutra. Is that the A.F. Price translation? It’s one of the few I know of using the Chao-Ming chapter titles. Some parts of that translation aren’t bad, but other parts Price got very wrong, mostly because he didn’t understand it himself. He fudged the translation to make it “make sense” and thereby screwed it up. And this particular section seems way off, although that may be because you’re leaving out some critical stuff. I don’t have the Price translation in front of me, so I can’t say.

If you want a more accurate translation, I recommend the Red Pine translation. Thich Nhat Hanh’s is good, too. Of the online translations, the one at Buddhanet by Master Hsuan Hua is a big improvement over the Price translation, and I recommend that you go over there right now and read Chapter 6 to get a sense of the difference. Don’t go by the translation at DiamondSutra.net, though. The translator fell into some of the same mistakes as Price.

Update: I partly take back my criticism of the DiamondSutra.net translation, as the Chapter 6 isn’t completely off. It’s clunky and comes with training wheels, but sometimes people need training wheels.

February 15, 2013 at 5:10 pm
(8) Patricia Ivan says:

It is quite natural for students to go into a student-teacher relationship with parental expectations of the spiritual teacher; but quite suspicious when they graduate holding the same idealizations as before.

Seeing one’s teacher as “realized” and holding the key to unlocking one’s understanding of “steep and subtle texts” is exactly how Zen training does NOT help students “understand that they don’t need Daddy or Mommy”.

Infantilization of the student is deeply entrenched in Zen and promoted by formalities that rigidly preserve hierarchy and the power differential between teacher and student.

February 16, 2013 at 7:45 am
(9) Barbara O'Brien says:

Seeing one’s teacher as “realized” and holding the key to unlocking one’s understanding of steep and subtle texts is exactly how Zen training does NOT help students “understand that they don’t need Daddy or Mommy.

First, if the teacher isn’t “realized” (a Zen term for “enlightened”), then he or she is a waste of time. Ultimately they have nothing to “teach” you. Their role is more like that of a guide, standing outside your projected reality to show you the way out of it. If the teacher is lost in his own projected reality, he can’t do that.

The first time I saw my first teacher, at a meditation workshop, he used the metaphor of being locked in a a box to describe our condition. And then he said, only you can find your way out of the box. That’s when I knew I wanted to hear more from this guy. One of his major themes was “trust yourself, trust your life” and “I have nothing to give you; you do this yourself.” And he meant it. He wouldn’t put up with anyone worshiping him. or expecting him to be Daddy. He was a great teacher.

But, once again, the texts are extremely subtle, and I’ve never met anyone who got anywhere close to understanding them who wasn’t working with a teacher. Current commenter FLO is a good example; he/she is botching the Diamond Sutra, big time, although that’s partly the fault of a bad translation.

“Infantilization of the student is deeply entrenched in Zen and promoted by formalities that rigidly preserve hierarchy and the power differential between teacher and student.”

The formalities, when observed, sometimes function as a protection against abuse. Sasaki Roshi, for example, obviously had dismissed the standard formalities of sanzen so he could use the interview to abuse female students. They also have the function of helping you see the hierarchy is an illusion.

February 15, 2013 at 6:49 pm
(10) Mila says:

FLO – not sure what you’re wishing to convey, by citing the passage that you did?

“It is quite natural for students to go into a student-teacher relationship with parental expectations of the spiritual teacher; but quite suspicious when they graduate holding the same idealizations as before.”

Hi Patricia, I totally agree with this — that it’s natural to have all kinds of distorted expectations of a teacher, as we enter the relationship — but if the teacher and teaching is authentic, over time these projections are dissolved, leaving the student fully empowered within the same nondual “space” that the teacher has from the start been abiding in.

I also agree that an intensely formalistic and hierarchical structure can complicate things, in all sorts of ways, including keeping students trapped in an “infantile” kind of role.

But I don’t equate a genuine respect and acknowledgment of the wisdom of a spiritual friend or teacher — with “infantilization.” It can also be genuine humility, gratitude, and a willingness to learn from someone who is further along the path than we are.

February 16, 2013 at 8:26 am
(11) Barbara O'Brien says:

“But I don’t equate a genuine respect and acknowledgment of the wisdom of a spiritual friend or teacher with ‘infantilization.’ It can also be genuine humility, gratitude, and a willingness to learn from someone who is further along the path than we are.”

Agree, but I think we can take it another step. FLO and Patricia both seem to be falling into the same trap, which is objectifying teacher as an “other,” viewing the issue through the old self-other dichotomy. Worshiping teachers or avoiding them, either way, same trap.

February 15, 2013 at 7:47 pm
(12) FLO says:

Mila,
1. we may have heard it before now
2. living teachers can be held to these standards
3. “mis-teaching” recognized

p.s. “I” in this life “study” (and /or have studied) with teacher(s) including a nun, a monk, a “sensei” or two, even swamis. All great people…. those who have “issues”, one develops compassion and forgiveness (starting with one’s “self”). The nun said one relinquishes the Buddha teaching “after learning it”. The most wisdom I’ve heard. Peace.

February 16, 2013 at 8:55 am
(13) Barbara O'Brien says:

I found Thich Nhat Hanh’s translation at the Plum Village site. This isn’t exactly the same as in his book on the Diamond Sutra, but it’s close enough, I think. I really like the last paragraph.

_____

The Venerable Subhuti said to the Buddha, “In times to come, will there be people who, when they hear these teachings, have real faith and confidence in them?”

The Buddha replied, “Do not speak that way, Subhuti. Five hundred years after the Tathagata has passed away, there will still be people who enjoy the happiness that comes from observing the precepts. When such people hear these words, they will have faith and confidence that here is the truth. We should know that such people have sown seeds not only during the lifetime of one Buddha, or even two, three, four, or five Buddhas, but have, in truth, planted wholesome seeds during the lifetimes of tens of thousands of Buddhas. Anyone who, for only a second, gives rise to a pure and clear confidence upon hearing these words of the Tathagata, the Tathagata sees and knows that person, and he or she will attain immeasurable happiness because of this understanding. Why?

Because that kind of person is not caught up in the idea of a self, a person, a living being, or a life span. They are not caught up in the idea of a dharma or the idea of a non-dharma. They are not caught up in the notion that this is a sign and that is not a sign. Why? If you are caught up in the idea of a dharma, you are also caught up in the ideas of a self, a person, a living being, and a life span. If you are caught up in the idea that there is no dharma, you are still caught up in the ideas of a self, a person, a living being, and a life span. That is why we should not get caught up in dharmas or in the idea that dharmas do not exist. This is the hidden meaning when the Tathagata says,’Bhiksus, you should know that all of the teachings I give to you are a raft. All teachings must be abandoned, not to mention non-teachings.”

________

“Mis-teaching” in your translation is just plain wrong. Very crudely, this passage is about sunyata, emptiness, and the opposite of emptiness is attachment. Why? Because attachment is rooted in a self-other dichotomy; the idea of a self (the attacher) and separate things (the object attached to). When self and other dissolve, all ideas of dharma and not-dharma dissolve also. Your translator didn’t “get” this and assumed the passage was about good and bad teaching. Not at all.

Red Pine (not online; I have the book) rendered the last part of the section this way:

____

“Because, Subhuti, if these fearless bodhisattvas created the perception of a dharma, they would be attached to a self, a being, a life, and a soul. Likewise, if they created the perception of no dharma, they would be attached to a self, a being, a life, and a soul.

“And why not? Because, surely, Subhuti, fearless bodhisattvas do not cling to a dharma, much less to no dharma. This is the meaning behind the Tathagata’s saying, ‘A dharma teaching is like a raft. If you should let go of dharmas, how much more so no dharmas.’”

______

Again, reading this stuff without some glimmer of sunyata will cause you to form all kinds of ideas and perceptions about what it “means,” and you will be entirely wrong. The Diamond is an infinitely subtle work, and a superficial reading won’t touch it. You can drag it around with you for years without seeing half of what it’s about.

February 16, 2013 at 9:48 am
(14) Barbara O'Brien says:

Oh, and don’t get too attached to the “500 years.” The Diamond is believed to have been written in the 2nd century CE, give or take, so more than 500 years had already passed since the life of the Buddha. I’m not sure what the 500 years signifies, if anything, but it wouldn’t be a literal 500 years, I don’t believe.

February 16, 2013 at 8:31 pm
(15) Mila says:

““Mis-teaching” in your translation is just plain wrong …. Your translator didn’t “get” this and assumed the passage was about good and bad teaching. Not at all.”

Good catch, Barbara — That passage didn’t seem quite right to me either, though I couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was that was off.

The other thing that stands out for me now, after reading the Red Pine & Thich Nhat Hanh renderings, is that “dharma” is used in the cited passage primarily in reference to “phenomena” — of which Buddha-Dharma as an historical/institutional phenomena is just one instance. So what is being suggested, then, is that both the “existence” and the “non-existence” of dharmas (i.e. phenomena) must be let go of — since both are equally conceptual.

And, in a very similar vein, as you pointed out: “Worshiping teachers or avoiding them, either way, same trap.”

February 18, 2013 at 1:40 pm
(16) FLO says:

Turning the wheel of the dharma can be described as “training wheels”, no offense taken. I am studying four other translations (inc. TNH), haven’t seen Red Pine’s yet, I plan on it soon (I liked his translation of the Heart Sutra a lot but have mixed/undecided reaction to his commentary-I actually like it but it contains self admitted conjecture and speculation). The AF Price Diamond Sutra I had since 1982 when not many others were available and it was the one was the one that was nearby I was so excited to reply about this topic. I am happy to have gotten so many reactions from those of you who care, like me, about these great works.
In any translation, is there a dispute about learning four lines and explaining to others as a worthy endeavor?
Including if the explanation is of dharma no dharma as you have done which I appreciate.
I stand by saying “mis-teaching” as applying to sexual harassment by gurus who, dharma, or no-dharma, are by definition violating more than one precept, which like potato chips, nobody stops at one, because the second one is always lying about the first one. Hopefully that lineage will get a new leader (a female!) and put those days in the past. I wish them good luck in that.
I have chosen a “lineage” but it’s not a single guru, it’s within a Chinese (Taiwanese) temple and my teacher right now is a venerable monastic nun teaching sutras etc.
I love following your series Barbara thank you.

February 18, 2013 at 2:48 pm
(17) Barbara O'Brien says:

Turning the wheel of the dharma can be described as training wheelsť, no offense taken.

I was referring to the quality of the translation. It explains too much for my taste, but sometimes the “too much” is useful.

I stand by saying “mis-teaching” as applying to sexual harassment by gurus who, dharma, or no-dharma, are by definition violating more than one precept, which like potato chips, nobody stops at one, because the second one is always lying about the first one. Hopefully that lineage will get a new leader (a female!) and put those days in the past. I wish them good luck in that.

Nobody here is saying that the way Sasaki Roshi treated student’s was OK. Of course it was a violation of the Precepts and just about every other teaching in Buddhism. You don’t need the Diamond Sutra to make a point about that. It’s blatantly obvious.

Leaving Sasaki Roshi out of it, Price’s rendering of that particular section of the Diamond falls short of what the sutra is saying. “Mis-teaching” is the wrong word. The contrast of “dharma” and “no dharma” ultimately points to the resolution of absolute and relative. If you read it as being about doctrine, right or wrong, you’re missing it.

Red Pine’s commentaries on the Heart Sutra are not above criticism, but I hadn’t noticed an undue amount of conjecture and speculation. Perhaps it’s sinking deeper into Mahayana than you are used to. How do you express what is inexpressible? And how do you understand it? And by that I don’t mean “what is your understanding” but “by what process are you understanding?” That’s the catch.

February 28, 2013 at 7:15 pm
(18) FLO says:

“Subhuti, do not say that the Tathagata conceives the idea ‘I will give a teaching’. Do not think that way. Why? If anyone says the Tathagata has something to teach, that person slanders the Buddha because he does not understand what I say. Subhuti, giving a Dharma talk in fact means that no talk is given. This is truly a Dharma talk”. TNH Diamond Sutra 21……..
another quote from somewhere-
(2) “by emphasizing the understanding of emptiness as a mental attitude which pays attention to the non-attachment to concepts and theories. That is, emptiness should not be made into a theory to be clung to (as are other philosophical and religious doctrines). According to Nagarjuna, he who does so is like “a customer to whom a merchant has said that he has nothing to sell and the customer now asks to buy this ‘nothing’ and carry it home.”
to quote my”self”: “my understanding of the Mahayana is no understanding at all”, that’s why I spend my time reading words of the wise such as yours, going to Dharma talks and classes, meditating and chanting, if only I just get something useful done that would be something! :) I think I’m a spiritual materialist grasping at a moonbeam….

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