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.
"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.