The Old Woman Burns the Hermitage

house on fire

Oh, the exciting world of Zen. Another month, another sexual scandal. Lately, I’ve become rather exhausted with the idea of discussing these. It turns out that Zen teachers and students are much the same as everyone else. I gather this is horribly disillusioning to many but I just see it as confirmation that people are “just folks” and Zen isn’t something special, not matter how magical some people try to make it.

If you really look at the number of people involved in these troubles versus the number of actual students and teachers out there, we wind up discussing the foibles of less than a dozen Zen teachers. If you then remove ones that are the common human failings of addiction (alcohol) and infidelity, you come down to a few (two that I can think of) potential sexual predators and a number of others being stupid about the power dynamics of teacher/student involvements. It is all rather tawdry but, for the most part, rather mundane, I’m afraid to say.

The reason why the new scandal is so interesting to folks is because of the overall position of the teacher in question and the multi-decade history (perhaps still ongoing) of the problems. The teacher in question is Kyozan Joshu Sasaki, who runs the Mount Baldy Zen Center. He’s rather well known because he isn’t far from Los Angeles, has been teaching in the U.S. for 50 years this year, and has been rather influential in American Zen, at least by perceived importance and longevity. He’s 105 (!!) this year, which makes the fact that of this being a sexual scandal all the more weird/odd/unsettling. One normally thinks of this as something younger men go about doing, not the guy who’s 25 years older than my own grandfather.

An acquaintance of mine (and a Zen priest), Eshu Martin, came forward with the allegations in a post on Sweeping Zen (which I must resist calling “Seeping Zen” at this point). Sweeping Zen has taken it upon itself, for better or worse, to be the “go to” place for Zen scandals in the last year or two (to the point where I’ve become rather tired of the site). In his post, “Everybody Knows” (nice Leonard Cohen reference there), Rev. Martin states:

Joshu Sasaki Roshi, the founder and Abbot of Rinzai-ji is now 105 years old, and he has engaged in many forms of inappropriate sexual relationship with those who have come to him as students since his arrival here more than 50 years ago. His career of misconduct has run the gamut from frequent and repeated non-consensual groping of female students during interview, to sexually coercive after hours “tea” meetings, to affairs and sexual interference in the marriages and relationships of his students. Many individuals that have confronted Sasaki and Rinzai-ji about this behaviour have been alienated and eventually excommunicated, or have resigned in frustration when nothing changed; or worst of all, have simply fallen silent and capitulated. For decades, Joshu Roshi’s behaviour has been ignored, hushed up, downplayed, justified, and defended by the monks and students that remain loyal to him.

He then states that everyone in the sangha there for any length of time, specifically attendants, fellow priests, etc., have known about this behavior and have even, especially in recent decades, enabled it as Sasaki became older and more frail. When confronted, the leadership has failed to address the situation or even really act on it, he alleges. This is all very reminiscent of Eido Shimano and his scandal as the leader of the Zen Studies Society though one gets the sense that Sasaki is a bit less of a predator (except for his complete abuse of his position and the inherent power dynamic) than the rather overtly predatory behavior alleged to have been practiced by Shimano.

What are we to do here, assuming this is true (and I have no reason to doubt that it is)? Yet another high figure of American Zen turns out, tragically, to be a frisky old goat that abuses woman whom he is supposed to be teaching, not groping? Is Zen morally bankrupt or unable to teach basic ethics, as some are stating? I don’t think so. I think this is another, rather horrid, example of group think, the enacting of power, and the overwhelming power of sexuality for human beings (and perhaps the basis of power in a group of primates). Given the abuses that have occurred in other forms of Buddhism (I can think of Vajrayana and Theravadan incidents, just off the top of my head) and the same kinds of problems in Christian Churches, Marxist organizations, etc., this all turns out to be very ordinary.

This is not to say or imply that it is acceptable. It is not. As far as I’m concerned, there is no appropriate sexual relationship between any Zen teacher and any student. The power dynamics and the muddledness of relations that sexuality brings in makes it entirely outside acceptability. I rather like the Code of Conduct for the Boundless Way Zen Sangha here:

Our practice is one of intimacy. It can be warmhearted and close. And relationships between teachers and students, as with therapeutic relationships, usually involve powerful psychic conditions including projection, transference and counter-transference, among others. In addition there are the complexities found within the power differential that exists between a teacher and a student. With these various circumstances it is tempting to cross a line from spiritual intimacy to sexual intimacy. And whatever the merits of sexual intimacy, this type of relationship tends to confuse the other aspects of intimate relationship necessary for a successful teacher and student relationship.

Again, sexuality is a natural part of life and as a non-celibate sangha, sexual intimacy is going to be a cherished part of our shared lives. However, those who teach have additional responsibilities and our covenant includes several commitments regarding sexual behavior.

No priest, senior Dharma teacher or transmitted teacher who is married or in a committed relationship should engage in sexual activities with any person outside of their stated commitment.

Any priest, senior Dharma teacher or transmitted teacher who finds a romantic relationship beginning with a member of the sangha should inform the EAR Committee of this relationship and seek guidance as to the most healthful way to proceed.

If the people involved are in a teacher-student relationship, a choice must be made between either pursuing that personal relationship or continuing the teacher-student relationship, but not both. The EAR Committee should help in this decision-making process. A resolution should be achieved with as little delay and as much openness and transparency as humanly possible.

They, wisely, understand that, well, shit happens and people fall in love and/or feel sexual attraction. They also recognize that it is completely inappropriate for a student/teacher relationship.

I think we need, at the very least, three things:

  1. The adoption of a code of conduct by all Zen sanghas (and social reinforcement that this is necessary)
  2. The establishment of an independent body (or affiliation with an existing one) that can act as a clearing house for reports of abuse. This body should not be composed of the priests/monks/ordained sangha of Zen organizations. It should not have ties to any power structure that might be jeopardized by reports of abuse.
  3. The actual involvement of police and legal authorities, including civil suits as well as criminal ones, in resolving the crimes that have occurred and may occur in the future.

What finally caused the Roman Catholic Church to, poorly, begin to try to figure out how to deal with decades of sexual abuse by a number of priests? It wasn’t internal discussions and policies, which appear to have mostly focused on how to protect the Church as a whole (which wound up also shielding the priests). It was Johnny Law. Legal cases suing the various diocese and the criminal cases against both the individual priests and those that shielded them, allowing the problems to continue. Zen organizations will quit turning a blind eye to abuse, unfortunately, when they are forced to do so. Again, I don’t think this is an inherently “Zen” issue but something which all organizations or groups with an inside and an outside can have happen. Structures of authority, of people getting invested in leaders, etc. all allow for this. When people at Mt Baldy or the Zen Studies Society (and other places) realize that the organization can lose its property, go bankrupt, or be destroyed and their boards and senior members could be personally liable and potentially go to jail…that’s when these issues will be systematically addressed. In other words, we have a legal system, use it.

As a last point, I am reminded of a koan that I know from my own training, being part of both Zen Master Seung Sahn’s collection of koans and also part of the Japanese Rinzai tradition. This koan involves an old priest, a young maid, and sexuality. I’m going to close with it.

The Old Woman Burns the Hermitage

It is said that if you practice hard for ten years you will attain something. So, as is customary among many Buddhist laypeople, an old woman in China once supported a monk for ten years. She provided him with food and clothing, and allowed him to live in a hermitage that she provided. For his part, the monk only practiced very, very hard, and did not have to concern himself with anything else.

After ten years, however, there was still no news from the monk. “What did he attain?’’ she wondered. “I must test this monk.” So one afternoon, the woman summoned her sixteen- year-old daughter, who was considered one of the most beautiful girls in the village. Her mother asked her to put on makeup, her best perfume, and clothing made of the finest materials. Then she gave her daughter instructions for testing the monk, loaded her up with plenty of fine food and clothing, and sent her off to the hermitage. The woman’s daughter was very excited about the plan!

When she arrived at the hermitage, she bowed to the monk and said, “You have been here for ten years, so my mother made this special food and clothing for you.”

“Oh, thank you very much,” the monk replied. “Your mother is a great Bodhisattva for supporting me like this for so long.”

Just then, the girl strongly embraced the monk, kissed him, and said, “How do you feel now?”

“Rotten log on cold rocks. No warmth in winter.”

Releasing him, the girl bowed deeply and said, “You are certainly a great monk!” She returned home, full of happiness and admiration, to report the incident to her mother. “Mother, Mother! This monk’s center is very strong, his mind is not moving! He must have attained something!”

“It doesn’t matter if his center is very strong, or if his mind cannot be moved, or if he is a wonderful monk. What I want to know is, what did he say?” “Oh, his words were also wonderful, Mother. He said, ‘Rotten log on cold rocks. No warmth in winter.”’

“What!?” the old woman shouted. Fuming, she grabbed a big stick, ran to the hermitage and mercilessly beat the monk, shouting, “Go away! Get out of here! I’ve spent ten years helping a demon!” Then she burned the hermitage to the ground.

So, is it time to burn the hermitage to the ground, folks?