Commentary: “Zen Groups Distressed by Accusations Against Teacher” New York Times

by Hanna

Joshu Sasaki

Joshu Sasaki in New Mexico in 2007. (via the New York Times)

On Monday, the New York Times reported on sexual misconduct by Joshu Sasaki, the now 105 year-old Rinzai Zen master born in Japan who has been teaching in California since 1962. The accusations include that he has “groped and sexually harassed female students for decades, taking advantage of their loyalty to a famously charismatic roshi, or master,” that he has invited female students to “sexually coercive” meetings and had affairs with students. Apparently, these activities have happened since at least the 1970s, but were not openly addressed by the community. In fact, these activities were condoned by other members of the community, and allegations by female members were condemned by some male colleagues, because they sullied the master’s reputation.

For some, it might be easy to lump this sort of activity with the sexual misconduct of Catholic priests. For others, the fact that the Zen master targeted grown women and not underaged children makes all the difference. And particularly those who are familiar with Buddhist practice or Buddhist thought will claim there is no comparison, because the Buddhist teaching has no such preoccupation with sex as is found in Christian doctrine. Celibacy is not necessarily required of Buddhist monks and nuns. However, even the lay precepts do not sanction sexual misconduct.

Nevertheless, this Zen master has engaged in inappropriate behavior for at least 40 years in the US. Why is the media interested now and not earlier? The New York Times article includes the argument that

“Because of their long history with Zen practice, people in Japan have some skepticism about priests,” Ms. Schireson said. But in the United States many proponents have a “devotion to the guru or the teacher in a way that could repress our common sense and emotional intelligence.”

Certainly, many if not most Zen priests in Japan are not celibate, but generally have families, which might make them seem more engaged with everyday society. In contrast, it seems like non-Japanese students in general seek a way to be released from the trials of everyday life and readily believe in the Zen masters who promise to help them in that pursuit.

The method a Zen master offers, though, is a similar method to that of any Japanese practice. Practice, known as shugyō in Japanese, is a process of practical training that is based on a direct engagement with the world. In Zen practice, zazen, or sitting meditation, is a fundamental element of this practical training. Thus, Zen is not a means of escaping the world, but a method of engaging with the world.

My experience with Japanese practice comes from five years of  lessons and four years of tea ceremony lessons—and hardly from the few times I engaged in sitting meditation. But the practical nature of training in the Japanese arts has similarities with Zen training.

Masters teach by example and through repetition instead of with explanations. A student is expected to learn by doing and by following the master’s example. The master will chose the lessons or situations a student must engage in, be the lesson a kōan to be contemplated in meditation, a nō dance, or a particular form of the tea ceremony. Each is its own form of challenge, which when overcome can lead to its own form of insight.

Furthermore, I have always been a student and never a master nor anything but a green beginner, and as such, it is clear to me that I will never change the centuries old institutions that have preserved these traditions and that support the masters who guide these practices. What I am contemplating here is thus not how the institutions must change, but what a student gains by taking responsibility for her actions and taking control of a situation she perceives as negative.

In a lesson, when training does not progress as the master expects, verbal and even physical intervention is common. For example, in nō, a teacher will correct a student’s posture by moving the student’s foot at the correct tempo, or in tea ceremony, a teacher will correct a student’s placement of an object by physically moving the arm into the right place. In Zen meditation, students may be hit with a stick called a keisaku to improve their concentration. (From my single experience of such a strike, because I was hit quite hard, I would say it is not painful when done correctly.) The physicality of the relationship between master and student may provide more opportunities for sexual misconduct, but it is not an inevitable outcome of such physicality.

It seems to me that the problem with sexual misconduct or harassment in Japanese practice is that practitioners might lump it together in their understanding of all negative experiences. Any experience—and particularly an experience that is initially considered uncomfortable or negative—is seen as a moment where learning may occur. Certainly, facing our fears and the boundaries of our comfort zones is the best way to overcome them. Also, the greatest creativity and the greatest insight come out of the greatest conflict. In practice, the masters who lead students’ training have the power of controlling the artificial creation of such experiences.

However, if a student believes that only her master can guide her to insight or enlightenment, not only does she make herself subservient—and therefore vulnerable to sexual harassment or other abuse—but she will never find the insight she seeks. A master can never achieve enlightenment for a student. In fact, oftentimes the teacher has no understanding what a student has learned or what she wishes to achieve in her life. A student must always remain aware of these things herself even as she turns to her master for guidance.

If a master should misuse that power as guide, the student always has the freedom to leave. In discussing the New York Time’s article, a friend of mine asked the question, what about those who don’t find the strength to leave? That, I agree, is the greatest problem. But some students decide to tolerate uncomfortable situations, because they expect to achieve something greater by enduring them. As one woman in Joshu Sasaki’s community told the New York Times,

“Outside the sexual things that happened,” the woman now in San Francisco said, “my relationship with him was one of the most important I have had with anyone.”

The article ends with a quote from a monk in the same community elaborating on that tension:

“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.”

But if a student decides to leave that inspiring person, if she decides she does not need to subjugate herself to further abuse, she takes mastership over herself. Of course, the trauma—the memory of past abuse—does not go away when she leaves, but by leaving, she takes back her own responsibility for herself, body and soul. In the act of leaving, she learns that she can create her own life, which is perhaps the greatest insight.

A few questions remain in the end: How long does it take to learn to rely on one’s own power? And should students in such master-student relationships be reminded of their freedom to leave, whether or not misconduct occurs? How much would such a reminder change a situation if a student thinks she may learn something by staying and tolerating abuse?


Oppenheimer, Mark and Ian Lovett. “Zen Groups Distressed by Accusations Against Techer” New York Times 11 February 2013. (link)

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