Sleeping Mountains

Reflections on life, literature, and culture.

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

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)

Remembering Sylvia Plath

Today is the 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s death, her final suicide attempt.

Although she graduated from Smith College—to my surprise, exactly 50 years before I did!—I have never taken the time to read much of her poetry. I hope that will change in the future, for her poem “Daddy,” for example, is so brutal and beautiful at the same time. It is perhaps particularly poignant for a fellow German-American such as myself, but that contemplation will have to be left to some future post.

Instead of that poem, “Soliloquy of the Solipsist” was the first to captivate me as I searched for something suitable here. For I see in it a warning related to my most recent post, wherein I wrote that history is only truly understood through the lens of personal experience.

In any case, it’s no good to preface a poem too much, so here it is, followed by an interview recorded on October 20, 1962. The interview took place a week before her 30th birthday, only a few months before she died, and if she were alive today, she would have been eighty years old.

Soliloquy of the Solipsist

I walk alone;
The midnight street
Spins itself from under my feet;
When my eyes shut
These dreaming houses all snuff out;
Through a whim of mine
Over gables the moon’s celestial onion
Hangs high.

Make houses shrink
And trees diminish
By going far; my look’s leash
Dangles the puppet-people
Who, unaware how they dwindle,
Laugh, kiss, get drunk,
Nor guess that if I choose to blink
They die.

When in good humor,
Give grass its green
Blazon sky blue, and endow the sun
With gold;
Yet, in my wintriest moods, I hold
Absolute power
To boycott any color and forbid any flower
To be.

Know you appear
Vivid at my side,
Denying you sprang out of my head,
Claiming you feel
Love fiery enough to prove flesh real,
Though it’s quite clear
All your beauty, all your wit, is a gift, my dear,
From me.



Slow Reading

Trinity College Library

Trinity College Library in Dublin, Ireland (via)

As the leaves of book pages unfold, so too foreign worlds unfold inside a reader’s mind. A reader can travel through space and time without leaving the comfort of his living room arm chair. New experiences, new insights, and new skills become available to the careful, critical reader. And this kind of experience is the basic method of studying human experience. This basic skill when engaged in academically, is called philology, which comes from a Greek word meaning a love of words. A more recent definition of philology, as given by Roman Jakobson, is “the art of reading slowly.”

Why do so few academics use the word “philology?” The politically engaged Columbia University scholar of literary criticism Edward Said wrote in his last book, wherein he advocates philology as a humanist method and develops the idea of a philology of politics, that philology is “about the least with-it, least sexy, and most unmodern of of any of the branches of learning associated with humanism.” And considering how the humanities, the study of human experience, are less “with-it” than the natural sciences, he might as well have been saying that it is the least sexy branch of study of any of the traditional academic subjects.

I would like to disagree. Certainly, in a world that seems to be speeding up more and more as information technology grows ubiquitous and  profit is the holy grail of any endeavor, progress seems to lie with speed and productivity. But as society accelerates ever more, doesn’t it seem like we’re missing something important in daily life? Where does relaxation, nearness and care,  or reflection fit in, or must it always be scheduled into an ever tighter growing schedule?

And what about all that we’ve missed in our frantic efforts to gather information from the data streams? Are we to simply dismiss any information older than what may be found in the Internet, either because it is now inaccessible or because we think we know so much more than people did before the Internet? The probability that we have missed something important is large indeed.

The Slow Movement has addressed some issues generated by this acceleration with Slow Food, Slow Parenting, Slow Travel, and so on. It is fashionable to take time in making food with care and to share it with family or to spend a week on an Italian farm instead of seeing all the capitals of Western Europe. The focus with the Slow Movement is on promoting reflection and interpersonal relationships, thus a focus on the present and its potential. Slow reading can have the same focus.

History is only valuable in the present, when a reader finds a small element of himself in the description of historic developments. As R.W. Emerson wrote in his essay “History,”

This [manifold] human mind wrote history and this must read it. The Sphinx must solve her own riddle. If the whole of history is in one man, it is all to be explained from individual experience. There is a relation between the hours of our life and the centuries of time. As the air I breathe is drawn from the great repositories of nature, as the light on my book is yielded by a star a hundred millions of miles distant, as the poise of my body depends on the equilibrium of centrifugal and centripetal forces, so the hours should be instructed by the ages, and the ages explained by the hours.

Thus by reading, by engaging with history, a reader fosters within himself a reflection that extends to greater depth, breadth, and revelation. The only truth to be found in the past is that which resonates in the present. In order to find that truth, however, the process of slow reading must be practiced. Of course, slow reading does not come easily, because finding history within oneself necessitates facing one’s own demons in the pages of history.

To be a successful philologist, one must develop the skill of careful critical inquiry. As while reading questions arise, one must find the answers by reading and rereading or by turning to consult the context.  Engaging with the text of a book or a manuscript in this manner might then be likened to plying a craft. Fine craftsmanship produces beautiful things from common materials. So, too, fine philology produces beautiful ideas from common experiences. What could be more romantic—or sexy for that matter?


Emerson, R.W. Essays, First Series. Philadelphia: David McKay, no date.

Jakobson quote from: Pollock, Sheldon. “Future Philology? The Fate of a Soft Science in a Hard World.” Critical Inquiry Summer 2009; 931-961. (via)

Said, Edward W. Humanism and Democratic Criticism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

[Update 13 Feb 2013: An earlier version of this post did not include the argument that Edward Said made regarding philology.]

“Sometimes I wish I had a pill to make people disappear.”

I saw this film for the first time a long time ago as a kid, but couldn’t remember how it ended anymore. Watching it again on a hot Sunday afternoon, Paul Newman (“Brick”) and Elizabeth Taylor (“Maggie the Cat”) positively smolder on screen. But not a single character makes themselves lovable, except for maybe Big Daddy in that one moment as he talks of some old memories (apparently a Hollywood addition to the script). The quote I put in the title is said by the family doctor as he leaves, and it really resonates in the minds of the audience, even though it’s not even the best line or best delivered line in the movie.

Of course, I would have continued to have been amazed with this movie, if I hadn’t just found out that revisions were done to Tennessee Williams’ original script to take out the homosexual references for Hollywood. Too bad. It would have made the film only better. . . and resonate even more today.

(Screen stills via Design Sponge.)

How many deaths do I get?

“Rabbit in Your Headlights” by UNKLE. (Vimeo link.)


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