I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.
My actions are the ground on which I stand.
~ attributed to the Buddha
What happens when someone’s actions are helpful and harmful at the same time? Looking at the life and work of Joshu Sasaki-roshi asks this question with others close behind. His death at age 107 on July 27, 2014 brought with it a coda of brilliance and accomplishment to a 93-year full engagement as a zen monk and teacher. It also left a wake of allegation, dispute, guilt and sleaze. Starting in Japanese temples in the early 1920s where he entered as a young teen novice and ending in a Los Angeles hospital bed, his vast teaching career, influence and benefaction has been overshadowed by a sadly tainted legacy. Sasaki was of the Rinzai tradition of zen, a strict and rigorous discipline of 16 hour practice days, koan study and work. His arrival in the US in 1962 met the first waves of young Americans seeking the wisdom of Eastern spiritual traditions utterly different from the ones they were raised with. American culture and mores were flipped upside down, assumed power positions were challenged; gender, sexual, class roles, all questioned. Into this vibrant, changing new atmosphere, American zen students dropped into the highly structured setting of Sasaki’s teachings with its Japanese cultural forms and practices, unchanged for centuries. Not for the faint of heart, his teachings demanded a lot from students. There’s estimates he touched the lives of a half million people. For some women students, Sasaki’s touch carried more than traditional zen study. Allegations had been rumored for years of his improprieties, of his telling women to expose their breasts to him during koan interviews, unasked for touching or demands for sex, refusal of which bringing threat of expulsion from the community. These allegations blew into the open in 2012, when Sasaki was 105. He never responded to them.
What are the teachings here?
Sasaki’s obit* highlights the trajectory of his life and follows the ark of his arrival in America, the establishment of teaching centers, the close presence to Sasaki of his most well known student, musician Leonard Cohen……….and allegations of sex predation. Does this obliterate, nullify his teachings with a ‘but’ or can it be expanded into an ‘and’? Sasaki, the alleged sex predator meets the acclaimed teacher of long duration held with great love, admiration and gratitude.
Sasaki rose from a strict hierarchal tradition of monastic life consistent in its forms for hundreds of years. There were no women there; he later married and it is with his wife that he arrived in the US. His wife survives him.Sasaki’s arrival came at a time of tectonic-shifting changes in America. The historian Arnold Toynbee said that ‘the coming of Buddhism to the West may well prove to be the most important event of the Twentieth Century.‘ When cultures heave with transition, new energies and forms reveal themselves and spiritual gaps are made visible. So it was with the introduction of Buddhism in the West. Buddhism has been shaped by every country and culture it has entered; extending from Toynbee’s perspective, maybe the West needed Buddhism as much as Buddhism needed the West. One major change coming with Buddhism’s arrival in the West was that men and women practiced together. That had not happened before. It was in this emerging atmosphere that Sasaki and his students met.
The teachings coming from the allegations against Sasaki must surely include the context in which Rinzai traditions met and shaped the teacher as the teacher met a new culture in new times. In their wake, Sasaki’s dharma heirs, his anointed students understandably were called to task. Will he be renounced? Will satellite meditation centers newly started as offshoots break away? And most of all: why didn’t anyone say anything? His senior students issued a letter of acknowledgement layered with guilt, remorse. “Our hearts were not firm enough, our minds were not clear enough,” the letter said. Clarity of mind is foundational in zen, but where in this statement is a teaching? Is one meant to be there? We on the outside ask as people always do when bad sexual behavior on the part of people in power is revealed, what were they thinking? An assumption there, that they were thinking. Disgust and dismissal folded into teaching isn’t the usual way we think in realms of spirit but that rises to the challenge now, one of inclusion.
Our ability to both know and not know simultaneously comes forth when our integrative functions fail us. We all carry a capacity for splitting off information that’s intolerable, that doesn’t fit with our encoded mind maps. The impressions, feelings, thoughts arising out of deep encounters with others, both familiar and new, push us to fit experience into narratives of what’s real and sometimes what’s right. When the regulating function of reality doesn’t hold and our moral compass spins, we dissociate what we can’t accept and segment it off somewhere. We see and know what we can, sometimes in bold stroke, and minimize or deny the rest. Dissociation is a default mode when we can’t hold the wildly conflicting contradictions we’re presented with in any given moment. Not knowing is a state of mind that zen teachings present as openness to what’s encountered, of no fixed view of real or unknown. Not seeing or being flooded with contradictions of what we’re experiencing is something quite different. Then, there is no ground to stand on. In the confines of a top-down spiritual community under the heat of sexual predation, this all took form in Sasaki’s community.
I find myself parachuting into the rooms and minds of Sasaki and his women students in the intimacy of teaching interviews. Just what would be seen there? What was Sasaki, his students thinking? Was coercion, power brokering and confusion subtle or overt? Sasaki in his teacher part met the sex hound dog part of him. Were these parts on speaking terms? And his students…..what parts of them went quiet, or into freeze? How did they feel – an assumption unto itself – and where did they place the contradictions of their experiences with him? How were teachings transmitted to men differently than to women?Allegations of his mis-conduct started to arise close to 25 years ago but were not taken seriously, blown out into the open until 2012. It took years for people to find their voices, their revelations of bad behavior spoken and for them to be listened to. Why did it take that long? Where did practitioners hold their doubt? Idealization and loyalty spiraling together with fear forges silence. Shame is the greatest of silencers.
A member of Sasaki’s Los Angeles group said, at the time of the 2012 allegations, ‘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.’ An inclusive perspective, but to be fully inclusive, there needs to be room for those influenced and shaped by Sasaki to have their own responses, the feelings arising for them, their confusion, isolation and broken trust. Inclusivity for a sangha of spiritual practitioners needs a big space. Common sense, that basic knowing of standards of behavior, what’s proper and permissible and drawing a line around it, may not be the best fall back in asking why didn’t community members en masse speak out. Traditional student roles of openness and submission to spiritual authority along with each practitioner’s knowing and not knowing coalesced together into collusion in Sasaki’s community. It became a closed system.
Sasaki’s influence spread over 50 years in the US, a time ripe for the dispersal of many zen teachings. The teachings stand on their own but come to life as a practice most fully through the direct influence of a teacher. Teacher, student and teachings all interpenetrate. When the teacher brings the fullness of him/herself to their role as teacher, boundaries drop and lines separating teacher and student take on deeper roles based on mutual trust. When this is missing, teachings become distorted, perverted and deeply confused. In the everyday realm of human relationships, this is where trouble begins. Zen teachings speak of ‘the indestructible body of the buddha’, that body of faith, of practice, of wisdom being bigger than any one person and certainly any one person’s bad behavior. In the end, are Sasaki’s students, those abused, those not, those who knew of sexual improprieties, those who did not…….in the end, are they glad they met him? In balance, are they happy their lives met his?
*San Francisco Chronicle, July 30, 2014
© Peter Goetz 2014