Filed in Zen (Chan)

The Buddha Stain

James Shaheen

At the further edges, cults are certainly different from other types of communities, whether religious or secular. But aside from the extremes, there can be a large gray area. Which is to say, certain characteristics that are present in most any purposeful community—self-validating agreements about authority; the singular significance of the group’s mission; clear rules of conduct and organization—can, when pushed far enough, lead to cult-like behavior, with damaging consequences.

As I write this, yet another Buddhist community is in the thick of yet another sex scandal: this time it is the Rinzai-ji association of Zen centers headed by Joshu Sasaki Roshi, who is, at 105 years old, one of the old lions of the Buddhist world and one of the last remaining of that handful of teachers who, in the 1960s and 1970s, established the meditation centers and communities that were foundational for the development of Buddhism in the West. On the website Sweeping Zen, two of Joshu Roshi’s priests came forward to address what appears to be a decades-long pattern of sexual misconduct on their teacher’s part.

Writing with searing candor and self-scrutiny, the senior priest Giko David Rubin describes his struggle to navigate a relationship with a teacher possessed of exceptional gifts and, at the same time, an impaired ability to tolerate criticism or accept the consequences of his own rotten behavior. Mr. Rubin’s dilemma—and it is a poignant one—is that in his efforts to address his teacher’s boorish actions, he appears to have struggled with some of the very qualities—dedication to practice, strong religious aspiration, devotion to his teacher and lineage—that made him a good Zen student in the first place. But at least Mr. Rubin appears to have made an honest effort to recognize and confront what was wrong. From other quarters, Joshu Roshi seems to have received a lot of flattering support for his bullying, deceit, and exploitative conduct. This is how these things typically go. Just as we as individuals usually need a lot of support to get things right, so do we need a lot of support to get things so terribly wrong.

One veteran of the Zen scene told me that the most surprising thing about the breaking of the Rinzai-ji story is that it took so long to be made public. The general outlines of the story have been common knowledge in Zen circles for decades. But Rinzai-ji has always been an insular community, socially isolated from the larger Buddhist community by a self-reinforcing belief in the special significance of their teacher and his transmission. In this regard, they have been able to maintain an attitude—call it “dharma exceptionalism,” for lack of a better word—that was characteristic of many of the Buddhist communities that started at about the same time. Many of these communities, with time and experience, have had their sense of dharma exceptionalism at least mildly chastened by upheavals of their own, and perhaps now this will be true for Rinzai-ji as well.

This is a good thing. Institutions have always been essential to Buddhism’s survival and flourishing, and Buddhism in the West is no different. And it hardly needs saying that membership in a community brings with it a sense of that community’s significance. We need our institutions, and we need to feel that they matter. But communities need to grow and learn and mature, and one of the main ways they do this is through the humbling process of falling short of their ideals.

Institutions, no less but no more than individuals, are marked by what the novelist Philip Roth called “the human stain”—our inevitable failure to measure up to the purity of our ideals. Desire, the very pulse of life, is not something to be mastered; it will always be with us, always causing trouble, undermining our high-mindedness, delighting us and driving us crazy, and reminding us that we are, alas, human. And this apparently applies even to enlightened folks. As the stain of our inability to conquer desire spreads, something else can, if we let it, spread with it. We can move past the confines of parochialism and the sense of moral and spiritual privilege. We can, and we do, meet as a larger community, one that holds and supports each particular one. There is no escaping the human stain, and it is folly to try, but there is always that other spreading thing, that Buddha stain, for us to take refuge in.

—James Shaheen, Editor and Publisher

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
Patricia.I's picture

Hi celticpassage and G.

I also had hoped that Mr. Shaheen would respond to my comment. Is it “collusion”, or not “backing up high-minded talk” with concrete action? Maybe. A response would certainly help clarify Mr. Shaheen’s reasons for choosing to remain silent despite his knowledge of the facts.

Regardless of his personal reasons, it remains disturbing that Tricycle condemns sexual harassment while continuing to publish teachers against whom there have been clearly and factually substantiated allegations of sexual misconduct.

G., I too would like to see Ken McLeod respond to my and the other student’s allegations. He has apparently stepped down from all public teaching engagements in 2013 but continues to aggressively market himself on Twitter. I do wonder if his sabbatical is funded by his organization (Unfettered Mind) and/ or if he is now (or will soon resume) teaching exclusively on a private one-on-one basis.

celticpassage's picture

Yes. I don't think there's an actual secret agreement.

But I think we all know that when most people are tested with supporting truth or standing on principle when it will impact their money and security almost everyone will choose money and security.

One might expect that Dharma practitioners would be different. But they aren't. Attachment to our own comfort and security is so deeply rooted and fundamental that what is practiced in the West by most people doesn't have a chance of impacting that attachment in any significant way.

mfesmith's picture

There is a new kind of buddhism, tabloid buddhism.

marginal person's picture

"We need our institutions and we need to feel that they matter." Perhaps you should speak for yourself. . Institutions by their nature perpetuate themselves at any price and the first cost is the truth." If you meet the buddha on the road kill him." The problem of abuse of power will remain as long as we have institutions where "everyone is equal but some are more equal than others."

Dominic Gomez's picture

The problem is not institutions. The problem is people who have been trusted with positions of responsibility but selfishly abuse the trust placed in them.

marginal person's picture

People must be held responsible for their actions but you lack insight into the role institutions play in condoning these ethical failures. The positions of responsibility that you speak of are positions of power over others. Some teachers will abuse power entrusted to them but the nature of the institution can facilitate this. Systematic inequalities are built into the institutions, making abuse of power more prevalent, especially in those traditions that stress submission and obedience (Tibetan and Zen traditions). Until this power discrepancy is addressed people will continue to be hurt.

Dominic Gomez's picture

In the military the potential for such abuse of power was present but tempered by honor, duty, and respect for one's fellows. It was always the individuals rather than the institution we were in that made for good or terrible experiences.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Rinzai-ji has apparently been transformed into the Hell of Hungry Ghosts.

DharmaHero's picture

It's the same as with every religion, buddhism can't be an exception. Nor are roshi's any better inherently or their buddhist practice any more inoculating to sins of the flesh or the mind than say the practices of catholic, orthodox or protestant christianity. I would think they would actually be worse judging by the cultural position of women historically in Japan as opposed to that in the States or in Europe.

In any case, the guy's at 105 and he's yet to check out. Some say narcissists never age... apparently some might not even die! May we be all well away from creeps, bullies and hypocrites, and may those with such tendencies within them try to at least moderate them, and may they stay away from positions of power, although they are naturally drawn to them.

As far as enlightenment goes, students of the dharma should beware: anyone can claim it for themselves, Chögyam Trungpa managed to run a community whilst being a drunkard -nothing wrong per se with that, but if you got a drinking issue, guru or not, there's a brotherhood and sisterhood other than the dharma's whose meetings you should be attending- and (in his infinite intuitive wisdom) appointed an hiv positive heir -nothing wrong with that either, but of course you really shouldn't be having unprotected sex with other people then- that would subsequently go on to knowingly infect HIV to his students, his bisexuality insuring that neither of the sexes was spared from the hiv killing spree... These two guys are closer to the proverbial child molesting catholic priest than anything having remotely to do with enlightenment of course. And anyone who says otherwise needs a reality check.

celticpassage's picture

"t's the same as with every religion, Buddhism can't be an exception."
I agree.

But the only trouble is that Buddhism implies (if not claims) that it IS an exception.

Buddhism implies that people can live in the ultimately real rather than living a life trapped in the petty concerns of a small ego-obsessed mind.

It Implies and claims that the effective result of Buddhism is the transcendence of this small mind (which is the one with all the sex and drugs and rock and roll) and that this transcendence will also result in inexhaustible compassion, wisdom, and final rest from all sufferring, And that these things are the natural state of every person and that by following Buddhism every person can realize this.

pjl0404's picture

This is stress… This is the origin of stress… This is the cessation of stress… this is the way leading to the cessation of stress – The Buddha's Four Noble Truths; so easy to preach and yet so difficult to practice...

Attaining liberation from suffering is a continual work in progress and very few (if any) are likely to accomplish it in a single lifetime. A few (or even many) bad apples don't spoil the whole tree, in my opinion. Scandals such as this may say a lot about human failings but they don't diminish the Dhamma...

PJL
www.trustinginbuddha.co.uk

celticpassage's picture

Scandals do diminish the Dharma and Buddhism as they should, to think otherwise is to live in fantasyland.

marginal person's picture

To diminish is good when people or things get too big and to disillusion is good when we are under the influence of illusions. It seems the first thing people let go of when they join a religious community is their common sense.

pjl0404's picture

'Buddhism' probably... Dhamma (truth, reality, the way things ultimately are) never...

celticpassage's picture

This is an incorrect understanding

pjl0404's picture

[Svākkhāto] bhagavatā dhammo,
Sandiṭṭhiko akāliko ehipassiko,
Opanayiko paccattaṃ veditabbo viññūhīti.

The Dhamma is well-expounded by the Blessed One,
To be seen here and now, timeless, inviting all to come and see,
Leading inward, to be seen by the wise for themselves.

"Dhamma. The cosmic principle of truth, lawfulness, and virtue discovered, fathomed, and taught by the Buddha; the Buddha's teaching as an expression of that principle... leading to enlightenment and liberation" Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi.

Sorry... Is that better?

Dominic Gomez's picture

More accurately what is diminished is people's trust in Buddhism. Transmitting the Law is difficult as it is without the idiocy of the likes of Mr. Sasaki.

marginal person's picture

Gotama's insight was counter intuitive. It went against the grain. Things are transient , contingent and devoid of a separate reality. This especially includes "the law".

Dominic Gomez's picture

That phenomena are transient and contingent is but one aspect of the Law.

Richard Fidler's picture

The real problem lies in the way we treat our teachers. In Asia and in Abrahamic religions spiritual leaders are venerated, their words and actions respected even when they do not merit respect. Should we regard our teacher's words about eating habits, sleep patterns, medicine, politics, and sexuality with reverence? Does their "enlightenment" reach to the value of exercise and a valid critique of modern society? Maybe and maybe not. Personally, I value a teacher's discourse about the Four Noble Truths, meditation practice, and ethical behavior (while keeping an open mind about the last), but I regard comments about other issues as only another perspective.

We have another model for the teacher, an ancient one that goes back to Classical Greece: Socrates. We should not forget the value of back-and-forth dialogue and the mutual respect of teacher and student that his life demonstrated. As a former teacher, it is a model I treasure.

mriramos's picture

Richard - your post reminds me of a series done by Ken Wilber (The Future of Spirituality - Why it must be integral)
http://www.soundstrue.com/shop/The-Future-of-Spirituality/4177.pd

Can a person be enlightened, but be socially under-developed? It seems, Yes.

berleymc's picture

"This is a good thing. Institutions have always been essential to Buddhism’s survival and flourishing, and Buddhism in the West is no different. And it hardly needs saying that membership in a community brings with it a sense of that community’s significance. We need our institutions, and we need to feel that they matter. But communities need to grow and learn and mature, and one of the main ways they do this is through the humbling process of falling short of their ideals."

I'm a bit dissappointed in the editorial. While what I quoted above is true there's something missing here. I don't think that ritualistic sexual abuse (yes, ritualistic because the Roshi made it part of "teaching') is a mere "falling short of their ideals." It is mush bigger than that. And it also begs the question how many other monks may have "practiced" in the same way? I cannot help but be suspicious of a community who conveniently waits for the Roshi to be 105 years old and retiring - and now are saying "we are good people who made a mistake, look at our cool new ethics guidelines - now move along, there's nothing else to see here." Really? A community led by the likes of the Roshi cannot help but be toxic itself. There may well be much more to see there.

Something else missing in the editorial, which I hope will be a bigger part of the article, is that this isn't just about Buddhist institutions and the reputation of Buddhism in the West. This is a tragedy about real people, both men and women, who suffered (and believe me, continue to suffer). Women who are shunned for leaving a community that they previously loved and were devoted to. Women who perhaps were vulnerable because of their background, were shamed into believing that the "practice" was a legitimate way to break down their egos. Do a little research, that kind of shame will take a long and difficult road to get past. And the men who in their own set of vulnerabilities, were taken advantage of so that they would protect and explain away these horrible acts. And if there are men who follow in their Roshi's footsteps with the same behavior, they too were done a disservice - instead of being led toward enlightenment they've had the seeds of their basest desires watered time and time again. Another long road of healing if they can find a way to acknowledge it.

I dare say, that if that particular institution were to crumble into dust and become obsolete it would be more validating to those who suffered because of it than that institution's survival.

Jakela's picture

As a student of a senior student of Sasaki, I was appalled when I first heard of his alleged serial acts of abuse and other transgressions. My teacher, who I asked to comment on what happened, is in total denial that anything did.
It's a sad state of affairs when you put your trust in the hands of a lineage that cannot admit the truth. And perhaps a lesson that we all need to ultimately rely on ourselves to understand the dharma in an un-stained way.

Patricia.I's picture

You say that “one of the most surprising things” about these stories when they finally break is that they “took so long to be made public”. I couldn’t agree with you more.

I’d be curious to learn your explanation as to why, when these stories about Sasaki have been known for years, Tricycle has only gone public with them now.

Or to cite a current example of another teacher about whom Tricycle has never gone public for his “bullying, deceit, and exploitative conduct”, Ken McLeod preaches on your website:

Even if someone broadcasts to the whole universe
Slanderous and ugly rumors about you,
In return, with an open and caring heart,
Praise his or her abilities
(37 Practices of a Bodhisattva; verse 15)

Then, within weeks of this commentary being published, Ken threatens to sue Adam Tebbe of Sweeping Zen and Myoan Grace Schireson for daring to broadcast a documented account of his and his organization’s perfidy. Here is the link to that lawsuit threat: http://sweepingzen.com/fed-ex-letter-from-ken-mcleods-attorney/

Tricycle has never written about or even investigated any of this hypocrisy but continues to publish Ken, citing his commentary above among the “Twelve Best of 2012” and including him in the latest eBook marketing piece.

How is this different from the “flattering support for his bullying, deceit, and exploitative conduct” that you condemn in your article?

celticpassage's picture

If it's true that Tricycle knows about documented cases like these then they should be informing their readership rather than praising these people. And remove their 'teachings' from the site stating the reasons why.

It is rather disturbing that Tricycle is colluding with these kinds of people.
I don't think there is any excuse for Tricycle's doing so either. Since they choose what to publish here, even if there is a credible rumor of misconduct then I think they should take the above actions.

G's picture

Patricia, I applaud you coming forward with your story, and I applaud your refusal to be ignored or go away. Let's see if Shaheen is willing to back up his high-minded talk.

I would like to see Ken McLeod respond to your allegations of misconduct. They are troubling and deserve to be taken seriously.

Have you considered filing a lawsuit? If nothing else, that would stand a good chance of attracting the attention of the mainstream media, aside from this clubby little world that protects its own.

celticpassage's picture

Also seems to indicate that enlightenment isn't all it's creacked up to be since so many 'venerable masters' don't even seem to have basic drives under control.

Or perhaps many 'venerable masters' aren't enlightened at all.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Human stain, original sin, 3 poisons innate in life (greed, anger, stupidity). The goal of Buddhist practice is to change such karma (stain).

sallyotter's picture

I can accept the "human stain". It's the cover-up that kills me. But guess that's part of the human stain too. Bottom line, ego and self cherishing.

HappyChris's picture

Same old, same old... No doubt Rubin & co. are feeling that flood of relief that comes after finally telling the truth. What they are carrying with them is the terrible guilt and shame of not telling it decades earlier. Grubby people - let's face it, usually men - have been exploiting and degrading those who initially put their trust in them, and coercing these same who failed to walk away from their 'charisma', for all the time that the Dharma has been in the 'West'. (And probably for all the time before that; I wasn't there.) Yet, in spite of the full glare of publicity for the malefactions of others - Ministers, Gurus, Roshis, etc. - the ones closest to the creeps let themselves be blinded to it while (hopefully) being eaten up inside by the blatant wrongness of their heroes' unDharmic activities.

Maybe everyone will gather around in dubious 'compassion' and 'understand' where these folk are coming from, wishing them strength to get through it. But will they shun them from the Buddhist community, not scapegoating them for their own unsaid feelings and doubts but as a warning to others who might also fail to see the import of their own such actions in the future. And from a desire to keep the Buddhist community actually practising what it preaches.

davide's picture

I sincerely hope they're not shunned from the Buddhist community, but removed from teacher status and sent back to the ranks as students. They obviously have more learning to do and shouldn't be deprived of it.

celticpassage's picture

The fact that the people involved here were men has nothing to do with the issue. You're sexist attitude betrays itself.

shugyo's picture

The fact that many of the perpetrators were men, and many of the victims women, is certainly one of the big issues. Labeling that as "sexist", and then just brushing it off, denies the compassion in our buddha nature, and ignores the repeated pattern.

celticpassage's picture

"The fact that many of the perpetrators were men, and many of the victims women, is certainly one of the big issues." No it isn't. It isn't an issue at all. You just don't recognize your own sexist attitude.

Nor does anything I said imply that I was "brushing it off" or ignoring the "repeated pattern" or denying "the compassion in our buddha nature" (whatever that means). These are all projections from your own mind.

Also, I think we must acknowledge that the objects of these abuses bear some responsibility for allowing such abuses to continue and go unchallenged. Unless these abuses were forced rapes then the women involved could have chosen to confront the issues or to leave the Sangha: they are not total victims with no choices.

Marfa_Danilovna's picture

"Forced rapes": as opposed to? Unforced rapes? Consenting rapes?
In your line of thought, should we then blame all the rape/abuse/crime victims (survivors) who don't report events to police/family/friends and consider them partially responsible for what's happened to them?

celticpassage's picture

I don't think your comment has anything to do with this issue.
I used the term forced-rape specifically to emphasize the contrast between this situation with situations where the target of the abuse has no choice.

Although I would agree that if a person has a choice (or several) as in this situation, and they do nothing about it then they are partially responsible for what is happening to them.

Emma Varvaloucas's picture

Hi celticpassage. I don't think it's as simple as all that. It seems like the women who were abused did challenge what was happening, often with little response from the men around them. From the NY Times article (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/12/world/asia/zen-buddhists-roiled-by-acc...) that was published yesterday about Sasaki:

Many women whom Mr. Sasaki touched were resident monks at his centers. One woman who confronted Mr. Sasaki in the 1980s found herself an outcast afterward. The woman, who asked that her name not be used to protect her privacy, said that afterward “hardly anyone in the sangha, whom I had grown up with for 20 years, would have anything to do with us.”

Several women said that Zen can foster an atmosphere of overt sexism. Jessica Kramer, a doula in Los Angeles, was Mr. Sasaki’s personal attendant in 2002. She said that he would reach into her robe and that she always resisted his advances. Surrounded almost entirely by men, she said she got very little sympathy. “I’d talk about it with people who’d say, ‘Why not just let him touch your breasts if he wants to touch your breasts?’ ”

So, yes, these women could, as you wrote, "confront the issue or leave the sangha." And it seems like many (or some) of them did. But the point is that the community shouldn't have been structured in such a way that these were the only choices these women were left with. Nor should they have been choices that needed to be made at all.

celticpassage's picture

Thank you for the link Emma.
"But the point is that the community shouldn't have been structured in such a way"
I'm not sure structure matters so much. Of course, draconian structures make some things easier, but there will always be selfish people who will take advantage of whatever structure is there. And we certainly don't live in an ideal world where things are 'fair'.

I also don't think these kinds of situations are complicated. I think they are simple. People complicate things by their own indecision about what to do. But the situation itself, is I believe, a simple one.

I suppose what I meant by confront the situation is to confront it through outside social force since internal complaints did nothing to alter the pattern. Then, to me, it would be appropriate to phone the police and make a complaint and ask that the teacher be charged. I certainly would do so without any consideration whatsoever of the 'consequences' to the Sangha or to the 'teacher'. The teacher would be arrested and the local papers would publish the news. If nothing happens then I would remove myself from the situation.

If this kind of situation exists in a Church, or a Shangha, it is clearly a failed spiritual community and a failed spiritual leader; it needs to be cleaned out or collapsed. To me, neither one is regrettable, and the decision a simple one.

eternallyperplexed's picture

CP, I agree with some of your comments, but as much as I would like to see just desserts for such exploiters of those who are 'seeking', often desperately, I do not think they commit a legal crime (unless their victims are under aged) and hence they cannot be charged or arrested. The status of spiritual leaders is different from teachers in schools, doctors, etc, in the eyes of the law. Which kind of makes your point about responsibility being a bit more complex than in those seemingly clear-cut cases of a power imbalance.

celticpassage's picture

I know that there are some differences in the law between faith-based institutions and others. However, I'm skeptical that the criminal code doesn't apply to everyone regardless of one's status.

So, I would expect that sexual assault is a criminal offense for everyone and that said religious leader would indeed be arrested (and of course the press would have a field day...which is arguably what would cause the real change or collapse to occur).

eternallyperplexed's picture

Well if by 'sexual assault' you mean some force was used then yes the police would be involved. But that is not my understanding of most of such cases. There was persuasion etc and misuse of position but such are not automatically considered crimes as they would be if the perp was a doctor, schoolteacher etc.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Unless complaints are filed by victims, no action can be taken. A culture of complicity doesn't help, either. What happens in Rinzai-ji stays in Rinzai-ji. Unfortunately such behavior makes a laughing stock of Buddhism. Or worse.

celticpassage's picture

Yes. That gets back to my earlier point about the targets of the abuse bringing external social pressure to bear.

The culture of complicity is the puzzling part. If people have any real understanding of the path to enlightenment this culture shouldn't exist. And yet it does. Which makes me question what is actually being transmitted.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Sexual predators in the guise of spiritual leaders seems quite common these days. Shakyamuni must be spinning in his stupas!

celticpassage's picture

As long as we are careful with the distinction. It is this kind of distinction in people’s minds that affords the spiritual leader the degree of veneration and protection that they now obtain.

It's always a surprise for me to hear these kinds of stories and how people are willing to overlook that in spiritual leaders what they would not overlook in their peers. It's supposed to be the other way around!

If this kind of thing is to be avoided in the future, people need to become More impatient and More intolerant with their spiritual leaders than Anyone else.

In Christianity at least, leaders are to be held to a Higher standard than Anyone else. At the First indication of trouble, leaders should be removed from their post and any position of influence in that community Immediately. There should be no 'understanding' and no second chances offered. I would suggest that this higher expectation should be enforced upon all spiritual leaders regardless of what religion is involved.

The dichotomy in peoples thinking stands in greater relief if you look at the silly way people react when a politician has an affair. In that case, the politician hasn't done anything illegal or arguably hasn't even done anything wrong and yet people demand that they forfeit their careers! Even though the affair has little or nothing to do with their ability to do their job. And yet in religious circles this type of behavior is apparently tolerated even though it does have a direct effect on their ability to be a spiritual leader.