Letters to the Editor Summer 2013

Spring 2013Error of Power

In the editorial about Joshu Sasaki Roshi (“The Buddha Stain,” Spring 2013), you talk about sexual misconduct as motivated by desire, “the very pulse of life.” Calling sexual misconduct an error of desire makes it sound like merely an error of passion— that the Roshi was swept away by sexual feeling only. But sexual misconduct, when it occurs between those who are not equal—be it a teacher and student, a psychotherapist and a client, or a soldier and a commander—is also an error of power. Current evolutionary psychologists tell us that the very pulse of life in our species contains a strong measure of status striving. We are hardwired to desire dominance. One reading of the daily headlines will confirm the psychologists’ assessment.

The desire to dominate others is as much part of the human condition as sexual passion. A student of Buddhism, by definition, is not equal to a teacher; the student is vulnerable to the teacher’s guidance and authority. It is important that teachers of Buddhism are mindful of their impulses toward power as well as their sexual impulses. It is important that the Buddhist community name misconduct correctly and clearly. I think you began to do this in your editorial comments, but I hope you and the Buddhist community will go deeper.
Michele Clark, MEd, MA
Faculty in Psychology and Counseling
Goddard College
Plainfield, VT

Doing Harm

I found the conclusion that James Shaheen drew in the Spring 2013 editorial on the sexual misconduct allegations of Joshu Sasaki Roshi both strange and disturbing: “Desire, the very pulse of life, is not something to be mastered; it will always be with us . . . And this apparently applies even to enlightened folks.” As a Buddhist, and in accordance with what little I have read and been taught, I find it impossible to believe that an enlightened being could willingly inflict pain upon another being in an effort to satisfy his own lustful passions. I find it equally hard to believe that an enlightened being would have desires at all, let alone urges that cannot be controlled.

This statement sounds as contradictory as saying “a corpse is alive” or “a dog is a cat.” Enlightenment by its very nature does not include the possibility of such qualities. This would be in direct opposition to the primary teachings of the Buddha himself, for don’t the Four Noble Truths tell us that desire and craving are the causes of suffering and that there is a path that can lead us out of this suffering? James Shaheen’s statement, if true, would refute this, the very foundation of Buddhism itself. If the Eightfold Path does not lead to a place beyond suffering, where exactly does it lead? Less suffering is still suffering, is it not? I do not doubt that Joshu Sasaki Roshi is an exceptional teacher who brought much benefit to many beings, but if these allegations are true, and if there is truth in the Buddha’s First Turning of the Dharma Wheel, enlightened he was not. Joshu Roshi is, of course, not alone: history has certainly shown us that there have been many great teachers who were not able to transcend their worldly desires. But the teachings tell us that there have also been many masters, perhaps some walking this very earth in these present degenerate times, who have completed the path and gone beyond their human cravings and who were able to act with impeccability, as Lord Shakyamuni Buddha did. And the likelihood of Lord Buddha or Avalokiteshvara doing harm is about as likely as you or I walking on water. Hopefully Joshu Roshi and other masters who struggle in a similar way will cultivate enough merit in this life to be born into another body that will reach the shores of true enlightenment in the next life and bring even greater benefit to all beings.

Michael Imperioli
Santa Barbara, CA

Editor’s Response

The main point of the editorial was the importance of looking at such scandals as problems that arise in communities and that can be dealt with in communities. They are not isolated instances, and to look at them in an isolated way—in any sense of that term—is itself a big part of where we go wrong.

My use of the phrase “even enlightened folks” was meant to convey some irony. There is a Zen saying that Shakyamunni is off practicing somewhere, and even he is only halfway there. The idea that enlightenment is a clearly determined state that people in this world actually attain is one Tibetans and Theravadins describe, but even there, it applies to so few people: among the Theravadins, how many actually attain arhatship? Or among Mahayanists, how many attain anuttara sanyak sambodhi?

In Zen—and this was a Zen community we were discussing—and in East Asian Buddhism in general, there is a much more flexible and even playful use of the term “enlightenment.” I can’t recall hearing any Zen or Pure Land adherents talking seriously about anyone other than the Buddha, or figures long passed, as having reached a final state of full, complete enlightenment.

Terms denoting exalted levels of spiritual attainment serve us when they point to a direction, but when they point to actual people, we are finding that they serve no one, least of all those who get saddled with the inflated expectations that go with them. And this is another point that the editorial made: Again and again, when people of great spiritual accomplishment have been isolated in communities where their enlightenment is seen as a permanent state and not an activity, they have gone astray because they had no community support to help them do better. This has happened in every religion, in every school of Buddhism, in every country, and at some point, whether directly or indirectly (by endorsing or failing to criticize someone who was engaged in damaging behavior), to a good number of teachers.

So who are these enlightened people who do no wrong and whose every act is Buddha activity? Why can’t we allow them to be human beings? We’ve tried seeing them as embodiments of ideals; maybe it’s time we tried something else.

Last, the argument that desire will always afflict us: I should allow for the possibility that this is not necessarily the case. I think we can also allow for those who believe that freedom from desire does not necessarily mean its absence.

James Shaheen, Editor and Publisher

Heart of Compassion

While in many ways I agree with the view presented by Brad Warner in his column “The Enlightenment Pill” (Spring 2013) that “it’s better to learn to wake up by yourself,” I am appalled by his contention that Buddhism’s prohibition against intoxicants includes doing away with any drugs including “medications prescribed for mental diseases.” This 13th-century statement by Dogen Zenji is both dangerous and untrue in today’s world.

People who are diagnosed as bipolar or schizophrenic, or those who experience postpartum depression, just as examples, should take medication when it’s prescribed, without feeling judged, ridiculed, or abandoned by their sangha. The Buddha’s heart of compassion has the limitless capacity to hold us all, saints and sinners, healthy and unwell, monastics and laity. It is not for me to judge another’s need for medical attention; it is simply for me to be awake and to stay awake, here and now.

Yigal Joseph, PhD
Psychologist
Yonkers, NY

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