So there’s this guy who likes to fondle women’s breasts and have them stroke his man-parts – pretty normal, right? Except he’s a Zen master, now aged 105, and the women in question have been his students and disciples spread over the last forty to fifty years, many of whom were not willing participants.
Joshu Sasaki has been a star among Zen Buddhists in the United States since his arrival from Japan in 1962 – though he is best known to us Canadians as the man who had Leonard Cohen scrubbing floors at the Mount Baldy Zen Centre in the 1990s. Charismatic as hell, and a veritable font of enlightenment if you like that sort of thing, he eventually built up a Zen empire of some thirty Rinzai-ji “training centers” and a constituency of thousands. On the dark side, his sexual exploitation and abuse of female disciples has been an open secret among his adherents since at least the 1970s, with a corresponding cover-up worthy of the Catholic clergy.
Until recently, that is, when an independent committee of highly placed Buddhists at last produced a report detailing the Master’s misconduct over the decades, with the result that his inner circle – with palpable reluctance – finally admitted to knowing what they had known all along. The report makes damning reading:
There were consistent reports of sexual behavior by Joshu Sasaki, often initiated in the formal setting, privacy, and “face-to-face” encounters of the sanzen room. There were many accounts of Sasaki asking women to show him their breasts, as part of “answering” a koan or to demonstrate “non-attachment.” Some women repelled these requests and further physical advances. Many could not because they were physically overwhelmed, and subsequently experienced sexual behavior including kissing, viewing of breasts or genitalia, fondling of breasts or genitalia, viewing or being asked to touch his genitalia, oral sex, and vaginal intercourse. Several women recounted that they were asked to sit on his lap, presumably to be comforted. This physical intimacy progressed to sexualized behaviors initiated by Sasaki. There were no accounts of Joshu Sasaki asking men to show their genitalia in the course of “koan work.”
There were accounts of forced sexual and physical assault (against women’s protests) which resulted in one report to the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office and one report to a rape crisis center. There was another report to a Child Welfare agency concerning Sasaki and a sexual encounter with an underage girl. One person had interviewed women Rinzai-ji students, and three people extrapolated the number of women victims as well over one hundred.
So why did he get away with it for so long? On the one hand, there was a ready supply of rationalizations to disarm dissent, including the claim that that “sexualizing was [a] teaching [method] for particular women” and that “such physicality could check a woman’s overly strong ego.” The report breaks down Sasaki’s excuses this way:
i. Explaining the benefits of sexual relations as Zen practice
ii. Community belief that such relationships were the usual behaviors in Japan
iii. Sasaki’s justifying his sexual touch as that of a doctor
iv. Sasaki threatening to resign and withdraw his teaching and leadership
v. Sasaki and community members discounting women and their allegations
Then there were the ways of dealing with dissenters and potential whistleblowers:
i. Removal of Rinzai-ji position
ii. Removal of Rinzai-ji affiliation from their practice community
iii. Loss of practice center they [potential whistleblower] had established
iv. Contact with respondent’s work place (eg. disavowing ordination)
v. Banning from attending/visiting Rinzai-ji practice place
It all sounds depressingly familiar to me: just another charismatic narcissist playing silverback male among the faithful. Not very zen of them all, was it?