Feb 17, 2013

Pigs in Zen

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

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I've been so immersed in events erupting from the the scandal-plagued, power-abusing Vatican all week, I missed the news about scandal-plagued, power-abusing Zen teacher Joshu Sasaki. Funnily enough, the latter story broke wide with an article in the paper of record the same day Pope Benedict's resignation was announced. Of course, rumors had dogged the aging leader since the 1970s, but it was in January of this year that an announcement from senior teachers was posted on the Sasaki community website.

In early January, the senior teachers of Sasaki's community admitted in an on-line statement that the community "has struggled with our teacher Joshu Sasaki Roshi's sexual misconduct for a significant portion of his career in the United States."

In truth, to call them rumors is generous. It seems the living legend's inappropriateness was known about and actively enabled for decades. Then, in November of last year,  Zen priest Eshu Martin, who had studied under Sasaki for over ten years, threw down the gauntlet with a post on the Sweeping Zen website. The title, "Everybody Knows – Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi and Rinzai-ji," is an obvious allusion to one of Sasaki's more famous students, Leonard Cohen. This reference does more than point to the fact that Sasaki's behavior was common knowledge. Cohen's masterpiece speaks to the ubiquity of deceit and injustice in this game of life we are all participating in.

Joshu Sasaki Roshi, the founder and Abbot of Rinzai-ji is now 105 years old, and he has engaged in many forms of inappropriate sexual relationship with those who have come to him as students since his arrival here more than 50 years ago. His career of misconduct has run the gamut from frequent and repeated non-consensual groping of female students during interview, to sexually coercive after hours “tea” meetings, to affairs and sexual interference in the marriages and relationships of his students. Many individuals that have confronted Sasaki and Rinzai-ji about this behaviour have been alienated and eventually excommunicated, or have resigned in frustration when nothing changed; or worst of all, have simply fallen silent and capitulated. For decades, Joshu Roshi’s behaviour has been ignored, hushed up, downplayed, justified, and defended by the monks and students that remain loyal to him.

Everybody knows that you love me baby
Everybody knows that you really do
Everybody knows that you've been faithful
Ah give or take a night or two
Everybody knows you've been discreet
But there were so many people you just had to meet
Without your clothes
And everybody knows

~ Leonard Cohen

As is so painfully typical in these situations, abused women who complained were shamed and shunned, while the abusive leader was venerated. From the New York Times story:

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?’ ”

Almost more appalling is the blatant subversion of Buddhist teachings Sasaki used to manipulate women and justify his sexual acting out.

In the council’s report on Jan. 11, the three members wrote of “Sasaki asking women to show him their breasts, as part of ‘answering’ a koan” — a Zen riddle — “or to demonstrate ‘non-attachment.’ ”

. . .

“He would say something like, ‘True love is giving yourself to everything,’ ” she explained. At Mount Baldy, the isolation could hamper one’s judgment. “It can sound trite, but you’re in this extreme state of consciousness,” she said — living at a monastery in the mountains, sitting in silence for many hours a day — “where boundaries fall away.”

Not the first time I've heard a spiritual leader reinterpret the surrender to spirit as a surrender to himself. If you don't surrender to his ego, you're just too much in your ego. Get it? But most appalling was this gem:

One monk, whom Ms. Stubbs said she told about the touching, was unsympathetic. “He believed in Roshi’s style, that sexualizing was teaching for particular women,” Ms. Stubbs said. The monk’s theory, common in Mr. Sasaki’s circle, was that such physicality could check a woman’s overly strong ego. [all emphases mine]

Uppity bitches. Someone had to knock 'em down a peg or two. The irony here is the implicit admission that sexual abuse is not about sex. It's about power and dominance.

Grace Schireson, who was on the "witnessing council" that issued a report on the problem in January, cites the Westernization of a Japanese practice. Interviewed by the Times, she claimed that the Japanese view their teachers with a healthy dose of skepticism and are less inclined to put them on a pedestal. Personally, I find it hard to believe that the Japanese are less deferential to authority than Westerners. I think that basic problem is more a facet of human nature than culture (See Milgram). I put the question to my husband who has spent years studying martial arts, and is fairly well acquainted with Japanese teachers and customs. Leave say, he did not find that to be so. If anything, he found that Japanese teachers are more expectant of deference and that his own teachers were surprised by the "many questions" American students ask.

I have little knowledge of Japanese culture, but I do know that it is notoriously male dominated and incredibly sexist. Groping women on trains is so common in Japan that women-only cars had to be established. Such violations are fetishized, pornogrophized, and popularized in manga.

That said, the report offers a very insightful take on the dynamics that allowed this problem to go on for decades.

When ongoing questions of misuse of sexuality or power unfold in a spiritual community, it is rarely a matter of one person’s actions. Reading through the painful and heartfelt accounts documenting Joshu Sasaki’s sexual relationships with students at Rinzaiji down through the years, we see how, knowingly and unknowingly, the community was drawn into an open secret, and people’s ability to practice the dharma suffered. Despite individual and collective attempts to address boundaries, repentance, and rectification, these behaviors appear to have continued over more than four decades. We have reports that those who chose to speak out were silenced, exiled, ridiculed, or otherwise punished.

Understanding that our practice is to bear what is unbearable and not to turn away from reality, how could this be so? We suggest it has something to do with a view of spiritual authority and “enlightenment” that we in the West have created in the name of Zen. To be fair, this is not just a problem of Zen. It arises in various Buddhist communities, and more widely in other religious congregations. We are unfortunately susceptible to enthrallment, which is hardly "seeing things as they really are." There are certain problems that may arise when one sees a teacher as comprehensively enlightened and fails to deal with the certainty that he or she, like oneself, has a shadow or deluded aspect. We imagine that “enlightenment” is separate from or outside of ourselves. The community may attempt to protect the teacher, the seeming embodiment of enlightenment. If we hold such a model, it is often impossible to recognize or admit that there has been an abuse of power. We fear the loss of our enlightened teacher and thus the opportunity to become enlightened ourselves.

It is not about a single individual, but about a very toxic synergy of power dynamics that can arise in any hierarchical structure. Even a deeply pathological leader cannot maintain a grip on a community unless he is enabled by followers. And even leaders who start out with the best of intentions can be seduced and subverted by the adulation of their followers. (See Zimbardo.) The search for enlightenment is subject to any number of pitfalls if we aren't keeping track of the shadow. (See Jung.)

This scandal put me in mind of a similar one at the Kripalu Institute many years ago -- not because these things are uncommon. They aren't. But because I was a fly on the wall for some of the aftermath of the Kripalu scandal. I spent a week at the Massuchusetts ashram shortly after the whole thing went down. I was just there for some yoga, rest, and relaxation, but it ended up being quite a lesson in the dynamics of disillusionment.

I did a little googling to refresh my memory on some of the details and I came across some interesting perspectives. But first, for those unfamiliar with the particulars:

In 1994, [Amrit] Desai resigned after admitting to having sex with followers.[2][5][7][8] Kripalu paid $2.5 million to settle a purported class action lawsuit brought by more than 100 former residents who had served as unpaid staff. Kripalu financed the payment partly by selling its adjacent Foxhollow property, which it had acquired to provide housing for its most senior members.[5][9]

One New York Times article pointed to yet another, more recent yoga scandal. The author manages to completely miss the point.

But this is hardly the first time that yoga’s enlightened facade has been cracked by sexual scandal. Why does yoga produce so many philanderers? And why do the resulting uproars leave so many people shocked and distraught?

One factor is ignorance. Yoga teachers and how-to books seldom mention that the discipline began as a sex cult — an omission that leaves many practitioners open to libidinal surprise.

Hatha yoga — the parent of the styles now practiced around the globe — began as a branch of Tantra. In medieval India, Tantra devotees sought to fuse the male and female aspects of the cosmos into a blissful state of consciousness.

The characterization of Tantra as a "sex cult" is extremely reductive, but that's not the dumbest part of the article. The author goes on to explain that Hatha increases circulation in the pelvic area and heightens the passions, which is true. Of course the same could be said many forms of physical exercise.

Where the article really enters the realm of the absurd is in the suggestion that sex scandals like the one at Kripalu were simply the result heightened sexual appetites. The idea that this was just a bunch of sexually adventurous people doing what comes naturally is absurd. Heightened and spiritualized sexuality could just as easily enhance committed relationships and increase closeness and intimacy between partners, as is, indeed, often the case.

The problem is one of dynamics and abuse of power, not human sexuality. In the case of Kripalu and similar scandals, many women claim to have been intimidated and coerced. Victims who complain are ostracized. Many lies are told and secrets kept. This is not about consensual sexual activity, openly engaged in by willing participants.

More to the point, as the subject of this post illustrates, these scandals are hardly unique to the world of yoga.

Finally, I read some excerpts from a book that addresses the Kripalu crisis. Steven Cope's Yoga and the Quest for the True Self speaks brilliantly to the group dynamics and larger lessons learned when people are ready to take their power back.

It was not the scandal that forced the death of the old forms of yoga at Kripalu. Quite the opposite. It was the impending death of the old paradigm that required the scandal. It is clear that the fact of Amrit Desai's affairs had been in the unconscious of the community all along. It was not new information. Quite a few individuals held the secret. It was simply information that could not be brought to the light of consciousness until the community was more or less ready for it.

In 1994 when the scandal erupted, Gurudev had not suddenly changed. In fact, the sexual misconduct was by that time many years old. Amirt was who he had always been -- ambitious, brilliant, sometimes a sincere yogi, sometimes just a smooth performer, too often a teacher who was too charming for his own good. It was the community's own capacity to see and bear the truth that had changed.

The bonfire was just as much a sign of success as of failure.

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