Monday, February 11, 2013

Was This Teaching?

Joshu Sasaki Roshi was sent to the United States in the early 1960s by the largest Rinzai temple in Japan in response to a request by a community of southern Californian  Buddhists who were seeking a teacher. He became a prominent teacher in US, helping to found more than 25 Zen centers and retreat centers in his more than 50 years of teaching in the West.

One of Sasaki Roshi's Retreat centers.(Albuquerque Journal)
And he sexually abused female students in New Mexico and California for more than 50 years under the guise of Zen teachings, an independent commission of Zen teachers who functioned as a Witnessing Council has concluded. The allegations against the 105-year-old teacher range from charges that he fondled adult female students' breasts to sexual intercourse during one-on-one study sessions over many year,  according to reports on the website Sweeping Zen, which brought the matter to public view; the Albuquerque Journal ("A Zen 'Master' Molested students in N.M.), and the New York Times ("Zen Groups Distressed by Allegations Against Teacher"). You can read the details at any of those sites.

Allegations of misconduct have been made since the 1960s, but were covered up.

In its report released in January, the Witnessing Council said.

The Rinzai-ji community of practitioners has struggled with our teacher Joshu Sasaki Roshi’s sexual misconduct for a significant portion of his career in the United States. Senior members of our community have made several earnest and serious attempts over the years to correct this problem. Ultimately, these attempts failed. Our hearts were not firm enough, our minds were not clear enough, and our practices were not strong enough so that we might persist until the problem was resolved. We fully acknowledge now, without any reservation, and with the heaviest of hearts, that because of our failure to address our teacher’s sexual misconduct, women and also men have been hurt, women and men who trusted us with their Zen practices, and whose trust we failed to honor in a fundamental way.
Sasaki's female students told the council and the Times that the sexual misconduct was presented as part of his teachings. The Times reports that one women who studied with Sasaki  from 2003 to 2006 said he would "fondle her breasts during sanzen, or private meeting; he also asked her to massage his penis. She would wonder, she said, “Was this teaching?” 
Joshu Sasaki Roshi

 Sexual contact without clear consent is not teaching, it's sexual abuse -- which is not about desire or attraction or temptation; it's about power and domination. It is wrong, without question, when it is instigated by a person in a position of power or authority.

The Times says this raises issues for western students of Buddhism. Zen and Tibetan Buddhism exalt the relationship between the teacher and student. Students are encouraged to be devoted to their teachers, with whom they have a special bond. One of the members of the Witnessing Council, Grace Schireson, told the Times that Zen Buddhists in the United States have misinterpreted a Japanese philosophy. 

“Because of their long history with Zen practice, people in Japan have some skepticism about priests,” Schireson said. But in the United States many proponents have a “devotion to the guru or the teacher in a way that could repress our common sense and emotional intelligence.” 

There's a shift here that makes me uncomfortable. Like critics who blame women who are sexually assaulted for wearing provocative clothes or being out late at night or being in the wrong place, it focuses on the victim -- the person with less power -- rather than the perpetrator. In the aftermath of recent gang rapes in India, the Internet was alive with commentators asking why we don't expect men to control their own behavior instead of teaching women not to provoke men.

One monk who spoke to the Times said he first became aware of allegations against Sasaki in the 1980s. “There have been efforts in the past to address this with him,” he said. “Basically, they haven’t been able to go anywhere.” 

He added: “What’s important and is overlooked is that, besides this aspect, Roshi was a commanding and inspiring figure using Buddhist practice to help thousands find more peace, clarity and happiness in their own lives. 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.”
Is this an equation? Do good actions balance abuse of power? Do we accept behavior from a Roshi that we would condemn in someone without a title? Should there be a different standard for Buddhist teachers? Ask yourself that question without the word Buddhist: Should teachers be allowed to sexually abuse their students?

The same day I read these stories, I read a completely unrelated blog post about the veneration of eastern traditions in Buddhism. As it moved throughout Asia, Buddhism adapted and evolved, with distinct differences between Buddhism in Burma, Tibet, Japan, and China. Yet in the west, we cling to traditions not our own rather than creating western Buddhism.

One thing that I think is essential is a code of conduct for teachers within organizations. I'd assume that the precepts would cover it, but that seems not to be the case. I like the ethics code* used by the Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society, one of the few organizations that spells things out.

When teachers are above question or reproach, they and their students are at risk.

Leslie Linthicum, whose husband was a longtime and devoted student of Sasaki's but who is not a Buddhist herself, offers perspective and important questions to contemplate:

If we ignore the harm done by others (so convenient), are we also practicing harm?
If we’ve hidden some of the truth, isn’t that the same as lying?
If we put the teacher before all else, have we really learned anything? If the teacher allows that, does he have any business calling himself a teacher?
What stories do we tell to let ourselves off the hook?
*ATS ethics code for teachers:
4) We undertake the precept of refraining from sexual misconduct.
We agree to avoid creating harm through sexuality and to avoid sexual exploitation or relationships of a sexual manner that are outside of the bounds of the relationship commitments we have made to another or that involve another who has made vows to another. Teachers with vows of celibacy will live according to their vows. Teachers in committed relationships will honor their vows and refrain from adultery. All teachers agree not to use their teaching role to exploit their authority and position in order to assume a sexual relationship with a student.

We acknowledge that a healthy relationship with a former student can be possible, but that great care and sensitivity are needed. We agree that in this case the following guidelines are crucial.

a) A sexual relationship is never appropriate between teachers and students.

b) During retreats or formal teaching, any intimation of future student-teacher romantic or sexual relationship is inappropriate.
c) If interest in a genuine and committed relationship develops over time between a single teacher and a student, the student-teacher relationship must clearly and consciously have ended before any further development toward a romantic relationship. Such a relationship must be approached with restraint and sensitivity – in no case should it occur immediately after retreat. A minimum time period of three months or longer from the last formal teaching between them, and a clear understanding from both parties that the student-teacher relationship has ended must be coupled with a conscious commitment to enter into a relationship that brings no harm to either party.

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