Leading Japanese Zen Buddhist master, aged 105, accused of being a sex pest

THE ZEN Buddhist community in in the US are said to be shocked and distressed by revelations that a prominent teacher – Joshu Sasaki, 105 –  is being investigated for having groped and sexually harassed female students for decades.

Zen master Rick Scibelli, Jr. for The New York Times

Zen master Jishu Sasaki, pictured in 2007.  Photo: Rick Scibelli, Jr for The New York Times

Since arriving in Los Angeles from Japan in 1962, Sasaki has taught thousands of Americans at his two Zen centers in Los Angeles and New Mexico. According to the New York Times, he has influenced thousands more of “enlightenment seekers” through a chain of some 30 affiliated Zen centers from the Puget Sound to Princeton to Berlin.

And he is known as a Buddhist teacher of Leonard Cohen, the poet and songwriter.

Sasaki is being investigated by an independent council of Buddhist leaders. The allegations against him have upset and obsessed Zen Buddhists across the country, who are part of a close-knit world in which many participants seem to know, or at least know of, the principal teachers.

Because Sasaki has founded or sponsored so many Zen centers, and because he has the prestige of having trained in Japan, the charges that he behaved unethically — and that his supporters looked the other way — have implications for an entire way of life.

Such charges, said the NY Times, have become more frequent in Zen Buddhism.

Several other teachers have been accused of misconduct recently, notably Eido Shimano, who in 2010 was asked to resign from the Zen Studies Society in Manhattan over allegations that he had sex with students.

Critics and victims have pointed to a Zen culture of secrecy, patriarchy and sexism, and to the quasi-religious worship of the Zen master, who can easily abuse his status.

Disaffected students wrote letters to the board of one of Sasaki’s Zen centers as early as 1991. Yet it was only last November, when Eshu Martin, a Zen priest who studied under Sasaki from 1997 to 2008, posted a letter to SweepingZen.com, a popular Web site, that the wider Zen world noticed.

Martin, now a Zen abbot in Victoria, British Columbia, accused Sasaki of a “career of misconduct,” from “frequent and repeated non-consensual groping of female students” to “sexually coercive after-hours ‘tea’ meetings, to affairs,” as well as interfering in his students’ marriages.

Soon thereafter, the independent “witnessing council” of noted Zen teachers began interviewing 25 current or former students of Sasaki.

Some former students are now speaking out, including seven interviewed by the NY Times, and their stories provide insight into the culture of Rinzai-ji and the other places where Sasaki taught.

Women say they were encouraged to believe that being touched by Sasaki was part of their Zen training.

Nikki Stubbs, who now lives in Vancouver, and who studied and worked at Mount Baldy – Sasaki’s Zen center 50 miles east of Los Angeles – from 2003 to 2006, said that during that time  Sasaki 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?

One monk, whom Stubbs said she told about the touching, was unsympathetic.

He that sexualizing was teaching for particular women.

The monk’s theory, common in Sasaki’s circle, was that such physicality could check a woman’s overly strong ego.

A former student of Sasaki’s now living in the San Francisco area, who asked that her name be withheld to protect her privacy, said that at Mount Baldy in the late 1990s:

The monks confronted Sasaki and said, ‘This behavior is unacceptable and has to stop.’

However, she said, “nothing changed.” After a time, Sasaki used Zen teaching to justify touching her, too.