Deluded About Enlightenment

This is a follow up to the post before last, about the death of Joshu Sasaki. The New York Times published an article about it, and apparently not all of the Roshi’s former students acknowledge that what he did was wrong.

“The idea that he was a predator is mistaken,” said Harold D. Roth, a professor of religious studies at Brown University and a former student of Mr. Sasaki’s. “Everything he did was in the devoted service of awakening enlightenment in his students.”

Oh, please. He was hitting on women students in freakin’ sanzen.

They said he would tell them that sexual contact with a Zen master, or roshi, like him, would help them attain new levels of “non-attachment,” one of Zen’s central objectives. If they resisted, they said, he used intimidation and threats of expulsion.

The Roshi was particularly devoted to the service of enlightening women, apparently, since by all accounts male students didn’t get the same opportunity to attain new levels of non-attachment.

An independent panel of Buddhist leaders concluded in 2013 that the allegations were essentially indisputable. The panel report said that students had complained to Mr. Sasaki’s staff about his behavior since the early 1970s, and that those “who chose to speak out were silenced, exiled, ridiculed or otherwise punished.”

Some of the senior students who make excuses for the Roshi note that no rape charge was ever filed. That’s not unusual, however. Women probably figured it was futile to file charges, considering the Roshi’s seniors students obviously were going to shield him from accountability.

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I would say to Professor Roth that nobody is absolutely bad or absolutely good. Nobody is absolutely anything. I don’t doubt a lot of people who studied with the Roshi and learned Zen practice from him feel the experience was worthwhile. But just as it is delusion to assume a person who has done something wrong is evil, it’s also a delusion to assume a person whose life has otherwise been beneficial is good. This proposes a permanent essence of Sasaki Roshi upon which attributes may be hung — good, bad, enlightened, deluded.

That’s not how it works.

Zennies must affirm that there is no excuse for sexual predation, and that the Roshi’s acts were harmful and wrong. This is not about punishing him, but about giving affirmation to the women he abused while also saying loudly and clearly that this is not what Zen does.

4 thoughts on “Deluded About Enlightenment

  1. John Doe

    Sasaki was not a real Zen master. He was put imprison in Japan and then kicked out of the country. Those students making excuses for him are trying to cover their own culpability in these crimes. Period.

  2. Spencer Jarrett

    I studied with Joshu Sasaki Roshi for about ten years in the 80s, in New York, Ithaca and Jemez Springs. He was an excellent teacher. I later learned from a trusted friend that she had be molested by him and had stopped studying with him. His behavior is inexcusable, made worse by his taking advantage of the psychological vulnerability of students during sesshins, when people are emotionally and physically stretched to the limit. While I will always value his teaching I’m very saddened by the harm he did to students.

  3. Kat

    He was disgusting and so are the weak minded, slavish followers who rationalized, excused, and covered up for him. Appears there was also financial abuse, but that is another story.


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