Flaws and Zen Teachers

The death of Joshu Sasaki Roshi at the age of 107 was noted in several major U.S. newspapers, but I haven’t heard much about it in the U.S. Zen community, possibly because many would like to forget him entirely.

James Ford, a Soto Zen lineage holder, did post on his blog Monkey Mind about the Roshi, and wrote,

By all accounts a great teacher.

By all accounts a sexual predator.

A great sadness for the Dharma come west.

There is no question flawed people can still be great teachers. Were it not so, there would be no great teachers. But there are flaws, and then there are other flaws. wrote in the Los Angeles Times,

Decades later, allegations from dozens of former students that he had sexually abused them surfaced. The allegations included molestation and rape, and some had been reported to the Rinzai-ji board, which never took effective action, according to an investigation by an independent council of Buddhist leaders.

The council’s report suggested he may have abused hundreds. “We see how, knowingly and unknowingly, the community was drawn into an open secret,” the council wrote. “We have reports that those who chose to speak out were silenced, exiled, ridiculed, or otherwise punished.”

A council of senior Zen teachers ordained under Roshi later responded with an apology, acknowledging that it failed to address the teacher’s alleged sexual misconduct.

The community was drawn into an open secret … those who chose to speak out were silenced, exiled, ridiculed, or otherwise punished. To me, this is the most critical issue. There is no group of people immune to herd mentality, including scientists, self-described skeptics — and Zen students. And I feel compelled to point out that “great teachers” don’t haul their students into co-dependency and complicity.

His senior students, quoted in the news stories, still speak of him with gushing reverence.  Apparently he had great presence, even charisma. But in Zen, genuinely great teachers are praised for their ordinariness. Genuinely great teachers don’t encourage emotional dependency.

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi (1904-1971), who founded the San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC) in the late 1960s, once compared working with one’s own delusions to climbing a stepladder. Then he added,

Sometimes I may be a delusion. You may overestimate me: “He is a good teacher!” That is already a kind of delusion. I am your friend. I am just practicing with you as your friend who has many stepladders.”

Shunryu Suzuki was a great teacher. I’ve never heard even a hint of a scandalous thing about him. However, as he was dying he rushed transmission of his senior student Richard Baker, who apparently was not ready, and Baker became embroiled in scandals that nearly destroyed SFZC. But SFZC survived, partly through the guidance of Shunryu Suzuki’s son Hoitsu Suzuki. My second Zen teacher, Jion Susan Postal (1940-2014)  received transmission from a teacher in Suzuki Roshi’s lineage through Hoitsu Suzuki. Susan was a great teacher.

(If you are unfamiliar with the Zen lineage tradition, see the explanation beneath the asterisks below.)

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American Zen has done a lot of soul-searching, so to speak, in recent years. A relative handful of Japanese and Korean teachers came to the U.S. in the 1950s through 1970s to teach Zen, and out of that small group several were accused of sexual impropriety eventually. The first generation of American-born teachers, almost all men, also included some teachers who arguably allowed their sexual choices to compromise their roles as teachers, which doesn’t mean they were all predators. Japanese Buddhism is not celibate, and I know of at least a couple of teachers who engaged in publicly acknowledged, serially monogamous relationships with students who were old enough to know what they were getting into. Whether this was detrimental to either the students or the community is a matter of opinion, I suppose.

However, I sense a consensus is growing that teachers shouldn’t be messing with their own students, period. Also, more and more American lineage holders are women, so western Zen is not nearly as much of a boy’s club as it was in the 1970s. More importantly, as western Zen matures students are less likely to think of Zen masters as people with magic powers. They provide essential guidance in the process that is Zen, but ultimately they are just people with flaws and stepladders.

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Joshu Sasaki Roshi established a network of Zen centers called Rinzai-ji but left no dharma heirs, in spite of being a teacher for more than 60 years, which throws the future of those centers into doubt.

The news stories and articles about the Roshi persistently confuse terms like “priest” and “teacher,” so let me explain. Rinzai and Soto Zen (the two primary schools in Japan) operate a bit differently, but generally priest ordination roughly is equivalent to novice nun or monk ordination, and “dharma transmission” is equivalent to full ordination. Usually the term “Zen teacher” is limited to the transmitted and is not used to describe priests without transmission, even if the priest is filling the function of a teacher. However, I don’t know if that’s a hard-and-fast rule everywhere.

Someone who has received transmission is also called a “lineage holder,” “dharma heir” or even “Zen master,” although within American Zen it’s unusual to hear the title “Zen master.” The lineage tradition is the primary container that has maintained the integrity of Zen lo these 15 centuries, since Bodhidharma sat in the cave at Shaolin. Zen defines itself as the “face to face transmission of the dharma outside the sutras,” and “dharma” in this case is understood to be the Buddha’s own enlightenment, kept alive by students and teachers working together, person-to-person, mind-to-mind, through the generations. It’s not a matter of learning stuff from books, in other words. Obviously the system doesn’t guarantee anything, but it’s the only system Zen has. Without it, no Zen.

There are many functions only a lineage holder is supposed to be able to do, such as give formal private spiritual interviews (called dokusan or sanzen) and confer ordinations at any level. Zen centers that have no affiliation with a transmitted teacher have limited functionality and, I would argue, are not really “Zen centers.” The Rinzai-ji centers will have to recruit teachers from outside Rinzai-ji to remain “Zen.” But if they can do that, they should be able to survive.

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