There has been a lot of talk about sexual abuses in American zen centers recently. For some reason not quite clear to me, the story of Joshu Sasaki, the leader of Rinzai-ji and his more than 50 years of sexual misconduct with female students has suddenly broken into the popular press. I've known about it for years, along with several other stories in other zen centers, including some in my own lineage.
My opinion about this, plainly spoken, is "what else did you expect?"
Zen is about life as it is. Life is messy, dirty, full of lust, greed and power struggles. Life is beautiful, transcendent, full of generosity, kindness and wisdom. I am reminded of an old story re-told in many religious traditions: two students are having an argument, on the polar opposite sides of some issue. They each go to their teacher for help, the teacher tells each of them they are correct. When they go together to the teacher and complain that he has told each of them they are correct when they can't possibly both be right, the teacher says "you are correct."
This ineffability is at the heart of zen for me. We simultaneously recognize that desires are inexhaustible while we vow to end them. Looking for certain, final, inviolable Truth is like a fish swimming desperately in search of water. Everything we need is always right here. We just miss it.
So, of course there are wise and helpful teachers who are also criminally misguided about sexual behavior. Of course there are students who are profoundly grateful for having been sexually active with a teacher. There are even more teachers and students in situations in-between. Balance is present in every system. There is no other way for things to be.
There is always a delusional attachment to self in these scandals. In Sasaki's case, his congregation effectively decided that if he came clean they would lose him, and they valued keeping him over their collective institutional integrity. Tragically, this investment in an ego (in this case the individually-identifiable, separately-existing form of Joshu Sasaki) is exactly what zen practice seeks to transcend.
But, let's be honest, we make these kinds of compromises all the time. I have overlooked behavior I found objectionable in my friends. By the same measure with which I may condemn the Rinzai-ji community one could similarly assert that I valued the ego involved (i.e., my friend) more than the ethical principles they violated. I am not going to cast the first stone.
One thing this says to me is that Rinzai-ji was a human community, with human hearts fully invested in it. Isn't that what we want? Are we so certain that the best way forward is always paved with dogmatic doctrinal adherence to ethics? Is "right" a certain, final, inviolable Truth?
My feeling is that these communities missed an opportunity when they decided to side with their fear of loss of their teacher. In a sense, they missed the chance to learn that the teacher is not the thing. This is an important lesson, and a necessary one on the path to religious realization. But, that's not what I want to discuss here.
I want to discuss the ways in which my sex life informs my zen study.
Sexual union, as I have come to practice it recently, is the practice of intentional interaction with and communion of the masculine and feminine within. Skillful sexual practice with a partner involves two people who experience this union within themselves together in a cooperative ritual endeavor (such as coitus). Lovers cooperate like priest and congregation, like musician and instrument, like cooks and dinner guests, moving between and exchanging roles in order to enliven and support a shared experience. In this case it is lovemaking, but it works similarly to giving life to a church service, a piece of music, or a meal.
Unskillful sexual conduct involves the search for this communion by reaching out to another being for something regarded as missing within. Unskillful sexual conduct leads to an unsatisfying sex life because our search, our deepest sexual longing, is always for ourselves. We can't find what we are looking for in another person, so when we regard it as only residing there, we lose contact with it. This is a very painful way to live, I did so for many, many years of heartbreaking loneliness.
So, when anyone, zen masters included, practice sexual misconduct (like dismissing a "no"), bad things happen. The delusion that one needs for someone else to give something up in order for sexual satisfaction to manifest will obscure the harm one can do to those who trust you in these situations. Zen masters are in positions of real power in the lives of genuinely devoted students, so they can do some real harm.
When Sasaki told his students to disrobe in front of him, accept his fondling, or meet in his room for "tea," or whatever as a way to transcend attachment to ego and form, he was spot on. He's right. That is dharma. There is attachment there that will need to be seen through in order to wake up. There's the problem.
To the extent that he was doing this in order to complete something he judged was incomplete within himself (and he surely was, because "no" has no place in skillful sexual conduct), he was doing very great harm, as many, many people have described and chronicled. He should have been stopped, punished, and stripped of his organizational authority. His sangha failed him for not doing so, just as I have failed my friends for not standing up to them when they've misbehaved.
But, after these adjustments were made, he should have also then been gently and compassionately offered a student's seat in his zendo, and a chance to realize his own path, which obviously involves some rigorously honest work with his own sexual conduct (as mine did/does). Once stripped of his power, he's just another deluded human trying to wake up, and I believe, as I'm sure he does, that zen practice, as it has been passed down to us all, is one path to awakening he seeks.
I think he might have been a very valuable student to have in such a sangha, making so much more of a contribution to the world than as a protected deity in a cult of personality. He failed his sangha (congregation), that's for sure, but the sangha also failed him. Fear is the culprit, and it is an unforgiving mistress (forgive the pun).
What bothers me the most is that sex is being dragged through the mud along with all of this by various commentators who eschew sexuality. Sex isn't the problem. One can and should be taught about the role of skillful sexual conduct in the context of awakening. Sex is as much a part of zen as ringing the bell, having tea, serving others, or defecating. There are opportunities for realization in every moment of existence, including the moment of orgasm.
I know this because I was taught by a teacher. I did not realize this awakening on my own. I desperately wanted to heal my thoughts and feelings about sexual conduct for decades, but I needed a teacher on order to do so, others will too. Had I persisted in my notion that sexual practice was in a different silo than zen practice I would be just as lost today. My teacher is responsible for pointing me towards reality. I don't know how this would have happened without her help.
Let's make room in American zen for healthy, open, realistic sexual practices, including the practice of correction for teachers who are struggling with unskilful sexual conduct. As Dogen said, to study the self is to forget the self. We don't need prudish and pious condescension by brown-robed aesthetics who are still hiding their sexual shame.
Some of Sasaki's students claim he healed them sexually. I believe them. Others say he damaged them for a lifetime by his coerced violations of their boundaries. I believe them. That's how life works.