Sick Love

Once again, scandal hits the Buddhist press. Zen master Joshu Sasaki Roshi, described by his cine-biographer Don Farber as a “remarkable living treasure,” has been exposed as another sexual predator. Even more shockingly, his prosperous community knew it for decades and did nothing, all the while recruiting more students. Only now that the 105-year-old Sasaki…

Joshu Sasaki, founder of Mount Baldy Zen Center in California and the Rinzai-Ji order of affiliated centersOnce again, scandal hits the Buddhist press.

Zen master Joshu Sasaki Roshi, described by his cine-biographer Don Farber as a “remarkable living treasure,” has been exposed as another sexual predator. Even more shockingly, his prosperous community knew it for decades and did nothing, all the while recruiting more students. Only now that the 105-year-old Sasaki has retired from public life and the danger of implosion has passed has the community found the courage to speak about it, and even then from the improvised anonymity of the newly-created Osho Council of Rinzai-ji, no personal names mentioned.

What shocks me is the shock. Does anyone still believe that Buddhist communities are inherently different, that their asymmetrical power structures, particularly in the Japanese and Tibetan traditions, should somehow be immune to human failings?

the guru-disciple relationship belongs
to a different time and culture

More to the point, are we only now finally realizing that the guru-disciple relationship belongs to a different time and culture? Sasaki’s students at his Zen Center in California are not untutored feudal vassals but modern educated citizens of liberal democracies, trained in at least rudimentary scientific impartiality and encouraged through years of schooling to think for themselves.

We do not need to wonder why men in positions of unrestrained power behave badly. We know why. What we need to understand more clearly, what should concern us at least as deeply if not more, is how that power is so freely granted to them by the very people they abuse.

My eight years as a Buddhist monk were relatively benign, but I emerged from them shattered by uncertainty. My personal psychology was a factor, but the Buddhist communities in which I lived exerted a powerful social force in which my guilelessness was well nourished.

What led me to Buddhism? I was dissatisfied with my birth culture, which assured me that it was best because it brought freedom, but I knew that was spin, a play on words. It wanted us to settle for freedom of choice as a cheap replacement for freedom of spirit, which is so devilishly elusive.

The truth is that freedom of choice is burdensome

Just making choices is hard enough. Once upon a time your ancestry determined your career, your parents selected your spouse and your geographic circumstances dictated your diet and lifestyle. Today we get to decide all those things, and more. Every day we make a hundred choices, a thousand. Teenage school pupils, few of whom have any notion of what to do with their lives, are forced to make long-term academic choices they barely understand. They know one thing though: that it’s stressful, and that that’s just the beginning.

The truth is that freedom of choice is burdensome. Most people simply submit to the pressure and get on with it. Some of us question the status quo and conclude that this is nuts, that our society is bamboozling us, dressing up fast food as nutritious and advertizing fast life as glorious. Far from bringing relief, these insights compound the stress. No surprise then that some people will go to great lengths to be free of this stress, to find someone else to make their decisions, someone they can trust.

When dispirited, we seek to raise our spirits. The same society that has us trapped in its freedoms offers conciliatory pleasures and distractions. Once we’re through with those however, we turn to pursuits that are more ephemerally spiritual. This deliberately vague word defies definition. It’s more about what it’s not: not materialistic, not conventional, not rational.

Meditation, philosophy, no-mind and non-dual emptiness
are guaranteed to make us feel way cool and special

That’s when things get complicated. It’s when we grow vulnerable in the most unhealthy ways. We’re tempted by communities that embrace us with hugs and gushing love, with namastes and tashi-delegs, by teachers said to be living Buddhas, by systems of meditation, philosophy, no-mind and non-dual emptiness guaranteed to make us feel way cool and special. We’re even promised magical powers and omniscience. Who knows what’s possible and what’s not?

The paradox is that Buddhism appeals to the most educated among us because of its reputation as scientific, objective, atheistic and non-religious. None of these are traditional appellations of Buddhism. They are modern spin, the urgent rationalizations of Westerners who turn to Buddhism after having rejected their own inherited culture and beliefs.

Like self-help gurus, Buddhist teachers today know what we want. To reel us in they promise escape from stress, peace of mind. We want to stop the inner chatter, stop the angst, stop the pointlessness, stop the torment…and to belong.

At some point in this search for refuge we abandon our hesitation and believe that the guru is especially able, both in ethics and in skill. He is wiser. We trust him. The community assures us. We see their sincerity, feel their love for him and are touched by the same love for us. They want us to bathe in it too. They call him a ‘living treasure,’ and assure us of his credentials. If he’s Asian, all the better. All the easier.

Can we really be so simple? I was, but not in isolation. I was desperate, arriving in the nick of time into the friendly, loving arms of the community. They taught me that to doubt is disloyal and unspeakable; that they—that we—were righteous and sincere.

We sometimes slice our awareness into layers. It’s strange. Everyone knows what it is to know at one layer that you’ve sacrificed self-reliance and compromised your integrity, while at another to assure yourself that your decision will have to do; that doubt is unbearable. Believe with the community and you’ll share in their love and security. You’ll also be committed to their righteousness.

In the words of Alan Watts, “When you confer spiritual authority on another person you are allowing them to pick your pocket and sell you your own watch.”

The mentor relationship deteriorates the minute you abandon your discernment, the instant you stop taking your own risks.

The Osho Council of Rinzai-ji, the anonymous group that apologized for Sasaki Roshi and his silent lieutenants, is now committed to, “an ethics policy to ensure that the kind of misconduct that we failed to address properly in the past will not occur again.” It may be well-intentioned, but is it realistic? They’re apparently not too sure, for they append their statement with the following caveat, “—and will be dealt with properly and swiftly if it does.”

Sexual scandals attract attention because the hurt is so great, the damage so indelible, but they are only the tip of the iceberg. Even when sexual propriety is maintained, the asymmetry of the guru-disciple power arrangement sets up loyalties that favor personal fealty over truth and integrity. It is undemocratic. It is illiberal and misguided. This feudal power relationship has been dragged into the modern world in the guise of romanticized Orientalism. It is in profound contradiction to all the Buddha taught about working with your own experience. It takes not just the charisma of a clever teacher but also the active collusion of those who buy into it. The price of admission is a bit of existential doubt and a brief phase of personal weakness. Once you’re in, the door closes hermetically on any lingering doubts.

There is natural community, not contrived to support your fondest wishes but to commiserate with on life’s hard byways

No one is eternally strong. Everyone is at times overwhelmed by self-doubt, sadness, depression, anxiety or angst. When spirits are low and we turn to spiritual solutions, our judgment may be not just poor, but vacant.

I loved the Buddha’s teachings. I found them invaluable and still do. However, I mistook Buddhists for the Buddha and lost my way. Still, I was lucky and my eyes opened one day to the contrived righteousness of communal life. I understood that it was time to move on. Technically, I was free, under no physical and only gentle psychological pressure to stay. However, it took me a full year to extricate myself, to let go of my need for love and validation from this group, to give up the image of myself on a holy and righteous path and return to the plain truth that purity is an illusion, that there is no security and that I had to pursue my mundane way alone.

That in fact, I’d been alone all along.

There is life after a spiritual community. There is such a thing as natural community, not contrived to support your fondest wishes but to commiserate with on life’s hard byways. There is no preexisting group out there waiting for you. Real community forms organically, spontaneously. Prepare yourself for it by traveling light. People of like mind are not found in any particular monastery, school or social group. It’s rare to meet others with whom we truly commune. We know that. You know that. Locking yourself into a gated community, pretending you’re safe and sound, is a sure way to not bump into anyone intimately.

Get out there, vulnerable and honest. Admit you’re alone on your path through life and you’ll sooner or later meet fellow-travelers. You’ll share your insights as equals. Some of them may for a while become mentors or guides. Bear in mind though, that relationship will deteriorate the minute you abandon your discernment, the instant you stop taking your own risks.

Otherwise, how will you know when they’re speaking nonsense, as from time to time we all do? How will you realize that they’re manipulating you, as they might if they see you can’t hold your own? They might even be doing it because they love you.

How would you know what sort of love that is?

Stephen Schettini is a Montreal author and blogger. He offers one-on-one guidance by Skype or by phone to those feeling the need to distance themselves from a community or teacher.


Author: Stephen Schettini

Host of The Naked Monk

22 thoughts on “Sick Love”

  1. I agree with you. Luckily I’ve never been sucked down that route but I have experienced a monastery recently and can see that there is a subtle pressure to keep your mouth shut and avoid disagreement. It’s very seductive the monastery thing. You start to feel guilty for thinking differently from those who are there and start to doubt your own goodness (to whatever degree it exists). Oddly I’d still like to experience a monastery for an extended period. But somehow I don’t think I’m suited for it. I just cannot conform.

    1. Stephen, I am really enjoying your blogsite: well written and quite thoughtful and insightful. I’ll be hitching an intellectual ride on your blog for a long while…

      Andrea, don’t give up on a search to find a proper monastic setting. These good monasteries are out there, but in the West they might be few and far between. Maybe scour the internet and youtube to look for solid teachers in monastic setting with good reputations for intellect, fidelity to the teachings, ethics and transparency. I can suggest a few, and I am sure that Stephen has positive suggestions as well. I was a novice in Thailand, and really feel that having a monastic ‘home’ and a monastery as a trusted resource can be beneficial, for some, to practice.

      Metta, and Gassho, to both Stephen and Andrea.

    2. You nailed it Andrea: seductive.
      My most satisfying monastic experience was in Sri Lanka. I went down there, booked into a retreat monastery knowing nothing about the community, and sat for a couple of months in silence. The problem begins when you want to belong. Doesn’t mean you can’t belong anywhere, but that you should choose carefully and keep your wits about you.

  2. Stephen, thanks so much for continuing to speak out on this topic, and for making the point that when community is based on the unquestioned authority of one individual, abuse of some kind is virtually inevitable. It is possible to share one’s dharma practice with others in an environment where power is decentralized, where the teacher one day is the student the next, and where the emphasis is on being true to one’s own experience. I hope those of us who are sorrowed by these abuses will respond by working to build communities in which seekers can find support with less risk of falling into traps.

  3. Thanks Mark: My hope is that hierarchic communities will decline in importance and that the various Western forms of Buddhism will adopt the core values of science and democracy as they evolve. That, to my mind, is what would make them Western. However, wishful thinking will always be with us, and teachers everywhere must place more emphasis on discernment, not just in our inner practice but also in our social roles.

  4. If there is someone who seriously  lived through such ordeals, I’m one of them…and after, my nose was so sensitive to misconduct with teachers, that i always found out about misuse of powers… there’s not too many teachers who do not misuse their access to sex, money, etc…just a very, very few…and then, again, being forced to live outside the main is also a spiritual killing factor, just time itself erodes so many a thing if you’ve got to be on your own your strength against sleep has to be so, so moving mountains, but then, when intervals come, no one bridges and nothing bridges outside of you, you become like Don Quixote, you’ve always got to pull yourself out of your own mud, by your own hair you’ve got to pull yourself out, including your horse, again and again, knowing the deceptive powers of own and others mind…at some point exhaust creeps in…after 10 years of that…so, what I’m trying to say maybe, is either way, staying in such situations of abuse kills and damages, but getting out of them and refusing influence like that in your life, also kills…it is something you see happening to yourself…in the end time does time…and we are left to watch with lede eyes. Lede is a Dutch word, for a kind of acceptance that isn’t wanted but accepted anyway…then also, in Holland I find the spiritual world extremely bleak…I could give an enormous list of teachers who promote compassion and act with a serious streak and write big books and have big communities and sit next to the dalai lama but …who wants to hear?  I’ve always found extreme hostility amongst followers breaking their taboos, but, so, when are we going to have a public list?! Losing identity isn’t on anyone s top wish list…being someone through being a Buddhist, (for example) is a much bigger list! so the teacher has to come out, but so does the student, and you can not force that process, so these things exist, because there is a big market for it. I would recommend reading Rob Preece’s book: The Challenge Of Individuation In Buddhist Life. It is a great book, because it confronts our part of these kind of issues. Also good is Georg Feuerstein’s book Holy Madness.

    Thank you for writing on this subject…rigidity amongst identity of holiness is a serious danger, but then it has its place…it is just another form of staying asleep…really dreaming about waking up, the awakened one, Buddha…Jesus…Mohammed…Nisargadatta…Longchenpa…. It takes more then we want to let go off, I guess…(?)

    1. Sodis: A moving account. Yes, teachers love to talk about compassion and how to meditate on it, but talk is cheap. Compassion isn’t easy. It’s tricky, sometimes dangerous, but few teachers address it as anything but beautiful. This is when Buddhism starts to sound like any other paper-thin religion, all gooey feelings and denial.

      As for breaking through that thin veneer, you’re right: the hostility is huge. No one wants their illusions shattered, and what greater illusions do human beings foster than religious ones? They want to be saved, to be on the one true path, to never again question or doubt, to be blissful. You’re throwing a bucket of ice water over them, and they don’t like it. Well, it won’t kill them. What’s frustrating though, it probably won’t wake them up, either.

      After I left, I got to know the Buddha of the Pali Canon and came to see that despite his community he walked on his own. This brought me strength: not the strength of a rock but of a sapling that bends in the wind and laughs at it.

      “Wander forth, O beggars. Let no two go the same way.”
      —The Buddha [Sutta-Nipata 1.12.213]


  5. Dear Stephen,

    I should like to ask you to inform us about monasteries in Sri Lanka that you have found suitable. Thank you very much!

    1. I went to Kanduboda Siyane, which was extremely basic back in those days and didn’t really cater for Westerners. I was assigned a ‘teacher.’ We met for a few minutes twice a week, and it was all very hands-off. I had no dealings with the community, except to eat with them once a day. I remember the food as fabulous but tongue-searingly spicy. As for my spiritual autonomy, I simply took it and there was no objection. Hopefully it hasn’t been spoiled in the last thirty years.

  6. My hope is that hierarchic communities will decline in importance and that the various Western forms of Buddhism will adopt the core values of science and democracy as they evolve.

    How does one develop core values and still have a functioning teacher/ student system?

    1. Ellen: Since the Enlightenment we’ve had teacher-student relationships in schools and universities, and mentor-relationships in other aspects of life that work well on the basis that teachers have knowledge and insights that students don’t, not on notions that a teacher’s accumulated knowledge and insight is infallible. Tibetan traditions also describe sensible, rational criteria for relationships in which the student asks hard questions of both the teacher and her/himself. However, many Westerners misunderstand them and few Tibetan teachers teach them, resulting in enormous misconception and establishing a broad foundation for abuse.

      Asking for a ‘system’ that will always work wisely is no different from expecting a guru to be infallible. There is no substitute for clear, personal judgment — not just on one issue, but day after day on every issue. Discernment is essential. There’s no escaping hard work and risk. We’re imperfect. Systems and teachers are imperfect. Dependencies are created by people who can’t bear to accept that self-evident truth.

  7. Thank you for this helpful article, Stephen. I agree with your analysis – I don’t think that the guru-disciple system is healthy. I have often been struck by the apparent willingness of followers to tolerate abusive leaders but wonder whether what we see are those followers who (for whatever reasons) are prepared to keep quiet. What we don’t see are those that either left quietly (which is what most people do), or maybe after protesting and being shunned. Many whistle-blowers experience great difficulties when they point to abuse, with the establishment treating them as traitors.

    So we get a natural selection process with the more dependent disciples staying put.

    As we know, abuse can occur in any relationship with a power imbalance. We are going through a lot of revelations of abuse in the uk with teachers and celebrities being identified and charged.

    We have to try to avoid situations where people are inhibited from speaking out by deference and continue to expect adequate checks and balances in all teacher – student relationships of this type. Sadly, particularly for those with an idealistic view of Buddhism, ‘enlightened’ Buddhist teachers are just as prone to behaving badly as anyone else.

  8. I recently wrote about this sad fiasco. It’s a shorter and less thorough than the insightful piece here, but I offer it as a personal note. .Also, all of this has prompted me to start a thread on facebook called Solitary Zen for those of us who love the practice but see the juvenile anachronism of spiritual hierarchies.

  9. You write: “I loved the Buddha’s teachings. I found them invaluable and still do. However, I mistook Buddhists for the Buddha and lost my way.”

    I’m reminded of the following: In looking at the publicity materials for the documentary film about Muhammad Asad, born Leopold Weiss, titled A Road to Mecca, I found the following sentence: “I fell in love with Islam,” he said matter-of-factly shortly before his death in 1992, “but I overestimated the Muslims.”

  10. Good article. We awake when we realise we have been bitten by the Narcissist. Transforming from our sleeping life in the caterpillar cocoon. Only then can we exercise discernment so that we don’t allow another one to dupe us. As someone who has been in organised religion most of my life I have finally woken up.
    Thanks, Geraldine

  11. Walking that tightrope between egoic self-delusion and emptiness…we need tools and help. Like you say, “no one is eternally strong”. As we look inside and see the constructed “thing” we thought we were, it’s clear…well, there will be a dismantling process. It needs to happen. It’s frightening…out in space without a tether. Sometimes you really feel…yes, I am that space and it’s open and clear. Other times, you are more than aware of your very human limitations and it’s lonely and constricted. We turn to the traditions for tools, for the Truth.
    I have been at this since the 1960s and sat with some of the best/worst of the abusers and been approached by vajra regents and lamas and gurus and tantriks and others. Every time, it has felt like a very sad lesson…first, the shock of it and then the anger and then the tremendous sadness that this is how the teachings play out in “real life”.
    then you pick yourself up and start again….what WAS it that I saw there before it all turned to shit?
    How to love fully, remain open and accept our human-ness ….I’m not there yet but I am really grateful to have come upon this site. Thank-you, Stephen and thanks to everyone who has contributed…a “Natural Community”..yes, that sounds really possible.

    sadhvi s.

    1. Thanks Sadvhi: I don’t think we can look to any teachings for truth, only to our own hearts, and we have to accept that truth is often painful. Yes, how to love fully and intelligently? That’s the real question.

  12. This isn’t to let teachers off the hook.

    But we need to take a careful look at the social and physical set ups that too many teachers allow to condense around them.

    Some teachers have no choice. As tiny children they are taken from their families after being ‘recognized’ as tulkus, and robbed of childhood and adolescence while
    trained and programmed to function as lineage holders.

    They are surrounded by entourages and this is mandated by tradition.

    A recipe for suffering — both for the leader and for disciples. This is hierarchy and worse, a hierarchical set up considered the summit of human culture, so no one imagines it could harbor abuses or be improved upon.

    Two – some teachers start out well, but by accident of success, find themselves gradually surrounded by an adoring circle of enablers. One may lose practice in patience if many helping hands are available to run errands.

    If a formerly kind and humble teacher becomes a social and commercial success, the media and disciple attention can seep in and become an intoxicant. A man who is a news photographer told me he has seen many nice ordinary persons who had zero spiritual pretensions. Through accident, these ordinary citizens found themselves in social emergencies and became advocates. They got media attention, and some of them turned from nice to tyrannical as the attention turned their heads.

    Finally, problems can become serious if a teacher’s disciples build or acquire an elaborate ashram or temple.

    The new space hinders access to a formerly accessible teacher. Favoritism sets in.

    And money needed to maintain a building can turn a formerly humble organization into a greedy one.

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