Sila, śūnyatā, sex, Sasaki

Yet another venerable American spiritual community is reeling with evidence of the sexual misconduct of its beloved teacher, perpetrated over decades, with many many victims and a culture of silence that is finally being challenged. This is getting really old! This time it’s hitting close to home for me, and as I begin to write this post, my heart is heavy, not only for my Zen sangha (community) now being forced to admit in public the suffering caused by our teacher’s harmful actions, but for so many Buddhist and yoga sanghas in the west in which depressingly similar abuses have unfolded.

This year’s “scandal” — which I put in quotes because the word is usually used when information becomes suddenly visible that shockingly changes everything… but this information has been known for years and as far as I can tell, few people within the sangha are “shocked” — is around the behavior of my first Buddhist teacher, Joshu Sasaki Roshi.

I studied with him intermittently from 1993-99, at Bodhi Manda in NM and Mt. Baldy Zen Center. Though I was not in any “inner circle”, and mostly just another sleepy student getting hit with the keisaku every morning, the monks, nuns, and laypeople in this story are my friends. They cared for me at a vulnerable and deep time in my life and practice, and I care for them deeply. To any of you who read this — Koshin, Kigen, Giko, Hosen, Genshu, Kido, Seisen, Myokyo, Gido, Myoshin, Seiju… and my friends not in robes, including Leonard Cohen who I knew just a little, but whose gorgeous songs are, sadly, the soundtrack to this train wreck — I send you my heartfelt compassion, togetherness in sangha, and warmth. Thank you for your bright practice example through those years, and your welcoming of this young seeker.

What happened? Joshu Roshi, over four (or more) decades, repeatedly groped, seduced, manipulated, slept with, and otherwise abused women students, dozens of whom have come forward as the story unfolds (see my friend Giko Rubin’s post for a solid and deeply felt description, also Matthew Remski’s). Much of the information has been collected at Sweeping Zen, and the revelations are now stretching back as far as his life in Japan before he came here. Newly translated documents from the 1950s reveal that his behavior was scandalous then, involved embezzlement of money in addition to sexual misconduct, and may have been the cause of his coming to teach in the west — he may have been kicked (or eased) out of Myoshin-ji, his home temple! (I did wonder why he used to say that he hated Japan, that Zen was dead there, and that he never wanted to go back…)

My first powerful teacher, who I learned so much from, and truly loved as a dharma guide and elder, has caused deep harm in an ongoing way.

I want to write about something that this scandal, and others in the larger Zen community, has brought up for me. It’s more of a dharma/doctrinal reflection than part of the continued revelations of his crimes. I don’t really have new information to add, and the problems with patriarchy, uncritical guru devotion, and the abuse of power by men of flawed awakening are no news. (Scott Edelstein’s book/site, Sex and the Spiritual Teacheris a good start for a systemic discussion if you want that.)

But I’ll add my voice to those who have admitted that they knew about Roshi’s behavior, and spoke of it within the sangha, but did not go outside the community with the information. When I learned about it, the student who told me (I don’t remember who) was so matter-of-fact about it that I assumed, as the inevitable blog title says, that “Everybody Knows“. Everybody there seemingly did know, and I was told that new female students were regularly warned before their first meeting with him that this was likely.

Now that it seems as though the “outside world” actually didn’t know, I wish that I had had the depth of practice or guts to do more, to speak out, but I admit that I was so consumed by my own drama and struggle that I didn’t really notice at first. And being male, though I was told that he had occasionally (much more rarely) groped men as well, I was spared direct predation. Like others who have admitted taking part in the communal silence, I want to apologize to those harmed, and admit my passive complicity in this terrible situation.

When I left Mt. Baldy Zen Center (MBZC) and Sasaki in 1999 it was partly out of discomfort with his behavior — I was starting to feel the dysfunction in the sangha, and wanted a teacher and community I could more happily devote myself to — and partly through my sense of being a failure at Zen and needing something… kinder, wiser, softer, (and which would include meditation instructions, which I desperately craved). I stumbled on Jack Kornfield’s A Path With Heart, and within months of my last painful Rohatsu sesshin at MBZC was on the new 2-month retreat at Spirit Rock, where I fell in love with a beautiful lineage of practice, kind and transparent western teachers, and with the dharma of the human Buddha, rather than the inscrutable samurai. I never went back.

At the heart of misconduct of this kind, for me, is the loss of sīla, the ethical limbs of dharma practice. In all the Buddhist traditions, sīla is most commonly expressed in the formulation of the “Five Precepts” (which expand into 8 and 10-precept versions, and then into the vast monastic rules that govern ordained life). A common Theravāda (early Buddhist) version is this one, from Spirit Rock teacher Gil Fronsdal’s website:

To refrain from killing
To refrain from stealing (taking that which is not offered)
To refrain from sexual misconduct
To refrain from lying, harsh speech, idle speech, and slander
To refrain from taking intoxicants that cloud the mind and cause heedlessness

In Theravadin countries (primarily Thailand, Burma, and Sri Lanka) and in the Insight Meditation tradition in the west that originates in the Theravada, these guidelines are generally interpreted literally, and the implication is that their observation is effective in at least three ways for practitioners:

  • They are a training in mindfulness as we attempt to orient our actions around them.
  • They are a gift of safety for others, and so develop generosity and selflessness. (As described in this sutta, where “giving freedom from danger” to other beings is called “the first great gift… not open to suspicion… unfaulted”.)
  • They protect us from doing things that will cause future regret, censure, blame, and suffering for ourselves and others. This is important not just as a manifestation of care for others, but as a supportive condition for concentration (samadhi). It’s impossible to relax into a happy, peaceful mind when we are spinning with regret and the various mind states that result from harmful action. (I know this hindrance well!)

The sense that the precepts are a protection for yourself is a deep and powerful teaching, and one that was offered to me directly when I was temporarily ordained as a monk in Burma in 2002. My teacher there, Sayadaw U Janaka, gave me the monastic name U Silarakkhita, which means Venerable One (“U”) Protected (“rakkhita”) by Ethics (“sīla”). I loved this name, and not just because I felt lucky not to get the name my Korean friend got, “Protected by Insects”! I felt like the name really saw both who I was (a sincere seeker who wanted to walk a righteous Path), and what I was running from.

I had left Sasaki only a couple years before, and definitely thought about him when I heard my new name. May I and all others be protected from harm by the power of wise action! Of course I’ve fallen off my righteous path many times, before and since, and can feel the harm I myself have caused — by careless or angry words, by a misplaced kiss, by inaction when action was called for. I am in no position to cast judgment on my Roshi in a manner that implies that my own action is beyond reproach. But I respect sīla deeply, and am brought back to its centrality in dharma life again and again.

Literal practice of ethical guidelines is, of course, impossible, and an ongoing inquiry for anyone who takes the practice of them seriously. I’ve written elsewhere, for instance, about Theravada practitioners who fret over the killing of ants in their kitchen, but who regularly buy and eat meat (to choose a popular issue that I feel strongly about). The point is not that literal “keeping” of these precepts is demanded, as if all ethical dilemma were crystal clear and possible to solve without compromise, but that orienting toward them as direct guidelines for action is a valuable support for spiritual life. This view is essentially unchallenged in all the Theravada communities I’ve known, and many wise spiritual lineages worldwide. Precepts held in this way reflect the reality of the Relative, or Personal, conditioned, universe, which can be described in contrast to Absolute, or Universal reality, which is seen as unconditioned. This is a reflection on transcendence and immanence.

The teaching I’m referring to here, the “Two Truths” of Relative and Absolute, is a Mahayana doctrine that arose in the early centuries after the Buddha as a way to account for when he seemed to be teaching from different perspectives depending on his audience, and using different kinds of language in different contexts. (See Buescher, Echoes from an Empty Sky for this history.) It is a way of framing the non-separateness (“not-two”) of Samsara and Nirvana, or conditioned and unconditioned reality, and manifests most prominently in Zen as the famous formulation in the Heart Sutra, “Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form”, which we chanted every day at Mt. Baldy.

The understanding is that everything is “empty” (śūnyatā) of permanence, empty of the ability to satisfy craving, and empty of anything that could be called “I” or “mine”, and so leads to knowing in a very profound way the “emptiness” of substance, or form, in the ways we conventionally understand it. This makes most of “reality” — our bodies, other people, time, relationship, contact, and all sense experience — feel pretty insubstantial! And it leads to Zen-style exclamations like the Chinese master Rinzai’s classic description of the nature of all sense experience as illusory: “like flowers in the sky! Why trouble to grasp at them?”

Emptiness is so compelling and gorgeous a concept/understanding/view/experience, that it might be no surprise that it’s emphasized more in some Buddhist schools than its relative counterpart, Compassion. If Emptiness arises out of the recognition that difference is illusory, Compassion arises out of the recognition that difference is real, and thus that harm, empathy, and care are real. “Emptiness is Form”. It has to be understood in both directions. Through compassion, we see other people, where through Emptiness, we feel like we are them (or everything, or nothing). Where all is One, there’s no relationship, no meeting, no separating, no caring. Only when Oneness is seen to separate into Two does relationship, care, meeting, and the dangerous possibility of harm arise.

This merging and separating was completely central to Joshu Roshi’s teaching, and I heard him give innumerable talks on the relationship of “one” and “zero”, “male” and “female”, and how they come together, inhabit each others’ space, separate, have a baby (the relative self), etc. Now I can’t help but hear this elaborate metaphor through other, very relative, ears! But the core teaching is true and deep. We need to know both Truths in order to both be free from suffering and able to act wisely in the world.

Unfortunately, some Zen schools tilt so substantially toward Emptiness, or the Absolute, that they seem to denigrate relative realities like… the realness of other people, life and death, harm and care, connection. And this preference for Emptiness over Form, or Absolute over Relative then changes the understanding, and thus practice, of sīla. Here is a version of the first precept (“non-harming”), in a version from the Ch’an/Zen sage Bodhidharma. This is essentially the version we used at Mt. Baldy (though I don’t remember which translation we used, and we didn’t chant it very often!):

Self Nature is subtle and profound.
In the midst of the everlasting dharma, not producing a view of extinction is called the precept of not taking life.

Red Pine, Zen Writings of Bodhidharma

So “not taking life” has nothing, here, to do with harming living beings, and everything to do with sustaining a View (dṛṣṭi) that rests in the Absolute. This is a similar teaching to that which Krishna gives Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gītā: that it’s right to kill all these warriors because they’re “already dead”, as is everybody, devoured in the ceaseless maw of time, which makes birth and death ultimately an illusion. So… I’ve had moments where I really feel like I get this, and time really seems to disappear into an Eternal Singular Now… but then the experience passes, ordinary mind returns, and it’s time to speak kindly, act generously, and take care of myself and other beings, who very much do exist! I mentioned this critique — of a misuse of Emptiness teachings — in a Facebook conversation with several teachers today that caused me to start writing this post, and Frank Jude Boccio quoted Aitken Roshi also speaking out against this misuse: “Yes, he who wields the sword is empty; as is the one cut through; as is the sword. But what about the blood and tears?” What about them, Roshi?

So here’s Bodhidharma’s precept on not misusing sexuality:

Self Nature is subtle and profound.
In the midst of the unstained Dharma, not creating a veneer of attachment is called the precept of not misusing sexuality.

Red Pine, Zen Writings of Bodhidharma

A “veneer of attachment”. Again, I get the sense that I could easily interpret this as saying, “If I don’t feel like I was attached, which is only a surface aesthetic (“veneer”) anyway, then whatever I did is fine”. And by framing it in terms of the more abstract “attachment” rather than the physical “sexuality”, the precept even more than the first one seems to slip through the fingers. One common translation of this precept doesn’t even use the word sexuality, reframing it entirely as a non-dual transcendence of attachment.

These Zen precepts describe profound understandings of the awakened mind, not ordinary, confused, scared, lustful people, impulses, and actions. And they’re deep teachings, yes. But I wonder if a community, like the Mt. Baldy I remember, that emphasizes these versions without explicating commentary, and doesn’t affirm any more literal or relative ethical guidelines, runs the risk of reifying the Absolute in a way that leaves practitioners (by definition unenlightened beings) vulnerable to all the normal desires and confusions we know so well.


Of course, most Zen and Mahayana teachers will indeed teach these precepts with wise commentary that affirms the precepts’ profound view but also recognizes the importance of having concrete guidelines for action. When at Mt. Baldy I saw a monk making out with a student behind the zendo, or heard that a monk and student had “gone off into the bushes”, or was offered my first scotch and cigarettes after a particularly hard sesshin, or heard all the stories about Roshi, I was left with the sense that this was just normal, and not a big deal. And I got swept into that ethos myself — into the bushes, a couple sweet hookups, and one longer relationship — and some of that was unskillful, for sure, but I was not the teacher, not atop a power imbalance. Still, I was unprotected by sila. I think many of us were.

And when people would question this culture, the clear implication — and some of the writings that have been posted by others have said this as well — was that if they thought it was really a problem they just didn’t understand the profound non-duality of Zen. This is a standard defensive line always leveled at critics of abusive gurus, but it is bad dharma. It is completely possible to understand the vast View of Emptiness and still respect the reality of difference, contact, relationship, harm. “Emptiness is not other than Form.” The wonderful non-dual teacher Ganga-ji, when a student proposed that it was apparent that nothing exists (and by implication, matters), said something like, “Yes, it’s true that nothing exists. It’s also true that everything exists. But it’s better to live as if everything exists.”

One of the Zen parables that Joshu Roshi taught on, which I grew to love very much, was a story called Hyakujo and the Fox (Mumonkan case #2). It speaks to using the teachings of the Absolute to deny the effects of actions, as well as to repentance, old age, humility, and release. When I think now about him teaching this parable, then returning to his life of abuse and denial, I’m confused. I loved that old fox.

It’s a story of a Zen master from the distant past who once, through attachment to the doctrine of the Absolute, claimed that enlightened beings were not subject to the law of cause and effect. For this heretical view he was condemned to wander the back side of the hill behind the temple, reborn as a fox for 500 lifetimes. He arrives as a ghost at master Hyakujo’s zendo and asks to be heard in his repentance, and to be taught the truth. Hearing it, he announces that he can finally die, and leaves the hall. The monks walk around the hill to find the dead body of an ancient fox, and cremate it as if it were a monk. The comment verse by Mumon, who compiled the ancient collection, is this:

Not falling, not ignoring: two faces of one die.
Not ignoring, not falling: a thousand errors, a million mistakes.

Mumonkan, Case 2. In Sekida, Two Zen Classics

A million mistakes.

11 thoughts on “Sila, śūnyatā, sex, Sasaki”

  1. What an incredibly wonderful taste I got from having read this article and all of the comments. Responsible caring people. Caring enough to peel an onion one layer at a time. The acknowledgement and acceptance of “tears of transgressions of Sila” causes ripples and sometimes these ripples are needed to straighten things out / heal. Another Vote for Ethics Councils! Gassho,

  2. Sean I was very touched by your article. Thank you for speaking deeply to this complex issue and weaving in the exploration of the teachings on sila and emptiness. As I feel into the questions you raise I am noticing that what comes up for me is a sense of the frailty and challenging unfoldment of the human experience as we travel on our paths. As I think about the many teachers I have encountered I realize that they too are each travelers on their paths… and each have their karma. And so, while there is a pain in my heart in imagining the suffering so many experienced at the hands of a teacher they placed their trust in, I also feel a certain compassion for your teacher and for his own unfoldment, as complex and painful as it may be. As I feel into his mind, I can feel the confusion that is there, the learning and growing he is still to do, even while he rests in a certain kind of clarity and awake-ness.

  3. It’s really up to the student to decide whether he/she is being helped or not. What feels like a safe practice environment to one person might feel like a sterilized preschool for another. So who is to decide what is best for the masses of zen practitioners, the arrogant pyschologists, who strive to place teachers and students into nice neat categories like “exploiters”, “narcissists” and “victims” to validate their own puritanical/pseudo-scientific perspective, or you the practitioner, who hopefully has enough analytical capacity to think for oneself? This is the fundamental question. I don’t agree with Sasaki’s conduct but I would never deprive anyone the opportunity to train with whomever they wanted to train with, provided they had all the necessary information, good and bad.

    1. Hi Noway,
      I understand your caution, re: letting practitioners choose for themselves, though I do not fully agree in cases where demonstrable harm is being caused. And even students who have the capacity to think for themselves will still be affected by their position in an unequal power imbalance. That imbalance is not necessarily bad, and can be very beneficial when the teacher/therapist/guru is truly supportive of the students’ well-being. But that profound level of trustworthiness requires support systems, and this post was about the support system of Buddhist ethics (sila) specifically as a protection against the tendency for power imbalances to give rise to harmful action. My interest here is specifically in the relationship between Buddhist doctrines of Emptiness and ethical conduct, as a curiosity around what kind of cultures we are creating in western spiritual practice.

  4. Excellent piece. Enlightened beings are not subject to the laws of cause and effect because from the absolute perspective there are no beings at all. We ignore the laws of cause and effect at great peril to ourselves and others. So many Zen Masters and gurus of all kinds have fallen into this trap of self-delusion.

  5. Yes, reality is insubstantial, illusory. However this includes our understanding that everything is illusory. That insight isn’t real either. So then we are back to square one. We just do not have anything that is real.
    So, if the game of “human on Earth” down here has rules like “free will”, “responsibility” and “accountability”, then you’d better play by them!
    Justifying selfishness with spiritual talk will get you in trouble.
    Of course! That is so obvious!
    The spiritual game we play down here is finding the right use of will.
    Making the right decisions, and making them for the right reasons.
    The heart recognises in each situation what is both true and relevant. So the way to live from that recognition is what a spiritual tradition – so Zen also – is supposed to help us discover.
    Better not follow a teacher like Sasaki then.
    He is confused.
    And thus pretty confusing.

  6. Thanks for this. I am a long time student of Sasaki Roshi and you sum up very well the understanding that I have been coming to in the past months. I have been practicing with another sangha which emphasizes sila and have taken lay vows there, as well as continuing my practice with Rinzai Ji. It is my hope that that the integration you describe will become better embodied in our practice as we work through this difficult time.

    1. Thanks, Craig. That integration is also my hope. I see it happening in many places, like in the ethics councils and guidelines that have arisen at Spirit Rock/IMS, Kripalu, and at SF Zen Center (among many others). In each of these, democratic structures like teachers councils have arisen to replace the patriarchal hierarchy, and in each I see the seeds of a wiser western sangha. Blessings in your practice.

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