Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Buddhism and the Suspension of Critical Thinking

A convergence of three different but related events – any one of which could be written about at length – has prompted me to compose this current post. I’ll speak of each of these events in turn, but let me just tease you here at the outset by stating that one of these events is the recent ‘coming to a head’ of the apparently festering boil that has been Joshu Sasaki Roshi’s alleged long-term sexual abuse of at least some of his female students. If you would like more information before reading on, please see the related New York Times article and the Sweeping Zen blog post by Eshu Martin, the former student of Sasaki’s who publicly brought forth these allegations of abuse.

Joshu Sasaki Roshi
First, however, let me begin with some very broad background information – and a promise that all of this will tie together by the close of this post. Within the United States, faith in organized religion is presently at its lowest point in recent years. According to Gallup: “Forty-four percent of Americans have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in ‘the church or organized religion’ today, just below the low points Gallup has found in recent years, including 45% in 2002 and 46% in 2007. This follows a long-term decline in Americans' confidence in religion since the 1970s” (Saad, 2012). For the sake of comparison, 68% of Americans had “a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in” organized religion back in 1975. Coincident with this loss of confidence is fairly steady growth in the percentage of Americans reporting either no religious affiliation whatsoever or declining to answer the question altogether. In fairness, Gallup also reports a slowing of this trend, stating: “The percentage of American adults who have no explicit religious identification averaged 17.8% in 2012, up from 14.6% in 2008 -- but only slightly higher than the 17.5% in 2011” (Gallup, 2013). At best, though, this slowing represents a mere stanching of the hemorrhaging confidence. Please take a moment to consider the following graph. For the sake of simplicity it represents yearly Gallup poll data grouped by the author into ten year increments. I’ve also taken the liberty to lump Protestantism and Catholicism together in order to further simplify the picture.

The reader will note that the 17.8% referred to above corresponds to the orange and aquamarine bands (No Answer and None, respectively) of the graphical representation. The purple (Other) band would be the category containing Buddhism as well as Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Baha’i, Native American Spirituality, Paganism, Wicca, New Age Spirituality, and Atheism, et al. It is also worthy of note that the present 4% of Americans that this category encompasses was as high as 7% in 1993 and 1997, for instance, but it was also as high as 3% way back in 1950.  For this reason I must take with a grain of salt various comments regarding Buddhism being the fastest growing religion in America. I simply can’t characterize as “explosive” the growth of a religious practice which, when combined with numerous other religions subject to at least some immigration-related growth, has only seen a net increase of from 3% to 4% in over sixty years!

Alright, enough background. I think it safe to say that we Americans are, in large part, a technological, scientific-minded, skeptical, egalitarian, and anti-authoritarian people. Despite what spiritual tendencies we may have the scandal and hypocrisy that has flowed forth in abundance from our religious institutions in general and our religious leaders in particular has taken its toll. Religion has been used in the service of war, hatred, oppression, financial gain, ego gratification, and sexual abuse for so long that we’ve begun to move away from the organized religion we were raised into, and perhaps away from organized religion altogether. It is my contention, then, that with the exception of the arrival of new Buddhist immigrants from Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Laos, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam, the growth of Buddhism in America is largely due to disaffected practitioners of other religions who, if not for Buddhism, would likely have fallen into the No Answer and None categories in the graph above.

What I find curious, then, is the degree to which we Buddhist converts are willing to dispense with critical thinking for the sake of our newly adopted spiritual practice. It is as if after having been fooled once we maintain perfect faith that we will never be so fooled again! For example, is the metaphysical reality described by many of the Buddhist sects really so qualitatively superior to that described by Christian theology that the latter can be dismissed out of hand as nonsense even as the former is accepted as absolute and undeniable fact? Are our Buddhist teachers and leaders really so absolutely and completely beyond having to answer to those of us purportedly still mired in egoic thinking within this mundane and samsaric realm that we should essentially give them carte blanche to do whatever they want to do, no questions asked?

Back to Joshu Sasaki Roshi. Eshu Martin summarized Sasaki’s behavior in a recent Sweeping Zen blog post. Martin (2012) says of Sasaki:

His career of misconduct has run the gamut from frequent and repeated non-consensual groping of female students during interview, to sexually coercive after hours “tea” meetings, to affairs and sexual interference in the marriages and relationships of his students. Many individuals that have confronted Sasaki and Rinzai-ji about this behaviour have been alienated and eventually excommunicated, or have resigned in frustration when nothing changed; or worst of all, have simply fallen silent and capitulated.

What makes this alleged behavior all the more insidious is that much of it is said to have occurred in private interviews during which the student is at his or her most vulnerable, in which their spiritual understanding is laid bare before the teacher’s ostensibly wise and beneficent gaze, and in which the teacher’s behavior is viewed in an unquestioning light – likened to the behavior of a living buddha even. Yes, we are talking about adults here. But we are talking about adults who have set their defenses aside for the sake of spiritual transformation, only to be taken advantage of by someone pretending to be something that he is not. Under such circumstances, the outcomes described by Eshu Martin can hardly be characterized as consensual. 

I’m going to shift gears now; not because there isn’t enough material here already for a good many posts, but because I see this behavior as just one of the most extreme occurrences on the spectrum of abuse of power. I was recently going through some of my personal correspondence and was reminded of an incident that I witnessed awhile back. I’ll let the reader decide where to position it on the spectrum of abuse of power.

Tibetan monks making tormas
Some years ago I was present at the ushering in of the Tibetan New Year (Losar) at a Tibetan Buddhist practice center. It was a very fascinating, involved, and ornate ceremony/meditation. At one point in the ceremony incense was lit and placed in four tormas, which were then to be carried to the four corners of the practice center property by volunteers selected from amongst the Tibetan Buddhist practitioners that were present. Lama X named three men to perform this task, but when a female practitioner was suggested as a fourth, Lama X replied: “no, no women.” I watched as the once eager-to-participate woman sat back down with a strangely good-natured expression on her face comprising a combination of both acceptance and dejection.

Now, having accepted the bodhisattva vow to save all beings, and having embarked upon a career in counseling from a feminist orientation, I felt doubly responsible for speaking up regarding what I had just witnessed. The next day I wrote a personal letter to Lama X stating, amongst other things:

I can't help but wonder how witnessing this subtle act of discrimination affected others in attendance – especially women and impressionable young girls and women. Was it viewed as quaint, archaic, or oppressive? Did it inspire them to want to practice Buddhism or did it turn them off of the practice? I personally view this act of exclusivity as harmful on a number of levels. First, it harms women who feel shut out of full religious and spiritual participation. Second, it harms Buddhism by indicating that it may not be as enlightened a spiritual practice as it supposes itself to be. Third, I believe it hurts the cause of the Tibetan people. The Tibetan diaspora is regularly portrayed as a brutally destructive dismantling of one of the most enlightened cultures that humankind has ever known. However, the perpetuation of sexist ideas regarding who can and cannot be spiritual and in what ways belies such a characterization.

Sometime later, I can’t recall how long, I received a phone call from the European-American wife of Lama X. She seemed eager to clear up my “misunderstanding” of what had transpired. Unfortunately, however, as our conversation progressed she became increasingly agitated at my inability to become educated on the matter. Exasperated, she finally declared: “You just don’t understand. This practice involves very powerful spiritual energy. Not everyone has the strength to work with it.” “And women in particular aren’t strong enough?” I queried further. “No!”

As we speak, a Zen Buddhist organization with which I am familiar is dealing with the fallout caused by the revision of its bylaws – bylaws that are required of an organization in order to maintain its non-profit status. A legal review ascertained that the unchecked authority given to the executive director of this organization – one who also happens to be the teacher – was not legal with respect to the laws of the state. Unfortunately, actions taken by the board to rectify this situation were met with a digging in of heels on the part of the teacher who apparently views this incursion by the state into the dealings of a Buddhist organization as woefully unacceptable – an intrusion of the mundane realm into that of the supramundane, if you will. Reportedly this teacher has been absent from many of the practice periods in protest since the last board meeting at which the bylaws were changed, and the future of the organization is now up in the air. So, will this bylaw change constitute a step toward a more solid non-profit footing, or away from the so-called purity of Buddhist practice? Will rejection of said bylaw change constitute a step away from the controlling meddling of the state or toward the organizational dynamics of a cult?

In closing, I’m not sure what Joshu Sasaki Roshi will have to say for himself, if indeed he lives long enough to defend himself (he’s 105 years old). I suspect that Lama X feels (or at least felt) that the spiritual truth that he is privy to trumps whatever social values and mores might be foisted upon him by meddling outsiders, well-meaning though they may be. I also suspect that the teacher of the Zen center grappling with the bylaws issue firmly believes that his board has lost its way and that he must stand his ground so that the purity of Buddhist practice might be maintained – purity that apparently requires that the teacher wield unchecked authority. Needless to say, if the allegations turn out to be true, we will also undoubtedly learn that it was his unchecked authority that allowed Joshu Sasaki Roshi to sexually abuse his female students with impunity decade after decade.

Historically speaking, as Buddhism has moved from region to region and country to country, it has shaped and been shaped by the culture and values of the peoples living therein. Buddhism in America will be no different. Buddhism will certainly continue to adapt and evolve as its truth continues to be conveyed to a technological, scientific-minded, skeptical, egalitarian, and anti-authoritarian people. Doing so will not mean the death of Buddhism; rather, it will mean an ushering in of a new period of maturity – one devoid of vapid devotion for the sake of devotion, one devoid of injustice perpetrated for the sake of the fulfillment of superstitious rituals, one devoid of abuse perpetrated by those who would delude themselves into believing that they act in this world with the wisdom of the Buddha, one devoid of the harm caused by those who would wield unchecked authority within the organizations that they lead, and are unmoved by those who point out the dangers thereof.

I view my speaking out on these matters as absolutely in keeping with my bodhisattva vow to save all beings and I hope that others will likewise find their voice. Otherwise, the religion that is Buddhism will come to constitute little more than a quaint, anachronistic, and ultimately marginalized religious practice.


Gallup (2012). Religion. Gallup. http://www.gallup.com/poll/1690/religion.aspx#1

Gallup (2013). In U.S., rise in religious "nones" slows in 2012. Gallup.  http://www.gallup.com/poll/159785/rise-religious-nones-slows-2012.aspx#1

Martin, E. (2012). Everybody knows – Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi and Rinzai-ji. Published on Sweeping Zen. http://sweepingzen.com/everybody-knows-by-eshu-martin/

Saad, L. (2012). U.S. confidence in organized religion at low point. Gallup. http://www.gallup.com/poll/155690/Confidence-Organized-Religion-Low-Point.aspx


Image Credits
Josho Sasaki Roshi by ngelight via:
Tibetan monks making tormas by Evan Osherow via:
Copyright 2013 by Maku Mark Frank

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Book Review: Okumura's 'Living By Vow'

Not too long ago, the post that I’ll refer to here as A Defense of Ritual brought to a close a three-part exploration of what I termed ‘the dichotomy between universality and ritual,’ i.e., the dichotomy between the universal practice of zazen (seated meditation) and those idiosyncratic rituals that, directly or indirectly and to varying degrees, support it. Regular readers will recall that I used the chanting of the Three Refuges as an example. I noted then that, while the act of reciting “I take refuge in the Buddha... I take refuge in the Dharma... I take refuge in the Sangha...” might have everything to do with the practice of Buddhism, it simply does not rise to the level of universality. What it does do, however, is provide a philosophical context for the universal practice of zazen – context that many practitioners require in order to feel grounded in their sitting practice.

The reason for revisiting this ostensibly closed exploration of the dichotomy between universality and ritual is that it provides, for my way of thinking anyway, a perfect platform from which to examine Shohaku Okumura’s latest offering – Living by Vow: A Practical Introduction to Eight Essential Zen Chants and Texts. Though the book was first published sometime this past summer, I only recently became aware of it while visiting Sanshinji – the Bloomington, Indiana temple of which Okumura is the abbot. If one is inclined to believe in synchronicity, one might see it in the timing of my finding this book right on the heels of publishing A Defense of Ritual. I wanted to review it right away, in fact; so much so that I even contemplated it being Part 4 in the ‘Universality and Ritual’ series. Alas, it apparently needed to percolate for just a little bit longer. Consider the remainder of this post a review of this very useful book.

Cover artwork by Eiji Imao
Different people require different levels of support for their practice of zazen. Some might be motivated to keep up a solitary and unadorned (but regular) sitting practice for the pure and simple reason that they can see its benefits manifesting in their lives. Others might need to experience the support of a group and at least a modicum of shared ritual in order to maintain the motivation to do that which they find difficult, even as they recognize its merits. Some can take the practice of zazen and work both it and the insights gleaned from it into the religious tradition of their choosing. Still others need their sitting practice to be supported by the meaning-providing framework of the religion of Buddhism itself, or nestled snugly within the ritualistic practice environment that it provides. It is this last group to which Living by Vow speaks most saliently, though religious practitioners of other faith traditions and orientations will likely gain inspiration and insight in reading how Okumura brings to everyday life some of the deepest and most difficult to understand teachings of the Zen Buddhist tradition.

We may not be able to judge a book by its cover, but the front cover artwork of Living by Vow is a great place to begin a discussion of its contents. Within this context, the Eiji Imao painting almost begs to be interpreted as a visual representation of the ‘form is emptiness, emptiness is form’ teaching contained in the Heart Sutra. The rich blue and vaguely non-uniform background at once evokes a sense of both no-thingness and infinite possibility – just as the Buddhist concept of emptiness, sunyata, suggests. Growing out of this emptiness, rooted in its “soil” so to speak, are eight trees whose spacing imparts a sense of worldly depth – a spatial and temporal horizon. Surely these eight trees are intended to represent the eight Zen chants and texts discussed therein, and their visible roots the fourth of the seven points of practice as outlined by Kosho Uchiyama Roshi during his last formal talk as abbot of Antaiji Zen Monastery – namely, “live by vow and root it deeply.”

“Live by vow and root it deeply” – despite what thoughts of nihilism and anarchy, or hopelessness and meaninglessness might arise from an incorrect or incomplete or doubt-laden understanding of the Buddhist concept of emptiness, we choose to live in a manner that honors all life and supports all beings. This choice is not necessarily an obvious, logical, or easy one, or one that is supported by society at large. Thus, it is a choice best not made in the absence of adequate consideration; rather, it might best be accepted in the form of a vow.

Each chapter of Living by Vow explores a different verse or text, some of which will be unfamiliar to even long term students of formal Zen practice – depending, of course, upon the practice environment in which they have trained. For instance, The Three Refuges, are chanted after each standalone sitting at the practice center with which I am most familiar. One would have to practice in the mornings, however, in order to gain familiarity with the Heart Sutra and the Robe Chant; and one would have to take part in the more formal Sunday service in order to chant the Four Bodhisattva Vows and the Verse of Repentance. The Meal Chants, on the other hand, are only engaged in during the much more infrequent daylong practice periods involving oryoki, the ritual eating of food. The other two, the Verse for Opening the Sutra and Sandokai, were not part of the repertoire of practice with which I am most familiar, though they are included in the Soto Zen School’s Scriptures For Daily Services and Practice. The former is recited prior to lectures in Shunryu Suzuki’s lineage and the latter, incidentally, is the subject of his popular book, Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness, titled after a line of the Sandokai.

Within each chapter of Living by Vow is a wealth of insight and information from one who has been studying these verses and reflecting upon their depths for most of his life. Whether providing context for their recitation, expounding upon their historicity, elucidating on the English meaning of the Japanese or Sanskrit words contained therein, recounting the teachings of others on their meaning, or telling stories from his own experience that bring them to life, Okumura’s text is at once a scholarly resource and thoroughly engaging read. And yet, even with the wealth of information that this book imparts, it also conveys an underlying simplicity. For instance, says Okumura: “I believe that all verses and scriptures in the Soto Zen tradition are based on the Mahayana teaching of the bodhisattva vow. That is why I titled this book Living by Vow” (p. 2).

The Four Bodhisattva Vows

Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them.

Desires are inexhaustible; I vow to put an end to them.

The dharmas are boundless; I vow to master them.

The Buddha’s Way is unsurpassable; I vow to attain it. (p. 13)

Okumura interestingly points out that each of these four sentences contains a contradiction. On one hand we have the numberlessness, inexhaustibleness, boundlessness, and unsurpassableness of sunyata, and on the other hand we vow to overcome this vastness with the “puniness” of our own lives and practice. Says Okumura: “Our practice is to take one more step toward the infinite, the absolute, moment by moment, one step at a time” (p. 20). “Because our vow is endless, our practice is never complete” (pp. 6-7). “This awakening to our own imperfection is repentance” (p. 34).

Which brings us to:

The Verse of Repentance

All the karma ever created by me since of old

Through greed, anger, and self-delusion

Which has no beginning, born of my body, speech, and thought

I now make full repentance of it

Okumura conveys a beautiful and touching story about repentance which I can’t help but recount since this post provides me with the opportunity:

When I was at Pioneer Valley Zendo in Massachusetts, I had to cut many trees to clear the land and plant a garden. I killed many small animals, insects, and worms. Once, for example, after I dug a well the hole filled with rainwater and a skunk drowned. My intention was to work for the Buddha Dharma and to create a place for practice. To do so I harmed many creatures. Even when we try to work for the benefit of all beings, we harm others. We cannot predict the consequences of our actions. All of us have to eat to live. Even if we don’t eat meat, we have to eat vegetables. This means we have to kill vegetables. To live as a human being is to be supported by others’ lives and deaths. Even if we are not conscious of it, we may create evil karma that can injure ourselves and others. As bodhisattvas we cannot live without repentance. (p. 56)

A full one quarter of Living by Vow is given over to the Heart Sutra. Readers of my own five-post series on the Heart Sutra will certainly enjoy Okumura’s 75-page exposition in which he addresses many of the questions that I sought to address – albeit in a much more scholarly and comprehensive manner. Gosh, if this book had come out earlier, I might not have felt the need to go down that path on my own! I’m joking, of course. Each of our wholehearted attempts at understanding the Dharma constitutes time well spent. In my case, my own struggles with the material allow me to appreciate Okumura’s treatment all the more. Perhaps one final quote from this particular chapter will bring this review full circle:

In bodhisattva practice we try to see the reality before separation. When we see the reality of our life, we find that we are not living as an individual substance but are more like a phantom, a bubble, or a flash of lightning, as the Diamond Sutra says. We are phenomena caused by many different elements and factors. We live with the support of all beings. This dynamic interpenetration works constantly. Nothing exists independently. We live together in this universal movement. Our existence is movement. We have to accept this ever-changing reality as our self. (p. 189)

Please check out this wonderful book. I trust that you will find much between its covers that will both deepen your practice and broaden it. For me it was deepening my understanding of universality and ritual, and the vow connecting each to the other.


Okumura, S. (2012). Living by vow: A practical introduction to eight essential Zen chants and texts. (D. Ellison, Ed.) Wisdom Publications.

Image Credits

Living by Vow front cover artwork by Eiji Imao.

Copyright 2013 by Maku Mark Frank