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.



References


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

Comments

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. Just to clarify, the message stating "this comment has been removed by the author" is in reference to the author of the comment and not this author. I actually did not have the opportunity to even read the comment prior to it being removed. Thanks! Maku

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  3. I’ve gotten a fair amount of feedback on this post from outside of this particular forum – most of it pertaining to my one-paragraph description of the unfolding of events at the unnamed Zen organization. Responses varied from the reactionary to the more subtle and nuanced; from unhappiness that I know of the situation at all, to apparent belief that I am motivated by malice in divulging it. After considering this feedback and reexamining my words in light of it (words that were already reviewed prior to their publication by one with first-hand knowledge) I’m hard-pressed to use any of this feedback to actually materially revise this post. I stand by it being a fair representation of the situation given the space constraints of the overall post – you know…, the rest of the words within which this one paragraph rests. ;) Maku

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  5. I have considered myself a Buddhist since 2006. I've visited the Zen organization and will likely do so again when I can (I moved out of the area).

    This is my take on this post:

    (1) In the 5 Precepts, it call for the ending of all sexual impropriety. When a Buddhist leader like Joshu Sasaki Roshi does not follow this precept, I wonder how he could teach his students properly? This has been an issue with more than one Buddhist teacher and it appauls me.

    (2) What is also upsetting (and I don't have the facts here) is that the teacher in the Zen organization mentioned by Maku was evidently absent from practice periods, maybe in protest to bylaw changes with which he didn't agree. This is not the way to solve any problem. If the situation is not being discussed and handled as the Buddhism sutras and precepts suggest, then the problem will only get worse and have the sad possibility of fracturing the community. In Buddhism, this is considered one of the gravest offenses. If leadership will not discuss the problem(s) in light of the Buddha's teachings, them it is my thought that it is not the questioners who are fraying the community but those unwilling to discuss.

    As I say, I am a person who is not as familiar with this situation as I should be to comment, but I am commenting anyway because sometimes standing back gives a unique perspective.

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  7. While I stand by my comment made on February 23 regarding no suggested revisions "materially" impacting the original post, I nonetheless have revised the fourth paragraph from the bottom. The present wording replaces that of the original post, which read: "As we speak, a Zen Buddhist organization with which I am familiar is dealing with the fallout caused by AN ATTEMPT TO REVISE [capitalized phrase replaced with: 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, ATTEMPTS ON THE PART OF [capitalized phrase replaced with: 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 THIS BYLAW CHANGE WAS PROPOSED [capitalized phrase replaced with: the bylaws were changed], and the future of the organization is now up in the air." This nuanced change results from my present understanding that a decision was in fact made to strike the language related to the executive director's unchecked authority, although the actual "nuts and bolts" task of rewriting the bylaws remained. Thank you, Mark

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