Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Zen Woman’s Personal Perspective on Sexual Groping, Sexual Harassment, and Other Abuses in Zen Centers

This is from Sweeping Zen, one of the premier Zen blogs on the internet. This post discusses the admission of one woman's personal experience of inappropriate sexual behavior by a spiritual leader, specifically Joshu Sasaki Roshi, the founder and Abbot of Rinzai-ji.

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. For decades, Joshu Roshi’s behaviour has been ignored, hushed up, downplayed, justified, and defended by the monks and students that remain loyal to him.
Psychologist Myoan Grace Schireson's analysis of the situation is perceptive and important - makes one wish someone were this cogent in dealing with sexual impropieties in the integral community.

A Zen Woman’s Personal Perspective on Sexual Groping, Sexual Harassment, and Other Abuses in Zen Centers


Posted by: Myoan Grace Schireson November 21, 2012


Eshu Martin has published painful allegations about Mt Baldy Zen Center and Joshu Sasaki’s abuse of women students. Rumors about Reverend Sasaki have circulated for decades, but until now, no member of that community has spoken up publicly. What is missing for many observers are the first-hand accounts of women. For a woman to speak up as the object of unwholesome sexual attention is a no-win situation. I was “groped” by a Zen teacher twenty years ago, I still have only told one close friend. I feel ashamed. And I know from experience what can happen when I have come forward.

As a 17 year-old college student, I narrowly escaped a rapist and I got away to call the police. When the police came to interview me, I described my assailant perfectly, recounted all parts of my thought process, impressions and the activity that had occurred with exact details. The comments made by the middle aged adult police officers, recording the attempted rape account from a strong and calm young woman were: “You’re not a woman, what is the matter with you, why aren’t you crying? He was lucky to get away from you.” I was further shamed and blamed and vilified. Even then I knew what they were doing was wrong, but I could find no means to say so. I just had to bear it.

For women to come forward and to report what happened, we need to make deep changes to a global primitive view of women: their need to be both desirable and at the same to be pure. Almost all the women I know, personally and as a psychologist, have experienced one form or another of sexual harassment—ranging from intrusive remarks, being ogled, offers to trade sex for job promotion, brief pats, grabbing, being pinned down, all the way up to violent rape. Women are blamed for men’s desire, even in Buddhism (see Diana Paul on Buddha’s description of “ensnaring women”). We hear expressions like “She was dressed to kill.” Women’s beauty is described as aggression towards men. And in short, we learn to live with it—in healthy and unhealthy ways.

I appreciate Eshu’s efforts and understand from some of the comments posted in response to his piece that many have had enough of this kind of news. Some protest that we have had enough reporting of this issue, and want it to stop messing with our ideas about Zen. When will it stop? Enni Ben’en (1202-1280) the original founder of Tofukuji, my teacher Fukushima Roshi’s temple said: “The Rock of Ages will some day wear away, but when will this suffering end?” Apparently, not any time soon; and while mountains may wear away through natural forces, suffering is only transformed through willing attention. Can we continue to look at this issue, to tolerate our discomfort, and to educate ourselves, our Zen sanghas and even our teachers? Rather than bemoan the outcome, can we lessen our predisposition to be fooled by teachers who act out in this way? Can we prevent rather than protest?

We need to study and understand how people become more susceptible to sexual and other misbehavior in Zen centers when they are supposed to be waking up to reality. There is a variety of reasons. In regard to some of the issues raised in response to Eshu’s piece: Yes, we let our defenses down to allow deep change, yes, we develop trust in our teacher, and yes, we are in a different world. Years ago, during a practice period in Japan with eleven other women, I learned just how confusing “foreign context” could be. Standing in the garden of a Zen temple with four other women, a Japanese lay visitor to the temple put both of his hands on my friend’s breasts, and squeezed them while muttering some non-recognizable Japanese. We were all momentarily stunned into silence and inaction while he smiled, squeezed and muttered away. Since I was the only one who spoke any Japanese, one woman in the group asked me: “What does it mean?” The question woke me up. I said: “It means the same thing in any language,” as I slapped his arms off of her chest and forcibly pushed him away. Not only was there a culture barrier, but we had been instructed to be friendly to lay people since we were considered “nuns of the temple.” Was I allowed to do that or had I created an international Zen incident?

How much more confusing would it be to be groped as part of koan practice? A woman would wonder, what does it mean in a private interview with a Zen teacher? Does the groping test my ability to transcend our usual limitations? Does it mean no-self? Is it a koan? I would call this atrocious behavior disguised as Zen practice by another name. In an attempt to respect our sensibilities, I will suggest that this is the same name with which we usually refer to the defecation from a bull’s digestive tract which is used to fertilize plants.

Frankly, as some political candidates recently suggested in their distorted views on rape, women have plenty of opportunity to respond to being sexually molested. This can be neither “Special Karma”(as described in Merry White Benezra’s novel about practice with a sexually exploitative Zen teacher) nor a koan, not at a Zen center, and not anywhere else. When sexual misconduct occurs, it is actually a crime, not a Zen koan. And it is a cause of suffering that Zen teachers should not inflict on anyone. We have long addressed the potential psychopathology and character flaws of teachers who perpetrate such harm. And we have made statements to address this harm. I will continue to do so. The real work is creating an environment in which women can speak of the incident, and face their suffering with support and wisdom.
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