American Buddhism: Some Big Names in Crisis (UPDATED)

UPDATE via Buddhadharma online (11/24/12): “the Board of Directors of Rinzai-ji Zen Center in Los Angeles has “convened for a meeting this weekend to discuss allegations of sexual abuse by their teacher, Joshu Sasaki roshi.” Read their full statement here.

Crises and scandals are nothing new to American Buddhism, or to religion in general – the world around. But this week prominent members in the Zen community at large and one of America’s largest Tibetan Buddhist organizations, Shambhala Mandala, are voicing specific concerns.

Adam Tebbe - Sweeping Zen

Adam Tebbe, founder of Sweeping Zen, perhaps the worlds leading repository and discussion forum for Zen Buddhism in the world today, discusses the latest sex scandal in the Zen Buddhist community, this one surrounding 105-year-old Zen Master Kyozan Joshu Sasaki. His article is titled either “When Right Speech Becomes a Cop-out” or “I’m Sorry, Was This An Inopportune Time? Maybe Next Week Would Have Worked Better?” Both titles speak to the heart of a matter that is at the heart of many Zen, Buddhist, and indeed religious communities.

Adam writes that, “I really am awestruck anymore by the reactions to scandals when they are published. The poor readers are tired of it all (let’s just gloss over those victims). One man contacted me on Facebook to inform me I am the “Pee Pee Police.”” – I discussed some of Sweeping Zen’s coverage of a recent issue involving Ken McLeod here. Frankly, Sweeping Zen’s coverage and discussion of these issues has been thoughtful, multiperspectival, and open, quite unlike the responses demanding removal of posts and silence of discussion, often from anonymous commenters.

It takes great courage to step out and speak up against this kind of wrong in a religious community. A big part of that is because most people in a religious community have a vested interest in that community looking good. There is a sort of transitive property to that desire, especially amongst new converts. People new to any form of Buddhism seem most likely to vigorously defend any and all allegations against contemporary Buddhist masters, whether they are personally close to the issue or have any relevant facts or not. Likely this is true across religions: mature (personally, spiritually, whatever) Catholics will be those who are most capable of disagreeing with The Church on certain aspects while still holding close to that which they find most important in their faith.

Tebbe continues and concludes:

You know, maybe what happened with Sasaki is a failure of curiosity. I started hearing about it all right away, from the moment I began running the website. It would come out in off the record interviews or in casual chat. It didn’t take me very long to start becoming curious. But, this went on for decade, after decade, after decade…

And nobody in the broader Zen teaching mahasangha thought to ask: “Hmmm, maybe this should be looked in to. Maybe we should try and address this.” Nobody? Somehow, everybody knows, and yet everybody claims to have not known?

I’ll tell you what. It didn’t take me long to figure it out. One female Zen teacher said he was nothing like Shimano — it reminded me of Bush’s “I saw Putin’s soul” moment. I wanted to gag in my mouth. This was after I’d been told that Sasaki had allegedly asked one female teacher in that person’s organization to sit on his lap one time during an interview (I’d heard that from multiple sources). This same person, the one who saw in to Putin’s soul, was sent a link to Eshu Martin’s piece by a concerned individual and they replied, “Why did you send me this?”

Move along, everyone. Nothing to see here. Buy my book, by the way…

To get a real sense of the frustration that Adam seems to be feeling you probably have to spend some time in the online Zen (or Buddhist) community. I recall dropping out of one online Zen Discussion Group years ago after a very frustrating back-and-forth between myself and a particularly annoying Zen fellow (I felt like Plato taking on a sophist).

And now Waylon Lewis, a (more-than) life-long member of Shambhala Mandala, is coming out with a public discussion of that organization’s crisis. As he puts it:

Waylon Lewis - Elephant Journal

Shambhala is hemorrhaging money month by month (I’m not at liberty to name numbers, but hemorrhaging is apt, and without hyperbole). We’re insecure (we now exclude teachers from other traditions at our many Shambhala Centers, whereas before we were a big tent, the umbrella under which all Buddhist lineages drew strength). We’re staffed and led by valiant but often overwhelmed, head-down, passionate (it’s impossible to generalize—Shambhala is led by many responsible, kind servants—but by and large appointments seemed characterized not by a desire for leadership or entrepreneuralism or outward-facing, magnetizing troublemaking…but rather by enthusiastic allegiance to new curriculum. Everyone’s doing the best they can, and better. Everyone’s trying). We’re divided in two: the Sakyong‘s innovation (which is profound and needed) has step-by-step replaced his father, Chogyam Trungpa‘s teachings, classes, paths. And elder students, with their enthusiasm, deep training, joy and…money…have left in waves, wave after wave after wave over the years. Another wave of “culture loss” and diaspora just occurred.

For the first time since I was 16 or so—when the Shambhala sangha (community) was painfully split by Trungpa‘s death and then his successor’s inglorious fall and, then, saved by the Sakyong, young and uneager to teach, riding forth as if on a white horse to lead and heal our community—my community seems poised to fall apart, to dissolve, to become a fractured shadow of its former mainstream, well-known, joyful, outward-facing self. (read the full article here)

There the current crisis seems to be mostly financial, though that is due to a decline in community cohesion and membership.

Waylon and Adam deserve our utmost respect and appreciation for their courage in openly discussing these issues. Not only are new converts and immature (spiritually, emotionally, whatever) devotees often strongly against discussing such issues, so too are the big publications. When these Zen and Tibetan (and there have been scandals in Theravadin organizations too) organizations and their affiliates are major advertisers and sponsors, it is difficult to publish op-eds condemning sexual, fiscal, or other improprieties.

It seems essential that these crises (and others that will surely arise) are dealt with as clearly and openly as possible. It’s nearly 2013. The age of the exotic and mystical Eastern “Other” is coming to a close – we hope.

I venture to suggest that despite the Buddha’s own teachings, an incredible amount of veneration of relics, statues, paintings, and personality have found their way into Buddhism. All of this may ‘serve’ as part of any practitioner’s personal development journey, but it might also be an abandonment of personal responsibility (which I would venture to suggest is central to the Buddha’s understanding of karma and rebirth).

Accusations against (and basic problems with) Buddhist teachers and organizations must be heard. If they can be resolved privately, all the better – but they must really be resolved, not just covered up until the next accusation comes out. Often enough, victims of abuse of all kinds (and whistle-blowers and inside critics) remain silent because they feel alone, alienated, and likely to be shamed and doubted by the community if they come forward.

The best thing we in the religious/Buddhist community can do is to support those who do come forward. Indeed there will be those who speak out with no evidence. Those cases are difficult. Recently I had the privilege of interviewing Lama Surya Das, one of America’s preeminent Buddhist leaders. In the comments someone accused him of being  “a sociopathic serial womanizer.” Given the content of the comment and the lack of substance to back it up, my response was simply that this is an unsupported claim from an anonymous commenter. However, if this is a substantial claim, it is best that it is made, that it may be supported by others (or, alternatively, shot down or ignored). So, you see, it’s difficult. It’s like the old English idiom of the elephant in the room, whether we like it or not, it’s there.

As I wrote back in early October:

We all have blind spots; we all make mistakes. But if we’re to grow and make things right, we have to acknowledge our blindnesses, failures, and weaknesses. It seems so simple. If you go to Dharma talks you probably hear this a couple times a year, from stories of Buddha facing Mara as opposed to his ‘evil’ cousin Devadatta, to the reformation of Angulimala…

On another level, all of this is important in that it makes concrete the fact that even really wonderful teachers are human. In all traditional forms of Buddhism there is the belief that one can transcend “reactive patterns and blind spots” and thus there will always be the potential for abuse of that belief. It’s better that we discuss that openly and regularly than ignoring it until people feel hurt and compelled to create their own blogs or websites to discuss these things, far away from the teacher and his/her inner circle.

Let the elephant out of the room.

Fake Buddhist Monks hit San Francisco
The Onion sends NBC’s Brian Williams to Tibet
“Why am I here?” – a post-event interview with veteran journalist and university teacher, Eileen Flynn
Practicing Compassion, a review
  • Algernon

    Excellent post, Justin.

    Personally, I am withdrawing even more from online Buddhist and Zen discussion because there doesn’t seem to be a lot of real discussion, the kind that involves receiving and sharing in a spirit of compassionate communication. Today, I expressed concern to Adam (whom I consider a friend, praise be to skype) on SZ’s Facebook site that he was taking some of the inevitable criticism very personally and that it might be getting to him. As you note, the mission he is undertaking in investigating and reporting these stories requires bravery. I would add: stamina. I would add: a teflon hide. I would add one more thing: the space to listen to criticism and discern what is useful from what is noise. It would be a great loss if the guy behind Sweeping Zen burned out.

    So I wrote that up and took some care with my words, making it clear that this intended to support his work (and him), and not as a criticism of what he has been attempting to do. Didn’t matter. A huge pile of comments defending Adam from imagined “attacks.” I read through the comments and it was a bit like that old Sesame Street skit where Grover gets a postcard from Amy saying, “I’m fine, it’s cold here,” and by the time word passes around Sesame Street people are getting ready to go to the hospital because Amy is rumored to be very sick with the flu. The question kept popping up: how much practice is going on in the midst of this?

    I suspect not much. Just lots of arguing and lots of pontificating and crusading. And some of that crusading and pontification has the right target, to be sure: ethical abuses by teachers must be addressed publicly and transparently, and institutions should be changed (or even folded) so as to close off spaces where these abuses occur. I’m on board with that 100%. But as I learned from the Rev. James Lawson — the guy who trained MLK in non-violent activism and communication — the process matters. It’s not about the external world, in the end (which is always a mess), but what’s happening to you while you interact with it.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Many thanks, Algernon. I like your point especially about sifting what’s useful from the noise. A lot of what people put in ‘comments’ boxes on fb and blogs and elsewhere is, to me, noise. No offense to some commenters here, but…

      It sounds like you made a comment to Adam, trying to be helpful, but you were misunderstood and attacked. What next?

      I find myself criticized for what I write here every so often and it is indeed an opportunity to look within and improve or simply to take on a new perspective. But then I return to the world and my efforts to make it better. It seems that I help a little here, screw up there, meditate, and repeat.

      That said, I have not been sent a fedex letter from a lawyer mentioning a high-priced lawsuit as Adam has, not to mention what other comments have come his way. Waylon too has been subject to plenty of undeserved flack. There is a point at which the outside world crashes in, unwelcome, but needing attention. I hope they’re keeping their practice up; but I can understand if it has flagged somewhat…

      • Algernon

        “What next?” Indeed. Adam and I “talked” it out person to person (online chat) and hopefully everybody heals and moves on with a clear direction. The man does deserve gratitude and support. Having put himself in the position where he gets threatening letters from lawyers and high exposure to all kinds of criticism and noise, it is very easy to forget that sometimes friends have advice we don’t want to hear but it is meant with love. I hope I remember that when it’s my turn again.

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  • Lee Love

    A 105 year old Zen Master is having sex? What is his secret? ;)

    • angie delacroix

      Well my goodness—i wonder if he is any good at it ! Or who gives a mindful f***! Rape,molestation ,cheating are unethical,but eating a live bunny is not the same as eating tofu yet both are ”eating”.

  • jacob

    Well, all religions are declining due to technology. But take heart, real religion does not depend upon community or organization – it is a solitary pursuit of truth. If you are not capable of doing this, then your religiosity is not sincere and has other motivations.

    • sumi

      right on! we preserve the traditions in our practice
      every organization has it’s scandals and dramas; people are fallible and prone to stumbling here and there…

  • Dr. Sean

    Well, said. In a time when so much is expected to be free. it is no wonder that Shambala is leaking funds and people. Also, rarely do we hear about the practice of Sila (Morality) especially in American Zen. Zen ends up being a great excuse to do what ever you want when you want and ‘it’s all ok’ because it is ‘my’ nature. Hogwash.
    Tibetan Buddhism, like Zen offer an amazing practice that is valuable and sacred, but when you have so much ‘flash and bang’ most American (Westerners) see that as the essence of the teaching. I have seen so many ‘converts’ upset with Christianity, Judaism, Catholicism, etc… just adopt the closest Buddhist practice and not change themselves or ever really learn the teachings. They all have wonderful altars with beautiful relics and such in their houses and can talk a good talk but few practice, not just sitting with others in silence and ‘non thought’ but in contemplation.
    Such is the way of modern Buddhism for the moment. Perhaps a lesson, perhaps a call for some.
    In the decades of study and practice I too have been lured by colorful people and things. But use the teachings for myself.
    I see Buddhism (Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana, et al) becoming Americanized, not as a bad thing, but as a melting pot of information. It too will have growing pains and troubles til it finds its own level ground. The Western public needs a different type of teaching than our counterparts in the East. In the ‘traditional’ grounds of Buddhist teaching there is a strong cultural interweaving that we must not ignore, but also must acknowledge that may not fit in well with Western culture, especially in this time of the ‘Interweb’ and all things ‘free’.
    I have also seen many take on the title of ‘Monk’, Bikkhu, Sangha and have no intent to follow those rules and guidelines. This is a sad watering down of the monastic community and essence of Buddhist teachings.
    Of course there are those that will do things that cause upset and problems, such is the nature of people. Any and I mean ANY group falls subject to this at some point. The success and honor of that group will only come from the open discussion and dealings with these situations and the setting and following of the organization’s agreements and moral duties to itself, its parishioners, and the public.

    Dr. Sean H. Thompson
    President, International Order of Buddhist Ministers

    • Justin Whitaker

      Many thanks for your insights, Dr. Thompson.

      I wholeheartedly agree that any community is subject to these problems and that the real matter is how (and how soon) they can deal with the issues that do eventually arise. I’m happy to see that the board of directors that oversee Sasaki Roshi’s center have convened a meeting for this weekend to discuss this issue, stating in part: “The Board takes allegations of inappropriateness regarding any Rinzai-ji teacher’s behavior very seriously. The Board is therefore conferring this weekend to create a plan to address this issue. We will move as quickly as possible…” One could only wish that other organizations were so quick and forthright.

      For Buddhism in the West to survive it must democratize – which goes against much of the ‘guru-centric’ mentalities of all forms of Buddhism (even Theravada at times). Democratization means that the regular joes have to be free and willing to speak up and be heard by the powers that be. I see brave folks like Waylon and Adam as great leaders in this. And as I say that, I must mention two courageous women who have also spoken out: Myoan Grace Schireson, who wrote an article that sparked some of Adam’s well-publicized difficulties: ;

      and P. Ivan, whose blog has been a site of documentation of her continued stone-walling from the board at Unfettered Mind and Ken McLeod.

      Buddhism here is a work in progress, but it will require our *work* if we expect it to *progress* :)

      Thanks again – jw

      • Justin

        I think the solution to this problem (perceived problem?) is more nuanced than “Buddhism must democratize to survive in the West”. For a lot of people, these Rinpoches and Roshis have a level of clarity that means their decisions and actions have far greater significance than mine or yours. If you have that sort of view, it becomes difficult to say that the opinion of someone who’s been sitting thirty minutes in the morning for the last three weeks has the same weight as another who spent 3+ years in solitary meditation.

  • Joyce

    Same old scandal mongering dance and blah blah blah. Oh the DRAMA! I’d try hanging out with the Baptists if I were you.

  • Kip

    I’ve been involved with spiritual groups (New Age, Hindu, but mainly Buddhist) for the last 40 years in California, Nepal, India and Sri Lanka. These guru sex scandals come and go frequently. I would like to pose two questions which have always bothered me (and I don’t have the answer to).

    #1) The teachers may be Asian or Western, but the victims are invariably Western. Why?

    #2) The victims invariably complain AFTER the teacher has broken off the relationship, often when he picks a new lover/victim. If this was an exploitive and destructive relationship before it was ended, then why was there no complaint from the victim while it was going on?

    What I think is most important about these scandals is not the moral lapse and poor judgement on the part of the teachers involved. It’s that this behavior brings into serious question the teachers’ claimed level of enlightenment. Whatever their tradition, they should be able to gain more pleasure and satisfaction in meditation then in acting like panting high school boys.

    • steven

      Yes, these are good questions, Kip. Thank you for bringing them up. Ultimately it is one’s own decision to get sexually involved if some teacher offers an opportunity. Maybe he offers in a persuasive way, but that doesn’t change the fact that the victim could have refused. Now I certainly agree that spiritual teachers should not bring their students in situations like this, where they might make decisions they will most likely regret later on, and so it is good that all this is brought into the open. Such teachers just don’t qualify to be a teacher. But seeing the victims only as victims renders them powerless to clear out their suffering. It doesn’t serve to only confirm their victimhood. Once these people acknowledge it was their own decision – made in innocence, because they believed at that time they were getting something desirable -, then they have the power to undo the suffering, to forgive and let it go. It may be very true that some roshi once got sexually involved with a student, and that is a sad thing. But this doesn’t make it wise for the student abuse her own mind with the memory of it for the rest of her life, does it? That would be even much more sad. I learned a lot from Byron Katie’s work in this.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Kip – thanks for the thoughtful questions. I’m sure they are on a lot of people’s minds. As to #1, I would guess that there are plenty of Asian victims of sexual abuse too. To broadly generalize, many of them may just be even more culturally dis-inclined to speak out against a perceived authority figure. But there are cases, one recent one from last year being this:

      #2 – the person abused often doesn’t recognize the abuse as it’s happening, or thinks that it will change, or that it’s ‘part of the process’ to spiritual growth. They may delude themselves in this way or, often enough, the teacher tells them just these things. There can be many layers of self-doubt (“is this really what I think it is? perhaps I don’t understand what is happening?”), self-blame (“the teacher wouldn’t do anything wrong, so it must be my fault that I feel so bad after these encounters”) and so on – not to mention secrecy (“don’t tell others what is happening here, it is a secret teaching”).

      And don’t forget, every abusive relationship (or almost every) begins on a very high note – things are amazing, the ‘connection’ is excellent, the potential is infinite. So when things go bad, there is always the hope that they can get back to that high start.

  • Gordon

    Just wanted to point out that Waylon’s piece paints a pretty hyperbolic picture of the state of Shambhala. It really is more of a cash-flow/funding problem than a financial crisis, and he hasn’t received comment from anyone who actually works for the organization to my knowledge. It certainly is not an existential crisis at all, and I think Waylon is the only person who has used the term crisis at all. It’s fairly misleading to speak about it in the same terms as sexual abuse.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Thanks, Gordon, for the heads-up. From what I did read in the comments, people involved with Shambhala Mandala are all in agreement with Waylon, including one center director, Layth Matthews. But you’re right that (as far as I could find) no one in the main organization has commented.

      • Gordon

        Yeah, the way Shambhala is set up is that the finances of most individual centers are separate from the central organization so mostly an individual center director will know a lot about the local situation but maybe not have a great picture of the general finances. For that you really need to contact someone who has a more general view. Especially if you are going to declare that it is in an existential crisis.

        The executive director of Shambhala has a new blog up which hopefully will be a good source for this kind of information.

        Love your blog,


      • Gordon

        Looks like Waylon’s going to interview Carolyn about this.

        • Justin Whitaker

          Many thanks for the updates and links, Gordon! That’s great that Waylon will interview Carolyn about this. So even if ‘hemorrhaging’ was a bit hyperbolic, it seems to have started a discussion. I look forward to the interview.

  • P. Ivan

    The answer to Kip’s second question, as to why a student does not complain until after the fact, is actually a rather simple one.

    Just as victims of sexual abuse can feel sexually aroused and emotionally connected to their abuser, victims of spiritual abuse can feel spiritually aroused and emotionally connected to their teacher. It is only when they realize that they have been exploited and robbed that feelings of violation and indignation arise, particularly when their abuser was a person whom they trusted.

    Until a victim recognizes her aggressor as someone exploiting her for his own needs, until she recognizes that she has been predated upon, she may not feel like she is being abused at all. She may not felt abused, but this does not mean she is not being abused, nor does it mean she is agreeing to the abuse. So please do not reduce the way out of suffering for victims as “acknowledging it was their own decision”.

  • Heidi Draffin

    Perhaps this practice as with all practicing faiths needs to de-organize – to return and so restore the vernacular unencumbered innocence of personal and very localized community awareness and teaching. What I wouldn’t give to see that happen on this earth.

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