Sexual Assault Allegations Leveled at Zen Master

105-year-old Buddhist teacher Joshu Sasaki has been running more than 30 global Zen centers and is something of a legend in his community.  Evidently he is also a sexual harasser of the highest order.

Well, I suppose it would have been naïve to think that spiritual leaders taking advantage of those who follow them is a phenomenon limited to just the Catholic Church.

Oh, and also there’s been quite the cover-up in place for at least 25 years — students have been writing to the board of one of Sasaki’s centers since 1991 but nothing came to light until this past November:

Yet it was only last November, when Eshu Martin, a Zen priest who studied under Mr. Sasaki from 1997 to 2008, posted a letter to, a popular Web site, that the wider Zen world noticed.

The New York Times interviewed seven former students who are finally coming forward with their stories. The women say that Sasaki told them that a part of their Zen training was to allow him to touch them.

Here are some more examples:

In the council’s report on Jan. 11, the three members wrote of “Sasaki asking women to show him their breasts, as part of ‘answering’ a koan” — a Zen riddle — “or to demonstrate ‘non-attachment.’ ”

During that time, she said, Mr. Sasaki would fondle her breasts during sanzen, or private meeting; he also asked her to massage his penis. She would wonder, she said, “Was this teaching?”

Susanna Stewart began studying with Mr. Sasaki about 40 years ago. Within six months, she said, Mr. Sasaki began to touch her during sanzen. This sexualizing of their relationship “led to years of confusion and pain,” Ms. Stewart said, “eventually resulting in my becoming unable to practice Zen.” And when she married one of his priests, Mr. Sasaki tried to break them up, she said, even encouraging her husband to have an affair.

It makes me sick to my stomach to see people in positions of authority take advantage of those who trust them.  But it’s a million times worse to see a systemic cover-up of this nature.  We’ve all seen it in the Catholic Church, but I have to say I wasn’t expecting to see it in the Buddhist community. I guess I just didn’t realize that it had such a structured hierarchy that would lend itself to something like this.

But I was foolishly wrong. I guess any community that puts the worship of a God or man over the mental, physical, and sexual health of its individuals is vulnerable:

The Zen group, or sangha, can become one’s close family, and that aspect of Zen may account for why women and men have been reluctant to speak out for so long.

Many women whom Mr. Sasaki touched were resident monks at his centers. One woman who confronted Mr. Sasaki in the 1980s found herself an outcast afterward. The woman, who asked that her name not be used to protect her privacy, said that afterward “hardly anyone in the sangha, whom I had grown up with for 20 years, would have anything to do with us.”


One monk, whom Ms. Stubbs said she told about the touching, was unsympathetic. “He believed in Roshi’s style, that sexualizing was teaching for particular women,” Ms. Stubbs said. The monk’s theory, common in Mr. Sasaki’s circle, was that such physicality could check a woman’s overly strong ego.

Oh, women are intrinsically bad or evil?  That sounds familiar…

(It’s like I’ve learned nothing from Lisa Simpson!)

I just really hope something is done about this.  Or that this issue sees some exposure. I really hope that the fact that Sasaki is 105 doesn’t keep people from coming after him with whatever he has coming. It’s obvious that he’s not the only offender and hopefully more victims will be able to come forward.

(Via Jezebel)

About Jessica Bluemke

Jessica Bluemke grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and graduated from Ball State University in 2008 with a BA in Literature. She currently works as a writer and resides on the North side of Chicago.

  • chicago dyke

    let’s face it, folx. religion is a racket. all of them, all the time. sort of like war. doesn’t matter what kind, or where it takes place, or the gender/orientation of the officiants.

    it’s all about getting free money, respect in the community, and the sexual rape victim of your choice. for making up stories and pretending to know more about difficult things than other people, regardless of the celebrant’s personal experience with difficult life situations.

    i discovered today that my best friend, a beautiful gay man and PhD of art history, has brain cancer. he’s only 40, and will likely die. he’s got health insurance and a wealthy family, thank the FSM, but he will still suffer greatly and maybe die. no amount of praying to jeebus, allah, YHWH, spinning a prayer wheel, talking to ganesh, or communing with the Great Spirit will help him.

    science, otoh, might.

    i cried a lot today. you know what i didn’t do? fall on my knees and ask the invisible beings in the sky to help him. because they won’t.

    i am going to Houston to bring him a flower arrangement and a funny song we both love to lift his spirits. and tell him i love him. and that he should live. and thank his brain surgeon.

  • Haha USA

    Same thing happened to my best friend last november… he died in december…

    He was also 40…

    I wish you much strength

  • Rich Wilson

    Hell, I don’t even know the guy, and I’m crying. Sorry cd.

  • Haha USA

    This is exactly why we need to eradicate cults and religion and promote rational thinking.

    When gullible people put themselves at the mercy of charlatans they should expect to be abused. And, so often, not only abuse of the mind but also abuse of the body.

    This is not victim-blaming… It’s merely a statement of fact. If people let others take advantage of their minds then it cannot be assumed that advantage will not be taken of their wallets or their families or their bodies.

  • Scott Lumry

    I’m crying with you, dear. It still takes much in me to resist the habit of calling on a god in such circumstances. But I know from experience that doing so accomplishes nothing. What does make a difference is doing what you are doing. Sing the song loud and strong. That and make sure science has the funds to do real research. Warm hugs and fun thoughts to you and your friend.

  • MJO

    This story is not about irrational religion. It’s about stupidity. We have the internet, folks. Tell! TELL FUCKING EVERYBODY! I am a Zen guy, and I never heard of this story until recently, and here it’s been going on for 25 years? If the women tell, we’ll listen. Yes we fucking WILL!

  • chicago dyke

    i just have to talk about him.

    he’s so beautiful. he’ll be bald soon, when after they shave his head to cut it open. but he had beautiful hair, for a white guy.

    the song is, ironically, “bela legosi is dead” by a punk band.

    we threw the most Fabulous parties. ever. at UChicago. they were Legendary. let’s put it this way: the prez and his wife? not invited.

    one night, i brought a sad, drunk girlfriend of mine over to the house we all shared. she was a fat drunk. a closet case. morbid as hell.

    it was the first night he met her. he was so polite, in his TXan, southern way. he did everything to make her feel welcome. he played the most Upbeat, happy songs you have ever heard, and danced to them, in the living room. he’s a great dancer; one of the best to ever see a gay club floor or get a PhD.

    but she was so pathetic (me and my poor tastes in women, meh). she’s worth over 100m$, and has nothing in the world to complain about, but all she could do is get drunk and cry, because somebody had just broken up with her. and she’s fat.

    anyway, after like, 4 hours of playing the World’s Most Happy music trying to cheer her up, he finally gave up. we had records, and he pulled out the Bauhaus version of “bela legosi’s dead.” and did this funny dance to it, mocking her.

    it worked, and we all went to a fabulous gay party a little later.

    he cannot die. he must not die. i will not allow him to die. i will sing this song for him. and make him laugh. in his hospital room. until he is well. /sobs

  • Richard Wade

    This isn’t new, and it isn’t rare.

    For several years during my twenties I was a practicing member of the Zen Center of Los Angeles. Fortunately I was always just skeptical enough to not get sucked into worshiping the Roshi as many others there did. I was just interested in meditating. One day thirty years ago the place exploded when it came to light that the Roshi was an alcoholic and had been cheating on his wife, having sexual affairs with more than one of the female monks and members. He was forthcoming and honest about it once it all broke open, but just as in many alcoholic families, a culture of denial, codependency, enabling, and covering up had gradually taken hold of many people close to him, so it had gone on for several years. His drinking was an open secret, the “elephant in the zendo.” Although the sexual misbehavior had been more carefully concealed, I really wasn’t surprised. Fortunately for my wife and me, we had pretty much drifted away from the place by then, but our friends who were still active there were devastated. There’s a pretty fairly written account of it here, although it’s a bit light on the pain that some people went through.

    Once the silence was broken, many people who had been members of other Zen centers in the U.S. started acknowledging that other Roshis and Senseis sexually exploited their students also.

    I call it “adoration poisoning.” A person with insight, energy, and charisma starts out with very virtuous motives and attracts a following. People benefit from his guidance or inspiration, and gradually many of them start to adore him, treating him as if he’s somehow more than human. It’s very difficult for anyone to resist the subtle seduction of that kind of idolizing, and so very slowly the worst of his ego begins to replace the best of his character. This is not to blame the adoring followers for his eventually exploiting them. He is responsible for his behavior. This is just a warning to anyone who is a hero to many, and anyone who has a hero. Appreciate extraordinary people, but do not adore>/i> them. Gain from their wisdom but do not sell yourself and your own judgment short. Know when you’ve outgrown them and it’s time to move on. As the Buddha warned, clinging causes suffering.

  • David

    Well if it is anything like the UK and the Jimmy Saville debacle, they will wait till he is dead and then it will be free for all.

  • Randay

    Buddhism is not all it’s made out to be. The Dalai Lama is widely celebrated and admired around the world, but few have read his books. If they had, they might change their opinion. For example he writes,

    “Buddhist sexual proscriptions ban homosexual activity and heterosexual
    sex through orifices other than the vagina, including masturbation or
    other sexual activity with the hand.”

    I wonder if sexual activity with the foot and tongue is OK. Why are religious leaders so hung up about sex which is just another function of our bodies?

  • baal

    Actually, irrational religion seems to have a lot to do with creating circumstances for abuse. They tend to have hierarchical leadership and brook few to no questions. Mechanisms of accountability are generally lacking and there are strong reasons to prevent the church or center from getting bad publicity (like they might for a court case or prosecution. Further, there are often one on one special secret times (confession, koan teaching apparently, alter boy training) that occur behind closed doors.

  • Michael W Busch

    >>I guess any community that puts the worship of a God or man over the
    mental, physical, and sexual health of its individuals is vulnerable<<

    That is true, but I think it doesn't go far enough. Any social structure that doesn't make a careful and intelligent effort to prevent abuse is vulnerable – be that a church, a Zen center, a football club, a school, a military, or a medical system.

    Religious groups may enable more extensive and long-lasting coverups by putting some people out of the reach of challenge (be they priest or bhikshu or imam). But it would be a mistake to say that non-religious organizations don't sometimes have problems with abusers exploiting their members.

  • BeasKnees


  • Silo Mowbray

    Clearly it’s time to fap over a photo of a Buddha statue.

  • Felyx Leiter

    Love and warmth to you, cd. Cancer is such an asshole. :(

  • Scott Lumry

    You need a shoulder to cry on cd? You’ve got mine. Seriously.

    Make sure he has doctors with sound minds, even if they do not give themselves the credit for arriving at that point; if they listen to their patient and their brains more than their god; if they give proper weight to skeptical research; and if they treat the patient as a human being instead of a mission field; then he is way ahead of others facing this challenge. K is even more powerful because of his keeping you and your friends human while celebrating life with you. His desire to face this challenge may diminish. You, however, must keep the light glowing. Keep fighting with everything you’ve got because he may arrive at a point where he tires of fighting. If you need to recharge, let me know.