Joshu Sasaki Dies

I’ve just learned that Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi died at 4:25 pm, this Sunday, the 27th of July, 2014, at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. He was one hundred and seven years old.

Sasaki Roshi was the founder and abbot of Mount Baldy Zen Center as well as head of the Rinzai-ji organization of Zen centers.
joshu sasaki
He was the most credentialed Zen teacher of the many Japanese priests who have come to live and teach in the West. However, his teaching career in the west was followed by whispers and allegations, and in the last years by public allegations of sexual misconduct, non-consensual groping, and coerced sexual relationships.

While a few of his priests and at least two affiliated centers have disaffiliated, most have not, and the continuing scandals and the Rinzai-ji board’s inability to either hold him to account or even reign in his behaviors, allegations of groping lasted well in to his hundreds, cast a shadow across the whole organization.

Sasaki Roshi left about twenty fully ordained priests, although none received dharma transmission, authorization as full spiritual directors within the Rinzai style. So, ironically, a Rinzai master leaves an organization that does not advance a formal koan curriculum. What will happen for the organization next is an open question.

By all accounts a great teacher.

By all accounts a sexual predator.

A great sadness for the Dharma come west.

  • Ron Sinnige

    What do you mean by ‘a great sadness for the Dharma come west’? The fact that he died or the fact that he was an abuser for decades? There is no Dharma outside your life and behavior. Abusing people is not ‘teaching the Dharma’, it is abusing people. I don’t get what is wonderful or great about that. Ever. And I don’t understand the half-heartedness here.

    • Gregory Wonderwheel

      Ron, for me the point is to hold two apparently contradictory views simultaneously without (and I emphasize without) favoring one view or denying or trivializing the other view. Why? Because in fact the Dharma has no attributes, and it is because the Dharma has no inherent attributes that BOTH constellation of attributes about Sasaki Roshi are true: a great teacher and good friend in the Dharma, and a cad and scoundrel with certain women under his duty of care. If we think that all the Dharma teaching of a person’s life is somehow erased by the person’s bad behavior, then we are thinking dualistically and wrongly about the Dharma.

      • Ron Sinnige

        Hi Gregory, this is the typical western ‘Buddhist’ approach, nonduality. It is, in the end, a rational explanation and not an existential fact, or half of it at best. Once more: there is no Dharma outside life and behavior. ‘The Dharma’ is not a thingy that you get and then you get to look the other way when abuse is taking place. My answer to your view, even though I aprreciate the effort to make me see the ‘other side’, is a clear and unequivocal ‘nope!’…

  • Linda Campany

    A slight correction. As a student of both Sasaki Roshi and Sandy Gentei Stewart, osho at the North Carolina Zen Center, I can attest that with Roshi’s encouragement, Sandy offers formal koan practice.

  • Cherry Zimmer

    How can he be a great teacher if his personal behavior was reprehensible?

    • Edward Colcord

      There’s an old saying heard from a Japanese monk, “Keep the Zen, throw away everything else.”

    • Zenislove

      He was and it wasn’t. I know countless women who followed him to the end, not victims or molested victims, but strong, confident, intelligent women who understood the news. I do not believe from what I heard that there were any reports of issues apart from those which were publicized.

      • ebolaoutkast

        I would never believe your assessment of someone’s ‘intelligence’. What a horrendous reason for denying the accusations.

        • Zenislove

          And what an interpretation. Please, keep it forever.

          • ebolaoutkast

            Keep denying the truth for your own selfishness.

      • Laurance

        I was one of the women who was molested. He groped me and made ugly f*cking noises at me in Sanzen. I was shocked, bewildered, frightened, distressed by it.

        You never heard of “any reports of issues apart from those which were publicized”?

        I’m not surprised at all! I tried to talk with the Shoji, and she silenced me, ordered me to not talk about it. A woman who overheard told me that, “Oh, that’s just Roshi! That’s what he does. Just push his hands away!”

        I know that the Shoji talked with Roshi because the next day in teisho he shamed me publicly.

        When I returned home to our branch zen center I talked with the monks about what had happened. They faulted me. I wasn’t enlightened. I was too attached to my woman’s body. I didn’t understand true teaching. He’s so holy, so enlightened he can do anything. Because he’s so holy and enlightened he’s not like other men. He didn’t get you pregnant, so what’s the problem? The monks totally invalidated me.

        A young woman at our center told me of the things Roshi did to her when she was in her late teens, but she hadn’t been distressed by it and couldn’t understand why I objected to being groped. She thought it was cute, both what Roshi did to her and what he did to me.

        The community circled the wagons, closed ranks. Just try and report and see what happens! Publicize? Are you kidding?

        A former Shoji at our local center tried to advocate for women who were abused during sesshin. She ran into a brick wall. She left the center in frustration. As did I. Publicize? Report?

        Not only was that Roshi a molester, the community aided and abetted him. He could not have gotten away with the things he did if those Oshos and members weren’t covering up for him, enabling him, making excuses and rationalizations for him, invalidating and humiliating and trying to silence the women he abused. Not just this Roshi, the whole organization did this.

        The Witness Council collected reports. By the time I found out about the Witness Council too much time had passed and the report had come out, so my report isn’t there. You didn’t hear of “any reports of issues”? The reports finally came out. I’d be willing to bet that I’m not the only woman who did not know about the Witness Committee in time to be included in the report. I’d bet that had we known, the Witness Committee’s report would have been a good bit larger.

        • ebolaoutkast

          Very sad, thanks for sharing.

      • Laurance

        I wonder to what extent those “countless women” who are “strong, confident, intelligent” were complicit in covering up for the Roshi and invalidating the women who were molested.

        I do know from experience that when I tried to report the incident (my post below) to the Shoji, she just shut me up and ratted me out to the Roshi. I suspect that woman “understood the news” and was as guilty as the Oshos and the monks and other community members of enabling and supporting the behavior. Why should strong, confident, intelligent women be any different from strong, confident, intelligent men when it comes to preserving an institution and covering up for a corrupt leader?

        What sort of hold did the Roshi have over the Oshos and community anyway? I read in one article (and I don’t have time to track it down now) that the Roshi threatened to withdraw his teaching if he weren’t protected from consequences.

  • dogie1

    While his predatory behaviour was reprehensible, it’s important to remember the saying that, “even Shakyamuni Buddha, in Tushita Heaven is still practicing zazen”.
    Regardless of him being a sexual predator, it is important to note that dispite his proclivities, he was still a human being and carried those frailties as we all do, and also an inspiring zen master to many.
    “When my neighbor sins, I am to blame”. (Old zen koan).

  • diamondvajra

    i studied with sasaki roshi, he helped me. he helped thousands of people. he also hurt people. i am also a woman. i am not mad at roshi, only sad. roshi is dead. he is gone beyond. he once apologized in a dharma talk (teisho) for his behavior. he said that he had been made aware that his conduct had gravely hurt people and he was sorry. i do not think that he was molesting women into his hundreds. i did know women who laughed and pushed his hands away during interviews. i also am aware that other women did not. i am also aware that his oshos (priests) knew about this, i also think that those who appear the most offended were those who knew but only made a stink after roshi had been outed by eshu martin, so i am mad at them

  • Zenislove

    Roshi helped myself, he helped hundreds if not thousands of people in ways that are inexpressible, but intimately felt by those who knew him. Eshu Martin might have found himself a convenient marketing line, but it was definitely not the slightest representation of the very genuine legacy that Sasaki left behind, and taught. His legacy will always be more than the aspersions he had to endure in his sickest, weakest years – when Eshu chose to make his mark – his legacy is the love and teachings that is Tathagata Zen. There were not many cases apart from those which the tabloid took on. Anyway, it is done. And Sasaki is at rest again, where he always resided and where he will always remind us his genuine legacy is the manifestation of true love. Not for one, but for all humankind, even those that would seek to harm. You would have to know him to genuinely understand this and this goes for Buddhist practice too, not everyone understands, but at some stage, one no longer requires confirmation.

    • Jodie

      The saddest part of all this is that you seem to think Eshu did the right thing for attention and “marketing” and that it was perfectly timed to take advantage of a man in a weakened state.

      If it were your friend, sister or daughter who had been molested, would you still have the same “Oh well, it’s done” attitude knowing that many of those in “power” knew, and did nothing to stop it? THIS is the issue; people in roles of power and trust knew *and did nothing to stop it.*

      This is why it was brought to light.

      Sasaki certainly spoke truths and did a lot of good. It would be a logical fallacy to discount teachings of truth and good deeds because of the behaviour of several teachers.

      It is a very difficult thing learning that someone you hold in extraordinary deep esteem and love did something so heinous; I have been there. It is quite another to attack someone who stood up to say “ENOUGH!” because it sullies perfect memories and experiences that are different.

      Because of Eshu, those in charge will now know they are held accountable and are expected to be responsible.

      Because of Eshu, those who were abused no longer feel alone and some found the strength to come forward and begin the healing process.

      Because of Eshu, others who are witnesses to abuse will feel stronger to come forward to put a stop to it.

      Bringing “all this” up again is not dwelling; it is pushing and working to make sure it does not happen again.

      I am very glad that you learned and grew under his teaching. I sincerely hope that the attitude of “oh, but this person is doing so much good” doesn’t ever stop you from stepping up to help someone who is being taken advantage of by a superior.

      • diamondvajra

        eshu martin was “expelled” from rinzai ji because he was teaching without “permission” from joshu sasaki roshi. he was asked to stop but continued. only after he was “expelled” did he print his broadside so my question to mr. martin would be, if you had not been told to stop teaching then would you have continued in the lineage?

        • Jodie

          And that is a red herring.

          My big, rhetorical question is: So?

          By asking the above, the whole reason for all of this is obfuscated.

          Women were abused.
          Those who could help did nothing.
          Someone went public.

          The end.

          I don’t care if you think – or even PROVE – that there could have been “ulterior motives” for the whistle blowing. Not one iota. Just the same as I wouldn’t care if someone blew the whistle on child abuse solely because they thought they could be a book and movie deal.

          Women were abused.
          Those who could help did nothing.
          Someone went public.

          The. End.

          • diamondvajra

            i absolutely agree with you, i’m just not angry, only feel sad:(
            and personally i was helped

          • Laurance

            Thank you, Jodie. Yes, someone went public, and I’m glad he did. Somebody finally broke through that awful wall of silence.

  • Zenislove
  • Zen Buddhism

    Zen teacher. Sexual predator. The latter must obviate the former if the former is to mean anything.

  • Hal in RI

    I’m afraid I cannot sit on the sidelines any longer and allow such statements about Sasaki Roshi to go unchallenged. The Rev. Ford has absolutely no first-hand experience with this teacher. Nor do 98% of the people who have repeated and repeated these allegations online without any sense of responsibility to find out the truth. He is completely relying on the internet media frenzy created by a small number of disaffected former students, perpetuated by a self-appointed group of American Soto Zen teachers who seemed more interested from the start in tarnishing the image and reputation of this remarkable teacher than in bringing any solace to women assumed to have been harmed. This incredibly uncompassionate response to a complex situation has done serious damage to Sasaki Roshi’s sangha and, frankly, reflects poorly on the American Zen establishment. As a student of Sasaki Roshi for over 40 years, I have first-hand knowledge of him as a profound and compassionate human being who was completely devoted to his students. I can tell you that the independent organization that was hired to receive and help his sangha respond to complaints of harm have reported very few reliable complaints in more than a year. The “great sadness for the Dharma come West” isn’t the imagined predation of Sasaki Roshi, it’s the Online Lynching carried out by some members of the American Zen establishment. I have neither the time nor the inclination to engage in an extended debate with any of you about this. My engagement ends with this message, which I hope will begin to correct the incredible harm to this man’s reputation and to the community of practitioners who have devoted their lives to manifesting his teachings, a harm that has been created by this unending scandal mongering.

  • Josh Baran
  • Josh Baran

    I also posted this on the Tricycle website:

    1981. Los Angeles. A woman comes to see me with her boyfriend. She is clearly anxious, distraught. At that time, I am running a support group for people who had left various spiritual groups and gurus called SORTING IT OUT.. I had been a Zen monk and priest for seven years, received dharma transmission, but my teacher and organization became increasingly cultic and brutally authoritarian over the years, so I walked out, for my own sake and for the sake of others. I could not continue to stand by while people were being emotionally abused for no good reason. So I am in LA for a week, and this woman comes for support.

    She tells me that she attended her first sesshin (retreat) at Mt. Baldy Zen Center with Sasaki Roshi a few weeks earlier. I knew Sasaki -had visited his zendos and spent time with him privately some years before and actually knew some of his senior students.

    She told me that the sesshin was one of the worst experiences of her life. What happened?, I asked.

    Well, she said, everything was fine for the first few days – the lectures in the zendo, going to sanzen (private interviews) with Sasaki was powerful.. But in the middle of the sesshin, she went to sanzen. After she made her three bows to Sasaki, he asked her to come closer to him. As he talked to her about her meditation and koan, he suddenly grabbed her, in a kind of hug and then put his hands down her underwear and began to fondle her breasts and vagina.

    Frankly, this was the first I had heard about this kind of behavior. In the sanzen room!!! To be honest, I was shocked. Truly. What did you do? I asked her.

    She said, at first, I was paralyzed, frozen, confused. I couldn’t believe this was happening. He was the Zen master, after all. He was like a living Buddha, she said, so I was in awe of him, so my mind went numb.. But after ten or fifteen seconds,she said, I came to my senses. I said to him, STOP IT. NO. STOP. STOP TOUCHING ME. But he kept touching me. He wasn’t going to stop.So I pushed him away as hard as i could, but he still came at me, so I slapped him as hard as I could and spit in his face. I then jumped up and ran out of the room.

    Then what happened? I asked.

    I ran out of the sanzen room – and I bumped into a few of his senior monks outside. At that point, I was agitated and crying and angry. They asked me, what’s going on? So I told them. Roshi molested me!!! He grabbed me and put his hands all over me!!!!

    And a senior monk – well, he kind of laughed or giggled…. dismissing my reaction and feelings completely and he said, “Oh, that’s just Roshi. He does that to all the women.”


    She then said to me, this was so wrong. Total bullshit. So I instantly ran to my room, threw all my stuff into my bag, jumped into my car and got the hell out of there. I wanted nothing more to do with Sasaki, his monks or Zen.

    Honestly, i had heard many cases of gurus and teachers abusing their students, but for this seduction to take place in the sanzen room, as part of Rinzai koan practice – “Show me your tits” — was truly disturbing, so completely wrong and harmful and bizarre. and that phrase burned into my mind: ROSHI DOES THIS TO ALL THE WOMEN.

    As I remember, we talked for probably another 30 minutes to an hour about what had happened. This was sexual harassment at best and could be considered rape, but she didn’t want to go the police or file a lawsuit. She wanted to be done with Sasaki and Zen and Buddhism.

    So for women, most or many of them, studying with Sasaki, doing koan practice with him (which is essential in Rinzai Zen – you can’t meditate on your own in this tradition) included sexual servicing, allowing yourself to be groped and violated and sexualized. That was the price. That’s what this osho said – HE DOES THIS TO ALL THE WOMEN.

    I heard more stories some years later. And the price for the men was to allow it to happen, to turn a blind eye, to be complicit in this degradation of women. Degradation is the right word. Anything can be justified and rationalized.

    This was over 30 years ago. How long was it going on before that? 5 years, 10 years, 20 years? And how long did it continue? We are not talking about a few isolated incidents. And clearly, many of his senior monks / oshos / devotees knew what was going on. They saw it. And they lived with it, one way or another. Well, the men weren’t fondled or molested, so it was fine for them – at least physically. This is called complicity. It is called deliberate institutional blindness. it is harm. It is ethically corrupt. It is totally, absolutely contrary to
    all the teachings of Buddhism. It stinks.

    There is a kind of Zen that evolved in the last three hundred of more years in Japan that is mostly not Buddhism – the Imperial / samurai / way of the sword form where compassion and empathy are mostly irrelevant… and blind absolute devotion to the “master” is the highest goal – loyalty, single-minded thoughtless obedience. Not dharma. It is not mindfulness, it is mind-less-ness. Don’t think. Don’t feel…. just act. Just do as you are told. And if you resist or argue or challenge or think, you are vilified as being negative, attached, ego-driven, dualistic. And women, for some old school “masters,” well the women are there to provide a certain service.

    America is not feudal Japan or the Holy Roman Empire. Here, religious leaders, organizations are accountable. They are subject to laws. Sexual harassment is against the law. Rape is a crime, not a right of some lord or master. And now, we can more openly talk about these issues, not just suppress them or live in denial. Women have equal rights.. Oh, and then there’s karma, but that’s another discussion.

    OK. Sasaki might have been skilled at giving Zen lectures and at koan practice – at least with the men – but that is one side of this complex picture. I don’t deny it. But the other side is spiritual malpractice.Sasaki’s behavior and the complicit behavior of his students was harmful on many levels.

    And if a CEO or even a manager at your local Starbucks groped an employee – guest what, he would be fired on the spot and the company sued – just for that one incident. Maybe it’s time to fire some “masters” and not wait 50 years until they die before speaking out. There is nothing skillful about sexual harassment – this is not some dharma teaching. No Zen. It is what it appears to be.

  • Josh Baran
  • Jason Argos

    This is amazing I was under the impression that all Japanese Zen Buddhists were totally Homosexual!