[Marxism] Zen Boobism
lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Feb 14 07:41:23 MST 2013
Los Angeles is traditionally where factoids become fables and get passed
off as philosophy. The true mystical secret of Zen ideas in particular
is that they’re stupid. California is pretty stupid, too—which means
that warmed-over takeout Zen has done a good business there. Consider,
just for instance, the success of the Nichiren Shōshū sect: Its
promoters have melded simplistic Zen ideas with materialism, and
throughout the ’80s, suburban Angelenos gathered in living rooms, all
chanting for happiness and/or a new car. It worked, too: Lots of them
did eventually get new cars.
There is no LA without the transmutation of the great teachings of
history into bumper stickers. And, at the top of that society’s circle
of drivers, who, if not actors, will give us spiritual counsel?
Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman, both Buddhists, are extremely good
people, although only one of them has an Oscar. They have devoted
substantial effort to ending hunger. Glassman has pioneered the idea of
building functional businesses that employ the seemingly unemployable,
starting with a bakery in Yonkers—the profits from which went to create
They met, sure, in LA. “I met Bernie at a dinner thrown by a neighbor of
mine for him and Ram Dass,” says Bridges, and then much later Bernie
thought they should write a book about how Bridges’s character of the
Dude, from The Big Lebowski, was a very Buddhist fellow, and Jeff
Bridges was like, “OK, great,” and they “went up to my ranch in Montana”
and “jammed for five days” while some guy named Alan took photographs of
them and recorded their dialogue. Then Bernie’s wife dealt with the
transcripts. (So it has ever been.)
The result is The Dude and the Zen Master (Blue Rider Press, $27), a
book of “jamming” dialogue, a tremendously harmless, good-natured pile
of mindlessness. The good news is that it’s innocuous, unlike works
produced by many of the recent capitalist philosophers of Los Angeles,
the Louise Hays and the Marianne Williamsons.
The less good news is that it doesn’t really go anywhere. The Big
Lebowski is the only Coen brothers movie that I cannot watch and also
the only Julianne Moore movie I cannot watch. Those are two of my
favorite things—and yet, when this film starts, some sort of horror
creeps over me and I have to stop. This book may explain why.
As an item of pop-culture consumption, The Dude and the Zen Master is
mildly useful for the Jeff Bridges fan. He discusses working with Sidney
Lumet (he wasn’t afraid of rehearsals!) and Francis Ford Coppola (he
used improv!). His parents, Lloyd and Dorothy Bridges, were really quite
amazing. Burgess Meredith introduced him to John Lilly, “perhaps most
famous for his work with dolphins and interspecies communication, as
well as experimenting with LSD.” He “got into drugs.” Hal Ashby
infuriated producers because his scripts barely indicated the ideas he
was seeking to develop into feature-length films.
What else? Bridges sleeps naked. He’s spent nearly as much time with his
stand-in, Loyd Catlett, as he has with his wife—sixty films! He makes
little sculptures of human heads and gives them to people. When he met
his wife, she had a broken nose and two black eyes, and he was a
“pouting asshole” for the first three years of their marriage.
Then, as you read along, the metaphors under discussion start to hollow
out and magnify, as they would in a hallucination. The 1994 LA
earthquake, and how it shattered expectations. How chicks and their
mothers peck shells open from the inside and the outside at the same
time, allegedly. (“If you’re attuned enough, you can hear the pecking of
the universe saying, Peck peck peck peck peck, I want to be born!”)
Hotei (also known as Budai), the deity with his bag of tools, is like
Jonathan Winters wandering around a pharmacy. Solzhenitsyn. Wavy Gravy.
Richard Feynman. Clowns. Santa Claus. Camus. Hitler. Lenny Bruce. 9/11.
Primo Levi. The earth vibrates at 440 Hz. (It does no such thing.) The
tallest tree gets the most wind.
Bernie does an annual retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau. He also has
pioneered a performative variation of the notion of a meditation retreat
by taking to the streets without ID or money. “I always remember Robin
Williams, back when he was Mork, saying that reality is a concept,”
Bernie says. “Years ago I was watching TV and I heard these doctors talk
about rebirthing,” Jeff says. So he sat down with his mother and she
told him about his birth.
There are several pages—literally, many pages—that meditate on the song
“Row, Row, Row Your Boat” as a teaching.
You have to befriend the self—that’s another teaching. “You’ve got to
befriend the fact that Jeff can only do so much,” Bernie says to Jeff.
“He does what he does,” Jeff says. “And because he’s famous, he’s
overloaded by requests,” Bernie says.
At the end of the book, it’s like a long lost weekend in Los Angeles,
and you really do feel like you’ve gone out of your mind. Maybe that’s a
good thing—a Buddhist exercise in its own right?
“I remember meeting the artist Mayumi Oda at your Symposium for Western
Socially Engaged Buddhism,” Jeff says at one point. “I looked at her
gorgeous prints and asked her, ‘How do you do this?’ And her answer was,
‘It’s like I’m already dead.’” Yes! That is how I felt after finishing
NY Times February 11, 2013
Zen Groups Distressed by Accusations Against Teacher
By MARK OPPENHEIMER and IAN LOVETT
Since arriving in Los Angeles from Japan in 1962, the Buddhist teacher
Joshu Sasaki, who is 105 years old, has taught thousands of Americans at
his two Zen centers in the area and one in New Mexico. He has influenced
thousands more enlightenment seekers through a chain of some 30
affiliated Zen centers from the Puget Sound to Princeton to Berlin. And
he is known as a Buddhist teacher of Leonard Cohen, the poet and songwriter.
Mr. Sasaki has also, according to an investigation by an independent
council of Buddhist leaders, released in January, groped and sexually
harassed female students for decades, taking advantage of their loyalty
to a famously charismatic roshi, or master.
The allegations against Mr. Sasaki have upset and obsessed Zen Buddhists
across the country, who are part of a close-knit world in which many
participants seem to know, or at least know of, the principal teachers.
Mr. Sasaki did not respond to requests for interviews made through Paul
Karsten, a member of the board of Rinzai-ji, his main center in Los
Angeles. Mr. Karsten said that Mr. Sasaki’s senior priests are
conducting their own inquiry. And he cautioned that the independent
council took the accounts it heard from dozens of students at face value
and did not investigate any “for veracity.”
Because Mr. Sasaki has founded or sponsored so many Zen centers, and
because he has the prestige of having trained in Japan, the charges that
he behaved unethically — and that his supporters looked the other way —
have implications for an entire way of life.
Such charges have become more frequent in Zen Buddhism. Several other
teachers have been accused of misconduct recently, notably Eido Shimano,
who in 2010 was asked to resign from the Zen Studies Society in
Manhattan over allegations that he had sex with students. Critics and
victims have pointed to a Zen culture of secrecy, patriarchy and sexism,
and to the quasi-religious worship of the Zen master, who can easily
abuse his status.
Disaffected students wrote letters to the board of one of Mr. Sasaki’s
Zen centers as early as 1991. 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 SweepingZen.com, a popular Web site, that the wider
Zen world noticed.
Mr. Martin, now a Zen abbot in Victoria, British Columbia, accused Mr.
Sasaki of a “career of misconduct,” from “frequent and repeated
non-consensual groping of female students” to “sexually coercive
after-hours ‘tea’ meetings, to affairs,” as well as interfering in his
students’ marriages. Soon thereafter, the independent “witnessing
council” of noted Zen teachers began interviewing 25 current or former
students of Mr. Sasaki.
Some former students are now speaking out, including seven interviewed
for this article, and their stories provide insight into the culture of
Rinzai-ji and the other places where Mr. Sasaki taught. Women say they
were encouraged to believe that being touched by Mr. Sasaki was part of
their Zen training.
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.”
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.’ ”
When the report was posted to SweepingZen, Mr. Sasaki’s senior priests
wrote in a post that their group “has struggled with our teacher Joshu
Sasaki Roshi’s sexual misconduct for a significant portion of his career
in the United States” — their first such admission.
Among those who spoke to the council and for this article was Nikki
Stubbs, who now lives in Vancouver, and who studied and worked at Mount
Baldy, Mr. Sasaki’s Zen center 50 miles east of Los Angeles, from 2003
to 2006. 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?”
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.
A former student of Mr. Sasaki’s now living in the San Francisco area,
who asked that her name be withheld to protect her privacy, said that at
Mount Baldy in the late 1990s, “the monks confronted Roshi and said,
‘This behavior is unacceptable and has to stop.’ ” However, she said,
“nothing changed.” After a time, Mr. Sasaki used Zen teaching to justify
touching her, too.
“He would say something like, ‘True love is giving yourself to
everything,’ ” she explained. At Mount Baldy, the isolation could hamper
one’s judgment. “It can sound trite, but you’re in this extreme state of
consciousness,” she said — living at a monastery in the mountains,
sitting in silence for many hours a day — “where boundaries fall away.”
Joe Marinello is a Zen teacher in Seattle who served on the board of the
Zen Studies Society in New York. He has been openly critical of Mr.
Shimano, the former abbot who was asked to resign from the society.
Asked about teachers who say that sexual touch is an appropriate
teaching technique, he was dismissive.
“In my opinion,” Mr. Marinello said in an e-mail, “it’s just their
cultural and personal distortion to justify their predations.”
But in Zen Buddhism, students often overlook their teachers’ failings,
participants say. Some Buddhists define their philosophy in contrast to
Western religion: Buddhism, they believe, does not have Christian-style
preoccupations about things like sex. And Zen exalts the relationship
between a student and a teacher, who can come to seem irreplaceable.
“Outside the sexual things that happened,” the woman now in San
Francisco said, “my relationship with him was one of the most important
I have had with anyone.”
Several women said that Zen can foster an atmosphere of overt sexism.
Jessica Kramer, a doula in Los Angeles, was Mr. Sasaki’s personal
attendant in 2002. She said that he would reach into her robe and that
she always resisted his advances. Surrounded almost entirely by men, she
said she got very little sympathy. “I’d talk about it with people who’d
say, ‘Why not just let him touch your breasts if he wants to touch your
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.
In 1992, Ms. Stewart’s husband disaffiliated himself and his North
Carolina Zen Center from Mr. Sasaki. Years later, his wife said, he
received hate mail from members of his old Zen group.
The witnessing council, which wrote the report, has no official
authority. Its members belong to the American Zen Teachers Association
but collected stories on their own initiative, although with a statement
of support from 45 other teachers and priests. One of its authors, Grace
Schireson, said that Zen Buddhists in the United States have
misinterpreted a Japanese philosophy.
“Because of their long history with Zen practice, people in Japan have
some skepticism about priests,” Ms. Schireson said. But in the United
States many proponents have a “devotion to the guru or the teacher in a
way that could repress our common sense and emotional intelligence.”
Last Thursday morning, at Rinzai-ji on Cimarron Street in Los Angeles,
Bob Mammoser, a resident monk, said that Mr. Sasaki’s “health is quite
frail” and that he has “basically withdrawn from any active teaching.”
Mr. Mammoser said there is talk of a meeting at the center to discuss
what, if any, action to take.
Mr. Mammoser said he first became aware of allegations against Mr.
Sasaki in the 1980s. “There have been efforts in the past to address
this with him,” Mr. Mammoser said. “Basically, they haven’t been able to
He added: “What’s important and is overlooked is that, besides this
aspect, Roshi was a commanding and inspiring figure using Buddhist
practice to help thousands find more peace, clarity and happiness in
their own lives. It seems to be the kind of thing that, you get the
person as a whole, good and bad, just like you marry somebody and you
get their strengths and wonderful qualities as well as their weaknesses.”
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