[Marxism] Zen Boobism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Feb 14 07:41:23 MST 2013

Feb/Mar 2013
Blissed Out
Choire Sicha

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 
this book.


NY Times February 11, 2013
Zen Groups Distressed by Accusations Against Teacher

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 
breasts?’ ”

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 
go anywhere.”

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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