THE BLOG

The Zen Master, the Pope and the Suppression of Dissent

02/22/2013 02:08 pm ET | Updated Apr 24, 2013

Accusations that one of the most powerful American Zen Buddhist figures of the past half-century has sexually harassed, groped and bullied hundreds of female students have unleashed outrage in the Buddhist community.

The allegations against 105-year-old Joshu Sasaki Roshi -- contained in an investigative report from a group of respected Buddhist leaders -- have also produced a troubling counter-narrative: that Roshi has done so much good for his students that his abusive behavior is just a "flaw." One mucky muck monk, who claims to have known of Sasaki's serial misconduct for more than 20 years, told the New York Times, "It's like when you marry somebody and you get their strengths and wonderful qualities as well as their weaknesses."

As Seth Meyers likes to say on SNL's Weekend Update, "Really?"

Sasaki's teachings have been central to the lives of thousands of budding Buddhists at his three American Zen centers and have reached many thousands more at affiliated locations around the world.

Among the women who say that Roshi has profoundly enhanced their lives is a friend who was appalled by his groping, yet recognizes what she calls his immense capacity for compassion as well as his compulsive behavior. His teachings inspired her but so did his actions, which seriously impacted her marriage. Today she wonders how he can be an enlightened religious leader while stubbornly continuing to abuse female students.

My friend is doing fine. But what about those who came to Roshi for guidance having already been traumatized by sex abuse in their formative years? What about students with serious mental problems?

Some spiritual leaders (Roshi apparently among them) believe the world is divided into enlightened and unenlightened beings -- with the former transcending such earthly concerns as cause and effect. They should ponder the Zen koan "Hyakujo's Fox," which focuses on the delusion that enlightenment removes personal responsibility for the consequences of one's behavior. The Buddha taught that even when our intention is pure-hearted, we should examine the results of our actions to see whether harm ensues, even months or years later.

Sasaki seems to have gone to absurd lengths to manipulate his victims. He reportedly pressured some women to show him their breasts as a function of answering a Zen koan. In other cases, he's said to have groped women "to demonstrate non-attachment" and to "check a woman's overly strong ego."

No scandal can negate the wisdom of Buddhism or the scientifically demonstrated benefits of Buddhist meditation. The challenge is to remain mindful that the Buddha, who wasn't a Buddhist, was opposed to idealizing adoration. He wanted his community to love the teachings -- not the teacher.

The Roshi scandal reached critical mass just as Pope Benedict XVI, who supervised the cover-up of systematic child molestation by Catholic priests, became the first pontiff to abdicate since the Middle Ages. Alex Gibney, the Oscar-winning documentarian whose "Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God" is currently airing on HBO, told Jon Wiener on KPFK that the Pope is "the most knowledgeable person in the world about priests abusing children," and that he looked the other way when "every report of sex abuse starting in 2001 came to his office."

For a demonstration of how the powerful -- from politicians like Herman Cain to football coaches like the late Joe Paterno -- seek to suppress unpleasant truths about corruption, listen to Republican big-wig Vin Weber's twisting of Bob Scheer's comments about the Pope on KCRW's "Left, Right and Center."

Scheer was measured and decent in his assessment of the molestation scandal, noting that the Church is worthy of admiration for its defense of the powerless but that, in this case at least, the actions of some of its highest-ranking officials has been "wicked." Weber baited Scheer by substituting "evil" for "wicked," but Scheer calmly and convincingly defended the use of "evil" to describe the abuse and its cover up. Weber, a Catholic who attended the conversion to Catholicism of serial adulterer Newt Gingrich, went on to (mercilessly!) mischaracterize Scheer's remarks as "hateful" and "anti-Catholic bigotry." (Hat tip to Wendy Block.)

Roshi is in poor health and may pass away before being held accountable for his actions. Herman Cain has a lucrative gig as a commentator on Fox News. Joe Paterno's wife Sue went on TV to insist that her husband did nothing wrong. The pope will be given full immunity from prosecution after he steps down. Shades of Gerald Ford's full pardon of Richard "If the President does it, that means it's not illegal" Nixon.

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