Zen and the Emotional/Sexual Contraction

On Thanksgiving Week of 2012, one of his former students revealed in an internet message that Joshu Saskai Roshi, the venerable 105 year old founder and Zen Master of Rinzai-ji (a prominent Zen Buddhist Community in America), had been involved in extensive sexual misconduct with his female students. This particular Japanese monk has been most popularly known as the teacher of the famous singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. He arrived in California from Japan half a century ago, and proceeded to establish many Zen Buddhist practice centers across the country.

Roshi

I was a student of Sasaki Roshi from 1971-1974, first at his Los Angeles center, and later at Mt. Baldy, where I lived as one of about a dozen permanent residents for over 2 years. About half were male and the other half female. I have written something about my experiences elsewhere in my blogs (for example here ).

When I arrived at Mt. Baldy, I realized that the monastic Abbess also served as Roshi’s mistress. Soon after my arrival, they apparently had a falling-out due to Roshi’s sexual exploits with another female student. I was to learn that Roshi was quite the horny old fellow, and that sanzen for many female students consisted of a lot of fondling and sex play. Moreover, several of the students were also sexually active with each other, so it came as no surprise that, when one person contracted a sexually transmitted disease, some of the other students eventually got it. It was even suggested that it had started with Roshi.

One time in sanzen (formal interview of teacher and student), Roshi took a good look at me and remarked, “Zen is not the way of the saint.” I guess he was seeing my rather eccentric upbringing — I was raised as a Catholic, and had spent 7 years in a Catholic Seminary studying to be a priest. In any case, he told me that I should read “dirty books”. He said he enjoyed them (pornography). I felt that was fine for him, but I was not attracted to that pursuit. He told me that I wanted to attach to the Absolute, but needed to first totally throw myself into the objective world, which included sexuality. I understood his point.

Most so-called spiritual practitioners don’t ever inspect, much less resolve, the emotional/sexual contraction at the core of their psychological make-up, and so tend as a rule to indulge the classic “spiritual by-pass”, which is a form of avoidance and even a strategic denial of a critical aspect of human development. Roshi told me that, when the monks were out on Takuhatsu (food begging) back at his Japanese monastery, they carried a stone under their robes with which they would hit their penises when they saw women and began to get aroused. So much for dealing with their sexuality.

Over the course of many decades since my time with Roshi, I have witnessed the same scenes played out ad nauseam in Dharma centers, ashrams, and temples across America, and yet rarely has anyone really addressed the core contraction. Rather, they either look the other way, or wring their hands and talk about oversight committees and so forth — all totally beside the point.

What’s clear and apparent is this: the “spiritual” practice itself, even most if not all religion itself (both esoteric and exoteric) as it is practiced today, has become one big exercise in misdirection. When it comes to sexuality, it represents nothing but a habitual form of avoidance, played out on a cultural and institutional level for centuries. However, there is no enlightenment, no liberation, salvation, redemption, or transcendence outside of the way we behave right here, in the very midst of this life, which includes sexuality at the very core of who and what we are as human beings.

Until that is really seen, understood, and integrated, then folks will continue to encounter these apparent “scandals”, which are merely glaring symptoms of a fundamental flaw in the appreciation of the essential role of sexuality in human psychological development and social adaptation, and the consequent epidemic of chronic emotional/sexual contraction that plagues not only the spiritual aspirant, but just about every human walking the earth today who has been influenced by the corruption that most take to be their “religion”.

How many more “Sex Scandals” in the Buddhist community, for example, is it going to take before its adherents wake up and recognize that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way their Religion is taught and practiced, all throughout the various sects? The Tibetan and Zen schools get the most attention of course, since they seem to dominate the spiritual landscape when it comes to Buddhism (and sexual peccadillos) here in the West, but Buddhism itself has never truly come to terms with the whole subject of sexuality, and so it is no wonder these sorts of issues will perpetually make the news. We’ve also come to learn that, for each reported sexual “misconduct” incident, there are typically a dozen or more that go unreported, so it is probably safe to say that we are talking about more than just a few errant fellows with over-active testosterone and unresolved power complexes.

Rather than really bothering to look beyond the symptoms and go to the root of the festering disease, each successive scandal usually ends up with a righteous mob ad hominem attack on the perpetrator du jour, followed by more talk about committees and regulations and so forth (not unlike the talk about handgun controls after each mass shooting that pops up almost weekly now in the new Wild West). Sure, what we need is more government!

Really, how many so-called Zen Masters and Rinpoches will need to be “outed” before it is recognized that the problem is with the institutional teaching of Buddhism itself (not unlike the fact that the problem with the Catholic Predator-Priest Scandals is overwhelmingly generated by the Catholic religion’s attitudes and teachings about sexuality in the first place)?

Let’s look at Zen Buddhist practice, since that seems to be where the action is these days on the scandal front. This so-called Zen School (whether Rinzai, Soto, or Korean) talks a lot about taming the mind and mastering the gut (or hara), but rarely if ever deals with the heart (except perhaps in some vague terms regarding “Bodhisattvic compassion” — an idealism based on a confused notion of “saving all beings”, even though their scriptures paradoxically note that there is not even a single being to save. See here ).

In any case, this practice, with few exceptions, attempts to bypass the heart, because it is confused by and even fearful of what lurks there (the emotional/sexual contraction), so instead it by-passes it, in pursuit of a conceptual ideal of enlightenment, where emotions themselves are commonly shrugged off as something akin to delusional poisons.

Ironically, for all its talk about no-self, the Zen that I have observed (over 4 decades) seems to be one of the more self-preoccupied and often down-right selfish practices currently being pursued in the so-called “spiritual” scene here in the West. It is no wonder that the implications of such selfishness would yield the non-stop onslaught of sexual scandals we witness (not to mention what goes publicly unreported). What all of that clearly demonstrates is an absence of any emphasis on awakening at the heart, and yet without such an awakening, all the rest is, to borrow a phrase, “clanging bells”.

The chronic emotional/sexual contraction that plagues just about every human being — the habitual twisting, suppression, and corruption of the primal motive to love and be loved — is spawned at the heart, and hence it will be only at the heart that it can be understood, seen through, healed, and released. Try as one might, there will be no true healing by (mis)directing attention away from it, to the head or gut — there is a whole midsection of the being that needs attention too, and often even more so than the head or gut. The heart will simply not be denied, and if you ignore that plain and obvious fact, Dear Roshi, you may find yourself in bed with disciples who are all too ready to pen their “tell-all” memoir as soon as the affair ends, (not to mention the many shattered victims that may be left in the wake of your failure to grow up and integrate your sexuality into a mature level of social and personal adaptation).

When the meditation aspirant emerges from their heady samadhi, they still must attend to the heart. When the samurai emerges from their sword play, they still must contend with their heart. However, because the heart is so little understood (and even threatening), they would just as soon avoid it (both the meditator and the martial artist), and hence we end up with both the big names (as well as plenty of little ones) in the Zen game here in the West periodically dragged through the same mud, along with their compatriots the Tibetan Rinpoches, the Neo-Advaitins, and the various Gurus and Swamis that regularly wander over from the East, ill-prepared as lambs to the slaughter for the sexual Disneyland of modern America awaiting here to test, bedazzle, and humble them. It is a failure of character, a failure of integrity, which in essence is a failure of heart.

Remember, one cannot transcend what one has never truly understood and resolved in their own direct life experience. This is precisely why we get brilliant (and sometimes not so brilliant) teachers and religious figures who are nevertheless brought down over and over again by their failure to inspect and heal the knot at their hearts, which in turn manifests in all sorts of pathological ways to the detriment of both themselves, their students, and the Dharma (teaching) they are attempting to transmit.

“There is only one book worth reading — the heart.”

~Ajahn Chan

Some Further Related Writings:

http://theconsciousprocess.wordpress.com/2012/11/26/the-myth-of-enlightenment/

http://theconsciousprocess.wordpress.com/2012/09/26/the-game-of-rejection/

http://theconsciousprocess.wordpress.com/2012/09/26/mind-character-will/

http://theconsciousprocess.wordpress.com/2012/10/11/the-sense-of-lack-and-the-master-game/

About Bob OHearn

My name is Bob O'Hearn, and I live with my Beloved Mate, Mazie, and our lazy dog, Amos, in a lovely little mountain town called Paradise, situated on the ridge of the Little Grand Canyon, in the Northern California Sierra Nevadas. I have 6 sites you may enjoy: Photo Gallery: http://www.pbase.com/1heart Essays on the Conscious Process: http://theconsciousprocess.wordpress.com/ Poetry and Prosetry: http://feelingtoinfinity.wordpress.com/ Transliterations: http://freetransliterations1.blogspot.com/ Love Poems and Duets with Mazie: http://lovesight.wordpress.com/ Autobiographical Fragments, Stories, and Fables: http://travelsindreamland.wordpress.com/ Thank You!
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25 Responses to Zen and the Emotional/Sexual Contraction

  1. Christopher says:

    You raise many excellent points. Thank you Bob. There’s a related discussion going on right now over at ZF (with links to your essay).

    The Omerta of Joshu Sasaki Roshi – Another Zen scandal
    http://zenforuminternational.org/viewtopic.php?f=64&t=8951

  2. Hiya Chris!

    My purpose was to bring the often over-looked issue of “spiritual bypass” to the attention of those involved in this ongoing consideration, and in doing so, to provide some fuel for the fire of inquiry into the heart of our behavior and relations, and indeed into our own core contraction around the emotional/sexual element of human adaptation and development. I feel such an inspection can be a lot more productive than the typical condemnations and so forth, especially keeping in mind Don Juan’s pertinent observation:

    “Self-importance is our greatest enemy. Think about it – what weakens us is feeling offended by the deeds and misdeeds of our fellow men. Our self-importance requires that we spend most of our lives offended by someone.”

    Blessings!

  3. Back in the day, I remember questioning a senior monk about Roshi’s shennanigans, and he told me that it was not possible from my un-enlightened little discursive mind to comprehend what an advanced being like Roshi was up to. This never quite made sense to me. I was to often hear similar rationales from various followers of this or that Guru, Swami, Master, or Rinpoche over the years, and I could see how folks can so easily get hoodwinked in the spiritual game, especially the more naive aspirants. Now, some might say that getting fooled was exactly what they needed. There all sorts of opinions floating around, all sorts of ways to attribute guilt or glory, and in the end, all sorts of ways to avoid taking responsibility for oneself. When we begin to take responsibility for ourselves, the whole game begins to become obsolete, and that includes reliance on someone else to lead us by the hand, the nose, or the genitals to the recognition of who and what we truly are.

  4. marcel says:

    the darkness of ignorance is beyond its own perception
    Plus let us not forget that your random (enter religion) insitution has no knowledge of the Direct Path, free of the drug they are not.

    But let us continue killing all spontaneous ‘new’ seekers by telling them GO FIND A TEACHER and be done with it.
    Just make a contribution and you’ll get a better seat.
    :whistle

  5. marcel says:

    You declared: ‘Consciousness of reality and consciousness of the things around us do not exist apart from that reality.’ Praise be to you!
    ‘Therefore, the place where everything exists is the Heart.’ This you declared. Praise be to you!
    You declared: ‘Since those who have [truly] seen see nothing other than their own Self, thinking [of something other than the Self] is inconsistent [with that state].’ Praise be to you!
    You declared: ‘Unless one reaches the throne of the Heart, it is impossible to see the brilliant light of reality.’ Praise be to you!
    ~Upadesa Tiruvahaval

    • “As long as I am sober
      and keep talking about
      good and bad
      I’m missing
      the most important event –
      seeing your face

      I must be a moron
      missing this life
      if I don’t cast my mind
      in the fire of your love”

      ~Rumi

  6. marcel says:

    Jai to the Heart Love Lives, Brother!

    • I’ve been drunk for as long as I remember, though it’s not from any wine that’s crushed from grapes. I stagger through these flickering realms, dreamy realms of time’s unraveling, clouds and sun alternating, unnoticed, unbidden. There is no impediment for the mayflies swarming around my dizziness, drunk as I am, drunk as they are on the intoxication of this Mystery.

      You might ask a question now for which I have no answer. Whoever I think I am – whatever I thought I was – that’s what disappears. It is not happy, not sad. There is a fine line where the sky seems to touch the ocean. Though it appears to be a line, there really is no line.

      This doesn’t belong to anyone, it doesn’t occur to anyone. This Love floods out of nowhere, sweeping the little leaves of belief and identity in a current of cool forgetfulness, a gentle drowning in the swirling fluidity of Love’s own watery simplicity.

      Like melting snow in Spring’s warming streams, the fascination with any destiny dissolves in the flow – timed to a perfection beyond mind’s comprehension. In the letting go, something approaches a transparency. The closer to the souce it hums, the more transparent it becomes.

      That dreamy sense of independence, the perfume of some separate self-sense, sifts, wafts, and weaves within the full embrace of awareness, of limitless space – changing perpetually, in harmony with ordinary circumstance, like white clouds vanishing in an endlessness of blue.

      The need for any sort of meaning drops away in the bliss of remembrance, remembrance prior to the arising of anything at all, of any being, bird, or blessedness. The search for Tao is consumed by the Tao that cannot be sought, cannot be lost.

      Here is where we always meet, in this boundless silence — here is where this Love is real.

  7. Brian says:

    Thank you Bob for not being a Lemming and shouting your outrage and your disbelief at this latest report of spiritual teacher-student abuse. If the reports are true, and they probably are given the extent of the reports, then Sasaki’s behavior is a blatant abuse of the power imbalance inherent in this type of relationship. And although it does not negate his Enlightenment, it certainly does represent an immaturity in certain aspects of his awakening.

    I find that your article is a ‘voice in the wilderness’ quietly attempting to rise above the ‘clanging of bells’ as you put it. By bringing our attention to the ‘spiritual by-pass’ of ignoring or even denigrating the emotions and the heart center, you have shone the light of truth on a very important, and mostly overlooked aspect of Awakening.

    You mention that the Zen tradition and other similar Eastern traditions (Tibetan, Advaita, etc.) focus on the head or the gut as the primary doorway to awakening. I agree wholeheartedly. In fact, these traditions, and others like them, ignore the heart at their own spiritual peril. The truth is that all three centers must ‘open’ for the awakening to be complete and balanced.

    When one or more of these three centers is ignored or by-passed the resulting imbalance becomes clear in the behavior. From what I have read and heard, Sasaki Roshi is a deeply enlightened being – but his awakening, as profound as it may be, is limited, by the sounds of the reports, to the head and the gut. The nature of his sexual misconduct reminds one of adolescent behavior; except for the obvious and very harmful power imbalance.

    I believe it is also important to understand that if one focuses only on the heart center that imbalance is the result there as well; just as it is with any of the three. Any of us who have been around the ‘game’ for any length of time have had our encounters with the Bhakti or devotional types (bliss bunnies as they are sometimes known) that focus entirely on the heart to the detriment of the development of the other centers. The Buddha taught the middle way, did he not? Wouldn’t a balanced approach to clearing and awakening all three centers be a middle way?

    The shift that is needed in all of these traditions, I believe, is to see, and understand, and integrate, and teach that all three centers must be cleared of the conditioning that makes us prisoners to the baser aspects of these three channels to self-knowledge. They each wind their way from the base to the sublime; none can be ignored. When a balanced approach is engaged, the head leads us to Wisdom and Nothingness; the gut leads us to Infinite Beingness & Existence; and the Heart leads us to Love, Everything, and Unity. But in the end none of these are separate: SatChitAnanda!

    Thank you so much for your words of wisdom, Bob. Definitely a much needed and balanced view of this very important topic.

    Blessing to all!

    • So very well said, my Friend, and Thank you for your comments! It is encouraging to see that folks are waking up to the need for the kind of balance you are pointing to! Given that dawning realization, perhaps we can see the true blessing inherent in this current test, especially if it leads to a deeper recognition of the need to liberate all aspects of this human adventure, leaving none uninspected and un-integrated!

      Bowing in Gratitude!

  8. nomind says:

    A heart knot.

    So pleasing in it’s simplicity, by design?

  9. Dianne says:

    Thank you. Keep it simple as they say. Buddha mind to me has always meant inviting the essence of our true nature to blossom. And where does it blossom? In the groin? In the Head? In my experience it blossoms in the heart and radiates out as love, understanding, compassion (because it recognizes itself everywhere) courage, truth, true strength. No matter what your spiritual practice, if this isn’t the result then to paraphrase a quote I read somewhere…you become nothing more than a donkey with books on its back.

    • “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal.” ~1 Corinthians 13:1

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Dianne!

      An additional thought that has occured to me in regard to the fairly relentless cavalcade of scandals that have plagued religious communities everywhere is that these events may actually be harbingers of the demise of the traditional Guru (or special Intermediary between human and “Divine”) model of spiritual pursuit, which itself is a concept rife with opportunities for misdirection and harm.

      The whole paradigm of the unchallenged Spiritual Authority/parent figure at the center of the religious institution, dominating by whim and fiat, myth and manipulation, represents an increasingly obsolete system.

      We may in fact be at a turning point, or level of communal maturation, in which the student/aspirant begins to take responsibility for their own spiritual welfare, without dependence on borrowed beliefs and cultural accretions.

      This does not mean that there is no further need of advanced practitioners who can help to guide newer ones along the path, but more that the days of the unquestioned and omnipotent “master/prophet/parental deity figure” have passed. We shall see.

      Blessings!

  10. rahkyt says:

    An amazing write and so true … the heart of sexuality remains one of the utmost tests of our lives and the crucible of each religion and path …

    • Indeed, Brother — Buddha himself is reported to have said that, if he had to face another challenge as daunting as sexuality, he would never have attained his Awakening. I personally feel that it will be be quite some time before we as a species are able to completely appreciate the full scope of sexuality’s significance, beyond its purely instinctual and reproductive elements.

      Blessings!

      • rahkyt says:

        I think that was the key, when Buddha faced Mara’s daughters, as Jesus sat on the cliff in the desert and Satan offered him the world, including women. Making that choice to forgo the sexual urge and channeling that energy in another direction is a choice to achieve a particular type of enlightenment as we have come to know it. For those who do not sublimate the sexual urge who have also achieved a form of enlightenment, that is a choice arising from the realization that there is no goal, so there is no wrong or right, no rush, no need to deny what the body and mind apparently still choose to need or want. As i replied in your other post, a game. I think of Osho particularly when I say this.

  11. Yes, as in all matters of desire and aversion, the issue is not so much with the nature of the constituent elements, such as the sexual urge and its satisfaction, but with the mind’s habitual tendency towards fixation of identity on the cycle, which thereby reinforces the sense of self, and in this way suffering is perpetuated, othewise known as “the wheel of birth and death”.

    Blessings!

  12. mystic1muse says:

    Often, even those who have gone quite a ways on a path of enlightenment are still more than human enough to fall into error where sex is concerned. The path of light does not make many sudden saints and people often put teachers on pedestals that are too high for them. And also its not clearly understood that a spiritual path can be a very high energy path and where reediness is not complete it generates compilations: spiritual energy is like sunlight a garden from which weeds as well as flowers can grow.
    http://mystic1muse.wordpress.com/

  13. mystic1muse says:

    “Spiritual energy is like sunlight in a garden from which weeds as well as flowers can grow.”
    So many unprepared gardens.

    http://mystic1muse.wordpress.com/

    • Bob OHearn says:

      Good point, and a further complication entails the student gardeners not being able to discriminate between the weeds and the flowers when they are blinded by the light.

  14. Bob OHearn says:

    “Of course I must add that I too, along with probably everyone else affiliated with any Zen center ever associated with these deep narcissists, were at one time or other “brainwashed” by the dysfunctional guru atmosphere. I remember well the time Joshu Sasaki visited Seattle and the two times Eido Shimano visited Seattle, how the sangha bowed, swept paths, poured fresh water before their entrance, spared no expense or extravagance and generally greeted and treated these men like visiting royalty. Why? Was it because on some level we are all so hungry for somebody to know the “truth” and for someone with authority to tell us what it is? Were we all looking for a better father or king to lead and rule with knowledge of all the hidden secrets? Perhaps. How odd when one of the greatest gifts of Zen practice leads us to the inexorable conclusion that we cannot know what IT is.

    At best we can point at the mystery and wonder of what cannot be known as it manifests as all of THIS. Therefore Zen teachers have nothing to teach, and can only be the blind leading the blind. In Rinzai Zen training we come to experience, if but briefly, “The True Person Beyond Rank and Post” who has no attachment to ego identity and is “That One Shining Alone” that is sometimes seen and sometimes not seen going in and out of our face and eyes. How these men used and abused their own confidence in these simple truths for their own selfish interests and we either failed to see, overlooked, or made excuses for them. This sounds like a cult to me.

    As I see it, we must strive to drive the guru out of Zen practice and training. Gurus and Masters are antithetical to Zen. Aren’t we told to metaphorically kill the Buddhas and Ancestors? Let’s truly be ordinary, admit we don’t know anything, nothing is transmitted, the lineages are mythology, all the pomp and ceremony are at best just props and leadership serves only to call us to investigate the unknowable. I tell my “students” I have no students, come and go as you please, we are all followers of the Way, all we really need to know we already have: wake up to the fact that we are the universe aware of itself and therefore are blessed with a caring heart for all “creatures” great and small, animate and inanimate. In this time of celebration: rejoice, death has no sting; exhaust yourself completely, for this life is brief.”

    ~Genjo Marinello, Abbot of Dai Bai Zan Cho Bo Zen Ji (Chobo-Ji) temple, Seattle, USA; psychotherapist and certificated spiritual director

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