Sexual abuse allegations give pause to US Buddhist community

A Buddhist temple in Los Angeles, California. An estimated 40 percent of all American Buddhists live in Southern California.
David McNew

Los Angeles-based Zen master Joshu Sasaki, now 105 years old, allegedly "groped and sexually harassed female students for decades, taking advantage of their loyalty to a famously charismatic roshi, or master," reported the New York Times on Monday.

For many of the hundreds of victims, the meaning of Sasaki's alleged actions — which in some cases included molestation and rape — was blurred by the intensity, focus and intimacy of the training, cloaked in Zen koans and declarations of universal truth.

“He would say something like, ‘True love is giving yourself to everything,'" recalled one of Sasaki's accusers. “It can sound trite, but you’re in this extreme state of consciousness … where boundaries fall away.”

The charges against Sasaki are among an increasing number of sexual misconduct allegations against Buddhist teachers — some consensual and some not — coming to light in recent years despite a culture of silence that has typically permeated Buddhist communities in the United States and around the world. The US is the top destination in the world for Buddhist immigrants, according to the Pew Research Center, and is the home of between 1 million and as many as 6 million Buddhists. About half are white, US-born converts to the tradition.

As the nightmarish priest pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church and the child sex abuse scandal in the US Hasidic Jewish community has demonstrated, the imbalance of power between clergy and those they mentor can enable abuse, then make it extremely difficult for victims to find justice or peace.

"Teachers and sanghas can sit on allegations for years, hoping that they will never see the light of day," wrote New York City-based Buddhist publication Tricycle last year. "As the victims of the abuse become pressured to keep things under wraps, the media—both Buddhist and mainstream—shy away from printing their stories, unable to publish accusations without a willing accuser."

The LA Times quoted a recent report issued by an independent council of Buddhist leaders that confirmed a vigilantly guarded curtain of silence.

"We see how, knowingly and unknowingly, the community was drawn into an open secret," the report read. "We have reports that those who chose to speak out were silenced, exiled, ridiculed or otherwise punished."

In July 2011, the Chicago Tribune published a national report on Theravada Buddhist monks accused of sexually assault of children in Illinois, Texas and California who were able to simply move away from their accusers.

Because they answer to no outside ecclesiastical authority, the temples respond to allegations as they see fit," the Tribune reported. "And because the monks are viewed as free agents, temples claim to have no way of controlling what they do next. Those found guilty of wrongdoing can pack a bag and move to another temple — much to the dismay of victims, law enforcement and other monks."

One of the men, Camnong Boa-Ubol, allegedly fathered a child with a 15-year-old girl in the Chicago area and was arrested in Alaska last year for extradition back to Chicago.

As the New York Times reported in 2010 when it followed the story of Eido Shimano, an elder spiritual teacher of the Zen Studies Society headquartered in Manhattan with a documented history of inappropriate relationships with students, the Buddhist relationship between teacher and student "has no obvious Western analogy" and the disciplinary procedure for professional impropriety often remains undefined.

Adam Tebbe, who runs a site called Sweeping Zen that has been reporting on teacher misconduct in the Buddhist community, was interviewed by Tricycle last year. His thoughts are powerful:

That whole line about Zen showing us that there is no good or bad is a bunch of malarkey really. That's the line people have depended on to carry out abuses and it has to stop. I believe we also have to stop making cultural excuses for these behaviors. We have to stop making excuses period. It's weak language. It's a way to sidestep the real issue—abuse, outright abuse.

It's moral relativism. It's nihilism.

It isn't Buddhism and it isn't Zen. As far as I'm concerned, Zen is brutal honesty. I think transparency is honesty's best friend. If there truly were no good or bad, there would be no need for bodhisattvas. There would be no precepts.