It Didn’t Happen To Me But It Did Happen: Sexual Abuse In The Buddhist Community Is Not A New Phenomenon

I wonder what would happen if the Western Buddhist community came completely clean and freely admitted to all the sexual harassment and abuse that has gone on for so many years.
Publish date:
March 20, 2013
religion, sexual abuse, buddhism

I’m 48, so I own a lot of books that, if they were people, would be old enough to drive, some books old enough to drink and, because of my love for secondhand bookstores, I even have a few books old enough to become president of the United States.

A recent article in The New York Times about a Zen Buddhist teacher sexually abusing and harassing many of his women students motivated me to search my bookcase for a tome that is halfway between getting its license and running in the Iowa caucuses: Sandy Boucher’s "Turning the Wheel."

The author, a practicing Buddhist, profiled other Buddhist women in the U.S. The book has a whole chapter on Zen and other Buddhist teachers who sexually abused and harassed women students. What took place 30 years ago, in different places with different players, is an exact replica of the more recent revelations (some of which stretch back 30 years). We are seeing not just the same scenarios but also the same excuses and recriminations.

A lot of women today who are really into the works of Pema Chödrön (whose married teacher was notorious for fucking his students ) or other American Buddhist teachers (some, but not all, of whom are monks or nuns, like Chödrön) don't expect (and don't know about) this aspect of Western Buddhism, because they think of Buddhism as a "pure" spiritual path. But Buddhism has the same problems that have sullied the Catholic Church, Evangelical churches and some Chassidic Jewish communities.

I haven’t sat regularly with any Buddhist group in years, though I have drifted in and out of groups in the past. Like a lot of other people (including Pema Chödrön), during the times when my life has been particularly difficult -- when I was dealing with a stalker from my old workplace, and, more recently, when I was divorcing my spouse -- I’ve rededicated myself to Buddhist practice. I haven’t experienced sexual harassment or abuse in this environment, but I see the unique position that Buddhist teachers are in, especially with their more vulnerable students.

Buddhism might have a lot of books on the New Age bestseller list these days, but unlike Hinduism and Islam, it doesn’t have a big, single Bible or Torah-like book for adherents to use as the Last Word On Everything. Instead, followers are encouraged to find a teacher who will supervise their spiritual growth. Papal infallibility is nothing compared to the authority Buddhist teachers have over their students.

Buddhist teaching, because it doesn’t rely on one text and emphasizes a non-intellectual approach to enlightenment, is whatever the teacher says it is. At the same time, the bond between student and teacher is much closer and more personal than the traditional role of a congregation to its priest, rabbi or minister. The relationship students have to their Buddhist teachers is like the relationship PhD candidates have to their advisors combined with the relationship clients have with their psychotherapists, mixed in with the relationship super fans have to their favorite rock stars.

A student (one who isn’t cranky and skeptical like I am) is constantly checking in, in private conversations, with the Buddhist teacher about the right path to enlightenment or about problems that arise when the student tries to sit in meditation.

If the PhD advisor tells an academic student she needs to rewrite her thesis to get her doctorate, she has to do so. If a Buddhist teacher recommends absurd-seeming or counterintuitive methods (which have a long, formal tradition in the sect of Buddhism the accused teacher in The New York Times article is part of) to help students, the students (in a perfect world) should trust the teacher enough to follow the advice.

The structure of Buddhist meditation retreats also provides a perfect window for abusers to prey on students. All serious students are strongly encouraged to go on retreat, which can last a day or up to a period of months. Buddhist retreats are silent except for bells, chants and instruction and even though I am an only child who loves solitude and quiet, I found being in a group of people without being able to talk to any of them so frustrating that I ducked out of a day-long retreat (my first) during the lunch break -- and haven’t attempted to go on another one since.

The people I’ve known who are more amenable to silent retreats have also mentioned how difficult they have found them. During this emotionally trying time, often in a remote area (one of the sites of abuse in the Times article is on top of a mountain) talking with the teacher (always in private, away from the other students) is the only chance a student has to verbally communicate with another human being.

Serial abusers like the teacher profiled in the New York Times article also have the ability to recognize and target someone who has already been victimized and who is ripe to be victimized again. I have never had so many strange, sleazy men slither up to me as the week after a bad bike accident -- before I healed -- when my face was a mess of stitches, swelling and bruises that looked like a walking public service announcement about domestic violence. Couple the abuser’s sixth sense with the isolation of students and we see how, year after year, this abuse continued.

The article mentions the teacher, Sasaki, exploiting his power over his students to a surreal degree: “Asking women to show him their breasts, as part of ‘answering a koan’ -- a Zen riddle -- or to demonstrate ‘non-attachment.’” The “show us your tits” path to enlightenment!

What outsiders might not understand is that these Buddhist groups adopt a mindset that not only is every activity a potential spiritual teaching (the traditional ones like eating, walking along with, apparently, less traditional ones like flashing and hand jobs) they also adopt the rationale that any objection to a beloved group or teacher’s methods is “anger” (a big no-no in Buddhism and the main reason I’ll always be, at best, a C student), “ego” or “attachment,” so they can easily dismiss their opposition.

The queer Buddhist group I sat with at the turn of the millennium was mostly men (a minus) but also mostly leaderless (a big plus). One man who became very involved with the group and was therefore a default “leader” tried to take control of a women’s Buddhist book club the few dykes in the group had formed to try to get more of us to attend every week.

When I objected to this man dictating the books our club would read, most of the group took my arguments as proof that I lacked spiritual maturity. The group saw the world, in the post-hippie words of the late comic Lotus Weinstock, as “Everything’s everything,” so I shouldn’t be opposed to the idea of a man taking over the women’s book club and maybe, if I were really evolved, should not even notice what was happening.

I stopped going to the weekly group meditation then, but most of the other women stayed.

I had spent the better part of the year attending the weekly sits, but even in all the “How can we get more women to join” discussions I’d had with the woman who started the book club, I never once mentioned that the Zen center where our group met had been, nearly 20 years before, the site of multiple cases of sexual harassment and abuse by the center’s founder. He was still a teacher to many of the people who lived there. I knew about the abuse only because I’d read "Turning the Wheel."

I had given some side eye to the male teacher -- not the founder -- who gave a (good!) talk to our group but then seemed a little too familiar and flirty with the women at the center, but I never said anything to anyone. When the queer group suddenly and urgently had to change its regular meeting place (as I found out after I left), I assumed either sexual or financial misconduct in the center was the reason.

In spite of this checkered history, I called on one of the higher-up nuns at the center (who was also queer) to be the officiant at my wedding. I never would have asked a Catholic priest.

Small, insular communities like Zen centers are always trying to temper their image for outsiders. The people within these communities who try to downplay or even cover up incidents of sexual abuse and harassment include women. Even though I’m a fire and brimstone feminist, I, too, hesitated to go against the prevailing ethos of openly discussing sexual abuse and harassment, even in a place that had a well-documented history of it.

I don’t mean to scare women away from Buddhist practice. I still try to sit every day and will probably eventually join another group, preferably one with a lot of women in it and without a strict hierarchy.

I wonder what would happen if the Western Buddhist community came completely clean and freely admitted to all the sexual harassment and abuse that has gone on for so many years.

They might end up with a whole bunch of women like me in their ranks, wary, with no tolerance for “spiritual” excuses for abuse, but still practicing. We might be just what those communities need.