When the Teacher Is a Schmuck

Buddha Is the Center of Gravity: Teisho of Joshu Sasaki Roshi at Lama Foundation.  Lama Foundation.  95 pp.  1974  (out of print)

This is the book that gave Brad Warner the title for his most recent book.  He has spoken highly of this volume at various times through the years, and when I’ve checked in the past it was quite expensive on the Used Book market, upwards of $100.  But the mildly battered volume I recently bought—the seller admitted it was in bad shape—sold for $40, so I snapped it up.  It’s a handsome little book, with some offbeat photos (of children walking off to go skinny dipping, Sasaki Roshi himself floating in what looks like a filled-in rock quarry), and I’m glad to have it.  I read the teishos one per night, and enjoyed them.

At the time this book was published, Sasaki Roshi was, by an odd coincidence, the same age I am now, 67 (another reason it seemed propitious that I found the book when I did), and he lived—hold on to your hats—for another 40 years, dying at the age of 107.  I love life, and want to live as long as I can, but the thought of another 40 years is staggering.  Seeing my mother’s long slow death made me not want to overdo it.

But Sasaki Roshi is more famous because, in 2012—when he was 105—a huge sex scandal broke about him, with reports that he had been sexually abusing female students for years.  An account of the entire thing exists at Sweeping Zen, which broke the story.  It’s weird to think that, if he had died at 103, the whole scandal might not have broken, at least not while he was alive.  He couldn’t have been doing much sexual abusing at that age; if he had been arrested at that point, it would have been—as we used to say—for assault with a dead weapon.  He lived his final two years in disgrace, answering these allegations.  It was a strange and—to me—sad end for the man who taught Shinzen Young and, rather famously, Leonard Cohen (who apparently wrote a song that reflects the teachings).

When the story broke, the American Zen establishment pounced on Sasaki in a unified chorus, which went on and on.  It seemed a safe thing to comment on, and many people commented, often quite savagely.  There is a phenomenon in football known as piling on, an old expression about hitting a man when he’s down.  A rather prominent spiritual teacher once said to such a crowd, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”  I found it unbecoming that people who—compared to Sasaki—hadn’t practiced or taught very much, and who probably weren’t absolutely perfect in all of their conduct, savagely attacked a man who had given his whole life to this work.  I’m not saying what he did was right.  I just found the attacks distasteful, the same way it was distasteful when the world savaged Jerry Sandusky, and would happily have torn him to shreds, when chances are overwhelming that he himself was once the object of abuse.  People should at least consider the possibility that one person isn’t the whole problem.

So what do I make of the man’s teaching, after all that?  It’s hard to say, because there’s so much in the way.  The title is on the front cover, and on the back is a quotation from Sasaki, “Buddha is not the Center of Gravity.”  That is like his now-famous statement, “There is no God, but He is always with you.”  I have in fact never read another Zen teacher who uses the word God so frequently; it appears on almost every page.  He also speaks of the source of God, of Buddha Nature, of the Center of Gravity; all of these things, for him, seem the same.

Perhaps some quotations would help:

“Only when you have realized the source of God, the source of Buddha, the source of human beings, can you say that you have studied Zen.  Shakyamuni called the source of everything emptiness.  Emptiness or nothingness is the source itself, so it is free from everything; at the same time, it embraces everything.”

“The way of Zen is not the way of saints or sinners.  Zen is the practice of manifesting yourself as emptiness.  When you manifest nothingness, only in that moment do you experience the source of God.  When you experience God, Buddha or the source of everything, you don’t know what you are doing.  When you are completely one with your lover, you don’t know whether you are doing something good or bad.”

“The realization that you have the center of gravity is not enough.  You must realize that the center of gravity is one with the center of gravity of the universe.”

“Some scholars speak wisely about time as if it is running through from past to present to future.  That’s a stupid idea.  From the point of view of Zen, it’s pure bullshit.  The universe is one and filled with time, so time is one.”

“In Christianity, you can devote yourself to God and live in a monastery all your life.  But Zen is completely different.  The religious life of Zen is to live with the subject and object as one and to illuminate as the center of gravity.  To seek the way or to study Zen is to seek the center of gravity.”

“You are the center of gravity since the time before you were born and until after you die.  During your lifetime you have the center of gravity and you lose it every day.  Not only you, but everybody wants to get real freedom.  What is real freedom?  The real freedom is to embrace everything and at the same time to dwell in everything.”

“The center of gravity of the universe unifies the world and at the same time it contains yourself.  When you look at the objective world, which contains yourself, that objective world is no longer object, but yourself.”

It’s hard to know how much to quote in a review when it’s overwhelmingly likely that your reader will never see the book (unless you want to come over and borrow it from me).

Zen is one of those things, of course; it’s easy to learn the general vocabulary and way of speaking.  No doubt a total fraud could talk this way, put on some robes, and completely convince us, or at least do a wonderful parody.  The question for any Zen student is: does the teacher know her teaching by experience, or is she just mouthing words she heard somebody else say?  It seems different when someone talks from their own experience.  There’s a different feeling in the room.  I wasn’t in this particular room.

The question is: could someone be realized and still have a massive character flaw?  This wasn’t some little nick; it was the Grand Canyon.  One thing that struck me when I read the Sasaki archives—I didn’t read all of them by any means; they wore me out—was that he not only didn’t sound like an enlightened master, he didn’t sound like a mature human being.  He had the sexual sophistication of a 13 year old.  Even I, at 13, knew not to just grab a woman’s breasts.  We’re not talking Hugh Hefner here.  More like Al Goldstein.[1]

But sex makes fools of us all.  I have spoken previously of the Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa, who at least was completely open about his behavior, and was by all reports not so crude in his approach, took no for an answer.  I did, however, read one account, I can’t remember where, of Trungpa trying to coax some young woman to go to bed with him, and he didn’t sound like enlightened being, more like some guy trying to get laid.  I’ve been that guy, and I know what it sounds like.

I don’t know where to leave all this.  Was Sasaki Roshi a Zen master with a horrible flaw or a sexual predator who posed in robes and talked a good game?  I do know that, if we study with spiritual teachers of any kind, we’re going to encounter flaws.  They may not be sexual, but they’ll be something.  We won’t find that perfect person we’ve all imagined.

We see the posture of sitting as that of a realized person who is in complete bliss, while we see a person kneeling in prayer and understand he might be pleading with God to help him with some dreadful problem.  Isn’t it possible the person sitting zazen is doing the same thing?  Zen is a practice of realized beings, we’re all enlightened, according to the teachings, but it’s also a practice of flawed, fucked up, needy people.  The person sitting in good posture seems to be, as Sasaki would say, communing with the source.  He may be.  But we don’t know what’s going on inside.  He might, in his own way, be desperate for help.

What’s wonderful about Zen is the practice itself, which is perfect and absolute.  We tend to project that wonderfulness on the teachers who brought it to us.  But they’re just human, fallible and flawed.

[1] I should mention that there were women in the Sasaki archives who thought the whole thing wasn’t that big a deal.  Sasaki groped them a time or two and they smacked him and told him to stop.  One woman said that hugging Sasaki was like hugging God.  But the vast majority of the women who spoke up were deeply hurt and felt damaged.  His actions did a great deal of harm.

When Sasaki copped to what he had done (I’m writing all this from memory), he said that he’d become a monk as a boy, and hadn’t actually had sex until well into his adulthood (Japanese priests are not celibate.  Most of them are married.)  He felt sex was the most marvelous thing he’d ever come across.  He couldn’t get enough of it.  I had a similarly sex starved youth (because I was overweight and shy) and a similar eruption later on, though nothing like Sasaki’s.  And of course you do hope that even a non-spiritual person will acquire some wisdom through the years.  You might have thought the man should have known better when he first got here, at the age of 55.