Single White Monk: Tales of Death, Failure, and Bad Sex by Shozan Jack Haubner. Shambhala. 208 pp. $14.95.
I was not a big fan of Shozan Jack Haubner’s first book, Zen Confidential. I thought it was overwritten, and that he often seemed to be trying too hard. I did appreciate his honesty, and the way he debunked a lot of what we think about Zen practice, but when material is inherently interesting there’s no need to strain to make it more interesting. In his first book he sometimes did that.
I felt that way about passages in this book as well. When Haubner is writing about the trials of his adolescent basketball career, his dating experiences, or his experiences of jumping the monastery wall (visiting the 21st equivalent of a brothel), he seems to be another clueless guy like the rest of us, trying to make something of himself and have some fun (though again, his honesty is refreshing).
But I think Haubner gained confidence by publishing that first book, and by the acclaim he’s gotten for it; he also seems to have grown more comfortable with his role as a Zen teacher, which he’s adopted despite the fact that he left his original monastery. In the most impressive chapters in this book—about his relationship with Leonard Cohen, who also studied with his teacher; about his visit to a fellow monk who was dying; above all about his relationship with his teacher in general, and his position as his teacher’s right hand man—he has completely relaxed: he knows the subject is fascinating and doesn’t need any help from him.
Haubner’s teacher is the famous and notorious Joshu Sasaki Roshi, who not only was the teacher of Leonard Cohen, and of the vipassana teacher Shinzen Young; who not only taught vigorously in this country for over fifty years and lived to the ripe old age of 107, but who faced an enormous sex scandal at the age of 104, so that it became the only thing people talked about, the thing he was famous for. It was through the scandal that he was featured in articles in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. They hadn’t written about the fact that he’d been rigorously teaching Zen in this country for fifty years.
And of course Haubner has published his book at a time when sexual harassment is all over the headlines. The whole world is talking about it.
I’m not sure whether that’s a good or bad thing for this book.
I’ve written about Joshu Sasaki before. I had read a book of his teachings that his students had put together and that has long been out of print; I remarked on the paradox that the teachings seemed powerful and helpful at the same time that the man’s sexuality seemed adolescent (to say the least) and way out of hand. I also read an excellent book by another of Sawaki’s students. But I would have to say that Single White Monk gives the best explanation of Sasaki’s teachings that I’ve seen anywhere, and it also, better than anything else I’ve read, squarely faces the problem of having a teacher you love and who has been vastly important to you but who has also done some dreadful things. Students of Chogyam Trungpa, for instance, face the same issue, but none has written with this raw honesty.
Haubner doesn’t for one minute try to defend the way Sasaki behaved. He thinks it was abominable. But he also thought Sasaki was a great teacher who greatly changed his own life and the lives of many around him.
He encompasses those two things in the same book. He regards them as equally true.
Take, for instance, this brief and beautiful explanation of the teachings: “My Zen teacher, the Roshi, taught that you could call the world outside of you, the world of distinctions, of bright and shiny things, Father. And you could call the world inside of you, the rich, embryonic inner darkness, Mother. Sometimes the infinity of things outside of you penetrates through the sense gates . . . Other times the formlessness within expands outward . . . a new thought or feeling arises and your sense of self is born in a process analogous to a baby crowning through a mother’s hips . . .
“Roshi called this True Love. He described it over and over, but it took years before I was able to live his words with my whole body.”
In that brief passage—part of the Introduction that I was so enamored of—Haubner gives a brief and superb explanation of what Zen practice is all about.
Much later in the book he tells of an experience of sanzen—the meeting of a teacher and student—when he shows how the intimacy between the two of them leads to that understanding:
“That night I went into sanzen with a typically wild gimmick that probably involved shouting and doing an interpretative dance while making strange faces. Zen isn’t an intellectual discipline, but it isn’t bad performance art either. Roshi laughed for about, I swear to God, ten minutes.
“Then he said, ‘Be. More. Normal.’
“Before I could reply, both of his hands were holding mine. He pulled me close and bowed until our foreheads were touching.
He said, ‘Your heart. My heart. Same.’
“We stayed like that for a tiny eternity. It felt like he was taking the weight of my life off my shoulders. I was so relaxed I began to shake, as though some tension buried deep in my bone marrow had found release. When we parted he looked in my eyes.
“’True love important.’”
But we can see how that very experience of intimacy could lead to abuse. Sasaki seems not to have been able to resist when the student was a woman. And apparently he sometimes got on a roll. Violating the boundaries of one student led to violating the boundaries of another.
I had read the occasional letter on Sweeping Zen, the website where the scandal broke, where women said the sexual advances of the old man were no big deal. They gave him a swat and told him to behave himself and carried on. I also read the accounts, much more numerous, of women who were deeply wounded by what he did. But I had never read a full-throated defense of the man, a woman for whom the advances helped her open up, spiritually but also sexually. Haubner’s friend Liz is such a woman, and she becomes the most vivid character in his book.
What I most admire about this book is the way that Haubner will not give on either side. What his teacher did was absolutely wrong. He loves and respects and is deeply grateful to his teacher. The wish to have a perfect teacher is infantile, and a delusion that we need to overcome. Haubner shows us that we can take in the whole of a human being, and not like every part of it, but still profit from the encounter.
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