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For Whose Best Interest


Stuart Lachs- Erfurt IAHR Conf. 2015 July 29, 2015

This paper is a case study of Joshu Sasaki roshi and Rinzai-ji, the organization that grew around him. I will show how the meeting of a charismatic traditionally trained Japanese Rinzai Zen master, with in many ways a naïve and uninformed modern western audience in search for direct experience and meaning led to a unique blend of modern and traditional Buddhism. But also this unique mixture in concert with Zen’s legitimating story facilitates a world unto itself, marked by troubling behavior by both master and disciples.

 This meeting is characterized by the mixing of two very different cultures: traditional Japanese Zen culture steeped in ideas of unquestioned authority, hierarchy including gender hierarchy, and secrecy, mixing with modern American culture with ideas of questioning authority, gender equality, openness, and democracy.

When Joshu Sasaki roshi 1 died on July 27, 2014 at age 107 he was perhaps the oldest Zen master in the world. He was sanctioned as a Zen master in 1947 by the prestigious Myōshin-ji lineage in Japan. Many of his followers in the west saw him as the most authentic old style tough Rinzai 2 roshi. In spite of his limited English and solid but short five-foot frame, Sasaki was by most accounts a charismatic teacher. One long time student of his, wrote, for example, “the guy is a living relic...He is literally the last of his kind.” 3
Sasaki had been among the first group of post WWII Japanese Zen teachers who came to Europe and America as missionaries in order to establish practice centers. From the beginning, these Japanese roshi were highly successful, for they matched their American students’ expectations of an authentic, iconoclastic, mysterious and fully enlightened Zen roshi from Japan.  These expectations however were shaped mainly by literature that presented idealized Zen masters of bygone times. 4   Yet these texts were instrumental in establishing the Zen roshi’s charisma and success, and as we will see also prevented internal criticism and processes of change within the Zen organizations.

Outline of Sasaki’s life 5

Sasaki was born in April 1907 into a farming family near Sendai in Miyagi prefecture, Japan. At the age of 14 he became one of the first disciples of Joten Sōko Miura rōshi, who would later become head of Myōshin-ji, 6 one of the preeminent Rinzai temple complexes in Japan. Sasaki was ordained as osho (priest) at the age of twenty-one. From the age of 28 to 37, he trained as a Zen monk at Myōshin-ji Sodo and then Zuigan-ji Sodo (training monastery), when Miura Rōshi became abbot there. In 1944, Sasaki was appointed to a temple office called “Fusu” (in charge of financial affairs) at Zuigan-ji and in 1947, at age forty, he received his authority as rōshi and became abbot of Yotoku-in at Zuigan-ji. In 1953, Sasaki roshi was assigned to become the abbot of the abandoned temple Shoju-an. The temple was in disrepair, and Sasaki set about restoring it while still teaching Zen, until he was sent to the United States in 1962.  He was sent by the Kancho – the chief administrator 7 of Myoshin-ji on the request of two members of the Joshu Zen Temple in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, who aimed at bringing an authorized Japanese Rinzai Zen master to Los Angeles to teach authentic Rinzai Zen. In departure, Sasaki is said to have taken the traditional ceremony of permanent departure from Japan, implying that he would be buried in America. 8
Initially Sasaki lived in the garage of one of his sponsors. Later a house was rented and used as both a zendo (meditation hall) and as Sasaki’s residence. In November 1963, Sasaki and his students founded the Rinzai Zen Dojo Association, and Sasaki led zazen (group meditation) in a number of locations around southern California. In 1968 they changed their name to Rinzai-ji and bought their first property, a complex of buildings surrounded by high walls they named Cimarron Zen Center in Los Angeles. Three years later, with Zen attracting many followers across America, Mt. Baldy Zen Center was opened as Rinzai-ji’s main training center, high in the mountains east of Los Angeles. Mt. Baldy Zen Center gained a reputation in American Zen circles for its rigorous if not severe practice. The organization continued to expand. In 1974, Rinzai-ji bought an old Catholic monastery in New Mexico, which is now known as Bodhi Manda Zen Center. 
By then, Sasaki had a well established reputation in the USA as an authentic Rinzai roshi, and had many fully ordained disciples (osho). Yet as early as the 1970s there had been rumors in American Zen communities of Sasaki fondling women students in sanzen-the important private interviews with the roshi related to koan study.These first rumors coincided with the tearing apart of major Zen centers in America starting in 1975 9   because of sexual and financial scandals involving their Zen masters. Yet Sasaki remained under the radar. Rather, in contrast to scandals elsewhere, he stood out as a “real deal” demanding master. In fact, in spite of early rumors, his reputation increased for decades, since his assumed purity was highlighted, as more of his fellow Zen roshi “fell.”

The Disclosures

But this took a dramatic turn on November 16, 2012, when Eshu Martin, a former monk of Sasaki, posted an open letter on the Sweeping Zen website, 10 which immediately went viral. Martin’s letter “Everybody Knows” spoke openly about so far tightly kept secrets regarding Sasaki roshi, but also disclosed his organization’s complicit role. Martin’s letter begins:
“Joshu Sasaki Roshi, the founder and Abbot of Rinzai-ji is now 105 years old, and he has engaged in many forms of inappropriate sexual relationship with those who have come to him as students since his arrival here more than 50 years ago. His career of misconduct has run the gamut from frequent and repeated non-consensual groping of female students during interview [sanzen], to sexually coercive after hours "tea" meetings, to affairs and sexual interference in the marriages and relationships of his students. Many individuals that have confronted Sasaki and Rinzai-ji about this behavior have been alienated and eventually excommunicated, or have resigned in frustration when nothing changed; or worst of all, have simply fallen silent and capitulated. For decades, Joshu Roshi's behavior has been ignored, hushed up, downplayed, justified, and defended by the [Board of Directors], monks, nuns and students that remained loyal to him. … Certainly, as an organization, Rinzai-ji has never accepted the responsibility of putting a stop to this abuse, and has never taken any kind of remedial action.”
This letter initiated a torrent of further disclosures. Stories accumulated, often with great detail, since ex-insiders with close knowledge of the organization now felt free to talk openly. With this new flow of information it was also revealed how Sasaki, while still in Japan in the late 1940s and the early 1950s, had been at the center of a number of sexual scandals and financial affairs, involving the embezzlement of several million yen of temple funds allocated for temple renovation. This checkered history had never been mentioned when Sasaki was sent to America in the early 1960s. While Sasaki’s sexual transgressions may not have been considered out of the ordinary for a Zen monk in Japan, 11 it is hard to imagine that embezzling monastery funds would have been taken lightly. It might well be that Sasaki was sent to the United States as a way for Myōshin-ji to get rid of a troublesome monk who had caused embarrassment to the monastery and to his teacher Miura roshi, who had to resign as abbot of Myōshin-ji in 1952, when Sasaki was prosecuted. Remember too, that, Sasaki is said to have taken the traditional ceremony of permanent departure from Japan; his trip to America was a one way trip. 

With these disclosures, a number of women in America on the receiving end of Sasaki’s transgressions reported how they felt abused and used.” 12 A poem by Chizuko Karen Tasaka  shall be given in full here, since it not only vividly describes Sasaki’s transgressions, 13 but also his disdain for his female and male disciples alike, his sense of being above any cultural norms, and the non-responsiveness of the oshos to women asking for support. It also shows how Sasaki presented his forceful demands for sex as Zen teaching, ignoring this woman’s resistance, anger, guilt, and confusion:

To Joshu Sasaki Roshi: You Are A Sexual Abuser 14

“Come” you say as you pull me from a handshake onto your lap
“Open” you say as you push your hands between my knees,
up my thighs
fondle my breasts
rub my genitals
french kiss me

you put my hand on your genitals
stroke your penis
jack you off?
this is sanzen?

my friend - she was inji [personal attendant]
sex with roshi

she tried to say no
you demanded, demanded, demanded
demon demand the force of a tornado

sex with roshi
for whose best interest?

I told you I don’t like it.
I asked you why you do this?
You said, “nonattachment, nonattachment, you nonattachment”

I told you as shoji 15 , “women very angry, very upset”
I asked you why you do this.
You said: “Be good daughter to roshi, and good wife to G. [her husband].”
Roshi, that is incest. So many women trying to shake the shame from their voices of
Sex with roshi

We came to you with the trust of a student
You were our teacher
You betrayed us
You violated our bodies
You rape our soul

You betrayed our previous student-teacher relationship
You abuse us as women
You emasculate our husbands and boyfriends

Roshi, you are a sexual abuser
Your nuns you make your sexual servants
Your monks and Oshos are crippled with denial
Roshi, Sexual Abuser.

This poem, as disturbing as it is, gives us a few clues to understanding mechanisms that contributed to the long silence about Sasaki’s transgressive behavior towards his female students while outlining the broad scope of his actions. The events described take place in sanzen, the private meeting between roshi and student related to koan study where everything transpiring is to remain secret. We see Sasaki mixing in the core Zen teaching of “nonattachment” with forcing himself on a resisting and pained student. We also see that Sasaki had sexual relationships with his nuns and with married students and students in relationships with other students.

According to an independent witnessing council formed after the scandal broke, Sasaki initiated sexual encounters with between 100 and 300 female students. The women, often in their early twenties, were searching for direction and meaning in their lives, naïve about Zen teachings, history and Zen masters while Sasaki was presented as a mature, enlightened Zen master beyond their understanding. He was supposedly selfless and only interested in bringing his students to enlightenment.

The claim was that whatever Sasaki did was in fact Zen teaching. This amounted to declaring that what for the women constituted sexual abuse was really a teaching method. When a young woman who was Sasaki’s inji at the time, complained about Sasaki’s constant sexual advances, one monk replied that “sexualizing is teaching for particular women.” 16 The monk’s theory, widespread in Sasaki’s circle, was that such physicality could check a “woman’s overly strong ego.” Sasaki and his loyalists thus in effect claimed these acts were examples of Mahāyāna Buddhist upāya - skillful means that teach the Dharma in a way that the students need, whether they recognize it or not.

We can understand Zen’s social functioning, especially the power of the roshi over his disciples, through Pierre Bourdieu’s basic model of religious authority. 18   “Bourdieu argues that the standard setup for religious authority requires three mutually reliant zones: (1) a deep origin of truth or perfection in the form of a past sage, saint, deity, or Being; (2) a means for bringing that truth-perfection forward in time; and (3) a contemporary spokesperson for that primordial truth-perfection who is sanctioned to represent it in the present, and distribute it to the believing public, which delegates to him just this power and legitimacy. Bourdieu sees religious authority always involved in a to-ing and fro-ing, shuttling back and forth between its deep origins and its application in the present. Put otherwise, in any moment of religious authority, there is always an audience focused on the singular priest-figure, who is expected to funnel the totality of truth and being from the past into the group.” 19 In Zen, the deep origin of truth is the Buddha, the means to bring the truth forward in time is the myth of unbroken lineage based on Dharma transmission, and the contemporary spokesperson for that primordial truth-perfection, the priest-figure, is the Zen Dharma-transmitted master/roshi. In the case we are examining, that is Sasaki roshi.

Already in Japan, Sasaki’s sexual and financial misbehaviors had been swept under the carpet by Myōshin-ji officials – thus saving face and avoiding shame for the institution and its leaders. While Sasaki’s “distress with women” continued to persist in the USA, it also continued to be covered up, but now by the American Board of Directors of Rinzai-ji and by many of Sasaki’s older male and female disciples. When Rinzai-ji officials were finally forced to reply, they first dismissed the disclosures as “allegations,” and later the Board of Directors falsely claimed that these allegations were all new to them. Sasaki’s earlier problems with women in Japan underlines that his problems in the west were neither new nor caused by cultural misunderstandings, as his apologists maintained.

Yet there exist a number of reports that show that women tried to address these issues with Sasaki and with older male students. But all this fell on deaf ears. Sasaki’s response to concerns presented to him by his students amounted to him threatening to stop teaching and leave should he be forced to change his behavior.20 He also expressed the view that having sex with young women kept him young. Brian Victoria, author of Zen At War reports that in 1976 Shinzen Young, who frequently translated for Sasaki, told him about the same view that Sasaki used to justify his sexual predations. 21 Some of his loyal osho absorbed this view to the point that they accused some who tried to stop Sasaki’s predations, of trying to kill him.

Sasaki clearly viewed his own position as Zen master as beyond criticism, being the very top of an absolute hierarchy. This perception, shared by his disciples, can fittingly be explained with Bourdieu: “one of the privileges of consecration consists in conferring an undeniable and indelible essence on the individual consecrated, it authorizes transgressions that would otherwise be forbidden. The person who is sure of his cultural identity can play with the rules of the cultural game.” 22  In Zen, the consecrated individual is the Dharma transmitted roshi.

Sasaki’s senior osho and loyalists left no room to question his behavior. When women complained to monks, students older in the practice and high in the hierarchy, they rarely met with sympathy. As a senior osho declared, “If you do not like it, leave.” 23 One  woman who confronted Sasaki in the 1980s reported that she found herself an outcast afterward with people she had practiced with for twenty years.24 Sasaki’s belief in and practice of an unquestionable hierarchy demanding unquestioned loyalty was absorbed by his older disciples and was an institutional reality.

Sasaki’s loyal oshos werea group close to him, and who were more committed than ordinary lay students. They held positions of importance, were dressed in robes, and interpreted and explained Sasaki’s teaching to lay practitioners. 25 In the process they made clear that if some one had a problem with Sasaki’s behavior, it was a sign of their own lack of understanding Zen26 . His close students understood that delivering and sacrificing young women to Sasaki’s sexual desires was part of the price of being an intimate and advanced student. Being recognized as such, they gained the reflected sheen from Sasaki’s charisma. No doubt, some of them were hoping for the ultimate “prize,” for Sasaki to name him or her as his “Dharma heir” and successor.

Though Sasaki said early on in his stay in America that he did not want to import Japanese Zen hierarchy that is exactly what he did. Even as the scandal was unfolding Sasaki maintained complete control of the Rinzai-ji organization. In the midst of the scandal he retitled himself Supreme Abbot. He maintained complete control of the finances shuttling money between different corporate bodies.

A year before his death Sasaki appointed a new abbot and two assistant abbots but carefully underlined that these were only administrative posts, which to Rinzai-ji members meant they were subservient to him. In his last letter to his followers he declined to appoint a Dharma successor (Hossu) and declined to authorize or acknowledge anyone as qualified to give sanzen or teisho, key aspects of Rinzai training. After over fifty years of teaching in the west and maintaining a group of devoted monks and nuns for decades, he was unable to find one person he thought capable of continuing to give his teaching in the orthodox Rinzai fashion, i.e., as a Dharma transmitted roshi. Rather, he instructed his followers to receive guidance from the Diamond Sutra and his published teachings.

For the better part of his long career in the West, Sasaki was viewed as the epitome of the tough old fashioned and wizened Rinzai Zen master while his organization Rinzai-ji,  viewed itself as the most no-nonsense, “real deal” Rinzai Zen practice center outside of Japan.  However, once the veil of secrecy was lifted, this cultivated view quickly crumbled. Sasaki was recognized as a troubled man with an uncontrollable desire for sex with young women, willing to use Zen teachings and his unquestioned position as a roshi to satisfy his desires with the harm to the women not counting at all. At the same time, the long term older monks and nuns were recognized acting as weak apologists for Sasaki, unwilling to jeopardize their elevated status in the organization. By not giving Dharma transmission, to the end of his life, Sasaki maintained total control for himself, leaving the organization headless when he died.  It is not clear how to maintain the Rinzai form of koan practice with no one authorized to give teisho talks and to conduct sanzen, the key element of the practice. A number of affiliated centers of Rinzai-ji have left the organization and among those remaining, many students have resigned. At this point Rinzai-ji’s form and future is unclear.


1 Roshi is a Japanese honorific title used in Zen, which can be translated as “old teacher” or “old master.” In Zen groups connected to Japan, “so-and-so roshi” is most of the time abbreviated to “roshi.” In America the titles “Zen master” and “roshi” are used interchangeably. Note that roshi is not a formal rank but rather a term of respect for a senior Zen figure, bestowed by the disciples of that figure.

2 There are two major sects of Zen in Japan, Rinzai and Sōtō. Sōtō has many more members while Rinzai is somewhat associated with the upper classes. Rinzai meditation stresses koan meditation and Sōtō stresses shikantaza- just sitting. There is also the Sanbokyodan sect (The Three Treasures sect), a mixture of Rinzai and Sōtō  founded by Yasutani Haku’un roshi in 1954 which is popular in the West.

3 Haubner  2013, p.205.

4 Berger 1963, p. 127. Charisma is related to “what has happened before” and “to the social context of its appearance.” Interestingly, Weber points out that charisma becomes “routinized” in following generations, which is exactly what happened in Zen groups in America.

5 The following summary is mainly based on Sasaki’s biography as given on the Rinzai-ji website.

6 Myōshin-ji is both a single temple complex in Kyoto and the administrative head of the Myōshin-ji branch (or sub-sect) of the Rinzai Zen sect. It is by far the largest branch of Rinzai Zen, approximately as large as the other thirteen sects of Rinzai Zen combined. It owns about 3,500 temples spread across Japan and nineteen associated monasteries.

7 The physical space Myoshin-ji occupies is a collection of temples, each with its own abbot. Myoshinji is the head of the entire Myoshinji branch of the Rinzai sect. Hence, a "kancho" is the administrative (and spiritual) head of that branch.

8 Fields 1992, p. 245.

9 In 1975 the Zen Studies Society and Eido Shimano were the first to be affected by scandal. They were followed by Richard Baker of the San Francisco Zen Center, Maezumi of the L.A. Zen Center, Katagitri of the Minneapolis Zen Center, Seung Sahn of the Providence Rhode Island Zen Center, and Dennis Merzel of the Bar Harbor Maine Zen Center. Later pretty much the same type of scandal happened again with Merzel at the Kanzeon Zen Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, and with Walter Nowick of Moonspring Hermitage Zen Center in Surry, Maine. I mention only the most prominent Zen Centers across America; some less prominent Zen Centers had similar trouble.

10 Sweepingzen.com. It is also accessible at  www.SasakiArchive.com, #6, 11/16/2012.

11 In today’s Japan monks are usually not celibate. They marry, have children, and often “go over the wall (of the monastery)”, that is, go to pleasure areas.

12 See the SasakiArchive, # 30 posted 01/07/2013 by a former inji titled “Sex with Sasaki”, p. 3. The woman was in her early 20s at the time while Sasaki was in his 70s. She was appointed personal attendant of the roshi. As inji the woman woke Sasaki in the morning and helped put him to bed at night. She reports about daily sexual encounters with Sasaki over months. In Japan the inji is usually an older monk, but Sasaki consistently picked young women. Sasaki’s also had sex with some of his nuns, including the Abbess of Mt. Baldy, Gesshin Myoko (see Sasaki Archive, # 11, posted 11/23/2012, titled “O’Hearn Consciousness”). Sasaki and Gesshin Myoko had a fall-out when she was jealous of Sasaki having sexual meetings with another woman student. Later, Sasaki erased Gesshin from the list of people he ordained.

13 Sasaki seemed to have a particular focus on women’s breasts as so many women relate how in sanzen he told them to show their breasts and he often attempted to fondle them, but also many mentioned his viewing and fondling their genitalia and being asked to view and touch his genitalia. With some women it advanced to oral sex and intercourse. The Independent Witness Council estimated that he initiated sexual advances with as many as 300 women.

14 See SasakiArchive; # 59,  posted 2/21/2013 last accessed 11/14/2014. The poem was written by Chizuko Karen Tasaka (1951-2010) and was sent to Sasaki in 1988. Chizuko died in 2010. Her family and friends felt that she would want her story to be known.

15 The “zendo mother figure.” Hubner 2013, p.14.

16 Sasaki Archive posted 02/19/2013, # 58, last accessed 11/15/2014. This is from a podcast from CBC Radio of an interview with Nikki Stubbs, who as a young woman was a student of Sasaki for three years.

17 Sasaki Archive posted 02/11/2013, Oppenheimer, Mark and Lovett, Ian, New York Times, last accessed 11/5/2014.

18 Bourdieu 1991, pp. 117-126

19 Cole 2006, p. 13.

20 Among traditional Japanese Zen practitioners Sasaki’s interest in sex would not in itself be a cause for concern, but rather his letting it take too big a part in his life and interfering with his role of Zen master would. Benedict 1946, pp. 183-184).

21 This was related to me in a private email from Brian Victoria.

22 Bourdieu 1991, p. 125.

13 See Sasaki Archive, # 4, posted 12/08/97, “To Sasaki” submitted by Brian Lesage, last accessed 9/29/2014.

14 Sasaki Archive, # 43, posted 02/11/2013, New York Times, Oppenheimer and Lovett, p.3. The woman asked to remain anonymous to protect her privacy.

15 This group of loyal oshos may thus be characterized as “a charismatic aristocracy, an inner circle that developed around the charismatic leader within his growing flock.
Bell 2002, p.238; see also Weber 1978, 1119.

16 Sasaki Archive posted 11/23/2012 by Bob O’Hearn titled “Consciousness” last accessed 10/12/2014.


For Whose Best Interest

Bell, S., (2002), “Scandals in Emerging Western Buddhism,” in Westward Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Asia, ed. by Prebish, Charles S. and Bauman, Martin, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, University of California Press.

Berger, Peter L., (1963) Invitation to Sociology, Doubleday, New York, NY.
Bourdieu, P., (1991), Language and Symbolic Power, Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

Cole, A., “Simplicity for the Sophisticated: Rereading the Daode Jing for the Polemics of Ease and Innocence,” History of Religion, vol. 46 (2006) 13.

Fields, R., (1992), How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America, Boston and London, Shambala.

Haubner, Jack Shozan, (2013)  Zen Confidential: Confessions of a Wayward Monk, Boston, Shambhala Publications Inc.

Oppenheimer, Mark and Lovett, Ian, “Zen Groups Distressed by Accusations Against Teacher,” N.Y. Times online, SasakiArchive, # 43, posted 02/11/2013.

http://www.rinzaiji.org/joshu-sasaki-roshi/ last accessed 11/2/2014.

Sasakiarchive.com last accessed 6/17/2015.

Sweepingzen.com, an online Zen website; last accessed 10/3/2014.

Weber, M., (1978), Economy and Society, ed. by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich,  Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, University of California Press.

Further Readings:

Lachs, Stuart:
Means of Authorization: Establishing Hierarchy in Ch'an /Zen Buddhism in America
Richard Baker and the Myth of the Zen Roshi
The Zen Master in America: Dressing the Donkey with Bells and Scarves
The Aitken-Shimano Letters

Other Writings:

Holding the Lotus to the Rock: reflections on the future of the Zen sangha in the West by James Ishmael Ford
Sanbõkyõdan Zen and the Way of the New Religions by Robert H. Sharf
Whose Zen? Zen Nationalism Revisited by Robert H. Sharf
Finding Safe Harbor: Buddhist Sexual Ethics in America by Stephanie Kaza


Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center by Michael Downing: book review by Vladimir K. buy this book
Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Teachings of Shunryu Suzuki: this link will take you to the websitespacer buy this book
Zen at War by Brian Daizen A. Victoria: a link to varioius book reviews spacerbuy this book
Original Dwelling Place by Robert Aitken book review by Robert Goss spacerbuy this book
Not Always So: practicing the true spirit of Zen by Shunryu Suzuki book reviewspacer  buy this book
Seeing Through Zen by by John R. McRae book reviewsspacer buy this book