Only a little over a year ago, it was John Friend. Last fall, it was Kausthub Desikachar. Today, the New York Times published a long article on the latest "sex scandal" to hit the yoga and meditation communities, this time involving the 105-year old Buddhist teacher Joshu Sasaki:
Since arriving in Los Angeles from Japan in 1962, the Buddhist teacher Joshu Sasaki, who is 105 years old, has taught thousands of Americans . . . Mr. Sasaki has also . . . groped and sexually harassed female students for decades, taking advantage of their loyalty to a famously charismatic roshi, or master.
. . . Women say they were encouraged to believe that being touched by Mr. Sasaki was part of their Zen training.
The Zen group, or sangha, can become one’s close family, and that aspect of Zen may account for why women and men have been reluctant to speak out for so long.
Many women whom Mr. Sasaki touched were resident monks at his centers. One woman who confronted Mr. Sasaki in the 1980s found herself an outcast afterward. The woman, who asked that her name not be used to protect her privacy, said that afterward “hardly anyone in the sangha, whom I had grown up with for 20 years, would have anything to do with us.”. . . Among those who spoke to the council and for this article was Nikki Stubbs, who now lives in Vancouver, and who studied and worked at Mount Baldy, Mr. Sasaki’s Zen center 50 miles east of Los Angeles, from 2003 to 2006. During that time, she said, Mr. Sasaki would fondle her breasts during sanzen, or private meeting; he also asked her to massage his penis. She would wonder, she said, “Was this teaching?”
One monk, whom Ms. Stubbs said she told about the touching, was unsympathetic. “He believed in Roshi’s style, that sexualizing was teaching for particular women,” Ms. Stubbs said. The monk’s theory, common in Mr. Sasaki’s circle, was that such physicality could check a woman’s overly strong ego.
Since I wasn't personally impacted by this scandal or any of the others, I haven't felt like it was my place to say much about them. (I wrote one post revisiting the Amrit Desai scandal at Kripalu in light of the Anusara debacle, and one that vented my personal feelings about JF a bit, but until this post, that has been it.) But the combination of this Times article and some of the comments I saw about it on Facebook revived my feelings of irritation about the way these scandals are generally discussed in online and print media.
Not surprisingly, the print stories tend to be basic reporting combined with whatever is most sensational and attention grabbing. Of course, in a word, this means sex.
Online, I've seen some excellent writing about the Ansuara scandal, and particularly admire the roles played by YogaDork, Matthew Remski, and Bernadette Birney. But when it comes to discussion, on the whole I've seen a lot more venting, gloating, scapegoating, denying, minimizing, and blaming the victim than reflection and learning. This is discouraging, and a wasted opportunity for collective growth.
While I don't pretend to have any answers, I wanted to share some of the thoughts I had after reading the Times article this morning, in the hope that others may find at least some of them useful:
1. It's never simply about sex. That's what everyone tends to focus on, of course. But there's always so much more involved. What I find most troubling is that LOTS of people in these communities knew that these behaviors were occurring - often for years or even decades - but either kept silent, were shut up or forced out, or rationalized and legitimated the abuse. What does this reveal about the culture of the organization?
Consider also that these same insiders who knew what was happening were most likely also the ones most seriously invested in the supposedly deep, spiritual aspects of the scene. What does it do to individuals and communities when they are simultaneously trumpeting their light and hiding their shadow? It's a disturbing picture, to say the least.
2. It's never simply about one bad man. This follows from the point about widespread insider knowledge of abuse. But it bears repeating. Yes, the leader bears exceptional responsibility. But without supporters and enablers, he would not be in a leadership position to begin with. So, in a sense, the real problem is the culture of the community, particularly the central, "insider" part of the organization.
3. "Lineage" is no guarantee of anything. Kausthub Desikachar is the grandson of Krishnamacharya, who was the Guru of B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois. You can't get more central to any sort of meaningful yoga lineage than that. And yet the details about his abusive behavior are shockingly bad. Mr. Sasaki had his own impressive lineage in the Buddhist tradition. John Friend didn't have a real lineage, so he made one up, proclaiming himself the Chosen One of Shiva-Shakti Tantra. None of it mattered when it came to preventing abuses from occurring.
4. We need to get over our romanticized fantasies of the "Mystic East." This extends and elaborates the lineage point above. To be sure, serious learning about Eastern traditions of yoga and mediation is incredibly valuable. But that's different from the still widespread sense that there is some innate, essential, mysterious spirituality that channels only through those who have a natural (or manufactured) connection to India, Japan, or some other Eastern Land. This is romantic fantasy and supports the suspension of critical thinking that facilitates abuse. And while abusive charismatic leaders hail from all cultures and traffic in all sorts of obfuscating symbolism, the trope of the "Mystic East" remains a central problem when it comes to the yoga and meditation scenes.
4. "Enlightenment" is a problematic concept in need of critical scrutiny. This blends over into the "Mystic East" problem to some extent for obvious reasons. But it's also distinct in that it really is possible to shift consciousness dramatically through assiduously cultivated meditative states. But it's one thing to cultivate states of deep meditative absorption when you're alone in the proverbial cave. It's another to do it when you're living in a community and/or the everyday world. Scandal after scandal - not just these three but a much longer history of the same - show us that people who are exceptionally adept at meditation may be shockingly horrible when it comes to other people. So if we are interested in what it really takes to live an enlightened life, we need to develop a much more multifaceted concept than our essentially one-dimensional visions of cosmic consciousness can carry.
6. It's facile to lecture others about "not giving away your power." Over and over again, I see online comments about we can prevent these scandals from recurring if individuals will simply realize that they should "never give away their power." This is just the flipside of the "one bad man" theory: call it the "one weak woman" problem.
Honestly, I find it quite offensive. I think a lot of it comes from other women who want to insist to themselves that they could never be so vulnerable. But we are all vulnerable in some way - if not to being sexually preyed on, then to something else. And women who are sexually preyed on typically have some deep wounding that makes them vulnerable in this way (sexual abuse in childhood, etc.). This will take a lot more to change that than dismissively telling them to stop being so weak. Really, this is simply blaming the victim. And I'm sick of hearing it.
7. We should expect complex interpersonal dynamics when it comes to highly charged teacher-student relationships. Psychologists are trained to expect issues like transference and counter-transference to come up in their practice as a matter of course. And they learn techniques to work with these dynamics responsibly and productively. Why aren't yoga and meditation teachers studying their example and adapting it to our situations? We should be, but it's very rare to do so.
8. It's past time for some feminist consciousness-raising. It is not OK to sacrifice vulnerable women to the predations of powerful teachers. No matter how much else these teachers have to offer - and it may be a lot - it's not acceptable. Period.
9. Women abuse power too. Too many complex issues to go into here, but it at least needs to be noted. Plus, it seems like the new romantic trope arising to replace the "Mystic East" (which definitely has a strong male bias) is the "Divine Feminine." I have the same skepticism toward the "Goddess" talk that floats around, if it's taken seriously at all. This is just another easy fantasy.
While the ways in which men and women abuse power are likely to follow different patterns, there is no question that this is a human problem that involves everyone, regardless of gender.
10. It's past time to develop new methods of teaching and learning that are rooted in democratic values. While this is happening in some quarters, it doesn't seem well-understood or established. But it seems clear that new models need to be developed if we don't want to keep reading the same dispiriting headlines, over and over again.