Download Stripping the Gurus PDF



The Zen tradition has a history of famous drunken poets and masters.... Public encouragement for drinking in several communities where the teacher was alcoholic has led many students to follow suit, and certain Buddhist and Hindu communities have needed to start AA groups to begin to deal with their addiction problems....
Students who enter spiritual communities do not imagine they will encounter these kinds of difficulties (Kornfield, 1993).
[I]t became known that Maezumi [roshi/guru of the Zen Center in Los Angeles] had had a number of affairs with female students and had also entered a dry-out clinic for alcoholics (Rawlinson, 1997).
In 1975 and 1979, as well as later in 1982, the Zen Studies Society had been rocked by rumors of Eido Roshi’s alleged sexual liaisons with female students....
Nor were the allegations limited to sexual misconduct. They spread to financial mismanagement and incorrect behavior (Tworkov, 1994).

ZEN BUDDHISM HAS BEEN WIDELY POPULARIZED in the West through the writings of individuals such as Alan Watts and D. T. Suzuki, not to mention Philip Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen and Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery. As means toward enlightenment, it predominantly utilizes zazen meditation—sitting and counting/watching one’s breath—and koans such as “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Its Rinzai sect in particular further employs behaviors intended to shock disciples out of their normal state into enlightened awareness, and to aid in the “death of the ego” of the student—for which they also utilize “the stick”:

Zen teachers have an excellent method of dealing with students who start comparing themselves to Buddha or God [after their early enlightenment experiences, says Ken Wilber]. “They take the stick and beat the crap out of you. And after five or ten years of that, you finally get over yourself” (Horgan, 2003a).

That, however, is simply a ludicrously romanticized version of physical abuse meted out in the name of spirituality. In reality, such “crap-beating” behavior only shows the tempers and tendencies toward violence of individuals who are naïvely viewed by their followers as being spiritually enlightened.

Richard Rumbold, an English Zen enthusiast, who spent about five months at the Shokokuji, a monastery in Kyoto, describes some savage beatings-up administered by the head monk and his assistant for trifling disciplinary offences (Koestler, 1960).

Such brutal discipline could, further, easily get completely out of hand. Indeed, as a true story told to Janwillem van de Wetering (1999) during his long-term stay at a Japanese Zen monastery in Kyoto in the early 1970s goes:

In Tokyo there are some Zen monasteries as well. In one of these monasteries ... there was a Zen monk who happened to be very conceited. He refused to listen to whatever the master was trying to tell him and used the early morning interviews with the master to air all his pet theories. The masters have a special stick for this type of pupil. Our master has one, too, you will have seen it, a short thick stick. One morning the master hit the monk so hard that the monk didn’t get up any more. He couldn’t, because he was dead....
The head monk reported the incident to the police, but the master was never charged. Even the police know that there is an extraordinary relationship between master and pupil, a relationship outside the law.

Likewise, at a Buddhist repentance ceremony,

two young monks nodded off. After the ceremony, Dokujiki followed them back to the sodo, the monks’ hall. Screaming in rage, Dokujiki grabbed the kyosaku [stick] and went after the young monks.... Dokujiki repeatedly pounded the two terrified fledglings with the thick winter stick.... Since Dokujiki was in a position of authority, nobody said a word to him about his transgressions....
“Some people would tell you that this is a tough form of Buddhist compassion,” said Norman, “but it has nothing to do with Buddhism or compassion. It’s a perversity that should be rejected....
“Even the stick should be dropped. The stick and this stupid macho attitude” (Chadwick, 1994).

Indeed, as far as “stupid macho attitudes” go, it would be difficult to top the celebration of Zen masters “beating the crap out of” their disciples. Yet ironically, Wilber himself, quoted earlier in exactly that regard, endorsed Chadwick’s above text, enthusiastically blurbing, “I love this book!”

As Robert Buswell (1992) further tells it, such violence is actually not at all foreign to Zen, even outside of the purportedly valid discipline of its followers. For, during the fight between celibates and householders for control of Buddhist monasteries in Korea in the 1950s, after the end of the Korean War, the celibate monks

sometimes resorted to physical force to remove the married monks from the monasteries; indeed, older bhiksus [celibate monks] ... told many stories of celibates ordaining young thugs off the streets to bring muscle to their movement....
According to the main news organ of the celibates ... the married monks submitted false evidence in favor of their claims and illegally invaded temples that bhiksus had occupied, trying to retake them.

Such behavior would surely not have surprised Zen priest and scholar D. T. Suzuki, nor was it inconsistent with the attitudes of “enlightened” Zen masters in general:

With his oft-pictured gentle and sagacious appearance of later years, Suzuki is revered among many in the West as a true man of Zen. Yet he wrote that “religion should, first of all, seek to preserve the existence of the state,” followed by the assertion that the Chinese were “unruly heathens” whom Japan should punish “in the name of the religion.” Zen master Harada Sogaku, highly praised in the English writings of Philip Kapleau, Maezumi Taizan, and others, was also quoted by Hakugen [a Rinzai Zen priest and scholar teaching at Hanazono University in Kyoto]. In 1939 he wrote: “[If ordered to] march: tramp, tramp, or shoot: bang, bang. This is the manifestation of the highest Wisdom [of Enlightenment]. The unity of Zen and war of which I speak extends to the farthest reaches of the holy war [now under way]” (Victoria, 1997).

Daizen Victoria, quoted immediately above, is himself no unsympathetic outsider, but is rather a practicing Soto Zen Buddhist priest.

As Suzuki’s own “fully enlightened Zen master,” Soen/Soyen/So-on—who had earlier attended the 1893 Parliament of Religions (Fields, 1992)—put it:

[A]s a means of bringing into harmony those things which are incompatible, killing and war are necessary (in Victoria, 1997).

The Rinzai Zen master Nantembo (1839 – 1925) would certainly have agreed:

There is no bodhisattva practice superior to the compassionate taking of life (in Victoria, 2003).

Likewise for the sagely Omori Sogen, “lauded as the ‘greatest Zen master of modern times,’ whose very life is ‘worthy to be considered a masterpiece of Zen art’”:

Instead of a master concerned with the “life-giving sword” ... of Zen, we encounter someone who from the 1920s took an active part in the ultra-right’s agenda to eliminate parliamentary democracy through political assassination at home and promote Japan’s imperialist aims abroad. In short, a man willing to kill all who stood in the way of his political agenda, yet claiming the enlightenment of the Buddha as his own....
Hosokawa Dogen writes: “The life of Omori Roshi is the manifestation of traditional and true Zen” (Victoria, 2003).

Of Philip Kapleau’s guru, the Yasutani Haku’un immortalized in The Three Pillars of Zen but regarded by some historians since then as being “no less a fanatical militarist” than his own master, Daizen Victoria (2003) opines:

Hakugen should have written: “Yasutani was an even more fanatical militarist, not to mention ethnic chauvinist, sexist, and anti-Semite, than his master!”

Not until 2001 did any of the branches of Rinzai Zen admit or apologize for their zealous support of Japanese militarism (in WWII and otherwise), in equating that militarism with “Buddha Dharma” (Victoria, 2003).

[D]uring the war leading Zen masters and scholars claimed, among other things, that killing Chinese was an expression of Buddhist compassion designed to rid the latter of their “defilements” (Victoria, 2003).

Zen has further long embraced, even prior to its introduction to Japan in the twelfth century, the idea that enlightened beings transcend good and evil.

One Zen master told me that the moral precepts were very important for students to follow, but, of course, Zen masters didn’t need to bother with them since they were “free.” You can imagine what troubles later visited that community (Kornfield, 1993).

And yet, such contemporary attitudes as Kornfield describes are simply “pure Zen,” as it has been practiced in the East for over a thousand years. We can and should question such nonsense, but in doing so we are not returning Zen to its original/traditional form. Rather, we are adapting the accepted way of doing things for our modern times. One cannot, after all, assert on the one hand that “enlightened beings are no longer subject to the moral constraints enjoined by the Buddhist precepts on the unenlightened,” and then turn around and profess surprise when “troubles” visit not merely their transplants into the West but their own traditional communities in the East! Quite obviously, any such “transcendence of moral constraints” would render the particular surrounding social rules irrelevant: If one is not bound by laws, it doesn’t matter whether those same laws are strict or lax when applied to others. Put another way: It doesn’t matter what the speed limit is, or how fast you were going, if you’ve got diplomatic immunity from prosecution for breaking laws which apply to others but not to you.

The scandals, often of a sexual nature, that have rocked a number of American Zen (and other Buddhist) centers in recent years may seem a world apart from Zen-supported Japanese militarism. The difference, however, may not be as great as it first appears, for I suggest the common factor is Zen’s long-standing and self-serving lack of interest in, or commitment to, Buddhism’s ethical precepts (Victoria, 2003).

Again, that unflattering but unusually insightful observation comes from an ordained Zen priest.

Interestingly, albeit for completely different reasons, neither van de Wetering nor Buswell (who spent five years as a Zen monk in Korea) speak positively of the work of either D. T. Suzuki or Kapleau. Rather, those writings on Zen, they respectively indicate, misrepresent how it is actually practiced in contemporary Asia:

[Modern Zen] monks in Korea train within an extensive web of religious thought and practice.... These monks know that while Zen masters teach sudden enlightenment, they follow in their daily practice a rigidly scheduled regimen of training. They know that while Zen texts claim to eschew doctrinal understanding, monks are expected first to gain a solid grounding in Buddhist texts before starting meditation practice....
The vision of Zen presented in much Western scholarship distorts the quality of Zen religious experience as it is lived by its own adherents (Buswell, 1992).

As to the actual life and mindset of Zen monks in Asia, then, when seeking entrance to a monastery as a trainee the prospective monk will first prostrate himself at the gate for hours or days.

When asked why he wishes to enter the monastery, the monk should reply, “I know nothing. Please accept my request!” indicating that his mind is like a blank sheet of paper, ready to be inscribed by his superiors as they wish. If a monk fails to give the proper answer, he is struck repeatedly with the kyosaku until his shoulders are black and blue and the desired state of mind is achieved (Victoria, 1997).

Having been accepted into the community with that “desired state of mind,” even monks who were admitted just hours earlier will exercise authority over the neophyte, preceding him at meals and on other semiformal or formal occasions.

Those senior monks who have been in training for more than one or two years seem, to the new entrant, to be superior beings (Victoria, 1997).
* * *

What, then, of the widespread enlightenment which one might idealistically wish to attribute to practitioners of Zen?

I once asked Katagiri Roshi, with whom I had my first breakthrough ... how many truly great Ch’an and Zen masters there have historically been. Without hesitating, he said, “Maybe one thousand altogether.” I asked another Zen master how many truly enlightened—deeply enlightened—Japanese Zen masters there were alive today, and he said, “Not more than a dozen” (Wilber, 2000a).

Thus, we have over a millennium of Zen teachers “beating the crap out of” their numerous disciples on a regular basis, to generate a scant thousand (i.e., around one per year, globally) “enlightened” individuals. That, however, would never be a reasonable trade-off, via any “calculus of suffering.” That is so particularly since such enlightenment primarily benefits only the specific person “blessed” by it, not the world at large.

Be that as it may, the “death of the ego” in enlightenment remains a strong motivation for meditators, in Zen and elsewhere.

[One] of the marks of the meditation monk [as opposed to the monastery administrators, etc.] is to wear old clothes covered with layer upon layer of patches. While such garments are supposed to show his detachment from material possessions, they more often serve as a kind of monastic status symbol. On several occasions I even knew a monk new to the meditation hall to trade a brand-new set of polyester robes for old patchwork clothes. During their free time, the meditation monks can often be found adding still more patches to their raiments (Buswell, 1992).

More accurately, then, the death of other people’s egos remains a strong motivating factor for meditators everywhere, with the leverage of their respected power both acting to effect that, and aiding in the indulgence of their own desires.

Mo-san’s trap turned out to be his very “noncaring diligence”.... I heard that, some ten years later, he became a substitute master in an American Zen temple on the West Coast. During his tenure he hid his shortness by wearing platform soles under lengthened robes and insisted that his lay disciples buy him a Cadillac to glide about in. He evoked a scandal by trying to trade insights for intimate encounters with tall blondes (van de Wetering, 2001).

Or, expressed in haiku:

Tall blonde, high heels, wow!
Is that a lengthened silk robe?
Happy to see you

We should hardly be surprised that relocating stick-wielding “Eastern truths” into the materialistic and unconstrained West would result in a dilution of their transformative value. But in their native, sacred East?

Despite the disastrous problems most of his students had encountered trying to study Zen in Japan, [Shunryu] Suzuki [of the San Francisco Zen Center, author of the million-selling Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind] continued to explore the possibility.... Suzuki had ordained [a] couple before they went to Japan. The wife did fine at a nunnery, but her husband was forcibly sedated and shipped out of [the Soto headquarters, mountain monastery at] Eiheiji. A woman from Zen Center had such horrible experiences in Japanese temples that she rejected Buddhism entirely, bought a wig, and moved to L.A. (Chadwick, 1999).

The “Little Suzuki” himself founded the world’s first Buddhist monastery outside of Asia, at Tassajara hot springs—located three hours southeast of San Francisco—in 1966. The list of visitors and close associates to the San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC) and Tassajara predictably reads like a “Who’s Who” of American Buddhist (real and wanna-be) spirituality: Alan Watts, beat poet Allen Ginsberg and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gary Snyder. Also, translator Thomas Cleary, social economist E. F. Schumacher, and Stewart Brand (co-founder of the Whole Earth Catalog). Plus Robert Thurman, the Harvard-graduated scholarly father of Hollywood-goddess Uma and the self-proclaimed “first hippie in Asia,” who was ordained as the first American Tibetan Buddhist monk by the Dalai Lama himself. Additionally, Joan Baez, Mick Jagger, and Earl McGrath, the (former) head of Rolling Stone Records. Also, anthropologist Gregory Bateson, former California governor and 1992 U.S. presidential candidate Jerry Brown, and numerous other recipients of (seriously) autographed fruitcakes later presented by Suzuki’s successor, Richard Baker.

For, before passing away in 1971, Suzuki-roshi had named Baker as his sole American “dharma heir,” or recipient of the Buddhist “transmission” from guru to disciple. (Baker, for his own part, had earlier organized the first major LSD conference in the United States, in 1966.)

“[What] does transmission mean?” I asked Suzuki.... “Does it mean that Richard Baker is perfectly enlightened, and that his mind is the same as the mind of Buddha? Is his understanding complete?”
“Oh, no no no,” Suzuki said. “Don’t make too much of it. It means he has a good understanding. A good understanding and a complete commitment”....
[I]t was the equivalent of getting a teacher’s certificate. Suzuki had said in lectures, “Transmission is nothing special,” or “Actually, there is nothing to transmit” (Chadwick, 1999).

Baker himself, however, apparently evinced a somewhat more self-flattering understanding as to the significance of his own spiritual inheritance:

Transmission happens outside the limits of identity and ego. The fact that an acknowledged master acknowledges you as a Zen master means “you are no longer a Buddhist; what you do is Buddhism” (Downing, 2001; italics added).

And what, then, “is Buddhism”?

As abbot of San Francisco Zen Center, between the abbot’s budget and use of community-owned residences and resources, [Baker] lived in a style that he estimates could be duplicated by a private citizen with an annual salary of close to half a million dollars a year (Tworkov, 1994).

Discipline under the transmitted “Frisco Zen master” then reportedly (Downing, 2001) included:

  • Baker dictating to his followers as to whom they could or couldn’t be involved with in sexual relationships

  • The master having his followers “stand in rows and bow as he drove away from Tassajara” in a “fantastic to drive” BMW, thereby causing himself to be viewed by at least one of those bowing disciples as the “Richard Nixon of Zen”

  • Ostensibly “lifetime” members of the Tassajara Board of Directors involuntarily “going on sabbatical” when not being sufficiently supportive of Baker’s wishes
“What Baker transmitted,” said a senior priest, “was power and arrogance and an attitude that ‘I have it and you don’t’” (Tworkov, 1994).
At the San Francisco Zen Center, the problems that came to a head in 1983 [involved] a number of master-disciple sexual affairs, as well as a complex pattern of alleged misuses of authority and charisma, both psychologically and financially (Anthony, et al., 1987).

More specifically, the Harvard-educated, married Baker “was forced to resign after his affair with a married student was revealed” (Schwartz, 1996). The frantic husband of the rich, lithe blonde in question—whom Baker reportedly claimed had seduced him (we should all have such luck)—was a writer by the name of Paul Hawken. He, in turn, was of upscale Smith & Hawken garden tool (and more) catalog fame, and had previously been seen within the community as being Richard’s best friend, even being referred to thusly by Baker himself (Tworkov, 1994).

At least two other women were reportedly cruelly discredited as being mentally unstable by Richard following the termination of his alleged sexual involvement with them (Downing, 2001).

After all that, the author of The Tassajara Bread Book expressed his own opinion of Baker:

A friend of mine said it best: I give thanks to Dick Baker every day for fucking up so incredibly well that it gave me my life back, because I had given it to him (in Downing, 2001).
Senior priests were testifying at public meetings about physical and psychological abuse Richard had [allegedly] perpetrated....
Richard’s close friend and advisor, Esalen’s Michael Murphy, told Richard that “the whole alternative movement was crippled by what happened at Zen Center” (Downing, 2001).

And yet, to the present day, Baker reportedly insists:

The only scandalous thing that happened at Zen Center is how I was treated (in Tworkov, 1994).

This lack of comprehension about what it might mean to “cause no harm” to others, on the part of unapologetic individuals laying claim to enlightenment, profound transmission and grand bodhisattva vows, is something which we shall sadly meet consistently throughout the following chapters. Worse, one regularly sees that persons whose lives have been shattered by their guru-figures, who have then mustered the courage to speak out, are being dismissed and discredited as “crazy,” etc. Further, that is done in ways indistinguishable from those in which secular victims of incest or rape are treated, should they dare to come forward.

Baker’s own process of recovery from the self-inflicted 1983 “Apocalypse” included a letter from the Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh, vouching for Baker’s sincerity of apology to the community. Also, a spurned offer from the Dalai Lama for him to take refuge in northern India, and a trip to Disneyland with singer Linda Ronstadt.

Getting ready for an evening out, [Baker] rolls up his sleeves and says plaintively, “I didn’t dance enough when I was at Zen Center. I should have danced more” (Tworkov, 1994).

Or, as Nero himself could have put it, millennia ago, upon seeing his own empire burn: “I should have fiddled more.”

And how would all of the discontent regarding Baker’s alleged behaviors have been handled in the “traditional” Far East?

The treatment of individual students was the purview of the teacher. This was the traditional model. Whatever happened, you could say it was a teaching (Downing, 2001; italics added).

Further, following the 1983 “explosion,”

people came from Japan and tried to tell us that if we were unhappy with the teacher, we should leave, and the teacher should stay (Yvonne Rand, in [Downing, 2001]).

This pressure to have the unhappy students leave and let the holy teacher stay, too, is very relevant to the unsupportable idea that guru-disciple relationships have “traditionally” worked. (The untenable claim implicit there is that in the agrarian East such relationships had “checks and balances” in place, which purportedly constrained the behaviors of their guru-figures in ways which are absent in the West.) For, observations such as Rand’s, above, clearly show that “traditional” societies have exercised far less practical checks and balances on the behaviors of their gurus/kings/emperors than does the modern and postmodern West.

I was taught in school [that the Japanese emperor] was the [sic] god and I believed till I was ten years old and the war [i.e., WWII] over....
We thought Chinese inferior and whites were devils and only god, our god, could win the war (in Chadwick, 1994).

Feudal society, with unquestioning obedience to the guru-like, divine emperor—the “embodiment of Supreme Truth”—actually existed in the “divine land” of Japan until the midpoint of the twentieth century. For the effects of that on the citizens, reflected in past and present society and culture, consult Victoria’s (1997) Zen at War, Van Wolferen’s (1990) The Enigma of Japanese Power, and Barry’s (1992) Dave Barry Does Japan.

Consider, further, the private life of Gyokujun So-on, the Japanese teacher of the late Shunryu Suzuki. Suzuki became a disciple of So-on in 1917, at age thirteen. In those same years, So-on was carrying on an affair with the wife of a local (Japanese) merchant.

[E]veryone knew about their relationship.... No one did anything to stop their trysts, but there was general disapproval. It was a contributing factor to So-on’s loss of students (Chadwick, 1999).

Note that this rule-breaking was met merely with a milquetoast “general disapproval,” not with discipline or meaningful censure or career impediments sufficient to cause it to stop. That is so regardless of whatever one might propose the local cultural effect of such “general disapproval” to otherwise be in terms of lost honor, etc. In that behavior, further, So-on was merely carrying on a long-standing “tradition” himself:

In the Edo Era [1600 – 1868], Buddhist priests did not marry, but temples were busy places, and the priests in many cases were somewhat worldly. Women began living in the temples, to work and, at times, to love. They did not show their faces because they weren’t supposed to be there to begin with (Chadwick, 1999; italics added).
Otori [1814 – 1904] recognized that a large number of Buddhist priests were already married, in spite of regulations prohibiting it (Victoria, 1997; italics added).
[I]n Zen monasteries in Japan ... sex between men has long been both a common practice and a prohibited activity (Downing, 2001; italics added).
[A]t the same time every evening, there was the faint smell of smoke from the dark graveyard. It wasn’t until the third or fourth day that I realized that the monks weren’t piously lighting joss sticks for the old masters’ graves at all; they were sneaking a quick forbidden [italics added] cigarette in the shadows of the mossy tombstones....
No one was around when I left the sodo, but I thought I heard the sound of female laughter from within the labyrinth of thin-walled rooms, and I couldn’t help wondering what other rules might be relaxed when the roshi was out of town.
I walked out through the terracotta courtyard, and as I passed the doghouse I saw that [the dog’s] dish contained ordinary mud-colored kibbles. This confirmed my suspicion that the [prohibited in the Buddhist diet] meat on the stove hadn’t been for the dog, at all (Boehm, 1996).

In accord with such wholly unpunished, contemporary rule-breaking, Janwillem van de Wetering (1999) relates his own experiences in Kyoto:

I noticed that the young monks had discovered ways to break the rules of the monastery.... When they put on a suit and a cap nobody would recognize them, and I saw them climb over the wall at night.
“Whatever do you do when you are over the wall?” I asked Han-san, the youngest monk, who had become my friend.
“As long as you don’t tell anyone,” Han-san said. “We go to the cinema, and sometimes to a pub to have a little saké, but it’s difficult because at 3:30 in the morning we have to visit the master and we can’t be smelling of alcohol. And sometimes we go to the whores.”

Zen priests and monks, unlike those in other branches of Buddhism (e.g., Theravada), are not actually sworn to celibacy. Nevertheless, the above clandestine activities, even by non-enlightened individuals who cannot claim to have “transcended rules of good and evil,” certainly constituted a breaking of the rules of the Asian community/society. They further again suffered no associated punishment from the monastery leaders—who themselves would surely have violated the same rules in their younger days.

The point here is obviously not that “rules are meant to be obeyed”—as Socrates would evidently have it, in docilely accepting the unfair death-sentence handed to him by the ancient tribunal (Askenasy, 1978), or in “just following the orders” of that authority. Rather, the relevant point to take from all of these examples is simply that the claim that spiritual aspirants followed the rules in the agrarian East or otherwise in no way matches the documented information. That, in turn, is wholly relevant to the “guru game,” simply because the same belief is regularly used to support the false idea that guru-disciple relationships worked in those contexts, even if not functioning properly in our own society and culture.

Nor was it necessary to go out seeking in order to find the enjoyments listed by van de Wetering, above:

Girls threw rocks into the sodo’s courtyard with invitations attached with red ribbons.... I once got a rock on my head (van de Wetering, 2001).
Wet night, a rock, ouch!
Her love trails in red ribbons
Falling from the sky

But far, far away from such “enlightenment” ... where noble, revered masters and their humble disciples chop wood, draw water, and have illicit sex ... the quiet, spontaneous grace of a Zen archer, his performance broadcast on Dutch television—

a Japanese archery-adept in robes, bowing, kneeling, dancing, praying before he pulled his bow’s string ... and had his arrow miss the target completely (van de Wetering, 2001).

The young girls throwing rocks over Kyoto monastery walls, however—their sweet offers of love attached by soft red silk ribbons—hit the bull’s eye every time.

Prev   Table of Contents Next

Download Stripping the Gurus PDF