Repost: No Sex Scandals in the East?

There’s been a flurry of activity in the last few weeks over at Sweeping Zen and other places in the online Zen world about allegations of sexual misconduct by Joshu Sasaki Roshi.  In reading what’s been written, I was reminded of this post from a year and a half ago, during the last round of allegations against well-known Zen teachers, and thought I’d repost it . . .

In the context of the recent heartbreaking tangled situations involving Eido Shimano Roshi and Genpo Merzel Roshi (a good summary of the events are here for those of you who haven’t been following it), I was amazed to read last week about an 18th-century Zen priest sex scandal in Sagami Province (now Kanagawa Prefecture) in eastern Japan.

The whole thing is described in Duncan Ryuken Williams’ The Other Side of Zen:  A Social History of Soto Zen Buddhism in Tokugawa Japan, which is a fascinating and useful book.  In the convert Buddhist world, we’re really beginning to grow up in our Dharma understanding, I think—and it’s largely through the work of the amazing scholarship that’s been done in English in the last twenty or thirty years.  We’re finally approaching a place where we can play fair in talking about our tradition.  For too long, I’m afraid, we converts were able to claim the deepest, most beautiful insights of Buddhist philosophy–or what we took Buddhist philosophy to be!–without having to acknowledge the hypocrisy and greed of Buddhist historical institutions.  Imagine if all you knew about Christianity was Meister Eckhart or St. John of the Cross.  It’d be amazing, right?  And it would be a deep sign of maturity once you found out about the Crusades, or the crisis of clergy sexual abuse, and had to wrestle with, absorb, confront those deep failings and limitations.  As convert Buddhists, we’re finally there—or beginning to approach it—in the West, I think.  It’s a very good sign and I’m very grateful to those working on the academic/historical/scholarly side of the Dharma.  May they continue to surprise us.

The story, as Williams unfolds it, takes place in the 1780’s.  A Soto priest named Tetsumei, an abbot of the local temple, occasionally had a married parishioner named Towa repair his robes.  On one of his visits, he made advances towards her and was rejected.  When time came for him to enroll Towa’s family on the Registry of Religious Affiliation, he visited her again and said that unless she had sex with him, he wouldn’t put his seal on her family’s registration.

For context here, we have to remember that anyone who wasn’t registered with one of the official temples ended up on the Registry of Nonhumans (!) and was subject to all sorts of discrimination, both in this life and in the funeral rites that prepared for the next.  Tetsumei’s threat, then, was a naked abuse of his power over her and her family, and Towa agreed to sleep with him.  On several occasions in the ensuing years, Tetsumei and Towa were caught together by Towa’s husband, Matabee.  The first time, Matabee was convinced to let the matter drop, at least partly because reporting the abbot would be insulting to the family’s ancestors.  (The logic is sort of skewed there—I confess to not quite following how exactly that would work.  But it’s a sign, again, of the power of the temple priest—power to affect the spirit world, the world of the ancestors, and the world of the parishioner’s next lives.)  The second time the husband catches them together, though, he threatens to divorce his wife, and in the ensuing chaos, she writes a letter to the authorities (which Williams quotes at length.)

Tetsumei denies the whole thing at first (he eventually confesses) and the abbots of neighboring temples all close ranks and support their fellow-priest.  The most amazing wrinkle to me, though, is that the villagers themselves don’t back off.  Furious not only at Tetsumei’s transgressions, but also at the fact that he was rumored to be bragging about how he had gotten away with it, they demand his resignation.  From a 1786 letter from one parishioner to the Soto authorities:

How is possible that we could trust a man of such character with the abbotship of our family temple, which means he is in charge of memorial rites for our parents and ancestors?  Eventually, we too will have our funerals conducted by this man.  This is completely unacceptable for we will be the butt of jokes.  Even if we ignored what others thought of us, we [would nevertheless] absolutely refuse to accept him [in this position.] (quoted in Williams, p. 33)

Under this pressure from the villagers, the head temple removed Tetsumei from the abbotship, although since he doesn’t seem to have disrobed, Williams admits that it’s possible he was simply moved to another temple.  Still, the most interesting part of all this for me is less the scandal—although remembering that people have always been nuts is hugely helpful—than the fact that even in Tokugawa-era Japan, it was the laypeople’s organized, outraged, public response to the abuses and hypocrisy of power that changed the situation.  They held their religious leaders accountable.  I say there’s a lot of wisdom in taking them as our inspiration.

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4 Responses to Repost: No Sex Scandals in the East?

  1. Pingback: Repost: No Sex Scandals in the East? | No Zen in the West | Crazy Cloud

  2. I’ve never heard of any sex scandals within the Sufi world. Perhaps it’s because their practice puts attention towards awakening at the heart. Rumi called for a “Love Religion”. Maybe the Sufis at least got the point? An interesting text in that regard is Irina Tweedie’s “Daughter of Fire”.

  3. chris wildman says:

    fascinating: excellent post

  4. I-Life-U says:

    I promise there was/is plenty of sex abuse in the Sufi world. What makes something a “scandal” is hearing about it. What makes something a scandal in your mind, is you hearing about it.
    Consider for a moment the abuse of women in Islam, and generally in patriarchal religious memes. Probably enough said.

    Where there are animals – especially men – there is sexual abuse aka rape. One point is how social institutions propel that, increase its propensity, and otherwise function as authoritarian apologists for rapists (often also attacking the victims), and what we as “peasants” aka living-light can do about it. Evolutionarily, rape is a very common form of successful reproduction, but we would rather do away with it now. The only way to “do away with it” is for it to become an evolutionarily untenable practice. In other words, rapists need to be defeated and not successfully reproduce. That onus is on women to learn to competently defend themselves and ideally to kill the rapist in situ. Truth can be tough. As a woman or man, it’s your duty to destroy any rapist or abuser if you think it’s so bad, helping U-I-Life and all those other living lights whom the rapist will harm if you let him succeed. For everyone, we must do our best to create and perpetuate spaces and institutions that don’t lend themselves to this kind of abuse and can correct it when happens. Of course matriarchal oversight and women involvement can be a good way, and especially disproportionately empowering women and girls with the powers and trainings of protection.

    One problem we see here and throughout these institutions is the way rape is being effected through psychological dominance/manipulation. I recommend Aikido training to all beings in conjunction with another striking martial art. You got to accept responsibility to take care of you, that means the responsibility to protect I-life and soul from cruel happenings. Your mace or pepper spray or gun or whatever are not with you always. You are with you always. No one can do that for you, and what they can/may do will always be too late. Please don’t waste precious time.
    As far as “Sufi” goes, like “Zen” or “Catholic” or “Guru” institutions, they are bastions of shame. Corruptions and power-abuse institutions rooted in delusion, greed and hierarchy. “The last Christian died on the Cross” and “there are no Zen Masters in China”. Atta Dipa. You are the Light.

    There’s even a specific Sufi meditation called “contemplation of the beardless”, which is an obvious euphemism for “man-boy love” aka homosexual abuse. Given that “Muslim” means “one who submits” and considering the degree of religious authority vested in patriarchal figures in Islam, well…you get the picture. Does that mean Hafiz or Rumi or Shams or the Naqshbandi are all a bunch of rapists? I don’t know, but some of them are for sure.
    Quoting wikipedia: The meditation known in Arabic as Naẓar ila’l-murd (Arabic: النظر إلى المرد‎), “contemplation of the beardless”, and in Persian Shahed-bāzī, (Persian: شاهدبازی‎), “witness play”, is a Sufi practice of spiritual realization recorded since the earliest years of Islam. It is seen as an act of worship, held to realise the absolute beauty that is God through the relative beauty of the human form that is the divine image. In its best-known form it simply consists of gazing upon a beautiful boy.
    It’s “best known form”. Yah I’m effin sure.

    Okay? They allllll bad. ALL!! You’re the Light. “I am the Way and the Truth” means “YOU ARE the Way and the Truth”. I Am izzz the Truth. This is what “Yahweh” means. What “atta dipa” means, what blah-blah is trying to tell U-I. Make no mistake =O)

    Please take responsibility for I-Life and protecting growing living-light, and remember men, don’t be a pervert!! Or a rapist!! Wakarimasuka? You’re supposed to protect and nurture love harmony.

    Thank you for your patience and consideration.
    namaste!

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