Ready to Mine: Zen’s Legitimating Mythology and Cultish Behavior

ICSA Today, Volume 9, Number 1, 2018, pages 6-10

Ready to Mine: Zen’s Legitimating Mythology and Cultish Behavior

Stuart Lachs

Zen As Presented by Some Zen Masters

Zen Master Seung Sahn, the most famous Korean Zen Master in the West, in Dropping Ashes on the Buddha, one of his better-selling books, related the following exchange of letters that indicate his view of what a Zen master is supposed to do or be. Someone asked,

"If a Zen master is capable of doing miracles, why doesn’t he do them? ... Why doesn’t Soen-sa-nim do as Jesus did—make the blind see, or touch a crazy person and make him sane? Wouldn’t even such a showy miracle as walking on water make people believe in Zen...?"2

The Master replied, "Many people want miracles, and if they witness miracles they become very attached to them. But miracles are only a technique. They are not the true way." (Sahn, 1976, p. 99)

Here we see Master Seung Sahn implying that he too could perform the miracles that Jesus supposedly performed, but that he dismisses them as “only a technique” which is “not the true way.” So he claims not to do miracles because that would distract people from “the true way.” His reply is also a not-so-understated slap at Christianity and Jesus for using flashy techniques to attract people who do not have the highest goals.

The well-known Chinese/Taiwanese Chan master Sheng-yen said of the Chan master,3

…it should be remembered that the mind of the master is ever pure. ... [and] Even if the master tells lies, steals, and chases women..., ... he is still to be considered a true master as long as he scolds his disciples … [for their] transgressions. (Sheng-yen, 1984, pp. 1–2)4

Here the reader is informed that, no matter what the Zen master does, it is beyond both the reader’s and the student’s understanding because the master’s mind is ever pure, a mysterious state beyond the ordinary person’s comprehension. The student is informed that the master’s authority must be taken totally on faith in the infallibility and omniscience that is implicit in his title Zen master. According to Master Sheng-yen, the student is incapable of making any judgments relating to the master’s activities.

The American Richard Baker, later to become Baker roshi, in the Introduction to perhaps the best-selling Zen book in the English language, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (by Mr. Baker’s teacher, Suzuki-roshi), describes the term roshi in perhaps the most idealistic manner in the English language:

A roshi is a person who has actualized that perfect freedom which is the potentiality for all human beings. He exists freely in the fullness of his whole being. The flow of his consciousness is not the fixed repetitive patterns of our usual self-centered consciousness, but rather arises spontaneously and naturally from the actual circumstances of the present. The results of this in terms of the quality of his life are extraordinary—buoyancy, vigor, straightforwardness, simplicity, humility, serenity, joyousness, uncanny perspicacity and unfathomable compassion.... Without anything said or done, just the impact of meeting a personality so developed can be enough to change another’s whole way of life. But in the end it is not the extraordinariness of the teacher which perplexes, intrigues, and deepens the student, it is the teacher’s utter ordinariness. (Suzuki, 1970, p. 18)

This introduction was meant to describe a real person, and by extension, as is clearly stated, all people with the title roshi. It is not an idealized reference to a heavenly being or some distant or mythological religious figure. It was also written 2 years before Suzuki-roshi passed the mantel of authority to Mr. Baker, anointing him as Baker roshi, as was known to Baker at the time of the preceding writing. Essentially then, Baker was describing himself and how he should be viewed by his students as the soon-to-be Zen master of the San Francisco Zen Center.

To summarize, in the definitions and descriptions of the Zen master quoted previously, there is an extraordinary claim to authority. These descriptions were given by individuals who are themselves Masters, the very official spokespersons for Zen institutions and believed by credulous Westerners to be the only valid voices of Zen. These definitions were given by modern representatives of Zen from Korea, China/Taiwan, Japan, and the United States.

One can easily see from these descriptions of a Zen master that it is not necessary for any particular Zen master to make claims concerning the master’s own enlightenment or own level of perfection because Zen institutional traditions repeat this claim for the person sitting in the role of Zen master. Any particular Zen follower who is adequately socialized into a given group cannot but see the master as expressing the Mind of the Buddha. Indeed, the master often believes the same thing. Through its structure, mythology, ritual practices, and perhaps most significantly, through its use of a special set of terms and definitions, the Zen institution reinforces this claim for the Zen master.

What Is the Basis for Zen’s Claims of Such Authority?

The Chan or Zen sect does not base its authority on a text or texts as do other sects of Buddhism; rather, that authority is communicated through the idea of mind-to-mind transmission. This transmission is ritualized as Dharma transmission, by which the enlightened mind of the Buddha itself has been passed down through the ages. Similar to one candle lighting the next in a supposedly unbroken chain, the enlightened mind of the Buddha is transmitted from one enlightened Zen master to the next. Zen claims this transmission is a separate transmission outside the teachings—that is, outside of texts. In doing so, Zen marks itself as essentially different from and more authoritative than all the other Buddhist schools. In this scheme, the living Zen master standing in front of you is the last in this unbroken series of enlightened beings. Hence, holding the title Chan or Zen master, or roshi becomes an unquestioned marker of authority. Everyone else is open to delusional thoughts, self-interest, self-aggrandizement, and all the shortcomings of ordinary human beings.

To summarize, the basis for Zen’s authority is composed of three elements:

Zen master is considered an enlightened being beyond the understanding of ordinary people—a living person who sits in for the Buddha.

Dharma transmission according to convention is the formal recognition on the part of the master that the disciple has attained an understanding equal to that of the teacher.

Unbroken lineage, supposedly starting with seven prehistoric Buddhas and continuing through the historical Sakyamuni Buddha in India, to the six Chan patriarchs in China, down to the present-day living masters.

In understanding Zen social functioning, it helps to keep in mind Pierre Bourdieu’s (1991) basic model of religious authority:

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 moving 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, interpret it, 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. (Cole, 2006, p. 13)

In Zen, (a) the belief that the historical Buddha is the deep origin of truth, (b) the views on Dharma transmission, and (c) the idea of unbroken lineage are the means for bringing that truth-perfection forward in time, while the living Dharma-transmitted Zen master is the contemporary spokesperson for that primordial truth-perfection. In light of Bourdieu’s ideas, it is not surprising that, around Zen centers, the focus is on who does and does not have Dharma transmission rather than on what it actually means or who these people actually are or do.

This emphasis creates a hierarchical power relationship. So-called Zen insight or wisdom can function as the basis of this relationship between student and Zen master. Essentially, every aspect of the student’s life is open to the teacher’s judgment. The struggle occurs over at least two issues: the student wanting to be recognized for having realized the truth of Zen, and the student being authorized to be a teacher in the student’s own right, along with having the perks and privileges of the position. Both these issues depend solely on the teacher’s unquestionable decision.

Because of Zen’s emphasis on no-self, we can argue that Zen places more importance than other religions on its cleric’s—in this case, the Zen master’s—lack of self-interest and supposed unconcern with his public image. This doesn’t mean there is, in fact, a lack of self-interest, only that the master’s self-interest can more easily be disguised beneath the Zen ideals of enlightened mind, selflessness, and teaching. In contrast, common people cannot be trusted because by nature their actions are driven by self-interest. The imputed lack of self-interest of the master implies that everything the master does is to help the student, whether or not the student understands this.

These imputed qualities of the master—(a) lack of self-interest and (b) everything the master does is to help the student—easily combine to become tools of dominance and abuse in interpersonal relations between the master and his disciples. And in fact there is widespread abuse.

Joshu Sasaki Roshi and Rinzai-ji

Perhaps the best example of cultlike behavior in a modern Western Zen group is the Rinzai-ji, the organization formed around Joshu Sasaki, a Japanese roshi and founder and Abbot of Rinzai-ji. Sasaki arrived in America in 1962, and by 1974 had a well-established reputation in Western Zen and had accumulated three major properties. Into 2012, he stood out as an authentic, demanding, “real deal” Zen master with many fully ordained disciples (oshos) and close to thirty affiliated groups spread across the United States of America and Europe.

But all this was to take a dramatic turn on November 16, 2012, when Eshu Martin, a former monk of Sasaki, posted an open letter on the Internet that immediately went viral. Titled “Everybody Knows—Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi and Rinzai-Ji,” the letter spoke openly what until then were tightly kept secrets regarding Sasaki roshi, but also disclosing the organization’s complicit role in these processes:

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 behaviour 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 behaviour has been ignored, hushed up, downplayed, justified, and defended by the [board of directors], monks, [nuns,] and students that remain 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. (Martin, 2012, para. 1–2)

The publication of this letter initiated a torrent of further disclosures. Stories accumulated, often with great detail, while ex-insiders with close knowledge of the organization now felt free to talk openly. It also turned out that Sasaki was at the center of sexual and financial scandals involving embezzling temple funds for pleasure spending sprees in Japan in the early 1950s, and he spent 8 months in prison because of these matters.5

With these disclosures, a number of women in America on the receiving end of Sasaki’s transgressions reported how they felt vindicated for leaving, how they felt abused and used, and how they never realized that they each represented only one of perhaps hundreds of others. It was later estimated by an independent council looking into the matter that between 100 and 300 women were abused by Sasaki.

Sasaki’s own 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.6 Sasaki clearly viewed his own position as Zen master as beyond criticism because he was at the very top of an absolute hierarchy. Besides being an authorized Rinzai roshi,7 he was the oldest living Zen master in the world, while his lineage was from the famous Myoshin-ji monastery, the largest Rinzai lineage in Japan. In the eyes of most Western Zen students too, this combination of elements made him an authorized spokesman for the entire Rinzai tradition and imputed him to be a person of guaranteed belief and trust, an absolute presence.

In addition, Sasaki’s senior monks and nuns (oshos) and loyalists left no room to question his behavior. When women complained to monks or to other students who were older in the practice and higher in the hierarchy, they rarely met with sympathy. As a senior student declared, “If you do not like it, leave” (Lesage, 2012). One woman confronted Sasaki in the 1980s and reports that she found herself an outcast afterward. She said that afterward “hardly anyone in the sangha (group of practitioners), whom I had grown up with for 20 years, would have anything to do with us” (Oppenheimer & Lovett, 2013, para. 11). Sasaki’s belief in and practice of an unquestionable hierarchy was absorbed by his older disciples. The acceptance of Sasaki’s unquestionable authority and legitimacy by his students was inculcated through a long and slow process of their own acceptance within the group and their gaining a place in Sasaki’s hierarchy.

Sasaki’s loyal oshos were a group close to him, 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.8 In the process, they made clear that if someone had a problem with Sasaki’s behavior, it was a sign of their own lack of understanding Zen (O’Hearn, 2012). This view related to the master is common at other Zen centers.9 Sasaki’s students remained silent to protect their years of practice, along with their elevated positions in the hierarchy. This attitude is closely connected to the severity of Sasaki’s retreats and practice periods, which also functioned as rites of initiation. Everyone understood that Sasaki could, at his discretion, strip them of their positions and force them to leave.

The claim that whatever Sasaki (or any other roshi) did was in fact Zen teaching even amounted to declaring that what for the women constituted sexual abuse was really a teaching method. When a young woman who was Sasaki’s assistant (inji) at the time complained about Sasaki’s constant sexual advances, one monk replied that “sexualizing a teaching … was very appropriate for particular women” (Off & Douglas, 2013).10 “The monk’s theory, widespread in Sasaki’s circle, was that such physicality could check a woman’s overly strong ego” (Oppenheimer, & Lovett, 2013, para. 15). Sasaki claimed his sexual advances were in fact teaching nonattachment and emptiness, core Zen values. Sasaki and his loyalists thus in effect claimed that these acts, which seemed self-serving and abusive to the unenlightened, were really examples of Mahāyāna Buddhist upāya—skillful means that teach the Dharma in a way that the students need, whether or not they recognize it.11

It is important to realize that the women who remained silent for such a long time became accomplices in their own abuse. They had bought into Zen’s ideology of the perfected Zen master. This outcome is not surprising, because the ideology is repeated constantly in Zen literature, talks, and rituals, which juxtapose the enlightened Zen master and the mass of unenlightened ordinary people. Even when some women left the organization or were forced by Sasaki loyalists to leave, they were hesitant to speak out publicly for fear of giving Zen or the master a bad name, or of exposing how they accepted and submitted to their own abuse.12

This power of Zen ideology embodied by the Zen master is hard to understand without considering Dharma transmission, the power of investiture by the Zen institution. All rites of institutions are “acts of social magic” which legitimate a boundary, while obscuring the arbitrary nature of this boundary (Bourdieu, 1991, pp. 105–126). Zen Dharma transmission, the basis of the construction of its lineage, creates this divide between the supposedly beyond-understanding, enlightened Zen master and everyone else. This is especially so with Asian teachers. Unfortunately, as the many scandals in Western Zen have shown, Western teachers have also learned to mine Zen’s legitimating story.

Consequently, the structures of Zen’s legitimating mythology become a mechanism that facilitates abuse. It is difficult to point to a single culprit; rather, it is a network of complicity that includes power, meaning-making, identity, ritual, and the abused people themselves.


[1] The author welcomes comments at

[2] In Korean Soen means Chan/Zen, sa means teacher, and nim is an honorific that could mean seniority, wisdom, or beloved. Essentially then, Soen-sa-nim means honored Soen/Zen master. When followers of the Kwan Um School of Zen say Soen-sa-nim, they mean Soen/Zen Master Seung Sahn, the founder of the school.

[3] Sheng-yen talked consistently about Chan masters in a very idealized way. The piece quoted here was written in 1984 when sexual and financial scandals were rocking American Zen. Richard Baker roshi of the San Francisco Zen Center, Maezumi roshi of the LA Zen Center, and Eido Shimano roshi of the Zen Studies Society in NYC, three of the most prominent Zen centers in the USA, were at the center of the scandals. I believe Sheng-yen was reacting to these scandals and attempting to maintain the unquestioned authority of the position of Zen master/roshi. At the time, I told Sheng-yen these were the wrong words at the wrong time.

[4] Stated in a public talk given at his Chan Meditation Center. It was later printed in Sheng-yen’s Center’s newsletter, Ch’an Newsletter, No. 38, 1984, pp. 1–2 (available online at

[5] See “Zuiganji Affair Translations” for further details (available at These newspaper reports were translated by Jundo Cohen, an American lawyer and Zen priest who lived in Japan for 20 years.

[6] Among traditional Japanese Zen practitioners, Sasaki’s interest in sex would not in itself be a cause for concern; rather, the concern was about his letting it take too big a part in his life and interfere with his role of Zen master. For further details, see Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture (1946; New York, NY/Scarborough, Ontario: Meridian), pp. 183–185.

[7] Sasaki was hardly the only Rinzai roshi who felt he did not have to answer to people beneath him in the hierarchy.

[8] 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” (see S. Bell, “Scandals in Emerging Western Buddhism,” in Westward Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Asia, Prebish, Charles S.,. & Martin Bauman (Eds.), (2002, Berkeley, CA/Los Angeles, CA/ London, UK: University of California Press), pp. 230–244.

[9] These words were repeated almost verbatim by older students of Richard Baker Roshi of the San Francisco Zen Center when newer students, not quite fully socialized into the Zen center’s ideology, complained over different aspects of Baker’s high living. See S. Lachs, (2002), “Richard Baker and the Myth of the Zen Roshi,” available online at

[10] This quote comes from a podcast from CBC radio of an interview with Nikki Stubbs, who as a young woman was a student of Sasaki for 3 years.

[11] For the moving experience of one woman under Sasaki’s influence and teaching, expressed in poetic form, see “To Joshu Sasaki Roshi: Roshi You Are a Sexual Abuser” (available online at

[12] For a fuller view and documentation of the Sasaki/Rinzai-ji scandal, see For a similar story that documents the scandal surrounding Eido Shimano in New York City, see Interestingly, both of these scandals persisted for roughly fifty years. These websites were started and are maintained by Kobutsu Malone, an American Rinzai monk.


As It Happens. (n.d.) (CBC radio podcast, interview with Nikki Stubbs.) Available online at

Bourdieu, P. (1991). “Rites of the institution,” Language and symbolic power (pp. 105–126). Copy available online at Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Cole, A. (2006). “Simplicity for the sophisticated: Rereading the Daode Jing for the polemics of ease and innocence,” History of Religion, 46 (August, 2006), p. 13. Retrieved from (last accessed 11/05/2017).

Lesage, B. (2012, Sept. 11). Sexual allegations about Joshu Roshi (email communication). Retrieved from Sasaki archive online at

Martin, E. (2012, Nov. 16). Everybody knows—Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi and Rinzai-ji. From Sweeping Zen digital archive. Retrieved from

Off, C., & Douglas, J. (2013). As It Happens interview with Nikki Stubbs (CBC Radio podcast). Available online at

O’Hearn, B. (2012, Nov 23). Zen and the emotional/sexual contraction (posted on Conscious Process blog). Retrieved from

Oppenheimer, M., & Lovett, I. (2013, Feb. 11). Zen groups distressed by accusations against teacher,” The New York Times, Asia Pacific section, para. 11. Retrieved from

Sahn, Master Seung. (1976). Dropping ashes on the Buddha: The teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn (p. 99). New York, NY: Grove Press.

Sheng-yen. (1984). Selecting and studying under a master. Ch’an Newsletter, No. 38, pp. 1–2. Retrieved from

Suzuki, S. (1970). Zen mind, beginners mind. New York, NY: Weatherhill.

About the Author

Stuart Lachs encountered Zen Buddhism in New York City in 1967. After practicing intensely for more than 30 years in America and Asia, teaching for a number of years, and witnessing countless instances of questionable teacher behavior, he severed all ties to Chan/Zen Buddhist centers around 2000. He has been active in the Columbia University Buddhist Studies Workshop, the Princeton University Buddhist Studies Workshop, and the Oslo University Buddhist Studies Forum; he also has presented at the annual conferences of the American Academy of Religion (AAR), the Association of Asian Studies (AAS), the International Association of Buddhist Studies (IABS), and the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA). His articles include “The Zen Master and Dharma Transmission: A Seductive Mythology,” published in Minority Religions and Fraud: In Good Faith (Ashgate, London, 2014); “Denial of Ritual in Zen Writing,” published in The Ambivalence of Denial (Harrosowitz, Wiesbaden, 2015); and "Modernizing American Zen Through Scandal: Is "The Way" Really the Way?" published in Buddhist Modernities: Re-Inventing Tradition in the Globalizing Modern World (Routledge, New York and London, 2017).