Friday, March 29, 2013

Bhutan Makes Condoms Available To Buddhist Monks To Stop Spread Of STDs

By Vishal Arora
Religion News Service

NEW DELHI (RNS) Health officials in the tiny Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan are making condoms available at all monastic schools in a bid to stem the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV among young monks who are supposed to be celibate.

"We are making condoms freely available everywhere, even in monastic schools and colleges," Bhutan's minister of health, Zangley Drukpa, said in a phone interview. The ministry, he added, has formed a special action group to deal with STDs in monasteries.

Warning signs of risky behavior among monks first appeared in 2009, when a report on risks and vulnerabilities of adolescents revealed that monks were engaging in "thigh sex" (in which a man uses another man's clenched thighs for intercourse), according to the state-owned Kuensel daily.

The health ministry got concerned when a dozen monks -- including a 12-year-old -- were diagnosed with sexual transmitted diseases a year later, Kuensel reports. At least five monks are known to be HIV-positive, the youngest being 19.

The 2012 report of the U.N. agency focused on AIDS response and progress also noted cases of HIV among Bhutan's monks.

Bhutan's Commission for the Monastic Affairs says stricter discipline is a solution. While corporal punishment is banned, monks told Kuensel it is still practiced.

"It is believed the cane, the whip and the rosary represent the Bodhisattvas who personify wisdom, compassion and power, which are needed to discipline," the commission's health and religion coordinator, Tashi Galey, told the newspaper.

Psychiatrists suggest the spread of disease could be a result of mental stress. It is not uncommon for monks and nuns, mostly between the ages of 15 and 25, to visit psychiatrists. Even senior monks show symptoms of severe stress, especially when they are undergoing long periods of meditation, Dr. Damber Kumar Nirola told Kuensel.

"About 70 to 80 percent of (senior) monks are obese, hypertensive and also suffer from back ache because of their sitting posture and sedentary lifestyle," urologist Lotay Tshering told the paper.

Geography also plays a role. Most hilltop monastic schools lack recreational facilities. "Getting space for playgrounds is difficult, but we provide volley balls and badminton rackets," the commission's secretary, Karma Penjor, told Kuensel.

Bhutan, a landlocked nation of about 700,000 people sandwiched between India and China, is the world's only officially Buddhist country, and has about 388 monastic schools with 7,240 monks and 5,149 nuns.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Wounded Warrior Pose

News Analysis
Wounded Warrior Pose
Published: December 22, 2012

MEN are famous for ignoring aches and pains. It’s macho. Men get physical exams less often than women. They tend to remain silent if worried about their health. When hurt, their impulse is to shun doctors and rely on home remedies, like avoiding heavy lifting to ease backaches. Male athletes play through injuries. It’s all about virility and Mukai

Kris Mukai

The stereotype has exceptions, of course. But denial of injury and ill health — from the relatively inconsequential to the grave — is common enough that physicians seek ways to encourage men to be more forthcoming.
So it pays to listen carefully when guys start talking about intolerable pain and upended lives. Doing so led me to an unexpected finding that I have confirmed in a trove of federal data. It suggests that yoga can be remarkably dangerous — for men.
Guys who bend, stretch and contort their bodies are relatively few in number, perhaps one in five out of an estimated 20 million practitioners in the United States and 250 million around the globe. But proportionally, they are reporting damage more frequently than women, and their doctors are diagnosing more serious injuries — strokes and fractures, dead nerves and shattered backs. In comparison, women tell mainly of minor upsets.
Men who are breaking the code of silence are doing so with physicians in hospital emergency rooms, who in turn report their findings to the federal government.
Their outspokenness reveals much about modern yoga and suggests ways it can be made safer. As a practitioner since 1970, I know some of the guy hazards personally and have learned through painful experience how to live with my inflexible body.
The male disclosures help explain one of the central mysteries of modern yoga — why it is largely a feminine pursuit. As Yoga Journal, the field’s top magazine, put the question: “Where Are All the Men?
Science has long viewed the female body as relatively elastic. Now the new disclosures suggest that women who tie themselves in knots also enjoy a lower risk of damage. It seems like common sense.
Surprisingly, evidence of the male danger has, to my knowledge, never before been made public. Nor has its flip side — that women seem less vulnerable. The subject of male risk merits discussion if only because the booming yoga industry has long targeted men as a smart way to expand its franchise.
Informal observations hint at possible explanations. Yoga experts say women tend to see classes as refuges while men see challenges — their goal at times to impress the opposite sex.
Women say men push themselves too far, too fast. Men admit to liking the intensity but say the problem is pushy teachers who force them into advanced poses while urging them to ignore pain.
I stumbled on the issue after my book, published in February, laid out a century and a half of science and, in its chapter on injuries, contradicted the usual image of yoga as completely safe. The yoga establishment makes billions of dollars by selling itself as a path to healthy perfection. Predictably, it responded with sharp denials.
I also received a surprising number of moving replies from injured yogis — male and female — including stroke victims.
A letter initiated my inquiry. In April, a man told how an agonizing back injury had turned his life into “a living hell.” Too many instructors, he wrote, are “pushing us too hard and having us do dangerous poses.”
The “us” resonated.
Suddenly, I realized his cry sounded familiar.
I raced through a correspondence file and saw that many of the letters about serious damage had come from men.
Tara Stiles, a yoga teacher who runs a popular studio in Manhattan, told me that guys have more muscle (one reason for their relative inflexibility) and can thus force themselves into challenging poses they might otherwise find impossible. It seemed a plausible explanation for blinding pain.
Other teachers echoed her analysis and cited supporting anecdotes.
Yoga poses are unisex. But in my research, I found a world of poorly known information on gender disparity.
“Science of Flexibility,” by Michael J. Alter, explained how the pelvic regions of women are shaped in a way that permits an unusually large range of motion and joint play. In yoga, the pelvis is the central pivot for extreme bending of the legs, spine and torso.
In June, I turned to the Consumer Product Safety Commission and its National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, which monitors hospital emergency rooms. In July, officials sent me 18 years of annual survey data that summarized the admission records for yoga practitioners hurt between 1994 and 2011, the maximum available span.
First, I needed a baseline that would let me compare the guy admissions to males doing yoga in the United States. Figures in the yoga literature described men as making up some 10 percent of practitioners at the beginning of the period and 23 percent at the end. So the middle ground seemed to be roughly 16 percent.
Then I dug into the medical data. The analysis took weeks, but the results spoke volumes.
If men were getting hurt in proportion to their numbers, the rate of injury would have been about 16 percent — my estimate for the fraction of practitioners who were male. But the rate was higher. Over all, I found that men accounted for slightly more than 24 percent of the admissions to hospital emergency rooms.
Kris Mukai
To deepen my analysis, I focused on specific injuries, especially ones inside the body. Guys, it turned out, accounted for 20 percent of the torn muscles and damaged ligaments, which result in swollen joints. Dislocations of the knee, shoulder and other joints came in at 24 percent.
The figure for broken bones and fractures was 30 percent. The injury sites ranged from the toe to the tibia, the bigger of the two bones in the lower leg.
For nerve damage, which can result in pain and lost muscle control, the male figure jumped to more than 70 percent. The cases included sciatica, where compression of a spinal nerve in the lower back can result in pains that race down the back, hip and leg.
I found the trend in women’s admissions to be just the opposite. The major injuries were few proportionately, and the minor traumas quite abundant. Women, for instance, accounted for a vast majority of the fainting episodes.
None of this means that women go unharmed, as my letter files and the admission records show. But men seem to get it worse.
In August, I shared my analysis with Loren M. Fishman, a doctor in Manhattan who uses yoga in his rehabilitation practice and whom I profile in my book. “It’s men’s strength turning against them,” he remarked.
Some yoga practitioners will surely see my analysis as unconvincing. That’s O.K. It’s the kind of topic that can only benefit from thorough discussion — as well as rigorous new studies that can rule out the possibility of false clues.
Skeptics may argue that the injured guys are simply wimps who are inflating the male-injury figures.
That seems unlikely. A new book, “Hell-Bent,” by Benjamin Lorr, evokes the contrary ethos in its subtitle: “Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga.”
Happily, the field is evolving in ways that may enhance safety.
All-male classes, by definition, avoid the flexibility gap between women and men and instead play to masculine strengths. The classes tend to emphasize muscle building and fitness moves like squats, as well as poses. Their developers tend to avoid talk of injuries, a marketing no-no.
The styles include YoGuy (“be comfortable”) and Broga (as in bro yoga, “where it’s O.K. if you can’t touch your toes”). A number of studios offer what they call yoga for dudes.
I’m a yoga enthusiast, not a basher. I do my routine every day and want the practice to thrive — but to do so honestly, with public candor about its real strengths and weaknesses.
From reader mail, I know that many yogis are working hard to make the practice safer. The male risk factor seems an important consideration in the redesign of poses and routines. And I’m sure instructors of mixed classes will find many ways of reducing any danger. A first step would be frank discussions with students.
In time, it seems likely that the myth of perfection will give way to the reality of better yoga — for everyone, including guys.
William J. Broad is a science reporter for The New York Times and the author of “The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards.”
A version of this news analysis appeared in print on December 23, 2012, on page SR4 of the New York edition with the headline: Wounded Warrior Pose.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Another Zen Roshi, 105, Investigated For Career-Long Sexual Misconduct

Some former students say they were encouraged to believe that being groped by him was part of their Zen training.
Published: February 11, 2013
Since arriving in Los Angeles from Japan in 1962, the Buddhist teacher Joshu Sasaki, who is 105 years old, has taught thousands of Americans at his two Zen centers in the area and one in New Mexico. He has influenced thousands more enlightenment seekers through a chain of some 30 affiliated Zen centers from the Puget Sound to Princeton to Berlin. And he is known as a Buddhist teacher of Leonard Cohen, the poet and songwriter.

Mr. Sasaki has also, according to an investigation by an independent council of Buddhist leaders, released in January, groped and sexually harassed female students for decades, taking advantage of their loyalty to a famously charismatic roshi, or master.
The allegations against Mr. Sasaki have upset and obsessed Zen Buddhists across the country, who are part of a close-knit world in which many participants seem to know, or at least know of, the principal teachers.
Mr. Sasaki did not respond to requests for interviews made through Paul Karsten, a member of the board of Rinzai-ji, his main center in Los Angeles. Mr. Karsten said that Mr. Sasaki’s senior priests are conducting their own inquiry. And he cautioned that the independent council took the accounts it heard from dozens of students at face value and did not investigate any “for veracity.”
Because Mr. Sasaki has founded or sponsored so many Zen centers, and because he has the prestige of having trained in Japan, the charges that he behaved unethically — and that his supporters looked the other way — have implications for an entire way of life.
Such charges have become more frequent in Zen Buddhism. Several other teachers have been accused of misconduct recently, notably Eido Shimano, who in 2010 was asked to resign from the Zen Studies Society in Manhattan over allegations that he had sex with students. Critics and victims have pointed to a Zen culture of secrecy, patriarchy and sexism, and to the quasi-religious worship of the Zen master, who can easily abuse his status.
Disaffected students wrote letters to the board of one of Mr. Sasaki’s Zen centers as early as 1991. Yet it was only last November, when Eshu Martin, a Zen priest who studied under Mr. Sasaki from 1997 to 2008, posted a letter to, a popular Web site, that the wider Zen world noticed.
Mr. Martin, now a Zen abbot in Victoria, British Columbia, accused Mr. Sasaki of a “career of misconduct,” from “frequent and repeated non-consensual groping of female students” to “sexually coercive after-hours ‘tea’ meetings, to affairs,” as well as interfering in his students’ marriages. Soon thereafter, the independent “witnessing council” of noted Zen teachers began interviewing 25 current or former students of Mr. Sasaki.
Some former students are now speaking out, including seven interviewed for this article, and their stories provide insight into the culture of Rinzai-ji and the other places where Mr. Sasaki taught. 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.”
In the council’s report on Jan. 11, the three members wrote of “Sasaki asking women to show him their breasts, as part of ‘answering’ a koan” — a Zen riddle — “or to demonstrate ‘non-attachment.’ ”
When the report was posted to SweepingZen, Mr. Sasaki’s senior priests wrote in a post that their group “has struggled with our teacher Joshu Sasaki Roshi’s sexual misconduct for a significant portion of his career in the United States” — their first such admission.
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.
A former student of Mr. Sasaki’s now living in the San Francisco area, who asked that her name be withheld to protect her privacy, said that at Mount Baldy in the late 1990s, “the monks confronted Roshi and said, ‘This behavior is unacceptable and has to stop.’ ” However, she said, “nothing changed.” After a time, Mr. Sasaki used Zen teaching to justify touching her, too.
“He would say something like, ‘True love is giving yourself to everything,’ ” she explained. At Mount Baldy, the isolation could hamper one’s judgment. “It can sound trite, but you’re in this extreme state of consciousness,” she said — living at a monastery in the mountains, sitting in silence for many hours a day — “where boundaries fall away.”
Joe Marinello is a Zen teacher in Seattle who served on the board of the Zen Studies Society in New York. He has been openly critical of Mr. Shimano, the former abbot who was asked to resign from the society. Asked about teachers who say that sexual touch is an appropriate teaching technique, he was dismissive.
“In my opinion,” Mr. Marinello said in an e-mail, “it’s just their cultural and personal distortion to justify their predations.”
But in Zen Buddhism, students often overlook their teachers’ failings, participants say. Some Buddhists define their philosophy in contrast to Western religion: Buddhism, they believe, does not have Christian-style preoccupations about things like sex. And Zen exalts the relationship between a student and a teacher, who can come to seem irreplaceable.
“Outside the sexual things that happened,” the woman now in San Francisco said, “my relationship with him was one of the most important I have had with anyone.”
Several women said that Zen can foster an atmosphere of overt sexism. Jessica Kramer, a doula in Los Angeles, was Mr. Sasaki’s personal attendant in 2002. She said that he would reach into her robe and that she always resisted his advances. Surrounded almost entirely by men, she said she got very little sympathy. “I’d talk about it with people who’d say, ‘Why not just let him touch your breasts if he wants to touch your breasts?’ ”
Susanna Stewart began studying with Mr. Sasaki about 40 years ago. Within six months, she said, Mr. Sasaki began to touch her during sanzen. This sexualizing of their relationship “led to years of confusion and pain,” Ms. Stewart said, “eventually resulting in my becoming unable to practice Zen.” And when she married one of his priests, Mr. Sasaki tried to break them up, she said, even encouraging her husband to have an affair.
In 1992, Ms. Stewart’s husband disaffiliated himself and his North Carolina Zen Center from Mr. Sasaki. Years later, his wife said, he received hate mail from members of his old Zen group.
The witnessing council, which wrote the report, has no official authority. Its members belong to the American Zen Teachers Association but collected stories on their own initiative, although with a statement of support from 45 other teachers and priests. One of its authors, Grace Schireson, said that Zen Buddhists in the United States have misinterpreted a Japanese philosophy.
“Because of their long history with Zen practice, people in Japan have some skepticism about priests,” Ms. Schireson said. But in the United States many proponents have a “devotion to the guru or the teacher in a way that could repress our common sense and emotional intelligence.”
Last Thursday morning, at Rinzai-ji on Cimarron Street in Los Angeles, Bob Mammoser, a resident monk, said that Mr. Sasaki’s “health is quite frail” and that he has “basically withdrawn from any active teaching.” Mr. Mammoser said there is talk of a meeting at the center to discuss what, if any, action to take.
Mr. Mammoser said he first became aware of allegations against Mr. Sasaki in the 1980s. “There have been efforts in the past to address this with him,” Mr. Mammoser said. “Basically, they haven’t been able to go anywhere.”
He added: “What’s important and is overlooked is that, besides this aspect, Roshi was a commanding and inspiring figure using Buddhist practice to help thousands find more peace, clarity and happiness in their own lives. It seems to be the kind of thing that, you get the person as a whole, good and bad, just like you marry somebody and you get their strengths and wonderful qualities as well as their weaknesses.”