Dancing to death: Katsura Kan, butoh dance master, drives his student, Sharon Stern, to suicide, family alleges

Sharon Stern

Sharon Stern as a butoh performer.

‘The dance of darkness,’ for the beautiful, happy and vibrant Sharon Stern, became the dance of death.

Sharon Stern, 32, of Hollywood, Florida, aspired to perfect her performance of butoh, a Japanese style of contemporary dance. Instead, she lost her sanity and committed suicide, allegedly driven to despair by her butoh master, Katsura Kan, according to a lawsuit filed by her family.

“Katsura Kan brainwashed her against her family and her life,” said her heartbroken father, Tibor Stern, 65, of Hollywood, Florida.

“He made her forget everything that was happy about life, and told her she needed to experience pain and suffering, until he had full control over her.”

I just wrote this tragic story for the Daily Mail. Read it here:

EXCLUSIVE: Heartbroken father claims his married daughter, 32, was ‘driven to suicide’ by a ‘death dance cult leader’ who made her his ‘sex slave and plied her with mind-bending drugs’

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We have specific expectations of relationship with ‘teachers’, be they educators or spiritual. In NA we expect them to keep their hands off the students, and to help guide us on our journey with their expertise, wisdom and compassion.

Once I stepped out of the spiritual systems that are dominant in NA, i found it harder to discern if a particular action was wise, compassionate and skillful – as the means ARE different in land based spiritual systems and eastern spiritual systems. In some cases the relationship with the teacher (for example, in Vajrayana Buddhism) is of primary in importance to the way/journey. A further edict to ‘not take things personally’ was a very easy way for students to get away with denial of emotions, and putting others down for refusing to play that game.

There are traps everywhere. There are messed up and spathic people everywhere. They are attracted to positions of power and people who are ‘open’, want to learn (and be pleasing) and therefore likely vulnerable to being manipulated. Garden variety jerks can power trip on these pedestals; and spaths are like pigs in mud in these situations. Anyone who disagrees is just sooo ‘ignorant’.

I agree with Star, Chogyam Trungpa wrote powerfully. So powerfully that I wonder if they were actually his words. I have never considered whether or not Chogyam was disordered – he was by all accounts, a drunk. But his methods are a perfect case in point for illustrating how hard it is to gauge the legitimacy of methods from cultures we have no knowledge of.

I have struggled for years, trying to understand my root teacher’s motivations. Any situation can be viewed in so many ways, and if someone has been proclaimed (or self proclaimed ) to ‘know’ things,and one has evidence that they DO know SOME things, how does one continue to be a student when one knows damn well that the teacher has blinders on? ‘Some’ knowledge doesn’t equal ‘all knowing’, but faith in the teacher is part of the Vajrayana gig. To break faith is to break bonds. It smacks of being cast out due to disobedience – which is just too damn familial for it to be an accident. (As in that’s my ‘stuff’, but it’s also the stuff of so many people, and societies.)

We need to become more discerning students. Life is the bitch teacher on that one.


Very good post, one joy, and these are the kinds of questions we should be asking after an incident like this. Is it really healthy to submit ourselves completely to a guru? Trungpa talks at length in his books about the importance of having a guru to further your spiritual path. But at what cost? Even the most enlightened guru is still human and subject to human weaknesses. The woman I knew who was a disciple of his back in the day told me what it was like. She paints a very rosy picture and a this incredible being whose presence people wanted to bask in. She was very vague about the sexual happenings but said it “wasn’t like people think” and was more of an outgrowth of people just wanting to be around him and what happened to them when they were in his presence. There was apparently no jealousy or drama. She seemed very grounded and logical about it. She herself was also studying to become a meditation teacher. At the same time she was a member of AA because she was a recovering alcoholic.

So I’m just not sure what to think of all this business. I don’t judge what I don’t understand. I certainly would love to be able to have sex with whomever I want without repercussions. But it has never worked that way for me. But then I’ve never completely subjugated my life to a guru. Sometimes I wish I could. In the form of Buddhist meditation I did, it was strictly forbidden for any of the teachers or retreat managers to have sex with the students, and if they did, they would be kicked out. However, at one 3-month course I attended, I got very close to one of the managers at the end who was also in the teacher-training program. He is now a well-known teacher in that community. He and I had a brief affair. I actually flew across the country to spend a weekend with him, breaking up a relationship to do it. It ended up being very hurtful for me when I bonded and he didn’t. I have had this experience with a few other very powerful men. I learned a lot from them, but I got hurt badly. But then there are few men I’ve been with who didn’t hurt me in some way or other.


Hi Star, ” I don’t judge what I don’t understand,” is a pretty powerful statement – it brings lightness to my ongoing struggle. It’s important to discern and act accordingly, but judgement is a trap.

I didn’t judge my teacher about having a wife and a gf. I did get uncomfortable when I found out he had had sex with some of his students. I asked him about him about it. (Same thing – when I talked about this with other people, including one of the women he slept with, it was no big deal for anyone). My whole sangha laughed when they heard his response (“north americans can be very puritanical”) as they know I didn’t fall into that category. So they didn’t take his response seriously, but his words felt dismissive to me at the time. He is also sexist and homophobic (although over the years I was around him he got better with the latter). But, I figure that its up to me what degree of sexism and homophobia I can be around and not be upset by it. BUT when he got into publicly slagging Islam I started to really struggle with my relationship with him. He didn’t speak to the dangers fundamentalism (something that I can get behind, regardless of the religion), but of Islam.

When I listen to podcasts of him now, I hear not only an intolerance of Islam, but racism. This I cannot abide. This is spreading hate. All in the name of a ‘prophecy’.

It’s been really hard to lose my relationship with him; my bond with him went very deep. It has been hard to not have a Sangha here – as I won’t start a centre in his name; I will not condone his actions or represent him. I have not found another teacher. I have looked (a bit). It’s lonely. My years in the Sangha were the happiest of my life.


One joy, I missed your reply to my post, but you do understand completely the dilemma many spiritual folk find themselves in with a guru. I have reconciled the ambiguity by realizing that what is right for one person is not necessarily right for me. In other words, I choose my own path. For me, polyamorous relationships do not work for me. For others, monogamy would be too limiting. The whole sexuality issue is constantly evolving for me. Especially as I age (I’m now 53), I have a different relationship to sex than I did when I was younger. It doesn’t hold the same fascination it used to, and I’d rather have very close platonic friends than passionate love affairs these days. I don’t think sex is the be-all and the end-all. But I used to hear about these spiritual retreat programs like the Avatar program where a bunch of the retreatants would end up all having sex with each other.

I think life is about exploration and that we are here to explore what it is to be human. Having a body is part of being human, and there is nothing wrong with pushing the limits of sexual exploration if you so choose. In a situation where the power dynamic is skewed, however, the person with the power has a very high degree of responsibility. When I look back at the spiritual teachers I had affairs with over the years and how they just pretty much faded out of my life after that, I feel angry that they didn’t take more care with my feelings.

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