Credits and user preface:
The following is Chapter 18 From A PATH WITH HEART; A Guide through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life; By Jack Kornfield, Bantam Books, 1993, pp.254-271. The chapter is reprinted in its entirety with the permission of the author. The insights presented here are relevant to many contexts, and should be appreciated by every aspirant to whatever goal, spiritual, artistic, academic or even professional. In every person's life there are many transitions, and many individuals that influence. Commentary like this helps ease the fallout associated with disappointment, disillusionment and separation. By the way, the entire book is excellent, and is recommended. Interested persons can find more on his publications via these links.
Thank you very much, Jack.
This author has created internal links to this page to facilitate links from other documents to discussions of topics in this material. As indicated this material is very germane to many arenas not just the spiritual. Jack Kornfield's headings have been retained intact. The links stationed in specific areas of text are to reference from other documents. This creates a web of contexts that have theme threads. If any user has additional commentary or links that they believe might be beneficial within any given context, please contact.
In general, these problems arise when spirituality ignores or denies our own humanity. As far as Buddha Nature is concerned, there is no difference between sinner and sage… One enlightened thought and one is a Buddha, one foolish thought and one is an ordinary person.
--Zen Patriarch Hui Neng
No discussion of the perils and promises of spiritual life can ignore the problems with teachers and cults. The misuse of religious roles and institutions by TV evangelists, ministers, healers, and spiritual teachers, both foreign-born and Western, is a common story. As a leader of a spiritual community, I have encountered many students who were painfully affected by the misdeeds of their teachers. I have heard such stories about Zen masters, swamis, lamas, meditation teachers, Christian priests, nuns, and everybody in between.
William James called religion a monumental chapter in the history of human egotism. Mark Twain saw religion as what people try to believe and wish were true. The idealistic belief of students combined with the personal problems of teachers can create the phenomenon depicted in the old tale of the emperors invisible new clothes. Because no one wants to speak about what is really going on, the misdeeds of teachers are perpetuated Just as spiritual practice requires us to work with areas of - unconsciousness in our personal lives, we must also become aware of the unconsciousness in spiritual communities as a whole and in the teachers who lead them. Otherwise we will be following ideals instead of a path with heart, and we may well end up with spiritual pain, personal wreckage, and a broken heart.
When Soto Zen founder Dogen said, "A Zen master's life is one continuous mistake," he was pointing out how mistakes and openhearted learning from them are central to spiritual life. An unintended meaning of Dogen's statement is that many large and painful mistakes have been made when teachers have at times misled their communities. Great sadness and pain have come from these mistakes, because the role of spiritual teachers is to protect the welfare and hearts of their students and guide their awakening with compassion.
The problems of teachers cannot be easily separated from the communities around them. A spiritual community will reflect the values and behavior of its teachers and will participate in the problems as well. Because spiritual community is so important, only when our community life is made a conscious part of our practice can our own heart and spiritual life become integrated and whole.
Unaddressed community problems are often such a painful area that we will need all our spiritual skills, great sensitivity, compassion, and deep commitment to the truth in order to face them and deal with them. We will need to apply the same principles as we have in our personal practice: naming the demons, healing attention, ending compartmentalization, examining insistent repetitions, and finding the seeds of transformation in our own heart of understanding.
Not all communities suffer from abuse. Wise, integrated dharma teaching can become the way of our practice if teachers and students are truly committed to conscious living. In order to discover how to do this, let us truthfully look at the problems that do arise. We can begin by naming them clearly.
NAMING THE DIFFICULTIES
There are four major areas where teachers and communities most often get into difficulties. The first centers around the misuse of power. This happens most often in communities where all the power is centered around one teacher and their wishes are followed no matter what the consequence to students. Ultimately power replaces love in the teachings. Sometimes teachers manipulate the lives of students for their own ends, decreeing marriages, divorces, life-styles, and even abusing students who will not follow their wishes. The abuse of power can be coupled with a teacher's self-aggrandizement and self-inflation and with the establishment of whole hierarchies in which there are students who are in and out of favor, those who will be "saved" and those who will not, secret cliques, intimidation, fear, and the creation of dependence and spiritual dictatorship.
When sectarianism is mixed with this misuse of power, false pride, a cult mentality, and paranoia can grow into an "us against them" isolationism. At its worst, this can end up with weapons, spies, and survivalist scenarios. In one community where such power abuses developed, I visited friends who had brought their children there to live. The teacher was famous for his spiritual powers, and thousands of students admired him, loved him, and were in awe of him. As an older, celibate yogi who had lived a life of renunciation, his virtue went unquestioned. So did his authority. Around him grew several large ashrams and an unquestioning hierarchy. Closer to the teacher were in-groups, lots of money, and spiritual glamour. After some years stories started to surface of young girls procured for the teacher and select members of his entourage, of secret bank accounts, drugs, and guns. My friends, like most of the students, were true believers who dismissed these tales out of hand. With such a teacher how could they be true? Only later, when their teenage daughter gave them firsthand accounts of many of the rumors did they see how painfully entrapped they had been. They immediately left the community for good. To this day, however, even after lots of publicity, many members of the community remain with the teacher, and as if nothing had ever happened, they never bring up these issues. While this story combines elements of many areas of abuse, the misuse of power was at the center of the problem.
Like misuse of power, money is a second difficult area. Encountering spiritual teachings can have such a powerful impact on people's lives that they want to give generously. This can bring a great deal of money into spiritual communities. If the teachers have led simple lives and are unused to great abundance, or if their desires become inflated, this can lead to either naive or conscious misuse of money. I have met teachers from Asia who became overwhelmed by American wealth and began soliciting money and expecting only the best cars and the finest of accommodations. Certain teachers of Eastern spiritual communities have overvalued their own importance and misused their community's funds and its trust, although rarely to the extent that some TV ministers have. In extreme cases, both Eastern and Western spiritual teachings have been used to make large profits, accompanied by secret bank accounts, high living, and fraudulent use of student money.
A third major area of difficulty is harm through sexuality. Sexual abuse is prevalent throughout our culture, and spiritual communities are not exempt. The teacher's role can be misused in hypocritical or clandestine sex that contradicts the vows or tenets of the teachings, in forms of exploitation, adultery, and abuse, or other behavior that endangers the physical and emotional well-being of students. I have encountered this in many ways, from Zen masters who solicit sexual favors as part of their meditation instruction sessions ("Come sit on my lap"), to swamis who have created a secret harem. One Indian teacher I knew who came from the very strictest sect, where celibacy was unquestioned, ended up having secret affairs with many of his married students. Many other lamas, Zen masters, swamis, and gurus have done the same, eventually wreaking havoc on the lives of students and their community.
Sometimes a secret sexual encounter is carried out in the name of "tantra," or in the name of special teachings. At its worst, there have been cases involving underage boys or girls or the transmission of AIDS to students. All too easily, unconscious sexuality can be mixed up with sincere teachings. One Insight Meditation teacher who recently died used to give naked meditation interviews throughout some retreats and combined his very real gift for teaching with a very confused sexuality.
A fourth area of problems with teachers and communities involves addiction to alcohol or drugs. Sometimes this is clandestine, sometimes public. (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. Drug addiction, though less frequent, is also an occasional problem among teachers or in communities. At its worst, clandestine addiction to alcohol and drugs is combined with misuse of sexuality and power.
Students who enter spiritual communities do not imagine they will encounter these kinds of difficulties. Idealism, fantasies, and hopes fail to include these shadow areas as part of their work. However, recent newspaper stories, articles in Eastern journals, and the tenor of our times have made students more aware of these problems, and they are beginning to address them. Power, money, sex, alcohol, and inflated egos are difficulties for humanity at large. Should spiritual teachers be exempt from them? Of course, many spiritual teachers do not abuse their role and are exemplars of virtue and compassion. But because the problems are widespread, it is important to consider how and why these problems arise in order to create more conscious communities in the future.
WHY PROBLEMS OCCUR
In general these problems arise when spirituality ignores or denies our own humanity. The training of most teachers and gurus in monasteries and ashrams in Asia or the United States is a mystical and inner training that almost never touches upon the difficult issues of power and its potential abuse. Teachers are thrown into the role of administrator, minister, guide, and confidant, in which they have tremendous responsibility and power. Yet, many of their spiritual systems and practices explicitly exclude the human areas of sexuality, money, and power from what is considered spiritual. This compartmentalization can produce teachers who are awakened and skillful in certain areas (meditation skills, koan practice, prayers, studies, blessings, and even powerful loving-kindness) but are underdeveloped in great areas of their personal lives.
Students also have to remember what we have discussed before, that there are many degrees of awakening and the mystical visions and revelations that come with it. Awakening is a process marked by both profound experiences and periods of integration. However powerful an initial opening is, it inevitably leaves many aspects of our personal life unaffected. A mystical vision or a taste of "enlightenment," an experience of satori, or awakening, is just the beginning of deep spiritual practice, but these initial experiences can be so powerful that many people begin teaching based on them alone. These unintegrated experiences can easily lead to grandiosity and inflation.
Most teachers (whether they acknowledge it or not) are only partially enlightened, only partially awake. Buddhist teachings name distinct stages of awakening, in which understanding changes first and character much later. So, after our first experiences, we can give inspiring and genuine lectures on awakening, but only much later on the path will we have transformed the roots of our deepest desires, aggressions, fears, and self-centeredness.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the area of sexuality. The power of sexuality is enormous-it produces all of humanity; it is that creative force that dances through all of life. Yet its exclusion from much of spiritual life has been disastrous.
Hoping to bring greater openness and awareness to this area of community life, some years ago, I wrote an article for Yoga Journal called "The Sex Lives of Gurus." I interviewed fifty-three Zen masters, lamas, swamis, and/or their senior students about their sex lives and the sexual relations of the teachers. What I discovered was quite simple. The birds do it, the bees do it, and most gurus do it too. Like any group of people in our culture, their sexual practices varied. There were heterosexuals, bisexuals, homosexuals, fetishists, exhibitionists, monogamists, and polygamists . There were teachers who were celibate and happy, and those who were celibate and miserable; there were those who were married and monogamous, and those who had many clandestine affairs; there were teachers who were promiscuous and hid it; and there were those who were promiscuous and open about it; there were teachers who made conscious and committed sexual relationships an aspect of their spiritual lives; and there were many more teachers who were no more enlightened or conscious about their sexuality than everyone else around them. For the most part the "enlightenment" of many of these teachers did not touch their sexuality.
Traditionally, in Asia, vows and moral precepts have protected teachers and students from sexual and other forms of misconduct. In Japan, Tibet, India, and Thailand, the precepts against harm by stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, or abuse of intoxicants are understood and followed by all members of the religious community. Even where certain precepts have been relaxed or modified (such as allowable drinking in China or Japan), everyone understands certain strict cultural norms for the behavior of teachers. Whole communities support this, for example, by dressing modestly to protect the teacher and student from sexual interest, by jointly knowing the appropriate limits concerning the use of intoxicants or power.
In modern America these rules are often dispensed with, and neither TV preachers nor Eastern spiritual teachers have clear rules of behavior regarding money, power, and sex. Our society brings money to teachers or offers them enormous power without any clear guidelines. Alcohol and drugs are freely used in the West without any great moral compunction; lacking a clear commitment to traditional monastic guidelines, who is to say how much a teacher should drink? Spiritual practice without any common commitment to traditional precepts and vows can lead both teachers and students astray. Communities need to clarify their vows for the long-term benefit of teachers and students alike.
The temptations of sexuality, power, money, and intoxicants are great. One forty-five-year-old Burmese master whom we brought to a large Buddhist retreat in the Southern California desert was shocked by the way Americans dressed. It was his first retreat in the West, and a heat wave led most students to wear T-shirts and shorts. For this teacher, who had only seen women dressed in long skirts and long-sleeved blouses since his ordination at age fourteen, it was like attending a burlesque show. For several days he wouldn't even look up in the meditation hall or during interviews. Though shaky, he finally adjusted somewhat, but it was still a challenge to his equanimity.
TRANSFERENCE AND PROJECTION
To further understand the difficulties of teachers and communities, we must acknowledge the intense forces of idealism and projection that operate in spiritual relationships. "Transference," as it is called in Western psychology, is the unconscious and very powerful process in which we transfer or project on to some authority figure, a man or a woman, the attributes of someone significant in our past, often our parents. Like young children, we tend to see them as all good or all bad, as we did before we could understand how complex human beings can be. We hope they will take care of all of our problems, or fear they will judge us the way our parents did, or look to them for what we wanted to get from our parents.
People project a great deal on to their teachers. A good image for understanding this is that of falling in love. We "fall in love" with spiritual teachers. We seek a place for love, perfect goodness, and perfect justice, and in longing for it so deeply, we project it on to another person. In spiritual romanticism, we imagine that our teachers are what we want them to be, instead of seeing their humanness. For students whose families and schooling taught them never to question but to hand over their power to authorities, this tendency is particularly strong.
Transference is rarely addressed in spiritual communities, whereas in psychological, therapeutic relationships it is purposely discussed so that clients can eventually come to relate realistically to the therapist and the world around them.
Transference and idealization have a powerful effect on teachers as well as students. They create a climate of unreality, and often feed the teacher's isolation. When the teacher is insecure or lonely, student projections increase these feelings. When students see a teacher as perfect, the teacher may become similarly deluded.
A teacher may be surrounded by adoring devotees and yet have no peers, no one with whom he or she can have an open and honest conversation. They may have little private life and always be on duty for the spiritual needs of the community. They will often be mother, father, confessor, healer, administrator, master, and camp counselor all rolled into one. Few people realize the extent to which teachers can be isolated in their role, especially in communities where they are the sole acknowledged leader. The process of transference increases this isolation and is one of the key reasons for teacher misconduct. After some time, the unmet needs and unfinished business in a teacher will arise and be drawn into the fire of the community.
One mild-mannered, middle-aged married man I knew was suddenly catapulted into the role of teacher after his guru in India told students to follow him. At first he taught them with admirable strength and humility, but as many more students came to see him, he got swept away in the role, and his insecurities led him to try to demonstrate psychic powers he didn't have and to seek comfort through sexual contact with his women devotees. He justified both of these behaviors as part of his "higher teaching." He had become caught in the transference.
The problem of transference is sometimes made even greater by the nature of the students who come to spiritual communities. We have already noted how often spiritual centers draw lonely and wounded people. People come to spiritual practice looking for family, looking for love, for the good mother or father they never had. They look for healing, for friendship and support, in the difficult task of living in our society. They hope their spiritual community will provide the wonderful family they never had. But if the practice of the community doesn't address the unfinished family issues and pain of its members, then these deficiencies will continue to intensify. When a number of unconscious and needy community members live and practice together, they can easily re-create their old painful family system in the spiritual center. In an unconscious way, they may live out their fear, anger, or depression in a new "spiritual" version. Margaret Mead put it this way: "No matter how many communes anybody invents, the family always creeps back."
Even when students become aware of community problems, they may be afraid to confront them or leave because they don't want to lose their "family" again, just as abused children choose to go back to their abusive parent because the feeling of belonging is so important.
But if members of a community are unable to deal with their dependence, insecurity, and other threatening issues, further dependence, hypocrisy, and isolation will result. Genuine spiritual communities must acknowledge and make conscious these difficulties. Almost every community will inevitably have some difficulties and problems. Some will be ordinary, some will involve teacher misconduct. Although the great majority of teachers are not unscrupulous, whenever idealism, inflation, compartmentalization, and confusion of teacher role and needs exist, abuse and exploitation can still result.
HOW TO WORK WITH TEACHER-COMMUNITY PROBLEMS
Both teachers and communities contribute to areas of misconduct, and both must be part of the solution. The key to understanding these difficulties is awareness. As a first step, this involves an honest questioning. Here are some questions you can use to cut through the delusions of grandeur and spiritual romanticism when they cover serious problems.
In the spiritual community, are you asked to violate your own sense of ethical conduct or integrity? Is there a dual standard for the community versus the guru and a few people around him? Are there secrets, rumors of difficulty? Do key members misuse sexuality, money, or power? Are they mostly asking for your money? Are they asking for your body? Are you not allowed to hang out with your old friends? Do you feel dependent? Addicted? Is the practice humorless? (This is an important sign.) Does the community have a heaviness and an anti life feeling about it? Are you asked to believe blindly without being able to see for yourself? Is there something powerful going on that may not really be loving? Is there more focus on the institution and membership than on practices that lead to liberation? Is there a sense of intolerance? When you look at the oldest and most senior students, are they happy and mature? Do they have a place to graduate to, to teach, to express their own dharma, or are people always kept in the role of students and children?
Look to see if the community is based on sectarianism or separation or has a fundamentalist quality to it. This may be difficult to do if we have fallen in love with a community or a teacher. We may feel intoxicated that we are the chosen, the elected ones, the ones who really see better than all the rest of those on earth. Yet this belief inevitably brings isolation, addiction, and a loss of genuine wisdom and compassion.
The vehemence with which students proclaim the "one true way" is usually a sign of unacknowledged insecurity; there is often great unconscious or hidden fear or doubt that underlies it. There is a story told of the Persian St. Rabia. One day Rabia was sick, and her friends came to visit. They began denigrating all the things of the world, to show how holy they truly were. She laughed at them. "You must be pretty interested in this world," she said. "Otherwise, you wouldn't talk about it so much. Whoever breaks the merchandise has to have bought it first." The claim that only some small chosen set of people will awaken or will be liberated on this earth is never true. Awakening is the birthright of every human being, every creature. There is no one right way.
Each of us must learn to become our own authority. This and this alone will liberate us. Remember the Buddha's advice to the confused villagers of Kalamas. We must look for ourselves at our own lives, regardless of the views of others, and only when that practice is clearly beneficial should we follow it. With a loving heart we must ask: Am I becoming more isolated, obnoxious, lost, or addicted? Am I increasing my suffering? Are clarity and freedom growing in me? Is there a greater capacity to know what is true for myself, to be compassionate and tolerant?
In answering these questions, we must do something even more difficult than posing them. We must tell the truth to ourselves, and we must speak the truth in our communities. To tell the truth in a community is to make the community itself conscious. In these situations, it becomes a great practice to name the demons and to learn to speak out loud with both compassion and clarity. We must speak with the teacher to see if they understand and will be part of righting the difficulty. We must insist that exploitive behavior be stopped. In this spirit, many years ago I had to fly to Asia on behalf of our board of directors, to directly question one of our senior teachers when he was unwilling to respond to the accusations of his sexual misconduct in America. We insisted that he speak truthfully to our community and teachers, explaining, apologizing, and reaffirming his ethical standards in order to be included again in our community. In some communities to question the guru or lama, the master or priest, is considered unspiritual or ungrateful, and to question the direction of the community is considered a sign of delusion and immaturity. Yet we must be willing to ask our community, "How are we lost, attached, and addicted, and how are we benefiting, awakening, and opening?" Each troubling area of belief, any illusions about the practice and teacher, exploitive behavior, or unclear moral rode must be addressed. Speaking openly and honestly with the well-being of the community in our heart is extraordinarily beneficial. It is healing and transforming. Naming the demons with honesty and kindness has the power to dispel illusion.
Addressing these problems can be so painful and explosive that often they are poorly handled. Angry or secret meetings filled with blame, fear, and paranoia benefit no one. The spirit of mercy and concern for all is critical. It may take a while for a community to learn this. Getting the support of wise elders from outside the community to create a safe container for meeting is often necessary if understanding and restitution are to follow. Still, if the teacher is somewhat open-minded, the teacher and community will gradually mature together.
To do this, teachers have to be able to deal with the underlying roots of problems in themselves, whether old wounds, cultural and family history, isolation, addiction, or their own grandiosity. In some communities masters have ended up attending AA meetings or seeking counseling. In others, decision-making councils were formed to end the isolation of the teacher.
As we have said, practicing with the difficulties of teachers and communities calls on the same fundamental principles that we have learned in our meditation. We must repeatedly name the difficulties, discover the roots of insistent problems, and acknowledge the fears operating in everyone. We must bring awareness and honesty, coupled with a deep compassion for ourselves and all concerned, in order that we may learn from these situations as our practice.
TAKE WHAT'S GOOD
When dealing with the humanness and the complexity of teachers, it is helpful to keep a few other principles in mind. One is called take what's good.
After studying with my first teacher, Achaan Chah, who was impeccable in conduct, in many ways a model guru, gracious, insightful, and loving, I went to study with a famous old Burmese master for a yearlong retreat. He was a grouchy old slob who threw rocks at the dogs, smoked Burmese cigars, and spent the morning reading the paper and talking with the loveliest of the young nuns.
In private interviews he was a very fine teacher. After training thousands of students, he truly was a skillful guide to inner meditation. But when I saw him in other situations, I became filled with doubts, thinking, "He couldn't be enlightened." It took weeks of inner struggle before it dawned on me that he was a great meditation teacher but otherwise a poor role model. I realized that I could take what was beneficial and not buy the whole package. I didn't have to imitate this man. Then I became rather fond of him. I think of him now with affection and gratitude. I wouldn't want to be like him, but I'm grateful for the many wonderful things he taught me.
RECOGNIZE THE HALO EFFECT
In order to take what's good, we need to recognize a second principle of wise relationship and disentangle ourselves from the halo effect. The halo effect is the unexamined assumption that if a meditation master or spiritual teacher is good in one area, they must be good in all areas, that if they know about inner vision, they will equally know about child rearing and car mechanics. It is easy to see this fantasy enacted repeatedly in spiritual communities.
One starry-eyed couple asked their teacher, a famous Tibetan lama, about childbirth. This lama was a celibate, raised in a monastery, who really knew nothing about it. But he gave them some advice he had heard from Tibetan mountain folklore. Based on this, they tried a home delivery up in the mountains with disastrous results--both mother and child nearly died.
Another student followed a charismatic Indian guru whose powerful love and teachings brought great joy and peace into his life. The student was a gay man, who had lived in a caring and committed partnership for more than ten years, and when the guru later stated that all homosexuality was a terrible sin that leads to hell, the student's life was nearly destroyed. His relationship was torn apart, and the secret guilt and self-loathing that had plagued this man throughout his childhood returned. Finally, with outside help, the student came to see that while his guru might bring him visions and wonderful meditation teachings, he was really quite ignorant about homosexuality. Only when he realized this, was he able to hold both the teachings he so valued and his own life with equal loving-kindness. We can see over and over again how one dimension of life does not automatically bring wisdom in other dimensions. Every teacher and every practice has its strong points and its weaknesses.
KNOW THAT POWER IS NOT WISDOM
To further sort out the gold from the dress in spiritual life we must distinguish between wisdom and power. Powers can include psychic ability, special spiritual energy, creating visions for students, or just plain charisma. There are many powerful people who are not wise at all. There are many wise people who have no special powers other than their love and openness. Don't be fooled. Sometimes these two qualities come together in a wise, powerful teacher, but often they are confused. A powerful teacher may be wise and loving or not--the powers prove nothing. When the teacher serves the dharma, the divine, the truth, then things go well for everyone, but when the powers are used to serve the teacher, this is a formula for problems.
ESTABLISH CLEAR ETHICAL GUIDELINES
The most obvious principle in the maintenance of a wise spiritual community is the establishment of clear ethical guidelines that are followed by all. Each great spiritual tradition has some version of these. The question is: Are these precepts acknowledged, valued, and followed? 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.
If in your own community the guidelines for teachers and students are not yet clear, ask about them, figure them out. If you need to, get outside help from respected elders of your tradition or wise friends of the community. In the Insight Meditation community, we have formal guidelines, for students and teachers alike, that follow the five Buddhist precepts. They explicitly address the common areas of teacher misconduct and include commitment to refrain from harm to others through misuse of money, sexuality, or intoxicants. They also establish an ethics council and method for addressing difficulties that involve students or teachers. For a sample of such guidelines see the Appendix.
In the traditional rules for Buddhist monasteries, the resolution of ethics violations is seen as a healing process, one of seeking restitution and reconciliation. Sometimes confessions and apologies to the community are needed, sometimes vows must be taken again, sometimes a period of penance and reflection is called for. In creating guidelines, include a clear process for how to address misconduct, a place for honest words, for compassionate and ongoing support for ethical standards. Create regular community meetings, ethics ombudsmen, and the channels and skills of useful communication.
If in trying to bring form to the emperor's new clothes I've made these issues sound straightforward or easily dealt with, I assure you they're not! These can be the most painful and stormy areas of a community's life, and they ask for enormous perseverance and wisdom of everyone involved. Only with this spirit will healing prevail.
THE PLACE OF FORGIVENESS
Inevitably in working with the mixed difficulties of communities, teachers, and ourselves, we will be asked for a certain measure of forgiveness. Forgiveness does not condone the behavior of students, community members, or teachers who have caused suffering, nor does it mean that we will not openly tell the truth and take strong action to prevent future abuse. In the end, forgiveness simply says that we will not put someone out of our hearts. From the perspective of forgiveness, we recognize that we have all been wronged and we have all caused suffering to others. No one is exempt. When we look into our hearts and we see what we cannot forgive, we also see how we believe the person who was wrong is different from us. But is their confusion, fear, pain really different from our own?
Years ago, as our Buddhist community was going through a painful period dealing with a teacher who had gotten sexually involved with a student during a celibate retreat, we had a series of confused and angry meetings. We were trying to understand how this had happened, and what we needed to do about it. But these important questions were often asked with a tone of outrage and indignation. Then in the middle of one of the most difficult community meetings, one man stood up and asked a question of the group in a tone of great kindness. "Who among us in this room," he asked, "has not made an idiot of himself or herself in relation to sexuality?" The room broke into smiles as everyone realized we were all in it together. It was at that point that we began to let go of some of the blame and look for a wise and compassionate response to everyone concerned in this painful circumstance.
LEAVING A COMMUNITY
Even while attempting to bring understanding and forgiveness to these problems, sometimes the situations we encounter are so bad, our best response is to leave. Some teachers and some communities become so grandiose, so unconsciously duplicitous and fearful, that they are unwilling or unable to face their difficulties. Some unhealthy systems are exploitive and abusive beyond repair. Sometimes we sense the danger signals just after we join. Sometimes only later, in the face of real problems and persistent denial by the teachers and community, do we know we must move on. As Thomas Merton warns us:
The most dangerous man in the world is the contemplative who is guided by nobody. He trusts his own visions. He obeys the attractions of an inner voice, but will not listen to other men. He identifies the will of God with his own heart. ... And if the sheer force of his own self-confidence communicates itself to other people and gives them the impression that he really is a saint, such a man can wreck a whole city or a religious order or even a nation. The world is covered with scars that have been left in its flesh by visionaries like these.
When we leave a spiritual community in the midst of difficulties, or when the teacher and community are unwilling to deal with their problems, we will experience extraordinary pain. In the course of our spiritual practice, our hearts are likely to be broken in a number of ways, but this betrayal is one of the most challenging. When a teacher we have trusted or a community we love proves to be hypocritical and harmful, it touches the deepest sense of loss and rage in many students. We feel as if we are young children again, re-experiencing divorce or the death of a parent, or our first experience of injustice or betrayal. For those of us who have felt the intensity of such failure by a teacher or a community, we might ask ourselves, "How old do I feel inside when I react to this loss?" Often we feel very young, and we will see that our intense feelings are not just about the current situation but point to what is unresolved in our own past. Perhaps this feeling is even part of a pattern of abuse or abandonment we have repeated many times in our life. Perhaps we have given ourselves away before or at other times hoped to be saved. If so, we must ask ourselves some hard questions. What attracted me to this system? Didn't I suspect what was going on? How did I participate in the unconsciousness?
Disillusionment is an important part of the spiritual path. It is a powerful and fiery gate, one of the purest teachers of awakening, independence, and letting go that we will ever encounter. To be disillusioned is to be stripped of our hopes, imaginings, and expectations. But while it opens our eyes, the resulting pain all too often closes our hearts. The great challenge of disillusionment is to keep our eyes open and still remain connected with the great heart of compassion. Whether our heart is torn open in the dark night of our inner practice or the dark night of community difficulties, we can use this experience to learn a deeper consciousness and a wiser love.
The process of healing from spiritual betrayal and loss can take a very long time. After the rage and grief, there comes a tremendous emptiness in the heart, as if something has been wrenched out of us. However, this emptiness is not just the result of betrayal by the teacher or the group. It has been there all along in the ways we may have betrayed ourselves. Finally, we have to come back to face ourselves and feel the holes we have tried to fill up from the outside. We have to find our own Buddha nature and discover in these difficulties the lesson that we really needed to learn.
For some people, disillusionment and difficulty, though very hard, are what they most needed before they could come back to themselves. I do not mean that we should seek to be abused, but sometimes it takes a misguided or a false teacher to create a wise student. Even if students feel they have lost their faith, the truth is we can never lose our faith--we just give it away for a while. "I lost my heart," we say. We gave our heart away for a while, but our heart, like our faith and the eternal truth, is always here with us.
The truth doesn't belong to the Buddha or to any master. As Achaan Chah used to say, "The dharma, the True Path, is like underground water. Any time we dig we will find it there."
The crucible of our relationship with spiritual communities and teachers can transform our initial idealism into wisdom and compassion. We will shift from seeking perfection to expressing our wisdom and love. Then we may come to understand the remarkable statement of Suzuki Roshi when he said, "Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as an enlightened person. There is only enlightened activity." Because liberation can never be possessed, for anyone to think, "I am enlightened," is a contradiction in terms. Wisdom, compassion, and awakening are never an attainment, a thing of the past. If they are not alive here in ourselves and our communities, then our task is obvious. Take whatever is in front of us, here and now, and in our hearts transform that too into wisdom and compassion.
Just as every community has a shadow, every set of teachings will also have and areas of shadow, aspects of life that they do not illuminate wisely. Every style of teaching will also produce its near enemy, the way that particular teaching can be most easily misused or misunderstood. It can be useful to take some time to reflect on the strengths and limitations of the practice you have chosen to follow. You can then consider to what extent these are issues in your own spiritual life. The following examples hint at the possible shadows you may encounter.
Insight Meditation and similar Buddhist practices can lead to quietude, to withdrawal from and fear of the world. The emptiness taught in Zen and nondualist Vedanta can lead to a related problem, to being disconnected and ungrounded. Any form of idealistic, other worldly teaching that sees life on earth as a dream or focuses on higher realms can lead one to live with complacency, amorality, and indifference. Physical practices such as hatha yoga can lead to bodily perfection instead of awakening of the heart. Kundalini yoga can lead students to become experience junkies in search of exciting sensations of body and mind rather than liberation. Those such as Krishnamurti and others who teach against any discipline or method of practice can lead people to remain intellectual about spiritual life without providing any deep inner experience. Practices that involve a great deal of study can do the same. Moralistic practices with strong rules about what is pure and what is not can reinforce low self-esteem or lead to rigidity and self-righteousness. Practices of tantra can become an excuse to act out desires as a pseudo form of spiritual practice. Devotional practices can leave clarity and discriminating wisdom undeveloped. Powerful gurus can make us think we can't do it ourselves. Practices of joy and celebration such as Sufi dancing may leave students lacking an understanding of the inevitable loss and sorrows of life. Practices that emphasize suffering can miss the joy of life.
As you reflect on these shadows, consider your own spiritual path and tradition. Let yourself sense its strengths and weaknesses, its gifts and the ways it can be misused. Notice where you may be caught and what more you might need. Remember that there is nothing wrong with any of these practices per se. They are simply tools for opening and awakening. Each can be used skillfully or unknowingly misused. As you mature in your own spiritual life, you can take responsibility for your own practice and reflect wisely on where you are entangled and what can awaken you to freedom in every realm.
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