Sedona AZ (July 18, 2012) – A friend wrote this week, remarking on a topic that just keeps coming around – Spiritual abuse – or simply, abuse of power in spiritual communities. Her remarks were interesting and coincidental with my own just the day before – as I shared conversation with a friend and teacher on the same subject. The question was;
“At what point is an (1) enlightened person free from the common temptations – sex, money and power?”
Getting right to the point – Supposed enlightened people are still breaking their vows, sleeping with students and lying to cover their tracks. Although enlightenment is supposed to free us from suffering – all too many enlightened persons are apparently still suffering and creating pain for others.
My teacher friend tells the story of speaking with the Dali Lama not long after one of HH’s inner circle guys had been kicked out for doing this very thing. So here’s my friend with a small group of Western spiritual teachers… and as the conversation flowed, “Mr. Lama” was asked how it could be that a deeply enlightened person could fall to such common temptations. The Dali Lama said simply – his fellow monk’s insight was not deep enough.
To this my friend jumps up and shouts… “BULLSHIT! The man in question trained with you for most of his life! How could his insight not be deep enough!” My friend likes to challenge authority and apparently the Big Lama was up for some fun too. His smiling response, once again… “Your insight is not deep enough!”
Wow! What a great example of (2) Dharma Combat! But, to tell the truth – I don’t know what it means – how does it explain selfish, destructive acts committed by highly trained spiritual teachers?
To begin to unpack the original question, the Dalai Lama’s remarks and the questions they raise – let’s start by looking at ourselves not the teacher. This is a good approach if for no other reason than that today’s student should at least be equipped to be tomorrow’s teachers.
Spiritual pioneer and icon of previous decades, (3) Ram Dass admitted at one point late in his “career” that after all the time he had spent in spiritual development he had not shed himself of one single neurosis! (4) Neurosis, whether mild or severe is often the motivator for our spiritual practices. We may say that we want to know God or be enlightened. But at its root this often means simply, that we want to feel at peace with ourselves, our family and fellow human beings.
So back to Ram Dass. Here we have one of the spiritual Olympians of our age confessing that he was still plagued by every one of his original complaints! But this is not the whole story. What “Mr.” Dass said was that his original neurotic impulses were still there – but not with their original intensity. Ram Dass’s work had actually been successful. Now days the voice of a neurotic impulse might speak to him – but more conversationally – making an offer where they were previously allowed to command.
More like; “Here ya go, Ram… This would be a great time to explode with anger – you know how powerful that used to make you feel!” Ram Dass replies, “Ya, I remember! It was great fun for a few moments and then I felt rotten for a week! No… I think I’ll pass.”
Ram Dass’s years spent in pursuit of spiritual excellence did yield the result he was looking for – just not in a flash of mystical illumination. Instead slowly, day by day, he reprogrammed his nervous system and became the master rather than the slave of his impulses. What was his insight? It feels better – it’s way less messy to behave than it is to give in to selfish impulses! Pretty simple stuff – but if it takes a lifetime – it’s time well spent.
But this was Ram Dass – The guy one meditation cushion over may have actually been sitting there longer but has yet to come to the same conclusions!
When then… can we assume that it’s safe to leave “The Kid’s” or ourselves for that matter with the neighborhood priest or meditation instructor? Apparently never! Meaning, we can never assume that a particular spiritual practice will yield the a predictable result.
What we can be clear about is our own motives. Time and again people come to the teacher wanting to be fixed – like a broken appliance. Even in this present relatively open spiritual climate, a person who does not want to do their own work may get what they asked for – fixed – the equivalent of what happens at the local veterinary clinic.
Stepping back again to the concern about spiritual abuse, where does this leave us? In control! No one can abuse us – take control over us, if we do not allow them to! So as concerns our spiritual communities – If you never allow yourself to be a victim you will never be victimized! If that sounds too simplistic – maybe it is. Most often we will be faced with a situation that requires a mixture of compliance and self control – whereby we respect the rules – but recognize that we are making a choice to follow them for the benefit of self and community. Same result – the rules are obeyed. But with a stronger, healthier motivation – choosing to comply rather than being afraid not to!
The question we asked in the beginning was: At what point is an enlightened person free from the common temptations – sex, money and power? According to Ram Dass: Never! But the beauty of this insight is that while one may experience temptation – there’s nothing other than force of habit that could ever make you act on it! Change the habit – change the response!
How about the Dalai Lama’s insight? What does it mean to say that a person does not have sufficient insight to save all concerned from one or more of the seven deadly sins? It may be as simple as Ram Dass’s wise conclusion. “Has the person in question come to the point where they are sick of the pain and confusion caused by acting on their neurotic, narcissistic impulses?”
The fact that enlightenment is not a cure-all comes as something of a surprise – but it’s a fact that the questions we are asking demonstrate to be true. Why this should be – is a question for another time. Truth be told, this is a question I am not prepared to answer. One might say… My insight in not deep enough!
(1) Enlightenment is a word too often used too loosely – such that what is actually a demonstrably objective experience – is reduced to a vague expression lent to serve the needs of the moment. Enlightenment can be said to be an objective experience because it’s attainment produces a common, uncommon understanding. Or, common experiences of the fundamental ground of being – and wildly unorthodox understandings of the nature of what we refer to as self inhabiting the transitory world of form – by which they mean – there isn’t any of either! Un-enlightened persons say things like: Here today… gone to Mali. An enlightened person would more likely say; Here we go again – all things being equal… I’m still glad we didn’t choose to be born in Mali!
(2) Dharma combat is a practice employed in some schools of Buddhism which amounts to a spirited debate. Contestants may be student and teacher, students with other students and sometimes teachers with other teachers. The expressed intention of the contest is to sharpen understanding. In practice, combatants engage each other with the unexpressed intent to simultaneously prove superior intellectual ability and the greater depth of humility.
(3) Ram Dass; formerly Richard Alpert, one time Harvard and UC Berkeley professor with a doctorate in psychology. Co-founder of the SEVA Foundation and author in 1971 of the ground breaking book: Be Here Now. In spite of a severe stroke Ram Dass is reported to be in good spirits and according to recent reports… Still Here Now!
(4) Neurosis is a diagnosable class of mental disorders involving distress – general discomfort with one’s self and perception of themselves relative to others. Neurosis should not be confused with Psychosis – a more serious mental disturbance often indicated by delusional thoughts producing inappropriate affect, in some instances accompanied by hallucinations. Neurosis would be: “I break into an uncontrollable sweet whenever we go to your mother’s house.” Psychosis would be: “I’m not going to be angry any more if you insist that your mother does not have that third eye in the middle of her forehead, But I insist that you make her stop winking it at me all through dinner!”