Before I get started I want to mention that I’m really excited about my event in Manchester England on this coming Thursday. I will be sharing the stage with John Robb, punk rock musician, producer of records by Cornershop (one of my favourites), author of the definitive biography of The Stone Roses and interviewer of authors of dodgy Zen books. It should be a pretty fab evening!
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When I was in Germany someone asked me why enlightened masters have “dark spots.” What she meant was what people into the trendy newspeak current in American spiritual circles like to call “shadows.” Hence the name of today’s article.
Shadows is apparently a Jungian term. It refers, says Wikipedia, to, “an unconscious aspect of the personality which the conscious ego does not identify in itself.” They add that, “because one tends to reject or remain ignorant of the least desirable aspects of one’s personality, the shadow is largely negative.” More specifically, the way it’s used a lot in spiritual circles these days tends mostly to refer to the way some seemingly otherwise “enlightened” people often behave very badly and appear to be unaware of how this bad behavior affects others. They may even appear not to know that obviously bad behavior is bad. It’s hard to imagine that Joshu Sasaki, for example, would have continued groping his female students as he is alleged to have done, if he understood how badly it was affecting so many people.
In the past the preferred explanation when things like this happened was that the master in question was simply a big fat phony. He was just stringing people along pretending to be enlightened when really he wasn’t. Otherwise he wouldn’t have done those things.
In the early days of Eastern spirituality in the West, there was a widespread belief that the gurus, Zen Masters and other Eastern mystics washing up on our shores were beyond all things human. In the movie Annie Hall, Shelly Duvall plays a woman on a date with Woody Allen (as Alvy Singer) who is devoted to a Maharishi Mahesh Yogi-like guru. She gushes, “He’s God! This man is God!”
Woody Allen sees the guru coming out of the toilet and quips, “There’s God coming out of the men’s room!” In the context of the time the movie was released (1977) this was a funny and astute observation. To be enlightened meant to be God, and to be God meant never having to use the toilet or do any of the things one associates with the mundane, profane or just plain human.
I’d like to believe we’ve moved a bit beyond that by now. Although it’s pretty obvious there are plenty of people who still believe in God-like gurus and masters. I had a conversation not that long ago with some people who seriously believed they felt some kind of magical aura or some such thing when the Dalia Lama passed withing a few meters of them. Of course, the Dalai Lama exudes no such magical aura. What happened to them would have happened if any celebrity they admired came that close to them. It’s just the excitement one feels when meeting one’s idols. I felt it when I met Gene Simmons of KISS but did not attribute it to any sort of cosmic with-it-ness rays being beamed from within his body.
But let’s say you’re not one of those who believes teachers of Eastern mystical traditions are God-like supermen and superwomen. Still, you have to wonder when you see stuff as glaringly obvious as what we’ve been seeing with Joshu Sasaki, Eido Shimano, Genpo Roshi and a number of others. These guys had to have known that what they were doing was causing trouble. Right? Even the most un-enlightened among us could have seen that much!
What is “enlightenment” if it doesn’t at the very least mean that you stop behaving like a complete asshole? You might be able to forgive your teacher for one lurid affair with a student, maybe even two. But if he’s doing it again and again and again what does that say about him as a person?What does it say about the “enlightenment” he claims to have achieved? Is it worth working for at all?
What if it’s not a sex scandal? What if the teacher in question is just an obstinate jerk who constantly stands in the way of what the sangha wants to do? What if he’s rude, cutting, even sarcastic and mean-spirited sometimes? How could someone be “enlightened” and still retain such negative qualities?
The way Buddha’s life story gets told these days, he’s sitting under the Bodhi tree about to achieve enlightenment when Mara, the nearest equivalent in Indian cosmology of the time to Satan, appears and tries to tempt him away from meditation by promising sex, power and riches if he just gives up his quest. Buddha touches the ground to symbolize his grounding in reality and Mara goes away, never to return.
But in older versions of Buddha’s life story, Mara doesn’t appear just that one time. Instead, Mara appears again and again to Buddha, throughout his life. It’s not that Buddha was subject to hallucinations or was being visited by supernatural entities. Rather, these stories are a poetic way of letting us know that even the greatest of teachers still had his own stuff to deal with. Even after his experience of complete, perfect and unsurpassed enlightenment.
Dogen said, “Realization does not break a person even as the refection of the moon does not break a dewdrop. The entire sky can be reflected in a dewdrop on a blade of grass.”
Realization does not suddenly turn you into the Hollywood stereotype of an “enlightened being.” It can’t. That stereotype is false. It doesn’t exist anywhere. But still, one ought to be able to expect at least decent behavior from someone in the position of a so-called “spiritual master.”
I think the bottom line is honesty. Someone once asked me my opinion as to why Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche was never the subject of any sort of major scandal when his behavior was worse than some of the guys who find themselves the subject of headlines in the Huffington Post. The reason is simple, if you ask me. It’s because Trungpa, as bad as he often was, was always perfectly open about his behavior. He never claimed not to be an alcoholic sex maniac. Everyone around him knew what was going on because none of it was hidden. And while I have some serious qualms with much of Trungpa’s behavior, you can’t call him deceptive. And this is why, I think, that he was never the subject of any scandals.
But to return to the question I started off with, spiritual masters have shadows because human beings always have shadows. Even Buddha himself had them. I think it’s right to expect at least better than average behavior from such a person. But it’s unreasonable to expect perfection from anyone. Besides, perfection is always just an idea.
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I’m in the UK now. Here’s the line up of events yet to come:
• Thursday 17th October
In Conversation with Brad Warner and Jon Robb – The Punk meets the Monk
• 18-19 October Zen Retreat / 20th October Public Talk in Hebden Bridge, England
• 23 October 7pm, I’ll be speaking in London.
Caledonian Road Centre
486 Caledonian Road
London N7 9RP
• 24 October, 8pm, I’ll be speaking in Oxford
Merton College, Oxford
Hosted the Neave Society (https://www.facebook.com/groups/2203213006/)
**Oxford University students only**
• 25 Oct In Conversation 7pm-9pm / 26 October Zazen Day
Merchant City Yoga Centre Glasgow, Scotland
• November 8-10 Zen and Yoga Retreat at Mount Baldy Zen Center in Southern California (1 & 1/2 hours east of Los Angeles)
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I am self-financing my current tour. Your donations help a lot. Thank you!