Getting back to the questions posed by the good people of St. Paul to your’s truly… Question one reads: What are the most important ways to guard against abuse of power in the relationships that must develop between a teacher & students or within other sangha relationships?
A good question, it is, and a very hard one to answer. It’s like asking, what would have been the best way for the German people of the 1940’s to avoid following Hitler? Was Hitler bad or were the Germans bad? In other words, the relationship is complex and not ever one-sided. It takes 2 or more people to create this new beast we call a relationship. There are all kinds of guys out there even now who want to exterminate the Jews, or the Blacks, or the Whites or the American Imperialists or whoever. But the bad stuff really doesn’t get going until a lot of people start following them. So, yeah, Hitler abused his power. But where did that power come from?
The abuse of power in sangha relationships works the same way. It’s easy to point fingers at one single person, some spititual master gone bad, and say he’s to blame. But this is never the only factor involved. At one point during my talk someone asked a question about what was my responsibility concerning the things I write & say. He was particularly worried about my tendancy to refer to certain things as “stupid.” Since I can draw so many people to hear me speak, shouldn’t I be more responsible than to call things that some people take to be sacred “stupid?” Of course I need to be careful what I say. But my only responsibility is to be 100% honest. It’s like those cartoonists who parodied Mohammed. Are they responsible for the bizarre reactions those cartoons are said to have caused? I don’t think so. The person who reacts is resposnible for his own actions. No one gets let off the hook. That ain’t the way this universe wroks.
When you get to be a Zen Master, people are always quick to try and give you power. People try it with me constantly. I had a e-mail a couple weeks ago from some guy who desperately wanted me to show him the way to Enlightenment. Obviously he hadn’t been reading what I write. But, be that as it may, what he wanted was to give me the power to bestow this thing called Enlightenment upon him.
There are plenty of people out there who are all too happy to accept such power. They train their students to have certain kinds of experineces which they then helpfully label for them as “steps on the path to Enlightenment.” Once the student’s racked up enough of these, the Master bestows his blessings and the student gets to lord it over on someone else. And so the cycle of sickness continues.
A good Zen teacher will toss the power you attempt to hand him right back at you like a hot potato. For the student this is extremely frustrating. When it happened to me, I hated it. Hated it. Wanted desprately to find someone who would take my power from me, so I could relax and let him take the blame for everything. I mean, how can you possibly know if you are progressing unless your teacher tells you you’re progressing? How indeed? But the idea of “progress” is one of the things you need to give up. You will never progress. Not one bit. You will never reach Enlightenment. And if you do, you can be sure it’s a scam.
Do you want the Great Master to give you Brownie Points? Cuz if you do, you just might get ‘em. That’s where the trouble starts…
The reason I never get involved with people who wanna give me power is that people like that are always such a pain in the ass. They want more and more and more all the time. And when you don’t give them what they think they want, they get all huffy about it. Screw ‘em, I say. Let ‘em go bother someone else.
It might make a great story to go tell Oprah how you were just sitting there, minding your own business when some lousy Zen Master came along & started abusing power all over you. Oprah might buy it. But I wouldn’t.
ANYWAY, one way to guard against abuse of power is to never give your own power away. If you find you have done so, try taking it back and see what happens. If it isn’t given back freely, there may be something wrong.
It’s very hard to give any sweeping generalizations that will cover all situations. Just remember, abusive relationships within a sangha are never one-sided. Also be aware that they take time and effort — from all parties involved — to develop. No one forces you to join a sangha and no one should ever make the slightest attempt to keep you from leaving one.
Be very aware of how you, yourself, contribute to such relationships. Never accept that you are the innocent victim of forces more powerful than yourself. No one is more powerful than you. You have created this universe. Take some responsibility for the things you have made.