This is another of my many articles about questions I receive on a regular basis. The last time I did this, the guy whose email I used as a jumping off point to address a question I get constantly from many people took the whole thing very personally. I hope that the person who wrote the emails that inspired this piece will not do the same. It’s not about you!
In any case, the person who wrote (let’s make them female, though I can’t recall even the person’s name) sent me some information about a teacher she thought sounded very cool. She wanted to know what I thought of the teacher. Like many people who ask me to assess various teachers for them, she sent a link to some videos of the teacher. In response I said something like the following:
There was a time when I was interested in people like this. 30 years ago I’d have been checking out his videos (if there’d been YouTube then) and hundreds of others like them. But these days I don’t have even enough interest to click through to see most of the spiritual masters people send me videos of. Here’s why. I know that these kinds of people always fall into just three categories.
1) THE PEARLS OF GREAT PRICE
These are sincere people who have actually realized some kind of deep truth and want to help others find it for themselves.
You only really need one of these kinds of people in your life. In fact, you’re very fortunate/have great karma if you manage to meet and form a relationship with just one person like this. I was absurdly lucky enough to meet and form relationships with two of these kinds of people. I’m not looking for anyone else like this for myself.
Even more relevant, though, I can’t be of much use advising others about someone like this to get involved with. It’s a bit like falling in love. It’s not just a matter of whether the person is “enlightened” or not. It depends even more on a kind of personal connection. There are enlightened people out there who I could never form a relationship with, the same as there are lots of extremely beautiful, intelligent women who I could never fall in love with. The same is true of teacher/student relationships. They often fail even when the student and teacher are both completely sincere, just because the chemistry isn’t right.
2) THE CON MEN
These dipshits haven’t realized anything at all except the fact that there is a lot of money to be made by fooling people into thinking they’ve actually got something to offer.
People worry a lot about these folks. But you really don’t need to. These people are probably even rarer than those who fall into category 1. The good news is they are also completely obvious to anyone other than people who are just as greedy and unscrupulous as they are. If you find yourself following someone like this, it’s a good lesson. Accept what you’ve learned and leave.
These are sincere people who have practiced some kind of meditation and have realized a partial truth that they have deluded themselves into believing is The Big Answer to Everything.
These folks are more difficult to spot than category 2 because they are not deliberately trying to cheat anyone. They actually believe they’ve discovered something. And maybe they have. A little bit, at least.
The ego can latch on to anything — including the understanding that the ego is unreal — and use it to make itself seem more important. So the actual experience of what some people call “enlightenment” can be used by the personal ego as another cool possession it owns.
People in category 3 can be very attractive because they often have extreme confidence. They also may have a genuine desire to help others achieve what they have achieved.
I wish I could tell you a foolproof way to spot someone like this. But I can’t. I know them when I see them. But I don’t really know how I know. I can just tell.
I have the advantage of having gone through the phase that most category 3 people are stuck in. It’s very easy to get extremely full of yourself when you start having genuine spiritual experiences. Many people argue that I’m still far too arrogant. But you should have seen me before my teachers burst my bubble!
There were several points along my trajectory in Zen at which I felt that I was better than everyone who ever had any kind of “enlightenment,” that mine was the Supreme-est of all Supremes. It was only because of my strong relationships with Tim and with Nishijima Roshi that they were able to reach me at all during this phase.
Many people have these kinds of spiritual experiences either without any relationship to a teacher or with a shaky relationship to one. If you don’t completely trust your teacher then when she tells you you’re not as enlightened as you think you are, you can easily convince yourself that your teacher is the unenlightened one. This happens a lot. Which is why I’m always initially skeptical of anyone who makes great claims and who has broken from their teacher. Sometimes it’s reasonable to break from one’s teacher. But more often than not, it indicates that one’s ego has gotten the best of them.
HITTING THE BIG TIME
The person who wrote me then responded that the teacher she was interested in had a very large following, a massive ashram, and a lot of what she called “commercial ventures” such as videos for sale and the usual spiritual lifestyle enhancement paraphernalia. Here’s what I said to that (though very much modified for this blog post):
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with doing commercial ventures, videos etc. I do them myself. It’s tough to make a living as a spiritual teacher! Especially these days when people don’t give donations the way they used to. You gotta sell them product. It’s not inherently evil to do so.
The problem is that when you get really big the way the person you’re describing has, there is absolutely no possible way to have intimate personal contact with all of those who want to have such contact with you. There are not enough hours in the day for anyone to do that.
So, you can deal with this either a) honestly by delegating others to act on your authority by ordaining priests and teachers or something along those lines or b) dishonestly by pretending that momentary fleeting contact with someone as spiritually advanced as you has some kind of magical effect. Most massively popular spiritual teacher types do a bit of both.
If you sign up for a retreat at Deer Park along with 1,387 other people, you are never going to get a private audience with Thich Naht Hanh. The best you can hope for is to elbow your way up to the front during lecture time and maybe catch his eye for a couple seconds. It will mean nothing to him. He catches a few hundred people’s eyes every single day. But maybe you can invent a fantasy in your head in which you’re just like Mahakashyapa catching Buddha’s eye, exactly like all those little girls get their panties wet thinking Justin Bieber is in love with only them.
No matter how deeply enlightened one of these big time spiritual masters is, you’re not likely to ever get close to one of them unless you are prepared to put in a lot of effort. That would probably mean ordaining in the order and doing the political maneuvers necessary to get into the inner circle. Don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s all going to be about your big deal teacher spontaneously noticing how amazingly spiritually endowed you are. He’s got four dozen other spiritually endowed people vying for his attention every minute of the day. And some of them may be a lot better at playing the shmoozing game than you’ll ever be.
This is why you always get people airing their sour grapes about how this or that big name teacher is really just a total phony. Obviously he is! Because he didn’t recognize how wonderful the person telling the story was!
My advice for anyone thinking about taking up with a big name spiritual teacher is to be realistic about it.
The screening of Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen in Boulder on January 18th has still not sold enough tickets! The screening will not happen if we don’t sell the required number of tickets on-line. Please, people. I already invested in plane tickets out there. We’re also playing it the following day (January 19) in Denver.
For those of you asking about a DVD of the movie or a Netflix release, here’s a chance to make your voices heard! We’ve put the film up on a site called Filmbreak. If you go there and “hype” the film (their term) they will pick it up for distribution and get it on all the downloading sites (iTunes, Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, etc.). So go and make some noise!
February 18-23 I will co-lead a sesshin at Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico with Kazuaki Tanahashi entitled Dogen’s Circle of the Way. Kaz Tanahashi is a brilliant caligrapher and Dogen scholar, co-translator of numerous books about Dogen including the recently published complete Shobogenzo from Shambhala Publications, which I rate as the second best Shobogenzo translation after the Nishijima/Cross version.
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As always, your donations to this blog help tremendously! May car was broken into on Christmas Day. It cost $250 to repair the damage to the window (which will never roll up right again, I’m told) and the radio they stole will cost about that much more to get replaced. I haven’t replaced it because I just don’t have the funds. Christmas was a very expensive holiday for me this year. Not that any of you are responsible for this (if you are, give me my stuff back!). It’s just that donations to this blog are the bulk of my income lately and it’s been really meager for the past few months. So this hit me very hard.