Three Categories of Big Name Spiritual Teachers

ramazenThis 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.

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.

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.

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.

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Waylon from Elephant Journal interviewed me and Pirooz Kalayeh, the director of Brad Warner’s Hardcore ZenThe link to the archived video is here.

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.

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87 Responses

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  1. Fred
    Fred January 15, 2014 at 4:30 pm |

    “The spectrum represent probability of glimpses into infinity occurring:

    (Left of spectrum, enlightenment) The person who is keen, sharp, and healthy living in seclusion while reading great poetry and remaining celibate. He, too, writes his own poetry and/or engages in other artistic crafts, such as painting.”

    You forgot shooting wallabies with copper bullets

  2. Fred
    Fred January 15, 2014 at 4:46 pm |
  3. Mumbles
    Mumbles January 15, 2014 at 6:50 pm |

    Nevermind avatars, let us celebrate and create many many any heteronyms…

    1. minkfoot
      minkfoot January 15, 2014 at 6:58 pm |

      I’d prefer a heteronymph, though I suppose a bi would be just as well.

  4. Lateolabrax
    Lateolabrax January 16, 2014 at 1:17 am |

    Interesting how people associate spirtuality with abiding from or rejecting society, including ‘forms’ such as (or especially money). Fleeing society has attracted me, and still does. However, the conclusion of Cris McCandless Into the Wild stuck with me: “Happiness is only real when shared”. The main benefit of zen for me is that it helps me to better come to terms with my situation or the society I’m living in. The real traing is not on the cushion but in society. The Dhamma is out there!

    Blaming society, money, the system or a teacher doesn´t help anyone. Than you´re blinding your eyes. It’s how you relate to them. And that – for me – is the bottom-line regarding the student – teacher relationship. It’s up to a zen-student to form the relationship with the teacher. The master is only a master because the master says so. Therefore: Kill your master (in your mind).
    They are human beings and have no super powers. Thank God they have their imperfections. When they are aware of their imperfections, that makes them perfect.

  5. boubi
    boubi January 16, 2014 at 3:30 am |

    “but I can’t see myself then having wanted to go to a place like Deer Park. I don’t want to go there now, for that matter!”

    What about that Siddharta Gautama … do you think he had too many pupils?
    WTF were they all flocking there? Do you think he had any kind of one2one relationship? Is having the teacher’s attention some kind of selfishness selfimportance ” he tought me directly because I’m so important ” kind of thing ( I received this teaching from the Dalai Lama himself – kind of bullshit)

    Some university classes are packed full of students … they go there to ear what the guy has to teach, i think that Einstein’s classes benefited from some “stardom” factor …

    1. boubi
      boubi January 16, 2014 at 3:33 am |

      “Do you think he had any kind of one2one relationship WITH EVERYBODY?”

    2. minkfoot
      minkfoot January 16, 2014 at 6:13 am |

      It’s good to have the personal attention of someone more experienced in the Way, however briefly. Perceptions deepen with time and experience (sometimes delusions, too, but that’s the students’ problem of discernment and choosing teachers we’re talking about), so there is great value in seeing how a more experienced practitioner sees you.

      I think you are conflating two distinct modes into one discussion of “teaching,” mass public teaching and “one2one.” In the Suttas, mention is made both of mass preaching by the Buddha and advanced monks, and of one2ones with “personal teachers,” who were monks of lesser renown yet of experience greater enough to be of value to newer monks. Also, Buddha himself maintained one2one teaching relations with his older students and occasional others. This still happens with famous teachers like Thich Nhat Hanh, who can’t possibly give one2ones to all the students they attract, but delegate the responsibility of personal teaching to trusted students.

      When I earlier wrote, “Try finding one without fame,” I meant that without any fame, you are reduced to depending on the vagaries of chance or karma to bring you into contact with a bona fide Zen teacher. In the legendary history of the Patriarchs, this is indeed how the first three got their students, although there seems to have been some fame involved – the Second seems to have heard of the First. With no fame at all, a teacher would have to depend on very rare luck (or mysterious karmic workings) to get any suitable students at all. There are some stories like that, also, but a story already indicates some fame, at least afterwards. How many “teachers” without students have we not heard of?

      Fame is a tool that helps spread Dharma. It is a component in many careers – ask Brad whether it’s important in writing. But, like money or sex, fame has its dangers, as we can too easily see.

  6. Fred
    Fred January 16, 2014 at 6:24 am |

    A teacher is just someone who got there before you.

    And since there is no one to get anywhere, it really doesn’t matter.

    Now where’s that cats are infinite fellow

  7. minkfoot
    minkfoot January 16, 2014 at 7:17 am |

    And since there is no one to get anywhere, it really doesn’t matter.

    It helps to pass the time.

  8. CatsareInfinite
    CatsareInfinite January 16, 2014 at 7:34 am |

    I have done a lot of thinking, reading, and sitting. I have seen the path of Soto Zen is fundamentally flawed and stupid. I have more insight than Brad Warner when it comes to apprehending infinity.

    I thank Andrew for showing me the issues in Soto Zen and pointing me to good literary works and poetry in order to open the door to further understanding. I write here about the value of poetry and DAILY seclusion (not necessary complete seclusion) in natural scenery:

    Andrew is autistic and has difficulties communicating his complex, yet profound, views. I am not speaking on his behalf, but I will say he is more understanding than Brad Warner and my teacher and ASZC.

    Here are my primary issues with Soto Zen:

    1. The primary emphasis is on Zazen and not other integral components. This is stupid since earlier Chan was about a multitude of things and the importance of the creative act. For example, look at Wang Wei. Zen/Chan back then was about daily solitude in natural scenery and then engaging in a creative act, such as writing poetry. The words come to you when you are mind is serene, calm, and collected. If one sits in endless Zazen, the blissful reverie will never come to you… Brings me to second point….

    2. The denial of the imaginative. Enlightenment must include both the senseless and sense, and the imaginative and real. Negating either one will lead to a crippled intellect. Private experience is extremely important and should not be eliminated in favor of an oppressive abeyance of a monism.

    3. Unhealthy practices. The purpose of sitting in Zazen should be to make one’s body more conducive for realization. However, prolonged sitting has been shown to have negative effects on the body: . There is lots of research supporting this. The fact my Soto teacher said to make the knee pain part and parcel of one’s practice is bullshit. Eventually, your body will crumble. Tis’ an inept way. Remember, I have been going for 3 years, but I opted out from becoming a priest. I am 23 btw.

    4. A “Will to Blobject” (i.e., blobject means there really is just one concrete particular, viz., the whole universe). This is annoying because the sensei and everyone else would always speak of “no separation between self and other”, and in the process, they lose all the dynamic interactions of polarizations and other interconnected parts. Dynamical systems shows that reality is more like a multiplicity & totality that is always in movement rather than a totality that is One. This is a big problem with later Zen/Chan. Older Chan seemed to take a more liberal view in regards to pluralism and monism. This is why Andrew refers to recent Zen teachers as Neo-Advaitans. In the process of “blobjecting”, they devalue the creative potentiality in each of us which can be harnessed in interesting ways to manifest and actualize our apprehension. A poem, for example, written in a deep satori within a natural setting will be one and the same with Infinity itself, but this Infinity is not of an uncreative undifferentiated “pure awareness”.

  9. zucchinipants
    zucchinipants January 16, 2014 at 1:56 pm |


    It’s like watching a real transmission of the Lamp, except rather than flame to flame, you just snatched the Lamp from Andrew’s closet and snuck off into the night.

    How’s the celibacy going with your fiancé?

    1. CatsareInfinite
      CatsareInfinite January 16, 2014 at 4:13 pm |

      Dave, you are a real a-hole. That’s none of your business; stop making stuff personal.

      Also, Andrew “pushed” me in this direction. I already left Soto Zen 1-2 months prior because of the reasons I gave.

      Respond to each of my four points if you want something constructive.

      You’ve watched many of Tarkovsky’s films. I like how they are “opening”… but Soto Zen is too constrictive for the reasons I enumerated and explained at great depth.

      Actually, I would like it if Brad responded to each of my four points in my last message. All 4 points. #1-3 is more about practice whereas #4 is more “doctrinal”.

      Why don’t you make like a Blobject and go back to lobotomizing yourself with “lack of separation of self and other” and endless Zazen that breaks the knees? You realize I wouldn’t care about this stuff much if I didn’t waste 3 years of my life with it? I want people to not be “imprisoned” by Soto Zen, like I was.

      I would argue Soto Zen is worse than fundamental, neo-con Christianity because of point 4. Point 4 really creates some kind of issues, which is what lead Japan to war with Soto Zen in WWII. Like I said, concentrate on my last post and 4 points.

      Besides, unlike Andrew, I don’t care enough to lurk Brad Warner’s forum a lot. He is free to do whatever he wishes.

      Also, I said FREQUENT periods of celibacy. I never said forever…

      I am not enlightened. I only sip from the chalice sometimes.

      1. zucchinipants
        zucchinipants January 17, 2014 at 9:14 am |

        When someone makes bombastic statements about what should and should not be done, it’s only fitting to ask if that person is “walking the talk” or just venting.

        It’s doubtful that Brad will respond to your points, but you can certainly keep trying.

        I’m no fan of Soto Zen, myself, so your statements to me don’t make sense.

        Tarkovsky is great. There are aspects of Soto that are good, too. Try not to hold vendettas. Learn what you can from everything.


        1. CatsareInfinite
          CatsareInfinite January 17, 2014 at 10:19 am |

          There is no way for someone to prove if they “walk the talk”, especially over the Internet. You can make inferences, but the approximations will be weak.

          What “should” and “shouldn’t” be done are espoused by all religions. Some of them treat them as expedient means, not to be clung onto, however. The issue is Soto Zen gives the illusion it has no “oughts”, yet it still heralds Zazen as supreme and the closest to realization (i.e., each time you sit in Zazen, you actualize Buddha nature). I view the Genjokoan as being fundamentally flawed and stupid in its double-standard in how it imposes Zazen as the “primary vehicle to actualizing the Original Face, here and now”.

          That’s good you don’t like Soto Zen. We don’t have much of a disagreement then.

          All of my 4 points were articulately explained. I do not understand how they don’t make sense. They are comprehensible and based on my personal observations and experiences for 3 years.

          The existence monism (a particular kind of monism) that Soto Zen pushes is very destructive. I explained in #4. I do not think original Chan ever intended to reflect Neo-Advaitan like monistic explanations of the nature of reality (i.e., ‘reality-as-it-is’).

          I don’t hold vendettas. I won’t be coming here often. If it weren’t for my left knee damage (check #1 point), I wouldn’t be here ever.

          More on number 4: by saying doer and doing are not separate, as a way to push for immediacy of action and experience, you constrict the creativity and uniqueness of when doer and doing are separate. Why aim for inseparability when there are obviously innumerable situations wherein one should seek multiplicity/plurality? Soto Zen is just as one-sided as Cartesian Dualism.

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